This Week’s Model — Sleater-Kinney, “Hurry On Home”

vincent kinney

I have my doubts as to whether the picture-to-words exchange rate still operates at a multiplier of one thousand, but I am sure that a photo can make a mighty promise. The arrival, through social media channels, of a studio-snapped image earlier this year, with the members of Sleater-Kinney assembled in a mixing booth and St. Vincent sitting before them, slide pots below her extended hand. The most potent, powerful rock band of the past thirty years crafting new material under the watchful eye (and attentive ear) of arguably the most consistently great, deliriously inventive pop music creator of her generation? I was so light-headed I couldn’t even nod my joyful assent.

The first song from that collaboration — and therefore the lead single from the forthcoming Sleater-Kinney album — arrived this week, and the suggestion of grandness is thus far fulfilled. Opening with an electrified chorus of voices puts St. Vincent’s signature on the song immediately, and then the guitars and thumping drum kick in. Sure enough, it sounds exactly like Sleater-Kinney taken through a St. Vincent filter. I couldn’t quite fathom what that would be like previously, but it was unmistakable: thick, ferocious, shimmering, anxious, refined, steely, no nonsense, glorious.

 

My Misspent Youth — Swamp Thing by Alan Moore and John Totleben

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

swamp thing 1st panels

When I committed wholeheartedly to superhero comics, it was difficult for me to explore other divergent — even slightly divergent — areas of sequential-art storytelling. This was a time — the nineteen-eighties — when the emergence of shops specializing in comic books meant there was a sudden boom of of strikingly different material to be had, often wrapped somehow in genre, but cutting against the normal path of costumed do-gooders streaking across the sky in service of cozy good-guys-vs.-bad-guys narratives. As true as it was that independent publishers did most of the heavy lifting, there were flickers of strangeness to be found among the roster of titles offered by the big two companies. And few were stranger than Swamp Thing as written by Alan Moore.

For a long time, I’d heard and read about Moore’s Swamp Thing, but I hadn’t sampled it, out of a combination of limited funds, marginal access, its status as a title published by the distinguished competition to my chosen house of ideas, and a touch of worry that my skittish sensibility might not be equipped to weather the reported horrors inside those pages. I finally snagged my first issue after trading in a bunch of my old comics to one of the behemoth national-presence comic stores. Understanding my own limitation and the need to perhaps ease my way into this bizarre corner of the DC Universe, I opted for a story that included the fairly fair instance of a more mainstream hero tangling with the muck-covered swamp dweller. So there in the shipment of coveted new comics sat a copy of Swamp Thing #53 with none other than the caped crusader on the cover.

I had only a passing familiarity with the lore around Swamp Thing, originally created in the nineteen-seventies by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, and I knew even less about the ways Moore had turned the character’s history topsy-turvy after taking over the title. But this was still in the era when comic book creators were constantly committed to bringing new readers quickly up to speed, under the tenet that every issue was someone’s first issue.  And Swamp Thing was clearly as much about mood and tone as the mechanics of plot, as emphasized by the rich, emotive, trippy artistic renderings of John Totleben.

swamp thing art

If a Gotham City beat cop munches on one of the hallucinogenic tubers shedded periodically by Swamp Thing, he’s going to see some funky things.

The story was also easy to lock into because of the classic concerns favored by Moore, even as he twisted them is entirely novel ways. Swamp Thing is engaged in a tragic romance with Abby, a human with with her own arcane abilities. That provides all the motivation that’s needed in the issue. Swamp Thing is upset that Abby has been taken into custody by Gotham City authorities, so he uses his elemental powers to take over the town, enveloping the metropolitan structures in thick greenery. He’s essentially engaged in an act of terrorism, itself a strong indicator of the more complicated view to the moral universe of superhero comics taken by Moore.

Swamp Thing’s actions of course run him afoul of Batman, Gotham City’s protector. Batman is good in a fight, but even he is going to struggle against a foe who can grow at will, even replicating himself into a hive mind mob.

swamp thing batman

Although the horror elements are somewhat toned down in this issue (emphasis on “somewhat”), I could recognize this comic was wildly different than anything else I was reading at this point. It was merely dark. It was fiercely intelligent in every respect: Totleben’s manipulated images driving the storytelling, Moore’s dense and fevered language, the uncompromising floridness of its emotions. It was high opera transmogrified to panels on a page, with modern myths acting out the drama. It was scary, funny, romantic, poignant, angry, cynical, and enthralled with possibility all at once. I adored it, and I could barely wrap my head around it, a common combination, I would come to find, when I engaged with the work of Moore.

In the oversized issue, Swamp Thing’s conflict with Batman comes to a close, mostly because the mossy creature achieves his goal. And the issue ends on a harsh cliffhanger, but the normal come-back-next-month enticements mattered little to me. I didn’t start buying and reading Swamp Thing at this point, because I instinctually felt it would do a disservice to what Moore and his cohorts were creating. This wasn’t a story to engage with whenever I happened to see an issue on the spinner rack. While retaining the episodic nature of the form, Moore’s Swamp Thing demanded it be taken in whole. It was all or nothing, and it would be quite some time before the model of comic book publishing evolved to truly accommodate the “all.”

Eventually, I read Moore’s contribution to the Swamp Thing mythos, start to finish. As expected, it was a powerhouse, and it felt right to wait until the conditions were as close to ideal as possible. Although I loved them, I realized superhero comics retained a certain amount of their original DNA as disposable entertainment. Moore, with Swamp Thing, provide one of the earliest instances when I started to see how comics, no matter how fantastical the characters populating them, had a shot at truly being art.

swamp thing win

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

The New Releases Shelf — U.F.O.F.

big thief

U.F.O.F., the new album from Brooklyn-based band Big Thief, is a lovely, elusive work. The first three letters of the title stand for exactly what anyone would think they do, and the tacked on consonant represents the word “friend.” On the group’s bandcamp page, lead vocalist Adrianne Lenker elaborates further on the derivation of the name of Big Thief’s third album.

“Making friends with the unknown… All my songs are about this,” offers Lenker. “If the nature of life is change and impermanence, I’d rather be uncomfortably awake in that truth than lost in denial.”

As a descriptor for Big Thief’s music on the new album, “uncomfortably awake” is probably better than anything I possibly could have concocted. Ethereal and earthy at the same time, U.F.O.F. stalks slowly, insinuating itself so deeply into the psyche that it can feel as if it’s gradually displacing the soul. I often find material like this to be so spare that it vaporizes before my ears. At times when I listen to the new record, I feel myself drifting away. And then, through mystical artistry I can’t quite define, it grabs me again, forcefully and lovingly demanding attention. U.F.O.F. is released by 4AD because the laws of the universe mandated it.

Up and down the track list, the individual entries are like swirls idly drawn in chalk on cracked asphalt. The cuts can be homespun (“Cattails”) or probing (“Orange”) or delivered in a tender cascade (“From”), but at a fundamental level they share a painstaking sense of craft and care. At times the indie folk ease of the material gets so blithe yet earnest that it recalls the anxious haze of the certain artists as the nineteen-seventies pushed to a close, the Laurel Canyon mirage giving way to the scalding sand of music industry reality. In that rough mode, “Century” gurgles to life with a restless bass sound and a lovely thistle bush of acoustic guitar, sounding like vintage Paul Simon as produced by Lou Reed.

Lenker’s voice is another unifier to the album, even as she finds variations in tone and timbre that seem to stretch to infinity. She is grounded, fervent, wary, and sincere, comfortable in the uncertainty cultivated in the songwriting. As she notes, she makes friends with the unknown. On U.F.O.F., she makes such an act, which can have the surface appearance of foolhardy risk, into an act of supreme, enviable wisdom.

Playing Catch-Up — Marty; A Kid Like Jake; The Lego Batman Movie

marty

Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955). Boasting an exemplary Paddy Chayefsky screenplay of downbeat eloquence, Marty manages to examine small-scale lives without a whiff of condescension. Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a thirty-four-year-old butcher who lives in the Bronx with his mother (Esther Minciotti), her constant fretting about his perpetual bachelorhood providing an unwelcome soundtrack. Delbert Mann directs with a kind plainspokenness that’s an ideal match for the material, and Borgnine builds his performance with deep wells of feeling and a laudable absence of easy pathos. The film captures a certain time and place with the level of precision that lends the story an uncommon timelessness. The particulars may be dated, but the film’s emotional honesty resonates brightly.

 

jake

A Kid Like Jake (Silas Howard, 2018). This family drama has the proper intentions and a certain stiffness, which means it’s probably a fine introduction to gender fluidity for viewers just becoming acquainted with the concept. In New York City, middle class parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) are in the midst of the process to set their four-year-old (Leo James Davis) on a productive educational path with a place in the right kindergarten. In the midst of that stress, they also struggle with the suggestion that the pushing against gender stereotypes exhibited by their child, Jake, might be an indicator of more pronounced identity concerns. Both Danes and Parsons are strong in their roles, and screenwriter Daniel Pearle (adapting his play of the same name) gives them scenes of sensitivity and small, occasionally brave insights. It particular, the ways in which anxiety manifests as instinctual partner blaming in a relationship is effectively rendered. In its totality, A Kid Like Jake is more earnest than memorable. Still, there’s a value to its directness and care, even if it can occasionally feel a little pat.

 

lego batman

The Lego Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017). What a strange world we all live in. Following the unlikely critical and commercial success of The Lego Movie, spinoffs and sequels abound, including this adventure of the blocky, plastic version of the caped crusader. Where the computer-animated feature that launched it all was driven by a relentless ingenuity about the building blocks virtually snapped together to make a world, that Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) and his cohorts are made of Lego is almost incidental. Instead, the movie offers a mildly clever deconstruction of the messy mythos around the DC Comics superhero. With only the most minor of script tweaks, this film could have been presented with the same characters in a non-Lego form, which strikes me as a flaws that drains the whole endeavor of purpose. The storytelling is sometimes amusing, but Chris McKay’s directing and staging is overly frenetic, too often letting the visuals collapse into incomprehensible explosions of kaleidoscopic color.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #716 to #713

big pig bonk

716. Big Pig, Bonk (1988)

Hailing from Melbourne, Australia — with a formative stop in the U.K. — Big Pig made a brand of propulsive dance music that feels very 1988. Eschewing guitars altogether and employing three different drummers, the band delivered joyful, singalong bombast on their debut album, Bonk. “My iron lung is rusted,” they sing repeatedly on “Iron Lung,” up against big, thumping post-disco, as if Nona Hendryx took over Sisters of Mercy. What it lacks it intricacy, it make up for in headlong bravado. Big Pig plays like its their musical effort alone that’s keeping the merry-go-round spinning.

Oher Witer claimed part of his impetus in forming Big Pig was a performance of Japanese taiko drummers he saw, and the band’s overstaffed percussion system continually tips their sticks to the inspiration, if only in the exhausting fervor of the beat.  “Hungry Town” recalls Bow Wow Wow at their most rhythmically crazed, and notable hit “I Can’t Break Away” delivers the catchiest thunder available, adding just a hint of goth menace to keep it interesting. The model doesn’t work as well when the tempo slows, as evidenced by “Boy Wonder,” which skates perilously close to Roxette’s part of the rink. And a similar misfortune befalls any cut that endeavors for commentary of any complexity, such as “Money God,” which takes aim at televangelists, a favorite target of pop song ire at the time.

The band got an extra boost when “I Can’t Break Away” played over the opening credits of the 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but that wasn’t quite enough to deliver broader crossover success in the U.S. Big Pig’s follow-up album, You Lucky People, wasn’t released beyond Australian shores, and the band broke up shortly thereafter.

 

translator

715. Translator, Translator (1985)

Translator was one of those bands that could trace their success directly to college radio. It was the popularity of a demo tape they’d sent to KUSF-FM, the student station at the University of San Francisco, that got the band signed to local label 415 Records. Like other bands on the roster, Translator benefited immeasurably from the unexpected gift of major label Columbia Records entering into a distribution and co-branding agreement with 415, suddenly providing more exposure than could have been previously imagined. The ink way drying on both Translator’s deal at the Columbia pact at roughly the same time. With a straightforward rock sound, Translator seemed perfectly poised to become of of the breakthrough acts on the 415 roster, but it never quite came to pass.

For the band’s third album, a self-titled effort, there seemed to be a concentrated attempt to leverage their potential into radio and MTV play. Producer Ed Stasium, then best known as the go-to studio impresario for the Ramones, was enlisted, presumably to give Translator a dose of toughness. Instead, the resulting record sound slick and surprisingly passive. Wispy and generic “Fall Forever” and similarly bland and agreeable “Inside My Mind” are wholly typical tracks. Gently chiming “Come with Me” exhibits the stultifying caution further in lyrics that seem salvaged from the tattered pages of a high school student’s Mead notebook (“Now the streets we walk are still/ And the rain has gone away/ And I don’t know ever what made me so afraid”).

There are tracks that add some welcome ripples of sonic ambition, such as the college rock churn of “Friends of the Future” or “New Song,” which has a pleasing psychedelic tinge. And “Heaven By a String” sounds like Modern English on a double espresso, which isn’t necessarily great, but it’s at least something a little different than earnest rock that wouldn’t cause the faintest tremor in a cultural boat.

Translator and the label heads must have thought they were onto something, as Stasium was invited back for the band’s fourth album, Evening of the Harvest, released in 1986. That would prove to be the band’s final recording, at least until the almost inevitable revival several decades later.

 

dmc raising

714. Run-DMC, Raising Hell (1986)

“The guys in Run-D.M.C. are so full of themselves, they’d be completely obnoxious if they weren’t right,” wrote Mark Coleman in the laudatory Rolling Stone review of Raising Hell, the third full-length from the rap trailblazers and icons.

There’s no overstating how completely Run-DMC set the template for practically of the rap that followed them. Until at least N.W.A., every mainstream rap act was essentially doing an impression of Run-DMC, freely pilfering their rhythms, attitudes, verbal musicality, and expert use of turntable manipulations as an act of scrappy creativity. There didn’t need to be powerful political statements to make the music come across as truly revolutionary. On Raising Hell, the rascally fairy tale pilfering of “Peter Piper” or the effortless comedy of “You Be Illin” stood so far apart from what anyone else was making that they were like dispatches from another timeline. Cuts such as “It’s Tricky” and “My Adidas” are flat-out dizzying in their bizarre command of the pliability of language, making simple statements resound like the most erudite poetry.

Raising Hell is probably best known for “Walk This Way,” a cover of Aerosmith’s late-nineteen-seventies Top 10 hit recorded in collaboration with the band. It became an MTV smash and the first Run DMC single to cross into the Billboard Top 40, peaking at #4. Its success had a longer lasting impact on Aerosmith than Run-DMC. The Boston hard rock outfit’s career was cratering, but the collaboration completely revived their prospects. Much as “Walk This Way” is held up as an inspired merging of rap and hard rock, but the same tactic is employed to even more satisfying effect in the machine gun beats and squalling guitar of the title cut.

The album closes with the pointed “Proud to Be Black,” which declares its intentions directly: “Listen party people here’s a serious song/ It’s right not wrong, I should say right on.” Run-DMC then goes on to provide a furious jam that’s part history lesson and part manifesto, miles away from the odes to sneakers and speakers that dominate their oeuvre. The statement is clear: Run-DMC could pull off absolutely anything.

 

game 2

713. Game Theory, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages (1988)

Boasting the exemplary songwriting skills of frontman Scott Miller, the California band Game Theory was adored by college radio programmers and could get only the barest attention from the other corners of the music business. That hardly made them outliers in the nineteen-eighties, but some of their brethren — led by the superficially similar R.E.M. — were starting to break through, and yet Game Theory still toiled away almost entirely to the favor of kids around the age of twenty. 2 Steps from the Middle Ages, the band’s fifth full-length studio effort, was a deliberate attempt to change the trajectory.

Produced, as usual, by Mitch Easter, the album is full of smart songs, drawing equally from roots rock and power pop. Despite Miller’s concerted attempt to write hit singles, the bulk of 2 Steps from the Middle Ages fits squarely in the established Game Theory sound, with only the occasional flourish here and there to differentiate it. There’s a touch of hard rock snarl to “What the Whole World Wants” and a swirling sound on “Amelia, Have You Lost” that tags it as cowpoke psychedelia. Mostly, the material is just well-constructed songs played with expert care, which is triumphant enough. “Rolling with the Moody Girls” is light and charming, “In a Delorean” has a jittery verve, and “Throwing the Election” is downright fantastic in its easy cleverness. “Wish I Could Stand or Have” sounds a little like XTC as an Americana band, an observation that sits mighty high on the towering spectrum of college rock-derived compliments.

Perhaps predictably, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages didn’t provide the commercial crossover Miller and his cohorts sought, in part because the band’s label, Enigma Records, folded shortly after the album was released. Game Theory didn’t last much longer, either. Miller assembled a new lineup for touring purposes, and Game Theory recorded a couple songs for the 1990 compilation Tinker to Evans to Chance. Then the Game Theory name was set aside, and Miller transformed the group into the Loud Family, which was destined become even more of a rarified cult success throughout the nineteen-nineties.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

Outside Reading — Sweepin’ the Clouds Away edition

Sesame Street early

The Forgotten Tale of How Black Psychiatrists Helped Make ‘Sesame Street’ by Anne Harrington

I’m bound to be enthralled by any smart story that digs into the earliest days of Sesame Street, the PBS program of my youth that was centrally responsible for elevating Jim Henson and his cohorts from oddball talents tapped for the occasional commercial or variety show spot into beloved entertainers with a very unique act. Writing for an Undark magazine series that allows authors to share material they couldn’t quite fit into their book-length works, Anne Harrington explores the purposefulness of Sesame Street‘s message of diverse inclusion, focusing on the contributions of a groundbreaking psychiatrist who helped program producers realize a slightly refined vision of the show. It was an early expression of the treatise “Representation matters.” Sesame Street helps — and still helps — build better citizens, and Dr. Chester Pierce is a major, under-lauded part of that social contribution.

 

An Audience of Athletes: The Rise and Fall of Feminist Sports by Britni de la Cretaz

linda-jefferson womensports

As someone who regularly laments the ever-steepening decline of print media, I’m also prone to enjoy an expert recount of a bygone magazine with a distinctive mission. So I was an easy mark for Britni de La Cretaz’s deep dive into the history of womenSports, a magazine launched in part by Billie Jean King and meant to serve an audience being entirely ignored by ongoing publications such as Sports Illustrated. The article includes so many firsthand accounts by participants in the magazine’s surprisingly lengthy, highly bumpy history that de La Cretaz can almost give the work a feel of an oral history. And she manages to subtly address the persistence of the misogyny that hindered the magazine from the beginning, but the commentary never becomes too overt or didactic. Her blog post exploring a flare-up of conversation about the coverage of women’s sports that coincidentally coincided with the publication of the main article is engaging in its own right.

 

Breaking: Nobody Knows What’s Going to Happen in 2020 by Rebecca Traister

needle

As if the 2016 presidential election season wasn’t exhausting enough in its orchestrated drama and craven capitulating to a unqualified bigot, the next go-round is bound to be even worse, if only because it has, ludicrously, already been underway for months. Even the most reputable sources are signaling their coverage will be shaped by no learned lessons. The New York Times lands on our front steps every morning, and I’ve already grown irritated by how often front page stories are framed around addled speculation and depictions of supposed interpersonal conflict within the Democratic party that affords the hard work of government service — and seeking public office — with all the import of high school heartbreak. Treating elections like sporting events in news coverage is poisoning the republic. In her usual inimitable fashion, Rebecca Traister breaks down the problem with clear eyes and firm conviction, arguing for the value in backing away from the need to predict, as well as the perhaps more fervent need for those of us roiled by the current political cataclysm to seek reassurance in forecasting that assuages fears about how the coming years might proceed into yet darker, more toxic territory. In terms of the 2020 vote, Traister insists we should forget about nebulous, fundamentally unprovable concepts like electability and seek out the political figures who are actually prepared to provide concrete answers. It’s sound advice, and I hope a broad swath of the electorate takes it. I have my doubts, though.

This Week’s Model — Ezra Furman,”Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone”

ezra
(source)

I’ve noticed that a lot of the music I’ve clung to like a life preserver these past couple years has been animated by a sense of enduring hope and camaraderie, seeking out the remaining shafts of light while storm clouds don’t just build, but loom more doomily, descending with a threat to envelop the entire land. The day after the 2016 election, I posted M.I.A.’s “Survivor” on social media and I still often think of its message of constancy of purpose even when the callously exploited flaws of a fearful citizenry test the soul. When I share a song such as Tacocat’s “Hologram,” Jess Cornelius’s “No Difference,” or Andrew Bird’s “Sisyphus,” I’m extending my mix tape manifesto of steadfast positivity in a time engineered to wear down the resolve of those of us who believe in equality, ethics, basic human empathy, and the other qualities that keep society moving forward.

Sometimes, though, my punk rock aspirant I was many decades ago — the one who still lurks sullenly and defiantly inside me — needs a cut that sounds a little nastier. Guitars should buzz, the drums must thump with a Ramones-esque single-mindedness, and the vocals are best delivered at a yelping rasp. I remain resolute in my convictions, but the pressure release valve of a song awash in unchecked anxiety helps from time to time.

So I must offer a thanks to Ezra Furman. The new song from his forthcoming album, Twelve Nudes, couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

 

The Long Haul — Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

kaley pilot

Kaley Cuoco as Penny in The Big Bang Theory (2007 – 2019)

Before Penny, there was Katie. Well ahead of the time The Big Bang Theory became the modern rarity that is a broadcast network series capable of enticing several million people to click to it on a regular basis, it was a failed pilot, rejected for the 2006-2007 television season. In the original iteration, Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki still played scientist roommates whose staid, somewhat insular existence is upended by the arrival of an attractive young woman. A wreck found crying outside their apartment building, Katie (Amanda Walsh) is streetwise and caustic, a party girl who might be enduring a spell of bad luck, but who also operates with a level of confidence that almost comes across as bullying behavior. Written by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the clear intent is to develop the type of friction that can lead to endless possibilities for comedic storytelling, but the balance is all wrong.

The show was rejiggered and a new pilot shot the following year, this time adding a couple friends for the roommates and, more importantly, softening the outlook and demeanor of the woman who is introduced to the main characters’ lives, setting the series in motion. There was still a reliance on a contrasting lack of refined knowledge held by the newcomer, and the creators still seemed to have only the vaguest idea of who this character might be beyond a figure that set the various socially awkward gents’ libidos aflutter. But there was also an easy charm and an evident unschooled intelligence immediately at play in the role, which exemplified the better show The Big Bang Theory was in this second try. The critical recasting of the female lead pointed to further improvements to come, indicating the overlooked secret of the show’s monumental success. Parson won the Emmys, and Galecki and later addition Mayim Bialik were the other regular cast members who received acting nominations from the Television Academy, but it’s the performance of Kaley Cuoco as Penny that truly made the show work as well as it did.

While wildly popular, The Big Bang Theory also stirred up a lot of animosity, mostly from people who saw nasty mockery in the depiction of, for lack of a better term, nerd culture. To my eyes — which have spent a decent amount of time scanning comic books and other associated fare — the show always seemed to take an affectionate if gently jibing approach to the geekier culture favored by the characters. And I can further attest that the jokes were far more accurate than the usual detached snark equating comics and science fiction with hopeless arrested development. Even so, the detractors weren’t entirely without justification, especially early the show’s run, when Penny’s bafflement at the pile-ups of arcane information positioned her as a stand-in from viewers who were only just beginning, for example, to become acquainted with the concept of a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Critically, though, Cuoco played the character’s struggles to interface with her new friend group with more sweet uncertainty than eye-rolling contempt. The appreciation she felt for these people was evident and pure.

What best illustrates the value of Cuoco’s performance is how much better The Big Bang Theory got as it expanded the number of female supporting characters, providing Penny with a more varied cadre of companions. To a large degree, Amy (Bialik) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) were introduced to the show as love interests for male characters, but they flourished because of the naturalness of the friendship developed with Penny. The Big Bang Theory had elements of a workplace sitcom and was sometimes driven by the same romantic relationship questioning that has been injected into the veins of practically every network comedy since at least Cheers, but it was first and foremost about people simply hanging out. And Penny, more than any other character, was the hub of the wheel, drawing everyone together in a convincing fashion.

None of this would have worked if Cuoco didn’t deliver the most grounded performance in the show. All the other characters had some amount of wackiness to them, and initially Penny skewed to a similar easy shorthand, maintaining vestiges of the wild child of her rough draft predecessor. The recently aired finale hinged its emotional climax on the growth of Parsons’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper, but it’s Penny who grew up most realistically across the show’s twelve seasons, settling into a recognizable version of adulthood, marked by the kind of compromise that can feel initially disappointing before revealing itself as a relief. Cuoco was only twenty-one years old when The Big Bang Theory premiered, and the progression through which she carried Penny reads as a proper rendering of easing away from spirited youth to a different state of being that preserves a useful gleefulness and open-hearted camaraderie while finding firmer ground.

In the broad strokes of The Big Bang Theory, Cuoco added a vibrant humanity that kept the show from straying too close to the cartoonish, which remained a perilous risk throughout the run of the show. When Sheldon’s collection of antagonistic traits sometimes teetered near caricature, it was the clear fondness Cuoco’s Penny retained for him that carried the narrative through. Penny never seemed a mismatch among these markedly different people, mostly because she exhibited an intuitive grasp that they were, like her, people in need who didn’t quite know how to express it.

There’s probably no more pivotal moment in the whole length of the series than the scene in the season two episode when Penny gives Sheldon an especially well-chosen Christmas gift. There’s kindness and happy generosity of spirit to her gesture, and she also has a slightly amused confusion at the heightened level of his reaction. The wonderful cap to the scene is Penny’s overjoyed pleasure as Sheldon clumsily pushes past his own aversions to give her a hug of thanks. Whatever antics and comic conflicts were at play, The Big Bang Theory prevailed because it was primarily about people who simply liked each other, and that progressed to be the familial love that defines a group of close friends. It’s Cuoco’s performance that provided the path to that fine outcome.

kaley finale

Previously….

—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

The Art of the Sell — Stranger Things and New Coke

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

As someone who experience formative years during the nineteen-eighties, culturally guided by Steven Spielberg’s films and Stephen King’s fiction, I am fully prepared to acknowledge my enduring affection for the Netflix series Stranger Things is tightly bound to the expert evocation of a number of my experiences from the era in which it is set. I can point to a myriad of skilled storytelling tactics employed by the brothers Duffer and their collaborators, but I must concede that the well-deployed trappings of the age leave me cheerfully spellbound. And I’m especially smitten when precisely the right era signifier is front and center in promotional efforts, which leads me straight to the latest mini-campaign in the long lead-up to the third season.

Among the odd cultural touchstones set to factor into the upcoming season of Stranger Things, a misbegotten brand relaunch evidently looms large enough to inspire a tie-in effort. In the middle of the eighties, Coca-Cola responded to a marketplace so newly competitive that the term “cola wars” was coined by showily revamping the recipe of its flagship product. New Coke debuted in 1985, prompting the publisher of Beverage Digest to tell CBS News, “This has got to be the boldest  consumer products move of any kind, or any stripe since Eve started to hand out apples.”

The prominent inclusion of one of the most famous U.S. brands in a buzzy streaming series didn’t involve paid product placement, but synergy is its own enticement. Coca-Cola collaborated with the creators of Stranger Things to brew up a special teaser, combining a treacly, very-eighties jingle with relevant clips culled from the upcoming season of Stranger Things. And it is a work of multi-faceted marketing perfection.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.