Laughing Matters — Mr. Show, “Druggachusettes”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

My weariness overtook me before I could translate ideas into coherent strings of words. In seeking a way to describe my haziness, this particular offering from the brilliant Mr. Show came to mind.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

That Championship Season — Treme, Season One

treme title

The premiere episode of Treme begins with white words on a black screen. First, they establish that the series takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana. Then comes the critical information about timing: “Three Months After.” The event that took place a quarter of a year earlier required no further explanation.

Treme was the first ongoing series David Simon signed his name to after completing five seasons of The Wire, which was already being hailed as monumental television, a reputation that has only grown in the years since. The expectation was that Simon — along with co-creator Eric Overmyer, another Wire vet — would do for New Orleans what he did for Baltimore in the earlier series, exposing the layers of political and moral complications that prevented a major U.S. city — and its citizenry — from achieving its full potential.

New Orleans, though, proved to be a more difficult metropolitan beast to wrestle into a manageable narrative, and that’s with a creator who was more open to raggedness and ambiguity than most. Therein, lie the program’s inescapable flaws. In the same cascade of ricocheting notes, its exuberant, unique strength also takes up residence.

treme parade

Debuting in 2010, the series is initially set around five years later, when the wounds of Hurricane Katrina and its more devastating aftermath — predicated on the failings of institutions and structures rather than the uncontrollable bullying of weather patterns — were still at their rawest. New Orleans is a city in heartbreaking disrepair, populated by people trying their best to persevere even as the bare mechanics of urban redemption feel forever out of reach. Heavily reliant on tourist dollars, the community has effectively had a “Stay Out” sign erected at the border, and all structures — social, physical, spiritual — crumble anew as soon as rebuilding gets underway.

In this place at this time, Treme settles in with a slew of characters whose pathways occasionally intersect. There are academics, attorneys, DJs, musicians, chefs, bartenders, and other scraggly souls operating on what look to the outside eye like the edges of professional society. In New Orleans, though, they’re the lifeblood, providing the culture with infusions of assured idiosyncrasy. They carry whole histories with them — their own, obviously, but also the accumulated lore of an almost mystical place that forgives most transgressions against courtly rectitude, even as an abiding craving for justice is one of the most common traits. Instinctively or strategically, Simon and his collaborators know that the best way to portray the people of New Orleans is to lovingly acknowledge the messiness that existed there well before the levees were breached.

treme dj davis

Simon carries over some of his favored cast members from previous endeavors, including Khandi Alexander (who anchored his acclaimed HBO mini-series The Corner), Clarke Peters, and Wendell Pierce, the latter of whom has never — and likely will never — look as wonderfully at ease as he does as trombone player Antoine Batiste. (As a native of New Orleans, the cause of Pierce’s comfort is easy to surmise.) Some of these roles were surely shaped to suit the actors, but the astute instincts prevail up and down the call sheet.

In particular, it feels like Treme captures the last available time Steve Zahn could play the whip-smart wiseacre of wavering ambition that stood as his greatest expertise. Already a little long in the tooth to play such a character without it seeming sad or sociologically out of step, Zahn instead can tap into a certain New Orleans archetype: the crafty layabout equally thwarted and enabled by the city’s genially lax brand of hedonism. It would be an overstatement to call Zahn’s performance great, but his own history onscreen gives it a certain valedictory aura, which itself suits the the soft gloom misgivings of a vibrant city veering treacherously close to permanent decline.

treme chef

As it continued, Treme became somewhat a victim of the necessity for the characters to progress. And the creators were true to the logic of the arcs they’d begun, even when it arguably did some harm, dragging characters into realms that were less compelling, such as chef Janette Desautel’s (Kim Dickens) relocation to New York City or violinist Annie Talarico (Lucia Micarelli) achieving greater success and resultant expectations of commercial acquiescence. These progressions made perfect sense (Simon is too careful a storyteller to settle anything less), but they pulled the series away from its hardscrabble soul, depicting a vibrant place and colorful people asked to endure more than should be reasonably borne in the modern age.

In the first season, Treme is at its purest and most powerful because it’s also at its leanest. The emotions are potent and unyielding, given their clearest, sharpest expression in the YouTube monologues delivered by Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), a Tulane professor raging against all the ways the city was let down by the structures — physical and social — that were supposed to offer protection. The surprising fate of Creighton is another part of the program’s poignant thesis, arguing hope can be pushed to a breaking point and defeat can eventually swamp out joy.

At its strongest and most resonant, Treme mirrors the common travails of humanity, using the city of New Orleans as the ideal backdrop, garish and soiled and beautiful.

treme smoke


An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The Leftovers, Season Three

Oscars Gonna Oscar


For the first time in more years than is at all reasonable, I feel like I watched an Oscar telecast that wasn’t constructed by people who were embarrassed about the very concept of the storied ceremony they presided over. That I find this remarkable might be a touch sad, but it doesn’t really take away from the fundamental achievement of last night’s program. The 90th Academy Awards was gratifyingly solid.

My assessment refers more to the ceremony than the accuracy of the awards’ dispersal. I try not to get too chagrined when the Oscars don’t get handed out in precisely the fashion I would personally prefer, ultimately respecting the general wisdom of the industry crowd. Yes, I long for a perhaps unreachable era in which the Oscars are no longer simply the final ratification of the same cluster of actors who’ve gathered up preceding awards like monied stoners loading up on Girl Scout cookies outside their friendly neighborhood dispensary. And this was the first year in absolute ages that all four acting awards went to performances that I not only wouldn’t champion, but indeed found wholly unremarkable (or, occasionally, deeply flawed). Then again, I look at the quartet and feel satisfied that all are generally deserving to have possession of film acting’s highest honor (and the person who got a sibling for the trophy already on her mantle is equally deserving of the rarer designation “two-time Academy Award winners).

And then there’s the big prize, a choice that felt so sweetly convention in so many particulars — a period piece, a romance, made by a well-respected name director, the most nominated film of the night — that it is jolting to circle back around to the outlandish, delightful truth that the supposedly staid Academy just gave their most revered honor to a lush, horror-tinged fairy tale about a woman in a decidedly unchaste relationship with an amphibious man-monster. The Shape of Water sits forever on a historic continuum that also includes Going My Way, The Sound of Music, and Gandhi. Any divvying up of Oscars will yield results of mixed emotions, but a ceremony that includes the director of Cronos and Blade II showered with affection — as well as cinematographer Roger Deakins finally getting his due — is hard to generate ire against. As my preferred pick for the directing award, Greta Gerwig, watched Guillermo del Toro give one of his onstage speeches, she clearly said, “I love him.” If she’s happy, who am I to gripe?

But back to the show itself. In Jimmy Kimmel’s second straight year as host — and a similar encore engagement for producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd — a slew of small, targeted changes made for a better show. The running gags were pared back to a minimum and the inevitable stunt — this year centered on Kimmel leading a batch of stars to a preview screening of A Wrinkle in Time at a movie theater across the street, barraging the audience of average moviegoers with star power and projectile frankfurters — was staged with smart foresight for the basic logistics of the endeavor, making it brisk and economical. And in a year marked by rolling scandals of sexual misdeeds by Hollywood power players, Kimmel’s comedy addressed the hard truths of the moment without ever stooping to exploit them.

There were references to the length of the ceremony without cheap shots or whining, and the one running gag relating to the topic — a Showcase Showdown level prize given to the winner who delivered the night’s shortest speech — cleverly framed the eternal challenge of tightening the show as a challenge rather than a complaint. With rare exceptions, producers set aside the practice of making speech-givers compete with swelling orchestral tones, itself a gracious, welcome acknowledgement that the purpose of the night is to celebrate these individual’s artistic achievements. The clip packages were largely strong, especially the well-curated celebration of ninety years of Oscars and the packages of previous winning performances that announced each of the acting categories. Even the unavoidable wrong envelope jokes were kept to a dignified minimum, with the innovation of big, bold type on the packets carried to the stage reminder enough of the lunacy of last year’s fumbled finale.

In the long run, I’m not sure how much of this year’s Academy Awards will truly be memorable. For one night, though, I was pleased that the producers of the Oscars decided to be engaged with the award’s place in the ongoing cultural conversation. In accepting Best Picture, del Toro shared advice he received from Steven Spielberg as the Oscars approached: “If you find yourself there — you find yourself at the podium — remember that you are part of a legacy, that you are part of a world of filmmakers, and be proud of it.” More than in most years, the Oscar ceremony itself seemed to justly, properly share that sense of pride and value. It made for a good night.


tiffany maya

Laughing Matters: The Simpsons, “We Are the Mediocre Presidents”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I enjoy reading about U.S. history, and I consider myself reasonably educated and well-read. And yet I must confess that it is a brief song in the Springfield Elementary School holiday revue that is the reason I can confidently answer any trivia questions about the person who had the shortest tenure in the highest office in the land.

Happy President’s Day, everyone!

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

From the Archive — Animaniacs


I’m dusting off this old pile of words in commemoration on the recent announcement that the Warner brothers — and the Warner sister, of course — are on their way back. This was originally posted in my former online home.

When I was a little kid, watching Saturday cartoons with the focused strategy of a battle-hardened general, I was certain that I’d never give up on the things I loved. Yes, I’d grow up, but I’d never outgrow the happy anarchy of these colorful adventures that I pumped into my brain as often as I could. I didn’t follow through on that conviction very well, but there have definitely been times when I’ve been drawn to material that doesn’t fit properly into my age bracket. One of those times was the fall after my college graduation, when I took advantage of new idle hours to become crazily devoted to the second product of the high-powered collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Animation.

They’d previously put their stamps of creative ownership on Tiny Toon Adventures, which reimagined fairly familiar characters from the Looney Tunes stable as spirited youths. For their second outing, the creators opted for something more original, but in the same spirit as the wildly inventive cartoons that were part of the enviable heritage of Warner Bros. animation. The result was Animaniacs, presented in syndication as a daily half-hour show collecting shorts featuring an array of new characters. The main drivers of the show were the Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko and Dot. They lived in the water tower on the Warner Bros. studio lot and got into varied misadventures, at least when they weren’t relating the contents of a world atlas in ludicrously catchy fashion.

There were other segments, including fiercely cantankerous Slappy Squirrel, the splendid pairing of Rita and Runt and, speaking directly to my movie geek heart, the amazing sight of a Martin Scorsese masterpiece rendered in cartoon pigeon form. Undoubtedly the crowning achievement of the show was the ingenious creation Pinky and the Brain, a pair of lab mice bent on world domination. Besides their usual antics, the characters allowed room for brilliantly off-kilter bits, such as spoof of an obscure incident involving The Brain’s voicesake Orson Welles.

Since my crew of friends was especially adept at peppering movie, music and TV quotes into our daily conversations, there were all sorts of bits from Animaniacs that made their way into our shared vocabulary, including Mindy’s standard valediction or the Warner Brothers’ helpless shout when they spotted a gorgeous woman. To this day, I can’t hear Dana Delany’s name without immediately imagining Yakko Warner waggling his eyebrows lasciviously while dropping her name in one of the variations of their opening theme.

So maybe I didn’t keep watching cartoons relentless, but at least I watched the right ones.

From the Archive — The Sopranos finale


Since I invoked (via hyperlink) this old chunk of writing when I shared my thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi the other day, it seems reasonably appropriate to drag the whole essay straight over. That’s what this Saturday feature is for, after all. This was, I do believe, my first real crack at writing about a television series.

I actually wasn’t going to post about the series finale of The Sopranos. And then I encountered so many extreme negative reactions, this frothing animosity towards the episode and creator David Chase that has clogged the blogosphere and even downed
HBO’s Website (as a good friend of mine immediately and correctly deducted).

The fervent complaints about a lack of closure to the series and the enormous ambiguity of the final moments actually makes me wonder why those who are protesting were watching The Sopranos in the first place. Some defenders have noted that defying expectations was always a components of the show’s construction and success, so it only makes sense that it would finish by doing the same. While that’s technically true, I think that misses the more pertinent point. The show never provided easy answers, it never wrapped matters up in the simple, decisive ways that are so deeply familiar to us media consumers that we can often feel the ending before it hits. It was loose and messy with plot threads that went on at agonizing length only to be halted suddenly and surprisingly. It moved like life instead of adhering to the comforting timetables of narrative fiction. It did that right to the final dark moment, the plain-faced exchanges of family intermingling with the high tension of a life always lived on guard, inextricably and tragically together.

Clearly, I thought the final episode was terrific, especially that much-discussed (and maligned) closing scene. For one thing, it was a masterful piece of directing, with David Chase (in the director’s chair for the first time since the very first episode) building unbelievable tension in a mundane setting purely through staging and artful editing. He’s been vilified for supposedly taunting the audience with his technique here, as if deconstructively exploring film-making approaches and genre conventions is some sort of sadistic exercise instead of a viable methodology for creating impact (and, again, completely in keeping with the program’s modus operandi for the entirety of its 86 episode run). It takes full advantage of the extended storytelling inherent to series television. In love with possibilities to be found in the editing room–where failed attempts at parallel parking can contribute to almost unbearable suspense–the sequence was a tour de force of drawing the complete environment into its looming sense of constant danger. I found it thrilling in a way that television directing rarely achieves.

As for the screen cutting to black, are there really people who thought their cable went out? Really? How was it not immediately apparent that this was a choice? Fully intentional in its drastic exactitude, it was the perfect ending at the perfect moment.

To a degree, I can understand the bitterness, only because devoting oneself to a full television series heightens the sense of getting the perfect ending. When hours upon hours have been given over to the flickering screen, that last hours bears a huge burden (although this phenomenon itself is relatively new–most series in the past, even those that were especially popular and well-loved ended rather unceremoniously, usually with just another episode). It needs to fulfill every promise of the episodes that preceded it, and give each central character the gift of an ending or new beginning. “Made in America” was filled with small grace notes, acknowledgments of  series history and certainly brought a decisive, satisfying conclusion to the last major storyline. That there wasn’t a more explosive close to the personal saga of Tony Soprano himself is not a cop-out or a crass attempt to position the character for a spin-off movie (given James Gandolfini’s well-quoted comments about being glad to shed the character, I’m surprised people still consider this a viable possibility), and those who are crying foul are veering close to a odd bloodlust as potent as any exhibited by the most unsavory Sopranos side characters over the years. Is this how the majority of the viewership has viewed the series all along? Tony Blundetto rides a shotgun blast across a wintry porch and the emotional impact of pulling the trigger are lost, totally obscured by how stone-cold cool it was when he flew threw the air?

I saw no betrayal in this final episode, no vicious disregard on the part of David Chase. I saw something that recognizably belonged to the series that I watched religiously because it redefined the artistic parameters of a television series, exploiting the novelistic depths that could be achieved by having unlimited time to tell a story. When I watched the finale to season one, I felt a jolt of satisfaction and gratitude as the full complexities of the first thirteen episodes fully locked into place in a way that was utterly unique and perhaps even revolutionary for the medium. I felt that same jolt two nights ago.

Perhaps for some of these angered critics, that screen may as well have been black and silent all along.