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30 rock addendum: series finale

I could list a bunch of quotes (there were many good ones), or talk about the emotional-for-30-Rock final scenes, but after what I wrote earlier, I suspect this quote, from the final episode of the show-within-a-show TGS with Tracy Jordan, says it best:

“That's our show. Not a lot of people watched it, but the joke's on you, because we got paid, anyway.”

Grade for season finale: A. Grade for series: A.

30 rock

NPR Critic Linda Holmes has written two interesting pieces in the last few days. One, on Tuesday, addressed 30 Rock, as Holmes used a first-season episode to offer a heartfelt goodbye to a show she loves. The next day, she gave us “Coastal Snobbery, ‘The Masses,’ And Respecting The Lowest Common Denominator,” where she argues that when cultural critics speak of “the masses”, “the lowest common denominator”, or “Middle America”, they are trying to “separate the writer and her sensibility — which are presumed to be congruent with the reader and her sensibility — from invisible and undefined others, for whom bad cultural content is produced and by whom it is unquestioningly gobbled up.” Holmes describes the use of these terms as code: “For substantive comment on the quality or meaning of anything, all three substitute code — code for a pernicious, poisonous underlying assumption that popularity, non-U.S.-coastal geography, and easy translation from person to person are all good indicators that an opinion is not to be trusted or that an audience is unsophisticated.”

She notes that the so-called masses of Middle America are far too diverse to be gathered into the same pot. Holmes also attempts to save the “lowest common denominator” from its current derogatory meaning, stating:

We come together where there's enough commonality to let people talk to each other about the same thing. … The lowest common denominator on a huge scale, in fact, is probably something like The Avengers or the Oscars or the Super Bowl, none of which is embraced for its scandalous or scatological qualities, but all of which are popular simply because lots of people think it's fun to watch them. And as silly as those things are, their commonality is actually their most redeeming quality — that it's the lowest common denominator across surprisingly diverse populations is the best thing about the Super Bowl, not the worst. It's certainly the best thing about the Oscars.

30 Rock has never presented itself as a show for that hypothetical lowest common denominator, a fact which is reflected in its ratings, which have never set the world on fire. Some are now talking about 30 Rock as one of television’s all-time great comedies, but the difference between that show and other classics (I Love Lucy, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The Cosby Show) is that those series were popular. Poke any 30 Rock fan, and they are quite capable of shouting out “by the hammer of Thor!” … poke any American, and they’ll know who Homer Simpson is.

I am not suggesting that only popular shows can be considered great. But the greatness of 30 Rock is not the same as the greatness of The Cosby Show. And I’m pretty sure that suits Tina Fey just fine. Her show is full of quick sound bites, obscure pop culture references, and plenty of meta-humor. The roots of 30 Rock lie, not in I Love Lucy, but in the early work of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker (Police Squad, Airplane!, Top Secret, and Naked Gun). And like those movies, 30 Rock is loaded with quotable moments that are here-and-gone in mere seconds. 30 Rock dares you to keep up with its humor, as if being more obvious would make the show too popular with “the masses”.

I am not blameless here. I’m trying, as I often do, to understand why so many comedies leave me blank, while the occasional one breaks through. I’ve never seen Modern Family, or How I Met Your Mother, or 2 Broke Girls … I’m not even sure that last one is a sitcom. Yet I stuck with 30 Rock for seven seasons, and I doubt the only reason is that it’s a “better show”. It’s all about taste preferences.

I wrote yesterday about how modern film comedies can stick all of the good stuff into a three-minute trailer designed to get you into the theater to watch three minutes of good stuff and ninety minutes of filler. 30 Rock can play that game … read any episode review and note how quickly even the best critics’ work devolves into a list of great quotes. But it’s hard to make a three-minute excerpt, partly because some of the humor comes from setups that can be years in the making, and partly because it is rare for a funny moment in 30 Rock to last long enough for a three-minute clip. You’d have to string together fifteen short clips that won’t seem funny to anyone except those who are already in on the joke.

Ultimately, there is something self-satisfying in being a 30 Rock fan that might connect with Holmes’ ideas about snobbery. If that is true, it’s nothing to be proud of. But what am I to do? I’ve been laughing at 30 Rock for seven years.

It’s difficult to pick a clip … I mentioned one problem above, plus a lot of them are on Hulu, which forces advertising on the viewer before you can watch a short clip. But here’s one, perhaps my favorite scene in the entire run:


I’m still trying to understand what makes Shameless work, and why I’ve never convinced anyone to watch it.

My take on modern film comedies is that they always have enough good stuff to make for an excellent trailer, but too often, the trailer has all of the good stuff and the movie itself isn’t much. Shameless could fall into this category … it wouldn’t be hard to extract three minutes of funny material for a trailer. The problem is, Shameless is not a comedy.

The good stuff in modern comedies does more than bolster the trailer. The good stuff also becomes something you can talk about afterwards … long afterwards, years afterwards. Take this scene from Pineapple Express: If you check the comments section, you’ll see one person after another quoting favorite lines. They’ll still be doing that in 2023 … “maybe the anal bead!” When everything lame about a movie has blended into the background, you can still reminisce about (and quote from) those three funny scenes.

You can do this with Shameless, too. Usually, this comes when, as often happens, something occurs that is far beyond what we’re used to seeing on television. You tell your friends about it, and maybe they’ll even tune into an episode, hoping for more of the same. But those scenes aren’t the sole or even primary purpose of Shameless, and you’ll find your attention wandering until you eventually turn the channel, never to return.

This problem is magnified because most of the “did I just see that?” scenes feature William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher. When the series began, Macy was practically the only regular cast member anyone had heard of. Emmy Rossum had a burgeoning film career, having starred as Catherine in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera musical, and Joan Cusack had a secondary role. The rest of the cast was still building their resumes. I’m guessing this is why Macy/Frank features in so much of the promotion for the series. But it’s more than that. Frank is the character you can count on to do something so outrageous that people will talk about it at the virtual water cooler the next day.

But Frank is one of the least-interesting characters on the show, and his misdeeds are largely unimportant except as they impact on his family. Shameless is about families, not about drunks, about trying to get by, not about drunken scams, about building and maintaining relationships, not about fucking people over for drink money. If you tune into Shameless hoping to see a comedy about a drunk, you won’t be impressed.

The most recent episode demonstrates how this all works. There was a Frank story going on, which boils down to this: he is the one person who can calm a baby with Down’s syndrome (he rubs drugs on the kid’s mouth), he tries to use the baby to win a Make-a-Wish styled gift so he can sell it on eBay, and when that doesn’t work because the kid isn’t dying, he tells one of his younger sons that the son has cancer, shaves the kid’s head, and drags the kid back to the charity. There, I explained it in one run-on sentence, and if you didn’t know better, you might see the humor that could be milked from this.

But the episode is about relationships. One couple struggles when an ex-wife turns up. Another couple struggles when a former school-teacher pedophile turns up. Another couple starts up a pre-teen friendship. The gay Gallagher son walks the line between his sugar daddy and his real boyfriend. And Fiona, the main character played by Rossum, admits to her boyfriend that she trusts him, which she considers even more important than love … what we know, what she doesn’t know, is that her boyfriend is secretly married to a mobster’s daughter. When Rossum, who week after week delivers some of the best acting on TV, talks about trust as the emotion flows from her eyes, Shameless is heartbreaking. But that heartbreak comes, not because of the “good stuff” you talk about at the water cooler, but because of the care taken to show different kinds of relationships, because of the effort the show makes to present the Gallaghers as a real family facing up to real lower-class problems, because Emmy Rossum deserves an Emmy (pun not intended).

How do I get this across, though? I can’t suggest you just watch the next episode to see if you like it. Pretty much the only thing to do is watch it from the beginning, and that’s what I recommend. Because the best shows are more than their YouTube clips.

Having said all of that, of course I’ll close with a clip. I’ve posted this before. Fiona, who has raised her family in the absence of her mother and the anti-presence of her derelict father, confronts the mother, who has returned to retake her place in the family. (Chloe Webb is great here, but Rossum is even better.)

what i watched last week

The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, 2012). Nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar, this tells the story of the prevalence of rape in the U.S. military, offering the very personal experiences of several soldiers blended with interviews of experts. The title explains the film makers’ approach: make the hidden visible. Dick and his team don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out why this kind of abuse happens in the military, which is unfortunate, since The Invisible War is advocacy filmmaking, and it could use more analysis. But the film is very successful at letting us see what has traditionally been invisible. It’s an uncomfortable film to watch, and it should be. The survivors deserve credit and respect for being willing to tell their stories. 8/10.

Ted (Seth MacFarlane, 2012). A few weeks ago, I ended up watching an episode of American Dad, one of Seth MacFarlane’s hit TV animated comedies, and I laughed more than I expected. I mention this because now I’ve seen MacFarlane’s first movie feature, and I laughed more than I expected this time, as well. I never understand why I’ll find one modern comedy enjoyable when so many of them miss me entirely. In the case of Ted, I’m guessing that part of my enjoyment came from the pop-culture references, particularly an extended riff on the 1980 film Flash Gordon that includes Sam J. Jones as himself. A lot of the humor is disgusting, of course, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The sweetness that grounds the film isn’t sappy, but rather comes from likable performances by the reliable Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis as the girlfriend. There’s a subplot featuring Giovanni Ribisi that doesn’t work … this is far from a perfect movie. But it’s definitely better than you might think (although a lot of people seem to already know this … Ted is the highest-grossing R-rated non-sequel comedy of all time, taking in more than $500 million on a $50 million budget). It even got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, which is nice since MacFarlane will be hosting the ceremonies this year. And I haven’t even mentioned Norah Jones. 7/10.

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012). 8/10.

by request: argo (ben affleck, 2012)

Another in a series of “let’s go to the movies with my sister and brother-in-law”. It was Robin’s turn to pick, and so, Argo, nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Picture.

Argo seems to be mentioned a lot in connection with Zero Dark Thirty. Both are based on real events that take place in the Middle East and involve the United States. But there isn’t really much reason to put the two movies together. Zero Dark Thirty is, as the title implies, dark, and works within the genres of the police procedural and the individual hero chafing against bureaucracy. Argo allows room for humor, perhaps inevitably, given the subject matter (CIA invents a crappy sci-fi movie so they can smuggle Americans out of Iran … it doesn’t make sense, yet it makes sense). While Argo is also partly about an individual hero, Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez is always the brains behind a team, not an obsessed loner like Jessica Chastain’s Maya in ZD30.

The most obvious comparison between the two movies lies in the performances of the leads. Affleck suits his part well … he spends a lot of time blending in, which is part of his job. The performance is not a dynamic one, but it would be the wrong choice to play it flamboyantly. Still, Affleck-the-director must work around a central character that doesn’t often grab the screen. Chastain, on the other hand, owns Zero Dark Thirty. Like Affleck, Chastain is playing someone who works internally, but her character is written to allow Chastain to let the audience inside Maya, to give a sense of the price she is paying. Mendez in Argo never seems to have as much at stake.

But Affleck isn’t trying to make a procedural with an obsessed hero, which is why the comparisons don’t matter. Affleck is making a tense thriller with light moments placed in just the right places to give the audience a chance to breathe. The tension comes, not from the overwhelming presence of violence, which is often the case with today’s thrillers, but instead from the potential for violence. Every step of the way, Affleck makes sure we know what might happen just around the corner, which allows for a more tingly edge-of-seat excitement than we’d get from a blunt gore fest.

Affleck has become a solid director: with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, he marked his place as a talent to be watched, and Argo is a step up from those two pictures. He isn’t delivering masterpieces yet, but his movies as director are thus far reliably high-quality. I’m not as big a fan of his acting, partly because he has been in some really crappy movies, partly because the best movie he was ever in, Dazed and Confused, was an ensemble piece where his performance didn’t stand out among the many, many fine ones.

One more comparison to Zero Dark Thirty. That film never let us forget why the U.S. wanted revenge. There was no attempt to understand why someone would attack America in the first place. At least Argo starts off with a brief history lesson that reminds us why the Shah was so hated by his people, and thus why there was such anger against Americans. Argo is about those Americans … I don’t want to overstate this point. But we have a sense of other possibilities besides the ones the U.S. promotes.

I’m not nearly as bothered by fealty (or not) to real events in movies like this, but it should be noted that in the last part of Argo, Affleck and writer Chris Terrio place excitement over that fealty. I think it’s the right decision, but there’s no reason for fans of Argo (or detractors of Zero Dark Thirty) to get overly upset, anyway. 8/10.

music friday: spirit, "i got a line on you"

Spirit was far from a one-hit wonder. Eight of their albums made the Billboard 200, and four of their singles made the Hot 100. The first song from their first, self-titled album, “Fresh Garbage”, released in 1968, was popular on FM “underground” radio. Their fourth album, the delightfully-named Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, featured another FM hit, “Nature’s Way”.

I’m always happy when Spirit pops up via shuffle play, usually when I’m listening to my ginormous, 2500+ track “FM” playlist. And I've been known to put “Nature’s Way” on mix discs for the car when I know Robin will be driving. But when I just get the urge to hear Spirit, I inevitably put on the opening track from their second album, The Family That Plays Together, “I Got a Line on You”. (That album title was appropriate, as the band’s drummer, Ed Cassidy, was the stepfather of young guitarist/songwriter Randy California.)

California was influenced by Jimi Hendrix, who California met when he was only 15 years old. (Rumor is that California, who played in Jimi’s band, was asked to go with Hendrix to England, where he broke out with Are You Experienced?, but California’s parents wouldn't let him go because he hadn't finished high school.)

California influenced others, notably Jimmy Page, who was always able to excavate intriguing licks and make them his own. Here is “Taurus” from Spirit’s first album … see if something sounds familiar about 45 seconds in:

Led Zeppelin had toured with Spirit at the beginning of their career.

But let’s get to the reason we’re here: “I Got a Line on You”. Robert Christgau, no big fan of the band, referred to the songs as “that great shining 2:39 of hard rock guitar”. AllMusic called it “a rock classic from beginning to end.” It was the closest they came to a true hit record (#25 on the charts). It’s the best thing they ever did:

And, in case Robin checks in, here’s “Nature’s Way”:

royal rumble 1993

Twenty years ago today, I attended the Royal Rumble. This is the key Pay-Per-View event leading up to Wrestlemania, and in 1993 it was held in Sacramento.

I don’t remember a lot about it at this point. I can refresh my memory via Wikipedia, but not a lot has stuck in my mind over the last twenty years. The Rumble itself was mostly a dud, won by Yokozuna. Still, thanks to YouTube, you can decide for yourself, if you’ve got an hour+ to waste:

Yokozuna, whose real name was Rodney Agatupu Anoaʻi, was born in San Francisco and had Samoan heritage, but when he came to the then-WWF, Vince McMahon turned him into the Japanese wrestler Yokozuna. He went on to become a two-time WWF Champion, but he fought weight issues for his entire career, eventually reaching a reported weight of almost 800 pounds. He died at the age of 34, weighing 580 pounds at the time of his death.

fan sabermetrics

Clubhouse Confidential is a television show on the MLB Network that “discusses and debates the day's news and moves using modern statistical research and value projection.” It’s a sign of progress that such a show exists on the official MLB Network, although there’s still a bit of ghettoization going on (why does modern research need its own show? shouldn’t it be part of every show?).

Today (or yesterday … I think I caught a rerun), they had a segment on the best-run organizations in baseball. The Giants were #3 on one person’s list, and the other panel member didn’t disagree. Back in the spring of 2006, I was interviewed by Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle for a piece he was running about GM Brian Sabean’s future, after ten years with the Giants. My contribution was a mostly negative analysis of Sabean’s work. Nonetheless, I returned for the very last paragraph, which read, “’The average fans think he's doing a great job,’ Rubio said, ‘and with that record, why shouldn't they?’”

Of course, since then, Sabean has helped the Giants to two World Series championships in the last three years, which is one definition of a well-run organization. As part of the Clubhouse Confidential presentation, host Brian Kenny interviewed Giants CEO Larry Baer. (I still remember Baer in the late-70s, when he was an undergrad at Cal who finagled a famous deal to have the 10-watt campus radio station, KALX, be the official broadcaster for the Oakland A’s.) It was interesting to hear a top Giants executive talk about the club in the context of a sabermetric program, since my own complaints were usually about the old-school way Sabean and the rest ran the club.

Kenny asked Baer what were the key points to a good baseball organization, and Baer noted about what you’d expect: winning a couple of World Series helps, establishing a good farm system makes it possible to compete against the richest teams, blah blah blah. But then he talked about the ballpark, and more specifically about the fans. Kenny asked some oddball question like “how do you decide what music to play at the park”, and Baer ran with it. They study these things, just as they study everything about maximizing the ballpark experience for the fans. He mentioned the way a Friday night crowd acts differently than a Wednesday afternoon crowd, with the team matching the ambiance of the particular day with the particular crowd. They’ve mastered the art of making the fans happy … there’s a reason even nationwide journalists like Kenny refer to China Basin as the best place in America to watch a baseball game.

Kenny locked into Baer’s description of the organization analysis that went into the fan experience, saying that it sounded as if the Giants practiced fan sabermetrics. Baer agreed.

That was pretty much the only time the word “sabermetrics” appeared. And it was quite appropriate. An organization that has reached the pinnacle of success over the past few years, despite seeming to give short shrift to "modern statistical research”, has been using modern research all along. The two World Series titles are peripheral to this … what proves the efficacy of their research is the long run of proclaimed sellout crowds at the ballpark, and the way the Giants have become “cool” beyond just the loyal fan base. (There were reports that school attendance was down significantly the day of the 2012 celebratory parade in San Francisco.)

what's in his pants, or, pork WHAT?

Last night, my wife told me I needed new hobbies. She quickly amended that statement, probably realizing I have more hobbies than most people. So she added, “hobbies that aren’t on your computer … or your phone … or your Nexus.”

I’m not sure why the source of a hobby is important. But the large majority of my hobbies are admittedly time-wasters. Heck, writing a blog for eleven years is both a hobby and a time-waster, although at least there’s something concrete at the end.

What prompted her declaration was a confession I made. I didn’t actually think of it as a confession, which sounds like I did something to feel guilty about. As I’ve said many times, I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures … if you like it, why feel guilty? … but believing something and feeling immune from the process aren’t the same thing, which is another way of saying, yes, I do know what a guilty pleasure is. A lot of people I talk to would include as one of their guilty pleasures checking something out on YouTube and then spending half an hour watching videos before you look at the clock and see how much time you wasted.

So, as you might guess, my confession last night was that I’d been watching YouTube videos. I don’t know that she would have admonished me if I’d stopped there. But I added that the hook that reeled me in for a longer-than-expected video-watching session was: Family Feud with Steve Harvey.

Look, I know how it sounds. But I have a feeling that if they watched one Feud w/Harvey video, a lot of people would end up watching a few more. It seems to matter than I don’t actually watch the show on TV … couldn’t even tell you when it was on, or on what channel. YouTube is the perfect place to watch, because you get highlights. It is similar to Saturday Night Live in that respect … I know if there was a particularly good sketch, it’ll be on the web the next day.

The folks at Family Feud are well aware of this. They have their own YouTube channel, and many of the questions asked on the game show are clearly intended to elicit a “YouTube” response. This is nothing new … game shows have been fishing for double entendre answers since the dawn of time, which explains why you can still watch lots of old Match Game videos on YouTube.

Here we see Steve Harvey acknowledging that a particular answer will soon show up on YouTube:

And here’s the video I was thinking of when I stupidly confessed to my wife:

where do we go from here?

I have often assigned Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, to my students, usually alongside the much more famous “I Have a Dream”. Here is a brief excerpt from that speech, as the country celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are questions that must be asked. …

If you will let me be a preacher just a little bit - One night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn't get bogged down in the kind of isolated approach of what he shouldn't do. Jesus didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying." HE didn't say, "Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, you must not commit adultery." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, now you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively." He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic - that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down in one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again."

He said, in other words, "Your whole structure must be changed." A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them - make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!"