‘The Young Ones’ will never grow old

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It’s only right that I ended up living somewhere in the former British empire, as one of the key warp engines on my young American mind was British comedy. Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits,” the Beatles and rare Dandy comics, Adrian Mole and Peter Sellers – all these things I mainlined under sunny California skies. 

But for me, my first love will always be “The Young Ones.” I spent the weekend re-watching the entire series for the first time in ages, and its wacky, ugly and surreal comedy still holds up. The punk-rock anarchy of “The Young Ones” combines the rude genius of the Pythons with classic sitcom tropes and a Looney Tunes-style madness that still makes it shocking today.

YO-leadRik, Vyvyan, Neil and even comparatively dull Mike were my Beatles of comedy. Like the best British shows, it knew when to quit – 12 episodes and that’s it, and with the late, great Rik Mayall leaving us way too soon in 2014, there’ll never be another. 

“The Young Ones” for teens in the US was like a secret treasure, airing on MTV in the dark of the night around 1985. Screaming punks, snotty anarchists, soiled hippies – What the hell was this? The sheer surrealism of the show blew the mind of us California high-school kids. Objects might start talking, the scene might abruptly shift to the middle ages or a Rat Pack TV show. Anarchy!, as Rik would shout. One of my all-time favourite moments is “Elephant Head” in the episode “Summer Holiday” – the 11-second cameo makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and to my 14-year-old mind watching MTV in the ‘80s, that’s what made it totally brilliant. 

“The Young Ones” could be stunningly gross (nobody who’s seen the “Sick” episode and its cure for Neil’s sneezing fits can ever forget it) and scathingly harsh about British politics. The recurring gags about racist British cops are funny, but admittedly a punchline like “Sorry, I thought you was a n*****” doesn’t hold up so well today. The violence may be a bit much for some, but I can’t help but crack up every time Vyvyan whacks Rik in the head with a blunt object. And there’s more catchphrases than one can safely repeat in one lifetime in the show’s 12 episodes (my go-to is “Cor, that looked just like a negative reality inversion, didn’t it?”)

YOUNG-ONES-9Several times, episodes build up with plots involving things like axe murderers or vampires or marauding medieval peasants only to abruptly draw curtain on the episode. Nothing really matters, the ‘madcap adventures’ can be waved off and the show will restart as normal the next episode. There’s something very existential about these damned housemates, trapped in their greasy grey pigsty and never changing, being squashed by a giant eclair in one episode and back for more in the next.

The funny bits of “The Young Ones” when I was 14 are still funny, but the bits that sting even more today for me are the ones that wail and cackle endlessly into an uncertain void and make me wonder if Vyvyan smashing everything around him to bits had the right idea. That’s life, innit?

That’s So ’90s Week: Frasier and the ’90s man

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For That’s So ‘90s Week, I’m taking a look back at some of the pop culture epherma of the ‘90s that sticks with this ageing Gen-Xer.  Today, let’s head to Seattle… but not for the grunge. 

There’s a lot of TV from the 1990s that people get nostalgic over. I don’t get the “Friends”-obsessed myself – it’s an amusing show, I watched it at the time, but I barely ever think about it now. “Seinfeld” is a masterpiece of dry, surreal comedy, but it’s also a comedy that refuses warmth (“no hugging, no learning”). “The Simpsons” is eternal, like rain or air, beyond mere human judgments. And I’ve never, ever understood people who claim to be huge fans of “Home Improvement” or “Full House.”

unknownBut “Frasier.” Ah, “Frasier.” For me, “Frasier” is the warm witty blanket of ‘90s TV, perfectly constructed one-act farces that I can watch over and over again without tiring. If asked, I’d have to say that I think “Frasier” is the peak of the traditional sit-com form – one that’s been deconstructed and reconstructed often since, but rarely bettered. At its essence, it’s another man in the workplace, man with wacky family comedy like a thousand others, but in its execution, it’s sublime.

The show often makes fun of Frasier’s pompousness, but I never feel like the show says “being smart is dumb.” The genius of “Frasier” is combining Frasier Crane’s lofty, intellectual lifestyle with his hubris, ego and fallibility. We see in Frasier the eternal struggle between ambition and reality, between what we’d like to be seen as and the ways we keep falling short. More importantly, “Frasier” makes that battle funny. As a coughcough 40-something balding male in midlife looking back and looking forward and trying to make sense of it all, I identify with Frasier now a lot more than I do Ross Geller or Kramer. 

There’s more whip-crack smart, literary lines in an episode of “Frasier” than in an entire season of other shows. 

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Was it perfect? Well, some of Frasier’s hound-dog horniness and Roz’s man-chasing does seem rather problematic these days (although Frasier is no Sam Malone or Hawkeye Pierce, to be honest), and the Crane family’s Seattle is about as white and monocultural as it comes. And at 11 (!) seasons, the show lingered on a little too long into the 2000s, ending in May 2004. 

Yet the show maintained a high level of quality almost its entire run – I have yet to run across a terrible episode of “Frasier” as I rewatch the series, and a huge pile of classics. Not a bad legacy at all for a ‘90s sitcom. 

Year in Review: My top 10 pop-culture moments of 2018

I’ve always dug the year-in-review lists, but I’m kind of an old dude now, and I couldn’t tell you 10 albums that came out in 2018 that I dug and I’m usually about 6 months behind on the streaming thing everyone is talking about.

So instead, here’s 10 moments in pop culture that made my year – whether it’s something new to everyone, or something old and glorious I discovered for myself this year. Because frankly, there’s a heck of a lot of great things in the past that are often way more interesting than whatever is flitting through the world this week. 

InfinityWar5a4bb0e7cdea1.0Superheroic golden age: Every once in a while I think how 13-year-old me would’ve reeled at the idea of a new big-budget superhero movie or TV show every few months. I pretty much dug them all in various ways and all the comic book moments they brought to life — Avengers: Infinity War somehow magically capturing Jim Starlin’s complicated villain Thanos without him seeming absurd; Black Panther’s Shakespearean grandeur, as the king returns to take his crown; the gleefully over-the-top Aquaman, with a pitch-perfect Black Manta/Aquaman battle that had me grinning like a loon; the fantastic third season of Daredevil bringing Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk’s battle to a climax; Ant-Man and the Wasp turning San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf into a size-changing playground. (And I’m still waiting for Into The Spider-Verse to open in New Zealand!)

Orson Welles lives: Who woulda thought we’d see a “new” Welles film 30+ years after his death? I loved The Other Side of the Wind, which was sprawling, chaotic and fragmented like much of Welles’ final work. By its very nature incomplete, it still evoked a dying world of Hollywood legends and graced us with a few more of Welles’ picture-perfect screen compositions. 

Lady Bird: Technically this came out in 2017, but this smart, witty and surprising comedy about a girl’s coming of age in Sacramento is one of the best films I’ve seen in years, with Greta Gerwig building on the promise she’d shown with Frances Ha and other movies. 

robin williams biography main-min“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff: Robin Williams was a remarkable talent who battled addiction and tragedy much of his life. Schlock like Patch Adams made us forget how amazing he could be; this definitive biography brings him back to life and reminds us of what we lost. 

Immortal Hulk: The Hulk is Marvel’s endlessly protean creation, who’s been reconfigured and reimagined dozens of times over the years. This current take by Al Ewing is a moody horror epic that’s creepily unforgettable and shows the Hulk can still surprise after over 50 years. 

John Coltrane: Yep, the man’s been dead for 51 years, but like the best of artists, his work is still capable of endless surprises. I watched the terrific documentary Chasing Trane this year and have been diving into many of Coltrane’s squawkier, chaotic later albums like the superb Sun Ship. It’s not music for every mood, but when it works, peak Coltrane is like watching the sky split open and unfold itself. 

“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson: A biography that truly reveals an entire world, with fascinating focus on how exactly Da Vinci created his masterpieces, and the world he lived in. Made me want to zip off to Europe to see the works in person. 

Ron-Stallworth-and-Patrice-in-BlacKkKlansmanBlack entertainment: They’ve all got ‘black’ in the name and they all provided strong, uplifting portrayals of the African-American experience – Black Panther, which broke a zillion box office records along the way; Black Lightning, which took a lesser-known DC superhero and gave us one of the realest portrayals of a strong black family on TV in ages; BlacKkKlansman, which was Spike Lee’s strongest movie in years, as feisty, creative and witty as “Do The Right Thing.”  

Let’s go to a gig: I saw some great concerts this year, from Grace Jones’ imperial grandeur at Auckland City Limits to what might’ve been legendary Bob Dylan’s final concert in New Zealand (and the best show I’ve seen from him yet) to cool and somewhat retro gigs by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Billy Bragg and the Breeders. Great times all. 

Universal horror: The best thrills are often the old ones. As I battled a variety of health and personal setbacks this year, somehow I got the most comfort from flickering black and white images of horror and mystery. I’ve always loved the old Universal horror movies of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and rarely a week went by where I didn’t resurrect Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney for a bit of spooky pleasure. The immortal ones never really die, you know. 

Year In Review: 3 disappointments of 2018

I love a good year-in-review post, and here’s the first of two looking at the highs and lows in the year in pop-culture for me.

I’ll start with the negative, with a look at three pop-culture moments of 2018 that let me down. Let the bummers begin!

doctor-who-s11_entertainment-weekly-3_new-episodic_wide-28f404cb12e08e88cb071a2b942bd5d23107103e-s800-c85Doctor Who: First off, I love the idea of a female Doctor. I think Jodie Whittaker was an excellent casting choice and did a fine job this season. But she was let down by trite and sloppy writing and a general lack of invention and passion in a pretty disappointing first season. I actually would’ve liked to have seen more done with the ramifications of the Doctor’s first reincarnation as a woman after 12 men and 1000 or so years, but the show barely dealt with it. The show stepped too far away from acknowledging the Doctor’s vast lifespan and history, and too often the Doctor came off as an uncertain novice. I was getting sick of the Daleks, too, but few of this year’s antagonists were memorable and the self-contained episodes often lacked real drama. Three companions is far too many, and the stories generally were bland sci-fi 101. The best of the episodes were ones like the Rosa Parks episode or the Indian partition story which felt like they had something to say. The worst were generic “monster of the week” tales like “Arachnids in the UK” with a completely unsubtle Trump stand-in. With the usual keyboard warrior suspects ranting and raving how a woman Doctor might give everybody cooties, I was hoping the show would shut them up with an utterly amazing year, instead of one that was just sort of OK. Let’s hope the next season brings back some of the mystery, invention and drama the best of the David Tennant years had. 

13OctfilmThe First Man: I really wanted to like this Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling, but I walked out massively disappointed by its turgid tone, seasick-inducing attempts to realistically replicate the experience of space flying, and disappointed by Gosling’s stone-faced portrayal of a man who admittedly was kind of boring. It had its moments – Claire Foy does a lot with the token doting wife role, and in the moments when Armstrong actually lands on the moon the claustrophobic aura of the movie actually lifts into something actually resembling poetry. But I think I’d rather watch more soaring, less interior space pics like “The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13” again rather than sit through “The First Man” twice. 

ellisonDeath, devourer of all: This year was pretty rough on my cultural heroes. I know, a lot of them were in their 80s and 90s, but it still sucks. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, creators of millions of comic-book dreams. Harlan Ellison, writer with a voice like lightning and a creator who shaped my worldview more than most. Philip Roth, the last of a generation of great American writers like Updike and Vonnegut. Mark E. Smith, tattered, debauched voice of the clattering UK band The Fall. Legendary voice Aretha Franklin. Endlessly curious mind Anthony Bourdain. “Frasier’s” grand, underrated John Mahoney. The Lois Lane of my childhood dreams, Margot Kidder. Way too many others. Time is cruel, ain’t it?

Up next: Get positive, with my top ten pop-culture moments of 2018!

Arrow: Still on target after all these years

After seven seasons, most TV shows start to run out of steam. And we’re in a big superhero TV show glut right now – if you’d told young me that one day there would be too many comic book-based programs out there for me to keep up with, I’d have laughed. 

But I always make time for Arrow, the show that kicked off TV’s “Berlanti-verse” of DC Comics-based series including The Flash, Black Lightning and Supergirl. It has its ups and downs, but the hero’s journey of Oliver Queen has always been worth watching. And the new Season 7 has one of the more entertainingly outlandish hooks yet. Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, is now Prison Inmate 4587. 

I admit to getting a fanboy thrill at the end of Season 6, when Oliver Queen is unmasked as the Green Arrow for all the world to see, and shipped off to prison for breaking anti-vigilante laws. A superhero going to prison isn’t entirely a new idea, but to watch it unfold for the hero we’ve been following for six seasons is new. 

The considerable charisma of the cast helps here. Stephen Amell has developed into one of the better leading men on superhero shows, full of a rangy self-confidence and physicality. In a lot of ways, Arrow is what an ideal Batman TV series in 2018 could be like – even the character himself has often been written off as an archery-obsessed Dark Knight wanna-be. 

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One of the minor flaws of the otherwise swell Marvel Universe movies is they often tend to be about massive world-shaking events, so you never really get a feel for the day-to-day drama of the heroes. The actual Avengers were only the Avengers for about 1 1/2 movies in the MCU before everything fell apart, for instance. A TV series in many ways is better able to follow in the month-in, month-out drama of the periodical comic books that inspired it. 

By the time Arrow has gotten to Season 7, there’s a rich sense of legacy and history to it all that apes the ever-blooming continuity in 50 to 80 years of the comic books. Oliver Queen’s passed through many life stages – spoiled rich kid, the Hood, the Arrow, the Green Arrow, an orphan, the mayor of Star City (!), a father, a prisoner. He’s gone through a whole costume shop’s worth of sidekicks, from Speedy to Black Canary (a couple of them!) to Ragman to Mr Terrific and Wild Dog. In the process, we’ve seen the character mature from a callow youth to a seasoned veteran. 

Arrow is hardly the Citizen Kane of superhero fare, don’t get me wrong. It’s more of a gaudy Saturday-afternoon matinee, with cliffhangers galore, hairy near-escapes and derring-do. The writing can sometimes let the characters down (there’s an awful lot of contrived interpersonal conflict in all these shows, to be honest). Yet I dig it, and love watching Oliver Queen’s journey unfold. Long may his aim be true. 

TV: ‘The Deuce’ – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

In ‘The Deuce,’ everybody is dirty. But there’s a lot of different colours of dirt in the world. 

The latest addictively complex drama from the creators of ‘The Wire,’ ‘The Deuce’ chronicles the gritty, sleazy world of the 1970s New York sex industry. 

‘The Deuce’ balances an enormous cast and talented actors by giving everyone a moment to shine – from the prostitutes doing the dirty work to the detectives working the street to the pimps rapidly getting rolled by a changing world – but in the end, ‘The Deuce’ is mostly the story of Eileen, aka ‘Candy,’ (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a street girl turned porn film entrepreneur. 

It’s not for the tame – and quite possibly the most sexually explicit show I’ve ever seen on TV, with equal opportunity male-and-female nudity galore (seriously, this show features a LOT of penis, folks). But while sex is the currency of ‘The Deuce,’ like ‘The Wire’, the show is really about the use of power, with an added theme of oppressed women finding their voice in a world of overbearing men. 

Season 2, which is now airing, bounds into 1977 with a fiery on-the-nose take of Elvis Costello’s “This Year’s Girl” anchoring the opening credits – “You think you all own little pieces of this year’s girl,” the song goes. It (mostly) leaves the street-level struggles of Season 1 behind for a cast dealing with a changing world and morality, and sex moving from the shadows into the mainstream.  

As the camera rolls on ‘Red Hot,’ Candy’s feminised pornographic take on the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ fairy tale, we’re rooting for Candy. Some of the hardest scenes to watch in season 1 of ‘The Deuce’ showed how brutally women were treated by men, by pimps, johns, cops. The show leverages that pain into power in Season 2.

Maggie Gyllenhaal has always been an actor whose eyes are her strongest strength. They have a default melancholy cast to them, a sadness that makes her smile in moments of triumph shine even brighter. This is by far her best work yet. 

The biggest pleasure of ‘The Deuce,’ besides the dazzling allure of its debauched swinging ‘70s style, is watching Candy grow from a compromised object with tattered but firm principles into a budding creator turning her life’s pains into art. More than halfway into the show’s planned three-season run, who knows where she might go? 

It’s a dirty world, ‘The Deuce’ tells us, but unlike the more fatalistic view of ‘The Wire,’ it holds out a glimmer of hope that things can change, too. Maybe.

“Never knowing it’s a real attraction

All these promises of satisfaction

While she’s being bored to distraction being this year’s girl”

– Elvis Costello