Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, a brief post to make it clear I am neither dead not maimed, but I have been working on a few other non-blog writing assignments of late I should plug here.

Did you know that yours truly was a 13-year-old American lad during the summer of 1985, the same time that the new season of “Stranger Things” is set in? Head on over to Radio New Zealand to read my take on “Stranger Things 3” and what it was really like in the far-off mystical ’80s. 

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Also over at the excellent website The Spinoff, I’ve crafted a somewhat expanded and possibly even improved version of my piece on the end of Mad magazine, and how it influenced the culture that’s all around us – even here in little ol’ New Zealand.

Go forth and read my extracurricular wordage, and new content shall appear here in another day or so!

The wit and wisdom of E.B. Farnum

cq5dam-1.web.1200.675“I yearn to rely on a higher will. I fear what I am capable of in its absence.” – E.B. Farnum

Yeah, yeah, everyone’s been talking about that show with the dragons and thrones this week, but I’ve been far more engaged by a mud-soaked, profane and utterly human deep dive into the mire of history.

I’ve been rewatching the definitive western saga “Deadwood” in preparation for the long-awaited movie conclusion coming later this month, and while I generally enjoy that “Thrones” stuff, I’ll take the gin and grit of creator David Milch’s unblinking author’s eye in “Deadwood” every time. 

The show’s incredibly dense writing and plotting make it one you have to pay close attention to – every scene is packed with allusions and the bustling, chaotic energy of a gold rush town slowly being pulled into the American expansion west. “Deadwood” populated its South Dakota town with a Noah’s ark of battered, eccentric characters during its three-season run from 2004-2006, including Ian McShane’s indelible Al Swearingen and Timothy Olyphant’s flinty-eyed Sheriff Bullock. I could list a dozen terrific characters from the show and have a dozen more left to spare. 

But yet, the one I keep coming back to, captivated, on my recent rewatch of the series is perhaps its most vile – William Sanderson’s oily, unctuous and verbose E.B. Farnum, Deadwood’s powerless “Mayor” and hotel owner. Farnum is the grand fool of Milch’s Shakespearean tapestry in “Deadwood,” always cringing and yet calculating at the same time, a grandiloquent sleazebag of a man.

Sanderson’s terrific, underrated performance of this Wild West Uriah Heep is hilarious and sad, as Farnum is constantly humbled and deserves every bit of it. There are times when you might feel a twinge of pity for his bluster, but then he spouts more racist rhetoric or conniving kiss-assery and you’re back to despising him again. He’s a grifter whose poetic, meandering soliloquies are often breathtakingly beautiful, yet they’ll never be appreciated because of the toadying weasel they’re being uttered by. 

“Deadwood” is a show about man’s pull between civilisation and freedom, ambitions and realities. America’s history is full of a rich tapestry of big-mouthed, oblivious dreamers who puff themselves up full of vanities and talk their way to success. As many of them fail as succeed, but the point is in the striving.

E.B. Farnum, in his hapless, malicious way, is perhaps the greatest American in TV history. 

Thirty years on, we’re still living in an ‘Alien Nation’

Alien_Nation_01The best science fiction holds up a mirror to the world we live in. “Alien Nation” was never quite a household name, but the brief cult sci-fi franchise of the late ‘80s still holds up today.

The story is simple – a spaceship crashes into the Mojave desert, with a cargo of half a million alien slaves, ‘bred to adapt and labour in any environment,’ left stranded on Earth. These alien “Newcomers” aren’t quite like us – they have spots on their skulls, drink sour milk to get drunk, and prefer their food alive – but they’re close enough to awkwardly begin to integrate into human society, which is where “Alien Nation” picks up the story, five years after they landed. 

The saga began with the 1988 film Alien Nation, a moderate hit with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. George Francisco is the first Newcomer detective on the LAPD, paired with bigoted human partner Matt Sikes. Let the culture-clash hijinks ensue! It’s gifted with a great premise, but the movie doesn’t really deliver on its potential, turning into a generic “Lethal Weapon” cop buddy picture by the end and never really exploring what an entirely alien race blending into Los Angeles would be like. 

aliennationremake-1Fortunately, that wasn’t the end for “Alien Nation,” which debuted as a series on Fox TV in September 1989. It’s in the short-lived TV series where “Alien Nation” really blossomed, spearheaded by Kenneth Johnson, creator of another great ’80s cult sci-fi series, “V.”

“Alien Nation,” the series, is a perfect mix of cheesy late-80s cop show and progressive science fiction ideas, and as long as you don’t mind big hair, pastels and synth-heavy soundtracks, it’s great viewing. The series features a wide cast of Newcomer wives, children, professionals and criminals, priests and prostitutes and the Newcomers (or Tenctonese as they call themselves) are as plausibly drawn as the Klingons or Vulcans.

500px-Aliennation-series-sw669The story carries on with the same odd-couple detective duo from the movie, but recast and given more satisfying depth. Gary Graham’s Detective Sikes is all ’80s mullet and brash trigger-happy cop cliches at first, but the character becomes convincingly more sympathetic and layered as the series progresses. Eric Pierpoint is excellent as Francisco, who balances personal courage with frequent frustrations over the racism he encounters and the culture he’s left behind. The story of his family trying to fit in – his wife, teenage son and daughter – is often more fascinating than the TV show’s cop mystery of the week storyline. The cop stuff is goofily fun, but it’s the examinations of the human and alien condition that linger.

The series gets deeper and deeper into the fascinating Newcomer culture as it goes. An episode, “Three To Tango,” which goes deep into Newcomer mating rituals (it involves two males and one female) is surprisingly explicit and thought-provoking for 1980s broadcast TV. The show also delves deep into the Newcomers’ origins as a slave society and who they were slaves to. 

Unfortunately, “Alien Nation” was a bit too ahead of its time (it’d go great today on a streaming network) and only lasted one season, but it did get five sequel TV movies which nicely expanded and wrapped up the saga. You can see its inspiration clearly in a movie like 2009’s District 9, which for my money was a lot less subtle and thoughtful. 

It’d be nice to say that 30 years on we could all view “Alien Nation” and say how far we’ve all come from prejudice and hatred of the other in our lives, but unfortunately that’d only be science fiction. 

It’s the end of the world and I like it: The Doom Patrol

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I didn’t have high hopes for a Doom Patrol TV series. We’re living in an age where comics as obscure as bloody Cloak And Dagger are getting a show, and I was afraid I’d see one of my favourite comic books of all time churned up and turned into mediocre, forgettable content for the masses.

I’m glad I gave it a shot, because so far Doom Patrol is living up to the surreal, crazed and humane comics it’s inspired by. It’s superheroes for those who are actually getting a little sick of superheroes. 

dp94Doom Patrol have always been weird, a team of misfits and outcasts kind of like the X-Men, but more so. Their original 1960s comic adventures are a bizarro Silver Age blast, but “my” Doom Patrol really burst into being with Grant Morrison’s seminal late 1980s reinvention of the concept. Morrison’s twin masterpieces of Doom Patrol and Animal Man back in the day blew my teenage mind. 

Drawing on dadaism, obscure German fairy tales, psychology, philosophy and mythology, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol was unlike any other comic book. Hermaphrodite superhero? Check. Sentient transvestite street? Check. Paintings that come to life and eat people? Check. Gorillas and disembodied human brains falling in love? Check!

The Doom Patrol are broken people – “Robotman” Cliff Steele (terrifically voiced by Brendan Fraser) is a human brain in a robot’s body, “Negative Man” Larry Trainor is a crash victim inhabited by a bizarre ‘negative spirit,’ “Elastic Girl” Rita Farr is a Hollywood star left trying to cover up her disfigured plastic flesh, “Crazy” Jane is an abuse victim split into multiple personalities, each with its own superpower. Even more than the X-Men, they’re freaks of nature. The “X-Men” movies long ago lost their primary theme of outcasts and prejudice in a muddle of tangled continuity and Magneto blowing shit up. 

The TV show doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and pathos of their conditions, and makes them the perfect foils for a world of escalating weirdness and threats. The TV show also adds the character Cyborg, last seen played with incredible dullness in the muddled “Justice League” movie a year or two back. Cyborg is far better here, a voice of relative normality, albeit still damaged, with Joivan Wade giving an excellent performance. 

53811008_402606643871269_5458107167754158080_nOne of the newer of the approximately 419 streaming services out there, DC Universe premiered last year with Titans, which was a mixed success for me – I dug seeing the “Teen Titans” come to life and there were some great parts, but the show had very scattered storytelling and a self-consciously adult tone that felt forced (Unless you really thought we needed to have a blood-soaked Robin muttering “F—- Batman” to make the character work better). Doom Patrol is more adult by nature, so the swearing and mature themes work better (I’ll never get tired of hearing Cliff Steele aka Robotman saying, “What the F—-!?!?” in response to Doom Patrol’s never-ending parade of weirdness). 

Doom Patrol stands out among a sea of super heroism because it embraces the comics’ fundamental strangeness rather than rejecting it with a veneer of gritty ‘realism’. No other big-budget superhero show this year will feature a donkey that doubles as a dimensional portal, unless Avengers: Endgame is hiding some major secrets.

Doom Patrol reminds us of how gloriously wacky comics can be, and how the most damaged and deformed of us can still find a way to save the world sometimes. 

‘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.