Why the new Battle of the Network Stars Makes Me Sad

A couple of weeks ago I was gifted with something I’d thought I’d wanted for years now. After being reminded a few years ago of the glory of Battle of the Network Stars – a series of specials that ran on ABC from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s where TV celebrities competed against one another in various athletic competitions in a combination of knee-high tube socks, track shorts, and shirts that cling tightly when wet – I questioned aloud, both privately and publicly, why we couldn’t have a new version of this in our lives now.

Can we really call the time we live in “Peak TV” without a modern-day version of the greatest idea in all of television.

ABC revived the concept this summer and I stumbled across it while on vacation at my mother-in-law’s house in Florida where the cable package was determined based on three factors – cost, HBO, and the presence of as many Home Shopping Channels as are allowable by law.

I was thrilled. Long stays at houses with no wi-fi and scant cable options are the perfect places to watch celebrity “athletic” competitions.

I’ve now watched two of the three that have aired and I find myself trying to answer the question of why this new version of this makes me sad while I watch it.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.

First, it’s not a “In my day, things were better. And also, Millennials” type of thing. This new version is objectively and objectionably worse.

What follows are all the problems this version has in comparison to the original and some suggestions for how those problems can be fixed.

Two teams, not three

Problem

In the original version there were three teams set in competition with one another. One for each of the networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS. This made a ton of sense. The battle was of the network stars and these were the only three networks.

In this version, there are two teams and they are thematically grouped. For example, a team of TV Lawyers faced off against a team of TV White House employees.

This second version is intrinsically worse. I get why they needed to come up with a different way to group the contestants, what with there being about 1000 networks, plus streaming platforms. But, these groupings are at best arbitrary, and at worst non-sensical. TV Lawyers have no reason to battle TV Whitehouse people. Lots of the TV Whitehouse people were also TV Lawyers, either because they were White House Counsel, or because they played lawyers on other shows. But aside from that, Lawyers and Whitehouse people are not naturally in conflict with one another. ABC, NBC, and CBS are in competition with one another outside the confines of this show.

Even if it doesn’t make sense for Lynda Carter to be battling Gary Burghoff in a relay race, you can pretend it does because they are fighting for the honor of their networks.

On top of that, the three team dynamic works much better. The three teams battled against each other, gaining points in each event. The top two teams went on to face off in the Tug-of-War finale. All the points mattered if you wanted to reach the end and not get eliminated.

Then the Tug-of-War mattered.

Now there’s a Tug-of-War, but both teams compete in it. It doesn’t feel like a climax to the event. It’s the same as all the other events.

Solution

Go back to three teams and get rid of the gimmicky groupings. How about Network v. Cable v. Streaming? These platforms, or distribution methods or whatever you want to call them are actively competing against each other for our attention and our entertainment dollars.

It still doesn’t make sense for Taylor Schilling to get in a dunk tank while Peter Dinklage throws baseballs at a target, but Netflix v. HBO is a real thing. Let’s use it.

This also solves the three team problem and gets us back to having a Tug-of-War that matters, dammit!

No crowd

Problem

During the original run of the show, the three teams of celebrities faced off against each other in front of a crowd of spectators. In the background of every shot a crowd of on-lookers was cheering, shouting, making noise. It felt real, live, and fun.

Watching Game Kaplan blows Robert Conrad’s doors off on the track field in front of a raucous crowd is fun. Watching them do it by themselves is kind of sad.

Solution

Bring back the crowds! This thing needs energy, not seclusion. Mr. T is someone who should be in front of a crowd, not someone playing tennis in isolation. We need the TV stars playing to the crowd and having fun.

With a crowd – silly and joyful. Without a crowd – Sad and lonely.

10 total competitors v. 30

Problem

The original teams had 8-10 competitors each, depending on the season. This thing has two teams of five. When you put 30 people around a track with a crowd of spectators there’s so much activity happening, the competitors are interacting with each other, they’re cheering and being loud.

Eight people standing next to a pool with no crowd looks like nothing. It feels like nothing. It sounds like nothing. It’s nothing.

Solution

Obviously, three teams – more competitors. There are more TV shows currently streaming or airing right now than in the decade of BotNS original run combined. We can’t get 30 people to do this all at once?

And that’s another issue. It’s a totally different show if current TV starts are competing against each other than former TV stars competing against each other. The original show had in-their-prime Farrah Fawcett, Catherine Bach, Mr. T, Billy Crystal, Erin Grey, Scott Baio, Michael J. Fox, Lisa Bonet, Phillip Michael Thomas, and Heather Locklear among others. This version has present day Willie Ames.

Watching Charles In Charge Willie Ames fail at tennis is fun. Watching 57-year old Willie Ames fail at tennis is less fun.

Give me Pauley Perrette v. Evan Rachel Wood!

No Simon Says

Problem

In the original show they got all the competitors up at once while Lou Goldstein called out a fast-paced and funny game of Simon Says. The stars looked very silly, but also like they were having a legitimately good time.

Now, no Simon Says. In part, because I think Lou Goldstein is long dead, but also because Simon Says with 30 people is so much more fun than Simon Says with 10.

But the Simon Says issue is symbolic of a larger problem. In this current version, the stars don’t seem like they’re having this level of fun. There’s nobody messing with them like Lou Goldstein did.

Simon Says looked organic, chaotic, and fun. That cannot be said of anything happening in this version.

Solution

Ideally, 30 people playing Simon Says by a Catskill’s entertainer. Failing that, a big group game where the stars look silly, normal, flawed, and are busted on a bit.

The Cosell Problem

Problem

Howard Cosell provided the play-by-play for the original Battle and Cosell had the reputation and gravitas to provide an incredibly sincere voice to this most ridiculous of proceedings.

There may be no funnier sentence ever uttered on television than, “It seems controversy has beset Battle of the Network Stars.

Cosell is presently no longer living and has been replaced by Mike Greenberg, who is doing his best, but he isn’t Cosell. No one is.

The gap between their ability to bring earnestness to the competition is made even wider by the fact that it’s not possible to tell for sure if Greenberg is even present while the competition is happening.

Cosell was down in the midst of the stars as they celebrated, argued, and insulted each other with racial slurs (Robert Conrad). It’s very possible that Greenberg is narrating the games after they’ve all been completed from a sound booth somewhere.

Solution

Greenberg needs to be down with the competitors, treating this competition as if it were life and death. He can’t seem like he finds any of this dumb, even though it’s incredibly dumb.

He’s never going to be able to go full Howard, but he can get closer.

Nothing About This Feels Organic

Problem

When you watch the old school version there are few things that feel very true.

First, it feels like the teams really, really want to win. Watch the way they celebrate, the way they complain, the way they argue and negotiate. They want to win, are excited when they do, and are upset when they lose.

Second, it feels live. It’s not. It’s pre-recorded and edited, but because of the frenetic activity during and between events, the energy of the crowd, and Cosell’s presence down with the teams, made it feel live. This version is edited so cleanly, cuts right to the start of a race, cuts away right at the end. It’s just too pristine to feel real.

It looks much more like Wipeout than Battle of the Network Stars.

Third, the interactions between competitors feel staged. There was a moment when Ronda Rousey is holding DeMarcus Ware (the team coaches who don’t seem to be doing anything at all) from behind while Catherine Bell for JAG pretends to punch him like a heavy bag. It looked like a producer walked up to the three of them and said, “guys, we need something kind of fun to throw in here. Ronda, can you hold him while Catherine pretends to pummel him? Ok. Action!”

Fourth and finally, the trash talk in this version feels very forced. I really believed that Erin Grey did not want to get dunked, and that Robert Conrad really thought Gabe Kaplan and Telly Savalas were just racial stereotypes (Jewish and Greek, respectively) and he wasn’t afraid to say it.

You wanna see some stars taking this seriously? Here

I’m not suggesting that we return to the casual racism of the 1970s, but I need to see that the competitors care about what they’re doing enough to get in each others’ faces in a way that is deeply out of proportion to the importance of winning an athletic competition between people who are not athletes.

The celebrations should be real, the editing should be looser, and the confrontations should uncomfortably real.

I also wouldn’t hate it if some of the stars would finish a relay race and then smoke a cigarette while talking to Greenberg.

Conclusion

Battle of the Network Stars is making me sad because it’s too small, too isolated, to sanitized, and too casual. For this show to be its best self, it needs to be presented like it’s deadly serious, even though we at home know that it’s the dumbest thing in the world.

The Transformers Make No Sense

A new Transformers movie is out. Or so I’m told. I won’t be seeing it.

In part, because these movies are noisy garbage where I honestly can’t tell what’s happening because all the giant robots look like grey metal banging into each other and into buildings. I went to see the first movie in 2007 and left having no idea what I’d seen aside from Megan Fox bending over a motorcycle. That I knew I’d seen (unless that was in the trailer for the second movie).

In the cartoon of my youth, where there were robots that were both in disguise and more than meets the eye, I could easily tell who was who. They were distinguished with easily identifiable character traits, voices, sizes, and colors. The 2007 movie was one grey things hitting another grey thing. There were gears and sometimes a splash of yellow.

Also, in the cartoon of my youth, the Autobots held a dance party to “Weird” Al’s song, Dare to be Stupid. So, there is that as well.

But here’s the real issue with the Transformers. Because I liked playing with the toys and watching the 30 minute commercial for more toys disguised as a TV Show (commercials in disguise), it never occurred to me that the TRANSFORMERS MAKE NO SENSE.

Let me point out the obvious, or what should be obvious.

The Transformers, Autobots and Decepicons alike all came to Earth from another planet, Cybertron, where they were possibly created by the Quintessons. The Autobots were the workers, the Decepticons were the military robots. This backstory was never really nailed down and shifted quite a bit. I just put it in here to prove that I went to Wikipedia to look this up before coming here to tell you that Transformers make no sense.

Here’s the part that makes none of it make any sense.

There was never a useful reason for them to transform.

They were all from another planet populated almost entirely by robots that could transform into other types of machines. Why? What benefit is there to being a robot that can transform into another type of machine if every other robot or machine you see can also turn into a robot or another type of machine. That’s only helpful camouflage if most machines don’t turn into robots.

None of the Transformers, while living on their home world, would be in disguise or more than meets the eye. They would be exactly what met the eye, yet another robot that could turn into another robot.

There is zero benefit to this for any of them.

They aren’t fooling anyone.

They’re only in disguise when they land on a planet in the stone age that will eventually have the technology to match the types of machines they turn into. When they landed on earth, they were robots that looked like cars, guns, semi-trucks, cassette decks, and construction equipment. They had to wait until 1985 for those disguises to have any benefit at all, and they’d have to a. really believe that these disguises would pay off eventually, and b. be super patient to wait for that day to come.

Prior to their 1985 awakening on Earth, there was no benefit on Cybertron or on Earth to being a shape-shifting robot.

None.

Why would the Quintessons go to the trouble of creating two different types of shape-shifting robots and then providing them sentience? And if they weren’t created by the Quintessons, but rather gained consciousness from the Creation Matrix or Vector Sigma (see! more proof I looked this up!) what’s the benefit of being able to transform?

There isn’t one.

Aside from 8-12 year old boys in 1985 thinking it was super cool for a car to transform into a robot.

So, there you have it. The Transformers make no sense. Their ability to transform served no purpose on their home planet, and never would as far as any of them knew.

And yet, they transformed.

Now, who’s daring to be stupid!?

 

Rogue One Could Ruin All of Star Wars, So No Pressure

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens later this week and I’m excited. And when I’m excited, sometimes I think too much. Which is what happened this morning. I had a thought that about something that could happen in Rogue One that would be simultaneously very, very interesting, and also ruin Episodes IV-VI for all time. And I’m not talking here about how someone remakes Herbie the Love Bug and you claim that it ruined your childhood. This thing could actually ruin the original trilogy.

Now, before I go deeper into my own madness here let me stipulate that the internet is a big place, filled with weirdos, so I’m probably not the first person to have thought of this, but I did not google what I’m about to present here, even after I had this thought, because I wanted to play the string out in my own head first. It was just more fun for me that way.

Now, on to the thing they could do in Rogue One that would be interesting, but also ruin all of Star Wars.

‘Member in Star Wars when Darth Vader had that argument in the board room where he told Admiral Motti, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force” and then tried to force choke him? ‘member.

Yeah, I ‘member.

The ruination stems from this scene.

In its original context this scene sets up the conflict between religion and technology, faith and science. It shows that Vader not only has magical powers, but that he answers to a higher authority – voiced here by Grand Moff Tarkin.

What it also does is tell us that Darth Vader thinks the Death Star is stupid. He likely questions the expense, in both imperial credits, manpower, and presumably an incredible loss of life (though admittedly this last part is probably of less concern to him). Vader likes technology. He used to be a pod racer. He created a sentient droid capable of lying about his own ability to tell stories and then whether he’s a god or not, as well as suffer severe bouts of anxiety. He was a pilot during the Clone Wars. And is being kept alive by technology. So, to claim that Vader has both an external and existential conflict between faith and technology isn’t much of a stretch.

Knowing that Vader is still fighting with himself and with the other higher ups in Empire about the Death Star after it was completed and fully staffed, why wouldn’t we assume he’d been fighting this same fight through the planning and building stages of the Death Star?

And if he was still mad enough about it to force choke poor old Admiral Motti, couldn’t he have been mad enough to want to sabotage the entire endeavor?

Isn’t it possible that Vader gave the rebels the plans to the Death Star?

And if that’s what happens in Rogue One, it will pretty much ruin Star Wars. It would mean that Leia was never really in danger and she was never really rescued, though it would explain the ease of their escape.

It would also explain why Vader decided to get into his own TIE Fighter and dogfight with the rebels, getting him off the base before it exploded,  killing a bunch of dudes he didn’t like anyway.

It would also give more weight to his dying words, “You already… have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister… you were right.”

It might make it slightly more tragic that Vader sacrificed himself before his children ever knew the role he’d played in bringing down the Empire.

But, it would destroy the hero’s journey that Luke went on. All that stuff you read about how Star Wars is a mythic quest of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, and the connection between Star Wars and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces would be completely undercut by this piece of information. Go read this. It’s easier than me retyping it.

Also, how strong is the Dark Side if Vader spent his entire existence as Darth Vader trying to undo the damage he did in his turn to the dark side?

It would make all the other evil things Vader did, like all of the people he killed or allowed to be killed both in the Empire and as part of the Rebellion less clear-cut evil and more unnecessary murder done in pursuit of his own aims which were what? Exactly?

When did he know about Luke? Was Leia really a surprise to him in Jedi? Was he trying to help the rebellion and protect his children, or was he just a really terrible coworker who wanted to be right more than anything else, so much so that he’d allow hundreds of thousands of people to be murdered just to prove a point?

And if he’d spent all that time trying to convince the Emperor not to build the Death Star, only to be ignored – which lead him to have it destroyed – and then the Emperor decided to build another one over – what we can only assume were – equally strong objections, doesn’t this call into question his entire relationship with the Emperor?

Could anyone in the Empire really have had any respect for Vader if they knew the Emperor put this little stock in his opinion? And did Vader kill the Emperor to save Luke or because he was tired of being ignored? Was Vader just Milton Waddams and Death Star just his red stapler?

And what about the second Death Star? Did he provide that intel too? And were all those Bothans that died to provide the intel on the second Death Star just murdered to cover Vader’s tracks.

It’s not a boring idea, but it does kind of ruin everything, the symbolism, the motives, the logic, the import of people’s sacrifices, everything.

So, Rogue One, do me a favor and don’t do this, K?

Brandon. Basketball. Black People

As you may or may not be aware, I have have been working on a book about the terrible lessons you didn’t know you were being taught when you watched Beverly Hills, 90210.

I love 90210 and all of it’s cheesiness and getting-of-things-wrong. This book is intended to be a loving homage and a scathing examination of what you may have learned if you were paying close enough attention.

It’s also meant to be funny, or at least mildly humorous.

This post is taken from the first chapter where I examine Race on 90210. This is all about the episode One on One from the first season, where after a month in Beverly Hills, Brandon finally talks to a black person.

I am trying something new with this book. I’ve signed up at inkshares.com to try their crowd-funding/publishing approach. I’ve uploaded a second lesson from the chapter on Race over there (Brandon learns about hispanic people). If you like what’s here, head on over there and follow the project.

You can get there from here.

You can comment or keep up with the progress silently. I look forward to sharing this book with everyone once it is completed.

_______________

Race – Lesson One – Brandon. Basketball. Black People.

Five episodes into the first season of Beverly Hills, 90210, or as I like to think of it, First Junior Year, and our sum total of exposure to black people was this.

In the pilot:

  1. During the pilot a black kid gave someone a high five.
  2. There were two black guys walking to school in suits.
  3. The voice of KWBH radio was a black guy. He might have been called The Flash or DJ Mike. And he just wanted to know whether Brandon had done the wild thing, WILD THANG, with Marianne Moore.
  4. There were a couple of black kids doing a choreographed dance on the lawn before school started.
  5. Mr. Clayton, the vice principal was black.
  6. The bouncer at the club Brenda snuck into was black and mean to Kelly.
  7. There was one black kid running with Brandon during what looked like gym class, who wanted to know about Brandon’s sexual conquest of Marianne Moore.

And that may seem like a lot. So many, in fact, that there were none in the next episode at all. Or the one after that. Or the one after that.

It wasn’t until One on One that anyone had a meaningful conversation with a black person. And all of those conversations were about race. Or basketball.

Here’s what happened and what I learned.

Basketball was a very big deal in the Walsh home. They had a goal hung on their garage and everything and it was set at about 8 feet off the ground. Jim and Brandon played a spirited game of horse before school.

First, Jim, despite having terrible form and no follow through on his shot at all once won a high school game against Franklin by making an eight foot set shot from the middle of the lane. Second, based on the very proud look he gave Brandon after a made jump shot, Jim was very proud of Brandon’s basketball skills and was certain that Brandon was set to crack the starting five.

But first, he’d have to make the team. Brandon and Steve both tried out for the basketball team. West Beverly, according to Steve, was a perrenial powerhouse, but the team itself was a pretty closed system. The coach had alread set his starting five and was holding the tryouts just to bolster school spirit. Steve was pretty much a lock to make the team based on his performance on the JV team the previous year. It’s also possible Steve felt very confident that he’d make the team because Steve was confident that he would always get whatever he wanted.

After watching a few minutes of black kids dunking, Brandon was less sure about his own prospects, especially since being 5’6″ and slow is not seen as an advantage on the basketball court.

By the end of tryouts Brandon, and the other short white kids hadn’t even been put in the scrimmage yet and he was getting discouraged. But when he finally got his chance, he promptly got two steals from Steve, hit a jump shot, and dropped two assists to James Townsend, some new hotshot transfer student, who was coincidentally (?) black.

Brandon, because of his ability to play defense and pass the ball to the black kid, made the cut. Steve, because he’s not good at basketball, did not.

Or, according to Steve, it didn’t matter because neither one of them was going to make the team. The whole thing was rigged. None of the good basketball players live in district. But black people get into West Beverly to play basketball as part of some entitlement program called the Applied Learning Opportunity Program, and through no other means.

The ALOP brings in black students from outside of Beverly Hills, again, according to Steve, to improve diversity (how else do you think they get .54% African Americans in any ONE high school?) and the record of the basketball team.

He’s pretty pissed about this program because all black people are better than Steve at basketball and their presence prevents him from attaining his rightful place as the greatest basketball player in West Beverly Wildcat history. He tells Brandon that a lot of the ALOP kids don’t even go to class. Steve, you see, abhors the idea of anyone other than him getting preferential treatment. He also hates it when kids get grades they don’t deserve (until later when he cheats on a test, breaks into school to change his grades and steals one of Brandon’s papers).

Brandon doesn’t see it that way at all. He still thinks he has a chance to make the team because what Brandon understands that Steve doesn’t is that while all black people are better at basketball than all white people, it’s only because they are naturally more athletic. However, slow white players are better than all black players at playing defense and passing the ball to open black teammates. Which Brandon happens to excel at.

But what Steve said is starting to get to him a bit. He tries to tell Jim that all the players are recruited, the starting five is set, and the other kids are like pros. Jim knows different.

Jim, the owner of the single worst jump shot in all of christendom, tells Brandon that the real reason he made the first cut wasn’t because Brandon figured out how to succeed in the one area of basketball black people aren’t good at, it’s because Brandon read Bobby Knight’s book understands that “Winning is a state of mind,” ignoring the fact that Bob Knight would have never written that in a book.

Later in the week Steve, still smarting from his being cut decides to take comfort in the fact that he’s the privileged kid of American’s favorite TV mom, Samantha Sanders of The Heartly House. He almost invited Brandon to go with him to the Lakers v. Celtics game at the Forum, using his court side season tickets. Almost, but instead he just went by himself. Steve goes on and on about how great Bird and McHale were.

“Wait a minute, I thought you were a Lakers fan,” inquires Brandon.

“Except when the Celtics come to town.”

“Why? Were you born in Boston?”

“No, I’m a Beverly Hills native.”

“Well, what were you doing rooting for the Celtics?”

“Us Irish guys have got to stick together. You know how it is.”

Brandon is perplexed by Steve’s random racism, but puts it behind him until James shows up in Tech class to ask for an extension on an assignment. Which is odd, because Brandon is in that Tech class and he’s never seen James there before. Maybe there’s something to this ALOP theory Steve has been mumbling about underneath his white hood.

He asks Andrea to look into James’ records in the ALOP for a story in the school newspaper, confidential student records being something widely available to any student who asks for them. Andrea isn’t buying it, what with Steve being a spoiled rich kid and not a terribly credible source, but she looks into it anyway.

It should be mentioned here, and then promptly ignored, that Andrea lives out of district and lies about living with her grandmother to attend WBHS and Brandon has no problem with that.

It turns out James doesn’t have a GPA, never took the reading or math placement exam, and his previous transcripts were never processed.

Brandon is uber-pissed about this. Steve is right! Black kids get to go to West Beverly without the grades to get into the ALOP, never have to go to class, and get extensions on their assignments. He confronts James who, rather than answer the wild accusations of another student who somehow got access to his confidential records in a calm and reasoned manner, accuses Brandon of being a racist. But this isn’t true at all. Brandon only assumes the worst about black people when he gets one example that seems to support the racist rantings of his best friend who has an axe to grind. If it wasn’t true about all black people why did it seem to be true about this one kid? Answer that James!!!

But then Brandon sees something he never, ever expected to see. James in a library. Why would a black kid be in the library?

Well, it turns out that James isn’t part of the ALOP, despite Andrea’s source inside the program claiming that he was. His dad works for the public library, giving James the right to go to West Beverly. Brandon is shocked by this and starts to apologize to James, who cuts him off. Yelling at Brandon, “Yeah, but you’re white! That’s why your first impulse was to think, ‘Hey, he’s gotta be dumb or a rap singer, or in a gang, or smokin’ crack or whatever stereotype fits your fears, but that’s your problem. That’s not my problem!”

James’ problem, it seems, is that even though his dad works for the library he never learned that it is a quiet place where people just don’t start yelling about smoking crack. Brandon thinks about pointing this out, along with the fact that he never thought James could rap, but thinks better of it, after all this black dude seems pretty pissed. Who knows what he’ll do?

The next day he and James find themselves in the gym prior to practice. They take a few minutes to talk quietly in the one building at school where yelling is acceptable. Brandon has handled this whole thing terribly, but not because Steve is a racist, or because Brandon was looking for a reason why he wasn’t going to make the team over players who are bigger, faster, stronger, and better than he is.

No, it’s because he’s never really talked to any black people or had to deal with issues of race. James gets it. There aren’t too many cowboys in Englewood either.

“See, that’s just it.” Brandon replies, suddenly sure that he’s figured this whole racism thing out and can impart some knowledge. “I’m not a cowboy and you’re not a gang banger crackhead. We’re just two guys from the same school battling for the same spot on the same team.”

Did you get that? We’re the SAME!!!

Brandon learned something: We’re all the same.

And all he had to do was violate student confidentiality, accuse an innocent transfer student of breaking the rules, and get in a shouting match at a library.

Brandon even made the JV team, where there’s a larger need for short, slow kids who can pass and play defense. The other black guys on the team seemed to really like him too. Now that he wasn’t racist anymore.

Steve was still a racist though. He tried one last time to help Brandon understand the world before the end of the episode.

“Don’t let those suckers intimidate you, Brandon,” he said. “This is our school, not theirs.”

“Only in your mind, Steve.”

It’s kind of too bad that it takes an entire basketball team of black kids to stop one white kid from being racist, but that seems to be the case.

Brandon put so much work into making the basketball team and becoming friends with those black guys. It’s odd we never saw them again or heard anything about him playing for the team.

I’m Fascinated By What Kanye West Is Doing

In The Beatles first film, the wonderful A Hard Day’s Night, George accidentally wonders into a casting office and is mistaken for teenager, seeking work in a new commercial. You can watch it below. And you should. It’s funny and it’s relevant.

I’ve been thinking about this scene a lot lately and how it relates to Kanye West and his new album Swish, Waves,  The Life of Pablo. Specifically, I’ve been trying to figure out if I think Kanye is a new phenomenon or just a trouble maker.

But, first some background.

Up until a month ago, my exposure to the music of Kanye I might have included hearing a Kanye West song somewhere once. This was not a stance I had taken against Kanye for making Mike Meyers uncomfortable, more on that later, it was a product of an unconscious choice I made when I was 15.

In Jr. High, I loved rap/hip hop. I came home from school every day and turned on Yo! MTV Raps and got into Kwame, Heavy D, Digital Underground, Biz Markie, Special Ed, KRS-One, Sir Mix-A-Lot (Pre-Baby Got Back), The Beastie Boys, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J, and my absolute favorite, Public Enemy. Hip Hop wasn’t all I listened to, but it was most of it.

And then, in March of 1991 I heard Out of Time by R.E.M. and that was it for me and hip hop. It wasn’t a clean break. I still bought and loved Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Fights Black in October of that year, but by then I had begun to drift toward Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

I was aware of The Chronic and Doggystyle, much in the same way that I was aware of Diesel and Razor Ramon in the WWF, something else I had once loved and drifted from once high school hit. But I missed almost everything that happened in rap and hip hop after 1991. I missed Biggie. I missed Pac. I missed Jay Z.

I didn’t miss Eminem.

But I missed everything else. Including Kanye West.

So, a month ago, I listened to The College Dropout and read Wikipedia and my opinion of Kanye, built exclusively on his award show nonsense, his anger at not being allowed to have a career in the fashion industry, and his appearances on South Park, broadened considerably.

College Dropout (and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’ve know this for a long time) is amazing. And I found his backstory of trying to become a rapper after being pigeonholed as a producer and creator of beats for other artists fascinating.

The conceit of the last track, Last Call, where he describes his career to that point and  basically says, “no one thought this would work, but I made an amazing album that will change the world” is fantastic.  Remember, he wrote and recorded that song before anyone had heard the album. The only proof he had that it was great was that he was sure it was great.

And it was great.

But I’d never heard it, so here’s what I thought about Kanye, and it’s what most of your typical Simon Marshall’s thought of Kanye. This guy is an egomaniac. All he does is talk about how awesome he is while confusing white people on stage at awards shows. (There’s a great short documentary to be made of a dinner with all the people Kanye has derailed during award shows) He doesn’t have a sense of humor about himself or anything else (hell, he doesn’t even get the fish sticks joke), and he has a strange sense of entitlement.

I was truly baffled by his assertion that he should be allowed to be a fashion designer and that the fashion industry was bigoted and holding him back, as if everyone on earth has to actively turn down their job as a fashion designer, but Kanye has to beg just to get a meeting.

I still think that’s kind of nuts, but it makes more sense after listening to Last Call. People have been telling him he can’t his whole career, this was just another example and he was going to prove them wrong.

Maybe Kanye is a new phenomenon.

Then I worked my way through his catalog, liking some of it more than others. I’m not a huge fan of autotune, so draw your own conclusions about which albums I was less interested in, but I like artists that stretch and try new things. If every album sounds exactly the same you had better be as awesome at creating that same sound as AC/DC is at creating their song, and most people aren’t.

So, I was actually looking forward to his new album.

I’d begun to follow him on twitter and pay attention to the information that was out there about what was called Swish when I first became aware of it.

And then I delighted in the Wiz Khalifa twitter explosion that accompanied Kanye changing the name of the album to Waves and thinking that anytime anyone tweets the letters KK they are throwing shade at his wife (what must he think of references to the Klan?).

I had this image of Kanye in my head, stopping the entire recording session and pacing back and forth across the room with his phone in his hand screaming nonsense about Wiz Khalifa and then tweeting all of it realtime. I have no knowledge that this is what happened, but you’d have to work to convince me otherwise.

If he can become so completely unhinged after a misunderstood tweet to the point where he felt forced to tweet the next day about how he never let an ex-girlfriend anywhere near his butthole, he had to be nuts, right?

Then he changed the name of the album again. The Life of Pablo this time. Announcing it via twitter. He leaked a track listing. Then it was clear that he was still recording parts of the album, changing the songs, adding new verses, deleting old collaborations, not done with it yet, possibly moving the release date. It all seemed nuts.

And any thought that his twitter explosions might have been a calculated way to create more buzz around his album seemed unlikely.

Maybe, Kanye is just a troublemaker.

After all, he just can’t seem to leave Taylor Swift alone, rapping about having sex with her and then shouting about her back stage at SNL last weekend.

He can’t seem to finish an album or release it in any comprehendible way.

TLOP was played live at Madison Square Garden during a Kanye fashion show.

A different version was release on Tidal the next day, with lyrics about how well the MSG show had gone, and also, I guess, up for sale on his website.

Then it wasn’t for sale on his website anymore and he announced it would only ever be available on Tidal and never for sale anywhere.

And I think some of the songs have been changed since then.

It’s all very confusing and I probably got some of that wrong.

But you know what I haven’t done? Listened to TLOP yet. I don’t have a Tidal account and I’m not going to get one. Not out of spite, but just because I’m not going to get one. I’ve already got too many ways I’m paying to get content these days. No plans to add another right now.

So, I have no idea if it’s any good or not. I’ve heard good things. People who tend to like Kanye, seem to like it. I’ll probably hear it at some point, but the fact that I haven’t heard it doesn’t really lessen it’s impact or potential importance.

Because here’s what’s really interesting about all of this to me. The thing that may just swing my pendulum all the way from troublemaker to phenomenon.

With all the changing album titles and added verses and altered track listings and changes in distribution methods, Kanye is possibly reinventing the music industry in real time.

Ask anyone who has ever written a book or recorded a song or made a movie and they’ll tell you that their work was never really done. It was just done enough to be published, or put on the album, or released in theaters. You want examples?

Go see Bob Dylan in concert or listen to any of his Bootleg series. He’s always changing his songs.

Stephen King rewrote parts of The Gunslinger 25 years after he released it.

George Lucas has tweaked Star Wars countless times over the years.

Kanye is just embracing the technology and admitting that this album may never be done. He changed it the night he released it, not 25 years later.

And why not?

It’s his work. His vision. His creation. He can keep creating it until the end of time, or until his attention is drawn elsewhere. Which it will be, he got more clothes to design, or maybe he wants to be an architect next. He’s already reached out to Mark Zuckerberg to become the financial backer for all of his next artistic whims.*

Sure, it looks nuts, and maybe it is nuts, but we’re seeing the process in ways we’ve never seen it before. And change is messy.

Especially if you have a twitter account and a phone in your hands at all times. But twitter is just Kanye’s way of turning down the volume and saying rude things about Susan.

Which might just make him an early sign of the new direction. I’ll know in 10 years when I finally listen to TLOP.

 

*Mark Zuckerberg, you can back me and get me out of debt for a lot less than $53 million. Call me.

The X-Files was AWESOME AGAIN

“I forgot how much fun these cases can be.”

Last night’s episode of The X-Files,  “Mulder and Scully Meet The Were-Monster” was nothing short of fantastic. Don’t read ahead if you live in London or something and won’t get to watch it for a few weeks, ’cause I’m going to spoil stuff, I fear.

So, let’s start with the quote. Scully told Mulder that midway through their investigation into a mysterious shape-shifting Were-Monster that was seemingly biting people to death and then accosting Lot Lizards wearing nothing but tighty-whiteys.

I was with Scully. I’d forgotten how much fun these cases can be. In my desire to see the creepy mystery with the conspiracy connections, ambiguous ending, and more questions than answers, I’d forgotten how fun and funny some of the best episode of The X-Files are.

Which is odd because the most recent episode I’d watched prior to this mini-series was when I showed my wife “Bad Blood” around Halloween, an episode made great by the humor of it.

But I laughed throughout “Were-Monster” and not only at everything that Rhys Darby (Murray from Flight of the Concords) said. Mulder’s inability to use his new photo app on his phone was hilarious and brought so much of what is great about this show front and center, namely, Mulder’s ability to solve or not solve a case while Scully gets exasperated by him.

The charm of this episode, however, wasn’t just in the funny. There were so many nods to former X-Files for the fans, like Mulder in his red bikini briefs made famous on the FBI ID he took with him to Springfield, or Scully’s mention of missing Queequeg, or the return of Tyler Labine in the role of “Stoner 1,” a reprisal of the same role from the incredibly creepy “War of the Coprophages.”

What really sold me on this episode, aside from how much fun I had watching it and how happy I was when I went to bed last night, was how central it was to the two overarching themes of this season so far.

Christ Carter and company haven’t exactly been subtle in these themes, but they didn’t really sink in as more than a kind of ham handed fan service until last night.

And the themes are these:

It feels kind of strange to be running around hunting aliens and monsters in 2016. There’s no mystery in those things anymore, largely thanks to the internet, “Oh, Mulder…” Scully says with pity in her voice at one point, “the internet isn’t good for you.” And besides, and this is the real theme. Human beings are sooooooo much worse than any of these monsters or aliens we’ve been hunting all this time.

It’s the central point of all the farmhouse exposition from the first episode. The alien conspiracy we’ve all been fearing and fighting is mostly just human’s using this fear to further their owns ends. And it’s what Guy Mann explained to Mulder in hilarious detail in the grave yard. Humans are awful. Who’d want to be one of them?

and

This season is all about Mulder’s deep, deep desire to believe again. He’s said, “I want to believe” in every episode to date. At first as a contradiction to Joel McHale, and then as a plea to Guy Mann.

When we first saw Mulder’s old office in the first episode we started with the ceiling full of pencils, a nod to many a Mulder think session, but this episode he wasn’t firing the pencils into the ceiling. He was hurling them in Scully’s I Want to Believe poster, which she purchased to replace the one that Mulder kicked his way through upon his return to his old office.

Mulder is on a quest right now. A much shorter one than when he was searching for the truth about Samantha, but one just as personal. He’s middle aged now, and what is he doing with his life? Especially, if he no longer believes.

Guy Mann gave him reason to believe again last night. Mulder thanked him for it.

The X-Files gave me reason to believe in it again last night.

And I say thank you.

The Joy of Questions

Like most of the rest of the world I went and saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens last month, and like most of the world, I really, really liked it. I wrote about it here.

One of the things I liked so much about it is that I left with a lot of questions. Not the kind of questions like, “did he have to pay to get into the pie eating contest?” or “who is every single character in True Detective season two? and why did they do any of the things they did? and why did that guy kill that guy? My God, I have no idea what’s going on here! This is stupid!!!”

No, I had questions about character backstory, familial ties, why that one Storm Trooper hated Finn so much, how’d Rey get so awesome with the force, etc…

In other words, I had good questions. Engaged Questions. I-want-to-go-home-and-think-about-this-for-a-while questions.

And man, was that fun.

There is a joy in questions. Some of my favorite movies and TV shows have been built on a foundation of showing you crazy things with a little explanation and then leaving you to wonder about it, sometimes for years.

Questions are awesome, but often, answers are not.

That was part of the problem with Episodes I-III. There were no questions, just a bunch of unsatisfying answers to questions we’d been asking ourselves for years.

Anakin and Obi Wan fought together in the Clone Wars?

What the hell are the Clone Wars?

How did Luke and Leia get separated and Vader not know about them?

And they raised a few of the bad questions, like:

I get that C-3PO and R2-D2 had their memories erased, but why didn’t Obi Wan remember them when Luke showed up? That makes no sense.

And

How bad are the OB-GYN’s on Coruscant that they didn’t know Padme was having twins?

Twin Peaks had the greatest question ever: Who Killed Laura Palmer? And the search for the answer was amazing, and strange, and confusing.

The answer, and more importantly what came after the answer, was much less interesting and the show ended almost immediately.

Lost pretty much created the modern internet with the fan communities that sprang up all around it with people theorizing about the island, the polar bear, the others, the hatch, Jack’s dad. It was great!

And then people found out the answers and grumpiness ensued worldwide.

In fact, answers seem to only be better when you didn’t realize you had a question. The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, and Primal Fear all provide a twist at the end that you never saw coming because you weren’t really trying to figure out who Keyser Söze was. Agent Kujan was, but on first viewing that wasn’t the question. It was just about what happened on the boat.

And that brings me to last night’s episode of The X-Files.

I love The X-Files. It was my favorite show throughout all of the 1990s, and I loved me some TV in the 1990s. And here’s what I loved about it.

It was dark. It was creepy. You were never sure what was going on until the very end of the episode, and even then you weren’t 100% sure. It was funny and scary sometimes in the same scene. There were relationships you understood because you saw them grow and change. But most of all, I loved the questions.

What happened to Mulder’s sister?

Who is the Cigarette Smoking Man?

Bees? Black Oil? Faceless aliens? Scully’s implant? Krycek? Deep Throat? Mr. X? The Un-Blonde?

Something was always happening behind the scenes that we got little glimpses of, but could never fully see and was rarely fully explained.

And the questions always came out of a case, and active investigation. Something crazy happens, Mulder shows Scully a slide show, and they’re off to figure out what happened. Sometimes the cases were just crazy things that happened in a small town, or Mulder was being directed to look into something that might lead him closer to the truth, whatever the truth was.

But there was some things off about last night’s premiere.

It was too bright.

The X-Files is a show filled with super high-beam flashlights reflecting off of metallic surfaces to provide just enough light to scratch through the shadows.

We used to turn all the lights off in the dorm room in college. Only partially so we could sit in a dark room with lots of girls. Mostly it was because if you didn’t turn the lights off in the room, you’d never be able to see anything on the screen.

Last night Scully spent a lot of time squinting to keep the sun out of her eyes. That much light decreased the creepiness factor by a lot.

There was no mystery

Mulder and Scully weren’t brought back to the closed down X-Files because of a mysterious event or unexplained phenomenon. Scully called Mulder to have him google a talk show host/conspiracy theorist. If hearing Jesse Ventura give his 911-Truther conspiracies on Howard Stern was enough to reopen the X-Files, this conspiracy that’s lasted decades is being run by bozos.

I just didn’t see why seeing that clip did anything to get Mulder moving, or why hearing Nina from the KGB (seriously watch The Americans if you aren’t already) provide ploy exposition opened his eyes to a new way of seeing the world.

Until she disappeared, there was really no case to solve. It felt like an episode without a story.

Few Questions. Lots of Answers

There were a lot of scenes of people sitting in a room, or a car, or a room, telling other people about things that happened once somewhere that may have happened or may have been faked.

No one had to witness a strange event, or investigate a crime, or ask a probing question of an informant. People just told you whatever they needed to tell you, whether you wanted to know or not.

As a consequence, it all felt kind of hollow.

How Long Did This All Take?

From one scene to the next there were jumps in location and time of day that left me completely unsure where and when this all happened. Did Mulder live in the same house as Nina? Were they neighbors? Were both of their farm houses a ten minute drive from Scully’s hospital and Joel McHale’s TV studio?

I have no idea, but this either took days to happen or everyone lived and worked with walking distance of The Palm in downtown D.C.

It wasn’t all bad. I liked having The X-Files back and I like the attempt to bring the old paranoia into the next age of government surveillance, wiretapping, Snowden, and drones. And I liked he believes again (even if it’s in the complete opposite of everything he ever believed in before, except for that time in the 6th season when he was already convinced by Kritschgau that the alien stuff was a government hoax).

And I like that I’m not sure I trust Scully. It seems like she and Joel McHale have something going on and that maybe she didn’t call him on Skinner’s behalf, but I might be reading into that.

In the end, however, the premiere suffered from a lot of show me, don’t tell me, and so, to me anyway, none of the revelations felt earned.

This may all be a product of trying to squeeze a lot of stuff into six episodes that Chris Carter would have normally used three seasons to sprinkle in, but we’ve got six episodes. I’d love it if they felt like six tightly-constructed mythology episodes strung together. Who knows, maybe they will.

I want to believe they will.