Friday, December 19, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Shows of the Year 2014

Like that whole clusterfuck with the hackers scaring Sony away from releasing The Interview, we can't look the fuck away from this.
(Photo source: Reddit)
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. It's time to look back at the biggest standouts of the episodes I discussed in 2014 (in chronological order). "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS. "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week" returns some time in January.

Rick and Morty, "Meeseeks and Destroy" (from January 24, 2014)

"Meeseeks and Destroy" is a great turning point for Rick and Morty. It's where several of the regular characters evolve from being cartoon characters--and mere chess pawns in the writers' crazy and increasingly imaginative plots--to human beings with wants, desires, genuine sadness and occasional compassion, much like the characters on Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon's Community.

We learn that Beth (Sarah Chalke) is having regrets about her marriage to Jerry (Chris Parnell)--being pregnant with Summer (Spencer Grammer) at a young age, while putting herself through veterinarian school, was the main reason why she wedded Jerry--and she's beginning to feel stifled by her suburban existence. As for Morty (co-creator Justin Roiland), he's getting tired of being led around by Rick (also Roiland) through such dangerous adventures on other worlds. After some persuasion from Morty and agreeing to a bet with him, the cynical grandpa, who continually warns Morty that the universe is crazy and chaotic, lets his grandson be in charge of an adventure that's closer to his perception of adventure as simple and fun (somewhere on a Jack and the Beanstalk-like planet where medieval villagers are being subjugated by giants from a much more modernized section of the planet). That is until Morty realizes the hard way that Rick is right about the darkness and dangerousness of the universe, and his notion of adventure as simple and fun is destroyed in that unsettling scene every Rick and Morty viewer has been talking about on the Internet this week.

Yes, about that scene: Since episode one, Rick and Morty has been upfront about being dark-humored and adult, but never have I expected the show to go to such a dark place like it does when Morty is nearly raped by Mr. Jellybean, an anthropomorphic and seemingly benign jellybean, in the bathroom of a tavern inside a stairway on the giants' land. Nothing alters the mood of a comedy like sexual assault, and fortunately, unlike too many other adult animated shows, "Meeseeks and Destroy" doesn't play Morty's moments of terror and subsequent trauma for laughs.

"Edith's 50th Birthday," the infamous All in the Family episode where Edith escapes an attempted rape in her own home, was lauded for its treatment of sexual assault (and the late Jean Stapleton totally owned the episode), but it has also dated badly. That All in the Family episode was made at a time when all comedy on TV contained studio audience laughter or canned laughter, so you get these annoying and strange studio audience giggles during the serial rapist's attempted attack and the scenes where Edith is wracked with PTSD (I don't care for the TV version of M*A*S*H, partly because of the canned laughter, but I always liked how the M*A*S*H producers, who opposed the CBS execs' insistence on a laugh track, refused to add laughter during the surgery scenes). You wonder if maybe All in the Family would have been better off taping "Edith's 50th Birthday" without the studio audience due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but then without that live audience, you wouldn't have gotten that classic moment where the audience cheers and goes crazy when Edith smashes a burning cake into the rapist's face and escapes. The stupid laugh track is a common thing you have to put up with when rewatching all those terrible and awkward '70s and '80s Very Special Episodes (VSEs) All in the Family is responsible for unleashing. It served as a cushion of comfort for '70s and '80s viewers, reassuring them that this is a light comedy first and a drama second. There's no such audio of laughter to be found in "Meeseeks and Destroy," which is why I find it to be more effective about the horror of almost being sexually assaulted than "Edith's 50th Birthday."

The bathroom incident introduces a compassionate side of Rick, whose treatment of Morty has bordered on abusive, ever since he insisted to Morty in the premiere episode that he smuggle extraterrestrial plant seeds inside his butt as if he were a drug mule. Despite moments like that, we know Rick cares a bit for his grandson because he'd willingly blow up civilization if doing so would get Morty to score with the girl he's crushing on. That great moment where Rick sees Mr. Jellybean stumble out of the bathroom in bruises created by Morty, silently puts two and two together and gives Mr. Jellybean a steely-eyed stare is further proof that Rick cares for Morty, as is his hilarious final act in the medieval village immediately after he and Morty find out the identity of the villagers' king. Fuck with Rick's family, and you're eradicated from the universe, no matter what social standing you are.

I'm making it sound like the near-rape scene brings "Meeseeks and Destroy" to a screeching VSE halt. Fortunately, "Meeseeks and Destroy" doesn't awkwardly turn into a VSE after the incident or end with Rick and Morty breaking the fourth wall to give the number of a counseling hotline like so many VSEs would do (although it does end with Rick breaking the fourth wall, not for PSA reasons but to put a button on an intentionally lame one-liner with what he mistakenly thinks is an old Arsenio catchphrase). It just treats the near-rape like the unsettling and horrible thing it is, doesn't try to preach about the horribleness of it and moves on. It's a grown-up and sophisticated way of handling such a subject, compared to how the VSEs would poorly stitch together their serious subjects with bits of comic relief or reassuring messages.

The moment I saw that box, I thought the show was going to riff on 'Button, Button,' a.k.a. that Twilight Zone episode that became a Cameron Diaz movie, of all things.

And I haven't even talked yet about the brilliance of the B-story. The B-stories on Rick and Morty have gotten increasingly ingenious, ever since the superintelligent dogs' conquest of Earth in "Lawnmower Dog." To keep Beth, Jerry and Summer from constantly turning to him for solving their problems, Rick presents them with a Meeseeks box, which, when its button is pressed, summons a Meeseeks ("I'm Mr. Meeseeks! Look at me!"), a jolly, genie-like blue creature whose purpose in life is to solve someone else's problem, and it's their only purpose because the Meeseekses wink out of existence immediately after accomplishing their tasks. Summer's Meeseeks helps her to become the most popular girl in school, while Beth's Meeseeks helps her to become a more perfect and pretty woman, as we see in an amusing restaurant scene where, over lunch, he drops some motivational advice to Beth as if he were every single magical gay BFF in every crappy rom-com. But when relentlessly mediocre Jerry asks his Meeseeks to help him take two strokes off his golf swing, Jerry fails to fix his swing, which keeps the Meeseeks in existence longer than he expected and causes him to push the button to summon another Meeseeks to help him help Jerry. When neither of them can help Jerry, they call on more and more Meeseekses to appear until all the Meeseekses go insane and agree that the only way they can disappear is to kill Jerry.

"Existence is pain to a Meeseeks, Jerry, and we will do anything to alleviate that pain!," shouts one of the Meeseekses while holding hostage at gunpoint the customers and waiters at a restaurant where Jerry and Beth are dining. Jerry has had a rough last few episodes, from seeing his mom make out with her new and much younger lover at Christmas dinner--while his dad's bizarrely okay with it--to having what he thinks is the best sex he's ever had with Beth when he unknowingly bangs an inanimate digital clone of her. So seeing Jerry rise to the occasion for once during the hostage situation--instead of the advice of a Meeseeks, a boost of confidence from Beth is what helps him to finally perfect his swing and send all the Meeseekses away--is a nice break from his spiral of patheticness.

Jerry's triumph is also a nice break from the dark examples throughout "Meeseeks and Destroy" of why the universe is, in Rick's words, a crazy and chaotic place. Yet another dark example pops up in the post-credits tag when the village chooses to sweep Mr. Jellybean's pedophilia under the rug, which is both comedically pathetic and, as we've seen from headlines like Joe Paterno's decision to keep quiet about Jerry Sandusky, sadly all too common in this crazy and chaotic universe. The tag is one of several dark touches that have elevated Rick and Morty from a solid Adult Swim show to one of the 2013-14 season's best new comedies, live-action or animated.

The last Dirty Harry movie had a scene at a restaurant like this, where Dirty Harry gunned down a bunch of robbers with blue skin and tufts of orange hair.

Memorable quotes:
* "Hey Rick, you got some kind of hand-shaped device that can open this mayonnaise jar?"

* Attorney: "Your Honor, I'm from a tiny person's advocacy group, and I have here in my hand a motion to dismiss! These little men were never read their giant rights and are therefore, free fi to fo home." Rick: "What the hell is he talking about?" Attorney: "They're free to go is what I meant. I-I'm deconstructing o-our thing we say. For giants. Nobody got that? Whatever."

* "I can't take it anymore! I just want to die!" "We all want to die! We're Meeseeks!" "Why did you even rope me into this?" "'Cause he roped me into this!" "Well, him over there, he roped me into this!" "Well, he roped me into this!"

* "Jerry, maybe it's time I take that trip I always talk about." "Where would you go?" "I don't know, man. Italy, Greece, Argentina..." Jerry, doing a half-assed Carnac impression: "Countries known for their sexually aggressive men."

* "Wait. Destroy it. Our people will get more from the idea he represented than from the jellybean he actually was."

***

Rick's ride is a little boring-looking. A flying saucer? C'mon, you can do a lot more fucking baller than that, Rick.
Rick and Morty, "Rick Potion #9" (from January 31, 2014)

The recently renewed Rick and Morty started out as Justin Roiland's profane riff on the friendship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies (and now stage musical?!--why?!). With the addition of Dan Harmon to Roiland's vision, it's morphed into a dark--and unmistakably Adult Swim--take on the well-traveled heroes of both The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which Harmon grew up reading, and Doctor Who, which Harmon references on Community in the form of the fictional show Inspector Spacetime (even composer Ryan Elder's Rick and Morty theme tune is sort of a takeoff on Murray Gold's updated arrangement of the old Doctor Who theme during modern Doctor Who's first three seasons).

Modern Doctor Who has sometimes attempted to explore what happens when the Doctor winds up making things worse rather than making them better (like what Russell T. Davies did with the 10th Doctor during the classic bottle episode "Midnight"), but on Rick and Morty, Harmon wants to go a step further and see what it's like when you strip away the whimsy, the heroism, the ultra-competence, the pacifism and all the other comforting things that make the Doctor such a beloved part of the family-friendly half of British TV. For instance, what if Ford Prefect--who was basically a Douglas Adams clone of the Doctor--was responsible for the destruction of Earth instead of the aliens who blew it up to make way for a "hyperspace bypass" that's under construction? Or what if the Doctor was a total sociopath and instead of saving lives and trying to avoid violence as much as possible, he didn't mind resorting to murder, which is how Rick handled an alien who attempted to molest his grandson last week in "Meeseeks and Destroy"?

This week, in "Rick Potion #9," which is credited solely to Roiland, Rick and Morty does an inspired--and thanks to all the David Cronenbergian body horror imagery, delightfully grotesque--spin on "What if the Doctor's scientific expertise kept ruining everything and plunged Earth into an apocalypse?" I love how the apocalypse is the result of an experimental love potion that was lying around Rick's lab like some unread indie comic I bought at APE in Sucka Free about a half a decade ago but have never gotten around to flipping through and is gathering more dust than a "Which racial terms are not allowed to be said on the air?" manual at the offices of Fox News.

Morty uses the potion to get Jessica, the classmate whose breasteses he dreamt about caressing in the pilot, to fall for him at their school's Flu Season Dance. But of course, the potion, which Rick warns Morty not to use on her if she has the flu, goes wrong when it's combined with Jessica's flu microbes and it ends up infecting everyone else at the dance. So in addition to both female and male classmates wanting Morty's body, all the faculty members become infatuated with Morty as well. Soon the rest of the world follows suit, except for Morty's loved ones, who are immune to the effects of Rick's potion because Rick's not much of a fan of incest, whether it takes place inside Morty's math teacher's pervy dream world or at 9pm on Sundays on HBO.

Wow, the supermodels in this year's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue look terrible.
Each of Rick's attempts to undo the potion's effects results in the rest of Earth's population experiencing different stages of mutations, one more horrible than the next. Rick's Cronenberging of the world gets so bad that he starts referring to all the mutated humans as "Cronenbergs." Only when the world's in complete shambles does a loser like Morty's dad Jerry get his chance to step up and take charge, and while he and his wife Beth's transformations into trigger-happy, post-apocalyptic action heroes are full of badass lines delivered with Ash from Evil Dead II-style aplomb by Chris Parnell and Sarah Chalke, it feels a little repetitive coming right after Jerry's victory with his revamped golf swing in "Meeseeks and Destroy."

"Rick Potion #9" was actually the first episode (after the pilot) that Harmon, Roiland and the other voice actors worked on, but Harmon and Roiland pushed it back to halfway through the first season because they felt it made more sense to air it at this later point. So while the change in air order results in a character who was previously established as an eternal fuck-up turning into a winner two episodes in a row, the decision to delay "Rick Potion #9" also makes the episode's downbeat final scene--soundtracked to the funereal strains of Mazzy Star's "Look on Down from the Bridge," a song that was also used on The Sopranos--much more powerful.

Rick's ultimate solution to all his previous mistakes is the kind of deus ex machina I don't think I've ever seen before in sci-fi, and it's another example of how brilliantly plotted Rick and Morty has been each week. With his portal gun, Rick simply abandons the monster-infested Earth he's inadvertently created and takes Morty with him to an alternate--and completely identical--Earth where they can start anew and replace that Earth's Rick and Morty, who died in a lab experiment without either Beth, Jerry or Summer to see them perish. Rick uses his portal technology to pinpoint the exact moment when their alternate counterparts died so that he and Morty can immediately bury their counterparts' corpses and take over their identities without Beth, Jerry and Summer noticing.

The act of burying his own horribly mangled corpse in the soil does such a number on Morty's psyche that all Morty can do afterward is sit silently in a shocked daze, not to mention the fact that he's surrounded by a family that looks and behaves exactly like the one he's spent all his life with (alt-Beth and alt-Jerry argue just like Beth and Jerry do; alt-Summer is glued to her phone just like Summer), but it isn't the same one he's spent all his life with. Meanwhile, Rick, with booze in hand, of course, nonchalantly eases his way into this alt-Earth as if he's done it a million times before. In one of the most memorable lines in GoldenEye, the Sean Bean character attempts to cut 007 down to size by telling him that he knocks back martinis to silence the screams of the men he's killed. I wouldn't be surprised if the booze similarly helps Rick to dull the remorse that Morty is now feeling and that I imagine a younger Rick must have felt too when he first encountered crazy situations like this.


This eerie and dramatic conclusion to a comedically chaotic episode would have felt heavy-handed had Adult Swim aired "Rick Potion #9" right after the pilot. But reshuffling the episode order--so that "Rick Potion #9" takes place after the Inception-esque mind-fuckery in both "Lawnmower Dog" and "M. Night Shyam-Aliens!," Morty's disgust over killing his loved ones' demonically possessed alternate reality clones and his near-brush with sexual assault inside that men's room--makes Morty's concluding expression of both despair and exhaustion resonate more. Because Rick and Morty isn't a serialized comedy, I wouldn't be surprised if the show never addresses the change in universes again and presses on as if nothing drastic happened. But that look of despair raises a bunch of questions about the rest of the season. Is Morty starting to wish for a life away from Rick? Does Rick even care about the destruction he leaves behind wherever he goes? Could he be an even bigger monster than the Cronenbergs he created back in the old universe?

By its second season, The Venture Bros. grew from being a Jonny Quest parody to something much richer. With the one-two punch of "Meeseeks and Destroy" and now "Rick Potion #9," Rick and Morty is already showing signs of doing the same thing: outgrowing its Doctor Who parody trappings to become its own animal, a lot more ferocious--and frequently funnier--than the classic that inspired it.

Memorable quotes:
* "The Flu Season Dance is about awareness, not celebration. You don't bring dead babies to Passover."

'Stay tuned for tonight's marathon of the greatest show ever made: M.A.N.T.I.S.!'
* "We interrupt Pregnant Baby with breaking news!"

* When Morty accuses Rick of being way more irresponsible than him, Rick's dismissal of love potions as being nothing more than roofies is so damn terrific: "All I wanted you to do was hand me a screwdriver, Morty. You're the one who wanted to me... wanted me to... buckle down and make you up a... roofie juice serum so you could roofie that poor girl at your school. I mean, w-w-w-w-w-a-are you kidding me, Morty? You're gonna try to take the high road on this one? Y-y-you're a little creep, Morty. Y-y-you're-you're just a little creepy creep person."

* And now, some pre-makeout banter that would never be uttered on Doctor Who: "I wish that shotgun was my penis." "If it were, you could call me Ernest Hemingway." "I don't get it, and I don't need to."

***

It's hard out here for a plant.
Space Dandy, "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" (from March 7, 2014)

In the preview for this week's Space Dandy episode that followed last week's episode, Dr. Gel (Unshou Ishizuka), the gorilla scientist from the Gogol Empire who's obsessed with capturing the titular alien hunter, complained off-screen about having to die at the end of every story and wasn't too thrilled to learn from his assistant Bea (Kosuke Hatakeyama) that he wouldn't appear at all in the next one. During "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby," I didn't miss Dr. Gel at all.

Easily the most visually stunning Space Dandy episode so far, "Plants Are Living Things Too, Baby" proves once again that where Space Dandy excels is not in its slapstick or its running gags like Dr. Gel's incompetence as a villain (Dandy never notices his presence, and if the parallel universes theory regarding Space Dandy's self-contained continuity each week is true, neither do Dandy's parallel counterparts). The blundering villain who's continually unable to catch or kill the person he hates the most is a gag that's been done before, and with much funnier and cleverer results in shows like The Venture Bros. Where Space Dandy excels the most is in its willingness to experiment each week, either story-wise or visually, like general director Shinichiro Watanabe's previous shows Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo often did. As I've said before, Space Dandy has the feel of an anthology, with the only constant being Dandy, QT the robot, Meow and their ship, and with a different animator taking a stab at directing each week (not to mention a different artist being assigned to design each alien world that's visited by the Aloha Oe crew).

Those of the show's haters who wrote off Space Dandy right after its premiere (because of either the fan service during the Boobies breastaurant scene or the mostly forced attempts at humor in that first episode) are missing out on some intriguing excursions into different sci-fi subgenres, whether it's the space race genre a la Redline or zombie comedy. They're also missing out on some just plain good short story writing, like in last week's uneven but enjoyable "The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby"--which came up with a nifty explanation for the whereabouts of Laika, the ill-fated dog inside Sputnik 2 during its 1957 orbit around Earth--and in this week's episode, the first one Watanabe has written since the premiere.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Attach the block: Black Mirror: White Christmas imagines a cold future where people can be blocked in offline relationships like on Twitter

Tonight on Channel 4, it's Black Mirror: White Couch.
Goddammit, Black Mirror! Why do you have to be so amazing? Black Mirror isn't just the best anthology franchise currently on the air. It also contains some of the craftiest sci-fi storytelling on TV in 2014, as exemplified by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker's feature-length Black Mirror: White Christmas, a delightfully twisted piece of non-traditional holiday entertainment that premiered in the U.K. on Channel 4 last night. White Christmas, which guest-starred Jon Hamm and a couple of Game of Thrones alums, Oona Chaplin and Natalia Tena, feels more like a feature film than a typical Black Mirror episode, which is why I'm writing the title in italics instead of in between quotation marks.

I've written about Black Mirror before, after it was added to Netflix in America, and as someone who stubbornly refuses to become a smartphone zombie like the male smartphone zombies in my family, I just love how much twisted and subversive fun the show has with exploring the dark side of technology. Want to live inside your phone? Well, you get your wish, but you have to part with a little thing called free will. Want to block your significant other from your marriage or any future interactions you have with him or her, just like how you can block some anonymous troll on Twitter? Well, here's the tech to block that bastard, but that person's going to be driven so crazy by being blocked that the bastard will come back later to murder your entire family.

The block isn't hot.

I'm making it sound like Black Mirror is the kind of completely technophobic piece of shit Michael Crichton used to crank out. But the writing in the six previous Black Mirror episodes and White Christmas is more nuanced than that. Black Mirror's attitude isn't "Technology is evil." The show's attitude is more like "People are evil and fucked up, and when they have all this technological power in their hands, they don't know what to do with it." Not every gadget on the show is a detriment. There's one gizmo from the show I'd want to have, and that's the digital drawing board Hayley Atwell uses to create illustrations and graphic designs in "Be Right Back." But as for all the other gadgets, they seem appealing at first because of the immense power they give their users--like the "Entire History of You" device known as "the grain," which allows people to record everything from their workdays to their bedroom sessions with an implant in their skulls--but then they lose their appeal for me because of the horrible mistakes Brooker's characters make with these devices.

The first and third segments in White Christmas' triptych of interconnected horror stories about technology made me notice that there are never any healthy romantic relationships on Black Mirror. They all end badly. (At times, Black Mirror feels like the serious sci-fi version of many of Aziz Ansari's more recent stand-up routines, which have been based on extensive research he did about how much technology has changed relationships and romantic interactions.) Mankind's inability to contain its greed or keep its addiction to technology in moderation poisons everything, especially relationships. Even the original Twilight Zone, a huge influence on Brooker, was less cynical about relationships impacted by machines. When William Shatner and Patricia Breslin escaped the clutches of Satan's fortune-telling machine at the end of "Nick of Time," you knew their marriage was going to turn out okay. That's never the case with any relationship on Black Mirror.

The star of Mad Men, who portrays in White Christmas a futuristic dating coach who, of course, is unable to control the horrible outcome of one such ill-fated relationship, is the Kendrick Lamar of both American and British TV. He appears on everything. (Oh, look, he's on The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret! Now there he is on Parks and Rec, as the only employee of Leslie Knope's who's more incompetent than Jerry!) In White Christmas, I like how Brooker and director Carl Tibbetts got Hamm to tap into his comedic side, as seen in countless comedy podcasts, his 30 Rock guest shots and Bridesmaids, instead of doing nothing but brood a la Don Draper for the entire Christmas special (all the brooding during the special is left to Rafe Spall as a man who receives the aforementioned "block" from his girlfriend, who's played by Salem star Janet Montgomery). Hamm's so skilled at both anchoring Brooker's stories and injecting levity into them (his unreliable narration is the funniest part of the first White Christmas segment) that had Brooker wanted to go old-school instead and have a host introduce each story on Black Mirror, Hamm would have been the perfect Black Mirror host/narrator.



As a viewer of several comic book-inspired shows that are attempting to build shared universes of their own by dropping one reference to either the source material or a sister project after another (with his giddy habit of giving criminals colorful villain names that are the exact same names as their DC Comics print counterparts, Cisco from the CW's The Flash should be called "Mario Sue," as in "mare-ee-oh"), I'm getting kind of Easter-egged out. White Christmas is full of Easter eggs that reference previous Black Mirror episodes--at one point, Spall is seen flipping through TV shows that were featured in "Fifteen Million Merits" and "The Waldo Moment," as a sort of stocking stuffer from Brooker, in addition to this whole feature-length Christmas present he's written--but I don't mind those Easter eggs.

The possibility in White Christmas that all these Black Mirror stories take place in the same universe is interesting, and it reminds me of how the '90s version of The Outer Limits used to take its most well-received episodes and create sequels to them or intertwine those episodes' self-contained continuities with other episodes' continuities. In fact, Black Mirror is essentially an Outer Limits for the age of Google Glass and digital footprints, but better, stronger, faster. And--despite not containing any bug-eyed monsters or Cronenbergian creatures--scarier.

Both seasons of Black Mirror--just three episodes each--can be streamed on Netflix. There haven't been any announcements yet regarding Netflix making White Christmas available to American viewers. Parts of White Christmas are reminiscent of the sci-fi-tinged Batman: The Animated Series episodes "His Silicon Soul," in which a neglected robot clone of Batman believes he's the real Batman, and "Perchance to Dream," in which Bruce Wayne wakes up to discover his parents were never murdered. Excerpts from the late Shirley Walker's superb score from "Perchance to Dream" can be heard during "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" and "Hall H" on AFOS.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The "Yell Log" on AFOS will loop The Ref's out-of-print score album all day long on Christmas Day

Attention, people who think It's a Wonderful Life is the greatest: Your taste in holiday movies is fucking terrible. There's a far better holiday movie than It's a Wonderful Life. It's called The Ref. Reaganites creamed their pants over It's a Wonderful Life in the '80s. Which is why I don't care for it.
On Christmas, Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur do not get to yell, but AFOS gets to do so. AFOS will stream the Ref score album by David A. Stewart of both Eurythmics and Lily Was Here theme fame all day long on Thursday, December 25. It's just like how TBS loops A Christmas Story all day long on Christmas or how TV stations still do that dumb thing where they loop footage of a yule log burning in a fireplace while playing shitty holiday music (I'd like to write and direct a short film all about the one poor sap who had to work at the local UHF station on Christmas--back when UHF stations were a thing--because he had to press the buttons that kept the "Yule Log" video running). I don't understand it. Why do TV stations still air "Yule Log" loops? Is it to simulate a fireplace for people who don't have fireplaces? Just light a rat on fire in a trash can and make that the "Yule Log." That's better than a fake fireplace that keeps playing Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime."

The "Yell Log" is my holiday gift to the one or two individuals out there who actually log on to AFOS on December 25. Director Ted Demme's acerbic 1994 comedy--starring Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis as the bickering Chasseurs and Denis Leary as a burglar who takes the yuppie couple hostage on Christmas Eve and ends up regretting it ("Great. I hijacked my fucking parents.")--is one of my favorite Christmas movies. In fact, on some days, The Ref, which was lamely retitled Hostile Hostages outside America, is my favorite Christmas movie, and on other days, it's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.



A dark Christmas comedy isn't complete without a drunk Santa, and he's played in The Ref by Bill Raymond, a.k.a. "The Greek" from The Wire. He's one of many stage play veterans in The Ref's cast, along with Spacey, Davis, Christine Baranski and B.D. Wong (in the role of a therapist before he played similar roles on both Law & Order: SVU and the short-lived Awake). I actually got to see Raymond live on stage as the mischievous title character in an American Conservatory Theater production of Molière's Scapin in San Francisco as part of a high school field trip, about a year before I saw him get wasted as a quintessential drunk Santa. It's remarkable how Raymond could convincingly transform from a loud and slapsticky character like Scapin or the drunk Santa to a laconic and completely still individual like the Gus Fring-type crime boss he portrayed on The Wire.

Slapped with the additional title Songs of Suburbia (perhaps to de-emphasize the film's Yuletide setting while it was playing in theaters during springtime instead of Christmastime), the Ref score album has long been out of print. The record label that released it, Imago Records, folded only a few months after the score album's release, and no labels since then have expressed interest in reissuing it, which is a bit of a shame because I'm a sucker for the Massive Attack/Nellee Hooper/Portishead/'90s British downtempo sound that Stewart aimed for in his Ref score. He even got Shara Nelson, one of Massive Attack's various vocalists, to perform the film's end title theme, "Welcome to the Suburbs." In its warmest moments, especially during "Welcome to the Suburbs," the Ref score brings to mind the lushness of 1985's enjoyable "There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)" from Stewart's Eurythmics days, a song that could have easily doubled as a holiday tune had it been released as a single in December instead of June, kind of like how The Ref could have made a little more money had Touchstone Pictures released it in December instead of March.

Dave Chappelle would agree.

Stewart's opening title theme nicely sets the mood of The Ref and hints at how dark a Christmas comedy The Ref is, via the combination of a holiday choir and a very '90s trip-hop groove that represents the crime caper side of the film. So that opening title theme, along with "Welcome to the Suburbs" and a couple of score cues that contain dialogue from the film--it was the '90s, when soundtrack album producers wanted their albums to be like the soundbite-heavy Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction soundtracks--will all be there during the "Yell Log," for any Ref fan or any "Yell Log" listener whose past holiday seasons have rarely been merry and bright to enjoy as many times as they want.

I'm doing a bit of resequencing with the Ref album tracks. I'm omitting from the "Yell Log" the song "Broken Circles," which was performed by Ke Grivois, Ben Roberts and Michael Gallegos--it's the only track on the album that wasn't produced by Stewart--and I'm moving "Welcome to the Suburbs" to the position of the final track to emulate its placement at the end of the film. At one point, I was even thinking of changing the name of the day-long loop from "Yell Log" to "Ref-tivus." Nah, maybe I'll do that next year. I'm not sure if the "Yell Log" should become a holiday tradition, but I do know that somewhere, there's another Ref fan just like me who prefers their Christmas entertainment to be unsentimental and funny as hell Connecticut.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Bob's Burgers, "Father of the Bob"

A Chile dog is just like a regular hot dog, but prepared like how the Chilean miners like it: trapped in a mine for 69 days.
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

One of my old day jobs was writing for a weekly newspaper, and I was assigned to write really hard-hitting stuff: a series of short profiles of restaurateurs in one of San Jose's gazillion Camazotz-esque suburbs. One week, I chose a matzo ball soup place to be the paper's local eatery of the week, and the discussion of the opening of that old restaurant reopened a rift between the two brothers who ran the joint. Yeah, I really enjoyed being the cause of two family members beefing over who played a bigger role in the family business.

The conflict between Bob and his estranged restaurateur dad Big Bob in "Father of the Bob," this year's Bob's Burgers Christmas episode, brings back memories of that matzo ball soup feud I somehow reignited. Except this conflict is way more entertaining and headed towards some sort of resolution. Big Bob sort of appeared on Bob's Burgers before, but he was kept off-screen in a flashback and voiced by H. Jon Benjamin; in his first full appearance, Big Bob--now voiced quite convincingly by a young guy who's had plenty of experience portraying old, cantankerous men, Bill Hader--is alive and well and still running Big Bob's Diner, a far more popular local eatery than Bob's Burgers. The diner, which had previously appeared in pictures on the Belchers' apartment walls, is also the place where the younger Bob honed his skills as a craftsman of gourmet burgers with puntastic names--before a grill-side argument with his dad led Bob Jr. to go into business for himself.

Bob's dad is a fully dressed Dennis Franz.

This half-hour Christmas present from episode co-writers Steven Davis and Kelvin Yu comes wrapped in the form of both a nifty mini-origin story for Bob Jr.'s restaurant and a father/son reconciliation story that carries some echoes of the reunion between Krusty the Clown and Jackie Mason's Rabbi Krustofsky, who, like Big Bob, was embarrassed by his son's comedic approach to things (in Big Bob's case, his son's interest in inventing what he dismisses as "gimmick burgers" was what he objected to most strongly). But as much as I adore the classic-era Simpsons episode "Like Father, Like Clown," I always found its closing "O Mein Papa" sing-along between Krusty and his dad to be a bit schmaltzy for my tastes. Bob's Burgers is much more restrained when it comes to heartfelt moments, which is more effective to me than teary renditions of sappy German oldies, and that perhaps is due to the input of co-executive producer Jim Dauterive, who seems to have emulated that restrained approach to heartfelt moments from his previous show King of the Hill.

When "Father of the Bob" finally does arrive at that reconciliation between Bob and his dad, it brilliantly places it in one of the least likely settings for a serious heart-to-heart about raising kids, remorse for having been an inflexible parent and coping with an absent wife: a crowded country/western line dance. I just love how Bob awkwardly tries to keep up with the rest of the dancers while the much less awkward Big Bob--who's learned to line-dance in his off-hours--finally opens up to him and makes the very first reference on the show to Bob's mom (it's not specified if she's dead or alive). It's one of many ways that Bob's Burgers gets playful with the obligatory emotional scene towards the end of most family sitcoms: by burying the emotion under music (or a scene location) that's all tonally wrong, like in the line-dancing scene, or by having the Belchers say "I love you" to each other so many times in the same sentence that it pisses off a bystander.

I'm also looking forward to the Cheese Cheese Me Burger.

Beef beef beef beef yeah.
The Baby You Can Chive My Car Burger (Photo source: The Bob's Burger Experiment)

But before that truce at the line dance, the two Bobs reignite their longtime disagreements over cuisine and customers' preferences. I also love the episode's implication that every restaurant in the show's unnamed town has a Teddy--a meek guinea pig for the chef's culinary experiments--and at Big Bob's Diner, that would be Henry (Carl Reiner), who isn't a relative of Teddy's, but the character's nose design is similar to his. (It's like how several of the Acme Looniversity students on Tiny Toon Adventures had similar facial and behaviorial attributes to teachers like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but they weren't relatives or offspring of the faculty.) At his latest reluctant Christmastime visit to Big Bob's Diner, Bob tries to prove wrong his dad's opinions about gimmicky burgers and culinary experimentation by getting Henry to enjoy his Baby You Can Chive My Car Burger, one of many "jokey burger specials" that Big Bob expressed his disdain for during the grill-side argument that drove away--no pun intended--20-something Bob from his diner. Meanwhile, Big Bob tries to lure Henry away from Bob's burger with a simple tuna melt.

The competitive nature of the A-story (mirrored in the B-story of the kids competing to create the best present for Bob out of stuff in their grandpa's basement) is, to me, the most Christmassy part of "Father of the Bob," even more so than father and son putting aside their differences just in time for the holiday. Because Christmas isn't really "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," like Madison Avenue would rather have you believe. Often, it's more like "chumps trampling each other in a Walmart." Or two brothers embroiled in an old matzo ball soup feud.

Memorable quotes:

This episode's got a jones for Scandal.

This episode also seems to have a jones for Chicago Fire.

Because Chicago Fire's basically got an Australian firefighter, even though Jesse Spencer gets rid of his Aussie accent.


Gene was actually named after the comedian who voices him, Eugene Mirman. So Big Bob basically doesn't like Eugene Mirman.

Big Bob's probably not a fan of Eugene Mirman's podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson either. He probably doesn't care for Neil deGrasse Tyson either.

You're most likely a right-wing fuckwad if you don't like Neil deGrasse Tyson, but I can see why some people don't like him.

Neil deGrasse Tyson often nitpicks the science in superhero stories.

So if you have a favorite superhero, get ready for Neil deGrasse Tyson to shit all over your childhood dreams by explaining exactly why the character's superpowers are impossible in reality.

* Teddy: "Hey, father issues--we all got 'em. I've got mother issues too. I've even got cousin issues. Beautiful blond cousin issues."
Tina, channeling Annie and Shirley: "Aw..."
Bob: "Ew."
Teddy: "What?"

* Bob discovers that his dad kept in his basement a copy of the first review of Bob's Burgers: "Unique burgers. Good prices. Service leaves something to be desired. But worth the trip." That sounds a lot like many of the reviews the show first received when it premiered on Fox.

* Pete (Nick Offerman), Big Bob's best friend, to Bob: "Your dad's in my bar. We're gonna go see him."
Tina: "Yeah, Dad. When a mysterious cowboy/Santa says, 'Come with me,' you climb on that horse and ride."

* Bob: "I thought this was a disco."
Pete: "That's Wednesdays. Thursdays, we watch Scandal."

* Bob, regarding the line-dancing thing: "You guys are really good at this."
Big Bob: "I'm here every Friday night. And Thursdays. I love Scandal."

* The following is from an ad-libbed scene between Bob, Big Bob and Linda that wasn't included in "Father of the Bob" for obvious reasons:
Bob: "You used to drink so much Baileys."
Big Bob: "I would smell it from across the room. There was a very nice restaurant, or, uh, like more like a dessert place across the street, and it would waft across the street, and it would come in, and the next thing I know, I'd be strangling your mother, every fucking scent in the whole place..."
Bob: "You were the only drunk who exclusively drank Baileys."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The best anthology show I saw this year first aired three years ago in the U.K.

To vote for 'Way Hot' from Downton Abbey, press 1.
"Fifteen Million Merits"

"I love technology, but not as much as you, you see... But I still love technology... Always and forever."--Kip Dynamite's wedding song

My favorite anthology show of the moment is one I watched for the first time when all six of its episodes so far became streamable on Netflix in America just last week, but international viewers, Americans who were able to catch it on DirecTV's Audience Network last year and, of course, torrenters have been aware of it for quite some time. Even though its first season premiered three years ago on Channel 4 in the U.K., Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror easily trounces Fargo and True Detective--or as a Yo, Is This Racist? reader wanted to rename it, White Men Talking, Black Men Listening--as an anthology show.

While Fargo and True Detective are anthologies with a self-contained season format that was first popularized by American Horror Story, Black Mirror opts for the older Twilight Zone/Outer Limits self-contained episode format. Before Black Mirror, I was only familiar with Brooker's work as a satirist in the mold of The Daily Show and The Soup and an essayist castigating The Dark Knight and Skyfall for being too po-faced as action entertainment, so I was initially surprised by the unrelenting bleakness and serious questions about technology, social media and celebrity culture on Black Mirror. It's akin to Daniel Radosh or his former fellow Daily Show staff writer Wyatt Cenac suddenly wanting to write and produce The Twilight Zone. As Brooker said during Black Mirror's first season in 2011, his show raises the question "If technology is a drug--and it does feel like a drug--then what, precisely, are the side-effects?" On Black Mirror, the side effects are, of course, not pretty.

The first season of the original version of The Outer Limits was noteworthy for featuring in each episode what Outer Limits showrunner Joseph Stefano referred to as "a bear," which he explained was "that one splendid, staggering, shuddering effect that induces awe or wonder or tolerable terror or even merely conversation and argument"--or in other words, the creature of the week. On Black Mirror, the bear is YouTube or the iPhone--or in the show's more fantastical episodes, it's a chip in your skull that can record everything you see (and then play the footage back to you in your head) or a digital incarnation of your dead lover that can replicate that deceased individual's personality and sense of humor. That particular Black Mirror episode about a dead lover's return, "Be Right Back," is, interestingly, like a precursor to those gender-reversed Her parodies that were all over the Internet earlier this year, but darker and sadder (and anchored by an effective performance by Hayley Atwell, a.k.a. Agent Carter).

Where Black Mirror differs from the '60s sci-fi anthology shows that influenced it--other than the sex scenes and profanity, of course--is its unwillingness to hold the viewer's hand as it immerses the viewer in whatever future world it posits in each installment. There's no Rod Serling or Control Voice to provide soothing exposition; Brooker never turns up on screen or in a voiceover with some overly flowery intro to set up the future world of the week. That's one reason why "Fifteen Million Merits" is my favorite Black Mirror episode. It's set in a future where the working class is forced to pedal exercise bikes that power an unspecified energy source--the workers are paid in "merits" that they're required to spend only on porno videos and pointless apps for their avatar or "doppel"--and the episode outlines the rules of this dystopia in only visual terms, a very cinematic approach to storytelling beautifully and confidently laid out by veteran modern Doctor Who director Euros Lyn.

Daniel Kaluuya stole The Fades as the lead hero's nerdy, Mork & Mindy-loving best friend (in fact, back when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn't hit its stride yet and was struggling to figure out what to do with Fitz, the supergenius character played by Kaluuya's Fades co-star Iain De Caestecker, I initially wanted Agents to replace De Caestecker with Kaluuya), so it's a bit jarring to see this guy who was such a charismatic chatterbox on The Fades robbed of his voice at the start of "Fifteen Million Merits." Kaluyya doesn't speak for about the first 15 minutes, but he's terrific at expressing his worker character's ennui with just his face and posture--I had flashbacks to Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. In fact, that's what "Fifteen Million Merits" carries echoes of: a little bit of Modern Times with a smidgen of THX-1138 and a shitload of the Axiom from WALL•E, but with the added twists of both a reality TV talent show as the primary escape route for the working class (Brooker's wife Konnie Huq, who co-wrote "Fifteen Million Merits," skewers her own reality TV hosting past here) and a clever visual metaphor for "people who live in their phones."

Daniel Kaluuya's Black Mirror character is named Bing. I bet his dead brother's name was Google.

Other than MC Bashy's hideous attempt at an American accent while portraying a talent show judge, the most disturbing thing about "Fifteen Million Merits" is how much this world where workers must live in cramped cells that look like smartphone menu screens--and where a female contestant like Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay, a.k.a. "Way Hot" from Downton Abbey) has such depressingly limited showbiz career options--isn't too far off from our own. I refuse to get a smartphone. I don't want to be a smartphone zombie. "Fifteen Million Merits" is a great argument for why some of us refuse to get bitten.

Kaluyya and Findlay's episode is Black Mirror's second episode, but it really should be your intro to Black Mirror if you haven't streamed it yet. It's where Brooker's blend of satire and despair first truly comes alive. Like Alan Sepinwall said, "Fifteen Million Merits" better represents what Black Mirror is capable of--and how unconventional and imaginative it is as an anthology show--than "The National Anthem," the more conventional premiere episode. However, "The National Anthem" is hardly as mediocre as "The Waldo Moment," Black Mirror's last episode before the show's return to Channel 4 next week (on December 16, to be exact) in the form of a Christmas special guest-starring Jon Hamm and Oona Chaplin.



I like what "The Waldo Moment" says about how an apathetic attitude towards democracy can be destructive; I just don't like the way it's executed. It's the show's only dud so far (the fact that "The Waldo Moment" was a rejected script idea from a completely different show explains much of its clunkiness). Remember the Star Wars Machete Order? A Star Wars fan suggested to other fans that they should try rewatching the pre-Force Awakens films in a different order: the 1977 Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back first, followed by Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and then Return of the Jedi as the final installment, with no need to suffer through The Phantom Menace again. Because Black Mirror's episodes are self-contained, they can be watched in any order, so for Netflix viewers who are about to discover Black Mirror, I've come up with the Black Mirror Machete Order.

1) 1.2, "Fifteen Million Merits"
2) 1.3, "The Entire History of You"
3) 2.1, "Be Right Back"
4) 1.1, "The National Anthem"
5) 2.2, "White Bear"
(Skip "The Waldo Moment" or save it for another week. An underwhelming episode from Brooker is actually better than most American network TV.)

This rearranges the order of Black Mirror episodes so that the strongest episodes are first--"Fifteen Million Merits," "The Entire History of You" and "Be Right Back"--followed by the slightly lesser "National Anthem." Under the Machete Order, Black Mirror doesn't end with a whimper and wraps up instead with a gut-punch of an installment, "White Bear." It's best to not know anything at all about "White Bear" before watching it. Like "Fifteen Million Merits," "White Bear" excellently immerses the viewer into its future world through largely visual storytelling, and then like the most unnerving past works of horror anthology TV--the '80s Twilight Zone's "Gramma" comes to mind, as does "Home" from the quasi-anthology that was The X-Files--it proceeds to sock you in the nads. Then after you stream those episodes, read the thoughtful essays Emily Yoshida wrote about each episode back when she was a Grantland staffer (she's now with The Verge).

Tuppence Middleton is the most British name ever.
"White Bear"

At about this time last year, the Seattle hip-hop group The Physics released Digital Wildlife, a finely crafted concept album that could function as an aural companion piece to Black Mirror. Both the Physics album and Black Mirror explore the idea that digital advances may be improving a few aspects of our lives, but those advances haven't yet been able to delete human problems like loneliness or concealing lies. But Black Mirror goes a step further and straight-up says those problems can never be deleted. They'll only get worse at the rate humanity is going. Somewhere, Kip Dynamite is eating his words.

Both seasons of Black Mirror--just three episodes each--can be streamed on Netflix. The original Twilight Zone, a huge influence on Black Mirror, was turned into a 1983 feature film that remade three of the '60s show's episodes. The John Landis and Steven Spielberg segments suck, but the Joe Dante and George Miller segments are excellent, as is the late Jerry Goldsmith's original score. Goldsmith's Twilight Zone: The Movie end title music isn't currently in rotation on AFOS, but it ought to be.