Friday, August 29, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Space Dandy, "A World with No Sadness, Baby"

Look, it's the audience of 17 who stayed through all of the second and final season of Twin Peaks back in 1992, ladies and gentlemen.
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.

Vox posted an intriguing and controversial profile this week about Sopranos creator David Chase that's key to understanding "A World with No Sadness, Baby," the occasionally confusing but visually sumptuous Space Dandy episode that takes place on a mysterious planet of the dead and is one of the few Space Dandy episodes written by general director Shinichiro Watanabe. The part of the lengthy Chase profile that everyone on the Internet is most interested in--other than for click-baity, traffic-generating reasons--is Chase's latest reply to "Is Tony dead?," the question that's nagged Sopranos fans since "Made in America," The Sopranos' divisive, open-ended final episode, wrapped up the mob drama's run seven years ago, to the tune of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

Chase's laconic answer was "No, he isn't." But after the publication of the article, he immediately retracted his answer. "To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of The Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer," wrote Chase's publicist in a statement to the press. Whether or not Tony got whacked in the diner always mattered to Chase the least (I never gave a shit about whether or not Tony got whacked either, just like how I don't give a shit about the overly giddy, "look, Tony died in that restaurant because look at all the clues in the restaurant and look at that line about how you don't see it coming when you're whacked!" camp). Chase blurted out "No" to the Vox interviewer, not to reassure the Sopranos fans who cared only about the most lurid moments of The Sopranos, like who got killed this week or who Tony is banging this season, but simply because he's tired of being asked that question (they're the kind of fans who want everything to be spoon-fed to them--I wouldn't be surprised if they moved on from The Sopranos to more subtle fare like Jersey Shore and Keeping Up with the Kardashians--and they've failed to grasp the ambiguity that Chase emulated from European cinema, which is why Chase has contempt for them).

What clearly matters more to Chase than "Which characters will live and which ones will die?" are the fallacy of the American dream that Chase's hardware store owner father bought into, the emptiness of post-WWII prosperity and the search for enlightenment (Chase is an agnostic who became alienated by the Catholicism of so many Italian families like his own; he believes that enlightenment is found not in God but in art, whether it's an Antonioni movie or Parisian ruins). They're themes that permeated not just The Sopranos but also Chase's lukewarmly received debut as a film director, 2012's Not Fade Away, and even--and this isn't mentioned in the Vox profile--the episodes Chase wrote earlier in his career for The Rockford Files, particularly "Quickie Nirvana," the 1977 Rockford episode where Chase expressed skeptical opinions about both cults and organized religion that make you say, "Wow, how the fuck did NBC allow much of this to air?" As The Sopranos' run wore on, Chase became more interested in those profound themes of artifice and enlightenment and much less interested in the mob soap opera stuff (this is why all the Sopranos clones that emerged on network TV due to The Sopranos' popularity sucked so much: they only cared about who lived and who died, and those shows' creators and their network bosses didn't understand that the scenes of Tony or Carmela in therapy and the conflict between Tony and his cantankerous mother Livia were what made The Sopranos unique and popular, not the violence).

Where this Vox piece on Chase ties in to Space Dandy--and this is the moment that fascinates me way more than "Is Tony dead?"--is Chase's statement that "I'm not a religious person at all, but I'm very convinced that this is not it. That there's something else. What it is, I don't know. Other universes. Other alternate realities." Chase's fascination with alternate realities explains not just the unusual 2006 Sopranos episode "Join the Club" (where a comatose Tony dreams of an alternate life as a salesman with no ties to the Mafia and no Jersey accent, so "Join the Club" offers glimpses of how the late James Gandolfini sounded in real life, without that accent), but Watanabe's similar fascination with alternate realities in Space Dandy episodes like "A World with No Sadness, Baby" as well.

Like Chase, who's a fan of the ambiguity of Antonioni movies like Blow-Up, Watanabe traffics in ambiguity, and it's part of why Watanabe's work fascinates me more than the work of other Japanese animators. Cowboy Bebop opened and closed with a badly wounded Spike Spiegel at the brink of death, and Watanabe said he left it up to the viewer to decide if Spike really did die when he collapsed to the ground at the end of the Bebop finale. "A World with No Sadness, Baby" is more conclusive about Dandy than either Spike's collapse or Tony's last scene in the Sopranos finale: Dandy's clearly dead from the first moment we see him marooned on Planet Limbo after a dangerous encounter with a "dark nebula" (by the way, the visuals of the planet of the dead that were crafted by BONES Inc. and guest director Yasuhiro Nakura are extraordinary; we're talking feature film-quality visuals here, and they're given pitch-perfect musical accompaniment by guest composers Ogre You Asshole, a Japanese rock band that counts Johnny Marr as one of its fans).

We also learn from Poe (Kaori Nazuka), the entity who's fallen in love with Dandy and is the physical manifestation of both Limbo the planet and Limbo the plane of existence, that Dandy is a much more powerful being than he realizes, and that power of his has something to do with his parallel selves. The absent-from-this-episode Dr. Gel and the Gogol Empire's relentless pursuit of this unlikely "chosen one"--a vain idiot who's a dick to his shipmates on the Aloha Oe and cares only about "food and boobs" (he's basically an overgrown teen)--makes more sense now.

Food and Boobs also happens to be what Ludacris' white dudebro counterpart in his parallel universe calls the Ludacris album we know in our universe as Chicken-n-Beer.
Where "A World with No Sadness, Baby" gets ambiguous and open-ended is the final scene of Dandy back on Limbo, the reason for a bunch of "What happened to Dandy after his time on Limbo ended?" comments and theories on Reddit and other forums. Here's how I interpreted the moment: what we're seeing is a flash-forward to the very last scene of the entire series, at a point in time after Dandy's actual final death, as well as long after Dandy--or one of his parallel selves--was accidentally whisked off to the distant future at the end of "A Race in Space Is Dangerous, Baby." Dandy's returned to Limbo, but at a point in time before the planet used up all its energy and ended up destroying itself to send Dandy back (but as a comatose Dandy) to the Aloha Oe to save Meow and QT from the dark nebula. He's there to reunite with Poe and the rest of the friends he made on Limbo and then take them along with him to heaven. So it's basically the second-to-last scene of the Lost series finale, but without the hugginess and hokey, New Agey sentimentality.

I might be wrong about the final scene--and we have a few more episodes to go before I'm probably proven wrong--but it implies that Space Dandy will be headed towards a more profound direction for the remainder of its run. It's a good thing I read the Vox piece on Chase after watching "A World with No Sadness, Baby" because Chase's alternate realities discussion helped clear up the confusion I initially had about both the final scene and Dandy's reappearance on a planet that ceased to exist. The scene seems to be hinting that the show's closing arc will be the redemption of Dandy the asshole, as Space Dandy starts to delve more into Dandy's parallel counterparts and perhaps will show how Dandy's inevitable reunion with his other selves mirrors his growth as a person, like how the Sopranos characters' discussions about "What's the purpose?" echoed Chase's preoccupation with "this is not it."

The "redemption of an asshole" arc is kind of a tired one. But I like how Watanabe handles the arc in "A World with No Sadness, Baby" in his typically open-ended way, by fracturing the time frame and leaving all the moments of Dandy's maturation from vain idiot to selfless person (who, if I'm not mistaken, will end up saving the universe from the Gogol Empire) off-screen. Watanabe's basically done a series finale before the final episode has even aired. It's a ballsy move. (The odd placement of that final scene on Limbo has also made me realize that Tony's subconscious yearning for an uncomplicated alternate life in "Join the Club" is more of a conclusion to The Sopranos than the actual final episode itself. Tony's scenes as Kevin Finnerty of Kingman, Arizona could be interpreted as a visit to the future heaven of his choosing, that is if he ever stops being an evil bastard after the events of "Made in America.")

You gotta get yourself some chandeliers.
"A World with No Sadness, Baby" is an interesting turning point in Space Dandy's run--and at such a late point in the run too. Thanks to the questions of life and death pondered by Dandy and the Limbo inhabitants in "A World with No Sadness, Baby," this slapstick animated sitcom about an alien-hunting idiot who hops from planet to planet and dimension to dimension without ever really experiencing any growth as a person has proven naysayers like the Gray Lady wrong (care to take back those words about the show being nothing but cringe-making fan service, Gray Lady?) and suddenly turned into something more meaningful. It's like when The Sopranos quickly proved to be more than just the "Look, it's Analyze This on a weekly basis!" gimmick that was emphasized in HBO's misleadingly lighthearted, Get Shorty-inspired first-season promos and emerged as something richer and more complicated: a darkly comic and often brutal exploration of seeking enlightenment and realizing the fallacy of the American dream.

I was prepared to hate "A World with No Sadness, Baby"--the episode preview's images of an unkempt Dandy in longer hair that's more fitting for Emo Dandy from "I Can't Be the Only One, Baby" had me worried that the episode was going to be an overly dour one--but for an installment centered on the heavy subject matter of mortality, "A World with No Sadness, Baby" is surprisingly not-so-dour. The show's sense of humor remains intact, like when a pack of what I assume to be grief counselors confers with a depressed bar patron ("Keeping death at a distance and not thinking about it--that is like averting your eyes from death")--but they do so completely in song--or when Dandy responds to Poe's admission of love for him with "Well, I'm so handsome you probably couldn't help it." "A World with No Sadness, Baby" is more entertaining and satisfying than any episode about a sentient planet/plane of existence that falls in love with a lead character who's just died (and wants to be alive again) has any right to be. Space Dandy never fails to surprise. "Don't stop believing," indeed.

Stray observations:
* I'm fond of the '50s War of the Worlds ship-style creature design for the Limbo inhabitants who ended up destroying most of their homeworld through warfare.

'Roger, roger.'

* I'm also fond of how the magazine Dandy and Meow are ogling during the preview for next week's episode, "We're All Fools, So Let's All Dance, Baby," is a mag full of spreads featuring '70s and '80s Japanese swimsuit model Agnes Lum.

And we're back to our regularly scheduled Schoolhouse Rock 'A Victim of Gravity' pompadour hair.

Agnes Yum

Agnes of Goddamn!

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