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!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"What's your favorite score?" is not a question I like to be asked

He can't decide if he's still the bandleader for Seth Meyers or not.
(Photo source: Katwalla)

I've been asked twice or thrice "What's your favorite score?" My answer to that will always be "55-10, Niners over Broncos."

I don't have one favorite score. I have lots of favorite scores, but there are too many out there to name. I've listened to thousands of them since my college radio programming days. It's impossible to pick one that's the best. It's like asking a parent who his or her favorite kid is.

Plus my answer to that "favorite score" question would change every other minute. One minute, it would be "Out of Sight by David Holmes," and then the next minute, it would be "An Oversimplification of Her Beauty by Flying Lotus." Then that would change to "the frequently rapped-along-to Samurai Champloo by the late, great Nujabes, Fat Jon, Force of Nature and Tsutchie." And so on.

The same thing applies to "favorite hip-hop album." It'll ping-pong back and forth between "De La Soul Is Dead," "good kid, m.A.A.d. city," "Barkada" and "whatever I bumped in its entirety last week."

But one thing I do know is that Drive composer Cliff Martinez's anachronistic score music to Cinemax's 1900s medical drama The Knick is a sublime piece of work. I've added Knick score selections like "Son of Placenta Previa" to "AFOS Prime" rotation on AFOS. Martinez's Knick episode scores are the automatic winner of "best score to a TV show I'll never watch because I hate watching extremely graphic medical procedures."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Composer name pronunciation key (as revised by 2014 Emmy presenter Gwen Stefani)

The Harajuku Girls aren't there to save your ass this time, Gwen.
At the 2014 Emmys, The Colbert Report won Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series, and Emmy presenter Gwen Stefani came up with an interesting pronunciation for "coal-bear": "coal-bort." Because of the 87-year-old No Doubt frontwoman's memorable pronunciation of Stephen Colbert's name, it's a good time for me to present an update of the AFOS blog's film and TV composer name pronunciation key, which I compiled for myself (back when I used to back-announce tracks on the AFOS channel) and then posted in 2009.

On October 23, 2014, Hindus everywhere will celebrate the holiday of Djawadi.
Ramin Djawadi
Bruno Coulais (Coraline composer): [cool-aid]
Craig Safan (Cheers composer): [norm]
Elmer Bernstein: [burn-no-tiss]
Ennio Morricone: [mwaaaaaaah]
Gustavo Santaolalla: [san-ta-cluh-ree-tuh]
Jan Hammer: [jan-bray-dee]
Leonard Bernstein: [lee-oh-nid-bresh-nev-leh-knee-broos-and-les-tur-bayngs]
Maurice Jarre: [jah-rih-dihm]
Michael Giacchino: [jah-pee-pol]
Mikis Theodorakis (Zorba the Greek composer): [oh-pa]
Miklós Rózsa: [mee-kohs kass-uh-dine]
Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones composer): [ho-dor]
Randy Edelman: [muhk-guy-ver]
Tom Tykwer: [tie-koh]
Trevor Rabin: [oh-nur-ov-uh-loan-lee-hart]
Wojciech Kilar: [voy-check ya-self-bee-for-yoo-rih-gih-tee-rek-ya-self]
Zbigniew Preisner (The Double Life of Véronique composer): [itz-uh-big-yoo-nih-vers-and-weer-not]

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Awesomes, "Tim Goes to School"

Here we see Tim before he goes all Detentionaire on us, dyes his hair and gets into trouble at school.

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.

It's a good week to be The Awesomes. Hulu announced that it's renewing Seth Meyers and Mike Shoemaker's animated superhero sitcom for a third season, and this week's Awesomes episode, "Tim Goes to School," solidly penned by Late Night with Seth Meyers head writer Alex Baze (who's been killing it on Twitter, whether he's ripping on Republicans or paying tribute to the late Don Pardo), isn't too shabby either. The episode deals with both the formation of the PRICKS (People Really Into Crime & Killing Sprees), a team of supervillains assembled by Malocchio Jr. to take down the Awesomes, and Awesomes leader Prock's realization that the raising of a child without his parents--in this case, Tim, whose ex-mercenary parents are currently under the protective custody of a hero protection program--is a responsibility he needs to be better at.

The Danger Room at Awesome Mountain didn't prepare Prock for how to handle the dangerous situation of picking out movies to watch with your girlfriend.

A new government act that requires both underage superheroes to receive an education and adult superheroes to finish theirs if they dropped out ends up forcing Tim--as well as school dropouts Muscleman and Frantic--to attend middle school, where Tim learns that handling bullies is easy, especially when you can transform into a 500-pound sumo wrestler with amazing strength. Instead of the bullies being the ones at school who are bothering Tim--they wind up becoming his friends after they see him transform into Sumo due to their surprisingly non-race-related verbal taunts pissing him off--it's Prock and the rest of the team who are bothering him with their overprotectiveness. Prock, Impresario, Gadget Gal and Concierge have disguised themselves as faculty to make sure Tim gets through school okay, and Tim's discomfort with having them around escalates into one of those Hulk-vs.-the-other-Avengers-type battles that have become such a staple of the Avengers comics that the Joss Whedon movie version staged such a confrontation aboard the Helicarrier.

Neither white viewers of The Awesomes nor Asian Americans who don't watch The Awesomes because they've been alienated by the comedy shows from Awesomes co-producer Broadway Video (due to SNL's propensity for yellowface and brownface, its lack of Asian American cast members and the particularly rocky year of race-related humor SNL experienced last season) may pay much attention to how The Awesomes writes Bobby Lee's character, but I like the way the show handles Tim and gives him the same type of anger management issues that Arthur Chu discusses in his Daily Beast essay "Model Minority Rage: Why the Hulk Should Be an Asian Guy." It helps that Tim's Asianness (he's half-Korean, half-Japanese) isn't used as a punchline like on Drawn Together or Family Guy. Sure, Gadget Gal, who's basically filter-less Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls in a rejuvenated body, says frequently racist things to Tim, like when she delivers a one-liner about walloping an uncontrollable Sumo right in the "won tons" during "Tim Goes to School" (won tons are Chinese, you old bitch), but The Awesomes frowns upon her racist views instead of adopting them like Drawn Together or Family Guy would.

He's angry about diaper rash.

It also helps that, Gadget Gal's xenophobia aside, the Awesomes team members are likable and the kinds of characters I don't mind spending an animated half-hour with. In his Dissolve piece on why Star Trek V didn't work at all, whether as a sci-fi actioner, as a Star Trek story or as a movie about the letter V, Noel Murray said that the '60s Star Trek has great replay value partly because its cast of characters is pleasant to be around. "The crew of the Enterprise has a believable camaraderie, cut with just enough friction to bring some dimensionality to their relationships," Murray wrote. Even though the Awesomes are animated characters--and even though the voice actors don't appear to have recorded their dialogue at the same time in the same studio, an approach that hasn't hurt Archer, a show where the actors are scattered in different parts of the country and are recorded separately--that same kind of camaraderie shines through in Awesomes episodes like "Tim Goes to School." Plus I like seeing SNL and MADtv alums together on the same show and getting along well: Lee, Ike Barinholtz and Josh Meyers, Seth Meyers' brother--and Barinholtz's one-time makeout scene partner--came from MADtv, as did current SNL regular Taran Killam, who voices Frantic. There used to be an intense rivalry between the East Coast SNL and the West Coast MADtv, but the two camps appear to have buried the hatchet--or maybe amongst the Meyers brothers, Lee and Barinholtz, there wasn't even a hatchet to begin with.

Like Jason Ritter on Gravity Falls, Lee is a couple of octaves too low to be voicing an 11-year-old, but he's good at bringing out the vulnerability of Tim, just like Ritter does with 12-year-old Dipper. Casting them to voice boys is better than getting women to voice them. As good as Regina King was as Huey and Riley on The Boondocks, I still couldn't shake the awareness that a lady was doing their voices. I don't think I'd be as invested in Tim's anger management issues in "Tim Goes to School" if Tim sounded like June Foray as Rocky the Flying Squirrel.

Stray observations:
* The biggest payoff of the formation of the PRICKS is not fisticuffs, but another appearance by Maya Rudolph as Malocchio Jr.'s doting mom Lady Malocchio, who shows up at inopportune times to make Malocchio Jr. look far from imposing. I've been wondering why Rudolph's amusing voice as Lady Malocchio sounds so familiar. It turns out that Lady Malocchio's voice is basically the voice Rudolph came up with for her obscure SNL character Glenda Goodwin, an attorney obsessed with Bigfoot. "Aired one or two times, I think, but was [co-creator] Mike Shoemaker and my favorite voice of all her voices. When we asked Maya to play the part, the first thing she said was 'Lemme guess, Glenda Goodwin?' She was right," said Meyers to Entertainment Weekly.

I wonder if the Joker's mom asks the same thing about her severed finger sandwiches too.

In Harry and the Hendersons, they make for an adequate E.T. ripoff too.

Glenda Goodwin says farewell to a fallen former Awesomes beef jerky ad pitchman.

* Now that Prock has a girlfriend (Amy Poehler's lawyer character Jaclyn Stone), everyone's been throwing themselves at Prock, from a hot teacher at Tim's middle school (Cecily Strong, who replaced Meyers on Weekend Update) to Muscleman's sister Abby. The Bento Box animators did a good job with Muscleman's expression as he realizes that the shirtless pic of a bodybuilder that he glimpses on Prock's phone is not a pic of himself.

Boston Public: The Animated Series may be the best animated series based on a David E. Kelley show nobody remembers since Girls Club Babies.

Sweet Valley Thigh!

Luke Skywalker made the same expression when he realized he made out with his sister.

Doug Benson's Sideboob Sunday gets extra veiny this week.

* "Tim Goes to School" doesn't contain any Zack Morris Time-Outs from Prock. I don't miss them.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tip-Top Quotables: "No one should ever be allowed to say there is no history of racial tension here," plus a few other great lines this week

Just tell him what you want him to fuck, America, and he'll fuck it for you.

My favorite monthly section in old Source magazine issues was "Hip-Hop Quotables," in which the Source editors printed out their favorite new rap verse of the month, from the first bar to the last. "Tip-Top Quotables," which I've named after that Source section, is a collection of my favorite quotes of the week from anywhere, whether it's a recent TV show or a new rap verse. "TTQ" won't appear on this blog every week. It'll appear whenever the fuck I feel like it.

* "Much as I scoffed at the very notion of a good MacGruber movie, I'd probably put it at the very top of SNL adaptations. At a minimum, it's the one SNL-to-screen adaptation to take a mostly one-joke sketch idea (e.g. 'It's Pat' or 'The Roxbury Guys') and successfully expand and reconfigure it for the screen. And while I'm here, I'll echo the praise for [Will] Forte's performance, which is committed and fearlessly self-deprecating. After all the things he does in this movie—the loud back-to-back sex scenes, the celery stick, the 'just tell me what you want me to fuck' scene—he can probably bid farewell to any Al Franken-like political aspirations he might have had."--Scott Tobias, The Dissolve, "The '80s ambience, jury-rigged gags, and dumb bravado of MacGruber"

* "Every good spoof needs a straight man. Airplane! had Leslie Nielsen's Dr. Rumack, who never cracked even as he pulled eggs out of a sick woman's mouth. Blazing Saddles had Gene Wilder's Waco Kid, who didn't bat an eye at outlaws punching horses in the face. [Powers] Boothe's unflappable Col. Faith is a sturdy presence throughout MacGruber, but the movie's true straight man is [Jorma] Taccone, who shoots MacGruber as if it were a legitimately badass balls-to-the-wall action spectacular. Most modern spoofs, shot on the cheap by hacks, look like garbage. MacGruber looks good enough to stand beside (or, in some cases, ahead of) its inspirations. No matter how broad Forte gets—and at one point, he's waddling through an action scene naked, with a celery stalk hanging out of his ass—Taccone never shoots him like he's in on the joke. There are many deadpan actors; Taccone is the rare deadpan director."--Matt Singer, The Dissolve, "From box-office bomb to cult favorite in the making: Classic MacGruber"

(NOTE: The Harold Faltermeyer-esque score cue from the "celery stalk hanging out of MacGruber's ass" scene starts at 2:00 of "MacGruber's Suite" by MacGruber score composer Matthew Compton. Don't miss the profane hidden track that starts at 5:30.)

* "There was no main title... and I didn't make a theme for [the end credits] either because I always wanted to leave on whatever tone the outgoing scene had. So there was a different end-title piece of music each time. It's one of the most important chunks of musical real estate because it's a chance to sum up your musical story, but there's no picture, there's no dialogue. It's not competing with any other sound. It's a great spot to showcase the music. So, the end titles became my favorite spot. But I also used it as a place to do something that was unexpected. One track is called 'Falling off a Bicycle,' and another one is called 'Goodnight Nurse Elkins.' Those started out as one-of-a-kind pieces. I hadn't written anything like that for the rest of the show. So, I threw my hardest musical curveballs for the end credits."--Cliff Martinez, discussing with the electronic score music he wrote for the first season of The Knick

* "Composers were close, and often attended each other's recording sessions. One such day, Elmer and his friends were listening to one of their peers record a score with a strikingly memorable theme. They snuck a few musicians to a smaller studio, and recorded a jazz combo version of this composer's theme, arranging it from memory. That night, when they all got together socially, they played their tape, telling their mark it was the radio. Shocked to hear a small combo playing his own theme, the panicked composer turned white and asked what the music was. Elmer and his friends told him it was a hit song that had been on the radio for weeks. The poor composer thought he had accidentally ripped off a popular song, and momentarily contemplated the task of rewriting his entire score! Elmer and his fellow pranksters laughed, and poured him a drink."--Outlander composer Bear McCreary, recalling an elaborate prank that his mentor Elmer Bernstein told him he used to pull on other film composers

* "Even though that theme was used on The Next Generation, I associate it with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was like the coming of Jesus Christ to me. The score is super thematic, it's deep, it employs many modern sounds. Despite the fact that Goldsmith was traditional, he was always trying to find ways to be with the times that were, so he'd bring in the blaster beam, that thing that was the new thing and some of his efforts had dated themselves, like in the '80s we used some of those electronics, but Star Trek remains timeless. That Blaster Beam thing, a lot of the water phone sounds they use and so forth. you combine that beautiful sweeping version of that theme over the most beautiful thing ever created by man— the Enterprise— and it's just complete, absolute orgasm."--X-Men: Days of Future Past composer John Ottman on the one film score he'd take with him to a desert island

* "The heart of the film is that the Guardians are all adrift in their universes, emotionally and spatially lost. So, it's appropriate that the film starts on a song that croons, 'Nothin's a matter with your head, baby, find it/ Come on and find it/ Hell, with it, baby, 'cause you're fine and you're mine.' It's a mission statement as much as a stylistic choice, a ballad of inclusion in a cold universe. It's also Star-Lord's best way of seeking out maternal advice while lost in space; the song's inquiry of 'Don't you feel right, baby?' allows Star-Lord to converse with a woman that he's lost, one who he rejected right before her passing in a fit of childish sadness. The film is, among about 50 other things, the chronicle of Star-Lord's struggle to accept that he was just afraid and not a bad person."--Dominick Mayer, Consequence of Sound, "How Guardians of the Galaxy Topped the Charts"

* "I can't believe that the only name they got right was fucking Kumail Nanjiani."--Harmontown co-host Jeff B. Davis, mocking L.A. Times TV critic Robert Lloyd's typo-ridden positive review of Harmontown, which misidentified Davis as "Jim Davis" and misspelled "podcast" as "pocast" (in fact, Davis was wrong--not even the L.A. Times critic got Nanjiani's name right either)

'I'm that typo guy'--Robert Lloyd rapping

And the fucking L.A. Times missed this too!

* "It looks more like a colonoscopy than a costume. Plus, even if you have superpowers, it's impossible to crawl along the roof while keeping your back arched and your rear high. Too many covers like that, and Spider-Woman is going to need physical therapy."--Amanda Marcotte, mocking Spider-Woman's ass-up pose in the poorly received variant cover artwork drawn by erotic comic book artist Milo Manara for the first issue of Marvel's relaunch of Spider-Woman, as part of a Slate post called "This Week in Butts"

Friday, August 15, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: The Awesomes, "Destination Deading"

Seth Meyers channeled his frustration over his Late Night bandleader Fred Armisen's frequent absences for this scene.
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.

The superhero sitcom The Awesomes, about a cash-poor team of misfits and their equally inept adversaries, is easily the best of Hulu's batch of original animated shows--a batch of mostly horrendous, often Canadian-made shows. I can't say The Awesomes is a great show quite yet, but it might be getting there. The first season of The Awesomes was marred by animation by Bento Box that was as rough-looking as the Burbank and Atlanta animation studio's work on Bob's Burgers was during that now-great Fox show's first season, as well as the stilted, Jerry Seinfeld-during-Seinfeld-ish voice acting of Awesomes co-creator Seth Meyers, whose previous experience with the superhero genre was co-writing a Spider-Man comic with Awesomes co-star Bill Hader. In the second season, Meyers has clearly been growing a little more comfortable with the voice work, plus Bento Box is starting to play around more with shadows and shading, so The Awesomes has been looking less and less like a visually flat Flash webtoon from 2004.

Meyers and co-creator Mike Shoemaker just need to ditch the annoying device of having Meyers' neurotic and meek team leader character Prock always use his superpower of freezing time, not to perform heroic tasks but to monologue, and not to the audience like how Zack Morris monologued on Saved by the Bell but to himself for some weird reason (perhaps Meyers is trying to avoid making Prock resemble Zack by having him talk to himself, but it just continues to remind me of Zack). The big running joke in these time-freezing scenes is that there's always some sort of dangling opportunity for Prock--who has to follow his doctor's orders about not using his superpower for too long because it gives him nosebleeds--to make that superpower useful, but he keeps ignoring it. It's a good running joke that's reminiscent of self-important Maxwell Smart's ineptitude on Get Smart, but it can't disguise the fact that these scenes are such a clunky exposition device (Jody Schaeffer and George Krstic were better at the self-monologuing thing when Coop always did it in the middle of robot battles on Megas XLR). The device shows up in every Awesomes episode, and it briefly mars "Destination Deading," a solid Awesomes episode that riffs on both Andy Serkis' unexpectedly popular Planet of the Apes prequels and the absurdities of expensive and tedious destination weddings, from $800-a-night hotel rooms to $18 glasses of lemon water.

Fox says that Wedding of the Century on the Planet of the Apes will be the much-ballyhooed follow-up to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Recently on Late Night with Seth Meyers, the host told the audience that much of "Destination Deading" was lifted from an Awesomes staff writer's terrible experience as a guest at a destination wedding. "One of the writers said, 'Oh, [the Awesomes] should have to go to a destination wedding, and that will be worse than any supervillain they've ever fought because nothing's worse than when you get invited to a destination wedding.' And what made that hard for me to hear was he had been a guest of mine at my destination wedding," said Meyers.

The Awesomes co-creator's willingness to make fun of himself and own up to the mistakes he and his bride put their wedding guests through ("It was a nightmare. We were awful people," added Meyers) is one of a few reasons why I can't get mad at The Awesomes, even whenever Prock is awkwardly rattling off exposition to himself or when Prock, who's saddled with daddy issues, and his season 2 nemesis Malocchio Jr. (Will Forte)--the Black Canary-inspired accountant son of Malocchio (Hader, terrific as always), season 1's big bad (and now maybe a season 2 ally)--both come off as Venture Bros. lite. Another thing that helps The Awesomes through its rough spots is the simple fact that the members of the Awesomes are likable without being bland, as well as flawed without being as detestable as the characters of Hulu's other animated shows Fugget About It and Mother Up!, which both follow the increasingly hackneyed "let's make everybody an asshole for the sake of shock value" model of animated comedy.

Impresario (Kenan Thompson), a magician-themed hero saddled with a smothering mom (also voiced by Thompson), Concierge (Emily Spivey), Gadget Gal (Paula Pell) and Sumo (Bobby Lee) are my favorites of the team (which, fortunately, is as diverse as Meyers' unexpectedly diverse Late Night writing staff). Impresario's Green Lantern-style constructs always take the shape of his mom, and they're an amusing and effective running gag (Impresario's construct in "Destination Deading" turns into a mash-up of Mom and Godzilla, complete with Japanese lettering beside her). The Awesomes' efficient secretary Concierge--who was promoted to official Awesomes team member in the last episode despite not having any superpowers and was also given a snazzy new jumpsuit to replace her standard secretary outfit--borders on Mary Sue territory. But Spivey--a veteran SNL writer who created and then fled the sinking ship known as Up All Night and was recently involved with the equally troubled How I Met Your Dad pilot that didn't sell--imbues Concierge with a nicely irascible Southern voice that keeps the character from being Blandy McPerfectshoes.

'Wedding planner' is second to 'all-knowing gay BFF' as 'most overused rom-com character.'

Enjoyable voice work by another veteran SNL writer--Pell, who wrote two of my favorite SNL commercial parodies, Litter Critters and Homocil--also distinguishes Gadget Gal, an elderly heroine in a rejuvenated body that's modeled after the look of the '40s Silk Spectre from Watchmen. And Daily Beast contributor and Jeopardy! champ Arthur Chu has been wishing for an Asian Hulk (after Marvel gender-swapped Thor and made Captain America black) because Hulk's identity crisis reminds him so much of the cultural baggage of being an Asian American male who's constantly stereotyped and emasculated, but Chu clearly hasn't been aware that The Awesomes already features an Asian Hulk. He's in the form of 11-year-old Tim, a.k.a. Sumo, a mash-up of Hulk (brute strength) and Shazam (a little boy in a big guy's body).

Scripted by Dan Levy, "Destination Deading" continues the running joke of everyone on the team (except for Ike Barinholtz's supportive best friend character Muscleman and Taran Killam's deferential-to-Prock speedster Frantic) finding Prock to be a dorky stick in the mud, exemplified in this episode by the schmoopy talk between Prock and his new lawyer girlfriend Jaclyn Stone (Meyers' old Weekend Update partner Amy Poehler). But the team's dislike of Prock's mushy phone conversations with Jaclyn is immediately outweighed by their dislike of the overpriced drinks and suites during the wedding of Muscleman's sister Abby (Meyers' old Chicago improv partner Jill Benjamin), who had an unrequited crush on Prock and isn't quite over him, and David Apelstein, a mild-mannered chiropractor from the ape nation of Apesylvania. An Awesomes episode wouldn't be complete without a battle between superheroes and supervillains, so "Destination Deading" pits the team against the groom's grumpy uncle Elliot Levy-Apelstein (Colin Quinn), who uses his nephew's wedding to plot an ape uprising against humans.

Absent from this episode is Hotwire (Rashida Jones), an Awesomes member who turned out last season to be a reluctant mole for her dad Malocchio and is currently thought to be dead by her teammates, including Prock, who fell in love with her. Rescued off-screen by drunken Teleportation Larry (Bobby Moynihan), Hotwire has kept herself hidden and is pretending to be a male armored hero named Metal Fella. Jones excels at playing awkward--one of my favorite Jones scenes on Parks and Recreation had Ann Perkins trying and failing to bond with Ron Swanson's little stepdaughters--so Hotwire's awkward attempts at dudebro talk with Prock while she was suited up as Metal Fella last week marked the first time that this show has used Jones really well as a voice actor. Also absent from "Destination Deading" is Bob's Burgers voice actor Dan Mintz, who joined the Awesomes writing staff this season and voiced several different side characters in the episode he wrote, "Hotwire's Funeral," so it was kind of bizarre to hear Tina Belcher's voice--which is basically Mintz's normal speaking voice--popping up on another show and emanating from people who don't look like Tina. But "Destination Deading" is worthwhile for nailing the tediousness of weddings, especially destination weddings. "It's like a vacation, but at an inconvenient time, twice as expensive, not where you actually want to go," grumbles Concierge, "and instead of having a vacation, you go to a wedding." I've never been invited to a destination wedding, but if I had to pay $18 for a glass of water, I'd rather stay parched.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tip-Top Quotables: "Attention aspiring George Zimmermans," plus a few other great lines this week

'Payday loan industry, don't you ever again lie to me like I'm Montel Williams. I am not Montel Williams. I am not Montel Williams!'
My favorite monthly section in old Source magazine issues was "Hip-Hop Quotables," in which the Source editors printed out their favorite new rap verse of the month, from the first bar to the last. "Tip-Top Quotables," which I've named after that Source section, is a collection of my favorite quotes of the week from anywhere, whether it's a recent TV show or a new rap verse. "TTQ" won't appear on this blog every week. It'll appear whenever the fuck I feel like it.

(Photo source: Hari Kondabolu)

* "The show needed him as much as he needed it. As scripted, Brisco's infallibility has the potential to read as smug and overbearing, and there are moments early in the run where even Campbell's charms can't quite overcome the 'oh thank God the white man is here to save us' vibe. But the clear pleasure the actor takes in everything he does on screen comes through, and keeps the hero from turning into a bland, square-jawed twerp. Typically Campbell plays lovable blowhards and larger-than-life buffoons, but here, he's called on to be a largely traditional leading man, and he delivers a mixture of steadfast decency, optimism, and perpetual bemusement that is just about perfect."--the A.V. Club's Zack Handlen, recalling the one-season wonder The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., which remains rewatchable despite its "oh thank God the white man is here to save us" vibe

* "That's right: some payday lenders are currently dressing themselves up as Native Americans. I thought only Johnny Depp was allowed to do that!"--Last Week Tonight's John Oliver

* "Perfectly placed in a set at a bar's dance night, it will just about burn the place down as sweaty drunk people go absolutely fucking nuts over the Purple One's coos and weird chatter about that 'Electric word, life.' And while Prince is certainly not perfect, though he might think he is, 'Let's Go Crazy,' well, it's as perfect as a song can be."--the A.V. Club's Marah Eakin on "Let's Go Crazy" from Purple Rain

(Photo source: David Roth)

(Photo source: Desus)

(Photo source: Desus)

* "And it is a hip-hop generation that is being stopped and harassed. They are being targeted and forced to carry the weight of assumptions heaped onto them. Just because the music they listen to carries violent themes doesn't mean that they do."--Stephen A. Crockett Jr., The Root, "Rage Is the Right Response to What Happened in Ferguson"

Comedian/performance artist Kristina Wong trolls the SketchFactor app, after racist SketchFactor users posted warnings about ethnic neighborhoods that they deem as "sketchy" (Photo source: Wong)

(Photo source: Wong)

(Photo source: Wong)

(Photo source: Wong)

* "When corporations refuse to protect their employees from harassment through cultural, bureaucratic, and technological failures, they not only enable this sort of specialized abuse but contribute to it. It would be easy—too easy—for people to dismiss this sexist-trolling of Jezebel as the same problems and roadblocks dealt with by any other Gawker site. But, no, the reality is that this abuse is not the same. If companies that publish the writing of authors who disproportionately experience hatred and harassment want to address those issues ethically and according to need, they cannot do so simply by addressing them 'equally'—by asking them, as Jezebel has tacitly been asked, to work within a technological framework that taxes and punishes them significantly more."--Laura Hudson, Wired, "How Indifferent Corporations Help Sexist Internet Trolls Thrive"

* "Bacall is terrified of her first movie role. She can barely hold a match to light her cigarette without trembling like a leaf. In take after take, she tilts her chin downward, burying it into her chest to steady her nerves, while lifting her eyes up—a pose that manages to convey both sexiness and street smarts. It will later be called 'The Look.' Watching the movie, you would never guess she is anything other than defiant and confident. She’s hypnotic."--EW film critic Chris Nashawaty, discussing the late Lauren Bacall's breakout performance in To Have and Have Not

* "We watched the show together every week. And for those thirty minutes, my grandmother and I communicated in a way we couldn't otherwise—through our shared laughter and understanding that what we were witnessing was a phenomenal talent who transcended things like language and culture."--playwright Philip W. Chung, recalling how the late Robin Williams' antics on Mork & Mindy broke the language barrier between his grandmother, who spoke no English, and himself (he spoke barely any Korean)

* "You know, Alan Menken wrote a beautiful score for Aladdin, and he wrote score for the Genie's bits, too. But here's what happened: When we got on the dubbing stage, Alan realized that the score fought Robin's comedy rhythms. It was like two sets of rhythms that you were trying to listen to. So in many cases, we diminished that score when Robin was going to town—or just didn't have it altogether—and instead let his voice provide the rhythm. Comedy is a very delicate thing a lot of the time, and a factor like that can make a huge difference as to whether or not you're laughing."--Aladdin animator Eric Goldberg, recalling the trickiness of finding the right kind of score music to accompany Williams' voice work

* "Comedians can be a sad bunch, you know. You know what's the saying? Ignorance is bliss. So if ignorance is bliss, what's the opposite of ignorance? Must not be bliss. And your job as a comedian, you know, is basically to notice everything. And the better the comedian, the more aware he or she is of the world around them. So you know, it can be not a happy place. Sometimes you can have too much information. Sometimes you can know too much. So no, I was not, I'm never shocked at a comedian dealing with depression."--Chris Rock, explaining to ABC News why he thinks so many comedians suffer from severe depression, which Williams struggled with

(Photo source: Daily Show staff writer Travon Free)

* "It's a role that showcases Williams' underappreciated capacity for nuance — the scene in which he's being comforted by a total stranger and can't stop himself from giggling at the absurdity, a reaction the woman he's talking to keeps mistaking for tears, passing him tissues. Or like this scene from the end (mild spoilers!), in which his face conveys such a quicksilver mix of sadness, regret, resignation, and the slightest touch of mischief. That clip doesn't include the lines that follow, in voiceover, as the soundtrack kicks off the perfect song and a callback to earlier in the film: 'I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worse thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.' It's an observation to break your heart, but the sequence that it's a part of is filled with such complex but exhilarated joy and mourning all at once. It's the kind of role Williams could pull off so well. God, he'll be missed."--film writer Alison Willmore, explaining why the 2009 indie World's Greatest Dad contains her favorite Williams performance (it also happens to be my favorite non-genie performance of his)

* "There will be much celebration, in the coming weeks and months, of Robin Williams' life and career. But perhaps the best tribute to him would be if we all reached out to the troubled people in our lives and let them know that we are here for them. Because Robin Williams was there for us."--Paul F. Tompkins

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams' podcast appearances illustrate what the beloved funnyman was like off-stage and off-screen

Mork and Marc-ky
(Photo source: Marc Maron)
Robin Williams' A Night at the Met taught me as a kid that these things called stand-up albums can still be funny even without visuals. I played the fuck out of my cassette copy of A Night at the Met when I was either 13 or 14. I practically memorized the first two minutes of that album, where Williams introduced himself as Minnie Pearl ("Hooooooowdy! Oh, wrong opera house...") and then smoothly handled an annoying heckler.

Williams' knack for both improv and juggling various accents and zany voices first made me laugh via Mork & Mindy reruns and 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, the first movie to let Williams be Williams instead of a watered-down screen version of himself, which was why it became his first box-office hit after nearly a decade of one underperforming comedy movie after another (although I'm fond of Moscow on the Hudson and The Best of Times, a Ron Shelton-scripted sports flick that paired him with the less manic but equally great Kurt Russell). His ability to bring all those accents and voices to life was so strong that even when it's divorced from the visuals during the Night at the Met album, it still cracked me up.

Williams, who was battling alcoholism and depression and unfortunately, took his own life yesterday, was the kind of larger-than-life, anarchic entertainer you love the most when you're a kid or teen. A generation of '70s and '80s kids loved him for being the bizarre Mork. The generation after that loved him for his shtick as either the Genie from Aladdin, the perfect embodiment of Williams' freewheeling brand of humor, or Mrs. Doubtfire. But like many things you enjoy as a kid, parts of A Night at the Met haven't aged well, just like how Williams' dialogue about chasing Vietnamese women in Good Morning, Vietnam screams out that it's the '80s, even though it's supposed to be the '60s, or how his reference to the Dog Pound from The Arsenio Hall Show during Aladdin is so 1992. When you're 13 or 14, Williams' imitation of a slow Chinese driver in A Night at the Met doesn't make you cringe because you haven't been taught yet that you don't have to tolerate non-Asian comedians' often lousy and offensive impressions of Asian folks. When you're in your thirties and your tastes in comedy have leaned more towards the likes of Hari Kondabolu, Aamer Rahman, Kristina Wong and W. Kamau Bell, who, like Williams, hails from the Bay Area, Williams' Chinese driver character makes your eyes roll.

That's why, when I outgrew some of the hyperactive, accent humor-driven shtick Williams brought to his family-friendly (and often mawkish) comedy movies, the talk show appearances where he'd frequently puncture the stuffiness of both his interviewers and the talk show format and finally, last year's CBS show The Crazy Ones, I was glad to see Williams expand his range and show a different side of himself: as an effective and understated dramatic actor (Insomnia, World's Greatest Dad). And something that's been overlooked in all the obits that have mentioned his comedic achievements, his film work and his kindness as a person was that way before WTF with Marc Maron and the comedy podcast explosion, Williams was one of the world's earliest celebrity podcasters. From 2000 to 2002, Williams hosted a radio show for and mixed free-form material with interviews with other comedians and actors, as well as authors like John Irving and Harlan Ellison.

"Once I started doing it, I went, 'Oh, this is great!' It's like going back to the great comedy albums, like Jonathan Winters, Firesign Theater, George Carlin," said Williams while he promoted his show to Charlie Rose, who's really showing his age while trying to understand and then explain to viewers the concept of downloadable audio.

Williams' Audible show is no longer available "due to licensing contracts expiring," which sucks because it'd be really nice to re-experience Williams the radio host and what his free-form humor was like when he wasn't playing to a theater crowd, a studio audience or a club full of drunks. In all the time I've spent up in San Francisco, I never got to meet or stumble into Williams, who called San Francisco home and preferred it over showbiz-minded L.A. ("I once got stopped by a cop [in L.A.] and he handed me a script"), but I was always curious about what he was like off-stage or without any cameras to play to. Williams' guest appearances on WTF and Harmontown offer some good glimpses of what that true--and rather shy--self was like.

The 2010 WTF episode, which Maron removed from premium subscriber-only status immediately after Williams' death so that he could let everyone access the episode, makes for poignant listening now, not just because it features a soft-spoken Williams being honest and candid with Maron--who's had similar struggles with drugs and divorce--about his relapse while filming a movie in Alaska, his divorces, the accusations that he was a joke thief and the moments of depression he (and David Letterman) experienced after heart surgery. It's also because the WTF episode--the episode that was my first exposure to Maron's podcast, as well as many listeners' first exposure to WTF--is like the passing of the torch from a short-lived early podcaster to a podcaster who has gone on to do much more with digital media than Williams even achieved as part of Audible and has turned into a podcasting pioneer. While it's mostly serious, Williams' WTF installment is still funny as hell, like when he recalled how the shooting of Awakenings in New York got disrupted by a wino who was a De Niro fan or when he imagined a conversation with his own conscience. Williams was even more subdued during his brief 2013 appearance on Harmontown with Bobcat Goldthwait, who, as a filmmaker, got perhaps my favorite dramatic performance out of Williams in the dark comedy World's Greatest Dad.

On the night of the recording of Harmontown, Williams happened to be browsing through comics with Goldthwait at Meltdown Comics, the L.A. comic shop where Harmontown is frequently recorded, and hosts Dan Harmon and Jeff B. Davis surprised the Nerdist Theatre audience by bringing Williams and Goldthwait up to the stage. During the 2013 show, we learn about Williams' tastes in comics (Moebius and Transmetropolitan), which were as hip as his tastes in music (as Questlove recalled on Instagram, Williams once recognized in an elevator the members of the Roots, whose music one of his sons introduced him to, and he fangirled big time over meeting them). It exemplifies something that was so endearing about Williams: as he grew older, he continued to be delighted by new things, whether it was a younger comedian's work, a Warren Ellis comic or the sounds of Questlove and Black Thought. And like the WTF conversation, the Harmontown episode provides a glimpse of Williams' shyness.

When Williams wasn't on, like the way he was on stage at the Met or while promoting his latest movie at a press junket or on a talk show, he came across as a genuinely shy and humble person who felt more comfortable when he was channeling other characters--like "Robin Williams"--than when he was being himself. In the coming weeks, we're going to hear ad nauseum about "the clown who was crying on the inside" a la Bill Murray in Quick Change or Pagliacci. I'm already sick of that goddamn cliché. Using that cliché to describe his depression is as tired as all those Williams movie trailers that were soundtracked with James Brown's "I Feel Good." As those podcast appearances demonstrate, Williams was complicated, much like depression itself. That complicatedness is part of why we liked Williams and now miss him.

Friday, August 8, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Space Dandy, "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby"

'Next time on Fishing with John here on the Independent Film Channel...'
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.

Story-wise, "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby" is one of the most straightforward episodes in Space Dandy's run. The plot can be easily summarized in just 15 words or less (Dandy and a bunch of fishermen try to catch a highly prized big fish); Dandy-chasing Dr. Gel never shows up to try to complicate things; and the settings are confined to just the lake in both the cold open and the conclusion, the Aloha Oe and the pre-industrial fishermen's planet of Kayu, so there are no cutaways to Dr. Gel's ship, the Boobies restaurant, the Alien Registration Center or some other wacky dimension.

The simplicity and relaxed nature of this redundantly titled episode initially takes some getting used to. But once the episode starts rolling an enjoyable montage of mostly inanimate stills of Dandy's various fishing trips with his little girl sidekick Erssime (Seiran Kobayashi) to nab the elusive Munagi, which appears once every 3600 years, "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby" sets its hooks in you, no pun intended. It's also perhaps the least sci-fi-inflected Space Dandy episode, save for the twist of Kayu's giant fish turning out to have been inhabitants of a comet that returns to pick them up and presumably drop them off on some other planet, where they'll hopefully devour the entire cast of Hillbilly Handfishin'.

Dandy spends the entire episode fishing in a thong. Somewhere, some crazy fuck's putting together an AMV of clips from this episode mixed with 'Thong Song' by Sisqo.
After several high-concept outings--like the season premiere's chaotic collision of parallel Dandys, which was basically an excuse for the animators to do a "Don't Touch That Dial"-esque spoof of a bunch of anime franchises that are way more popular than Space Dandy currently is in Japan, or last week's singing-and-dancing installment--it's nice to get to relax a little and be subjected to an idyllic and less narratively busy Dandy adventure. And I can't believe it's taken me 18 episodes to realize this, but all the shots of Dandy getting drenched in mud or floating around in the air or sea during "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby" made me notice that Dandy, who sometimes resembles the extremely punchable Jeffrey Wells, is more of a dead ringer for the greaser in Schoolhouse Rock's "A Victim of Gravity" short.

At times, the laid-back feel of "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby" is reminiscent of the "Ed gets reunited with her long-lost dad" episode of Cowboy Bebop, Space Dandy general director Shinichiro Watanabe's earlier show. But the odd beauty of both Kayu's muddy and overcast landscapes and the episode itself is unmistakably Studio Ghibli-esque. It's no surprise that the special guest director of "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby" is Kiyotaka Oshiyama, who did key animation for the Ghibli films The Secret World of Arrietty and The Wind Rises (he also designed the mecha in "Even Vacuum Cleaners Fall in Love, Baby").

Ghibli is known for taking things like mud and grime and making them look beauteous and remarkable, which is what "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby" does as well. The studio has also been in the news lately because of rumors that it will stop producing animation following Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki's recent retirement, and the heartbreak over Ghibli's possible demise casts a bit of a grim pall over "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby." It's like hearing that Titmouse Inc. suddenly decided to call it a day or receiving news that Pixar will close up shop. A world without Ghibli is like a world without any fish to catch, which is what happens to Kayu at the end of "The Big Fish Is Huge, Baby." What is the world to do now?

Friday, August 1, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Space Dandy, "The Transfer Student Is Dandy, Baby"

'I'm Cosmo Kramer, the Assman!'
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.

Musical episodes aren't my cup of tea. Usually, they're the kind of episode that's way more fun for the actors involved than for the viewer, especially a viewer like me who doesn't care for musical theater (and prefers musicals only when they're strictly satirical, like South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut or Community's "Regional Holiday Music"). But "The Transfer Student Is Dandy, Baby," Space Dandy's musical episode, is a rare case where it's vice versa. It helps that the songs aren't too awful. In most musical episodes, the enjoyment the actors must have had from reliving performing arts summer camp (or channeling it) while they worked on the episode just doesn't translate for viewers like me, whereas "The Transfer Student Is Dandy, Baby," penned by special guest writer Hayashi Mori, a playwright and J-drama writer, soars on the basis of Mori's solid writing, fanciful animation and a climactic musical number that contains lyrics like "Ass, ass, ass, ass, ass, ass! Come on, ass!"

Dandy, a middle school dropout, gets to experience high school when he pretends to be a transfer student at famous Baberly Hills High, "the setting for a lot of dramas," in order to track down a rare Category-A "Cliponian" alien and bring her to the Alien Registration Center (Cliponians are distinctive for transforming from plain-looking to attractive when they find their mates). The high school setting gives Mori and the animators a chance to reference all kinds of works. Your response to whatever past high school movies or shows are referenced during "The Transfer Student Is Dandy, Baby" gives away how old you are. If your thoughts during the episode were "This is an awful lot like Grease" or "Dandy's prom suit mashes up Travolta's suits from Grease and Saturday Night Fever," you were a '70s kid. If your response was either "I'm having flashbacks to Galaxy High School," "This training montage is straight out of Better Off Dead and the Rocky sequels (okay, Rocky's not exactly the high school genre, but whatever)" or "Dandy's giving off a creepy Wooderson vibe in these early scenes," you were an '80s kid like me. If you immediately exclaimed either "Glee!," "High School Musical!" or "A non-violent Kill la Kill!" and said something along those lines on Twitter, you're a zygote.

Speaking of age, Dandy may be in his 20s or 30s, but unlike many of the student characters in the two 21 Jump Street movies (which poked fun at how the undercover cops on the original Jump Street were too easily accepted as high-schoolers by civilians and criminals), no one at Baberly Hills cares that Dandy looks too old to be a student. Instead of Dandy's looks, what Queen Bee Sofia (Yuuka Nanri) and the other popular kids at this singing and dancing school are more concerned with is Dandy's singing and dancing skills. His musical ability doesn't compare to Sofia's, so the mean girl relegates him to the bottom of the social totem pole and designates him an "otaku," along with a mousy-looking alien girl in glasses named Hanahana (Yui Makino) and a couple of other supposed losers. Will Dandy and Hanahana be able to upgrade themselves in time for prom night? Will Dandy find the Cliponian and finally get that bounty he's yearning for? Will Dr. Gel finally be face-to-face with the pompadoured alien hunter he's yearning to capture?

If questions two and three ended in "yes," the series would be over (we have a lot more episodes to go). As for prom night, Dandy and Hanahana make like Donna Summer and work hard for the money in an '80s training montage parody that, frankly, was done to better effect in Wet Hot American Summer and on South Park, and together, all the otakus manage to bring an end to the school's evil caste system in a prom night number that immediately won me over with lyrics like a refrain that's "Ass is all!" in Japanese (FUNimation's English dub modifies it to "Booty is all!").

Notice how her eyes look like sideways butt cheeks, which foreshadows her 'healthy young butt cheeks' in the climax.

Even Sofia is won over by the "Viva All!" number as well, and she ends up joining the otakus in abandoning the caste system. Part of why "The Transfer Student Is Dandy, Baby" stands out as a musical episode is its brief length--it's over before you know it, and fortunately, it doesn't drone on for 42 minutes or more--but it's also a standout because of the way it delivers its pro-underdog message, not through any speechifying, which proliferated all the preachy American animated shows that dominated the decade that much of the episode is an homage to, but through irreverent lines like "Ass is all!"

Stray observations:
* In addition to a sight gag involving the teleportation device from the David Cronenberg version of The Fly and a jock whose character design is modeled after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Slimer makes a cameo during Sofia's expositiony caste system number and is seen wearing a hat that resembles--but isn't quite exactly--the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man's hat.

Hey! Keep it in. Cut it out. Kick it out. Oh, oh, Onionhead.

* The shot of the school's Sentinel-like security guard robot stopping the merged jock bullies from Hulking out at the prom is my favorite example of how striking this musical episode looks.

Pacific Rim: The Lean Years

* Was an entire subplot about a long-suffering janitor and his two-timing wife cut out of the episode? The duet between the janitor, who doesn't speak elsewhere, and his wife, who sings about an affair with some other alien, during the "Viva All!" number is all that remains of this obviously deleted subplot.

* Feminist viewers probably won't care for Dandy objectifying Hanahana to boost her self-esteem during the climactic number. But it'd be boring if Dandy were enlightened Alan Alda in space instead of the Johnny Bravo-ish jerk who frequently gets his comeuppance, and he gets that here when he fails to put two and two together and notice that Hanahana is the Cliponian who's been "chweeting" anonymously about her Cliponian heritage.

* Why hasn't anybody told me a Space Dandy score album was released in March? I'm crazy about the original music on this show, especially the Japanese duo LUVRAW & BTB's Zapp & Roger-inspired "Anatato" from "Even Vacuum Cleaners Fall in Love, Baby," and I'd love to include more of it in AFOS' "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" playlist.

I still think Dandy looks like the extremely punchable Jeffrey Wells from Hollywood Elsewhere.
A Space Dandy cosplayer at last week's San Diego Comic-Con (Photo source: Fuck Yeah Space Dandy)