I'm So Anxious: The Complementary Themes of 'Louie' and 'Girls'

While binging on Netflix and OnDemand over the holidays, Season Three of Louie and Season One of Girls deserve back-to-back viewing.

It’s not only the best way to get a picture of what counted as avant-garde television (I’m cringing as I write that phrase) in 2012, but also helps us see how these very different shows deal with similar themes of loneliness, generational anxiety, failed aspirations, and familial love — often simply from opposite approaches. By watching each series in the context of the other’s perspective, we learn more about both.

To argue this, it’s best to look at two of their respective season’s highlights: two episodes that seem to mirror each other in both formal and thematic ways, while getting at the core issues that both shows address. READ MORE


Chris Ware's 'Building Stories': Finding Joy in the Most Unexpected Places

No one seems to think Chris Ware is very funny these days.

Judging by most of the reviews of his recent Building Stories — a graphic novel comprised of fourteen differently shaped comics packaged into a fifty-dollar, several-pound box — Ware has tapped directly into the goopy primordial stuff of human misery. At its simplest, Building Stories is about the inhabitants of three apartments in a Chicago three-flat near Humboldt Park, and about how their lives intersect and then break away from each other.

It has no set beginning or end, and the reader controls how to move through the narrative. In this way, the book plays with our idea about how time works in ordinary life, while wreaking havoc on what we think a comic book should look like. I’ve had the damn thing for two months now and I still can’t get my head entirely around it.

Its difficulty complicates the nameless heroine’s gripe about what counts as literature.

"Why does every 'great book' have to be about criminals and perverts?" she asks. "Can't I just find one that's about regular people living everyday life?"

Fair enough, but mightn’t we as easily ask “Does every ‘great book’ have to be so damn difficult to read? And cost $50? And weigh 30 pounds? Can it even be a comic book in the first place?” READ MORE


'All in the Family' and the First Gay Sitcom Character

In February 1971, All in the Family became the first sitcom to bring a gay man into America’s wallpapered, shag-carpeted, plaid-couched living rooms.

And he turned out to be a former linebacker.

It was only the show’s fifth episode. The Gay Rights Movement was still getting off the ground in earnest — the first Pride Parades had taken place the previous summer — but I can’t find an earlier sitcom representation of an openly gay character. For some insight into how shocking the half-hour had been for some viewers, one need look no farther than the Oval Office (the same room from which President Obama announced his “evolved” position on gay marriage this month). In sometimes-graphic language, President Nixon reveals that he was not a fan.

In any case, viewers still had no idea what to make of Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor), whose bigotry struck some critics as more inflammatory than satirical. As the New York Times put it in January, “The message sounds like ‘hate thy neighbor.’” There was no guarantee that Norman Lear’s comedy would hang around for very long and CBS considered burying the show in a 10:30 timeslot. READ MORE


Hamlet's Arrested Development: Teaching Shakespeare and the Bluths

I’m almost the same age as Hamlet.

This occurred to me at 3 AM on the night before I had to teach a class on Hamlet and Arrested Development. I had started to fall asleep on top of my computer, and dragged myself to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face.

When I looked up from the sink, the news in the mirror wasn’t good.

A patch of white hair in my right eyebrow had marched eastward, a thickening index of the unchecked free radicals cartwheeling through my body. Purplish circles sagged under my eyes, fed by lack of sleep and grief at the recent death of my grandfather. Eight days of facial hair had grown unchecked into a spindly patchwork of black and blonde. And a pint of post-midnight coffee had set my left eyelid aflutter.

It’s dangerous business to read Hamlet after midnight, given the play’s constant considerations of mortality and the ethics of suicide (cf. Act III, Scene 1: “what dreams may come, / when we have shuffled off this mortal coil / must give us pause,” etc, etc).

But if you’re going to teach Shakespeare, I figured, you might as well look insane. READ MORE


Love and Annie Hall

Annie Hall isn’t a Valentine’s Day movie, though I always watch it on Valentine’s Day. It’s not a romantic comedy, though in some ways it solidified the premises of the genre. It won Allen his only Oscar for Best Director, though it’s arguably not his best film (try to argue the point with a fan of Hannah and Her Sisters if you want to have a stroke). It’s one of the funniest movies ever made, even though it doesn’t exactly make one hopeful about the prospects of ever having a “healthy” relationship. And like so much of Allen’s work, if it’s a love song at all, it’s dedicated to New York.

And so on.

Criticism of Allen’s eighth directorial effort has become a series of clichés and one-liners. How can we complicate those clichés to understand how the work enriches our understanding of love/sex/self/relationships? The work’s NY-centric humor, idiom of relentless self-reflection, and gleeful self-consciousness of itself as a film distinguish it from so many of our own moment’s generic portrayals of romantic love. It can also make Annie Hall seem like a relic of a different time — when Manhattan lay in ruins; when references to the Borscht Belt had cultural purchase; and when most of the country (not just Rick Santorum’s campaign staff) thought that all New Yorkers were “left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.”

But the film’s ambivalence about love — and its arrival at this ambivalence by way of Allen’s best articulation of a neurotic worldview — continues to make it compelling. It takes seriously a question that far too few movies will consider touching: if garden-variety relationships take such hard work and have the capacity to hurt us so badly, then why do we bother at all?

Or as young Alvy Singer puts it to his pediatrician: “What’s the point?” READ MORE


Comedy After 9/11: Sincerity and Irony

Comedy felt frivolous, and in some cases downright insensitive in the weeks after September 11, 2001. This was not lost on television’s funny men, who gave solemn monologues with knotted throats and fists, asking for forgiveness for their chosen profession. In an effort to explain the serious sincerity of his own reflections and those of other hosts, Jon Stewart suggested, “It’s something that unfortunately we do for ourselves so that we can drain whatever abscess is in our hearts. So that we can move on.” David Letterman similarly asked for the “patience and indulgence” of his audience and explained, “If we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a few minutes.”

In other words, laughter could be the best medicine, sure. But it needed to be taken with a healthy dose of reflection about comedy’s essential purpose.

Today, these monologues strike me as curious artifacts of the immediate post-9/11 moment. To hear two of the most sarcastic satirists on television give thoughtful, tearful reflections on the emotional underpinnings of their craft — and on their faith in America — certainly provided enough evidence to support one interpretation of Roger Rosenblatt’s famous pronouncement of irony’s death in Time. We had entered a new age, of as-yet indeterminate length, in which sincerity would rule as the predominant sentiment. READ MORE


Errol Morris's High Life Man and the Changing Idea of Masculinity

Errol Morris’s hilarious new movie Tabloid premiered over the weekend to rave reviews. Morris is best known for documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, but my first encounter with his work (though I didn’t know it) was on TV. Between 1998 and 2005, he directed an extensive series of commercials for Miller High Life, starring “The High Life Man."

Morris himself considers the more than 100 ads, “his most impressive achievement.” All of the spots are available online, and they benefit from serial and even repeated consumption, preferably with a High Life in hand.

(I should mention: they are very effective beer commercials.) READ MORE


Calvin and Hobbes and the Trouble with Nostalgia

My Calvin and Hobbes anthologies sat unread at home on the highest shelf of my parents’ living room bookcase for almost ten years. My father sent them to me last week, and when they arrived in a beat-up box lined with tennis ball cans (don’t ask), I couldn’t even think of the last time I flipped through Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat or Weirdos from Another Planet, or any of the 12 collections my mom bought me when I was a kid. Not everyone had an obsession with Calvin and Hobbes, but I sure thought they were a riot, and still do now.

I first opened Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, which I remember getting at one of my elementary school’s book fairs. In the title story, stitched together from strips that appeared between December 31, 1990 and January 19, 1991, Calvin believes he has brought a snowman to life. This snowman goes on to build an army that terrorizes the neighborhood. But Calvin’s parents and his arch enemy neighbor Susie Derkins don’t play along. When Calvin explains that he’s hiding in his snow fort from snow goons, Susie replies, “Oh is that what all those ugly things you made in the front yard are?” His father similarly asks, “Why can’t you make a normal snowman?” No one sees the world the way Calvin sees it, and the tension between Calvin’s imagination and the mundane real world of school, chores, homework, dinner, and baths, provides the central source of conflict and humor in the strip. READ MORE


20 Years Later, Looking Back at the Twisted Genius of Ren and Stimpy

Ren and Stimpy turns 20 years old this summer, and I kicked off celebrations by watching one of my favorite episodes, Space Madness.

It opens in Ren and Stimpy’s trailer, where the duo is getting ready to watch Stimpy’s “favorite live action drama,” Commander Höek and Stimpy. Stimpy grabs his anti-gravity chewing gum and his “genuine super elastic time shorts,” and we get a unique shot from behind as the pair tunes in to the beginning of the show. From the outset, the episode toys with our sense of the real and the fictional, conflating our world with the cartoon world. It’s a hallmark trick of creator John Kricfalusi, who directed the first two seasons — one that allows him to take viewers not just to a different planet, but to something that seems like an entirely different dimension.

“It is not I who am crazy,” Captain Höek says later in Space Madness. He floats midair in a cube of bathwater, eating a bar of soap that he believes is an ice cream bar, having fallen victim to a strange cabin fever-like mental disease. “It is I who am mad.” In the world of Ren and Stimpy, there’s only one choice. You’re either crazy or mad. This stands as the show’s crucial insight about our own world: its thesis about how we perceive ourselves and interact with each another. And it makes for essential watching, even twenty years after the series premiered. READ MORE


The Personal Politics of Parks and Rec

This year, NBC didn’t wait to renew Parks and Recreation. The shortened third season of the popular sitcom concludes tonight with a double-feature finale — the second week in a row that NBC will air two successive episodes on the same evening. A full fourth season will begin this fall.

Leading the way with the blessing of her libertarian ur-man boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the increasingly competent and confident Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) has spent this season saving and subsequently revitalizing Pawnee’s Parks and Rec Department. The show’s success seems due to its ability to weave the personal motivations of Leslie and her supporting cast into themes about government’s ability to get things done.

Yet the relationship between the personal and political — between Leslie and her department — has been simplified in commentaries on the show. For example, in a brief Time.com piece entitled "Homeland Sincerity" James Poniewozik suggests, "Ultimately, Parks is a comedy […] about how politics is people."  Poniewozik correctly points out that the show marks a departure from the increasingly exhausting irony of sister NBC comedies The Office and 30 Rock. In irony's place we get comedic sincerity: characters that have a genuine investment in their work, as well as in their relationships with one another.

But the show isn't just about sincere, lovie-dovie friendships. It's also about how individuals weave that sincerity into political machinery. That is: politics is people, sure — but it's also still institutions that get things done. To write off Parks as a saccharine love song dedicated to folksy bureaucrats misses an important point about the show’s particular view of local politics. READ MORE