Archive for the ‘TV shows’ Category

MadMan! My friends are the best!

I went to a Christmas/New Year party last weekend, and my buddy Doug Ferguson got my 2014 off to a very good start by presenting me with the pictured issue of “Mad” magazine, signed by writer Dick DeBartolo. Thanks Doug!

Doug’s a tech guy, and he’s a fan of DeBartolo’s netcast “The Giz Wiz,” in which he talks about gadgets. I myself am not a tech guy, but I still listened to “The Giz Wiz” on Doug’s recommendation, and found it highly entertaining. By the way, be sure to check out Doug’s blog here.

My familiarity with DeBartolo comes from his status as a long-time writer for “Mad,” going back to the early 1960s. He specialized in the movie and TV satires, which were usually my favorite parts of the magazine when I was a kid. He also wrote an account of his experiences in “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

So I started leafing through the signed copy of “Mad,” and thinking about how much I loved that magazine as a kid. I’d like to think that when I was writing “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report,” DeBartolo and “The Usual Gang of Idiots” (the appellation by which the magazine’s editorial staff customarily referred to themselves) were kicking around in my subconscious.

If so, I wouldn’t be the first one to cite “Mad” as an influence. So have writers with “The Simpsons” and “The Onion.” Even Joyce Carol Oates has sung its praises.

I stopped reading it at roughly the time I entered high school, around 1981. When I was in grade school, I first started reading the new issues that came out in the late 1970s. Then I started buying second-hand issues from earlier years, as well as paperbacks showcasing material from the 1950s and ’60s. I loved it all.

Here’s the funny thing — much as I hungrily devoured every issue I could get my hands on, I always felt vaguely depressed after reading them for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time. In retrospect, I think the reason tied in with why I found them so fascinating.

Social critic Tim Gitlin once described Mad as “bubble gum nihilism,” which strikes me as a very apt description. Looking back, I marvel at the balancing act that the writers and artists of “Mad” managed to pull off. They kept it ostensibly within the realm of children’s entertainment, always toeing that line but never quite crossing it. (I noted in the issue Doug got me that they’re still using the word “dreck” as a thinly veiled substitute for “shit.”)

What amazes me, given those strictures, is how subversive, bracing, sharp and ultimately bleak they managed to make the humor. Even in gloriously sardonic comedy such as “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development,” you get glimpses of redeeming intentions and behavior. Not so with “Mad.” Its sensibility was more analogous to “Eastbound & Down” or “Archer.” Unremitting in its cynicism. Every emotion, every action, every institution, every human impulse was ultimately grounded in venal self-interest, lust, or stupidity. Nobody and nothing was above mockery. The Usual Gang of Idiots were simply hanging back and reporting on it with knowing smirks on their faces — advising you that existence is nothing but an unkind joke, so you might as well laugh at it. I can’t begin to describe how refreshing that was for me, as a Catholic school boy from suburban South Jersey raised on Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books.

(And for the record, based on the netcast, Dick DeBartolo sounds like a wonderful human being. That’s often the case — people with the most cynical, biting sense of humor in print turn out to be the nicest people when you meet them in person. Maybe because they have a means of getting it out of their system.)

As I leaf through this recent issue of “Mad,” it looks a lot different from the magazine I remember. It’s in color, and printed on slick paper. I don’t recognize most of the artists and writers. It’s full of references to modern pop culture and technology.

But it’s still sharp. It’s still lively. And most importantly, it’s still funny.

So Alfred E. Neuman, my friend, it’s good to see you again after all these years. Thanks for the laughs. (Eccch! What a load of dreck!)

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superfriendsA recent article on The Onion A.V. Club brought back some memories. It dealt with all of the knockoffs that Hanna-Barbera crapped out in the 1970s after the success of “Scooby Doo, Where are You?”

Among them was “Super Friends,” which debuted in 1973. Apparently there was a later iteration. But the version I watched as a kid featured a crime-fighting team consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, and Aquaman.

Also along for the ride were a couple of teenagers named Wendy and Marvin, who had no superpowers or any particular talents that lent themselves to crime-fighting. Their presence was never explained. Made me wonder if that prompted any behind-the-scenes discussions like this:

Wonder Woman: OK, this isn’t on the agenda. But it needs to be addressed. Can someone explain to me why Wendy and Marvin are on the payroll? They don’t contribute anything. And we spend half our time in the field trying to keep their pimply little asses from getting killed.

Superman: Ask Aquaman. He said that if Batman gets to have Robin, then he gets to have a couple of “special friends” too.

Wonder Woman: OK, that’s REALLY creepy.

Superman: Says the woman whose entire superpower is based on binding people up with rope.

OK, here’s a clip from the Rankin Bass special where Charlie in the Box shows up. Ever wish you could explain to him that the problem might not be his name, so much as the fact that he comes across like the kind of guy who’d get arrested for exposing himself on public transportation systems?

I’m making my way through Olivier Assayas’ miniseries “Carlos,” a fictionalized account of Carlos the Jackal’s life and career. I’m impressed. I think it does a good job in its presentation of Carlos. The series shows him for exactly what he was — a murderous fanatic with a knack for self-promotion. But actor Édgar Ramírez manages to convey the personal charisma that led apparently sane people to team up with him.

One thing I found interesting is the evocation of the 1970s, and the widespread atmosphere — at least in the circles where Carlos traveled — of “radical chic.” This is a milieu where people try to one-up each other with the extent of their commitment to revolutionary causes, and spit out the term “petit bourgeois” like it’s the vilest of  insults.

I was a kid in the 1970s, and grew up in a decidedly unhip suburban setting. If anybody in Marlton, N.J., was having marijuana-fueled discussions on Marxist theory late into the night, I was never invited to those parties.

My knowledge that something was afoot came mainly from the movies I’d watch on the portable black-and-white TV set I’d lug up to my bedroom. From the late 60s through the 70s, subversive subtexts were as ubiquitous as big sideburns in movies.

Some movies easily stand out when you’re looking for examples. “All the President’s Men.” “Z.” “The Parallax View.”

But how about “Star Wars?” You don’t really think of Star Wars as a subversive film, simply because it was so financially successful. George Lucas practically invented the summer mega-blockbuster, which is the very antithesis of radical film-making.

Still, the first movie in particular — and the next two sequels to a lesser extent — was very much a product of the 1970s.

The good guys were rebels and criminals, taking down an imperialist empire. They get assistance from indigenous people carrying out a guerrilla campaign on their home turf, using primitive but deadly weapons fashioned from materials occurring naturally in their terrain. (Describing Ewoks in that fashion makes them sound a lot more badass than the annoying little teddy bears that actually appeared onscreen.)

So did Star Wars represent a kind of stealth radicalism, sneaking into our collective consciousness in the form of a seemingly innocuous science fiction movie? Or am I reading WAY too much into this?

I just finished Season 5 of Dexter on Netflix. Wow! I’ve got friends who are working their way through the series, so I don’t want to give away any spoilers. And since I don’t have cable and do all my TV-watching via Netflix, I’d appreciate if you’d return the favor should you currently be following Season 6 on Showtime. Tell me anything about it and I’ll pack my tools and plastic sheeting, seek you out and … No, I won’t do that. But I will be a trifle miffed.

Suffice it to say that I thought the show would never be able to top Season 4. Yet it did.

Which got me thinking about the books by Jeff Lindsay that inspired the show, and how they compare. Simply put — there is no comparison.

Yeah, it always makes me feel like kind of a Philistine when I say that movies or TV shows are better than the original book or books on which they’re based. Because usually, they’re not. But this is a case where the TV show isn’t simply better. It blows the books out of the water.

As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, I’m a fan of Dexter. My introduction to the series came when I picked up the second Jeff Lindsay book, “Dearly Devoted Dexter,” from the library on a whim.

I thought it was … OK. The premise, a new twist on the Miami noir sub-genre of crime fiction,  and the gleeful amorality of the whole enterprise made for a perversely enjoyable read. I thought it could have been better. But I enjoyed it enough to pick up the first book in the series, “Darkly Dreaming Dexter.” Again, I found it entertaining enough, but nothing to rave about.

Then came the series. Man!

It took a lot of raw material from the first book — many of the same characters, the same basic premise — and took it to far more interesting and rewarding places. The TV series was challenging, suspenseful and psychologically complex, while losing none of the playful archness of the books. It worked on so many levels, too. Police procedural. Ruthless deconstruction of the vigilante hero trope. A coming-of-age story made all the more unsettling by being weirdly touching.

What I admired most was the way the show relentlessly f**ks with you, the viewer. You find yourself helplessly rooting for Dexter, even as you wonder what’s was wrong with you for doing so.

Don’t get me wrong. The show’s not perfect. There’s a lot of filler. I mean, does anyone really give a shit about the romantic lives of Dexter’s co-workers? Other than a few glitches, though, the show’s still maintained that level of quality through five seasons.

But the books? I’ve read two more. And they both royally sucked.

After that first season of shared genetic material, the books and the TV show have gone in completely different directions. Characters dead in the books are alive in the show, and vice versa.

The book “Dexter in the Dark” added a goofy fantasy element. Dexter’s “dark passenger”  is no longer part of his twisted subconscious, but a demonic entity derived from the ancient god Moloch. Say whaaat?

The next one I read was “Dexter is Delicious.” Lindsay, wisely, dropped the whole Moloch subplot by then, but I still wasn’t impressed.

An element that bothered me about “Dearly Devoted Dexter” became more pronounced in the subsequent books. Basically, Dexter ended up a bystander and a victim. Throughout the books, he talks up his own ruthlessness and brilliance.Then he ends up with the (more evil) villains getting the drop on him, passively waiting for someone else to come in and save his ass. In light of his apparent overestimation of his own gifts, he comes across as a self-deluded braggart. And kind of a wuss.

Given Lindsay’s obvious fondness for alliterative titles, I suggest the following for his next book. “Dexter: Damsel in Distress.”

Now I’m counting the days until Season 6 is available on Netflix.