Archive for July, 2015

Conan at Comic-Con


Conan O’Brien killed it at Comic-Con. In the packed historic Spreckles Theater (yes, that is its real name), he delivered jokes from a huge spaceship stage bedecked with three enormous screens. They prominently displayed his face like the comedy overlord he was to a packed crowd roaring at his every silly gesture.

Over the course of his four day run at the convention, he littered the stage with gags, as well as some high-power guests. He interviewed the whole casts of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. J-Law and the Hunger Games cast came by. And then on Sunday, he caused a sensation when he was visited by not only Peter Capaldi, the Doctor (of Doctor Who, who else?), and Michael Fassbender and the cast of X-Men: Apocalypse.

Michel Cieply in The New York Times called Conan’s episodes at the convention a refreshing “bit of old fashioned show-business.” What was refreshing, presumably, was to see a show from mainstream late night TV at this convention filled with fandom for characters and franchises built mainly out of alternative forms of media. But what was more striking, for longtime fans of Conan’s comedy, was precisely how much he has figured out how to cater to this audience, five years into hosting his TBS show.

In retrospect the transformation should have been rather obvious, given Conan’s rather self-conscious and awkward brand of humor. His antics have always been a cross between doltish cartoon clownishness and self-mocking hyper-awareness, ripe for the audience of a convention that celebrates the zany, over-the-top, and unbridled aesthetic of the comic book, and yet to that very extent remains wary of the excesses of mainstream entertainment commercialism. Appropriately, his jokes–always excessive and camp undercut with a heavy dollop of self-defeating absurdism–landed perfectly. (Perhaps his most pithy was when he introduced himself on at the beginning of his third show: “Hi, I’m Conan O’Brien. At Comic-Con I’m Spider-Man in the streets, the Flash in the sheets.”) And from the get-go he was dancing around on the stage, utterly charming to the theater with his puppety gangly body, asking them to give back some of the collectible merchandise he was handing out (because of course the show doesn’t have the largest budget).

But the breadth of the appeal in this community wasn’t by any means inevitable. Conan was the host of the Tonight Show, after all. And Conan’s comedy, as anyone who watched his surprisingly classy run on that show knows, emerges from a respect for this mainstream of broadcast TV as much as cheeky Letterman-like rebellion against it. The “character” Conan always says he plays (most recently in the last episode of this last season of David Steinberg’s Inside Comedy) is that of “someone who wants to do a talk show.” This goofy reverence is captured entirely in his signature little move: the clumsy knocking over of the mic followed with a clumsy self-reassuring smile into the camera. This is not to say that Conan ever ends up looking as slick as his idols: just that the particular zany nature of his comedy involved parodying a series of classic TV tropes that are precisely very mainstream.

The shows at Comic-Con revealed a production team hard at work on bending this classic showbiz aesthetic around to accommodate this new, unabashedly “alternative” audience. The first episode used the classic variety-show character sketches he does to bring in a missing killer whale from Sea World disguised as Yoda. The band was brought in on the nerd-dom, in a particularly great bit: an astronaut harmonica player joined them, only to have an alien burst out of his chest and play a saxophone (all of them jammed together into a commercial break). The large casts invited all onstage at once made the interviews feel more like panel discussions. Finally, there was a wonderful segment where Conan rewrote his origins story. We find out Conan survived a massive H-bomb attack—a “hilarity bomb” that made him irresistibly funny forever after. Andy reminded him the actual story was that he was a writer on The Simpsons and got the call for Late Night, but dwelling so long in the fantasy and its heroic narrative almost made this rather remarkable showbusiness story seem prosaic.

It has been a long journey for Conan after losing the Tonight Show gig. His devoted fans have been with him all the way, of course, and in a way the whole debacle over the last few years has allowed him to reconnect with them. At the same time, however, what Comic-Con made clear is that he is building a new fanbase in some of the most desired demographics out there. What he will do with that is not clear yet—one of the longtime running gags of his (featured prominently in his “Clueless Gamer” series) is that he is bored by nerds and video games. But at Comic-Con he was clearly doing more than importing an old paradigm there. Conan O’Brien has positioned himself to become the king of the fanboys and fangirls.

True Detective, “Down Will Come”

When the critics took a look at the first three episodes of True Detective that HBO handed to them, they generally concluded that it would be a story where the characters develop and confront their problems. Because it was set in the present, these characters’ pasts were going to give way, at some point, to something happening in the future. Each investigator looked like they were wallowing in something. Dwelling over old stuff. Still scarred from old wounds. But they also looked like they could move past them. There was just enough that was wrong, and just enough that was right in them, that they could do something more. You saw the hope that was left in them. And the positive LA culture around them only made their problems seem self-imposed, as if they were downers that could, with a slightly more chipper attitude, turn things around. This episode, Paul’s old boyfriend tells him that “all you have to do is just let go,” i.e. stop being so controlling and accept himself. It generally seemed like that was all that had to happen for stuff to turn up roses. Roses, at any rate, were in the picture—we weren’t anywhere so bleak where that hope was completely shut off and shut down.

Well, it turns out LA is in fact a fairly bleak place. Last week I myself told the show that it needed to pick up the pace on developments if it were going to portray any significant changes in these characters. But I, like many people, might have missed the point. This isn’t a show that is dwelling in the past and will move forward into the present, like the last series. This is a show that is going to delve even deeper into the past, plunge its characters even more into self-loathing, and to try and solve a mystery that happened not in the present but long ago. No one is moving on from what ails them. Everybody involved is going to meet their fate and be driven to their doom not moving forward, but in moving back. We’re going to get a lot of destruction. And whoever is left will not be because they triumphed over anything. It will be because they survived something catastrophic. Just like at the end of this episode, when Ani’s mission to capture a key lead ends in a massive failure and a clusterfuck of a shootout. The three investigators make it out alive, but not many more people do, and “alive” is about as good as anybody will be said to be doing by the show’s close.

That sounds dark and interesting, just as serious as the show would like things to be. It remains to be seen whether the producers True Detective can actually pull this off, and I don’t think it will ever pull it off to the extent that they wants to. The show carries itself way too seriously, sees its darkness as a mission against the unseriousness of other television. There’s nothing to be said for this type of indignant intensity and self-righteousness other than what it does by accident, which was apparently everything great in the last season. But you have to admit this is a more compelling direction for the show to be going than the one we were stuck in, and it certainly made this episode interesting to watch. Everyone seemed to be actually moving forward in their dealing with their wounds—sort of—and even we were getting somewhere in the case. And then it all blew up. And everything that looked like progress was really the impulsiveness of self-destructive patterns asserting themselves again.

There is, after all, an energy to the repression, an energy and even a perverse appeal that attends self-destructiveness. What this episode reminded you of was that this delusional enthusiasm was hounding these characters just as much as their depression—indeed was the reason for the latter. This is so from the moment we wake up with Paul in the apartment of his former overseas lover. It’s right there as he pushes the guy away and gets in a cab. They apparently had a nice evening together, though he doesn’t remember it. Instead, he doesn’t decide to face anything, cries, and looks around to be saved from himself. There is real pain there, and coming to confront what he is dealing with is surely difficult. But then again he’s not really confronting it. Neither does he confront anything when he gets dropped off where his motorcycle was—only to find it stolen—and wanders to his hotel to find the media there. He doesn’t say anything to them, doesn’t push past them, get to his room, and clean himself up. He just gets swarmed and literally runs away, down the block. He calls Ray for help, who comes to pick him up. His protestations of love to his girlfriend later in the episode when she tells him she is pregnant were the very image of desperation. These supposed developments in his life are only putting him further in a hole, it turns out, and if in his depression he realizes how deep this hole is, when he’s out of it he keeps on making the same mistakes.

This was the case with Ray too, at the auto shop with Ani looking at the car driven from the murderer in the last episode. Picking up Paul, he has great words of advice to him. About the press. About himself. Opening his glove compartment, which is full of all sorts of pills to cure hangovers and generally feel good. You see that he may be something of a good caregiving figure, if not the best father. There’s something confident about him in this role—you can see he is comfortable in it. But the problem is, he’s not a father to these coworkers, and above all he’s not this charitable and caring to himself or his family. On the job, away from all that burden, he helps strangers buck up. But with himself he sets the standard too high, is too controlling, and he is too traumatized by the legacy of abuse that he himself suffered to inflict any of this care on those he really loves. Where he acts most freely and is most comfortable turns out to be that very place that makes him so depressed in the rest of the series.

How fragile he has become was revealed in the first really interesting character decision with Ray that Colin Farrell has taken so far. It’s something subtle, something very small. While he’s in the car, telling Paul not to mind the media, that after Iraq everything for Paul should be a cakewalk, he delivers all this fatherly advice at slightly too fast a clip. The statements seem at once a little glib. The truth is they’re not glib: they’re good advice for a bruised ego. But they’re delivered nervously. The reason, Farrell makes you see, is that they are actually rather reckless for Ray: in delivering these comforting thoughts to a receptive audience, he’s slightly scared, because he’s not really used to being so comfortably empowered. It’s a very, very sensitive touch that shows how traumatized he was by his father. But it also explains how he’s become such a crooked cop: being in a position of clear, legal authority allows him to relax and be a softie that he won’t normally allow himself to be. This, in turn, makes him more liable to break more rules. He opens up that glove box and gives Paul some drugs, no doubt obtained illegally just like in the last episode he brings his father some weed he probably scored from the department. Here, we see him indulge in a guilty pleasure when he turns on the sirens and gets the car moving out of a traffic jam, so Paul doesn’t have to agonize too much in the car. Later on, he explains to Frank, who offers him a job at his side, that “I’m not muscle.” It’s true—he’s actually someone who really wants to care for others. But he hates this precise aspect of himself, and needs to feel secure before he can actually be so loving.

Frank is disappointed, of course, to hear this from Ray: he could use some muscle. He’s in the thick of indulging in all his old vices, having started on his vengeful path to regain his fortune two episodes ago. What’s increasingly clear is that this behavior is harder for him to justify, and it may soon cost him his wife. He rehearses a line to Ray that might justify even this: “Sometimes our best self is our worse self,” he says, trying to get Ray over to his dark side. It’s a revealing line as far as Frank goes. But what you quickly realize is that this is the fucked up logic that is actually claiming these characters’ lives. They hate themselves, and everything they think that is carrying them beyond their problematic pasts is in many cases just the result of them making that deal with the devil. It’s very liberating when you realize your best self might be someone no one would like, starting with you yourself: you don’t have to be accountable to anyone or anything.

And of course, when they screw themselves up believing this sort of thing, the only solace for these characters mired more and more in their old destructive habits is some sense of history: the sense that even these errors are, at least, improving on a remarkably shitty past. They were given a hard lot, they tell themselves, and at least they are making do with it. This episode only justifies this view of things, as the course of the investigation reveals connections between the mayor of Vinci and the weird self-enlightenment movements that took place in the 70s and 80s. Besides the location of a crooked pimp friend of Caspere’s named Amarillo, this is the major break in the case, which Ani and Ray discover through some weird detail about soil samples, a rather inexplicable trip up to Fresno, and another meeting with Ani’s guru dad. It is clearer and clearer that the case the cops will have to solve is a typical Gen-X fantasy: that the hippies fucked things up and are now in cahoots to screw over the nation. There is, of course, some truth to this, as there is in all fantasies. But especially right is the sense that because they’ve been so self-involved, there’s no recourse our otherwise able-bodied heroes—their sons and daughters—might go to for advice, for solace, other than self-destruction. These delusions at least don’t involve themselves in their parents’ delusions. We’re left cleaning up the mess of the me-generation, in short. It is also clear that more and more the show will end only when these characters will resolve what happened in those communes long ago, find out how much to blame this bizarre narcissistic generation of their fathers was, and thus how alone their more cynical generation really is in the world.

Ani has the most potential of the cops featured on the show to escape all of this self-destructive thinking, and to resist this pull of the Pizzolatto’s narrative. And so it’s especially frustrating to see her being caught inside it in this episode, with a bizarre sexual harassment investigation after her. She’s suspended from the department because of her flings with the patrol officer Steve who we saw her break up with in the last episode and—bit of a shocker here—her partner. It is clearly all a setup by the Vinci officials, who were angry she was snooping around in the Mayor’s house. And it shows a larger situation that she is dealing with, which is that she is working in a system that takes her vices and uses them against her. She’s not in such dire straits as Ray or Paul—though there’s some sense that she may be in the near future if she’s not careful.

The use of sexual harassment law against her, however, is a strange way for the show to actually put her in such a bind. It’s a little too clever by half. Ani’s problem here is hardly the creation of laws that supposedly can be used to discipline the very people it was meant to protect, which is what the show implies. It’s the culture and unequal structure of the institution in the first place—everything you see in that early shot in the first episode where Ani is alone in the locker room and all the guys are palling around in their own slapping towels. Making the sexual harassment to blame here is increasingly confirming the show suffers from litbro feminism: that typical mansplaining womens-rightsism full of empty self-effacing gestures, here meant to look progressive and respond to critics of the first, very bro-y series but which really only cover up some seriously regressive tendencies. To see sexual harassment law as some kind of fetter, rather than as an equalizing force, betrays the real attitude of this show to the law, which presumably should include the legal achievements of feminism: it thinks the law should be in the hands of cops, not legislators, who confuse its essentially disciplinary nature with enabling and liberating “values,” not least when these laws allow room for women’s desire.

What’s also bad about this bizarre twist of the law against Ani is to suggest that it’s Ani who is to blame for what happens to her. She’s not, of course, and the show makes it clear that her superior is really, infuriatingly patronizing when he suggests that “only someone fucked up would want to date a cop,” as Ani did. But there’s also, clearly, no option for her character in such a universe where such things happen–no other option than than to stifle her desire. It’s no accident, in other words, that the one moment we find it revealed that she expressed her sexuality, everything comes down to punish her. This narrative decision is so intent on proving some of the structural realities of oppression, it doesn’t really care about reflecting the experience of them, which would involve the depiction of something more than her desire’s dire consequences. Again, I’m left thinking that the show doesn’t give any screen time to women’s desire because it doesn’t know how to depict it other than as something that causes problems for Ani.

What the show does know how to depict, tellingly, is her impulsiveness—just like it knows how to depict this in all the men. That Ani calls the shots on going after the lead Amarillo makes the subsequent screwup all the more devastating for her. It’s of course amazing to watch, though we’re less certain of the point: the raid on the building, the slaughter of what seems like dozens of police and bystanders, the crash of the bus, the standoff with Amarillo that leads to his death. But what it also makes clear—besides just how much HBO can really produce something as impressive as any action movie—is that the show only really knows how to give dignity to her character by making her as fallible, if not more fallible, than a bunch of men. I guess that’s more accepting; but there’s a reason why it doesn’t entirely feel that way, too.

And this is why, to me, the show seems to increasingly stand or fall with what happens to Ani. There has to be a way for her to come out of this alive. What Molly Lambert said last week of Ani is (as usual) so right: there’s so much that Rachel McAdams brings to the character. There’s above all a sense of defiance of the fatedness that pollutes the narrative vision Pizzolatto has for his world here: she’s not, usually, making a choice between resignedness and self-destruction like the rest of the men. She’s choosing between survival and gambling. But I’m also increasingly sure that the show is not invested in any redemptive qualities any character might have, and maybe even sees them as a form of indignity—as something that the rest of the men in the story lack (think of Frank) but are more human (according to the show) for lacking. It seems determined to lay everybody low in a big storm of bullets like in that final shootout, and I’m not sure the character is going to escape this drift of things. Everything we may like in what McAdams gives Ani might have to be left behind as the show brings everyone further towards the inevitable dreary heavy-handed tragic conclusion.

True Detective, “Maybe Tomorrow”

I wrote a story once in college and I made sure nothing happened in it. It was for a fiction writing course. I wrote about a family having dinner. I kept all the action as minimal as possible so that when something happened it would blow everyone away. People passed the peas and the chicken, exchanged pleasantries, talked about their day. They exchanged glances, at the very most. I wanted to make it so uneventful that someone knocking over the salt shaker would seem like a bomb went off.

I had indeed a big shocker planned for the end, but the result, predictably enough, was that I put everyone asleep before I could get to it. The story ended up boring as hell. My writing professor sat me down and broke the news to me: writing a story in which nothing happens runs too contrary to the rules of storytelling. Moreover, unless you’re writing Seinfeld, the desire to write something about nothing, and to set the bar for what counts as action so low, stems from huge egoistic overreach: the conviction that, by some stylistic magic, you can transform the insignificant into the interesting. The hard truth is that what’s interesting is what’s interesting, and what isn’t, isn’t.

I wish someone would have given similar advice to Nic Pizzolatto, because this season of True Detective feels a lot like the story I wrote. These first three episodes seem like a deliberate attempt to turn the dial down to zero, so that nearly anything that happens later will seem revelatory. In these first three episodes we get so much background and tone and atmosphere. We get lots of sour glances exchanged between characters. But when we ask what has gone on, we still just have a dead body and no real sense of what happened to it or why. We’re just about as far along as that super self-congratulatory shot in the first episode of the cast being brought together, standing around that corpse. We’re asked in that shot — and increasingly, it seems, in the show as a whole — to accept that gathering a bunch of big name stars there around some mystery should be entertaining enough. The mystery itself isn’t important, and certainly not material for suspense.

Circling around in the first episode (Image: screencap)

One of the real appealing things about the first season, of course, was its slow tempo and the lengthy amount of time that the story took to unfold. But there was genuine suspense that attended this development, as well as two intensely well-developed characters to pique interest and make you ask questions between episodes. Furthermore, because the story was couched so much in the past, the dialogue it had with the present made any development interesting. Here, very little changes. By the end of this third episode, what do we know that we didn’t at the end of the first? We know a bit more about the histories of our characters, though very little about their personalities. We know a little more about a car. But that’s all. We’re basically still where we started.

Ray’s “murder” last week was really the only bombshell so far, and naturally it turns out it wasn’t anything at all. Resolving his father issues is too important to this show to let him go. We find him at the beginning of this episode splayed out on the floor, bleeding a little from his wounds. He has a rather unimaginative dream sequence. He’s talking in the bar with his fully uniformed cop of a dad. Conway Twitty — the internet has identified this Elvislike figure — is crooning under blue stagelights in the background. His dad tells him a dream he had, the singer behind and between them: a typically emasculating fable about how Ray, walking through a forest, will be eaten up by all the tall trees. Ray wakes up, he realizes he just got shot with some pellets used to disperse rioters. This opens up the possibility that the person behind the shooting had access to some cop gear, and so may also be a cop. That’s exciting, kind of. Except, you know, for the fact that there still are very few stakes still to this murder. The only people that seem to be hurt by it — the corrupt people who run Vinci — we don’t give a damn about. That it was committed in a rather gruesome way does nothing either: I can see plenty of weirder murders watching reruns of NCIS.

I guess getting shot a couple times is supposed to have made the case more personal for Ray, and that could count as a development. He foregoes whiskey for water “to stay angry.” He confronts Frank about whether the latter set him up. But nothing about his attitude really feels personal — this was a guy on the brink of suicide last episode, and in this one still doesn’t have a good response to a doctor who asks him whether he wants to live. Indeed, with Frank, it leads to some of the most unconvincing bits of “angry” dialogue I’ve probably ever heard:

Frank: There’s a certain stridency at work here. I’m going to put it off until you get blasted.

Ray: Oh frankly I’m apoplectic.

Frank: I’m feeling a little apoplectic myself.

And I’m feeling a little nauseous, hearing such things. They make you wonder whether the show is actually trying to sound like a film student wrote it.

They also make you wonder whether the show cares at all for its characters. It’s not the language that’s the problem in that dialogue, it’s that Ray isn’t a kind of guy who would correct Frank as to his use of the word “stridency.” I mean, c’mon. It’s no surprise then that we don’t get into Ray’s situation while he goes poking around on his medical leave for a few days after his injury. That his visit to his dad in real life, for instance, is entirely predictable. If we were looking for any clues as to why he screwed up his son, he just again delivers tired tropes talks about how good policing was in the old days, not like “after OJ,” when people started to tie their hands and generally take out their grievances on the poor white man. If this is all Ray had to deal with, well, I’m sorry. Buck up, Ray. Old bigoted white men have messed up bigger things in this country than your psyche. Also it doesn’t explain just how big a fuckup you are, either.

Ray’s problem, in fact, is actually more in the present. His ex-wife drops by again with a packet of money. She wants to convince him that having a custody battle isn’t a good idea. He’s offended, but she says she offers it mostly because people approached her from the attorney general’s office: they’re investigating him, and fairly certain he murdered the guy who raped her. The money is also to run away. But instead of delving into this, as usual, the show ignores this problem and lets Ray take some solace in grim policework, going with Ani to check on the car in which Caspere was left for dead. They find out it was stolen from a movie studio. And that’s all, folks, we get of Ray.

And as to the other characters, not much happens here either. Ani, still the most interesting character on the show, spends most of the episode pissing off the old white men. She visits the mansion of the mayor, pokes around, and tells a guy who seems to be taking care of the house to “dress himself.” Her snooping pisses off the mayor, of course, who yells at Ray about her. The only work she’ll have soon — this, besides the repetition of “fucking cunt,” is all that we get when it comes to witty insults and barbs — is “in a yoga studio.” Meanwhile the higher-ups behind the state’s attorney general’s Vinci probe tell Ani to keep at it, even to warm over Ray — with the promise of sex, if necessary — who they want to turn and use as a way to get more details about Vinci corruption. Being, it seems, the only really composed and competent person on this case is getting to her, and it shows in the rapidity with which she dumps her boyfriend, Steve. He says he wants to talk things over; she’s had enough of this weak whiny bullshit that passes for sensitivity only because of privilege. Again, this simply returns us to her very first scene in the opening of the first episode. And the larger struggles with Vinci mirror a dynamic she already played out then with her dad.

And as much as the show rehearses Ani’s frustrations, I’m starting to think this show likes showing men’s faces while they receive blowjobs even more. Frank’s face first appears in this episode while he is busy trying to fill a cup in the sperm bank and his wife is helping him out. Finally Kelly Reilly gets some lines in this show, as Frank starts implying the reason they can’t have a baby must be her: “why don’t you suck your own dick,” is the best thing that could be written for her, apparently.

Frank appropriately spends the episode in a funk. He goes around and leans on some people to get more cash. He also gets more inquisitive about what happened to the murdered city manager, Caspere. Things begin to get bad though when someone knocks off one of his henchmen. This gets him in trouble with the manager of his old club, who, when Frank goes around looking for what happened, doesn’t like the insinuations that they might behind it. Frank, for his part, doesn’t like people talking back to him even more. He beats the club manager to the ground and takes out his teeth with some pliers. As violent as moment is, for the rest of the episode it seems as if the ironic swagger he showed in the last episode was lost. We’re returned again to where we started here, too, watching him alternate despondent looks with glances of barely-concealed rage.

Paul at work (Image: screencap)

Paul, for his part, is hitting the streets to find out where Caspere got his girls. Ani in between vapes — which are always commented upon by the men in the car, as if it emasculates them — asks him about whether, because of his high-profile scandal with a star, he’ll be recognized or found out. He’s very sensitive about being exposed, not because he’s worried about compromising himself, but simply because he has a secret, which we find out when he meets up with an old friend from Iraq at a racecourse: Paul had a fling back in Iraq with the guy. Well. That certainly explains some things, first and foremost his confused blowjob face in the first episode. But it doesn’t do more than that. Confronted with the guy’s sentiment for the old days when they were together, he’s embarrassed, defensive, and runs away. While we got some new information here, it didn’t really alter the personality we saw in the first show.

When we start to ask what has gone on in this episode, then, it’s unclear until the end. And it’s seemingly by a coincidence that anything does happens at all. The birdman — or someone close to him, dressed in a different mask — burns the missing car right outside someone who was driving it. It’s a setup, or was supposed to be, until Ray and Ani see the flames and chase him — only to lose him in the end. The culprit inher sights, Ray pushes her to the ground, to avoid a truck coming down the offramp she’s standing on. She thanks him, and he asks what the state has on him: she doesn’t know, she replies.

That’s interesting. But it is also merely, again, reflective of that attitude of the first episode which assumes that if any two of these characters at all have a meaningful exchange of any sort it’s a game-changer. In the end, I’m left only with questions, and a lot of sympathy for what I put my professor through way back when. How many small bits of dialogue can these characters trade before something of significance comes out of them? How many miscommunications can they suffer before they communicate? How long can we watch people wade in self-destruction before something genuinely self-destroying occurs? How much lack of action can happen before some real action happens? Taking your time, setting the bar this low, is well and good. We just may not make it to the payoff. There’s a lot of other good TV out there, and not everyone is willing to stay and see whether this show is humming along at a slow burn or dying a slow death.