Saturday, June 26, 2010

But I can't stop eating peanuts...

Lost has been over for about a month now. It's a bummer, since my Tuesday nights were pretty much built around it (that's not sad, damn it. It's Tuesday. What do you do on Tuesday nights? Yeah, thought so. And occasionally, I get to do it on a Tuesday night, so, you know, nyah nyah.). But, for better or worse, the creative team behind it got to end things on their own terms, and I was reasonably satisfied. I may have had a few problems with the final season leading into it, and the end had more saccharine than substance, perhaps, but it was still better than a lot of stories out there. My thanks to the talent both in front of and behind the camera for one hell of a fun ride.

The end of Lost has left my TV-time kind of up in the air. I watch a lot of movies and read a book or two a week; I'm not really big on television for the most part, though, beyond The Simpsons and an occasional Law and Order: SVU marathon. I watch a few shows semi-regularly, but there's nothing that I pursue with the damn near religious fervor with which I devoured Lost every week. But I've come to an interesting realization lately, given a mind now clear of the Smoke Monster: Television is damn good again.

You know, not if you're speaking in percentages. If we're talking parts of the whole, the good stuff is like the two Wonka bars that Charlie got to open during the contest, and the thousands that all the other kids in his class plowed through like greasy, irritating, inexplicably multinational locusts (seriously, were they in England or America or what? The Buckets were American, but all Charlie's teachers seemed to be British, that Slugworth guy was clearly Heinrich Himmler without the moustache, the architecture looked post-Chernobyl Soviet, and Willy Wonka...well, he was Gene Wilder, and that's just awesome.) is, say, anything with Jim Belushi. Most of the stuff on channels (son of a bitch, cable had 60 channels when I was kid and that was impressive. And my parents only had like 4. And no internet. It's a wonder I wasn't brought up by wolves.) I get on my overpriced digital cable package is still dreck at best and has made me actively dummer (see, I misspelled "dumber." Fact.)  at worst (anything on MTV -with the exception of one show that I'll get to in a minute, any and all network sitcoms, America's Next Top Whatever, you get the picture), but there are a few really awesome shows out there. Shows that are smart, funny, disturbing, deliciously creamy and filled with nougat. Here are a few I've been catching up with lately, and why I've allowed them to rot my brain and ruin my eyes (according to my grandmother, anyway. Nana was a swell lady who'd do anything for us grandkids, but dang,  if it wasn't The Commish, she didn't want anything to do with it). You may enjoy them as well.

Dexter.  I can't say enough good things about Dexter. It's funny, creepy, tense, gross, thrilling, weird, and other adjectives as well. I read and enjoyed the first book in the series by Jeff Lindsay (the first season of the show is more or less the plot of the first novel) a few years ago, but I didn't really give the show a shot until recently. I watched the first four seasons over the course of a week or two, and now I can't fucking wait for the season premiere. Michael C. Hall rocked the house on Six Feet Under with his subdued portrayal of David, a character you could just feel waiting to explode at any given moment, but Dexter Morgan is a role he absolutely owns. A serial killer with severe sociopathy is a character that would be almost impossible to like, but Hall has us rooting for this guy every step of the way. And season four's Big Bad, a seemingly loving, suburban father whose killer exploits hold a cracked mirror to Dexter's own (or maybe it's the other way around) gives us John Lithgow in what may be the finest performance of his career. I know the dude was the bad guy in Buckaroo Bonzai, and that's fantastic in its own right, but Lithgow is absolutely chilling as Trinity here. Way to hit the mark, Dick Solomon. (heh. Dick. Whew, I didn't think I was going to be able to fit one in this post. Heh. Fit one in. Two for two!) Also, you get to see Julie Benz's boobies a couple of times. So, you know, that's pretty great, too.

Mad Men. This is a show I watched a few times on the first go around, and while I dug it, it didn't really hook me. I picked up the first two seasons super cheap when my store closed down, so I gave it another watch. This show is fantastic, full of macho bravura and old school femme fatales  from a cast of characters as twisted and dysfunctional as anyone on the Sopranos, and steeped in a history close enough to our own time for us to be able to recognize the things that would shape the late-20th and early-21st centuries emerge and begin to take hold. It's like the first Back to the Future, if they showed you all the fucking that you totally knew was going on behind those damn hoop skirts.  Also, it made me not hate Vincent Kartheiser. Well, yeah, I still do, but I hate his character, which you're supposed to. So, mission accomplished, Angel's kid. Back when he was on Angel, his character was so damned whiny, I wanted to actively make the actor's life uncomfortable. Not in a legally culpable way, mind you. Just, you know, give the dude a wet willy on the bus or shit in his mailbox or something. And two words: Don Draper. That is all.

MTV gets one prop from me for Warren the Ape. I loved Greg the Bunny for the month it was actually on, I bought the series on DVD and still watch it pretty regularly, and the IFC film parodies with Greg are hilarious, so thank you, MTV, for bringing back my favorite degenerate-ego maniacal-drunken-sex addicted-Shakespeare-quoting-helmet-wearing monkey puppet. Also, since it's on basic cable this time, they've been able to bring back some of the edginess and raunchiness that made the original shorts so damn funny. Watch it, please, so it'll stick around for more than 12 episodes this time. Also, I miss Tardy Turtle. Fox has the rights to him, and some bastard stole the puppet, so we'll probably never see him again. Crayons do indeed taste like purple. Bonne chance, my special green friend. >squeak<.

Also, Comedy Central has become my new hero for two separate reasons: 1. Tosh.0, a show which, while basically a youtube comments section with a few less "lolz fag"s, is one of the damned funniest half hours I've seen in a while. 2. They brought Futurama back last week! And not in the uncomfortable, kinda funny but still mostly unsettling direct to video movie format it's been rocking lately, but in an honest to crap, weekly half hour format. And it's funny again!  WHOOOOOO!!!!  I've been a Futurama fan since it came out a decade ago, and it wasn't fair that it got shafted, shuffled around, and basically just buried by Fox time and again. On its best days, Futurama rivals The Simpsons  in its prime for sheer funny per ounce, and on its worst, it's still got an alcoholic robot with a taste for hookers and a freaky, kinda Jewish lobster monster whose abject loserish-ness  makes me feel better about that one time I threw half a meatball sub away, changed my mind half an hour later, pulled it out of the trash, microwaved it and ate it since, come on, man it was pretty well wrapped up and it was still totally good, shut up.

There are a few other shows on tap for me, too. I'm finally getting into Breaking Bad, which is excellent (did you know that the dad from Malcolm in the Middle, who is the main character on Breaking Bad, was also in two episodes of the Power Rangers? And not the hip, flashy Power Rangers they've got now, but the cheesy, freaked out, unsettlingly Japanese Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. True story, man. That makes him OK by me), and I'm also working my way through some stuff I always meant to watch but never got around to, like Deadwood and The Tudors. Bottom line: I'll never be Lost again, and that makes my eyes rain (Simple Jack! Goddamn I love me some Tropic Thunder), but there are some really talented folks telling some really great stories on the idiot box these days. Television as a medium is slowly, sometimes painfully, but finally beginning to reach the level of art form that until now (save a few notable exceptions) had been reserved for film. Hell, one of the last episodes of Lost was even directed by Mario Van Peebles. That's right, Mario Van Peebles  as in Solo. That shiver you felt just now was your brain having an orgy of awesome with the rest of your body.

Today's title, by the way, comes from a quote by Orson Welles: "I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts."  Orson Welles was a huge dude, so to be fair, you could probably change "peanuts" to "cake" or "honey glazed ham" or "fistfuls of cookie dough" or "whole goats, raw." and the sentiment would be the same.

Rosebud out.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

I've been ruminating a lot lately on the subject of religion; in my case, specifically the absence of religion. I was raised, as I've said, in the grand New England tradition of lapsed Catholicism. We went to mass for the Big Four occasions: weddings, funerals, Christmas and Easter. And every now and again when someone had a baby and wanted to recreate the best scene from The Godfather with a christening, we'd put on our suits and wake up early. But even as a young child, it was clear to me that the ritual was always more important than any actual meaning behind it: We stood when the father said this, we knelt when he said that, and we sang the same songs at the same time every mass. And we shook hands, and put money in the basket. And thus began my lifelong pondering of exactly why it was that I not only had to get up early on Christmas (which I was going to do anyway, c'mon, I was a kid) but why I had to put on my nice clothes and sit in an admittedly cool-as-hell looking building for a couple of hours before I got to open any presents. And why it was that some people did the same thing every Sunday, most of the time without getting presents at all.

To this, or some variation of it, my grandmother would reply because God sent his son to earth to die for our sins and  because of this...original sin...manger...Baby Jesus, etc. As soon as I was old enough to think critically on at least a basic level, say 4 or 5, and continuing for the better part of two decades after that, I had one thought kept drifting through my head whenever I considered such a thing:

"I didn't ask anyone to do that. I just got here. And they NAILED him to a big "T" for it? Damn." That's a hell of a lot of pressure for a kid to cope with.

These days, I approach the subject of god in much the same way that one of my heroes, the late great George Carlin did. George turned his criticism toward just about everything sacred in the world during his long career, and Joe bless him for it. He, along with many other great comics, helped people (myself included) to realize the fun and the silliness inherent in being human. The ways in which we take ourselves seriously can be very funny.One of George's favorite things to skewer was religion, and how it really made no sense at all.

When The Onion asked a bunch of celebrities the big question, "Is there a God?" back in 2000, George responded with this:

"No. No, there's no God, but there might be some sort of an organizing intelligence, and I think to understand it is way beyond our ability. It's certainly not a judgmental entity. It's certainly not paternalistic and all these qualities that have been attributed to God. It's probably a dispassionate... That's why I say, "Suppose He doesn't give a shit? Suppose there is a God but He just doesn't give a shit?" That's the kind of thing that might be at work."

After many years of reflection, study and searching of my conscience, I have to come to a similar conclusion myself. It's why I refer to myself as an "agnostic at best,"; not to suggest that being agnostic is the absolute best thing I can be, but that since I allow for the possibility of, as George put it, an "organizing intelligence," most would call me such, and that's about as far into it as I'm willing to go. There may have been something that racked the balls (Heh. Racked the balls. Dick joke achieved.) and hit the cue, but it doesn't have any money riding on the game. You know what? I'm really proud of that metaphor. It's going in my Big Book of How to Explain Stuff Using Words That Are Usually Used for Other Stuff. Now if I could figure out a metaphor for that title, I'll be golden.

Penn Jillette, in his web series Penn Says gives an interesting answer to the "atheist vs. agnostic" debate, suggesting that "agnostic" answers the epistemological side of it, that is whether it can be known if there's a god, and "atheist" answers the belief side, whether or not one believes there is. So, you can call me an agnostic atheist, or an atheist agnostic, or you can just call me Keith. Or Superfly. Yeah, call me Superfly. Awesome.

I've brought all this up for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I've just recently come to terms with it on an emotional as well as intellectual level. I've made peace with it (for the most part, anyway)  in my own mind, and that's brought a sense of relief to me that is new and exciting, and I want to talk about it. And in exploring that, a few things from my childhood come to mind that get the ol' rant-engines purring.

I've mentioned it before, but I was born with cerebral palsy. Spastic diplegia, to put a finer point on it. My brain doesn't control my musculature quite right, and as such every muscle in my body is, to a greater or lesser extent, constantly in a "spastic," or tense state. I can't straighten my legs all the way, I walk with a limp, and my equilibrium is shot all to hell. My handwriting also sucks, but no one writes by hand anymore, so that's really not much of an issue. Being a disabled person, I invariably hear a certain phrase from people whenever I bring up my condition. It's a phrase most of the disabled community knows all too well: "God made you special for a reason."

The first time I heard it, it came from the best of places and with the best of intentions, from my mother. I was at the age when kids start to notice differences amongst themselves and can be very cruel to one another about them, and it was her way of saying "Fuck those little bastards, you're gonna show 'em." (She also said exactly that more than once, but if you're five, you can't say that in school, so I always had the God thing to fall back on) I was grateful to hear that. I'm still grateful when it comes from her. At that age, it was comforting. I was special. I was part of a grand design.

Now, some 20+ years later, I still hear that phrase, or some variation of it, on a regular basis: at work from customers, from passersby engaged in polite conversation, or from the weird Jesus pamphlet lady at Wal-Mart that I swear has to be following me around. One of the many differences between five year old me and 28 year old me, though, is that 28 year old me is sick and tired of it. As, I suspect, many of us are. It's upsetting and offensive, whether or not the intentions of the speaker are good. The cold truth of it is that I got a raw deal when I was born. I was born far too early, there were complications, I was deprived of oxygen for too long, and my brain was damaged. That sucks. But it's the way it happened. But I'm not bitter about it anymore. Not like I was when I bought into the old sky cake dodge (thanks for that one, Patton!). I was pissed about it then: God made me special? What the hell for? He needed someone who can't walk a straight line, ride a bike, and can't really swim that great? He needed someone to get stared at by damn near everyone he walks by? Hell of a grand design there, chief.

Once I was able to accept the reality of it, I was able to deal with it in a much healthier way. I was able to look back and see that my parents never let my condition keep me down. They insisted, my mother doubly so, that I could do damn near anything I wanted to. And I saw my friends that never let it color the things we did beyond "Hey, you walk kinda funny. That's cool, let's go play Mario." I played soccer and baseball as a child, I ran around in the woods, got dirty, got hurt, tore shit up, and was generally a healthy, happy, pain in the ass little kid. And I continue to be pretty much the same to this day. And I am thankful for it.

And now I think of that phrase again, and of some of the other kids I've met throughout my life. The kids who had CP ten times worse than I do, awesome kids who couldn't walk at all and sometimes could barely speak. Or the kids I met in the children's ward at the hospital during one of my many surgeries, kids who had barely got to live and were already dying. And I think of all the kids who are beaten down, who haven't eaten in days or who lose limbs in wars they can't understand. As George said, "If there is a god, he's at least incompetent."

"God made you special." and "God help those poor kids." It's all bull. Write a letter or start an argument, or donate a buck to UNICEF , United Cerebral Palsy , the American Cancer Society or any other charity that actually does help. Tell a kid a joke and make him laugh. You won't be interfering with God's Plan. There is no sky cake and there is no God. The universe is an infinite wonder, and we're an amazing blue speck in the vastness of it all. We are special, however. We are wondrous creatures. We can ask questions and build things, and write stories and sing songs. We're all here together, and we have a responsibility to make the best of this life.

P.S. : I promise my next post will be funnier.