"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There’s too much to watch, damn it! Despite reports that indicate otherwise, this fall TV season is one of the strongest in years. Not only can you count on the return of such solid shows as “Arrested Development,” “Veronica Mars,” “Lost,” “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” but there are also consistent reality staples like “America’s Next Top Model,” “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” to count on. And that’s before you even get into the really solid new shows like “Everybody Hates Chris,” “My Name Is Earl,” “Threshold” and “Commander in Chief,” not to mention enjoyably crappy shows like “The Surreal Life” and “My Fair Brady.”
But with this much TV to watch, how will any of us ever find a minute to open our mail or run a comb through our hair, let alone harangue our children, berate our significant others, and betray the confidences of our dearest friends? By offering us so many choices on the small screen, TV executives seem determined to take up every last minute of our free time until we’re hollow shells of our former selves, with nothing to say about anything but how much we enjoy the opening credits to Martha Stewart’s “Apprentice.”
Here’s a tip, chickens: On those days you think you’ve got it really bad, just do what I do and tune in to MTV’s “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.” When you see the endless challenges that those poor kids are up against, day after day, you’ll realize just how easy your life is by comparison.
Friends, for reals!
But before we get into the details of the show, let’s stop and congratulate MTV for bringing such groundbreaking programming to the screen. No other network has taken such a genuine interest in these very special kids, not only by raising public awareness of their plight but also by investing in their social environments and creating fun, safe activities and opportunities for them to meet other kids like themselves.
The hard work MTV has put into this project is clearly already paying off. Not only do the kids of “Laguna Beach” not seem to be embarrassed about their obvious cognitive challenges, but they seem downright proud of the very limitations that might make other kids feel self-conscious. Whatever self-esteem-boosting games MTV has these kids involved in, they should keep up the good work.
But what really warms my heart is how these struggling teens have adapted to the point where they can play elaborate games of make-believe with each other. In their fascinating little microcosm, they’ve even developed intricate rules and codes that are impossible for the rest of us to grasp. Like last week, when Jessica, fresh off a perceived “romance” with Jason, turned her sights on Jeff and said, in her cute way, that she was “way into him,” which apparently was some kind of a code for Kristen to make out with him immediately. The self-serious way they pretend at “true love” is so affecting, especially when they get all mixed up and confused and can’t remember which guy is going out with which girl from week to week.
It’s especially heartwarming when they try, using their limited language skills, to confront each other! I loved the adorable way Alex stumbled on her words when she was trying to call Jessica a slut right to her face for fooling around with her “boyfriend” Jason, even though Jason was actually Jessica’s “boyfriend” just weeks earlier!
These kids truly are remarkable, and MTV has seized on a fantastic opportunity to simultaneously educate the public and to offer these poor kids a chance, albeit brief, to feel just like normal teenagers. I can’t wait for “the prom”!
Of course, while MTV makes an honest effort to effect real change and to shed a new light on the possibilities for these so-called developmentally challenged teens, other networks go too far in their attempts to pander to our most open-minded and liberal urges.
Take ABC’s “Commander in Chief.” Naturally, they don’t really expect us to believe that a woman will ever even come close to being president. I mean, come on. A woman? President? Ha! This country would sooner elect a very clever monkey or a talented parrot or an adorable little doggie as president. ABC may think that it’s doing us a big favor by bringing such a fantasy to the small screen, but really, they’re just manipulating and tormenting us, like tossing back four or five icy cold beers in front of your alcoholic friend who’s only on Step 2.
And even if, through some crazy twist of fate like the one depicted on the show (Geena Davis’ character is the independent vice president to a Republican president who dies), a woman were president, all anyone would talk about would be her great big juicy red lips anyway. After the polls showed that most people didn’t approve of her red lips, the lady president would start wearing more muted shades, and eventually she would have to spend all her time baking cookies so as not to make the thin-lipped cookie-bakers out there feel insecure.
Plus, if Mrs. President were calm yet firm, striding around the White House issuing orders — like Geena Davis does on “Commander in Chief” — without forever second-guessing herself, news would leak out that she was arrogant and bossy and difficult. And if she dared to ask her advisors for guidance on anything, word would get out that she was wishy-washy and flinchy and too weak on foreign policy — you know, just like President Carter, except without the nards.
In fact, without the reassurance of external genitalia, the American people would inevitably voice their concerns about the safety and stability and continuing dominance of America on the global stage. Reporters would start to speculate that the economy might falter with the entire nation facing such a crisis of confidence — and then the economy would falter, and everyone would finally have a chance to blame a woman for everything from rising gas prices to the failure of Social Security. Sure, most of us kind of blame Angelina Jolie for this stuff already, but blaming a president with huge lips would be even better.
Now, sure, it’s easy to forget these inevitabilities when you’re watching those inspired scenes where Geena Davis says, in her garbled yet affecting way, that, since she’s about as electable as a plate of refried beans, she’s going to toss politics out the window and do whatever’s right for the American people. Mmm. Imagine! But obviously, even that would never work, since without politics you’d never have the finesse to get key power players in the House and Senate on your side. We’ve watched “The West Wing,” we know how this stuff works. But that doesn’t stop the swelling strings and the big brown eyes of Mrs. President from making us hope beyond hope that maybe, someday…
See? See how you get pulled into the fantasy? Damn you, ABC!
Thankfully, there are also lots of scary scenes where the majority leader, played by a glowering, demonic Donald Sutherland, refers to the president of the United States as “the girl.” Hell, it even bothered me when Davis’ husband tucked her into bed and called her “kiddo.” “Kiddo?” I wanted her to say, incredulously. “I’m the goddamn leader of the free world, you wuss! I know you feel all flaccid and nard-less from having to pick out china patterns, but save the condescending tone for the White House staff, will ya?”
Look, even though “Commander in Chief” really belongs on the Sci-Fi channel, I have to admit that I love it. And even though the ratings nerds are quick to point out that the show’s incredible numbers consist mostly of women over 50 (see also the Least Desirable Demographic in the Universe), the ratings nerds can kiss my ass. If the world weren’t so completely ruled by the Demographically Desirable, Paris Hilton would be just another aimless, wayward whore and Mary Kate and Ashley could trot their assless frames all over New York without anyone but a couple of pedophiles taking notice.
Mothers against drunk dialing
If developmentally challenged teenagers didn’t control the airwaves, then no one would care about “celebreality” shows like “My Fair Brady,” either. Then again, it’s unclear why even dimwitted teens would watch this show.
OK, I can tell by that look on your face that you have no idea what I’m talking about. VH1′s “My Fair Brady” (repeats constantly, check listings) is a show about — are you sitting down? — Adrianne Curry, the first winner of “America’s Next Top Model,” and Chris Knight, the 40-something actor who played Peter Brady on “The Brady Bunch” when he was a little kid. Adrianne, 22, met Chris, 47, on “The Surreal Life,” the show that throws a bunch of D-list celebrities, preferably with major personality disorders, into a house together to see if someone will get killed. Instead of murdering each other, Adrianne and Chris fell in love, and for committing this crime against nature they’ve been rewarded with their very own show.
Let’s review: Adrianne is a model who mostly seems to pose for obscure soft porn rags, the lesser lights of the Maxim universe. Chris is a child actor, all grown up. I’m not sure if he has a job. Does he? There’s no reason we should be interested in these two.
And yet … Adrianne was pretty damn entertaining on ANTM, and after “The Surreal Life,” and now “My Fair Brady,” it’s becoming clear that her talent as a reality star far outshines all of her other talents, including the very marketable talent she has for greasing up her body and then bending over in front of a camera. Like all successful reality stars, she does an incredible job of alternately playing to the camera and dragging out her most honest emotions with seemingly no self-consciousness or worries about the fact that the camera is rolling.
On last week’s show, for example, Adrianne goes out and gets drunk with her girlfriend, then comes home and calls Chris, who’s out of town. The first thing he says is “I miss the hell out of you,” but she quickly and breathtakingly swerves into dangerous territory, urging him, with a slur, to commit to her once and for all: “I miss you too, and you know what, though? I know what I deserve in my life. I deserve to be given as much as I’m willing to give and as much as I have to give, and I’m giving you my soul and my heart and I have for a while, and I feel like you’ve just clammed up on me completely.”
For all of “My Fair Brady’s” flaws, you really have to applaud VH1 for bringing to light the very real dangers of drunk dialing. Every year, millions of blossoming relationships are snuffed out by drunk dialers, and maybe VH1′s shocking footage will be a wake-up call to those young people who have yet to learn this very important lesson: Don’t dial drunk, kids. Take it from me, a former drunk dialer: Slurring incoherently about commitment is the fast track to loneliness.
Or, don’t listen to me. Stay in a drunken fantasy world where all it takes to get your guy to commit is for you to imbibe half a dozen tequila shots and then mumble a few stern words over the phone. Go ahead. Loll about in your little dream world, where men are highly suggestible when it comes to marriage and women are highly electable when it comes to the presidency. While you’re at it, go ahead and imagine that our best hope against a worst-case scenario, from terrorism to an alien invasion, is Carla Gugino, a little doll-eyed federal expert who’s lonely enough that she obviously spent the better part of her youth drunk-dialing every Tom, Dick and Harry in sight.
Still, just as Gugino was excellent as the ill-fated “Karen Sisco,” she’s sharp and engaging as the lead character on CBS’s “Threshold” (Fridays at 9 p.m. on CBS), the best by far of the “Lost”-alike fear-mongering shows so popular this fall. The show’s ratings are pretty good but could be better, and naturally I blame you, chickens. Have you been doing your duty and watching? Then why hasn’t anyone written to me about this show yet, huh? Huh? Haven’t I harangued you enough to program this one into your stupid TiVos? Why are you looking at my lips? Damn it, are you even listening to what I’m saying?
Like Davis playing president to a White House filled with resentful back-slapping old boys, Gugino’s Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey is up against so many forces beyond her control, she and that little doggie of hers probably have to do deep breathing exercises every night just to get a few solid hours of shut-eye. And even when they do sleep, the threat of dreaming about that demonic ice garden probably keeps them so tied in knots that they can hardly be expected to save the world.
And yet, we expect that and more from them, maybe because Gugino, like Davis, is very believable as someone who has no trouble thinking and acting under intense pressure. This is what I love about both shows, actually: They feature women leads who aren’t necessarily portrayed as being all that tough or brazen or over-the-top, but who gracefully and diplomatically move through extremely difficult circumstances without stumbling or missing a beat or showing too much swagger or relying on their feminine wiles, “Charlie’s Angels”-style. Both are feminine, but the writers neither play up their doubts nor treat them as bulletproof, larger-than-life heroines.
I really do think we’ve entered a new era of character development on TV, one clearly influenced by Bochco’s ambivalent cops and Sorkin’s ambivalent leaders and Crichton’s ambivalent doctors, in which characters can thwart our expectations of them without being one-trick ponies. Instead of choosing between courageous or fearful, good or evil, we get lots of shades of gray, fearful moments followed by moments of courage, self-assured decisions followed by a brief glimpse of regret.
Granted, they throw old Carla into a silky slip a little more often than is necessary, but for the most part, her character is handling the pressures of the job admirably. “Threshold” works because those pressures are so beyond the pale: they know they’re dealing with an alien force but have no idea how to even begin to tackle it, or what it wants, or where it ends and they begin (Hello, metaphor for terrorism!). “You’re one of us,” the creepy guy infected by the aliens keeps saying to Caffrey, but she has no idea what he means, beyond the fact that her nightmares mean something, or might suggest that she’s been infected, too. Unlike “Lost,” “Threshold” offers some new information about what’s going on during each episode, so that the mystery feels like it’s unfolding at a reasonably satisfying pace. And even though that underground computer on “Lost” might just end up being some kind of a world-ending device and not just the outdated experiment in obedience that Charlie thinks it is, the stakes on “Threshold” couldn’t be higher if you threw in a sick child riding an atom bomb aimed at the White House. Plus, above and beyond every other plot point, the show sets its sights on creepy. Where “24″ focuses on creating suspense, “Threshold’s” specialty is creepiness, and it does creepy better than any other show on TV.
Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person who’s more creeped out by a female president than anything else, in which case “Commander in Chief” is your own private worst-case scenario. P.S., suck me.
Awareness-raising, that’s what this TV season is all about! Whether it’s MTV showing us the trials and tribulations of challenged teens or CBS demonstrating just how helpless and alone we’ll feel if a worst-case scenario were to occur, the fall season wants us to be more aware of the desperately shitty circumstances of modern existence. Even ABC’s hopeful lady-president show is just a thinly veiled excuse to demonstrate exactly how backward-ass and sexist and sad even our finest governing bodies remain — and that’s not to mention what the first gentleman’s insistence on calling the president “kiddo” says about the infantilized rituals that infect the institution of marriage. Yes, all of the things that we hold dear are threatened, from our government to our marriages to our precious nards to our very ability to remain safe and dry and, most important, rich. Instead of staying blissfully ignorant like we did back in the ’80s, thanks to today’s televised entertainments, we can all be painfully aware of how tenuous and fragile our hold on happiness is — or how fragile it would be, if we were even happy, which of course we aren’t. Hurray!
Next week: Will that 6-year-old kid on “The Amazing Race” let her whole family down, and then, filled with guilt and anguish, turn to a life of drugs and crime? Let’s just hope there’s a VH1 show about it if she does.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)