"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)
Sky falling, more at 11!
In the interest of wrapping up our third annual edition of Salon TV Week in style, put your claw in my sweaty hand, little chickens, and let’s review the new comedies premiering this season.
What? You never want to be called a chicken again, ever? Never, ever? You think it’s a sign that I’m … that I’m condescending to you? You think that I, a TV critic, would dare to condescend to you, a chicken, yes, but one with a job that’s actually important and worthwhile? Why, you’re probably a cancer surgeon or a professor of something or other. You’re probably a captain of industry, or you work for an honorable nonprofit organization, dedicating your days to giving a little something back. Why would you think for a second that I had the gall, the puffed-up sense of self, to condescend to you? What would give me the right to do that (aside from the obvious fact that you’re a chicken)?
Why, some of you out there create the very shows that I, a housebound slug, a pale shadow of a human, while away the hours watching, my eyes big and glassy, my head full of cheap plot twists and poorly drawn characters! How could I dare to condescend to someone like you — smart, respected in your field, not watching (like I do) and criticizing (I am a critic, after all) but doing! Doing, doing, doing all day, while I watch! Why would I talk down to you? Sure, it might look like I’m talking down to you, since you’re only about 1-foot-6, but I assure you, I am not!
No, let’s start off on a different claw — er, foot. Since you’d clearly prefer that I address you as if you’re a human with a big, intimidating brain, and not a mere chicken, with spindly legs and matted feathers and a saggy red neck that wobbles when you walk, let me adjust my approach.
“Television knows no night. It is perpetual day. TV embodies our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things.” — Jean Baudrillard, “Cool Memories”
This inescapable lightness, to which Baudrillard refers, encompasses not just the tone and focus of television, but also its subtext. For much of what we see on television, like most other products of American culture, remains stubbornly insistent in its refusal to recognize the full range of human experience, factoring out not just darkness and messiness and unresolved, dangling notes, but all of the unknowns at the murky center of the human soul. This dichotomy, darkness vs. light, this duality between our selves (or how we choose to define ourselves) and the Other, permeates the medium completely, for even when the commercial entities behind the TV industry tackle the Other, the assumption that we, the audience, remain in the light, remain on the safe side of the equation, is infused in every narrative.
The only possible way to accommodate this duality, hinting as it does, in its admittedly limited, oversimplified way, at the complexity of the human experience, is by putting your little chicken claw in my big, strong, human hand and learning all about the brand new sitcoms to hit the airwaves this fall — or as many as we can stuff into that itsy-bitsy little chicken brain of yours, at any rate.
For a very quick summary of all of the new comedies airing this season, check out this chart we put together for Salon TV Week, comparing and contrasting this season’s comedy pilots. (We also did one for the drama pilots, in case you’re interested.)
But let’s make a short story long, shall we? Remember how, after “Seinfeld” hit the major leagues, network executives thought that people must really love shows about nothing? Yes, those shows about nothing were a big hit, weren’t they? Once “Friends” hit it big, though, everyone was looking for shows about big groups of hot young people — see, hot and young were the important aspects of “Friends,” not, say, a talented cast and a smart, independent-minded group of writers (many of whom were rewarded with their own multimillion-dollar development deals, resulting in countless flaccid, copycat sitcoms).
This season, thanks to the popularity of “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office,” the powers that be seem to believe that losers are incredibly funny. These losers don’t need to be well written, or played by Jason Lee or Steve Carell, of course. All you need is to shove any loser — or better yet, a big group of losers — in front of the camera, and hilarity ensues! Oh, and since “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office” are both one-camera comedies, that probably matters, too. Let’s make lots of one-camera comedies this season!
ABC’s “The Knights of Prosperity” (premieres 9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 17) is probably the most obvious copycat, winning-formula Frankenstein of the upcoming season. We start with Donal Logue, star of “Grounded for Life,” we throw in a multiethnic gaggle of complete and utter losers, and give them a criminal slant, so that everything they do is questionable and zany and absurd and utterly wrongheaded. You know, like “My Name Is Earl,” except without the cultural observations about tacky country folk (in other words, exactly what pushes “Earl” past mildly amusing to pretty damn funny). All that’s important, after all, is the loser thing, plus the single-camera thing, plus Donal Logue, because he’s a proven star. When the story gets slow, we’ll have him say things like, “So what if we’re not conventionally handsome … or educated … or sober? We have dreams, too, don’t we?” People just love that loser shtick these days!
Another really mediocre passenger on the loser bandwagon — and it pains me to tell you this — is Rob Corddry. Yes, Rob Corddry of those knee-slapping, snortingly funny spots on “The Daily Show,” has decided that it’s time to enter the sitcom game, Lord only knows why. Do you know why, chickens? Of course you don’t, because you’re merely chickens and you have other things on your mind, like that stubborn tangle of mud matted into your hind quarters that you can’t reach and can’t dislodge by rubbing against the clapboard siding of your stinky chicken house.
Mysteriously enough, Corddry has exiled himself to a stinky chicken house called “The Winner,” a sitcom premiering on Fox midseason that bears more than a passing resemblance to Chris Elliott’s “Get a Life,” except it’s far less funny. Corddry plays a loser who still lives with his parents, watches lots of bad TV and barely leaves the house. I mean, come on! Who lives like that? How unbelievable can you get?
CBS’ “The Class” concerns a bunch of losers who went to third grade together. One of them is suicidal, one inexplicably has the affectations of someone who’s developmentally disabled, one is married to a rich guy she doesn’t love, and one still lives with his mom. Apparently they’re all going to be, um, friends, and the one who lives with his mom is going to long for the one who’s married to the rich guy. Just think of Rachel and Ross, staring out rainy windows, thinking of each other, but substitute in two less appealing, less clever characters.
The only loser-centric sitcom I think shows promise is ABC’s “Help Me Help You” (premieres at 9:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 26), a one-camera comedy about a bunch of wildly dysfunctional losers in group therapy led by a wildly dysfunctional loser psychotherapist played by Ted Danson. I love Danson in this role and the characters here are definitely modeled after the messed-up freaks of “Arrested Development,” prone to over-the-top reactions and nasty comments. It’s not uproariously funny — so few pilots are — but the setting and characters combined with a few strong jokes hint at the show’s potential. Here’s hoping they can hit their stride over the course of three or four episodes, thereby keeping the network execs with their long knives at bay.
Here comes the snide
While roughly half of this fall’s sitcoms are about losers, the other half focus on the trials and tribulations of domestic life: weddings, marriage and having babies. If you love jokes about weddings, marriage and/or babies, you may be in luck. Then again, ABC’s “Big Day” (premiere date TBA), a “Meet the Parents”-style romp in which a young couple’s wedding day unfolds over the course of the whole season, probably won’t interest you unless you love absolutely anything with the word “wedding” in it (I know you’re out there), because, well, it’s not funny.
Fox’s “‘Til Death” (premieres 8 p.m., Thursday Sept. 7) will excite rabid fans of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” since Brad Garrett is in his usual top form, armed with lots of sour jokes about the purgatory of marriage. The newlywed couple living next door to Garrett and his wife (played by Joely Fisher) are pretty boring and bland, though, and the writing, in general, doesn’t come close to the brilliance of “Raymond,” at least not in the pilot.
My favorite of this group is ABC’s “Notes From the Underbelly” (premiere date TBA) because jokes about our half-crazed baby-centric culture feel a little more fresh and timely than those old “Take my wife, please” refrains. Given the intense martyr-mom vibe out there, it’s cathartic to see soon-to-be parents reacting to the specter of parenthood with abject fear and anxiety. But then, who doesn’t enjoy a heartwarming romp about wanting to throw your baby from a moving vehicle?
The four exceptions to this pervasive Aimless Loser/Married Loser dichotomy are CW’s “The Game,” about the wives, girlfriends and moms of pro-football players, NBC’s “30 Rock” about life behind the scenes at an “SNL”-style show, ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” about an ugly duckling who gets a job working for a fashion magazine, and NBC’s “Twenty Good Years,” about two old guys who move in together, intent on living large during their golden years. I’d recommend that all the chickens in the chicken yard tune in for three of these shows — “The Game,” “30 Rock” and “Ugly Betty” because they’re smart, well written and feel more original than the rest of the lot. I want to throw in a recommendation to check out “Twenty Good Years” (premieres 8 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 4, on NBC), too, but only because it just seems wrong not to watch the one show featuring lead characters over 50. Plus, even though “Twenty Good Years” isn’t consistently funny, John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor do have a way of squeezing a few laughs out of the limpest of punch lines.
Lots of people have been anticipating “30 Rock” (premieres 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 11, on NBC) and it’s not that hard to see why. Ripping a page out of the “Best of Saturday Night Live” scrapbook, Tina Fey plays the show runner of “The Girly Show,” a sketch comedy with Rachel Dratch as the show’s frumpy lead. Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin (one of the funniest guest stars to appear on “SNL”) plays a bottom-line-obsessed representative of the network, while Tracy Morgan appears as a Martin Lawrence-inspired emotionally unstable star. In spite of the continuing crappiness of “SNL,” Fey, Dratch and Morgan are all extremely fun to watch (particularly compared to most bland sitcom stars) and Alec Baldwin is downright incredible. Remember the heartless salesman he played in “Glengarry Glenn Ross”? Throw in even more biting insults and a few goofy asides, and you’ve got the funniest character of the fall TV season. (I’d throw out some tasty quotes here, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Just don’t miss this one, OK?)
ABC’s hourlong dramedy “Ugly Betty” (premieres 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 28) is definitely worth watching as well. Based on a Colombian telenovela and with Salma Hayek, who got her start in telenovelas, as one of its producers, the show has a great cast and combines an underdog story with a soapy, campy feel. It’s impossible to say how well this ugly-duckling tale will hold our attention over the course of a season, but the first episode had just the right mix of cartoonish nastiness, outrageousness and camaraderie. And lest you fear the producers will give Betty an Ashlee Simpson-style makeover, thereby transforming her into a plasticized Skeletor like every other bimbette on TV, fear not; the producers have assured us that no total makeover is in the works. We can enjoy our ordinary-looking, fashion-blind heroine in peace.
The comedy that surprised me the most was CW’s “The Game” (premieres 8:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 1), a fun, sharply written look at the wives, girlfriends and moms of professional football players. I was skeptical that “The Game” would hold my interest, but each character is distinct, funny and memorable without being completely over-the-top, from the pro player who’s so cheap that, at an event, he hands his wife a big wad of brisket to stuff into her Berkin bag, to the mom who insists that her son “stay away from the hoochies.” The women are alternately competitive and supportive toward each other, and their bitchy banter is seriously entertaining. Even though a sitcom about pro football wives sounds pretty awful, I challenge you to check this one out and see if you don’t find it just as smart and charming as I did.
Chicken soup for the soulless
I’ve done my best to leap to conclusions here, but sitcom pilots may be more difficult to judge than almost anything else on TV. Writers have months to pack great jokes into one half-hour pilot, but once the show begins, they have to write a new episode every week, so shows can start off strong and then falter. On the other hand, some pilots appeared to be total failures — remember Jerry Seinfeld, smiling through every scene where he was supposed to be angry, before that became his “thing”? — and end up in the comedy hall of fame. If past seasons are any indication, the shows that feel odd, original and smart are the ones that end up entertaining us the most: “Arrested Development,” and once again, “The Office” and “My Name is Earl.” This season, that means you should look out for “30 Rock,” “Ugly Betty,” “The Game” and maybe “Help Me Help You.”
That doesn’t mean any of these shows will do well with audiences, of course. But then, nothing can explain the fact that “Arrested Development” and “The Comeback” are long gone while “Two and a Half Men” continues to pull in Emmy nominations. I might like to point out that, every fall, the American viewing public runs around like a chicken with its head cut off, chasing the so-called hits while ignoring some of the best shows, but I’m guessing that would offend you deeply. So instead, I’ll simply submit that no one can truly know why humans (and fowl) behave as they do, but it probably has something to do with a duality between our selves (or how we choose to define ourselves) and the Other, some hazy distinction that you’d no doubt have to read lots of Baudrillard to understand completely. But I wouldn’t do that, because there’s a lot of good crap on TV that you’ll miss if you do.
Next week: On Monday, look for my review of the season finale of “Deadwood.” On Wednesday, I’ll have a quick summary of upcoming specials on 9/11. And next Sunday, I’ll look at the insane popularity of macho comic Dane Cook. Yes, there’ll be plenty of fresh chicken feed to go around, so go tell all your little pea-brained friends about it!
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)