"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)
Everything in the world either has soul, or it doesn’t. Lemon squares, for example, have no soul. Pumpkin pie has soul. A Ford Taurus has no soul, but a Ford Bronco does. Baseball bats have a lot of soul. Volleyballs don’t have soul. Cocker spaniels have no soul. Mutty shelter dogs have soul. Dishwashers are soulless. Doing the dishes by hand, on the other hand, is soulful, especially if you fill the sink with hot soapy water and put on rubber gloves. Bright blue plastic kiddie pools have soul. Above-ground pools have no soul. Jumpy castles have soul. Ball pits have no soul. Fake tits, hot wings, velvet ropes, jet skis, jewelry safes, vertical blinds, lunchmeat and Ben Affleck have no soul. Sunday drives, macaroni and cheese, jump-rope, afternoon naps, brownies and Matt Damon have soul.
When celebrities carry on about basic human experiences like they invented them, that’s extremely unsoulful. For example, when they rave about how much they love their babies, and how their babies have changed their lives forever and ever, and they’ve never felt so much love before? Disturbing, and soulless.
You may think that you have soul because you like working in your garden and you don’t watch “Dancing With the Stars” and don’t vacation at Sandals Resorts or use scrunchies in your hair or golf or wax your back, plus you call your mom once a week and you collect old coins. You think you have soul because you like yard sales and you know how to make a cherry pie from scratch. OK, if you really know how to make a cherry pie, crust and all, then you’re right. You do have soul.
Soul booth ahead
Having soul doesn’t guarantee that something is good, though. Martinis have soul, but they don’t taste good. Dive bars have soul, but they often smell like vomit. Rats have soul, but you’ll still kill one if it decides to move in with you, even temporarily.
Just look at “The L Word”: An awful show, awful to the point of being extremely entertaining and hilariously stupid. There’s so much to dislike about “The L Word,” but you can’t say that it has no soul. “The L Word” is far too unself-conscious and earnest and clumsy not to have a little soul. It refuses to make itself lovable to straight people — or gay people, for that matter. There’s some soul in its complete refusal to please anyone but the pretentious and/or the porn-seeking.
A good show that has no soul? “Heroes.” It’s got really good dialogue, a great cast and an interesting plot. But does it have soul, really? Is there a soulful center to the show? Does it feel genuine and authentic and moving? No. “Heroes” might develop some soul next season, but it’s not there now.
“American Idol” has no soul, but some of its contestants do. Ryan Seacrest is utterly devoid of soul, but he is reasonably good at his job. Jay Leno is rumored to have tons of soul behind the scenes, but he’s terrible at his job. “Studio 60″ is smart enough to appear soulful at times, but it has no soul nonetheless. “Desperate Housewives” had soul for about three seconds. (Felicity Huffman still has soul, of course.)
So, what does it matter? Somehow, when a show has soul, I find myself wanting to watch it, even if it’s bad. When it lacks soul, even if it’s good, I just don’t care all that much.
Darby O’Kill and the Pretty People
Which brings us to “The Black Donnellys” (10 p.m. Wednesdays on NBC), a new drama that features pretty faces, good cinematography, decent acting, reasonably compelling stories and witty dialogue, but it has so little soul that it’s downright disturbing.
Of course, you can’t begin to examine a show about the Irish mob without comparing it to HBO’s “The Sopranos” (Italian mob in New Jersey) and Showtime’s “Brotherhood” (Irish mob and politicians in Providence, R.I.). I know I’m stating the obvious here, but “The Sopranos” has tons of soul. Even when it slips or meanders, the writers’ choices always feel smart and authentic and artful. Not only that, but as is true with any good work of fiction, the author’s or writer’s perspective is always wider than the perspective of his or her protagonist.
With “The Sopranos,” that means that no matter what Tony or Carmela does, we’re constantly reminded that they’re seriously screwed-up people. David Chase doesn’t say, “Here’s a wonderful, soulful person who gets trapped into doing bad things,” he says, “Here’s an incredibly messed-up, rationalizing, selfish person who sometimes shows glimpses of remorse or other redemptive qualities.” And Tony and Carmela are two of the more sympathetic characters on the show. Characters like Christopher and AJ and Paulie range from self-serving and shortsighted to seriously mean and flatly ignorant. Those who criticize the show’s casual violence aren’t tuned in to how often we’re reminded that these characters are tweaked to the point of having lost a grip on their humanity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they pay for their unethical behavior, of course. Heavy-handed morality isn’t necessary; we just need some hint that these characters are limited, and that they can’t be regarded as heroic.
“Brotherhood” also manages to tackle an unethical world without compromising its soul. The drama takes one decent, well-intentioned brother, Tommy Caffee, and throws him into the world of politics, where he’s destined to become morally corrupt no matter how hard he tries to rationalize his questionable choices. Then there’s his brother Michael, a thug who’s trying, albeit in a half-assed way, to behave like a normal human being. Both brothers are proud and foolish and limited, each in his own way, and their story unfolds with wisdom and subtlety. The creators of this world have the finesse to gracefully demonstrate their protagonists’ and antagonists’ shortcomings and blind spots without sacrificing our interest in the story.
Yet, while “The Sopranos” and “Brotherhood” make it look easy, “The Black Donnellys” makes it excruciatingly clear just how difficult it is to tell a soulful story about criminals. The first big problem is that we’re supposed to believe that a bunch of pretty boys are actually Irish-American mobsters. When these manicured, fresh-faced beauties swagger around with guns, talking about gambling debts and stolen trucks, they look like what they are: a bunch of stylishly coiffed children playing cops and robbers with their little friends.
What’s worse, we’re actually supposed to think these guys are cool, even when they blow people away without thinking it over. It’s as if someone took the guys from “Entourage,” stripped them of their money, armed them, then threw them onto the streets of New York to fend for themselves. Actually, “The Black Donnellys” would be a lot better if that were the case, because at least the guys from “Entourage” are believable as a bunch of wisecracking average Joes; they wouldn’t come across as wide-eyed innocents playing tough. When the Donnelly brothers get into fistfights or steal a truck full of stolen shirts, we’re supposed to think they’re just doing what those nutty Irish boys sometimes do, laughing and whooping it up and having a good time all along.
But the kids aren’t all right, that much is obvious to the viewer, even if it’s not obvious to the show’s creators, who also wrote last year’s soulless Oscar winner, “Crash.” Jimmy (Tom Guiry) is a violent screw-up, but we’re supposed to believe that he’s only a mess because he’s a junkie (as compared to, say, Christopher of “The Sopranos,” who’s always a selfish idiot first and a junkie and a murderer second). Brother Sean (Michael Stahl-David) is an adorable ladies’ man and Kevin (Billy Lush) has a bad habit of gambling, but they’re otherwise great guys, according to the show’s twisted lore. Worst of all, Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) is a sweet guy who just wants to draw (aw!), only his irresponsible brothers keep doing dumb things, like kidnapping a guy for ransom money and keeping him tied up in the basement of a bar that Jimmy owns. (Like most bar owners, he won his in a bet.)
[Spoiler alert: The next few paragraphs reveal some details of this Wednesday's episode.] Due to a series of colossally stupid moves by Jimmy, Tommy is forced to put down his pencils and drawing paper and he and his brother Kevin kill four or five people in cold blood. Next, he and Kevin set about trying to cover their tracks. Along the way, they discover the kidnapped guy in a dumpster, and realize that brother Jimmy shot him in the head earlier. How annoying and inconvenient! Yes, instead of exhibiting some remorse over the dead guy (whom Kevin drank beers and played cards with, while the guy was tied up, a few hours earlier), instead of lamenting how they both became murderers overnight, the brothers bicker and wisecrack. The mood is light and cheery as the pretty boys fret over what to do with the bloody body so that Jimmy doesn’t get caught. Cue the peppy, upbeat strains of “Handle Me With Care” by the Traveling Wilburys.
Not only is this scene a clumsy copy of the absurd darkness of “The Sopranos,” but it doesn’t work. Kevin and Tommy come across as heartless losers, the music is out of place, as is the joviality and the comedy, and the whole thing feels deeply wrong. Yes, it’s true that both brothers start to feel sick eventually, but that’s only after they’re forced to bash the guy’s head in to fit his body into an oil drum. Instead of marveling at how messed-up the guys are, we’re asked to feel sympathy for them, since they’ve been forced to go to such lengths to protect their junkie brother.
“I think that if you know someone’s good, you know it in your belly,” the Donnelly brothers’ mom says in one scene. “And you trust that if they had to do something, they had no other choice.” Sadly, all we can see is all of the other choices these kids had; they just happened to make the wrong one.
And that would be fine, if we had the sense that the writers agreed with us. But unlike either “The Sopranos” or “Brotherhood,” “The Black Donnellys” attempts to make crime seem sort of romantic and cool. Unfortunately, it takes a lot more than a few witty one-liners and some songs by Snow Patrol to sell us that truckload of poorly ripped-off, utterly soulless goods.
The (resurrected) life of Brian
But maybe, instead of pretty-faced thugs, you’d rather spend your time with some boring, self-involved yuppies. Maybe instead of a reasonably interesting, halfway smart show with no soul, you’d prefer something that’s not only bad and soulless, but it’s about bad, soulless people.
If so, you’ll be happy to know that ABC’s “What About Brian” (10 p.m. Mondays) is back and worse than ever! This soapy drama that won’t die is inhabited entirely by extremely dull, upwardly mobile human beings. Unlike the Donnelly brothers, the characters on “What About Brian” want what most people want: a decent job, a good marriage, healthy kids. They just happen to whine about it in ways that make you want to shave your head and get a bunch of tattoos — you know, like Britney Spears. OK, scratch that. They make you want to quit your job and move to Alphabet City — you know, above the Starbuck’s and across the street from the Baby Gap.
If “The Black Donnellys” shows you what happens to overgrown working-class kids who have no morals, “What About Brian” demonstrates what happens to overgrown middle-class kids who can’t imagine being happier than they were in college. Basically, they hang out with their lame friends, trying to sound like they’re still in school.
In case you doubt me, here are some actual lines from the show:
“Quick, give me the 4-1-1 on her.”
“I couldn’t hear anything she was saying because I couldn’t stop staring at her breasts, which I’m pretty sure she was OK with!”
“I used to have great boobs, you know. Even gay guys couldn’t stop staring at them!”
“All I need is a little alone time to seal the deal.”
“I’m not into Adam because I’m kinda into you.”
“Irony, man. It’s a bitch!”
While these aging children flirt with each other in ways that make flirting look at once dirty and downright sad, while they muddle through their very boring lives, we’re made to believe that the whole thing is lighthearted and wacky, mostly because there’s really bad, neutered indie rock playing in the background, and because some of the actors make their eyes go all googly and put a lot of emphasis on their words so that we can tell they’re trying to be funny.
And check out these lame yuppie plots: Brian (Barry Watson) is sick of his nagging girlfriend and turned on by his hot neighbor; Dave (Rick Gomez) is trying to be a good manager at work; Nicole (Rosanna Arquette) wants to sleep with her manny; Deena (Amanda Detmer) and Dave are trying to breathe a little life into their marriage, but they’re worried that their kid is deaf. Are the writers borrowing story lines from ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters,” where Rachel Griffiths’ character and her husband are trying to revive their marriage while dealing with a kid with diabetes, or do all boring, dramatically limp married-people problems look exactly the same when they’re presented in the context of a poorly written soap?
It’s strange how just last week, I mentioned that FX has been churning out truly terrible, empty, badly written HBO-alike shows, when ABC now appears to be focusing its energy primarily on really drippy, toothless soaps. Of course, “What About Brian” makes “Men in Trees” look like “Northern Exposure,” and makes “Desperate Housewives” look like Shakespeare.
The important thing to remember about such soulless fare is that, like an overcooked steak or a cocker spaniel or Ben Affleck, stuff that has no soul only makes you appreciate the soulful things in life all the more.
This Wednesday: A closer look at why “Friday Night Lights” is the best new drama on TV. And next week, we taste the McBeal-esque delights of David E. Kelley’s “The Wedding Bells.”
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)