"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)
Here’s the good news: When you turn on your television this fall, you’ll be watching more women kick more ass than you can possibly imagine — physically, economically and sexually. Hard-bodied and smart, rich and aggressive, confident and independent, the chicks who populate the prime-time lineup are being cast in roles that once belonged almost exclusively to men. These broads are cops and lawyers and masters of the business universe. Hollywood doyennes like Kyra Sedgwick, Mary-Louise Parker and Holly Hunter have already found midlife career solace (and good writing) on cable. This year, Julianna Margulies will star as a nasty Nancy Grace knockoff, Angie Harmon as a police lieutenant, Lucy Liu as a publishing executive, and Patricia Heaton as a news anchor; there’s a new “Bionic Woman” and a whole show about the world’s leading incubator of the future, “The Terminator’s” Sarah Connor. The flinty Cagneys, Laceys, Murphys and Buffys of yore aren’t the exceptions in the new TV season; they rule.
So what happened to the men? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Here, for instance, is what happens when Lucy Liu’s character, Mia, on ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia,” wins a work contest, and big promotion, over her boyfriend and colleague Richard: He breaks up with her, tail between his legs. “I thought I’d win and buy us a place and take care of you,” he explains. “And now that it’s reversed I just can’t see us … I’m 40 next month. I want someone to come home to. I’m going to want kids, and we’re just going in opposite directions.”
Yup. Welcome to the new world on television, where the women are strong, and the men are cavemen. Literally. ABC’s “Cavemen,” based on the Geico ad campaign character, is about a trio of Cro-Magnons with low self-esteem and a little hair-growth problem. Small-screen heroes who aren’t actually dragging their knuckles behave even worse. In the face of professional and sexual equality between the televised sexes, these fictional guys are cowed, angry and generally emasculated by the successes of their female counterparts.
It can’t all be coincidence that this season is coming at the end of a summer in which the biggest movie hits have featured dopey, ill-groomed, irresponsible boys who score beautiful high-achieving women and then have no idea what to do once they land them. That’s right, we’re in Apatowland, baby, where the idea of a male romantic lead now begins with a water bong and ends with a fart joke. This isn’t an isolated trend; it seems to be a broad cultural response that speaks to enough people to keep it floating. The shows this fall are not clones of each other: They’re written by men and by women; they’re geared toward teens and adults; they’re comedies and dramas and dramedies. And they all seem to be expressing an anxiety about what on earth is going to happen to American men now that their women are not simply competing at work, sex, friendship, money and politics, but sometimes winning.
Among the degradations about to be heaped on television’s men? There are guys whose wives cheat on them, whose girlfriends get promoted over them, whose mates make more money than they do; guys who get left out of baby-making, who date women with penises and at least one who gets anally raped by a monkey.
It’s tough to know where to start in explaining how bad these boys have it, but the monkey rape seems as good a place as any. It takes place in the debut episode of the Farrelly brothers’ half-hour comedy “The Rules for Starting Over,” which premieres on Fox in spring 2008, about Gator (Craig Bierko), a menschy guy tossed back into the dating market after his wife leaves him for a Cirque de Soleil performer. Gator, who hasn’t been on a date since his 20s, is mystified by women, and startled to be invited up to the apartment of an attractive naturalist who shows him tapes of the gorillas she’s studied. She informs him that “in the world of primates, the female always initiates,” pulling him onto the floor on top of her to demonstrate. That’s when the woman’s pet baboon takes Gator from behind.
Gator’s buddies do nickname the monkey “bi-curious George” — the only funny line of the episode — but otherwise are a lamentable bunch. They include a heavily accented Indian doctor, also recently divorced, and so lonely and stupid that he invites an escort to his birthday dinner (at “Thank God It Is Friday’s” — think of how hilarious that is in an Indian accent!) and proposes to her. As if getting ditched for a circus acrobat isn’t emblematic enough of the clownish powerlessness of modern man, the show’s lone female star is dating a short man who works for the Celtics — as the team’s bouncy mascot, Lucky the Leprechaun!
At least the guys on “The Secrets of Starting Over” have met women. Geeky schlubs Sheldon and Leonard (Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki) on CBS’ “Big Bang Theory” are socially hobbled physicists whose only sexual activity involves donating to a high-IQ sperm bank, so that woman can get pregnant by them without actually having to touch them! The guys meet a cute neighbor and by the end of the half-hour have had their pants removed by her brawny ex. “It wasn’t my first pantsing, and it won’t be my last,” says a defeated Sheldon.
Going pantsless is one of the weirdly repeated themes of the new season, turning up again in ABC’s bone-chillingly bad comedy “Carpoolers.”
The idea behind “Carpoolers,” voiced several times during its pilot, is that daily trips to and from work are the only escape for these four miserable men, who have nothing in common except a barely disguised antipathy for the women in their lives. Aubrey’s wife has him by the balls: He waits on her, cooks and cares for the kids while she watches television and takes his money. Laird (Jerry O’Connell), the carpool’s founder, has been dumped by his wife, who cheated and left him with nothing but an ass-print on the sliding glass door. Gracen (Fred Goss) is married to Leila (Faith Ford), a woman he seems to care for, but whose real estate “hobby” has recently become lucrative. The pilot revolves around the carpool’s suspicion that Leila is making more money than her husband. The decline of masculinity is further embodied by Gracen and Leila’s subliterate adult son Marmaduke, who inexplicably prances around the house without trousers and miraculously lands a job at which he, too, will be making more money than his father.
The fury and confusion about shifting gender roles as expressed on “Carpoolers” is scary in its nakedness. At one point, Laird suggests to Gracen that he talk to his wife about how she’s spending his money. “My money? Ha ha, no,” says Gracen. “All the money I make is our money; it always has been. The money she’s making now is her money.” Aubrey chimes in, “Well at least you have your money. My wife gets my checks; I don’t even know how much I make!” To which Laird says, “My wife and I have it all worked out out. She gets everything. Her lawyer saw to that.”
Ha ha ha ha!
Later Laird stokes Gracen’s fear by explaining that “men go off to war; women shop; if we don’t provide for our women, do they really need us?” Part of the horror of this show is how it — and not the specter of the high-earning wife — is actually stripping its heroes of anything resembling self-respect or masculine dignity. Gracen squirms around about Leila’s income like a spineless nelly; he curls in a fetal position when he hears how much she has in her account; he can only have sex with her after he realizes it’s all been a misunderstanding — of course she’s not wealthier than he is!
“Carpoolers” does more to impugn the American male than any high-earning spouse could ever do. But if this sitcom is any measure — and god willing it is not — the American female is fucked. There is no mode of femininity that satisfies these guys: The wife who is too successful makes her husband feel unmanly; the wife who doesn’t work makes her husband bake; the wife who leaves is a bitch who takes the furniture.
Even on far better shows, like Fox’s Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton vehicle “Back to You,” the malevolence toward professional women is ill-disguised. Grammer plays Chuck Darling, a Los Angeles newscaster demoted to his old station in Pittsburgh after he’s caught on camera railing about a ditzy colleague. “I didn’t freeze my ass off in Minnesota and fucking Pittsburgh to end up working with some dipshit who only has her job because she’s fucking the general manager!” Chuck shouts before he realizes he’s on air and calmly reports, “It was bring your daughter to work day today!” — a funny transition that highlights the disjuncture between enforced political correctness and his actual animosity toward his young female co-worker.
Back in Pittsburgh, Chuck is reunited with his former co-anchor, Kelly Carr (Heaton), with whom he had a brief sexual relationship before his career took off. During Chuck’s decade-long absence, Kelly has raised a child on her own, whom newsroom gossips speculate she conceived with the help of a sperm donor — a child whom Heaton protects with such fierceness that Chuck is moved to comment, “Your daughter could benefit from a strong masculine figure in her life, but I can see she already has one.”
Grammer is not a loser in the mold of Gator or Gracen, but he has been professionally humiliated and forced to slink back to a woman whom he thought he’d surpassed, only to realize that she’d been just fine without him. The theme of female self-sufficiency is echoed in Fox’s “The Return of Jezebel James,” slated to run midseason, in which Parker Posey’s single, ambitious book editor character is informed she cannot get pregnant, and so turns to her sister for help in the uterus department, no baby-daddy in sight.
These shows smell only faintly of a lighthearted desire to punish or dominate their high-achieving female leads, perhaps make them lonely, a little desperate, a touch shrill, infertile. But the punishment mechanism positively reeks on ABC’s “Samantha Who?” a sitcom ripped off from “Thirteen Going on Thirty,” in which psychiatrist Sam (Christina Applegate) wakes up from a coma with amnesia, and must be taught in a thousand belittling ways that pre-accident she was a mean, ambitious, cheating, slutty harridan who was so hated by her boyfriend’s friends that they called to congratulate him when she got hit by a car. As an amnesiac, Sam is much nicer, especially when she confesses to her man that she feels “so needy [and] unarmed.” A collective fantasy: If only we could knock out those ball-busting brats and bring them back with no memories and much more amenable dispositions!
At least the barely sublimated aggression is played for laughs in the sitcoms. When it comes to the dramas, the female triumphs are that much more potent, and the resulting arrested machismo of the men is that much more … not potent. On ABC’s “Women’s Murder Club,” Angie Harmon is police Lt. Lindsay Boxer — recently promoted over her older male colleague — who solves murders with the support of her best female confidants, a reporter, a medical examiner and a D.A. (brunet, blond, African-American, natch). They’re such a successful clique that they even have a wannabe (Asian!) member, who begs to become a part of their club, which she sees as “women teaming up to level the playing field in a man’s world.”
The only area in which these women show any weakness is their love lives, but it’s made clear that that has a lot to do with male discomfort with their power. As Lindsay says about her failed marriage, “Before he left, I kept promising that I would change. That I would put him over the job and that I would be at home more. Eventually he just stopped believing me, and he was right.” But even without the husband, she shows no interest in changing. When it’s pointed out that Lindsay hasn’t had sex in two years, she says defensively, “I’m picky. And busy.” Medical examiner Claire (Paula Newsome) has a more successful relationship. When she goes home to cuddle with her husband, we understand him to be a man comfortable with his wife’s power as soon as she sits in his lap … in his wheelchair.
Set on an opposite coast and a professional world apart, ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia” strikes amazingly similar notes to “Women’s Murder Club.” “Mafia” is Darren Starr’s attempt to plunder the “Sex and the City” audience, before the mid-season debut of NBC’s “Lipstick Jungle,” based on a book by the original Carrie, Candace Bushnell.
“Mafia” begins with a shot of New York amazons (brunet, blond, red-headed, Asian!) striding down a Gotham street. “This is a story about four friends who were taught from childhood that through hard work and smart choices they could have it all,” the efficient voice-over tells us. Zoe (Frances O’Connor) is a Wall Street macher with a great family and stay-at-home-dad husband so devoted that he turns down a play-group mom’s offer for strings-free sex. Juliet (Miranda Otto) is a hotel chain executive; Caitlin (Bonnie Somerville) is a marketing executive for a cosmetics company who, according to the intro, “says she lives for work because work never tells her that he’s just not that into her.” But her imperviousness to men may not be simply attitudinal; she’s also a budding lesbian. After her first kiss with a woman, the pilot’s soundtrack plays “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” That’s right, boys. Want to know what makes this beautiful woman feel like a woman? A woman! Suck it!
Like the Murder Club ladies, these women are utterly self-sufficient professionally, except insomuch as they rely on each other for detailed four-way-phone-call advice. Listen to Zoe make like Gordon-ette Gekko, telling a young colleague: “Profit doesn’t care if you have kids or cats or a penis or a vagina; profit only cares if you have the hot hand, and through hard work and a little bit of luck, mine’s been hot more often than not.” Even in romantic weakness, they are steely. When Juliet learns that her husband has been cheating, she barely flinches; what’s more, she quickly begins to pity him. “Look at what a man gives up to be with one of us,” she tells her girlfriends. “We make more money. We rise higher. We take up more space. We are as far from the idea of a wife he grew up with as it’s possible to be and still wear his ring and go by his last name.”
It’s excellently diabolical, this logic: Even at their macho cheating caddish hurtful worst, men are the weak ones. He’s only cheating because he’s so enfeebled by his junior role in the marriage.
On “Big Shots,” “Cashmere Mafia’s” corollary about a bunch of classically red-blooded businessmen, the four friends sit around a swimming pool taking a schvitz like the girls on “Sisters” used to do. “Look at us,” says Brody, played by Christopher Titus, as a man so devoted to his wife that he spends the whole episode micromanaging the catering for her birthday party, “We’re supposed to be these alpha males, right? But now James’ wife is sleeping around on him and Karl can’t control his crazy mistress and I’m so whipped that I can’t tell my wife that the delivery company can’t seem to find her shipment of Napoleans.” Duncan (Dylan McDermott) replies flatly, “Men, we’re the new women,” just before Brody gets a phone call that he answers, “Oh, what fresh hell … What do you mean the pastry filling won’t clear customs?”
“Big Shots” is one of the two — two! — new dramas so befuddled by gender arrangements that in their pilots, they have their muscular male leads — McDermott on “Big Shots” and William Baldwin on ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money” — engaging in sex with transvestites. What better symbol could there be of the emasculation of television’s men and the chicks-with-dicks attitude toward its women? As “Dirty Sexy Money” lead Peter Krause taunts Baldwin’s character: “Is she more of a man than you are?”
Yes. She is more of a man than he is. All of television’s women are, apparently. You know you’re in trouble when Julianna Margulies’ tough lawyer character on Fox’s “Canterbury’s Law,” which premieres midseason, walks in on her male junior colleague in the pisser, and when he asks her to leave, she merely turns on the water to hurry things along.
Rather than seeing their opportunities for interaction with women expand, these men have instead curled into fetal positions like Gracen on “Carpoolers.” Is it simply impossible for the televised heroes of yesteryear to go gracefully into their new world order?
It’s understandable and honest to express some befuddlement with shifting expectations. But these are characters whose discomfort makes them unattractive, or silly-looking. They are whipped, flummoxed and helpless without the power to make the calls — in the bedroom or the boardroom. They can’t just be normal nice guys who are no longer entirely in control, who do childcare or play a subordinate role at work but who do so in a way that is still sexy, still powerful, instead of in a way that is marked as submissive, beaten down or pansy-assed. Nope, they must be buffoons, caricatures, dopes or just angry, neutered bastards.
It’s discomfiting for women, too, to see television’s idea of what a feminized man is, since it is a reflection of what television considers feminine to begin with. If these men are “the new women,” then what does that say about what they take women for? Do they think we have hissy fits when we discover how much our husbands have in their bank accounts? That we flip out when a man comes on to us? That when we get passed over for promotions we walk out of relationships in defeat? If these are supposed to be girly-men, then the notion of what girly looks like is simply ghastly, an insult not only to the men, but to the women whose habits they are supposedly aping.
Little wonder that many of these programs include plotlines in which women and men turn in on their own gender to fulfill their social, professional and sexual needs. Many of us who rather enjoy the upturn in women’s professional, political, sexual and social fortunes might think that it could only help our relationships with the men we love and respect, and with whom we come ever closer to being considered equal. But if television is any measure, and this summer it appears to be measuring something palpable in our collective consciousness, then it seems that as our field gets closer to level, men and women are simply not playing well together.
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For more Salon TV Week coverage, click here.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
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)