"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 are two kinds of people in the world: those who are highly suggestible and those who remain relatively impervious to outside influences.
Personally, I’m an emotional amoeba, a transparent blob of mush, nothing but permeable boundaries with fluidy goo in the middle. Set the amoeba down in front of some speakers playing sad music and the amoeba feels sadness. Expose the amoeba to some shaky camera footage with a driving, suspenseful soundtrack and the amoeba’s pulse races or, rather, its ectoplasm flutters excitedly.
Some women complain that they cry at diaper commercials. I cry at diaper boxes. I get watery eyes at the last line of any book, even if it wasn’t any good. I weep openly during previews for movies that I don’t want to see.
Once, I saw a very small ad in the newspaper for the movie “The Joy Luck Club.” I didn’t know much about it, and didn’t plan to see it. The tag line for the ad was something like, “Because family means everything” or “They stuck together through thick and thin.” I don’t remember. All I know is that I glanced at it and choked up.
Yes, my point is that you should never, ever trust my opinion on anything, ever again.
Private, keep out!
OK, then! Onward, to my strong opinions on the new and returning shows coming your way soon. First: ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff, “Private Practice” (premieres 9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26).
“Private Practice,” like “Grey’s Anatomy,” is an exercise in emotional manipulation, custom-made for big girls. Whether those big girls are men or women hardly matters. We big girls are meant to sit patiently through the tomfoolery — unbelievable situations, over-the-top patients and a general, “Ally McBeal”-esque circus atmosphere — in order to get to the parts where we start to invest way too much in flat characters and, inevitably, cry like little babies over them. Yes, the goal is to fall to pieces over cartoon-grade melodrama while some heart-wrenching, whispery ballad plays our emotions like a cheap, poorly strung fiddle.
Take the pilot. We begin with Dr. Addison Shepherd (Kate Walsh) telling Chief that she’s leaving Seattle Grace. “I want to throw my hat all the way up in the air,” she tells him with an adorable smile, and we’re supposed to feel warmth in our hearts for her, just like we once felt for Mary Tyler Moore. Instead, we want to grab her hat and throw it into traffic.
Undaunted, Addison moves to Malibu or maybe Huntington Beach, Calif., and dances naked in her brand-new, multimillion-dollar house, right on the beach. (Can a doctor who treats one patient per day afford that mortgage?) One of her colleagues (Taye Diggs), who happens to live next door, sees her dancing naked. People run out to the beach in front of their houses to discuss it. “It’s not like I look bad naked,” Addison says in her own defense. “A lot of men have enjoyed seeing me naked. Well, not a lot. Eight. Well, eleven.”
Oh, Jesus. This again. Addison is starting to feel like the self-involved friend whose calls we avoid. What happened to the brusque, no-nonsense Addison we fell in like with back in Seattle? Next, Addison shows up at her new job at an alternative medicine Wellness Center, and the partners don’t even know she’s joining the practice (not likely). Her boss shows her the birthing suite and tells her she only has to see one patient a day, but fails to explain how the center can pay its bills and still pay her enough to cover her enormous mortgage. Then Addison’s colleague/love interest (played by Tim Daly) worries that she moved to California to be closer to him, since they kissed on the Addison-spinoff episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” last spring. Addison says something like “I sooo didn’t move here just because you kissed me!” and he says something like “You sooo did!” And unfortunately, they have time for this crap because they only have to see one patient a day.
Soon, zany patients enter and total mayhem ensues, and it all foams up into one big lather of terrible losses and tearful confessions and miraculous medical maneuverings involving childbirth or dead children, until the sweet, soft vocals and the empathic, teary-eyed doctors have you reaching for tissues. Roll credits.
But after you cry and cry and cry and blow your nose five or six times, you have to ask yourself: Is this show really so bad? I mean, you did just spend the last five minutes sobbing. Doesn’t that mean that “Private Practice” is worth watching?
Well, maybe, if you’re looking for emotional catharsis. I guess this is why I keep watching “Grey’s Anatomy,” too. Even though I’m annoyed at the overwrought voice-over (“All good things must come to an end. That’s what they say, anyway. But don’t endings — even good endings — make you wish that you could start back at the beginning again?”), even though I never want to see Meredith or McDreamy or that dummy George ever again, there I am when the heartbreaking ballad kicks in and the defibrillator paddles come out and Mean Daddy smacks Meredith in the face and blames her for the death of his wife. I want to be emotionally abused by my TV set.
Ultimately, asking if “Private Practice” is good is like asking if a Twinkie is good. The answer is “No” and “Of course!” and, also, “Give me another one.”
Kids aren’t people, too!
Which leads us right to the biggest, fattest TV Twinkie in the box: CBS’s “Kid Nation” (8 p.m. Wednesdays). On this controversial show, which everyone loudly despises already, children are made to work very hard for next to nothing. Welcome to the real world, suckers!
You’ve got to hand it to CBS for its reasoning on this one: We don’t treat our laborers with any respect or dignity in this country, let alone pay them a living wage. Why should kids be any different? As long as most of the population is being demeaned and taken advantage of and plowed under by the wheels of capitalism, shouldn’t our kids be in on the action, too? What better way to teach them about the limited value of hard work than by making them work way too hard for almost no reward?
Thus do we find, in glorious Bonanza City (a ghost town in New Mexico), a miniature market system and four classes of kid citizen: Upper Class (who don’t have to work at all, and presumably spend most of their time getting pedicures), Merchants (who work in the saloon and the general store), Cooks (who make all the food) and Laborers (who do the crappy work that no one else wants to do). Each class gets paid a different amount, from 10 cents to a dollar. The kids, who are separated into four gangs, compete to see which class they’ll belong to.
This might look like a torturous way for a kid to spend his or her time. But really, what practical purpose do we serve by allowing children to play with blocks and ride their bicycles around in circles, when they’ll spend the balance of their days on earth at a desk in an airless cubicle at a soul-sucking corporate office, pretending to work? Games of make-believe might be useful, but otherwise, playtime is just a dangerous fantasy that gives children the illusion that their lives won’t be a living hell when they grow up. Is that really fair?
That’s why it’s so satisfying to watch as the kids realize that they have to work, and work is hard. Why, most of us have been coming to terms with this basic realization for most of our adult lives! What an advantage, to get it out of the way at a tender age!
And needless to say, CBS’s child labor camp is like a saltwater bath to us emotional amoebas at home. Even when a bunch of 9-year-olds are struggling to cook breakfast, those quirky kiddies are so adorably plucky and sweet, amoebas nationwide explode in a spectacular burst of cuteness overload.
Now let’s be clear about this: Most of us find kids in general to be, quite frankly, unsavory. They scamper and bump into things and screech unexpectedly. They speak at higher volumes than necessary, usually about repetitive stuff like the particular powers of this or that Pokemon. But CBS miraculously located the most charming and/or precocious and/or odd children in the country for its program. Take plucky Sophia, a 14-year-old who spots a bicycle that she wants in the general store and then dances in the street for spare change from the other kids until she has the $3 she needs to buy it. Or how about Alex, a 9-year-old boy who, after the two biggest kids write graffiti all over town in the middle of the night, says, “I think it was really stupid that they did that. It’s juvenile. It’s like 2-year-old behavior.”
But these delicious youngsters don’t impress our nation’s concerned critics and parents, who find this show hideous and fake and boring, and believe that childhood should be spent fiddling aimlessly with blocks or dollies.
I disagree. I think kids are better off trudging around in the desert, tired and alone, with no one to turn to for comfort but other miserable kids. Doesn’t that sound just like your first entry-level job? By lugging big buckets of water in extreme heat for hours on end, these children will gain an accurate sense of conditions in today’s rapidly changing job market!
Look at poor little Betty Suarez, who didn’t know how brutal a job in the big city would be until she was thrust into it, unawares! But like those resilient kiddies of Bonanza City, Betty’s stick-to-itiveness and “South of the Border spirit” (as editor/villainess Wilhelmina calls it) made her a trusted employee of Mode magazine.
ABC’s “Ugly Betty” (premieres 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27) may appear to be made for big girls, but in fact, it’s the anti-”Private Practice”: The zaniness and witty shenanigans are the main event, and the emotional twists and turns are treated as a sideshow attraction. Even when Hilda’s fiancé, Carlos, was shot and Daniel was in a car accident at the end of the first season, it didn’t really matter how it would all turn out. The colorful, fast-paced wit and fun of the show would live on regardless of who Hilda’s main squeeze was or what mess Daniel found himself in next.
It’s tough to make such a fantastical drama work. Without so much visual flair and such a rapid-fire pace, “Ugly Betty” wouldn’t hold our attention as well. But these elements, along with a talented cast (America Ferrera just won an Emmy for her role), make this a show well worth watching, and this week’s premiere doesn’t disappoint.
We will rebuild her!
Since I have permeable boundaries, I also really enjoyed NBC’s “Bionic Woman” (premieres 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 26). There’s lots of super-powered action, I like regular-girl Michelle Ryan as Jaime Sommers, and best of all, Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck from “Battlestar Galactica”) plays the eeeeevil former bionic woman, Sarah Corvus. Sure, most scenes represent the usual cookie-cutter, superhero format: Jaime confronts Sarah; it’s raining; they battle it out on a rooftop. Even so, the sight of two frightening superpowered women making a herd of men in suits cower is sweet nectar to the amoeba’s soul … or to its pseudopod, anyway.
Sure, the pilot episode has some seriously corny moments, like when a little girl looks out her car window, sees Jaime running and says, “Mommy, there’s a lady out there running really fast, like as fast as a car!” Her mom says, “Sweetie, what did I tell you about making things up?” The kid responds, smiling, “I just thought it was cool that a girl could do that, that’s all.”
We think it’s cool, too, so long as you shut up about it. Keep in mind, you’re pandering to a generation that made the “wah-wah-wah” slow-motion sound when they were running on the playground. Suggestible old folks get confused by nostalgia, and we start to think that we like something simply because we liked it when we were charmless, repetitive children. Don’t overplay your hand or we’ll turn on you like the charmless, repetitive overgrown children we’ve become.
Meat and greet
Speaking of charmless, repetitive, overgrown children, even though it’s bound to end in tears, there’s still something irresistible about ABC’s “The Bachelor” (premieres 9:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 24), even in its 11th season. Whether it’s the shots of the “sexiest ‘Bachelor’ ever” lathering up his big, juicy man titties in the shower (nice job putting him up in a room with a glass shower, folks!) or the drunken slurring of a contestant who let all the champagne and roses go straight to her head, this show really rolls out the “Bachelor” Bacchanalia to keep us hooked.
And by “us,” I think I probably mean us ladies, or those of us who have trouble resisting the temptation to objectify a sparkly-eyed, dimple-cheeked Meaty Meatburger like this season’s Texan business-guy Brad Womack. We’re not the only ones — the contestants squeal and swoon audibly when they spot him from the back of the limo in the first episode. The best, though, is when a contestant exits the limo with a huge grin, walks up and says, “My, you’re absolutely gorgeous!” and then Bachelor Brad is forced to aw-shucks awkwardly until a buzzer sounds and the dimbo must proceed past the tackily festooned fountain area toward the Saucy Sea Donkey Lounge.
We know that no one will live happily ever after, of course. Last season’s Officer/Gentleman Andy Baldwin and Tessa Horst just called off their engagement a few weeks ago. The real draw here is hating the haters among the Bachelor chasers while pitying the fools. And rest assured, there are fools aplenty, from the poor misguided girl who performs “The Human Pretzel” to make herself memorable to Brad (putting your ankles behind your head when you’re wearing an evening gown is ill-advised, to say the least) to the compulsively confessional nut job who throws a bare foot on the coffee table and insists that Brad take a very close look at her webbed toes. Then there’s the girl who strips down to a bikini, hops in the pool and murmurs that Brad should take his pants off and get in — although that ploy should win out over webbed toes nine times out of 10.
You’d think “The Bachelor” would get old after all these years, but the producers just keep pumping more high-fructose corn syrup into this recipe to get the masses hooked. Every season, they find a man who’s more hopelessly hunky and earnest than the last, and come up with women who are more shameless and frighteningly competitive than the years before. It’s like the plastic food in the window at a Chinese restaurant: You know it’s fake, but it still makes your stomach growl.
But if you’re a real masochist and want to be emotionally tooled with as much as humanly possible, you might as well opt for something with genuine weight like, say, one of the biggest events in the history of the world. Ken Burns’ seven-part documentary series about World War II, “The War,” premieres Sunday (8 p.m. on PBS, check local listings), and even the relatively impervious among you will be made to sniffle and sob like children when you hear some of these veterans’ stories. But isn’t that the point of most documentaries and reality shows and dramas, to make us feel empathy for strangers and make their battles our own? Life may be a roller-coaster ride for the easily manipulated among us, but at least we’re not standing on the ground, trying to imagine how it feels to be flying by.
Next week … Showtime’s “Dexter” returns for more blood!
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)