"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)
Are you in the mood to watch leading men with deep, penetrating eyes thrown into extraordinary circumstances? Do you want to see these men solving mysteries, nabbing criminals or engaging in international espionage, even as the planet crumbles under their feet? If so, stay tuned for a brand-new slew of suspense-thrillers coming to a television near you.
Sadly, though, most of us are too distracted by the fact that the world is falling to pieces each day in a suspense-thriller of our own design. Where are our saviors with the expressive eyes, the ones who might lead us, Jesus-like, through this quagmire? Presumably they all moved to Hollywood to appear on TV dramas, leaving us with one honorable but absent-minded professor who won’t make any claims that he’s a miracle worker, and one angry old turtle who brags that he can turn water into wine, flanked by a hapless backcountry sidekick pulled straight from the set of the latest quirky Alaskan dramedy.
At least the soulful-looking men on our television screens are angry and panicked and filled with dismay at the crumbling state of things. At least we can relate to their confusion and fear and bewilderment. At least, through them, we can pretend that solving crimes and blowing Russian thugs to smithereens is an option. At least there’s a soothing moral at the end, one to calm your nerves after you’ve given your last dime to the professorial non-miracle worker in the hopes that, despite his humble claims, he can stop the whole world from imploding.
Not that I’m panicking or anything. No sir. I’m doing what I always do to relax: Watching CNN for breaking news, scanning the headlines on the New York Times every hour or so, and panicking.
Mind you, this is recreational panicking. Completely different from regular panic. Studies have shown that compulsive bouts of recreational panicking can actually help you to make more efficient and effective decisions once real, non-recreational panic sets in – you know, when the apocalypse comes and you have to grab your photo album, your dog and your three cans of green chilies and point your car toward … 50 miles of suburbs, after which you’ll finally get to the desert.
Escaping from Los Angeles is basically impossible. Maybe that’s why the soulful-looking men get stuck here, on some barren set on the Warner Bros. back lot in Burbank, preventing them from leading our troubled populace to the promised land.
Rufus Sewell, star of “Eleventh Hour” (10 p.m. Thursdays on CBS) certainly has the penetrating gaze of a guy who could be a leader of men, one who could repeat lines about keeping the greed of Wall Street from harming Main Street with fresh conviction and purpose, and you wouldn’t even feel like choking the life out of him just for saying it 50 times in a row.
Sadly, though, Sewell’s Dr. Jacob Hood is too wrapped up in a battle to prevent the misuse of science by nefarious forces across the globe. Or, as the CBS Web site puts it, “Dr. Jacob Hood will stop at nothing to be sure that scientific advances are used for good, not evil!” Is this a fear-mongering show for the intelligent design crowd?
Maybe. This is CBS, after all, the Olive Garden of networks, ready to serve up big, hearty meals to hungry old people with limited imaginations. But those God-fearing old folks aren’t going to like the fact that this show breaks my first rule of suspense-thriller dramas: Don’t kill kids! Most shows try to avoid killing a kid unless they absolutely have to – say, the kid is trapped in some log cabin with a homicidal maniac, and the maniac has him strapped to a big pile of dynamite – and even then, the kid typically escapes with just a few small scratches, brushes himself off, and seems particularly well-equipped to handle any post-traumatic aftershocks.
So when you go and kill a kid in the first few minutes of your first episode? That gives us a pretty clear idea of what we’re dealing with: a show that hinges on sensationalism and flashy, attention-getting antics. (The fact that Jerry Bruckheimer’s name is associated with this one should have tipped us off, of course.) Immediately, it’s clear that “Eleventh Hour” is a program for old folks who still fear God and terrorism and science and believe in family values and are suspicious of creepy science-manipulating weirdos, so much so that they’re willing to see some small humans die just to strengthen their conviction that they’re not just being paranoid.
There’s a lot of dry ice around, even during the middle of the day. There are 11-year-old boys, pressuring each other to lick a toxic toad. There are angry parents at a meeting, yelling, “We’re not interested in science! We want to know if our kids are safe!” Yes, “Eleventh Hour” is sort of like a cross between “CSI: Miami” and “Touched by an Angel,” if you can wrap your head around that unholy duo.
In fact, the whole first episode concerns one dumb clue after another, leading down a long and winding road to a completely implausible, obnoxiously clichéd villain, “CSI: Miami”-style. There are so many deeply stupid elements involved here: overprotective mothers, homeopathic remedies, creepy teachers, bufftail bumblebees, country cops. (Spoiler alert: The pilot aired last week, but if you recorded it and still plan to watch it, skip to the next section.) It all lathers up into one big, incredibly bad Scooby-Do ending in which a shy, nerdy boy is accused of killing his classmates – and immediately confesses and transforms into a seething cartoon villain, of course.
Boy: I had to kill them. They were holding me back! They were holding the whole school back. The whole school was suffering because of those stupid kids, because of how bad our overall grades and test scores were! Even some of the teachers were leaving for other schools, somebody had to do something!
Hood: But why Sam Tewsberry?
Boy: I saw Mr. Tewsberry in the classroom. I heard him question the kids. I was certain he suspected a kid was behind the deaths. It was only a matter of time before he figured everything out. He’s a smart man … almost as smart as me!
Hood: You made your mom believe you were afraid of needles.
Boy: [Smugly.] I made her believe a lot of things.
”And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for one soulful-looking FBI agent who’ll stop at nothing to be sure that scientific advances are used for good, not evil!”
I’d like to say that this crappy show is sure to bomb, but my faith in the intelligence of the American people is hanging in the balance right now, and since there seems to be enough dumbassery afoot to cheer on almost any half-witted scheme, I don’t want to make any assumptions. Suffice it to say that if you’re not very smart, not very educated and slightly paranoid about the existence of mad scientists, if you love “The Ghost Whisperer” but hate “Dexter,” if you think bad little boys are capable not just of stealing Daddy’s gun but also of concocting elaborate murderous schemes simply to raise the aggregate test scores at their elementary schools, then the abject buffoonery of “Eleventh Hour” is custom-made for you.
If, on the other hand, you’re a bored, middle-aged suburban dad who’s filled with self-hatred and longing and secretly wishes he could fly to Paris and screw a sexy Russian operative, then NBC’s “My Own Worst Enemy” (premieres 10 p.m. Monday, Oct. 13) should be right up your alley.
With squintily soulful Christian Slater, the quintessential cynical Gen X hero, in the leading role, the show’s timely battle between hedonism and humility plays out against an early ’90s suspense-thriller backdrop that’s slick and subtly edited enough to belong on the big screen. Slater plays a spy, Edward Albright, who volunteered for an experimental program after the death of his parents. Edward subsequently became a man with two personalities: When Edward “goes to sleep,” his alter ego, Henry, lives the normal, everyday life of the average suburban family man. His job forces him to travel to conventions across the country, leaving his family behind and enabling Edward’s top-secret missions.
Life is essentially satisfying for Henry until he learns of Edward’s existence, at which point the lid comes off Pandora’s box. (You know, like the moment when Main Street woke up and realized it was getting sodomized by Wall Street?) Henry wakes up in a dark room, being interrogated by a Russian operative or criminal, it’s not clear which, and is utterly ill-equipped to handle the situation. Somehow he makes it out alive, then wanders around Edward’s bachelor pad and drives Edward’s sports car. That invasion of privacy leads to retribution by Edward, who wakes up and sees that Henry has been rifling through his possessions, then he goes to Henry’s house and screws his wife for good measure. She’s thrilled! Suddenly her boring husband is pulling hot moves in the sack like a jet-setting Gen X James Bond!
There are lots of similar dirty pleasures and reasonably sophisticated plot twists in store, in fact. “My Own Worst Enemy” presents a nice fable for America’s battling obsessions, a fierce struggle between middle-class values and the hot sex and filthy lucre of the uber-class. Henry is fine until he learns of Edward’s existence, and then he finds himself alienated from his own low-key choices — Edward’s outrageous lifestyle somehow undermines his comparatively humble existence. Edward, on the other hand, finds that he’s slightly envious of Henry’s comfortable, boring life in spite of himself.
By having Edward leave videotaped messages for Henry and vice versa, the writers avoid the cliché of making a character talk to himself. It’s easier than you’d imagine to treat these two men as separate characters, even if they are played by the same, rather familiar actor and inhabit the same body.
There also aren’t a lot of differences between the affectations and verbal tics of the two men. Edward speaks in a cool-guy monotone while Henry has more of an earnest, naive lilt to his voice, but sometimes Edward has a little lilt and Henry assumes the monotone. It can get a little confusing. That said, Slater is believable in both roles and he has enough flair that he can sell this story without making the whole picture feel hopelessly cheesy. (In contrast to Sewell, who seems to have studied at David Caruso’s Macho Grumbler School of Acting.)
And unlike “Eleventh Hour,” the “My Own Worst Enemy” pilot demonstrates a knack for tight storytelling and unexpected plot twists. While you do have to wonder where the show will go from here, since it has the plot of a two-hour movie, not a 20-hour series, it has the benefit of being far more original and unpredictable than 90 percent of the new shows to hit the airwaves this fall.
Our final soulful-eyed hero lies at the center of ABC’s “Life on Mars” (premieres 10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9), a show that doesn’t exactly qualify as original, since it’s a remake of the popular BBC hit. Even so, this is one of the better pilots hitting the air this fall. I haven’t seen the BBC version beyond its first episode, but plenty of people swear by it. Nonetheless, my ignorance at least allows me to view the American version on its own merits, something that’s tough to do when you’re attached to the original.
Jason O’Mara may be my favorite pretty-eyed hero so far (although Simon Baker’s penetrating “I see right through you!” gaze on “The Mentalist” makes him a close second). O’Mara plays NYPD officer Sam Tyler, an all-around great guy who somehow gets beamed back to 1973 after he gets hit by a car. Cue David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” cool ’70s cars, a haunting shot of the twin towers, groovy ’70s outfits … How does ABC afford all of this stuff? But best of all, when O’Mara wanders into the police department, who’s there? Michael Imperioli, wearing a wicked suit and a badass mustache-sideburn combo, plus Harvey Keitel, whipping out his demonic-urban-overlord shtick!
Seeing those two guys in crazy ’70s garb would’ve been enough to keep most of us hooked, but then you throw in vintage NYC sets, lots of great music, and a plot that – well, it is a procedural drama about a time-traveling cop. But there’s a serial murder mystery to solve here, one that Tyler thinks he might’ve been beamed back in time to help with, and it’s handled pretty well: puzzling evidence, a creepy suspect, and a witness plied with good pastries and a few swigs of alcohol.
The snappy banter is the real draw, though, particularly coming out of the mouth of Keitel, who plays Tyler’s boss, Lt. Gene Hunt. When Tyler asks Hunt what year it is, Hunt responds, “It’s 1973, or as our Chinese brethren like to call it, the Year of the Fist!” Then he socks Tyler in the gut, hard. Bad lieutenant! Baaaad lieutenant.
Even with such bullying in store for him, Tyler keeps asking everyone around him what’s going on, as if someone might have the answers and not just think he’s insane.
Sam: Is that why I’m here?
Hunt: No, you’re here to make me curse the day my father’s sperm asked my mother’s egg if it could have this dance.
Or take this lovely exchange between Tyler and Ray Carling (Imperioli) after Tyler calls on Annie Norris (Gretchen Mol) during a presentation to the other cops, hoping she might help him form a hypothesis about the mysterious serial killer. As Norris, whose nickname among the men is “No Nuts,” walks to the front of the room, the men snicker loudly.
Carling: Oh I get it. Every Houdini needs an assistant with a great set of gams!
Tyler: Ms. Norris has a psych degree from Fordham.
Carling: Yeah, well, I have an ass that can fart the melody of every Peter, Paul and Mary song ever recorded. Do I get to stand up there, too?
In short, “Life on Mars” is colorful and fun and well-written. Of course, it would have to be, to attract a cast this talented. This one’s worth watching, for sure. We’ll just have to wait and see if all of the extra bells and whistles can make even those of us who are weary of procedurals tune in over the long haul.
And let’s face it, we need some high-quality distractions on our boob tubes during these times of global economic chaos. We can only hope that our real-life leaders know this, so that when the true, blood-in-the-streets crisis begins, we still won’t be forced to face our demons or wrestle with big existential questions or even go without dental floss for more than a few hours. Personally, for all my panicking, I know deep down inside that Arnold Schwarzenegger, given all of his firsthand experience with apocalyptic scenarios, would never let the people of California down. They’ll surely be passing out pudding cups at the End Times Emergency Shelter they set up outside of Palm Springs, and there’ll be fluffy bedding and big, icy glasses of lemonade and power strips and T3 wireless and spa treatments for all. Dare to dream it might be so, my fellow fallen Americans! Dare to dream.
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)