"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)
Please allow me to introduce myself: I’m Willa, and I’m lucky enough to be the new TV critic here at Salon.
When I was a kid, watching television was the thing I did that drove my parents craziest. I would sit on the couch, turn on “Saved by the Bell,” and my mother would almost instantly storm into the room and yell about how I was rotting my brain. She yelled about how I was rotting my brain a lot. I tell you this not to point out the powerful backfiring abilities of even the most justified parenting techniques (what if she had yelled about all my broccoli consumption? An alternate life dedicated to the cultivation of leafy green vegetables slides by …) but to illustrate that my interest in TV comes from a totally insatiable, obsessive, waste-whole-days consuming it, thinking about it, talking about it, love of it.
Luckily, in this post-”Sopranos” age, TV stands up to this sort of nutty scrutiny. It’s a wonderful time to be writing about TV. Over the last few years I’ve had the chance to do so at Variety, Slate, BlackBook and, most recently, Vulture. So many of the shows are great, and so many of the ones that aren’t have at least been peer-pressured into making interesting gestures in greatness’s direction: Even the bad stuff has had to up its game. (If not every drama can be “Mad Men,” at least it can have an interesting period setting and sweet costumes. If not every comedy can be as hilarious or sharp as “30 Rock,” at least it can have lots and lots of vagina jokes. It’s not that I endorse the flagrant overuse of costumes or the term “vagina” but I do appreciate effort — even of the middling, tired, banal kind — over its absence.) And never before have so many people — critics, viewers, creators — been engaged in a more vibrant, public, twitter- and blog-fueled conversation about all of it. My hope is to be a part of that conversation, both by writing about that really interesting thing that was on last night, and also to take a step back from the episode-to-episode developments and to write more broadly about what it all means.
Some biases I should state up front: I love plot and romance and super-intense atmospheres. (But I have gotten really bored of “Revenge.”) I have a sweet spot for fantasy and sci-fi and girls who know how to punch things. I never use “soapy” as an insult. I get tremendously embarrassed for people on television, even fictional ones, which means I watch most of NBC’s comedies cowering underneath a pillow, and I need to be heavily medicated to watch the audition rounds of “American Idol.”
Current shows that I both love and admire include “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Happy Endings,” “New Girl,” “Homeland,” “The Good Wife,” “30 Rock,” “Community,” “Louie,” “Shameless,” “Smash,” “American Horror Story” and “Parenthood.” Shows on the air I love, but won’t defend — which is to say, I never miss them — include “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Bones” and “Jersey Shore.” And then there are the handful of shows I hate so much, I find them fascinating to watch: “Glee,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “2 Broke Girls” and “The Killing.”
One last thing: Because this is TV we’re talking about, a medium that is unrolling over real, long periods of time, with all the major and minor swings in quality that entails, I hereby reserve the right to change my mind. Some shows start bad and get better, some shows start good and get worse. (If by some miracle, “The Killing” turns awesome when it starts again next month, I will swallow my pride and tell you so.) I’m looking forward to all of it.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.
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)