"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)
ABC’s new series “Last Resort” presents race in a fashion that is entirely bracing, especially given the other options in the faux-post-racial mediaverse that we now inhabit. The faux-po media reifies the retrograde choices that have resulted in the production of a largely monochromatic cultural landscape in the service of a putatively unthinking market that supposedly craves markedly less diversity across television, film, and fashion than was available during the 1970s. Or, to put this more directly: Our current media offerings represent a profound loss of nerve, a collective lack of daring on the part of casting directors, show-runners and magazine editors. “Last Resort’s” protagonist, Capt. Marcus Chaplin (played with characteristic intensity by Andre Braugher) might serve to upend the status quo of the faux-po mediaverse by offering a version of Black masculinity that harkens back to depictions quite common during the Carter administration, but rarely seen since.
Capt. Chaplin as an embodiment of Black authority represents a reversal from the past 20 odd years of movies and films. As several academics have noted, Black authority figures in popular media in the post-civil rights era inevitably wind up subordinate to their peers, either in the role of comedic helpmate to the virtuous white male protagonist (think Danny Glover in the “Lethal Weapon” series), or as a distant bureaucratic figure who implicitly authorizes the questionable actions of the virtuous white male protagonist (think President David Palmer in “24″). As a culture we’ve gone from mainstream sitcoms in the 70s like The Jeffersons, which featured an unapologetically acerbic and defiantly successful George Jefferson, and Benson, whose titular character advanced from butler to “director of household affairs,” to budget director and finally Lt. Governor, to sitcoms like “Happy Endings” and “The New Girl” which feature quiescent—though thoroughly amusing—Black male characters. One might couch this evolution, from a Black masculinity presented as transgressive to one presented as bland and unthreatening, as progress made possible by the outsized success of “The Cosby Show” were it not for the strange but enduring blend of hostility and indifference that seems the inevitable byproduct of real world Black achievement. Hollywood seemed much more willing to produce, and the US mainstream much more willing to consume, narratives that foregrounded a striving Black masculinity when actual high status Black men were few and far between. But, as Black men entered all facets of American life and became not just NFL quarterbacks and NFL head coaches but also CEOs, mayors, governors and secretary of state, television proved largely unwilling to explore these exemplars of success on either the small or big screen. There seems to be an inverse correlation between the real life achievement of Black men (and other men of color, and women) in the United States and the willingness of popular culture to explore seriously the ramifications of these achievements. This reluctance has only deepened during the first term of the Obama presidency.
I do not mean to suggest that, outside of a particular sub-species of sitcom (“Seinfeld,” “Frazier,” “Friends,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Girls”), the culture industry retreated from representing the diversity of the nation. Instead Black men, like other minority characters, became foils in the service of a normative whiteness. Nowhere is this clearer than on the police procedural. Despite the differences in their locales and wardrobe palates, “Miami Vice” and “NYPD Blue” serve as templates for the genre. Each show features a white male protagonist who, in the course of working to preserve state power, occasionally operates outside the law. A capable person of color aids the protagonist, and this duo often find themselves at odds with their superior officer, a well-meaning minority who represents the failings of the urban bureaucracy. The chief difference between these two venerable franchises is that in “Miami Vice” the partner is Black and the well-meaning bureaucrat Latino, and in “NYPD Blue,” the partner is Latino and the commanding officer Black. So established is this formula that Homicide gained notice simply by allowing Braugher’s Frank Pemberton to assume the role previously reserved for Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett and Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz.
From this perspective, “Last Resort’s” Capt. Marcus Chaplin represents a refreshing change by marrying the unapologetic Black masculinity of an earlier era to a protagonist in service to the state. Combine “Good Times’” James Evans and “NCIS’s” Leroy Jethro Gibbs (seriously, how is that not the name of a Black guy?) and you might wind up with Capt. Chaplin, the commander of the US nuclear submarine Colorado. Because of the way the pilot unfolds, and the emotional beats of certain scenes, it will be almost impossible to avoid comparing Capt. Chaplin to “24’s” Agent Jack Bauer, another government agent willing to defy authority to do what he feels is necessary to protect the nation. There is, however, a crucial difference between the two. During the first season of “24,” Bauer never worked in opposition to US hegemony. He flouted laws but the end result of this was to place his own career in jeopardy, not precipitate a crisis of American democracy. With Capt. Chaplin this is decidedly not the case. Major spoilers to the first episode of “Last Resort” ahead.
The episode opens with Capt. Chaplin commemorating his Executive Officer Sam Kendel’s final tour under his command. Kendel, played by Scott Speedman, has obtained a coveted stateside position, one that allows him to spend more time with his family. Kendel is clearly conflicted: he is thankful for the opportunity but also reluctant to leave his mentor’s command. When Capt. Chaplin receives orders to initiate a strike on Lahore, Pakistan from an obscure back-channel, he and Kendel agree to violate protocol and seek confirmation from a more conventional source. An under-secretary tries to confirm the order rather than the person Chaplin had expected to answer his communiqué, and the captain demands to speak to that official or someone else he’s heard of. The under-secretary then relieves Chaplin of his command, elevating Kendel and instructing him to follow orders. When Kendel also refuses, a nearby US warplane launches missiles in an attempt to sink the Colorado. After a daring bit of underwater maneuvering, Chaplin and Kendel avoid the worst of the missile attack and realize they are now likely personas-non-grata in the US. (Meanwhile, another sub has followed protocol, delivering its nuclear payload and annihilating Lahore.) Chaplin’s willingness to defy the chain of command leaves him a man without a nation. If “24″ sought to delineate the steps necessary to preserve an exceptional America, the opening act of “Last Resort” dismisses the idea of American exceptionalism altogether. The immoral actions of a cabal within the American military force Capt. Chaplin to renounce the very thing he has sworn to protect.
Except that he hasn’t. Capt. Chaplin and his (mostly) loyal crew decide to take refuge at a NATO listening station in the Indian Ocean, along the way picking up a mysterious band of Navy Seals in some way connected to the events leading up to the destruction of Lahore. Chaplin assures his crew that their exile is temporary, that once the malfeasance of the dominant political order is brought to light they will be able to return home. Yet when the Colorado surfaces near the island, they realize that the strike has occurred despite their best efforts and a fully fledged disinformation campaign is now underway, linking their disappearance to the need to bomb Pakistan. When the US military threatens to destroy the listening station to silence Chaplin (after all what’s a few hundred additional deaths after the destruction of millions in Lahore?) he launches one of his ICBMs at Washington. While the missile is in flight he releases a statement declaring that the military’s stated reasons for engaging with Pakistan are false, as are the accusations made against him and his crew, thereby placing the moral authority of the United States in doubt. After US forces retreat to a safe distance, Chaplin reveals (in the most dramatic way possible) that he deliberately programmed his nuke to land in the middle of the Atlantic, but the threat is clear. He will launch another nuke if he perceives the US encroaching upon his territory.
Capt. Chaplin is definitely not Jack Bauer here. Indeed, he resembles nothing so much as a protagonist from the a subgenre in African American fiction that includes novels like “Imperium in Imperio,” “Dark Princess,” “Black No More,” and “The Spook Who Sat by the Door.” Each of these texts imagines a reordering of the dominant political order under the leadership of a charismatic and disciplined Black leader. Implicit in these utopian narratives is the idea that, like rebel Hatian slaves singing La Marseillaise, it is only possible to realize the lofty ideals of the democratic creed by creating a society free of the corrupting influences of the actually existing democracy. The logic of episodic story-telling, not to mention the Obama administration’s decision to “look forward” and not prosecute those at the Pentagon ultimately responsible for the depredations of the Iraq war, demand that Chaplin keep the faith with his principles rather than his nation. By the premiere’s end it is clear that Chaplin will find himself the de facto leader of a fractious multicultural society on a remote island isolated from contact with the rest of the world. In this way, the Jack Capt. Chaplin ultimately resemble is not Jack Bauer of “24″ but Dr. Jack Sheppard of “Lost.”
The co-creators of “Last Resort” freely acknowledge Lost as an influence on their show, and if handled well, this could yield extremely interesting results. Other utopian shows with strong ensemble casts, from “Star Trek” to “Lost,” ultimately relied on the unifying power of white leadership, reinforcing the idea that white men always seem to land at the top. It is fitting that in an America with a Black president we finally get a series that promises to delve into how race inflects notions of justice, service, and leadership, as well as one that promises to examine how the foreign policy excesses of the Bush presidency, many of which have continued under Obama, have changed us as a nation. The first episode already offers as thoroughgoing a critique of the logic of military command and the toxic influence of defense contractors on the decisions made at the Pentagon (a marketing exec at a contractor has a better understanding of the events surrounding the “loss” of the Colorado than the Secretary of the Navy, whose daughter is on the ship!) as you are likely to see on free television. Since Chaplin is now the leader of a tiny “nation” in the Indian Ocean with enough nukes to keep the global hegemony of the US military at arm’s length, the show also serves as a commentary on the US and Israel’s decades long obsession with preventing a nuclear Iran. I doubt the show can maintain this surprisingly biting political edge, but given the recent past I am simply gratified to know that, as Obama prepares to enter into his second term we now have a handful of political television shows (ABC’s “Scandal” and Showtime’s “Homeland” in addition to “Last Resort”) that revolve around female and minority protagonists, embracing the realities of America’s political future rather than clinging nostalgically to a past where minorities played second fiddle.
Now if we can just get a Black “Bachelor,” I’ll know we’ve made real progress.
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)