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Shows that went on way too long
"Californication" (seven seasons)
For the last nine months I’ve been listening to audiobooks during my weekly commute between jobs in Ohio and Iowa. I get hours of entertainment and companionship, but sometimes I’m frustrated with the audiobook form. It’s a recording, meant for the ears rather than the eyes. So why not take better advantage of that form, and use it to do things the printed page can’t do? If the audiobook is nonfiction, why not allow some of the real-life characters deliver their dialogue in their own voices? Why not use a little music? Why not play with the sonic texture of the thing?
On commutes like mine, the natural competitor of the audiobook is the podcast, and more than once I’ve turned off an audiobook in favor of “WTF with Marc Maron,” the twice-weekly podcast in which the stand-up comic and former Air America radio host interviews other comics, actors, musicians and writers. Maron now has a new memoir, “Attempting Normal,” and naturally, the audiobook version cracks the form wide open, with features the hardcover can’t match.
Unlike most stand-up comics, Maron doesn’t use his humor to keep people constantly at a distance. “WTF” is about collapsing the distance between the interviewer and his subject. Maron records the podcast in his garage, and part of the pleasure of “WTF” is that it feels like a thing made in a garage – a recording of a personal conversation between two people who are in the process of exchanging something intimate about their private lives for the first time. It is almost always interesting to eavesdrop on that kind of conversation, a and even more so when the interviewee list includes Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Megan Mullally, Ben Stiller, Lucinda Williams and Judd Apatow.
Maron’s posture toward such famous people almost always goes like this: Of course I am interested in your private life because your public life is so interesting. Of course I am interested in the trajectory of your career because I am a person who is also building a career. What is it like, to have done all the things you have done, and to yet have a life as a human being? What is it like to be part of the family that gave birth to you? What were the low points in your life? What makes you hurt? What feels good? What did you want, and what did it feel like when you got it, and what does it feel like when it seems like you’ve lost it?
Maron often gets his subject to go to these places by being free with the trouble of his own life, the struggles of his own career, and most of all the story of his own failures as a husband, child and friend. It never feels treacly, because Maron isn’t soft. He’s dark, and his humor is full of sharp and cutting edges. If he’s good at empathy, it’s a hard-earned goodness that is constantly threatened by a corresponding angry mean streak.
These are the tensions that make “WTF” so interesting and enjoyable, and Maron brings all of them to “Attempting Normal,” which is better in audiobook format than it is in hardcover, in part because “Attempting Normal” feels in many ways to be an extension of the podcast. It recycles and amplifies material Maron developed on the fly during the 10-minute monologues he delivers at the beginning of each episode of “WTF.” And, smartly, it includes outtakes from the podcast between some of the chapters, which means that instead of merely hearing Maron talk about what happens in the podcast, the listener gets to actually hear the podcast inside the audiobook — an experience the print book can’t replicate, despite its offering of transcripts from the podcast.
There is another formally interesting thing shared by “Attempting Normal,” in book and audiobook alike. In Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel,” she writes about how the novel is “an essentially compromised form which grew out of earlier types of literature and can’t be understood except by reference to them.” She makes a list of these earlier forms, which she arranges around the twelve stations of the clock face: travel, history, biography, tale, joke, gossip, diary/letter, confession, polemic, essay, epic, and romance. Part of the pleasure of the novel, Smiley’s clock seems to be saying, is the way in which the author hybridizes from the available earlier forms and offers the result as a new thing.
The memoir less often works this way, but it can, and this is something that Maron seems to know intuitively. “Attempting Normal,” like “WTF,” and like Maron’s standup comedy, is interested in pushing past the barriers of its genre, often provocatively. “Attempting Normal” veers, sometimes wildly, from personal history to confession to documentary to punch line to psychoanalysis to intellectual rant to anti-intellectual armoring to inside joke to dead serious to deflatingly unhyperbolic to high to crude to political to nostalgic to philosophical to historical to proud to self-abasing. Its constant and sometimes schizophrenic-seeming modulation of tone is probably a product of a mind habituated to keeping impatient audiences off-balance, and it works on audiobook listeners in the same way, by which I mean: Happily off-balance. Appreciative of the effort, and pleased by it.
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Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014. More Kyle Minor.
"Californication" (seven seasons)
"Entourage" (eight seasons)
Much like “Californication,” this man-centric show started strong and buzzy -- a perpetual nominee at the Golden Globes and Emmys, and a perceived gender-swapped “Sex and the City.” Then it ground on and on, and what might once have been read as a sophisticated satire of Hollywood materialism became a grinding conveyor belt of self-congratulatory guest-star appearances.
"Will & Grace" (eight seasons)
Hey, did someone say “self-congratulatory guest-star appearances?” Look -- it’s Jennifer Lopez, and Cher, and Janet Jackson, and Madonna! The latter seasons of “Will & Grace” effectively ruined the fun of watching the show in syndication now -- will it be a fun and jaunty early episode, or a later episode in which title characters enact an Ibsen play about having a baby together (really) while Jack and Karen meet one pop star or another? The fact that the show hastened a widespread acceptance of gay people that, then, made the show something of a throwback by the time it ended is one thing; the fact that the show itself seemed uninterested in relying on its actors’ sharp comic timing is quite another.
"The King of Queens" (nine seasons)
This CBS stalwart just kind of kept going, exactly as long as was needed to launch Kevin James’ film career. In the show’s final minutes, a formulaic sitcom became a mile-a-minute soap, with the central characters considering divorce and then having two children.
"Frasier" (11 seasons)
Though it ended strong, "Frasier" had something of the opposite problem as “The King of Queens”: While the CBS comedy chucked a whole bunch of plot at viewers toward the end, NBC’s Emmy magnet stayed stuck in familiar ruts, with Frasier questing endlessly for love and Daphne and Niles in fairly unthrilling domestic bliss. The jokes stayed good, but this maybe could have gone one or two years shorter.
"Weeds" (eight seasons)
As “Homeland” viewers may be learning, Showtime isn’t particularly good at keeping its shows coherent over time. (Maybe this is “Californication”’s issue -- we wouldn’t know!) This show changed settings and, effectively, organizing conceits so many times that by the end, it had few earnest defenders.
"Nip/Tuck" (six seasons)
This FX series, too, changed settings midway through, moving from Miami to Los Angeles four seasons in for no compelling reason. The show’s most gripping subplots had a way of petering out (remember the anticlimactic solution to the mystery of the Carver?), and its bizarre tendencies overtook any sense of fun.
"Glee" (five seasons and counting)
The series has, like its sibling show “Nip/Tuck” (Ryan Murphy created them both), switched locations, moving in large part to New York once its core cast graduated high school. But what’s the point of a high school series when the stars graduate? Despite some lovely moments, the show’s heat seems gone, and attempts to get back into the conversation (the school shooting episode, for instance) have been more desperate and tone-deaf than effective.
"Grey's Anatomy" (10 seasons and counting)
Here’s the thing: By all accounts, “Grey’s Anatomy” is not a creative failure. And it’s still widely watched. But when you begin your life as a world-beating hit, anything else seems somewhat marginal. “Grey’s Anatomy” has shed more regular viewers than many shows will ever hope to get in the first place (same’s true of “Survivor” and latter-day “ER,” to name just a few). Those who stopped watching once the Golden Globe nominations petered out may wonder why the show is still on; loyal viewers know better.
"The Simpsons" (25 seasons and counting)
Like the “Grey’s” doctors, the Springfield clan and their neighbors still draw a crowd. But “The Simpsons” is so omnipresent in syndication and in pop culture that the first-run series seems besides the point (not least because, though there are good episodes here and there, the show’s best days are universally agreed to be behind it -- like way behind it, in the 1990s).
"The Office" (nine seasons)
There was a natural break for this show, where it ought to have ended -- with the departure of lead actor Steve Carell in Season 7. The latter years were a creative fugue state, and as NBC’s Thursday night lineup continued to flatline in the ratings, one-time fans could be forgiven at their surprise that the adventures of Jim and Pam kept on unfolding.
"The X-Files" (nine seasons)
Once one of the show’s leads departs and has to be replaced -- as Steve Carell did on “The Office,” or David Duchovny did here -- the show faces a reckoning; if the lead is so central to the show’s plot as to make people wonder how the show could possibly go on, maybe the show shouldn’t. And even “X-Files” superfans might have been happier with fewer seasons of drawing out the conspiracy string toward a famously unsatisfying ending.
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