Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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ALF, "True Colors"

“ALF becomes a ________” is a perfectly valid, if not necessarily inventive, template for an episode. Great shows use it (we could sit here all night listing the “Homer becomes a ________” episodes of The Simpsons), lousy shows use it. It’s not a serious indicator of how seriously we should or shouldn’t take the show as a whole; it’s just something TV shows do in general.

In great shows, having your character become a ________ opens up new possibilities for jokes and situations that weren’t there before. You have a premise for your show, and that premise is (or should be) sturdy, but by turning your character into a ________ for one week, you get to stretch your legs a little, explore new territory, and keep things varied for your audience. I was listening to one television writer talk, though I forget who it was, and he made the point that your show should always be changing or moving forward in some way, because the audience gets sick of things before it realizes it’s sick of them.

That’s great advice. And when your character becomes a ________, you might find that writing them that way works better than you expected it to. You could actually end up with a larger evolution for the show than the temporary distraction you were hoping for.

Then there are lousy shows, like the one we’ve been watching for the past sixteen fucking years of our lives. ALF never becomes a ________ because that’s the best thing for the character, or for the show, or for the audience, or for the jokes, or for the plot. No, ALF becomes a ________ because the writers still haven’t figured out what makes this show work. ALF becomes a ________ not because someone asked “What if?” but because someone said “Why not?”

And so we cram him into these different situations and occupations well before any regard is paid to the quality of the jokes that can actually be spun from it. (I’m pretty sure I’m the first person on Earth to pay regard to that.)

They’ve toyed with plots like this throughout the show’s run, but this stretch of season four is oddly heavy with them. Two episodes ago, ALF became a stand-up comic. This week ALF becomes a painter. Next week ALF becomes a minister. That’s a hell of a lot of ALF becoming things as the show hurtles toward oblivion, and, seriously, bear in mind what ALF already is:

He’s an intelligent beast from beyond the stars.

Jesus Christ…why do the writers think it’s more interesting to have him become a garbage man or something than it is to explore the actual thing that he actually is?

Usually a character becomes ________ because it introduces new possibilities to the show. In this show, however, just about every possibility is already covered by its main premise.

ALF comes from a completely different culture, so we can spend all the time we want exploring that. He’s lived for hundreds of years, so we could spend all the time we want fleshing out his backstory. He’s served in the Orbit Guard, so we could spend all the time we want delving into countless intergalactic conflicts we on Earth didn’t know happened. Space creatures could follow him to our planet. Old debts may have to be settled. Alien technology could find its way into the wrong hands, for both comic and dramatic effect.

ALF, if the writers decreed it, could use this untapped well of alien technology to travel through time, to create evil clones of people, to make Willie rich by having the guy pretend he invented it. Look at shows like The Venture Bros., Futurama, Red Dwarf, or Rick and Morty, each of which has unique technology built into its DNA, and each of which uses that technology to spin interesting stories and explore character in unexpected ways. Each of which, also, has infinite possibilities; all any character ever has to do is say, “Hey, what’s this thing do?” and we’re off. We need no more explanation about the object’s origin than that.

As a character, ALF, too, comes from a universe of unfamiliar technology, yet we never get to explore it, or find out much about it. The things that should make him interesting as a character simply don’t, because nobody wants to do the work. (It’s easier to write 20 pages of ALF masturbating on the couch than it is to write a satisfying time travel narrative, I admit, but guess which episode would be better remembered through the years.)

How many times has ALF’s cultural origins had anything to do with the plot? Forget the simple “He’s not from Earth…” misunderstandings. I like that those exist, but those are less “ALF is from Melmac” and more “ALF isn’t from around here,” or even “ALF doesn’t get out much.”

Ready? Let’s list all the times Melmac had anything to do with anything else.

He dreamed of a night on Melmac in “Help Me, Rhonda.” He had some physiological crisis in “Wild Thing.” Rodney the Space Roach terrorized the family in “La Cuckaracha.” He thought Blinky might have made it to Earth in “Alone Again, Naturally.” He performed a bibliocide ritual in “Superstition.” And he sold stories about his experience to a tabloid in “Lies.”

I’m probably forgetting a few things, but for a show about a space alien that’s nearing 100 episodes, that’s a damned short list.

Now let’s see how many ALF becomes a ________ episodes we’ve had.

ALF becomes a makeup salesman. (“Keepin’ the Faith”) ALF becomes a soap opera writer. (“A Little Bit of Soap”) ALF becomes a compulsive gambler. (“The Gambler”) ALF becomes a nice guy. (“Working My Way Back to You.”) ALF becomes a castaway. (“Somewhere Over the Rerun”) ALF becomes a monk. (“Wedding Bell Blues”) ALF becomes president. (“Hail to the Chief”) ALF becomes captain of the neighborhood watch. (“Someone to Watch Over Me”) ALF becomes a ventriloquist. (“I’m Your Puppet”) ALF becomes a different makeup salesman. (“Stairway to Heaven”) ALF becomes a talk show host. (“Tonight, Tonight”) ALF becomes a hippie. (“My Back Pages”) ALF becomes a magician. (“Do You Believe in Magic?”) ALF becomes a romantic poet. (“Standing in the Shadows of Love”) ALF becomes a silent film star. (“Like an Old Time Movie”) ALF becomes a stock-market trader. (“We’re in the Money”) ALF becomes a psychoanalyst. (“Mind Games”) ALF becomes a drug addict. (“Hooked on a Feeling”) ALF becomes a stand-up comic. (“Make ‘Em Laugh”)

And that’s so far…we know at least two more episodes that aren’t on that list yet. And, again, I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.

Is it any wonder that this show is so terrible with character development? It’s orders of magnitude more interested in “what-if” situations than it is interested in anything that’s actually happening. In other words, it’d rather be absolutely anything other than what it is.

I…guess I can’t really blame it for that.

ALF, "True Colors"

The episode opens with Lynn saying that her new art class is very important to her, which means the next several minutes will involve ALF insulting her. Nothing new there.

There is an odd moment, though, when she tells the family she wants an honest opinion of her painting. Then she reveals it and the audience laughs.

It’s…not that bad, is it? It’s just a pear. Yeah, I understand that it’s not some incredible masterpiece, but for a girl who just started in the medium, does it really deserve explosive laughter? It can’t be that urgently bad that a burst of chuckling is warranted. If you showed it to a studio audience and not the ghostly recordings of laughing dead people, I doubt they’d react at all.

Anyway, ALF tells her it’s a big pile of shit. But he’s inspired by it — or, at least, is inspired by his wish to show her how shitty it is — so he decides he’ll be a painter, too. He tells Kate to take off her clothes because he wants to paint her droopy old snatch.

Tell me again that I’m being needlessly harsh on a show for children.

ALF, "True Colors"

After the credits, who fucking cares.

…fine. ALF has glued some bread to a canvas and “Flight of the Valkyries” is playing. Fun fact: a few years ago I was on a trivia team. We were tied for first place, and the tie-breaker question required us to identify this song within the span of a short sound clip. It’s an easily recognizable piece of music, so, really, the difficulty of the question came down to knowing the actual title of the song, and not driving yourself mad thinking of all the times you’ve heard it in films and commercials.

I said “Flight of the Valkyries,” and one of my team-mates corrected me. He said, “It’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.'” I said no, it’s definitely “Flight.” He said, “Valkyries don’t fly!” and the rest of the team laughed at me, so they wrote “Ride of the Valkyries,” and we lost to the other team, who put “Flight.”

This is why I no longer bother making friends. AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU

Anyway, Willie comes up and tells ALF to turn his fucking music down, and nothing happens for about two minutes.

ALF, "True Colors"

Then nothing continues to happen for another two minutes, only this time it not-happens in the kitchen.

The family just sits around acting shitty to each other because they didn’t get any sleep. Brian even yells at his mother for humming “Flight of the Valkyries.” (“Valkyries don’t fly!” was presumably a line cut from the Monday script.)

Then ALF pops up through the plot window to waste more time and to talk up his new masterpiece. The family follows him into the living room, because fuck breakfast and everything they were just upset about: ALF has something to say!

In the living room he gives some little speech about himself and the importance of what he’s about to show them, and then he recites “I Saw Her Standing There” because the script was too short.

Kate says, “ALF, just uncover the damned thing.” And while “damned” was a pretty mild curse word even back when this episode aired, man does it feel so wonderfully profane here.

If someone doesn’t mean it, “Go fuck yourself” sounds trivial. If someone does mean it, “Go to hell” sounds brutal. Profanity isn’t always about the strength of the word; it’s about the intent. Kate’s intent here is to beat the living shit out of ALF with her voice, and it works beautifully.

Anyway, ALF finally unveils his whatever the hell, and…

ALF, "True Colors"

…it’s the same thing we saw in the previous scene.

Like, without alteration. It’s the same god-damned prop we already saw and (theoretically) laughed at.

We spent all that time building up to something we’ve already seen? Christ almighty.

Anyway, Lynn tells him that his painting is a big pile of shit. It’s a nice little way of turning the blade back on him, since he was so dismissive of her pear earlier, but the best part about this scene is the endless crackle of the audio track on these damaged masters. It gives me something interesting to listen to while this group of assholes mumbles nonsense to each other until the scene ends.

There is one nice exchange, though. Lynn leaves, and ALF criticizes her legitimacy as an artist: “You know her problem? She doesn’t have a tortured soul.”

Kate replies, “She can have mine.”

I won’t miss this show, Anne Schedeen, but I’ll sure as shit miss you.

ALF, "True Colors"

Then we get a legitimately shocking development: a scene of Lynn at college. Of course, there are only eight more episodes of the show after this one, so none of the people we see here really matter. Not even Mr. Ruben the instructor, who walks around making inappropriate comments about peoples’ nude paintings, and then getting excited that two of his students are fucking.

Tell me again that I’m being needlessly harsh on a show for children.

Mr. Ruben makes some time-killing comment to each of the extras we’ll never see again, and then finally he comes over to Lynn to ask where her shitty painting of a pear is.

It’s a good question. I wondered why it wasn’t on display yet. But then she reaches into her bag and it’s ALF’s fucking peanut butter toast thing.

That’s what you get, sitcom character, for waiting until it’s your turn to talk. If you were an actual college student you’d have unpacked your shit already and seen this before you were on the spot, but noooo.

ALF, "True Colors"

Of course, you live by the sitcom convention, and you’re saved by the sitcom convention. The art professor — as they all must in works of fiction written by people who don’t understand art, criticism, or instruction — gushes over it, and he calls the class over to see the great work that Lynn did.

I’d love to hear from a reader who creates visual art, or at least understands the medium and takes it seriously. Does this kind of portrayal bother you? Does it feel needlessly disrespectful? Is it based in reality at all, or is it the kind of thing kept alive by sitcom oral tradition?

I know I’m always bothered by the way writers are portrayed in movies and shows. It’s never true to life at all.

Give me a real film about a writer, in which he spends most of the runtime staring at a blank page, or crying naked on the floor. Don’t give me this garbage with some guy in a loose necktie and two-day stubble tapping out a story, writing THE END (so that the camera can see it, of course), and then getting on with his life. Because that dog don’t hunt.

To this character’s credit he doesn’t dive into some long, inane speech about the meaning of the piece, but of course that’s only because we’ve spent way too much time away from ALF, and we really need to start wrapping this shit up.

Then Lynn pulls out her pear painting and Mr. Ruben says it’s a big pile of shit.

ALF, "True Colors"

I’m genuinely excited to find out how many screengrabs this week have the fucking toast painting in them.

Anyway, Lynn comes home and says, “You are in big trouble, mister!” which I’m pretty sure is just for all the folks here who desperately want the ALF Tanners and the Full House Tanners to be related.

She tells her parents about the shit ALF pulled, but seeing the painting so many times has me wondering why the bread that ALF glued to the canvas isn’t all smashed up or falling off. This is the kind of thing I worry about when I’m not laughing. What a shock that this never-awaited episode in which ALF paints bullshit fails to make me laugh.

ALF alludes to getting the idea for hiding his painting in Lynn’s bag from The Brady Bunch, but I don’t think that’s ringing any bells for me. Was that actually an episode? I only remember the one where the kids get pubes.

For a moment ALF is afraid the teacher hated it, so he proposes committing suicide by slashing his wrists right there.

Tell me again that I’m being needlessly harsh on a show for children.

Anyway, Lynn is in a panic now because Mr. Ruben thinks the toast painting was tits, and no matter what she turns in next she’ll reveal herself to be a fraud.

Which, again, chime in if you have experience in the art world, but I remember my college writing workshops pretty well, and this was never an actual concern.

Sometimes somebody would write a great piece, but that was it; it was a great piece. If the next one wasn’t so great, nobody gave a rat’s ass, instructor included, and certainly nobody suspected that we’d been had.

The reason was that we were all experimenting. Most of us never wrote a great piece. The few that did still had their later work held to the exact same level of scrutiny; there were no increased expectations, and there shouldn’t have been. Even if one of us was a great author — surely none of us actually were — each story got appraised on its own merits. If one story was good and the next bad, who cared?

Great authors sometimes write crap. Nobody really thinks or expects otherwise. Sometimes great artists paint a big pile of shit. Nobody really thinks or expects otherwise.

I guess we need a conflict for the episode, though, and it’s either this or have Willie walk in on ALF painting Brian like one of his French girls.

ALF, "True Colors"

We then rejoin A Very Sarah Portland Christmas, already in progress.

ALF paints some crap while “Flight of the Valkyries” plays again. Man, once you discover the magic of royalty-free classical music, you never go back.

Honest question: is there some association with “Flight of the Valkyries” that I’m missing? I’m guessing that when this episode aired, the song was most linked with Looney Tunes and Apocalypse Now as far as pop culture goes, but was there some famous movie about an artist that used this song as well? The episode never gets into why ALF listens to that while he paints, which leads me to conclude that either a) it’s a joke I’m missing, but which others will recognize or b) there’s no reason and this show is garbage.

HELP ME DECIDE

ALF, "True Colors"

Willie and Lynn come in so that ALF has someone to be an asshole to.

Then ALF says that he got a burst of artistic inspiration because he discovered Luther Vandross. Whom…he…wasn’t listening to.

I have no idea what’s happening here.

Then Lynn says something like, “Well, boogie it on Broadway!” and I really am totally lost.

Is that a Vandross song? Or lyric or something? I’m not all that familiar with him, personally. (Hell, I didn’t even know he wrote “Flight of the Valkyries” before this episode!) Also, she delivers the line like she just took a hit off her father’s crack pipe, so I think it’s safe to say the entire cast is well over the show by this point.

Lynn complains for a bit about having nowhere to paint, but come on. ALF might be dominating the garage, but you guys live in a five-bedroom bastard house. Surely you can find some fucking place to do your homework.

ALF, "True Colors"

…oh. Looks like she did.

So why is she bitching about having nowhere to paint? She already finished her next piece. Or maybe she painted it really quickly just now in the four seconds she was off camera? I honestly have no clue.

Again, I don’t know art, but this certainly looks competent. I’d be proud of having painted it, if I were a sitcom character who never had any interest in the medium until 15 minutes ago.

ALF says, “Stink-a-roni!” though, which gives me painful flashbacks of when he said that in “Suspicious Minds.”

I wonder why stink-a-roni never caught on as a catchphrase for ALF. I suggest you each, individually, launch an attempt to bring it back. I’ll want a report on your progress this time next year.

ALF, "True Colors"

The next day, or at some point in the whole of human history, we’re back in class. Mr. Ruben jerks off for a while about how his opening at some gallery was well-received, and then the students all leave. Why Lynn waits until the class is over to show him her next piece is beyond me, but she does, and he gets pretty hard and invites her out to coffee.

Ah.

That’s why she waited until class was over. Because this is ALF, and Lynn is nothing if not a mound of olives, waiting to be stuffed.

Fortunately, this is the least problematic example of men attempting to spray their genetic fluids into her. Not because his behavior is any better — it’s kind of gross, and he explicitly tells her that he only complimented her art so that she’d go out with him — but because she stands up for herself and tells him no.

That’s good, and it’s the kind of thing that should be a pretty nice moment, but boy is it buried deep within a mountain of suck.

Again, I respect the show for giving her a bit of backbone (as opposed to giving her a boning on her back…ha! I KILL ME) but this is a really lousy episode, and it’s really not worth trying to salvage anything.

ALF, "True Colors"

Back at the house I get another screengrab with the toast painting in it. Woo!

Anyway, Willie bitches at ALF for leaving his shit everywhere. ALF jams a paintbrush into Willie’s urethra and Lynn comes home.

She tells them that Mr. Ruben only said nice things because he wanted to stick three inches of flaccid painter dong into her, and, of course, Willie couldn’t care less that her daughter was yet again being sexually manipulated by a figure of academic authority. He instead says, “He lied to you!?” because the real lesson here needs to have something to do with ALF.

Then Lynn leaves and ALF and Willie eat some popcorn and drink soda. Was this episode fucking ad-libbed?

In the next scene…

ALF, "True Colors"

…AHH JESUS CHRIST KILL IT. KILL IT FUCKING KILL IT NOW

Lynn comes in and apologizes to ALF for being rude to him earlier, though she makes the perfectly valid point that he was pretty rude to her first. ALF makes what I’m sure must be an even more valid point when he lays into her for not sleeping with her professor.

At some point “True Colors” conflated Mr. Ruben’s approval with ALF becoming a famous artist…somehow?

I dunno. But I’m sure ALF is right when he says that everything would be fine if Lynn had just thrown the guy a pity pork.

She explains to him that not everyone gets to be famous, and that many artists never see success during their own lifetimes. He says, “Then what’s the point?”

And she goes into a nice little (and I do mean little, which is probably why it’s nice) speech about art coming from within:

You paint because you want to paint, or need to paint, or express yourself through painting. You don’t do it for money, or fame, or even necessarily because you’re good at it. You do it because that’s who you are.

And, yeah, go Lynn. Not that I’ve ever known you to have an artist’s soul or anything, and god knows you’ll be back to not having one next week, but I admire your perspective here.

This causes ALF to observe, sarcastically, “Oh, yeah, sure. What the world needs is more mediocrity.”

And the camera catches the precise moment that four years’ worth of self-awareness crashes down on Andrea Elson’s soul.

ALF, "True Colors"

She then tries to talk ALF into finishing a fresco (a Paul Fresco?) we never see, and the episode runs out of time before anything can really go anywhere.

Another classic!

ALF, "True Colors"

In the short scene before the credits ALF paints some more shit. Specifically it’s some terrifying child with enormous eyes, weeping. You guys analyze this one; I need to finish my suicide note.

Anyway, the Tanners had a yard sale, and ALF’s paintings were the only things that sold. Weird how that sounds like a plot in itself, but it’s actually just ten seconds of wrap-up dialogue.

Ugh, whatever. I guess I should just be thankful that idea didn’t inspire them to turn this into a two-parter.

So…I guess the moral is that ALF actually did have some artistic talent?

Or that you should keep painting even if you are only in it for the money?

I have no clue. I honestly thought the final scene would be the reveal of ALF’s fresco (al fresco?), but that was pretty stupid of me, because that would mean that something in this episode had any kind of payoff.

Some people never learn. :(

Countdown to ALF being disappeared in front of the Tanners: 8 episodes

MELMAC FACTS: ALF used to be an artist; he’d paint any canvas any color for $29.95 (no ups, no extras). ALF can whistle in spite of the fact that he has no lips.

The Venture Bros., "Maybe No Go"

There’s nothing I love more than a great show proving me wrong.

Last week, I said this:

“Hostile Makeover” doesn’t even pretend Dr. Venture is going to succeed. His very first order of business, it seems, is to fire absolutely everybody. Who are these people? He doesn’t care. What did they do for Venture Industries? He’s not interested; he just doesn’t want any of his money going to them. The new phase of his life has only just begun, and he’s taken active steps to ensure it won’t go anywhere.

This week, I happily admit that I fell into Doc and Jackson’s trap. We’re so conditioned to seeing Dr. Venture behave atrociously to people — with incredible short-sightedness and destructive selfishness — that we can see a couple of seconds of him writing on a whiteboard and read an entire season’s arc into it.

And, hey, good. The character work on this show in general — and with Dr. Venture in particular — has been sharp and sturdy. It’s almost impossible to view anything anybody does in complete isolation as a solitary moment; it always informs or is informed by who they are.

It helps the comedy to land and it ends up advancing their stories. Simple gestures or clever lines get to be both small delights and important gears in an increasingly complex (and impressive) machine.

Here’s where else it pays off: the subversion of those expectations.

Dr. Venture writing on the whiteboard as part of a montage was a very important choice of delivery. Because we didn’t hear anything, we assumed the worst: Venture’s a fucking idiot. Now we find out that that isn’t quite the truth. Sure, perhaps he still is one, and the collapse of VenTech likely still looms, but there was a method to his madness.

See, Dr. Venture isn’t going down without a fight. He’s a failure, everybody in his life sees him as a failure, and the newspaper gives over its front page to making it clear that the entire world sees him as a failure…but there’s still a part of him that doesn’t want to be a failure. That believes he’s not a failure. Or, at least, that his failure can be redeemed.

He fired the staff not because he didn’t want to pay them (the ultimate solution, it turns out, is actually to maintain two staffs), but because he wanted to start fresh. He has something inside of him. Something to share with the world. He just needs to get it out. He’s hoping, like Doc Brown before him, to see that headline change. It might still be a bad idea, but it’s an idea. He was in the shadow of his father and lived in unfair comparisons to him until his brother — a talking fist sticking out of an oven — showed up…and then he lived in his shadow and was compared unfavorably to him, too.

Dr. Venture has something to prove.

He’ll never be admired like his father, or brilliant like his brother. But he has something, whatever it is, he’s convinced that he has something, and he fires the staff so that he can rebuild it in aid of his own vision. It’s actually…admirable.

Last week, Dr. Venture was silently portrayed as an asshole. This week he opens his mouth, and we learn he’s a visionary.

Rusty’s back.

In fact, “Maybe No Go” plays like an extended response to “Hostile Makeover.” Whereas nothing happened last week, so much happened this week. Whereas last week was all rising tension, this week things go…really well, actually. For everybody.

That latter point is the most interesting, and most unique in a show like The Venture Bros., which makes a point of picking at the flaws and weaknesses of every single character, so we’ll get to that one in a bit.

First, the lighter side of things: the plots. The Pirate Captain kicks the dart monkey. The Monarch and Gary (who seems to be back to calling himself 21) attempt to eliminate all obstacles between them and Dr. Venture. Wide Wale launches an attack. Hatred and Brock team up for a thrillingly adorable defense of the tower. Billy and Pete square off against their nemesis. And all of these things had a beginning, a middle, and an end. “Hostile Makeover” felt overstuffed and a bit aimless, but “Maybe No Go” takes the same amount of material and weaves a much tighter, more satisfying tapestry.

The main story seemed to belong to Billy and Pete, which is good, because last week I wrote St. Cloud off as a go-nowhere character. And…maybe I’m still tempted to. We’ll see where things go, but this at least proves he can be part of an episode without dragging it to an irritating halt.

Their plot was one hell of a lot of fun. I remember back when “The Invisible Hand of Fate” aired; I was disappointed that we didn’t get a Billy and Pete version of the title sequence as we did for The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend in “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny” or Dr. Venture and Jonas Jr. in “Powerless in the Face of Death.” We got one here, and it was more than worth the wait.

Billy Quizboy is one of this show’s finest creations, and he’s high on a very long list of very fine creations indeed. His tragedy is a relateable one, and one as ripe for comedy as it is drama.

Billy is one of the few truly capable individuals in the show’s universe…and nobody takes him seriously. While other capable individuals — notably Brock and Dr. Girlfriend — rise through the ranks, earning more respect with every episode, even from their adversaries, Billy languishes. He lives in squalor. He’s mocked and belittled by his friends.

But he’s a skilled surgeon, as well as deeply intelligent and tragically loyal. His struggle to be accepted, admired, and understood has fueled several of the show’s best moments, and came to an incredible, bittersweet head in the hugely underrated “The Silent Partners.”

That episode was one of the few times that the show gave Billy a triumph. This week ends with another. After a long, emotional walk home, the invisible hand of fate gives Billy a boost forward. The “boy genius” did what he felt was right, though all earthly logic was against it. Fortunately for him, a larger, cosmic logic was on his side…and he and Pete are summoned to VenTech, presumably to front the company’s new speculative engineering department.

It’s a sweet moment at the end of an episode that’s almost wall to wall with them. In fact, I’m not sure The Venture Bros. has ever been this generous to its characters before. The Pirate Captain cleans up. Dean proposes the solution that could save the company. HELPeR doesn’t have to cope with a resurrected J-Bot. The Monarch and Gary find a path forward…in the basement. Wide Wale is swiftly and easily repelled in his assault.

And — seriously guys, this was adorable — Hatred and Brock got along. Decades of animosity between the two gave gentle way to a mutual respect. Brock’s always had the ability, but, for once, Hatred had the intel. They worked together, smiled together, and went out for a beer together. It was a more natural fit than I would have guessed possible, especially after last week just about seemed to position them as rivals for the season.

The Venture Bros. is the only show I know that can take a Swedish murder machine and a reformed bad-toucher and turn their mutual jump from a building into a disarmingly sweet denouement. When they fell, most of my concerns about season six fell with them. Even through my concerns last week I knew I was in good hands, but it sure is nice to see that confirmed so quickly.

I’m going to leave you with a couple of questions, which I hope will engender discussion. No wrong answers; I’m just curious what people are thinking.

First: what’s the primary difference between Wide Wale and Monstroso? They dress similarly, they’re both huge, they’re both powerful businessmen…is there a reason we subbed out one for the other? I’m not complaining, I assure you, but it’s not like the switch from The Monarch to Sgt. Hatred in season three. In that case there were (multiple) story reasons, and the massive change in character was important to the show. In this case it feels a lot like a character we’ve already seen, and I don’t know quite why we bothered promoting someone new.

Second: what was in the basement? I’m guessing the original Venture clone farm. I have a reason that my guess is so specific, but I’ll keep that to myself for now. What do you see under those sheets?

And, what the hell, third: are you feeling incredibly stoked for the rest of this season? Because holy shit did I just get invested.

Fake Plastic Teeth

February 8th, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in personal - (4 Comments)

BIRD

I’m mainly writing this because I didn’t want my last post to stand for too long on its own, lest someone assume I…y’know.

I didn’t.

And, honestly, I’ve been doing pretty well this year so far. I write about depression because it helps me to voice things, and to get them out…and because every single time I do, somebody writes in and thanks me for saying what they haven’t been able to articulate themselves. If anyone, ever, feels just a little less alone when I open my mouth and talk about it, that makes the discomfort and difficulty of doing so worth it.

But things have been quiet for a couple of reasons, neither of which is depressive! One, the writing of a new novel project, which I’ve already talked about. Two, SEVERE DISCOMFORT.

See the photo above? That was taken two days ago. It might be the only time you get to see my mouth full of teeth that aren’t actually teeth.

I had dental surgery on my birthday (five hours of dental surgery…), and for the next two weeks or so, I’ve got a fake set in there. They’re over my real teeth, so, don’t worry, I didn’t pull a Pnin or anything, but they’re there until I can go back to the dentist and have my work completed.

It’s…odd so far. They feel much different in my mouth, and it’s often painful to bring my teeth together. The rest of the time, there’s just a feeling of vague discomfort. And eating under these conditions is, to borrow a phrase, exquisite torture.

I’m more or less on an all-soup diet, which might be good for my weight but bad for my sodium intake. Who cares. Life is just a long balancing act involving the thousands of things that are trying to kill you, anyway.

Much more excitingly, I bought some of that liquid astronaut food Facebook is always trying to sell me, and I look forward to eating something that doesn’t have CAMPBELL’S written on the label. I’ll report back if anyone’s interested to know which color sock it tastes like.

So, dentistry. Needless to say I’m bedridden and miserable. Right?

No! Look at the fucking picture! I met birds!

Things are fine. I feel, on the whole, great. But, oddly, writing is more difficult.

I can’t really explain why that is. I don’t know. But when I sit down to write (articles for this site, pages of the novel, even emails and texts to friends) I end up making loads of easily avoided mistakes and typos. The pain doesn’t bother me, really…I’ve felt far worse…but I guess it’s just enough that it distracts my mind. It’s strange that a pain so relatively mild can still interfere with your ability to do good work. Or, at least, work you can be proud of.

So I’m here. I’m still working on this. I’m not violently depressed or in oral agony. I’m just full of soup and typos. And appreciation for readers who allow me to make fun of a sex-crazed puppet one day, and open up about depression and mental health issues the next. I don’t know of any other site that could get away with that, and I really do appreciate all of you.

It means the world, and I’m always glad to see folks sharing posts like that and discussing it on their own. I’ll say what I say. It may not apply to you, or help you. But I truly, genuinely hope that discussing it does.

Anyway, one final footnote for now: yesterday I attended The Balki Bowl, which was a live-streamed event in which eight episodes of Perfect Strangers, along with vintage commercials, music videos, and other curios, were screened with live chat.

Sound familiar? It’s a total coincidence, I’m sure, but that was pretty Xmas Bash!!!-like, and I think I might have found my technical solution for the Bash!!! moving forward.

…at least, potentially. We’ll try out this new platform for the Project: ALF live stream, and I’ll definitely ask for your opinions then, but, for now…it looks promising. So get excited! I’m already putting together next year’s torturous playlist.

Here’s hoping you enjoyed your Super, Puppy, or Balki Bowl of choice. Thanks for being beautiful.

Every God-Damned Day.

February 4th, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in personal - (9 Comments)

A Charlie Brown Christmas

I made a new friend recently. She struggles with depression. It’s part of why we get along, I’m sure. It’s part of why I get along with most of the people I get along with. She asked me if I struggle with it, too. I told her the truth: every single day.

It’s unfair. I know that. I’m down on myself and rarely see beyond my own, many flaws, but even I know that it’s unfair the way my mind treats me.

Does it have to be every day? Is that really necessary? Do I deserve to have to fight every single day I’m alive just to be okay? Does anyone deserve that?

I don’t think anyone does. And yet, I know I’m not alone. I know it isn’t just me. If it’s unfair that I need to struggle, to fight, to work hard just to keep going every single god-damned day of my life, how less fair is it that so many others do, too?

I don’t mean to oversell it. Some days aren’t as bad, but it’s always there. And I win plenty of battles against myself, but the victories are small, and fleeting. The losses are devastating.

With depression, you don’t fight to win. You fight to survive. At some point, for many people, you lose enough times in a row, or hard enough, or unfairly enough, and you stop fighting. I don’t blame anyone who stops fighting. I know it’s hard. I know how it feels. I know lying down and giving up seems like a very tempting prospect at times. To be honest, I wonder if I’ll ever do that. To be more honest, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if I did.

It’s hard. It doesn’t end. You never win. You just fight it until you lose for good.

Another friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago if I’d be dead if it weren’t for my writing. The answer I gave him was more conversational. The actual answer is yes. Yes, I would.

Writing is my weapon, I could say on certain days. On other days, I’d say it’s my defense. Whatever the perspective, I need it. Whatever the perspective, it’s all, sometimes, that I have.

Birthdays are difficult for me. Holidays are difficult for me. Compliments and kind words and presents and people who wish me well are all extremely difficult for me. I’ve worked very hard for everything I have and every inch I’ve gained, and still my mind is unsatisfied both because I could have more, and because I might not deserve what I do have.

There’s no progress. There’s no advancement. There’s change, but no way forward. The struggle is inside. I can change the outside as much as I want, and it means nothing. The inside is where the battle plays out, endlessly, continuously, starting over every day.

Every god-damned day.

I take a few days every year for personal reflection. It’s around this time, which is convenient, because I tend to isolate around my birthday anyway. It’s rough for me. It’s rougher for many others.

I have friends. I have friends who care and who understand. I have the funniest, sharpest set of readers and commenters on the internet, as far as I’m concerned. I have an audience. I write some piece of crap, and people read it. People read it! That’s miraculous. I’ve known writers, and know writers, who would kill for that.

I have a passion. I have a weapon or a defense or whatever you want to call it that keeps me steady. Something I can turn to when I’m feeling at my lowest that helps me to get back to a healthier place. I have people I can talk to. I have a steady writing job. (A writer with a steady job! That‘s miraculous.)

I have so fucking much, and other people don’t. They don’t have that. They face what I face — and worse — every god-damned day…and they don’t have what I have. They fight harder than I or you could ever know, just to make it through a day. And then the next day comes…and they have to do it again. Depression is a Sisyphean punishment. The boulder always rolls back down. Every god-damned day.

I’m sharing this here because you know at least one of those people that’s worse off than I am. I have a voice, and some small platform. They don’t. I have the strength, for whatever reason, to talk about the difficulties I have. They don’t.

It’s my birthday today. I’m thirty-five. If I live another thirty-five years, I’ll have struggled with depression and actively fought it for 70 years. 25,550 god-damned days.

So, do me a favor today. Okay?

Reach out to someone.

Someone you care about.

Maybe you know they have problems of their own. Maybe you have no idea.

But reach out.

Okay?

Just let them know you care about them, and leave it at that. If you want to be really great, let them know you’re there if they ever need somebody to talk to.

It’s a small gesture. I’m not asking for much. They aren’t, either. And you’re not going to change a life.

But I can promise you one thing: you’ll make their day a little easier. And when you struggle for 365 days out of the year, you feel every day that’s “a little easier.”

Thanks in advance, on behalf of someone who needs you right now. You can make a difference, and be a hero, just by reminding somebody that they aren’t alone.

The Venture Bros., "Hostile Makeover"

Season six of The Venture Bros. is guaranteed to be an interesting one. Successful? That remains to be seen, especially as “Hostile Makeover” on its own doesn’t provide much of an indication of what to expect. But interesting for sure, if only due to its (clearly deliberate) audacity.

It opens with a few seconds on the old Venture Compound, and then immediately shifts us into an entirely new life for the family, a new context, full of new characters, new adventures, new outfits, new roles, new expectations…new everything, really.

A major shakeup like this isn’t unprecedented. The Venture Bros., after all, has been a show that’s used permanent change to great effect.

We can all argue about which season (two) or episode (“Everybody Comes to Hank’s”) is best, but it’s impossible to deny that change is the engine that keeps the show fresh. With every shakeup, revamp, retcon, introduction, and evolution we must move away from at least some of the things that made the show great to begin with, but, ideally, we’re moving toward other things that will keep the show great in their own ways.

In fact, major shakeups are built into the space between seasons. Season one, remember, ended with the on-screen murders of the title characters…and the unexpectedly affecting breakup of The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. The former shakeup was addressed by the very first episode of season two, but the latter gave the second season its entire emotional throughline, culminating in the two of them reconnecting, and marrying…another shakeup in itself, especially as the nuptials intertwined with the neutralization of Phantom Limb, The Venture Bros.‘ lone example of villainous competence (and therefore danger).

Season three ended with Henchman 21 dying, Brock quitting, Sgt. Hatred joining the family, and the cloning lab being destroyed, so…yeah, shakeups left and right, there. This fed, I believe, into the scattershot nature of season four. Instead of one central theme to explore, it had a lot of loose ends to tie up. Some of them revealed themselves to be deeply effective, and others were kind of dead-ends. As much as there was to enjoy about season four (and there was, indeed, much to enjoy), the show felt a bit like it was rounding the bases rather than sowing new seeds. And its finale — the incredible “Operation: P.R.O.M.” — was less a shakeup than a grand collection of the show’s many themes. To a good number of viewers, it felt like it could have worked as a final episode…and that’s something that couldn’t possibly have been said about any season finale before.

Season five didn’t get a proper finale until “All This and Gargantua-2,” which deposited us right where we are today: with Dr. Venture heading up a successful, thriving, important iteration of Venture Industries.

The fact that he’s doomed to fail, to destroy the company, to squander his fortune without learning anything, does nothing to detract from the importance of the shakeup. In fact, it just means there’s another inevitable shakeup at the end of this story; his old compound is a pile of ashes. When this new — ahem — venture fails…where can he possibly go next?

“Hostile Makeover” doesn’t even pretend Dr. Venture is going to succeed. His very first order of business, it seems, is to fire absolutely everybody. Who are these people? He doesn’t care. What did they do for Venture Industries? He’s not interested; he just doesn’t want any of his money going to them. The new phase of his life has only just begun, and he’s taken active steps to ensure it won’t go anywhere.

Which, if I didn’t laugh so much at the episode, I’d be tempted to turn into a criticism about “Hostile Makeover” in general; it really doesn’t go anywhere.

That’s fine, however, because — moreso than any season before it, including the first — it’s laying one hell of a lot of groundwork. There’s the new setting (though we’ve spent a bit of time here before, notably in “Twenty Years to Midnight” and “Bright Lights, Dean City”), of course, and Dr. Venture’s obviously fleeting clout, but that’s by no means all of it.

There’s the return of Brock…and the unhappy discharge of Sgt. Hatred. There’s the Council of 13 scraping itself back together, and — perhaps — returning the Guild to an earlier, more democratic incarnation. There’s Dr. Venture and the boys blowing through money, there’s Dean giving college another try, there’s Hank meeting an according-to-Hoyle mermaid, there’s The Ambassador and Steve McQueen, there’s a wealth of new character introductions, there’s a new arch enemy for Dr. Venture, there’s The Monarch and Gary infiltrating the Ivory Tower, there’s the sea captain relapsing…and plenty that I’m already forgetting.

It’s a lot of work for very little payoff, but I’d be surprised if they intended it to be a stand-alone story at all. It’s the first chapter in a new book, and we can’t complain too much if most of that time is spent on buildup…especially with season five ending in a very literal and very deliberate scorching of the Earth behind it.

No, “Hostile Makeover” can’t really be evaluated until we’ve seen what it builds to. What that is, specifically, is anybody’s guess, but the episode spends a lot of time convincing us that there’s a great deal of mileage in the show’s new configuration. I agree, but I wish there was a little more evidence on display.

In fact, here’s an exercise.

Here are all of the post-shakeup season openers. They each have a lot of cleanup to do and a lot of dominoes to arrange, but can we still find an identifiable plot amongst the logistical maneuvering?

Powerless in the Face of Death: A distraught Dr. Orpheus searches for the souls of the deceased Venture boys while The Monarch plots an escape from prison.

Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny: The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend must answer for their behavior to The Guild, while we learn through flashbacks what brought them together.

Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel: Sgt. Hatred attempts to assert himself as a suitable bodyguard for the Venture clan while a group of Nazis force Dr. Venture to clone Hitler.

What Color is Your Cleansuit?: Dr. Venture is contracted by his more successful brother to build a ray shield for Gargantua-2, and his interns pay the price for his cut corners and incompetent management.

Hostile Makeover: …Dr. Venture picks up some clothes?

Obviously more happens than that, but it’s telling that that scene might actually be the closest thing we get to a plot.

Am I disappointed? Nah.

Or…maybe a little, if only because The Venture Bros. has so successfully balanced shorter stories with longer arcs from the beginning. It’s rare that we get an episode like this, in which we really are meant to see it as nothing more than a small part of a longer journey. In fact, I can’t think of any episodes previously in which that was the case. (Disagreement is welcome; examples are even more welcome.)

There may not be much plot, but there is, however, one strong central theme to “Hostile Makeover”: conflict.

Just about everybody is at somebody else’s throat…or nearly so. There’s such tension in the air between characters that the biggest laugh of the episode — HELPeR pushing J-Bot off the roof — is the one time it comes to a head.

Dr. Girlfriend puts tension on her relationship with The Monarch by bargaining their arching rights over Dr. Venture away. Dr. Venture puts tension on his relationship with the Pirate Captain (possibly the sole remaining employee of Venture Industries) by firing the rest of the staff. Colonel Gathers puts tension on the already-rocky relationship between Brock and Sgt. Hatred. And all of this is on top of the normal levels of tension that exist in the show already, being as it’s packed with misanthropes and monsters.

When HELPeR finally snaps, it’s not just well-deserved; it feels necessary. It’s the smallest, lowest-stakes example of the tension breaking, which means we have one hell of a lot to deal with in the coming weeks, but it’s a start.

I don’t know what the coming weeks will bring, which is both the best and the worst thing about “Hostile Makeover.” It leaves all of its doors open, but doesn’t provide much in the way of direction. It has so many options, which is great, but it doesn’t suggest a way forward. By this point I trust the show, which is the important thing. But it’d be nice to have a sense of what comes next, rather than a tangle of things that may or may not build to anything interesting.

My biggest concern, to be frank, is the introduction of Wide Wale, Dr. Venture’s new arch enemy. While there’s every chance he’ll turn out to be a great addition to the huge roster of villains in this show, it’s worrying that he’s immediately being given a spotlight role, and I’m not sure I saw anything this week that indicates he deserves one.

Perhaps I’m a bit worried because of characters like Torrid, Dr. Quymn, or Augustus St. Cloud, who became important characters because the show forced them to be important characters…and then realized that it can’t think of anything to do with them. Even Sgt. Hatred, whom I love, had a confusing, fitful ascent to “important character” status.

So, Wide Wale, prove me wrong. Please.

Overall, I’m excited by season six, but I think that’s in spite of rather than because of “Hostile Makeover.” It’s only fair that I treat this season of The Venture Bros. like I treated season four of Arrested Development: if I tuned in to this show by chance, and it had nothing to do with The Venture Bros., would I still like it?

It’s hard to say. I think I’d be interested in it. I don’t know if I’d be impressed. But I’m about 99% sure I’d tune in the next week to give it another chance.

And ultimately that’s what matters…whether or not people can get invested in what they’re seeing, even if it doesn’t make much immediate sense to them. If “Hostile Makeover” is disappointing, it’s only disappointing because The Venture Bros. set the bar so high to begin with.

In conclusion, Dr. Venture picked up some clothes.

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