Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

On the sixth day of Christmas, Jacob Crites gave to us…

The Ending of LOST is still one of the more controversial television events of the past decade. Maybe you thought it was beautiful (like me), maybe you thought it was painfully heavy-handed (like most people), and maybe you thought they were dead the whole time (which they weren’t, you dope. Go watch it again). But if there’s one thing every LOST fan can agree on, it’s that “The Constant” marked a creative and emotionally resonant peak for the show, and is perhaps one of the finest hours of television ever produced. It also happens to be a sort-of-kind-of Christmas episode. But perhaps it’s fitting that LOST‘s only Christmas episode isn’t really a Christmas episode, because “The Constant” is a LOST episode that isn’t really a LOST episode, or perhaps it is the perfect example of what a LOST episode should be.

I really don’t know. LOST was always confusing like that.

Now, LOST was such a spectacular show in part because of how unpredictable it was, and not just from a plot-twist standpoint, but from a structural standpoint. Throughout its six season run, there were many wonderful episodes, several weak episodes, but never a formulaic one, in part because there was never a formula established in the first place. Just as we were settling into a groove with flash-backs, the series would throw in a clip episode, except with clips from another part of the island featuring new characters which we had not previously seen (“The Other 48 Days”), or an episode that takes place entirely in the past (“Flashes Before Your Eyes”), or introduce the concept of a flash-forward (“Through the Looking Glass” and all of season four), or a flash-sideways (most of season six…sort of). But what could always be predicted about an episode of LOST is that it could not be predicted, that the episode would not in the least be self-contained, and that characters would generally end up in a much worse place than when they started. And this is where “The Constant” becomes rather special.

The Constant is one of perhaps only two episodes of LOST that succeed as self-contained works (the other being the pilot, which remains one of the best pilots in the history of such things). One does not need to see the previous half-billion episodes and be up to date on their backgammon visual allusions and Dharma mythlogy to understand what is going on (though it helps); this is an episode with its own unique narrative structure, a single character arc, and one of the show’s most satisfying emotional resolutions. Also, it’s Christmas, and the episode’s lead character is often portrayed in the show as a Christ-like metaphor. So there’s that.

That Christ-like metaphor in question is Desmond Hume (to reveal why he’s Christ-like metaphor would spoil much of LOST, and also, who cares?) and Desmond Hume has become unstuck in time. Only not his body, so much, but his consciousness. Desmond has recently been exposed to an inordinate amount of electromagnetic energy, and in LOST, that generally means (as Daniel Faraday will tell us) “side effects.” The side effects in this case being consciousness-time-travel, which would not be all that bad were it his present consciousness doing the traveling, and not his 1996 consciousness. But it is the latter, and in 1996, Desmond is in the Queen’s Army. This is inconvenient.

And thus begins a great deal of madness. The episode follows Desmond’s consciousness as it jumps back and forth through time with increasing frequency. It is the sort of thing that would drive anyone crazy, and that, as we find, is the trouble. What Desmond needs to keep from losing his mind completely is a Constant—something that exists in both his present (1996) and the show’s present (2004) to help his mind from collapsing with disorienting confusion. The Constant, it would turn out, is his one true love. Penny.

To save himself (and, in effect, their relationship *BOOM*) he must find Penny in 1996 and get her to call him (he’s on a freighter off the Island with access to the phone…it’s a long story) eight years in the future to the day and hour. Which is 2004. Christmas Eve.

Now, I, like many other of the show’s characters, do not celebrate Christmas; but I also, like most people with a beating heart, do always enjoy a good “Christmas Episode.” The Christmas Spirit, in actuality, is more of a nice thought than a really nice thing; during Christmastime, people are generally quite stressed about the difficulty finding parking spaces, the annoyance of hanging elaborate decorations that are only really fashionable for about three weeks, and being forced to buy presents for people they may not very much like.

But in Christmas Episodes, The Christmas Spirit is a wonderful thing, wherein faith is rewarded, relationships are rekindled and true love is often found. This is why “The Constant” is sort-of-kind-of a Christmas Episode.

LOST was always a show that attracted people of all kinds of faiths and all levels of cynicism (which is why a good deal of people were put off by the fact that one of its final scenes took place in a Church), and this is why it does not beat its Christmas setting into the ground; but even non-Christmas-Celebrators usually are fond of the things that Christmas is supposed to bring (indeed very few people despise gifts and bright colors and good will among men), and this is why everyone, regardless of personal beliefs, loves “The Constant.”

I will not ruin the ending of the episode, because I think you should watch it, but suffice it to say it is a happy one. It is about losing your mind only to find it in a better place, about resparking relationships that were once doomed to fail, about finding true love when it is at its most needed, and being rewarded in the faith that sometimes people will do the right thing. Basically, it is an episode in which good things happen to good people, a thing for which LOST was not, until its final season, very well known. That it is a Christmas Episode is not important, or perhaps it is incredibly important. I really don’t know. LOST was always confusing like that.

Tomorrow: Come on, get merry!

On the fourth day of Christmas Philip (that’s, uh…me…) gives to us…

I sincerely dislike Seth MacFarlane…and yet I love American Dad! It’s seemingly a contradiction, I know, and as much as I’d like to do so, I’m not sure I can explain it.

It’s not that the man is entirely without talent. I liked the first few seasons of Family Guy. You know, before it devolved into humorless recreations of other people’s work, and when its jokes came from characterization rather than relentless cruelty. And he is a genuinely funny — if not especially versatile — voice actor.

My issue, perhaps, is that he seems to gravitate toward laziness. If Family Guy or The Cleveland Show can resort to a cheap gag, it will. They don’t seem to have any incentive to work harder, to find something more clever, opting instead for a shrug and a wink at the camera that says to the audience, “We know this is stupid. But we’re doing it deliberately, and that’s enough.”

American Dad! resorts to cheap shots as well. And it also spins its wheels by extending moments that, strictly speaking, should not be extended. But the difference is that I understand these people to be characters. They’re not just gag delivery systems; they’re silly, and rarely realistic, but they’re characters all the same, with sturdy traits, consistent hopes, and perceptible dreams. American Dad! gets away with the sillier stuff in a way that its sister shows do not because it’s always operating on a rigidly constructed framework, and when it wants to do a truly bizarre episode, it does so with its characters and logic intact. It doesn’t abandon them, and it wouldn’t dare; it’s much more interesting to see the madness through a familiar lens.

“Rapture’s Delight” is absolutely one of the strangest episodes of American Dad!, and I also feel it’s among the most successful.

Its plot begins with a typical run through standard territory, but quickly takes a turn for the strange. Stan is a punctual and God-fearing Christian, and he becomes flustered — and cruel — when Francine makes him late for church. That’s bad enough, but when they arrive he can’t even find a parking spot, due to all of the “lesser” Christians clogging it up around Christmas. By the time he finally does get inside, he’s found that the service has already started, and there’s nowhere for him to sit.

Seeing Stan’s distress, Francine decides she’ll give him his Christmas gift early, and seduces him in the janitor’s cupboard. When they emerge, the church is silent; The Rapture has occurred, and Stan missed the ascent into Heaven.

It’s exactly the kind of absurdity American Dad! does best. It begins in a rooted, logical place, and spirals rapidly out of control without ever sacrificing that rooted logic. Even something as outlandish as The Rapture makes perfect, rational sense in Stan’s mind. Francine may dismiss it and Roger may ridicule it, but on this cold Sunday morning, Stan looks into the sky to find his neighbors ascending without him, and they realize he was right all along.

Stan himself doesn’t need to realize this, because there was never any doubt in his mind. When he believes something, he takes it with him to the grave, no matter how many times reality should cause him to question it. In this case his bull-headedness just happened to lead him in exactly the right dogmatic direction. And — tragedy of tragedies — he missed his chance for it to do him any good.

The Christmas episodes of American Dad! are always a treat, as the writers go out of their way to embrace science fiction and horror as a means of celebrating — rather than simply mocking — the holiday season. It’s another seeming contradiction, as festivities give way to mind-bending time travel, afterlife legal troubles and, in this case, the nightmarish hellscape the Earth has become following The Rapture.

The second act break in “Rapture’s Delight” is one of the most shocking the show has ever done. Before the commercial we’re laughing at Stan still trying to get to Heaven and Roger trying to rebuild his spaceship. Then the advertisements end, and we’re seven years in the future. Global war has decimated civilization, Stan is a lone and wounder warrior of the streets, and Francine has run off with Jesus.

The animation in this sequence is brilliant, as it manages to be gruesome and genuinely scary, even while remaining true to the crisp and simple American Dad! style. But what’s really great about it is just how clever the religious jokes are.

Another seeming contradiction, perhaps, as we’d expect the jokes to be scathing. Religious humor, after all, tends to be cruel. We’re wired to laugh at religion, rather than at clever jokes about religion. What’s more, we expect any jokes about religion that aren’t outright cruel to be…well…just not that funny.

“Rapture’s Delight” hits the sweet spot perfectly, and while I’m sure there are many who found it offensive simply because Jesus was in it and there were jokes about him, anyone willing to see past the superficial fact of that statement will find some genuinely strong humor here, and it’s humor that manages — remarkably — to be respectful of its source material.

When Stan slaps Jesus, Jesus literally — and coolly — turns the other cheek. When Stan slaps that as well, Jesus grabs his face and shouts, “Ow! My other cheek!”

That’s sincerely brilliant.

And when the gang manages to track down The Antichrist, we find that he’s Jesus’s opposite in every way…most amusingly when his death machine falls apart and he feels obligated to explain that Jesus was a carpenter, therefore The Antichrist, as his opposite, isn’t really very handy at all.

It’s just good writing. I’m not one to get offended at religious humor, but I do routinely get offended at lazy humor…and religious humor often is. If this were Family Guy I’d expect Jesus to get a diarrhea attack or something…or perhaps fight a giant chicken for a tedious 6 minutes or so. But American Dad! looks for a more rewarding avenue to explore, and so we have Jesus clumsily donning sunglasses and attempting to coin action-movie worthy catch phrases, simply in order to live up to his own image.

It’s gentler, but it’s also funnier. And, what’s more, it leaves room for the episode to pull in a more emotional direction.

Because, at the end of the day, this is still a Christmas special. And so while the first major part of the episode plays with the ridiculousness of the Left Behind mythology and the second strands us seven years forward in the midst of holy war, the episode still has to end. We’ve had our fun, but next week the Smith family needs to go on an unrelated adventure, and so, somehow, this will all have to be undone.

Of course, an episode like this can always just excuse itself. The Simpsons does it annually as well, only they do it on Halloween. Nobody wonders why Groundskeeper Willie still appears on the show even though we’ve seen him get his spine severed (three times), because when an episode deviates that far from normalcy, we’re willing to view it as an isolated moment, separate from the main flow of episodes. It’s an experiment, a way for the writers and audience to blow off steam, one night a year that we don’t have to take seriously.

“Rapture’s Delight,” however, doesn’t take the easy way out. Stan sacrifices himself in the lair of The Antichrist so that Jesus and Francine may live on. His selfish obsession with being left behind is what caused Francine to leave him for The Lamb of God in the first place, but as he lay dying, Francine sees that he’s kept their wedding rings on a necklace for the entire seven years. He lost his wife and everything else he ever had, but he always wore their rings beside his heart.

He dies, and is shown to his own private Heaven…an eternity designed to his own subconscious expectations. And he walks through the door to find…

…the beginning of the episode. Francine has just finished getting ready, and he’s still late for church, but he’s just happy to be with her again. In fact, it’s literally Heaven to him.

It’s a sweet ending, and holiday appropriate, but also an extremely loaded one. This single scene both provided the episode with its decidedly tangential moral and wrapped it back into the main flow of American Dad! stories, but it also tells us that Stan is dead…that the show, though it still marches on, now takes place in the main character’s afterlife.

When we see Stan get shot through the heart by The Antichrist we know — know — he won’t die. How can he? The show’s not over.

And yet, he does die. American Dad! doesn’t brush it aside, and it wasn’t done for the purpose of a joke. This really happened. The Rapture did occur. The Earth was razed in a postmillenial firestorm. And the main character was shot to death.

That all happened. And here we are, back at home. But it’s not because the reset button has been pressed…it’s because Stan’s Heaven is just life as it’s always been. For better, or for worse. In sickness, and in health. This is what Stan wants, and after fighting the good fight for seven grueling years, this is what he’s earned: exactly what he already had.

Very few shows would have the guts to do this. Even fewer would make it canon. And only one would do it on Christmas. Thank God for American Dad!.

Tomorrow: The unlikely appeal of the aluminum pole.

It’s election day here in America, so make sure you get out and vote. It’s important. I learned that the hard way, since the first election I was old enough to vote in was Bush vs. Gore and I did not cast a ballot, assuming democracy would sort itself out. We all saw how well that went, so I won’t be missing any — admittedly small — opportunity to shape this country’s future again.

Anyway, some of you may have seen this before as it’s certainly nothing new, but it’s been circulating again in light of election season and, at last, I’ve felt compelled to respond to this thing.

It’s ostensibly a letter to the editor by one Ken Huber, but I’m not entirely convinced it was ever published anywhere. Regardless, I think it pretty accurately reflects a certain type of mindset, even if the particular words don’t belong to the person to whom it’s attributed. And it’s a dangerous mindset. A rotten one. I thought I would take a moment to reply.

The text is viewable in the image above…if there are any errors in the transcription below they are not deliberate…feel free to let me know and I will correct them.

Editor, Has America become the land of special interest and home of the double standard?

Remember these words, as Huber frames “special interest” and “double standard” as bad things — rightly so — when he opens the letter, but then spends the rest of his time arguing in their favor.

Lets see: if we lie to the Congress, it’s a felony and if the Congress lies to us its just politics;

It should indeed be a crime to lie “to the Congress.” I genuinely can’t imagine a situation in which lying to the government should be excusable, so I don’t know why it’s a bad thing that those found guilty of bearing false testimony in a court of law should be punished for it.

Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anybody say “It’s just politics” when a congressman is caught in a lie. Depending upon the severity of the lie sometimes one’s own party members will attempt to spin it in a less damaging way, but did anybody anywhere brush off the mistruths of Rod Blagojevich, Anthony Weiner or Todd Akin by saying “That’s just politics?”

We have a free press, and we take our congressmen to task for what they say and do, on both sides of the divide. Neither party gets a free ride…at the very least, they get called on it by the other party…one of the relatively few — but pretty clear — benefits of partisanship.

if we dislike a black person, we’re racist and if a black person dislikes whites, its their 1st Amendment right;

We’re still toward the front end of Huber’s second sentence and already he’s arguing overtly for a right to hate. That sure didn’t take long.

Read again what he wrote here, and then consider this alternative: “Why is it that I am always kind and friendly to my black neighbors, but I don’t feel the same courtesy in return?”

Same core wish — for a two-way sense of fairness — but the way in which it’s expressed says worlds about what we wish to do with that fairness. Huber doesn’t want to love his brother or be loved by his brother. He sees that his brother dislikes him and so he’d like the right to dislike him back.

Which is odd, because he does already have that right. Yes, if we dislike a black person because they are black, that is racist…however we have the right to dislike them for whatever intolerant reason we choose. We can’t openly discriminate against them, we can’t commit crimes against them, and we can’t enslave them, but last I checked there were plenty of racist morons roaming the street, longing for the glory days of the universal oppression of everyone who wasn’t them. Here, Huber would like us to think that he is oppressed, because we’ve robbed him of his right to oppress others. And that’s damned disgusting.

Also, it’s pretty funny that he thinks black people get an easier ride with the law than whites. That’s an ignorance so active it must hurt.

the government spends millions to rehabilitate criminals and they do almost nothing for the victims;

I still don’t know what he’s arguing for here. “Do something for the victims” is pretty clearly what he’s trying to say, but what is “something?” And “victims” of what? Both of those things need to be defined because there’s way too much room for interpretation there.

And isn’t the rehabilitation of criminals “something?” If it gets them off the streets and prevents them from committing crimes, then that’s “something” the government is doing for all potential “victims.”

Perhaps he wants free health care for victims of crimes. Well, good news for him: President Obama’s been pushing for that free health care for a while now, while the folks Huber keeps voting into office prevent him from getting it passed. Nice job, Ken.

in public schools you can teach that homosexuality is OK, but you better not use the word God in the process;

I’m unaware of any school, public or otherwise, that explicitly teaches that homosexuality is okay. More accurately they’re just not allowed to teach that it’s a Bad Thing. And why anyone would want to use the word “God” in the process of teaching the complete awesomeness of gayness is beyond me.

you can kill an unborn child, but it is wrong to execute a mass murderer;

37 states practice capital punishment currently, and the most recent Gallup poll on the subject (2011) found that 61% of Americans were in favor of executing those found guilty of murder, with only 35% opposing it. That’s a clear majority, and it’s also the lowest level of support ever found by the Gallup poll…it’s usually even higher. So I’m not sure where Huber gets the idea that America feels it’s wrong to execute a mass murderer, and he’s pretty clearly using that only as a counterpoint for his stance on abortion which, as we all know, is mandatory in all cases of pregnancy now.

we don’t burn books in America, we now rewrite them;

Citation — and significant clarification — needed.

we got rid of communist and socialist threats by renaming them progressive;

First of all, please stop lumping Communism and Socialism together. Second of all…what?

we are unable to close our border with Mexico, but have no problem protecting the 38th parallel in Korea;

We have significant problems with Korea, Ken. Far morseo than we have with Mexico. Of course, they’re also completely different problems and one might say it’s impossible to compare the two without looking foolish for doing so.

if you protest against President Obama’s policies you’re a terrorist, but if you burned an American flag or George Bush in effigy it was your 1st Amendment right.

A revisiting of Huber’s earlier black/white rant, this time naming particular individuals.

First of all, give me an example of one person who’s protested against President Obama and, due to that fact, has been tried as a terrorist. Just one, since this seems to happen all the time. That shouldn’t be so hard.

Heck, just look at Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck…those guys protest Obama on a daily basis, so I have to assume they’ve each been labelled terrorists and punished to the fullest extent of…

…oh, wait. No, they’re still around, and still given a platform with which to spout their anti-Obama beliefs. So where did we get this idea again?

And, yes, it is within your rights to burn someone in effigy. That’s why it’s allowed…because you’re burning someone in effigy. It’s the difference between a political statement and an attempt at assassination. Nobody’s going to jail for it, whether it’s Obama, Bush, or Harry Potter you’re burning.

You can have pornography on TV or the internet, but you better not put a nativity scene in a public park during Christmas;

What correlation is there at all between these two things? Television and the internet are both private venues for information retrieval. If someone chooses to view pornography, that’s within their rights. Why wouldn’t it be? People can choose what to view in both cases. If they want to see the pornography they can and if they don’t wish to see it they can avoid it.

A public park however is…well, public. Which is to say it is not something people should have to avoid, nor should any one person or group of people decide which religion is endorsed by it. (Also pornography, last I checked, is not a religion, so maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the comparison he should be trying to make.)

Somehow I don’t think Huber would be in favor of a giant, mechanical Mohammed being installed in a public park, so why would he be in support of a nativity? Easy…because that reflects his special interest. And his double standard means he’s perfectly fine relegating the beliefs and feelings of others to the sidelines in favor of his.

we have eliminated all criminals in America, they are now called sick people;

I thought we were rehabilitating criminals?

Who knows. Maybe in the time between writing that observation and this one America happened to eliminate all criminals and he just didn’t have time to delete that before mailing it to the editor.

We do indeed refer to criminals as “sick” very often. And they very often are sick. I’m unaware of anyone who’s stopped referring to them as criminals, however.

we can use a human fetus for medical research, but it is wrong to use an animal.

We can use an animal fetus for medical research as well. And we use animals at all stages of development for medical research. We can’t use living human beings of any age for medical research unless they personally consent, and even then there are far more stringent guidelines for testing on humans than there are for testing on animals.

We take money from those who work hard for it and give it to those who don’t want to work;

There are those who don’t want to work, and some of them do indeed defraud government welfare programs. There are also many more who can’t work, or can’t find work, whose families are sustained by temporary government assistance.

The fact that there are those who abuse a system does not suggest that the system itself is a problem.

we all support the Constitution, but only when it supports our political ideology;

I agree with this, Ken. In fact, I’d raise your letter high as proof of that very fact.

we still have freedom of speech, but only if we are being politically correct;

Your letter is not “politically correct” in the slightest, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet it’s also not been censored. You’ve proven yourself conclusively wrong by simply making that observation.

parenting has been replaced with Ritalin and video games; the land of opportunity is now the land of hand outs;

Nothing much to say here. The hand-outs bit is dealt with above, and I don’t know why he wants the government to enforce standards of parenting. Wouldn’t that be more in line with the imaginary Big Brother government controllapalooza he’s raging against above?

the similarity between Hurricane Katrina and the gulf oil spill is that neither president did anything to help.

A bit reductionist here, but honestly that’s pretty fair. I will say, however, that there’s a difference between not helping actual human beings who are being displaced and dying, and not helping a body of water that’s seeing substantial environmental impact. Certainly a humanitarian like Huber — who just moments ago was preaching how much more important human life is than animal life — would see that.

Also, hindsight really works against this one, as Obama’s currently dealing with the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy…and he’s dealing with them in an active way that Bush did not do with Katrina. Comparing apples to apples, we have a clear winner here.

And how do we handle a major crisis today? The government appoints a committee to determine who’s at fault, then threatens them, passes a law, raises our taxes; tells us the problem is solved so they can get back to their reelection campaign.

Apparently determining who is at fault before dishing out punishment is a Bad Thing to Huber. So is passing a law to prevent it from happening again, and asking citizens to chip in so that this new law protecting them from a “major crisis” occurring again can actually be enforced.

What has happened to the land of the free and home of the brave?

You demonstrated that neither of those things has gone anywhere simply by complaining that they’re long gone. You’re brave and free enough to write what you feel, and newspapers are brave and free enough to print it, and everyone else is brave and free enough to respond to it as they see fit. Congratulations, Ken…your imaginary nightmare land never existed.

– Ken Huber, Tawas City

So why get out and vote?

Because this man is unquestionably turning up to the polls.

Do your part, America.

Is it any coincidence that the best episode of the series so far has no B-plot? I highly doubt it.

“Lemons” isn’t great. But here’s the miraculous thing: “Lemons” is good. Call me crazy, but the consequence-free slaying of a main character’s brother in the first week and Taiwan Tony’s Racism Follies in week two left me more or less dreading the crew’s encounter here with the son of God.

But it was good. It did a lot of things right. It did some things wrong, and in a few cases those were quite annoying things to do wrong, but it was better than “Fathers and Suns,” which was better than “Trojan,” and I’m finding it quite a bit easier now to be optimistic about the back half of series X.

“Lemons” starts off on some terribly shaky footing. For starters, Doug Naylor has the annoying habit of opening on scenes that set up later punchlines, but don’t have a purpose themselves. They feel disconnected and clunky, and that’s what happens here. Lister cooks dinner while The Cat attempts some humor by describing a comedy golf course he set up in the medical area. It ends with The Cat eating Lister’s dinner, which wasn’t much of a joke on its own and becomes even more disappointing when the eventual punchline is the same one we saw way back in the first episode of series VII, where it was faster, sharper, and a thousand times funnier. Belabored setups of old twists isn’t what series X should be aiming for.

Things get worse when we’re subjected to Ikea jokes. Did you know that sometimes those instructions aren’t very clear?! If you didn’t, then you’ve never seen a comedian bomb on stage, and, in related news, the being-on-hold-is-kind-of-annoying! subplot of “Trojan” probably held you riveted. The one positive point about this trite, mirthless digression is that “Ikea” isn’t mentioned by name. (We don’t have the same luck with “eBay” later.) In fact, it almost makes up for the montage of the crew clowning around with the machine’s parts. Almost.

Then, something magical happens: it becomes Red Dwarf. The crew finds themselves transported to 23 AD, and it’s almost as if Doug and the cast suddenly remember what show they’re making. The plot is solid: there’s a logical problem (no batteries in 23 AD means no teleporting back), a rational and scientific solution to that problem (batteries can be made out of lemons), and a left-field complication (the gang, y’know, meets Christ).

It’s a fair setup, and, for the first time all series, the episode sees it through. The adventure isn’t meaningless, the crew’s plight has relateable weight, and the new-character-of-the-week (for fucking once) doesn’t act like a cartoon character. It. Is. Good.

When the writing works, the story doesn’t matter as much. I’ll admit that I only found it easy to pick apart the narrative flaws of episodes one and two because…well…what else was I meant to be doing? Laughing? Hey, great plan, but it wasn’t in the cards.

Here, though, not only did the comedy work well enough to distract from any logistical issues, but the few potential issues I did notice were enhanced by the comedy. For instance, why did Doug have the characters beam into Britain if he needed them in India, and all it did was set up a quick map-walking sequence that was supposed to have taken six months? Easy: because by doing that, he could set up the later joke, wherein Rimmer informs the rest of them that they need to walk back to Britain for some copper wire.

Having your characters walk for six months off camera makes no purposeful sense whatsoever, but when it’s in aid of a genuinely good laugh, it works. I understand that jokes that land are by no means a rarity in comedy, but with the lame detours and disconnected components of the previous episodes, this really is something worth pointing out.

At one point in the episode I realized I was watching Jesus Christ laying on a bunk in a space ship three million years into deep space, after having had a kidney stone removed by a robot, a hologram, an evolved cat and the last human being alive. And I didn’t care how I got there, because moments like Rimmer being honored to hold Jesus’s dick made me glad to go along for the ride.

The rest of the episode is a bit of a step down, particularly when Jesus does become a cartoon character, but I don’t mind a weak ending. I don’t even mind a weak ending in tandem with a weak beginning. I just want to be glad I spent time with the episode, and “Lemons” gave me that for sure.

I can’t say more without spoiling something, and I don’t want to overplay my enthusiasm here — it’s absolutely relative — but I will say that something puzzled me. For an episode that really sought to reward long-term fans who pay attention to Rimmer’s character (explaining his middle name, reminding us that he likes to be called Big Man) Doug sure was quick to piss away two of his most memorable moments (he both hates Shakespeare now and his parents were no longer Seventh Day Advent Hoppists).

I’m not a continuity stickler in this show, but it feels a bit odd that an episode that went out of its way to dredge up two older bits of that continuity severely undermined two others.

Small potatoes though. Or lemons. lol and shit.

If only the crisis next week wasn’t that Lister’s nuts might explode, I’d be much more excited. As it stands, “Lemons” could just be a happy exception. And so what if it is? I’m happy with that.

Review: The Book of Mormon

August 18th, 2012 | Posted by Philip J Reed in religion | review | theater - (2 Comments)

My girlfriend was kind enough — and lucky enough, but mainly kind enough — to get us to tickets to see The Book of Mormon on opening night here in Denver. I was unquestionably excited when she got the tickets, but if she hadn’t been able to get them, I wouldn’t really have felt disappointed.

After all…it’s The Book of Mormon. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are absolutely talented individuals — as well as genuinely gifted showmen — so I knew it’d be fun to watch, but the subject matter sort of rubbed me the wrong way.

I don’t mean to say that I’m insulted that they’d poke fun at a religion of any kind. After all, South Park‘s been doing it for years. That, however, was the root of my concern: South Park‘s been doing it for years. Matt and Trey already have an outlet for this and, what’s more, I’ve seen it. Many times over.

Top that off with the fact that they’ve let Mormonism have it several times already. “All About Mormons” is the most obvious example in South Park, and they’ve spat barbs at the Latter-Day Saints in many other episodes as well. Orgasmo mined pretty much every joke it had from the mismatch of Mormonism and the porn industry. And now this. I’m not one to cry “bully” very often, but I was confused about their motives for returning so many times to the same well. It seemed almost…mean.

Having seen the play, I think I now understand it. Matt and Trey don’t pick on Mormons because they want to upset them, or because they dislike them, or anything along those lines. They pick on them because, in their minds, Mormons are the religious equivalent of a bad horror film. In Mormonism, they feel, the acting is bad, the story is full of holes, and the set pieces are unconvincing. And that’s exactly why they love it.

There’s a level of inescapable affection for the religion, even though they’re quick to point out the problems with it. “All About Mormons” was relentless in its criticism of Latter-Day Saints history, but in the present day Matt and Trey had nothing but good things to say about the actual family of believers. They didn’t turn their Mormon characters into strawmen; they portrayed them as good people who were polite, family-oriented, and community-minded. That’s all good. The undercurrents of their belief system may not hold up under scrutiny, but “All About Mormons” suggested that it didn’t have to. If it made you happy, and if — in whatever way — it made you a good person, then that wasn’t a bad thing. It may not be a factually sound thing, but it wasn’t a bad thing.

The Book of Mormon, perhaps to avoid overlap with that episode, is willing to explore the other side. While “All About Mormons” painted a portrait of good people living a selfless life, The Book of Mormon shows us the passive self-righteousness and willful delusion that may be inherent in such a lifestyle. This could be taken as insulting by actual Mormons, I guess, but in order to be insulted they’d have to block out a substantial portion of the play — say, all of it — as Matt and Trey are careful to put all of the worst things into the mouths of two main characters who emphatically are not meant to represent the religion as a whole.

These two characters are Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Elder Price comes across as a young man who doesn’t feel he has anything to learn. He not only knows it all, he’s mastered it all, and is also capable of teaching it all. In fact, he deserves to have it all. He is, he’s convinced, the rightful center of everything, as exemplified by the early musical highlight “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”

Elder Price’s issues are his own, and not endemic to the rest of the Elders and Sisters we meet throughout the course of the play. In a word, Matt and Trey are satirizing Elder Price’s psychology far, far moreso than they are his religion.

Elder Cunningham is Elder Price’s opposite in every way. Squat and dumpy, boisterous and lacking confidence, it’s Cunningham’s journey that really resonates. Elder Price, as you might expect, must learn humility. Elder Cunningham on the other hand has a more complicated role: he’s prone to fabrications, and is unfamiliar with the contents of The Book of Mormon. It’s not a spoiler to say that these things will come into play together during the course of the evening…it’s downright essential that that happens. But when it does, it happens in a way that’s both hilarious and oddly moving.

Price and Cunningham are paired up in the Missionary Training Center, and sent to Uganda…the first (and second) of many disappointments for Elder Price. There they find themselves immersed in a culture they neither understand nor wish to understand. After all, they are there to spread their gospel, not to take anything home in return. The play really does write itself from here, and in a narrative sense there’s very little in the way of surprise. In a comedic sense, however, it’s positively bursting, so I won’t ruin any (or many) of the jokes by repeating them here.

The comedy, as you might expect, is where The Book of Mormon shines. The music, of course, is as brilliant as well. The aforementioned “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” is a rightful earworm, but the crowning achievement has got to be “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” based on an expression the Ugandans repeat to help their through their troubled times. (“Does it mean no worries for the rest of your days?” asks Elder Cunningham. His guide’s response: “Erm…kind of.”)

There’s also the insightfully pornographic thump of “Baptize Me,” which is a one-joke song that spirals gorgeously out of control, and the instantly unforgettable “Turn it Off,” sung by a chorus of missionaries. It’s this song that introduces the play’s truly greatest accomplishment, Elder McKinley. McKinley’s repressed homosexuality never becomes so overt that it loses its edge, and it also gives the character a genuine sense of sad humanity. Elders Price and Cunningham may both have issues bubbling below the surface, but Elder McKinley seems like he’s dead inside, that his soul has been smothered by a lifetime of fighting the truth of who he really is. The actor who played McKinley, Grey Henson, received the loudest applause of the curtain call, and that was well deserved. He found the heart beneath the comedy, but never let the comedy drop. He’s absolutely this play’s buried treasure, and wears a hollow smile like very few actors can.

As Elder Price, Gavin Creel had absolutely the right amount of smarm and superiority, but his role, unfortunately, never gets much more complicated than that. Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham has a lot more to work with, especially as he unknowingly delivers what may be considered the moral of The Book of Mormon: there is real benefit to having a comforting fiction.

And that seems to be what Matt and Trey are saying here. South Park has always had a moral center, as outlandish and sometimes brutal as its comedy can get. And in The Book of Mormon, though we’re always being asked to laugh, they can’t help but develop a solid, redeeming theme for the characters and the audience alike: it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as it makes you a good person.

What you believe may make you look foolish. What you believe may be an obviously lie constructed on the fly by somebody who knew what you wanted to hear. What you believe may be a silly assortment of unrelated fables that never quite connect and will eventually form the basis of a mocking, irreverent musical.

But if it makes you a good person, keep on believing it. Because we need more good people, and we need to do less worrying about how they got that way.

Check it out if you get the chance to see it. And if you do see it, I’d love to know what you think.

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