Understanding the Need for Representation

It’s my birthday today, and every year since this blog began I’ve used my birthday an excuse to write something personal. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s not. This year, it’s not.

Whenever people talk about the need for representation in media, I get it. I understand it. I see where they’re coming from. But I never really felt, personally, what it means to go unrepresented.

I’m white. I’m male. I’m American. I’m straight. I was born into a Christian household. So were the vast majority of characters I’d encounter in film and on television.

As I’ve gotten older, the balance has shifted somewhat. Groups of friends get to have a black one, and even a girl one. Maybe there’s a Jewish one if the writers can think of enough jokes to justify it. Of course there are also shows and movies with predominantly female, black, or homosexual casts, but those are always easy to identify by sight and so anybody who doesn’t want to find themselves exposed to such things can keep away easily. Everybody wins.

This past year, I’ve been through a lot. (I won’t even begin to pretend I’m alone in that.) Good things. Bad things. Exciting things. But also something that, as I turn thirty-eight, I wish I went through a long time ago.

In 2018 I came out as asexual. I know that everybody has their own journey. I know that everybody comes out in their own way, in their own time. I know that there isn’t a right or wrong way to come to your own awakening.

And yet, if I can have the privilege of sharing the ugly side of a good thing, I was angry. Angry that I didn’t understand myself sooner. Angry that this is what I’ve always been without the vocabulary to express, understand, or process it. Angry that I wasn’t me.

Let me step back.

I remember one day in high school. My friend Nate had lost his virginity at some recent point. He was the first one in our circle of friends to do so, and he was telling us about it. We were kids. We were curious. We asked questions. I’m sure he was happy to be the center of attention on this topic.

He said, “The bad thing is that once you have sex, you start always wanting it.”

For whatever reason, that stuck with me. Around a year or so later, I lost my virginity as well, to a girl named Amy. Before and as it was happening, I didn’t feel like I really wanted it. I felt curious about it, for sure, and I was turned on, but I wasn’t…desiring it.

I remembered what Nate said. I figured maybe the first time you just sort of fumble your way through it anxiously, and you figure out what you’re doing and what you like, and curiosity gets replaced, gradually, by actual sexual desire.

It didn’t. Not for me. Not then, or at any point since.

But I didn’t know why. I became the next center of attention. Friends asked me questions and I answered them. I doubt I lied about anything but I’m sure I embellished. They wanted a story. I told them a story.

Maybe I just didn’t feel that way toward Amy. I liked her and I was attracted to her, but maybe there needed to be something deeper. Maybe when I was in a more serious relationship, with someone I cared about on a deeper level, everything would click.

I found that person in my next relationship. She was great, and I look back on the time we spend together fondly. We dated through the end of high school right into the beginning of college. I cared about her. I had fun with her. We had similar sensibilities and morals and senses of humor.

We had sex, a good number of times. And I still didn’t want it.

The more I reflect on these early experiences, the more I realize that it’s always been this way for me. I remember having the house to myself frequently with one girlfriend, but I never thought about or looked forward to having sex. I thought about watching movies and playing video games and laughing with each other. I remember another girlfriend saying to me — in a jokey way — “You don’t even like sex.” I’m sure she thought there was truth to that statement well before I did. I remember sitting in my car outside of a college party, listening to the Live at Leads version of “Magic Bus” with a girl who hadn’t heard it before. It was a nice moment. I enjoyed spending the time with her. We went back into the party, and then into a bedroom, and she wanted to have sex. I wasn’t interested. I tried to get interested, but I couldn’t. I felt terrible. I felt as though I’d led her on. I was embarrassed.

Through the years, I’ve tried to figure out what the problem was. It wasn’t impotence, because I could have sex…I just didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I was gay, because I find women very attractive and have yet to be physically attracted to a man. It wasn’t low testosterone, because I paid for a test out of pocket knowing for sure that that would be the reason, but my doctor called a week or so later with the results to tell me that my testosterone was actually pretty high.

I talked to a few people about it. Not many, and probably not the right ones. One thing a girl I was seeing told me is, “You just haven’t had good sex.” I kind of doubted that. Without making any qualitative assessment, I was in the same boat by the time our relationship ended.

So I just kept trying. Dating. Pursuing. Sleeping with girlfriends. Sometimes once, sometimes many times. I kept having sex because I kept expecting something to click. Sometimes I felt obligated to do it. Sometimes I’d do it just so I wouldn’t disappoint someone. It was fine. It felt good. But it wasn’t anything I wanted.

I grew up watching television. Too much of it. I saw the characters there. I identified with some of them. I learned about myself from watching them. I was able to see how people like me failed or succeeded in what they set out to do.

But sexuality was binary. The vast majority of these characters were straight, a rare few were gay. I didn’t desire sex at all. I didn’t see that anywhere. Something was wrong.

A few years ago, Bojack Horseman had an episode in which Todd, played by Aaron Paul, realizes he’s asexual.

I’d heard the term before, but never looked into it or gave any thought to it. If someone identified as asexual, well…good for them. It’s not my business to go rooting around to figure out what it means. They’d arrived at their own truth, and that’s what was important.

Here’s the thing, though. Prior to that episode, I did see something of myself in Todd. I’d rather not get too specific here, as I think I’m putting enough of myself out there as it is, but there was a moment — and then further moments — in his relationship with Emily that felt very, very close to home. To the point that it hurt.

Bojack Horseman primed me for identifying with it, I’ll admit. As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, self-loathing, chronic unhappiness and as someone who used to have self-destructive tendencies, I see myself a lot in that show. Intermittently. Here and there. In a line or in a decision or in an inability to get one’s shit together.

And that’s okay. In a show covering a topic you’re familiar with, that’s almost bound to happen. As long as it’s written and acted well, I suppose, which Bojack Horseman is.

But I definitely didn’t see myself in Bojack’s hyperactive sex drive. The meaninglessness, sure, but not feeling compelled to have more and more and more of it.

And then Emily confronted Todd, with an openness that hopefully a lot of us can learn from. And, ultimately, Todd’s answer put things into perspective for me.

EMILY: What’s…your deal? I feel like you like me but you don’t like me, but you like me. And I don’t know what that is. Are you gay? […]
TODD: I’m not gay. I mean, I don’t think I am. But…I don’t think I’m straight, either. I don’t know what I am. I think I might be nothing.

I turned the television off after that episode and I just…thought. As silly as it may seem, I hadn’t even considered that as a possibility.

Obviously there are many characters we don’t actively see having or pursuing sex, but the understanding was always that there were parts of their life we don’t see. If we were to follow them beyond the boundaries of a thirty-minute episode, we’d see them pursuing guys or girls and that would be that. There were characters who were horny and characters who were reserved enough that we didn’t get a glimpse into their sex lives. Everybody had a sex life, and the few that didn’t actively wanted one.

There were no characters that openly had no interest in sex.

Emily asks Todd that question because she’s hurt. She feels like she’s been led on to some degree, even if it’s clear she doesn’t think he did it on purpose. I had an Emily. I had a lot of Emilys. I didn’t intend to lead anybody on, but we’d go on dates. We’d hang out. We’d have fun. We’d flirt.

And then I didn’t want sex. And if we had it, I wasn’t pursuing more of it, even if I were keeping them in my life.

And I’ve hurt them. In large part I’m making an assumption there, but in one specific case someone reached out to me after I came out to explain how she felt. How I had confused her. How I’d upset her. She wasn’t blaming me. I had just been open about something that finally made sense to me, and she replied with her own openness about how it felt on her end.

I didn’t want to hurt or mislead or confuse anybody. I just…didn’t know. I didn’t know that was an option. I didn’t know that there were people like me. I thought there was something…wrong with me, and I spent too many years and too much effort with too many people trying to “fix” myself, get myself on the right track, feel sexual desire the way every single other person on the planet obviously felt it.

I later connected with a friend who was also asexual, though I hadn’t known that before. I found a community online that helped me better understand what I am, and that it’s okay to feel the way I do. I started letting people know ahead of time where I stood sexually. These are good things. But I wish I could have done them sooner. I wish I’d had the knowledge that this wasn’t a problem…this was just something I was, and I wasn’t alone. I could have saved a lot of people a lot of pain.

I said above that I’m straight, and I am. I love women. I love romance. Dating is fun and getting to know a partner on a deep, personal level is fun.

But for all of my life I thought it was supposed to build to sex. Again and again and again to sex. And it didn’t for me. That wasn’t what I wanted. I did it because I felt as though I needed to, that I should have wanted to, that this was the way things worked and I didn’t really have a place to disagree.

And I realize now why representation is important. For the first time, I experienced that firsthand. When we see people like us in the media, we know we aren’t alone. When we don’t see them, we suspect we might be. When there isn’t some kind of representative of who we are and what we want and how we feel, it’s easy to believe we’re missing something. We’re broken in some way. We aren’t who we should be.

I’m not saying I necessarily needed to see a character like Todd when I was a child, but I am saying that seeing him when I finally did helped me a lot, gave me a reason to research asexuality, and gave me a push I needed to understand who, the fuck, I was.

I didn’t even know that the thing I was was an option. And that’s terrifying to me. It’s sad that there are children and adults who don’t realize it’s okay to be who they are, so they try to be someone they aren’t, hurting others and themselves in the process, and never being truly happy with who they already are.

I guess it’s about right that here, in this monumentally shitty world that seems determined to get worse every day, that a cartoon about a talking horse would be the one place I’d find some honesty. I just hope it’s honesty that’s easier to come by in the next generation, for people who might need it even more than me.

Separating Art from the Artist

Pretty straightforward title to this post, but it’s something I have trouble with. Sometimes. Perhaps.

There comes a time in every life when an artist responsible for something we love speaks or behaves in a way that we hate. This isn’t anything like a new phenomenon. “Never meet your heroes” is a maxim for a reason.

Now, however, we don’t have to meet our heroes to be appalled by them. The rise of mass media lets foul behavior by popular figures carry as far and wide as the things that made them popular in the first place. I’d argue this is a good thing. The rise of social media carries them even further, and lets us experience that behavior more directly. Still, good thing. Ideally, this should help people keep themselves in check ethically, and think twice before saying something needlessly confrontational or stupid. These are positive impulses.

Then, this past week, Roseanne tweeted a racist joke (and a relatively baffling political one). She did apologize, and that’s nice, but that apology is undercut at least somewhat by her retweeting responses telling her she shouldn’t have apologized. Oh, then she shared a visual version of her original text-only racist joke. Lovely stuff.

Needless to say, that’s appalling. There’s nothing quaint or charming about racism to me, especially at a time when race relations ain’t going so hot. I wasn’t the only person appalled; Roseanne single-handedly created a PR crisis for ABC, the network that had revived her sitcom, and she was cancelled within a matter of hours.

This all makes a kind of logical sense. What makes a bit less sense to me is the fact that…I still respect her.

I’ll explain. I don’t respect her as a person. Not even slightly. I’ve heard nothing about her personal or professional behavior to suggest that she is somebody anyone would want to spend time around, and irony-free racism cements for me, at least, that I wouldn’t want to spend time around her, either.

And yet…I respect her as an artist.

I’ve always loved her show. It was a common point of reference for me during the ALF reviews, when I needed an example of a sitcom done right. I revisted the show over the course of the past year or so, and found that it held up extraordinarily well, even if I didn’t remember it as well as I thought I did. Eventually I got to its final and clearly worst season, and still found things to enjoy.

I approached the recent revived season with a small amount of trepidation, but…well, I kind of loved it. It may well be the single best revival of a dormant property I’ve ever seen. Typically, I don’t think it’s worth going back to a dead show, however much I might miss it. The results tend to range from insultingly poor (Arrested Development) to fine enough but not worth exhuming (Futurama). I’m not sure I’d ever seen a years-late revival that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the original. At least, not until Roseanne.

In a year’s time, two years’ time, ten years’ time, I expect I’ll feel much the same way. Roseanne the show was incredible. It was well written, perfectly cast, often disarmingly intelligent. It was a great and important piece of American television, and if I were to make a list of my all-time favorite shows, I know it would rank pretty high.

And Roseanne the person is clearly a sack of crap.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that her behavior has ruined the show for them. I understand that, and yet I don’t feel it. I found it immediately easy to bring the knife down and shear the artist away from the art. I’ll watch Roseanne again, but I won’t lose sleep if I never hear from Roseanne again.

All of this should be — should be — to say that I’m really great at separating art from the artist, and you should all follow my lead.

But…I’m not. And I’m very curious to hear from other folks about how they usually handle it themselves.

In Roseanne’s case, I find it easy. In many cases, I find it easy. In other cases…I can’t seem to do it.

Another recent example would be Aziz Ansari, whose sexual misbehavior (and tone-deaf response) has absolutely turned me off to his work. I’ll cue up Roseanne at some point, but I feel sour enough on Ansari that I’m not sure I’ll ever be up to rewatching Parks and Recreation.

That seems imbalanced to me, though. Ansari was just an actor in that show. A performer. He read the lines he was handed. Roseanne, by contrast, was the driving creative force behind her show, and the only creative voice that was with it from the beginning to the end, meaning it should have a much tighter connection to who she actually is.

So, hey, I watched Roseanne growing up and Parks and Recreation didn’t debut until I was well into my adult life. Maybe it’s nostalgia at play. Maybe my enjoyment of Roseanne isn’t tarnished because it’s tangled up in so many other positive memories that I don’t want to lose.

But, no. Because John Kricfalusi’s abhorrent grooming of underage sex partners (and his even more tone-deaf response) has unquestionably tarnished Ren & Stimpy for me, and that’s a show I loved far more actively as a child than I did Roseanne. Why can I not separate him from his work?

Perhaps you’ve noticed a common thread to my personal unforgivens: sexual assault. Pretty heinous, right? No wonder I have more difficulty moving past that.

But, again, no. Both Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have been dodging responsibility for their own histories of assault for decades. (Grooming and rape, respectively.) But I like their films. (Well, some of their films.) I enjoy their work. I’ll watch more of it, I’m sure. As an artist, I’ll study it. As a critic, I’ll dissect it. As a viewer, I’ll discuss it. I don’t support Allen and Polanski any more than I’d support Kricfalusi or Harvey Weinstein as human beings, but I can separate them from their bodies of work.

For years I’ve included Bill Cosby’s stuff in the Xmas Bash! just for the sake of mocking it, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that with anything Louis C.K. did. I’d rather not even see that guy.

Why?

I honestly don’t know. I’m not writing this post because I’ve arrived at some profound conclusion, because I’ve figured out the way my brain works, because this has helped me to more sharply identify the limits of my personal moral compass. I’m writing this because I want to hear from you.

I want to know when you’ve have trouble separating art from the artist, and when you haven’t. I want to know if this is something you’ve ever successfully worked to do in the past. (It’s probably worth mentioning that I haven’t “worked” to arrive at any of the above stances; I have some reaction to their behavior and either do or don’t separate them from their art immediately. It’s not a process; it’s a response.)

Any insight would be appreciated here. Great art is great art and appalling behavior is appalling behavior. In some cases, I can keep them separate. In other cases the weight of one irretrievably sinks the other.

I’d like to know why. I’d like to figure out, to the best of my ability, what is happening in my mind when I can separate them in one case and can’t in another.

What are your examples? Is there anybody out there who separates them in every case? Anybody out there who doesn’t separate them ever?

I’d like to know.

The 10 Things I Liked About Roseanne’s Ninth Season

Last year, I started working my way through Roseanne for no real reason except that I remember enjoying it quite a lot as a kid. My memory of the show sure as heck got a lot of the details wrong, but I was right about the quality.

The writing was sharp. The casting was perfect. The acting was top notch. It was far more serialized than I remembered. Rewatching Roseanne made for a really fantastic revisit.

But ah, the sickle!

However much I was enjoying the show — including an awful lot of episodes I was seeing for the first time — there was always a grim specter on the horizon: season nine.

To provide context, prior to the recent Roseanne revival, season nine was the show’s final stretch, and it has a dire reputation.

It involves the Conners winning the lottery, which sounds like the sort of thing that could indeed be handled in any number of creative, intelligent, funny ways. Instead, B-list celebrities like Jim Varney, Tammy Faye Bakker, Jim J. Bullock, and Steven Seagal are trotted out to play exaggerated cartoons as the Conners themselves largely splinter off on joyless solo adventures and engage in limp parodies.

I remember people complaining about how awful it was while it aired, which suggests that widescale dismissal wasn’t a conclusion we culturally reached only after consideration and reflection. My friends who still watched the show at that point all reported back about how much they hated it. Later, I worked with someone who adored Roseanne, and we exchanged fond memories of the show…but when season nine came up, she grumbled about “the lottery season,” which seemed to say it all. Even in this largely positive (and very good) Facebook fan group, season nine draws a lot of unexpectedly strong ire.

Needless to say, I was very excited to finally get to see those episodes for myself. I love garbage!

And, well…it really is garbage. Its hideous reputation is well deserved. The entire time I was watching earlier seasons, I refused to believe season nine could be quite as bad as everyone said. How could one of television’s best shows tumble so far so fast that it immediately became one of the worst? Even The Simpsons represented a gradual decline…how could Roseanne represent a plummet?

I could write a few thousand words about how awful it is, but you can probably find those elsewhere. Or you can watch it yourself, preferably after watching any number of the previous eight seasons so you can wonder what the hell happened, too.

Instead of tearing down something people love, I’m going to do something far less common on this site: I’m going to build up something people hate. I’m going to celebrate some of the things this truly terrible season of television did right. Because, hey, it really did do some things right. And after the nearly flawless eight-season stretch that preceded it…I think Roseanne deserves that.

This is my list of the 10 things I liked about Roseanne‘s final season. I’d say “Top 10,” but, frankly, I had to stretch slightly to even hit 10 so I think we can call this exhaustive.

I did set myself one rule: no “I liked that X didn’t happen” entries. This list is exclusively about things I actively enjoyed about the season, so I can’t say things like, “Tom Arnold didn’t make an appearance.” Or “Watching the show didn’t give me a brain tumor.”

Here we go.

10) The theme song’s lyrics


…alright, I had to reach slightly for this one. I don’t dislike the lyric-version of the theme song, which debuted for season nine. Having said that…I also don’t quite see the purpose. Roseanne‘s instrumental theme tune was (and remains) iconic. This is a bit like having somebody warble over the Hawaii Five-O intro; even if it’s good warbling, why mess with something that’s already great?

Surprisingly, though, this version of the theme song isn’t bad, and the lyrics actually feel like they fit and weren’t crammed into an existing melody almost a decade after everyone got to know it. The credit for that belongs to John Popper, who wrote and performed this version of the song with his band, Blues Traveler. (Blues Traveler was one of the first bands I saw live. NOW YOU KNOW THAT.) They also recorded new stings to play between scene and act breaks.

I feel a bit bad for Popper that his version of the theme is associated with this of all possible seasons, but that’s just the way the chips fell. Popper appeared in season eight’s “Of Mice and Dan” as blues musician Stingray Wilson, backed, of course, by the rest of Blues Traveler. It’s not one of my favorite episodes, but there was obviously some mutual respect between the band and the show, as Popper was invited to compose theme song lyrics (one hell of an unexpected honor) and DJ hung a Blues Traveler poster in his room for the rest of the show’s run.

Of course, the less we think about Blues Traveler and Stingray Wilson existing in the same universe the better, especially since we learn that “Run-Around” and “Hook” — actual Blues Traveler hits in our universe — were written by Stingray Wilson on Roseanne…no. No. We have nine more entries. WE WILL STAY POSITIVE.

9) The Christmas episode


Roseanne is understandably known for having great Halloween episodes. Personally, too many of them break reality for my taste, but I can see why they have their following.

The holidays I really thought Roseanne nailed were Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thanksgiving episodes were more or less a gimme. As the extended family gathered in the Conner kitchen, we in the audience were guaranteed to see conflicts addressed, grievances raised, and great dialogue spread among a larger number of characters. A simple template, almost guaranteed to produce a memorable episode.

The Christmas episodes, though, were a bit less predictable. Maybe Roseanne needed some extra money and became a mall Santa. Maybe Dan took the opportunity decorating the house to bond with Becky’s brash new husband Mark. Maybe we get a peek at David’s abusive home life. Hell, maybe we give our Christmas episode over to Leon’s gay wedding.

I liked all of the Christmas episodes. I looked forward to them. And so I was genuinely worried when I saw that season nine had one was well. Was this godforsaken season really going to break the show’s perfect record with Christmas?

Actually, no. It wasn’t. “Home for the Holidays” is far from the best Conner Christmas, but it’s still pretty good. It’s the rare season nine episode that plays better in retrospect, too, as Dan’s periodic detachment from the celebrations make a very sad sense when we later find out why. See, Dan (like John Goodman) was absent from a long stretch of episodes, the character spending some time in California. Unknown to anyone else, he was also canoodling with another woman. Christmas represents his return to the family. He’s plagued by guilt. He has doubts about both halves of the equation. Does he really want that other woman? Does the fact that he’s even questioning mean he doesn’t want his family?

Especially heartbreaking is the gift Roseanne gives him: the burning of their mortgage, which she has paid off. After all these years together, the Conners finally own their home. Dan is devastated, and forced to account internally for the damage he’s done to his family when they should have been getting stronger. This is all something we only find out later, and it works perfectly.

Except, you know, we find out this whole thing never really happened and Dan never actually cheated and Roseanne never actually paid off the house so really there’s no point to any of this and whatever retroactive emotion we link to the scene means we have to ignore the later revelation that undoes this one but no. No. We have eight more entries. WE WILL STAY POSITIVE.

8) Dan’s ennui


So why was Dan away from his family for much of the start of season nine? A very good reason, actually. In season six’s “Lies My Father Told Me,” Dan learns that his largely absent mother is mentally ill. It’s a secret Dan’s father kept from him for many years. In season nine, after the Conners hit the lottery, Dan realizes that he has enough money to get his mother the help she needs, and takes her to an institution in California.

This is a nice development, even if it’s only to give Goodman an in-universe reason to take a few weeks off from the show.

What’s nicer, though, is that this isn’t a snap decision, or something that happens between episodes. Instead, in “Honor Thy Mother,” we see Dan building toward the idea, beginning with a very believable, general sense of malaise and ennui.

Dan has money now.

For eight seasons, he’s struggled to put food on the table. Sometimes he’s failed even to do that. He worked constantly and regularly for whatever someone was willing to pay. “Dan the Drywall Man” had a reputation for doing good work, but that reputation never got him far enough to take it easy. Yesterday’s paycheck won’t last through today…he needs to get back out there and find more work.

Until now. Now he has money. Now he doesn’t even need a job, let alone a series of jobs.

And for perhaps the first time ever, his mind has a chance to wander. He begins to question his purpose. He wonders who he is, and what he’s doing. He opens up to characters he usually wouldn’t, such as Leon, in the vague hope that somebody can give him guidance. Having the luxury to reflect on meaning can be a curse, because it may lead to you suspect there is none.

Ultimately, Dan decides to help his mother, which suggests that this mental listlessness had a positive outcome. But it’s in the course of helping her that he meets and falls for her nurse. The same aimless, desperate thoughts that led him to make one of the least selfish decisions of his life led him also to make one of the most.

It was a plot development born of logistical necessity, but like so few other things in season nine, it worked.

7) A few of the premises


Season nine was rife with idiotic premises. Does anybody really care if Jackie dates a Moldavian prince? Did anybody need to see the Conners go to Martha’s Vineyard so they could stand silently around while a bunch of nobodies told jokes about being rich? Was there any reason at all to embed a jokeless, condensed version of Rosemary’s Baby in the middle of an Absolutely Fabulous crossover?

And did I really just manage to list a bunch of shoddy premises without even mentioning the time Roseanne fought terrorists on a hijacked train? Jesus.

The season was full of terrible ideas, but there were a few genuinely good ones.

Roseanne and Jackie spending an entire episode at a spa together should have been great, and in any previous season we would have certainly gotten some great dialogue as the two worked through their problems, gave each other advice, reminisced, fought and reconciled…it, frankly, would have been great. Roseanne and Jackie had perhaps the most rewarding dynamic on a show full of rewarding dynamics, but season nine just has them get yelled at by exaggerated, unfunny caricatures. Oh, and then it becomes a fantasy episode where Roseanne thinks she’s Xena. Come on.

There are also a pair of episodes after Dan and Roseanne split up that should have been great. The first sees Roseanne driving aimlessly around Lanford, reflecting on how the town has changed over the years. The second sees her holing up in her bedroom, depressed, and refusing to come out. A better show — such as Roseanne so recently had been — would have used these opportunities to explore character, both Roseanne’s and those who tried to help her move forward in the face of domestic tragedy.

Instead, both episodes — both of them! — are little more than extended jokes on the fact that Roseanne eats junk food. Come on.

And yes, an unhealthy diet led to Dan’s heart attack at the end of season eight. And no, season nine’s junk food duology doesn’t remember or comment on that in any way.

Come. On.

Still, though! Good ideas. Credit where it’s due.

6) The kitchen table scene


The ending of the season — and, until a few months ago, Roseanne as a whole — revealed that much of what we’ve seen on the show, if not all of it, was either invented by Roseanne (the character) or heavily fictionalized.

This was a divisive revelation. The most significant difference, arguably, is that Dan did not survive his heart attack at Darlene’s wedding. (More on that in a bit.) But as much as people like to see that as a way to bracket season nine off as the contents of Roseanne’s novel and ignore it completely, the divergence between fact and fiction didn’t start there.

Roseanne also reveals that Jackie was always a lesbian, for one, and Roseanne invented a series of boyfriends for her. She also mentions that Darlene and Mark were a couple, as were Becky and David; in the episodes we saw on television, it was the other way around.

But that’s not what I really enjoyed. What I really enjoyed was the way in which these revelations were rolled out.

From seasons one through seven, the intro credits saw the family and a hanger-on or two gathered around the kitchen table. Eating pizza, exchanging Chinese food, playing poker. Everyone was together, the camera slowly panned around them as they went about their interactions, and the only sound we heard was Roseanne’s laughter to close the sequence out.

Near the end of “Into that Good Night,” season nine’s finale, we see the Conners and their friends gathered around that table again, the camera pans around, they exchange and squabble over Chinese food…but now we can hear their conversations. It’s not an intro sequence; it’s just a scene. It’s playing out for us.

And, as it does, Roseanne looks around the table. Her narration tells us how different reality was from what we’ve seen, and each character, as we watch, becomes their actual selves. Leon starts vocally praising George H.W. Bush. Becky and Darlene abandon the relationships we thought they were in and immediately take up with the other Healy brother. And Dan…well, Dan’s chair is suddenly empty.

It’s an efficient and deeply effective way of essentially undoing much of what we’d learned about the Conners. Anyone who disagrees with the direction the series finale took is, certainly, entitled to that opinion. In fact, I largely share it.

But the manner in which it was executed? It was perfect.

It was a perfectly executed gut punch.

5) Fred Willard


If I had to guess, I’d say Roseanne expected to end with season eight. So many of the episodes in that season have to do with looking backward, closing out plot threads, or both. It seems like it was written (or at least conceived of) as a natural stopping point for the characters in a way that season nine absolutely doesn’t.

Season eight saw Dan meeting up with his old band, Roseanne and Jackie rooting through boxes of their childhood toys, the kids finding loveletters Dan and Roseanne wrote when they were dating, Darlene getting pregnant, Dan and Roseanne having one “last date” before their own new baby is born…and, of course, Dan’s heart attack, which we’ll discuss later. Even season eight’s intro credits featured a series of photomorphs, showing how each character looked when the show started, evolving into what they now look like, as it ends.

One of these episodes featured Leon, a character played by the fantastic Martin Mull, getting married. In addition to this episode (“December Bride”) being sweet, smart, and a laugh riot, we were introduced to Fred Willard as Scott, Leon’s new husband.

Willard wins Roseanne over immediately, and I doubt it took the audience much longer to warm up to him as well. The guy is a comic treasure to this day, and he fit Roseanne‘s universe perfectly. This wasn’t a hollow celebrity cameo (we’d get plenty of those in season nine); this was a new character we wanted to spend some time with, laugh with, and watch Leon grow with.

Season nine might be Roseanne‘s equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy, but it at least did give us more time with Fred Willard. That in itself can never possibly be a bad thing, and it helps that Willard still manages to be funny when the material fails him. He’s a natural entertainer, a legitimately good actor, and an anchoring presence in his handful of episodes.

If anything, he served as a great reminder that for eight seasons, and right up to the end of that eighth season, Roseanne had no trouble at all producing some of the best characters on television.

4) DJ becoming a film buff


Michael Fishman was seven years old when Roseanne debuted, which meant that his character DJ spent a good number of seasons without much to do. If I really racked my brain, though, I could probably think of at least one sitcom that gave its own young actor even less business. (And, to their comparative credit, Roseanne and Dan do often remember they have a son.)

Fishman wasn’t a bad actor, but he was young enough that it was difficult to give him many stories. As such, he was nearly always on the periphery, and a few times sat episodes out entirely.

This is all fine. I’d rather not see unnecessary characters crammed unnaturally into scenes for the sake of it, and Roseanne used the kid well enough. It’s a shame, though, that he was so young for so much of the run that he didn’t get to develop much of an arc of his own.

Until, shockingly, season nine.

Allowing DJ to reveal himself as a film buff (and blossom into a film maker) was arguably the only character choice in season nine that made sense. It not only gave Fishman more to do, but it was true to DJ’s character. We watched Becky and Darlene grow up actively, because they were at more dynamic times in their lives. Certainly one changes more between high school and college, or when entering the workforce, than one changes between grades in elementary school.

DJ’s legitimate love and knowledge of cinema, though, proves that he was developing in his own way when we (and his parents) weren’t looking.

He grew up in a house with the television always on. He consumed all kinds of programs and movies that the networks showed him. The Conners getting a VCR in an earlier season was a genuine turning point for them, and it allowed them to regularly head to the video rental store for an armload of things they’ve never seen.

DJ absorbed all of it. He developed a critical eye. He started to learn about why certain films worked and why others didn’t. He developed a taste in cinema apart from the rest of his family, just as Darlene had previously developed a love of literature and writing. It became an escape, and it shaped who he is. What’s more…that’s sort of what happened to me, as well. Too much television in the house may or may not have rotted my brain, but it certainly helped inform the way I see the world, and my desire to create. I absolutely am willing to believe the same thing happened to DJ.

Also, his love of cinema introduces him to Heather Matarazzo, playing a character also named Heather. Matarazzo is another of season nine’s few consistent bright spots, and I’m glad DJ (and we!) got to spend some time with her.

3) Darlene’s delivery


Roseanne lucked out when it cast Sara Gilbert. Lecey Goranson as Becky and Michael Fishman as DJ were perfectly fine and often quite good, but Sara Gilbert as Darlene gave us one of television’s best characters overall, and one of the most important characters to me personally. Gilbert should be, for my money, the gold standard for child actors, holding her ground right alongside Roseanne, John Goodman, and Laurie Metcalf…damned good company to be in.

There’s no way anyone could have known in season one just how deeply and remarkably Gilbert would inhabit the character, how much incredible work she’d do as Darlene over the years, or the creative freedom her strong performance would allow the writers. After all, they could trust her to work wonders with whatever they gave her. Uniformly, she did exactly that.

When Becky was recast (temporarily…sort of?) in season six, it took a while for viewers to adapt. But, hey, it worked well enough. Part of the reason for this is that Goranson — and I say this with no intention of being rude — was replaceable. She wasn’t terrible, but she certainly didn’t stand in a league of her own. Somebody else could fill those shoes.

Imagine instead if Darlene had been recast. It would have been a catastrophe. It wouldn’t have been possible.

All of this is to say that even toward the dragging end of Roseanne‘s deeply disappointing ninth season, it’s no surprise that Gilbert is still doing important work.

After the character was absent from many episodes, “A Second Chance” sees Darlene going into labor prematurely. Very prematurely. And the following episode, “The Miracle,” is about her and the rest of the family coming to terms with the very real chance that the baby will not survive.

Gilbert, for obvious reasons, is not at her caustic funniest. But she does turn in an impressive dramatic performance, as does Johnny Galecki as David, who we see become an adult over the course of the delivery, leaving his detached slacker persona behind to become a supportive, attentive husband and father.

As far as emotional episodes of Roseanne go, there have certainly been better ones. But it says a lot that when they needed one at the very end of their final run, they turned to Gilbert to deliver it.

2) Dan’s death


Technically, Dan’s death came at the end of season eight…we just didn’t know it. But since the revelation happens in season nine, and since the revelation is crucial, I’m happy to give this season credit for it.

In “The Wedding,” Dan suffered a heart attack after Darlene and David got married. If I’m correct in thinking season eight was originally meant to conclude the show, I’m confident in saying this was always intended to be fatal.

And yet…he survived. “Heart & Soul” came next, and was about Dan’s recovery. Then “Fights and Stuff” saw Dan and Roseanne sparring over his reluctance to lead a healthier lifestyle. Dan was alive, and the heart attack was just something to which other characters would refer now and then.

At the end of season nine, though, Roseanne reveals that he did indeed die that day. And, frankly, that’s how it should have been.

I love John Goodman. I love Dan. But “The Wedding” builds to Dan’s death so perfectly that it’s actually frustrating he doesn’t die in that episode.

He feels off as the wedding approaches. The makeup crew does a great job of making Goodman look more sickly as the episode progresses. He loses focus as Darlene and David exchange vows. When he tells Roseanne after the ceremony that he’s not feeling well and needs a doctor, Goodman sells the idea that this is serious. That this isn’t a cliffhanger. That something very important is happening and things are not going to be the same next week.

What’s more, Dan’s death is what gives real meaning to what he says to Darlene before she gets married.

He gives her a key to a safety deposit box that nobody else knows about. It contains money and valuables. What he tells her provides important context for what should have been his death…and it’s also far better writing than any weekly 90s sitcom deserved.

That’s your just-in-case money, Darlene. Now you’ve got a baby coming, and I just think, if you had more money laying around, you’d have more chances to change…I don’t know. Whatever it is you want to change. I just don’t want you to miss any opportunities, Darlene. Everybody thinks there’s plenty of time to do whatever they want. Believe me, there’s not.

Darlene reassures her emotional father. She tells him she isn’t going anywhere; she will still be around.

We need Dan’s death as the ironic punctuation to her promise. We need it to give his speech heft. We need it because that’s why all of this matters.

Without Dan’s death, it’s just something nice a father does for his daughter.

And that’s never, ever been enough for Roseanne before.

1) The Bev / Nana Mary episode


There’s no reason a late-game episode about Roseanne’s mother Bev (Estelle Parsons) and Bev’s mother Mary (Shelley Winters) sitting on a couch and talking to each other should have been great. The ninth season was full of experimentation that went nowhere, great premises squandered, and characters that seemed to be controlled by writers who no longer cared about nor understood them.

And yet “Mothers and Other Strangers” works. I don’t mean that in a relative sense, either. I mean it’s actually a truly great episode of Roseanne, and the only one in the entire season that feels like it belongs in another.

In the previous episode, Bev accidentally outs herself as gay. It was a fine enough revelation, but it’s this episode that keeps it from being a hollow gimmick. Bev finds herself in internal turmoil as a result of her confession, and is now forced to face it herself. And, true to life, once they start addressing one emotional issue, others come to light, and they have to face those, as well.

This leads her to take a trip to see Nana Mary, one of Roseanne‘s best recurring characters. She confronts her mother about her own childhood. About the fact that she never knew her father, let alone who her father even was. She works through a lifetime of repressed frustration and anger in the course of one extended conversation with the woman she feels ruined her life. Which is nice, because we’ve seen Roseanne and Jackie accuse Bev of doing the same thing to them…and Becky and Darlene accuse Rosanne of doing it to them.

That’s the thing with families. A decision is never just a decision. The fallout spans generations. A poorly handled conflict today changes the way a mother or a father handles their own children decades from now. And so on, and so on.

Mary raised Bev in an open and free environment; Bev raised Roseanne and Jackie in a rigid and strict one. Neither, this episode suggests, was right. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. Being a parent is hard. There’s never a right answer, and you just have to try really hard to not choose to worst one.

“Mothers and Other Strangers” represents a ladder of damaged women who blame each other for doing the things they’re also doing to their children. It’s a smart, emotional, funny episode that certainly doesn’t justify the ninth season, but at least gives us something to look forward to when we watch it.

It’s an episode that matters, and that’s something I can’t really say about any of the others.

There’s good stuff in season nine. There really is. The reason it’s held in low regard, though, is that we’ve never had to dig for good stuff in the earlier seasons…if anything, it was difficult to find the truly bad stuff.

On the whole, the season is pretty awful. Nothing it does right outweighs the thousands of things it consistently does wrong. But if you can’t resist watching season nine…at least you know you’ll have ten things to look forward to.

And one shockingly fantastic episode to boot.

The Compleat Jen Trynin

The mid-90s were a strange time for me, culture-wise. It was the first time — and probably still the only time — that I really followed “current” music. Prior to that and for the most part since, I’d kind of hop around, exploring genres, artists, and time periods as the mood dictates. Very rarely does an album come out that I feel the need to buy or listen to immediately. I’ll eventually get to it, or I won’t. Who cares? There’s so much music out there…why prioritize something just because it’s new?

From around 1993 – 1995, though, I cared. I followed. I watched MTV constantly, which feels like an embarrassing admission, but it’s worth remembering that during that time, the channel was of genuine cultural importance. That’s not say it didn’t air or perpetuate complete garbage (such as anti-vaccination game show Singled Out), but it is to say that it also did things that mattered. From the inventive animated showcase Liquid Television to the brilliant sketch comedy of The State to the slacker-generation icons we found in Beavis and Butt-Head (which itself gave eventual rise to the misfit icons of Daria). MTV was an urgent and important cultural force.

I say all of this to provide a bit of context. I had the bands and artists that I loved specifically, such as Green Day, R.E.M., Beck, Oasis, and a few others. Those were the ones whose videos I’d want to catch, whose songs would periodically keep me interested however many others came and went without making an impact. But I also just kind of absorbed other songs in the background. Ones by artists that, for whatever reason, didn’t strike me with the same immediacy. They were often fun, cute, catchy. Sometimes they were none of those things, and you’d still end up retaining them. That’s one of the amusing quirks of popular music, after all; even things we don’t like can lodge themselves permanently in our brains.

Every so often, now, as I go about my day, my brain will feed me some snatch of a long-forgotten song. A melody, or a lyric. Maybe with a particular memory tied to it, but usually not. And because I spent so much time experiencing the songs that flit by on MTV or KROQ or the mixtapes my friends passed around, it can be difficult to identify the song I’m half remembering. I have to employ some detective work. I’ll hum it for people, as best I can. I’ll describe the kind of song it is. I’ll hope against hope that whatever fleeting pop song I’ve somehow internalized will be the same one that a peer has.

A few months ago, this happened. I remembered a chorus, but little else. And while the chorus is probably the most fruitful thing to remember, Google didn’t help, because the chorus was “I’m feeling good.” Lots of songs feature that line and title, or some very minor variation, and so there were too many results, none of which were correct. That was it. I couldn’t find the song that was haunting me.

My brain tosses me a few other bones. I start to remember more about it. I remember riding around in the summer time, in the car of an older friend, asking him to turn up the song because I liked it so much. I remember catching it playing in a restaurant or a store, and being cheered up immediately. I remember singing along to it. And the rest of the chorus comes back. “I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. For now.”

And now I find it, under a name I never would have remembered. The song is not named after its chorus; it’s called “Better Than Nothing,” and the artist is Jen Trynin.

I watch the video a bunch of times. Memories come back. It was one of my feel-good songs from that era. Cynical, but upbeat. Catchy, but honest. The mid-90s come back to me in the video’s editing, in Trynin’s clothing and hairstyle, in the song itself. It’s very much of its era, but…it holds up. It’s good. I’ve been listening to it off and on ever since. While you could certainly make a list of 90s pop songs that are better, I’d argue that that list would be relatively short.

“Better Than Nothing” is great. It constituted the only four minutes I’d ever heard from Jen Trynin, but that’s fine.

The phrase “one-hit wonder” has a bit of a negative connotation in popular music, and that’s something I’ve never totally understood. Having a hit is a good thing. Having one hit puts you, mathematically, leagues above almost every other band or artist that has ever existed. The overwhelming majority of musicians never have a hit. To have one is a triumph. It should be celebrated.

Instead, “one-hit wonder” always feels like a snarky way of referring to a musician that didn’t have staying power. Maybe it’s odd to me because I don’t think there are similar sentiments toward other kinds of artists. I genuinely don’t know. Does anyone look at a great painting and dismiss the painter because he or she didn’t also paint five other popular works? Does anyone care if a director makes just one beloved film? In literature I know for a fact that it doesn’t cause readers to look down their noses. To Kill a Mocking Bird, Lord of the Flies, Catch-22 and many other massively important works all came from one-hit wonders. Who cares?

Music, though, seems different in that regard, and I’m not sure why.

So I looked Trynin up and, sure enough, “Better Than Nothing” was her commercial peak. She had two albums, some other singles, and that was largely that.

Fine.

But I found that she also had a book. Her first album, Cockamamie, featured “Better Than Nothing” and was released in 1995. In 2006, she released Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, a memoir chronicling her brief experience with music stardom. What’s more, the book got rave reviews. I started skimming them as I found more and more, because I was increasingly sold on the book and didn’t want to spoil anything for myself.

Reviewers talked about how funny it was. How charming. How insightful. What a great writer Trynin was. What a great story she had to tell.

And…man, that sure sounded like fun. A great book by someone who wrote a song I loved (and now love again) telling a story I never knew existed? Sign me up.

I bought it, but could only find a used copy. After all, it was published over a decade ago. As a collector that disappointed me (shelfwear, dog ears, sticker residue, the horror) but…well, I still didn’t know if I would like the book, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

It arrived. I read it soon afterward. I liked the book.

Hell, I loved the book. It’s no secret that I read often, but it’s relatively rare for me to read something continuously. I’ll usually read for a bit, take a break, and come back to it. As much as I love books, it’s not common that one will dig itself so deeply into me that I can’t put it down.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be did that. I expected to read a few pages and get a sense of its content and style, and ended up reading a third of it in one go. Over the course of the next day or so, I finished it. The reviews raised my expectations to an impossible level, and the book exceeded them. It was every bit as good as the reviews said.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the book grabbed me the way it did. Sure, it’s about someone I remember. It’s about a topic that interests me. It’s well written. But those things describe so many other books that I never necessarily feel compelled to keep reading, or sometimes even finish.

I think the difference is that Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is so relentlessly human. I don’t know anything about Trynin other than what I’ve read here, and surely there’s always some degree of finessing when it comes to presenting yourself to the world, but I never got the feeling that she was presenting herself as anything other than what (and who) she actually is. Account for some simplifications for the sake of readability, some omissions for the sake of focus, and some inaccuracies due to the limitations of memory and I’m confident that the book shows us the real Trynin.

And the real Trynin is so identifiably, tragically, wonderfully human. I bought the book expecting a good story about one woman’s experience with the music industry, but I ended up reading about a person. A person who isn’t perfect. A person who makes bad decisions, and not always for the right reason. A person who doesn’t know what she wants. But a person who, at heart, is good, who works hard, who cares about people long after she should cut them out of her life. She’s flawed in the ways that we’re all flawed, but she has talent, drive, empathy…I was invested in her the way I’d be invested in a really great character. I wanted to see what happened to her. I wanted to see where she ended up. And the journey is humorously and engagingly complicated by the fact that she’s not even sure she wants to be famous to begin with.

The main thread of the story kicks off when Trynin decides that after years of trying to make her mark on the Boston music scene, she’ll make one last push (and financial investment) toward stardom. If she makes it, great. If she doesn’t, the universe has made her place very clear.

…but she makes it. It’s a surprise to her, her peers, her boyfriend, her family. Her album debut Cockamamie, released through her own invented label, gains traction. There’s buzz. There’s murmuring. Seemingly overnight, there’s a bidding war involving everyone from indie publishers to major labels.

Jen Trynin is going to be a star.

Listening to Cockamamie now, I can understand the fuss. It’s not the best debut I’ve ever heard, but there’s a strong sense of self-confidence throughout, suggesting that the album doesn’t represent everything Trynin has to say. In short, it’s an assurance of potential. It’s easy to listen to and wonder what she can do next, with proper support…and that’s just the baseline feeling you get overall. Focus on the perfectly refined standouts like “Better Than Nothing, “One Year Down,” “Snow,” and “Do it Alone” and…well, why not make her a star?

The parallel thread of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, however, focuses on the kind of star they want to make her. Specifically, her marketing representation is insistent on positioning her as a “woman in rock,” as opposed to a rocker in general.

It feels understandably disparaging to her, and it’s something of a backhanded compliment to be sure. So Trynin bristles against it. At the same time, though, it’s easy to see why they’d want to market her that way: it worked. I remember very well a number of “women in rock” that were sold (to varying degrees of success) with that very label. The time period was rife with them. Heather Nova, Lisa Loeb, Juliana Hatfield, Sheryl Crow, Mazzy Star, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, and countless others. Not the least of which is the musician whose rise kicks off quietly in the background of Trynin’s tale: Alanis Morissette.

Morisette leaned into that kind of marketing, and saw incredible success as a result. Trynin fights it, pulls away, rejects it…and finds her career crippled.

I’ll step in here to make clear that Trynin doesn’t assign blame. There are a few specific moments during which she admits she herself made the wrong decision (“Better Than Nothing” should have been called “I’m Feeling Good,” as its title makes it difficult for DJs and fans to know what the hell it is), but she never points her finger at anybody else, or at any circumstance, or at any quirk of poor timing, and say, “That’s it. That’s the reason I’m not famous.” She just tells her story. It’s up to you, if you’d like to find a villain. Trynin’s motive clearly isn’t to make anybody feel bad…it’s to share a personal story that, briefly, became a public one.

The “women in rock” thing resonated with me, I think, because it feels so cosmically cruel. Trynin does the right thing, artistically speaking, by not letting herself be defined primarily by her gender. But in addition to struggling against her own representation in this regard, she also overcorrects for the perceived issue: she refuses to let women open for her on tour, so that there’s no chance her concerts can be seen as a kind of “chick night.”

This kicks off its own scandal, which Trynin then tries to manage herself, arguably digging the hole deeper. One interviewer wonders why she sees something like this as a problem. She responds by asking if he’d be okay with a “Jew night.” The spirit of this response is something we all understand and would probably agree with, but it’s also obvious why it doesn’t go over so well. Trynin doesn’t say this because she’s anti-Semitic. (In fact, it’s probably worth noting that she’s Jewish.) She says it because she’s a human being, trying to articulate something she has trouble putting into words, and stumbling into things she shouldn’t say.

Much of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be plays as a sort of cringe comedy, during which you hope against hope that Trynin will manage to stop herself from babbling a sentence too much, such as when she makes a misjudged joke about shooting heroin to one of her representatives, who suddenly becomes genuinely concerned for her.

As a result of her misguided attempt to convince the industry to focus on her music rather than her gender, her concerts end up protested. Interview questions shift from being about the bidding war, her sudden rise, and whether she prefers Jen or Jennifer, to what her problem is with other female rockers. One DJ, on air, openly tries to instigate a feud between her and Morissette. (Trynin defuses this masterfully, which registered to me as a significant triumph after the many David Brent-ian interactions that preceded it.)

But the heart of the story is just who Trynin is. There are major, identifiable touchpoints in her career, but it always comes back to our author, our narrator, our protagonist, our tragic hero. There’s a scene in which she and her band catch an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head while on the road…and find the duo mocking their music video for “Happier.”

Trynin is overcome with fear that they’ll make fun of her. Call her ugly. Say some kind of deeply cruel thing about her that she’ll have to carry with her and be internally haunted by forever. She’s relieved when they don’t (they seem to focus more on the silliness of the extreme closeups in the video), but that says so much about who she is, and about where she was in her life.

Worrying when you find out (however you find out) that these two doofuses got their hands on your music video is understandable. If they say you “suck” instead of “rock,” that could absolutely have an effect on your career and on public sentiment. But she isn’t watching the episode as the rock star she temporarily is…she’s watching it as a human being who doesn’t want to hear people say mean things about her.

A single. A video on MTV. A spotlight on one of that generation’s most popular shows. These are breaks many people would have killed for. But she’s human. She’s talented, and she’s good at what she does…but she’s a person. With a heart, and with feelings she can’t let go of. It’s the most personal and moving sequence involving Beavis and Butt-Head I’ve ever read.

The book is full of these great, unexpectedly heartbreaking moments. She insists on buying an expensive dinner for everybody in her entourage out of some unplaceable sense of guilt, including her wealthy lawyer who intended to pay for everyone himself. She fights for her band to reap the financial rewards of her contract, despite the fact that this band didn’t play a single note on her album and only formed out of touring necessity. She’s confronted by other musicians who either never made it or made it briefly and failed, each of whom assure her that she’s going to come tumbling down…and you want to hug her, tell her she can do it, tell her that they’re just cynical, jealous assholes…but we already know they’re right. We already know how the book ends. They are cynical, jealous assholes, but they aren’t wrong.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is such a good read, and it surprised me with just how…wholesome it was. The sex and drugs and chicanery you might expect from a story about a rapid ascent to rock stardom rear their heads only as small, adorable equivalents. Trynin kisses a man who isn’t her boyfriend, unthinkingly takes NyQuil before a radio appearance, and keeps the television low in her hotel room so that nobody will know she’s in.

It’s so…human.

What’s more, I never got the sense from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be that anyone in the music industry was out to screw her. Everybody we meet seems to have her ultimate best interests in mind. They treat her well. They try to help her. Even as it becomes clear that she’s not going to be the wondergirl they hoped she would, they remain helpful and accommodating and friendly.

Toward the end of the book, Trynin puts together Gun Shy Trigger Happy, her followup to Cockamamie.

It makes good on every ounce of potential anyone saw in her to begin with. I’ve listened to this album too many times to count now, and I’m convinced it’s a minor masterpiece. I like a lot of things about Cockamamie, and I think a number of the songs — “Better Than Nothing” chief among them — are fantastic.

But Gun Shy Trigger Happy is superior in every way. It’s smarter. It’s better. It’s stronger. It’s more varied. It’s more mature. It’s more impressive. It’s really, truly great on its own merits.

It also sinks without a trace. Trynin’s rock and roll fairy tale, as she calls it, is over. Her record company renames one song and releases it as a single. There’s no music video. There’s not even any art on the copy that gets sent to radio stations. The album gets very positive reviews but the record company goes through the promotional motions, and no further. The album that should matter is treated like it doesn’t. Reading about this, I felt disappointed on her behalf.

There’s a truly sad moment toward the end of the book when she and her band play an abbreviated set as part of a long bill of acts. The set goes great. The crowd loves her. They cry out for another song, and Trynin starts to give them one. But her microphone is cut. The lights are cut. Her time on stage is over. And that’s that. It doesn’t matter what would have come next. It’s finished.

Some fragment of memory, a half-forgotten song, sent me on this little journey. There was a song I used to like. A song that used to help me. A song that made me feel happy.

It was nice to find it again. But I had no idea what happened behind it. Why would I have? I had no idea what else was on the album. Why would I have? I had no idea about Jen Trynin or her gift as an author or her incredible, overlooked followup. Why would I have?

Now I know. And I’m glad I do. Because there’s a story there. A person there. A moral there, whatever we’d like to take from it. (Trynin leaves us more than enough room to take whatever we please.)

And, selfish reader that I have always been, I found what is probably my favorite (and certainly the most gripping) work of non-fiction. That’s a happy enough ending for me.

But because I liked the book so much, I actually started to feel bad that I was only able to buy it used. That meant that the author didn’t see a penny from me. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me much. But Trynin had taken me on a journey, one I really enjoyed. One that led me to music I never would have listened to otherwise. One that…mattered to me.

I reached out to her. I let her know how much I enjoyed the book. I let her know that I ended up with a used copy, and if there were some way to support her (such as by purchasing an autographed copy; I told you I’m selfish) as a way of saying thanks, I’d love to do that.

She wrote me back. I won’t share her message here, but I will say that the image I’d built of Trynin — from her music and primarily from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be — was accurate. She didn’t have to write me back at all. The fact that she did meant a lot. The fact that she was every bit the sweet, understanding, deeply human person I expected her to be meant so much more.

She thanked me for my message. She told me not to worry about paying for an autograph; she’d send me a new autographed copy just for the hell of it. Evidently, the book didn’t sell as well as anyone expected it to, despite the wealth of hype and positive reviews.

History repeats. However much talent she demonstrates, in whatever sphere, however positively the critics respond…well, there’s always next time.

It was a thematically appropriate fate for the book, but a sad one as well. It really did deserve better. It still does. So does her music. But…I don’t know. I guess we all have our place in the universe. I used to think I’d be a famous author one day. Of course, I might still be, but, more likely, I’ve found my place.

I have a job writing, and it’s a job I love. I work with people I love. I come home and I have a platform. An audience. I have a place to say anything I’d like to say.

That’s not what success used to look like to me. Whatever image I had in mind, it was probably a lot like Trynin’s. And you get closer for a while. Closer, and closer, and closer. And then no closer. You’ve found your place. Your audience may not be as big as you thought it would be, or as others expected it to be, but you have one. And that’s more than most people can say. It’s…y’know. Better than nothing.

Trynin also added me to her mailing list, and I’ll be notified whenever she’s playing with CUJO, her current band. Hopefully she’ll come out this way. I’d really like to see her live. Maybe I’ll get the chance to say hello, and maybe I won’t. But how often do you get the chance to see a great author rock out?

No moral here. No ultimate point. Just a little journey spanning decades that reminds me there’s always more to that four-minute song you love. I don’t know how many of those stories are worth knowing, but I’m glad I got the chance to hear hers.

Review: Red Dwarf XII Episode 1: “Cured”

Post-revival Red Dwarf has been pretty uneven. I think it’s safe to say that. Fans may not agree on the particular high points and low points, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone say that Dave-era Red Dwarf is unilaterally good. We can disagree about where it stumbles, but at the same time we can all agree that it does stumble.

I had no idea what to expect from series XII. And, well, one episode in, I still don’t. I feel a mix of optimism and trepidation. Optimism because series XI was, I felt, the strongest the show has been since series VI. And trepidation because…well, series X and “Back to Earth.”

The show could go either way at this point, but that arguably represents progress. From series VII through X, the show felt pretty stuck. Which is an odd thing to say, I admit, as every one of the series in that group feels completely different from the others. When I say “stuck,” though, I mean stuck in terms of quality. The show had trouble shifting out of low gear, no matter what the vehicle itself might have looked like, or who was in it.

It probably sounds like I’m being dismissive of Doug Naylor’s solo work on Red Dwarf. And I am, but not because Rob Grant left after series VI or because I don’t think Naylor is capable. I just feel that it took him a very long time to find his footing after Grant’s departure. That doesn’t mean he’s lazy, untalented, or any number of other clearly false accusations I could throw at him. It just means the machine worked a lot better when there were two people manning the controls.

Red Dwarf was still alive, which could be seen as a good thing. But the lows were much lower and the highs nowhere near as high or frequent as they had been. That’s a pretty heavy counterweight.

But then we had series XI. Specifically, we had “Twentica,” the first episode of that batch.

And it felt right. It felt like Red Dwarf. It felt like the past few series hadn’t happened at all. And it wasn’t just good…it felt effortless.

It made me laugh, it made great use of a solid concept, and it told its story in a really fun and unexpected way. It was the best episode I’d seen since the original run, and it proved that Naylor’s solo version of Red Dwarf really could recapture the magic of the show at its best.

The rest of the series, I’d argue, proved that that episode wasn’t a fluke. I didn’t love all of series XI, but I sure as hell appreciated it. Even the weaker episodes (“Samsara,” “Officer Rimmer”) had a lot to recommend them, and the strongest (“Twentica,” “Krysis”) absolutely deserve their placements pretty near the all-time best. In other words, when series XI misfired, it still worked. And when it was good…well, it made VII through X feel even stranger.

So we’ve proven it. Naylor crafted for us his first sustained run of episodes worthy of the Red Dwarf name. And, of course, we turn to XII to see if that can last.

I don’t think “Cured” answers the question, but I do think I’m being a bit harsh on it simply because the previous series was so good. “Cured” feels, at times, an awful lot like classic Red Dwarf. But series XI already proved that Naylor could do classic Red Dwarf. That’s no longer the pleasant surprise that it was…it’s the expected baseline. And I don’t really think “Cured” rises above it.

The central concept, it has to be said, is great, and feels absolutely ripped from the classic years. If I was told this was an idea from the show’s heyday that they never got around to making, I’d believe it. The crew finds a research station that has developed a cure for evil. Proof of the cure’s success struts around in the forms of harmless versions of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Messalina, and Vlad the Impaler.

It’s a classic-feeling idea, and it mainly brings to mind the waxdroids of “Meltdown.” (Even moreso when it’s revealed that these figures are indeed robots.) There are a lot of possibilities for this to play out, but the important thing is to explore the idea in interesting ways and have some fun with it.

“Cured” does that. But it still feels rather…empty.

I think part of that feeling comes from the fact that the show’s two strongest characters — Rimmer and Kryten — don’t get much to do. The Cat and Messalina have a dynamic, Lister and Hitler have a dynamic…and the other two just disappear for a while. Even when they are on camera, they just sort of take up space. The opening scene — in which The Cat develops his poker face — has a few token lines from Rimmer and Kryten, but otherwise they just wait quietly while Lister and The Cat have their fun.

It’s a little weird. We’ve had plenty of scenes in which two characters play off of each other alone. (Such as Lister and Kryten at the beginning of “Camille,” or Lister and The Cat stuck together in “Samsara.”) But we don’t usually have other characters present, doing nothing, and it feels a bit off. Scenes like this would have been a perfect opportunity to give Rimmer and Kryten some business if they weren’t much involved with the main plot, but it didn’t happen. Couldn’t Rimmer have taught The Cat about a poker face instead?

To be frank, though, I liked the scene. I liked it a lot, and I thought it was genuinely funny. Danny John-Jules has been a consistent highpoint of Naylor episodes, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. I just wonder why Rimmer and Kryten got so clearly sidelined.

I will, of course, contradict myself right now, because I liked the fact that Rimmer was sidelined toward the end. As Kryten is reading the results of the psychopathy test, I can’t have been the only one who expected the psycho to be Rimmer. That’s the way jokes like this have been structured in the past (“Justice” being perhaps the most obvious example), and those jokes work. Rimmer is a deeply flawed human being, and earlier in this episode he both suggests leaving five people behind to die and carps about potentially having a wheelchair-bound scientist aboard Red Dwarf. All signs point to Rimmer.

And yet it’s The Cat. Which is the more surprising outcome, and yet totally believable. It’s funnier. It’s smarter. And it sets up a great conclusion in which The Cat is the hero of the day. Not, of course, because he behaves in any heroic manner at all, which makes it even better.

I liked so much about “Cured.” I liked far more than I disliked. The guest actors were all very good, with probably the most adorable Hitler we’ll ever see in any form of media. There were good laughs sprinkled throughout, even if I didn’t see the extended guitar duet as the highlight the episode clearly thought it was.

My main problem with it, though, is the reveal that the scientist himself is a villain. So many great episodes of Red Dwarf explore a concept — and/or introduce danger — without there being a clear villain. “Meltdown,” again, is a good example; there are warring factions, but the episode doesn’t give us a big bad, and so allows Rimmer to become one. Or “Legion,” in which the title character is in no way a bad guy, and yet must be overcome in order for the crew to escape. Or “Better Than Life.” Would that episode have improved if Rimmer had a rival other than himself?

Episodes with distinct bad guys can work fine. (“The Last Day,” “Quarantine,” “Out of Time”) But “Cured” didn’t feel like an episode that needed one. It had a strong enough central concept that some kind of episode-ending decision (as opposed to defeating a bad guy) could been spun out of it. In fact, we toy with one such decision: do we leave them behind to die or take them with us?

As written, the “right” answer is clearly the latter, but with some tweaking, it could have posed an interesting ethical dilemma. Maybe Starbug with its busted thruster can’t hold the weight of five more people. It can only hold three more, say. Evil’s been cured, so these folks won’t fight and argue and backstab to get the spot. What do they do instead to curry favor? It would be interesting to find out.

Instead, though, the point is abruptly rendered moot. The historical figures are only robots, and the only actual living human is a bad guy.

That’s not interesting. It gives The Cat a great moment, but it deflates so much of the episode’s potential.

I liked “Cured.” I have a feeling that watching it again will make me laugh instead of think, though, and that’s a shame, because there’s a really strong concept here. And while the episode by no means fails, I think it does shirk the opportunity to explore it the way the best episodes have done.

Red Dwarf is back. It feels like itself again. It’s justifying its existence.

Now I’m just waiting to see if it can — or wishes to — do a little more.

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