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.

Misspeak, Memory

Have you ever had a memory that was later proven to be so far from reality that you begin to question the way your mind works?

I’m sure it’s happened to me other times, but the most recent example comes courtesy of Roseanne. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s talk about the show as a whole.

The entire series is currently available for streaming through Amazon Prime, but sadly those are syndication cuts. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the complete series boxset is available for under $30 new, and I’ve heard those are the original broadcast edits.

Anyway, I’m working my way back through the series on Prime. I remember really liking the show when I was young. It debuted when I was seven, and revisiting the episodes for the first time in my adult life, I can definitely confirm that my family started watching from the very beginning. I even remembered a lot of lines and moments from the pilot. Maybe my mother or father was already a fan of Roseanne’s standup or something. For whatever reason, we were able to catch a truly great show from the start. I’m grateful for that.

Years ago, before I started reviewing ALF on this site and shaved eleven years off my life, someone suggested I review Roseanne. Watching the show again (I’m about two seasons deep), I’m glad I didn’t. It’s very good television. The characterization is sharp, with characters arriving fully formed and every actor perfectly cast. The stories are well chosen and well told. Comedy and drama are balanced perfectly, with the show nearly always leaning toward the former, but keeping the latter at a steady hum that reveals genuine sadness whenever you look past the jokes.

Which, really, would have left me with very little to say as a critic. I’m sure there are at least a few dud episodes scattered throughout the run (and from what I hear it concludes with a complete dud season), but, on the whole, my reviews would have struggled to find interesting ways to repeat “here’s why this works so well” over and over again. By contrast, I never struggled to repeatedly make fun of Max Wright’s crack-fueled hobo sex festivals at all!

It’s almost puzzling to me that I liked Roseanne when I was so young. Why did I not think it was boring? At that age I liked cartoons, and puppets, and things that screamed for my attention. Why was I interested in a show that did episodes about who would cook dinner? Or getting ready for a rummage sale? Or bickering over money?

Well, frankly…I think the credit goes to Darlene. Sara Gilbert’s character was…different. I’m sure I’d seen plenty of adult characters in the same vein, but never a child. Another child. One who was so clearly detached from the family and the town around her. One who struggled to make friends, or to find value in the things that others seemed to take pleasure in. One that thought so differently about the world she occupied that she couldn’t connect with others…not genuinely…and had to default to being an isolate.

That resonated with me. It resonates with me now. In many ways, it’s also why I felt drawn to Lisa Simpson as a character. Between Lisa and Darlene, I understood to some degree that I wasn’t alone. These characters were fictional, but they were reflecting real experiences for me. Behind them, there were writers. Writers who understood the things I felt. Writers who had words for what I couldn’t say. Writers who provided a quiet promise that you’ll grow up one day…and when you do, you can find the place that you fit.

Through Darlene and Lisa I was able to learn about art. About expression. About depression. About channeling my emotions. These were shows — and characters — that helped me not just to grow, but to become a healthier person who understood himself just a little bit better. A little was enough.

I’m not trying to say I wouldn’t have learned about those things eventually…but rather that I hadn’t before. And the friends I could eventually count on to guide me through difficult times…weren’t in my life yet. Television, films, movies, music, books…all of these things gave me a chance to understand myself that much earlier. And if I continue to take them all a bit too seriously now, it’s only because I know how seriously they helped me back then.

And so I look back on Roseanne and The Simpsons as two shows that were far smarter than anybody at the time was giving them credit for being. They spoke truths. I may not have understood most of them, but I recognized them as truths at least. The only real different between them was that I’d revisited The Simpsons many times throughout my life, and found a bit more in those incredible first eight seasons each time.

Roseanne, though, was just a memory. A positive one, for sure. When someone suggested I review Roseanne, it was listed among a bunch of other shows that were clearly (or very likely) crap. And I remember thinking, “Wait…wasn’t Roseanne good?” I’d forgotten so much about the show, but retained what my brain must have thought was the most important thing: it was quality television.

There were a few episodes that I remembered quite well, though. There was the one where they smoke pot in the bathroom. The one where Roseanne and her sister Jackie visit their childhood home and reflect on the abuse they suffered. The one where Darlene reads her “to whom it may concern” poem.

And my favorite one…the one I remembered so well, so vividly, so strongly above anything else: the one where the door-to-door salesman dies in their kitchen.

At least…I thought I remembered it.

See, I remembered Roseanne being good. Sharp, insightful, daring. Well written. Flawlessly acted. Sadly relatable. Watching it again, I can say that I was right; I stand by all of those impressions. Probably even more strongly now. But the one episode I would have pointed to in order to illustrate my claim was the salesman one…and my memory of the episode couldn’t have been further away from what it actually was.

Here’s what I thought I remembered: an old man shows up at Roseanne’s door to sell her something. He starts to feel sick and asks for a glass of water, so she invites him inside. He passes away suddenly in her kitchen. They cover him with a sheet and wait for the coroner, with the family dealing — each in their own way — with death, now that it’s confronted them in their home. During all of this, people stop by the house to see the laundry set Roseanne is selling, which complicates things a bit further. There’s a physical comedy setpiece when the dead man’s hand slips off of the table and slaps Dan in the butt.

That’s a lot, right? And…well, all of it’s accurate. I really did remember it well. The episode stuck with me as a child, and I know it’s come up in conversation with friends before. I’d tell them about it…about how much it felt like nothing else I had ever seen in a sitcom. Those shows handled death — sometimes frivolously, sometimes seriously — but rarely did they seem intelligent in their handling. This episode of Roseanne, however, did. It felt like it said something larger…or at least explored a larger space.

In school I gravitated toward English and creative writing courses. In college I majored in English Literature. And ever since I was a child, I spent most of my leisure time reading and writing. This probably caused me to remember one thing about the episode more than any other: the way the individual characters confronted death, and how they processed it. That said a lot about who they were. It was true to what we already knew about them, and it revealed even more. It was good writing. And as I was becoming a writer, it was right for me to internalize what I’d learned from the episode.

Morbid Darlene responds with curiosity, sneaking into the kitchen to investigate the body after she’s told to keep away. Dan is creeped out by it and refuses to touch it, even when a police officer asks for help. Oldest daughter Becky insists that they give him a name, so that he isn’t just some anonymous, forgotten nobody. Little DJ doesn’t understand what’s happening, and makes his family a set of toe tags as a gift. Roseanne…well, I didn’t much remember how she reacted, but now I can report that she’s essentially a blank slate; she’s our audience surrogate in this situation, observing and absorbing rather than projecting.

Again, I remembered all of this with varying degrees of clarity.

The reaction I remembered most vividly, though, was that of Jackie. Rewatching the show, I see now just how incredible Laurie Metcalf is in that role overall. Jackie is a great character. Troubled, helpless, aimless, filling the void inside of her with booze and men. She keeps it together externally, but there’s always the sense of something much sadder within, and sometimes the mask even slips, allowing us to see it directly.

It’s really great stuff, and it’s no wonder Metcalf won three Emmys for the role. She’s fantastic.

It’s also her reaction to the salesman’s death that I remembered most.

She sees it as a blessing for him. If she feels any emotion, it’s jealousy.

An old man died in the home of a family he didn’t know…and Jackie would trade places with him in a heartbeat.

What a tremendously sad moment of characterization.

She even opens up to her sister about it. She makes clear in a calm, measured way that death is preferable to anything she has in life.

“He’s probably doing better than any of us,” she says. “That’s the cosmic joke, Roseanne.”

That phrase has stuck with me ever since. “The cosmic joke.” I’ve thought about it a lot. The cosmic joke that none of us are ever in a position to laugh at. The one at our perpetual expense. From other sitcoms, I might remember specific gags. From this one, I remembered a muttered, bitter sadness.

Jackie goes on:

“He’s the happiest man on the planet. His troubles are over. He’ll never again have to stand in a line. He’ll never again have to listen to the muzak version of ‘Muskrat Love.’ He’ll never again have to eat a hamburger and bite into one of those little hard things.”

She trails off. This litany of mundane inconveniences sounding…well, real. Not like the work of writers, but rather like the realistic despair of a depressive mind. Most writers would — understandably — fill a speech like this with larger, more impactful examples. “He won’t have to watch his loved ones die. He won’t have to suffer and waste away. He won’t ever again watch the latest horrors on the news and wonder how the world could get so bad.”

Those are things a writer might come up with. Instead, Jackie is human. She focuses on the small things that add up enough to weight you down. She reveals her life as so empty that even the bad things are hollow. She discussed personal and universal tragedy on the same level, because she’s trying desperately to use one to understand the other. You know…like humans do.

Maybe it’s just because she mentioned hamburgers, but I’m reminded of another formative, insightful moment in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy after the planet Earth is destroyed. Lone survivor Arthur Dent doesn’t (can’t) quite understand the magnitude of such a loss. He can’t process the destruction of his home planet — of his entire species and its history — and, so, he doesn’t. It’s something that happened, but not something he can feel. Until it occurs to him that there’s no more McDonald’s…and then he breaks down.

Some things are just too large for us. Too big to be understood. But we can all boil them down to the small, bathetic little components of our lives, which is where we find room to identify.

And we move on from there. We learn. We grow. Not from grand lessons, but from small flickers of understanding that grow steadily into flame. We don’t decide to change. We are changed by things too small to see.

Pretty great episode, right?

Well, I rewatched it, and it turns out that I misremembered the entire thing. I had the details right…but not the episode’s actual approach.

It’s not played for drama. In fact, it’s the most deliberately silly episode Roseanne had yet done in its run. It’s full of corny jokes and big guffaws from the audience. It’s played as a comic event in the reality of the show, rather than a tragic one. The closest thing to actual sadness we find comes from Becky — whose insistence on naming the man is sincere — and, tellingly, the episode shuffles her away from nearly all of the action, so that it can concentrate on the laughs without cheapening her difficult feelings. They exist…they just exist off camera.

Even Jackie’s speech, which I typed above, feels to me like it should exist in a relatively dramatic episode, but the audience laughs through the entire thing. Every one of her sentences is funnier than the last. What I remembered as being an impressively profound moment for a primetime sitcom was…actually just another moment from a primetime sitcom. It was a series of jokes delivered by Jackie, building toward the bigger punchline from Roseanne: “How do you feel about electric shock therapy?”

And that’s…all it is.

I know that’s all it is, upon rewatching it, because I can gauge it against other episodes that prove Roseanne knows how to get the audience to take it seriously. Such as when Roseanne worries about Jackie’s safety when the latter decides to become a cop. Or when Darlene visits her cool aunt at home, to find her in a lonely, drunken stupor. Or when Dan ruins a night out by letting himself get drawn into a confrontation in a bar.

Roseanne does serious moments. And the moment I remembered as its most serious — the episode I remembered as its most serious — wasn’t serious at all. I remembered it as being Roseanne‘s version of “Death of a Salesman.” It was actually its version of “The Kipper and the Corpse.”

See, my site’s tagline isn’t really an exaggeration. I really have been reading too deeply into these things as long as I’ve been alive. And while I do think there’s value in viewing an episode like this through a more somber lens, if only to see which of its ideas holds true beyond their value as laughlines, the fact is that I remember this episode — “Death and Stuff,” season one, episode 21 — as essentially being of an entirely different genre.

It was interesting to me to watch it again, and see that I remembered just about every one of the trees, and yet somehow forgot the forest.

Have you had an experience like this? Has there ever been an episode or film or song or anything else that you remember being meaningful in some way, that you later discover was completely a projection from your own mind, and had little or nothing to do with what was actually presented?

I’d be curious to hear about more experiences like this.

And no, don’t anybody bring up the Berenstain / Berenstein Bears thing. Because that’s just fucking stupid.

Vintage Sesame Place swag and memories

This is a story I meant to share a while back, but I didn’t have the time to actually write it up. Now, with the big kerfuffle between Steve Whitmire and seemingly everyone else Steve Whitmire has ever met, it seems like a good time to actually post it. Hopefully this reminds folks that while the people operating the Muppets may be flawed and sometimes shitty human beings, what the characters teach us still makes a difference.

A few weekends ago, I spent some time at Denver Comic Con. I enjoy conventions for one major reason: vendors.

I’ve had conversations about this. About the fact that I’m paying admission just to go buy things…and about the fact that anything I’ll find there will be available — in some way — online anyway. And, really, I can’t argue with that. But I keep going, every year. Sometimes I’ll hit other conventions as well. I think part of the appeal for me is the feeling that comes with being part of an event, but there’s also the more logistical appeal: seeing the vendors in person, with their inventories spread out before them, allows me to browse.

Sure, whatever books or DVDs or figurines I pick up at Comic Con are exactly what I could find online later. But would I find them online? As much as I love Amazon (and I do love Amazon), I still like spending hour after hour in physical book stores. That’s because Amazon is a great service when I know what book I want, but bookstores are great for browsing…for when I have some approximate concept of what I’ll enjoy, but am otherwise open to new titles, new authors, new experiences I can’t even imagine yet.

Comic Con, to me, offers a vast array of great experiences I might never find it I didn’t have the chance to browse. And every year I come home with a bag of stuff I didn’t know existed. Rarely am I disappointed with my haul; not everything I find there will change my life, of course, but I always feel at least a little more enriched for having read, seen, or listened to whatever it is I discovered.

This year I did my normal thing of walking around the various booths, seeing what was on offer before I spent any money. You can count on seeing largely the same kinds of products from year to year, but sometimes there’s a surprise. And fairly quickly I found my first and favorite surprise of the year.

What caught my eye was a big banner with the Sesame Place logo on it. One guy sat behind the table, and there were stacks of books in front of him. Just seeing that banner brought back a lot of memories I don’t often think about. They’re from my childhood, so they get excluded along with much of what I actively try to forget.

For those of you who don’t know, Sesame Place is a Sesame Street theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I’ll always remember the name of that town, because I grew up in Southern New Jersey and remember seeing the commercials constantly. Here’s one I remember quite well. It was my first experience of the song “Short People,” by the way, and if you watch this video maybe you’ll understand just a bit of my shock the first time I heard the actual song on the radio.

Langhorne, Pennsylvania seemed like a special place. Had Sesame Place existed in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, the town name wouldn’t have registered the same way. We knew those cities already. They were just places on a map that contained things. But Langhorne wasn’t a name I ever heard in any other context. Langhorne was Sesame Place. And that was magical.

At some point, I got to go. I’d guess I was around 10 years old. I could have been 8. It was me, my brother, and my mother. We were joined by our neighbor and her two kids, Jennifer and Brian. According to Google Maps, Langhorne was a drive of an hour and a half from where I grew up. As kids it felt like much longer, or maybe that was the anticipation magnifying everything. I remember playing a game in the car that I don’t think I played at any other point in my life. We’d take turns using our fingertips to “draw” on somebody else’s back, and they’d have to guess what we drew. These were definitely the days before I had a Game Boy.

By this time, I’d been to Disney World, which is unquestionably the larger and more significant family theme park. But…I didn’t love Disney. I had nothing against it, and of course I could recognize Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck easily enough, but I wasn’t actually a fan of any of their films. To be honest, I’m still not. It wasn’t until the Disney Afternoon introduced me to Duck Tales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers that I became an active fan of anything Disney. The Muppets, on the other hand…I loved those guys. And I was excited about the trip.

So, of course, I went over to the table and talked to the man selling books. He introduced himself as Guy Hutchinson, one of the authors of Images of Modern America: Sesame Place.

If you’ve traveled around America, you’ve probably seen books with this identical cover design everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever picked one up prior to this, let alone purchased one, but they’re out there. Visit a decent-sized town or city and there will be some equivalent of this book with photos of old railroad bridges, buildings that are no longer there, significant construction projects…you get the picture.

I always figured they were more souvenir than anything. You’d pick one up as a memento, the same way you would a refrigerator magnet. I didn’t really care. Then again, I didn’t really care about railroad bridges or construction projects in general. The Muppets, on the other hand…

Guy — who shares his name with a Sesame Street Muppet — started to tell me about Sesame Place. Not specific facts or trivia about the park, but rather a very basic introduction to the fact that it exists. He likely wasn’t expecting many people in Denver to know about it. He’d have to start with Sesame Steet‘s familiarity and move on from there.

But I told him that I knew about it, and that I’d been there. He was clearly enthusiastic, and I wasn’t trying to deflate him as much as I was trying to let him know that he could skip the introduction and get right to the really exciting stuff.

And he showed me his book. Which was, I admit, really exciting.

Again, I haven’t picked up other books in this series, but this seems to support my assumptions about them. There’s very little straight writing…in keeping with the Images of Modern America theme, they’re almost entirely visual, with very informative cutlines.

To be frank, I think I could have read and loved a 500 page book about the history of Sesame Place whether or not it contained photos at all…but I understand that I’m mentally ill and other people might prefer pictures of the rides.

I immediately knew I’d buy the book, but we talked for a while longer. He talked about how cooperative everybody was at the park, how they provided photos and information for him, how they described attractions that were planned but never made it to the public.

This book might be a souvenir, but it was also a fascinating one…and just talking about it transported me back to that trip I took as a child…one of which no photos exist. But the book — broken down into eras in the park’s history — provides the next best thing to me.

One of the things the park provided to Guy was master artwork of Buford T. Higgenbottom, a Muppet who was created specifically to serve as the park’s mascot. Guy used this to have stickers made — among other things — and he very kindly gave me one.

That might not sound too interesting on its own, but while Buford has a page on the Muppet Wiki, there’s no image of him there. And a Google image search turns up completely dry as well. The park was really his only hope for getting that art, as it doesn’t seem to exist in any quality anywhere on the internet.

Of course, now Noiseless Chatter will show up in a search for it, which WAS MY PLAN ALL ALONG.

I told him about my few memories of the park. About a clear little rubber ball with Big Bird and the Sesame Place logo inside that I had for many years and finally lost. And mainly about one particular attraction, which I’ve always wondered about.

Remember, I was a kid, so my memory is not reliable. But I recall some kind of attraction in which you had to cross a long, narrow platform, suspended a terrifying height in the air. I remember there was water below, and I think more was falling down like a fountain. I remember the platforms being yellow and, for some reason, I remember it being themed after Count Von Count. In my mind, it was a very dangerous activity and I was afraid I’d fall and die. That’s not the work of excited imagination, mind you…that’s the work of actual fear. I was scared while navigating that attraction and still retain an image of what it looks like in my memory.

He wasn’t sure what attraction I was remembering, but he did tell me about a Count-themed Halloween show that evidently was scary enough to earn the park some complaints.

I told him I’d buy a copy of the book, and he smiled and said, “I’ve got some swag to share with you, too.”

One bit of that swag was another, more general, Sesame Place sticker:

Then he gave me some really cool things.

Evidently when the park launched, there was — for lack of a better term — an arcade. There may still be one, I don’t know, but it was less of a traditional arcade than it was a computing area, where kids could learn and work at computer stations. Something like that would be much less of a novelty today than it was in the late 80s, but it was apparently pretty cutting edge at the time.

Guy gave me four tokens from that computing area. While doing his research, the park revealed that they had buckets of them collecting dust. That was a lucky find for him, and then again for me.

Those are really great. They’re all the same design; I just flipped two of them over to show off both sides. But even better were these season pass badges:

These are two different designs: Big Bird and Super Grover. They are slightly different sizes and colors in addition to the different character, so I don’t know if one entitled the wearer to more perks than the other, or if you just got to choose which one you liked best when you bought a season pass. I don’t know if Sesame Place even has season passes anymore, but if they do I’m sure they’re just little cards you keep in your wallet.

But…man. These things are incredible. They’re beautiful. I love these.

When he gave me these, I laughed. Grover was my favorite character as a kid, and I loved his Super Grover persona. In fact, when I was little I had a Grover doll that was almost as big as I was. Here’s a photo of that and proof that I used to have hair:

Guy told me that Grover was the one everybody liked, and nobody involved with the park or the show seemed to realize it. I’d believe him. He said that the park wanted the badges to feature Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, as they were assumed to be the two most popular characters. But somebody had the idea to actually ask people which character they liked best…and we ended up with Grover.

I didn’t want to eat up Guy’s entire morning, but I thanked him for his kindness, and for some really incredible vintage goodies I never would have expected to have in my entire life. It was like getting a chance to visit the park again in 1986 or whenever I went and having the foresight to keep all these little things you never would have thought would matter to you. It actually meant a lot to me, and I told him he made my day.

He signed my book before I left, and drew Cookie Monster. Why Cookie Monster? Because, according to Guy, he’s the only character you can draw without worrying about his pupils. If you draw Big Bird or Bert or Elmo or somebody and their pupils are slightly off, they look wrong. But with Cookie Monster, who has crazed eyes that wander constantly and asynchronously whenever the puppeteer moves, you can put the pupils anywhere and they’ll look right.

I felt really lucky to meet Guy that day. Not only was he a friendly and interesting person, but he clearly loved the work he had done. And he relished the chance to share it with someone who could appreciate it. I hope he met a lot of those someones over the course of the weekend.

What I do know is that he reminded me of a positive childhood memory, and gave me vintage trinkets that, miraculously, survived the decades that passed since the park was founded.

I hope he enjoyed speaking with me as well…if only because I could then feel like I repaid the favor somewhat.

I have a friend who is pretty busted up about the whole Steve Whitmire thing. About the negativity that’s been passed around among people he admires. About the ugly underside to what are supposed to be comforting and reassuring productions. About the fact that it’s impossible to know who’s in the wrong…Steve Whitmire, or everybody else who’s ever lived?

But meeting Guy…interacting with him…listening to him talk and watching him get excited about an amusement park…this is what the Muppets are all about. Someone who grew up loving them so much he wrote a book about them, and someone else who grew up loving them buying that book. The two of them meeting and sharing memories. Two strangers who may have nothing else in common in the entire world sharing a moment over something that’s given them both so much joy. That’s offered such valuable escape. That’s guided them through difficult times and helped shape them into who they are today.

The Muppets have allowed me to connect with and bond with more people than I can probably count. (Ah, ah, ah!) Those of us who grew up with them remember them not as characters on some shows we used to watch, but as early friends who helped us understand that however different we are, whatever our strengths or weaknesses, however small we might feel at times, we each had something unique to bring to the world.

Guy reminded me of that.

He could have sold me his book and moved on. I wouldn’t have blamed him. That’s what vendors do.

Instead he showed me great kindness long before I expressed interest in buying anything.

That’s more valuable than the book could have been to me or the money could have been to him. In scary, uncertain times, it’s important to remember that there are still little rafts of sunlight out there to find. I credit the Muppets. And no amount of behind-the-scenes idiocy will change that.


The book is available for purchase from Amazon here, if you’re interested.

H-H-H-Hank and Dean, Venture Brothers

I love The Venture Bros. You know that. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, and even if I thought this past season was a bit shit tbh I can’t say that my love or appreciation of it has been diminished at all.

I’d like to say that I realized something when rewatching it lately…but I haven’t been watching it. I’ve just been living my life, going about my business, and a thought occurred. I’ll share that with you in a moment, of course, but here, now, I want to point out that that’s part of what makes The Venture Bros. so incredible to me in the first place. Sure, you can watch it over and over again and find things you missed…but you can also just let it sit. Let it simmer. Let your mind go where it will…and you’ll still find new ways to appreciate it, and new things to consider about it.

Compare that to ALF. I haven’t rewatched that shit either, but I sure as hell don’t catch myself in the middle of the day realizing that “Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” is secretly brilliant.

Okay, so, anyway: late in season one, The Venture Bros. has what might be its first masterpiece: “The Trial of The Monarch.” It harvests seeds that had been passively planted by previous episodes to incredible effect, tearing apart a central relationship and positioning The Monarch — the show’s main villain — as its emotional core. No mean feat, and the episode that accomplishes it is tense, beautiful, hilarious, and unexpectedly heartbreaking.

In short, it’s fantastic stuff, and it’s still one of my favorites.

The titular Venture brothers themselves don’t do much in the episode, but it opens with a fantasy sequence that sees them in costume. Hank is dressed as Indiana Jones, and Dean as Thomas Magnum, from Magnum, P.I. You can see the boys in the screengrab above. And, for reference:

Fine. Everyone knows this. Hank and Dean are dressed as those characters. Few people overlooked that fact; it’s pretty obvious.

But…where did Hank and Dean get those ideas? From the movie and from the TV show, obviously.

…except that in season four’s best episode, “Everybody Comes to Hank’s,” we learn that Hank doesn’t actually know who Indiana Jones is. He wears the iconic hat…which came with a whip that he assumes is a “detective’s whip.”

So Hank wears part of an Indiana Jones costume in that episode, and in doing so he reveals that he doesn’t know Indiana Jones. Odd, as he dressed as the character three seasons prior. Dean may or may not know Thomas Magnum, but that’s academic; Hank doesn’t know his character, and that’s enough to question things in The Venture Bros., where continuity between episodes is important.

Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. are a pretty odd pairing. They come from different media and don’t have a clear relation to one another. They come from different worlds and time periods, and they don’t pursue or desire the same things.

They fit Hank and Dean well enough, of course. Indiana Jones is brash and daring, and Magnum is (relatively) focused and methodical. The adventurer and the detective. Hank and Dean.

But Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. on their own merits don’t really go together, and it’s not a pairing we’d ever see outside of this fantasy sequence.

Or…would we?

That’s right. The Venture Bros. paired up these two characters in 2004, but Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers did it in 1988.

Rescue Rangers was a very popular show, airing during the enormously successful Disney Afternoon programming block. And while Chip and Dale were already established characters by that point, it was Rescue Rangers that dressed them respectively as Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I.

And that is interesting.

The same odd pairing of characters happened twice, and it doesn’t strike me as coincidental. Combine this with the fact that Hank doesn’t recognize an Indiana Jones costume when he actually encounters one, and I start to wonder if Hank and Dean in “The Trial of The Monarch” are actually dressed as the Rescue Rangers.

That’s a show they’re likely enough to have seen, and there’s a little more in common as well. Hank, Dean, Chip, and Dale are all four-letter names. It’s always Hank and Dean, as opposed to Dean and Hank…just as it’s always Chip and Dale as opposed to Dale and Chip. Hank and Chip are both Indiana Jones, and Dean and Dale are both Magnum, P.I. Each pair is part of a larger team that goes on new adventures week to week…

I have to wonder if that’s a subtle nod there. The joke being less that they’re dressed as two famous characters and more that they’re dressed as two different famous characters aping source material unfamiliar to the boys.

The Venture Bros. gives us a lot to consider, even in its silliest moments. It’s an impressively layered and incredibly well-written show. And the fact that I can still find new things in a thirteen-year-old episode (holy crap…) is incredible.

Oh, also: I just realized that the episode title “Powerless in the Face of Death” refers not to being unable to revive the boys, but rather to the blackout Dr. Venture accidentally causes. That’s some lovely misdirection I didn’t even notice. There’s still so much to find in this show…

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