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.

Book It!

Writing has actually been important to me for longer than reading has. Don’t worry; I’m not suggesting that this is in any way a good thing. Writing without reading is almost entirely worthless for anything beyond its therapeutic value.

But I wrote, long before I understood stories. Long before I understood characters. Long before I understood structure or themes or my audience. I wrote a lot of garbage. It went nowhere, which is exactly as far as it deserved to go.

Eventually, I started reading as well. Nothing of much merit. Some John Grisham, some Michael Crichton, some Stephen King. The pop stars of fiction. I’d like to think I would have enjoyed actual literature, but I sure as hell wasn’t reading any, so we’ll never know for sure.

At some point in the mid-90s, looking for something to read in my high school library, I found a copy of Catch-22. I’ve already talked about what an important moment this was for me. I won’t say much more, except that this is the book that made me a writer. It’s the book that revealed to me what writing can do. It affected me in a way no work of art had ever affected me, and, suddenly, writing wasn’t just some passive hobby. It was what I wanted to do. It was the first thing I’d ever thought to take seriously.

That was around twenty years ago. In the time since, I studied literature at college. I dedicated myself to honing my craft, working with a number of deeply accomplished writers who, for reasons I’ll never understand but will always appreciate, showed me more patience and support than I deserved.

I was a kid. I was stubborn. I thought I knew more than I did.

They helped me anyway.

I joined a number of writing groups online, and met other helpful artists who guided me forward. I connected with people on various forums and shot drafts back and forth. Often the mere act of providing feedback helped me see weaknesses in my own work that I couldn’t have addressed otherwise.

I got better. I started writing for a number of different websites, all of which took a chance on me when they certainly didn’t have to, and all of which helped me to improve a little more.

I started seeing my work edited. Not marked up, not annotated with suggestions, but changed. I provided something, and they published something else. I bristled. I was a writer, so I was supposed to bristle. Who were they to meddle with my work? They were people who knew what they were doing. I was still learning. In time I started to realize that the edits almost uniformly made my work stronger. I started to take note of what they were cutting, what they were changing, what they were resequencing. My work got better.

I started seeing my work commented upon by readers. The internet provides that incredible resource, something that traditional print media never allowed. Feedback from your audience is instant. If I wrote something good, people would tell me. I could reload the page and find 20, 30, 50 people telling me. If I wrote something bad, people would tell me. I could reload the page and find twice as many eager to tell me that.

I bristled. I was a writer, so I was supposed to bristle.

Then I listened. Not to everybody, of course, because there will never come a time that I’ll please everybody. But sharp criticism — even if it’s sharply phrased — was helpful to me, too. Perhaps the reader had missed my point. More often, I have to admit, I failed to deliver it clearly. I learned. My work got better still.

I started hosting my own writing workshops. I started tutoring others who wished to write better, whether for professional or personal reasons. I did my best to help them understand the lessons I had to learn painfully. I saw progress. I watched them evolve from writers at one level to writers at another. To this day I’m still not sure I’ve ever felt more satisfied than in those moments.

I got work as a writer. An an editor. As a proofreader. At some point the hobby that had become a passion had become a career. I’ve worked in television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the private sector, the government. People need writers. Countless individuals along the way had helped me become one. This was how I earned a living. If that’s where I stopped, I would have been happy.

That isn’t where I stopped.

A few weeks ago, on May 2, to be exact, I fulfilled a lifelong dream. I signed a publishing contract. I pitched an idea. Months passed. Emails were exchanged. Conversations were had. A contract was prepared. I signed it. I’m writing a book.

I can’t really offer much more in the way of detail. Well, I could, I suppose, but I’ve been asked not to. I’m happy not to!

The point is that I’ll be working on a complete draft over the course of the next few months. Noiseless Chatter won’t go away. I still intend to post new things. Maybe I’ll share some insights or anecdotes about the writing process. I’m really not sure. But as busy as things have been for me, this made them much busier overnight.

This is a good thing. Because this is what I’ve worked for. And this is where so many people in so many places for reasons I couldn’t possibly tell you helped me get here.

You, all of you, helped me get here. Those of you I went to school with, those of you who followed me here from YouTube or Nintendo Life or Adventure Game Studio, those of you who stumbled across an article I wrote here or elsewhere and stuck around…you’re the reason this is happening.

There’s another writer online I respect very much. I’ve followed his career. I’ve read much of his output. I do my best to support him whenever I can. In fact, I’m jealous of him, of his talents, of his abilities. He’s great at what he does, and he deserves everything he’s achieved.

He’s also broke.

He has a Patreon, and that seems to make the difference between whether or not he can afford groceries for the month.

I…don’t have to worry about that. My writing career isn’t as impressive or storied as his, and if we both died tomorrow he’d leave a legacy and I’d leave very little. But I can afford to eat. I can afford a place to live. I don’t have to worry about who will be sending me a check, or how much I have squirreled away in case that check doesn’t come.

I don’t just get to write; I get to make a living as a writer.

I’m a tremendously lucky person for that reason if for no other, and I don’t let myself forget that. Better writers than me struggle more than I do. Worse writers than me do much better. There’s not much in the way of correlation between talent and success. No matter how much I have of the former, I’m a very lucky person to have any of the latter.

I’ve worked with more talented individuals than I could possibly list here. Sometimes on projects that went nowhere, sometimes on projects that could have been better, sometimes on projects that went better than we could have dreamed. I’ve known more people who have picked me up when I was down and encouraged me to keep going when I was hopeless than I can even remember. I’ve gotten where I am because a lot of people gave up little pieces of themselves to hold me together.

And now I’m getting a lot further.

This opportunity will open a lot of doors for me. That’s thrilling and frightening in equal measure. I keep expecting to wake up at any point now. And, of course, I keep hoping I won’t.

The draft is coming along great. I’m excited to share it with my publisher and excited to share the details with all of you once the time is right. This is a big thing for me, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

I grew up without much support for my writing. I can’t really blame anybody. Nobody should write because they expect to make money at it. I didn’t expect to make money at it, and my family understandably thought I should maybe look into some other career.

But then I started to meet people who also weren’t doing it for the money, who were doing it because that’s who they were. They worked at grocery stores or at restaurants or at movie theaters to pay the bills, and then they’d come home and write funny, moving, thought provoking things most of the world would never even know existed.

And they helped schmucks like me.

If I hadn’t found that support, and hadn’t had that support upheld so many times over the years, I wouldn’t be a writer today. Not professionally, at least. I’d have a hard drive full of Word .docs and a pad full of notes that would go, ultimately, nowhere.

That would be okay.

The fact that I’m any further along than that is a bonus. It’s more than enough for me. It’s always been more than enough.

But pretty soon, I get to take another step.

I’m a really lucky guy.

I hope you’ll stick around to see it through with me.

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.

UPDATE: Boom

I don’t feel so bad that I’ve let these past few weeks pass without a new post. I’m proud of this year’s Rule of Three, and I’ve seen great discussion come from it both here and on social media. These articles deserve the room to breathe, and I thank you, sincerely, for reading my crap!

However, I didn’t intend to let the site languish. I have some other article ideas in mind, including one you might actually enjoy! The problem is that a few weeks ago, I was rear-ended at a traffic light. I was at a complete stop. Another vehicle hit me from behind, and the driver admitted his was using his cellphone and not paying attention to what he was doing.

Pretty cut and dry, but my brand new car is smashed up pretty good, and I sustained a neck injury that I hope is minor but which my doctor is reluctant to be so optimistic about.

I do intend to post more stuff. Great stuff! And soon! But I wanted to apologize for the unexpected downtime. I spend 8-10 hours each day sitting and writing at work, and while I never mind coming home to write for another few hours, my neck feels far better when I lie down, so I’ve spent most of my free time doing that.

My goal, however, is to have a new post ready for Monday. It’s one I’ve been passively working on for over a month now, so it’s certainly a reasonable goal. I just apologize that for the past few weeks, my car, my neck, and all of the related insurance kerfuffle has taken precedence.

I’m not dead. Ghostbusters ’16 didn’t kill me. I will be back. And when I am back, I solemnly swear to keep writing about things nobody on the face of the planet could possibly care about.

Thank you for your patience.

Rule of Three: Ghostbusters (2016)

I ended the last review promising to discuss the most idiotic controversy in modern history. By that I mean there is no “correct” side by any stretch of the imagination. Whoever you align yourself with, you’re aligning yourself with a pack of idiots saying idiotic things for idiotic reasons. More ink has been spilled on 2016’s Ghostbusters than has been spilled on most films, and only a small fraction of that ink has been used to say anything remotely intelligent.

Sometimes I find it useful to provide a history lesson in these features. This time around, it probably would be…but I don’t know that I can stomach doing so. It’s a tiresome situation that should collectively embarrass us all to think back on.

So, hey, forgive me if I’m just hitting the highlights here. God knows you can read enough horseshit about this movie elsewhere; my own pile doesn’t need to be that big.

For the sake of ease and readability, I’m going to refer to this film as Ghostbusters ’16. Because I have to. Because I’ll have a lot to say about this movie in relation to the one it reboots and/or remakes, which has exactly the same title. Right. Now that we’ve gotten the only rational thing to say about this movie out of the way, let’s dive in.

I don’t remember when I started hearing proper rumors of Ghostbusters 3. I know it was well before the 2009 video game came out, as Dan Aykroyd referred to that at the time as the closest thing we were going to get to a third film.

And that was okay. The game wasn’t too great (it was far more of an interactive movie than it was anything that allowed much expression or experimentation), but the fact that Aykroyd and Harold Ramis helped write it lent it an air of legitimacy. What’s more, nearly all of the main cast members voiced their characters. Notably missing were Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, but all four Ghostbusters were played by the same actors, Annie Potts voiced Janine, William Atherton played a returning Walter Peck, and Max von Sydow, who voiced Vigo in the second film, brought the Carpathian back to life once more.

So, fine. I wish the game were great and worth replaying (or any fun whatsoever), but really the main duty it fulfilled, so far as I was concerned, is that it was the final nail in the coffin of Ghostbusters 3. Elements of Aykroyd’s script for a third film even made it into the game, but I personally can’t give any indication as to how true it was to his vision.

And I like that the game killed Ghostbusters 3. I like that because I didn’t want Ghostbusters 3.

Whenever those rumors were circulating — around 2005, let’s say — the idea was already that Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Aykroyd, and Ramis were too old to play their parts. The aging Ghostbusters would take on younger apprentices, who would then lead the franchise forward on their own.

This didn’t sound especially appealing. After a masterpiece and a good film — and a fondly remembered cartoon with a stellar voice cast — was it really worth a late-game third installment just to wave goodbye?

The original Ghostbusters was the textbook illustration of lightning in a bottle. Indeed, to continue with metaphors of electrostatic discharge, the second film proved that lightning wasn’t going to strike twice.

I didn’t really want a third movie. Not for the sake of passing a torch nobody was asking to be passed. Not for the sake of rubbing our faces in how old and fat and bald the actors were now just to joke about it.

In other words, when the prospect of Ghostbusters 3 was realistically floated, starring the original cast, written by the original scribes, and taking place in the same universe, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want it. I was glad that the project died. So was Bill Murray, who was so reluctant to sign up for the project that Aykroyd toyed with the idea of killing off Venkman.

What a great movie this could have been! The best character is dead and we get to watch the others slowly die. What a treat!

I’m saying all of this to make clear that when I tell you I wasn’t excited about Ghostbusters ’16, it wasn’t due to sexism or gatekeeping or anything to that effect. Faced with the prospect of a third film by the original crew, I said, “No, thank you.” It shouldn’t be at all surprising or controversial, then, that I also turned down a cheaper, less interesting substitute.

Ghostbusters 3 was dead. The video game gave us our canonical third story, and nobody was asking for anything more.

Nobody except, of course, Columbia Pictures, which twenty-odd years after the release of the first film for some reason still liked money. More scripts for a potential Ghostbusters 3 were written, rewritten, punched up, and discarded. New writers were brought on and let go repeatedly. Bill Murray made it clear he wasn’t interested. That stopped nothing. Harold Ramis died in 2014. That finally did.

The creative team was faced with the prospect of having only two of the original Ghostbusters on board, and one of them was Winston. The project was canned, finally, for good.

Kind of.

That same year, it was decided that the third Ghostbusters film would be a reboot/remake. If you’re wondering why I’m using both of those terms, it’s complicated. I say “reboot” because it was intended to serve as the first film of a new series under the Ghostbusters banner. (The cast signed contracts committing them for three films.) I say “remake” because Ghostbusters ’16 claims in its own credits that it’s based on the original Ghostbusters. And, frankly, the confusion about what the fuck this movie even is carries right on through the experience of watching it.

But we’ll get to that.

There were plenty of Ghostbusters fans who were already disinterested in the project. I was absolutely one of them. Maybe it would be for somebody else what the original film was for me. That would indeed be fantastic, but I wasn’t holding my breath. As a point of comparison, I wasn’t interested in Pee-wee’s third movie, either, and I waited a long time to even give that a shot, equally convinced it would be a disappointing return. This was nothing personal; I’m just rarely keen on modern cash-ins on old properties.

The true backlash to Ghostbusters ’16 didn’t come until we started getting details, though. It would be directed by Paul Feig, whose recent film Bridesmaids had been a major hit. Coincidentally enough, that film had a very similar financial return to the original Ghostbusters. Bridesmaids cost $32.5 million and made $288.4 million; Ghostbusters cost $30 million and made $295.2 million. In terms of raw figures, they’re damned near equal.

The problem wasn’t that Bridesmaids was a bad film or that Feig was a bad director; the movie was massively popular and a critical success. The problem was that the style of humor in Bridesmaids was almost diametrically opposite the style of humor we’d expect from Ghostbusters. Feig did not feel like a natural fit for the material. But, hey, so far, who cares?

People cared the moment it became clear that Ghostbusters ’16 would have an all-female cast.

Feig cast his frequent star Melissa McCarthy as well as Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones from Saturday Night Live to serve as his team of paranormal investigators. My level of disinterest remained the same. I came very quickly to feel as though that put me in the minority.

The backlash to this casting was swift, fierce, and appalling.

While there were unquestionably plenty of Ghostbusters fans who simply weren’t interested in another film — perhaps they disliked Feig, perhaps they wanted the original cast, perhaps they outgrew the franchise — the overall tone of resistance came from a place of overt, clear misogyny.

I’m certainly willing to believe that actual misogynists were in the minority. In fact, that’s what I deeply hope is the case. But their voices were loudest, strongest, and more sensational (therefore more media friendly) than whatever tepid criticisms might have been levied by more even-keeled individuals.

Hate spread and festered in the usual hotbeds. Reddit. 4chan. Breitbart. I will not repeat the kinds of things that were said. You are free to look them up. If you’d prefer to imagine them, know that they’re worse than whatever’s already in your mind.

Deliberate, organized assaults were made against the film’s YouTube trailers and IMDB page to artificially tank its ranking. The director and actors were trolled and threatened constantly online, to the point that the eventual movie attempted to capture this as a series of meta jokes. Reality was no joke, though, as Leslie Jones certainly knew. As the female Ghostbuster who was also black, she was specifically targeted, with her accounts hacked, her personal information circulated, and nude photos of her leaked.

The response and behavior on the side of the film’s detractors was abhorrent.

Then, of course, you had the defenders.

By sheer virtue of taking sides, defenders legitimized the detractors. Oh, so the detractors gave the trailer one star? I’ll give it five. The detractors won’t go see it in theaters? I’ll go twice. What I still believe was a vocal minority spat venom at a film they hadn’t seen, but it was no better to see the other side heaping praise upon a film they also hadn’t seen.

Granted, if I had to go to dinner with one of these groups of people I think you can guess which I’d choose. But, y’know, maybe we could all just let a movie be a fucking movie and not worry that you can’t see it or that you have to see it based on the fact that there are women on the god damned poster.

I remember a friend of mine, whose opinion I normally value, saying that he was going to see it as many times as he could in theaters, just to spite people. (And he probably did. He’s the kind of person who exclusively follows through on meaningless gestures.) Bear in mind, the film wasn’t even out yet. He committed to seeing a film multiple times before he had any idea whether or not he’d like it. For a personal comparison here, Wes Anderson is far and away my favorite director. Isle of Dogs, his latest film, is in theaters as I write this. History suggests that I’ll watch it multiple times, but I’m sure as shit not going to commit to that. What if it’s terrible? Yes, I’d like to support Anderson, but why on God’s green Earth would I repeatedly trade my money and time for something I don’t even like? Who would that possibly benefit?

Granted, blindly forcing yourself to enjoy something is exponentially better behavior than hacking and leaking celebrity nudes, but that bar isn’t very high in itself. And as a critic — and a writer, and a not-a-moron — I can’t possibly respect somebody who forces themselves to have a positive opinion of a work of art any more than I can respect somebody who forces themselves to have a negative one.

“I’m going to see it because there are women in it” is exactly as constructive a mindset as “I’m not going to see it because there are women in it.”

I didn’t see Ghostbusters ’16 in theaters. Part of me did want to see it, just to know if it managed to live either up or down to expectations, but for much of its release, I was in Germany. I could have seen it when I got back, but I had better things to do than to rush out and spend $20 on a movie I never wanted to see in the first place.

So I didn’t watch it. Until now. Until I started this series.

And, honestly, I’m glad that’s what happened. Because it means I get to experience it removed from both sides of that idiotically vocal response. I’m no longer a sexist if I dislike it, nor am I a feminist champion if I do like it.

I just get to watch a fucking movie.

I just get to laugh at some fucking jokes.

I just get to enjoy it or not enjoy it according to my own personal fucking preferences, and I don’t have to worry that half the fucking planet will tear me down wherever I land.

And now I’ve seen it.

And holy hell is Ghostbusters ’16 a pile of garbage.

This has nothing to do with whatever dumbass “women can’t be funny” mentality is at the root of so many criticisms. They can. It’s moronic to suggest otherwise, as though “humor” were some point of biological difference between the sexes.

It isn’t, and to prove it, we need look no further than the breeding ground for many Ghostbusters cast members throughout the three films: Saturday Night Live.

That show — over the course of its admittedly long tenure — has given us Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Joan Cusack, Nora Dunn, Jan Hooks, Sarah Silverman, Cheri Oteri, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and a hell of a lot more. I’m listing only the ones that stood out to me, personally, as a viewer. Your list may be longer. Your list may even consist entirely of different funny women, just as our lists of favorite Saturday Night Live men would probably differ.

That’s because Saturday Night Live has often done a great job of providing its women with a similar visibility to what it provides its men. I wish I could say “always” instead of “often” and “the same” instead of “similar,” but we have to take what we can get. Part of this is due to the nature of the show, of course; women in real life make news, so they need a cadre of females in the cast to play them. And, much of the time, that’s what Saturday Night Live seems to view its female cast members as: a logistical necessity.

In the early 2000s, though, that began to change. Tina Fey joined the cast in Season 26, Amy Poehler joined in Season 27, and gradually, perfectly, naturally, the show began spotlighting its massive female talent in a way it never truly had before. This may certainly have something to do with Fey taking the reins as head writer, but I think it’s safe to say that it had more to do with the sheer volume of talented females the show now had at once. It says something that such sketch comedy naturals as Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, Will Forte, and Chris Parnell were commonly relegated to supporting roles and utilitarian impersonations. You know. The kind of material many female cast members had been given in the past.

And so the stage was set for Ghostbusters ’16 to draw from Saturday Night Live, just as the original film had. That’s a good thing. Wiig, McKinnon, and Jones are funny people. They have a tremendous amount of talent. Period.

You may not enjoy their particular talents, and that’s fine. I’m by no means a guy that will tell you all comedy must be appreciated. But these actors know what they’re good at, and, in the right hands, within the right contexts, they are unquestionably funny enough to carry a full-length comedy film.

Just…not this one.

As nitpicky as it may sound, the biggest problem with Ghostbusters ’16 is its title. Had it been called anything else, it wouldn’t have brought with it a mountain of what turned out to be unreachable expectations. It would have been a movie that audiences could anticipate, engage with, and remember on its own merits.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it would have been a better film. In fact, I’m pretty damned sure it wouldn’t have been. But it would at least be a film that was free of controversy, ire, and stigma. It would prevent it from inviting active, inevitable comparison with the beloved — and genuinely fantastic — original.

It handed itself a legacy that the original had to earn. That is always unlikely to end well.

Ghostbusters ’16 does itself no favors by feeling messy, aimless, and incompetent by turns. Wiig, McKinnon, McCarthy, and Jones all do their best to make the film entertaining, but there’s a pervasive lack of focus that prevents anything from actually sticking together.

A funny movie isn’t funny just because the people in it try to do funny things. Funny movies are funny because they’re sharply written. Because they’re carefully paced. Because anything that distracts from the joke it’s trying to make is left on the cutting room floor. Because it knows when to quit.

None of that applies to Ghostbusters ’16. Not even slightly. Part of me even wonders if there was a script. Was this shot like Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Feig telling the actors the two or three things that needed to happen in each scene and leaving the rest up to chance?

The lack of focus and confusion about what the movie is really shouldn’t be a factor here. After all, it’s about another team of Ghostbusters coming together, starting a business, and fighting some supernatural evil. As the first movie proved, you don’t need to have much focus at all; touch on the important bits, make some great jokes, and give us characters worth spending time with.

The original Ghostbusters worked because, as I stated in that review, the characters interacted in identifiable ways. With the exception of Winston, who joins the team later, these are three men who have known each other and worked together for quite some time. They know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. They know who to rely on at which time. They know how to handle each other. They know how to both accomplish things and enjoy the time they spend together.

You know. Like colleagues. And also like friends.

The four Ghostbusters in this movie, by contrast, don’t even seem to like each other.

They say they do, don’t get me wrong, but I never felt it. One of them tells a joke, the next one tells a joke, the third one tells a joke, the last one tells a joke. That’s not interaction; that’s four characters reciting their lines. We’re expressly told that two of these characters have a history, but never once does the film feel compelled to make us believe it.

Part of the reason this doesn’t work is that the characters are never defined to begin with. It’s difficult to invest in a relationship without knowing who either party is even meant to be.

Again, let’s dive back into my review of the first film. Egon was the brains, Ray was the heart, Peter was the swagger, and Winston was the hired gun. For two films and a cartoon series, those descriptions were the cores of each character, and they easily defined both their roles on the team and their roles in the film.

Now let’s try to break down the characters in Ghostbusters ’16 in a similar way.

Who is the brains? Well, that’s an easy one. It’s obviously Holtzmann, played by Kate McKinnon. She develops and builds the team’s equipment, after all, and seems to perform the majority of the experiments, so, there. Simple.

Except that McCarthy’s character Abby seems to know the most about what’s actually going on and has the responsibility of expositing it at regular intervals, so maybe she’s the brains of the operation. She also started investigating paranormal activity before the team even existed, which reinforces that idea. Okay. So maybe she’s the brains. Or she’s also the brains.

But then there’s Wiig as Erin, a respected professor at Columbia on the verge of earning her tenure. She also assisted Abby in writing a book about the supernatural, which kicks the entire plot into gear. What’s more, she serves as a skeptic who demands evidence and refuses to believe anything blindly, which is certainly a mark of intelligence whether or not skepticism leads her in the right direction so, okay, she’s the brains, too. Three of them are the brains.

…but Jones plays Patty who is explicitly hired onto the team because of her deep and extensive knowledge of New York City’s history, which allows the Ghostbusters to piece together the clues that will explain what is happening meaning all four of them are the brains and…

Ugh. Okay. Maybe we shouldn’t have started with brains. Bad example, right?

Let’s move onto the heart. Who on the team is the impulsive one who dives headlong into things without fully thinking them through, but who ultimately means well?

That’s clearly Abby, who published an old manuscript without considering what impact it might have on the career of her coauthor and dove excitedly into paranormal investigation without any of the proper equipment, experience, or ability to protect herself. Easy.

Except that Patty qualifies as well, readily launching into loud tirades at passers by, finagling herself a spot on the team without actually knowing who the Ghostbusters are or what they do, and borrowing her uncle’s hearse without consideration for the damage it may sustain before he needs it back. Okay. So that’s two of them sharing that role.

…but really it’s three of them, because Wiig confusingly sheds her professional demeanor almost as soon as she links back up with Abby and becomes a totally different character, fawning moronically over their new secretary and freeing a dangerous ghost just for the sake of proving a nebulous point to somebody she’d never met before.

Oh, and, whoops, actually it’s Holtzmann, too, who gets so caught up in an impromptu dance routine that she starts a fire and then hesitates to put it out, and who sings for some reason when their receptionist is in mortal danger, and who licks the equipment and who puts her feet up on the mayor’s desk and who and who and who.

You get the picture. There are also clear examples of each of them acting the part of the swagger, and of each of them acting the part of the hired gun. I’ll spare you another few hundred words with the assurance that watching the film with this in mind will make it abundantly clear that every one of these characters plays every one of these roles at once.

And then…well…what’s the point? Ramis in the original film demonstrated not only the importance of having a great straight man, but of the appeal of having one. He was my favorite character as a kid, and it isn’t because he made me laugh the most. It’s because I understood who he was. On some level, sure, I identified with the guy, but largely it was his role in the film that I appreciated most. He’s who I wanted to be on the schoolyard.

Others, of course, wanted to be Peter. My brother, I remember well, always wanted to be Ray. And there were little Winstons and Janines out there as well. In some cases, the casting was logistical. In other cases, it was because we knew who these characters were, we knew how they’d act and react in certain situations (as well as with each other), and we knew what we enjoyed about them.

Of these four new characters, who would I have been? Who would anybody be? They’re each always everything. We don’t have four characters to choose from, we have an omnicharacter operating four mouths.

This is a crisis of comedy. They can’t all deliver the same kinds of jokes, and yet they do. “Do-Re-Egon” works only because of Egon’s character. “The flowers are still standing” works only because of Peter’s. “No offense, guys, but I gotta get my own lawyer” works only because of Winston’s. “You’ve got to try this pole!” works only because of Ray’s.

Across the previous two films, I’d have a very long list of jokes that are specific to the characters, and a very short list of those that are interchangeable. In Ghostbusters ’16, I can’t think of a single joke that could only have been made by one character.

And that’s because they aren’t characters. They’re funny women who are being crammed into a format without any regard for their specific talents or potential for characterization. They’re all the same vague all-purpose comedybot with traits and motivations that shift from scene to scene and from line to line so that they can all draw from the same pool of gags. The characters don’t gibe; they jostle.

There’s not a single natural fit in the movie because the actors aren’t allowed to behave naturally.

Never is this more evident than when anybody tries to deliver the kind of specialized technobabble (paranormobabble?) that Ramis and Aykroyd deployed regularly in the first two films. Listen to Abby say something like “a full-torso transmogrification with corporeal aggression,” and it’s impossible to see anything but McCarthy struggling through a line she can’t imagine anyone would ever say, let alone her own character. She delivers it and many others the same way I try to work mucus up out of my throat when I’m feeling congested. Egon and Ray speak this way because that’s who they are. Abby speaks this way because the script says she has to.

There’s also a really weird and out-of-place reliance on pop-culture references. The other two films may have mentioned Twinkies and Slinkies and Parcheesi, but I don’t think there were many moments that expected you to laugh just because you recognized the name of something.

Ghostbusters ’16, by contrast, has a scene in which the characters completely demolish the flow of the narrative so that they can list Patrick Swayze movies to each other. Not because it has any bearing on anything that’s happening, sheds light on anything that will happen, or relates to the film itself in any larger way, but rather because people might hear the titles Road House and Point Break and chuckle faintly with recognition, I guess. Surely that isn’t worth derailing your own movie, but what do I know.

Then there’s a pointless exchange about the mayor from Jaws, a character reciting the one line from Scarface that all shitty comedies feel legally obligated to recite, ghosts referred to as Casper, characters visiting Reddit, YouTube, and Amazon, people talking about emojis, Patty reenacting Oprah’s “you get a car” bit, Holtzmann singing tunes from The Wizard of Oz, Abby doing an Exorcist impression…it’s just too much.

Ghostbusters stands up today in large part because it doesn’t feel of its time. An audience coming to it now does not need a particular frame of reference to enjoy or understand it. Here, even if these jokes were funny, they rely on the audience recognizing things that either will be forgotten in a few years or that are, quite simply, far superior productions.

Speaking of far superior productions, Ghostbusters ’16 can’t seem to stop itself from referencing the original films. I’m not referring to the general concept or the ghost-busting equipment or anything like that; I’m referring to specific lines and callbacks that only serve to remind the audience that they’re watching a notably lesser shadow of those movies instead of the real thing.

In the original film, Janine answered the phone by saying, “Ghostbusters, what do you want?” because that’s who she was and what she would say when she was in that particular mood. Here, Chris Hemsworth’s character says it on an answering machine because it’s a line from the other movie.

In the original film, the Ghostbusters rant to the mayor and his staff, getting louder and more desperate as they appeal to him to cooperate. Each character delivers a dire warning of what to expect if Gozer isn’t stopped, culminating in Peter floundering with, “Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!” It was true to his character, the context, and the building rhythm and tension of the scene. Here, two characters say “mass hysteria” to each other because it’s a line from the other movie.

In the original film, Egon uses a Twinkie as a relatable metaphor so that Ray and Winston can understand the amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. In Ghostbusters ’16, a billboard says “That’s a big Twinkie,” because it’s a line from the other movie. And which also makes no sense in this new context because “big Twinkies” don’t exist. They’re all the same size.

That already seems like a lot of unnecessary callbacks, stripped of their humor and appeal because they’re used in a way that shows no regard for what made them funny in the first place, but there are at least a dozen more throughout Ghostbusters ’16, none of them funnier than these. And that’s without counting all of the cameos.

So, hey! Let’s talk about the cameos.

The cameos are pointless but, like the callbacks, they at least remind us that if we ever feel compelled to watch this horse shit again, we can pop in a much better movie instead.

All of the main actors from the first two films return in some capacity, barring Rick Moranis, who retired from acting almost 20 years earlier. Annie Potts plays a receptionist again, because, hey, girl power, right? Sigourney Weaver plays Holtzmann’s mentor. Ernie Hudson plays Patty’s uncle. Dan Aykroyd plays a cab driver. They all get about as much to do as the bust of Harold Ramis, which sits in a hallway.

The only cameo that gets any room to stretch his legs is Bill Murray, appearing in a whopping two scenes.

Murray is probably the highlight of the film, and even he couldn’t make me laugh. He plays Dr. Martin Heiss, “a famed debunker of the paranormal.” He says “hell no” on a news broadcast and if you bother paying Bill Murray to appear in your movie and deliver a joke, it really should be something better than that.

Later he shows up at the Ghostbusters’ office and asks to see the ghost they caught. Fair enough. This makes sense within the context of the film and in terms of what little we know about their characters. (That is to say, their jobs.) Against the extreme cautioning of her colleagues, Erin releases the ghost from the trap, and it immediately murders Dr. Heiss.

Funny shit!

But, whatever, who cares. Bill Murray got paid to sit on a chair and a stuntman got paid to fall out of a window. What makes this moment interesting, though, is the instructive contrast it offers to the original films.

Because, y’know, the first group of Ghostbusters didn’t go around killing people.

Granted, yes, it’s accidental. But it’s an accident born of gross negligence. The ghost they release is one that took them an extremely long time to capture. (I know. I watched the scene and it felt like an eternity.) It was difficult. Trapping it came only after a lot of damage was caused and one of their teammates was even held in its claws.

Dr. Heiss is in his mid-60s, at least. He walks with a cane. He’s so frail he can’t even stand up for extended periods. And when Erin releases the ghost, she knowingly and deliberately does so when the rest of her team isn’t ready. To be clear: Erin unleashes a powerful ghost on an elderly man, actively preventing anyone from being prepared to handle it.

This is murder. Or, I guess, manslaughter. Either way, it’s homicide.

This is William S. Burroughs killing his wife while drunkenly trying to shoot an apple off her head. No, the intention in either case was not to harm anybody. But, in both cases, the setup was willfully constructed in a way that death is as good as a given.

Dr. Heiss is killed by the ghost and his corpse is ejected from the building. (Or he dies from the fall after being shoved out by the ghost. It’s academic at this point.) The ghost flies away to kill dozens or hundreds more people and nobody even tries chasing it.

The police come and the Ghostbusters are questioned. This isn’t very productive, because the Ghostbusters can hardly speak. They are overcome with remorse. Erin can’t believe her grandstanding directly led to the death of an innocent man.

The rest of the Ghostbusters start to question the wisdom of what they’re doing. Don’t they exist to help and protect people? Aren’t they now responsible for taking a life? If they didn’t exist, Dr. Heiss would still be alive. How many others will die as they bumble around the city with barely tested equipment? The Ghostbusters are speechless.

Oh, whoops, no, this is the part where they list Patrick Swayze movies to each other. Fuck the dead guy, right?

Compare this to the scene in which the original batch of Ghostbusters almost shoot the maid in the first film. An important distinction is the fact that what they do is totally accidental. Nobody, for instance, is trying to prove to the maid that the proton pack is real. They simply get spooked and fire at her cart.

They’re sorry. In fact, all three of them apologize. They take a moment to calm down. That was a close one. They’re here to catch a ghost, but they can’t let that get to them. If they do, as they’ve just learned, they are endangering the lives of the staff and guests. As a direct response to this moment, they change their tactics and split up. Why? Because they’d prefer not to murder innocent people.

How does the new team stack up? Well, in response to directly causing the death of an innocent man, they recite Swayze’s IMDB page.

Can callous response to death be funny? Of course. But is that part of who these characters are, or is it just another example of Feig (and his cowriter Katie Dippold) cramming in jokes for the sake of having them without regard for where they are in the film, what they mean, or what they’ll say about the characters?

Of course, that’s a rhetorical question. No thought is given to the characters elsewhere in the film, and Feig sure as hell isn’t about to start now.

I’m blaming Feig, but I can’t say for sure that it’s his fault. At the very least, though, he’s guilty for not reining his actors in, and not letting them know that every scene can’t play like it stars a gaggle of honking geese.

These characters never shut up. They’re exaggerated. They think going big is the only way to get a laugh, despite the fact that the previous two films rarely resorted to that. They think acting like cartoon characters — all bug-eyes and gesticulations and shouts — is the best way to sell the material, when all it does is make the movie even more tiresome.

This even affects the supporting characters, who each have their own unnecessary quirks and punchlines, further undercutting any sense of reality Ghostbusters ’16 could have possibly established.

Remember the librarian in the first film? Her equivalent here shits himself and tells jokes about animal enslavement and the repression of New York’s early Irish. Remember the hotel manager trying to keep his guests from knowing what the Ghostbusters were doing in the first film? Remember the way we’d cut from the Ghostbusters wrecking the ballroom to him in a state of escalating panic? His equivalent here has a high-pitched scream, which is not quite as worth cutting away to, in my humble opinion, and which says nothing about who he is, his role in the film, or anything that’s actually happening.

What Ghostbusters ’16 does best is shine a light on why the original film wouldn’t have worked as well with any other approach. If the first film takes itself seriously, this one refuses to. If the first film had strong characterization, this one relies entirely on gags to keep things moving. If the first film took place against a recognizable, realistic version of New York City, this one takes place in Wacky Land, where every character, no matter how minor, gets a chance to tell a few jokes and make funny faces and remind you that you’re watching a gigantic heap of shit.

It also proves, time and again, that the reason Ghostbusters ’16 fails has nothing to do with the gender of its stars; it fails because of its basic comic philosophy. (This obviously does not excuse those who wrote it off the moment they heard about the film, of course. Their apoplexy has and had nothing to do with the actual quality of the film.)

When Erin meets up with Abby and Holtzmann the first time, they make her listen to a recording of a fart. (“Is it more or less disgusting if I tell you it came from the front?” asks Holtzmann, and it’s a perfect opportunity to eject the disc before wasting another hour and a half of your day.) This is an early, establishing joke. This occurs while the film is still telling the audience what to expect. This is the foundation upon which the rest of the film will build.

Now please list for me every time the first two movies resorted to a fart joke.

Boy, that was easy, huh?

Would the original films have been improved by the addition of fart jokes? This movie sees the Ghostbusters shooting a big ghost in his genitals. Would the original film have been improved if those Ghostbusters stood around slugging the Marshmallow Man in the balls? This movie sees Erin complaining that slime got inside “every crack.” Would the original film have been improved if Peter told Ray that slime got in his dick hole?

It’s nothing to do with gender. It’s everything to do with the original film being intelligently crafted at all levels, and this one positively leaping for the cheapest, easiest laugh at every juncture.

I will give it credit for one thing, though: it brushes up against a genuinely interesting villain.

The first film’s Gozer had a plan I still, to this day, don’t entirely understand. It was a force of evil, though, and that’s all we had to know in order to enjoy the movie. The second film’s Vigo was far clearer about his intentions, but when all is said and done he doesn’t amount to much more than a guy in a haunted painting. If there’s anywhere a film can easily improve on the originals, it’s here.

And, hey, maybe Ghostbusters ’16 does. It could do a hell of a lot better, but I actually mean that as a compliment, because there’s so much here that could have worked perfectly.

Our villain is Rowan, a misfit who we see get both mistreated and outright bullied throughout the course of the film. It’s important that we see this, I think, because it helps us to understand where he’s coming from as he plots revenge. I don’t think we’re ever truly aligned with his perspective, which is fine, but we at least understand that he’s not doing bad things simply because we need a bad guy.

Rowan is an outcast. He’s emotionally damaged. He doesn’t want to be treated poorly, and yet he is indeed treated poorly. Constantly. By nearly everyone.

His plot involves activating ley lines throughout New York City. Why? Well, toward the end of the movie we see that the city has somehow been sucked back in time, or something? I don’t know; that doesn’t seem to follow logically from anything else, so I can’t say much about it. Does Rowan think New York was nicer back then? He’d fit in better back then? It’s never clear and I don’t know how this resolves his concerns with being bullied any more than I know why the past version of New York seems to differ only in terms of what the billboards are advertising, but let’s get back on track.

Rowan is releasing these ghosts as a sort of general punishment for the city that mocks and ridicules him. Okay. Then at one point, he kills himself and becomes a ghost. Within the reality of the film, fine. We never understood the mechanics of his devices or what they were truly capable of, so if the big machine in the basement turns him into a ghost, I’m okay with that.

Here’s where things get interesting: Rowan possesses Kevin, the Ghostbusters’ hunky, braindead receptionist.

Immediately, people start treating Rowan differently. He’s no longer unwelcome. Men joke with him as opposed to teasing him. Women notice him. His experience of being alive is entirely different not because he’s a different person, but because he looks different. Rowan even says to himself during this experience, “I definitely should have worked out more.”

Possessing Kevin seems to be teaching him something about his own role in the miserable existence he led. No, he couldn’t have snapped his fingers and looked like Chris Hemsworth, but maybe if he’d exercised a bit. Maybe if he saw a therapist who helped him through his hangups. Maybe if he surrounded himself with supportive friends and found a collection of people who would treat him better.

Instead of spending his time plotting revenge, he could have taken any step at all toward bettering himself.

I realize I’m getting dangerously close to victim blaming here, and I don’t intend to do that. I do intend to point out that within this specific movie, this specific character experiences life in another body and finds it more pleasant, happier, and more fulfilling by a factor of thousands.

It seems as though we’re building toward some kind of awakening. Perhaps Rowan would realize that his behavior, his mindset, his slovenly appearance contributed to his own mistreatment. He was mistreating himself, after all, both physically and emotionally…all the rest of the city did was join in. Maybe he feels remorseful after it’s too late, after he’s already released the contents of Hell itself into New York. Maybe he helps the Ghostbusters stop the ghosts, since he’s “crossed over” and can do things that they can’t. There is (forgive this) the ghost of a great idea there.

But no. That entire theme is abandoned, just like Rowan tosses Kevin’s body aside. That’s it. We establish an interesting idea that seems like it’s on the verge of saying something…and then we ditch it.

Rowan could have been and should have been the best thing about the film. Maybe he still is. But if I ever think about the character in the future, it won’t be anything I actually saw on the screen.

Hemsworth as Kevin is probably the worst thing about the film. The joke is that he’s stupid, I guess, in combination with being good looking. That’s fine, but his stupidity borders on retardation. He’s confused by telephones, speaks nonsensically, doesn’t know where he works or what the Ghostbusters do, and keeps drinking coffee and spitting it out all over himself because he doesn’t like it. The guy isn’t dumb; he’s brain damaged.

I’ve seen people suggest that this is some kind of subversive comment on the way women are often objectified in film and on television. They’re dumb but pretty, I suppose is their point. But I think that’s either a reach, or Feig massively bungled the execution.

For starters, having a male character be good looking and stupid isn’t subversive at all. We’ve seen good looking male dopes in media as long as media has been around. Just thinking of relatively recent examples, Zapp Brannigan, GOB Bluth, and John Hamm’s character on 30 Rock. I’m sure you can think of reams more. “Stupid” is the default comic character trait; people misunderstanding things is funny, so our comedies are populated with complete fucking imbeciles. Many of them are good looking, because they’re stars. A number of them are women. A number of them are men. To believe that your stupid male character comments on the trope in a way that every other stupid male character fails to is a pretty pompous mindset.

Where it mainly falls down here, though, is the fact that Ghostbusters never did that. What, exactly, are you undercutting? All that appalling sexualization of Janine?

You have every right to find Annie Potts attractive. (Annie, call me.) In the second film, I would definitely say she’s at least cute. But she’s never portrayed as dumb, and certainly is not portrayed as eye candy. She flirts a bit with Egon in the first film and gets ignored, and there’s an off-camera makeout session with Louis in the second film.

That’s it. Because she’s a character. She gets to be Janine Melnitz. She has so much to do and say that she never gets around to bending over desks and pressing her breasts together.

I’m being completely honest here. If anybody can truly make an argument for Janine being sexualized (inappropriately or otherwise), I’d love to hear it.

Nor is Dana sexualized. Zuul is, and it’s Dana’s body that Zuul possesses, but even that is scarier than it is sexy. Zuul grumbles and growls and levitates to keep the scene in which she tries to seduce Peter from being sexy at all.

And the actual Dana is portrayed in an even less sexy way. She’s lonely. She avoids human contact. She dresses in unflattering, frumpy ways with an emphasis on sweatclothes. She subsists on junk food. (“You actually eat this stuff?” asks an appalled Peter.) She’s also not in any sense of the word portrayed as an idiot. She’s cultured, she’s an accomplished classical musician, and she sees almost immediately through Peter’s posturing bullshit.

What is even remotely problematic in the original films? Where are the hypersexualized bimbos Ghostbusters ’16 feels obligated to undercut? If that’s the kind of comment it would like to make, it’s making it under the wrong banner. Remake an Adam Sandler movie, or something.

For a film crammed with toilet jokes, cheap gags, pop culture references, a complete disregard for narrative or characterization, jokes that were never funny to begin with being dragged out far longer than they should be, and, yes, active objectification of its own, Ghostbusters ’16 really has no right to try to “intelligently” comment on the medium as a whole.

I could go on. Shit, I haven’t even mentioned Lady Slimer.

So hey, let’s talk about Lady Slimer. Doesn’t it seem strangely counterproductive for a film interested in smashing gender barriers to create a female character by sticking a bow and some lipstick on an existing male one? Boy, it’s almost like this movie doesn’t know what the fuck it’s doing.

When the initial backlash to Ghostbusters ’16 hit, Paul Feig said that people should wait and see it before passing judgment. That’s a fair perspective, of course. The suggestion was that it might be a much better movie than people suspected. Folks could sit around behind their keyboards and mock it, or they could head to the movies one weekend and find themselves pleasantly surprised.

But then the movie actually came out.

It well and truly sucked. And I hope my 8,000-word complaint proves that the extensive problems this movie has have nothing to do with anybody’s gender.

“Wait and see” was the correct way to shut up the detractors. Unfortunately, releasing a shitty movie was also the correct way to shut up the defenders.

People don’t speak much about Ghostbusters ’16 anymore. Compared to the original movie — which had at least a decade of profound pop-culture resonance, and arguably still resonates — this one barely merits a footnote.

I’m sure there are many people who enjoy it. (It received a number of positive reviews, at the very least.) I’m happy for them. But there are people who enjoy all kinds of bad movies. And, culturally, Ghostbusters ’16 has failed to catch much momentum. Those who do enjoy it must enjoy it quietly, because while I still see people bitching about it, I no longer see anybody coming to its defense.

Ghostbusters ’16 was intended to revitalize the franchise. And it could have. It could have even done so with exactly same actors we have here. But just as the characters are interchangeable, so is the film. For such a unique and beloved concept, this version of Ghostbusters is indistinguishable from any other brainless comedy that’s been released in the past 30 years.

It doesn’t know what it’s doing, it doesn’t know what it wants to be, and it doesn’t know what should set it apart. The first Ghostbusters was the perfect storm of every aspect working correctly and in tandem with each other. Ghostbusters ’16 is its perverse opposite. It’s a version of the film that crossed over from a universe in which nobody cared about making it any good.

Girl power, yes, fine, of course. Female artists across all forms of media have done incredible work throughout the course of creative history. Literally nobody with more than half a brain would ever argue otherwise. Hold up almost anything other than this soulless garbage if you feel the need to prove it.

Little girls deserve the kinds of movies little boys are given all the time, and by that I mean they deserve good ones. Ones that know what they’re doing. Ones that are genuinely, for any number of reasons, worth watching.

Age and gender aside, we all deserved better than Ghostbusters ’16.

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