Mr. Robot’s Surreal Tech Honesty: Why This Could Become the Best Show on TV

Mr. Robot is a veritable referendum on Nic Pizzolatto’s excess and hubris. This is a terrific television series dripping with thrilling depictions of broken and fascinating people that deserves your attention. The show, created by Sam Esmail, is so meticulous in its vision of corporate malfeasance (and those who would exploit the security holes) that it extends its attentions to even the most fleeting of roles, such as the great character actor Tom Ris Farrell as a middle-aged man clutching onto scraps of dignity. Mr. Robot‘s vibrant electronic soundtrack and close verisimilitude of command line moves cements its commitment to the genre of post-cyberpunk, yet the series is even more accomplished in its pursuit of pain and desperation. It has become more poignant and more aware of mortality with each episode.

The show’s heart is steered by Elliot Alderson (played with painstaking fragility by Rami Malek), a techie who works for a security firm called Allsafe. Elliot describes his life through voiceover with dry introspection that could quaver at any minute, one that recalls Edward Norton’s narration in Fight Club. He has an uncertain commitment to revolution, as he dares to fight a two-front war of depression and drug addiction, and an unexamined past populated by demons that he can’t even bring himself to discuss with his therapist. What Elliot does instead is hack into the computers of anyone who enters his life. Elliot’s eyes bulge like an extra terrestrial as he uses credit card items, emails, Twitter accounts, and metadata to piece together these lives on his computer. He burns these details onto discs, labeling each life with an album title. It’s a touching metaphor for the way that an iTunes collection is an insufficient cure for loneliness, yet it doesn’t stop any smartphone addict walking down the street with earbuds perched in her ears.

The show delivers its visuals across an uncanny valley that places subjects to the far edges of the frame. No matter how brilliant our minds or how formidably subcultural our passions, the show’s honest ethos suggests that we can never be the center of any reality. Go the way of normality, whether it be sticking with a putatively loving partner or a commitment to a seemingly respectable firm, and you will find yourself thrown off course by an outside force, whether it be internal corruption, sinister hackers or a creepy Patrick Bateman-like sociopath played with fearsome vivacity by the incredible Martin Wallström. There is an anarchist who goes by the name of Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who leads a team of hackers that includes a fascinating Iranian Muslim named Mobley who has yet to mention the events of 1979, and hopes to bring the largest corporation in the world (appositely nicknamed “Evil Corp”) to its knees. Mr. Robot is the father figure that Elliot so desperately craves, yet, like most victims, Elliot cannot quite see through Mr.Robot’s violent haze or manipulative motivations. At one point, Mr. Robot pushes Elliot off the edge of a Coney Island railing, leaving him battered for weeks. Of course, Elliot isn’t the only one damaged. There’s Angela Moss, one of Elliot’s coworkers (and a childhood friend), who allowed her philandering boyfriend to install malware on her computer because of his shameless commitment to infidelity. On the more sinister side, there’s Fernando Vera, a drug supplier who first declares to Elliot how his depression is a strength. In the early episodes, I was slightly skeptical with the way that these characters were introduced as cartoonish stock roles. But as the series has gently doled out more character complexity over time, I have come to see these impressions as reflective of Elliot’s view of the universe.

And that’s another quality that’s striking. The show has restyled perfectly safe regions of Manhattan as seedier and more dangerous than they really are, even as it presents authentic drug scenes. Indeed, the show’s commitment to Elliot’s perspective is so liberating and surreal that we see Elliot’s mother force him to eat his pet fish in a fancy restaurant with a design that resembles the Allsafe cubes. Elliot ponders what would happen if people were like webpages. Upon considering whether he can “view source” on others, we see workers sauntering about the corporate office with signs reading I PRETEND TO LOVE MY HUSBAND and I’M EMPTY INSIDE, recalling the subliminal messages in John Carpenter’s They Live.

Some opiners have opted to ascribe a moral imprint upon all this, claiming that Sam Esmail is “playing Sixth Sense-style tricks” on his audience. But this misses the point. Whether “fact” or “fiction,” Elliot’s world is true to his nightmares, even when we witness scenes that he is ostensibly not a part of. And if we know the niceties of Elliot’s shattered existence, maybe we might be tempted to put down our phones and actually talk with the people we judge through social media accounts and shambling about poorly lit cubicles. Perhaps that’s Sam Esmail’s real call for revolution.


Vital Facts About Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson, host of Family Feud and arguably the osculating Caligula of the late 20th century game show scene, passed away on Saturday in Los Angeles. Here are a number of facts about Richard Dawson, presented to aid others in etching Dawson’s legacy into the grand volume of American history.

1. It is estimated that Richard Dawson kissed about 20,000 women during his run on Family Feud. He regretted nothing. In response to the kissing criticisms, Richard Dawson replied, “I kissed them all for luck and love, that’s all.” (Source: The Associated Press, May 17, 1985)

2. Erma Bombeck offered a more reliable metric for Richard Dawson’s kissing quota. She watched a 30-minute episode of Family Feud, noting that Richard Dawson dispensed 23 kisses. (Source: The Milwaukee Journal, January 18, 1981)

3. Richard Dawson was fearless about contracting disease from kissing all those women. Dawson did not fear mono. He did not fear herpes. He did not fear any disease that stood in his path. “That has never crossed my mind,” said Dawson in 1984. His associate added, “He makes two million a year, and two million buys a lot of salve.” It is unknown if Dawson vigorously washed himself after a hot day of taping. (Source: The Durant Daily Democrat, May 27, 1984)

4. Fran Lebowitz had a lifelong dream to appear on Family Feud. Lebowitz called the show “relaxing…the minute I hear the theme, I perk up.” In 1985, Lebowitz’s agent Mort Janklow received a call from Cathy, Richard Dawson’s husband. The plan was to dedicate the March 4, 1985 episode entirely to Lebowitz, because Lebowitz had said many nice things about the program. Unfortunately, Lebowitz’s mother refused to do it. (Source: The Deseret News, March 8, 1985)

5. Richard Dawson did not shy away from politics. He marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama and campaigned on behalf of George McGovern. When co-hosting a local television show, he was branded “a far-out liberal.” Yet Dawson remained against Communism, maintaining an unabated faith in Western democracy. As he told an interviewer in 1973: “You tell the midwestern housewife that for the good of the state she’ll have to give up her washing machine and dryer and dishwasher and her electric conveniences and take to scrubbing clothes against a rock in a stream and she will have none of it. No one is going to take away her washing machine, least of all for the good of the state.” When asked about becoming a U.S. citizen, Richard Dawson said that he was felt incapable of assuming the responsibilities of casting a ballot. (He would eventually become an American citizen in 1984.) (Source: The Phoenix, July 20, 1973)

6. ABC once offered Richard Dawson a situation comedy involving two priests in a ghetto. Dawson replied, “There’s a lot of humor there, counseling young girls about abortions and heroin.” The conversation ended quickly and the offer was rescinded. (Source: The Pittsburgh Press, June 4, 1978)

7. Richard Dawson was a night person and felt the happiest when the sun was setting. He would stay up writing or reading, and read about five books a week. It remains unknown whether he practiced vampiric tendencies. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

8. As a young man in the merchant marine, Richard Dawson started out as a laundry boy and worked his way up to waiter. But this was not enough income for the young strapping Englishman. So he started boxing his mates on ship to bring in some extra cash. But Richard Dawson’s hustling didn’t stop there. When he transferred to the Cunard line, he slipped the maitre’d some cash to make sure he was waiting on the high-tipping tables. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

9. Dawson nabbed his first role by making up Shakespeare quotes on the spot. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

10. Dawson also secured employment in London by claiming to be a famous Canadian comic on vacation, looking for a few weeks work. A year later, Dawson was playing the Palladium. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

11. Richard Dawson had perforated eardrums. (Source: The Phoenix, July 20, 1973)

12. When it came to exercise, Richard Dawson was a real man. In 1966, he went for a brisk 15-minute daily walk. He also managed to get in a swim six days a week in weather foul and fair. (Source: Universal Press Syndicate, July 17, 1966)

13. Richard Dawson spent much of his time shooting pool. In the 1960s, he converted one of his five bedrooms into an antique poolroom, with the table acquired from Tommy Noonan. (Source: Universal Press Syndicate, July 17, 1966)

14. In the early 1980s, TV Guide wished to profile the top six game show hosts in the country. Richard Dawson was not profiled. The reason? He would only agree to an interview if he, and he alone, appeared on the cover. It is unclear whether Richard Dawson continued to make such bold editorial demands for the remainder of his life. (Source: The Leader-Post, February 1, 1985)


Wayne Shannon: A Video Tribute

A few days ago, I reported the death of Wayne Shannon, whose legacy as a broadcasting innovator and precursor to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and and Michael Moore had been needlessly overlooked in recent years. Wayne was also a friend. And last night, the cause of Wayne’s death was revealed to be a suicide. Wayne’s body had been found by two hunters in Northern Idaho. His body had been there for many months.

As of Friday morning, the San Francisco TV station (KRON) where Wayne worked for many years, has not acknowledged Wayne Shannon’s death in any way. Last night, I contacted KRON by telephone. I spoke with Bonnie Hitch, who was kind and who offered me a few minutes of her time. Ms. Hitch told me that KRON still hadn’t decided on whether or not it would recognize Wayne Shannon, but that they had learned of his death. KRON had not been aware of Wayne’s suicide.

I also asked Ms. Hitch about how well the KRON news archives were preserved. What was the state of Wayne’s numerous commentaries? His segments in the field? His body of work? She informed me that there wasn’t even an archivist employed at KRON these days. “It’s a very different news station,” said Ms. Hitch. KRON culture had changed. Ms. Hitch wasn’t even sure that the airchecks had been preserved. She told me that she would put me in touch with the person in charge of the news archives, and it is my hope to contact someone at KRON who is even remotely interested in preserving KRON’s long legacy as a major news station.

In his final years, Wayne had assembled a disc containing a small handful of his work. Was this all he had? Unfortunately it was. This disc was all that remained of his considerable work. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne had written to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”

Shortly after talking with Ms. Hitch, I went through my files and located Wayne’s disc. It contained this note:

Yo Ed:

A few weeks before Noel Coward died he held an intimate soiree at his home during which, by all accounts, he performed for the very last time.

Those in attendance, if memory serves, were Lunt and Fontanne, Oliver and Leigh, Oscar Wilde, Jascha Heifitz, the Raymond Masseys and the Rex Harrisons, the latter naming their first born son after Noel.

We are assured that it was an exquisitely memorable night of much wine and laughter and tears born of same, along with a game that developed whereby participants challenged their memories by trying to match some of the more obscure lines of dialogue from his plays — with the titles of his many Broadway and Piccadilly triumphs.

This was followed by a medley on the piano of Coward’s many hit songs, accompanied by Heifitz, which naturally concluded with his immortal, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”

I am, of course, no Noel Coward and, unfortunately, have more years to live than I doubtless deserve. However, I wanted you to know that to me…you are not only to be numbered among the “luminaries” he had about him that evening those many, many decades ago…but, had I been able to do so…you would have been invited to such a gathering — though you may very well have had the good sense not to attend or, perhaps, admit to it later.

However, if you had done so, you too would have seen my final performance — from virtually my first words ever on American TV — to undeniably my last, “Yahoo!”

I cannot accept Wayne’s work falling into obscurity. I cannot accept his self-deprecatory nature refusing to understand, even in this note, that people loved and respected what he did. And I cannot accept his work not getting its proper due.

So I have uploaded nearly all of the video I have so that people can see how Wayne was ahead of his time. The twenty-one segment salute below reveals that Wayne, who won six Emmys for his work, was a wily reporter, a witty commentator, a skilled performer, a gleeful satirist, and a man who was very good at talking with people.

Star Wars: This is one of Wayne’s earliest television appearances, in which he talks with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. He even asks Carrie for a kiss, a move that would be unthinkable in today’s junket climate.

Rocks (1980): This is a great example of the muckraking multipart series Wayne was known for during his days in Detroit. (Indeed, as I learned in a 2008 radio interview I conducted with Wayne, many of Wayne’s pioneering concepts during these days would be stolen by Michael Moore and used in Roger & Me.) Wayne fearlessly took on many of the auto manufacturers and was run out of Detroit for this (despite the fact that his segments greatly improved the evening news ratings). And the “All by Myself” montage where Wayne abandons his “rock” on the freeway and rollerskates away is an unusual break from the hard journalism that local television news was then known for.

Lemons: In Philadelphia, Shannon was known as the “TV 2 Troubleshooter.” His coverage, as we learn here, could be hilariously epic (in this case, the segment above is “part three of his ten part series on lemons,” as Robbie Timmons introduces) — almost as if he was working on one giant documentary film split into neat segments for the evening news. Wayne’s ability to combine consumer advocacy with comedy is in great form here, especially with the concluding Rocky homage.

Hedgehogs: This “TV 2 Troubleshooter” segment sees Wayne fleshing out his satirical journalism. There’s the opening sound gag, along with some folksy banter with a stamp collector (“Ever been took?”).

The Box Top Rebellion: In this segment on coupon clippers (which contains some eerie parallels to post-2008 economic life), we see that Wayne was very keen on highly theatrical introduction sequences. But he was also very good about learning how a system worked, as seen from the fascinating clips inside a coupon clearing house (“where old coupons go for that big redemption in the sky”).

Magic Nails: Not only do we get a quick glimpse of a young Maury Povich, but we see Wayne taking on “Magic Nails” — a dangerous toy manufactured at a Burger King restaurant. Wayne’s journalistic rigor is on display. He talks with pediatrician Alan Freedman and updates the story with some shoe leather reporting.

The Vent People: I don’t know if the success of Wayne’s consumer advocacy had Channel 3 assigning Wayne to more hard reporting. Perhaps they didn’t quite know what to do with him. But this segment also shows that Wayne was a good journalist. He reveals efforts to uncover how the homeless sleep on the steam vents at night, along with the reasons why others aren’t allowed to help the vent people.

Wayne-Bo and Tom: The first part of this clip is rather baffling. It features “Wayne-Bo” entertaining kids and talking with Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. Was this a bona-fide children’s show hosted by Wayne which aired in Philadelphia? The second part features a clip of Tom Snyder extolling Wayne at the end for an episode of The Tomorrow Show, which Wayne made an appearance on. (Note to self: A trip to Paley is in order.)

Santa and Thermatron: The Santa bit is from a bizarre 1981 program that Wayne did called Santa and Son. I have no idea if it even aired anywhere. Then there’s a “Thinking Out Loud” segment on the Thermatron, a precursor to the commentaries that Wayne would be known for during his KRON days.

KRON Clips: Wayne, now at Channel 4, talks with Jonathan Winters. There are three additional segments: (1) a Wayne commentary on how laser beams are being used to cut through clogged arteries (and how Wayne has sought “a revisionist nutritionist”), (2) a closing credits monologue of Wayne on the road, and (3) a Wayne commentary on how to celebrate California adventure (with some inside dirt about then Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood).

The Merv Griffin Show: Merv Griffin, who lived in Monterey, was a Wayne Shannon fan and invited Wayne to appear on his program. Wayne reveals the trouble he got into for suggesting that dumping atomic waste into the ocean might be a possible solution. “I guess you don’t hear that viewpoint that often.” “Why would you advocate that?” asks Merv. “Well,” replies Wayne, “because everybody else isn’t.”

Claim to Fame Promo: Wayne appeared on another locally produced KRON show called Claim to Fame, in which an assembled panel tried to guess who the person was based on their vocation. Wayne was one of the regulars, along with Ann Jones, Charlie Haas, and Sylvia Brown (later with an E). This promo for the show features Wayne prominently. There is also a ten second clip from the show attached.

Claim to Fame: Here’s a longer part of Claim to Fame, which features a more spartan set than the one with the FAME lights. (Budget cuts at KRON?)

Bay Area Minute: This short KRON segment features Wayne rhapsodizing about the Bay Bridge.

Three KRON Commentaries: In these collected clips, Wayne offers a commentary on Tanzanian chimpanzees getting high on leaves, another commentary on pesticides, and a third commentary on Fleet Week.

CNBC: In these clips from his CNBC days (featuring some charmingly retro graphics), Wayne provides a commentary on Norplant, sits patiently at the ACE Awards (for which he is nominated), co-anchors a Real Estate Report, and interviews Ken Hakuta, the inventor of the Wacky Wall Walker (and self-styled “Dr. Fad”), with absurd results.

TV 25 Vancouver: In this TV 25 Vancouver segment, Wayne investigates a post office branch in Vancouver, Washington, discovering how postal workers toil and the impact of a holiday package influx.

TV 49 Portland: In the first clip from Wayne’s TV 49 Portland days, Wayne probes Nick’s Famous Coney Island, talks with owner Frank Nudo, and contends with hot dogs. The second clip features Wayne’s movie reviews of Mad Love, Judge Dredd, and Crimson Tide>

TV 6 Portland: In this clip from TV 6 Portland, Wayne goes out in search of white deer in Redland.

Ask the Weather Guru: This interview with Wayne Shannon (just after his television days) has Wayne coming out as the “Ask the Weather Guru” man at Yahoo. He attempts to explain what an occluded front is. But I can’t help but focus on just how small his apartment is at this time.

The Memorial Wall: Wayne’s last appearance on television, from August 2011. He was in Idaho, visiting the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall and wanting to know if three people from his hometown of Moses Lake, Washington had been killed during the war. He didn’t see their names. Months later, he would walk into the woods and never come out.


Remembering Wayne Shannon (1948-2012)

In September 2006, I wrote an essay about a local television commentator by the name of Wayne Shannon. Shannon appeared frequently on KRON 4 Evening News, in the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up, in the 1980s. I was to learn later that Shannon had an illustrious career, with stints in Philadelphia and Detroit. I wondered why there was no online record of a man who had touched millions, a man who was a little ahead of his time with his acerbic television commentaries. Two decades later, there had been something about Shannon’s approach that had caked its way into my noggin. Was it his common sense arguments? His acid barbs? I remember that he had been so funny that even the guys behind the camera couldn’t suppress their laughter. Yet nobody had thought to memorialize him or write about him or upload video clips so that future people could see what he was all about.

I was able to piece together some information, learning that Shannon had left KRON in 1988 when news director Herb Dudnick became tired of his commentaries and after Wayne had tried to negotiate a new deal unsuccessfully with the appropriate brass. I learned that he had a stint on CNBC. But there was no real luck with the San Francisco Chronicle archives. Richard Grayson was kind enough to check LexisNexis, but that only went back to 1990. Shannon had been supremely popular in the San Francisco Bay Area, but he represented someone who had needlessly slipped through the cracks — the victim of being professionally active during an era that, from the vantage point of the last five years, allows some of its more localized and esoteric figures to slip.

So I put up my post and discovered that I wasn’t the only one searching for Wayne Shannon. There were a few emails and comments. And then Wayne Shannon himself showed up, leaving a comment (partially quoted below):

Hi Edward:

Wayne Shannon here. About once a year I get on the web and type in my name and see what I do/do not get.

And there you were. Thanks for remembering me at all, web failure or not.

My privacy continues to be paramount in my life, so, unfortunately, the email address above no longer exists. Sorry about that, but I’m not inclined to divulge the one I use these days.

An entry that had started from a single question turned into a veritable Wayne Shannon party. Other people named Wayne Shannon showed up, including an Atlanta-based arborist who wrote, “I am still around. You didn’t search hard enough.” But soon more people from Wayne’s life appeared, all of them remembering Wayne fondly. Wayne showed up intermittently. And I opened up another thread for Wayne to talk with his fans.

Wayne and I began corresponding. He graciously offered to send me a DVD featuring some of his clips (or as he called it “hatest grits”), and I said, yes, absolutely, send it my way. I’d love to see it.

My partner and I watched all the clips in one sitting. We couldn’t stop. It was absolutely clear that Wayne Shannon was a television talent, somewhere between consumer crusader and comedian, who was decades ahead of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He took on auto manufacturers over epic ten part segments (and I would later learn that Michael Moore would pilfer some of Shannon’s comedic approach with Roger & Me). He would assemble homages and parodies to popular movies on the local evening news during a time in which such experimentation was unthinkable. (But in an age in which The Daily Show pours out a steady stream of satirical graphics, this is now commonplace.)

What happened to Wayne Shannon? The biggest question I had was why this man had stopped.

My partner and I did some additional research and made sure that Wayne got a Wikipedia page. We made sure some of the clips found their way onto YouTube.

I asked Wayne if he would appear on The Bat Segundo Show. He agreed. You can listen to our conversation here.

He threw himself into his work, recording commentaries at a flurrious rate to keep what remained of his family together.

He had been through a brutal, an especially brutal divorce.

His kids had been taken away from him. His soon-to-be ex-wife demonstrated no quarter.

He suffered from low self-esteem for most of his life.

I learned all this from the interview. Listening to the conversation now, after hours of wrapping my head around a world without Wayne Shannon, I’m not only condemning myself for my journalistic detachment. I’m wondering if I should have done more. Wayne was crying at the end of the interview because I had dredged up terrible personal revelations. And I quickly put an end to our talk. Who the hell was I to push further? What good was this nostalgia? My efforts to tell the world about Wayne Shannon? Wasn’t the man in enough pain?

But Wayne and I still emailed. Wayne thanked me for “what will likely be my last interview.” He insisted that Wayne-Bo, the personality he had created for his commentaries, was dead.

I sent Wayne information on how to pitch NPR. I tried to persuade him to get on Twitter. I insisted that he needed to write. It was not the time for goodbye, but a time for revival. Surely there were other tapes of Wayne’s segments. We could get the entire video collection up somewhere.

No, Wayne reported back to me. The disc I had was all that remained. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne wrote back to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”

Wayne was needlessly self-deprecatory to the end.

What I didn’t count on was that Wayne’s children would discover him on the Web — thanks to my page. He was able to send all of the information that chronicled and collected his life to his kids, including the “surprisingly accurate bio” on Wikipedia that my partner and I had assembled.

For a long time, he wondered if his children had been figments of his imagination.

For a while, I thought Wayne had been a figment of my imagination.

This was not the case.

* * *

The last time we contacted each other was a few years ago. His health was going. He said he was in pain. But he was cracking jokes to the end. He said that he was packing up his computer. That he was going offline for good. Well, wait just a goddam minute.

The last words he wrote: “Write like you’ve got less time than you think you have. It worked for me.”

I tried emailing Wayne back. The email bounced. I tried the phone number I had. It was disconnected.

I never heard from him again.

And then on May 1, 2012, I learned from his son that he had passed away.

* * *

It started with a question. Basic curiosity. Is there some marginalized figure who isn’t getting his due? Someone who Google can’t pick up?

Sometimes the difference between remembering and forgetting someone is what gives that person a new reason to live.

I miss Wayne Shannon.

[5/3/12 UPDATE: More information here. Wayne appears to have taken his own life. I’m utterly gutted about this.]

[5/4/12 UPDATE: For this unfamiliar with Wayne’s work, I have assembled a video tribute, featuring 21 videos from throughout Shannon’s career.]

[5/6/12 UPDATE: A new Tumblr, Wayne Shannon: What’s It All Mean?, has been started, featuring Shannon’s many commentaries.]


What Characters Read Books on Television?

The above screenshot is from a Three’s Company episode called “The Lifesaver,” in which even the dimwitted Chrissy Snow could be seen reading a book. The novel is Concerto of Love (fictional, of course) and Chrissy had only reached Page 4. But it does have me wondering. In 1979, even sitcom characters who were more than a few cards short of a full deck were still committed to reading in some form. Can we say the same thing in 2010? What television reading moments have you seen lately?

UPDATE: Here are some observations from Twitter.

Ron Charles: “Isn’t that odd. There are rarely any books in their homes…”
eBookNewser: “There is an episode of the Rockford Files where Jim is reading some kind of detective novel. Tom Select is in the episode.”
Mark Athitakis: “Best-read character on a show currently on the air: Brian Griffin” and “‘Mad About You’ may be the exception that proves the rule.”
James Othmer: “Draper: Meditations in an Emergency; other Mad Men selecs: Lady Chatterly, The Best of Everything, The Sound & the Fury.”
John Williams: “I imagine Lisa Simpson is pretty well read for her age.”
Mike Cane: “Well, duh, CASTLE. But he also writes them.”
Colleen Mondor: “Has anyone mentioned Rory on THE GILMORE GIRLS yet? It was a hallmark of her character.”
Levi Asher: “hmmm … the youngest kid in “Good Times” was often seen carrying or quoting from a book … Dale Cooper … Lucy Ricardo.”


Conned by Lost

On Sunday night, Lost concluded its six-year run with a nausea-inducing smorgasbord of meet-cutes and hackneyed dialogue, securing its place on the mantle occupied by The Sopranos and the Battlestar Galactica remake. Here was a once great program — a formerly fine creative offering that had once juggled philosophy, intricate human relationships, and quantum theory — reducing itself to poorly contrived romance. You almost expected a dying Barbara Hershey to show up, with Bette Midler singing to a packed Hollywood Bowl crowd. But the bar was perched much lower with Drive Shaft playing the Widmore concert. In one of many preposterous lines delivered over the course of the night, a man told a woman giving birth, “I’m with the band.” Which surely counts as one of the most preposterous explanations related to pregnancy in television history.

Granted, the sixth season’s sideways universe, reliant as it was upon improbable coincidences and even less convincing human behavior, represented a vile wish fulfillment. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting to be conned more respectfully? It was difficult for any reasonable person to believe that Hugo would conveniently show up after Locke had been fired and offered a job. We saw last week that Desmond, Kate, and Sayid were criminals on the lam, but, this week, they magically eluded any and all APBs. And in an even worse surrender, the knowledge of their lives on the island was translated by touch. The finale’s closing moment, more interminable than a soporific Oscars ceremony and containing the discomfiting whiff of some Fred Phelps-like figure steering the story, suggested less gracefully than Ambrose Bierce (or even Jacob’s Ladder writer Bruce Joel Rubin) that the last six years had more or less been inside Jack’s Judeo-Christian head. (No accident that dear papa was named Christian.) And we were blessed with the producers insulting the audience’s intelligence with that dreadful church congregation. With its sixth season, Lost had capitulated its artistic credibility for the doldrums of dumbed down entertainment. What if the program had ended with the nuclear bomb and the sacrifices at the end of the fifth season? Would this not have created more enigmas for the febrile Losties to argue about at conventions over the next few decades? Would this not have been greater art? The mysteries resolved in the last year were done so with such distressing literalism that one sensed the telltale smell of otiose ABC executives pressuring writers into a more pedestrian direction.

But beyond any speculations (and there will no doubt be many), it was clear this year that the writers didn’t have a plan and they didn’t know when to quit. They concluded the show with a half-hearted amalgam of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and Charles Beaumont’s short story, “The Howling Man.” The characters had moved on. Evil had to be stopped from leaving the island. The Man in Black fled across the isle, and the surgeon followed.

The two people to blame for Sunday’s catastrophe are writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who were also responsible for the gratuitous spoon-feeder “Across the Sea” from two weeks earlier. Indeed, you can trace the abysmal dip in Lost‘s writing quality to Brian K. Vaughan’s exit just before the final season. He was hired as an executive story editor during the third season hiatus, when the series was in tremendous trouble with too many forced imprisonments and not enough momentum. And a program that looked as if it was a lost cause suddenly became interesting again. Then Vaughan left. We may never know the real reasons why. But PR spin will shine its rosy light in the years to come.

As a result, Lost, which had become so wonderfully convoluted during the fifth season with two head-spinning and steadily shifting timelines, became a viewing experience in which you could fold laundry and still follow the plot. It took a great celestial concept and turned it into The Celestine Prophecy. It rejected the built-in audience that had theorized so fervently over the years and pissed into its face. And that’s too bad. Because for a long time, Lost was above such debasement.


Super Friends: An Origin Point

It is difficult to explain the now extinct Saturday morning cartoon experience to anybody under twenty-five, but it shared certain qualities with a Sunday morning religious service, where one dressed in ratty pajamas and multihued Underoos in lieu of serge suit and neck-restricting tie. A soaky bowl of cornflakes replaced the stale sacramental pomp and circumstance of wafers, offering an altogether different eucharist metaphor with slightly more nutritional value. Leaden and predictable hymns, in which one was badgered into belting out a tinny tune identified by number, were uprooted by Hoyt Curtin’s jazzy cues for Hanna-Barbera. And the ethical lessons arising from a pastor’s ponderous sermon found an uncanny surrogate with the didactic messages tacked onto the end of an animated adventure. Both slipped through the mind like a sieve.

But since nostalgia is a dangerous narcotic, the cartoons have retained an entirely irrational hold upon my imagination. Years later, a piece of dialogue or a backdrop hastily painted by an underpaid artist has often rustled through my mind without prompting, latching atop a more tangible life experience and sometimes threatening to supercede it.

With the recent release of Super Friends‘s first season onto DVD, I set out to understand this allure and found an oddly methadonic satisfaction. If I did not entirely put away childish things during this revistation, I certainly began to understand the draw.

In the early 1970s, Hanna-Barbera wrested away the animation rights to DC Comics’s characters, restyling the Justice League of America as “Super Friends.” It was the beginning of a gallant fourteen year run under numerous incarnations. Challenge of the Super Friends was the best of the bunch, pitting eleven superheroes (which included the newly invented Apache Chief and Samurai, both awkward nods to multiculturalism) against thirteen of their worst enemies (led by Lex Luthor) who never offered an explanation as to why they spent so much of their time shuffling around the swampy Hall of Doom. But in other versions, such as The World’s Greatest Super Friends, one had to endure Zan and Jayna – a somewhat vexing pair of siblings clad in cheesy purple uniforms, accompanied by a blue monkey named Gleek. (Presumably, fashionistas did not exist on the planet Exxor. Or maybe everybody there just liked bluish tones.) This teen duo, who had a surprisingly crisp command of American teen vernacular (or so the writers wished to believe), could, respectively, turn into water form and animal form shortly after announcing “Wonder Twin powers, activate!” Due to this verb’s alarming mechanical quality, there was considerable schoolyard speculation over whether the Wonder Twins were elaborate androids rather than extraterrestrial beings. But at the time, all of us wanted to believe in this cartoon – in part because there were then only three networks and a wild mix of UHF stations to choose from.

But the flagstones for this escapist enterprise were set down with the first season’s one-hour format, which featured a mere five superheroes (Superman, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, and a curiously underemployed Wonder Woman), while cadging archetypes and vocal talent from Scooby-Doo. The quintet that everyone tuned in to see was accompanied by three “junior superheroes,” who proved to be infinitely more annoying than the Wonder Twins: Marvin White, a redheaded Shaggy clone voiced by a young (and now legendary) “Franklin Welker,” who proved to be even stupider than his inspiration (“Wow, I’d like to be big and strong,” says Marvin in an episode called “The Shaman ‘U’,” which is then followed by a Peter Griffin-style titter); Wendy Harris, who merged Velma’s eccentricities with Daphne’s patient encouragement; and Wonder Dog, a spaced-out Scooby replica fond of scarfing down hot dogs. This trio, possessing neither pluck nor superpowers, proved so unremarkable (and unlikable) that they did not last past the first season. (Comic book writer Geoff Johns would later viciously mutilate these irksome tagalongs in a 2006 issue of Teen Titans.)

Considering these conversational conditions and Colonel Wilcox’s constant interruptions on the TroubAlert, the Super Friends’s patience is to be commended. In early episodes, Batman made futile efforts to get Marvin thinking about photosynthesis and atmospheric conditions. But by “The Shaman ‘U’,” this friendlier (and more dulcet-voiced) Dark Knight leveled with Marvin when the boy wished to accompany him, simply explaining, “We’re not taking you with us.” I can understand Batman’s reticence. Robin was a competent teenage sidekick (voiced by longtime American Top 40 host Casey Kasem) only a few years older than Marvin, but, in the hands of Hanna-Barbera, he was never a noxious pipsqueak.

While this prototype offers some unintentional laughs courtesy of tacky animation (Wonder Woman is inexplicably illustrated with thunder thighs, an animation involving Aquaman summoning three whales shows up multiple times, and Superman’s X-ray vision resembles a cheap flashlight running on dying batteries), there’s an interesting eco-friendly theme to these stories. In “Too Hot to Handle,” an alien attempts to change the Earth’s atmosphere after his home planet has become polluted. “The Weather Maker” features a scientist attempting to manipulate the Gulf Stream so that it will warm up his frigid nation. “Dr. Pelagion’s War” features a scene that is now unthinkable, where business magnates puff on expensive cigars in an executive boardroom. One cries out, “There’s no harm in a little smoke,” and offers a flourish to the smokestacks fulminating just outside his window.

But the standout here is the accidentally prescient “Professor Goodfellow’s G.E.E.C.,” whereby a giant Google-like computer named G.E.E.C. controls everything on the planet. Like Google, it can find you a cab. Like YouTube, it can educate you with a video. At the time that Super Friends was produced, “geek” didn’t yet take on its present tech-savvy connotation. And when Marvin offers to “write a letter to the G.E.E.C.,” one can just as easily imagine him firing off an email.

Narrator Ted Knight (who would find greater success as the bumbling Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) doesn’t quite have the gravitas of his booming successor, William Woodson. And the primitive transitions between scenes can’t compare to the three stars shooting towards the viewer in later years. But Robin’s exclamations were more epigrammatic during the first year. (He lets loose “Holy misnomers!” and “Perambulating plexiglass!”) Danny Dark, later known as “the voice of NBC,” is suitably slick, perhaps too slick, as Superman. Dark’s confident voiceover, taken with Superman’s frequent collaboration with Aquaman to resolve some amphibian crisis, makes one feel as if poor Aquaman, who merely has the ability to communicate telepathically with his “ocean friends,” is unfairly upstaged by Superman’s considerable talents.

These were imperfect entertainments, divested of grit and violence, that would be severely dwarfed by the Cartoon Network’s Justice League during the 21st century. But someone had to work out the kinks and get kids excited. Super Friends‘s enduring appeal can be measured by the limitless YouTube remixes, the unceasing flow of cultural reference (a recent episode of Family Guy opened with a parody of the opening credits), and the fact that superheroes, even those contained in watered-down narratives, still capture the imagination.

The Death of Ken Ober

Ken Ober is dead at 52. For all I know, Ken Ober was a nice guy. I truthfully hadn’t even thought about him for more than a decade until people fired the news my way. But since he is dead, his legacy — limited as it was to a somewhat forgotten and not terribly revered television show (well, that, and apparently writing and producing installments of Mind of Mencia) — will be framed around the talent he brought to said program. Like many who grew up during a particular era, I did catch several episodes. I even had a Remote Control T-shirt that I plucked from the Marshall’s bargain bin — largely for its bright hues and the affordability it presented to my parental units at the time. This sartorial decision resulted in me being severely ridiculed in the summer of 1989 by a girl I had a crush on (along with her friends). And even though this little anecdote doesn’t matter at all to me twenty years later, and I bear no malice towards the girl, the shirt, the program, or Ken Ober, I feel the need to preface any thoughts or feelings I bring to the table in order to avoid any possibility of prejudgment. It might indeed win me five points in the new game we are playing, which is certainly more complex than the older one.

What I can state, after reviewing the above clip, is that I’m not terribly interested in Remote Control now, nor am I particularly impressed. The terrible fashion sense embraced by the contestants cannot be helped, for it was of its year. But I find the vaguely stoned looks of this trio a bit troublesome. This is not the kind of condition, whether real or staged, that should be photographed. Unless you’re making a fun little movie like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. There is a striving here without any real effort that absolutely resembles the Williamsburg hipster, which brings us again to the perpetuation of stereotypes without an effort to puncture these impressions. I’m also not sure if Ken Ober really brought anything other than a conventionally smarmy stand-up act.

This doesn’t resemble my memories from the late 1980s. I recall enjoying the program. But today, in 2009, I can find very little to like about it. As tenable concessions, I’ll single out Ken Olin’s striped shirt and the now extinct LED point system that they used to serve up in game shows of the period. But then I have a strange fixation on sounds and symbols that are antediluvian.

The snack breaks, featuring popcorn and other crud drifting from unknown heavens and making a mess onto the contestants, may have been a slight draw. But it was eclipsed by the sticky possibilities of Double Dare years later — a show, like Remote Control, presently in diminished standing. So why are we hanging down our heads? Is it name recognition? Brand recognition? Some galvanizing point for brain-dead television?

I will leave others who soak their noggins in this stuff to argue the possibly legitimate position that Remote Control is good television, or more worthwhile than my admittedly snapshot trip down a certain mnemonic ghetto, and happily read their viewpoints. I only ask this: Was Ken Ober necessary? Or could another man have filled his place? (I can see a young Kevin Pollack doing this much better.) And if the latter is true, then why bother to go to the trouble of spending serious time taking in the death of Ken Ober? Perhaps he was entertaining. And for those who mourn Ken Ober’s loss and who feel some stir inside the heart based on a tenuous cultural relationship, my condolences. But what did Ken Ober really do for anybody aside from suggest that we scarf down Hot Pockets and keep our heads into the sand? Maybe I’m just hostile to the sustained celebration of bad television, but I’m genuinely curious.

On the other hand, Edward Woodward is also dead. Now that’s a great equalizer.

Is Conan O’Brien a Corporate Shill?

We saw Prime Minster John Key on David Letterman’s show pushing Cinnabon while reading the Top Ten List. But what happens if you’re a world leader who appears on a late night program and you don’t even have a choice? Take Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s September 28, 2009 appearance on The Tonight Show. The production team grabbed a clip and decided to add subtitles featuring Subway products. Indeed, Conan O’Brien’s zeal for Subway is so strong that he interrupts jockey Joe Talamo, which you can see at the 0:47 mark. Does Conan just like Subway sandwiches or does he have a sponsor to appease?

This is the third video in the “corporate shill” series, which follows Jay Leno and David Letterman. In deciding whether or not Conan O’Brien fits the shilling bill, you may want to ask why O’Brien makes reference to two recent consumer events (The Gap founder dying and The Wizard of Oz DVD coming out this week) two nights in a row.

Is David Letterman a Corporate Shill?

While David Letterman isn’t as prolific as Jay Leno with his in-show hawking, Letterman does shower his opening monologues with products. Applebee’s and Hooters are frequent mentions. But very often, Letterman will name a product and speak of it in a way that is reminiscent of a commercial. Watch how Letterman names KOA at the 0:10 mark and starts talking about KOA’s electrical hookup, swimming pools, and vending machines. (Paul Shaffer is heard reinforcing this by responding, “They have everything you need.”) Later, in the same show, Letterman’s writers have embedded StairMaster into a joke. Letterman is also given the opportunity to drop a few products during the Stupid Pet Tricks segment. Presumably, the chihuahua was chosen not because of the trick, but in order for Letterman to offer the crack about the Taco Bell chihuahua.

One fishy quality on Late Show (and not even Leno does this quite so explicitly with his guests) is the way that products enter into these interviews. We’ll see a particularly offensive example of a product within an interview in a future segment of the “Corporate Shill” series which I’ll be unloading later in the week. But for the moment, observe how The Mentalist star Simon Baker drops Kmart and Mars Bar into his story. Why can’t Baker simply say that his mother worked as a security guard? And why does Baker say “Mars Bar” instead of “candy bar?” Might it have something to do with the fact that Mars Inc is a major advertiser on Letterman? [UPDATE: A commenter points out that the Mars Bar was discontinued in the States in 2000, replaced by the Snickers Almond.]

But perhaps the most astonishing moment here is Prime Minister John Key pushing Cinnabon while reading the top ten list. As we shall see, world leaders are fair game for hawking products, often without knowing it.

Is Jay Leno a Corporate Shill?

You’d think that with a whopping 20 minutes carved out of an hour for commercials, the actual television program itself would be devoid of commercials, right? Not so. Jay Leno has a considerable preoccupation with naming products on his show (and, in the video above, interviewing the Wendy’s girl). The above video, featuring moments only from the September 25, 2009 episode of The Jay Leno Show, features blatant references to Cialis, Walmart, Photoshop, Waffle House, numerous tire companies, Wendy’s, and Microsoft’s Bing, calling into question the notion that The Jay Leno Show is an entertainment program. With all of these mentions, you’d think that Jay Leno was running a glorified infomercial.


The Bat Segundo Show: Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #305.

Dick Cavett’s column, “Talk Show,” regularly appears at the New York Times.


(PROGRAM NOTE: During the course of our conversation, a “Professor Robert Castelli from John Jay College” — who apparently has a background in law enforcement — pushed in Mr. Cavett’s chair, causing Mr. Cavett to accost him. This unusual social moment, which was resolved with bonhomie, can be experienced at the 38:04 mark.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Examining his birth certificate for potential Nebraskan roots.

Guest: Dick Cavett

Subjects Discussed: Books that Cavett may or may not have authored, jobs that Cavett has worked, being a professional magician as a teenager, Cavett’s brief career as a caddy, humorless Germans, James Ellroy, starting the Caddies Hall of Fame, Groucho Marx’s golf ball-enhanced hat, stalking Jack Paar in the bathroom, the dreadful cliche “It’s who you know, not what you know,” being drawn to living with showbiz people, Paul Douglas, meeting Groucho at George S. Kaufman’s funeral, Studs Terkel, being born with the showbiz urge, fame vs. ideas, whether or not showbiz people are “real” people, Nixon’s blue-suit adventures in Montauk, separating the real Cavett from the telegenic Cavett, Johnny Carson’s failure to remember his guest lineup that night, learning how to listen over the years, real listening vs. telegenic listening, Jimmy Fallon, on not relying on a catalog of quips, overpreparing for an interview, advice Cavett picked up from Jack Paar, the icky word “share,” Werner Erhard and est, “oversharing,” Twitter, on not getting Mike Nichols on the show, interviews vs. conversations, when Cavett had to telephone potential guests to get them on the show, Frank Sinatra, Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” secretly taping a telephone conversation with Marlon Brando, phrases that Brando used, Cary Grant, having to contend with armies of publicists, the worthlessness of many present talk show appearances, talent coordinators, allegations from 1960s Toronto journalists that Cavett was “attractively functional,” the bright orange shag rug on the ABC set, being bombarded by constant information and subwindows on television, TV as GUI, why Cavett didn’t renew his six-year contract at CNBC, the mispronunciation of “nuclear,” David Frost, the problems with occupying vacant rooms, Peter Ustinov, claims from executives that people won’t sit still for a long-form interview, the relationship between William Peter Blatty’s appearance and the success of The Exorcist, the number of panties that Cavett has received over the years, resistance from ABC, the infamous Norman Mailer-Gore Vidal show, the Mailer-Torn brawl, Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots, the Lillian Hellman/Mary McCarthy feud, making sure that writers could talk on television, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart as “the most trusted newsman in America.”


cavettCorrespondent: I’m curious about this period of you coming to New York. Coming into town. You’re on the prowl trying to get work as an actor. Before you eventually become a copy boy for Time Magazine.

Cavett: That’s right. I finally made it. (laughs)

Correspondent: I should point out that your efforts to befriend numerous showbiz figures here in New York would in some cases, by today’s standards, be considered stalking. You know, Jack Paar in the bathroom and all that.

Cavett: Yeah.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Were you drawn by the notion of “It’s who you know rather than what you know” — or what was the impetus for this?

Cavett: I had heard that dreadful cliche, usually used in the same conversation as “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” and “Some of my best friends are Jews.” In fact, two friends of mine used all three one evening and hit the jackpot. But anyway to get to your question.

Correspondent: Wow. And they’re still your friends?

Cavett: They’re both dead. So I don’t see them that often.

Correspondent: Using the phrase has killed them, I presume.

Cavett: It mighta. If cliches could kill.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Cavett: But what was the one we were working on?

Correspondent: Oh, we were kinda talking about who you know.

Cavett: Oh, who you know. Nobody ever says, “It’s whom you know.”

Correspondent: No, they don’t.

Cavett: Even though my father was an English teacher, I never did. And I was just drawn to famous successful showbiz people and wanted to live among them.

Correspondent: Really.

Cavett: Be one of them. And that took me to accost — on my first day in New York — Dave Garroway, who was out in front of the Today Show window. And speaking of making it around as an actor, one day, the great Paul Douglas — film actor for those of us older than 30 — was standing next to me waiting for a light to change waiting on Madison Avenue. And I said, “Mr. Douglas, where would you go to look for work today as an actor?” And he said, “I couldn’t answer,” and walked on. (laughs) He wasn’t impolite.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: He told the truth.

Correspondent: He probably had to get to an appointment. I’m sure it wasn’t anything personal.

Cavett: I still love him in the movies.

Correspondent: But you managed to coax Groucho into buying you lunch. And I’m curious if it was a scenario involving charisma or blackmail. I mean, what happened here? What did you attribute your ability to get on with so many people? So many bigwigs here? Or did you stalk them all like Jack Paar?

Cavett: Well, I’ve never given that much thought. I don’t know what it is. Something in me appealed to him apparently enough. I met him at George S. Kaufman’s funeral — or after it on the street. Groucho was starting to come down Fifth Avenue. Puerto Rican Day Parade booming along beside. And I said, “Groucho, I’m a big fan of yours.” Then he said, “Well, if we get any hotter, I can use a big fan.” I should have said “gets any hotter,” which is what he said. Retake. (laughs) And Groucho said, “Well if it gets any hotter, I can use a big fan.” There. That’s right, isn’t it?

Correspondent: Yeah, sure. Sure.

Cavett: Yeah. And the joke still works.

Correspondent: Yeah, it does.

Cavett: Even though it was years and years ago.

Correspondent: Actually, we should have six different attempts at this joke.

Cavett: Yeah.

Correspondent: Just to show the Cavett mind.

Cavett: Well, it shows the Groucho mind in a way. Because I never saw him misspeak a joke or a line. I only saw Hope, who I used to worship and watch and hang around when I was working for Carson/Parr. When we were out in California, I would watch Hope tape his show all the time. Once or twice, he would blow a monologue or a joke, and get a bigger laugh about doing that. As Johnny could.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: And really any good comic could. But where was I? Oh, Groucho. So we started walking down the street and chatting. Beautiful day. And I remember thinking, “This may be the best day of my life.” And I’m still not sure it was not. When we got all the way down the Plaza, where he was lunching — alone. And on the way down, he insulted every doorman. And then a Puerto Rican man in a bright suit happily enjoying his day saw Groucho and made a great grin. And he said, “Com-e-dy!” (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: And Groucho said, “Tell me. Is it true that you were cutting sugar cane only a month ago? You seem to have succeeded with that suit.” Well, anyway, it entertained me and the man. And we got to 59th Street. And he said to me, in the voice from the game show, “Well you seem like a nice young man and I’d like you to have lunch with me.” And I thought, “Am I going to awaken in a moment and find this to be only a dream?”

Correspondent: The question I have is why did showbiz people appeal more than, say, regular people. Like say the doorman, for example. I know that over the course of your show, you had a number of intriguing cultural figures and unusual people that wouldn’t be on other late-night shows. But on the other hand, it does make me curious why culture, in some sense, was the great prism for which you could conduct these many lengthy conversations with these people. Why didn’t you go the Studs Terkel route? I’m curious.

Cavett: How do you see the Studs Terkel route?

Correspondent: Well, he talked with everybody.

Cavett: Talking to?

Correspondent: He talks with writers. He talks with ditchmen.

Cavett: Talk to janitors. Or, in the politically correct age, custodians.

Correspondent: Exactly.

Cavett: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m old enough that when I went to elementary school, they called them custodians back then.

Cavett: They did even then? Oh.

Correspondent: Yeah, they did. Back in the 70s.

BSS #305: Dick Cavett (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Kathleen Collins

Kathleen Collins appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #290.

Kathleen Collins is most recently the author of Watching What We Eat.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with traumatic cooking show associations.

Author: Kathleen Collins

Subjects Discussed: TK


kathleencollinsCorrespondent: I should probably start this conversation off by confessing something to you. I think that Rachael Ray is a bit on the crazy side. She’s not someone who really makes me comfortable. I’m actually quite frightened by her. You know, I don’t find her down-to-earth at all. And I think maybe we can start off by describing how we went from this relatively benign cooking show setup, in which you had a quieter, less frenetic impulse, to this more exhibitionistic cooking show that involves a Jerry Springer-like audience shouting for the EVOO and all that. How did we get from one extreme to the other? Do you have any fundamental observation throughout the course of your meticulous observations?

Collins: I do. Although first I have to address your fear of Rachael Ray. Of which I don’t think you’re alone. I can’t remember where I read it. But I heard somebody liken her to Shrek. I don’t know if it was physicality. Or the monsterness. But you’re not alone. I mean, there are people who absolutely adore her. And they’re usually moms. Somebody’s mom who loves her. But otherwise I think, yeah, she can be pretty scary. How we got to that from, let’s say, the home economists of the 1940s and ’50s?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Collins: Long story. I mean, that’s basically what I tried to cover. And it was just a gradual process from the early days of cooking shows where it was all about selling the sponsor’s products. And let’s just use this kitchen space that we have in our studio. Let’s sell this refrigerator. How are we going to fill the time? Well, this is a cheap thing to do. Let’s have some home economists in here and whip something up. Very dry. And then gradually though, they would add some spiciness. There were some shows in the ’50s that had a little entertainment in them. There was Chef Milani out of Los Angeles. And his show was almost slapstick. There was a lot of comedy in it. So for the most part, it was the home ec ladies in the early days. Very, very gradual. Adding entertainment elements. But things didn’t really change until the entertainment aspect really came on with Graham Kerr. The Galloping Gourmet in 1969. At least 1969 in the U.S. Julia Child, everyone will tell you they were in love with her. They were completely entertained by her. But that was not her sole purpose. That was not her purpose at all. She just happened to be extremely charming and lovable. And there’s been no one like her since. So, you know, as soon as the Galloping Gourmet came on the scene and people saw what you could do with the cooking show, it was sort of a light bulb going off. And then other people tried to do it. But none of them for a while. You know, there was a dry spell.

Correspondent: Yeah. But there’s a fundamental difference between Graham Kerr leaping over the divide.

Collins: And leaping over the chair.

Correspondent: Yeah. Leaping over the chair. That is something I can kind of accept. Because I can imagine a friend of mine cooking penne alfredo doing just that.

Collins: (laughs)

Correspondent: I cannot imagine, for example, Rachael Ray, who is bulging her eyes at the camera, holding the utensils in a manner that is completely unnatural — just from the start — and having this thirty-minute, almost exhibitionistic quality to what we’re doing. We move from something that is plausible. Something that is — okay, we’ve got this fourth wall between the television and us. And it’s just plausible for us to have a realistic connection. We can imagine Graham Kerr possibly coming into the kitchen with us.

Collins; That’s true.

Correspondent: But we can’t quite imagine Rachael Ray demanding that we conform to this thirty-minute rigid time. I mean, she’s almost like an HR manager controlling the exact conditions of your employment.

Collins: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I think a lot of it has to do with the highly produced nature of the show. They have these sets that are just glistening with stainless steel and granite and all the perfect elements that we don’t — many of us don’t have in our homes. Most of us probably don’t have such nice stuff in our kitchens. So we can’t relate to that. And, you know, she doesn’t really cook a meal in front of us. She puts ingredients together in front of us. So it doesn’t look like a real activity. And as for the exhibitionism, I mean, it’s all about personality. I mean, that’s when the Food Network came into being. That’s what they quickly realized was the focal point of every show.

BSS #290: Kathleen Collins (Download MP3)

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Skipping the Super Bowl

Several individuals have reminded me that today is the Super Bowl. A thuggish “working-class” team will be duking it out with a Red State team. Bruce Springsteen has either been enlisted for a halftime negotiation between the two sides, or will be performing some music which suggests that, despite the millions of dollars he has reaped from his fans, he is still somehow “working-class,” “a man of the people,” and that he understands what it means to live from yesterday’s flimsy paycheck to tomorrow’s nonexistent one. And the millions of people who will watch this football match will swallow such illusory class roles without question, because that is what they have been trained to do for so many years. Pundits will be examining the many commercials for their apparent artistic and entertainment merits, but they won’t consider the possibility that drawing attention to a commercial is, in a considerable sense, serving the commercial’s purpose: to sell products and to get a specific brand name discussed among the “rabble.” It will not occur to the Super Bowl crowds that perhaps they are being manipulated, viewed with condescension by those who have put up the money, and that the painted faces of fans serving as B-roll aren’t so much celebrated, as they are ridiculed. Plus, the anchoring amalgam of Al Michaels and John Madden is more dowdy than innovative. (Love or hate Dennis Miller, it took some chutzpah to have him tossing around esoteric references during Monday Night Football some years ago. The anchoring choice was so idiosyncratic that I was then a regular watcher.)

I’m certainly not against the shared television experience. I was there for the 2008 presidential elections and the Obama inauguration. I’ll likely be there for the Oscars. I’ll even be there for future Super Bowls and likely the World Series.

But this year, I will be sitting out the Super Bowl. At this time of this year, it seems more trivial than anni previous, particularly with so many phony working-class labels attached. There’s the practical concern of not having any money on the game and therefore possessing no pecuniary incentive to watch. But there’s something fickle here that goes beyond mere money: how can anyone enjoy a game of football while this nation faces a rising unemployment rate, an economy that may not correct itself for some time, various international skirmishes with no resolution in sight, and the like? I’m not suggesting that the Super Bowl should transform into a political forum. It is, when it works, a rousing form of entertainment. And I have often gotten involved in all this, bellowing at the screen in favor of a team I have either (a) followed through the year, (b) selected at the last minute without thought, or (c) selected the contrarian choice because everybody else in the room has hedged their ballyhoos with a particular favorite. There’s something wonderfully primitive in shouting at the top of your lungs, blaming the quarterback for blowing a snap or faulting a head linesman for a failed call.

I approve of all this. I just wonder why, in a time of national crisis, this nation can’t direct the same energies towards more pressing concerns. If they could do that, there might be a televised event that’s more entertaining, more meaningful, and certainly more historical.

[UPDATE: I’m as much of a sucker for a good football game as anyone. And I ended up getting sucked into the fourth quarter after catching a fire-like flicker of the 100 yard TD while on the street and hearing later reports of a potential Cards comeback. If, as some of the commenters suggested, this game was a healthy diversion, well, given how crazy the game was (even crazier than last year’s), I’d have to agree. In fact, if you didn’t catch this game, then you missed out on one of the best Super Bowls in recent memory. So I stand partially corrected, while likewise repeating my concern over why these energies aren’t also directed towards more substantive issues.]

Keep Your Head Above Water

Here are a few interesting side notes. The above video clip wasn’t the only embarrassing flub that Sylvia Browne made on The Montel Williams Show. She managed to get ITV2 in trouble when Browne informed two parents that their missing son, Shawn Hornbeck, was dead. He turned up alive later. A court found that The Montel Williams Show had violated Rule 2.1 of the Broadcasting Code, which pertains to protecting UK viewers from “offensive material.” The show was temporarily pulled from ITV2.

In addition, the Guardian‘s Jon Ronson has a lengthy profile on Ms. Browne. (Did you know, for example, that Ms. Browne pleaded no contest to charges of investment fraud and grand theft in 1992?)

Good Greif

In a predictable piece of contrarianism, n+1 manboy Mark Greif completely misses the point of Mad Men. Calling the famed television show “an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better,” Greif dismisses the idea that television should depict unpleasant human realities such as sexism, racism, and other assorted human weaknesses. Greif has neither the balls nor the acumen to understand that Don Draper likewise possesses a throwback masculinity that is the key to his apparent success and his command at the ad agency. Jon Hamm plays his character with a certain insecurity because the show is about, among other things, the loss of confidence and individualism in American society, and the overlooked qualities which sustained this. While it is true that one can appreciate Mad Men from the more civilized comforts of the present age — parsing it as a depiction of uncivilized human behavior run amuck — the show’s more intriguing thematic involves how Draper’s masculinity is the key to how he, and American society, operates.

Greif appears more enamored with Mad Men‘s handsome production design and is more interested in quibbling over needless details than he is with the show’s more interesting depiction of human behavior, and this says more about Greif’s inability to comprehend a television show that goes out of its way to depict uncomfortable truths. Decades ago, women were stifled (and still remain so to a lesser degree today). Men were expected to keep the household together with steely fortitude. But despite these atavistic realities, this is, nevertheless, what made America such an innovative nation. Mad Men works, because it does not present us with a dichotomy. It gives us the troublingly cohesive whole. If you were a smart and successful woman during that time, you had few options and were inclined to give into this patriarchal bullshit. But the patriarchal bullshit, as abject as it was, did galvanize people to make active decisions. This is a daring and much needed representation in our age of schlumpy protagonists in Judd Apatow films and Worst Week. Mad Men doesn’t just ask us to revisit this human quality. It asks us to consider the good things that we may have lost with the ugliness.

Mad Men is indeed a “smart” show. But then you have to have an interest in people in order to fully appreciate it.

In Praise of “Peep Show”

In the past two weeks, I have wolfed down all five seasons of Peep Show, a dark and frequently hilarious British television series written by Jess Armstrong and Sam Bain (with additional material from the two lead actors). I am now a fan. I am convinced that Armstrong and Bain may very well be the heirs apparent to Ricky Gervais. David Mitchell (no relation to the great author), who plays a portly Tory named Mark, who tries to pick up a woman by describing the battle of Stalingrad in the first episode, and Robert Webb, oozing solipsistic charisma as the rudderless romantic Jez, evoke an especially subtle chemistry that is one of the show’s silent strengths. Like Oscar and Felix, this odd couple bonds through inept bickering. But they also need each other in odd and self-destructive ways to get through the follies of life.

Yes, much of this plays like farce. But Peep Show is very much the antithesis to Friends. And thank goodness. Because good art, even art delivered through the populist medium of television, shouldn’t always involve pining for the expected. The storylines take unexpected turns, veering into truly godawful moments followed by further cringeworthy revelations.

While Peep Show does throw its characters into a few too many stock situations (weddings, pregnancies, relationships), it frequently refuses to take the easy way out. Consider one episode in which Mark’s sister momentarily moves into the flat to recuperate from a marriage on the rocks. Jez is alarmed to learn that his girlfriend has started to spend time with Mark, and it isn’t too long before he sleeps with Mark’s sister out of revenge. Midway through doing the nasty, Jez realizes that his conquest smells like his roommate and even says, “Tickety boo,” one of Mark’s pet phrases, in media Jez so to speak. And this is just the beginning of a series of remarkable and unexpected embarrassments that I wouldn’t dare spoil.

Peep Show is the kind of ballsy television show that is currently unthinkable in America: a program willing to venture fearlessly into uncomfortable truths while likewise relying upon jittery and amateurish camerawork (representing the perspectives of the characters, much like Robert Montgomery’s 1947 first-person film adaptation of Lady in the Lake). Unwanted pregnancy, drunken fellatio, grown men terrified by children, racist drinking buddies, accidental deaths of animals (see the above clip), and wedding disasters are just a few of the subjects the program explores. And when was the last sitcom you saw that featured a character being immersed into a Scientology-like cult while a LAN party was going on in another room?

Unfortunately, you’re not going to find anything more than Peep Show‘s first season on DVD in the States. While Peep Show aired over BBC America, I am fairly positive, given broadcast standards and the bawdy subject matter, that it did not air as its creators intended. But many of the episodes can be found at YouTube and downloaded through more illicit distribution methods.

The Early Films of Jim Henson

Before the days of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Jim Henson was an independent filmmaker in New York, making experimental films between commercial gigs. It was the mid-sixties. According to John Bell’s Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History, Henson was sharing a workshop space for a few months in the basement of a New York City library with a German sculptor and choreographer named Peter Schumann. Schumann specialized in avant-garde performances, entertaining crowds with masks, puppets, and postmodern dance, often employing these for political demonstrations.

In watching 1965’s “Time Piece,” seen above and recently unearthed by Metafilter, it’s difficult to consider it without Schumann in mind. The film played in New York theaters on a double bill with Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman and concerns itself with a man (played by Henson) being examined in a hospital. As the clock ticks away, a grand surrealistic array of experiential memories overtakes his existence. Gorillas bounce on pogo sticks. There is the quiet Kermit-like plea of “Help!” Chickens emerge in strip clubs. And all this is intercut with optically printed pixellated squares.

The film is set to a intermittent drum rhythm that echoes the heartbeat of time. What’s particularly intriguing is that, according to David P. Campbell’s The Complete Inklings, “Time Piece” so captured Campbell’s imagination that the film was shown at an a seminar at the Minnesota Statewide Testing Program annual conference, with Henson’s film projected on one screen and the test results of a random individual projected on another. The idea was to show Henson’s film, with Campbell announcing to the students, “We should always remember that there is a person behind each of these test scores; to make that point dramatically, here is one person’s test scores and here is a product of his considerable imagination.”This permissive cultural climate permitted Henson to make “The Cube” in 1969, a teleplay that independent filmmaker Vincenzo Natali appears to have handily pilfered from.

A protagonist, known only as “The Man in the Cube,” is trapped inside a cube of white rectangular panels, with strange individuals who enter and exit through other doors. This premise gave Henson the opportunity to explore a wide variety of topics: racism, sexism, the realm between reality and fantasy. There is even reference to the fourth wall. At one point, a professor addresses the man, pointing out that he is in a television play.

Believe it or not, “The Cube” was commissioned for a television series called Experiment in Television, a now forgotten program that aired on NBC between 1968 and 1971. This series came about because NBC needed filler material to provide late Sunday afternoon programming when the football season had ended. And they decided, quite amazingly, to provide a venue without commercials for documentaries and experimental films.

In the end, it was public television that secured Henson’s rise to fame. But today, unless you’re as squeaky-clean as Ken Burns, your prospects for national exposure are slim. Now that the first season of Sesame Street has been issued on DVD, it’s been issued with a parental advisory reading, “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” The idea of children running around an inner city, looking to learning as a way out, is apparently too threatening a concept.

Given this drastic shift in priorities — the unusual idea of commissioning an experimental film for a testing conference, the now antediluvian notion of creating a space on national television where filmmakers can pursue alternative ideas, and the censure on anything slightly offensive to “suit the needs” of children — one is forced to contemplate the current media atmosphere. Certainly, there is YouTube and the Internet. But this online landscape increasingly values views — and thereby advertising revenue — over notions that are not popular or lucrative, and one wonders just how tomorrow’s Hensons will thrive. Of course, any artist who feels compelled to create will not let any obstacle stop him. But by hindering the spectrum of expression with our priorities (what sells, what’s safe, et al.), I’m wondering if we’re closing the floodgates to those who might have new and innovative ways to get a mass audience excited about the world around us.

Hillary’s Tears, Our Tears

hillary.jpgLorrie Moore’s naive essay on Hillary Clinton not only demonstrates the unspoken precept that skilled fiction writers are sometimes remarkably simplistic when they write about politics, but deploys the same scripted liberalism that every progressive is now expected to chant to peers in coffeehouses. The formula, it seems, boils down to this: Hillary Bad, Obama Good.

Now I’m not exactly a Hillary lover. Clinton waffled from a 1993 universal health care plan which mandated all employers to provide health care for employees to her latest “universal” plan, which shifts the mandatory financial burden to individual citizens. But a proper universal health care program is single-payer, regulated by the government, and doesn’t abdicate the spoils to HMOs. Clinton is also the senator who received the most money from HMOs in the 2008 election cycle. (Obama was second.)

Like every good left-leaning American, I have been seduced by the seemingly limitless reserves of Obama’s charisma: his smooth handling of Bill O’Reilly’s arrogant attack dog antics, his adroit response to anti-abortion protesters, insert your magical Obama moment here.

The man is slick. Slicker than Bill Clinton. I firmly believe that he can be the next President. He looks good. Too good.

In comparing Obama with Clinton, Moore writes that “unlike her, he is original and of the moment. He embodies, at the deepest levels, the bringing together of separate worlds. The sexes have always lived together, but the races have not.”

wecandoitreal.jpgI wonder if Moore remains aware that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women earn 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. (The disparity, incidentally, is better in Washington, DC, where women make 91 cents to the male dollar. This may explain why Capitol Hill remains somewhat out-of-touch on this issue. An Equal Rights Amendment may provide succor to these problems.) Or maybe Moore remains unaware that young women are earning degrees at a higher rate than men do.

This certainly doesn’t reflect a case where the sexes “have always lived together.” Unless, of course, we’re talking garden-variety cohabitation. And while Obama may talk the talk, I fail to see how Obama’s legislation record brings together separate worlds in any way that is substantially different from Hillary Clinton. The oft bandied boast is that Obama was not Senator in 2002 and therefore unable to vote for the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq. But what’s not to suggest that within this climate of fear, Obama wouldn’t have done so? (The record demonstrates that John Edwards also voted for it. Kucinich and Paul did not.)

The distinction then is predicated on retroactive speculation. Which is a bit like seriously considering the ridiculous question Bernard Shaw asked of Michael Dukakis during the 1984 Democratic presidential debates: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Kitty Dukakis was not raped and murdered. Obama was not Senator during 2002. Nonetheless, it is an American political tradition to rate presidential candidates according to what they may have done under certain circumstances, as opposed to a more reasonable survey of what they are likely to do based on their past records.

So ultimately the difference between Obama and Clinton comes down to charisma. To watch Obama in action is to experience the most pleasant and capable of political machines. He’ll jazz up a crowd in minutes and give them the fleeting sense that they can change the world. But who is the wizard behind the curtain? Progressives — including myself — were so eager to fixate upon Karl Rove, but why do we fail to apply the same standards to those who run Obama’s campaign?

Last week, Hillary Clinton welled up on camera and was roundly ridiculed. The question arose over whether this was sincere. Cruel YouTube parodies surfaced soon after. For some, the tears confirmed the inevitable. Here are some of the YouTube comments:

I really feel that Hillary Clinton is a worhless [sic] piece of shit.

i hate this woman

This bitch won because she got on national television with her fake crocodile tears in front of million of viewers.

Yea what a fucking cow. She should be making pizza.

This is a very EVIL fricken human being…She should be ashamed of herself! If she had any heart at all she would finally tell the truth!

Go and fuck Bill.. instead of cheating people

Hillary Clinton is a worthless piece of shit.

And so on.

This was not, however, a Muskie moment, even if an op-ed columnist like Newsweek‘s Karen Breslau was keen to dredge up the droplet that careened down Muskie’s cheek and sealed his political fate. Until the primary results dictate otherwise, Clinton is still very much in the game.

What was not factored in Breslau’s article was the double standard with regard to gender. I find myself being one of the few who remains suspicious about never seeing a gaffe from Obama. Real humans screw up. But presidential politics demands perfection or, as Bush’s two victories confirm, a guy you can drink a beer with.

The cult of personality remains so seductive that even adept writers like Moore offer this foolishness: “it is a little late in the day to become sentimental about a woman running for president. The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by.”

On the contrary, the present political moment is very much about whether a president has the right to appear sentimental before the cameras, which in turn is very much predicated upon whether the candidate is a man or a woman. It does not matter what Hillary Clinton’s positions are. What matters most of all is whether or not the “bitch” or “the worthless piece of shit” fabricated her tears.

The question we should be asking is just why these gratuitous issues of telegenic interpretation are deflecting more pressing concerns, such as platforms and positions, and why even the best of us are happily swallowing the bait.

“Jesus Came First!”

Sherri Shepherd of The View has uttered, in all seriousness, that “Jesus came first.” Shepherd seems to believe that, in the great collective whole of human existence, there was no religion before Christianity. One must ask how such an ignorant fuckwit was picked from the available pool of candidates and hired as co-host. Granted, one does not expect penetrating insight from The View, but surely there are minimum intelligence standards. Surely, there is some producer on the show who is doing more than tearing out hair and begrudgingly accepting this dunce as a talking head for our time. Because this baffling statement truly represents the nadir of talk shows. I’d expect such a conclusion from a four-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus and doesn’t know any better, not a forty year old adult who has had decades to form her conclusions. But there it is. “Jesus came first!” A statement as foolhardy as shouting “The world is flat!” at a geography convention.

If this were a just world, Shepherd would be employed at a full service gas station somewhere, assuming of course that her diseased mind was capable of understanding that inserting the nozzle does not come first (although Jesus DOES come first and he shall save you from rising gas prices!) and that you actually unscrew the cap before putting in the nozzle. Of course, since this is a task repeated multiple times throughout the day, perhaps after the thirty-seventh time, she might catch on. Then again, maybe not. Because as seen in the clip, when presented with the facts by her peers, Shepherd is incapable of even confessing that her co-hosts may be right.

Why the hostility? Because this isn’t just about the glorification of ignorance, but the glorification of people who refuse to accept anything but their ignorance. A remotely thinking person would stop in his tracks and realize that they’ve made a mistake or consider that facts and evidence may have some bearing on maintaining a mind set. And here’s the thing. It’s not as if Shepherd is being asked to weigh in on the Jungian influence on advertising or distinguish between an AK-47 and an M16, but she’s being asked to respond to a basic fact that anyone with a basic elementary school education knows! In continually employing a numbskull as dumb and dense as Shepherd’s on the show, The View‘s producers are complicit in celebrating one of the most abhorrent qualities that has pervaded this country. Maybe Mike Judge was right. If we continue to accept such rampant stupidity without protest, at this rate, we’ll be queuing up for Ass: The Movie in a lot less than 500 years.

Unintentionally Hilarious BBC Pilot

And here’s Part 2.

Mainly for Men was a disastrous 1969 pilot in which the BBC attempted to get in touch with “what men wanted” by filming this magazine show. The result involved awkward attempts at interviews, how to fill up your leisure time with shark hunting, and even a song that you could sing along to (with a blonde polishing furniture in the foreground): “Men say they don’t just want little to make up an ideal woman / They talk about hair, the clothes that you wear, as part of the ideal woman!” (At the end of this ridiculous number, the host says, “And very nice too. The only way to do the dusting, I can tell you that.”)

In Part 2, you can groove along with the guy snapping his fingers along as sitar music plays in the back as he photographs a model.

Watching this today, one wonders what people will make of Maxim in forty years.

(via MeFi)

BSG “Razor”: Discouraging Signs

Heather Havrilesky: “‘Razor’ is neither the fascinating, heart-pounding ‘Battlestar’ of our fondest memories nor the cheesy, ‘All Along the Watchtower’-lyrics-spewing ‘Battlestar’ of our worst nightmares. But those hungry for a glimpse of Starbuck and Apollo will eat it up faster than a leftover-turkey-and-stuffing sandwich.”

Okay, let’s come clean and get geeky. I don’t watch much television, but, in the interests of keeping reasonably au courant with contemporary culture, BSG is one of the four shows I keep up with. Last season was pretty damn dreadful — the kind of soporific writing reminiscent of people whose exposure to science fiction doesn’t extend past the purported Golden Age of Science Fiction from the 1950’s. (The “expertise” of Dave Itzkoff comes to mind in considering these flaccid plots, particularly that wretched flashback-laden boxing episode.) And the fact of the matter is that the mealy-mouthed metaphor of a leftover sandwich simply isn’t enough to exonerate the egregious missteps in last season’s finale. Sure, I’ll watch out of morbid curiosity. But someone needs to demand better standards from Ron Moore. Perhaps the WGA strike will force Moore to ruminate for a while and find his mojo again. (Or maybe he might want to try writing a few episodes instead of sitting it out as “developer” or “executive producer.” Or does he wish to become another Rick Berman?)

I cannot believe that “it’s pretty impossible to keep that level of intensity going on for too long, and there’s no way that ‘Battlestar’ could escape falling into a repetitive formula.” Does Havrilesky so easily forget that Moore once had the balls to recast the series in dramatic fashion at the end of the second season, only to allow the show to deteriorate into derivative third season episodes once the crew escaped New Caprica? He lacks the courage to lay down the one card he has to play: the discovery of Earth, which presumably will occur in the forthcoming fourth and final season. Maybe he knows that his chips are up.

Further n.b.: I am by no means watching this show that closely, but if Havrilesky cannot remember the Centurions (and that would be with an O, not an A; are the Salon copy editors asleep at the desk?) who have appeared at various points throughout the series — largely employed in planetary surface battles — then one wonders whether Havrilesky is even paying attention.