A purple-skinned alien hurtles across the cosmos, bearing a ring that grants its wearer unimaginable power. The alien is mortally wounded, and the ring is seeking its next wearer — the Green Lantern, Earth’s champion — by finding the planet’s most courageous inhabitant. In a world with billions of people, what are the chances that the ring’s next owner is a white American dude?Pretty high, apparently…In the early days, whiteness was so pervasive in comics that it could actually span the universe: a Kryptonian Superman could crash-land in Kansas and pass as an ordinary white farm boy.
Thanks to the growth of Netflix Instant Watch, I’m continuing my project of Catching Up On Everything I Missed Growing Up by watching Cheers. And oh my goodness, you guys. It’s like watching Casablanca for sitcoms: things seem like cliches because they’ve become so deeply embedded as tropes and references in our culture that it’s easy to forget that this is the wellspring, or one of them, anyway. But beyond that, the show feels like it was engineered with me in mind (or maybe I’ve been reverse-engineered to prefer the things that Cheers epitomized): it’s a constraint-based show, taking place essentially in the bar, the pool room, and Sam’s office; it’s deeply grounded in place, and a place that’s not New York, Miami, or Los Angeles; and the show’s politics are fairly remarkable.
The politics in particular get to me. It’s amazing that a full eight years before Murphy Brown got pregnant, Cheers had a main character who was already an unmarried mother of four get pregnant again, and have the cast be broadly supportive, except for some mild ribbing. I don’t know if the show pulled it off because it wasn’t yet a ratings phenomenon, or because Carla Tortelli was clearly coded as both ethnic and working-class, and so she didn’t need to be attacked as some sort of Threat to the Family because she didn’t make single motherhood look cool.
It’s also fairly remarkable that Cheers did a sensitive, nuanced athlete’s coming out story the same year that scientists would establish that HIV was a virus. In “The Boys in the Bar,” it turns out that Sam’s old roommate during his Red Sox days has written a memoir in which he comes out. After Sam overcomes his shock, he stands up for the guy (backbone courtesy Diane), and becomes something of a gay hero, but his regulars worry that Cheers will become a gay bar, and push Sam to kick out gay patrons. The episode just bar homophobia with humor. It’s a genuine accomplishment:
Lorna Cooper, the editor of MSN TV, passed along a terrific essay by Ken Levine, who wrote the episode, and notes:
CHEERS, like most multi-camera shows, operated on a five-day production schedule. The first three for rehearsing with the cast alone, then on day four the camera crews come in and the technical work is done. Finally, on day five the show is shot in front of a live studio audience. The crew is usually a good indicator of what works. We’ve now heard every joke nine times. Nothing is funny to us. They’re hearing the material for the first time. The crew LOVED “Boys in the Bar’. Big laughs all the way through. And by far the biggest was the last joke where the two guys flanking Norm kiss him. It was easily the biggest crew laugh of the year.
Things like this episode and Levine’s story make me wonder if we consistently underestimate what audiences can handle. If we pushed for universes that were more intelligent and direct about race, gender, class, homophobia, that were more diverse, our pop culture would have a lot to gain, and I think very, very little to lose.
I’ve been struggling for a long time to crystalize my growing frustrations with 30 Rock, a show that had a nigh-perfect second season and has never consistently achieved the same comedic heights again. Is it the breakdown of the show that brought all the characters together? Jack Donaghy’s parade of no-act honeys (Elizabeth Banks exempted, of course)? The fact that Liz Lemon gets written like she’s ugly, or spectacularly awkward, or dumb? But over this weekend, when Elizabeth Gilbert announced that she wouldn’t be speaking publicly about her insanely successful memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, anymore, another explanation occurred to me. For a brief, refreshing moment, Liz Lemon was the anti-Liz Gilbert, and 30 Rock was a rebuke to an ethic of self-care and excessive self-regard, preaching a fairly effective gospel of salvation through work instead. Watching the show abandon that argument to become the endless ugly-duckling half of a makeover movie has been exhausting and depressing.
When 30 Rock started, Liz Lemon was a mess, but an interesting one. She’d clawed her way up the comedy ladder and created the show she’d always dreamed of. When Jack Donaghy comes crashing through her dead boss’s door and into Liz’s life, she’s annoyed because he insists on fixing something that she thinks isn’t broken. But even as Jack upset Liz’s show in the name of boosting the already-okay ratings, he offered her something kind of radical: a sense of how to fix her life by embracing her job, rather than through a radical physical or spiritual renovation.
I thought it was not a very good movie, one that might have been served by either stripping out the Asgard section entirely and dealing merely with what would happen if some ripped dude showed up in the American Southwest and claimed to be the Norse god of Thunder, as Yglesias pointed out to me, or cutting out Sif and the Warriors Three and some frost giant nonsense and focusing on character development and exposition both on Earth and in Asgard, which would be my slight preference.
But really, I’m comforted by the movie’s reaffirmation of the fact that if mythical weapons show up embedded in rocks anywhere in America, rednecks will make a tractor pull out of it.
Lady Gaga has a song protesting Arizona’s SB 1070. It is, not shockingly, not very good:
I’ve thought it was a bit odd that Gaga didn’t called out for using “Orient” as a descriptor in “Born This Way,” and the “I don’t speak your Americano” line seems like a false note to me, a bit of condescension wrapped up in benevolence. I don’t mean to be a scold about this—not every immigration protest song has to be as sincere as “If I Give Your Name.” But there’s nothing catchy or anthemic about this tune, and Gaga’s self-important, torchy delivery isn’t going to elevate it. If she wants to make a protest song that will catch on, she should make something huge, something this sonically fun (the contributions of one Clarence Clemons must be noted):
“Americano” is a clear example of the kind of song that artists feel good about themselves for making, and audiences feel good about themselves for listening to. If something that’s simultaneously anthemic and full-throatedly, articulately political isn’t really an option, I’d rather have a song that sounds as good as “Edge of Glory” sneak a generally progressive backdrop onto the dance floor than listen to people convince themselves they’re activists because they’re debuting a weak pop song.