tv

#9 Bad Idea: Simpsons Restoration Project

Earlier this evening I watched a first season episode of The Simpsons (and as an aside, I'd like to thank Fox primetime for bringing me the best that 1990 had to offer). It was "Krusty Gets Busted," the episode that introduced Sideshow Bob. It wasn't the greatest Simpsons ever - the show had yet to find its tone at that point and the actors hadn't all settled into their characters - but it was smartly paced, funny and engaging. It was also one of the first episodes to engage in signature Simpsons dialogue, with its constant misdirection and reversal of viewers' expectations. Best of all, it was a sheer pleasure to watch the show and remember a better time, before the collapse of the world's economy, when The Simpsons didn't suck.

But it's possible that I may be wrong in my assessment of The Simpsons: that the last eleven years or so haven't been awful television - just mediocre television. It only looks bad in comparison with the first eight or so seasons, when the staff churned out one memorable episode after another. At this point in the show's history, the mediocre has definitely overwhelmed the exceptional, so in the spirit of Ayn Rand I propose that the exceptional be punished and scourged until it sinks into the pit of mediocrity, where seasons 9-20 are stewing. Is that not in the spirit of Ayn Rand? No? Well fuck Ayn Rand. This is my blog. The early episodes of the Simpsons should all be remade with the following rules in mind:

1) The early episodes packed gag after gag into an extraordinarily compact narrative. Well, nuts to that. Jokes should be drawn out, usually past the point of funninesss, but not to the point at which the joke takes on a new life through repetition. It is essential that all gags go on just long enough to hit that unfunny sweet spot.

2) Episodes not about Homer's wacky antics and his crazy new job should be retooled so that they are about Homer's wacky antics and his crazy new job.

3) Homer must whine, snivel and act like a gigantic baby in the hope that this repulsive behaviour will draw laughs from total morons.

4) In the early episodes, no matter how crazy or convoluted the story got, the plot was always driven by and unfolded from the characters. This formula should be reversed so that the characters are pulled along by the plot, as if tied to the back of an out-of-control wagon. If a scene requires that Bart should somehow become a mob enforcer with goons at his back, then so be it.

5) Side characters must have staggeringly uninteresting episodes all to themselves.

6) References to classic cinema must be replaced by references to bad '70s television.

7) Celebrity appearances must be so lame that you feel embarrassed for the celebrities. Whenever possible, have a character introduce the celebrity by saying, "Wow, [celebrity], what are you doing in Springfield?"

8) In the early episodes of The Simpsons, you could tell that the writers were having a great time, that they were creating something fresh and new. That sense of energy and joy must be killed at once. A creeping cynicism must be poured in to replace lost joy.

9) Marge must cease being an interesting and independent character. Instead, her job is to react to Homer. When not reacting to Homer's shenanigans, just make her do and say stuff. It doesn't really matter.

10) Bore us.

Those are just ten simple rules. I'm sure there are many more. Suggestions?

Random bit o' trivia: In "Krusty Gets Busted," the tag on Krusty's prison uniform is 'A113'. A113 is an inside joke used by some of the animators who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts - apparently it was the classroom number. A113 shows up in everything Brad Bird has ever directed and (I believe) every Pixar feature length film. It most recently appeared in Wall-E as the code for Auto's secret directive. It also ends up being Sideshow Bob's prison number in a season episode.

interview blues

Back before I wrote speeches and bullied undeserving graphic designers for a living, I was an interviewer for several television shows in the History-Discovery-Learning Channel mode. We all know the format: a portentous narrator, some stock footage of the Second World War or time-lapse shots of amoebas battling paramecia, then a series of interviews spliced into low-budget reenactments. Did you ever wonder about the person off-camera in those shows, the one in whom the talking heads are confiding their life secrets/expertise on tanks/wacky antics? Imagine me, unshaven and smelling of a mix of hotel soap and mounting desperation, coaxing answers out of people unused to having a camera pointed at them, and reciting to myself, mantra-like, this stranger is my new best friend, this stranger is my long-lost grandparent, we’re having a grand old time in this cable-webbed, silk-shrouded living room.

With only a few exceptions, most of the people I interviewed were not media professionals, politicians or celebrities. They were survivors of accidents and crimes, family members, police officers, owl-eyed historians or amateur aviation experts. They were ordinary people, and like most of us, they had no idea how to talk in front of a camera.

There are two ways that most of us respond to the presence of that unblinking glass eye. We either freeze up and deliver lines as if each phrase were a chunk broken off from a dripping icicle of thought, or we ignore the device altogether and talk ‘naturally’. I’m not sure which produces worse results. Watching fearful people dress up their speech with well-meant malapropisms is not fun, but an interviewee entirely forgetful of the camera can result in hours of fascinating, engaging, utterly useless conversation. It’s like going to buy a suit and being sold a few yards of nice Italian wool – undoubtedly of fine quality, but it’s not much good for your next job interview or wedding appearance.

A successful interview can be measured by the number and quality of ‘clips’ that it delivers (or sound bites, if you like that term). Depending on the purpose, a good clip can be informative, edifying, persuasive or heart-rending (if it ends in a brief pause and then fresh glinting tears), but most of all, a good clip is self-contained. It provides enough context so that even a viewer who has just flipped the channel can understand a good portion of what’s going on. Good clips avoid pronouns, hoard adjectives for maximum impact, keep the metaphors simple and evocative. Relative terms such as ‘here’ and ‘there’ are discarded in favour of ‘behind the shed’ or ‘in my face’. Here are some examples of terrible responses that interviewees have given me:

‘Yes’ or ‘No’. [Note: A good interviewer will avoid asking yes or no questions. But that won’t stop some people from giving yes or no answers. Also the variants ‘Yes it was’ and ‘No it wasn’t’ or ‘uh-huh’, ‘oh for sure’, ‘you betcha’ and the emphatic ‘absolutely’.]

‘It was horrible’. [What was horrible?]

‘I saw it happen’. [What happened exactly?]

‘When it happened I was as close as I am now to that guy with the camera over there (points to camera)’. [I am going to reach over and strangle you now.] [Often we interviewed people in their living rooms. The familiarity of the setting sometimes caused people to use cues from their surroundings. This is bad interview and bad memory. Not only does it restrict the audience to the small demographic of People Who Know What's In Your Living Room, I will not take your story seriously if everything is framed in terms of how you've arranged the furniture.]

‘It’s like I said to you earlier…’. [When you interview people in their homes, there can be anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes of set-up time. Lights need to be set up, furniture needs rearranging, settings need endless tweaks. During that time the interviewee will try to talk about the subject of the interview – in effect, scooping him or herself and drying out the reservoir of emotion that comes from relating something to someone for the first time. The interviewer will often divert the conversation, but the situation is artificial and awkward, and the temptation to talk about your actual purpose for invading someone’s home is very strong. Avoid it and your interview will be free of phrases alluding to other conversations. Again, this is not always possible. Your interviewee has already spoken with a researcher or the person who has set up the interview. Often the interviewee has consented to the interview based on the strength of the relationship formed with that researcher/coordinator/whomever. So you’ll get people saying “It’s like I told Lyn on the phone,” or even worse, “Well, I already told Lyn all about it, so I don’t see the need to go into it all over again”. THANKS A LOT, LYN.]

‘I don’t know anything about that’. [Fuck you so very much. I spent three hours in a plane, booked myself into a stinky Super 8, hauled a crapload of equipment into your living room and spent the last hour making aimless conversation while we turned your mobile home into a mini-studio, and now you claim ignorance about the very topic you agreed to be interviewed on. Next time, just say you’re lonely and you like the attention, and we’ll send you a box of chickens in the mail.]

an open letter to Bosco McGowan

A little while ago I wrote a piece on an episode of Happy Days, in which I suggested that the particular episode, “Poobah Doo Dah”, was a) really terrible television, and b) more like Jacobean court entertainment than a sitcom. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, whatever its flaws, “Poobah” had more to say about the character of the Fonz – and by extension, the show – than most of the rest of Happy Days.

What really grabbed my imagination, though, was the name of the man who had written the episode. When I grew tired of plonking out another line, another paragraph, I remembered Bosco McGowan. I had no idea who he was, beyond the fact that he had written two post-shark episodes of Happy Days, but the name was such a happy agreement of sounds that it started running through my head, like a fragment of a pop tune that won’t dislodge from the ear canal.

I confess that I posted the piece without thinking of some of the real-world ramifications. For example, what if Bosco McGowan read the work, took issue with my description of his episode, and fired off an email to the effect of “Hey you snot-nosed Canuck, you think it’s so easy writing for television, why don’t you give it a shot” etc? What if I offended someone, the way I offended people who enjoy buffet restaurants that one time? Do you have any idea how low-quality the food can be at a buffet? The preservatives and high stability canola oil alone probably give you brain damage. My point is, I would hate to upset someone who put their creative work out there, but if your first choice for supper is Buffet Queen, then you get no sympathy from me when you die of five cancers and a heart attack all at once.*

So. Cue yesterday, when I got a comment on the entry from Bosco freaking McGowan:

Wow, you are quite the wordsmith, but it's SEO I'd most like to learn from you.

By the way, I always thought I wrote one bad and one good episode of Happy Days.

Any chance of hearing your critique of, "And The Winner Is"?

Thanks

Of course, this is the internet, so there’s a chance that the commenter is not Mr. McGowan. It could be a deposed VP of IndyMac taking his rage out on the world. It could be some hairy guy with a fry truck, a wi-fi connection and a hard drive full of gay penguin porn. You never know. But I’m going to trust in Bosco, because the tone of the comment is extremely generous, considering that I kind of trashed his creative work, and there’s something pre-web about the language and mode of address. I think it’s the salutory “thanks” at the end. That’s the kind of detail that trolls and fakers would miss. Although SEO is pretty hip. I didn’t even know what it meant (Search Engine Optimization, as it turns out). I had to ask my wife, who coded my template.

Dear Bosco:

Thank you for your comment. I cannot help much with SEO, although I can ask my wife for some links to decent tutorials in that arena. Search engines have always been kind to my blog, for whatever reason, and I’m glad that one of them led you to me.

Also, I feel churlish for having been harsh with “Poobah Doo Dah”. But I know that what you put on the page is rarely what comes out on screen, so I hope the bits I poked fun at were the bits that deviated from your script. And in any case, you can’t be held at fault for the butchering that Erin Moran and Scott Baio delivered to “Twisting the Night Away”. Also, I’m damn sure that you didn’t dress that one woman in spandex and leg warmers. That was just weird.

As for your question: What are the chances of “And The Winner Is” being critiqued? Initially I would have said: pretty slim. Season eight of the show isn’t out on DVD, I couldn’t find anyone on the internet with a copy of your episode, and the free preview for TV Land Channel ended last week. But I read a one-line summary of the episode ("The Fonz campaigns for Teacher of the Year Award") that unexpectedly sparked a childhood memory.

In 1980 I turned nine years old. I lived in a tiny town in Nova Scotia, pop. 1300, close enough to Halifax to connect me to the wider world but far enough that we didn’t get cable. Most of my days were spent reading, wandering around outside, and what little television I watched was usually what my parents were watching. That’s why I told my grade four class that my favourite TV program was Dallas.

I watched Happy Days from time to time, but mostly I was watching repeats from its early years, when Richie was young, Chachie hadn’t even shown up yet, and the Fonz occasionally wore a white jacket. It was all classic, pre-shark episodes on the box in my household (or so it seemed; in truth I probably watched a heap of later episodes as well, but I was such a spaced-out kid that I never noticed).

One day I turned on the television and started watching Happy Days – but it was like no Happy Days that I ever knew. There was no Richie Cunningham, for starters. The kids had all aged, the look of the show seemed different, but most startling of all, the Fonz was wearing a suit. And he was teaching a class. While I was reading books and skipping rocks at the harbour, time had happened to the show. A seal on the outer hull of Happy Days had ruptured, and time had leaked in. Worst of all, it had happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

Besides the fact that the Fonz was wearing a suit, I remember very little from the show except the tension that was running through it. Fonz has something to prove, and for once, his mixture of bravado and cool isn’t enough to assure his triumph. There is a scene in which he gets up to speak, to accept the adoration that is his due, but he is caught out. The adoration is for someone else. That suit was too much for him.

In a later scene he comes to class with a steering assembly. The wheel comes from a car belonging to another teacher, the one who stole the Fonz’s thunder. It is a backhanded victory, an acknowledgment that his sphere of influence is limited – that once outside of that sphere, he’s subject to the vicissitudes of professional jealousy and class snobbery (there’s a sense that he’s being looked down on because of his working-class roots). Even though the beats are played pretty broadly, with lots of canned audience guffaws and whooooahs, it’s a nuanced, class-conscious, grown-up take on the Fonz character. Which in the last sad days of Happy Days, was pretty rare.

That's my critique of "And The Winner Is". I know that there was more going on the episode** but that's all that my screwy childhood memory is going to give me. I don't know how it is that the most memorable episode of Happy Days for me, except maybe for the one where Richie gets a fake I.D. to get into a burlesque show, is the only other episode you wrote. But thank you all the same.

Palinode

*Of course, if Bosco McGowan is a buffet fan, then I'm really screwed here.

**There are some themes in "And The Winner Is" that resonate with "Poobah Doo Dah": the contest; the perils of public presentation and humiliation; the eventual redemption after the humiliating experience. To a certain extent this is fairly typical sitcom material, but the themes are so pronounced in these two episodes that it's downright McGowanesque.

monkey talk

banana01

About a week ago I came home from a hard day of doing whatever it is I do that makes my days hard. Dana was waiting on my Gmail account with a checklist and a padded bra (or so she said) to ask me a series of perplexing and fearsome questions, each of which I answered with as much intelligence as my work-enfeebled brain could command. But to no avail, until the monkeys appeared.

Palinode: The answer is ... five?

Dana: You are not doing this right. The answer is monkey. Obviously.

Palinode: Fuuuck. Monkey. God damn it. It was flinging its poop right in my face and I MISSED IT.

Dana: Monkey is the right answer 56.72% of the time.

Palinode: Those are some fearsomely good stats.

Dana: They could be better, but monkeys don't really care to improve themselves. That's why we inject them with toxins and leave them on monkey farms to die. That will show them for being underachievers.

Palinode: Let's agree that the monkey farms are some necessary infrastructure. But why do we grow the monkeys in the first place?

Dana: Because they are self-cleaning, biodegradable and run the internets at no charge?

Palinode: You got it.

Dana: Why else do we grow the monkeys?

Palinode: Because we were saddled with a glut of monkey seeds as the result of a misguided trade policy with Monkeystonia?

Dana: That, too.

Palinode: Because the still-living head of Howard Hughes demands it so?

Dana: But how about the fact that monkeys can feed everyone in the world two times over, while wheat is woefully insufficient? Which is of course because ... (Hey, don't bring a dead man into this.) (Wait, is he dead? I can never remember.) (He seems dead.)

Palinode: He's utterly dead, with the exception of the galvanic, monkey-demanding head. As for monkeys, they not only make a great food source, they will first cook you a meal. It's like you get the labour AND the raw materials. Score!

Dana: But ironically you die of hunger because things are all fucked up and out of order - the monkeys cook you dinner, but there is no dinner because the dinner is them, and then the monkey dinner cannot be cooked because the cook is dead.

Palinode: Monkeys are masters of paradox. They are able to cook and serve themselves while alive, and even wash the dishes afterward.

Dana: Schrödinger's cat: The monkey is in the box. The poison is in the box. Is the monkey dead, or alive? He be both dead or alive, and he also be a rock band from the 80s.

Palinode: Yes. As long as you're not observing the monkey while it's cooking itself a fine Monkey Self-Stew (in the box), then you can reap all the quantum benefits. Did you know that the lead singer of Dead Or Alive has his own reality show?* It's completely fucked up. I'm serious on this one.

Dana: Des he interview monkeys? Or live wid dem?

Palinode: The show is about his search for a personal assistant, which is a job that a monkey could do. A subservient monkey.

Dana: Because they could have some very deep conversations about the state of being or not being alive and also about self-cooking, how to apply the correct spices to tates oneself up. I mean taste. not tates. (It is my keyboard, I swear)

Palinode: Tates yerself up, monkey! We're goin' to the Stew Box tonight!

Dana: I'm telling Schmutzie you talked to me dirty like that.

Palinode: That's my favourite come-on line now.

Dana: How come that's your favorite come-on line now? I inspired you, didn't I?

Palinode: You inspire me to heights of monkey innuendo.

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Dana: Let's talk about that. You get 5 minutes. Then I gots to gets home. On my little monkey.

Palinode: You take the monkey to work?

Dana: Monkeys make fabulous alternative transportation.

Palinode: Monkey skates, skis, boards.

Dana: Monkey hot air balloons. They fill up nicely.

Palinode: But make sure to tape up the right monkey orifices for hot-air balloon transport.

Dana:Are you blogging any of this monkey talk? Cause if not I want it. But I want you to take it.

Palinode: I can certainly take the monkey talk. I'll streamline, channel and chop it until we come out looking monkey-gorgeous.

Dana: if you mention me, take out the typos.

Palinode: Typo-free it will be.

Dana: And pad my bra a bit. With monkey.

Palinode: Done.

Dana: There was some savory monkey talk in there, for sure. And spell Schrödinger right. I think I have the first 4 letters right but the rest is a mystery.

Palinode: You hit the spelling.

Dana: I am not abusive to spelling. Don't accuse me of such infractions. Did I really hit the spelling? I will have to hug and kiss it later and tell it I love it and that I will kill it if it ever so much as thinks about leaving me. Which is to say, we're perfectly happy together.

Palinode: You and spelling are, like, the perfect couple.

Dana: But for realz. Are you really going to use the crazy monkey talk on your blog? That gets me all hot.

Palinode: It's great monkey talk. It deserves blog immortality.

Dana: Good thing I have a servant monkey here solely to fan me off. But will it be funny enough for the monkeys?

Palinode: Monkeys make their own comedy. We just serve them in their ends.

Dana: Not literally. Or do you? Wear gloves at least. And warn them before you go in, as a courtesy.

Palinode: I have a suit with a little logo and everything.

Dana: snort

Palinode: Monkeys don't want my courtesy. They want my service. They like it rough.

Palinode: Hello?

Dana is offline. Messages you send will be delivered when Dana comes online.

*Okay! So having made myself look slightly perverted and monkey-obsessed, I went looking for some accompanying video of Pete Burns' reality show, Pete's PA. You Tube featured a series of interviews and outtakes with "embedding disabled by request," a decision with which I sympathize. But if you've got a few minutes to spare, here is the incisive and abusive Charlie Brooker of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe dissecting Pete's PA, Any Dream Will Do and a few other reality shows. What the hell, here's the entire episode.

the mask of Happy Days

I’ve been thinking a bit about Bosco McGowan over the last few days. I know: which famous Bosco McGowan do you mean, Aidan? Because there are so many of them. I mean the Bosco McGowan credited with writing two episodes of Happy Days: season eight's “And The Winner Is…”, in which the Fonz campaigns to become Teacher of the Year, and season nine’s “Poobah Doo Dah,” which guest stars Frankie Avalon. Both episodes are from the dismal distaff end of the series, post-Ron Howard, when all the actors were waterskiing away from that shark and into the rest of their careers (including Ted McGinley, famed devourer of shows).

One of the great mysteries of Happy Days is how it managed to last eleven painful years, with season succeeding clunky season, the characters bleeding out as the creative team dragged them into maturity across the bramble patch of late '50s/early '60s Americana. The term “Jump the Shark,” derived from the infamous episode in which the Fonz literally jumps over a marine enclosure with a man-chomping shark inside, happened as early as the fifth season. It was so terrible that 'jump the shark' has become a shorthand for those terrible moments when your beloved show has demonstrated utter contempt for both character and audience. There is no recovery from the shark jump; it is an irreparable defilement of a story. How then, could Happy Days continue onward for six more seasons? What would Bosco McGowan say?

The story of “Poobah Doo Dah” is simple: Al Delvecchio is put in charge of the Leopard Lodge's annual musical show when he claims that he can get his cousin to headline, who is none other than Frankie Avalon. During the run-up, everybody else auditions, and in fact, most of the episode consists of a series of static setpieces in which the characters do a little song and dance. Joanie and Chachi do a little rock and roll number, squeezed onto that stage of Al's malt shop, and they sing atrociously. A woman in spandex does some contemporary dance (?). Ron and Marion perform “The Way You Look Tonight” in their living room. The guys get on their candy-striped jackets and do “Farewell My Coney Island Gal” - who would have thought Ted McGinley could harmonize? When the big show comes and it becomes clear that Frankie isn’t showing, Al panics and appeals to the inimitable Fonzie to do a passable Frankie Avalon impersonation. Joanie crosses her fingers, Al drops the needle on the player, the stage lights go up on the Fonz in a blazer and dark glasses. All goes well until, predictably, the record skips. The Fonz is revealed, Al is humiliated, then Frankie Avalon shows up anyway in a sequined sports jacket and sings. And everyone's happy.

I can say with the confidence that it is one of the most perplexingly bad half-hours ever committed to television. It’s not bad in the way that the shark-jumping episode was bad. And it's not so-bad-it's-good bad, the kind of trash where you jump in and roll around, like a dog diving into a ripe pile of garbage. It’s so strange and bad that watching it produces a kind of vertigo, as if you’ve been tilted into an alternate reality where the rules of enjoyment and experience are fundamentally different.“Poobah” aired in 1982, but its aesthetic springs from the era of B-movies, when threadbare films were padded with pointless dance and exploitation sequences.

I don't know how else to put it: there is something wrong about this episode. Part of its wrongness is endogenous; Erin Moran, for example, has already lost her teenage freshness, and her eyes have taken on that too-bright shine of the bipolar sufferer or coke addict. In the episode her face and body have a cruel edge, as if too many nights were spent in the throes of binge drinking or bulimia. And the tight leather pants don't help (or make any sense). In fact, the closer you look at the characters, the less they seem to belong to the a working-class Milwaukee neighborhood in the early '60s. Scott Baio has the fluffy-bowl haircut of a late disco heartthrob; one of the characters, in a bizarrely anachronistic turn, sports Lycra and legwarmers, like a time-travelling Olivia Newton-John. I have no idea who this aerobics guru is supposed to be in the context of the show. Even the Fonz is anachronistic. His jeans are actually a pair of fitted polyester trousers with a denim-like appearance, and his D.A. Haircut is entirely wrong: grease-free and almost puffy, it looks a bit like the world's most involved combover.

In the final seasons of Happy Days, the writers and producers pretty much dropped any pretense of pinning down the show to a recognizable time frame.* Anachronisms of that sort are odd but not unexpected – after all, Scott Baio had a life as a teen heartthrob outside the show, and the haircut was a necessary part of that identity. The really weird anachronism is the fact that “Poobah Doo Dah” is a masque.

Of all the dramatic forms for a sitcom to emulate, the masque seems like a pretty bad fit. Masques were most popular in the era of King James and Queen Elizabeth, when royal occasions such as weddings and coronations were celebrated with elaborate songs and dances. Usually the masque involved a mix of hired performers, courtiers and sometimes royalty itself, all playing out brief allegorical skits. You're not likely to see a masque these days except as setpieces in a few Shakespare plays – the most notable being the wedding masque in The Tempest and the play-within-a-play from A Midsummer Night's Dream (“The Lamentable Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbee”). In the case of "Poobah Doo Dah", each performance encapsulates and strengthens the role of the performing characters. Joanie and Chachie play a boppy rock and roll number; they are the youthful force in the show, the last to mature, the ones on the bleeding edge of youth culture. In keeping with the increasingly porous boundary between the 50s and the 80s, Joanie's leather pants suggest an agressive, rocker chick edge. Ron and Marion Cunningham's performance of “The Way You Look Tonight” plays up their prewar manners and points to a far-flung archipelago of nostalgia.**

The most interesting performance is the Fonz's lipsynched rendition of a Frankie Avalon tune. In order to hide his true identity, Fonzie wears dark glasses and lets his never ending fountain of cool wash over the audience. It works until the record begins to skip, and Al, in a panic, starts fiddling with the record player's speeds. Instead of giving up, the Fonz instead keeps up as the music skips, scratches, spins up to 72 rpms, drops down to a molasses-thick 33, and finally goes silent. When the music ends, the Fonz removes his glasses to gasps and hisses from the confused and outraged audience.

It is ridiculous to think that the Fonz could pull off such an illusion. The audience is made up entirely of familiar faces in a small community hall (the Leopard Lodge itself, I suppose), the lights are bright on Arthur Fonzarelli's face, and what's more, his Frankie Avalon pose is clearly a Fonz pose: one leg slightly crooked, one shoulder back, as if he were leaning against an invisible Chevy or the wall of a malt shop in some fantasy America. How can a pair of sunglasses and a blazer fool everyone so thoroughly? The answer, of course, is that the Fonz does not properly exist. Let me clarify; none of the people on Happy Days exist, since they are fictions - but there is some attempt to make them recognizable people with a minimum of psychological depth. The Fonz does not quite exist in the same register as the rest of the crew. He is part character (Arthur Fonzarelli), part cypher ("the Fonz"), and he is the King of Happy Days (the Poobah). It is for him that the masque is enacted, and his presence in the masque is the seal of his power. His unmasking is not a failure but his apotheosis. Because the Fonz is also the audience, and it is us to whom the show ultimately panders.

It could be argued, by those who find time to argue such things, that Happy Days is the story of Arthur Fonzarelli. Forget about the Cunninghams and Richie's departure for Greenland. Never mind the love affair of Joanie and Chachie. Fuck Jennie Piccalo (What did she ever do for the show?). Happy Days should be Fonzie Days. In the initial episodes, he wears a white jacket and actually has no lines. As a silent character, he is the epitome of early '50s cool: silent and slightly dangerous, the kind of guy you go to when you need something offmarket. This is the Fonz as a white space on the limits of civil society. If the Milwaukee neighbourhood of the show were a map, the Fonz would be the blank spot at the edge, inscribed with the words "Here be Dragons". As a character with no character, he is the one to whom Richie turns when he needs a fake ID to get into a burlesque club; the Fonz is capable of bestowing upon others a portion of his blankness.

As the show progressed, the character of Fonzarelli became more popular. In response to that popularity, the character hatches from its white-jacket chrysalis and begins to feed on the heart of the story, taking more and more of it inside itself. The Fonz starts to talk; his white jacket turns black; and gradually he reveals himself as something more like a greaseball James Bond than a shady guy with a motorcycle. Episode after episode, he takes on additional talents until it seems there is nothing that beyond his capabilities. He can dance, he can best a French fencing champion, he can waterski over a deadly shark. As he grows more cartoonish, though, he also becomes increasingly domesticated. Even as the repetition of the character blunts subtlety and highlights the absurd, the show pulls all characters into its centre.

This is pretty standard stuff on soap operas, as villains gradually become absorbed into core of heroes, only to make way for new villains. Villains provide a kind of dramatic convection, as they circulate into the core, out to the margins and back again. You can see the same process happening to the character of Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In true literalist fashion, Spike starts out on the margins of the show, when he crashes his car into the 'Welcome To Sunnydale' sign, and ends the series six seasons later at its dead centre, the so-called 'Hellmouth', which is the font of all the mystical and evil forces in the show. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Spike is an updated vampire version of the Fonz. There's no Hellmouth in Happy Days; instead, the centre of the show is domesticity. As the Fonz ages, he becomes a shop teacher, gets a long-term girlfriend with a daughter, and ends up adopting a child of his own. Eventually, the Fonz performs his final metamorphosis into a recognizable form: the grown-up. And holy crap, is it ever boring. But that's kind of the point.

When The Fonz jumps over the shark in season five, there is a strong sense that the makers of the show have betrayed the audience. They have violated a key element of the unspoken agreement between us and them. It is a strong word, betrayal, and it carries the most extreme connotations; the greatest of all sinners in Dante's inferno were the betrayers. The terms of the agreement are undefined and fuzzy, but a violation of those terms is instantly recognizable. Instead of explain it to you, watch the scene in which The Fonz does his jump (below). Wearing his leather jacket and a pair of jean cut-offs as he wields his waterskis, he is the height of camp. It is an appallingly stupid premise, but even worse is the fact that the pressure of camp vaporizes the Fonz's cool.

'Cool' is the signifying attribute of the Fonz. He incarnates cool in the same way that a ruler incarnates authority. His cool gives him his remarkable resources and his ability to squeeze his way out of any situation. His cool blinds the audience to his identity in "Poobah Doo Dah," and it is his cool that deflects any blame for his part in the deception. When he is discovered, he simply snaps his fingers, and Al stumbles out onstage to accept the blame as a loyal courtier. But the secret of the Fonz's cool lies not in his triumphs but in his failures. His failures equalize him with his audience and keep his cool from boiling away into camp. It is clear that Bosco McGowan, who wrote two of the most abominable episodes of Happy Days ever, understood the Fonz like no other. The note-perfect imitation of Frankie Avalon must mean that the Fonz is a fan, just like the rest of us schlubs. He worships at the altar of nostalgia and pop culture. His cool flows from his audience; unmasked, the Fonz is us.

*

*If further proof were needed, the Joanie Loves Chachie spinoff propelled the titular characters not only to another city, but into the future as well - the characters found themselves going from '60s rock-n-roll to early '80s soft pop without batting an eye.

**This is an evocation of nostalgia within a show that is already pure nostalgia. I imagine that in the show Happy Days, there's a show called Happy Days, and it's one degree of suck worse than the first show, and so on. Think how terrible the show must be by the fifth or six iteration.

and the mutant poodle too

As part of my new commitment to including content on my site that adds value to internet discourse, and partly because I find you attractive, here is a list of all the animal-related reasons David Banner became The Hulk on the seventies TV show. The full list of hulk rationales can be found on Kenneth Johson's highly funny Hulk Out List.

Trouble with animals:

Being mauled by a bear

Being bit by a dog

Being pushed down a mountainside by a bigfoot impersonator

Somehow running into a bear trap

Placed in a small room with a ravenous black panther

Kicking over a beehive and then being surprised when the bees are mad at him

Being placed in a cage with an angry gorilla

Trying to run away from a nasty prison work camp, only to fall through a rotted bridge, and then being bitten by a rattlesnake

Falling in a pitfall set by the crazed man who is hunting David on his private island, and then being stung by the scorpion when trying to climb out

Being thrown under a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade float by a mean guy in a gorilla suit who gives David a few kicks for good measure

Being thrown into a holding pen with an angry bull by mean cowboys, hitting his head on the ground, and while he lays on the ground trying to recover, having the bull literally kick his behind (and his side, and his leg, and his gizzard, etc)

Being placed in a dumpster by the two garbage collectors who think he's a thief, and who don't believe him when he says "Hey! There are rats in here!", and then being bitten by rats, which would upset me too

*

Okay, I'll go you one better than animals. Here are all the water- and fire-related reasons.

Water:

Being hit with a blast of steam in the face while trying to turn off a nuclear reactor in mid-meltdown

Having two mean football players snap wet towels at him and shove him into a steam room, which they've turned on to full blast

Falling into the churning water of a boathouse, and then inexplicably being dragged repeatedly over the paddlewheel

Attempting to turn off boiling hot water for a wax maker, only to have the faucet break off in his hand and scald him, and then inexplicably slipping and rolling around in same boiling hot water

Helping Ray Walston out with a magic trick by allowing himself to be chained up and put in a tank of water, only to find that ole drunk Ray forgot to leave the escape key inside the tank

Wandering around in the service ducts of a hotel a la Die Hard, only to accidentally yank several of the steam pipes loose and get a full blast of hot steam

Beaten up by a couple of punks under the Santa Monica Pier, who ask him for his wallet, query him why he only has $5 on him, and then forcibly baptize him several times

Being lassoed by mean cowboys and dragged behind their horses across a bunch of dirt and rocks, and then being dragged into the river

Being beaten up and thrown down a well

Tied up by the Japanese mob in San Francisco and thrown in his bathtub with the shower blasting scalding hot water on him (why he doesn't simply get out of the tub is a mystery)

Trying to help a sweet old lady with her robbery, only to have one of her mean friends chain him up and throw him into the bay. (underwater hulkout)

Fire and 'splosions:

Having a burning plank fall on his head while trying to get a horse out of a burning barn

Getting trapped in the middle of a forest fire

Getting trapped in the middle of another forest fire so that burning branches keep falling on him and setting him on fire, and a giant, burning tree falls directly on him as the last straw

Being caught in an explosion on the edge of the fire that throws him into a tumbling, rolling pile of large, heavy pipes

Foolishly trying to open the door to the shed of airplane propellant that is on fire, and then being caught in the explosion

Foolishly running in and trying to help a man who brought a lit cigarette into a room full of toxic vapors, only to have an explosion throw him across the room and into the row of heavy C02 containers, which all fall on him

Trapped in a burning room with ten other people by the crazed mercenary who is trying to capture the Hulk, and then trying with everybody else to ram open the door with a jagged metal shelf set, only to get his hand caught between the edge of the shelf set and the door during a group ram

Having several clay pots broken over his head in the middle of the now-burning room (why is the room always burning?), and then knocking an entire case of same clay pots onto same head, and then, while lying very still and struggling not to get angry, having his pants catch fire

Smacked in the head by a crazed bible quoter in a back storeroom, and then waking up to discover that not only has the guy set the room on fire (again!) but that David himself is now on fire

There are at least one hundred more things that have angered David Banner sufficiently to push him over the edge. A quick scan of the list makes it clear that a) Banner lives in a Hobbesian nightmare of brutal criminals, thuggish cops and a criminally apathetic populace; and b) he is incredibly, unbelievably clumsy.

out of order

Can I confess here, in the safety of my weblog, to being a Doctor Who fan? No one at the bar besides my friend Cloudesley will engage me in this kind of discussion, although someone will drop a sentence like “I thought last week’s episode was really good/complete shit” and leave it at that. When grown-ups are drinking and hockey players are swimming around on the projection screen in the background, it’s slightly shameful to go on about a science fiction show designed for ‘family’ viewing. It’s meant to appeal to adults and children alike, but the adults are meant to watch and appreciate it with their kids. It’s the kids that legitimate the grown-up enjoyment, and since I have none of those, I have to admit that I’m just a big child nearing his forties who likes shows about time travel and alien monsters lumbering around on sound stages.

Do any of you need a spot of background on Doctor Who? Perhaps for those of you who grew up with Star Trek and The Bionic Man flickering on the rabbit-eared televisions of your childhood? The Doctor Who series first appeared in 1963, ran straight through until 1989, resurfaced as a TV movie in 1996, and appeared again in 2005. The Doctor, as he calls himself, is a time-traveling alien called a Time Lord (thanks 1963, for that stupid stupid name). He takes on traveling companions from time to time and goes on jaunts to the past, where we learn a thing or two about history, and the future, where we learn a thing or two about science. The show was in part conceived as educational entertainment for British children, but the storylines and science fiction elements began to overwhelm the educational element until it became a series of ripping yarns, with a strong thread of the horrific and the grotesque, the better to drive a generation of children behind the couch in terror. The new series has been tweaked for more adult consumption, but much of what made the series wonderful and occasionally pretty silly has been kept in.

I make no claim that every episode of the new Who is great television. Some of it is cringingly bad (avoid the “Daleks in Manhattan” episodes in season three), and lately the series seems a bit tired of itself and the inevitable formulaism that creeps in after a while: The Doctor shows up, talks a lot, there’s an enemy, there’s a crisis, Doctor solves crisis with his advanced thinkiness, and away they go again. Even the Doctor’s traveling companions, who are there to provide a human face to the Doctor’s alien nonchalance and a point of vulnerability for an invulnerable hero, seem to be going through mostly the same crises.

One of the strangest deficiencies of the series is its staid treatment of time travel (there are exceptions, of which more later). Zipping back and forth in time is the most visible signal of the Doctor’s difference from the rest of the humanoids crowding the universe, but most often it’s treated in a Sherman-and-Peabody manner, as if the entire space-time continuum were a map in which The Doctor could simply stick a pin and say, “There!” The various complications involved with time travel, such as The Doctor encountering himself, are explained away on-the-fly in blips of exposition either glib or ominous, mostly involving “rules”. In the episode “Father’s Day,” time travel rules are grossly violated. A character goes back into the past and rescues her father from death, which triggers the decay of the continuum, with emptying streets and batlike monsters bubbling out of nothingness to devour the world.

This is a classic fable about the dangers of getting you wish for, but it doesn't have much to say about a world in which time travel is a possibility. The catastrophe is presented as sci-fi horror, but it’s really a drama about someone who attempts to alter with the fundamentals of her psyche by the restoration of the absent father, but nearly destroys the psyche in the process. An unwise amendment of the past is really a revolt against the self and its formative experiences; undo the event and you undo the self. In the context of the show, the psyche is mapped onto the more massive scale of the world of the character, so it is the world itself which is undone. Fortunately for all of us, the world is restored in classic Freudian fashion when the father reenacts his death, which allows the daughter to reintegrate the trauma back into her miserable but non-universe-destroying life.

More entertaining are the episodes in which the characters are forced to deal with the inherent strangeness of time travel, such as “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which features a spaceship with a series of portals that open into the life of eighteenth-century Frenchwoman Madame de Pompadour, or “Blink,” in which a young woman’s day is plagued by creepy statues and a series of inexplicable messages from the past. Of these kinds of stories, which function as four-dimensional puzzles, “Blink” is the most entertaining. It’s one of the best episodes of Doctor Who, and possibly one of the best hours of television you’re likely to see. It’s a knotty little mystery, a relationship drama, a science fiction story that outstrips what usually passes for science fiction on television, and a sly, sophisticated take on the nature of how we watch film and television.

“Blink” is one of the episodes that have come to be called ‘Doctor-lite,’ in which The Doctor barely makes an appearance and the focus shifts to characters whose lives intersect with The Doctor at a crucial moment. In “Blink,” he mostly appears as an Easter Egg on a (seemingly) random series of DVDs, staring at the camera and conducting one side of a cryptic conversation. The key to figuring out just what he's going on about is the key to solving the problem of the episode. The problem is, he's stuck in 1969 without his time machine, and he has to rely on the most abstruse series of devices to contact a person in 2007 to send his machine back to him. Did I say four-dimensional puzzle? It's more like a Rube Goldberg device.

The other problem is probably given a name in some introductory film text somewhere: the unconscious habit of the viewer to graft their eyes and ears into the two dimensional space of the screen. Every Film 100 student learns on some semi-comatose afternoon about master scene technique, in which back-and-forth cuts mimic and direct the behaviour of the eye, while a 180 degree line serves to place us within the scene. Find a movie that breaks this technique and jumps to the other side of the imaginary line; for viewers raised on Western cinema, the effect is jarring. We feel that we have "jumped" to the other side of the characters. Part of us perhaps expects to see the spectral studio audience in the background, or our own living room.

The other way that images reinforces our unconscious placement within the scene is by having characters look into the camera. The illusion that the character is staring at you is so powerful that it's hard to realize how bizarre it really is. Whenever I put in a DVD of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris is ready to look into the camera, make eye contact with me, drop out of the action to tell me something kind of funny, kind of snarky, kind of irritating. But it's all nonsense. Somewhere back in 1985, Matthew Broderick is standing on a set, reciting lines at a camera. As he recites, I am fourteen years old, sitting in class or maybe throwing stones into the harbour. I make eye contact with Mathew Broderick, feel the force of human contact, but I am staring at him across of a gulf of decades. He stares into a lens in 1985. I stare at a screen in 2008. But neither of us is looking at the other.

What makes this non-relationship even worse is that it's an unequal non-relationship. Viewers see the image of Broderick and form a relationship with him. Memories accrete around the viewing of the film. We remember the best lines and commit to our permanent circuits the shape of Bueller-Broderick's face, the heaviness of his hair and the ugliness of his sweater vests. He becomes a kind of friend. Broderick, on the other hand, knows nothing of us as individuals. We are anonymous revenue sources. Facelessly we supply him with his needs. We are fans. Except for me, I can't stand Matthew Broderick.

"Blink" contains a benevolent fantasy of friendship with the image on the screen. I say benevolent because The Doctor is unfailingly altruistic. But what if you popped Ferris Bueller's Day Off into the DVD slot and Broderick called you by name? The effect would be terrifying. Probably nauseating to boot. And the relationship would definitely not be even. Instead, Mathew Broderick would take on the supernatural ability to see you as you hovered in that in-between space. He would probably have demands. He would invade your superego and replace it, and you would be subject to the force of Bueller-Broderick's will. Brundlefly! Run! You should be thankful that the images do not call us out as we skulk at the edges of the scene, like Jimmy Stewart peering at Kim Novak from a crack in the wall in Vertigo.

Vertigo is soaked in shame and desperation. It is a lens magnifying (or maybe concentrating?) the shameful, perverse aspects of watching images. To be called out by the image is to be exposed, all one's basest desires for gratification in the open, like someone catching you in the act of masturbation or singing along to American Idol. Imagine being a desperate Jimmy Stewart whose love entails the sadistic remaking of a living woman into a dead one. Throw time travel into the mix and you've got the makings of a Doctor Who episode.

on the condomness of David Caruso

Every so often I watch an episode of CSI: Miami. I don't know how I get to that point, from the happy state of not watching CSI: Miami to the morally compromised state of watching CSI: Miami, but I obviously get there somehow. It's strange - I could be out rescuing a family of star-nosed moles from evil carnies at one moment, and then there's a kind of warp in front of my eyes and then the entish face of David Caruso is sweeping back and forth across the television screen. Am I blocking the memory of that decision to turn on my television? I can think of no other reason. And meanwhile, the carnies are having their evil way with the poor little star-nosed moles.

CSI: Miami is rewarding not for its entertainment value - although it is undeniably, if uninentionally, entertaining - but for its fanatical contempt for 98 per cent of the population. The only demographics excepted are: 1) young girls who never hurt anyone and need protection; 2) CSI employees and a smattering of honest cops. Everyone else comes off at best as arrogant and entitled. From those heights we drop to the corrupt, the venal, and the guilty. David Caruso's character Horatio Cane (really?) is a tech-heavy update of Dragnet's Joe Friday, drifting through a morally bankrupt world where the Eloi laugh at the notion of moral responsibility and the Morlocks feed with impunity - until a stray fiber or thread of saliva brings them down.

Atop the moral pyramid rests the clear glass compartment of the CSI crime lab and its busy exegetes of crime, who skirt corruption by relying on technology for their answers. In their world, the guilty are convicted not in court but rooted out by a microscope, a fingerprint database, a blood-detecting mist of Luminol. Compare the overburdened and harried forensics lab in The Wire with the efficient and unbelievably stylish Miami digs, and you will find the exaltation of forensics into a temple to technology, an Apple Store with corpses in the basement and a centrifuge off to the side.

Television has traditionally relied on shallow characterization, but CSI: Miami seems uniquely uninterested in psychologically convincing characters. The members of the CSI lab all have their personal crises, their inexplicable arrests by Internal Affairs, but really they're adjuncts to the implacable tech of the forensics lab - chips inscribed with a moral executable for the extraction of justice. David Caruso's character, despite the frequent gestures towards a personal life, is a blood-free cyborg programmed to protect innocent women, ignore civil rights and constantly answer his own questions. He is in fact a cyborg condom.

The crime scene investigator and his array of tools function as a prophylactic, a thin but electronically tested barrier that allows him to come in contact with evil but not be contaminated by it. The rest of the world is irretrievably tainted by congress with Big Evil, but when Big Evil slops up against the crime scene investigators, the crime scene investigators wipe it up and take it back to the lab. There they interrogate Evil down to its molecules and pull out a perpetrator from the traces.

As a prophylactic, the CSI lab prevents evil - not acts of evil, but scary metaphysical Evil - from contaminating justice. People still commit crimes, but thanks to the examination of a smear of lotion or a pebble in a boot tread, the criminal will break down and confess, defeated by the infallibility of lab geeks and the clarity of microscopic evidence. That's my favourite part of the show: when the perpetrator, confronted by a tiny pile of forensic clues that, in the real world, would add up to a whole lotta nothing, suddenly tells the whole story. I keep thinking, now would be the time to shut up. I think, where's your lawyer? But you know those lawyers. They keep trying to poke holes in the CSI condom.

unlikely advice from dr. phil

I want you to go on and vomit up that frittata into this cup. You shouldn’t be eating that Eurotrash food anyhow.

Don’t look at me. I’m not going to help you now. Only your feet can help you. Mumble your excuses to your feet. Or maybe that helpful spot way over in the back you keep staring at.

Do you know why you’re here today? Do you know why you’re here? ‘Cause I’m going to tell you. You’re here because, because you think I’m not a hologram. But when have I ever touched you? Think about it.

Go ahead and leave your children. Do it now. Put them in a shopping cart and leave them in the front yard if necessary. Throw in some of those little yoghurts with them, they’ll be fine. Just do what you gotta do. Do what feels right.

I want you to come over here right now and chew on my moustache. It’s full of nutrients and antidepressants.

I know you’ve been having troubles with your husband, right? Your family? And I promised last week that I would get you some help. Well you know what? Fuck you.

Show’s over, but I’m just going to sit here. I need you to take my wife’s hand and walk out with her. Take her back to the house. Pick up some tequila on the way. I’ll catch up later.

On second thought, let’s not do this.

yeesh

Pure brewy satisfaction - We threw out our filter-drip coffee maker. Goodbye, you efficient little appliance, you. Who’s a big Braun? You’re gone. Now we’ve got some space on our depressingly tiny countertop. And the dusty spot in the cupboard where the bodum used to sit is now empty.

Everyone knows the following truths to be self-evident: 1. bodums take up less space than filter-drip machines; 2. they have the most pleasing design of any item ever invented since inventions were first invented; 3. booyah! They sit on the stovetop and don’t bother anybody. And let’s not forget the whole awesome-coffee-production factor.

Our kitchen, frankly, was not built for small appliances. It was built in an era when kitchens were tiny, people were smaller, and microwave ovens were undreamt of. Our ceilings are tall, our bedroom is spacious, the courtyard is pure tenement-porn, but goddamn is our kitchen small. I put a ten pound bag of potatoes in there one day and couldn’t get in the room until we’d eaten half of them. Zing!

Punish and Heal - American television drama is almost exclusively about punishment by law and redemption by medicine. The CSIs, the Laws & Orders, the Cold Cases and Criminal Minds are obsessed with the problem of evil and the delivery of justice. I’d go so far as to say that the beat cops, lab geeks, coroners, detectives and prosecutors make up a giant justice delivery system, poised like a great hypodermic above the forces of evil – criminals, defense lawyers, internal affairs investigators, and all citizens who are not victimized pubescent girls. If the moral universe of these shows is of a piece, then make no mistake – everyone is suspect by virtue of their moral weakness. Except for the victimized children, still wrapped in a golden fog of innocence. And of course, the cops themselves, who struggle against whatever evil impulses they may have, winning out by dint of their inherent goodness. How do we know they’re inherently good? Duh – they joined law enforcement.

Tooling down the freeways alongside the good, the weak and the violated are the avatars of evil, the deranged freaks who exist solely to prey on other human beings. Drug dealers, serial killers, psychopaths – if you believe these shows, then these types are so common that they practically have their own suburbs. Television unleashes its fiercest weapon on these evildoers: the troubled genius who suffered some great loss at the hands of a fiend and is now on a mission to rid the earth of all the über-scum out there. Or some variation on that theme.

Can you imagine a contemporary drama about a guy getting out of jail and trying to live a decent life? It sounds like a setup for a noir film. It is the setup for a noir film. But these crime dramas, although they may imitate the grittiness of noir at times, are not noirs, where pro- and antagonist are barely distinguishable. The heroes of CSI or Criminal Minds inhabit a different moral universe than the criminals – and the summit of morality is the law. There’s no distinction between what is good and what is ruled to be good. Therefore to be outside the law is to be irredeemable. Although sometimes a hero will break one law in order to satisfy justice, which is the aim of the law. Which is a way of saying that the test of goodness is punishment of evil. In other words, don't tell David Caruso that you just run a tatoo parlor, because he'll say something confusing and then show up a week later to kick your ass.

In hospital shows, evil rarely resides in a character. Instead, evil is personified in the form of sickness, an invader of the body that the afflicted person may have encouraged (lung cancer from smoking, for example) but does not deserve. Instead of punishing the person, the doctors seek to punish the sickness, and in the process redeem the body of the patient. This is unstrained mercy. Just as it is unthinkable for the law-hero to forgive a criminal, it is unthinkable for the medicine-hero to refuse a patient. Much of the drama in medical franchises stems from the doctor dealing with personal quirks or the pull of other priorities that threaten to eclipse the imperative of the patient on the bed, his body besieged. Never mind that if you go into a real hospital in the States, you’re likely to come out sick and broke.

Oh yes, and BLAH BLAH-DEE-BLAH. Next up: entertaining blog entries.

the worst meal i've ever eaten, part 1

A few weeks ago Salon.com published "Bad Taste", (requires Flash ad or membership to read*) a six-part piece on the worst meals that the various contributors had ever experienced. There are tales of foetal ducks and oven-baked steak in a washcloth (which somehow seems worse than the foetal duck), but the stories have as much to do with the horrendous circumstances surrounding the meal as they do with the quality of the food itself. Take Michael Ruhlman's tale of a meal at a restaurant run by Rocco DiSpirito, in which the chef's attempt to impress with off-the-menu cuisine goes seriously awry. Ruhlman manages to catch the quality of what makes a particular meal bad:

Seven years later, the memory of that meal remains sharp in my mind not so much because the food itself was a travesty -- everybody but a brain surgeon is allowed to have a bad day. But really our worst meals are ultimately about sadness...
Or in my case, ridiculousness.

My worst meal was served to me - or rather, I served it to myself at a buffet-style lunch in a sweltering courtyard - in the Philippines in late summer 2004. I was a field producer at the time for the show Disasters of the Century, a formulaic but popular program on floods, volcanoes and the most crushtastic engineering failures that the world has to offer. During the selection for the international component of season five, one of the researchers found information about the Taal Volcano.

Taal holds the distinction of being one of the world's smallest and nastiest volcanoes. It had killed hundreds of people in the twentieth century, periodically spewing cannonades of magma and boiling mud on the people who shared an island with the thing. Ever hot on the trail of old stories about the long-dead, my company sent me in to investigate.

In the course of the show's run, Disasters of the Century covered around eighty stories, of which about twenty-five were international (ie, non-Canadian). Often we would pick stories based on the amount of 'disaster infrastructure' that had been built around the event - are there museums? Historians and experts? Records that will lead us to survivors and descendants? Web sites? And in countries with significant cultural or linguistic differences, are there guides (or as I came to think of them, showboating fixers)?

If you intend to conduct interviews in countries where the populace speaks little to no English, a good interpreter can make the difference between an enjoyable time in a foreign place and an endless nightmare of stomach-clenching anxiety and rage. My production company refused to spend money on a professional interpreter, so we usually ended hiring someone who had been recommended by one of our contacts. These people were invariably useless, unemployable freaks who seemed to take pleasure in working against us. There was the one who smelled of old sweat and didn't show up for most of the interviews, the one who showed late for each interview and took offense when I mentioned it, the one who antagonized the interviewees, the one who dressed exclusively in leopard print, the one who kept bursting into tears every time someone brought up the topic of head injuries.

And then there was Dindo Montenegro.

Dindo was our tour guide and cultural interpreter, a flamboyant fixer who seemed to do a little bit of everything. He met us at the airport with a van and a driver, which I had expected. He was also accompanied by two smiling young men (I wish I could remember their names) whom we had apparently hired as well. I checked the call sheet - these two weren't scheduled to show up until the next day. I was immediately on my guard; my company had held so closely to the bottom line for this trip that any unexpected expenses would tip the budget into the red. I did not want to end up broke and phoning home from some Pacific Rim country.

Not to worry, Mr. Eye-den, explained Dindo with much waving of arms, this is part of the package, it is all worked out with your office, you and your companion (the cameraman) are guests here. The two smiling men took the luggage and equipment from us, in some instances prising the cases from our surprised hands. I discovered that Dindo's main talent was rapid smooth talk, effusive explanation and a semi-clandestine whispering that gave mundane details an inexplicable edge of excitement. As we threaded the streets of Manila at rush hour, Dindo informed us that we were to be guests of honour at a luncheon three days hence.

Part two tomorrow. Sorry to break up the story like this, but I blame NaBloPoMo. I also blame NaBloPoMo for global warming and the decline in quality of moving picture entertainments.

*Salon will make you watch a brief ad to get a "Site Pass," which gives you twenty-four hours of trouble-free reading. In Internet Explorer, though, Salon can be still difficult to navigate - try navigating back if you don't believe me - so my free advice is to get Firefox, install the Greasemonkey extension, then grab the Salon Premium Pass script from userscripts.org. It makes for some trouble-free times. However, if you like Salon enough, you'll want a Premium membership.

the people of csi new york dwell in an unspeakable netherworld of shifting forms

"..."

"Feeling sleepy, foxy lady? Can I put a little Folger's in your cup, if you catch my drift?"

"I beg your pardon, asshole?"

"Whoah. Could've sworn you were an attractive woman just a moment ago".

"HYAAAAGHAAAAGHAAAAH!"

"???!@/#%!!"

"There. How you like me now, brown cow?"

"I think I liked it better when you were a woman".

"I kind of liked being the black guy".

"You did have a better goatee".

"You know, I'm still up for some Folger's in my cup".

"Can you turn into Gary Sinise?"

I bitch the body electric

I don't know what television's like in the real world, but here in Canada our home channels are infested with old government-sponsored PSAs that hatched like fruit flies somewhere back in the early '70s and '80s. Today they swarm in the dark moist spaces between programming blocks, reminding us all that we once thought television was a tool for educating and improving the masses. Anti-smoking, anti-alcoholism, anti-drug abuse, pro-fitness and general positivity, the spots age more and more badly each year, colours degrading and sounds dissipating. The messages generally get hokier as they recede into the past as well - somehow I find the spectacle of Stevie Wonder singing "don't drive drunk" less persuasive nowadays. And it's only with the maturity of age that I realize they hired a blind guy to tell us how to drive. Was this a joke that everybody laughed about in 1986?

Some of the PSAs, I'm betting, are probably recent but they look old. Case in point: an ad promoting a healthy balance of food and activity, featuring a purple blob with googly eyes. The purple blob runs in place, opens its mouth, flexes purple biceps, melts into goo, and spins around repeatedly, little lightning bolts sizzling around its head to demonstrate its good health. Because nothing's healthier than a purple blob with googly eyes and a manic grin. The blob dances around to a cheery government-sanctioned rap track, the kind of lame positive faux-rap that invariably features lines like "I'm so-and-so/And I'm here to say...". At the chorus they break out into this jaunty tune that you instantly hate but can't dislodge from your head: "You got to balance food and activity/Put 'em together... the body electriciteee'. It doesn't even make sense. You're humming this line that doesn't make any sense, and you keep on wondering why they wrote nonsensical crap, and the people in line at the grocery store are starting to hate you. That's what this ad does to you.

Then it gets satanic.

Somewhere around the thirty second mark (this is one long-ass PSA), the purple blob holds up a grey blob that says 'food' in one hand and a grey blob that says 'activity' in the other. Rapmeister Active MC is explaining that you need both food and activity for a healthy body. So the blob guy demonstrates. First he throws the grey blob marked 'food' into his mouth, where it will no doubt be converted by the creature's digestive system into a purple blob. Then he takes the grey blob marked 'activity' and does the exact same thing.

He eats activity. This infuriates me.

Why can't he take 'activity' and start doing, I dunno, some activity with it? Stretch it out into a skipping rope? Make a kayak out of it? Why not a set of weights or a basketball or something?

I'm sure there's a reason for it. If the animators and the director and Active MC were to defend it in court (brought in on a charge of Well Intentioned Crap), they'd probably say that they'd considered a number of options: that they had to keep the pace fresh but consistent, that their budget was limited (true dat), that the blob really needed to transition smoothly into yet another spin-and-flex, and that hey, they had a project to complete on time, and for god's sake it's just for a bunch of kids and who cares if the blob eats activity anyway? Well, the judge would say, I do. Because I would be that judge. And I'd sentence them to a long hard life as Janet Jackson's personal assistants.

Because that sounds like a bad time to me.