Monday, December 20, 2010

Why Tron: Legacy Sucked

Why did I see Tron: Legacy last weekend?

I could say I thought it was going to be a good movie—Jeff Bridges! A Daft Punk soundtrack! Shiny things!—but I read the AV Club review and knew it wasn’t going to be “good.” Maybe I thought it would be entertaining, the way Die Hard 4 was kind of entertaining, or the way one of those CSI-esque shows on Fox that doesn’t make any sense but keeps chugging along anyway and sucks you into its bullshit world is entertaining. I didn’t think it would be boring.

Well, it was. Most of the scenes were of people talking, and mostly they were just trying to explain to each other (and the audience) what the hell was going on. The plot is about the people who live in a computer trying to come out and taking over the world with glowing disks and rods, or something, led by Evil Jeff Bridges, and opposed by Good Jeff Bridges and his son, who is played by a guy with only two facial expressions. There’s also some business with some Magical Beings who live in the computer and can “change everything” if they get out of the computer. All of this was treated extremely seriously, with the only comic relief coming in the form of a character who I can only describe as a homosexual Mad Hatter. The action sequences are either sub-Matrix martial arts fights, or stuff ripped off directly from the first Tron or the first Star Wars. Oh, and Good Jeff Bridges talks like The Dude from The Big Lebowski for reasons that are not adequately explained. “You’re really messing with my Zen thing man,” he says at one point. I guess that was supposed to be funny.

It was shiny, I’ll give it that. There were a lot of blinking lights, and when one of the computer people got killed they would collapse into a bunch of cubes. And sometimes entire motorcycles materialize around people! That was cool, but by the climatic, Star-Fox-inspired battle scene, I was back to being bored. It looked about as impressive as a video game, with a story that could have been a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Tron is the kind of movie that makes you incredibly curious about aspects of the story that are skimmed over, despite the mountains of exposition. Like, are all the computer people true Turing-test-passing AIs? And how does Bridges’ 1980s-computer have enough memory to handle all of them? Why does Evil Jeff Bridges only have about five henchmen with him at any one time; why isn’t he using his entire army to track down Good Jeff Bridges? Most importantly, why are the computer programs (apparently) men and women? Do they have sex?

Those last questions, about what kind of sex computer programs have with each other, are kind of unavoidable—there’s a scene at an actually-not-very-exciting-looking party where a couple of sexy lady programs are sitting on guy programs’ laps and we follow Beau Garrett’s hypnotic ass as she walks through the crowd. Seriously, do computer people have dicks, or what? Do they get pregnant? Don’t tell me that Good Jeff Bridges has been cohabiting with his only ally, the smoking hot Olivia Wilde, for what amounts to hundreds of years without knocking neon-covered boots with her. And clearly Olivia Wilde is attracted to Jeff Bridge’s Son The Shitty Actor—there’s an intense one-act play about a father-son-mistress love triangle buried in this movie, but that’s skimmed over. This is a Disney production, after all, and Disney’s house special is creating characters that ooze sexuality (even when the characters in question are animated animals) and then neutering them.

Tron follows a trend, exemplified by Avatar, of extraordinarily stupid science fiction blockbusters. Old-fashioned science fiction was written by people like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who knew their science and wrote intellectually inquisitive stories and novels, albeit ones with wooden prose and thin characters. Hollywood sci-fi keeps the thin characters but doesn’t give a shit about explaining how anything happens or why. Science is just magic in Tron. How does a person go inside a computer and apparently remain a flesh-and-blood being who ages and bleeds? How do computer people made out of data become actual matter when they go outside of the computer? Doesn’t that violate the basic law of physics? No, because everything happens because of magic. You aren’t meant to ask questions or engage with the fictional world or think about anything when you watch a Hollywood sci-fi epic. Just sit back and let the effects wash over you, like you were watching a 120-minute car commercial.

People love this shit, of course—Tron earned 43 million at the box office over the weekend, and at least one sequel is likely. The user review section on Metacritic is filled with high ratings from people who thought it was great, and who use movies to distract themselves from the terrible, soul-crushing reality of their own existences. “It's a moovie for peat sake,” one of the reviews read. Movies like Tron aren’t meant to make you think deep thoughts, the comments section argues, they’re just mindless fun entertainment for you to zonk out to, sort of like heroin but less addictive and more expensive. People like me, who thought that Tron was really boring and not even comically bad most of the time, even when you are stoned and drinking wine in the theater and thinking of snarky things to say about it later, are not supposed to see this movie; we’re supposed to go read the New York Times and re-watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and go to art museums with scarf-wearing women with Etsy profiles. Fine, I’ll go do that. You assholes can have the next five Tron movies, which will be about as fun as watching someone else play a video game.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why the NCAA Sucks

Hello, internet people! I have a new post on, where I am going to be posting regularly about cheating in sports as long as cheating (or sports) exist. This in my favorite sentence from it:

"Cam hasn’t been punished for his dad’s actions (so far) because like Richard Nixon, he can claim “plausible deniability”—the NCAA forgave him, for he knew not what his father did." Read more!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Who Chuck Lorre is and Why He Sucks

The latest issue of the New Yorker contains a profile of Chuck Lorre by Tom Bissell (gated), which answers a question I’ve never asked myself until now—namely, who is Chuck Lorre? Turns out he’s the human force of nature behind the most popular sitcoms of our time, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, as well as not-exactly-classics like Grace Under Fire and Dharma and Greg. It’s a well-written article that has some nice behind-the-scenes details—did you know that all of those shows are actually filmed in front of a live audience?—but it also works amazingly hard at dancing around the fact that no matter how successful and hard-working Lorre is, he’s also a hack.

Ahem. Maybe the polite term for hack is “populist,” or “sitcom traditionalist,” or whatever phrase the New Yorker used to describe him. What Lorre has done throughout his career is create TV shows that are to television what Top 40 hits are to music and McDonald’s is to food. Two and a Half Men is a program for people who want to watch television but don’t care what they want. They want something comforting to rest their eyeballs on, something that won’t challenge them or force them to have an emotional or intellectual response. Fine, I guess. I’ve drunk too much cheap, shitty beer to question anyone’s taste. But the New Yorker, perhaps out of an instinct to not throw profile subjects under the bus, doesn’t quote any of the many, many people who hate Lorre’s lowbrow shows, and halfway defends his work with lines like:

Lorre’s standing among critics is not helped by his staunchly traditional approach to the sitcom. He is well aware of the shifts that have taken place in sitcom writing during the past twenty years, but he does not care all that much about them.

There’s little discussion about those “shifts” in sitcom writing, maybe because if the piece delved into recent sitcom history, Lorre’s attitude would come off as stodgy and willfully ignorant. The sitcoms of the 1980s, watched today, are astonishingly slow-paced and predictable, even the supposedly “good” ones like The Cosby Show. The reason for this is that the last 20 years have represented a revolution of sorts in sitcom writing, which resulted in shows from both sides of the Atlantic like Seinfeld, Newsradio, The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, The Office, Spaced, The Office (again), Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, the first seasons of Malcolm in the Middle and 30 Rock, Peep Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and most recently, Louis, Parks and Recreation, and Community, which competes in the same time slot as The Big Bang Theory, the first of Lorre’s shows to be acknowledged as non-terrible by critics. For a sitcom writer to “not care all that much” about that list of shows is fucking insane, like a film director ignoring all films made after 1970, or a writer refusing to read anything published after 1900. And for Bissell not to find someone to put Lorre’s attitude in context is a bit of a problem for the piece.

Another thing Bissell might have done is to get a critic to point out that, okay, the four-camera sitcom is out of fashion among comedy geeks right now (mostly because all that audience laughter slows the pacing down to a crawl), but it’s not like critics are racist against traditionally structured shows or anything. Newsradio and Seinfeld were four-camera shows, and those are beloved shows whose fans will buy the DVD sets of. Louis CK’s Lucky Louie has less of a following, but there are still a bunch of folks who swear it was brilliant. Who’s clamoring to buy the DVDs of Dharma and Greg? Critics don’t like Lorre’s shows because critics love good sitcoms, have been watching good sitcoms for years, and Lorre’s shows aren’t good sitcoms.

Like most purveyors of critically-reviled pop culture, Lorre hates the critics who revile him. Bissell’s article quotes a message Lorre hid in his production company’s “vanity card” that flashes on the screen for a second after the credits roll:

You [critics] have absolutely no power to affect ratings and the likely success or failure of a TV show. In that arena you are laughably impotent. You are not unlike a flaccid penis flailing miserably at a welcoming vagina.

Beyond the somewhat bizarre sexual imagery (“flailing” at a “welcoming” vagina? Like the penis is being whipped against a woman’s wet pussy lips in some vaguely kinky impotence fetish fantasy?), this is a fairly revealing statement. Lorre defines “success” for his shows as “high ratings.” He wants as many eyeballs as he can to be glued to his shows, and that’s the extent of his ambition. Is it any wonder critics don’t like him?

See, Chuck, sitcom critics—those poor schmucks—did not get into the business to influence ratings. They don’t care much about ratings, by and large, unless low ratings cause a show they like to get cancelled. They became critics not to tear you, Chuck Lorre, down personally, but because they watched way too much TV as children and fell in love with the sitcom form. That’s a bad thing to love, because the sitcom form doesn’t always love them back, but they can’t help it. They want to write about the shows they love seriously and analytically, and they hope to spread the word about these shows to other people, who might also fall in love with these shows. They want, at bottom, for sitcoms to be taken seriously as art, or at least not dismissed by intellectuals as 22 minutes of content indifferently occupying space between ads for erection medication and cars.

That’s why people like Todd VanDerWerff praise shows like Community
and why every comedy geek I know puts Arrested Development on a pedestal. Those are some great, densely-layered shows that reward you when you rewatch them and sometimes have some emotional depth to them. They inspire love and occasional debate among they’re fans, and they actually have fans, unlike your shows, which have viewers. People love all of the shows I listed above—how many people love Two and a Half Men?

Finally, the people who worked on Arrested Development don’t think the show “failed” because it got cancelled. They’re proud of having made one of the funniest shows of the past decade. And the people working on Community, which is getting beat in the ratings nightly by your Big Bang Theory, aren’t worried about “failure.” Donald Glover told me during an interview I did a while ago that it’s an awesome feeling to work alongside a talented ensemble on a really funny show that inspires really passionate fans. What I wonder, Chuck Lorre, is if the folks working for your show have that feeling.
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Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Super Bowl Halftime Show Will Suck--Here's What I'd Like to See Instead

So, the Black Eyed Peas are playing that great American institution, the Super Bowl halftime show. The criteria for the band that plays the Super Bowl every year (if you can call the Black Eyed Peas a “band”) is that they have to be extraordinarily uncontroversial, the blander and more famous the better. The powers that be are not in the market for another nipple revelation, and are not taking the chance that anyone will be offended by the show. Well, they failed, because I’m fucking offended. I hate the Black Eyed Peas’ marketing strategy masquerading as a musical career, and I hate that I’ll probably end up seeing some of it because I’ll be watching the Super Bowl, for the football game. How many football fans will enjoy hearing “Let’s Get Retarded/It Started in Here”? Conversely, how many Black Eyed Peas fans will turn on the Super Bowl solely because of the Black Eyed Peas’ presence? How many Black Eyed Peas fans can figure out how to operate a TV remote with their hideously deformed flipper-like appendages? (The joke in my head is that in order to enjoy the Black Eyed Peas, one must be the product of centuries of inbreeding, and therefore probably have some weird mutations going on.) So many questions, so few answers. One question I can answer, however, is “What would I rather see than this halftime show?” Here’s a list, in no particular order. An asterisk (*) denotes something that on second thought, I actually would like to see.

1. The Puppy Bowl.
2. The Puppy Bowl, but instead of real puppies, it’s people in dog outfits tackling each other.*
3. The Puppy Bowl, but instead of playing football, the puppies fight each other viciously, like they would at Michael Vick’s house.
4. The Puppy Bowl, but instead of real puppies, it’s people in dog outfits, and instead of playing football, they fuck each other through strategically placed holes in their costumes.
5. Noam Chomsky giving a lecture on the meaning of the word “Muslim” in current American political discourse.*
6. The Beastie Boys performing, and yes, I know MCA has throat cancer.
7. MCA undergoing throat surgery on live TV.
8. The Big Lebowski.
9. The porn version of The Big Lebowski, titled The Big Lebowski.
10. Simpsons reruns, seasons 1-10
11. Peep Show reruns.
12. Larry Sanders Show reruns.
13. Simpsons reruns, seasons 10+
14. Standing cat, looped for roughly the length of the Black Eyed Peas’ performance
15. The guy who runs American Apparel sitting on a toilet masturbating while the 16-year-old heroin addict waifs who appear in the AA ads gyrate around him in what would be a seductive manner if they weren’t strung out and dressed in lime green latex bodysuits.
16. Noam Chomsky being fucked by a man dressed as a dog.
17. The Louis CK porn tape that was almost made.
18. The Black Eyed Peas fucking each other in dog costumes—although I guess you wouldn’t be able to tell it was them unless you recognized the tattoos they undoubtedly have on their genitals—while Sting’s “Englishman in New York” plays.
19. The Last Airbender
20. People having debates about the existence of God via YouTube vlogs. (This actually happens.)
21. One of those videos I made in middle school with my friends when we thought we were HILAROUS.
22. Bruce Springsteen sliding his crotch into the camera like that one time, but this time he’s not wearing any pants and we can see that his cock is covered in blood and we as a nation are like, “Whoa! That is definitely not cool!”
23. Pavement playing Black Eyed Peas covers.*
24. A Police reunion concert.
25. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin talking about how America needs to return to Jesus, but while they’re talking, Glenn slowly strips off his jacket, tie, pants, shirt, and underwear, revealing he has both female and male genitalia. He then puts a ball gag in his mouth while Sarah ties his wrists behind him with zip ties and proceeds to beat him savagely with electrical wire—still talking about Jesus--until his back is stripped bare of skin and he has bit down on the ball gag so hard that blood drips out of his mouth and into a milk saucer, at which point Michelle Bachmann (dressed as a dog, of course) laps the blood up with her tongue.
26. Garrison Keillor reading his work. All of his work.

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