Review: Disenchantment Season 1

disenchantment-netflix

In the new Netflix animated series Disenchantment, Princess Tiabini of Dreamland, nicknamed “Bean,” chafes at the royal responsibilities of making appearances, conducting diplomacy, and above all marrying strategically. She’d rather sneak out of her tower bedroom and spend her nights drinking and carousing than play the dutiful daughter at court, and as a woman in a pseudo-medieval kingdom she has no more control over her own destiny than the poorest serf. She is, in short, a mess. Her father, the blustering King Zøg, doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand her, and in any case he has a new family to worry about, Bean’s stepmother Queen Oona and half-brother Prince Derek. What’s a girl to do?

Bean isn’t the only one who’s misunderstood and doesn’t feel that they fit in: Elfo lives and works in a secret woodland enclave of candy-making elves (a sort of combination of the Smurfs and the Keebler Elves), but he’s the only one who isn’t happy with a life of singing, dancing, and cooking. When he makes his inevitable break and leaves Elfwood, he finds his way to Dreamland and interrupts Princess Bean’s wedding to the moronic Prince Guysbert. The resulting fracas brings the pair together–elf’s blood is supposed to be the key to immortality, leading to Elfo being made a permanent “guest” of King Zøg and his court wizard Sorcerio–and sets the stage for their friendship. Both are, of course, trapped in the castle one way or another.

The third main character is equally supernatural: among the wedding gifts, Bean finds a box that looks a lot like one of the puzzle boxes from the Hellraiser movies; opening it, a demon appears and proclaims that she is now cursed and will never be rid of him. Luci, the demon, was sent to turn Bean to the dark side by a mysterious couple who monitor his progress through a magical fire, but since Bean was already troubled (and gifted at making trouble) Luci’s influence doesn’t make that much difference, and the two quickly become drinking buddies. Once the introductions are dispensed with and the stage is set, it becomes clear that Elfo and Luci are the angel and devil sitting on Bean’s shoulder (sometimes literally to make it clear), with the naïve, kind Elfo encouraging her to stay on the straight and narrow and Luci enabling her worst impulses.

However, Elfo’s inoffensive nature is mostly just “nice,” and as Stephen Sondheim famously pointed out, “nice” isn’t the same thing as “good.” Being a Matt Groening creation (with Josh Weinstein), the world of Disenchantment isn’t any more fair or forgiving than our own, and as Bean finds her place in it, Elfo learns to cut loose a little bit and begins to understand that standing up for himself sometimes means challenging what others perceive as “good.” For his part, Luci never seems all that bad (he’s “TV bad,” like Bender), and comes to feel loyalty toward Bean and even that annoying elf. In a world of shades of gray, the all-black Luci doesn’t stand out that much. (The business of Luci turning Bean toward the dark side is left unresolved in favor of other mysteries during this season.)

At first, Disenchantment looks familiar: it has a family resemblance to Matt Groening’s previous work, from Princess Bean’s buck teeth, reminiscent of Bongo, one of the rabbit stars of Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip, to the gleeful genre parody, the science fiction of Futurama replaced in Disenchantment by fantasy tropes. The cynical (or perhaps just clear-eyed) attitude of The Simpsons is as much part of Disenchantment‘s DNA as the characters’ ping-pong ball eyes. Similarly, anyone who has enjoyed “fractured fairy tale” spoofs like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Shrek will find themselves in familiar territory: much of the humor is driven by the incongruity of essentially modern people with modern attitudes living in a medieval world alternately full of magic and high fantasy wonders on the one hand and wretched squalor on the other, the emphasis in any given moment entirely dependent on what is funnier. Ultimately, the show Disenchantment most reminds me of is Galavant (R.I.P.): while Disenchantment is (mostly) not a musical, the sense of self-aware rule-breaking and lampshading of well-worn genre clichés (and tweaking the contrast between fantasy as fun escapism and the miserable reality of the middle ages’ actual history) is the same.

Thankfully, Disenchantment takes off on its own fairly quickly, and after a somewhat stiff first couple of episodes, I was fully on board. It helps that the ten episodes of the first season are tightly plotted: The Simpsons in its classic years famously avoided almost any serialization, resetting at the beginning of each episode, and Futurama, while more serialized, struggled with episodes aired out of order and the uncertainty of renewal and being brought back from cancellation (by my count there were at least four “final” episodes, maybe five?). Being a Netflix production with all ten episodes available at once (the series premiered August 17), Disenchantment can afford to carry multiple story threads forward without losing the audience, and its initial premise of “misfits hanging out in a fantasy realm” turns out to hide an intriguing set of mysteries.

But so what? Everybody is doing that with their programs today, especially on Netflix, right? More impressively, Disenchantment is able to do this without the cop-out of essentially cutting a three-hour movie into sections: each episode (or “chapter”) has a self-contained story and can be enjoyed on its own, just like a classic sitcom. It is only as the season comes to a head that we can look back and realize how subtly ideas and plot devices were introduced that turned out to be crucial, each episode contributing a piece of the mystery and its eventual solution one step at a time. Call it the J. K. Rowling method: like Harry Potter, Disenchantment takes place in a world made up of spare parts, but the plotting and characterization breathe new life into it, and what at first seems like a generic fantasy trope often turns out to have been introduced for a very specific reason important to the plot (the tone and general aim could not be more different, of course, but I stand by my comparison).

To examine one example (and a particularly complex one) more closely, consider Dankmire, Dreamland’s neighbor and the home of Queen Oona. Given the most attention in Chapter Six (“Swamp and Circumstance”), it is revealed that King Zøg waged war on Dankmire in order to force the Dankmirians to build a canal through their wetland kingdom for the Dreamlanders’ benefit. Zøg’s marriage to Queen Oona (his previous Queen Dagmar, Bean’s mother, being out of the picture) was the gesture that sealed the two kingdoms’ treaty afterwards. Dankmire and its people make for an odd hodgepodge of “foreign” clichés, fantasy and otherwise. The Dankmirians are amphibious, with light blue skin and forked tongues; Oona’s creepy behavior is a running gag in the series. All of the Dankmirians speak with an exaggerated Slavic accent, with Oona herself (voiced by Tress MacNeille) sounding much like Natasha Fatale. The Dankmirians are not vampiric, so far as we know, but making them sound like Bela Lugosi makes the comparison to the American-accented Dreamlanders clear: Dankmire is spooky.

But in other aspects, they embody “Oriental” stereotypes, particularly the Dankmirian respect for protocol: a scene in which Luci outsmarts some pursuing Dankmirians, repeatedly bowing to them and forcing them to bow in return, thus slowing them down so the Dreamlanders can escape, reminds me of the apocryphal story (relayed by Huston Smith, who described it as an attempt to discredit Confucianism’s reverence for rules) of a high-class Chinese lady who supposedly died because she refused to leave a burning house without a chaperone. In the case of the Chancellor of Dankmire, the resemblance to a Japanese head of state is clearer both in his visual appearance and his accent (I was reminded of the crypto-Japanese Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace), and a scene in which an inebriated Bean vomits on him recalls a similar incident between President George H. W. Bush and the Prime Minister of Japan in 1992.

(A truly bizarre twist occurs later in the episode when the Dreamlanders fall into the hands of a pair of Dankmirian hillbillies, locals displaced by the canal King Zøg forced Dankmire to build: they are stereotypes as broad as Cletus on The Simpsons, but they continue to pronounce their “w”s as “v”s, making them a bunch of blue-skinned white trash Draculas. Like I said, weird, even for a fantasy program.)

None of this is to suggest that “Swamp and Circumstance” was written with racist intent, or even that such references were inserted deliberately, but that notions of the “other” from human history inevitably inform our fantasy worlds, perhaps all the moreso when modern references are freely overlaid. In addition to its general lack of reverence for the institutions of royalty, Disenchantment is more progressive than many classic works of fantasy (a gay relationship among the King’s staff is treated as neither a joke nor a scandal, and is hardly a plot point at all: it just is), but still begins from the starting point of the European middle ages as the default for the genre. I suspect that, as with George Lucas in the previously mentioned Phantom Menace, ethnic caricatures recur as character types because of their roots in earlier film and television as literal “color,” keeping stereotypes alive for their entertainment value even if no malice is intended. Making them into aliens or supernatural creatures may lend plausible deniability, but the implications can be troubling nonetheless. (On the other hand, Groening is from a generation of humorists who don’t see anything as off-limits; considering his reaction to the criticisms of Apu on The Simpsons, he would probably just conclude that I lack a sense of humor.)

Having said all that, “Swamp and Circumstance” is one of the best episodes of Disenchantment, and Dankmire is a richly-realized setting that I wouldn’t mind revisiting in a future episode. While I love picking apart the diverse influences that may have gone into it, Dankmire’s synthesis of those elements succeeds in fleshing out what starts as a simple foil to Dreamland’s “normalcy.” Dankmire also gave us one of the series’ funniest incidental characters, Chazz, a send-up of aggressively chummy waitstaff everywhere, appearing first as a (possibly deranged) spa attendant in Chapter Four (“Castle Party Massacre”) and showing up in “Swamp and Circumstance” as a passive-aggressive waiter. “I vill bring you vat you deserve,” he tells a temporarily teetotaling Bean.

Another interesting twist on a common formula is the show’s treatment of Bean’s relationship with Elfo. Predictably, Elfo develops a crush on Bean (“I like big girls,” the diminutive elf tells her at one point), and the show even points out the cliché with the royal scribe narrating their developing relationship with the words “will they or won’t they?” This is easily the most tedious subplot in the season, but it does lead to some sublime payoffs. Even as flawed as she is, Bean is pretty clearly out of Elfo’s league: there is an echo of Futurama‘s Fry and Leela, but I was reminded even more of Dipper’s crush on the older, cooler Wendy in Gravity Falls. However, since the story is largely from Bean’s point of view a relationship never really seems that plausible, and it’s clear from early on that Elfo is just the worst: beyond being a wimp, he is self-pitying and manipulative.

In Chapter Seven,”Love’s Tender Rampage” (another high point), Elfo’s face-saving claim to already have a girlfriend results in Bean sending the kingdom’s knights on a quest to rescue her. When they bring back the seemingly monstrous Tess (presumably short for “giantess”), Elfo just digs himself deeper and deeper by piling on the lies, a recipe for farce that delivers some of the series’ biggest laughs. Still, the season ends uncertainly, with the feeling that maybe there is something to Elfo deserving of Bean’s loyalty, if not her love. Characters change throughout the course of the season, and Elfo is no different, finding resources within himself and learning that growth is possible.

On the production side, the animation finds its groove quickly; the use of 3-D computer modeling with a hand-drawn “skin,” which worked so effectively for the sleek buildings and machines of Futurama, is a little disorienting when applied to the analog lines and textures of a stone castle, but the approach allows for some exciting tracking shots through the busy walled city that surrounds King Zøg’s castle, and later in the series there are some dazzling shots of exotic locations such as a city half-buried in the desert. There are some compositions that will stick with me long after the memory of the plot has faded as well: a shot of the mysterious couple who unleashed Luci, alone in their oversized lair, reminds me of the early episodes of Adventure Time and the weirdly enticing atmosphere that show spun out of emptiness and slabs of raw color.

Many of the voices are familiar from Futurama, including regulars MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, and Billy West. King Zøg, voiced by DiMaggio, sounds like a mixture of Bluto with a little of Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, appropriate for a character who is basically a medieval Archie Bunker (it’s a credit to DiMaggio that for an actor with such a distinctive voice, I didn’t hear Zøg and immediately think, “Hey, that’s Bender!”). Abbi Jacobson plays Bean, and, appropriately enough for the show’s emotional center, she comes off as a normal person. Nat Faxon’s Elfo is appropriately a bit more “cartoony,” and Eric André’s Luci is chill to the point of being deadpan. Among numerous others, I should also single out Matt Berry, who is perfect as Guysbert’s younger brother Prince Merkimer, a swaggering, self-important dufus definitely in the Zapp Brannigan mold (he goes through some changes, too, but I won’t spoil that development–suffice it to say that his subplot is another example of the show’s serialization: no reset button between episodes!).

Finally, Mark Mothersbaugh provides a whirling brass band theme song that smartly captures the show’s irreverent approach to its predecessors. It’s true that many stories have deconstructed fantasy tropes before, to the point that it can be considered a genre unto itself, but the tight plotting and secret warmth that lies beneath Disenchantment’s crusty exterior prove that there are still new stories to be told within it.

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My 2016 in Television

2016-tv

It’s funny that I don’t consider myself that much of a TV watcher anymore, at least compared to the amount of time I spend watching movies, but when I look back over the past year, I did watch enough to at least write about. (Sorry for the lack of pictures; I’m traveling this week and short on time. As much as I’d like to believe my deathless prose and penetrating insights are the reason people visit Medleyana, it’s an incontestable truth that pictures drive traffic. Don’t worry, my roundup of 2016’s films, set to run later this week, has plenty of pics.)

At the beginning of the year, I caught ABC’s two mid-season short series, Galavant and Marvel’s Agent Carter, both in their second (and, alas, final) seasons. Agent Carter was the 1940s-set spinoff of Hayley Atwell’s popular character from Captain America: The First Avenger, and continued the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s pattern of filling in details of its world. In this case, that meant spending more time with Howard Stark, father of future Iron Man Tony, and his man Jarvis (and filling in more of his backstory). However, it put off the foundation of SHIELD as once more Agent Carter found herself working on the outside (a situation that allows for both more drama and more overt commentary on the difficulty women found finding a place in postwar society once the boys came back from fighting).

The second series found Carter traveling to Los Angeles and getting mixed up in a case involving “zero matter,” a mysterious power source with links to another dimension, and one that, if uncontrolled, threatened to destroy the world. Zero matter was also part of the origin of the season’s antagonist, actress/scientific genius Whitney Frost (a barely fictionalized Hedy Lamarr). Frost’s frustration at being held back by men’s low expectations, revealed in flashback, and the way she eventually obtained power through manipulating men (as a movie star, as the power behind a rising politician, and as the lover of a mob boss) made for an interesting counterpoint with Carter’s own struggles living in a “man’s world.” The first Captain America film and the Agent Carter series have been some of my favorite parts of the MCU, so it’s unfortunate that Agent Carter won’t be returning for a third season (and with Carter’s death from old age in the current movies, we probably won’t be seeing much more of Atwell in the MCU unless there’s a special or a flashback, as in Ant-Man).

Galavant also ended after only two seasons: the musical comedy spoof was a favorite of mine in its first season, as the charming and dashing title character (played by Joshua Sasse) sought to rescue the love of his life, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), from the dastardly King Richard (Timothy Omundson) while teaming up with another princess (Karen David) displaced by Richard’s conquest. That traditional-sounding fairy tale setup was consistently undermined at every turn: Galavant, despite his rakish charisma, was a washed up has-been, supported in his return to form by his plucky squire (Luke Youngblood, memorable from Community for his turn as Magnum); Madalena turned out to not be waiting for her prince to rescue her, but was a more practical-minded gold-digger who considered being the King’s wife an upgrade: or at least she would if King Richard weren’t so ineffectual and childish. The second season explored the fallout of these character dynamics, with Madalena becoming a full-fledged power-hungry villainess and Richard, unseated from his own throne, befriending Galavant and discovering his latent capacity for heroism. Both seasons came to life with knowing references to clichés from both fantasy and musicals, with songs by Alan Mencken and an experienced theater cast to bring them to life (as well as a number of guest stars, ranging from John Hamm to “Weird Al” Yankovic) and finding time for moments for side characters such as the put-upon chef (Darren Evans) and his romance with fellow servant Gwynne (Sophie McShera), hilariously plagued by the life-shortening hazards of medieval life.

In the same vein, I caught up this year with the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the star vehicle of actress-singer-songwriter Rachel Bloom. I’m not sure if I was even aware of Bloom before this year, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was one of the most talked-about shows in my circle of friends, and after getting started with Anthony Pizzo’s excellent articles on Bloom’s earlier songs and videos, I jumped on board. Like Galavant, the show is made by and for musical theater fans, with each hour-long episode including two or three songs in a variety of styles, reflecting the inner state of mind of Bloom’s alter ego, musical-obsessed Rebecca Bunch. As laid out in the show’s theme song (ironically, the weakest song in the show), Rebecca was a high-powered but deeply unhappy lawyer in New York City until a chance encounter with Josh Chan, the boy with whom she had a brief summer romance at theater camp years ago. Impulsively, she moves to Josh’s hometown of West Covina, California, and begins a new life, stalking Josh and talking herself into ever-more complicated situations, all while denying to herself that that’s why she moved there.

One could call it a deconstruction of I Love Lucy-style screwball antics, and as her earlier work suggested, Bloom is uniquely qualified to balance the comedy and pathos of a fundamentally damaged character. Given my adoration of Community, which similarly made comedy out of a sometimes-bleak perspective, it should be no surprise that I fell hard for this show (even though it took me half a year to finish the whole season, and I haven’t even started on season two).

I’ve also been enjoying the renaissance of DC superhero television, particularly Supergirl (which was somewhat uneven in its first season, but has delivered tighter action sequences and vastly improved character work this fall). Star Melissa Benoist is perfectly cast as the title character and is well served by an ensemble that has grown stronger (even with the unfortunate departure of Calista Flockhart as mentor Cat Grant). Aside from the show’s winningly optimistic spirit, Supergirl is also a treat for eagle-eyed fans, (for example) working in a reference to the “evil” Superman from Superman III or casting former TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the President.

Another DC program, Legends of Tomorrow, was frequently awkward in its first season, but with the defeat of lame villain Vandal Savage and the exit of the equally lame Hawk people, the show has greatly improved in its second season, with a less heavy tone and more connection to the greater DC universe (both leaning into its time travel gimmick to feature characters like Western antihero Jonah Hex or the World War II-era Justice Society of America), even crossing over with the other DC shows in a faithful approximation of the comic books’ “multiverse” of parallel worlds.

Although not connected to the “Arrowverse” DC shows, and generally a show that I drop in and out of rather than watch faithfully, Gotham (a sort of prequel series about future Batman Bruce Wayne as a young boy) has had its moments. The best of all was a mini-arc in which Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor, channeling Crispin Glover’s alien charisma) was reunited with his father (guest star Paul Reubens, who had a cameo as the Penguin’s father in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns). While warmly received by his wealthy father, Penguin was not welcomed by his father’s family, to whom Penguin was simply a freak and an unwelcome intrusion into their plans to inherit the Cobblepot fortune. Over a handful of episodes, this sequence spun from heartfelt reunion to black comedy, and showed the reformed Penguin re-embracing his capacity for violence. It was the show’s high point as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, my summer was dominated by two science fiction programs: BrainDead, which I’ve already written about, and Stranger Things, the breakout Netflix series. Stranger Things got a lot of attention for its slavish recreation of an early 1980s aesthetic (primarily drawing from the work of John Carpenter, Stephen King, and Steven Spielberg, but with nods to John Hughes and Freaks and Geeks), but I don’t think it would have worked or been the sensation it was without its central ensemble of youthful actors. Its moody, Carpenteresque synth soundtrack also set just the right tone.

The Political Fantasies of BrainDead and Vote Loki

from Vote Loki #2, art by Paul McCaffrey, colors by Chris Chuckry

from Vote Loki #2, art by Paul McCaffrey, colors by Chris Chuckry

In 2008, just days after the presidential election, South Park aired an episode exploring Barack Obama’s victory. In the episode, both Obama and his political opponents, including John McCain and Sarah Palin, were shown secretly working together, running an Ocean’s 11-style long con (including faking their identities: the “real” Palin had a posh British accent, for example) in order to steal the Hope Diamond from the Smithsonian via a tunnel hidden beneath the Oval Office. In the B-plot, the conservative residents of South Park holed up in a bunker, readying themselves for the collapse of society they felt sure would follow Obama’s election, while liberal Randy Marsh went on a celebratory spree, leading to telling off his boss and parading down the street naked, so convinced was he that Obama’s victory had changed everything and that things were going to be different now. For such a regularly cynical show, it was oddly reassuring, suggesting that erstwhile political foes could actually work together, even if it was to perpetrate a jewel heist, and the B-plot served to deflate both the apocalyptic and messianic rhetoric that had made the election so divisive. Things won’t change that much, it seemed to say.

Fast-forward to 2016, and such notions of cooperation seem downright quaint; the rise of Donald Trump, Presidential Contender, has raised questions as to whether satire is relevant or even possible anymore. No writer or cartoonist can top the bizarre reality that Trump has built up in his repeated lies, promises, and threats, and that we now find ourselves trapped in. No modern “A Modest Proposal” could be more shocking than some of Trump’s own statements, no discriminatory or unconstitutional policy proposal so disgusting that it won’t find support in at least some portion of the electorate, newly empowered by Trump to express their bigotry out in the open. I’m starting to understand how conservatives suffering from “Obama derangement syndrome” must have felt; recently I had a “step away from the computer” moment when I realized that for my own mental health I couldn’t spend all my time reading and relaying news stories and commentaries about Trump: with more than a month still to go before the election and a flood of ever-more-insane details trickling out every day, I needed to get some fresh air or else I’d go crazy.

So perhaps it’s fitting that two of my summer pleasures channeled this pervasive political anxiety into forms that are both more palatable and which provided the narrative closure that eludes us in real life: BrainDead, a thirteen-episode CBS series that ended two weeks ago, and Vote Loki, a four-issue Marvel comic book miniseries that wrapped up last Wednesday.

Vote Loki #4, cover art by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson

Vote Loki #4, cover art by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson

In Vote Loki, written by Christopher Hastings with art by Langdon Foss, the Norse god of mischief (and recovering supervillain) Loki manipulates his way into the presidential race, to the consternation of Nisa Contreras, a crusading journalist whose own drive to uncover the truth was fueled by the destruction of her childhood home during a battle between Loki and the Avengers. Contreras’s attempts to reveal Loki’s true purposes are continually co-opted by the candidate himself, spinning every new revelation into more proof that Loki is a “chess master,” an outsider working the system for his own ends. Loki’s ascent, which begins with him saving the two mainstream candidates from an attack by the terrorist group HYDRA, is driven by his celebrity status: at first a novelty, his “plainspoken” openness about his villainous character earns him the loyalty of supporters who feel left out of the process. “I’m going to lie to you right to your face and you’re gonna love it,” he says; his slipperiness is just part of his rakish appeal. (When Contreras provides proof that Loki’s political advisors are actually members of a Loki-worshipping cult, Loki laughs it off: he said he was a god, and doesn’t the First Amendment protect freedom of religion?)

Of course, this is a comic book world, so in addition to HYDRA, other threats to the republic include a destabilized Latveria (home of Doctor Doom, whose absence has created a dangerous power vacuum and a terrorist-supporting regime calling itself “Doom’s Children”) and issues surrounding superpowered mutants and Inhumans. Some of Loki’s Asgardian relatives make appearances, as well, including Thor, who as a member of the Avengers can’t get involved officially but who passes some critical information to Contreras.

Like most “outsider” candidacies, Loki’s first and most important platform is that the other guys, who represent the “system,” are worse, both equally compromised and too indebted to the establishment to change anything. (The two mainstream candidates are a man and a woman, but are unnamed, and there is little else to identify them as Trump or Hilary Clinton.) Again, that’s an argument frequently bandied about by Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein in this election (and by supporters of Bernie Sanders who aren’t ready to accept his concession to Clinton in the Democratic race); it’s complete baloney to say that there’s “no difference” between the Democratic and Republican candidates, especially this year, but it’s an easy sell when the two major candidates are seen so negatively and even members of their own parties are having trouble expressing much enthusiasm for them.

Absurd times call for absurd heroes: Loki joins fellow Marvel character Howard the Duck in mounting an insurgent campaign, and like Howard’s 1976 run, Loki’s campaign is in the tradition of courageous truth-tellers who say what they’re really thinking (and what is Trump if not “outspoken”?) and are loved by voters for daring to speak their mind. Of course, one man’s Man of the Year is another man’s A Face in the Crowd, and the flip side of all that honesty is a loose cannon shooting his mouth off, a demagogue who tells voters what they want to hear and gives them permission to exercise their basest passions.

Early in Loki’s campaign, J. Jonah Jameson challenges Loki during a television interview: “Everyone loves an electoral circus, and now you’re the sideshow! What fun! Until you get so big you get your own tent.” Sound familiar? Over months of mounting alarm over the possibility of a supervillain taking control of the United States through legal means, the American system of politics as reality programming is held up to a funhouse mirror, with Loki’s real intentions hidden (perhaps even from himself) until the eve of the election.

BrainDead, created by Robert and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife), working with more narrative space and a larger cast of characters on television, takes a different approach, one in which the real action is in Congress. BrainDead explicitly takes place in our world, with frequent references to the Clinton/Trump race and clips of the candidates’ appearances on television screens, but in its own way it’s as far out as the gods and superheroes of Vote Loki, as if the Kings finally had somewhere to put all their ideas that were too crazy for The Good Wife.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy

As BrainDead begins, struggling documentarian Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has reluctantly returned home to Washington, D.C., and her political-dynasty family, to help her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a Senator. At the same time, a strange meteorite recovered from Russia turns out to be full of ant-like parasites that infect their victims by climbing into their ears and eating half of their brains. A few of the infected succumb to Scanners-like head explosions (or “catastrophic head injuries”), but the rest are taken over by the insects and undergo a personality change, becoming more rigid, aggressive, and ideologically-driven. Conservatives are pushed farther to the right, liberals to the left, with no ability to find common ground. Once the meteorite is taken to Washington and members of the political class are exposed to the bugs, the result is chaos and gridlock produced by the already-intense partisanship being thrown into overdrive. Laurel, working in her brother’s office as a constituent liaison, is one of the first to notice something strange is going on.

So BrainDead clearly follows in the footsteps of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, with strong shades of The X-Files. Who can you trust? How can you fight something that most people won’t even believe in without evidence? When even her longtime friends change overnight, Laurel is aided in uncovering the truth by a physician (Nikki M. James) and that standby of conspiracy thrillers, the paranoid loner: Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill), an eccentric autodidact who knows a little about everything and keeps his cell phone wrapped in tin foil so the NSA can’t track his location. The insider’s-view political satire (which is frequently very funny) is tightened and made queasy by its sci-fi/horror flourishes and even moreso by its obvious, if heightened, relationship to the real world.

As good as Winstead is in the lead, the cast’s MVP is Tony Shalhoub as Republican Senator Red Wheatus. Before being infected by the bugs, Wheatus was an unambitious, day-drinking good-ol’-boy politician, but after infection he becomes a laser-focused, uncompromising (even murderous) right-wing warrior (and a teetotaler: among other signs of infection is an aversion to alcohol) and Luke Healy’s nemesis. As the bugs spread to ordinary citizens, Wheatus turns their heightened political passion into a movement (the “One Wayers”) and begins engineering a war against Syria based on false evidence. Wheatus’s Democratic counterpart, the similarly bug-infected Minority Leader Ella Pollack (Jan Maxwell) plays along from her own side of the aisle. The reasoning behind the Syria plan takes a while to unravel, but it ultimately ties into the bugs’ plans to keep the humans divided and our government paralyzed by disagreement.

Tony Shalhoub as Sen. Red Wheatus

Tony Shalhoub as Sen. Red Wheatus

I’ve read criticism that BrainDead indulges in too much “both-sidesism,” a chronic complaint against American political satire that attempts to take on the “system” or politicians at large rather than having a specific point of view. As the old saying goes, the middle of the road is a good place to get run over from both directions. There’s a little bit of truth to that, particularly in light of Laurel’s romantic entanglement with Senator Wheatus’s Chief of Staff, Gareth (Aaron Tveit), an idealistic (and uninfected) Good Republican who couldn’t have been any more of a paragon if he were specifically written to counter charges of liberal partisanship. While Wheatus conducts his secret war plans, murders political enemies who get in his way, and makes a mockery of the political process (in one memorable episode, he holds up an entire committee over naming a kiosk in the Capitol Building after a slain police officer named Sharie because it sounds too close to “Sharia,” an idiotic idea that would be a lot funnier if it didn’t sound like something that could really happen), Gareth’s biggest flaw is that he’s stubbornly straight-arrow, and he can’t get over the possibility that Laurel might have slept with Michael Moore. Conservativism is more savagely satirized on BrainDead than liberalism, if only because the GOP is in such disarray and provides so much material, but it’s extremism, not conservatism itself, that comes in for the most criticism.

But that’s the point: that our democratic system depends on dialogue and compromise, and the real danger to it is a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth attitude that would rather tear down the whole system than give an inch to the “enemy.” Cronyism and politics as usual make reliable targets, and there is much to decry in the horse-trading and back-scratching of pork-barrel politics, but this is an unusual moment. We are reaping the political landscape that comes from gerrymandering “safe” districts that allow primary challengers to push candidates to extreme positions; the normalization of inflammatory rhetoric; and the echo chambers that arise when every political viewpoint has its own news outlet and we are able to insulate our social media experience from opinions we disagree with. On BrainDead, it’s the politicians who are willing to compromise, to be seen drinking and socializing with their opponents, and who are willing to work the system rather than let it grind to a halt, that are portrayed as heroic–flawed, perhaps, but heroic. The Kings all but spell it out for us by having Laurel herself says as much in episode 11, in which she plays the bohemian artist card to explain her recent obsession with bugs: “I’m a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker, I use the language of metaphor. . . . So all the bug stuff you heard was just my way of talking about all the extremism in Washington. As an artist, I use metaphors a lot, probably too much. I love metaphors.”

In the end, things get back to normal, which is to say the inefficient, corrupt system continues: it’s “politics as usual,” and that’s a relief. Red Wheatus is back to his not-too-bright self, and it turns out that half a brain is plenty to function in Congress (cue laugh track). Similarly, in Vote Loki the title character observes the unrest and even violence that has erupted in response to his candidacy and finally deigns to face his supporters directly. Naturally, they all want different things from him, and when pinned down he finds that you really can’t fool all of the people all of the time. (Of course, maybe he never really wanted to be president, and had other goals in mind the whole time–something that has frequently been said of Donald Trump–but who can say?) As in the 2008 South Park episode, it’s a reassuring (if modest) vision. Both BrainDead and Vote Loki ultimately come down in favor of the status quo, imperfect as it is, and in so doing partake of the oldest myth in America: that as frequently as our system breaks down, as tested as it may be by the original sin of racism, the corruption of big money, and the easy answers of ideology and demagoguery, it is capable of renewal: that out of the chaos of the electoral process, we will pick ourselves up and rebuild, as we do every four or eight years. Can we pull it off one more time? I sure hope so.

My 2014 in Television

LetsWatchTV

I didn’t watch a lot of television this year. Oh, I logged plenty of screen time, but I was mostly watching movies rather than TV series. Other than Community’s fifth season (which I wrote about last spring), most of what I did watch was animated, since I watch with my kids, and since I’m not exactly allergic to cartoons myself.

The new series I found most exhilarating this year was Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, the animated brainchild of Justin Roiland and Community creator Dan Harmon. (It technically began in December of 2013, but the majority of it came out this year.) Rick and Morty starts with a hoary premise—mad scientist Rick Sanchez takes his fourteen-year-old grandson Morty (both voiced by Roiland) on a series of wild adventures, getting them both into and out of jams with his inventions—and then turns it inside out. Rick isn’t just eccentric, he’s seriously damaged, and the show, while comedic, doesn’t shy away from the dangers he exposes Morty and his family to, and doesn’t simply set the reset button at the end of each episode. In just its first short season (eleven episodes), one of Rick’s schemes permanently transforms the world into a monster-filled wasteland, and the only solution is for Rick and Morty to relocate to a parallel universe in which their counterparts have conveniently died, taking their places. (No, this isn’t one I watch with my kids.)

RickandMorty

That points to another of the show’s strengths: like Futurama before it, Rick and Morty assumes that viewers have seen Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Zardoz, The Fly, and the many other shows that are winkingly alluded to, and there’s a minimum of hand-holding. It’s the twenty-first century, and the audience doesn’t need to have genetic modification, virtual reality, or (for that matter) the dangers of unintended consequences explained in long-winded detail. That leaves more time to develop characters (mainly the rest of Morty’s family: sad-sack dad Jerry and frustrated mom Beth, and overlooked big sister Summer) and fill the run-time with off-the-wall humor.

I can’t think of anything I laughed at harder this year than the episode “Rixty Minutes,” in which Rick’s modification of the TV cable box allows the family to view programming from infinite parallel universes (including glimpses of the lives Jerry and Beth could have had if they hadn’t stayed together). The combination of rapid-fire absurdity and referential gags most closely resembles Community’s Season Two episode “Paradigms of Human Memory,” and like that episode, “Rixty Minutes” puts the insanity of its plot in the service of its characters, up to a surprisingly poignant climax.

overthegardenwall

On the non-series front, 2014 was a year in which special events, already making a comeback in recent years, continued to gain ground as networks look for (non-sports-related) ways to keep viewers tuned in at the time of broadcast instead of time-shifting. Even the mini-series, that prestige format of the 1980s, is coming back into vogue (ABC’s upcoming Galavant is definitely on my radar for 2015). I’ve already written at length about Over the Garden Wall, Cartoon Network’s five-night mini-series that aired in November; suffice it to say that upon rewatching it, I still found it greatly enjoyable, and were I to rank it with my favorite films of the year, it would at least be in the top five.

SpecialSpecial

There were some other specials that grabbed my attention this year, as well: I’d like to highlight Lil Bub’s Special Special, which aired on Animal Planet way back in February. At a slight half hour, this celebration of the eponymous cat was as instantly disposable as the cute animal videos and memes of which the special is an extension, but the whole thing (held together by human costars Amy Sedaris and Andrew W. K.) had such a light touch (and just enough self-awareness) that I was charmed by it. It hasn’t been rerun to my knowledge, but it has a permanent home on my DVR (and you can watch it here).

drwhochristmas_bbc

Finally, there were the usual crop of Christmas specials. I could quibble with Doctor Who’s “Last Christmas,” leaning as it does on the revived Who staple of monsters that you can’t look away from, or that you can’t remember, or that (in this case) you can’t even think about without them coming for you. And I’m not as taken by the chemistry of leads Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as some are. However, my personal bar for the annual Doctor Who Christmas special is set pretty low, and as long as it doesn’t involve David Tennant being carried aloft by robotic angels, I’m willing to cut it some slack.

To be fair, “Last Christmas” was actually pretty good, in both spinning out an intriguing menace and lampshading its similarities to both Alien and The Thing, as well as casting Nick Frost as a snarky but ultimately benevolent Santa Claus and making it work. The special is part of a long tradition of Christmas films and stories examining the nature of faith and belief, with Santa as a safely secular football. If Santa Claus weren’t so widely regarded as a fiction for children, would Christmas stories still demand that we believe in him unconditionally? Entertainment that aspires to mainstream appeal can no longer preach with such certainty about Jesus or any other religious figure, but such arguments can be broached in the language of fantasy. Like most such stories, “Last Christmas” ends ambiguously (in more ways than one: a comment I read online accurately described it as “Doctor Who does Inception”), but it is clear on the power of faith, with Santa described as a “dream sent to save us,” a nice summary of the value of both fiction and religious parable.

ElfSpecial

2003’s Elf is similarly engaged with convincing the unbelieving, with Santa (Ed Asner) stating explicitly that belief, not confirmation, is the source of his power: “If I were seen, all would be lost!” As Jesus told his apostle “Doubting” Thomas, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” This year’s Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, based on the film and the Broadway musical that sprang from it, isn’t quite so explicit, but finds a middle ground between the movie and the Rankin/Bass productions that inspired its story of a human orphan raised by elves at the North Pole. I mentioned this special on Christmas Eve, pointing out that it wasn’t as good as the original movie, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the stylish, handmade production—the stop-motion figures resemble Rocky & Bullwinkle‘s characters brought to 3-D life—and charming score (by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin). Mostly, I enjoyed it when it wasn’t directly imitating the movie, as the comparison is unflattering to the special; like many shows with familiar subject matter, it was more approachable when doing its own thing.

Tomorrow, look for my thoughts on the books I read in 2014.

This is the Story: The Cyclical Nature of the Expository TV Theme Song

Grid

If it seems that the art of television theme music has made a comeback lately, it’s not just you.  As television has taken on more cinematic qualities and attracted viewers with higher production values and artier production (especially on premium cable and through such new outlets as Netflix’s original programming), the opening credits sequence and theme music have returned to prominence.  Just a few years ago, this wasn’t the case at all: networks tried to squeeze as much commercial time out of their programming as possible, as well as trying to avoid any lull—such as a lengthy opening—that might tempt viewers to click away.  Thus, we had a spate of super-brief openings like that of Lost or Better Off Ted, which were just a logo and a chord or two at most.  In 2010, the Emmy Awards nearly eliminated the award for Outstanding Main Title Theme, leading to a lot of hand-wringing about the end of an era.  However, as critic Robert Lloyd pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, memorable themes were continuing to be written, just not for prestigious prime-time genres: tween programming and cartoons carried the torch for the theme song even in those dark days.  Ultimately the award was kept, and there has been a bounce back to more lavish opening sequences since then.

However, one subgenre of television music has mostly remained dormant (with a few exceptions): the expository “story song” that describes the premise and characters of the show in detail in the manner of a Shakespearean prologue (even if the shows themselves were hardly highbrow).  Many of the most iconic TV themes from the 1960s, the “golden age” of the expository TV theme, fit this description: The Beverly Hillbillies (1962), Gilligan’s Island (1964), and The Brady Bunch (1969) all have memorable, catchy songs that bring viewers up to speed, whether watching for the first or the fiftieth time (dates given for these and all series mentioned are premiere dates only).  Admit it: you’re probably hearing one of these songs in your mind right now, aren’t you?

One might expect such elaborate theme songs to be a holdover from the days of radio programming, but that appears not to be the case. In fact, a cursory survey of radio show themes turns up far more introductions consisting of an instrumental theme with a voiceover by an announcer, a format mostly found on late-night talk shows today.  In fact, with a few exceptions, the songs repeated week-to-week on the radio usually sang the praises of the show’s sponsor, placing them squarely in the history of commercial jingles rather than theme songs.

The mania for story-telling TV themes appears to coincide with the popularity of ballads in general in popular music: Fess Parker’s “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” used as the theme song for The Adventures of Davy Crockett in 1954, reached No. 1 on the U. S. pop chart the following year.  While ballads shared the pop charts with dance crazes, standards, and rock ‘n’ roll, there was no shortage of hit songs in the format: Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” in 1959 and, later, Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966).  “The Beverly Hillbillies” fit firmly within this tradition.*  As late as 1981, the short-lived Open All Night featured what is probably the densest summary of a character’s life story to be found in a TV theme:

It’s no surprise that the expository format was most often used for comedies (although not only “situation” comedies, as we shall see) and adventure shows, two genres that lend themselves to “high concept” approaches.  While adventure shows continued to explain their premises into the 1970s and ‘80s (often through voiceover, as in the introductions to The Six Million Dollar Man (1973), Charlie’s Angels (1976), The Incredible Hulk (1978), and Quantum Leap (1989), to name just a few), comedies began to adapt an impressionistic, low-key approach, using songs that described a mood rather than a situation (a long-lasting trend that covered at least three decades’ worth of programs, including the themes to Taxi (1978), Cheers (1982), and Friends (1994)—maybe it has something to do with one-word titles?).  The theme to WKRP in Cincinnati (1978) is almost in this category, although it’s clear enough from its lyrics that it’s set at a radio station; compare it to the themes for later radio-bound sitcoms NewsRadio (a purely instrumental theme, 1995) and Frasier (a show about tossed salad and scrambled eggs, 1993).**

Interestingly, as storytelling songs declined in pop music, they continued to be prominent in rap and country, both genres that exploded in popularity in the 1990s.  The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which began airing in 1990, was developed around the likable persona of Will “Fresh Prince” Smith, already known for a family-friendly rap style that spun shaggy-dog stories out of the foibles and ironies of everyday life.  The theme song he and producer Quincy Jones came up with is spun directly out of his act and sets up the fish-out-of-water comedy that was the show’s bread and butter in early seasons. (At almost three minutes, the song is fully as long as a typical pop song, and was edited to be much shorter after the first few episodes; effectively, the opening credits sequence was like an introductory music video.)

There are many, many theme songs for cartoon shows from the 1980s that have expository qualities; a large number of them appear to take Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” as their model.  The theme for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is among the most detailed, describing how the four title characters came to be, naming them individually and describing the qualities they bring to the team (not to mention their love of partying, dude). When the series was resurrected in 2012, the theme song was remade in a more current style, with the lyrics turned into a rap that fits in even more narrative detail.

Indeed, as Robert Lloyd alluded to, the expository theme song is common for children’s programming in general.  Whether this reflects the practical realities of syndication (which makes it even more likely that any episode could be a viewer’s first) or television executives’ dim view of a younger audience’s ability to follow in-context clues I couldn’t say, but anecdotal evidence suggests the latter.

In any case, it is striking to consider how many expository theme songs, both for children and adults, begin with the words “This is the story . . . “ or some variation thereof.  It invites the viewer to settle in and enter the world and mindset of the narrative, and in some cases it’s a literal invitation to “come inside” or “come along,” as if the show were a real place, just on the other side of the television screen.  The introduction to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986) takes that premise about as far as it can go, not only with the opening invitation and the lyrical inclusion of the many, many characters on the show, but with a wordless, “Quiet Village”-style introductory section that further separates the ordinary world outside the Playhouse from the manic sugar-high to be found within.

The extent to which these songs have penetrated the collective memory is evident in the number of parodies and remakes that have been done, and secondary references in movies and other TV shows.  They have the quality of received folklore, which is perhaps part of their cyclical appeal: as kids for whom they are part of their childhood grow up and move into positions of influence in media, a new crop of explanatory story-songs are composed for television shows that reflect their experience.  In the late 1980s, comedy game show Remote Control (1987) and bad-movie powerhouse Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988) both drew on this tradition (interestingly, both centered on the viewer’s relationship to the media, its influence, and the desire to reshape or talk back to it; the stock footage-driven Dream On (1990) fit a similar pattern, although it was introduced with a wordless opening-credits sequence rather than a song).  MST3K’s theme song is quite possibly the ultimate example of the genre, not just for its breakdown of the show’s premise and “robot roll call” but for its trope-defining final couplet: “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts, then repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax.’”

Now, the generation that came of age with those programs is making its mark and bringing back the expository theme song, particularly in animation, with such programs as Phineas and Ferb (2007), Adventure Time (2010), and Sanjay and Craig (2013).  Outside of their theme songs, these shows make frequent use of songs in montage; the humor found in the “literal” narration, baldly describing events that can be seen occurring onscreen, hearkens back to the theme for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986), another late ‘80s touchstone that challenged classic sitcom structure by calling attention to it at every possible turn.

Will the expository theme song return to prime time?  It doesn’t seem likely right now, but who knows?  Perhaps the kids watching Disney, Nick, and Cartoon Network today will become the creators and composers of tomorrow and continue the cycle.

* This leaves aside programs based on popular songs, of which there were several: Harper Valley PTA (1981) was a spinoff from a 1978 movie, based on a hit song from ten years before; a number of holiday specials have been based on narrative songs, most notably “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but also including “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  Naturally, the songs that inspired these programs were used as themes.

** Not to dismiss those theme songs, of course, but they have a different function, exploring the theme or character of their show rather than the plot.