Sunday, October 5, 2008

jay tarseses throughout the decades, pt. 3: the 2000s

Prior Installments
pt. 1: the 1980s
pt. 2: the 1990s

The Jay Tarses of the 2000s

Judd Apatow. First came Freaks and Geeks, which I really, really wanted to like. It looked smart and funny. It was set in 1980, right in my cultural and musical wheelhouse. And the titular Geeks were 7th graders, as was the real-life me in 1980! And it had SCTV's Joe Flaherty in it! I thought, "at last, a show for me! a show that speaks to me!"

Instead, I couldn't stand it. The music they got right, I'll give them that. But the clothes and hair, aside from Linda Cardellini's character wearing her dad's army jacket, seemed way off for 1980. Worse, the show was clearly written not only from the sole perspective of the geeks, but with no understanding of the other half of the titular equation.

Initially the "freaks" - a gang of pot-smoking high school teens whom Cardellini's character befriended - were depicted as menacing, and engaged in behaviors such as mailbox destruction that I much more closely associate with jocks, not potheads. To me, this demonstrated that the show's creators and writers had no actual experience with "freaks," who would have been the least likely kids in school to beat up the geeks or engage in bullying and violence. In fact, the "freaks" I knew usually had a genial live-and-let-live attitude, and bullying would have gotten in the way of more rewarding pursuits like getting stoned in the boys' room while listening to 8-tracks of AC/DC. (Also, Flaherty's over-the-top performance made it seem like he was acting in an entirely different show, but I digress.)

As Freaks and Geeks' lone season progressed, the writers transitioned the "freaks" from menacing goons to lovable lummoxes. But this showed just as little insight into the "freaks" as depicting them as thugs did, plus it reeked reeked of rote series-writing methodology (hey, let's make the bad guys turn out to be the good guys!). Many of the pot-obsessed folks I knew growing up were actually bright, funny people who weren't sufficiently challenged in school - they were often Mitch Hedbergs, not idiots. Apatow needed to spend less time in junior high cowering in the lunchroom and more time actually getting to know these folks. And if you want to see high school life in the '70s and '80s rendered in loving accuracy, rent Dazed and Confused; Freaks and Geeks misses on all counts.

But Freaks and Geeks found a loyal audience among critics, whom, one assumes, empathized with the show's "geeks" to such a degree that they failed to notice the program's many faults and chronic unfunnyness. Apatow followed it with another canceled-in-its-first-season TV show, Undeclared, which failed to connect either with me or with audiences, though it too had reams of favorable press.

But we shouldn't cry for Apatow too much: he's become the reigning mogul of movie comedy. The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up did major box office as well as garnering Apatow's usual critical raves. Throw in protégé Seth Rogen (Superbad, Pineapple Express), whose movies Apatow usually produces, plus a host of recent Will Ferrell comedies that Apatow has written and/or produced, and Apatow Inc. has become an unstoppable comedy factory.

But I'm still not laughing at his stuff. I haven't seen every movie that I just named above, but what I have seen doesn't strike me as either that smart or that funny.

Honorable Mentions
  • David E. Kelley, who isn't a Jay Tarses, but more of a category unto himself. He ruined the latter seasons of L.A. Law, and his subsequent series crimes are legion.
  • Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. thirtysomething alone should earn them a special place in hell. However, since I actually liked My So-Called Life and the first season of Once and Again, they're disqualified from Tarsesdom. Lately, they were up to their old freighted-with-unearned-meaning tricks with web series Quarterlife.
  • Amy Sherman (I think she's dropped the "-Palladino"): I tried really hard to love Gilmore Girls. After investing nearly two seasons' worth of watching - I thought it was a lost cause after the first three episodes, but since several of my friends were avid fans and their recommendation meant a lot to me, I kept on trying - I would have even settled for just liking it. But I hated it, from its pretentious dialogue to the cardboard-cutout Stars Hollow greek chorus (if only Sherman had been a little smarter, she could have had major allegory action going on). Right now, Sherman's a leading contender for Jay Tarses of the 2010s. Keep an eye on this one, she's going places! Not places I want to visit, but places!


DS801 said...

>thirtysomething alone should earn them a special place in hell<

It had really bad characters, such as the whiny friend, the even whinier wife of the friend, and often the lead character (Michael?). But this one guy made it worth watching. What was his name... Yeah. It was Miles. Drentell, that is. And they worked in a cool brick building.

Miles said...

Miles Drentell! One of the few non-wuss Mileses of movies and TV! I loved it when he caused some new form of suffering for the main characters, and wondered how many other people were rooting for him.

DS801 said...

Drentell was just damned cool.

Flasshe said...

Some of the freaks at my high school were bullies (and a lot of the jocks were stoners), so I could kind of see where Apatow was coming from there. Maybe there's regional differences and such. Or maybe every school and group of kids is different.

PCarino said...

thirtysomething alone should earn them a special place in hell

Wow, really? I was not part of that dreaded demographic when that show was on--and trust me I hated baby-boomers at the time--but the excellent writing and acting drew me in week after week.

Should the show ever come out on DVD, you might want to reevaluate, now that the hype is long over.

Miles said...

Wow, really? I was not part of that dreaded demographic when that show was on--and trust me I hated baby-boomers at the time--but the excellent writing and acting drew me in week after week.

Should the show ever come out on DVD, you might want to reevaluate, now that the hype is long over.

The self-aware boomerism didn't help matters, but that wasn't the major factor, and I'm pretty immune to hype swaying me one way or the other. I'll totally agree that the show was well-acted and well-written, and I'll even raise you a "well-directed." But I never liked it.

I'm not sure I'm going to put this into words well, but here goes: thirtysomething seemed to demand that I empathize with the plight of the main characters. The scripts were loaded with cues and signifiers that were telling me, "ok, you see their dilemma, right? Don't you feel their pain?"

I didn't feel their pain. In fact, I felt little or no empathy for these people whatsoever. But the show seemed to keep telling me that I should be relating to these folks, and in fact was rather insistent about it.

But as the end titles came up every week, I always met them with a shrug - and I don't mean I always donned a cropped, cardigan-like garment just before the credits.

The only real enjoyment I ever got out of the show was when Miles Drentell exposed them for the shallow, self-obssesed, pathetic frauds I always thought they were. I'd compare thirtysomething to watching a Nicole Holofcener film - I'm watching something that is clearly made for an audience that doesn't include me.