How to Revamp the Oscars Once and For All

It’s Oscar time again, the high holy night of awards for those mysteriously invested in the fate of abstract commodities like Natalie Portman, Toy Story 3, and the Panavision Reflex-7 Omni-Crane.  Will Markie Mark finally earn the respect that will save him from forever being known as Markie Mark?  Will the Academy recognize an actress for portraying a lesbian in a movie that argues there really is no such thing as a lesbian?  Will Best Picture honors once again go to an inspirational true story of someone conquering an incredible personal challenge or affliction?  This year the odds are greatly increased as this description covers both The King’s Speech (stuttering) and The Social Network (social retardation).  If only James Franco had been trapped for 127 hours between the collapsed walls of a Nazi concentration camp, he’d be a lock!

Why so many are profoundly invested in entertainment properties with which they have no personal relationship remains one of the great mysteries of commodity fetishism.  Whether Jeff Bridges wins or loses tonight, someone somewhere with no link whatsoever to the Bridges family will be in tears.  I submit that person is clinically insane.  For those who simply cannot give up the thrill of reliving high school social hierarchies through these avatars of better looking people with more money, might I suggest a DVD marathon of the new Beverly Hills 90210 instead? 

In the years immediately after Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer beat out Coppola’s Apocalypse Now for Best Picture and Best Director, I would gladly have done 30 days in the tank for punching out the first Academy member I might have somehow inexplicably encountered in the streets of my hometown.  Older and wiser now, I’ve learned that life is never fair, and that variously empowered cretins will often honor a director for adequately framing a Meryl Streep crying jag over someone orchestrating perhaps the final American motion picture to imagine that the movies might be capable of formal, thematic, political, and technical complexity.  Yes, I am aware that Inception is a mind-blowing dream within a dream within a dream.  If I still had a bong and M.C. Escher paintings on my dorm walls, I’m sure that would impress me.     

As always, the Oscars are struggling once again to make the broadcast more “relevant” in the hopes of momentarily distracting the Pepsi and Doritos demographic from whatever they happen to be downloading at the moment.   The strategy this year is to introduce younger, firmer star meat in the admittedly exquisite forms of James Franco and Anne Hathaway.   Certainly it’s an improvement over the many years of punishment at the hands of Whoopi Crystal, still, it’s strange to think that new hosts will ever make a difference in improving the Oscars.  For all the attention given to the hosts each year, they generally remain phantoms during the actual broadcast.  How Franco and Hathaway emerging every fifth block to toss the broadcast over to Helen Mirren and James Gandolfini makes for more compelling television is anyone’s guess.  Given this ongoing structure, the best we can hope for this year, as always, is the first documented case of an on-camera spontaneous combustion (Imagine if Jack Nicholson simply exploded this year, leaving behind only a cummerbund and the shades—it would forever change reality as we know it). 

The problem is never the host(s), of course, but is instead the stultifying structure of the “awards” format itself.  By now, every person in the country other than those crying over the fate of Jeff Bridges recognizes that the Oscars are wholly disarticulated from any criteria of merit, so watching a parade of celebrities paired to deliver inane banter as a prelude to announcing results inexorably tied to industry politics and midcult taste formations can only sustain interest among the sentient for so long.  Given that the Academy has in recent years cut back on the “interpretative dance” segments, it’s difficult to find even a foothold for good old-fashioned ironic disdain.   

But imagine a new Oscars wholly re-imagined for the 21st century, transformed into one of the most vital formats of contemporary television: Reality Competition.  Below are my own suggestions for how the Academy can make the Oscars more compelling, and in the process, transform each category into a must-see “live” event that has to be consumed in advertising-friendly "real time" for maximum effect. 

Best Supporting Actor and Actress:  Do we really need to continue segregating this greatest of the minor categories by sex/gender?  First of all, combine them into one mega-bracket.   Then, I propose installing cameras in every hallway, elevator, and stairwell of the Screen Actors Guild office on Sunset.  Each nominee begins the competition segregated in separate offices on the top floor.  In the parking garage below the building are 10 identical Mercedes, one of which contains the coveted Oscar.  A signal from Ryan Seacrest starts a paintball battle to the death until one of the unsplattered nominees locates the Oscar-bearing Mercedes and successfully exits the garage.

If nothing else, this could lead to more interesting wagering.  This year, for example, the favorite would have to be Hailee Steinfeld.  Her small target size, coupled with her youthful flexibility and agility, would give her significant advantages in such a competition.  Then again, gamblers should also consider that Christian Bale would have no qualms whatsoever nailing a fifteen-year old girl right between the eyes to claim Oscar gold. 

For Best Actress, nothing could match the pure spectacle of an old-fashioned “greased-pole cage match,” once a staple of local wrestling broadcasts.  Here the nominees would have to fight among themselves to see who can scale a fifteen-foot pole slathered in grease to claim the coveted “Oscar” perched atop (perhaps the pole can be greased with “Oil of Olay” for product placement support).  While some might find this demeaning, even a bit sexist, I think we can assuage any collective sense of guilt here by including a $100,000 donation to the actress’s favorite charity as part of the honors.  Again, the wagering opportunities would be compelling. Does Natalie Portman still have the caloric energy and a functional ribcage necessary to make it up the pole?  Will Nicole Kidman’s punishing upper body regimen trump the God-given muscularity of Annette Benning?

Actually, to make this category even more diabolical, the actresses should not know they have been nominated until their name is actually called to be in the ring. This would greatly expand the possibilities and pleasures of catty snark for para-entertainers such as Joan Rivers, Perez Hilton, Chelsea Handler, and such.  For example, an actress might expect to be nominated and thus show up on the red carpet wearing rugged climbing gear to maximize her Oscar chances.  Imagine the delicious humiliation when Starlet X does NOT get the nomination.  Cameras cut to showcase her shame—sitting as a pariah in her now ridiculous and grossly presumptuous rubber Velcro overalls, thinking about the gauntlet of venomous Entertainment Hollywood Starf@#ker Access Tonight reporters she will have to endure on the way out. 

For Best Actor, I propose a contest that allows each nominee to showcase his acting talents.   In five separate but equidistant locations 20 miles from the Kodak Theater, each actor will be stripped down to his underwear, sprayed with skunk juice, and equipped with a “helmet cam.”  The first actor to arrive at the theater after successfully convincing some random passerby that he is indeed “Actor X” and that he needs a ride to the Oscars ASAP will be the winner.  The Helmet cams, of course, will allow us to monitor the action, watching as a skunky Javier Bardem tries to explain who he is to a guy driving a metal-salvaging truck in Boyle Heights. 

Ideally, the Best Director nod should go to the person best able to demonstrate that he or she can actually direct.  Here I suggest that each year the five nominees are allowed one by one into a room containing only three props, say Keanu Reeves, a cardboard box, and a pineapple.  Each nominee would have ten minutes to shoot a short film, edited in camera, that makes compelling use of the given materials.  Quick decisions would have to be made.  Who is my lead?  Do I go for narrative or a more abstract character study?  Is there any way to combine pineapple juice and cardboard to facilitate a small explosion of some kind?  The winner will be decided by an audience Applause-O-Meter at the end of the evening. 

But the true highlight will remain the award for Best Picture.  This one is particularly complex, so please pay attention.

The morning of the ceremonies, the producer for each of the nominated films checks him or herself into Cedar-Sinai hospital.  In a quick surgical procedure, a small key is implanted just beneath the epidermal layer—perhaps in the stomach or buttocks.  As the climax of the broadcast, the curtain opens to reveal the ten producers on stage still somewhat sedated in their hospital beds, surrounded by all those who have a financial interest in the picture—co-producers, actors, screenwriters, and so on.  At a signal from the host, this “points posse” will begin imploring their groggy producer to “wake up” and begin digging for the implanted key.  The winner will be the first to extract the painfully but not mortally situated key so as to stagger across the stage to symbolically “lock” the film.

Now, you might say that some producers won’t have what it takes to tear into their own skin and extract a key for something as meaningless as an Oscar.  But here’s the twist.  After the winner locks up his or her picture as the “Best,” bank accounts holding the profits of the remaining nine films will be made available to the general public.  Until the remaining producers successfully remove the keys and lock each film, members of the viewing public can call a 1-800 number and transfer $1000 per household to their own bank accounts.  If a producer is particularly squeamish, he or she might well see 10 or 20 million dollars go out the window in just under ten minutes—all of this with agitated actors and agents screaming at them to “man up” and rip open the stitches. 

Once again, not only would this be extremely entertaining to watch, it would afford novel and diverting opportunities for wagering. 

Teen Scene: 1001 Groovy Hints and Tips (1970)

Editors of New Ideas for Teens
Pyramid Books

Typical advice book for young girls on how to be popular, fashionable, and generally groovy (although a brief chapter advises boys on things that will attract a girl's attention).  Most notable, however, are the insights provided into the vaguely occult courting rituals practiced by teenage girls in the late '60s.  For example:

Want to make sure whether or not he loves you?  The following is as good a method as any.  Place side by side a glowing ember and an ice cube.  If the ice puts out the ember, then his heart is cold.  But if the ember melts the ice, you've won him!

To keep him always true to you, secretly dig up some earth from his footsteps and put it into a pot.  Plant in it yellow marigold seeds--the symbol of faithfulness.

To learn if he's true to you, gather two acorns.  Scratch his initials on one, yours on the other.  Toss them into a pond, river or lake.  If they float close together--yes, he is; if they float apart--sorry 'bout that.

To dream of the man you'll marry: On a Friday night invite one or more of your closest friends to bake a "Dumb Cake."  It should be made of flour, water, eggs, and salt, and is so named because complete and absolute silence must be maintained during the entire making!  When the cake is done, divide it equally among you, and walk backward to bed, eating the cake.  During the night--providing no word has been spoken from beginning to end--you will see your future husband's face in a dream.

No doubt the "dumb cake" was invented by parents searching for a way to keep a slumber party of teenage girls quiet for a couple of hours.

Who out there is going to step up and write the definitive history of teenage girls and the occult? 

Rest in Agony (1963)

Ivar Jorgenson (Paul W. Fairman)
Monarch Books

I had very high hopes for this one.  Look at that cover!  A Horrifying Excursion Into a World Ruled by the Prince of Darkness...Rest in Agony!!!

Originally published in Fantastic Adventures (January 1952), Rest in Agony opens with high-school brother and sister Hal and Lisa mourning the loss of their beloved uncle Ambrose (clue to pulp readers: anyone named Ambrose will be revealed at some point to be involved with Satan).  Ambrose had been a generous benefactor to the kids during his lifetime, and they're pretty broken up by his passing.  Then, out of nowhere, the sports reporter for the local paper shows up and demands to retrieve a copy of a book that had been in Uncle Ambrose's possession.  The book is titled, appropriately enough, The Book of Ambrose.  Hal throws the guy out, but later he gets a phone call...from his dead uncle!  This inspires him to find and read the Book of Ambrose, which turns out to be full of instructions for various Satanic rituals.  Hal is suitably offended and disappointed that his uncle mingled with Satanists.  

Later, Hal and Lisa's parents invite them into the living room for an important announcement.  Lisa is actually adopted.  They're not really biological brother and sister.  It's quite a bombshell, but Lisa handles it fairly well, so well in fact that the parents decide to go ahead and leave the next day for a previously schedule two-week vacation!  There had already been some hints at a "perverse" attraction between Hal and Lisa, and now with the parents out of the house and the incest taboo erased, Hal and Lisa are instantly all over each other in a creepy Greg and Marsha Brady kind of way.  

Soon after this, Lisa disappears into thin air, and we discover that she has been kidnapped to be a Satanic bride.  Hal and Lisa's old boyfriend, Mark, set out to rescue her, but before you know it, Hal is having dreams about a sexy temptress at the local department store who uses a living snake for a bra.  In a nod to Barthes' observations about eroticism and "the gap in the garment," this provides one of several occasions for the author to note just how much sexier the devil women are when wearing one last item of clothing rather than being entirely nude.  I thought about this truism some and have come to the following conclusion-- I think men find the semi-clad more seductive for the same reason that pre-packaged cake mixes ask the consumer to fold in an egg.  The egg, apparently,  is just for show so that the consumer feels s/he has contributed something useful to the "homemade" cake.  I think it's the same with semi-clad women.  A devil woman appears before you totally nude and you think, well, what is there left for me to do?  By being into Satan and totally nude, she's pretty much already seduced.  But if she still has a writhing snake bra on her body, there remains somewhat of a challenge.  Can I get her to remove the writhing snake bra?  How many hooks are there on a writhing snake bra?  Will the writhing snake bra bite me if I attempt to remove it?  And so on. 

At any rate, Hal is soon drugged and gradually initiated into Satanic rites by the department store Satanist.  He's pretty cool with all of it, seeing as how he is promised untold riches, power, and access to a snakebra-less hottie, but every so often he hears the voice of his dead uncle Ambrose calling to him in warning.  Eventually he figures out that Ambrose wasn't really a Satanist, but was instead a spy who was trying to learn all of the devil worshippers' secrets so that he could expose them. Nevertheless, Ambrose appears to be trapped into some Godless limbo somewhere between Heaven and Hell.

This all leads to the inevitable showdown where Hal has to break free from the spell of his Satanic salesgirl and rescue Lisa before she is married to the sports reporter, who we now realize is "Satan's representative" in the town.  Apparently, to become a bride of Satan, one must willingly commit--but Lisa stands firm, she will not embrace Lucifer.  Suddenly there is a flash of light and who should appear but Jesus!  Well, at least his arm reaching out  from the mystic other world.  Jesus congratulates Lisa for keeping her "purity" and says now she can become the "Bride of Christ" (a nun, perhaps?).  At any rate, Hal isn't going to lose his best girl to another guy, even if that other guy is as swell as Jesus.  But then he figures it all out.   It's a trick.  That's not Jesus at all, but Satan pretending to be Jesus!  Hal stops the wedding just in time!  They all "wake up" in a crappy abandoned building and see a few particularly menacing, probably possessed rats run away.

Later, they all pray extra hard, and it appears Uncle Ambrose is saved from his nether-limbo and allowed to "rest in peace" rather than "rest in agony."

In addition to writing this apparently influential bit of devil-lore, Fairman dabbled in a number of other popular genres.  Perhaps most incredibly, he would later write the TV novelization for That Girl, which is rather extraordinary in its own way--but I will save that for another day. 

Jackpot Bassin' (1982)

Edited by Deborah Johnson
B.A.S.S. Publications

Wanna catch some bass?  If your life depended on it, would you know how?  Here are some quick bass facts in case you might need them at some later date in the future.  Bass fishermen are most often foiled by their choice of line.  "Worms" and "jigs" are best for fishing at the bottom of the lake, while "hard baits" work best for  "teasing" big bass.  Spring brings the best "bassin,'" though summer can be "tough but rewarding."  Winter bassin' is the hardest of them all.  "Flippin'" is a good strategy in shallow water. Sometimes you have to do a little "structure" fishing, which means going after the bass where they live. 

Probably the book's best feature is the full-color cover.  Look at that guy enjoying some good old-fashion bassin'...out there all alone on the lake...he seems to love bassin' so much that he wore a special bass-catchin' track suit for the occasion...and a jaunty little vest... the bassin' track suit matches his and white, hold on tight...and he's even named his little bass's called "The Ranger"...I bet when he's out there a-bassin', he's the captain of his world...just for a couple three hours or so...just him and his trusty Ranger...out there by themselves on the lake...outsmartin' them summertime bass...Jackpot!

The Mystery of the Green Ray (1915)

William Le Queux
Hodder Publications

Before enlisting in the army on the eve of WWI, Raymond travels north to Scotland to bid adieu to his love, Myra. As lovers soon to be parted by warfare often do, Raymond and Myra decide to go fishing for the afternoon. Not only do they decide to fish, but they do so at separate parts of the stream. Suddenly Raymond hears Myra scream. Rushing to her he discovers that she's gone blind from an intense green flash. Later, her faithful Great Dane goes blind as well. All very curious. Raymond enlists the services of a top oculist in Glasgow to cure Myra (and presumably her dog), and before you know it, the two men are knee-deep in an ever stranger mystery. The central part of the story involves a great deal of Sherlock Holmes style sleuthing on the part of the eye doctor. We eventually find that "the green ray" emanates from a cavern beneath a house on a Scottish hillside, rented by an "American" who in fact turns out to be a German spy. Not only does the ray emit a blinding flash of light, it is also a fog-cutting spotlight that serves as a magnifying glass, thus allowing its user to find enemy ships in bad weather and see them close-up. Raymond is almost killed by the villanous German and his physicist lackey, but an old schoolchum saves the day just in time. The eye doctor from Glasgow returns with specially made red glasses that both protect and heal those exposed to the green ray. These are put on the dog as well, and everyone agrees he looks "quite wise."

Perverse Payback

This has been a tough TV season for those interested in the forbidden spectacles of "perverse" heterosexual living arrangements.  Our two most outstanding franchises in this regard, Big Love (HBO) and The Jersey Shore (not HBO), have both been relentlessly depressing in their latest incarnations.  Having achieved great success by inviting audiences to imagine sexual economies that might thwart the familiar trajectory of prom date: going steady: engaged: married: breeding: dead, both programs now seem hellbent on punishing their respective ethno-religious Others for straying from the fold of the traditional television family.

Remember the joy of discovery in the first season of  The Jersey Shore?  Sure, you had to pretend briefly to care about MTV perpetuating stereotypes of Italian-Americans who had been raised in some sanctuary on or around Long Island, and there was the continuing disbelief that six people could be so spectacularly shallow, stupid and egregiously tasteless, no matter how "young" they might be.  But beyond the pleasures of mocking the clothes, attitude, and freakishly distorted body parts, there remained a rather compelling fantasy: six young singles put into a space designed for a summer of drinking, dancing, cruising, carousing, soaking, and "smushin'."   And all these kids had to do was show up a couple of times at an imaginary T-shirt shop so MTV could get some B-roll of them "working."  Caligula never had it so good.  Yes, they appear to all be idiots (except for Vinnie, I think. Vinnie has always seemed vaguely embarrassed to be there--plus he had enough sense to bring his own shower caddy this season.  Smart kid, that Vinnie). But if they're so stupid, why are you the one getting up at 6 AM the next morning to sit in traffic for two hours so you can file widget reports for some mid-management psychopath, all to pay for a house that's steadily losing its value and to support a kid who increasingly hates your guts?  Given these prospects, no wonder The Jersey Shore's fantasy of being truly alive and in the moment  exerts such fascination.  Imagine having no other master than the fight, flight, or f@#k impulses coursing through the limbic system, punctuated by an occasional spin on a boardwalk roller-coaster.  They truly live like "animals," and I mean that in the best sense, their communal existence portending what life might be like for everyone if the social world completely collapsed all around us--an existence organized around foraging for food, seeking out the intoxicating properties of fermented berries, and copulating anywhere at anytime with absolutely no sense of guilt, morality, or responsibility. 

That dream has been severely compromised this season, especially as the ongoing relationship between Ronnie and Sammi reminds everyone in the house of just how poorly monogamy mixes with steroids, liquor, and unlimited access to techno music.   Ronnie, fans will recall, spent much of the Miami season hitting the clubs and drunkenly collecting as many 5-digit phone numbers as he could from the local females.  Snooki and J-Woww attempted to let Sammi know what was going on with her steady beau, but having already retreated into some delusional fantasy that she would die alone if not for the validation of her TV boyfriend, Sammi lashed out at her girlfriends and entered into a self-imposed exile of self-loathing.  This continued into the new season as an ongoing bummer for all involved--perhaps most especially for "the Situation," who was cruelly forced to bunk with the unhappy couple in some kind of nauseous primal scene.  Everyone is trying their best to live the carefree lifestyle of season one--but things are not going well.  Ronnie and Sammi's foolish decision to "commit" some twenty minutes after MTV first let them loose in this Habitrail of hedonism has transformed the show into a low-rent version of In Treatment.  And who needs that, especially on basic cable?  There's a reason In Treatment is on HBO--moneyed masochists who want to wallow in "realistic" accounts of just how miserable emotional life can become should have to pay dearly for such "entertainment."  MTV's target demo, on the other hand, wants to see their peers having all the fun older people imagine them to be having, even if they are not.  And as a middle-aged viewer "creepin'" on MTV, I want to see people much younger than me tempting God to flood the earth a second time. 

Not that HBO hasn't made its own salacious foray into alternative modes of sexual organization--namely, old-style Mormon polygamy.  When Big Love began in 2006, the series was smart enough to frame its central quartet as free-willed practitioners of "the principle," thus allowing the show to explore parallels between the Henricksons and other "consenting adults" involved in sexual practices often deemed immoral and illegal.  Premium-cable liberals could not help but support the family's plight: it's their own business what they do in the privacy of their own home(s)!  It was a brilliant maneuver, rendering the suburban heterosexual family-unit "perverse" though an amplification of its underlying imperatives in primitive power relations: acquire wives, acquire wealth, expand real estate holdings, produce heirs, and then take it all with you to a gated community in Heaven.  And yet even in this critique of the hypernormal Hendricksons (who are, after all, "family-values" Republicans), there was the rather courageous suggestion that polygamy itself might have certain advantages.  Indeed, one of the most interesting dynamics in the series has been watching the four partners engage in a rather constant mental calculus of polygamy's pros and cons.  Is all of this crap worth it?  If the goal is to have children in the double-digits, the answer would seem to be an unequivocal "yes!"

While the family has been "tested" throughout the run of the series, past seasons at least had a moment or two of respite when all concerned genuinely bonded over their "strange" (but scriptural) intimacy.  Not so anymore.  Now it's just one bombshell disaster after another, leaving viewers with the morbid task of figuring out who, if anyone, will remain a Hendrickson by season's end.  I suppose this was to be expected when the series changed its credit sequence a couple seasons back, replacing the four leads holding hands in a circle of "God Only Knows" optimism to the "I'm falling through a void of isolation and alienation to my final doom" sequence that currently opens each episode.

Good riddance, you might say.  What was Big Love other than a harem fantasy, sexual and otherwise, of absolute patriarchal domination?  This more salacious angle certainly figured in earlier seasons (as the promo-still at the top suggests).  But over time, Big Love began to make the increasingly subversive argument that the only way to sustain the heteronormative nuclear family in today's world was to divide it across a committee of four people. True, Bill remains a patriarchal freak, an "alpha-male" of Biblical proportions who remains sympathetic only because he genuinely seems to believe his mission is more Joseph Smith than Hugh Hefner. When he's not hauling his various wives and the fruit of their collective loins around in a huge SUV, Bill runs a chain of hardware stores, routinely drives 100 miles round-trip to intervene in the violent politics of his backwoods kinfolk, and in the last few seasons, has even pursued and attained political office so as to purify his church and legitimize polygamy with the public.  If that's what it takes to live the harem fantasy of rotating sexual access, most men would probably rather roll over on the couch and take another nap.  The wives, meanwhile, had somehow successfully doled out the various roles required of married women in the age of postfeminism, Barb working outside the home and supervising the family finances, Nikki doing the majority of cooking, cleaning, and worrying, and Marjean forging onward with the whole sex kitten/reproduction project.  Trying to keep up with all of these tasks would kill two "normal" people.  This season it appears to be too much even for the four of them. 

All of this suggests the show's central "fantasy" was never really about sexual variation in the first place, but was instead organized around the even more quixotic search for a family structure capable of sustaining everyone's identities, needs, and desires.  So far, the final season has meted out rather relentless punishment to everyone involved for imagining that extending the family might dilute rather than intensify such difficulties.  At the moment, all signs point to Barb and Marjean checking out of the Hendrickson household, leaving Bill and Nikki to start all over again as the only "true believers" in the whole polygamy thing.  Afterward, HBO will have to continue searching for another series that fulfills the network's post-Sopranos formula: charismatic male surrounded by multiple wives/mistresses attempting to balance work and family in an environment where certain subcultural practices remain illegal and occasionally violent. Here's hoping for a show about a promiscuous Irish Scientologist next season. 

As for the Jersey Shore, Ronnie and Sammi have apparently split-up for good (at least as of my last viewing).  Rumor has it that the entire crew is heading to Italy next season.  If so, let us all hope that MTV has both the guts and the clout to get them an audience with the Pope.  At the very least, I want to see a couple of Cardinals pass out when J-Woww wears a leopard-skin tube top into the Vatican--that would be truly great television.  Or better yet, his Holiness greeting an apparently awestruck and reverent "Situation," who in the very next scene is with Paulie and Ronnie in a disco doing body shots off of Rome's skankiest prostitute.  That would be even better television.  And after two seasons of watching "Juicehead" and "Sweetheart" live like miserably undivorcable Catholics in the 1940s, the series owes us a little more scandalous debauchery. 

Housewife for Blackmail (1973)

Marshall Roberts
Dansk Blue Books

Sheila fought desperately to hold on to her sedate new life and her staid, respectable husband. But the friends who had known her as a hedonistic swinger wanted her to join their wild orgies again--and they held the knowledge that could bend her to their most depraved desires... Coerced into Chains!

Sheila used to be a "free spirit" living in Frisco, but now she's happily married to Scott the stock broker and living as a housewife in Carmel.  One day while doing the shopping, she runs into Mike and Marsha, her freaky flatmates from her wild days as a hippie nympho.  A drink leads to dinner leads to a joint, and before you know it, Sheila's back at their hotel in a raucous three-way.  Mike thinks it would all make for a great film.

Sheila tries to put her momentarily "lapse" behind her, but before you know it, Mike and Marsha show up at her front door to say goodbye.  But they just have one request.  Would Sheila mind if they had sex on her bed before they left town?  Well, if it means getting them to leave without telling her husband about her previous indiscretion, sure, why not?  But before you know it, Sheila has once more been lured into a raucous three-way.  Mike thinks it would all make for a great film.

And so on.  Later, Marsha seduces Scott into the action so that everything will be "even" by the end--so even, in fact, that Scott and Sheila end up moving back to San Francisco where Scott becomes incredibly successful as a stock broker who also hosts orgies on his luxurious houseboat.

Lesson: Boring stock brokers and their bored wives need an occasional visit from "Mike and Marsha."

The Womb (1966)

K.P. Whittaker (Kathryn Putnam)
Award Novels

Shadowton--a brutal crater of violence where only the most valiant or the most vicious could survive.

Shadowton, as it turns out, is actually the Sunnyside neighborhood just south of Long Island City (get it? things ain't so "sunny" in Shadowton).

Despite a cover that makes the book look like a '60s sci-fi story about eugenics, this is actually a very good pulp about various low-life gamblers (and the women who love them) hanging around a bar called the "Ly-Low."  Author Whittaker clearly hoped to do more here than simply write a page turner, the book describing the historical moment when gambling, previously an activity "humanely" administered by the local Irish, is in the process of coming under a more brutal form of Mob control.  Lots of fighting, drinking, squalor, and psychologically-damaged hook-ups among people going nowhere.

Despite being better than most in this genre, The Womb appears to be rather obscure--virtually invisible except for a few stray copies at Alibris.  Whittaker's only other book, at least according to WORLDCAT, is comic novel about the WACs called Roll Your Tent Flaps, Girls! (1963-Avon).

"Friends" for Life

Remember at the end of Friends when everything worked out great for everyone just before they hit 30?  Ross and Rachel finally got together and put an end to that ridiculous Rachel and Joey subplot, sending Matt LaBlanc off to L.A. where he would later be forced to make a movie with a monkey.  And there was Monica and Chandler with those two babies that Ana Faris had birthed for them, moving out to the suburbs to become middle-aged and boring?  Something good happened for Phoebe too, I'm sure. 

Now it's seven years later, and two "friends" have returned to network television.  "Monica" currently resides in ABC's Cougar Town under the alias of "Jules Cobb."  Having grossly miscalculated the staying power of the sexually predatory middle-aged woman as a cultural icon, Cougar Town has to be the most unfortunately titled show since CBS's ill-fated Stoned, their notorious "Pet Rock" sitcom back in '78.  Despite this gross error in judgment, however, Cougar Town has somehow settled into a successful transplantation of Friends to a Florida cul-de-sac (and a boat, and some kind of outdoor plaza place where everyone hangs out drinking wine).  Advances in TV writing and editing have allowed this tight-knit social circle of 39-somethings to deliver witty banter at an even more breakneck pace than Monica's old pals back in Manhattan, an accomplishment that is particularly remarkable given the inexorable synaptic decay that typically comes with middle-age and the incredibly high levels of humidity that come with Tampa Bay. 

Not to be outdone, Chandler has now resurfaced as Mr. Sunshine, currently playing in Cougar Town's time slot (was this part of their divorce settlement--joint custody of Wednesdays at 9:30?).  Matthew Perry is now Ben Donovan, manager of a mutli-use arena in San Diego called the Sunshine Center. Judging from the premiere, the Sunshine Center will be prone to complexly interwoven shaggy dog stories that resolve unexpectedly in the final block, acted out by a family of workplace eccentrics who serve at the pleasure of an imperious and frequently inebriated Wendy Malick..err, strike that, Allison Janney. 

In Cougar Town, Courtney Cox plays a divorced mom of one, apparently transitioning into a new and improved relationship.   Mr. Sunshine, on the other hand, has signaled that its ongoing element of "drama" will be yet another examination of the "arrested" American male, and in particular, the white middle-class American male who spent the "Friends" years buying clothes, cars, and condos while avoiding any long-term commitments to the crushing heteronormative burdens of marriage, children, mortgages, and "taking shit seriously."  In the premiere episode, Donovan realizes that he's 42 and all alone in the world (except for his zany work pals, of course), initiating the series' central challenge: snark-boy must grow up and start a family before its too late, most likely by rescuing his "friend with benefits" from her burgeoning relationship with their insanely over-optimistic co-worker. 

As argued previously, the culture industries have set up a wonderfully diabolical and profitable dynamic around the "crisis" of the arrested male--making the mid-life epiphanies of such men the centerpiece of much recent comedy.  Having helped create a world that worships the energy and elasticity of a perpetually delayed adulthood--both in terms of day-to-day behavior and the habits of cultural consumption--the very same industry has lately taken to making films and TV shows about "man-boys" teetering on the brink of disaster because they have yet to "grow up," who have so far "failed" to find an age-appropriate position that would allow them to contribute to the society's shared responsibilities of productive labor and productive love.  Thus, "40 year-old virgin" Andy Stitzer (Steve Carrell) must sell off his collection of mint in-the-box action figures so that he might successfully couple with Catherine Keener and open his own business.  In Step Brothers (2008), Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly both reluctantly decide to become functional adults--but still get to have an awesome tree-house in the back yard.  In I Love You Man (2009), Paul Rudd eventually realizes that getting married may actually be a better option than masturbating in the garage to Rush records.

Back in the 1990s, those hoping for a more "morally responsible" model of adult existence often attributed the nation's descent into anomic narcissism to the disengaged irony of Seinfeld.    A decade later, however, Seinfeld's universe of constant kvetching plays closer to A Serious Man (2009) than any sacrament of relativistic hipsterism.  Plus, the main players on Seinfeld all seemed to have already arrived at whatever they were going to be in life--successful comic, long-suffering putz, neurotic mid-manager, and mysteriously solvent doofus. 

Friends has much more blood on its hands.  Operating somewhere between cause and symptom, the series expanded the middle-class ritual of taking a year or two off after college into a full decade of lounging around doing pretty much nothing.  Worse yet, after ten years of drinking coffee and hanging out in an apartment that even a Kardashian couldn't afford, each friend was rewarded with a "dream" career suddenly dropped in their lap: actor, Paris-bound Barneys buyer, paleontology professor at NYU, folk singer, chef turned restaurateur.  The only one that had a "real job" was Chandler--no wonder he was so irritable all the time.  It was the perfect sitcom for a decade of endless consumerism bolstered by a sense that everything would basically work out okay in the end (imagine the credit card debt those kids must have had living in Manhattan all those years working service jobs!).

But with Mr. Sunshine, perhaps we are to assume that everything didn't necessarily work out so great for the Friends-folk (and the generation--be it X, Y or X/Y--that they symbolize.  The notoriously unwed and childless Jennifer Aniston, after all, is now currently in a movie where she plays an anti-cockblocker helping man-child extraordinaire Adam Sandler get in the bikini of a much younger, hotter woman.  As for Kudrow's "Pheebs"--how could she not have ended up living in an alley somewhere in the Bronx?).  From Mr. Sunshine's opening episode, it would seem Ben Donovan has spent the last ten years living in the world Chandler Bing himself created, a penchant for corrosive "snark" and self-centered cynicism having produced---not a normative life of 30-something marital bliss in Westchester--but an ongoing exile of emotional detachment and dysfunction. 

Happily for Ben (and his peers), however, the goalposts have been moved back once again.  40 is now the new 30, at least in terms of feeling some potential embarrassment for having not "settled down" to assume the rather unimaginative life plan society has worked out for most of us.   Shifting this "crisis" from 30 to 40, both on TV and film, makes the oppressive "normalizing" impulse in this convention even more palpable, an energy that feeds on the guilt/anxiety of its target audience for having not yet realized a professional/familial "ideal" that is itself increasingly impossible.  Maybe I'll be "normal" at 30, at 35, at 40.  I'm sure after four or five seasons (should he last that long), "Mr. Sunshine" will at last "come home" to the very model of marriage and work that produced him back in the 1970s--but most likely it will be only another illusion, just like Ross and Rachel's unlikely "Hail Mary pass" at the end of Friends.  As this generation moves through life, I'm looking forward to seeing Matt LeBlanc return as a 49 year old "Joey," still living alone in a studio apartment in Van Nuys and waiting for his big break in Hollywood, but beginning to realize that he should probably just "settle" for marrying his divorced real estate agent girlfriend and taking that job teaching theater at the local junior high.  New on Fox this fall: Functional at Fifty!

Given the ubiquity of this plot, I've come to have increasing respect for Charlie Harpersheen over at Two and a Half Men.  For reasons I'm not sure I fully understand nor am I willing to disclose at the moment, I've seen about 20 or 30 episodes of Two and a Half Men over the past couple of months.  As a devoted aficionado of comedy so clever you often can't tell if its actually funny, I started watching America's most popular sitcom as a kind of sick joke (after a brave colleague introduced the show to our introductory media studies class as an example of something Americans actually watch in significant numbers, as opposed to say, Boardwalk Empire).

Early on, I was predictably appalled. Has there ever been a primetime network show with more jokes about dicks, balls, assholes, vaginas, boobs, taints, semen, menstruation, KY jelly, golden showers, masturbation, blow-jobs, cunnilingus, 3-ways, straight-sex, gay sex, bi-sex, transvestism, transsexualism, fetishism, and the various muscle-groups strained by the more ambitious sexual positions?  No, I would say there has not. 

Over time, however, I have developed an appreciation for the purity of the show's vision, especially the dedicated performances of the two leads.  Realizing that Jon Cryer's hapless "Alan Harper" is actually a fairly brilliant channeling of Barney Fife was a good start.  And now that Charlie Harpersheen is in rehab for his cocaine/prostitute addiction, can we finally honor his incredible commitment to "the method" in bringing us the weekly misadventures of a drunken playboy?

As a vehicle for dick jokes, Two and Half Men is fairly predictable in its structure (or to be more charitable, consistently polished in its execution).  But as a subtle protest against the ongoing attempt to redeem the "arrested" male at 40, the show is actually fairly subversive.  Consider Charlie Harpersheen's daily routine:   He gets up around noon and says goodbye to his most recent one-night stand.  He has some kind of a breakfast/lunch served with a "hair of the dog" before sitting down at his piano to "work" for a couple hours on a jingle or two to pay the bills.  By late afternoon he's on his Malibu oceanside deck, having a cocktail and watching the sunset.  If his idiot brother and nephew haven't enveloped him in some type of comic complication, he then goes out for an expensive dinner with that night's date and the whole process begins anew.  His brother, meanwhile, did get married and pursue a "respectable" career (chiropractor!), and all he got for his troubles was a woefully moronic son and the privilege of being thrown out of his own house.  From what I can tell of the overall series arc, the show has gradually made Charlie's perpetual "adolescence" a central concern (his unwillingness to wear long pants, for example), and the most recent seasons have centered on his complicated engagement with the woman whom, given the overall logic of the series, is supposed to be his "true love."  

But even as the program insists, as it must, that Charlie Harpersheen relent in his irresponsible, childish womanizing and drinking, the overall architecture of the series--even down to the breezy mise-en-scene of his bought-and-paid for Malibu hacienda--reiterates just how little incentive Charlie has to give up his life as a perfect consumer--of liquor, of cigars, of women, of fine automobiles. Early in the series, there was at least some attempt to forge an ersatz father-son relationship between Charlie and his still somewhat cute nephew Jake.  But as Jake gets older and stupider, more annoying than adorable, even this incentive for "reform" has become increasingly ridiculous--at the first mention of "kids," Charlie is out the door.

Perhaps the schizoid fantasy of Two and a Half Men explains why a rather stridently puritan moralism has crept over into Harpersheen's real life as well.  Shortly after Charlie's most recent escapade, the one that landed him in rehab and put the show into its current hiatus, several entertainment pundits hinted that Harpersheen should personally pay the salaries of the cast and crew left idle while he dries out.  At the risk of echoing the Republican "punishing success" meme...really?  It seems to me that the cast and crew have been riding a fairly lucrative Charlie-train for 6 or 7 years now, saved the yearly horror of having to find some risky property to attach themselves to in order to survive until the next pilot season.  Harpersheen, meanwhile, has destroyed his family, his liver, his nasal cavities, and probably any hope of a "normal" future so as to better fulfill our national fantasy of what life might be like if we had the money, property, and looks to avoid any and all responsibilities (save, of course, assuming prudent protections against STDs).   

Perhaps this explains the enigma of how Harpersheen can still have an incredibly popular TV series even while engaged in such anti-social behavior.  "Charlie" is both revolting and fascinating precisely because he has avoided--so far--the fate of Friends 2.0  like Jules Cobb and Ben Donovan.  While they struggle to make "real life" work before it's too late, Charlie is living a consumer fantasy even more core to American identity than faith, family, and friendship:   If I only had the money, I'd tell everyone to f#@k off!

My thanks to Max Dawson for being that brave colleague.  

Alpine Cheese Truck Disaster

O Alpine Cheese Truck, it wasn't your fault.  You only wanted to bring the experience of visiting a quaint Alpine cheese-hut to the people, driving your cheeses to and fro, taking them places where people never dreamed Alpine cheeses might go.  How the children would rejoice when they heard your jingling bells, running to you with saltines and slices of summer sausage in hand for a tasty afternoon snack.  Yes Alpine Cheese Truck, you brought joy wherever you went.  How could you have known on that fateful day, parked at the bottom of the hill, that your rustic mural blended in so perfectly with the surrounding terrain?  How could you have suspected that you were so perfectly camoflauged, practically invisible to all around you, especially the busload of nuns and orphans that could not see you in time, that swerved to avoid what they thought was only a tiny cabin in the woods only to slam into a V-12 engine block.  O Alpine Cheese Truck, you wanted only to deliver a slice of happiness, but instead you became a wedge of flaming death. 

Born to Raise Hell: The Untold Story of Richard Speck (1967)

Jack Altman and Marvin Ziporyn, M.D.
Zebra Books (originally Grove Press)

Oddly sympathetic portrait of spree-killer Richard Speck, written from the perspective of the prison psychiatrist who interviewed Speck several times a week during the six months Speck sat in jail awaiting trial.

For the young folk out there who don't remember when serial killers and mass murderers had yet to be displaced by "sleeper cells" and the Tea Party as sociological enigmas of terror, Speck murdered eight nursing students in a South Chicago suburb on the night of July 14, 1966.  Two weeks later, sniper Charles Whitman killed 16 and wounded 32 from the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin.  This initiated a characteristically American "freak-out" that the nation had changed in some fundamental way, and that everyone could expect a mass murderer on their doorstep in the coming weeks.

As the staff psychiatrist at the Cook County prison, Ziporyn was originally charged with evaluating whether or not the arrested Speck was a suicide risk, but the sessions continued all the way through the trial.  Here this dialogue assumes the form of a psychological mystery.  While not denying his guilt, Speck claimed initially not to remember the night of the murders.  Ziporyn gradually elicits the details surrounding the crime and relates them to Speck's troubled past in Texas.

The book is "sympathetic" in that Ziporyn concludes Speck was neither a sociopath nor a psychopath--but was instead the victim of the long-term effects of a severe head injury.  Noticing that Speck seemed to constantly suffer from blinding headaches, Ziporyn eventually helps Speck remember that on three separate occasions as a teenager in Dallas he had been knocked-out cold by blunt force trauma.  That, and a penchant for mixing speed with hard liquor, "explains" why Speck snapped that night and went on a killing spree.

In attempting to "understand" Speck rather than simply boil him in oil, the book presents a rather odd remnant of sixties liberalism.  Were such a crime to happen today, the nation's incredible lurch to the right over the past 30 years virtually guarantees that no psychiatrist would dare offer any "explanation" other than "pure evil."  Related to this, the first edition of Born to Raise Hell came from Grove Press--New York's resident publisher in the 60s for all things "transgressive"--Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Victorian pornography, and also, apparently, attempts to understand outbreaks of random violence through the logic of science rather than Satan.

The Quasi-Diegetic Insert

As the apotheosis of cine-semiotics, Christian Metz's "Grande Syntagmatique" retains a certain fascination within film theory even today.  Could it really be possible to identify every single possible articulation of time and space in the cinema?  With enough precision and refinement of analysis, might not structuralism's seductive fantasy of achieving absolute mastery over the minimal units and generative grammar of film language at last come true?

Probably not.  For one thing, it's too much fun finding examples that complicate or even completely contradict such bids for a comprehensive mapping of shot relations; in fact, no sooner had Metz introduced the grande syntagmatique than critics began to pick it apart, bringing forth material that seemingly eluded its cascade of chronological and achronological syntagms.  Still, the grande syntagmatique has great heuristic power if only because any exception to Metz's system is inherently fascinating by virtue of its rarity.  

In 1949, Ida Lupino directed her first feature film, Not Wanted.  Based on her own script, Lupino originally planned only to produce the film.  But when director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack only a few days into the production, Lupino took over these duties as well.  Not Wanted is the story of Sally Kelton, a teenager who falls for a no-good piano jockey (played by Sean Penn's father!)--follows him to the big city--gets dumped-- discovers she's pregnant--moves into a home for unwed mothers--has the baby--gives up the baby for adoption--regrets it and tries to get the baby back--gets arrested for wandering off with another baby---and then almost goes insane.  Despite its potentially "objectionable" subject matter, Lupino was able to secure Code approval for the film.  Though the film apparently did not do all that well commercially, Eleanor Roosevelt was impressed enough to invite Lupino to discuss the film on her national radio show (historical gloss courtesy of Mary Hurd's Women Directors and Their Films).  

In 1962, thirteen years after the film's original release, exploitation promoter Jack Lake bought a few prints of Lupino's movie, inserted surgical footage of a Cesarean birth, and released the new concoction as The Wrong Rut (truly a great title.  An opening title card attempts to convince us that the "wrong rut" is Sally's misguided life path--but any discerning pervert will easily recognize this as code for "inopportune insemination"). 

What does any of this have to do with Metz?  Having followed Sally's troubles for an hour or so through the logic of conventional Hollywood style, the time arrives in The Wrong Rut for the big childbirth scene.  Below we see Sally sitting uncomfortably, indicative of just how horrible a disease many considered pregnancy to be in the postwar era.

 Suddenly, for the first time since the "square-up" at the film's opening, an intertitle makes a somewhat jarring appearance:

Inserted for the exploitation release of '62, the card signals that the "forbidden" spectacle of childbirth is soon to arrive.  We return to Lupino's original footage: shots of a drugged and sweaty Sally intercut with out-of-focus POV shots of the hallway as she is wheeled into the delivery room.

The last thing Sally sees is her nurse sliding out of focus.

Another intertitle appears, warning of the impending cut from Lupino's black-and-white footage to the color stock of the Cesarean operation.  In a rather weak attempt to disguise the upcoming insertion of a medical film into Not Wanted's original narrative flow, the shift to color is explained as better serving the spectator in attending to the "skill and dexterity" of the surgeons. 

A color intertitle follows immediately, initiating the surgical film's alternation between footage of the operation and intertitles explaining each step of the procedure.

This alternation continues until the surgeons are at last done with the C-section.  An intertitle informs us that they are now closing the incision with "Mitchell clamps" (below).

From this final color shot of the surgical film, we cut back to Lupino's footage: an out-of-focus doctor shifts to center screen and into full focus.  The attempt, obviously, is to create some sense of continuity between the red-gloved hands of the surgical film and the b/w footage of the doctor. 

The operation complete, a final intertitle reminds us that this birth is not a joyous occasion.

This bit of moralizing out of the way, we return once and for all to Lupino's original footage in Not Wanted.  The doomed Sally rests comfortably, waiting to see the baby she will soon have to give up for adoption. 

Now, some might argue that this rather inelegant insertion of surgical footage into Not Wanted presents no challenge to the grand syntagmatique whatsoever.  The intertitles clearly seek to anchor the operation as Sally's actual surgery--conveniently shot in color so that we admire the skill of the surgeons (who are suddenly, out of nowhere, the "stars" of the motion picture).  Sally is the "case" that the doctors have decided requires a C-section, and we are encouraged to read the body in the operating theater as our protagonist's (even though we will only see her as a "slit" surrounded by towels and surgical equipment).  There is at least a perfunctory appeal to an integrity of time, space, and action.

And yet the obvious disruption of the film stock in terms of color and quality (most likely a shift also from 35mm to 16mm) is hard if not impossible to ignore, especially amid the flurry of intertitles and sudden absence of any dialog.  This "scene" clearly issues from a time and space wholly alien to that of Not Wanted, a classic moment of "excess" that overwhelms any and all attempts to motivate it within the diegesis itself. It might be argued that questions of "plausibility" are of no concern to Metz's catalog of syntagms.  The Wrong Rut, as an augmented version of Not Wanted, certainly hopes that the spectator will take this weakly staged extension of the original film's birth scene and integrate it appropriately into the spatio-temporal logic of the story.  But what are we to do when a film simply asks too much of us, straining credibility to the point that the juxtaposition--though "motivated"--so thoroughly punctures the stylistic logic of a film as to render both the original and inserted footage equally unreal?

While infrequent perhaps in the more conventional realms of commercial cinema, such spatio-temporal conundrums abound in low-budget and exploitation cinema.  These disruptions, moreover, typically involve more than simply poor special effects or the insertion of studio stock footage (so often seen with Ed Wood's films, for example).  Those cheapies at least construct an overall narrative world where flying saucers fashioned out of paper plates are somehow strangely consistent with the overall look and feel of the film. The real hazard lies in these moments of attempted reconciliation through the logic of standard continuity (They Saved Hitler's Brain provides another prime example.  Begun and left unfinished in the late 1950s, the film was later completed by adding additional footage shot in the early 1960s.  While not necessarily so far apart in actual years, the shift in "sensibility"--even if only read in terms of wardrobe and car design-- is extremely distracting). 

Perhaps the more interesting issue here is not the viability of the grande syntagmatique, but rather just how profoundly internalized the logic of the Hollywood continuity system was even in the lowest rungs of exploitation production--even in situations where it was fundamentally impossible to realize it convincingly.  The Wrong Rut's integration of surgical footage is incredibly unbelievable, laughably so.  And yet running  Not Wanted in its original cut and then tacking on the surgical film as a grossly exploitative "bonus" was clearly not an option.  To function properly as an exploitation film--or just as a "film" generally--the two disparate footages had to be integrated somehow, no matter how ludicrously, no matter how much their stylistic dissonance threatened to implode the overall narration.

We already have, thanks to Metz, the "non-diegetic insert."  Maybe the next iteration of the grande syntagmatique, if anyone is out there working on it, needs still yet another category: the quasi-diegetic insert. 

The Big Wheels (1967)

William E. Huntsberry
Avon Books
This is apparently a parable about political power set in a high school, but I will confess to being too stupid to really understand the lesson to be learned.  The summer before their senior year, six guys decide to put themselves into class leadership positions so as to influence certain key decisions for the upcoming term.  What starts as simply running for office eventually devolves into fraud and blackmail, but as most these underhanded dealings have to do with the Senior Prom, it's a little hard to find them too disturbing.  Today, of course, some kids in Junior High would have no reservations whatsoever taking out a rival pot or crack dealer with a Glock, so this daring expose/allegory is "quaint" by contemporary standards.  Much more effective in this regard is Rene Daalder's Massacre at Central High (1976), a film that uses American high school to stage an allegory about the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s.

TV Sets Left in Snow to Die

Next to the land-line telephone, the television set is probably the weakest and most infirm of domestic technologies.  In the past, old TV sets would have been "retired" to a charity of some kind in the hopes that others less fortunate might get some use out of them, but the technology has become so fundamentally worthless that now many feel the only humane option is to leave old sets in the snow to die.  It is believed this allows the TV to drift off into a comfortable sleep as hypothermia sets in and freezes its circuits.  Below, we honor three TV sets recently found waiting for the sweet release of death in area snowbanks. 

Born: 12 October 1996
First Image: The Price is Right (4 February 1997)
Last Image: iCarly (10 January 2011)

After serving as the primary set for the Baker family between 1997 and 2008, "Sparky" moved to the bedroom of 12 year-old daughter Emily after her successful completion of the 6th grade in 2009.  Apparently shorted-out by a spilled grape soda during an iCarly marathon in early 2011, the exact details of "Sparky's" demise remain unclear.  While daughter Emily maintains Sparky's death to be an unfortunate accident, older brother Ashton remains convinced the set was "deliberately fucked-up" as part of Emily's scheme to get a new flat-screen for her upcoming 14th birthday.  Plans to make Emily pay for repairing Sparky out of her own allowance were quickly abandoned after a 40-minute tantrum and the realization that Mr. Baker did not want Sparky ripping his upholstery on a trip to the Best Buy where a befuddled staff would express dismay that someone could be so idiotic as to repair a TV that was over 2 years old. 

Born: 15 July 1983
First Image: The Guiding Light (14 September 1983)
Last Image: Mets vs. Cardinals  (13 June 1996)

Initially purchased as the kitchen set for Johnson family matriarch Patricia, "Lucky" spent his best years transmitting soap operas and game shows between 1983 and 1994.  After a brief banishment to the hallway closet following the purchase of a new Toshiba unit, "Lucky" returned in 1996 as the garage TV for Mr. Johnson--but was quickly retired after proving ineffective at receiving local baseball transmissions.  From 1996 to 2009, "Lucky" shared a box in the attic with a similarly abandoned plastic nativity scene.  "Lucky" made a surprise return in the fall of 2009 as a prop in a junior high school comedy skit, but quickly found himself back in the attic--this despite the strenuous objections of Mrs. Johnson over available storage space.  Living on borrowed time, "Lucky" was finally thrown out of the house in January of 2011 as part of a comprehensive attic sweep.  Left in a plastic bag by the curb, he was eventually collected by local sanitation and taken to the dump.

"Cheap Piece of Shit"
Born: 24 May 2005
First Image: C.S.I. Miami (2 March 2006)
Final Image:  Intermittent flashes of a Bob the Builder DVD (5 January 2011)

"Cheap Piece of Shit" suffered a short and difficult life in the home of the Newmark family.   Brought home with high expectations from a local Circuit City, it was soon discovered that the plastic battery cover on the remote was chipped and broken.  Despite pledges by Mr. Newmark to return the "cheap piece of shit" immediately, torpor, laziness, and a desire to avoid lifting the heavy device proved stronger than the 30-day warranty.  Duct-tape used to hold the remote's batteries in place served as a constant reminder of "piece of shit's" cheapness.  These negative connotations were only reinforced in 2007 when the smart-ass friend of Mr. Newmark's son expressed disbelief that anyone still owned a "humongous" box set, especially now that the price-point on flat-screens was so low.  A distracting "popping" sound when activated and the constant sense of "smelling something electrical" by Mrs. Newmark culminated in a storm of rage early in 2011.  After hauling the set to the playroom to serve as a vehicle for playing DVD content for the youngest Newmark child, Mr. Newmark discovered that a broken RCA-array on the set's back panel made interfacing with any external units impossible.  After yelling, "That's it with this cheap piece of shit!" several times so that his outrage could be witnessed by various family members in the household, Mr. Newmark hauled the set to the alley and left it atop a stack of trash, "like the cheap piece of shit garbage it is." 

Dissecting the Toad: An Appreciation

Why is the clip above so brilliant? 

Get out your poking sticks, it's time to seek wisdom from the Toad.
The cruel spectacle that follows is obviously a regular feature on the mythical SportsDome (now running on Comedy Central), so highly anticipated that it has earned its own "catch-phrase." The catch-phrase, meanwhile, demonstrates that the ritualized humiliation of the Toad has become so normalized that the producers have integrated the weekly "stick-poking," necessary to elicit the Toad's wisdom, as simply another part of his "bit."

The Toad's graphics package appears: digital animation of a mysterious and exalted temple in the swamp surrounded by mystically hovering fireballs--The Toad sits like a King atop the structure, ready to receive tribute for his remarkable ability to predict the outcome of sporting-related events.  But then we cut to the Toad, who in fact has no temple, but is instead incarcerated in a steel cage and accompanied by two guards...with poking sticks. 

Nobody's sure where he came from or what he is, all we know is there is nobody better when it comes to picking games.
A summation of the bit: a "being" captured in the swamp, neither man nor beast, has a seemingly preternatural talent for predicting sport scores.  But in the twisted delusional universe of those addicted to hour after hour of cable Sports news, the incredible scientific and philosophical discovery of the first being beyond our species to master a spoken human language is secondary to his utility in predicting the outcome of sporting events.

Let's check out the Toad's resume...Over 99% against the spread in football
Not only does the Toad have the mystical power of picking winners, something that might be explained as merely a miracle coincidence of repeatedly choosing correctly between two possibilities, but he can also "beat the spread," demonstrating that his knowledge of the game actually goes much deeper. We also read here that he has predicted every Superbowl since "being captured" and that he "laid out the parameters of Derek Jeter's new contract."  The second achievement is particularly remarkable given that the Toad appears capable of speaking only a few articulate words at a time. 

Are you ready, Toad?  (Indecipherable sound of swamp despair)  Awwright!
Perfunctory greetings are exchanged between host and expert.  Matt Walton as "A.R." thoroughly nails the TV sports dialect (as does Matt Oberg as his co-host).  Most of the humor of SportsDome is filtered through this now wholly naturalized yet thoroughly perverse "dialect," a constant performance of insincerity and awesomeness that has come to dominate the airwaves since the debut of SportsCenter.  The Toad, the poor tragic Toad, emits a tiny, ambiguous cry.  Is it pain?  Is it despair?  Clearly he would prefer to be back in the swamp.  But "A.R." simply translates the plaintive moan back into generic "bro-talk," responding with the frat-guy swamp call, "Awwright!

First game, Rockets at Knicks.  Who do ya like toad?
Despite the fact that the miraculous Toad is trapped in a steel cage and experiencing some mixture of physical and spiritual discomfort, his "segment" will proceed as if it were just casual bar talk.  Who do ya like Toad? 

You heard it from the Toad so you know that pick is gold!
Probably the Toad's most familiar "catch-phrase," a rhyming way of branding his appearances and touting his success.  In fact, the Toad's powers are so "golden" that we are encouraged to call Vegas before the odds change, leading to the revelation that the gambling industry has sought on several occasions to "buy" the Toad, thereby reaffirming that he is--despite his miracle of language and sentience--little more than property of the sports industry. 

No Dallas
The Toad can understand English, hearing questions and giving answers--but clearly it is difficult for him.  Here he expresses his lack of confidence in the Mavericks by reverting to the most elemental grammatical construction possible: No Dallas.

After a refreshing sponge bath, the Toad is ready to "open up the mailbag" and take questions from viewers, a prospect that seems to interest him somewhat slightly as he moves closer to A.R. in anticipation.  Here the delusional world opens out to the viewers.  Obvious, seemingly insistent questions like "How did you learn to speak?", "Where did you come from?", and "Are there more of your kind?" are instead replaced by still yet more inquiries into increasingly trivial sporting matters. 

Mauer!  Mauer!
When challenged on his pick for this year's MVP in Major League Baseball, the Toad appears angry.  But where does this anger come from?  Is it the anger of the sports buff who does not appreciate challenges to his expertise, or is it the anger of a creature taken from the swamp and forced to participate in these spectacles of humiliation. 

Toad, who d'ya got, Buckeyes or Boilermakers?
Not only does the Toad's expertise cover professional sports, but he is also capable of seeing into the future of NCAA basketball, called upon here to handicap a Big 10 match-up with the added variable of a key Purdue player being injured.  This prediction takes longer, inducing some cattle-prod shocks from his keepers.  Is it because the Toad has grown weary of his torment and is now actively resisting?  Or is it because this particular prediction requires more thought.  A quick indulgence of fish heads ("that should placate him") appears to settle the Toad's mind and mood and he is ready to proceed.

Toad likes the Buckeyes!

So much so that this final prediction sends him into a paroxysm of cage-rattling anger.  Time to toss back to the studio where A.R.'s colleagues comment on this 8th wonder of the world by engaging in still yet more rehearsed sports-prattle

Gotta love it when the Toad stops by....The Toad knows his stuff.

A final irony: the Toad doesn't "stop by," he is in fact dragged from an aquatic tank of some kind and restrained in a cage, forced to perform his wisdom about stuff--perhaps the perfect word to describe this branch of particularly useless knowledge that so many have spent so much time committing to memory.  And really, in the end, isn't the Toad rather like the sports fan himself--a miracle of nature capable of language and abstract thought who nevertheless spends valuable moments of his life worrying if the Buckeyes will beat the spread?