The MST3k Reunion Was Everything It Needed To Be And More

e6cb31b27ff62b87dad5e700b1eac58fOn Tuesday, June 28th, 2016, multiple casts of Mystery Science Theater 3000 joined in Minneapolis, MN for a live reunion streamed across the country via Rifftrax, a venture led by the show’s head writer and second host, Mike Nelson, second (and definitive) Tom Servo, Kevin Murphy, and second Crow T. Robot, Bill Corbett.

But let me take a step back.

If you’re not in the know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is about a man trapped in outer space on a craft called the Satellite of Love and is forced to watch bad movies by an evil scientist. To survive these experiments, the man makes fun of the movies with the help of his robot companions that he built (Joel) or inherited (Mike). The show’s opening credits explain the premise, too.

The concept exists purely to watch a movie with running comedy commentary. The show ran from 1989 to 1999, starting first on a local Minneapolis TV station, KTMA, then transitioning to the precursor of Comedy Central (originally called “The Comedy Channel”), and finally to the Sci-Fi channel before it was cancelled. MST3k is the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who portrayed the series’ first hapless test subject Joel Robinson. Joel hosted the show until midway through the 5th season when Mike Nelson stepped into the role of “Mike Nelson” and replaced Joel on the SoL. The opening was modified when Mike took over. But the premise remained the same: make fun of bad movies.

Over the course of the show, many performers came and went. Originally, the mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (portrayed by Trace Beaulieu who also voiced Crow T. Robot), was assisted by Dr. Ernhardt (played by writer/comedian Josh Weinstein) who disappeared after the first season on the Comedy Channel. He was replaced by TV’s Frank (played by writer/comedian Frank Conniff). Weinstein also voiced and worked the puppet for Tom Servo, Joel’s bubble gum machine headed robot, and writer/performer Kevin Murphy assumed control of the bot until the show’s end in 1999. After Joel left in season 5, Frank Conniff departed at the end of season 6. Frank was effectively replaced by writer Mary Jo Pehl who played Dr. Forrester’s mom, Pearl. Trace Beaulieu left at the end of the abbreviated 7th season, which was also the last season on Comedy Central. Pearl Forrester became the primary “villain” when the show moved to Sci-Fi and writer/comedian Bill Corbett joined the show to assume the role of Crow and a new character called Observer or “Brain Guy” who worked with Pearl.

After the show ended in 1999, the various writers and performers went their separate ways. Joel worked in Hollywood on various projects. Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, and Josh Weinstein all worked in LA as writers on various shows and projects. Mike Nelson wrote a few books as did Kevin Murphy.

But in 2006, Mike worked for a small film studio called Legend Films and they asked him to do movie commentary on a few movies in their catalogue like Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness. They came up with an idea to do movie commentary ala MST3k, but via tracks recorded separately that could be synced to avoid needing to acquire movie licenses. They called it Rifftrax. Nelson eventually brought along his buddies Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

Joel also still had the movie riffing bug. He, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, and Josh Weinstein formed Cinematic Titanic, which toured the country doing live movie riffs. The Rifftrax gang also started doing live movie riffs, but streaming them live to theaters throughout the country via Fathom Events.

Meanwhile, MST3k is living a new life on DVD and in streaming through a company called Shout Factory. Once Cinematic Titanic ended, Joel worked with Shout Factory to reacquire the rights to MST3k. Seeing opportunity through Kickstarter, Joel ran the most successful campaign in the history of the platform to create a new season of MST3k. A new young writer and comedian, Jonah Ray Rodrigues, who works for Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist, has been named the new host.

Wow. That was a big step back.

The MST3k reunion hosted by Rifftrax was also that enterprise’s 10th anniversary and its 20th live show. Mike, Bill, and Kevin were joined by Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo, Bridget Nelson (Mike’s wife, who played many roles on MST3k over the years and has riffed with Mike and Mary Jo on Rifftrax), and Jonah Ray. Josh Weinstein chose not to participate.

Over the years, MST3k fans have fallen into various camps. Joel fans vs. Mike fans. Trace fans vs. Bill fans. Old vs. young. All a lot of nonsense really. MST3k is about making fun of bad movies. The talented writers and comedians who contributed to the show over the years only heightened the show’s reach and creativity. While I’m more a fan of Mike’s era on the show, there are some truly hilarious episodes during Joel’s tenure on the show. Sometimes Joel’s delivery alone moves a funny line to hilarious. Take this example from his final episode, Mitchell.

And I’ve never seen much point in comparing Trace and Bill’s runs on Crow T. Robot; they’re different, but hilarious in their own right. Trace’s Crow is a puckish, self-absorbed clown. Bill’s Crow has more attitude, but is insecure and prone to outbursts of rage.

Despite whatever divisions exist in the fan base, the reunion was full of nothing but good laughs and cheer. The writers and comedians who created and perfected this brand of comedy led the way by being funny. It was like a college reunion of good friends. Comedy is content, but there’s also an alchemy in personality. I felt glad just to watch them perform together. They can make one another laugh in ways that felt genuine and part of the live experience. This was never more evident than at the end when all performers appeared on stage together for a “Riff-a-palooza.”

The show opened with Mike, Kevin, and Bill riffing an educational short film for kids called “The Talking Car.” It sounds cute enough, but the eponymous talking car is a regular car with a pair of animated eyes and a mouth. A little boy almost gets hit by a car and his dreams are then haunted by three talking cars. It’s quite horrific, but the jokes were pretty sharp.

Mary Jo and Bridget followed up with a riff of an old sales short about fancy kitchens? I guess. It was called “A Word to the Wives” and it starred the dad from A Christmas Story. I confess, I think just about anything Mary Jo says is hilarious. Her delivery is always just the right mix of biting and “gee, gosh.”

Next up, Trace and Frank tackled a short film called “More Dates for Kay.” It’s such a strange short that I’m not exactly sure how to describe it. Basically, a young woman isn’t very popular, so she began a social outreach campaign that seemed an awful lot like hooking… Frank and Trace help make those connections for you in case you missed them. This was the strongest individual riffing team and effort in my opinion.

Mike, Kevin, and Bill came back out and took on a hilariously melodramatic short called “Shaking Hands with Danger.” It was made by the Caterpillar construction equipment company and is all about negligent men injuring or killing themselves in various implausible scenarios. The guys also took the opportunity during this window to show a greatest hits reel of Rifftrax over the years as well as formally introduce their senior co-writers, Conor and Sean.

Finally, Joel and Jonah took the stage. Jonah was still an unknown quantity. With the new show coming soon, I was very interested to see how he performed. I also wanted to see Joel perform again. I attended one of the Cinematic Titanic shows when the troupe appeared at George Washington University and thought he was great with the live audience. The good news is that Jonah is a natural. I was a little bit nervous about him, but after hearing his performance, he’s a solid riffer with a great delivery. He did screw up a riff, but it set up Joel for a great live moment. When Bill introduced them, he took a moment to thank Joel for creating movie riffing. A nod to the founder in this time of reflection and transition was especially needed.

The final segment was, like I noted earlier, a massive riff with all of the guests. They riffed a short film of the original Superman serial starring George Reeves. This one was particularly interesting because it was paid for by the government as an ad for postage stamp bonds… the connection between Superman and the stamps was tenuous at best.

But just when we thought the night was over, the Rifftrax crew wrangled everyone back on stage for one final riff. It was a short film from the highly popular “At Your Fingertips” series. This one was focused on Grass. Yep. Grass. If you’ve never seen one of these things, it’s entirely about how kids can make things with grass. What can you make with grass? Everything, apparently. Even things that no normal person would ever want to make with grass. It made for strong riffing material and a great finish.

When it was over, my mouth hurt. I had been smiling and laughing for two hours straight. The mark of a good night.

 

ADDENDUM:

At the press conference before the reunion, the riffers were asked about which MST3k episode they liked which doesn’t come up much. An underrated episode. Mike responded almost immediately to say he really enjoyed The Girl in Gold Boots (a Season 10 entry about a country girl who becomes a “dancer” in LA, which I rather enjoy, too). Joel posed a question back to everyone regarding the famous (possibly most famous) episode of MST3k Manos: The Hands of Fate a movie during Joel’s run that ranks near the top of worst films on the show and ever made. Joel asked what everyone thought of it. He noted that he knows it’s regarded as a fan favorite, but he doesn’t think it’s a particularly strong riff. He didn’t understand why it’s so well regarded.

Allow me to respond.

I think Joel is forgetting about the MST3k “fiction.” Remember that the show is about a guy who has these terrible movies inflicted on him. When the staff happened upon Manos, they clearly recognized how terrible the movie is. In the episode, both TV’s Frank and Dr. Forrester apologize for sending the movie even though it’s their job. Throughout the episode, the bots break down over how terrible it is. Even Joel, who was normally easy-going and laid back, screamed at the movie during an interminable scene where characters just looked at one another. His line was, “DO SOMETHING!” if I remember correctly.

But my point is that the episode is not necessarily remembered for the stellar riffing on the material (which, in my humble opinion, is still quite good). No, it’s remembered as a fantastic overall episode. And in the fiction of the show, this poor guy has to watch this awful movie. I feel like the MST3k audience perceives Joel/Mike and the bots as a shield against the movies on the show. If nothing else, that’s how I perceive them. They’re on the front line, exposed to the movie up close and personal. And so I think MST3k fans have sympathy for the characters as they’re exposed to this awful movie.

It’s even more than that, though. Frank Conniff noted how the show brought Manos out of obscurity and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s such a remarkably strange movie. Bad, yes, but it has such unique characters. Of course, the most notable character, Torgo, is so weird, off-putting, and unique that he can’t help but be memorable. In fact, the character left such a strong impression that Mike Nelson portrayed Torgo out of the theater for a couple of seasons.

Anyway, my main point is that, as goofy as the premise is, fans bought into the idea that Joel and Mike are forced to watch these movies. As such, the episodes have to be taken in totality, not just the riffing. Because Manos is recognized as a very bad movie, it stands out for fans because of that fact. They identified with the plight of the characters.

Manos was also the first movie to be so oppressively bad and disturbing. Yes, there was King Dinosaur, Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Manchu, and Monster A Go-Go, but Manos really is in a category all its own. I’ll be honest, I think Invasion of the Neptune Men is worse mostly because Manos is at least watchable in a “car accident” kind of way, whereas Neptune Men is boring, repetitious, and punishingly inept in every possible way. But Manos was also shown at a time when MST3k’s popularity was reaching its peak, meaning a lot of people saw it. King Dinosaur and Time of the Apes are more like deep tracks.

I hope Joel and his new writing staff and performers remember this as they finish crafting the new season. Movie riffing is absolutely the number one ingredient in making MST3k, but the creators would be wise to remember how much the audience commits to the fiction that frames the riffing. Some of my favorite MST3k episodes feature the characters breaking down throughout the movie like Manos, Wild World of Batwoman, any Coleman Francis movie, Invasion of the Neptune Men, and Hobgoblins. I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones that come to mind. I just think it lends credence to the premise when the characters occasionally get mad about the movies inflicted on them they can’t control. Therefore, that’s why I would suggest Manos is so beloved to Joel. It’s not the riffing specifically, but the fact that the audience is “in it” with Joel and the bots.

220802-person-of-interest-person-of-interest

Watch “Person of Interest”

maxresdefaultA very good, special show ended last week and I bet many of you don’t even know it. The good news is you can still watch it because it now lives in the digital realm thanks to Netflix. I hope you heed my suggestion.

Person of Interest ended on Tuesday night after a quick burn of its final 13 episodes over the last month and a half. Its final season was cut down from 22 to 13 episodes. The reduced runtime really honed the writing and the story. In fact, credit where credit is due: CBS could have just cancelled the show outright or let the producers wiggle on the line regarding renewal. But they gave them a final run and the show’s creators made the most of it.

The series centered on Harold Finch played masterfully by Michael Emerson. Finch build a surveillance Machine for the government to fight terrorism after 9/11 with access to camera feeds, phone calls, emails, text messages, internet searches… everything. It feeds information to the government about terrorists based on all of this collected data so it can stop terrorist attacks. There is a privacy compromise, however: the government can’t see or access this information. The Machine communicates a social security number or another unique ID associated to a person. The government must then determine if that person is a terrorist, a terror target, or somehow affiliated with terrorists on its own.

But because the Machine sees everything it knows about non-terrorist violent crimes, too. The government wasn’t interested in those, though. Those crimes are labeled “irrelevant.” Harold set up a connection with the machine so that he receives the “irrelevant” numbers so he can intervene. However genius Harold may be, he’s not equipped to stop these crimes on his own so he partners with a former CIA operative, John Reese, played by Jesus himself, Jim Caviezel. Reese is cast off, adrift, and probably close to death either by his own hand or otherwise. Harold gives John a purpose and they get to work receiving numbers and helping people.

Every episode opened with a “saga sell” kind of like Quantum Leap had (the first 48 seconds of this clip), which explained the show’s premise. Watch POI’s “saga sell” from season one. It’s more succinct than my summary. And here is a scene from the pilot episode with our two leads discussing it as well.

On the surface, Person of Interest was like any other CBS crime procedural. A new number—a new case—every week. Good guys and bad guys. Easy enough, right? For the first third of its first season, Person of Interest seemed to conform to that, but a dense mythology was brewing under the surface. How did Harold build this Machine? How does it reach the conclusions that it does? If the government wants to keep this a secret, what might they do if they found out Harold can access the Machine and receive information from it?

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, even though the Machine helps them stop crime and the government stop terror attacks, it is a massive overreach of power. The government’s system can see everything we do. Harold’s defense might be that only the Machine sees that data, no human can view the private information the Machine sees. Is this right? The end result is good, but at what cost? How might this kind of technology be abused?

But the most fundamental question of all: what really is the Machine? It’s better if you watch to find out, but I can say concisely: artificial intelligence. The Machine is not just a database. Not just an algorithm. It thinks. And it learns. It makes judgements. That’s how the Machine can make determinations about if a violent crime is going to occur—it’s not just if Steve says, “I’m going to kill Judy.” The Machine sees that Steve purchased a gun, he has a violent felony arrest record, he’s bought plastic sheeting, and he’s made an appointment with Judy late at night in a secluded part of town. All of those facts taken together (and much more) factor into the Machine’s decision-making. In practice, the Machine would send Steve’s SSN to Harold and he and John would need to investigate to find out what’s going on.

While POI never really shed its “procedural” shell, it transitioned from a crime thriller to a modern science fiction show with the introduction of a mysterious hacker, Root (played by the ageless Amy Acker), who had figured out that the Machine existed and, realizing what it was, wanted to free it. Root saw the Machine as a higher life form, an ASI—Artificial Super Intelligence—a god even. But Harold had “shackled” the Machine with rules so that it couldn’t be abused and so that it would not grow too powerful in its own right. Here, the show started to show its true colors. It was a CBS crime procedural, yes… but it was also about a nascent artificial intelligence and all of the ethical questions associated with its creation, how others might seek to use it, and its very existence.

The show gave us many glimpses into the past about how Harold not only created the Machine, but also how he taught it judgment, logic, and, most importantly, the value of life. Arguably, that education continued between Harold and John; Harold discouraged John from killing and encouraged less lethal means. It was also a way for our series lead badass to not kill 20 people an episode and just shoot them in the legs. CBS probably would have frowned on the excess murder, but gunshot legs are fine.

Meanwhile, as the show continued, evidence of another artificial intelligence loomed. If Harold’s Machine was a passive conduit for our heroes to help people and save lives, the introduction of “Samaritan” showed that there was another way artificial intelligence could go. Samaritan was an ASI unshackled like the Machine. Its handlers weren’t trying to protect privacy or restrain its power and access, they wanted Samaritan to amass knowledge, influence, and power. While the Machine made no direct action itself, Samaritan changed police records, deactivated security systems, influenced stock market prices, texted people with monetary incentives to do its bidding, and was basically a precursor to Skynet from The Terminator.

But it has to be emphasized that the show kept all of this grounded in reality. And that’s the scary part! Nothing Samaritan (or the Machine) did seems out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the show makes explicit references to actual, real government programs to build something like the fictional Machine or Samaritan. If you don’t know, the government actually tried to do something like this. Three such projects were TIA, Stellar Wind, and Trailblazer. The show was science fiction, but just barely.

And like any good science fiction, it’s the characters that breathe life into the “fantastical” situations and story. We begin, like we do with any CBS procedural, believing our heroes are the chaste, white knights chasing down bad guys. But think about what Harold has created. It’s true that he’s trying to use the Machine for “good,” but he’s effectively hacking a government program. And the Machine exists as a tool for violating personal privacy and rights of search. That it’s a “benevolent” intelligence is beside the point. Our “heroes” are vigilantes. And, more to the point, may have opened Pandora’s Box. Had Harold not created the Machine, would Samaritan exist? Would the government have simply found a way to build this technology anyway with a less altruistic creator? These are questions you might have and the show, God Bless It, addresses.

In my zeal to sell you on the concept, I’ve left out a ton of things you should discover on your own. Taraji P. Henson plays Detective Joss Carter, who is on John Reese’s tail as well as facing down an inter-departmental ring of dirty cops. Kevin Chapman plays Detective Lionel Fusco, a crooked cop in which John Reese takes an interest. Sarah Shahi plays Sameen Shaw, a government operative initially working on the list of numbers from the Machine’s “relevant” list, who may also be a high functioning sociopath. And there’s a host of other recurring characters that “Team Machine” encounters along the way who only enrich the universe the creators have crafted. There’s even an awesome dog who is probably my favorite character, but really it’s because it’s a dog.

Ron Swanson once said, “Son, you should know that my recommendation is essentially a guarantee.” This is true of my recommendation as well. I hope you check out Person of Interest. The first four seasons are on Netflix right now. In a pinch you could get the final season on iTunes or Amazon Video, whatever. But for those of you (I’m one!) who have lamented the lack of quality in broadcast network TV, Person of Interest was a rarity. It broke the mold of CBS’s usual, tired premises and aspired to be a thoughtful, exciting, dynamic show with real heart and purpose at its center.

As I noted at the beginning, Person of Interest’s series finale aired last week. Finales are hard to get right. In my humble opinion, Breaking Bad and The Shield are probably the best, most satisfying TV finales ever crafted. POI breathes that rarefied air, too. So, if you’re not looking to get invested in a show only to be disappointed by the end, you can relax. If anything, you’ll wish there was more Person of Interest to come and really, that’s the way to end a show: make the audience miss it, not be glad it’s dead.

I miss Person of Interest. If even a few of you pick it up on my recommendation, it will have been worth it. You’ve got a hell of a good show ahead of you to watch and I’m envious.

More Profundity From a Great Show

Parks and Recreation Cast

One Last Ride

Parks and Recreation just ended, so I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone. But the reason I loved Lost was not because it was the greatest show ever made. That honor probably goes to Breaking Bad or maybe The Wire depending on my mood. No, I loved Lost because each of its characters was larger than life and the overarching theme of the show was about people wrestling with choice and destiny. It hit an emotional chord with me. I think about it everyday.

And a Teddy Roosevelt quote can’t be a spoiler, but it loomed large in the Parks and Recreation finale and it, too, resonated with me:

Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.

Leslie modifies the quote, which only sweetens it, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. If you were ever a fan of Parks and Recreation the finale was well-executed. Very good. See it.

“Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery” on Blu-Ray is out today

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery

There’s a fish in the percolator.

In keeping with my Twin Peaks-themed posts this week, the series and movie come out in a Blu-Ray set today.

The above Newsday.com piece covers the show generally (no spoilers) and discusses the phenomena that spooled up around it for the year and a half it was on. If you haven’t seen Twin Peaks, I imagine all of the references to Cherry Pie and Coffee are strange; I know they were before I saw it. It made me wonder what exactly the damn show was if they’re eating cherry pie and drinking coffee all of the time. Also, a little person and a giant?

“It is great,” is the answer to that question.

Amazon is offering the set for 119.99 and that includes all 29 episodes, including the spectacular pilot (which, for rights issues, was not available with the show when it initially came out on DVD years earlier), the prequel (?*) film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and a host of special features both wondrous and strange. Two things in particular have my interest: the film, Fire Walk With Me had a ton of deleted footage that has been rumored and discussed for years and all of it has been remastered and assembled into a feature, “The Missing Pieces;” and David Lynch interviews the Palmer family as their characters, not the actors. Weird… but I’ll certainly watch it.

Of course, I understand if you don’t want to make such a tall investment for something you may not like (impossible!). The series is on Netflix, in its entirety, but not the movie. Once the series ends, I promise that you will be desperate to see what other content is available.

If nothing else, once it’s over you’ll certainly be wondering how Annie is.**

 

*While Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is holistically a prequel, there are elements that speak to “post-series” events. That’s as specific as I can get without spoiling anything. “The Missing Pieces” feature on the Blu-Ray set will feature more of the movie with these elements intact, so I’m highly motivated to see it.

**That’s only a spoiler if you have seen the show.

Why You Should Watch “Twin Peaks”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’re living in a golden age of entertainment, particularly on TV.

Better (read: smarter) people than I have tried to explain what brought us here in historical and academic terms, so I won’t try to improve upon on what’s already been done very well. But if you’re interested in the subject (and really why wouldn’t you be??) TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall wrote a great book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever that covers the subject in an fun, non-academic way. It’s a good read is all I’m saying.

I argue, however, that one show, more than any other, put us on the road to TV greatness: Twin Peaks. Had it not been for Twin Peaks, we wouldn’t have gotten The Sopranos, Lost, 24, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and many other wonderful shows that pushed the boundaries of what TV “is.”

Twin Peaks was not the first show to push the boundaries of TV. That honor belongs to Hill Street Blues (and one of that show’s writers, Mark Frost, joined David Lynch in crafting Twin Peaks). Some might argue that All in the Family or M*A*S*H, were first, but I’m specifically talking about the hour-long TV drama. Besides, AITF and M*A*S*H still adhered to many well-worn sitcom and pre-golden era TV tropes that overrule their influence. But there were other shows that broke the mold during and after Hill Street Blues like St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting.

St. Elsewhere was a post-modern take on the “medical drama.” It starred, throughout its run, William Daniels (Mr. Feeney! And KITT from Knight Rider, of course), Ed Begley Jr. (he’s been in everything and most recently was Erin’s dad in The Office finale), and Howie Mandel (he hosted Deal or No Deal and was the voice of the eponymous “Bobby” from Bobby’s World an old FOX cartoon). It’s probably most infamous for its ending where…

**SPOILER ALERT — if you count shows that ended almost 30 years ago capable of being spoiled** …we learned that the whole show took place in the imagination of an autistic boy, Tommy Westphall, staring at a snow globe with the hospital St. Elsewhere inside of it. I’ve always been fascinated by this ending because St. Elsewhere crossed over with Homicide: Life on the Street, which in turn crossed over with other shows like Law & Order. Homicide’s Richard Beltzer’s* Detective Munch crossed over on like 10 different shows as Munch meaning that all of these shows originated in the mind of Tommy Westphall. Fascinating. **SPOILERS END**

Moonlighting was the original “will they or won’t they” drama. It had highly imaginative, spirited dialogue and “outside the box” stories (for example, they had a musical episode and a black and white episode before it was fashionable to do so). It starred pre-Die Hard Bruce Willis and was on when that movie premiered so his star had begun to rise. It also starred Cybill Shepherd, who did not become as famous, and became notoriously more and more difficult to work with on the show. As far as plot, Moonlighting was about a private detective agency run by two hot people (yes, Cybill Shepherd was hot once… and Bruce used to have hair, too) who worked with a lot of sexual tension. They eventually got together and became a cautionary tale for how not to get your leads together because all drama went out of the show. It ultimately only lasted 4 seasons. If I’m being fair, the show was run by Glenn Gordon Caron, who was also a difficult personality. He had never run a show before and scripts were usually late and changed often, right up until shooting started and even during. So, the show had a few issues. But it’s notable for sharp, clever, and well-written episodes that were meta before meta was a thing. Case in point…

**SPOILER ALERT** …the last episode of the show started like all of the others. The story was just as much about the end of the show, in the real world, as it was the plot of that particular episode. Over the course of the episode, you see crew members breaking down the set in the background of scenes. David and Maddie discuss their failed romance and the dialogue is “in-world” as much as it’s a meta-commentary on how the show has failed. You could probably say that without Moonlighting there would be no Community, which is certainly the most meta show that has ever existed. **SPOILERS END**

There are many reasons why you should watch Twin Peaks (or pick it back up if you never finished originally), but I boiled them down to five in no particular order:

5. Who Killed Laura Palmer?

She’s dead, wrapped in plastic.

That question is famous. You can type it into Google and it will tell you… so don’t do it and get spoiled. The mystery surrounding her murder is made more interesting by the details of her brief, disturbed, dark life — none of which would be self evident just by looking at the angelic beauty. This is the standard-bearer by which all TV mysteries are judged.

Also, Laura’s death and life are our windows into Twin Peaks where we learn that just like Laura, nothing is what it seems. Everyone is living at least one extra life or getting’ some on the side.

4. Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn)

Audrey Horne

‘Nuff said.

3. David Lynch

It’s less creepy when sped up.

You’ve never seen a show like Twin Peaks.

Did you like True Detective? How about Lost? Or even Game of Thrones? 

All of these shows (and more) drew something from Twin Peaks. Think about all of those long, lingering wide shots of the bizarrely beautiful Louisiana countryside that filled you with dread in True Detective. Watch Twin Peaks. Somehow David Lynch turned shots of wind blowing through trees and traffic lights at night into portents of evil. Some of the scariest imagery I’ve ever seen is from Twin Peaks — and I’m talking about skin-chilling, stomach dropping scary.

2. Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick)

See #5 “Audrey.”

1. Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan)

There’s never been a hero quite like Dale Cooper. The only things you need to know about him can be found in the below two scenes:

He’s a strange guy in a strange town investigating a strange murder.

If you’re looking for a new show to get into OR you watched Twin Peaks years ago and never finished, now is the time. The whole series is on Netflix. It’s also getting re-released on Blu-Ray along with the follow up movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It’s a great piece of TV history and addictive as hell.

Plus, Audrey, Shelly, and Donna:

Oh, to be an eligible young man in 1990…

Let me say “You’re Welcome” in advance.

I Learned Something Today

President Theodore Roosevelt

I intended this post to be merely a reference to an inspirational quote by Teddy Roosevelt. However, in the process of looking up the full quote and its context, I learned that the part of the quote often attributed to Roosevelt is actually him quoting someone else!

Here’s the full quote:

There are many kinds of success in life worth having. It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful business man, or railroad man, or farmer, or a successful lawyer or doctor; or a writer, or a President, or a ranchman, or the colonel of a fighting regiment, or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison. It may be true that he travels farthest who travels alone; but the goal thus reached is not worth reaching. And as for a life deliberately devoted to pleasure as an end — why, the greatest happiness is the happiness that comes as a by-product of striving to do what must be done, even though sorrow is met in the doing. There is a bit of homely philosophy, quoted by Squire Bill Widener, of Widener’s Valley, Virginia, which sums up one’s duty in life: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”

Catch that last part? Roosevelt was quoting Bill Widener. Who’s that? It’s not clear. Looks like Mr. Widener was just some guy that Roosevelt knew.

Like I said before, I start writing these posts with one thing in mind and other notions intrude. Maybe that’s why Titan is so long?

Nah, it’s just packed with story.

Harold Ramis

Egon cuts loose.
When I was a kid, I cannot remember how many times I watched Ghostbusters. Some good friends at work commented recently that their kids watched some movies over and over again. If I remember correctly, the movies were Madagascar and Wreck It Ralph. For me, that was Ghostbusters (and Jaws, if am being honest). I watched it again and again and again. I’m surprised that my VHS never burned out. Ghostbusters is one of those movies that I will watch to the end no matter at what point I find it playing on some cable channel.

Harold Ramis’s Dr. Egon Spangler could almost go unnoticed in Ghostbusters. In fact, when I was a kid, he did. Bill Murray soaks up all of the attention, Dan Akroyd bats clean-up, and Sigorney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and William Atherton scramble to take what’s left. Ramis’s portrayal of Egon is so dry and subdued that to a 5 or 6-year-old kid, I barely knew he was there. I knew he was weird and he was the smart guy, but nothing much registered. In fact, on the Full Screen version of the movie (no black bars at the top and bottom for the uninitiated) Egon is cut out of the walk and talk with the hotel manager of the Sedgewick—he’s too far over on the left.

Bill Murray gets all of the praise for Ghostbusters and rightfully so. He is charismatic and off-putting all at once. In some ways, he speaks for the audience—because he hasn’t really been paying attention (or caring, really) Murray’s Dr. Venkman is almost a passive character in a movie where he’s the star. And, at the end, when finally Dr. Venkman is invested and he says, “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.” The audience rallies behind him.

As I grew up, though, I started noticing Egon more and more. The bit where Peter gives him the chocolate bar (“You…you’ve earned it.”) and the look on Egon’s face is priceless. His exchange with Janine where she’s clearly coming onto him and he is so focused on setting up the computer that he can barely be bothered to speak with her is only funnier each time I watch it. Akroyd and Ramis wrote the script and they gave Egon the most ludicrous things to say:

“Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.”

Venkman: “Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole through your head. Remember that?”
Egon: “That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.”

Venkman: “You’re gonna endanger us, you’re gonna endanger our client – the nice lady, who paid us in advance, before she became a dog…”
Egon: “Not necessarily. There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.”

And my favorite is actually from Ghostbusters II:

“Psychomagnatheric. Negative human emotions are materializing into a viscous psychoreactive plasm with explosive supernormal potential.”

Oh, psychomagnatheric, right. I give the man credit for learning and memorizing the line. I mean, I have, but I’ve watched the movie 500 times.

Harold Ramis breathed life into this character. It’s an old cliché now to say “There are no small parts, just small actors.” Harold Ramis was never the star. Probably the closest he came was in Stripes. But no one ever said, “Hey, let’s go down to see that Harold Ramis movie.” He didn’t need to be the star. He played every role with dry, off-color humor and humanity. Even Egon, for as strange as he is, has humanity. I always remember his very small part in Knocked Up as Seth Rogen’s dad; he’s on screen for maybe 5 minutes total, but he brings such gravitas.

Arguably, Harold Ramis was a bigger director than actor. Lest we forget: he directed Caddyshack. Name a funnier movie, I dare you.

He also directed National Lampoon’s Vacation. He also directed Groundhog Day, which while not my favorite is a cult hit. Hell, he directed several very funny episodes of The Office (Example: the one where Michael decides to teach the office about depression by fake committing suicide by jumping onto a trampoline from the roof. After testing this, he decides a moon bounce is a better idea. This also features the Dwight “Un-shun/Re-shun” scenes with Andy).

Movies have been a big part of my life. So much of my childhood was spent watching movies. Harold Ramis was a big part of that. He figures into the formative years of my psyche. Creepy, right? I remember Ghostbusters so fondly because a.) it’s an amazing movie, and b.) its universe was a funny, terrifying, and exciting place. Caddyshack only gets funnier on repeat viewings.

Death is a strange thing. I’ve been thinking lately about how if there isn’t a God what happens to us when we die. If that’s the case, hopefully we’re remembered by our friends and our family. Maybe if we achieved something big, we’ll be in history books. Or maybe we could make three decades’ worth of iconic movies and characters and generations of people the world over will remember us. I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, I think Harold Ramis left a mark.

I’d be happy if even a small fraction of the people who Harold Ramis’s movies had an impact on remembered me as I’m sure he’ll be remembered.

Another favorite?

Egon: “I’d like to perform gynecological tests on the mother.”
Venkman: “Who wouldn’t?”

The punch line wasn’t his, but the setup was just as funny.