Case Study 21: Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, Episode 48–“Graduation”

Original Airdate: August 21st, 2011 on VH1

It’s time to consider another installment of that much-maligned genre: reality TV. Is there any better evidence that reality TV is far from monolithic than the stark contrast between this show and Comic Book Men? And that’s to say nothing of popular game show/reality TV hybrids like Top Chef.

In my entry on Men, I classified the non-game show variety of reality TV as “following around questionable celebrities,” and while that’s certainly true here it also feels rather uncharitable. No one wants to have their rehab experience televised and if your straits are sufficiently dire as to require drying out on national TV, chances are you need to leverage the slight tinge of bold associated with your name into a modest sum of money and exposure. However, this season’s cast includes one figure whose fame has always completely baffled me, and that would be Ms. Amy Fisher. 

Early in this episode, each of the people involved are given a helpful caption with their name and claim to fame, and the title given to Fisher is “tabloid celebrity.” Okay, that’s technically accurate, but one does not simply walk into tabloid celebrity. I guess it would be a little weird if the caption read “attempted murderess,” eh? For the uninitiated, Fisher was the subject of a national media firestorm when, at the age of 17, she shot her lover’s wife in the face. Was her lover anyone famous? No, he was a Long Island-based mechanic. Was her victim? Also no. And yet somehow this was enough of a story that an equally confused New York Times reporter remarked in 1999, on the occasion of Fisher’s release from prison, that his was the 233rd article in the paper of record about the sordid affair.

Maybe I’m a cynic, but doesn’t this kind of thing happen all the time? I’m sure every day somewhere in the world someone is plotting to kill the unsuspecting spouse of the person they’re having an affair with, or to kill the person that’s cheating on them, or to kill the spouse preventing them from living happily ever after with a strung-out teenager, or whatever. Adultery mixed with murder is, as Mrs. Potts would say, a tale as old as time. If it were the solution to a murder mystery on television, I’d be pissed off and bored, even if it is true to life. So why did we care about the l’affaire de Buttafouco so goddamned much? Why were there three made-for-TV movies aired on all three of the major broadcast networks?

Theories offered include: the age difference between Fisher and Mr. Buttafouco, it’s fun to say “Buttafouco,” sociopaths like Mr. Buttafouco are intrinsically interesting, the added tawdriness of Fisher’s underage prostitution, the pathos of the paralysis of the blameless Ms. Buttafouco or the fact that this whole thing happened in Long Island, in close proximity to the wake of media vultures circling New York City. Perhaps if all this shit went down in Dubuque we’d never have heard of her and Fisher wouldn’t be darkening the door of the Pasadena Recovery Center. None of these theories are really all that persuasive on their own, but perhaps when taken together they amount to something. Or perhaps not.

Strengths

  • Intimate. The conventional wisdom about reality TV is that it isn’t reality and it barely qualifies as TV. It’s true that with many standard-bearers of the genre I’d be entirely comfortable classifying them as “reality-adjacent.” I’m sure Caitlyn Jenner’s transitioning led to many conversations and conflicts amongst the Kardashians, but I feel equally sure that there is not a one-to-one correspondence to those actual conversations and conflicts and the ones that we saw play out on television. Some shows take this further, and like Marco Polo, they do violence to actual events in order to create a more satisfying narrative. The creators of Kitchen Nightmares evidently think viewers want to see all the problems affecting a failing restaurant heaped on the shoulders of a likely scapegoat rather than a clear-eyed assessment of a variety of factors creating a confluence of failure in a wintry economic climate. But Rehab bucks these conventions. I feel like it’s awfully hard to fake teary therapy breakthroughs, and when Michael Lohan collapses into sobs about how broken he feels inside and how he feels like a disgrace to his family, it feels raw and truly real. This show is startling and remarkable, because no one wants to be seen broken and at the bottom and therapy, of all places, is an arena that most people would want to keep top secret. I was prepared for this to be as seedy and tawdry as a TV movie entitled Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story, but it was actually a rare privilege to be able to peer into real moments that would otherwise be totally private and inaccessible. This is an experience that reality TV is always offering but seldom delivering.
  • Dr. Drew. The people that go on TV and the radio calling themselves “doctor” frequently offer questionable advice and equally questionable medical credentials. Much as with Gordon Ramsey, the viewer is left to wonder whether if the “expert” is sufficiently laden with conflicts of interest to no longer be capable of offering useful expertise. Dr. Drew Pinsky has been doctorin’ it up in the public eye since 1984, when he made his first appearance on the radio show Loveline as a fourth-year medical student. This doesn’t mean that Pinsky is infallible–far from it. From what I can tell, there are two critical flaws to the work that he does on Rehab and in his other media properties. By their very nature, they’re exploitative. At the start of this season, Fisher bristles at the prospect of receiving treatment at Pasadena Recovery Center, because she’s had “cameras shoved in [her] face” since she was a kid. If your patient is someone reeling from the trauma of intense, unkind media scrutiny, perhaps it’s an additional risk factor to put her on a fucking reality show? Pinsky rationalizes this by saying that without compromising the patient’s treatment in this way, he could never get his messages out about addiction in the first place. Pinsky’s second major failing is equally serious, but it’s far from unique or unusual even among non-televised medical practitioners: reliance on 12-step programs. Even more perplexing, Pinsky seems to have some sort of problem with proven maintenance drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, which is where we get into legitimately dangerous malpractice territory as opposed to widespread if ignorant treatment methods like 12-step. (If I had seen evidence of the former on the episode that I watched he wouldn’t be in the positive column.) So Dr. Drew may epitomize everything that’s wrong with the rehab industry in this country, but his practices are in line with generally accepted medical wisdom and he’s not an asshole trying to suck all the air out of the room abusing his patients in the name of tough love, which already has him 10,000 miles ahead of Drs. Phil and Oz. After researching him and American rehab in general, I’d think twice about recommending that anyone I love go to a rehab center that does nothing but AA, but he didn’t want to make me throw my shoe at the TV, and that’s the quality we strive for here at Oryx & Cake Boss. In all seriousness, Pinsky comes off as genuinely caring and reasonably intelligent and given the low standard of public intellectualism around medicine on TV, I’m willing to damn him with the faint praise seen above. I’m more sympathetic to Pinsky around the issue that led him to stop making the show. He stepped down due to exasperation at constant public criticism after his patients succumbed to their addictions. Sure, he leans heavily on ineffective 12-step programs, but I’m willing to bet 99% of the other doctors in your insurance network will lean on them as well. Sure, he puts traumatized, suffering people on television, but it’s not like that’s being done without the patient’s consent. Pinsky is a symptom of a much larger problem, and that’s an American criminal justice system that turns people with an illness into felons and an American health care system that prioritizes profit over patients. Hacks like Phil and Oz compound the problems with emotional abuse and snake oil, but Pinsky seems to be doing his genuine best. Even if he were using best practices–even if it were possible to do that while actively opposed by the criminal justice system, the healthcare industry and the media–that’s still no guarantee that patients wouldn’t die or relapse. When they leave his clinic, they’re no longer in his care and are free to make their own decisions. It’s got to be tremendously painful to see patients you care about lose the fight against addiction. It can only be worse when everyone rushes to blame you for their mistakes, even if one of their mistakes was agreeing to be a part of your three-ring circus in the first place.
  • Empathy-building. I suppose this strength depends heavily on the mindset of the viewer, but Rehab does its best to discourage your impulse to be shitty and judgmental. Of course, there are still plenty of opportunities. Some of these folks have a very tenuous claim on celebrity–on one end of the spectrum you have 1980s baseball superstar Dwight Gooden, and on the other hand you have Jessica Kiper, third place contestant in season 17 of Survivor and 20th place contestant in season 20. The celebrities are obviously at a low point in their lives, and it’s easy to imagine people snickering as Michael Lohan storms out of the rehab to have a screaming match in the parking lot with his now wife Kate Major. It’s also easy to imagine the transition between derisive judgment and angry judgment. Most people who go through rehab aren’t lucky enough to do it in a posh facility in Pasadena, complete with equine therapy. It’s always easy for people sitting at home on the couch to throw icy shade over someone else’s bad decisions and delusions. On the other hand, Rehab is just as likely to have the opposite effect. The fact that these people are united by a brief moment in the spotlight fades into the background and you begin to see what truly unites them is a deep well of pain and suffering. You see them making a sincere and earnest effort to confront their problems, and a quick journey to Wikipedia tells you that some will fail. One particularly depressing example has the staff of the rehab center insisting to Lohan that unless he addresses his anger issues in tandem with his alcoholism, he’ll hit Kate Major and go to jail for domestic violence. In return, he insists that this won’t happen, despite the fact that he’s nearly gotten arrested twice before for domestic violence. Wikipedia: “On October 25th, 2011, Lohan was arrested in a suspected domestic violence incident in Tampa, Florida, involving his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate Major.” And yet despite the fact that he’s a hurricane of poison tearing his family’s life apart, and despite the fact that an abusive partner is the last person in the universe that I’d have any sympathy or pity for, Rehab brings me closer than I’d ever be likely to come otherwise. Seeing the pain on his face as he struggles to reckon with the mess he’s made of his life is difficult, even if his choices were his own. If he were a fictional character, I’d most likely look on him more harshly, but knowing that he’s a real person trying to be better makes it all the more painful. The show becomes sadder when you realize how it’s impossible to try and heal the pain on display in 28 days, and how focusing solely on addiction is in some cases trying to remodel the bathroom of a house collapsing into a sinkhole. An inherent failure of mental health care in our society is that it can only address itself to the individual, even when the individual’s pathologized response is completely reasonable. Bai Ling (The Crow) tells of her miserable childhood enlisted as an entertainer in China’s People’s Liberation Army, plied with alcohol, raped by officers and impregnated all before making it out of her teens. Jesus, who wouldn’t self-medicate in that situation? As hard as Sean Young (Blade Runner) is trying to get sober, she’s going straight home to a husband who’s also a raging alcoholic. Even though he makes a commitment to try and dry out for her sake, it’s hard to feel very optimistic. And these are struggles just one level above the personal. It’s hardly shocking that Jeremy Jackson (Baywatch) got addicted to steroids and believes that all of his value and self-worth is tied to appearance. He works in an industry that ties the value and worth of its workers to appearance. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Kiper, Ling and Young rue the fact that their addictions got in the way of their careers, but Hollywood treats young women as disposable flavors of the month anyway, while we’re still being subjected to Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Matt Damon decades into their careers. Add that to the fact that Ling is a woman of color in an industry that almost never casts women of color in starring roles in major films and it seems particularly hopeless to imagine that booming careers would have been right around the corner, if only.

Weaknesses

  • Sentimental. It was fortunate that this was the episode I watched, since the main focus was the celebrities reading letters they wrote to their addictions and then throwing them into a fire as a purgative exercise. To accompany their recitations, the producers showed us clips recapping their “arc” during their stay at the center. This could have been cheesy, but it was useful in putting a capstone on their rehab experience, for good or for bad. What was entirely unnecessary, however, was the sappy montage at the end of the episode, set to the strains of some medium-beige VH1 generic adult contemporary sludge. Especially gratuitous is the fact that the montage includes a clip of Dwight Gooden tearfully reading his letter that aired ten minutes earlier. The first 15 minutes of the episode feature an interlude where Pinsky brings in three previous celebrity patients to offer guidance and wisdom about what happens when you leave rehab. This could have been interesting and valuable, but what happens instead is that most of the time slotted for these celebrities is showing clips of their time at the center, complete with highs and lows. Receiving special attention is Tiger Woods mistress Rachel Uchitel, whose pain stems from losing her fiance on 9/11. We see an extended sequence of her own purgative-letter-writing experience from Season 4, complete with throwing said letter into the middle of a lake. What does this have to do with her post-rehab experience? Oh, absolutely nothing. Does it teach any of the assembled rehab participants anything? Nope. Why is it here? To make you cry. This show already has enough of a legitimate claim to pathos without trying to milk it like an aging Guernsey.

Motivation: These people are quite literally fighting for survival, and sadly, the history of the show has taught us that there are some who won’t win.

Final Episode Judgment: Provided you can look past Pinsky’s ineffectual if mainstream addiction treatment philosophy and are willing to keep a box of tissues handy, Rehab (or at least this episode) is worth watching if inessential. 7/10.

NEXT TIME: As you know, I can’t get enough of obscure children’s programming, so I’ll be checking out Angelina Ballerina.

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Case Study 21: Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, Episode 48–“Graduation”

Reviewing Random Episodes: Monsters We Met, So Little Time, Comic Book Men

The embarrassment of riches on television these days has gotten to the point where the CEOs of television networks are complaining to the media.

Part of me thinks Landgraf’s complaints are a bit strange—Isn’t it a good thing to have lots of different options that can speak to lots of different people? Predicting the demise of TV’s golden age because your new Billy Crystal vehicle flopped reeks of California’s sourest grapes. The entertainment industry has always been mercurial and this business you hear about how “back in the day shows had time to hit their stride” sound a lot like contemporary myth-making about the good old days. Capitalists love the free market until their pet project fails, and then we get this schoolyard whining about how robust and diverse competition is unfair.

But there’s also a grain of truth. There really is quite a lot of critically acclaimed, high quality television out there, and we’re well and clear past the point of water-cooler TV. It’s another example of how the zeitgeist has shattered into a million pieces in the age of the Internet—these days, everyone has options that offer unique appeals to their tastes and interests. (See also: pop music. Movies have too much overhead and still veer to an imagined mainstream, which is why you hear so many people talk about how TV has gotten so much more compelling than film.)

And that’s if we’re just talking about new, high-profile, widely lauded American TV shows. Once you start digging into international TV, your options grow exponentially. There’s also tons of older shows on Netflix and other streaming services begging for your attention, and every time you talk to a friend you’re likely to come away with 5 new recommendations. The preponderance of different narratives on offer makes TV look a lot less like TV and a lot more like books—millions of options for millions of readers. Someone with an interest in pop culture these days has to devote serious thought to what they’ll consume next—at least, if they’re as obsessive as me.

I already have nerdy, intricate systems in place for deciding what book I’ll read for pleasure next—because otherwise I’ll spend the second half of the book I’m reading now agonizing over it—as well as systems for new movies and music to check out. TV, however, was the case I couldn’t crack. I couldn’t come up with any hard and fast rules about how far back I’d go, how much of a series I’d watch, how I’d pick those shows, and how I could do that while including the mostly unknown options being cranked out all over the world, both in English and in other languages. Hell, the extensive variety of anime alone is enough to drive a person like me berserk.

So I’ve put a system in place that will expose me to completely random TV–the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ll take this blog along for the ride and write reviews of each episode I watch.

Since it’s me we’re talking about, though, there have to be some rules.

  • One episode at a time—also randomly selected. This means I won’t have to watch all 119 episodes of Sister, Sister back to back. I love my readers, but I don’t love you that much. This presents its own complications for today’s fast-paced, can’t miss an episode mega-dramas where each episode is a single chapter in an endless novel, but I hereby swear to do my due diligence and thoroughly research every show I drop into so I know who the players are and what the overarching story is so I can offer a fair assessment.
  • Some kinds of TV shows are simply too impractical to cover. Anything that airs a new episode every day is out, whether it’s Maury, JeopardySportscenter, The Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, whatever. It’s not that I’m not interested in these shows—well, I don’t care about Sportscenter—but that it would be impossible for me to actually find a random episode of Jeopardy from 1996, so I couldn’t use the same democratic technique of randomness. Even though it’s a weekly, 60 Minutes and its ilk are also out. A rule of thumb: If Wikipedia or a similar source doesn’t have a numbered episode list, it’s pretty much not viable. This doesn’t mean I’m adverse to covering current events programming or non-fiction, but it has to be discrete enough to fit in this framework. Frontline works, Newshour does not. As you’ll see, the very first episode I’m reviewing is non-fiction. This also means traditional daily game shows of all stripes aren’t going to work, but reality TV game shows are up for grabs (see more about those below.)
  • Obviously if I can’t find some way to watch a show, it’s not going to be possible.
  • I’ll do my best to give every episode a fair hearing on its own terms. For shows I’ve never seen before—like all three of the episodes I’m reviewing tonight—it’ll also serve as a de facto review of the show, since it’s my first impression of the entire series. I’ll try and get a sense from research about how representative it might be, especially if it’s one of those intricate mega-dramas I talked about above. If it’s something I’m already familiar with, I’ll obviously be able to provide more context and perspective.
  • I’m totally fine with covering multiple episodes from the same show, should the gods of random chance dictate thus.

Let’s get this party started.

Case Study 1: Monsters We Met, Episode 1–“Eternal Frontier”
Original Airdate: April 8th, 2003 on BBC

This also aired in the US on Animal Planet under the name Land of Lost Monsters. It appears from the muddled Wikipedia page that there were some changes made, including new narration from an American, because who wants to listen to some snotty British person narrate a BBC documentary, I guess? Why settle for Ian Holm, the acclaimed star of stage and screen, when you can get the guy that played the crooked cop that was in league with Jack Palance in Batman? Clearly I don’t understand this business—how dare Animal Planet disrespect Bilbo Baggins! Anyway, Land of Lost Monsters also featured footage borrowed from other BBC documentaries about prehistory. I’m not sure how transformative the changes actually were, since I watched the BBC version.

This is part one of a three-part historical documentary about encounters between early humans and megafauna. It centers on North America; the second and third installments focus on Australia and New Zealand, respectively. I imagine this was produced along with a rash of similar BBC programming on prehistory in the wake of the astronomical success of BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs as narrated by Kenneth Branagh in 1999.

Strengths

  • Interesting Subject Matter. You see lots of documentaries of this stripe about dinosaurs (with many latter-day examples inspired by the Branagh series) and you see lots of documentaries about nature in the modern world, but I haven’t seen anything that specifically talks about megafauna, which is a shame because it really is a fascinating topic. Kudos on that!
  • Educational. This serves as an appealing introduction to this topic for the unfamiliar. I happen to have spent some time reading about megafauna recently, so the facts discussed here didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but this wouldn’t be out of place in a classroom or in the living room of anyone interested in prehistory.
  • Comprehensive. Admittedly we have limited knowledge about this subject and have to make a lot of intelligent inferences, but this does hit the most interesting points and is able to paint a mostly complete picture. I do have some quibbles—I was disappointed to see that this series doesn’t touch on Eurasia/Africa at all. North America, Australia and New Zealand are widely considered to be the hot spots of interaction between megafauna and early humans, but I think there’s enough to talk about with Eurasia/Africa to have eked out another episode. This doesn’t mention that mammoth migrated over the Bering Strait land-bridge and that these animals may have been familiar to the Clovis, for instance, so that’s a bit of a blind spot. As I’ll mention below, the series’ commitment to dramatization and narrative seems to wed it to Montana specifically, which also limits the scope—the speed with which the early settlers explored the breadth of the Americas from Canada to the Tierra del Fuego is remarkable, and “Frontier” doesn’t touch on that. Still, these are minor complaints about a take on the subject that is really quite thorough in 45 minutes while also being entertaining.

Weaknesses

  • Unnecessary Dramatization. I’m aware that this is a common downfall of television documentaries, but it seems even more ridiculous in light of how little actual information we have about the Clovis. On the other hand, that very fact makes the dramatization all the more appealing for the creators—it’s harder for the viewers to wrap their mind around a subject where there’s so many questions, so why not make some intelligent guesses and make up some people with a fake language and fake names and give them a story? My answer to that would be that every minute we spend watching the adventures of Xi’yuu and friends is time we could spend learning about something real. I’m also a little dubious about the amount of lipstick and eyebrow plucking this woman from 14,000 years ago appears to enjoy.
  • Cheesy SFX. This feels a little unfair to me even as I write it, because I’m sure the producers did the best with what they had. Still, the saber-toothed cat running to catch its prey looks so laughably fake that it really does take you out of the moment. I think a big reason people watch these documentaries about prehistory instead of just reading a book is the thrill of actually getting to see the animals. This is a big part of why Walking With Dinosaurs was such a hit (although perhaps if I ever review that I’ll be similarly dismayed.) Monsters does not provide those thrills. A big part of this is just bad timing—if this series had been made 10 years later, it would be a whole different ballgame. And I’m sure the resources of the folks at the BBC were not unlimited here—it’s not like they’re working with a Jurassic Park level budget.

Final Judgment: 6/10. If you’re interested in this topic, I doubt there’s a better television documentary out there. If you’re just looking generally for a TV documentary, this will probably fall more towards the bottom of the to-watch list, as it’s hardly essential for the average viewer. It’s well-done for what it is, though.

Case Study 2: So Little Time, Episode 24–“Look Who’s Talking”
Original Airdate: March 23rd, 2002 on ABC Family

This is the second and last TV series starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in the wake of their wholesome early 90s megahit Full House. In view of the news that Full will be revitalized on Netflix under the unfortunate name Fuller House, Nickelodeon has apparently scooped up the rights to a substantial chunk of the Olsen back catalog and are airing this show in the hot and unforgiving light of 2015.  As you’ll see…this isn’t a great decision on their part.

Let’s talk a bit about the Olsens. Thrust into the limelight at 6 months old, they took turns playing the role of cutie-pie Michelle Tanner on Full due to those darn labor laws that say you can’t make a toddler shoot 18 hour days for scale. (Ah, just kidding—they were probably making a lot more than that. I sure hope so, anyway!) They’re the archetypal child stars of my generation and this was just one stop on a gravy train whose returns increasingly diminished the further away they got from the halcyon days of the Tanner household. Mary-Kate has been forthright with the press about how her under-18 career was entertainment and not acting, though there’s no word on how she looks back on her blip of an adult career, featuring a serviceable but forgettable stint on Weeds and a role in 1990s period piece (how appropriate) The Wackness as someone named “Union.” Both the Olsen twins have since retired from the acting biz (though there are threats that they are “teetering” re. a decision to appear in Fuller) and have established themselves as quite successful businesswomen in the upscale fashion industry. Their couture brand The Row has been well-received by the fashion world, and if you’ve got $200 to spare, you can snap up an Olsen-designed no-frills Made In The USA t-shirt at Barney’s, so it sounds like they’re arrived to me. (Though to paraphrase Marge Simpson, fashion is none of my business.) It sounds like the twins have found their calling and are doing quite well for themselves; Mary-Kate is even married to Nicolas Sarkozy’s half-brother. I wonder if their younger selves would be surprised that their baby sister Elizabeth would be the Olsen to walk away with a serious acting career; I wonder when they realized that their own acting careers had peaked at the age of 5; I wonder what they think of Bojack Horseman. Eh, there’s too much good TV these days—they probably don’t watch it.

Strengths

  • Urk. I really don’t want this project to turn into “Oryx Shits All Over Obscure TV Shows.” I really don’t. I want this to be about uncovering hidden gems and curiosities in the vast tapestry of television content. I know people put love, sweat and hard work into this (though actually being able to see the hard work in the finished project is a bit elusive in this case.) Time, however, is truly terrible. A big part of this project will be to find the quality in forgotten dreck, but the scale has to have a low end. So I guess it’s good that we’re getting it out of the way early? And make no mistake: I don’t feel this way because I’m prejudiced against kids’ TV. Stories for and about kids can be just as good as things pitched at adults. A story doesn’t have to have nudity and violence and swearing to be compelling. (Looking at you, HBO.) Even light fare like Time can be a showcase for great performances, witty writing, amusing situations and complex characterization. But this truly ain’t it, folks.

Weaknesses

  • Clip Show. A clip show isn’t ideal at the best of times, but I’m a bit baffled as to how a clip show came to exist in the first (and only) season of this show with a scanty 23 prior episodes to draw on. I suspect that the twins and the other producers (yep, the Olsens had EP credits—every great show has two fifteen-year-olds on the senior production staff) saw the writing on the wall, knew that posterity was not in the offing and that the curtain was soon to fall. Still, this could have played to Time’s advantage: this could have been an exhibition of all the series’ highlights and best moments, revealing Time at its best. For all I know, this is what they did. If so, I cringe for all the Nickelodeon viewers out there being exposed to the full run at a tender age.
  • Unfunny. At exactly one point in this supposed collection of highlights from a comedy show did I make a noise somewhat resembling laughter. (I guess I’d peg it somewhere between a chuckle and a snicker.) We were treated to a montage of Ashley’s character Chloe trying to get neighbor Travis (Brandon Tyler) to notice her by attempting different poses on a patio that Travis kept walking past. The culmination of this montage featured Chloe laid out like an odalisque atop the skinny railing, and of course she promptly fell off. A good sight gag/slapstick one-two punch is the kind of comedy bread & butter this show needed. Instead, the show relies on cliche: look, here’s the flamboyant, sassy, scenery-chewing housekeeper Manuelo (Taylor Negron, The Last Boy Scout) wearing a dress. Har har! Men aren’t supposed to wear dresses! To make it even better, he’s wearing a thong, which gives him an opportunity to deploy his dumb catchphrase! Oh, look, here’s a montage of him saying the dumb catchphrase! Another tepid cliche is on full display as we watch Chloe leave an increasingly painful series of answering machine messages for Travis.
  • Reactionary. Allow me to put forward a hypothesis that I believe we’ll have an opportunity to test again and again in this project: reactionary politics are the watchword of lazy comedy. The big offender here is rape culture, which I’ll get into momentarily, but a bit on queer politics—Manuelo is clearly coded as queer, but of course he’s not textually queer. This leads us to a interesting tidbit of Time trivia. The internet tells me of another episode of this show where the girls’ dad Jake (Eric Lutes, Caroline In The City) is chatting with their Annoying Friend Larry (Jesse Head.) Jake is recounting a moment when he saw a movie featuring a woman in a strapless dress and he was fascinated by the question of how the dress was able to stay on. Larry asks, “Is that when you knew you wanted to be a fashion designer?” Jake says that no, he wondered if he was gay. Wokka wokka. Nickelodeon decided that joke was too edgy for 2015 and cut the gag. Hooray for puritanical homophobia! On to gender. There’s a moment where a character named Tedi who works as a model (Natashia Williams, She Spies) laments the fact that she was unable to signal a wildfire rescue copter by virtue of her sexy body. There’s another moment where Manuelo responds to breakfast chat from the women in the family with “I feel like I’m watching The View!”…because, you know, if a group of women are talking it’s remarkable enough to make hack jokes about. But the really glaring thing here is two separate montages on the topic of how it is charming and endearing to perpetually harass people who have made it entirely clear that they want nothing to do with your misguided affections. I guess I should be pleased that both male (Larry) and female (Chloe) characters are given the opportunity to be gross and creepy.
  • Teaspoon-shallow characterization. The way this particular clip show is set up, each of the major cast members is given a montage of memorable moments. Chloe and Riley (Mary-Kate) come across as complete ciphers, since they are the object and the subject of the above-mentioned celebrations of rape culture—Chloe harasses Travis, Larry harasses Riley. Hilarity is meant to ensue. Jake’s montage is about how he’s in touch with his sensitive side. Manuelo gets to say his catchphrase about a million fucking times & the show is brazen enough to lampshade the fact that they had no idea what to do with mom Macy (Clare Carey, Coach.) Eventually they settle on a half-hearted montage of her losing her cool (just because, you know, her, Jake and Tedi are trapped in a wildfire.)
  • Laziness to the nth degree. This is really the disease of which all of the above are merely symptoms. It’s probably pretty clear by now some of the many ways this show is as lazy as a ground sloth being hunted by the Clovis, but let’s enumerate a few more. Some of the choices made around the clips are baffling. We get to see Jake doing yoga, and the “punchline” is that he follows the directions on the tape, which instruct him to congratulate himself out loud for the good job he is doing with the yoga. Okay? Is that really one of the highlights of the show? I’m kind of afraid that it is, even though it’s not really a joke so much as a slice of life. And not a very interesting slice, either. The writers and actors struggle with the punchlines—this episode begins with a big set-up: all the family members see something on their TV that horrifies them and they immediately run to one another. It seems like it might be a natural disaster—they’re not sure how long it’ll be until things return to normal, they think they’d be safer in Santa Monica but the freeway would be clogged with others panicking for the same reason, etc. It turns out that the cable is out. This is a big punchline on a silver platter that they spend a significant amount of time setting up, and they totally bury it with only a brief chortle from the laugh track. This let me know early on that I was not in good hands. The more superficial details of the show are also puzzling in their incompetence: the musical cues are terrible (the theme song is particularly wince-inducing,) the set dressing is off-putting (why does their house have newsroom clocks?) and the view out the windows is jarring in its lack of realism—the Carlsons live in an ocean-front property, so you expect to see ocean out the window, but here’s what you see instead. There’s a difference between living in a beach house and living on a boat.

Final Judgment: 0/10. Run, don’t walk from this turkey—currently a revenant stalking the halls of Nickelodeon. Really, it was cruel of them to bring this back from the grave.

Case Study 3: Comic Book Men, Episode 6–“Ink”
Original Airdate: March 18th, 2012 on AMC

Since this is our inaugural study of reality TV, a preamble on that subject before we dig in to the particulars. As the folks at the Emmys have taken note of, there are really two types of reality TV—there’s the modern day game show where Regular People are brought together to win a contest of some sort. Think Survivor, The Amazing Race, American Idol, Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Top Chef. Staples of the genre, these shows have an intrinsic hook and are often quite fun. People who are otherwise reality TV snobs—and we all know them—tend to be a bit more forgiving of this genre, since there is a clearly defined point to the drama that plays out on the screen. The Bachelor is the black sheep of this family, I think.

Then there’s the other kind of reality TV, where we follow around a questionable celebrity (Kathy Griffin, Kardashians, Flavor Flav) or a group of allegedly interesting people in some subculture or another (the quirky staff of an animal rescue shelter, the staff of a black owned and operated tattoo parlor, ice road truckers, inebriated Southerners) as they go about their day to day lives. As far as the snobs are concerned, this is what makes reality TV irredeemable.

Comic Book Men flaunts these genres, to a certain extent. There’s a group of allegedly interesting people who work at or hang around a comic book store. There’s a questionable celebrity in the form of future Hollywood Square Kevin Smith (dir. Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.) There’s also the game show aspect pioneered by proto-reality show Antiques Roadshow and more latterly by Pawn Star. Comic’s genesis is somewhat interesting—AMC is one of those TV networks whose name literally used to stand for something but subsequently pivoted into a different format. In 2003 they shed their past as “American Movie Classics” to devote more attention to original programming. They’ve had a few mega-hits: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead. Two of those have increasingly popular spin-offs. (Sadly, the Mad Men spinoff I dream of was not to be after Peggy rejected Joan’s offer to run a production company together. I want to live in the timeline where Holloway, Harris & Olson is real. I want that more than anything. Single tear.) They also have a wide back bench of also-rans and hopeful up and comers. And up until 2014, they had a healthy slate of reality shows, all of which got brutally massacred with the exception of this show and Chris Hardwick’s Talking Dead. Aren’t you thrilled that there are three separate shows that allow you to immerse yourself in a universe where a hellscape of shambling corpses constantly threaten to eat your children? Also, Talking Dead sounds like a joke show. Perhaps the fact that these are the two shows that survived signals that the Podcast Revolution has arrived at last, since Hardwick is of course emperor of The Nerdist podcast networkWhich brings me to my next point…

Comic started its life as Kevin Smith’s podcast. Take it away, Wikipedia: “Filmmaker Kevin Smith was drawn to television through his love of podcasting, through which he says he realized his true calling: telling stories with words rather than pictures.” I can think of two things wrong with that sentence. 1) This filmmaker realized his true calling was telling stories with words rather than pictures? and 2) This realization led him to create a TV show? But here we are.

Strengths

  • Entertaining appraisal of comic book memorabilia/depiction of ensuing negotiations.  This is positively fascinating! I’m an unabashed lover of Antiques and narrowing the focus to the wide and deep comics market is a great move. It’s always interesting to see the variety of objects that people bring in to have assessed. We get to see how that assessment transpires and how value is determined. Adding the haggling component is also a good decision because it allows us to see the flexibility of value and it gives us a better sense of the investment the parties have, as well as their connection with each other. It’s very fruitful ground—my favorite exchange in this episode is between manager Walt Flanagan and a customer whose appearance Walt compares to Kirk Cameron. Flanagan and the customer instantly form a warm bond over the comics that the customer has brought to the store, which include several very valuable items as well as a classic Alan Moore story, “The Killing Joke,” and an issue of Steve Ditko’s landmark title “Mr. A.” (Weirdly, Smith hadn’t heard of this. Dude, you own a comic book store and I’ve heard of “Mr. A.” And I am hardly a comics nerd—I felt my eyes glazing over as the group discussed which specific superhero team formation was their favorite because there were so many heroes I was unfamiliar with. Comics nerds have endlessly fertile fields to trawl.) Caustic hanger-on Bryan Johnson jokes that Flanagan is desperate to be friends with the customer. The customer and Flanagan finalize their transaction by sharing an awkward hug over the counter, which Johnson later mocks. This kind of moment is gold for an appraisal show like this. For better or worse, however, the show spends a lot of time on things that aren’t appraising.
  • Kevin Smith himself.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, as he’s obviously the reason this exists, Smith is the most charming person on this show. I don’t think his movies are very good (I was greatly amused to see a poster for Jersey Girl hanging in a place of prominence in the store, memorabilia which Miramax is thanked for providing in the credits) but every time he was on the screen I found myself smiling and wishing we could spend more time with him. He only appears in the segments of the show where the group are recording the podcast, which is unfortunate because that’s one of the most questionable parts of the show. However, Smith is a saving grace in these segments, despite the fact that it looks like he always wears the same shirt. I hope he has 50 of them, because otherwise he probably smells. And I don’t want to imagine him smelling bad, because I want him to be as cool to hang out with as he is on TV.
  • Amusing moments. One of the potential strengths of this flavor of reality TV is the ability to let funny moments float to the surface organically. Of course, we’re all cynical about how staged and over-produced reality TV is, but if the production isn’t obtrusive and gets out of the way, real-life moments can shine through. Two examples, both stemming from the episode’s main “plot” about the staff getting tattoos together: Smith tells an anecdote about getting drunk on pink Zinfandel while working on Clerks and subsequently getting a tattoo of what turned out to be the wrong character from “Alice In Wonderland,” and a moment in the tattoo parlor: Comic store employee Mike Zapcic asks the tattoo artist if people ever ask for comic themed tattoos. The artist replies that people do ask for the big names—Superman, Batman, Spiderman. Zapcic says, “That’s cool.” Artist: “Eh. I guess.” Ha!

Weaknesses

  • Reactionary. Oh, Jesus, here we go again with this shit. Let’s look at the genesis of the tattoo plot—a customer comes in with a lot of tats and when he leaves this becomes the subject of discussion. Johnson recalls an incident where Flanagan vowed to get a New Jersey Devils tattoo should they win a championship, and when they proceeded to win, Flanagan backed out of his pledge after it turned out his wife wasn’t happy with the idea (though she did have to bribe him.) This leads to a lot of hay being made over the fact that Flanagan is pussy-whipped just because his partner wants to have some input in a major decision. Ugh. More along these lines floats up when Johnson mocks employee Ming Chen for being short, pointing out that while Chen is sitting his feet don’t quite touch the floor. Johnson compares him to Lily Tomlin doing her Edith Ann bit. (Boy, these guys are really in touch with the youth culture.) This sexist bullshit climaxes when Flanagan refuses to purchase a customer’s special edition superhero Barbie dolls. It’s not that they don’t sell toys—there’s fucking Walking Dead figurines on sale right next to the goddamn register. (Nice synergy, AMC. Also prominently displayed: Walking Dead comics, because of course. Right next to the Clerks comics.) As becomes clear in a podcasting segment (where Smith rightfully calls Flanagan on his egregious bullshit,) the only reason Flanagan won’t buy the Barbies is because they’re Barbies. They’re for girls. I guess this show is called Comic Book Men for a reason. Let’s not forget the racism, heaped unilaterally on perennial punching bag Chen—in a conversation about who would prevail in a fight between Chen and Johnson, Johnson says he’d take on Chen and Jet Li at the same time. An Asian customer comes into the store shortly thereafter and when asked for his opinion he says he’d back Chen out of racial solidarity. Johnson announces that both Chen and the customer are “racists.” Later, when Chen is showing the others the design for the family crest he eventually ends up getting tattooed on his back. He hands the small piece of paper that it’s on to Flanagan, who likens it to “something out of a fortune cookie.” Enchanté.
  • Unlikable characters, apart from Smith. Admittedly, we don’t spend a lot of time with Chen and Zapcic, so I’m not 100% sure how I feel about them. Flanagan, however, is completely unappealing. In addition to being a sexist asshole, he’s also a windbag. He loves to brag about his negotiating tactics in the podcast segments. He tries to spin his geeky bonhomie with the Kirk Cameron-esque guy into a scenario where Flanagan is “sneaking up on an unsuspecting elk.”  As we see, however, his negotiating prowess amounts to having to take a complete pass on the rare issues the guy brought into the store in exchange for giving him $12 for “The Killing Joke” and “Mr. A.” Yeah, what a master negotiator. The AV Club calls Johnson “mordant” and forecasts that he will be a “breakout star.” I think the word I’d use is simply “asshole.” A woman comes into the store looking for a gift for her boyfriend. In response, Johnson proclaims that if she’s looking for a thoughtful gift, “the honeymoon’s over,” despite her protests that they’ve been seeing each other for a mere four months. Later, when she balks at spending more than $100 on two comic books, (Flanagan protests too much on the podcast about not trying to soak her as a novice buyer, and of course he doesn’t suggest any option that’s within her price range) Johnson crows about how she doesn’t think her boyfriend is worth more than that. People love to carp about how Kim Kardashian doesn’t “deserve” to be famous or on television, but here’s the thing about her: people like her. She’s charming. She’s fun to watch. People want to spend their limited amount of TV time with her. Conventional wisdom is that reality TV needs “villains,” but this is asinine. This isn’t Wacky Races and I don’t need Dick Dastardly plotting in the background. That’s a bug, not a feature. Smith brings charm and humor to the show, but jagoffs like Flanagan and Johnson suck the air out of the room.
  • Bad banter. I have a friend (who is incidentally heavily tattooed) and once we were listening to sports radio in anticipation of her boyfriend being interviewed in an upcoming segment. She took the opportunity to bemoan banter of any stripe, calling it the bane of her existence. “Say something or don’t—but don’t act like you’re doing me a favor by giving me a window into your inane chit-chat.” Now, this is somewhat of an extreme position. Obviously she is not a part of the Podcast Revolution. But a show like this makes me see where she’s coming from. I’m not exactly surprised to hear geeky talking points about the merits of the Superfriends or the mechanics of the Green Lantern’s power batteries, but the tepid riffing we get here adds nothing, even if you care about the Superfriends or the Green Lantern. Can we leave spitballing about the kid-friendliness of The Munsters vs. The Addams Family in Smith’s shitty movies where they belong? This does make me wonder about an alternate universe where Tarantino’s career sputtered out after Reservoir Dogs, Netflix was never invented and he wound up on reality TV managing a custom-branded video store. Vincent & Jules’ Secret Stash. File that next to Holloway, Harris & Olson, I guess.

Final Judgment: 4/10. This show has some robust strengths, but its flaws make it something I won’t voluntarily return to. If the idea of a Pawn Stars with comic books and Smith compels you enough that you’re willing to put up with some rancid bros in a hastily stitched-together Frankenstein of a show designed to keep people watching AMC after The Walking Dead have stalked off into the sunset, you’ve met your match.

NEXT TIME: Dead Like Me and others!

Reviewing Random Episodes: Monsters We Met, So Little Time, Comic Book Men