Let’s hear it for mediocrity!

Like many busy people, I spend roughly 40 percent of my waking life wasting time on the internet. The problem: The many commentators and reviewers who pollute the internet only ever talk about good TV shows and movies. Nobody wants to talk about the mediocre ones!

It’s a challenge, and I accept it.

“Apollo Gauntlet” (Adult Swim, 2017)

This defiantly stupid Canadian import began as a YouTube series and was picked up for a six-episode test run, a bit like “MDE Presents: World Peace,” but with less alt-right transgressions and more dumb pop culture references. Myles Langlois’s vision was a parody of the detritus of 1980s D&D culture, sort of resembling the infamous CD-based “Zelda” game cutscenes but with choppier animation. Upgraded for a mass audience, it even more closely evokes those “Zelda” comes, some of the most immediately hate-watchable entertainment of my generation.

The show itself is… fine? Langlois himself plays Paul Cassidy/Apollo Gauntlet, whose fortuitous discovery of magic talking gauntlets transforms him into the superhero for a generic fantasy world. His delivery is one of the best things about the show, lazy and distracted. It’s a bit like “One Punch Man,” a much, much superior show, in that the humor comes not from setbacks but from a hero laconically conquering every challenge he comes across.

I enjoyed the randomness of everything else, and the voice acting owns; Betsy Sodaro, a UCB veteran with a voice like a clogged paper shredder, is particularly good as the most competent member of the adventuring crew Gauntlet stumbles into leading. But too often, the jokes consist of out-of-place references and little follow-through. One example: When Gauntlet teams up with Dr. Benign, the James Urbaniak-voiced villain who sent him to this word, Benign suggests a plan that will be “just like ‘Shadow of the Collossus.'” It’s a video game, get it?

The punchline, delivered by Gauntlet: “Nobody understands your pop culture references.”

That’s it. Fine stoner entertainment, but not much more. Binge-watching will get you maybe through half an edible.

“I’m Dying Up Here” (Showtime, 2017)

My favorite hate-watch of 2017, a deeply flawed show packed with enough funny performances that I keep turning it on and suppressing my groans. Based loosely on what’s supposed to be a very good book about the alt-comedy scene in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, the show’s set largely in the fictional Goldie’s, owned by — get this — a woman named Goldie, played by Melissa Leo with dramatic chops and a lot of corny dialogue. Goldie’s is basically The Comedy Store, which, fortunately for set designers, has not changed since the 1970s.

Goldie presides over a sophisticated comedy slave trade, where comics work for no pay for the right to hone their acts and maybe catch the eyes of producers. The plotlines that don’t resolve around personal drama usually focus on the workability of this scheme, which, in the pilot episode, is complicated by a comedian (Sebastian Stan) getting a big break on “The Tonight Show” and then killing himself, because there was nowhere to go but down.

God help me, I was compelled to keep watching, mostly because of the performances that anchor the b-plots. The a-plots are often excruciating, usually involving Bill (Andrew Santino), Nick (Jack Lacy), and Cassie (Ari Gaynor) battle their egos — and in Nick’s case, every drug available in 1975 Los Angeles — to Make It. But the b-team of actors are funny in a way that overcomes the occasional drab script — Clark Duke, Erik Griffin, Jon Daly, and Al Madrigal as a comedian who is, correctly, mocked for making every single joke about Mexicans. There’s a throwaway scene in which Duke and Daly argue over whether the drowning death of Daly’s father makes any sense as an analogy that’s one of my favorite things all year. (Another favorite: A hanger-on comedian played by Dom Irrera walking absent-mindedly into a fight, kicking a sleazy radio producer on the ground, and only then asking “hey, who we kickin’?”)

Also, to be fair, it’s damn hard to make fake “comedy” work, as the people who suffered through “Studio 60” can attest. “30 Rock” usually got past this problem by making its show-within-a-show completely surreal; “I’m Dying Up Here” does a good job manufacturing stand-up that sounds like it was delivered by people who haven’t quite made it.

June 12-22: “The Show That Never Ends” is on tour

I spent the last four years writing “The Show That Never Ends,” a history of/argument for progressive rock music, and it comes out on June 13. You should buy it no matter where you live. But if you are lucky enough to live in one of several east coast/central time zone cities, you can buy it AND meet me AND hear me talk. What have you done to deserve this?

Here are the events and the relevant details.

TUESDAY, JUNE 13
Dave Weigel and Tom Scharpling (“The Best Show”) discuss “The Show That Never Ends”
7:00 p.m.
The Strand
828 Broadway (& 12th Street)
New York, NY 10003

THURSDAY, JUNE 15
Dave Weigel signs copies of “The Show That Never Ends”
7:00 p.m.
Book People
603 North Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX 78703

SATURDAY, JUNE 17
Meet Dave Weigel, author of “The Show That Never Ends”
1:00 p.m.
Cactus Music
2110 Portsmouth
Houston, TX 77098

MONDAY, JUNE 19
Book signing
7:00 p.m.
1984
2511 W 4th St.
Wilmington, DE 19805

TUESDAY, JUNE 20
Book talk with Scott Tobias
7:00 p.m.
Volumes Books
1474 N. Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60622

THURSDAY, JUNE 22
Book talk with Jack Shafer
7:00 p.m.
Politics and Prose
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008

Movies of 2017

This year, I’m getting a very early start on my usual mosey through the year’s most mainstream movies and/or easy-to-find indie movies.

Stuff I haven’t seen, but want to: Dunkirk, Logan Lucky, My Life As a Zucchini, Columbus

  1. Get Out
  2. I, Daniel Blake
  3. The Big Sick
  4. Dunkirk
  5. Logan
  6. Baby Driver
  7. Blade Runner 2049
  8. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  9. Oasis: Supersonic
  10. The Founder
  11. Okja
  12. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  13. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
  14. Beatriz at Dinner
  15. T2: Trainspotting
  16. I Am Not Your Negro
  17. Wonder Woman
  18. The LEGO Batman Movie
  19. The Beguiled
  20. Kong: Skull Island
  21. Alien: Covenant
  22. Table 19
  23. Split
  24. Life
  25. The Fate of the Furious
  26. Cars 3
  27. Wilson
  28. Ghost in the Shell

The worst criminal to come out of Detroit

I was speeding; sure, I won’t deny that. It was 8:20 or so on Super Bowl Sunday, and I was returning my rental car at Detroit’s airport before jumping on a 10:00 flight to Minneapolis for a story. Detroit, like most big cities, has spawned an airport inside a morass of frontage roads — to return a rental, you follow the signs, turn to what seems like an abandoned stretch of lots, and you’re there.

So, I turned onto Lucas, passing by the Hertz drop-off, intending to get gas at the end of the street before circling back and dropping it off. I notice, surreally, a cop car blazing into my rear view mirror.

“Can you… actually get pulled over on the street where you’re dropping the car off?” I wonder.

Indeed, you can. A surly officer asks why I think I was pulled over.

“I was in a hurry, so maybe I missed a turn signal on the way in,” I speculate.

According to him, no: I did not give the right of way when turning onto the final frontage road. I cut someone off — him, I assume — and was going 41 in a 35 mph zone.

(Here I will pause for an instructional video on how uniquely strange it is to drive in Michigan.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2485Vi9eB4

“Do you have $100 in cash to post bond?” asks the cop.

My mind… I was going to say “races,” but it actually turns pretty slowly. “No,” I say, knowing I have around $85 in cash, “but I can pay a ticket.”

Friendly enough, right? Wrong. The cop returns to his car with my license, and with knowledge of my story — trying to return the car for my 10 a.m. flight so I can get to Minneapolis for work. In literally 90 minutes I will be out of his state, a problem for the motorists of the Twin Cities, not him.

He returns 10 minutes later, as I check my watch, and hands me a ticket — but no license.

“I’m holding onto your license as bond,” he says.

“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t realize that was what you meant by bond. Can I go to the ATM over there” — I point to the gas station, maybe 20 yards away — “and get the cash.”

The cop summons up that attitude that only an armed and un-criticizable agent of the state can summon. He already gave me a chance. He only charged me for speeding. I should cut my losses.

“But I can’t get on my plane without my license,” I say.

“You can use the ticket and say what happened,” he says.

This part of the story engenders less sympathy — suffice to say that instead of using the TSA pre-check status I pay for, I must show the ticket at a regular TSA line, empty my wallet to find that there’s no other card with my birth date, note the disbelief of the agent at the idea that the ticket would be enough ID, and get every single item patted down and searched before getting a chance to sprint to my plane. I make it by 5 minutes. Could be worse.

I can’t rent a car anymore, but I can borrow one from a friend. I can’t get back to the airport right before my flight on Monday — I will have to subject myself to another long pat-down. Okay. In future, I’ll travel with my passport.

But here is the long tail of the problem — getting my license back means trusting the Wayne County traffic court to send it back. I’m not saying its employees are dishonest. On Monday, they seem perfectly polite, if confused. I’m saying an infamously cash-poor urban county is not exactly staffed up to process a ticket quickly or mail a license back. Also, I’ve moved since I got the license, and that’s the sort of thing you’d like to explain to a bureaucrat before they mail your ID to an address.

When I call, three times, I talk to three confused people who refer me to a website that doesn’t recognize my ticket number. My follow-up questions are directed the voicemail of “Maya,” or maybe “Maia,” with no indication of what she does.

Here is the larger context: I am shredded. I’ve worked every day of January and had half a day off in February. I’m lucky, insofar that once I’m not going through airports, I don’t need my ID to drive to work; I take public transportation. But I tend to pack my days with assignments, and now I’ve got to navigate around the motherfucking Wayne County traffic courts.

I guess I’m saying that I don’t understand the policy. You want to get dangerous drivers off the road? Okay. I am… probably more aware of the text messages being sent to me than I should while driving.

But Jesus Christ — why bludgeon someone who’s trying to drop off a rental car? Why, for speeding not on a road choked with motorists, but a road that exists so people can get out of your state and to a plane? Why throw someone into, as far as you know, days or weeks of difficulty that will impede his ability to get a job done?

2016

From time to time, until November 8, people last year would ask me how much I was loving the political circus. “It must be the story of your career,” they’d say.

“Well, yes,” I would say. “Much like Joan Didion got the story of her career when her husband and daughter dead.”

Hyperbole — it’s our new lingua franca. I’d reported on politics for most of my life by the time the 2016 election began, and knew that elections typically devolved into gaffe-policing and guides to which ads were false. (Usually not most of them.) But 2016 was, as the documentarian Adam Curtis put it, a defeat for journalism, in which people like me were reminded how little people want to hear information that rumbles their worldview. My worst memory of the year is not anything from a rally; it is becoming part of the problem, and telling friends on election night that early returns suggested their favored candidate would win.

Lots of hairshirting already; I don’t need to add more. Once I got some distance from the election, I felt bursts of pleasure about what good had come out of the year.

Crank up the listicle-maker.

I wrote a book. After 12 years of daydreaming and 3 years of writing, I finished my history of progressive rock; it’s being edited now for a June 2017 release. The panic I have about articles (did I leave in any clunk? Will a grammar scold hunt me down?) is multiplied 1000fold but this is a lifetime goal that cost me a personal life and feels worth it.

I made new friends. This happens every fours, and while I’m not sure how much longer it can happen — do I want to be passing out on the Gillibrand campaign plane at age 39? — it’s always a joy. You develop a little patois on the campaign bus, and (assuming you’re not singularly annoying) you share it with people who are chasing the same deadlines as you. You trade transcripts; you let her have a question because he has a follow-up because you asked a question already.

I survived a car crash. Wasn’t planning on it, but a small nightmare finally came to me. I was making good time on the road from Madison to Green Bay (to De Pere, first), when a traffic stoppage came out of nowhere and I spun off, taking a car with me. The permanent damage has been a right thumb that no longer bends. And that is it. I could have died, I didn’t, and have never felt the same since.

Movies of 2016

I do a version of this every year. The campaign and my book deadline made this year’s explorations a little more limited — which is fine. I have maybe 10 more to see in order to not be befuddled by award season.

  1. Moonlight
  2. La-La-Land
  3. Sing Street
  4. Everybody Wants Some!!
  5. Don’t Think Twice
  6. Hell or High Water
  7. Love & Friendship
  8. Manchester by the Sea
  9. The Witch
  10. The Childhood of a Leader
  11. Jackie
  12. 20th Century Women
  13. Captain America: Civil War
  14. Weiner
  15. Doctor Strange
  16. Arrival
  17. Deadpool
  18. Moana
  19. Hidden Figures
  20. 10 Cloverfield Lane
  21. Midnight Special
  22. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
  23. The Lobster
  24. Hail, Caesar!
  25. Finding Dory
  26. Lion
  27. Eye in the Sky
  28. Zootopia
  29. Sausage Party
  30. All the Way
  31. The Nice Guys
  32. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  33. Captain Fantastic
  34. Genius
  35. Don’t Breathe
  36. Knight of Cups
  37. Kubo and the Two Strings
  38. The 13th
  39. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
  40. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
  41. How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things That Climate Can’t Change)
  42. Florence Foster Jenkins
  43. Kung Fu Panda 3
  44. Weiner-Dog
  45. Keanu
  46. Star Trek Beyond
  47. The BFG
  48. The Neon Demon
  49. Cafe Society
  50. X-Men: Apocalypse
  51. Pete’s Dragon
  52. Suicide Squad
  53. The Greasy Strangler
  54. Ghostbusters
  55. Zoolander 2
  56. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
  57. Independence Day: Resurgence
  58. Ride Along 2
  59. Warcraft
  60. Central Intelligence
  61. Demolition

Both sides do it!

I’ve been traveling for work, so — maybe blessedly — I didn’t initially see this AP story by two reporters I like very much personally. It’s no patch on them when I say that “Welcome to the Trump-Clinton conspiracy election” is a textbook-ready case of how the search for equivalence can wreck a piece of journalism.

The problems previewed by the headline get worse in the nut graf.

Donald Trump and his surrogates hint at a mysterious “illness” afflicting rival Hillary Clinton. Pushing back, Clinton warns of murky ties between Trump and the Russian government, insinuating that her Republican opponent may be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Two problems here. One: The ties between Trump and the Russians are by no means as “murky” as the conspiracy theory that Clinton’s doctors (and her campaign schedule) are covering up a devastating illness. Two: The Russia talk is not a pushback on the “Hillary’s health” stuff. It’s been happening independently; indeed, Clinton was been pushing it before Trump elevated the health rumors.

The second point is just obviously misleading, while the first requires the application of blinders that characters the worst both-sides journalism. Much of the story deals with the ways Trump has tried to exploit Internet theories about Clinton’s health, and how Clinton’s pivoted from that to an attack on Trump’s embrace of kookery more generally. The “but Russia!” equivalence platter is saved for the final two grafs.

In the aftermath of hacked Democratic emails, Trump encouraged hackers from Russia to find Clinton’s missing State Department emails, an apparent invitation for a foreign power to intervene in a U.S. election.

Clinton’s team frequently points to Trump’s ties to Russia. Her campaign has a page on its website devoted to a Q-and-A about Trump’s “bizarre relationship” with Russia, fueling an unproven theory that Trump is a shill for Putin.

So on the one hand, Trump is elevating theories that rely on rumors or forged medical records; on the other, Clinton’s accusation that Trump “is a shill for Putin” is “unproven.” But the first attack is baseless; the second is political rhetoric based on — wait for it — reporting from the AP.

I’m not fond of quickie campaign “fact sheets” like “5 questions every voter should ask about Donald Trump’s bizarre relationship with Russia.” Question 5 suggests that “Trump publicly encouraged further Russian espionage to help his campaign.” That’s true, though Trump later tried to pass it off as a joke. Question 4 is fishier, noting that “some suggest” that Trump’s as-yet hidden tax returns might reveal deals with Russian oligarchs. But the basis is a 2008 quote from Trump’s son Donald: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”

Question 3 suggests that Trump would fulfill a Russian “wish list.” Again, there’s a basis: He has talked about lifting sanctions on Russia, and he rather uniquely among Republicans has said he wouldn’t contest the annexation of Crimea. Question 1 quotes a few instances of Trump praising Putin.

But Question 2 is the humdinger. Asking why Trump “surround[s] himself with advisers with links to the Kremlin,” the Clinton campaign… explains the links several Trump advisers have to Russia. The outdated page spends the most time on Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager until this month. The “kill shot” on Manafort is generally understood to be the AP’s August 17 story on his secret work for Ukraine’s pro-Russian faction.

Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party’s efforts to influence U.S. policy.

So, on the one hand, Trump’s campaign and surrogates are speculating wildly — and in some cases, citing bogus medical information — to question whether Hillary Clinton’s health has collapsed. On the other hand, Clinton’s campaign is citing Trump’s public statements, his family’s public statements, and the financial ties of campaign advisers to say that he’s shilling for Russia.

I am wracking my brains, and I can’t imagine how these two stories were conflated. In the quest to say that Both Sides Do It, the AP elevated Trump’s conspiracy-mongering about Clinton’s health to the level of his campaign’s well-reported Russia friendliness; it downgraded that friendliness to the level of a conspiracy.

The word for this is not “balanced.” It’s “pathetic.”

Little Furry Things

Zootopia (Howard/Moore/Bush, 2016)
A terrifying and unrelenting vision of a world long after the apocalypse, where only mammals survived, and built their own civilization with all of the mistakes that zoomed humanity.

Nah, fuck it, this is a kid’s movie about a cute bunny (Ginnifer Goodwin) who fulfills her lifelong dream of becoming the first tiny mammal cop in a world of talking animals; previously, we see, only the largest animals had become cops. (This seems entirely sensible, but a nice training sequence reveals how Judy Hopps learned to use her speed and high jump to compete with the more lumbering cops). Assigned to the garbage meter maid beat, she encounters a con artist fox (Jason Bateman), who is far more comfortable with the limitations placed on him by speciesism. There is a mystery. Spoiler: They solve it.

The test of any kid’s cartoon is whether the target audience will find it cute and the parents who pay for it will find it witty. “Zootopia” succeeds, even if some of the jokes are right on the bunny nose. (A mob boss named Mr. Big — who is actually very tiny — and talks like Vito Corleone! Ah ha ha fuck you.) The characters are adorable, the world-building is gorgeous if theme park-esque, and there is a delightfully problematic through-line about whether we can ever escape our genetic inheritance. Put another way: This is a movie for children in which the hero explains that some animals may simply be “biologically” inclined to violence, and where the voice of Idris Elba, through a water buffalo, says that “this world was already broken.”

Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2016)
The delightful but derivative series continues (no one can say “concludes”) with a story about the titular panda, Po, (Jack Black) encountering an ancient, soul-sucking evil (J.K. Simmons) and overcoming him to become a “master of qi.”

Look, if I was eight or nine years old, I fully believe that these would be my favorite movies — funny, furry characters getting into beautifully choreographed battles, all re-enactable in the backyard. As a man who was born around the same time as Michael Phelps but achieved much less, I still have a spot for these movies — in part because the voice casting rewards fans of “Mr. Show,” in part because I watch them when I am on planes and very tired.

Still, there’s a visible tug of war between the plot points that were designed by committee and the dialogue punched up by funny people. I enjoyed the banter, especially a running gag about Kai’s frustration that no one remembers him 500 years after he was banished to the spirit realm. I sort of shrugged through the introduction of a Secret Panda Village where a civilization that abandoned Po (for reasons never explained) takes him in and acts all goofy. Evil is defeated by people Being Themselves and Working Together. Finally!

The blog where it happens

This is a model takedown, and a lot of fun even if you’re not so much a “Hamilton” hater so much as a person who can’t understand how your friends had the time and foresight to see this thing.
 
Caveat: The impossibility for anyone but your annoying Instagram friends to get a ticket is cited as evidence that few people have experienced the dang thing. “Hamilton is the ‘nationwide sensation’ that only .001% of the nation has even witnessed.”
 
True, not many people have gotten to see it in person. But the cast album went platinum, in an age when nobody buys albums anymore. Lines from the musical have infiltrated culture and reporting. Insofar as a piece of theater can become widely known, this one is widely known. Just as people who have not seen “Star Wars” know “Luke, I Am Your Father,” I know “the room where it happens.”
 
That said, the people insisting that this is the greatest work of art of all time are silly. (That’s obviously Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick.”) I guess the question is whether this musical is still cool when the inevitable “Rob Marshall’s ‘Hamilton'” film adaptation comes out at the start of President Hillary Clinton’s second term.

Ghostbusters (2016)

The first “Ghostbusters” was a formative movie experience for me, but not a sacred one. I saw it on TV or VHS sometime before 1989, i.e. when I was 7 or 8 years old. (I know this because I saw the sequel in the theater, when I was tood young.) Parts of that movie mapped the “screaming terror” part of my brain — Rick Moranis’s party gone wrong, Gozer’s red eyes, the librarian ghost that transforms when Bill Murray talks to it. In my teenage years and, yes, even today, the better lines became part of my conversation. “Cats and dogs, living together!” “When someone asks you if you’re a God, you say yes!”

Still, I snorted with all of the other right-thinking people when the geek army, having conquered all of pop culture, declared war on “Lady Ghostbusters.” I wanted it to be great.

It is not great. As remakes go, it’s higher than “Rollerball” and many floors below “Dawn of the Dead.” I align myself, as usual, with Sonny Bunch, mostly in his contempt for the people (cough RICHARD BRODY) who have been attempting to retcon the original film as a middling nostalgia joint.

PETTY COMPLAINT DEPT.

Product placement. A minor gripe elevated by how goddamn much it appears. Patty’s uncle is not just not a rent-a-car — he’s not a “Enterprise rent-a-car.” Holtzmann doesn’t just eat during the first sighting — she eats Pringles. For Christ’s sake, the Manhattan-based Ghostbusters order pizza and we get several wide shots of the Papa John’s box it came in. I’m not even a New Yorker and I was offended on Gotham’s behalf.

Dialogue. This is by far the least funny of the Paul Feig movies, and it happens to be the one grasping for the baton from a cultural institution. The more improved-sounding dialogue is perfectly fine; Wiig and McCarthy have great chemistry, eve if the joke is that they’re never in emotional sync. McKinnon, one of our muggiest actors, is fun to watch but never quotable; Leslie Jones is better than I’ve ever seen her, but I can’t remember anything she said.

Plotting. We get to the ghosts fast enough, but there’s no momentum and plenty of holes. The chintzy TV ad campaign of the first film explained how they stayed in business; this time the ‘busters have money problems but seemingly infinite scrap metal. Killer lazers shoot into random streets with no effect. Characters make stupid decisions to set up the conflict, far less satisfying than the original film’s “everything was going fine until the fucking EPA showed up” plot motor.

DEPT. OF THINGS I DIDN’T HATE

New characterizations. Feig didn’t want people to be muttering “is that the new Egon,” and voila, the four ‘busters are actually pretty well drawn characters. If one measure of success is that nerdy girls have new heroes to trick-or-treat as, then this is a success — go ahead, awkward girl who wants to gel up her hair and be Holtzmann.

Feminity. Seriously, it was fine. A dance party instead of “we came, we saw, we kicked its ass?” Sure. A himbo secretary? Very funny, thanks to Thor. Unlike some percentage of the Internet, I’m fine with this film existing. I just don’t feel a need to ever see it again.