Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
If you could have one more dose of a prematurely discontinued pop-culture product, what would you ask for? Freaks And Geeks season two? Another Van Halen-David Lee Roth album? More fully-formed Jeff Buckley? Another James Dean flick? Another year of the Rock-Steve Austin feud? —dxferris
As far as TV goes, we did an AVQ&A a couple of years ago on our most-missed TV shows, and my answers there work just fine here as well: Twin Peaks and Carnivàle were both going downhill by the time they were cancelled, and there’s no guarantee that a third season of either show would have been up to the high-water mark either series left. And yet both shows went out on such striking cliffhangers that I never will stop wondering what would have come next. (Carnivàle creator Daniel Knauf has been fairly open about his seven-year plan for the series, which only made it to two; perhaps if he’d planned it as a five-year series with much less wandering and filler, it wouldn’t have crashed and burned so quickly. But that’s a side point.) TV aside, these days I’m largely curious about where Stieg Larsson was taking his Millennium series; I suspect if it hadn’t been a posthumous release, and if we’d gotten to see the full 10-book series, they wouldn’t have been so windy and winding, and there might have been more of a sense that it was progressing somewhere. I didn’t love the first two books, and I still haven’t read the third, but even so, I’m deeply curious where he meant for it to go. Also, I’ll just get it out of the way early: Yes, I would have liked at least another year of Joss Whedon’s poor, kicked-around red-headed stepchild Firefly.
My answer is short: Party Down, for sure. While I’m actually kind of satisfied with the way the show ended (by accident or not, the last episode could have stood as a finale), I wish there were three, four, five seasons of it to own on DVD and just pop in for those occasions when you want to be comfu-tained. (You know, entertained and comforted at the same time. Shows that run for several seasons, so you could just blow out a long weekend and binge on them back-to-back-to-back.)
The pain on this one is recent and peculiarly specific. Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman lasted five short “seasons” (really, they’re more like the British notion of “series”) on PBS, and was hands-down the cleverest, liveliest, and most delightfully all-ages watchable educational kids’ show of my parenting career. The lovingly meta premise: A dog (voiced by Jim Conroy) gets his own game show because the honchos at the network don’t realize until too late that he’s a dog, and that he’s hosting the show from the garage, a.k.a. “Studio G.” He chooses six pre-teens from the greater Boston area to run around Massachusetts completing science challenges and helping his hapless doggy butt keep the show from teetering on the edge of ruin (thanks to his penchant for losing stuff and antagonizing various doppelgängers). It’s a reality competition with all the drama and twice the sense of improvisational humor as anything made for non-subsidized television. Not only did my kids love it (and cheer like crazy for their favorite Fetchers), I too adored how it melded comic sophistication with a boundless can-do spirit. Alas, the final grand-champion portrait has been hung on the wall, and Fetch! is no more, axed, according to WGBH, for lack of funding. I’d sell a kidney to finance another five-season run.
I will be so friggin’ happy when Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso sit down and make another record together—almost as much as I will when Gil and Jorge Benjor do the same. Let me explain. Gil and Veloso and a bunch of others (Os Mutantes, Tom Ze, Gal Costa) kicked off the tropicalia movement—fusing rock with Brazilian pop, writing pop treatises rather than simple love songs. (Or pop treatises written as love songs, as with Veloso’s “Baby.”) Gil and Veloso became political exiles under a military government. That is all history and lore; today, Gil is a politician as well as musician. But the first, 1967 Tropicalia compilation still sings, and more importantly for what I’m hoping for here, so does 1992’s Tropicalia 2, which is just Gil and Veloso collaborating together, with a nice, relaxed feel. But the real classic is the album Gil made in 1975 with Jorge Ben (as he was billed then). Gil E Jorge, apparently made while both men were (audibly) blind drunk, is the sound of two men in deep sync with each other’s work. Accompanied by a bass player and percussionist, they traded songs and stretched them out to absurd lengths: “Taj Mahal,” Ben’s hit that Rod Stewart later plagiarized for “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, goes on for 15 minutes. “Jurubeba” is a 10-minute high-wire act, each man egging the other on, the friendliest and most thrilling game of can-you-top-this I’ve ever heard. I’d be thrilled to buy the bottle for another round.
One name, two shows: Shaun Cassidy. The former teen idol used up all the luck of a lifetime when he was a teenager, being the son of a famous actress (Shirley Jones) as well as a TV star and a pop sensation by the time he was 20 years old. As a result, when it turned out he was genuinely talented at yet another career—writing and producing television shows—no one took notice. His first big project was 1995’s eerie American Gothic, which at first seemed like a Twin Peaks rip-off, but soon bloomed into something unique and strange. Its southern-Gothic setting and dynamite lead performance by Gary Cole as a sinister small-town sheriff didn’t set the ratings on fire, though, and CBS didn’t help by marketing it poorly and showing episodes so out of order that they made no sense. It lasted only one season. Then, 10 years later, he created Invasion, a creepy take on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers set in the Florida Keys. It shared with its predecessor a creepy mood, a hero who often seemed like a villain, and an ambitious, morally disturbing approach to storytelling. Cassidy intended it to be a sweeping narrative that ran for five years, but it was very expensive, got little support from the network (ABC this time), and had the further bad luck to debut (with a storyline about a disastrous hurricane) just after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It lasted exactly as long as American Gothic. Both these shows were intelligent, fascinating, well-acted, morally complex, and hugely involving, and they both ended with major cliffhangers that left their small fan base forever hanging. Maybe in 2015, Cassidy will finally get a shot at making a show that lasts more than one season, but in the meantime, American Gothic and Invasion are two of the most frustrating coulda-beens in TV history.
Drive Like Jehu batted a thousand during its brief existence, cranking out two masterpieces—1991’s Drive Like Jehu and 1994’s Yank Crime—before breaking up. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that the world has been sadly Jehu-free since. Unlike many ’90s discs cut from the same post-hardcore cloth, the two albums feel just as sharp and cauterizing as they did almost 20 years ago. John Reis’ thunderous guitar hooks—which he perfected in his other group, the longer-running Rocket From The Crypt—are twisted into brain-tangling shapes. Like an animal trapped in an algebra equation, singer-guitarist Rick Froberg snarls and slashes with vicious precision. But the band was dead and gone long before most of its offspring—Refused, At The Drive-In, The Dismemberment Plan, Les Savy Fav—popularized one facet or another of Jehu’s sound. A slew of reunion rumors made the rounds a couple years back, but nothing came of them. Which is too bad; the fact that Reis and Froberg re-teamed in the ’00s for the awesome Hot Snakes and are still making decent music apart from each other (in The Night Marchers and The Obits, respectively) means there’s still some slim hope for Drive Like Jehu’s resurrection. Not that they’d necessarily write or record anything new to add to their pitifully skimpy discography. Sigh.
When Keith told me the other day that he was going to finally watch Deadwood, I was excited for him—it’s really an incredible series, though one that probably ended one season too soon. Those watching the DVDs (the complete series comes out on Blu-ray this holiday season!) have the advantage of knowing exactly when it ends, while those of us who watched it every week on HBO felt that the end of season three left something to be desired in the climax department. I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but suffice it to say that talk of two wrap-up movies had fans of the show really excited. Too bad they’ll never happen now.
This is kind of a tough question. In general, I’m of the mindset that it’s far better, pop-culturally, to burn out than to fade away. Still, hearing what Buddy Holly and Aaliyah would have done if they hadn’t died in their respective plane crashes would be pretty interesting, I think. On the TV tip, though, one of the shows you guys didn’t hit in that AVQ&A a couple of years back is on my list: My So-Called Life. I would’ve liked to see what that crazy Angela Chase got up to as she got a little older. Like, would she still be under the Jordan Catalano spell a year or two down the road? Would he ever stop being such a shithead? Also, maybe if the show had run longer, Jared Leto wouldn’t have gotten so concerned with being a rock star, and then none of us would ever have to hear 30 Seconds To Mars ever again. That would certainly be for the greater good.
It just ended Wednesday, but I’m already wishing that Circus on PBS was an ongoing reality show rather than a three-part, six-hour documentary. I don’t even like the circus that much (not to mention my slight phobia of clowns), but Circus is some of the most fascinating TV I’ve seen all year, and if reality series set in pawn shops and tanning salons can get 13-episode seasons, then Circus should definitely have an extended run. Of course, part of the appeal of the show is how beautifully it’s shot and edited—it was filmed in 2008, so clearly some real time was spent putting it all together—which might not hold up so well in the quick-turnaround world of weekly reality programming. But I’d wait another two years for more Circus.
When Elliott Smith died in 2003, did anyone think, “Whew, good thing we heard just enough music from him”? No. And when the posthumous record From A Basement On A Hill emerged in 2004, did anyone say, “Well, most of the tracks are unfinished, but that’s good enough for me!” No. (Don’t be glib, commenters.) A great, fully realized Basement track like “Coast To Coast” hinted at what could have been. Smith was only 34 when he committed suicide, maturing well as a songwriter and, I’d argue, yet to reach his prime. I think his restless, anxious nature would save him from artistic complacency, which wouldn’t necessarily guarantee great music, but would propel a long, interesting career. What I’m saying is, yes, it was a tragic loss of one of our generation’s most gifted songwriters, but the real tragedy is that it gave me less music to hear.
At the time of his death, Robert Altman was preparing to dramatize Hands On A Hard Body. I’m not sure whether S.R. Bindler’s documentary ever made much of a dent outside Texas: It made half a million dollars when it was released nationwide two years later, but it never seemed to cause any kind of larger cultural ripple. But in Texas, it was a huge deal; it ran for more than a year at the (now defunct) Dobie Theater in Austin. The premise—a competition to win a Nissan truck in Longview, Texas that involved candidates standing with their hands on it, with minimal breaks and no sleep, until only one competitor remained—provides the material for a decent, albeit surface-level human-interest doc. Altman had never filmed in rural Texas (though he’d covered Houston in Brewster McCloud and Dallas in Dr. T. And The Women), and I would love to see what he would’ve done with the areas surrounding places I lived, and only really by experienced driving through or scavenging for BBQ places.
Sorry to add another in the “untimely suicides/deaths” category, but I caught up to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces rather late. When it comes to great, funny, eccentric novelists, I tend to want to keep going, whether it’s to discover the many dimensions of Kurt Vonnegut, or witness Joseph Heller getting gnarled and scary in Something Happened, or just get more of whatever you would call Tom Robbins. With Toole, Confederacy just creates a phantom-limb feeling: With all the strange vocabulary (“my valve!”) and imagery (runaway hot-dog carts, etc.) he captured here, it’s clear Toole could have kept growing, gaining in confidence, sharpening himself up for yet more craftsmanlike but out-of-control satire. Instead, Toole killed himself at 31 before he had a chance to get any recognition, and the book wasn’t published for another 11 years. Because there’s nothing to follow up with, it’s pretty hard to put the novel in any sort of context, or tell if Toole was even writing up to his potential at the time.
It’s one thing to say I’m clamoring for more Arrested Development or Freaks And Geeks. Those shows, while excellent and revolutionary, somewhat knew the end was coming, and brought the story to something of a conclusion. Undeclared, however… Let me detail my viewing experience: 1) Reach end of episode. 2) Notice there’s one DVD left, and pop it in to watch the next episode. 3) See it’s a special-features DVD, and realize the episode I just watched was the last one ever. 4) Get angry. The finale comes so unexpectedly and non-definitively, I actually went through that series of steps on two separate rewatches. The show also ended on one of the biggest cliffhangers it could muster: Steven and Lizzie finally kiss, just as Eric arrives in the elevator to see the whole thing. There’s absolutely no sense of closure, which makes Undeclared one of the only shows I love that makes me visibly angry when I’m thinking about it. I look to you for relief, Undeclared fan-fiction writers.
While several members of the Elephant 6 collective have gone on to varying degrees of success—Of Montreal being the most notable—it’s Neutral Milk Hotel, one of the collective’s founding bands, that’s left us hoping for more. A discography comprised of one EP and two LPs produced in a four-year window, plus a handful of compilation contributions, is all we have to enjoy from the band, helmed by the enigmatic Jeff Mangum. Not that we’re complaining, because that small discography still packs a lo-fi wallop: the fuzzy throb of “Everything Is” and “Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone”; the beautiful yet terrifying imagery of “The King Of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1”; the swoon of “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.” Watching the rise in popularity of Of Montreal and the ongoing output from other E6 bands like Elf Power and Apples In Stereo, it’s hard not to think of the heights Mangum & Co. could have reached. Indie-rock aficionados consider their final LP, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, one of the greatest records ever released. That view has only grown more widespread over the 12 years since its release, fueled by the mystery of Mangum, who has largely disappeared from the public eye, surfacing only for an occasional guest spot or solo performance here and there. Was this the creative peak for Mangum, or were even greater heights to come, as some fans insist based on several cassette demo and live bootlegs floating around? We’ll likely never know—an NMH reunion is not impossible, just highly unlikely—but if what we have is all we get, it’ll do.