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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (7/18/16) 1:08am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack (33?)
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Con Man, Good Eats [season 7], W/ Bob and David [season 1]

Koji Kondo's Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack (33⅓) by Andrew Schartmann
This is a short book about Koji Kondo's score for Super Mario Bros., part of the 33⅓ series of books devoted to significant albums.

Immediately you know whether this is a book you want to read or not.  And whichever way you responded, you're probably right.  This is exactly the book that you're expecting it to be, a slim volume about the Super Mario Brothers soundtrack, its context, its construction, and its lasting influence.  It does a great whirlwind look at the history of videogaming prior to the NES, starting with arcades that used sound as pretty much a "come play this!" notifier only, and into the early devices and their rudimentary noises.

It really comes into its own, though, in its musical analysis.  Once you cut all the repetitions out of the SMB soundtrack, you're left with ninety seconds of music.  So from a music-theory perspective, Schartmann does a deep dive, squeezing as much analysis as he can out of every note without feeling like he's going beyond what's actually there in the music.  He does a great job explaining how the soundtrack holds together even as it creates sharply different feelings for the various levels, and provides a great layman's explanation of how Kondo leveraged the minimal sound channels available on the device.

That said, there are still parts of even this slim volume that feel like padding.  The section about the sound effects in Super Mario Brothers felt obligatory, reaching for some level of meaning to, say, the 'jump' or 'fireball' sound effects and not quite finding it, and marching through the whole list of sound effects for no apparent reason.  The section covering Kondo's post-SMB career suffered from the opposite problem: it's such a broad topic that the whirlwind three-page summary felt too short to really mean anything.

Still, it's a book worth reading, if only to get a new perspective on that cheerfully repetitive soundtrack that's likely been stuck in your head for most of your life.

Con Man [series 1]
This is the crowdfunded series from Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion about an unsuccessful actor from a Firefly-esque show who grudgingly makes the rounds on the sci-fi-convention circuit.

I'm going to say two things that seem to contradict each other: I didn't like this show, and I'm *so* glad it's getting a second season.

Let me be clear: I am glad that this show exists.  I am ecstatic that somebody sat down to write a show about fandom and fan conventions from an *insider's* point of view.  We've all seen the cringeworthy news report where they go to San Diego Comic Con, bring in the wackiest cosplayer that they can find, and give us another wearying human-interest puff piece about "fans, they're kuh-razy!"  (Presumably to run next to a well-meaning "Zap! Pow! Bam! Comic Books Aren't Just for Kids Any More!" think-piece.)  It's great to see art that counters that pointing-and-laughing nonsense, and frankly the world of fandom is perfect for comedy.  Because, yes, it is a world with a lot of eccentrics who pursue something they care passionately about, and if you can show that with specificity and accuracy, the comedy can more or less write itself.

And Tudyk has made some really solid choices for *how* to put this together.  Following a down-on-his-luck ex-sci-fi star is brilliant.  And it looks like he's trying to draw on Arrested Development, with its heightened characters, jaunty soundtrack, and farcical construction, as well as Curb Your Enthusiasm, with a misanthrope antihero stumbling into snafus so bad that even *he* doesn't deserve them.

Tell me something is "Arrested Development set at comic cons", and I'll follow it to the bitter end, just because of the sheer potential that concept has.

And yet.  And yet.

First off, the jokes just aren't there.  I'll give you an example: "I was almost in The Good the Bad and the Ugly -- I auditioned for 'the ugly'."  This is an actual joke in the show.  It is not a joke with quote marks around it, designed to tell us that this is a character who tells terrible groaners whom we should hate or pity.  As far as I can tell, this show thinks that joke is funny.  If there were a laugh track, the laugh track would follow that line.  So... that's the level of the jokes in this.  Set your expectations accordingly.  I mean, Felicia Day gets stuck with a recurring diarrhea gag, fercrissakes.

Second, the story construction is not quite there.  One of the wonders of Arrested Development was how effortless it seemed.  You never sensed that there were writers trying really hard to make multiple story threads come together at the end of an episode.  (I'm guessing that, ironically, that quality required a backbreaking level of effort from their writers.)  You just had multiple storylines that each seemed perfectly natural in the context of the show, and then suddenly, surprisingly, and yet inevitably, you had (say) a fight carried out with a giant rock and comically oversized scissors that all gets covered by the paper.

You can see Con Man often going for the same thing, but to my mind you can see it straining.  Sean Astin painstakingly teaches Wray the meaning of the verb "to retard", and it feels... odd.  It feels odd because it's setting up the end, when Wray will sound like he's directing that same word, as a noun, at a  fan with a speech impediment -- a 'bringing it together' moment that, alas, also feels kind of labored.  So instead of seeing effortless story threads come together in an elegant way, you see the script awkwardly working at it, working at setting up the threads and awkwardly collating them together at the end.

Between the jokes and the farce-plotting, Con Man gives the impression of a first draft, one with lots of placeholders noted with "like this, only good" in the margins.

And this is so frustrating, because there's one thing that Tudyk, even as a novice screenwriter, is stunning at: writing strong characters and letting 'em rip.  For example, Henry Rollins's riff on Adam Baldwin might just be the worth of admission all on its own.  And this is without any damn jokes.  When he's facetiming with Fillion's character after the latter gets pulled over:

"Hey, you don't have to tell him that you're armed."
"Why would I be armed?!"
*pause* *scoff* "Good luck, hippie."

You see this over and over again.  Part of it, sure, is that he has the pull to get phenomenal genre actors into his show.  But "Jack Moore" is a hilarious, breezy spin on Fillion's good-natured persona, equal parts blinkered and whimsical.  ("Played poker all night.  Somehow turned into a quinciñera!")  Even the characters we see only briefly, like Amy Acker's crazy-eyed, lascivious Spectrum co-star or even Todd Stashwick as a surly waiter, make great impressions.

And the thing is, the character humor -- setting up good actors to amuse us just by letting their heightened characters be themselves -- is infinitely more valuable and more funny than any joke that you're going to write or even any clever farce-plot you're going to construct.  This style of humor, the humor that comes from getting to know characters and say "that's *exactly* what Bob would do" is why we come to sitcoms in the first place.

So that's why I'm happy the show is getting a second season.  The pieces are all there.  The setup is wonderful.  The cast kicks ass.  And there's a comic gear that really *works* for Tudyk as a writer.  He just needs to stop playing to his weaknesses and get out of his own way.

One last thing: I get that the show, to some extent, runs on the 'cringe humor' of Wray getting stuck in awkward situations.  And to that end, Mr. Tudyk leans into hot-button topics to make that happen: in various episodes, we're looking at race, sexual orientation, and disabilities.  And while I'm sure Mr. Tudyk's heart is in the right place, he's just not (to my knowledge) an experienced comedy writer.  And that means he's not deploying his jokes with the precision it takes to avoid 'punching down'.

If you look at a running gag from Arrested Development like Franklin, GOB's ill-advised African-American puppet, yes, you see it drawing on a charged subject -- race -- to make something awkward and funny.  But you're also seeing a joke that's very carefully aimed.  It's set up to hammer home that GOB is almost too clueless to live, while carefully making his ignorance about race as harmless (in that world) as possible, and establishing via other characters' responses to the runner that, in this world, his idiocy is *not* okay.  Running a joke like that is a bit like hitting a bull's-eye when hitting any other spot on the dartboard would make you look like an offensive ass. 

And again, the writing on Con Man just isn't engineered well enough to carry off its more risqué material, though I can't quite put my finger on why.  I do know that having a flamboyant character say "this gay thing is just an act to get girls" doesn't sit right with me.  I do wish the disabled characters (c.f. the "to retard" scene) had some characterization beyond "they're disabled".  Having the marine turn out to be a big fan of Rigmarole felt weird, like it was saying don't worry, a white guy doing over-the-top blaccent for our amusement is a-okay.[1]

Along similar lines, other sitcoms with grouchy and unlikeable heroes often hew to pretty precise rules that ensure that we-the-audience know how to feel about what we're watching, and I'm not sure Con Man quite has a handle on that yet.  Blackadder has a sardonic, black-hearted hero who endlessly lacerates a cast of whimsically-stupid characters with acrobatic sarcasm (sarcasm that the other characters are too clueless to notice), but the show is careful to ensure that Blackadder almost never wins.  He usually misjudges their stupidity in some key way, and it comes back to bite him.  In Arrested Development, Michael Bluth is clearly established as a good man (Ron Howard's VO literally says this, first thing), while his family are various combinations of vapid, venal, and vicious.[2]

Con Man could have benefitted from that sort of simplicity.  If Wray is a bad guy moving among good people, that's one show.  If Wray is a good guy, but he's miserable and bitter, and moving among people who are helpful and content about the world of sci-fi fandom, that's another show that could work.  But I think the show is reaching for a level of nuance that it can't quite pull off.  It's a world where some folks are good, some are evil, some are risible, some are respectable, and instead of making this feel like a richer world, we're left feeling like the show doesn't quite have a point of view.

Again, season one has demonstrated several weaknesses and one phenomenal strength (or two, actually -- the Spectrum footage was surprisingly wonderful).  One trusts that season two will tack towards the strengths.

Good Eats [season 7]
Again, not much new to say about this series that I haven't said six times before.  In the meals-for-one (-or-two) department, the episode about "cooking in a pouch" seems singularly useful, and may be the one I actually sit down and learn the recipes for.  I'm happiest when the show clearly feels frustrated with having done a cooking show in literally every conceivable way, and resorts to some amusing stunt like (on the beet episode) having Good Eats bleed into every show the 'viewer' tries to switch the channel to.  Good times, though I doubt I'll properly put any of this into practice.

W/ Bob and David [season 1]
This is the recent Netflix series from Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the comic minds behind the legendary Mr. Show, and which features many of their Mr. Show compatriots.

I have watched a lot of bad sketch comedy in my day.  And because of that, W/Bob and David is like a refreshing walk on a sunny beach.  I'm told that it isn't quite up to the level of Mr. Show[3], but I think we'll all happily take "not quite as good as one of the best sketch shows of all time".  I mean, their "Interrogation Sketch" is a stone classic, something I'd even put up there with the parrot sketch or Mad TV's "insanely disappointing report".

One surprise that shouldn't be surprising is that Bob Odenkirk is coming back around to this format after honing his acting chops in, among other things, stellar turns in Fargo and Better Call Saul.  And it's surprising how well being an Emmy-nominated dramatic actor can feed into sketch comedy.  It's an additive thing: you can appreciate a good performance while the surreal, ever-heightening nonsense is carrying on.

But apart from that, I can't think of much to say about it.  It's good, and good beyond my meager ability to analyze sketch comedy.  Well worth everybody's time, and here's hoping they do more of this.

For next week: I'm watching season 8 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I still need to write about that audiobook about energy, and I've started reading Norwegian Wood.

[1] Another level of weirdness here: I do feel, personally, like some white actors (e.g., John DiMaggio in The PJs) have done good work voicing black characters.
[2] It's only later in the series that they hint that, when the chips are down, Michael is no angel himself, and that's why he'll probably never be free of his family.
[3] I haven't watched all of Mr. Show, and it's been over a decade since I've watched what I *did* see.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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