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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes courtesy of Genevieve: What’s your personal pop-culture cause, the thing people always scoff at you for liking and that you always try to convince naysayers to give a first (or second or third) chance to anyway?
When I first started reviewing the Fox animated lineup for TV Club way back in 2007, I, like most people, dismissed American Dad as a substandard Family Guy knockoff, or “plagiarismo di plagiarismo,” to put it in the parlance of a much more respected member of the animation block, The Simpsons. But it only took me a couple of episodes to get past the show’s extremely hit-or-miss first season and a knee-jerk skepticism of anything produced by the increasingly insufferable Seth MacFarlane to realize that I was laughing at American Dad harder and more consistently than any of the shows surrounding it, including the very show it was plagiarismo-di-plagiarismo-ing. I think it’s telling, too, that the person who started covering the block after I gave up on it, Steve Heisler, seemed to follow the same progression from skeptic to advocate, and current Fox Animation scribe Todd also appears to be a fan. It’s a tough sell, though, as most people seem to have the same prejudices against American Dad that I did going in, and as they don’t get paid to watch the show critically week after week, it’s less likely they’ll get a chance to move past those preconceptions. But they should: Since the show basically abandoned its initial framework of limp political satire and moved into subverting classic sitcom tropes in increasingly insane ways, it’s generally funnier than anything else on Sunday night, and often more twisted than some of the murkiest depths of the Adult Swim lineup.
I think for me, it’s So You Think You Can Dance, a show that’s a hard sell since it’s got an idiotic name and people tend to confuse it with that televised cheese fountain Dancing With The Stars. I actually got into SYTYCD just as a critic, so was pleasantly surprised to see that it isn’t just an American Idol-type show featuring schlock and mistakenly outsized egos. The people who compete are really, truly talented and work their butts off. Meanwhile, the judges, in spite of their annoying personality quirks (cough, Mary Murphy), actually know what they’re talking about as well. They’re experienced dancers and choreographers, and they occasionally get up onstage and show their stuff. Plus, there’s very little room in the show for patronization. You’ll see no Scott MacIntyre on the mix: While the judges may have the kindest of words for a physically or mentally handicapped dancer, they will also politely say “Okay, but seriously, no.” I don’t think it’s the best show on the face of the earth, but I think it’s a much better program than a lot of people give it credit for.
Genevieve nailed it: I was all ready to hate on American Dad, but I wound up loving it week after week. That isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. Many moons ago, I thought Battlestar Galactica sounded like the dumbest name for a TV series ever, but I mostly didn’t watch because I didn’t want to get into a science-fiction TV show. My good friend Margaret Lyons was the TV critic at the magazine I worked at the time (she now writes for Entertainment Weekly), and she convinced me to give it a shot, wisely telling me that the show wasn’t really about science fiction—that was just a backdrop. I bit, and I’m extremely thankful I did. So in that spirit, now I say to you all: Don’t dismiss Friday Night Lights because you don’t like football. The same argument holds—the show isn’t really about football, it’s more than that. Good TV makes you care about things you didn’t expect, and because of Friday Night Lights, as silly as this sounds, I now appreciate football even more. But what’s more, the show is a rich drama that’s far better acted than just about anything else on TV, and given its intimate handheld-camera style, it can’t pull any melodramatic punches. I love the small-Texas-town backdrop, and the fact that each player, and the sport, is worshipped beyond belief. But I suppose on the surface, it’s a tough sell, since the show had one of the worst marketing campaigns when it first aired, something akin to, “YOU LIKE SPORTS?!? FEEL THE RAW GLORY OF FOOTBALL VICTORY! FRIDAY FRIDAY FRIDAY!” Also, the film of the same name wasn’t anything to get super-excited over. So I keep having conversations with people where they ask what shows I like, I tell them Friday Night Lights, and they give me a look like I said I enjoy watching Magic: The Gathering tournaments on ESPN2. My standard follow-up: “You’re wrong. It’s great. I wish I was you, seeing the nearly perfect first season of this show for the first time.”
There are a few answers I could give here, but none of them seem particularly satisfying. I used to say my personal cause was superhero comics, but the fact is that with a few of the obvious exceptions, most superhero comics are pretty stupid, and I just happen to enjoy their particular flavor of stupidity. (See also: professional wrestling, which is an even better comparison now that Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada have done to Marvel what Vince McMahon did to the WWF.) Ditto American Idol; it’s not so much that I think it’s actually good, so much as I think it’s no less stupid than any other reality show. Baseball’s status as pop culture is a subject of some debate around these parts, and I learned long ago that there’s no arguing people into thinking it isn’t boring if they’ve already reached that conclusion. And while post-structuralism and literary theory are without question the things I have spent the most time failing to convince my friends are fascinating and compelling, it’s pretty hard to call Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida pop culture unless you’ve already read a lot of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. So while this answer lacks a lot of resonance, I have to settle for one of my most quixotic obsessions: my love of field recordings of ambient sound. The reason I have such a hard time convincing people it’s enjoyable listening to Eric La Casa’s recordings of French elevators or the Quiet American’s tapes of Southeast Asian plumbing and irrigation is probably because I don’t really know why I enjoy it myself.
Like Leonard, I tend to enjoy a number of disreputable, square, and/or insanely specific things, to the extent that I once considered launching a regular A.V. Club column called “Down Is Up” in which I’d explain why the Star Wars prequels and the music of Paul Williams and ’40s domestic melodramas are all better than you might think. But now I know that I’d be pretty much beating my head against a wall with a column like that. I could tell you why I like those things, but I couldn’t really recommend them to readers who are already skeptical. I do, however, wish I could convince people to lighten up a little when it comes to comedy, and stop automatically rejecting anything that seems corny or old-fashioned. For example: Of the three-camera/laugh-track sitcoms on the air right now, I think more attention should be paid to The New Adventures Of Old Christine. It doesn’t always click, but when it does, it’s one of the snappiest shows on TV. No one’s trying to reinvent the form here—although Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is playing arguably the most pathetic female lead in sitcom history—but the cast of comedy pros has crack timing and a remarkable way of pivoting from unearned confidence to intense self-loathing. I’ve got nothing against alt-comedy, “edgy” comedy, Dadaist comedy, shock-comedy, or what-have-you, but I grew up with the more traditional stuff, and I still have a taste for it—a craving, even. I think people who reject the classic sitcom forms out of hand might develop an appreciation too, if they gave it enough of a chance. (I could also tout about a dozen older sitcoms that deserve more respect, but I’ll save that for another potential AVC column… details to come.)
Ugh, my colleagues and anyone who’s read my stuff over the past few years will know my answer. I’m even tired of talking about it, but let’s do it one more time, with feeling: Fall Out Boy. I understand people’s skepticism, because I was the same way: I wasn’t impressed when they played with my friends at Chicago’s Fireside Bowl eons ago, and I was dismissive when their major-label debut came out. But to re-parse Gloria Estefan, the hooks are gonna get ya. Fall Out Boy specializes in big, juicy ones, and I’m a sucker for poppy punk/punky pop when it’s done well. I’ve been preaching the gospel for a few years now, and I’ve had some success: A friend of mine, a longtime FOB holdout, IMed me a couple of months ago to tell me he’d been listening to them all day on Pandora. He ended his message with “FUCK YOU.” Success!
I’m also sick of detailing why, and I’ve already used this answer in a previous AVQ&A, so I’ll just keep it brief. Two words: Con Air.
I’ll keep it brief too: Hey, remember when I gave an A- to Cloverfield and everyone got mad at me? No regrets here. Watched it again, and it holds up nicely, though it might could do with a little less forced running around toward the end.
When I looked over The A.V. Club’s best of the decade list for movies, I wasn’t surprised that Anchorman didn’t make the cut, even though I consider it one of the funniest, most re-watchable comedies made in the past 10 years. Since millions of people would agree with me, I probably shouldn’t consider my love of Anchorman a “cause,” per se. But I still think it deserves a better critical reputation, and I bet it would if more critics had the time or inclination to re-watch seemingly slapdash mainstream comedies that require a couple of viewings to appreciate how lots and lots of jokes, both good and bad, delivered with reckless abandon and a prankster’s enthusiasm, really can compensate for a boilerplate story in the long run. I have no doubt that Anchorman will eventually be considered a classic on par with similarly flimsy but relentlessly quotable ’80s comedies like Caddyshack and Stripes once the generation that grew up watching it comes of age and starts writing about film. I don’t hold out as much hope for a rehabilitation of Oliver Stone’s artistic credibility, which has plummeted since his early-’90s prime, and not without good reason. But I still enjoy watching boyhood favorites like Wall Street and JFK for the very reasons the critical establishment hates them: These are balls-out, audacious, thunderously unsubtle films made by a raging egomaniac who nevertheless has a singular voice that booms with the deafening (and exhilarating) rattle of a KISS concert. Even when his films are terrible—and, yes, they’re frequently terrible—they’re never boring. And tearing into one of Stone’s ultra-hammy cinematic orgies and mulling them over for hours afterward is often more enjoyable than watching “better,” more staid movies.
I swear, I’m not saying this to be contrarian or ironic or anything. I simply and honestly love The Eagles. I didn’t always, of course; when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, they were on the radio at my house constantly, and I came to associate the band’s slick songs and obsession with sexual, material, and pharmaceutical decadence with the seedy mysteries of adulthood. I liked The Go-Go’s, you know? Then in high school, when I got into The Clash and The Velvet Underground and started absorbing as much rock journalism as I could find, one universal truth was written in stone everywhere I turned: No matter who you are or where you’re from, you’re a mouth-breathing dumbfuck if you like The Eagles. And for years, I bought into that. To this day, they’re held as an example of everything that was wrong with the ’70s—even though the ’70s as a whole are no longer out of vogue. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the group labeled and dismissed as “West Coast cocaine rock”—an ultimately meaningless cliché that totally ignores the soul, depth, craft, complexity, and sheer catchiness of the band’s output. (Hell, I’m sure The Clash and The Velvet Underground wrote just as many songs under the influence of cocaine as The Eagles did. And unless you’re a rapper circa 1995, I’m not sure if you have a legit beef with either coast.) About 10 years ago, though, I realized I loved almost every single act somehow associated with The Eagles—The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gene Clark, Joe Walsh, hell, even Linda Ronstadt—but I’d never stooped to give The Eagles themselves a fair listen. So I did. And I was blown away. Since then, I’ve tried to convince many people of The Eagles’ greatness, many times, in many different ways. But it’s like trying to get a Republican to admit global warming exists. It’s not that “serious music fans” don’t understand The Eagles—it’s that they don’t even try. Remember: Just because The Dude hates the fuckin’ Eagles, man, it doesn’t mean you have to.
You know the Swedish band that did that “Love me, love me, say that you love me” song that was a big hit back in the mid-’90s? Whatever happened to those guys? That last question was asked by Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) a few seasons ago on The Office—following his patented a cappella rendition of “Lovefool,” of course—and I could feel that familiar tightening of the jaw and reddening of the face as someone, once again, failed to respect the pop majesty of The Cardigans. I’ll tell you what happened to them, Andy. They followed up that song (and the fine album First Band On The Moon) with the sonically sophisticated and forward-thinking art-disco record Gran Turismo (featuring should-be hit single “My Favourite Game”), which was nonetheless as catchy and deceptively tart as their earlier efforts. They then pivoted oh-so-closely to adult-contempo five years later with Long Gone Before Daylight, but stayed on the right side of the line, replacing the genre’s signature bubbliness with a lovely, earthier sense of resignation. And don’t even get me started on the crystalline perfection of their 1995 breakthrough album Life. Next person who calls The Cardigans one-hit wonders gets punched by my eyes.
I have spent dozens of seconds trying to convince people that even though they aired on Spike, the reality-show parodies The Joe Schmo Show and The Joe Schmo Show 2 are surprisingly funny. Here is how I usually do that: “Even though it was on Spike, The Joe Schmo Show is surprisingly funny. You should check it out.” If that doesn’t work, sometimes I’ll describe the elimination ceremony on the first Joe Schmo, which involved the pompous host throwing a plate emblazoned with the eliminated “contestant’s” face into a fireplace and deadpanning, “You’re dead to us.” If they still don’t seem interested, I’ll say, “So, how about that local sports team? Can you believe their recent victory or loss?”
Ever since high school, I’ve been a tin soldier in a miniature dirt war, battling for my right to like The Doors. Whenever I meet someone who finds them pretentious or dull, or who takes issue with the lazily cobbled-together mythology of Mr. Mojo Risin’, I typically strip to my leather pants and then scream in their face, “How do you know you’re really alive???” until their mind totally expands and they’re like, “Whoaaa.” But when that doesn’t work, I point out that the ’60s were absolutely loaded with pretentious twits who took too many drugs and read Aleister Crowley or Also Sprach Zarathustra or whatever and decided they were gods, and that couching their most self-indulgent tendencies to fuck people (or fuck them over) in purely romantic or philosophical terms not only excused them from shame, but meant that they alone were the ones who “got it.” Furthermore, I bloviate, my eyes getting misty at this point, this is an occurrence not common solely in the ’60s, as there are loads of pretentious twits who have made great art throughout the ages. Making art is, in fact, an act of pretension, especially in its earliest stages, and just because Jim Morrison was a dick-obsessed drunk who thought he was Rimbaud because he wrote a couple of poems about wolves and shit doesn’t make him all that different from any number of dudes with acoustic guitars who think they’re Bob Dylan, in my harrumphing estimation. Like Morrison, some of those guys also make some pretty all-right music. It also doesn’t keep Robby Krieger from being one of the best guitarists of his or any era. And even though I’m a huge Beatles fan as well, I would rather listen to Strange Days all the way through than Magical Mystery Tour. And if The Stooges wrote “Five To One,” everyone would think it was the best fucking song ever. Granted, Ray Manzarek is a huge twat himself these days, and I’d never go anywhere near a “21st Century Doors” show unless it involved them all overdosing in bathtubs, but liking The Doors doesn’t automatically mean I’m some mushy-brained stoner who genuinely believes Jim Morrison was the reincarnation of Dionysus. Although he totally was—and the government killed him, man!