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.
Which pieces of pop culture would you have fonder memories of had they just wrapped up after a certain number of seasons/sequels/albums? —Shane
I grew up reading fantasy novels, so given time, I could probably come up with a million answers to this in terms of authors with “grind out the cash cow” sequelitis. But maybe I’ll just take that as a given, part of the pitfalls of the genre, and focus on something different. Over the weekend, a friend was studiously regaling me with his top 10 science-fiction movies of all time, and he mentioned that both Alien and Aliens were on the list. Which started me thinking… I’ve seen all four Alien movies, and (due to work obligations) both Aliens Vs. Predator movies, and I’ve read a good bit of the extensive Aliens and AVP comic omnibuses Dark Horse recently released. And I can’t think of a single good reason for any of it past the movie Aliens to exist. Alien is a horror classic; Aliens became more of an action-thriller classic. (I think a lot of its success is in the decision to take the tone in a new direction.) After those two, though… an awful lot of the rest of the series is just repetition and wheel-spinning, as the aliens invade, a group of generic people get mobbed or caught and impregnated, and a final survivor blows up an alien-infested site because, as we all know, it’s the only way to be sure. To my mind, all those repetitive cash-ins actually make the original two films look redundant in retrospect. They’re still great movies, I assume, but I haven’t re-watched them in forever because I feel like I’ve been through their stories a dozen times now and don’t need to see those stories play out yet again.
I’m probably stealing from every other writer on this site, but my answer is The Simpsons. Man, like most of you, I loved the seasons up until around 10, at which point I completely stopped watching for a while, except for the occasional burst here and there. I reviewed the animation bloc for TV Club last year, which required I get back to regularly watching, and I was shocked to find the show had become something completely different. No, it wasn’t absolutely terrible—I’m not one to think the show’s entire creative well ran dry back in the day—but it definitely felt like something wasn’t right. The plots were mostly rehashes of past episodes, Homer was no longer as loveably dimwitted, and jokes were made for the sake of making jokes more often than they served the plot. (One-off gags are great, but I like there to be a balance.) People who’d never seen the old episodes probably thought they were hysterical, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that things were better and richer before, and I found it impossible to sit back and enjoy an episode like it was meant to be enjoyed. For the sake of my own sanity, I like to think of The Simpsons as two completely separate, 10-season shows. So in my yellow-tainted reality, the show ended on its own volition and this new show, entertaining enough in its own right, took its time slot. Also in my yellow-tainted reality, everyone’s livers are jaundiced.
Recently, we were discussing possible comic-book articles we might want to feature here at The A.V. Club, and someone—I think it might have been Zack Handlen—suggested we do a Crosstalk on big comics crossover events. I was caught off-guard, not because I thought it was a bad idea, but because I couldn’t imagine anyone, at this late stage, actually defending the damn things. Obviously people buy into them; they regularly post big sales figures. But I don’t know anyone who likes them anymore, let alone looks forward to them. Those of us old enough to actually remember Crisis On Infinite Earths recall the excitement and sense of something big happening that came with that game-changing event; we also recall how quickly the bloom came off the rose, and how fast “events” turned into “non-events,” ideas about radically changing the universe soured into excuses to sell a bunch of worthless comics, and something that was meant to be special became commonplace. What followed were dozens of dull “events” that ranged from the ordinary to the abysmal. (Secret Wars II, anyone? How about a nice Hawaiian Identity Crisis?) There’s been at least one a year for each of the Big Two, and while they occasionally yield good material (52 was one of the most exciting things DC had done in years), more often they’re just arbitrary exercises in fucking with things for the sake of fucking with them, and they’re so rarely any good—and so often poorly conceived, badly written, and shoddily edited—that if we don’t have another one for another 25 years, it’ll be too soon.
I’ll give the hugely obvious answer so that geeks everywhere can cheer along with me: The X-Files. It’s the classic example of a show continuing well past its obvious endpoint, and the whole world seemed to figure it out. I’m not even saying the final seasons were terrible—they were okay—but there was a point where wrapping things up would have made perfect sense, and of course, the al-ighty ollar prevailed (Simpsons joke, not a typo). I can’t even remember exactly when it happened, only that the downhill slide started post season five, when the first movie promised some major revelations and plot tie-ups. Seasons eight and nine were largely Fox Mulder-free, and at some point in there, Mulder became a skeptic and Scully was a believer, a switcheroo that just felt dumb. And don’t get me started on the Lone Gunmen spin-off series, or the shitty second X-Files movie.
Really, this one should be easier for me to answer than just about any question I’ve answered so far, considering every hit TV show ever, pretty much, has overstayed its welcome. But answering with a TV show seems way too easy, so I’ll take different aim. The thing I hate most is a single work—a book, movie, or album—that simply goes on way, way longer than it could ever possibly need to. There’s usually a pretty good tale buried inside of it somewhere, too. As an example, I’ll take The Years Of Rice And Salt, by one of my favorite science-fiction authors, Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson’s Mars trilogy and his three dueling visions of a future California are both pretty terrific, but since then, he’s been drifting, unable to figure out what to turn his prodigious skills to next. Rice And Salt was supposed to be a return to form, and for much of its length, it was very good. But eventually, it just became obvious that Robinson didn’t have much to say about anything, that the same scenarios would keep playing out, that the reincarnating souls at the story’s center would always be the same people. Around the middle, I realized that it wasn’t going to say anything interesting about a world where the Black Death had killed 99 percent of Europeans instead of a third, that it was just going to invent a world where the Chinese and Arabs did everything Europeans did in our timeline, in roughly the same order they happened in here. There was probably a point about the inevitability of human development buried in here, but in spite of a promising start, the book never focused enough to get down to it.
Three words: Saturday Night Live. Sure, they can still pull one out of the bag, usually when they’ve got an especially simpatico host, such as Jon Hamm earlier this season. (It was his second appearance, and he already seems like he has the potential staying power of Tom Hanks or Steve Martin.) But the rest of the time? Please. It’d be one thing if most weeks of SNL fell flat because they were trying something new, but usually it’s because they keep recycling the same bits to rapidly diminishing effect. Yes, I still tune in many weeks, and I usually regret it.
When I really started getting into punk around age 16, my musical diet included of a lot of Screeching Weasel, mostly My Brain Hurts (total classic) and Wiggle. The summer before my freshman year of college, mercurial frontman Ben Weasel disbanded Screeching Weasel, seemingly closing the book on the band with the solid How To Make Enemies And Irritate People and the epic singles collection Kill The Musicians. He formed another band, The Riverdales, which went even further in stripping down Screeching Weasel’s already basic Ramones-style pop-punk. They didn’t do much for me, but before long, Weasel resurrected his namesake band, sadly without recapturing its charm. After a couple of middling post-reunion albums, I tuned out. When Weasel broke the band up (again) in the early ’00s, it barely registered with me. When he brought the band back again last year, I shrugged. Even though Screeching Weasel played a blazing, hit-filled set at Riot Fest ’09, it’s hard for me to muster much enthusiasm at the prospect of new material.
This answer can apply to several reality TV shows that have gone on for many seasons (I would be specific here, but if they went away, I would lose precious TV-criticism money) but one I used to love and finally had to turn off in disgust was America’s Next Top Model. I couldn’t get enough of the show when it came out; there was something fascinating about getting an idea, even if it was a rough cartoon TV version, of what it took for these skinny young colts to hack it in a career I knew very little about. Weight issues, photo shoots, and of course behind-the-scenes squabbling—it made for great reality TV, not to mention the fact that the cast consisted solely of beautiful people often being criticized for not being beautiful enough. Of course, as is the case with any of these shows where “one very special person” is chosen, it began feeling less special as the show dragged on. The first top-model selection is exciting, but who really can get worked up for top models number nine, 10, and 11—especially once we know that most of these girls don’t really go on to do much in terms of fashion—or, well, anything? The worst part, though, was watching Tyra Banks grow Tyra Banksier as the series progressed. Her attempts to be “real” with the girls grew more and more excruciating as her actual investment in the show diminished, thanks to her talk show and other projects. Her shots at being, like, so funny and down-to-earth just smacked of desperation. And the show went so horribly low-budget, both in terms of production and writing, that it became embarrassing to watch. The final nail in the coffin for me was the “short girls” season, where Tyra was going to name a petite top model. That’s when I knew that even the show knew it was running out of ways to stay new and relevant, and the producers had quit pretending that it had anything to do with fashion or modeling. It basically became The Girls Taking Pictures Featuring Tyra Banks Show. I stopped blogging about it because I couldn’t pretend it was worth writing about—at that point, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it for fun. The show used to be a guilty pleasure of mine, but the pleasure went away.
Was this question designed for me to once again rip Weezer on The A.V. Club? Okay, I'll take the bait: I'm totally one of those aging blowhards who loves the first two records and believes that Rivers Cuomo has been banging out tossed-off morsels of moronic pap since 2005. And I know that stating this opinion will once again fire up the die-hards, who will argue in the comments section that Weezer's recent work is “fun!” and “super-fun!” and that I'm basically an elitist snob who's too stuck-up to appreciate Cuomo's tweener-centric lyrics and willfully dumbed-down bubblegum hooks. And maybe you're right—I am obviously not part of the audience Weezer is now pursuing. People who like Weezer now have no problem with a 40ish-year-old man singing about junior-high crushes and partyin' and I do. Sorry! I still love the band's ’90s work, but if I had my way, Weezer would've never gotten back together after slipping into an unhappy hiatus after the failure of Pinkerton.
At a certain point, I came to realize that I just don’t particularly care for Eminem’s music anymore. 1999’s The Slim Shady LP rocked my world when I was 23. I empathized with so much of Eminem’s persona: the hardscrabble blue-collar roots, the Midwestern gothic, the pitch-black comedy, pop-culture references, and metatextual motherfuckery. But as he got more and more famous, his worldview contracted. The irreverent humor that characterized so much of his early work was replaced by dour seriousness and self-pity, and his “funny” songs grew increasingly juvenile. I once actively anticipated Eminem’s albums. Now I fucking dread them, especially his last one, which I’ve never been even vaguely tempted to replay. So if someone else wants to review Relapse 2, I would not mind one bit.
Well, Todd covered it in his post, but because I want to complain—House. I took over the TV recaps for the show in the fifth season, and as much as I like getting paid to write about things I enjoy, and as much as I’ve enjoyed Hugh Laurie’s continued brilliance, I would be happy at this point if the series had just closed its doors at the end of the fourth season. House never really lived up to the potential of its best episodes, but it at least managed to stay relatively consistent for the first three years. Once the original medical team left (sort of), the bottom began to drop out; the reality-TV-style recruitment process for a new team was entertaining, but the show’s inability to move forward became increasingly clear as the patient-of-the-week structure grew stagnant and repetitive. Still, the death of a major character meant S4 went out strong, and if that had been the end, it wouldn’t have been so bad. Maybe not the happiest note to leave on, but at least one that was true to the series’ honest, often bleak view of human nature and the realities of death. But ratings dictated otherwise, and we’re now grinding through the sixth season with no cancellation in sight. It’s been a slow, steady downward spiral, as writers increasingly resort to gimmicks, both in the storytelling (lookit, they’ve got a machine that can read minds!) and in the stories themselves. (Remember that time a guy took the whole hospital hostage? Kind of wish you didn’t?) Combined with a tone-deaf approach to relationships and female characters, and a gradual shift in overall perspective on its leading man, this isn't the House I signed on for, and I doubt it ever will be again.