One bad apple… we can live with that: 31 rotten parts of otherwise fantastic wholes
- Meddling Kids + Sidekick + Mysteries = Series: 13 Hanna-Barbera productions that recycled the Scooby-Doo format
- Jukebox superhero: 26 songs about Superman
- “No Such Agency”: 11 movies that tried to warn us about the NSA
- Heroes on trial: 16 superhero court cases
- Over there: 30 foreign series that need immediate legal import to the U.S.
1. Friday Night Lights’ Landry-kills-a-guy arc
The rumor mill had NBC interfering with the terrific, reasonably lifelike Friday Night Lights at the outset of season two, specifically insisting that showrunners spice things up in order to lure more viewers. What those showrunners came up with was a story arc that, if it weren’t surrounded by much, much better material, could have scared loyal viewers off completely. In the season’s first episode, a creep who stalked Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) in season one suddenly returns and starts messing with her again. Loyal Landry (Jesse Plemons), in a fit of scared, will-this-get-me-laid bravado, smashes the guy’s skull in, and the two hide the body. As our own Scott Tobias put it in his review at the time, “It’s not like this development is handled poorly, exactly. It’s that it doesn’t belong on Friday Night Lights, a show that excels at evoking the day-to-day drama of a football-obsessed town with the utmost verisimilitude. Murder and cover-ups are the province of cop shows and courtroom dramas; FNL has always been about common problems, not extraordinary ones.” Luckily, the show returned to its smarter roots—and got booted off network TV, into cabletown.
2. The Clash’s Cut The Crap
By the time The Clash disbanded following Mick Jones’ departure in 1983, the band had already… Wait, The Clash didn’t break up after Mick Jones left? Oh, right. How easy it is to forget the band’s actual swansong, 1985’s Cut The Crap. Easy and almost obligatory. Historically revisionist Clash fans love to overlook not just the suckiness of Cut The Crap, but its very existence. Released after Jones and drummer Topper Headon left, the album is Joe Strummer’s misguided attempt to keep a zombified version of The Clash shuffling along minus Jones, its secret songwriting mastermind. It didn’t work. A bloodless mess of slick production and shrink-wrapped faux-punk that makes Billy Idol look legit, the disc isn’t sharp enough to cut any kind of crap, let alone its own. Even The Clash’s indulgent triple-LP Sandinista! has come to be rightly revered in recent years, leaving Cut The Crap as the band’s single, unmitigated stinker.
3. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring’s Tom Bombadil
Part of the enduring power of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic is that it manages to be many different things to different people; however, the character of Tom Bombadil generally remains nothing to no one. If the character hadn’t originated in a children’s poem Tolkien wrote back in the 1930s, it would be easy to suspect the author’s enemies had inserted him into the text. A “merry fellow” who speaks in rhyming nonsense verse and has a magical communion with nature, Bombadil is a whimsical nightmare whose childlike indifference to power and other corrupting influences makes him immune to the power of the ring. That last bit sounds kind of interesting, but it only keeps him on the sidelines of the sweeping narrative. When it’s suggested that Tom might be a candidate to serve as bearer of the ring, Gandalf dismisses the idea out of hand, for fear that the goofy bastard would be likely to lose it. Or eat it. Or give it to the cat to play with. Because of this, those adapting the work to other media have naturally been quick to zero in on Tom when looking for bits to cut. Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, which shows an unerring sense of which elements of Tolkien’s story would translate to the big screen, never even dares whisper Bombadil’s name.
4. Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s first season
Although the fanbase surrounding Joss Whedon’s adventure series about a high-school cheerleader turned vampire slayer has always been obsessive, even the most vocal devotees to the life and times of Buffy Summers generally concede that her adventures didn’t hit their stride until the second season. While “Welcome To The Hellmouth” and “The Harvest,” the first two episodes of the series, do a fine job of setting up the premise, the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is predominantly a collection of freestanding installments that go out of their way either to focus on the teen angst within Sunnydale High or to prove that it isn’t just vampires that make Sunnydale a strange place to live. While the silliness of storylines like Xander’s substitute teacher being a giant praying mantis (“Teacher’s Pet”) or Willow experiencing Internet romance with a demon who wants to upload his essence into a giant robot (“I, Robot… You, Jane”) can be charming, it’s hardly the stuff to hold up as the reason why the series was among the best that TV had to offer in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
5. The Velvet Underground’s Squeeze
Unless they’re playing the rodeo-and-state-fair circuit, few bands from the classic-rock era have remained active after all their original members have departed. The Velvet Underground, however, kept on chugging after Lou Reed quit in 1970, leaving Doug Yule—a replacement player who had joined two years prior—to record Squeeze. Released in 1973, the album is a wholly underwhelming, forgettably pleasant rock record with a couple of standout tracks. But the fact that it has The Velvet Underground slapped at the top moves it into the execrable column. Yule has his defenders, and they’re justified to a certain degree. But there’s no denying that Squeeze simply can’t hold a candle to the nervy, innovate, Reed-fueled VU releases that came before.
6. Lost’s Nikki and Paulo
For fans of Lost, the words “Nikki and Paulo” have become shorthand for “completely despised characters that threatened to derail everything good.” (Try using it at a party: “Look at Nikki and Paulo over there; why did we even come here?”) The lovers, introduced out of nowhere in season three—supposedly to answer the question, “Why don’t we ever see the other survivors?”—brought with them a Passions-level story that had nothing to do with the key plot of the show. Damon Lindelof admitted to EW that the two were “universally despised,” though he promised in the same breath that they would become “iconic characters.” They didn’t. Instead, Lindelof listened to fans and gave the characters the ignoble deaths they deserved, buried alive by the rest of the castaways—but not until after an indefensible scene featuring a spider used as a weapon.
7. The Gormenghast series’ Titus Alone
One of the strengths of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series is its density. The first two books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, take place in a castle in an unidentified, apparently medieval world, where bad things happen extremely slowly. Centuries of ritual have coalesced into meaningless routine, and the first true threat the nobility and commonfolk face comes in the shape of a young man with a particular skill for disruption. The books are slow, thoughtful, and uniquely textured, which is why Titus Alone is such a disappointment. The story follows Titus Groan as he flees the castle of his birth, and the duties that come with his inherited nobility for the outside world, where he finds a city full of skyscrapers, helicopters, and strangely modern trappings. As if the time-shift wasn’t strange enough, the book has a distracted, sketched-in feel, at times more of an outline waiting to be filled in than an actual novel, with none of the stolid weight the earlier books in the series conveyed. While this could’ve been an intentional choice on Peake’s part, the effect is a story that never quite feels on the right track. It doesn’t help that Titus himself is more of a cipher than a distinctive character, and none of the cast from Titus Groan or Gormenghast even appear. The ensemble was one of the series’ greatest strengths, and none of the characters introduced in Titus Alone are defined enough to take their place. Given Peake’s troubled medical history, it’s probable the final finished volume in the trilogy suffered from his declining health, but whatever the reason, it fails to live up to the work that preceded it. Thankfully, that work is so strong, and its own story so perfectly self-contained, that it’s easy to view Titus Alone as a fascinating failure, an afterthought from a writer who died with too many thoughts unfinished.
8. Parks And Recreation’s first season
It’s often advisable to start watching any television show from its pilot episode, particularly one that develops either plot or character-based arcs along the way. But when it comes to NBC’s Parks And Recreation, even the most diehard fans would suggest approaching its six-episode first season with caution. While plenty of shows experience growing pains as they figure out their own strengths and weaknesses, the problems in those first three hours are so egregious that many still refuse to return to what they inaccurately perceive as The Midwest Office. The best advice? Start watching from the second-season première. Your reward? Only one of the richest, funniest, smartest shows in the past decade. Parks might have been slow in finding its footing, but it’s been lapping other televised comedies ever since.
9. The Stooges’ The Weirdness
Between 1969 and 1973, The Stooges changed the world—or at least mangled and mutated a small corner of it—with The Stooges, Fun House, and Raw Power. Then the band imploded and frontman Iggy Pop launched a spotty solo career. Meanwhile, as the decades passed, The Stooges’ reputation and influence grew. The inevitable reunion finally came to pass in 2003, and surprisingly, the reconstituted Stooges could still bring it live. But then they had to drag it into the studio, resulting in 2007’s painfully lackluster The Weirdness. The only thing weird about it is how mediocre it is: Rather than writing music from a fresh perspective, Pop and crew laughably rehashed (and then pissed on) their past. At its best, The Weirdness sounds like a bad Stooges tribute band; at its worst, it just sags. The Stooges were always self-destructive, but who knew Pop would so casually, joylessly, set fire to the band’s own legacy?
10. NewsRadio’s final season
In the late ’90s, spring could be a torturous time for fans of the cultishly adored NBC comedy NewsRadio. The network was never happy with its ratings and forever leaving it on the cancellation bubble until the last minute. In 1998, the reprieve came a couple of weeks after the last minute: NBC officially cancelled the show, then changed its mind and ordered another 22 episodes for the fall. A few days later, Phil Hartman—the most beloved member of an ensemble that included Dave Foley, Maura Tierney, Stephen Root, Khandi Alexander, Joe Rogan, Vicki Lewis, and Andy Dick—was murdered by his wife. The season première, which brought in Hartman’s longtime friend Jon Lovitz to fill the void, begins with all the regulars trying to process their grief over the passing of Hartman’s character, Bill McNeal, whom they all talk about as if he were someone more like the revered Hartman than the dickish character he played. But the void refused to be filled, and the cast members often look as if they were finding their grief impossible to process so long as they were chained to the same set where they’d spent three years working with their dead friend. Tellingly, the season finale ends with the whole crew preparing to depart for a station in New Hampshire. They never made it there; NBC finally cancelled the show for good, three episodes short of the hoped-for benchmark of an even hundred.
11. Eastbound & Down, “Chapter 15”
Considering how ridiculous Eastbound & Down was, it might seem a little perverse to criticize an episode for being too over-the-top. But in its 15th chapter, the show flies defiantly off the rails with a surreal yarn that relegates Danny McBride’s shit-kicking antihero to the distant background so that Will Ferrell (who also executive-produced the show) can take the spotlight as a demented car dealer out to impress his Korean business associates by any means necessary. In “Chapter 15,” that entails making McBride’s emasculated sidekick (Steve Little) dress in drag, then volunteering his services as a lap dancer. That’d be enough weirdness for most shows (even one as ballsy as Eastbound & Down) but “Chapter 15” just keeps upping the ante until an underling of Ferrell’s is shot at with a cannon (yes, a cannon) for alleged sexual improprieties with Ferrell’s broadly stereotyped black maid. The episode is uncompromising and boasts a fever-dream intensity, but it’s also jarring in its tonal shifts and off-putting in its lusty embrace of outsized caricatures.
12. R.E.M.’s Around The Sun
Unlucky album number 13 whimpered into the R.E.M. canon in 2004, the culmination of a commercial sputtering that had begun with 1998’s Up. Around The Sun feels like a band both out of energy and, worse yet, completely bored. Peter Buck said exactly that to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008: “The last record, for me, just wasn’t really listenable, because it sounds like what it is, a bunch of people that are so bored with the material that they can’t stand it anymore.” Fans can argue about which albums they hold dearest—and it’s a testament to R.E.M. that there’s not a real consensus—but ask anybody who’s followed the band which album is worst, and they’ll almost surely cite this stultifying collection. Thankfully, R.E.M. returned with a pair of solid, often excellent albums—Accelerate and Collapse Into Now—before splitting up.
13. Albert Brooks’ The Muse
Albert Brooks is so ahead of his time that he delivered the definitive satire of reality television and the narcissistic lust for fame—1979’s Real Life—at a time when the reality genre was barely in its infancy. Brooks followed it with an uncompromising, pitch-black romantic comedy (1981’s Modern Romance), a satirical masterpiece about the American dream at its most self-centered and myopic (1985’s Lost In America), and critically acclaimed films about the afterlife (Defending Your Life) and family (Mother). In those five films, Brooks breathed fresh insight into well-worn topics, but in 1998’s The Muse he was reduced to recycling hoary clichés about the desperation and ruthlessness that fuel the film industry, in a fanciful tale about a struggling screenwriter (Brooks) at the mercy of a flighty and demanding muse (Sharon Stone). Brooks went from breaking new ground creatively to joining the herd of filmmakers making the same familiar jokes about heartless studio executives, cutthroat competition, and the serf-like status of screenwriters in an industry that seems to delight in chewing them up and spitting them out. The Muse is never less than amusing (it is an Albert Brooks film, after all, albeit easily his worst), but when a filmmaker consistently delivers greatness, merely good is never quite good enough.
14. The Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work
The great myth of The Rolling Stones’ catalog is that the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band hasn’t released anything worthwhile since 1981’s Tattoo You. While it’s true that the Stones haven’t put out anything as good as that album in the past 30 years, that doesn’t mean those records aren’t worth hearing. Voodoo Lounge and Bridges To Babylon are perfectly fine even if they wither when compared to, say, Exile On Main St. The only truly skippable album in the Stones catalog is 1986’s Dirty Work. Recorded when relations between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were at an all-time low, Dirty Work is both perfunctory and drenched in flopsweat, as the aging rockers awkwardly try to update their sound and image to mid-’80s standards. The irony is that Stones albums from the ’60s and ’70s would sound far more contemporary than the clanky and robotic Dirty Work within just a few years. As for the brightly colored jackets on the cover, let’s hope Keef doused them in whiskey before dropping a cigarette on the pile.
15. Fallout: Brotherhood Of Steel
The Fallout series of role-playing games has long been revered for its rich post-apocalyptic mythos, its detailed world, and the unsurpassed freedom of choice that it grants the player. Fallout: Brotherhood Of Steel contributes little to that legacy. The action-oriented 2004 spinoff de-emphasizes character development and exploration in favor of faster, more streamlined shooting at stuff. Players can’t revisit places that they’ve been before, although that may not be much of a heartbreaker. While Fallout games are typically able to paint an engrossing landscape with their limited palette (brown and greenish brown), in Brotherhood Of Steel the blandness stands out. The script has a similarly generic feeling. Unable to replicate the Fallout wit, the makers of Brotherhood opted to fill in the blanks with clichés and profanity. The game was enough of an unloved aberration that Bethesda, the studio that now oversees the Fallout series, has declared Brotherhood to be outside the official canon—exiling it to wander the nuclear wasteland in solitude.
16. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Most fans of the Indiana Jones movies would be fine pretending that the fourth installment, 2008’s Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, never occurred. Released 19 years after Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, the fourth movie would have needed a lot to go exactly right to retain the timeless spirit of the first three. While fans of Raiders Of The Lost Ark were happy to see Karen Allen reprise her role as Marion Ravenwood, that was one of the few parts of Crystal Skull with any ties to the previous three. Audiences received neither a wisecracking, engaging Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford seems unable to fully shake his “I’m Harrison Ford and I’m exhausted and annoyed” persona) nor a worthy replacement in Shia LaBeouf, who publicly admitted to feeling disappointed in the movie. Plus, while fans were accustomed to Nazis, Biblical mythology, living-heart removals, and melting faces, the addition of nuclear bombs, Soviets, and aliens to the mythology somehow felt unbelievable. So many different elements, combined with a director/producer struggling to maintain the spirit of the original trilogy, resulted in a film that feels jarring and rote at the same time. While Temple Of Doom is often held up as the worst of the initial trio, it still maintains the high-flying comic-book/movie-serial feel of installments one and three. (It helps that Harrison Ford still appears to be trying and/or enjoying himself.)
17. Bob Dylan’s Saved
Bob Dylan has released his share of stinkers over the course of his illustrious 50-plus-year recording career. But no matter how dire the record, there’s usually at least a song or two that ends up salvaging the enterprise. Down In The Groove is pretty worthless, but at least it gave us “Silvio,” one of Dylan’s best rockers of the ’80s. Under The Red Sky is a huge mess, but “Born In Time” and “Cat’s In The Well” became highlights of his live shows at the time. Even Self-Portrait, which prompted rock critic Greil Marcus to ask, “What is this shit?” in his Rolling Stone review, has a cult following among Dylanologists who insist its bizarre mix of covers and half-formed originals is better than advertised. But no matter how much you love Bob Dylan, it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for 1980’s Saved. It’s true that the album has songs that have appeared in superior versions elsewhere, either by Dylan or other artists. (John Doe’s cover of “Pressing On” from the I’m Not There soundtrack slays Dylan’s original.) But on Saved they sound flat and labored, hampered by Dylan’s stridently vocal born-again Christianity. (Yes, Saved is interminable even by Dylan’s born-again standards.) Dylan is rock’s greatest singer-songwriter, with a rich and rewarding catalog, but Saved feels unnecessary and redundant, repeating themes from better albums that weren’t all that interesting the first time.
18. The Godfather Part III
Contrary to popular belief, Sofia Coppola did not ruin The Godfather Part III with her performance as Mary Corleone, the ill-starred daughter of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. Coppola, who subbed in at the last minute for Winona Ryder, delivers an undistinguished performance, but the film’s problems run much deeper. For starters, a third Godfather movie never seemed particularly necessary. Pacino’s character spent the two previous films ensuring his damnation, leaving director Francis Ford Coppola and writer Mario Puzo nowhere left to go. (Maybe that’s why the one scene in the film that really works, Pacino’s attempt to confess his sins, simply confirms his hell-bound status.) As a thriller that extends the series’ themes of corruption to the Catholic Church, The Godfather: Part III is passable. It just doesn’t feel much like a Godfather film. Robert Duvall opted not to participate, and though cinematographer Gordon Willis did come back, he shot the film largely without the Rembrandt-inspired shadows and studied compositions that characterized the previous films. And some of the returning elements aren’t quite the same either, Pacino having evolved, if that’s the right word, into a much more demonstrative actor over the years. Fans of the first two films probably owe it to themselves to see the trilogy through to the end. But where the first and second Godfathers lend themselves to endless viewings, with the third, to borrow a line from Angel’s Lorne, once is enough.
19. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
The combination of exploration and ability-enhancing equipment upgrades in the 2D Castlevania games is such a fun and iconic formula that, along with the similar Metroid games, it’s considered its own genre—“Metroidvania.” And the 1987 NES game Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest possesses some of the elements that would later be refined in the masterful Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night (and many sequels after that). Diverging from the linear layout of the original Castlevania, Simon’s Quest takes place in a sprawling world that requires players to learn its terrain and backtrack to uncover new secrets. The trouble is that all that backtracking can take the player across wide stretches of mostly nothing, so the game often lapses into tedium. Even more obnoxious is the fact that Simon’s Quest is practically impossible to complete without referencing a hints guide (an online walkthrough today, Nintendo Power magazine in the ’80s). In contrast to the clever, carefully crafted challenges of more recent Castlevania games, the puzzles in Simon’s Quest are outlandishly obscure. Even when the game itself offers clues toward a solution, they’re often rendered incomprehensible by the tortured translation, like when a villager advises you to “Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole.” What the peasant is trying to say is that you must kneel before Deborah Cliff with the Red Crystal to conjure a tornado. But of course, Simon’s Quest assumes, you already knew that.
20. A Song Of Ice And Fire’s A Feast For Crows
These days, the George R.R. Martin business is a good one to be in. His last novel, A Dance With Dragons, was one of last year’s biggest sellers, and Game Of Thrones, the television series inspired by his work, continues to thrill fans and critics alike in its second season. But the fans weren’t always so happy. It took five years for the follow-up to A Storm Of Swords, the fourth book in the Song Of Ice And Fire series, to appear, and in that time Martin fielded complaints from unhappy (or outright furious) readers demanding to know what happened next. Overwhelmed by the challenges in balancing any number of story threads and character perspectives while still turning out a novel at a reasonable length, Martin compromised with A Feast For Crows, a cast-off from what had been intended as a much larger novel. FFC tops out just under a thousand pages, and features few of the characters who had helped make the series such a success; worse, the book fails to capture the risky, anyone-can-die intensity of early books in the series, instead focusing on secondary characters as they trudge through an increasingly war-torn landscape. The concept—War Is Hell—isn’t terrible, but the novel lacks energy, trying to get too much mileage out of repetitive character behavior (Cersei is frustrated at the limits of her power! Brienne asks questions!) while bringing in additional, and apparently unjustified, plot complications. Martin managed to regain some of the series’ fumbled momentum with DWD; given that there are only two more books in the story, he won’t need to draw events out much longer. If he sticks the landing, then FFC will be remembered as a brief detour dictated by the limits of publishing and time. The big question now is how the television series will adapt a book that essentially consists of people waiting for what happens next.
21. Newhart’s first season
It’s not that the 1982-1983 season of Newhart is awful; it’s just that, compared to what the show became from its second season on, the first season’s episodes feel cheap and clumsy. Most people remember Newhart as a lushly filmed look at the nutballs who populated the town in Vermont where Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) and his wife Joanna (Mary Frann) own the Stratford Inn. But the first season was shot on video, so instead of the warm glow of film, it has the harsh lighting and cheap-looking of a video production. Instead of the mostly mute backwoodsmen Larry, Darryl, and Darryl owning the greasy spoon next door, Dick’s neighbor is Kirk (Steven Kampmann), a slimy, scheming cliché out of the Richard Kline School Of Sitcom Neighbors; Kirk’s in love with the Loudons’ maid, Leslie Vanderkellen (Jennifer Holmes), the boring cousin of the more petulant—and hilarious—Stephanie (Julia Duggy), who joined the gang in the second season. And yuppie in the woods Michael Harris—played by the underappreciated Peter Scolari—didn’t even join the show until Dick started working local TV in the third season.
22. Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers
Released in 2000, Sonic Youth’s much-maligned NYC Ghosts & Flowers sounds like the work of a band desperate to reinvent itself—or perhaps trying to predict what the music of this strange new millennium would sound like and trying to get there first. Coming on the heels of a string of very-good-to-excellent albums—is there a seven-album streak better than 1987’s Sister to 1998’s A Thousand Leaves?—NYC Ghosts & Flowers sees the band trying to recapture the freewheeling spirit of its earlier releases. Instead of sounding revitalizing or revolutionary, it feels reactionary. Hearing Thurston Moore flatly read bogus beat-poetry lines like, “The narcs beat the beard oracles / Replacing tantric love / With complete violence” and namedrop D.A. Levy on “Small Flowers Crack Concrete” is just embarrassing. Though not without its defenders (Robert Christgau liked it), NYC Ghosts & Flowers is generally considered the nadir of the band’s otherwise revered catalogue. (It’s also one of a handful of records to score a flat-out 0.0 from Pitchfork.)
23. Pixar’s Cars 2
A sweet film about talking cars that shoehorned in thoughtful commentary about the corporatization of everyday life and the value of preserving some vanishing pockets of Americana, the 2007 film Cars was a passion project for Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter. A lifelong car enthusiast who built the film from extensive research into Route 66, the now-outdated cross-country highway along which the film is set, Lasseter invested Cars with plenty of heart. He also stretched his company’s unbroken string of movies embraced by audiences and critics alike, a streak that went back to Toy Story in 1995. But Lasseter broke that streak with the decidedly so-so Cars 2, which shifted the focus from the lessons learned by the fast-moving Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs to McQueen’s globe-trotting spy adventures alongside Mater, a backwards tow truck voiced by Larry The Cable Guy. As a spy spoof, it’s both flat and familiar, in spite of the typically great Pixar animation, and the emphasis on Mater, an amusing-enough character in the first film who was embraced by younger viewers, suggests Pixar, for the first time, deciding to pander. Whether it will go down as a misstep or a sign of bad things to come remains to be seen: The next Pixar movie, Brave, is due in June.
24. Big Star’s In Space
Like The Stooges’ The Weirdness, Big Star’s 2005 album In Space was the first effort from a beyond-influential band in decades. And, also like The Weirdness, it quickly obtained sub-footnote status. A snooze that doesn’t even have the unpredictability of Alex Chilton’s solo albums going for it, In Space sounds little like Big Star in spite of reuniting Chilton with drummer Jody Stephens. It was forgotten seemingly as soon as it was released, as if everyone agreed that Big Star would only be diminished should its definition as “that tragically overlooked pop group from the ’70s” ever change.
25. Richard Linklater’s Suburbia
Richard Linklater made his name with Slacker, which immersed viewers in the filmmaker’s leisure- and eccentricity-rich Austin, Texas. He followed it up with two more films about how people talked to each other during their downtime: Dazed And Confused and Before Sunrise. So, in some respects, Suburbia isn’t that great a departure from what preceded it. A night in the life of some shiftless twentysomethings who make a local convenience store the hub of their sad existences, Suburbia has much in common with Linklater’s past work on the surface. But beneath that surface is a toxic script from Eric Bogosian (adapting his own play) with none of the effortless empathy of Linklater’s previous films, or those that followed. Everyone treats each other awfully in Suburbia, but any reason to make the film beyond capturing that awfulness seems elude Linklater, Bogosian, and the cast. It’s a misanthropic cul-de-sac to which the director has thankfully never returned.
26. Battlestar Galactica, “Black Market”
Though the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series finale has its share of detractors, nearly everyone who argues over it can agree that the three-hour episode at least attempts some really cool, ambitious stuff, regardless of how well it was realized. The same is not true for this second-season entry, a curious misfire that even series showrunner Ron Moore said wasn’t as good as it should have been in his weekly episode commentary podcast. The series always struggled when it attempted to delve into the problems of the civilian fleet, and it never delved deeper than in this episode, which looks at the rise of a black-market economy on several of the civilian ships. The episode strands Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber) in a storyline that fails to find intrigue in the lives of a bunch of guest stars. The episode’s sole highpoint? A solid guest performance from Bill Duke as one of the chief businessmen behind the black market.
27. The Sopranos, “Christopher”
There may be no episode of a quality TV series more readily identified as its worst than “Christopher,” from The Sopranos’ fourth season, which attempted to offer a satirical take on the show’s problems with groups who believed it perpetuated anti-Italian stereotypes. The satire was flat, the story added little of note to the season’s ongoing storyline, and the fact that the episode came so early in a season that had seemed—to that point—a little listless endeared it to few. The central conceit involves Tony Soprano and the gang growing upset when a Native American group protests Columbus Day. Seeing Christopher Columbus as an Italian hero, the Soprano crew swings into action, but their attempts to play the games of identity politics ring false and don’t offer the humorous bite of the best satirical Sopranos hours. Despite a solid scene that closes out the episode, this one’s an unprecedented Sopranos flop.
28. The X-Files: I Want To Believe and The X-Files season nine
The X-Files is one of the most influential TV dramas of all time, proving to the broadcast networks at the time that audiences would accept science fiction if it looked enough like another genre (a cop show in this case), and that there was room for experimentation both with visual storytelling and serialized narrative. The show’s first eight seasons are good-to-great; only the flagging seventh season has significant problems, and the eighth (the first without David Duchovny’s Mulder as a full-time regular) was revitalized by the new “search for Mulder” story-arc. The ninth and final season, however, is a clumsy mish-mash of stuff that had once worked and new serialized storylines about so-called “super soldiers.” At the time, the format seemed tired next to more sophisticated dramas like The Sopranos, and the terrorist attacks of 2001 made The X-Files’ particular strain of paranoia seem quaint (despite the fact that the show’s spinoff, The Lone Gunmen, all but predicted the attacks, and some of the conspiracy theories it would inspire, a few months before). Even worse is the second X-Files movie, an attempt to revive the series as a going concern that feels more like a disappointingly standard entry from the show’s fifth season—and seems to take a strangely forgiving stance on pedophilia at times.
29. Escape From Monkey Island
The Monkey Island series has produced some of the most beloved graphic-adventure games ever made. The first two—The Secret Of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge—feature the input of mastermind Ron Gilbert, who was reportedly building a trilogy of comedic swashbucklers that would conclude in a fantastic final chapter. Instead, Gilbert left LucasArts, the company that published the games, and the series lay fallow for several years. The third game—Curse Of Monkey Island—isn’t as good as the first two, but it’s still fun, and it has excellent cartoon graphics. It’s Escape From Monkey Island, the fourth game in the series (and final game developed by LucasArts), that left fans with a bitter taste. Boasting ugly graphics, ungainly gameplay (including a terrible minigame called Monkey Kombat), and puzzles that are nonsensical even by the series’ silly standards, the game also clumsily attempts to tie its events into the cliffhanger ending of the second game. But the team creating the game had nowhere near the level of skill of Gilbert and his right-hand man Tim Schaefer, and the story seems content to coast off the memories of past glories.
30. Neil Young’s Everybody’s Rockin
Neil Young fans may quarrel over whether Rust Never Sleeps beats Tonight’s The Night, but there’s not much disagreement that the ’80s were his lost decade, comprising a string of stylistically scattershot records that range from passable to nigh-unlistenable. Time has been kind to the oft-maligned Trans, and live rearrangements have rescued songs like Landing On Water’s “People On The Street” from their dated synth morass. But there’s no redeeming Everybody’s Rockin’, Young’s tossed-off tribute to the sounds of his youth. Drawing on rockabilly, blues, and doo-wop with an equal lack of conviction, the album mixes redundant covers with slapdash originals. (The only exception is “Wonderin,’” which actually dates back to the ’70s.) The album’s scant 25-minute running time is partly attributable to the fact that Geffen Records cancelled the recording sessions, filing a now-infamous lawsuit against Young for, in effect, failing to sound like himself. Odious as taking its beef to court may have been, Geffen’s decision to truncate Everybody’s Rockin’ feels at this distance like a mercy killing.
31. Elvis Costello’s Goodbye Cruel World
“Congratulations,” wrote Elvis Costello in the liner note to Rykodisc’s 1995 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World. “You’ve just purchased our worst album.” Even at his least inspired, Costello’s never put out a record without at least a few decent tunes, but on Goodbye, they’re buried under Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley’s dated production. It’s hard to decide whether Pete Thomas’ tinny drums or Steve Nieve’s cheesy keyboards are a greater offense to the ear, but an Elvis Costello album that opens with a saxophone solo is not one that encourages further investigation.