In search of ‘The Slap Maxwell Story’

Back before the internet, nerds like me used to have quests. We’d try to seek out a particular rare Harlan Ellison book or an obscure early R.E.M. cassette single, paging through fanzines and sending off paper money orders. One of my great quests, for years and years, was trying to track down the short-lived 1987-88 Dabney Coleman sitcom, The Slap Maxwell Story.

I was a teenager thinking about becoming a journalist when it aired, and this show – starring Coleman as a middle-aged sports columnist at a failing newspaper, stuck in his old-fashioned ways and struggling to make sense of his life – stuck with me. 

The last thing anyone wants to see these days is another story of a cantankerous middle-aged white dude who’s bitter about the changing world, I know. But, for some reason, The Slap Maxwell Story resonated with a 16-year-old me in a way it probably shouldn’t have.

I’ve always liked Dabney Coleman, who had a great run in the 1980s playing a particular kind of blustery alpha male – everything from sexist bad guys (9 To 5) to unlikely heroes (Cloak and Dagger), but whose finest hours were two TV series by Jay Tarses – 1983-84’s Buffalo Bill, about an egotistical talk show host, and Slap, about a slightly less egotistical journalist. 

Of those two series, Buffalo Bill is a little better remembered – it lasted longer, won a few awards and got a DVD release years ago. The Slap Maxwell Story, however, fell into the memory hole of short-lived “content” that is only remembered by a few.  It never received a DVD or VHS release that I can tell, has never been on streaming platforms.

Still, I remembered Slap Maxwell, and always wanted to see him again. It was a quest, perhaps one of the last ones when Wikipedia and Google are here to show and tell us almost everything.  When you can’t find something, it looms large in the memory.

I remember Slap’s fumbling romance with a woman half his age (a luminous Megan Gallagher, subject of my massive teenage crush), his boozy male bonding with his inept editor and a friendly bartender. I remember him getting fired repeatedly from his job, his rather implausibly winning a major journalism award, him pitching a fit because his editor got rid of his ancient typewriter. Really, his sportswriting and newspaper gig take a back seat to Slap’s crumbling personal life and mid-life crisis of confidence. 

I occasionally trawled the internet over the years looking for any kind of physical release of the old Slap episodes – even looking at a dodgy Pakistani site claiming to sell bootlegs that I highly doubt ever existed. It’d just be something I’d do, sometimes, over the years, bored Google searches for traces of a forgotten TV show. There was proof it existed, but never any actual samples.

Finally, finally, I found Slap again, when some kind soul uploaded big chunks of The Slap Maxwell Story to YouTube a year or so back – sure, a bit choppy and scattered, apparently sourced from VHS tapes of old reruns on the A&E network years ago, but proof of life nonetheless. I tip my hat to this uploader, the magician at the end of the quest. 

Ever since I’ve been diving into reliving these old episodes of a forgotten TV show to see if they lived up to my teenage memory now that I’m almost as old (egad) as Slap himself was in the series. For the most part, it does – I wouldn’t argue it’s the Great Forgotten American Sitcom or anything, but it deserves a bit more than being lost in limbo. It’s wry and witty, bittersweet and charming in a low-key way, far less broad than many sitcoms of the era. Coleman’s Slap is somewhat more nuanced than his nastier turns in Buffalo Bill or 9 To 5 and one of the few accolades the show got him was a deserved Golden Globe for best actor.

There’s no obnoxious laugh track here (thank god). The series is a sitcom based in melancholy – something that’s common now, but was rare then. As it went on Slap’s flailing attempts to be a better man take centre stage. I can see why it didn’t last in the age of The Cosby Show, Alf and Growing Pains, because it’s kind of about a failure. 

Slap Maxwell is grumpy but gentle, and his story is one of constantly screwing up, ruining his relationships and sometimes failing upwards. He gets it wrong a lot. It’s the story of a lot of life, to be honest. I’m still hoping one day we might get a fancy physical release of these shows – increasingly less likely, I know – but even in a grainy YouTube video, Slap Maxwell’s story is one I’m happy to revisit. 

Getting lost in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’, 36 years on

I’m old enough to remember that Labyrinth was actually kind of a flop when it opened in theatres in 1986, but I recall that I still somehow managed to watch it three times there before it faded away. 

I don’t want to be that guy, but I was into Labyrinth before it was cool, man. 

Jim Henson’s film is a swirling strange dream of a movie, with a grandly absurd David Bowie as the Goblin King and young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a girl who accidentally loses her baby brother to the goblins’ realm and has to get him back. I loved it as a kid, and still adore it as an adult, but with a very different perspective on it all now. 

Watching Labyrinth over the weekend on the big screen at the glorious Hollywood Avondale for the first time in decades, it still seems to me a beautifully askew little fairy tale. All fairy tales are written by adults, and all fairy tales on some level are about the end of childhood. 

Several years ago, I watched Labyrinth for the first time in ages and it didn’t land as well – it felt a bit clumsy and halting on a small screen. I realise now that the big screen is a far better venue for Henson’s imagination, where you can appreciate the dazzling CGI-free puppet work and intricate set designs, where Bowie’s haughty sneer and Connelly’s unforced sincerity seem stronger, realer. The puppet characters are a quirky joy, especially the hulking Ludo and my favourite, the frantic Sir Didymus. 

It’s also all proudly weird, which I think is what appealed to me as a teenager – from distorted goblin designs to the cavern full of sentient hands to the creepy Fireys dancing with their separated body parts, it doesn’t feel very Disney-fied like so many young adult fantasies. Bowie takes a character that could be ridiculous (that wig!) and makes him charismatic – it’s hard to imagine possible alternative casting like Sting or Mick Jagger being quite so effective.

Bowie’s mournful songs and Trevor Jones’ score are all more adult and yearning than most kid-movie soundtracks, with Bowie’s “Within You” one of his most underrated, intense love songs. The sexual subtext of Sarah’s coming of age is right up in your face as an adult, because honestly, you don’t cast David Bowie and put him in rather tight leotards without expecting some kind of reaction, do you? 

At the time, Labyrinth was not a success. It barely opened in the box office top 10 in June 1986, beaten by the likes of Top Gun and Karate Kid (franchises that were of course, never heard from again). In Bowie’s career, it was considered part of the long post-Let’s Dance slump that included pre-grunge band Tin Machine and Never Let Me Down. (I disagree, of course, and Bowie’s firm willingness to reinvent himself makes this era stronger in hindsight.)

Yet somehow, Labyrinth endured. Part adult reverie, part teenage girl fantasy, part childhood toy-filled romp, Labyrinth still sits uncertainly next to the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Sarah’s final rejection of the Goblin King still has power – “Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave,” he tells her. She knows better, and chooses her own path. The King’s somewhat twisted affections are rejected.

There’s been talk over the years of sequels, prequels or sidequels to Labyrinth. Frankly, I really do hope it never happens. We’ve a tendency to wring out that ‘80s intellectual property until it’s exhausted, and the intimate pre-digital charm of Labyrinth can only be diluted by shoving it through the unquenchable content machine.

There is more sadness in watching Labyrinth now than there was when I was a teenager, at the other end of the telescope – sadness that the campy, imperious Bowie is gone, that Jim Henson’s dream of puppets ended too young, that we all, in the end, grow up. But there’s also joy, in knowing you were there, once, and nothing can erase the memories of the labyrinth of getting from there to here. 

Hero worship: A simple twist of Dr. Fate

Some superheroes just grab your attention when you’re young, at the perfect age to be spellbound by flashy capes and cowls. It’s usually all about the look. Maybe you were blown away by Hawkman’s wings, or Batman’s cowl, or Wolverine’s claws. For me, it was the spell cast by Doctor Fate.

I’m cautiously interested in the upcoming Black Adam movie, although it’s not so much for Dwayne Johnson as the titular antihero. Instead, I’m psyched to see what they’ll do with one of my favourite super-teams, the Justice Society, with the spooky Dr. Fate personified by Pierce Brosnan.

My first exposure to Fate was an action figure, part of the Super Powers line of the 1980s. I still own that figure 37 years on. The catchy combination of blue and gold on his costume, perhaps, struck some primal chord for me, or maybe it was that cool helmet. I just knew I liked the way this guy looked. I still do.

Dr. Fate has never quite been a marquee attraction – debuting in 1940 in More Fun Comics, created by Gardner Fox and artist Howard Sherman, he was an original member of the Justice Society. He’s Kent Nelson, who owns the mystic helmet of Nabu giving him immense magical powers – in later interpretations, he’s actually possessed by the spirit of Nabu as Fate. 

Fate’s original early 1940s stories are a dark delight – he’s given no real origin for some time, and is a mysterious, omnipotent figure waging war against evil in the stark, dreamlike fashion of early comics.

Like a lot of Golden Age comics characters, Fate’s hard edges got smoothed off fast – his striking helmet became a rather dorky-looking half-helm, he lost the cape and he started dropping corny quips. 

Dr. Fate is always best when he’s mysterious – popping up to great spooky effect in books like All-Star Squadron and Justice League of America. 

There have been a handful of terrific Dr. Fate solo comics – a memorably strong adventure by Walt Simonson in the 1970s, and a very abstract, emotional miniseries by J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen in the late 1980s I quite liked. His only solo starring series of any real duration was a 41-issue series that started out quite well, with Fate’s identity being shared by a troubled boy and his stepmother (long story) and a welcome sense of humour, before it kind of dissolved into new-age mysticism.

Fate has seen many ups and downs – an utterly awful “extreme” ‘90s reboot, a long parade of other characters than Kent Nelson donning the golden helmet. Kent Nelson himself isn’t a terribly strong character on his own, but somehow Fate still really works best when he’s the man wearing the helmet. Black Adam isn’t even his first live action appearance – he made a cool cameo on an episode of Smallville years back. 

I don’t know if Black Adam will be any good, but what little I’ve seen of Dr. Fate in it is pretty groovy… with one exception. For some reason, they’re depicting the Helmet of Nabu without any eyeholes. It’s … striking, but also weird, like having a Superman without the “S” or Batman without the pointy ears. The all-seeing eyes of Dr. Fate have always been a critical part of his look, and it’s a curious choice. Maybe it’ll look better on screen. 

I could never really pin my Dr. Fate fandom on one particular quality to the character – there are other spooky mystical heroes like Dr. Strange and The Spectre, after all, and like I said, he’s starred in a handful of good comics over the years, but more often, he’s the man in the background, popping up to drop some magical deus ex machina. 

In the end, it all still comes back to that distinctive look by Fox and Sherman more than eight decades ago now – sometimes, that’s all you need to make a character stick in your mind. A look can imprint on you when you’re young, and you might just always be a bit of a fan. Perhaps it’s just Fate. 

Cobra Kai: Get teenage kicks right through the night

The only reason Cobra Kai exists is because of nostalgia, of course. 

And yet, it’s proven over five seasons now to be a campy, fist-pumping time capsule of ‘80s excess, mixing teen pathos that wouldn’t be out of place on Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place with butt-kicking kung-fu frenzies. 

I’ve long gotten rather jaded and tired of the endless revivals, reboots and prequels of my childhood obsessions, but somehow I just can’t get enough of Cobra Kai, the continuation of the long-ago ‘80s Karate Kid franchise starring Ralph Macchio. I inhaled the brand new season 5 over just a few days (which for me, with my dislike of “binging” TV, is damned fast). 

The characters in season 5 of Cobra Kai are nowhere near as “realistic” as they felt in Season 1, where you truly empathised with Johnny Lawrence’s downbeat life (the great William Zabka) and rooted for his quixotic struggles. Cobra Kai’s genius was focusing on the bullying “loser” of the first Karate Kid and giving him real emotional depth. There’s something uniquely pathetic about the vain teenage jock brought down to earth, fumbling his way through life, and Cobra Kai’s first seasons were interesting because they also made us question whether Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso was the “good guy” after all in The Karate Kid

Over five seasons now, Cobra Kai has far exceeded in runtime the three ‘80s movies it’s based on. It’s widened its cast to include the children of the original stars, various other nerds and bullies and hangers-on in the endless karate battles of the San Fernando Valley, and enough teenage angst to fill the entire CW network. It’s utterly unsubtle, the characters make stupid mistakes and yeah, the roller-coaster of teenage love affairs and constant emotional reversals can get a bit old, but they’re always broken up by another entertainingly silly karate bout before too long. 

As it goes on, Cobra Kai really embraces that ‘80s junk-food aesthetic where a somewhat grounded movie becomes increasingly over-the-top and extreme as the franchise goes on (see also: Rocky, Rambo, Lethal Weapon, etc.) Season 5 of Cobra Kai feels like the Rocky IV of the franchise to date – broad, swaggering and confident in its own ridiculousness. 

Part of the pleasure of the latest series is Thomas Ian Griffith’s scenery-chewing turn as Terry Silver, who struts around sneering and smirking like a Bond villain from a Roger Moore movie. Griffith was the villain in the overwrought Karate Kid Part III, nobody’s favourite KK film, and yet his Gordon Gekko meets Bruce Lee antagonist gives the last few seasons of Cobra Kai a punchy energy. 

The bombastic emotional music and rising stakes (it’s not just a battle for one karate dojo now – it’s a battle for the future of karate in the world!) are pure cheese, but I don’t mind. There’s a lingering pomposity in much of “peak TV” that turns me off at times, and there’s something about Cobra Kai’s economical 30-35 minute episodes and brisk 10-part seasons that aren’t quite as daunting as some shows. 

There is very little Jackie Chan-style elegance or invention in Cobra Kai’s kung fu fighting. It’s blunt and rarely pretty brawling, and despite the gentle teachings of sensei Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) hanging over the series, it’s almost always fighting in anger, with emotion running hot. Despite all their skills, the characters in Cobra Kai are constantly falling short of their lofty ideals.

Perhaps I love Cobra Kai because it’s pitched directly at me, the fumbling teenager who watched the original movie in cinemas and is now a 50-something striver just like Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. We all want to make something more out of our lives and are vaguely astonished when we get to the midpoint. There’s also something optimistic in how old foes mellow out and become weathered allies – season 5 features the “villains” from Karate Kid 1, 2 and 3 all teaming up to fight the big bad. Gosh darn it if I didn’t almost want to cheer. There’s hope for everybody in the world of Cobra Kai. (Except Terry Silver, boo, hiss.)

I wouldn’t call Cobra Kai the finest show on TV or anything, but somehow its open-hearted eagerness to please and throwback absurdity suits me a lot more than sitting through more games of thrones and lords and their rings. Forget your hobbits and dragons – a good old crane kick will leave me satisfied almost every time. Teenage kicks, they’re hard to beat. 

*And yes, that’s a lyric by the Undertones quoted in this post title, from the late John Peel’s favourite song of all time.

Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022: My time under the monarchy

Queen Elizabeth II poses for a portrait at home in Buckingham Palace in December 1958.

For almost 16 years now, I’ve been a subject of the Queen. 

It’s kind of weird whenever I think about it — that a kid who was born in Alaska, grew up in the hills of California and went to university and started his career in Mississippi, would end up a subject of the British monarchy. 

But ever since I moved here to New Zealand in 2006, that’s exactly what I’ve been, and since becoming a New Zealand citizen around 10 years back, I even swore allegiance to her majesty.

Although we all knew it was coming, it’s a strange thing indeed to wake up and learn that Queen Elizabeth II is dead.

I’ve always been a bit neutral about the queen, neither a rabid royalist nor a fanatical republican. I guess I’ve mostly just been interested in the workings of a centuries-old system of royal hereditary rulership, having grown up pledging allegiance to a different flag, to myths and legends about George Washington and Abe Lincoln. I liked the novelty of being part of a monarchy when I moved here, of having the Queen on our coins and cash and all the little finicky bits of royal protocol I’ve had to learn in my work as a journalist. 

New Zealand is my home these days, quite possibly for the rest of my days, and King Charles III is now my head of state. Hearing the words “God save the king” this morning for the first time felt bloody, bloody weird, I’ll tell you that. 

The last couple of years, there’s certainly been a part of me that’s kind of appreciated the kind of cultural stability the Queen’s presence brought, when you look at the chaotic upheaval among flailing political parties in my homeland, where a creeping authoritarian fascism seems to be more and more accepted.

And after 16 years here, I firmly think some parliamentary system of government – where party leaders are more accountable, where minor parties have a larger voice – is essentially superior to the creaky, unfair US system of antiquated electoral colleges and deeply unequal representation, states with 500,000 people having the same Senate spots as states with 50 million. 

Sure, there’s lots of questions to raise about the legacy of the monarchy and its relevance in the future, about the bad things that have happened under kings and queens, the idea of being “born to rule” and the often horrific impacts of colonialism.

But today, I’m just kind of sticking to my number one rule about engaging with the internet in 2022: Don’t be a jerk. 

Ninety-six years, 70 of them in one job, is a good run. The sheer longevity of her reign – she ascended the throne when my 80-something parents were teenagers – is remarkable. She spanned from the age of silent movies and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to streaming TikToks and Prime Minister Liz Truss.

History is happening now, today, and tomorrow. We’ll all go back to arguing about everything in a few hours, I’m sure, but today, I’m watching the great gears of history turn and one era ending, forever.


Review: Midnight Oil, Auckland, September 3

Midnight Oil, Auckland, September 3. Photo: Me

There’s a great book about ground-breaking ’80s punk bands called Our Band Could Be Your Life. For me, Midnight Oil is one of those bands.

As the Aussie enviro-rockers shook up a nearly full Spark Arena last night on the Auckland stop of their farewell tour, I thought a lot about how the band has been part of the soundtrack of my life for more than 30 years, and helped shape how I think about the world.

I wrote a review and appreciation of one of my favourite bands as they zipped through town – go read the full piece right now over at Radio New Zealand!

After 204 years, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein still haunts us

The thing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is it’s not the story you think it is.

Mary Shelley was only a teenager when she wrote the book that has led some to call her “the inventor of science fiction.” At the very least, she certainly helped create some foundations for it. However, if you’ve binged on old Boris Karloff movies and are expecting Frankenstein the novel to be the same animal, you’re likely to be a bit befuddled. 

The book has a rather average 3.8-star rating on GoodReads, with critics saying it’s “like watching paint dry” and “tedious.” Published in 1818, it does get off to a somewhat slow start, with a series of nesting first-person narratives from an Arctic ship captain, then Victor Frankenstein, and then finally the monster itself. There’s not a lot of what we jaded 2022 folk would call “action” and a lot of flowery romantic language.  

But once you abandon expectations of a silent Karloff-ian zombie lurking in the shadows and Colin Clive shrieking “It’s alive!”, Frankenstein is still a pretty remarkable book which I return to every few years. It turned 200 years old just a few years back, so keep in mind its voice is almost closer to the era of Shakespeare than it is 2022. It is a novel of ideas and debate, rather than straight horror, although god knows plenty of horrible things happen to Victor Frankenstein and his creation. 

The first time I “read” Frankenstein was in one of those adapted great works of literature children’s books, which stripped the story down to the essentials and ran some evocative illustrations to go with it. These days, my go-to version of Frankenstein is one with utterly gorgeous macabre drawings by the late, great Bernie Wrightson to go with Shelley’s text. More than some classic novels, I’ve always felt like Frankenstein cries out for a little art to complement the wordy text. 

Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s another classic horror book that is quite different in tone than its many adaptations. So much of our image of what “Frankenstein” is comes from James Whale’s 1931 film – which I utterly adore, don’t get me wrong. Even the idea that the monster itself is somehow actually called “Frankenstein” emerged from those old Universal films. (In the books, he refers to himself as Adam at least once.)

The bones of Shelley’s story still stick with me years later. When I first read it, I was obsessed by the image of Frankenstein chasing his monster across the Arctic wastes that frames Shelley’s story, the idea of monster and creator pursuing each other into the frozen wastelands throughout eternity. I love Shelley’s questing monologues for the Creature, who is the polar opposite of Karloff’s silent, mournful monster. The Creature is violently angry at the world that scorned him but also gorgeously descriptive about his cursed place in it: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” 

One of the most notable things about reading Frankenstein the novel is how all the scientific explanations for the monster’s creation we are so used to don’t appear at all. There’s no Igor, no labs filled with lightning, only a hint of grave-robbing. Shelley is almost coy about how the monster came to be, dismissing the technical details within a sentence or two. She is more interested in the question of duality – are monsters made, or are they created by the world’s reaction to them? The spark her book lit has fuelled a thousand other interpretations and expansions of her dark tragedy. 

Hollywood has taken many, many swings at the Frankenstein story in the past century but never quite captures the book. Kenneth Branagh’s overwrought 1994 film has its moments of fidelity, but still piles on laboratories sparking and its campy excess misses the book’s haunted, spartan tone. 

But I’m happy with that. There’s many great Frankenstein movies out there, but the novel that birthed all these monsters is very much its own animal, two centuries old now and still filled with wonder and horror and mystery about the world around us.