Hey now! We are all Hank Kingsley in the end

The classic late-night TV show is kind of a relic of the past, living on mostly through sliced-and-diced into YouTube-ready viral clips by Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon.

But the whole corny pre-internet package of celeb guests, lame gags and stupid pet tricks that Johnny Carson and David Letterman exemplified got its magnum opus in the late Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, one of the best satires ever created. 

The 1992-1998 series told the behind-the-scenes tale of the fictional Sanders show, with Shandling (Sanders), his pit bull producer Artie (Rip Torn) and especially, his tortured sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor). Tambor’s performance and the show’s fantastic writing elevated Hank’s travails to an almost Shakespearean depth. Hank is the perpetual #2, a huckster and a glad-hander who’s also pathetically needy. He’s one of the greatest characters ever seen on television. 

Hank Kingsley contains multitudes. He’s conniving, crude, arrogant and perverted; and yet, at the same time, he’s often shown to be sympathetic, insecure, lonely and capable of surprising kindness. 

“Hank’s Night In the Sun”, when Hank finally gets his moment to guest-host Larry’s show, is a rich rise-and-fall-and-rise-again tale of Hank’s ever-present hubris being sabotaged by his many weaknesses.  It’d be easy to just make Hank a monster, but take the scene where, consumed with nerves, he asks Rip Torn’s Artie for some reassurance and gets a gruff, “You do not suck” in answer. With all sincerity, downtrodden Hank responds with, “That’s one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me.” There’s no sarcasm there. Hank’s heart is always on his sleeve, right next to his ego.

Tambor, sadly, is the only surviving member of the show’s main trio of characters – Shandling died way too young at just 66 in 2016, and Rip Torn passed away just last year. But “The Larry Sanders Show” lives on as one of the best TV sitcoms of all time. 

Jeffrey Tambor is one of the great character actors in sitcom history, going all the way back to his goofy supporting work in the late ’70s The Ropers spinoff from Three’s Company. His default mode is a kind of clueless arrogance, but Tambor paints many different shades in that narrow template. While his later work in Arrested Development and Transparent is fantastic, to me his Hank Kingsley is his Mount Rushmore. 

It’s easy to play a buffoon. It’s harder to make them magnetic. But I can’t take my eye off Hank Kingsley whenever he’s on screen in Sanders, which boasted one of the greatest casts and guest actor casts in all of television history.

We all would like to be a Larry Sanders, star of our own show, king of the mountain, but in reality I’m way more likely to be a Hank Kingsley, knocked flat again and again by my own foibles, but still getting back up again every single time. Hey now! 

Year in Review: My top 12 pop-culture moments of 2019

It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!

* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984. 

* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).  

* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi WashingtonThe wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.

* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is. 

* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore. 

* The Mandalorian and finally seeing an IG droid do its thing nearly 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t tell you how geeked out IG-11 made me feel. More reading: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years.

* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart. 

* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends 

* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it

* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is. 

* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals

Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019! 

The Mandalorian: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years

If I absolutely had a pick a favourite scene from all the Star Wars movies, it’s a mere 47 seconds in The Empire Strikes Back. We’re introduced to a disreputable mob of bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader to hunt down Han Solo. 

There’s Boba Fett, of course, cult icon for the ages, and another five briefly glimpsed characters – spindly robot IG-88, reptilian Bossk, battered Dengar, Cronenbergian nightmares 4-LOM and Zuckuss. These characters are seen, don’t speak, and with the exception of Boba Fett, they’re never heard from again in the movies. (Although some harried crew member apparently threw the IG-88 model in the cluttered background of a Cloud City scene for extra set dressing, spawning endless fan theories.)

Those 47 seconds launched the imagination of a million dweeby kids and an entire subsidiary industry of books, comics and cartoons looking at just who or what those dirty bounty hunters were. That’s the best of Star Wars, to me – the lived-in sense, the countless possible back stories of background aliens and extras running around with ice cream containers.

I got kind of obsessed with those bounty hunters, even the goofy-but-fun novels exploring them. I can launch a detailed explanation of how 4-LOM and Zuckuss’ names apparently got messed up by Kenner when they made the action figures, so even though they’ve corrected the error, I still always think of Zuckuss as 4-LOM and vice-versa. 

I liked the seamy, lived-in side of Star Wars. The opening hour or so of Star Wars: A New Hope, before it left Tatooine, is rich with worldbuilding for me. The strangeness of moisture farming. The inscrutable Jawas and their building/vehicle stacked with stolen droids. I liked the grimy Sandpeople, and the eternal mystery of what’s under all that wrapping. I liked the menagerie of aliens in Mos Eisley, and coming up with complicated back stories for each of them. My friends and I would imagine action figures for all of them. Most of them have actually been made in the ensuing 40 years of Star Wars fandom. 

Yet at the same time, I don’t want everything explained in Star Wars. I didn’t want to know about the midichlorians, I’m still pretty sure I didn’t need to see Darth Vader as an 8-year-old boy, and I didn’t care that much about how Han Solo met Chewbacca, even. Everyone wanted just a little more Boba Fett, but nobody really wanted baby Boba Fett holding his father’s decapitated head, did they? I hate to admit it, but I even find the Jedi Knights kinda boring. To me, Star Wars eternally has to keep that balance between fan service and overdoing it, and lately, it usually does the latter. 

But then along comes The Mandalorian, and in my complicated relationship with Star Wars I’m hooked again by mysterious characters, aliens in the desert and those bloody Jawas. Two episodes in, it’s a pleasure, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in outer space and a streamlined, pulpy blast. To be honest, this playground is the one I wish they’d explored in all these years of Star Wars-sploitation, the grungy underbelly of Jabba’s palace and the Mos Eisley cantina. 

And there’s one scene that literally had me bursting with pent-up fan glee, as an IG droid (IG-11, not IG-88) goes into action against a bunch of mercenaries. FINALLY! I thought. After all these years, Star Wars is actually showing me one of those mysterious bounty hunters from Empire doing something, leaping into action. 

IG-88 in the original film was entirely static, giving fanboys leave to imagine anything. But to see IG-11 spinning, talking, firing blasters, moving with a weirdly Frankensteinian zombie-like walk that is exactly how I imagined such an awkward droid might move…. well, some of us have weird dreams in life and are easily pleased. I dreamed of seeing IG-88 hunting down quarry, or of Bossk wrestling a wookie or 4-LOM/Zuckuss doing evil stuff. Instead I got midichlorians, too many Death Stars and someone who’s not Harrison Ford pretending to be Han Solo. 

After 38 years, Star Wars finally gave one thing I really wanted from all its sequels, prequels and sidequels. And what a bounty it was. 

Tom in ‘Succession’: I know that guy. I hate that guy!

The ‘Succession’ dynasty.

“Succession” is a murderer’s row of top acting talent, and one of the few shows in this era of never-ending “peak TV” that hooked me from the word go. 

It’s a cross between “Game of Thrones” and “Dynasty,” about a media mogul and his family grappling with his impending retirement, and it’s a beautiful show about very ugly people.

In the age of Trump, a show about unlikable rich folk is a pretty obvious move, but “Succession” succeeds because of its whipcrack writing (which just won an Emmy) and a cast of screen greats and newcomers alike who sear the screen.

The lion in winter Brian Cox leads the cast as totally-not-Rupert Murdoch rich prick Logan Roy, with his four squabbling children jostling for power – insecure heir apparent Kendall (Jeremy Strong), saturnine creep Roman (Kieran Culkin), paranoid drop-out Connor (Alan Ruck) and steely daughter Shiv (a wonderful Sarah Snook).

Everyone’s got their favourite part of “Succession.” Maybe it’s Brian Cox’s endlessly entertaining ways to tell someone to “fuckkkkkkkkk offfffff,” or Culkin’s sleazeball sexist insults. For me, it’s the often overlooked son-in-law Tom, in a star-making performance by Matthew Macfadyen. 

Tom is the guy who’s not quite in the inner circle, but desperately wants to be. He’s married to Logan Roy’s powerful, ambitious daughter Shiv, but he’s nowhere near on her level professionally or intellectually. She’ll dump him in a hot second. He ends up running huge chunks of the Logan Roy empire simply because of who he married, giving buzzword-filled pep talks to minion staff he doesn’t even know, and pretending he’s a much bigger deal than he really is. He’s that guy who stops you in the hall to make vaguely threatening jokey banter with you and always backs off with a “just kidding, dude!” just as you get really offended. The Roy family are golden gods of privilege gliding through life, and Tom will never ever measure up. 

Tom is every idiot who failed his way to the top, but he’s just charming enough to be forgiven for it, until one day he isn’t. There’s something captivating about Macfadyen’s ability to switch from smiling to sneering in a single line, about the way a thin veneer of confidence can never quite hide the need in his eyes. How many “Toms” do each of us encounter in our workaday lives, and wonder, how did THAT guy get THERE? 

I know that guy. I hate that guy. But I kind of like that guy, too. Dammit. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, a brief post to make it clear I am neither dead not maimed, but I have been working on a few other non-blog writing assignments of late I should plug here.

Did you know that yours truly was a 13-year-old American lad during the summer of 1985, the same time that the new season of “Stranger Things” is set in? Head on over to Radio New Zealand to read my take on “Stranger Things 3” and what it was really like in the far-off mystical ’80s. 

ST3_Production_Still_4.0

Also over at the excellent website The Spinoff, I’ve crafted a somewhat expanded and possibly even improved version of my piece on the end of Mad magazine, and how it influenced the culture that’s all around us – even here in little ol’ New Zealand.

Go forth and read my extracurricular wordage, and new content shall appear here in another day or so!

The wit and wisdom of E.B. Farnum

cq5dam-1.web.1200.675“I yearn to rely on a higher will. I fear what I am capable of in its absence.” – E.B. Farnum

Yeah, yeah, everyone’s been talking about that show with the dragons and thrones this week, but I’ve been far more engaged by a mud-soaked, profane and utterly human deep dive into the mire of history.

I’ve been rewatching the definitive western saga “Deadwood” in preparation for the long-awaited movie conclusion coming later this month, and while I generally enjoy that “Thrones” stuff, I’ll take the gin and grit of creator David Milch’s unblinking author’s eye in “Deadwood” every time. 

The show’s incredibly dense writing and plotting make it one you have to pay close attention to – every scene is packed with allusions and the bustling, chaotic energy of a gold rush town slowly being pulled into the American expansion west. “Deadwood” populated its South Dakota town with a Noah’s ark of battered, eccentric characters during its three-season run from 2004-2006, including Ian McShane’s indelible Al Swearingen and Timothy Olyphant’s flinty-eyed Sheriff Bullock. I could list a dozen terrific characters from the show and have a dozen more left to spare. 

But yet, the one I keep coming back to, captivated, on my recent rewatch of the series is perhaps its most vile – William Sanderson’s oily, unctuous and verbose E.B. Farnum, Deadwood’s powerless “Mayor” and hotel owner. Farnum is the grand fool of Milch’s Shakespearean tapestry in “Deadwood,” always cringing and yet calculating at the same time, a grandiloquent sleazebag of a man.

Sanderson’s terrific, underrated performance of this Wild West Uriah Heep is hilarious and sad, as Farnum is constantly humbled and deserves every bit of it. There are times when you might feel a twinge of pity for his bluster, but then he spouts more racist rhetoric or conniving kiss-assery and you’re back to despising him again. He’s a grifter whose poetic, meandering soliloquies are often breathtakingly beautiful, yet they’ll never be appreciated because of the toadying weasel they’re being uttered by. 

“Deadwood” is a show about man’s pull between civilisation and freedom, ambitions and realities. America’s history is full of a rich tapestry of big-mouthed, oblivious dreamers who puff themselves up full of vanities and talk their way to success. As many of them fail as succeed, but the point is in the striving.

E.B. Farnum, in his hapless, malicious way, is perhaps the greatest American in TV history. 

Thirty years on, we’re still living in an ‘Alien Nation’

Alien_Nation_01The best science fiction holds up a mirror to the world we live in. “Alien Nation” was never quite a household name, but the brief cult sci-fi franchise of the late ‘80s still holds up today.

The story is simple – a spaceship crashes into the Mojave desert, with a cargo of half a million alien slaves, ‘bred to adapt and labour in any environment,’ left stranded on Earth. These alien “Newcomers” aren’t quite like us – they have spots on their skulls, drink sour milk to get drunk, and prefer their food alive – but they’re close enough to awkwardly begin to integrate into human society, which is where “Alien Nation” picks up the story, five years after they landed. 

The saga began with the 1988 film Alien Nation, a moderate hit with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. George Francisco is the first Newcomer detective on the LAPD, paired with bigoted human partner Matt Sikes. Let the culture-clash hijinks ensue! It’s gifted with a great premise, but the movie doesn’t really deliver on its potential, turning into a generic “Lethal Weapon” cop buddy picture by the end and never really exploring what an entirely alien race blending into Los Angeles would be like. 

aliennationremake-1Fortunately, that wasn’t the end for “Alien Nation,” which debuted as a series on Fox TV in September 1989. It’s in the short-lived TV series where “Alien Nation” really blossomed, spearheaded by Kenneth Johnson, creator of another great ’80s cult sci-fi series, “V.”

“Alien Nation,” the series, is a perfect mix of cheesy late-80s cop show and progressive science fiction ideas, and as long as you don’t mind big hair, pastels and synth-heavy soundtracks, it’s great viewing. The series features a wide cast of Newcomer wives, children, professionals and criminals, priests and prostitutes and the Newcomers (or Tenctonese as they call themselves) are as plausibly drawn as the Klingons or Vulcans.

500px-Aliennation-series-sw669The story carries on with the same odd-couple detective duo from the movie, but recast and given more satisfying depth. Gary Graham’s Detective Sikes is all ’80s mullet and brash trigger-happy cop cliches at first, but the character becomes convincingly more sympathetic and layered as the series progresses. Eric Pierpoint is excellent as Francisco, who balances personal courage with frequent frustrations over the racism he encounters and the culture he’s left behind. The story of his family trying to fit in – his wife, teenage son and daughter – is often more fascinating than the TV show’s cop mystery of the week storyline. The cop stuff is goofily fun, but it’s the examinations of the human and alien condition that linger.

The series gets deeper and deeper into the fascinating Newcomer culture as it goes. An episode, “Three To Tango,” which goes deep into Newcomer mating rituals (it involves two males and one female) is surprisingly explicit and thought-provoking for 1980s broadcast TV. The show also delves deep into the Newcomers’ origins as a slave society and who they were slaves to. 

Unfortunately, “Alien Nation” was a bit too ahead of its time (it’d go great today on a streaming network) and only lasted one season, but it did get five sequel TV movies which nicely expanded and wrapped up the saga. You can see its inspiration clearly in a movie like 2009’s District 9, which for my money was a lot less subtle and thoughtful. 

It’d be nice to say that 30 years on we could all view “Alien Nation” and say how far we’ve all come from prejudice and hatred of the other in our lives, but unfortunately that’d only be science fiction.