My top pop-culture moments of 2021

And so, the curtain drops on 2021, a sequel that somehow managed to perform even worse than the blockbuster year 2020 did. Still, despite the grimness on personal fronts and the continuing stupidity of life in general, there were a few halfway decent moments. So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, here’s my top pop-culture moments of 2021, with links back to some of the original posts about them.

Filling a Crowded House, in a brief pandemic oasisMy experience seeing Crowded House playing a packed Auckland arena back in March happened in New Zealand’s several blissful months of Covid-free life, before the Delta outbreak in August. It also was a life-affirming blast of a show, with Neil Finn and company delivering a celebratory concert of hits and new songs that just made you feel glad to still be here, alive and appreciative of all the things we took for granted pre-2020. There’s been a lot of times I’ve lost faith in humans the past two years, but at that one concert, a big crowd of us all singing and smiling felt kinda sorta all right. Here’s hoping going to big concerts again becomes normal soon.

The open-throated passion of John Cassavetes – A ‘discovery’ for me this year was the work of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, who I’ve long been meaning to delve into. His work dating back from the late 1950s sparked much of independent film, and Cassavetes was determined to present life in its messy, often unexplainable complexity. In movies like Faces, A Woman Under The Influence and Husbands, people behave madly, inconsistently, and irrationally – like they often do in real life. His movies are a challenge, to be sure – the loose-limbed Husbands at times feels like a drunken TikTok video starring Peter Falk might – but even while they push and prod you, you find yourself thinking of them constantly the next day.

When big franchises take a few chances – I’m a fanboy, but I’ve admittedly burned out a bit on the assembly line of superhero movies and childhood classics being regurgitated over and over (did anyone really want another Ghostbusters?). So I was pleasantly surprised by two venerable franchises that didn’t play it entirely safe – James Bond in the long-delayed No Time To Die, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Without spoiling either, they took risks – ones that might not have satisfied every fan. James Bond faces challenges he never had before in No Time To Die and the ending was a disturbing but effective shocker. And the idea of a multiverse-straddling take on Spider-Man could easily have gotten overstuffed and absurd (I’ve ranted about the overuse of multiverses before), but instead, we got a story that embraces the idea of the shared cinematic history of franchises and characters who just keep coming back in a heartfelt, dignified way. There’s a reason it’s smashing box office records.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I had been meaning to read this series of books by Grossman for a while now, which could be broadly described as “Narnia/Harry Potter, but for grownups.” They tell a somewhat familiar story of a young magician, Quentin Coldwater, and his ups and downs learning magic and having brilliant, frightening adventures in fantastic lands. The Magicians books were perfect escapist reading during the dregs of Auckland’s lengthy lockdown, brisk and darkly enjoyable, with the imaginative flair of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the solid characters of Harry Potter, but aimed at a slightly older audience who might like a bit of drinking and sex to spice things up. I read better books objectively this year, but these ones were among the most fun.

Superman, still the best superhero – It’s been a good time to be a fan of the man of steel. One of the best decisions the corporate overlords made a few years back is to let Superman finally marry Lois Lane, and to let them have a kid together. It’s allowed Superman to mature as a character into everybody’s ideal dad, and unlike some big changes to the status quo for comics characters, for now, this one seems to stick. On TV, I praised the superbly entertaining Superman and Lois, which combines spot-on casting with great Super-action and a show that’s not afraid to get emotional. In the comics, writer Brian Bendis finished up a suprisingly cool run that felt modern and daring yet true to the character, while the anthology series Superman: Red And Blue was an ideal summation of the character’s appeal with a variety of mostly excellent short stories starring Kal-El. Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, who’s now a young adult, got his own title and it’s turned out to be one of the best new superhero comics of the year – a young, progressive and caring superhero (who’s also bisexual, which has gotten the usual suspects outraged). All in all, from the perspective of a rather troubled real world, Superman and his son seem more relevant than ever.

Lighting a Sparks – I admit I’m losing my touch with current pop culture as I settle into extreme middle age, but part of that is because there’s so darned much OLD pop culture to still enjoy. I was aware of Sparks and liked some of their work, but Edgar Wright‘s excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers triggered one of my famed full-fledged obsessive binges, as it spurred me to dig into the art-pop band’s hefty 50-year discography. It’s a delight to find a band you like and then find out that they’ve got literal mountains of material for you to enjoy.

Meeting Neil Gaiman, in strange days – I’ve always loved the Auckland Writers Festival, and like many things I loved it’s had rocky days during the Covid era. Fortunately, this year’s festival went off just fine in May, and a big highlight was getting a chance to meet one of the world’s biggest writers, Neil Gaiman, who’s been a bit of a New Zealand resident himself with his wife Amanda Palmer during the pandemic. I waited an hour or so to briefly meet Neil and have him sign a few of my favourite books after listening to some excellent talks he gave, but that was nothing compared to some who waited up to six hours. Neil was apparently as much a gentleman with the last person in line as he was with the first. They say never meet your idols, but getting a chance to tell them how much their work means to you is sometimes worth the wait.

Godzilla smashes up King Kong – Look, I know, it’s a big dumb old monster movie. But Godzilla Vs. Kong was, in my deep critical analysis, very, very good at being a big dumb old monster movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a well-played VHS tape of the 1962 King Kong Vs Godzilla that I unironically love. Maybe it’s because I saw it on a booming IMAX screen, just at the start of NZ’s pandemic-free idyll mentioned above, and because I could watch King Kong and Godzilla wrestle on aircraft carriers nearly life-size. I’m not saying it will win any Oscars. I’m not saying that it always makes sense or that most of the human characters are memorable. But you know, most of the classic Toho Godzilla movies are pretty wacky, too. With magnificent modern special effects and plenty of monster action, this heavyweight bout was worth the wait. Sometimes, you just want to see Godzilla punch through a building. Indeed, after a year like this one, who doesn’t want to do that themselves sometimes?

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve had a few posts half-written but life has kind of been overtaken by events here in New Zealand this week and it’s been a bit crazy as we deal with an unfortunate outbreak of the Delta variant. It’s been the first time in more than 6 months for any lockdown here and this is the strictest one since April 2020, but it’s a persistent beast of a disease out there…

Hopefully things will improve soon and most of us haven’t forgotten for a second how incredibly fortunate/lucky/grateful we’ve been not to have it as bad here as so many other places in the world have, and so many friends and family have suffered in the past 18 months or so.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy doing a lot of work with Radio New Zealand, and in bloggable content I wrote about 10 recent (and a couple not-so-recent) shows to watch during lockdown, which is applicable in an awful lot of places in this troubled world at the moment. Go and have a read!

Superman and Lois: The hero the world needs now

I’m the first to admit that even a die-hard comics fan like me can’t keep up with the endless movies and TV shows based on spandex-clad superheroes these days. When a new Superman series from the “Arrowverse” stable of shows was announced, I was interested, but not exactly dazzled. But it’s turned out that Superman and Lois might just be the best take on the Man of Steel since the glory days of Christopher Reeve.

The secret? A Superman who smiles. A Superman who isn’t fraught with lonely alien tension or the burden of god-like powers all of the time. A Superman who’s got problems, sure, but who still is a beacon of hope. That’s not an easy character to get right – Batman or Wolverine will always seem cooler, but Superman was the first and is still in my mind the greatest of superheroes. And at his best, his adventures should make us feel good. It’s harder than it looks – but the best Superman stories, whether it’s Alan Moore’s “For The Man Who Has Everything” or Gene Luen Yang’s Superman Smashes The Klan, make it work. 

Look at this brief scene from the latest episode, and it sums up why Superman and Lois is becoming my favourite comics-based show on TV these days. 

“My mom made it for me” = Superman’s character in a nutshell.

A square-jawed mom-loving good guy can be boring, but all it takes is a good actor and decent storylines and Superman soars. (Look at Chris Evans, whose definitive take gave new life to Captain America, a character I always considered kind of boring.) There’s things I do like quite a lot about Henry Cavill’s Superman in the Snyderverse – he’s got the look down pat – but he’s ill-served by grim-dark storytelling that positions Superman as the haunted eternal outsider, instead of what he really is – the ultimate successful immigration story. 

Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman debuted as a guest-star on the Supergirl TV series and was striking but a bit unformed – he seemed a bit too thin at first, with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow – but in his own solo series with an excellent Elizabeth Tulloch as the best Lois Lane since Margot Kidder, Hoechlin’s portrayal of Superman is getting better every week. Unmoored from the increasingly complicated antics of the Arrowverse, this is an older, more settled Man of Steel. Superman and Lois comfortably breaks the old paradigms by showing a comfortably married Clark and Lois, with two teenage sons, moved back to Clark’s old hometown of Smallville from the big city. There’s plenty of super-action, but also the drama of Clark and Lois’s teen sons Jonathan and Jordan – one of whom is developing super powers of his own.

Superman and Lois may have started a little slow – the first few episodes were heavy on the teen angst which all felt a bit 90210, but gradually the show began to give Clark and Lois equal time. There’s been some excellent plot twists in recent weeks as a dire threat against Superman and Earth itself becomes apparent, but the biggest focus for Superman and Lois is family. It’s a show that’s unafraid to care about its characters, and instead of seeing Clark Kent as an aloof alien, he’s unabashedly human. He’s a father who sometimes stumbles but his love for his sons is uncomplicated and unwavering, which is nice to see. 

A recent flashback episode dove into Clark and Lois’ courtship, and was a beautiful love letter to the Superman mythos that also felt kind of fresh and daring. Instead of the whole rather played-out “spineless milksop” Clark Kent pining after a Lois Lane who only has eyes for Superman, this Lois Lane actually falls for Clark Kent first. Yeah, you still have to buy into the notion that a pair of glasses and a mild hairstyle change can keep people from realising Clark = Superman, but hey, that’s comics. Tulloch’s Lois is also terrific, with her go-getter independence and reporting tenacity intact and her mom energy strong. Superman and Lois could easily turn into a goopy family drama but the actors have a confidence and sincerity that makes the show stand out from the increasingly repetitive feeling of the surviving Arrowverse shows like Flash

Superman here feels more joyous than he has on screen in ages – between Bryan Singer’s misguidedly overwrought Superman Returns, which wallowed in the drama of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies without ever finding their heart and humour, or Zach Snyder’s increasingly militaristic and stern Superman, it feels like we’ve gone years without seeing a Superman who simply enjoys his life and his family. Reeve became an iconic Superman because of his elegant charm, and light touch. Hoechlin gets that. 

The Superman of Superman and Lois is certainly facing challenges – there’s a dark threat of his turning against humanity as one of the plot threads – but I like to think it’s still a show that will keep the optimism and hope of its titular hero at centre stage. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a Superman who likes his job, is there? 

Manimal, where the idea was better than the TV show

A TV producer named Glen A. Larson was responsible for an awful lot of the schlock I adored in the 1980s – Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, The Fall Guy, Knight Rider, Automan and perhaps my most beloved short-lived TV series, the eternally mocked Manimal

Larson was the go-to for cheesy action shows with a ‘hook’ that ripped off other movies (Automan might have well as been called Almost Tron). Larson pumped out an awful lot of hits before his death in 2014, but his fair share of misses, too.

As a kid, I didn’t realise Larson was kind of scorned by the critics. I remember being totally into the original Battlestar Galactica when I was a wee idealistic young thing, and it took my several years to realise that the show was actually kind of a critical punching bag, that lots of folks thought it was just a rip-off of Star Wars, and so forth. I still don’t agree, but do admit Galactica had many creaky spots. (They were all completely right about Galactica 1980, though. Phew.) 

Which brings me to Manimal, a show that I know intellectually is not all that good but I kind of adore it. Poor Manimal only lasted a mere 8 episodes in the fall of 1983, and god help me, I watched every one of them at the time. Manimal was the tale of Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), a playboy British dude who thanks to some vaguely explained exotic foreign training could turn into any animal he chooses. Naturally, he ends up fighting crime, joining the police department as a vague “consultant”, like Sherlock Holmes with fur, and paired with a perky young detective (Flash Gordon’s Melody Anderson). Lately, I’ve been rewatching the brief run on a cheap DVD I picked up (you won’t find something this obscure on streaming) and while adult me sees the plot holes and cliches galore, Manimal is still a kind of goofy retro treat. Come on, how can you NOT like that opening theme? 

Look, the show was cheese, boilerplate ‘80s cop storylines enlivened by the guy who could turn into animals – mostly a black panther and a hawk, although once he turned into a snake. The transformation sequences were goofy but cool stop-motion special effects, although they were largely repeated in every single episode. The budget and desire for innovation was clearly minimal – you hear the same panther roar sound effect about 1000 times in the eight episodes – and one of the more ridiculous side effects was that every time Jonathan transformed into an animal, tearing apart his clothing Hulk style, he somehow ended up instantly back in a stylish three-piece suit at the end of every animal change. Back in the day, David Letterman got a lot of mileage out of Manimal mocking. Really, I can’t blame him. 

And still – MacCorkindale is an engaging leading man, endlessly confident in his own abilities and making Jonathan Chase more likeable than he could’ve been. (Sadly, MacCorkindale died of cancer at just 58.) And Anderson, who was a frequent guest on all kinds of ‘80s TV shows, is an enjoyably cynical sidekick. The rest of the stock characters – the token Black partner who never gets much to do, the always angry police boss – fare less well, and honestly, the scripts on Manimal’s 8 episodes are barely mediocre. The good doctor’s backstory is never really explored, nor is the potential of his powers.

Larson was known for knocking ‘em out and having some good hooks, but the execution is probably where much of his reputation for mediocrity came from. Other than the guy who turns into a cat once or twice a show, it’s cliche cop show 101. But it was Manimal’s core concept that hooked me as an animal-obsessed kid – a guy who can turn into any animal! – and that I still kind of love today.

I don’t know if I really want to see a Manimal reboot – they’ve been threatening one for years, which would probably end up starring Will Ferrell or Jack Black or something – but at the same time it probably wouldn’t have the awkward low-budget charm of Glen A. Larson’s short-lived TV show. I’ll take my poor neglected Manimal just the way it is.

WandaVision and at long last, the redemption of Monica Rambeau

Look, it’s been a long time since the last Marvel movie came out in theatres, so you had better believe I’ve been soaking up those WandaVision episodes to fill that spandex-shaped hole in my heart. 

I’ve always loved the Scarlet Witch and the Vision’s tragedy-tossed romance in the comics, and even though the portrayal on screen is pretty different, it still hits the spot mostly. But I’m not here to gossip about Wanda and the Vision, or to speculate on all those plot twists and spoilers. (Although if you’ve been a comics fan for decades like me, things that are obscure to many viewers are less of a surprise, unfortunately.)

No, I’m here to sing the praises of WandaVision supporting character Monica Rambeau, played excellently so far by Teyonah Parris. For those of us who grew up at a certain time in the mid-1980s, she was OUR Captain Marvel – not that guy, not that guy, and no, not that lady either. Without giving too much away about WandaVision so far, it’s clear that the TV show’s Monica is heading toward converging with her comics namesake in many ways. 

Monica Rambeau was “Captain Marvel” for about 6-7 years from 1982 to 1988, and unfortunately her story is one of the saddest stories of mislaid potential in comics to me. She made a dynamic debut in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 as a woman with mysterious energy powers, written by Roger Stern, who’d go on to chronicle her in Avengers as well.

I remember well picking up that Spider-Man annual and young Nik being dazzled by the splash page debut of this new Captain Marvel, standing tall and proud on the Empire State Building. Even in 1982, she was a striking character – a strong, confident Black woman from New Orleans who managed to utterly avoid a lot of the cliches about Black heroes – she wasn’t “angry” like Luke Cage or mysteriously foreign like the Black Panther. She was relatable in a way many previous Black heroes weren’t. She wasn’t quite like anybody I’d seen in comics before, which were still a pretty lily-white area in 1982. 

She joined Roger Stern’s Avengers shortly after her debut – the first Black woman Avenger! – and a common subplot in his stories was about her adjusting to superhero life and her powers and juggling a career and life back with her family in New Orleans. None of it was groundbreaking stuff for comics at the time, but this Captain Marvel always held my attention.

Captain Marvel gained in confidence and experience and eventually rose to become the leader of the Avengers, breaking a glass ceiling I applauded. And then everything went rather wrong. Roger Stern was sacked as Avengers writer, and a misguided storyline by the next creative team saw Rambeau constantly, obsessively questioning her leadership skills, then suffering the indignity of being both depowered and mind-controlled and essentially forced off the team by everyone’s least favourite Avenger, Doctor Druid. It was a real betrayal of her character and while I don’t think it was intentional, it was kind of offensive that the first Black woman Avenger was written off so abruptly. 

Marvel didn’t die and she got her powers back, but honestly, she’s never been quite the same character since. Marvel Comics didn’t seem to know what to do with her. She gave up the Captain Marvel name, which she had well and truly earned, to yet another Captain Marvel. She popped up in many Avengers tales, with vaguely generic new superhero names like Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum. She just became another one of Marvel’s many, many superheroes rather than the captivating self-made woman who blazed through the 1980s in a sizzle of light.  

A wisecracking, cynical version of her later appeared in Warren Ellis’ very funny 2006 superhero parody NextWave. It wasn’t hard to imagine this was a rather meta Monica Rambeau, pissed off as hell at the world of comics after rising so quickly and then falling into obscurity. Eventually Carol Danvers became the “official” Captain Marvel and well, she’s probably got the title for life now. 

So you’ll forgive me if I’m excited about Monica Rambeau showing up, apparently gaining powers and wearing an outfit that harks back an awful lot to her first appearance in the latest WandaVision. I’m really enjoying her role in the show and her likely further appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even if I know she won’t be called Captain Marvel there.

It’s been a long road for redemption for Monica Rambeau’s character, who deserved better as the first Black female Avenger. She deserves this shot, and more. 

Waiting for Star Trek: Discovery to truly take off

Look, I’m a Star Trek fan. I’m used to some mild disappointment mixed with pleasure. But I’m still a fan. At its best, the questing curiousity of Star Trek blows away the good vs. evil tropes of Star Wars in my mind. 

And so I watch Star Trek: Discovery, and I keep hoping for it to be better than it actually is. 

Star Trek: Discovery is a show that, three seasons on, has never quite figured out what it wants to be. Season 1 was a vast war and conspiracy epic that also managed to wrap in parallel universes. Season 2 combined crowd-pleasing returns for Spock and Captain Pike with an impenetrably complex time-travel apocalypse/evil robots arc. Season 3 has jettisoned all that and taken us 900 years into the future for another fresh start. 

Discovery has also spent far too much of the time focusing on Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that often tips over into straight-out overacting. Sure, Captain Kirk overacted too, but it’s not 1967 any more. The more measured acting style of a Patrick Stewart or an Avery Brooks is sorely missed. 

The biggest problem with Discovery it that it goes for an 11 every time when a 6 or 7 would do. It’s a show that demands emotional bombast but doesn’t actually earn it most of the time. An overpowering soundtrack telegraphs every weepy epiphany, and the show is constantly telling us how much the characters love each other without really showing it much. 

Take the most recent episode, where a security officer who’s been relegated to the background for so long now I forgot she was still on the show gets an emotional farewell arc. The worst example of this was in Season 2 when a character, Airiam, who’d barely been more than a glorified robot-headed extra, died in a blaze of glory and got what felt like an episode-long funeral. It was filled with the worst of Discovery’s mawkish sentimentality, all for a character we barely even knew but the show wanted us to mourn like she was Spock.  

Three seasons on, too much of Discovery’s cast are still ciphers, with Burnham’s character taking up most of the oxygen. I don’t hate Burnham, like a lot of online fans do. I’m pleased to see a Black woman lead a Star Trek show. But her character is written as an annoyingly inconsistent cross between an impulsive rebel and a Starfleet true believer, elbowing aside all other characters.

Doug Jones’ Saru is my favourite, a fascinating contrast to previous starship captains, and he’s fortunately become more and more prominent over time. The relationship between Lt. Stamets and Dr. Culber also feels far more genuine than most of the show’s telegraphed “big moments.” Tig Notaro’s snarky Jet Reno is also a welcome addition. But three seasons on, most of the bridge crew are still not much advanced beyond “blonde girl” and “Asian man” and “person with stuff on her face.”

One of the biggest pleasures of Star Trek over the years has been its ensemble casts, something Discovery keeps losing sight of. Discovery’s choice to focus so much on Burnham has left it lacking the diverse storytelling that Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager all had, where one week might focus on Worf and the next on Riker. It makes the show feel hobbled and far less widescreen than Star Trek should be. 

I’ll still boldly go where Discovery goes, because I’m a fan, and because there are plenty of good moments amid the wonky scripts and overwrought storytelling. But the voyage doesn’t have to be quite this bumpy. 

Sometimes you can go back, and it is most excellent

So a few weeks ago I had a bit of a rant about inessential sequels, the never-ending Terminators and Predators and remakes which plague Hollywood.

But then on the flip side, there are the revivals that bring something new to their franchise, and when it works it’s like the best school reunion ever. 

Exhibit A: Forget Tenet, I am so here for Bill And Ted Face The Music. It was the first new movie I’d seen in theatres since March, and the first time the whole family went to a cinema since gosh, maybe Avengers: Endgame.

After nearly 30 years, was the return of Bill and Ted really necessary? Turns out it kinda was. Face The Music is goofy, silly and big-hearted, just like the other two Bill and Ted movies, and even if I kept squinting and seeing John Wick when I looked at Ted now, it was ultimately a mighty fine palate-cleanser for the sour stew that is 2020. 

These movies about time-travelling doofuses are not high art – and don’t think too hard about the plot mechanics – but they’re effortlessly charming, thanks to a never-goofier Keanu Reeves and the spunky Alex Winter (who is always fun despite a pretty low-profile acting career). When writing about Terminator: Dark Fate and other encore sequels the other week, I lamented how they just keep repeating the greatest hits. Bill And Ted 3 does a bit of that too, but it still feels scrappy, surprising and less machine-made than Terminator 6 or Predator 4 – and has a great subtext about what it’s like to be a middle-aged dude and still not quite made it. Its message of unity makes Bill and Ted feel weirdly relevant in 2020. It won’t win Oscars, but most of the unashamedly feel-good Bill And Ted 3 left me smiling like seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in years. That’s what any long-in-the-works sequel should do, rather than just straining to keep the intellectual property alive. 

Meanwhile, I’d have laughed if you’d told me a decades-on sequel to The Karate Kid would be some of the most enjoyable TV in ages, but Cobra Kai, which recently landed on Netflix, is absolutely a blast. I grew up with Ralph Macchio’s cheesy inspirational Karate Kid series, and even had one of my quasi-first dates at a screening of The Karate Kid Part II. (Peter Cetera’s goopy power ballad The Glory Of Love still slays the memory of pubescent me every time.) Cobra Kai is brilliant because it flips the script to tell us the story of Karate Kid Danny LaRusso’s nemesis from the first film, Johnny Lawrence (a terrific William Zabka), now a washed-up alcoholic trying to make one last go at his dreams. By turning the heel into a troubled antihero and giving returning Karate Kid Macchio (now a car salesman!) some much-needed moral ambiguity of his own, and tossing in the same stirringly motivational karate kicks of the original films, Cobra Kai turns out to be the model for how a franchise can come back from the dead and really have something to say. 

Even a once-adapted, beloved novel can have some new life in it, like Hulu’s recent take on Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. The 2000 film starred John Cusack, but the recent TV series flipped the switch and cast Zoe Kravitz as “Rob” Robin, record store owner and confused romantic. Switching genders doesn’t always improve a story – see the forgettable Ghostbusters remake – but Kravitz’s excellent performance finds new depth in Hornby’s tale, and the grittier, more lived-in feeling of the series elevates it above the movie. It’s a shame the show was cancelled after just one season as it was very promising stuff and moving well beyond just being a cover version of its predecessors. 

I still think there’s way too much strip-mining of popular movies of the past in hopes of striking gold twice. But Bill And Ted, Cobra Kai and High Fidelity show that if you’ve still got a good story to tell, there’s still hope for the future in the past.

21 minutes and done: In praise of the classic sitcom

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it a little hard to concentrate this year.

I’ve got a hefty 600-page novel I’ve been working on for weeks now that’s really good, yet I keep getting distracted. I have plans and projects. Yet I keep “doomscrolling” (a fantastic phrase) and worry I’ve missed the latest catastrophe.

Thus, for solace, I turn to the essence of distraction: the classic sitcom. I think it might just be the perfect tonic for the befuddled mind. To me, despite all the great dramas out there, the platonic ideal of television is still the 21-minute sitcom. 

A good episode of Frasier or Seinfeld or Brooklyn Nine-Nine has all the energy of a terrific one-act play. A familiar cast of characters, a story that unfolds conflict and resolution in just a score or so of minutes, and a few jokes you can laugh at. I’m easy to please. 

Not all sitcoms are created equal. Seinfeld still holds up brilliantly, but I simply don’t get the belated critical elevation of Friends, an amiable show that I watched while it aired but feel no need to ever revisit again. I can watch episodes of Frasier until the sun grows cold and dark, but maybe thanks to my son’s youthful addiction to it, my tolerance for all but the most classic episodes of The Simpsons is kinda low now. 

It doesn’t all have to be old stuff from the pre-internet days, although the nostalgic kick of an old episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or M*A*S*H still holds up for me. I fondly remember watching many of these shows after school in an era where streaming was something you did while fishing. I’ve also been rewatching all of the brilliant Community, or newer stuff like the terrific The Good Place, Fleabag or Schitt’s Creek.

A good comedy can take a simple plot – two brothers open a restaurant together; a television clown dies; a group of friends can’t find their parking spot; a cool dude in a leather jacket jumps over a shark – and make it sing. 

There’s an endless ocean of content streaming out there, and it seems like there’s a new hot show every week. Yet I have to admit I’m giving most of it a miss. There’s a million classic movies to watch if I feel the urge for something longer, but the bloated storytelling of many streaming shows turns me off. 

Looking back, commercial television kind of sucked – I don’t miss the adverts much. Like many of us now, the times I actually watch “live” TV with commercials and everything are pretty rare.  

Without commercial restraints a single episode can stretch on as long as it wants, often without really earning that running time. Shows that merit 21 or 40 minutes turn into 60, 70 minutes. They lack the Oscar Wildean economy of wit that tight 21 minutes forced a sitcom to be. 

An awful lot of so-called “classic” weren’t all that great either, to be fair. But it also forced creatives to work within those tight parameters. Twenty-one, 22 minutes, tell a story and get out, and for those 21 minutes, all the blues are chased away. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen, and the worlds you created

Arrow could be subtitled, “The Evolution of a Hero.” Oliver Queen started out as a guy running around in a hood murdering bad guys; he ended it as a cosmic Christ-like figure literally sacrificing himself for the entire universe. 

With its final episode this week, I bid a sad farewell to my favourite superhero TV series after 8 years and 170 episodes, which left an entire comic book cosmos spinning it its wake. 

Batwoman? Black Lightning? Supergirl and The Flash? Who could’ve imagined when the dark, gritty first episode of Arrow aired in 2012 it would amount to all this?

Stephen Amell was never really the comics Oliver Queen, a grouchy cynical disillusioned liberal who has always seemed prematurely middle aged. In a lot of ways, TV Arrow was more of a Batman stand-in. Yet Arrow made its Green Arrow work, thanks to Amell’s constantly growing charisma and his sturdy moral centre. 

Arrow started out running away from being a ‘superhero’ show but soon embraced all the goofy possibilities of the medium. Pretty darned obscure comics characters were dredged up – Ragman? Mr Terrific? Wild Dog? It took until Season 4 for the title character to actually call himself “The Green Arrow,” for pete’s sake. 

It all wrapped up with Crisis on Infinite Earths, the live-action adaptation I’d never have imagined possible. Crisis, like most Arrowverse shows, wasn’t perfect, but it was damn close, a giddy, universe-shaking salute to the DC universe. 

“Arrowverse” shows lack the machine-tooled precision of the Marvel movies, but in some ways, their awkwardly episodic charm feels more comic booky to me. Unlike Marvel movies, which tend to be big event after big event, these TV series feel more like the comic books, which just keep coming month after month. 

The shows have been all over the map, quality wise – Flash started great and has gotten progressively worse, Supergirl has gotten better each season, while Legends of Tomorrow is now a completely different show than it started as. Batwoman and Black Lightning do a terrific job of expanding the diversity of comic-book stardom. 

They’ve been far more diverse than the Marvel movies – gay characters have been in the mix since the start, including the first gay superhero to get her own series. Supergirl debuted the first trans character. Meanwhile, all the Marvel movies have mustered up so far is a brief nod in the direction. 

Subtlety isn’t an Arrowverse strong suit – a theme will be hammered home repeatedly. They can be repetitive, cliched and sentimental (number one on my hit list – ending any episode with a sappy montage set to a lame pop song). There’s a lot of plain mediocre and some truly awful episodes in the Arrowverse. But also a lot of moments I’ve loved. 

Yet in many ways the Arrowverse is just as successful as the Marvel Universe has been in movies – introducing entire worlds, broadening horizons and ultimately embracing the joy behind the superheroic concept. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen. You kicked it all off. 

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!