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Archive for the month “July, 2012”

MY DINNER WITH WALT AND J.R.

An awesome writer named Chuck Wendig recently wrote a blog post on his site, terribleminds, about how the best antagonists are the ones you love to hate, or hate to love. Check it out. Be aware, however, Chuck works in profanity the way some artists work in oils (Thank you, Ralphie “Christmas Story” Parker.). But his advice about the writing craft is spot on. And his books are even better.

Anyway, the blog post got me thinking about characters you love to hate/hate to love. TV drama has produced two legendary poster children for these antagonists: J.R. Ewing from the legendary seventies/eighties nighttime soap “Dallas” (and the reboot airing on TNT this summer), and Walter White from “Breaking Bad”, a show many have called the best drama on TV. Ever.

J.R. Ewing was an unscrupulous, Texas oil baron who would do anything – lie, cheat, blackmail, screw over his own family – to protect his oil company. Walter White was a brilliant chemist stuck in an underpaid high school teaching job diagnosed with cancer. Desperate to provide for his family, he embarks on a new career; meth manufacturing. Over four seasons of lying, dealing, manipulating, and killing, Walt has degenerated into an unrepentent criminal.

J.R. was the original character “we love to hate,” yet, when he was shot, the question “Who Shot J.R.?” consumed American culture in a way that “Misfits of Science” could only dream of. Walt debuted as a fifty-year-old doormat and last season declared, “I am the danger.”

I wanted to get inside the heads of these two men. Imagine my luck when both happened to be in town last week and accepted my invitation to dinner. What follows is some of our conversation.

ME: Once again, guys, thanks for sitting down with me. I’m a big fan of both your shows. Why don’t we order and then we can get to the heart of the matter. What’ll you have J.R.?

EWING: Steak, my boy. T-bone. Rare.

ME: And you, Walt?

WHITE: Well, I’ll just go with a PB & J. Crusts cut off please.

ME: OK, then. Wine, anyone?

J.R.: Fill ‘er up.

WHITE (squinting, slight nod): Fine.

ME: Gentlemen, you’re both very busy, I know…

J.R.: Well, you got that right. That oil’s not going to pump itself.

WHITE: I’m in no rush.

ME: So you don’t mind answering some questions, Mr. White?

WHITE: I didn’t say that…but Walt is fine.

ME: Right, then. I’ll get right to the point. You’re both classic “characters we love to hate.”

WHITE: I’m not sure I agree with that premise…

J.R.: It’s all just business, son…

ME: Mr. Ewing, you enabled your wife Sue Ellen to become a drunk, had her committed and even once had yourself committed for a business deal. You’ve blackmailed your associates, consorted with shady thugs, and sold out your family in the name of Ewing oil. You’ve set your own son up to fail and have tried to steal your family home out from under your brother.

J.R.: Well, when you put it that way…

WHITE: Family first. Business second.

J.R.: Steady, Heisenberg. Cancer faker.

WHITE (angry, but controlled): I did not fake my cancer. If you’ve ever been close to death, you’d know that’s not something to take lightly.

J.R.: I’ve been shot like, what is it? Five times already. But I always come back.

ME: You haven’t been shot, have you, Walt?

WHITE: No. I’m careful. No unnecessary risks. No putting the family in harm’s way.

J.R.: So, that makes you dad of the year.

ME: That’s a good point, Walt. You didn’t like to your wife and son about the cancer, but you’ve lied about everything else. The drugs. The murder. Everything. You once stripped down in a grocery store and claimed to have been in a “fugue state” to cover having disappeared for two days because of a problem with a rival drug dealer.

J.R.: Can’t believe I’m having dinner with a small time drug pusher.

WHITE (calmly): I made $7 million last year. Last I heard, you lost your oil company to your greatest lifelong rival Cliff Barnes and were living off you brother who despises you.

J.R.: Well, my son…

WHITE: Hates you too.

J.R.: He’s still got some maturing to do.

ME:  What about Walter Jr., Walt? And baby Holly?

WHITE (smiles a little): My son, he goes by Flynn, by the way. He’s wonderful. Holly is an angel.

ME: Think you’ll ever take them into the “family business”, so to speak, like J.R. has with John Ross?

J.R.: The whole point of being in business, after all is to build up a legacy for the family.

WHITE: No. Next question.

J.R.: So why do what you do then?

WHITE: Because I can.

ME: You’re not afraid?

WHITE (shrugs): I’m the one who knocks.

J.R. (raising his glass to toast): Now THAT, I understand. The world is littered with the bodies of people that tried to stick it to ole J.R. Ewing.

ME: So, then, is all this just about…power?

(J.R. and Walt toast each other.)

J.R.: Now you’re gettin’ it, son.

FAREWELL, ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN

“You have a mystery you want solved?” The fifth grader asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I hear you’re the best detective in Idaville.”

“I just use my powers of observation.”

“So you’ll help me.”

The boy looked at his watch. “Well, it is almost dinner time. I usually knock out these mysteries over dinner with my dad, the chief of police, but I guess I can listen.”

“Okay,well something’s missing,” I said. “Someone, actually.”

“Who is it?”

“A childhood hero. Encyclopedia Brown. He was the famous “boy detective” in some of my favorite kids’ stories by Donald Sobol. He’d collect the clues about some neighborhood crime or scam, then solve the mystery before the cops even knew what was going on. Then at the end, the reader gets to guess how the kid solved the mystery. Awesome. I spent a lot of my childhood playing detective because of him. Encyclopedia Brown was a genius.”

A smile flickered across the boy’s lips. “When did you see him last?” he asked.

“When I was about ten. This bodybuilder was selling this secret potion to make you all muscular practically overnight. Except Encyclopedia noticed the guy’s old wrinkly suit he said he’d had forever fit perfectly. If he’d gotten all filled out in no time, his suit wouldn’t have fit so Encyclopedia knew the potion was phony.”

“Sounds like a pretty smart guy.”

“And there was this other case where he figured out that the guy who won the bitter-drink drinking contest cheated.”

“Interesting. How?”

“Well,” I said, “it was a hot day and the guy was chewing ice chips to stay cool. But Encyclopedia figured out chewing ice also froze his taste buds so the guy couldn’t taste anything. He had no trouble with that awful tasting drink because he couldn’t taste it. Brilliant.”

The boy detective nodded. “Yep. Also, I’ve solved your case.”

“Already?”

“Yes. Your childhood hero isn’t missing at all.”

“He isn’t?”

“Nope. He’s still here.”

HOW DID HE KNOW?

SOLUTION: Encyclopedia knew my hero wasn’t really lost to me because I told him it was my childhood hero, even though I’m definitely not a child. These wonderful stories have stayed with me all these years. Nothing is lost. Case solved.

Rest in peace, Donald Sobol.

THANKS, MIKE

When I was about eleven or twelve, in a summer in the very early eighties, my cousin Mike came from Wisconsin to stay for a week. He started telling me about this science fiction show he’d been watching. He was really excited. There was this crazy time-traveler. Monsters. Adventures. It was British…

It was, of course, Doctor Who. For those who don’t know, the show debuted on British TV in 1963 where it ran until 1989. Then it disappeared until it roared back onto TV in 2005 where it was, and is, a HUGE hit. The show follows the adventures of a Time Lord called “The Doctor” who travels through time and space battling monsters and evil-doers and protecting the defenseless. To date, the character has been played by eleven actors, courtesy of a nifty plot device called “regeneration.” When the Doctor gets old or is mortally wounded (the actor who plays him has decided to leave the show), he “regenerates.” The Doctor comes back to life in a whole new body. New look, new personality, but same memories and obsessive need to save the universe.

Sitting here now, an adult, professional, father of two, I think the show is awesome.

When I was eleven, filled with the energy and freedom of youth, I thought the show was AWESOME!

That day cousin Mike told me about Doctor Who, we immediately started to try to find it on my local TV. I had to see this thing. These days, Doctor Who is everywhere; BBC America, SyFy channel, DVDs, the Internet. But back then, the only place to find it was late night weekends on PBS. How the hell Mike heard about it, I have no idea.

It just happened to be a Friday night and PBS was showing the first part of the six-episode adventure “Genesis of the Daleks”, an awesome story featuring Tom Baker as the fourth incarnation of the Doctor. (By the time, I discovered Doctor Who, the show was well into the fifth Doctor’s era – Peter Davison – but there was a huge lag between airing new episodes in England and getting the repeats here – again this was in the relative stone age of media). In “Genesis of the Daleks”, the Doctor was going up against the show’s most legendary villain, the soulless Daleks; evil mutants who live in huge metal canisters and destroy anything – “EXTERMINATE!” – that isn’t them. It was a fabulous episode for your introduction to the show.

The show was amazing. The books – at that time, just novelizations of old episodes rather than original stories – were a goldmine for playing catch-up with the then nearly twenty years of Who history I needed to catch up on. This new thing in my life, this new universe to explore, was thrilling, riveting, consuming.

I met Janet Fielding (Tegan Jovanka) who stared on the show with the 5th doctor at a fan convention a few years later. I’ve met a lot of authors and presidential candidates at events like that, but so far she’s my only TV star.

I haven’t talked to Mike in a long time. It’s been even longer since I went to a pop-culture convention of any kind. (Got my eyes on Comicon, though. Someday). But I still watch Doctor Who. And the story I just wrote in this post has been on my mind the last couple weeks. Don’t know why. Maybe it’s because one of my other favorites, “Breaking Bad” starts its final season tonight, while another, “Eureka,” airs its final episode Monday.

But like many things that rattle around in writer’s heads, a blog gives us somewhere to dump it. You’re welcome.

I suspect we all have something from our youth that, even though it was a vicarious experience, shaped who we are as much as anything we actively did ourselves. That might be a TV show we treasured, an amazing game we were in the stands for, or a concert we heard. Whatever it is, we hold onto it. It shapes our entertainment choices forever. And, once in a while, we have to share it, to remind ourselves why we like what we like and, maybe, to help our loved ones understand what might, to them, seem like quirky tastes.

For me, the entertainment itch relieved by this little sci-fi show with the often borderline acting and ever worse special effects (the budgets for the rebooted series now are WAY better and it shows) has never quite been replicated since. The show “Lost” was huge, of course. “Breaking Bad”,”Sherlock” (another British import), “The West Wing”, “Eureka”, and other “event television” type shows are all great. And when they leave, we miss them like a beloved friend who moves away, certain that we’ll never meet anyone else…until we do.

But, still, my response to none of those other shows compares to that first summer night when I was a kid and The Doctor came on the screen. I’ve got cousin Mike to thank for that.

Thanks, Mike.

ATARI TURNS 40

This past week, ATARI turned 40. You remember ATARI, right? Pong? Space Invaders? Donkey Kong? That last one featured a then unknown plumber named Mario who, of course, still lives on in the Nintendo Wii world, whereas the ATARI’s Pitfall Harry is rasslin’ gators down south somewhere for beer money.

ATARI doesn’t do much anymore, I don’t think. After the blockbuster ATARI 2600 (I still have mine) became obsolete in the 80’s – Coleco Vision I suppose crippled it, PC gaming rendered it comatose, and the original Nintendo 64 pulled the (literal) plug – they tried some other consoles, some hand-held stuff. Nothing endurred. Now I suppose they just coast on fandom, licensing characters for the Wii and such. Ever increasing numbers of gamers just don’t remember.

But when ATARI was big, it was HUGE. I was a pre-teen/early teen then. I had never seen, nor ever expected again to see, something so cool. So did everyone, young and old. People would choose to stay home on Friday nights and crowd around the TV to play with these little bloops and blips on the TV. This was sci-fi made real in an era when no one had smartphones, and almost no one had personal computers.

And people loved it. “YOU MEAN I CAN PLAY PAC-MAN AT HOME?!?!?! WITHOUT PLUGGING THE MACHINE WITH QUARTERS?!?!?! OHMIGOD!?!?!” Thanks to the clunky “joystick” controller, you could get tennis elbow AND carpal tunnel without ever leaving the couch.

I was good at Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Frogger. I was pretty good at Pitfall and Berserk and Combat. But my game was Megamania. It was an amped-up version of Space Invaders. But where Space Invaders had neat columns of relentless, but predictable, aliens marching from top of the screen to the bottom, Megamania was CHAOS. Aliens swarming from everywhere; or so it seemed until you figured out each invading fleet’s pattern. WHICH I DID. Muscle memory controlled the joystick and I went along for the ride. I routinely scored in the MILLIONS. Twelve-year-old me was saving the universe; better, I WAS SAVING THE UNVIVERSE. Man, I loved that game.

But now, to today’s gamers, ATARI games are antiques. I’ve had lots of PC computer games. A Playstation. A Wii. I appreciate the detailed graphics and intricate gameplay. The games back in ATARI’s day were crude and confined by the limits of the technology. But although they had simpler objectives, they weren’t necessarily less fun. They were easier to learn, but not necessarily less challenging.

If you wanted whimsical fun, there was Frogger (even the little guy getting squished was funny) and that one circus game where the little stick people would plummet comically if you weren’t careful. If you wanted to blow shit up, there was Combat, Megamania, Berserk, and others.

I don’t have a problem with today’s games. I’m just nostalgic, I guess. Today’s video games just aren’t the same.

You never forget your first.

Thank you for all the good times. Happy birthday, ATARI.

COOL CLOWN NAMES I JUST THOUGHT OF

You know how on late night talk shows when the big star cancels they scramble around to fill the segment with any D-list celebrity they can get? This week’s post is sort of like that.

I had a topic in mind. Both topical and timely. Potentially helpful. But I just couldn’t get excited about it. It didn’t gel. So, the Tom Hanks of blog posts cancelled. Bring on that guy from that show people used to like.

Summer is in full swing. And that means the big top is going up all across the country for circus season. But let’s face it. The circus isn’t what it was in Barnum’s day. The circus could use a little help. I figured I could either unleash my personal army of highly trained tigers or knit monogrammed slip covers for pillows for the trapeze artists to land on OR offer this list of CLOWN NAMES I JUST THOUGHT OF. I think I made the right call. Less consumption of innocent humans and subsequent big cat poo to clean up. Also, I can’t knit.

So,we proudly (desperately) present:

CLOWN NAMES I JUST THOUGHT UP

  1. PUNCHY – Bright, happy, clothes and makeup, but with a perpetually pained expression on his face. Other clowns encourage the kids to scream for them, but the sound of children just makes Punchy flinch. We don’t know his back story, but it clearly involved a group of four-year-olds who were definitely NOT afraid of clowns.
  2. SLOPPY – The name is self-evident. A fun game for the kids in the crowd will be to guess what exactly is that substance trailing behind him as does his antics in the center ring. Maybe the follow-up monkey act could be a chimp with a broom and dustpan.
  3. STINKY – Featured performer on really hot, Midwestern summer days.
  4. ROMNEY – We swear, this is NOT a political commentary. But, to us, “Romney” really sounds like a clown’s name, especially when you give him a little sidekick named “Mitt.” Hey! Another great idea! “Romney and The Mitt” would be a kick-ass cartoon on the Nick cable channel. “Mitt, get over here and tell these penguins who’s in charge.” “Right away,Romney!” (Hey, Nick, email me for info about where to send the check.)
  5. SENDIN – As in, “Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns.” Get it? No? That song reference is too old? Come on people. It’s Stephen Sondheim! And Sinatra! (the version in my head anyway) Two great tastes that taste great together. What were we talking about? Oh, right.
  6.  BOB – In the right context, the ubiquitous name “Bob” is hilarious. “Bob the Clown” is one of those.
  7. THE CLOWN FORMERLY KNOWN AS COURT JESTER – for those clowns hoping to trade on past showbiz glory.
  8. FALL GUY -Works either for a particularly acrobatic clown or for a clown who has no problem taking the heat when the bearded lady goes missing.
  9. PANTSLOAD – Does the clown wear those oversized, suspender pants for comic effect or is he hiding something in there? Come on over and find out…
  10. SCARY – Come on, we’re all a little creeped out by clowns. Kids are just the only ones willing to admit it. Might as well own up to it, clowns. Embrace the fear you engender. Go goth, clown, or go home.

Well, I think we’ve done some good work here. In our struggling economy, it’s good to help businesses wherever we can. Think how many more people will be employed in the hiring frenzy when customers start demanding more honesty from their clowns.

I’ll be waiting by the mailbox for my “free cotton candy for life” coupon. (Cue sad Charlie-Brown-Waiting-for-Valentines-music.)

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