November 20, 2011

The Rise of Butters

South Park‘s “City Sushi” of Season 15 is a true “Butters episode,” featuring said character at his quintessential best.  He, innocently enough, opens the show working as a flyer distributor for the new local sushi place.  The Chinese owner of City Wok is outraged because the Japanese are cutting in on his territory, just like they’ve continuously done throughout history.  An Asian turf war breaks out and the authorities believe Butters is involved.  Upon examining him, the psychologist says Butters suffers from multiple personality disorder, but what he offers in support of this diagnosis makes it clear to viewers that the doctor is simply observing Butters’ incredibly creative and playful mind.  These “personalities” are simply characters that he has created so as to entertain himself while being drastically sheltered by his parents, who proclaim themselves to be “awesome.”  Once again, Butters finds himself surrounded by people, usually adults, who drag him into a situation of some peril.  Sure, Butters suffers from a bit of extreme naivete, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made efforts to develop very subtle layers to Butters, as he has emerged into a more (ironically) perceptive, less reserved staple of the show.

Early on, Butters was not as prolific and was inserted into spot episodes as an easy target of ridicule for the cast mainstays and audience alike.  In the second half of Season 4 (2000), Butters briefly appears in “4th Grade.”  On behalf of their peers, the core four decide to pull a prank on their new teacher to establish their dominance in the classroom.  They propose the act of pulling down their pants while shouting “Kiss my ass!”  Butters asks for clarification.  “Should we stand front ways or back?” he stutters.  “Do we show our behinds or our weiners?”  Surprised at the lack of thought behind the question, Stan stares, pauses and deadpanly explains that showing their asses would be “sufficient.”  Such scenes were the norm for poor Butters, the mere fringe character.

Butters would become more prevalent by the end of the 5th season though, when he was the focal point of the aptly, humorously entitled “Butters’ Very Own Episode.”  This is when the audience would become more in tune with what makes Butters tick.  Setting up his increased role in the next season as the possible replacement of Kenny as the fourth friend, Parker and Stone take viewers into the Scotch household-a pretty terrifying place.  Like in the aforementioned “City Sushi” episode, Butters is asked to be involved in some unsavory activity.  Looking to please his mother, he complies to spying on his dad, only to unknowingly reveal his father’s secret gay life.  Mrs. Scotch snaps and decides that the only way to protect her son from the impurities of a life with a homosexual for a father is to kill Butters.  He survives and by the end of the show lectures his parents about the pitfalls of lying.

By the time he creates his alter-ego, “Professor Chaos,” Butters has suffered many-a-pangs at the hands of Stan, Kyle, and Cartman, while serving as their stand-in friend.  Finally, after an ultimate rejection as their confidant, Butters becomes the super villain, looking to create displeasure for anyone in his presence.  Sure he only performs crimes against others that are more cute than harmful, like swapping people’s soups at Bennigan’s, but this is a turning point for Butters as he would come to assert himself amongst the group more and more.

Of late, Butters has been increasingly vocal and, dare I say, confident in his voice.  By the premiere of the current Season 15, “HumancentiPad,” viewers behold him actually pointing out a poor choice on Kyle’s part to accept, without reading, the exceptionally verbose agreement between Apple and their users of the frequently updated ITunes application.  It is Butters, of all people, who calls into question Stan’s defense of the entrapped Kyle.  After reading aloud the portion of the agreement that clearly indicates that Kyle had agreed to be a part of the Apple experiment in which Kyle’s face would be sewn to the rear end of another user, Butters slowly, moves his mouse into place and  sarcastically enunciates, “Yeah, I’m going to click…’Decline.'”  In “The Last of the Meheecans,” Butters is the unheralded hero.  After (once again innocently) becoming a recognizable symbol of Mexican pride in the neighboring country, the gang fail to be aware of his leadership capabilities and refuse to appoint him head-Mexican should they once again play “Texans vs. Mexicans.”  With dramatic irony at work, Butters simply raises his arms, thus manipulating the native Mexicans into a chant for their new idol, a chant that can be heard all the way to Colorado.  And at the end of “City Sushi,” Butters is again the hero, having unmasked Janus and put an end to his Japanese brand of terror in South Park.  During the course of the episode, Butters is literally pissed on by Janus, who was pretending to be his therapist, while he slept.  It is as though Parker and Stone created a visual reminder of what had been happening to Butters throughout his tenure on the show, while, at the same time, pointing out the new irony present in his character, having become smarter, stronger, and more assertive.  It will be interesting to see how many more times the creators of South Park use Butters as a purveyor of keen perception, while trumping Stan and Kyle’s level of cognizance and intelligence.

November 12, 2011

“Seinfeld” Scores a Bull’s-Eye

To begin simply, Seinfeld is one of the best television shows of all time, regardless of genre.  And it would be hard to argue against anyone who ranks it at the very top of such a list.  The innumerable Seinfeldisms have been well-documented: “double-dipping,” “re-gifting,” “close-talker,” and so on and so forth.  Multiple networks still constantly air reruns, and we’re grateful for that because it’s still better than anything else on (Can it be over 13 years since the last new episode?).  This brand of success is attributed to the very plain fact that bazillions of people can relate to the content, just like any form of entertainment that garners such mass appeal, coinciding with overwhelming critical applause.  I present to you a new way to quantify that show’s ability to attract such a dynamic audience with the use of New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix.”

I’d guess that anybody who picks up a hard copy of New York Magazine, and is familiar with its typical layout, will inevitably make a concerted effort to peruse the final page.  The Approval Matrix is the staff’s way of creating a “deliberately oversimplified guide to who falls where on [their] taste hierarchies” and is divided into quadrants rating what is despicable vs. brilliant vs. highbrow vs. lowbrow in all that is that edition’s week in pop culture.  Should a (drunken?) person view The Approval Matrix as a dartboard, Seinfeld, the series as a whole, scores a bull’s-eye.

What all-time great sitcoms are in the discussion with Seinfeld?  The Simpsons?  With only winks at highbrow humor (Mayor Quimby appearances, Lisa’s storylines), The Simpsons relies most often on lowbrow/despicable humor.  The Cosby Show was a huge hit in the 1980s.  Focusing on an upper-middle class, highly-functional African American family, the series was very funny, even wry, and can only be considered highbrow and brilliant.  All in the Family‘s (1968-79) reputation was founded upon its lowbrow, newly-shocking, and bigoted main character.  I Love Lucy?  The Honeymooners?  It’s hard to compare those shows with anything as contemporary as Seinfeld and The Simpsons because, considering the era in which they aired, those creative energies could never have flowed towards anything as lowbrow as what has been looked to for laughs in recent years.

Seinfeld contrasts with all of them, and any other, because the series possesses individual episodes that can be sprayed across the entire Approval Matrix.  “The Chinese Restaurant” is considered one of their early classics, the quintessential episode “about nothing.”  Highbrow and Brilliant.  “The Finale,” when the gang are sentenced to prison for breaking the “Good Samaritan law,” pokes fun at legislation and the judicial system, but the inciting incident finds them guffawing at a fat guy.  Highbrow and Despicable.  “The Soup Nazi” must be in the Lowbrow hemisphere.  With the term “Nazi” bouncing around like a mid-rally squash ball, one might be inclined to label that episode Despicable.  But with Elaine enacting revenge upon the unsympathetic title character, a deviation to the right is required.  Lowbrow and Brilliant.  Few things ever witnessed are as Lowbrow and Despicable as “The Contest.”  In so many ways it’s Brilliant, but, towards the episode’s conclusion, Marla points out that she doesn’t want “anything to do with” Elaine, Jerry, or their “perverted friends.”  Few beings can recognize corruption like a virgin.  “The Opera“- Highbrow/Brilliant; “The Junior Mint“- Highbrow/Despicable; “The Smelly Car“- Lowbrow/Brilliant; “The Bubble Boy“- Lowbrow/Despicable.  (Keep it going in the comments section!)

With all that said, Seinfeld, the complete series, is then none of these designations.  It falls right in the middle of New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix, some unknown land of limitless advertising revenue possibilities.

September 24, 2011

Don’t Leave “The Office” Just Yet

I thought I’d play hooky.  Call in sick.  Maybe just not show up at all.  No, I wasn’t there, on my couch this past Thursday at 9 pm to catch the premiere of the new season of “The Office.”  I don’t know where the hell I was, but I’d completely forgotten about what had become my usual final-worknight-of-the-week routine for the past number of years.  However, my DVR didn’t.

I mean, Steve Carell was gone.  I used to watch him on “The Daily Show.”  Then he was the guy I’d recognized, but couldn’t quite place in “Bruce Almighty;” though I’d always remember Carell after outfunnying Jim Fucking Carrey in his own movie.  The man who had an unstable hairline was hilarious again in “Anchorman” and then “The Office” debuted with a brief 6 episode season in 2005.  It took some time to build an audience, going through a couple of times slots, but, in conjunction with “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” the show would launch Steve Carell into superstardom, ironically, knocking Carrey off quite a pedestal in the world of screen comedy.  Yes, Carell was funny on “The Office,” of course he was, but I personally felt that his performances on that show featured some of the best pure comedic acting I’d ever seen.  The Michael Scott character is one that t.v. has never seen before and will never see again.

And Carell was gone.  This spelled certain death for the show.  Who watched “That 70’s Show” without Topher Grace?  Nobody did and he was no goddamn Carell.

On top of that, I also felt that the show, even with Carell still in tow, was kind of jumping the shark to begin with.  The BBC series lasted 2 (yeah, that’s 1 more than 1) seasons, and was hysterical.  There were no weddings between characters, no babies to be had, and no famous guest stars showing up for a cameo.  With all of the romance of the American version dominating the plot lines as it went on into its 5th, 6th, and 7th seasons, it seemed as though the writers were going down the same path that countless other sitcoms had traveled before, just to maintain ratings.  Much of it was tastefully done on “The Office,” but “Friends” turned to crap once the babies started popping out and everyone started fucking everyone. (Rachel and Joey?  Give me a break.)  “The Office” recently pinched a hot chick into the cast, Kelly, to keep the big male 18-35 demographic around.  And the last episode of season 7 found James Spader becoming a candidate for Carell’s replacement.  I honestly thought his character, Robert California, was hilarious, but I doubted he would really fill the Michael Scott void adequately.  My mood went from skeptical to annoyed when (How funny?), of all people, Jim Carrey’s mug tainted my screen for just a few seconds.  Look, I like Jim Carrey, he’s done some of my most favorite comedies, but I hate it when Hollywood fits in a big name for a cameo, either in t.v. or film, just so the audience, in unison, says, “Holy shit! It’s [actor’s name]!”  It significantly compromises the integrity of the work and, in this case, there might as well have been a CGI motorcycle Fonzie jumping over the Fingerlakes Guy’s head.  I’d proclaimed that I wouldn’t watch “The Office” any longer.

Season 8’s premiere though had found its way into my DVR that had maintained its settings to record all new episodes of “The Office” throughout the summer.  Thinking my subconscience was telling me something, I gave the episode a shot and experienced a little bit of regret when Jim and Pam had announced a new pregnancy to go along with Angela’s baby bump.  I didn’t like the fact that over the summer NBC leaked stories about how James Spader had signed on to continue to do the show, leading viewers to believe Robert California would be the new office manager, completely obliterating the cliffhanger leftover from last season’s finale, just to find out that Andy was really taking over, while Robert would be the new CEO of the entire company.  And why, out of all of the branches of the corporation would the CEO have to work out of Scranton?

Despite those initial hiccups, “The Office” was still very funny.  It is still the best sitcom on network t.v. and this is because the show’s entire cast is incredibly talented, along with writers who consistently draw inspiration from pop culture. The whole bit on planking was great.  Stanley’s “new thing” on how to instruct people to insert things into their asses was solid.  Kevin’s diatribe on how everyone, even “the doctors,” has been wrong about him was snicker-worthy too.

It seems to me that with NBC moving Andy out of the main work room and into Michael Scott’s office was a statement that said, “We can’t replace Steve Carell, so we won’t.”

I doubt “The Office” will ever be as good as it was a couple of seasons ago, with or without Steve Carell, and I don’t know if this season will build on its quality premiere, but the show seems to still be a more than worthwhile watch.  So, if you can’t get into “The Office” on time, leave your DVR settings alone.  For now.

March 4, 2011

2011 Oscars

I told you.

March 4, 2011

“Waiting” for Ordinaryman – It’s Up to You to Be “Super”

I’d seen David Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth in theaters and got wrapped up in that whole thing too.  I’m not prepared to say now that global warming is a farce, nor willing to deny that we all need to do our minute part in, if nothing else, simply helping the environment out; however, it is noteworthy that the pomp and circumstance surrounding Al Gore’s campaign for everyone to “go green” (not to mention Gore himself) has all but vanished.  He got us crawling in the right direction, but there are plenty in the scientific community who are adamant that the jury is still very much out on the human influence on global warming.  Gore’s research covers fifty years and he makes projections that cover fifty future years, but the Earth’s temperature and climate cycles have been known to encompass tens of thousands of years.  In winters of just a couple of centuries ago, the weather (believe it or not New Yorkers of 2011) was significantly harsher.  And remember, the human race emerged after an ice age.  We’ve been around but less than five thousand years.  So, maybe we’re just coming out of a multi-millenium cold period in the Earth’s ever-fluctuating weather history.  One more thing, Gore’s a politician who, along with his old lady Tipper, spearheaded music censorship legislation and essentially claimed that he “created” the internet.  I admire his supposed zeal for environmental sensitivity, I tend to think that he could have, unfortunately, just been grabbing some post-2000 election headlines.

But I digress.

Being an educator and having heard of Guggenheim’s latest work Waiting for Superman, I’d begun to deem it as “required viewing,” despite my affection for “Truth” having drastically waned since its initial release.  This documentary is incredibly gut wrenching at times, but most importantly, indisputably relevant to every person, young and old, in this country.  The film examines the causes and impacts of the lack of achievement in the public schools of the United States.

At times, I was waiting for the attack on teachers because “Truth” had proven to be a one-sided debate, so I was anticipating blame to be thrust somewhere.  On the defensive, I got to the segment of the movie that takes some shots at the teacher’s unions.  Guggenheim is mindful though that teachers are the big cogs in the machine that, should reform ever be possible, will implement and execute this change.  He smartly focuses his criticism on bad teachers, who are clearly doing a disservice to their students and, really, the nation as a whole.  His suggestion for weeding out the sometimes downright irresponsible or unfortunately less talented instructors is to boost requirements and standards for tenure, if not scrap it altogether, and institute a merit-pay system.  Teachers must then earn the right to keep their jobs and obtain raises, like pretty much any other career path.

I had been against a merit-pay arrangement for most of my career.  That is, until I got good.  The main counter argument towards this type of structure from the teachers union is that it would divide the workforce.  I was incredibly lucky at twenty-two years old to have found a teaching job amongst very willing, helpful peers.  I was a teacher who was learning, every day.  Would my coworkers have assisted and guided me with as much vigor if there was a merit-pay system?  Considering the type of hearts those folk possess, I would say “Yes” because they understand that people who have made the leap into the teaching profession should not be willing themselves out of bed every morning at the mere prospect of pocket-lining opportunities.  Teachers do this simply to help other people, sometimes even other teachers.  Quality performance should be rewarded and people must understand and appreciate the concept that this service needs to be done for the betterment of society, not for the financial gains of an individual.  If some “educators,” like those on display in Guggenheim’s piece, either choose to not dedicate themselves to that reality or simply are incapable, then it is better that they lose their place in the building, as opposed to granting them freedom to negatively impact 170 students a day (on the high school level) year in, year out.

Measures would most certainly have to be taken to assure a fair merit-pay system though.  Waiting for Superman does not deliberate on the risk that many teachers would face of losing their job because they have earned the right to be on the top of the salary scale. In other words, knowing how politicians like to consider the ol’ bottom line, I contend that, unless there be stipulations saying otherwise, it would be inevitable that school districts would lay off the best teachers for money-saving purposes.  What I am trying to propose here is some kind of merit-pay-tenure hybrid that would be a nice compromise, making everyone happy.

This blog post has become a lot more about the politics in the teaching world and less about the movie.  I apologize for my passion.  I don’t claim to have all of the solutions, charts, and layouts of the brighter future of education.  I loved Waiting for Superman.  And if you choose to see it or have seen it, and are considering all that I have brought up here, keep in mind that the film’s runtime is 110 minutes.  David Guggenheim doesn’t have all of the answers either, at least not produced within the movie’s span.  He only covers a few parents who are very involved and dedicated to their little ones.  (I feel that much of the troubles in the schools begin at home with parents who choose not to possess the energy to invest in their own children’s lives and education.  And, just like in the teaching profession, every person has to do their part, take on their role.) However, you should most certainly enjoy and appreciate what is presented to you in this film.