Feb 1, 2019

Cuckoo: Constantly Shifting Britcom

I don't understand the Britcom Cuckoo, which has been playing on British tv since 2012 and Netflix since 2016.  It keeps changing its premises and its cast.

Season 1 (2012) was simple: Stuffy button-down lawyer Ken (Greg Davies) discovers that his medical-student daughter Rachel (Tamla Kari) has up and married an American hippie named Cuckoo (Andy Samberg), who exemplifies everything the British don't like about the Americans: he's loud, exuberant, lazy, irresponsible, and certifiably nuts.

Ok, an odd couple comedy.  Cuckoo teaches Ken how to be less stuffy, and Ken teaches Cuckoo some responsibility.

There's also a certifiably nuts teenage son, Dylan, lying about and playing video games.

Season 2  (2014): Cuckoo is long gone, disappeared during a mountain-climbing expedition in the Himalayas and presumed dead.

Rachel (recast with Esther Smith) has moved on, and has a new boyfriend, Ben (Matt Lacey).

But then Dale (Taylor Lautner, left) shows up, claiming to be Cuckoo's son, raised in a Himalayan religious cult.

Um...Cuckoo was in his 20s.  How....?

At first everyone suspects that Dale is conning them, but he's so utterly innocent -- jumping in bed with Ken and his wife when he has a bad dream, calling Rachel "Mom" even though she's his age, that they come around, and lets him move in.

I like the episode "Funeral," in which Dale meets Ken's old college professor for five minutes, and then is overwhelmed with grief when he dies --- obviously displaced grief for his dead father.  He insists on going to the funeral, where he is mistaken for the professor's "young American friend," i.e., lover.  But no homophobic panic results from the confusion.

Dale begins sparking with his stepmother Rachel, and confesses his love in a Christmas special.  She rejects him, and he leaves town.

Season 3 (2016):  Dale is long gone, vanished and presumed dead.  Ken and his wife have a new baby, Rachel is dating, and Dylan (Tyger Drew-Honey, left) is off to University.  Then...Dale returns!  He's been living in China, working for a man who, unbeknownst to him, is a gangster.  This will become important later.

In spite of his high-concept return, Dale takes a back seat this season, which is mostly about the new baby. Plus Steve (Kenneth Collard) is added to the cast, a friend of the family with no boundaries and unacknowledged homoerotic desires.

Season 4 (2018): At least nobody has vanished this time.  Baby Sid is now a toddler, and Dale works as his nanny (to explain why he's still around).  He's also dating Rachel, and he opens a bar with Steve.   But the season is mostly about Ken's job problems and midlife crisis.

I like the episode where Sid happens to be wearing girls' clothes when they bring him to interview at an exclusive daycare (if he has a full-time nanny, why...), and the teacher mistakes him for transgender.   They end up throwing a party for transgender toddlers.

And the episode where Ken gets a crush on his neighbor Lloyd (Nigel Harmon), an uninhibited free spirit -- um, like Cuckoo and Dale?

Season 5 (2019): Dale is gone without explanation. I'm guessing that he was becoming too respectable, with a full-time job and a permanent relationship.

But not to worry, another "cuckoo," an uninhibited innocent, arrives to cause havoc: Ken's long-lost sister Ivy (Andie McDowell).  Mostly the season is about Ken's political career, as he runs for M.P.

We've come a long way from the American hippie who married Rachel back in 2012. But at least there have been a lot of gay references and bare chests.

Jan 31, 2019

Love Beat: Tony DeFranco

Listen to my heart beat -- it's a love beat
And when we meet, it's a good vibration

Whatever that means, it brings back a rush of memories of the fall of 1973: pep rallies at Washington Junior High; accidentally touching my friend Dan's hand in science class; reading Greek mythology and Tintin comics; watching Chuck Acri's Creature Feature with my brother in our attic bedroom

The DeFranco Family never hit the heights of the Osmonds or the Jackson Five, but during the 1973-74 school year, they were everywhere, guest stars on every variety show, fave raves in every issue of Tiger Beat, competing with Tony Orlando and Cher to top the pop charts.  (Here Tony DeFranco competes with Tony Orlando to see who wears the tightest pants).

They consisted of five siblings: Nino (age 18), Marisa 19), Benny (20), Tony (14), and  Merlina (16).

In the tradition of Donny Osmond and Michael Jackson, Tony
was the standout star, the source of many semi-nude pinups and many misty-eyed dreams for the heterosexual girls and gay boys at Washington Junior High.

For all the media attention, they recorded only seven songs, and only three charted -- "Heartbeat" (1973), "Abra-Cadabra" (1973), and "Save the Last Dance for Me" (1974).  They're all heterosexist, heavy-laden with "girls" and "babes."  But sometimes tight pants and a killer smile is enough.

A series of disastrous business decisions -- and the rise of disco  -- and maybe Tony's refusal to embark on a solo career -- led to the DeFranco crash.  By 1975, they were working Vegas, and in 1978 they disbanded, taking jobs behind the scenes in the music industry.

Today Tony works as a real estate agent in Westlake Village, a ritzy suburb of L.A.  He still performs occasionally, for fans who have fond memories of being in junior high in 1973.

Jan 30, 2019

Superstore: Just Leave It on and Watch

Superstore (2015-) is a workplace sitcom set in the vast Wal-Mart like Cloud 9, where responsible, by-the-books Amy (America Ferrara, best known from Ugly Betty) butts heads with the free-spirit Jonah (Ben Feldman, who bears an eerie resemblance to Charles in Charge-era Scott Baio).

We've seen this free-spirit/by the books pairing a thousand times.  Sam and Diane.  Sam and Rebecca.  Scully and Mulder.  But the twist here is: Amy is married.

Her husband Adam (Ryan Gaul) hosts a barbecuing podcast, watches football, fools around with tools, and basically acts like the uber-sterotypic Macho Man, in stark contrast to the sensitive, feminine-coded Jonah.

So this is the real-life aftermath of a teen nerd movie from the 1980s.  Instead of the teen nerd using his sexual prowess to steal The Girl away from her loud-mouth jerk boyfriend, she marries him. 

Of course, Jonah and Amy will hook up eventually anyway, but adding a husband delays the inevitable enough for the first two seasons to be palatable.

The other characters are the eclectic bunch familiar from other workplace comedies:

1. Lauren Ash as Dinah, the gun-toting, karate-chopping assistant manager/security specialist, who skins wildebeests before breakfast and dropped out of the marines because everyone was too wimpy.  She has a crush on Jonah.

2. Colton Dunn (left) as Garrett, the sarcastic, street-smart black guy who knows how to work the system to his advantage.  He's also in a wheelchair.

3. Nicole Bloom as Cheyenne, an airheaded 17-year old high schooler who got pregnant by her boyfriend (Johnny Pemberton), an aspiring rapper with extremely progressive, pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-racist lyrics: "God is a black woman, yo!"  They get married, and name their daughter Harmonica. 

4. Josh Lawson as Tate, a sadistic pharmacist who makes Jonah his personal slave.

5. Jon Barinholtz as Marcus, a doofus who gets everything wrong and often is injured ("My spleen!").

I was concerned about two characters.

6. Nico Santos as Mateo, who starts out as a priggish tattletale and brown-nosing sycophant, self-righteous, condescending, scheming, manipulative, a gay villan in training.  Over the first season, he softens and becomes more likeable, and in the second season he begins dating.  I still don't like him, but at least his character is not entirely homophobic, a source of laughter rather than disdain.

7. Mark McKinney as store manager Glenn.  McKinney was an original member of the Canadian comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall in the 1980s.  He plays Glenn with a squeaky cartoon-character voice, and as so completely clueless that he comes across as mentally challenged.  And he's a born-again Christian who reads the Bible aloud  and asks for Jesus' blessings during staff meetings.

Born-again Christian usually means homophobic, so I was cringing when a gay couple came into the store to plan their wedding.  He asks "Which is the lucky groom?", and upon hearing "Both of us," assumes that it's a double male-female wedding.  Upon being apprised that it's a gay couple, he is surprised but not angry, and overdoes the enthusiasm: "Oh, you're gay?  That's terrific!  I'm totally supportive! I think gay people are great!"  Finding out that Mateo is gay provokes the same reaction.

Ok, not homophobic.  Scarily out of touch, but not homophobic.

Superstore is not the most innovative of shows; it's mostly what we've seen before.  But it's pleasant enough.  It reminds me of the old days of network tv, where they put a C+ show in between two A+ shows, so you could either turn off the tv for a half hour or just leave it on and watch.

I'll just leave it on and watch.

Gary Gygax and the Homophobic World of Dungeons and Dragons

When I was in college, Dungeons and Dragons was The Big Thing.  Everybody who was anybody -- and by that I mean the guys who hung out at Adam's Bookstore -- played. 

Actually, I never got into it, but I always felt that I should.  On the surface, it seems appealing -- creating a Medieval character and going on a quest, with dragons, orcs, elves, mages, runes, magic swords, barrow wights, you name it.  But the actual play felt mechanical and soulless.  "You raise your sword. Throw the dice to see if you slay the goblin.  You have lost 3 strength points but added five points to your stamina.  Roll the dice again."

I've never got into board games, either.  They call them "bored" games for a reason.

But it still brings back memories of that halcyon time, when Tolkien,  Renaissance Faires, the Society for Creative Anachronism, Isaac Asimov, Old Norse Sagas, Celtic folklore, comic books, and Dungeons and Dragons evoked a bright, glittering alternative to the dull world of jobs and marriages that we were destined for.  So, out of nostalgia, I bought Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons.

Also the cover illustration was sort of cool, and author Michael Witwer is cute.

The first half of the book was very interesting, and very well written.  We hear about Gary Gygax (1938-2008) growing up in Chicago and then the far suburb of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, exploring an abandoned asylum, having paranormal experiences, buddy-bonding with his best friend Dan, getting involved with the fledgling military role-playing game community of the 1960s.

Finding a bright, glittering alternative to the dull world of jobs and marriages that they were destined for.

Then suddenly destiny hits.  Gary gets married and has a lot of kids, gets a job, earns extra money by writing and editing gaming magazines.

For awhile the gaming world and the mundane world co-exist.  Gary plays his war games most nights with groups of boys and young men.  Sometimes, when it gets too late, he spends the night.  His wife is certain that he's having an affair, and storms into the house, only to be relieved to find him surrounded by teenage boys.

Yest she never suspects that he might be gay?

Then Gary invents Dungeons and Dragons, with no fanfare and no detail. 

The rest of the book is dull, dull, dull!  Gary sells a share of the business for a 10% royalty, corresponds with gaming publishers, negotiates with p.r. firms, gets rich, buys a mansion, gets a regular seat at the Playboy Club, has affairs with lots and lots of young ladies -- to the consternation of his wife, who breaks up with him on the plane on the way to London.

The joy is gone, buried under an avalanche of ledge books and tax forms.

And I found out a lot about Gary Gygax. Though Witwer tries to sugarcoat it as much as possible, it becomes increasingly obvious that Gary Gygax was not a nice person.  Authoritarian, imperious, judgmental, a leering, sexist jerk, promoting old-fashioned gender stereotypes.  An "America: Love It or Leave It" warmonger.  And, I assume, homophobic.

At least the author is.  Gay people do not exist in his book except in one story.  The 1980s backlash against Dungeons and Dragons began when a 16-year old college freshman, James Dallas Egbert III, vanished from his college campus.

The media latched onto D&D as the culprit, no doubt causing him to commit suicide (actually, he just ran away).

But, Witwer tells us, the lad was already unstable long before he discovered D&D.  He was an outsider, a science geek, too intelligent for his own good, and "an emergent homosexual."

I don't know what an emergent homosexual is, but it can't be good.

I feel betrayed.  One of the icons of my childhood has been tarnished.  The bright glittery world had a homophobic underbelly.

See also Dungeons and Dragons; Six Naked College Boys
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