TubaTV remembers: ‘The Ben Stiller show’

The Ben Stiller show

I’m a member of a pretty downmarket gym here in Mexico City; a gym so downmarket that its sound system — when not eclipsed by Telehit, Mexico’s answer to MTV — rotates daily through the same two scratched up CD-Rs of salsa music and High NRG megamixes.  Imagine my delight, early yesterday morning, when one of the gym’s owners regaled her clientele with a new acquisition.  It began innocently enough, with a few choice Gorillaz tracks.  Inexplicably, though, (before we got to Mellon Collie era Smashing Pumpkins) the CD veered off into Jim Carrey’s rendition of “Somebody to love” from the movie Cable guy.  For anyone who may have forgotten, the almost unanimously underappreciated film was Ben Stiller’s directorial debut way back in 1996, years before his fling with Cameron Diaz and her comely hair.  (I maintain, despite a decade of vehement protests to the contrary from certain otherwise friendly quarters, that Cable guy is actually just short of brilliant.  It is also without a doubt the best performance* Jim Carrey has ever contributed to anglophone popular culture.  And that includes Eternal sunshine, Gondryfans.)

*Note to Thumbu and Emily V: which of you wants to sign up for a ‘TubaTV remembers: In living color‘ post?

I decided to take this freak occurrence as a sign: it’s high time TubaTV pay homage to a similarly underappreciated televisual gem, The Ben Stiller show.  In spite of his post-Mary oeuvre, I suspect that Ben Stiller is actually a very funny dude.  Anyone who doubts me need only check his pedigree: The Ben Stiller show combined the talents of Bob Odenkirk (whose genius is indisputable), Judd Apatow (whose talents frankly hit or miss), Andy Dick (whom I always thought was really funny, freakouts and all) and Janeane Garofalo (whose ill-advised semi-dramatic turn on 24 has admittedly tarnished what might otherwise have been fonder memories of her early 90s prime).

While the show parodied pop cultural artifacts that were very much of a particular moment in time, it also tended to require a certain pop culture competency that comparable sketches on SNL or early MADTV didn’t.  Here’s a classic example:

With this sketch, the show’s aesthetic choices — appropriating the ubiquitous 90s-era MTV camera angles, the jagged, calculatedly “accidental” edits — buttress a critique that aims to demystify or demythologize pop culture heroism.  Stiller & co. are not simply making fun of pop culture for its own sake; in this case they’re also calling Bono a sellout.  (Yes, Thumbu, I’m baiting you.)  The set of subversions at work operates on an almost subcultural level from within the machinery of 20th Century Fox.  Of course the show could only ever have been short-lived, but the 13 episodes Stiller managed to produce are all fine examples of the political charge that any good satire should carry.

In lieu of further interpretation, I’ll instead offer a sketch for TubaTV’s least prolific and yet most popular contributor…

… as well as an early cameo of a young David Cross (in what has to be the show’s most bizarre sketch, and also a possible source of inspiration for Armen Meiwes)…

… and finally my all time favorite Ben Stiller moment:

The GOLs abound.

— J.C. Freñán

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TV pet peeve #5: The Meaningful Montage

While all of TubaTV’s pet peeves make our collective blood boil, #5 is doubly peevey: firstly, The Meaningful Montage constitutes some seriously vile pop culture demagogy.  It’s like the aural equivalent of the soap opera close-up: in the event that some half-dead member of the audience isn’t certain how to feel about a given story line, the Meaningful Montage packages the appropriate sentiment into an easy-to-digest caplet of radio friendly, unit shifting sound and vision.  Worse still than its status as a marketing ploy, the Meaningful Montage is essentially a less ambitious/more plebeian cousin to The Magnolia Moment, finally amounting to a spiritless gesture entirely bereft of rhetorical force.

Rupert Murdoch’s army of simpletons over at Fox/FX have honed the device to its most utilitarian: Don Draper must have convinced them that the final minutes of any given serial drama can be made both poignant and relevant for the “coveted 18-49 demographic” by the simple inclusion of a slow-motion montage set to some “edgy” New(ish) (White) Music.  Got a character moving to another state and/or resigning himself to a life of working class baby daddery?  Oh, Jeff Buckley’s oft-abused cover of “Hallelujah” should do the trick:

Rescuing someone from a burning building?  (Or drinking yourself into a stupor?  Or slowly ruining every relationship you’ve ever had?)  “Indie” rock is most definitely in order:

The Meaningful Montage is so trite, so ridiculously facile that this fan vid of The shield is practically indistinguishable from an actual episode:

In honor of all you anonymous Tuba lovers out there, I’ve gone ahead and edited the following choice editorializing out of the Wikipedia entry for The shield: “To enhance its realism, the show makes very little use of background music until the end of each episode.”  Back loading music at the end of an episode “enhances” its “realism,” huh?

[Edit: Some devoted Shield fan has undone my edits.  I had changed “realism” to read “market appeal.”  Any Wikipedia editors out there, please join the discussion page and weigh in on the proposed change.]

— J.C. Freñán

Running for the border, in reverse

It’s the height of foolishness to get excited about a new Fox series, but can you really blame me this time?  Christopher McQuarrie — best known for writing The usual suspects — has co-created Persons unknown, and is currently executive producing a 13-episode run, which I expect to begin airing this fall. Truth be told, McQuarrie’s involvement alone would have been enough to get me to watch: if he can manage to give Ryan Philippe a certain dirty, macho appeal, I’m willing to give any McQuarrie project a fair shot, even if it’s going to be relegated to the network with the worst track history in TubaTV’s collective memory.

Sweetening the deal, though, is the curious fact that Persons unknown has been filming less than an hour away from TubaTV’s Latin American office, in the Ajusco Mountain region south of Mexico City.  I’m not thrilled that the show is being co-produced with Televisa — the Mexican analog of Fox, only ickier, if you can imagine — but in all honesty the partnership can only help the otherwise desolate Mexican airwaves.  [I recently spoke with the main stylist on Mexico’s other notable (read:failed) attempt at moving beyond the telenovela format, and she confirmed my suspicions: the second season of Capadocia is going to be much, much shoddier than the first.  Apparently — and understandably — the series’s budget has been slashed, and to make matters worse, its writers have abandoned the entire groundwork they laid in the first season, offering us instead a weak, watery prequel: the life and times of Bambi, prior to her incarceration.  Do they not realize that by the end of the first season, the show’s appeal was resting entirely on Dolores Paradis’s impressive underage décolletage?]

So, viva NAFTA?

In related news, burnout Fox alum Paul Sheuring might be competing with McQuarrie on the big screen, as both appear to be working on remakes of the German film Das experiment.  Personally, I’d favor a McQuarrie effort by a mile, since Sheuring spent a good two and a half seasons beating his own Prison break horse after it had expired.

— J.C. Freñán

TV pet peeve #3: Overthickening the plot

One could be pardoned for forgetting that once upon a time, Prison break was actually pretty entertaining.  The original premise — loosing the bonds of incarceration via the bonds of fraternal love — strikes a weird chord with me, and if we can forgive the predictable Fox-isms, that first season did fulfill its narrative promise rather satisfactorily.  Insofar as the first part of the second season attempted to deal with the consequences of the first, it wasn’t too far off the mark, either (although the Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell character did wear out his welcome well before that).

I think everyone can agree that the unapologetically racist third season — Prison break: Pandemonium in Panamá! — was an unmitigated failure.  (Not even the finale’s ill-advised inclusion of Rebekah del Rio’s Vini Reilly-less version of “Crying” could do much to redeem it.)  It’s been downhill for the brothers Scofield and their merry band of felons ever since, and there’s a very simple reason why: the conspiracy’s just too goddamn thick.  I’m not complaining about the show’s lack of verisimilitude so much as its writers’ total disregard for compulsively recurring to the same improbable emplotments: living relatives keep finding themselves held as collateral, while estranged and/or presumed dead relatives keep coming back to life; enemies keep becoming grudging allies, and steadfast allies either defect from the cause or become embittered enemies.  Whenever the flip-flopping gets too confusing to follow, the writers just add a greater, previously unimagined threat to the mix.  After season one, the antagonist function is tossed lazily around like a lukewarm, unappetizing potato: Brad Bellick, Alex Mahone, Paul Kellerman, Gretchen Morgan, General Krantz, Donald Self… Who cares, really?  By now we know to expect each villain’s badassery to be trumped as we move up (or laterally across) the conspiratorial ladder of The Company.

Things didn’t have to turn out this way — narratively, I mean.  Granted, the fugitive angle was inevitably going to get tedious, but there are always going to be metaphorical prisons these characters would have had to confront, right?  But because Prison break is on Fox, such musings are pretty worthless.  (Wentworth-less, even!)  Instead we’re left with a sticky mess of half-baked characters and their competing interests.  Not even the tepid Scofield-Tancredi romance manages to sweeten the pot (impassioned fan art notwithstanding).

Not exactly llorando, is he?
I preferred his ink sleeves.

And because we’re talking about Obama-era Fox here, we’ve also got to contend with the suddenly formidable figure of Michael and Lincoln’s mother, of all people.  Not unlike Renee Walker on 24, I’ll venture that her being a very well-produced Woman With Boobs is meant to defer criticism of the show’s politics.  Not that I can make out a coherent political message from Prison break, other than maybe a vague, delusional libertarian anti-government posture.

Since I’m growing increasingly skeptical of Miami-based series, I’ll go ahead and point out that we can now add Prison break to the tally.  Maybe Dexter can help Michael and Linc get Scylla?

– J.C. Freñán