Beneath the Underdog

No one cares for me.

Time to fess up: for me, the real tragedy of the premature dismissal of Kings from the NBC lineup isn’t the fact that a decent show didn’t get an honest run, or that a great cast was now out of work (though that was certainly a part of it); it was the sudden lack of material to post and the sudden absence of a decent distraction. Unless you have the encyclopedic breadth of a J.C. Freñán, who seems to have an uncanny ability to watch everything at all times, it’s hard to keep up with weekly installments of teledramas. This ain’t made any easier by shows like Lost (which I caught a few recent episodes of with our good friends at Interweb Detritus), whose plotlines are so mangled, are such labyrinthine mazes through bullshit, that they’ve become absolutely impossible to enter midway. So, naturally, I spent most of my time in front of the tube watching a drama of other sorts unfold – the much more accessible ’09 NBA Playoffs – only to witness yet another devastating and premature dismissal of a tale of Biblical dimensions (if not quite proportions): the untimely death of the David-turned-Goliath-turned-David-again Detroit Pistons.

Now I know TubaTV isn’t the most appropriate spot to vent about sports per se (even if I, the destitute student that I am, have only ever experienced sports through television), and I don’t want to go on about how much the decimation of my beloved, hometown team hurt (how, for instance, my heart dropped into my intestines after game 1; or how close I was to taking the plunge into the Pacific after game 3). There’ll be none of that. No, I want to talk more about the narrative of the underdog, the one narrative hook that pulls us all in, whether it be in sports or film (hello Slumdog!) or TV shows. Our national psyche is indebted to that narrative (Horatio Alger’s rags to riches tale is paradigmatic; and Obama’s story the latest example), but that shit goes even beyond the country’s borders. It’s a universal trait of modern subjectivity to believe we are always the underdog, even when we’re not. And if we ever do come to grips that we are no longer the underdog, that somehow we’re no longer an average Joe when we’re catapulted to the next tax bracket, something feels amiss. For Sheed & Company, they longed for the days when no one believed they could win, until, they no longer actually could.

Malcolm Gladwell (of The Tipping Point fame) in this week’s New Yorker gives some perspective on how underdogs pull off their great upsets. Gladwell narrates the story of a Palo Alto youth girls basketball team, coached by IT entrepreneur and hoops-newbie Vivek Ranadive, who, against all odds, manage to become the league’s best team. Gladwell returns to the David and Goliath tale for example:

‘And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,’ the Bible says. ‘And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.’ The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. ‘The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,’ the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in ‘The Life of David.’ Pinsky calls David a ‘point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.’ David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

Gladwell’s essay is about the way in which the Davids of the world win, by outhustling and outsmarting their opponents, by ignomiously “choos[ing] not to play by Goliath’s rules.” But Gladwell has less to say about the fleeting nature of Davids, a constitutive part, I’d argue, of the narrative itself.

Getting back to hoops, the Detroit Pistons of the aughts are the perfect example of the David and Goliath tale because, over the long decade, they inhabited both ends of that tale: they were, in ’04, the unlikely underdogs knocking off the imploding, hubristic Lakers; and they were, every year after that, the arrogant force of the East, who lost time and again to an upstart (Miami, Cleveland, and the freshly minted Celtics). And so it went with Ranadive’s basketball team, the team of wimpy, white girls (and Desis) who perfected the full court press and, against all odds, started to mow down their opponents; soon after becoming the fiercest defenders in girls basketball, they turned into the obnoxious victors, enough that opposing coaches launched chairs across the court in frustration.

Some weeks back, I praised Kings for its inspired reinterpretation of the David and Goliath tale (the press and public mistake David’s surrender as an act of defiance), but was annoyed by his protagonist’s subsequent, string-enhanced, heroism in every fucking episode thereafter. What would have happened to the David of Kings as the show progressed? He drew the ire of TubaTV, but would he have started to piss off the public of Gilboa with his repeated acts of underdog bumpkin heroics? Would he have turned into a KG, barking at the latest upstarts? Now, thanks to NBC, we’ll probably never know. Eh.

— Thumbu Sammy

You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate.


This Week’s Music on Television

Ladies and Gentleman, the Tinted Windows.
If Zwan wasn’t enough to crush the hearts of Smashing Pumpkins faithfuls, James Iha’s new supergroup, Tinted Windows, probably will. Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, and Mmm-bopper Taylor Hanson join Iha to bring their sugar pop to late night, twice this week.

Monday: Miami hustler, Rick Ross does his thing on Fallon; The Killers do Leno (BTW, does anyone else think “Human” sounds a lot like Alphaville?)
Tuesday: Harvard nerd-biscuits, Chester French bring it on Fallon; Norwegian songstress Ida Maria does Leno; and, alas, the surreal-life supergroup, Tinted Windows, debut on Letterman.
Wednesday: Mancunians The Whip bring their Factory Records-revival to Jimmy Kimmel; Beyonce talks, but may or may not perform, on Letterman
Thursday: The mighty Depeche Mode do Kimmel; the no-longer-grateful Dead play Letterman.
Friday: Jamie Foxx blames it on the a-a-alcohol on Kimmel; Tinted Windows (again!) do Fallon; and Radiohead-hater Lily Allen does Letterman.

‘City as might have been’: Sitcoms and the 70s

Norman Lear's City

Last week’s reminiscences of Taxi made me mourn the passing of 70s-era television, and slowly come to grips with what feels like the inevitable decline of everything good into something interminably shitty. But here at TubaTV, we do our best to hold back the tears, be strong, and mask our sentimentality with some cold, hard academese. So, rather than just narrate the downward spiral of sitcoms since the 70s (which, come to think of it, isn’t even true), we’ll be looking at something more interesting: the refiguration of the American city, over the course of three decades, in that most innocuous and overlooked of cultural forms, the sitcom title sequence.

Three decades is a seriously long time in the lifespan of any city, enough to transform it several times over. But along with those social and material changes (the urban renewals and the urban decays) come the changes in our representations of the cities, themselves: the desires we project upon them, the historical context from which we view them, the neighborhoods we look at and the way we imagine the lives within them. This relationship between the material and discursive, is what Carlo Rotella calls the dialectic between the “city of fact” and the “city of feeling.” And here are three examples of how the two played out in living rooms all over the States throughout the 70s.

1. Brooklyn – Welcome back, Kotter (1975-79)

Back before the hipster diaspora converged onto Williamsburg’s blocks, Gabe Kaplan and the Sweathogs were scheming ways of getting out. Lovin’ Spoonful singer, John Sebastian’s mellow, Bacharachian theme may put you to sleep before you notice the subdued poetry of this opening sequence. A tagged train chuffs past Buchanan High, a pigeon circles over a city block and Sebastian’s bittersweet refrain, “Welcome back / your dreams were your ticket out” describe the urban purgatory that once was the “4th Largest City in America.” (BTW, was Brooklyn in the 70s its own city?)

2. Chicago – Good times (1974-79)

Eric Monte, the creator of Good times, grew up in the infamous Cabrini-Green projects on the North Side of Chicago (shown at 0:12 and after), before hitchhiking to Hollywood to become one of the most important and prolific television writers of the last forty years. These days, Good Times is probably more remembered for the debut of Janet Jackson, Ernie Barnes’ Sugar shack, and charges of black stereotyping (read here about Monte’s horror when his writing staff tried to get John Amos to say “I’se be wantin’ to go down by da ribba” ). Nevertheless, Good Times probably stands as the only sitcom that was set in the projects, which described (in its brilliant theme song especially) the long struggle of African Americans living in urban blight. It was the flipside of the upwardly mobile (but still cynical) Jeffersons‘ American dream. Unfortunately, not too long into its five year run, Monte left, and JJ hollered “Dy-no-mite!” as the show tumbled towards infamy.

3. Queens – All in the family (1971-79) / Archie Bunker’s place (1979-83)

This is really Norman Lear‘s crowning achievement. A bigoted Irishman and his sweet, naive wife sing what seems like a funereal dirge about the alleged death of laissez-faire America (“Didn’t need no welfare state / everybody pulls his weight…”) as the camera pans past a line of rowhouses in Astoria. The layers of meaning here are really wonderful: lyrics are inflected by the strained vocals of Carol O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, and the singing is inflected by an iconic (panoptic) shot of Manhattan teetering slightly off center. Archie Bunker’s place, the spinoff that ran ’til ’83, opens much more steadily, and ’cause of that, lacks a lot of the original’s charms. All in the Family was about the awkward collision of the old white guard and the new post-civil rights era – by the 80s, Archie Bunker already knew his place, in the neighborhood pub.

There are other honorable mentions – Maude‘s opening took its viewers from Manhattan to Tuckahoe, The Jeffersons moved us from Queens to the Eastside, and even Laverne and Shirley gave us a glimpse of Milwaukee’s breweries. But the thing that’s remarkable about the urban landscapes of 70s sitcom intros were just how unsanitized they were. All three examples above show the American city with real folks populating it, the rows of working class homes, project housing, and mass transit that, over the years, sustained it. What happened to that city, man?

– Thumbu Sammy

The Next Movement? The Roots on Jimmy Fallon

Top Right: The Return of SW1?
Top Right: The Return of SW1?
So, Jimmy Fallon is now three weeks into Late Night, and at the risk of sounding like a total NBC-shill, I’m gonna go out and say that Jimmy will land on his feet just fine. In spite of the painfully awkward monologues (can we just do away with them?), in spite of the constant sycophantry, dude will blow out the other 12:30ers. And the reason’s none other than The Legendary Roots Crew.

Look: Like everyone else, I was shocked, disheartened, gutted, etc, that ?uestlove & co., who’d put out two of their darkest, most politically melancholic albums in the last couple years, would risk all their cred to slow jam to some pasty SNL grad’s thoughts on AIG. (Remember when Winston Marsalis took the Leno job, and left, tired of being “Rochester to Jack Benny“? Remember when Kevin Eubanks was actually a guitarist? Can’t say I do). Hamilton Nolan at Gawker puts it this way: “Black Thought opening for Jimmy Fallon every night is the cultural equivalent of Miles Davis playing his horn on the subway platform to back up a semi-trained dancing spider monkey.” It hurts, man. A real bad.

But one of the benefits of The Roots on network TV is their pull in bringing Hip Hop back to late night, which aside from occasional stints on the Letterman-Leno circuit, hasn’t really been a presence since the days of the Jon Stewart Show (first place I saw Biggie perform), and In Living Color. I mean, bringing out Public Enemy to Bring the Noise? Damn.

Does that help me redeem my image of Flava Flav after VH1 did its best to minstrelize a legend? A little. Does it erase the horrible memory of seeing The Roots play back up to Deuce Bigalow? Not yet, man; not yet. They’d have to reunite Pete Rock and CL, for that.

– Thumbu Sammy

Stringer Bell Joins Dunder Mifflin and Heads Roll

My partner J.C. has been pretty good this past year at tracking the mighty cast of The Wire plunging headfirst into the tepid waters of network television – first, we lose Daniels to Lost, then Marlo to Heroes, and then the brightest star of them all, Michael, to a fucking 90210 rehash. But you can’t blame the actors, really, so much as the casting directors, or writers, or head writers, or whoever decided to squander the talent and rich intertext of The Wire and its players.

So, anyone who caught last night’s Office got to see the latest installment in The Wire meets network television, when one of the most sacred characters in Simonian pantheon made the trek from Bodymore to Scranton, and transformed from Adam-Smith-reading, corporate hard ass pusherman, Stringer Bell, to Adam-Smith-reading, corporate hard ass, paper pusher, Charles Minor. The results? Probably the most unsettling Office this season. Stringer spends his first day trimming the fat at Dunder Mifflin, denying Michael his fifteen-years-at-DM party, dissolving the PPC (Party Planning Committee) and quietly conveying his disdain for his new colleagues, enough so that an unhinged Michael turns in his resignation at headquarters in New York. Experts agree, it wasn’t all that funny. (And here, I’m not sure I ever figured out how much of Michael’s weekly breakdowns were meant for quick laughs or to get at some broader corporate pathos). Still, there is something satisfying about watching just how quickly the white-collared whiteys on NBC buckle under the cold, managerial presence of Charles “Stringer” Minor, and it’s hard for any fan of The Wire not to project that show’s themes onto the jokey capitalism of The Office. The VP of Dunder-Mifflin and the VP of the Barksdale organization: how far apart are they, really?

You know they got the same schooling.

– Thumbu Sammy

Déjà vu. No, for real.

Why on earth do I keep wasting my time with Damages?  Is it because seeing Timothy Olyphant makes me wistful for better days in the Western Territories?  Is it because cameo appearances by Baltimore PD heavyweights Lou Rawls and now Lester Freamon will inevitably bring a tear to my eye?  (Thank you, Lester, for keeping it real.)  Is it because I have pronounced OC tendencies?

This week’s episode — directed by none other than Orange County’s number one dead-beat dad, Jimmy Cooper, and presciently titled “I agree, it wasn’t funny” — actually felt like something of an insult.  The deliberately cryptic flash-forwards are just SO GODDAMN TIRED.  At least on Lost there’s a coherent (albeit wacky) justification for the flashes; on Damages it’s just an empty gimmick.  And worse, it’s wasteful of some considerable acting talents (Numbnuts Donovan notwithstanding).  Weak, FX.  Y’all need to get Charlie Kelly to fix the rest of your programming.

Ich liebe es wenn man mir sagt dass was nicht geht.
Ich liebe es wenn man mir sagt dass was nicht geht.