Non-2013 Pop Culture I Discovered Last Year

AV Club recently asked their staff writers and regular readers an interesting question: What’s the Non-2013 pop culture you discovered this year? Well, that got me to thinking because 2013 was a pretty unique year for me in (re)discovering some great non-2013 pop cultural artifacts. I thought I’d take the time and share some of them with you.

I am Cuba (Yo Soy Cuba)

When Turner Classic Movies aired this classic piece of Soviet/Cuban agit-prop back in September, I was in awe. I’d read about how revolutionary this  film was, but I had no idea just how much, so watching it for the first time was a revelation. From the beautiful B&W cinematography to the narration, everything in this film is like a prose poem rich with imagery and music. Told in four separate stories, I Am Cuba takes place just before the Cuban Revolution, and, sparingly, though nonetheless sympathetically, tells the stories of four different people––a young kept woman living in Havana, a revolutionary student, a sugarcane farmer, and a man who joins the revolution after his family is killed. But the real star of the film, of course, is its cinematography. The scene in which a camera soars out of a window and over the city streets as it follows a funeral procession is nothing short of amazing. The dizzying camera movements bring you so fully and so completely into the film that the fourth wall breaks down and you are one with the sights, sounds, smells, and, most importantly, people of Cuba.

Forever Changes, by Love

I’d known for a while now about the 1960s rock band Love, headed by singer/songwriter Arthur Lee, a friend and contemporary of Jimi Hendrix’s, but 2013 was the year I discovered their seminal album Forever Changes. Released in 1968, Forever Changes is very much of its time––L.A. acid rock with off-beat, but deeply inspirational lyrics––yet it has a meditative allure that transcends time. I listened to this album almost non-stop over last summer, its songs, such as the majestic “You Set the Scene,” growing on me with each listen.

Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

2013 was the year I first heard of Helen Oyeyemi, even though her first novel was published in 2005. Born in Nigeria but raised in Britain, this young writer has quickly made a name for herself in the literary world with novels like White is for Witching, Icarus Girl, and Mr. Fox (2011). Her stories are both literary and fantastic, emotionally resonant yet whimsical. Mr. Fox, for instance, is about a writer, St. John Fox, his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, and his wife, Daphne. The entire novel is a storytelling competition between Fox and his muse, Mary Foxe, as they deal with the control each has over the other. Oyeyemi’s prose is deceptively simple, belying the density of thought and care in each sentence, but creates a world that is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Twin Peaks 

I first saw David Lynch’s Twin Peaks during its original run in 1990, but it wasn’t until I re-watched the entire series on Netflix over the summer that I really came to appreciate it (I was honestly surprised by what I’d forgotten and what I might have missed out on the first go-round). While fans and critics alike mention its weirdness, its cinematic quality, both in cinematography and music, as well as the murder mystery at the heart of the series––Who Killed Laura Palmer?––what struck me during this re-watch was how honestly it portrayed grief. Few TV series or films examine how absurd the bereavement period can be: One moment you’re singing and tapping dancing as if you’re on top of the world and the next you’re in a blubbering heap of tears. As someone who’s lost her sister nearly ten years ago, I can relate. After the networks pushed Lynch and producer Mark Frost to solve Laura Palmer’s murder during its second season (they had originally intended for it to remain unsolved), the show lost its way and veered wildly into territory that was both wacky (and not in a good way) and ridiculous (one storyline involved industrialist Ben Horne having a nervous breakdown and thinking he’s Jefferson Davis during the Civil War). But the series’ finale, directed by Lynch, more than redeemed itself with one of the most bizarre and freaky episodes to ever appear on TV. Twin Peaks was definitely ahead of its time!

Christmas Is for Rejects: How Your Favorite Christmas Specials Are Really About Outsiders

The holidays have always been a special time for television. It’s the time when TV series break out the Christmas carols and tell holiday-themed stories of redemption and togetherness. But the TV studios also produced a number of Christmas-themed, animated specials they rolled out every year and marketed toward kids. Growing up in the 1970s, I loved curling up in front of the TV set in the living room to watch such Rankin Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without Santa Claus (1974), featuring the funky Heat and Snow Misers.

One thing I’ve noticed in many of these cartoons, even as a child, was how each of these animated specials tended to be about outsiders. Every single special seemed to find endless ways to approach this theme. The more popular and famous of these specials was A Charlie Brown Christmas (1964). Written by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and directed by Bill Melendez, A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first Charlie Brown special to be produced for television. It cleverly attacked the crass commercialism of the holiday. But one theme that unites A Charlie Brown Christmas with many of its genre is how Charlie Brown, the lonely little outsider among the Peanuts cast, is chosen to question how Christmas has been turned over to marketing. Throughout the episode, Charlie is disturbed by how his friends so easily give in to crass consumerism. When Charlie is chosen to direct the Christmas pageant, he is given the task of finding a Christmas tree. Instead of picking out one of the garish plastic trees so popular with his friends, he chooses a little, sickly plant. The little tree, like Charlie himself, is unwanted and unwelcome by the other children, and Charlie is mocked for his efforts. Demoralized, Charlie wonders what the real meaning of Christmas is. He knows instinctively that it has nothing to do with the commercialization of the holiday, but he is lost as to its real meaning. Charlie’s cry for meaning and depth also becomes a cry against how the holiday has strayed from its true religious meaning. The fact that Charlie is given this search for real meaning is the true outsider of the group is significant. If Charlie had been more assimilated within the clique of school friends, would he have been just as blinded by the commercialism? Since Charlie was unable to enjoy the perks of belonging to the group, his ability to see them from the outside and what they stood for allowed him the chance to attempt asking the questions which brings the episode to its epiphany.

Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (1964), like Charlie Brown, is the ultimate outsider. Born with a glowing red proboscis, Rudolph isn’t, as the song goes, allowed to play any reindeer games. His red nose marks him as an “other,” one whose difference puts him outside the homogeneity of the group. The “mainstream” attitudes in this group sets Rudolph up to be discriminated by the others. His father disguises his nose with mud and teaches him that to be accepted by the group he must conceal his true identity. The ruse helps for a little while when Rudolph joins his reindeer friends, but when his true nose is revealed he is summarily rejected. Even Santa Claus, who ought to have known better, shares the same biases as the group. Rudolph’s rejection forces him into exile. He finds solidarity with an elf, Herbie, who is likewise marked as an “other” for his unwillingness to follow expectations. Herbie wants to be a dentist, not a toymaker, but unlike Rudolph, who is made to feel ashamed of his otherness, Herbie embraces it even in spite of social disapproval. Herbie embraces it so much he convinces Rudolph to do the same. The two decide to strike it out on their own to seek a place where they can be accepted for who they are. During their travels, they come across a Yukon who accepts them without question and land on the Island of Misfits, where unwanted and unloved toys are banished. Throughout their adventures, they come to realize how the world divides itself between those who are loved for “fitting in” and those who are not. But Herbie and Rudolph’s willingness to reject this paradigm forces others to recognize their prejudices after the two rescue Rudolph’s family from the Bumble, a snow beast that terrorizes Rudolph and his friends. After a fierce snowstorm nearly cancels Christmas, Rudolph’s nose comes to good use when he helps guide Santa through the blizzard. Here, Rudolph’s “otherness” is accepted through the pragmatic purpose it poses; but more than that, Santa and the other reindeers come to recognize that their own biases blinded them from seeing Rudolph’s potential and true value and the contributions he makes to society. Even the Bumble, once feared by the residents of Christmastown, is accepted and assimilated into the group, suggesting just how far they’ve come along. Here, the theme of acceptance becomes a part of the values associated with Christmas.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), narrated by Boris Karloff, also deals with themes about outsiders, but with differing results. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch is determined to ruin Christmas for the Whos of Whoville by stealing everything associated with the holiday. But the Grinch’s efforts are thwarted only when the Whos continue to be deeply devoted to the day’s spirit. Based on the Dr. Seuss book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is ostensibly a tale about the true meaning of Christmas. But an argument can also be made that perhaps the Grinch’s willingness to ruin the holiday for others has as much to do with his outsider status in Whoville. The Grinch lives in a mountainous cave with a long-suffering dog as companion. He is completely unassimilated from the group. But unlike Charlie Brown and Rudolph, the Grinch’s “otherness” is more by choice than by forced exile. In fact, the Whos gladly welcome him into their group after he learns the errors of his ways. The Grinch becomes a member of humanity when he realizes the spiritual meaning of the holiday and is thus able to embrace that humanity within himself. In this case, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is an argument against misanthropy and isolation. The Little Drummer Boy (1968), unlike most Christmas specials, took its themes directly from biblical sources. Based on the classic Christmas carol, The Little Drummer Boy is about a young boy whose drumming pleases the young Jesus Christ. Like other Christmas specials, this stop-motion animated special dealt with issues of outsiderness, as the little boy is ostracized by others in his group after his parents are killed. His skill as a drummer and his belief in Christ are what unites him to the Christian community. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (1970), featuring the vocal talents of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney, recounts the story of Santa Claus’s beginnings. Again, like other animated specials, Claus is shown as an outsider living among elves in the North Pole. But Claus, like Herbie in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, embraces his outsiderness with a rebellious streak. He breaks the laws of the Burghermeister Meisterburgher, a tyrant who bans toys in the town he governs, when he delivers toys to the towns’ children and thus develop his legend. The special shows the various ways in which Claus breaks the rules, making Santa a revolutionary figure against authoritarianism.

The 1999 special Olive, the Other Reindeer, featuring the voice of Drew Barrymore in the title role, follows the same route as previous holiday specials. Based on the popular children’s book, Olive, the Other Reindeer plays not only on the notion of outsiderness (other characters think Olive crazy for thinking she’s a reindeer), but on the slippery nature of identity. Olive is a special little dog who thinks she is one of Santa’s reindeers. When she decides to go to the North Pole after mistakenly believing that Santa needs her help, her faith in herself and her identity never wavers and she soon finds herself heading Santa’s sleigh. Olive’s differences as a dog and the fact that she really can’t fly doesn’t stop her from following her heart.

Other animated specials like Frosty the Snowman (1969), Nestor the Long-eared Christmas Donkey (1977), A Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977) and others likewise deal with the same themes with varying results. Otherness, whether brought about by biology (Frosty and Nestor), or through poverty (A Fat Albert Christmas Special), become a familiar theme associated with Christmas and the ideals it represents to those who celebrate and observe it. Since Christmas is about togetherness, brotherhood, and acceptance, revolving stories around cultural or social ostracism is a natural way to approach these themes. These specials have an enduring quality with audiences precisely because, whether as children or adults, we recognize these themes and find something with which we can relate to in our own lives.

President Kennedy: Reality and Myth in Popular Culture

Though it’s been fifty years since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, that dreadful day still has a hold on the American imagination. It is so deeply embedded in our culture that it has taken on the note of mythology. In fact it is our modern-day myth––the bold, handsome president shot down in the prime of his virility, while his wife and throngs of Dallas well-wishers in Dealey Plaza look on in horror. There is something almost classical in its mythology, like a Greek tragedy played out in real life. In an age before 24/7 cable news networks, the actual assassination was recorded not by newsmen but a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder, whose footage wasn’t released to the general public until a decade later. Under those circumstances, it makes sense that the event ballooned into mythic proportions in the American public. That day was like a blank canvas onto which people painted their own memories or contributed their answers to questions that still remain unresolved. The Warren Commission’s handling of the investigation only sparked more questions, creating a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists who insist that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone assassin in Kennedy’s murder.

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Source: channel.nationalgeographic.com

This mythic quality has likewise sparked artistic and literary fascination. Only recently NatGeo aired a bio-doc on Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, based on Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Kennedy, along with a slew of documentaries have aired on TV about the assassinations, Kennedy’s final hours, or bios on Kennedy himself. Stephen King published a novel, 11/22/63, taking liberties with a time travel tale which centers around the assassination. There’ve been other works in the past, including Don DeLillo’s Libra, and Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, which looks at New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s prosecution of the president’s assassination. The assassination is also heavily referenced in pop culture, such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and music videos. The cable TV series Mad Men dramatized the assassination in its second season to heavy anticipation.

No where in recent American history has an event scarred a nation so deeply. In JFK, America had found a model onto which it could project all of its best attributes: youth, vigor, imagination, intelligence. Not since President Obama’s 2008 presidential run, did Americans find similar excitement and transcendence. Yet five years after that historic election, Obama is facing some of the most stringent opposition to his policies and criticisms from the left and the right. Kennedy likewise faced similar criticisms. He experienced a major foreign policy blunder with the Bay of Pigs and had to be pushed to be more proactive on Civil Rights legislation. Yet his untimely and tragic death has cemented not the criticisms nor the mistakes, but Camelot, the image his widow and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy carefully cultivated after his death. We see only Camelot, not the real and very complicated man underneath. The myth lives on in our culture, in our literature, films, and TV, but we’d do well to separate the facts from the myth.

Authoritarianism and Rebellion in Popular Culture

Since World War II, Americans have been caught in a struggle between optimism and faith, fear and paranoia. Distrust toward institutions and authority became the norm during the 1960s as a younger generation began to reject the values and traditions of its elders. Popular culture symbolized this struggle. From Where the Boys Are and Gidget to Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Ones; from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” and the Temptation’s “My Girl” to Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” America was in a state of flux, uncertain of its future. Beneath the struggle was the underlying fear that things were not what they appeared to be, demonstrated by the social and political upheavals of the ‘50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Hollywood addressed the underbelly of paranoid fantasies as early as 1962 with John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Based on the novel by Richard Condon and starring Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Frank Sinatra, the film laid the foundation for government conspiracies that would follow only a year later when President Kennedy was assassinated. During the late sixties, a new generation of filmmakers, many of whom were recent graduates of the nascent film school departments, went behind the camera to explore issues that preoccupied the baby boom generation. Countercultural films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde thumbed their noses at the establishment. Anti-authoritarianism was well grounded among baby boomers, particularly through rock and roll, but films began taking the lead and soon a cinematic oeuvre was established, dominating theater screens and generating healthy box office revenues for a cash-strapped industry. Easy Rider of the 1960s and later Three Days of the Condor, Network, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The China Syndrome, and others reflected a distrust toward government and authoritative figures in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. Even seemingly disparate films like The Godfather Parts I and II, The Conversation, and Taxi Driver, by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese respectively, explored the corruptible nature of power and the gullibility of a public in search of quixotic anti-heroes striking a blow against the “system.”

Science fiction like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Soylent Green used the conventions of the genre to explore totalitarianism, secrecy, and conspiracy. In Colossus, the unity forged between two supercomputers from the United States and the Soviet Union mock the ideal of international cooperation and diplomacy when the very technology the two superpowers designed were used against them to create a totalitarian regime. Soylent Green was a nightmarish take on the mystery meat joke, preceding the concerns of biogenetic foods and engineering. Horror films like Rosemary’s Baby also questioned the same assumptions of our faith in medical expertise.

By the 1980s, due to the success of blockbuster films Jaws and Star Wars, and bloated by the excesses of the times, the auteur movement died. Yet there was an undercurrent of a backlash toward what the films of the 1970s represented––the rebellion, independence, cynicism, conspiracy, and anti-authoritarian attitudes that were the ramifications of the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s. The ascendancy of Goldwater’s conservative movement reached its apotheosis in the election of former actor Ronald Reagan, who, during the 1960s as governor of California, was a vigilant opponent of the antiwar movement. Successful 1980s franchises like Rambo and Rocky, both starring Sylvester Stallone, the Max Max and Lethal Weapon sequels, as well as conservative-oriented films like Red Dawn, reflected this change. Action films, starring such muscle-bound actors as future California Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, future Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and others, demonstrated the audience’s lust for hyper-masculinized entertainment featuring as many car chases, explosions, and daring stunt work as Hollywood was capable of churning out. These films had a decidedly conservative and authoritarian bent, though their protagonists were often mavericks who bucked the system. But bucking the system in these films meant breaking laws that were designed to protect civil liberties, all in the aim to “get the job done” and catch the bad guys. A willingness to use force as a means to solve problems or as a form of law enforcement mirrored the “get tough on crime” attitudes of the 1980s.

Unlike film and music, television stayed largely out of the fray. Few references about world events outside the evening news made their way to nightly television shows. Programs such as The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island were lighthearted fluff meant to mindlessly entertain audiences in between commercial breaks. Heavily restricted by commercial interests, television producers had to find subtler ways to address these issues. During the 1970s, iconoclastic figures like Columbo and Baretta bucked the system by fighting the bad guys their own way, but were nonetheless champions of the “system,” rarely questioning authority except as a means to establish an eccentricity of character. They allowed audiences to think they were cheering on characters who were attacking the system, but gave them the comfort of knowing that by episode’s end the moral code that separated the good guys from the bad were still in tact. The system wasn’t attacked because it’s very paradigmatic values were questionable, but because it was too bloated and inefficient to deliver the kind of justice that coddled audiences. Like the films of the 1980s, these shows adhered to authoritarianism, not against it.

It wasn’t until the debut of The X-Files that a television show would address the underlying cynicism and distrust toward our government. The X-Files came two years after Oliver Stone’s film JFK, which sparked more questions and suspicions about the government’s involvement in the president’s assassination. The X-Files followed roughly the same path, revealing in a series of mythological arcs about the government’s cover-up in its knowledge of extraterrestrials and its complicity in aiding a possible alien invasion. Its two heroes, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) worked for the same government that was keeping secrets, but unlike TV heroes of the past, they truly did buck the system in their quest to find the truth. The fact that they were often thwarted from their goal was less a sign of their unwillingness to change the status quo, than from a powerful and untouchable foe that always kept two paces ahead of our heroes. Mulder and Scully’s willingness to seek the truth against all odds earned them the love and respect from audiences for whom such heroes were few and far between in the real world.

After 9/11, though, authoritarianism returned as more Americans began to trust the government in its war against terrorism. Americans were now asked not to question the government. Those who did so were met with outright punishment. After comedian Bill Maher contradicted conventional wisdom when he claimed that the nine Saudi nationals who hijacked planes and flew them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center weren’t cowards, then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer warned that “Americans…need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.” Maher’s long-running ABC television show Politically Incorrect was canceled shortly thereafter.

Debate and dissent were enemies of the state in this new era. When Natalie Maine of the Dixie Chicks spoke out against the president while overseas, stating that she wasn’t proud that Bush was from her home state, her comments set off a backlash against the band in the largely conservative country music community. The Dixie Chicks later released an album that addressed the backlash. Hip hop artists the Coup released an album not long after 9/11 that featured the bandmates on its cover setting off a bomb outside the WTC. The cover and the CD were created before the events of 9/11, but that didn’t mitigate the criticism the band had gotten over it. Hollywood, on the other hand, offered to lend its hand in creating work that validated this new authoritarianism. A slew of films released during this period replicated the sense of fear and paranoia in American society, not toward an authoritative government, but toward the unknown, using horror and comic books as a means of validation. Films like the Saw franchise, as well as remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were nicknamed “torture porn” for scenes that eroticized the torture of mostly female characters by the films’ villains. These films allowed audiences the chance to experience their worst fears about terrorism in the safe environment of a movie theater (though ironically, when news of the CIA’s use of waterboarding at black sites like Abu Graib became known, these movies took on an entirely different interpretation in hindsight). Comic book movies became a cash cow for Hollywood as Americans flocked to see their favorite superheroes vanquish evil and bring order back to the world. Like those TV iconoclastic renegades who fought evil while thumbing their noses at authority, comic book heroes, like Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, were vigilantes bucking a system that had grown too bloated to do the job right. Therefore, it isn’t a coincidence that three months after the U.S. invaded Iraq, President Bush landed a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier and announced “Mission Accomplished,” mimicking the comic book heroism of the big screen. Heroism and a faith in the authoritarian father figure found its ultimate representation in Jack Bauer in the Fox TV series 24. His willingness to use torture and to break the rule of law became a model among Republicans on how the War on Terrorism ought to be fought.

Another interpretation of authoritarianism––albeit a nobler and more liberal version––came in 1999 when NBC premiered its popular series The West Wing, the first primetime drama to directly explore the lives of the people who work in government, specifically the White House. Though the series was supposed to follow the men and women who work on the president’s staff, it quickly included its fictional president, Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), among its regular cast. Aaron Sorkin’s drama presented a romanticized version of politics with the Bartlet administration representing the ideal rather than the reality of governance. The president was presented as a father figure, though a very flawed one. Its second season ended with a presidential scandal: Bartlet, his wife, and close political allies kept the president’s MS a secret from his staff and the national public. Unlike real life political scandals, The West Wing allowed viewers to see how an administration and its staff professionally, emotionally, and legally tackled theirs. As viewers, we emphasized with Barlet as he worked to restore his public standing, even though he lied about an issue that voters had the right to know about before entering the ballot box. President Bartlet validated the notion of a benign and enlightened authoritative figure, one who used government to positively affect American lives. In this way he was the polar opposite of George W. Bush and became a fantasy onto which many liberals latched following the disastrous 2000 presidential election.

Yet elsewhere on television, a different vision of government, authoritarianism, and rebellion was taking place. While The West Wing sought to romanticize institutions, cable television sought to demolish them. They also created indelible anti-heroes that not only bucked the system but often won. In the same year of The West Wing’s debut, HBO premiered its runaway hit The Sopranos. Starring the late James Gandolfini, The Sopranos redefined television and made anti-heroes a perfectly reasonable subject for series treatment. Each season, viewers were left with the question of whether Tony Soprano, the head of a New Jersey crime syndicate, was either going to get “whacked” or arrested by the Feds for his crimes. And each season, Tony got away. The series’ finale was the ultimate “fuck you” to audiences who wanted the moral order to be neatly put back in place. In an era where Americans were still awaiting news that Osama bin Laden had been captured or killed, Tony’s escape from karma was not only anti-authoritarian, but rebellious as well. The Sopranos proved that American society was the system that needed to be rebelled against, especially when it came to pop culture.

Another series that was the antithesis of The West Wing was also an HBO cultural milestone. The Wire, while not as popular as The Sopranos, likewise rebelled against cultural expectations in a number of ways. The series took place in Baltimore, featured a cast half of which was African American, and attacked issues that were rarely addressed in mainstream media: the war on drugs, poverty, racism. The series offered an unsentimental look at institutions and their indifference toward the people who worked within them and who were often subject to their care. Each of its five seasons tackled different aspects of these institutional divides, whether it be the police and drug trade, labor, politics, public schools, and the media. Where The West Wing sought to validate the role of institutions to positively affect people’s lives, The Wire revealed the ways in which institutions destroyed them. Yet unlike the rebels of the past who fought against the law or fought within the law to “get the job done,” The Wire offered no such palliatives, for even its own rebels––be it Det. Jimmy McNulty, Maj. Bunny Colvin, or Omar Little––became casualties of a system that treated individuals as mulch for its survival. In its way, The Wire was deeply anti-authoritarian.

Following the success of The Sopranos, HBO and other cable channels began churning out series with anti-heroes as their subjects. FX’s The Shield, AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Weed, and others featured anti-heroes as their protagonists. The popularity of these programs perhaps brought to bear the squeamishness many Americans were starting to feel in the post-9/11 era as the War on Terrorism gave rise to warrantless wiretapping and the infringement on civil liberties. Their characters fought against systems that forced them into boxes, often breaking the laws or committing extralegal actions in order to prevail. They provided a catharsis for audiences who wearied of the boxes they were being forced into.

Breaking Bad’s Walter Walter (Bryan Cranston) became an ersatz spokesman for workers who found themselves unemployed in a capitalist system that continued to flourish after bankrupting the American economy and receiving a bailout at the workers’ expense. Following the election of President Barack Obama, he also prefigured the tea party which, angered over a political and social system that was marginalizing them to a perceived victimhood, rose to prominence in reaction to Obama’s electoral win. White, both a victim of the private health insurance industry and the economy, fought against that perceived victimization by turning his natural talents as a chemist into cash gold in the meth industry. The series was a critique against white male privilege even as it allowed audiences to vicariously follow his exploits and quote him endlessly. When the series ended, White had gotten his just desserts, but not before beating the system that marginalized him and taking control of his own destiny. In that sense, Walter White ironically symbolized the American dream in all its connotations, revealing why anti-authoritarianism will always play an important role in American pop culture.

7 Scary Moments from TV

Okay, it’s Halloween, so I had to write a post on moments (mostly from TV) that scared the crap out of me. I’m not talking about scary movies that I liked or enjoyed watching (I wrote another post about that on a different blog that you can read here). I mean moments that either had me hiding my eyes behind my hands or creeped me out for days afterward. This list is in no particular order and not all of the entries are from horror movies (some of the scariest things are real). And let me know: What movie, TV show, or book kept you up late at night with the lights on?

 

The Exorcist – “We Are Legion!”

 

When the Exorcist first premiered on TV years ago, my brothers and I gathered around the little TV set to watch it. But the movie freaked me out so much I couldn’t even bear to look at it. My mom told me, just turn your eyes away if it’s scaring you (why she didn’t change the channel, I have no idea. But that’s my mom for you). I looked away during the whole movie and listened to it, but that only made it worse. The scene where Father Damien listened to the taped interview of Regan/Devil growling, hissing, and shouting “We Are Legion” backwards was scarier than anything they could’ve shown on TV!

 

It’s Alive TV Trailer

 

This was a cheesy, 1970s grind house movie about a killer baby. But the ads that ran on TV when it was released were spooky. The ad was simple and stark: a rocking carriage, a black backdrop, a baby crying, and then a claw sticking out. That ad creeped me out every time it aired on TV.

 

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Jack Palance Tells A Scary Story

 

Jack Palance was creepy enough on his own. He made a career playing bad guys back in 1950s Westerns. But he really upped the creep factor when he hosted the 1980s proto-reality TV show, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Based on the odditorium museum founded by Robert Ripley, the TV show was pretty popular with audiences, especially kids. But it created a minor controversy when Jack Palance, the show’s host, decided to tell a little story about the death of Rasputin, the Mad Monk who served in Tsar Nicolas’ court. With only his raspy voice to set the stage, Palance stood in a catacombs, dripping with condensation and lit only by torches, as he told every gruesome detail of how Rasputin was poisoned, stabbed, shot, tortured, then thrown off a bridge into the cold waters below. After the episode aired, ABC received complaints from parents across the country that the segment scared their kids. And who can blame them? The mad glint in Palance’s eyes was enough to give me nightmares!

 

Dark Night of the Scarecrow – The Twist Ending

 

This 1981 TV movie starring Charles Durning was about a mentally disabled man named Bubba who comes back from the dead to get revenge against the small mob which executed him for assaulting a young girl. Since the accusation was false––Bubba was the girl’s friend and was only helping her when she was injured while they were playing––and he was pretty defenseless when he was murdered (he was hiding as a scarecrow), his vengeance was perfectly justifiable. So watching him dispense with the rednecks who murdered him was more just desserts than scary. But the twist ending was enough to creep me out so much that I remembered it years later when I’d forgotten everything else about the movie. I won’t spoil the ending, but if you haven’t seen it already I recommend you check it out.

 

Trilogy of Terror

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Trilogy of Terror is a legend among TV horror movies that were made in the 1970s. An anthology of short films all starring the late Karen Black, Trilogy of Terror is known mostly for its final film called “Amelia.” The story is about a woman living in a high rise who buys a Zuni fetish doll for her mother. The doll has sharp teeth and menacing eyes and an amulet strung around its neck. When the amulet falls off, the doll comes to life and begins chasing Amelia through her apartment. I saw this movie when it first aired, but most of the time I had my hands over my eyes. What made it so frightening was the relentlessness of the attack. No matter what Black did to protect herself–stab the doll with a knife, burn it to a crisp in the oven, drown it in the bathtub–it always came roaring back to attack her with its little, sharp knife. But the real kicker was the ending when the spirit of the Zuni doll went into Karen Black. Now that was scary! I was checking under the couches and bed for weeks!

 

 The Day After

 

There were several movies back in the 1980s that were all about a possible nuclear holocaust, but none of them hit as hard as The Day After. Airing on ABC back in 1983, The Day After went through every gruesome detail of what the aftermath of a nuclear attack might look like. But it was the attack itself that was the most effectively scary: people being incinerated by the nuclear blast, cars hulled by bursts of flames, buildings and trees crumbling and toppling by the sonic waves. The movie was equally relentless in its hopelessness as even the survivors of the blast dealt with cancerous tumors, hair falling out, quick and painful deaths, and a nuclear winter that made the burned and ashen landscape look nightmarish. This wasn’t Freddy Kreuger or Michael Myers slashing their way through a bunch of horny teenagers. This was real shit! We were in the middle of the Cold War, so a nuclear attack was still very much possible. A decade ago, I had a chance to watch the movie again on TV. It wasn’t as scary, but back in the 1980s, nothing scared me more than looking out of my window and watching a mushroom cloud appearing on the horizon!

 

Devil Dog: Hound From Hell

 

Just the title alone ought to tell you that this movie was network TV cheese! And yet, when my brother and I came home from trick-or-treating one Halloween night, this movie happened to be on TV while we spread our goodies on the floor, and it…well, what can I say? Devil Dog: Hound from Hell! Bwahahahah!

 

Happy Halloween!

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