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Perhaps the Worst Movie: The Room

Perhaps the Worst Movie: The Room

“I do not know just how to write about or describe this thing. I have never in my life seen such a horrific mishmash of elements which are very bad in and of themselves, very badly executed, very badly mixed up with each other, completely out of left field, nonsensical as hell, and ramped up to about 13 on the manic madcap scale to top all the rest of it off.”

I wrote that back in 2011, a couple of years after Netjak’s demise and before my short stint at Filmdumpster; back when I was still a critic who had some sort of clout. It was about Howard the Duck, the famous bomb that signified the start of George Lucas’s downward trajectory. Now, here I am in 2017, trying to finish off a degree and back to square one as a writer, and it once again applies to a movie I just saw: The Room. The Room doesn’t have the balls-to-the-wall mania Howard the Duck did, but Howard the Duck was about a sentient duck from a different dimension, so that’s not a trick you would want to see repeated.

There are movies about which the stories of all the chaos on the set are legendary: Steven Spielberg couldn’t get the robot shark to work for Jaws; George Lucas couldn’t get anything on the set of Star Wars to go right except the score… Those movies overcame the long odds to become beloved eternal classics anyway. Well, The Room didn’t overcome all the long odds. It was looking like a clunker at every stage in the process, and it’s a clunker. It became such a clunker that one of the stars of the movie, Greg Sestero, wrote a book about the making of the movie. (The book, for those wondering, is called The Disaster Artist, and it quickly became my favorite book about the movie industry ever.) Tommy Wiseau, the man who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in The Room, had a private toilet made up for him on the set; two film crews quit on him; Sestero had to serve in a variety of other positions…

The mootness of The Room is something to behold. Wiseau has earned comparisons to Ed Wood, but you get the feeling watching Wood’s movies that he was trying to make a tangible point. There are so many plot points in The Room that are ultimately of so little consequence that you would think Wiseau was a nihilist. The Room comes with a collective total of about 20 minutes of sex scenes in an hour-and-a-half running time. There are also a lot of scenes of the characters throwing around a football, at least three scenes of characters making “cheep” noises at each other after calling each other chicken, and two characters – one named Peter and one unnamed – who seem to pop up out of nowhere. And this is coming from a movie with an excess of unresolved plot threads: One character DEFINITELY (emphasis hers) has breast cancer. Another character owes money to a drug dealer. Two more randomly break into the main character’s apartment for quickies. All three of those threads are precisely one scene long.

In The Disaster Artist, Sestero confessed that at some point, most of the actors just stopped trying. Sestero, who invented a backstory for his character in an attempt to be able to play the random aspects of him, was convinced that The Room would never make it to the theaters. This is reflected in the performances of most of the other actors too, save Carolyn Minnott and Robyn Paris. (Paris plays her role as Michelle in a way that looks like she’s really enjoying herself. According to Sestero, she was possibly the most-liked person on the set.)

The thin strand of plot that exists in The Room revolves around Creep One, Queen of Evil, and Plain-O. Okay, their names are respectively Johnny, Lisa, and Mark. But Johnny has a creepy side, Lisa is evil, and Mark is so plain that the script projects features onto him almost at will. Johnny and Lisa are engaged. Lisa is bored and decides she doesn’t love Johnny anymore. Lisa starts having an affair with Mark. That sums up the movie. Yes, there are a lot of scenes in this movie that try to trick you into thinking it has depth, but since they’re the aforementioned no-go plot threads, you’re not going to buy it. Let’s call them what they are: Padding. The Room is padded because nothing about the main plot makes any sense.

Let’s meet Johnny. Johnny is the main character, and he’s a pretty great guy. We know he’s a great guy because everyone else in the movie is a walking billboard about how great he is. In fairness to everyone, though, they have reason to think he’s great: He treats Lisa like a princess. He has a great job with a future, he supports a sort of adopted little brother by the name of Creep Two (okay, his name is Denny, but holy SHIT is he creepy), bought Lisa a car, and is pretty much a saint. Lisa has decided she’s bored with him, even though she’s known him for five years. But since she has all the emotional maturity of a cheeto, instead of simply speaking up to Johnny, she talks to Mark, who is Johnny’s best friend. Lisa starts seducing Mark on a regular basis, and although Mark is initially reluctant, he decides at one point that he’s suddenly not. The affair gets revealed at a big birthday bash for Tommy, and Tommy, despite everything else that’s been going right with his life, decides that all the walking testaments to his greatness have turned against him. Since his emotional maturity isn’t much better than Lisa’s, he swallows a gun.

There are lies aplenty told by Lisa for… Well, attention, I guess? I don’t even know. I do know that Lisa tells some whoppers, like getting hit by Johnny to being pregnant, and she’s at it through everything. Out of pure boredom, apparently. Like Mark, she seems to be written with convenience to the writer rather than a full character in mind. Unlike Mark, though, she does come with a defining characteristic: She’s the Queen of the Harpies. Her mother, Claudette, also gets a lot of crap for being manipulative, but I didn’t get that out of her; I got that she’s probably the biggest Johnny cheerleader in the movie. She’s the one advising Lisa to stay with him because he’s just such an awesome dude. So here’s what we come down to: One character betrays Johnny, another kinda, sorta, mighta, but it’s difficult to tell whether or not he’s betraying Johnny. When Johnny has the grand “realization” that everyone is against him, really he’s just pissy about getting dumped. Denny still loves him. Claudette still loves him. Peter still loves him. Michelle still loves him. Mark has a last epiphany and decides he still loves him. The weird person who only came into the movie in the last 15 minutes and gave a great lecture on how much Mark and Lisa’s shenanigans would hurt him still loves him. And yes, that’s a thing that happens.

I’m convinced that all the go-nowhere threads were brought into the movie in an attempt to give it more depth, and that the reason they don’t go anywhere is partly because there are way too many of them, and partly because Wiseau didn’t have any idea what he was doing. Sestero wrote in The Disaster Artist about Wiseau’s attraction to Marlon Brando and James Dean, who are the vintage Method actors responsible for changing the way movie acting is done. Sestero believed that Brando and Dean were magnetic figures because they had an instinct for knowing when to go big and when to hold off. Wiseau seems to have missed that aspect of their performances. Sestero’s take is that Wiseau believed the best approach was to go big at every possible moment, and it’s hard to argue. (In Wiseau’s defense, that was the approach that worked for Charlton Heston.) Everything Wiseau does in The Room, he does with maximum intensity and enthusiasm, and this is one case where cooler heads didn’t prevail. So Wiseau created The Room trying to do his personal interpretation of what a movie should do, and not what a movie really does.

That means The Room is something that creates a lot of memorable scenes, even though they fail repeatedly as scenes. There’s a scene where Johnny visits a flower shop. That’s 20 seconds long, but it’s one of the defining scenes of the movie because the script seems to be written backwards. Yes, Denny owes money to a drug dealer named Chris-R, but that never goes anywhere. Yes, Claudette has breast cancer, but that’s hand-waved.

The Room is either awesomely bad or badly awesome. When it became an unexpected classic of midnight cinema, Wiseau got his ultimate wish – to make a classic movie that people would see and love and talk about – in the most perverse way possible. Everyone in this movie has seemingly been able to eke out a living based on it. Wiseau and Sestero have been making the rounds from it forever. Robyn Paris is working on a web mockumentary about what happened to the cast (which I can’t wait to see). People recognize everyone who was in the movie, and they’ve all spent time appearing at fan conventions and film screenings. No, The Room isn’t a work of bad movie genius – you’re thinking of Sharknado. The difference between Sharknado and The Room is that the people making Sharknado KNEW everything about their series was hackey. The Room is a bad movie made as a misguided attempt to be a good movie, and it’s the over-the-top sincerity of it combined with its master and commander’s lack of talent that sends it over the top. If you have any love for bad movies at all, you need to see this thing. It’s required viewing.

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Health, Models, and the Fashion Media

Health, Models, and the Fashion Media

I can’t say I ever understood the appeal of those waif-thin models that kept popping up everywhere back in the 90’s. Their figures were terrible – they all looked like they would soon be whisked away in the next light breeze, plus their apparent attitudes seemed to run the gamut from neutral to indifferent. Occasionally, they might come across as surly. Sure, there was Tyra Banks, but she was an exception; the general rule of 90’s models was that if you threw them off the top of the Sears Tower, they should be able to float down, unharmed.

When Adrianna Lima first broke through in the mid-millennium, I got the sense a big shift in the modeling landscape was about to occur. Then Kate Upton appeared, and all bets were off. It would be a great lie if I wrote that Upton’s radiating sex appeal had nothing to do with her impressive chest, especially considering how often fashion designers put her in clothes which serve to accentuate it. (Let’s call this the Tomb Raider approach.) There is, however, more to Upton’s sex appeal than merely her breasts. I think the ultimate appeal of Kate Upton is that she appears to be healthy and happy working in an industry which, until recently, demanded that no one in it – man or woman – be either. Far from being the bitchy cheerleader or vapid, humorless icebox, Upton always seems prepared with a smile and a witty quip, signs of her being warm, personable, and approachable. Her body type is also different from the 90’s prototype: Although we can’t trick ourselves into believing the average Jane will ever have a body resembling Upton’s, Upton herself doesn’t seem to show any of the typical signs of starvation or deprivation that were once everywhere in the industry. Her ribs aren’t about to claw their way out of her thorax, and her skin doesn’t seem to have any abrasions or tightness which would signify her sharing of one mini-carrot a day with three other models as a diet. In short, Kate Upton takes care of herself.

The fashion media – and hell, we can expand that to include the entire high fashion industry itself – can’t seem to bring itself to figure this out. Both the industry and the media dedicated to covering it have decided that models need to look a certain way, right down to facial expressions during runway shows. Upton is, for some odd reason, assailed by fashion commentators for being too fat. Other criticisms include that she has an average face and that her waist is too large for a true hourglass figure. Upton also has a habit of speaking candidly instead of letting herself being reduced to a smiling, nodding corporate token in her interviews.

Anyone who read my last extinct list knows how I feel about the fashion media, and its appalling treatment and inability to make heads or tails of Kate Upton is a major reason why. The fashion media is the one wing of the news which is even more useless than Fox News. Everyone who covers high-end fashion seems to be even more out of touch with the public than the United States Congress. That, though, could just be the nature of the business. After all, this is a group of so-called journalists who spend all their time watching runway shows which feature clothes with space hooker designs which never seem to find their way to the masses, worn by size -3 models which, because the big-name designers have decided -3 models are the standard-bearers of beauty, the journalists have decided the designers know what they’re talking about and therefore follow suit by being disgusted by a size -2 anorexic.

Now the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue this year is featuring two models who are being constantly referred to as plus-size models. Although current Jeter girl toy Hannah Davis is featured on the cover, the newest Swimsuit Issue is being noted for the presence of Ashley Graham and Robyn Lawley. Lawley is a size 12 and Graham flaunts her size 14 figure. Both of them are drop-dead gorgeous… And both of them are being attacked in the fashion media for having bodies which, by most accounts, can be considered both attainable and normal. Hell, Lawley is deflecting shots these days because there’s a whole other crowd of people who are in an uproar that anyone would ever consider her plus-size. Graham – whose picture I’ve placed in the inset – appears to be a bit bigger than average, but she’s definitely not out of shape.

Now comes the money question: What’s the big deal? Lawley and Graham are a hell of a lot closer to what the girl next door actually looks like. Is the problem with them that Mr. Klein can’t make a bigger version of an outfit which is a dress on one leg and a pant leg on the other that is only going to be seen in show once before the plebes all forget about it? Because if that’s the problem, the uber-rich designers are probably in the wrong line of work.

2015 is shaping up to be one of the most annoying, palm/forehead smacking, bemusement-sighing years on record – it’s only February, and yet the year has already seen some of the most inane controversies imaginable. And this might be the most absurd: Two otherwise gorgeous and healthy women who happen to have very normal body types are in a magazine full of near-naked women. The outrage is being fueled entirely by a wing of the media which is apparently offended by the fact that Ashley Graham and Robyn Lawley both lack visible skeletal structures. That’s the only impetus I can really decipher behind all this animosity.

Suddenly, the days when Barbie was catching flack for her unrealistic body type don’t seem so far gone. We know more about healthy lifestyles then ever before, and there’s a growing section of the populace which is altering its lifestyle in order to be healthy. And yet, here are the vapid chimps in the fashion media, desiring and promoting a body type which little girls were literally starving themselves all throughout the 90’s in order to attain, even as most of the men called the Flockhart body unattractive. Thanks to a band of writers who apparently can’t make their livings writing things that are legit, the planet is now taking a giant step backwards in regards to healthy lifestyles. They’ve gotten so obsessive about unhealthy, impossible thinness that we’re considering normal-sized women fat.

So, how many of these commentators do you think adhere to the standard of beauty they’re busy trying to maintain themselves? My guess is that it’s not too many of them.

The Rooters’ Rules: A Guide to Sports Loyalty

The Rooters’ Rules: A Guide to Sports Loyalty

Well, it’s that time of year again. Five months and 20 football games ago, the NFL set sail for its 2014 season. Now it’s playoff time, and the field of 32 has been narrowed down to 12 – actually, it’s eight now that Wild Card Weekend is over – and the biggest league in the United States will soon be crowning its national champion. You might be familiar with a particular NFL commercial which has been airing all season in which a typical midwestern woman explains how her family of Vikings fans gradually turned into a family with Eagles, Bengals, Cowboys, and Steelers fans, and I’m not sure I’m remembering the entire mass of adopted team loyalties there. Now, astute observers might have noticed that later versions of that commercial made a very subtle but important change to one of the lines: When explaining how one of the family members became a Steelers fan, they say he did it because he moved to Pittsburgh. The first version said he became a Steelers fan after he ate a few burgers at a local restaurant which were named after the Steelers’ quarterback. It’s a good change; the original version implied that the kid made a loyalty change because he ate a burger. I’m less finicky about attacking team loyalties than most other fans, but really, that one hinged on “Dude, why do you even bother at all?!” territory. As far as loyalty switches go, that one was inexcusable.

It did, however, make me start wondering about what rules we follow for keeping our sports loyalties, which allowed me to come up with this little guidebook about picking and holding onto your favorite sports teams.

General Guidelines for Picking a Team
First and foremost: If the area you live in has a particular loyalty to a team in the sport you follow, you must follow that team. If you live in a city that doesn’t have a team, then it’s helpful to follow whatever team the other locals are following – this is why it’s helpful to follow the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin and the New York Yankees in New York – although it frees you up to pick any team you want. Your city isn’t directly involved with any sports rivalries the preferred team may have, after all, so you can do what you want.

If you’re in a place without a team, you’re free to try on teams like hats to see how they fit. You have to remember, though, you’re not necessarily looking for the best team. You’re looking for the one that’s the best fit. There’s a difference. Hanging on to the winning team for no reason other than an obsession with choosing the best team makes you look like a pathetic bandwagoner. If you choose one of the league’s face teams, brush up on your history because you’re going to need to defend yourself. Hell, brush up on your favorite team’s history anyway. Not only will it make you appreciate what you’ve gotten into to a fuller extent, it will help you understand the beliefs and traditions of long-term fans, and form a bond with the team.

If you live in a city without a team in the sport you follow and the league suddenly drops in with an expansion team, you have the option of either keeping your old team or adopting the expansion. You can do as you will; this is one instance where no one will bother you about a switch. You better be willing to suffer and grow if you adopt the new one, though; trying to jump back to the old one during a good stretch makes you a bandwagoner, especially if the new one is going through typical expansion pains.

When trying on teams, look for local connections. I started following an entire sport because a guy who went to my high school was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. After he fell out of the NBA, I spent the next few years adopting new teams to see which one fit me the best, and I ran through loyalties the way a plow runs through snow. (I even started this blog during a phase of trying-on with the New York Knicks, and have run through three more teams since. Eventually, though, I made my way back to the Sixers. I’d like to see you accuse me of bandwagoning for THAT switch.) Feel free to waive a local connection if the team was ever based in your city and left, though; you wouldn’t stick with them if they walked out during your lifetime, so no one will blame you for avoiding them now.

Along those same lines: If your hometown did once field a team, but that team left before you were born, you’ve hit the statute of limitations. Don’t feel guilty about adopting them just because they walked off. Older fans may give you grief, but younger fans won’t care.

There’s no habit lower than fantanking. You spend your money to see the greatest athletes in the world play at their best, and yet you’re demanding they go against all their competitive instincts in a race to the bottom of the standings on the half-chance they’ll pick up the next great superstar in the next draft and be competitive in, oh, say, three more years? Read that out loud and see how absurd it sounds. Then try to imagine how bad it sounds to a guy who makes his living playing a professional sport. Those athletes aren’t going to be able to play forever, and asking them to play dead for multiple years while their teams maybe build a contender if everything goes right and a half-witted thought which doesn’t even guarantee success in a few years, so just stop it.

If you live in an area loyal to multiple teams, you get to pick only one of them.

You’re allowed to switch teams outright for the following reasons: 1 – The team moves; no one would blame you for adopting your old team’s archrival for that. 2 – The ownership is a complete embarrassment to the sport. We’re not talking about ordinary bad stretches here; every team goes through those. We’re talking about galactic sins which are evidence of an owner hating his fanbase. You think I never fantasized about leaving the Sabres after Terry Pegula bungled the front office? I did, but Pegula ultimately isn’t a villain. We’re talking guys like Dan Snyder, James Dolan (a major reason I finally concluded the Knicks would never be my team), Jeffery Loria, and Donald Sterling here. (Ironically, I ended up adopting the Chicago Blackhawks when they had reached this depth with their last owner.) 3 – Or you move to a new city and have reached your loyalty limit, and thus have to jettison one of your former teams if you’re hoping to fit in with your new community.

Loyalty Rules in Major Sports (MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS)
You’re allowed to take from one to three teams, but before you go taking more than one, make sure you have some sort of connection with the host city first. A relative, a place you lived, your best friend moved there, something. If you’ve lived in more than three cities, then pick the teams from the cities that contributed the most to who you are.

If you like a team because of a particular player, then you like that player, not his team. I have no problems with switching teams to keep track of a player, but ‘fess up to it. The commercial I was talking about in my opening is a decent example of this – one family member decided she was a Cowboys fan because she met Emmitt Smith, although it goes a bit further there because she had a small bit of face time with him. I do think it’s important for players to try to make time for fans, and if a fan returns an especially pleasant encounter with an opposing player by switching teams, I can accept that. It’s not a solid excuse, but there are so many teams and players presenting themselves as above and beyond the regular folks that I can understand why it would warrant a switch.

When two of your teams play against each other, it’s okay to be neutral.

I can’t emphasize this enough: DO NOT pick a team just because it’s successful. You might be flying high on the recent successes of the New England Patriots, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will both retire someday, and when they do, the entire league is going to totally relish the traditional revenge beatings. The Los Angeles Lakers have turned into a freak show as of late. The Detroit Red Wings keep squeaking into the playoffs on a sixth seed, and all the big prize players want to play for their archrivals now. Every team has down periods, including the Yankees, and no one is ever going to admire you for latching on to a team from outside your area, either. So don’t expect anyone to pat you on the back for following whoever is doing well.

Loyalty Rules in Minor Sports
I emphasize keeping yourself local, but in minor sports, you have absolutely no excuse not to. If you’re following a minor league for a major sport, there’s an excellent chance of a team existing in your area. If you’re following a more unusual sport, it will probably be the local team that piqued your interest in it, so don’t turn your back on them just because the dominant team isn’t yours. Minor sports are difficult to follow in a lot of places, so you only get one team per minor league to carry.

Team existences in minor leagues can be insane. Minors think nothing of expanding when they don’t have to, winning three straight titles right off the bat, then folding two years later. Even the most diehard fans can get stuck without teams to follow for years at a time, because every league is a crazy cousin. Therefore, if you move from one area to another, it’s easiest to just switch to the team in your new home than to try to keep following the old one.

Don’t attack opposing fans. While this is always a good rule, it goes double in minor sports because if there are too many incidents, the league may not survive. The last thing they need is to lose fans because of you, so be hospitable.

Exceptions
Some sports are so odd that they require a few exceptional rules of their own.

College Sports
You can pick up as many teams as you want, as long as you were a student at those schools. If you never went to college, you get one team.

If you were a fan of a particular school but you attended college at a different school, it’s okay to keep pledging your loyalty to your old team, but you must always, Always, ALWAYS cheer for the team from your school. If your old favorite team plays against your school, yes, you have to cheer for your school. In short, your school’s team is your team, over and out, no matter how much you claim to prefer the other guys.

You don’t get to split your school loyalties based on sports. That makes you a bandwagon fan. You can only have one school to encompass all the sports, so pick the school that’s best at the sport you like the most.

European Soccer
After your team tryout phase, you get to pick one team. You’re not allowed to switch, ever. Even if your team gets relegated, they’re still your team, and you just have to wait it out until they make it back to the top level. If you made the mistake of adopting Cardiff City FC last season because their first promotion to the top level in 51 years was a nice feel-good story, too bad. You’re stuck.

NFL
Although I cited the NFL above, they’re an exception to every last one of these rules. You’re allowed to carry anywhere from one to 32 teams. The league doesn’t give a shit about its fans, so each and every fandom rule is void. Do anything you want. Someday, the way the NFL is going, it’s all going to be played on a soundstage before a live studio audience anyway, so don’t bother attaching any civic importance to it.

The 2015 Extinct List

The 2015 Extinct List

Now is the time of year when we can begin anew, and nothing needs renewal more than society itself. There are a ton of aspects of living in society that just plain suck, and I don’t just mean the usual suspects. I mean things which enable the usual suspects, or cause perfectly smart people to do stupid things, or the little things that can end up building up and building up until they break your back. Yeah, war and famine and economic inequality are all terrible things, but what I’m talking about are the little things that I’ve frequently – and inconsistently – referred to as the 17 less-deadly sins. The big problems are all necessary to wipe out, but it’s the small ones that keep getting up in our faces and driving us crazy. They’re the things we immediately think about and talk about whenever we go out for coffee with our friends, the ones that compose the bulk of our days, the ones we’re most likely to mention when we complain about our day, and, in some cases, they’re also the ones that can really cause the big ones when they’re compounded. So, without further ado, here’s the list of Things I Would Like to See go Extinct in 2015.

GIFs
What’s this, now? I don’t want to watch some video you’ve embedded in some article you wrote, but it’s apparently so important that you’re forcing me to watch an inferior, shorter version of it without any sound? That’s basically what GIFs are. They have a bad habit of taking forever to load, slowing down your computer, and, gee, you know, not having any kind of option to shut it off. They’re annoying enough when there’s just one that you have to sit and wait for your computer fight with itself to load through, but worse than that, there are also a bunch of websites – Deadspin and Buzzfeed are particularly egregious offenders, with Whatculture and Cracked being occasional havens – that pack them into their articles at every possible opportunity. There’s no such thing as a video which is good enough that you have to outright remove the option of letting the reader not watch it. So just stop before I start loading up your email with spam, okay?

SATs
I was against these things before being against them was cool. Now, to everyone who thought I was crazy for questioning their purpose, I look like a damn visionary. The SATs were Common Core before Common Core became Common Core. Is there are particular purpose they serve? Not really. Maybe they’re there as some kind of excuse for people to insist that all the education in the United States is on equal footing, but if that truly is the case, they’ve been a spectacular failure because they prove once and for all that from the inner city just don’t have the resources to keep up with better-equipped schools in middle-class suburbs. I happen to think it’s a little unfair to make everyone take the same test, especially when your future is supposedly riding on it. And really, isn’t the very idea of a future riding on this one little test a little nonsensical anyway? We have regular school, complete with final exams, to decide progress. Despite the supposed importance of them, bad SAT scores don’t hold students back in grades or prevent them from graduating, and these days, colleges are starting to ignore them altogether.

Giving Pets as Christmas Gifts
I think we might have the Disney classic Lady and the Tramp to blame for making this look cute. Wrap up a cuddly little kitty or puppy in a nice Christmas package and offer it to a loved one as a gift. And if your loved one doesn’t actually like it, they can always return it to the pound for cash or store credit, right? Yeah, see, that’s exactly the problem. Every Christmas, there are far too many reports of animal shelters taking in new animals which were given away as gifts because they were treated exactly like gifts – as disposable items. A pet isn’t something you can just buy, give away, and throw away. Pets are major commitments. They’re going to need attention whether or not the person you’re giving the pet to is bored with them or not, and negligence of pets is (rightfully) a crime. So if you decide to give away a pet as a Christmas gift, make sure the person you’re giving it to is has the right mindset to know that. Also, don’t wrap it up in a package and give it away as a surprise – come Christmas, tell your friend the gift will be a pet, then choose a particular day and time to visit the shelter to find a pet that bonds well with your friend and pick up the equipment.

The NFL
The worst of a bad bunch of professional sports leagues in the United States, I honestly don’t know how anyone can swear any kind of allegiance to an NFL team anymore. The NFL has mistaken itself for a moral authority and become hell-bent on wiping out everything remotely human that could possibly appear in a football game. I guess we could have seen it coming first with instant replay, which turned every play into a technicality of minutia. They’ve also raised ticket prices to such a level that most fans can’t afford them. Actually, between the injury scandals and recent incidents with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, it’s hard to believe the NFL cares about people at all. They make politics of hosting the Super Bowl, and in that regard, they’re nearly as bad as FIFA or the Olympics, which is really saying something. Then there are the constant threats: Fork over ten billion dollars in tax cash for a stadium which has to replace a decrepit bowl which was around for the last 15 years, or say bye bye to the local team while they move to Los Angeles, Toronto, or London. I’ll tell you what: The NFL wants to be in Los Angeles so badly, why don’t we wipe out any pretenses and ship every team to Hollywood, where they can all play in front of a live studio audience every Sunday. Just get it out of my sight and away from my money.

The Music Media
Yes, we’re all aware of the fact that maybe three artists went platinum in sales this year, and that one of them was Taylor Swift. We all know that U2 gave away their new album for free on iTunes after receiving a big payoff from Apple. The big problem is that I have not yet received a single good explanation as to why I should care. The music media seems sympathetic to a group of high-powered executives who made life difficult for fans who wanted to get ahold of non-mainstream artists, be able to go to an occasional concert, and jacked up the prices of CDs when there was barely anything put into them. Now, with indie artists getting more attention than they were before thanks to the internet, the music media is trying to convince us that the artists with the most exposure need handouts.

Pundits
Is there any kind of pundit this planet wouldn’t be better off without? The job of a pundit isn’t to pass on new information – it’s to condense current information down into a ten-second sound bite, manipulated to be easily digested for people who don’t understand political nuance. Naturally, the job of a pundit creates an atmosphere of fear, false information, and mistrust. They call this the Information Age; it’s actually the Paranoid Age, or the Age Where You can Believe Anything You Want. I can’t help but feel like punditry is serving to dumb us all down. I’m not just talking about political pundits here; there are sports pundits – namely Skip Bayless – who try to step up as guardians and blow things up to humongous proportions, and entertainment pundits who basically do the same thing. (Really, the political pundits are the most honest about what exactly they do, and that’s pretty disturbing.)

Cheap TV Deaths
Done correctly, killing a beloved character on a popular TV show can be affecting. But it’s getting to be so common now that it’s turning into betting pool fodder. Take a pair of polar opposites that happened in the last year: The Simpsons used the death of “a beloved character” as an incentive to get people to watch. The character in question turned out to be Hyman Krustofski, Krusty the Clown’s pop. Even if you’ve spent the last decade tuning out from The Simpsons, you have to know Hyman Krustofski’s death isn’t going to alter the series. Rabbi Krustofski was introduced in a classic episode in an early season in which he was reunited with his son, and he appeared sporadically after that and was never a real factor in the show’s continuity. On the other side, there was the death of Tracy McConnell in How I Met Your Mother, which was written off as a wild fan conspiracy theory right up until it actually happened. This was a significant moment for a few reasons: First, Tracy was the show’s titular character. Her death was based on a gross miscalculation on the creators’ part; it brought out the worst aspects of the main character; and it retconned a ton of the show’s canon. Deaths on TV are a fine line to walk, but it looks like too many TV writers are just knocking characters off out of personal convenience or attempts to be bold.

The Ultimate Battle of the Stars: Star Trek vs. Star Wars

The Ultimate Battle of the Stars: Star Trek vs. Star Wars

A short time ago in a galaxy very, very near, a young writer made the treacherous decision to boldly go where many have gone before.

Universes of geekery are very abundant. They tend to spring up from stories which already take place in their own expansive places with their own laws and rules of physics and magic: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica, and even Firefly – a show we got half of one season and a single movie out of – have all churned out amazing expanded universes. But the defining universes and calling signs to all-time geeking are still the two Star franchises: Star Trek and Star Wars. And with the new trailer for The Force Awakens out now, there’s no better time to write about this.

Actually, that really isn’t fair to those franchises. Except for the fact that they involve big spaceships, regular interaction with alien races, and the word “star” as the first word in the titles, they have virtually nothing in common. That makes it perfectly possible to have a deep love and appreciation for both of them at the same time, and boosters of both franchises tend to get along just fine and have a lot in common with each other. Unfortunately, the only things people seem to notice if they’re not into either one are the levels of devotion fans have to Star Trek and Star Wars, and that’s all the onlookers need in order to start making their geek jokes and comparing the two to each other. This mindset has become so popular that it managed to leak into the Star Trek and Star Wars fanbases themselves. Its managed to infect a lot of people who should know better, and so we get a lot of comparisons making the case that one is better than the other. And now I’ve decided to jump into these murky, dianoga-infested waters myself in another one of my popular Ultimate Battle series.

While deciding which – if either – is better, I’ll also be trying to explain a lot of the differences between the two which make them separate and unique. Also, I’ll be taking as much of their universes into account as I know about – and, being raised by one Star Trek parent and one Star Wars parent, I know quite a bit. I’ll be using every iteration of both, or at least trying to – let’s face it, I don’t know everything about either of these franchises. So let’s do this! Star Trek vs. Star Wars. One day, I’ll learn.

Good Guys
The good guys of Star Wars are known to everyone. You’re counting them off on your fingers now that I’ve said that, aren’t you? Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader… It’s a very significant list which also includes bit role players like Boba Fett and Qui-gon Jinn. The world of Star Trek introduces us to a bunch of different characters as well, and most of Trek’s iterations are designated by their ship Captains: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer. Most Trekkies narrow the fight exclusively to Trek’s defining Captains, Kirk and Picard, while arbitrarily dismissing the others. This eagerness to fight over the best Captain unfortunately leaves onlookers with no information regarding many of the other characters. They forget Star Trek has interesting characters like Sulu and his litany of interests: Botany, gymnastics, and old weapons. There’s Spock, whose people place empirical logic above all other virtues; Deanna Troi, who has psychic abilities; Data, a robot who had difficulty understanding human concepts; Quark, a slimeball who still managed to show compassion by the standards of his culture and was often at odds with it; The Doctor, a hologram with all the capabilities of a real doctor; Phlox, a doctor with an interest in many different cultures; and Seven of Nine, a reformed member of a hostile race. Star Wars characters include Han, a smuggler turned good guy; Luke, a farmboy turned into a great warrior; Yoda, an 800-year-old Jedi Master; Jabba the Hutt, an evil gangster; and Boba Fett, a big-name bounty hunter. All of these characters have ticks and quirks of their very own as well, and many of them are ably developed through the course of the movies. The seven movies which are out so far, in fact, revolve around the life, fall into evil, and redemption of their main character, Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader but eventually betrays the Dark Side.
Winner
I’m giving this to Star Trek. Yes, Star Wars has its share of awesome, interesting characters, but too many of the main characters lean too much on cliche. The smuggler with a heart of gold has been done a million times. The young, eager small-town learner has also been done a million times. But almost all of the main characters in Star Wars – that’s main characters, not secondary characters, so no Yoda, no Admiral Ackbar – are human men, which is an absurdity in a universe that expansive. Seriously, there are about two women of any consequence between the two movie trilogies, and while it’s better in the expanded universe, it’s difficult to find prominent non-human characters. Also, Star Wars falls back into tropes pretty often. There are wisecracking rogue heroes, comic relief characters, badass royals, and even the main villain cackles at times. (Not Darth Vader. Emperor Palpatine.) Star Trek has a much more diverse and interesting array of main heroes. Also, while every good guy in Star Wars is based strictly off their fight against the Galactic Empire, Trek’s heroes are not as single-minded; each one is different, and has culture outside of Starfleet, which means they all look into their universe and interpret something different out of it. Part of it is because Star Trek’s universe is based in the idea of exploration, cooperation, and learning rather than a fight between good and evil. It’s in Trek’s mantra: “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Yes, Star Wars fans may counter with the strength of Han Solo as a character, but that doesn’t work out as well as they’d like to think. After all, Star Trek has James Kirk and Will Riker.

Bad Guys
Like the heroes, Star Trek fans can easily pick out their personal favorites from a long list of villains in the Trek universe. From Kirk’s iconic battle with the Gorn in The Original Series to the futility of resistance in The Next Generation, The Wrath of Khan, The Dominion, and Nero acting independently from the Romulan Empire in the 2009 reboot, Star Trek has a galaxy of colorful villains giving life to the idea that all good guys are the same, but bad guys are all bad in their own way. Every villain is unique in their methods and motivations, and through the course of five series, the relationships between Starfleet and the various other worlds of Star Trek evolved. In The Original Series, the Klingons were the bad guys. By The Next Generation, they had reached a truce with the United Federation of Planets. By Voyager, there was a converted Borg. All the enemies of the Federation also had different methods of attacking as well. The Klingons attacked with a directness which was honest in its brutality, while the Borg learned the way their foes functioned in order to immunize themselves against any counterattacks. And when it came down to the individual, Star Trek made out with characters like Khan – who was so awesome, they gave The Wrath of Khan an update which was the second JJ Abrams movie – and Q, whose malevolence was more subdued and refined. Star Wars has one Galactic Empire, but one is all it needs – nothing in any universe encompasses and dominates everything quite like the Empire. The Empire is the command of everything in the Star Wars universe, except for a few backwoods outposts which answer to crime lords. It’s run by a single Emperor who is hell bent on becoming immortal and who is so powerful, the forces of darkness themselves are at his beck and call. The Empire builds everything it has on every form of oppression you can imagine, including slavery, kidnapping, and executions. If you don’t want to follow Emperor Palpatine, he’ll send his right hand, Darth Vader, in to force you to obey. And Vader talks you into it at the point of his lightsaber.
Winner
This is where Star Wars shines. Yes, Khan was one of the all-time legends of villainy. Q’s mind games with Picard were things to behold, and the fact that he let himself be foiled just because he thought Picard was interesting gave him a dose of panache; and the Borg were downright scary. But none of that matches the pure evil genius, unrelenting chessmaster tendencies, and indomitable will to rule that define Palpatine. He used two different identities to mastermind both sides of the Clone Wars, using his power to get the Galactic Senate to consolidate its power into an all-encompassing empire and then exterminating the Jedi, the only fighters in the universe capable of challenging his rule. That’s some serious evil right there. He tricks the Chosen One who was prophesied to destroy him into joining him and is so convinced that he’ll become immortal that he doesn’t bother to appoint a successor. Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious is the very manifestation of evil itself, and if Star Trek and Star Wars are in the same universe, Khan, Q, the Borg, and everyone else are going to be answering to him.

Annoying Kids’ Character Everyone Hated
Sometimes, mass media creators tend to forget their audiences, and that results in the creations of weird, out-of-place elements of the series canon which were made strictly to appeal to outsiders in attempts to expand the audience. And when they try to expand the audience to little kids, the results can be grating. Both Star Trek and Star Wars have done this. Trek: TNG gave us Wesley Crusher, the son of Enterprise doctor Beverly Crusher. Wesley was a child prodigy, which in TV parlance translates to “annoying know-it-all who sometimes acts suspiciously grown-up.” Throughout The Next Generation TV series, Wesley is a deus ex machina character whose purpose appears to be getting the writers out of technological jams by being the solution. The official count of times Wesley saved the Enterprise is seven, even though he had trouble getting into Starfleet Academy. Star Wars introduced a few things that might count: Chewbacca is arguably one of them, and there’s no question the Ewoks are another. But the most blatant attempt is easily Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar was meant to provide comic relief and to be an appealing character to younger members of the audience, but he ended up becoming symbolic of everything that went wrong with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. With a clumsy nature, interruptive presence, and odd speaking dialect, Jar Jar’s introduction in The Phantom Menace was so disastrous that George Lucas phased him into greatly reduced roles in the following prequels. Jar Jar had two or three scenes and maybe ten lines of dialogue in Attack of the Clones, and by Revenge of the Sith, he was just a background character in a single, silent cameo.
Winner
Star Trek. Wesley Crusher might have been a much more effective character had he been used in a different fashion – the big complaint against him is the fact that he is a Mary Sue character, a criticism that even Wesley’s actor, Wil Wheaton, agrees with. Jar Jar managed to steal the spotlight even at a lot of times when he wasn’t supposed to, but how could it be avoided when the character was an animated klutz with a wacky accent? More to the point, Wesley Crusher didn’t offend anyone outside the Star Trek loop. He didn’t piss off three different races of people. Despite the criticisms of Wesley Crusher, Wil Wheaton seems to have a terrific sense of humor about it. He sporadically pops up on The Big Bang Theory as himself, game to mock his time on The Next Generation.

Weapon of Choice
Despite the nature of Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise sometimes need to apply force in order to defend themselves, and in self-defence they’re equipped with phasers. Phasers are the defining weapon of Star Trek. They don’t look like a whole lot, but even the small phasers issued to Starfleet personnel can be deadly. Phasers are direct energy weapons with settings everywhere from stun to disintegrate. Phaser beams can be adjusted in both their width and output, and they can also be adjusted to a point where they’re capable of hitting a bunch of targets at once or evenly destroying large objects or amounts of material. Creative people are also able to use them to weld, cut, or even create heat sources. Lightweight and versatile, phasers are always handy in a pinch. The Star Wars universe has the lightsaber, a thin loop of plasma affixed to a metal handle. Like the phaser, the lightsaber can be adjusted for the length and power of its beam. Like the phaser, the lightsaber is primarily a defensive weapon, but creative people can use them for other purposes – they can pass as knives. The lightsaber, though, is much more of a skill weapon. They’re made strictly at home by the Jedi, who wield them exclusively because the crystal alignments which give lightsabers their power are very tricky to get exactly right, which means they also symbolize one’s mastery of The Force.
Winner
This one is controversial, but I’m giving it to Star Wars. While the phaser is definitely the more useful and practical of the two, I also appreciate the idea of skill development. If someone develops their skills to the extent of being able to properly wield a lightsaber, that person will probably be the more powerful fighter, and even with range, a plebe with a phaser isn’t going to stand much of a chance against a master with a lightsaber. While Star Trek fans in this debate like to play up the wide beam of the phaser, they also leave out a crucial detail: The wide beam is merely a stun weapon. Besides, Star Wars has its blasters as well, making the lightsaber a more unique alternative while the phaser, despite its iconoclasm, still comes off as just another laser gun among a million.

Politics
Okay, by this, I mean how politics are portrayed inside the franchises’ universes. Star Wars has a Galactic Senate where representatives of the various worlds go to fight with each other, but while the Senate Chamber was used extensively in The Phantom Menace, it played a reduced role in Episodes II and III and didn’t exist in the Original Trilogy. Star Wars, to paraphrase Anakin Skywalker, likes to keep its political negotiations aggressive: That is, with blasters and lightsabers. The Jedi Council is also a political entity, complete with petty bickering and so many in-house disagreements that I’ve frequently wondered if the Galactic Republic would just be better off with the Sith running it. Star Trek is a polar opposite – a lot of the stories and themes of Star Trek are driven by politics. Although Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is overwhelmingly about the politics of the Federation, the most political figure in Star Trek is arguably Jean-Luc Picard. Picard is known best for his cool rationalism. While he’s certainly willing to throw down a gauntlet, he waits until he has no other choice, and he’s always at his best trying to find common ground with whoever he’s talking to.
Winner
Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, a million times Star Trek. Politics is something that runs with the theme of Star Trek: You know that if Galaxy-Class starships are ever invented, we’d be idiots to try to send them out on exploratory missions with a Captain who couldn’t broker a truce in the event of a misunderstanding. Deep Space Nine introduced moral ambiguity to Star Trek – it was the first Star Trek series to really confront the idea that the United Federation of Planets might have been an unwanted aggressor without the best interests of its worlds in mind. The factions between good and bad in Star Trek always exist, but they’re almost always political or arising from misunderstandings. Star Wars is a direct tale about the fight between good and evil, and it’s always at its best when the Light Side and Dark Side are duking it out in traditional fashion. In the movies, Star Wars’s tries at political and moral gray areas were disastrous; politics were the biggest reason The Phantom Menace was considered the worst movie in the series. While the EU books portrayed political factions much better, there’s still the little matter of the Jedi Council and its petty bickering – and they’re the few select people in the Star Wars universe who are supposed to be above that.

Alien Designs
Well-designed aliens help create the illusion of different worlds, and that helps viewers get into the story. The problem with most alien designs, though, is that so many of them are humanoid. It’s a constant in science fiction: Aliens get designed, and everyone watching and writing creates a lot of basic features which we just assume aliens are going to need because humans have them: Eyes, nose, mouth, proper limbs, trunk. They get created with human values and ideals in mind, no matter how different their world is. Star Trek actually takes this to an extreme: Most of its prominent races are created not only with humanoid forms, but also with humanoid features. Nearly all of them walk upright, have human facial and body features, and many of them tend to think along the same lines. This aspect of Star Trek has gone so far that the language of one of its races, the Klingons, has a properly developed language which millions of fans take the time to properly learn. (The Elven language from The Lord of the Rings is getting to this point.) Star Wars is catching up to Star Trek in linguistics – there is a phrase book and travel guide with a lot of languages and phrases in it, and one of the more recent re-releases of Star Wars featured writing in a language called Aurebesh. But as far as designs go, Star Wars still brings humanoid basics…. And that’s frequently about it. With a lot of the races, the proper humanoid features are a lot more muted, so while the basic forms are there, they still look a lot more like aliens from the far end of the galaxy. Remember that guy in the Mos Eisley cantina with the slanted head? Or Lando’s co-pilot during the Battle of Endor? Or that cloaked anteater-like alien which clued the Stormtroopers into Han’s location on Tattooine? Or that weird cadre of sentients in Jabba’s palace? Yeah. Still humanoid, but only in basics.
Winner
Star Wars. There are times when Star Trek comes off not as a show about explorers, but as a show about people evangelizing about the one true path of the Federation. On those occasions, the human-like appearances of the various alien races takes on a much more disturbing undertone: They’re different from us! Clearly they’re not civilized! Also, Star Wars shows us that aliens could come in a lot of different shapes, even when it’s restricting itself to humanoid forms. Star Wars gets the idea that alien races could be completely different from humans.

Types of Media
Both franchises have transcended their original mediums. Both of them have managed to invade the world of science fiction literature. They’ve also crossed into each other’s mediums – William Shatner credits Star Wars for studios being willing to take a chance with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while Star Wars began with a show about the movie’s droids before later moving into fare with storytelling truly worthy of Star Wars: Two shows based on the Clone Wars, and more recently, Star Wars Rebels. They’ve even both gotten into the world of video games. Now, Star Wars is a natural for the video gaming world because so many games revolve around the concept of you being a one-man army and taking on the world. The games are nearly ready-made when the title of the franchise has the word “wars” in it. Star Wars is a very action-oriented franchise. Star Trek also made its way to video games, but with considerably less fanfare. You can probably guess why: There’s very little action to base a Star Trek game on, so a lot of the games churned out based on Star Trek were pretty weak. Granted, Star Wars has been one of the weakest licenses ever given to video game developers – it’s like the developers are coasting on the Star Wars tag alone. Large aspects of Star Trek games are based on mental dexterity, which isn’t a bad thing, but people don’t seem to remember Star Trek ever being a video game franchise.
Winner
Star Wars. Its been naturally integrated into more kinds of media, and has been more prominent in other forms of media. Although Star Trek has been dazzling in many forms of media, most attempts to turn it into a video game have fallen flat because programmers have trouble compromising the elements required of a good video game with the elements which make up Star Trek. Star Wars hasn’t had many of those problems, although to be perfectly fair to Star Trek, Star Wars hasn’t gotten along the best with gaming either. Yes, there are strong points like Knights of the Old Republic, Rogue Squadron, and Lego Star Wars, but Star Wars as a whole has produced far more trash than diamonds. Do I have to bring up Masters of Teras Kasi?

Overall Themes
It’s the themes of Star Trek and Star Wars that really resonate with people, inspiring them and keeping the fanbases connected. Calling Star Wars science fiction is a little inaccurate; it’s really more of a genuine science fantasy because it has a basis in mystical elements. The mystical elements of Star Wars is embodied in The Force, an omnipresent entity that connects all life in the universe. Its most notable aspect is the fact that it grants incredible, superhuman powers to anyone who is able to tap into it. It has a Dark Side, though, which tempts good guys into self-corruption. Both the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy revolve around characters who are learning to master it. The Prequel Trilogy is about how its main character, Anakin Skywalker, was trained to be a prophesied Chosen One who would destroy those who used the Dark Side – known as the Sith – but was tempted and corrupted, falling to the Dark Side himself. The Original Trilogy is about Anakin’s son, Luke, learning to use The Force, become a Jedi Knight, and eventually facing the Galactic Empire and redeeming his father. Star Trek is more science based than Star Wars, and most references to the idea of any sort of higher power are mostly there for cultural contrast. That makes a dominating theme of Star Trek that of humanism – or really, being-ism in the Trek universe – and the exploratory and political nature of the franchise brings on the virtue of open-mindedness. Most of the characters running the various incarnations of the Enterprise, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine are full of intellectual curiosities and willing to peace and diplomacy in the name of avoiding a serious conflict a shot.
Winner
So, here are the themes of both franchises reduced into very short, simple, easy-to-write sentences. Star Wars: Don’t turn away from something just because it’s hard, and you may discover a talent you never knew you had. Star Trek: Keep an open mind, and you can discover a lot of interesting people and places. Both are equally virtuous, and following just one would make you a better person; and more power to you if you try to follow both. (As I do.) Therefore, I’m calling this a draw.

Iconic Spaceships
A good franchise with the word “star” so prominently featured better have some awesome star-hoppers, and in this respect, both Star Trek and Star Wars have obliged us in spades. Star Trek, of course, has the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise has been designed and redesigned many times, but the basics are always there: A large saucer, large impulse engines, phasers, and photon torpedoes. The Enterprise is over half a kilometer long and comes equipped with a method of faster-than-light travel called a warp drive. The Enterprise is an exploratory vessel, and therefore it tends to come off as a giant galactic luxury cruiser; but while it wasn’t really built for combat, the Enterprise has saved the world on numerous occasions. Jean-Luc Picard managed to save the Earth twice from the Borg using two different versions of the Enterprise. There are a lot of ships in Star Wars which might qualify as standout icons, but the most prominent one is probably Han Solo’s personal vessel, the Millennium Falcon. The Falcon is basically a converted freighter which may look like a hunk of junk, but with the capability to jump to .08 past light speed and make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, definitely has it where it counts. Like the Enterprise, the Falcon has a world-saving pedigree – Solo rescued Luke Skywalker during the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV, allowing Luke to deliver the payload that blew up the Death Star. In Episode VI, Lando led the Rebel Alliance in the Falcon during the Battle of Endor and delivered the killing shot himself. Although best known for its speed, the Falcon is no pushover in combat; it’s equipped with concussion missiles and three different kinds of laser guns. It’s large enough to have a significant range, but small enough to be a versatile and dangerous dogfighter.
Winner
I can’t decide. I tried, but I can’t. Both spacecraft are so different and so useful that it seems a moot point. The Enterprise would provide luxury and comfort to its crew members, as well as long-term sustainability for a long voyage. If there’s a rescue mission which requires large pickups, the Enterprise can hold several thousand passengers comfortably, with every nice living luxury necessary and all the latest technology available for use by everyone aboard. The Millennium Falcon has more of a brass knuckle feel – it has the design patterns of an old World War II bomber, rife with jagged, sharp edges built more for functionality than comfort. There room for the crew and maybe a handful of passengers, but it’s a tough, reliable ship which can get you much further than any of the small transport shuttles from Star Trek while still providing the firepower and maneuverability of a single-person starfighter. My own ideal would be to simply lodge the Falcon into the Enterprise’s docking bay.

Movie About Fanbase
Both franchises have received a rare designation: They’ve had theatrical features made about their fanbases! Trekkies, the movie about Star Trek fans, probably shouldn’t be labeled as a feature. It’s a documentary about the fanbase itself and the way Star Trek has influenced their lives in positive ways. I’m not sure if its director was a Trekkie himself, but at the very least, Trekkies does a very Star Trek-like presentation by trying to shed a new light on a group of people, and the director seems to have some level of respect for them. There was a movie called Fanboys which was completely fictional, and about a group of hardcore Star Wars fans trying to rush their terminally ill friend to George Lucas’s home so he could have his last wish fulfilled: See The Phantom Menace. (Fanboys takes place in 1998 or 1999.) While intended to be a lighthearted, irreverent take on sci-fi fandom, Fanboys is just insulting. It revels in every geek stereotype imaginable, and if anyone behind Fanboys cared about Star Wars in the slightest, it doesn’t show. Plus, there was the obligatory shot at how bad The Phantom Menace was in the end, which sort of takes the movie out of its era – there was a time when The Phantom Menace was the most eagerly awaited movie ever, and the thought of it being bad was outrageous.
Winner
Trekkies, the movie about Star Trek fans. Trekkies wants to show its audience how Star Trek inspires people to be their best and go further than they ever thought they could. Fanboys was an insult through and through, and not only did it spend 90 painful minutes picking on Star Wars fans, it got its jabs in at Star Trek too. William Shatner makes a cameo – which is really the best part of the movie – and hey, if you insult one group, why not insult them all? There’s a group of Trekkies in Fanboys who get into a scuffle with the main characters. Hilarity, as you can probably guess, ensues.

Well…. This is a first! We have a tie! My personal preference remains loyal to Star Wars by about a hair, but here we have definitive proof that one of these franchises isn’t better than the other. Live long and prosper, and may The Force be with you!

Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother: The Ultimate Battle!

Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother: The Ultimate Battle!

It just had to be that this year’s finale of How I Met Your Mother was going to share space with the 20th anniversary of the debut of Friends, didn’t it? It seems pretty appropriate; the two sitcoms have been favorably compared to each other through most of their runs. Hell, its even been argued that the two of them might as well be the same show. They both star characters who live in a parallel universe’s version of New York City where there is no diversity and rent control is a thing. Both of them feature years-long story arcs about the romance between two particular characters; both are brought up in efforts to define their generations through pop culture. At first glance, there is some definite evidence that How I Met Your Mother was taking its cues from Friends. When you try to really compare the two of them side by side, though, the real differences start blaring at you, and you’re then forced into one of those corners where you have to take a Beatles/Elvis stance: You only get one pick and you have to hate the other one.

Fine. That’s not something I have too big a problem with. My problem begins with the fact that so many writers seem so eager to automatically throw the statue at Friends, mostly because they grew up watching it. It’s an interesting phenomenon; it’s one thing to believe everything was better back in your day, but it’s another thing completely to refuse to acknowledge if something may or may not be better based strictly on nostalgia for childhood heroes. So now, it’s time to look at both of these shows as empirically as possible. To prepare, I’m binge-watching DVDs and online streams of as many episodes of both shows as I can. I doubt I’ll get to them all, but I can get to an enormous chunk of both. So let’s do this! Friends vs. How I Met Your Mother. One day, I’ll learn.

Characters
Friends gave us Rachel Green, Monica and Ross Geller, Phoebe Buffay, Joey Tribbiani, and Chandler Bing. HIMYM introduced Ted Mosby, Lily Aldrin, Marshall Erikson, Robin Scherbatsky, Barney Stinson, and Tracy McConnell (she was one of the main cast characters during her brief stint on the show, so much so that her actress’s name was in the opening credits, so yes, she counts). Some of these characters share remarkable similarities to each other, at least in a few ways: Barney shares the fact that no one knows what he does with Chandler and his tendencies with women with Joey; Lily and Monica share some apparent neuroticism and spontaneity; Ross and Ted both have penchants for romanticism. Characters in both shows reach ridiculous low points – in Friends, Phoebe tried to keep one of the triplets, while Ted made Robin get rid of her dogs in HIMYM. Yet, for all the similarities, the characters all took different paths in their development. The characters on Friends developed and matured in a more subtle manner while the HIMYM gang was more up front about their changes of character. On the other hand, the differences between all the characters in the show were a lot more obvious on HIMYM. HIMYM also stereotyped less; Friends had its ditz, its romantic, its career person, and its man’s man. HIMYM frequently crossed these traits over from character to character; career woman Robin was also the show’s man’s man, for example – she loved guns, hockey, scotch, and cigars. Lily, Marshall, and Barney all shared the role of the ditz.
Winner
I prefer HIMYM. Issue one: Phoebe. I love her, and she’s one thing that could be counted on to rescue Friends when it was having trouble, but she’s a waste of space and seemed to be shoehorned in. HIMYM never felt like it was having any trouble trying to fit any characters in, even during the last season, when Tracy was added to the main cast outright. Issue two: The development arcs of Barney and Tracy showed what HIMYM was capable of at its best. Usually when a TV show runs long, all the characters start out as fully realized humans and, as the writers start to feel stretched for creativity, they start to fall back on some of the more unique quirks of the characters, flanderizing them until they’re nothing but quirks. Barney went the opposite route; he was a fully realized caricature through the first few seasons with a few glimmers of humanity; as he developed, he matured, and his better side came out as he decided to settle and form a relationship with his estranged father. (This is why I’m always amazed when critics bitch about HIMYM’s later seasons; did they really miss the old, borderline rapist Barney that much? His development made the whole series very satisfying.) And while we only had Tracy around in one season which didn’t span every episode, her development was so strong that the audience felt totally gypped by the finale. Issue three: The cast of Friends sometimes came across as so interchangeable that it could have melded together at certain times. Trying to tell them apart when they get angry or upset – which happens often enough – can be something of a chore. The characters on HIMYM never fell out of their personas and blended together to such an extent. Of course, that’s an issue with Friends, and not exactly a flaw…

Cast Chemistry
It’s very possible Friends and HIMYM were cast in two different and very distinct ways. The cast of HIMYM looks like the actors were all tested and chosen purely on the strength of their individual character portrayals before being rounded up and thrown at each other, and it turned out to work for the best. Friends seems to have been cast with character chemistry as the first thing in mind, like the actors were whittled down to a particular selection and then tested against each other. HIMYM cast the most talented actors it could find for its characters; Friends cast good actors who made each other look great. The difference definitely shows in the final products. Friends ended up casting six unknowns and making household names of not only Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross, but also actors Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt Le Blanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. The actors flew off each other like atomic particles and were so closely bonded when the cameras were off that the emotion they felt in the final episode was genuine. HIMYM can counter using the fact that its individual performances were better; Neil Patrick Harris and Cristin Milioti could both clearly act circles around every other cast member on either show, and the others were excellent as well. The particular traits of every character on HIMYM were also highlighted more, so all six actors had to perform an exceptional balancing act to see their characters were able to merge those traits into someone whole, and not just a mess of ideas the writers could flanderize at will. They all succeeded.
Winner
This one goes to Friends. While the cast of HIMYM did everything right, it wasn’t enough to stop the emergence of Barney Stinson as a breakout character. Although Barney eventually developed into a complete character, it’s still his early Bro Code and Playbook musings which dominate HIMYM popular lexicon. In the meantime, Alyson Hannigan’s name is still synonymous with Willow Rosenberg, her character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make anyone forget Doogie Howser; and Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders are both still remembered purely as Ted and Robin. Jason Segel and Cristin Milioti are popular movie and Broadway commodities, respectively. The Friends cast, meanwhile, are still associated with each other, no matter how far away from the show they’ve gotten. No matter how successful Jennifer Aniston gets, when her name is brought up, she is still just another name among six particular TV actors.

Overdone Romance We Got Sick Of
In the first episode of Friends, we met Ross Geller, a very recent and heartbroken divorcee; and Rachel Green, a runaway bride. Right off the bat, from first to last, the show did everything it could to throw the two of them together. So the two of them took some pretty nasty trips in the ten years Friends lasted on the air before finally settling into their surefire happily ever after in the final episode. The drama between Ross and Rachel took such absurd turns that, at some point, you have to wonder if the writers were intentionally prying the two of them apart and teasing the audience just to prolong the romance. It devolved into soap opera territory. Everything moved right along for the two of them at first; they crushed on each other in the first season; were dating in the second; broken up in the third because Rachel decided she needed an indefinite alone period, in which Ross jumped another girl’s bones; and reconciling only to break up again in the fourth. It’s a reasonable trajectory, but it gets spoiled by the end of the fourth when Ross marries a rebound fling and says Rachel’s name at the wedding, and from there it just got absurd. HIMYM did a bold thing by introducing Ted to Robin in the pilot episode, only to clearly establish in the end that Robin isn’t The Mother. It helped free up the show to give a few romance storylines to Ted and Robin because, since it was established that Robin wasn’t The Mother, the show was able to try anything it wanted for awhile. Like Rachel and Ross, though, it devolved, and by the eighth season they were dredging up the idea of Ted still being in love with Robin, who had been established as Barney’s match for some time by then. Ted’s romantic past with Robin, in fact, hadn’t been any obstacle between him and Robin or Robin and Barney for a long time, but creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas decided to shoehorn an ending they had written for Ted and Robin seven years before the show concluded.
Winner
You know what? I’m giving the edge here to HIMYM. I know I have every reason in the world to prefer Ross and Rachel; after all, Friends didn’t tell us well in advance that Ross and Rachel weren’t ultimately each other’s other halves. It didn’t make a big show of one of them completely letting go of the other one in the final season to show us once and for all that it wasn’t meant to be, over and out, only to renege. Friends didn’t kill one of the main characters, as if she was an inconvenience to the writers, just to make it happen! But what Friends did do that made Ross and Rachel inexcusable was turn their first breakup into a goddamned punchline! “We were on a break! We were on a break!” I’d like to show Ross Geller a fucking break! Besides, between their drunken Vegas wedding, their love child, and Rachel’s final decision to stay with Ross, it’s not like they were lacking for drama.

Resonance With Times
For being a voice sitcom sparked from the grunge era, Friends certainly packed a lot of shining optimism. I’m not saying everything was always wonderful for the characters on the show. Hell, Phoebe sang “Smelly Cat,” which could have fit right into the Lilith Fair lineup. The characters, however, seemed to develop that great Hollywood character habit of failing upward. Setbacks never seemed to affect them very much, and usually they quickly landed on their feet. Friends also came off geared toward a mainstream audience; right in the first season, Phoebe has a quick fling with a physicist who is a little uncomfortable with the idea of romance and spontaneity. It was the typical trope of the time: Nerds are to be ridiculed. In addition, while Friends did deal with homosexuality, it treated homosexuality like an odd character tick; something which was bad at the time, and absolutely inexcusable now. In HIMYM, setbacks were really that; they properly set the characters back. Although it’s treated like an idealistic fairy tale, there is a very dark vein streaming through the world of HIMYM, and the characters regularly end up in compromised positions, frequently embarrassed and humiliated while trying to make the best of what just happened to them. Lily leaving Marshall to pursue her dream of being an artist is one example; Robin’s anchor job on early AM TV is another; and Ted trying to start his own architectural firm is a third. There is also the geek factor; HIMYM actually has TV’s best attitude toward geeks. Marshall, Ted, and Barney are all huge Star Wars freaks, and Barney even has life-size Stormtrooper armor in his apartment; they love to play laser tag; they’re frequently seen playing video games; and they enjoy an annual event called Robots vs. Wrestlers.
Winner
HIMYM. Although Friends featured cell phones and laptops long before they were in vogue, and it did improve its view on gays – even showing a wedding between a gay couple long before the current gay rights movement – it still set out to give viewers a look at normal, mainstream people with socially acceptable interests. It perceived outsiders as geeks or thugs in a negative way. Setbacks on Friends barely made any lasting dents in the characters. On HIMYM, setbacks were real stingers, and the characters were frequently seen doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do in mentally broken states. HIMYM also had the more accurate take on geeks – their geek interests, while prominent, aren’t caricatures, and they don’t define the characters. Rather, geek interests and tendencies are treated as side interests of the main characters, who are able to keep their geek lives and professional lives separate.

Emotional Impact
In any good TV show, we need to be able to sympathize with the characters; otherwise, when we laugh, we’re laughing at them instead of with them. Therefore, it helps to have great ways of projecting times and scenes of deep emotions. Friends axed one of the most insufferable tropes that came to define sitcoms in the previous decade – the Full House music, which replaced real emotion with gagging melodrama. Otherwise, emotion was conveyed by the actors and the script, both of which did fine jobs, and music which was performed by professional musicians. Occasionally, the camera would zoom in very slowly on the troubled character or the character would be isolated. HIMYM, being a more surreal show than Friends, would frequently use surrealism to convey a sense of sadness. It was also privy to using its stilted structure to do the same, allowing it to move back and forth between conversations about the character and the affected character. The portrayals of the characters and the music was frequently a big help as well. Friends, however, conveyed its emotion in a straightforward fashion while HIMYM usually had a joke or two waiting to be used to lighten the mood a little bit.
Winner
HIMYM. The trouble with trying to provide emotional heft strictly through the affected characters is that it’s like describing the symptoms. Sure, you can sympathize, but there’s no real relation unless you’ve personally been there yourself. HIMYM’s surrealism is more than a quirk; it’s an effective way to paint a very exacting picture of what the characters are experiencing. In one episode, for example, Robin learns she’s barren and can never have kids. Instead of simply saying it, the episode cuts to a pair of kids in a living room which are ostensibly Robin’s as Robin narrates to them. Then they fade away as the room is replaced by snowy Central Park and the sofa is replaced by a park bench which Robin is sitting in, drinking a carton of eggnog, contemplating what she just learned. One later episode of season eight, “The Time Travelers,” so brilliantly captures the true essence of Ted’s loneliness that I have trouble watching it: Ted, Barney, Robin, Marshall, and Lily meet in MacLaren’s for a night or Robots vs. Wrestlers Legends. Ted is busy the following day and unsure whether or not to go, and debates the pros and cons of going with Barney as well as future versions of themselves. This might sound odd, but it’s a sort of surreal vision the show has come to be known for. Marshall and Robin get into a fight about who named a drink served by the bar. Soon, Coat Check Girl – a guest character from one of HIMYM’s first episodes – walks in. Ted recognizes her and starts to wander over to talk to her, but is stopped by two future versions of Coat Check Girl. Both warn him that a relationship with her would be doomed, and he gets distracted long enough for the real Coat Check Girl to leave. Finally, he returns to Barney and says he’s out for the night, and in an understated and very eloquent monologue, Barney tells Ted the cocktail incident is a five-year-old memory and the rest of the night was a product of his imagination, and Ted was debating whether to go alone the entire night. Ted leaves, and Narrator Ted imagines his past self running to The Mother’s apartment and delivering Ted’s now-famous “45 days” monologue to the unseen Mother. The effect is heightened later; of note, “The Time Travelers” is the final episode which involves any interactions with the unseen form of The Mother. Four episodes later, after years of teases, the conceptual Mother ceased to exist, and the actual Mother was finally revealed. Although the reveal was simple – even anticlimactic – it worked because of the sense we received for Ted’s sadness over the course of the season and the fact that the story’s endgame was now in sight. Ted himself wasn’t aware of it yet, but the audience knew he would be meeting his perfect girl within – in the show’s time – just a couple more days.

Opening Theme
Friends opens with one of the greatest opening themes of all time: “I’ll be There for You” by The Rembrandts. The song is a definite by-product of the 90’s, and it has the rough, unvarnished edges of the traditional grunge sound. It’s a pretty downcast song, too, describing a lot of bad, serious situations before launching into its memorable hook, which promises that, no matter what happens, they’ll always be there for you. It’s one of those theme songs that transcended its opening theme status and became a heavily rotated radio hit. HIMYM opens with an iconic “ba, ba ba ba ba” going along with its title card, but what most people don’t know is that’s the very tail end of a legitimate song called “Hey Beautiful” by The Solids, a band the show’s creators play in. Like the Friends theme, the song is a definite product of the times in a musical sense. The lyrics don’t make nearly as much sense – I’m surmising the second verse is about the song’s narrator trying to gather the courage to talk to a girl he spotted and thinks is beautiful, but the phrasing is a little random and haphazard. It’s a great song, though, and it’s one of the few millennial rock songs which, while it relies on the slow-driving, smoothly-laid harmony and melodramatic vocals, still lets the background music massage the scene instead of dominating the song and destroying rock music for a decade to come. Also, while the synthesizer is used throughout, it’s used in a minimalist fashion.
Winner
Friends. The HIMYM theme was an early version of a trend that’s setting rock music back decades. The Friends theme is a great song, and its message about optimism and togetherness through even the toughest of times is more resonant now than it was when Friends was the show to watch. Also, “Hey Beautiful” isn’t the most technically sound song, either. Even with better lyrics, its time signature changes are less than subtle. Face it, there’s a reason you didn’t know “Hey Beautiful” was a full song until you read this.

Format And Structure
Although every story has a beginning, middle, and end, Friends and HIMYM both got around to showing their beginnings, middles, and ends in different ways. Both of them also used heavily serialized formats. Friends took its cues from most every sitcom that came before it, which means it tells its stories in a straightforward, linear fashion. While this makes the typical episode of Friends easy to follow, it also makes it a bit more difficult to jump in the middle of an episode. Since the show is serialized, a big secret revealed in an episode with series-changing ramifications could easily be missed. When Friends performs flashbacks, it does them smoothly, skillfully weaving them into the main structure of the show. HIMYM uses a flashback as the very plot of the show. It’s prone to jumping and stilting around a lot more; a frequent device seen on HIMYM is to place the audience into the middle of a scene and then go back and explain how the characters came to that point. HIMYM tells stories in a much more freewheeling manner. It will use surrealism, roshamen viewpoints, intercutting, and flashbacks and flashforwards in order to get the point across. Both shows demand your attention, but HIMYM will go out of its way to make sure it has it. HIMYM also based its entire existence on a large story arc, which demanded bold risks from the creators when it worked and ended up sticking around for awhile. Some of those risks were good and allowed the show to keep revealing hidden depths to its characters; some were bad and allowed them to prolong the show (Ted and Robin, ahem).
Winner
HIMYM. The format keeps finding different ways of telling stories to emphasize small moments which impacted The Narrator’s life. Not only is it an effective way to keep interest in a story, it frees up the writers to splice other scenes into the narrative, make concurrent callbacks, and even reformat the entire show, which is what happened in the final season. Furthermore, the ultimate story arc allowed the creators to gradually reveal the show’s big secrets about how Ted met The Mother. Think about it: What did we know about Ted meeting The Mother in the pilot? They met at a wedding. That was it. After the first season finale had Marshall and Lily break up, most of the the subsequent season finales peeled back more big secrets about the wedding and the meeting. At the end of season two, Ted and Robin broke up, which we knew would happen, since Robin was established in the pilot as not being The Mother. In the season three finale, Ted proposes to Stella, but she isn’t The Mother. Season four, Ted tells his kids that The Mother was in an economics class he taught by accident. In season six, it started really heating up; the groom, long believed to be an offhand friend of Ted’s like Punchy or Ranjit, was shown to be Barney. In season seven, it was the bride’s turn to be shown onscreen; it was Robin. The season eight finale gave us our first glimpse of Tracy McConnell. And the series finale the next season, well, I’ll be nice and just pretend it never happened.

Running Gags
Every good sitcom has its share of in-jokes which, despite being an eternal theme in the series canon, can be easily picked up and appreciated by newcomers. Friends and HIMYM are no exceptions. In fact, they even share very similar running gags: One is that Barney and Chandler both work mystery jobs which no one else on their shows knows. It works better for HIMYM, though, because Chandler eventually gets promoted while Barney – who seemingly drags in endless oceans of money for nothing – reveals that his “eh, please” response to everyone else’s job inquiries is really an acronym for Provide Legal Exculpation And Sign Everything. Basically, if his corporation is ever caught in one of its more unseemly activities, Barney is the one set up to take their fall. Another is they each had a character with a musical career. Friends gave us Phoebe, who sang some of the darkest, weirdest folk songs you will ever hear with an earnestly upbeat attitude. HIMYM had Robin, a former teenage pop star in her native Canada named Robin Sparkles who had one minor hit and was so embarrassed about it that she told outrageous lies to her friends to try to hide it. They both had catchphrase-spewing ladies’ men as main characters – Joey and Barney. Beyond those, Friends introduced us to Ugly Naked Guy, a nudist from a neighboring building. HIMYM had The Bro Code and The Playbook. There was Fat Monica on Friends, and HIMYM had Lily’s odd sexual fetishes. These lists aren’t even close to exhaustive.
Winner
This should be even, but I’m giving the edge to HIMYM for a few reasons. First of all, Phoebe’s songs are only written to highlight her ditziness, and sitcom ditzes are a dime a dozen. Robin’s singing career gave her backstory an interesting twist, and her reluctance to ever talk about it added a dimension to her character. Second, Ugly Naked Guy was originally a hidden character who was there strictly for laughs. At some point, though, Friends decided it had to break that rule and give Ugly Naked Guy screen time. There’s a sacred law of sitcoms which have hidden characters there strictly for laughs that says you never, ever show the character. Never, because it would ruin the mental projection of the character the audience built for itself. It’s why all the Maris jokes from Frasier worked so well – they never showed Maris, and we were given unlimited depth to project how awful she was. Third, Friends turned “We were on a break!” into a catchphrase for Ross. It’s with that one Friends torpedoed any chance of winning a battle of running gags.

Friends just got its ass handed to it. Yes, Friends was great when it was good; upon my repeat viewings, it holds up much better than I expected it to. It was one of the major cultural voices of its generation, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a Cheers knockoff which became popular because it came along at the right time. How I Met Your Mother was something that came flying out of the blue, combining the surrealism of Scrubs, flying hijinks of Malcolm in the Middle, and yes, the emotional gravitas of Friends itself with a groundbreaking story structure. Friends was a product of its time. How I Met Your Mother turned out to be well ahead of it.

Depression and the Blue Collar Ethos

Depression and the Blue Collar Ethos

If you’ve been living somewhere among the outer planets during the last couple of days, you might not realize that iconic actor and comedian Robin Williams recently died. That means in the coming weeks we’re bound to be subjected to runs of many of his movies, both the good ones and the ones that are not so much. I’m looking forward to seeing the runs of Good Will Hunting, the 1997 indie blockbuster in which Williams won his very deserved Oscar for playing Sean McGuire, the court-ordered shrink to Matt Damon’s titular title character, Will Hunting.

There’s a kind of sad irony in the fact that Williams gave perhaps the greatest performance of his career in maybe the best movie of his career as a psychologist. The official ruling on Williams’s death was suicide, and I’ll spare the platitudes about depression and everything non-sufferers don’t get about it. They’re trickling in at what has to be a record rate, and depression in and of itself really isn’t the point of this post anyway. Good Will Hunting might be my favorite movie from the eccentric filmography of Robin Williams, save maybe Aladdin. Although the movie takes place in Boston, there’s a serious element of Good Will Hunting that really clicks true in Rust Belt cities, and it results in a movie which is able to attack one of the dominant aspects of Rust Belt life while avoiding the kind of condescension and elitist views of the blue collar class which is typical of Hollywood directors. (And the insufferable Robert Altman in particular, whose death I continue to view as addition by subtraction.) The South Boston/Rust Belt commonalities are many and very minute, if Good Will Hunting’s portrayal of Southie is to be believed.

Many American cities like to view themselves as tough, take-no-shit kinds of places, living by examples of bootstrap-pulling toughness even in the worst-case scenario. I can’t think of a single place in the country that tries to exemplify this kind of ethos more than the Rust Belt. The Rust Belt is so hopelessly obsessed with this image that many of the people who live on it will place it before any and all personal progress, bringing the whole toughness thing into every decision they make, be it in family or career or anything else they consider living for. This leads to some very destructive contradictions: Rust Belt people are branded from birth with the idea of lending a hand to anyone in serious need, but when in need themselves, actually accepting such help is considered emasculating. The people who offer the help are always dead serious about it, too; if someone should take up our help offerings, we’ll drop everything in an instant and see our promises kept through right up until the very end. That makes it very bewildering and sometimes tragic that most people prefer to turn down the offered help and make the situation even worse.

Therefore, Buffalo is a strict adherent of the “just” culture. That’s the beloved idea always spouted by Fox News pundits that, whatever the problem is, you can turn your entire life around by merely going out and doing the opposite. Are you poor? Why, just go out and get rich! Are you sick? Hey, that’s easy – you just have to get healthy! It can be summed up rather easily with a single, very famous line from the popular sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “Oh, get a job? Just get a job? Why don’t I strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fire off into job land, where the jobs grow on jobbies?!” If only it were so simple, right? What’s unfortunate is that in most of the Rust Belt, people really do think it’s that simple, and the lower classes which are truly affected are too busy blaming each other to ask themselves why the higher classes – those always being touted as the ones who create the opportunities for the lower classes – have been creating rather less opportunities as of late. Of course, if asked, the higher classes will probably spout the same bullshit comments about pulling ourselves up from the bootstraps. It’s a well-rehearsed routine.

Depression tends to get treated in such a manner on the Rust Belt too. Feeling blue? Just cheer up! This is partially the result of the city’s piss-poor education system, which just this last year brought its high school graduation rate up past 50 percent for the first time in decades. (And even now, the current 53 percent graduation rate isn’t exactly worth writing about.) It’s also because Buffalo also runs around sporting a real 50’s mentality, which means you do your brooding in secret and pray your ass off to a very specific god until you magically turn happy again. Ask anyone from Buffalo, and they’ll tell you that’s all depression is – eternal sadness. Therefore, all ou have to do to cheer up is toss a funny movie into the DVD player or read the daily funnies in The Buffalo News.

The problem with depression on the Rust Belt is less that the people who live on the Rust Belt don’t understand it, but more the fact that they are very adamant in refusing to try to understand it. Being a good Rust Belt citizen means clinging desperately to the ways of the olden days, even though this adherence to the old ways is clearly contributing to the downward spiral of the region. The Rust Belt locked itself in and insulated itself against forward progress as soon as the steel industry started bailing on it, and the whole area is still under the mistaken impression that trying to pretend everything is like it was during the apex of the postwar boom will actually make the various cities prosperous again. The same revitalization that turned Pittsburgh and Philadelphia around came when those two cities finally recognized that the region will never be an industrial dynamo again. Change like that requires the entire populace to start thinking differently, and Pennsylvania’s two biggest cities have apparently performed admirably. Buffalo, not so much.

Unfortunately, this old time mindset leads the Rust Belt to treat mental problems like they’re paper cuts. Those of us who suffer from depression while living on the Rust Belt are therefore forced to deal with the isolation and loneliness through the rather dangerous method of pretending they don’t exist. It’s hard to say we can deal with it through other means; we’re not taught any other means, and if we are, it’s so we get the strict impression that those who do resort to those other (smarter) means are wusses who just aren’t the tough joes we are. Trying to explain your personal depression to people is a quick way to get an angry brush-off statement.

Depression is also easily compounded by the dominant way of life on the Rust Belt. With the 50’s mindset still gripping peoples’ thoughts and lives with an iron clasp, there’s a very strict script creating that terrible illusion known as “normality.” I give the region a lot of shit about its general lack of curiosity, but it’s hard to tell just how much curiosity actually exists here. That’s because anyone who holds any sense of curiosity, intellectual or cultural, tends to keep their interest on the down low. Science in Buffalo is treated the same way they treated witchcraft in Salem, and most people who believe in any kind of religion adhere to the toxic forms of it which propagate exclusivity and teach the idea of self-unworthiness. This adds up to the fact that any freethinkers who live on the Rust Belt have to bottle themselves up and wear their more socially acceptable masks in public. That’s basically a form of mental self-suffocation, and those who are forced to do it for too long tend to fall deeper into depression. Many end up crawling to the bottle and contemplating suicide. I’ve done the latter at least three or four different points in my life sometimes.

That’s why I love Good Will Hunting so much. We see Will Hunting trapped in the Rust Belt tough guy mindset, trying to live by a certain code which has been drilled in since childhood but is clearly against his better interests. Sean McGuire is successfully able to break through every mental defense Will erects against him, finally breaking Will down. The Hollywood ending, with Will quietly leaving Massachusetts to reunite with the girl his mental defenses stupidly made him ditch earlier, is a gratifying one for all. For me and others who go through depression on Rust Belt blue collar terms, the big reward is in seeing the moment when Will is able to change the way his head is programmed. He awakens to the fact that what his blue collar culture instilled in him doesn’t work, and his departure to follow Skylar is not only the right choice for his heart, but a subtle form of rejecting his old culture and his bad habits.

Sadly, Will Hunting’s end doesn’t happen for enough people who live by the rough and tumble blue collar ethos of the Rust Belt, because we don’t have a Dr. McGuire or a Chuck, a best friend who is able to muster enough realism to tell Will he probably would be best off someplace else. Anyone who gets depressed to the point of suicide living on the Rust Belt will likely have to gather enough courage to admit it to themselves before acting on it. And when (if) they do, fortunately, there’s a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline they can call at 1-800-273-8255.