THE END OF FAMILY GUY?

I think Family Guy is a sometimes-funny show. It’s been an important cultural touchstone throughout the Western world for well over seven years, a time period that includes two cancellations and DVD sales that powered the show back onto the ever-fickle Fox Network’s prime time schedule. It’s hard to ignore Stewie, Brian and Peter as the comedic emblems of this era.

All that being said, Family Guy’s probably one of the least original shows on television (ignoring The Simpsons references). Often it’s crass, tasteless, superficial and sight-gag heavy. Unlike so many animated “adult-themed” shows, Family Guy’s cultural resonance seems confined to pop culture references and interchangeable jokes – a thoroughly post-modern take on what constitutes The Funny. South Park, in its infamous Cartoon Wars episodes two years ago, made this point clearly: Family Guy’s detractors rightly point out that it’s a trashy show, sure, but its humour and appeal seems to come from audiences not investing very much of themselves into it. It’s basically the TV version of M&M’s – tasty at first, a little sickening after awhile, not good for you and very superficial in its appeal.

But how has a show so clearly and unapologetic in its trashy ways gained such a huge audience in less than three years? After a very sluggish start back in 1999, the show’s gained traction largely through DVD sales. While the animation has improved slightly over the years, nothing about Family Guy has evolved in the slightest since the show’s debut. The character development is weak, the story lines inconsequential, and the humour is decidedly mixed in result. For every laugh-out-loud moment of Peter Griffin insanity, there’s distinctly unfunny moments that border on creepy (the Marge Simpson being attacked by Quagmire on screen clip comes to mind). More to the point, the show seems to have reached a threshold in terms of “quality” – this year’s season has been mediocre, at best, so far.

The answer to this show’s popularity, I’m daring to argue, isn’t because people’s cultural tastes have declined considerably (although that may be true). It isn’t because, in an era of time compression, people aren’t interested in getting into shows with depth and narrative.

It’s got everything to do with the America of George W. Bush.

As so much of how we understand culture is based on private theories, this is one theory that probably doesn’t make sense at first. But there’s some merit to it.

In the America of Bush II, two very distinct trends have emerged when it comes to how we consume culture, specifically on television.

Firstly, the culture of attack. Television culture throughout America has gotten much rougher under the reign of Bush. While Dubya isn’t himself to blame for this, it’s undeniable that from cable news shows to ‘personality-driven’ shows like Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor to torture-friendly shows like 24, the general morbidity and darkness of the Bush Era have filtered down into our culture. The nasty, cut-throat humour Family Guy embodies – the Nazi-McCain arc of last week’s episode is one example – seems part of this general theme. But unlike Bill O’Reilly or 24, the roots of Family Guy as satire – or at least, an attempt at satire – is nasty, aggressive and mean-spirited in a particularly unsettling way. It’s sending a message that brutal equals funny, that it’s perfectly acceptable to say and do sophomoric, stupid things just because it’s aggressive. It’s humour in spite of itself.

It’s funny for a time of acute frustration with institutions, business and even the Presidency. In a world where no one seems accountable – even Bush – and the anger of a populace is impossible to channel, saying brutal things that would be unthinkable on comedies even ten years ago seems enabled, in part, by a much angrier, attacking culture.

But there’s another element to it: the Culture Of The Disconnected.

Family Guy, like America throughout these brutal eight years, has become a much more disconnected culture. Shared cultural narratives form the heart of any nation; just like books, movies or LPs, sharing an appreciation of cultural artifacts is an important part of any national debate. Family Guy, in this respect, brings people together. But not in the way you’d think.

In a time where finding humour in our daily experiences is impossible due to the sheer gravity of the crimes Bush and his cronies have done, Family Guy takes a variety of cultural references that have nothing to do with moving a plot forward. It’s funny in bite-sized chunks that are familiar, but not innovative. It’s grabbing useful cultural bits and putting them together into a superficial package. In the Bush Era, smart political satire that directly takes on the administration’s craven nature is impossible – there’s too much bad, too much of the time. Finding the funny in a sea of bad – Iraq, the financial crisis, Katrina, et al – is hard and deeply polarizing, particularly in a country like America that seems frozen into highly divided, deeply partisan bickering. It’s easier and lazier to take pop cultural reference points and pass them off as original and funny.

At its heart, Family Guy reflects America in this deeply troubled time: creatively bankrupt, extremely harsh and, dare I say it, lazy. It’s humour for the nihilistic, the disconnected, the superficially engaged.

Advertisements

FRIENDLY FIRE?

Okay, so this blog’s been neglected a bit the past week. It’s been a very crazy month of October. Crazy in both good and bad ways.

First off, the election here in Canada. I hate the fact I’m becoming especially good now at predicting outcomes of so many situations, not the least of which was my comment to a friend in Calgary yesterday that “it will be a near-majority for the Conservatives tomorrow.”

Damn, I was right.

For a few moments last night, as Peter Mansbridge told us all, there was an outside chance of a majority. I actually felt nervous for approximately 36 seconds. Then came certifiable, actual results from Quebec. Shocker – the Liberals have made in-roads again there! Maybe the sponsorship scandal’s foul aftertaste in la belle provence has finally begun to dissolve.

I think being good at making predictions is based entirely on two things: one, hoping for the best but expecting the worst, and two – the belief that human beings will most often do every possible mediocre, bad or downright evil action before finally choosing the good one. That’s just the way people are, methinks.

In any event, those two guidelines paid off last night. In any event, I’d say congratulations to the Conservatives, but I’m not sure if this Pyrrhic victory election win is something I’m particularly thrilled over anyway.

$300 million. $300 freakin’ million.

DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE: RUN FOR THE CURE IS A SMOKESCREEN

I’m going to be honest. This will not be a popular opinion.

I’m opposed to a lot of aspects surrounding CIBC’s Run For The Cure. I think, in many ways, it’s a phony, hypocritical event that accomplishes very little of a substantive nature.

Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t support cancer. Cancer is one of the absolute worst afflictions any person can ever get, regardless of their gender or background. Breast cancer is a particularly heinous form of cancer that kills thousands of women (and a small minority of men, too) every year in Canada. So in no way, shape or form do I think cancer is a good thing or that people shouldn’t be actively trying to stop it. Especially with the rising tide of Baby Boomers entering their golden years, there’s more of a need now than ever to find ways to beat cancer.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s why Run For The Cure is a bad thing for women, bad for public health and a smokescreen for the real issues involving cancer research.

Samantha King, a professor at Queen’s, wrote a book in 2006 that got profiled in the Alumni Review, called Pink Ribbon Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy.

She made a very strong, fascinating, controversial argument that shows how corporations have effectively turned breast cancer into a public relations exercise that masks the event’s real goals with heartfelt, sometimes emotionally manipulative, stories of cancer survivorship.

What are those real goals? Well, as in so many cases like these, corporate “community outreach” is an effective means in which to push product, as well as promote an ideology of private enterprise actively taking a role in cause-related marketing. Don’t think for a minute you’re not susceptible to those realities: Becel Margarine recently had a campaign on television featuring how a portion of margarine sales would go to cancer research, complete with fresh-faced women of all ages in a harmonious circle of sisterhood. Funny how that involves buying something in the process, no?

In reality, the seemingly bullet-proof strategy of having pure-at-heart motives with breast cancer awareness raises very disturbing questions. How is the Run For the Cure actually helping people? What does the money people raise with good intentions accomplish? Do we know where the money actually goes? Why should corporations – food companies like Becel, banks, et al – be trusted with this sort of thing in the first place? And why aren’t people asking hard questions like these more often?

Bear in mind two things here: one, it’s not really fair to attack people in the non-profits or corporations who have laudable goals here. Two, it’s also unfair to attack people participating in the event, as they’re there for good reasons too.

However, it’s becoming more and more clear that CIBC’s Run For The Cure, as the most visible example, doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much in the way of cancer research or progress. It’s a feel-good way to make you think you’re doing positive. But does it really?

The real problem here, as King outlines, is how the private sphere is taking the good intentions of people and pushing a corporate agenda that divests public investment into substantive medical research. The private sector cannot and will not invest in causes that deflate their market share. That’s pretty common sense. But where things become particularly sinister is how many of the same companies that push breast cancer awareness days like Run For The Cure are actively involved, as King says, in opposing public health efforts.

Instead of treating the causes of breast cancer – which are rising at an alarming rate in our dirty, polluted, “developed” world of Canada – we’re resorting to superficial efforts like Run For The Cure that don’t really do anything when it comes to actually understanding and defeating cancer. Instead of pushing an ideology of public investment in unbiased, non-corporate medical research, we’re resorting to banks and food companies to help us? More to the point, when was the last time you ever heard, publiclly, where all that money raised by good people has gone to and what the results have been? Why hasn’t this been disclosed broadly?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Of course, the standard argument against this perspective is that people are busy and whatever one person can do to help, Run For The Cure allows. But in truth, people are not informed enough about where their fundraising efforts go. They’re also putting the cart before the horse: what sense does it make, as a society, to treat a symptom before a cause? Why not push an agenda of a cleaner environment, stronger investments into public health research? In other words, be informed about what you’re doing and don’t assume a corporation has angelic intentions. They’re pushing an image – not a cure.

Why am I even writing about this? Because after everything we’ve seen in the past month with the chaos on Wall Street, worldwide credit markets seizing up, et al, it’s about time people stopped letting unchecked private interests controlling our public interest. The neo-conservative revolution of the 1990s is dead. We need to put corporate interests back in balance with the public good.

And even charitable events like Run For The Cure need to be held to account.

SUPER HAPPY FUN TIME, OR WHY I HOPE FOR A MICHAEL CERA PRISON MOVIE

That’s it. I’m done. I’m officially canceling my subscription to the Michael Cera Is Awesome Fan Club. Stick a fork in him, hit him with a beat-up Pinto or beat him over the head with anti-freeze laden beer jugs – he’s done.

If I could address He Who Be Brampton’s Softest, Awkwardest Soul in person, I’d probably tell him a lot of things. Heartfelt things. Or possibly just smack him across the head with a bag full of orange tic-tacs. Not sure which at this point. Either way, he’s so crying his eyes out afterwards.

As you all probably know by now, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist came out today. I’ve seen it already. And let me tell you: there are four kinds of people who love a movie like this.

If you’re a wannabe hipster teen with obscure tastes in Nerdcore, Queercore or whatever, you’ll love this movie. If you’re a shy indie teen girl (or shy indie twentysomething girl still trying to make up for lost time) longing for the shy, indie teen boy (or a not-so-shy, indie twentysomething boy that attends a college for “music production” downtown by day, sleeps with pierced vegans by night), you will go bat-shit-freakin-loco over this movie.

And if you’re a Sensitive Artist, longing to re-imagine all those endless nights out drinking, dropping cell phones in public toilets and imaging how you’d totally graffiti up a Goth club because it’s Beautiful, you’re going to love it. No, really, these are truly endless nights – the Sensitive Artist hasn’t been employed in four years!

And finally, if you’re a university/college student, wishing you could throw off the shackles of the Like, Totally, Evil Professors and Bosses and just let the kids rock out, balls out, you’re going to be fiercely, supremely turned on by this movie.

Otherwise, you’ll probably come out of it hating Hollywood more than ever before.

Gawker’s already posted a link on why Nick and Norah is basically a teen movie for faux-hipsters (and modern hipsters with very short memories).

If you define edgy as a night of pill-popping, powder-sniffing, violence inducing, car-crashing ironic pleasure, then Nick and Norah will bore you to tears. If you’re anywhere near a state of emotional maturity, Nick and Norah will infuriate you. If you find jokes involving Jesus, puke and stripteases from girls that look like they haven’t eaten real food since 1998 strangely annoying, you’ll hate this movie.

But that’s all besides the point here. What I’m going to say, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle-style, is that Michael Cera is a one-trick pony. And no one’s riding this horse home tonight. Not anymore.

Cera’s slow descent into Typecast Hell (normally part of Dante’s Circles of Hell, but I’ve heard the Devil’s put reservations out on a new piece of land exclusively for Henry Winkler, Elizabeth Berkley and that actress from Will & Grace) started two years ago.

Superbad. Ah Superbad, the movie we all love for its authenticity, booze and copious bodily fluids. In this Apatow-produced ode to teenage lustdom, Cera basically played it awkward, including being profoundly afraid of his fellow Canadian, Martha MacIssac, when she inexplicably put the moves on his meek self. But back in 2007, this was also known as “cutely endearing.”

Then came Juno, or as some people have called it, Superbad 2: She’s Super-Preggers.

Cera, once again, played himself – awkward, deer-caught-in-headlights-style. Remarkably, the script even called for the Force of Nature known as Canadian Ellen Page to sleep with Cera’s character, Paulie Bleeker (meeker?). Given the look on Cera’s face during the act o’ love-making – a look that can best be described as Seagal-esque in its unchanging ways – the term “cutely endearing” slowly began to turn into “endearingly annoying.”

Now comes Nick and Norah. Basically, long story short: Cera’s once again in the clutches of a cruel, sexually frustrated young lass named Tris, played by Alexis Dziena. Of course, along comes Norah – Nick’s fantasy come to life. She’s basically the female version of Nick/Cera: immaculate taste in obscure, barely accessible music, full of witty quips that only a solid screenwriter could conjure up, and world-class experts at using thinly-veiled hostility to mask a huge fear of romantic and – gasp! – sexual intimacy.

And here’s where Cera’s begun the downward spirial. He’s no longer even endearing. He’s now That Guy – the self-loathing Artiste type whose awkwardness is now, not surprisingly, unattractive to most women and virtually all men. He’s Emo, Elmo and Fat Elvis all in one.

This is why Michael Cera must do a prison movie.

I’m not talking Green Mile prison movie. I’m talking Shawshank Redemption. I’m talking Oz. I’m talking an entire movie version of Ashton Kutcher’s experience in prison in The Butterfly Effect. I’m talking HBO-National Geographic Channel-lurid.

Why? Two reasons: one, he deserves it, and two, it will make Cera cool again.

First, who wouldn’t want to pay good money to see a soft, gentle soul like Cera get a daily rundown from guys named Gino and Tracy? I’m no sadist, but really, seeing Cera under constant threat from angry guys looking for their next prison “wife” would unleash a society-wide catharsis the likes of which haven’t been seen since Tom Hanks did Philadelphia. Guys would feel both happy and strangely conflicted with seeing Cera get his ass beat, and the ladies would probably be strangely into seeing Cera grow some edge to his less-than-edgy self.

Why will it make him cool again? Because he’ll be a man when he’s done his stint in the joint. He’ll be offered roles that will show off his masculinity, not hide it behind bass guitars. He’ll be colder, darker, but richer as a character. In short, he’ll be Adrian Brody.

But at least he’ll be our Adrian Brody.

INTO SPACE

My friend Alana posted a link to this really interesting project called IntoSpace – it’s a catalogue of photos and logotypes being sent into space.

One can look at this in a few ways: it’s an interesting comment on the nature of space travel in the future (which is not that far off in terms of people being able to fly in sub-orbital flights) and how we brand ourselves as individuals, even into the celestial sphere. I strongly urge you to check it out, it’s quite something.

On another note, how can you not love Tina Fey? Her star is so hot right now because of this…

And this…

…that there’s now an alleged proposal for her to write a “non-fiction humour” book. You know I’m going there the first day to pick up the book, when it eventually comes.