SERIAL MOM (1994)

(Starz/VOD) SERIAL MOM is, admittedly, not the most popular John Waters film, but it is one of my favorites of his. (That said, I’m a bad cinephile and have never seen PINK FLAMINGOS, but oddly have seen everything else of his.) It heralds to a time during the 1990s when charisma and murder could get you anywhere, and Waters sensationalizes and satirizes that with a brilliant cast: a never better Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, a pre-HACKERS Matthew Lilliard, and Waters staple Ricki Lake.

It features the suburban candy-coating you expect from John Waters with a bitter, but welcome, aftertaste.

THREE BUSY DEBRAS (2020-)

(adult swim/HBO MAX/VOD) Three housewives, each named Debra, get together for brunch and occasionally other activities in their vibrant suburban town of Lemoncurd. When together, they’re often passively-aggressively acting out against each other, indulging themselves in hedonistic activities, or partaking of bursts of violence, all while often adorned in white clothing and surrounded by similarly stark interior design.

These are the antics of adult swim‘s- THREE BUSY DEBRAS, aired in a half-hour block featuring two ten minute tales to bewilder and amuse. While THREE BUSY DEBRAS, the vision of Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha, clearly comes from their improvisational roots, it feels like it has a self-imposed set of absurdist rules that gives the show a more mythic air.

Its reliance on often immature behavior, neediness, and willful oblivion to the wants of the more grounded folks around them reminds me of the extraordinarily silly character comedy STELLA, although unlike STELLA — which was delightfully nihilistic with its messaging — THREE BUSY DEBRAS is often unabashedly feminist, albeit often rendered through a very skewed sense of humor. For example, one episode in the second, current season, details several stories of Lemoncurd women in history, including the advent of ‘smoky eye’ when a woman in ‘one billion BCE’ (Before the Curded Era) garners two black eyes when she trips and falls face-first on a stone-built fire. The second tale in that episode celebrates Susan B. Shoppin’, who ‘bravely’ fought for the right of the women of Lemoncurd to be refused the right to vote.

The second season of THREE BUSY DEBRAS concludes this Sunday (May 22nd) at 10pm EST on adult swim/Cartoon Network, just enough time to catch up from beginning. However, if you’re pressed for time, I suggest jumping into the second season, as it feels sharper and wilder and well-honed. Or you can just watch at your leisure via HBO MAX, whichever suits your needs.

SEARCH PARTY (2016-2021)

(HBO MAX/hoopla) SEARCH PARTY would have been a memorable cult TV show even if it were a one season-and-done and, while I was a bit gobsmacked to see that it was renewed not twice, not three times, but four! — I had no idea how this show could sustain itself for a second season, much less five — it’s always had a very singular dry, but confident and clever, comedic voice.

The first season introduces us to a group of self-centered, off-putting millennials tearing themselves away from their guac-and-toast brunch to solve the mystery of a missing acquaintance they barely know, and matters go amazingly awry.

I can’t quite describe the following seasons without diving into spoilers regarding the end of the first season, but each season tackles a different sort of genre: the second turns into a crime thriller, the third a legal procedural, the fourth centers around a kidnapping, and the fifth jumps into the a cultish future before going full horror.

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind as to how all that works without it becoming some sort of Ryan Murphy-ish anthology series, I don’t blame you. On paper, it sounds absolutely bonkers and, in reality, it’s a high-wire balancing act without a net that they manage to walk without barely a wobble.

It’s the rare show that gets to have its cake and eat it too: the actors (including Alia Shawkat as Dory, the propulsive element of the group) imbue the characters with a certain quizzical ennui that is irrestable, so you both love and hate them. You get to see them reckon with their selfish attitudes, but also empathize with them. Add to that some whipsmart dialogue, vibrant cinematography, a haunting electro score, and a litany of fantastic cameos from actors you’d never expect to see on a TBS show* (including Michaela Watkins, Ann Dowd, and one of Louie Anderson’s final performances which, unsurprisingly, is amazing), and you have an idiosyncratic show for the ages (or at least for ages 25-40).

For those brave enough to endure a trailer for the first two seasons (and the second season spoilers are very vague):

  • It’s worth noting that the last two seasons were HBO MAX-exclusives.

GET A LIFE (1990)

(DVD/YouTube) GET A LIFE was a transcendently stupid TV show starring Chris Elliott as Chris Peterson, a naive 30-year-old man-child living with his parents, who happens to fall into a number of absurd comic situations that grow more and more surreal as the show progresses. It was the brainchild of Chris Elliott (who, at that time, was mostly known for small bits on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN), David Mirkin (best known for his work on some of the best seasons of THE SIMPSONS), and Adam Resnick. (Resnick was a big 90s SNL writer, but also co-wrote and directed the cult-favorite but critically-reviled CABIN BOY which also starred Chris Elliott and has a brief appearance by David “Wouldja like to buy a monkey?!” Letterman. Having attended a CABIN BOY screening with a post-film Q&A with Resnick, I can tell you that he -hates- talking about that film and I do not know why he agreed to do a Q&A.) Notable writers include Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) and Bob Odenkirk (MR. SHOW, BETTER CALL SAUL), so you know it’s going to be absurd.

It was definitely absurd. The first season was slightly more off-kilter than full-blown bonkers — it focused more on the sitcom family elements (which included Chris Elliott’s real-life father and classic comedian Bob Elliott as Peterson’s father). The second season was completely unhinged, mostly because they knew they would never get renewed for a third.

It was a severe primetime network oddity in the early nineties and, as a young teen watching my friend’s weekly VHS recordings of the show, it was a mind-blowing experience: Chris Peterson would frequently be killed off in episodes. There’s a Jack and the Giant Beanstalk ep. There’s an E.T.-ish episode that featured a disgusting alien named SPEWEY that, as you might guess, repeatedly vomits. It’s proto-alternative TV comedy.

One of the most influential episodes may be “The Prettiest Week of My Life” (S01E02, surprisingly early in the show) where Chris decides to become a male model via the ‘Handsome Boy School of Modeling’. If you’re familiar with music producer Dan the Automator, you’re familiar with this episode, as he created an entire project named HANDSOME BOY MODELING SCHOOL, then went on to heavily sample “The Prettiest Week of My Life” in songs like ‘Look at This Face (Oh My God They’re Gorgeous)’ and ‘Modeling Sucks’:

(When I used to DJ, I’d try to work in ‘Modeling Sucks’ whenever I could.)

What’s even more amazing is: they managed to get R.E.M.’s STAND for the theme song. Sadly, that’s probably why you can’t legally stream it anywhere now. (If you want to check out the series, there are a number of bootleg eps on YouTube, but please: if you enjoy it, throw some money towards SHOUT! Factory’s DVD set. It’s a great set, and they do fantastic work.)

The show isn’t for everyone, but it was a foundational show for me.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (1964)

(VOD) I didn’t so much seek out THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER as had it forced upon me. When I moved to Chicago, one of the first video stores I walked into was BLAST OFF VIDEO, centered in Lakeview. (If you’re unfamiliar with Chicago, Lakeview contains Wrigleyville, home of the Cubs.) It was a tiny cult video store — an off-shoot of an Atlanta-based video store of the same name — whose front window was covered with spliced BLOCKBUSTER membership cards. (They’d give you several free rentals if you’d hand yours over. Unsurprisingly, you’d also find my card plastered to the glass.)

The shop was helmed by a man named Sam, who didn’t mind me shooting the shit with him for an hour or so twice a week. Sam was far more knowledgable about foreign and cult films than I was, and I’d listen to him rant about how RESERVOIR DOGS was a rip-off of CITY ON FIRE (which isn’t too far off the mark, although I wouldn’t say ‘rip-off’) or how Robert Mitchum really directed NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (which, probably). One of the first films he recommended to me was THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER.

Some might summarize THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER as a (very) low-rent version of Billy Wilder’s A FACE IN THE CROWD, but that’s selling it short. Timothy Carey (best known for appearing in THE KILLING), who wrote, directed, and acted in this passion project, made something uniquely his own. SINNER is extremely rough around the edges — they clearly only had one take for most scenes, lines often don’t land the way they should, it’s full of abrupt and halting edits, and it’s shot like a student film. However, all of that works in its favor. There’s a crazy alchemy to all of it that dovetails with the theme of a salaryman-turned-politician trying to ingratiate himself to the populace while questioning his faith and purpose in the process, all backed by a Frank Zappa soundtrack. It’s a whirlwind of a work, and one that Sam vociferously believed in.

Sadly, BLAST OFF VIDEO is no longer. They were priced out of Lakeview years ago and moved well outside of my radius, then they closed up shop in Chicago all together. However, when I was recently searching for them to see if their Atlanta store happened to be around, I stumbled upon a Chicago Tribune article about the shop, and in it they note how Sam finagled their copy of THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER “by tracking down the director’s son and asking him for a tape”. Godspeed, Sam, wherever you are.

“I don’t even care if they reject my book. I’ll do another book, and another one! And besides, a guy can always become a comedian, right?”

DUCK SOUP (1933)

(tubi/VOD) I immerse myself in a lot of media but, despite how long I’ve been doing so, I’m surprisingly bad at it. I often watch movie series completely out-of-order. (Worst example: THE BEFORE TRILOGY.) I accidentally read lesser works by an author before cracking open their acclaimed works. (I ate up J.G. Ballard’s HELLO AMERICA, but have yet to read CRASH or EMPIRE OF THE SUN). Lastly, I all too often neglect to read the novels that inspired the works I’m currently reading. (I’ve read two novels this year where the authors have explicitly stated they were inspired by Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY. I’ve only read THE GOLDFINCH and, while I was reading THE GOLDFINCH in a bar roughly two years ago, the bartender told me: ‘You should really read THE SECRET HISTORY’ and they were obviously correct, and I have yet to rectify that.)

One of the most egregious oversights I’ve made in my media consumption is that of the Marx Brothers. When I was in my early teens, I loved the indie comic CEREBUS by Dave Sim. (Dave Sim is now best known as being a rampant misogynist, not to mention being homophobic and transphobic, and — to be clear — I do not endorse CEREBUS or Sim — I’m simply relaying some youthful thoughts and anecdotes.) The comic started as a parody of CONAN THE BARBARIAN featuring an aardvark as the barbarian, then became political satire, then it became a commentary on religion, and then it spiraled.

I didn’t care for the aardvark, but I was fascinated by the loquacious character named Lord Julius and the political absurdity in HIGH SOCIETY, the second volume of the series. I met Dave Sim at a comic book convention many, many years ago and he drew a head sketch of Lord Julius in my dogeared copy of my HIGH SOCIETY ‘phone book’ (the label ascribed to the over-stuffed CEREBUS trade paperbacks) which, for a short while, was a prized possession.

What I didn’t realize until I went to college and started binging classic film was how nakedly he riffed on the Marx Brothers; how Lord Julius was an excuse for Sims to write Groucho-esque jokes, and how HIGH SOCIETY was simply Sim’s version of DUCK SOUP. All you have to do is look at this page of art and see: yup, lifting Marx Brothers for his own purposes. Once you know, you know, but when I was younger, when the interwebs didn’t fully exist? I didn’t know.

This has been a very long-winded way of saying that, even when I didn’t know it, my mind was being shaped by the sharp, vaudevillian wit of Groucho and his brothers, and DUCK SOUP is the epitome of their film career. It’s anarchic absurdity that happens to be politically evergreen, but it’s all in service of savvy jokes, circular logic, brilliant physical set-pieces, the glorious straight-faced work of Margaret Dumont, and some lyrical downtime to allow us to enjoy Harpo’s musical skills. In other words, it’s an immaculately constructed classic that holds up far better than CEREBUS has and, while it took me a while to get around to it, I’m happy I did.

Trailer:

A playlist of highlights:

PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

(Criterion/Kanopy/VOD/Vudu/YouTube)? Robert Downey, Sr. passed away this week at the age of 85. While his son is mostly known for more accessible fare, Downey Sr. was an anarchic indie filmmaker, and there’s no better example of his cinematic skills than PUTNEY SWOPE.

PUTNEY SWOPE is a nihilistic indictment of Madison Avenue, American capitalism and everything it’s created (including filmmaking and anti-American capitalist revolutionaries), while also being damn funny and inventively shot. The faux-commercials it features are perhaps only rivaled by ROBOCOP (1987) or the best of Adult Swim. For instance:

I need to note that this is an incredibly insensitive film in ways I haven’t quite managed to personally reconcile — after all, it’s a film written and directed by a middle-aged white man about a Black man breaking the system — but it is also endlessly fascinating.

MAX HEADROOM: Dieties (S02E02, 1987)

(DVD) I’m keeping this to my most memorable MAX HEADROOM ep, but I loved all of them. I know most folks are only familiar with the character Max Headroom (performed in extreme makeup by Matt Frewer, who doubles as televisual news journalist Edison Carter) from the Coke commercials, or maybe from pseudo-characters from satirical cartoons like DOONESBURY or BLOOM COUNTY.

If you’re of a certain age and watched TV, you can’t forget that brilliant neon-lined backdrop. If you aren’t familiar with the show: Edison Carter is an activist journalist for Network 23 in a cyberpunk near-future. When he’s almost killed upon doing legwork for an investigative story that involves Network 23’s potentially lethal blipverts, the network puts a hit out on him via a hacker, who triggers a parking garage lift as Edison’s trying to escape some cronies, and he flies face-first into a parking garage hazard sign with the words ‘MAX HEADROOM’. Said hacker then reconstructs Edison’s persona from a digital copy of Edison’s brain to continue non-Network 23-related reports for the network, and MAX HEADROOM is born. (Edison survives to tell the tale, but is now stuck with a sarcastic, extremely popular but very extreme digital copy of hisself.)

I didn’t grow up with the even-more-forgotten MAX HEADROOM late-night show that Frewer helmed in Australia, but I watched the TV movie via LaserDisc when I was a youth and it was enough of a revelation that I named our newly acquired yellow-and-black-striped cockatiel Max after the show.

(Yes, I grew up with birds and LaserDiscs, and rode horses. I fully realize now that my youth was off-kilter.)

There are more intriguing episodes of MAX HEADROOM, but -Dieities- is a very Cronenberg-ian episode of TV. It’s about televangelists and the falsity of ‘mind-storage’ (which is obviously self-reflexive, given his Max Headroom TV-centric AI persona). Oh, and there are a number of vaguely hidden riffs on Scientology. It’s especially high-concept for a show that repeatedly took big swings.

Unfortunately, it’s not available to stream anywhere, but the DVD box set is readily available. In lieu of a trailer, here’s a link to the TV film:

“Oh God, he’s been in the Dobie Gillis file again.” (A quote from -Dieties-, not from the pilot. As someone who saw a number of Dobie Gillis films in summer day camps, I felt very seen.)

IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW (1986-1989)

(Dailymotion/Vimeo/YouTube/etc.)? You’re probably familiar with THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, which features stand-up comedian and actor Garry Shandling as a neurotic late night host. (Given that Shandling was one of a few folks considered to be an heir to Johnny Carson, it was not much of a stretch for him.) It was a huge critical and commercial success for HBO, and its depiction of the nitty gritty of producing a late night show was very ahead of its time. However, before THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW there was IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW.

Simply put, IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW was one of the first meta-sitcoms. Shandling plays ‘himself’, aware that a sitcom audience, at home and in the studio, is watching him as he lives his semi-celebrity, narcissistic, vain, and insecure life. Each SHANDLING’S SHOW episode opens with Garry giving a fourth-wall breaking monologue about his current status as well as what he hopes to accomplish this episode. (I’ll note that THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW did something similar decades prior with their introduction to the show.)

As each episode of SHANDLING’S SHOW would progress, Garry would continue to nod and wink at the audience and, as the show grew older, became bolder about actively turning the safe 80s sitcom format on its head with loads of surreal bits and set-breaking acts.

SHANDLING’S SHOW was one of the first comedies penned for Showtime, as well as Shandling’s first show working both in-front of and behind the camera. He co-created it with Alan Zweibel, one of the original SNL writers, and they often enlisted legendary TV comedy director Alan Rafkin (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, ONE DAY AT A TIME (1978), THE BOB NEWHART SHOW — his directorial filmography is ridiculous). Oh, and Ed Solomon (BILL & TED) had a hand in more than a fair number of eps, too!

It also has one of the best TV theme songs ever, reflecting the meta-nature of the show, also penned by Shandling & Zeiwbel. It’s 41 seconds long — a fact the show frequently hammers home — but it’s catchy enough that you’d suspect it was written and performed by Randy Newman:

(From the first episode — there’s a bit of setup, but not much):

To follow that up, it has one of the best riffs on the theme song opening:

Sadly, today it seems to be barely remembered except by TV and comedy nerds, despite the fact that it was quite critically acclaimed at the time. There are several reasons for that: first, it was on Showtime in 1986 and they didn’t exactly have a huge audience then, and they certainly weren’t known for their original programming. That said, FOX purchased rerun rights to bolster their Sunday lineup, but this was before they’d wrangle THE SIMPSONS.

Second, it was practically impossible to watch after FOX ceased airing reruns in 1990. Some fans would post VHS recordings to YouTube once that was a thing, but it was like posting into a vacuum.

Third, Shout! Factory released a full-series DVD set over a decade ago that I dragged my feet on buying and, before I knew it, it was out-of-print and almost of the ripped YouTube eps had been scrubbed.

However! You can still find a fair number of eps out there, as well as a smattering of clips. They’re well-worth your time although I’ll warn you that more than a few jokes haven’t aged terribly well, but they’re all immaculately constructed. If you don’t believe me, Rolling Stone just listed the show as #58 on their ‘100 Best Sitcoms of All Time’ list*.

Sample episode (S01E12):

First episode (S01E01):

Shout! Factory’s DVD Trailer:

  • I quibble with the list, not because of the entries themselves, but because I don’t believe you should include an in-progress series on the list, and they included -many- on-the-air shows.

REVIEW: Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes (S0103, 2014)

(Paramount+/Pluto/VOD) Personal note: This will be the last daily recommendation for the foreseeable future, for reasons detailed below. I hope I haven’t wasted too much of anyone’s time, and my many sincere thanks to those who have commented and those I’ve conversed with over the past ~275 recommendations. You’ve been a balm through this very difficult time.

REVIEW was a fictional Comedy Central show — adapted from a more irreverent Australian show of the same name — centered around soliciting life experience queries from people and then ‘life-reviewer’ Forrest MacNeil (legendary cult comedian/actor/writer Andy Daly) would then find a way to live the experience, review it, and rate it on a five-star system.

While the show could — and definitely leaned into — slapstick behavior, it more often than not tackled more emotional challenges. In -Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes-, the third episode of the opening season, Forrest is requested to:

1) Review eating 15 pancakes:

2) Review getting divorced (unfortunately not available via YouTube)

3) Review eating 30 pancakes:

Forrest commits to all of it and it’s so hilariously tragic, partially because he’s so blindly committed to his job, but also because he feels he has a personal contract with an audience that barely exists with which he has his own unwritten personal rules that he must abide by. (Especially in the -Divorce- segment, where most of the comedy is elicited by the fact that he feels he can’t tell his wife he’s doing this because of his show.)

I initially picked this episode as a quick-and-easy recommendation to write up but, while typing the above, I realized: Oh, fuck. I’ve become Forrest MacNeil.

I started these daily recommendations to give me a bit of structure and bonding with friends during lockdown. Also, I’d missed writing about media, as the last time I regularly did so was more than several years ago on my defunct videogame criticism/analysis website THE NEW GAMER. I thought: “I can find ~200-300 words a day about something I’ve watched that I love! Surely I can manage that for a year, or until I get to see a post-worthy film in a theater!”

That word limit lasted about three months. Then I added more unstated personal rules: I should post no later than midnight CST; if I haven’t watched it in over a year, I should re-watch it; if it’s an adaptation, I should read the book and comment on that; if there’s a TV adaptation, I should watch and touch on that. (To be fair, half of the time I had either already read the adaptation or watched some, if not all, of the TV adaptation. For example, my THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR recommendation with which I had previously done all three.)

Thanks to REVIEW, I’ve realized I’m currently writing these daily recommendations simply because of my own arbitrary rules and, while I love writing about media, it’s spun a bit out of control. It hasn’t been a bad experience by any means, but those dumb rules of mine ruined what was supposed to be a quick, dumb thing done for fun. That said, I’ll continue to write recommendations, but on far looser terms.

So, on that note, I’ll review this endeavor as Forrest MacNeil would: “Writing a daily media recommendation newsletter during a global pandemic: 4 stars.”

“This certainly is an upsetting number of pancakes.”