On “Road to Rhode Island”

February 22, 2010

Pointlessness is certainly nothing new in popular entertainment. The point of entertainment, after all, is to entertain, but the only way to determine if something is entertaining is to subjectively decide whether or not one likes it or is amused or engaged by it. My aim in this forum, however, is to determine if something is art, and to do so in a more or less objective manner. I do not deny there is a high degree of subjectivity in what I do, but I do strive to provide objective analysis of entertainment, regardless. One television series in particular that deserves attention in terms of pointlessness and entertainment is FOX’s Family Guy, a show that embraces pointlessness to the fullest and seeks to entertain with varying levels and styles of humor. The focus of this analysis is Season Two’s “Road to Rhode Island,” which originally aired May 30th 2000 and is directed by Dan Povenmire.

“Road to Rhode Island” opens with a flashback that establishes the episode’s main internal conflict: Brian has abandonment issues because his mother did nothing to prevent him from being taken away from her. The main external conflict is established later on in Act One: Brian and Stewie lose their plane tickets and must find alternate means to return home. This external conflict is also fueled by the interpersonal conflict between Brian and Stewie; their relationship is primarily based on jokes at the other’s expense, and Stewie also wants to rat Brian out for being irresponsible.

The external conflict is resolved when the travelers return home and Stewie covers for Brian, which shows a change of heart from Stewie’s earlier attempts to tattle on him over the phone, which Brian thwarts by physically restraining him. The internal conflict is resolved by Luke the farmer, who assures Brian that his mother wanted him to leave and find a better life. Brian also gains closure by absconding with his mother’s stuffed body and giving her a proper burial in a park. The episode ends with Brian contentedly reading a newspaper at home, his mommy issues now behind him.

The B Story features Lois and Peter’s adventures with marriage videos that help improve communication but ultimately turn out to be a ploy by Lois to turn Peter on. There is some conflict here because Peter is obviously terrible at communicating and then believes he is keeping a secret from Lois, except Lois apparently doesn’t care about Peter’s lack of communication and is in fact secretly trying to improve their sex life. The conflict is unimportant; the only purpose of the B Story is to provide the humor of expectations being defied through the reveals that the videos are actually sex tapes and that Lois knows it all along.

The main conflicts of the episode are irrelevant, as well—they serve only as a vehicle to the climax, which is a musical number that extols the journey of the travelers and reinforces the bonds between them. The number features cheesy Broadway choreography, cliché dress-up montages, and delightfully bad lyrical and non-lyrical barbs between the singers, all of which serve to mock the musical genre and make fun of a pointless narrative device while reinforcing its merits at the same time. The lyrics even go so far as to take jabs at FOX and the censors, because the very device of a musical number takes the audience out of the narrative and the writers choose to take them even further out by drawing attention to the network and the nature of the entertainment being consumed (thus infusing the song with humorous metafictional elements).

As a story, this episode is basic and weak. The plot is nothing more than a generic series of events around which jokes and gags may be displayed. There is no real emotional content to be had—Brian’s internal conflict is resolved by two lines of dialogue from an incidental character, and then he recapitulates with his mother by burying her, but any emotional impact is instantly deflated by Stewie’s nonsensical eulogy. There is no emotional impact in Stewie and Brian’s bonding, either—it simply culminates in another defial of expectations (one expects Stewie to make Brian his slave à la an episode of The Brady Bunch, but really he only wants him to record said episode). Family Guy doesn’t care about emotional content, though—it only cares about laughs.

Ultimately, Family Guy succeeds as a work of pointless entertainment, but lacks the element of beauty requisite for art. Of course, beauty and perhaps even emotional content are hardly concepts that can be objectively defined, but they are still unavoidable aspects of this analysis and must suffice for discussion purposes. Though my exposure to Family Guy is limited, it does not strike me as a work that strives to be beautiful, and is therefore content to be entertainment. This particular episode goes out of its way to parody the conventions of the buddy genre, and does so to fair comedic effect (the title sequence is even altered for this purpose, which perhaps even separates this episode from other “regular” episodes in the series). Though aspects of the show are clever and it succeeds in providing gags upon gags, Family Guy is not something I would classify as art.

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Though I have already made known my opinion on The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band of All Time, there is one musical artist who transcends such labels: the late Warren Zevon (nevermind that he’s commonly classified as a singer/songwriter—he’s transcendent). Of all the beautiful and thought-provoking songs Zevon has produced, I’m going to examine a track off of 2002’s My Ride’s Here: “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” written by Zevon and Mitch Albom.

Like many Zevon numbers, this isn’t simply a song—it’s a story. It’s a life story, in fact, which spans a young Canadian named Buddy’s entire career as a hockey player, from the time he was able to skate at age nine right up to the ambiguous ending: “The big man crumbled, but he felt alright / ‘cause the last thing he saw was the flashing red light / he saw that heavenly light.” For such a light-hearted tune, this line, well, really hits you, because Buddy the underdog finally achieves his life-long goal, and his success is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. Then again, those tears may also be for the price he may or may not pay; after all, it is emphasized that the goal is scored in Buddy’s final season and on his final night. A more casual listener could think this simply makes for good suspense or a more poetic finish, but things are never that simple when Warren Zevon is behind the tale. If the last thing he saw was the flashing red light, then one can probably surmise that was the last thing he ever saw and will ever see, but at least Buddy can die happy knowing he got his goal.

Once again, catharsis comes in the climax, though in this instance it is perhaps the story more than the music that produces the effect. That is not to say that the music does not contribute to the experience, however; in the verse featuring the climax, the song pares down to only Zevon’s voice and piano, with just a hint of Paul Shaffer on the keyboards behind him. This brings all the attention squarely on the story without too much instrumental distraction, but the steadily rising organ tones make for an almost heavenly experience, melding perfectly with Buddy’s triumph/tragedy (triumphant tragedy?).

The story does stand on its own, however, and it is difficult not to feel for Buddy and connect with his plight and desire. Buddy is kept down by his coach because he’s not a star, but he is the King of the Goons with a box for a throne (which is a nice extended metaphor). Buddy lives without the option of having options: as the speaker states in the chorus, you, the listener, might be able to choose brains over brawn and take care of your teeth, but what else can Buddy do? It’s almost naturalistic, even, because Buddy is tied to his fate and has no choice but to accept it, except Buddy does try to take control of his destiny and maybe even wins out in the end—but at a price.

The way the story is told is significant, as well. One verse in particular stands out as an example of Zevon’s expert delivery: the verse opens with the speaker speaking for the crowd, and Zevon echoes the “Hit somebody!” of the chorus with assertion and gusto, and then slides back into his narrative tone until he gets to the plaintive Buddy, pleading with his coach, saying “I want to score goals.” The speaker then mainly channels the coach, who is condescending, reassuring, and authoritative at the same time. All of this works due to Zevon’s performance of the lyrics, which has much more to do with storytelling ability than singing ability.

The humor of the story also contributes to its narrative significance. The vaguely dark sense of humor so characteristic of Zevon not only makes the song funny, but it also makes the overall emotional impact that much more effective. Because the song is so lighthearted, the listener does not expect the tearjerker climax and gets hit with a rush of excitement, sympathy, and sadness that has been unwittingly primed by the happy hockey humor and wry commentary on obnoxious sports fans. (It is worth noting that whereas all the hockey players are Swedes, Finns, Russians, and Canadians, the only American element in the song comes from David Letterman’s abrasive exhortations in the chorus—which I’m sure says something about American fans and Americans in general.)

Zevon is nothing if not an artist, and there are so many of his songs one could exhibit as examples of art, but “Hit Somebody!” is not a likely candidate for the list. It’s almost too clean, too simple, and lacking the hard edge of much of his work, but simple equals effective in this case. It is beautiful, it is useless, it is masterfully executed, and it is art.

Music is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all the arts. It stands on its own perfectly well, but it also supplements the works of film, television, video games, theater, and any other multimedia format. People identify with music perhaps even more strongly than with works of any other media, which isn’t surprising given the ease of access to endless amounts of music on the internet and radio and also the endless variety to be found. It’s nearly impossible not to find a musical artist to whom you can relate, or perhaps a single song which seems to have been written especially for you or about you. That’s not to say that other media can’t produce similar effects, but music is simply the most common media for people to connect to—you’ll often hear people say “This is MY song” much more often than they’ll say “This is MY book” or “MY video game” (in the context of relating to the work, anyway).

Music is also one of the more difficult media to analyze. For whatever reason, it seems our vocabulary for describing what we see is greater than our vocabulary for describing what we hear, or at the very least the former vocabulary is more accessible than the latter. Interestingly, I think it’s easy to describe things we see—we can describe shapes and colors and lighting and shadows and textures, etc.—but when it comes to things we hear, the discussion often ends up being about how we feel, or how the music makes us feel. Although I’ve been touting the notion that all art is quite useless, taken from Wilde’s manifesto, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to introduce the concept of catharsis, taken from the Aristotelian school of thought. Basically, catharsis is the purgation of excessive emotions through art, and Aristotle more or less viewed it as the purpose of drama. Rather than contradict myself and present catharsis as the purpose of all art, I will simply include it as a product of great art, with music being the type of art most conducive to producing catharsis.

In my mind, the first illustration of music as art always comes by way of Steely Dan, otherwise known as The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band of All Time, despite the fact that the band is in fact really only a duo (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) and the term “rock n’ roll” usually only applies to their music in the loosest of definitions. Nevertheless, Steely Dan has been producing stellar art for the past forty years, almost, with the perfect example coming off their debut album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill.

Though Can’t Buy a Thrill was not their highest ranking album on the Billboard charts, and other songs off the album climbed higher in the Billboard singles charts, “Reelin’ in the Years” is the song I count as nothing less than the definitive rock masterpiece. The lyrics are surprisingly biting for such an up-tempo number, which provides a sort of conflict within the song that gets easily overlooked until you catch on to gist of the vocals. The pacing of the song contributes to the discord, as the nearly breathless verses give way to the happy sing-along chorus, leaving the listener with little time to process exactly what is being said. The rhyming couplets of the verses say a lot with a little, and the consistent structure of the final line to every verse produces a perfect tag to conclude each thought and mark the differences between the narrator and his addressee, though it’s hard not to take the extra step and read each final line as being addressed to the audience in general, as a sort of statement to the differences between this new, innovative group and the average popular music consumer. As the lyrics go, the singer can’t understand the things you think are precious, the things that pass for knowledge, and the things you think are useless, which challenges the audience to rethink their values and broaden their horizons to this new wave of music.

Perhaps even more masterful than the lyrics, however, are the instrumentals of the piece and the way they build throughout the song. The opening riff sets the tone and gives you a taste of what is to come, but it’s over all too soon as the first verse begins. The audience is lulled into a sense of comfort with the first verse giving way to the chorus and then the second verse followed once again by the chorus, but then the sing-along gives way to the jam session, and Elliot Randall takes over with a performance on the guitar solo too dirty to be called virtuoso but too precisely masterful to be called anything less. It is in this solo that the song reaches its climax, with the bass, keyboard, and drums providing the driving groundwork that Randall barely treads as he soars overhead with his guitar. The solo and backgrounds occasionally meet on the kicks, thus lifting the entire track off the earth, and then the guitar strikes its zenith, holding by itself for a few blissful seconds until the third verse kicks back in.

The third verse gives way to the final round of choruses, and then the instrumentals pick up once more, giving the listener hope that they are in for even more guitar-driven ecstasy, but the opportunity is cut short just as the guitar takes over and the song fades away, with the riffs just barely audible though the oncoming silence. Normally, I hate when songs fade out rather than have a “proper” ending, but I can also see the benefits of such a conclusion, because it isn’t one. It leaves you with the feeling that somewhere up there in the ether, those glorious fiends are still jamming away on that solo, with no ending in sight. They tease you with the prospect of another experience like the first one, but even if they were to provide it, chances are you’d still only be wanting more anyway.

Ideally, it is the climax of the work that produces the cathartic effect, and I believe this holds especially true for “Reelin’ in the Years.” I wouldn’t necessarily say that Randall’s guitar work is speaking to the listener, but it is providing him with pure feeling in musical form, which I feel in this instance never fails to provide an actual physical experience. Naturally, much of this analysis centered on my own personal experience of this work (as do pretty much any of my analyses, really), and therefore not everyone is likely to be affected by this work in the same way. So much of art depends on taste, and I by no means mean to assert my taste over anyone else’s. As always, this is but a brief examination of a beautiful work. That is all.

“Exposé” Exposed

February 1, 2010

When considering a television series, one must take the series as a whole in order to properly analyze it and draw conclusions. However, individual episodes deserve attention as well, both as stand-alone works and as a part of the whole grand project. In Season Three of Lost, there is an episode which seems out of place on the whole and its merit is even questionable on its own. This episode is entitled “Exposé.”

As far as the whole of the series is concerned, “Exposé” contributes nothing to the plot. It features two characters that are only introduced at the beginning of the third season, which means that the bulk of the episode involves establishing what they were doing while all the main survivors were busy endearing themselves to the audience. Nikki and Paulo (Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro, respectively) were pretty much only concerned with themselves and their own business on the Island, and so do not really affect the other characters or the story in any meaningful way.

The business with which they are concerned is rather banal, as well. Their story is a morality tale, and it is extremely simplistic compared to the other storylines one would expect from Lost. Nikki is little more than greedy and manipulative, and Paulo is simply a liar, albeit an idealistic one who ultimately gets used and abused by the girl with whom he’s smitten. In the end, they die because of their faults, and then no one thinks twice about them ever again; their entire run on the series is incredibly inconsequential. Everything you need to know about them is contained in a single episode, except there’s not much worth knowing about them anyway.

It’s clear that the episode is pointless, but is it something one would call art? Notwithstanding the weak story, “Exposé” still adheres to the same quality of every Lost episode. The main characters are still in play, with Hurley and Sawyer carrying much of the load, and Locke providing a memorable exchange with Paulo via flashback. The manufactured suspicion of Sawyer doesn’t work for a minute, but at least it’s suspicion that comes from Hurley, meaning you’re not supposed to take it seriously anyway. In fact, “Exposé” itself is not something that is meant to be taken seriously. Call it comic relief if you will, but it’s a break from the action to take some weight off the overly intense borderline-melodrama of the main plot.

Labeling the episode comic relief does not excuse it from contributing something to the series overall, though, which is why the writers take the effort to make “Exposé” about something bigger than the Island and its inhabitants—they make it about entertainment and Lost itself. The metafictional elements of “Exposé” are what make the episode truly stand out from the rest. For a more in-depth analysis of these elements, check out my guest contribution to the premiere metablog on the web—Narrative in the Blog—here.

Not only does “Exposé” meet most of the standards of excellence set by Lost, it also goes a step further and solidifies the metafictional element of the series, which I believe is enough to push it over the edge and establish it as art. It goes without saying that Lost, though an incomplete work so far, is indeed a work of art, and I’m confident in saying that “Exposé” deserves credit for being art as well and does more than a little to reinforce the artfulness of the series.

That’s not to say that anything meta is automatically art, but that statement is not too far from the truth. Any work that contains the self-awareness by the author to include metafictional elements is already a notch above the average work because, as I’ve stated before, metafiction doesn’t often happen by accident. Being meta requires effort and a keen sense of the medium or genre or narrative with which one is working. Even if the stolen diamonds plot of “Exposé” is about as trite as can be, that’s alright because that’s exactly what the writers were attempting to do. For just one episode, Lost becomes less like Lost and more like the fictional television show Exposé, all in order to enhance the meta nature of the program. Pulling that off requires some serious guts and some serious skill—all in the name of not being that serious at all.