More British envy

I love the Indigo Girls. I love the Dire Straits song Romeo and Juliet.

I do NOT love the Indigo Girls’ cover version of Romeo and Juliet. It is the most unlistenable thing they’ve ever recorded.

Mark Knopfler gives the main character a quiet dignity in his suffering. Americans, we’re told often and it’s probably true, don’t do “understated.”


Forever envying the British

I’ve always envied the British. The idea of hopping a train to zip around a comparatively small country to see my favorite soccer team is just part of it. They’ve produced far more than their fair share of the world’s finest academic work, music, comedy and drama. They have the BBC, a sober-minded, community-building outlet for all of those things and the world’s best news organization. Besides, who could see Jamie Oliver zipping around the streets of London and not feel the slightest twinge of envy?

But today, I just envy them because they’re able to keep their version of The Office on the air.

I made a point of waiting to see the U.S. version of the show before seeing the original BBC version. (It helped that we just got BBC America a few weeks ago.) In many respects, the BBC version is indeed better. The British do absurdity better than we do, and they have a knack for finding understated beauty in dreary situations. That comes from a colorful history in which their nation has made intellectual and societal progress through scores of maniacal monarchs and a couple of world wars whose toll we can barely contemplate. The Office is really a loving tribute to those who try to find some humor and a bit of solace in their daily drudgery.

Yes, so is Dilbert — we Americans get it right from time to time. And the people making the U.S. version of The Office got it right, losing very little in translation and adapting it nicely to American topics. The boss’ car is full of Filet-o-Fish wrappers, and a “friendly” basketball game ends up in a lot of macho posturing.

One criticism I read (I forget where) is that the character we know as Pam is too pretty in the U.S. version. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve joined the thousands of men who’ve decided that Jenna Fischer is our new TV girlfriend, but I don’t buy this. In today’s America, we’re trained to think beautiful women are the ones using various feats of engineering for better cleavage display at the newsstand. The Office offers a subtle satire of today’s tongue-dragging American men. Steve Carell’s obnoxious boss character buys into the Pamela Anderson standard of beauty and makes outrageous comments at Pam’s expense, as if assuming she pines for the magazine cover. The fact that Pam is pretty by any reasonable standard makes Carell’s cutting comments howlingly ridiculous.

Her appearance also makes it that much sadder than she remains with the Neanderthal guy even as she and Jim are so obviously smitthen with each other. And that storyline is done remarkably well in this show. A couple of episodes ago, she fell asleep with her head on his shoulder — a brilliant bit of subtle acting by John Krasinski shows that this little bit of comfort made his day. In the season finale, Pam and Jim share a lot of laughs as Dwight makes an idiot of himself, and then Pam is visibly jealous as Jim gets a date with the handbag saleswoman whose visit stirs up the whole office. (A handbag saleswoaman stirred up the whole office? Hey, they do the drudgery very well.)

In the British version, the equivalents of Pam and Jim eventually ended up together. But because no one’s watching The Office other than me and a couple of Anglophiles who aren’t hung up on the notion that the British version is better, we probably won’t get to see this happen.

And for that, I’m really mad at all of you. Well — that, and the possible cancellation of Arrested Development.

And so this is why I envy the British. Yes, they only make 12 episodes of their best shows, but they properly revere them and make DVDs out of them.

Think I’ll watch my Young Onces discs and go to sleep.


Star Wars reconsidered

As we all cross our fingers and hope that Episode III isn’t as bad as Episodes I and II, one question pops into my head: Was this series ever that good?

The original movie was on TV the other day, and I was struck by how bad some of the dialogue seems on the 14th or 15th listen. And some of the situations are just preposterous. Yes, you have to suspend disbelief for a bit when you’re dealing with leaps into hyperspace, giant space guns that can blow up a planet and a robot with a Woody Allen personality chip (alas, without the sense of humor).

There’s also the problem I’ve always had with the blasters. On the rare occasion that a blaster shot hits its target, it’s always fatal, no matter how much body armor the stormtroopers are wearing. (Honestly, if you’re wearing something that does nothing to protect you but makes you run like Molly Shannon in that Seinfeld episode, wouldn’t you think about tossing the stuff in the garbage and investing in lightweight uniforms?) But when that blaster hits Leia in Episode VI, it’s like a bug bite. What?

So why do we watch this nonsense?

I think it’s Vader. (Disclaimer alert: Point also made by a co-worker.)

The first time you saw Darth Vader, the question was “What the …?!” When you saw Vader reveal that he’s Luke’s father, again: “What the …?!” Even after he died and was redeemed: “What the …?!”

I think one reason Episodes I and II have been so disappointing is that we’re impatient to know the answer. It’s been fun to learn about Obi-Wan and Yoda, but Episode I only gave the underlying question more emphasis. Now we want to know how this sweet little kid could end up as the guy who blew up Alderaan just to tick off Leia.

That makes the series an intriguing examination of evil. We sometimes see bad guys redeemed, and we sometimes see good guys turn bad. We never see bad guys redeemed and then go back to see them as innocents. It ‘s a valid moral lesson to think of tendencies of good and evil residing in the same person.

It’s especially chilling for those of us with kids to see Anakin with his mother. Parents can give kids a loving environment, and it might not be enough. And when we see Vader topple the Emperor in Episode VI, we see the family tie again. (Relevant Oasis line I’ve always liked: “I ain’t good-looking but I’m someone’s child.”)

Part of me wants to wimp out of seeing this movie. It’s going to be a gut-wrencher. We know the Jedi will be slaughtered. We can already see Obi-Wan’s horror. And as badly written as Amidala has been (thank you, everyone who has cast Natalie Portman in a non-Star Wars movie in the past decade), what will happen to her? Lucas says this might be too intense for kids. I wonder if it’s too intense for me.

On the other hand, maybe we’ll see Jar-Jar in the opening minutes, and I’ll instantly care less about all these people.


Self-esteem: Generation gap

First up, thanks to AG for passing along a link that gets more unbelievable the more I read it. Seems that a young person breaking into journalism saw a listing for an internship, saw that she met the basic criteria and decided to start perusing her New York housing options with her buddies, as if she’d just been cast in Friends. To her astonishment, this was NOT the response: “Oh, you have eight clips? Welcome to your new home! Would you like a corner office, or would you prefer the larger office with a personal assistant?”

I heard a recent interview with Monty Python/Rutles music master Neil Innes, who complimented John Cleese as the master of writing sketches that revealed a twisted reality one little bit at a time. This column is along those lines. We learn late in the sob story that she used a “creative” font style when she applied, and she’s aghast that the intern coordinator doesn’t recognize how her choice proved that she is the next great music journalist, a Cameron Crowe waiting to go on the road with Stillwater. Of course, she’s already derided the intern coordinator because he only has a few bylines in the magazine, so surely he has plenty of time to respond to her every word.

(I’ve been there — I often wish the people who think I do nothing other than write a weekly column could follow me through the drudgery of meetings and spreadsheets for a few hours.)

The response at Romanesko (no permalinks, but if you pick up the thread around my buddy Forrest Brown’s comment at 4/22/2005 4:03:53 PM, you’ll have some good reading) is a mix. Some, like Forrest, share their stories of humbling jobs after college. A few others think some career counseling is in order, and others ask what the heck the North Adams Transcript was thinking in publishing a piece that is going to haunt its author for years to come. The “sound of 1,000 bridges burning” is loud and clear.

But our heroine, Krystal Grow, has her defenders of sorts, those who ask us to remember how arrogant and foolish WE were in our youth.

And that brings me to the generational point. I’m now closer to 40 than 29, and I find myself asking if today’s music is really that bad or if I’m just too old to get it. Same type of question applies here, except that I’ve been asking it since I was 26 or so, watching kids come out of school at the beginning of the dot-com boom and throwing fits that they weren’t rich and famous after one year of paying dues. (Seriously — even as things went bust in late 2001, a kid who had been out of school for about a year told me with a straight face that she didn’t want to do something difficult because she had “paid her dues.” Not the sort of thing you tell someone who graduated from an expensive school and was listening to verbal abuse from a high school cross-country coach at age 23.)

So do kids ALWAYS have this bizarre sense of entitlement? Or is it a specific problem in today’s TV-in-every-bedroom, grade-inflation age?

In my day, college did an adequate job of beating our expectations out of us. When I landed a $400-a-week job as a copy editor on the night shift (work every weekend, but every other Friday off!), people looked at me like I’d won the lottery. During the boom, I worked with people who acted as if the local media were beneath them.

Sure, that was during a recession, so perhaps it’s unfair. In later years, kids from my school did in fact jump straight from the student paper to Newsweek and places like that. But I think there’s a case to be made for the overinflation of our precious ones’ self-esteem these days.

Or maybe ours is too low. Consider these test results:

Which Family Guy character are you?


Things you learn while chasing your dog

1. Don’t leave the gate unlatched.

2. When you discover the gate open and the dog gone, don’t shut the gate. That means the dog can’t run back to his starting point.

3. If a car slows down while you’re running, give a quick look and listen. The driver probably saw your dogs.

4. When you get close enough to your speedy dog to dive for his collar, don’t. You’ll miss, you’ll frighten him, and you’ll scrape up your arm.

5. Dogs eventually want to return home. You can use this to your advantage by chasing your dog in that direction rather than chasing him away.

6. If two of you are rounding up the dogs, it makes sense for one of you to stay near the front door to welcome the elusive one home.

7. Once the dog arrives at the front door and is safely inside, the person at the front door should call to the other one so that he may stop sprinting, thereby preventing a heart attack or assorted post-illness wheezing on the part of the guy in his mid-30s who’s been sprinting in panic for more than five minutes.

8. That night, your dog will curl up next to you as if none of this ever happened.


Good summary, surprising source

Karl Rove on the media: “I think it’s less liberal than it is oppositional.”

Most political strategists know this, of course, though it doesn’t stop them from painting the media all shades of blue (or, sometimes, red) when it suits them. This fact of life also explains why one of my favorite blogs, Blog on the Run, is written by a journalist and a Republican who never lets his party affiliation keep him from his duty as an aggressive watchdog. (He and I also worked together back in the day, or the mid-90s.)

But what’s surprising here is that Rove goes on to present a valid criticism: Many journalists (and I’ll exclude Mr. Blog on the Run here) are a tad too aggressive: “Reporters now see their role less as discovering facts and fair-mindedly reporting the truth and more as being put on the earth to afflict the comfortable, to be a constant thorn of those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat.”

The reason I call this blog Happy Skeptic is that skepticism is much preferable to cynicism. That’s a point that stuck with me when I read Spiral of Cynicism in grad school. I think the distinction they drew is that skeptics often encounter questionable things and decide to check them out, while cynics take the simpler road — you’re wrong, and you’re going down, dude.

Of course, the flip side is that politicians need to respect journalists’ rights to ask questions. Real questions.