2010: The Good Wife, The Bad Romance, and the Ugly Truth About Break Ups

Break ups are such a weird thing. Suddenly, something you’ve grown rather attached to is gone and then there is just this weird void. Even if you are the one breaking things off, it takes a certain amount of adjusting to the new normal. Things feel out of whack for a while as you try to plug in holes where you can, move on, recalibrate.

If you’re the fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network, you fill that void with a new project. The kind of thing where you play the field and make a certain amount of promises to a certain number of people, and, while you may never have out and out lied, you certainly frolicked in the gray area, enjoying the array of options you had when you weren’t in a relationship. The metaphor mostly works, minus the extensive legal appearances and fees that stemmed from the origin of Facebook.

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed that Fincher played this film so safe up the middle. I was expecting a social media Rashomon with the story told from Zuckerberg’s POV, then Eduardo Saverin’s, and the Winlkevii too. Instead, it is mostly from Zuckerberg’s POV as he blows up one relationship after another on his way to the top, begging us to ask the ever-cinematic question: was it worth the cost?

Really though, while Zuckerberg is the lead, Fincher purposefully makes Saverin the guy you root for as the audience and, of course, he is the guy who is going to get screwed the hardest at the end of the day. Like someone whose significant other suddenly starts ghosting them, Saverin gets the rug pulled out from under him, which is the absolute worst way for any relationship to end. With other relationships, you can prepare that the end is near, you can see how it is not going to work. Those ones where you think things are going just fine and then you get suckerpunched, even if you aren’t emotionally invested as others, it hurts twice as much.

Unless you’re Zuckerberg, whose Asperger-esque personality sees these social situations as a nuisance more than anything else. Maybe this is a cautionary tale about mixing business and friendship, but I can also see how this a warning to those of us who are willing and eager to open up to friends, boyfriends, whoever that, even though it may feel foreign, you need to stay guarded if you don’t want to end up like Saverin, looking around wonder how in the hell you got where you are in a life that bears no resemblance to the one you’ve grown comfortable with.

While The Social Network illustrates how painful having the rug pulled out from under you can be, The Good Wife gives you hope that a failed relationship may just be the start of the chapter in your life you’ve been waiting for. The premise of the show was initially that of a woman whose politician husband cheated on her, inspired by any number of real life political scandals. That woman, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles), goes on to find her first real job after years of being a housewife. From there, her husband plays a role here and there, but this a show largely about Alicia and her co-workers, making for some of the most compelling television of the past five years.

In fact, her marriage is basically an afterthought of this show in the best way possible. Her husband Peter finds ways back into her life, but week in and week out this was Alicia’s story and, now entering its sixth season, The Good Wife has strayed so far from its premise, it is barely recognizable, but again it is in the best way possible. It is realistic to how break ups work. Six years removed, your life should look completely different, even if Alicia did get the rug pulled out from under her. What is particularly interesting is that Alicia hasn’t filled her holes in her life with another guy. She’s filled it with a job, new friends, and political ambitions. In other words, a dude doesn’t need to be replaced by a dude. There are plenty of ways to live a fulfilling life without necessarily having a romantic relationship.

The Good Wife does point out the sad truth of it though—this wasn’t some clean break. It is a process to work someone out of your life, to plug those holes, and sometimes you plug them with the wrong things and you have to start over again, like when you fall back on familiar habits (like Josh Charles’ character, who I miss every day).

As a female, hell, as a person, I appreciated that Alicia has moments of brilliance, moments when she has no idea what to do, but when push comes to shove, she figures it out. Getting over a break up or dealing with any major change in your life is a process, so to act like it is more than something that isn’t crying over a tub of Ben & Jerrys a couple of nights then getting yourself back out there is greatly appreciated.

And, like most of the cases the attorneys on this show deal with, there is no clear right or wrong answer. Peter’s adultery aside, there is really no other situation in which you can’t understand why the characters on this show make dubious decisions. Like any court case or any relationship, there are arguments to be made on both sides, but post break-up, you have to realize that there is a point where you might have to let go and rest your case.

That is, unless you’re really drunk at night and alone and wondering how the hell you ended up here with this hole in your heart. Which is when you need to turn your phone off, count to ten, then channel your energy into Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now.

Listen, I am gonna be honest with you. I wish I could be Alicia Florrick and just get over it, but I have those moments alone at night where, with a little help of nostalgia and inebriation, you remember what used to fill that hole in your heart. It could have been a landmine about to explode, but there are those moments where the idea of filling that emptiness with something incredibly volatile sounds more appealing than just sitting there festering in the nothing.

I think that is why this song’s popularity expanded beyond just the country music audience. It appeals to the core of all of us who wants to prove we are the one more over the past relationship when, in reality, we are a tragic mess. The lyrics literally admit the landmine is preferable to nothing: “I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.” Cause yeah, picking up the phone is a horrible idea, but the idea of sitting there, doing nothing, and just trying to deal with it is so unbelievably rough, and if you don’t have the resources of Alicia Florrick, you eventually hit a wall or slip up.

Some might not even call it a slip up though. Sometimes you think this things you gave up on was to create something better, but after some reflection, a few glasses of wine, and some pondering over what you had and what you have, what you need may not be what is in your future. What you need could very well be in your past and, crazy as it may sound, you need it now.

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2009: Beam Me Up, Liz Lemon

I wish the stereotypes about redheads weren’t true, but they are. We are sensitive, we have tempers, and we should never be put in charge of the Cincinnati Bengals offense. We are also rather stubborn, which has its ups and downs. In the pro column, I am very perseverant, I don’t back down from many fights, and I have the work ethic of an oxen, even if I think something may not be worth the work.

The downside to being stubborn is that I willfully miss out on things I may enjoy to try to prove my stubborn point. For example, I firmly believe Christopher Nolan is not particularly good at directing movie so, on principle alone, I started avoiding them. Same with Martin Scorsese. But it was only when someone really told me I should give his film Hugo a shot did I realize that I don’t categorically hate Scorsese movies. I just hate most of them.

It feels like forever ago when I discussed Star Trek: The Next Generation, but when I did, I tried to explain away my preference of the second iteration as a familial thing. I take a lot of pride in preferring the original of things. Rarely does a remake live up to the original, yet we live in a world where we are constantly remaking perfectly fine pop culture products. Jurassic World is a piece of crap compared to Jurassic Park. Because of Marvel Comics’ absurd deals with the studios, we have to get new iterations of Batman and Superman nearly annually. And it is one thing to take a foreign show like Homeland and produce it for Americans in English, but no one is going to convince me the American The Office is worth my time when the British version is so absolutely wonderful.

I don’t remember the circumstances that led me to go see the Star Trek reboot in theaters, but I was fully prepared to hate it for the sake of Nimoy, Shatner, Takai, and company. But I really couldn’t. The movie was really funny, particularly the new Kirk, Chris Pine, who, along with Channing Tatum, is pioneering an interesting brand of himbo smart humor I really appreciate. I’d seen the original Star Trek films, but what I really preferred was this one.

Really though, director JJ Abrams did the reboot right by taking some of our favorite things about the campy TV series like Bones and his saying, “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a…” or the weird asocial nature of the Vulcans and finding a spot for them in the movie. Plus you have Winona Ryder in ridiculous old woman make up playing Spock’s Mom. Most impressively, they incorporate the old cast, story, and timeline into their movie, which comes off less as trying to do Star Trek better and more as a reverent ode to something we all really enjoy, even if it is kind of old.

By keeping the focus on the things that made the original great, like say Jim Kirk’s stubbornness, the movie turned out to be one of the few I was willing to shell out the money and see in theaters a second time. The second film wasn’t bad either, though the marketing plan around Benedict Cumberbatch’s role was poorly planned and executed and the fun and vigor of the ’09 movie left me whelmed at best.

Nonetheless, in a summer landscape full of franchises I continue to maintain my snotty distance from, this is one of the few I am willing to stick with. Perhaps stubbornly so.

It might surprise the poker community to hear that a TV show I was very stubborn about watching is one that actually is the source of my nickname within the poker community. It is true though. I waited until Season 3 to start watching 30 Rock. You might remember that 30 Rock and Studio 60 were actually both launched by NBC during the same season. Studio 60 was the hottest pilot of that year, so when it came time to pick sides on which sketch comedy show you were going to watch, I sided with Sorkin. Funny how TV works though. My understanding is that, while Studio 60 had bad ratings, they weren’t exactly terrible, but because it was so expensive to produce, it got the axe after one season. Meanwhile, 30 Rock wasn’t exactly raking in the eyeballs either, but because it was reasonably cheap, it stuck around on the schedule. Then it stubbornly stuck around season after season, largely because every other program was tanking on NBC, so if you displayed even the semblance of a pulse as a show, you would get renewed.

My stubbornness almost made me miss out on my televisual doppleganger, Liz Lemon. The executive producer or a half-good sketch comedy show, Lemon is a woman after my own heart who is very good at getting things done when it comes to her job, but her personal life is generally in such shambles she has to rely on advice from an NBC executive played to perfection by Alec Baldwin. I know in the political space we talk about how impossible it is for the stubborn two-party system to exist, but I always think of Jack and Liz, where Jack mostly has the right answer, but Lemon comes through time and again with something to change Jack’s stance on things too.

What is really fun about 30 Rock is how steadfast all the characters are in their life POVs, and while each gets a turn being ridiculed by others, they all have their time to shine too. If you didn’t hit a double every once in a while, you couldn’t be that stubborn about your outlook on life because, at some point, you would realize you’re batting .000 and have to re-evaluate. But Tracy has his moments, Jenna has her moments, and Jack and Liz get their moments too. They rarely compromise, but the clashing personalities butting heads creates some amazingly memorable humor and some inventive solutions to problems.

If you ever take an improv class, the first thing they’ll teach you about how to do it is to always say yes and accept the premise you are given. When you don’t have a road map of where a sketch is going, it is important to avoid conflict and be fluid with the direction your partner takes things. Tina Fey may have honed much of her comedy skills in improve troupes, but the stubborn relationship of Jack and Liz in situations where one refuses not to bend out of principle will always be the source of my favorite moments of the show.

Like Liz Lemon, I too will take things to extremes to prove a point. One of my absolute worst habits is being an anti-bandwagoner. While others are quick to jump on a bandwagon, if something I enjoy that isn’t flavored with pumpkin gets too popular, I want off and I want off now.

Such was the case with John Mayer, who was first introduced to me in the fall of 2001, shortly before his first single started getting airplay on MTV2. My friend across the hall in the dorm told me about this fun guy with an acoustic guitar and, by November, we were all fans, listening to Comfortable over and over again. We saw him in a bar on a beach in San Diego in an audience of no more than 200 people and felt so very cool when he started to get big.

Here’s where my relationship with John turned into an instance of Heartbreak Warfare. We were wholly dedicated to his first album, Inside Wants Out. We loved his acoustic guitar, live recordings, and generally unpolished feel to his songs. Then came the album most people consider Mayer’s first, Room for Squares. It featured studio-recorded, polished versions of some of my favorite Mayer tunes and, while I bought a copy, I still preferred the original.

As John Mayer proceeded up the music industry ladder, he got more money, more resources, and his albums sounded more and more produced to me. Some songs like Clarity would resonate, but most of them really didn’t feel like the Mayer I had gotten to know. Like the song Heartbreak Warfare (which I thoroughly enjoy btw), it became a destructive battle of me disliking new Mayer singles and him showing up on TV and doing increasingly douchey things, like dating Taylor Swift, making it so that I kinda hated a guy who was one of my favorite musicians in college.

I wanted more of John Mayer, but the person he had become made it perfectly clear our affair was but a phase, and I could continue on this path of badmouthing his songs and behavior, trying to point out other, newer white guys playing acoustic guitar, or I could just accept that John Mayer was never going to be my Ben Folds or Andrew McMahon. He was going to be a guy I really liked once whose songs aren’t going to dominate my life the way they used to. He is someone who simply went a different direction than I preferred he go, and I wish him well and check in on what he is doing now and again, discovering lovely songs like Heartbreak Warfare here and there. I wish I wasn’t so stubborn to not be able to accept the changes and love every album the way I did Inside Wants Out, but sometimes the least stubborn thing to do is to not force something, but to just let it be and let it go.

2008: Kanye I’m Still Free, Take a Chance on Mamma Mia

I can’t sing. I can dance, I can act, but I really can’t sing, so my career as a stage performer was over before it started. I’m tone deaf, so while I have the rhythm of the song just fine, I sound like a dying bird. Even though I cannot sing worth a lick, I am always a willing participant when my cousins and I go to karaoke during the holidays.

One year there was a guy there who had auditioned for American Idol, clearly sang incredibly well, and would get a decent amount of applause when he was on stage.

Then it was my turn. I performed The Proclaimers classic from Benny and Joon, the song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). I try to sing-talk my way through these songs, kinda like Rex Harrison, but even that tipped the hand as to my lack of singing ability. But everyone loves that song, especially the chorus, so I got them involved, singing the first “Bah Duh Da” myself, then holding the mic out to indicate they sing the second one. I had a blast, and the audience seemed to enjoy it too.

Afterwards at the bar, the talented kid came up to me and asked how I managed to make the audience like my performance so much, explaining he was struggling connecting with people. Here is what I said:

“You spend most of your singing with your eyes closed or looking at the floor as you sing into the mic. I can’t sing. I know I suck, so I just own that I suck, try my hardest, and the rest of the room doesn’t feel bad at how much I can’t sing, they enjoy how terrible I am right along with me.”

Such is the case with the summer blockbuster of 2008, Mamma Mia! This musical basically had a cast of super serious actors like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Scarsgaard, Colin Firth, and more. Rather than spend months learning how to sing and perfecting their craft, the movie is instead celebrity karaoke, where we get to laugh with the Lady Meryl as she jumps around on a bed singing Dancing Queen in her overalls.

People malign the movie as being hokey and campy, but that is exactly the point. The mere premise is pretty absurd, too absurd to be taken seriously. Shortly before her wedding Meryl Streep’s daughter (Amanda Seyfried) sends invitations to the three guys she suspects are her father based on facts she found in her mother’s diary. All three show up to the town in Greece where they are living, calamity ensues.

In other words, it ain’t Shakespeare. And the only way this movie works is if the stars commit to the absurdity and give it their all, knowing full well it is going to sound kind of awful. They make the most of the musical talent they’ve got, and the results are hilarious, but hilarious in the same way as my karaoke performance, because the stars are in on the joke. Trust me, Pierce Brosnan knows he sounds abysmal singing SOS to Meryl, but my God does he give it an earnest try.

We get taught a lot about taking risks when there is a good chance of success, but this movie reminds us that when you put it all out there when you know you won’t really succeed, you can nonetheless end up with some fantastic results. This movie earned nearly $150 million, making it the 13th-highest grossing film of the year. It also spawned several more musical movies. Some, like Hairspray, succeeded because they actually cast incredibly adept singers and dancers, while others, like Rock of Ages, crashed and burned because both the movie and the performers were taking things way too seriously and trying very hard to be good instead of trying very hard to be themselves. What it really boils down to is that you can’t pretend to be something you’re not, even if that something you are is being really bad at something. If you don’t believe me, watch the ending credits of the movie and try to tell me these guys aren’t having the time of their life knowing full well that they look positively ridiculous.

It feels like a total 180 to transition from a fluffy musical to an incredibly serious TV show about the end of the world, but Jericho can teach some of the same lessons Mamma Mia! does, mostly that trying to be something you were but are no longer. Like older women who still dress like teenagers except you replace “older women” with “town experiencing nuclear fallout” and “teenagers” with “America”.

The whole post-apocalyptic television show thing has reached critical mass, but back in 2006, the world didn’t seem quite ready for the end-of-the-world scenario Jericho had to offer. Critically lauded with a small but incredibly dedicated audience, the show managed to stay on the air for three seasons. Unlike other shows that resorted to pandering with a new baby, an unexpected wedding, or some other ratings stunt, Jericho just kept doing its thing, letting the rest of us decide whether or not we were interested.

It isn’t just the show’s attitude when it came to production that teaches us this lesson that we have to make the most of with what we’ve got. The residents of Jericho had to reevaluate their existence every episode, resulting in a show that was an apocalyptic metaphor about growing up. Slowly but surely, life shifts from being kind of like what you’re familiar with to something completely unrecognizable, so much so, that by Season 2, the country isn’t even the United States anymore.

Along the way, characters are constantly having to be things that they normally aren’t, like doctors, nuclear experts, or school bus drivers (they found countless reasons to make star Skeet Ulrich drive a bus early on). And sure, they kind of suck, but they are the only option they’ve got, so they run with it.

Most of us will, fingers crossed, not have to experience the end of the world or a cataclysmic event in our lifetime, so we don’t necessarily have to learn rudimentary first aid or how to make something for a tracheotomy out of a Lunchable. While the circumstances we live in may be simpler, the idea of pushing yourself into the unfamiliar is much, much tougher because when push comes to shove, you don’t have to. It isn’t a matter of life and death that I figure out how to be an entertaining singer. All I really am risking is possibly missing out on the fun at cousin karaoke night.

Say what you will about Kanye West, but that guy is always willing to put himself out there. While other musicians have tried to branch out into unfamiliar territory ::cough cough Chris Gaines Garth Brooks? Cough cough:: West went out on a limb and produced what many consider to be his best album to date, 808s and Heartbreaks.

West had absolutely no need to veer from the pattern of successful rap songs that made him the star he was. It is actually impressive he had the resolve to even make an album in the wake of a painful break up with his fiancée and the death of his mother. Not only did he get his act together and make an album, he made one with a fresh and interesting sound that bore little resemblance to his previous work. In fact, in the song Heartless, he didn’t even rap, he mostly sang. He sang with the help of AutoTune, but he did sing and it is a song not about a glamorous life or the toughness of the lower class experience, it is an emotional song about the heartbreak a woman put a man through.

It is tough for someone with a reputation for being hard and tough to admit that his life fell to pieces because of a woman, but West was willing to speak the truth of his situation and take the chance it was a commercial and critical failure.

The song itself speaks to the idea of life not being the way you wanted to be anymore and trying to make the most of it. Each verse covers one of those emotions that come with a break up, the feeling that the other person will regret how good they had it, the feeling you’ll do whatever it takes to get someone back, and that feeling that you will never stop hating this person.

Kanye’s got it figured out though. When things change, you shouldn’t go back, you should move forward. You should try something new. When it comes to taking your own personal risks, heed the words of ABBA and take a chance on yourself. Or, at the very least, sing that song next time you get the karaoke call.

2007: Shrews, Dream Girls, It’s All Greek to Me

I said yesterday that I hold Studio 60 near and dear to my heart because its female lead bears more of a resemblance to my own life than most women on television, but I think even she falls into one of the major categories of pop culture girls, that which film critic Nathan Rabin terms the manic pixie dream girls, in the sense that her talent and unique personality helps Matthew Perry’s character discover his talent for writing and take his work to the next level. It isn’t about her talent. It is about how she makes him better.

Because so much of my sense of how the world works comes from watching way too many TV shows and movies, adolescent me concluded that my romances in life would be very manic pixie dream girl-esque (MPDG). As a creative and reasonably quirky chick, this was the category of pop culture where I fit in the most, though I am sure several other girls would agree there were other categories of movie and TV girls that we wish we were a little more like. Those personalities were unattainable though, because let’s be real, you can’t have more than one aspect to your personality and be a female in a popular movie or TV show. That would be cray.

Katherine Heigl knows this better than just about anyone. She made the mistake of criticizing how her character of Izzy Stevens seemed to veer way off course from the person the girl portraying her thought she would be. Then she did many, many romantic comedies, several of which were awful, but those were the kinds of roles she was offered once she got pigeon-holed into that genre.

Most notably though, Heigl got in trouble for badmouthing the Judd Apatow comedy she starred in, Knocked Up. She pointed out that her character, Alison, has to not only be the straight (wo)man in this flick, she has to be a total buzzkill the entire time too. I am not going to defend everything Heigl has done or said in her life, but when it comes to this movie, she is pretty spot on. Alison is fun in certain scenes, but from the get go she is driving her nieces to school scolding them not to do all sorts of things like Google “murder”.

Meanwhile, Seth Rogen’s character is not a lovable schlub, he is a total nightmare. He has no job, no skills, no money, little personality, and truly horrible friends. I get that this is supposed to be funny and Apatow certainly portrays this man-child in a positive light as he learns to grow up a little. Meanwhile though, we don’t really know much about Alison at all. She is around to complain about Rogen being a mess, that is about it. Her sister, played by the lovely Leslie Mann, even advocates Alison nagging him until he is forced to change.

And this is a movie about how both Alison and Ben (Rogen) need to change and grow in order to be parents, which is pretty unfair. Alison has a job, friends, direction in her life and is a little uptight. Ben has no source of income, no job, no plan to either earn money or get a job, and these problems are portrayed as relatively comparable. They portray Alison and her sister as women who need to learn to be more accepting because their biggest flaw is trying to change their guys and make them something they aren’t. Essentially, they are supposed to be every sitcom wife, lovingly putting up with their husband’s flaws, only occasionally pushing them to be better.

This is a useful lesson, learning to accept people for who they are, but there is a fine line between loving a person flaws and all and settling for a person you just fundamentally don’t like. But Alison gets all sorts of crap for being uppity and thinking she is “better” than Ben. I am going to give it to you straight here: she is. She can and should do better, but instead the moral of this story is that driven successful girls are really just chicks who are snobby, complain a lot, and need to learn to settle.

Knocked Up is an example of a relationship where it seems the woman has the upper hand in the career, intelligence, and looks department, but she loves her adorable loser of a significant other because he makes her laugh. These are typically shows where the protagonist is a man though. In shows with a female protagonist, like ABC Family’s Greek, the scenario is much different. If it is an ABC Family show though, the traits are remarkably consistent. Here are the key ingredients, established by Greek, then employed in basically every show the network has come up with since then:

  1. A female lead who is smart, but not in that naturally smart sort of way. She is a girl who studied, took impeccable notes, is socially savvy, is accessibly pretty, and you just know she is that girl who has perfect handwriting.
  2. An African-American best friend who rarely has anything going on in her own life and who seems to display little to no interest in Black culture.
  3. A sibling or close friend who starts out hetero, but ends up experimenting with their sexuality
  4. A romantic interest introduced in the pilot who is always, I repeat, always smarter than her or better at what she is good at while still appreciating her smarts and talents because they are great and, more importantly, not threatening.
  5. A second romantic interest who is the exact opposite of the first guy, who brings out the girl’s spontaneous side, getting her to loosen up and channel her inner shrew-less free spirit.
  6. A love triangle that culminates in an end of Season 1 boyfriend switcharoo, but a dynamic that will continue for the duration of the series.

This is Greek, an early ABC Family foray into original programming in which the show’s female lead Casey (Spencer Grammar) juggles her love life, her important role in her sorority, her friendships, and her future and career plans. She is funny, but never the funniest. She is bright, but never the smartest. She is pretty, but not gorgeous. In other words, she is definitively above average, but never exceptional.

It is an interesting tightrope that most girls are encouraged to walk. You need to be pretty and bright and fun in a way that never makes your co-workers, your friends, and, most importantly, your boyfriends feel intimidated. While Alison in Knocked Up is supposed to enjoy the challenge of helping Ben grow up, the only time you see guys take up a challenging girl in pop culture is typically when these girls are promising but damaged, intimidating because they are so screwed up instead of because their life is so together, perhaps even more together than the guy pursuing them.

For guys who like who they are and are looking for a compatible partner, girls like Casey are the ones they are encouraged to choose. For immature guys who like living their lives with minimal changes in attitude, they need to find a shrewish girl like Alison and change her, make her learn to live a little and not give the guy a hard time. If you are a guy looking for someone to bring out the best in you though, you need a manic pixie dream girl.

The Plain White Tees ballad Hey There Delilah is an ode to the MPDG, not a song about a long distance relationship like many people think. It is actually based on a real person, Delilah DeCresenzo, who never dated the guy who wrote the song. Instead, it is a song about a girl this guy has manifested as his dream girl, the one who can make him better, fix his life, and change everything. She is Kate Hudson in Almost Famous or Natalie Portman in Garden State. This bright shining light that will take your kind of crappy existence and transcend your world into something incredible.

Sounds like a whole lot of pressure, right? The funny thing about MPDGs is how they are supposedly so special they can turn a world upside down, but none of this magic is about them, it is about the effect they have on the guy who loves them. Hell, the chorus of the song pretty much sums it up: “Oh, it’s what you do to me.” Unlike the girls who need to learn to relax or the girls who are impressive in an unintimidating way, there is no rule book for how to be a MPDG because it isn’t about you at all and there is not exactly a guide book on how to make a guy think you are the one who can change his troubled existence. Full disclosure, I am one of those suckers who buys into this ridiculous trope. It isn’t like I am above it. If some dude wrote a song like this about me, I would gladly tattoo MPDG on my person and play the part. I just know it is a pretty impossible standard to set for both guys and girls.

People have written about MPDGs so much, Rabin admits he regrets ever coining the term, so rather than go into this archetype  once again, I just want to offer one final thought. What does it say about the roles females can have in pop culture that the only way you can be yourself is if you are the real life version of Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, literally transforming a guy’s life from emptiness to making it real? If you’re smart, you have to act dumber. If you’re pretty, you can’t be too pretty. Be driven, but don’t be critical. That is, unless you can rock some dude’s world. Then you can be pretty much anything you want.

2006: Losing the Love of Movies, Gaining Perspective & Chasing Cars

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In college I felt very fortunate that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. While many of my friends struggled to figure things out, I started up at film school ready to become a producer or development executive. I picked up minors in business and sociology to help me understand those aspects of the industry, then I got some really fun internships, including one with a production company called Village Roadshow Pictures. The guy who ran the intern program, Fred, was a really great mentor and he taught all of us how to write something every entry-level job in Hollywood development requires: coverage.

You may not know this, but script coverage is essentially a book report. You write a page or two summarizing the plot, then offer a recommendation on the script in the comments section. If you can’t tell from the fact I churn out one of these super-long blogs each day, I’m a pretty fast writer. I’m an even faster reader, so I could read a screenplay and turn around coverage in around three hours.

Fred decided to take a chance on me and added me as one of freelancers at Village Roadshow, so in addition to my work study job at the USC Bookstore, I would read a couple of scripts for them each week. Then I picked up another client who used me to read novels over the weekend and recommend if they were worth purchasing the film rights to possibly make the movie. Before I was even out of college, I had great references, decent grades, and an in-demand skill at my disposal.

The problem was, the more time I spent in the entertainment industry, the more I realized I liked movies, but didn’t really like being in the process of making them. I can’t watch The Devil Wears Prada, for example, because it is too realistic to my experience as a Hollywood assistant to enjoy. It is a horror movie.

A story that circulates through film courses is that there once was a wonderful, thoughtful script about a boy dealing with his new step-family situation and domestic abuse. Thanks to the beauty of the development process, that movie ended up being My Stepmother Is an Alien. While there are countless times a script doctor and the development process saved a movie from itself, there are numerous other times the movie ends up not nearly as good as the screenplay would’ve indicated.

While at Village Roadshow, I was assigned a screenplay that I continue to attest is the greatest screenplay I was ever assigned as a reader. It was beautiful, clever, romantic, original, and, most importantly, lacking some stupid contrived end of the movie plot twist that came so often in the mid-aughts.

That script eventually became a movie. That movie was The Lake House.

I will tell you right now, this movie isn’t exactly great. In fact, it is barely good. That is how little a screenplay can really predict how a movie is going to turn out. Every year, the industry puts out a list called The Black List, which is a list of the best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood. In 20112, you know what was the most popular script on the list? Draft Day. It is fascinating to go through the archives to see which scripts were believed to have incredible promise only to turn into some really stupid movies.

The Lake House isn’t stupid. For me, it still kind of works, but that is also because I have always been in love with snail mail. I love checking the mail, I loved having Japanese pen pals as a kid, and I love sending people packages. I love mail so much that as a child I became a Utah Jazz fan simply because Karl Malone’s nickname was The Mailman.

So, this movie centers around a magical mail box that lets two people separated by two years send one another love notes. The time travel logic holds up immaculately, but the real issue at the heart of this movie is that watching two lonely people exchange love letters, while wonderful in concept, lacks in execution. There is a lot of voice over as the stars, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, sit in a corner scribbling. I still have the screenplay though. I kept it since it was such a beautiful read, I didn’t have the heart to throw it away.

Seeing how movies were made and seeing the kinds of movies being made when I was out of college (reference @Stapes, @BJNemeth, and @ScotthuffNYC for the discussion of how I consider ’06 one of the worst years for movies in history), I decided the entertainment industry wasn’t for me and made plans to move back to Kentucky and go to grad school. Before I left, a friend at the management firm I worked at told me I shouldn’t give up just yet and offered to get me a gig in the writer’s room for a new TV show. Even though I liked the cast and crew associated with it and its pilot script was easily the most talked about show of the season, I passed on the offer. That show was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

You may consider me smart for leaving instead of taking a gig with a show that only lasted one season, but here is my dirty secret: I like this one season of this show better than any other season of TV Aaron Sorkin he ever created. Most of that love is because, for once, there was a female character central to the show that I could easily identify with, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson). She embodied the same problems I had with Hollywood and that I would later go on to have in grad school, which is that she had little problem with how everyone else felt about religion, politics, and life, but others around her were always making such a huge deal about hers. That was the interesting thing about the right wing and religious people Sorkin writes. To them, their beliefs are not a big deal or strange, it is just who they are, not something to force on others. I wish the same could be said about either political parties today.

Yes, this show had problems with the sketch comedy show it centered on never being all that funny, and the same issues of recycled lines and plots, but it was also a show with remarkable love stories, the same industry BS I had grown to hate, and Sting playing a lute. To this day, I question my decision on that one. To think of the people I could have met, the product I could claim to have a hand in. It would be like a Hollywood movie where a country girl gets exactly the big city experience she was hoping for when she moved to California. Because Sorkin, while cynical, can always bring out the passion and enthusiasm that comes with working on something you believe in.

Between the romance between Harriet and Matt (Matthew Perry) and the fact I was back in Kentucky, the song that pretty much played on a loop that year was Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars. I had no one to lay with me, but I was at a point in my life where I didn’t really have any clue what to do and what was next. The idea of just taking a minute to lie there, waste a little time, and find something important enough in my life to just forget the world was even more romantic than Sting and the lute.

Around this time, I was searching pretty hard to find a romantic relationship in my life, and I think some of the motivation was songs like this one that make it sound like maybe, if I found someone to care about, the rest of my life, which was pretty aimless at the time, wouldn’t feel so important. A couple of years ago, a guy was explaining to me how he wouldn’t be ready to be in a relationship until the rest of his life was in order. I laughed and wondered if maybe this is a men are from Mars women are for Venus type of thing. When things are falling apart, I often see my female friends latch on to a guy, even if it is obvious that guy is bad news. Then they try to figure out the rest. Guys, meanwhile, seem to feel like that special someone is the last piece of the puzzle.

I don’t know which answer is the right one. There really isn’t a correct one when you think about it. When you are confused about where your life is going and how you’re gonna get there, I think you just try to make whatever you can work. And if you can’t figure it out right away, sometimes you just need some time to chase those cars around your head until you get the ride you need to the next destination in your life.

2005: The Grisly Truth About Mixed Tapes, Medicine & Being Special

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When I was a graduate student at Indiana University, I had my own classes of undergrads I taught, as it was a teaching institution. My first year, I taught Intro to Public Speaking. My second year, I switched over to Introduction to Interpersonal Communication, which is essentially like a beginner’s guide to anthropology. A large part of the course is getting these youngsters to understand that many things that seemed natural were, in actuality, cultural constructions.

I would do this by telling my class of 24 students or so, “Raise your hand if your parents told you you were special.” In one class, all 24 did. In the other, all but the international student from China did. Humorously enough, I ended up considering her one of the more gifted kids I had by semester’s end.

I would then explain. “Do you think I am just the luckiest instructor on Earth to get a room full of special people who can all be whatever they want if they put their mind to it? Now don’t get me wrong, each of you are unique and have your own talents, but this whole notion that you are incredible and essentially lacking flaws is something that came about in the late 1970s when child psychologists started pushing what is generally referred to as the self-esteem movement.” This is what led schools to add participation into grading, general grade inflation nationwide, and those trophies everyone gets for participating because it would be unfair to single out a handful of children at being better at something than everyone else.

Meanwhile, my parents, if anything, would tell me things like, “You’re nothing special.” This wasn’t to beat down my self-esteem, it was to reiterate that you should never treat anyone like you are better than they are, even in situations where that may be the case. If I made good grades, I wouldn’t show my tests to my friends unless they asked because anything more would be bragging, and if you valued other people, if they were special to you, it would be poor form. Since I wasn’t bragging and neither would they, I ended up with a skewed sense of self too, since all those participation trophies never indicated to me if I was really as good or bad as I thought at certain activities. For example, I was well into my 20s before it dawned on me that I could probably make a living writing.

I am not saying the (possibly extreme) self-sacrifice and modesty my parents espoused is correct, but I am grateful I was raised that way instead of with excessive self-esteem, because it seems like a potentially huge societal problem. Essentially, I worry the self-esteem movement is going to produce a whole generation of Timothy Treadwells. If you’re not familiar, he is the subject of the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, which tells the story of Treadwell, who spent over a dozen summers living in the Alaskan wilderness amongst grizzly bears.

It sounds all well and good, but here is the issue: Treadwell is not a biologist, a nature preservationist, nor does he, from my research, have any formal training that would render him capable of living with bears. Much of his efforts, like the foundation he started called Grizzly People, do still aim to do good for the species, but in the movie, many actually trained experts expressed that Treadwell was harming not only himself, but the bears as well.

It is not a spoiler to say Treadwell died by getting eaten by a bear. The whole point of the movie is trying to ascertain whether Treadwell is a misunderstood soul or a mentally unstable person. What makes this documentary really remarkable is all the video footage Treadwell made during his trips. He talks to the camera about the bears, all of whom have been given the kinds of names a Care Bear would have like Snuggles or Jolly or Rowdy. As you watch, it becomes very apparent right away that Treadwell considers himself a Messianic character. He is the Lorax, he speaks for the bears.

I wonder how in 13 years no one was able to convince him that this idea is, pardon the judgment, stupid, expensive, and dangerous. But in his monologues for the camera, he seems pretty darn driven to make it happen. Drive is an important thing for a person to have, and I admire his, but his delusion about what he can really accomplish ultimately proves to be his downfall. That is the problem with the self-esteem movement. Generally telling people they are great leads to believe they can and should be great at everything, which just isn’t the case 99 percent of the time.

One of my favorite parts of the show Grey’s Anatomy was how, early on, the original group of five surgical interns are maniacally driven to pursue their career as surgeons, as this is what they have proven to excel at. It is a defining trait of any Shonda Rhimes show that most characters are unapologetically driven, especially when it comes to their careers, and especially when they are women.

On Grey’s, Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) is the most driven of the female cast, and Rhimes and her writing staff do some really interesting stories when Yang, who has always been expected by others to succeed and be special, doesn’t get what she wants and doesn’t know how to react. Her unwillingness to let her boyfriend help her, her shock when her friends are hurt when she puts her work ahead of them, and her disregard of people she deems lesser than, like nurses and patients, is to me a cautionary tale of being raised believing you’re special like Treadwell, but with a much more relatable outcome.

While Cristina is used to getting what she wants, the other leading ladies, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Izzie (Katherine Heigl), are much more willing to subject themselves to pain and personal suffering in an attempt to further their careers, gain the respect of their peers, or, most memorably, end up with someone they love.

When it first aired, I found Meredith’s desperate begging for Derek to pick her to be so selfish, to believe his happiness and his marriage was not as important as her getting to keep her boyfriend of a couple of months. Instead, I related to a victim of a train wreck in the very next episode who gets impaled on a pole with another patient. Even though she is young, about to get married, and has a life full of promise, life isn’t very fair and, because the other, older patient stuck on the pole with her has less serious injuries, she basically volunteers to die so the other guy can stand a chance to live.

While Meredith is the kind of self-involved person I am terrified of being and I constantly aspire to be that patient who didn’t even get to tell her fiancé goodbye before she selflessly dies, in reality, I am Izzie. Sure, I was raised to put others before myself, but like Izzie Stevens, sometimes my adoration for another person is so intense, it becomes selfish. I was too young to tell my dad that I wanted him to fight as hard as he could to stay alive, and I know you aren’t supposed to ask those who are ill to hold on, but even today I would probably beg him to keep trying. Because even though I wasn’t raised to be special, I was raised to believe if you do good, good things happen to you, like having your parents stay alive into their 80s. Let’s be honest, we all want to believe we are selfless people, but in moments of life and death, most of us are not strong enough to be silently thinking anything but this:

Once again, while TV and movies help me pinpoint my behavior, where it comes from, and how to handle it, music serves as my catharsis. When I want to take a three minute break from trying to uphold the ridiculously high standard of self-sacrifice my working class family instilled in me, I listen to a song like Jack’s Mannequin’s The Mixed Tape. Being a Xennial, I still remember the mixed tape and mixed CD days. I don’t know if younger people can really understand just how special a mixed CD could make you feel. Considering a playlist can be assembled in a matter of minutes, it lacks the personal touch of a CD, or the cassette that preceded it.

This song, from the frontman of the now-defunct Something Corporate, it is about a guy creating “a symphony of sound” for a girl, and it is so much more than dragging and dropping into Spotify. Making a mixed tape is about getting the order just perfect, making certain each song is hand-picked and hand-placed just for you. I don’t know about you, but there is no number of times my mom can tell me I am great that will ever compare to when a guy gave me a mixed tape. Because this isn’t someone forced to love you, like your parents, this is someone who picked you because they think you are special.

The songs of Something Corporate really do perfectly embody that elated, uninhibited, yet heartbreaking feeling of being love (how many times have you listened to the pop rock opus Konstantine?) Even if you aren’t Something Corporate, you probably have that band, those songs, that mixed tape that makes you feel special.

That is the difference between the self-esteem movement and truly feeling special. The former is just lip service and it sets us up for a Treadwell-like demise if we genuinely think we are supposed to get everything we want and change the world. The latter though, that feeling that someone literally can’t bear the thought of life without you or that, even though you two aren’t together anymore, someone wants to show you exactly what they think is great about you by handpicking a mixed tape for you. In the song, he knows “I’m sorry” or “take me back” isn’t enough to win someone over, to convince them what you two have is truly special you have to, “rearrange the songs again” to create something like the songs he does that, “could burn a hole in anyone,” but they did it just for one special person—you.

2004: Mars, The Night Lights & Somewhere Only We Know

Perhaps it is the passing of Chad Batista, or perhaps it is writing so much about the past these past few weeks, but I keep reflecting on people in my life who’ve died. Not just the close relatives, the ones like Batista who I only really knew in passing and seemed fine, but if you knew them well, you’d probably realize they felt trapped and wanted out.

Then I came to 2004 and my favorite sports movie of all time, Friday Night Lights. I first saw the movie as part of the most popular class at USC taught by noted movie critic Leonard Maltin. He would bring in movies that were about to be released in theaters along with someone from the film to speak on it after the screening. FNL was one of our movies, and our guest speaker was Billy Bob Thornton.

One of the kids taking the class was Lee Thompson Young, who was actually watching a movie he was in. He played “Boobie’s back-up’s back-up” who is thrust into a starting position after the star running back Boobie Miles is injured. You may know him more for his TV role as Jett Jackson. I just knew him as Lee, who was friends with a few of my friends, but definitely not someone I would consider a pal. The only time we really spent together was at one freshman assembly where we ended up sitting next to one another. He enjoyed wisecracks as much as I did, so we traded jokes back and forth during an otherwise boring presentation.

Two years ago, almost to the day, Lee killed himself. He wasn’t my friend, I hadn’t seen him since college, but I remembered how happy he seemed all the time, and that kind of got to me. Had he been depressed all that time? I will never know the answer. Reports say he was bipolar, but who knows what was going through his head, save for himself.

When you read descriptions of depression, one of the descriptors that gets used a lot is “stuck”. People feel like they’re in a situation with no way out. I’ve mentioned before that country music centers around this small town depression a lot. There are plenty of people who are content with the small town life, but for others, it is a confining thing, growing up in a place you are desperate to get out of.

Really, the whole notion of the American Dream is predicated upon improving upon your position in this world. For the players on the Permian football team in Friday Night Lights, the means to an end football brings them runs the spectrum. Some, like the fullback (Garrett Hedlund) know this is as good as life is probably going to get for him, while others, like back Boobie Miles, have been working their whole lives for football to save them from their lot in life.

I’ve complained many times in the past that movies and TV just have a hard time getting small town life right, but FNL is very much the exception to that rule. Much of that kind of life is very similar to city life. You hang out with friends at bars and restaurants on the weekend, you are generally proud of where you come from even if you intend to get out of there as soon as you can, and there are customs and places that will always make you feel like you are home.

It isn’t a romanticized wonderland, but it isn’t the pit of awful some shows make it out to be. Let me clarify, I didn’t come from a small town. I grew up in the city people in small towns traveled to on the weekends. Our Friday nights in high school were spent at the football games too, but we were mostly there to support our marching band, who was midway through one of the most dominant stretches in Kentucky band history.

The TV show version of Friday Night Lights touches on the pressure that comes with being the one who is supposed to “get out”, but there is not a scene in that TV show that holds a candle to the scene where Boobie realizes he isn’t going to the NFL, let alone a Division 1 college football program. This was the guy who had his own big dreams and the big dreams of an entire town heaped upon him, so it isn’t just about personal success, it is about the pressure of letting other people down besides yourself. If this scene doesn’t convey you just how hard it can be to have your ticket to a better life ripped to pieces in front of you.

The closing credits of Friday Night Lights informs you just how many guys ended up staying near the town of Odessa, Texas. Like I said, it is the life for some people, but for spunky teen detective Veronica Mars, getting the hell out of Neptune, California is one of her top life goals. Her first is to figure out who killed her best friend Lily. That mystery is the central storyline of this show’s first season, which I would rank as one of the top five individual seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Watching Veronica try to make it through the back half of high after being excluded from the in crowd in the fallout from Lily’s death perfectly complements seeing Boobie fall from grace in FNL. Veronica is at the bottom, trying to work her way up and out. There are few moments where she gets sad and cries because she’s simply been burnt too many times for life to faze her anymore.

I was introduced to this series by a friend, Jenni, who said I had to watch because Veronica was me. At the time, I hoped it was mostly because I too made the occasional Outsiders reference. In hindsight, I can see how she made the connection because I tended to be the girl on her own a lot during college. I had several groups of friends. There were those I lived with, those in film school with me, those in our community service fraternity, and others I amassed through classes. In that respect, I very much remain Veronica, as I never seem to be at the heart of many social groups, but stuck on the fringes of several.

Stuck probably isn’t the right word, as I choose not to get too close, which is the same choice Veronica makes over and over again. She spends the first two years of the show patiently saving money, patiently putting up with crap, and each time that skin just grows thicker and thicker. She has her soft spots, like her mom and her two primary paramours, but for the most part she assumes her friends will let her down. Even her BFF Wallace abandons her at one point.

She was supposed to go to Stanford, but with the show getting an unexpected third season, she stays in Neptune for college. The series ends with Veronica backed up against a wall, but instead of her sacrificing herself for someone, it is the one person she can rely on who throws himself on the sword. She avoids the serious trouble and, according to the movie that came out last year, transfers to Stanford, gives up the private investigator life, and moves to New York to become a lawyer.

Sounds great, right? But the movie proves that even people like Veronica can go home again, and when she is back in Neptune, she finds herself questioning her life choices. While some criticize the film’s structure as being too episodic, I found the whole thing rather perfect, because it acknowledges that those who do try to “get out” often feel just as stuck.  You inevitably end up doing things differently than you thought, you end up somewhere you didn’t expect, and the notion of being home where everything is so much more familiar sounds pretty great.

Considering I was just beginning my adventure outside the confines of Kentucky when Keane’s popular Hopes and Fears album came out, it makes sense I was so drawn to their most popular song, Somewhere Only We Know. The whole album is really a meditation on growing up and how it comes a lot faster than you expect. This song in particular is about that longing for something in your life to be fixed and stable. When you’re younger, your parents, your siblings, your house, most of these things are not going anywhere. As you hit college, friends disappear, your parents become a more remote part of your life, and it feels like absolutely nothing is static.

It is a very thrilling feeling in your 20s, the idea of complete fluidity, but as this song notes, eventually you look around and the “simple things” are gone, some opportunities have forever passed you by, and all you want is, “something to rely on.” The guys in Keane were still in their 20s when they wrote this song, but it’s a feeling I think many in our 30s understand, which is that walking away from something or giving something up at this point in your life is so much harder than it used to be because this could be the end of everything and you’re not gonna get another chance to fix it.

But even in my 20s the idea of crawling into a familiar space with someone who understood where I was coming from was an incredibly comforting idea, especially on those days when I was feeling a little bit stuck. Because wandering around the barren landscape Keane describes in their song can be frightening, and a touch overwhelming when you’re going it alone, looking for somewhere or something to make you feel a little less stuck. And, as the song notes, sometimes you get tired of all that looking and wonder if maybe the place you felt stuck in is the home you belong in after all.

Whether you stay close to home or venture out, I think we all understand that feeling of being stuck. Just remember that sometimes when people feel this way, asking for help is harder than it may seem. If you don’t think there is any way out, why bother asking someone for a favor? So keep in mind that sometimes you need to reach out and, sure, sometimes you may feel a little silly that they are fine, but better that than being stuck for years wondering if you speaking up might have made a difference.

2003: A Hands Down Ode to Joy, Laughter, and Love, Actually

I have a bit of a reputation as a miser. Some of it is founded as, I’ll readily and proudly admit, I am a pessimist with no intention of ever changing my outlook on life. Scientific studies have been done to show that, for some people, being a pessimist is actually a helpful way to manage anxiety and stress. I do not see the good in everything because I pretty firmly believe there are things out there that are just not good. While I admire those that think every day is a gift, I can’t relate to it. Some days are struggles, some days are tests, and there are plenty of good ones mixed in too, but there are some I would certainly have done without if given the chance.

While I am very openly a pessimist, that doesn’t mean I am incapable of optimism, happiness, and joy. This whole blog series is really a giant love letter to the pop culture that helped shape who I am. While I often have things about them I find lacking, I still love and appreciate them. That is something I find a lot of people, especially in poker media, don’t seem to understand. You can like something or somebody just fine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find places to criticize and try to improve. I am an editor at heart, so it will always be in my nature to critique.

Even so, I am still capable of that feeling of joy, that feeling which exceeds happiness, that rush that makes your heart feel like it is bubbling over and you smile so hard it hurts. Sappy as it may sound, it is not unlike the airport sequence of the oft-criticized movie Love, Actually. I will certainly criticize the glut of crappy ensemble romances like Valentine’s Day, He’s Just Not That Into You, and New Year’s Eve that came in the wake of this film’s success, but I am not on board with the number of people who criticize this Richard Curtis film as calculatingly sweet and saccharine enough to cause tooth decay.

Maybe I am just a marshmallow on the inside, but most of the six or seven stories in this film bring a smile to my face a dozen years after the movie first hit the big screen. Yes, I like many others, can’t really buy that Colin Firth’s character, a writer, would ever fall in love with a person who can literally not communicate with him because they don’t speak the same language, but the story is nonetheless funny even though deeply flawed in the logic department. Several of the stories are really just occasions for jokes, be it the nude stand ins or the geeky guy Colin who finds drop dead hot girls in America thanks to his accent.

Others are more modern fables, like the little boy in love with the little girl in his class. He does what all naïve young people do when trying to impress someone: pretend to be something you are not. He learns the drums, he puts himself out there, and he is rewarded with a first kiss and a role in one of the more memorable Christmas music performances in film history.

The one that always gets me to beam and tear up all at the same time is the one with Andrew Lincoln (pre-Walking Dead) and Keira Knightley. Lincoln’s character can’t help how he feels about his best friend’s new wife, Knightley, and he does his best to stay away until she figures out what is up and calls him on it. Rather than do the selfish thing and pursue her, he puts the love of his friend and the friend’s marriage to the girl ahead of himself, and he does so oh so adorably with poster board and a portable CD player.

You’ve probably surmised I am a bit of a sucker for unrequited love and cinematic grand gestures (I’m still waiting on that Chicago music video), but one so selfless takes the cake for me. I smile to see someone rewarded for their own sacrifice (and you can save the discussion that real sacrifice would never be saying anything, cause if he never said anything we wouldn’t have a movie). I tear up a little thinking he won’t end up with the girl, but I remain filled with joy at the thought of him getting what he wanted, and a simple kiss being more than enough.

So sure, I can be a sucker for the sugar-coated rom com moments, but I have to defend my miser street cred somehow. I do this with Arrested Development. I was early on this bandwagon, tuning in to watch each week around midway through Season 2. The episode delivered 22 minutes of hysterical nonsense as the Bluth family proved how awful humans can really be. Even the straight man, Michael (Jason Bateman) is kind of a terrible person, seducing a blind woman and an MRF, ignoring his family during times of need, and aiding and abetting several crimes over the course of the series run.

These people are horrible, selfish human beings and I love them for it. It is something I think Lena Dunham and Girls can take a cue from. My issue with that show is that everyone is terrible, horrible, and boring, so I really just want them to shut up and go away, hence, I don’t watch the show. It is when characters are horrible and endearing that the real comedic magic happens.

It isn’t just that this show reaffirms my faith that, in general, people kind of suck though. In fact, it has a very high opinion of its audience, as it will call back to small gestures from episodes aired weeks earlier or in a different season altogether and very subtly put them back into play. There is no wink wink, nod nod, nudge nudge, it is just left there for viewers to discover, and the feeling of catching it when it comes out of nowhere is a feeling of remarkable joy in addition to funniness. When they come at the rapid-fire pace of Arrested Development, you basically spend 22 minutes with your mouth agape at how these people can make every second so funny.

The fourth season is one I tried to like, but never could get into. I think in many ways, the constraint of being on a broadcast network like Fox helped this show immeasurably. It is in moments where you feel stuck that you can come up with the most creative solution, while in situations where the possibilities are limitless that oftentimes the results are mediocre. See? I am an optimist. I just took the worse of two situations and presented it as the better option. Or does that just reaffirm I’m a pessimist? I digress…

Sometimes I need a break from myself for, as you can see, I am constantly questioning things, criticizing myself and others, and worrying about things both in and beyond my control. Frankly, it can get a little exhausting, but that is what solo living room dance parties are for. I have an entire Spotify playlist of the songs I cannot help but get up and dance to when they are on.

One song is a solo dance party jam for me now, but in college, it was generally performed in groups. I was at the University of Southern California when Dashboard Confessional was peaking as a rock band and my friends and I were among his loyal faithful. We saw him in concert, we bought his merchandise, and we constantly played his music, especially the song Hands Down.

If you aren’t around precisely my age, you probably don’t know this song, but Dashboard’s Chris Carrabba says it is his best song. Unlike the sad emo hits you probably associate with Dash, this song is three minutes of pure, unadulterated happiness, the kind that comes with young love. In college, we would mutually agree to study dance breaks and my friend Stephanie and I would sing and dance to this song, loudly shouting the lyrics and exuberantly jumping up and down. When we weren’t studying and just hanging out or eating somewhere, our most cynical friend Vince would even get in on the fun by yelling out, “My hopes are so high that your kiss might kill me,” and we would retort, “So won’t you kill me. So I die ‘appy.”

If there is a single song I associate with my happiest memories of college, it is this one. It would score the montage of us saving up our meal plan to buy and eat four pounds of Runts while planning the world’s best love song mix CD, the time we tried to cook a “family” dinner and Steph bought steak instead of ground beef for our pasta dish, the time an intense pillow fight sent our friend Trevor to the ER, the Wet Hot American Summer parties, the trips to the low rent coffee shop for their off-brand “Zappacinos”, the time our friend was so intoxicated she insisted on only communicating in French, and all of those glorious football games.

There are songs that I associate with college that aren’t so joyous, but this is the one that no matter where, no matter when I hear it, I will stop, smile, and realize those were some pretty awesome times. Sure our hopes were high on how things would turn out and no one killed us with their kiss, but even though adulthood may have not been quite as exciting as we expected, I am still pretty sure we’re all going to die happy with the lives we lived.

2002: Let Writer’s Block Be Writer’s Block–A Praise Chorus

A couple of people have asked me how I find time to write so many words about movies, TV shows, and songs of the past for this series. They also ask what my process is or how things get picked. Here’s the lowdown:

I know myself and know that I can neglect my personal page very easily without some sort motivation, so I have to create projects for myself like my Lenten 40 blogs in 40 days project, my classic movie adventure of 2013, and now this survey of my life through the lens of pop culture. So I came up with the idea. The next step was picking what to write about for each year. Over the course of a couple of hours, I mapped out 31 years of stuff picking not based on any theme, but based on what struck me as something meaningful to my own life.

When the day comes to write about a year, I start thinking about the three things in context and see if I can come up with a theme or through line to tie them all together. You’ve seen where I’ve stretched a bit, but most of the time I am surprised at how well they fit together.

Sometimes though, I get stuck. It happens to every writer, and it’s really not as fun as the movie Adaptation makes it out to be. If you haven’t seen it, my friend referred to it as the weirdest movie he’s ever seen. As story goes, the movie came out of Charlie Kaufman’s case of writer’s block trying to adapt the book The Orchid Thief, which is a pensive tome about searching for rare flowers, not exactly an action blockbuster. In the film, the screenwriter, a fictional version of the writer of the actual movie, Charlie Kaufman played by Nicholas Cage (like I said, it’s weird), struggles with writer’s block, resorting to screenwriting seminars, stalking the book’s author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), and committing several crimes along the way.

My writer’s block is much less adventurous than Kaufman’s. In the movie, it is a beast, spiraling out of control, eventually leading to total mayhem, while mine rarely makes it off the living room couch. It usually involves falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole or playing too many Sit N Gos online. As a writer though, the movie my friend could only sum up as, “Nicolas Cage, a swamp, alligators maybe? And a lot of weirdness and something about writing,” is something as relatable as a break up or a job interview. When you’re stuck on what to write, you come up with a list of remarkably bad and out there ideas, most of which will never be shared with anyone but yourself. If you look through my recently watched movies on Netflix or what I’ve been buying on Amazon, you’d probably think I was a little strange, but when you get in a headspace where you feel like you are stuck in one place, you’ll do anything you can to get out of it.

For Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, writer’s block is bouncing a rubber ball off a wall. The characters on this show about the executive branch of the government deal with much bigger problems than writer’s block. Other things are constantly transpiring that make President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his staff feel like they are stuck, be it the bureaucracy of the government, a deadlocked Senate, or having to give up one goal in order to achieve a more important one.  That’s the beauty of Aaron Sorkin-penned stuff though, the constant discussion and debate that results in these “stuck” moments.

While Adaptation focuses on how these moments and ruts can make you crazy, Sorkin, who is often one for idealism, likes to roll around in the mess and get a little dirty before emerging with an answer that is so good it is well worth the time and frustration. Even though I politically disagree with a lot of what Sorkin believes, I admired at how he let the other side speak eloquently (you’re my girl, Ainsley Hayes and I’ll love you forever, Christian Slater).

He sees these blocks as opportunities, and they have resulted in some of the most iconic moments of the series. When the President is starting to falter in his decision making, erring on the side of caution way too often as campaign season nears, the team hits a wall before four words changed everything: Let Bartlet be Bartlet.

What is simultaneously funny and sad about Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing is that it is his personal blocks that lead to some of the largest points of criticism and the downfall of The West Wing. It is inevitable when you write thousands and thousands of words that you use the same turn of phrase more than a couple of times. Heck, I’ve written less than 20,000 words in this blog series and I’ve already harped on ideas more than once. Sorkin though, has a peculiar pattern of speaking, so when he repeats himself, it is glaringly obvious, as indicated by this supercut (which, coincidentally was shown to me by the same guy who finds Adaptation incredibly weird).

The other issue was that when Sorkin hit the wall, he also hit the drugs pretty hard. When you are writing every episode of a 22-episode series, it is inevitable you’re going to burn out. Because he was so nervous to share the workload, he turned to drugs to keep him energized and motivated to push through those tough stretches where the ideas just don’t show up. As a result, he headed off to rehab and the show was turned over to other people after Season 4, leaving just a shell of this near-flawless in his wake.

As a writer, moments like that give me pause. I certainly don’t think I will turn up with a coke habit, but I do wonder if the emotional and mental strain that comes with writing day in and day out is something I can handle. If you’ve read my blog before, you know I open up quite a bit on this thing. It isn’t for some people, which is why my mom gets annoyed and constantly asks, “You aren’t going to put what I said on the internet, are you?”

When you feel like you have things to share though, you have to learn to get past the fear and just put it out there. Instead of quoting something trite and overused like, “Dance like nobody’s watching,” I instead present Jimmy Eat World’s A Praise Chorus, which might very well be the anthem for this blog series of mine. With lyrics like, “Stick around, nostalgia won’t let you down,” and “I’m on my feet, I’m on the floor, I’m good to go, all I need is just to hear a song I know,” I get a nice little emo kick in the ass about the fact that there is virtue in putting yourself out there.

The song is the third (and least known) single off Jimmy Eat World’s breakout album, which was originally titled Bleed American, changed to Jimmy Eat World in the wake of 9/11, but now goes by its original title. Like Rockin the Suburbs, it is one of those albums that was so integral to my college experience, it is impossible for me to ever forget it. While my favorite song of the record will always be If You Don’t, Don’t, A Praise Chorus is one of those songs perfect for college kids, as it rallies you to go out and try the new and unfamiliar, yet couches it in a slew of song references. In essence, it is a song about not just experiencing something in a song or a book, but going out there and seeking and experiencing the feelings that come with listening Crimson and Clover or Our House to make your life worthy of its own song. It is a rally cry against simply repurposing pop culture like you’re Jurassic World. It is about taking something familiar, doing something different with it, and pushing yourself out there beyond the wall of blocks your mind has constructed in order to make sure at least a little part of the world you live in is distinctively yours.

Scoring My Life Archive

2001: Searching for Rockin and Royal Imperfection

I’ve written before about being adopted. Honestly, it is not all that interesting. My life is pretty much the same as most biologically-born kids. I’ve only ever known one set of parents, it has always been a very open thing in my family, and it isn’t really weird at all. However, the things that do make it weird are my pet peeves about how people discuss and depict adoption.

For example, I am patient when someone asks if I would like the find my “real parents”, explaining how they are the people who raised me and the descriptor they are looking for is “biological”, but it doesn’t change the fact I find the statement extremely ignorant and insensitive. I also laugh and roll my eyes when some suggest I can date my cousins or relatives because it is just the DNA, not the fact we’re related that makes things weird.

That is why The Royal Tenenbaums is a nearly-perfect movie to me. It came out the fall of my freshman year of college. I was in the midst of learning about the basic tenants of cinema at the best film school in the country, each week seeing some other new movie that redefined my ideas of what cinema was capable of. Then came this wonderful, quirky gem of a film from Wes Anderson, with its beautiful symmetry, exceptional soundtrack, and insane attention to every detail of the set design and costume design. This movie had me from the first appearance of the Futura font.

This story of a father trying to win back his estranged and troubled family was the kind of movie that made me unspeakably excited about movies. It told a simple story really, just an effed up family trying to get by, but the way Anderson told it only enhanced the emotion and the experience. You see, I am not a big fan of movies that are more about doing something interesting with form rather than using form to make the story more interesting. Take, for example, the Matrix movies, which had a glut of effects, very few of which really did much to make Neo’s story all that much more compelling in my opinion.

This movie though, appealed to those of us who loved effects and interesting camera angles and tracking shots and those of us who valued character and story first and foremost. Anderson is the great unifier of film school students, managing to be visually interesting and stylized while still focusing on interesting and unique stories.

There is but one problem though, one thing that keeps this movie out of my top ten, and it is the relationship between siblings Richie and Margot, who are secretly in love with one another. This is justified by the fact that Margot was adopted when she was two, so they aren’t really siblings.

I suppose it is possible this is how the family raised them, as they make a point of showing that the father Royal (Gene Hackman who was robbed of an Academy Award nomination that year) always referred to Margot as his “adopted” daughter, but I just can’t seem to get past it. In my head, I just can’t reason that the difference instilled by their dad outweighed years of family vacations and car rides and others treating them like siblings, so this relationship rings so completely false to me I cannot possibly take it seriously. The fact I hate this plotline so much and still treasure this movie as one of the best of that decade tells you just how incredible this movie is. It is almost perfect. It has but one flaw.

As much as I hate this one flaw, I have grown to love the movie more for its imperfection than I think I would if I found the movie flawless. Since this story is so much about learning to accept people for who they are, understanding they can change a little, but that they will fundamentally be the same at the core on the things that matter most. In a meta way, the flaw thematically drives home the need to stand by the ones you love, flaws and all, and you will be rewarded. I did, and last year I was rewarded with a genuinely perfect Anderson product: The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Sticking with something isn’t easy, let’s make that perfectly clear. With a movie, nostalgia helps you remember the good times more than the bad. If you watch it only periodically, your tolerance for the flaw is at its peak. TV shows though, those are more serious relationships, the kinds you grind week in and week out, often for the better part of a decade. Such is the case with Gilmore Girls, the charming story of a young mom in her early 30s and her teenage daughter living in the quaintest damned town you ever did see.

For years, the rapid-fire dialogue, the incredible pop culture references, and the core mother-daughter relationship had me hook, line, and sinker. Even as the show progressed and did some oddball stuff, like to pair Rory with bad boy Jess (Team Dean for life kids) or have the mother Lorelai inexplicably run away from a great guy at the altar, I stood by it. They weren’t the decisions I would make, but I appreciated and respected them.

Something terrible happened during the seventh and final season though. The studio dismissed the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. They effectively ripped out the heart of the show, leaving us with a strange zombie version with a formerly sensible Rory making all sorts of irrational decisions, Lorelai finally getting the relationship she deserved only to have the equivalent of Cousin Oliver jammed into her existence when her boyfriend learned he was a father of a rather unendearing and precocious child. Yet, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I kept watching. While it was a betrayal to Palladino to keep tuning in, this was a relationship I was deeply invested in and loved flaws and all. That last season though, like the last season of Buffy and any season of West Wing past Season 5, has been erased from my memory.

Over time, you look back on your best relationships trying to remember the good more than the bad. In order for me to keep my Gilmore Girls relationship a cherished part of my life, I had to eradicate that awful ending, the televisual equivalent of an ugly, ugly break up, from my memory. I learned to love Tenenbaums for its flaw, but with television, there is just too much time and room to veer past the point of no return. In Royal Tenenbaums, there is really only 15 minutes or so that bother me. On Gilmore Gilrs, that final season shifted the entire universe of Stars Hollow in a direction I didn’t want it to go. It wasn’t just one tiny misstep, it was a series of decisions that fundamentally shifted the previous six years of something I had invested in.

Really, every movie and TV show has their flaws and missteps. It is far more likely to encounter a perfect pop song, and at the start of the millennium, pop groups were churning them out left and right. Then came the backlash of heavy metal rock bands composed of predominantly white people singing about their pain in what most would consider to be a rather privileged life.

Enter Ben Folds stage left with Rockin the Suburbs, which lays down the law with its opening lyric: “Let me tell y’all what it’s like, being male, middle class, and white.” Folds proceeds to eviscerate the music acts of the era by mocking those trying to find fault with a perfectly good life. Unlike Tenenbaums or Gilmore Girls, who accidentally started stumbling, these musical acts were trying to commodify the alleged imperfections in their own lives, and Folds can’t help but poke a little fun at them.

That is what is amazing about Ben Folds, if you haven’t listened to much of his stuff. He is able to acknowledge that there are many things and comforts the suburbs offer and tap into the frustrations without the anger of the heavy metal bands like Limp Bizkit. The single is the title track off an album that feels like a throwback to the story songs of Billy Joel, except instead of Brenda and Eddie, you have Zak and Sara, a young couple in love, but Sara suffers from some mental illness. There are songs about how fatherhood changes everything, how growing up sucks, and how we were all carrying Cathy, but she couldn’t find it in her to carry herself. In other words, it is at times a very sad, not angry, album about the imperfections of middle class life. And Ben Folds takes them, wraps them into beautiful pop song bundles, and has delivered a perfect album which pretty much everyone in my freshman year dorm listened to on repeat, all the way through, for years and years.

Pretty much everything is going to end up less than perfect, especially when it comes to pop culture. Sometimes it is the imperfections which make the thing great. Sometimes they are just too flawed to be ignored. And in the best of times, someone can take the imperfections in their lives and turn them into something wonderful beyond reproach.