A Mid-Life Crisis in North Dakota

Dennis Reynolds is a bad man. All the characters on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are awful people – it’s kind of the premise of the show – but Dennis still stands apart. Like the rest of the Gang, he’s all narcissism, bigotry, and rage, ready to explode at any moment at anyone he perceives to have crossed him. Once, when a guy called him a narc, Dennis’s revenge was getting the guy to chain himself to a tree overnight during a storm while Dennis slept with his girlfriend, and that’s pretty mild when you’re grading on the Dennis curve of bad behaviour. He’s a prolific rapist, and he might be a serial killer.

He’s also one of the best characters in the history of TV.

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What About Me? What Am I Going To Do?

Rewatching The Inbetweeners in 2018 has been full of surprises. Mostly, I was taken aback by how evocative it is of its time. I rarely think of the late 2000s as having any kind of distinct culture – it seems most of the time that we haven’t had a decade, in a cultural sense, since the 1990s – but The Inbetweeners looks and feels like a show made very specifically between 2008 and 2010, like a weird kind of time capsule. The cringe comedy, the music choices (remember The Wombats?), an honest-to-God reference to Crazy Frog. There’s some stuff that hasn’t aged well – the voiceover narration always struck me as gratuitous, but I think I’d blanked from my memory how every episode ends with basically a highlight reel – but mostly it made me feel very fond. I love teen movies and shows, but rarely because they remind me of my own teenagehood outside of the broad emotional strokes. The Inbetweeners feels like a show about kids that I grew up with: there’s a relentless ordinariness to it, and a disgustingness that feels, watching it as an adult, surprisingly, sweetly innocent.

The Inbetweeners follows four teenage boys in some anonymous small suburban town in England: Will, a posh ex-private school wanker moved to a comprehensive after his parents’ divorce; Simon, who initially seems like “the normal one” but quickly reveals himself as probably the most fucked-up of all, short-tempered, needy and incredibly sensitive; Neil, who is basically a complete idiot but probably the most together of the four when it comes to actually interacting with other people; and Jay, self-appointed sex expert and pathological liar. They want to get drunk, and pull a girl, but mostly just hang around, talking shite.

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Fleabag, Can’t Cope Won’t Cope and The Case for Self-Denial

Here’s a terrible advertisement for Diet Coke:

There are so many things I hate about this ad. That it contains the term “ath-leisure.” The background music. That it’s painfully obviously a line-for-line recreation of an American ad, because no English person would use the phrase “yurt it up” (the American version, for the record, was directed by my old nemesis, Paul Feig, for some reason).

But the thing I hate the most about it is “If you want a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.” Life is short, is the ad’s premise, so do more things you want to do: live in a yurt (whatever that is), run a marathon (though it backhandedly suggests you probably shouldn’t bother), drink a Diet Coke. But drinking a Diet Coke isn’t like living in a yurt or running a marathon, because Diet Coke is bad for you. The actress in the ad says that it makes her feel good, which it might for a moment. And according to the ad, that doesn’t just mean it’s okay and you shouldn’t feel bad about it, but that you actively should drink Diet Coke, whenever the thought occurs to you.

The thing I hate the most is that the ad treats all wants as basically the same. That pursuing all those wants amounts to making the most of life, or being true to yourself.

But, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, that thought has a brother: that if you do not pursue all your undifferentiated wants, you aren’t making the most of life, and you are not your authentic self.

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To Love Pure and Chaste From Afar: Queer Coding in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

“Queer coding” is one of the more interesting ideas in media analysis to be almost exclusively applied to the same thinkpiece about Disney villains over and over. It’s not a well-defined term but I’d describe it something like this: characters and relationships in art are queer-coded when they have traits that read as queer to at least some of the audience, but are not explicitly so. It’s slippery and subjective and can easily get muddled up with other ideas. It’s sometimes used interchangeably with ideas like queer subtext (when queer themes run under the surface of a piece of art otherwise not overtly queer) or queerbaiting (when writers tease that characters are queer and may form relationships to pander to LGBT fans, but never follow through). Queer subtext has a long history in literary studies, e.g. The Great Gatsby as a story of Nick Carraway’s unrequited love for Jay Gatsby, while queerbaiting is a very recent term, originating in fandom and mostly used in reference to serial formats, e.g. TV shows like Supernatural (with baited characters Dean and Castiel) or film series like Pitch Perfect (with baited characters Beca and Chloe).

Queer coding is different: it doesn’t need to hold up to scrutiny like an argument for subtext does, and it doesn’t have to be deliberate on the part of the artist like an accusation of queerbaiting does. It gets at something narrower and subtly distinct – queer coding often describes stereotypical traits (e.g. limp wrists) but it can also refer to ineffable qualities that aren’t burdened with connotations of queerness in larger society. Taking it back to Disney villains for a second, sometimes I totally see where people are coming from when they read them as queer. Jafar from Aladdin is unmarried, wears winged eyeliner and has a lisp, I get it. But then someone says Hades is like a sassy gay guy and it just doesn’t connect at all. We’re into something altogether more subtle and subjective, because there are lots of “sassy” or “snarky” character archetypes – black women and Jews spring to mind – and characters can even be those things without fitting into or referencing archetypes. That can just be their personality. Yet, even without anything in the story that implies it’s the case, there’s something that makes Hades read queer to some people and not to others. (He reads Jewish to me, for the record.) And while a lot of queer coding can be explained as a kind of glint of recognition in the eye of an LGBT audience, that’s not exclusively the case. Characters and relationships can come off as queer to straight people too.

I’ve been thinking about queer coding a lot ever since I watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

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The One Where Pop Culture Disintegrates

Why do people still love Friends so much?

To be clear, I love Friends. I’ve seen every episode of Friends multiple times. It was a good show, and often a great one. It was such a massive juggernaut hit at the time that it’s inevitable that it would have some staying power – I can’t imagine a world where Friends was forgotten, consigned to the ash heap of history. Anything that big hangs around for a while. Culture doesn’t have a reset button, you just turn it at right angles and draw over what’s already there.

But Friends isn’t just hanging around in the background. It’s still hugely, actively popular. BuzzFeed’s clickbait pop culture listicle/quiz department pumps out posts about Friends on at least a biweekly basis. People get engaged on the Central Perk couch on tours of the Warner Brothers lot. The whole series was recently added to Netflix in Ireland and the UK, and – even though the show finished fourteen years ago, even though it’s been in reruns constantly, unavoidably since then – it was treated as a legitimately big deal.

And that’s weird. It is so far outside of the norm of televisual afterlife that “it’s a good show” doesn’t go a tenth of the way to explaining it.

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The Best of The Sundae So Far

The Sundae launched seven and a half months ago with a history of the decline of multi-cam sitcoms and a counterpoint to the 89th Academy Awards. Since then, we’ve published a piece a week every week for thirty-two weeks, and this week will be no different, except that it’s completely different, because we’re not publishing a new piece of criticism, analysis or opinion.

We’re taking a week off because, well, we don’t get paid to do this, and we’re both in full-time education, and we both have coursework to do, and we’d rather not write something this week than write something half-assed, rushed or forced. So, instead, we’ve looked back over the past seven and a half months of writing we’ve published and picked our favourite pieces. If you’re a long-time reader, revisit the classics. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might not have read. If you’re a brand new reader, take a crash course in what we’re all about.

Here’s the best of The Sundae so far.

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The Rise and Fall of Brooklyn Nine Nine

To love a TV show is to set yourself up for disappointment.

There are exceptions, obviously – Breaking Bad had a pretty much perfect run – but the serialised nature of television means it has infinitely more chances to let you down. Maybe it’ll be cancelled before it’s time. Or worse, maybe it will destroy itself from the inside out. The Simpsons is the greatest TV show ever made, but that fact is obscured now that there are more bad seasons than good. “Classic Simpsons” and “new Simpsons” are fully compartmentalised in my head. It hurts too much otherwise.

But The Simpsons was allowed be good – be great – for nine years. The greatest tragedy, one that seems to be constantly getting worse and puts me off watching new shows, is for a once great show to destroy itself within a year or two, the length of time it used to take a show to figure itself out. There’s more TV than ever now, and the whole cycle moves at double-speed: a show has to find its feet faster to survive, but it also burns out quicker. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had one my favourite seasons of television ever and then immediately fell apart in season two, True Detective revealed itself to be a bloated pretentious corpse in season two after an acclaimed first season, and Westworld didn’t even make it to the end of its first season before people stopped caring. There are fifteen shows currently on air with eight or more seasons, six of which are procedurals and another four of which are Fox’s animated comedy slate. A show can be long-running and soulless, but it’s telling how few long-running shows there are – how hard it is to sustain a show for that long now.

You’d think the rise of shorter seasons would allow shows to continue on for years longer without burning through as much material – and yet, again and again, once-great shows collapse in what is, to the binge-watcher, a few short hours. The Simpsons had nine great years, but more and more, a show has to be exceptionally sturdy to be good for three or four.  It becomes harder and harder to remember the shape of the show you once loved, because every time you think you catch a glimpse of it, another wave of crap comes along to drown it once and for all.

I really hate Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

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Duct Tape on Armchairs: Frasier and the Working-Class Sitcom

It’s the golden age of TV.

455 scripted television shows aired in America in 2016 – that’s compared to 192 in 2006. There’s been years of back and forth about whether current TV is the best thing ever – quite possibly the central cultural output of our time – or actually not very good at all, because so-called prestige TV is so often shallow self-serious bullshit. The obvious fact that TV has always been good, and that the “golden age of TV” corresponds only to the rise of paid subscription services (HBO, Netflix, Amazon) and cinematography that made TV look like movies, might be mentioned, but is never of concern. We’ll talk about the fracturing of the television audience – how three of the last five TV seasons had football at the highest rating, because sport is the only thing diverse audiences watch live anymore – but we’ll pretend that it fractures more or less at random, and its only implications are for advertisers.

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Jack of All Trades

“Jack of all trades, master of none” is supposed to describe Master of None’s lead character, jobbing New York actor Dev, not the show itself. And yet.

Master of None has gotten pretty much universal critical acclaim and been nominated for lots of awards, but when you get down to it, it’s a pretty okay show with a handful of very good episodes. I rarely complain about things being derivative, because art being original is less important than its being well-executed, but it’s frustrating to watch Master of None get praised for inventing things that I’ve seen on TV or in movies many times before, from being a romantic comedy where the man has feelings (the works of everyone from Chaplin to Apatow mustn’t count, I guess), to doing a Slacker episode, which I felt like I’d seen a hundred times before and I haven’t even seen Slacker.

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