Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Personal Diary of Claudius, King of Denmark

For so long, the story of Hamlet has been told only from the young Dane's perspective. But what about the perspective of the story's putative villain, Claudius? Finally, after so much time, we have a window into what the man was thinking during the events of the famous tale.
  • 9-Oct: Just reached the third month mark on my kingship. I am growing used to the job, both in the ceremonial and political aspects. You might think being a king would mean wielding absolute power and having people snap to attention whenever you walk by, but that is not the case! The high-handed peremptory approach is great if you don't care about the results, but I find that working with the ministers and Parliament is infinitely more successful. After all, one man (even a king) cannot be everywhere, give every order, supervise every worker and project. After the disastrous reign of my brother (who was the most high-handed and peremptory of all!), I can see the marked difference during my nascent reign. By sharing power, it turns out that I've actually increased my own! I've gotten far more of what I wanted in three months than my dear old brother did in years. Counterintuitive, I suppose, but making the politicians partners instead of subjects has reaped enormous dividends. Even that old ass Yorick admitted as much even before I stayed the execution my brother had rashly ordered upon him. An impression shouldn't lead to executions, I think. He died anyway, though, due to a stroke.

    Anyway, I very much look forward to young Hamlet's return from his theological studies. I've always liked the lad, and while seeing him will no doubt bring back awful memories of The Deed, I have always thought him clever, moral, and resourceful. Given the unlikelihood of Gertie bearing me any children, Hamlet must be considered the logical heir to the throne, and I intend to do my best to replace the void that I sadly created with my crime of passion.
  • 10-Oct: Busy day at Court today. Polonius and I, along with some of the other high councillors, debated the merits of a more egalitarian distribution of land for the people. I stand firmly in favor of it, as the nobles don't need a few measly acres, and dozens of poor families would be able to make something of it. We were able to come up with a workable plan that I fully expect the nobles to hate, but I hope to use a combination of a cut in taxes and populist peasant passions to crush the resistance. Tomorrow we begin discussions of reforming all courts and government offices, to make them more inclined toward the average man. I suspect the fight for this will be even fiercer than the others I have fought (and nearly always won) in my still-nascent reign.
  • 11-Oct: Oh, Gertie. 
  • 12-Oct: Young Hamlet has finally arrived, and I am deeply worried about the lad. He goes from utterly low energy to manic, even feverish activity in mere moments. He seems to prefer to spend most of his time muttering to himself and pacing. I have asked his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to figure out what bothers the young lad, though they haven't yet discovered anything. Polonius reports that Hamlet has treated Ophelia with remarkable cruelty. One wonders what is the matter with the boy.
  • 14-Oct: Very busy with work. Noble dissatisfaction with my reign is increasing--they figured I'd carry on with old Hamlet's buddy-buddy way of keeping the noblemen on his side and giving nothing to the great mass of his subjects. They thought incorrectly. I can see the tides shifting already. With just another few months of power, I should be able to empower the people to an extent never before seen in an European constitutional monarchy. This could truly be historic!

    Had a discussion today with Hamlet. I fear the Lutherans have made him bloody minded. Reformist, Counterreformist, Inquisition, heretics, I find all of it regrettable and silly. What difference does it make how one prays to God? I said as much to the King of Spain, an impressive man and a good friend, a reasonable man in most respects, but not in this case. And Hamlet seems to agree, only he's on the other side. I have severe doubts about this man succeeding me to the throne, he is changed and not to be trusted.
  • 15-Oct: Hamlet is out of control! I suspect the man is using substances--you know, what the young people use. He is nothing but mood swings and half-baked (so to speak) plans. The little twerp had some traveling players stage a play. As you know, I hate violent theater, just as I hate war and all violence (and myself for administering it to old Hamlet). His son, though, positively relishes in violent plays and such. He had his players do this terrible version of the story of Gonzago or some such, and I kept noticing throughout the play that Hamlet kept staring at me to try to make eye contact. Finally I learned why, the climax involved a man murdering his brother with poision. How did he find out? I will never know. But I hardly gave him the satisfaction of a reaction, I just left because I disliked the play. Shoddily written garbage. And the plot here is so over-obvious that one suspects Hamlet is inadvertently sabotaging himself to prove that he isn't the equal to his father. Must not overthink this. I'm sure the substances are to blame here.
  • 16-Oct: Hamlet has murdered Polonius! This is a disaster. Polonius was a critical part of my plans on a half-dozen different initiatives I was pursuing, losing him sets me back a month. This is entirely too convenient: I suspect that Hamlet is working with my enemies, the noble Lords, who must have gotten him hooked on substances and have been manipulating him in that way! Yes, that makes perfect sense. The murder evidently took place during an oddly aggressive discussion with Gertie about his father. My health minister assures me that one effect of the substances is misplaced aggression, no doubt also partly due to his being kicked out of the theological seminary (of which he has told neither of us). No wonder he got kicked out, he evidently never bothered to learn the Ten Commandments! I confronted him about it and he made several wisecracks and did his usual mumbling thing. Who is he talking to? Again, I must remember the man is likely on several substances, and is likely beyond reason. He claims he saw a ghost--most likely he had just taken substances before that. I know the guards are all hopped up on them, and I ought to jail the whole sorry lot of them. But I am too soft, too merciful.

    Anyway, I have sent Hamlet away to England, to detoxify and recover from his odd presentiments. Hopefully, after a few months, we can resolve these issues like civilized men.
  • 17-Oct: Met today with young Fortinbras, who has called off military action against my country, and just went ahead and sent the troops to invade someone else. The savagery! I applaud my own diplomacy while sadly surveying the state of Norway's leadership. Young Fortinbras is every inch the violent savage, rattling on and on about the vengeance he has taken and the enemies he has personally killed, and his attitude suggests little respect for anything except power--his own. Lord help us all if that young monster should ever come to rule his country! Come to think of it, though, he couldn't be much worse than Hamlet as king. Can you even imagine it? Hamlet mumbling to himself, starting wars in a fit of passion before bemoaning them after the substances wear off? A frightening prospect, to be sure. The recent state of Hamlet has led me to consider altering the structure of Denmark's government, in such a way that the monarch will have their powers sharply curtailed and given to the elected officials. This will take time to do, though. Despite my reforms, the elected branch is as hopeless as ever, knee-deep in bribes and unable to solve even basic public policy problems. I have high hopes though. I believe the people, with better education, can rule themselves, and while I might not live long enough to accomplish this, I intend to make it the major concept of the rest of my reign.
  • 18-Oct: Hamlet has become a full-blown menace! He has had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, his own friends! The weasel. Why kill them? Why not just elude them? They aren't terribly bright, after all. I only picked them because I thought Hamlet trusted them. My mistake, to expect things like friendship and human decency from a substance-addicted sociopath who can justify anything with his bizarre internal nonsense. Now he comes back to Denmark. He has had three people killed in cold blood, and apparently without any particular shame and remorse. My crime was one of passion. His is one of bloody, mad revenge, and yet he has never once confronted me, asked me what has happened. I haven't given up my theory about his secret noble backers, by the way. Hamlet's nature is one that sees murder as fine if done in a just cause, very much like Signor Machiavelli might argue. He now has three bodies to his name, and poor Ophelia has fallen into great mental degradation as a result of Hamlet's actions. The doctors say her breakdown could be fatal. Which would make four! Will nobody rid me of this poisonous youth, whose anger at me will leave a trail of death that cannot be stopped?
  • 19-Oct: I have told Laertes the truth about Hamlet's vile actions, and he has agreed to take him down. At long last, someone who can protect us! Though Laertes's noble, gentle nature puts him at a disadvantage to my psychotic and murderous nephew.
  • 20-Oct: Hamlet has returned. He means to kill Laertes by fighting dirty in a fencing match. I have taken alternative measures to keep this from happening. Let us hope they work! At this point, I care not at all for my own life, my only hope is that he does not survive. Let this official chronicle serve as the rebuttal to any future version of Hamlet's story that casts me as the villain. Such a thing is inconceivable, whatever I have done, he has done worse!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kenny Powers: Anti-antihero

A decade ago, the antihero was a novel concept in television. Television audiences hadn't seen anything like Tony Soprano before, and the show featuring him became a huge success. Today, the antihero is incredibly common on television, so prevalent that a non-procedural drama featuring a good, noble protagonist is surprisingly rare.

What makes for a good antihero? So far as I can tell, there are two basic cogs that make the concept work. The first is that he (and at this point, they're mostly hes) has to have some considerable charm and redeeming attributes. Another major antihero touchpoint, The Shield's Vic Mackey, balanced his faithless policework with genuine effort to be a good husband and father. Tony Soprano wasn't quite so inclined to be a good husband, but he was capable of generosity and of being moved by his children in addition to being a mobster. The other part of it is that, bad as our protagonists are, their opponents have to be much worse. Tony was no catch, but it was inconceivable to support him against the psychopaths he routinely dealt with, who lacked even the barest humanity that Tony possessed. Similarly, as an audience, we were drawn to Vic because he was mostly doing good (though not legal) things, and because arrayed against him were brutal criminals and careerist supervisors who cared more about how Vic made them look than about getting him to do the right thing. Manipulating audience sympathies to accept terribly flawed men is complicated work, and The Sopranos and The Shield (and, more recently, Breaking Bad) have been very, very successful at it.

A show that is less successful at the job is HBO's Eastbound & Down. Billed as a comedy, the show examines the precipitously reversed fortunes of Kenny Powers, formerly a heat-throwing Major League pitcher, brought down to being a gym teacher at his own former high school. The problem here is that Powers isn't an antihero, he's a void. There is literally nothing positive about his character, nothing to rationalize away his awfulness with. He starts with such a low baseline of character that there's nowhere to fall, and the half-hearted "improvement" arc that Powers undertakes is hardly convincing. Additionally, Powers's nemeses--a former ballplayer played by Craig Robinson, a car dealer played by Will Ferrell, and a kindly (though strange) principal played by Andy Daly--come off as about as bad or, in Daly's case, significantly better than he does. The show banks heavily on Powers's humor and underdog status to make him sympathetic to us, but sorry, no dice. Powers is basically the show, his swaggering, aggressive, roid-rage persona sets the tone, and he is its sole focus. The first season consists of six episodes that form a single narrative, one that is curious to say the least. The show appears to be one of Powers adjusting to his fall from fame, sort of like a redneck I'm Alan Partridge, with Powers's attempts to make it back to the big leagues the equivalent of Partridge's desperate attempts to break back into television with shows like "Monkey Tennis" and "Around The World with Alan Partridge, In A Bullnose On The Left". These seem meant to be taken as jokes, causing significant underinvestment in the plotline that turns out to be the throughline, and retrospectively rendering the main narrative a dead end.

Seeing a bad man move up in the world is compelling to nobody. Powers is past his prime, outdone in his desire for a teacher (The One Who Got Away!) played by Katy Mixon, who is engaged to the school's principal, Daly. The thing is that there's not much reason to root against Daly, even though the show stacks the deck against him in later episodes, or for Mixon to wind up with Powers. I would assume the show knows that rooting for Powers is perverse, except it puts us in the situation of doing it, and routinely finds it awesome when he, say, knocks out a rival ballplayer's eye when pitching, or vulnerable when he prematurely ejaculates when getting busy with Mixon. The morality here is strictly teenage-sociopath, one that hates nearly everyone on the show and finds ways to show them at their worst as often as possible. And yet there is still a sentimentalism to the Powers-Mixon relationship even though, as the ending makes clear, Powers never really had anything there for Mixon, his redemption was a lie to himself that others believed. Those of us who were paying attention knew that already.

Ultimately, in television, likability in a character is probably more important than, you know, character. But only to an extent. Jody Hill has proven to be a master of alienating and inflaming people, sort of like Todd Solondz with a better filter. And boy, does E&D accomplish that, especially with some sex scenes that manage to be thoroughly icky without getting too explicit. But the fact is that all this provocation is not really in service of some broader moral framework, which again makes it feel somewhat teenage-sociopathic. The Sopranos and The Shield were successful because making their characters flawed to the extent they were let them examine questions of morality in great detail. Eastbound is a failure because it doesn't really get into that. The ending sort of does, but what point is Kenny Powers supposed to make? What is the takeaway from this show? That he's the same bad guy we first encountered, I suppose. Well, thanks for getting us exactly to where we started! Really, there isn't any takeaway from this, except that people are bullshit, man! The show doesn't develop much of a moral critique, and it borrows its ending from the Bob Rafelson film Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson, only from the girl's perspective. At best it's a nihilistic message, that all growth is illusory. But that's generous, it adds up to little, and the whole thing is little more than wish fulfillment of various sorts. Hill's toned down the rape humor this time, unlike in Observe And Report. That's something to be thankful of. But this show mostly just makes me feel annoyed at what passes for sophistication these days, where transgressivism has evidently become insufficient for some as a premise for a story, now we have to feel sorry for people who got their just desserts. God made no mistake with Kenny Powers, and neither should you by watching this program.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What A Disappointment Music Series: Lola Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round by The Kinks

A new possible series in which I look at albums generally seen as not up to any given group's standard.

This is one seriously weird album. Lola Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round (which I will shorten to LvP) is generally seen as a disappointment having followed a series of brilliant conceptual albums by The Kinks, including Arthur, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and others. I think it's because it's lacking the one neat throughline of those albums. And there's a sheen of self-pity and narcissism to it that is very off-putting, of world-famous rock stars telling us their problems are equivalent to starving strikers or nuclear war. It's pretty icky, though somehow ahead of its time. In some ways, the album plays better in the 2010s, when such sentiments have (regrettably) become more mainstream. Self-pity is now basically the coin of the realm in pop, self-obsession its reserve currency. In this, as in many other things, The Kinks were forward-looking.

But let's not go overboard--much of the album is pretty much exactly what you might want out of a Kinks album. You've got some killer singles--Lola and Apeman are truly great Kinks songs--and it might be their most rocking album ever. Powerman kicks so much ass it almost entirely redeems the album itself, a perfect rock track that combines message and medium perfectly. "Top Of The Pops" is one of the aforementioned "Woe is me!" Ray Davies songs about the music industry, but it is the least icky of them all because it's told first-person from the aspiring rock star, and its irony is much gentler than other songs. Rats is another one that is convincingly fierce, and it's one of several Dave Davies compositions on the album. You can hardly tell the difference between his songs and Ray's songs, which is high praise indeed.

But these songs are I guess supposed to complement songs like "Denmark Street", the aforementioned "Top Of The Pops" and "The Moneygoround", which frankly take the album in the wrong direction. This album is a beast with two heads, a work with two throughlines (the suckiness of the music industry and the loss of control and individual freedom) that it pretends to lump in with an overarching concept of weariness with modern life. If this sounds familiar, it's because the latter concept has served as the basis for most of their work, especially their next album, the superior Muswell Hillbillies. LvP is actually a great Kinks album if you yank off those tracks, which are uncomfortably on the nose lyrically (it's not unlike stumbling in on a bitter, heated argument that you're not a party to and don't quite get) and verge toward novelty songs in terms of the music. I'm sorry, Ray Davies, but your inability to get record executives to sign off on your ideas is just not in the same league as political oppression, it's just not, and it's just immature of you to suggest otherwise.

If you can get past those, though, you get some tracks that really shine. The pop moments on this album are the highlights, with the ubiquitous Lola (which hasn't aged seemingly at all, and is remarkable for how much The Kinks were able to get away with), Strangers as a gentle story of friendship formed in disastrous times and "This Time Tomorrow" as the dissolution of perhaps that very friendship. "A Long Way From Home" could function as a sequel to "Tomorrow" as well, in which we see the genesis of a greedy antihero who rises to the top to become Powerman, leaving his jilted friend to seek solace in dreams of living like an Apeman and how he has just "Got To Be Free". There is a concept to this album, and it gains an awful lot of power in the second half, when the junk is cleared away. Sadly, this album is no Muswell Hillbillies, but the songs on LvP are better than those on Hillbillies, it's just that there's not enough cohesion and too much self-obsessed ickiness here. Were it not for those (and arguably Lola should have remained a pure single and not have appeared on the album at all), one wonders if Davies would have kept his reputation alive--at least for a few more years, until his ill-advised Rock-musical theater fusion projects wrecked The Kinks commercially and critically, leaving the group to struggle through the '70s and have only a modest commercial revival in the '80s. And I'm sure it's all the record companies' fault.