Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Need to Fear: Underdog and Pop Hostility

underdog-old.jpegunderdog-new.jpeg I am not the only horrified Gen X-or-older individual who has lately been wondering “What the hell have they done to Underdog?” I was ashamed at first to admit I’d even been worrying about it, since it seems like a parody of things nerds worry about (akin to my outrage over the fact that the planet-eating giant Galactus was not slated to be fully visible in Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer — sufficient reason for me to boycott the movie, as indeed I have). But on the Underdog issue, I think even many normals are with me.

Underdog’s transformation, from a severely mild-mannered, mopey, humble — and rhyming — being in the original animated series into the non-rhyming, wisecracking cynic seen in the ads for the new live action/computer-animated movie, is offensive, though, not merely because it’s a betrayal of the original character (after all, isn’t Underdog too low as source material to worry about degrading?) but because it’s a glaring example of how knee-jerk cynicism is the only way Hollywood (and perhaps the broader culture) can imagine “updating” things these days. (This must be how an ex-girlfriend of mine felt about the TV-movie Muppets Wizard of Oz turning Dorothy into a fame-obsessed brat played by the singer Ashanti, in contrast to a warm-hearted girl who simply wanted to go home in the beloved original film — though I enjoyed seeing Gonzo as the Tin Man.) I suppose I should be grateful the new Underdog isn’t rhyming, since they’d probably turn him into a gangsta rapper, at which point they might as well just cast Poochie in the role. He’s got an in-your-face attitude, after all.

To give you some idea how detached I feel from most of pop culture — despite my frequent references to subsets of it — keep in mind that I stopped watching sitcoms (with a few rare exceptions) when I decided that one show I’d been watching had gotten too insult-oriented in its comedy, and that hostile, uncivil show was…Cheers, and it was about twenty years ago. Obviously, I had little idea what lay ahead: twenty years of watching the entire population convulsed on cue by nervous, mechanical, and unsatisfying laughter every time some jerk quickly retorts with a third-grade put down along the lines of “You mean like your face?” Make it stop. Make it stop. And more importantly, make real people stop imitating the sitcom characters in everyday conversation. This will come as a shock to most people living in the twenty-first century, but: being insulting really does not make you superior and arguably makes you worse. Try to wrap your mind around that now novel (but once obvious) concept.

Lest I sound like a typical clean-up-the-filth-on-TV guy, let me add that one of the reasons I could never take politicians’ crusades against TV and movie decadence seriously is that they so rarely attack the things people are likely to imitate — such as banter they find funny — preferring instead to attack things virtually no one will imitate, such as decapitating cyborgs from the future, but then, political efforts to quantify these problems are always ham-handed, as I was reminded once back in the 90s when a congressional report listed the most-offensive and least-offensive shows on television, and the list, compiled using very objective criteria such as counting the number of intentionally-inflicted injuries and gunshots on each show, ended up declaring Star Trek: The Next Generation one of the most wholesome shows and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine one of the most offensive, though any fan knows that the two shows had virtually the same underlying ethos, as have all manifestations of Star Trek. Sometimes the phasers just get used more.

Context matters in art, I realize, so people should not judge shows, as Congress did in that study, by simply counting nipples or explosions, and I would certainly not make some pronouncement as sweeping as “All insult comedy is bad” (witness Triumph), but I’ll happily say “Most insult comedy is all too easy and much too coarsening to be worth wasting one’s precious finite life on.” A trickier question is what to think about boxing, which is, after all, a crowd cheering on two guys punching each other in the face. On that I have no strong opinion, though I know it’s not my idea of a good time — or is it, given my fondness for superhero stories, which are largely concerned with guys in costumes assaulting each other? Perhaps I should attend the event that (past Lolita Bar debater) Stephen Davis is organizing tonight, where you can be regaled by a speaker who went fifteen rounds with the legendary Muhammad Ali.

If you ask him a question, please be polite for a change.


D------ said...

As someone who grew up with Underdog in the early 1990s on Channel 5 (before Rupert took it over), I am appalled by the very nature of this film.

By the end of the year, the DVD of the film will be sold as a two-pack with “Howard the Duck” (1986).

D------ said...

Make that early 1980s.

Koli said...


Curt_Henderson said...

I think you’re trying to sound more detached to pop culture than you actually are, and that your first instinct to feel silly about fretting over the Underdog conversion was the right one. It looks better than most kids movies.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I had similar thoughts to Todd’s– including a spontaneous Poochie thought– on seeing the horrifying Underdog commercial.

But… no sitcoms in 20 years? (Excluding, I take it, the Simpsons?) Really? You’re right that nastiness in sitcoms was about to take off to new heights shortly afterward– in Seinfeld– but that means Todd Seavey has never seen the character of Niles Crane, and that’s just not OK. And you’re talking about a genre that still basically has the warm gooey heart of the Cosby Show; there’s a reason why “no learning and no hugs” was a revolutionary motto for Seinfeld. Lord knows the iconic sitcom of the post-Seinfeld era, Friends, had plenty of both.

Insults notwithstanding, I think you’d enjoy Scrubs or 30 Rock, and that you’d have enjoyed Frasier and maybe News Radio and Spin City.

Christopher said...

I’m personally disturbed that you haven’t watched Arrested Development. And did you really not watch Seinfeld? I seem to recall actually watching it with you in the early 90’s. Of course my memory is a bit fuzzy about some things from that period.

Todd Seavey said...

_Seinfeld_ and _The Simpsons_ were the two Great Exceptions alluded to above, though I stopped watching _Simpsons_ regularly after about the eighth season. Saw a few episodes of _Frasier_ and a very few _News Radio_. Never saw _Arrested Development_, _Will and Grace_, no _Friends_ after a few episodes from the first two seasons, no _30 Rock_ (nor _Third Rock_), no _Everybody Loves Raymond_, perhaps one _Ally McBeal_, maybe three _Drew Carey_, etc. Indeed, I’ve also only seen about a season or two worth of _South Park_ and _Family Guy_, shamefully.

While I’m at it, on a non-comedic note, I’ve only seen two episodes of _The Sopranos_, no _Lost_, no _Alias_, no _Rome_, only first-season _Survivor_, only part of one _Battlestar Galactica_ episode, and, of course, virtually no sports since I don’t care about sports (I was once unaware that the World Series was going on even though Game Three had arrived _and was being played in New York City_ — and the non-New York team was one I’d never heard of, the Arizona Diamondbacks, as I recall, though I gather they’re relatively new).

By contrast, I’ve seen about half the episodes of _24_ and, as hinted in the massive footnote to this article I wrote — http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.288/news_detail.asp — watched every episode of _X-Files_ to the pointless, bitter end, which may have contributed to my desire to avoid future bouts of viewer-loyalty.

P.S. I met David Duchovny in a bar once (Reason editor Nick Gillespie was there and got his autograph), and he claimed they might do a non-alien stand-alone movie one day, but I’ll believe it when I see it — and damn them if they don’t at least throw in a loose-ends-tying line like “We were on the run from an alien conspiracy, but the aliens and their allies seemed to vanish after they realized we knew about their susceptiblity to the metal called magnetite.”

Todd Seavey said...

Oh, and: no _Heroes_ (as Lt. Castillo from _Miami Vice_ once said).

Brain said...

Little House on the Prairie was the best show ever. I only came to appreciate it as an adult, watching reruns on TBS. It’s also a show that I can watch with my children. House jumped the shark a few seasons ago. Lost’s season finale was great, and I am eagerly awaiting the next season, despite a slow patch earlier in the season. That 70’s Show had its highs and lows but my interest petered out. Entourage is a great show, even though it’s mostly a male fantasy wish fulfillment. And if you are going to have to watch cartoons with your children, you could do worse than the Smurfs or Charlie Brown specials.

Late night and early morning PBS on channel 13 in New York (and presumably elsewhere also airs some educational series that can be surprisingly good and enjoyable.

The point of watching and keeping up with sports is not necessarily out of passionate interest, but mostly so you can make small talk about something other than the weather.

Ben Callicoat said...

Bravo, Todd Seavey!

I’m a hopeless curmudgeon (at 44) and can proudly say that — other than Frasier, and Seinfeld which I watched in syndication — I’ve not even *heard* of most of the other shows you and your readers mention. Never watched even a single episode of The Sopranos. Never missed any of it.

I’d just as soon banish television from my home, except that my wife and children would mutiny. A vast wasteland indeed.

Experiencing real life is far superior to closeting yourself inside, and watching someone else’s fictional one.

Mowog said...

Mr. Seavey,

You seem to have had as much (or, little) contact with US pop culture TV as I have since moving to Japan over a decade ago. I return home only once every two years for brief visits, during which my mind boggles at the overwhelming choice of schlock available on basic cable TV; I also tend to get sucked into watching hours of it, partly out of “shock and awe” that renders me a submissive potato, but also out of a lack of other things worth doing (when I don’t have a vehicle on hand) in my hometown.

Although Japanese TV has its weak points, it refreshingly lacks the constant cynicism, insults, and aggression that seem to define most of Hollywood’s product line. Of course, it has things that would probably have censorship fans in knots, but much of that comes on after 11. Sometimes I’m up for it, and sometimes not.