Thursday, August 31, 2006

#6 "The Betrayal" -- Seinfeld (1997)

Seinfeld has earned its place in the pantheon of great television because it rewrote the rules for sitcoms. Its humor is organic and daring, refusing to be confined to pre-established patterns. One early episode that best exemplifies this is "The Chinese Restaurant," noteworthy because the entire episode takes place in one location (the aforementioned restaurant) and because it involves nothing more than Jerry, George and Elaine talking while they wait for a table. More than any other, that episode earned the show its reputation as a show about nothing.

I have chosen, however, an episode from one of the later seasons that I think is both funnier and more daring. "The Betrayal" again illustrates the risk-taking mentality of Seinfeld as the entire episode is told in reverse order. We begin at the end of the episode and then the scenes work backward as the audience has to put the pieces together to form the puzzle. Punchlines land first only to be followed by the set up later on. We first encounter Kramer with his tiny lollipop, which then grows throughout the episode to its original, humongous size. It is a risky and gimmicky episode. But what makes it stand out is that the gimmick works.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

#7 “Flesh and Bone” -- Battlestar Galactica

Number seven on my list of the greatest television episodes is “Flesh and Bone” from the first season of the newly revamped Battlestar Galactica. I never watched the original version from the 1970’s, but I understand the basic storyline to involve humans having created a series of robots called Cylons who then rebelled against them. In the newest incarnation, several decades have passed and the Cylons, who had left to inhabit their own section of the galaxy, now return and wipe out most of humanity in a sneak attack. The kicker is that the Cylons have created a new version of themselves in which they look, feel, and act like humans. They have flesh and blood, they sweat, hunger, feel pain – all the hallmarks of the human race.

In the episode “Flesh and Bone,” a Cylon has been discovered hiding on one of the ships belonging to the human survivors and he claims to have placed a nuclear bomb on one of the ships in the caravan. Consequently, Starbuck interrogates him in order to learn the location of the bomb.

The power of this episode lies in its examination of the nature of humanity. The Cylons gave themselves the ability to feel pain, hunger, etc. because they desire to be human. They even claim to have a soul – placed in them by the God they follow. (Another interesting aspect of the show is the contrast between the monotheistic beliefs of the Cylons and the polytheistic beliefs of the humans. One can even see reflections on contemporary terrorism issues as the Cylons believe their actions to be guided by God).

The contrast between the human Starbuck and the Cylon she interrogates drives this episode. Believing as most humans do that the Cylons are little more than glorified toasters, Starbuck lies to, tortures, and generally demeans the captive Cylon. In between, the two engage in debate over what makes one human. Is the definition of humanity reduceable simply to the presence of a soul or are we defined by our actions? As Starbuck’s torture of the Cylon progresses, one begins to wonder if the line dividing human and Cylon is being erased and whether true humanity must involve more than the possession of flesh and bone.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

#8 "Silence" -- Joan of Arcadia (2004)

Joan of Arcadia is a darker, more grounded counterpart to Touched by an Angel. It tries to present the reality of faith with all its challenges, doubts, and dangers. The premise, a modern take-off on Joan of Arc, is that of a teenage girl who receives visitations from God. God appears to her in a variety of forms tailored to the situation – a handsome young man, a little girl, an old lady, etc.

The episode “Silence” concludes the first season. Joan experiences a crisis of faith in her life and at the one moment when she needs God the most, the God who had always spoken to her in the past, suddenly falls silent. In one scene, God appears to Joan in her hospital room but won’t speak to her. She yells at him, begs him, questions him, and doubts him. No response. It is the harsh reality of one who prays to God in an hour of need, yet perceives only deafening silence in return.

As the episode unfolds, Joan comes to the conclusion that God does not exist. Convinced that all of her past encounters with God have been the result of hallucinations, she voices her denial of his existence. The episode pointedly concludes with Joan asleep in her hospital bed, as God, still silent, enters the room, walks to the side of her bed, and strokes her hair. The honesty of Joan’s lament, coupled with the episode’s assurance that God is present even in the silence, creates a thought-provoking study on biblical lament.

Monday, August 21, 2006

#9 “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’" – The X-Files (1996)

The X-Files hit so many high points during its run that it deserves to have an episode represented among my top ten, but choosing a single episode is a challenge. I thought about the episode “Bad Blood”, a serio-comic take on vampire mythology that distinguishes itself in the opening scene when Fox Mulder, certain he is on the hunt after a vampire, tackles a kid in the woods and stabs him through the heart with a stake – only to then notice the fake vampire teeth in his mouth. Or, I considered “War of the Coprophages,” which deserves mention if for no other reason than the appearance of beautiful entomologist Dr. Bambi Berenbaum. I repeat, Dr. Bambi Berenbaum.

But ultimately I had to settle on “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”. Episodes of The X-Files fall into two categories: one shot episodes that deal with a very specific story and mythology episodes that continue the ongoing, overarching narrative concerning Fox Mulder’s obsession with aliens. Several of the one-shot episodes take a comic approach, such as the ones described above. The mythology episodes are often very serious by contrast. With “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’”, however, The X-Files pokes fun at itself by offering a comedic and almost absurdist take on its own mythology. The episode includes faked alien invasions, seemingly real alien invasions, an alien autopsy (in another self-referential moment poking fun at the alien autopsy special that aired on Fox – the network airing The X-Files), and enough twists and turns to keep Agatha Christie happy.

When two teenagers claim to have been abducted by aliens, Mulder and Scully investigate only to learn that nothing is as it seems. The X-Files is known for raising the question of whether the truth is out there, suggesting that we cannot trust our government and may not even be able to trust each other. This episode takes that a step further by questioning whether we can trust ourselves and our own interpretations of the truth.

Friday, August 18, 2006

#10 “Betrayal” -- The Practice (1997)

On one level, The Practice is just another show about lawyers. Now shows about lawyers are about as common as Paris Hilton embarrassing herself in public. But what makes this show about lawyers stand out in the midst of the crowd is the guidance of David E. Kelley. The signature mark that Kelley brings to his shows (Picket Fences being a good example) is the ability to examine both sides of an issue with equal clarity. Kelley has never met a straw man. He treats opposing views with such respect that it is nearly impossible to determine what side of an issue he stands on by watching The Practice. Most lawyer shows make the outcome of their trials as obvious as Burt Reynolds’ toupee. But The Practice was one show in which I could never be certain how a judicial decision would come down. And beyond that, sometimes I would find myself becoming sympathetic to an argument that I would have given no credence to going into the show.

The episode “Betrayal” represents the best of The Practice. It is a sharply written episode with a killer plot twist. What makes this episode stand out is the Emmy-nominated (I can’t recall if he won) performance of John Larroquette as Joey Heric, a gay man accused of killing his lover. Joey is a supreme narcissist of unusual intelligence. Joey’s ability to stay one step ahead of every one makes for a fascinating game of cat and mouse. He serves as a vehicle for exploring the fairness and accuracy of our legal system. Through his endless machinations and manipulations, Joey reveals the flaws in a system that relies on the letter of the law. The episode suggests that justice may be blind, but sometimes it can be just plain stupid.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

10 Best Television Episodes

I was eating chicken the other day and it made me think of television because, well, most things do. I have claimed elsewhere that the best of television today rivals that of film and often exceeds it. Actors, writers, and directors who up until a few years ago would have considered association with the small screen to be career suicide now frequently adopt it as their medium of choice.

These days some of the most riveting, moving, and thought-provoking stories that our culture has to tell are being told on television, not in movie theaters.

I am also somewhat fond of lists. I admire their simplicity and directness. They are not big on plot or character development, but what they do they do well. Lists neither deceive nor prevaricate. They simply state. They have become an integral part of our society ever since the Ten Commandments – the first Top Ten list.

Movies dominate many of our lists. We list the best movies, best movie moments, best movie kisses, best movies starring rehabilited child actors, etc. But television gets ignored. So in that spirit I am going to produce my list of the ten best television episodes of all time. Not shows, but single episodes.

I will give my number 10 choice in the next post and present one episode at a time, allowing me to give my justification for their inclusion.

As with any such lists, these are merely my personal preferences. I have not seen every show that has ever aired, not for lack of trying, so certainly many worthy candidates will be missed because of it. My criteria for selection varies. Some are on the list because they were innovative episodes that impacted the television landscape from then on. Some are there because of the way they address significant philosophical, ethical, or theological issues, thus provoking healthy dialogue. Others are there due to the sheer quality of the episode. But regardless of the reason, all of these are examples of television at its best.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Modern Fantasy: The Heir to Apocalyptic

I’ve reached day 25 in my ongoing quest to recover from knee surgery and am told I can look forward to at least 3 more weeks of crutches and knee braces. It’s not been all bad. There are worse things than lying on a couch for three and a half weeks, waited on hand and foot while viewing countless episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Gilmore Girls -- there’s a combination that will give you mental whiplash. I know it’s gone too far when I find myself rooting for Lorelai Gilmore to just pull out her blaster pistol and blow Emily out of the hatch or wondering why Captain Adama and the Cylons can’t just talk out their feelings.

After all this, it’s no wonder my thoughts have turned apocalyptic. While writing my previous post in defense of fantasy, I decided such a defense was not complete without a nod towards apocalyptic. Scholars often note that one of the reasons ancient apocalyptic writings like the book of Revelation, Daniel, 1 Enoch, etc. are so difficult for us to understand is because we don’t write apocalypses anymore. It is a literary genre lost to us.

I suggest that is only partly true. The specific literary genre of an apocalypse has died out, but not without leaving an heir. I contend that the modern fantasy novel is a descendant of apocalyptic – they share a similar DNA. The stark dualism of good and evil, the thin veil between material and spiritual (or magical) reality, and the preference of communicating through symbols such as dragons and other mythical-type creatures inhabit the blood of each genre.

Andrew Greeley in his book God in Popular Culture recounts the major themes that can be found in many examples of modern fantasy and concludes by questioning how anyone can read works of modern fantasy and not see them as religious and theological novels.

Some scholars see the book of Revelation as having an escapist function not unlike that often attributed to modern fantasy novels. They say that those who read Revelation escape this harsh world by retreating into the imaginary world created by Revelation. There they gain a strength from that world that allows them to return to the real world and better deal with their problems.

In my doctoral dissertation, I argued for a slightly different approach, that is that the function of apocalyptic language is transformative. In other words, Revelation does not counsel a retreat from the real world into an imaginative one as much as it suggests that the symbolic world it creates is in a sense the real world. It attempts to transform our understanding of the world by getting us to interpret and experience it in a different way. One example: in a context where people experience the world as a place of suffering, injustice and evil, Revelation provides a vision of God seated on a heavenly throne – the message is that God is in control of this world even when your five senses tell you otherwise.

I suggest modern fantasy has a related function, though it plays out in a somewhat different way. The apocalyptic language of a book like Revelation argues that we have misinterpreted reality, that in fact the world IS different than we think it is. The apocalyptic language of modern fantasy suggests, I think, that the world CAN BE different than it is. By holding up the triumph of good over evil, the power of the spiritual world, and the quest for redemption and moral refinement, these works suggest that we can all be the heroes of our own story. We read The Lord of the Rings and feel that, just like Frodo, perhaps we too have the determination and moral focus to defeat the Lord of Mordor. In essence, modern fantasy is the language of hope.

Friday, August 11, 2006

In Defense of Fantasy

Modern fantasy is the step-child of the literary world. It gets no respect, even less love. Aside from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fantasy gets less acclaim than teen chick lit. This is because the literati view fantasy as nothing more than escapist entertainment, the literary equivalent of a trashy TV show.

Fantasy stories are a modern version of the ancient fairy tale and they function in much the same way. They instruct us in the nature of the world and how to live in it. As such, they are subject to many of the same misconceptions that plague fairy tales. One such misconception is that fairy tales and fantasy stories are for children. Don’t be fooled by the dragons, magic, and elves – fairy tales and fantasy stories are stories about life that use the unfamiliar to comment on the familiar.

J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings was adamant that adults have a greater need for fairy tales than do children. C. S. Lewis whose Chronicles of Narnia stories were more suited for children than were Tolkien’s writings nevertheless shared Tolkien’s view of the function of fairy tales for adults. One of Lewis’ essays even bears the provocative title “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said.”

And yet the belief that fantasy is not real grown up literature persists. Not long ago, Stephen King, in his column he writes for Entertainment Weekly chastised a literary reviewer for referring to a book as “Harry Potter for adults.” King insisted instead that “Harry Potter is Harry Potter for adults.”

C. S. Lewis was a man for whom fairy tales and fantasy was a guide all his life. We see a glimpse of Lewis’ view of fairy tales in the character of Eustace. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace is a boy devoid of imagination. He finds himself magically transported to the world of Narnia but doesn’t know how to live in that world. At several points throughout the narrative, when Eustace reveals his inability to live appropriately in this world, Lewis adds the comment that it is because Eustace has not read the right kind of books. By that, Lewis means books with dragons, magic and elves – fantasy books.

In several posts, I’ve mentioned an excellent biography of Lewis that I read recently: “The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis” (a link to the book can be found to the right). Towards the end of the book, the author, Alan Jacobs, includes a wonderful anecdote. Lewis is in the hospital following a heart attack. It is very near the end of his life. His condition causes him to suffer bouts of delirium. He is visited by an old friend, Maureen Blake, a music teacher who previously had found out that a very distant relative, Baron Dunbar of Hempriggs, had died and the subsequent investigation surprisingly determined her to be the heir. Here is Jacobs account of the meeting between Blake and Lewis.

"When she arrived at the hospital she was told that Lewis had not recognized any of his visitors that day. She entered quietly, clasped his hand, and said, 'Jack, its Maureen.' 'No,' he replied . . . 'It’s Lady Dunbar of Hempriggs.' Maureen was stunned: 'Oh Jack, how could you remember that?' 'On the contrary,' he murmured. 'How could I forget a fairy-tale?'”

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

U2's Most Spiritual Album

It is a relatively recent but dependable trend. Whenever U2 puts out a new album, you can bet that within a few months the Internet will be flooded with articles and essays by preachers and other interested parties about how spiritual the album is. Although some people will hearken back to The Joshua Tree album as an example of early spirituality in the music of U2, most of these discussions fixate on the recent works All That You Can't Leave Behind and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Many of these writers act as though they are putting their readers onto something new, as though their careful ears are the first to have detected these spiritual nuances.

The fact is, though, that the most overtly spiritual album U2 has made is one of their earliest, created when they were barely out of high school. The album is called October. It is an album that, frankly, few people are aware of and even fewer listen to. The band has yet to find their musical voice and Bono is clearly struggling with figuring out how to write a song. Many of the lyrics feel scattered and unfinished. For those who came late to the U2 party, it would not meet the expectations they would have of a U2 album.

Yet for sheer spirituality, it ranks at the top. Written during a period when most of the band members were embracing Christianity with evangelical fervor, the album makes no attempt to hide or shade their devotion. In later times, they learned to present their spirituality in more nuanced and subtle ways. Here it is more raw and open. Consider, for instance, the words to With A Shout (Jerusalem):

I wanna go
To the foot of the messiah
To the foot of he who made me see
To the side of a hill
Where we were still
We were filled
With a love
We're gonna be there again
Jerusalem, Jerusalem

This theme of spiritual longing also finds expression in Tomorrow, a song about the death of Bono's mother. When Bono sings, Who healed the wounds, Who heals the scars, he goes on to answer his own question:

Open up, open up
To the Lamb of God
To the love of he who made me
The light to see you
He's coming back . . .
I believe it
Jesus coming

Praise is a major theme on this album. From the simple song Scarlet whose only lyrics are the repeated refrain "Rejoice, rejoice" to the song titled Rejoice, which sees praise as the appropriate response to God in the world.

I can't change the world
But I can change the world in me
If I rejoice . . . rejoice

The best known song off of the album is Gloria. The casual listener could be forgiven for thinking this is a song about a woman. The fact is that U2 stinks at writing traditional love songs and they know it. U2 employs "Gloria" here as the Latin term for "Glory." It is an unabashed praise song to God, as the largely Latin chorus makes clear.

Only in you I'm complete
Gloria . . . in te domine
Gloria . . . exultate
Gloria . . . Gloria
Oh Lord, loosen my lips

Bono concludes "Gloria" by singing "Oh Lord, if I had anything, anything at all, I'd give it to you." And yet he does have something to give: his music. As the subsequent career of U2 shows, culminating in the most recent albums, Bono has continued to give God that which he has to give: praise through music.