Friday, December 30, 2011

An Appreciation of the X-Files

TV is an easy target for a social critic like me. Too easy, which is why I usually refrain from writing about it here.

But every once in a while, something goes wrong. The lowest common denominator formulas that usually guard against this sort of thing fail, and we the people end up with something fresh and different.

For four seasons and most of a fifth, The X-Files provided some of the most-compelling television of the twentieth century. Episodes stuffed with government conspiracies and unspeakable monsters terrorized our imaginations when its wry, left-of-center humor wasn't provoking double takes.

It was new and unique and reliably disturbing.

Not so unique were the problems that eventually plagued it; the spiraling demands of newly-famous actors, writers, producers and directors and a dearth of fresh storylines.

Tired of the weekly commute between his home in Los Angeles and the show’s set in Vancouver, David Duchovny successfully lobbied for filming to be moved to L.A.

While not always sufficiently camouflaged to resemble Iowa or New Jersey, British Columbia nevertheless provided X-Files with just the backdrop its scripts demanded. The moody, dank clime was ideal for spawning Fluke Man or the crazed victim of one too many alien abductions.

The shadowy light acted as a metaphor, underscoring the morally-ambivalent world Scully and Mulder inhabited. Sunny SoCal just wasn’t the same.

And it was probably inevitable that one day the show would begin to run out of ideas. If producing a quality script for a movie is difficult, imagine what cranking out two-dozen per season for a TV series is like.

Season five revealed the first signs of full-blown fatigue, where a reliance on soap opera-styled plot conventions reared its ugly head.

Scully is abducted. Scully has cancer. Scully can’t have babies. While the first two of these developments actually came to light near the end of the fourth season, they are taken to their melodramatic extremes in season five.

One has only to watch the insufferable two-parter Christmas Carol and Emily to see the depths to which X-Files could fall.

But I come to praise X-Files, not bury it.

The X-Files was Moonlighting and Night Gallery and CSI all rolled into one. No other series had ever fused such disparate genres so successfully.

Sure, some of the conspiracy plots were more labyrinthine than The Big Sleep. And Scully's skepticism was occasionally a little nonsensical and a little too automatic. But it scared us and challenged us and made us laugh. It was habit-forming.

And if that moment in Unruhe when Scully realizes she is face-to-face with the prime suspect in several gruesome murders while alone in a gutted building undergoing rehab isn’t the most chilling in television history, I don’t know what is.

These days, X-Files would air on a premium cable channel, and not network TV. Only those with hundreds of dollars to spend on TV each month would be privileged enough to enjoy its compelling scripts, distinctive look and appealing cast. I am forever grateful it was not.

What follows is a highly-subjective list of my favorite episodes. They appear in order of broadcast because attempting to order them any other way would make my hair fall out.

Not surprisingly, they skew heavily to the first four seasons, since those had first crack at my imagination.

Comments welcome.

Top Ten:

Beyond the Sea
Irresistible
Dod Calm
Humbug
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
Grotesque
Pusher
Wetwired
Unruhe
Small Potatoes


Honorable Mentions:

Miracle Man
Duane Barry/Ascension
Excelsis Dei
Aubrey
Die Hand Die Verletzt
War of the Coprophages
Syzygy
Hell Money
Quagmire
Bad Blood

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Giving It Away

Silly me. I thought my employer paid me because I enhanced their profitability. By providing a skill, I enabled them to bring a product or service to market better or faster or more-efficiently.

Now I find that business is actually performing a public service by employing me. Who knew employment was a charitable act, done to protect America's labor force from the horrors of daytime TV?

What else to think after seeing so many of Illinois’ corporate citizens approach our bankrupt state government and request tax relief and deferments and subsidies? To hear them tell it, the employment they offer is a radiant act of selflessness equal to anything Mother Teresa ever did in India.

Employees aren’t the drop of oil or bit of grease that expedites the profit-making machinery. No. Employees are the ungrateful beneficiaries of really nice guys just trying to do the right thing.

According to our newly emboldened business class, they should be subsidized because they employ people. And pay them. And because they pay people, they themselves should be paid—even though they already are.

Confused? Me, too. But not to worry. This makes perfect sense in executive suites and in the GOP national headquarters.

If gigantic multi-national corporations aren’t our biggest parasites, who is? Is there anyone who finds something even a little objectionable about billion-dollar corporations extorting bankrupt state governments for whatever spare change might be lying around?

Do the words entitlement or leech spring to mind? Rape? How about necrophilia? They should.

Struggling telecommunications giant Motorola got $100 million from the state of Illinois for not leaving. Struggling retail giant Sears yesterday received $150 million in tax credits and will receive another $125 million in property tax relief for, again, not leaving.

The CME Group, which owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Board of Trade has also received welfare, the exact nature of which is unknown. CME also threatened to leave.

Sniff.

And those are just the most-recent cases. My manners would be showing if I neglected to mention Navistar, Chrysler, Continental Tire and U.S. Cellular.

As consumers, our options are limited. The governor is also in a spot. Call the guilty parties out in public and you risk ruffling their feathers and having these Vito Corleone wanna-bes make good on their threats.

Pay the scumbags and you outrage the public, especially when cuts to public transit, health care and education are deep and widespread. And don't forget, the public still votes.

The best response is a public boycott. Let consumer-dependent companies like Motorola and Sears know how the tax-paying public feels about extortion. Especially for an entity that has received the bounty of government largesse our corporations have.

While we’re sensitive to the fact it costs a lot of money to make a lot of money, it’s not all gravy, all the time. In other words, the one-hundred percent profit margin will remain a fantasy—at least until the next Republican president signs the slave labor mandate.

Besides, whatever happened to the small government ideal, anyway? Oh that’s right—that’s unless it can shovel a mountain of public cash into your sweaty, clutching hands. Got it.

It’s Christmas, folks. Companies like Motorola and Sears are never more vulnerable than now. We should strenuously and obstreperously not be okay with this.

Ever.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ron Santo

I’m sorry, but I can’t see the belated election of Ron Santo to baseball’s Hall of Fame as anything but borderline cruel. Perhaps I’m afflicted with an undiagnosed case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Maybe it’s the crass capitalism of Christmas.

Or maybe it’s the smug and exclusionary politics that kept an earnest, deserving ballplayer from the Hall for decades as he battled the diabetes that would eventually kill him.

None other than baseball-obsessive Bill James named Santo as one of the ten best third basemen ever. Not of the 60s. Not of the modern era. Ever. How is it that someone so good remained excluded for so long?

There are a dearth of third basemen in the Hall. According to Baseball Almanac, just eleven. Only the position of catcher (thirteen) even comes close. Yet Ron Santo, nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, breaker of a sixty-year-old league assist record at the position somehow wasn’t good enough.

Third base is an extraordinarily difficult position to play. It’s physically demanding, and as such, makes long-term success as a hitter (the primary criteria for entrance to the Hall of Fame) unlikely. Despite their often powerful builds, only two third basemen have ever surpassed 400 home runs. None have 3,000 hits.

Third base is a meat grinder. It devours baseball players.

There are only a few obvious choices at the position. Mike Schmidt. Brooks Robinson. Eddie Mathews. Pie Traynor.

While admittedly a shade below their stature, Santo was nevertheless the premier National League third basemen of his era, second only to Robinson in all of Major League Baseball. He was clearly and obviously a rare talent.

And coupled with his private struggle with diabetes, his success at one of sport’s most-difficult positions was remarkable. Ron Santo was given a life expectancy of twenty-five years. Think diabetes is a tough battle now? What do you think it was in 1964?

More than any of his quantifiable athletic gifts, Santo’s greatest asset was his heart. It was a relentless and powerful one.

Admittance to any type of club is invariably political. It is often no more than a popularity contest. And for inexplicable and unfathomable reasons, it was one Santo had to die to win.

Having spent fourteen of his fifteen years in baseball as a Chicago Cub, it is an irony Ron Santo no doubt appreciates.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Quit Happens

Good evening, Square Peggers.

And how are you? I hope this finds you in the very best of spirits. Fine of fettle and robust of mettle.

Yes, I am positively overflowing with good thoughts and wishes this fine eve. And it is my wish to distribute this newfound treasure—my joy—to each and every one of you!

For when joy finds us, is it not our solemn duty to break off a piece and let everyone have a sip?

Perhaps I have mixed my metaphors. But let us not allow mere semantics stand in the way of this joyous tsunami! Tarry not! For the moment must be flavored!

The source of this great (but by no means uncharacteristic) joy is the recent announcement that Herman Cain is dismantling his campaign and will not seek the office of president.

Oh great, good fortune! To whom, to what do I owe this wondrous occurrence of divine intervention? Hallelujah! Huzzah!

Strawberry-scented hand sanitizer and Sans-A-Belt slacks for everyone!

Let us take a look back. The Hermanator once spoke thusly:

"Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!"

La Piazza Gancio now speaks thisly:

“Don’t blame the media, don’t blame the other candidates. If you don’t have a campaign and you’re not the president, blame yourself!”

Of course, Herman has not done this. Nor is he ever likely to.

But by all means I should blame myself for the gutting of our economy by unimgainably wealthy Americans who have yet to face a single consequence for their indefensable actions.

Hypocrisy and the royal 'we' are alive and well. In fact, they have never been more alive or more well. I want to thank Herman for being the arrogant embodiment of entitlement that he is. I'll always remember him as the 'hands on' candidate.

And finally, a tip of the hat to Ms. Potts, curator of the Angry Historian, who correctly predicted on October 14th that Herman Cain wasn’t going anywhere near the presidency. She was right.