Saturday, January 28, 2012

Daria 1-07: The Lab Brat

Probably the most surprising thing about Daria's first season for me is how well the series uses its generic jock and cheerleader caricatures, Kevin and Britney.  On any other show, they would be plodding stock jokes and the objects of social satire.  But there's a kind of joy and innocence in the way in which they guilelessly inhabit their roles that makes them fun to watch -- and it doesn't hurt that Daria lets them surprise us from time to time.  None of the shows' characters are more than two-dimensional, especially not the titular snarker, but somehow they all manage to be endearing in their own way.

Mostly this is because the object of satire in Daria isn't the characters themselves, but the social situations they find themselves in -- everything from teenage rites of passage (trips to the mall and college tours) to social phenomena (fashion and self-esteem fanaticism) which are unfortunate and mockable events larger than any of the generally pitiable people within them, no matter how dumb or uncool said people may be[1].  "The Lab Brat", however, is perhaps the first episode that doesn't have an overt target of satire.  The science project is a pretty stock plot for teen shows, but it's not really the focus here.  Instead, "The Lab Brat" looks at adolescent relationship drama through the idea of psychological conditioning.

The idea, not an especially new or revelatory one but still fairly true, is that teenagers are in everything motivated by the quest for love/sex.  This isn't always a pure carnal desire, and in fact thus far Daria is pretty asexual (both the show and the character).  Instead, it's more about status and self-image -- witness Quinn's glee in having multiple boys wait on her, or how Chuck doesn't really know what to do with Britney once he has her under his power.  The motivation is less having a significant other than being the type (or calibre) of person who has one.  This is a pretty accurate representation of high school.

"The Lab Brat" introduces a second desire for our characters, that of getting the school project done with as little effort as possible.  This gives privilege to previously undesirable characters like Daria and Chuck, the "brains" who can be relied upon to do the entire project.  They react to this newfound power in opposite ways: Chuck lords it over Britney, using it to achieve the primary sexual motivation that gives him so little power under normal circumstances, whereas Daria more or less ignores it, not really caring about anything enough to leverage her power towards it.

In the world of the lab rat, the story would end here.  The experiment that Daria and her classmates are asked to conduct are all about singular desire and how to alter it.  But in a social environment, we aren't the only one running towards the cheese.  We also have to deal with the desires of others, the desires we project onto others, and our ability to achieve that desire.  So Britney assumes that Daria is exploiting Kevin in the same way that Chuck is exploiting her, because she assumes that any woman would desire him -- and while she's wrong in this instance, the threat is real, in the form of the ever-predatory Quinn.  As for Kevin, his simplistic desires -- basically a constant stream of football -- are what allow  him to be so easily controlled by the women around him.

All of this culminates in a collision of interests that ends up basically ruining the plans of all the characters involved, or at the very least returning things to the status quo.  If there's a moral to be had -- and Daria is too ironic to really have a didactic moral -- it's how the simplistic idea of conditioning, which assumes that everyone follows their own desires without any thought of others both can't and shouldn't apply to the world we live in.  It's a weirdly complex idea for a MTV cartoon to get across.

The above descriptions make this sound like a philosophy lecture, but it actually plays out as a broad farce.  All of the characters are essentially coddled upper-middle-class American teens, and as such we don't need to take seriously either their desires or their punishment -- the worst fate that can befall anyone in this story is a lost boyfriend or a failing grade.  So the mutual doom we see in the last scene is not a tragic ending but a comedic comeuppance.  All of this is in addition to the usual tropes of bedroom farce -- the ridiculous suspicions and more ridiculous acts of vengeance.

Coupled with this, we can observe the characters from afar, like we do with lab rats, because they aren't entirely human.  This isn't simply because it's an animated show, although the animation -- especially the simple line-based character designs -- do limit our abilities to identify with them as fellow humans.  (Then again, it's leagues more photorealistic than your average Adult Swim show).  It's more that the characters are two-dimensional in personality as well as appearance.  They always wear the same outfits, always have the same attitude, and always essentially the same relations with each other.  We don't have to use our knowledge of episodic structure to know that no long-term harm will come to these characters.  We know, almost instinctively from watching them, that they cannot change without remaining the same character in anything but name.  If Kevin takes off his sports jersey, how will we know who he is?

Usually saying a series has shallow characters would be a criticism, but Daria uses these two-dimensional types well.  Because we immediately understand them, we can focus immediately on the situation they're in instead of learning who these people are.  It's not a conventional approach to storytelling, but it more or less works.  When Daria fails, it's because of the relative tameness of its satire, not because of the characters.  With that said, I have to wonder if these cut-outs will remain appealing over five seasons, or whether the show will have to become a more standard character-based comedy.

"The Lab Brat" was written by series co-creator Glenn Eichler, who seems to have a better idea of what the show wants to do than most of the writers have thus far.  He also knows how to mix the right level of absurdity into satire to make its strong message palatable, as evidenced by his later work on The Colbert Report.  This episode is, however, probably the least openly satiric of the series' run thus far -- instead of a declared target like college or the fashion industry, we have what initially seems like a sitcommy plot based on character interaction that gradually turns into a satire on teen desire.

Of course, in the end no one learns their lesson.  Kevin's ignorance of the drama unfolding around him is rewarded by Britney continuing to cater to his every whim, and Britney never shakes (or wants to shake) her dependence on him.  Daria and Jane only add more fuel to their misanthropic fire.  Some characters are punished by their raging science teacher, but the punishment seems to have no danger of getting them to change their ways.

In its own way, this is more realistic than the traditional method of character development.  We don't necessarily learn from our mistakes -- if we did, we'd make a lot more mistakes.  It requires careful self-reflection and consideration, of which none of our teenage narcissists - Daria included - are really capable of.  This episode reflects that, being simple on the surface but, under further examination, actually having something quite interesting to say.

Next Week: "Shall I show you what's under this eyepatch?"

[1]I'm still making my way through the first season, so take this and any other generalities to apply only to what I've seen so far.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Suburgatory 1-11: Out in the 'Burbs

Okay, let's get the weird incest thing out of the way first.  The first and only thing most people want to talk about with Suburgatory is the relationship between the central father/daughter couple which, because of a mixture of Dawson's Casting and the generally even, banter-filled relationship between the two, has been seen as perhaps more romantic than filial.  In truth, there's not a lot of basis for this, and I think Jane Levy and Jeremy Sisto actually do a good precocious-teenager/understanding-dad[1] relationship, and it's only made awkward by the too-small age gap and a few weird scenes (e.g. the two of them dancing in the Sweet Sixteen episode).  The father/daughter relationship in Veronica Mars was pretty similar, and nobody made much in the way of jokes, mainly because Enrico Colatani looks like he could actually have a teenage daughter.  But it's a fun oppositional reading to take, and once you hear the theory it's hard to stop noticing possibly-incestuous shit in the show.

At this point, though, it's hard not to feel that the writers aren't having some fun here.  This episode opens with a fairly gratuitous Jane Levy shower scene, which leads to the water being cut off, and both father and daughter going to answer the door in their towels.  Later, closeted guidance counsellor Mr. Wolf mentions bidding on a Perfect Strangers box set online, with the comment "You know, I don't think those two were really cousins."  The obvious context of the joke is his own unacknowledged homosexuality, but I can't help but think of it as a subtle nod to the improbability of Levy really being Sisto's daughter.

All of this ties in with the generally unreal feeling of Suburgatory.  The setting looks like a colourful theme park, the women look like Barbie dolls, and the characters all seem to be cliches exaggerated so much that it becomes vaguely surreal.  It would be easy to take this as a failing of the show, and from a conventional viewpoint it is, with the satire often being broad and unoriginal.  On paper it's a standard, not-particularly-great family sitcom, but there's a kind of ungraspable strangeness lurking below the surface.

Perhaps the strangeness has something to do with the swerve that seems to occur more and more in Suburgatory, where the show will intentionally invoke a standard sitcom plot and then veer off into something different altogether, or have everyone seem confused as to what page they're on.  In this episode Tessa seems to believe she's in one of those overly-earnest coming out episodes (as does Mr. Wolf at the end), when the boy in question is interested in the school jocks not for their good looks but because he's an undercover officer investigating for steroids.

The entire premise is ludicrous, of course, and involves that sitcom thing where people talk just vague enough to misunderstand each other.  But it's still a distinctly unusual plot, particularly in how nobody addresses or notices the absurdity of the (married) steroid-hunting undercover agent.  It also invokes two after school special topics -- gay acceptance and drugs -- and shrugs them off without much attention.  Only Tessa, determined to be the cool accepting city girl, gets drawn into the coming-out narrative, and the show more or less mocks her for it.  As it turns out, Chatswin may be superficial, but it's not bigoted -- if only perhaps because bigotry would involve taking an interest in other people.

There's also the manic stalkerishness of Lisa, the obligatory best friend character who has actually turned into one of my favourites.  She's weird in a real life way, that slightly off-putting air (instead of a mass of quirks, which is how TV usually does weird) that you see in the girl who sits alone at the lunch table.  She's also one of the few regulars who looks like she could actually be in high school, which helps.  In this episode she becomes fixated on the newcomer and promptly tries to appeal to the newcomer in many of her strange ways, from dressing up as a male jock to telling him that she's never been to his home city of Chicago but she's seen the musical.  What's notable here is the lack of reaction from Tessa, the undercover guy, or really anyone.  Lisa is never rejected and never learns her lesson -- she's just an odd element out in the plot's orbit.

I don't want to overstate the case here.  There are a lot of times when Suburgatory is comfortable staying in standard sitcom plots without changing it up much at all.  The show is still charming, but it's nothing revolutionary, and only moderately well-executed.  The plotline between George and Dallas episode isn't exactly a stock plot, building as it does off of a serialized storyline from previous episodes, but it does rely on a lot of misinterpreted double-entendres that wouldn't be out of place on Three's Company.

The basic recurring joke is that George thinks Dallas is making overt sexual advances at him through thinly-veiled double entendres, but the ditzy Dallas actually means just what she literally says.  Cheryl Hines is given a pretty thankless job here as one of the above-mentioned Barbie dolls, but one who's supposed to be at least somewhat endearing.  At the same time, there's an issue with the possibility of a Dallas/George relationship, which is that it's the equivalent of a real person dating a cartoon.  If Dallas is really dumb enough that she doesn't see the possible double meaning in asking George to squeeze her melons, while George is more or less a normal person, then it seems like any relationship between them would be so unequal that he would be taking advantage of her.

Certainly the suburban housewife culture deserves satire (especially as it's being glamourized in all of those Real Housewives series) but Dallas is a very problematic way to go about it.  Her overt sexuality and naivete are a joke, as over-the-top as everything else in the series, but even if it's done for the purposes of humour there's still the overt text of a hot chick seducing a guy, and that surface level doesn't go away simply because it's played for laughs.  As Community has discovered, an ironic mud wrestling match is still a mud wrestling match.

There's also a kind of tomboy misogyny in the way Suburgatory separates the sympathetic, intelligent girls in Tessa and Lisa from people like Dallas and Dalia.  Of course, the men of suburbia are mocked as well, but even superficial characters like Alan Tudyk's Noah[2] have at least a certain amount of cunning, whereas Dallas and Dalia are completely braindead.  The performances add more depth and nuance to these characters than the writing does, but it's still rather problematic.

"Out in the 'Burbs" is written by series newcomer Elliot Hegarty, who I know absolutely nothing about, and directed by Bob Kushell, who previously directed what was probably the series' best episode in "The Barbecue".  Comedy writing credits are always fairly arbitrary, but this does feel like a different kind of writing than most Suburgatory episodes, being less satirical and more broadly comedic.  All of the characters are mocked (even Tessa in her desire to live up to her own self-image), but for once it doesn't feel like they're meant to stand in for broad swathes of people.  It's a shift to a more character-driven, idiosyncratic kind of comedy, which I think frankly works better for this show.

As for Kushell, he mainly sticks to the show's day-glo aesthetic and conventional directing technique, but there are some decidedly odd shots in here.  For instance, one scene begins with George's head seemingly having been replaced by a melon (due to strange camera perspective) with Dallas whispering "squeeze it".  The Lynchian tableau doesn't last long, and is quickly assimilated back into a fairly standard scene, but that oddness is still there, creeping in at the corners.

(The giant "MELONS" sign really adds to the absurdity here.)

A lot of shows spend their first seasons trying to figure out what they'll eventually become, and Suburgatory falls into this category.  There are a lot of different shows it could become: a gentle family hang-out show, a sharp social satire, a character-based single-camera serial comedy of the kind that's so popular now, or something decidedly stranger.  All of these could be good shows in their own right, although some of them -- particularly the satire -- would require stronger execution than Emily Kapnek and crew have previously showed.  But right now I'm enjoying the show in its inchoate form, with all its goals and half-realized desires pushing against each other.  And maybe its this struggle between several different visions and possibilities that leads to that intoxicating, unplaceable weirdness.

Next week: "If you were really good, you'd get the mouse to stay off both paths.  You know, like dada.  Everything is pointless."

[1]Sisto might actually be my favourite TV dad in recent memory.  The guy is just so slick.

[2]Tudyk is predictably great in this role, but it's probably a bad sign that I had to look up his character's name on Wikipedia.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Star Trek 1-18: Arena

In order to get Star Trek on the air, Gene Roddenberry says that he had to sell it as a Western, a "Wagon Train to the stars", and that certainly does show up in some episodes ("Mudd's Women", "The Conscience of the King")[1].  However, I would venture to say that it's really more of a horror series than anything else -- the horror hiding inside a sci-fi shell, which in itself hid inside a Western shell.  The world of the original Star Trek is one filled with supernatural beings, many of whom can bear the image of your best friend, and many of whom are completely beyond human comprehension.  These beings, almost to a man, are out to kill you.

The setting is in space, but the show rarely tells genuinely science fictional stories, proceeding from a "what-if" question about our future.  Star Trek takes place on the outskirts of civilized space, so we don't get much of a picture of what this future society looks like.  Instead, we have the cold darkness of space, a space you apparently can't go two feet in without running into some Lovecraftian god beyond your comprehension.  Two of the three episodes directly before "Arena" ("Shore Leave" and "The Squire of Gothos") dealt with beings who were or at least seemed all-powerful, although those two took a more humorous tack.

"Arena" is an action episode though, and not a humour episode, or one of the more overt horror or science-fictional episodes.  From the start we're immersed into fighting, a shootout on a ruined Federation outpost, which leads to a warp-speed chase, until the Enterprise and its mysterious enemy run into the home of a race of god-like beings, who chide them for being more violently and promptly force Kirk and the enemy captain to fight mano y mano.  The end of the episode makes a plea for mercy and understanding, but structurally this a story told entirely through violence, and very aestheticized violence at that.

We start in on the fighting almost immediately, beaming down to an alien planet that is being, to use the scientific terminology, having the shit bombed out of it.  Full-scale war is at this point unknown to the peaceful, near-utopian world of Star Trek -- but the Enterprise exists on the fringes of that utopia, the unexplored frontier that fuels the Western genre Roddenberry claimed to channel.  So we have full-scale warfare -- but it's a rather odd depiction of that warfare.  Six Enterprise members beam down into some kind of central pavilion, where they are then continuously bombed from afar.  The previously unseen and unnamed security officers die, of course (these are the infamous "redshirts", although their shirt colour is actually much more varied than I had been lead to beleive).  The regulars then run around the open area dodging remarkably inaccurate bombs.  Kirk even evades some by his patented Shatnerian acrobatics, and then takes them out with a powerful grenade that looks like a blue eggshell.

From a realist perspective, this scene is ridiculous.  The idea that the main characters (and only them) can survive industrial warfare by tucking and rolling is silly, and turns a mass battle into something that can be solved by individual heroism.  But Star Trek isn't trying to be realistic SF (and no, that's not a contradiction).  Instead it's more of a mythic, fantastical storyline, where Kirk is a larger-than-life hero that's both in charge of the ship and does all of the exciting adventuring.  It's also interesting to note the futuristic weaponry, which looks cute but causes a massive explosion.  Like most of the technology in Star Trek, it's not really important to the plot, and exists without much comment from our characters.  Obviously weapons technology has developed considerably in 200 years, but it's still a shock when we see the massive explosion the grenade generates.  But it's just a shock, and it passes.

It's worth also noting the landscape in the screenshot above.  Star Trek is a world of bright primary colours -- the three uniforms we see Starfleet officers in are red, blue and yellow -- and landscapes that have an almost radioactive glow.  This can be seen in the bright yellowish-brown backdrop, with a clear blue sky, where the initial battle takes place.  We also get a version of that same background later in the episode, on the "arena" planet, although this one has enough mountainous scrub brush that it looks almost Leone-esque.

Obviously the technical limitations of the era were a large part of this look.  But I think it also reinforces the almost mythic qualities of the story.  Even in space, there's very little darkness in Star Trek.  It's not a coincidence that both of this episode's battles take place in sets that look plopped right out of a Western.

The chase scene that follows is a more genuine attempt to adapt the rhythm of another genre to science fiction, and it doesn't quite work -- we're stuck in the stationary Enterprise no matter how fast everyone says they're going.  When Kirk takes the ship up to Warp 8, we get a rough idea that it's dangerous from the rest of the crew's reaction, but the lack of worldbuilding stops this from being much more than technobabble -- the show never tells us exactly what's significant about Warp 8.  The scene is like something out of a radio play, where we hear the action being tersely described instead of seeing it, and that's not good for a series that relies on visual novelty as much as Star Trek does.

The aliens this week are actually a great example of that visual spectacle.  As much as science fiction claims to be a literature of ideas, it makes more profit as a vehicle for outlandish thrills, from the trashy covers of pulp magazines to the massive success of Star Wars.  The Gorn is an attempt at such an appeal, and a departure from the usual human-with-weird-ears-and-forehead approach to aliens.  Instead it's the guy-in-a-suit approach reminiscent of kaiju movies.

This is the carnival-esque novelty appeal (something similar to Gunning's "cinema of attractions") that you find often in early TV.  In other words, "our show might not have the best writing, but it's the only one with a giant lizard man".  "Arena" even acknowledges this by having the other characters watch this fight on the big screen from the bridge of the Starship, shot exactly as we see it -- even in the show's world this fight is a spectacle.  The Metron, the all-powerful beings du jour, represent the other side of Star Trek, the wannabe-cerebral side side prone to morality plays.  They even look angelic (and extremely effeminate), evoking all sorts of age-old theological questions about why God allows war.  (It's apparently to punish us for being violent, at least according to Star Trek.)

This side of the story doesn't really bear too much scrutiny.  The Metron are an alien species that views humans as barbaric and violent, a fairly familiar sci-fi trope, but their solution to intruders is to make them fight to the death and wipe out the loser, which doesn't exactly seem like something a peaceful society would do.  Also, while Kirk eventually chooses mercy, he does so only after blasting the Gorn with a cannon that could have killed it.  It's easy to be peaceful when you have the other guy on the end of your phaser.

This is really quite typical of the Golden Age sci-fi that Star Trek takes its cues from, which often tried to convey rather staid allegorical Lessons (by the time Trek aired there was already a backlash against this in the New Wave movement of SF).  There's an uncomfortable enjambment of didactic, Asimovian science fiction and the raw dumb joy of the pulps here.  And on a further level, there are all the other genres thrown in the stew of Star Trek, at least a few of which I've tried to get to above -- horror, epic, Western.  This is probably why Star Trek was such a cult phenomenon -- the mass audience didn't know how to respond to a show so far outside of the genre templates (even fans of more pure SF shows like The Twilight Zone), but for those who enjoyed the weird alchemy, it was the best thing on television.

While it's easy to pick at the flaws in "Arena" from a distance of forty-plus years, it doesn't change how striking an episode it is.  We don't get a chance to breathe -- like I said about Bob Newhart last week[2], the whole episode is of one cloth, without a B-plot in sight.  Contemporary shows have a comfortable rhythm that usually requires us not to spend too much time in one place or on one subject, making it all the more striking when there is an extended scene (e. g. the long confrontation scene in Mad Men's "The Gypsy and the Hobo").  We can see the alternative in this episode, which is essentially a 50-minute action sequence.  It's unrelenting, it sometimes drags, and it's sometimes uncomfortable, but you nevertheless can't take your eyes from it.

This is what created a cult following that's still talked about (usually jokingly) today.  Star Trek is a show that's easy to mock but impossible to forget.  In this episode Kirk defeats the more physically powerful Gorn by using his chemistry knowledge to construct a cannon.  Science triumphs over brute force -- and strangely enough, the square-jawed conventional leading man Captain Kirk becomes a symbol for the triumphant nerd, the weak but smart triumphing over the big brute.  History was being made, where no man had gone before but many would go after.

Next week: "I love you.  I love being heterosexual with you.  But if for some reason you're not feeling it, just let me know, so I can find another woman to be heterosexual with.  Because I have needs."

[1]This would make Firefly a lot less of an original fusion than it's often described as, although Whedon uses the "space Western" concept a lot more literally.

[2]I'm tempted to say that this unity of plot is characteristic of older TV shows, but I really haven't watched enough to speak definitively.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Bob Newhart Show 1-17: The Man with the Golden Wrist

Misanthropy is a fine line.  Everybody likes the witty cynic, the one who hates the world in pithy one-liners (as evidence, consider House, which is on like its eighth season or something).  But there's a difference between hating people and acting hatefully towards people.  Or maybe that difference is just panache -- it's the difference between the lovable rogue and the teenager with the gothy T-shirt sneering at you.  Maybe only handsome, clever people are allowe the luxury of being antisocial.  But I think there's a question of technique as well.

This is a line that The Bob Newhart Show has to walk without really letting on that it's doing it.  Newhart is an atypical sitcom protagonist, at least by the standards of his era -- he's quiet, introverted, reasonable, and a good deal older than the rest of the cast (with the exception of Bill Daily, who still looks younger).  Even his acting technique is dramatically different, much more naturalistic than the cartoony, almost hammy approach the others take[1].  He's a man at odds with the world around him, and he acts like one actually would -- surly, good-natured but only to a point, and getting pretty tired of dealing with all these people.  This isn't the cartoonish misanthropy you see in your Houses and Dr. Coxes.  It's more of a real world-weariness.

This dynamic can be used very well to act against the sitcom's social norms, as in the previous episode I looked at.  But at times it can also come to make Bob seem simply mean-spirited.  Sometimes it becomes difficult not to identify with the brightly-coloured world he lives in, cartoony or not, and wonder why he can't just sit back and enjoy it.  "The Man with the Golden Arm" is one of those episodes where he just seems like a grump rejecting the kindness of everyone around him.  Unsympathetic protagonists can certainly work (which is why It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is one of my favourite shows) but Bob's unlikeability makes the episode hard to sit through -- the format isn't suited for it, and while I hate talking about intentionality, it's hard to imagine that the writers were consciously making their star unbearable.

The plot of the episode revolves around Bob's birthday, and in particular the watch Emily gets him as a present.  Bob likes the gift, but is aghast when he discovers how much it costs.  It's the type of mundane, eveyday plot the series uses to counterbalance its extreme personalities.  It would be easy to go all-out with the watch -- make it absurdly expensive and equipped with futuristic doo-dads -- but it remains a mundane problem.  Later in "The Man with the Golden Arm" we find out that the watch is $1300, which was certainly a lot of money, allegedly a third or so of Emily's salary as a substitute teacher, but not so much as to seem completely unrealistic.  (When was the last time you saw someone's salary stated in exact numbers on TV?  And someone who wasn't ludicrously rich?)

It's perhaps the mundanity of the event that makes Bob's sourness stick out to me.  In the first place, modern gift etiquette frowns on even knowing, much less trying to learn, how expensive a gift you received is[2].  On top of that, it's established early on that the watch isn't returnable -- it's custom-engraved -- so no matter how much Bob makes Emily regret it, the couple isn't going to get their money back.  When Bob keeps going on about how he doesn't need a fancy watch, it seems less like the typical sitcom lead affronted by the irrational world around him and more an asshole chewing someone out for the gift they got him.  Maybe this is simply a gap in cultural mores, but the show's writers are usually deftly able to strike a balance between kindness and sarcasm, so the failure here seems odd.

This prickliness extends to his interactions with the rest of the cast.  Bob is established early in the episode as one of those guys who doesn't want you to acknowledge his birthday, much less make a big deal out of it.  As a "it's-just-Tuesday" type myself, I can relate.  Still, there's a kind of inverted narcissism in the way he goes about it, informing everyone that they know it's his birthday but they shouldn't do anything.  The other characters point this out, so to some degrees it's intentional, but it does make Bob a more obviously flawed protagonist than he's been in the past.  Later in the episode, at a surprise party, he comes off as an utter grouch, attacking everyone around him for the effort they've put into being kind to him, or at least trying to be.

(The one thing I like (perhaps even love) about this scene is how Howard keeps explaining on gag gifts to his date, usually working Bob's profession in for no reason.  "You see, psychologists are not supposed to be afraid of the dark, and a nightlight, that's very funny.")

That this episode works at all is a credit to the talent of the actors involved.  The party guests do their best lame-uncle acts, and it succeeds at conjuring up one of those nightmarish social gatherings that you're obligated to attend but don't enjoy in any way, suffering through the lame jokes of people like Jerry.  This is, of course, old-school talent that's very broad and straightforward, and that can seem hackish next to the seemingly more sophisticated comedy on television today.  (Once again, this may  just be a difference in era, or the fact that dynamite punchlines in the 70s seem tired now.)  But there is an art to that, and that art can be seen in how the cast alchemizes a misjudged script into a fairly acceptable episode.

Even here, however, "The Man with the Golden Wrist" descends a bit too far into cruelty.  Characters like Jerry are meant to be buffoons, but they're buffoons we find funny and want to spend time around.  If we start viewing his jokes and gaffes as unfunny and tiresome -- as Bob does in this
 episode -- then The Bob Newhart Show ceases to be enjoyable.  Sitcoms can be uncomfortabe (contemporary "cringe comedy" being the best example), but at the very least they have to be entertaining.  Peter Bonerz (tee hee hee) does a great job portraying a guy Bob wouldn't want to be around, but in doing so he creates a character that we as viewers don't really want to be around.

So, in the end, Emily agrees to exchange the watch (although the issue of the inscription is seemingly dropped), martial harmony is restored to the Hartley household, and there's a brief allusion to sex and a lot of hooting from the studio audience -- the classic sitcom ending.  The threat to the family unit, even a family unit of two as in Bob Newhart, is resolved, and this reconnection is represented through physical contact both on-screen and off-screen (or so it is implied).  But all of this feels a bit hollow, because the conflict, instead of being a genuine threat to the family unit, is just kind of pointless.

(Throughout this scene I'm distracted by the raw shininess of Emily's shirt.  Man, 70s fashion was the best.)

Part of what made this hard for me as a viewer is that this storyline takes up the entirety of the episode.  Contemporary comedies will frequently seperate the cast into two or three storylines that have nothing to do with each other, just so that everyone gets their time to shine.  This can lead to episodes seeming crowded and rushed, but this episode makes clear why it became standard -- twenty-four straight minutes of the same story starts to feel oppressive, especially when it's a story that is pretty thin to begin with.  I certainly wouldn't mind if a couple of Bob and Emily's arguments had been cut in favour of Howard and his date doing something wacky.

This leads me once again to the feeling that my objections may stem from generation gap moreso than from actual merit.  But I've enjoyed most of the other episodes of the show I've watched, albeit not in the same way as I would enjoy Community and It's Always Sunny.  Besides which, I don't think (or perhaps I just hope) the unavoidable fact that I have a 2012 perspective on a 1973 show means that my perspective is flawed.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that it isn't any less legitimate than the 1973 perspective.  In the end, there's no such thing as objective taste that you can set aside from the critical biases of the culture we grow up in, and that's what makes criticism a worthwhile endeavour.  In other words, my distaste for the episode may say more about me than it does about the episode itself, but even so I think it's worth saying.

Next Week: "You will not be destroyed.  It would not be... civilized."

[1]This isn't meant as a slight against the rest of the cast -- sometimes you need hammy.

[2]The Office did a similar joke, where Michael got an iPod for the office's $15-maxium Secret Santa, so it's not a completely foreign idea for contemporary times.  It's worth noting, however, that on The Office the inappropriate value of the gift was immediately apparent, whereas Bob actively investigates the watch's true cost, and that in The Office it was a much smaller element of the plot.