Geek Punditry #9: Pop Culture Comfort Food

Reportedly, there are studies that indicate people like rewatching old TV shows and movies because there is comfort to be found in familiarity. I don’t have those particular studies in front of me because I don’t feel like looking them up at the moment (this is a highly scientific approach), but I completely believe it. When the world is starting to be too much, I often find myself going back to movies, books, or comics that I have enjoyed before. There’s something about returning to old stories that makes it feel like you’re reconnecting with a friend. There’s an ease and a comfort that can be desperately needed when there’s a weight on your shoulders, when the anxiety begins sending the pins and needles across your skin, when every text or phone call makes you worry that the worst has happened. I go back to these things a lot, is what I’m saying.

And since I know I’m not alone in this, I thought that this week I would share with you some of my storytelling comfort food. I’m going to tell you one example from each of my preferred forms of media (movies, TV, books, and comics) that I can and have returned to more times than I can count, stories I know as well as the walk from my car to the front door, characters who are as close to me as family. When I’m feeling down or beat up or that nothing is going to be okay, these are the places I turn to so that I can be reminded…sometimes it can be.

Movies: Back to the Future 

A series that never fails to take you back in time.

In the interest of clarity, I guess I should say the Back to the Future trilogy, because heaven knows I can never stop with one. The first movie came out when I was 8 years old, and I distinctly remember sitting down in front of the fireplace after my parents rented it and put the VHS tape in. I remember how quickly and deeply I fell in love with the film and how we went to the movies together to see Part II, and how we went out during a storm while out of town on a family vacation on the opening weekend of Part III to see just how the saga concluded. I even remember my father commenting on the weather and saying that anybody who went out in it to see the movie must have been a die hard fan. Which, of course, I was.

I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why these films are so great, and I’m certainly not going to waste any time on a recap, but I’m going to tell you what it is about them that makes me feel better. Part of it, like with all of the things I’m going to share with you, are the characters. There’s something about the unorthodox friendship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly that resonated with me even as a child. I had already spent years dreaming of being picked up by a tornado and thrown to Oz or finding a closet door with a passage to Narnia, but even at eight it was starting to seem like either of those would be a stretch. Finding an eccentric mentor who would bring me along on grand adventures seemed much more plausible. Even now, at a stage in life where I find myself relating more to Doc than Marty, that relationship seems pure and genuine. (Ironically, I think that’s part of the reason Rick and Morty became so popular so fast – it’s a parody of the Doc/Marty relationship, but that parody wouldn’t have worked as well if there was something foul or sordid about the original.)

Then there’s the basic fantasy of time travel, of being able to hop into a machine that can whisk you away to another place. The idea of seeing the past and the future is tantalizing, and I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t be tempted to use Gray’s Sports Almanac the same way Marty intended to. 

The other thing, which people may perhaps not think of immediately but I consider of utmost importance, is the music. The best movies often have memorable scores, but Alan Silvestri’s composition is one of the all-time greats. The sweeping tones automatically bring to mind the film, hit those triggers in your memory and pull you into the world of Hill Valley, and charge your heart with anticipation. The music moves from exciting to thrilling to, ultimately, triumphant. When you hear Alan Silvestri’s score to Back to the Future, you find yourself capable of believing that even when things are tough, like they were for Marty McFly, there is a solution that will make everything turn out okay in the end.

And c’mon. The car is really cool.

Television: Cheers 

Where people know troubles are all the same.

Bet you expected me to say Star Trek, didn’t you? Yeah, I know, Trek is my jam, but sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.

Cheers, the sitcom about a little bar in Boston, has two distinct stages, and I love them both…but not equally, if I’m being honest. In the early years, the show was mostly a workplace romcom about Sam and Diane, with the rest of the characters there to add flavor. It was a fine show, it was a funny show, but I was a fairly young child at the time and, although my parents watched it, I didn’t really start paying attention to the series until I got older. This may be part of the reason that – although I would never skip the Diane years when doing a rewatch – it’s the Rebecca years that leave the most indelible mark on my memory.

But my relative age isn’t the only reason the second life of Cheers is my preferred era. Like I said, during the Shelley Long years, the show centered around Sam and Diane’s relationship. This was good. This made for some excellent television. But after Long left to become a major movie star (I recently watched her performance in 2012’s Zombie Hamlet, and I highly recommend it), they replaced her with the recently-deceased Kirstie Alley, and although there were the occasional flirtations with making her couple off with Sam like they did with Diane, the writers wisely realized that the same chemistry wasn’t there, and shifted the focus from a romcom to more of an ensemble comedy. The other characters grew in prominence, Rebecca Howe found a different niche to fill than the one vacated by Diane Chambers, and the show blossomed yet again. 

While the likes of Woody, Cliff, Carla, and Norm all had their moments in the pre-Rebecca days, post-Diane they had far more episodes in the spotlight. Frasier Crane was a Diane castoff who stuck around, but it was in the Rebecca era that he bloomed to one of the stars of the show, eventually spinning off into his own series (also a comfort watch for me), with a revival of the latter currently in the works. I’m not saying that the early years of Cheers weren’t GOOD, please don’t misunderstand me. It was a remarkable comedy, the character of Coach was sorely missed for the rest of the series, and the episode guest-starring John Cleese is perhaps one of the funniest half-hours of television ever put to film. It’s just that the pure love I feel for the series, the way I have affection for these characters as if they were personal friends of mine, the fact that I remember that Frasier’s first wife “Nanny G”’s phone number was 555-6792…that’s all a product of the Kirstie Alley years, and I’m fine with that.

Boy, I deserve some sort of trophy for THAT deep cut. 

Book: The Princess Bride by William Goldman. 

Skipping this would be inconceivable.

I may be cheating a little bit here, since much of what is wonderful about this novel is also applicable to the movie, which I also love and watch as comfort on many an occasion. But this is probably the novel I have read more times than any other (a feat which I insist is more impressive than the movie you’ve watched most often). It is the book I pick up when I’m sad. It’s the story I turn to when I’m depressed. It’s the tale I want to hear again when I feel like there is nothing good and beautiful in the world. I need this story at those times, because if it were true that there is nothing good and beautiful in the world, then how could a novel such as this even exist?

I know you’ve seen the movie, so I won’t bother to retell you the story. Instead, I’ll tell you about the elements unique to the book so that you can understand why it resonates with me so deeply. 

First of all the framing sequence. In the film, the tale of Westley and Buttercup is being read by a grandfather to his sick grandson. In the book, Goldman creates a metatextual story (this was before metatextual stories) about his own family, in which his father read the story to him as a child. It was not until adulthood that he tried reading it himself to his own son (a fictional son, by the way, as the real William Goldman had only daughters) and realized his dad skipped all the boring bits and just read him “the good parts.” The book is presented as adult Goldman abridging a classic novel by getting rid of all the flowery muck and bits of Elizabethan satire that modern audiences wouldn’t give a crap about. It’s a really funny conceit, and it’s executed so perfectly that a lot of people reading the book for the first time don’t realize the framing sequence is fiction as well. (It’s me. I’m a lot of people. I didn’t get it the first time.)

Second, the writing is simply marvelous. A lot of the great bits of dialogue made it into the film, which isn’t a surprise since Goldman wrote the screenplay himself, but there simply wasn’t room for everything, and many of those pieces left on the floor are absolutely priceless. For instance, the movie largely ignores Buttercup’s parents and their unending bickering, for which they keep score. It skips over the history of Fezzik entirely and leaves out all but the most essential parts of Inigo’s backstory, which makes an already amazing character so much richer. There’s more time spent with Humperdink, more time devoted to Vizzini, and much more to Westley and Buttercup’s burgeoning romance. Because yeah, it is a kissing book.

I don’t begrudge Goldman any of the cuts, of course. The very premise of the novel is that sometimes parts of a story don’t translate from medium to medium. But if you’ve only seen the movie you haven’t experienced the whole story.

The last thing about this book is perhaps the most important: the message. In the framing sequence, Goldman discusses a conversation with an old neighborhood woman who served as something of a mentor to him. This segment concludes with the child Goldman learning that life isn’t fair. Rather than being angry or hurt at the realization, though, he is utterly jubilant to hear the news, because once you accept that life ISN’T fair, isn’t SUPPOSED to be fair, then a lot of the crap the world throws around suddenly makes a LOT more sense. This is, I think, a very important message, and the great thing about it is how it is presented in a way that is joyful and positive rather than dour and depressing.

The point I’m getting at is that if you haven’t read this book, you should, and I’m envious that you’re going to get to experience it for the first time, which I will never have the chance to do again. But hey, that’s all right, because life isn’t fair.

Comics: The Triangle Era Superman.

This was MY Golden Age

Okay, this paragraph is just for the uber-nerds like myself who already know all about the “Triangle Era” of Superman. The rest of you can skip to the next paragraph. Ahem. I’m about to give a super-condensed history of the era. I know I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. Like William Goldman, I choose to focus on the good parts rather than telling everybody the intricacies of comic book numbering and whatnot. Please don’t send me corrective emails.

In 1986, DC Comics hired writer/artist John Byrne to revitalize the Superman character. He took over both Superman and Action Comics, the two titles that starred the hero, and they added a third book to the line as well, Adventures of Superman, which was usually done by other creators such as Marv Wolfman. After a while, Byrne left the character in the hands of other writers and artists, and while he had done good work in his time, it was after his departure that a certain kind of alchemy began to happen. With Superman starring in three comic books a month, the writers and artists would have to collaborate to make sure they weren’t contradicting or causing problems for each other. This collaboration began to grow more intricate, and in time, the three different titles began to function almost as one. Stories that began in Adventures of Superman one week would continue in Action Comics the week after. Before long a fourth title was added, Superman: The Man of Steel, so that there were four monthly Superman books that worked almost as a single weekly title. Then someone noticed that 4×12=48, but there were 52 weeks in a year, so a fifth title (Superman: The Man of Tomorrow) was added to fill in the extra gaps. At some point, DC started to put a triangle on the cover of each issue demonstrating which week of the year it was to help readers keep track of what order the books went in, thus the “Triangle Era” was born.

The weekly nature of the serial was a great concept. Knowing that there would be a new chapter of an ongoing storyline each and every week forged hardcore loyalty and created a devoted fanbase that still exists today. What’s more, although the main story was ongoing, each individual series had its own subplots that made it stand out. Adventures, for example, was more often going to deal with the mad scientists of Project: Cadmus, while Man of Steel devoted time to a story about an orphanage and a young child who would eventually be adopted by Perry White. The books were part of a larger whole, but still had their own flavor and identity.

The Triangle Era lasted over ten years, but those early days happened just as I started reading the books and featured many of the writers, artists, and storylines that are still most dear to me: Lois learning Clark’s double identity, their engagement and marriage, the somewhat vindicated-by-history era of Superman Blue/Superman Red, the classic “Panic in the Sky” storyline, and of course, the legendary Death and Return of Superman were all products of the Triangle Era. Like all comfort media, part of my love for these books is no doubt because these were the comics I read in my formative years. But there’s also the fact that, for a very long time, these comic books were just really good. The world of Superman, which had not-undeservedly been called stale and out of date a decade earlier, was suddenly energetic, exciting, and full of new characters, concepts, heroes, and villains. Many people have made Superman comics over the years, but Dan Jurgens, Brett Breeding, Roger Stern, Bob McCleod, Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett, Louise Simonson, and Jon Bogdanove remain the gold standard in my mind.

As the song goes, these are a few of my favorite things. These are stories, characters, and worlds that I never grow tired of. These are the things that mean something to me, things I flat-out refuse to let go of, things that come together and help make me who I am.

So what are yours?

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He bets you thought he was kidding about Zombie Hamlet, didn’t you?

Pictured: the career worth leaving Cheers for.

Geek Punditry #6: Seeking Sitcoms

The show that is indirectly responsible for everyone you know that can quote an episode of Rick and Morty verbatim.

It’s Desi Arnaz’s fault. As the story goes, when Lucille Ball got pregnant during the run of their legendary sitcom I Love Lucy, it was Desi who suggested to the network that they run some older episodes again to fill in the weeks when she would be out of work. The idea was bizarre. Run episodes again? Re-run them? Who would want to watch an episode of a TV comedy that they had already seen?

The answer, as it turned out, was everyone. There’s a comfort in returning to something that made you happy the first time you watched it, like finding an old friend or reminiscing about the good old days. It’s something that we all need at some time or another. 

The rerun became a standard television feature and changed the landscape of entertainment. Not only could they run the same show for an entire year without having to make quite as many episodes or skipping a week, but this eventually led to the concept of syndicating reruns of old episodes to show outside of their original timeslot. And it is syndication, I believe, that has allowed TV shows to become iconic parts of our culture. Think about it: were it not for syndication, if the shows were not still available after their initial airing, would anyone today still know the theme to The Brady Bunch, or be able to tell you how many castaways were stranded on Gilligan’s Island? Who would remember the man named Jed, a poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed? Could a gentle whistle  conjure up the image of Andy Griffith and Little Ronnie Howard carrying their fishin’ poles down to the fishin’ hole?

And although it isn’t a sitcom let’s not forget that Star Trek (arguably the font from which all modern fandom springs) is only remembered today because people kept watching the reruns after the series was canceled. It was in syndication that the show’s popularity truly boomed, syndication that led to things like Star Trek conventions, merchandise, novelizations, comic books, and fanfiction…and it was those things that fueled the fire and ultimately led to the revival of the franchise. That’s huge even if you’re not a Trekker, because the fandom of virtually every major franchise since then has followed that template.

I’m not saying it’s the greatest sitcom ever made, but I won’t argue if YOU say it.

When I was younger, I would get home from school and gorge myself on a diet of sitcom reruns. Shows like Cheers, Night Court, or Mama’s Family were staples for me. The 90s came and Home Improvement, Seinfeld, and Friends joined my education. And no matter how many times I watched any given episode, I faithfully watched them again, to the point where I can remember minute details of ancient TV shows better than I remember things like the current whereabouts of my social security card. Because of syndication, I can throw out an obscure joke or comment about virtually any topic, then watch my wife roll her eyes at me when I tell her it’s a classic Simpsons reference.

The streaming revolution has changed things, of course. Once, these reruns were a way to fill time on the air before new series start. Today, fewer and fewer people are using “air time” in their television viewing at all. With the exception of sports, weather, and Svengoolie on Saturday nights, I virtually never watch any live television anymore.

This does not mean the end of reruns, of course, it just means that you have to seek them out instead of turning on whatever Channel 26 was showing at 5 p.m. In fact, for many people seeking out these older shows has become a lifestyle choice. Whereas once someone would have to content themselves with the seventeen or eighteen episodes of The Big Bang Theory that TBS shows on any given weekday, now the option exists to literally watch it 24 hours a day on HBO Max, and you can choose any episode you wish. If you go to a Bob’s Burgers group on Facebook and ask what shows the fans watch when they aren’t watching Bob on Hulu, you will be greeted by several quizzical faces that fail to comprehend such a time could exist. There are people who watch The Office on constant repeat, people who never turn off Family Guy, and folks who will spend their entire lives immersed in Pawnee, Indiana with Parks and Recreation.

There are a few too many people who don’t understand this character was meant to be a cautionary example.

I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing. Oh sure, it’s great to be able to go back and revisit your favorite shows, but I think it’s making it more difficult to find new shows, especially comedies. There’s plenty of talk about “prestige” television, but most of the time this refers to genre shows like Stranger Things or dramas like Yellowstone. The conversation doesn’t really center on blockbuster comedies the way it used to. Would it even be possible, in the current TV climate, for a show with the level of cultural penetration as Friends or Seinfeld to come into being?

As much as I love the sitcoms of my youth, I’m also the sort of person who is constantly on the lookout for new characters, new stories, and new worlds to explore. Even now, I sometimes feel a strange guilt if I watch something I’ve already seen, faced with the knowledge that I could be using this time on new entertainment. I get over it, though, and since streaming really took off in force there are many classic comedies and shows of my youth that I’ve gone back and watched in their entirety: Cheers, Frasier, Wings, The Office, Head of the Class…part of it is because I like to watch new shows with my wife (hi, Erin), and I used to go back to older shows as something to watch while she’s at work. That didn’t quite work out, though, as she would get home while I was in the middle of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, she would get into it, and I then I had to wait to watch the old shows with her too. Now I just make her tell me explicitly which shows I am and am not allowed to watch without her to avoid confusion.

How legendary is Ted Danson? His picture is in this column twice.

Anyway few years ago, I realized it had been quite some time since I found a new comedy that I really got into, and I made it a point to start seeking them out. I began with The Good Place, which was both a wonderful choice and also completely antithetical to what I was trying to do. If you’ve never seen it, The Good Place is about a kind of scuzzy woman (played perfectly and adorably by Kristen Bell) who dies and, through a sort of cosmic clerical error, winds up in Heaven, which turns out to be run by Ted Danson.

I refuse to say any more about the story because to do so would rob new viewers of one of the most sublime television series ever made, but I will say that I never thought I would see a show that could blend together philosophy, spirituality, religion, and deep, complex contemplations on the meaning of life and the nature of existence itself with a fart joke and make it all seem utterly perfect. It is both hilarious and one of the most profoundly thoughtful and emotionally-compelling TV shows I’ve ever seen. And it’s for that reason that it’s not a show I can re-watch too often, because there are only so many times you can cry on a random Tuesday afternoon.

So The Good Place is an excellent show and I urge everyone to watch it immediately…but it wasn’t the sort of thing that made me want to put it on constant repeat the way I could Frasier. The search would continue.

The most scientifically accurate television program since SeaQuest DSV.

The next comedy that really got my attention was Abbott Elementary. Upon the suggestion of friends of mine from work (I am, in case you didn’t know, a high school English teacher), I checked out the first few episodes of the show, then I stopped and made my wife sit down and watch them with me, because it’s so good. On the surface, it feels like one of dozens of Office clones – a faux documentary set in an American workplace, this time an elementary school. There’s a wacky boss! There’s a new guy in the first episode to act as the audience surrogate! There’s a will they/won’t they couple that the audience is clearly supposed to root for! All the fingerprints are there!

What sets Abbott apart for me, at least, is the authenticity. There have been a number of TV comedies set in schools, but the majority of them have focused on the students (Saved By the Bell), or on the class of one influential teacher (Welcome Back Kotter, Head of the Class). This is the first show I’ve ever seen where the faculty are the stars of the program. What’s more, it’s the most realistic show set in a school I’ve ever seen. You’ve got the young teacher (played by show creator Quinta Brunson), eager to please and determined to be the best that she can be. You’ve got the grizzled veteran teacher (Lisa Ann Walter) who does what she wants and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. The awkward teacher (Chris Perfetti) who is determined to be thought of as cool despite the fact that he clearly is not. The teacher who has been at that school forever (Sheryl Lee Ralph), is perfect in everything she does, and is both intimidating and nurturing to everyone around her. I’ve taught with every one of these people. I have been many of them at some point or another.

It also shows the repercussions of events in a school in a way that most shows don’t. Budget cuts, classroom size, getting adequate parental support – all of these are issues that have turned up on the show in a realistic way. Well…semi-realistic. It is still a TV show, after all. Count the number of times in Saved By the Bell students are left in a classroom with no adult supervision, and know that every one of those offenses could (and depending on the severity of that episode’s hijinks, should) have resulted in somebody getting fired. Abbott actually shows consequences to even well-intentioned mistakes, (the Egg Drop episode is a wonderful example of this) and does so with relatable, enjoyable characters. Best of all, it doesn’t reduce every teacher to a useless buffoon. In fact, unlike most shows in a school setting, every faculty character — even Janelle James’s seemingly-useless principal — has moments where they show their worth as a teacher, as a friend, or as a mentor. It is the first school-focused TV show I’ve ever watched that didn’t make me ask if anyone involved had ever set foot in an American school in their lives. It’s really lovely.

It’s not perfect. The teachers do seem to have absurdly long lunch periods and planning times where their students are in someone else’s care, but I accept that as a necessity when you’re telling stories about the adults and not the kids. Those minor problems are easy for me to get past when I go back and put the show on repeat…which is where I stumble, since we’re only in the second season, and with modern TV the first season had a measly 13 episodes. While I eagerly await each new episode, there’s not enough Abbott for a good binge…not yet.

So I keep looking for more comedy.

There are two shows about dead people on this list, and I don’t know if that says more about me or about society.

The most recent show to get my attention, like Abbott, is only in its second season, but it has a few more episodes and I haven’t quite gotten through them all yet. I started watching CBS’s Ghosts on the advice of my brother (which I mention mainly because if he should happen to read this he will immediately jump in the comments and demand credit for it), and I’m enjoying it a lot. Ghosts, a remake of a British show of the same name, is about a young couple (Samantha and Jay, played by Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar, respectively) who inherit an old mansion from a distant relative, unaware that the ghosts of numerous people who have died on the property are trapped there. In the first episode, Sam has a near-death experience and wakes up with the ability to see and hear the ghosts, and the sudden connection between the ghosts and the “livings” changes things for all of them. 

It doesn’t sound like the premise of a wacky sitcom, but it’s really great. The ghosts cover a wide range of character types, from someone who died 1000 years ago (a Viking exploring the Americas played by Devan Chandler Long) to a dudebro businessman who died in the early 2000s without any pants on (Asher Grodman). The premise allows for characters with a variety of perspectives from different time periods, which makes for a fun blend of types: the former mistress of the house (Rebecca Wisocky) has attitudes about women’s roles stuck in the 1800s, while the hippie who got killed trying to hug a bear in the 1960s (Sheila Carrasco) tries to help her break out of them. The scout leader who was killed in an archery mishap in the 1980s (Richie Moriarity) wants to be best friends with Sam’s husband Jay, but it’s tough to be pals with someone who can’t see or hear you. 

The first season of the show is a fun one that sets up the premise very well, but the second season is even better as it starts to explore the world more fully. Sam encounters more ghosts beyond her own property, we get more information about the lives of the deceased, and an ongoing plotline begins to build around the 20s songstress Alberta (Danielle Pinnock), who always claimed she was murdered. Her insistence that she had an exciting demise was considered just a symptom of her hubris until evidence starts to accumulate that suggests she may be right. There’s even a great meta joke in the second season where the ghosts learn they cannot pass through the walls of a vault in the house and Jay quips that he appreciates the expansion of the mythology.

The only problem with Ghosts is, like Abbott, there’s just not enough of it yet. I’ve only got four more episodes until I’m caught up, and then what?

Time to watch the British original, I suppose.

The point is, I’m still on the lookout. The great sitcoms of the past aren’t going anywhere, and thank goodness for that. I know I can turn on Cheers or Everybody Loves Raymond or Night Court any time I want, and I frequently do. (In fact, I haven’t started watching the Night Court reboot yet because Erin and I have to finish our binge of the original series first.) But I still crave new entertainment. So I’m open for suggestions, friends. What are the current comedies that are worth watching? 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He’s also a big fan of Star Trek: Lower Decks, but he doesn’t consider that a sitcom so much as a way of life.