New Orleans frustrates me and I like it; ‘That ’70s Show’ frustrates me and I don’t.
Two mini-essays strung together — one on the struggle of Yankee northerners to adapt to the languid pace of Southern cities; the other on the writing lessons we can learn from the dejected late-season staffers of ‘That ’70s Show’
A couple of little half-essays have been bouncing around my head recently, so I thought I’d hook them together for today’s journal entry. Enjoy.
NOLA: The Big ‘Fuck It’
Unless you follow my Instagram account, you probably haven’t realized that I’ve actually made three trips to New Orleans in the last year, collectively spending something like two weeks now in The Big Easy. (Caution: As with all other nicknames for cities, don’t actually use the nickname when you’re in the city, lest you give yourself away as a tourist.) And the reason for this is that my brother and sister-in-law moved there recently, serial travelers who since getting married 17 years ago have also lived in St. Louis, New York, San Diego and Dallas. And this has happened to coincide with a New Year’s resolution I made last year, to start spending more time in general with my family; which is lucky, because out of all those destinations, NOLA is the only one pedestrian-friendly enough and that has a large enough public transit system to make it feasible for me as a non-driver to visit regularly.
I’ve really taken to the city, and now look highly forward to my visits, which is averaging about three days every four months right now, although with me just about to run out of the Southwest frequent-flyer points I’ve been saving for the last twenty years. But this enjoyment has come only gradually, and with a learning curve involved; because as anyone who’s spent time there knows, the city’s motto could very realistically be described as, “…Eeehhhhhhh, fuck it.” And as an uptight northern German Yankee Protestant, I have to admit that it kind of drives me crazy to have every frustration-based question of mine be answered in this way:
“According to the traffic app, the bus should’ve been here 40 minutes ago! And we were already waiting 40 minutes! ARE YOU REALLY OKAY WITH WAITING 80 MINUTES FOR A CITY BUS??!!”
“Eeehhhhhhh, fuck it.”
“It’s a one-hour wait at this place just to get a fucking deli sandwich! Oh, I’m sorry, po’ boy, po’ boy! ARE WE REALLY GOING TO WAIT AN HOUR JUST FOR TWO SLICES OF BREAD AND SOME MEAT IN THE MIDDLE??!!”
“Eeehhhhhhh, fuck it.”
“This homeowner built the supports for his homemade porch directly out in the middle of the sidewalk! DO I REALLY HAVE TO WALK OUT IN THE STREET WITH THE VEHICULAR TRAFFIC BECAUSE THIS GUY DECIDED TO USE A PUBLIC SIDEWALK FOR HIS OWN PERSONAL WHIM??!!”
“Eeehhhhhhh, fuck it.”
Many of the stereotypes about New Orleans are true, it turns out, and this is one of the most important to come to grips with right away — it really is a place that’s in a continual state of “elegant decay,” where people just sorta move at their own pace and where timetables are largely useless, so locals have mostly adopted an attitude of resigned shrugs whenever something in NOLA goes wrong or takes forever. And I’ve come to realize that that’s good for me; because as the uptight northern German Yankee Protestant I am, I tend to get really wrapped up in things like schedules, planning, and obsessive meticulousness to the point of dysfunction.
So it’s good for me to spend small but regular amounts of time in a place like New Orleans, where I have no choice but to slow down my pace and cede my fate to the random whims of the gods; because when all is said and done, it reminds me that these things are ultimately not as important as I usually give them credit, and that there’s something to be said for moving at an unhurried pace with generalized meetup times that are always in flux. So when I ride a bus in NOLA now, for example, I first get to my stop, then hit the nearest bar or cafe and keep my transit app running; because the next bus could always be five minutes away when you’re in NOLA, or could always be an hour and a half away, so you might as well relax and enjoy yourself because fuming about it isn’t going to change the situation. And that’s a good thing for me to practice for short stretches of time, even as I acknowledge that if I lived in NOLA full-time, I would likely go a bit batshit by it all.
New Orleans is much like San Francisco or Portland or Key West; people truly let their freak flag fly there, a city that operates by a different set of rules and standards than anywhere else, and that’s what makes it so worthwhile to visit. Houses are cheap and plentiful, and since even mansions decorate in a “shabby chic” style, it brings a real democratization to things like lawn care and interior design. And despite the cheesy reputation of the “art galleries” in the downtown French Quarter (which in reality are a mile-long tribute to Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade), outside that area there is a legitimately impressive fine-arts community in New Orleans, a city that treasures such a thing more than most other American cities do, which is why for its population it has an unusually high number of painters, sculptors, writers and musicians.
That’s what keeps me coming back, along with the amazing seafood for cartoonishly cheap prices, as well as the “walking fever dream” aspect of visiting Bourbon Street at night, a cliche for sure but still just about the most surreal pedestrian experience I’ve had in my life, outside of walking Amsterdam’s Red Light District at two in the morning. I’m glad that I’m visiting the city enough these days for NOLA to start feeling a bit like a “home away from home,” glad to have a spare bedroom at my brother and sister-in-law’s place that makes me feel like a Bayou St. John neighborhood regular, and glad that the trips will be continuing on a regular basis for now. But man, from the moment my plane lands on the tarmac to the moment it takes off again a few days later, I abandon all pretense of being able to make it to destinations at a certain time, or that any public facility or service will work in the way it theoretically should; and if you want to have a good time in New Orleans, I suggest you do the same.
How to pinpoint when a TV show’s staff has officially stopped giving a fuck: A case study
And now, time for another chapter of…
The Most Intolerable Jason Pettus Ever Gets: In Which I Overanalyze a Mediocre Television Show That Didn’t Deserve The Analysis In The First Place
On any given month, I’m always in the process of making my way through the entire run of yet another syndicated TV sitcom on Netflix; because as a member of Generation X, I like watching an episode or two of something mindless and pleasant from TV history when going to bed at night. My most recent run was of the “eh, it’ll do” classic That ’70s Show; and this was a little more unusual than normal, in that of its eight-year run, I had only seen a handful of the ultra-terrible episodes from the last three seasons (when the cast members started dropping like flies, and the writers resorted to tired, half-century-old gimmicks to fill the gaps), so this was my first time ever to go through the entire run from start to finish without stopping.
Now, let’s be clear, That ’70s Show will never be remembered as particularly groundbreaking nor particularly great; but like all good syndicated TV, most of its episodes were at least tolerable, with enough isolated little moments of genius sprinkled in here and there to keep you watching from one year to the next. And indeed, for its first five seasons, the show made me laugh on a pretty regular basis when watching the whole thing again on Netflix; and that’s due mostly to its sneakily brilliant premise, in which a group of bored teens in a small Wisconsin town entertain themselves by laughing at their friends’ foibles and failures, during a time in history when drugs and sex were rampant, and people could legally drink at 18. Like most syndicated TV, it was strongly character-based, in that the plots were sometimes the slimmest of things, whose humor hinged entirely around the concept of you getting to know and love the various cast members’ flaws: Kelso is always falling off the water tower, to the amusement of his friends; Donna sneaks a picture of her bare ass into the yearbook, to the amusement of her friends; the guys road-trip to Canada to buy beer, for no other reason than that Canadian beer has slightly more alcohol than American; the straitlaced parents accidentally eat the kids’ pot brownies one day, and engage in the exact kind of reckless behavior that the teens usually do.
But as most people know, it’s that fifth year where things often change profoundly for American sitcoms; because under a system that hasn’t changed even one iota in 75 years, 100 episodes is the minimum needed for a TV show to be able to sell their rights to non-network syndicated stations, and at an average of 20 to 25 episodes a season for “syndication-friendly shows,” it takes most shows five years to accumulate those hundred episodes needed. It’s a sort of magic bullet for a sitcom: hit it and your show will likely still make regular amounts of money for the rest of time (or as long as televised programs on visual screens last); get canceled before then, and your show will likely never make another dollar ever again. And so this is often when you’ll feel a show develop its first aging pains, as writers start running out of ideas for good episodes but still need to crank out another 10 or 15 or 20 to hit their golden ticket.
This turned out to be especially true for That ’70s Show; because since the odds are so astronomically small of a TV pilot eventually reaching syndication (something like only half of one percent of them do), most showrunners only bother working out what the first five years of the show will cover, considering it a nearly impossible miracle if the show lasts longer than that. And That ’70s Show tied this plan to a really hyper-specific age group and historical period — in the pilot, the main cast are all high-school freshmen, and it’s 1976, meaning that syndication point would roll around right after they’ve graduated, right at the dawn of the 1980s. And indeed, after watching it all again on Netflix, I could see the start of the creakiness exactly in season 5 where I was expecting it: two characters who never showed a romantic interest in each other (Hyde and Jackie) suddenly become a couple; Eric and Donna get engaged; Eric’s mom goes through a middle-aged pregnancy scare; the teens all go visit colleges; foreign-exchange student Fez participates in a green-card marriage; Donna gets promoted from an intern to a DJ at a local radio station; etc etc.
It’s quite obvious when you watch the entire run that the writing staff was expecting season 5 to be the end of the show, and had already started mentally wrapping things up at a point when the original premise (goofy high-schoolers play pranks on each other while on drugs, with little to no repercussions) was starting to naturally exhaust itself. So when the ratings turned out to be good enough for a sixth season, you can symbolically see the entire writing staff sort of frown and sigh and say, “Oh, really? 26 more episodes, huh? Oh…yay.” And that’s when the first big problem with the show arises, that the scripts start immediately taking a left turn into soap-opera land, largely abandoning its original “let’s get high and hang out” spirit for a series of petty interpersonal conflicts that could only be loved by 12-year-old girls. Hyde cheats on Jackie! Jackie cheats on Hyde! Kelso wants Jackie back! Oh, wait, now he’s had a baby! Fez has a girlfriend! Oh, wait, now he doesn’t! Eric and Donna almost elope! But then they don’t! And then they break up! So Donna can go off to college! But then she doesn’t! Because she can’t stand being away from him! So they get back together! OMG! OMG! OMFG!!!!!1!!!
It’s two of the oldest cliches about stretching out a sitcom’s life that that industry even has — devolve the storylines into a series of romantic squabbles (and don’t forget the twin holy grails of late-season sitcoms, MARRIAGE! and BABIES!), then start pairing up random characters with other random characters, against all the logic the show has shown up to now (see also: “Chandler and Monica’s Random One-Night Stand Eventually Becomes The Entire Focus Of Friends During The Second Half Of Its Run”) — which just got worse and worse on That ’70s Show with each subsequent season. But then to make it even worse than that, the writers combined this with two of the other greatest Sitcom Sins that often happen when a show runs too long: 1) trying to let the characters develop and grow as they get older, without ditching the genre’s requirement of constantly having them all hanging out in one room together, which is how you get all these melodramas over marriages and babies and careers from a bunch of characters who are all supposed to be 17 and still spend their days hanging out in Eric’s parents’ basement and getting high.
And 2), when introducing these new melodramas, making all the new extra characters needed for those storylines the most bland, milquetoast cardboard cutouts you can possibly imagine (see: Fez’s new girlfriend; the woman who had Kelso’s baby; Hyde’s surprise black sister; and most blatantly, the stripper who Hyde drunkenly marries in Las Vegas, a naked plot device for adding false melodrama that lasts for an unbelievable 16 episodes, each of which gives the stripper something like two forgettable lines to deliver before she then unceremoniously disappears again for good). I don’t know what causes this to happen so often on sitcoms that have run too long — whether the writers have lost the energy to create compelling new characters, whether the existing cast is too threatened by the idea of a new character that’s “too interesting,” or whether it’s just impossible to add something intriguing and new to a situation that’s been calcified for so long — but this is certainly one of the most common sins among overlong sitcoms that you see over and over and over again, especially egregious in this case.
And then in the last season, season 8, we finally get to the straw that broke the camel’s back; Topher Grace, who played the goofy teen Eric, who served as the narrative center of the entire show (episodes mostly took place at his parents’ house; his parents were the only adults to also be in every episode; all his friends only know each other through their mutual friendships with him), decided to leave at the end of season 7. And instead of gracefully ending the show at that point, the writers decided to pull a “Cousin Oliver” on all of us, perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all among bored sitcom writers; they decided to introduce an entirely new character who was designed to take Eric’s place (including getting into a romantic relationship with Eric’s now abandoned fiancee Donna), literally just some random dude who was walking down the sidewalk one day and saw a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of Hyde’s record store. (Oh, and did I mention that Hyde owns a record store in the last three seasons? Because of learning that his real dad is none other than black sitcom veteran Tim Reid? Who’s a high-powered executive in Detroit who owns a national chain of Tower-type record stores? Who one day on a whim decides to just give him one? And that I’m furiously rolling my eyes even as we speak??!!)
This is the point where the show just completely collapses in on itself, like a house of cards that’s been hit by a gust of wind, which you can plainly see just by comparing the opening credits of the first seven seasons (in which the cast joyously drives down the streets of their small town at night, high as a kite, singing along with a Big Star song) and season eight (which in every second looks forced and embarrassing to watch, obviously made up on the fly out of necessity and practically oozing an attitude of, “Let’s just get this the fuck over with as quickly as we can”). That’s how the entire last season in a nutshell feels, like everyone involved is actively embarrassed to still be there picking up their paychecks, intensely aware of the unwatchable crap they’re churning out but unable to stop the trillion-dollar Viacom Machine that’s making it all happen. That’s always the saddest moment of all in modern media, when we’re watching something and can tell that no one involves wants to be there, but they’re doing it anyway because they understand we’re all sheep and will watch it no matter what. And then like the sheep we are, we dutifully do. And thus does the Viacom Machine keep rolling along, destroying everything in its wake.
Anyway, onward and upward — now it’s New Girl that I’m watching from start to finish, two episodes a night, then I think I’m going to jump all the way back to The Dick Van Dyke Show from the early ’60s, since I’ve never actually sat and watched that show’s entire run from start to finish without stopping. As always, more needlessly overanalytical updates as they occur to me.