It’s the freaking weekend – links round-up

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Here is a selection of the best things that I have come across on the internet this week:

19 Successful People Who Had A Rough Time In Their Twenties [Buzzfeed] – an inspirational list of famous people who hit a low point during their twenties and went on to greatness later in life. Number one on the list is Jon Hamm, who was dropped by the William Morris Agency aged 27 after he struggled to land acting work. The list doesn’t mention that by the time he was 21, he had lost both of his parents, which is so unimaginably awful that I don’t know how he manages to get out of bed in the morning, much less go out onto the world stage every day and entertain us with his wonderful acting skills and lovely face and aversion to wearing underpants. If you’re a twenty-something who is going through a hard time, keep your chin up, work hard and one day your penis could have its own Tumblr. It’s the American Dream.

… and if things go really, really well, you could end up being so successful that you can get away with making unusual requests of your co-workers – like Marlon Brando, who demanded ‘a bucket hat and a personal dwarf’ during the filming of The Island Of Dr Moreau. Alternatively, why not take a leaf out of Lindsay Lohan’s book (#WWLLD?, as I ask myself every day), who refused to strip naked to film a ‘pivotal orgy scene’ (is there any other kind?) with America’s Sweetheart James Deen unless the film crew took all their clothes off too? Read The 5 Most Hilarious Actor Meltdowns Behind Famous Movies [Cracked] for more great tips.

A couple more little treasures:

The Homer Car From ‘The Simpsons’ Is Now A Magnificent Reality [Uproxx]

Cher Says That Tom Cruise Is in Her Top 5 of All-Time Best Lovers [Gawker]

… and the sadface emoticon of the week goes to the ongoing New Kids On The Block/Backstreet Boys turf wars. Stay safe out there guys 😦

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Paris Jackson, Amanda Bynes and Stephen Fry: the answer we’re all looking for

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Paris Michael Katherine Jackson

According to recent news reports, a judge is ‘demanding answers about suicidal Paris Jackson’s state of mind’, and he’s not the only one. Since Wednesday the Mail Online has been playing sidebar psychiatrist and has published over 20 articles on the subject, trying to work out why a teenage girl they have never met would attempt to take her own life.

The Mail Online asks ‘Did a threat to reveal Michael Jackson WASN’T her father drive Paris over the edge?‘ Or was it because she ‘was under huge strain after being forced to defend her new-found relationship with her mom Debbie Rowe‘? Is it something to do with the fact that she allegedly ‘asked for emancipation from her family before suicide attempt‘? Or is it just yet another example of ‘the terrible proof fame corrodes all it touches‘? A cry for help? An argument with her brother Prince? A delayed reaction to the death of her beloved father? Legendarily shitty guardians (with Uncle TJ having moved far away)?

Same goes for poor Amanda Bynes. While her antics are becoming increasingly predictable (Amanda Bynes calls random celebrity ugly/tweets pictures of herself half-dressed in a raggedy-ass wig/goes to a public exercise class wearing something inappropriate something something Drake SHOCKER), there’s plenty more media mileage in an analysing her every tweet in order to make an expert diagnosis. Is it drugs and alcohol? Amanda says she’s allergic to both. Narcissistic personality disorder? She does love to remind other people of how much more beautiful she is than them. Schizophrenia? She claims there’s an imposter running around New York pretending to be her. The high price of child fame? Possibly.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see the coverage this week on the news that Stephen Fry attempted suicide last year. If you aren’t familiar with the life and times of Stephen Fry, imagine that the Queen Mother had a baby with Oscar Wilde and that baby grew up to be a lanky genius who knows everything about everything. He knows whether there’s life on Mars. He knows how many roads a man must walk down before you can call him a man. He knows that I’m lying in bed right now eating handfuls of Everyday Value cornflakes and listening to Earth Song. He knows why the answer to the Great Question Of Life, the Universe, and Everything… is forty-two. (Yes. Seriously. He actually does.) But even he doesn’t know what would cause a person to attempt suicide.

For years he has spoken frankly about living with bipolar disorder, and is president of the mental health charity Mind. This week he told the press that there was “no reason” for someone wanting to take their own life. “There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life.”

Wouldn’t life be so easy if all incidences of mental illness could be traced back to a single cause? If we could all just scan through the Daily Mail sidebar of shame, tot up the headlines and say to ourselves ‘ok, I won’t sell my children into Amanda Bynes-style Nickelodeon superstardom. I’ll let them know who their biological parents are and try not to get accidentally murdered by Dr Conrad Murray’ and that that would be enough to guard ourselves against the unthinkable? The fact is, 5% of all people attempt suicide at some point in their lives. It’s not just Michael Jackson’s daughter and Sherlock Holmes’ brother. Sometimes people’s brains just don’t work properly.

The ultimate weird-off: US vs UK television shows

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You Americans may have your Robot Chickens and Renegade Angels, but we’ve got time-travelling hangman-pimps and men giving birth to giant eyeballs. Which nation shall emerge victorious as we pitch US and UK TV shows new and old against each other in the ultimate weird-off?

Round one: animated sketch show with pop culture parodies

US: Robot Chicken

What’s it about?: Highly irreverent childhood-ruining pop culture mash-ups from the twisted brain of Dr. Evil’s ginger son.

Random quote, out of context: ‘I’m Bill Clinton! I’m gonna push over this cow!’

UK: The Adam and Joe Show

What’s it about?: Created by, written by and starring Joe Cornish of directing Attack The Block fame and Adam Buxton of ‘being absolutely awesome and hilarious all of the time’ fame, this turn-of-the-millenium sketch show features dozens of film and TV parodies (including Snatch, American Beauty and Se7en) acted out by cute and cuddly toys.

Random quote, out of context: ‘Well, I once snogged my brother, and I’m a Princess Leiasbian.’

Winner: Robot Chicken – Adam and Joe’s parodies are too accurate to be truly strange.

Round two: retro gothic

US: The Heart She Holler

What’s it about?: It’s basically William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying with incest jokes.

Random quote, out of context: ‘Son, just because you grew up in a lifeless cavern with zero human contact until I died last week and you were released and taught to speak and put in charge of this holler, is no excuse for your shoddy mismanagement!’

UK: Hunderby

What’s it about? It’s basically Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca with fart jokes.

Random quote, out of context: ‘Mistress Matilde is still abed, sir. She complained of vipers lashing her insides… Her bowel has still not spoken, sir, though I fancy I caught a whisper.’

Winner: The Heart She Holler

Round three: horror

US: American Horror Story

What’s it about?: Insane asylums. Serial killers. Ghosts. Aliens. Nazis. Demonic possessions. Nuns. Rubber gimps.

Random quote, out of context: ‘We’re all going to be together in the dark, watching The Sign of the Cross. A movie full of fire, sex, and the death of Christians. What fun.’

UK: Psychoville

What’s it about?: Insane asylums. Serial killers. Clowns with hooks for hands. Dwarves with psychokinetic powers. Christopher Biggins.

Random quote, out of context: ‘You killed her? What, cos she made a dwarf eat some cheese?’

Winner: American Horror Story

Round four: medical drama

US: Childrens Hospital

What’s it about?: Fast-paced parody exploring ethical medical dilemmas, like, can you perform surgery using only the healing power of laughter? Is it ok to fake your own death because you have too many emails? Is it morally wrong to provide a secret abortion to the wife of a right-wing, pro-life senator, when the foetus in question is a sixteen year old boy?

Random quote, out of context: ‘I’ve been peed on so many times I’d know if you’re a ghost.’

UK: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

What’s it about?: Much like Childrens, but the hospital was built over the gates of Hell (in Dagenham, Essex – where else would it be?)

Random quote, out of context: ‘As I’m sure you people are aware, Won Ton’s gamma radiation mumps program went west, and created a horny giant eye on legs.’

Winner: Darkplace

Round five: independent women

US: Strangers With Candy

What’s it about?: A 46 year old former prostitute and recovering drug addict returns to high school to put right what once went wrong. Every episode ends with mass dancing and everyone learning a valuable lesson (‘violence really isn’t the only way to resolve a conflict, but it’s the only way to win it’/’I don’t have to join the debate team to get people to pay attention to me, I just need to starve myself to the brink of death!’/’Drugs are for losers. Unless you use them to win. In that case, drugs are for winners!’/

Random quote, out of context: ‘I did things I wouldn’t force on a mule, and that includes things I forced on a mule.’

UK: Nighty Night

What’s it about?: The course of true love never did run smooth. Any love that is worth having is worth fighting for. When you fall in love with the married doctor who lives next door, sometimes you have to tell all your friends that your still-very-much-alive husband has died, start dating a rich simpleton who describes his personality as ‘Scottish’, organise a farewell coffee morning for said married doctor and his wife which centres around you pole dancing in their living room to Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, murder your husband, attempt to murder your vicar with poisoned Angel Delight for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, follow married doctor and his wife to the spiritual retreat where they have gone to save their marriage, pretend you are a therapist who works there called Floella Umbagabe, accidentally nearly kill the real Floella Umbagabe, pretend you are with child following sexual assault by married doctor’s twelve year old son, get pushed off a cliff by married doctor’s wife, land on top of married doctor and drag his unconscious body across the ocean in an inflatable rubber ring.

Random quote, out of context: ‘Hiya Cath, Hiya Don. It’s Jill. I know I’m not allowed to speak to you anymore, but I’m just phoning to say I’ve shot myself. Bye.’

Winner: Nighty Night

Round six: musical madness

US: Glee

What’s it about?: A brutal dystopian vision of an alternate reality where teenagers burst into song once every few minutes for no logical reason, no one ever learns anything – everyone has to be reminded every single week not to be completely awful to each other all the time (you know, just like that valuable lesson that they learned last week), and Lea Michelle does That Face. A lot.

Random quote, out of context: ‘Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?’

UK: The Mighty Boosh

What’s it about?: Two zoo keepers/band mates/clothes shop owners/frenemies go on a journey through time and space, meeting plenty of gorilla demons, green-skinned homicidal hitchhikers and sexually predatory half man/half woman/half fish Rick James doppelgangers along the way.

Random quote, out of context: ‘Cheese is a kind of meat/A tasty yellow beef/I milk it from my teat/But I try to be discrete/Oh cheese!/Oh cheese!’

Winner: Glee

Round seven: TV intellectuals

US: Dr. Steve Brule

What’s it about?: Little Stevie is something of a renaissance man. While primarily a medical doctor, he also knows a great deal about astronomy (the names of the planets are ‘Sun, Mercurus, Uranus, Water Planet, Plunto, and this one they didn’t have a name for it yet. It’s too far away. You can name it if you want. Name it Dorris, after my mom’), gastronomy (sushi is ‘just cat scraps’) and erotic dancing. He’s a hard-hitting interviewer who isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions (‘Did you ever invent a jet pack?’)

Random quote, out of context: ‘Some dads are not your dad.’

UK: Brian Butterfield

What’s it about?: Businessman. Entrepreneur. Businessman. Owner of a five star(/asterisk) hotel with a ‘prince-sized’ bed (although the pillows do contravene European safety regulation – after all, they are blocks of printer paper) and a celebrity lookalike agency (see below), whose lookalikes all very much resemble Brian Butterfield. He also invented a pre-cursor to the 5:2 Diet with the Butterfield Diet Plan. For six days a week, breakfast is only one cornflake, toasted with low fat spread, but on Saturday you can eat all the pork cylinders, garlic pudding and pints o’ cream you want.

Bad Space Kingelton johnsmichael jackman

Random quote, out of context: ‘Those aren’t stars, they’re asterisks, each one referring to a fault with the hotel – one of which is the lack of toilet facilities.’

Winner: Dr. Steve Brule

Round eight: gentlemanly pursuits

US: Loiter Squad

What’s it about?: It’s exactly how you would expect a sketch show starring a rap group who call themselves Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All Don’t Give A F*** Litter Life Bacon Boys Loiter Squad Butt F*** B**** N****s to be.

Random quote, out of context: ‘Sometimes the apple falls and attacks the tree.’

UK: Snuff Box

What’s it about?: Surreal sketch comedy framed by the adventures of two hangmen in the pursuit of the perfect pair of silver cowboy boots/each other’s fiancees/writing the world’s greatest pop song (if only bozos like Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie wouldn’t keep interrupting them). Also, Matt’s long-dead ancestor shows up occasionally, bringing a gaggle of Victorian prostitutes with him.

Winner: Snuff Box

Round nine: puppets

US: Wonder Showzen

What’s it about?: From the disclaimer at the beginning of every show: ‘WARNING: WONDER SHOWZEN CONTAINS OFFENSIVE, DESPICIBLE CONTENT THAT IS TOO CONTROVERSIAL AND TOO AWESOME FOR ACTUAL CHILDREN. THE STARK, UGLY, PROFOUND TRUTHS WONDER SHOWZEN EXPOSES MAY BE SOUL-CRUSHING TO THE WEAK OF SPIRIT. IF YOU ALLOW A CHILD TO WATCH THIS SHOW, YOU ARE A BAD PARENT OR GUARDIAN.’

Random quote, out of context: ‘We’re on an adventure, you’re not on our adventure. You’ll never have an adventure, cause you’re sitting on your couch like a loser. Smash your TV and have adventure… Smash your TV and have adventure… Smash your TV and have adventure… Smash your TV and have adventure.’

UK: Bo Selecta

What’s it about?: Does an insane Yorkshireman wearing a cheap rubber mask and an enormous pair of reading glasses pretending to be Scary Spice count as a puppet?

Random quote, out of context: ‘This is the living room, where I like to relax and sometimes stick my penis between my legs and pretend I’m a lady’.

Winner: Wonder Showzen

Round ten: just sheer, unadulterated, disturbing, brain-hurting weirdness

US: Xavier Renegade Angel

What’s it about?: God knows. Some sort of bird-man-thing with a snake for a hand tries to avenge his parents’ deaths?

Random quote, out of context: ‘WHAT DOTH LIFE?’

UK: Jam

What’s it about?: Imagine the strangest, most disgusting and taboo thing that you could ever think of, times it by a million, and imagine it slowed down x20 and filmed through CCTV, and that just about covers it.

Random quote, out of context: ‘When dancing, lost in techo trance, arms flailing, gawky Bez, then find you snagged on frowns, and slowly it dawns, you’re jazzing to the bleep tone of a life support machine that marks the steady fading of your day old baby daughter. And when midnight sirens lead to blue flash road mash, stretchers, covered heads and slippy red macadam, and find you creeping ‘neath the blankets, to snuggle close a mangle bird, hoping you soon too will be freezer drawed. Then welcome. Welcome. In Jam, Jam, Jam, Jam, Jaaaaam.’

Winner: Xavier, (snake)hands down.

Overall winner: USA wins! That’s… something to be proud of, I guess?

Golden rules for auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent

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On today’s Guardian online, Stuart Heritage asks ‘Has Britain’s Got Talent been faking it?’:

After more than a decade of reality TV talent shows, we’ve become inured to this, haven’t we? Every year, audiences are expected to endure at least one story about an act that already has a record deal, or has a lucrative cruise ship career, or was brought in as a ringer by the producers. I mean, how long has that dancing five-year-old from Saturday’s show been in the business? Two decades? Three? And, frankly, I’ve yet to be convinced that Pudsey the dancing dog wasn’t just a kid with a rug taped to him all along. By this point, all the backstage jiggery-pokery should just wash over us, so why am I still bothered?

I know why I’m bothered.

Here are the three golden rules for auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent:

Practice is for suckers

If you weren’t born with the kind of once-in-a-generation talent that could reduce David Walliams to hysterical tears, forget it. Your skills are basically worthless unless you fell out of the womb a fully-formed Cheryl Cole impersonator, Pavarotti-level opera singer or breakdancing border collie.

When it was revealed that Paul Potts, the winner of the first series of BGT, had received professional vocal training and had previously performed in front of 15,000 people, his victory was called a ‘sham’. To some people, apparently, mobile phone salesmen who just happen to be blessed with world-class talents that they have done absolutely nothing about for 36 years are more worthy of praise than mobile phone salesmen who worked 13 hour days in a job they didn’t like very much so that they could save up enough money to take six months off work to go to opera school in Italy.

The only exceptions to this rule seem to be street dance crews and teenage boy choirs, and even then practice is mostly just a way to keep you off the drugs for a couple of hours.

So is having actually embarked upon your dream career before, and having a decent level of professional success

One of the strongest contenders in this year’s Britain’s Got Talent competition is Francine Lewis, who sailed through to the semi-finals after performing solid impressions of Katie Price, Stacey Solomon and Cheryl Cole.

Backstage before her audition, she told Ant and Dec “I started doing impressions when I was about six, and then back in the nineties I entered a talent show.  I came second to a puppet. I carried on for a little while, but never got to the level I always dreamed about, but then I came out of it when I got pregnant.” She confided “I love being with my kids, I really do, but I wouldn’t die happy if I didn’t pursue what I feel I should be doing.”

When David Walliams asked her “do you have a day job, Francine?” she replied “well I’m a mum, a mum of two, so I do my impressions to entertain everyone when I can.”

When she says “I do my impressions to entertain everyone when I can”, I think this implies that she occasionally manages to squeeze in the odd Stacey Solomon “OHMAGAAAWWWDDD” in between nappy changes and school runs to make her kids giggle. I don’t think it implies that she recently did her impressions on a comedy show watched by over a million viewers, as Francine Lewis did in Channel 4’s Very Important People. She also didn’t mention that she has previously appeared on Time and the Place, Pebble Mill, The Big Big Talent Show, 5’s Company, Bushell on the Box, Fully Booked, Big Breakfast, Generation Game, This Morning, Loose Women and the Ian Wright Show. She does on her website, though.

This is why I like The Voice more than Britain’s Got Talent, in spite of the incessant ‘denim-on-denim’ jokes from Jessie J, the fact that they wear the same clothes in the obviously pre-recorded Sunday evening results show (smelly) and the impossibly small-scale set that makes Countdown look like the Superbowl. If Sean Conlon from Five and Cleo Higgins from Cleopatra had auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent rather than The Voice, they would both have had to pretend to be stay-at-home mums who thought an octave was a type of wild boar.

Confidence is gross, especially on a woman

Ideally, you should be a young mum who whispers Katie Price impressions under your breath to yourself as you drain off tinned carrots for Lily May’s tea, letting a slight smile spread across your lips as the nasal squawk echoes off the metallic hollow of the kitchen sink, thinking maybe, just maybe, one day, you might pluck up the courage to audition for Britain’s Got Talent. Don’t be silly! you tell yourself. You would never have enough confidence to stand there and perform in front of all of those people!

Ideally, you shouldn’t have recently done your Katie Price impressions in four episodes of a comedy show watched by over a million viewers, like Francine Lewis.

Another talent show contestant who has been hitting the headlines this week is Alice Fredenham. Here is Alice, a 28 year old beauty therapist from Hertfordshire, belting out The Lady is a Tramp for The Voice judges and receiving a unanimous ‘no’:

Another talent show contestant who has been hitting the headlines this week is Alice Fredenham. Here is Alice, a 28 year old beauty therapist from Hertfordshire, wimping out My Funny Valentine for the Britain’s Got Talent judges and receiving a unanimous ‘yes’:

What happened there? What happened to the confidence, the sassiness, the killer cleavage, the shimmying, the retro styling, the supportive family on standby? I’m not even going to ask what’s going on with her hair, and ask why it looks like she’s about to have half a head of highlights put in, because it makes me sad (I think she’s possibly going for the SuBo effect).

The official line is that after being rejected by all four Voice judges (and having Will.I.Am ask her whether she was a trumpet), it knocked her confidence so hard that she didn’t want to invite her family along to watch her again. Do we believe it?  I don’t.  Not really.  Sounds plausible enough, but this is Simon Cowell world – a place where even walking egos like X Factor UK‘s Katie Waissel have to simper and shake their way onto stage like all they want to do is release this pent-up monster of a voice that is clogging up their throat and not have to deal with this pesky fame part – like she couldn’t think of anything more dreadful than making interactive online reality shows about her life sponsored by Sprite, or allegedly trying to sell kiss and tell stories on Apprentice contestants (both of which Katie did before auditioning.)

Quoth Francine: “I’ve been out of it for quite a while, and I just lost all my confidence. Coming back in front of such a big audience, it’s very nerve-wracking – I’m not gonna lie. I just feel so lucky to get this second chance today.”

I’m really happy that Francine has finally found a platform from which to show off her talents to over ten million people. After all of her hard work, she deserves it.

“But how’s it going to end?”

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Riley Schmidt - Rubber Man

I have recently started watching American Horror Story, and I love it. It contains everything that’s good in the world. Aliens! Haunted houses! Hotties! Lesbians! Nuns! I prefer Asylum to Murder House – my tastes are much more Vertigo than Shining, and the campier the better. Most of all, I love the format – each season has a completely new setting, story and characters, but with many of the same cast members playing different roles.

What a revelation! I find it liberating – no more battling through series I hate in the misguided hope that it will all be worth it in the end. I watched whole seasons of Lost and Desperate Housewives before I realised that I wasn’t actually enjoying them. I was so focused on getting to that incredible ending – the one that shines a whole new light on the entire series while also making all the bizarre twists and turns fall into place – that I hadn’t even noticed that watching them had become a chore. When you would rather spend four hours reading crackpot fan theories on TV Tropes than spend 40 minutes watching the actual programme you’re supposedly obsessing over, something is wrong.

It has made me more cautious about embarking upon new series – and I think I’m not the only one. Plenty of shows – FlashForward, Revolution, The Event, Alcatraz – have tried and failed to be ‘the new Lost’. When I watch an episode of Mad Men, or Game of Thrones, I enjoy it, but I don’t know whether I want to commit myself to a full seven seasons. To watch Lost in its entirety would take you 86.9 hours, or 3.6 days. The idea of that bothers me, and I have seen all 10,387 or so ‘cycles’ of America’s Next Top Model.

Can you dip in and out of a show like Game of Thrones, or Mad Men, or The Walking Dead? After eight years or so, if we finally discover that Game of Thrones is actually a game of Dungeons and Dragons being played by a teenage boy/Dick Whitman died in Korea/Larry David is Jesus in Purgatory, will it all have been worth it? Or will we still be shocked and thrilled by that final hour even if we haven’t been with them every step of the way?

It’s the reason why Twin Peaks has been gathering dust in my download folder for several months now. The general consensus is that the first season is incredible, but that it goes downhill in the second and never recovers. If only they had done an American Horror Story and wrapped up all of the murdered teens, log ladies and backwards-talking dwarves into a neat bundle within one season. A girl can dream.

The implication is that an ending that we don’t enjoy can ruin our memories of what came before it, while a great twist ending can make even the dullest story worth persevering with. It’s why we as a culture treat M Night Shyamalan like that cheap tart we picked up one night who gave us the ride of our lives, against our better judgement. I was way more disappointed than I had right to be by The Prestige, with its muddled and saggy twist, when up to that point I had been completely engaged in the story of two magicians driven insane by rivalry. On the flipside, I can’t handle the thought of a Mulholland Drive without that unforgettable twist ending, even though without it, it would still be a moving tale of a naive young ingenue trying to make it in Hollywood and falling in love with a mysterious amnesiac. Would The Sixth Sense still be a good movie if it was an About A Boy-style tale of a a troubled child teaching a totes-not-dead child psychiatrist a few valuable life lessons, which help him fix his broken relationship with his wife? Sure, why not?

The only ending more unpopular than a bad one is an uncertain one. Scriptwriters know this. It’s why Zodiac ends triumphantly, after a decades-long murder investigation, with a key witness identifying the killer from a row of photos, only for the screen to go blank and a couple of paragraphs of text to flash up on the screen, in the world’s smallest font, which reveal that, erm, sorry, the guy that was identified most likely isn’t the killer, and they still haven’t found who did it. It’s why they trust us to assume that nearly all romcoms end with the two people we have just seen bickering and deceiving each other for ninety minutes living happily ever after, even though she’s really young and moving to a different part of the country/she’s emotionally scarred and the dynamic of their relationship is hideously unbalanced/she basically raped him once.

Having never seen an episode of The Sopranos (I know, I know, I should have my blogging licence revoked), I have read about how it ends, and that people were unhappy with it. It has put me off watching it, even though I’m sure every hour of my life I would give over to it would be filled with thrills, and gasps, and laughs. I can appreciate such an open ending on an artistic level, but I can’t bear the thought of anyone trying to pull a stunt like that with Walter White.

“But until then, who’s in charge? Me”: cancer and Breaking Bad

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Walter_White2.jpg#file

To hell with your cancer. I’ve been living with cancer for the better part of a year. Right from the start, it’s a death sentence. That’s what they keep telling me. Well, guess what? Every life comes with a death sentence, so every few months I come in here for my regular scan, knowing full well that one of these times – hell, maybe even today – I’m gonna hear some bad news. But until then, who’s in charge? Me. That’s how I live my life.

When writing about films and TV shows, I am often torn between analysing it from a critical perspective, or obsessing over it like a fan. It’s the difference between saying ‘Walter White’s cancer is a metaphor for the evil inside him’ versus ‘Walter White’s cancer is a convenient plot point which drives the story forward while also encouraging the audience to sympathise with him’ versus ‘I think Walter White’s cancer is making him crazy’.

Lots of people get cancer. Schoolteachers, drug dealers, husbands, dads. But this is TV land – a place where all actions cause reactions, bad guys get caught out and villains get what’s coming to them. A place where letting your friend’s girlfriend choke to death can have ramifications for your whole city.

From a plot point of view, it’s a powerful catalyst to to turn an ordinary guy who is happy to be blown around by the winds of fate and turn him into an unpredictable nightmare who kicks life in the balls and shoves a homemade explosive up its arse. Whichever way you slice it, it allows us to explore our feelings towards this incredibly common disease and the people who are affected by it.

Walt and his cancer: what does it mean? Is his diagnosis of inoperable cancer a death sentence, or the start of a new life as the man he’s always wanted to be? Why do we struggle to understand how bad things can happen to good people? What does it mean to face death with dignity – to go silently into the night with a faint smile, or to look it square in the eye and refuse to go down without a fight? Who’s the danger now, Cancer?

For me, probably one of the most intriguing moments in Walter’s journey is the way that he reacts when he finds out that his cancer is not as bad as originally thought. He isn’t happy.

Um… well, it’s kind of funny. When I got my diagnosis – cancer – I said to myself, y’know, ‘Why me?’ And then the other day when I got the good news, I said the same thing.

One explanation is that his condition no longer provides him with an excuse to do really awful stuff all of the time. Another would be an exploration of the just-world hypothesis – the theory that good things happen to good people, and that bad things happen to bad people.  When he was a ‘good guy’, he was upset that such a terrible thing had happened to someone who never did anything wrong.  Who among us can’t relate to that?  Now that he’s a bad guy, the reverse seems true: it’s as though he became evil to validate the poison eating away at his core.

In his recap of Season 5’s ‘Fifty-One’, Matt Zoller Seitz from Vulture writes:

Walter White doesn’t just have cancer. He is cancer. His cancer diagnosis doesn’t just describe a physical illness. It’s a metaphor for the evil inside Walt: the mix of arrogance, greed, intellectual vanity, and male insecurity that drove him to kill the old Walt and replace him with Heisenberg. It was always there, even if others, including Walt, couldn’t see it.

Zoller Seitz cites how his evil has spread, or ‘metastasised’, to everyone around him: turning Skyler into an accessory to murder, assault, drug dealing, tax fraud, and money laundering, and Jesse from a small time crook into… well, you know the rest. It makes total sense, but clearly, this has unfortunate implications.

Does Walt’s cancer diagnosis make us feel sorry for him, no matter what he does? I think it tests the limits of our sympathy. After five series, I can still listen to Walt claim that he’s only in the meth business so that he can make enough money for his family to live on after he dies without throwing my TV out of the window – but only just.

Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own. Choices, I mean. My entire life it just seems I never…you know, had a real say about any of it. Now this last one, cancer… all I have left is how I choose to approach this.

But that’s Walt’s opinion. Do we agree with it? I don’t. He chose to leave Gray Matter impulsively, seemingly for emotional reasons. Nevertheless, the cancer transforms him. He has a new name now. He continues to shave his head long after his chemotherapy treatments have ceased. He looks almost unrecognisable from his old self. Walt’s cancer has given him an opportunity to right past wrongs – now our hero is an internationally renowned mega millionaire chemist, just like he would have been if he never left Gray Matter and sold his shares for $5,000. He gets the chance to build an empire and think about the legacy that he will leave behind him – a scorched mark on the desert earth, writing ‘Walter White was here… bitch’ in letters so big maybe even his apathetic maker could see them. Perhaps this character’s greatest success will be getting to choose his own ending.

5 pieces of pop culture that helped me through hard times

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Persepolis (2007)

Of all the scenes in the film adaption of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, the one that made the biggest impression on me was when the teenage Marji takes to her bed after she discovers her boyfriend has cheated on her.  She is upset that he betrayed her, upset that she ever loved him, and upset that she’s upset.  She is distraught that, after a life of hardship, spending her adolescence escaping the shadows of oppression and tragedy – the Iran/Iraq war, being separated from her parents in her early teens, the torture and murder of her favourite uncle – breaking up with some spotty twerp has driven her to attempt suicide.  Among the lessons that Persepolis helped teach me is the realisation that our emotions don’t react in predictable ways.  It is easy to imagine that that day you experience a tragedy is as tough as it gets, and each day after that is a little easier.  It doesn’t work like that.  You can fight through a war and let teenage heartache knock you for six.

So What – Pink

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to tell everyone you know that you’re splitting up with your husband after only a couple of years of marriage.  I especially can’t imagine how hard it must be to tell everyone who knows you that you’re splitting up with your husband after only a couple of years of marriage when you’re one of the most famous pop stars in the entire world.   With that in mind, it takes gigantic ladyballs to not only release a song about it (with the opening line ‘I guess I just lost my husband, I don’t know where he went…’) , but also to release a video for that song in which you sing it to said husband and mime strangling him (and also appear naked from behind while doing some sort of T-Rex dance?  And have a 1990s Nicholas Cage doppelganger set fire to your hair?  Whatevs, it’s a weird video.)  One time when I was feeling very low, I put this song on repeat for about an hour and a half and told myself that I’m still a rockstar too goddammit.  Bonus awesomeness: they’re now married again, and have a baby together.

Beginners (2011)

I watched this film for the first time on New Year’s Day, 2012.  Having had a few friends over the night before, I spent the day alone, hungover and tired, eating re-heated leftover mozzarella sticks in a filthy apartment, thinking about New Year’s Resolutions and all of the uncomfortable self-questioning that comes with them.  That evening, I downloaded this wonderful little movie about an elderly man (Christopher Plummer) who comes out as gay after his wife of 44 years passes away, and chases love with all the energy and enthusiasm of a man a quarter of his age.  The film is based on director Mike Mills’ own experiences of his father coming out at the age of 75.  Watch it next time you’re feeling inadequate about what you have achieved during the short time you have been on this earth.

Invisible Monsters – Chuck Palahniuk

‘”Now,” those Plumbago lips say, “You are going to tell me your story like you just did.  Write it all down.  Tell that story over and over.  Tell me your sad-assed story all night.”  That Brandy queen points a long bony finger at me.

‘”When you understand,” Brandy says, “that what you’re telling is just a story.  It isn’t happening anymore.  When you realise the story you’re telling is just words, when you can just crumble it up and throw your past in the trashcan,” Brandy says, “then we’ll figure out who you’re going to be.”‘

I want that whole passage tattooed inside my eyelids.

Peep Show

This British sitcom is perfect for when you have done something you regret and need to put it into perspective.  Next time you do something awful and/or embarrassing, you should try what I shall call ‘The Jez Test’: assessing your actions against those of Jeremy from Peep Show to see which is worse.

The Jez Test:

  • Have you tried to run over your girlfriend’s lesbian fiance accidentally on purpose?
  • Have you accidentally killed your girlfriend’s dog, set fire to it to dispose of the remains, and eaten a bite of its charred leg in front of her?
  • Have you bested a love rival by pooing in the pool of the gym he works at, and blaming it on him?

No?  It’s probably fine then, you shouldn’t worry about it.

Why aren’t you a superstar already? John C. Reilly edition

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He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Chicago, and has appeared in basically every film ever since the beginning of time (Boogie Nights! Chicago! Gangs of New York! The Thin Red Line! The Hours! The Aviator!), but I still have to say “you know, the guy from Step Brothers who isn’t Will Ferrell” every time I mention him, and that is a bloody disgrace.  Until his name is instantly recognisable among the general public;  until he gets an Academy Award and until the United States of America is renamed John C. Reillytopia and has Boats n Hoes installed as its national anthem, I will consider him underrated.

From starting out as a dramatic actor, he has transitioned to mostly performing in comic roles.  So many successful funnymen go into dramatic roles, and it’s generally regarded to be a step up from slumming it in comedy.  I don’t think that’s entirely fair.  Making people laugh isn’t easy.  It’s a sad, mad, bad world out there at times, and we need talented people who can serve LOLs on the regular.

And serve them he does, in everything from Pixar (playing the lead in Wreck-It Ralph) to indie dramedies (Cyrus, Carnage, Cedar Rapids) to more Frat Pack comedies than you can shake a shake and bake at. Step Brothers is a personal favourite of mine.  I think it needs more love among the Judd Apatow fan community.  Hey Will Ferrell fans, why not ease off the “I Love Lamp” and “Sex Panther” quotes and add “you and your mom are hillbillies.  This is a house of learned doctors” to your arsenal?  It works just as well on dinner party guests as it does on new relationship partners.

The little seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story deserves a special mention – while it isn’t knicker-wettingly hilarious, it is a very well observed parody (of Walk The Line and Ray) with a lot of heart.  Naturally, John C. Reilly does a great job of spoofing the kind of standard Oscar fodder that he has done so many times before – after all, he knows it inside out.  Not only that, but he was nominated for a Grammy for his work on the soundtrack.  Lest we forget, he has the voice of an angel: here he is singing Mr Cellophane in Chicago.  He truly is the songbird of our generation.

Even in his dramatic roles, he brings much-needed lightness and warmth.  As a hard-working cop trying to save the life of a pretty junkie, he is the sole ray of light in Paul Thomas Anderson’s suffocatingly bleak Magnolia, (to be fair to the other actors, most of them were playing child/parent/spouse abusers).  As full-time porn star, part-time magician Reed Rothchild in Boogie Nights, he bounds into each scene with a puppydog energy, providing comic relief in even the most disturbing scenes.

More recently he has been starring in his own comedy show, the surreal and silly Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, which is a spin-off from ‘Brule’s Rules’, his recurring feature on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It’s not the most highbrow, intellectual humour: Dr. Steve pronounces sushi as ‘shushi’ and refers to wasabi and pickled ginger as ‘guacamole and peaches’; mistakes a ‘crasino’ change machine for a ‘one of paper equals four of coin’ game (he always wins); goes onto the real-world streets to sell copies of his ‘BCBs’ (DVDs) to confused drivers.  Could you imagine any other Oscar-nominated dramatic actor doing that?  Well Joaquin Phoenix, obvs, but it would probably be some sort of semi-serious performance art orbiting the eighth circle of uber-meta-irony that no-one would understand.  Ok, and Adrien Brody, but he will appear in anything.

Any dingus in Hollywood can play the put-upon husband of a murderer, or the put-upon father of a murderer, or the put-upon porn star and part-time magician bumbling sidekick of an idiot, and give an impactful performance.  It takes a truly gifted actor to take what could be an incredibly one-dimensional character (he says he’s a doctor but doesn’t understand what a man’s ‘pennis’ does; he pronounces words incorrectly; and, that’s about it) and sell it like it’s Shakespeare.  Check out this video in which Dr. Steve interracts with his ‘brother’, watch it until the very end and try not to be moved:

Write that down in your copybook now

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Those of us who grew up during the twentieth century can remember eagerly flicking through our copybooks to write down all the interesting and useful facts from the educational children’s show Look Around You – information that has served us well throughout our adult lives.  How could we function in normal society without knowing that passing nitrogen gas through mains water produces whisky, while drinking sulphur mixed with champagne makes you shoot laser beams out of your eyeballs?

To celebrate this St. Frankenstein’s Day Eve, instead of giving our mind brains a rest and catching up on classic old episodes of Watch the Dot and Television’s Funniest Scientific Mishaps, I thought that it was high time that we revisited some of that vital knowledge.  For instance, did you know that:

  • High-pitched noises cans break glass. Low-pitched noises can reconstruct it.
  • The largest number is about 45,000,000,000, although mathematicians suspect that there may be even larger numbers. (45,000,000,001?)
  • What are birds? We just don’t know.
  • Germs originated in Germany, before rapidly spreading throughout the rest of the world.  Germs are basically a malevolent form of bacteria, with one purpose: to spread germs.
  • What is the brain? If you don’t know that, you’ve forgotten how to think.
  • The opposite of the brain is probably the bum. It’s nowhere near as intelligent as the brain. It doesn’t have to be, as it only needs to make very basic calculations.
  • ‘Cobbles’ is a disease which causes the skin to take on the appearance of stone, until the victim looks like a pile of rocks.  It also grants sufferers the ability to fly.  (There is a cure being developed, which contains cream, potassium, nitrates, potassium nitrates, and nitrate of potassium nitrate.)
  • It is possible for a football to be so round that it cannot legally be shown on television.
  • The names of Shakespeare’s plays are as follows: The Noble Naysayer, Rupert II, The Whore & The Harriman, The Weary Wives Of Warwick, O’Reilly, The House At Bunplehurst, Rupert III, Cognumis & Grognumis, ‘Twas A Merry Morn In Malta, Tit For Tat, Ian I, Ian II, Ian III Part I, Ian III Part II, Ian III Part III, Razzamatazz, Summer in Paris, Bessie’s Revenge, Rupert IV, David’s Diary, Knock Knock, Catherine & Casanova, Rupert V and Harlem Blues.
  • The full list of Olympic Sports is as follows: Boomerang, Moth Hunt, Calligraphy, Decision-Ball, Flicky, Sleep Marathon, Pinch n Punch, Supermaths, Martin’s Game, Bingo, Masquerade!, Judoball, Electric Buzz, Catfinkle, 1cm Jump, 2cm Jump, Freefall, Stabbing, Mixed Stabbing, Universal Trapeze, Gift Wrap and Boomerang (although that was in the 70s, so it’s possible that Swansea City Council have approved a few more Olympic Sports by now)
  • Q. Jean is shorter than Brutus, but taller than Imhotep. Imhotep is taller than Jean, but shorter than Lord Scotland. Lord Scotland is twice the height of Jean and Brutus combined, but only one-tenth of the height of Millsy. Millsy is at a constant height of x−y. If Jean stands exactly one nautical mile away from Lord Scotland, how tall is Imhotep? A. Imhotep is invisible.
  • What town was Schubert built in?
  • A one second silence is a perfectly valid way to honour someone’s passing, especially if that person died only hours after appearing on your show from complications resulting from a wasp sting to the anus.
  • Changing sex 22 times can get you a round of applause from a studio audience
  • If Synthesizer Patel had invented the sex change machine, people would have to call him Sex Change Patel.
  • If there isn’t a band, DJ or producer out there in the real world with the name ‘Synthesizer  Patel’, then we will have failed as a human race.  Same goes for ‘The Helvetica Scenario’, ‘Leonard Hatred’ and ‘Imhotep is Invisible’

How TV Ruined Your Life: Aspiration

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In the latest episode of the excellent How TV Ruined Your Life, Charlie Brooker looks at aspiration, and how TV brainwashes us to crave riches and celebrity:

We’re living in a world where everyone expects the best of everything, with the unhinged sense of entitlement that used to be the sole reserve of insane Roman emperors, or members of the Bullingdon Club

He gives examples of programmes like My Super Sweet Sixteen as influencing this mentality.  I’m not quite sure that I agree with that.  Those kind of shows are very popular, and have been for several years.  On first reflection, it seems strange that they would be such a hit now given the current economic climate.  But can they really be called ‘aspirational’ in the purest sense of the word?

I know a lot of intelligent women with good jobs who love shows like The Only Way is Essex, Real Housewives and Made in Chelsea.  I’m sure that they are well jeal of the casts for having shiny hair, lots of money and plenty of free time, but I think that’s probably where it ends.  We like them, but I don’t think we want to be them – otherwise our universities would be empty, or they all would have to offer Bachelor of Arts for Handbag Fights and Fashion Show Organising (50 guests or less) (Joint Honours).

As a society, we have moved on from revering the rich just for being rich.  In these difficult economic times more than ever, we enjoy laughing at ridiculous caricatures of them, both fictional and real.  We laugh at programmes like My Super Sweet Sixteen.  We love shows about daft rich people which expose that the emperor has no clothes, but she does have a lovely vajazzle.

From what I can see, of the shows which have been hits over the past ten years which could be described as ‘aspirational’ even in the very loosest sense, fall into five different groups:

Shows with likeable, clever, usually hard-working young people who are just starting out in their careers and barely scraping by financially (New Girl, Girls, Community, half the Parks and Recreation cast, half the Happy Endings cast, Fresh Meat, Misfits, It’s Always Sunny, Party Down, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. Suits is an interesting one to contrast, as it’s about two young men with well-paying, high prestige jobs, but they only got them through deceit: one lied about which college he went to, and the other is a college drop-out with a photographic memory.

Shows about likeable, clever, hard-working 30 and 40-somethings with good careers and decent incomes, whose professional success often comes at the expense of their personal lives (30 Rock, Smash, Louie, any medical dramas, the other half of the Parks and Recreation cast, the other half of the Happy Endings cast.  Contrasted with their 90s counterparts – Friends, Sex & The City, Ally McBeal – they tend to be much less glamorous.  Their modern equivalents are far too stressed out for incessant soul-searching, late night jazz club piano singalongs and bicurious flings – though Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson should definitely give all three a go.)

Shows about silly rich people saying and doing silly things, whose jobs, if they have them, are mostly just an awkward ruse to get them to accidentally run into their frenemies (Gossip Girl, Real Housewives, My Super Sweet Sixteen, Made in Chelsea, The Hills, The City, The Simple Life, The Only Way is Essex, Beverley Hills 90210, Entourage, any celeb reality shows, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Curb might seem like an odd one to include, but it’s essentially about a rich bitch with too much time on his hands going to dinner parties at other people’s houses and getting into screaming matches, bumping into exactly the wrong people at the wrong time and getting involved in dubious-sounding business ventures that rarely amount to anything.  It’s the Real Househusbands of Seinfeld County, with Larry as NeNe Leakes and Jeff as Big Poppa.)

Shows about rich people living in nightmare scenarios that no one in their right mind would trade their own lives for, no matter how nice Lucy Hale’s hair is, or how cool it would be to divide your time between enacting revenge on your enemies and swanking it up at charity galas (Revenge, Pretty Little Liars, Desperate Housewives, The Good Wife, Homeland, Mad Men, even Downton Abbey.  Nobody wants to be Lady Mary – constantly frowning, bickering and sexing Turkish aristocrats to death.)

Shows which reassure us that no matter how tough it gets, you can always bounce back and find other ways to get by (I’m pretty sure that’s the moral of Breaking Bad.  See also: Weeds, Enlightened, Go On.)

So there we have it: our poor characters are full of potential and enthusiasm, and our more affluent characters are either too overworked to appreciate what they have, complete goons who haven’t earned what they’ve got, or living a hellish existence that reminds us there’s more to life than money (and that mo money oftens equals mo problems).  We’re Jess from New Girl, and they’re Heidi Montag.  And if worst comes to worst, we can retrain as corporate social responsibility gurus or meth-cooking serial killers.  That’s just how we want it right now.

When Lena Dunham, the so-called ‘voice of her generation’, got the opportunity to write a series about what it’s like to be a young woman in the 21st century, it wasn’t based on her experiences being a young woman who had written, directed and starred in a critically acclaimed film by the time she was 25 – it was about being a clueless bum who gets fired from her internship.  She could’ve written a show about a multi-millionaire 20-something female writer with the world at her feet, and it could’ve been wonderful – but would we want to watch it?