Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Best Cartoon Series By Matt Groening

Okay, I did not go see The Simpsons Movie, and I do not intend to and don’t want to. I was very much a fan of "The Simpsons" back when the Simpsons were cool and funny – when Bill Clinton had more to do than hog the stage while Hillary fumes on the sidelines mentaling shrieking "It’s my turn you chunky..."

Well, okay.

"The Simpsons" went through three distinct phases. There was the early, rough era when Homer was a little too alcoholic and mean and the jokes had an unfunny edge to them. There was the all-too-brief middle era when the show was one of the funniest on TV, and then there’s the remainder of the show’s 18-decade run, which is marked by not being funny and too many episodes that have Lisa in them.

Why is it that every sitcom family, even the animated ones, have to have a socially conscious girl in them that sucks the life and humor out of the show whenever she’s on the screen? Think of Tina Yothers. Remember how much "Family Ties"stopped being even slightly entertaining when she was onscreen? You always knew that she was about 1 minute away from some patronizing speech about the rain forest. Just like Lisa Simpson. I think it’s because Hollywood writers are liberals, and because sitcom writers are in their minds important novelists who resent writing scripts for TV shows and want to spend their time writing big important books that nobody would want to read anymore than they want to hear sonorous speeches from Lisa Simpson. But because they can’t write those novels – or because they can but nobody wants to publish or read them – the writers have to make a living writing for sitcoms and so they plug those speeches into the Tina Yothers character and the studio heads go along with it because they think they’re Doing Good by letting the speeches get on the air.

I bet if I could remember much about "Alf" beyond the fact that it was a puppet that looked sort of like a baby Snuffleupagus that ate cats, that show would have a self-important daughter with concerns about the world we live in.

But Lisa was not the only problem with "The Simpsons." She was the only problem that existed for the whole too-long life of the show, true, but there were more problems and the biggest problem was that The Simpsons stopped being funny or relevant and started trying to hard. It went from being a fun mockery of us and society and people in general to something that just couldn’t buy a laugh.

I think I lost interest when Homer became a conceptual artist and flooded the town. The show that brought us "Stop The Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off" had devolved into an episode where Homer impossibly flooded Springfield so that Marge could paint again, or something. It was all too much – it was show-offy and unrealistic in a way that wasn’t funny, it was just painful.

I recently– okay, last year – checked in to see if I’d find it funny again, and watched half an episode in which Marge gets hooked on some online game only to find that Bart is a master character that’s killing everyone. First of all, that ripped off "South Park," which was funny because South Park had an episode in which a character keeps pointing out that the Simpsons had done something first, but not funny in a way that made you laugh because of the Simpsons; it was funny in a painful way. Second of all, making fun of online games? Wow, there’s a target nobody’s touched yet. Hey, Simpsons’ writers – what do you think of high gas prices? Aren’t they outrageous? Maybe Lisa could make a speech in favor of solar power! And Homer could wreck the sun?

If I see that as an episode, I’m suing.

What makes "The Simpsons" suckiness so remarkable is that the show sits alongside proof of Matt Groening’s actual genius, the good Groening creation, "Futurama."
Futurama got such a raw deal. It’s already a tough sell – a science fiction cartoon that’s not The Jetsons. But it was on Sundays, on Fox, which meant that it was pre-empted for 9/5 of the year because of football, and when it wasn’t pre-empted it aired immediately after football, and for most people, football and funny-sci-fi-cartoon are not an obvious link. And that combination led to its early demise on Fox and sort-of resurrection on cable.

Futurama was, is, brilliant and hilarious. Loosely the story of the adventures of Fry, who accidentally cryogenically froze himself while delivering a pizza on New Year’s Eve and woke up in the future, it managed to include science and humor and commentary on modern – our modern, nowadays – society alongside absurdities and parodies. It featured easy targets like "Slurms Mackenzie," the hard-partying mascot for the drink "Slurm," and in that episode parodied beach movies and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." And it went after harder targets, more abstract ideas, like the time the professor made an entire universe in a box, and got into a battle with the alternate selves of the characters who thought that our universe was in a box in their universe.

Futurama had great characters. Not just Fry, who was awesomely stupid but genuinely nice, but Leela the one-eyed orphan mutant kickboxing star captain who is Fry’s love interest. It had Bender, Fry’s best friend and roommate and also an alcoholic thief degenerate soap opera star robot. There was Zap Branigan, the sort-of-William-Shatner-esque space captain who might have been wearing pants and might not have been.

Futurama also was hilariously, insanely, funny. The stories were jumping off points for one-liners and site gags and twisty innuendos and plots. A stop for refueling leads Fry to buy a service station sandwich, and eat a crunchy black thing that turns out to be a tomato, resulting a worm infestation that makes him a better, smarter person who Leela loves. The professor’s invention of mutants to play against the Harlem Globetrotters results in time breaking down and jumping at random, giving the humans a chance to cooperate with the Globetrotters to save the universe – and giving Bender a chance to try to become a Globetrotter.

As absurd as they might sound, the stories always amounted to more than they started out to be – because they had a little heart in them. When Fry makes a deal with the robot devil and gets the devil’s hands, he uses them to play the holophone – a clarinet that creates holograms – like a maestro, impressing Leela with the symphony he wrote. Leela, though, goes deaf because of a trick the Robot Devil plays, and ultimately Fry must give up his hands (and his chance to impress Leela) to keep her from having to marry the Robot Devil. But in the end, we see Fry practicing the holophone on his own, determined to impress Leela through his efforts.

Futurama also has the distinction of being the only cartoon to make Sweetie cry – in the episode where Fry tries to track down his lucky 7-leaf clover, only to learn that his older brother, Yancy, had appropriated it and taken Fry’s identity to become a great space explorer. Enraged, Fry goes to rob his grave – SPOILER ALERT – but learns that Yancy had in fact named his son after Fry and given his son the clover because he missed Fry so much after Fry disappeared into the future.

It takes a special sort of genius to make you laugh and cry in an episode that features grave robbing.

That wasn't my favorite episode, though. If I had to pick one, I'd have to go with the one where Fry tries to buy underwear, only to realize he doesn't have enough money. Remembering that he had a bank account, he goes to get some cash and finds out that because of accrued interest over 1000 years, he's deliriously wealthy. Using his money, he goes on a spending spree buying... old 1980's artifacts, including the last can of sardines in the world, which for reasons too complicated to get into, the world's most loveable industrialist wants to get from him. And it's even funnier than it sounds!

Futurama presents a future that looked both inviting and scary, funny and disturbing, exciting and mundane. A world where you could work as a delivery boy but you’re delivering things to planets that are collapsing or controlled by human-hating robots or giant Amazons. A world where petting zoos included Tyrannosaurus Rexes and you could regrow your hands after the dinosaur bit them off. A world that looked a lot like the one we see all around us only it was new and different and fresh each time we blinked.

The future is like that for all of us: it’s a little bit frightening and a little bit intriguing, and it was fun and comforting to see Fry – us – deal with what we suspected (and feared) the future would be like and make it not so bad after all. It was even better to see that done with a sense of style and humor and even have all the science correct. And it was best of all, frankly, to have it done without a hectoring sister in the mix.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Best Christmas Movie

Think of all the things that Christmas means or should mean to people. Let’s list them together:

Goodwill towards men.

That’s probably good enough for starters. Ponder those for a second, and then ask yourself: What is the likelihood that a movie about an abusive alcoholic thieving Santa would embody those qualities? If you haven’t seen the movie Bad Santa, you’re probably saying “There’s no likelihood of that,” but you’re wrong.

Bad Santa
is The Best Christmas Movie because it not only embodies all of the good things about Christmas, but it does that in a way that does not leave you gagging or grumbling or wondering why it is that when people fall off the roof of the house, the lights always wrap around their ankle and stop them just short of landing on the ground.

The problem with most Christmas movies is that Christmas is so good that people hesitate to have any fun with it or tamper with the usual formulas. Whether or not you’re a Christian, Christmas has come to mean more than just big business; it means all those qualities I began with, and it means cozy scenes of couples curled up in front of a fireplace drinking eggnog, or kids opening presents, or carolers with red scarves and red noses. It’s chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Parson Brown doing the job while he’s in town, boughs of holly, and lords-a-leaping. Filmmakers tamper with that at their peril, or, more often, simply don’t tamper with it.

That led us to the point, just before Bad Santa came out, where Christmas movies would be entirely predictable and entirely sucky. There would be snow. And small towns with main streets. And a scene where the family decorates the tree. And a grumbling boss. And slight – very slight – commentary to the effect of gosh, look how many presents we bought, we should really remember what this season is all about and then a snowball fight and Santa tucking in a little kid.

I blame Charles Dickens and The Grinch. Dickens gave us an idealized version of Christmas that places all Christmas celebrations in Victorian England. If your Christmas doesn’t have a goose, a lad in a newsboy cap, and hot toddies, it probably feels lacking. And The Grinch gave us the Christmas Feast (complete with Roast Beast), the stockings, the trees, and the singing. (Some blame, too, goes to “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.")

From those sources, we created “Christmas, The Holiday.” We dream of white Christmases where the snow begins falling in flakes as large as your head on Christmas Eve, and we watch movies where all those things happen and where everything is so sweet and so predictable and so boring that you can’t watch them anymore. By now we know that the grumpy account executive will see the error of her ways and we know that grandma won’t be left sitting alone all night.

I had had enough, and so, apparently had a lot of people. We just didn’t know we’d had enough, and didn’t know what we’d had enough of until about 1/3 of the way through Bad Santa when Billy Bob Thornton staggers across a parking lot in his department-store-santa outfit. Only the parking lot is in Arizona, and the heat is causing distortion in what we see, and Santa is staggeringly drunk and not even trying to keep his beard on.

At that point, Christmas movies of the past exploded and a whole new era was born. I hope. But I think it was.

Bad Santa is rude and mean and obnoxious and gross and times and rated R and it is both astoundingly funny and still somehow nice enough to qualify as a genuine Christmas movie. The story of an alcoholic safecracker who works as Santa to get access to mall safes just after the big Christmas sales is 99.9% raunchy hilarity and 0.1% sweetness, and even the sweetness is curdled with some tart, the way some candies work both sides of the tongue. Here’s an example: after Billy Bob convinces a kid who lives with a senile grandma that he, Billy Bob, is Santa, so that he can stay there while biding his time until the big heist – which will be Christmas Eve – we expect, from past Christmas movies, that the bad guy will find his heart softening. What we don’t expect is how that softening will be shown. Billy Bob does not change his heart and go out caroling with Thurman Merman. He decorates the house only because not doing so will attract attention he doesn’t want. But he does cook the kid dinner – bologna and salsa fried on white bread. And he tries to make amends by fixing the kid’s Advent calendar after ruining it while on a bender. But he fixes it with whatever’s handy, and hasn’t completely changed, so when Thurman gets an aspirin instead of a candy, all Billy Bob can say is “They can’t all be winners, kid.”

There are, also, no scenes of heartwarming tenderness explaining why Billy Bob might change his attitude. There is no picture from Thurman showing his missing dad being replaced by Santa. We learn that Thurman knows Billy Bob really isn’t Santa at all. And the touching moment when Thurman gives Billy Bob a gift happens when Billy Bob is making out with Lauren Graham and is interrupted by Thurman giving him a hand-carved wooden pickle. That’s sticky with Thurman’s blood.

It all sounds terrible, and sounds even worse when you consider that it’s full of cursing and replete with sexual references, but it works somehow, and I think it works because it takes all of the clich├ęs that have sprung up around Christmas and turns them inside out, allowing them to seem new and okay – like when you’d turn a sweatshirt inside out to wear it a second day. It messes with everything “regular” Christmas movies hold dear – the big bonding scenes between the bad guy and the kid involves the bad guy beating up a bunch of teenagers and then supervising a boxing match, while at other times Billy Bob explains that his beard is fake because he slept with a woman who wasn’t clean – Mrs. Santa’s Sister – and that he and Mrs. Claus are getting divorced because of it (but Mrs. Claus gets the elves.)

I didn’t think, when I first saw the movie, that it would hold such an esteemed place in my mind someday – I just thought it was a breath of fresh air and hilarious. But as it sunk in, I saw that it had achieved something really hard – it had made Christmas movies seem fresh and unique again. And it had achieved something even harder – it had made Christmas seem real again.

That’s the larger point of this. Let’s face it: For all the great parts of Christmas, there are the parts we don’t like to think about or talk about because they take away from the magic a little. If you want a brightly lit tree, you’ve got to spend some time putting the lights on (and ultimately taking them off). A heavy snowfall is magical on Christmas Eve, but it keeps you from visiting relatives and makes you shovel your car out on Christmas Day. We all love shopping for presents, except for the lines and the crowds and the slush and the expense. The table full of Christmas cookies was preceded by a day or two spent in the kitchen and there’s a sink full of dishes.

Yes, Christmas is magical and it’s a celebration of all the good things about people. But it gets that way not in spite of or without all the trouble and stress and worries, but because of it. Christmas takes all the ordinary stresses of life and multiplies them: we have to cook everyday, but it’s not everyday that the whole family is going to eat it. We have money worries all the time, but we don’t spend all of our time hoping to find that perfect gift for the kids to show them how much they mean to us even though sometimes we’re crabby with them. We’re surrounded by music and movies and books, but it’s only about one month per year that those movies and music and books stop being about how hot people’s girlfriends are and start being about Angels From The Realms Of Glory.

So at Christmas, we amp up the stresses, but we amp up the good feelings, too, and if we do it right, the Giving, the Love, the Peace, the Togetherness, the Goodwill towards men, and the Salvation drown out the worries and stress and bad feelings, and we can appreciate, for a brief time, just how beautiful life really is.

Bad Santa taught me that. It made me laugh, and I enjoyed it, but it also made me appreciate how the bad things can make the good things so much better. And that’s why it’s The Best Christmas Movie.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Best Christmas Song

It’s only December 4, but I’m feeling Christmas-y. I began feeling Christmas-y, if you must know, almost as soon as the dishes were being cleared away after Thanksgiving dinner. I was able to resist the Christmas feeling when it first tried to wash over me, but I was able to do that at that time this year because the feeling first tried to get into my blood while Sweetie and I were at Toys R Us the first week of November, and they were playing nothing but Christmas music. Still, I fought it off because there’s a time and place for Christmas, and that time and place is beginning immediately after Thanksgiving dinner and continuing on until about 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Day.

That’s when Christmas ends: 5 p.m., December 25. It’s just over, then. The cookies have been eaten, the egg nog has been nogged, the presents opened and played with, the sweaters sweatened. And its at 5 p.m. that the feeling just fades away in the long gray of winter that January represents. I can’t ever feel Christmas-y after that point. When we were kids we’d go to my grandparents on Christmas Day, at night, for dinner and Christmas with them, but it was never right. We’d go there, eat dinner, they’d have the cookies and pies and all that, and the tree was there, and lit up, and they’d give us presents (which were usually a plaid shirt and a complete set of NFL pencils; we liked the latter a lot and would use them in order of our favorite teams, leaving the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints pencils for the February and March, if ever) but it was not the same.

I think that’s because Christmas to me is not the holiday so much as it is the feeling of the holiday, the anticipation, the goodwill and fun that builds up from Thanksgiving on. You begin with a quiet family gathering of turkey and football and jellied cranberries, and that marks the end of regular time. Starting the next day, with the crowds and the shopping – and I always go out shopping that day – Christmas begins building up to the greatest holiday of the year. And I say greatest both from a religious and a secular perspective. If you’re religious – Christian, at least – there isn’t really a better day on the calendar than the day your religion was born. But even if you’re not Christian, the Christmas season has grown to represent more than just the birth of the savior of humankind (if that’s possible.) It’s become a celebration of the better side of people, the side of people that wants to show goodwill to each other, that wants to have peace, that wants to bestow gifts on each other, that wants to sing and be happy and love each other, that wants to give our spare dollar bills and quarters to the bell ringer and drop off a Toy for a Tot and watch the very special episodes of all our favorite sitcoms.

So we begin with the holiday shopping and crowds, and we move on to getting pictures taken for family Christmas cards and sending them out, and we start Secret Santas at the office and get small gifts, and we have Christmas parties with friends or coworkers and tell our wives that, no, the eggnog doesn’t have brandy, I don’t think, and then we cave in and take the kids to see the local theater production of either the Nutcracker or “A Christmas Carol,” and we drive around the neighborhood and look at the lights, and then we have the whole family over, which we swore we’d never do after last year when the kids chased the cats around and nearly knocked down the tree, and Dad is shocked to see that we’re not kidding, we really did get an 8-foot-tall inflatable Rudolph for the yard and, yes, there’s the parrot next to it, and he doesn’t believe that we bought it simply because it was on sale, but, hey, it’s Christmas, so you’ll even put on the slippers that you got.

And then it’s late and everyone’s gone home and the presents under the tree are those that Santa has brought for the kids and you get to sit quietly and drink yet one more glass of egg nog while you listen to music and look at the Christmas tree with the stegosaurus ornament.

And that’s the moment that Christmas is building up to, for me: that quiet moment after all the revelry, where I get to reflect on just how far my life has come, on just how much I love my life and the people in it, and get to do that after a whirlwind of singing and presents and celebrating and too-loud talking that’s stretched out over weeks and ranged from carrying boxes through the snow to stringing popcorn.

To carry me through that, to keep me on a Christmas-keel throughout that, I don’t rely solely on friends and family and presents and decorations. I rely on one of the most fundamental things that can affect mood: music.

Christmas music can be broken down into a couple of different categories and styles. There’s old-fashioned, and new, the traditional alongside the modern. There’s upbeat, happy songs; there are the sad ones that are sad in a good way, that make you melancholy because while you understand the emotion they’re discussing, you’re not going through it yourself. Each of them has their merits and captures a facet of Christmas.

Take one of the better traditional ones – O Holy Night. That’s a great one, especially if you’re religious. It’s quietly uplifting and elevates your mood in a meditative way. But that’s not all there is to Christmas.

Or there’s the bounciness of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas, a more modern, stripped-down synthesizer jaunt that celebrates the simple happiness of a family gathering. It gives you a bubbly little happy feeling, but doesn’t encapsulate the season.

There’s the solemn, throat-choking appeal of Do They Know It’s Christmas, a song that never fails to bring on a moment of silence and reminds us that Christmas is a time to help those less fortunate than us. But that, too, is only a part of the holiday.

And the importance of family, of friends, of love, at this time of year is captured by hundreds of songs. Please Come Home For Christmas. (There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays. All Alone on Christmas. Some fast, some slow, all a bit sad and reminding you to make sure that you visit Mom with some gingerbread cheesecake. And, they, too, fall short. (Among those songs is one not to miss, though: Fairytale of New York, by The Pogues. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and almost was my choice for this category – almost. While it paints a beautiful picture, it’s ultimately too sad to win this award. But you should listen to it, and you should listen to it over and over.) (And you can do that here:)

I couldn't pick that one, because it's not The Best. There’s only one song, in the entire pantheon of Christmas songs, that adequately captures the whole of the season, of the holiday, and that song is “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” by Billy Squier.

No, I’m not joking.

Watch and listen:

Did you hear the lyrics? Just the title: Christmas is the time to say I love you. That’s the whole season wrapped up right there, isn’t it? Say “I love you,” to your kids, your wife, your parents, your friends, the world.

The song hits all the marks: “touch of magic,” mentioning Santa and the reindeer, talk of good cheer, the food and drink and candy, the reflections that Christmas brings on (“Memories of the year that lays behind us”) and of the feeling that Christmas engenders: Make you feel that life has just begun.

Beyond the words, though, is the music. I miss the 70’s if only for this reason: they don’t make music like this anymore. There’s no raucous guitar music that builds and builds and builds and piles chords and drumbeats and choruses all together, barely holding it together, the kind of songs that feel always like they could fall into chaos but never quite do, the kind of songs that meld together all the best instruments with a kind-of-screechy singer. The music is not itself especially Christmas-ized. There’s not a lot of bells and organs and harps. But it has a Christmas spirit all its own, in the jumbled happy way it tumbles out onto your ears.

The best thing I can say about this song, though, is that it, more than any other song, lifts me up. It actually gives meaning to the word uplifting for me. I can’t listen to it without smiling and tapping my toe and nodding my head and humming and, finally, singing along.
It starts slow, and then builds and builds and builds until its momentum just takes me and carries me away and makes me laugh and enjoy myself and opens my heart a little. And that, well, that’s Christmas.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Best Showdown Between Good and Evil

In the first week of November, 2007, The New England Patriots, having begun the season by casting doubt on their entire legacy when their cheating was revealed, will square off against the Indianapolis Colts in a battle of unbeatens that deserves the adjective "epic." To celebrate that, TBOE and Nonsportsmanlike Conduct team up to give you A Week of Showdowns culiminating in what will be The Best Showdown Between Good and Evil.

Sports fans know that this week will feature a rarity this late in the NFL season: a battle between two unbeaten teams, the 7-0 Indianapolis Colts and the 8-0 New England Patriots*.

It is a rarity because it’s so difficult for two pro football teams to go through a half-season without losing a single game before they meet up. But in another sense, this week’s showdown between The Colts and the Patriots* is nothing new. It represents something that humanity has been seeing for eons: the battle between Good (Colts) and Evil (Patriots*).

And, as the old saying goes, those who do not learn the lessons of history… something something…doomed. (I’m not sure what it says; I kind of tuned out my old history teacher when he talked.) The point anyway is that history can tell us how to look at this game (airing at 3 p.m. Central time Sunday) and what to expect. So, for the first-ever joint venture between The Best Of Everything and Nonsportsmanlike Conduct, here comes:

A Week of Showdowns: What Past Battles Between Good And Evil Tell Us About The Upcoming Colts-Pats Game!

(Yes, if you read the title, you knew what I was going to say there.)

Each day I’ll be counting down the seven best showdowns between Good and Evil in human history, and pointing out what each has in common with Sunday’s game and therefore what we can expect.

The Seventh Best Showdown Between Good and Evil In Human History:

#7: Prometheus vs. Zeus: Not many people alive today recall this epic showdown that went on and on. Prometheus was the Titan who switched sides to fight with Zeus, only to then rebel against Zeus to help mankind – who Prometheus helped create. Prometheus defied Zeus to give mankind the best parts of the animals, and famously stole the sacred fire to give to man. As punishment, Zeus had Prometheus chained down while an eagle ate his liver each day, a punishment that lasted until Hercules came and rescued Prometheus. Also as punishment, Zeus created Pandora and sent her to man.

What this battle teaches us about the Colts & The Patriots*:

First of all, that switching sides can sometimes pay off – as former Patriots* kicker Adam Vinatieri understands, now that he’s kicking in the comfort of the Dome there in Indianapolis.

Secondly, that even the best punishments don’t last forever and rarely affect how people act – right Bill Belichick?

And, the final lesson is that men, you might think you’ve got the best game-day barbecue ever, what with your meat from the best parts of the animal and your sacred fire, but at some point a woman is going to come and ruin it.


#6: Crisis On Infinite Earths (Monday):

I confirmed it last night: no NFL teams of 7-0 or better have ever faced off in a game, so this weeks Colts-Patriots* game, featuring the 7-0 Colts vs. the 8-0 Patriots* is a unique event in that sense. But in another sense, again, it’s nothing new because humanity has seen epic struggles between good and evil before, and this week will continue my review of the top seven ever – and also what each tells us about the game this week.

The Sixth Best Battle Between Good and Evil in human history happened back in the 1980’s, and you might have been unaware of it despite its overwhelming importance. I’m talking about the

Crisis on Infinite Earths:

A battle which featured every superhero in the Universes vs. a thing called the Anti-Monitor, who was destroying the universes with antimatter.

By the 1980s, the world of superheroes had grown extremely complex and the world of comic books had grown unprofitable, so something had to be done. Over in the Marvel Universe, the powers-that-be staged the Secret Wars, as a character known as the Beyonder kidnapped all the superheroes and supervillains and made them fight on another planet.

That, in turn, prompted the characters of the DC Universe to go one better – or hundreds better. While comic books in our lives broke into two groups – Marvel and DC—the lives in DC comic books spanned across a dizzying array of universes, ranging from Earth 1 (which had modern-era superheroes including many many Green Lanterns) to Earth 2 (with golden age superheroes including the Green Lantern in the cape and the Flash that wore a soup tureen on his head, which somehow stayed on while he ran) to Earth Prime (which is where we lived in comic books) to Earth Shazam (seriously) to an Earth that I think was different but had the Blue Beetle… Things were complicated.

Not too complicated, though: For some reason, there was only one Aquaman.

Enter the Anti-Monitor, who had been spawned in the primordial soup as the opposite of the Monitor, sort of, since the Monitor was a guy who also had always been around but just watched things, but the Anti-Monitor came into being and didn’t just watch, he destroyed things. (DC always had a problem with defining what opposites were: Bizarro Superman was supposed to be the opposite of Superman, because his world was a cube and he said “Hello” when he meant goodbye – a problem that was appropriately pointed out on Seinfeld when Elaine asked if Bizarro shouldn’t have said “Bad-bye” instead?)

The Anti-Monitor, through 12 issues (plus crossovers) of a series destroyed universes one after another, collapsing universes together and facing off against all the heroes of the Universes, including both Supermen, all the Green Lanterns, Aquaman, and even the bad guys, who all joined in with the good guys – even The Joker, although I’m not sure that it would help to set an elaborate trap for the Anti-Monitor that required that he step into a large bowl of cheese or whatever it was the Joker always did – but everyone joined in, fighting an epic battle that lasted long enough for DC to declare that everything was new and refined and much more worthy of purchasing, as Golden Age Superman took Golden Age Lois Lane to another dimension, and Supergirl died (sorry about the spoiler!) and Flash died! (Only his nephew got his uniform and became the Flash, so it’s not like we didn’t have a Flash anymore.)

The point is, though, that this battle exceeded the Secret Wars and earned its spot on the list of Best Battles between Good and Evil because of the sheer scope: All the heroes! All the villains! New villains! Guys you haven’t heard of before or after! It was phenomenal.

What this battle teaches us about the Colts & The Patriots*:
First of all, it shows us that Epic Battles are where the money is. Already last night on Monday Night Football, the announcers were referring to this week as “The 41st-and-a-half Superbowl.” The NFL couldn’t have planned it better than to get this matchup. It’s almost as though when Roger Goodell demanded that he be given all those tapes and then destroyed them and issued a nominal punishment, he was up to something…

Secondly, the Crisis also teaches us – as Manny Ramirez might say – that none of this really matters much in the long run. So Golden Age Superman flew off into another dimension. So Supergirl died. We’ve still got a Flash, right? And all those Green Lanterns? And Aquaman? How did he survive? This week’s game will be touted as having all sorts of significance but in the end it’s just one of 16 games. In college, every regular season game counts. In the NFL, 10 of them do.

Thirdly: In all epic battles, there’s the watcher and the destroyer. And we have that, too: Tony Dungy quietly sits on the sidelines and gets his team to 7-0, where they sit and await the marauding Patriots*, who have been steamrolling teams like antimatter through so many universes.

And last: Look at what DC did. They killed off a bunch of characters. That’s the most important lesson here. You don’t get the big ratings unless you knock off an important guy. And the Patriots* have been looking to prove something all year, getting less and less sportsmanlike as each game goes on. Look, I’m not going to make any wild accusations here. I’m just saying, Peyton, watch your blindside.

*The Patriots are Cheaters.


We continue counting down the Seven Best Showdowns Between Good and Evil in anticipation of the first-ever confrontation looming for November 4. Today it is...

Number Five: The Car Race Between Danny Zuko and Leo.

It was a tense moment. There was Kenickie, ready to race Greased Lightning against Leo (of The Scorpions) for pinks –


“Pinks, you punk! Ownership papers!”

And to help him out, they drop a penny, but Kenickie gets knocked out (should that be keknocked out?) and Danny Zuko has to step in and take on Leo. And, as he was told: “Ain’t no rules.”

Danny was, as we all know, struggling to be a good guy and get Sandy without letting his friends know that he liked her (even though it didn’t seem to pose a problem for Kenickie that he liked Rizzo) and could only do that, here, by being the bad guy, by racing against Leo and beating him as Sandy looked on from afar. So he gets in the car and takes off on the race – driving fast, tearing around, seeing the car get chewed up by Leo’s unorthodox rims.

And (Spoiler Alert!) he wins!

The Number Five Best Battle Between Good and Evil, the car race from Grease, was a few minutes of pure adrenaline that seemed somehow out of place in the throwback movie/musical but which gave that movie a needed bit of tension that did not involve Olivia Newton-John biting her lip pensively. And it boiled these type of confrontations down to their essence: a good guy, a bad guy, a simple goal (“First one back here wins”) and a prize to be won – those pinks.

What This Battle Tells Us About The Upcoming Colts/Patriots* game:

The most important lesson to learn is that all such battles – all important things – are properly handled by grown-ups. Look around movies and TV shows nowadays and all you see are kids or barely-adults. It’s a trend that began decades ago with Young Guns and had only gotten worse. When I was a kid, Superman was Christopher Reeve and was Superman. Now he’s Brandon Routh and it’s more like Super-late-teens-or-early-20s. Grease came before that time and had the grown-ups doing the work. John Travolta was only 24 when he made Grease, playing a high school senior. Jeff Conaway – Kenickie – was 28. But they looked like grown-ups. And this week’s game features grown-ups. None of this rookie phenom junk for these two teams. Manning and Brady have been around the block; the coaches have been with other teams and have all been to big games. Good vs. Evil is important stuff. Leave it to the adults.

Another good point to take from this race is the importance of the Hero. Heroes cannot be held down. They cannot, for example, be raised on a desert planet by Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and kept in seclusion forever. And they cannot be left standing idly on the side of the road while someone named Kenickie races for the glory. Heroes always step forward and pick up the mantle of glory.

The car race also tells us that there are rules and that cheaters don’t win. Leo tries to cover himself and tell Zuko “Ain’t no rules,” and that’s supposed to justify his behavior throughout the race. But it doesn’t work. Telling someone that there ‘ain’t no rules’ is just a smokescreen. You might as well go and say something like you misinterpreted the rules. The message is clear, either way: the good guys play fair and still win.

*We all know what that asterisk means by now, don't we?


Colts vs. Patriots*: November 4: The Battle of Unbeatens. Has there ever been a greater competition in human history? As it turns out, Yes. There have been Seven greater ones, and The Best of Everything joins with Nonsportsmanlike Conduct to bring you those seven as we countdown to the game this Sunday.

Today's is The Fourth Best Competition Between Good and Evil: The Grinch vs. Christmas!

A sourpuss who lives on his own and by his own rules looks down on the world around him and decides that there is too much joy, too much fun, too much – so he decides to take it all away.

The Fourth Best Battle Between Good And Evil has some easy comparisons to this week’s battle of unbeatens. Let’s take a look at The Grinch vs. Christmas.

Dr. Seuss’ book has by now conquered almost every form of entertainment. It began as a kids’ book,

Then became a beloved holiday staple cartoon, then stampeded the pop culture landscape with the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey movie – which, darn it, I liked and I don’t care what all you critics say out there. It was a good movie! It was! The story has been so ingrained that we all instinctively understand what we mean when we describe someone as a Grinch.

Don’t we?

The story has been so ingrained not just because it’s about Christmas but because it follows the classic Good vs. Evil storyline: Bad guy, outcast by society, alone in his anger and bile, seethes and plots revenge. Then he gets his revenge, only it’s a hollow victory and Good has triumphed after all. We love stuff like that. We all want to believe that whether Evil sneaks into our house through the chimney, or slides down the side of its mountain on a careening sled, we will prevail regardless of how or why we fight back, because Good win. And Good wins so powerfully that it converts Evil to its side.

What We Can Learn About The Colts/Patriots* game from this Battle:

A key point to take away from this battle is, apparently, you can’t ever get enough of a good thing. When Dr. Seuss wrote How The Grinch Stole Christmas in the 1950s, Christmas was a smaller affair, with celebrations beginning not much before the actual day and being centered on the family. (Note: I am getting my information from the movie “A Christmas Story,” which I presume to be a valid documentary.) Now, fifty years later, Christmas is a months-long extravaganza that begins just after Labor Day, has the shelves crowding out Halloween Candy in October, and culminates in radio stations going to all-Christmas Music on Thanksgiving, shopping beginning at midnight, office parties, Secret Santas and giant inflatable Rudolphs.

The NFL is no different. In my lifetime, a person could actually get tickets to the first Superbowl, which was shown on two networks at the same time (and which drew barely better ratings than a 10-10 tie between Michigan and Notre Dame.) Now, the NFL season begins with the draft in the Spring – itself a two-day event – on to training camp in the summer, with a 17-week season and five weeks of playoffs and then the Pro Bowl (which is kind of like football except nobody watches) in February, just a few months shy of the draft. Football, like Christmas, is nearly year round, and has (at my last count on my satellite system) four channels primarily devoted to it and entirely devoted to it. (Here’s a thought: can we be far away from The Christmas Network, airing year-round Christmas movies?)

Another lesson from The Grinch vs. Christmas: Grinches will come around. Allow me to be Seussian about Grinches and the lessons they learn:

Grinches stomp, and they shout,
like they’ll knock themselves out.
They’ll groan and complain like they’re in lots of pain.
They run up the scores; they’re insufferable bores.
But when push comes to shove, all they want is some love.

But how will they get it, this love the Grinch needs?
Will they earn it through passing-and-running type deeds?

I’m afraid not. You see, a Grinch won’t learn to laugh,
Won’t pull out his starters or stop the long pass,
Won’t take a knee and won’t act the good sport
Until someone or something makes him stop short.

Those someones and somethings,

they won’t be you or me,
They won’t be the Commish, or his quick inquiry.

No, to fix up a Grinch the someones that you need
Have to teach him a lesson. These someones, you see
Must show to the Grinch that his ways are in error,
That he could play nicer, that he could play fair-er
And they’ll do that by beating the Grinch at his game,
By running and throwing and kicking the same
The same as the Grinch does, but they’ll do it better!

They’ll do it more quickly
They’ll do it more toughly,
They’ll do it more fastly, more fun-ly, more rough-ly.

And when the game’s over, the Grinch has gone down,
And that Grinch is just moping around with his frown,

They’ll walk to midfield, those someones and somethings
They’ll put up their hands with their Superbowl rings,
Those wonderful, non-tainted ring-finger-things,

They’ll shake hands with the Grinches,
They’ll smile, one and all.
Those someones and somethings will be having a ball.

Will that, after all, stop the Grinch from his moping?
There’s no guarantees – but of course, we’re all hoping!



Our countdown of The Best Showdowns between Good and Evil, done in conjunction with The Best of Everything continues with The Third Best:

The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones:

Ah, the turbulent 60s: They’ve created so much fodder for Baby Boomers to obsess over and inflate the significance of. (Note: I am not a Baby Boomer; I’m a member of the Real Generation X, which differs from the Generation X the media thinks exists.)

But in some cases, the 60’s actually had a lasting impact that can be measured down the ages – as in the case of the Third Best Battle between Good and Evil, which is

The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones. Where do I, a Gen-X-er get off declaring that The Beatles are Good and the Stones are Evil, you Baby Boomers are no doubt asking – or will be asking, once you stop checking on the value of your 401(k) plans and writing Newsweek articles which are just a list of movie titles that somehow are conflated in importance to the level of inscriptions on stone tablets carried down a mountain. (You non-Baby-Boomers are probably saying “Who are The Beatles and The Rolling Stones?”)

I can say that The Beatles and the Stones are Good and Evil because it’s so obvious. Just look at what they did. The Beatles put themselves on the cover of an album with various important people in history.

The Rolling Stones did this:

The Beatles began by telling America they wanted to hold our hands; The Stones complained that they could not get any satisfaction. From the start, The Beatles were adorable moptops while the Stones made you instinctively want to cross the street.

Not convinced? Consider this: While The Beatles were visiting an octopus’ garden in their yellow submarine, the Stones told us we couldn’t always get what we wanted and discussed Mom’s little yellow pills.

The Beatles wanted us to Let It Be. The Stones insisted that we Let It Bleed.

Still not sure? How’s this: John was The Walrus who compared himself to Jesus. Mick asked that we have Sympathy for the Devil.

That’s really all the argument I need.

The Beatles and The Rolling Stones divided pop music into Good and Evil, and took it in two separate directions. The Beatles remained upbeat no matter what they tried: Even when they went dark, like on Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, the effect was so lovable and happy that one could happily sing along with lyrics like “Bang Bang Maxwell’s Silver Hammer made sure that she was dead.” They found the beauty in people who had something to hide, they found the joy in the people and monkeys that did not have something to hide. They told us the story of Rocky Raccoon and made us cry tears of sad happiness while still humming the chorus. They’d be in the middle of a meditation on death like “A Day In The Life” and suddenly a jaunty pop tune would leap out at you. They could not help it: Paul and John and George and Ringo elevated pop literally to the rooftops before they were done.

The Stones dragged us in the other direction: They hired Hell’s Angels to provide security. They strutted and preened and had guitar solos that ripped into your head and did not leave. They sang about all the nervous breakdowns we’d have. They lamented Ruby Tuesday’s passing by noting “Ain’t life unkind?” When the Stones tried to be happy, it came out all twisted and wrong. On “She’s a Rainbow,” the piano notes are slightly off-key. The rainbow-woman wasn’t even happy – she was like a “sunset going down.” The Stones were dark and despondent and pulled us into the trenches with them and made us love it and hate it at the same time.

We were sad when The Beatles ended, because of how happy they could make us. We’d be sad if the Stones stopped because we would not know how happy we are without being reminded how bad things could be.

What Beatles vs. Stones tells us about the Colts/Patriots* Game:

Pretty and Popular Don’t Always Win: The Beatles were lovable moptops that had the girls swooning. Mick and Keith looked like they fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. (Years later, Keith actually did fall off a tree…) But who’s still around today making music and touring, and who’s fighting divorce battles and cutting deals with Starbucks? Watch it, Tom Brady: Peyton may have the bad haircut, but looks only carry you so far.

It Might Be Better to Get Your Disputes in The Open: The Patriots* are famed for playing as a team and never having any superstars and no egos, even though clearly they do. You can’t put Brady and Belichick and Randy Moss and Mike Vrabel and Teddy Bruschi all under one roof and still claim that they each think the other one is more important to this team. Like The Beatles, the Patriots* might be glossing over their differences and hoping to just hang in there. We know where that leads – breakups, ugliness, and Yoko Ono. The Colts, on the other hand, air their dirty laundry. Peyton calls out the “idiot kicker” and complains about the defense not getting the job done. In the long run, that might avoid more trouble.


He was just a young boy, and at first did not know exactly how strong the evil he faced was. All the boy was looking for was to have some fun, do something to cheer him up and give him a break from the downtrodden existence that marked his everyday life.

But it would not work out that way.

When the boy left the home he’d grown up in, roaming out into the world, he did not know that there was Evil out there, an enemy waiting for him, an enemy who had waited a long time and now was poised, ready to destroy the boy’s hopes and dreams. An enemy the boy would face over and over again, each time raising anew the hopes that he could prevail and each time bringing up again the fear of his foe.

An enemy so evil it was not even called a proper name. Instead, the enemy was always referred to, circuitously, as…

The Kite-Eating Tree.

In the annals of good versus evil, there have always been young boys taking on ancient villains who have greater power than them. Long before Harry Potter took on You-Know-Who, Charlie Brown faced off against his own archvillain, The Kite-Eating Tree. Each spring, The Kite-Eating Tree sprung its leaves, and each spring Charlie Brown would run outside with his new kite, and each spring he battled again against his own personal demon… and, sadly, the Kite-Eating Tree always won.

Or did it?

The Kite-Eating Tree – located, like Evil always is, close to home (some people say it was in Charlie Brown’s backyard) ate all of Charlie Brown’s kites, and even a piano once. It seemed as though it could not be beaten, especially by hard-luck Charlie Brown. But there was one strip I recall where Charlie Brown went outside, convinced that this year the Kite-Eating Tree would NOT get his kite, ready to beat it, and then he simply… gave his kite to the tree, saying “Here, take it. It's been a long winter, and I'm very tender-hearted.”

And therein lies his victory. The Kite-Eating Tree got his kite, but Charlie Brown won, because he remained good in the face of evil. Like little boys facing off against Evil, the tradition of Good turning the other cheek and bringing evil around has been with us a long time, too: Luke Skywalker helped Darth Vader. Harry Potter even tried to help Voldemort. That’s because that’s what Good does: it sticks to its guns and remains good, and tries to get Evil to change. And that’s why Good always wins.

Evil may bite and kick and scratch and pull our kites from the sky, but it cannot change the very nature of who we are if we are Good. Evil wins the battles, but Good wins the war.

What we can learn about the Colts/Patriots* game from this Battle:

It’s important to have more than one way to fight. Charlie Brown beat The Kite-Eating Tree in the end because he used a sort of Peanuts-judo: he conquered it by seeming to give up. That came in the midst of a long string of attacks ranging from full-frontal assaults to sneakier battle plans. Meanwhile, The Kite-Eating Tree just stood there, year after year, eating kites. It couldn’t adapt, so it lost in the end.

Happiness is, indeed, a warm puppy. Charles Schulz taught that the important things in life are not just winning and losing. Lucy always won, but was miserable. Linus never won; he never saw the Great Pumpkin. Charlie Brown never won (until he beat the Tree at his own game.) His team lost 999 games in a row. The Little Red-Haired Girl never sent him a valentine. But he remained, deep down inside, happy and never gave up. Why? Because winning is not everything. What is everything is being a good person and fighting the good fight and playing by the rules. We all should keep that in mind. It does not matter if we, say, go 19-0 and win a fourth Superbowl, if we did not get there legitimately and if we’re not good people.

_______________________________________________________________ The Best Battle Between Good and Evil:

And so we come to The End.


There really could only be one choice for The Best Battle Between Good and Evil, and that’s The Battle Between Good and Evil at the end of the world: The Apocalypse. When discussing the confrontations that Good and Evil engage in, how could anything ever top the ultimate confrontation between those two sides, the one that decides the Fate of Every Person in the World?

The only problem is, my understanding of the Final Battle between good and evil is a little hazy and muddled. I was raised in a fairly religious house – we went to church on most Sundays and all the big holidays, and I went to a Catholic school until I was pulled out in third grade in what I first assumed was a difference of academics, then later assumed was a religious dispute, and ultimately learned was merely about finances (which was also when I found out that public schools are free.) Despite that, though, my understanding of The Final Battle – the Apocalypse, I suppose – as a religious thing is very very limited to what I’ve gathered about it from brief allusions to the Book of Revelations. I know there’s a dragon involved, and Jesus, and a battle, and possibly the Virgin Mary. Honestly, that’s it. They don’t talk much about the Book of Revelations in church. I can’t imagine why; I’d certainly attend more often.

So what I know about the Final Battle Between Good and Evil comes, as so much of my other knowledge does, from two sources: comic books and pop music.

My first brush with the Final Battle was from reading Thor comics when I was younger. In Thor comics, which are no doubt extremely accurate renditions of Norse mythology, the End of the World was called Ragnarok. Or Gotterdammerung. Either way, it means the same thing to us: the end of the world, when gods fight gods, men fight men, the spirits in Valhalla will be loosed to fight… well, someone. And everyone will be silhouetted in dramatic angles like this:

And it might involve someone named “Mangog” who was something like 100,000,000 people all rolled into one guy that was going to destroy Asgard and then the world and also was the basis for Scientology.

And that’s really all I know about it. I’ve probably forgotten a few details. Very little sticks with me from the Thor comics. So I’ve had to fill in the gaps from other sources, like pop music, and there are two chief sources for information.

(Now, I know there are some who will knock me and say Wait a minute, you’re using pop songs and comic books as a reference for a scholarly work like this, and to them I say: It’s more reliable than Wikipedia.)

The first pop song is the appropriately titled REM song, “It’s The End of The World We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

I am an expert on the end of the world because I spent a long time, once, memorizing the lyrics to it. (I did the same thing with “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I really need a hobby.) Those lyrics spell out in chilling detail just how The End Of The World Will Come:

That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and
snakes, an aeroplane and Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn - world
serves its own needs, dummy serve your own needs. Feed
it off an aux speak, grunt, no, strength, the Ladder
start to clatter with fear fight down height. Wire
in a fire, representing seven games, and a government
for hire at a combat site. Left of west and coming in
a hurry with the furys breathing down your neck. Team
by team reporters baffled, trumped, tethered cropped.
Look at that low playing. Fine, then. Uh oh,
overflow, population, common food, but it'll do to Save
yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs,
listen to your heart bleed dummy with the rapture and
the reverend and the right, right. You vitriolic,
patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty

It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

Six o'clock - TV hour. Don't get caught in foreign
towers. Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself
churn. Lock it in, uniforming, book burning, blood
letting. Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate.
Light a candle, light a motive. Step down, step down.
Watch your heel crush, crushed, uh-oh, this means no
fear cavalier. Renegade steer clear! A tournament,
tournament, a tournament of lies. Offer me solutions,
offer me alternatives and I decline.


The other night I dreamt of knives, continental
drift divide. Mountains sit in a line, Leonard
Bernstein. Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester
Bangs. Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom! You
symbiotic, patriotic, slam bug net, right? Right.


Scary, isn’’t it? Not least because Lenny Bruce appears twice. And jelly beans. I always suspected them. But REM at least gave us a cheery version of it – things could end but we would feel fine.

Not so with my other reference: Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” I first heard this song when Sweetie and I saw (on a date!) “Dawn of the Dead,” where it served as the opening song while zombies ate people’s brains. It stands, then, in stark contrast to the REM version, despite its bouncy guitar work. Look at Johnny’s description:

And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder: One of the four beasts saying: "Come and see." And I saw. And behold, a white horse.
There's a man goin' 'round takin' names. An' he decides who to free and who to blame. Everybody won't be treated all the same. There'll be a golden ladder reaching down. When the man comes around.

The hairs on your arm will stand up. At the terror in each sip and in each sup. For you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter's ground. When the man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. One hundred million angels singin'. Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. Voices callin', voices cryin'. Some are born an' some are dyin'. It's Alpha's and Omega's Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. The virgins are all trimming their wicks. The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom. Then the father hen will call his chickens home. The wise men will bow down before the throne. And at his feet they'll cast their golden crown. When the man comes around.

Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still. Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still. Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still. Listen to the words long written down, When the man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. One hundred million angels singin'. Multitudes are marchin' to the big kettle drum. Voices callin', voices cryin'. Some are born an' some are dyin'. It's Alpha's and Omega's Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. The virgins are all trimming their wicks. The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

In measured hundredweight and penny pound. When the man comes around.

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, And I looked and behold: a pale horse. And his name, that sat on him, was Death. And Hell followed with him.

Oh, man. We’re back to the scary/Thor/Ragnarok version only it’s WORSE.
But maybe not, because in Johnny’s version, you have a shot, too – you can “partake of that last offered cup” and join the 100 million angels singing – if you’re wise. Which makes it no much different from REM’s version, where you can light a candle and save yourself.

I’m not sure how either of those square with Thor’s version, but no matter who’s right, it’ll be something to see. Rainbow bridges, whirlwinds, the four horsemen, gods, men, spirits, angels, and… Lenny Bruce. There’s no topping the Apocalypse for battles between good and evil.

What we can learn about the Colts/Patriots* game from this:

It’s obvious, isn’t it? No matter what happens, no matter which team you like, no matter how your side does, always remember this: It’s just a game. It’s not the end of the world.