“Deadly Women” is a bad show. So why does it kill me every time?

DW 3

A new study by a German forensic scientist claims that female murderers are “more creative” than their male counterparts – and that they pretty much have to be, because they usually kill people close to them, and those people are often men who are physically stronger. One would think that this theory would be fodder for a great documentary-style TV show, one that transports us to a different, disturbingly clever world each week. But Deadly Womenwhile being a true crime program about female killers, is most definitely not the show I just described. It’s lazy, formulaic and depressingly exploitative, and does its best to blunt the impact of its endlessly interesting subject matter. So why oh why do I love it so much? Here is my attempt to explain, in list form.

1. It’s camp gold.

Deadly Women

Take re-enactments that make Rescue 911 look like Shakespeare (and are often in period settings, like the screen cap I’ve so lovingly shared here). Combine them with talking head commentary that would seem obvious to a fifth grader. Add clunky, melodramatic writing of highest order – e.g. “Nicki Reynolds saw her mother as an obstacle, on the road … to murder.” Top it off with a penchant for graphic throat-slitting that’s bound to make you wince at least once an episode. And you’ve got a viewing experience like no other – a hysterically queasy formula for a brand new genre of entertainment. We’ll call it “True Crime-edy.”

2. The lengthening shadow of Robert Stack

Stack

One source of my DW fandom is the debt it – and the entire Investigation Discovery network, for that matter – owes to Unsolved Mysteries. I’ll never forget when that show went from being a fun way to get spooked on a school night to something genuinely terrifying. It was an episode that took a break from all the hauntings and alien abductions to focus on a real-life murderer who had never been caught. During the reenactment, the show revealed the killer by having a woman glance in her medicine cabinet mirror to find the psychopath standing behind her. It’s a clichéd trick, but it worked on me like a charm. I immediately looked outside the sliding glass door in our living room, half-expecting to see the frothing maniac standing there, knife in hand. Because this wasn’t just a TV show. This was a true story. And even the husky lullabye of Mr. Stack’s voiceover couldn’t soothe my jangled nerves.

Twenty years later, I think I’m still looking for something to terrify me in a similarly cozy way – and although DW cuts every conceivable corner while turning gruesome true stories into cornball melodramas, it still has the potential to freak me out in spite of itself. It’s a watered-down cocktail at best, but I keep bellying up to the bar.

3. Bad actresses staring at the camera

Every episode of DW is structured exactly the same – three stories loosely grouped under an amazing title, opening with an over-the-top voiceover segment that teases the carnage to come. At the end of this intro, when the title is announced (in a truly horrifying font), one of the reenactment actresses is asked to stare maniacally at the camera for an uncomfortably long period of time. It’s a ridiculous moment that also acts as a threat – “What are you grinning at, shithead?” the deadly woman seems to ask, as those snarky comments dry up in your throat. I’m gonna write captions to some of these classic stares, yet I admit, I’m kinda scared to …

DW Stare 1

When my Harold proposed to me, it was everything I’d dreamed of and more. We were on a sailboat at twilight; the ring was classically beautiful, not too ostentatious; the wine left a hint of pear on my tongue; the moonlight formed a silver border around his raven hair. “A million times yes!” I exclaimed. “I adore you, Harold Murder!!!” … I should’ve seen this coming.

DW Stare 2

You could say I’m a big fan of keeping secrets. But let’s keep it a secret how much I love secrets, because it’s those very secrets that make being secretive so fun! That being said, I’ll tell anybody who wants to listen about my secret to happiness – wearing my best blazer and standing by a lake on a foggy morn in 1987.

DW Stare 4

Even though his salad days were decades in the rearview, Nikki Sixx took the stage more determined than ever.

4. Candice DeLong

Candice DeLong

DW has some exceptionally bad reenactments – but that’s pretty much par for the course for a show like this. It’s when the show gives the spotlight to its commentators that it really hits its sweet spot. Most prominent, and thoroughly fabulous, of all is Candice DeLong, a former FBI profiler with a storied resume that includes hunting down the Unabomber in 1995. On paper, DeLong is perfect for this gig – the expert who can get into the heads of these violent protagonists, both from a criminologist’s and a woman’s perspective. But on camera, her commentary is profoundly uninsightful, yet delivered so smugly, you have to wonder if it’s some kind of performance art stunt. My wife and I have had long discussions on how this could be – Is DeLong just nervous? Is the DW editor a disgruntled ex who wants to make her look as bad as possible? Did she experience some kind of trauma in the field that makes her afraid to say anything beyond the most Perd Hapley-esque observations? DeLong is surely much smarter in real life than she appears to be on DW. But whatever the reason, statements like the following are a crucial component of good True Crime-edy (the italics properly reflect DeLong’s delivery):

Candice on women who marry men for money and then kill them:
“They use sex, and seduction, to get the wedding ring of the person that has the money.”
(“Fortune Hunters,” Season 4)

Candice on a woman who kept asphyxiating her babies:
“She was actually one of the worst people that could ever raise children.”
(“Bad Medicine,” Season 2)

Candice on a police officer who was also a sadistic killer:
“Antoinette Frank was the last person any police department should have ever hired.”
(“Born Bad,” Season 3)

Candace on a serial killer who poisoned her entire family:
“She enjoyed wielding the power of life or death, over another person.”
(“Hearts of Stone,” Season 5)

Candace on some more mothers who kill their children:
“It’s very hard to understand why someone would kill their children. They’re not thinking clearly.”
(“The Sacred Bond,” Season 4)

Candice DeLong Gun

Deadly Women is currently in the middle of its seventh season on the Investigation Discovery network; seasons 2-5 are streaming on Netflix.

Sam & Don

Image

If you read my post yesterday, you massive global audience you, you know I’ve had the season premiere of Mad Men on my mind. The show’s exploration of mid-life crises is reaching new peaks of symbolic grandeur, and new depths of self-absorbed nihilism (e.g. an ad executive, wealthy from birth, complaining that life is nothing but a string of disappointments). With every new wincing cigarette pull from Don Draper, he’s seemingly one step closer to oblivion.

So when the Sam Cooke song “Smoke Rings” came on during my drive to work this morning, it felt like a cosmic pop culture connection – over a crooner-friendly, French horn-happy blues, Cooke ruminates about the product of his exhalations, like Draper staring into space on his Hawaiian vacation. “Please take me above with you,” Cooke pleads in the final refrain. It’s a gorgeously depressing idea, one that begs to play under the closing credits of this season of Mad Men. Start practicing that wince, and check it out here:

Mad Men’s season premiere is obsessed with one thing that is certain (and it’s not taxes).

Image

Don Draper stands silently by his office window, freshly tanned from a Hawaiian vacation, his desk moved by a photographer to a spot he doesn’t like. All he hears, and all we hear, are waves, gently crashing in his mind. Of all the memorable moments from Mad Men’s two-hour season six premiere – which run the gamut from harrowing to hilarious – this is the one that’s sure to stick with me for a long time.

Don has always been a character on the brink, a man with weighty secrets who nonetheless behaves recklessly, someone who treats women like garbage and then complains about how bad it makes him feel. But over the course of five seasons, we never got a good idea of what rock bottom might look like for our dashing anti-hero. “The Doorway” gives us our first glimpse, and it ain’t pretty – after embarrassing himself at a funeral (in a thoroughly entertaining way), Don demands that his doorman share details of a recent near death experience. “You must have seen something,” he pleads, with a lost, childlike daze in his eyes that he can’t entirely blame on booze.

While Don’s psychic breakdown is its main focus, the episode takes its title from a rant Roger Sterling gives to his psychiatrist, about how life is just a series of passageways that “all open the same way, and they all close behind you.” Roger’s the one dealing the most directly with mortality here; the death of a loved one and acquaintance bookend the episode. And while his incomparable wit and panache can’t keep his sadness at bay forever, Roger’s soliloquies on the couch provide clear-headed counterpoints to Don’s odd obsession with his physician neighbor – not to mention Betty’s fairly frightening obsession with one of Sally’s friends (not Glen this time).

All of these intertwined moments of existential crisis would be enough for a great episode of a lesser show, but “The Doorway” takes a moment to balance the scales a bit, showing Peggy Olson on the phone with her old art director Stan Rizzo, each making the other’s late night at work more bearable. When Peggy’s new boss compliments her on her crisis management skills, Stan’s listening in. It’s a sweet and funny moment in a blossoming friendship – the kind of thing that makes a good argument against Roger’s doorway theory.

As Mad Men has progressed, it’s revealed itself as a show that’s less about advertising, and more about the hard truths of existence that advertising was invented to distract us from. “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety,” Dr. Rosen imparts to Don, before whisking off on his urban skis to save lives on a snowy New Year’s Eve. For two more seasons, it looks like we’re in for a whole new level of “anything.”

Easy Targets: Liz & Dick

Easy Targets is an idea for a blog series that I just made up, which I imagine will cover moments in pop culture that are of such obvious heinousness that making fun of them is unnecessary. And then, you know, I’ll make fun of them. Our first entry? Liz & Dick, the glorious tire fire of a Lifetime Original Movie that debuted this past Sunday, pissing all over the freshly turned soil of Elizabeth Taylor’s grave.

Let me take a moment to thank god for made-for-TV movies. Thank you for giving us easy access to hysterical trash-drama and thickly slathered camp, saving us from the depths of the straight-to-DVD bargain bin and The Films of Sandra Bullock. Thank you for being a community theater for actors whose dreams would’ve otherwise died. Thank you for paying Dean Cain’s heating bill. Thank you for helping Joanna Kerns avoid having to go back to school and get that hotel management degree. And thank you for lowering all of our standards to allow something as lazy and absurd as Liz & Dick to become an actual viewing event.

What separates Liz & Dick from your typical made-for-TV movie is that it’s not a bad idea for a movie. The tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is one of the most compelling love stories in Hollywood history, full of ferocity and tenderness in equal amounts – a production devoted to exploring their one-of-a-kind dynamic, with the height of 1960s Hollywood ostentation as a backdrop, could be biopic gold. So, just by holding to the typical, low-rent Lifetime Original Movie template, Liz & Dick is already committing a sin. And lucky for us, it doesn’t stop there.

Lo, Liz & Dick wallows in its own unworthiness, with Lindsay Lohan delivering an “I couldn’t give a shit” performance for the ages. Faced with playing one of the 20th century’s most iconic and recognizable figures, Lohan doesn’t bother with the details, barely attempting to alter her own pack-a-day rasp of a voice, and generally behaving like a sleepwalker. (I know Liz loved her mood-altering substances, but to my knowledge, she never had a lobotomy.) In a cringeworthy scene where her and Grant Bowler (who actually attempts to make us believe he’s Burton, which is bo-ring) meet Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? screenwriter Ernest Lehman at a party, we’re supposed to believe Taylor is talking Lehman into letting her and Burton star in it by staging a argument. But in real life, the dazed woman droning “What was he, some Roman homosexual that you buggered?” would be asked to leave the premises. (The decision to reprise scenes of Woolf, the movie that best illustrated the battered genius of both actors, was just cruel – even for this.)

Lohan’s presence is, of course, what made Liz & Dick must-see trainwreck TV, and yes, our cups filleth over with delicious schadenfreude thanks to her performance. But to paraphrase the movie’s painfully overused line of dialogue, its flaws are more like an ocean. As far as the filmmakers would have us believe, Richard Burton was a bitchy guy who drank on occasion and died all pretty-like, and Liz Taylor was a drugged out zombie who could barely tip over a table when angry. These were two brilliant, gruesomely spoiled alcoholics who subsisted on brutally barbed exchanges, but the most the script provides is the occasional fat joke. Yes, Lohan trying would’ve helped, but there’s a bigger problem – this movie is only interested in its own existence, in the fact that it would get people to exclaim “She’s playing Elizabeth Taylor?!?!” Shining any kind of light on what these fascinating people were like behind closed doors? Fuck that. Taylor herself, in her prime, couldn’t salvage this.

By which I mean to say it was everything I’d hoped for. Less, even. Thank you, Lifetime, for understanding that funding, promoting and airing an insult to a legend a year after her death makes for the perfect kind of classless mess – a transcendently horrible made-for-TV movie.

What I Learned From “Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction”

Having just watched every episode of The Wire in a marathon session, I’m more familiar than ever with the devastating failure that was the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs.” The jury’s out on whether or not the people who crafted this policy ever cared about stemming the tide of American drug use, or just wanted to give law enforcement an excuse to lock up as many black people as their heart desired. This I do know for a fact, though – the campaign’s slogan, “Just Say No,” was hilariously ignorant, and offensive to any person who turned to drugs to numb their pain. The same kind of shortsightedness that birthed “Just Say No” is what inspires Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, a fantastically campy  TV movie broadcast in 1983, one year into Reagan’s first term. Starring Dennis Weaver (the voice of Buck McCoy!) as an aging California real estate agent struggling to compete with a flashy youngster who’s starting to outsell him, Cocaine paints everything in hysterically broad strokes, as Weaver’s character goes from a respectable blue-collar guy to a bloody-nosed psychopath over what feels like a couple of weeks. It’s just the kind of movie that will make a young person want to try cocaine, if only to prove that what he just saw was a load of shit. Anyways, what did I learn?

1. Dennis Weaver has some nostrils on him.

I know that cocaine will make you act like an asshole and ruin your life and all that, no matter who you are, but I think there’s a logical explanation for just how quickly Weaver’s character hits bottom in this movie – his cavernous nostrils. There’s no doubt that he’s consuming 10 times more coke per snort than his fellow addict friend (played with suicidal glee by Jeffrey Tambor). It makes you think, if Jimmy Durante was a cokehead, how long would he have lasted?

2. Cocaine will make your midlife crisis even crisis-ier.

In the early stages of Weaver’s “seduction,” he suddenly becomes better at his job, his newfound drug use loosening him up around clients and making him ready to make the jump to selling the big-time listings. It’s at this point that he decides to look the part too, cruising the SoCal freeways looking like a dad having a nervous breakdown, a wreck of leather, black shades and wide-collars.

3. Cocaine will make you betray James Spader.

When Weaver’s wife discovers cocaine in the house, it’s not his – it’s his son’s (played with extreme blondness by James Spader). Of course, Spader actually stole his from Weaver’s shaving kit stash, which makes for some wonderful “I learned it by watching you!” moments. Throwing his own son under the bus marks the low-point for Weaver, who begins the long road to recovery soon after. Which you’d never make a movie about, because bo-ring.

4. Cocaine is highly addictive, but ’80s movies about drugs are even more so.

I know that we’re supposed to be devastated by how far Weaver has fallen in this movie – from a rock-solid family man who topped the sales chart at the office for a decade (“10 years!”) to a jittery douche who would sell out everybody he loves for another fix. But Weaver is just so brilliantly hammy, he turns this message movie into one hell of a good time. Watching him get progressively sweatier, more paranoid and bug-eyed, sneaking hits during showings, hornily grabbing his wife by the sink, it’s like manna from heaven for camp lovers. I’ve since watched several more movies like Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, none of them matching its intoxicating blend of hyper-melodrama, over-the-top acting and low-ball budget. Netflix offered this one to Watch Instantly; when they take it off, I’m going to have to buy it. That’s how the pushers get you hooked. That, and VHS packaging like this:


Franz List: Unintentional Scares

Hey, list fiends. Halloween is creeping around the corner like a scary ghost. Which means it’s time for a list about being scared about stuff. Last year we counted down the “funnest” horror movies of all time, exploring such feel-good titles as The Gingerdead Man and Sleepwalkers. This year, we analyze some pop culture that isn’t supposed to be scary, but still manages to make me pee in my pants a little.

1. Unexpected Cookie Monster
John Lennon, “Hold On”

When I fell in love with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, I was doing a lot of driving – my incredible girlfriend (now my wife) was going to school an hour and a half away, and I sped my Dodge Neon down there every chance I got. On one of these voyages, I heard “Hold On” for the first time. A sparse, sauntering lullaby, “Hold On” is a quiet moment on an album informed by scream therapy. But at the 1:08 mark, just as you start to settle into the song’s aesthetic, a gravelly voice flies out of leftfield, stating “Cookie.” When I first heard this, I whipped my head around in the driver’s seat, fully expecting to see a wild-eyed drifter in the back, making to stab me with a rusty switchblade. Turns out that was John himself, imitating Cookie Monster for reasons I still don’t understand. But that moment has stuck with me – when he sings “It’s gonna be all right” on the chorus, I’m not convinced.

2. The Famous Amos Penis Scene
Burlesque

There’s not much that isn’t frightening about Burlesque, the 2010 musical about a wooden small-town girl who flees to the L.A. of an alternate universe, where one can become a huge star as a burlesque performer, because the general public cares about burlesque. Christina Aguilera wanders through the shots like a lobotomy victim, Cher looks like a Madame Tussauds monster, and the songs are horrible, but those things are to be expected. Not so the scene where Aguilera’s excruciating flirtations with love interest Cam Gigandet come to a head – Gigandet does an extended strip tease that’s intended to be cute (enter the bedroom fully clothed, come back into the living room under some pretense but a little more naked, repeat). Then, just as we’re lulled into a catatonic acceptance of this sequence’s “romantic” endgame, Gigandet walks up to Aguilera with a box of Famous Amos cookies covering his dong. “Wanna cookie?” he asks. It’s gross. It’s nonsensical. It’s not even the funniest box of cookies that one could use to conceal their genitals (Otis Spunkmeyer, anyone?). When you’re done screaming, this is the kind of insult to your intelligence, and your sweet tooth, that lives on in your nightmares.

3. Arnold Knows Best
Commando 

The daddy-daughter montage during the opening credits of Commando is intended to be the brief calm before the storm – because like any brilliant action film, this 1985 Schwarzenegger classic knows to get the character development out of the way as quickly as possible, and get right to the ass-kicking. But nothing in the ensuing shoot-em-up is as frightening as the beginning of this sequence, which finds an especially bulgy Arnold chopping wood. A shadowy presence approaches, and the music implies that this must be a bad guy. Arnold sees his enemy in the reflection of his axe, and at the last second, he spins around and … grabs his daughter Jenny, laughing and shaking her awkwardly. Is this a game they play, where the kid tries to sneak up on her father while he’s wielding an axe? It doesn’t matter, because now they’re goofing around at ice cream stands and feeding fawns in the wild. Still, although the entire premise of Commando is that Arnold loves his daughter so much that he’d annihilate an island nation to save her, you’ve gotta wonder if she’d be safer with the terrorists.

4. You WHAT into me?
Dave Matthews Band, “Crash Into Me”

Like most Dave Matthews Band ballads, “Crash Into Me” meanders along inoffensively, pairing pleasant open chords with loving sentiments like adult contemporary hits are supposed to. It’s exactly the kind of tune that shouldn’t have a chorus about having unprotected sex with Dave Matthews. “Crash into me/And I come into you,” Matthews warbles, making for one of the most uncomfortable and messy-sounding come-ons in rock history.

5. Boohbah

As if the concept of tripping human-animal hybrids with TVs for stomachs wasn’t creepy enough, Boohbah ups the ante on grotesque, oddly fascinating programming for babies. The Boohbahs are furry, fluorescent-colored creatures who look like mauled genitalia – bumpy oval heads peeking out of big furry sacks. When they’re not chanting “Booh-bah” like a children’s choir, they’re bobbing their heads up and down and making fart noises. Saying their names in a certain order is a surefire way to raise the dead – Humbah, Zumbah, Zing Zing Zingbah, Jumbah, Jingbah …

6. America’s Sweetheart Has A Seizure
Steel Magnolias

Southern women are sassy and strong. That’s basically the plot of Steel Magnolias. Even when one of them dies tragically, it only serves to underline the point that these ladies are more resilient than a million Tom Skerritts. So when Julia Roberts has a horrifying diabetic seizure in Dolly Parton’s salon chair, with Sally Field and Olympia Dukakis watching, it’s a harrowing chink in the armor of these superhuman Southern belles. But that’s not necessarily scary. What is scary is that Roberts looks like a tapeworm monster in this scene. Which probably explains why I curl up in the fetal position when I hear the words, “Drink your juice, Shelby.”

7. Did you kill my son?
Changeling

Some of the scariest sci-fi stories involve the alien takeover of human consciousness, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Thing. How else can we explain how Angelina Jolie behaves in Clint Eastwood’s underwhelming 2008 period piece Changeling? She plays a woman whose child is kidnapped, only to have the authorities try to pass off some other kid as hers. You’d think there’d be some righteous fury here, something to give the audience the sense of catharsis that results in Oscar nods. But Jolie is bewilderingly robotic. When confronting the man who she thinks is her son’s murderer, the script requires her to ask the question “Did you kill my son?” about 400 times. And while Jolie tries to mix it up, first asking politely and then yelling it in the guy’s face, there isn’t a trace of human emotion to be found – by then, the pod people had completely taken over.

I’m Loyal to My Little Friend: Breaking Bad Season Three

For four years now, I’ve known the glorious freedom of life without cable, a life that doesn’t include any mandatory weekly viewing of our favorite shows. My wife and I just wait for them to come out on DVD, then do it in a glorious marathon session. After which, we watch the DVDs. (Thanks for reading, angel.)

We finished up Season Three of Breaking Bad this week, and if there’s a better show on TV right now, my farts smell like freshly baked bread. Walt is too deep in the drug game to exit gracefully, his wife has left him, and his psyche is so shaky, he can go from gently singing “Horse With No Name” to getting maced for threatening a police officer in a matter of minutes. Bryan Cranston continues his masterful portrayal of a family man in a tough squeeze; you root for him thoroughly, no matter the depths he reaches, because every questionable move he makes involves sticking his neck out for Jesse, his depressed ex-junkie of a partner. But for the first time on the series, Cranston’s been one-upped. Giancarlo Esposito was introduced in season two as Gus, the clean-cut proprietor of a fried chicken fast food joint and the most calculating, cold-blooded drug lord you ever did see. Season three has him welcoming Walt into his fold, setting him up with an ingeniously hidden lab and treating him like the most benevolent of bosses. Esposito’s measured performance outshines everything around it – when he realizes his main rival has been vanquished via cell phone, he registers a quick, Cheshire smile, and it’s enough to give you chills.

Breaking Bad has always been satisfying as an allegory for the importance of conscience – as the 21st century Southwest border version of a father stealing a loaf of bread for his kids, Walt is the ultimate antihero, a guy whose middle fingers to authority make you want to stand up and cheer. By the end of this season, however, a do or die mentality takes over, and you start to wonder if Walt’s moral compass is finally starting to lose its magnetism. Which makes his desperately brave actions of the last five minutes downright exhilarating. This season might’ve been about the draining nature of divorce proceedings and the horrifying world of drug cartels (complete with bad-ass sociopathic gangsters in sharkskin suits), but Breaking Bad remains, first and foremost, a morality tale. And that’s what has me chomping at the bit for next summer’s marathon of season four.