And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
“Look at you, beaming away like you’re Father Christmas.” “Who says I’m not? Red bicycle when you were 12!” “What?” —Rose and the 9th Doctor, “The Doctor Dances”
“Father Christmas, Santa Claus or, as I’ve always known him, Jeff.” “There’s no such person as Father Christmas.” “Oh, yeah? Me and Father Christmas, Frank Sinatra’s hunting lodge, 1952. See him at the back with the blonde? Albert Einstein. The three of us together. Brrm. Watch out. Okay? Keep the faith. Stay off the naughty list.” —The 11th Doctor and a boy, “A Christmas Carol”
“Doctor, listen to me. You can’t die, you’re too, you’re too nice, too brave, too kind, and far, far too silly. You’re like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby Doo!” —Emma, “The Curse Of Fatal Death”
The simplest way to describe “Last Christmas” is that it’s a terrifically scary Doctor Who thriller that thinks—more to the point, wants its audience to think—that it’s a whimsical, even throwaway Christmas special. In the jolly figure of Santa Claus and the rather more caustic figures of his two elves, this special tosses out festive frivolity to match anything on display in previous Steven Moffat Christmas stories like the great “A Christmas Carol” or the distinctly less great “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe.” But those elements are, as we learn, only there to run interference for a story that recalls the terrors of Alien—a deeply offensive title, as the Doctor points out—and all the Doctor Who stories it helped inspire, including “Midnight,” “The Waters Of Mars,” and “The Time Of Angels”/“Flesh And Stone.” And, on either side of all those seemingly endless layers of dreams, “Last Christmas” offers a pair of crucial character scenes to serve as codas to the recent season: the innermost fantasy sequence between Clara and Danny and the reunion in reality between the Doctor and Clara. The cumulative result is one of Doctor Who’s very best Christmas specials. While it can’t quite match “A Christmas Carol” for sheer effervescence, “Last Christmas” might just surpass it in pure, mad ambition.
On some level, this year’s Christmas special feels like an extension of “Listen,” as here too Steven Moffat deconstructs many of his most familiar tropes. The Doctor tells us that the dream crabs can weaponize people’s own dreams against them, and this is an entire story that weaponizes the audience’s narrative expectations against them. The story’s setup—a polar research base having to resort to absurd measures to defend itself against aliens that are only dangerous when people think about them—is just textbook Doctor Who, mixing in Moffat’s particular fascination with monsters that embody childhood fears with the longstanding Doctor Who favorite of a base under siege. (Considering that particular strain of Doctor Who story is most closely associated with Patrick Troughton’s 2nd Doctor, the presence of his son Michael Troughton as Professor Albert feels particularly appropriate.) The storytelling formula is so familiar, in fact, that “Last Christmas” can just skip the extraneous backstory.
After all, we’ve seen this kind of story a dozen times before, so do we really need to know what the purpose of the base is, or what Shona was actually trying to accomplish during her one-woman dance party, or why the Doctor and Clara just happened to turn up there? As engaged viewers, we might be aware that these are loose ends, the kind that the show has trained us to rationalize away as part of the cost of doing business, particularly now that the revived show has nearly a decade under its belt; the apparent narrative shortcuts of “Last Christmas” aren’t so dissimilar from those on display in, say, “Time Heist” or “Mummy On The Orient Express.” This episode simplifies its storytelling with what appears to be a familiar Moffat maneuver. The crew’s repeated replies to the Doctor’s inquiries that it’s a long story has the ring of a fairly standard, if minor, bit of Moffat wordplay, with the reiteration itself serving to distract us from the lack of concrete answers. In other episodes, that really might be all there is to it. But here, our ready acceptance of this underexplained scenario is a sign that we as an audience have grown too cozy—a particular risk on Christmas day, to be sure—and that the Doctor, Clara, and everyone else are failing to ask the blindingly obvious questions.
It’s as though Steven Moffat has taken all of his well-worn authorial tics and turned them against his own creations, which is what makes “Last Christmas” such a fantastically effective subversion of what we expect a Moffat episode to be. Even an apparent weakness of the episode, namely the thin characterization of the base’s occupants, comes to make perfect sense as we learn that none of these people are themselves until the very end. Admittedly, this narrative decision so closely resembles a flaw that it ends up kind of being one. In particular, we learn so little about Maureen Beattie’s Fiona Bellows that the reveal that her real self is in a wheelchair doesn’t read as much more than an offhand throw-in. But there is at least one big success here, as both the script and Faye Marsay’s performance do a fine job of emphasizing how little sense Shona McCullough makes as a research scientist. Marsay brings out some genuine pathos in the final sleigh ride, begging to stay a little longer before returning to what she knows is a far blander reality. Part of this special’s success is that it manages to land some of those small emotional moments, a feat that eludes many of its yuletide predecessors.
Still, if we’re going to explore how “Last Christmas” plays with viewers’ expectations, we really need to talk about Santa Claus. (Or Father Christmas. I understand there’s a difference, but since the special doesn’t seem to care, I’m not going to either.) As the quotes up top indicate, Steven Moffat has been drawing connections between the Doctor and Santa for as long as he’s been writing Doctor Who on television, whether it’s comparing them, suggesting the Doctor is Santa, or revealing the two hang out together with Frank Sinatra and Albert Einstein. That last line from “A Christmas Carol” now feels like such an artifact of the particular whimsy that defined the 11th Doctor’s era, and the current incarnation does seem to exist in a less magically unbounded cosmos—I discussed this in more detail in my review of “The Caretaker”—but this Doctor, for all his grumpiness and his skepticism, never explicitly rules out the existence of Santa, leaving it only as a question for the humans around him to answer.
And that’s the real trick of “Last Christmas”: Even if Doctor Who is no longer quite the same show it was in the age of chin and bowtie, it’s still a program that prides itself on the fact that anything can happen, and the episode is careful to present Santa in a way that feels only a fraction too outlandish for Doctor Who. Santa and his helpers are just so damn matter of fact in how they explain away all the apparent impossibilities of their existence; the early line about how ridiculous it is that one’s parents would shower kids with presents once a year for no particular reason feels like a very Moffat-y reversal of logic. Shona’s interrogation of Santa is a masterclass of mounting absurdity, punctuated by Santa’s hilariously straightforward explanation that flying reindeer are a scientific impossibility, which is why he feeds them magic carrots. But before that, the notion that basic physics demand the North Pole be an actual, striped pole is funny, but it’s also just about possible to imagine that as something the Doctor has visited on some unseen jaunt—maybe not this Doctor, but his predecessor, certainly. Santa here is like the show has given flesh to all the impossibly whimsical unseen adventures the 11th Doctor was always talking about, and the existence of that precedent makes it difficult to entirely dismiss Santa’s existence.
So much of the credit here has to go to Nick Frost, who more than earns his equal billing with Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. He manages to bring an edge and a coolness to his Santa without ever making it appear that he’s trying to be edgy and cool, as that would be death. He plays Father Christmas as though this is the real man behind the fairy tale, even as he gradually reveals that there is only the fairy tale, and that’s all there really needs to be. There’s about a million ways that this could have gone horribly wrong—and I’ll admit that most of them flashed through my mind as Santa popped into the TARDIS at the end of “Death In Heaven”—but Frost, ably supported by Nathan McMullen and Doctor Who stalwart Dan Starkey as the elves, finds just the right approach as a figure who essentially runs parallel to the Doctor himself. There are Doctor-ish dimensions to his performance, particularly in how he hints at a being far more ancient and wondrous than even his bearded, red-suited visage would suggest. Basically, Frost manages to take Santa, a figure who is a readymade caricature, and make him into a genuine character, one that the audience wants to be real because he already feels like he is.
The other big guest appearance in “Last Christmas” comes as more of a surprise, even if it’s not exactly a shock: After all, tonight’s episode could hardly serve as a fitting epilogue to the previous season without one last appearance from Danny Pink. One major criticism of “Death In Heaven” that I didn’t really pick up on in my review is how much the finale loses track of Clara, with her grief over Danny’s death and resurrection largely subsumed into the final showdown between the Doctor, Danny, and the Master. “Last Christmas” doesn’t necessarily try to dig out some deeper emotional revelation about Clara’s state of mind, but that too is by design. The key line here comes just after the two admit to each other that they lied to the other at the end of “Death In Heaven.” With nothing further to say, they shift back to the deadly peril at hand; just as the Doctor hesitates, Clara presses, asking him to just give her something to do. Maybe there isn’t any great truth to uncover here beyond simply giving Clara space to acknowledge how much she misses Danny, and how uncertain of what she should do next.
Danny and Clara’s scenes are simple ones, really, not offering much beyond a portrait of the domestic bliss that the two lost. Perhaps the most striking fact is how willing Clara is to ignore all the obvious clues that something is wrong in order to regain it, to the point that she tells the Doctor to wake up and leave her to die happy inside the dream. Samuel Anderson is as great as ever as Danny; much like Nick Frost, he splits the difference between a grounded portrayal of the “real” Danny and a more romanticized version of the character. And, much like Frost’s Santa, it soon becomes clear how meaningless the distinction is between real and fantasy. Maybe this is a too perfect Danny, one who tells Clara all that her subconscious brain knows that she needs to hear. Maybe, in some impossible way, this is the real Danny; after all, the Doctor does borrow Madame Vastra’s line from “The Name Of The Doctor” when he points out time travel has always been possible in dreams. Really, though, it doesn’t matter, as this Danny acts just as the real one would. However you slice it, that’s a tribute to the love Clara and Danny shared, and “Last Christmas” elevates the entire season by taking time to honor that relationship.
This all then leads to the sweetest takeaway from their scenes together, as Danny—who may just be a figment of Clara’s imagination, but if that doesn’t stop Santa, why should that stop him?—tells Clara that she should spend five minutes each day remembering and missing him, but that the other 23 hours and 55 minutes should be spent living life as much as she possibly can. The implication is that, before that moment, Clara could not help but be consumed by her grief, and that she could only look to the rest of her life—with or without the Doctor—to distract her from that pain. The next step is not to forget that pain, but rather to find the right place for it, to let it exist alongside all the other things that life has to offer, to find a way to look back while still moving forward. That’s part of what Danny is getting at when he gives meaning to the episode’s title, explaining that people get together at Christmas because there’s always the chance it might be the last time. It’s a sentiment that doesn’t quite line up with the rest of the episode, at least not as perfectly as “halfway out of the dark” did with “A Christmas Carol,” but we get the best sense of it when both Shona and Clara try to linger in Santa’s sleigh: This is a magical time, one of reunions and remembrances, and it’s all so easily lost once the holiday is over.
The special’s use of nested dreams strongly recalls Inception, though it’s perhaps unsurprising that Doctor Who eschews the hierarchical precision that defined Christopher Nolan’s dream epic, choosing instead a far more anarchic path, employing far more switchbacks and fake-outs to keep even the Doctor guessing. The presence of the Doctor and the TARDIS does rather force that approach, as the Doctor himself observes that reality and fantasy are equally ridiculous. “Last Christmas” tiptoes around asking the really huge meta questions—there’s never any suggestion that the Doctor has somehow dreamed all 2,000 years of his life—but it does stress the essential impossibility of knowing when one is awake and when one is asleep, and Santa isn’t the only one to call out the Doctor’s own dreamlike preposterousness. This is where the episode delights in keeping the audience off-kilter: After all, monsters like dream crabs could only exist in a world that has beings like the Doctor, but are such monsters or such an alien really any more plausible than Santa Claus? That’s not a question with any easy answer, and the lone tangerine on the windowsill suggests.
There was a lot of speculation in the weeks leading up to this special that Clara would depart at its conclusion, and it’s only relatively recently that the tenor of the stars’ and production team members’ comments shifted so that it sounded like Clara would indeed stay. Indeed, at least one British tabloid—hardly a reliable source of information, but then not always an unreliable one either—reported that Jenna Coleman had planned to leave and changed her mind at the last minute, necessitating the hasty rewrite of a scene that saw an elderly Clara die in the Doctor’s arms. I mention this only because the knowledge of that rumor did color my viewing of the reveal and unreveal of the aged Clara. It’s certainly possible to see how that scene could have worked as an exit for Clara, giving her a more or less completed life and a final goodbye with the Doctor. And the final return of Santa is just sudden enough to believe that it is indeed the result of a last-minute rewrite. All of this is possible.
The thing is, I don’t think it really matters either way, because the ending works just fine, regardless of whether it is the original design or a hasty rewrite. Doctor Who’s Christmas specials tend to be melancholy affairs, with the Doctor either dealing with his own loss—“The Runaway Bride,” “The Next Doctor,” “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe,” and “The Snowmen”—or suffering more losses along the way—“Voyage Of The Damned” and “The Snowmen” again. Only “A Christmas Carol” and the regeneration-focused specials really buck this trend. “Last Christmas” is maybe the best execution of this familiar yuletide formula, because it really means something for this most alien Doctor to reveal such human feelings, and Christmas is just the right crucible of emotions to bring that out. We’ve never seen this Doctor indulge in such daffy delight as when he takes the reins of Santa’s sleigh, but even that pales in comparison to what he shows us once he returns to reality (or what he thinks is reality). Peter Capaldi is on reliably fine form here, and he’s heartbreaking when the Doctor admits to the older Clara that he wishes he had returned far sooner, and he was stupid to have stayed away for as long as he did. In light of such sadness, it’s pretty much impossible to deny the Doctor the unadulterated joy that comes with that second chance.
This is what “Last Christmas” gets right, perhaps above all else. Steven Moffat’s script is inordinately clever in how it uses the trappings of a fluffy, silly Christmas special to crank up the scariness of a good old-fashioned monster story. But after all that, tonight’s episode manages something that not all of its Christmas predecessors manage, as it anchors its story in something that feels particular to the holidays. There is a melancholy to the comings and goings that define this time of year, and “Last Christmas” recognizes that from its title outward. But there’s also a chance for renewal, for miracles, for gifts. All of those speak to the fairy tale—or the reality, who can even tell?—of Santa Claus, and those are all things that the Doctor, and this Doctor in particular, richly deserves. And really, it’s all worth it just to see this Doctor look so completely happy. If there’s one thing we never really saw in Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor, it was the kind of unabashed joy that so animated the 10th and 11th Doctors and made the tail-end of the 9th Doctor’s journey—including his Santa claim to Rose at the end of “The Doctor Dances”—so powerful. Well, it takes the full hour, but “Last Christmas” gets us there. It was worth the wait.
The Late Late Show: Series Finale
Craig Ferguson gets a silly, sentimental sendoff
By Caroline Siede@carolinesiede
For 10 years Craig Ferguson quietly led a rebellion against late night TV. It wasn’t a particularly influential rebellion, nor was it a well-watched one. But throughout his tenure, Ferguson displayed admirably little interest in following the rules of what late night TV should be. He preferred instead to push the boundaries of what it could be. With a sense of humor that oscillated from lowbrow to highbrow at the drop of a hat, Ferguson was somehow the most cynical and the most optimistic host on TV. It felt like anything could happen on the endearingly low-budget The Late Late Show. And even Ferguson never seemed to know what was coming. On Monday’s show the host jumped from a dick joke to a discussion of Charles Dickens’ socialist leanings back to another dick joke within the span of the show’s cold open. That’s hardly what one expects from late night banter.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ferguson’s brand of humor wasn’t for everyone. The Late Late Show never drew anywhere near as many viewers as its competitors, nor as much attention in the pop culture zeitgeist. Stephen Colbert’s celebrity-filled exit from The Colbert Report made headlines, while Ferguson’s departure was a much quieter affair—although no less celebrity-filled. The likes of William Shatner, Rashida Jones, Marion Cotillard, Matthew McConaughey, Weird Al Yankovic, Lisa Kudrow, and Samuel L. Jackson saluted the host in a musical montage set to “Bang Your Drum” by Scottish indie band Dead Man Fall. The pre-recorded video then transitioned into a joyful live performance with Ferguson singing atop his desk. It’s an opening that likely brought tears to the eyes of many long time fans, myself included.
Really the only thing marring this otherwise excellent last week of shows was final guest Jay Leno—the human embodiment of the late night conventions Ferguson has spent a decade rejecting. While the two gentlemen got along just fine, it was a rather odd way to wrap up Ferguson’s mold-breaking tenure.
Perhaps because of his past as a punk rock drummer, Ferguson brought an air of insubordination to his show. He regularly insulted CBS and enjoyed swearing profusely just to annoy the censors. He stood uncomfortably close to the camera during his opening monologue and invited celebrities to end their interviews with an “awkward pause.” He’d set up a segment about reading viewer emails only to suddenly throw them all away and do an improvised bit with his skeleton robot cohost Geoff Peterson (voiced by the immensely talented Josh Robert Thompson, who made a well deserved onscreen appearance on Thursday). When a recurring bit involving puppets got too popular, Ferguson decided to retire it—much to the chagrin of fans—for fear the comedy was no longer as fresh (although not before he did a puppet-hosted show to celebrate his 1,000th episode).
It’s easy to mistake Ferguson’s devil-may-care persona for ingratitude. He dubbed his final string of shows “Craig’s Last Week In This Dump” and proudly announced, “We haven’t cared since 2008.” But it’s clear Ferguson cares very deeply. Above all he wanted to use his platform to put some good into the world. Sometimes that meant doing something wildly silly, like dancing with two guys in a horse costume. And other times that meant doing something wildly humanistic, like inviting Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak about apartheid (Ferguson won a Peabody Award for that 2009 episode).
If a 10-year-career can be summarized in a single moment, Ferguson’s came on February 19, 2007. After a bald Britney Spears became the butt of every late night joke, Ferguson announced he wouldn’t be making fun of the singer on his show. As a former addict himself who once considered committing suicide, Ferguson argued that the 25-year-old mother of two needed help not insults. He delivered his message with the kind of earnest, funny vulnerability that still remains breathtaking seven years later.
In an age where talk show hosts and guests regularly act out the beats of a previously agreed upon script, Ferguson preferred spontaneous conversations (he symbolic ripped up his note cards at the start of each interview). That allowed the comedian to ask about things that genuinely interested him (seldom the project his guests were promoting) and forced his guests to stay on their toes. So instead of Larry King recounting some well-rehearsed anecdote when he stopped by on Tuesday, he instead started a conversation about Bee Movie and ended up recounting an experience with a poltergeist in Miami. It was the sort of bizarre stream-of-consciousness conversation that could only happen on The Late Late Show. I, for one, will miss having a space for that kind of weirdness on network TV.
Ferguson was never better than when he and a guest really hit it off. Over the years he’s amassed a long list of delightfully off-kilter interviews with recurring guests like Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Ewan McGregor, and Russell Brand. And for his final week of shows, Ferguson and his longtime producer Michael Naidus (the man Ferguson jokingly accuses of being a racist most nights) stacked the deck with a slew of Ferguson’s favorites. He discussed Icelandic politics with a bearded Jon Hamm, congratulated Tim Meadows on his 42nd appearance on the show (the most of any guest), and discussed aging with Jim Parsons. Betty White stopped by on Wednesday to share the news that a baby hippo had been born at a zoo she works with. To celebrate, Ferguson surprised her with a dancing purple hippo and a choir performing “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas.” A vast majority of the audience was likely confused by the surreal performance, but White was overjoyed. Making one woman happy at the expense of popular appeal? That’s Ferguson in a nutshell.
Right up until the bitter end, Ferguson remained committed to absurdity; he encouraged Geoff to improvise a brand new character for the final show (they wound up with Pipey McPiperson, the talking pipe). In the finale’s closing moments, Bob Newhart and Drew Carey helped Ferguson parody Newhart’s infamous ”it was all a dream” ending. It was a fittingly strange and unexpectedly sentimental end to 2,058 episodes of madness.
Ferguson has plans to launch a new talk show elsewhere (complete with Geoff, Secretariat, and Naidus), but the end of The Late Late Show marks the end of an weird, hilarious, moving, and always excellent era of late night television. Earlier in the week, Ferguson joked that he’d reassured incoming host James Corden by saying, “I’ve left the bar low for you.” Ferguson fans know that isn’t true at all.
The Stephen Colbert character feels like it has existed far longer than it actually has. Sure, the real Stephen Colbert developed the persona during his tenure on The Daily Show, and it blossomed into an ingrained cultural fixture in 2005, but it feels longer than that. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it’s because American society always needed a Stephen Colbert type. We always needed someone to take a sword and stab the balloon of self-importance that permeates our cultural and political discourse, and Colbert realized that the best way to do that was to assume that absurd self-importance in the first place. Of course there were precedents to Stephen Colbert, but like all great comic creations, it also feels entirely unique, the brainchild of a consummate improviser and satirist who looked out at the world and saw a joke waiting to be told.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly Colbert had a firm societal foothold. It could be 10 minutes into the first episode of The Colbert Report, when he coined the term “truthiness,” a concept that existed well before the Bush administration made it the law of the land but had never been properly articulated. It could be when Colbert hosted the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner and mocked the Bush administration to its leader’s face, still one of the ballsiest and most powerful cultural moments of my young life. It could be when Rahm Emanuel told freshmen Congressmen not to accept invitations to appear on The Colbert Report’s “Better Know a District” segment because he knew they would be outmatched. It could be when he briefly ran for president. It’s telling that any of those moments, or any of the numerous moments I haven’t mentioned, could be the one when Colbert blew up to epic proportions. American culture has a memory like a sieve, but if you’ve even been remotely connected to it over the last decade, you have an example in your back pocket of when Stephen Colbert became something more than a mock-conservative pundit.
But everything ends, and after nine years and 1,447 episodes, it feels like The Colbert Report is ending at the right time and ending far too soon. It’s incredible that The Colbert Report maintained relevancy long after the Bush-era demanded someone like him, but it’s also not surprising if you have any knowledge of the real Stephen Colbert’s talent. His unparalleled commitment to comedy, his showmanship, and his genuine eagerness to entertain are nothing short of excellent, and they all came together to create his magnum opus: a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot” that could slip into any room and create compelling theater. The character adapted over the years, evolving from an angry political ideologue into a more whimsical creation that included numerous elements of the real Stephen Colbert—his nerdy fixations, his musical theater chops, his folksy charm. As many people before me have pointed out, the Stephen Colbert character would never have endured as long as it has without the gentle soul behind the mask.
So how did The Colbert Report end? Well, somewhat unassumingly. The past week has been a fairly “normal” one. There hasn’t been a ton of fanfare around the ending beside the occasional mention from Colbert himself. The guests weren’t flashy and neither were the segments. It was as if Colbert knew the best way to go out was to simply do the show he’s been doing all along and not to make a big to-do out of it. It was consistent and funny as The Colbert Report has always been.
But last night’s finale was special. It started out fairly normal and became something extraordinary, exceeding any established expectations. Colbert began with his final edition of The Word, the longest running segment in the show, and gave a fairly pessimistic diagnosis of American progress, detailing how the world hasn’t changed much since The Colbert Report began: Another Bush is running for office, people are still defending our government’s use of torture, and we’re back in Iraq. Colbert says he “samed” the world, starting a revolution that ended in pretty much the same place he began. It’s hard not to listen to this and wince at how little change has occurred since 2005, especially after the induction of a president who promised that wouldn’t be the case. But Colbert couldn’t begin a celebration without a little reality check first. This is who we are and this is who we always have been, and no amount of Stephen Colberts can ever change that depressing fact.
Then, things took a turn for the wonderfully absurd. Colbert began his “Cheating Death” segment by accidentally killing Death and becoming “immortal,” complete with a giant sword, lightning bolts hitting his body, and a mad scientist’s scream. But what does Stephen Colbert do with his newfound immortality? He doesn’t decide to rule the world or smite his enemies. No, he uses his power to forgo a goodbye to the Colbert Nation and sing a song. When those first few piano notes rang out, it was hard to imagine that Colbert’s rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” would be as joyous as it was, with just about every celebrity and their mother coming out to join Stephen in song. Of course Jon Stewart showed up, but then came Bryan Cranston and Willie Nelson, Big Bird and Keith Olbermann, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Lucas, plus a host of journalists and politicians that Colbert has mocked over the years, Bill Clinton by satellite, and many, many more. All of them had big smiles on their face as they sang the chorus over and over again.
I’ve watched this clip four or five times since it aired last night and I’m not embarrassed to say that I get choked up every single time I see it. It’s not a stretch to say that 2014 has been a troubling, disturbing, and all-around piss-poor year. It seemed like every week a new disaster was just around the corner with no end in sight, and while it’s important to be aware of and involved in each and every upsetting development this country has to offer, it’s also easy to feel that there’s no room for unadulterated joy. It’s easy to believe that misery is the only appropriate feeling for our particular time. But for one brief moment last night, I felt a profound happiness that only someone like Stephen Colbert could deliver. I truly don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but my heart grew three sizes when I saw such a moving tribute to a fool whose job it was to take life less seriously.
After the song, we take a trip through the empty set up onto the roof where Colbert stood with his Captain American shield asking the world what he was to do now. Suddenly, Santa Claus appears on his sleigh with a vape-smoking Abraham Lincoln (who’s also a unicorn!) and Alex Trebek in tow to whisk him away. Then, from above the clouds, Colbert finally does break character to thank his crew, his family and friends, and all of the guests who’ve been on the show. You can see the glimmer and gratitude in Colbert’s eyes when he sums up his last decade of work with a sincere, “That was fun!” And then, in a final heartwarming moment, he says, “From eternity, I’m Stephen Colbert,” and tosses it back to Jon who thanks him for the report. Cue the Moment of Zen. Cue Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945.” And that’s it.
People wonder if Stephen Colbert will be able to transcend the character when he takes over for David Letterman on CBS, if he’ll be able to move forward into a new environment and play “himself.” While these questions aren’t entirely unfounded, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that Colbert will do many more extraordinary things in the future. He has enough innate talent and charisma to take him to the stratosphere. But the Stephen Colbert that I grew up with is gone to the skies, and he left our Earth in the best way possible. All I can do is hope that we’ll meet again some sunny day.
Long live Stephen Colbert.
“Bart Of Darkness” (season six, episode one; originally aired 9/4/1994)
In which no one seems to pull their blinds—or restrict access to their pool—during a hot spell like this…
There’s no established number of seasons to determine whether or not a TV show has “made it.” Plenty of crappy shows have run for close to a decade; some of the television medium’s finest offerings only got a handful of episodes to air. For years, there was a concrete milestone of TV success in the 100-episode barrier to syndication, but an increasing number of channels with a greater amount of airtime to fill has brought that count down nearer to the the 80-episode mark. (Though cases have been made for certain landmark series that aired even fewer installments, with cable outlets like IFC and Bravo ponying up for shows like Freaks And Geeks and Twin Peaks following abbreviated network runs.)
But if you wanted to quantify TV success in seasons, a show’s sixth go-round would be a good place to start. With the average American network series producing 20-some episodes per year, a show’s sixth season is often its first to air alongside syndicated reruns. That will be the case when Parks And Recreation returns with new episodes in the fall of 2013, and it was the case when The Simpsons debuted “Bart Of Darkness” 19 years prior. It’s a curious position for a show to be in, continuing its evolution in primetime while its awkward baby photos run after the 11 o’clock news. It’s easy to forget in a time of DVRs, streaming services, and full-season DVD sets, but for Simpsons fans who hadn’t had to foresight to tape-record every episode from “The Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” to “Secrets Of A Successful Marriage,” this was the first opportunity to see the show in its primordial stages, to have their fond memories of The One with Blinky or The One with Dustin Hoffman reinforced (or proven wrong). It was also the first chance to voice that now-familiar refrain: “The early seasons were better.”
This game of compare-and-contrast is inevitable. By the time a show is working on its sixth season, it’s part of the TV establishment. In 1994, The Simpsons was no longer a groundbreaking, school-board-shaking, president-quaking cultural force challenging the rest of the broadcast schedule to eat its shorts. But as “Bart Of Darkness” demonstrates, it wasn’t the easy target losing those shorts to bullies in the community pool, either.
By the time of its sixth season, The Simpsons had been around long enough to institute its own tropes, traits, and conventions, but the première episode of that sixth-season still displays a rebel streak. “Bart Of Darkness” is a hilarious episode that restricts a Simpsons’ go-to—Bart as hell-raiser—and mines much of its humor from the cruelties of childhood. Later seasons would see the show devolve into less elegant forms of pop-culture parody; “Bart Of Darkness”’ riff on Rear Window, however, is the type of parody that makes the enterprise seems so simple, even hacks like Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer can do it.
Among the many TV conventions The Simpsons flouts, it’s never taken as a given that the children of Springfield are fundamentally good. The show doesn’t blanch in the face of adolescent pain, and “Bart Of Darkness”’ opening acts acknowledge that kids can be just as cruel and conniving as grown-ups. Bart ends up losing his entire summer due to the high of a newfound popularity, but he’s wise to his “friends”’ true intentions by the time they’re written all over his leg cast. Leave it to Sherri and Terri to spell it out in obliquely nasty, humorously cutting terms: “Isn’t it amazing that the same day you got a pool is the same day we realized we liked you? The timing worked out great, don’t you think?”
Even while Lisa is basking in the newly uncovered admiration of her classmates, that admiration is insincere—its emptiness expertly illustrated by the falling water levels caused by her fairweather friends’ escape to Martin’s backyard. The pool at 742 Evergreen Terrace is one of those Simpsons plot devices that’s introduced with great fanfare and never seen again, but it provided the show’s writers and animators with some fruitful raw materials. The swiftly draining pool is a fun visual gag, and the Esther Williams-Busby Berkeley fantasia that pours the salt into Bart’s summer-ruining wound is a credit to Jim Reardon’s direction. A looser production schedule was the silver lining of the earthquake that pushed “Bart Of Darkness” off the season-five production schedule and into season six’s pole position, and the added time for attending to the details greatly benefits Reardon’s cinematic choices for the episode, as well as little flourishes like the background kids, the period details of the [Shudders.] “Klassic Krusty” clips, and the garbage that accumulates during Bart’s time in the role of an elementary-aged L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies.
Such direct parody wasn’t anything new for The Simpsons: The fifth season produced “Cape Feare” and “Rosebud,” and season four’s “Marge Vs. The Monorail” lifted its grinning shyster straight from The Music Man. But “Bart Of Darkness” blurs the line between parody and homage even more than Sideshow Bob’s turn as Robert De Niro-by-way-of-Robert-Mitchum. Once Lisa gifts Bart with the telescope she picked up at the optic festival (prompting one of the episode’s endlessly quotable one-liners: “There was an optic festival and I wasn’t informed?”), Bart’s A-plot hews closely to Rear Window’s most well-known beats: The hobbled hero witnesses what he thinks is a murder; he dispatches a female accomplice (Lisa, standing in for Grace Kelly) to investigate; then the suspense ratchets as our window-peeping protagonist watches, powerless, as the suspected baddie closes in.
It would all seem to come out of nowhere if it weren’t for some sly foreshadowing that feints toward Rear Window before the Jimmy Stewart lookalike—calling to an off-screen “Grace”—shows up. “Bart Of Darkness” announces itself by interpolating the Simpsons theme and a Bernard Hermann-esque orchestral sting; the heat wave that sends the Simpsons to Pool Sharks (“Where the buyer is our chum”) echoes the meteorological extremes that give Rear Window its signature, sticky sheen. The episode is candid in its inspirations, but it doesn’t reach out for the viewer’s hand. When Bart is portrayed as an unresponsive silhouette in a bedroom window, you just might feel foolish for missing the pile of Hitchcockian cues that’s piled up under your nose.
But “Bart Of Darkness” isn’t a pat on the back for those in the know. The episode digs up its cinematic roots to plug them into an effectively farcical plot—albeit it one that requires some strain. We’re never meant to go all the way along with Bart’s conclusion that Ned Flanders murdered his wife and buried her in the backyard—while Dan McGrath’s script nods toward a backlot Greenwich Village, it’s also busy dropping hints about that plot’s true nature. (Of course, through the lens of season eight’s “Hurricane Neddy,” it’s more feasible that Flanders is capable of such heinous actions.) The poolside dandy who charms Lisa by inviting her to a weekend in the country makes the promise of “romantic misunderstandings,” and the play that Bart writes during his convalescence probably ends with a drawing-room scene not unlike the one that concludes the sixth-season première. It’s not an intricately constructed puzzle box like Arrested Development’s most highwire farces, but “Heart Of Darkness” is a prime example of The Simpsons dropping its characters into familiar scenarios and rhythms without losing its distinctive creative voice. It even manages to neatly marry one of Alfred Hitchcock’s pet themes—voyeurism—with one of The Simpsons’ favorite motifs—corruption at Springfield’s highest levels—when Chief Wiggum and the boys spy on Homer and Marge’s late-night skinny dipping.
“Bart Of Darkness” starts The Simpsons’ sixth season off on the right foot with a full-bodied embrace of its source material and a comedic core that challenges traditional TV logic. The episode may have marked the show’s induction into the television establishment, but it would be many more years before any of its well-honed edges would be blunted by complacency. There are clips in the show’s future that would cause Krusty The Clown to wretch, but none to be found here.
Just over a minute into Yeezus, Kayne West is riding the malfunctioning-star-destroyer glitch-screams of “On Sight” when he poses a rhetorical question: “How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now, ’fore you give it up.” He repeats the question, as the screaming robots underneath him disappear into empty black space. Then, welling up like a chorus of angels, we hear a classic-level Kanye soul sample, one of those things that once made his music sound so life-affirming. It’s actually a gospel sample, a full choir pleading that “He’ll give us all we need,” their voices just slightly decayed, like they’re coming through an old speaker. And then that choir disappears just as abruptly, the robot roar returning, the laser-sounds pretty soon working like they’re fighting each other, like they’re pushing themselves so hard that they’re falling apart, while Kanye barks about dicks in mouths. He’s dangling his beloved old self before us, then snatching it back. A few songs later, as “New Slaves” — the defiant blast of wrath that weaponizes the so-self-conscious ambivalent consumerism that Kanye was doing way back on “All Falls Down” — is fading out, soul-sample Kanye comes back, cooing that he can’t lose in Auto-tune over celestial strings while Frank Ocean answers him back. That’s where the old Kanye becomes triumphant. He’s the vehicle for the new Kanye assuring us, ever so briefly, that these forces that he sees assembled against him aren’t enough to drag him down. It’s, once again, a rare note of peace in a dark and violent album.
Those two moments stick with me because they briefly bring Yeezus back down to earth and highlight how far Kanye has come in the nine years since he first stepped out to the front of the stage. And they’re short, since reassurance is very, very low on Kanye’s list of goals this time around. He went into Yeezus to make something stark, cold, bracing, “new wave,” and he’s done it. In the great New York Times interview that preceded Yeezus, Kanye West talked to Jon Caramanica about how he felt at home back when he was producing for Dead Prez: “I was able to slip past everything with a pink polo, but I am Dead Prez.” And we hear some of that duo’s righteous downtrodden-people rage in Yeezus, in the DEA/CCA talk on “New Slaves” or in the sharp provocation of “Black Skinhead.” But more than that, it sounds like Kanye has made an entire concept album based on the distorto-sandworm bassline of Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop,” which means he’s made, by several orders of magnitude, the best Dead Prez album ever.
Those soul samples, the ones Kanye rode into the game, were always part of Kanye’s Chicago heritage; think of the incandescent Curtis Mayfield horns that Just Blaze sampled for him on “Touch The Sky.” But as Kanye himself has pointed out, Yeezus is probably the most Chicago album Kanye has ever recorded, and it’s a Chicago album in ways that go way beyond those soul samples. Chicago, after all, is a beautiful city full of lovely and friendly people, a place with a deep civil rights history, the city that produced our first black president. It’s also a freezing-cold wasteland seven months out of the year, a place where the entire administrative system is deeply broken, a place where 41 people were shot last weekend. And for all the beautiful Sunday-picnic soul and gospel that the city has churned out over the years, that cold harshness has also come through in plenty of the music, and that’s the music Kanye’s working with here. Chicago’s early house music was all tick-tock robotic minimalism. It’s all over Yeezus, and Kanye has found a set of production collaborators (Hudson Mohawke, Arca, Daft Punk back in their vengefully brickwalled Human After All state) who understand that sound and who are willing to grind it further down into digital dust. That same empty chill is still there in Chicago music, in drill music, and Kanye makes the connection as plain as possible. The only other rappers on Yeezus are guys from the drill scene. There’s Chief Keef, muttering bluesily and playing the Freeway to Justin Vernon’s Mos Def on the funereal “Hold My Liquor.” And there’s King Louie on “Send It Up,” rapping nothing much but still forcefully hijacking the song anyway. More than the actual rappers, though the foreboding empty space of drill absolutely suffuses the album. And as the rap critic Noz pointed out on Twitter over the weekend, the early industrial music of Al Jourgenson and Wax Trax is also Chicago music, and that’s here, too, in the apocalyptic pound of those first three tracks and the id-barrage “I’m In It.” In fact, the only huge and obvious musical influence here that isn’t Chicago music is the scorched-earth dancehall that Kanye samples so liberally on the album’s second half, and that stuff has the same end-times effect as the grating industrial textures. It’s all rupture.
In fact, the music is so dark and heavy and immersive and powerful, so unlike what we expect from any A-list rap star, even Kanye, at this late date, that it took a while to even register what he was so angry about. Yeezus isn’t the political statement that “New Slaves,” the one true masterpiece of a song here, made it seem like it was going to be. Instead, it’s mostly a severely fucked-up album about relationships and sex. “Blood On The Leaves” is probably the most deeply discomfiting song here. The thunderous moment where the honking brass band from TNGHT’s “R U Ready” might be the greatest musical moment on the album, or on any album this year, but the sample I keep thinking about is the other one, from Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit,” the 1939 lynching lament that’s among the most breath-stopping songs in American history. Kanye knows what he’s doing in using a piece of that song, but he’s rapping about the idea that women trap men by having kids with them. That same dumbshit idea was at the center of “Gold Digger,” of course, but that was such a fun and joyous song that it barely bothered anyone. On “Blood On The Leaves,” it’s much starker and nastier, especially in the way its “Strange Fruit” sample implicitly conflates lynching with child support.
And this is where we bring Kanye’s personal life into it. Kanye’s first baby, a daughter with Kim Kardashian, was born maybe 24 hours after Yeezus leaked. And it’s certainly possible to hear the anxiety of impending fatherhood in Kanye’s lyrics here. But in all its nasty anti-woman sentiment and its joyless talk of mechanistic anonymous sex, it’s also possible to hear those lyrics as the ranting of a deluded asshole who isn’t ready to become a parent, or as an uncommonly vicious album-length breakup letter. Even the album closer “Bound 2,” the one song that returns Kanye to his welcoming soul-rap sound and strives for love-song sentiment, has some meanness to it: “They ordered champagne but still look thirsty / Rock Forever 21 but just turned 30.” Listening to Yeezus, I kept picturing the entire US Weekly newsroom sitting around and listening to it, attempting to make some sense of what they were hearing. And on Twitter during the leak period on Friday, I slowly watched my entire feed go from bugging out over the album’s sonics to getting queasy over its sentiments. That stuff works as rupture, too.
When 808s & Heartbreaks came out, I felt the same way: This was a total shithead move, an album-length character-assassination of an ex-fiancee who wasn’t famous and who thus had no real way to publicly respond. These days, I go through periods (mostly in wintertime, mostly when I’m stressed) where 808s is my favorite Kanye album. Poisonous words have been a huge part of Kanye’s persona from the beginning. So have total clunker lyrics, and this album has its share of those; Kanye does after all, call himself “a Raptholic priest” and claim to be “speaking Swag-hili” in the space of one verse. But on every one of those past albums, the nastiness and the clunkers have blurred and faded and, in the case of the clunkers, become oddly lovable, evidence of a sort of genius that’s powerless to detect its own terrible ideas. They’re also cathartic, even in their stupidity, especially when you find yourself succumbing to the same sorts of stupid ideas that Kanye brandishes. Yeezus, like all the rest of those old albums, isn’t a perfect work. But it’s a complicated and forceful and fascinating and all-consuming one, an album to play when you’re punching down brick walls with bare fists, and that’s enough for it to be my favorite album of 2013 thus far.
The title of Modern Vampires Of The City, the third album from Vampire Weekend, seems like it riffs on the band’s name and on its members’ status as sharp and witty New York men-about-town, guys who play punny word-games on their Twitter accounts and make cameo appearances on Girls and maintain none-too-serious Soundcloud side projects. If that were the case, it’d be perfectly in keeping with the band’s beautifully manicured persona; no other band has come anywhere near their grasp of the Whit Stillman/Noah Baumbach universe of idle and well-heeled and overeducated young New York life. But that’s not what they’re doing with that title — or, anyway, that’s not all they’re doing. As it happens, the album’s title of the city is the first thing that dancehall fire-bringer Junior Reid yells on his 1989 anthem “One Blood.” And even though Reid’s singing about pan-racial unity on that song, when you hear him wail those words — or hear them sampled on the Wu-Tang Clan’s “One Blood Under W” or Game’s “It’s Okay (One Blood)” — they sound unforgiving and apocalyptic. And while nothing on Vampire Weekend’s album evokes that sort of shiver, they do use the album to explore big ideas and bigger fears. They interrogate those shivers. Modern Vampires is not a musical comedy of manners. It’s an expertly executed weird-pop album about death and fear and the unknown. And it’s beautiful.
It’s never been entirely clear what Ezra Koenig’s been singing about; he’s been burying his feelings deep in oblique cultural references and sideways allusions since we first met him. And god knows, he spends plenty of time on Modern Vampires playing word games, tossing out quotes and namechecks, calling back to half-obscure early-’90s rap or a “young girl in Berkeley with her Communist reader.” But more often than usual, he yanks back those curtains that he knitted so carefully and lets us see what’s behind them. Consider, from “Diane Young” (only titled as such because the band thought “Dying Young” was too on-the-nose): “Nobody knows what the future holds / And it’s bad enough just getting old / Live my life in self-defense / You know I love the past cuz I hate suspense.” That’s a pretty powerful admission of personal weakness, and it also gets at something dark behind the entire concept of nostalgia. Or this, from “Step“: “We know the true death, the true way of all flesh / Everyone’s dying, but girl, you’re not old yet” — an acknowledgement of the inevitable, a reassurance, and maybe a come-on, too.
“Worship You” finds Koenig singing quickly and nimbly, like an auctioneer, or like Twista, but he’s wondering what people see in the idea of an authoritarian God: “Everlasting praise you wanted / Everlasting praise you wanted / Little bit of light to get us through the final days.” And then, a song later on “Ya Hey,” Koenig catches a little glimpse of the divine himself when he hears a DJ transitioning from Desmond Dekker into the Rolling Stones during a festival sunset. “Obvious Bicycle,” the opener, is about the hopeless feeling that nobody’s noticing you, paying you attention, and “Unbelievers,” which follows, is a sort of anthem of ambiguity, a celebration that none of us know how the future works and that we all end up living with people whose ideas make no sense to us anyway.
This is frightening stuff, but the album comes across as something warm and comforting and welcoming. It dangles us over the abyss, but then it pulls us up and gives us a hug. And that hug mostly comes in the form of the melodies, which are somehow even prettier than the ones on the last two Vampire Weekend albums. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij are just dangerously sharp hooksmiths, guys whose songs slip into your soul upon contact. Musically, it’ll be a while before I know where Modern Vampires ranks with the band’s first two albums, since both of them proved way more durable than anyone expected at the time. But after a few days of constant rotation, the album already feels like an old friend, just like the other two do.
This is the first time the band has worked with an outside producer, but they found the exact right guy. Ariel Reichstadt is probably the only person on the planet who’s worked with both Cass McCombs and Usher, and he’s one of the low-key MVPs of the past year of popular music, an instrumental figure in helping solid-gold stars like Solange and Charli XCX find an unexplored middle ground between indie warmth and chartpop sheen. And there are a ton of moving parts in play here: Shivery harpsichords, sighing organs, flighty little string-rondos, quiet bursts of surf-guitar. It’s the busiest Vampire Weekend album, and that gets away from them sometimes. “Diane Young,” with its rockabilly hiccups and synth-bass fart-stabs, feels like the band’s attempt at Basement Jaxx-style antic clutter, and it’s probably my least favorite Vampire Weekend song since “Blake’s Got A New Face.” The fast songs, in fact, generally don’t find that adrenalized directness that “A-Punk” or “Cousins” had. But even some of those fast songs are just heart-stoppingly pretty, and the slower ones even more so. Koenig has grown into an idiosyncratic but awesomely assured pop frontman, and the way he stretches out the words “don’t wait” on “Obvious Bicycle” might make for the strongest moment he’s ever had as a singer. And a moment that seems like it could be a throwaway, when “Finger Back” goes quiet and Koenig gives a short monolog about cross-cultural love, is practically a novel unto itself, but it comes and goes with at the perfect moment.
So once again, Vampire Weekend have given us a glimmering and immediately lovable pop record, one that has so many currents and thoughts and feelings running through it that certain lines might not make sense to us until a random lyric emerges from iTunes shuffle and slaps us upside the head a year from now. They’ve done it again — three for three, three amazing albums in three attempts. We’re very, very lucky to have them around.