Best Eps · TV

Best Eps: Freaks and Geeks – “Smooching and Mooching”

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

I still remember watching Freaks and Geeks back in the year 2000. I remember Bill almost dying of his peanut allergy, Mr. Rosso telling Lindsay he envisions her speaking with world leaders, and Sam breaking up with his uberpopular girlfriend. None of those moments are found in “Smooching and Mooching,” but the episode is such a good time, it doesn’t matter.

The freak storyline is about Nick losing his drum set and fleeing his father’s house. He eventually ends up at the Weir household, and Lindsay is vexed by her parents inviting him to sleep over. Mr. and Mrs. Weir show Nick love and support, and Lindsay wonders aloud why her father is so soft on Nick. Mr. Weir points out that Nick’s father is a hard man, and Grandpa Weir acted similarly. Lindsay says, “Yeah I know the feeling.” Mr. Weird gives her a serious look and says, “Lindsay. Trust me, you don’t.” It’s a fantastic line delivery. There’s so much unspoken there.

Upon rewatching the series I found myself regularly annoyed by Lindsay, because she has every advantage available to her – good parents, a middle-class lifestyle, a big brain – yet she constantly veers off her scholastic path for… reasons? I’m glad Mr. Weir points out how easy her life is and how she needs to push herself.

Alright, let’s get to the real fun of the episode. Sam’s crush Cindy asks Bill if Sam might like her. Bill, the ultimate wingman, says it’s hard to tell. Champion status. Really, the geek crew overall is great. At the lunch table they’re all genuinely happy for Sam, and Gordon says that Cindy is the one who should be thankful, because Sam is a catch. That’s too wholesome.

Cindy plants a kiss on Sam – gasp! – and the geeks find themselves on the way to a makeout party. Neal thinks he’s perfected his spin-the-bottle strategy, but in true Neal fashion, he ends up landing on Bill every time. Bill continuously lands on preppy cheerleader Vicki until they’re sent to a closet for seven minutes in heaven. Bill, clearly uncomfortable, attempts a conversation with Vicki. She tells him, “Don’t even think about it. Stay away from me. You’re not gonna kiss me.” Bill doesn’t bite his tongue. He says, “You know what? You’re a jerk. I was just trying to make small talk.” His response humbles Vicki, and they bond over The Jerk, a comedy Bill enjoys. Vicki apologizes for her behavior, then she makes out with Bill. Not only is Bill the MVP of “Smooching and Mooching,” he’s the best character of the series. He’s honest, an excellent friend, and he learns from his mistakes (in another episode he reluctantly accepts Coach Fredricks, his mom’s boyfriend, as a household guest). I love to see Bill getting a win here.

Before the episode ends Sam and Cindy retreat to a private room. Then the more experienced Cindy takes charge of Sam and treats him to some first base action. The helpless look on Sam’s face as Cindy turns off the light is hilarious. Poor kid.

Sadly, Sam dumps Cindy in the very next episode. In contrast to Vicki’s pleasant dialogue with Bill, Cindy shows no real care or interest in Sam as an individual. High school can be cruel. But “Smooching and Mooching” is all about the honeymoon phase, and everything seems more hopeful in this episode. We’ll never know what the future would look like for the freaks or the geeks (NBC, you fools), but maybe Bill landed Vicki after joining the basketball team. And maybe Nick finally unlocked some musical talent. One can hope.

Other Best Eps candidates: “The Diary,” “The Garage Door,” “Tricks and Treats”

Book Reviews

Book Review: Tom Taylor – Injustice 1 + 2

I’m a big fan of superhero alternate history stories. Superman: Red Son and Batman: Earth One are two favorites of mine. Although I’ve never played the Injustice games (I’m not into the NetherRealm fighting style), any series in which Superman becomes a despot garners my attention. So I picked up the Injustice comic series, but I didn’t realize these are prequels to the video games. Thus, big events like the death of Billy Batson and Brainiac’s full-scale invasion are absent here. Surprisingly, that doesn’t matter much. Rather than treading water, writer Tom Taylor does an admirable job fleshing out the universe and giving the characters plenty of reason to beat on each other. Also, as with any good Elseworlds story, there’s plenty of death here.

Injustice 1 covers Superman’s descent into villainy and Batman’s rebel strikes against him. Injustice 2 features misanthrope Ra’s al Ghul as the main villain, and heroes like Supergirl and Blue Beetle are tasked with taking him down. Overall, Injustice 2 is the superior book. The latter half of the first series sputters out, probably because Taylor is absent for some issues. The magical battle involving the Spectre is uninspired, and the Greek Gods don’t bring much to the table.

There are plenty of highs here, though. Harley Quinn’s redemption is both touching and amusing. A guilty Hal Jordan and his Guy Gardner hallucination are a winning combo. Reformed villain Plastic Man and his son make for unlikely heroes. The android Amazo is properly terrifying. Booster Gold’s friendship with the original Blue Beetle pulls at the heartstrings. And Bruno Redondo’s art is top notch. Seriously, he draws excellent gorillas.

Injustice 1 and 2 are easy to recommend, despite the fact that without the video games, they don’t tell a full story. Also, check out the Injustice: Gods Among Us: Year Zero comic, which is a prequel to the prequels. Sounds confusing doesn’t it? I promise it’s all pretty straightforward. Year Zero features the Justice Society of America, and Taylor’s Joker is equal parts horrifying and waggish. Superhero in-fighting is rarely this fun.

Scene It, See It Again · TV

Scene It, See It Again: Better Call Saul – “Jimmy Ruins Chuck”

Inspired by the Ringer’s Rewatchables podcast, I present to you unforgettable scenes that demand repeat visits. The movies, shows, or books these scenes are part of don’t necessarily have to be all-timers. Even mediocre media can surprise us with a haymaker. That being said, these scenes only elevate their respective stories. Read below, then queue up the classic scene. Again, and again, and again.

The Better Call Saul courtroom battle between Jimmy and his big brother Chuck had been building for decades. Jimmy helped Chuck through his electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), but Jimmy also sabotaged Chuck’s Mesa Verde paperwork. Chuck saved Jimmy from big legal troubles, yet Chuck undermined his little brother’s efforts to join HHM as a lawyer. In an earlier episode Jimmy discovered Chuck’s duplicitous nature, and Chuck equated Jimmy with a law degree to a “chimp with a machine gun.” There’s plenty of bitterness and anger to fuel both these characters.

Jimmy has everything to lose when he’s called to defend himself after breaking into Chuck’s house and destroying evidence. Jimmy’s livelihood is on the line, so he and Kim Wexler can’t pull any punches when Chuck is called to the witness stand (“Chicanery,” S03.E05). At this point Jimmy already knows that Chuck’s EHS is psychosomatic. Jimmy questions Chuck, and the sharp-minded Chuck senses a trap. Self-assured as always, Chuck grins and asks Jimmy if he’s hiding electronics in his pocket. Jimmy admits he has a cellphone, then he springs the trap – the cellphone battery had been in Chuck’s pocket all along, and he never sensed it.

When the bar association lawyer refers to Chuck having a mental illness, Chuck loses it. He shouts, “I am not crazy!” He rambles on about Jimmy swapping numbers on official documents, a billboard setup, Jimmy defecating through a sunroof, and Jimmy robbing their parents. Chuck sounds unhinged. And he’s right about everything. Every allegation he throws against Jimmy is truthful, but his delivery makes him look crazy and vindictive.

Though Chuck is a brilliant lawyer, he’s not a people person. Jimmy is the personable one, the favorite son and the popular co-worker. And it’s evident throughout the series that Chuck resents him for it. Jimmy outwits Chuck because Jimmy knows how to work people, for better and worse. The two brothers could have been an unstoppable team, but Chuck is too damn proud and Jimmy is too much of a conman.

A big reason I love this scene is both brothers are wrong in big ways. This isn’t a scene of a noble lawyer taking down a corrupt entity. Both characters are so human and so flawed. Chuck is a brilliant lawyer, but he’s never fully supported his little brother. Jimmy has great admiration for Chuck, but he bends and even breaks the law when it suits him. Neither brother is completely in the right.

This scene marks the end for Chuck’s career, his mental health, and his life. And the series never fully recovers from losing Chuck. The brotherly dynamic is more compelling than any drug war, because it’s a personal battle that ends in absolute tragedy. For as impressive as Bob Odenkirk is throughout Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, this scene belongs to Michael McKean. He’s amazing as Chuck.

Best quote: “He’ll never change. He’ll never change… And he gets to be a lawyer? What a sick joke! I should’ve stopped him when I had the chance. You have to stop him.” The entire monologue is brilliantly delivered.

Personal · Site

Site Update 2023

It’s about time. Welcome to the new The old WordPress theme was over a decade old, so out with the antique and in with simplicity. The blog is no longer at the forefront of the site, but all the archived posts can still be found using categories, tags, and the search function.

I started this site primarily as an excuse to scratch my writing itch. Books, movies, TV shows, video games – this is a place to talk about some of my favorite media. I’m going to keep these blog posts coming, and the bigger goal now is to publish a book this year. I’ve been writing and re-writing science fiction stories for almost a decade now, and it’s about time to put them in print. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writing in the past, or if you are a fan of science fiction in general, consider joining my mailing list. I’ll send out occasional updates, and once I’m closer to a release date, I’m planning on giving the book away for free. Thanks for the support.

TV · TV Reviews

TV Review: The Spectacular Spider-Man

I searched “best spider-man tv shows of all time” and one result regularly topped the lists – The Spectacular Spider-Man. I’d heard good things about the series before (it was originally released in 2008), but I never bothered checking it out. Now I’ve watched both seasons, and I’m impressed. 

The Spectacular Spider-Man retreads ground so old its foundation was laid by comic book legends Stan Lee and Steve Ditko way back in 1962. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The series skips any sort of origin episode and leaps right into Peter Parker juggling super hero antics and high school teenager drama. It’s a formula that works well throughout the series – Peter’s life is often just as interesting (if not more so) than Spidey’s. Peter, like most high school boys, is a fool. He belongs with Gwen Stacy, but dates Liz Allan and pines for Mary Jane Watson. C’mon man, get your life together.

A hero is only as good as his villains, and the series mostly succeeds in throwing compelling enemies at Spider-Man. Doctor Octopus creating super-powered rogues to compete against Spidey is a nice twist, and it makes sense for common criminals to feel a desperate desire to knock Spider-Man down a peg or two. The guy constantly pokes fun at them while webbing them up. I especially enjoy Spidey’s banter with Kraven the Hunter. Kraven wraps Spider-Man in a bear hug and says, “Be still. The noblest prey ends the hunt in silent dignity.” Perplexed, Spider-Man responds, “Prey? Silent? Dignity? Ah, you don’t know me at all!”

It’s also nice that Spider-Man regularly defeats his enemies using guile. Rhino outclasses Spider-Man in strength, so Spidey lures him down to the sewers and uses stream to overheat the sweating Rhino. Brains beats brawn. The only villain that falls somewhat short is Green Goblin. The Goblin is one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes because he terrorizes both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. The Spectacular Spider-Man gives Venom that role (which works well, no complaints there) while the Goblin’s story revolves around the mystery of his identity. The mystery gets old fast. But it’s easy to forgive that when the series also treats us to an epic Sinister Six battle in “Group Therapy” in which the symbiotic suit wrecks shop, treating the Vulture and Shocker like play toys. The fight choreography and battle scenes are excellent throughout the series.

I mentioned Spidey’s banter with Kraven, and what really sells that banter is voice actor Josh Keaton. Keaton is an excellent Peter Parker/Spider-Man, embodying the joking nature of the hero and delivering during the more serious moments. After Sandman sacrifices himself by absorbing an oil tanker explosion, Spider-Man is impressed to say the least. He says, “You wanted a big score, Marko? Far as I’m concerned, you just scored about as big as a man can.” The line works thanks to Keaton’s earnestness.

There’s a lot to like about The Spectacular Spider-Man. Watching Peter Parker and his buddy Harry try out for the football team, Venom acting like the petty kid he is, Spidey battling the Lizard at the zoo – it’s all engaging and fun. It’s a damn shame the series never received a proper ending. The showrunners deserved at least a couple more seasons to wrap everything up. If it ran for more seasons, I’m sure it could overtake my personal favorite Spidey show, Spider-Man (1994). Speaking of which, that 90’s theme song still kicks ass.

Top Ten

Top Ten: Spider-Man Costumes

I’ve been planning this feature for years. Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, and he’s worn plenty of iconic costumes throughout his history. Before jumping ahead, let’s establish some ground rules. First, the costumes on the list must be unique, not slight variations of other costumes. Only suits worn by characters identifying as Spider-Man are in consideration. If I opened up the list to Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew’s costume from the Ultimate universe would be a real contender (consider it a future Top Ten idea). Finally, the costume must be important enough to have multiple high quality images available online. The Bullet Points costume may have made this list, but it’s been sparingly used by Marvel. Here are some other honorable mentions that almost made the cut: Kaine, Iron Spider, Stealth Suit, MK3, and Bombastic Bag-Man. Alright, with the preamble out of the way, here are my favorite Spidey suits.

10. Programmable Matter Suit – First Appearance: Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020)

This is the only costume on this list that doesn’t have a comic book origin. I haven’t yet played Spider-Man: Miles Morales (I will eventually), so I can’t say much about the suit’s backstory. But whoa, the programmable matter suit is killer. Its blocky design makes it look 8-bit inspired, and I’m into the idea of a Spider-Man that glows while he’s kicking butt. Red and black is a winning color combo, and you’ll see more of it as we continue along.

09. Captain Universe – First Appearance: The Amazing Spider-Man #329 (1990)

This pick doesn’t seem all that fair. It’s just a Captain Universe suit featuring a splash of Spider-Man’s mask. But I love it. I’m a fan of Marvel’s cosmic stories, and Spider-Man’s Captain Universe costume somehow manages to be both outrageously goofy and flamboyantly cool. I want to see this version of Spider-Man fighting alongside Nova in outer space. The Miles Morales version of this suit might look even better.

Continue reading “Top Ten: Spider-Man Costumes”
Best Eps · TV

Best Eps: Batman: The Animated Series – “Nothing to Fear”

In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.

Longtime Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy died on November 10, 2022. Conroy’s Batman is the best Batman, a hero who is tireless in his quest for justice, a man who has sympathy in his heart even for his greatest foes. I’d already planned on writing this article before Conroy’s death, but now this feels like a fitting tribute. A quick note – I always loved that Conroy portrayed Batman’s voice as his true self while his Bruce Wayne spoke with a put-on, airy lilt. It may seem a small thing, but it showed that Bruce Wayne was the man’s actual mask. That’s a big difference from the Batmen who put on gruff voices while in costume (see: Christian Bale). Okay, onto the meat of the article.

There are plenty of standout Batman: The Animated Series episodes, but I’ve always gravitated towards the episodes that shine a light on Bruce Wayne’s humanity and vulnerability. Right from the start “Nothing to Fear” puts Bruce on the defensive in the worst way. Dr. Moss, an older man who knew Bruce’s father, insults Bruce and says he’s shaming the family name. As if that’s not bad enough, Scarecrow drugs Batman with a fear toxin, and Bruce is immediately haunted by visions of his father echoing Dr. Moss’s words.

Scarecrow is an interesting villain for Batman because he uses people’s fears against them. Batman is an agent of darkness, and a big part of the reason he’s successful is he instills fear in criminals. That shared connection creates a nice symmetry within the episode. Scarecrow introduces himself in a grandiose way, proclaiming, “I am fear incarnate. I am the terror of Gotham. I am the Scarecrow.” More on that in a bit.

Bruce survives Scarecrow’s attack, but his mind is bubbling over with the fear toxin. He looks and feels terrible, and he confesses his visions to his butler/surrogate father Alfred. He tells Alfred his great fear of shaming the family name. And in his best moment of the series, Alfred says, “That’s rubbish. I know your father would be proud of you, because I’m so proud of you.” I love that.

Of course the Scarecrow continues his quest for revenge, and despite his mental state, Batman rushes to the rescue. The final fight takes place on a zeppelin, and while hanging precariously onto the nose of the airship, Thomas Wayne once again looms large and calls Bruce a disgrace. This is when Batman shows his mettle. He overcomes the fear toxin without an antidote, any tricks, and no superpowers. And then he speaks his best lines of the series: “No, you are not my father. I am not a disgrace. I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!” Chills. And there’s that symmetry I mentioned earlier. His words call back to Scarecrow’s, but Batman’s ring true. He becomes Scarecrow’s worst nightmare and takes him down using his own fear toxin.

“Nothing to Fear” shows the resourcefulness and grit of Batman even when he’s at his worst. Because nothing can be worse for Bruce than enduring the cruel words of a father he loves and misses so much. And no one could have conveyed Batman’s emotions the way Kevin Conroy did. Rest in peace.

Other Best Eps candidates: “Appointment in Crime Alley,” “Day of the Samurai,” “Tyger Tyger”

Music · Music Reviews

Music Review: Northstar – Is This Thing Loaded?

This review was originally posted on September 10, 2007. Northstar released their debut album Is This Thing Loaded? twenty years ago. Like Brand New, Northstar always felt a level above other bands in the scene. My writing here is far from my best, but at least I recognized talent. Here’s a good retrospective write-up and interview with Nick Torres.

Every music fan knows of a defunct band that never received the success they rightfully deserved. These bands are close to our hearts, and though we wished them the greatest success, we feel honored to be the few who recognize their talent. Northstar was one of those bands.

It’s difficult to recall the details, but at some time before Is This Thing Loaded? was released, I happened upon a demo of “Broken Parachute.” The two things that struck me most about the song upon subsequent listens were the guitar work and the somewhat odd lyrics. At the time I would listen almost exclusively to pop punk, so it was quite a surprise to hear a band that knew what it meant to rock. It was also interesting to hear lyrics of an ambiguous nature describing the stomping of monsters, running from the heartless, befriending a bottle for its soothing contents, and a woeful narrator on the brink of giving up.

“Broken Parachute” was a fitting introduction to Northstar, but Is This Thing Loaded? offers so much more. For one thing, the album proves that guitarist/vocalist Nick Torres is a songwriter to be appreciated. “Rigged and Ready,” the first song of the album, provides an example of what Torres is capable of. His delivery is drawn out and smooth (‘I’m thinking she needs me / Well do you girl? / I guess we’ll see’), but amplifies with the music while avoiding unnecessary screaming. However, there are moments in every song in which Torres produces short bursts of scratchy singing when he reaches his breaking point. Such a moment can be found on “My Ricochet”, as he repeats ‘I guess it’s that bad’ to the crashing of drummer Gabe Renfroe’s cymbals. These moments exist in every song, usually set to climactic music, and they are always welcome. But even if his voice is commendable, what really makes Torres’ vocals shine are the lyrics he articulates.

As mentioned previously, the lyrics of Northstar go beyond simple writing and implement grammatical tools like metaphors, similes, and symbols, so technically they lean more toward poetry than prose. The result is writing that is deep and satisfying in its vagueness. And like so many poets that came before him, Torres has a female target in mind. On “My Ricochet,” he serenades with the best of them, creating a holy image of his intended lover: ‘Why do you float way up there? / In disguise in dirty air / Why don’t you melt way down here / With heaven so far and hell so near.’ Though he can be smooth, Torres is not always gentle when speaking to the ear of a lover out of grasp. He has something to prove as he pursues his “Cinderella.” She’s shot down every one of his friends, and he is clearly frustrated in his attempts to win her. Still, he falls victim to her disinterest just as his friends before him, and Torres comes to realize the futility of words: ‘Well under razor wrists lie the gorgeous words that will put her under my skin / But I’m alone again.’

By this point the review probably sounds like a personal dedication to Nick Torres, but rest assured the whole band deserves credit for helping make Is This Thing Loaded? sound so damn good. Torres, Renfroe, guitarist Tyler Odem, and bassist Shawn Reagan add complexity to their instruments and provide an almost flawless foundation for Torres’ voice and words. The dual guitar combination of Odem and Torres is serene at times, but has a perfect crunching distortion to match the heightened action of choruses and outros. A fitting example of this can be found on “Taker Not a Giver,” one of the album’s best. Airy guitar sounds accompany Torres as he sings, ‘I’m falling together, alone in wonder… land,’ but as soon as the last word is uttered, the real show starts. Rhythm and lead are wonderfully hectic together as Renfroe inserts drum rolls to heighten the commotion. “Taker Not a Giver” has a great chorus in the traditional sense, but the instrumental work between the band is the real high point of the song. Reagan can be overshadowed by the guitarists at times, but he is anything but a backseat bassist. He controls the tone of verses, setting the mood well, especially on “My Ricochet,” while Torres ruminates on matters of heaven and hell. Renfroe accordingly paces the songs, though he does lash out at moments, leaving the band behind to speed things up and take control. Listen to the abuse he dishes out on the bass pedal at the final moments of “Cinderella” to see what I mean; it’s three seconds of bliss just when it seems all the surprises of the song have been revealed.

Torres’ final lyrics of the album are ‘I’m classic and late / Plastic and fake,’ then only the feedback is left. Is This Thing Loaded? is indeed a classic, though there’s nothing fake about it. This is the real deal. There’s no need to nitpick which exact genre the album falls under, so let’s not. Is This Thing Loaded? will appease anyone stuck merely reminiscing about depth in musicians and lyrical content. If you don’t own this album yet, what are you waiting for?