August 17, 2011

Things have changed

Earlier this year, I happened to catch an episode of “Dr. Phil” on the television in the kitchen. I like Dr. Phil. He speaks with the voice of reason. I think the world would be a better place if everybody would follow his advice. But it isn’t like I make it a point to watch his show every day, you know?

The episode I remember catching featured a couple that was having problems. The woman described the problem, which seemed kind of bizarre, and then, when the man opened his mouth, he made it clear that the woman’s assessment was absolutely accurate. Anyone observing their dynamic would have recommended that she run away screaming, but instead she was looking for an assurance that her man would consider Dr. Phil’s advice and be more flexible, compassionate, but he was never going to be able to comprehend the situation. He was an ass.

For his part, Dr. Phil shared some basic perspective on relationships. He said that, as a partner in a marriage, he recognized it was his job to show his wife how and why he recognized and loved her, on a daily basis. At the time, I thought this was a brilliant concept for the mainstream late-afternoon television viewing audience. Bravo, Dr. Phil! I couldn’t agree more fully.

Elsewhere, however, it seems that another message is invading the mainstream, and its truth seems insurmountable. I first noticed it on June 8, with the airing of the mid-season finale of “South Park.” This poignant, uncharacteristically unfunny episode, titled “You’re Getting Old,” began at Stan’s 10th birthday party and represented his maturing with a brilliant series of perspectives on pop culture and relationships. “Tween Wave” music, it was suggested, “sounds like shit,” according to the kids’ parents. And classic recordings by the Police sounded like shit to the kids. Shortly after recognizing this disturbing fact, Stan starts to realize that everything sounds like shit, and he finds it impossible to enjoy anything. Even when his best friend Kyle talks to him at one point, it is as if fecal matter is spewing from his mouth.

Meanwhile, Stan’s parents are struggling through the recognition that their relationship is in trouble. They admit to one another that they each think that the other is “kind of shitty,” and they lament that “people grow apart.” Even as the script made reference to the eternal sameness of “story,” the writers abandoned their book of reliable outrageousness for something heartbreaking and sad. It ended with Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” playing over the image of a duck wearing a vest, spitting diarrhea in Stan’s face.

It has been speculated that their success with “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway has led the “South Park” guys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to lose interest in their animated, fourth-grade counterparts. On the other hand, they have yet to deliver the second half of season 15.

In another corner of the basic cable universe, on his eponymously titled sit-com “Louie” (11 p.m. Thursday, FX), comedian Louis C.K. has been finding a new frontier for humor in a world gone to shit, albeit somewhat more metaphorically in this case.

Divorced with three children, Louie responds to the bizarre world of middle-aged dating with sad bewilderment. In one episode, his date collapses in sobs after asking to be spanked and begging “Daddy” for forgiveness. In another, Louie has an existential crisis on his way to meeting a woman for a movie date when a homeless person stumbles into the street in front of him and gets decapitated under the wheels of a garbage truck.

Most recently, in the episode “Come On, God,” Louie spends an evening with a young woman who works for a Christian organization that discourages premarital sex and masturbation. An enthusiastic masturbator, Louie hopelessly plies the beauty, and his evening ends predictably.

“Louie” is kind of like “Seinfeld” with no illusions. It isn’t always funny. Sometimes it’s just sad, makes you hang your head in quiet disbelief.

And it isn’t for everyone. I’m sure folks who maintain dreams of functional romance would find it disconcerting. The rest of us, here in the world of shit, can find comfort that we aren’t alone.

For next session: It may not be too difficult to figure out how the Velvet Underground’s third album is appropriate for the Year of Things Vaguely Related to Brian Eno, but can you figure out how the movie “Vertigo” fits in?