Escaping Escapism: So Long, Outer Banks, Adieu!

hat tip to David Connor Jones for illustration idea

Alas, Caroline and I have pulled the plug on Outer Banks. There’s just so much implausibility (in my case) a sixty-eight-year-old pandemic dodging codger can take. 

For example, in the penultimate episode of Season One, John B’s 70s model VW minibus overtakes a twin-engine plane on a runway, pulls in front of it, bringing the aircraft to a screeching halt. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, bulldogs, and babies, I have owned two VW minibuses. When I drove my more recent one from St. Simon’s Island up I-95 to Folly Beach, my late wife Judy drove behind me in her Highlander with its flashers strobing because whenever I went over an overpass, the straining rear-mounted air-cooled four-cylinder engine’s speed would drop to 40 mph, the minimum legal speed.[1] The fact that John B’s bus starts every time is incredible enough, but outracing a plane on a runway?

But, hey, I get it. This is escapist TV, the equivalent of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” where good and evil are unambiguous and comic relief non-existent. But still, I mean what lame-brained sheriff goes to arrest a powerful developer with a planeload of gold without back-up? I mean, the Outer Banks Police Department makes the Keystone Kops look like IMF from Mission Impossible. Speaking of escape-ism, in episode after episode our GED-less heroes find themselves surrounded yet somehow manage to evade capture, thanks in part to their Flash-like superhuman sprint speed and stamina. 

And the fights! I’ve been in a couple of fistfights in my youth and witnessed a few more, and I’m here to tell you that they never last more than a minute once a punch is landed. These cats in Outer Banks dole out and receive blows that would result in brain damage for mere mortals yet spew no blood. I’ve bled more profusely from a shaving nick than Rafe did after he and his dealer received a world-class ass kicking at the hands of JJ and Pope. 

It’s gotten so bad that now I’m wishing harm to the protagonists. Their stock expressions have gotten old ­– John B’s perpetual puzzlement, Kiara’s constant worried scowl, Rafe’s howler monkey stress screams. “

So, as King Claudius says, “And where the offense is let the great ax fall.”

My only regret is I’m not going to see my pal and fellow Folly resident Nick Thomas cast as a Kook in a later Season Two episode. I mean, even that seems bogus. Nick a Kook? No way, Jose. Nick should be a Progue, dammit.

[1] BTW, I’ve only witnessed one driver going forty on an interstate. It was a drunken woman in a convertible meandering from lane to lane about nine o’clock in the morning. She looked like an ancient Gloria Swanson with a smile on her face, her sunglasses glinting, her boa streaming behind. 

Outer Banks: A TV After School Special Riddled with “Holy Shits”

Verisimilitude isn’t the Netflix series Outer Banks’ strong suit.  For one thing, it doesn’t take place in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, that chain of barrier islands and peninsulas jutting way out into the Atlantic, the most hurricane prone spot on the east coast behind Florida.

Much of that area is windswept, rather barren, the main vegetation beach grasses.  In fact, Hatteras reminds me of the North Sea Scottish coast. However, the series is shot on and around the verdant barrier islands of the Lowcountry of South Carolina and in the city of Charleston. 

Nag’s Head, Outer Banks, from Our State magazine, photo credit, Ray Matthews

This discrepancy doesn’t bother me. I grew up watching The Lone Ranger where many outdoor scenes were produced in a sound studio with papier-mâché boulders and painted backdrops. If I had been born and raised in Peoria, I wouldn’t know the difference. After all, the show is fictional, a YA fantasy in which adolescents frolic and fight as they seek lost ante-bellum treasure. Still, it’s never a good thing when your suspension-of-disbelief Hindenburgs (yes, that’s a verb). 

In Outer Banks, implausibility intrudes rather too often for my censorious tastes; then again, its target audience is juveniles, so what should I expect? 

The series, a patchwork quilt of television and movie genres, features gang violence pitting the working class Pogues against the upper crust Kooks. Oddly enough, in Episode One, the slightly built, coke-snorting, Nordic-looking Kook Topper beats the shit out of John B, the Pogue protagonist, a waterman who is much more muscular and physically active than Topper. Picture David Bowie kicking Bono’s ass. 

Um, I don’t think so.

The show also has a Dirty Dozen thing going, you know, a group of character types forming a team to accomplish a mission, in this case locating a shipwreck that supposedly held 400 million in gold that once belonged to an ante-bellum freedman named Denmark Tanny (based very loosely on Denmark Vesey, the historical alleged architect of a foiled slave insurrection). 

Anyway, the Pogue team consists of John B, whose father has been lost at sea and whose mother is dead; JJ, the rebellious son of an abusive alcoholic; Kiara, an outlier, female and middle-class but nevertheless a Pogue; and Pope, a Black academic whiz kid who reminds me of the Greg Morris character from the TV show Mission Impossible. Despite being analytical, Pope can be talked into some pretty stupid shit, though, like scuttling Topper’s folks’ expensive power boat in broad daylight. The Pogues argue and scream at each other but eventually end up agreeing on a plan, which often means breaking a law or two.

Of course, you also have romance, quadrilateral entanglements in the case of John B and Kiara, John B and the Queen of the Kooks Sarah, and Sarah and Topper, who are going steady at the beginning of the series. Even though these teens party hearty, they are remarkably chaste, at least in the first season. Despite downing bucketsful of draft beer at wild ass keggers on the beach, throwing down liquor at soirees, ain’t much making out going on, much less intercourse. So far, I’d guess all the teenagers are virgins. They do employ vulgar language, however, “holy shit” being a favorite.

Adventure, i.e., suspense, is the show’s lifeblood, and although the setting is contemporary, the characters aren’t tethered to their cell phones, nor do the authorities make much use of surveillance cameras. Whenever the Pogues trespass, usually in broad daylight, they encounter antagonists who unsuccessfully chase them, given that the Pogues possess the stamina and speed of Olympian sprinters. For me, it gets rather tedious seeing the same scenarios playing out over and over in episode after episode. Violence is graphic and constant.

Also, the soundtrack is lame. Some Jimmy Cliff or Desmond Dekker would be nice. 

That said, I guess I’m enjoying watching. Unlike some shows, it’s not so wretched you pull for the bad guys. My wife Caroline (who coined the title of this piece) and I Mystery-Science-Theater (yes, that’s a verb) our way through it, making wisecracks at some of the inept acting and unlikely events. I know that writing serials is difficult (cf. the spectacular beginning of Twin Peaks versus its ignominious ending) so I shouldn’t be too harsh. And anyway, it’s fun encountering places you know, like the Charleston clothing shop Ben Silver and the Morris Island Lighthouse, which we can see from our living room window.  

photo credit, yours truly

Sure, I’m a Marxist

During the 50s and 60s, my grandmother’s television, a small black-and-white model perched on a metal stand, played constantly, both day and night, commencing with Dave Garraway’s Today Show and ending with Jack Paar’s Tonight Show[1]

When I spent the night with Mama Blanton, she allowed me stay up as long as I could keep my stinging eyes open. As a young child, I fought sleep as if it were an enemy, as if it were death itself. At home, I had to be in bed by 7:30 on weekdays and nine on weekends, so I always looked forward to staying over at Mama Blanton’s on Saturday nights and watching those old black-and-white movies, which seemed in my naivety ancient artifacts from a more glorious age.[2]

When I was five or six, I recall watching a Marx Brothers movie – probably Duck Soup – and making it past midnight. The Brothers’ antics enthralled me, especially horn-honking Harpo. I struggled mightily that night to stay awake but eventually succumbed to the Sandman’s strangle hold. Mama Blanton let me sleep on the couch until the movie ended, then led me, shuffling like a blind boy, to bed. I can’t recall if I realized then that the Groucho in the movie was the same Groucho (now twenty years older) who hosted the gameshow You Bet Your Life. However, I do I remember some time after the movie purchasing one of those Groucho masks featuring glasses, nose, eyebrows, and mustache.

I didn’t see another Marx Brothers’ film until college when my high school friend and Citadel cadet Gene Limehouse visited USC for a weekend.  High on whatever, we decided to catch a matinee screening of A Night at the Opera at the Russell House theater in the student union building. Fifteen or so years had passed since that first taste of manic Marx Brothers madness at Mama Blanton’s, but once again, I was laughing out loud, though now appreciating more than the slapstick, taking note of the verbal cleverness and also the mockery of the upper classes, most deliciously, Groucho’s offering a tuxedoed opera attendee a tip for retrieving his top hat that had fallen from the balcony. “Go buy yourself a stogie,” Groucho says, leaning over the railing and offering the fuddy-duddy a coin, which he refuses in a huff.

Yet another fifteen years later when I taught AP English and we studied Marxian criticism, I’d show A Night at the Opera on the week of Porter-Gaud’s musical, offering exhausted students a reprieve of sorts. I’d explain how the promotion of the impoverished tenor, the rollicking fun the peasant passengers below deck enjoy on the trans-Atlantic voyage (as opposed to the stiff stiltedness of the first-class passengers), and the Marx Brothers’ revolutionary takeover of the performance of La Traviata conform to Karl Marx’s theories.

Although students back then – perhaps still do – balked at anything in black-and-white, the classes eventually got into it, sometimes applauding at the film’s conclusion.

A Night at the Opera, Marx Brothers’ movie with a Marxian message.

At any rate, I appreciate my grandmother’s liberality in allowing me to wander into her late-night adult world and watch movies not not necessarily suited for children, a benefit I passed along to my boys when they were growing up. 

Despite the clucking of a few disapproving tongues at the time, I’d say we turned out okay.

[1] I remember the local NBC station’s signing off with the National Anthem, followed by a short film featuring the poem “High Flight,” and then an announcer’s canned spiel about kilowatts and licensing. That done, the Indian head test pattern appeared with its accompanying high-pitched whine. Finally, exactly at one a.m., a blizzard of static would obliterate the test patten. Time to go nighty-night.

[2] Ironically, many had been filmed during the Depression.

True Detective Revisited: The Fall of American Culture

Let’s talk about Pulp fiction — not the movie — but its namesake, those lurid narratives printed on cheap paper that, to cop the cliché of their heyday, explored the “seamy underside” of American culture, publications like True Detective, which enjoyed a 71-year existence from 1924-1995.


The HBO television series of the same name follows the magazine’s tradition of exposing lurid depravity, though it does so on a much higher artistic plane with shades of David Lynch and Flannery O’Connor, and the depravity depicted in the television series is like to 10th power of the seemingly quaint pistol whippings and murders of the magazine’s beginnings. Furthermore, the series seems to me to be an indictment of American culture, its spiritual poverty embodied in the corrupt Christianity of Southern Protestantism and in the rapacious capitalism of multinational corporations.

The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, constantly underscores these two themes with the visual motifs of crosses and industrial wastelands, which bring to  mind landscapes depicted in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosh.

Check out the opening credits, for example:

Obviously David Lynch’s influence is profound here, not only in the arid, dispassionate images but also in the soundtrack, and this landscape is populated by characters right out of Flannery O’Connor — shiftless Southern scumbags, depraved criminals, corrupt preachers. The twin protagonists Marty and Rust offer an interesting contrast with Marty embodying the hollow hypocritical Protestantism that O’Connor despised and Rust the nihilism that O’Connor, though a devout Catholic, preferred to the mealy-mouthed ignorant insincerity of many of her nominally Christian characters, as we can see in her treatment of the Grandmother and the Misfit in “A Good Man’s Hard to Find.” In fact, in the sixth episode, a grown up child whore whom Marty tried to rescue from a trailer park brothel years ago calls him “a good man” in a restaurant, echoing the Grandmother’s comment to Red Sammy Butts in a restaurant in the O’Connor story. Of course, neither are good men, as Marty clearly demonstrates when he engages in extramarital sex with the woman.

(Here’s an earlier post dealing with Marty and Rust).

goodmanhardtofindThe complex characterization in the context of the cinematic images that create surreal beauty from ugliness makes the series both intellectually and aesthetically interesting, and there’s also a subplot dealing with public education money being funneled into Christian schools to overcome what one character calls “secular, global education.”  These Christian schools lie at the center of the ritualistic Satanic murders the two detectives have spent the better part of two decades trying to unravel.

Certainly, an anthropologist studying the magazine True Detective and the series would conclude that American culture, despite great inroads in civil rights, has declined precipitously since the decades the magazine flourished, and I can’t help but wonder if the creator Pizzolatto is himself a moralist, perhaps even a Catholic in the tradition of both Bosch and O’Connor.

At any rate, the same cultural anthropologist would also have to agree that television has gotten a whole hell of a lot better in the last fifty years.