Zen and the Art of Horse-Shit

Well, there’s one consistent thing about Rockstar’s most recent games: they’re markedly inconsistent.

Red Dead Redemption II has at least three buttons for context-sensitive actions (there may be more that I can’t remember). You pick up provisions by holding the X/Square button. You pick up weapons by holding LB/L1. You mount horses and take people into choke-holds by pressing Y/Triangle.

That last, calculated choice of controller setup caused me a couple of social faux pas that quickly developed into long elusions from the police.

There are a wide variety of care-taking activities in the game. Some are quick and automatic, while others are slow and laborious. Order some fried catfish at the saloon, and your character gobbles it down in a jump cut. Take a bath at the same saloon, however, and you need to mash three buttons to make him scrub each of his extremities, one at a time.

You interact with people, camps, and horses through menus at the lower-right of the screen. For people, these menus include options for robbing, friendly greetings, or masculine taunts. For camps, you can choose to sleep, cook food or craft items, or just leave. You can give horses tender pats, brush dirt from their hides, or feed them various vegetables. To actually perform some of these actions, you need only tap a button. To perform others, you must hold a button until a ring around the button icon fills. For some actions, the options differ from occasion to occasion, so pressing Y/Triangle will make you sleep for eight hours one night, and it will make you sleep for fifteen hours on another.

The game’s story missions involve a lot of horse travel, usually in the company of your gangster buddies. Sometimes, in the course of these trips, the game will draw black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, meaning you can release the controller and just watch them talk and ride until they reach their destination. Other times, the game just keeps going, and you have to hold A/Cross and steer carefully while the characters talk and ride. If you don’t keep pace or follow the paths of your companions, they’ll yell and complain at you until you fall back in line. The game offers a “Cinematic Camera” for these situations, which helps keep your steed where it needs to be for the mission’s sake, but you still need to hold A/Cross for the duration of the ride.

The sum of this is that you simply cannot count on your character to do what you expect him to, without keeping vigil over the game’s prompts. The game involves a terrific amount of engagement and planning, in both the short and long terms. You can’t just gallop your horse through downtown Saint Denis, and then skid into the post in front of the barbershop. You might barrel over a pedestrian and wind up in jail over an assault charge. Besides, you need to position your horse just right, and then hold Y/Triangle for a couple of seconds to hitch it properly in the first place. No, no, you have to judge the road before you enter it, and then make your way along it with patience, just as you would in real city traffic. That is, of course, unless you don’t mind getting into a costly accident.

So, is all this just complaining? What do you think? The word “inconsistent” has a foul connotation, but I haven’t done anything other than describe the game’s details. When I began playing RDRII, I deemed its confusion as the mark of poor communication between a series of disparate design teams. Maybe that’s how it happened; I don’t know. Whether it was intentional or not, though, I find that I now appreciate it.

I rush through games nowadays. I was playing Skyrim a few days ago, when I felt exasperated at the repetitive combat, and the annoying characters who still gave me lip after I’d slain Alduin the World-Eater and saved their ungrateful butts. I asked myself just why in hell I was doing it. What, exactly, had compelled me to start the game up on that particular day? After some boiling, I got to the bones of my motivation, and discovered that I just wanted to get some of those god-damned entries off of my quest list.

When I manage my farm or explore a mine in Stardew Valley, I always fall into an efficient rut of behavior, always in pursuit of the most profitable wines, always seeking the next ladder to the unseen floors below.

Metroid games reward quick completion with images of Samus in varying degrees of nudity. People brag that they reached the final boss of Breath of the Wild within ten minutes of play. Online clubs devote themselves to speed-running. 

I understand that games are about goals, and that much of the joy of play is in building wise strategies to meet those goals. Of course you want a high score. Of course you want 100%-completion. Of course you want that rare achievement, so you find the quickest, most effective way to get it, and then you win. Right? I feel like I’m forgetting something.

What RDRII is telling me is to slow the hell down. Its makers worked pretty damn hard to construct its world, and though it’s little more than a weaving of smoke, so is most of real life. Do you want to rush through that, too, without taking a moment to, you know, experience the moment?

Arthur Morgan’s actions, even in the chaos of combat, are all very deliberate. He saunters. He slurs. He peeks into chests and drawers with a languid, I-got-all-the-time-the-world casualness. Sometimes he doesn’t even act when you tell him to. Not immediately, anyway. He just isn’t a hurried man. He certainly doesn’t have the crisp, stimulated motion of a Black Ops character, I’ll tell you that. Now, you can scream at the screen about it if you want to, but if you just relax and have a little faith, you’ll see. Arthur’ll get to it. Sure.

The fascinating truth is that the button menus in this game force you to think about what you’re doing right now, not about what you’re going to do a few seconds into the conceptual future. They force you into the moment. Arthur’s ponderous nature keeps you there.

This might sound peculiar, but when I hear the creaks of Arthur’s footsteps, or the rustle of his coat, or the jingling of his horse’s bridle, I think about the miracle of my own movement. How the heck do I do it, anyway? Where does the will to move come from?

I think about the minor motions of simple, daily activities, and about the ripples they send into the void. Opening the cabinet, pulling down the coffee mug, lifting the sink lever, seeing the mug fill with ripples, waves, and bubbles. Moving the mouse, opening the software, clacking the keys to make symbols that others will interpret. I do this everyday, altering and expressing into the pattern at large, and I don’t even know how it’s done. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that tremendous? Isn’t that worth stopping to wonder about?

RDRII is full of beautiful things to look at. The trees, the birds, the horses, the horizons — they’re all strikingly depicted. But isn’t the real world infinitely more beautiful than a mere simulation? Isn’t a twenty-minute drive to work just as lovely as a twenty-second, imaginary horse ride? Isn’t the idea of controlling a magnificent contraption with incremental, reflexive motions, just extraordinary?

Then, when you arrive at work, you enter into a sea of people united in the process of providing for themselves, and for the community. You are involved in a thoughtfully devised social structure where everyone makes a difference, no matter how small. Everything you say to your co-workers changes them, and everything they do changes you. Just like when you greet or antagonize those random pedestrians on the muddy streets of Valentine, you’re adding to the pattern, expressing the process. All you have to do is…well, take the time to do it, and then watch what happens. Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that empowering? Isn’t that worth living for?

So maybe they fucked up. Maybe Rockstar screwed a whole litter of pooches and didn’t wind up with the perfect product that Nintendo or Blizzard would have made. Maybe a wide part of their audience won’t like it, and the game will get a lot of flak for it. I like it, though. My time with Red Dead Redemption II has been one of the most Zen experiences I can remember, and it’s been very good for me. When you try it out, I hope you’ll take a little time to enjoy it, too.

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Tits and Erudition

Man, movies and TV take themselves way too seriously these days. I can’t pinpoint the timing of it, but someone pulled a switch, and turned the Idiot Box into the Auteur’s Monolith. The programming is as stupid as it’s ever been, but none of it really knows how stupid it is anymore. Think about it. The Living Dead is now The Walking Dead. Most X-treme Elimination Challenge is now American Ninja Warrior. The movie Westworld is now the series Westworld. Producers are now “show-runners.” Aquaman is now…ugh…Aquaman.

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Grr.

So it’s good that we have people like Joe Bob Briggs to bring us back to reality. To remind us that television’s purpose is to patronize, pacify, and pander to us, but so long as we remain aware of it, it’s really not so badrksven.jpg.

Briggs is the latest and greatest of the classic horror hosts, a family that began with Maila Nurmi’s Vampira (though Joe Bob has some contention about that). A comic essayist featured in newspapers and magazines, Briggs was so funny that he was eventually given a series on TMC called Drive-In Theater.

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What’s interesting is that, while most horror hosts came off as cheerful psychopaths, Joe Bob was a down-home country boy who shared bemused reactions and obscure trivia with a Roy Rogers-like folksiness. He had flair and pizzazz, but he was also dry and cynical, like a carnival barker who knows that you know he’s running a scam.

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Audiences loved him, and he kept the Drive-In going for nearly ten years before TMC decided to can him. The official story was that the channel was changing formats, but I suspect that its owners just wanted to be taken seriously as presenters of fine cinema. An intellectual in cowboy boots, showcasing cheap-o blood orgies just wasn’t in their interests anymore.

It was far from the end for Joe Bob, however. Four months after his firing, the wily Texan found a new home. The cable channel TNT needed a new host for its Friday-night horror-fest Monstervision, and Joe Bob fit the bill perfectly. He turned the show into a casual, Talk Soup-like hang-out, complete with trademark bits. He joked with his crew, who were often heard laughing, and did poorly-acted, silly skits with his guests. Such guests included stars from the very films he was showing, or else experts who provided commentary on the realism of those films. One night, he got both Rhonda Shear of Up All Night fame, and Joe Flaherty as SCTV’s Count Floyd, to hang out and ad lib with him.

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He also featured viewer mail, which was usually brought in by a sexy babe in hot pants, fresh from America’s finest correctional facilities. Joe Bob was well aware of his awful time slot, and he reveled in the fact that his prime demographic was, in fact, prisoners. He encouraged his “captive audience” to send in their prison cafeteria menus, and even provided facts about the jails that they hailed from.

His most famous bit, however, was the “Drive-In Totals,” a list of every cheap trick the upcoming film had loaded in its chambers. The list always began with a body and breast count, and always included some kind of “Fu” — a play on the Kung variety — based on the themes of the movie’s action sequences. My favorites include Senior Citizen Fu, Curling Iron Fu, and Intestine Fu. All told, MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs was campy fun, but it felt real, like Joe Bob and friends were there on the trail with us, sharing life’s downtime and poking at its absurdity.

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Then, in another effort at “format changing,” TNT cancelled him. As the channel inched away from its initial trove of Turner films, in order to schedule newer, big-budget Hollywood films, it seemed that seriousness would once again topple silliness. In 2000, Joe Bob was fired, and MonsterVision continued without a host for a few miserable months, before fizzling into oblivion.

Seventeen years passed, and horror languished into grim, predictable fare like feardotcom, Don’t Breathe, and The Conjuring 2. But now, in another miraculous 90s resurrection, Joe Bob is back, and he’s bringing the good horror with him. True to his word, Mr. Briggs has refused to let the drive-in die.

The Last Drive-In is a mini-series on the horror streaming service Shudder. Amazingly, it’s the same damn thing as before: full-length, old-school horror films interspersed with trivia and commentary, complete with Drive-In Totals and mail calls. The movies are mostly bad (The Prowler, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama), or extremely niche (Legend of Boggy Creek, Daughters of Darkness), but there are some classics sprinkled in there (Hellraiser, Sleepaway Camp). God bless ’em, though: they’re all shamelessly exploitative, and that’s all that matters. We don’t come to the Drive-In to see deep, critical darlings (though there are still some fascinating ideas in these movies), we’re here to laugh at some cheeseball stinkers, and the myriad methods they employ to disgust, frighten, and appall.

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The Last Drive-In originally aired as a 24-hour live-streamed marathon, but it’s now available for subscribers to watch in separate episodes. It’s not expensive to sign up: just five bucks a month. It’s totally worth it, and you get a lot of other horror series too!

Joe Bob is, expectedly, a little fat and creaky now, but his style and good humor are unchanged. In fact, now that he has no censors to worry about, I daresay he’s livelier and funnier than ever. The old man lets the “fucks” fly, and shoots straight about the touchiest of topics. From smartphone addiction to L.A. subways to transgender rights, nothing is safe from Joe Bob. He’s as sharp and fun to watch now as he was in the 90s, and it’s a little sad when the party finally ends.

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There were some troubles with the initial stream, of course. Anyone who remembers the disastrous debuts of Diablo III, healthcare.gov, and Amazon’s Prime Day won’t be surprised to learn that The Last Drive-In suffered from lengthy server outages as a result of overwhelming demand. Most folks who tried to sit in on the marathon simply couldn’t. That’s okay, though, because despite Joe Bob’s insistence that this was his final bow, Shudder quickly recognized his value to their service, and renewed him for another go-round. Let’s hope they’ll be prepared this time. We need more stuff like this.

I’ve already given my reasons for why we need more stuff like this, but I can’t compete with the man himself. Before The Last Drive-In was recorded, Joe Bob wrote a brilliant essay explaining his success, and it tops anything I could ever put out on the subject. Daniel says, check it out.

Now, there’s something else I wanted to mention.

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The whole reason I’m even talking about Shudder is that I found an interesting tidbit of news recently. Turns out that master monster-maker Greg Nicotero, whose work can be seen in Evil Dead II, Day of the Dead, and The Walking Dead, is working to revive the classic horror film Creepshow. He’s building it as a series that will appear on none other than Shudder, hopefully in 2019. He’s quoted as saying that he wants to recover the stylish, comic-book feel of the first movie in honor of the great George Romero. Here’s hoping he pulls it off; the horror whores are watching!

Oh, and Mr. Nicotero, in case you somehow come across this goofy little blog post, I beg that you retain John Harrison for the show’s musical score. If that’s not possible, I recommend the great Franz Falckenhaus, (a.k.a. Legowelt), who specializes in lo-fi, scary synth. The music of Creepshow is critical to its effect; don’t fuck it up!

Not-So-Top Cartoons: Big Hero 6

Everything about Disney’s Big Hero 6 annoys me. The characters are annoying, the art style is annoying, the setting is annoying, and the story is annoying.

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Now, I respect its goals. Disney was not aiming to make one of their trademark, safe, fun-for-all-ages, self-proclaimed masterpieces. One glimpse told me that this wasn’t a film for a thirty-eight-year-old man, or even for a thirty-eight-year-old man who likes cartoons. No, Big Hero 6 is a prepubescent slumber party for Honors students who’ve just discovered Naruto. I’d say that this movie is an anime wading pool, but it’s not even in the same waterpark. It’s wannabe anime — or as I call it, “wanime” — with a budget.

I loved anime once. I was a weird little boy who liked horror movies and violent video games, but not always for the material itself. I liked the fact that my peculiar tastes shocked the grown-ups around me, and made them look at me funny. To a kid, any attention is good attention, and being called such things as “unusual” and “mature for his age” feels good to a second child.

So, when I found out about cartoons from Japan that featured ultra-violence and scantily-clad nymphs, I was all over that shit.

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I sought it out. I found the holes in the wall that carried the early imports of MADOX-01 and Riding Bean. I rented Genesis Survivor Gaiarth. I watched Bubblegum Crisis. I read Outlanders. I even pronounced the word “manga” properly. I knew about Dragon Ball Z before Dragon Ball Z was cool.

Yeah, I was one of those people. In 1994, though, there weren’t very many of those people, so I didn’t realize just how insufferable they could be. I was one of only two kids in my high school class who even knew what anime was, so I felt okay with having a niche hobby. Being an anime-lover made me unique, and added a layer to my identity.

In the next few years, the niche became a hernia. Comic magazines printed fan art laden with blatant imitations of anime tropes. Films like Akira and Green Legend Ran crept into basic cable schedules. Blockbuster Video changed the “foreign” shelf to the “anime” shelf. My local newspaper started carrying The Boondocks. Then Marvel produced the Marvel Mangaverse, and I knew it was all over. Anime got its toehold in the western creative culture, and I was no longer special.

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I had felt special because anime hadn’t just affected my image as a person, it had affected me as an artist. I didn’t keep many drawings from my teenage years, but the ones I did still make me wince. My adolescent attempts at duplicating the shiny hair and starry eyes of animes past are quite embarrassing. I am glad to say that my current style retains an anime influence, but my old stuff was just plain “man this is cool” aping, done only to make myself feel hip, cool, and different.

When I look at Big Hero 6, I see that same aping happening all over again.

In its city of San Fransokyo (God, I feel dirty just typing that), we have all the familiar crap: the tween robotics genius, Yakuza gamblers, women in geisha-face, and a guy named “Wasabi,” because, you know, Japan. The ensemble is comprised of impossibly cheerful, fast-talking sorts (except for Gogo, who’s the moody one).

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The only likable entity in this film is the naive Baymax, an inflatable robot who just wants to help everyone. I feel that, had this movie not been so distracted with its overblown action scenes, the relationship between its hero (named “Hiro,” naturally) and his droid could have worked all on its own. It doesn’t matter that Baymax is a pale hybrid of the VGC-6OL from Robot & Frank, and the Giant from The Iron Giant, because those two movies were actually pretty good.

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Sadly, Big Hero 6 is not a heartfelt drama, but just another toy commercial, made to stimulate the kiddies with its purple laser blasts and its oh-so-Japany fantasy land. That’s okay, I guess, but I think we deserve cartoons that are better, and smarter, than this.

Sex Finds a Way

Have you heard of ASMR, the latest workaround for sexual content on YouTube?

Oh wait, I’m sorry. ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, is not some mere source of sexual pleasure. It’s a form of art.

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Lord knows

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that no one

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would ever

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turn a scientific concept

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into a cheap

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method of

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pandering and

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clickbait!

No no, ASMR is totally about therapy and relaxation! It’s a way to stimulate that tingly shiver that you feel when someone shoves a buzzing cicada in your ear. That these particular women create this effect by slithering their tongues over microphones shaped like ears is irrelevant.

Please refrain from any horny hollering in the comments for these videos. These aren’t strippers out to indulge your crass desires. These are artists, or ASMRtists, as they like to be called, and they aren’t about to lower themselves to your crude requests.

They will, however, accept gifts from their Amazon wishlists, as well as donations to their Patreon accounts (links conveniently provided in the video descriptions).

So! The next time someone tells you that ASMR is bullshit, you just tell them

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that these young ladies

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are ABOVE

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your judgmental pettiness, you haters!

Why Are You Still With Him?

See, this is what I’m talking about.

There’s this documentary called Radio Bikini that came out in the 80s. It’s about an A-bomb test that the United States military pulled shortly after the end of World War II. They blew up a couple of atomic bombs over a bucolic tropical island called Bikini Atoll, and then sent a detachment of soldiers to play around in the irradiated blast zone. The purpose was, purportedly, to observe the effects of the bomb on the environment. The event was heavily advertised, and all the television networks reported on it like kids chattering about their great new toy. Sprinkled between the gung-ho patriotism are interviews with a displaced Bikini native, and one of the soldiers who was sent into the test site. It’s a disturbing true story of blatant, human hubris.

Here’s the movie, in case you’re curious about it.

I first saw Radio Bikini in 1993, in my high school Physics class. I still remember the shock of the conclusion, when the camera pulled back to reveal the effects that fallout had left on the poor veteran. I wasn’t mature enough to really appreciate the film, though, so I watched it again recently. It stung far worse than it did before. Out of curiosity, I looked for reviews about the film that might provide unique perspectives on the material.

That’s when I found this:

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Oh dear. So much to talk about.

First off: all movies are emotionally manipulative, okay? If a movie doesn’t make you feel something, than it’s failed as a movie.

Second: There is original material here. The interviews. Was he trying to knock the film for using actual footage to make a point?

Third: The guy says he likes this documentary a lot, but then backpedals and says it’s only enjoyable for “hippies and leftists.” Right, because only left-wingers would appreciate a story about the dangers of nuclear weapons. How much of your spine must you be missing to say something like this? Is this man’s allegiance to his political party so overwhelming that he’s unable to recognize the basic human folly, and the cruelty in this film? Did he forget what species he belongs to? It’s always the same tired deflection: if it’s a movie about something stupid that our nation has done, it’s obviously a media/Hollyweird/libtard hit-job. This dude needs to untangle himself from the Reaganite circle-jerk and look at the world the way that a human being does.

Finally: the credential. By closing with “God Bless America,” the man reveals his brainwashing. He refuses to acknowledge that his precious America once misled its own citizens, condemning them to pain and disfigurement, and he buries his head in its bosom with complete forgiveness. I love my country too, but to dismiss an event like this and only show anger to the people who report it is insane. It’s like getting smacked around the kitchen by your lover, and then getting mad at your friend who calls the cops about it. Then it’s like refusing to press charges, running up and kissing the lover, and saying, “Don’t worry, I know you didn’t mean it.” What the fuck is wrong with people? What happened to self-respect and responsibility?

Governments are not God, okay? They are not infallible, and they do not deserve blind worship. They are institutions of humanity, and therefore must be flawed. Hell, the Bible is full of stories about flawed rulers. Why doesn’t anybody remember that? If this joker above actually cared about God at all, he’d understand this. Maybe then he’d recognize the awful things that were done to God’s creations in this film, and adjust his viewpoint a little bit.

Well the good news is that nothing like this could ever happen again. It’s not like the government is spying on us, right? Surely if some violation of our civil rights was going on, we wouldn’t blame the person who told us about it, would we? Or do we need another black eye before we stop defending our abusive boyfriend?

You Won’t See the Doctor Now

It’s some kind of miracle. The return of one beloved 90s Comedy Central series seemed unlikely enough, so two should leave us beatific. Unfortunately, the ravages of the road leave skids and scars too deep and dark to ignore. Still, it’s nice to reconnect with old friends, even if it’s impossible to make eye contact with them.

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Back in 1995, the golden days of stand-up comedy, mellow fellow Jonathan Katz developed an unusual animated series about a put-upon psychologist who counseled comedians. In his off time, he joked with his barfly buddies, sparred with his bitchy receptionist, and slowly lost his grip on his underachieving son.

Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist was a work of introverted inspiration, with an easy spirit and a peculiar visual style. Called “Squigglevision,” this computer-drawn technique placed simple, colorful figures against grayscale backgrounds. The characters were presented in static poses, but with three or four slightly different images, so they seemed in a perpetual state of quivering tension. The look was so distinctive that the animation studio, Soup2Nuts, employed it in other series like Home Movies and Science Court as a sort of hallmark.

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The audiobook website Audible has released a fifteener — a series of fifteen episodes of fifteen minutes each. I invented the word, shut up — of all-new Dr. Katz episodes. Many of the guest comedians are returning champions, such as Ray Romano, Dom Irrera, and Janeane Garofalo, but there are a few newcomers. Tom Papa and “Weird Al” Yankovic are the ones who caught my attention, since I share their individualist worldview, and I highly recommend their episodes.

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As you probably guessed from the website that sells them (and the subtitle “Audio Files”), these are basically radio shows. No animation here. You’re meant to listen to these on the drive to work and imagine. They’re also relatively void of plot, and focus on the therapy sessions (read: comedy bits) of their guests. That’s a great loss, since the clever conversations between Katz and friends were the real heart of the original show.

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My absolute favorite scenes were the ones between Katz and his adult child Ben, voiced by Adult Swim superstar H. Jon Benjamin. These scenes were pure gold, as they presented a believable father/son relationship based on love and humor, but strained with the expectations of social responsibility.

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Sadly, Ben plays only a minor role in The Audio Files, and he only seems to appear in phone conversations. Considering Benjamin’s busy voice-acting schedule, this might have been due to scheduling difficulties, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. What’s more, age has lied hard on the voices of both actors, and their weakened efforts are a little sad to listen to.

To cover for Ben, we get Erica Rhodes playing the estranged sister of snarky secretary Laura. We get scenes of the two gals reconnecting, but I find their babyish voices grating, and honestly, I prefer not knowing too much about Laura. Her efforts to keep our therapist hero at arm’s length was a major part of her character, and getting in close to her doesn’t feel right.

What’s more, the lack of visuals removes some of the humor of the show, as the animators accompanied the confessional anecdotes with funny imagery. They were especially effective with the jokes of Dom Irrera and Mitch Hedberg, and I miss it.

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I realize that picking at this show isn’t quite fair. It’s a generous revival, and I’m grateful that it exists. I’m hoping it continues, so long as it draws its focus away from Laura and Erica, and back towards Ben and Katz. Their chemistry is a treasure, and it belongs in any spotlight it can find.