TV

Undead and Kicking: Zombies and Betty White Ruled TV in 2010

It was difficult to turn on your TV this past year without seeing the undead... make that the undead and Betty White.

It was difficult to turn on your TV this year without seeing the undead: zombies, vampires, werewolves, demons, angels. Make that the undead and Betty White, who, in addition to having her own sitcom, appeared on every show on television except Sewing with Nancy. Some would credit (or blame) the rise in supernatural-themed shows to the Twilight franchise, but really, Twilight is only responsible for a dominant storyline, in which the pasty white girl falls for the dashing living dead boy and acquires her own safety detail along the way: The Notebook mashed up with The Lost Boys.

The undead theme isn't completely clear in Lost, whose characters might be classified variously as undead, dead, living, or the hallucination of some comic book geek who drank the worm. Regardless, we learned this year the show's Primary Message: the afterlife sucks a whole lot more than life. We also learned that even as The Event was hyped as the next great Lost-type series, it was only an uninteresting diversion.

In addition to Lost, primetime's longest running show, Law & Order, also turned undead, cancelled but replaced by Law & Order, the L.A. version. On daytime TV, As the World Turns, soap's longest running show, quit rotating, to be replaced with a group of talking women, The Talk, because daytime needs more talking women. Conan also left TV this year, but he came back, and proved that you can still make boatloads of money by getting screwed in Hollywood.

Glee proved an especially vibrant site of rejuvenation, with all those mega-promoted episodes that managed to feature everybody who wasn't guest-starring on 30 Rock. And let's not forget Bristol Palin, whose dancing made conservative commentators cheer like teen girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Some big name film performers got series, such as Laura Linney and Steve Buscemi (on The Big C and Boardwalk Empire), while some lesser-knowns got the chance to strut and show why they deserve to be big names.

Following are some standouts in this category:

Among leads, Andrew Lincoln as Deputy Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead achieved an especially complex feat, as his earnest zombie-fighting was at once compelling and convincing. The premiere episode featured our winner of the Heartbreaking Guest Star Award, Lennie James as a husband confronted with killing his own wife, now a zombie.

On the comedy front, we laud Adam Scott, as an actor turned catering company waiter on Party Down. Scott made Henry wholly credible and likable, with a certain "Isn't he pitiful?" quality. The show also produced our When Will She Get the Role She Deserves? Award winner, Kristen Bell, who guested as Henry's brief romantic interest, but has yet to get a part to match Veronica Mars.

Among female performers, the best included Regina King as Detective Lydia Adams on Southland. Living up to the promise she showed in films like Poetic Justice and Ray (we'll forget Our Family Wedding), King made clear the difficulties and rewards of Lydia's work. And Alex Borstein created a fully dimensional two-dimensional character (Lois) on Family Guy.

The Abbott and Costello Award must go to Danny Pudi and Donald Glover, as Abed and Troy on Community. As they built the coolest blanket fort in history, they also fed off each other with great timing -- although it's hard to decide whether Abed or Troy is Costello.

Two other veteran TV actors went out into left field, and in so doing, had us wondering, "WTF?" As a dumpster-diving eco-activist on The Big C, the wonderful and underappreciated John Benjamin Hickey was equal parts freak and devoted brother to Laura Linney's cancer patient. Hickey conveys the heart of a man who might easily be written off as a nut job and burden. On Raising Hope, Garret Dillahunt as Burt Chance is TV's biggest man-child. He also keeps up with Martha Plimpton, at her best as his wife Virginia, as well as this year's Came Out of Nowhere Award winner, Lucas Neff as Jimmy, and the Almost as Prolific as Betty White winner, Cloris Leachman as Maw Maw.

Jim Beaver offers a slightly more serious turn as big-old-bear-with-a-heart Bobby Singer on Supernatural. This year, Bobby got out of his wheelchair, lost his soul and got it back, and had a cute five-hour relationship with the lady next door, and still kicking some demon ass in the basement. (While on the subject of Supernatural, can we get back to Dean and Sam as two regular humans hunting demons?)

Three of the year's best guest actors weren't quite demonic, but were definitely demon seed. On Cold Case's "Metamorphosis," Carel Struycken (best known as Lurch from The Addams Family films) wins the Keyser Söze Award for his performance of the circus idiot with a conniving dark side. Over on the increasingly tired Desperate Housewives, Josh Zuckerman and Diane Farr effectively demonstrated how a cruel, self-absorbed, alcoholic mother can turn a sweet, sad-sack kid into a sweet, sad-sack serial killer in the episode "Epiphany."

So much for what was good. Television, as always, has some things to work on, for instance realizing there are 48 other states besides New Jersey and Alaska, and numerous cities besides New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, and Miami. I'm thankful I'm not in the "young adult" bracket, because I'd be pretty insulted that almost every example of a "peer" on TV (particularly those in New Jersey) is vain, vapid, and frequently drunk, the exception being Alexis (Molly Quinn) on Castle.

While on the subject of vapidity, my last complaint focuses on Bravo and A&E. There was a time when intelligent viewers looking for shows with artistic merit could turn to these two networks. Now, Bravo and A&E run cheaply made reality shows that appeal to the lowest denominator.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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