…But the Moment Has Been Prepared For
On the End of Conan, The End of Time and End Times

Like a lot of people, I’ve been riveted to the Late Night Wars these past few weeks.

I’m not much of a late-night talk show kind of guy. I only ever think about it once a year, when I go back home to visit my mother. She thinks Jay Leno is hilarious, and she doesn’t like “that Conan.” If we were the kind of people who pledged allegiance to talk show hosts, she’d be Team Leno, and I’d be Team Conan. But I’d probably choose Team Letterman, more than anyone else.

Conan O’Brien premiered on Late Night when I was a freshman in college. I was taking a few media studies courses at the time, and the First Late Night Wars were a big topic. I watched Conan’s first three shows, and declared that he’d be off the air in six months, maximum. He was awkward and twitchy, his jokes were painfully obvious, and he seemed desperate for laughs. It was the general consensus of my school’s communications department that giving this guy Letterman’s old show would go on to be a huge black eye for NBC.

And then I stopped watching, except for the occasional look-in. “Oh, Conan’s still on? Wow,” I would say, and then promptly lose interest again. I saw the funny stuff – the masturbating bear, the Triumph spots, his classic interview with Louis C.K. – on the internet. Cut to 17 years later, and NBC actually made good on their threat to give Conan free rein over The Tonight Show, their most enduring franchise. I think Conan’s premiere Tonight Show episode was the first time I’d watched him with any real interest since college.

And man, what a difference. O’Brien has grown into a genuinely funny, very likeable host and comedian. His whole shtick is joyous mischief, like he can scarcely believe that he has a major network show all to himself. He’s found a way to use his awkwardness to his advantage, and his comedy bits are uproariously random. I found myself tuning in more and more over the last seven months (though not regularly by any stretch of the imagination – I’m a Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert addict, after all.)

In short, I’ve watched more late-night talk over the past two weeks than I have in years. There’s no question in my mind O’Brien’s getting screwed. And there’s also no question he’s come out of this scuffle in a much better position than anyone else. Leno’s a damaged brand – he didn’t retire like he promised he would, he didn’t stand up for Conan, he didn’t fight NBC’s ridiculous plans, and because of all this, his stock has fallen sharply. And NBC, well, I can’t imagine how they could look any worse here.

But Conan has seized this opportunity, and I’m not just talking about his $45 million settlement. Over the last two weeks, he has shown two things: first, he’s a very funny man, and second, he’s probably the classiest act in television, and that’s what’s helped garner him so much support. He was bankable before, but after these last two weeks, he’s like America’s sweetheart.

Sure, it’s a numbers game, and Conan just wasn’t pulling in the ratings for NBC. But Leno fared far worse at 10 p.m., and it took Conan a while to find his feet on Late Night, too. O’Brien’s ratings for the past two weeks have been astonishing, and he’s responded with some truly memorable shows. And think about this: Jay Leno hosted The Tonight Show for 17 years, and the country didn’t rally around his last weeks on the air the way they have Conan’s. I think he can write his own ticket.

I’m writing all this to talk about Conan’s final Tonight Show, which aired Friday, on which he more than proved his worth. He’s been taking (very funny) shots at NBC over the past two weeks, and he took a couple more on Friday, but in his emotional goodbye speech, he thanked the network for making his dreams possible for more than 20 years. He thanked his staff and crew, and saved his biggest thanks for the fans, who have gone all out for him in recent days. And then he said this.

“All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of the young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. No one in life gets exactly what they thought they would get. But if you work hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I promise you, amazing things will happen. It’s just true.”

Honestly, it was a great speech, one of the classiest things I’ve ever seen on television. Here, watch for yourself.

My sympathies have been with Conan since the beginning of this thing, but his last show sealed the deal for me. Bravo, sir, and we’ll see you again after September 1. And this time, I may even watch regularly. You never know.

* * * * *

So I’m finally finding the time to write about The End of Time.

Apologies to everyone who hates my infrequent forays into Doctor Who criticism. I’ll keep this brief, but in the world of the longest-running science fiction television show of all time, this holiday season was a significant one. Of course, I’m talking about regeneration, Doctor Who’s astoundingly clever gimmick, and one of the main things that has allowed this show to last for 30 seasons (soon to be 31) and captivate audiences in the U.K. and around the world since 1963.

For the uninitiated: when the time-traveling main character of this show, known only as The Doctor, gets into a scrape he can’t get out of, well, he dies. And then his body regenerates, leaving him looking (and in many ways acting) like someone else, with the same memories. Of course, this means the lead actor changes as well, and each time it’s happened (there have been 10 Doctors, with the 11th about to start his run), the show has changed around him. It’s a risky proposition – imagine Hugh Laurie suddenly being replaced as the lead in House. But every time, the possibilities are endless. What kind of Doctor will the new guy be?

It’s also a moment tinged with sadness. I remember the first one I saw – the venerable Tom Baker transforming into Peter Davison at the end of 1981’s Logopolis. Start with the fact that I had NO IDEA what was going on, but then add in a young boy’s attachment to his childhood hero. This was before DVDs, and I knew I’d never see the Doctor with the curly hair and the scarf again. But then Davison took over the role, and he was amazing – in many ways, he’s my Doctor, the one I remember most from my childhood. Death and rebirth, the pain of loss and the joy of discovery, all made easy for a child to understand.

All this is to say that we’ve come to the end of the line for the 10th Doctor, David Tennant. Now, I will always pledge allegiance to Baker and Davison, but I think Tennant is my favorite actor to ever play the part. He’s quick-witted, funny, able to pull off the dramatic moments, and overall just a sheer joy to watch. Over three seasons and eight specials, Tennant dove into the role with gusto, bringing a manic energy to every moment, and selling even the most ludicrous of stories. (And some of them were absolutely ludicrous.)

The End of Time, the umbrella title for the two specials that aired on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, also marks the finale for producer Russell T. Davies. God bless Davies for resurrecting the show in 2005, but he’s changed it dramatically, and not always for the better. His long-term plotting has always left much to be desired, and his fascination with present-day Earth (and with creating a regular cast of characters to keep bringing back over and over and over and…) limited the show’s scope under his watch. But at the heart of it, I think Davies understands Who, and while he worked to inject emotion into the mix, he gets the goofy imagination that has always been at the core.

I think his biggest screw-up came at the end of Tennant’s last season, when he used regeneration as a gimmicky cliffhanger. It cheapened the show’s most sacred thing, for no good reason, and it casts a long shadow over The End of Time. But I won’t get into that here. I’m more interested in talking about the plot, and the emotions of the final specials.

Anyway, after his last season, Tennant signed on for five specials, which ran sporadically from Christmas 2008 to January 1, 2010. The first two were lightweight and fun, but the third, The Waters of Mars, took the Doctor to a dark emotional place he’d never been. It was riveting television, honestly, and it led directly into the 135-minute extravaganza called The End of Time. Except… it really didn’t.

Oh, sure, the ghost of Waters is present, but it isn’t dealt with in a way I’d have liked. Essentially, the plot of The End of Time involves the resurrection of The Master, killed at the end of Tennant’s second season. The first special then follows him around as he goes insane and uses up his life force battling the Doctor (in a special effects-heavy bit that made my heart sink). John Simm is marvelous in this part, but the story is degrading to the Master, and more than a little silly. The first hour is all wasted time, in a way, and ends with one of the dumbest cliffhangers in the show’s history.

But the second part, the New Year’s special, gets a good number of things right. The Master isn’t the Big Bad of The End of Time – that honor goes to the Time Lords, the Doctor’s people, who find a way to break free of the time lock they’ve been trapped in. (Really, it makes sense. Kind of.) Timothy Dalton overacts to the best of his ability as the Time Lord leader, and the resulting plot climax gives Tennant a true moral dilemma to solve. And he’s awesome.

However, it’s only after the explosions stop and the smoke clears that The End of Time takes off. For all the special’s bluster, its final half hour is quiet and sad, and exactly right. The 10th Doctor’s demise (the long-prophesied “he will knock four times”) is heart-in-mouth stuff, and Tennant is simply marvelous here. He spends the final 30 minutes visiting the people he loves, helping them one last time, and then returning to the Tardis alone. With a final, anguished “I don’t want to go,” Tennant regenerates. And I admit it, I was moved.

And then? And then we get a minute or so of the new guy, Matt Smith. He’s 27, the youngest actor to ever take on the part, and his first scene is… well, crazy. But enjoyably crazy. I fear that “Geronimo!” is the new catchphrase, and that makes me sad, but in one scene, Smith captured the Doctor’s manic energy, and made me want to see more from him.

And we will. Season 31 (which is being marketed as Series One by the BBC, for some reason) starts this spring, under the care of Steven Moffatt, unquestionably the best writer the new series has given us. We get six episodes by the Grand Moff, six others by some of the show’s best writers, and one by filmmaker Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Pirate Radio). We also get the return of the Weeping Angels, an extremely clever monster. I think this is going to be very good.

So, like with any regeneration, I am a mix of sad and hopeful. I will very much miss David Tennant in the role. I admit I was getting somewhat tired of his performance after his last season, but at the end, he showed me new sides to the Doctor, and he went out wonderfully. I will also miss Russell T. Davies, but not nearly as much. Davies has a boundless imagination, but very little discipline and quality control. It’s long past time to give someone else a shot at running the show. But Davies deserves endless credit for bringing the program back, and loving it as intensely as he does.

On the other hand, I am very excited for Matt Smith, and Steven Moffatt. That a show that’s been on the air for 30 seasons can still give me that little tingle is extraordinary. I’m on board for wherever the Tardis ends up next. It’s hard to describe just what regeneration does to me, as a fan. I feel refreshed myself, and ready for brand new adventures. As my favorite band once sang, I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.

* * * * *

I sometimes get the sense that Mark Everett is making one long album, and just releasing pieces of it as they’re finished.

That’s a nice way of saying that every album by Everett’s band, Eels, sounds essentially the same. You’ll get a couple of guitar-heavy rave-ups, a boatload of simple, sad-sack tunes, and some very basic lyrics about childhood, love and loss. Even the way he plays the guitar is exactly the same from record to record – the strums and finger-pick patterns are becoming something of a signature.

Part of the problem is that he makes so many records – his new one, End Times, is his 12th since 1996, not counting live releases (or that gargantuan b-sides project), and it’s out a mere seven months after its predecessor, Hombre Lobo. Eight of those are Eels albums, but it doesn’t matter – it’s all the Mark Everett show, whatever it’s called. And it all sounds of a piece.

So why do I like it? I couldn’t tell you. The songs are basic, the sentiments simplistic. Everett’s vocals are certainly heartfelt, but not what I’d call particularly appealing. And yet, there’s a magic to Eels albums that defies description. Somehow, he makes these very simple songs into windows looking in on his soul, and the atmosphere he conjures is oddly heartbreaking.

Eels fans know that Everett makes his best art when his life is at its most miserable. His twin masterpieces, Electro-Shock Blues and Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, delved into the loss of his mother, father and sister, and dove deep into the causes of his own loneliness. End Times isn’t quite in the same league, but the air of sadness that surrounds it is similar. The album is entirely about Everett’s divorce – he split with his wife in 2005 – and uses the “end times” motif as a metaphor for his life reaching a dead end.

As you might expect, the result is pretty and sad. Only a few songs bring the tempo above desolate, most notably “Gone Man,” which sets the scene (equating the lines “How much longer for this earth” and “She used to love me but it’s over now”), and “Paradise Blues,” which I believe is Everett’s first “____ Blues” song that turns out to be an actual blues.

The rest of the record is slow, strummed beauty. “In My Younger Days” is about how Everett’s become less resilient to heartbreak as he’s grown older, and “A Line in the Dirt” sets its crushing marital disputes over a lovely piano backdrop. (There’s humor here, too: “She locked herself in the bathroom again, so I am pissing in the yard,” Everett sings.) The title track makes the metaphor obvious, actually including a “crazy guy with a matted beard” standing on the corner shouting about the end of days. “The world is ending and what do I care?” Everett sighs. “She’s gone, end times are here.”

This is an album with its curtains drawn, and very little light gets in. The last track, the six-minute “On My Feet,” contains the only moments of hope, as Everett explores just what it will take to get him back on track. The song is a sweet shuffling waltz, and Everett uses its rambling structure to describe people “sleeping in hazmat suits and taping up their windows” one second, and revealing that the day he met his ex-wife is one of the “small handful of days that I do hold near to my heart” the next. “One sweet day I’ll be back on my feet, and I’ll be all right,” Everett sings as the music fades.

Of course, you’ve heard all this from E before. The circumstances change, but most Eels songs are about dealing with loss, and letting the healing begin. End Times breaks no new ground, but it’s still a warm and moving record, and it’s clear Everett dug deep into his soul to create it. I just wish (and it’s a minor wish) that he’d put as much of himself into the music, making something that stands apart from his vast catalog.

But perhaps that’s too much to ask. I like Everett the way he is well enough, and as far as I’m concerned, he can keep making melancholy records like End Times until the… well, end times, and I’ll still enjoy them.

As a quick side note, the cover art for End Times was drawn by Adrian Tomine, one of my favorite graphic novelists. Tomine’s irregularly-published series is called Optic Nerve, and you can’t go wrong with any of the three collections available. Go here.

* * * * *

And now, the next installment of the Top 20 Albums of the Decade:

#18. Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003).

In the perfect world inside my head, Over the Rhine is one of the most celebrated bands in the country. They have millions of fans, and each new album of perfectly-pitched homespun beauty is anticipated and adored by people the world over. And yet, their concerts remain intimate little affairs in small, smoky clubs, so I can get right up close and see them work their magic.

This will never happen in the real world – if OtR ever gets huge, they will likely lose the you-and-me simplicity that defines their work. And that would be a tragedy. I’m happy with them as a well-liked secret among thousands, as a working band that can make any kind of record they want, and as a songwriting team willing to be as small as necessary to get to the heart of things, even when they’re making something as sprawling and vast as Ohio, their double album from 2003.

I love this album intensely. I will accept arguments, however, that its two follow-ups, Drunkard’s Prayer and The Trumpet Child, are better albums. But here’s the thing: I consider those records to be new directions, with their embrace and exploration of jazz and classic balladry mixed in with OtR’s core sound. They’re exciting new directions, don’t get me wrong, but Ohio is much more of a pure Over the Rhine album. In fact, I think it’s the plateau, the destination point of their original musical journey – with this record, they went as far as they could go without shaking things up.

Of course, one element hasn’t changed at all – Karin Bergquist still has one of the finest voices ever given to anyone. It’s high and powerful, low and husky, strong and supple, clear and glorious. You hear her sing, and lights go on in your head. Whatever else happens around her, Bergquist’s voice is the center of Over the Rhine, and one of the main reasons to listen.

That voice is in amazing form throughout Ohio. The album is 20 songs long (21 with a bonus track), and spans 94 minutes, but it is, at heart, a very intimate affair. In a lot of ways, it’s a comedown from 2001’s massively-produced Films for Radio. Many of the songs are performed by Bergquist and the band’s other half, her husband Linford Detwiler, alone, and it’s those that will stick with you the longest. The album’s dark masterpiece, “Changes Come,” is just piano, acoustic guitar, some organ near the end, and That Voice. And it’s as haunting as anything you’ve heard.

Ohio is a sad record, certainly. “Suitcase” is a moving song about watching someone leave, while “Professional Daydreamer” is about working through loss. The title track, stripped to piano and voice, eulogizes their home state: “Ohio, where the river bends, and it’s strange to see your story end…” But there are moments of sheer joy as well, like “Show Me,” a song about throwing cares to the wind: “The bed is made, the world’s a mess, maybe we’ve got it backwards, maybe we should just care less.”

Through it all, the music ebbs and flows masterfully, the full band joining in when they’re needed. Detwiler and Bergquist save soulful rave-ups like “When You Say Love” until near the end, building slowly to them, and for the entire journey, they never use more instruments than are necessary. The album ends with a remake of an old OtR song, “Bothered,” and this new version swells with power and hope: “I never thought that I could be this free,” Bergquist sings, and the music takes flight behind her one last time.

Ohio is an important record in the 20-year history of this band – it’s a mission statement, a grand finale and a new beginning, all in one. I don’t know if they’ll ever make another one like it. The subsequent grand-scale tour proved a strain on their marriage, so they canceled it partway through, retreated home, and began making smaller records with lighter touches. Ohio is the crescendo point for Over the Rhine Phase One. But it’s also one of the simplest and most graceful 94-minute records you’re ever going to hear. I’ve carried these songs with me for seven years, and they haven’t lost an ounce of their beauty and wonder.

Over the Rhine should have millions of fans, and maybe they’re working up to that, one at a time. If you haven’t heard them, you should be the next fan on their list. Go here.

* * * * *

Next week, the Magnetic Fields, and maybe Spoon. I always think of The Tick when I say that band’s name. Spooooooon! Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.