The internet is filled all willy nilly and higgledy piggledy with lists of tops and bottoms. And that’s just sites like this one. Beyond that, though, are the many best-ofs and worst-ofs: top 10 this, bottom 50 that, the best 100 whatevers of all time. It hurts my soul to pick through these lists – mainly because the people writing them have such awful, awful taste, and also because the comments they inspire are so insipid and pointless. The popular cliche goes “opinions are like assholes…” and rather than let you fill in the rest, I’ll go ahead and say that 1. everybody’s got one, 2. yours stinks, and 3. talking about them is very gauche.
But I still feel the dark magnetic pull, the kevorka, of list-making. I like making lists. Even though I know my preferences are no more valid or interesting than anyone else’s*, I sometimes feel like cataloguing them and throwing them out on the internet for other simians to fling feces at. A deep psychological fear of monkey poo is the only thing that stops me. I know this blog has already wasted space with a few lists, but imagine how bad it could have been.
The kind of list you don’t see very often, though – and therefore the niche that is not yet engorged to the point of splooging all over the place – is the list commemorating the thoroughly mediocre. The Onion makes a pass at it with their periodic installments in the “least essential” series, but often that implies a complete lack of worth and therefore an absence of popularity, which is not what we are after here today. No, what interests me is the stuff that is so painfully average that it can’t help but sell a million copies – but never much more or less than that. Average things aren’t huge successes or risible failures; they just are. They are the spackle holding fast the bricks of culture. So let’s spend a little time thinking about spackle, shall we? Here we go with:
THE MOST AVERAGE REPRESENTATION OF EVERY FORM OF POP CULTURE
1. Music: TRAIN
Train is an excellent example of painfully earnest averageness. Their songs roll off the mind like raindrops off a recently waxed windshield. Their album covers suggest a slightly artsy greeting card, or a piece of prefab, pre-framed art you might buy at Target or Pier 1. They aspire to be as interesting as the largely character-free Counting Crows; they bland around like Better Than Ezra minus Matchbox 20. Nothing about Train is noteworthy. But in their tuneful, forgettable mediocrity, they occupy the meaty center of the pop music spectrum. They can’t perpetrate commercial failures or be truly hated, because to do either of those things, they would have to be, in some way, remarkable. Yes, Train is the ideal way to start this list. Every following entry can only hope to be as tapwater-dull as Train.
2. Television shows: EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND
Is “Raymond” blandly inoffensive or inoffensively bland? It walks a line so fine that I had not previously known of its existence. Its jokes offer nothing innovative or new – when you analyze their content, they are as tired as a hundred dollar whore at an NBA afterparty. But like that whore, these jokes are professionals. They keep their makeup fresh and stay in the shadows to maintain their allure. “Raymond” is workmanlike in a way that must have required Herculean efforts to maintain. It never forces groaners down your throat like “Major Dad” or “Full House” used to, or the new “Bill Engvall Show” promises to. But at the same time it sighs complacently at the foothills of greater shows like “Seinfeld” or “The Simpsons,” or even “Friends.” It will never try to scale those heights – will never even give us a few moments of sublime silliness. “Raymond” is the kind of show that comes on of its own accord while you’re unwinding after work, and ambles forward amiably for half an hour while you replenish your energy reserves for other, more meaningful activities to come. It’s the sitcom as wallpaper.
3. Restaurants: APPLEBEE’S
Plenty of people would nominate a fast food restaurant here, but most fast food is engineered to deliver a specific addictive flavor. All McDonald’s food, for instance, tastes and smells like deep fried grade-D beef. All Taco Bell food is actually assembled from the same four ingredients (neon orange cheese sauce, refried beans, diced tomatoes, and dog food) that the company has discovered combine to form a scientifically unverified relative of crack rock. Fast food isn’t bland, it’s just weird and crappy and delicious. Applebee’s, on the other hand, is none of those things. An ideal Applebee’s entree arrives at your table without scent or flavor. It does not pretend to succulence. It visually mimics better foods to just enough of an extent as to make you buy it in the first place; then it oozes down your throat like oatmeal, which is what all Applebee’s food is actually made of. Your Applebee’s meal is forgotten immediately after you finish swallowing it. Only a relentless ad campaign and many convenient locations keeps you going back for more.
4. Movies: NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM
6.5 stars out of 10 on imdb.com; 4 somewhat generous stars out of 5 on Amazon.com; 44% Fresh on rottentomatoes.com. This is a movie for which phrases like “mildly amusing” and “funny but forgettable” were seemingly designed. And who was in this movie? Ben Stiller, obviously – you can’t have a completely average comedy without him any more – and of course Robin Williams had to lend his imprimatur of averageness to the proceedings. But who else? Was Vince Vaughn in there somewhere? Did Will Ferrell or Luke Wilson cameo? And while I’m asking questions, what happened in that plot again? All I can remember is a monkey slapping another monkey, and one of them looked slightly more Ben Stiller-like. It stands to reason that this movie was a big (but not monumental) success and that it probably sits in rather self-effacing fashion in many DVD collections around the country. This is a movie that wasted a couple hours for all of us in a darkened theater one evening, and now wastes half an inch of shelf space in many homes, never to be remembered or deliberately viewed again.
5. Sports franchises: NY JETS
With the great blond nothing Chad Pennington tossing the ball, and Tony Dungy-lite Herm Edwards at the helm, the Jets are one of the most middling, uninteresting teams in pro sports. It wasn’t always this way. They used to have a punchline quarterback in Vinnie Testaverde, who was once promising and later comically inept and slow. They used to have one of the best running backs in the NFL, too – but now Curtis Martin has given way to the mostly mediocre Thomas Jones and his nameless, faceless backups. They live in the shadow of the NY Giants and Littler Manning. The Jets are slowly being leeched, and leeching themselves, of all personality; all that remains is for their slightly eye-catching green unis to be replaced with something a bit drabber. Maybe a greenish shade of grey. They can retain the “J-E-T-S, Jets Jets Jets!” chant, however; that alone should keep their stadium three-quarters full from here to eternity. The Jets are not spectacular failures or smashing successes – they’re just boringly competent.
7. Writers: JOHN GRISHAM
I challenge anyone to describe the plot or name the main character from any John Grisham novel from memory, without looking at the book or any online resource. It can’t be done. The man actually strives for a blandly homogenous body of work – just glance over his all-of-a-piece book titles (“The Rainmaker,” “The Client,” “The Last Juror,” “The Brethren,” “The Partner,” “The Summons,” “The King Of Torts”**). Nobody can remember anything about his books since “The Firm,” and all they actually remember about that one is Tom Cruise vs. that oatmeal guy with diabetes. Yet he continues to make a comfortable living cranking them out. He epitomizes mindlessly entertaining mediocrity.
* Except for the following persons whose opinions are completely invalid and uninteresting: Joe Buck of FOX Sports, George W. Bush, and as always, Hugh Jackman. Also the following persons whose opinions are considerly more valid and interesting than mine: ha ha just kidding. That’s unpossible.
** Are you fucking kidding me, John? The King of fucking Torts?