James Gunn is having way too much fun with the HBO Max series Peacemaker and it shows. Gunn wrote and directed the show’s Season 1 finale, "It’s Cow or Never", which is now streaming and features everything we’ve come to expect from the subversive mind of Gunn. Gunn is the trickster spirit behind both the Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise and DC's The Suicide Squad, which means he’s the man responsible for the most enjoyably audacious feature films in each of Hollywood’s competing superhero universes.
I don’t want to spoil any part of the finale, but I will say that Gunn brings in some unexpected major DC characters in a clever way. Gunn also gives viewers their first chance to hear an iconic DC character (one that has been around since the FDR years) drop an F-bomb as their exit line. Isn’t great when someone loves their job?
Gunn announced this week that Peacemaker has been renewed this week for Season 2, which is good news for superhero storytelling and for the undervalued hair metal bands of the world.
Television executives rarely offer enlightening quotes, but I think Sarah Aubrey, the HBO Max Head of Original Content, rose to the occasion this week when she praised the hottest hit on the streaming platform. “The brilliance of James Gunn once again shines with Peacemaker,” Aubrey said. “He took this character, brought to life by the inimitable John Cena, and created an exceptional series that’s simultaneously thrilling, hilarious and heartfelt, showcasing the humanity beneath this team of misfits living in a superhuman world. As the first original DC show to have its series premiere on HBO Max, we are thrilled that the viewers agreed to give peace a fucking chance.”
Gunn, it seems, inspires everyone to sign-off with unexpected F-bombs.
It's hard to express how far comic book adaptations have come in recent years. As a young comic book reader growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I got jaded pretty quickly about Hollywood and its adaptations of superhero stories, which were routinely condescending, often clumsy, and rarely loyal to the source material. That’s all changed for the better and Gunn is one of the central figures in the revolution. And, more than that, Gunn has championed the most oddball comic book properties, by recruiting his characters from some truly obscure (and endearingly ludicrous) corners of comic book history. I couldn’t be happier about that, especially since my own comics collection includes a well-preserved copy of the Special War Series No. 4, the November 1965 issue from Charlton Comics that introduced Judomaster. With people flipping over Judomaster as a supporting character on Gunn's Peacemaker my previously worthless artifact has been transformed into an in-demand collectible.
Just think: Starro the Conqueror, Drax the Destroyer, Ronan the Accuser, Maximus the Mad, Baldar the Brave, and Danny the Street have all made the leap from comic books to live-action film or television productions. That’s bananas and Gunn was responsible for half of that list. How fucking cool is that?
PLACES IN THE HEART: What are the most beloved fictional American towns in television history?
The animated jurisdictions of Springfield and Bedrock immediately spring to mind, as do Metropolis, Gotham, Smallville, Star City and the other made-up municipalities imported from DC Comics (or from Archie Comics, in the case of Riverdale). Television America has put plenty of spooky towns and sinister cities on the map, too, often with scenic names: Twin Peaks, Washington; Sunnydale, California; Mystic Falls, Virginia; Hawkins, Indiana; and the bleak Maine destinations of Collinsport and Castle Rock. Also in New England: Peyton Place, a name that became synonymous with secrets and scandal. There are ironically named places (such as Charming, California, from Sons of Anarchy or Happiness, Arizona, from The Twilight Zone) or suggestively named places (Hooterville from Green Acres and its near-neighbor Petticoat Junction), as well as more generic-sounding places (Neptune, California, from Veronica Mars, Fairview from Desperate Housewives, or Bay City from Starsky & Hutch). There are also the cleverly concocted names that hint of local disfunction: Agrestic, California, from Weeds is almost poetically off-putting, for example, and, of course, Bikini Bottom from SpongeBob SquarePants, which sort of speaks for itself.
The most beloved community in all of Television America, however, is the one that is fictionally found in the great non-fictional state of North Carolina. Sixty-two years ago this week, CBS introduced the world to Mayberry.
On Feb. 15, 1960, the network aired an episode of The Danny Thomas Show called “Danny meets Andy Griffith,” which featured Thomas as the vexed big-city motorist who runs afoul of the local law in a quaint Carolina town. The town was Mayberry and the law was embodied by Griffith’s character, Sheriff Andy Taylor, who was quick on the drawl and an instant hit with audiences. Mayberry would become the hometown of The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) and Mayberry R.F.D. (1968-1971) and the birthplace of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-1969). Mayberry was “just a little bitty town about 30 miles outside of Raleigh,” according to Pyle, but it became the friendly front-porch and favorite fishing-hole retreat for the increasingly complex America of the 1960s. It also featured a memorable gallery of small-town eccentrics, none quirkier than Deputy Barney Fife, the feckless lawman portrayed to sitcom perfection by the great Don Knotts. Knotts won five Primetime Emmys in the role, a truly gaudy trophy haul and one that he completely deserved.
To celebrate Mayberry’s broadcast anniversary, I’d suggest a big crunchy bowl of Post Grape-Nuts. Why? I’m glad you asked.
It turns out that the road to Mayberry was paved by the rugged wheat-and-barley breakfast cereal. A bit of background: Grape-Nuts (which, inexplicably, has neither grapes nor nuts in it) happens to be celebrating its big 125th anniversary this year. It was the first cereal introduced by C.W. Post, who built a food manufacturing empire around the product’s success but was attacked for advertising it as a cure for appendicitis. (In a cruel twist of fate, the 59-year-old Post took his own life in 1914 a few months after emergency surgery for appendicitis failed to relieve his chronic stomach pain.)
In the late 1950s, Post was a corporate sponsor for The Danny Thomas Show (the 1957-1964 version), a sitcom with the unenviable task of replacing I Love Lucy (1951-1957) on the CBS schedule. The Monday night newcomer delivered in a big way, however, and finished its debut season as the No. 2 most-watched show on television, topped only by Gunsmoke, also on CBS. Post couldn’t complain about the numbers but executives at the food manufacturer did have misgivings about the content of the show. It wasn’t an issue of taste, it was more a matter of flavor. Thomas played Danny Williams, a successful nightclub comedian, remarried widower, and distracted father of two trying to balance his hectic big-city lifestyle. None of that really resonated with the brand’s wholesome, back-to-nature image. To mollify Post, the producers sent their title star on a Season 7 road trip that led to sitcom history. Later that year, Post became the proud sponsor of The Andy Griffith Show, and Mayberry was served up with a side of Grape-Nuts.
IVAN REITMAN (1946-2022) : I was heartsick to see the news that filmmaker Ivan Reitman has died at age 75. Reitman’s long and influential career defies easy encapsulations but two of his screen credits stand out above the others as hit movies that rose to the level of cultural happenings and multi-generational touchstones. Reitman produced National Lampoon’s Animal House and directed Ghostbusters, a pair of era-defining comedy innovators that still serve as templates for Hollywood’s summer matinee output. There are the anti-authority comedies that arrive drenched in campus debauchery (Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, Old School, Neighbors) and there are the action comedies with genuine sci-fi/supernatural peril (Beetlejuice, Independence Day, Men in Black, R.I.P.D.).
A glance at Reitman’s directing credits reveals his antennae for crowd-pleasing comedy concepts: Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2, Stripes, Meatballs, Twins, Dave, Kindergarten Cop, Six Days, Seven Nights, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Evolution, and Legal Eagles, to name only a portion. Reitman’s acumen and his comedic credibility carried him far, too, with not-always-sunny stars like Bill Murray, Harrison Ford, and David Duchovny.
I spent a terrific afternoon with Reitman and Dan Aykroyd back in 2014 when Sony Home Video hired me to do a soundstage interview with the two longtime friends and collaborators for a retrospective featurette. The finished product was one of the bonus features on a Ghostbusters boxed set. Reitman Here’s a portion of that interview.