Five Forgotten Gems of (Fairly) Famous People

I’ve always been slightly perplexed by the mentality of hipsterism (hipsterness? Hipsterality?). Having had an investment in works of fiction with larger and smaller followings both, let me tell you that the charm of being one of only six people to have heard of something gets old fast: you run out of potential discussions faster with the smaller conversation pool, there’s a dearth of fanworks available, and forget about seeing anything live (if applicable) outside of where The Thing is.

And, of course, there is the constant terror that your impassioned love won’t be enough, and that The Thing will cease to be on account of that whole ‘bills wait for no one’ thing (in truth I find medium-sized popularity tends to be the sweet spot – big enough for attention but small enough to skate over most infighting).

But! On the other hand there’s nothing as fun as getting to introduce people to things, sitting nearby and feeding vicariously on their newfound enjoyment of a thing you already know is awesome. That’s the heart of positive fandom. And I definitely have a few things I think more people should be aware of – from people they might already know, no less!

A note: in the case of Really Famous People with large bodies of work, I’ve tried to keep the tip-off to their most recent and/or most recent credit, just for the sake of streamlining.

Additionally, while Reefer Madness (Kirsten Bell, Frozen) and Cannibal The Musical (Matt Stone and Trey Parker, South Park and The Book of Mormon) would be excellent candidates for this list, they’ve already gotten a post.

5. The Brothers Bloom (Film, 2008)

Famous People: Adrian Brody (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers), Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner), Rian Johnson (Looper, episode director on Breaking Bad)

Imagine with me the theoretical child of The Blues Brothers and Big Fish, as raised by folk storyteller Garrison Keillor. That is a rough but not altogether complete portrait of this forgotten jewel. Alternately, think a sort of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang-style meta narrative, but with literary rather than film tropes and heist flicks rather than film noir. The plot? There are two brothers, Stephen and Bloom, who have been perfecting the fine art of the con since childhood. Each job, however, has a particular goal – that everyone involved will end up getting exactly what they wanted. Bloom eventually grows disenchanted, suspecting he has no sense of self beyond the roles his brother writes for him. And so, Stephen convinces Bloom to go on One Last Job (after chasing him around the world a bit): to con an heiress who has never left her home.

As an upfront, if you don’t enjoy films that lean heavily on the script, you’re gonna want to skip this one – a great deal of the joy is in the particular voice it brings, and its circular self-reflection on telling stories. There’s a lot of car chases and stuff blowing up too, but it’s all about the dialogue here. Mark Ruffalo is particularly charming, playing far more Tony Stark than Bruce Banner, though the whole cast is earnest enough to hold down the more outlandish and heady elements.

It’s not easy to lean on the fourth wall and put a strong emphasis on the emotional reality of the characters, but….let us say I suffered a fair deal of wet eyeball pain before the film was over (and yet I continue to wear eye liner to the movies).

4. Jade Empire (Videogame, 2005)

Famous People: Bioware (Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age)

Jade Empire falls into the awkward, obscure middle ground of Bioware’s learning curve: it came after the initial popularity swell of KOTOR but before the studio had cemented its place as creators of distinct, high quality original content for consoles (obviously Balder’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights had already enjoyed considerable PC-only success). It also came out during the dying throes of the Xbox’s lifespan, effectively damning it to obscurity. Which is a shame.

The plot is standard heroic myth stuff, done up in what would become the traditional Bioware format: you are the Chosen One, the only survivor of your people, and after your mentor is captured you head out into the world to rescue him, uncovering what seems to be a nefarious government conspiracy in the process. You’ll visit half a dozen major areas to uncover new aspects of the plot, pick up a team of followers and get to know them through dialogue trees, with a few possibilities for romance (including Bioware’s first full out stab at same sex romance options, though the Big Romantic Kiss is censored in the Xbox version). There’s even the good old Bioware archetypes (Kai Leng the mad bomber, in particular, reads as a proto-Mordin Solus). The combat is unique as well, if a touch easy to break – there’s a transformation/stun/chi theft combo you can set up by about halfway through that will keep 90% of all enemies, including the final boss, from touching you.

But formula done well is no condemnation: the characters are all endearing, the plot is well paced and executed if a touch predictable, and the world building is incredibly solid. If you’re a fan of Bioware and looking for a way to pass the time until Inquisition this game is both a bargain ($10 on Xbox Live or for PC download, roughly 25-30 hours to complete) and a worthwhile investment of your time.

3. Strangers With Candy (TV Series, 1999-2003)

Famous People: Stephen Colbert

Jerri Blank is a 46 year old ex-prostitute and drug addict who decides she’s ready to turn over a new leaf. How? By picking her life up exactly where she left off: as a high school student, ready to learn all of life’s important lessons all over again. Usually the wrong ones.

An important caveat on this one: this is what you might call “dead baby” or shock comedy. It functions as a satire of the after school specials/Very Special Episodes that were so popular in the 80s and 90s, and ensuring that Jerri never, ever learns a lesson that would make her a better human being (with subject matters including but not limited to – abstinence only education, secret relationships, joining a cult, illiteracy, STIs, and death).

So, our protagonist is a racist, unintelligent, sexually predatory, awful human being surrounded by other characters who are otherwise pretty equally awful. And, if you are on board with the dark and offensive humor (like South Park and/or the British vein of Horrible People Comedy? You’ll probably be okay), it is really, really funny. The three core actors work off each other fantastically, and the supporting cast and guest stars are no slouch either. If you have access to Hulu Plus you can watch the entire series for free (Comedy Central once had full episodes, but has reduced to only clips).

2. The Thrilling Adventure Hour

Famous People: John DiMaggio (Adventure Time, Futurama), Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), Busy Phillips (Cougar Town), Paul F Tompkins (Anchorman), Paget Brewster (Criminal Minds)

Alright, recommending this is a little bit of a cheat. The live shows are quite well known and popular in LA, having run for almost a decade now, to the point where tickets have to be sold well in advance. And while I’m sure the podcast has good numbers (seeing as it’s backed by the juggernaut podcast force The Nerdist Network), I rather rarely see it mentioned online. This is a fact that makes me tremendously sad.

By its own declaration, The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a “new-time podcast in the style of old-time radio” (see also “if Garrison Keillor was cool”). A live reading is performed once a month (meaning actors dressed up in front of microphones, with scripts), with each show consisting of three segments: “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars,” a serialized space western; “Beyond Belief,” about a pair of drunken, madly in love mediums reluctantly solving supernatural mysteries; and a rotating middle segment that includes 60s Batman-esque “Captain Laserbeam,” the mock-jingoistic “Amelia Earhart, Fearless Flier;” and golden age hobo love story “Down in Moonshine Holler,” among others.Each segment then gets put up as a weekly audio podcast.

While I have a certain fondness for most of the segments, it’s the two standbys that are absolute must-listens. “Sparks Nevada” is the sort of story that creeps up on you, laughing a little and rolling your eyes before agreeing to one more…before realizing you’ve marathoned about six hours-worth of episodes, and “Beyond Belief” is unspeakably charming from the word go (I have a personal fondness for married characters who adore each other, and have little time for the rest of the world).

The rapport between the actors, and thus the characters (the most important bit, for while the subject matter can be light the characters quickly worm their way into your heart and stick there), is well oiled and charming even when the writing isn’t triple A stuff – and don’t get me wrong, the writing is very dense, clever stuff – genre riffs, wordplay, expertly timed gags and a sprinkling of improvisation make for a plenty-rich experience (which you can snag for free on iTunes).

1. Whatever This Is (Web Series, 2013)

Famous People: Dylan Marron (Welcome to Night Vale)

Just skating under the radar of the qualification “containing famous people” (by virtue of Dylan Marron’s wonderful work as Carlos in cult-hit Night Vale), this is probably the most in need of championing: an itty-bitty web miniseries funded by donors and containing mostly untested but talented actors. It’s both totally free and well worth your time.

It’s pretty straightforward indie stuff, in a way. Three roommates are struggling to make something of their lives: Sam and Ari are film production assistants whose lofty dreams have stalled out working on the pilot for yet another Real Housewives show, and Lisa can’t scrape two cents together during the summer break from teaching. The six episodes follow their attempts to scrape together enough money for the monthly rent on their crappy apartment, fail at making relationships with new people, and generally wonder if there’s something wrong with them for not having made it by their incredibly ancient mid-20s.

It’s not, honestly, the sort of show that would normally appeal to me. I’ve always bristled at the popular mindset in fiction that NYC is the center of the universe (insofar as I, as viewer, am expected to pick up references about local landmarks and restaurants while a great swath of the population would be unable to so much as find my home state on a map), and I like a little more going on in the plot than the emotional insecurity of young people who could, technically, move home again (indeed, one character does). But something about the whole ‘what am I doing wrong, I was told I’d be worth something by now (and how will I know when that is?)’ theme struck a real chord with yours truly.

It’s helped by the fact that, well known or not, the actors are indeed extremely talented and keep the material from getting too histrionic or self-pitying (and boy oh boy, does Dylan Marron up and steal every last scene he’s in, possessed of a flippant personality hiding a fragile, heartbreaking inner life that doesn’t quite dare to be idealistic any more). They, and the stripped down direction, make you feel a constant sense of pressure and desperation when you should be rolling your eyes. Sure they could move home, you find yourself saying, but they’re just so close. Any minute now, something will change.

It’s a verisimilitude that’s difficult both to achieve and hold, and this series holds tight to that sweet spot. You can watch the entire thing for free here. Please, do give it a shot – I’m fiercely in need of a second season.

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