The world is full of phonies, people and projects who are popular for no good reason, who've been elevated to power through privilege or aggressive publicists or the whims of fate. The success of the untalented and the mediocre can be a pretty depressing spectacle. So let's not worry about them for now. Instead, we're taking a moment to honor the underappreciated talents in our midst, those who never quite get the laurels they deserve while the Nicole Richies and Paul Walkers of the world land on magazine covers. The list begins with a man who got his one of his first big breaks acting opposite a chimpanzee, and who can currently be seen acting opposite a horse and Dakota Fanning in Dreamer.
Underrated working actor: Kurt Russell
Why? He's been in a lot of schlock, and he's never won a major acting award, but there are few more reliable presences in American movies; Russell shows such joy in acting that even his dourest characters spark to life. An avowed libertarian and libertine, Russell enters a movie frame and immediately becomes the most fascinating guy at the party.
The evidence: Russell's career is full of great performances, but it's a testament to his endurance that some of the best have come in the last half-decade: the well-meaning dirty cop in the underseen Dark Blue, the boyish superdad in the family charmer Sky High, and the determined, covertly embittered U.S. Olympic hockey coach in Miracle. Almost as impressive as Russell's onscreen performances are his exuberant DVD commentaries, where he reminisces with his filmmaking buddies and laughs like a hyena at his own shtick. Russell's boisterous comments on Used Cars and Big Trouble In Little China are classic.
Underrated badass: Elijah Wood
Why? Elijah Wood has the soft, sweet looks of a living teddy bear. He speaks with an accent that falls somewhere between Iowa and New Zealand. And there's at least one website (veryverygay.com) that exists solely to prove that he is very, very gay. Essentially, he doesn't seem like a badass. But, make no mistake, he is one––at least onscreen. After all, it was Wood, as the titular good son, who battled Macaulay Culkin on a cliff in The Good Son. And it was Wood who stole Jim Carrey's girlfriend, using Carrey's own words, in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. And it was Wood who punched like a girl, yet still managed to become a top hooligan in Green Street Hooligans. What does it all mean?
The evidence: He may not be the strongest, and at 5'6", he's definitely not the tallest, but there's got to be something, some dark impulse, lurking behind those huge, eerily unblinking eyes, right? Hollywood certainly thinks so: Elijah Wood's next role is the chest-slashing punk rocker Iggy Pop.
Underrated cartoon: King Of The Hill
Why? The Simpsons casts a long, chilly shadow, making it difficult for other animated series–particularly on Fox–to survive, much less shine. Fox has routinely shuffled King Of The Hill between time slots, eventually dumping it to the Sunday-evening graveyard. Nevertheless, the animated series about the Hill family in fictitious Arlen, Texas, has remained consistently good all the way to its 10th and final season. It'd be easy to take cheap shots at the conservative Hank and the goofy supporting cast, but the show's satire has enough heart to make its characters three-dimensional. As Hank said in an episode last season, "Dang it, I am sick and tired of everyone's asinine ideas about me. I'm not a redneck, and I'm not some Hollywood jerk. I'm something else entirely. I'm complicated."
The evidence: Just about any episode with Hank's father, Cotton, a domineering, sexist, racist World War II veteran without shins. In the fourth-season episode "Cotton's Plot," Cotton helps Peggy Hill (whom he refers to as "Hank's wife") recover from a skydiving accident. He talks about being a POW: "Tojo had me cooped up in a bamboo rat cage. There was nothing to eat except rats. So that's what I ate. After two weeks, I was down to my last rat. I let him live so I could eat his droppings. Called it 'Jungle Rice.' Tasted fine. About September, I was finally thin enough to slip between the bamboo bars. I strangled the guard with a rope made of grated rat-tails and ran to safety."
Underrated talk show: Last Call With Carson Daly
Why? Drumming up support for former Total Request Live host and Tara Reid shagger Carson Daly makes windmill-slaying seem like a breeze, but his NBC talk show is far better than haters would have it. On at 1:35 a.m. ET (just after Conan), Last Call follows the chat-show format without making a forced act of pretending to be different. The main difference is Daly's humble, informed, legitimately interested approach to his guests. He knows what he's talking about–whether in the company of Jay-Z, Dennis Rodman, or David Cross–and he's becomingly self-effacing in deferring to the stars that people tune in for. He also books good music (Kings Of Convenience, Ying Yang Twins, Dizzee Rascal).
The evidence: The way Daly appeared genuinely thrilled to be watching his own show when magician David Blaine "ripped his heart out" in a stunt that left the studio audience gasping.
Underrated sitcom: It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Why? This fledgling FX sitcom follows the lives of four self-centered hipsters (Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, and Kaitlin Olson) who run a bar on a cool stretch of South Philadelphia. Though the premise sounds like a cross between Cheers and Friends, It's Always Sunny never resorts to Cheers' comedic ba-dum-pum rhythm, or the gooey sentimentality that plagued Friends. The characters on It's Always Sunny don't learn lessons, or grow closer, or worry about their relationships: they're too busy picking up girls at abortion rallies, or being disgusted by old people in nursing homes, or dating black co-eds to prove they're not racist. In fact, It's Always Sunny is the perfect anti-sitcom, from its laugh-track-free dialogue to its sharply twisted plotlines to its ironically cheery theme music.
The evidence: The fourth episode, "Charlie Has Cancer," cements the show's ability to mine serious issues (like, say, cancer) to genuinely funny ends. Upon learning that Charlie may have cancer, everyone, even Charlie, uses the information to suit their own agendas. The best line in the episode is delivered by Day, with a sarcastic eye-roll: "I found out I might have cancer, so, oooooh, scary."
Underrated guilty pleasure: The user comments and message boards at IMDB.com
Why? Why read reviews of films from people who might know what they're talking about when you can peruse uninformed, semi-literate opinions? The Internet Movie Database's user comments and message boards represent the apogee of the Internet's democratic possibilities, offering a public forum for everyone with a computer and an irresistible need to express themselves on why Father Of The Bride Part II is the finest film ever made, and/or why it demands a sequel. With their tortured logic, horrific abuse of the English language and rampant misspellings, the site's interactive areas are like the entertainment section of the world's biggest, sloppiest college newspaper.
The evidence: The commentary heralding Father Of The Bride Part II as the apex of cinematic art.
Underrated defunct band: The Feelies
Why? The Feelies emerged from the late-'70s New York/New Jersey underground-rock scene and lasted until the early-'90s implosion of college rock, and in its day, the band was respected enough to rank in the upper half of Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Albums Of The '80s" (for its tribal, trance-y debut album Crazy Rhythms) and to score an appearance as the house band in Jonathan Demme's movie Something Wild. The Feelies' jangly, moody sound was a major influence on Yo La Tengo and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck (who produced The Feelies' best record, 1985's supple The Good Earth). And yet today, The Feelies barely get mentioned when people trace the alt-rock timeline, and all four of the band's albums are out of print.
The evidence: Those hard-to-find LPs are worth paying eBay prices for–even the all-but-ignored, band-killing final album Time For A Witness. For a quicker dose of The Feelies, download the trailer for Noah Baumbach's The Squid And The Whale, which prominently features The Good Earth's "Let's Go" in the middle. Better yet, see the movie, where the song is used to symbolize how much cooler Anna Paquin is than the hero's Bryan Adams-loving girlfriend.
Underrated comic-book creator: Paul Chadwick
Why? Chadwick's Dark Horse-published creation Concrete was widely celebrated during the black-and-white comics boom of the early '80s, but as the market splintered into critically lauded, bookstore-friendly art-comics and disreputable-but-cult-supported superhero fare, Concrete fell through the proverbial cracks. (It hasn't helped that Chadwick has spent more time lately working as the architect of The Matrix's online gaming universe than as a comic-book writer-artist.) The recent miniseries Concrete: The Human Dilemma reminded longtime fans of the unique quality of Chadwick's rock-hewn adventurer. Concrete's keenly analytical human brain, awkwardly oversized alien body, and deep social conscience make him a hero who thinks more than he acts, and Chadwick has developed a drawing style that keeps the action moving while unveiling the hundred little details that underlie every decision.
The evidence: Dark Horse is in the process of reprinting all the Concrete collections in fine new editions. Each stands alone as a full, comprehensible story, but the best places to start are the odds-and-sods collections Depths and Heights, and–once the new edition comes out next spring–the emotionally devastating carjacking thriller Killer Smile, which belongs on any list of the all-time greatest graphic novels.
Underrated book/movie/TV franchise: Gidget
Why? Though the character of Gidget often gets unfairly lumped in with the beach-party movie craze of the early '60s, she actually has a more respectable pedigree. Austrian immigrant and Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner was so fascinated by his teenage daughter's surfing obsession that in 1957 he wrote a J.D. Salinger-esque novel in her voice, dissecting Malibu Beach culture and the perils of being an adolescent girl in a world built for boys. The bestselling book became a hit movie, with Sandra Dee in the title role, followed by two other movies with a rotating cast of Gidgets, none as good as Dee. Then in 1965, TV producer William Asher and writer Ruth Brooks Flippen created the Gidget television series, with a perfectly cast Sally Field as the brainy, popular surfer girl who wishes she were beautiful but has to settle for cute.
The evidence: The TV series has yet to make it to DVD, though it pops up on TV Land from time to time, and who knows if we'll ever see video releases of the scattered Gidget TV movies, which follow the character's journey into marriage and suburbia. (TiVo owners should "WishList" 1972's sublimely silly Gidget Gets Married, which occasionally shows on Encore's Love Channel.) The original three-film series is available in a cheap DVD mini-box–pan-and-scan only, regrettably–and though they're flawed, the movies make for a valuable study of evolving teensploitation cinema trends. (Dig the crazy Federico Fellini turns of Gidget Goes To Rome.) But the best place to start is with Kohner's book, still in print after all these years, and still a slangy, salty look at growing up wet on the California coast.
Underrated Food Network chef: Sara Moulton
Why? Emeril is too much of a "personality," Mario Batali seems a bit smug, and Bobby Flay puts mango in everything, but Sara Moulton is the perfect TV chef. On her show, Sara's Secrets, Moulton is never too cheerful or too showy. She simply comes off as a thorough instructor, patiently explaining her way through a recipe repertoire that rivals Julia Child's. At a time when Food Network has a glut of shows that teach semi-cooking (like Rachael Ray's can-opening extravaganza 30 Minute Meals, and the appropriately-titled Semi-Homemade Cooking), Moulton actually makes all of her meals from scratch. She also has frequent guest chefs on hand to help her cook her way through more complicated fare, and to test out more exotic cuisines (like, say, Chinese).
The evidence: Unlike former Burger King spokeswoman Rachael Ray, Moulton has the culinary credentials to back up her cooking show: She attended the Culinary Institute of America, and worked as the executive chef at Gourmet before turning to television.
Underrated auteurs: George Roy Hill and Michael Ritchie
Why? George Roy Hill and Michael Ritchie led strangely parallel existences. They graduated from Ivy League schools (Hill from Yale, Ritchie from Harvard) and directed raunchy, gleefully profane cult sports comedies in the '70s. (Ritchie was behind Semi-Tough and The Bad News Bears; Hill directed Slap Shot.) They then went on to helm, among other films, well-received Chevy Chase vehicles in the '80s, Ritchie with Fletch and Hill with Funny Farm. They each expertly flitted from genre to genre too frequently to become defined by any one style of film–or receive their creative due as filmmakers–but their best work boasts a light touch and an assured sense of style that seldom calls attention to itself or the deceptively masterful man in the director's chair.
The evidence: Ritchie: Semi-Tough, Smile. Hill: The World Of Henry Orient, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Underrated rap duo: Nice & Smooth
Why? Sort of the loveably goofy cousins of the Native Tongues contingent, Nice & Smooth went pop in the best possible sense, crafting irresistible ditties out of Greg Nice's woozy singsong crooning, Smooth Bee's ingratiatingly daffy rhyming, and wonderfully unexpected samples (The Partridge Family, Jefferson Airplane, Tracy Chapman, the Sanford & Son theme song). Nice & Smooth hasn't put out an album since 1997's Blazing Hot IV, but everyone from The Perceptionists to The Roots to De La Soul has paid homage to the duo in their rhymes, and Greg Nice's maddeningly catchy flow was sampled on mega-hits from the likes of Macy Gray ("Do Something") and The Wiseguys ("Start The Commotion.")
The evidence: The 1991 album Ain't A Damn Thing Changed, home to the perfect hit singles "Hip-Hop Junkies" and "Sometimes I Rhyme Slow," and 1994's underrated Jewel Of The Nile, which boasts the maddeningly catchy "Return Of The Hip Hop Freaks."
Underrated entertainment experience: Just watching the movie and ignoring the DVD extras
Why? The increasing focus on DVD supplements encourages publishers to sell popular movies twice–once in a quickie edition, and again in a filler-packed "special collector's edition" that costs twice as much. That manipulative commercial calculation is annoying enough, but worse yet is the quantity-over-quality vibe which that dynamic encourages. More extras mean more money, no matter how empty an experience those extras are. For every disc or set out there with an insightful filmmaker commentary or a revealing alternate ending, there are half a dozen full of self-congratulatory puff-piece documentaries, useless "image galleries," and empty-air twittering about how cool everyone involved with the film was. Every film is a unique experience, but most DVD supplements fit generic patterns, and they don't extend the experience of the film so much as they cheapen it, reduce it to predictable patterns, and then beat it into the ground.
The evidence: Almost any "collector's" DVD or DVD set, but for a recent example, check out the three-disc Titanic Special Collector's Edition due to be released October 25th. Love it or hate it, Titanic tells a love story. And what love story is enhanced by hours and hours of overanalysis and dissection? (Also, what three-hour-plus movie is really improved by 45 minutes of deleted scenes?)
Underrated superhero: Martian Manhunter
Why? Pity poor J'onn J'onzz, sometimes known as the Martian Manhunter. While the general public knows Aquaman as a walking punchline, the image of J'onn's bald green head usually produces nothing but puzzled expressions. But he's been in comics ever since his introduction in the back pages of Detective Comics 50 years ago. A key player in every incarnation of the Justice League, J'onn is a leader with super-strength, telepathic powers, shapeshifting skills, a cool blue cape, and a soulful demeanor that would surely drive the lady Martians wild if he weren't sadly the last member of his race. Sure, there's that whole fear-of-fire problem (not to mention the fact that he seems to have died recently) but if his character hadn't been inconveniently exploring space when the Super Friends series was created, it's easy to imagine him being as common a household name as Batman or, um, Apache Chief.
The evidence: Bruce Timm and company have made excellent use of J'onn on the Super Friends-for-big-kids series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Or drop in on virtually any phase of the comic-book Justice League's existence, and it's clear that J'onn is the glue holding it together. Yes, even during the years when the group operated out of Detroit and featured such superstars as Vibe and Gypsy.