Alan Tudyk’s crowdsourced Con Man just finished releasing on Vimeo OnDemand. The web series comedy (comprised of 13 ten-minute episodes) tracks the ne’re-do-well sci-fi actor Wray Nerely, who was part of the critically acclaimed TV show Spectrum (cancelled after a half season), and who now makes his living on the sci-fi convention circuit. He’s a “convention man,” or “con man” for short. And he’s in hell.
His hell, mind you, is not mine. I’ve been to a few science fiction conventions. It’s not like I’m a die-hard regular on the con circuit, but they’re fun, and perhaps a bit more than that. My first was a Doctor Who convention in Detroit in the mid-Eighties. I just went for the day. Cosplayed the Fifth Doctor, because it was easier to get a beige trenchcoat on the cheap at a thrift shop than Romana’s pink one. Borrowed one of my Dad’s panama hats, used a twistie-tie to affix a sprig of celery to the lapel, and I was all set. Cosplaying wasn’t so big back then, but quite a few people had long multi-colored scarves. Sadly, I had to ditch the costume pretty quick, because I was roasting in it.
Anyways, at the convention I felt both weird and “at home” at the same time. At home, because I’d finally found other people who were as wild about Doctor Who as I was. Weird, because a lot of people at cons are really quite strange, so what did that make me? But it was fun. Sarah Sutton was there, told the obligatory story about Matthew Waterhouse showing up hungover for the final scene of Castrovalva. I bought a couple brooches. Some Target novelizations. Saw my first proper Troughton story, The Krotons.
San Diego Comic Con in 2008 was the last con I went to. It was huge and intense and overwhelming. It was then I realized that cons are actually alternate realities. They are not, however, governed by the mythologies of the science-fiction shows which ostensibly bring people together. They’re governed by an entirely different set of interlocking ritual concerns. Sure, some of that is simply the enactment of capitalistic consumerism, like the collecting of autographs and memorabilia. More importantly, though, is that conventions are a place where the marginalized “weird” people of geekdom can come together and have a place where their cultural concerns become “normal.” It’s perfectly normal to walk around in a Darth Vader outfit and geek out over your favorite shows. It’s perfectly normal to be geeky; if anything, the geekier you are, the more social status you are accorded. As such, conventions are kind of like Carnival, an inversion of the social order.
Well, except for the fawning over of celebrities. The actors and writers of SF shows are still at the top of the food chain at conventions… with a caveat. Because that caveat includes an implicit promise to hold up the values of science fiction and establish a marginalized geekdom in a temporary social center – which is to say, to embrace an alternate reality, and with it, to embrace the characters that one has brought to life – or, perhaps preferably, to embrace one’s place as a “celebrity.”
So there’s a disconnect here. And inconsistency. You see, for a geeky fan, an “inner truth” can be expressed at SF conventions, which is why such ritual spaces are created in the first place; mainstream society is where a mask must be held up, where one must be a “fake” of some sort in order to fit in, to be safe. But the ritual space applies to fans… not necessarily to the people who make SF in the first place.
This is the gap in which Con Man operates. Well, the primary gap. The sense of humor of this series is all over the place – bathroom humor, broad slapstick, wordplay, satire and parody, self-deprecating deadpan – but it’s this situational irony that’s truly at the heart of it, especially when it comes to the construction of self and identity. In the first episode, Wray Nerely and “Sean Astin” converse about this with regards to their respective roles as Cash Wayne and Samwise Gamgee:
WRAY: They think of us as our characters. They think we are our characters. Does that freak you out?
SEAN: Not at all. Nothing wrong with being a hobbit. They think that you’re a spaceship pilot! What’s wrong with that? Better than reality.
Sean encourages Wray to embrace the alternate reality. “Be who they think you are,” he suggests, especially if it can mean getting a fan to trade their first-class seat for your dismal accommodations in coach. Do note, “Astin” believes that the love of fandom “retards” art, the fucking hypocrite. In other words, he’s a con-man. That’s what he really embraces.
This doesn’t work out very well for Wray. Which is good, actually. After all, much of mainstream comedy tends to make the geeky fan the object of humor and derision, making fun of just how strange and weird this person is, how they don’t get “normal” social interactions. Con Man turns this on its ear. The fan Wray tries to exploit catches on pretty quick to the con, and ends up turning the tables. So instead we have the guy who desperately wants to be mainstream ending up as the object of scorn. He’s the anti-hero of the story, and we delight in how much he writhes and suffers because of his failure to embrace what are ultimately the progressive values at the foundation of SF.
Waiting For Guffman?
It’s not just Wray who’s the con artist here. The entire world of Con Man is just a step to the side of the real world, a pretense. Wray Nerely, played by Alan Tudyk himself, was the pilot of Spectrum’s eponymous spaceship Spectrum, just like Tudyk played the pilot on Firefly, the real SF show that lasted only a half-season, and which was nonetheless wholeheartedly embraced by fandom. Likewise, Nathan Fillion, who played Firefly’s captain, now plays Jack Moore, the actor who played Spectrum’s captain. And like Fillion, Jack Moore has achieved mainstream success, unlike his other costars.
But Spectrum isn’t a replacement for Firefly. For in Con Man, there’s still a Firefly franchise, as evidenced when Sean Maher shows up, playing a version of himself… a lampooned version of himself. The same goes for Leslie Jordan, Michael Dorn, Milo Ventimiglia, and Kevin Grevioux.
Like I said, Con Man is just a step away from our own universe. When Sean Astin plays a version of himself, he’s still the actor who made it almost-big as Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings… but we’re not really meant to believe that Astin is truly playing himself, because in Con Man, “Sean Astin” is an asshole who’s perfectly happy to exploit his fans. “Leslie Jordan” only pretends to be gay to get laid by certain conservative women. “Sean Maher” is a gay many who’s particularly attracted to trans folk because they’re so “courageous.”
There’s an interesting and possibly problematic turn in the segment featuring Leslie Jordan and Sean Maher. While judging a Cosplay competition with Wray, they both become deeply attracted to Wray’s convention booker, Bobbie Burns, who’s cosplaying an anime ninja. Jordan naturally is hoping that Bobbie is conservative, and Maher becomes terribly impressed after being corrected that Bobbie isn’t male. Bobbie, however, is a pro at exploiting the foibles of convention celebs, and successfully convinces her suitors that she is alternatively conservative and trans. So yes, she too is a con artist, but it’s great to see an older woman getting just what she wants (at least when it comes to lots of sex). The only sad thing about her character is that she aspires to be as much a celebrity as Wray.
The problematic aspect of this sequence is actually rooted in Wray’s reaction to her sexuality – he’s disgusted, which is certainly ageist. However, plenty of other characters do not share his perspective. And then there’s the fact that Wray is an anti-hero; we aren’t meant to side with his perspective. Unlike, say, Susan, the fan played by Felicia Day, who is Wray’s assistant at one of the cons and is constantly mirroring his outfits.
When Wray is chased down by some righteously infuriated fans after he completely insults them in a unique variety of ways, Susan facilitates his escape:
SUSAN: Hold my bag. I’ve been practicing my impression of you. I’ve got this.
This is her impression of Wray:
SUSAN: Retarding! Retarding! I hate science fiction fans. I don’t appreciate what I’ve got, trophies and awards are the only sense of self worth that I have, I don’t see what I have… because my head is stuck so far up my own ass! Uhhh… I have a drinking problem.
This convinces the angry mob. “I love you!” she says as an aside to Wray before dashing off. It’s a perfectly accurate description, then, to everyone. Well, everyone but Wray. “How is that me?” is his bitter rhetorical retort. All of which to say, given that Wray is an ass, I’m not buying his critique of Bobbie’s sexuality as one that’s held sincerely by the show itself.
Especially when the show demonstrates such a keen awareness of other kinds of issues around identity, and positions Wray as the bad guy in the fray. There’s a critique of the toxic masculinity in video games, for example, when Wray tries to do voiceover work for “Super Soldier 3.” The other two guys he’s working with are completely over-the-top, a comedic mode that’s the primary weapon of camp. It’s especially delectable, then, that this is the mode to send up hypermasculinity.
Wray, we should note, fails to participate in that masculinity. It’s not for a lack of trying, however. The insecurity of his ego lets him down when the game producers decide his voice is better suited for a “comic relief” role of a scared soldier who’s dying from a gunshot wound to his rectum. In a desperate attempt to persuade them that he’s masculine enough, he resurrects a voice he used for an old cartoon once – “Rigamarole,” a deeply racist stereotype. Wray isn’t aware of it, but the game producer is, and he is summarily dismissed. Naturally, Wray ends up at a comic-book store opening where the panel discussion is on racist stereotypes, and he barely escapes with his life.
Throughout this segment, the text is very clear that Wray is as much an object of critique as the pernicious things he’s lent his voice to. What’s funny, then, is not his portrayals, but his desperate attempt to believe that he’s not wrong, all of which is in service to his own ego. This is the hedge against any perceived cynicism – for it’s Wray’s ego that he’s most sincere about, but given that the dramatic and comedic turns are all designed to punish him for that, this is where the show is actually sincere.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
So there’s a juxtaposition of sincerity and cynicism in the practice of artifice that’s on display here. It’s certainly at the root of the bit where an SF convention that Wray attends has to share the hotel with a Doll convention (Tudyk, of course, played a recurring character in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse). Here, Wray tries to make time with Louise, played by Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer, who carries around a little baby doll and pretends it’s real. Wray is able to accept this, somewhat, when she explains that it’s a therapy to help her get over the death of her baby son. Fair enough.
Wray gets an “in” when he’s presented with an “action figure” bearing his likeness, and refuses to let Bobbie auction it off. Louise takes him to be a man who actually cares, but of course Wray is only pretending; he just wants to have sex with Louise. It ends disastrously, of course – Louise is crazier than she looks, and Wray’s masturbatory artifice is eventually exposed in the most painfully hilarious way possible. In a deliciously ironic twist, he ends up losing his “action figure” just after he’s developed an attachment to it.
But the craziest situation Wray ends up in is a cast reunion for Spectrum, held at his buddy Jack Moore’s house upon the release of a reconstructed “lost” episode. And yeah, there’s definitely a bit of poking fun at the mythology of Doctor Who here, and the obsession with reconstructing lost serials. Again, though, the object of humor is directed away from fan efforts – here we have the series’ creator performing the recon, using a combination of crude animation, shadow puppets, and “lookalike” Dutch actors to fill in the missing gaps. It’s, um… it’s positively inept compared to anything that Loose Cannon managed to come up with. Hell, it’s positively inept compared to anything Ian Levine came up with. And that’s saying something.
But the cast reunion is more interesting in its exploration of artifice. We get a subplot with the actor who plays a militaristic alien, accidently outed by Wray during an interview. (Not for being gay, mind you.) There’s the actress who’s obsessed with pretending she’s still thin. The former child actress who’s now a Lindsey Lohan parody, who only comes up with poignant words when she’s reading them off the back of a shampoo bottle. The actress who’s now married, but that’s a sham, she’s still attracted to Wray, but she’s so crazy Wray can’t stand her, but she’s so hot Wray can’t resist. They’re all nuts, which makes Wray look positively sane in comparison. He’s just an egoist.
The counterpoint to all this is Nathan Fillion’s Jack Moore. Jack is the only actor who broke out and hit it big after Spectrum. But unlike all the others, Jack is sincerely sincere. He loved Spectrum for what it was. He loves the fans. He loves life. He’s magnanimous. So of course he’s the one who actually had success; sincerity is its own reward. Well, sort of. Because when Wray tries to be sincere, it doesn’t work. At once convention he’s completely honest about not wanting to make a Spectrum movie (which makes a lot more sense now that we see who he’d be working with) and about how he hates Sci Fi. The problem, though, is that Wray still goes to SF conventions. He’s a hypocrite. And when pressed to embrace Spectrum to gain his fans’ love, he buckles.
So it’s not just sincerity that’s necessary to prevail in the world of Con Man. One also must be, for lack of a better word, in on the secret of alchemy: material social progress. Which Wray can’t achieve while he’s wrapped up in his own ego. And until he can let go, anything he does to step in the direction of social material progress will ultimately be false. A con. The left hand cannot know what the right is doing, especially when it’s stashed in his slacks.
So I’m actually quite pleased that a lot of Con Man’s imagery plays with the Chair motifs that I’ve rattled on about at length in previous essays. The “ego-death” that Chair symbolism points to is part and parcel of what we call alchemy, which is ultimately about social material progress… and where Science Fiction itself achieves its apotheosis. Which is why, when Jack Moore gets the rights to a Spectrum movie (he’s already got the money), Wray, who has yet to let go of his ego, can only invoke his character’s catch-phrase: he will be seen, yes he will, in hell.
Which is right where he belongs.