Bye-bye, Spy

Culture | The marketplace gets the last laugh on a court jester, jesters take on the marketplace, & other cultural buzz

Issue: "New attacks on taxes," April 18, 1998

The Spy that came in from the cold
Oh, how the hipsters have fallen. In the 1980s, a magazine called Spy rose as America's citadel of satire. It was a hip, chic glossymag about hip, chic people. Except it didn't cuddle and coo them. It scorned and insulted them. Spy went after everybody from Michael Jackson to Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump-especially Donald Trump, whom it called "the short-fingered vulgarian." Every issue treated the rich and fashionable as foolish and ignorant. The very fact of celebrity was held up to ridicule. This was the magazine that would take two pictures of very different celebrities and lay them together under the heading "Separated At Birth?" In the painfully one-dimensional world of glossymags-from Redbook to Rolling Stone-Spy's concept struck like lightning. Hip and cynical made a synthesis with the fawning and pandering. Soon every twentysomething freelancer in America seemed to take the pose. Poaching celebrity and shooting the wounded became a job skill. By the end of the '80s people started calling this stuff postmodern. Spy itself became a victim of its own style. As time went on, the freshness left and it seemed shriller and shriller. Spy was halted in 1994, but new British owners came in and kept the presses rolling for four more years. The final issue came last month. In its last moments Spy gave JFK Jr. and his George magazine a well-deserved poke in the eye. But Spy's problem was that it was part of the courtier culture it sought to lampoon. The magazine was New York's court jester, and a court jester is still part of the court. Satire needs a purpose, but Spy was just another stash of cruel cool. A fool and his money
Another group of jesters is reaping a king's ransom giving investment advice on the Internet. David and Tom Gardner took a cue from Shakespeare-"A fool, a fool, I see a fool in the forest, a motley fool"-and set up shop in 1993 as The Motley Fool. A year later they moved from print to America Online, right when the service began exploding with users. Skyrocketing from having only 38 subscribers to topping the bestseller charts, the pair continue doing for finance what the Dummies books do for computers. They rip out every possible bit of jargon and obscurity and replace it with simplified advice, mixed with a heavy dose of wit. In short, The Motley Fool is a nonthreatening guide to high-risk decisions. The Gardner brothers decry analysts, mutual fund managers, and financial newsletter publishers who set themselves up as experts whose ability to pick good stocks is guaranteed to beat the average investor. On the contrary, says the Fool, 75 percent of mutual funds perform below the market average every year. Therefore, there's no need to be intimidated by Wall Street brokerage ads on TV. You can control your own affairs. Naturally, they have constantly updated advice available at and plenty of ads for online stock traders. As Fools, they even laugh at themselves. On April Fool's Day, they put out a gag press release apologizing to the mutual fund industry, saying that spreadsheet software flipped over a graph, which means the managed funds actually outperformed the market. They also gave out bogus advice like "procure additional credit cards," "start holding cockfights in your basement," and "operate a Three-Card Monte game at family reunions." This Dilbertian view of finance plays perfectly with the suburban individualism of much of the Net: a large group of reasonably bright people with easy access to the world's biggest pile of free research. Hopelessly lost
Lost in Space (rated PG-13 for language and violence) is about what you'd expect from a movie remake of Irwin Allen's TV series. The Robinson family goes on their big trip across the galaxy. But their ship is sabotaged, sending them way off course with the saboteur (Gary Oldman) still on board. The effects are beyond anything Mr. Allen could have done on TV back in the '60s. In fact, the whole movie is better than anything he actually did make; remember The Towering Inferno or The Swarm? By 1998 standards, this is a toned-down sci-fi fantasy. No people get killed. There are William Hurt as Dr. Robinson and Matt LeBlanc from Friends playing a hot-shot starfighter assigned to pilot the ship. Mimi Rogers plays Mom with a Hillary Clintonesque scowl on her face. Son Will (Jack Johnson) is a computer hacker, apparently able to fix all 2056 technology. Daughter Penny (Lacey Chabert) looks like the heroine of a graphic novel and mopes around because there aren't any boys in hyperspace. The robot still has the same Danger-Will-Robinson voice, but he's been remolded with a rather buglike look. And bad old Dr. Smith keeps sabotaging him. The family-values elements here are corny. Since the villain has ordered the robot to create carnage, Will must make it good again, or at least make it stop yelling, "Kill the Robinson family," and, "Destroy the Jupiter One," over and over. So he gives him a long talk about the meaning of friendship. Meanwhile, he's all upset because Dad never spends any time with him. Dr. Robinson was off preparing the big Earth-saving mission and didn't have time to go to the science fair. Therefore Dad has to be taught to show his family how much he loves them. It's a testimony to how weak and malaised the institution of the family has become since the days of black-and-white TV. The best that can be said is that at least our culture has gotten much better in special effects.

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