MasterBlog: “Quality” Television

Enlightened, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Key & Peele: a three-pronged beacon of hope for television. What a great cross-section of the different industrial and creative worlds that can be built within the medium; in fact, Key & Peele is an excellent example of the potential that digital production holds for imploding the preconceived notions of TV as a form. I want to talk about these three texts chronologically, as historical placeholders in the development of the televisual medium.

First of all, I’m fascinated by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In my opinion, it defined the structure and cultural function of the modern sitcom as we know it, even beyond any of the seminal creations of Norman Lear (All In the Family, et al). As Jane Feuer notes in “MTM Quality Television,” the sitcom is a foolproof kind of ideology machine: a text that presents an unresolvable situation and then neatly solves it, with a familiar sequences of narrative steps, inside a half hour, by characters we know in an environment we know. But to stop there at the junction of Barthes and Althusser with an analysis of sitcoms – and indeed all “trash TV” – is a grave misstep. What makes MTM “quality”? Feuer talks about the unusual (for the industry) “creative freedoms” afforded to above-the-line personnel; she talks about the depth of character study that set MTM apart from its counterparts; she talks about the high comedic pedigree of its cast; she talks about its sense of self-reflexivity, of ingrained audience media literacy, as a hallmark of quality. I’m most interested in the second point – characters as texts unto themselves.

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MasterBlog: Social Fear in the Horror Genre

“Horror” – what a shapeshifter of a word. We use “horror” to describe a film genre that we associate with Freudian fear and fantasy, buckets of blood, an exaggerated picture of the dark; and yet we can also call race-based state violence a “horror,” or watch a TV special about the “horrors” of Black Americans forced to live in rat-infested ghettos. This week I found myself really interested in the multi-faceted uses and interpretations of horror – how do we reconcile the human anxieties we represent with fictionalized atrocities, vs. the real atrocities of human life that manifest in deep fissures of anxiety in society?

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MasterBlog: I See Gay People

The specter of lesbianism stalks the periphery of These Three (1936) at every turn. Even though this adaptation of the overtly lesbian dramatic novel The Children’s Hour was actually adapted for the screen by the original writer Lillian Hellman, the resulting film stands more as a compelling example of the ham-handed Hays Code than a completely viable text. The character Joe becomes an embodiment of suppression, a substitute for female/female sexuality, a corporeal form behind with the true theme of lesbian love and struggle hides in plain sight. Watching this film is such a strange experience, especially for one familiar with the source material. I could liken it to eating a cake that was made with a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar, and telling yourself with every bite that the saltiness is SUPPOSED to represent sweetness. As “unnamed and invisible” as lesbian romance and sexuality is in the Code, it finds a weird kind of vitality when male sexual mores attempt to define it, refine it, or erase it. Foucault also touches on this sort of self-defeating mechanism of sexual repression as an act of tamping down “useless energies and the intensity of pleasure.”

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MasterBlog: Film Noir and Modern Ennui

Is film noir just an artifact, a cinema movement with a beginning and an end? Many modern filmmakers (and showrunners) play with the stylistic conventions of noir as a kind of postmodern exercise – sometimes for the pleasure of pastiche (looking at you, Woody Allen), or maybe to fetishize history (Mad Men occasionally flirts with noir-ness). Personally, I feel a kind of detachment from noir; I read noir works like dated fables about American society. Noir is weird because it’s deeply entwined with a certain era of American filmmaking only a couple of decades long, and there’s a temptation to compartmentalize it. Though noir films work through the issues of a broken society and American (masculine) identity – issues that surely exist in infinite complexity in 2015 – could we still work within it as a relevant genre?

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MasterBlog: The Black Female Subject

I find that Foucault’s characterization of the Panopticon – the surveillance-based system of imprisonment and self-discipline originally postulated by Jeremy Bentham – can be applied in a million fascinating ways to film analysis. Panopticism, essentially, ensures that a subject is constantly contained in a state of paranoia and behavioral self-regulation as she can never be sure if she is being watched and/or measured up for some kind of punishment by the authority (sometimes the state apparatus).

The black female subject often operates under a kind of cultural panopticism. Her body, as a site of intersection between racial and gender identity, is under scrutiny; however, as a subject, she is hard-pressed to find a context in which she may hold the power of the gaze (or indeed even find a media representation of herself which removes the specters of patriarchy and white supremacy, and allows her a complex, private internal world).

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MasterBlog: Voice, Sound, Ownership and Intimacy

I’ve come to organize my ideas on sound (and how we hear) into two lines of thought: that pursuing pleasure through sound is an active mechanism, and pursuing truth through sound is an automatic mechanism that is constantly confronted. Of course, sensual pleasure and truth/positive identification are related, but like Freud says, they arise separately and are later conflated. I’ll get to truth later, but first I wanted to engage the concept of aural pleasure.

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MasterBlog: The Cinematic Apparatus

I’ve decided to start posting some of my work as I happily plod my way through the Masters in Cinema & Media Studies program at UCLA. It’ll be a lot of dense theory mixed with my usual manic fangirl stuff. I’ll list all my references, films, TV, etc at the bottom. Enjoy!

At first glance, Christian Metz’s analysis of the cinematic apparatus appears to engage Lacanian psychoanalytic theory in a straightforward way; he begins with the child conceiving of himself (and all that makes him human and corporeal and cognizant) through gazing at his own reflection in a mirror. But the amount of “perceptual wealth” that Metz describes in audiovisual media, particularly film, requires an apparatus with far more nuance than the child’s first mirror. Metz really deconstructs the very nature of watching fiction in “The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema” – and the important distinction which serves as a jumping-off point is that the viewer (unlike the child) identifies himself as the character, not the spectator. S/he not only views a film as a passive appreciator – like a museum-goer – s/he essentially jumps in, seeing her/himself within the action of the world and seeing him/herself seeing the film. Metz’ audience is hyperaware of filmic fiction’s need for an audience, to function and to be comprehensible. “At every moment, I am in the film by my look’s caress.”

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We Were All Rooting for You: The Gorgeous Grotesque in ANTM

Tyra Mail! It says…

If a model falls on an abandoned runway in the middle of an empty stage, does she make a sound? And when Tyra Banks falls while no one’s watching, does she just slip quietly into unsmizing nothingness?

America’s Next Top Model has been canceled after 12 years and 22 seasons, and it’s really okay that you do not care. If you do feel something, like I do, it’s probably just the sad sensation of time passing and culture changing. Just as the end of American Idol made barely a pop culture ripple (despite its massive impact on the TV landscape), ANTM probably won’t be recognized as a watershed program with a long-legged legacy. For my money, it deeply altered the possibilities of the reality genre – and, at its accidental best, was an incisive magnum opus of female psychology. Tyra the Creator knew she’d birthed something amazing in Top Model, and over the next few years she methodically destroyed it.

So let’s take a moment for America’s Next Top Model…a love-hate letter to beauty, with a singular viciousness and vision.

There’s really two stories being told during every episode of ANTM: the petty day-to-day existences of the model-contestants and the larger godlike arc of Tyra Banks herself. As a transcendently perfect but savvily commercial supermodel, Tyra was perfectly poised in 2003 to launch a show like Top Model. As creator and curator, she brought industry cachet and as host, she brought built-in ratings and popularity. To watch ANTM‘s first cycle – Tyra’s known for compulsive branding-by-renaming, so her “seasons” are “cycles” – is to watch a fascinating exercise in first-time showrunning. Everything about ANTM 1, from production to casting to editing, showcases Tyra’s charming self-empowerment and zeal. There’s a sweet earnestness, an openminded experimentalism, to cycle 1; mundane moments like the girls’ first bikini waxes, cigarette breaks, a judging chamber that’s clearly a hotel conference room. Tyra imbues her presence with a self-conscious approachability, showing up at the tiny models’ hovel for dinner in a velour sweatsuit. No one seems to have expectations about being on a reality show. The girls are incredibly diverse: Adrienne is a rough white-trash urchin, Robyn is a conservative Christian caught between skinny and plus-size, Elyse is the elegant smart-ass who is allowed to actively bash the idiocy of modeling on-camera (and remain a front-runner till the end!). The judges have real credentials, and painfully differing opinions (I miss you, Janice Dickinson). It all seems possible in Cycle 1. Legitimacy and enduring fame seem very real. We see all the ugly boring parts of beautiful, these glimpses of the modeling experience (and the female experience) that we never see again after the flagship cycle.

However, most of the hallmarks that make Cycle 1 truly compelling continue to exist and morph over the next few cycles. Fans and detractors alike can’t deny that Tyra had an eye, even early on, for world-building. She parlayed her skill sets in modeling and public performance into an expanding vocabulary for fans (and the media): “smizing,” “tooch,” “H2T.” Tyra’s ANTM is an auteur’s funhouse, a paradise of sirens, a place where the beauty industry finds transcendence beyond its boundaries. Big girls, strange girls, dark girls, they all stand a chance. In the beginning seasons, she had a savvy eye for casting girls who echoed her physically and in personality, and these girls were consistently rewarded (look no further than Cycle 4’s supremely bland Felicia, who lasted four episodes too long). These ideal contestants became disembodied walking signifiers of Tyra herself, scattered amongst the latest crop, reinforcing her omnipotent and omniscient presence as the Author-God of the ANTM universe. She hooked us in with a phenomenally clever and suggestive tagline: “You wanna be on top?” And as dystopian and weird as Top Model gets, its first few cycles are bursting with startlingly astute observations about what happens to women when they’re isolated from the male gaze but haunted by it, devoted to it. Every single episode has the same naming convention: “The Girl Who…” The Girl Who Cheats. The Girl Who Everyone Thinks is Killing Herself. The Girl Who is a Visual Orgasm. It’s an unabashed commentary on culture, and meta-commentary on reality culture. Each cycle becomes more and more claustrophobic, even as the contestants’ living quarters are upgraded to sprawling estates that the Cycle 1 wretches could never have dreamed of. Every successive cycle shines a burning spotlight on a tightly monitored, hermetically sealed powderkeg of women – and we, as the audience, quickly got that the goal wasn’t really to be the best, the most beautiful, the most superhuman. The goal was survival.

And in Tyra’s dogged pursuit of her own legend, her own legacy, she stumbled on the show’s most iconic moment, what I would argue is its beating heart and the key to its twisted vision of womanhood. Sandwiched in between the naturalistic early cycles and the bloated, vapid later cycles is Cycle 4. Tiffany.

Tyra’s epic freakout on the hapless Tiffany Richardson is by far the most-quoted clip of ANTM, and it elevated the show out of its creative niche into mass reality entertainment. On the surface, it’s basically just a host berating a participant for not taking the competition seriously enough. Beyond the scene’s histrionic trash-TV value, however, it also exposed Tyra’s endgame all at once, in a shocking reveal of her pathetic vulnerability and maniacal control of not only the Top Model project, but her own narrative. Tyra’s speech is absolutely littered with the charred remains of a real female human being. It’s a coded story about the way the beauty industry’s been Dementoring her since her childhood. “When my mother yells like this, it’s because she loves me,” Tyra spits, hitting a hysterical sound outside pitch on the word “love.” “When you go to bed at night and you lay there, you take responsibility for yourself, ’cause nobody’s gonna take responsibility for you.” How many beds do you think Tyra Banks laid in all by herself, surrounded by identical beds filled with identical women vying for her life? “You have no idea where I come from,” she tells Tiffany, apropos of nothing. “You have no idea what I’ve been through.” Perhaps most telling is the indelible phrase “We were rooting for you, we were ALL rooting for you! How dare you?” The amount of context contained in that vitriolic indictment is incredible. Every woman is rooting for you even when she hates you, even when she’s against you, Tiffany. You owe HER your successes and your failures, even when you’re selling your face and your body to men. LEARN something from this!

In taking this tack, I obviously am showing my hand a little. I think Tyra Banks is a sympathetic figure, but also an absolute psychopath. The vision she built with ANTM is a danger to society – but in both the straightforward anti-feminist way AND the subversive-to-patriarchy way. Sometimes it’s hard to want the misery that these women want; sometimes we want to kill them for wanting it. ANTM certainly does encourage us to hate beautiful, ambitious women, to despise their delusions of grandeur and gaze-greediness. I could write a whole separate blog post on Jade Cole, who is hands-down the most interesting contestant in ANTM history. She’s a reality addict’s dream and was definitely Tyra’s nightmare, as she expertly (and self-reflexively) played to camera and became Cycle 6’s breakout star, the emblem of all that was insane about model ego and and ANTM specifically. “This is not America’s Next Top Best Friend,” crowed Jade, framing the decorative wall letters “A N T M” with her hands. She was right; she just didn’t know yet that those letters stood for “America’s Next Top Meme.”

I would argue that Cycles 1-8 are the meat of Top Model, the oevre we’re really talking about when we dissect the importance of this show. Because Tyra is the auteur and Tyra is insane, the show slowly but surely begins to crumble after the mild but still accessible wackiness of Cycle 8 (whose standouts included the heavily-accented first Latina winner Jaslene and the mail-order bride Natasha). The winner of Cycle 9 was rumored to be pre-fixed by Tyra. Contestants were forced to film “viral videos,” which anyone familiar with the internet knows is a comically absurd proposition. The judges were cycled in and out at a rapid pace until Tyra had assembled a panel of sycophants – empty and under-qualified personalities, most of them not even of the fashion world (i.e. the universally despised “PR Maven” Kelly Cutrone). By the time the first “gimmick” cycle – 17, the All-Star season – rolled around, ANTM was not ANTM anymore. It was Top Model only in name, and that dream was a farce, evidenced by the complete professional invisibility of almost every past winner. The death gong tolled around Cycle 18, the first cycle to pit teams against one another (British and American) and Cycle 21’s inclusion of male models was simply a phallic stab into ANTM‘s long-cold corpse.

The full lifespan of great TV is really quite poignant: when a show becomes successful, it’s immediately pumped full of creative and stylistic hormones that overstrain its heart. Then when it experiences brain-death, it’s kept on life support. And when it finally dies, almost no one comes to the funeral. They’re at a party with the show’s hot younger siblings. That’s the story of America’s Next Top Model. And even if ANTM‘s demise as a show isn’t unique, its legacy is.

Never before did we get to watch such a vivid portrait of mean. Never before did we get so close to the bleeding scalps and swollen toes of America’s most beautiful women, or see them cry and routinely be crushed despite their model faces, their model smiles. Never did we get front-row tickets to dozens of closed rooms like this, studies in female group dynamics engineered by one of its seminal victims, a mastermind who both kept us at arms-length and desperately tried everything she could to hold our attention. America’s Next Top Model is over forever, but we all still wanna be on top.

Femme Originale: “The Wolf of Wall Street” vs. “American Hustle”

The MPAA story with Wolf of Wall Street keeps extending into this bigger conversation. One of the things that occurred to me recently around this as well as American Hustle is that we have so few movies about charismatic but monstrous women. We are so far behind in storytelling that we’re still begging for heroic stories about women. Before long we may even get the right to tell epic stories about colossal anti-heroines.
– Jill Soloway

This is what one of my favorite writers had to say about the current state of affairs in U.S. cinema. Go read her interview about the MPAA double standard in cases of extreme vulgarity – in this case, between Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Soloway made a much quieter film about gross, foul-mouthed, powerful, human women called Afternoon Delight and she had to jump through giant flaming hoops of sexist fire to avoid an NC-17 rating. Obviously Soloway’s no Scorsese, doesn’t have his clout or his supernatural status, but that’s part of it too. What female does? When will she?

New year, new hopes, my friends. I want to open a conversation about gender and movie magic, and two 2013 films that might look the same at first glance.

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After I watched The Wolf of Wall Street, I discussed it with a friend who’s a huge Scorsese fan. We came to the conclusion that this isn’t really a Scorsese movie. Not only because it’s not very good, but because it’s unoriginal and bloodless. Scorsese is a MAN who knows MEN; in the 1970s and 1980s, his work had a big-dick-swagger, style, and a loud pain that makes it timeless to me even as it offends my feminist sensibilities. Back then, Scorsese’s biggest sin was ignoring women. I can live with that. He had things to say about masculinity, flesh, war, desire, living and dying, and made art.

Not the case in TWoWS. Protagonist Jordan Belfort is no Henry Hill or Travis Bickle. He has no history. He has nothing to say. He’s a boy and the most complicated thing about him is his addictive personality, an issue treated with peculiar kid gloves. This film is inconsequential, juvenile, and muddled. There are so many women that they’re impossible to ignore, and none of them are remotely important or watchable.

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I’m not saying that this film has nothing going for it. It’s really funny. It’s funny for guys, about guys, by guys, and women will laugh at it too because we’ve all learned to ridicule ourselves and identify with the patriarchial complex. I’m really not trying to get all liberal arts college on this either. There’s something so delicious and addictive about identifying with the male gaze. The roots of that yumminess are quite sinister, but I’ll take it anyway. If I stop trying to LOVE MYSELF SO MUCH, if I stop SEARCHING FOR FEMALE EMPOWERMENT, I can let go and admire Leo’s surprising physical comedy:

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And I can cheer for newly-minted serious actor Jonah Hill, who finally broke through the Superbad ceiling this year, proved his chops, and kind of stole the show:

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And I can feel Matthew McConaughey’s Texan warmth spread out from somewhere underneath my sternum and give thanks for his mere minutes of screen time. He’s like, the best part of this movie! Cue Dazed and Confused voice: “I love my female fans, man. I get older and they stay the same age.”

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But the laughs feel icky in my chest, because they usually come at the expense of stupid sluts with impossible boobs (NO ONE’S AREOLAS ARE EVENLY MATCHED AND TAN). And when they don’t, they come from vicarious pleasures, easy pleasures: a spectacularly photographed yacht, a beautiful suit, a manic pep talk fueled by Quaaludes and a hungry pack of stockbrokers with white teeth and shoulder pads. There’s no ending or resolution, either. There’s no comeuppance. And I don’t mind if a film has no moral center, as long as it has a POINT. And TWoWS doesn’t. This film is nonstop entertaining, it is stunning and fast-paced, and it’s a total nothing. A lazy concept and a surefire crowd-pleaser.

So when I get into the “movie headspace,” that transcendent mental leaning-in, I feel so guilty because I’m loving what they want me to love. I’m loving to hate myself. I’m learning to accept myself as a side character, comic relief, sexual relief, decoration, the weak emotional blind spot of the hero upon which I should be concentrating my attention.

And what I should really be thinking is:

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American Hustle came out around the same time as TWoWS, and for all intents and purposes they appear to come from the same tried-and-true POV (and are meant for the same demographic). I suggest that AH is a better film that actually belongs in, and to, 2014. It’s not without its problems: AH is populated with a small cast of male and female quirk factories, and the women tend to be a smidge crazier than the men, with more predictable repressed trauma. But the characterization of these protagonists – indeed, even the fact that this film has four equal protagonists, evenly divided amongst the genders, and they’re all anti-heroes – makes me feel much better about laugh-choking on Sour Patch Kids in front of this screen.

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Director David O. Russell, unlike Scorsese, is of the moment. He needs new, he is new. Although he can fall into the familiar trap of “broken man who just needs the love of a complicated woman” (side-eye, Silver Linings Playbook), I think he cares more about the human soul than the male ego. He just loves weirdos. And for this reason, I love American Hustle. Everyone’s weird and no one is an idiot. Like TWoWS, this isa story of loose morals, sex, and American crime, but the audience is not talked down to. I don’t need glittering, vapid vaginas or bumbling cops to remind me that I need to keep my eye on the slick main man. I need nuanced characters everywhere, I need interlacing stories and confused sympathies. AH is never dumbed-down to keep us invested, especially at the expense of its women. It is a complete story, not simply an attraction starring another Man We Wish We Could Be.

What I like most about this film are the infinite neuroses. Everyone has deep-seated social nausea, but they desperately yearn to be cool and to be loved. Like Jennifer Lawrence’s character Rosalyn, whose beauty and youth do nothing to abate her misanthropy:

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But she’s not the butt of the joke. She’s funny and ridiculous, but we don’t think she’s a lame pair of tits as opposed to Bradley Cooper’s effortless cool or Christian Bale’s molten sexy. These are real emotions. These are fearful, sweaty, private emotions, and a girl’s allowed to have them. Where AH‘s women are flawed and awkward, their male counterparts rise (or fall?) to meet them:

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What a dweeb! There’s nothing automatically desirable about the men in this film, any more than there is about the women. Sure, J-Law and Amy Adams look sexy, but not frighteningly sexy. Not smooth like reanimated Barbie corpses. And I swear to you, I’m not taking some tired tack like THERE’S WOMEN IN THIS FILM AND SOMETIMES THEY DON’T WEAR MAKEUP, THEY ARE REEEAL WOMEN. I know that skin-sans-foundation does not a feminist movie make. But the fact that these two female protagonists are fucked up personally, not stylized, sometimes messy, oddly charming, is a non-negotiable GOOD THING. And the best GOOD THING about this movie is that it succeeds without taking the easy way out and demonizing, victimizing, side-lining, or otherwise bullshitting its women.

Again, don’t let it off the hook entirely. This is still a mainstream pop film made to sell. When there’s sex, we still have the old trope of Unsure guy With Voluptuous Prize. It may be consensual but our gaze still wanders to the Amazing Adams Ass:

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But this ass is not magic. It doesn’t save Hero/Anti-Hero from himself; it doesn’t distract him to the point of failure, it doesn’t make us like him better. It’s not his ass to own; it’s hers to give. Feminine wiles don’t magically rescue the day, and then fall back into irrelevancy. The visual appeal of American Hustle doesn’t even lie with its women; when my senses were delighted, they were drinking in sumptuous ’70s colors and costumes and deep disco grooves. I was laughing at Bradley Cooper’s elaborate perm and reveling in the period-piece silliness without feeling bad about the souls the filmmaker crushed to get there.

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I love to lose myself in a movie. We all do, that’s why we spend the equivalent of three meals on a ticket and deal with the politics of battling strangers for the spare space on an armchair rest. A film consumes. It’s a virtual reality. Almost an out-of-body experience, because in the dark, when the 25-foot moving image of the human being is all you have, you become that character and you live that story. It’s pretty much exactly like the best psychotropic drug (or so I’m told, she chirped innocently). And even though there are many things I love about being female and negotiating that subjectivity, I also love to be a man. And when I pay for that privilege for 2 hours, it better make me think and feel something I don’t already know. Why make a movie if it isn’t new in some small way? Why invent histories and lives for the express purpose of feeding reality back to us?

tumblr_myn19qc2QS1rfaqfjo2_500To come full circle: that’s what I love about Jill Soloway’s quote, way back up there before you involved yourself in my written thought-barf. She wants what I want and what you want – a female anti-hero, larger than life, full and bursting with complexity, none of which has to do with her tan areolas. She can love sex, she can want babies, and she can fall in love, but we should treat those facets of her personality with the same wanton dismissal that we’re taught to treat female characters with now. And this is a serious, urgent problem to be solved by today’s filmmaker. If this anti-heroine is successfully written and performed into fruition, then we’ll all finally get The Woman We Wish We Could Be.

I want a bad woman. Not badass, but bad. Rotten in some way, but wonderful. Maybe beautiful. Or some version of it. Mouthy, mean, miserable, too much, all of the above. And I want her many feet high, filling a screen, thousands of frames, hours of her. I just want a new story. And we are at the cusp, I feel it. The only thing we need now is the courage to tell it back to ourselves.

The Changing State of Feels in American Television

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what our favorite television shows say about us, at this moment. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about what our current slate of Art Television tells us about how we view ourselves; tell the stories of ourselves.

(Of course, when I say “us” and our,” I’m speaking really just about the psychic state of the privileged viewer. The audience with the education, the advantage, the time, the luxury to lose themselves. I just need to throw out that disclaimer before I talk about the reflection of humanity in a screen.)

Anyway, this past Sunday I did the usual rotation of overheating and cooling down. Breaking Bad to start, followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey so I have something colorful to look at while I die inside, then The Newsroom, and then Boardwalk Empire if I’m still awake. Although lately I’ve been rewatching Breaking Bad as sort of an evening bookend instead of Boardwalk because I’m over it. Is it a bad idea to put myself on blast like this? Whatever. That’s what I do on Sunday nights. Now you know. That’s why your texts don’t get answered, she scoffed at absolutely no one.

Anyway, this week I was particularly struck by the differences between BB and Newsroom. I mean, of course there’s the main distinction, which is GOOD vs. BAD MASQUERADING AS GOOD. Dear Aaron Sorkin: HBO cinematography and a Thomas Newman theme song do not a quality show make. But I also got to thinking about how these two shows function in our current television landscape, and what they tell us in their successes and failures.

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Sorkin’s style has succeeded so well on network television. Why is Newsroom such a dud? The problem is that it thinks it’s airing on ABC in the late ’90s. Sorkin is a very gifted writer and an astute observer of the American workplace, but he never really evolved past the zenith of his success, which is arguably The West Wing. Banter banter, men are from Mars women are from Venus, idealistic young leaders, pratfalls. We all saw the Sorkinisms Supercut. He sticks with what he knows. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Newsroom revolves around current political events, it comes from a very un-current place.

Casual sexism and intellectual whimsy aren’t going down so easy these days, especially in a progressive space like HBO. Newsroom‘s main problem is cultural context. It’s pitted against a slate of drama and dark comedy that’s firmly rooted in the NOW. Communication between the genders may still suck, and rapid-fire bickering may stimulate the medulla, but the 2013 privileged viewer just doesn’t give a shit about glorifying themselves anymore. I mean, can we talk about protagonist Will McAvoy’s RIDICULOUS affectation of smoking cigarettes in his office? Jeff Daniels looks like an idiot every time he lights up and I know Sorkin wrote every cigarette into the script to make McAvoy seem like some kind of maverick. Sorkin’s self-obsession worked really well at a time in American history where the president played the saxophone and little girls got board games for Christmas where THE MAIN OBJECTIVE is to ANSWER THE PHONE and TALK TO A BOY. Pre-9/11, pre-Internet, Sorkin was sittin’ pretty. Back before people wanted their popular TV to get really real.

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There’s a kind of anxiety and self-critique that is essential to good television these days. Breaking Bad is a perfect example, because it illustrates the moral decay of a respectable, white, middle-class family man – and a lot of Walter White’s corruption is tied to the rejection of that stock character. Being a bad guy just feels more honest to him. And the tragedy, the absurdity, the unrelenting tension that marks every episode would not have worked on television in 1999.

I also think that the phenomenon of online watching – THE BINGE – figures greatly into BB‘s success relative to Newsroom‘s failure. The viewer consumes 10 episodes in one sitting if the shit is exciting. There is absolutely no compelling reason to watch a bunch of Newsroom at once because there’s no drive, no hurtling storylines or characters going through anything compelling. Even Girls beats it in that regard, because there’s an urgent sadness to that show and a relatability factor that encourages a sympathy binge. Banter doesn’t make me want to watch an entire season in one weekend. In fact, Sorkin-style banter is so twee and tiresome that it’s tough to rationalize two episodes back to back.

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You know, the more I write about this, the more I feel I’m floating away from my original point. I guess it’s tough to talk about a cultural moment. There are so many different types of programs on the air, and it’s hard for me to generalize “existential anxiety” to encompass everything we’re watching these days. But I do think that the act of destabilizing – our expectations, our identities, our familiar character types – is something that comedies, dramas, and action series of the 2010s do share. From the cringe humor of The Office to the unrelenting frustration of Lost, we like to feel uncomfortable in this day and age. We hate cute. We hate formula. It has to be downplayed and bastardized to work onscreen nowadays.

It does not surprise me that there’s such an air of uncertainty about Newsroom getting renewed. The finale a couple of days ago probably cemented its fate. It was a super-trite episode, very Sorkin-esque in the absolute worst way. Two characters got engaged after two seasons of sexual tension with NARY A KISS ON THE MOUTH before the proposal. Are you kidding me? There was so much character redemption and neat little one-liners that I wanted to barf. It’s just not cool, anymore, Aaron. Stop trying to make Sorkin happen. It’s never going to happen (again).

I’m interested in what you guys think about the above. Do you think there’s been a significant change in creative output and audience expectations in the last 20 years of television? Any examples to prove me wrong? Curious to know what others think about how the tube is projecting US back onto US.