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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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.

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.

It Begins: Homeland

It’s Christmas and I’ve been left to my own devices for two whole days. It does boggle the mind that I am in LA and yet there are no other Jews in a convenient radius. Anyway, between bouts of cleaning, reading, Skyping, DVD yoga workouts which got boring halfway through, and tweeting my existential despair, I started watching Homeland. Good for me, mustering the bare minimum of motivation, ushering a new show into my crowded menagerie of media obsessions.

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I’m only on episode 2, but DAMNNNNNN Damian Lewis is amazing. Dare I say amazeballs. Who knew a ginger in uniform could look so dashing? Claire Danes isn’t my favie but I’m willing to give her the B of the D because everyone seems to be soiling themselves with excitement over her acting in this show. I’m not a very politically-minded person, but I do love a tight psychological thriller. Enjoying Homeland reminds me of something A.O. Scott said: “In the hands of great filmmakers, genre can be a bridge between familiar narrative structures and new insights about how people interact and behave.” In getting sucked into a meaty mystery, perhaps I will learn something new about current events and the international climate; as soon as a real situation gets fictionalized, my investment in it tends to go from zero to sixty.

Also, Mandy Patinkin.

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