True Confessions of a Television Addict

27 February 2011

 

How I like to sit at my desk for maximum writing efficiency.

 

Forgive me blogfather, for I have sinned. On Tuesday I watched a secret episode of Top Chef.  I have seen three episodes of the new Joan Rivers reality show. Yesterday I watched Outsourced and Jersey Shore, and wrote about neither. And I wrote about camera angles–CAMERA ANGLES–on Grey’s Anatomy.

As penance for my television sins, I recently engaged in mental self-flagellation and watched one episode of the new CBS sitcom Mad Love. Fifteen minutes in, and I should have been canonized for my commitment to the mediocre television show. I am the Mother Teresa of the television world, praising the good and lifting the ratings of the poor. Television, I am a martyr for my love for you (okay, I stole that line from Jack White).

Here’s the skinny:

 

Lily, Robin, Ted, bearded Marshall

 

Ha! Fooled you with that caption, didn’t I? Well, it’s no joke. As soon as Mad Love‘s lovestruck protagonist made the patented Ted Mosby molested puppy face from How I Met Your Mother, comparisons between the shows were inevitable. Aside from some slight plot variances, Mad Love is How I Met You Mother Redux, the endless Francis Ford Coppola-esque butchering of a classic. Not that I really consider How I Met Your Mother to be a classic, but that’s another gripe for a rainy day.

Redux Ted (I honestly can’t remember these forgettable characters’ names) is the flawed clone of Original Ted that needs to spend a little more time in the character development incubator. He’s the Cubert to Original Ted’s Professor Farnsworth (um, how excited are we for the rest of season 6?!) The similarities between these two needy characters on almost identically premised CBS sitcoms is positively Freudian, though I can’t quite tell which of Original Ted’s repressed desires are brought to light in Redux Ted. Yeah, went there.

Redux Lily and Redux Robin are again tedious female characters on a show where the male protagonists are the real focus. They’re not that interesting, so let’s skip to Redux Marshall. Physically, Redux Marshall resembles Original Marshall, but psychologically, he’s more of a Redux Barney with a beard. If Original Marshall and Original Barney had some sort of unholy union resulting in a scientifically engineered, doubly-spermed test tube baby, this character would be it. I think his name is Larry, and he plays the matchmaker for Redux Ted. He narrates Mad Love with a saccharine voice-over detailing the rescued princess fantasy and the magical nature of true love. Ew, gross.

So here’s my inevitable question: CBS, what the fuck are you thinking? This show is a complete rip-off of your own inexplicably and wildly successful show How I Met Your Mother. Are you thinking maybe lightning will strike twice here? NBC has FOUR ensemble comedies on Thursday nights, three of which are amazing, and all of which are incredibly different. Jesus Christ, CBS, DID YOU THINK I WOULDN’T NOTICE? Did you think to yourselves, “Oh damn, girlfriend’s gonna be so busy writing about Jersey Shore and those god-awful ABC doctor soaps that we can totally get away with this. She’ll never even see it.”

Well, guess what CBS? You’re busted! This show is an incredibly shitty replica of an already fairly average show, and it’s seriously got nothing going for it. Even if I do some sleuthing and discover that the head writer is a disabled gay little person, I’ll never watch Mad Love again. You know, I’m starting to think this could be a recurring feature. Television Martyrdom: Another Foray into Middle America.

Thank blog for NBC, Gossip Girl, and my doctor melodramas. Stay tuned!


No post on Parks and Recreation S03 E06 tonight because I’m lazy and old

26 February 2011

 

"Yeah, so here's what happened: sweet and beautiful Ann has never been dumped before and Chris is such a positive person, when he broke up with her, she just didn't realize it. It's kind of understandable. Although it does kinda make you wonder how good of a nurse she is."

Happy birthday to me! My gift to myself is that I’m not going to force out a half-hearted post about a truly great show. I guess that’s also a gift to Parks and Recreation too. In my alternate universe, every time the Grey’s Anatomy doctors launch into those impressive elevator monologues, the words that escape their perfectly shaped lips will be Leslie Knope’s. Or Ron Swanson’s. Or even Tom Haverford’s. These characters do explanatory monologues just right. Also, poor Ann. I guess sometimes there is a downside to dating the nice guy. Stay tuned!

 


Camera Techniques and Visual Effects: Grey’s Anatomy S07 E16

25 February 2011

Christina and Meredith have a serious conversation about shared bathrooms

Meredith: I leave toothpaste in the sink. Are you supposed to rinse it every time you brush?

Christina: Nobody parented you. It’s just to be expected.

To be honest, I really wasn’t paying attention to the plot of this episode of Grey’s Anatomy. It was a little tedious, although I did enjoy the brief interactions between Meredith and Christina. What I was watching, however, was the way the show is staged and shot.

Look at the still above. Meredith is in focus and Christina is blurry. Shots like this occur all the time on Grey’s, and when they’re wider, there’s often a moment of racked focus in which the camera’s lens is adjusted so that the focus shifts from a character in the background to a character in the foreground (or vice-versa) all in one shot. I rarely see this visual device outside of the melodrama genre. The technique tends to visually emphasize the presence of the character speaking or reacting, while maintaining a sense of  conversation between the two characters. It’s a fairly dramatic maneuver that also heightens our understanding of the conversation.

In reality, if we stood in the position of the camera, we’d be able to see both characters at once. Grey’s could shoot conversation scenes so that both characters are visible at the same time–they’d just have to be positioned at comparable distances from the camera–but instead this deliberate and noticeable choice is made. For me, this camera technique increases my feeling of being an outsider. There’s Meredith, in her own private world, and then there’s Christina, in a similarly solitary space, and finally there’s the camera–a stand-in for the viewer–whose attention must shift between these two separate realities.

Sorry if this post has been a little too Cinema Studies 101, but this was a really fucking boring episode of Grey’s. Stay tuned!


Stuff I Love: 30 Rock S05 E16

25 February 2011

"I want to roll my eyes right now, but the doctor said if I keep doing it my ocular muscles might spasm, and eject my eyeballs."

TINA FEY, ARE YOU READING MY BLOG?

Because really, this episode was the perfect antidote to my Liz Lemon concerns of last week. This is the Liz Lemon I love, the woman I can imagine running a television show, managing the writers, and standing up for her gender. Just when I think Liz has become another sad-sack eating her way out of a failed relationship, the 30 Rock writers come up with a surprise like this. Did you guys know it’s my birthday on Saturday? Otherwise I can’t account for the timely relevance of this hilarious and smart episode.

There are two plots here, a Liz plot and a Jack subplot, and both involve the manipulation of a younger woman. Liz hires a new female comic featured on the fake ladyblog “Joan of Snark,” but she’s distressed by the woman’s “baby hooker” appearance, childish voice, and sexualized interactions with the male writers. Jack decides to convince a little girl that she shouldn’t run the family business, corporate behemoth Kabletown, so that he’ll have a chance to take over the company instead. Liz tries to change her new guest writer, and Jack tries to sway a little girl’s dreams, but both schemes inevitably backfire.

In the meantime, we gain some insight from Liz on what it’s like to be a woman working in television.

 

Liz and Abby converse under a statue of Liz’s heroine Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Abby: You know what Liz, I don’t have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.

Liz: Except it is, because you represent my show, and you represent my gender in this business, and you embarrass me.

I’ve never heard a female character on television say anything remotely resembling this comment. And on a television show about television too! If Liz Lemon is indeed a character based on Fey’s own experiences working in the television industry, then this is a critical and astute statement. I’m sure many women who watched this episode could recall similar experiences: moments when they felt compelled to counsel their younger counterparts, perhaps to the detriment of their personal relationships, or moments when they received the unwanted advice of an older woman.

The only weak spot in this episode was the ending of the Liz plot, in which Liz learns that Abby only adopted the baby hooker persona to avoid her psychotic ex-husband. I understand what 30 Rock is trying to say in this moment–that we should encourage women as a gender, but not without understanding them as individuals–but I think the comedy fell flat. I can, however, see the difficulty in trying to get such an earnest message across in a television sitcom, so I can’t fault the writers for that too much. Otherwise, I sincerely appreciated this episode and its covert implications, all of which was executed through comedy that was never didactic or moralistic. Stay tuned!

 

Confidential to Tina in Manhattan: If you’re really reading, I loved your recent article in The New Yorker.


Meandering Thoughts on Community S02 E17

25 February 2011

Abed records another Jeff Winger zinger

I really have to stop watching such excellent television. Community sets the standard by which I evaluate other ensemble comedies, and then when I write about them, I realize that they’re comparatively mediocre. I heard some statistic that NBC consistently comes in fourth place among the most watched networks (maybe I heard it on 30 Rock?), but I just don’t understand how that’s possible. How are people missing the great Thursday night line-up on NBC? I was one of those annoying people who kept telling you how good Community is since it first came out, but it’s been two years now. Why aren’t people watching? And if they are, do the viewing stats fail to register because the coveted 18-34 demographic prefers to watch its shows online?

Well, I’m certainly watching, and last night’s episode of Community was a take-down of student politics at Greendale Community College. Annie runs for student body president on a black mold removal platform, and Jeff runs against her to prove that politics are a joke. At the end of the episode, both declare their resignation from the campaign, but each has a learned an invaluable lesson from the other:

"I am a gross, jaded adult with control issues that couldn't let a young, bright, idealistic kid run for president."

Annie withdraws, however, because she realizes that her motivation to become president isn’t entirely scrupulous either. Annie admits that she just wanted to be in a position of power and exert some influence at Greendale.

I enjoy watching Annie and Jeff interact because they bring out such different qualities in each other. In this episode, they both admit that they care about their respective opinions of each other. This is an interesting remark to hear from Jeff, who has tried to establish an attitude of nonchalance and indifference when he interacts with the other group members. Annie reveals Jeff’s inner humanity, but he tends to do that for her as well. Jeff’s interactions with Annie draw our attention to his good qualities, but they also emphasize her bad qualities. We learn that Annie isn’t solely a perfect embodiment of style, sass, and a one-time prescription drug problem, but that she also has an intense desire to succeed that borders on egomaniacal. Jeff provokes Annie’s flaws so that we’ll see her as more than a truism-spouting automaton.

Speaking of robots, this was also a particularly nice episode for Abed. We see a brief romance between him and a secret agent (could there ever be a more perfect woman for Abed?), and we get to watch him and Troy host the presidential debates on campus television. The Abed-Troy dynamic is a great example of real pretend chemistry. It doesn’t matter if Donald Glover and Danny Pudi are friends in real life; what matters is that we fully believe in the relationship they’ve invented for television. When I think about their conversations in relation to the characters on Modern Family, there is such a striking difference. Characters on Community actually have deep and invested relationships with each other, whereas the blood family members of Modern Family are only superficially involved in each others’ lives. I know I shouldn’t compare, but the distinction is huge. Maybe Claire has a rich social life with lots of kooky friends that we never meet and maybe it’s harder to be ridiculous and funny around family members instead of friends, but I don’t understand why more ensemble television shows aren’t like Community.

Will Jeff and Annie develop a not-so-secret handshake like Abed and Troy? Will we finally get another Britta plot, and will it herald the return of ex-boyfriend Tiny Nipples? Stay tuned!


Character Tropes: Off the Map S01 E07

24 February 2011

 

Dr. Fuller and Charlie have a manly heart-to-heart

 

Dr. Fuller: Look, little man, when I was a kid I had this pet hamster…and then one day I came home from school and he was gone. I guess I left his cage unlatched. And eventually I found his body underneath my bed.

Charlie: I’m not gonna die under your bed.

I’ve already discussed my love of ridiculous medical melodramas ad nauseam, so today I feel obliged to bring up a less thrilling aspect of Off the Map. In the scene depicted above, Dr. Fuller attempts to repair his relationship with Charlie, the local boy who helps out at the clinic. Dr. Fuller is initially annoyed by Charlie’s constant presence and questions, but eventually he realizes that he can help Charlie become a doctor, and Charlie can help him become a better person.

So here’s the rub: in all these shows where first world meets third world, or East meets West, or rich meets poor, why is the relationship between two characters of different backgrounds always set up this way? The privileged character offers some sort of material goods or skills to the less privileged character, but the latter always encourages some sort of spiritual improvement in the former.

In Off the Map, and other television shows like Outsourced or even Gossip Girl, people who come from advantageous backgrounds are soulless and empty. Dr. Fuller becomes less close-minded and disrespectful through his interactions with Charlie and other South Americans; Charlie on Outsourced becomes less xenophobic after his Indian culture study sessions with Gupta, and Blair Waldorf sprouts a seedling of a soul after her encounters with Dan (because yes, to be from Brooklyn in a world of Upper East Siders naturally means you’re poor as dirt).

In return for their mystic wisdom into the nature of human behavior, these supposedly disadvantaged characters are often given material means of improving their lives. Their privileged benefactors can’t offer advice gleaned from a lifetime spent on the streets, but they can offer medical training and higher social status (it remains to be seen what Charlie owes Gupta on Outsourced).

If this trope were reversed, we’d undoubtedly decry the privileged for their condescending attitudes to the less privileged. I also can’t think of many elite television characters who would want to learn the tangible skills of the poor. Blair Waldorf, a struggling writer? Never! She’s fine with being an editor like Jackie O, but writing is for the common people.

I wonder if this relationship only appears on a certain type of melodrama. I’ve yet to see it occur on a comedy, but I’m inclined to think that may be because most comedies lack the innate self-righteousness of the socially dichotomous melodrama. I’m hard-pressed to think of a comedy with the same definite boundaries between two distinct classes of people. Will Community erupt into class warfare? Can Leslie Knope impress some feminism on Ron Swanson in exchange for hunting lessons? Stay tuned!


Simulated Chemistry: Modern Family S02 E16

24 February 2011

"No, no woman is okay with this. We don't forget, we wait, and then when you least expect it, we make you pay."

Every time I watch Modern Family, I look for any indication that this show depicts a family. I keep hoping to see some vague sign of intimacy between Mitchell or Cameron, or to understand why a high-strung woman like Claire stays married to a bumbling loser like Phil. I guess the lack of chemistry between characters doesn’t bother most viewers since Modern Family has already picked up a handful of awards since its debut, but it’s a notable and critical absence for me.

Watching chemistry play out on television is almost undefinable, and I don’t think its absence is necessarily the result of a poor casting decision. With the exception of Cameron, all of the other actors on Modern Family are decently matched to their characters. Their lack of chemistry emerges in their interactions with each other. Each actor plays a particular type of character with great enthusiasm, but when these types (the obsessive gay guy, his needy partner, the anxious mother, the inept father, etc) encounter each other, it’s as if they don’t know how to interact.

Modern Family is so consumed with depicting a blended family made up of many distinct, and perhaps unexpected, character types, that it tends to lose sight of the fact that characters will engage with other characters. Every time I see a scene like the one between Gloria and Phil as she cuts his hair, I wonder how such awkward people can exist. If at least they managed to co-exist, then fine, it would be another Arrested Development, but these characters are focused on playing themselves at the expense of communicating with their family members. Gloria and Phil circle each other linguistically, but they know nothing about each other. I don’t believe that they’re part of the same family.

I know it may seem like character chemistry is a superficial aspect to examine in an otherwise respectable television show, but the distinction between characters who have it and characters who don’t is pretty clear to me. On Modern Family, I buy into the reality of two relationships: parent and child Phil and Luke, and siblings Claire and Mitchell. Phil and Luke’s relationship makes perfect sense since Luke is essentially a dumber version of Phil. One can only hope that the kid grows into his looks so he’s got something going for him.

In comparison to the many forced or contrived relationships on the show, Claire and Mitchell’s relationship just feels natural. This is the basic crux of the chemistry dilemma: does it feel natural? I realize that certain relationships may seem natural to other viewers of Modern Family, but for me, only Claire and Mitchell capture the essence of the sibling relationship. When I see them interact with their families–Claire, the restless housewife, and Mitchell, the whiny overachiever–and then I see them converse with each other, I can tell that their relationship works on a different, deeper level. Claire and Mitchell’s shared perfectionism emerges in their discussions of their families, but they also speak to each other in an ironic yet caring manner that emphasizes their familial bond.

In comparison to the Claire and Mitchell dynamic, the other relationships on the show seem tepid. Maybe the actors have no chemistry in reality, but it’s part of their job descriptions to fake it. If you’ve created an entire character from a three-line description in a script, and you embody this character on multiple episodes of a show, you should be able to assess your character’s relationship with other characters. Get into your character, go outside your character-self, and feel what it’s really like to be part of this television family. Stay tuned!