An Introduction to The United States of Tara S03 E01

29 March 2011

Shoshana Schoenbaum: What say we get down to what's what and knock out this paper, yeah? You type, and I'll pontificate.

I don’t usually recommend television shows since I think my effusive commentary tends to speak for itself, but if you’re not watching The United States of Tara, you’re missing out. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, the stakes of the traditional family melodrama are heightened through Toni Collete’s portrayal of Tara Gregson, the wry matriarch with Dissociative Identity Disorder. A plethora of well-developed and natural characters follow, including Tara’s landscaper husband Max, precocious daughter Kate, pregnant and flaky sister Charmaine, and numerous others. The most interesting characters, however, are those that Tara has unconsciously created. Tara’s alters, ranging from the stereotypical 50s housewife to the gun-toting, motorcycle-riding womanizer, and even the imagined psychiatrist Shoshana Schoenbaum, constantly attempt to inhabit her body.  As Tara struggles to construct an identity that is hers alone, the alters appear to remind her that they will always define her sense of self.

On The United States of Tara, there are no wasted moments. Every scene contributes some crucial element to the plot, even though dialogue is rarely expository. This means Tara and Charmaine can have a conversation about the abuse they suffered as children, but without explaining the situation in lurid detail. Characters talk the way normal people talk: quickly, emotionally, and frequently about themselves. Dialogue enhances relationships, not story; story unfolds through the everyday scenarios that characters experience. There are no extended dramatic monologues in which characters disembowel their emotions in front of an eager and complicit audience. There are only conversations: serious conversations, hilarious conversations, and sincere conversations.

If friends have seen Juno and Jennifer’s Body, but they doubt the competency or the immediacy of Diablo Cody’s writing, I always direct them to The United States of Tara. Cody’s strength is not the contained plot with the requisite denouement by the end of the second hour, rather it is the complicated, sprawling narratives that mimic the complexities of human experience. Tara has a controversial disorder that affects a minute number of people, and whose existence is doubted by some psychology professionals (as next week’s preview suggests, we’ll see this with Tara’s Abnormal Psychology professor), but her alters never dominate the show. We keep watching because we want to see a stranger version of our friends, our communities, and ourselves.

If there is a flaw with the series, it’s likely found in the unusual length of episodes. Each episode runs about 27 or 28 minutes, longer than the standard 22 minute sitcom, but shorter than a 45-47 minute drama. It feels as if there’s enough material for an hour-long program with commercials, but if an extra 20 minutes were tacked on each week, The United States of Tara might lose its characteristic sense of urgency that is so poignant now. Surely I can wait another week for more. Stay tuned!


My Dinner with Community S02 E19

25 March 2011

Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, and Amanda Plummer

See Britta’s expression here? That mild expression of rage, frustration, and total confusion? That was unquestionably my initial reaction to last night’s episode of Community, but as the show ended, I had adopted Annie’s megawatt smile and a resolution to stop reading any other television blogs but my own.

Why the pearly whites and the narcissism? Because in retrospect, this was a great episode of Community, just not the one all the television critics told us we were going to see. This episode was called, “Critical Film Studies,” and several weeks ago, tantalizing photographs emerged of the cast dressed as the characters of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The assumption that we would see a Pulp Fictionalized version of Community was certainly undeniable, but if I had done some critical film studying of my own, and perhaps paid better attention to the episode’s title, I might not have been so quick to jump on the correlation-causation bandwagon.

“Critical Film Studies” was part-Tarantino, part-Louis Malle. I’ve already read one post-viewing recap (we break our resolutions pretty quickly around here) where the author maintains that the cast spent the entire episode doing a My Dinner with Andre parody. This was certainly the long-running gag of the evening, but I don’t think the “entire episode” was a parody of the static Malle film.

When Abed delivers an incredibly long monologue about his visit to the set of Cougartown, his meandering, vaguely philosophical rumination on life is a stock feature of the Tarantino film. I haven’t seen My Dinner with Andre in its entirety, but I am very familiar with its various popular culture spoofs. In fact, Dan Harmon and the writers of Community might think this makes me even more qualified to write about this episode. Remember this?

Perennial nerd Martin Prince tries for a high score in sparkling conversation

So when I put this entire episode of Community together, and give thanks that it was at least chronological, unlike its Tarantino influences, I get it. “Critical Film Studies” is indeed critical film studies because it asks us to assimiliate vastly different films and talk about them. Why should we juxtapose My Dinner with Andre and Pulp Fiction? And what do we learn from this unlikely pairing? Perhaps Tarantino’s extended monologues in the otherwise car crash-heavy Death Proof are inspired by the hefty dialogue of a film like My Dinner with Andre. Or perhaps if we consider that this episode of Community also unites cinematic conventions with the television medium, something I was just wondering about in my previous post, then we can examine Jeff and Abed’s relationship in the context of a classic film friendship like that of Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory, or Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield.

The critical study of film doesn’t have to be obscure or abstract; it can be television–a widely acceptable medium that we should use to encourage ourselves to think. Film can be daunting and difficult, but television is never pretentious since its mass availability eliminates any possible elitism. Sure, we can write interesting critical articles about Mad Men for The New York Review of Books, but that high school drop-out from next door is still going to talk about the latest episode at her Monday morning temp job. You think Barack Obama can bridge the bipartisan divide? No way, man! The great unifier is television, and it starts on Thursday nights with Community. If we’re going to watch the tube for hours and hours, then the least we can do to keep our ape brains from atrophying is to think, write, and talk about television critically. Stay tuned!

More Meandering Thoughts on Television

22 March 2011

Ronnie Ortiz-Magro of MTV's Jersey Shore

I started this blog on February 8 of this year, and so far there have been 57 entries. Considering that these shows range from the standard 22 minute sitcom to the 80+ minute Monday night episodes of The Bachelor, and considering all the television I watch and don’t write about, I would estimate my television watching from February 8 to today, March 22, to be at least 75 hours, or just over three consecutive days of eyeball-withering screen time.

Now when you watch this much television, and you force yourself to do something you’ve never done before while watching–that is to say, you force yourself to think critically about each show on which you plan to write–you learn a few things about television. You certainly don’t learn anything new about yourself (in fact, this concentrated effort at television will tend to reinforce a few things you already knew and subsequently tried to deny), but you will learn a helluva lot about television.

Most network television is incredibly tedious. It’s as if television is purposefully engineered for a specific kind of watching–the zoned-out, TV dinner watching that normal people do after their day jobs, not instead of their day jobs. And most television doesn’t stand up to any sort of in-depth analysis. After writing about three medical dramas (House, Grey’s Anatomy, and Off the Map) for three weeks, I felt as if I had exhausted everything notable or interesting about these programs that could be written about in an accessible manner. Sure, I could parse the tropes of colonialism in Off the Map or Dr. House’s compulsion to other himself and deny the emotional effects of trauma through his compulsive pill-popping, but that does a disservice to myself and my readers.

We can look for things in television that aren’t explicitly there, but this esoteric approach to understanding popular culture often attributes more to the shows than what they actually depict. The more I dig into mass media television on a pseudo-philosophical level, the more I put myself into these shows. I begin to write about my own scholarly interests and theoretical positions through the tangible object of the television program, but I cease to consider each show as the arbiter of its own presentation.

Is this necessarily a problem? When I write about Parks and Recreation, should I talk about big ideas, like the socioeconomic growth of small towns, or should I talk about a particular character’s personal politics, like Ron Swanson’s specific brand of Libertarianism? And on a far more mediocre program, such as Gossip Girl or Hellcats, do I talk about class issues among the über rich and the injustice of three strikes laws?

So I guess what I’m wondering is where to draw the line. I can write about the television programs themselves, or I can position them within an external context where I end up writing about the issues they suggest. The first strategy leaves me complaining about the tedium of most television programs, and the second strikes me as neglectful of the source material, not to mention highly pretentious.

I want television to be more. As I try to reconcile my opposing critical instincts, I’m consistently awed by how many shows are instantly forgettable. I watch them, I pay attention, but when I sit down to write, I feel as though there’s nothing remotely insightful to say. Even mediocre films can be memorable, but mediocre TV is a cursory entertainment whose fleeting pleasure can always be revisited through the rerun.

This is exactly the problem: a replayed film is a revival, but a replayed television program is a rerun. We don’t think about these similar creative forms in the same way. Sometimes we’ll get a 30 Rock or a Mad Men, but even the most critically acclaimed series are uneven, distributed among phenomenal episodes and the merely decent ones. Maybe I want every television show to be a self-contained entity that can still say something without the context of its season or series, but I realize that this isn’t the nature of the medium. Still, I think that a greater attention payed to the construction of the individual episode, rather than the entire show, can only benefit an increasingly staid form. And it will likely give me more to work with. Stay tuned.

Inside Jokes and Dedicated Viewers: 30 Rock S05 E17 and Community S02 E18

18 March 2011

The cast of Angie Jordan's housewives-esque reality show, Queen of Jordan

“Queen of Jordan” was an interesting move for 30 Rock: the entire episode was staged and shot as if it were actually an episode of the titular reality show that documents that burgeoning music career of Tracy Jordan’s wife, Angie Jordan. Longtime viewers were undoubtedly familiar with tossed-off references to Queen of Jordan throughout this season of 30 Rock, but an entire show masquerading as The Real Housewives of Sass was somewhat unexpected.

This episode of 30 Rock almost reminds me of the first season of Community, in which every episode was rife with inside jokes that built upon one-liners and offhand comments from earlier episodes. Community has lately adopted the traditional sitcom formula, meaning that its characters tend to experience strange and hilarious events together, which ultimately unite them as a study group and as friends. On last night’s unremarkable episode of Community, Britta has a reputation for seducing Abed and Troy’s new male friends. She reveals that their latest find, a guy from the Balkans named Luca, is responsible for mass genocide. At first Abed and Troy don’t believe Britta’s accusations, but when they discover Luca’s past for themselves, the show ends with a renewal of their commitment to friendship with Britta.

On 30 Rock, however, more episodes are airing that seem to contain satirical representations of other types of television, but they don’t move the narrative along. At the end of last night’s episode, Liz and Angie bond over their respective relationships with Tracy, but the episode is ultimately a send-up of reality television, particularly the shows that depict either tedious housewives who need day jobs or untalented siblings whose names begin with the letter K.

We also saw television satire in another episode from this season. On “Live Show,” the cast of 30 Rock performs a fairly standard episode live. Script in hand, Tiny Fey flubs an early joke, but the show goes on since it’s being broadcast live. The live show recalls Fey’s roots as a comedy writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, while gently mocking the idea of live television (Jack notes that the live video feed makes him feel as though he’s in a “Mexican soap opera”).

These heavily satirical episodes are often incredibly funny, but only to the dedicated viewer. Community may have had difficulty attracting new viewers during its first season because much of the comedic effect was dependent on inside jokes from earlier episodes and obscure cultural references that weren’t immediately clear. It makes sense that 30 Rock would air episodes like “Live Show” and “Queen of Jordan” in its fifth season, having already established its presence among similar comedies, as well as a devoted fan base. A longtime audience is more likely to tolerate episodes that stagnate the narrative (in this case, the TGS is on hiatus storyline) than viewers who are just tuning in.

I like the variety that these satirical episodes provide, but a show won’t exist for long if it only derides other forms of television and media. As the second season of Community progresses, its writers seems to be recognizing this fact more openly. Distinct efforts are being made to introduce plots and relationships that evolve over the course of multiple episodes. Even so, I am looking forward to next week’s Community spoof of Pulp Fiction. Stay tuned!

Pretty and Witty and Glee S02 E16

16 March 2011

Last week I got some flak from a certain J.B. for not writing about the “Sexy” episode of Glee (S02 E15). After my initial reaction (Hey, people actually read this?), I realized that she was right and that it was a pivotal episode in an otherwise uneventful season. So today I plan to write about something notable that occurred in both last week’s episode and this week’s episode, “Original Songs.”

Santana and Brittany

In last week’s episode, Santana reveals her strong feelings for space case Brittany. Although this pairing is unlikely, it draws attention to the importance of recognizing same-sex relationships on television. It’s especially crucial to remember that Glee airs on FOX, a station that’s not exactly known for its avant-garde programming. A quick scan of the today’s offerings in a particular Mid-Atlantic town reveal repeats of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and a four-hour block of court shows (For those of you still wondering, yes, Judge Judy is going strong).

Glee is an anomaly among the decidedly middlebrow fare that tends to appear on FOX. At surface level alone, it’s a show about high school students who break out into spontaneous expressions of emotion conveyed via song. Not exactly a money-maker, right?

But somehow Glee has become wildly successful across a variety of demographics. Glee is one of those rare shows that parents and tweens can watch together, and surprisingly, no one is moved to claw out his or her eyeballs during Rachel’s high notes. I’m doubtful that the same could be said about Miley Cyrus’ peculiar brand of Disney Channel scream-acting (apologies to my Canadian readers for an NBC link).

When we consider the scope of Glee, its balanced and realistic depictions of same-sex relationships in high school become even more important. Rather than relegate a gay kiss to a melodramatic smooch between two consenting adults on a daytime soap opera, Glee gives us the natural progression of a friendship between two underage high school students that just happens to culminate in a kiss, and on primetime television too!


Blaine and Kurt

I’m sure thousands of bored housewives enjoyed a fleeting moment of arousal during the passionate face-mashing of As the World Turns, but thousands more middle-school and high-school students realized that there’s nothing wrong with being gay during last night’s episode of Glee. In the midst of a completely ludicrous show where characters emote through song, Glee finds a way to naturalize, and perhaps normalize, gay relationships. Kids learn to accept gay relationships the same way they accept gingers and four-eyes (hey, change is slow!), and adults who may have engaged in intolerant speech are forced to re-think their positions. One can only hope that little Piper Palin is an unrepentant Glee fan. Stay tuned!



The Self-Made Secret Millionaire S02 E01

13 March 2011

Secret Millionaire Dani Johnson donates $20,000 to the Love Kitchen

You can’t make fun of a show like this. Even if your shriveled tar-black heart barely ekes out enough blood to sustain life, or you fed your soul to the devil’s dog, you can’t make fun of this show.

On Secret Millionaire, cinéma vérité meets The Oprah Winfrey Show. In this episode, self-made millionaire, and 41-year-old grandmother of three (okay, you can poke fun a little), Dani Johnson travels across Knoxville, Tennessee to find opportunities for volunteering. She visits three deserving local organizations–a food kitchen, a music school for underprivileged kids, and a bedroom makeover service for kids with life-threatening illnesses–and ultimately decides to split a fair chunk of change among them.

Johnson is not the sort of dollar bill burning millionaire we’ve come to expect from our wealthy public figures. She is candid about her own struggles, including a time in her early twenties when she was homeless and running her business out of the back of her car. Naturally I assumed that a television show depicting the generosity of self-made millionaires would undoubtedly be an American production, but Secret Millionaire is a British import which aired six successful seasons in the U.K.

Even if you disagree with Johnson’s evangelical beliefs and her statement that she normally makes charitable donations in the name of Jesus rather than reveal her identity, Secret Millionaire is a highly palatable reality television show about the decent things people do for each other. ABC has quietly cleansed any of Johnson’s references to her faith, even though we do see her reading her bible at times. This strategy depicts Johnson as an ordinary woman who made it big–the sort of well-intentioned neighbor that anyone can emulate.

Johnson is a perfect giver, and the organizations to which she donates are filled with ideal recipients: men and women whose faces register shock and whose eyes well with tears as soon as Johnson reveals her millionaire identity. It’s notable that she first explains her similarities to them, and then launches into the crucial difference that allows her to part with significant amounts of money. If we’re poor, we can hope to benefit from the behavior of people like Dani Johnson, but if we’re middle class, we can foresee a future for ourselves in which we can give the way Johnson gives.

Secret Millionaire is an interesting program because it asks viewers to envision themselves in a dual role of giver and recipient. We are encouraged to relate to the people Johnson helps–no homeless, unwashed schizophrenics proclaiming the end of days here–but we are also expected to understand Johnson’s position as a woman who’s seen some equally rough times and can now do something for a struggling community. The entire premise of this show would be lost if the secret millionaires were old money heiresses and landed aristocrats.

Secret Millionaire recognizes that even if people’s lives are punctuated with unemployment and welfare checks, they still want to believe in their potential to attain greater things. And since money is often the measure of a man, Secret Millionaire convinces us that anyone can have it, and thus anyone can be a better person (Although in Johnson’s case, many online references point to her multiple businesses as pyramid scheme scams). Stay tuned!

A Rough Snitchuation: Jersey Shore S03 E11

11 March 2011

"It's called boy code and I'm sticking up for Ron!"

60-second recap: Sammi and Ron are finally reconciling at club Karma when Mike runs into Arvin, a friend from the neighborhood. Arvin says he’s supposed to meet Sam there and shows Mike some text messages that supposedly indicate a burgeoning relationship with Sam. Mike (aka The Snitchuation) decides that it’s his god-given duty to inform J WOWW and Snooks of Sammi’s apparent unfaithfulness (it should be noted that she and Ron are still broken up at this time). Word gets out to Ron, Ron confronts Sam, everyone leaves the club. Back at the house, Sam accuses Mike of shady behavior and a desire to start drama amongst the other housemates. Mike maintains that he was only following “boy code,” but one question remains unanswered: was Sammi sexy-texting this guy, or as she’s maintained all along, was Arvin merely a friend?

And if Sammi was sexting Arvin, does it even matter? All the male housemates accuse Sam of “shady” (a favorite adjective) behavior, but she and Ron weren’t even dating. His abusive tendencies and destructive actions are barely acknowledged, but Sam’s perceived slight is completely exaggerated. The impetus for all this drama is clearly, in a single word, Mike.

Closet-case Mike (seriously, he would be much happier if he just came out already) is a total shit-disturber. If the housemates leave him alone during the day to indulge in some “nails-GTL,” Mike frees J WOWW’s dogs so that they can eat food from the trash and defecate all over the house. When things are a little too quiet on the home front, Mike preys on the existing tension between Ron and Sammi under the pretense of boy code. Dude, you’re one of the oldest people in the house. You’re pushing 30 and you still act like a whiny tattle-tale. Sam’s business isn’t your business, and pretending that it is, under the facade of male loyalty, only increases the mistrust of women in the house.

At the height of Sam and Ron’s fight, token intellectual Vinny says, “Girls don’t have friends that are guys.” This sort of attitude ensures that no one in the house will take Sammi’s side in this argument, even though she’s done nothing wrong. The guys will denounce Sam and the girls will condemn her behavior silently, lest they violate the conventions of girl code. If Vinny’s dictum is taken at face value, then how do we characterize the relationships between the members of the house?

Snooki has a very different relationship with Vinny than she has with Pauly. Snooki and Vinny are occasional hook-up partners and friends, thus certifying Vinny’s theory, but Snooks and Pauly have never had sex (to our knowledge!), yet they remain close and they share intimate details about their lives with each other. Is there a word for that? Oh yeah, I think “friends” just about covers it.

When Vinny and the other guys in the house reduce and trivialize the types of relationships women are capable of having, they reduce and trivialize the women themselves. People often characterize themselves and others through their interactions with other people. Sammi is most identified as being a bitch during her loud, drawn-out fights with Ron, not when she’s getting her nails done with the girls. When women’s relationships are so firmly defined along gender boundaries–other women are friends, men are lovers–it perpetuates a social climate of tension and conflict. Snooks can’t be friends with Pauly because her feelings might change at any moment and she’ll want him to “get it in.” If we invert Vinny’s philosophy and apply it to men, then Pauly can’t be friends with Snooki in case he gets the overwhelming urge to do her.

Such a narrow-minded perspective on friendship does a disservice to men and women, especially when a snitch like Mike stirs up some drama. If the guidos and guidettes could fathom the existence of male-female friendship, and perhaps even acknowledge it amongst themselves, they could better ignore Mike’s goading comments. A dichotomous, emotionally charged approach to any issue often incites controversy, but the rational acceptance of many distinct types of male-female friendship would undoubtedly quell some of the conflict in the Jersey Shore household. Hell, it may even encourage Mike to come to terms with his latent homosexuality. Is this libelous slander? Will I receive a cease-and-desist notice from Mike’s lawyers? Stay tuned!