In Memoriam: The United States of Tara (2009-2011)

24 May 2011

Alter Alice in her funereal garb and pearls

Television has been making me depressed lately.

This week is the conclusion of the three to four-week period of the network season finales. This means that my favorite shows like Community and 30 Rock won’t be back on until the fall.

The season finale period also coincides with the big reveal of fall schedules from all the major networks. If shows don’t get scheduled, they get cancelled, which brings me to my next point, and the source of most of my televisual misery:

Last week Showtime announced that it would be cancelling The United States of Tara due to chronically low ratings. In an industry where a full season television show is very expensive to produce, and revenue is primarily generated through advertising, major corporations won’t pay for ad space on a show with an apparently paltry audience of 400,000 viewers for one episode. So yeah, I get it, but it doesn’t make it sting any less. Here was a great show that had grown significantly over its first two seasons, but no one was watching. Perhaps the Showtime execs love Tara, but if it’s not bringing in enough viewers to justify its undoubtedly high production costs, and consequently enough advertisers, then it’s gotta go.

In effect we have a system that rewards financial success over artistry, but in order to execute an artistic vision, the creative forces behind a show need to borrow daddy’s credit card, which is wielded by the executive producers and the network’s accounting department. But understanding the factors that influence renewal and cancellation do little to assuage the mild trauma of losing one of the few truly great shows on television.

So what’s next for Tara? Two equally unlikely scenarios emerge: fans stage a letter-writing campaign urging Showtime to reconsider and air a fourth conclusive season, or another network picks up a phenomenal show with floundering ratings. Neither event is probable, so it seems more productive to consider the future for shows that share similarities to Tara.

What aspect of the The United States of Tara is causing audiences to stop watching, or to never watch at all? Is it a shoddy promotional campaign? Perhaps viewers shy from Diablo Cody’s recognizable brand of covert grrl power and incisive dialogue? Or maybe no one wants to watch a show that’s essentially about a mother with mental illness?

I can posit numerous reasons why people didn’t watch Tara, but these premature cancellations are often inexplicable. Sometimes wonderful shows run for two seasons (Pushing Daisies, 2007-2009, Dead Like Me, 2003-2004–another quality offering from Showtime which, much like its main character, suffered an untimely demise) and terrible shows run for eight (Two and a Half Men, 2003-2011 with Ashton Kutcher recently signed on for the next season. No comment.). Networks have invested millions in trying to gauge what will elicit the most positive response from viewers.

I’m sad about Tara‘s cancellation, but pragmatic about the inner workings of the television industry. Diablo Cody is a talented writer in this medium, and I have no doubt that once the initial shock of cancellation fades, she will find her way to interesting new projects. Which, like all good television programs, will inevitably be cancelled as well. Stay tuned.


Film Review: Bridesmaids (2011)

18 May 2011


Bear with me.

I just got home after an excruciating two hours at the movies. There will likely be little structural coherency to this post, but I can guarantee one thing: a scathing analysis of the new lady comedy Bridesmaids. There are two things I will not be discussing: 1. Judd Apatow’s role as a producer, and 2. the feminism of Bridemaids. Here’s why…

It’s impossible to gauge Apatow’s involvement in the film, except for brief snippets from interviews with Kristen Wiig and others that tend to shed very little light on the development and production process. There’s already enough hate about Apatow on the internet, and I’d prefer to give the benefit of the doubt to Wiig and her writing partner, Annie Mumolo. For the purposes of this blog, and out of respect to the credited writers, I will assume that Wiig and Mumolo are responsible for the majority of the creative work.

Regarding my second point, Bridesmaids never claimed to be a feminist film. It was not marketed as such, unlike Diablo Cody’s ill-fated foray into horror, Jennifer’s Body (2009), nor was it directed solely at the 18 to 24, empowered ladies demographic (Is this even a thing? How do I make it one?) It seems unfair to dismiss Bridesmaids on the grounds that it is not a so-called feminist film, since none of its creators identify it this way.

So what are my gripes with Bridemaids? They are indeed numerous, but I will attempt to lay them out in a thoughtful, non-accusatory manner. I do like a challenge.

One.

At first glance, a film whose major speaking roles are mostly assigned to women would be an ideal forum for developing deep female characters with actualized desires and resonant dialogue. Bridesmaids uses its phenomenal framework of female characters to a different effect. As the film unfolds, a single pressing question is answered most effectively: How many hoary female archetypes can we cram into a single film? The answer is, if we’re being generous, at least six. But if we start to question the film’s depictions of motherhood and marriage, we can easily pull out another four or five. I can waste time explaining why these trite lady archetypes are bad, but I assume most readers of this blog are already familiar with the limitations of the virgin/whore dichotomy. Let’s move on.

Two.

New package, same shit. A comedy that is never explicitly marketed as the dreaded RomCom–meaning that you can drag your boyfriend to Bridesmaids, but it’s cool, he’ll laugh at the poop jokes–ends in a marriage and a romantic union. Bland Lillian, the vacuous bride who embodies our own hopes and desires, gets married and sad-sack Annie shacks up with the nice policeman. But right before Lil’s wedding, during a sweet bonding sesh with no lesbian undertones (I know! In an Apatow-branded film no less!), Annie says, “You need to blaze the trail for me.” Annie is referring to the fact that Lillian is getting married first, and that she will exemplify the married life that Annie not-so-secretly desires.

In the relationship comedy, even one that is ostensibly about the bonds between women, all roads lead to men. Were I to perform the Bechdel Test on Bridesmaids, I would disqualify the film purely based on its female characters’ incessant chatter about weddings. Sure, they may not be talking explicitly about men (although there’s lots of that too!), but in this film, any discussion of a heterosexual marriage by women friends is just the window-dressing for a conversation about landing the right man.

Three.

Incessant chatter is indeed the best phrase to characterize Bridesmaids. The women talk and talk and talk, but nothing ever happens. Problems are whined about, but rarely resolved. Feelings are shared (ad nauseam), but decisions are never made. Women are insecure, sad, lonely, frustrated, and all they do is talk.

I recently finished reading Syd Field’s Screenplay, which many consider to be the bible of screenwriting. Field repeatedly stresses that dialogue, at least in a Hollywood-style film, should ALWAYS move the plot along. After fidgeting through innumerable scenes of stilted, overwrought dialogue, I can say with absolute certainty that only about 30% of the dialogue in Bridesmaids served this essential purpose. If I wanted to hear ladies talk about their feelings, I’d have a Period Party with my lunar girlfriends. It’s cool, bitches who cycle together stay together.

Four.

We already know these ladies can talk, but what do they discuss? At least aside from their many, many feelings? Well, they do irrational things to each other, and then they apologize. And even after the one lady accepts the other’s apology, the other lady is still compelled to apologize again. So these women behave in crazy, nutso, Courtney Love-esque ways, and then they talk about how they screwed up. Annie trashes Lillian’s bridal shower because she’s jealous of another bridesmaid (the Type A Bitch, for reference purposes), but in their final heart-to-heart, she apologizes profusely. Hell, by that point in the movie, we can’t even remember all the stuff she’s apologizing for.

As my ever-lovely viewing partner astutely noted, this technique serves to infantilize grown-ass women. Women can be women in private, when they’re commiserating about their sad lives or apologizing for non-issues, but in public, women are tantrum-throwing little girls. They behave badly, they realize their mistakes, and their understanding female friends don’t hold a grudge. I honestly can’t think of anything more tedious or frustrating to watch. Oh wait, yes, I can think of one thing, and one thing only: Sammi and Ron-Ron’s epic break-up on Jersey Shore.

So that’s the crux of the issue with Bridesmaids. I coerced myself into seeing this lady movie, despite its shameless pandering to my age group and gender, and I left feeling like I’d seen a bad episode of Jersey Shore. You know the kind. The episode where everyone talks circles around each other, and the jokes aren’t even good. J WOWW’s comebacks lack their usual zing, and The Situation’s abs deflate under his bedazzled Ed Hardy t-shirt. Snooks sprawls on the couch and moans into the duck phone about her guy problems, and you leave wondering why the hell you just wasted precious minutes of your life. Minutes you could have spent writing the sort of lady movie you really want to see. Stay tuned.


Reality (&) Television: Celebrity Apprentice and The Donald

3 May 2011

"We ain't got no friends, our troubles never end, no Christmas cards to send, Daddy likes men."

America, meet your new royal family. Manhattan may not be Camelot, but with its dragon-sized rats, plastic-surgeried princesses, and barons of real estate, it may just be the perfect headquarters for the nefarious wheeling and dealing of the Trump family. Royal wedding got you down? Tired of clicking through photos of Princess Beatrice’s uncanny representation of the female reproductive system in chapeau form? Osama, who? Try two hours watching the grandiose aspirations of the nouveau riche instead!

Here’s an embarrassing disclosure! I absolutely love Celebrity Apprentice, but I am constitutionally incapable of watching it without another more pressing diversion to partially distract my attention from its crushing monotony. Celebrity Apprentice is the background noise to my household chores, and while I’m certain I couldn’t match socks without it, I’m also convinced that our relationship is like listening to Hannah Montana while studying for an exam, rather than the requisite brain-enhancing classical music. After two hours of repetitive arguments, redundant business jargon, and ceaseless pettiness among adults, I need a thesaurus to come up with that third synonym for perpetuity.

But as the internet explodes with the possibility of a 2012 presidential campaign for Donald Trump, I am moved to examine my affinity for Celebrity Apprentice, and the social factors that cause an exceptional businessman, and a pretty mediocre guy, to believe that he is qualified to lead a country of millions.

It’s clear from the start that I’ve never watched Celebrity Apprentice for The Donald. In fact, this fourth season of Celebrity Apprentice, and eleventh season of the Apprentice franchise, is the first season I’ve watched all the way through. When this round of Celebrity Apprentice began back in March, I had just watched an excellent documentary about Joan Rivers. Rivers triumphed in the final round of Celebrity Apprentice 2, and her experience as a contestant on the show encouraged me to watch the first episode of the new season.

What I encountered was an intriguing mix of B-list celebrities (and below…way, way below), ludicrous challenges, deserving charities, and an abundance of kitsch, all subject to the unparalleled hubris of one Donald J. Trump, Sr. Most of the contestants had cursory careers as musicians, models, motivational speakers, or exemplars of reality television stardom, but I think the most appropriate occupational categorization is simply, “personalities.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all the contestants are untalented, but what does Gary Busey have in common with LaToya Jackson, Meatloaf, Star Jones, and Lil Jon? An enormous personality, and no qualms about expressing it.

So this, then, is the appeal of Celebrity Apprentice for me. Has-beens and wannabes with something to say, even if their careers are in a slump, or never took off at all. There’s no pleasure in watching successful people argue with other successful people about who happens to be more successful. The real treat is seeing scrappy underdogs coerce, squabble, and undermine their way into a brief encounter with The Donald’s limelight. Amongst a crowd of clowns and rubes, Trump emerges as the buffoon most likely to succeed.

What then do we make of this purported presidential campaign? As no formal announcement has yet been made, it remains to be seen whether Trump might garner enough early support to launch a serious bid, however, we can certainly ponder his qualifications for the job and wonder why he seems to think he’d make an exceptional president.

I would guess that before the wildly popular Apprentice franchise, which first aired in January 2004, Trump was not a household name. Surely Trump was known as a real estate mogul in New York City, but it’s doubtful that his future constituents across America were familiar with his particular type of wealth and nepotism. The Apprentice allowed Trump to become the nationwide brand of which he’d always dreamed. Remember the t-shirts emblazoned with his essential manifesto? “You’re fired” became a unifying catchphrase across the country, at least for a few years. Was a presidential run a long-term goal in Trump’s ten-year plan since he first uttered that resonant phrase?

Or is Trump’s political ambition the result of years of yes-men telling him he can do anything? “Your hair looks especially wind-resistant today, Mr. Trump, and by the way, have you ever thought of running for president? You’ve got my vote!” It strikes me as incredibly arrogant that a man believes he can ascend to the highest governmental position in the United States with little more than a popular television program and several thousand greased palms. Has anyone asked Trump about his foreign policy experience yet? Or perhaps which newspapers and magazines he reads regularly in order to stay informed and to understand the world?

I digress. This shouldn’t be an attack on Trump, but more a questioning of his impetus for considering a presidential campaign. I am finding it difficult to discern what exactly in his background has helped shape the desired characteristics and attitudes of a world leader. When I think about Trump, I think about money. How is someone whose defining attribute is a Mammon-like talent for creating and maintaining wealth, except for those occasional forays into bankruptcy, in any way qualified to become the next president? Have reality and reality television become so enmeshed that a competent television personality directly translates into a competent presidential personality? Will I finally learn what the celebrity-endorsed Reaganomics was all about through its latter-day counterpart in Trumponomics?

I’m mostly indifferent to the death of Osama bin Laden, save for one crucial detail. As Barack Obama strode confidently down the red-carpeted hall, toward a podium where he would address millions of people across the world, he stepped on a few toes. These toes were undoubtedly encased in custom-made leather Oxfords, and possibly afflicted with gout from a lifetime of caviar and rare game. As our ever-stoic Barry delivered his initial greeting, superseding Trump’s latest dismissal, a nation of reality TV enthusiasts were jerked from the palatial hell Trump had assuredly created in his own mind, and forced to encounter the brutal nature of true reality television. Stay tuned.