Hiatus Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

17 May 2012

Well. That was a long and somewhat unexpected absence. Here’s what happened since you last tuned in:

  • Good shows were born, good shows died, and 80% of the media landscape was dominated by mediocre trash, as usual.
  • Yours truly made it through an entire year of graduate school with minimal psychic damage. Only one more year to go now!
  • I spent most of this last semester watching television and writing television, but I have not written ABOUT television in months. That’s a situation I aim to remedy in bits and pieces. I also hope to give some insight into the whole “writing television” deal.

I’ll end this brief post now with the assurance that some scathing critique and unabashed love of television is on its way.

In the meantime, let’s have a moment of silence for the criminally underrated, soft-boiled detective show Bored to Death. Stay tuned!




Four Women and A Body: Body of Proof S02 E09

30 November 2011
         Dr. Megan Hunt examines a body with her usual candor.

Male doctor: ” ‘Scuse me, dear.”

Dr. Hunt: “Actually, it’s Doctor Dear.”

Note: The recent two-month hiatus in blogging is due to my stupid decision to take five courses in my first semester at SCA. As I hope to take another five next semester, for a whopping total of 14 credits (I believe most first year students take 10?), three of which are writing courses, I can only assume an extended mid-season break is approaching. Thanks for sticking with TeleRevision in the meantime. I assure you this is only a part of my larger efforts to see women dominate the media.

That exchange above, between medical examiner Megan Hunt and a good ol’ boy doctor/Anatomy professor, happened to my mother. Baltimore, 1994. My mother was starting her first (and only, to date) position as the head of a research laboratory. A worker made the innocent mistake of calling her “Hon,” a very Bawlmer term of endearment. Naturally my mother responded, “Excuse me, but it’s Doctor Hon.”

The point I am trying to make is this: it is positively exhilarating to see strong, well-rounded female characters share our experiences. I know that’s why I turn to art, music, film, television, etc–to know that someone else has felt something of what I am feeling, even if they’ve expressed it through the daily struggles of a fictional character.

In every show I watch long-term, and even some I only peruse occasionally, there is one episode that stands out as a turning point in my relationship to the show. I tend to watch television in a state of intellectual distraction, often thinking about other ideas or work as I watch. But if I keep with a show long enough, there is always an episode, or perhaps even a moment, that engages my attention completely and causes me to realize how invested I am in these characters.

So today when I watched the most recent episode of a steadily-improving medical mystery show, I was transfixed. Female characters who experience the same kind of casual sexism most women do, and who shrug it off with a few choice words, or a biting aside to a colleague? Women of varying ethnicities, and with varying levels of career success, but who all behave assertively, even when they show vulnerability? A show with four great female characters with interesting jobs in its first season (Dr. Megan Hunt, Dr. Kate Murphy, police detective Samantha Baker, and Hunt’s mother, Judge Joan Hunt) that adds a new, equally engaging female character (Dani Alverez, a driver and body-picker-upper for the medical examiner’s office with forensic aspirations) in its second season? I’m absolutely sold.

Derivative storylines and clunky emotional arcs held back Body of Proof during its first season, but now that the writers have a firm handle on the individual stories and identities of their female characters, the show is completely engrossing. My friend and I used to watch Body of Proof  as a sort of long-running joke. We love Dana Delaney, the actress who plays Dr. Hunt, and we were enjoying the sheer absurdity of its premise: after a car accident, a gifted surgeon experiences hand tremors and is forced to take a job as a medical examiner–ya know, because you can’t kill people who are already dead. I mean how incredibly stupid does that sound?

But we stuck with it through an uneven first season, and now I am almost shocked to watch this network show and see four women speaking to each other in a non-accusatory manner about something other than a man. To be fair, in the episodes leading up to this one, Dr. Hunt and Dr. Murphy do discuss a man, namely Hunt’s ex-husband who is now dating Murphy, but the work always comes first. They bond over inert bodies, regardless of their personal lives. This is not a meaningless instance of characterization or plot development. I never thought I would say this about a show that began life as a tossed-off mid-season replacement, a sort of Grey’s Anatomy for the CSI set, but Body of Proof is progressive television.

"I've tried to teach my students respect for these bodies, but boys will be boys."

"Hm, maybe that's why it took a girl to catch what you missed."

Body of Proof depicts women who are capable of doing impressive analytical and deductive work despite their feelings about love, motherhood, and relationships. These women feel things strongly, but they are still capable of doing their jobs. In a culture where we have been taught that women’s emotions always cloud their judgment, it is progressive as hell to see women who think, feel, and act like we do getting shit done, regardless of whether they’re having bad days or good. Body of Proof reminds me to keep an open-mind toward television and other media because you never know where you’ll find the strong characters you’ve been looking for. After all, as Dr. Hunt is fond of saying, “The body is the proof.” Stay tuned!

(Also, especially stay tuned for a future post where I get all Cultural Studies about this and discuss the idea of women examining the body as a site of trauma. This is kind of a big deal.)

New Shit Happens: South Park S15 E08

5 October 2011

"Maybe it won't be like before, but at least it'll all be new. And that's what's gonna make it so that I can keep going. For the first time in a long time, I'm really excited."

A quick note to the reader: the word “shit” permeates the following post. After my mom complained about the…ahem, adult language on TRv (or as I like to think of it, the language of adulthood), I did make an effort to tone it down. But the basic premise of this episode of South Park is indeed shit, so I am compelled to use the appropriate diction.

It’s a little disconcerting to be at film school and realize the most affecting, poignant media you’ve seen in the last three weeks has been the entirety of Ozu’s Late Spring, a single scene in Ray’s Charulata, and a new episode of South Park.

The last episode of South Park (S15 E07) explored Stan’s realization, on the day of his tenth birthday, that everything he had ever loved before was shit. As the episode ends, Stan feels alienated from his friends and his parents are getting a divorce. In the world of cartoons, Stan’s changing values and his home life would likely be overlooked in the following episode. If these issues were revisited, it would be to reassure the viewers that nothing has changed and everything is back to normal. How many times has Homer Simpson supposedly learned a life lesson before reverting to his prehistoric self in the next episode?

What I love about Trey Parker and Matt Stone is that they didn’t take the easy route. In this episode of South Park, Stan confronts his scatological worldview. In a clever, but perhaps intentionally dated parody of The Matrix, Stan joins a group of misfits who have been branded with diagnoses of Asperger’s. As soon as Stan’s mother leaves, the socially-inept nerds reveal that their shared syndrome is fabricated; they’ve actually cracked the matrix and, like Stan, see all the shit in the world that other people can’t acknowledge. Yeah, how could I possibly relate to this representation of mildly egotistical arbitration of taste? Here’s the kicker: before Stan can re-enter the shit-matrix and convince his friends that everything they love is illusory crap, he needs to get liquored up. There aren’t too many ways to read this devastating theme: (overly?) sensitive types deal with the shit of the world through booze.

Ooh. That hits rather close to home. To be clear, I’m not a total lush, nor are any of my self-described sensitive friends, but I have been known to discuss my interest in Francis Ford Coppola’s proprietary wine on Facebook. I wouldn’t say that mild alcoholism is a quality coping strategy, but I get where Parker and Stone are coming from. If you feel like nearly every facet of culture is infested with scampering shit-rats, then you definitely develop some idiosyncratic ways to deal with it. Ten-year-olds counter their ennui with booze, twenty-two-year-olds pretend to like stuff that they secretly don’t. Then they’ll try really hard to sit through an entire Q & A with an old-timer who’s reliving his glory days from working on mediocre television programs, but they leave two hours in because really, who needs more than two hours of that shit?

If you’re working in the arts like Parker and Stone, and you’ve created a show that actively criticizes a culture of mediocrity for almost fifteen years, but somewhere along the line you realize that you’ve just succumbed to the same shit you’ve been attacking for so long, all you want to hear is this: You’re doing it better.

When you’re a critic and an artist, there’s always a fragmentary question of quality haunting the recesses of your mind. How do we say mean things about other people’s work if we make the same mistakes in our own? How am I qualified to write scathing comments about another writer’s work if mine isn’t much better? Some people are critics, and some are artists, but it’s tough as hell to be both. I don’t care if the world knows that I loathed Bridesmaids or I found Up All Night tedious. I care that my own work surpasses the shit I don’t like. As an unrepentant critic and an emerging artist, I want to hear that my work is better than everything I hate. And sometimes it is, but more often, it’s not. So all I can do is practice my craft and hope something shinier than shit comes out.

When Parker and Stone choose to let Stan examine his culture and interests critically, they’re taking a real creative risk (Confidential to Gossip Girl writers: This is what character development looks like). It’s rare to see a cartoon character grow in a tangible way. To use a writer’s term, it’s more common to see a character’s development arc over the course of an episode, but by the next episode, the same character has returned to his or her established self. If Parker and Stone can find interesting, sustainable story-lines that explore Stan’s new values and sense of self, this could be an exceptional season of a show that might have otherwise run its course. You’re doing it better. Stay tuned.

Reality Television: Up All Night S01 E01

17 September 2011

It’s that time of the year–a certain crispness in the air (unless you live in LA), crinkling leaves littering the ground (unless you live in LA), and the mingling sense of desperation and excitement that announces the arrival of pilot season (only if you live in LA).

I want to like Up All Night. Arrested Development ended five years ago and Will Arnett needs a hit. I love the incredibly talented Maya Rudolph, and Christina Applegate is a perfectly acceptable blond everywoman. She’s not especially quirky, but that’s okay, since she’s playing the generic mommy-executive type.

The premise is unfortunately simple: Mommy (Applegate) returns to work after having Baby, Daddy (Arnett) used to work (apparently he played hockey and worked in a law firm, definitively establishing Arnett’s Canadian heritage) but now he’s Mr. Mom, and Mommy’s boss is a real wackadoo (Rudolph). How will Mommy balance career and family? Will Daddy get resentful as Baby’s primary caregiver? And how will Crazy Boss provide hilarious comic relief? Pretty standard stuff.

Up All Night is completely watchable, but I’m having some real difficulty pinpointing exactly what is so boring about this show. At times the dialogue is pretty snappy, but then there are some clunky expository lines that hopefully will disappear once the show gets underway. There’s a certain leniency required to critique a pilot episode because its demands are so wholly different from an episode that comes halfway through an established series. So I’m willing to forgive the leaden repartee between Arnett’s character and Applegate’s in this early episode, but that doesn’t change the fact that Up All Night is just plain tedious.

If Emily Spivey, the creator, is sincerely trying to create a series that provokes the same feelings of ennui and malaise (god bless the French) in her audience that the Mommy and Daddy characters feel, then job well done. A rousing success.

The problem is that this strategy is too successful. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a mewling brat clinging to my neck as I puree real food into baby slops, but this show is tedious. I’m inclined to think that even if I could relate to the PARENTING EXPERIENCE (emphasis mine), I’d still find Up All Night dull and uninspired.

Yeah, babies change your life. It’s really tough at first, but then you get used to it. Almost 7 billion people have had or will have this revelation. Does this really mean we need a sitcom about it? And who’s the target audience for a show about the difficulties of being young(ish), white, middle-class, and raising a kid? Do other youngish, white, middle-class people really want to watch a show about the struggles of their peers? If I’ve been at work all day dealing with an infantile boss, or I’ve been home dealing with an actual infant, do I really want to come home and watch more of the same?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good television is an escape from the mundane; great television is an escape, but it also makes you think. Mildly watchable, but mostly uninteresting, television is home movies with higher production values. And no one wants to see another YouTube video of your adorable baby. Just like homemade sex videos, keep that shit to yourself.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to see an awesome show that’s superficially about parenting, I would recommend Raising Hope. I caught up on the first season of Raising Hope a few months ago and it’s easily one of the best sitcoms on television right now. Up All Night is about raising a baby, but Raising Hope is about the people raising a baby.

This may seem like a negligible discrepancy, but it makes all the difference. Applegate and Arnett’s characters are bland, suburban parents, while Rudolph’s character is the insane outlier that redeems the show from the domain of the purely mediocre. Raising Hope inverts this formula: the Mommy and Daddy characters are cut from the same cloth as Rudolph’s Up all Night character, as are many of the supporting roles, and only the Baby-Daddy’s character is bland–but necessarily so, as a foil to the trash-talking, chain-smoking Mommy and the oblivious, but well-meaning, Daddy. If you’re looking for diversion over parenting tips, laughs over commiseration, skip Up All Night and check out Raising Hope instead. The second season premieres next week on FOX, so you’ve still got a week to catch up. Stay tuned!

A Final Act of Contrition: A Follow-Up to New Girl

16 September 2011

An unfortunate instance of synchronicity.

I have a screenwriting class that meets twice a week, and in one recent session, we had to go around the room and discuss voice. Specifically, each writer’s voice when writing, and each writer’s voice when speaking. I use “voice” in the vague sense of one’s personality as it comes across in her writing, and one’s personality as it comes across in her conversation. A writer’s term, naturally, to describe some innate quality that is difficult to assess in concrete language.

I’ll take subversive, feisty, even direct and opinionated. But what I can’t tolerate is being told that I have a tendency to apologize for my work as printed copies are passed around the room. Do I do this? I don’t think I do this. All my life I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid the stereotype of the insecure woman who can’t stand behind the quality of her own work. Sure, I can’t take a compliment to save my life, but apologize for my writing? I never thought I was guilty.

But in writing script, one learns to consider every possible outcome of the story until the right one is clear. So I’ll entertain the possibility that my voice is uncertain and apologetic. And I will work harder to ensure it doesn’t always seem so. But before I go, I need to apologize for one more thing:

I’m sorry I wrote nice, bland pleasantries about New Girl. I’m sorry because when I think about the show, and I think about the conversations I’ve had about it with other women, I need to acknowledge that it’s really just another piece of post-feminist, fairer sex bullshit. So what I’m really sorry for is trying to convince myself and my readers that it was alright.

Here are the reasons why I didn’t eviscerate this undeniably mediocre show:

  1. I went to the screening with friends from the film school, and they all enjoyed it. It’s very hard to be mean when you want people to like you. So you take the easy route and laugh along every time a pretty girls plays at being a loser. Because you know what it feels like to be a loser, and it’s not quite what she’s feeling, but it’s easier to laugh and say Oh, yes, that’s exactly it.
  2. I had just moved to Los Angeles three weeks earlier and I didn’t want a reputation as the mean girl. And I know I’ve earned it, this second sandpaper skin that abrades against everything with a rotten core, but it was too soon. Too early to be the girl who doesn’t like anything.
  3. I wanted to believe in the golden lie that permeates every writers’ room in this town, every coffee shop critique, every mid-morning pitch: if a woman made it and we show it, that’s progress. And I know this is so incredibly wrong, but there it is. The lie that will take me places, the lie that will get my television shows on the air, my romantic comedies on the screen.

Do these sound like women’s reasons? Do these sound like apologetic musings? They should.

I’m sorry I pretended to like a show that was mediocre. I’m sorry I wanted to make friends before art. I’m sorry I bought into that incandescent lie.

I assure you it won’t happen again.

New Shows, New City: New Girl S01 E01

27 August 2011

Perpetual gamine Zooey Deschanel and housemates

Loyal readers (yes, all five of you), here’s the skinny:

Two weeks ago your intrepid blog-writer moved to Los Angeles, city of angels, shattered dreams, misplaced hope, etc. This move has placed me somewhat closer to the people responsible for the media I so dearly love to criticize. So my urge to eviscerate is dampened slightly by the vague threat of being black-listed. But never fear! I will remain a (self-) righteous arbiter of truth and beauty! Specifically the truth and beauty of the new FOX sitcom New Girl.

There are certain perks to be had as a member of the, ahem, film school elite, especially when one is paying the same amount in tuition that a family in Baltimore city might make in a year. (Can someone make me a LOLcat that reads, “Privlij! I haz it!”? Thanks.) These perks take the form of unpaid internships, grueling networking, and, of course, free screenings of yet-to-be-released films and television shows.

Tonight I got to see the pilot episode of New Girl, which officially premieres on FOX in September. And you know what? It didn’t suck. It was light and goofy, but generally pretty fun.

Now here’s where the truth n beauty come in: Impish Zooey D steals every scene she’s in with those big doe eyes that make me think she made an unholy deal with an anime character. An anime character who now drips enormous sweat-tears from beady rat eyes. So yeah, Zooey is pretty  beautiful, despite the thick, plastic frame glasses she wears to better impersonate an awkward girl. Oh honey, you’re never going to be the awkward girl, no matter how much bad dancing you do, or how many of your botched smiles turn into grimaces. But it’s just so darn cute to watch you try! (Incidentally, I am still undecided as to whether Liz Meriwether is mocking this ridiculous trope, or whether she genuinely thinks Zooey looks like a homely weirdo just because of some Henry Kissinger specs. Please, dear god, let it be the former.)

And the truth? Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the premise of New Girl bears some similarity to my living situation here in sunny, flesh-blistering California. You see, Zooey (aka Jess) lives with three male roommates after a cruel cucqueaning by her fashion model boyfriend (Yeah, you like that one?). And I, too, live with three male roommates, though I seem to have avoided the tense situations that arise when one is in possession of a model boyfriend. Darn!

This fictional situation, and my real one, raise some interesting questions about fabricating narrative. The premise of New Girl sounds equally hackneyed and absurd, and yet, it could happen to anyone. With an adorable performance by Zooey Deschanel (or should I say “Adorkable,” like the text on the t-shirt I got in my first swag bag? Oh geez. It’s happening.), we can see how an unusual housing situation, coupled with a relatable but simultaneously pathetic main character, becomes the premise for a situational comedy. Personal experiences are magnified and details are invented, but the resulting narrative still bears a passing resemblance to identifiable events. This strategy ensures that even when we laugh at Zooey/Jess’s foibles, we can see a little of ourselves in her.

I’d wager New Girl will last at least a full season, but I am hoping for some healthy competition from Two Broke Girls and Whitney. But regular readers know how I feel about any show of this ilk: if the protagonists are women, and the show itself is mildly watchable, then I completely support these endeavors. Now if we could only see some non-white actresses in these roles. We’ll revisit the issue in ten years. Surely there will be more to discuss by that time (Unless there isn’t, in which case I will quit Hollywood without so much as a backward glance or an Emmy nom.) Until then, stay tuned!

Excuses for a Lifetime of Watching Bad Summer Television

23 July 2011

I KNOW. I know, I know, I know. The summertime wasteland of TeleRevision is not a good sign for things to come.

I’m going to blame this on two things: the dearth of quality television during the summer and my own inability to do anything that even remotely resembles intellectual activity from about June 15-August 31. Excuses! I know!

To be honest, I have only watched two shows regularly since the summer began: Futurama and Ugly Americans. Although I legitimately enjoy both these shows, they are also incredibly easy to watch since they’re on the same channel on the same night in the same one hour block. This fits nicely with my summer theme of “Inactivity and Sloth.”

I have not been especially impressed with this season of Futurama so far. All the episodes have been about average to good (notice how I didn’t say mediocre?), but none have been really great. Before you think I’m getting all Simpsons-season-eight-and-earlier here, I should assure you that I enjoyed many of the episodes in the last season of Futurama, which was its first season since its reincarnation on Comedy Central.

I loved “The Duh-Vinci Code,” “Lethal Inspection,” “The Late Philip J. Fry,” and “A Clockwork Origin,” and I certainly couldn’t complain about most of the other episodes. Except for one. Is anyone else still reeling from that incredibly stupid plot where the hyper intelligent cats take over the Earth for their own nefarious purposes?

This season, which is technically considered the second part of last season (episodes 1-13 comprise 6A and 14-26 comprise 6B–as of this week, we’re up to episode 20), hasn’t impressed me nearly as much as its earlier half.

The only episode that I could see easing into the so-called classics with time was “Benderama.” I liked “Ghost in the Machines” and “Law and Oracle,” but was somewhat disappointed with this week’s “Yo Leela Leela,” which had an intriguing premise, but eventually gave us a PBS Kids plot about always telling the truth.

I am looking forward to the upcoming episode in which we learn the origin of Professor Farnsworth’s friendship with Dr. Zoidberg, but it’s still a few weeks away. In the meantime, I intend to keep watching television the way I watched it for the first two decades of my life–enthusiastically, uncritically, and with little regard for brain cells damaged.

Note: With the inclusion of the above photo, I now realize that I have forgotten to link some of my more egregious image pilfering to original sources. Apologies to any and all whose content I’ve used without linking. Should you wish to take legal action, my firstborn child is still available and I will gladly draw up a contract in blood.