White Elephant Television

If the MSM trendsters are to be believed, we can all breathe easy now that it's not gauche to talk about our television watching in polite company. Actually, it's now the opposite: everyone is talking about the tube. I'm referring to Alessandra Stanley's article in the Sunday NYT Arts & Leisure special section on the new TV season, one of those Sunday Times trend pieces that makes a small number of Manhattan professionals stand in for us all. It begins and ends with her self-serving pronouncement that now if you don't watch at least some of the buzzed-about shows (the kind Alessandra gives good reviews) you're missing out on the big common conversation. I read this to mean: it was once standard cultural literacy to have seen the latest Broadway plays and arty prestige movies but now the same society that dictated these preferences has adopted the likes of The Wire and Weeds as its favored chit-chat fodder. For what is the point of consuming any culture if not to have something to talk about with your family and friends when such topics as the weather, the Bush administration, and one's children or pets have been exhausted? She ends her essay with this pronouncement:

"Television used to be dismissed by elitists as the idiot box, a sea of mediocrity that drowns thought and intelligent debate. Now people who ignore its pools and eddies of excellence do so at their own peril. They are missing out on the main topic of conversation at their own table."

Helping to spread the meme of television's newfound cultural centrality, here's James Poniewozik of Time proclaiming (on his blog): "Say It Loud, I Watch TV and I'm Proud." JP tells us that he seems to

"encounter fewer and fewer people nowadays who claim that they never watch TV. The old snobby line used to be 'I never watch TV, except for PBS'; now it's '...and HBO, and Showtime, and FX, and Bravo, and AMC, and Lost, and Law & Order, and...'"

Everybody's doing it, talking proudly about their shows. I am. Aren't you? Well, you might think that someone like me--someone who considers television to be as significant an art form as any other--would be pleased by this turn in television's fortunes. Not so fast.

First of all, Stanely's and Poniewozik's amateur sociology is hardly reliable as evidence of widespread constructions of taste or social behaviors. They are both professional television critics with an interest in television being taken seriously. It seems obvious that people would be keen to talk about television with a TV critic. Does this tell us anything about what people like to talk about when they're not talking to a TV critic? And even if we grant that some people are more comfortable talking about TV these days, who are we really talking about? Both AS and JP work for high-profile New York media outlets. What social circles do they move in? Where have they gathered their evidence? Poniewozik's blog post is a propos of having appeared on public radio to discuss new television shows. He is pleasantly surprised to find that the listeners of public radio watch TV. Huh? Just about everyone watches TV, and people who call in to discuss TV on the radio are a self-selecting group keen on advertising their viewing habits.

I have been talking about TV with all kinds of people, polite and otherwise, for my entire life. Wasn't the whole country talking about who killed JR in 1980? Didn't the national conversation revolve around Murphy Brown's baby in 1992? Did anyone talk of anything other than OJ for the year of his constant media attention? Didn't everyone have conversations in the mid-1990s in which some experience was described as "like a Seinfeld episode"? Didn't everyone speculate about The X-Files when it was on? (I never watched it and always felt left out of conversations.) Didn't the whole country have an opinion about whether Richard Hatch could win Survivor and whether Ally McBeal's skirts were too short and whether Ross and Rachel should wind up together?

JP and AS may be right and they may be wrong. It doesn't matter. Even if society has not changed much, the media has been circulating this meme such that people will believe that a change has occurred. It goes hand-in-hand with the TV-has-improved meme, the one that says that television now is finally holding its own in comparison to the movies. Never mind that such broad comparisons are virtually meaningless (what TV? what movies? on what terms?). They are printing the legend, and it will be true. Television will be legitimate if the critics say it is.

But more important than the empirical matter is the fact that the kind of television that is being legitimated in upscale circles is precisely upscale television. It's television that has been constructed to appeal to a classy consumer. Showtime and HBO are only available to those who can afford premium subscriptions, more than $100 a year typically. Mad Men has a boutique appeal, and abysmal ratings when compared with, say, CSI. It is precisely the fragmentation of the television market into so many hundreds of channels and so many niche demographics that has allowed for the creation of TV for the upper crust, TV that can be satisfied with 900,000 viewers with a median annual household income $30,000 above the average (I'm making up these figures, but I doubt I'm far off for Mad Men). Most of TV isn't like these upscale shows. And most of TV isn't the stuff that JP and AS have in mind when they talk of the common conversation and the pride in viewing. They don't mean daytime dramas or talk shows or game shows. They don't mean sports or local news. They don't mean HGTV or home shopping or VH1 or shows for kids. And they don't mean reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance or American Idol or The Hills.

The kind of television that is constructed as legitimate in this notion of legitimacy is television stripped of its typical associations with femininity and domesticity, television made to seem in some way cinematic (camera style and lighting, dark themes & morally ambiguous characters, a widescreen aspect ratio, availability on DVD). It is especially by offering television as cinematic that this new legitimacy has been constructed, because it allows TV to piggy-back on the cultural cachet of cinema. This is what artforms do when seeking new legitimacy. They try to make themselves seem like already-legitimate forms, as cinema once did by fashioning itself after the theater and as photography once did by imitating oil painting. Consider that the television shows regularly recapped in the cinephile blog The House Next Door all fit this masculinized, cinematic category: The Sopranos, Mad Men, BSG, Dr. Who, Deadwood, The Wire. Shows movie-loving boys would like, recapped by movie-loving boys. Taste, says Bourdieu, is perhaps first of all distaste. The distaste lurking in this new taste for television is directed at the "not TV" of HBO's slogan: the stuff millions of people watch and love. The rejection of their taste in the phrase "not TV" is an insult to the general public.

If television is to be legitimated, I propose that critics and enthusiasts look beyond the boutique shows, the upscale dramas and single-cam comedies, the ones produced with one eye on the DVD box set. Because by legitimating these shows, TV's new champions are reinforcing the delegitimacy of genres like the soap opera and the reality contest. This is a loaded issue. Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You makes a case for TV's aesthetic legitimacy on the basis (among other things) of the cognitive demands that shows like The Sopranos make on viewers when they jump back and forth among so many storylines. But soap operas have done the same thing for decades. The difference is not aesthetic or cognitive; it is social and cultural and ideological. David Chase reinforces this distinction when he tells interviewers how much he dislikes network television and makes known his life-long ambition of making feature films (e.g., beginning around 29:30 of this Fresh Air program Chase accuses the networks of caring most about selling stuff.) He promotes himself, his show, its cable channel at the expense of others and perpetuates the cultural hierarchy that has always kept TV down. It is because of this rhetoric that that the polite company that JP and AS describe consider it acceptable--even in this new golden age of television--to discuss so many kinds of TV only in the guilty pleasure category. Stanley adopts this stance when she confesses that she tunes in to NCIS and Jag. I'm sure you hear this stuff all the time: people (very often women) confess that they're addicted to this or that reality show or soapy prime-time drama. Their tone says it all. There is a taboo against appreciating many kinds of television that is reinforced by the ascent to legitimacy of masculinized, cinematic TV.

There is real beauty in The Hills, in the simplicity and directness of its emotional impact, in its universal narratives of friendship and betrayal, in its expressive performances (LC has become one of my favorite screen performers, and she has learned to use her eyes like Mary Pickford), in its use of music to comment on action and of action to reveal character. It seizes moments in the flow of everyday events that no scripted show can capture and even as we know that its scenes are staged, its performers improvise their lives for us in such a way that we know that the stakes for them must be real. It is shot to reveal the sun-drenched boulevards and cafes, stark modernist office buildings, and shadowy night-spots of LA in a way that I haven't seen before, making them cozy and comfy, like a plastic backyard play set for the coddled, overgrown kids whose tales the show tells. It is edited by smart storytellers who know how even a suggestion of a smile or a downward glance can sell a scene. I wish television's new champions would celebrate more shows like The Hills. (A perceptive and intelligent blog about The Hills, among other topics, is Songs About Buildings and Food. I found it linked from one of Virginia Heffernan's reviews. Heffernan is one of the few TV critics writing for a major paper or magazine who show an appreciation for programs outside of the predictable range of legitimate taste.)

I'm all for television being legitimated, but I insist on legitimacy for more than just the small fraction of TV made to appeal to the sort of people likely to write for and read Time and the Times. Manny Farber's distinction between white elephant art and termite art is instructive here, even if it's not very precise. The Sopranos is a white elephant show, grand and ambitious, craving accolades and masterpiece status; the spectacle of the Emmys paying tribute to it earlier this month was garish and embarrassing. Termite television would be the opposite: unpretentious but vital in its own underground way. Its beauty and art are intrinsic to its form and are the product of serious creative thought. But it doesn't advertise itself as beautiful or artistic, and is still waiting to be appreciated by sensitive critics willing to break the taboo against genuinely, publicly admiring most of what is on the tube. We need a discourse of legitimacy for more than just white elephant television.

Updated 1/27/08: If I had seen it when writing the post above, I would have included a link to "In Praise of Termites," an appreciation of Manny Farber in The Believer.


Philip Roth's new novel is Exit Ghost, the last of his many fictions about Nathan Zuckerman, a character everyone considers to be a version of himself. The Times (UK) has a Philip Roth primer and npr has an interview with the author. GreenCine offers a few links and a video of Roth talking politics. Christopher Hitchens has a scathing review. I think Roth is the only novelist whose books I always want to read as soon as they come out.

David Edelstein glosses the Coen brothers and previews their new movie, No Country For Old Men, in New York.

The Daniel Clowes-teacher resigned story keeps getting weirder. The mother of the child, then thirteen, whose teacher resigned after giving her a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes has been leaving comments (in her family's defense) at comics blogs where debate over the issue has been lively.

Will you be any more likely to see Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited because he is also releasing a short online video called Hotel Chevalier, with an ambiguous paratextual relationship to the new film, that includes Natalie Portman in a nude scene? (Frankly, I might skip both. And I might also feel a little scummy doing my small part to publicize this stunt.)

Michael Haneke in the NYT Mag: "I'm trying to rape the viewer into independence." Here's a challenge: finish a sentence that begins "I'm trying to rape..." in a way that makes the speaker sound like someone you would want to keep having a conversation with. (Late bloomers may take comfort from this: Haneke directed his first feature film at age 47.)

The Simpsons scenes frame-by-frame with the movies they parody (via del.icio.us/film_snob).


A don't tase me, bro t-shirt, and another don't tase me, bro t-shirt. (context)

There is nothing on the web better than lolsecretz.

Slate has a TV week series, including a slideshow on the history of the laugh track (previously) and a piece on TV character blogs. I've never gotten into these, though I do follow Xander Harris's Twitterstream.

The first ep of this season's Friday Night Lights is streaming at Yahoo TV, but I want to wait to watch it on a real TV. We'll see how patient I can be.

Here's a blog profile of composer Evan Lurie, formerly of the Lounge Lizards and now a key contributor to The Backyardigans, the brilliant children's program on Nick/Noggin that has a different style of music for each episode.

Boing Boing links to a 60 Minutes segment from 1978 about video piracy, including an interview with the late Jack Valenti. How little has changed in 30 years in the way the mainstream press approaches this kind of story. YouTube: part one, part two.

And Back to You is the first show of the new TV season that has surprised me. It's reminiscent of so many old faves, and not just Cheers and Frasier. The newsroom-family is reminiscent of MTM and Murphy Brown and the rapport between the leads is in the Moonlighting and Will & Grace tradition. Maybe part of what I like about it is the positive associations, but the talent is certainly there. In addition to its writing and performances, one thing in particular that I admire is that it has long scenes, something you rarely find in TV of any genre these days (some cable dramas are exceptions, though not The Sopranos). I hope this is a sign of a trend reversing itself. The traditional sit-com is a form that works, and it has a lot of life left in it.


Most Will Fail

Impressions of television as the season begins.

My TV friends (small version)

Summer ends and a new year starts. School, Jewish holidays, football. Toronto's film festival launches a season of "quality" cinema that will culminate in late February with the Oscars. And the television networks offer a harvest of new shows, some hearty perennials familiar from many years past, and some new ones that might bear unfamiliar scents. Actually, most of the new programs will smell a lot like the old ones. Nothing succeeds like success in any big business, and in the television industry the networks like to follow hits with plenty of copycats. Last fall the Zeitgeist demanded Lost-alikes, shows with convoluted mystery plots, often with elements of the supernatural or sci-fi: Heroes, Jericho, The Nine, Kidnapped, Vanished, Six Degrees. The cw was that these were certain to fail because no one would have the time to follow them all with the faithful weekly attention they would demand. Like Lost (also 24, Prison Break...), these were shows that couldn't be checked in on occasionally; they would compel a near obsessiveness. But complaining about their high demands missed a huge point: most shows fail. And so most of the serialized dramas that premiered a year ago are gone, and that's how it always is with most of the new shows. Some found a nice audience, especially Heroes, which would become a model to emulate. Jericho got small ratings, but rabid fans convinced CBS to uncancel it. Now comes another raft of pilots and wouldn't you know it: they have mysteries, supernatural elements, and serial narratives (mind you, producers and networks are probably avoiding the term "serial" for now). In September we remember that time moves in a circle.

Prime-time television series are different from other narrative forms in various ways, but one big one is that very few artists ever get the chance to create them. Most of the stories that are conceived are never produced, most of the ones produced are never offered to the public, and most of the ones aired are never around long enough to develop their plots and characters in a satisfying way. This is to say, a tiny fraction of the television shows that are begun are ever fully realized. If I were a TV writer, I imagine this would depress me to no end. Even the most successful creators for the small screen, the Dick Wolfs and Stephen Bochcos and David E. Kelleys, sometimes come up short. This year we'll see about Josh Schwartz, the wunderkind of The O.C. who is transposing his brand of opulent teen melodrama to the Upper East Side with Gossip Girl on The CW. The O.C. was engrossing for one season before it went south, so maybe on the second try young Josh can milk two or three good years. I hope Gossip Girl will be a hit; it's already getting a ton of publicity and its pilot, available for free from iTunes, works its mix of outrageous dialog, soapy plotting, and barely legal sex and drugs pretty effectively. It also has an appealing, snarky voice-over narration by Kristen Bell (who is also joining the Heroes cast, to the delight of every geek with a television) as a blogger narrating the events. Schwartz has a second show beginning this fall called Chuck, about a man who somehow has the entire CIA database in his head; this will increase his odds at success. Meanwhile on ABC, Shonda Rhimes gets a shot at duplicating her success as Private Practice spins off of Grey's. The episode last spring that introduced the new setting and characters left a lot of people unsatisfied, and there have been reports of retooling.

The pleasure of a new season starting is in the optimism it brings, the hope that some of the new shows will, eventually, become old favorites. It's like that first day of summer camp when you glance around wondering which of the dozens of anxious faces is your future best friend. But we know that most of the new shows won't even be good the first time around, and that many of those that arouse our excitement will disappoint us within a few weeks. This is one hard thing about settling in for a new season: knowing that the impressive pilot with solid actors and a real shot of connecting with an audience might fizzle over its subsequent episodes. This show is like the student who always makes brilliant remarks in class discussions and then can't bother to study for the exam and ends up with a C. But even worse is the show that has most of what it needs to be great, can't find an audience, and gets the ax before it really has a chance. And worst of all: the program stinks but the audience loves it, and it's the one all the other networks copy (failingly) the year after that. Which of these will Pushing Daisies be, the show that supposedly has the best pilot since Lost? Can Nashville press its Laguna template onto a talent-show situation successfully? What about Cain, with its Latino-Dynasty intrigue and the star power of Jimmy Smits, and K-ville, with its post-hurricane New Orleans setting? What about Aliens in America, set right here in Wisconsin (but shot in Canada, natch)? Will Dirty Sexy Money shift the fashion from one-word titles to Adjective-Adjective-Noun titles? Will Viva Laughlin prove that a musical can work in prime-time (let's not fantasize that musicals have a chance to become the next big thing)? Will Reaper inspire imitators hoping to cash in on a craze for Satanic slackers, or will the whole world fall for Moonlight's vampire or Journeyman's time traveler? Is Bionic Woman as fucked as reports would indicate? Is it the next Buffy, or the next Battlestar, or even the next Commander in Chief? (For some very inside-baseball thoughts on the matter, follow that link to Seriocity, a blog by a cynical TV scribe.)

Discovering new things is always potentially stressful, but some of the routines of the TV business exacerbate the frustrations that come with checking out these new shows. Aside from the fact that most of them are either flawed or mediocre, the biggest problem with watching new shows is that they're not just episodes, they're pilots. Way more attention goes into one than any typical episode, and no one seems ashamed of the excess. Pilots have longer production schedules, with more extensive use of locations and special effects. Budgets are big, sometimes more like feature films than typical hours or half-hours of prime-time television. (The Lost pilot apparently cost $15 million, though it was worth it.) Because pilots are shot before networks decide which shows are going to be produced as series, the crew for the pilot might not be the same as the crew for the rest of the season. The tone might shift. The pilot's pace and structure might be unsustainable over a long year of writing and shooting. Pilots often come across like advertisements trying to get you to like them, and they move too fast and with too much flash. They also face the problem of extensive exposition, having to accomplish at once the goal of making a compelling episode that will get you to want to watch again and of introducing all the characters and situations that will need to be familiar. They answer to too many highly scrutinizing masters: network execs, advertisers, critics and tastemakers, and ordinary Joes and Janes surfing channels. You can't really know what a show is like from the pilot; you have to watch for a few weeks or even months to find out. Finding the really good TV demands patience and time, but they're in short supply around now.

And then there are the returning shows, the ones we had to kiss goodbye last April or May, promising to stay faithful and connect again come fall. As is often the case, some of the programs still around from last season that excite people like me ("people like me": overeducated, pop culture addicted, "creative class") struggled for ratings and were picked up for a second go-round because they show promise, because they bring critical acclaim/prestige to the network and win awards, because they might sell well on DVD or through downloads, or because powerful people in the networks like them. I'm thinking in particular of Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock, two shows that would have been canceled if the networks operated strictly according to what gets ratings. (Studio 60, so often compared to 30 Rock at first, had the larger audience of the two--and a decent pilot, remember?--but was a total train-wreck creatively.) And there's another reason why some shows get treated better than others. Those that are produced within the family of companies that owns the network might stand more of a chance than those produced by a company from a rival conglomerate. This actually might be the best explanation for 30 Rock's success and Studio 60's failure at winning another chance to become a hit. 30 Rock is produced by NBC Universal and shot in NBC studios, and if the show survives long enough to be sold into off-network syndication, that same General Electric mocked so mercilessly by Tina Fey and her writers will reap the ultimate reward. By contrast, Studio 60 was produced by Warner Bros. and was more expensive to make. NBC had too little to gain from sticking with it. Now here is something to wish for: third (and fourth!) seasons for FNL and 30 Rock. It could happen if you tell two friends to watch. Then they'll tell two friends, and they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on...

Some of the returning shows are, by contrast, too familiar, and still running not because there's so much story left to tell but because they're cows that still make milk. ER is back for season #14. Law & Order will return in the winter for an 18th go-round while one of its former cast members makes a run for the White House. The Simpsons is 19 years old, older if you go back to the Tracy Ullman Show. Can you believe that undergrads have never known a world without The Simpsons! Even some that feel recent are starting to look ancient, like Survivor (8 years/16 seasons), SVU (9 seasons) CSI (8), 24, Smallville and Scrubs (7). Even House, Housewives, and Grey's (4) are no longer fresh and new. Two and a Half Men returns for a fifth season as the tube's most watched sitcom, a fact that makes "people like me" cringe. When you hear "nothing succeeds like success" these are the shows to keep in mind, the ones like the Survivor and L&O and CSI franchises that could, in theory, never end. I wouldn't miss any of these if they disappeared, but sometimes when I check in on, say, ER or Law & Order, I find the comfort of an old friend with whom conversations can take a break of several years and pick right up again. Jeff Probst still, after scores of tribal councils, affects seriousness as he pronounces, "the tribe has spoken: it's time for you to go." ER now has Stanley Tucci, one of a multitude of talented stage and film actors who are increasingly finding meaty roles on the small screen. He alone makes it worth visiting the fictional County General from time to time. And the cha-ching of the Law & Order transition is like the dinner bell that brought saliva to the mouths of Pavlov's dogs.

The September-to-May season is still a mainstay of network scheduling, as this very blog entry attests. Predictions of its demise--of a continuous season--have been not just exaggerations but misapprehensions of how the television business functions. There is still no better way for advertisers to reach large numbers of consumers than the networks, and this is really the most important thing to know about American TV. As long as the annual cycle of sweeps periods and network upfronts remains intact, so will the conventional season. (Every year now it seems we hear that it's the last hurrah for the upfronts...again, we'll see.) There are even additional forces now that didn't exist a few years ago to maintain the conventional season. The Lost-type shows play very badly in reruns, so they're not even on in the summer. And now with the popularity of summertime cable series, programmed not to face the networks' big guns, there is even less incentive for nets to air new episodes of their most popular shows then. Why would they want to shift new episodes into competition with The Closer? It's true that there is an audience available during the sunny weather, that not everyone stays out of doors just because the sun shines late into the evening. Summer was when when Idol, Survivor, and Millionaire found their surprisingly big ratings. But as soon as they were hits, these programs moved to the conventional schedule and never went back. The trail they blazed was for the cable channels, premium and basic alike, to debut new series to claim the summer audience neglected by the networks. Now summertime is not really the dead zone it used to be for television viewers. There have been numerous original series debuting in the summertime, especially on stations like TNT and FX. Mad Men is clearly this summer's big discovery. (It won't really please me if Mad Men competes for numerous Emmys a year from now because the Emmys are such a lame joke, but it certainly deserves them.) The point here is that summer is no longer just a time for reruns, for catching up on things we have missed before and watching pennant races heat up. But it's still not the season for new comedies and dramas on the networks. And despite their waning influence, despite the availability of shows on DVD and despite digital timeshifting making ratings less informative, despite market fragmentation and the migration of young viewers from televisions to computers and video games, the networks are still where the largest audience is to be found. Just ask the people who make the shows that go up against American Idol.

In May, Idol will add a seventh winner to its roster of TV-made pop stars. No one profits from bashing Idol, a true classic that combines all of television's appeals in one tidy package. Its live broadcasts merge reality and artifice, virtuosity and degradation, critical intelligence and inanity, nostalgia and novelty, humor and cheese. It has brought people together in living rooms at a time when they were thought to be retreating individually to age- and gender-defined niches. It taught a generation to communicate by text message. It has put performances of song and dance back on the prime-time schedule, and in its wake we have seen its imitators attempt the same, from Dancing With the Stars to Don't Forget the Lyrics. The producers of Idol have another copycat this year, The Next Great American Band, and it will probably fail unless it can reproduce not just the Idol formula, so familiar now in reality competitions from Top Model to I Wanna Be a Soap Star, but its Wow Factor. The genius of Idol is that it tells compelling stories about its contestants and makes them into characters in an ongoing narrative: the narrative of their shot at the big time, and also the narrative of their private life as a son or daughter, father or mother, drugstore clerk or preschool teacher or backup singer. That's why you can't ffwd through the cheesy "packages" that run before each performance. The package gives the context for the song, and is essential in anchoring its meaning and effect. There are lots of reasons why AI is the hottest potato on the TV sked, the one that makes hits of whatever gets its lead-in and decimates the competition. One reason is that it engineers powerful emotions. We feel proud of our Idols when they sing well, when they captivate us with their music and showmanship. Idol does what any very successful prime-time series does: it presents vivid characters and gets you to feel with and for them as week follows week.

Finally, the program with the most at stake in '07-'08: Battlestar Galactica. It ended its penultimate season last spring with a controversial shocker as five characters thought to be human were revealed to be toasters. BSG has made a habit of ending seasons by going for really big out-of-nowhere twists, but I thought this last one was a rather desperate move by the writers to revamp the basic situation, to enliven it and push toward a final season that would be both a fresh departure and a fitting ending. This show has always aimed high and it needs to make the whole series fit together as one long arc--a tall order even for someone with the superior intelligence and skill of Ron Moore. I was disappointed, especially by the device of having all five characters recite lines from the same abstruse Bob Dylan lyric to signal their convergent discovery of true selves. This heavy-handed allusion took me out of the world of the narrative, though I doubt the writers had Brechtian intentions. But it's been many months since then and I miss my TV friends enough to give them a chance to convince me I was wrong. September is an optimistic time. By December, with most of the new programs gone, our mood might well have turned a little more jaded, or anxious, or madly in love with a shiny new TV show that everyone, everyone, really needs to watch.



-The Futon Critic's front page links to a series of informative and data-packed posts called "10 things you need to know about the new season."

-It's TV Week at Salon, which awarded FNL its Buffy award for the most underappreciated show.

-And at the newish blog The Extratextuals, Jonathan Grey reports from the fall preview screenings at the Paley Center for Media in New York. He and I disagree about KB's v-o in Gossip Girl.


Quarterlife, the new series by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, isn't going to be on ABC, the network for which it was developed in 2004 (when it was called 1/4 Life; I've been wondering since I read about that show three years ago what ever happened to it). Instead it's going to be a video series on MySpace.

Quarterlife Trailer

Add to My Profile | More Videos

These trailer-promo things are never a good indication of what a television series is like when you watch it regularly, and this one has the typical flaws of the form: speechy dialog out of context that kind of makes you cringe, cuts to bits of music that too baldly are trying to convey hipness and cool. Anyway, I have missed having an Ed and Marshall show in my life since O&A was canceled and this promo bears their authorial mark pretty recognizably. I'm thrilled that brilliant television producers might have a resource in the web for taking back some of the control they deserve from the too-powerful, vertically integrated conglomerates that control network television.

For more, see the Quarterlife official site, 1/4 life official fan site, and stories in Variety, the NYT and on npr.


This x is the new y chart is the new x is the new y chart. My favorite one: "Friendster is the new Google." As if!

The Disney watchblog Jim Hill Media reports that Disney and Pixar are disappointed in Ratatouille's performance. They're trying to figure out what went wrong with a film that has grossed $200 domestically. The problem: unlike its predecessors from Pixar, it won't finish in the year's top five at the b.o. It may not be even be in the top ten. (via Vulture)

News from the FNL insider blog: Friday Night Lights won the Emmy for best casting. Too bad about the rest of the Emmys.

Tcritic has photos of the newly opened Threadless store in Chicago. More at the store's own website. And here's a typically clever Threadless design from their most recent crop of releases: My Favorite Pattern.

And I'm still thinking about last night's premiere of Tell Me You Love Me on HBO. I was prepared to hate it and felt pretty uncomfortable during most of the episode, especially during the characters' fights. The sex scenes are hardly extraneous, as some people have been saying. The scene of the couple who are trying to get pregnant in which the man ejaculates and she studies at his semen on her fingers is especially well motivated: she's wondering if he can be to blame for their fertility problems. Sex scenes in most movies and TV are incredibly banal but you can't say that of this show's lovemaking. That frisson that accompanies shots of penises and scrota won't last, though. After a few episodes it will be, like, yeah whatever. And I really don't care if the actors are having intercourse or not. What difference does it make? I really admired the show's visual approach, all the real estate porn and tight close-ups. In subject matter and approach, Tell Me You Love Me reminds me more of indie films about grownup relationships (Friends With Money, Your Friends and Neighbors), than anything else on television. I have wondered for awhile if and how the indie sensibility will carry over from American movies to TV, and this might be the best instance of it yet. This could be the show that keeps HBO fresh and vital in its post-Sopranos period. I can see people coming to care about these characters and being fascinated by the depths of intimate detail we learn about them.


Yo Blogga Blogga is the new-to-me production blog of Yo Gabba Gabba, the best new TV show to watch with a preschooler since The Backyardigans. I wish every show would have a nice, casual blog like this to give you a sense of what really goes on rather than those uninformative and ad-ridden official sites the networks make. Anyhow, as this review in the SF Chron points out, one key to making a successful kids show is having it appeal to adults. (The makers of Sesame Street knew this a long time ago.) YGG is a program by and for hipsters who grew up in the 80s, and that their kids will like it too is almost just gravy. The dancing children onscreen appear to have been costumed by Etsy, the host is a rad DJ in a furry orange hat and oversize black glasses, the music is hip-hop and electronic dance beats, and the animation often goes for an old skool stop-motion look. Everyone I know who has seen it has good things to say, and that includes one three year-old and a number of thirtysomethings.

Some clips have made it to YouTube. Check out the party in this guy's tummy:

Let Elijah Wood teach you a dance (this is pretty trippy).

And here's a promo video. The 80s videogame graphics blow my mind.

(Hope these videos are still here by the time you read this. Nick Jr. and Noggin, the channels that air YGG, are part of the Viacom family, and YouTube clips from Viacom properties have been known to disappear.)


I was going to ignore the Time top 100 TV shows list, but Jason blogged about it and my comment there ended up a little ranty, which is why I was going to ignore it in the first place. Some things are hard to ignore. Click over there for several people's thoughts about shows that shouldn't have missed the cut. A consensus seems to be forming that The Muppet Show wuz robbed. So here's a little Swedish Chef for you. Could there really be 100 better ones than this?

(Previously in anti-list blogging.)


"We're drowning in quirk," whines Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic. "As an aesthetic principle, quirk is an embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream." It goes on to dump on Ira Glass, Wes Anderson, Arrested Development, and lots of other things it calls "indie" in a kvetchy tone. Worth a read if only to track the Zeitgeist. I happen to like quirk, for the record, but can see why others wouldn't.

MariƩ Digby, a YouTube girl-with-guitar sensation, disingenuously presented herself as a nobody hoping to be discovered. Turns out she was already signed to a major label. The WSJ has the story. More background + clips at NewTeeVee.

danah boyd sez get yourself an online identity that you control, that's a face you want to show the world. Related: unless you tell it not to, Facebook is soon going to make your profile available to web searchers. This is bad news for a lot of lazy or naive people. And also related: are Nancy's new FB friends really the guys from REM?

Language Log demolishes that NPR story about how and why women read more fiction than men.

Last night's Mad Men had several incredible scenes, including the little moment when the black janitor sees the shadow of Peggy and Pete having sex, the electric response to "The Twist" coming on the jukebox, and Peggy's excitement at being poured a drink with the men. But my favorite was when Salvator turned away the advances of the man we expected him to sleep with, revealing his own sexual innocence. This was a heartbreaking, intensely revealing bit of storytelling and is the sort of thing that makes the show so special. Several TV blogs are covering Mad Men in more depth than I can. Check out The House Next Door, What's Alan Watching?, and Tuned In (by Time TV critic James Poniewozik). Also worth a look/listen are Anna McCarthy's essay in The Nation and Matthew Weiner's interview last weekend on NPR.

And although it's a month before Friday Night Lights returns, the first season DVD is out. Now here's a new blog about the show, Friday Night Lights Insider.


Internet People

A "We Didn't Start the Fire" of viral video, cataloging all those faces and images you remember from, like, last year and the year before that. Nostalgia for the present, pretty much. It really feels like the end of something. (via MeFi) (And yeah, the embedded video is taking up too much space. That's DIY media for ya.)

Update 9/10: Buzzfeed has a cheat sheet.


Anticipating MIFF

The Milwaukee International Film Festival runs from September 20-30, and tickets will go on sale tomorrow. This is the fest's fifth year, and although I have lived in Milwaukee for all that time, I have never seen any films at the fest. This is partly a product of my dislike of film festivals, which I find tend to inflate people's estimations and evaluations of films in their atmosphere of appreciative discovery. I don't like large crowds, and I've seen too much crap that festival guides touted as essential viewing. I would rather catch the films that will have theatrical releases on my own schedule, and I resent paying inflated admission prices to see things I might not rent if Hollywood Video carried them and I had all night to watch movies. I admit that this is a little eccentric and silly, and that there are many great films that one can only see at festivals. Partly this avoidance is also a product of my formative years in Toronto, a town with a truly great festival next to which Milwaukee's looks pretty rinky-dink. Anyhow, I have decided to throw myself into this year's festival, to give it a real chance, and catch up with some of the international cinema that has been touring the circuit. Now the hard part: choosing what to see.

There are good and bad things about going to a fest like this one. There will be no discoveries here, certainly not of major American independents or foreign auteurs. Most of the films here have screened already at more important events. Lots of the MIFF entrants were on the slate in Toronto a year ago, and many of the American ones that didn't were at last winter's Sundance. European films that didn't play at the TIFF might have been at Berlin, Rotterdam, or Karlovy Vary. This means that a large number of the films screening here have been reviewed fairly widely. I have been collecting these in my del.icio.us, under the tag miff. Of the major festival circuit names, the best known here are probably Hang Sang-soo and Lars von Trier. Local boy Chris Smith will be here with his new film, his feature debut, The Pool. The fest guide describes it a "neorealist tale" shot in India. Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep will be showing, as will The Whole Shootin' Match, a 1979 American indie that is credited with inspiring Robert Redford to make Sundance into a showcase for American regional cinema. There are docs, shorts, local films, and a small series in tribute to Willem Dafoe, a Wisconsin native who went to UW-Milwaukee before dropping out to join an avant-garde theater group, and then going on to his career in movies. Unfortunately, none of these mumblecore films we have been reading about in blogs and newspapers seem to be turning up here this year. I have seen some of them on video, and think I want to save my judgment until I have seen some in the theater. The small screen might not be their ideal format. (I assume Hannah Takes the Stairs will be here before long, given the amount of publicity it has had.)

More MIFF blogging is to come, I hope. Stay tuned.


Some other items:

-A new semester has begun. I am teaching one course, Principles of Media Studies. This is my third semester at it, and for this installment I have added a day on Facebook. I was thinking of replacing the group class blog with a discussion board in a Facebook group but sort of chickened out. It's still not clear to me how students and teachers will interact in the online social-networking environment, and I don't want any students feeling like I have invaded their space. I also didn't want to compel any of them who might be reluctant to get on Facebook to participate there. Some of them are trying to protect their time by avoiding that stuff, and I applaud them for trying, I guess.

-The summer television offerings have been so good that our usual habit of catching up on shows we have missed on DVD has been put aside. (Last summer's discovery was BSG.) I'm working out some ideas about Mad Men, my favorite of the season by far. It's worth watching its credit sequence if nothing else, clearly in the Bass tradition but very contemporary at the same time. I also like the psychological machinations of Damages, and its superb acting by Glenn Close. And The Hills and Newport Harbor amaze in every installment with their gorgeous mise en scene, classic soapy plotting, and vapid characters. One cannot turn away.