Faves, 2007

This is a collection, in no particular order, of some favorite movies, TV shows, videos, recordings, websites, books, etc., of 2007.

The hardest thing about writing this is remembering anything at all that happened in January, February, March, April, and May. I sort of remember June and July, which I guess is good. Could it be that most good things first appear in the fall? Film critics certainly don't mind thinking so. Seems dubious to me.


-Fan vids by girls and women who express their sincere affection for movies and television and their performers and characters. I find these so much more resonant with my experience of pop culture these days than the too-cool mashups and home-brewed trailers that were among the big things in 2006. Here's an example by the YouTuber KristenBellfan16 paying tribute to Milly and Johnny in Because I Said So, a cheesy, can't-change-the-channel-when-it's-on-HBO rom-com from last winter. When the dialog is stripped away in favor of pop music, faces become more expressive and details of acting more prominent, like the way Mandy Moore sometimes shyly hides her eyes when she smiles and how adorably she mixes amusement and concern. And if you avoided seeing this movie because Diane Keaton is supposed to play a parody of herself (it didn't bother me), this little songvid gets rid of her entirely.

-Rihanna's totally unsubtle and seductive video to "Shut Up and Drive."

-Rufus Wainwright’s album Release the Stars, especially the schmaltzy Phantom of the Opera quotation at the end of the apocalyptic love song “Between My Legs.”

-Which reminds me of another thing: concert videos shot from the audience. This one is of "Between My Legs" at a concert I saw at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on August 27.

And another version of the same song, with much better audio and video quality, from a concert in Saratoga.

-Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a page-turning mystery among other things. Of 2006, though.

-Then We Came To The End (click it, really), a novel I'm only half-way through, written audaciously in the first-person plural as a non-individuated "we" (I keep wondering how it could be made into a movie in a way that preserves the strangeness of this device) and another addition in what would seem like a burgeoning genre: satire of the corporate office. (Others would include Clockwatchers, Office Space, Dilbert, The Boss of it All, and two versions of The Office.) A topic for future research.

-The Simpsons movie for that "does whatever a Spider Pig does" goofiness.

-I’m Not There mostly for Cate Blanchett in the Felliniesque sequences and also for the ambition of making a movie that would take on Dylan as he might take himself on, maddeningly and with confident, visionary poetry.

-No Country For Old Men, especially first 3/4 when it’s a masterful guy-chases-guy flick.

-Ratatouille, for the details of the restaurant kitchen. Pixar films succeed in the details. A pox on its head, though, for all that pandering Anton Ego crap to flatter critics.

-Michael Clayton, especially the climactic confrontation between Clooney and Tilda Swinton when he gets her to agree to give him all that money. We had been waiting for Clooney to turn that on.

-Jonathan Lethem’s “Ecstasy of Influence” essay in Harper’s.

-The trailer for Juno. I haven't seen the movie but the trailer's a delight. I especially like the use of the word "shenanigans" and "All the Young Dudes" by Mott the Hoople. (Update 12/22: Just saw the movie; as you might have heard, it makes you smile, laugh, cry, and eagerly await more movies from the folks who made it.)

-I also really connect with the trailer for Hannah Takes the Stairs, another film yet to come to my town. I guess I sort of like her indie hairdo and the bright yellow background for the titles. The bit with the slinky is cutesy.

-Virginia Heffernan’s TV and internet criticism, especially when writing on the uncanny modernism of reality shows.

-Songs About Buildings and Food, a blog I always want to read as soon as I see a new post no matter what else I should be doing.

-Jezebel, a site for the ladies but who cares. It manages snark without the nastiness of its big sis Gawker and has the progressive agenda of being an antidote to the "aspirational" vapidity of women's mags.

-Slate’s slideshows like the ones on houses, snapshots, asses, and parking garages.

-Amy Winehouse before she totally lost it. Yeah, even the intro/verse parts of “You Know I’m No Good” that were used on the soundtrack of every quality drama in prime-time.

-The Hills, every moment but especially the ones where you can see Lauren’s face.

-Friday Night Lights, first season only, for making us care about people we too rarely get to know so well on prime-time television.

-Mad Men. Fave of the year in any medium. Every scene is its own little exquisite artwork, and at the end of every episode I can’t wait to watch a second time. Special honors for ending the season with a beautiful, dramatic surprise. This clip is from the episode "Indian Summer" in which the ad agency is working on a campaign for the "Electrosizer," a bogus weight-loss device for women that is better used for autoerotic pleasure. Meanwhile, Betty the bored housewife gets physical with her washing machine. This is the show I will miss most if the strike spells the end of all scripted television (I'm being dramatic but seriously, things seem pretty bleak right now).

-Tell Me You Love Me for being bold enough to be intimate (and I’m not talking about sex scenes).

-Gilmore Girls, which was never as sharp, deft, or clever after Amy and Dan left but still held onto much of its warmth and charm in its last season.

-The Sopranos for its shocking, terrifying final episodes.

-Hotel Chevalier, for its miniature elegance and “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” and the Darjeeling Limited soundtrack with “Les Champs Elysees” by Joe Dassin from the film’s closing scene.

-30 Rock for making us feel like we’re good enough to understand its secret-society, inside baseball jokes.

-Knocked Up, which was very endearing, and Superbad, which was even more hilarious. McLovin' is my favorite movie character of the year.

-Hairspray for John Travolta and Christopher Walken as a loving couple and for doing musical comedy the old-fashioned way.

-Scrabulous, the only Facebook application I would really recommend to someone who hasn’t tried it.

-Yo Gabba Gabba, especially the electronic and hip-hop tunes and old-school videogame graphics.

-The gorgeous, enchanting pilot of Pushing Daisies. (Those of us who predicted it could not sustain its visuals and who thought the whimsy wouldn't work in the repetitious format of weekly television were quickly proven right.)

-My So-Called Life DVDs for the interviews between Winnie Holzman and Claire Danes where they both get all emotional.

-Netvibes, a great RSS reader. When a site offers only a partial feed, Netvibes allows you to see the website within the reader so you don’t need to click through.

-Tumblr, the blogging platform for people who don’t equate blogging with writing.

-Picnik, a brilliant online photo editor that does most of what you want to do in Photoshop, has no learning curve, and is available in a no-frills version for free.

-Lolcats and all their offshoots.

-Threadless t-shirts and more generally the art of the smart, jokey hipster t. The source for tracking these is tcritic.

-Leave Britney Alone!, my choice for web video of the year. But it was a disappointing year for web video, which I thought was supposed to conquer the world.

-And Sanjaya Malekar, a small-screen superstar for a few weeks in the spring. He's an awful singer but an enthusiastic showman. At least this performance of "You Really Got Me" was entertaining. This is the one where the little girl cries. Isn't there a little bit of her in us all?

And in this sultry Latin number, "Besame Mucho," he makes love to the camera in a way that might make you feel dirty if not exactly seduced. In its finest moments, Idol affirms that there's no business like show business.


Giving it Away

The WGA strike at Century City, Los Angeles, 11/9/07
(Photo by Charles Kang, used with permission)

The real purpose of this post is to say that the posting here will be light at best for the next few months, for the usual reasons. I'm not on strike, obviously. I'm focusing my writing on the thing that will bring me the rewards for which I am most eager. That is writing for publication in what the journos have taken to calling dead trees media. Blog writing for me is like webisode writing for the WGA strikers. It's not a matter of getting paid, since academics are rarely paid very much for any of their writing. It's a matter of reward. The rewards of blogging are not so great, and they are as much personal as professional. This isn't meant to diminish them. But writing this blog is basically work I do for free because I like it. I don't expect this blog to help my tenure case and I'm not sure it should. It might help my academic reputation in certain circles, but this depends on who reads it and what they think of blogs and of this blog in particular. I blog (happily) at the risk that it will damage my academic reputation. I doubt that film and television scholars will take to citing blogs as authoritative anytime soon in large numbers (citing them as evidence of what people were saying at a particular time is another matter). Maybe some day an academic blog will not be the thing you set aside when you're absorbed in your real work. But that day still isn't here, unfortunately. CU L8R.


The Hills is Real, Too

Nabokov said that reality is the only word that makes sense only in quotation marks. The reality in Reality TV might need a second pair: one that every instance of reality should have and another for the reality as constructed by the television production. But under all of those inverted commas is a word, and it still means something.

This week on The Hills ("No More Mr. Nice Guy," 22 October), the show had the task of introducing two new characters: Kimberly, a co-worker for Heidi at Bolthouse, the party-planning firm where she works (ok, "works"); and Gavin, a model Lauren meets at a Teen Vogue shoot with whom she goes on a date. The function of these new characters is obviously to facilitate certain storylines for the leads. Heidi needs a frenemy to be in expository scenes in which she talks about her relationships and perhaps to add dRama to the workplace environment now that Elodie, the likable schemer who was pissed that H got the promotion she wanted and so ruined H+S's anniversary dinner by lying to Heidi about having a party covered when really she had quit that day, is gone. Gavin is there to make Brody Jenner jealous and to prompt Lauren to see Brody as an appealing suitor (or at least a friend with benefits), as the LC relationship arc at this point is moving in the direction of L+B.

Because The Hills is both reality and fiction, the viewer has to wonder if the new characters were actually people in the world of the existing characters or if they were cast by the producers to play their roles. But this is a false choice, because even if they were cast by the producers to play roles, their roles intersect with the real lives of the characters. Epistemology in reality TV is more a matter of belief than fact, but as I interpreted the events as I watched them, Gavin and Lauren did meet at a photo shoot, they did see each other again at a barbecue (a staged event, but a barbecue even so), and they did go on a date. Now Gavin has told his story, an account of how the show is produced that is presented as a great unmasking, a demystification. Like, OMG The Hills is fake!

His most important claims:

-The producers set up the situations between him and Lauren and the others, e..g, they told him to ask her out and staged the party where he meets Brody.

-The time sequence represented in the show is false. L+G's date is represented as having ended early, after which Brody calls her and comes over to (not) watch a movie; really G+L stayed out until 2:30ish and the scene between LC and Brody was shot another time (this last bit is implied rather than stated).

-Lauren is boring and all she talks about is herself, her friends and nemeses, her fame, her fashion line, her clubbing, etc. My favorite detail is how, on their date, Lauren takes Gavin to Barnes & Noble to show him a book about the first season of The Hills. (I find it so touching to know that she is proud of her accomplishments, but whatevs.)

-The date didn't go as badly as was represented. The editing makes it seem as though Gavin was insensitive after Lauren told him she doesn't like salmon and he ordered it anyway and put a piece on her place (she makes a face when she tastes it, and this brief sequence tells us everything we need to know). G says he ordered it for himself and she said she wanted to try. Basically, he accuses the show of portraying him as boring, insensitive, and unsuitable as a BF for Lauren when, in "reality"...

Now consider that Gavin expects us to believe his story is real and the MTV version is not. He is the truth, and the show is a sham. But what authority does he bring? For one thing, we have much more evidence to support MTV's version: we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. But never mind that. Both the producers of The Hills and Gavin craft their narratives to achieve certain effects, to further particular interests. In the case of the show's producers, the point of everything is to tell a good story that will engage the audience and make them want to keep watching. But what are Gavin's interests? My interpretation is that he wants to be well-regarded and famous.

The show made him look a little dull and clueless. It cast him in one episode as someone with the potential to be a new beau for the lead, and then quickly tossed him aside. He wishes it had gone down better for him. He doesn't deny that he was interested in Lauren; indeed, he says their date was better than The Hills portrayed. He uses weasel words to minimize his own agency in this sequence of events. At the Teen Vogue shoot: "the next thing I know, a producer’s asking me to ask Lauren for her number, and I’m signing release forms and being shot for The Hills. They wanted me to ask her about the runway show, how long she had worked that day, when would she get off, stuff like that." It sounds here like participating was something that just happened to him, but no one forces you to be a character on a reality TV show. If he's a model, his career is only helped by being on television. It gives him exposure, free publicity. I'm guessing he was stoked at the thought of being a character on MTV's most important program. He should, moreover, be grateful to the producers for their eagerness to play wingman and give him friendly advice as he was making his move. If he didn't want to go on a date with Lauren, he could have just said, no thanks.

The fact that he was encouraged doesn't tell me that the show is fake, only that the producers are part of the characters' reality. People seem to hold onto a strange assumption that reality TV or any form of documentary media can capture reality as it would transpire if the cameras and sound recorders and crew were absent. Of course it never can. The medium always mediates. Observation affects behavior. But this doesn't make everything we see fake. It's still reality, but reality as shaped by the presence of people monitoring and recording it. The Hills is only interesting because it combines reality and artifice, and I doubt that anyone who watches it is really unaware of this. As Justin perceptively remarks of the show, it encourages us to switch back and forth between suspension of disbelief (i.e., belief) and disbelief, watching and meta-watching.

The detail in Gavin's description that damns him the most is the accusation that Lauren is boring. He says that she's self-centered and her interests are uninteresting. "I honestly had a really hard time talking to her - she’s kind of a conversation killer," he says. "Lots of fascinating discussion about 'the club', Vegas, getting drunk, Heidi is evil, and so on. The lack of depth was actually uncomfortable for me. Like, how can nothing be everything you talk about? OH, I forgot – lots of talk about Lauren’s clothing line. That’s pretty important, right?"
But she's a television star and a tabloid celebrity, and millions of people do find this interesting. So interesting that they watch a show in which she is the main character, buy magazines when she's on the cover, even read blogs with photos of her shopping at Target. And what's so great about G? I think this sounds like the bitter disappointment of a guy who was rejected not only by a pretty girl he liked, a fantastic catch, but by a television show that could have made him famous. He sounds like a jilted whore.

What do we expect from The Hills? I think we want it to be two often incompatible things: a good story and a true story. It's not true that there are no good true stories, but the process of making life into narrative (Hayden White calls it emplotment if you want to be fancy about it) always requires the selection and emphasis of events to suit the ambitions and agendas of the storyteller. This isn't to say that reality doesn't exist, that we're living in the Matrix. The point, rather, is that it pays to be aware of the forces that impinge on those who craft stories out of experiences. In the case of The Hills, the storytellers are obviously active agents not only in crafting a narrative ex post facto, by editing and looping additional dialog to impose meaning, but also in staging the events just so. But this doesn't make the staged events any less real. A barbecue and a date are what they are whether the characters plan them alone or with the help of the production.

What matters more to me than staging and editing, which are features of documentary media across the board, is emotional truth. I am not troubled by fakery in the mechanics of production and narration, but I would be genuinely disturbed by if there were evidence that the characters' most significant relationships were phony. If it came to light that Heidi and Lauren have contrived their friendship, its implosion, and its aftermath, I would feel a kind of betrayal that I do not get from reading Gavin's account. I have little evidence that the characters are really friends and enemies except what MTV has shown me, and yet I have my belief, and in reality TV, as in documentary cinema and photography, belief is what matters most to the beholder. On dating shows, we believe that a couple can really fall in love. On Survivor, we believe that the deceptions and machinations occur in the context of real friendship and rivalry. On the performance shows, we believe that the good contestant has given his or her all to achieve a dream. You can't appreciate these programs in a spirit of total skepticism any more than you can in a spirit of total naïveté. The pleasure is somewhere in the middle, in recognizing that in spite of the beauty of a highly artificial form, there is also a more fundamental appeal in the experience of an underlying reality of universal human needs and desires. I wouldn't want to miss this point in the rush to brand productions as "fake." They certainly are fake, and this should come as no surprise. But Gavin's description of what happened on The Hills also tells me that it's real--that LC and her friends and enemies, on a level deeper than staging and editing, are who MTV presents them to be. I believe that she really does hate Heidi and she really does aspire to be a fashion designer even if her internship is more a matter of providing the show a setting than providing the person a career opportunity. The rhetoric of both the show and the description of its production by this disgruntled model dude lead me to believe that despite of all of this televisual contrivance there is a core of authenticity in The Hills, and this gives the stakes in the show's drama a kind of immediacy and consequence that fiction can scarcely claim.

(PS 5/15/08: if you're still here, check out my more recent companion post, "The Hills is Too Real")


NBC's sweeps strategy this November will include a week of programming oriented around an activist campaign, introducing environmental themes across the schedule. It used to be crossovers; now writers for all of its various shows have had to work in a little save-the-earth material. The campaign is called Green is Universal (as of today that link takes you to not much more than a logo and a countdown). And it's not just the net; the NBC U cable channels are in on it too. Universal, get it? All at once we will get confirmation that the media companies are liberal, synergystic, and eager to exploit a good cause if it will help them score ratings. Ka-ching!

The network's court jester, 30 Rock, is being meta as follows (you might consider this description a spoiler):

Thursday, November 8

30 ROCK (8:30-9 p.m.)
SPECIAL GUEST STARS OSCAR AND NOBEL PEACE PRIZE WINNER AL GORE, MEREDITH VIEIRA, AND DAVID SCHWIMMER JOIN IN ON '30 ROCK'S' GREEN INITIATIVE -- As part of a GE-wide green initiative, Jack (Alec Baldwin) has come up with the idea of creating a green mascot for NBC -- a "Phillie Phanatic" -looking character named Greenzo. When Greenzo's eco-friendly preachiness gets obnoxiously out of hand in "The Girlie Show" offices, it's Liz (Tina Fey) who gets fed up the most with the ridiculous character. Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) is planning his annual house party, a boring little soiree where Liz has been the only one who ever shown up in the past. Tracy (Tracy Morgan) wants the party to be a success for Kenneth, so he spreads a few little rumors to get the event hopping. What starts out as simple office gossip, gets out of control. Also stars Jane Krakowski, Lonny Ross, Judah Friedlander, Scott Adsit, Katrina Bowden, and Maulik Pancholy.

Much as I admire 30 Rock, I fear that it functions more as an enabler than a critic. It might make the brass at NBC U feel good about subjecting themselves to this mockery. That might be a little creepy, like frat boys joking about sexism.

While on the topic, here's the video of "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" you've been looking for. And if you can follow along, come with me to this clip from The View of Sherri Shepherd (yes, the same one who said she doesn't know if the earth is round or flat, who plays Tracy's wife) asking James Lipton to talk about his days as a pimp! Awkward!

Alec Baldwin's tour-de-force scene from last night's episode in which he plays Tracy's mother, father, step-father, Tracy himself, and a Mexican neighbor, Mrs. Rodriguez, is all the evidence one would ever need to persuade the snobbiest skeptic that there is art in television. And to think that Baldwin might have left the show because he said something nasty to his daughter last spring. The loss of his talent would have crippled the show.


"Something was going to happen between Angela and Brian Krakow." Hearts will break when they read that line, describing the 2nd season that never existed of My So-Called Life. The speaker is Marshall Herskovitz. The show is coming out again on DVD, this time with commentaries, interviews, etc. Back to Marshall, on casting his star: "in walks Claire Danes. And at 13, you know: From one angle, she’s breathtaking; from another, she’s awkward. We were all terrified of her. She was very quiet and reserved, and half the things she said were utterly brilliant and half the things sounded like a 13-year-old." Sigh.


Fumble! (with notes on the coherence of the TV text and the new season)

I agree with Heather Havrilesky and lots of other people that Friday Night Lights is in trouble. It might have been better for the show to have ended last season. Then we would have had our memories and our State Championship and our righteous anger at the greedy capitalist philistines of NBC. The show would have lived on as a glorious single season and an eternal what-if, a worthy successor in the teen TV before-their-time pantheon to My So-Called Life and Freak and Geeks. But now we may have to endure the pathetic degeneration of a favorite into just another show that we watch because we used to watch it. Woe betide us.

The problems are greater than just the murder melodrama plot, but this is the biggest issue. Landry was a good character because he was peripheral and he drew our attention away from the football heroes to the ordinary folks. He was not on the football team and not in a relationship with Tyra. His value was as someone looking in from the outside, and the show's greatest virtue was in the way it spread out our interest to so many unusual, marginal characters. But now not only has he become central to the show, he has become more of a type. Defending the honor of the girl he loves, who doesn't love him back, he kills her stalker in a fit of passion and then agrees with the girl to cover up the crime by tossing the corpse off a bridge. Not in my Dillon, Texas!

The show's creative leader, Jason Katims, says that there was no pressure from NBC to have them change the show to make it more likely to score ratings. But we know that there doesn't have to be overt pressure--the makers of FNL know that to stay on the air they need much bigger ratings numbers than they have had, and we also know that they have decided to de-emphasize the football this season in hopes of bringing in a wider audience. This already shows, as the first two episodes of the show have been set before the first game of the Panthers' season. Managing the shift from critical fave to something bigger cannot be easy. My problem with the murder storyline is very basic and simple: it moves the show away from its most central appeal, its tone. It can't manage to dramatize the texture of everyday life while at the same time working in a few beats of a murder melodrama plot each week. And let me be clear: I would love to watch a well-done murder melodrama on television. I'm not judging that genre in any way. I'm just saying that it's incompatible with FNL's tone. If this works, great, but I doubt it will still feel like the same show.

I have other problems. Too many plot developments in the two episodes so far seem lacking in the sense of organic development that would make them dramatically powerful. I have in mind the separation of Coach and Mrs. Coach and the downturn in the relationship of Julie and Matt. In both instances, I feel a strain of implausibility obstructing my attachment to the characters. I have to remind myself why the Taylors are living apart and the rationale doesn't convince me. And Julie's motivation for leaving her boyfriend is even murkier. She talks about not wanting to become her parents, but I don't buy that the character would be possessed of that kind of self-knowledge. The dialog in these scenes has an unfortunate on-the-nose quality that reminds you that the character's words were written for them to say in a script. In this week's second episode, Tami looks for comfort from her temporary replacement in the guidance office, a clueless science teacher named Glenn, and it makes no sense that she would have no other friends in Dillon to turn to. Clearly he is meant to be a substitute for Eric to make us want the married couple to reunite. In both cases, the characters appear to have been engineered into dramatic situations without having taken the plausible steps to get into them. And so it is with Lyla having been born again. I would have liked to see a scene or two that sets this up.

Other aspects of the show are different this season. I don't recall many talk radio voice-overs reasserting the centrality of Panthers football to the people of Dillon. This was another key element of the show's tone: a sense that too much civic pride was being invested in the town's young men, that they had to bear an unreasonable burden. I also get less of a sense of the show's scenes being shot in the loose, improvisatory style that characterized last year's episodes. The performances and camera setups both seem more formal and standard now. I'm still watching because I have an attachment to the characters, but I sense that they're now becoming a vestige of something that doesn't exist any more.

There is a lesson here, I think. Many critics like to compare prime-time serials to novels. Both tell long-form stories in a series of chapters, and many novels have been published in installments. But one difference between television and literature is that television is a more collaborative art that requires a huge network of cooperation, including producers and networks eager to realize a profit. Creative talent comes and goes. Maybe Peter Berg (or someone else) was important to FNL's tone and he (they) is less involved now. Friday Night Lights does not have the luxury of the premium cable shows that can be content with an audience of two or three million. It needs an audience several times that size to be considered a real success. Identifying the intentions of creative people can be tricky, but I don't think it's unfair to wonder if the creators of FNL are trying to boost the show's appeal by playing down some of the things that made people like me adore it and, perhaps, turned off potential viewers last season. I'm not a scholar of the novel, but I find it hard to believe that a book would be as likely to suffer from the shifts in tone, style, and focus of the sort we are seeing in Friday Night Lights. Few people start reading novels with the 23rd chapter, but NBC hopes people will start viewing FNL now, having missed the first season and not caring what it might have been like. Comparing a television series to a novel (or, for that matter, a movie) oversells the coherence of the television text.

This might sound like I'm saying that literature and cinema are superior, but I am not. They are all different. It might be unreasonable to assume that a television series will form a globally coherent text over the course of its multiple seasons. Assuming this might unfairly impose aesthetic assumptions from other forms and media. It's especially unlikely for a long television series to be coherent in the same fashion as a movie or a novel because it's unlikely to have a television series plotted out in advance of multiple seasons. Everyone in a long series is basically making it up as they go along. Coherence may be imposed top-down by viewers, but it is also a function of design, and network television series are not typically designed for global coherence. Maybe the better analogy would be to a series of novels or films or comics, like a series of mysteries centered on a recurring detective character or a superhero franchise. These are produced by different creative personnel as time passes and their audiences age and change. We don't expect these to have the same kind of textual coherence that a single novel or film would have; they do have coherence, but it's of a different kind.

I have coherence in my head lately as I have been reading Greg M. Smith's new book Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal. Smith argues that that series has a kind of global coherence, but I'm only 1/3 of the way through the book so I'll hold off on commenting further for now except to say that it's weird to be getting reacquainted with Ally--a show I first really loved then really really really hated--after not having thought about it for several years, and that I had forgotten how essential and influential it was in introducing so many wacky comical devices (fantasies, flashbacks, digital effects, musical numbers) later picked up by the single-camera sit-coms.


The new season is a few weeks old, so here's my scorecard:

-I can't live without The Hills, Mad Men, and Tell Me You Love Me. These are the current absolute faves. Tell Me You Love Me has two things you almost never see: therapy scenes where characters learn something about themselves and each other rather than just providing exposition and amping up conflict, and sex scenes that advance the plot and reveal character rather than being merely erotic. I also still love the real estate and design porn. Something has to turn us on if the sex is going to make us feel so uncomfortable.

-Also keeping very close tabs on the good but not great Damages, which is heading for a crescendo ending, and the returning standout 30 Rock. Still never miss episodes of Degrassi, Newport Harbor, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

-Of the new shows Pushing Daisies is the obvious pick of the litter, but the second episode was less flashy with the CGI and other tricks of mise en scene than the pilot and the ultra-quirk might not make for compelling weekly viewing without good serial arcs to hook me. The shows it most reminds us of are Moonlighting (this was Elana's observation, and I like it: the weekly mysteries are exaggerated and bizarre and what you really care about is the will-they-or- won't-they) and Twin Peaks (we both thought of this one independently: basically, both shows are audacious and like nothing you've seen before). I might check in again on Chuck, Reaper, Dirty Sexy Money, and Gossip Girl, but none will be weekly appointments for now. And although I got a big kick out of Back to You and Aliens in America, I don't feel like watching either of them again.

-The surprise show of the fall slate is the vampire thriller Moonlight. I'm not ready to sell it hard yet, but the first two episodes were both dramatic and engaging, with genuinely surprising twists and powerful revelations. It gets points off, though, for indulging in my pet peeve of television clichés: the nefarious graduate student/ teaching assistant. The grad students of America might need to organize an action coalition if this stuff keeps up.


Reflections on MIFF 2007

The Milwaukee International Film Festival, which wrapped up last weekend, has been an occasion for me to think about films and festivals. This entry will be on the films, and someday soon I hope to follow it up with some points about festivals.

I saw six films at MIFF. They were from four continents, made by directors young, old, and in between. I saw one documentary, one undisputed masterpiece, and several by fest circuit "names." I think I chose well from the scores of options, or perhaps I am afflicted by FJSS, (festival judgment-skewing syndrome); either way, I liked everything I saw. I know some people can see six films in 36 hours at Toronto, but I've been trying to teach my class, write my book (and blog), and see my family all the while, and there's a new TV season to keep tabs on, too.

Here's what I saw, in the order of viewing.

Madeinusa (Peru-Spain, 2006, dir. Claudia Llosa) is one of those films where much goes unspoken. The main character is an adolescent girl in an Andean peasant village where Easter is celebrated by a festival of misrule during which God will not be aware of sin. The girl is reaching sexual maturity, and during the festival her father intends to take her virginity but only after she participates in a village ceremony to celebrate nubile maidenhood. Then a handsome man from Lima materializes and he gets there first. At the end she is on her way to the big city instead of him. Her name, the film's title, is pronounced Mah-den-ee-YOO-sa and is supposed to be a common one in her culture, but it was chosen for the character to make possible a joke: when she is kissing the stranger she sees on the label of his shirt, "Made in U.S.A.," and misunderstands this to be her name. This jab at globalization serves to connect the film to an eternal theme of cinema in the developing world: the double-edged effects of modernization at it simultaneously improves and eradicates everyday customs and rites of local populations. The film is shot with a mixture of uncomfortable close-ups and stunning landscape shots of mountains and water, and it captures the feeling of an authentic, remote space. Madeinusa has the humanist, ethnographic texture of a tradition of international art cinema that runs from De Sica to Satyajit Ray to Kiarostami, and with one or two exceptions the actors are non-pros. Nice to know they still do make 'em like that. (The director is the niece of Mario Vargas Llosa, if that means anything to you.)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (UK, 200?, dir. Ken Loach). Technically not a MIFF entry, this one showed during the fest at one of its venues (the UWM union theater) and is a recent Cannes prizewinner, so I consider it part of my MIFF. Cillian Murphy plays an Irishman in the 1920s who is recruited to resist the vicious British Black and Tans. Murphy has a face you can stare at all day and it's easy to make him a sympathetic character, which his certainly is. The film contains some scenes of disgusting violence for something this artsy (one involving fingernails made me queasy), which ups its visceral impact. I admire Loach for sticking to his anti-imperialist principles all these years, and wish there were more politically-motivated filmmakers who are as adept at storytelling as they are at making a point. But I also sometimes think Sam Goldwyn was onto something when he said "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." In this film Loach seems too eager to boil over, making a narrative of occupation and insurgency that not only revisits his own nation's history but also works as an allegory in the age of Bush and Al Qaeda. So my thumb is up for the film's historical agenda, its cinematic qualities, its use of folk music, its performances, and its willingness to be a real downer. I'm not so keen on its larger agenda. Another note: I don't think I understood more than half of the dialogue but in a story this unsubtle it doesn't matter.

Woman on the Beach (S. Korea, 2006, dir. Hong Sang-soo) is a relationship dramedy. I had seen some of Hong's earlier, more formally experimental efforts, and had read that this one would be his most accessible. I guess that's either good because it will help spread the appeal of a major talent, or bad because it means he's sort of selling out. I don't know--I can't see this sort of thing crossing over beyond the fest circuit. The style is still pretty forbidding. Long scenes in which characters are shot from oblique angles, avoiding shot/reverse-shot, sometimes showing the backs of heads in lazy long takes. In many scenes Hong zooms mid-shot in a way that just seems awkward. The camera rests stone still on its tripod for takes of twenty or thirty seconds or more, an art cinema technique that seems just as irritatingly familiar as the current Hollywood technique of keeping the camera moving at every instant. Emotionally the storytelling is pretty cool and distant. The film is set at a seaside resort in the off-season, and the colors are pale and sickly. It tells a gently paced story about a love triangle, then one of the three characters is dispensed with so that the rest of the film can be about a different love triangle. For a comedy it could have been funnier, and for a drama it could have been more dramatic. But I might be a bad critic for this kind of film; the generic material is pretty similar to much of what's on television and I fear that American TV has spoiled me for certain kinds of subtlety. I like a story that hooks me within a minute and offers twists and reversals every five or ten.

I had to see The Boss of it All (Denmark, 2006, dir. Lars von Trier) after reading about its formal experimentation. Von Trier set up a computer program called Automavision to determine where to point the camera and created a game called Lookey to keep viewers from slipping into passivity. Lookey is supposed to insert a number of elements out of context in the film, and if audiences figure out what they are and how they interconnect, they win a prize. I tried to find the out-of-context elements; no dice. And my internet searches have turned up no info on what the solution to the Lookey is. Leave a comment, please, if you have any leads. Anyhow, TBOIA is a ridiculous film about corporate culture, but it has some pretty funny awkward moments. The cowardly boss of a company hires an actor to pretend he's the boss of the company so that the real boss doesn't have to deal with grief from employees, and all this mistaken identity stuff means that hilarity ensues a la Shakespeare and Three's Company. For digs at offices, I also recommend The Office (esp the UK show) and Clockwatchers.

The film's style is pretty odd. Not only do camera angles change for what seem to be arbitrary reasons, cutting faces off by frame lines and decentering action (I wondered if the computer choosing them had actually been programmed) but color temperatures and sound quality are also different from shot to shot. Why? Could be it's just irritating. This would come from LVT's desire to poke fun at "artsy-fartsy culture," as he proclaims in an introductory voice-over, but ultimately I'm not sure who the joke is on. (For more on TBOIA, you gotta read David Bordwell.)

The Super Noble Brothers (USA, 2007, dir. Mark Escribano) is a locally made documentary about a family of artists of one kind or another. Two of the three brothers of the title are record-diggers, enthusiasts who go out in search of old LPs and 45s in garages and attics and storage spaces. They're also DJs and record-store owners. The third Noble does erotic, Haring-style paintings and struggles to subsist. The film was made over a period of eight or so years and this gives it a diachronic quality missing from many documentaries. TSNB is a celebration of unconventional creativity, of art pursued more for passion than fame or riches. And it's also celebration of ordinary people and a kind of vernacular creativity. It is scored with some fairly obscure (I think) funk music that the brothers collect--one describes their record store as "white guys selling black music to white guys"--and this alone makes it worth seeing.

This is the kind of movie for which the Milwaukee festival exists. A regional fest has a mission of showcasing regional talent and encouraging local creativity. At the screening I saw on a Sunday afternoon, the auditorium was sold out and many of the attendees seemed to know the filmmaker or some of his subjects, who were in attendance and answered questions afterwards. The film's setting is our own town, the streets and restaurants and architecture and patterns of speech we know so well. This makes it hard for me to evaluate it; I feel like I occupy its world and this is gratifying to me but perhaps not to someone from out of town. But I really enjoyed TSNB and hope it will be seen and appreciated far and wide.

Finally, at the end of the festival I saw Killer of Sheep (USA, 1977, dir. Charles Burnett), the undisputed masterpiece newly restored in 35mm. This is a film we can admire just because it exists, because it captures an experience of urban black America that might otherwise have gone undocumented in narrative cinema. But it's also an arresting work of art especially because of its lyricism, its wordless scenes conveying depths of emotion as characters' most basic struggles are matched to evocative jazz or blues or soul recordings, connecting them to a history African-American struggles. Two moments in particular that stick with me are the scene of the husband and wife dancing against the background of a bright window, and the final scene in the slaughterhouse where he kills and skins and dismembers animals, both of which are set to Dinah Washington's melancholy "This Bitter Earth."

This Bitter Earth
Yes, can be so cold
Today you're young
Too soon, you're old
But while a voice within me cries
I'm sure someone may answer my call
And this bitter earth
Ooooo may not
Oh be so bitter after all


I have now watched Hotel Chevalier twice, once on a 17 inch computer screen and once on an iPod. Both experiences made me sad not to have seen the movie projected in a theater, and so I really hope that it will eventually be included in screenings of The Darjeeling Limited. Hotel Chevalier is filled with well-observed moments that really work dramatically, like Jason S. frantically cleaning up when he learns that Natalie P. is soon to arrive, and the line Jason S. tells her about never wanting to be her friend, and the substitution of looking out at a view of Paris for lovemaking. I have never had any affection for Anderson's films and their obsessive affectation, but I find this little video is growing on me, and I could see myself changing my mind about his oeuvre. That Peter Starsedt song, "Where Do You Go To My Lovely," is to this film as California Dreamin' is to Chungking Express. It infects your brain even after the film has ended, and you want to play it again just as the character in the film does.

It also occurs to me that HC is very similar in form to a New Yorker short story, and that the format really suits Anderson's approach to visual detail and keen observation. In a short form motifs stand out, and your when your attention isn't strained by a longer narrative you can appreciate little things more. Anderson, like Alice Munro or John Updike, is a storyteller whose smallest details reward attention.


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

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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.)