Archive for the ‘television’ Category

What makes things “dramatic”?

February 22, 2010

The following two random pieces of text offer some bizarrely similar insights here.
First, from a recent Onion AV Club interview with Olivia “Teacher from Rushmore” Williams:

“We had an ancient Prussian acting coach at my drama school who said the worst offense you could commit was to let your subtext show. He would say: [Prussian accent] ‘Your subtext is showing.’ That is the point of acting, it is to be saying one thing and not be allowed by society or your predicament to show what you’re reallying feeling. In a way, I think that’s why the therapy generation has killed scriptwriting, because all you ever get is people going, “Hi, I’m feeling really angry right now.” And if you say that, you’ve got nothing left to act. The excruciating moments of drama are when people are allowed to show or way what they feel.”

Second, from an article on Mad Men that appears in the latest issue of Jump Cut — (if you haven’t seen Season 2 of the show, watch out for SPOILERS):

“In season 2, episode 8 (A Night to Remember), when Office Manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), temporarily takes on the job of script reader for the newly formed TV sales department, the opening may be in part due to Peggy’s earlier successes. It’s easy to project some proto-feminist movement, even as the harsh sexist environment reasserts its dominance through the hiring of an inexperienced man to permanently take over the new position. The department has become successful because of Joan’s insight into how to sell soap to women and when interest will be piqued on daytime TV. When Joan discovers that she has been unceremoniously replaced — the torpedo bra torpedoed — and is expected to train her replacement, her disappointment is overwhelming. (Or is that our disappointment?) The emotion is allowed only the briefest moment of escape before Joan’s façade reasserts control.

The program’s richest moments are ruptures like these, brief moments when the characters experience confusion or disappointment but then struggle not to let it show, when their real selves and the images they have constructed come into conflict. These are moments of vulnerability, of reality asserting itself briefly into the world of the image. Our clean, colorful 60s fantasy is interrupted by such casual brutality. We are reminded of the real constraints under the binding clothing, the actual challenges and limitations of the period.”

Mad Men is set in a world where social norms that we take for granted haven’t arisen yet, so it’s doubly poignant when Joan gets passed over for that promotion and can’t do anything about it. I’d argue that you also see this effect in non-Mad Men period pieces where great attention is paid to courtly facade — Jane Austen adaptations, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the movie version of Remains of the Day…etc.

So, with respect to Ms. Williams’ remark, *is* acting all about hiding the character’s feelings while also expressing them? Or could it simply be the case that British actors are trained with a certain type of drama in mind?


Bad or Amazing?

October 12, 2009

I am somewhat under the gun work-wise so I don’t have too much time to elaborate on this, but I just have to get this off my chest.

I’m often preoccupied with the mysterious line between bad and amazing in media. Sometimes a movie or show is so bad that it can be viewed as absurd, a (conscious or unconscious) self parody, which makes it amazing…like Breakin’ and its magnificent sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo or, say, any work featuring C. Thomas Howell.

Then you have movies or shows that are so bad that they really are painful to watch, like the movies reviewed by Something Awful. (Did you know that the film Nukie holds the coveted title ‘Worst Movie Ever’? As far as I know, it is the only film ever to receive an actual rating of -50)

But here are two shows that, unfortunately, I have seen the commercials for, that I *really* am having a hard time with. Not having had the opportunity to actually see them, I don’t know how to evaluate them. Bad or amazing? Surely, by now, with the amount of time I’ve invested watching low brow media, I should be able to tell!

Here are the sources of my anguish:

Steven Segal: Lawman is a real show, firstly, in case you were wondering. Is it gonna be sweet? or terrible? There really is no way to tell.

And then comes Celebrity Ghost Stories This could be amazing! or it could be nauseating. I have no idea which, and this makes me sad. That is all.

TV Spin-offs, Wikipedia, and other harbingers of wasted time

October 2, 2009

Watching reruns of The Sopranos Tivo-ed off of daytime A&E is a pretty silly affair. The curse words and sex (though NOT the violence) are ludicrously censored out. Gangsters poignantly call each other “blood suckers” (since they are in fact leeching off ordinary folk) and urge sudden and violent memory loss upon one another, with cries of “forget you!” (which implies that, like Tony, they subconsciously wrestle to repress bad memories.)

Sillier still is the *other* crap on daytime television, which one sometimes gets exposed to during this process. The other day I stumbled upon, for example, re-runs of the 80’s TV spin-off “In the Heat of the Night.” Can this really exist? According to Wikipedia, the show’s premise has the famous Mr. Tibbs re-visiting small town Mississippi where he is “persuaded to remain by the city government, which wanted to make its police department more diverse.” Come on, that’s hilarious! The film was an exploration of institutional racism…but the revamped TV show is a celebration of diversity!

So this got me wondering about other film-to-TV spin-offs and (not unexpectedly) I was able to find what looks like a pretty comprehensive list on Wikipedia.

Sometimes you’ll run across a show based on another show that itself was originally based on a film, like Trapper John M.D., but I say TV to TV spin-offs are a whole different universe.

Also as a rule I’m more interested in live action spin-offs than animated series’ simply because the later is way more common and, I think, easier to pull off. Live action spin-offs have a kind of quixotic element, as in who could believe that it’s possible to emulate a film’s success by re-casting the main roles and downgrading the budget?

Of course, M*A*S*H and The Odd Couple managed to pull this off…classic exceptions that prove the rule maybe? On the other hand, that Highlander show was pretty entertaining, while by no means classic. So you never know.

At any rate, some trivia highlights:

  • The 1990 Fall line up included an NBC Ferris Bueller spin-off (featuring Jennifer Aniston in the role of Jeanne) *as well as* a CBS Uncle Buck spin-off! Two John Hughes spin-offs in the same season. Pure madness.
  • The actress who replaced Alicia Silverstone in the role of Cher in the “Clueless” TV show also played Sally in “Flight of the Concords.”
  • Moon Unit Zappa provided “teenage consultation” for the shortlived TV spinoff of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (which had Kirk Cameron in place of Sean Penn). Evidently “Ms. Zappa was hired in order to research slang terms and mannerisms of teenagers, as she had just graduated from high school at the time and had a much better grasp of then-current high school behavior than the writers.”
  • Mr. Belvadere is actually a spin-off of a 1948 film, which itself spawned sequels. In fact, the show represents the last in a number of attempts to make a spin-off of said film(s).
  • Freddie’s Nightmare’s, a Nightmare on Elm Street spin-off, is described thusly: “Anthology series in the style of Tales from the Crypt. Freddie’s involvement was often limited to presenting the story.” I don’t know, I just like the succinct, matter-of-fact tone.

OK we all have more useful things to do!

Some charming British themed videos

September 29, 2009

Well, as the title of this post suggests, I recently managed to get ensnared in some charming British themed videos.

It’s a double feature — First, Patrick Stewart on his struggle to come to terms with male pattern baldness:

Then, a retrospective on TV classic Dad’s Army.

(I used to watch unhealthy amounts of this show when stuck in England without Nickelodeon.)

Two TV Chefs

September 20, 2009

The school year has begun! It always takes a little while to get going, and said little while has elapsed. I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand I really do enjoy the poring over texts, the pondering of abstract notions, the pontificating of…uh…woops, that’s an intransitive verb. Shucks to my parallelism…anyway, those are the fun parts.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of unwanted reading and concomitant school-type stresses to get through — picking paper topics, trying to force oneself to talk in class, worrying about how to tie in any of it with possible career goals, etc. Those are the less fun parts.

My point is that in college I discovered that cooking shows helped me to relax, and to temporarily banish the less fun parts without also forgetting too much of the fun parts. Through some accident of fate, we had free cable one year and I started watching too much Food Network. Like many Food Network viewers, I became besotted with the irrepressible Rachel Ray. But then Ray’s charms caught the eye of media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who transformed her into (or arguably, accelerated her inevitable progress towards) the culinary Ricki Lake. I had to let her go.

So lately I’ve been looking for new TV chefs to idolize, especially people who are a little edgier than Ms. Ray and are hence unlikely to saturate the airwaves down the line.

As a way of procrastinating, I wanted to share my thoughts on two that I’ve latched onto so far: Hubert Keller and Anne Burrell.

Hubert — his first name is awesome — has a PBS show called “Secrets of a Chef.” It’s supposedly geared towards normal TV-watching home cooks, but really it’s just a hilariously elaborate exploration of fancy food. I really don’t know anyone (who isn’t retired) who cooks like this. But even though I could never envision actually preparing any of these dishes, I do love watching the show because Hubert is really goofy, with his long locks and whatnot, and he does the whole song and dance without any apparent effort. Also the show has an amusing low-budget quality and (related) a cheezy jazz-funk soundtrack throughout! Incredible.

In fact Hubert did a stint on Top Chef Masters where he mentioned his other great love, which is DJing!
So here’s a clip of him DJing whilst dancing around, which I think adequately conveys why I like him:

Look at how much fun he’s having! Yay!

My other pick is Anne Burrell, who has a Food Network show with title uncannily similar to Hubert’s: “Secrets of a Restaurant Chef.” (You may also remember her from the Mario Bitali kitchen crew in Iron Chef America.)

First good thing: Chef Burrell’s food is easy to make and calls for ingredients that folks probably have in their kitchens. Next good thing: her background as a culinary school instructor shines through because you definitely take away little tidbits of information with every viewing. (For example: before grilling salmon, you should let it sit with the skin up for a while — that way the skin dries out and gets all crunchy when you cook it.) The other great thing about Burrell is just style. She has spiky hair, makes wacky hand gestures whilst cooking, and seems to subscribe to some kind of vaguely transcendental hippie philosophy of food preparation, without actually being vegan or anything like that. I don’t know what this belief system is or implies exactly, but I dig it.

Finally, here’s a medley of (exaggerated) odd noises that she has made on camera — which also gives you a sense of the gestures and style and cetera:

I hope I’ve broadened your TV chef horizons a little bit. Now I’ll return to the books and to the free range chicken legs that have been slow braising with veggies for much the afternooon…awesome!

RIP Reading Rainbow

August 31, 2009

You don’t have to take my word for it (as it were): Reading Rainbow Reaches its Final Chapter

The end of an era! (Though I have to admit that my favorite episode had nothing to do with books or literacy…it was the Star Trek themed one, in which LeVar takes us behind the scenes and you get to see Patrick Stewart flub his lines and whatnot, which relates to one of the posts below.)

Anyway, take a few moments from your day to re-watch the vintage theme song and, you know, shed a single tear and whatnot.

Troubling Heirarchy: (Rambling About) Sustainability, The Wire, and Chinese Politics

April 5, 2009

Sometimes when you spend a lot of time thinking about a set of topics they tend to bleed into each other in weird ways.

Julian Wong over at The Green Leap Forward has written a pretty good summary of eco-design principles. The gist is that we always need to use a holistic or systems thinking approach, taking the biosphere and the community into account — especially when designing stuff that will establish patterns of life and pathways for future design, e.g. infrastructure. This is not a new concept for environmentalists. But one of the reasons that Wong’s analysis is cool (and indeed his whole blog is excellent) is that he talks explicitly about the way institutions work to make eco-design next to impossible:

“If we think about the essential functions of a city, we would probably come up with a list including housing, food, clean water and air, electricity, mobility and access, education, jobs, recreation, and perhaps a few others. The problem is that these seemingly disparate functions are always designed, created and managed in silos. Occasionally, a master plan will envisage interactions between the various functions, but once such plan leaves the planner’s office and gets in the hands of the developers, operators and administrators, the sectoral boxes firmly take over. The result? A lot of waste, and policies and procedures working at cross-purposes with each other. A simple case in point is the food-water-energy trilemma–a lack of coordinated policies addressing these fundamental needs has led to narrow policies addressing each individually, but ignoring the resulting trade-offs.”

Thesis (that I won’t be able to prove): The kind of sectoral inefficiency that Wong is talking about is at the heart of any hierarchical structure. Special interests or individual actors will always seek to advance their own agendas from within, to move farther up the power ladder, and/or avoid descending a rung on said ladder. This makes community building difficult, stifles creativity, nixes any possibility of systemic change, and leads to unsustainable outcomes. Economic theory holds that people are rationally self-interested — I’m claiming that hierarchy exacerbates this, leading to undesirable outcomes.

Here’s a short video for color/flavor:

Evidence/Argument: Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Chinese government, an extremely rigid hierarchy. Each element within (be it ministry, interest group, individual, etc.) is paranoid, acting to secure their own position or advance it at all times. Local officials see themselves as being at the top of a little hierarchy and so they take advantage of their position via corruption, extortion, excessive taxation, and/or brutal suppression of those below them. Anyone who would oppose them will find their options very limited: usually they can only get their way by jumping to the next level of the bigger hierarchy i.e. using whatever means necessary to focus the central government’s attention on their issue. This is always a risky move.

(In Season 1 of The Wire, when MacNulty steps outside of the chain of command to pressure Major Rawls to initiate an investigation of the Barksdale drug outfit, he’s taking a similar risk.)

Now. The Wire is not only enthralling (on par in this respect with the good seasons of Gilmore Girls) but also unique: it is a frank presentation of hierarchy. The main locus of The Wire is institutional, rather than individual. Unlike most TV, the narrative doesn’t focus on the quandaries and triumphs of one or two protagonists. Sure, there are protagonists — but the story centers upon the way that folks negotiate the world, especially how they relate to the often hostile social institutions that pervade their lives. Characters who try to move outside of the hierarchy, who don’t take a realist approach to their work or who seek the moral high ground usually end up getting killed or marginalized (sent off to an undesirable post, for example.)

This doesn’t mean there’s no contention — otherwise why watch the show? Similarly, there has been a strong current of scholarship showing that the political environment in China is actually quite dynamic, rather than stolid. Social protests (and other extra-institutional actions) have increased across the countryside — and there’s also evidence that a lot of wrangling goes on *inside* China’s supposedly monolithic institutions of governance.

Brookings scholar Ken Lieberthal used a case study of energy bureaucracy to examine this type of infighting in China back in the 1980’s. In his recent book “China’s Water Warriors” Andrew C. Mertha builds on Lieberthal’s work to show that “policy activists” (elements strongly in favor of a particular policy or government action) continuously exert pressure on, and even within, the Party and government. Of course the system is weighted in favor of those “activists” who support the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a daily struggle going on or that the political winds might not shift.

In The Wire, each character must balance professional ethics with family obligations, ambition or career goals, and the desire to have an easy life. People are pulled in different directions in this way. For example, Lt. Daniels has to threaten his superiors with media exposure in order to get the Major Crimes unit running — a very risky move which is detrimental to his short term standing. (Ultimately, though, Daniels’ vigilante reputation becomes beneficial to his career when an activist Mayor comes to power circa season 4.)

My point about The Wire is that everyone on the show (even the dealers!) is well aware that the War on Drugs is horrible, wasteful, tragic, etc. — but each person keeps it going because they have to maintain their place in the system. Dreams of doing good or making substantial change are always compromised in the end. The quickest way to happiness in The Wire is to simply recede from the action and become a wise dimwit a la Shakespeare’s fools. (McNulty does go this route in Season 4 and much of Season 5, for example)

My point about Chinese politics is similar: it is a system that rewards conformity. This doesn’t mean that China, like the ailing city of Baltimore as portrayed on The Wire, doesn’t undergo political change — such a claim would be absurd given recent history. But it does mean that change is generally driven by whatever is perceived by folks on the top of the hierarchy as helping them climb even higher.

My point about sustainability, mostly stolen from Mr. Wong, is that calls for long term planning, community-based design and resource management, and conscientious group-oriented goal setting. None of these things happen very easily in hierarchical systems since one person/group’s priorities will always override those of the person/group below them — so short term benefit at the top of the ladder outweighs long term benefit at the bottom. This concept has been enmeshed in environmental thought for a long time because a core issue for us tree-huggers is that Nature is always at the bottom, and thus always getting thoroughly screwed by us.

Conclusion: If you were into po mo theory, you could argue that our preference for hierarchy stems from the prevalence of binary power relationships (gay/straight, black/white, humanity/nature, boy/girl, etc.) that reinforce themselves via our language and culture. Perhaps this is so. But I’m going to argue that the reason we find ourselves relying on hierarchy to organize so much of life is that it’s efficient, especially for top-down management on a large scale — the primary activity of powerful corporations and the state.

The problem with hierarchy is that it narrows each person’s field of interest, enhancing our (natural) selfishness while detracting from a) our view of larger social structures and their often deleterious effects and b) our concern for the long term effects of our actions.

So maybe we should empower organizations that don’t operate on such a large scale. This might engender community, moral action and awareness, as well as to make sustainability that much more feasible. Rambling finished!

A-maize-ingly bad commercial/pun

September 4, 2008

So I’ve been watching the US Open this week and I keep seeing this commerical. It is atrocious! (albeit somewhat less iiritating than the afore mentioned “Breakfast Club” JC Penny commerical…)

The corn syrup commercial obviously doesn’t mention that corn production is pesticide intensive, promotes erosion, depletes aquifers, etc. Hell, these aren’t new or sexy phenomena — they’re really just the mundane after-effects of gargantuan scale agriculture. Similarly, the insane rise of obesity and diabetes in the United States is happening because people eat too much sugar/corn syrup — “moderation” is not the issue. There’s nothing interesting there.

What’s interesting is that sugar (and the corn syrup designed to imitate it) is *not* a picnic-in-the-meadow, guitar-strumming “natural” category of food. While sucrose is a very common form of energy for plant cells, crystallized sugar and liquid corn syrup are *extremely* labor intensive. In his book “Sweetness and Power,” Food historian Stanley Mintz goes as far as to claim that the first activity to be organized in a way that we might today recognize as “industrial” was sugar production!

“When it is remembered that the plantation form probably first developed in the eastern Mediterranean, was perfected (mostly with enslaved labor) by the Crusaders after 1000, was transferred to (and, in part, perhaps reinvented on) the Atlantic islands by 1450, and was thereupon re-established in the New World colonies, the significance of their industrialism — at a time when industry itself was largely based on home labor, except for shipbuilding and some textiles in Europe irself — becomes more persuasive.”

Mintz goes on to describe the process by which French and British holdings in the Carribean islands were converted to sugar plantations — which in turn caused the slave trade to grow exponentially.
The slaves produced sugar for Europe’s growing class of city dwellers; the consumer’s subsquent shake-up over protectionist tarriffs contributed to the origin of the “free trade” system.

Mintz quotes Marx’s summary of how this happened:

“Freedom and slavery constitute an antagonism…We are not dealing with the indirect slavery, the slavery of the proletariat, but with direct slavery, the slavery of the black races in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America. Direct slavery is as much the pivor of our industrialism today as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery, no cotton, without cotton, no modern industry. Slavery has given their value to the colonies; the colonies have created world trde; world trade is the necessary condition of large-scale machine-industry. Before the traffic in Negroes bega, the colonies only supplied the Old World with very few products and made no visible change in the face of the earth. Thus slavery is an economic category of the highest importance.”

Well, wage slavery has replaced slavery, corn syrup stands in for sugar…but the same dynamics made that shitty commerical. Except now consumers are supposed to use corn (and sugar cane) for our energy problems too…

JC Pain-y! :-/

August 6, 2008

So I was doing the dishes. It often takes me a long time to get up the gumption to approach a mound of dirty dishes festering in the sink…so it’s more accurate to say that I had finally mustered the will to do the dishes. Then I was doing them. Then something untoward happened. This:

“What is this commercial? You have to see this! It’s, like, The Breakfast Club except with different kids?” my girlfriend cried out in confusion from the living room.

Impossible. Besides, I was immersed in dishes.
“Ummm…I don’t understand. Is it that movie? Is it Not Another Teen Movie?”

“No it’s like a Breakfast Club commercial!”

“Um…riiiight,” I intoned, still absorbed in my task. I promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Some days later we were watching TV again and, even though I had ample forewarning, I was totally dumbfounded by this commercial. Watching it is like getting your teeth drilled for a week — your jaw can’t do anything but drop. I still can’t quite believe it.

Here are some reasons why I hate this JC Penny nonsense:

Music. I really liked the original Breakfast Club music. It wasn’t for everybody, sure, but even the soundtrack’s fiercest critic would maintain that it didn’t suck so unapologetically as this soulless JC Penny remix.

Diversity. In the movie Judd Nelson is working class, for example, and the main source of his frustration throughout the film is his forced imprisonment with irritatingly naive middle class kids. The JC Penny ad does feature multi-ethnic actors but I’d argue that the original movie makes more of an effort to present a diverse picture of the teen population in a podunk Illinois town while the ad whitewashes such a picture.

Desecration of the sacred. Seriously! I was and am outraged — there’s no better word. Maybe The Breakfast Club is like a sacred text for me; the film has an iconic status that stretches beyond its actual content. Looking at the string of comments after the video (on youtube), I don’t think I’m the only one for whom this is true.

“Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” in Four Acts

July 25, 2008

Dramatis Personae

Chef Ramsay — Vigilante of good cooking (also posessed of copious reserves of money)
Owner — Befuddled man, his noble heart is racked with worry and tremendous debt
Manager — Fast-talking egomaniac, both lazy and overbearing
Chef — Beleaguered kitchen worker whose inspiration to cook has seeped out of him
Various Waitstaff — None-too-bright women who bemoan the lack of customers
Customers — Average Joe(s), having two functional states: very angry or very satisfied.


(Chef Ramsay arrives at a fledgling restaurant. Finds the staff engaging in Group Think)
Ramsay: Bloody hell, look at this restaurant! (tastes the food) This is the worst food I’ve ever eaten!(enters kitchen) This kitchen is without a doubt the dirtiest, most disgusting kitchen on the face of the planet!
Chef: I am nonchalant…(shrugs)
Owner: I am embarassed! (faints)
Manager: Who is this #*%& to come here and criticize my restaurant? (seethes)
Ramsay: You are all lazy, stupid, and hopeless!

(commercials, and a re-cap of the situation)


Chef Ramsay:(confidently) I have hatched a plan. (To staff) You guys are terrible, but you have the potential to be better. Let’s clean the kitchen!
(Cleaning montage proceeds)
Ramsay:(cooking) I am introducing a new menu with high quality ingredients and simple, robust flavors!
Manager: (grumbles)
Chef:(raises eyebrow suggestively)
Owner:(hugs Ramsay with enthusiasm)


Ramsay: It is opening night at your new *redesigned* (new decorations unveiled) restaurant!
Manager: (paralyzed)
Chef: (skeptical)
Various Waistaff: (disorganized)
Customers: (some *very angry*, some * very satisfied*) Food!


Manager: I realize now that humility and self-discipline are positive values
Chef: I know now that I enjoy cooking.
Various Waitstaff: I like having customers to serve.
Owner: I hope I can recoup my debts before this publicity stunt is over!
Ramsay: My work here is done!