September 7, 2009
Inside Every Don Draper Is Alexander Portnoy
If you don't watch Mad Men, and haven't read or don't know about Phillip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint, this doesn't mean anything to you.
If you do, and have, these two guys seem as far apart as any two white men inhabiting New York in the sixties could reasonably be.
And yet, there's something about Draper and Portnoy's shared desire to jump out of history (the history of the world, the history of their own families), their sense that this is the time to do it, and that sex and language are the mechanisms to do so, that pulls the two together. If they met, I think they'd have a lot to say to each other.
(Inspired by this 40th-anniversary article about Portnoy's Complaint in the Guardian.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Society/Culture, Television
August 3, 2009
All this gabbin' 'bout Shakespeare makes me wonder - what are the sacred, that is, foundational, texts for us? (Feel free to variously define "us.")
I mean Shakespeare's plays are one; I think the Bible is or ought to be another; The Simpsons, seasons 2-8; the original Star Wars trilogy; Sophocles; The Great Gatsby; Goodfellas...
I'm half kidding, one quarter reaching, and one quarter deadly serious; what cultural references are now, for you, and in your interactions with others, just assumed, like the way Moby Dick assumes King Lear, Paradise Lost, and the King James Bible?
July 27, 2009
Sterling Cooper Hires An English Professor
That's right. There's a new redhead for everyone in the office to swoon over.
June 4, 2009
The Golden Age of Television
This poll of TV critics on the best television shows, performances, etc., of the past decade reveals a handful of things:
- The decade's almost over, folks. The Naughty Aughties. We hardly knew ye.
- This decade's been a golden age for scripted drama. Here are the nominees: "Friday Night Lights," "Lost," "Mad Men," "The Sopranos," "The West Wing," and "The Wire"; the just-missed list includes "24," "Battlestar Galactica," "Big Love," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Deadwood," "Grey’s Anatomy," "House," "Rescue Me," and "The Shield." Neither list includes "Six Feet Under," "Rome," "Dexter," "ER," "Boston Legal," "In Treatment"... fill in your favorite drama here. (Not all of these are my cup of tea, but they were all contenders.)
- When you look at comedies, the drop-off in quality is a lot more sharp. Here are the top shows: "30 Rock," "Arrested Development," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The Daily Show," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and "The Office." The runners-up? "The Big Bang Theory," "Flight of the Conchords," "Frasier," "Freaks and Geeks," "Friends," "Sex and the City," "The Simpsons," and "Two and a Half Men." Now, I really like "Flight of the Conchords" and "Freaks and Geeks," but even compared to "Arrested Development," they're blips. And once you remember that you're talking about the 2000s and not the 1990s, most of the rest of the good shows fall off that list too.
- I'm sorry, but the dramatic actor category is all messed up. All of the "Just Missed" actors are better than everybody in the category except Gandolfini. Ian fucking McShane, people. Ian McShane. This is worse than giving Emmys to James Spader.
- We need more recognizably great comic actresses. Tina Fey's created our generation's Homer Simpson in Liz Lemon, but otherwise, the waters there look thin. No love for any of the ladies on "Arrested Development"? Or the voice actresses from "The Simpsons," "Futurama," or "King of the Hill," all of whom were consistently great?
- Either Variety or the TV critics' association doesn't care about writing or direction. Kinda weird.
May 31, 2009
Ira, Jad, and Robert
Must listen: Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, and Robert Krulwich on the differences between radio and television. Includes such gems as how radio amplifies intimacy and television turns gesture into parody, Jad's observation that This American Life made real people's true stories sound like fairytales, and how Stephen Colbert is more like a radio personality (his show more like a radio show, his audience more like a radio audience) than a television one.
(My own thesis about Colbert: it's his perfect miming of big-personality talk show hosts like Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Scarborough, Hannity, Olbermann, usw., most of whom started on radio, continue to host radio shows, and whose TV shows and audiences are still a whole lot like radio.)
May 29, 2009
In Praise of Post-
Music critic Simon Reynolds praises music's moments of in-between:
It rankles a bit that the late '80s are now treated as a mere prequel to grunge. The recently aired Seven Ages of Rock on VH1 Classic was a marked improvement on earlier TV histories of rock, which tended to jump straight from Sex Pistols to Nirvana. But its episode on U.S. alternative rock nonetheless presented groups like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth as preparing the ground for Nirvana. That's not how it felt at the time: Sonic Youth and the rest seemed fully formed significances in their own right, creative forces of monstrous power, time-defining in their own way (albeit through their refusal of the mainstream). My Melody Maker comrade David Stubbs wrote an end-of-year oration proclaiming 1988—annum of Surfer Rosa, Daydream Nation, My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything—to be the greatest year for rock music. Ever!
We actually believed this, and our fervor was infectious, striking an inspirational, Obama-like chord with young readers heartily sick of the idea that rock's capacity for renewal had been exhausted in the '60s or the punk mid-'70s. Yet that period will never truly be written into conventional history (despite efforts like Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life) because it doesn't have a name. It's too diverse, and it's not easily characterized. For instance, the groups were "underground," except that by 1988 most of them—Husker Du, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers—had already signed, or soon were to sign, to majors. Finally, it'll never get fairly written into history because, damn it, grunge did happen.
As I've gotten older, I like 80s alternative music better than the stuff I grew up with in the 90s, although now (with almost two decades' distance), the 90s looks better, and just plain different, from the radio I remember. (I didn't listen to Belle and Sebastian, Neutral Milk Hotel, or Smog in the 90s. I do now.)
The weird thing is that to be a precursor is a recipe for big sales but also diminished significance in your own right. The 80s are full of bands that influenced Nirvana who don't really sound like Nirvana, who don't sound ANYTHING like the rest of what passed for grunge, who actually don't make a lot of sense in that context.
But to be post- is a kind of liberation -- one has a sense of being reflective, developing, moving beyond something else, a continuation with that history but also a break. So the coolest thing to be is post-punk. It's so cool that the first half of this decade saw dozens of bands who were post-post-punk.
So Reynolds identifies two strains of in-between music to go along with 80s post-punk: post-disco and post-psychedelic. I'm convinced that these typologies totally work; I might be more invested in the post-psychedelia bands he lists than the post-disco ones, but it all sounds interesting. And in this case, naming is claiming: giving these bands and their sound a name actually gives you a context to talk about them, one that might be misleading (in which case, time to toss it out) but which might be a way to call more attention to things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
He also includes this nice postscript (har har) on post-rock and post-metal:
There are some other "post-" genres out there, but to my mind, they describe something quite different from the above. Take post-rock, a term that mysteriously emerged in the early '90s to describe experimental guitar bands that increasingly abandoned guitars altogether. (Oh, OK, it was me who came up with that one.)
File under: Language, Music, Radio, Television
May 20, 2009
It Was Citizen Kane
This Kids in the Hall sketch has come up twice in conversation this week. I consider it, like the film that gives it its name, essential viewing. Enjoy.
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Movies, Television
May 10, 2009
The Ideas! The Ideas! Part... Whatever
Charlie Jane Anders, "Why Dollhouse Really Is Joss Whedon's Greatest Work":
The evil in Dollhouse is harder to deal with than the evil in Buffy because it's our evil. It's our willingness to strip other people of their humanity in order to get what we need from them. It's our eagerness to give up our humanity and conform to other people's expectations, in exchange for some vaguely promised reward. And it's our tendency to put any new piece of technology to whatever uses we can think of, whether they're positive or utterly destructive.
And that last bit, about technology, is the other main reason why Dollhouse is Whedon's most accomplished work, especially if you love science fiction like we do. Unlike Joss' other works, Dollhouse really is about the impact of new technology on society. It asks the most profound question any SF can ask: how would we (as people) change if a new technology came along that allowed us to...? In this case, it's a technology that allows us to turn brains into storage media: We can erase, we can record, we can copy. It's been sneaking up on us, but Dollhouse has slowly been showing how this radically changes the whole conception of what it means to be human. You can put my brain into someone else's body, you can keep my personality alive after I die, and you can keep my body around but dispose of everything that I would consider "me."
May 2, 2009
"The Problem With Cable Is Television"
But, it turns out, the problem with television is sports:
The broadband business is doing fine, as costs are coming down. Cable executives do worry that if costs rise as they expect because of surging online video use, they will need to find some way to get prices going up the way they are used to in their video business.
The bigger question is what happens to the video business. By all accounts, Web video is not currently having any effect on the businesses of the cable companies. Market share is moving among cable, satellite and telephone companies, but the overall number of people subscribing to some sort of pay TV service is rising. (The government's switch to digital over-the-air broadcasts is providing a small stimulus to cable companies.) However, if you remember, it took several years before music labels started to feel any pain from downloads...
The wedge that breaks all this may well be sports. ESPN alone already accounts for nearly $3 of every monthly cable bill, industry executives say. With all these new sports networks pushing up cable rates, at some point people who aren't sports fans might start turning in volume to Internet services like Netflix. We're not there yet, but looking at the industry in the last quarter, you can see the pressures building.
Fascinating (and quick!) look at cable companies' businesses. [Everything in bold is my emphasis.]
April 25, 2009
A Fembot Living in A Manbot's Manputer's World
April 22, 2009
A Public Broadcasting Facelift
April 17, 2009
Where's My All-You-Can-Eat Movies?
Farhad Manjoo tries to figure out why nobody's solved the riddle of streaming movies on the internet:
When I called people in the industry this week, I found that many in the movie business understand that online distribution is the future of media. But everything in Hollywood is governed by a byzantine set of contractual relationships between many different kinds of companies—studios, distributors, cable channels, telecom companies, and others. The best way to understand it is to trace what you might call the life cycle of a Hollywood movie, as Starz network spokesman Eric Becker put it to me. We all understand the first couple of steps in this life cycle—first a movie hits theaters and then, a few months later, it comes out on DVD. Around the same time, it also comes out on pay-per-view, available on demand on cable systems, hotel rooms, airplanes, and other devices. Apple's rental store operates under these pay-per-view rules, most of which put a 24-hour limit on movies. The restriction might have made sense back in the days when most people were getting on-demand movies in hotel rooms and the studios didn't want the next night's guest piggybacking on rentals. It doesn't make much sense when you're getting the movie on your MacBook. But many of the contracts were written years ago, and they don't reflect the current technology.
A movie will stay in the pay-per-view market for just a few months; after that, it goes to the premium channels, which get a 15- to 18-month exclusive window in which to show the film. That's why you can't get older titles through Apple's rental plan—once a movie goes to HBO, Apple loses the right to rent it. (Apple has a much wider range of titles available for sale at $15 each; for-sale movies fall under completely different contracts with studios.) Between them, Starz and HBO have contracts to broadcast about 80 percent of major-studio movies made in America today. Their rights extend for seven years or more. After a movie is broadcast on Starz, it makes a tour of ad-supported networks (like USA, TNT, or one of the big-three broadcast networks) and then goes back to Starz for a second run. Only after that—about a decade after the movie came out in theaters—does it enter its "library" phase, the period when companies like Netflix are allowed to license it for streaming. For most Hollywood releases, then, Netflix essentially gets last dibs on a movie, which explains why many of its films are so stale.
I actually think Netflix Watch Instantly is pretty good. It's got the first two seasons of 30 Rock, the complete Monty Python's Flying Circus, some old Woody Allen and Pasolini movies, The Big Sleep, and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. It's not perfect, but neither is Showtime.
April 11, 2009
Loss Of Service
Matt Richtel whines:
Technology is rendering obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone. Such gimmicks don’t pass the smell test when even the most remote destinations have wireless coverage. (It’s Odysseus, can someone look up the way to Ithaca? Use the "no Sirens" route.)
Of what significance is the loss to storytelling if characters from Sherwood Forest to the Gates of Hell can be instantly, if not constantly, connected?
Plenty, and at least part of it is personal. I recently finished my second thriller, or so I thought. When I sent it to several fine writer friends, I received this feedback: the protagonist and his girlfriend can't spend the whole book unable to get in touch with each other. Not in the cellphone era.
Then Christopher Breen whines:
As you may have heard, areas of San Francisco’s South Bay and coast lost their landline, cell phone, and Internet connectivity because an individual or individuals unknown deliberately sliced four fiber optic cables in San Jose, California. This action (currently termed “vandalism”), in addition to unplugging over 50,000 area residents, caused many businesses to shut down and threatened lives because 911 services were out for the better part of the day...
I had no Internet access. I couldn’t call the office to alert my boss that I was off the grid. And my iPhone was no good with its constant No Service heading regardless of where I drove. I was completely unplugged.
Voilà.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Television
March 28, 2009
Paging Nate Silver
Paul Krugman on "the magazine cover effect":
[W]hen you see a corporate chieftain on the cover of a glossy magazine, short the stock. Or as I once put it (I’d actually forgotten I’d said that), “Whom the Gods would destroy, they first put on the cover of Business Week.”
Apparently the numbers back it up when it comes to CEOs. Krugman wryly states, "[p]resumably the same effect applies to, say, economists. You have been warned."
But Dr Krugman, you presume too much! We need data, not just for CEOs, but academics, journalists, athletes, actors... Maybe being on the cover of Sports Illustrated is good index of future success (IFS) for pitchers, but a negative one for boxers. (This in fact seems likely.) Maybe it's better for athletes than managers. It might be great for actors -- given that increased visibility generally leads to better pay, more awareness, more awards... or else the whole celebrity publicity industry is just terribly misguided.
We need serious, highly-differentiated regressions on this one. Otherwise, this might just be some full-moon positive confirmation thing for everything BUT CEOs.
File under: Marketing, Movies, Snarkonomics, Sports, Television
March 27, 2009
You Can't Trust A Man What's Made Of Gas
"The Craziest Space Racists Of All Time" at io9.com offers a decent overview of allegories of race and racism in science fiction -- although apparently racism magically enters sci fi only when it's conscious, explicit, and denounced -- but its real value is its citation of the great Mr Show sketch "Racist in the Year 3000":
March 23, 2009
Legit Money, Printing Paper
Idris Elba, best known for playing Stringer Bell in seasons 1-3 of The Wire, is now playing Charles Minor, Michael's new boss on The Office. (Which, when you think of it, if David Simon had ever gotten around to telling the story of put-upon postmillennial office workers in America, is essentially the same story.)
Part of Stringer's conceit on The Wire is that he wants to turn drug dealing into a modern business. He wants even his front businesses to run well. But it's still dissonant, to say the least, to watch this Baltimore man-god walk among the paper salesmen in Scranton. Rex and the commenters at Fimoculous cracked me up.
Rex: Yeah, that totally threw me too: Stringer Bell on The Office last night...
kittyholmes: I guess he's finally using all those business classes.
jed: Well, he did run the copy shop.
King of New York
Nancy Franklin on the not-so-secret geography of NBC's Kings:
Watching the show, you feel a tension as you try to decide whether it's holding a mirror up to the present or whether it's making an argument about where the world may soon be headed. We have already noticed, in the aerial establishing shots of Shiloh, that "Kings" is filmed in Manhattan, and that the city isn't just a film location. It's never stated, but it's clear that Shiloh was New York City, before it was destroyed to the point where even its name disappeared. There are inconsistencies that give you pause: the Time Warner Center is still standing -- in fact, it's the home of the King's court -- but the Empire State Building, I noticed with an actual start, is gone, as is the Chrysler Building. A tall building that resembles the planned Freedom Tower is (thanks to special effects) in midtown. The exterior of the palace is a well-known apartment building, the Apthorp, on the Upper West Side, a block from Zabar's and H & H Bagels. (We don't see those emporiums in the show, but I'm going to assume that they still exist in the world of "Kings"; otherwise, let me tell you, there is real cause for despair in the realm.)
I like the show, but it might be a bad sign for its longevity that even I, who made a point of watching and actually liked the pilot episode, missed the broadcast of episode two last night (and rewatched Lost online with my wife instead). Oops.
March 22, 2009
Best In Show (TV Edition)
It's weird to talk about "the best show on TV" now that The Sopranos and The Wire are off the air, and the end of Battlestar Galactica brings that particular third-way contrarian option to a close.
There's the old Yeats joke; when Swinburne died, WBY said, "Now I'm king of the cats" -- and he was (probably) for the next thirty years. It's strange now that the new king of cats might actually be on broadcast TV rather than cable -- but Mad Men aside, that's where we seem to be -- and there are a LOT of genuinely ambitious network shows out there.
Rex makes the case for Dollhouse, which has indeed picked up. If you were (figuratively) buying stock in a show, it'd be a hot bet. But I'm going to stick with Lost in the drama category (no one does it like you), 30 Rock for character-based comedy (Liz Lemon is our decade's female answer to Homer Simpson), and The Daily Show/The Colbert Report hour for sheer cultural relevance -- simply put, nothing else is essential.
Sorry if those answers seem boring, but that's just how it is sometimes.