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The Quest for Relevance for the One-Time Famous: BoJack Horseman and The Comeback

11 Sep

One Trick Pony

Having watched BoJack Horseman and The Comeback nearly back to back, I was stunned by the similarities. Both star has-been actors who were at the peak of their games in the early ‘90s starring on cheesy but commercially successful sitcoms that made them stars. Both live in the past constantly. They still see themselves as the stars they once were, even as the world has moved beyond and past them. They were so caught up in an unexpectedly easy and quick fame that their self-worth become to inexorably tied up in their popularity; their confidence was no longer their own, it was a meter which went up and down based on the vagaries of the American viewing population. And when they population moved on, they didn’t know what they were and they didn’t know who to be. Both were materially successful. They had money; they lived nice, comfortable, lives, despite their lack of employment. But that wasn’t enough. They needed what fame gave them. They were insecure, needy, jealous of other, younger stars who looked to have what they had 15 years ago. BoJack was openly so; Valerie less so, but it was clear that she still thought she was a star, and surrounded herself with people who thought likewise.

Both were given an opportunity to get back into the limelight after years on the sideline. Both of these opportunities were not new; they were a version of the old, an attempt to revisit has-beens and tell their stories. Both new opportunities seemed oddly invasive; for Val, a documentary following her everywhere, and for BoJack a tell-all memoir. Both opportunities veered deeply into their subject’s lives; leaving no stone unturned, revealing aspects that most people wouldn’t want released into the public

Both put their trust in a colleague who they believed to be their friend, their advocate, looking to tell their side of the story, even while they agreed, at the beginning of the venture that their story was to be told warts and all. BoJack asks for a tell-all memoir that’s good, not a load of crap. Valerie knows her story is being told on every camera – she does her part to make sure the cameras are everywhere. Both feel incredibly upset at the completion of their respective projects – their trust was betrayed. Diane turned on BoJack, writing a memoir that was a huge success for her but made him look like the huge asshole we know he is. He believed she had his best interests in mind. The Comeback debuts and immediately distorts Valerie’s words, takes them incredibly out of context, and shows of her worst moments without showing the villain that antagonist Paulie G had been. Val felt like Jane who she trusted had turned on her completely.

And yet, in the ultimate celebrity culture twist, both projects become bizarre unexpected successes, for exactly the reasons BoJack and Val had felt betrayed and vulnerable and humiliated. Everybody’s talking about the double vomit scene; it’s the talk of the town leading to the Comeback getting an immediate pick up, which is unheard of. BoJack’s book is a smash; everyone is fascinated by his story, and if not quite empathetic, at least interested, and some people relate; he’s real, and true, and if still an asshole, it moves books.

More than anything, both are relevant again. Both have traded their dignity and their self-worth for relevance and both, while still indignant about their treatment, are kind of happy with that trade. There’s a huge conflict; both are insecure and desperate to be as popular as they once were so badly that, though they never would have said that’s what they would have wanted at the beginning, in the end, were willing to trade their confidence and sense of selves to be hits.

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The Pop Chart Championship Belt: Part 1

24 Aug

Elvis Presley

Grantland has made an art out of handing out a proverbial wrestling-style “Championship Belt” over time in several fields – they’ve done it for quarterbacks, NFL defenses, and even American rock bands. The idea is that at any given point in time only one QB or defense or band can hold the championship belt, and the belt is up for grabs anew every year.

Where no one has yet to take this concept, at least as far as the cursory Google searches I’ve made have shown, is to the world of pop music. So here we go.

The goal here is to crown the objectively biggest pop star in the US at any given point in time. In theory, if you were to ask a large number of pop music-attuned people in a given year, this should be the person who would receive the most votes.

Here are a few ground rules:

  1. Solo artist, duo, group, it doesn’t matter; they’re all equally eligible.
  1. Charts matter – this is, after all, ultimately a popularity contest, and the charts are the single biggest way to establish popularity, especially when I’m picking between artists in years before I have personal experience. While the artist doesn’t need to have topped the charts in the calendar year, it helps, and it’s virtually impossible to hold the belt without at least a couple of top five hits.
  1. History and reputation matters – we’re trying to answer the question of who would be identified as the biggest pop star in the country at any given time, so even artists who have mammoth rookie years are unlikely (though certainly not unable) to be considered the biggest without some semblance of longevity. For example, even though Iggy Azalea may have had the biggest year in pop music in 2014, no one would consider her the biggest pop star in the country, and the fact she has just a year of success is a significant part of that.
  1. Critics don’t matter – This is a commercial list; critics only matter in as much as they contribute to the aura and reputation that might translate indirectly into popularity.
  1. The belt changes hands every calendar year. This is an entirely arbitrary decision, as music doesn’t work seasonally like sports, but we need to make an arbitrary cut off somewhere, because a month-by-month review would at least double this already ridiculously long piece. This does unfortunately screw over some artists who might have ruled over some summer-to-summer periods, and I’ll try to note a few, but them’s the breaks.
  1. We start at 1956. 1955 is traditionally considered the dawn of the rock era, but to be frank, I had no idea what to do with that year so I just started with the much more obvious belt year of 1956.

Some years were blindingly obvious, some years were incredibly tough and resulted in me virtually tossing a coin in my head. Especially in the earlier years it’s possible I’ve erred particularly with hindsight bias, being more likely to give the belt to the artist that seems bigger in retrospect, relative to what it may have been like at the time, but I do my best. I’ll include a shortlist of contenders for each year, to provide a ready-made platform for anyone who wants to argue with my choices.

Let’s begin.

1956-61:

Elvis Presley

As I mentioned above, 1956, the first year Elvis appeared, was one of the easiest years in this entire exercise. Elvis, in these early pre-British Invasion years, was a dominant chart presence, with 12#1s and 27 top tens through 1961. He was so big that the army couldn’t even stop him; during his stint from 1958-60, he had ten top 40 hits. Presley had faded significantly from the sheer mania of his first years by the end of this run, but in this era there weren’t a lot of dominant players, and fewer who lasted more than a year or two before burning out. No one stepped up and took the belt from him while he got weaker.

Contenders: Frankie Avalon for a brief spell in 1959 was on top of the world; he had the looks and hit singles “Why” and “Venus.” Chubby Checker – the Twist really was that big of a deal, so big that its sequel was massive; imagine the Macarena spawning a sequel which then also hit the top 10.

 

1962-63:

The Four Seasons

After years of struggling towards success, The Four Seasons broke out in a big way in 1962, and over the course of a year, sent three consecutive singles skyrocketing to the top of their charts, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man,” (omitting their holiday cover of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”) along with #3 hit “Candy Girl” for good measure.

Contenders: Elvis Presley was still charting hits, and though he had fallen from the stratosphere, his reputation could easily have been strong enough to carry him here; it’s hard to evaluate from this distance. The Beach Boys had a huge 1962.

 

1964-65:

The Beatles

The Beatles absolutely owned 1964, with four #1s, which would be enough in and of itself, but they threw in a couple of number twos, a number three, and a bunch of lesser hits, as they just spewed hits at a rate not seen before or since. They outdid themselves in 1965. Five #1s. The cool, critical, and still mega-popular albums were still to come, but this is as big as they ever were chart-wise.

Contenders: The Supremes were the only other act within shouting distance, with a crazy seven #1s of their own, representing Motown, the other strand of popular music to rise alongside the British Invasion. Herman’s Hermits were well too in the Beatles’ shadow to be serious contenders, but they had a strikingly big year with a couple of #1s and five additional top 10 hits. The Rolling Stones were probably the second biggest band in America, churning out many hits, and were also defined partially by their reputation as the anti-Beatles.

 

1966-67:

The Monkees

At first, I had The Beatles maintaining their hold on the belt during these two years, but after some reading and thinking, I gave The Monkees their due. It’s hard to imagine, as someone who wasn’t there, The Monkees being bigger than the Beatles, but in 1967 The Monkees outsold The Beatles, who had stopped touring, and The Rolling Stones combined. They had an astonishing four albums reach the top of the charts in a little over a year, and topped the singles charts with “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Daydream Believer.”

Contenders: The Beatles. They were still, well, The Beatles, and they still pumped out a bunch of hits.

 

1968-70:

The Beatles

The Monkees were proven a fad, collapsing in 1968, and The Beatles merely took their title back by default, in a span where “Hello Goodbye,” “Hey Jude,” “Get Back,” “Come Together,” “Let It Be,” and “The Long and Winding Road” were chart-toppers. The Beatles put out a #1 album each year with the White Album, Abbey Road, and Let It Be.

Contenders: The Jackson Five killed it in 1970 with four #1s. If not for the Beatles coming apart, they would have stolen the day.

 

1971:

The Jackson 5

The Beatles are gone, throwing the belt to the ground as they walk off into the sunset. The pop-sphere is plunged into darkness and we’re in one of our most difficult eras to crown champions. This is already a bit of a legacy pick. As mentioned above, The Jackson 5 actually killed it in 1970, with four #1s, which would have put them at the top just about any other year. The Jackson 5 didn’t have nearly as good a year in 1971, with a couple of #2s and a couple of lesser hits, but 1971 was a barren year dominated by absolutely no one, giving the Jacksons, who had replaced the Supremes as the biggest Motown act, a chance to shine.

Contenders: The Carpenters. Only in the ‘70s could a group as utterly mild as The Carpenters rise to the top, but the Carpenters had three top three hits following up a strong 1970. Three Dog Night had four top 10 hits including the biggest song of the year, “Joy to the World” but it’s hard to imagine them being considered that highly. Marvin Gaye had three top 10 hits off the monumental What’s Going On.

 

1972:

The Carpenters

The single most barren year in this entire exercise, 1972 almost makes 1971 look like a cakewalk. The Jacksons have faded, replaced by Michael’s solo career still in its very early phases. I wish I could hand no one the belt for a year, but that’s not how the game works. I can barely defend this pick except by saying none of the possibilities were convincing. The Carpenters had a monster 1971, and they actually still existed and put out music the next year with top 10 hits “Hurting Each Other” and “Goodbye to Love.”

Contenders: Elton John appeared on the scene with four hits, “Crocodile Rock,” “Tiny Dance,” “Rocket Man,” and “Honky Cat.” I’m unsure exactly when superstardom hit. Roberta Flack had her first huge hit “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” and the #5 “Where is the Love.”

 

1973:

Paul McCartney and Wings

Obviously it’s a huge advantage, popularity-wise, to have been part of the biggest rock band of all time, but McCartney did not rest on his laurels. He and his band mates in Wings hit the top of the charts with “My Love”, hit #2 with James Bond theme “Live and Let Die,” and had two more top tens.

Contenders: Elton John, again, who we’ll see more of momentarily, released his landmark Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album with hits “Daniel,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” and the title track.

Part 2 an be found here and part 3 can be found here.

Best Albums and Songs of 2014: I Have to Use These Metaphors Just to Say I Like You

9 Feb

We can finally close the books on 2014, musically. Here’s my top 100 tracks and top 50 albums. As always I intend to quickly regret some of my placements soon after, but it’s a solid snapshot in time. If you so choose, there’s a couple of different ways you can listen – first, here are 8tracks links to my top 40, if you want to listen and be surprised.

Next, here’s a spotify playlist – songs not on spotify have links to YouTube next to their names below.

The lists – my top 100 songs of 2014.

Banks

  1. Banks – Beggin For Thread
  2. Jenny Lewis – Head Underwater
  3. Clean Bandit – Rather Be feat. Jess Glynne
  4. MØ – Maiden
  5. Chloe Howl – Disappointed
  6. Vanic X Machineheart – Circles
  7. Twin Peaks – Making Breakfast
  8. Real Estate – Talking Backwards
  9. Angel Olsen – High & Wild
  10. Rookie Magazine – Go Forth Feminist Warriors
  11. Ariel Pink – Put Your Number In My Phone
  12. YG – Who Do You Love?
  13. Niia – Body
  14. Alvvays – Archie, Marry Me
  15. QT – Hey QT
  16. I LOVE MAKONNEN – Tuesday
  17. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You)
  18. First Aid Kit – Master Pretender
  19. Tinashe – 2 On
  20. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Warning
  21. Joyce Manor – Heart Tattoo
  22. Drake – 0 To 100 / The Catch Up
  23. Speedy Ortiz – Bigger Party
  24. Tokyo Police Club – Hot Tonight
  25. Candy Hearts – I Miss You
  26. Jessie Ware – Tough Love
  27. Lykke Li – No Rest For The Wicked
  28. EMA – So Blonde
  29. Röyksopp & Robyn – Do It Again
  30. SOHN – Artifice
  31. Charli XCX – Boom Clap
  32. Maddie & Tae – Girl In A Country Song
  33. Kiesza – Hideaway
  34. Kenny Chesney – American Kids
  35. Vance Joy – Riptide
  36. Woods – Moving to the Left
  37. Kira Isabella – Quarterback
  38. R.L. – Ugly Heart
  39. Miguel – Simplethings
  40. Beverly – Madora
  41. Migos – Fight Night
  42. Music Go Music – Nite After Nite
  43. Shamir – On The Regular
  44. Spoon – Rent I Pay
  45. Sylvan Esso – Coffee
  46. Tune-Yards – Water Fountain
  47. 5 Seconds Of Summer – She Looks So Perfect
  48. Honeyblood – Super Rat
  49. Boots – Ride Ride Ride
  50. Grimes – Go
  51. CEO – Whorehouse
  52. Future – Move That Doh
  53. Cloud Nothings – I’m Not Part of Me
  54. Tinashe – Pretend
  55. JJ – Dean & Me
  56. Perfume Genius – Queen
  57. MKTO – Classic
  58. Milky Chance – Stolen Dance
  59. Benjamin Booker – Violent Shiver
  60. The Apache Relay – Katie Queen Of Tennessee
  61. Angel Olsen – Forgiven/Forgotten
  62. One Direction – Steal My Girl
  63. Vincent – Birth In Reverse
  64. MØ – Don’t Wanna Dance
  65. Foxygen – How Can You Really
  66. Ariana Grande – Break Free
  67. Ryan Adams – Gimme Something Good
  68. Saint Motel – My Type
  69. Run The Jewels – Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) [feat. Zack De La Rocha]
  70. Ty Segall – Manipulator
  71. How To Dress Well – Repeat Pleasure
  72. The Rosebuds – Blue Eyes
  73. Miranda Lambert – Automatic
  74. Posse – Interesting Thing No. 2
  75. Ed Sheeran – Don’t
  76. FKA twigs – Lights On
  77. Lana Del Rey – Brooklyn Baby
  78. Sharon Van Etten – Every Time the Sun Comes Up
  79. Beck – Blue Moon
  80. Kelis – Breakfast
  81. Kendrick Lamar – i
  82. Chumped – Hot 97 Summer Jam
  83. SOPHIE – Lemonade
  84. Dierks Bentley – Drunk On A Plane
  85. Ought – Today More Than Any Other Day
  86. Rich Gang – Lifestyle
  87. Tove Lo – Habits (Stay High)
  88. Chromeo – Jealous (I Ain’t With It)
  89. Dum Dum Girls – Trouble Is My Name
  90. Porter Robinson – Sad Machine
  91. Ex Hex – Don’t Wanna Lose
  92. Lilly Wood and The Prick – Prayer in C – Robin Schulz Radio Edit
  93. Duke Dumont – I Got U
  94. Bleachers – I Wanna Get Better
  95. Nick Jonas – Jealous
  96. White Lung – Snake Jaw
  97. Alex Winston – Careless
  98. Taylor Swift – Blank Space
  99. Merchandise – Enemy
  100. Sam Hunt – House Party

And my top 50 albums of 2014…

Tinashe

  1. Tinashe – Aquarius
  2. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
  3. MØ – No Mythologies to Follow
  4. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
  5. Charli XCX – Sucker
  6. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
  7. Twin Peaks – Wild Onion
  8. Dum Dum Girls – Too True
  9. Real Estate – Atlas
  10. EMA – The Future’s Void
  11. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
  12. Spoon – They Want My Soul
  13. Ex Hex – Rips
  14. How to Dress Well – “What is the Heart?”
  15. Taylor Swift – 1989
  16. Miranda Lambert – Platinum
  17. Clean Bandit – New Eyes
  18. Cymbals Eat Guitars – LOSE
  19. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
  20. Tune-yards – Nikki Nack
  21. Ty Segall – Manipulator
  22. Eric Church – The Outsiders
  23. Alvvays – Alvvays
  24. Jj – V
  25. FKA Twigs – LP1
  26. Joyce Manor – Never Hungover Again
  27. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
  28. Chumped – Teenage Retirement
  29. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else
  30. Azealia Banks – Broke with Expensive Taste
  31. Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
  32. Future Islands – Singles
  33. Perfume Genius – Too Bright
  34. Kelis – Food
  35. Posse – Soft Opening
  36. Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
  37. Parquet Courts – Something Animal
  38. YG – My Krazy Life
  39. Ariana Grande – My Everything
  40. Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
  41. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon
  42. Lykke Li – I Never Learn
  43. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time
  44. Ought – More Than Any Other Day
  45. Metronomy – Love Letters
  46. Porter Robinson – Worlds
  47. White Lung – Deep Fantasy
  48. Beck – Morning Phase
  49. Katy B – Little Red
  50. Banks – Goddess

A Defense of Spoiler-phobia, or More Accurately, a Defense of the Right to Be a Spoiler-phobe

2 Jul

Spoiler Alert!

The other day, AVClub critic Todd VanDerWerff penned an epic call to the world of TV viewers, fans, and other critics alike, claiming, in to uncertain terms, that our collective culture is overrun by an unbending anti-spoiler attitude, and it’s time to put an end to it. That’s the overall hypothesis, and some of his anti-spoiler feelings are defensible, if controversial. However, as we wade into the nitty gritty of his argument, VanDerWerff makes a number of troubling statements and assertions which I’ll break down in detail.

There’s one major problem overall problem though with his argument, which I’ll start with because it’s the key and most important flaw, before I actually break down some of the problematic pieces of his argument individually. VanDerWerff believes spoilers are overrated, and it’s absolutely his right to do so. What isn’t his right however – is to tell everyone else that because he thinks spoilers are overrated, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks – he’s going to damn well go ahead and spoil things anyway, because he knows better than his readers.

It may sound like I’m making VanDerWerff into an exceptional arrogant potential strawman with that claim, but it’s his choice to absolutely throw down the gauntlet at the start of his post with the first sentence, mentioning a critical detail at the end of Breaking Bad. Sure, the vast majority of people who read that post, or read the AVClub in general had seen the show, or at the least knew how it ended, but that’s beyond the point. He decided to start off before even making his argument by spoiling an important point of an extremely popular and acclaimed show.

So if you haven’t seen that show, well too bad, VanDerWerff is saying. He defends himself quickly, backtracking, by pointing out well, it was only really a partial spoiler; but that’s beyond the point. He knew it was a spoiling something and choose to do it without warning before even setting out his argument to readers.

Now let’s dig in point by point through VanDerWerff’s argument before making some more general statements.

1. VanDerWerff makes the unbelievably audacious claim that people are only bothered by spoilers if plot means everything to them. He writes that his spoiler which I mentioned above, would only ruin the show for someone “if you value plot above everything else.” He continues to explain that anyone who would rather not have a central plot point ruined for them ONLY CARES ABOUT PLOT. This is mind-bogglingy overbroad and incredibly offensive. I strongly believe that anything not worth watching twice is not worth watching once, and I think movies that simply rely on plot twists are generally pretty lousy (The Sixth Sense, which VanDerWerff namechecks is a fine example.). I’m not close to the most spoilerphobic of my friends and a spoiler wouldn’t prevent me from watching a show or movie I want to see. That said, I would prefer not to have details about the final episode of a show I haven’t seen ruined for me for absolutely no reason whatsoever except to shove it in my face, which is what VanDerWerff does to start his post. Again, the assumption that anyone who cares about spoilers ONLY CARES ABOUT PLOT is flat-out ridiculous.

2. VanDerWerff actually refutes his own argument in his second paragraph so I don’t even need to do it for him. He notes that someone told him, and he more or less agreed that spoilerphobes would mean the end of criticism, but as the internet age continues to progress, there appear to be both more spoilerphobes and more criticism and discussion than ever. Well refuted.

3. Well, this is where he talks about the general deleterious effects of anti-spoiler culture on criticism and I want to get back to this at the end, because I think this is the least semantic and more important point.

4. VanDerWerff points out multiple times that spoilerphobia is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first mention he doesn’t back up at all; at the second he points out examples that veer from Don Quixote at the oldest to Death of a Salesman at the most recent; the “recent” being a sixty-year old play. As a counter-example, to promote Psycho, a fifty-plus year old film, director Alfred Hitchcock carefully orchestrated the media and press to prevent plot details from leaking. I’m not sure exactly what Todd means by recent; he doesn’t make it clear. Nor does he exactly explain why the fact that it’s changed over time should have an impact one way or the other on an argument. Forgetting everything else, his argument could be sound or unsound; it shouldn’t matter how it was done before.

5. VerDerWerff argues that spoilers privilege plot over all other elements of craft. This point is a misdirection at best. It assumes that spoilers can only be plot spoilers; which isn’t true at all. For proof, Todd points to one article about Godzilla on Vulture on which no commenter complains about having certain non-plot elements spoiled for them, thus illustrating that spoilerphobes aren’t bothered by non-plot spoilers. The question of what is a spoiler is a fair and valid one – but the premise that spoilerphobes are by nature okay with other aspects of films and TV shows being spoiled for them besides the plot is ridiculous. While I will admit most spoilers are plot spoilers, I know several spoilerphobes who would simply prefer to know nothing or as little as possible about shows and movies they have yet to see, and that includes all elements, not just plot.

6. This piggy-backs right off the last point, and involves the second-most offensive claim of the piece, after the notion that anyone who cares about spoilers ONLY CARES ABOUT PLOT. VanDerWerff writes that “Anti-spoiler zealots largely ignore craft.” This is beyond absurd. I know plenty of anti-spoiler zealots and they are as thoughtful television viewers as anyone else I know, including those who welcome spoilers. The notion that people who care enough about plot to avoid spoilers thus somehow don’t care about any other aspect of a show is a ridiculous and offensive claim based on absolutely nothing.

7. VanDerWerff refers to how Charles Dickens would reveal characters and plots as an argument towards how spoilers were less of an issue when he was writing, and to point out that that was because Dickens and his fans realized the plot was not the most important part of his works. What VanDerWerff ignores here is that Dickens was the author of the works and not a critic; the words were his, and thus, he had a prerogative to reveal details that a critic may not. Again, some people for certain would prefer to receive details in no case, and Dickens as example would be fairly relevant towards that point. But for me, if Matt Weiner, for example, is choosing to give away as little information about an upcoming Mad Men episode as possible, well that means something; the decision whether or not to give away information is vastly different to me than that of a critic who has not created the work.

Here’s what it comes down to. It’s VanDerWerff’s or anyone’s right to think that spoilers are overrated. It’s not their right to then, because they think so, thus spoil shows on purpose for other people. VanDerWerff rightfully points out that it’s hard to figure out what’s a spoiler. Everyone gets that! It’s not always obvious by any means. True spoilerphobes should be very careful on their own, and writers make innocent mistakes accidentally spoiling things all the time; it’s impossible to know what people know. That’s okay! It’s going to happen when you write thousands and thousands of words about TV; it’s simply inevitable. People might be mad, but even most spoilerphobes while angry in the moment would see it as a forgivable offense. What’s not okay is spoiling something on purpose just because you can, and thinking that it doesn’t matter if you do because you think people shouldn’t care about spoilers, so thus too bad.

VanDerWerff claims that spoilerphobia impinges on critical discussion, because critics can’t risk discussing what they want to because of concern about spoilers. There’s a couple major problems with this argument. First, there are plenty of places – episode recaps, most prominently, where it’s implicit that spoilers are coming up. People reading those know there are going to be spoilers. Secondly, there’s an easy, painless solutions, that doesn’t involve not writing about what you want to – simply use the two word phrase SPOILER ALERT. It’s recognized everywhere, and people can choose for themselves whether to continue reading, and you can write about whatever you feel like free from worry. If that means fewer people read your piece, well, too bad.

While figuring out what is a spoiler can be difficult, it’s ultimately a simple solution when you know you’re dealing with one, and VanDerWerff certainly knew, for example, that his first sentence was a spoiler. Just write “SPOILER ALERT.” If you can’t be bothered to write two words before you talk about intense plot details to your heart’s content, I can’t imagine how you can think you’re not the selfish one instead of the readers.

The Curious Lack of Location in Orphan Black

16 May

Toronto or nowhere

Orphan Black is a very enjoyable show featuring an actress giving a unique and all-world performance. I’ve talked about it before and I look forward to discussing the ins and outs of the current season in an End of Season Report in a few weeks. Now, though, a random point about Orphan Black that is apparent to me in almost every minute of the show, but maybe not to anyone else.

Over my many years of watching TV, but particularly the last five or so when I’ve turned a dangerous level of watching TV into a dangerously obsessive lack-of-Vitamin D level of watching TV, I’ve started to really hone in on watching for where a show takes place and where a show is filmed. This came about mostly due to my personal distaste for shows set in NYC filming in LA, and I’ve become excellent at spotting shows that actually film in NYC and those that don’t.

Some shows prominently feature their location, whether they’re set there or not. 30 Rock was all about the NYC, but so was How I Met Your Mother which was clearly shot in LA. In some shows, the setting is largely in the background, but usually you can figure out what it is, either because they actively say it at least a couple of times, or just due to background factors, names of locations and streets, either that are actually in the background, or that characters say are in the background to make it feel like the show is set there.

Orphan Black, though, features absolutely none of that. From day one, I tried to figure out where it was supposed to be set; and the harder it became to figure out, the more intensely I tried. Early on, I suspected, correctly it was filmed in Toronto, which was quickly confirmed, and not having found any information to the contrary, I started looking for signs that the city was supposed to actually be Toronto (not that I know Toronto so well, as much as I knew it was a BBC America production co-produced by Canadian television, and odds were it was either Vancouver and Toronto from that point).

In fact, the lack of obvious location early on made me think the show took place in the near future rather than the present, from just how it seemed to be set in “the city” rather than any one real place, giving it even more of an air of science fiction.

Toronto, it must be, I figured. I looked everywhere for blatant evidence it had to be. It was never mentioned in the script but I looked deeper. The police uniforms or the department building? Nothing. In fact, it started to be strange that people weren’t mentioning it; as if they were altering their speech in odd ways to avoid ever saying the city they were in.

I thought I might be crazy at one point, but it turns out this was a conscious decision, even if no one probably cared quite as much as I did about it. This interview, which I finally found, after I thought that the secret was still there but that I would never find it, illuminated the fact that it was a decision to avoid alienating Canadian or American audiences, which is noble, but still a little bit strange to me. It feels pretty sci-fi at least.

Still, I’m glad the mystery is solved. You can’t elude me, TV, at least about locations. Try again.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent or Shut Your Mouth and Call a Lawyer

14 May

Goren and Eames

Over my long career of watching cop shows with my dad, I’ve developed a number of pet peeves about repeated cop show tropes. The biggest general peeve is probably with cops who don’t play by the rules, who seem to be the heroes of most cop shows. Why aren’t we supported cops who actually adhere to proper procedures, who won’t see their investigations wasted when the evidence they find is thrown out of court because they obtained it illegally? I have lots more to say about that, but that’s for another day and another post. My cop show trope pet peeve of the day is about the legions of police procedurals in which EVERY SINGLE EPISODE ends in a confession by the guilty party.

This happens in many, many shows, but what has it on my mind currently is its appearance in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which I’ve had the good fortune to catch a number of times with my dad in the past few months. There are a number of detectives who feature on the program, but the most common  detective and face of the program  is Robert Goren played by Vincent D’Onofrio (who works side by side with his partner Alexandra Eames played by Kathryn Erbe). Goren is a genius detective. He knows multiple languages, tons of sciences, and simply a little or a lot about everything, so whatever the case is about, be it art fraud, tax evasion, or just your garden variety domestic dispute, Goren knows every single relevant fact without the aid of a computer that could come up during the investigation.

Let’s even forget that know-it-all quality, another modern cop trope I can’t stand (William Peterson’s Gil Grissom on CSI also had these qualities, among other modern detective characters). In every episode, Goren craftily boxes in the guilty party over the course of an interview, usually halfway through the show, before any formal interrogation and before the party has any idea Goren is on to him or her. He asks piercing questions that force the perpetrator to evade, dodge, or reveal more than he or she intended to. This all builds to the last few minutes of an episode when Goren, armed with more evidence, and knowing for sure who the perpetrator is, uses his sheer interrogation talent to play off the emotions of the perp and elicit a dramatic confession,  yelled loudly, or spoken softly through tears, as over the top music plays in the background.

The show then ends, with the criminal having confessed, it’s assumed that an easy conviction or a guilty plea will naturally follow.  Without a confession, either we wouldn’t know for sure who did it, or many times we might but we wouldn’t know for sure that the law got him or her. Without that confidence I suppose the episode would seem unfinished and open ended even if the police arrested the person with a fair amount of evidence but no confession. We’d never know if justice was served, and who could go to sleep without knowing that.

Here’s the thing: Why is everyone confessing? Sure, I get that some of these people are poor and/or uneducated, and some are particularly emotional and might come apart in the moment . But some of them are well off, some of them are smart, some of them are taciturn and should know when to keep their mouths shut. You have a right to an attorney! Every American has watched enough cop shows to know that one. Call a fucking lawyer!

Forget the lawyer for the moment. Just shut your mouth! How difficult is that! How does no one do that? Don’t admit you did it! Even if all the evidence is against you, you have so much more leverage for a plea if you make it actually difficult for them to go through the work of prosecuting you, rather than feeding the state a conviction on a silver platter.

I know, why do I expect reality from a television show. And I admit, this is a very personal pet peeve that shouldn’t prevent many people from enjoying these shows, and I’m sure it doesn’t. But the more of these I watch, the more it drives me crazy.

It’s the most simple, most practical aspect of what characters would do. I don’t expect it every time. But a couple of times in the entire run of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, someone really has to call a lawyer and shut their mouth.

Late Night and the End of the Colbert Report: Good for Colbert, Sad for Me

11 Apr

Colbert reaching into the ether

Time to put to paper, or rather a computer screen, my long-held feelings on traditional late night shows.

In the list of cultural icons which I believe are highly overrated and long overdue for being put out to pasture in their current forms (and there is a list), traditional late night shows fall only behind Saturday Night Live (and that’s a controversial topic fit for another post entirely).

You know the late night format I’m talking about. Introduction. Monologue. First bit. First guest. Sometimes a shorter second bit. Second guest. Comedian or musical act. End. The whole thing takes about an hour.

They’re on four or five days a week, and for a full hour a night. It’s not as much that they’re bad per se, as much as the opportunity cost for the TV viewer in the current environment has changed from what it was fifteen years ago, a decade ago, or even five years ago. There are so many more options to choose from, including not just traditional TV but Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu. The bar has moved higher for making any one program worth following, meaning that while a late night show might have been worth watching in the 90s when there wasn’t much else on, there’s just so much other programming nowadays that it’s hard to justify spending 60 minutes likely to contain at least 55 minutes of mildly amusing but forgettable fluff.

While this article will be and continues to be about how I never watch any of these shows, it’s not because of the hosts. I do think the hosts are good at their jobs. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel both have a knack for turning occasional clips from their shows into Youtube sensations, and I’ve seen clips from both shows there, but that’s again kind of the point – that’s the only place I see them. I think Fallon in particular is perfect for the role of late night host. While I never enjoyed his work playing a role, how he would just laugh at his own jokes, I think he’s very good at appearing to genuinely enjoy himself.  He creates a loose environment where other famous people feel comfortable to participate in sometimes silly bits, leading to the musical interludes and other viral content that spread throughout the internet.

With Letterman’s retirement, the generational shift of late night will be complete, but there’s a new generational gap brewing. The generation of the current crop of hosts – Kimmel, Fallon, Conan, Stewart, and Colbert revere the late night format and David Letterman in particular. They grew up when late night mattered, when it meant something, when there were so few options that late night could still dominate the cultural zeitgeist in a way that’s impossible now. This includes a time when Carson simply overwhelmed any late night competition and a time when Letterman was revolutionizing the genre after Carson with a new brand of humor that doesn’t seem novel to people of my generation but was highly important and influential at the time.

To me and my generation, the traditional late night format simply doesn’t have the same cache. We’re more likely to watch Comedy Central, Adult Swim, or any of a litany of competing niche options or something we’ve dv-red or have on Netflix. Fallon has gotten off to a strong start on The Tonight Show and more power to him, but it’s hard for me not to see the genre as a dinosaur, just waiting around on the path to eventual extinction. For me, Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report are unequivocally better in every way than any of the traditional late night shows.

It’s not simply that I like the hosts, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert better than Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, although I do. It’s that the format of the Comedy Central shows is leaps and bounds more interesting. The shows are shorter; there’s a lot less bloat. There’s no need for a monologue, which was always my least favorite part of late night shows when I used to watch a lot of Conan in particular back in high school. The shows are topical and have a point of view; although they’re slanted liberally, they take on hypocrisy and stupidity of all stripes (admittedly far more often conservative stupidity, but that aligns with my political beliefs, so it’s a plus to me). Interviews are far more likely to be topical, relevant, and insightful than the celebrity puff pieces that are general late night interviews.

The Colbert Report in particular is incomparable. I laugh more on a per episode basis watching The Colbert Report than any other show on television. His faux conservative character allows him to get away with insane and offensive jokes that other hosts might not be able to pull off, and while possibly inconsistent from a character point of view, Colbert has mastered the ability of knowing when to double down on his character and when to pull back to make the best point and to generate the most laughs.

After watching a nightly hour of Daily Show and Colbert I not only laugh far more than I do during any traditional late night program, but I actually learn about current events. I do actually make an attempt to keep up with news (I certainly do have friends who fit the stereotype of finding out all their news from The Daily Show and Colbert) but I still learn, from guests and through the narratives assembled by Stewart and Colbert to explain and clarify issues. Stephen Colbert’s super PAC adventures were the single best way I’ve ever seen to show off the obvious absurdity of our campaign finance laws.

And so I’m in mourning about the eventual end of The Colbert Report. I’m happy for Stephen Colbert, who is simply put, the best, but while I’ll certainly give his late night show much more of a try than I would with just about any other conceivable host, I have a hard time imagining it I’ll be watching it after the first week or so.

The problem isn’t simply that he’s out of character. I’ll miss the character, and the character is what makes The Colbert Report different than any other program on TV, but Colbert is funny in any form. It’s the likely dumbing down of new late night show versus his Comedy Central show. The political humor, the caustic sharpness, is what makes Colbert so great. There’s lots of funny super silly and physical humor that Stephen pulls off with aplomb but at its heart, Colbert skewers.

Unless the Late Show is changing a whole lot, he can’t do any of that there. It’s worse for the same reason network TV has trailed cable in quality and will probably do so only more in the coming years. Cable networks don’t expect to get as high ratings, so their smart play is to go for a niche demographic and really nail it down. The broadcast networks still want to keep their tents as wide as possible. If they want that, well, they can’t have a lot of the Colbert Report character that would alienate much of America. What they can have is light, good time, chummy humor that offends no one. This can still be funny, but rarely for an hour. Fallon’s good at it, but three minutes of a Fallon bit online is all I need; I don’t see any reason to spend an hour on it. With Colbert Report, the half hour is always well worthwhile.

I’ll wait, and as I’ve said, I would give more leeway to Stephen Colbert than just about to anyone in America. Unfortunately though, the smart money is on him changing his game to fit the show far more than the show changing to meet his work at the Colbert Report.