Procrastination Links

While I’m fortunate enough to spend my last two weeks of undergrad writing about television, we can’t all be so lucky. Here’s a collection of recent writings that can serve as enjoyable (and informative!) study breaks.

The Revolution Was Televised: The Conversation

Two of the most important television critics today, Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, in conversation with each other about Sepinwall’s (fantastic) new book, The Revolution Was Televised. They discuss the change from television in the ’70s and ’80s to recent dramas, the television vs. movies debate, and what happened to the Russian, among other topics. It’s a conversation full of incredible insight from two writers who have immersed themselves in these questions.

How Film Critics Use Twitter

Less about television, but with the distinctions being blurred (e.g. screening television series at film festivals) this examination from Jane Hu about the heightened use of Twitter for criticism is spot on. I especially like her acknowledgment of the “work/play” boundary that critics tend to ignore on their Twitter – evident also in Chris Becker’s Good TVeets, a weekly collection of the best and funniest Twitter commentaries about television events.

Tom and Lorenzo’s Mad Style

As someone who loves both Mad Men and obsessive fashion criticism, this weekly analysis is mecca. The writers pick apart screenshots of the characters and their outfits, and puts them into dialogue with the episode’s overarching themes. For a great interview with Janie Bryant, the show’s brilliant costume designer, there’s Vanity Fair.

What’s So Bad About Small-Stakes TV Shows?

Bullett makes a plea for the renewal of Bunheads, looking at the widening gap between “big” and “small” dramas on television. “Even if critics are willing to praise both the big and the small, the pro-bigness position, which rewards shows for breaking with the bad old TV of the past, is the one that’s been adopted by the more adventurous segment of the audience that’s fueling this golden age.” This case for finding quality in smaller-stakes shows is a great perspective – and I really would like to see another season of Bunheads.

Infographic: Emmy Nominations by Network, 80’s – 10’s

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Emmy Nominations by Network, '80s - '10s

via Wired, “Welcome to the Platinum Age of Television.” This infographic charts the Emmy nominations by networks over the past several decades (the website’s image is interactive, to specify which shows were nominated for which network). The magazine points out that “with so many more places to see great shows, the distinction between broadcast and cable has disappeared. Quality is the only thing that matters.” The chart shows a lot of interesting changes – the incredible diversity of choice in the  00’s and 10’s; HBO’s peak in the late 90’s/early 00’s; the lack, with the exception of AMC, of any strong upwards trajectory by a network, etc. I find it especially interesting that HBO, AMC and Showtime haven’t received a higher proportion of awards, despite the reputation of quality that is associated with those networks – it shows that awards season may focus on quality, but popularity is still very much a factor as well.

The Good Wives

“God save us when an Aaron Sorkin antihero is the closest we get to a good guy.”

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A few months ago, the New York Observer ran a piece entitled Bad Men: TV’s Most Reprehensible Antiheroes and the Women Who Love Them. The piece was a follow-up to the Golden Globes, which was argued to be indicative of “a new trend in millennial TV protagonists—men who are, if not quite villains, then at least Bad Men.” 

Tony Soprano, Dexter, Nucky Thompson, Sgt. Brody, Tom Kane, Walter White, and Don Draper all fit the description of this type. “At best, our guy is an immoral misanthrope and a latent misogynist. At worst, he’s a sociopath, one who may or may not be running an international drug cartel. Or a terrorist ring. If you’re lucky, he’s merely a serial killer who kills other killers.” The presence of a misanthropic character on a television show isn’t necessarily a new trend – Archie Bunker is a prime example. What is unique about these millenial protagonists is that audiences identify with them. They root for them. They even respect them. 

Who we don’t respect, for the most part, are their wives.

These shows “all portray nosy, ineffectual matriarchs who are simultaneously ice-cold bitches, helpless victims and puritanical enforcers.” Betty Draper and Skyler White especially are despised by audiences, seen as the “spoilsports” to their husbands’ activities – even when in fact they are the victims of them. 

What these women really do is act as a foil to their male counterparts, foils that question the glorified masculinity that the shows depict through violence and rebellion. These women show the side of these men that can be sexist, weak, self-deluding, unreasonable, and downright threatening. When the protagonist is questioned, the audience is uncomfortable. They look for a scapegoat, the root of the problem. “Why is my hero struggling?”

That isn’t to say these women are perfect moral counterparts – they have their flaws and questionable decisions, their infidelity and maternal struggles. But the widespread negativity towards them has to be investigated, especially in an era where there are examples of complex, interesting, powerful female characters leading many different television programs.

There have been many different articles recently on the topic, which is promising, and Breaking Bad and Mad Men each still have a season (roughly) left to engage with these characters on a more complex level. As well, shows like Enlightened and Girls keep encouraging discussion around female protagonists whose relatability and respect differ widely among audiences, an interesting development for complex television. At the very least, the nagging matriarch is a trope that is being dissected in critical reviews.

The Drama over Digitalization

The other day in The Guardian, this headline ran: “Could online video consumption overtake linear viewing TV by 2020?” Recently, the director of YouTube Latin America made the prediction that “the online video audience will eclipse traditional linear TV watching by 2020,” citing changing consumer desires that can only be addressed by Internet video platforms.Image

The article argues that a pre-emptive focus on consumer needs and personalization is key for the major players of TV programming. A surprising example used is that of Netflix’s varied trailers for recently released House of Cards – the platform edited 10 different cuts of the show’s trailer based on users’ Netflix viewing history, to guarantee that the subscriber would be interested in watching the show.

In “Broadcast Television: The chances of its survival in a digital age”, Jostein Gripsrud makes a case against these types of headlines, becoming more and more prolific as digital television keeps rising. Using Raymond Williams’ seminal work on broadcast TV, Gripsrud argues that digitalization is less dramatic that it is often portrayed for a variety of reasons relating to the attributes of both types of television. He points out that patterns of viewing aren’t changing drastically, because analog satellite TV already involves a multitude of choice and time-shifting technology has existed since the VCR. He claims that the idea of individuals watching TV in complete freedom is utopian, since the choices are still pre-determined and based in commercial interests.

I really like Gripsrud’s article for two main reasons. Firstly, he emphasizes the continuing importance of watching TV “live” using the concept of water cooler discussions. While the water cooler may be a bit of an outdated notion, I see Twitter as the current equivalent – during a popular show, you aren’t part of any online community discussion unless you’re watching simultaneously with the rest of the audience. While it is convenient to be able to watch a series on one’s own time, there have been many times where I wish I had watched a show while it aired so I could engage with other viewers in real-time.

Gripsrud also addresses the concern that with a proliferation of channel choices, viewers may be led to watch more “trash” or “low-quality” television programs. He argues against this concern, pointing out that “the greater the number of channels, the more valuable to viewers are those channels that experience has taught them can largely be trusted as suppliers of reliable information and genuinely high-quality engaging, relevant, and entertaining material.” Looking at channels such as Showtime and HBO compared to channels that show primarily reality shows, etc., I think this argument really makes sense. Just because there are approximately ten channels on which to watch cake decorating competitions doesn’t mean I’m going to choose to watch them. As Gripsrud aptly sums up, “the fact that daytime gradually fades into nighttime does nto mean we cannot tell the difference between day and night.”

The Indifferent Gods

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In creating “The Wire,” Simon said, he and his colleagues had “ripped off the Greeks: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides. Not funny boy—not Aristophanes. We’ve basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy and applied it to the modern city-state.” He went on, “What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

Taken from “Stealing Life: The crusader behind The Wire” by Margaret Talbot. A great profile of the authorial minds behind the show, often considered to resemble the form of a novel. 

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/10/22/071022fa_fact_talbot#ixzz2L68qHqrP

Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

Crosstalk: How has the culture of TV (and TV-watching) changed?

This is a great conversation between Noel Murray and Scott Tobias from The AV Club, discussing their respective views on the culture around television viewing. Some issues they discuss include dropping in on a show partway through a season versus watching it from the pilot episode; the focus of critics on high-quality serial television instead of television that “most people actually watch”; and how analyzing television compares to analyzing film.

I fully agree with Tobias when he argues against Murray’s willingness to drop in on a program. Tobias’ point that “if we accept the premise that many of the best shows on television unfold like novels, with richly developed characters and grand narrative arcs, wouldn’t checking in mid-season be equivalent to starting a book on chapter five?” rings true to me, especially having just completed the entirety of The Wire. I can’t imagine casually watching an episode during season 2 without having seen character relationships develop over the course of the first season.

What’s great about the discussion is the positive way that the two characterize television criticism: as something more engaged with the public, less indebted to traditional forms, and able to delve into details on a weekly basis. This point from Tobias is worth quoting in full:

“Because we aren’t primarily engaged in telling people whether they should or shouldn’t watch a show—because we’re usually talking with people who are already watching—we get to kick around symbolism, character development, and real-world connections to what’s on the screen, rather than just writing about whether the show is worth a damn. Sure, we write about what’s working and what isn’t, and why, but we have the space and the freedom to get into so much more. And the people we get into it with—the readers, and our fellow critics—seem so much more open, friendly, and engaged than, say, cinephiles these days.”

The idea that television viewing experiences can be immersive, not just simply through watching but actively participating in a discussion, is thrilling to me. After finishing The Wire, I felt as though I had spent two months in the world of the Baltimore police, building knowledge about characters and themes in a way that I never really experienced with a film or a sitcom. As a result, once the episodes finished I wanted to seek out other people that had also had that experience, that I could talk to about specific details and moments to get a deeper involvement.

In other words, let’s talk about The Wire, everyone! And television in general! Are you a purist, watching from the very beginning, or are you comfortable with diving into a season midway through? How do you see television criticism in relation to that of cinema? Which version of “Way Down in the Hole” do you like the best?

Four Favourite TV Couples

In honour of Valentine’s Day, here’s some great television couples that you can use to model your romantic life (or, maybe not…) – *warning, some spoilers!*

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Buffy and Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Angel’s such a drag, don’t you think? I’ve always preferred the complicated Buffy/Spike chemistry, especially in “Once More With Feeling.”

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Jesse and Jane, Breaking Bad

Tragic, doomed, heartbreaking. This storyline gave Jesse depth that no one would have seen coming at the beginning of the series, and makes me cry every time I watch.

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Kim and Daniel, Freaks and Geeks

The dreamy rebel and his tough-chick girlfriend? Definitely the most realistic portrayal of a high-school romance, and the source of my favourite Kim quote of all time:

“Are you calling me irrational? Because I’ll tear your head off, Daniel. I’ll tear it off and ‘Ill throw it over that fence.”

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Joan and Roger, Mad Men

Mad Men knows how to work the “not together, but still connected” romantic plot perfectly (see also: Pete and Peggy), and Joan and Roger’s continued chemistry throughout the series is a perfect balance of humour and melancholy.

So, who did I miss?