One of the weird things about writing about television these days is that very few people watch it "live" anymore, which is to say follow it from week to week while it airs. So if you haven't already seen it, allow me to suggest that you Netflix a 2005 HBO series called The Comeback. This was Lisa Kudrow's first post-Friends foray, and it only lasted a year—apparently HBO would rather forget that it existed altogether as it isn't even listed on their website.
The storyline of the series was very simple: Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) had one successful sitcom role in the 1990s, and is now, some years later trying to stage a comeback with a linked sitcom and reality show. The sitcom, called "Room and Bored," pairs Valerie with a cast of nubile twentysomethings whose older landlord and aunt she plays, including a young ingenue named Juna Millken (Malin Akerman), who Valerie immediately tries to mentor.
The "real" show, the one we watch, is a tad meta: It is presented as an extended version of the footage being taped for the reality show. This draws out a fragmented performance from Kudrow, who is usually playing a Valerie aware that she's performing Valerie for the reality show (someone's making some noise about performativity in my ear), but occasionally she slips, forgets what she's doing. And the Valerie that comes through in those moments is less smiley, less calculating—more desperate.
I imagine you'veheard by now that last week's fifth season premiere of 30 Rock contained a rape joke. The particular scene people are talking about is one in which Pete (Scott Adsit) is telling Liz about how relaxed he's become since Jenna (Jane Krakowski) became a producer: "This morning I made love to my wife. And she was still asleep, so I didn't have to be gentle." We are provided with a visual. Quoth Liz: "That is one of the most upsetting things I have ever imagined." Pete: "Oh yeah?" And we get another visual.
Let's get one thing out of the way: whatever this little moment was, it was certainly about a "rape." I wish this went without saying, but of course if you click on some of the links in this post you will find people (usually male people) in comments sections saying hey, butt out, this is what happens in long-term marriages all the time! I didn't realize it was such a turn-on to have sex with people who are literally unconscious but apparently some people are into that. In any event, sad to say, like many rapists who don't think they are rapists because they are really very nice people and pay their taxes and have never lurked in dark alleyways in major urban areas, the salient question in any analysis of whether rape has occurred is whether or not your partner has consented to sex. Unconscious people can't consent because they are unconscious. Tautological, I know, but there you have it. So, hence, rape.
Welcome to Grand Rounds: Dissecting Grey's Anatomy, a roundtable on Grey's Anatomy featuring Snarky's Machine, Tasha Fierce, Everett Maroon, Redlami, and s.e. smith. This week's Grand Rounds is hosted by Snarky's Machine, so, without further ado, let's begin!
When I last wrote about Mad Men two weeks ago I mentioned the affinity I had for Peggy, and a commenter noted that they'd never really understood Peggy's appeal, that she seemed entitled to them, and "embodies the kind of "feminism" that places the needs of white, cisgendered, straight, able bodied women at the center of the universe." As if on cue, this week Mad Men provided an episode in which proto-feminist Peggy is invited to comment directly on the civil rights movement and what she said was jarring.
Set up at a bar by her new friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet—yep, of those Mamets, hence the flat affect), Peggy got thrown for a loop when young (white) radical Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) decided to start lecturing her about the moral compromises of her career path. Pointing out that one of her clients was currently under a boycott for refusing to hire African Americans, Abe made fun of her work. "Civil rights isn't a situation to be fixed with some PR campaign," he said, snottily. Thus backed into a corner, Peggy noted, somewhat non sequitur-ishly, that she, as a woman, cannot do many of the things African Americans are also barred from doing. And then comes
the kicker. When Abe notes (incorrectly, both historically and in the show's own context) that there are no African American copywriters, Peggy says: "I'm sure they could have fought their way in like I did; believe me, nobody wanted me there." Abe snorts: "Alright Peggy, we'll have a, uh, civil rights march for women." Peggy picks up her purse.
Boardwalk Empire, the new HBO series from a Sopranos alum that is probably best known to you for trumpeting its association with Martin Scorcese all around town, premiered Sunday night. I expect that the jury is going to be out in this show for some time. That's at least true for me. I've learned, through hard experience, not to judge these high-end cable shows based on their first hour. These things are slow burns, not forest fires; I actually can't think of too many of them that managed to get all their cards on the table in the premiere. When you have eleven or twelve hours to go, you usually lose much of the first episode to setup.
The show is set in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, and centers around the life of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (Steve Buscemi), a casino-owner gangster type. (The character is allegedly based on a real-life figure.) Prohibition is newly begun, and Nucky's already playing politics with the local women's temperance union, where he meets Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), a pregnant Irishwoman trapped in a bad marriage from which it seems inevitable that Nucky will liberate her. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), changed by the front lines of the Great War, is growing impatient with his income level and social status, and is eager to get scamming and killing, much to the comparatively laid-back Nucky's dismay. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is beginning to watch the gangster activity in AC more closely, with Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) at the helm.
As even that preliminary list of actors should indicate, no expense has been spared as to casting the show, which is chock full of faces you'll recognize from other series, including Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire's quixotic Omar) and even Molly Parker (Deadwood's Alma Garret) in a framed photograph of Nucky's "dead" wife. The look of the show, though beautiful, is a little clean for the subject matter, all bright eyes and scrubbed faces and red lipstick, without a trace of grime or dirt. Even the eruptions of flesh and blood from the show's many gangster shootouts are clinical and clean in a way. That's probably just the Scorcese influence. And perhaps I've become too used to the sepia, nouveau-grime aesthetic of most of HBO's other period pieces like Carnivale and Deadwood.
I... don't really understand the fuss about True Blood.
I understand that the show employs very attractive people, and that those people have very attractive sex quite often. I also understand that it involves stories about vampires and werewolves, which increasingly seems to be the only growth industry left in the American economy. I also understand that we are going through a time in the culture where escapism is an increasingly attractive alternative to everyday life. I further have not read the books that form the basis for the show; I admit they may be better than the televised version.
But this is a show which features dialogue that is George-Lucas levels of terrible, horrible, no-good and very bad, delivered by actors whose amusement with the campy material they are being offered appears to have been exhausted by the time they've appeared in more than three episodes.
Anyone who caught last week's episode of Jersey Shore likely noticed a rather interesting conversation between Jenni "JWoww" Farley and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi on the topic of race. At one point in the show, the two women discuss the possibility of going to a nude beach, then move on to the topic of wacky things they have their respective bucket lists, like Snooki's desire to try bungee jumping. JWoww, philosopher and gentlelady, calls this a "white person thing," which prompts a seemingly annoyed Snooki to respond, "I'm not white... I'm tan."
For all the media flutter about Joan and Roger and Pete and Sal, I'm one of those people who feels she would be perfectly happy to watch a "Mad Men" composed exclusively of scenes between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss). Hamm and Moss have, for one thing, an acting alchemy that's fairly unique on television right now, the kind of skillful play off each other than leads even underwritten scenes to be fraught with meaning. They are experts at filling in the blanks, for each other and for the script, so to speak. Which explains why it's taken me an entire week to work up the will to write about last Sunday's episode, "The Suitcase," basically a two-hander written specially for Hamm and Moss. It's just taken that long to come down from the high. I had resolved not to flood this space with Mad Men analysis, but it's just my luck that the week I start blogging here Mad Men runs what I suspect will be remembered as one of its greatest episodes.
The party line of the chattering classes on Mad Men this season seems to be that it's been slow-going, with little plot development and a lot of Don facedown: in his drink, in the boardroom, in his secretary. For my part, I find the focus on Don's failings refreshing. Last season, as his marriage disintegrated and he felt stifled by the oversight of the distant British firm that had bought Sterling Cooper, I detected in the writing a certain amount of sympathy for him that I couldn't quite countenance.
MTV's been having a good summer. In part, that's because the second season of its reality series Teen Mom has been generating huge ratings for the network—it is this summer's third-most-watched original cable series in the coveted 12-34 demographic. The show, which documents the lives of four young women after they gave birth to children as teenagers, along with its sister show and predecessor 16 and Pregnant, has already generated a fair amount of cultural chatter on the question of whether the show is a valuable educational tool or just, as most seem to have concluded, regular old exploitation of the young women in question. There's something to this argument, of course. MTV's ratings success makes for a strange contrast with the fact that Teen Mom's stars have been occupying the front pages of celebrity weeklies like US complaining that they are dead broke, doesn't it?
I'm of two minds about the argument. On the one hand I certainly don't have much faith in MTV's dedication to social messaging, at least not enough to believe it extends much further than what advertisers are comfortable with. I'm not the first, for example, to point out that abortion, as an option, is not something that's seriously discussed in the context of the show. You can spin that fact as having something to do with showrunners needing to have a more extended narrative arc than, "Now I'm pregnant, now I'm not." But Teen Mom does follow one young couple, Catelynn and Tyler, after they've given their child up for adoption, so sponsor queasiness seems a more likely explanation.
I'm not one to guilt anyone for caring for lowbrow culture, not least because for so many years my bookish university friends made fun of me for watching television at all. (I've felt no small degree of satisfaction that The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men have had them eating their words more recently.) But every time I've tuned into any version of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise this year, I've had to fend off a sinking feeling that I've hit the rock bottom of my guilty pleasures.