Mmmmm… that doughnut is sexxy…

2009 July 31
by kvanaren

The cover story of this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Magazine is a piece by Michael Pollan about the decline of cooking in America. Pollan writes about premade and microwaveable meals, he discusses the role of cooking in the history of humanity, and he points out the relationship between cooking meals at home and good health. Where much of his work has then gone on to explore the production side of food (where it comes from, what’s actually in it, big agriculture, etc.) the focus of this argument is about another significant aspect of food culture in America: food television.

Pollan first describes some of the history of food on television, beginning with Julia Child, and then he goes on to speculate about the changing role of programming on The Food Network. He points out that the average American spends 27 minutes a day on food preparation, but that millions spend more than twice that time watching food shows like Top Chef, Chopped, or The Next Food Network Star. “What this suggests,” Pollan writes, “is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking for themselves – an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.” What’s up with cooking, he wonders, and in a related query, what’s up with television?

food tv 1

The full article has many answers to this question, and I highly recommend spending the time to read the whole thing. In all his queasily detailed descriptions of flame-licked beef of gooey doughnuts crammed into mouths, I was surprised Pollan didn’t fall back on one of the well-known truisms of food television – that it is, in its style, cinematography, and format, nearly identical to pornography. Pollan laments the absence of sensuality and pleasure in televised descriptions of food preparation, and while I absolutely agree that convenience and speed have become a much higher priority than pride in manual labor, there’s certainly no dearth of sensuality on Guy’s Big Bite. (Because seriously? That sounds like a film you can’t rent until you’re 18.)

food tv 2Pollan argues that our pleasure in food has been redirected away from preparation and onto the experience of consumption. We watch Guy Fieri shovel fried clams into his mouth without ever imagining making them ourselves. We marvel as Iron Chefs dash around Kitchen Stadium, a culinary battleground that even further distances their cooking from our own kitchens. Still, I wonder whether the whole story is that easy when Food Network also features Ina Garten grinning with pleasure as she covers her hands with flour to knead dough and Alton Brown jokily explaining how easy it is to cook a duck. Sure, some food television is worse than others, but not every show focuses solely on images of French fries tumbling into open mouths.

Doughnut money shot

Doughnut money shot

It may not be that food television is inherently pushing us away from food preparation (after all, it’s not as though pornography is generally considered to dissuade us from sex). No, it’s television that pushes us away. Food television is, after all, one of the original incarnations of reality television. With the success of a broader range of shows that feature “real” people doing “real” things (American Idol, Survivor, Big Brother, Biggest Loser and countless others), food reality has grown to match its successful competitors. It has to be a contest. It has to be real, but not so real that the audience is bored. Reality television is allowed to speak directly to us – Lose weight! Don’t be a pregnant sixteen year-old! Vote for your favorite contestant! – but we are always the audience. We’re not going to go out and learn how to ballroom dance, so the closest we come to participating is to text in our vote or order something in a restaurant because we saw Giada make it.

Michael Pollan is, of course, absolutely right about food television and our relationship with it. Anything televised is a spectator sport. But he doesn’t address the place where I think future generations of people will learn how to cook, the place where participation is expected, the place where preparation is discussed and amended in great, painstaking detail. Whence the internet, Michael Pollan? Where did the food blogs go? I certainly can’t argue that the state of American cooking isn’t dire, or that food television isn’t a contributing factor, but while food blogs are a growing, popular presence on the internet, I still see a glimmer of hope.

Yeah, screw television! Internet rocks!

Wait, where am I? How did I get to this place?! I didn’t mean it, I take it back! Sort of!

As per comment suggestion, I’m watching Slings and Arrows, so no worries. Next week will be back to the standard “television is awesome!” party line.

Flashback

2009 July 30
by kvanaren

There are a lot of great things to be said for hulu.com, and I am completely in love with any legal, free service that allows me to watch television on demand. Sure, there are some problems with availability and expiration dates, but I’m choosing to blame that on networks that haven’t fully embraced online distribution. One aspect of the website that I think gets underappreciated, though, is its collection of vintage television. Despite the fact that I’ve watched an amount of TV that might be categorized with words like “excessive” or “ridiculously unhealthy,” I have a relatively limited exposure to television before 1990. Which is why it’s been a revelatory experience for me to slowly sift through hulu’s older TV catalogue. Quantum Leap, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, What’s Happening!, Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, The Facts of Life, Welcome Back Kotter – this is a wide world of the unexplored for me. So at the very least, if anyone has suggestions about what will change my worldview and what’s so awful it deserves a good laugh, please help guide me.

As I’ve tried to sort through the wide array of options for retro viewing, I did stumble across one show that I immediately snickered at and then started browsing. I’d never seen an episode of this show, but the name called to mind a whole world of feminist disgust, unrealistic Americana, Chryslers with enormous fins on the back, and the necessity of wearing pearls while baking: The Donna Reed Show. Below, I present you with my recap of a single episode of The Donna Reed Show, chosen solely for its title (“The Ideal Wife”), which seemed likely to be full of absurdities as well as personally topical. (I got a little excitable, so I’m putting the full recap after the jump). read more…

Kings, Part II

2009 July 29
by kvanaren

I mentioned it briefly yesterday, but the way language works in Kings deserves further attention. I know it’s not always considered a good thing when a show uses language unrealistically, but I have always been a fan of written conversation that aspires to something other than, for instance, the vocabulary and rhythm of Two-and-a-Half Men. Gilmore Girls is one often-cited example of completely implausible television language, where everyone speaks at a lickety-split pace, and every clause is peppered with obscure pop culture references. Sure, it’s not the way any normal human speaks, but it’s an instantly recognizable pace and tone that defined the show as unmistakably itself. Aaron Sorkin also leaps to mind, because no one can possibly run around the White House talking like Josh and Sam and Toby, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to.

The same is true for Kings, which seems most powerfully influenced by the linguistic power structures of a Shakespeare play. If you’re depicting a king chosen by God, he should look, dress, and behave differently than mere mortals, and he should also speak differently. Ian McShane plays Silas as conscientiously aware of his language, switching from condescending colloquialisms as he makes breakfast to a classical royal third person when he rebukes David. “Do not presume to tell us what to do,” he snaps. “We are King, and we do as seems right in mine eye.” Silas also delights in speechmaking, especially when he can endear himself to his people. On the annual day of justice, Silas quiets the cheering crowd with a particularly dramatic linguistic flourish. “Whereas,” he intones, “we made law where there was none, we mined justice from sand. Whereas we have courts, civil and criminal, presided over by a tribunal of judges, who all apply good law with study, intelligence and compassion… ten cases, here selected, I alone will adjudicate, divine wisdom my only council, and my gavel sound only after my words correct what is not right.” The inverted syntax, the emphasis on sound, repetition, and syllable pattern, and the grandiose implications, come straight out of Julius Caesar or Henry V.

Silas, speechifying

Silas, speechifying

Without slipping in too many spoilers, it’s worth noting that the language seems to come not just from Silas, but from the position itself. When his scheming brother-in-law attempts a coup d’etat and addresses the court, he unwittingly adopts kingly speech patterns. “Now you’ve got me doing it!” he shouts, after employing some lovely parallel structure. The downside of the decision to endow powerful characters with elevated language is that not all the actors can pull it off as gracefully as Ian McShane, who seems to be the only one comfortable shouting things like, “say otherwise again and we will snap your neck right now!”

The upside of a linguistic Shakespearean model is that it leaks into the larger structure of the show in positive, interesting ways. The first generation/second generation divide that informs inevitable power shifts, the jealous uncle, the all-knowing family servant, are all familiar tropes that call back to Hamlet and the history plays. Most obviously, the two gatekeepers who comment on the daily menu and keep track of visitors are classic lower-status mechanicals, and they seem to have walked into Kings straight from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Aside from being a smart, thoughtful, literary move for the show, the Shakespeare effect has the added benefit of creating a plausible context for the biblical settings and characters. Place names like Shiloh, Gilboa and Gath have a less jarring impact when spoken in a language slightly removed from our own. What’s more, the expression of God’s wrath feels real and frightening when described in fully formed, multi-clause sentences. If characters in Kings spoke like characters in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, the whole project would quickly become a cheesy televangelising biblical update show.

The mechanicals, using various means to clear pigeons from the eaves

The mechanicals, using various means to clear pigeons from the eaves

There’s plenty more to say about the brief lifespan of Kings, but I’m going to leave it alone for now. Except to say that you should watch it, because it was worth watching, and nobody did.

All thirteen episodes of Kings are available to watch on hulu.com until September 20th, when presumably the series DVD will be released.

Kings, Part I

2009 July 28
by kvanaren

Although summer TV does seem to be dominated by bad, trashy, poorly written or reality-contest based programming, it also has an important role for the networks. Summer programming is the place for television misfits. It can be the moment to test quirky outsiders like last summer’s The Middleman, which never found an audience and died tragically under-appreciated, or it can be a dumping ground for shows that no one knows what to do with. The classic case-in-point this summer was Pushing Daisies, which was built as a big fall season show two years ago, got all messed up by the writer’s strike, and then returned only to quickly die. Except, when ABC stopped airing Pushing Daisies this year, there were still three episodes that hadn’t been shown. What to do with three lonely, orphaned episodes? Just play ‘em randomly in the middle of the summer!

The other major example of this phenomenon has been NBC’s original drama Kings. It launched last season with a tepid publicity push, and then NBC realized they had absolutely no idea what to do with it. The show was tabled until the summer season, when the few remaining episodes aired every Saturday at 8pm. I’m pretty sure even CSI would eventually die if new episodes played on Saturday nights in July. Needless to say, Kings has not been renewed, and when the last new episode aired this weekend, it was with the sense of watching a ghostly apparition walking around waiting for someone to put it to rest. Another one bites the dust, this is a dead parrot, kick the bucket, dead on arrival, poor Judd is dead, Death in Venice, ashes to ashes, Death Valley, death be not proud, Deathly Hallows, deader than a doornail.

Except! Except. Kings was actually a pretty great show. It had its weaknesses, and some episodes were predictable, and some of the acting was amateurish. But at its best, Kings was an astonishingly original television show with an amazing lead actor, a beautiful visual and verbal style, a fertile, high-concept premise, and some awesome ideas. For the millions who haven’t heard of it much less seen it –

Ian McShane as King Silas; David stands up to a modern Goliath

Ian McShane as King Silas; David stands up to a modern Goliath

Kings uses a retelling of the biblical story of David to imagine what a religiously driven monarchy would be like in the twenty-first century. That last part is interesting enough in and of itself. What does it look like when a modern, wealthy, technologically advanced country is run solely from the whims of one guy? It’s a fascinating thought, particularly when that guy is King Silas, charismatic and powerful and intelligent and dark, and played by Ian McShane. Watching a king decree his absolute power over a country that looks so uncannily like our own gives Kings a healthy dollop of political innuendo, but God is really the most fascinating presence on the show.

In many ways, Kings is most clearly related to a vastly different show: Battlestar Galactica. For both shows, the larger premise drives the main action and shapes each episode, but the presence of an unknowable supernatural influence motivates characters and defines the tone. While most of the plot revolves around defeating the Cylons or eliminating political enemies, God and faith lie at the core of every dramatic turning point and every emotional climax. Both shows were ambitious, striving to depict universes with characters both human and divine.

David as God's chosen one

David as God's chosen one

Why, then, did Kings fail so dramatically when Battlestar Galactica has been a huge success? The easiest, and probably accurate answer has a lot to do with where they came from. While Battlestar Galactica had a hyped up, curious audience and a narrowly-defined cable channel to nurture its growth, Kings was thrown into a network schedule seeking to reach the most people with the least effort. In addition, what was then the clearly named SciFi channel knew how to sell their product. From the beginning, Battlestar Galactica was a space opera, with the bonus of some intense, socially relevant religious commentary. NBC never knew what Kings was, much less who might conceivably want to watch it.

I’m going to talk in more detail about Kings tomorrow, but it’s important to consider what happened to this show as a potential morality tale for what’s happening on network television. The King is dead. Long live the…?

"No screenshot, but trust me, it happened."

2009 July 27
by kvanaren

So, this weekend was a big weekend. An epic weekend. A weekend to end all weekends. Announcements were made, questions asked and answered, celebrations commenced and pictures were taken. Jeffster! performed. Wait, what?

That’s right. This weekend was Comic-Con.

You thought I was going to go somewhere else with that, didn’t you?

Yes, this weekend was the annual San Diego nerd prom, which I did not attend but avidly followed because if nerds know how to do anything, it’s blow up the internet. There were the usual vague Lost spoilers (long-dead characters returning!), an adoring crowd at the Chuck panel run by Alan Sepinwall, and lots of sexy double entendres from Torchwood’s John Barrowman. If at all possible, I am totally going next year.

The Guild: Avatars and actual people

The Guild: Avatars and actual people

Felicia Day aka Codex - Actress, girl gamer, Guild writer

Felicia Day aka Codex - Actress, girl gamer, Guild writer

Inspired by Comic-Con, though, I spent this weekend watching a show I’ve heard about for a long time but never got around to watching – Felicia Day’s internet webisode minishow The Guild. The show is about a gaming guild, The Knights of Good, whose internet relationships begin to bleed into their physical lives. Each episode is only about five minutes long, and crammed full of World of Warcraft references, deeply awkward comedy, and low budget video. Xbox sponsored The Guild’s second season, so the budget and the video quality dramatically improve, but not so much that it looks like an episode of 24. Other than high def quality and the sudden presence of PCs rather than Macs, The Guild seems to have remained its nerdy, in-joking, socially inept self.

I don’t play World of Warcraft, so a significant chunk of my viewing experience was the persistent knowledge that I was incapable of appreciating what were probably very funny jokes. Some of it’s not too difficult to make out – when The Guild manages to take down one of their members’ mother in the season one finale (“Boss Fight”), Felicia Day’s character Codex gets stuck with the now-homeless Guildie. “Worst. Loot. Ever,” she complains to her webcam. But many of the jokes require a vocabulary that takes hundreds of hours of gaming, or at least some determined googling, to grasp. QQ! Tank’d! Let’s make the pull, DPS, nasty crit, aggro, I need to be buffed, grinding, etc. etc.

Guild leader Vork - I also make this face when the internet goes down

Guild leader Vork - I also make this face when the internet goes down

What’s impressive about The Guild is that even though the specific references don’t always land for me, it’s still hilarious. Much more than a show about a particular game, The Guild depicts collapsing boundaries between a virtual life and a life in the real world. The problem of what happens when relationships inside an online community completely overtake the physical world is equally applicable to any number of all-encompassing virtual groups, and the jokes about addiction, social ineptitude, confused value systems, and stealing WiFi are aimed at a much broader audience. Perhaps my favorite moment is when the game’s servers go down, and the Guild’s leader Vork yells, “It’s like phantom limb pain!”

One question is definitely up for debate – is it fair to call The Guild television? As a video series built for the internet, about the internet (although you can buy it on DVD and download it on Xbox Live), labeling The Guild as “television” seems to miss the point. It’s certainly not a movie, and it is episodic, which I would argue as one of the important defining TV characteristics, but is it too short? Does its original medium make it a significantly different creature than Law and Order or The Simpsons? Or is this just television from a new source?

No, seriously, I’m not sure. Take a look for yourself:

Watch the Guild

Reality Showdown

2009 July 24
by kvanaren

It’s really too bad that my first reality TV post had to be about such a heinous, painful, depressing show as Toddlers and Tiaras. Long ago, when I first began transforming into the TV evangelist that I am today, I recall getting into a huge debate with my mother about reality television. Her line then (a belief I’m sure she still holds today), is that reality shows are among the lowest forms of entertainment imaginable, catering to our basest emotions and thriving off our inner voyeurs. Not only are they bad, I believe her argument went, they are bad for us, providing a pedestal for the nadir of humanity and celebrating boorish banality. A slightly younger and significantly more contrarian version of myself took the opposite perspective, and attempted to tout America’s Next Top Model as my generation’s Middlemarch. As I recall, this conversation took place in a family restaurant with gingham tablecloths. My boyfriend was with us, and he spent most of the meal ducking behind napkin holders.

Obviously, I was incapable of swaying her opinion. In retrospect, my choice of reality show was probably not sound, and so the entire force of my argument was required merely to shore up the easily apparent defaults in my chosen program, leaving me incapable of winning hearts and minds. It was, in other words, not unlike recent American foreign policy. Except, you know, about reality shows.

In any case, when I posted yesterday about Toddlers and Tiaras, a little part of me said to myself “See? Your mother was right. They are uniformly despicable programs.” And I was sad about that, because let’s be honest – two paragraphs ago when I described myself as significantly less contrarian now? That was mostly exaggeration. Despite what I wrote yesterday, I refuse to believe that all reality shows are crude, base or otherwise amoral portrayals of the human condition, and this time I have a much better example to prove otherwise.

All summer, I’ve been watching MTV’s new series 16 and Pregnant. Each episode follows a different teenage girl as she copes with her pregnancy, her boyfriend, her family, graduating from high school, and trying to raise her baby, and it is almost inevitably heartbreaking. These young women struggle with loser boyfriends who have no ability to sympathize much less help, they weep as they try to feed a baby while doing homework, and they have epic showdowns with their parents about the future. I think the show was intended to be a “scare ‘em straight” type of program, and although that does sometimes come across, the primary message seems to be “dump your loser boyfriend.”

16 and pregnant 2

Except for the last episode. The last episode out of the six features a girl named Catelynn and her boyfriend Tyler, who decide to give their daughter up for adoption. Catelynn and Tyler’s (alcoholic, transient) parents are both against this decision, and Catelynn’s mother even goes so far as to put a frilly bassinette in her daughter’s bedroom, but both teenagers hold their own and insist on giving their daughter a better life than they have. The episode essentially follows the plot of Juno, as Catelynn and Tyler pick out and meet with an adoptive family and struggle with their decision. It’s like Juno, except Tyler is incredibly involved in the process, and the couple who adopt their daughter is stable, and there’s no snappy dialogue to temper the pain of giving birth and giving the baby away. Catelynn’s mother refuses to sign off on the adoption, so Catelynn and Tyler have to trudge through the hospital parking lot and hand off their daughter outside of hospital grounds, a detail legally required by the state. These two teenagers stand on the sidewalk and weep as the attractive, stable, older couple who desperately want a child pack the baby into a car seat and drive away.

16 and pregnant 4This is so far from the nadir of humanity, it’s almost unbearably painful to watch. And more importantly (to my pseudo-battle against my mother’s argument), the walloping impact comes directly from its reality show format. It is so powerful because it’s unscripted, because the emotions are genuine, and because these teenagers signed up to be filmed in order to share their experience with other kids who have the same dilemma. Juno was an entertaining film, but it has nothing on 16 and Pregnant. So maybe I’m still not able to justify The Hills as anything other than a surreal para-reality experience, and maybe Jon and Kate + 8 is exploitative and appalling, but I have not given up on reality television. Maybe one day I can convince my mom.

Tantrums and Toddlers and Tiaras

2009 July 23

I haven’t yet posted about reality programming, largely because my personal preference is always more in the scripted drama line. However entertaining reality shows can be, I’ve yet to see one as good – as intelligent, thoughtful, surprising, beautiful, well-written, or provocative – as more traditional scripted programming. It’s not as though I don’t watch reality shows. I spent three full days a few months ago catching up on the entire Real Housewives of New York oeuvre, and it was awesome, but I wasn’t proud. And I could be posting tonight about any of the many respectable, critically acclaimed shows I have watched this summer, shows like Deadwood that completely astonished me. But in all honesty, I’ve spent several hours out of the last twenty-four watching Toddlers and Tiaras.

Eden Wood doesn't want more lipstick than she's already wearing

Eden Wood doesn't want more lipstick than she's already wearing

If you’re not familiar with this bastion of child exploitation, Toddlers and Tiaras follows several spoiled children and their insane mothers as they participate in pageant competitions. The first episode of the new second season aired last night on TLC, and it was nothing short of a masterpiece of trainwreck television. I was repulsed, I was disgusted, I kept watching. There are plenty of stern words to be aimed at the individual participants, who included one mother who dressed her four-year-old daughter in a Vegas showgirls costume, and another woman who blatantly favored one of her twin daughters over the other. The first season was similar in format, but occasionally featured girls like Meaghan, who made a bet with her mother that if she won the pageant, she would be allowed to visit a snake farm. (You rock, Meaghan). Now, though, Toddlers and Tiaras has learned from our national fascination with the borderline/dangerous parenting featured on TLC’s current bread and butter show Jon and Kate + 8. Behold:

Mom, commenting on BreAnne and AshLynn Sterling: “BreAnne does look a lot like mommy, and [is] probably the prettiest out of the five. And then AshLynn, she’s really skinny, and a little bit larger nosed than BreAnne. She’s very timid, she’s very reserved, she usually takes the backseat when it comes to BreAnne. BreAnne stands out because BreAnne is out-going and fun and full of life and AshLynn is just AshLynn.”

Mom talking about BreAnne smiles, Mom talking about AshLynn grimaces

“BreAnne does look a lot like mommy, and [is] probably the prettiest out of the five. And then AshLynn, she’s really skinny, and a little bit larger nosed than BreAnne. She’s very timid, she’s very reserved, she usually takes the backseat when it comes to BreAnne. BreAnne stands out because BreAnne is out-going and fun and full of life and AshLynn is just AshLynn.”

My initial impulse would be to say that it’s far more upsetting that an entire industry exists to teach girls how to be judged on their beauty than it is to make a television show about that industry. And yet, that’s clearly not the case here. While these babies grin and twirl, the camera clearly focuses most intently when they weep and scream. Rivalries, temper tantrums, and pouting (or as one pageant mom calls them, “diva moments”) take precedence over self-confidence and happiness. Even worse, much of the focus is on the excess necessary to participate in the “glitz” pageants, and the camera delights in closeups on fake eyelashes, hairpieces, crinoline, and tanning booths. It’s pleasant to read this attention as an indictment of those unnatural, preternaturally mature kindergarteners, but it’s also too easy. Just as on Rock of Love, screen time is the reward for bad behavior. I fear the Meaghans of the world will no longer have a place on this show, and I’m sorry about that, but not surprised.

Me too, Meaghan. Me too.

Me too, Meaghan. Me too.

Ruby and the Forget-its

2009 July 22

I’ve totally written about a diverse-enough field of TV to justify a third ABC Family post, haven’t it? No, you say? TOO BAD.

This afternoon, I watched the first episode of a show called Ruby and the Rockits. Allow me to break down the premise: it’s a sitcom about a young, talented singer named Ruby who seeks out her birth father, an aging rock star named David Gallagher and played by David Cassidy. Gallagher/Cassidy used to be in an ‘80s hair band called “The Rockits” with his brother Patrick who is now a car salesman (played, inevitably, by Patrick Cassidy). Because David is so useless and vain, Ruby goes to live with Patrick and his family. Occasionally, Ruby and her tragically emo cousin discover a mutual interest in joining together to make uninspired pop music. The first episode is essentially built around The Brothers Cassidy/Gallagher bickering and making in-jokes, and Ruby sometimes interrupts to sing heartfelt ballads about finding oneself. There are also some cracks about youtube. It’s a tonal mashup of Two and a Half Men and High School Musical, with dashes of Reba, That’s So Raven, and Glee. It’s completely bizarre.

The Cassidys, then and now

The Cassidys, then and now

Ruby and the Rockits is supposed to be a throwback show in several ways – it’s an old-form musical sitcom, full of laugh tracks and plotless musical interruptions, hearty family values and goofiness.  It’s also a vehicle for the Cassidy family in the same way that their incredibly popular musical sitcom The Partridge Family was in the 1970s. Not only do David and Patrick star as parodic versions of themselves, Ruby and the Rockits is produced by a third Cassidy brother, Shaun. The problem with the setup, of course, is that the entire ABC Family target audience (and also this writer) is way too young to have fond nostalgia for David Cassidy. I may have once seen some Partridge Family reruns. I guarantee that the majority of people who watch The Secret Life of the American Teenager have not.

Cheesy musical numbers: Ruby makes incestuous eyes at her cousin, The Cassidys dance it out

Cheesy musical numbers: Ruby makes incestuous eyes at her cousin, The Cassidys dance it out

So rather than fond, amused memories of a time gone by, a golden time when families loved each other and made music together and looked wholesome, Ruby and the Rockits inspires bemusement and boredom. The Cassidys, who are supposed to create nostalgia, instead appear weirdly self-conscious. I can imagine some distant version of this show, where the uncomfortable musical in-jokes are a purposeful part of the humor, where the intended audience actually knew who the Cassidys are, and where Ruby is nowhere to be seen. Vaguely, I could see that show being darkly funny, with jokes about peaking too early and fandom and an obscene guest appearance by Shirley Jones. (She was recently partially nude on The Cleaner – it could happen!). That show would be uncomfortable and crude and maybe hysterical.

Ruby and the Rockits is just uncomfortable and predictable and strange.

Oh, Thank You Television

2009 July 21
by kvanaren

Yesterday, Jason Kottke of kottke.org did a cool project in honor of Walter Cronkite and the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He set up a page with just a vintage television on it, and then aired the CBS coverage of the moon landing at the same times during the day it was originally broadcast. It’s a great way to remember both the moon landing event and Walter Cronkite’s legacy as a journalist, but it was also an incredible method to simulate the experience of a mass television audience on the internet. The footage was hosted on youtube, but the video just turned on when it was time, with no control from the user, and if you wanted to leave, you couldn’t rewind or start it over again. The images were grainy and hard to make out, several times the image flipped upside-down or reversed polarity, and the audio was crackly, but I was pretty mesmerized.

moon walk 1

The feeling was amplified by how mesmerized the announcers were as well. There were a lot of great moments from the astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin reporting that he was going to make sure not to lock the LEM door on the way out, but one of my favorites came from Walter Cronkite. “Oh, thank you television, for letting us watch this one,” he said, just as Neil came into view. “Isn’t this something.”

moon walk 2

Watch the moon landing coverage:

Kottke’s TV

You can watch all of the coverage on youtube – I particularly recommend the moon landing, and the moon walk clips one (“One small step for man”), three (making sure not to lock the door), and six (planting the flag – “nothing more is needed here,” Cronkite says, “but it does seem that there oughta be some music.”)

Nurse Dread

2009 July 20
by kvanaren

I’ve been watching Showtime’s Nurse Jackie all morning, with a vague plan to write about how funny it is, how dark and how provocative, Edie Falco’s sheer talent, the quirky set of supporting characters, etc. etc. All of these things are true. After watching six episodes, though, I come away not with a sense of pleasure in great television, but rather with a feeling of being buried in a fine grey dust that I’m having a hard time brushing away.

It’s a frustrating sensation, and one that I’m sure has at least partially to do with my preference for watching many episodes of something at once instead of once a week. Once a week, maybe the deep underlying pulse of despair in Nurse Jackie wouldn’t be quite so exhausting. There are quite a few sources of humor in the show, including the nearly unbearable awkwardness of Jackie’s young nursing student, the casually cruel bedside manner of Jackie’s painfully well-dressed doctor friend, and another young male doctor who has a habit of grabbing Jackie’s breasts when he gets nervous. But these side characters fail to puncture the enveloping miasma of quotidian bleakness, and instead provide new angles of perspective on the gloom.

Every day, Jackie copes with patients who are either too helpless, ill, or misguided to be healed. She loves her husband and her daughters, but maintains an affair with the hospital pharmacist to keep herself supplied with heavy-duty painkillers.1 Jackie doesn’t actually dislike her husband or the pharmacist, but uses them as escapes from each other, just like she uses the painkillers to escape from her brutal job. When Falco played Carmella on The Sopranos, there was a similar sense of inevitable failure and sadness, but Carmella and Tony’s world was punctuated by frequent violent outbursts, screaming matches, glasses thrown against walls, and fits of weeping. Come the apocalypse, Carmella knew where the AK-47 was hidden. Jackie has no access to that kind of power, so she seeks only to dull the pain she can never fully exorcise. When she does act out against the Powers That Be, they are fits of secret rebellion, disguised and denied from everyone else. In the pilot, she flushes a rapists’ ear down a toilet and then blames it on her student. But like the attempts at humor from the supporting characters, Jackie’s moments of sticking it to The Man merely illustrate more clearly that The Man could care less.

nurse jackie 1

The scene that really brings this home for me is in episode four, “School Nurse,” when Jackie and her husband Kevin are called in to their daughter’s school because her teachers suspect Grace has an anxiety disorder. The school’s nurse asks Jackie and Kevin to examine one of Grace’s drawings, and neither parent sees anything wrong – it’s an image of their family, standing in front of the bar Kevin owns. The district psychologist finally points out that the picture is done completely in browns and greys, with no blue sky or giant yellow sun. Of course, Jackie can’t see the problem and refuses to believe anything’s wrong until later, when a boy whose brother almost dies draws her colleague a picture full of smiling faces and a brilliant round sun. Grace’s picture, her unsmiling family in browns and greys? That’s Nurse Jackie.

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It’s not a subtle point (for me or for the show), but it does the job. I’m not against depressing shows – I love The Sopranos and The Wire and those episodes of Frontline that leave you wondering how any of us are still alive. But unlike any of those shows, Nurse Jackie is one woman’s life in episodes half as long; they are briefer, more concentrated bursts of misery without a breadth of scope to anchor them. I will keep watching, because it’s summer and Dostoyevsky’s always better than Twilight, but I am now limiting myself to one episode a week. For my own mental safety.

1 The first episode works much like the first episode of Mad Men, where Don Draper’s bad behavior is capped at the very end by his return home to his Norman Rockwell family. Jackie has sex with Eddie the pharmacist, snorts pain meds, and walks all over a student nurse, and the reveal of her loving husband and gorgeous daughters at the end of the episode functions as a surprise twist.