Those are onions!

2010 February 26
by kvanaren

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but there’s not been a whole lot on television this week. Oh sure, there’re the Olympics, which are awesome and inspiring, and on the other end of the spectrum, there’s American Idol, which I have somehow never managed to fall victim to, but other than that, it’s been pretty low-key. There was no new Project Runway last night, most of the big dramas are on hiatus, and the funniest thing I saw yesterday was Jon Stewart interviewing Tracy Morgan on The Daily Show. (Close second being the intro to that episode of The Daily Show, in which Jon Stewart apologizes for casting aspersions on my beloved alma mater.)

And so, in lieu of further commentary on Tracy Morgan’s proposed male strip club/chicken restaurant (Chickendales), you get a vintage clip from The Muppet Show. I love everything about this, and have watched it probably seven times since I discovered it a few months ago when it got linked on NPR’s Monkey See blog.

TV Candy of the Week

2010 February 25
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by kvanaren

When I am stressed or busy or generally too fried to watch serious shows like Deadwood or Breaking Bad or even unwilling to ponder the occasionally disappointing strangeness of Lost, I watch crime procedurals. I love them, and have begun to slowly work my way through nearly all of them. I know the big guns pretty well, the hefty Law and Order and CSI franchises, but I’ve also seen many of the slightly re-worked variations where you add a mathematician, a forensic anthropologist, a psychic, a fake psychic, a guy with OCD, or a US Marshal to the mix. (My biggest lacuna in this area is probably NCIS, but one day when I’m particularly out of sorts, its day will come).

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Lately, my too-fried-to-think show has been TNT’s original program Leverage, which combines all the fun of an Ocean’s 11-style brotherhood of criminals with the deeply comforting, formulaic familiarity of a highly episodic procedural show. It hits my personal sweet spot in mindless entertainment, where the crimes tend to be less about desperate, senseless violence and more about heists, hijinks, thefts, cons, shenanigans, and general high-spirited fun.

The whole premise truly is an Ocean’s 11 rip-off, as each episode features Nate Ford and his talented team taking on big injustices that can only be righted outside the bounds of conventional legality. Also, righting the big injustices tends to involve stealing priceless artwork or valuable secret formulas or diamonds held inside impenetrable vaults, and it usually requires elaborate personas, costumes, funny fake accents, repelling down elevator shafts, hijacking security feeds, and almost always at least one person dressed as some form of law enforcement officer. To my mind, Leverage even improves on the original Ocean’s 11 by including two women on the five-person team, and almost always giving at least one of them something to do other than play the sexy temptress.

Boss, grifter, hacker, muscle, thief

Boss, grifter, hacker, muscle, thief

The dialogue is snappy, Hardison the hacker peppers his banter with Star Trek jokes (he woefully wishes farewell to his beloved security van Lucille by telling her that he “has been, and always shall be, your friend”), and the boss comes pre-loaded with the required tragic, alcoholic past to make us worry just a touch about his mental stability. It’s fun, fluffy, and more self-aware than Law and Order. Leverage even has that one quality I love most irrationally about Ocean’s 11: the fun, string bass and organ musical score, full of winking and sly laughter. It’s not why I get up every day and write about television, but it definitely scratches an itch.

Lost – Lighthouse

2010 February 24
by kvanaren

Can I get a hearty “ehhhh” about Lost last night?  It was a returning case of horrible dialogue that really did me in, and not horrible like The Vampire Diaries’ repetitive, dull horribleness – it was bad with that special breed of Lost bad dialogue that’s been floating around since season one. The primary characteristic is an overwhelming avoidance of specificity, which becomes the tip of the episode’s vague iceberg. No one says things like “whatever they think happened to you, they think it happened to someone else, too.” For any rational being you can imagine, that sentence would be, “Claire was also infected.” Also up on this list of the absurd avoidance of proper nouns: Claire’s “friend” who has been with her these past years, “someone” who is coming to the island, and “someone” who is coming to attack the temple.

"'Someone' is preventing me from actually saying anyone's name."

"'Someone' is preventing me from actually saying anyone's name."

The problem with this, of course, is that it’s only a symptom of a bigger vagueness within the episode. Early in the show, wandering around in the jungle in search of “someone” for some reason you didn’t really understand got a pass for being mysterious and suspenseful. At this point, it’s just deliberate, unnecessary obfuscation that has the added detraction of no longer feeling fresh. We’ve seen it so many times before that the eye rolling starts to feel like a conditioned response. Even worse, at this stage of the game, any proper noun sloppiness is actually counter-productive in terms of emotional significance – maybe in the first season, “someone” was scary and effective, but by now, it would be so much more suspenseful and exciting if the characters just came out and said “Claire is infected! Desmond is coming to the island! Smokey is attacking the temple!” Maybe you’d lose a small payoff of surprise when the mysterious person is finally revealed, but those kinds of “who’s coming to the island?” surprises should no longer be the show’s bread and butter, especially when time is now so limited. And the vagueness is particularly egregious when it comes to Claire, because we already know she was “infected.” Just say it already.

My other big concern with last night’s episode was the magical lighthouse mirror. This goes much deeper into the fabric of what Lost is going to end up being by the end of this whole crazy ride, and so if this is the direction the show is going to take, it might lead me to some serious dissatisfaction.

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The question is this: is Lost science fiction, or is it fantasy? It may not seem like that meaningful a distinction, especially as it’s a line Lost has been carefully obscuring throughout its whole run. It doesn’t even have that much significance on the overall makeup of the show, because science fiction and fantasy can operate in structurally identical ways. An unexplained technological phenomenon whirring along in the background works just like magic would. The distinction is more about paraphernalia than inner workings, and Lost has always aired on the scifi side, with regulated time travel, buttons to push at specific times, powerful magnetic fields, numbered experimental white rabbits, dials and compass readings, and a giant black monster that’s not a magical creature, it’s a “security system.” It doesn’t even bother me that Jacob and the Man in Black appear to be ancient, symbol-laden demigods, because science fiction and mysticism can happily walk hand-in-hand. (Star Wars! Battlestar Galactica!) Lost has always played with science fiction and mysticism, but it was always “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” not “Man of Science, Warlock With Book of Magical Spells and An Eye of Newt Around Here Somewhere.”

The one thing we did get out of the mirror business - Kate's name is on the list, and it's not crossed out yet. But because she's number 51, she's not a candidate?

The one thing we did get out of the mirror business - Kate's name is on the list, and it's not crossed out yet. But because she's number 51, she's not a candidate?

With the lighthouse mirror, I think Lost steps over the other side of that line. Yeah, there’s a nice big gear that you can turn with people’s names on it, but ultimately, it’s a magical mirror, with no suggestion that it’s another machine built to harness the island’s wacky forces. Hurley does mention that they must have used a mirror because “there was no electricity back then,” but unless that glass somehow got dipped in special islandy Jacob-sauce or it’s run by magnets and tiny numbered time-travelling rabbits running around on wheels, it’s still a magic mirror mounted on a turntable. The other big example of this is Ben’s giant icy donkey wheel, which bears a suspicious likeness to the geared lighthouse system. It’s clunky and incongruent, and it hints that the path we’ll be going down from here on out is going to be less scientific Dharma experimentation, more eye of newt. I’d love for it to be an aberration, but just as with the ridiculous dialogue, we’re closing up on the finish line, and there’s very little reason to create more obstacles.

Just so this isn't all negative - I do like Claire Crazycakes Rousseau the Second over here.

Just so this isn't all negative - I do like Claire Crazycakes Rousseau the Second over here.

Here’s hoping next week’s episode will be another “on” week, and make me forget this week like “The Substitute” helped me forget “What Kate Does.” At some point, though, too many “off” weeks are going to add up to an “off” season. In any event, I’d love to know what people think about this scifi vs. fantasy business. Is the mirror actually in character and I’m just cranky this week? Has Lost always been a fantasy show? Does the distinction carry any implications for the show’s resolution?

Do Robot Teenagers Dream of Electric Sheep?

2010 February 23
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by kvanaren

One thing I meant to do yesterday but somehow got sidetracked from actually doing was to write about Caprica. Happily, I was reminded that it’s totally Worth Writing About, however emotionally guarded I may be about it.

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From a perspective of philosophical and thematic coherence, I think the most exciting thing Caprica can do is develop and explore an area that Battlestar Galactica frequently touched on but rarely dealt with fully – the collapsing divisions between humans and computers, and what that means for humanity. It shows up again and again in BSG, but is often stuck in the form of hilarious, sexed-up musings by Gaius Baltar or tortured reflections from Boomer/Athena/Number Eight. Caprica has the chance to tell that story from its beginning, and tease out all the painful and intricate links that exist between a dead human girl and her self-aware avatar.

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It’s a storyline that feels fresh and relevant and rich, both infinitely far away from the technology we have now and easily within our imagination of what’s possible. I love computer-waking-up plots (my favorite of which has to be Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, with its cheeky, practical joke-playing, world-dominating computer Mike), and the show has begun to do a decent job of exploring that area. The most compelling device Caprica has employed so far is the technique of visually substituting avatar-Zoe for her hulking robot monster body, and switching cannily between the two. It plays with and sidesteps the dreaded uncanny valley, and gives us some high emotional stakes, at least for this one poor stranded virtual human.

So far, Tauron identity seems to be mostly about violence, tattoos, and snazzy hats

So far, Tauron identity seems to be mostly about violence, tattoos, and snazzy hats

The problem is that the face of a full on Ray Kurzweil revolution, the show’s other minor plotlines are hard to care about. Caprica has been pressing the Caprican/Tauron racial divides pretty heavily in the recent episodes, and it feels like a version 1.0 incarnation of a civil rights plot harnessed into the same show with its newer, more attractive version 2.0 upgrade. Ideally it would create parallels and allow something as well-established as civil rights to speak to the new virtual rights territory, but right now it’s just dull. In this sense, Caprica also suffers from knowledge about its fictional future. If you already know that sixty years from now, Cylons will be a giant frakkin’ big deal and different human races are merely obsolete identities, it’s difficult to appreciate the esoteric diet of Taurons as meaningful.

At the moment, Caprica has a lot of promise but isn’t yet firing on all cylinders. Or maybe I’m just afraid of commitment.

Caprica and Cancellation

2010 February 22
by kvanaren

I’m not sold yet, but Caprica is growing on me. Part of my skittishness is that I’m having a hard time reading the signs on how long Caprica will actually be around – its ratings have been seriously troublesome, but SyFy has expressed some commitment to giving it time to develop. On the other hand, SyFy’s vague reassurances have not been accompanied by heavily increased marketing pushes or an actual renewal order, so the prospect is not encouraging.

It’s hard to fully commit to a show that has no guarantee of completion. When I was a younger, less well-informed TV viewer, shows would get cancelled or take long hiatuses, and it was invariably a total surprise. There were upsides and downsides to this. The downsides are obvious – it’s an upsetting shock to learn that characters you love are gone, plotlines you were invested in have disappeared without resolution, and you’re left hanging in the air with a discomforting sense of incompletion. It’s like listening to a little melody that tinkles on toward the end, steps cheerfully into a IV-V-I cadence, and then just leaves you hanging out on the dominant, hoping someone will let you find tonic again. (Anyone remember that Andy Bernard clip from The Office, where Pam cuts him off right at the end of his song and he describes not being allowed to return to tonic as like “holding in a sneeze”? I would love to put up a clip, but hulu only has the six most recent episodes.)

But the upsides were pretty great. There was never any specific fear that a new show was hanging onto survival for dear life, so when you liked something, you liked it wholeheartedly and without any nagging sense that it would be snatched out from under you. If you’re so out of the loop that you don’t even realize a show is about to air the final episode of its current season, you can get the full-force loveliness of sprinting over a cliffhanger plotline and then the pleasant frustration of having to live with the not knowing for several months. Of course you can still feel that way when you know in advance that an episode will be the last one in a season, but it’s not quite the same as experiencing the cliffhanger episode and then realizing you won’t get resolution for a long, long time.

For me, this is one advantage television can have over text. Unless you’ve got an ever-present progress bar or a giant ticking clock hanging nearby, it’s much easier to lose your place in video. You start an episode, and if it’s really great or really fast-moving, it finishes before you have any idea an hour has passed. (Or you start a season of television in September, and it’s so good that you’re abruptly surprised when twenty-three episodes are over in May). When you hold a book, you get physical measurement of your progress through a text every time you turn a page, so even though you may not know what comes next, you’ve always got a guaranteed measure of how much is left. Television makes it a little easier to feel deeper immersion by denying you those midway-through, nearly-finished landmarks.

It only works, though, if you do have one piece of solid information about the televised immersion you’re enjoying, something that’s almost* never a problem in a book – you have to be assured that it ends, and ends in a way that its creators intended. If that’s not possible, at least you could go into it knowing the circumstances of a show’s conclusion, so that the unfinished ending isn’t as terrible a disappointment as it could be (see, informed DVD viewings of Firefly, Deadwood, etc). Without that knowledge, the same map-less immersion experience that a finished television show can give you translates into more of a Here There Be Dragons situation, or something like a first date: it’s hard to let yourself fall in love, because if you do and they don’t love you back, you’re crushed.

All of which is a long way of saying, I like Caprica. But the signs don’t look good, and I’m hesitant of liking it too much. So instead of closing my critical eye and just enjoying the show, I’m constantly looking for flaws, for reasons it might disappear. Too many teenagers, not enough fun teenage shenanigans. Plot’s good, but it’s not moving fast enough. Maybe more people would watch it if it had more explicit BSG connections?

I doubt. I question. I’m holding off.

*The only example of this that I can think of is an author dying before the conclusion. Elizabeth Gaskell died before writing the final pages of Wives and Daughters, and it’s terribly disconcerting.

Project Runway's Take On Children: Cute, Very Small

2010 February 19

I skipped last week’s Project Runway, but after watching this week’s episode I really can’t resist a little commentary. It’s just too good to pass up when the challenge is to design an outfit for a little girl and one of the designers’ first responses is, “I am scared of children. I don’t…surround myself with children, I don’t have any children…they are very small.” How, pray tell, does one “surround” oneself with children, short of creepy daily visits to a Gymboree? There’s something additionally delicious in Jonathan’s ending statement that children “are very small” – the suggestion being that his experience is so limited that the only characteristic he can name is perhaps the most absurdly basic description of a child imaginable.

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The horror, the horror!

Remember how two weeks ago I was complaining that the Campbell’s Soup Can designs weren’t unexpected enough? This week’s offering of flapping petal-covered clown pants certainly helped make up for that. No one saw them coming, and while Nina groped for adjectives like “confusing,” “circus-like,” and “weird,” Heidi went straight to the point: “I think it’s hideous. It’s just bizarre.” Low points also included Janeane’s under-designed romper and poorly fitting jacket, (which looked like “a cheap mall outfit”), and Jonathan’s well-deserved complaints from his “very small” child model. He dressed her in an A-line dress with a tiny organza-layered bolero jacket, which she happily admitted was “kind of like pushing into my skin.”

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It pleased me that while Jonathan got thrown under the bus for uncomfortable clothing, Seth Aaron won for his thoughtful, comfortable design. He mentioned specifically that he made sure to use “soft fabrics” and I had an instant flashback to childhood, where the sole measure of any clothing was whether or not it was itchy. It’s also hard not to love his adorable child model, who ducked behind the adult model before holding up the purse as her favorite part.

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The nice thing about challenges like this is that it forces the designers to think outside their comfort zones, but falls in a useful middle space between “do whatever you like” and “design something out of material so totally absurd that it’s not at all reflective of what clothing should be.” The latter group is certainly fun television, but ultimately more about entertainment than fashion. Children’s clothing does exist, and as the booming children’s and pre-teen television market has made clear, products aimed toward children are a vibrant industry. Episodes like this make designers like Jonathan seem snotty and aloof, but also not that intelligent about the wide world of real people’s clothing.

Next week looks like a return to the “material so totally absurd” category, and from the looks of Tim’s responses, it’ll be a mess. As I, too, am ultimately more about entertainment than fashion, I say – huzzah!

Sports Stories

2010 February 18
by kvanaren

It’s hard to propose talking about what’s generally going on in television this week without mentioning the enormous block of programming dedicated entirely to sports that seem, by and large, designed to make it easier to die in a dramatic, icy way. As the whole world knows now that NBC stupidly and tactlessly spent hours replaying the footage, one athlete died last week on a training run for the luge, and there have been countless spills and crashes already this week.

I deeply respect the accomplishments and drive of Olympic athletes, but as my own athletic feats tend more toward the book-carrying-through-the-stacks, sitting-still-for-many-hours-at-a-time arena, I am among the least capable sports commentators one could possibly imagine. Thankfully, then, I am pleased to report that the Olympics are also about something with which I have far more experience: narrative.

Take, for instance, Lindsey Jacobellis, a snowboarder whose bravado in the 2006 Olympics cost her a gold medal. Without fail, every sports headline featured her return to the 2010 Olympics as an opportunity for redemption, building a story arc into her career that assumes all sorts of things about Jacobellis and her performance (including, of course, the type of moral underpinnings that go with a word like ‘redemption.’) In returning to the Olympics, Jacobellis was given the chance to achieve a classic, cinematic resolution to her Olympic plotline, and when she was unable to complete the event (and actually disqualified from the race when she slid out of bounds), she fell out of the feel-good conclusion we want to get out of sporting events. She failed in her quest for redemption, and that is a much heavier burden than if that story weren’t laden with those narrative implications – in her first Olympics, she won a silver medal, and when she returned four years later, a mistake disqualified her from finishing. Not great, but hardly a tale of deliverance.

Lindsey Vonn, after her gold medal downhill run

Lindsey Vonn, after her gold medal downhill run

The inverse storyline of last night was Lindsey Vonn, whose narrative got an ecstatically happy ending after she overcame injuries to claim a gold medal in alpine skiing. I watched and was moved by how thrilled she was, how painful the other athletes’ wipeouts were, how impressive it is to hurtle yourself down a vertical slope and try as hard as you can to make yourself go even faster. But for someone who’s really not that into sports, the thing that fascinates me most is how readily these events slip into pre-packaged plotlines. Sporting events are a space where narrative and real-life lay right on top of each other. Because there are conclusions, firm endings, unambiguous victors, and real-life heroes, the Olympics is a moment where we can label someone’s life a failed redemption narrative and not immediately get caught up in irony, subtlety, or doubt. It’s no wonder there are countless adaptations of famous moments in sports – the event comes preloaded with all the required narrative paraphernalia.

None of this is new or original observation, but it has seemed especially pertinent during these games. It’s not just that the sports themselves are nearly always dangerous, and thus lend themselves to drama and high-stakes. In California, the programming is tape-delayed (even though it’s happening in our time zone! NBC!!! *fist shaking*), and although the local news makes the results available before NBC actually airs the events, the news anchors let you stay in the dark if you so desire. “If you don’t want to know the results of tonight’s Olympic sports,” says a big, silver-haired news guy, “just turn away from your television. We’re going to play some music here, and when the music stops playing, you’ll know it’s safe to look back.” In other words: spoiler alert! Don’t read this if you don’t want to know how the story ends!

And that’s really why I watch the Olympics. Even though I intellectually understand that it’s just a ski race and I can look the results up online, if someone shouts “spoiler alert!”, I’m always on board.

Lost – The Substitute

2010 February 17
by kvanaren

Hey, that was pretty fun! Although there were a few complaints from my weekly peanut gallery that some scenes in “The Substitute” were unnecessary filler (particularly the excessively long ladder scene), “The Substitute” was without doubt a more satisfying episode then last week. This was in part because the flash-sideways sequences were meaningful additions to the story of John Locke, whereas last week’s “What Kate Does” never gave us anything new about Kate’s character. In the alt-universe, Locke is a significantly different person than we came to know on the island: he’s still in a wheelchair, he struggles with life but has a strong relationship with Helen, and tearing up Jack’s business card is a huge step in the opposite direction than the one Locke takes on the island. Where island-John Locke was led down a rabbit hole and continually goaded to search for deeper meaning, alt-Locke refuses to fall farther down that abyss and chooses to be happy with himself.

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And again unlike “What Kate Does,” that storyline gives us meaningful, rewarding narrative echoes in the main timeline. While I’m certainly still waiting for the two narratives to connect, it was enough for now that alt-John Locke shows us how awful the island has actually been for that character. When the plane crashes, he follows a crazy wild goose chase until being murdered (and then hilariously eulogized) by Ben. When the plane doesn’t crash, he’s paralyzed, but he can be happy.

“The Substitute” also capitalized heavily on our powerful audience love of twisty, surprising character connections, in a way Lost used to do often in season one and hasn’t done much of since. Locke sits down at the temp agency, and it’s Rose! One I didn’t initially catch while watching the episode – we’ve known for a while that Hurley owns the box company Locke works from, but I hadn’t realized that Locke’s obnoxious boss is Hurley’s former obnoxious boss at Mr. Cluck’s, Randy Nations. No doubt Hurley hooked him up with a new position after Mr. Cluck’s burned down, although I wonder how it burned down if Hurley’s actually super lucky in this timeline? And of course, Benjamin Linus as the world’s creepiest European History teacher. I would so take that class.

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Back on the island, the entire episode built up to that fabulous, exciting final scene, where the caveman drawings turn out to be Jacob’s list of candidates, and the remaining candidates are the infamous island numbers of Hurley’s nightmares. The relationship between Jacob, SmokeyLocke, and the candidates becomes ever-so-slightly clearer with the knowledge that Jacob sees himself as the island’s protector (from what Smokey claims is a nonexistent threat), and the people on his numbered list are possible replacements – or substitutes – for Jacob’s role. Grief-stricken and angry, Sawyer ignores the fact that Smokey hurls the white rock into the ocean and declares himself Team Black Rock, on a Wizard of Oz homeward bound mission. Poor Sawyer. You’re clearly well read, but not sensitive enough to the incredibly obvious black vs. white symbolism that you can pick the right side of this battle.

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It’s nice to come away from an episode with new questions that I care about rather than just the heavily repeating drumbeat of “what does it all mean?!” Why isn’t Kate a candidate? She’s certainly the only major Lostie whose name isn’t on the list and who hasn’t already been claimed in some way (as Claire has). As a corollary, why are all the candidates men, excepting the possibility that Kwon refers to Sun? In what way is Smokey so irrevocably trapped on the island, and how is Sawyer going to help him get off? And finally, what is with Child of the Corn over here?!

AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Thanks, Carlton Cuse/Jacob and Damon Lindelof/Smokey/Man in Black (or possibly vice versa). With episodes like this one, it’s starting to feel safer to sit back and let TPTB spin everything out as they see fit.

Making It In America NYC

2010 February 16
by kvanaren

HBO’s new show How To Make It In America is enjoyable, albeit in an empty, glossy-shell-with-not-much-inside sort of way. As has been noted often about this show, it survives almost entirely on atmosphere, filling its brief, 24-minute pilot episode with constant, almost tic-like montages of the hipster’s NYC. And it’s undeniably attractive – gloriously grungy subway rides and superchic gallery openings, late night apartment parties filled with absinthe and coffee tables from the Salvation Army, men in their twenties nonchalantly leaning against a brick wall trying to hock knockoff leather jackets. Full of non-serifed American Apparel fonts and a general sense of the world as one’s cynical but amusing oyster, How To Make It In America is chockablock with a particular worldview.

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In form and character content, it’s a clear descendant of HBO’s enormously successful but fading show Entourage. Its main characters are men, and its plots are fueled by bromance, ambition, and under-developed female characters who appear briefly as muses and then die out in the face of new, bold schemes. The pilot episode follows an Entourage formula almost exactly – one promising plan for money and fame has petered out, and now Ben and Cam are stuck floating from party to party and scrounging up cash to save themselves from a nasty loan shark. In the episode’s very final moments, inspiration strikes in the form of a bolt of vintage denim, and the two Peter Pans roll merrily off into the sunset, confident that tomorrow is the day they’ll strike it big. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the show’s rhythm that feels eerily familiar. Even after watching only the first episode, it’s easy to see opportunity and failure rising and falling in predictable, unrealistic patterns, carefully maintaining an upward or downward trajectory without ever leaving the space of partially-realized potential.

Cam and Ben with tomorrow's plan for world domination

Cam and Ben with tomorrow's plan for world domination

However derivative it may be, for now at least, it looks and sounds fresh. Entourage taking place in the middle of a recession no longer makes sense, and a setting where cultural capital goes hand-in-hand with at least the appearance of struggling to make ends meet while wearing awesome second hand clothing feels much more current. The shows titles really say it all here – while Entourage can only exist in a place where some measure of success has already allowed an entourage to form, How To Make It In America is a process story, with all the bravado and doubt of someone who hasn’t made it yet. The title also implies the show’s central assumption: “making it” in America is a distinct and achievable possibility, but probably only if you’re a young, single man and your America is actually New York City.

I’ll probably keep watching, if only because I have a fairly high tolerance for attractive fluff. And this is about as attractive and fluffy as paging through a well-made Anthropologie catalogue. If, that is, it was Anthropologie for Men.

Mass Audiences: Bones, The Wire, and Hart Hanson

2010 February 15
by kvanaren

The most fascinating thing I read this weekend was not David Copperfield (as, ahem, it probably should have been), but actually this transcription of a keynote address given by Hart Hanson at the “Future of Story” conference at Edmonton. (Things going on in Canada other than the Olympics: a “Future of Story” conference). The talk seems to have been fairly colloquial, as the transcription isn’t exact and Hanson sometimes trails off into “…”s and “?”s, but it’s nevertheless one of the more thoughtful discussions of network television I’ve seen in a while, and especially interesting coming from Hanson’s perspective.

Hanson is the creator and showrunner of the Fox series Bones, an impressively popular mash-up of forensic procedural and romantic comedy starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz. In the keynote, Hanson talks at length about the differences between the kind of television he makes and shows like The Wire, and he describes the process, moral content, and careful calibrations required to make truly mass audience programming.

If you know The Wire, they never reset the plot for you, they never explain the dialogue, it’s really difficult to follow. There’s no effort made to explain anything, and characters who are weak [?] and horrible triumph, and good men die like dogs in the street. That’s not entertainment, but it’s awesome to watch… for a very small group of people. The Wire seldom gets above a million viewers.

My show – and this is not boasting, it’s just a difference – my show, that one [pointing at the screen] gets around twelve and a half million viewers. So, it’s much better than the one… [laughter]

The question is, is it better than The Wire, and that’s a crazy question: the answer is definitely yes and definitely no.

Hanson draws distinctions here and elsewhere between television that entertains, which Bones certainly does, and television that does… something else. He doesn’t get too bogged down in defining that “something else,” but relates it to that old debate about the artist vs. the craftsman. Hanson sees himself as a craftsman, a guy whose job is to get 12 million people to enjoy what he makes, and he’s clear about what that entails. He has to mirror their own values back to them and walk the careful line between what they desperately want (an ending, a romantic conclusion between Bones and Booth), and what they actually need as long-term viewers (further complications, endlessly spinning out the tension between the two leads). Unquestionably, he does his job very well.

And yet, as thoughtful, down-to-earth, and common sense as Hanson’s keynote is, there are all sorts of assumptions hidden inside his comments. Saying that The Wire and Bones have completely different audiences is accurate, but doesn’t take into account the fact that you can watch Bones for free by simply buying a television and plugging it in, whereas HBO isn’t even a part of the standard cable package. Sure, you could never put The Wire on a network because there would be an enormous audience outraged by its obscenity and immorality, but it would also find viewers it didn’t reach on a premium cable channel. Hanson also glosses over any argument that an audience can gain pleasure in more than one way. Without question, the show he writes is entertaining, but he doesn’t accept that The Wire is also an admittedly different form of “entertainment,” even though he describes his own “great delight” in watching it. That same contradiction appears again as Hanson insists that he writes Bones because it’s what he’d want to watch, and yet The Wire is one of his favorite shows in spite of its total failure to be “what America wants to watch on TV.”

The whole keynote is worth a read through, and he goes on to discuss a world-changing episode of Magnum, PI and slipping a line about Jesus being a zombie into his show. I came away from it equally intrigued about his refusal to view himself as an artist and frustrated by the contradictions between his imagined audience for Bones and himself as a viewer. If Hanson likes to watch both Bones and The Wire, why shouldn’t the rest of his audience? I could keep going on this for a long time, but I’ll leave with this, which seems to be at the center of Hanson’s conflict.

You have to be proud of what you do if you want to entertain a lot of people. This is why I instantly forgive and even admire the pulp writers – they don’t like it when you call them that – the pulp writers who somehow believe they are Proust or Mann or Stegner, when they’re writing crime novels or law novels or forensic novels. They are giving us what they want. They are appealing to a huge audience. I try my hardest to provide what I like to watch on television, on network television.