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On Cable, Long Live the Anti-Hero March 29, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Originally posted at SpliceToday. Comment there!

When The Sopranos concluded in 2007, a number of media critics signalled “the end of an era” where television shows looked for complicated “heros,” or “anti-heros,” to helm television dramas. Of course, many more critics credited The Sopranos with the revival of  serialized, “quality television,” television as cinema, full of complex characters and morally ambiguous plot lines; this remains true today.

More than ever, the anti-hero, in specific Tony Soprano-esque ways, is very much alive.

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Will ‘Treme’ Fall Into the ‘Caprica’ Trap? March 26, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Even the best television shows live or die by plotting and drama. Yes, The Wire, could be the greatest show in history (at least the last decade) and did push the boundaries of television narrative to new places, forcing us to slow down, pay attention and think. In terms of plot, it was hardly 24, maybe it’s the anti-24 (or maybe that’s Mad Men).

But new series need to get audiences excited about something and fast. Even the smartest audiences have little patience (and time). Let’s not forget the the first few episodes of The Wire teased us with a simple, bracing conceit: the police need to take down the drug ring. It took five or six episodes for audiences to realize resolution wasn’t coming soon and the narrative would grow slowly and operatically, thus making it more interesting. Even a sloth-paced series like Mad Men had the “who is Don Draper?” story in season one. Friday Night Lights had the “will this team make it without Jason Street?” question.

Treme is going to be different from The Wire (see this post from a new blog about Treme) . It probably won’t be as good — unless David Simon & Co. are truly the most brilliant people in television history. If it isn’t as good, what could go wrong?

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White Supremacists Are Back (On Television)! March 20, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Thanks to Racialicious for reposting this!

This post suffers from a disease characteristic of most lifestyle/entertainment news: two’s a coincidence, three’s a trend.  Blame it on my past as a reporter. It’s an illness not easily cured.

I don’t know precisely what caused it, but white supremacy is back on television! Of course, by “back” I mean white supremacists have returned as villains in several cable dramas, most recently on FX’s new drama Justified, another FX series Sons of Anarchy and in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming – and extraordinarily expensiveBoardwalk Empire, premiering this fall.

Color me naïve — it’s a color I’ve worn before — but I always thought serious consideration of white supremacy was a no-go for television: it would alienate liberals and minorities and wouldn’t win anyone else. But the search for more provocative programming to cut through the TV clutter, along with the general tendency among certain cable networks – the premium channels, along with FX, TNT, AMC, etc. – toward “cutting edge” narratives, has allowed some room for the KKK and their ilk.

Heather Havrilesky at Salon contextualizes it well: “Since these shows revolve around likable but deeply flawed, not-very-good guys, the actual bad guys have to be very, very bad, indeed, straining during most of their time on-screen to embody pure evil.”

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USA to Broadcast: We’ll Take Your Leftovers… March 15, 2010

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…and make a great meal!

Seriously, can USA keep up its winning streak? The network announced today a new 11-episode legal series Facing Kate, starring Sarah Shahi (above), who is beloved by fans of The L Word for her role as Carmen and has made a name for herself doing sidekick and co-star roles on NBC’s short-lived Life and USA’s Psych. Shahi is staying in the NBC family with Kate, and thank God! We love her.

NBC’s cable subsidiaries — USA and Syfy chief among them — continue to generate more buzz and rising revenue (fueled of course by the 18-49s) than the company’s flagship NBC.

It looks like Kate is another addition into USA’s tried and true formula: taking leftovers and making tasty meals.

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‘Lost’ Alum Finds His Way on the Web with ‘Valemont’ March 10, 2010

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Valemont writer Christian Taylor with the cast. Original posted at Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy

Television matured by coaxing workers away from the Hollywood film system and onto the small screen. Today even smaller screens are enticing writers and producers looking for new opportunities, more innovation and less bureaucracy.

That’s certainly true of the creative team behind MTV’s mobile and web series, Valemont, whose co-creator Brent Friedman and writer/director Christian Taylor have roughly three decades of film and television experience between them. Last week Valemont pulled in six nominations at the second annual Streamy Awards, which honors original Web video. Valemont’s nods included best writing and best drama series, joining such series as The Bannen Way and The Guild.

For Taylor, whose past credits include Lost, Six Feet Under and an Oscar nomination for his short film The Lady in Waiting, writing for new media was far from easy.

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“How to Make It in America:” Betting on the Decline of New York March 4, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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One of many still photos of New York from the opening credits. Originally published at Splice Today; Thanks to Racialicious for reposting this.

Dude comedies have become a staple of the American media diet, though they probably always have been in some form or another. Slacker dudes are particularly popular—the successes of Judd Apatow and Seth MacFarlane’s most popular fare are evidence enough.

HBO, in its perpetual effort to not be television, has taken this formula and turned it on its head. (more…)

Did “The Wire” Presage Politics Post-2008? January 20, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Thanks to Racialicious for reposting this!

Get ready for reason #573 why The Wire was the best television show of the aughts. In the wake of Scott Brown’s upset in the Massachusetts special election for the U.S. Senate, I’ve been thinking a lot about the cycle of politics. I’ve been a pretty steady proponent of the politics of idealism and, borrowing from Tony Kushner, the ethical responsibility to hope, but the aftermath of Martha Coakley’s defeat may test my resolve. Where can I find the blueprint for my incipient cynicism? The Wire, of course!

The Wire‘s central thesis was simple: short-term politics and the quest for power kills long-term progress and social justice. From gangs to government, the media to schools, the same rule applies. Everyone, sadly, violates the rule. They think about themselves and the system never gets fixed. This is the fundamental cynicism of The Wire: it perfectly diagnoses how groups and institutions kill hope.

But it appears Washington has few Wire fans. (more…)

Why Has Showtime Abandoned Gays? (Death of the “Gay Show,” Part II) January 19, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Showtime went from the Queer as Folk channel to the home of such butch programming as The Tudors (however awesome it is). This essay was originally published at SpliceToday: comment there!

I’m continuing my discussion of the state of gay representations on television with a look at Showtime’s evolution in original programming. (UPDATE 3/23: On last night’s premieres of Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara, Showtime showed a bit more gay: Marshall, Tara’s gay son, started dealing with politics at school; on Jackie, the narrative suggests Thor, the other, uglier gay, might take Momo’s place as “gay best friend.” Signs of change or too little too late?)

We only need to look at Haaz Sleiman, television’s hottest gay character, who is on the job hunt, cast off Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, to see what has happened to the network.

Showtime once was the gay network. Remember five years ago, during that brief period when it housed the two most sexually explicit gay dramas ever—to this day—on television, Queer as Folk and The L Word? Bravo was also a gay network, with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Logo was starting up, but Showtime was where the action was.

Not anymore. (more…)

What is “Television”? Broadcast, It Is Not December 13, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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TVbytheNumbers recently published the chart above, numbers crunched by Turner using Nielsen ratings. The graph shows the share of the 18-49 demographic received by cable networks vs. broadcast networks (pay-cable is excluded; and, of course, a reminder that 18-49 is all that matters). As you can see, in terms of where ad dollars are going to go, it’s cable.

I wanted to post this so scholars, web series producers and everyone invested in television can take note that, when we speak of “television” we need to place equal if not more importance on cable. It sounds obvious — especially post-Oprah — but it’s surprising how often popular culture assumes the implicit cultural dominance of broadcast (the diminished economic dominance of broadcast has been well documented, though I’m not sure how aware Americans are of this fact). (more…)

“White Collar” White Hot, USA Wins My Love October 27, 2009

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UDPATE (11/4): Mike White confirms to Queerty he and Bomer were lovers. UPDATE (10/31): There’s been some speculation — okay, really, revelation — that White Collar star Matt (Matthew) Bomer is openly gay. Queerty seems certain he is and has been out within the industry (like Anderson Cooper) for years, but now that White Collar is such a hit, his reps (PMK) aren’t confirming. He appears to be dating PMK head Simon Falls: nice snag, Bomer! Queerty has published photos basically confirming their conclusion, because they’re more activist than AfterElton, who won’t publish them. I say: I don’t particularly care about your privacy if you’ve decided to headline a popular show for which you’ll be paid handsomely, but I won’t publish the photos, because I don’t want to be sued. Color me hypocritical. You know my position on this issue — celebrity privacy about sexuality — already.

White-Collar-USA

Matt Bomer plays gaddabout Neal Caffrey

ORIGINAL: Okay, well maybe not white hot. But the 5.4 million viewer premiere of White Collar was more than commendable, besting several network programs in total viewers, including Ugly Betty and Dollhouse. Robert Seidman doesn’t see any point in comparing the premiere to last year’s ratings, and I agree, but it did improve upon The Starter Wife by 50%. The program was sixth overall in last week’s cable ratings, bested by Monk.

I was pretty confident White Collar would do well, despite USA’s reputation as a primarily summer series network and WC‘s scary Friday night debut. For me, it hit all the right notes: escapist, luxe New York locations; good dialogue; attractive people; engaging narratives (however formulaic); and enough pretension — just a hint — to make me feel I wasn’t gorging on rubbish. USA has mastered the art of breezy, mediocre (and cheap!) television. It seems they’re almost playing in the big leagues, the big four, and certainly with the CW. (Though I should acknowledge the different audiences each network is targeting).

It is important to remember USA invested a lot in promoting the series. Promos started airing months before the show aired last week. I remember anticipating it for quite some time.

Whether White Collar has staying power is anybody’s guess, but I know I’ll be watching. As my life becomes more stressful — this semester is particularly rough — I find myself desperately in need of frothy entertainment, particularly on nights when work isn’t pressing.

TV: Naughty Republicans: Rich (Mad Men) and Poor (True Blood) September 8, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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large_maryann party

Maryann, who, in her boho dresses, looks like a kind of modern-day hippie, has come to Bon Temps to shake the puritanical hicks out of their conservatism!

Everyone who follows television is tripping out over the stunning success of HBO’s True Blood, and even I, as a fan, am rather stunned. Consider this: when True Blood premiered last year it garnered 1.44 million viewers, leaving industry watchers to once again proclaim that HBO had lost its mojo. Last week’s episode, in advance of the season two finale, received 5.2 million viewers (the season high was the week before at 5.3). It stands to be HBO’s most successful show since The Sopranos and Sex and the City. Plus, name one television show in the past five years that’s seen that kind of growth! (It’s a sign to all networks, cable and network, that not every show that starts weak ends weak).

Why has True Blood been rising so fast?  The main reasons are pretty clear: OnDemand viewings in advance of season two (bored summer TV fans like myself needed something to watch) and DVD sales (powered by word of mouth) are the biggest drivers. The ratings had been rising all throughout the first season too, which suggests the show’s narrative strategies — and constant replays — including campy, over-the-top acting, surprise endings, and bloodsport are all drivers.

I’d add another though: schadenfreude. The thematic/ideological appeal of True Blood is watching the South crumble amidst its own morality and ignorance. Remember, HBO viewers are slightly wealthier and more liberal than your average TV viewer, with concentrations in cities and suburbs. True Blood plays up the hick factor with exaggerated accents and its country setting. Sookie, our heroine, is the pure Southern virgin — how many outfits in white can a girl have? — consistently defiled by miscegenation, lawlessness, outsiders and predatory men of the European nature (vampire style in True Blood is pure euro trash; we saw this at the vamp party for Godric in Texas. Many of the vampires actually are Europeans, with strong accents and second languages).

This theme was pretty soft in the first season, focused as it was on Sookie’s relationship with Bill. But the arrival of Maryann, a hedonistic Greek god in the vain of Dionysus, has made this all the more clear. Watching the wholesome Southern town driven to wild sex, drugs, violence and sodomy by a beguiling outsider is eye candy for liberal onlookers. It’s as if those birther/deather, I-don’t-want-Obama-talking-to-my-kids, anti-gay conservatives were suddenly forced, through hypnosis, to do all they decry publicly (and perhaps do privately).

Bon Temps, True Blood‘s central town, is behind the times. The presence of a vampire public relations effort — appearing on shows like Bill Maher and cable news — is a sign that the nation’s most liberal centers have already gotten down with vampires. True Blood doesn’t give us polls, but it’s possible a majority of the country is fine with vampires having equal rights, just as the majority of country, when asked proper questions, wants universal healthcare and is fine with Barack Obama talking to their kids. Bon Temps, Louisiana, we assume, is an island of ignorance, one of those places just a few years behind everywhere else.

Roger-Sterling-Blackface

Roger Sterling, aging Republican and a partner in Mad Men's ad agency, performs blackface for his new younger lover.

Can we see this schadenfreude dynamic in another hot cable television series? I’d posit Mad Men as well.

First: schadenfreude is not the primary appeal of Mad Men. I’ve been clear that the show’s plotting and its patience with its characters are the key drivers: the show is grown-up (and very pretty).

However, it’s becoming ever more clear as the show advances into the sixties that the people we are watching are nowhere near the images most of us have of the early sixties. Says New York Magazine on episode 4, season two:

But to be fair, think of how much is going on that doesn’t even enter the universe of these white people. By this time, George Wallace, promising “segregation forever,” has been elected governor of Alabama, and Bull Connor has turned the fire hoses on protesters. Sylvia Plath has committed suicide (hello, Peggy). Amid race riots and bombings, Martin Luther King Jr. has written his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Meanwhile, the Sterling Cooper gang is twittering over jai a’lai and Bye Bye Birdie. The show’s taken pains to show that a whole generation didn’t suddenly turn on, tune in, and drop out. Young guys like Pete were conservatives till the end, joining groups like the nascent, Ronald Reagan–supporting Young Americans for Freedom.

The show deftly illustrates changes in the role of women — for example this week’s episode subtly suggested how the young Sally Draper might see her mother, the image-obsessed and domestic Betty, as a relic, and grow up to be quite the force to be reckoned with in the 70s and 80s. And it eludes to racial difference here and there. But the people in the show are quite clearly far away from the riots, Martin Luther King Jr. and any other notions of social progress. The tension in the show is building as these characters stay more and more entrenched in the 1950s while the world presses forward. The question — and drama and intrigue — is: will they and their worlds change? The sad fact is maybe no. There are still worlds like that today, rich conservative worlds where such things as poverty and strife have no place in the conversation. In fact, the writers of Mad Men have to delicately navigate the world of rich Republicans they have cultivated and not thrust liberals in there too quickly or hastily. The appeal of the show is this claustrophobic nature; it’s not the 60s we know, thank God (how boring would that be?!). Its delusions and tragedies — like the red-haired Joan, who missed feminism by a few years — are a result not only of its character’s personal flaws but also of the conservative environments in which they must reside.

The ratings for Mad Men are good, though incomparable to that of other networks, since AMC is mostly a channel of old movies. The lower ratings (lately, around 1.6 million on Sunday) is partially attributable to the show’s intellectual nature. Still, you can bet a large portion of the show’s viewers are the same enlightened liberals, just smarter, looking down at the tattered jewelry box of drama the writers of Mad Men have created and saying, “how sad and old, and yet, how pretty and dramatic.”*

Recently the show has been laying this theme on thick, with references to the decline of the Roman Empire and Eliot (“this is the way the world ends…not with a bang but with a whimper.”) If True Blood is about the death of the South — their decreased electoral power, growing irrelevance in policy debates — Mad Men purports to be a world that has already died — of white men in smoky rooms, with separate bank accounts and city lovers, of women who don’t want to or can’t work. But is that true?

*I’m sure, however, that the show’s commentary on its characters is missed on some, who enjoy it for its drama and stylish veneer.

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