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Understanding Tyler Perry, the Phenomenon April 12, 2010

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Posted at Visual Inquiry, the research blog for visual studies at the Annenberg School at Penn. Many thanks to Mark Anthony Neal for linking to this post.

Watching a Tyler Perry movie is a strange and ecstatic experience. Perry’s desire for shenanigans, inanity and heightened emotions always makes for an entertaining evening. But his films are in a strange in-between space: between melodrama and traditional drama, between alternative cinema and Hollywood style, and between black authenticity and pure elitism. Through it all, what vexes film scholars, especially critics, is how style, content, auteurism and culture clash and miss each other in Tyler Perry’s films. Understanding Perry now is crucial, especially as he embarks into new cinematic territory, most notably in next year’s adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Are Tyler Perry’s movies “bad,” and, whether yes or no, why should we care?

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‘Avatar’ Robbed Like ‘Citizen Kane’? March 8, 2010

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There’s an interesting debate brewing on Twitter over whether Avatar was robbed for Best Picture. Frankly I was surprised Hurt Locker had won. While critics had eventually forecast it would take the prize, I had put my money on Avatar, only for industry/political reasons. That said, I’m delighted Hurt Locker beat out Avatar, which spent too much money on creating lifelike blue people and not enough on script doctors.

A growing faction is claiming Avatar was cheated. /Film editor Peter Sciretta tweeted the first salvo: “The Hurt Locker will be this generation’s How Green Was My Valley” … and it began!

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Will We Ever Pay Homage to Nancy Meyers? February 24, 2010

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It’s quite possible the contents of this post will lose me a great deal of respect among my colleagues and perhaps bar me from tenure at most reputable institutions. But I say, why not propose a ridiculous idea?!

I’m wondering whether Nancy Meyers, Hollywood’s purveyor of feminine fantasy, might one day achieve the same level of respectability as the king of melodrama, Douglas Sirk. Meyers is not popular in my immediate social circle, and up until recently I’d thought of her films mainly as cinematic cookies, acceptable only in moderation (of course, as with real cookies, I gorge anyway).

But then Manohla Dargis gave me a way of out my cycle of self-doubt. Thanks, Manohla!

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Barry Miller, of “Fame” Fame, Decries Fame Today February 12, 2010

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I don’t get too many celebrity commenters on this site — except if you count the president of the American Medical Association. So it’s no surprise that when Barry Miller, known for his star-turn as Ralph Garcy in the original Fame (1980), started commenting anonymously on my blog, I would fail to notice.

Miller had a huge beef with last year’s Fame (2009), a disgust he broached in a USA Today article about the original cast. But while Miller declined a formal interview to USA, he left his thoughts, under the name Johnny Lagoon, all over my blog.

And they are interesting!

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“Avatar:” On Second Viewing… February 8, 2010

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I’ve been posting and tweeting a lot about Avatar, if only because it’s now the highest grossing film ever — or not, depending on how you calculate it (NYMag‘s Vulture blog has the best solution, which now places Avatar at around #3 or #4) — and only recently has it been unseated from its #1 spot in the weekend grosses (Dear John of all movies!). It also has a whole lot of representational baggage, meaning there are a many ways to interpret it, each one related to some political project or another.

After seeing Avatar the first time I came away a little disappointed. But I decided to view it again in IMAX 3D (my first viewing was on a smaller 3D screen), to see it as many critics saw it. Does it impress on second viewing and on the biggest screen imaginable?

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What Can U.S. Series Learn From Telenovelas? January 28, 2010

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Thanks to The Atlantic and Racialicious for linking to this post!

Gawker has a post about the cancelation of Ugly Betty, lamenting the end of a “once-great” show that, they say, lost its punch and became de-camp’ed and Americanized as it progressed (Betty glammed up, became good at her job, got a promotion, a man, etc., American myth of success, etc.).

They then make an interesting argument about the cycle of American television shows, and how many shows do not benefit from the U.S. “series” model: where shows go on ad infinitum until the ratings plummet, once everyone hates the show.

Gawker’s suggestion? (more…)

Where Did The “Gay Show” Go? (Part I) January 16, 2010

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I’m assisting my advisor, Katherine Sender, on an undergraduate gay media course here at Penn, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of gay representations, particularly on television, for decades the chief battleground for gay media advocates.

Right now, gay characters are in abundance, but series focusing on sexual minorities are a dying brand, relegated to gay networks of lesser quality, Logo and here!.

We live in an odd time. (more…)

Why Is ‘Sherlock Holmes’ So Dark? January 2, 2010

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Original at SpliceToday!

No one ever accused Guy Ritchie of choosing smart scripts. Ritchie consistently excels at snappy transitions and vibrant action sequences blending fast and slow motion.  Still, I’ve always liked Ritchie for his appreciation of “talk”: His characters speak fast, often unintelligibly. Unlike, say, Woody Allen, who appreciates “dialogue,” Ritchie’s protagonists talk for the sake of talking. It’s a good formula. It’s interesting.

Unfortunately, in Sherlock Holmes Ritchie zips too quickly past his best and most chipper talk as if to get it over with and back to the action sequences—which are plentiful and very earnestly directed. I expected lots of action in this film, but it was mostly wearisome.

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Daniel Day-Lewis Ruins ‘Nine’ With British Sturm und Drang January 1, 2010

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Original at SpliceToday!

I’d been anticipating Nine for months. And though perhaps my expectations were too high and couldn’t be met, I was underwhelmed.

Nine had a big job to do. It had to be fun and entertaining like the musical, and serious and emotionally deep like its source material, 8 ½, Federico Fellini’s masterpiece. Writing a musical based on one of the greatest films of all time is a pretty stupid idea, especially one as artful and sophisticated as 8 ½. Nine does an okay job, though, and it’s certainly entertaining holiday fare, gorgeous to watch and somewhat pleasing to hear. But as a story, it fails to reach its own expectations, let alone mine.

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“Avatar” Inspires Visually, But Leaves Me Cold December 22, 2009

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Original at SpliceToday. Writer’s note: The following review is a bit harsher than my first thoughts on Avatar, mainly because I realized that my lack of emotional involvement in the story was more meaningful than I’d originally thought, signaling the film’s ethnic and political paradigms were not as sophisticated as its visuals.

I’m a pretty lenient grader. I tend to evaluate films on their own terms. I watched Transformers II and managed to keep my lunch down. I even defended The Women, Lord help me. I’m not a snob.

It’s not as if I hated Avatar. I liked it. Avatar is a great cinematic experience. Everything you’ve heard is true: the visuals are spectacular and engrossing. Many times I completely forgot I was watching computer-generated images. Even now I think of Avatar not so much as digitally rendered and impressively filmed and created.

But I didn’t love it, and that’s a problem. I feel the need to counteract a lot of the raves I’ve been hearing and reading.

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Breaking Down “Avatar:” Going Native December 18, 2009

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It’s probably too much to ask that the script for a film like Avatar be as extraordinary as its visuals. Avatar is visually stunning; the 3D is seamless — Cameron doesn’t do what most directors do and throw a bunch of things at you, which can ruin the sense of realism. The colors are brilliant. The world is scrupulously drawn. You feel transported. I basically forgot the whole thing was CGI.

Will it do well? I’m not sure! Certainly Titanic burned slowly, amassing solid numbers for months (remember it opened at a mere $28 million, and went on to gross 20 times that domestically, then double that internationally.) It’s all going to depend on word of mouth. My midnight screening was overwhelmingly male — and immature, laughing at every sentimental moment — though they loved it in the end. The film has work to do with women. And the sticker price doesn’t help.

What about the writing though?

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Lo-Fi Survives the Age of High-Tech and Big Budgets December 4, 2009

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Original at Splice Today. Comment there!

It’s the visual equivalent of wearing flannel or drinking black coffee. Retro ebbs and flows, classic comes and goes, but Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox pushes me to believe we are in a lo-fi moment.

You cannot write for a living and avoid silly trend stories; it’s inevitable. We naturally look for patterns, and we have blank pages to fill. Still, I think this may be legit.

First, take the reviews for The Fantastic Mr. Fox. (more…)

“Up in the Air” Lovable, Borderline Insightful (Review) December 3, 2009

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Original at Splice Today! Comment there!

Jason Reitman’s newest release, Up in the Air, will no doubt encourage comparisons to Thank You for Smoking, the successful humanization of a heartless tobacco lobbyist in a humorous and efficient 90 minutes. Both films portray men who do despicable jobs—from the latter’s tobacco lobbyist to former’s professional pink-slip giver—and yet are lovable and charming. Both are loners, having failed in relationships while succeeding in their careers.

But the similarities end there. (more…)

“Blind Side” Success: What If Sandra Bullock Starred In “Precious”? November 29, 2009

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Note: This is not a review, but an essay based on the film’s marketing.

UPDATE (12/7): Three weeks into its run, The Blind Side is still doing well and now beating New Moon in weekend grosses.

ORIGINAL: Tambay Obenson over at Shadow and Act is asking what scores of cineastes have been asking over the past week: Who in America is watching The Blind Side (and recommending it) and why? Like Tambay, I saw the trailer and immediately rolled my eyes deep into my stomach, itself about to hurl. Black cineastes naturally recoil at dramas that dramatize the uplift of the Magical Negro by a rich white family.

Yet here we are. The film has passed the $100 million in record time; it’s already taken the trophy for highest grossing sports drama opening; it’s a career-best opening for Sandra Bullock; and received an A+ from CinemaScore moviegoers, which, while an unreliable metric, signals that audiences are likely recommending the movie to friends.

What’s going on? A few guesses: (more…)

Ellen, the Academy, and Improving Media Criticism November 15, 2009

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In the academy and in the humanities, we’re trained to be skeptics. It’s almost part of the job. When it comes to representation, the idea that what we see in the media is a reflection on the real world, the academy is still way behind the times, something I’ve written about before. Skepticism has turned into blind cynicism, and it makes us look silly.

One point some academics — who shall remain nameless — are very reluctant to concede is whether mainstream America can accept openly gay celebrities. The pessimism continues to this day. While there’s plenty of evidence this may be warranted, especially concerning gay (and black gay) men and Hollywood cinema, Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi’s relationship is the glaring exception.

But I still hear scholars and people on the left say all the time that Ellen “isn’t really out,” that she whitewashes her image, etc.

This simply isn’t true. (more…)

For Wanda Sykes, George Lopez, Success Not Guaranteed October 28, 2009

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UPDATE: George Lopez’s show Lopez Tonight also started strong on TBS (and TNT, TruTV), so it looks like we have hit a temporary POC (people of color) late-night trifecta.

UPDATE: The ratings for Wanda Sykes were good; not, SNL good, though.

UPDATE: Fox has the site up, with promos and such.

With the (apparent) success of The Mo’Nique Show, will Wanda Sykes and George Lopez similarly excel in late night, or will they go the way of other recent shows by comedians of color, like David Alan Grier’s short-lived Chocolate News and CNN’s dull DL Hughley Breaks the News? They’ll have to be edgy and interesting: the problem with Grier and Hughley was they were too soft for a post-Chappelle age.

Posted at Ronebreak:

Today networks are reaching back to the days of Arsenio Hall and giving comedians and comediennes of color late night talk shows. While CNN’s D.L. Hughley Breaks the News lived a short life, mostly because it wasn’t very interesting, BET’s The Mo’Nique Show, premiered strongly two weeks ago.

That success is good news for Fox, which is looking to Wanda Sykes to revive their lackluster Saturday nights, giving the popular comic her own talk show premiering November 7 at 11pm, two nights before George Lopez’s new talk show airs on TBS. Ever since coming out a year ago, Wanda Sykes’ star has been on the rise. Sykes has been a mainstay on television for the last few years, ever since her short-lived sitcom in 2003. She has a big presence now, with recurring roles on The New Adventures of Old Christine and Curb Your Enthusiasm. HBO is now broadcasting her newest standup program, I’ma Be Me.

Full post, with embedded video, at Ronebreak.

Where the Wild Things Are…For Hipsters, Kids, Cinephiles or Everyone? October 16, 2009

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WTWTA went after young hipsters viciously through its Urban Outfitters campaign

WTWTA went after young hipsters viciously through its Urban Outfitters campaign

where-the-wild-things-are-spike-jonze

UPDATE: The New York Times has a piece about whether the movie is appropriate for children.

After seeing Where the Wild Things Are two nights ago, I suspected I would awaken Friday morning to check Metacritic and see a big ol’ 80+ rating on the film from critics.

Not so! Okay, it’s a 70. Well within the range of acceptability and good enough to keep it in the Oscar race.

What did I think? I have to say, it’s near perfect. Brilliant. And this is after I’ve been sufficiently numbed by months of promotion, including an aggressive effort through Urban Outfitters and on hip “young” shows like Gossip Girl, buzz from critics at festivals and stories of the studio rejecting it because it’s too artsy. I thought it would actually be easy to hate, given it’s angling for indie rock cred through the music in the trailer. All this set me up for a film so self-conscious of its own pretension it’d be as easy to hate as the hipsters it courts.

Not so! Where the Wild Things Are is pure cinematic id. It manages to capture the spirit of youth, even for those who don’t remember the book, more so than any “family” movie I’ve seen in years.

The film is gorgeous, nearly every shot is lush and carefully constructed, not a frame is wasted. The colors are phenomenal. In what appears to be a rogue move, Spike Jonze worked from a limited palette of browns, oranges and yellows (keeping the film as drab if not drabber than the book), with only hints of brighter colors are strategic moments. This had the effect of making the film’s rosier scenes particularly poignant.

What the movie does most successfully, I think, is take the twee, childlike nature of independent rock today to its necessary extremes. You can’t imagine how well presumably rarefied and intellectual rock works with depictions of the adolescent imagination.

Will families like it? I’m not sure. Certainly Park Slope and Silverlake mommies will be taking their kids, but will suburban families be scared away? No film can make money solely on twenty-something Spike Jonze fans. I think kids would like the movie, which in some ways reminded me and the friend I saw it with of a dressed-down Never-Ending Story, but then again I wasn’t a typical kid. Though there are a lot of atypical kids out there.

In the end, I think the film is for everyone, but, as with the more conventional Slumdog Millionaire, the studios have to market it right to get Americans to take the risk. I have no idea how this effort is going — we’ll see on Monday. I’ve got the message through the “young” and “hipster” routes, what about everyone else?

Whether or not it makes money, Jonze can sleep soundly knowing he made a work of art, and perhaps, time will tell, an important one. (UPDATE: CNN says the budget is between $80 and $100 million, which sounds ridiculous for such a lo-fi film, maybe that includes marketing; either way, not sure if it’s making that back. UPDATE 2: BoxOfficeMojo is pegging the production budget at $100 million, while New York Magazine says its $32 million opening weekend beat expectations. UPDATE 3: Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy blog says it was marketed mostly to adult audiences, and is happy with how the film is situated in the market. UPDATE 4: Two weeks in, the film has grossed $56 million, but it’s grosses are dropping at fast rates.).

Who knew a movie so representative of kids’ wonder can feel so emotive and grown-up? Jonze gave Pixar a run for its money.

Is Hollywood Really Youth-Obsessed? October 15, 2009

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Please comment on the original at SpliceToday!

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Courtney Cox is old, but her show is pretty hot.

UPDATE: Greek made fun of another ABC show! On volunteering to deliver food to the elderly on Thanksgiving, Rebecca said to Casey: “I care about old people: I watch Desperate Housewives.” Burn again!

UPDATE: Some information from The Hollywood Reporter offers some contradicting evidence, looking at the average viewer age of this year’s fall TV shows. It seems your average viewer of scripted television is at least 28, and mostly over 40, so I could be completely wrong with all of this.

ORIGINAL: Everyone says it: Hollywood is obsessed with youth. Movies are made for young people. Television shows are geared towards young people. The conventional wisdom says that young people don’t like to watch old people.

Consider this exchange between two twentysomething sorority sisters from a recent episode of Greek:

Becka: The pledges stayed in for mud-masks and a TV series about old people having old people sex.
Casey: They’re watching Private Practice?

Burn! Yes, the star of Private Practice is, in fact, older than these characters; Kate Walsh turns 43 this week. But that’s not the whole story. While the younger, hotter Grey’s Anatomy is still ABC’s strongest scripted show, Private Practice is more than pulling its own. Grey’s premiere was down this year from last, but Private‘s was way up. And, hey, sorority girls love it!

My point: it’s time to bury the old narrative that Hollywood is only in love with the young. Older actors are actually quite appealing, even stronger draws than their riper peers.

Let’s break it down. (more…)

Web Series and Branded Entertainment October 13, 2009

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UPDATE: For links to everything I’ve written on web series, visit the web series page.

So my article in Businessweek on branded entertainment and the web series is finally out online! I’m just posting here to provide a bit more context, more than could make it into the article (below). The article focuses on MTV and Verizon’s Valemont and then talks about the market more broadly:

Valemont, with its high-profile premiere and heavy promotion, may give a boost to a budding, scripted, Web-series industry that, in spite of notable early successes, has yet to find a sustainable way to make money. It also underscores how companies can use the gamut of media—including the Web, TV, and online social tools—to pitch brands and products to highly targeted audiences. “This really graduates the format to a new level,” says John Shea, executive vice-president for integrated marketing for MTV Networks Music and another Viacom channel, Logo.” ….

“The brands believe that Web series are a new way to connect with viewers in a more intimate and engaging way than TV enables, even if the audiences are smaller. Companies trying to get their message across need multiple platforms to capture the attention of a multitasking society that’s typically online or on the cell phone while watching TV. “Producers are realizing that old TV broadcasts only capture a small portion of the viewer’s total media habits, especially during commercial periods, and they want to gain more of a piece of the pie,” Kunz says. “This helps both ratings and also the advertisers, who are the real target of producers.”

For the full article, click here or the links above. A big thanks to BusinessWeek Tech editor Tom Giles who really streamlined the article and made it an interesting read.

One of the points somewhat absent from the article was a sense of scope. There are, as I say in my web series guide, probably hundreds, if not thousands, of web series, and while most of those are not getting funding from sponsors, corporations or websites, many are. Valemont, in my opinion, is just one particularly ambitious example of the kind of marketing and distribution that is happening in very creative ways online.

TV-web cross promotions are happening more and more in this space, although mostly, as the article notes, with derivative content (extensions of shows and key characters). NBC vigorously promotes its transmedia extensions on TV. Desperate Housewives has a short series sponsored by Sprint, airing online and during commercials, which isn’t bad; Psych, as mentioned, has one with Mastercard. (PS – Sprint, will you call me? You’re involved with so many interesting digital projects, I want to interview you!)

Also, it should be noted, if it wasn’t clear, I was talking about scripted web series, which are generally more expensive and probably more labor intensive than reality-based shows, like Diggnation or Rocketboom.

Anyway, I’m interested in seeing where branded entertainment is going and if the market for original online content will organize itself around it. Can sponsorship become systematic in a post-network era, as it was in early TV?

FILM/TV: Okay, Enough With the Vampires October 5, 2009

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vampires-assistant

The Vampire's Assistant continues the vampire trend this Halloween. Click the picture for the trailer.

UPDATE (10/14): New web series from High School Musical alums called I Kissed a Vampire.

UPDATE (10/5): On the newest episode of Gossip Girl, Hilary Duff plays a teen star of a series of films about medieval vampires!

UPDATE (10/5): IFC.com is launching a new web series, Dead and Lonely, about the mundane life of an immortal vampire later this month.

ORIGINAL: I consider myself relatively skilled at devising various about why certain shows and movies catch on. Who knows how often I’m right. There’s no science to these things.

I wish there were a science, because for the life of me, I cannot understand why vampires are popular right now. The typical media examples include True Blood, whose DVD sales continue to be on fire and whose ratings have increased fourfold since its mediocre premiere last year, and Twilight, which is so popular fans go crazy every time the film releases a new trailer. Yes, even Twilight‘s advertisements are popular. And there are many movies coming out; the most recent trailer is Paul Weitz’s (American Dreamz, In Good Company, About a Boy, and American Pie) vampire comedy Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant — which actually looks kind of impressive, if it’s campy enough — set for release around Halloween season. With a cast including John C. Reilly and Jane Krakowski, it has some cred behind it, but still…

The CW's Vampire Diaries

The CW's Vampire Diaries

CW, home of scrumptiously derivative television, rapidly entered the fray a couple weeks ago with Vampire Diaries. After seeing the promo, I swore it would flop. Even I, an admirer but not a fan of Twilight, noticed the trailer blatantly ripped off a scene from the film’s first installment (when Kristen Stewart cuts her leg and Robert Pattinson goes crazy with lust). The tweens would spot the shamelessness of such marketing ploys, right?

Wrong.  Turns out, the Vampire Diaries ranked as the CW’s highest rated premiere ever. Okay, so the network is, like, two years old. But still. Post-Gossip Girl and America’s Next Top Model that’s a pretty amazing outcome, despite the fact that nothing was on TV at the time. The network’s other derivative teen programming has not always been successful. Melrose Place flopped harder and faster than the show’s ice queen villain in its series premiere; 90210 is on the brink. (UPDATE: Melrose Place canceled).

Let’s not be too negative. I love True Blood, whose second season ended triumphantly last month, and Twilight. Vampire Diaries, like True Blood, might start out hokey and cheap and end up using this cheapness to achieve a degree of campy brilliance. But ratings for series premieres are based on marketing and word-of-mouth, meaning there must be something about vampires, not the show’s writing, narrative or quality, that lead to its success.

How do we understand our vampire-obsessed moment? Start with the facts. Vampires are most popular among women. The audiences for Twilight and the Vampire Diaries — not to mention the Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt hit Interview with the Vampire, and just about every vampire novel ever written — attest to that. What we also know is that the vampire shows coming out right now put an emphasis on sexual repression — the bite of the vampire is a either a liberation of, or a sensual reminder of, the fact that American sexuality is typically restricted and regulated. The appeal of Twilight is the waiting: the hours-long foreplay of watching hot young people in their sexual prime decide not to do it. True Blood, on the other hand, openly exploits the pleasure of watching shocked, upstanding Christians rendered completely powerless against the sexual freedom that comes with interacting with supernaturals. The vampire Bill makes impure our virginal Sookie, and we love every minute of it. Twilight is about repression; True Blood about liberation. But the point is clear: in America, when it comes to sex, we’d rather tell ourselves no, than yes.

So what does this mean? I don’t know. Maybe America is trying to come to grips with the waning power of Christian conservatism. Maybe teens, and young women in particular, are trying to deal with the mixed messages they receive today from their parents, Sex and the City and responsible and irresponsible sex educators alike: should I or should I not be bad and do the dirty?

Well, I’m not going to write an academic article about it. But I am going to put out a request to anyone thinking about feasting on this recent trend — and I know, for a fact, there will be more: think before you bite.