Monday, December 1, 2008

Scene from a coffee shop

As I work away diligently in a coffee shop I find myself amazed by the scene in front of me and to the right, that of a man, presumably a father, sitting with a baby, presumably his son (blue shirt). This man is working, or doing some other piece of business, on his laptop. He occasionally hands the baby a piece of cookie, or picks up his blanket from the floor. On the whole, however, he remains focused on his laptop, typing, reading, thinking. The baby? Happy as could be--looking around, smiling at other patrons, sucking his fingers.

Why does this amaze me? Not because the baby is so content--seems like a well-rested, well-fed, easygoing kid. But because the man can so readily conduct his business with the baby by his side. I could never do this.

That darn baby is now WAVING at the people around him. Dad continues to face the screen, focused.

I know that my inability to have done such a thing when my child was a baby rests in two areas: 1) my compulsively attentive parenting and 2) my internalization of a socially constructed middle class mommy role that prescribes a kind of consistent interaction with one's child. In other words, the guilt would get me. I really envy that dude, or rather I envy someone having both the personality and the social position to do what he is doing and--I suppose I am presuming here--not feel guilty about it.

Now I return to reading Judith Butler, perhaps the inspiration for my reflections on the performance of gender now before me?

Friday, November 21, 2008

My boyfriend is a vampire

This weekend marks the release of the feature film, Twilight, based on the first in Stephenie Meyer’s quartet of young adult novels featuring the awkward human teen, Bella Swan and her beautiful and perfect vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen. Haven’t seen the film yet—not bold enough to venture out to last night’s midnight screenings—and promised my sister a joint outing to see it over Thanksgiving weekend anyway. But I’ve read the book and am thisclose to being done with Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final in the series. I’m pretty sure I’ve already encountered the major plot points of BD, and if there is a surprise twist I’m not expecting, well, I’ll be pretty damn surprised.

These books are not exactly stellar works of writing, or plotting, or characterization, or really any of the things one might want in a novel. But I kept reading after Twilight, which I picked up in order to be in on the tweens-and-their-moms buzz, so there must be something there that’s drawing me back.

Maybe it’s the vampire boyfriend. There’s a lot of them floating around these days. Buffy’s Angel, of course, but also Sookie Stackhouse and her vbf. (I’m trying to coin a slang term here, so please keep up) of the Charlaine Harris books and HBO series, True Blood, as well as Edward, dreamy vbf of the moment. I’ve read the first in the Harris series and have been watching True Blood, though am, per usual, a couple of episodes behind. There’s no real competition for Buffy and Angel in any of this, so I kind of want to put them aside as exceptional. But certainly all three vbf stories have something in common. (Just remembered another! The short-lived CBS series of last season, Moonlight, with the young blonde reporter and her vbf—too lazy to go look up character names.)

In vbf stories, there is an inherent obstacle to the characters’ couplehood—namely, that vbf, as gorgeous and attentive as he might be—could also kill you, or make you all coffin-sleeping immortal, or revert to his soulless origins and cruelly dump you—if his manly passions get the better of him. Girls just know that guys aren’t so good at keeping those manly passions in check and, after all, what hetero-leaning girl doesn’t want to be the object of the perfect guy’s manly passions? Herein lies the problem—the thing you want most, that wants you most, could be very, very bad for you. Sigh.

In the Twilight series, the hook, if you could call it that, is that Edward is actually very good for Bella, and good to her. He nobly restrains his passion for her, like, indefinitely, for fear of doing her in, and many others have rightly noted that this makes him a supremely safe fantasy object for very young girls contemplating heterosexual sex but freaked out about it all the same. Edward is the abstinence king who really, really loves her like crazy anyway. Interestingly, this is the dimension of the books that has kept me from really getting into the Bella/Edward romance—well, that, and the fact that Bella is a supremely uninteresting young woman. (I think this is actually part of the appeal for many—she is so plain, so unremarkable, that you could actually be in her shoes—it’s not a far stretch to imagine since she is no more impressive than you.) I’ve been much more into the possibility/fantasy of a Bella/Jacob romance, Jacob being B’s bff, rival to Edward for Bella’s affections, and oh yeah, a werewolf. Jacob’s passion for Bella is much less restrained than Edward’s, plus she could actually have a real human life with him and he is unlikely to kill her when they have sex—seems like a no-brainer choice to me but, alas, events thus far in Breaking Dawn have indicated that Jacob is totally off the canvas as a romantic possibility for Bella, which I think may be why I’ve lost enthusiasm for the books and have yet to finish the last one. Up till a certain point in BD, I held out hope for a proper romantic triangle. Now that I’m pretty sure all such hope is gone, not so into it.

The other vbf stories make the vbf a much more appealing choice—for all the typical vbf reasons listed above but also because he doesn’t go to the extreme of protecting her by squelching his passion. True Blood is getting way too much of its mileage from its premium cable raciness, but I admit that Bill and Sookie are a pretty hot pair. Bill’s got old school gentlemanly charm (he was a Civil War soldier when turned vamp) as well as manly man passion and toughness. And he respects Sookie as pretty tough herself, as well as capable of things he is not (reading minds). She’s a great character, a million times more interesting than Bella (and definitely enhanced by Anna Paquin’s performance—I like on-screen Sookie better than I did on-page Sookie). I’m not going to get into the multiple appeals of Buffy and Angel as a pair, or Buffy and Spike, for that matter (TWO vbfs! Buffy is awesome).

In any case, the non-Twilight vbf stories find ways to create dramatic and sexual tension between the couple, to put up obstacles to their romance, without requiring the woman to be helpless, hapless, and hopeless. Having a vampire for a boyfriend is quite enough of a problem on its very own.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How I Love Mad Men, let me count the ways

There has been way more Mad Men blogging than I care to read roundabout the internets these days, what with the amazing second season finale that aired Sunday. I could go on and on about my love for the period setting, the beautifully crafted nature of every little moment (not a frame of that show is frivolous or insignificant), the subtle nuances of character and story, or the remarkably feminist sensibility that suffuses the whole thing. But watching the thing is a much better use of your time.

I do want to note, however, the appeal of one small piece of the show, one I noticed for the first time in this last episode, "Meditations on an Emergency." This is the wall sculpture hanging above the bar in Roger Sterling's office.

When I noticed it this week, I was pretty certain that my grandparents had had a similar piece of artwork in their home. When I asked my aunt, she confirmed that indeed they had. But, sadly, it had been sold last year after they both passed away (within a month of one another), having lived long lives into their 90s.

Seeing it on Mad Men, and connecting it with my grandparents, made me really long to have it myself, and I'm kicking myself for not asking about it sooner, as it easily could have been mine, had I remembered it and asked for it earlier.

I am on a quest to find another one, though, so if anyone knows of a similar mid-century metal wall sculpture, or can identify anything about this one that might help me find another, please do let me know!

Not sure if it's a piece of Mad Men, or a piece of my grandparents, or a piece of really cool artwork I want. I just regret that it took Mad Men to make me realize I wanted the thing at all, and to make me realize it too late.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I'm sad about my networks

My 4 year old son had a phase in which he would say, at times, "I'm sad about my friends." After some probing, we figured out what he meant by this. He meant that he missed his friends, that he was sad not to be with them, that he hoped to see them again soon.

That's how I'm feeling these days about TV -- I'm sad about my networks.

It's now reached that point in the fall TV season (and, trust me, there is still a fall TV season, despite industry claims to its elimination) when I've sampled pretty much everything and have whittled down my options, settling into something of a regular line-up of shows to continue watching. It's not lookin' good. At this point, I can only think of two new shows that have achieved "season pass" status (in TiVo parlance, even though my main DVR is--sniff--no longer a TiVo). And neither of these shows is a favorite, by any means. In case you wonder, they are Privileged, on the CW, which I like for its smart, plucky protagonist, but which isn't so great on the whole, and Raising the Bar on TNT, Steven Bochco's new lawyer show, which I think I like mostly for the retro feel of it (the man DOES know how to write a lawyer show, after all), even if I find the sexual and gender politics rather retro, too. Since I'm a few episodes behind, I'll reserve further comment on that, but I do have some thoughts I'd like to share eventually.

There is certainly other competent fare on the nets these days. I thought The Mentalist and Eleventh Hour both work as procedurals with slight continuing character arcs and the charms of Simon Baker ALMOST convinced me to keep watching the former, but no. I thought Worst Week was sort of funny, and the same for Kath & Kim, which I know is heresy given the massive pan it received. But, again, no real desire to watch more of either.

I do still plan to watch at least one more episode of Easy Money, which has a somewhat new premise in its check-cashing place setting, and I think Valentine, also on the CW, is worth watching here and there for its hyper-corny Love Boat appeal. But, on the whole, I'm really sad about my networks. Other than fun reality competish shows like The Amazing Race, Dancing with the Stars and--looming in the new year--Idol, the broadcast nets just aren't bringing it.

And don't get me started on what makes me sad about the daytime soaps.

My favorite shows of late have all been on cable, and have all recently concluded or are finishing up their seasons--Project Runway, GH: Night Shift, and Mad Men. (Oops. There's also Friday Night Lights, another fave, being brought to me by Directv in advance of its NBC run next year. This show is fabulously back to season 1 greatness. But again, it wouldn't have been if just on NBC.) I don't want to be one of those high falutin' types who turns my nose up at the broadcast networks. (OK, probably not much danger of that as I continue to watch Dancing and Idol.) But I really think they ain't what they used to be, those networks. Maybe I have changed as much as have they, but I am fond of much TV and just can't get excited about any of those nets' new shows. This comes on top of last year's strike-shortened season, in which I ended up taking on very few new series, as well. Even those series that have survived since then only achieve half-hearted liking from me. If it weren't for the amazing wardrobes, jewelry, and those Chuck and Blair moments I don 't think Gossip Girl or Lipstick Jungle would be showing up on my Now Playing list at all.

As I continue my ongoing project of dubbing my VHS collection to DVD, I can see that the network TV of yesteryear had so much more appeal. Today I dubbed a favorite episode of the short-lived Herskovitz/Zwick Relativity and recently I've been transferring some mid-'90s GH (Claire Labine years, for those in the know). Shows like those could really make a person love TV.

Now I'm really sad about my networks.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Last night's TV

A rundown of last night's surprisingly good viewing. Note that not all shows aired last night. Life on a DVR means that the schedule-as-programmed has little meaning.

1) Bits and pieces of General Hospital, I think from last Friday and this Monday. I'm watching so much of it on fast-forward these days that it's hard to take much away. Except I watch all Robin and Patrick scenes (except when Patrick talks about Sonny's problems) and always examine Maxie's outfits very carefully.
This one is cute but I'm ready to move on to a new day's wardrobe.

2) My viewing companion enters and we decide to watch the pilot episode of Life on Mars. It's good! I like the way it reminds me of the TV of the '80s--Quantum Leap, of course with the time travel thing--but also Magnum P.I., Moonlighting, all of those shows with episodic weekly plots but continuing character arcs that shape the whole thing. Like MZN says, more Lisa Bonet! Earns another week recorded via DVR.

3) Monday's episode of The Hills. The Justin Bobby/Audrina story has the potential to have Jason and Lauren-style drama, and Justin Bobby, while as big a jerk as all of the other dudes in the Hills-a-verse, has enough bad boy sexiness to make us understand why she would want him despite his assholery (unlike that awful Jason). But Audrina. Sigh. Poor, poor Audrina. I just don't think she can carry the storyline--just not enough going on behind the stare and smile--and without the heroine whose heartbreak we can share, it can only be a half-hearted attempt at soapy drama, not the replacement for it, a la the Lauren and Jason saga.

4) Dancing with the Stars results show-- on major FF, but aired earlier the same night, so I'd like some points for timeliness, please. Usual boring recaps, goofy bits, blah, blah, blah, then -- POW! An all-male Pussycat Dolls troupe starts strutting all over the dance floor, and soon doffs their already-revealing jackets. Riveting for a second, but soon back to fast forwarding. Then the kids start their competition and the ff grinds to a halt. Those kids are awesome, if a bit creepy, and make at least a few minutes of the results show worth seeing.

5) Normally, I would have called it quits for the night and headed off to read a bit of Breaking Dawn (I know--it's really bad, but I have to know what happens. Team Jacob!) But last night was the first of the two-part GH: Night Shift finale and I had to watch. Started on a slight DVR-induced delay but soon caught up and actually SAT THROUGH THE COMMERCIALS because I was seeing the most compelling hour of TV I've watched in a long time. They re-created Robert's living room set from the '80s! They put Robin in the flowery dress and had her say, "Hi. My name is Robin"! Anna wore that mantilla! And had that big bump in the front of her hair! They acknowledged Holly's absence! And Sean! And Tiffany! And Love, the doll! I can't even believe I got to see all of these people and this place again. I was back in 1985, in the happiest of my GH days. The other parts of the ep were good, too, especially the touching story of Kyle and the Chad Allen character, whose name is escaping me now.

As if I were not already primed to kiss the feet of the amazing Sri Rao for bringing this to my TV, today I read his interview with TV Guide Canada and discover that My So-Called Life is his favorite show (I married a guy for this very reason) and Herskovitz and Zwick are his TV writer idols. Mr. Rao, if you even find yourself in Milwaukee, I would be honored to have you to dinner. I think you are my new BFF.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A few more thoughts . . .

A friend told me he heard a rumor that I was "boycotting" the Flow conference, a rumor surely inspired by my last post. I told him that I wouldn't call it a boycott, rather that I thought it impossible for me to attend a conference held on Yom Kippur, given my personal situation.

I don't know who labeled my situation a boycott, but it seems to me representative of a certain view of the work and life of academics, or at least of the academia I know, in that it assumes that I must have made a choice against the conference rather than having to grapple with a tension between my identity as a media scholar and my other, more personal, roles. Rather than a choice against the conference this was a situation shaped by choices I have made in my personal life that are not readily accommodated within academia. These choices are not about religion, but rather about sustaining certain kinds of personal relationships (in this particular case, to my immediate and extended family) for which there is no clear place in academia. These relationships include those with my partner (in that it would be inequitable for only one of us to attend a conference in which we are both interested), with my child (for whose care I am responsible), and with my extended family (whose babysitting generosity and religious observance I respect). Perhaps I should include my relationship to the Jewish community here, but my particular dilemma in this case was more about the Jews in my family than a community at large.

These thoughts are really not specific to the Flow conference, rather they are about the academic culture in which I take part. The academic culture in which I have been socialized (primarily through graduate school and the world of my "field," with which I engage most regularly through conferences) is one that seems to assume a 24/7 living and breathing of the work. In part, this may be because we study media, and thus cannot escape our object of study even when in our "down time." I imagine this may be different for the chemist or perhaps even the literature scholar, though other fields surely feel the same 24/7 work mentality in their own respects, as well as some shared ones.

Now, please understand that I love this aspect of being a media scholar--that the work, the ideas, suffuse all of my life, not just some segmented "work time." I would love to be able to live in a world in which I am always surrounded by others as interested in and passionate about media, especially TV, as I am, and who want to talk about it in the ways I do. This is in large part what I loved about graduate school, that immersion in a world of people and ideas focused on similar interests and passions. When I came to graduate school, I couldn't believe my good fortune in finding such a community of like-minded people. And in many ways, I still reap the benefits of that, as I live with a like-minded media scholar and so get to experience that 24/7 world moreso than might someone who is single or partnered with a non-academic or even an academic in another field.

And yet. The real world is not graduate school. And the harsh truth that I think many of us must encounter when we move into jobs (hopefully) and other responsibilities is that a 24/7 life of the mind, of scholarly passion and commitment, is kind of impossible. Even if one chooses to keep one's personal ties limited and to focus on the work as a result, it can be difficult in the world post-grad school to find the like-minded souls you once knew. Many of us work in places where we are not surrounded by people engaged in the same ideas and interests as we are and thus we make other kinds of friends. So my real life, day to day friends are not necessarily fellow media scholars, but psychologists, and doctors, and stay at home parents, people with whom I've found other ways of connecting than our intellectual passions. And I have family members, both older and younger than me, who need my attention and time, or to whom I owe certain considerations (as in the case of not being able to ask anyone to babysit over Yom Kippur).

My point is that the ideal of 24/7 intellectual immersion that academia demands/promises/threatens is not a practical one for most of us. It is a patriarchal ideal, as well, in that it assumes an academic who can be readily freed from real world obligations and commitments in pursuit of the scholarship. This person has of course traditionally been male. Male academics have always had connections and obligations outside of their work (to partners, children, etc.) but have also lived in a culture in which it is assumed that their work can and must supersede those private links and that someone else (typically a wife) will be there to take care of them. The picture of an academic, male or female, who cannot or will not subsume those links fits less well into an academic culture that sees all else as secondary to the intellectual (and social) pursuits of the professorial life.

Dr. Crazy wrote about similar issues a while back, talking about the ways that academia is inhospitable to a personal life and I really liked what she said but couldn't figure out how to articulate my take at the time. So this is my awkward attempt to do so, not to complain about any one problematic policy in academia, but instead to reflect on what I see as the patriarchal roots of academic culture, roots that assume an ease of separation between academic life and personal life that is not always possible, and that has consequences that we are not all willing to accept.

UPDATE: Just saw this column at the Chronicle of Higher Ed that reports on the impact of such matters for women in the sciences.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Religion, culture and the politics of academia, or why I'm not going to Flow

Sorry to break my blogging silence with the screed I'm about to write, but something is bugging me and I want to have my say.

An exciting development in the world of TV and media scholarship in recent years has been the advent of Flow, an online forum for somewhat informal, timely writing by media scholars. Published by graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, the journal also spawned a conference two years ago, which I attended and enjoyed. The second Flow conference is being held this week in Austin, and I'm not going. Why? Because the first day of the conference overlaps with the Jewish high holiday, Yom Kippur, often regarded as the holiest of holidays in the Jewish religion.

I'm Jewish, but am not religious. For my immediate family, Jewish holidays are occasions for family togetherness, but not especially for religious observance. I don't go to synagogue services or participate in other religious rituals. In this respect, I might have attended Flow without it impeding on any particular religious conviction. But attending the conference would most definitely have been problematic for my cultural identity--and for the practical realities of my life as a Jewish parent, daughter, and daughter-in-law.

As a Jew, even a non-religious one, I find offensive a culture that takes Jewish observance for granted and sees it as insignificant. The Flow organizers have been apologetic about the conference scheduling but I still find the choice to schedule it on this day to be insensitive and culturally myopic. I do not believe that an academic conference would be scheduled over Christmas or Easter, even if many of the academics in the field had little or no religious investment in the holiday. And the organizers' offer to schedule Jewish participants' panels on days other than the holiday and to direct those interested to the campus Hillel services fundamentally misunderstands the community- and family-based nature of Jewish culture.

While I chose not to attend in part in protest of this kind of cultural prejudice, I also felt that my participation was impossible for practical reasons, even though those reasons are also culturally contingent. I am married to another Jewish media scholar, and so any time we both want to attend a conference we must make arrangements for the care of our 4 year old son. We typically manage this about once a school year with the generous assistance of our extended families, who travel to our home or take our son into theirs when we both attend the same conference. (Sure, we could bring him with us, but his presence requires that one of us NOT be involved in the conference at any given time--not a very acceptable situation to either of us.) Each of our extended families are more religiously observant than are we, so it would be impossible for us to ask them to care for our son on this holiday. And I, for one, would be ashamed to ask, knowing full well the significance of this particular holiday and the general disregard for Jewish culture in American society more generally. Asking my family to babysit on this day would reproduce the insensitivity that the Flow organizers have perpetuated, albeit unintentionally.

That's why I'm not going to Flow.

Monday, August 25, 2008

ABC invites its soaps to the dance

The soap internets are all aflutter today over ABC's newest fall promo, set to the jazzy "Dancing in September" and featuring stars of ABC daytime right alongside those of ABC prime time. One minute you're lookin' at Derek and Meredith, or Samantha Who, or Sawyer, and the next it's Gigi and Rex! Here's the promo:

The excitement over the inclusion of ABC Daytime in the promo is understandable. Daytime programming has long been isolated from the prime time business of the broadcast nets. And no one at the nets seems too keen on the soaps these days. But the ABC soaps are in an enviable position in an era of integration and conglomeration. Because ABC Disney owns its shows (the only net to do so) the company has a different kind of investment in its soaps than do CBS and NBC. ABC Daytime prez Brian Frons has repeatedly spoken about his conception of the areas he oversees -- daytime, Soapnet, syndication -- as the different nodes in a cross-platform brand. Soap fans have some justifiable problems with this logic, mainly because it denies the genre-specificity of soaps. But it may be the justification that is helping to keep ABC's soaps on the air and even putting them in promos that don't differentiate between daytime and prime time. If ABC's soaps are just nodes in the cross-platform brand that is ABC Disney they can work interchangeably with other elements of the brand.

Plus, the promo makes crystal clear that ABC wants women viewers. The emphasis on female-led shows, on romantic elements of action shows like Lost, and the inclusion of the soaps suggests that they are pitching the fall line-up squarely at the femmes. At least they acknowledge that some of those women might actually like the net's daytime soaps, too.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Who to praise? Who to blame? Daytime soaps and the mystery of the head writer

My perusal of soap discourse online these days tells me that soap viewers spend a lot of time discussing the shows' head writers. When shows go bad, the head writer is to blame. When they're good, the head writer is praised. Hence the consistent Guza-bashing, Higley-mocking, and Carlivati-worshiping that fills the soapy internets of late. My sense is that head writers have not always been attributed with this degree of power. The best example of this I can think of is the Gloria Monty tenure at GH. A number of different writers served under Monty's command, but everyone always attributed the show's ups and downs to Monty. Today, we seem to hear much less about EPs in daytime than we do HWs.

Soaps are of course quite different from prime time TV in that, in prime time, the primary creative force behind most shows is a hybrid writer-producer--a Joss Whedon, a Shonda Rhimes, an Alan Ball. Creators are executive producers are head writers in prime time. In daytime these are two distinct roles, at least they are most of the time. The primary exceptions I can think of are the Bell shows, where Bill Bell was HW and EP for Y&R and Bradley Bell still fills both roles for B&B. If I am remembering correctly, this was the formula tried for Lynn Marie Latham at Y&R, as well, and, while I don't watch the show, many seem to think Latham's tenure there was a disaster. Since so few soaps follow this model, I've got to think that the intense production models these programs follow necessitates this sort of split in duties.

I've always had a kernel of skepticism for fans' effusiveness of praise and/or vitriol for the head writers of soaps. I can't help but think that the forces shaping the creation of these shows are too complex for their success or failure to be attributed to a sole cog in the machine. But I think I may be starting to believe that the HWs really are the source of all good and all evil in soapland. The significance of the role has become especially clear to me with the new season of GH: Night Shift, which is being written (and produced) by non-GH folks (in contrast to season 1 of the show, which was helmed by GH HW Bob Guza and EP Jill Farren Phelps). I've already made clear my despair at season 1 and my hopefulness about season 2. That hopefulness continues to gather steam three episodes in.

GH: NS is being written by a newcomer to soaps, Sri Rao. Rao is a difficult figure to suss out. The guy doesn't even have a Wikipedia page! But his production company has a way-cool website that presents Rao and the company as "indie" creators of TV. My preliminary digging tells me that Rao positions himself as a writer-director-EP, that he has written a play, made an indie film, and created teen series for The N (as far as I can tell, this series has never aired). He's also a self-proclaimed GH fan (since age 8, he declares--and given his early 30s-seeming age I think this dates the beginnings of his GH viewing to the same period as mine). He's also a Wharton School of Business grad. (I dated one of those once upon a time and, trust me, not what you'd expect of a soap writer.) In all, he seems like a young, cool, smart guy who, unexpectedly, also knows about and loves soaps, GH especially.

While NS is not perfect (I'm with most other critiques I've read on the "no, just wrong"-ness of the new Leo Julian and his pairing with the lovely Saira Batra), I'm enjoying it immensely more than I do GH these days. Robert Scorpio's return and brain-tumor induced confusion that made him run around acting as if it were the 1980s were about as perfect as I'd want them to be. (My favorite was the tossed-off crack to Jagger: "Where'd you get your training? DVX?") And I was all choked up at Robin's reactions to everything. Funny, touching, nods to GH history all over the place--what a soap-wonderful treat. This show is so vastly different from the Guza-written daytime GH that it seems to me to be the alternate life the show might have had, had it veered differently in, oh, the late '90s or early 2000s or so, when I think so much started to go south.

In any case, I'm encouraged that the ABC Disney/Soapnet brass had the good sense to hire Rao and I will continue to harbor my secret fantasies of him taking over GH proper. That said, no doubt head writing a 5 day a week daytime show is way different than a 13-week season of of a p-t spin-off. But perhaps someone like Rao is the fresh perspective daytime--and GH in particular--so desperately needs.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

GH: Night Shift was really pretty good?

Astounding soap fans worldwide, last night's season premiere of General Hospital: Night Shift on Soapnet was, well, it was, it was . . . good. Now, while the first season of Night Shift drew decent numbers for Soapnet (note, however, that these numbers were especially high for the first ep and not as much thereafter), all the soap fans and bloggers I've encountered online pretty much agree that it stunk. Bad in so many ways, more than I choose to recount here. For me, the greatest testament to its stinkiness was the fact that I did not watch all of it. Me, the most obsessively completist TV viewer I know, and a 25+ year GH fan to boot, simply could not handle watching all of that godawful show.

So promises of Jagger and Robert aside, I approached the new season quite warily. Now, it had plenty of faults, like some super-cheese acting, some excessively obvious Grey's Anatomy aping, and some wackadoodles character shifts. But, on the whole, it was . . . good. What was good about it?
1) It was funny. Yes, I said funny.
2) It returned Antonio Sabato, Jr. to my screen. And in a towel, no less. And his enunciation has much improved since his first GH stint 13 or so years ago. And he's still totally charming. And his connection to Robin was so meaningful to anyone in the know.
3) Robin and Patrick were truly at the center of the story. And they were as adorable and full of chemistry and interesting as they always are (in their too-too brief appearances on GH proper).
4) It made sense, told its story well (and coherently--big ups for that!--ahem, season 1), was entertaining, drew effectively on GH character history. The good parts made me remember why I like soaps, and especially why I like (or, rather, used to like) GH so much.

Not so good was the recast Dr. Leo Julian's personality transplant. The old Dr. Leo was a laid back dude, bopping around the hospital with his earbuds in place, rock t-shirts upon his chest. New Leo is a big grumpy grouch, beating up on the interns.

Although the George and Izzie reboot intern characters were a bit too much copycat to take, I give the NS folks props for having the guts to make the "George" (Kyle, right?) actually gay. And even in its train wreck first season, NS was much better than GH at racial and ethnic diversity. That seems not as explicit a purpose this time around, although characters of color do have much more to do here than on the mothership. (I was even happy that the holistic medicine doc--sorry, names fail me now and too lazy to look anything up--who seems to be ethnically "other," albeit vaguely so at this point--is Robin's old med school pal. This is what today's GH is missing--one of many things, of course--multiply linked connections for each character on the canvas.)

The faults of GH proper (and surprising goodness of NS) are all the more clear to me in my first couple of weeks of OLTL viewing. I really don't have time for this, but I decided to see what all the OLTL fuss was about. And I think I kind of get it. First, funny! Campy, at times, but all in good fun. And so, so many links between characters and stories, much more so than on GH, where characters with no links to anyone appear and stay in their little story bubbles. Plus, I realized something totally missing in the GH male characters of late--no goofiness! OLTL's young stud, Rex (not to mention the hilarious David Vickers) is traditional soap hunk-looking, but full of goofy charm. He reminds me of GH's Frisco Jones in the '80s. GH's Spinelli is all goof and little else, and is not allowed to be a hunky, romantic lead (Bradford Anderson could do it if given the chance).

Just my rambling thoughts. Couldn't let the fact that NS was actually . . . good pass without remark.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

DVR drama

Here's a problem for you: one nearly-full DVR leased from a certain satellite company, with an on-the-blink remote reception thingy. A DVR with only like 6% available space that cannot be operated with a remote control. Which means no fast-forwarding. Of commercials. No searching for titles to record. Playback is OK, operable from the receiver itself, but no pausing while playing, and NO FAST-FORWARDING OF COMMERCIALS.

Not a big problem for the boy's shows, as they are commercial-free anyway. Bigger problem for mine. I've started recording everything on the other DVR in the house, so I'm covered there. But said satellite company, finally recognizing that the problem is not with the remote but rather with the receiver/DVR is sending a new one. Current one--remember 94% full hard drive--needs to be returned to company upon receipt of new one. So what to do?

I have a LOT of hours of TV to watch and no ability to fast-forward while watching. Do I go on a watching binge, filling up commercial time with bits of work, reading, house cleaning? Or do I let go some of the backlog of shows? As a TV completist, it kills me not to see all of something that I decide to watch. I admit it will be some relief to start fresh with an empty DVR, but the mountain of shows before me (WITH commercials) makes the new DVR seem as much of a burden as an opportunity.

This is one of those moments when real life and research life oddly coincide. Early this week I spent time researching the history of Nielsen's measurement of time-shifting--the problematic inclusion of VCR recording, but not playback, in the live program ratings as well as the current C3 compromise of average commercial minute ratings based on live viewing plus 3 days' DVR playback. Because I was researching this in the context of the recent history of the soaps, I had to think about the ways in which time-shifting figures into soap viewing and also about the ways that keeping these shows viable is so dependent upon those time-shifters playing rather than fast-forwarding commercials (so that the viewing counts in the C3 ratings system--all of this only being relevant for Nielsen households, of course). Now, if I had the good fortune to be a Nielsen household (a lifelong dream, I typically tell my students) I would play, play, play those commercials on all of my shows. But, alas, Nielsen has not come knocking and thus I can imagine little more painful than sitting through the many commercial minutes of a daytime soap. I know that many viewers do, but I just don't get that. My time-shifting habits are too deeply engrained.

Damn it, I've been watching the first episode of Soapnet's Canadian import, the hockey soap MVP, as I write this (during commercials) and I like it. Means I have 3 more backlogged eps to catch up on, with commercials, before the DVR switch. Such is the burden of television.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Several requests later, I am finally blogging about Swingtown, CBS's summer drama about sex and the '70s. As I've written a book on American television and sex in the '70s, some friends seem to think I must have lots to say about the show. I kind of don't, but I do like the show and so thought I'd say a bit about it here.

I'm a sucker for all things '70s, so I'm surely an easy target, but I've enjoyed the show from the get-go. The pilot laid on the cutesy nostalgia a bit thick--pilots, bah!--but since the series has been a bit more subtle in its efforts to evoke a different time and the possibilities it contained. The show is a bit too much in love with what it sees as the sexual freedom and openness of the '70s. My own sense is that this spirit of liberation was certainly there, but not nearly as widespread as the series makes it out to be, nor as good for men and women alike as it makes it out to be.

That said, the last episode aired, "Go Your Own Way," began to nuance the show's portrait of the times in ways I found interesting. Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," playing over the final moments was NOT one such nuance. No, it pretty much smacked you over the head with its announcement of Susan's growing awareness of herself as an autonomous being. But who doesn't like that song? So even though it was way unsubtle as the closure to the episode, I enjoyed it anyway (kind of my story about the series as a whole--not all that impressive, but I enjoy it anyway).

My favorite part about this episode was that Trina and Sylvia were throwing a benefit party for Harry Reems, the Deep Throat actor that was threatened with legal reprisals for his participation in the film. Harry was portrayed as a nice guy, a bit geeky even (or maybe that's just my 2008 interpretation of the mustache), who found himself in a circumstance much bigger than he had ever imagined. While I somehow doubt that Reems was as innocent a figure as he seemed here, I loved that the porn actor seemed one of the least sexually threatening men on screen.

The episode was most centered on Molly Parker's Susan. (upper left corner; I love Parker and am eager to see her other work. She's an amazingly likable actor.) She defies her husband, Bruce, in attending the Reems benefit, and is thrilled not so much by the porny titillation but by her newfound sense of social justice in participating in this anti-censorship action, as well as by her circulation in the public sphere without a man at her side. Susan's teenage daughter, Laurie (bottom row, center; with period-perfect Laurie Partridge hair) is an extremely self-possessed young woman, and she cheers on her mother's efforts at independence. I'm totally rooting for those two.

I think I liked this episode most of all so far for several reasons: 1) it showed some glimmers of awareness of women's liberation alongside the gender-neutral sexual liberation that most other episodes have considered. I'm hoping this means this will be a continuing arc. 2) It referenced the media world of the '70s--porn film, not the PG-rated "porn" of TV--but '70s media nonetheless. And 3) it really began to pay off my viewing investment. This deserves a bit more explication, so here goes.

One of the things I love about series television is the way it can pay off your viewing investment. You give it enough time, enough attention, you open yourself to it, and you can get big rewards. What are these rewards? Seeing characters you've come to "know" act in expected--and unexpected--ways. Having knowledge you've acquired about characters inform something those characters do, and thus allowing you to see multiple levels of meaning in their actions or words. And the way that, when done well, you don't really have to work all that hard for those meanings, those levels, they are laid out for you in aesthetically pleasing but relatively straightforward ways. Anyone can "get" it, anyone, that is, who has put in the time and the attention, something not everyone is willing to do for their TV. That TV rewards time and attention, commitment and patience, is one of the things I love about it. And it's a reward I felt I got in Swingtown's "Go Your Own Way."

Monday, July 7, 2008

From the video catalog . . .

I described my homemade video catalog and collection in an earlier post. A must-share from today's dubbing, the short-lived 1981 series The Brady Brides, one of the first programs recorded and perhaps even the first archived from my family's first VCR. The good folks at YouTube are of course already on top of it, as this snippet of the credit sequence shows. But MY copies come from the original 1981 NBC broadcasts, not some recent-years Family Channel repeat, so there!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

From the land of soap research

Just read Barbara J. Irwin's 1990 dissertation, "An Oral History of a Piece of Americana: The Soap Opera Experience,” which I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't seen before. It's a valuable document, full of material from her interviews with many soap industry folks, including now late greats like Bill Bell and Doug Marland. But I wanted to share a couple of quotes, and contrast them with something more recent, from network daytime execs:

From Judy Jenkins, Director of CBS Daytime:
"Our job is to allow art to happen. To protect and nurture and allow art to happen . . . " (p. 177)

From Jackie Smith, head of NBC daytime, and former VP of ABC Daytime:
"My job is not to think of it too much as a business. I have millions of people around me reminding me of the money and the ratings. My business is to think of it as creative. I'm being paid not to think so much about the other things. To be aware of them, but to really think about creating a novel and helping those people that are working, writing, and producing these shows to be more creative than they might be on their own . . ." (175-76)

Contrast these with this from Brian Frons, currently head of Disney-ABC Daytime, from a 3/31/08 Broadcasting & Cable article:

“I want to look at our business as a studio business,” says Disney-ABC Daytime President Brian Frons, who oversees the daytime shows, Soapnet and the Buena Vista studio. The division produces some 1,000 hours of original programming per year, including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Ebert & Roeper.

“Our job is to get as many people watching us as possible—daytime, Soapnet, international. It's a more holistic revenue-driven model and gives people the confidence to know we're sticking around. Advertisers do like having this platform to reach women on an efficient basis, so they need to know that.”

I know, I know, different contexts --Frons was speaking to an industry trade paper while Jenkins and Smith were speaking to an academic--but I found the differences in perspective quite striking nonetheless. Is it possible that the network execs responsible for daytime have abandoned all investment in creativity, art, storytelling in exchange for a a focus on "holistic revenue-driven models"? How much might conglomeration have to do with this (e.g. Frons is now a Disney exec managing a number of brands rather than a network employee responsible for a daypart)?

Even more sad? Irwin's interview with then and now Days of Our Lives executive producer Ken Corday about the future of daytime -- again, from 1990, folks:

"There is a law of diminishing returns here, and the handwriting is on the wall . . . I would say, in my heart, I hope it's on 25 more years, but realistically speaking, I can't believe it's going to make it that long. I can't believe there's going to be a market for soap operas in 20 years, or even in ten years, that there is today . . ." (191)

We're at about 18 years since Corday said this. Like sand through the hourglass . . .

Friday, June 27, 2008

Cable first to go in economic downturn! But the rubes who stay will still watch the commercials!

I'm pretty floored by this "3 Minute Ad Age" video featuring an ad exec reporting on recent market research on consumer spending habits in our economic downturn (people might actually cancel their cable!--seemingly sad news for the ad biz) and its ad biz upside (those stupid Americans still watch the commercials! Even with their DVRs!). What gets me most? The treatment of the American public as mindless boobs? The faith in market research? The potential disappearance of old-fashioned viewing? Most go back to writing, but much to ponder in Ad Age's video snack.

Fitting it all in

One of my goals for the summer and my fall sabbatical is to do large amounts of reading and viewing--project-specific stuff but also general stuff, such as shows backlogged on the DVR (Heroes, I'm lookin' at you), journal articles I've gathered as they've passed by in content alerts, new and newish books. But I find it a constant struggle to read and watch and listen to everything I want. I kind of blame the internet, as there is so much to read and watch and listen to online that it detracts from my time to do so otherwise. Yet new media technologies have of course also expanded where and when I can consume--not only the video iPod at the gym, but the DVDs on airplanes (perhaps the greatest thing to happen to air travel EVER) or when visiting family. I read articles during T-ball practice, listen to podcasts while making lunches, catch snatches of NPR during my brief times in the car. But still not enough. I'm rather noise-averse, so no background music or radio or podcasts when I'm working, or when I'm talking to another person in a car, or trying to get a wiggly 4 year old out of a bathtub. Perhaps I'm too single-channel for a multi-channel world. I think scheduling reading and watching times may be the answer. I kind of do this already with the gym, with my new habit of Dark Shadows eps while waiting to be sure the boy is asleep in the evening, with prime-time DVR catching up. Will try to report back as I try to jam more media into my days.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Women take over box office!

No, my baby-sitter-less weekend failed to deliver me to either Indiana Jones or Sex and the City--either of which I would have loved to have seen, mediocre reviews aside.

But I am cheered by the headline Variety just sent to my email Inbox: "Sex and the City whips Indiana." I'm far from the world's biggest SaTC fan (I like it and all but have no special devotion). But I was really ticked off by all of the press coverage the last couple of weeks about how SaTC would ever manage to do decent b.o. if men weren't going to see it. "Anticipation for Sex high, but will men see it?" kind of headlines.

The media industries have for too long trusted in the idea that women will see men's movies (girls will play with boys' toys, etc.) but that the reverse won't work. Glad to see those SaTC ladies prove them wrong.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Soapy Research Questions

The Ryan's Hope viewing experiment continues. I need to spend a bit of non-workout time with an episode or two to count the number of scenes per episode and their length, but there is no doubt that scenes go on for much longer in the RH of 1975 than they do on any soap today. A couple of other observations/questions (mostly so I can remember these thoughts when I eventually try to turn some of it into an argument):

1) the show seems to have multiplied its number of sets as of episode 17. From that point, we're seeing new sets each episode. None are fancy; all are very bare bones, but it's nice to get a wider view of the community this way. My guess is that they could only build so many before production began but, as of a few weeks in, more were up and running.

2) Men keep asking women out for meals and I'm having a difficult time reading the social mores of the time because I'm often not quite sure if this is an invitation to a date or just a friendly gesture. In the case of Bucky's offers to Faith, I know it is a date. His interest in her, and her oddball standoffishness, are at the center of the story. But I don't know how to read Ed Coleridge inviting Nell Beaulac, who is recently estranged from her husband, out to eat. Or how to read Roger Coleridge (Ed's son!) similar offer to Nell. [Update: Just saw ep. 21, when they do go out and Roger DEFINITELY sees it as a date.] Or Roger's offer to Mary, who seems more age-appropriate for him. And I think maybe Bob Reed also asked Mary out to eat. Are these the equivalent of the present-day soaps' "chemistry tests"? If so, they are so much more subtle that it is difficult to tell what they are suggesting. In fact, most things are much more subtle than in the present day soaps (or at least in that sinking ship, GH, which may very well be the worst I've seen it in my 25+ years of viewing). But RH keeps me guessing. Do Roger and Bob have things for Mary? Do Pat and Faith have a past? Does Delia really know that Frank and Jill are having an affair? I'm watching for clues to all of these questions as much as for the big plot points. Either it's really careful soap plotting or I just don't get 1975 social cues.

[Update: I think it's really careful plotting. In episode 20 we get the first real clue that something may be physically wrong with Nell--the dreaded soap headache!--while in the entire first month of the show she just seemed oddly determined to move on with her neurological research. But that determination is slowly, slowly going to be revealed as a cover for something else going on with her. Such careful long-range plotting! Love it!]

I've also been making plans to move forward with my soap research this summer and fall. One archive I plan to visit is UCLA's Film and Television Archive, as they have the most extensive collection of actual soap episodes anywhere I've seen, including episodes from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the pre-home VCR era and thus the era before fans were archiving episodes themselves. The most amazing part of their collection is a nearly full run of General Hospital from its debut in 1963 well into 1970. Both the fan and the scholar in me are beyond excited at the possibility of watching GH from the beginning. But.

Researching soaps = not easy. First, of course, is the time factor. I can't watch 7 years of GH episodes in an archive in California unless I were to live there and to view regularly for months. Even if this were possible, there's another but.

Some of these episodes are what the archive considers "archival copies." This means that no one can see them. Ever. The copies are too poor or fragile or something to be available for viewing. This is not just the case with some of the GH episodes but with MANY of the other soap episodes they list in their catalog (such as early '70s All My Children--the Erica abortion story!--and many others). I'm not a trained archivist, of course, but I just don't understand why they would hold such materials in the collection with these constraints.

Another problem: many of the GH episodes, as well as many other of the older soap episodes in the collection, are classified as "research copies." This means that the archivists must transfer the copy to VHS for me to view. The catch is their policy on such copies, which is to copy no more than 10 hours of programming per researcher. Now, the archive has other copies readily available for viewing, episodes that, presumably, others have watched in the past and that have thereby been transferred to VHS already. But this is a scattered selection, and one that does not include some of the real gems in the collection. With much advance notice, the under-staffed and under-budgeted archivists seem willing to stretch those 10 hours a bit for me. But it is doubtful that they will be willing/able to transfer the 30 or so (if I'm being honest, it's more like 40) hours I would most like to be able to see during my trip.

So my next task is to try to prioritize the list of what I would like transferred. I've already decided to limit my viewing to material before the early 1980s as the home VCR era that ensues thereafter makes it more likely that I will be able to see some of that material via fans' collections (plus my own memories and tapes). But, beyond that, I have several possibilities. Possibility no. 1: do I see as much GH as I can and have an in-depth sense of one show's past? (Keep in mind that that depth is inherently limited, as I can't watch all the episodes they have.) Possibility no. 2: If I do focus on GH, do I scatter my viewing across the years they have, or focus it so as to watch a particular story unfold? If the latter, how to choose an entry point? Or (possibility no. 3) do I spread my viewing across shows and time periods, to be more representative? (But how can you really get a sense of how a soap storyline is told by watching an episode here and there?)

I get irritated by claims that researching soap history is "impossible" because of such constraints, so don't think I'm saying that (and don't tell me that in comments, either!). But such are the practical considerations any archival study entails, albeit with particularly constraining constraints for the study of soaps.

Friday, May 23, 2008

"Does Academe Hinder Parenthood?"

Just a linky little post to share this Inside Higher Ed article, reporting on a study addressing the above question, including the matter of differences in the experiences of male and female academics. Note the comments, as well. There's plenty of awareness of the problems academia may raise for parenting there, but also a defensiveness that I find disturbing, an urge to blame the (female) academic for her disinterest in childbearing and rearing in some instances and also an assertion that sacrificing academic life for motherhood is sometimes a necessity.

Nothing infuriates me more than the suggestion that we should accept the limitations of the institution. Urgh!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What's next?

That's the question of the day, as I finally put my semester's work behind me and plot out my plans for the eight (8!) months of unstructured time ahead of me this summer and this fall, when I have a sabbatical semester. I've been eager to get to this time for weeks. Now that it's here, I'm a bit intimidated by it. I'm sure to feel better by the end of the day, when I hope to have a specific plan of what I hope to accomplish when. Three key activities are on the agenda: 1) reading, 2) writing, 3) research. I'm off to map the future--

Monday, May 12, 2008

On my iPod, it's 1975

I finally finished my viewing of the first 4 seasons of Entourage. I had recorded the series to DVD from HBO, transferred the episodes to my iPod, and watched them at the gym while working out on the elliptical trainer (and sometimes the treadmill, which is really too bouncy for such a tiny screen and my workout effectiveness is ENTIRELY secondary in priority to my iPod TV watching). I've written before about how much I love being able to watch TV while working out and how that feeling seems to transfer itself in full to whatever I am watching. So I totally enjoyed Entourage, which may be the subject of another post. I'm sure my pleasure was in part due to the efficiency/pleasure combo of the situation, but I also got a kick out of the show's unabashed masculine fantasy. But more on that later, perhaps.

I've decided that my next iPod TV project is going to be my backlog of Ryan's Hope episodes. I've been archiving these from Soapnet for the past couple of years, determined to save them all. I've watched bits and pieces, but have long wanted to start from the beginning and plow through. So this week I've begun with episode 1, from July 1975. RH was a half-hour soap that aired from '75 to '89 on ABC. Created and run for many years by Claire Labine, one of my fave GH headwriters of yesteryear, it's a soap that seems to be remembered fondly by many. I watched a bit in the '80s, but certainly not in the '70s. I'm just a few episodes in, but I'm really enjoying it so far. Again, iPod/workout magic is surely in effect, but so far it's an expertly told story. We are introduced to 9 regular characters in the first half hour ep (more like 20 minutes without commercials), all of whom have identifiable traits. The first week included location shooting in NYC (RH has been one of the few US daytime soaps set in a real place) and the seeds for some real soapy goodness--bantery romantic relationship between Mary and Jack, classically manipulative villainess in Delia, twisted familial dynamics between Faith and Papa Coleridge. And aside from the clothes and hair, it is not reading as dated to me.

Soapnet stops its RH reruns at the end of 1981, reportedly because the onset of popular music on the soundtrack thereafter has created rights issues. (This is also reportedly the reason why the much beloved, short-lived NBC soap, Santa Barbara, has not made a Soapnet appearance.) I'm not promising I'm watching straight through '81 at this point--I may take a break to watch something else for awhile--but now I'm definitely plotting when I can get to the gym to watch some more.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

When it comes to gender, how real is MTV keepin' it?

No, this is not going to be one of those posts about how fake The Hills is. If it bothers you that the producers set up Lauren's dates or Heidi's "job", it's not the show for you.

But this is going to be a post about the gender politics of some recent moments on The Hills, and on The Paper, MTV's new must-see reality drama, the show that allows high school newspaper editors of yesteryear to relive/shrink in horror at their glory days.

When I wrote about The Hills for the online TV studies journal Flow a couple of seasons ago, I lamented the gender politics of a MTV's new-fashioned soap, pointing out the difference between The Hills' take on heterosexual romance and that of the daytime soaps (at least the soaps as they should be, but all too often are not these days). I wrote this after the gut-punch of Lauren's decision to forgo a summer-in-Paris internship for a summer in a Malibu beach house with her abusive boyfriend Jason. I wasn't so much upset with Lauren as I was with the program's representation of Lauren's choice as the height of romance, and of Jason as just so adorably in love that he couldn't bear to be away from her.

Since then, The Hills has taken a decidedly different turn, one also indebted to the daytime soaps. Lauren's real-world break up with Jason during the Malibu beach house summer forced a storyline reboot in which Lauren became single gal unlucky in love (and wary of awful dudes like Jason) and the primary drama shifted away from boys and toward the relationships between the girls--a dynamic always present but soon heightened by the breakdown of Lauren's friendship with Heidi.

Now, the daytime soaps grapple with relationships between women as well. But the kinds of problems that place daytime's women at odds with one another tend to be of a more melodramatic nature--baby swaps, man stealing, and lies, lies, lies. The tensions between the women of The Hills are more quotidian, but also painfully close to many girls' and women's actual experiences of friendship drama. OK, maybe a sex tape is not at the center of most women's friendship tension, but the issues underlying L and H's sex tape battle are all too common -- feelings of betrayal, of abandonment, of rejection.

The problem for The Hills these days is that Lauren and Heidi are seemingly splitsville forever--these two ain't gonna be friends again and Lauren, at least, seems to have little interest in engaging with Heidi at all, even to accuse and argue. So where's the new drama? It seems to be brewing between new roomies Lauren, Lo, and Audrina, as Lauren is placed in between her actual, for-real childhood pal Lo and her MTV-generated friendship with Audrina.

Granted, this totally works as relatable drama. But. It is placing Lo in the position of villainess, and this I just can't take. Lo is one of the few young women gracing the Laguna/Hills-averse that seems to have some smarts. She's witty, clever, just seems to have thoughts going on behind her sparkly blues. (I really don't mean to diss the others, especially not Lauren, who delivers some bon mots of her own from time to time.) In this latest friendship drama, Lo is being depicted as forcing Audrina out of Lauren's life while Audrina is the sad victim of Lo's actions. [Important aside: Isn't Justinbobby's transformation a-mazing?! Sobriety has made him actually really and truly attractive! He looks great, and is a sympathetic boyfriend/friend/whatever to Audrina!]

The soap villianess is a crucial character, but in the daytime soap world her villainy comes from somewhere--usually insecurity or desperation or revenge--and her challenges to patriarchal strictures of femininity are a pleasure to love (or love to hate). But Lo is so not this character. No, the brainiest girl on The Hills is cast as the bitch, for no real reason other than to stir up drama. Disappointing, again.

The Paper features another brainy girl in the role of villain. But Amanda Lorber is no existing genre's idea of the female foil. This series chronicles the experiences of the new regime of editors at a high school newspaper in Florida. Amanda is the new editor in chief, a girl unlike any we typically see on American TV. Others have described her better than I could, but suffice it to say that she is super-ambitious, super-enthusiastic, super-nerdy, yet supremely confident. Others have compared her to Election's Tracey Flick, a great teen girl character if ever there was one, but Amanda is much less cutthroat than Tracey, and also more vulnerable and more likable. Most of Amanda's underling editors are guys, also super-nerdy but so ensconced in their nerdy guy world that they don't really notice or care.

The main thrust of The Paper's story so far is the rest of the editorial staff's indignation at Amanda's appointment as in-chief. The other kids mock her, criticize her, pretty openly hate on her. At first I thought I couldn't watch the show because they were so mean to her, and she was such a comedic figure that I thought the show wanted me to side with them and laugh at her, too. But the Amanda-love I encountered online, as in feminist-leaning sites like Jezebel, encouraged me to take another look.

I'm pretty certain now that The Paper has a more complex story to tell, one in which the editorial staff (mostly straight-acting boys, but also one girl-who-hangs-with-the-boys and one seemingly gay guy) may turn into the real villains while we are invited to side with Amanda, however misguided she may seem. This became especially clear to me when it was revealed that Amanda has a past of sorts with Alex, perhaps her greatest male adversary, the paper's Managing Editor and Amanda's second in command. Alex admits to having had a crush on Amanda in 9th grade and the two clearly share a long friendship, one now somewhat fractured. In part this seems to do with their competition for the top spot at the paper, but I'm thinking it has more to do with his teen boy assholery, his need to prove his manhood by asserting his superiority to her, by aligning with his buds against her. And he is not looking good in the process. Week by week, Amanda in all her goofiness is coming off as the one to root for.

I'm still a bit uncertain as to where this will all lead, and I still worry that Amanda is too much the butt of the joke on this show to make her the sympathetic heroine I want her to be. I'm hoping, hoping, hoping that she doesn't get the Lo treatment--no room for smart girls on MTV after all. Meanwhile I'm rooting for the girl to prove her haters wrong.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

P&G wants you!

Procter & Gamble is conducting two phone polls, through the same number: (1(800) 331-3774). One asks about whether the company should continue to advertise on MTV and BET. This is in response to a number of complaints about the "inappropriate" content of music videos aired on these channels. The other is about the Luke and Noah ("Nuke") same sex romance playing out on P&G's As the World Turns these days. I've called twice now--yesterday P&G thanked me for my opinion and ended the call (you can press 1 for keep going with Nuke, 2 for ending the story). But in today's call I was informed that the information gathered in this poll will not determine story but will provide company executives with useful information. Guess they are anticipating major outcry no matter which direction they go.

The soapy blogosphere is all over this story, so I won't go into more detail here. But the old-fashioned nature of the phone-in poll strikes me as a bit odd--perhaps just a way to appease the protesters, making it look like P&G is addressing the matter as they proceed with a story that seems immensely popular with fans?

Update: Here's Ad Age's take on P&G's polls and their possible outcomes.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Reality bites

Light blogging of late, I know. But the above title popped into my head and I couldn't let it pass unused as a wrap-up of several points I've been meaning to make:

-- light on blogging = heavy on everything else. Real life is just too busy these days. Everyone bellyaches about late-in-the-semester crunch time, but gosh-darn-it, it's true.

-- Watching Bravo's Top Chef for the first time this season. I like, though it's no Project Runway. I think the biggest problem is the fact that we CAN'T TASTE THE FOOD. It's hard to have a strong opinion on the relative merits of the different contestants' creations when we can't taste them. Yet one can be as opinionated as one likes about the Runway fashions. Fascinated by the emerging tensions between those who cook all avant-garde and those without that sort of training/orientation. Having not watched before, I don't know if one approach tends to win out on this show, but I like the way these tensions about food and taste and cultural hierarchies inform so much of the contest.

-- I think David Cook is my new fave Idol. This is perhaps quite unoriginal, as the judges themselves have begun to fawn of late, but I don't watch this show in an effort to resist the mainstream. But I really wanted to mention the emotional gut-wrench of the tears and hugs these days at elimination time. The end of the elimination eps have been getting me all teary --it's like those speeches from the teams about how much they've learned about their relationships after the Amazing Race eliminations. Tear jerkers all!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Trials of ebay

Over the weekend I stayed up way past my bedtime to bid during the final minutes of several ebay auctions. What was I bidding on? Full year runs of Soap Opera Digest magazine from the late 1970s. Did I win these auctions? Hell, no, as they quickly became too rich for my blood--the last going for $102.

A single seller is offering up her lifelong collection of SODs, year by year, as she prepares to move. You may think this sort of thing would sell for a few bucks, but their rarity makes them quite valuable to those in the know. The winners of my failed auctions seem to run TV collectible businesses and so surely know the market for such things. Most old soap mags sell on ebay in single issues, and most are from the 1990s on. I'm sure these folks will be able to sell off the collection they are acquiring, probably issue by issue, making back their money and then some.

But my desire for these yellowing stacks of industry propaganda comes from a different place. Lots of TV ephemera is hard to come by, but little of it is as difficult to track down as the soap press. Very few libraries retain their holdings beyond a couple of years, and some libraries (ahem, Milwaukee Public Library System) don't have any soap publications, past or present. As a graduate student, I was blessed by the South Central Wisconsin Public Library system's collection of SODs from the '70s on (when the mag began), all handily stored in Madison's Central Public Library. I spent many delighted hours there devouring these magazines, which offered me story details, the occasional feature story of interest, and lots of letters to the editor full of great audience info. Made my dissertation, and the subsequent book, much better.

Now, as I begin to work on another book project exclusively focused on soap history, I very much want access to those old SODs again. One problem: the Madison Public Library THREW THEM OUT. I found out about this last year and so my indignation has (barely) abated, but I can easily get worked up about it again. Please note: this is one of a HANDFUL of libraries in the country that have any run of SODs beyond the past few years. According to Worldcat, only the Popular Culture collection at Bowling Green has a full run (not even the Library of Congress keeps them, though they do have Daytime TV, a now-defunct pub of the same genre that was also quite helpful to me in past research).

When I saw that this ebay user was selling off a nearly complete collection of SODs I had fantasies of owning the whole lot, of turning myself into the archive no one else cares to maintain. Alas, the financial investment seems too great and so I will likely trek to Bowling Green for a few fleeting days with these texts.

I do admit that the huge challenge of doing this sort of work is pretty appealing to me--brings out my youthful ambition to be a private detective, a la children's lit heroine Trixie Belden (Nancy Drew was too wimpy for my tastes), or an intrepid spy, a la Harriet the Spy, also a favorite read of my past. While I do believe strongly that our libraries do a disservice when they neglect to archive popular publications or, for chrissakes, THROW THEM OUT, the persistence required to actually track these things down is part of the fun of researching denigrated cultural products like soaps.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Girl TV Update

Some new shows, some old shows, here's what's up with my TV watching for and about the ladies:

-- Because of my last, glowing post about quarterlife, I want to make clear that, while the episode I praised, "Goodbyes," was super-fantastic, the rest--not so much. To be honest, we have yet to watch the final 3 or 4 segments of episode 6 (the final ep). We'll do so, but the show just did not live up to the best of the Zwick-Herskovitz-averse. Except for "Goodbyes"--a must-see for all MSCL fans.

- Two new woman-centric sitcoms on my viewing schedule these days: The Return of Jezebel James, created by Gilmore Girls' Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Miss Guided, the ABC show featuring the wonderful Judy Greer. Fox is clearly trying to burn off the Jezebel James eps, airing them on Fridays with little fanfare. From the first two eps, I can say it is definitely not great, but it has some winning elements, including some trademark ASP laughs and a great mom character played by Dianne Wiest. But Parker Posey, usually a great presence, is just . . . odd here. MZN and I keep thinking of all the great comic TV actresses who would work better in the part, taking on Sarah's annoying quirks while still making her sympathetic. Lauren Graham, of course, but also a Jennifer Aniston, a Courtney Cox, a Judy Greer!

Which brings me to Miss Guided, which had me laughing hard enough to pause the DVR. Here's one of the promos. The brief shot of her crying, in the green Homecoming dress, was what got me (it's a longer bit in the actual episode):

Maybe I'm a sucker for anything that lovingly mocks '80s high school geekdom, but I'm thinking that Greer's Becky Freeley may be up there with Tina Fey's Liz Lemon for me as a welcome kind of relatable sitcom heroine missing from TV for too long.

- Another update on a previously mentioned show. I somewhat sheepishly admit to having continued to watch Lipstick Jungle. It's not what I'd call good, but the fact that I watch it before the other series with episodes stacked a mile high on the DVR (Grey's Anatomy, I'm lookin' at you) says something about the pleasure it must be giving me. In part, I'm pretty sure this is because of the clothes, which are FABULOUS. Here's one image of the ladies in their fabulous coats:

But I've just spent way too much time searching for pictures online. NBC's "Shopisodes" will be happy to show you more. I think I just fell deep into a target marketed hole.

But in addition to the clothes, I like the fact that these beautiful women have relatively realistic bodies and faces for their age--well, except for Lindsey Price, and I think Kim Raver looks like this because she's pregnant, but still.

- I could say more about General Hospital, especially my growing discomfort with Sarah Brown's cartoonish proportions, as well as my appreciation of her compelling acting, but some Idol results await.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An academic conference is like graduate school--but without the bad parts

I've been slowly readjusting to "normal" life after the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philadelphia last weekend. Being childless in a swank hotel in a nice city is pretty great in and of itself, but this year's conference really emphasized for me the true value of academic conferences once one is post-grad school and moving along career-wise. It seems to me that these events offer brief interludes of return to all that was good about grad school. Think about it: the intellectual stimulation of hearing people's ideas, of engaging in group discussions and debates, even of critiquing that which really does not work. While I have moments of this sort of thing in my daily professing life--during an especially good on-campus talk, or in a rousing graduate seminar--on a regular basis it really does not approach the rapid-fire grappling with ideas that makes graduate school such an exciting, exhausting, and absorbing place. To me, this general sensibility and climate outweighs my reactions to specific papers and panels. For more on those, check out my travel companion's take, and his links to others'.

Conference life also brings a social dimension that I'm now convinced gets better and better over time. After all, over time you know more and more people and have more and more life to catch up on with friends old and new. But it's a particular kind of socializing, one that carries with it that grad school kind of fun--everyone is passionate about the same kinds of things, everyone is smart, with great ideas and often great wit. Also, in terms of those friends from grad school with whom one is reunited in conference life, there is a shared bond of trial by fire, and of intellectual exploration, and of you-had-to-be-there remember-whens. Socializing with new people is also a great part of conference life, of course, just of a different variety than the old grad school pals kind.

I've had old friends on the brain lately, too, because of this being the year of a certain anniversary of my high school graduation. Either due to this or just to the expanding reach of Facebook to the rapidly aging, I've been hearing from more and more high school friends, which has been great fun. I feel tied to these people, too, though in a very different way than to the grad school folks. While it's difficult to connect the me of today with my high school cohort, the life-changing experience that is grad school (at least that it was for me) makes my connection to those I associate with that time much clearer and much more directly linked to the me of the present. I can only assume that my high school classmates feel a similar sense of both connection to and remove from me and each other. Who knew that conference life would take me back not only to grad school but to, gulp, high school as well?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Video Games Live!

So last weekend included my first, and Wisconsin's first, video games concert--Video Games Live. When I found out about this months ago, I was amused by the idea--it's a traveling show that features local symphony orchestras playing video game scores with video from games playing on the big screen backdrop--and thought it would be fun to check it out. It was fun, but fun in a sort of "I'm a tourist in an foreign land and don't really understand everything that's going on" way.

Part of my cultural difference was gender-based. There were SO MANY boys there. Yes, there were girls and women, too, but a LOT of 18-25 year old guys. Not all that surprising, of course, but quite noticeable when one is in the midst of it, albeit pleasantly so in the non-existent line to the women's bathroom. (When's the last time you attended an event where that was the case?) Sitting behind my friends and I were a particularly, um, vocal, contingent of these aforementioned attendees. Now, this was not a docile crowd. Part of the reason the show was so much fun were the impassioned responses of the crowd--yelling, hollering, riotous applause--these people were fans of the most unabashed kind, a sentiment I can well appreciate. Even if the fan expressions more familiar to me are those of the screeching and crying variety rather than of the guttural yell mode. So these guys behind us made me feel like I was getting the real, the authentic experience of the show, but also made me kind of cranky and irritated. To wit: host Tommy Tallarico yells, "Let's hear it for girl gamers!" when two teenage girls take the stage to compete in the live Frogger contest. One of the charming gentlemen behind me hollers back, "Especially the hot ones!" You get the picture.

Even as one pretty uninitiated in the gaming world, it was clear to me that this was but one segment of that world, as exemplified by the kinds of games featured, if not by the crowd. Those with Hollywood film-like scores dominated, which seemed to me to be most standard to the action and fantasy games. So no sports games, no games geared mainly to kids, no indie games. To be fair, the show was put on by the industry and so it understandably focused on the most popular games--Halo, Final Fantasy, Mario, etc.--and the audience was not complaining. Indeed, the orgasmic shouts of . . . pleasure, I guess, whenever a new game was introduced or another Japanese composer appeared on-screen were intense.

Some more specific reactions: I thought the Metal Gear Solid visuals, from cut scenes produced for the game, were amazing, really visually compelling, very much drawing upon the iconography of the Hollywood blockbuster, but in a good way--with all the emotion and drama and epic scale such imagery can carry. Two moments of intellectual property defensiveness stood out: Square-Enix's refusal to allow the show to use game footage from Final Fantasy and from Kingdom Hearts. The FF music went video-less, KH featured a montage of Disney characters. Seemed way too cutesy for the crowd, but what do I know? Native informants-OK, my one native informant--tell me that Square-Enix was holding out for the $ VGL wasn't coughing up. And the serious serious History Channel produced montage of suffering WWII-era Europeans during the Medal of Honor music seemed to me quite a stretch. This is a first person shooter war game, a bang-bang-you're dead game, dressed up to look historically significant and honoring of the civilian casualties of war? No, I haven't played it, but the VGL version seemed way too ain't-war-honorable for my tastes.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the evening was when host Tommy Tallarico (what a show biz name) busted out an electric guitar and jammed along with the orchestra. While the crowd went rock concert-wild with this, I was kind of embarrassed for the guy. He had just told us of his youthful fantasies, how he played air guitar to game soundtracks for his neighborhood pals. But then he was playing a real guitar, on a real stage, in front of thousands of screaming fans! I wondered if he'd created this whole show in order to live out this adolescent male fantasy. Yet the adoring throngs seemed to be living it through him. The same guys gathering around the Guitar Hero competition screens in the lobby before the show and during intermission seemed to want nothing more than to rock away amongst the crowd of admirers--the everyday experience of Guitar Hero in the living room made a little more public, a little more thrilling, yet, sadly, paling beside the on-stage triumph Tommy achieved. It's a good thing Tommy so happily shared his moment of glory.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

In Treatment

As you know if you are a regular reader of zigzigger, HBO's In Treatment is a major pleasure around the zig's and my midwestern bungalow these days. In addition to being a soapy treat, filled with the revelations of small gestures and expressions, laden with juicy tension, sexual and otherwise, it's also led to some provocative conversations with friends. Through a series of circumstances, some of our closest friends in MKE are psychologists, clinicians who are either university faculty or private practitioners. And their reactions to the show have been revealing of the different investments of differently positioned viewers, as well as of the curious ways in which psychologists define their relationships with clients (my friends call them clients, In Treatment's Paul calls them patients).

A central story arc of In Treatment is Paul's relationship with his patient, Laura, a woman 20 years his junior who declares her love for him early on in the series. Soon we learn that Paul, living in an unhappy marriage to his wife, played by Michelle Forbes, has some pretty hot and heavy feelings for Laura, too. This situation of "erotic transference" and "counter-transference" forms the moral, ethical, and emotional dilemma at the heart of the show. Not all of my shrink friends have watched enough of the show to offer much of an opinion on this relationship. But a recent conversation about the series made clear their inability to suspend their disbelief. They were incredibly worked up about the "bad" kind of therapy Paul offers--all that talky psychodynamic stuff (these folks are cognitive-behaviorists)--and couldn't stop talking about it at that level. When the subject of Paul's relationship with Laura arose, they really got worked up, only grudgingly admitting to the potential pleasures for viewers of the forbidden romance plot underlying the ethical dilemma Paul faces.

Their reactions to the In Treatment plot have also made me think about what seems to be a tendency amongst my psychologist friends to have very strong feelings about the inviolable lines between therapists and patients/clients--a dynamic that In Treatment mulls in really thought-provoking ways. It makes perfect sense to me that, amidst the kind of emotional discourses between therapist and patient, there can be all kinds of feelings, ideas, fantasies, etc. This is what makes IT relatable and emotionally believable, even for the non-therapized (although perhaps not for the actual therapist). Interestingly, my friends have similarly rigid takes on faculty/student dynamics. Of course, I understand the power imbalance between faculty and students and strongly believe in the importance of faculty always being cognizant of their relative power and avoiding the kinds of romantic entanglements Paul and Laura are experiencing as a result.

Yet there is also a way in which faculty/student dynamics can be like therapy, or at least like the TV version of therapy we can now watch on HBO. By this, I don't mean that the professor serves as personal counselor, though of course one finds oneself in such situations from time to time. Instead, I'm talking here about the kind of mental and, sometimes, emotional, connections that professors and students can have--connections that they should have, I think, when ideas and learning are engaging and provocative for all. Such moments can be exciting, and they can result in strong ties between all involved, whether in a one on one teaching context or in a classroom setting, in which the ties can be between peers as well as between teacher and student. Such moments and the relationships they produce can and do change people, as learning to think in new ways inevitably does. And there can be an intimacy and an emotional experience tied to that that may, in some way, approximate Laura's experience with Paul, and Paul's with her.

In the meantime, I remain captivated by the show and the ways in which it makes the smallest details of the utmost importance. As MZN has discussed on zigzigger, new camera set-ups, characters standing up, wearing their hair differently, etc. are incredibly exciting moments, and always pregnant with meaning. (Paul sitting on the couch with Laura in the 3/3 episode, slouched down, with his foot up on the coffee table?!! Amazingly revealing, given his typical posture across from the couch in the leather chair.) MZN compares this to Warhol, but I say that these are the kinds of details beloved by soap fans, used to wading through hours of boring for the smallest moments of revelation. Maybe that's another parallel to the teacher/student thing: hours of boring, not much happening, interspersed with the rare moments of big excitement when ideas click and you see new things about yourself, others, the world.