Thursday, January 31, 2008
Because of my love for all things Zwick/Herskovitzy I was so, so excited when the duo's new series, quarterlife, began its life as an internet-only series. Since then, NBC has picked up the already-produced episodes for broadcast, and I look forward to seeing them on air this February. But we've been keeping up with the online episodes, nonetheless, and I am happy to say that they've finally gotten really good, finally are beginning to live up to their producers' impressive cred.
The online eps of quarterlife range from about 7 to 14 minutes each, but these segments are clearly that--segments of hour-long TV episodes chopped up for twice-weekly internet streaming. It's a clever idea and all--finding a way to distribute a series when the nets decided not to pick it up--but it seems a bit disingenuous to call 44 minute broadcast TV episodes chopped into bits an internet series.
Just aired are the segments that make up what would be the 4th broadcast episode. Written by Devon Gummersall, also the actor who played MSCL's unrequited lover/uber-geek Brian Krakow, "Goodbyes" has all the markings of great prime time drama, and of Bedford Falls drama in particular--parallel plotlines that enrich each other in the similarities and differences of the characters' experiences, subtle dialogue that exposes character, sweet humor laced with awkwardness, Snuffy's music--just lovely and perfect.
Most perfect, however, was the story told in this episode about the growing romance between Dylan and Eric. I've liked both of these characters all along, but "Goodbyes" moved them up a notch for me into the pantheon of great Ed and Marshall couples or, better still, Ed and Marshall maybe-couples and sort-of-couples, for romance in the Bedford Falls-averse is always fraught and painful. In particular, the story of Dylan and Eric in this episode fulfills my fantasy of seeing what would happen if MSCL's Angela and Brian were to finally, actually, and really get together, a possibility only briefly hinted at in the final moments of that series. Dylan has always been an Angela-esque character and, in "Goodbyes" Eric proves himself to be the sensitive, if slightly bumbling, man that Brian always seemed he could become. Their scenes in bed make this particularly clear, but I also see it in some brief moments of this "episode":
Dylan and Eric coming inside with their bikes is sweetly reminiscent of Angela and Brian's bike straddled talks. And the moment when Dylan walks upstairs evokes for me the shot of Angela walking upstairs in the MSCL credit sequence (and taken from the pilot episode):
Too much of the early quarterlife episodes dealt with Jed and Danny's frustrated efforts to become filmmakers-- a plot way reminiscent of Michael and Elliott's story on thirtysomething, an arc I love in that show but that reads as old and boring when it features Jed and Danny. Now, however, thanks perhaps to the intervention of Brian Krakow himself, quarterlife may be becoming more My So-Called Life than thirtysomething. I always knew that Angela and Brian were destined for each other--or at least for a really awkward attempt at destiny.
Monday, January 28, 2008
That's when I found this amazing article about Anthropologie's corporate philosophy. As I read this, much as when I visited the store itself, I felt a swell of excitement and recognition: they know me! They like me! They want me to have clothes and housewares that speak to me! That I love! I also felt pretty embarrassed. Having a corporation place you so blatantly in their sights, pegging you with their psychographic babble, is more than a little creepy:
Ask anyone at Anthropologie who that customer is, and they can rattle off a demographic profile: 30 to 45 years old, college or post-graduate education, married with kids or in a committed relationship, professional or ex-professional, annual household income of $150,000 to $200,000. But those dry matters of fact don't suffice to flesh out the living, breathing woman most Anthropologists call "our friend." Senk, 46, says, "I like to describe her in psychographic terms. She's well-read and well-traveled. She is very aware -- she gets our references, whether it's to a town in Europe or to a book or a movie. She's urban minded. She's into cooking, gardening, and wine. She has a natural curiosity about the world. She's relatively fit."The big problem here is that the household income thing is a bit off, so I can covet like crazy but can never really become the Anthropologie woman so irritatingly described here. I'm sure they're happy to have aspirational consumers like me, too, who may buy from time to time even if they can't commit to regular purchases. And I can always make a slightly more affordable purchase at Urban, right? Wouldn't that be part of the psychographics, too? "She's happy to pick up an item or two at her younger sib's store, when it suits her casual-day whimsy."
While most retailers today are obsessed with the highly lucrative and populous "tween" (preteen and young teen) and boomer markets, Anthropologie has cultivated an understanding of and connection to the ultimate tweener: the thirtysomething sophisticate, once known as a Gen-Xer, who has carried her mildly rebellious, against-the-grain independence into a serious career and family life. She's defined less by static qualities and more by a set of dynamic tensions. If the tween anthem is Britney Spears's "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," the Anthropologie customer's plaint is more Alanis Morissette: "I've got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is giving the peace sign." Translation: "I can't pick up my children or sit through a meeting in low-rise jeans, but I'm not nearly ready for an elastic waistband."
The Anthropologie customer is affluent but not materialistic. She's focused on building a nest but hankers for exotic travel. (She can picture herself roughing it with a backpack and Eurail pass -- as long as there is a massage and room service at end of the trek.) She'd like to be a domestic goddess but has no problem cutting corners (she prefers the luscious excess of British cooking sensation Nigella Lawson to the measured perfection of Martha Stewart). She's in tune with trends, but she's a confident individualist when it comes to style. She lives in the suburbs but would never consider herself a suburbanite. (This is where Senk's kinship to his customer is most apparent. He had lived in cities all over the world -- London, San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia -- before settling in an elegant turn-of-the-century house in the Philadelphia garden suburb of Chestnut Hill with his partner, Anthropologie antiques buyer Keith Johnson. Says Senk: "We're city people -- we'd never dreamed of moving to the suburbs. But Chestnut Hill is sophisticated. It's like a suburb in the city.")
The Anthropologie woman is not so much conflicted as she is resistant to categorization. Her identity is a tangle of connections to activities, places, interests, values, and aspirations. She's not married with two kids: She's a yoga-practicing filmmaker with an organic garden, a collection of antique musical instruments, and an abiding interest in Chinese culture (plus a husband and two kids). It's no coincidence that Julia Roberts is the celebrity avatar of Anthropologie. Not only is she a frequent shopper (along with many of Hollywood's strongest-minded women, including Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone, and Madonna), but her bohemian-chic wardrobe in The Mexican was Anthropologie sourced.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
ABC whacked viewers on the head with its casting news when All My Children re-upped three departed actors this month and it looks like the heavy sell is now on for GH. In this case, Sarah Brown returns to the show--but in a different role than the one she originated in the mid-'90s. That role is now on its 4th actress, but Brown is appearing this time around all dark-haired (as opposed to the blonde-y Carly she last played) and mobbed up.
I admit that I totally love this promo. A second one that shows the Claudia and Sonny characters hitting the sheets was fun, but this one camps it up like crazy. Brown's Carly was paired with Sonny in her last GH gig, so long-time (or longish time) fans will get a kick out of seeing them together again. But I'm most excited to see what the interim writers, who are still a significant improvement from the regular regime, do with a woman mobster. GH's track record on this is, well, horrifying, as the last great woman mobster, Faith, was the misogynistic target of any number of sexist slurs and denigrating treatment (while male mafiosos Sonny and Jason are crowned the show's heroes). But I think Sarah Brown has too much clout to get that kind of treatment--and the writers these days actually seem to like and respect the female characters in a way we haven't seen for a long time.
Just a quick note to end: while this stunt casting seems pretty industry-wide, there have also been some high-profile firings in the soap world of late. Hard to know exactly why, but there is no question that the writers' strike is shaking things up in every way across daytime.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
As I began to research past abortion stories on soaps, I found that many seem to have fallen into the more typical patterns of this kind of storytelling in American media. The earliest such story appeared on Another World in 1964, when Pat Matthews' illegal abortion almost killed her. The first legal abortion was of course Erica Kane's on All My Children in 1973--an event the show notoriously negated in recent years when the fetus Erica thought she had aborted appeared in Pine Valley, fully grown after having been miraculously saved by the unscrupulous doctor who had performed the initial procedure. Needless to say, this "unabortion" had soap fans in a serious uproar, incensed not only at the absurd revision of history but even more so at the political ramifications of undoing this landmark event.
There have been many more soap abortion stories over the years and the process of researching them is a long and challenging one. But I have no doubt that viewers have seen some thoughtful deliberations on the part of characters they care about while watching these stories. Some surely have included subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the evils of abortion, but others, like Lulu's story, have presented much more careful consideration of the matter than we tend to get anywhere else in our popular culture.
Monday, January 21, 2008
This past fall, the networks' new practice of offering the pilots for many new series for free on iTunes greatly assisted my old practice of watching all network (and most cable) scripted series at least once. I'm still a free iTunes junkie and will watch a wider range of shows there than I might otherwise choose to record and watch. So I recently got to check in with Kyle XY again (still don't think I'm missing anything there) and got to watch the first episode of the endearing Scott Baio is 46 . . . and pregnant. As a childhood Happy Days devotee and a generally proud product of the '70s, Scott Baio is of course very close to my heart. I got a real kick out of Scott Baio is 45 and single last summer, and so was happy to get to see the next phase in Scott reality TV drama. This series is shot in the Laguna Beach/Hills model--no "confessionals," no talking head interviews--just you-are-there footage of Scott and his buds bumbling through middle age. An added bonus is that one of those buds is Jason Hervey, the actor who played Wayne Arnold, Kevin Arnold's obnoxious big brother in one of my '80s TV faves, The Wonder Years. (Hmm . . . I'm sensing something about my past preferences for nostalgia TV . . . ) So I get Chachi and Wayne--what more could a girl want? [Sometime I'll have to write about my fondness for the animated kids' show, Oswald, a fondness primarily rooted in my adoration of Fred Savage, who voices octopus Oswald and was, of course, the Wonder Years' darling protagonist.]
But I really, really digress from the iPod at the gym thing. Today I began to watch the pilot of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles while at the gym. Now, I'm not done with it yet but I like it so far--strong women characters, lots of action. There is no way the money that was put into this pilot will appear in the later episodes and I can see how the on-the-run formula might get old. But here's my secret: I like pretty much anything I watch on the iPod at the gym. I think the fact that I am watching TV that I want to watch at the same time that I am working out is just too perfect a confluence of efficiency, productivity, and pleasure to make me anything but gleeful. (Maybe this explains my pleasure in the Lost recap, too.)
That said, I do find that I especially enjoy sitcoms and other half-hour programming viewed this way. Perhaps if I had a fancy new iPod Touch or some other device with a bigger screen and a better quality image, I'd enjoy dramas more. But the bright lighting, clear sound, and easy-to-follow plots of half-hour comedies fit that little screen and my sweating self just beautifully.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
This is a clever little video that had me chuckling out loud from atop the elliptical machine at the gym the other day (thanks to one of the great additions to my life as a result of convergent media culture, the video iPod--more on that another time). As I watched, I thought how much more I like the show in this summary than I do during the episodes proper. I think this is because the recap video has a sense of humor about itself and places the series' bizarre narrative in what I think is its most fitting context--that of a pulpy, over-the-top, melodramatic yarn. I think the show works really well on this level and enjoy it as such, but I also think that it (and much of the critical discourse around it) takes itself too seriously, too self-importantly. Lost, like so many other contemporary prime time series, is trying so hard to be "quality," to be "important," to be "cinematic," that it fails to recognize its real strengths, which lie in schlockier, pulpier, more histrionic realms. Lost in 8:15 embraces such pleasures openly. It made me wish for more of the same in the series itself.
Monday, January 14, 2008
It's not as if Stewart, Leno, etc. have not be criticized for writing when they are purportedly on strike, so these shows' position as somehow acceptably in production after an interlude is complicated. I also see how the showrunner model of prime time, in which writing and producing are duties held by the same person, complicates the idea of keeping prime time shows in production with scab writers. Still, I do think there is something that reads as categorically different, both within the industry and outside it, for the soaps. I see this in the fact that prime time and film actors' refusal to cross a picket line kept the Golden Globes off the air, rather than the absence of a producer (an awards show would have separate people writing and producing). Like the Globes' potential producer, the soaps' producers are still working, as writing and producing duties are also separate in soaps, unlike in most US prime time series. And soap actors are still working--no Golden Globes-like refusals to cross lines there.
I'm not trying to be critical of soap actors' choices, just curiously asking why it is that there seems little doubt such workers will do their jobs while others, in other genres, will not. I know some soap actors have spent time on the picket lines and others have voiced public support for the writers' position. I also know that prime time and film actors have no contractual commitment to appear at something like the Globes, while soap actors are contractually committed to their shows. Still, I have a sense that the unquestioned continuation of soap production is attributable, at least in part, to the worker-bee identity assumed of soap workers of all kinds. Of course these folks would go to work, such an assumption would hold, as they are more like laborers than artists, more like clock-punchers than creatives. There are many concrete reasons why soap production continues unabated, but the cultural implications of those reasons are worth contemplating, as well.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Friday, January 11, 2008
From a storytelling standpoint, the GH situation is especially fascinating. Audiences have been EXTREMELY disgruntled with the show lately, as these criticisms of the regular head writer show. Now, the internet has made the grumbling of soap fans especially amplified, but the level of vitriol on the part of fans seems stronger than ever to me these days. I myself am religiously devoted to the show--I've probably missed only a handful of episodes over 26 years--and have been so, so unhappy with it lately. The detailed reasons why are too involved to explain in full here, but some of these include storytelling that moves very quickly and without much narrative logic, little to no time on character development, such that it is difficult to understand the characters' motivations for anything they do, and a disturbing amount of misogyny.
That is, until the fi-core writing began. Granted, I've only seen a few days of this so far but . . . I kinda like it. I need to watch more before I figure out exactly why--and see if this impression holds--but the show has incorporated humor again, something sorely lacking of late; it has humanized characters (I'm thinking here primarily of Ric Lansing, for those familiar with the show) whose traits had previously seemed entirely plot-dictated (bad guy one day, without a clear motivation, good guy the next); and, most importantly, I think it has been taking the time to give us scenes about little more than characters interacting, or thinking about one another, or having experiences that are revealing of them as characters but not especially focused on plot development. If indeed this is the case--and I do need more time to be sure--I'm certain it is a deliberate strategy to stretch things out, to fritter away some time until the "real" writing resumes. But it has taken me back to some of the things I've always liked best about soaps, and about my soap and its characters in particular. I like just wandering around their world, knowing it intimately.
I've always said that my favorite days on GH are holidays because on those days nothing really happens. Lots of characters are on and they hang out and celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving or the 4th of July. Sure, they talk about things related to the current stories, but these days are typically just about spending time with my TV friends. I'm starting to think it might be Christmas every day on GH for a awhile.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Gloria Steinem in the NY Times
Chuck at the Chutry Experiment
Monday, January 7, 2008
Dumbo is the story of a baby elephant with extremely large ears. When his mama, Jumbo, tries to protect baby Dumbo (she names him Jumbo, Jr., but others dub him Dumbo to mock his unusual appearance) from some bullies who pick on him, the circus-runners lock her up, labeling her a "Mad Elephant." Dumbo is left to fend for himself, until an entrepreneurial mouse named Timothy befriends him and, eventually, helps him learn how to fly, using the prodigious ears as wings. Once Dumbo can fly, he becomes the star of the circus, is universally beloved, and is reunited with Mama Jumbo, who now gets the royal treatment as mother of the circus star.
Leo was initially devastated by this story. He sobbed at Dumbo's torment, at Jumbo being chained up, at mama and baby being separated. I repeatedly offered to turn the movie off and kept assuring him all would be well in the end, but he insisted on continuing to watch. Eventually, I managed to fast-forward a bit to get to the happy ending and Leo calmed down. Michael and I were amazed at the depths of Leo's emotion and his comprehension of the story, but also rather upset at Leo's distress.
The next day, Leo asked to watch the movie again. We talked about how it made him feel and he assured me that he still wanted to watch it, that he knew he would feel sad for some of it, but that he knew all would end happily. So we watched it again. Still emotional, not as dramatically so, but we watched the whole thing this time and Leo has told us ever since how much he likes the movie.
Was my little boy enjoying the intense emotional ride that a powerful narrative can offer? Or was he having to deal with a story beyond his ability to cope? I worried, as well, about the racist representations throughout the film, from the blank-faced, black-skinned workers singing about their submission to the hard work of putting up the circus tent to the minstrel performance of the black crows (including one named J. Crow) who help Dumbo learn to fly. Leo seemed to have no awareness of the racial dimension; in general, he seems to notice differences in skin color interchangeably with differences in eye color or hair color and seems to find little relevance in any of it, but I worried about the extent to which the film's representations of blackness would participate in shaping his future awareness of race.
Still, the more pressing question for me (as a white person, no doubt) was the emotional impact of Leo's experience. I think of my consumption of all kinds of narratives as being primarily about the emotional experience they offer me. I want to experience the emotional highs and lows of characters; this is the source of much of my narrative pleasure. Leo seemed to be saying he was getting the same thing from Dumbo. Had I just introduced my son to the profound pleasures of narrative, then, or had I given him a traumatic experience beyond his years?
I know how Mama Jumbo felt; protecting your baby ain't easy as he discovers the pains and pleasures of the world.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Over the last few years, I've been working on transferring all of these tapes to DVD. It is still, of course, an imperfect archival medium, but schlepping boxes and boxes of tapes from move to move was seeming more and more ridiculous with the streamlined world of DVD there for the taking. I have reluctantly disposed of the VHS tapes as I've gone along, but it is always a bit painful to let them go. The dubbing project is going somewhat slowly, in large part because I'm always doing some sort of over-the-air archiving at the same time. My biggest ongoing over-the-air effort is saving all of the Ryan's Hope episodes airing on Soapnet (the channel runs the soap's episodes from its debut in 1975 to the end of 1981. Though RH aired until 1989, I have been told that music rights issues keep Soapnet from airing the post-'81 eps). But I've been archiving lots of other soap material, as well, and have saved full or nearly full runs of various prime-time series, too.
All of this may seem somewhat futile and old-fashioned in an age of YouTube and TV-on-DVD, but so much material remains unavailable in these formats, so much of it still seems fleeting (on YouTube today, gone tomorrow), and so much of it is partial (either clips of episodes or less than full runs of series) that I remain a tenacious archivist. I seem to get more and more serious about this as I get older. Perhaps it is nostalgia for the past; perhaps it is an inherent suspicion of new technologies; perhaps it is just experience that has taught me how devalued most TV still is.
The best part of these efforts has been my simultaneous creation of a video catalog that allows me to find whatever I need quickly and easily, and that gives me a collectors' geeky pride whenever I look at it. I'm getting close to having a thousand disks (most of which have from 2 to 13 TV episodes on them) and this darn catalog is as much a point of pride for me as is my book, or my child (OK, OK, I'm pretty much kidding there, but I do love my Excel spreadsheet beyond reason). To love a thing like television is to be protective of it--little boxes on a spreadsheet and a line-up of disc carrying cases is one of the best ways I know to preserve a piece of my own connection to the tube.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
The blondification of these gorgeous brunettes is a crime. Stop the highlighting!
Also on the soap front is this exciting new promo for Guiding Light's new shooting style (also to be used on P&G's other soap As the World Turns):
This cheaper production mode is looking mighty good here. In a time of great threat to the soaps' survival (not just the writers' strike but declining ratings all around), there are some fascinating instances of creativity and innovation at work. I don't think that the soaps are bound for extinction, as some have predicted, but change is definitely afoot. With so much of it for worse, I'm hoping that P&G's experiment in borrowing reality TV-style shooting is as promising as it appears here.