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.