Tag Archives: Entertainment Weekly

From scarcity to abundance, the new creative surpluses on TV

22b3d3da86aef9a2ea7ab5c038ec6c15Spoiler alerts for:  
Game of Thrones
Luther, Homeland
The Good Wife
House of Cards
Nashville, Scandal
Arrow, Teen wolf

Rest in peace:

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) on Game of Thrones

DS Riply (Warren Brown) on Luther

Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland

Will (Josh Charles) on The Good Wife

Zoe (Kate Mara) on House of Cards

Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and Lamar (Powers Boothe) on Nashville

James (Dan Bucatinsky) on Scandal

Moira (Susanna Thompson) on Arrow

Allison (Crystal Reed) on Teen Wolf

The characters of TV are falling.  No one is safe.  Zoe on House of Cards appeared to be a character so dear to our hearts, so embedded in the HoC narrative, she was safe from harm.  This made her death on a subway platform in the first episode of the new season especially shocking.

The old convention was clear.  TV was bound by a contract.  Once the audience had connected to a character, once we had identified with that character, the character got a pass.  Nothing bad could ever happen to them.  They were safe from harm.  Especially on a subway platform.  Well, everywhere really.

But now that so many of these TV characters are dying, something is clearly up. Melissa Maerz of Entertainment Weekly sees dark motives.  She believes that shows use these deaths as a way to goose ratings and build buzz.  These deaths, she suggests, may be  “gimmicks.”

Maybe.  We could look at this another way.  In the old TV, characters represented an investment and an achievement.  In spite of its creaky, often predictable mechanics and talent shortages, TV  managed to make a creature we found credible.  Life was created.  (Even if it did resemble the work of Dr. Frankenstein.)

In fact, writers weren’t all the good at creating new characters.  And we, as viewers, weren’t all that good at grasping these characters.  This was, after all, an era of creative scarcity.  In this world, characters got a pass not for humane reasons, but because they were triumphs against the odds.  Once we writers and viewers had conspired to cocreate a character, whew, job done, and let’s not put this miracle at risk.

But these days, show runners and writers are less like Dickensian accountants, and more like drunken lords of endless liberality.  “You don’t like that character, well and good.  How about this one?  Want another?  I’ll work something up over lunch.”  The new creative potentiality on tap in TV is virtually depthless.

Why?  Better writers have come to TV.  All writers have more creative freedom.  Every show runner is eager to take new risks.  They recruit the writers who can help them do so.   Actors are demanding new and juicier roles.  The industry is a little less an industry and now a creative community, where the depths of talent are so extraordinary something fundamental has changed.  This world (and our culture) has gone from one of scarcity to one of plenty.

And we viewers are helping.  We got better too.  We are smarter, more alert, better at complexity, unfazed by novelty, and apparently, so possessed of new cognitive gifts that you can throw just about anything at us and we will rise to the occasion.

We viewers may once have struggled to master the complexities of a show, and resented anyone who taxed us with new characters.  Now that’s part of the fun.  Throw stuff at us.  We can handle it.  Indeed, increasingly, we demand it.  Viewers are happy to meet new characters and see what they bring to existing and emerging narratives.

Perhaps killing off characters is not a gimmick after all.   This might be a way TV manages to keep itself fresh and engage the new cognitive gifts of their viewers.

This is one of the things we can expect to happen as popular culture becomes culture.   TV was once the idiot brother of literature, of theater, of cinema, of the Arts.  No self-respecting writer wanted to go there.

Then, quite suddenly, they did.  (I think of David Milch as Writer Zero, the first man of astonishing talent to buck the trend and make the transition.)  And in the 35 years since Milch made the move, many have followed.  These days just about everyone is banging on the door.  Even people who thought they wanted to write for Hollywood.  And this takes us from that “make-do” model that prevailed on both sides of the camera.  (TV did the best with what it had, and viewers made do with the best they could find.)  Over 35 years, we have seen the death of good-enough TV.

As the migration of talent continues, everything changes.  Creative scarcity gives way to creative abundance.  Pity the shows that have yet to get the memo.  And watch, ultimate spoiler alert, for more of your favorite characters to die.   With our new creative surpluses, there are more where they came from.  Plenty more.

Big Bang Theory Theory (you should have one)

6486b283fb6900b4f3bea3d15906069bThe Big Bang Theory represents one of  the big puzzles for the student of popular culture.  It brings in 23 million viewers at a time when most shows would be happy to have half that number.

Big puzzles are important.  They represent anomalies so large and powerful that everyone is forced to pay attention.  In this superbly fragmented intellectual moment, they give us a problem in common.  Everyone should have a The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) theory (TBBTT).  

TBBTT can serve as a sorting device.  Searching for a question to ask a grad school candidate?  This is perfect.  “Tell me  why The Big Bang Theory is a success.” Either you have a good, interesting, original, powerful and nuanced answer.  Or you don’t.

In a recent Entertainment Weekly, Amanda Dobbins canvassed a number of experts to construct an answer to the The Big Bang Theory puzzle.  She captures several explanations.

1.  Casting: great, veteran actors (Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper)
2.  Prized Time Slot: Thursday night
3.  CBS Factor:  Les Moonves is a genius
4.  Demographic reach of the show: loved by young and old
5.  Catchphrase: “Bazinga” allows TBBT to live outside the show
6.  Setting: the “French farce” advantages of the apartment house
7.  Setting: extraordinary efficacy of that couch as a comic platform
8.  Multi-camera format: and the intimacy it makes possible
9.  Pacing: Goldilocks’ perfection: not too brisk, not too slow
(this is a partial list)

I would have liked to have seen more on Chuck Lorre.  There can’t be any question that he’s a comic genius.  His gifts were on full display in Two and a Half Men but that show was loathed by some for the unapologetic low-brow, frat-boy, bro-ness of its humor.

And it’s almost as if Lorre was saying, “What, you think my humor depends on pandering to the lowest common denominator of male humor?  I can make anyone funny, even egg-head, anti-bros.  Just watch me.”  The Big Bang Theory may have been his “proof of genius” exercise.  Mission accomplished.

And I wanted more on the Sheldon Cooper character.  He is a deeply obnoxious human being.  And Dobbins notes how effective “monsters” can be for comedic purposes.  I wonder if the Parsons character doesn’t have Archie Bunker range.  We laugh at him.  We laugh with him.  We laugh at him and with him.

This would give the character his demographic breadth.   But it would also allow him to go to the heart of some of the issues, some of the contradictions, of our moment, and make them active, thinkable, graspable…not because Parson/Cooper resolves them as contradictions but because he lives them as contradictions…or we live them as viewers.  This is a moment when we have seen the cultural center of gravity move from heroic males to brainy ones, from creatures of mastery to creatures who are effective and influential in spite of (and some times because of) their social disabilities and eccentricities.  Sheldon Cooper may speak to some of the puzzles in our midst.

Finally, for me, and for all its virtues, the Dobbins’ treatment helps heighten the mystery.  All these factors seem right, but they don’t explain the success of this show.  Let’s be clear.  TBBT is a semiotic, political, cultural, entertainment miracle.  Mass media in the twilight of mass media.  A big show with extraordinary reach in an era where virtually every other show is smaller and more narrow in its appeal.  TBBT has bucked every trend, defied every tendency.  Explain this and other mysteries are perhaps revealed!

What is your TBBTT?

Bibliography

Find Dobbins’ essay here.

Fred Armisen and the mysteries of culture and creativity

Fred_ArmisenThis is a lovely puzzle.

Fred Armisen is very good at making comedy, on SNL and more recently on Portlandia.

But he can’t always tell what’s going to work.

Here he is in an Entertainment Weekly interview making the puzzle clear.

Sometimes you do [a sketch] that’s good on paper and all the elements are there, but for some reason when you watch it, you can see … it doesn’t make it. We did this one where we’re both ambulance drivers. […] It seemed like such a good idea on paper; we were so excited about it. But it just didn’t work. Things that seem clear to us in our mind, sometimes when they’re on the screen you’re like, ”What is happening? What am I looking at?”

This is very interesting anthropologically.  Most of the time, Armisen is right.  A sketch works as well in practice as it did in concept.  But every so often it just doesn’t work.  Actually, it fails so badly  Armisen  ends up asking, “What am I looking at.”  It seems pointless.  Dead.

A magic ingredient  is missing.  The ghost in the machine.  The god in the details.  The spirit in the sketch.  Or something.  And that’s the puzzle: what’s that something?

Photo courtesy of Tammy Lo http://www.flickr.com/photos/tammylo/240569810/

from Lady Gaga to eternity: how to navigate an expanding cultural universe

We have a crisis on our hands.  There is so much culture, and so much new culture, that navigating culture is extremely difficult.  

Some months ago, Entertainment Weekly came up with a great idea.  They created a kind of equivalency table that says, if you like X, you may well like Y.

Here’s an example.

We could go further.  How about maps of culture that lead us from the center we like to the many peripheries we might like?  

Here’s a visual generated by a Mac app called Daisy Disk designed to read your hard drive. I use it here to map not a drive but a culture.

Imagine this as a map of cultural possibilities.  The center that nows reads 220.3 GB would be Lady Gaga. And the extenuating circles and colors could take us away from Lady Gaga to music that has LGish properties.  Each color would take you in a different musical direction.  Here periphery would take you further from the Lady Gaga original.  And each discrete space would represent a distinct act, band, album, artist by relative popularity.

Culture becomes navigable!  Now we can use what we know to know more.  

Justin Theroux, culturematic

The old career path was simple.  

Fix on an objective.  Commit body and soul.  Keep your eyes on the prize.  Stay at it.

No experimenting with other options.  No idle curiosity.  No putzing around.  In sum, no career wanderlust.  

Make a choice.  Stick with it.  

But for some Hollywood stars, this has changed.

Take the case of Justin Theroux.  He’s the one in the poster to the right (bottom row, far left).

Theroux wrote Tropic Thunder, Iron Man 2, and stars in the new comedy Wanderlust.  He also dates Jennifer Aniston (bottom row, second from the left).  

Rottenberg of Entertainment Weekly says:

More the most actors, Theroux is a moving target, bouncing between small roles and big ones, art films and blockbusters, dramas and comedies, TV and film.  ”I’ve had the most unpredictable career path — it’s really a career stumble,” says the actor, 40.

We have seen this pattern before.  In Culturematic, I write about the case of James Franco, an actor famous for trying a wide variety of roles and educational programs, all of this at the height of his career.

In Culturematic (out in May!), I compare Franco to Bethenny Frankel.  Both Franco and Frankel are experimental, trying a variety of things.  Whereas Frankel exhibits a simple opportunism, Franco appears to give us something broader.  Here’s what I say in the book.  

The point of Franco’s explorations is not celebrity. Indeed, he appears almost in flight from celebrity. More probably, his motive is curiosity. In the old Hollywood, stardom brought the actor a kind of completion. Nowadays, for some actors, it is seen to close off options and experiences the actor cares about. Franco doesn’t know what he needs to be an actor or a person. And he doesn’t know what he needs to know to stop being an actor. So he needs to find what’s “out there.”

For most of us this sort of thing would be take as a symptom of indecision, perhaps a refusal to commit.  For Hollywood stars, some of them anyhow, it’s a way of doing business.

Both Theroux and Franco have turned their careers into culturematics.  They are using it to search the world for options.  They are prepared to risk a certain blurriness of image to surface options that are otherwise hard to see.  There are to this extent treating their careers, once so simple and well defined, as adaptive exercises.  

This really was a bad idea when Hollywood was a simpler place, when ours was a simpler culture.  But now that our culture is so various and unpredictable, now that Hollywood is a more complicated, less scrutable place, it makes sense to do a career “stumble” as Theroux calls it.  This is an excellent way to discover and make contact with possibilities that would otherwise be invisible.  

First quote: Rottenberg, Josh.  2012.  It’s Time You Got to Know Justin Theroux. Entertainment Weekly.  February 24.  (I can’t find this article on line.  Sorry!)  

Second quote: McCracken, Grant.  2012.  Culturematic.  Harvard Business Review Press. (To be published May 15, 2012.  You may preorder from Amazon by clicking HERE.)

Charlie Sheen and why some celebrities act all crazy and everything

Ain’t no going back.  You can’t get unfamous.  You can get infamous.  But you can’t get unfamous.  Dave Chappelle

I was reading the Entertainment Weekly coverage of Charlie Sheen, and thinking about how many stars flame out.  The head shaving, the shop lifting, the outbursts, the throwing things, the ranting and raving.

There must be as many reasons for this behavior as there are celebrities.  But what if there’s a secret motive?

Maybe some of these people want to stop being famous.  

It’s hard for the non-famous to imagine this. Wealth, glamor, adulation, media coverage. What’s not to like?  

But of course the costs are high.  You give up your privacy.  You give up amiable for adulation. You take on a team that must be fed, a lifestyle that must be maintained.  But the real cost might be: you can’t leave.  Fate has claimed you.  You have lost your mobility.  You can’t go home again.  Actually, you can’t even leave the house.  

This would explain how strange these outbursts are.  Celebrities believe themselves to be as gods.  So when they tire of celebrity, I expect they believe they can just up and go.  And it’s here that they begin to glimpse the truth of Dave Chappelle’s comment above.  They are struck.

This is why it goes steadily from bad to worse.  They begin with small acts of rebellion. Attempts to scale the wall.  And those don’t work.  They try a little more bad behavior and this too leaves the door closed.  It’s not very long before they are using their talent for drama and very considerable ingenuity to see if they can just get the f*ck out of here.  

This would explain why the crisises are so public.   I mean, celebs have the money and the staff to contain or conceal their moments of difficulty.  Things find there way into Entertainment Weekly precisely because eventually that’s the very point of the exercise: is to evade the controlling power of this money and this staff.  Celebs are looking for anything that works.  

The Chappellian revelation must be a moment of pure terror.  This beautiful garment is actually a trap.  It went on so easily.  It looks so stunning.  It became you until you became it. Now it won’t come off. Now it’s time to panic. All that wealth, profile and adulation you worked so hard to get…

In their heart of heart, celebrities continue to believe in their talent and their ingenuity. Surely, they just have to work a little harder.  There has to be some way out of here.  What if I steal this piece of costume jewelry.  That should do it.  No?  What if I go on top of a building with a megaphone.  No?  Ok, what if I …   

By the time we get the news, the celeb is deep into the Chappellian cycle.  They’ve tried A and B and are now working their way to M and N.  It looks to us like they have boarded the crazy train, but in fact this is merely the last stages of a rational undertaking.  Celebrities are producing crazy behaviors only because the rational ones will not pan out.  And they are trapped.

In an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio.  Rebroadcast on Bravo, December 18, 2006.

The Pleasures of EW

It’s clear to me now.  The point of some Hollywood movie and TV production is to give the staff at Entertainment Weekly something to write about. The movies and TV shows don’t really matter.  The reviews, these are the point of all those deal making, casting, shooting, producing, agenting.  The movie or TV show is really just an accident of the process.  Really, all this takes place to occasion EW coverage.   (It’s an expensive way to go about it, but that’s American culture for you.)

Listen as Lisa Schwarzbaum damns the latest effort by Halle Barry with feigned excitement and sly criticism:

Something awful happened to young Frankie back in 1950s Georgia to make her so broken; it’s just a matter of time, flashbacks, many costume and accent changes, some more jazz and a triggering tune on the radio before the truth can set Frankie, and the audience, free.

Owen Gleiberman:

Darren Aronofsky’s backstage ballet thriller, Black Swan, is lurid, voluptuous, pulp fun, with a sensationalistic fairy-tale allure.

Ken Tucker on Men of A Certain Age:

[T]he achievement of this series is that it makes middle-aged failure so energetically entertaining.

Leah Greenblatt.

No other major pop diva seems to enjoy surrendering her vanity to the pure fun of video-making quite like Pink does (or, really, at all).

And then there are the anonymous writers of the magazine.  They write with a knowing air, as if to say, "surely, popular culture makes insiders of us all."  There is something familiar about their tone.  And I guess we should take this as an anthropological miracle, because they don’t know us and of course we don’t know them.  Perhaps not so miraculous.  After all, we and then have popular culture in common, and that’s a lot to have in common because popular culture is our culture, plain and simple.  

Ditch the adjective and let’s get on with it.  

Wahlberg and Co were one of the biggest boy bands ever.  And NKOTB are currently prepping for a summer North American concert tour that would totally make us hyperventilate…if this were 1989.

References

Anonymous.  2010.  They’re with the band.  Entertainment Weekly.  December 10, p. 96.

Greenblatt, Leah.  2010.  Pink "Raise your glass."  Entertainment Weekly.  December 10, p. 105

Schwarzbaum, Lisa.  2010.  Frankie and Alice.  Entertainment Weekly.  December 10.  p. 90.

Tucker, Ken. 2010.  Men of a Certain Age.  Entertainment Weekly.  December 10, p. 95.

Apologies

I am on the road and don’t have time enough to find an image or links.