Tag Archives: Lisa Schwarzbaum

Harry’s Law: flourish or fail?

One test of our knowledge of contemporary culture: can we predict whether an innovation will flourish or fail?

For the record, then, I believe Harry’s Law, the show that debuted last night on NBC, will fail.

The debut suggests I may be wrong.  Harry’s Law got at 7.5 rating / 12 share, putting it ahead of the latest hit show from CBS, Hawaii Five – O.

Harry’s Law has other advantages that should give me pause.  It has a formidable talent in the person of Kathy Bates (pictured) and it was developed and written by David E. Kelley, a guy who knows a thing or two about making hit TV. 

This show has a time-warp quality.  Harry’s Law feels as if untouched by the cable effect. The rise of HBO and the participation of TNT and USA Networks has created new standards of granularity (most recently Nurse Jackie).  TV will never work its way to perfect granularity and a one to one correspondence with the world "out there."  But the ratio is changing.  The cable effect has pushed all TV, even genre TV, to new veracity.

And by this standard, Harry’s Law feels completely "sound stage," a reality created by and for the cameras.  There is veracity here, but it corresponds to the "veracity standard" as that stood in 1990. At it’s worst, this show feels a little Murder She Wrote.

To make matters worst, there is a "crusading do-gooder" thing here that is cringe-worthy. Great and noble white people coming to the aid of defenseless black people?  How very 20th century Hollywood.  It expresses the secret racism of some parties: that the downtrodden depend on them, and their secret vanity: that when people come to the aid of the downtrodden they make themselves glorious. It feels as if Kelley is skirting that horrible Hollywood construction, the one that says the point of social action is not "social action," but the celebration of the do-gooder.  (Surely, this is why so little ever comes from the Hollywood fund raiser.  By week’s end participants have a hard time remembering the point of the event because, well, the point was to revel in their own generosity, and, hankies out, that was performed brilliantly.)

There is a deeper problem.  There are moments when this show has Kelley’s signature whimsy.  Madcap stuff happens.  Weird combinations occur.  When Kelley introduced this to TV, chiefly, I believe, through Ally McBeal, it was fresh and interesting.  Kelley is one of the originators of what Lisa Schwarzbaum calls "magical comedy."

To be sure, we still like to disparate things brought together, on the screen, on the plate, in the ad, in the fashion outfit, in the interior design.  Reckless, unexpected combinations has become one of our cultural signatures.  But we have moved away from whimsy to combinations that are more raw and to use the language of art criticism, "disturbational."  By this new standard, Harry’s Law feels like culture lite.  

Ok, that’s my prediction.  I might be wrong.  I hope I am.  I take no pleasure in the internet sport of trashing strangers.  I am not holier than David E. Kelley.  He has shaped contemporary culture in ways that deserve my admiration.  

My last prediction, that The Good Guys would fail, was confirmed.  Privately, I told a colleague that Undercovers would fail.  (She may or may not be prepared to back me up.) So I am batting 2 for 2.  We shall see how I do with this one.  


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  The Good Guys.  This Blog.  here

Schwarzbaum, Lisa. 1998.  Pleasantville.  Entertainment Weekly.  October 30.  here.

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.


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.


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