8/29/16: sextastrophe

If you’ve been watching BrainDead, which I highly praised in my review earlier this year, then you sadly know that politics at this point isn’t really much more than a horror show. BrainDead‘s been on point with all of its parallels and suggestions for why America’s become so divisive and rhetorically (and actually) violent, but this week’s episode could not have been more prescient, since it focuses on Luke Healy, a brilliant politician who cannot get over his crippling sex addiction. Perhaps this reminds you of today’s lengthly smears and screeds about Anthony Weiner’s latest leaked series of sexts and his wife’s subsequent announcement of separating from him: here’s another politically smart and largely independent man again brought down by his inability to control himself, which is a shame, because his private life (and privates) really have nothing to do with his wife’s competency nor his political views, but instead, they’re used by the opposition to attack and weaken both.

But what fascinates me the most about this incident is how crazy some people have gone because of the contents of one photo–that is, the fact that Weiner’s son is in the background of one of the shots. Perhaps we would have otherwise ignored this; many of us seemed immunized to the infelicities and indiscretions of his second set of infidelities. Instead, like the horror sequel that this is, the media has turned to “gorier” new details in order to get our goats; they understand that they need to somehow keep our attention fixed on an otherwise familiar sight that we’d otherwise tune out.

We’re clearly not, as a people, better than this, though I wish that we were. Continue reading

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8/3/16: litigation-free spoilers for the walking dead, season seven

I find it absurd that, according to Entertainment Weekly, AMC has “threatened litigation” against a fan site that was seeking to post spoilers about the cliffhanger. If we’re talking screenshots from a leaked episode, excerpts from a stolen script, or images from the closed set, then I can understand the need to protect their intellectual property. But if we’re simply talking about speculating–whether it’s informed by on-set leaks or not–then there seems, to me, to be no harm in it. Let’s not forget that AMC is the network responsible for popularizing post-show talkback shows, and while theirs might be “official,” they don’t have a right to dictate how fans of the show go about discussing what may have happened. The showrunner, Scott Gimple, suggests that this is to “preserve the audience’s experience,” and yet there are plenty of people who watch things despite having had them spoiled–take, for instance, anybody who watches the film adaptation of a popular book. Creators don’t get to determine what the audience experience is, and the more they seek to reduce our participation, the likelier they are to face blowback or rebellion–the water-cooler chatter is what made Lost popular, not the other way around.

So, out of fear, respect, and defiance, here’s a list of spoilers for the upcoming season that I’d just like to see them try to sue me for.

  1. We learn that Negan’s barbed-wire-wrapped bat is nicknamed Rosebud, after a childhood sled that his mother gave him, and which represents the more innocent time that he longs for, even though it cuts into him the harder he grasps at it.

  2. It is revealed that Daryl sees dead people. The twist is that he’s actually not the only person who can see them.
  3. Glenn doesn’t really exist; it’s just been Maggie the whole time. She made him up so that she could better cope with the zombified commercial world around her.
  4. Rick discovers the severed head of the Statue of Liberty and realizes they’re actually on Earth. But in an autistic child’s snowglobe. On an island. And he’s Carl’s father.

Where Have All the Viewers Gone?

Josef Adalian and Leslie Shapiro have assembled a great data chart over at Vulture that compares network shows from the 2014-2015 season to their most recent 2015-2016 incarnations, and they mull over what could be causing that.

After reviewing those numbers, though, I have to admit that I’m only really depressed by how iZombie and The Last Man on Earth are declining, which suggests that the original, catchy premises simply aren’t catching on with viewers, even though the writing has improved. Moreover, it also suggests that shows that are predominantly plot-driven have nowhere to go once they burn off (or drag out) their initial mysteries. I’m tuning into The Blacklist out of respect to James Spader, not a fascination with the serial story; once you’ve heard the anachronistic banter from Ichabod Crane on Sleepy Hollow, is there really anything else to see?

The shows with longevity, then, must be those to which viewers form an attachment to the characters/actors, such that they’re willing to forgive the plots that are simply excuses that allow us to hang out with them through the television screen. Survivor is down presumably because it’s repeating gimmicks (Beauty vs. Brain vs. Brawn 2) and on identical-seeming islands, whereas The Amazing Race keeps showing new locations, which helps to keep everything else chugging along.

Reinvention, then, is the key. Perhaps that’s why The 100 is doing better–or, then again, maybe it’s just because the base for that show was smaller to begin with, and all of these shows have a certain baseline of, say, eight million viewers that they can appeal to, assuming that they can actually reach them. It’s not just a matter of establishing an audience first; that’s helped Arrow and The Flash, but it’s done nothing for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, which suggests that writing and acting is critical, too.

Maybe the answer, then, really is in limited and/or anthology series, in which we can invest in writers and actors, but don’t have to sit through a dragged out story. As with British television, it’s a lot easier to sink into 6 to 10 episodes of a heavily serialized program than it is to slog through the standard 22 that we get for a show like Scandal. (Netflix and Amazon provide us with roughly 13 episodes at a time, but let us set our own pace.) In this way, we can have our reliable standards, but also try out new things. It’s the difference between a tasting menu and a buffet.
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Readings: The President We Deserve

Noreen Malone wrote an article for New York magazine called “Oh, And He Is Also Driving Some Liberals Crazy,” about Donald Trump. You can find it in the 3/7/16-3/20/16 issue. The main takeaway is that we all created and incubated Trump–this isn’t just on Fox News alone, nor the populist Tea Party. Colbert, as did we all, joked about Trump’s zero-percent chances of winning the primary, which made us all eager to tune in and see what he’d do or say next. (Think Bulworth.) But part of this was out of genuine delight in hearing actual honesty out of a politician–even if it was abhorrent. As Malone writes:

For the past 40 years, even as candidates have moved toward greater levels of narcissism and power-seeking, they’ve also moved toward greater precision in their narratives, in their sound bites, in their adherence to lawyerly correctness and deadly carefulness. A news cycle that hungrily fed on “gaffes” seemed to guarantee that only personality-free robots who made the fewest unforced errors would ever become the nominee.

That’s not entirely true, if you look at Bush triumphing over Gore, but it at least hints as to why Trump might have been entertaining–at first. But then Malone continues:

Trump’s directness, his ridiculousness, his often spot-on and fascinating cruelty–he’s the star of a premium-cable show about a billionaire-populist anti-hero running for president, one we loved until we realized it couldn’t be turned off. Now the question becomes: How do you feel when real life is adapted from television, rather than the reverse?

This is what terrifies us. As in Idiocracy, we’re on the verge of voting for a cult of personality, for dumb spectacle and brash, unsupportable ideas, as opposed to actual governance. We distrust intelligence, because the truth is that the majority of us are petty, not-smart people, and–as one person suggested as a justification of all the various negative -isms out there–when we realize our own shortcomings, we love to see that there’s at least one other person lower on the rung than we are. There’s a person on my Facebook feed (a friend of a friend, thankfully), who insists that Trump must be elected on account of a single political issue–Clinton and Sander’s apparent support of partial-birth abortions (which is less about the thing itself and more about the wording of the laws that have tried to stop it, and the slippery slope that comes of restricting choice). Nobody cares about next season–we’re living from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and there’s always an even worse Big Bad hiding in the wings, should we manage to dispatch Trump.

Before they were popularized in the media, vampires used to be traditionally dispatched by sunlight–the idea being that no evil could stand being exposed to the pure good of the day. True Blood let vampires skirt that with fairy magic, The Vampire Diaries created magical daylight rings, etc. Trump’s a political vampire being kept aloft by the magical thinking of monomaniacal supporters; expose his lies and weaknesses and he simply keeps moving. The only way to beat bad television is to stop watching, and yet the worst, lowest-denominator shows seem to keep being renewed. (Thanks, Chuck Lorre!)

Be prepared to welcome our first Television President into the White House. Why couldn’t it have been Jed (Bartlet)?

The Trope of Calling Out Tropes

I’ve never shied away from expressing my distaste for some of the exaggerated language used by Polygon’s editorial staff, much as I admire their overall work. (Disclosure: My disagreements with them have resulted in me being banned from commenting on their site; make of that what you will.)

Here’s a peak example of how Polygon creates an attack-based narrative, taking a simple bit of reportage on angry fans from The 100 (spoilers will follow) and making a conclusion about how the show’s writers have inappropriately or lazily handled their characters:

Fans were also upset because Lexa’s death falls into the archaic trope of having one character in a gay or lesbian relationship killed off, never allowing for the same happy ending that a heterosexual couple would enjoy. The trope, sometimes known as “bury your gays,” has been around in fiction for quite some time.

This trope may be accurate. It may be worth writing about. But in the context of The 100, which currently has no happy relationships for any couple, it’s utter nonsense. This doesn’t discredit the frustration that fans rightfully may feel that a beloved character was killed off, but it’s inflammatory to assume that this is a mere trope. Watch enough genre dramas, and you’ll understand that the likelihood of any couple staying together without a messy breakup (at best) or a “horrible” death is unlikely, because stasis and happiness are antithetical to the massive plot twists and shakeups that are the meat-and-potatoes of shows like The 100. Lexa didn’t die because she was gay; this isn’t some sort of subconscious “warning” to viewers of what might happen to them. She died because she’s living on post-apocalyptic Earth, and that’s what happens.

The widespread saturation of the trope has created a media environment where gay couples who get to stay together without one or the other of them dying a horrible death are vanishingly rare.

I’d argue that it’s the opposite: that we’ve created a media environment where innocuous narrative devices and conventions are now picked apart for some sort of broader story, even when evidence of a smoking gun isn’t there. Just look at the exaggeration here: Lexa didn’t die a horrible death. She was accidentally shot by one of her most loyal supporters, a man unfamiliar with how to use a gun. If there’s any laziness here, it’s that this death echoes a famous one from the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If anything, this episode should be irritating supporters of the NRA, since it suggests that gun use should be restricted solely to those who actually understand how to handle a weapon.

And yes, I mourn “the death of a prominent gay character” given the fact that there aren’t “many other characters like them” for audiences to turn to. That’s a problem. But an equally large problem would be the defensive trope of the Invincible Fan Favorite: a tipping point at which certain “unique” characters on a show can’t be killed off because diversity or representation is more important than grim reality. Would The Walking Dead have been a better show if it had killed Daryl in the first season, and not T-Dog? It sort of makes a show less interesting when you know which characters won’t be killed, and some of the most effective on-screen losses have come entirely out of left-field, when we felt most secure (Serenity).

It’s good that the fans are pushing to have more awareness for the LGBTQ community, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of The 100‘s narrative freedom, and I wish that Polygon’s reportage of this wasn’t so one-sided and lazy in assuming that this was nothing more than an insensitively executed trope.

 

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