tv shows

I Tortured Myself with the Pilot of ABC’s “Selfie” and it’s Even Worse Than You Think

selfie

Alex Russell

I don’t even know where to start with this. I wasn’t really excited for any new TV coming out, so I checked out all of the A.V. Club’s preview of fall TV. Their review of ABC’s Selfie intrigued me. They said “The sitcom wants to be a critique and exploration of selfie culture—and the vapidity it breeds. However, it comes off more as a scathing and heavy-handed mess that at times teeters into slut-shaming territory.”

Yikes, right? I’m not really a big fan of bad TV that’s just boring or stupid, I only want to watch it if it’s a full-on tire fire. I watched Rob Schneider’s Rob for a previous blog and I thought nothing could ever take that show’s spot as The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Watched, but ABC absolutely demands to be in the conversation with the pilot for Selfie.

You can watch it online (don’t) before it debuts in two weeks, but you should also prepare yourself for the commercials. I don’t know what they’re going to find to clip out of this to make this seem funny, so it’s mostly going to be poor Karen Gillan screaming “Instagramification!” at you.

I guess we should start with the premise. Karen Gillan plays Eliza, and Eliza, like, totally doesn’t get the “offline” world. She only cares about selfies and likes, and she doesn’t care about your dumb business meeting, or whatever. The character is so far off the deep end that it’s not even funny anymore, like if a stand up comic was trying to do five jokes at the same time. There are so many buzz words it feels like the writers are terrified that if they don’t consistently remind you that they “get it” that you’ll lose interest. It feels desperate.

It starts absurd with a gross-out puke scene on a plane that contains the following real, not-at-all-made-up-by-me phrases:

  • “Panic pudding” (this is “puke” of course, because why wouldn’t it be ugh ugh ugh)
  • “Grindr’s remorse” (god damn you ABC)
  • “Gif yourself through this” (GO TO WORD JAIL.)

“Gif yourself through this” alone is one of the most horrifying zeitgeist grabs I’ve ever heard. In another context, it would be a biting satire of our tech-obsessed culture, and I have to assume that’s what they’re going for, here. I’m certain ABC wants to have it both ways and to successfully make something people view as both a celebration of and a mockery of the same thing. It didn’t work for me. It really did not work for me.

Things get worse when her boss, who totally does care about your business meeting and stuff, shows up. John Cho plays Henry, the super-serious, no-fun-at-all businessman character who needs to convince Eliza to put down her phone and care about What Really Matters. It’s a classic pairing of fun vs. serious that honestly may work better as the series goes on. In the pilot, he’s out to prove to her that she needs to learn everything he knows — after she says “if you don’t like me, then change me” which is repulsive — and she responds with a comment about how she won’t do “backdoor stuff” with him. You have your choice of what component of that makes you angriest. They’re all fine options.

He scolds her in rhymeA grown adult who is the boss of another adult scolds her in a rhyme oh my god this is so gross. It’s an entire rhyme about how she should dress and act at a wedding they’re going to together. Since her character is played more like a tall child — and she knows about life, dummy, just a different life! — Selfie thinks you’ll look past all this. You shouldn’t, but even if you do, you’ll find that it’s a travesty just as a comedy.

The main character in this comedy in 2014 says the following, which I’m going to bold: “I waited until the coast was clear, like Katy Perry on Proactiv.” If that’s “subversive” then I’m too stupid to get their takedown of a skincare product commercial.

People are going to argue for Selfie, which is fine. There’s music by Aimee Mann and M.I.A. There’s a series of running jokes about how her neighbor is a misunderstood indie girl like Zooey Deschanel. That’s… about as good as the jokes get. Hopefully this will get better after the pilot, because it certainly can’t get worse.

But as a whole, this is a miserable 22 minutes. People should not be saying hashtag out loud, period. Maybe it makes me sound like someone’s grandfather, but jokes about how girls like Zooey Deschanel like ukuleles and how people post too much food on Instagram are played out in 2014. If you’re going to “take down” social media culture, pick some better targets.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 

 

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Another Look at the Endings of Lost, Breaking Bad, and The Wire

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Andrew Findlay

In this so far nameless segment, regular contributor Andrew Findlay takes issue with another person’s opinions. Think of it as a “letter to the editor” except it’s always from the same defiant person and the “editor” in that example writes for the same site. This one has spoilers for The Wire, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and a previous post on Reading at Recess about TV.

Extremely popular, long-running television shows struggle with sticking the landing. It is known. It has been known ever since the ending of Lost caused about half of its die-hard fanbase to swear never to watch another episode. It has been known since people internet-complained at the less-than-ideal end to Battlestar Galactica. However, it is strange to pick as the most relevant representatives of this phenomenon two of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time, one of which was showered with accolades for achieving the impossible and having a nearly perfect final episode.

Terrible endings exist and are unfortunate. At the end of Battlestar Galactica, the survivors sent their entire fleet into the sun so they could join/create humanity and live through the Dark Ages alongside them instead of significantly lessening human misery by holding on to their tech, which seemed like a weird choice. The ending of Lost, a show built almost entirely on mystery and suspense, completely dismissed the big final mystery and betrayed a legion of fans that had spent a significant portion of their lives tuning in every week. When you promise answers for years and years, and then the answer is “Oh, just unplug the island, any IT person worth his salt will tell you the usefulness of power cycling,” it creates a vast and deep well of rage. Who created the plug? What is that glowing room? Why are you just giving your viewership more mysteries instead of actually answering anything? When you go from a level of dedication that creates the YouTube video below to undiluted hatred, you have written a terrible ending.

I teared up watching this, remembering how it felt to be a part of the viewership of this show. Not sure if I’ll ever watch an episode again.

The Wire and Breaking Bad ended really well. Season five of The Wire may have been a little weaker compared to the others, but there was no nosedive. The state of affairs at the end of the final episode were either good or emphasized the whole underlying theme of the show: The game is the game, and the game never ends. It is absolutely believable that McNulty’s arrogant ass would get himself killed, but the detective’s wake in the last episode is actually fake, and he is actually escaping from his self-destructive career path. Omar, probably the most universally liked character on the show, is murdered in a convenience store by a little kid. This happens because he is not a civilian – he is a player of the game, and the game never ends, and anything can happen. Almost no one escapes, and if they do, they are lucky.

I don’t have as much an issue with that as with the idea of Breaking Bad’s final episode being a failure. It is almost universally praised as a near-flawless ending. It is almost perfect because Walt gets exactly everything he deserves, but he also gets everything he wants. This paradox exists because Walt, after five seasons of being driven by anger and pride, finally realizes and repents all the mistakes he made. He realizes what he deserves and is only concerned with doing right by those he loves. Who does he love (who is still alive at this point)? Jesse, Skyler, and his son and daughter. What has his arrogance done to them throughout the series? His family has lost everything, been terrorized, and been forced to abandon their home. Jesse has lost the woman he loves, been completely broken psychologically, and been enslaved by an Aryan Brotherhood gang. This is some bad shit that Walt has done. The reason that Walt can get what he deserves and what he wants is that, for the first time, what he wants is not centered around himself. He finally, finally, realizes what he actually needs to do, not for his own ego, but for the people he loves.

This is one of the greatest scenes in television, period.

This growth and shift of character makes the final episode what it is. He is out for money, but only for his family after he is gone. He is out for vengeance, but mostly to rescue Jesse from the position he put him in and to punish them for what they did to Hank. After so much greed and vanity and selfishness, Walt finally realizes what he has done and what he needs to do to make it right, whether he survives or not. Walt, after years of denial and repression and blame-shifting and anger, accepts who he is and what he does, and formulates a plan. This plan is absolutely successful. He finds a way to provide for the family he destroyed by intimidating his old work colleague. He rescues Jesse by single-handedly wiping out a gang. Then, after having actually done right by the people he loves, after five seasons of only paying lip service to that sentiment, he dies. It seems to me he dies from blood loss, as he’s been leaking for quite a while at this point and is leaving blood on everything he touches, but regardless of the cause, the important thing is that he died after achieving all of his goals. Walter White achieving all of his goals and then escaping from justice yet again would be a repugnant ending, but he does not escape justice, and he is not the same Walter White. Sure, he doesn’t get arrested, but he spends most of the second half of season five dealing with the consequences of his actions. The complete ruination of his own life, the life of his family, and the life of someone who is like a son to him, is consequence enough. What the hell are the police going to be able to do that he hasn’t already done to himself? These consequences and the pain of dealing with them set a process, if not of redemption, then at least of remorse and planning. The Walt of the last 20 minutes of the show is not the Walt who is in the “empire-building business,” but a Walt willing to sacrifice himself to do right by everyone else. This profound character transformation makes it possible for us to root for Walt again, and this is the trick that makes the ending of Breaking Bad so appealing. As for Jesse, who is driving away into the night, it doesn’t really matter where he’s going. He is free from the physical enslavement of the Aryan gang and the psychological enslavement of Walt. Wherever he is headed, it cannot possibly be worse than where he was.

This cultural moment has been called, many times, the Golden Age of television. It is an edifice built on the foundations of The Sopranos and The Wire. It is the result of a shift in perception, where television writers are responsible for creating a quality product and not just creating ratings. It consists of many different shows of deep emotional impact, strong plotting, and important thematic development. The result is that we consume our acclaimed television more like we consume our acclaimed novels, voraciously and as important art. The reason people are analyzing TV shows now is not that there is some mystical relationship between TV and novels or that one is replacing the other, but that TV has gotten really, ridiculously good in the past decade, and that humans love spinning commentary on really, ridiculously good things. Sure, there are some grievous missteps here and there, but The Wire and Breaking Bad are not examples of them.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Johnny-Come-Lately: America’s Next Top Model, Cycles 9-14

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Jonathan May

Jonathan May grew up in Zimbabwe as a child of missionaries and missed a lot of “important” American things along the way. He chronicles his journey to catch up in a feature called “Johnny-Come-Lately.”

Over the past three weekends, I’ve watched cycles 9-14 of the CW’s America’s Next Top Model, and by God if I haven’t tried to smile with my eyes (“smize”) in the mirror at least a few times during the process. I’ve practiced using my space and being fierce and throwing shade with the very best, Ms. Tyra Banks, in my head. This show would quite literally be nothing without her; she’s never afraid to be goofy and fierce and smoldering, sometimes all in the same five minutes. But that, as she points out, is the essence of being a supermodel: being able to be memorable, yet a chameleon. She emphasizes the three C’s of modeling: catalogue, commercial, and couture. And the girls worship her. Who wouldn’t, with that flawless skin and that bravado?

The show focuses on different types of beauty (plus-size, petite, alien, masculine, strong bone structure) through the different girls picked to enter the competition; every cycle is usually “fair” in its makeup, although that’s a hard task when you’re literally trying to find the most beautiful girl out there. Luckily Tyra and the judges emphasize personality and inner beauty throughout; the girls have to interview and make conversation. They must participate in social graces, sometimes in totally different countries for those girls lucky enough to make it that far. This is very attractive as a quality in the show; rarely does a complete bitch make it to the top two. While being fair to the reality format, the show consistently delivers the message that in order to win in the fashion industry, people need to like you; ergo, don’t be a bitch.

So, we have 13-14 girls who learn about modeling and walking and posing, who get makeovers (there are inevitable tears), who are winnowed down week by week for their participation in challenges, overall attitude and appearance, and weekly photograph challenges. During the course of this madness, the viewer becomes endearingly acquainted with Jay Manuel (creative director of photo shoots) and “Ms. J” Alexander, a fierce modeling coach who works it with the best of the ladies; these two help the girls along to the best of their abilities, but ultimately the girls must want it for themselves the most.

Why do I watch so obsessively? First of all, the judges and coaches show in their own behavior that having a genuine personality is what makes a real top model; girls of all looks and sizes have won the coveted top prize, but they all share the same warmness of a real girl shining through the model. Second, the transformations of the girls are remarkable, both mental and physical; by the end, the girls look and act totally foreign to themselves just weeks prior. The house drama among that many girls of course has its dramatic appeal, but for me, the winners usually aren’t the instigators or the participants in the whole she-said, she-said. Third, girls can literally come from nothing and become something; even the girls who don’t win often receive contracts after appearing on the show. Who doesn’t love a good American Dream story, complete with pretty women? In the end, I like a show that emphasizes the positive aspects of one’s emotional character. I don’t think the show promotes a typical standard of beauty, but rather many types of beauty.

My advice if you want to audition: Know your designers, photographers, and top models. Practice in front of a mirror. Take a look at your wardrobe to see if it’s fresh. And be fierce.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Bad Last Chapters or How Television is the New Terrible Novel

How I Met Your Mother Finale

 Stephanie Feinstein

Note: Serious spoilers for a bunch of shows, notably How I Met Your Mother, Roseanne, The Sopranos, True Detective, and Breaking Bad.

Devoting seven years to something is a serious commitment. To Hollywood, seven years of marriage is the equivalence of 25 years to mere mortals in lesser zip codes. Seven years of a vice may easily be called an addiction; seven years of school sees a full turn of your DNA. Seven years is literally the length of time one needs to become an entirely new person.

Seven years is too long to hold onto the same story, same ending, same turns. Sure, many an MFA could argue to me that grand books arose out of more than seven years of imaginings, rewrites, and edits, but I shall counter argue that those novels surely found new pathways by the end. An author grows and evolves with his or her work, expanding into the sunshine of new thought and wisdom.

I have a dear friend in the heady throes of editing her first novel for publication, and having known her for more than seven years, she has had to rewrite much as her knowledge and self expanded.

Do not dare to tell me that television writers do not suffer so.

How I Met Your Mother ran for nine seasons, I realize, but it was in its second when I began watching and when the show filmed its ending. According to Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com, it was also the ending used in the initial sitcom pitch to CBS. It was always supposed to be Robin.

In Austin Duck’s article concerning the teleology of HIMYM, he asserts that the Robin-not-mother ending completes the circular nature of the show, a common feature of sitcom writing. While I will agree that the show, like many others, is highly dependent on circuitous routes within its plot, as viewer and fan, I disagree with the balance of the ending on several accounts. For a show so devoted to wrapping up loose ends, the final episode created more questions. Examples of the queries I have posed to myself and other fans: Who was 31? Didn’t Ted make Robin get rid of the dogs last time? What killed the mother? How long did that illness last? How often does Aunt Robin come over for dinner? So, is Lily a stay-at-home mom now? Does she still work for the Captain? Does Barney have full custody? Did he marry the mother? But I digress from Robin and Ted.

In “Last Forever: How They Conned Us All,” Sepinwall points out that the relationship of Robin and Ted devolves over the nine-season run, turning toxic and incomplete, thus forcing them together at the end leaves the viewer dissatisfied, as we have been told over and over again all the reasons the relationship will not work. I agree, and I use this as my basis for why endings in television are the new terrible novel.

I love terrible novels. Much like Jonathan May loves to hate-watch television, I truly enjoy hate-reading poorly written or executed stories. That may sound harsh, as I have yet to publish anything, much less anything excellent or terrible. But if I can’t be pretentious on a website, then why the hell do I have a degree in literature?

Bad writing can be bad for many reasons: poor editing, bad grammar, sloppy story lines, lost symbolism… the list is really endless. A terrible novel will need more than just bad writing technicalities… it needs to create holes that it cannot fill, force relationships that do not fit, and waste opportunities for symbolism and allusion. HIMYM suffers from a stubbornness to characterization in forcing its ending. The writers cursed themselves from the beginning by deciding exactly how the story would end. A novelist may not be very successful if they begin an epic novel knowing exactly how the story will end, and refusing to ever back down from the singular scenario. Unless one can throw in some seriously killer Edith Wharton twists (Oh, you want to stay Mattie to stay, Ethan? Oh, really? How badly do you want her to stay…?), the completed work will be stilted and forced. If we consider HIMYM as a novel constructed over seven years, the characters have grown in unexpected ways. Lily’s role of mother not only evolves through action, but through reaction, as she steps away from early childhood education into a role of art curator. On screen, the character evolves even further, as Alyson Hannigan has gone through more than one pregnancy in her real life, even when her character was still childless. The written relationship of Robin and Ted blossomed and died over multiple seasons, with varying stages of “this is the last time; I’m really letting go.” In the final season, final episodes, we as viewers witness Ted giving up the role of finder, of hero, of conquering knight. When faced with a vulnerable, scared bride, he is chivalrous, wise, telling her that she is already with the right man. Smiling, Ted explains that he simply must find the right woman for himself, confirming that it is not Robin. For a sitcom, this moment was bittersweet, tainting the usual “happily ever after” endings of today, but I believe that modern audiences want a storyline that can be real. The idea of Ted abandoning the obsessive thought of Robin is comforting to audiences, assuring us that new chances at happiness are possible when we open ourselves to possibility. Ted’s meeting and short relationship with Tracy was sweet, honest, and felt very real. It was also cut awkwardly short to a “And then she got sick, and that was six years ago that we lost her.” “Dad, you should date Aunt Robin!” (Okay, so that is not how the official dialogue went down, but close enough.)

So, the ending of How I Met Your Mother was stilted, forced, and a terrible novel of television. Great until the last chapter, which weirdly dragged, with a cop-out of an ending.

But I’m not done there. How I Met Your Mother is not alone in its novel terribleness. Other terrible novels of television include Roseanne and the “it’s all a damn dream” ending, The Sopranos meets Tristram Shandy‘s inked out page of an ending, and The Wire.

Shut up, all of you. I loved The Wire, and I will argue all damn day that it is far more Shakespearean than Breaking Bad could ever hope to be. Tragic McNulty, the Benvolio-esque Bunk, the shut-the-hell-up-this-is-new-literature showdown between Omar and Brother Mouzone (Michael K. Williams and Michael Potts, respectively)… I love that shit. But the final act of that beautiful play fell flat for me, and left a depressingly Irish-whiskey flavored tang in my throat.

And Breaking Bad! I watched the full run up to the final season in a single summer, with the final season happening in real time. And, I found it less than lackluster. Perhaps it was weak characters, perhaps it was a whole handful of misogynistic men and weak women. But most of all, I really despised the ending. Our final scene of Walter, stripped of his glory as he stumbles among his scientific vats, now worth nothing, tapping the dial fronts of the equipment. Then he falls, a blood stain left across the shiny aluminum surface. Blood loss? Chemical Poisoning? The cancer finally doing him in? We have no idea. (Note: There are not words to express how much I wanted a massive meth explosion in those final moments. I am from the South, and everyone knows moonshine stills and meth labs eventually explode). But instead, we get the soft wailing of an inept police department, with Walter already too far gone to atone for his sins. And what the hell with Jesse just driving into the sunset, just in time to star in Need For Speed? Terrible. The novel equivalent of “To Be Continued” with absolutely no plans for a sequel. Do I have greater hopes for Better Call Saul? Not really. Will I watch it? Of course… that’s irrelevant.

Now, my next television novel that has failed me is really less novel and more first short story in a series. Why are anthologies the new rage? Are we bored with following evolving characters over a span of years, aging and acquiring wisdom with them? Are actors just not willing to commit the time and energy into evolving these characters? I don’t know, but, oh, how I wish I did.

True Detective season one filled a void in my cultural soul that I did not realize was empty. Well, the first seven-and-a-half episodes (There are only eight total.). Being a Southern lady, I devoured the swampy nature, the Louisiana drawls and old-French tones. In college, I randomly attended a lecture series about rural Louisiana Mardi Gras and Easter traditions, strange rituals with masks and pagan origins. I went to find new inspiration for poetry, but the images of those presentations have stuck with me for years. True Detective‘s use of the arcanely ritualistic culture of the backwoods bayou delighted me, and I waited for deep significance of these images to emerge within the show.

Michael Hughes published a great article on io9.com shortly after the first few episodes aired, illuminating a new set of allusions form the writers. In “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective, Hughes cites Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a selection of short stories published in the late Victorian era, as being quoted by central characters within the episodes, if not contributing to the larger story. I quickly acquired the text from Gutenberg Press and I devoured the stories, exclaiming every few pages as a new revelation or theory was uncovered to me. (Mask of deception! Women in stone! Repairer of reputations!) I watched the rest of the season waiting for Carcosa to come to light, a Yellow King to be crowned, the wave of insanity to mask us all in truth.

The final episode of True Detective season one was thrilling but flat. A “to be continued” vibe was given, but next season has already been announced to have a new cast, location, and story line. We will no longer be traipsing the back bayous in search of pederasts and twig sculptures. I will not be able to find out: How those scars happened? Who else was involved? How did the old black maid know about Carcosa? Why the spiral? Why did Hart’s daughters have a sexual violence storyline but not? Why did the killer have a British accent for only, like, ¼ of his scenes? Why was his dad tied up? I may never know.

I hope we will never reach a point as society where television sitcoms and dramas replace great literature. In fact, I think the two can greatly benefit from one another. What if we, as intelligent minds of the internet, band together to rewrite television history? FAN FICTION. Granted, fan fiction has been around as long as fans have found disappointment with story lines. But I am calling for a new age of fan-fueled fiction, where the endings are reinvented to be stronger, more beautiful.

You see, my aforementioned novelist friend had a terrible quandary after the How I Met Your Mother finale aired. Her sister, a devoted fan, had missed the initial airing, but my novelist friend was fretting over hoer own disappointment. “I want her to see it, but not the last five minutes,” she lamented. “I want her to turn off the television with five minutes remaining, and then read a chapter I’ve written instead.”

She ultimately did not, letting the writers of the show have their ending.

BUT WHAT IF…

…fan fiction reached a new level. What if those of us with the degrees, sources, and talent band together to override what society has deemed as “appropriate endings?” Because I am dissatisfied with television, even when it leads me on for so very long.

When True Detective fell short of my literary expectations, I sought out fans. Now, I don’t know if I am just unable to locate the hidden fan fiction files of the internet, or if there just isn’t anything out there, but the results were very limited. Yet, the theories presented through the five stories I found were intriguing, provocative, and creative. Still not what I wanted as the ending, but it gave me something.

So, a call to all those who fan fictionalize their television serials, write me new endings! Breaking Bad, The Wire, Roseanne, True Detective, How I Met Your Mother… send it all to me! I will read each personally, and with any luck, the best to my mind will be presented on this site.

You can reach Stephanie Feinstein at stephanie.feinstein@gmail.com.

Image: New York Times

Why Aren’t People Watching Parks and Recreation?

Parks and Recreation- Season 6

Alex Russell

Remember when Liz Lemon was everywhere?

For a few years it seemed like you couldn’t load Tumblr or Facebook without seeing at least five Liz Lemon memes. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; 30 Rock was a tremendous show. It was a lot of things, but above all else it was the critically-acclaimed anchor to NBC’s very weird (but very great) Thursday night that included The OfficeCommunity, and Parks and Recreation.

The Office faltered late, as everyone knows. 30 Rock managed to do OK just because it was consistently being hailed as the best show on television. Community‘s story is still unfolding, but the fanbase is rabid enough that it will probably end up fine. But what of Leslie Knope and the Liz-Lemon-meme-worthy Ron Swanson?

Let’s tell it straight: People are not watching Parks and Recreation anymore. Numbers-wise, the show has done a little bit worse every season, especially after losing The Office as a lead-in. Everyone who loves Parks and Rec will tell you that it doesn’t really find its footing until the end of the first season, but America really disagrees. The first season held a huge percentage of Office fans, even though it debuted after one of the dumbest storylines in Office history (“Michael Scott Paper Company” was the lead-in episode for the pilot).

Season two of Parks and Rec is some of the greatest sitcom TV of the last fifteen years, but it did a little bit worse (between four and six million people per episode) than the weird first season. Second three — which followed the final Michael Scott episodes of The Office and was the first season with Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as regulars — did even worse, sometimes dropping below four million. The three seasons since have done worse in the ratings, and sometimes far worse.

A lot of this is on NBC. 30 Rock did even worse than Parks and Rec during its decline and even The Office, the one your mom liked sometimes, barely managed four million viewers a night by the end. Community seemed unstoppable, but it’s tanking this year in the ratings. Parenthood, once one of NBC’s most reliable shows, is doing the same.

Thursday night on the other networks? Fox has Hell’s Kitchen and American Idol. CBS has The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. ABC has Scandal. NBC’s support for its sitcoms is Hollywood Game Night.

It’s impossible to convince someone to definitely watch something unless they already might, but you really should be DVRing Parks and Rec. The show stumbled a little with an ambitious plot for main character Leslie Knope, but it’s still one of the only consistently funny, consistently great sitcoms on network TV. NBC renewed it for next year, but based on the competition and the current trend, Parks and Rec is dead in the water. Come stay awhile with it every week, like you would an elderly relative. Ron Swanson is still there Ron-Swansoning around, and that really should be enough to earn your 22 minutes a week.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: NBC

The Last Five Minutes of How I Met Your Mother, False Symmetry, and the Teleology of Popular Fiction

himym

Austin Duck

Whether or not you watched the end of How I Met Your Mother, chances are, at this point, you know how it ended. You know that, after nine seasons of Ted’s search for the woman of his dreams, they’re together for less than an entire episode, that the writers decided it best to kill her off and to position Ted and Robin together as a kind of OTP (one-true-pairing for those who aren’t fan-fiction aficionados) fated across dozens of years to end up together. Predictably, the Internet has had two reactions: those who have shipped (another ff term for you all) Ted and Robin all along are delighted, surprised maybe, but ultimately very pleased by the seeming symmetry of HIMYM (with Ted and Robin coming together in the first episode and then, against all odds, again at the last).

And then, there are the others, the ones who are outraged by the narrative violations that have occurred to bring Ted and Robin together, and the major characters who, developed over nine years, are reduced and cut out, subordinated to one-bit characters with forced “revelations.”  These fine folks have taken to the Internet, decrying WORST EPISODE EVER and HOW COULD THEY DO THAT TO BARNEY and HOW ARE TED’S KIDS OVER THE DEATH OF THEIR MOTHER IN SIX YEARS, OKAY ENOUGH TO SAY ‘GO AHEAD DAD, FUCK AUNT ROBIN, WE DON’T CARE’ and, while I don’t normally feel one way or another about tv shows (I mean, I watch them obsessively, but I tend not to care enough to take to the keyboard), I want to weigh in here, not so much about my feelings but about the structural incongruities that seem to have everyone convinced that this finale didn’t quite do what it needed to.

Before getting to the meat of the problem—the problem of teleology—I want to consider the bizarre symmetry attempted in the final episode, in the few remaining minutes after 25 years have been traversed in a few telling vignettes. The last scene, Ted standing outside Robin’s apartment, blue-French-horn-in-hand, while she perches on her window ledge, surrounded by dogs, is taken shot-for-shot (and, for the most part, line by line) from the first episode during Ted’s first “Big Robin Gesture.” (BRG) Between this and the fact that, season after season, the show is actually populated by a series of BRG’s—stealing the horn, inviting Robin to his wedding with Stella despite her wishes, refusing to marry Victoria at the expense of his friendship with Robin, the locket, etc.—one could almost make the argument for coherence, for a consistent, over-arching theme that, while obscured by the minutiae of week-to-week, season-to-season, was always there, hiding in plain sight, brought forward by the symmetrical ending as the point of the show, the issue at hand, the inevitable, meaningful, always already there. Almost.

Unfortunately, this narrative violates the promise that initiates the very reason for the show, the story to the kids… the explanation of how Ted meets the mother of his children. While I understand that, narratively, things happen, characters change, have more chemistry than the writers expected, etc. (I’ll address this in a minute), the show’s framework—the search for Ted’s baby-mama (as the show would have it)—puts pressure on narrative, directs and controls it, in the same way that a sentence front-loaded with subordinate clauses, continuously delaying its main point will create, nay demand, a kind of resolution. Let me demonstrate:

Despite Ted’s feelings for Robin always coming back, and despite the fact that Ted and Robin seemed both to fundamentally want the same things, and that Barney and Robin, as cute as they were, didn’t seem, exactly, to mesh (likely because of the way Barney was rendered as pathological, sick by the end), and even with Marshall and Lilly’s blessing and the support of Ted’s children, the apparatus of the show, promising a resolution of “How I Met Your Mother,” was subordinated, cast aside as not-that-important compared to something that, by all accounts, didn’t really need to happen.

Imagine someone telling you a story for nine years, only to reveal in the last few seconds that it wasn’t important, that there was another story that should have been told, that the hook you’ve been on (and on and on and on) has been sleight of hand.

It could happen, I guess, it could work (God knows Anne Carson could make it work), but what starts as a narrative gag had better lead to something larger, more satisfying, more inevitable. And does this? Do the symmetry and the BRGs create an inevitability large enough to make the audience forget they’ve had a big one pulled over on them, that all the wishing for Ted’s happiness, the giddiness at each glimpse of the yellow umbrella, every vision of a lady playing a bass guitar, has existed exclusively so that the writers can give you something you already had and that, ultimately, you were already okay with losing?

Because that’s, really, the problem with the “inevitability” ending: We were all okay with Ted and Robin going their separate ways. We’d been promised someone even better than Robin, and, in a show that crosses nine years in real-time (and 25 years total), we been promised change, growth, that Ted at 27 (the one who fell for Robin) didn’t know what he wanted, that the course of their friendship and their mutual considerations for one another altered them, that they were able to be happy for each other, to consider one another, without being together. We were promised (episode to episode) that Ted and Robin’s friendship would become adult, that Ted would realize his wants couldn’t change hers, the she didn’t want what he was selling, and, until the last five minutes of the finale, that’s what we got. We saw nine years of growth, promise, real tenderness, thrown away—Barney and Robin, so suited for each other in their ways, are torn apart because Robin won’t stop traveling for work (though she was willing to give up her work for a relationship with Don), Barney, the complicated, deeply sick, good-natured friend and lover, reduced to horn-dog caricature so the audience can stomach the split with Robin, the woman of Ted’s dreams, the woman we’ve all searched for for nine years, killed within 30 minutes.

And, as if anticipating our resistance, we, the audience, are characterized as two kids who’ve been listening to this story for years’ we’re denied the ability to grieve or refuse Ted’s moving forward, are told (through our own voices) that mom’s been dead for six years, and Aunt Robin’s great, that the ending, the fulfillment of change, is this that we recognize as a regression, a circle. Sure, if we had six years to “know the mother”—in any capacity other than flash-forward montages—, had known Ted’s grief at her passing, known Ted and Robin’s interactions as an adult, perhaps this could have worked. But as it stands, it just doesn’t.

Instead, the final minutes become just another iteration of popular fiction’s tendency toward teleology, toward forcing an ending because “the writer wants it” rather than “because the narrative demands it.” To cite the most popular instance of teleological fiction, just think about Twilight: It’s clear, even to those only have a passing familiarity with the books, that Bella, the protagonist, has much more chemistry with Jacob (the werewolf) than she does with Edward (the glitter-vamp). The text, and the characters within it, were asserting their own relationships, their own order (as, really, the fundamentals of writing are learning how to listen as a text, a series of character, write themselves), and the author, Stephanie Meyer, ignored it. She wanted an ending that the text didn’t want, and she got it, awkwardness and all. The same thing has happening in HIMYM.

I can’t speak to the writers’ values, why they wanted what they did, or why they’ve made the choices they have. However, for whatever reason, they’ve written (produced, and aired) something not nearly so conscious of the narrative itself as of the hopes and dreams of whoever was writing it which, realistically, no one cares about.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: Today

Counterpoint: What if Girls is Actually Great?

Andrew Findlay

Our resident sci-fi nerd Andrew Findlay apparently took issue with Jonathan May’s coverage of hate-watching the Girls season finale enough that he wanted to gush about it here. Here’s the opposite of hate-watching, which might just be watching? Here’s the first in our 46,750 part series “Counterpoint.”

Girls is an amazing television show. It is a perfect comedy of the awkward: the discomfort and hilarity rolling off of each episode in waves is a great accomplishment. Within this comedy, the writers also attempt to explore authentic reactions and emotions that actual people, not sitcom approximations, have.

A lot of people are annoyed by how ridiculous and terrible the main characters are, but honestly, have you seen people lately? Most of them are ridiculous and terrible. Think of your own friends: some might be paragons of virtue, but how many have some terrible habits and make dumbass decisions? How many don’t, God love ‘em, annoy the shit out of you sometimes? I posit that if your best friend’s actions have never filled you with rage, you might not be best friends. The show deals in hyperreality. It takes actual personality patterns, exaggerates them until they become semi-caricatures, and then explores the emotional ramifications of human behavior. Yes, all of these people are terrible. Yes, they are too much. The thing is though, that’s the point. Taking Girls to task for being filled with terrible people is like taking the Ernest movies to task because the main character is implausibly stupid.

Come now, a man of his intellectual ability could not save anything, much less Christmas

Even within this implausible framework, the show inserts interactions and situations that are startlingly real. The foundation of the fights between Adam and Hannah might be absurd, but the language they use in fighting and the way they deal with emotional conflict matches reality very closely. I have no firsthand knowledge of this, but my wife informs me that not all, but many of the conversations among the girls reflect how women really do talk to each other, which is “fucking refreshing” when compared to the SATC ladies discussing dick size over mimosas. Also, Girls has a realistic portrayal of post-coital conversation and body language. After sex, Hannah walks around talking naked, because why would you hide your body from the person you just fucked? Think about it – if you had sex with someone in real life, and they immediately tore all your bedsheets off your bed and wrapped them around themselves to hide their nudity, wouldn’t you be a little freaked out? This brings me to a point that isn’t really part of my main argument, but I feel it needs to be mentioned: Hannah is not conventionally attractive and walks around naked, ew! Well, sorry that modern culture has led you to expect only flat-bellied, buxom goddesses to be inflicted upon your vision. Seriously – Hannah’s body type is how a lot of women look, and there is nothing wrong with it. Check your privileged expectations.

Speaking of expectations, Girls is a comedy from HBO, the only show on television that passes the Bechdel test, and because of that, people heap a mountain of expectations upon it, expectations the showrunners never outright claimed or even hinted at. The people saying Hannah represents the voice of a generation, and the other people getting enraged at how bad a picture she paints of the current generation? Dunham never said anything about any generation. Yes, the main character of the show muses whether she may be the voice of her generation, but the main character of the show is remarkably narcissistic and was also high on opium at the time. Oh, all the show’s main characters are privileged and there isn’t enough diversity? Ha! I’m not laughing because that’s not true, I’m laughing because it’s true of nearly every television show. Again, for some reason, Girls is held to higher expectations than other shows, expectations no one set up aside from the people complaining about them. Where is the diversity on Friends or How I Met Your Mother? Where is the exploration of underprivileged characters on Sex and the City, where the four main characters go on endless brunches and shopping sprees, where one is a Harvard-educated lawyer, another grows up rich and marries extremely rich, another is a successful PR executive, and the last is a successful columnist with an on-off relationship with a man of fantastic means? Fuck’s sake, at least some of the characters on Girls actually struggle with unemployment. I’m not saying these criticisms of Girls hold no weight, I’m simply confused as to why Friends, SATC, and How I Met Your Mother get a pass for the exact same problems, whereas the response to Girls is virulent hatred.

This show is really great. My wife and I laugh during every episode, feel feelings for most of them, and are just generally amused and glad this show exists. If you hate-watch it, of course you’re going to focus on all these terrible people doing terrible things, but your perspective will suffer from confirmation bias, where you only see the bad and draw conclusions to support your preexisting idea that the show is terrible. Check it out. It’s great, and unlike anything else I watch on television.

 

They Made a Video Game Out of The Office: Five Terrible Games Based on TV Shows

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Mike Hannemann

South Park: The Stick of Truth was released recently for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The long-awaited game had finally managed to overcome development hell and several delays. The final product is exactly what you would and wouldn’t expect for a game based on South Park. All the crude elements one associates with the show are there: racist, sexist, fart jokes… all of it. Here’s the part no one really expected: It’s… actually… good. The development team worked closely with the creators of the show and delivered a definitive South Park experience. The writing is genuinely funny and when you play it actually feels like you’re controlling an episode of the show. But you’ll find that on any review site. Instead, let’s consider how unlikely this was.

Video games based on franchises are usually doomed from the start. Occasionally, movies will be spared from this but then something like the Rambo game will come out (in 2014, and if I could type a year in all caps I would to drive the point home) and set the bar back to square one. This has always been the nature of video games and pop culture. Something is introduced, blows up in popularity, and a video game is released to capitalize on that. Hell, South Park did that several times before this entry. It’s easy to make a quick buck because (insert flavor of the week here) can have a quick tie-in. This was especially true of the 1990s. It didn’t take much to make an NES or even an SNES or Sega Genesis game, so we saw hundreds of terrible franchise nonsense. The Super Star Wars games, while remembered fondly by some, barely even followed the plots of the movies. Hell, even commercials were franchised. I wake up with nightmares of playing games based on Domino’s Pizza’s The Noid or Chester Cheetah.

Let’s give the 1990s a pass here. Let’s turn and look at the past 12 years. Next generation consoles. These games cost money to make. Even when creators were involved, they still missed the mark. I submit the following five entries into the catalog of video games based on TV shows that left a sour taste in the mouth of any fan.

5. Lost

The Lost video game was basically just a middle finger to the fanbase. Lost was a show that was built on mysteries, fans were rabid to find clues hidden in each scene that may or may not mean anything. The creators encouraged it, it let to fan mania. Then, during the middle of season four, a game was released for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The game had the player assume the role of a new survivor, waking up among the wreckage of Oceanic flight 815. The game took place during the events of the show, taking place on various days during the shows run. Plotted by the creative forces behind the show, the game promised “revelations” on the main plot. Not only was the gameplay terrible, you couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly this was shoehorned in as a cash grab. If any of this mattered, why did characters on the show never mention it? Fans of the show don’t even talk about it. For a show where fans obsessed over what number was on a calendar in a background shot of a dream, I think that’s the most damning thing I could say.

4. Futurama

This one is hard to talk about. Admittedly, I wanted this game to work. Based on one of the better animated sitcoms, the sci-fi nature of the show lends itself perfectly to a video game. Honestly, the story was pretty great. It was funny, deftly acted by the original voice cast, and made fun of a ton of video game tropes (in-game parody was still uncommon at this point). Hell, the show was canceled that year (2003) and again fans were willing to do anything for more content. Unfortunately, no script would be tight enough to make up for poor gameplay mechanics. Transferring a 2-D cartoon into a 3-D world just doesn’t work. The character models were blocky, the platforming was sub-par, and the camera was essentially non-functional. The Futurama game is something fans admit exist, but would never consider bringing up at a party. You know, all those Futurama parties people go to.

3. 24

In a list of sad examples, this one is particularly tragic. 24 is another show that a video game just makes sense to make. It’s a turn-your-brain-off action show. Basically just take a Modern Warfare game and replace the main character with Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer and there you go. As is the common trend here, the creators and actors were all involved. Released in 2006 and taking place between seasons two and three, this game for the Playstation 2 and Xbox pledged to tell a canonical story explaining the time that took place between the two. For once, this actually MADE SENSE for a game based on a serialized TV show. 24 jumps ahead years at a time between seasons. Logically, something could have happened in that time. The problem isn’t the story. The problem isn’t the acting. Hell, the problem isn’t even the gameplay. The problem is that the game wanders around, not knowing what it wants to be. There are heavy action levels, sniping levels, car-only levels, and puzzle missions. You play as Jack Bauer’s daughter, Kim, in one where you just crawl around in air vents. The game never commits to what kind of game it wants to be, and by making it a “controllable season of the show” it suffers. I remember playing this and thinking it was sad how close to a genuinely good game this was.

2. The Office

Didn’t know there was a game based on the US version of The Office? I apologize for being the one to break the news. Seriously. Next time we see each other, you can punch me in the face, I won’t block. Following the smash success of the early season(s) of The Office, a licensed game was greenlit. It was released only for PC. It was a collection of mini games. Which I guess is the harshest thing I could say about the definition of the word “games.” There was no complexity to it. There was also, coincidentally, no point to it. The saving grace is that it didn’t claim to be anything more than it was. It wasn’t The Office experience. It was a $4.99 mini game pack. I probably shouldn’t complain too much about a game I didn’t actually buy. What needs to be remembered, though, is there is never ever an excuse to release a video game based on a sitcom. Unless it’s a trivia game. And it’s free online. And I guess you’re really, really bored.

1. The Walking Dead: Survival Instincts

I saved the most recent for last because while all of the aforementioned games are insulting in some aspect (even The Office) this one misfired on all cylinders. Think about how hard this is to screw up. The Walking Dead is, and remains, the most popular show on cable television. Ok, it’s also set in the zombie apocalypse which is a video game setting — that is a no-brainer. The more popular characters are back to do voices and provide some background on their past. Makes sense right? The end result of this Xbox 360/Playstation 3 title was a mixed bag of terrible plot points and gameplay mechanics that wouldn’t work with another two years of work. It deliver, though, one true element of The Walking Dead, the show: It left you wondering what more talented people could have done with the property.

(Disclaimer: The Walking Dead is also a game released by Telltale Games that is a huge success, but this is more based on the comic than the show. The game makes no attempt to tie the two together, so I have excluded it.)

So there it is. The worst games based on some of the best shows. These will always be the reasons I worry when I hear about “TV Show! The Game!” being developed, but at least South Park: The Stick of Truth proves the law of averages.

Image source: The Daily Beast

How Did I Like This? How Did I Like the Show “VR Troopers?”

VR-Rangers

Brent Hopkins

In “How Did I Like This?” someone looks back at something they loved as a child and wonders how they were ever so wrong. Today Brent Hopkins looks at the TV show VR Troopers (1994-1996), which somehow couldn’t break the 100 episode mark even though it had virtual reality and a rapping dog.

vr-hr-kaitlin

The main reason was preteen lust, but that the lust lasted for this long is shameful. #1994Swoon

My first take on this series is going to be focused on the mid-90’s show VR Troopers. For those of you that don’t know, VR Troopers was a show in the same vein as the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The heroes were always able to overcome incredible odds due to whatever robotic augments they happened to pick up from the thrift shop. The selling point for this show was that the battle was on two fronts: The real world — where the characters normally resided as a martial arts protege, a reporter, and a computer nerd — and the virtual reality (VR) world, which was threatening to merge with the real world and be run by the series villain Grimlord.

As opposed to the massive mecha that the Rangers rocked, the VR Troopers had to settle with being locked mainly to the ground in their VR suits. They had vehicles, but they mainly fought in judo/karate style group battles.

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We thuggin’ and mean muggin’

This show absolutely captivated me as a 10 year old I will admit I would get bummed out when I had plans after school, because I would miss the next episode. The one thing I have always recalled about this show was that it had a super catchy theme song that still gets stuck in my head today. I insist you watch this for at least thirty seconds to be amazed.

Watching this theme you, may notice that this show somehow manages to look even more bargain basement quality than Power Rangers. This is due to the show being spliced together from three Japanese shows to form the action scenes. This worked well for Power Rangers, but at the end of the day watching Mega Man boss rejects fight compared to the Godzilla-like monsters the former show provided just looks comical today. This was made worse by the sets the fights took place on, which apparently included a rock quarry. That’s it. The vast majority of the fights took place in a rock quarry and it was as gray and depressing as one would hope.

Carrieres

This actually has too many props in it for VR Troopers.

That being said, the show had its own unique feel to it with all of the stock footage, and since there were fewer characters to follow it actually allowed for more character development. The thing is, while the main characters could be pretty 2D and stale, they made sure to add in those weird characters you might forget after years. One in particular was the talking dog Jeb, (the Meowth of the show) who added in snarky one-liners here and there. Yet the one thing that I remember the most from good old Jeb is this:

Everything must have rap it is the mid-90s!!!

There was no expense paid to make the dog even look like it was actually talking instead of eating. The fact that this AI super-computer is being burnt out by the rapping of a dog… I would say if something this simple could bring down the main line of technological defense against the VR invasion, humanity is over and done with.

I recently sat and watched a few episodes and clips and I am amazed that this show was able to make it 92 episodes before getting “cancelled.” I put quotes around cancelled because, amazingly enough, the only reason we don’t still have the VR Troopers is because there just wasn’t enough stock footage to pull from and the show had to end. This show had bad effects, bad acting, ridiculous characters, and the worst sets humanly possible but Sarah Joy Brown kept me glued to this show. +1 to the Nielsen ratings, -1 to my childhood.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Image sources: Whatculture.com, Tokucentral.com

Can Chozen Follow Archer?

chozenlead

Jonathan May

FX’s Chozen features, at its core, an outcast in a lot of ways. Our eponymous star is not only a white rapper and a convict, but also a homosexual. Luckily for its audience, the show focuses little on how these elements make Chozen (voiced by Bobby Moynihan) different from other people; the show does, however, focus on how gross he is. We see Chozen peeing, farting, getting head, burping, offending; the show basically begs us to congratulate it on presenting the non-gay gay. But what’s the situation?

Out of prison, Chozen lives in his sister’s college apartment while trying to figure out how to best gain revenge on the man who framed him, thereby sending him to jail. They say living well is the best revenge, and living it up seems to be his and the show’s main purpose. We see lots of partying, drugs, alcohol, implied and boldly stated sex acts. There’s lots of talk about the rap game, but very little rapping. Each episode, almost as an afterthought, devotes scant attention to the story’s overarching concern, instead lingering on stupid race jokes, obvious sex jokes, and lots of slapstick influence. So why do I watch?

Initially, what I appreciated about the show was its non-standard representation of gay men. I see more gay men who look like Chozen than men who look like the guys in HBO’s Looking. At first Chozen acknowledged its own stereotypes and often subjugated them with ironic force; the frat dude who hankers after Chozen is seemingly out and wants a relationship. What a lovely twist, I thought. But it’s unfortunate that the show’s “awww” moments end there. On closer inspection, the show tends to conflate “straight male behavior” with “gay male sexuality” to produce its now-tired effect. It’s like the producers were like, “How can we make the gay character more relatable? Oh, I know. Let’s just make him more straight-acting.” While this does provide welcome differentiation in gay portrayals, it wearies the viewer very quickly into the season.

Speaking of the show as a whole and its motivation, I hope it centers back onto the main plot point: revenge. We’ve spent more than half a season engaged in college high jinks, crass sexual jokes, and attempts at moral lessons on friendship. We need to get back to the story, or else Chozen will be nothing more than that show that comes on after Archer.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Chozen can be seen on Monday nights alongside Archer, and you can read our examination of Chozen as a spiritual successor to Kenny Powers here.

Image source: Complex