So, I’ve been looking forward to Nashville ever since I first saw Connie Britton’s face attached to it. When I found out that T. Bone Burnett was running the music, and that Callie Khouri (she of Thelma & Louise fame) was running the show, things just seemed to get brighter and brighter. The production values are high; ABC seems to be wholly behind it; GOD THE MUSIC, I LOVE IT, IT IS CONSTANT ROTATION IN MY SPOTIFY.
But it’s also super soapy, following in a long tradition of primetime, Southern-based soaps (think Dallas) and, as someone suggested in my Twitter feed today, regressive, at least in terms of feminist sensibilities. Or at least a “step down” for Connie Britton. Or is it?
I’ve asked a bunch of people who a.) love Nashville; b.) write on the internet in some way; and c.) come from some sort of background that is not identical to mine to chime in on the specific appeal of the show. We’ll see where this goes.
I kinda can’t stand Hayden Panetierre, but this show has somehow endeared her to me in some weird way. What do we do with that?
LET’S GO! LIKE A TELESCOOOOOOOPE!
Jia: I have the same reaction to Hayden Panetierre (or, more specifically, her acting). But I too have come around to her, in this part, on this show. First, I think there’s a sort of January Jones as Betty Draper thing going on: a bad actress playing a bad actress works well. In Ms. Panetierre’s case, an actress who comes off a little too cutely insincere/self-conscious at best (and wholly narcissistic and hate-able at worst) can play her country-music analogue pretty seamlessly.
Also, re: the idea of this show being “regressive,” of course it’s not Louie or Portlandia or something that struck people as formally or structurally new. But I like the straightforwardness of a good soapy drama, much prefer it to the fake “progressive” veneer of a show like Modern Family. (And some soapy shows–like my current kick, the O.C.–make room for some fourth-wall innovation, etc, anyway.)
AHP: Yes yes yes — I love it when people get on the “Betty Draper is a bad actress at life – that’s why January Jones is so perfect” train. I mean, Hayden even kinda looks like January Jones, and they both seem to be straight off of the “casting couch,” if you’re putting up what I’m putting down. I think what resonates with me about Panetierre = the fact that she’s constantly putting up an image to cover up for her tragic/classed background, and what we’ve seen in the last few episodes is the puncturing of that image — the vulnerability and fragility that resides beneath all star images. In some ways, Nashville is, at least in part, a meditation on image: what Rayna and Juliette culturally/socially “mean” and how that fits (or doesn’t) with their “real life” actions, desires, pasts, etc.
Jia: PS, the rumor that Hayden Panetierre is a Hollywood escort–have you read that/written about that? Her and Amanda Bynes both? I read it once and I thought, “Oh, sure,” because that is very much how she comes off, casting couch-esque, and it’s interesting to think about how there’s nothing specific to telegraph that except (I would like to think this is what shapes most of my judgment about her) a lack of nuanced talent. But honestly, she’s pretty good on this show! Or at least, this character is a pretty decent absorption for the things about her that normally irritate people. (AHP: And she’s a much better singer than Connie Britton, right?!?) (Jia: YES. Which is unfortunate, I wish they were equal musically for the show’s sake. Also, Hayden has some hilarious musical efforts in her past. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rsZasAQJ06I song she did for “Cinderella III: A Twist In Time” omg and also that awful “Stars Are Blind” esque song “Wake Up Call” ) (AHP: Although I will say that my favorite song of hers is the one with Deacon — “Under Mine.” The other stuff is too Carrie Underwood.)
I agree with you completely on the image thing. It’s interesting that Juliette and Rayna are both trying to reach for the middle in a way: both of them trying to shed their pasts at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum in order to achieve mainstream stardom and not be hassled by the accusation of either end (the “Lana del Rey, son of a Jersey millionaire” thing or the “Britney Spears, trailer trash forever” thing).
Alaina: I am probably going to be watching this show after everyone else have given up on it (whether that is in one season or five) because that’s how much I love Tami Taylor. But a couple things are bothering me. One, I keep struggling with the Rayna/Teddy have no money plotline. I TOTALLY buy her mid-career/middle-aged slump, but if she really was a Faith Hill or Reba like she is supposed to be, wouldn’t she have more money? One bad deal and they don’t have any liquid assets?
The bigger thing that’s bothering me is Rayna’s inaction. Both she and Juliet are struggling, but I am actually finding Juliet more enjoyable to watch (Hayden, what have you done to me) because her impulsive decisions – bouncing from one thing/person to another to try to make herself feel better is at least active.
But, now that I write this, I wonder if it’s a reflection of what hinders you at different ages. In your 20’s, you can fall prey to bad decisions – in your 40’s, it’s much more likely to be in-decision that holds you back.
AHP: Okay, yes: it’s one thing if you have some money and then your husband is a real estate dufus that you’d still be getting mad residuals every time country radio played your version of Faith Hill’s “Breathe” (btw, I hate late Faith Hill, which is part of the reason I’m having problems reconciling Rayna James as a character with my unadulterated love for Connie Britton). Also, side note, but I love the suggestion that Powers Boothe (Rayna’s dad) is acting in a completely different (far more melodramatic) show than the rest of the cast. It’s perfect. (Jane: I want to talk more about Boothe! That delivery! that growl. I have to admit here that I never made it past a few episodes of FNL, but I made it to the end of Deadwood, and while I have few associations between Tami and Rayna, I do have very sharp Cy-flashbacks whenever I wash Nashville. He is a lot more melodramatic than the rest of the cast — which tips it into some weird hybrid of HBO’s best and schmalziest soaps. I don’t know what to do with it, but I feel like such acting cannot be put to Pure Evil. I’m waiting for Cy (who seems much smarter than most of the other characters) to surprise us, and, hopefully, surprise Rayna as well. But it’s true, he could also just be as awful as Rayna keeps emphasizing.)
Karen: This is gross, but if they had money, it would “solve” too many problems–like why she won’t just leave him, or why she’s rude enough not to love him. If they have money, Rayna isn’t vulnerable, and they need her weak right now for various reasons. And let me be clear–she’s not weak financially like most people. Lady has plenty of money, she just doesn’t have rich person money. Big difference. Rayna is a pretty dang selfish character, and that’s a good thing. All these characters are deeply, deeply flawed, and that’s something I like about it. It is amusing that Juliet is the more active person (I’ve only seen through the episode where she steals the nail polish), and I am sort of rooting for Deacon to leave Rayna behind (you know, until he finds out she had his baby years ago–nah, if that were the story, we’d probably have to watch her kid with some dumb storyline). I see a show where a creator likely had to postpone nuance to sell the show to executives–two women, who hate each other, who love the same man, and there’s an evil father, and an evil mother and a shady business deal, and a random ingenue, and on and on and on… I’m hoping she has the know-how to make more of this–and I’m willing to wait patiently (through season 1) to see if she can get there. Oh, and I like the music. Enough that I would buy the album.
Alaina: I LOVE the music. I’ve been listening to it, a lot. Hayden’s voice is in my head, in my head. How did she DO that? Karen, I too am hoping for more subtlety as time goes on. I also hope Teddy dies, or something, because that actor has no charisma. The scenes with him and Powers Boothe are like Powers talking to a green screen. (Jane: Love the music so much too, but my favourite pieces are actually more Gunnar/Scarlett than Panetierre’s character. “Fade Into You” is absolutely astonishing, but the part of me that loves Tay also appreciates what Juliette is doing with that persona–aka dirtying it up.)
Jia: Teddy does need to die! Or something. The unfolding subplot about fraud appears to be leading him into an out-of-the-picture future (hopefully). My biggest character problem is Scarlett. I think it’s a really powerful representation of a young, abusive relationship, but her accent is just absolutely like an improv troupe’s version of a Southern milkmaid idiot (she is Australian though! that is why. very Claire on LOST-esque in general) and yeah. She is disgusting in terms of this one-note innocence and servitude; I get the picture that whoever conceived of her character might be like “This is a girl who really just wants to make her boyfriend dinner at the end of the day, really truly”–as if that made it better, more complex, rather than the absolute opposite. The way she is around the house with Avery is so saddening. (Jane: Does anyone else think that Eric Close just has the perfect face to portray Teddy? It is intensely dislikeable, and he always seems to be cringing. Like, oops, is it me again? It’s a prime Awful Character look, and, yes, I’m just waiting for his ruse to fall apart. What I find hard to believe is how Rayna still seems to trust him so wholeheartedly? I guess that’s the point though — to feel for Rayna’s innocence, as she dumps Deacon from her band and ignores his calls, etc.)
AHP: First thing: yes, Teddy, GAWD, so bad. As Jia gestures above, I think they’re trying to give us a way to root for Rayna to leave him. Because if there’s no ethical justification, then it just makes Rayna look like a bad mom. But if Teddy’s bad — entirely different story; she’s leaving to keep her kids safe.
Second thing: SCARLETT, EFF-ING-A, SHE IS THE MOST REGRESSIVE PIECE OF SHIT. I’m sorry, I don’t mean that misogynistically, but her reticence and, as Jia notes, the ACCENT! just drive me nuts. “Southern Milkmaid” is spot-on. She moved to Nashville “just to support” her boyfriend?
Karen: Um, ladies, don’t you see her boyfriend? He’s Lucky from General Hospital. She would crazy not to love Lucky Spencer, the kid who should have been Anakin Skywalker. Accents don’t bug me cause I’m from St. Louis, the land of no accents. All accents are therefore exotic and accurate as far as I can tell. The bigger issue is the dude she is singing with–does he have any personality at all? At least the abusive boyfriend has a dream, and a look (sort of skeevy, oily guy trying to hide how gosh darn cute he is).
Jia: (I totally think the guy she sings with is cute–can’t help it! NO ALMOST-ANAKIN THOUGH) AHP: Um, I’m digging him, but that’s an opinion almost wholly built on his singing ability. And his ability to wear plaid shirts with snaps. But where is this weird assistant-to-producer relationship going? Pure narrative device to make Scarlett jealous/realize she needs to be with someone who is not a jealous ass?
Alaina: I wish they hadn’t cast Lucky, because it makes me worry more that this will turn into a soap. That aside, I see Scarlett as totally insecure, yes, but there are actually a lot of women out there who are like that. Who, when asked what they like about their boyfriend, say, “He treats me well.” Like that’s a bonus. I am rooting for her to snap out of it, but then have singer boy (none of us know his name!) be busy with Hailey so she has to stand on her own two feet. Or for her to write with Rayna? I want the plotlines to intersect more. Also, Bunny from The Wire is distracting me with his past character lives. They need to give these people more character traits so they can fully reincarnate.
Jia: It also does not help that he is Mayor Coleman, formerly Major Colvin, right? AHP: Wow. Wow.
Alaina: On another note, Stephen and Elena are writing in their diaries on The Vampire Diaries. Why am I still watching this show? Oh, that’s right: Damon. (Karen: Damn straight, Damon.)
AHP: So what do we see as a progressive development in the Scarlett storyline? Is it getting together with singer-partner-cuteness? Is that just trading one sort of dependency for another?
Alaina: See my comment above about her being on her own. AHP: Ah yes, write with Rayna — that would be amazing. And actually enact what happens a lot in Nashville, when female writers write for more visible female performers. (Jane: AHP, I didn’t know that! But it’s also a nice reflection of the female writing that goes into Nashville as a show.)
Jia:Agree that that’s where Scarlett is going. I also think that, eventually, if we’re thinking multiple seasons, she could be a challenger. And write with Rayna is the best idea! They are just talking, in the fifth episode (which I’m watching right now) about how she needs someone; she (Rayna) was like, “Maybe I should try it, to write on my own” and her manager was like ha ha ha. Also Teddy more and more reminds me of like, Jason Bateman’s boring boring cousin
Karen: The trouble with Scarlett is that she has NO point other than to be the more authentic young girl to Juliet’s false star. She’s a plot device, but we don’t yet know in what way she will shape the plot. Other than that, she just has a pretty voice.
AHP: Interesting — especially since Scarlett doesn’t actually “do country” in a traditional sense. But she is descended from royal country stock — which is why her boyfriend loves/hates her.
Jia: There are so many “descended from” problems in this show!
Alaina: Or, Scarlett could stay in this relationship until it really gets ugly, and then turn to Rayna (her writing partner) and we could learn about just how bad it got with Rayna and Deacon before he went to rehab. It would be interesting to see them spin this relationship out in a meaningful way.
Does anyone like Mrs. Coach in this role? And isn’t that the biggest problem of the show?
Alaina: I like her in it. I buy her as selfish and spoiled. I don’t “like” her as-in I wouldn’t be friends with her – but I think that’s the point. She is isolated, just like Juliet. She doesn’t seem to have real girl friends, and has poured her energy into herself and her relationships with men. They aren’t that different, when you think about it that way. If they are brave enough to explore this (instead of just asking us to be sympathetic to her plight) I will gladly come along.
Jia: I would watch Mrs. Coach do literally anything. She is dead-ending all over the place plotwise, but I think once she does the one thing she’s obviously going to do (sleep with Deacon) or just otherwise loosens her restraints, does something unpredictable, I think she’ll be likeable. I also think that Connie Britton has a really powerful appeal when she is attached to a likeable man; she plays best as part of a partnership. Which is weird. And interesting.
AHP: Also I’m jonesing for her to become a mentor to Juliet — of course, that’s the narrative tension driving the show; as soon as they have them become friends, then the tension is over. Or is it? I mean, think about FNL: the primary narrative tension was always ostensibly will the football team succeed? but it wasn’t really, or at least that was never what I was concerned about. I liked that FNL was willing to give us established, healthy relationships and let the narrative tension play out in how they would negotiate problems that arose.
Alaina: I want them to go on tour together, but have her mentor Scarlett.
Jane: I love all the narrative predicting that’s happening in this thread! That’s the magic of television that is just starting out, and still really finding its groove. As much as the audience is adjusting to this world, so are, we should remember, the writers, directors, and actors. I have to disagree a (little) bit with what has been said prior about Scarlett’s cardboard passivity, because, as someone mentioned, we see her push back against Avery in “Move It On Over.” She acknowledges some real truths about the hierarchies in their relationship, and a break up is definitely on the horizon… But, this is all to say that this show is developing and making character reveals in every episode, and multiple ones at that. What we’ve been saying prior about Scarlett’s character needs to be continuously adjusted, especially when we’re at something like Season 1, Episode 5. This is all to say that I wonder if someone can even personally write off a show until they’ve given it at least a dedicated first season viewing.
Elizabeth: Anne, I agree with you about the role of image with not just the characters, but the image of country music. Much in the same way that NYC was the 5th main character of “SATC,” I am enjoying how Nashville the city is utilized a reflection of the current state of country music. I acknowledge that this reflection is absurd and forced at times (the lakehouse belonged to Patsy Cline?), but when the woman asks Rayna if her new CD is available at Starbucks I cracked up- because yes, the new Taylor Swift album is being sold there. On the other hand, do songwriters that sign deals with publishing houses REALLY get that kind of luxurious creative space, complete with fully stocked kitchens?
The timing of this show is very interesting to me as well; without the shift from traditional country to country-pop (to pure pop in some cases- looking at you again, Taylor), this show wouldn’t have been embraced. I’ve been pondering whether this show, with these narratives, would have worked in the 1980s. I think not because of how much class and conspicuous consumption is represented in the show as a natural influence in country music. From my limited knowledge of the scene in the 80s (Willie Nelson! Oak Ridge Boys! The Judds!), country music was still viewed as the most humble of genres. In the previous episode Rayna is nervous about performing at the country club in front of the wealthy socialites and utters “these are the people that made fun of me for liking country music!”
Lucia: Okay, sorry, am deadline/work swamped today, but I did want to bring up one thing in re: Mrs. Coach that was triggered for me by the prompt and I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet, which is that this is the woman who did American Horror Story last year. (Which is a huge draw for biggish name stars, it seems, even this year.) This is the woman who had sex with a ghost (?) in a gimp suit. So let’s not pretend that she isn’t up for anything and that, all things considered, Nashville represents a step up in character development from that particular moment in Connie Britton’s career. (Which isn’t to say she wasn’t brilliant and that show isn’t its own type of awesome, rather that she went from 4D Tami to 2D horrorshow heroine and has swung back up to a woman who behaves, IMO, in a plausible, human way.)
As far as Nashville goes, imma just say for the moment that it just occurred to me that I’d like it a lot more if it were purely populated by women of a certain age, rather than the youngs vs. olds we currently have. Less All About Eve, more…well, I almost said Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which is totally not where I was going with it, but it’s as apt a representation of women of more or less the same age going at it, though the power balance leaves a lot to be desired in terms of conflict. POINT BEING: I’d rather see a Faith Hill vs. Shania Twain struggle for the ages than Faith vs. like, I dunno…Taylor Swift.
Jane: Lucia! “Less All About Eve, more…well, I almost said Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” That is perfect. I agree that that would be wholly more interesting (though also more difficult to pull off and sell, I’m guessing), and perhaps difficult for the 18-20-something TV-watching crowd to relate to. It does feel like the show is feeding the mainstream public a version of “country music” that is based around loosely, but at least visibly popular, country stars. I don’t know what’s happening to pop country, but is the future Taylor Swift?
Side-Question: How much do you think Panettiere’s character is really molded after Swift? I definitely see some resonances, but Panettiere just does not seem like a sweet, fun person to hang out with. But that’s definitely the reference, right?
AHP:I’ve heard lots of references to the fact that she’s supposed to be a mix of Swift and Carrie Underwood, who is supposedly a class-A snob/piece-of-work. Although the songwriting piece definitely seems to be influenced by Swift.
I’d also be interested in women-of-a-certain age, but I do think that the two generations do represent two strains of country that do seem to continue to battle it out. There’s a great piece by Ann Powers (music critic for NPR) about the long legacy of country duets, and she points to all of the different “strains” in country that each of the characters represent — Scarlett and her singing partner are in the Civil Wars alt-country strain; Scarlett’s boyfriend is supposed to be punk-country a la Jack White, etc. etc.
Lucia: HP doesn’t seem like a fun person to hang out with, but at least she can sing in tune. And OMGOMG I did NOT know that about Carrie Underwood, that is amazing. My money would be on the “talentless but why does no one notice oh right she’s hot” part of the character being a representation of TSwift, and the rest going to another well-known behind-the-scenes pain-in-the-ass, Underwood or otherwise. (Jane: marriage of Swift & Underwood actually does sound like a mess/nightmare.) (Jia: I also see a little bit of Britney Spears, maybe a little more than a bit, in the whole family meltdown/rehab storyline with her mother. I like that storyline, because I think the actress who plays her mother is really compelling). (Jane: People have also compared Nashville to Smash, and there’s definitely some Marilyn Monroe in Juliette.)
Question: I’m loving the female networking primed to happen in this show (as Alaina said above, they need to intersect more, and I believe they will). But can we talk about male networks? What are these treacherous men HIDING from women, and from each other (this is why I want Lamar & Rayna to have some sort of memo against Teddy, eventually)? I think even if Scarlett is (as yet) a little disappointing to the show’s feminist message (I mean Callie Khouri!), then we should think about how all the men are portrayed. They are all sort of icky, no?
AHP: RIGHT, especially Powers Boothe and that weird relationship with both of his daughters, and the amount of hate he displaces onto Rayna because of the apparent actions of her mother. I think Alaina said something to me earlier this week about how these are all WEAK men — lacking confidence, gumption, legitimate power, morals, etc.
Jane:So weak! And SO CREEPY? Whenever Avery hugs Scarlett and gives that side-eye, I shiver. When they started making out, I guess, “passionately,” in episode 5, it felt incredibly dark, and somehow violent. And even Deacon — the “good one” — is getting naked with someone maybe at least 20 years younger than him? The show seems to want to portray Deacon as weak, out of control, needing female support, but again — MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE need to be taken into consideration here too.
Ok, last question from me–and this bounces off some of what has been said earlier about Scarlett–but while I’m really enjoying this show so far, I’m afraid that it’s going to turn into this thing where all women are plot devices and sources of emotional clarity in order to save damaged men. Scarlett seems mostly a pristine mirror through which to reflect everyone else’s complex interiorities, and I want her to have her own. I don’t want all these women to end up saving the men in their lives, financially, emotionally, or otherwise. But as it stands, from a narrative perspective, the women are not intersecting right now and almost all relationships are being mediated via men. AKA the men are necessary.
Elizabeth: Lucia, great suggestion re: shifting the focus to Rayna’s contemporaries. After all, Rayna was compared to Martina McBride so surely she has another female singer who has also had similar success. All I ask is that they NOT make said female singer part of another damn love triange (trapezoid?). I also see Juliette as a hybrid of Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and some Kelly Pickler thrown in for good measure.
(And on a less serious side note, I can’t read “Scarlett” without thinking of the infamous Lindsay Lohan graffiti)
Allison: Okay, I am uber-sorry for coming in late to this wholly awesome thread, but someone has to spend her Friday mornings talking about Friday Night Lights with UVa undergraduates, and that someone is me.
Now, a couple of things come to mind after reading the above:
1) While I have no doubt the creators want Panettiere to be an amalgam of Swift and Underwood, since we’re talking about past-character lives, I see her as an extension of her Heroes character, Claire Bennet. That scene where she throws her mother’s junkie partner out of her house and is standing on the doorstep of her (original) house? It would not have surprised me if she had taken flight a la Claire. Similarly, the woman makes one face.
2) Scarlett’s accent is killing me. Killing me. I don’t buy it for one second. Also, everything that’s been said about her regressive and potentially abusive relationship? Yes. I am giving Avery the side eye. I don’t trust that guy for a second. But I want her to write with Rayna and I think that’s where the show is headed. Or Juliet will write with Rayna. Or with Scarlett. There is a collaboration coming. (Jane: Triangulated female relationship? Are Rayna and Juliet going to stop fighting over Deacon, and start for Scarlett soon? It seems, though, that in the show’s diegesis, Juliet is the worst singer, Rayna the better [not true in reality]. But the show also seems to emphasize that Juliet has the better songwriting chops, and it seems, at least from Episode 5, to suggest that Rayna probably doesn’t have much experience writing songs. But who knows!) (AW: Ep 5 definitely suggests that Rayna hasn’t written before, and then makes this leap to her having completed a song worthy of recording almost immediately, right? Or did I misread that?)
3) I would watch Eric Close do *almost* anything, but that is a personal preference and neither here nor there. However, I want Kimberley Williams Paisley off the show. Ugh. (Jane: She reminds me of Bambi.) (AHP: Bambi with too much make-up). (Jia: All I can think of is that stupid Father of the Bride scene where she’s playing basketball with Steve Martin) (AW: I don’t want to hate her but I do. And I sort of resent the initial are-they-having-an-affair-or-aren’t-they way we’re introduced to her. Soapy, yes, but what would it have done for her character, for the storyline, for the larger representation of women if she had been portrayed less as someone’s wife (“I go by Margaret Kinter now” — “Robert’s wife?” or whatever) than as a businessperson who aided in a felony?)
The characterization of men is fascinating. How do you reconcile the different places we’ve seen the male characters v. the female characters–public/private, alone/surrounded by others, etc.?
AW:For instance, and this isn’t yet a fully formed thought, so forgive me, but it seems like Lamar is almost always buffeted by his daughter, or meeting with individuals alone in an office or well-appointed room. In the last episode we saw Teddy meeting with Peggy in the dark, or in a car. I would say it’s a function of the women-as-performers trope that allows the women on the show to be seen in well-lit, more crowded scenarios, but what about Deacon? Or Avery? Or even Gunnar? They’ve been alone, or solitary in some way as well.
Jia: To me, the biggest difference I’ve noted in the men/women of Nashville is that everybody seems to be chasing the same fame/wealth/power/sexual dominance, but the women perform these ambitions out in the open (as you note, a function of the female roles in the show) while the male characters’ ambitions are more of the underhand, secretive, mediated, layered type. (AW: Yes, exactly. And of course the men need the women’s support, because there are ways in which this version of success wants to happen within an idealized mid-twentieth-century world. Hence, Scarlett/Avery. Rayna playing at Teddy’s benefit, pulling her support from Coleman)
AHP: Alright, I’m calling it — I want to thank everyone for writing (people reading this have no idea how much fun it is to watch others write in Google Docs; it’s like a ghost using your computer) and hopefully we can do this again sometime soon….maybe we Scarlett bucks the eff up and Teddy’s out of the picture? Fingers crossed?
Outro to “No One Will Ever Love You……” (Can we get some of that tension back, please?)
You’ve heard the news: Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are separating after 9 years and 2 kids together.
Last week, when I posted a blind item from Lainey Gossip alluding to as much, I was somewhat taken aback by the response. I love Amy Poehler and Will Arnett (I especially love Amy Poehler, but we’ll get to that), but I didn’t realize that so many other people did as well. We’re talking profound investment in this relationship — far more than one would expect, especially given that the two are not, by any means, tremendous stars. They’re television personalities, they’re tremendously talented, but movie stars they are not.
And it’s not just fans: The AV Club declared the very “concept of love” dead; over at Gawker, “Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are Separating So Go Home and Break Up with Your Boyfriend Because ‘Love’ Is a Lie.”
Reactions fall into three general categories:
1.) I’m never invested in celebrity relationships, but I’m invested in this one, and this sucks.
2.) They seemed genuinely happy; this is sad.
3.) If Poehler can’t do it, no one can.
Granted, I concede that most of the sadness is flowing through the conduits of my Twitter and Facebook feeds, along with the comments on The Hairpin, Gawker, The AV Club, and similar publications. In other words, people who consume/love Poehler/Arnett products, which is a rather specific demographic. To spell it out: educated, upper middle-class, media-hipsters (a different category than the normal hipster; we consume hip media but are not actually hip. God knows I’m not hip. I just watch Louie and love Ron Swanson.)
With that in mind, here’s what I think is happening: this quirky, intelligent, companionable couple can’t make a relationship work long-term, and it highlights the tremendous challenges to maintaining a similar relationship in our “real” lives.
Let me take a step back.
Amy Poehler’s image = Intelligent, feminist, tremendously hard-working. Success on her own terms. Beautiful in a non-traditional who-needs-to-be-a-supermodel-I-mean-seriously way. Powerful friendship with another powerful woman. When asked by Seventeen how she got boys to notice her when she was young, she responded “I had no idea how to get boys to notice me. I still don’t. Who cares?”
Like many television personalities, her image is very closely aligned with her television character. In my mind, Poehler is Parks and Rec‘s Leslie Knope, minus a bit of the neuroses. Like Knope, Poehler’s worked very hard to reach a position of power; she does something she loves. She’s a feminist who is unafraid to be unpopular. She thinks women are important and awesome. I mean, Galentine’s Day!
Unlike Knope, Poehler also two (very adorable, very normal looking) children, and didn’t seem to have Knope’s struggle between desiring romance and following her life-long ambition.
….Until, seemingly, now. Amy Poehler “had it all.” I realize how problematic that phrase is, and it has been problematized thoroughly in recent months following the publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic. Slaughter pointed to why “it all” is impossible; others pointed to why “it all” is ridiculous. But star images embody concepts that don’t exist in real life, but which we nevertheless strive for: Marilyn Monroe was innocent sexuality; Angelina Jolie is domestic, exotic sexuality. And Amy Poehler was “having it all” — intelligence, fame, respect, equitable partnership, children.
The fact that the two of them are both comedians also makes it seem possible to PLAYFULLY “have it all” — and even professionally collaborate! To great success! I always forget about the their performances in Blades of Glory. Perfection.
But Mallory Ortberg (handle: Melis) got it right in the comments on The Hairpin:
She’s being somewhat facetious, of course, but she’s right: a lot of us (me, you, others who read this blog) identify with Poehler or Arnett and their particular negotiation of “having it all.” We know very, very little of their actual relationship. What we do know is what it seemed to represent, and what its demise seems to represent.
I’m rewatching Season 4 of Parks and Rec right now, and it’s no spoiler to say how painful it is to watch Poehler’s character torn between her affection for Ben and the fact that her run for city council makes that relationship legally impossible. It tortures Leslie, and it tortures me — in part because the show is literalizing the tension many women feel in their own careers, only toss in the desire for a baby or two as well. To see that tension spread to Poehler’s extra-textual life makes it all the more poignant.
I can’t speak to what upsets men about the end of this relationship. I imagine it’s not altogether dissimilar: it might be historically easier for men to “have it all,” but most of the awesome men that I know want their partners to “have it all” as well. For these feminist men, their own version of “having it all” means equitable having-it-all-ness: something, again, that Poehler and Arnett’s collective image representative. (Please, Disappointed Men, elaborate/expand in the comments).
There might not be such a thing as taking news like this “too personal.” Remember: what we talk about when we talk about celebrities is, as ever, ourselves.
NOTE: Spoiler-free. Some characteristics/life events are revealed in Episodes 1-3, but nothing earth-shattering.
Revenge has been one of my greatest elliptical machine pleasures this Winter. It’s well-acted, the clothes are fantastic, intricately plotted, and melodramatic as all get out — just how I like a good elliptical machine show. Revenge is (very) loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo, which is to say that it rotates on the premise of someone who is betrayed by his intimates, sent to jail, realizes that his intimates put him there, and returns, disguised, to take revenge on them.
The twist of Revenge is clever: the betrayed figure dies in prison, but his daughter, a young girl at the time of his imprisonment, returns, now a grown woman with an assumed identity, to their beach house (in the Hamptons, OF COURSE), to take revenge on all the high-powered business men (and their spouses) who betrayed him. What makes it escapist isn’t the revenge narrative, but the beautiful, monied background. Everyone loves a story about The Hamptons — the people are gorgeous, the clothes are immaculate, the parties are so…..planned. And while our main character once had money, she was sent to group homes, and then to juvey, and didn’t get released until she was 18….at which point she discovered that she was half-owner in the TV-world version of Google! I won’t explain the mechanics, but what you need to understand is that she is ridiculously wealthy — the sort of wealthy that proves so handy for screenwriters, who can essentially grant her every privilege, convenience, and beautiful dress she desires.
In other words: this is some good soapy TV. But over the course of the first half of the series, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the female characters in the show, and the harsh realities that face them, represent the ugly flipside of the “freedoms” promised by postfeminism.
Postfeminism is a loaded term. Here’s my simplified and contentious definition:
Postfeminism is, most explicitly, the idea that feminism is no longer necessary. Feminism accomplished its goals in the ’70s and ’80s, and we’re ready to move on and just “be” women, whatever that means. (Suggestions that we live in a “post-race” society often hinge on the idea that a black president means that racism is no longer an issue in our society, let alone a defining issue). We don’t need feminism, we just need “girl power” – a very different concept than the “grrl power” that undergirded the Riot Grrl movement of the early ’90s (which was, itself, a response to the rise of postfeminism). Postfeminism is forgoing freedoms or equal rights in the name of prettier dresses, more expensive make-up, and other sartorial “freedoms” to consume. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is postfeminism manifest — a self-sustaining (sex worker) who meets her prince, who will allow her to consume (and become her “true” self). Sex & the City is postfeminist. Bridget Jones is postfeminist. 27 Dresses is postfeminist.
In short, the idea that consumption and self-objectification (which usually leads to romantic monogamy) = equal rights and equal treatment is postfeminist.
In text after text of the last twenty years, postfeminist philosophy, for lack of a better word, is portrayed as the path towards happiness and fulfillment. Until, in a text like Revenge, it doesn’t.
To be clear: Revenge is not the first to highlight the negative aspects of postfeminism. I mean, you could read the disasters that were the Sex and the City movies as the dystopic end to the fantasy narrative displayed in the television show. You could also look at the hysteria in the vast majority of female-oriented reality programming and read it as the postfeminist dream of success and “having it all” gone tragically wrong. Put differently, Revenge isn’t the first television show to present the opportunity for such a reading.
But let’s get down to the analysis and look at our two main characters, their postfeminist choices, and the dystopic realities in which they find themselves.
EXAMPLE ONE: VICTORIA GRAYSON
Victoria is vintage Hampton’s. Pilates body, Botox face, age-appropriate yet still sexy gowns, long hair that still connotes beauty (as opposed to middle-aged-ness). A handsome son in his mid-20s, a beautiful daughter in her late teens. A silver fox husband who spends most of his summer in the city and runs a well-regarded global capitol something-or-another. Her name carries tremendous weight. She can ruin someone’s reputation with a single word. People anticipate her parties. She’s apparently the social doyenne of, oh, I dunno, all rich people on the East Coast. Her anniversary is carried on the front page of some section of what appears to be The New York Times. She came from nothing to become the second wife of a major-player capitalist and gets all of the benefits.
BUT WAIT JUST ONE SECOND.
Let’s talk about these benefits:
1.) Sacrifices former identity (seriously — it’s totally sublimated, save the mention of “coming from nothing” every once in awhile) to steal another woman’s husband.
2.) Alienates both of her children for reasons for various unforgivable reasons
3.) But she can ruin her best friend’s reputation! Which she does! When she discovers that said best friend is sleeping with her husband!
4.) She is incapable of showing emotion. I mean that literally: she has a frozen face from plastic surgery and collagen injections, which evacuates her face from expression and suggests (this is a melodrama, after all, when emotion and character traits overflow into the mise-en-scene) a heart that wants, but no longer has the muscle memory, to feel.
5.) Her body is slim and toned (despite lack of toning activity — I’m guessing she has a Pilates Reformer in the basement) but girl never eats. Or even really gets to drink.
6.) Spends a lot of time thinking about how to destroy the younger, seemingly history-less girl who threatens to take her son away via marriage.
7.) Doesn’t read.
8.) Doesn’t know how to use the computer (seriously, one scene with her daughter’s computer confirms as much).
9.) Doesn’t have any hobbies other than party planning, which her party planner does for her, and wearing dresses at all times.
10.) Has no interests or sense of self-worth other than her childrens’ affection, which is now lost to her.
11.) Clearly loathes her husband, who loathes her in return.
12.) Periodically pines for a time when she had a sense of true love, but forsook that true love in the name of money and prestige.
13.) Has no friends. No lady friends, no male friends, no child friends, no underling sidekick friends. No friends, no confidantes, no community. She’s never alone but the loneliest person on the Eastern seaboard.
The lesson of Victoria: if you don’t care about equality or a life of your own, then you can have all of the pretty dresses you want. And be miserable, wholly miserable, in ten years’ time. Victoria Grayson is the first wave of postfeminism, come to fruition and left to rot.
EXAMPLE #2: EMILY THORNE/AMANDA CLARKE
Educated, well-traveled, lovely accent, well-spoken, attractive. Beautiful slightly wavy blonde hair and innovative if somewhat circumscribed fashion taste. Gets the hottest man in her age bracket to fall in love with her in about three days. Allied with the most wealthy man in America. Kind, polite, thoughtful, and spends a lot of time donating her time and energy to philanthropy. Orphaned but has developed a firm sense of self and purpose. Enormously and independently wealthy. Able to bestow favor and fame upon anyone. Wields tremendous (albeit unseen) power. Understands the puppetry of social interactions and how to pull the strings. One savvy young lady.
BUT WAIT JUST ONE MORE SECOND.
Let’s talk about Emily/Amanda’s life:
1.) Due to admittedly tragic circumstances, she spent her youth in foster care (which wronged her) followed by the juvenile detention system (which also wronged her). But instead of spending her newfound and abundant wealth working to right the systemic wrongs that led to a situation like hers, she goes after the individuals that caused her distress. This strategy isn’t necessarily post-feminist, but it is certainly neo-liberal: like Crash or The Blind Side, which suggest that repairing relationships between individuals can correct systemic problems. Her father died; her vendetta is not against society, or against those who might inflect the same sort of process (albeit within different parameters) on someone else, but against the specific individuals who led to the suffering of her and her father.
2.) Has one supposed friend. Apart from the very first scene in the very first episode, when she suggests that they get drunk on champagne, they mostly spend time talking about they’ll spend some quality time together at some later point. Her ostensible friendship with the Google-owner-guy is a mix of passive-aggression and aggression and utilitarianism.
3.) Has no hobbies or interests other than exacting revenge. She can, however, use a computer, but only to exact said revenge.
4.) Has no media interests other than re-watching clips and re-reading newspaper clippings related to her revenge plot.
5.) Has forsaken her childhood bond with a very nice, very working class, very authentic (he has a beard!) man (who named a sailboat after her, jeez) in order to pursue her revenge.
6.) Never enjoys any of her richy-rich toys because she is so busy being revengeful.
7.) Somehow has several mentor figures who provide her with sporadic guidance…on being revengeful, never on self-actualizing or letting go of said revenge and doing something with her one precious life.
8.) Never gets to hang out in any public spaces — life seems to be limited to fleeting visits to the bar to fetch people and the private party circuit (but only private parties hosted by Victoria at that).
9.) Uses beauty and charisma to attract handsome man….who she plans to destroy! But oh no, turns out she has feelings for him??!!?? WHICH SHE MUST DESTROY!
10.) Can never find happiness because she’s living a lie in order to avenge the wrongs of the generation before her.
The lesson of Emily: as the second generation of postfeminism, you are reaping the “awards” of your parents’ decisions. Which, as it turns out, means that you get all of the clothes and good hair and fortune….and nothing to guide you or add meaning to your life, save your elaborate revenge strategy and her beautiful wardrobe.
Revenge is clearly a tragedy: a young girl’s father is taken from her; her life is ruined; she dedicates her life to harming those who caused her (and her father) harm. We’re obviously encouraged to pity Emily — not just because her father was taken from her, but because she’s so hopefully mired in the whirlpool of revenge….and we have no idea how she’ll function once that purpose and drive is taken from her.
But as I’ve demonstrated above, Revenge can also be read as the tragedy of postfeminism: what happens when you trade the politics of feminism for the bounty of consumerism, what happens when you grow up in a world where those are the realities for women set before you, both by the media and the other women in your life.
I’m not saying this works perfectly, but I am saying that our two main characters (and several others in the show) don’t suggest Being a Woman in 21st Century America is Awesome. They suggest that it’s claustrophobic, prescribed, unhappy, and even if you have all the tools that you thought you needed to play the game, deeply, deeply unsatisfying. The moral isn’t just that revenge is never satisfying, but that postfeminism, for all of its glossy, gorgeous surfaces, is rotten at its core.
Note: Using mildly nefarious means, I am currently watching Season 2, which will air stateside in a few months. But there are no real spoilers concerning Season 2, save its setting (we are now in World War I, that’s no secret) and the use of a curling iron.
For the last four years, I have been surrounded by media studies academics. In other words, people whose job it is to consume media. Name a television show, a movie, a popular internet site, or a video game, and chances are that 2 out of the 3 people with whom you were speaking had not only viewed that piece of media, but developed a theory of varying levels of complexity to explain it/its popularity/its failure/its aesthetics/its influence on other forms of media, you get the picture.
But when you start work at a new school, one where you are the only media studies scholar in a sea of academics, things change. I first experienced this when I taught at Whitman, and I’m experiencing it again at my new job here at Putney. I don’t mean to imply that my colleagues are uncultured — far from it. More that they aren’t hyper-media-cultured the way that my job (and passions) have required me to be.
Which is all a long way of saying that I’ve had a hard time having conversations about my favorite television shows in real life. I KNOW, LIFE IS SO HARD. You don’t watch The Good Wife, math teacher! You don’t watch Misfits, biology teacher! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? (Unlike Whitman, where television still remains a bit of a dirty word, I will say that Putney’s faculty is well-versed in television that has made its way to DVD: when you live on a farm in the middle of Vermont, TV-on-DVD is the way to go. Friday Night Lights, The Wire, and Freaks and Geeks are all very, very popular). But you know what everyone has watched? Science and math teachers, English teachers, history teachers and librarians and administrators?
DOWNTON ABBEY! And this isn’t some weird New England thing — everyone loves it! Moms and cousins and bosses and students and 13-year-olds, they all love some Downton! (Okay, maybe boys don’t love the Downton as much, but I’d love to hear from those who do). And you know who else loves Downton? Actual British People! As in the show averaged 10 million viewers per viewing….and then 6 million additional viewers when it was rebroadcast on PBS in America. PBS! You guys, when was the last time that 6 million people watched PBS and it wasn’t for a Ken Burns documentary? This is a huge deal. Plus Downton beat Mildred Pierce for the “Best Mini-Series” Emmy, and everyone knows how hard it is to defeat the combo of HBO, mini-series, Kate Winslet, and period piece.
In short: Downton is popular. It has a broad appeal. I was about to assert that it has done so without any of the repugnance that attends other broadly popular shows, such as that good ol’ populist punching bag Two and a Half Men. But the appeal of Downton, like so much broadly popular television, from Two and a Half Men to CSI, stems from two sources. The first is self-evident: Downton has high production values, its well-written, the dresses are obviously fabulous, and the performances are good.
The second should be obvious, but it gets hidden: Downton is genre television. It’s a straight up costume/class drama in the way that Two and a Half Men is a straight up laugh-track sitcom, and CSI: Your Town is a straight up procedural. Sure, Downton is about the slow disintegration of the landed gentry in England, and thus a story about the end of the class/costume drama, but it’s still an “upstairs/downstairs” costume drama of the first degree.
Which isn’t to say it’s bad. Indeed, that’s part of why you probably started watching — because you know what to expect. Costume drama! From Britain! Stuff about servants AND about fabulously wealthy people?! COUNT ME IN!
Because that’s the magic of genre: you don’t need to know the specifics. You know that you like the basics, and that whatever builds upon those basics will satisfy you in some way. That’s why you go see a rom-com on Valentine’s Day, or watch something with the word ‘vampire’ in it, or go see films that open on weekends in July: they’re all genre films. Katherine Heigl is now a genre unto herself; so is The Rock. ”Genre” doesn’t mean that the film is necessarily bad; it just means that it sells itself on the promise of a specific set of pleasures.
In other words: you know what you’re going to get when you see something advertised as a costume drama. That’s why people were so pissed with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette: it had all the accotruements of a costume drama, but what’s with this punk music?! And whimsical meditations on the way that the grass sways? Coppola betrayed genre expectations, and thus betrayed a solid chunk of her audience.
With that said, the best genre fare doesn’t stick strictly to the recipe. (Which is why I actually really love Marie Antoinette, but that’s another conversation). The Sopranos was a gangster show, but it was a gangster show with its protagonist in therapy. Downton is a costume and class drama, but one that deals with the disintegration of the very division of wealth and social mores that sustained the clearly delineated British class system. It’s a genre show about the end of the genre, if that makes sense.
And that’s also what makes it interesting, because it means that Downton has an American head-of-house, anxiety over the future of the household, maids going to typing school, women having sex with Turkish ambassadors, and [SEASON TWO SPOILER ALERT!] sisters doing low-class work, like NURSING and FARMING. The horror! Or actually, the non-horror! The subtle anxiety and excitement! Because that’s how actual change occurs — not with huge declarations of LIFE IS CHANGING! OUR WAY OF LIFE IS OVER! but through subtle actions and reactions that accumulate into change. [At times Maggie Smith's character can veer dangerously into the "huge declarations of change" territory: I am the Dowager Countess of Grantham, I am aghast at all modern things! WHAT IS A WEEK-END! But the writers cloak her character as comic relief -- as almost a satire of herself -- which, along with Maggie Smith's performance style, is the reason she comes off a woman, once strong and powerful, whose grandchildren merely humor her....an almost tragi-comic reminder of an era now gone, an era revealed as slightly absurd.]
There are other obvious ways that Downton subverts genre expectations: the footman is gay (people were gay before 1960! In Britain!); the driver is an Irish rebel with a penchant for Marxist literature. But what interests me most — what continually pushes Downton‘s plot to clash with the expectations of the costume/class drama — are the recurrent pressures and pleasures of modernity. How does the telephone change the way that the household runs? How does the car change where, and with whom, one can ride? Even the steam engine changed the facility with which members of the household, both “up” and “down” stairs, could go to London. How does shellshock — a phenomenon of modern war — affect returning soldiers and their places within the home? How does the spread of the press, and the self-made men it made rich, affect who someone of Mary Crawley’s status could marry? HOW DID A CURLING IRON CHANGE THE WAY MARY CRAWLEY COULD DO HER HAIR? (I’m not kidding; this is a real question). Modernity, you change everything! But in such subtle, fascinating ways.
Like so many others, Math and Science teachers and cousins and Mothers and teenagers, I came to Downton Abbey for its genre. But I stayed for the way the show — and its grappling with modernity — contorts it. And, okay, fine, the dresses.
Readers, we have an issue. And that issue is the badness of True Blood — and our persistence in watching it. Now, don’t get me wrong — I do think that True Blood has flashes of genius, most of them directly linked to Russell Edgerton, Layfayette, and Pam. But the show as a whole is somewhat of an abomination, and I’m wondering how so many of us got so deep, so fast….and now can’t work our way out of the serial viewership hole.
So first things first: is True Blood actually bad? I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I think we might need to agree that while the show has interesting, compelling, campy, and extremely entertaining parts, as a whole, it’s a disaster. There are too many plot lines, none of which seem to coalesce into any realistic whole. The tone is too mixed, with some parts — I’m thinking of Sookie in the fairy land at the beginning of this season, or the winter wonderland love scene about half way through — that are so barefaced cheesy that I’m embarrassed to watch. As in the BF walks in the room and I have to turn off the television. There’s cheesy that’s funny, and then there’s cheesy that makes you wince and kinda hate yourself, and TB is coming down on the side of the latter far too often.
So there are some good plot lines around good characters. Jason Stackhouse with the evangelicals, for example, or Eric’s backstory with his maker Godric. But there are far more bad characters with prolonged and tortuous plot lines: everything involving Tara; everything involving Sam; everything involving Hoyt’s mom. I could obviously go on (and on and on) about how the show fails on a semi-regular basis, but I think we can agree on the simple fact that it oscillates between the plainly ridiculous and the truly, painfully bad.
So why do we keep watching? Over the course of its four seasons, True Blood has transformed from Alan Ball’s newest project, limping along with a small following, to HBO’s primetime flagship. Part of its popularity stems from our generalized cultural vampire moment — I, for one, wasn’t into vampires, but then I got sucked into stupid Twilight, which led me to True Blood, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Part of the popularity stems from people watching it for camp, which it obviously supplies, and many, many people watch it simply for the eye candy (HELLLLLLO, ERIC; hello Sookie’s boobs) and explicit sex scenes that would be at home on late night Skinamax.
But that shouldn’t be enough to keep so many people watching. If it were just a trainwreck, most people would lose interest after a season or two, but True Blood‘s viewership only continues to grow. Same for the eye candy and the sex; same for the vampire-ness, which, as the show’s guiding narrative metaphor, has only become increasingly muddled and confused.
Which leaves us with two heavily-linked options for True Blood‘s enduring popularity: seriality and romance.
Seriality, in brief, is the way that the show makes you want to see what happens with the narrative and the characters that inhabit it. ”Series” television is the type of show that you can enter at any moment and know what’s going on — most sitcoms, for example, or Law and Order – while “serial” television demands watching from the beginning to the end. Most “quality” television on the air today is serial television, most network/”mainstream” television is series television. (Many programs are hybrids, which chance viewers to enter in at any point, but also provide loyal viewers with serialized story lines that add nuance and context to individual episodes).
Soap operas are quintessentially serial television, and True Blood is, let’s be honest, a primetime soap opera with high production values. Through its use of narrative arcs — whether arcs that have lasted all four seasons (what will happen between Sookie and Bill?), arcs that structure a single season (how will Jason escape the Christians? Will Marianne take over all mystical creatures?) — we are pulled to watch the next episode even when we are disgusted with what we have just seen. Viewer curiosity — seeing the narrative through to its end — trumps viewer frustration.
This happens with many series — I know that I followed Gossip Girl (another primetime soap opera) far past the point of actual interest simply because I wanted to see what happened with Chuck and Blair. Lots of shows have similar pull, but few have been so successful in being bad and pulling people along. In fact, most shows start strong — see, for example, The O.C. — and then peter out, with fewer and fewer viewers feeling compelled enough to tune in despite badness. With True Blood, however, the characters just keep getting hotter, and there’s just enough comic relief, just enough flashes of quasi-brilliance and turns of phrase to trump the narrative lulls and moments of absurdity when most people would throw up their hands and abandon the show. While True Blood‘s good parts may not make a cohesive whole, those parts, on their own, provide enough pleasure and entertainment to foil viewer’s best attempts to abandon the show and its serial pull.
And then there’s the romance. Romance is often a main (or only) serial hook — we continue reading or watching a piece of media simply because we want to know if the romance that has been put into motion at the beginning of the text will come to its obvious conclusion. Serial romance usually takes one of two paths:
1.) Will the obvious male protagonist and female protagonist get together, despite situational and attitudinal struggles? (See TB Season One).
2.) Now that the male protagonist and female protagonist have gotten together and satisfied audiences, what will happen now that one half of the couple has become an obvious drag and there’s another person, perhaps tall, Nordic, and f-ing BUILT, waiting in the wings? (See every season of TB after Season One).
What’s somewhat weird True Blood is that Sookie obviously sucks. Her character is annoying, her voice is annoying, she’s so inconsistent with her actions and choices, but the question of whether or not she will have very naked and very graphic sex with a.) Bill; b.) Eric; or c.) Alcide, complete with appropriately baroque soundtrack, again trumps the fact that her sole redeeming quality is her extensive sundress collection. But the likability of the all three of her love interests keeps audiences interested in who she’ll pick, even if we don’t necessarily like her. Or maybe we’re just willing her to pick who’d we pick? Which was so obviously Eric until he lost his memories and became so lame I cover my ears when he speaks? I feel the same way around memory-less Eric as I do around the letters from my college boyfriends, which is really saying something. (Don’t worry; college boyfriends don’t read this blog, they’re all too busy fly-fishing and writing poetry and being earnest).
So there you have it. You (and I) keep watching True Blood because Layfayette keeps saying “hooker please,” Alcide keeps taking off his shirt, and Sookie keeps hooking up with people and then changing her mind. I’m still somewhat embarrassed by how little it takes to keep me glued to a show that is otherwise so truly bad.
I have a serious problem. Like many readers of this blog, I love serial television. I love bingeing; I love finding new serial narratives; I love revisiting old ones. But every so often, I reach a sticking point and, for various reasons, both rational and irrational, I just cannot. get. past. it. This post thus thinks about why sticking points occur…and what can (or should?) do about them.
Recently, I’ve experienced two extremely befuddling sticking points.
The first has incited no small amount of heated “BUT YOU JUST GOTTA KEEP GOING!” responses. Nearly two years ago, I binged on the first season on Breaking Bad and continued through the first few episodes of Season Two. It was late May, done with finals, uncharacteristically rainy (for two days straight!) and I had all the time in the world to finish off the season. While S01 had caused no small amount of anxiety and dread, the first few episodes of S02 — and a particular situation in a Mexican house — produced so much anxiety that I felt as if I was about to have a cardiac incident. No seriously.
I fully realize that Breaking Bad is, arguably, the best show on television. I get it! I really loved the first season! I totally want to keep going! But YOU GUYS, I can’t. The idea of starting again makes me feel authentically nauseous.
The second sticking point deals with Friday Night Lights, which is, without a doubt, in my top five pantheon of shows from the last decade. Especially S03. And S04….AT LEAST UNTIL I GOT MIRED MID-SEASON. And here’s the ridiculous thing: the episode on which I’m stuck is, arguably, one of the best single episodes not only of the series as a whole but in serial drama from the past ten years.
I’m talking about the episode entitled “The Son,” and if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I watched this episode and bawled like a small child. For an extended period of time. Even writing about it now I get teary eyed. Hell, even thinking about the fact that Zach Gilroy wasn’t nominated for an Emmy for that episode makes me teary eyed. And now I just can’t press play again, even watching silly silly Pillars of the Earth with the rest of S04 patiently waiting in my queue. Again, I totally realize that this is DEMENTED. Vince and East Dillon and Coach are waiting for me! Tami Taylor and the abortion episode, THEY’RE WAITING! TIM RIGGINS, I MISS YOU SO MUCH!
I’ve had other sticking points (the last episode of Rubicon, everything past S01 in Six Feet Under, past S03E03 of Veronica Mars), but these two seem the most egregious and irrational…..and fascinating.
In the case of Friday Night Lights, the sticking point is obviously psychological. The last time I watched FNL, I felt like a hurricane had decimated my feeling parts. I felt like nothing that Matt Saracen ever did ever again would compare to what he did in this episode, and I felt like I wasn’t ready to see him again, lest I feel that way again. In truth, I’m in an odd state of grief — it’s not like the show betrayed me or died, but I feel as if I’m just not ready to go back and feel that way again. In other words, the show in general and the episode in particular were so good — and illicted such profound and complex emotions in me — that I can’t return to it, or at least not yet. It’s as if my skin is overly sensitive, and any touch (or exposure to the show) might set me off.
For Breaking Bad, the reaction is visceral in a way I’ve never experienced — at least not from narrative/serial television. Sure, someone eating bugs on Fear Factor creates a visceral reaction, as does horror film, and maybe something like The Killing, which produces an uncanny feeling of dread. But the reticence to restart the show has everything to do with not wanting my body to feel the way it felt when I was watching before. My attempt to avoid that feeling, coupled with my affection for the show, is akin to my love for gin and hate for the hangover. I want it and I hate it; I know I’ll like it but I also know I’ll despise it.
In truth, both Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad are slight variations of what Linda Williams calls “body genres” — genres that make your body do something, usually involuntary. She includes horror (you scream or jump), melodrama (you cry), and porn (you become aroused), but you might also argue for comedy (laughter, even when you don’t want to). Viewers generally have complex relations with these body genres: the body-focused responses they elicit are pleasurably and painful, treading a knife-edge between fear and relief, sadness and catharsis, desire and release. You simultaneously want and don’t want to watch, and in making the decision to engage, you’re also agreeing to a sort of masochism….but one that also proves rewarding.
Which is all to say that I’m currently at the very sticky point, at least when it comes to these two shows, when I’m not ready to submit to the pain necessary in order to continue, despite the fact that I know that the eventual derived pleasure will be tremendous.
So I’m wondering: how do I trick myself into getting past these points? Or is it impossible to convince myself….and I just need to wait until the memory of the displeasure (emotionally, physically) diffuses? What induces your own sticking point, and are they also related to the “body genres”?
Just a heads-up to check out my new post over at Antenna — “Open or Closed? Mad Men, Celebrity Gossip, and the Public/Private Divide.”
Antenna has been covering every episode this season, featuring scholars with expertise in different areas….I highly recommend coming back in future weeks.
Glee is this television season’s most talked about new show. Sure, Modern Family is funny, and Vampire Diaries manages to faithfully reproduce the hype of Twilight and Buffy, but Glee, despite only middling ratings, is the only show to truly break out, both as a subject of discourse and as the first successful network musical since, well, Cop Rock. (For more on this season’s crop of television shows, including ratings forecasts, see Jonathan Gray’s recent posts on The Extratextuals). The identity politics of the show have sparked the most heated discussions – see Amanda Ann Klein’s insightful reading over at Judgmental Observer, Jezebel’s take-down, and Kelli Marshall’s most recent musings.
I’ll say that I find the show incredibly funny. Especially Jane Lynch (did you see that zoot suit this week? Incredible.) I also think critiques of the stereotypes are misguided, as they’re supposed to be stereotypes – that’s part of the satire — and the show has been taking its sweet time in breaking each stereotype down, instead of immediately hitting us over the head with the quirk and spark that individuates each character. I love the song choices, in part because many of them hail from my own junior high/high school years, as well as the rendering of small town, small school cultural hierarchies. (Full disclosure: I was a cheerleader, and although Jane Lynch wasn’t our coach, we, along with the football players, certainly enjoyed social perks. And while I never slushied anyone, and Glee is certainly hyperbolic, this is a vision of high school, chastity club included, with which I am unfortunately too familiar.)
The songs and dances would never cut it in an actual high school, but this is a musical, people – do we forget the way that musicals are allowed to stop and circumvent time, reality, and fate? Some of the performances are motivated by the narrative, but some, such as Quinn’s torch song or Mercedes’s “Bust Your Windows,” shatter the diegesis. And that’s okay, just as the risqué song selections are okay, because, again, this is neither realism nor reality TV. This is a musical, complete with all of the musical’s attendant genre conventions.
Which brings me to the topic of star formation. Musicals are perfect star builders: in part because they allow a particular actor to hold the spotlight for a sustained amount of time, but also because they provide a forked path to identification. Put differently, we are encouraged to identity with the star’s performance within the narrative, as she navigates the various obstacles (usually related to love or success) that cross her path, just as we identity with most protagonists. When Rachel declares in voiceover that “You may think that every guy in the school would, totally, want to tap this, but my MySpace schedule keeps me way too busy to date” or when she actively pines for Finn, or when she submits to blackmail (e.g. hands over a pair of her undergarments) from the dorkiest kid in the school in order to protect a certain piece of information from reaching the blogosphere, we are meant to sympathize and/or empathize with her. As a type-A ambitious female, my ambitions may not have been to make it big on Broadway, but her perfectionism and marginalization provide a prime point of identification.
At the same time, Rachel gets some of the most moving, emotive, and transcendent solos of the series. I know we’re talking pop music and show tunes, and maybe I’m just a sucker for ‘80s hits, but when she sings her part in “Don’t Stop Believin’” and, more recently, “Somebody to Love,” it does something to me, something akin to shivers. It’s a phenomenological response, evoked by the combination of musical harmonies and earnestness: it’s the same unnamable something that makes a song, or a voice, our favorite. To adpt Linda Williams’ conception of the ‘body genres’ – e.g. genres that make our body react physically, either through laughter, fright, or arousal – I would posit that the music alternately incites feelings of viscerally felt pathos and, well, glee.
Put differently, the musical numbers and solos, especially those coupled with choreographed dance, arouse something unnamable and unexplainably pleasurable. I don’t know exactly why I feel happiness watching the finely calibrated movements of a group of dancers – whether paired with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, Astaire and Rogers in The Gay Divorcee, or Glee’s competition dancing to Amy Winehouses’s “Rehab.” But I do. Similarly, I don’t know why I feel the flipside of that pleasure – a pure and sorrowful sadness/yearning – when I watch Rachel emote, or Judy Garland sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman sing “My Dying Day” in Moulin Rouge.
The musical thus encourages a cerebral and physical engagement with the star: I like and identify with the character; I feel inexplicably, viscerally moved by the musical performances. Thus I don’t feel drawn to a particular Glee character until he/she is featured in a solo: when Puck sang “Sweet Caroline” last week, I was his forever.
Which perhaps explains at least part of the cult of fandom around musical figures, whether Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, or, to some extent, Michael Jackson, who certainly participated in his share of musical narratives. It might even help to explain the cult of Audrey Hepburn (also evoked in this week’s episode) who, with the help of the magic of dubbing, sang her way through My Fair Lady. (It also explains the way that American Idol narrativizes the lives and development of its contestants – their performances will make us like them, but it’s the narrative, including tidbits of past experience, strife, and success, that permits identification).
Most movie stars require interviews, profiles, and photo shoots to flesh out the ‘ordinary’ compliment to their extraordinary roles. Yet the musical star provides the extraordinary/ordinary paradox each and every time she appears. In other words, Rachel gets to be ‘ordinary’ during the majority of the show – walking down hallways, washing Slushies from her hair – and ‘extraordinary’ the moment she breaks into song. A third ‘real’ layer may further embellish the equation, providing a feedback loop of self-referential material (see Garland and Streisand). But it is not truly necessary. The dual-layered performance is sufficient.
Since its premiere, the Glee publicity team – both for the show itself and for the individual actors – have attempted to court media attention. The move has proved moderately successful – as Lainey points out, the leads got ‘papped’ the other day, they’re on the recent cover of Entertainment Weekly, and Lea Michele was featured in a front end US Weekly fashion spread.
What’s more, nearly all of the actors — and all of the young ones — are active on Twitter. At this point, however, the stars are enough of unknowns that the ‘real’ them is predicated almost entirely on their ability to reproduce the other ‘real’ them – e.g. the ‘real’ characters on Glee, the ones visible when not performing. Thus Chris Colfler, who plays the flamboyent Kurt, is conveniently homosexual in ‘real life,’ and his recent call for Twitter followers to come up with Sue Sylvester jokes launched her name into the Twitter trending topics. Why? Because it reproduced the Kurt image the show – the selfsame image that people want to believe characterizes the quotidian life of Cofler.
This conclusion might seem contradictory, as I’m at once asserting that the stars of musical are, by default, stars – but, at the same time, they cannot escape their picture personalities, which is usually a sign of the non-star. So be it. It’s contradictory, but it’s the musical – and I should probably just evade the contradiction, as musicals are wont to do, by breaking into song:
During Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, Lady Gaga appeared in what looks to be a snowman suit, a queen of hearts oufit that entailed covering her entire visage in red lace, and participated in a performance that ended with her splattered with fake blood and earning her the nickname “Bloody Eye”. See here for a nice overview. Yet she has been completely overshadowed by an interaction between Kanye West and pop princess Taylor Swift.
As Alisa Perren pointed out this morning, the incident has likewise sparked a showdown between fans and Viacom, which, as owners of MTV and notoriously protective of copyright, including YouTube clips, is hunting down clips of the incident as soon as they pop up. Try this direct link to the video on the MTV website. You’ll just have to sit through a very short commercial, so don’t be dissuaded.
The facts, more or less:
*Taylor Swift won the VMA Award for Best Female Video for “You Belong With Me,” beating out Lady GaGa, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, and Beyonce When Taylor Lautner (aka Jacob on Twilight AND her future co-star in ****) announced her name, the close-up on her face expressed rather geniune-looking surprise.
*When Taylor came to the stage, she thanked her fans and MTV, declaring “I sing country music, so thank you so much for giving me a chance to win a VMA.” (This is a key point, I think, and has been super overlooked by those commenting on the incident)
*Kanye West then jumped onto the stage, took the microphone from Swift, and announced “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” (Referring, of course, to Beyonce’s now iconic video for ‘Single Ladies’)
*The cutaway shots to Beyonce show her seemingly aghast, surprised, embarrassed — it’s difficult to tell.
*The audience responded with a standing ovation for Swift, but the director of the VMAs chose to cut to voiceover and track back to wide screen, rather than allowing Swift to respond or recover. According to an account of someone serving as a seat holder, she stood there for about 30 seconds, fighting back tears. The television audience only saw the shift transition away from the incident.
*Swift went on to perform, singing live, a few segments later.
*When Beyonce won for “Video of the Year” at the end of the show, she welcomed Taylor Swift back on stage to finish her acceptance speech. In a moment of apparent solidarity, the two shared the stage — and, at this point, Swift had changed into a red dress that coincidentally matched Beyonce’s. The return has been variously labeled “triumphant” and “self-satisfied.” As you see below, there’s quite an interesting dynamic going on in the way that Beyonce ‘cedes’ the spotlight. Again, the direct link.
*Kanye was confronted by MTV officials and asked to leave; he was also apparently yelled at by Swift’s mother (and manager).
*According to several reports, West was drunk at the time he jumped up onto the stage.
*Kanye has since ‘apologized’ on his blog. First, in a post from last night, he wrote, in all caps:
I’m sooooo sorry to Taylor Swift and her fans and her mom,” he wrote. “I spoke to her mother right after and she said the same thing my mother would’ve said. She is very talented! I like the lyrics about being a cheerleader and she’s in the bleachers! I’m in the wrong for going on stage and taking away from her moment!
“Beyoncé’s video was the best of this decade!!!! I’m sorry to my fans if I let you guys down!!!! I’m sorry to my friends at MTV. I will apologize to Taylor 2mrw. Welcome to the real world!!!! Everybody wanna booooo me but I’m a fan of real pop culture!!! No disrespect but we watchin’ the show at the crib right now cause … well you know!!!! I’m still happy for Taylor!!!! Boooyaaawwww!!!! You are very very talented!!! I gave my awards to Outkast when they deserved it over me … That’s what it is!!!!!!! I’m not crazy y’all, i’m just real. Sorry for that!!! I really feel bad for Taylor and I’m sincerely sorry!!! Much respect!!!!!”
*This morning, he posted: ““I feel like Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents when he messed up everything and Robert DeNiro asked him to leave…That was Taylor’s moment and I had no right in any way to take it from her. I am truly sorry.”
So there we have it: Kanye West steals Taylor’s moment, makes a big scene, causes a big stir, and apologizes. Rather insincerely. But there’s some major image reification going on here: on the part of Kanye, most assuredly, but also as concerns the images of Swift, Beyonce, and MTV and its trademark awards show in general. I’ve asked the one and only Kristen Warner, frequent contributor to the blog, to help me find a way through this discursive and semiotic jungle. (In other words: people are interpreting this event in myriad ways — figuring it in terms of race, taste, contrivance and manipulation….and hopefully we can make some headway as to the various messages the event sent and will continue to send.)
My initial thoughts are as follows:
*MTV loves to exploit the VMAs. Ever since Madonna showed up in full 18th century garb to perform “Like a Virgin” (is that right? KW in: I think Virgin was the wedding dress roll around deal; Vogue might have been the 18th century garb), they’ve been a site primed for transgression. They even have a section in their web coverage of the event marked “Most Talked About Moments.” Think the Madonna/Britney/Christina three-way kiss; think Britney’s infamous and lethargic ‘comeback’ performance.
They’re desperately trying to keep the MTV brand – and these awards — relevant. And, apparently, succeeding. See Bruno/Sasha Baron Cohen’s incident with Eminem at last spring’s MTV Movie Awards for a less successful (and visibly orchestrated) attempt. The fact that Taylor Lautner, her future co-star, presented the award = no coincidence. And while I doubt MTV knew Kanye was going to do what he did, I do think they knew Swift was going to win (duh)…and have since profitted immensely, both discursively and through ad rates on the web site, from the firestorm that has emerged. They’re selling access to the entire show through OnDemand; as you’ve seen, the clips of the show are wed to commercials. Viacom is trying to find a model to profit off of the show in the DVR era. This seems to be working.
*This is what Kanye does. Reify his image. If we define a celebrity scandal as an incident when information about a celeb emerges that clashes or undercuts their existing star image, this is NO SCANDAL. Kanye has had temper tantrums — and I don’t know how else to describe them — before. The following encapsulates the kind of quotes Kanye offers on a regular basis: “I realize that my place and position in history is that I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice…It’s me settling into that position of just really accepting that it’s one thing to say you want to do it and it’s another thing to really end up being like Michael Jordan.” As someone pointed out, if anything, the fact that Kanye got up on stage — even when the ‘Video of the Year’ had yet to have been handed out, which Beyonce was obviously going to receive — points to either his stupidity or his supposed drunkenness. But it’s still not a scandal.
*This also does nothing but affirm Swift’s image as a precocious yet put-together star. I’ve been thinking about doing a post on Swift for awhile — and still might — as to the authenticity commonly affixed to her star. She writes all her own music, plays her own instruments, and puts all her friends and past loves in her songs. She’s not even 20 years old and already the saving grace of the music industry. She’s blonde, she’s adorable, she’s the anti-Miley Cyrus. One commentator calls her “a young Southern girl who is the first non-tramp role model America’s teenage girls have had in a decade.” And now that means Kanye has made her a victim – and she emerged triumphant. If anything, it’s only bolstered her fan base and consolidated pre-existing affection.
*I also want to note, in passing, that there are several theories that this was an elaborate conglomerate backstage deal: Viacom lets Kanye do his thing (the drinking was staged; that’s the reason why there was no security to take him off the stage, etc. etc.) and NBC/Universal gets to profit off his appearance on the premiere of Leno’s ‘new’ show on Monday. See Gawker’s recap for details. I’m quite dubious. As one of the columnists points out, “Yes, MTV likes controversy, but their fake controversies in the past—eg. Bruno falling on Eminem—ham-handedly telegraph “this is a stunt” a mile off. Last night, you saw a moment of genuine awkwardness production-wise after Kanye took the mic when the booth seemed to stumble and be unsure about cutting away—not the hallmark of a pre-planned, pre-choreographed stunt.” Indeed, I think the reason some people are wont to think of this as choreographed is because of MTV’s admitted orchestration of the Bruno/Eminem stunt. If you just watch these two side-by-side, you realize they’re operating on entirely different levels. Second, apparently President Obama called Kanye a ‘jackass’ in off-the-cuff, off-the-record remarks. I’m not even going to go there.
KW: I love disclaimers. So I will list the key one here: I do not think what Kanye did was acceptable. I think as Katy Perry said, his behavior essentially, “stepped on a kitten.” That said, there’s a couple things I want to elucidate on with regards to the phrase “stepped on a kitten.” The visual imagery that phrase suggests is powerful and visceral and somehow makes what Kanye did seem all the more traumatic and painful. He stomped on pure, white, fluffy, feline innocence and because of that we all need to rally around that innocence and encourage her. But what does that make Kanye? A big bully? An ogre? Someone who would tred on innocence? I don’t disagree that his alleged drunkenness certainly made him act out in highly inappropriate ways but is the way that we are discussing his behavior cause him to fall into one of those tropes? You know those tropes, those easily definable types that help us narrativize and make sense of these kinds of events. I can’t help but think that to a small degree we are working with some tropes about violent, oversexualized black masculinity in contrast with white innocence. I mean, for Christ sakes the girl is a country singer! You cannot get more down home white girl than that (also a trope). (AHP Comment: Just look at that picture. She’s wearing a white dress for goodness’ sakes.)
Also it is worth reiterating that Sunday night is not the first time Kanye has gone off book and expounded (most times not too terribly well) on the persons, places or things he believes have been wronged or unjustly inconsidered. Specifically, I’m thinking of the Concert for Hurricane Katrina Relief in September of 2005 when Kanye made his infamous statement (while standing next to poor, innocent Mike Myers) that “George Bush hates black people.” Watch that here:
An interesting point of comparison comes when you examine the similarity in Mike Myers reaction and Taylor’s reaction. Mortification, shock, dismay is quite evident for both “victims” of Kanye’s attack. But of course the latter event is layered with issues of gender and race that make it far more painful for Taylor and for the viewer. For Kanye, however, the distinction between Taylor and George is slim; the point is that in BOTH cases he was telling the truth as he saw it–live television be damned. Now I think that discussing the way Kanye’s latest outburst affected Taylor is important but the trauma will surely be shortlived. The message there will be that Kanye is a buffoon and a prima donna and Taylor is entitled to a long, successful career winning VMA’s and Grammy’s and whatever else she may dream to earn. However, the implications of Kanye’s statement during the Katrina telethon suggest that he is willing to stake his career (and yes, perhaps fulfill his very large ego’s desire to be the center of attention) on being plain about how things are and the fact that maybe, Bush isn’t the biggest fan of black folks–or of New Orleans, or of the greater Gulf Region for that matter. For me, nothing that he will ever do will top that telethon speech–not even commandeering Taylor’s VMA ‘moment”.
Finally, I know that to Annie, intention is hardly a component of celebrity gossip or scandal. It matters less that this might have been a planned kerfuffle than it does how the star images will be deconstructed and reconfigured through the tv news circuit and social networking communities (I hear he cried on Jay Leno!?!). Trust, I think both Annie and I agree that both parties will be fine. Kanye was fine post-Katrina telethon; Taylor will be more than fine after this encounter. However, I do want to consider the possibilities of this being a staged pseudo-event because everything seems so perfectly synchronized and everyone seemed so perfectly positioned throughout the course of the ceremony to be a simple coincidence. Similar to the above mentioned incident with Bruno and Eminem that was eventually proven to be staged, it is highly likely that something of equal twisted pathology could have been staged for these folks as well. Hell, even Beyonce got to play a key role in the restoration of the status quo. Look at this magnificent narrative at work: Kanye steps on the kitten, gets cursed out and banished from the building and we wait for the entire second half for the redemption which comes by way of the black Queen herself, Beyonce. Wearing the same red as Taylor, she ushered the teenager (who I might add was PREPARED to return to the stage complete with utter lack of shock or surprise face that would have been required for such a surprise) back onto the stage to “have her moment.” Everyone wins. Well, kinda. We get to talk about female solidarity (I’m not quite convinced that a pseudo event actually counts as genuine solidarity) but we also have to talk about racist tropes of black masculinity that so subtly creep back into public consciousness by way of simple but accurately poignant phrases like “stepped on a kitten.”
My final thought is: Why isn’t anyone really talking about the differences between Madonna reclaiming Michael Jackson as a pop star that more closely aligned with her own identity and not a BLACK pop star who lived in-between cultures for the great majority of his life? And why isn’t anyone talking about the greatest faux pas of the night: Rapper Lil’ Mama’s involuntary (she says she couldn’t help herself) stage jumping during Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ performance of “New York State of Mind”? I’ve got some theories…and they all involve the lack of kittens.
I’m going to get to Katie Holmes and her appearance on So You Think You Can Dance, but first we need to slog through a bit of backstory. My comps reading has shifted into final gear: I’m attacking the third and final list of books/articles, all of which deal with the intersections between Hollywood, stardom, and shifts in the television industry.
There’s been a solid amount of work on the early move by Hollywood stars onto television — what motivated them, what discouraged them, who was successful and way. I’ve been reading Denise Mann seminal piece and Susan Murray, but I’m most indebted to Christine Becker’s excellent and expansive book, It’s the Pictures That Got Small, which I first encountered when researching Gloria Swanson’s early television career last semester — a massive project I’m sure I’ll post on at some point. Most of the ideas enumerated below are glossed from one of the above three authors.
Unlike old movies, most of which are readily accessible, it’s far harder to access old television — in part because the truly old television (from the late ’40) were often filmed using kinetoscoopes and thus very rarely preserved; in part because there’s not as much of a market for old episodes of a variety show with a now-forgotten star as its host (but the process is cyclical — he don’t remember the star in part because the text isn’t available).
I think the general assumption about stars on early television is that only the most washed way dared go there. There’s a grain of truth in that assumption, as early television was certainly derided and scary, and labeled as such for a number of reasons:
1.) It was a ‘chaotic, low-culture operation’ — it relied on the brass commercialism of SPONSORS….and if you were the star or host of a show, you were required to pitch the products, which was clearly beneath high-class, glamorous stars. What’s more, true “artists” saw the direct influence of sponsors to “corrupt” their craft.
2.) Early television had a very limited reach – it was not truly national until 1952 (due to a ban on station licenses, but that’s another story); in 1951, only 1/4 of America owned a set.
3.) As a result, not much money as incentive.
4.) Basic fear of overexposure: regular appearances could lessen ‘value’ of star appearance – audiences would get tired of them.
5.) Didn’t want one-dimensional images based on character (and not star image)
6.) Super taxing shooting schedule — since almost ALL television was live at this point, you had to be THERE at a certain time, looking a certain way, no exceptions. Huge change from the Hollywood livestyle.
7.) Poor quality of images – especially with kinetoscopes. Makes stars look OLD.
8.) Potential for embarrassment — because television was live, there were no re-takes. You had to hit your mark, your lines, your joke, whatever, each and every time.
Because of these fears, those who made it big in early television were generally radio stars — Amos ‘n’ Andy, for example — or had long histories in vaudeville, which required the same sort of ability to perform on cue (and with a taxing schedule). Comic variety/vaudeville also exploited the traits that television thought defined itself: it provided immediacy (the genre used ‘direct address’ — the host seemed to be speaking directly to you…and you had the best seat in the house); authenticity (because it was live you knew the star had talent — the star was also portrayed as ‘normal’ and ‘just like us,’ ‘down-homey’ and middle class — thus you could trust him when he tried to sell you products at the commercial break) and intimacy (again, you were close to the host, and he was speaking directly to you — and in your private living room, no less!).
But in 1952, a few things changed: first, with the ban on station licenses lifted, television began to spread much more quickly (because you could watch it in more regions) — thus the potential audience for a star became much larger, and advertisers were willing to pay more to fund shows. Second, some shows started to shift to filmed production — meaning they would film it as you would film a movie, including editing and takes, and then broadcast it. This is how non-live television is done today — and it started to catch on in 1952, alleviating some of the concerns of stars. Production also began to move to Los Angeles (it had formerly centered in NYC), which again catered to the Hollywood stars. Finally, the studios — especially Columbia and Universal — started to get into television production themselves, thus encouraging their stars to participate.
Stars — some big name, some smaller — thus began appearing on television in a number of capacities:
1.) As program hosts
Most often, smaller stars — namely ones who had ceased to have a viable Hollywood career — would be hosts, while the bigger stars would serve as guests. The hosts were the real “recycled” stars — people like Adolphe Menjou, Faye Emerson, Dinah Shore, Martha Raye, Groucho Marx, Gloria Swanson, Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn, the list goes on and on.
2.) As part of an anthology drama
Anthology dramas were the high-class TV of the era — they were written by high-class playwrights, had high production values, or were based on classic novels. Sometimes they included ‘TV-ized’ versions of a recent movie, which would serve to encourage those who hadn’t seen the film to see it in its late runs. Studios could ask/force a star to appear in the TV-ized version — which is how a star as big as, say, Humphrey Bogart first appeared. Because they were “high class” and changed every week, a star could appear once and not fear he was tarnishing his image.
3.) Playing “his/herself”
Stars could appear as guests on a show, take part in a gag, or be part of a quiz/game show (there’s one show where a star had a secret and the audience had to figure it out — when Buster Keaton appeared on the show, his secret was “I’m sitting on a pie.”). The beauty of such appearances is that they would promote the star and his/her recent projects…and also shed light on the “authentic” self of the star. By appearing as oneself, the star was pledging that she was showing the “real” her — when, of course, she was likely acting as what the image of her “real self” was supposed to be. But television, like the one-on-one interview, could thus reinforce the authenticity of that supposed real, true, inner self — behind all the image manipulation. Interestingly, lots of gags with stars involved poking fun at the elaborate construction of their supposed images — Bette Davis appeared on one show and tried to make a cake, look fabulous, do math problems, etc. etc. — effectively making fun of how her publicity had framed her as the perfect domestic AND a glamour queen. Because the studio system had broken down (and with it the star system), stars were not only free to perform such ridicule, but perhaps required to — without the assistance of the studio publicity machines, the corners of the star fabric were beginning to fray. Stars could either make fun of their elaborate and impossible images — or look absurd. (Or you could say it’s beginning of postmodernism and irony….which is part of it as well.)
Appearing on TV could thus prove that you weren’t a construction — that there was a real “you” beneath all that publicity, and you could make fun of it to boot — and that you had genuine talent. For even as television moved from liveness to filmed, it was still seen to “test” a star’s real talent. Several articles from the period attested that someone like Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe would never “translate” well on the television screen, as their images were too elaborate of constructions and would fall apart once under scrutiny, in poor quality transmission, or without the help of make-up artists and multiple takes. You had to have a certain something AND a certain talent to really be on television — perhaps best exemplified by Lucille Ball.
I could go on and on here, but as I’m processing this information, I’ve been thinking about our current recycled stars — and the roles they perform. Obviously, television has changed dramatically in the last 50 years — for one, stars no longer have to do the ‘pitching’ of the product being advertised. There’s also the rise of reality programming, which has obviously turned into a last chance stop for dozens of C and D-list stars.
But I’ve also been thinking of appearances like that of Katie Holmes on last week’s So You Think You Can Dance — in homage to Judy Garland. You can see highlights below:
The performance has been pretty widely ridiculed, citing her lethargy and lack of sparkle (I think this is especially apparent when you contrast Holmes with other (non-star) apperances on the show — all of whom are truly talented dancers).
So why would Holmes appear? Her next film doesn’t come out until 2010, so she’s not promoting anything — save herself? Her own image? Her ‘star’ is certainly at a low point — she can’t seem to open a movie (Mad Money was abyssmal) and the rumors persist of her servitude to husband Tom Cruise. But how does this appearance contribute to her image? Or counterbalance other rumors? Why did the producers approach HER — and not, say, some other star, better known for singing and dancing ability? For while the performance certainly garnered huge ratings for the show, did it add to or detract from her overall profile?
If we look at it in relation to the information I outlined above, I think she’s trying to rejeuvinate her image – add a different nuance. She was trying to do the same thing by appearing on Broadway — but again, she garnered only luke-warm reviews. Is she trying to be a serious actress? But isn’t the new route for ‘serious’ to appear in a small indie film with a juicy role? What is accomplished in linking herself to Garland?
By appearing “in homage” and in a dance role, she’s also not trying to allow access to her authentic self — we certainly don’t believe that she spends her days dancing in a top hat around Cruise, although that might be weird enough to believe. This isn’t a tell-all with Barbara Walters; she’s not poking fun at her image on Saturday Night Live. I mean, I feel like I see more of what I take as the ‘authentic’ Holmes in the picture of her and Cruise dancing (see below) than of her in costume as Garland. Has papparazzi taken over the ‘authenticity’ market?
So what does this particular type of ‘recyclage’ achieve? What about other types of recyclage — such as appearing on SNL, on talk shows, as guest judges, or as actual participants — does it always rejeuvinate a career? Or can it be harmful as well? What about stars like Alec Baldwin or Keifer Sutherland, who have jumpstarted their careers with strong television roles…but can they ever go back to leading roles on film? (The Other Sister might be our answer here).
Would really love to hear your thoughts here, especially on Holmes, as I’m still somewhat at a loss.