Season Premiere: Game of Thrones – “The Wars To Come”


“The Wars To Come”

April 12, 2015

Over the past four seasons, I’ve very much enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones here at Cultural Learnings, and have been privileged to have a wide audience for those reviews. The subsequent conversations have been among my most rewarding, and I want to thank everyone who has read, commented, or otherwise engaged with my reviews during that period.

However, I was given the opportunity to take over from my friend and former colleague Todd VanDerWerff writing the “Experts” reviews for The A.V. Club, and therefore there will be no more reviews here at Cultural Learnings. It also means that if you are someone who has not read the books, these reviews may potentially be something you do not want to read—while they will not explicitly spoil future events, they are written for those who know what’s coming, and may occasionally make references to foreshadowing and other forward-looking developments. I apologize for this, but it’s a byproduct of the opportunity.

However, given that the comments can be a bit more fast and furious over there, I will be posting a link to the review each week, and I encourage anyone with any specific questions or comments to leave them here, and I’m happy to create a side dialogue if anyone desires it. Thanks for reading, and hopefully you’ll still find something of value in the new reviews in the new location.

Game of Thrones (experts): “The Wars To Come”

“We have reached a stage where reader and non-reader are closer than ever before. Each group comes to the text with similar levels of expectation, shaped by their respective understandings of this world and its characters. Readers, admittedly, still come with expectations that are based on what unfolds in the novels past this point, but those expectations have been destabilized such that some of them hold no clear authority over the expectations that non-readers have developed on their own. Where once readers had lengthy emotional connections to the text that outstripped those only recently encountering the story, non-readers may now have been diehard fans for four years, growing in number as the show evolved into a mainstream phenomenon. And while there are more readers than ever before (I certainly didn’t use to see people reading the books on public transit before it premiered), they’re a different kind of reader, one for whom the show was likely the entry point.”


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Series Finale: Glee – “2009”/”Dreams Come True”


“2009”/”Dreams Come True”

March 20, 2015

When I used to write weekly reviews of Glee, it was during a period where I would often search through each episode looking for a quote to use as an anchor for my analysis. Glee was a show that wore its heart on its sleeve, and so it wasn’t a particularly difficult task with the show; in fact, the biggest challenge was choosing between the numerous moments where characters said exactly what the point of it all was.

It’s therefore not a huge surprise the same could be said for Glee’s two-hour finale. The last hour, in particular, was unabashed: whether it’s opening us up to joy, or Blaine telling Kurt that he’s “the only one I know who would do something like this,” or Rachel Berry standing on the stage of a 3/5 scale recreation of Radio City Music Hall telling all of the children to believe that dreams come true, Glee could never be attacked for a lack of synergy between the message it started with and the message that constituted its ending.

Glee could be attacked for many things, most recently a haphazard final season that understood its strengths and weaknesses and kept pretending they didn’t matter, but that central message has always been strong. Even as someone who wrote about the show critically, a task that will inevitably drive a person to madness, I always believed the core message of Glee was powerful, and I wasn’t surprised to see stories emerge this week that sought to celebrate those principles. I was emotional during this finale because no matter how many wrong turns the show took during its run, the place it kept landing in was a place of hope, and it was hard to root against that.

However, it was also hard to focus on it. During the final performance of OneRepublic’s “I Lived,” with a huge collection of past and present members of New Directions and ancillary characters, the show seeks to paper over a complicated history of characters it served poorly, characters who were ignored then forgotten, and plot twists that sought to fundamentally undo the good work the show was doing in other areas. It was a moment that understood the transcendent power of “hope” and human perseverance, but—like the final season as a whole—simultaneously reminded us how rarely Glee calibrated itself properly to be the beacon of hope it believed itself to be.

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Reality Spoilers: Why The Jinx Can Be Spoiled (Even If It Should Be)

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Last night, The Jinx ended its six-episode run on HBO. The documentary series came to a conclusion with a stunning sequence of events, building a tremendous amount of suspense: would the second interview with Robert Durst happen? What would happen in that interview? And what would happen after that interview, when Robert Durst will have been confronted by the second “Beverley” envelope?

If you were watching live, the answers to those questions were an escalating series of events, culminating in a final scene that had me yelling at my television. However, if you weren’t watching live, that yelling may have been directed at The New York Times, who pushed an alert to their app users and wrote a breaking news tweet quoting Durst’s words and promoting their reporting on their connection to Durst’s Saturday arrest in New Orleans. It could have also been directed at the various outlets—Vulture, Buzzfeed, etc.—who subsequently tweeted the news as news, all of whom fielded complaints about “spoilers” from Twitter users.

In a piece this morning at Vulture, Ben Williams suggests that this marks “spoiler-alert” culture reaching “peak absurdity”:

“The key difference here is that The Jinx isn’t fiction. It is a docu-drama about a real man who is very probably a murderer multiple times over and whose cases have been covered in the media for decades. When a famous murder suspect all but confesses, it is news, and the fact that the confession happened within the confines of a television show does not mean that that news becomes subject to the same etiquette as the latest Game of Thrones killing. Because that’s fiction, and it doesn’t really matter.”

Beyond the fact that I would contend Durst’s statements in the finale of The Jinx in no way constitute a “confession,” Williams’ point is well-taken: the fact that Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series is making a contribution to an ongoing news story independent from the series itself means that the New York Times reporting is less spoiling the series itself—which they clearly had advance access to, in order to support the reporting—than they are extending the series’ impact to a broader audience, most of whom did not watch The Jinx (which drew only 446k viewers in the first airing of last week’s episode).

And yet while Williams’ distinction between a real life criminal investigation and Game of Thrones is valid, and would clear The New York Times in a court of ethics, I also think that the New York Times—and the other publications in question—could have crafted an equally provocative headline that did not actively spoil the events of the series’ final scene. I believe that the news could have been framed in a way that still broke the news in question without revealing in concrete detail the climactic moment of the series.

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Go Away, Justin: Carly Rae Jepsen, “I Really Like You,” and the Business of Bieber

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In January, Scooter Braun—the head of Schoolboy Records and manager to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, among others—gave us our first indication of how Carly Rae Jepsen would be following up “Call Me Maybe.”

True, she followed it up with a really great pop album that got unfairly ignored, but this is different. This is the follow up to a song of the summer, an earworm on a scale we rarely see from a “debut” artist (the quotation marks referring to her previous success in Canada, typically erased in her media narrative following her breakout success). And as Braun’s comments to Billboard indicate, there was pressure on Jepsen to recapture the success that started it all:

“Her new single is coming in March. I told her that she couldn’t come out with anything unless it was on the level of “Call Me Maybe.” And, now we have a new one that is on that level.”

That’s a lot of pressure for a new single, and I would argue that “I Really Like You” delivered as best it could: it’s not “Call Me Maybe,” but nothing can recreate the sense of discovery that came with that song. The narrative of an unsung artist being elevated to the status of sudden stardom through the help of some famous friends was not just about Justin Bieber/Selena Gomez lipdubs—it was that the song was something people discovered, and then shared, and then acted out themselves and shared again. It became, for lack of a better term, a “cultural phenomenon” in a way we rarely see, and in a way that makes creating something on the same scale nearly impossible.

“I Really Like You” succeeds in being catchy, and got the type of attention it deserved: lots of headlines debating whether or not it lives up to “Call Me Maybe,” with none of them being able to definitively claim the single lacks the same DNA musically. The issue is that there’s no way to recreate a cultural phenomenon, which is a big part of why my personal interest in Jepsen’s followup has more to do with the album—packed to the gills with interesting producers and collaborators—than with the single, which based on Braun’s comments is engineered to tap into a vein that I would argue was a product of a specific time and a specific set of circumstances.

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Series Finale: Parks and Recreation – “One Last Ride”

parksrecreationtitle“One Last Ride”

February 24, 2015

“Leslie always has her heart in the right place, but just needs some help along the way.”

I wrote this six years ago. At that point, Parks and Recreation was a show still in search of its identity, existing in The Office’s shadow and week-by-week discovering more about its characters as we were. It says a lot about the show that now, six years and seven seasons later, “One Last Ride” puts a button on this initial judgment made three episodes into the series’ run. Leslie’s heart was always in the right place, but she truly found herself when she found her team to help along the way.

There’s always a lot of discussion about the change that Parks went through after the short first season, but returning to that review—and my collection of reviews from the first three seasons—in light of tonight’s finale made me realize that it didn’t really change at all. From the very beginning, this was a show that asked the audience to follow an optimistic, hard-working civil servant as she struggled to navigate a world that did not want her to succeed, slowly breaking down the barriers that were placed in front of her. We wanted her to succeed not just because we liked her, but also because she was operating with a moral imperative, one so powerful that it could overcome even Ron Swanson’s fundamental disbelief in the value of government. She was a hero, in truth, in ways that would make sustaining her drive the show’s biggest challenge.

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The Orange is the New Black Rule: Emmys Rule Change Has Clear Target, Unclear Results

Orange new black Emmy 2014 crazy eyes billboard

Orange is the New Black competed as a Comedy at the 2014 Writer’s Guild Awards. It then competed as a Drama at the 2014 Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards. It then competed as a Comedy at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards and the 2014 Emmy Awards, before eventually winning its first major awards at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild awards competing as a Comedy.

This happened because the system allowed it to. Regardless of whether or not we believe Orange is the New Black is a drama or a comedy, the distinction was more or less up to Netflix, who consciously positioned it as a comedy in part to reduce competition with its other major awards contender, House of Cards. I would argue the show is unequivocally structured as a dramatic series, but that didn’t matter, because the system has no qualitative measure to change this. Over this same period, Showtime’s Shameless made a similar switch late in its run, petitioning to become a comedy (and earning William H. Macy an Emmy nomination and Screen Actors Guild win in the process); Gilmore Girls did the same late in its run, trying desperately but failing to earn Lauren Graham a nomination.

I feel pretty safe in saying that Orange is the New Black and its “category fraud” are the impetus behind an Academy rule change announced today that labels half-hour series as comedies and hour-long series as dramas. While Shameless’ category switch is likely a contributing factor, I feel comfortable calling this the Orange is the New Black rule, directly targeting a series that I would tend to agree is committing category fraud based on the objective facts of the show itself.

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Where Pilots Matter?: Amazon’s January 2015 Pilot Cycle

Screen Shot 2015-01-17 at 12.18.10 PMPilots are not made for normal audiences.

When you make a television pilot, your audience is a group of network executives who make final decisions and test audiences who are used as a barometer of how America will respond to said pilots. It’s why pilots tend to be bigger, and broader, and in general more attention-grabbing—for better or for worse—than episodes that come after.

In this way, Amazon’s “democratic” pilot process—in which they make their pilots available online for audience voting before making final pick-up decisions—is not necessarily out of the ordinary. Writers and producers have always known that their work would need to meet dueling expectations of executives and audiences, so we have yet to see a completely new approach to television pilots emerge from the process.

However, the way each of this year’s comedy and drama pilots—I’m excluding the kids’ shows—engages with the specificity of the Amazon experience has been particularly fascinating for me, even in its subtlety. Part of this stems from the overdetermined nature of the audience feedback within rhetoric surrounding the series: in Amazon’s universe, customers are selecting what shows go on the air. Forget for a moment their Golden Globe-winning Transparent drew the least customer votes and scored the lowest customer scores during its pilot process—in Amazon’s mind, this is about the audience, and so it makes sense for producers to angle harder in that direction and play to their assumed test audience.

Yet this is further amplified by the fact that there is even less clarity than usual regarding what precisely Amazon is looking for. Whereas working with a broadcast network or established cable channel gives you a basic sense of brand identity and programming strategy, Amazon has been all over the map, making it up as they go along. While we can start to see trends in their focus on Transparent’s awards success, we still have no clear sense of who their perceived audience is, or what their demographic priorities are. Do they want shows for men or women? Are they privileging comedy or drama? We don’t even know how many shows they’re willing to pick up, given that they have no “schedule” with empty slots, and have theoretically bottomless pockets from which to fund their move into original programming.

It’s plausible that those creating this cycle of Amazon pilots know more than we do about Amazon’s plans, but the fact remains that the audience is the clearer target, and there are a range of strategies that the pilots unfurl to ensure positive responses and high scores in the areas that they believe count most—or at least count a little—with Amazon.

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