Tag Archives: Comedy

Review: The Disarming Appeal of HBO’s Girls

At a point in the first episode of HBO’s Girls (which debuts tomorrow night at 10:30/9:30c), Lena Dunham’s Hannah suggests that she might be “the voice of [her] generation.”

It’s a clichéd statement, albeit one that Lena Dunham’s age and rapid rise to success within the entertainment industry have foregrounded within the discourse surrounding Girls. However, it’s also a statement that the show itself treats as a cliché, given the fact that Hannah is under the influence of drugs when she says it (and immediately realizes how pretentious it sounds even in her altered state). If her dream of being a writer is anything within the world of Girls, it’s a pipe dream, an idea that sustains her psychologically even as it does nothing for her financially.

I wouldn’t say that the show is about this, however. In fact, I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying what the show is about. While the show’s title suggests a broad investigation of young women, the universality it implies is undercut by the show’s reluctance to draw larger conclusions from these stories. It’s possible for cultural commentators to suggest this stands in for the experience of twenty-something white women living in New York City, but I’m not sure that the show itself ever makes the argument this is the experience for all of those women (or for all women in general).

In other words, Girls is a show about pretentious people, but I don’t find it particularly pretentious. Granted, HBO’s (successful) efforts to promote the show as a cultural touchstone have an air of pretension, but there is something very natural about the show itself that I found disarmed those larger expectations. Girls is a show based around situations more than “issues,” an incredibly isolated portrait of four young women at a very specific time, in a very specific place, and within a compelling televisual framework. Lena Dunham may not be the voice of a generation, but she’s a capable writer and director who has crafted a nuanced comic portrait of the drama of, if not everyday life, than a set of everyday lives, well worth watching.

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2011: The Year That Wasn’t – Community & Parks and Recreation

NBC’s Community and Parks and Recreation

Aired: January to December

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to write about television for a wider audience at The A.V. Club, no moreso than with my weekly reviews of The Office. However, as the show’s eighth season has signaled a decided shift in the show’s critical and cultural position, I’ve had a number of people effectively express pity for my position, forced to review a show that is pretty comfortably past its prime (but with just enough life left in it to remind us of the show it used to be).

And yet I’ve never felt it to be a pitiable job: sure, it’s nice when you have a show that you really like to cover in a situation like this one, but the show’s decline has been fun to deconstruct, and creating a dialogue with both devotees and spurned viewers has been a valuable insight how that decline is being received. While I might not love The Office, I love the process of writing about it, even though I can fully understand why others don’t feel the same way (which is why the number of critics reviewing the show has dropped off this season).

However, I will say that there is one thing I resent about covering The Office, which is that it means I don’t have time to review Parks and Recreation and Community, the two shows which precede it within NBC’s Thursday night lineup (or, rather, preceded it, given that Community is being benched for at least a few months). While other critics have been able to adjust their priorities, dropping The Office while continuing to cover the two shows that arguably merit greater attention, I’ve spent my Thursday evenings watching The Office, writing about The Office, and then using Parks and Community as a chance to unwind without a laptop in front of me.

It’s a different way of viewing than I was used to, and it seems as though it has affected my opinion of the two shows differently. While I actually feel as though my appreciation for Community has dipped slightly as a result of this viewing pattern, my general sentiments about the series less than they might have been a year ago, something about the comparative simplicity of Parks and Recreation has really suited this more casual form of viewing.

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Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies, Part 2

The following is the second part of an ongoing, cross-blog conversation between myself and my A.V. Club colleague Ryan McGee. The first part of the conversation is posted at his blog, Boob Tube Dude, and can be found here (and should really be read before this, as certain references won’t make sense otherwise).

These posts stem from conversations we’ve had regarding how we approach comedies from a critical perspective within our own criticism and within criticism as a whole. We welcome any and all contributions to this discussion, and I apologize in advance for the lack of photos to break things up (which Ryan so helpfully deployed on Part One) – I have a strict “Big Blocks of Text = A-Okay” policy around these parts. – MM

Myles McNutt: Since your last missive, I spent an entire weekend sitting in a room of academics discussing television comedy, which dealt with many of the issues you discuss in terms of expanded potential of journalistic criticism. As scholars, we’re the ones who are expected to delve into these areas, and as someone who probably best identifies as a scholar-critic (provided I’m allowed to make up my own hyphenated terms) I like to think I bring at least some of this to bear.

However, I don’t do it particularly often, in part because my academic interests have less to do with the issues discussed in part one [feminism, ideology in general] and more to do with television as a form and as an industry. That’s not to say that this work is not valuable (it is, in fact, invaluable), but rather that it is very much work that you need to feel comfortable doing. Alyssa [Rosenberg, discussed in Part One] does, and I appreciate her work for it, but it isn’t more prominent because there is a perception that “people” (speaking here of a general perception of people reading television criticism) aren’t interested in reading that form of criticism.

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Cultural Check-In: Thoughts on the Fall Survivors

Thoughts on the Fall Survivors

October 22nd, 2011

First off, despite the image above, Survivor was actually an early casualty of this fall season.

This fall has been tremendously busy in terms of my “real” job, and the scholarly side of things has been equally complicated by some looming deadlines and a general increase in workload. In order to feel as though I’ve been giving that my full attention, Cultural Learnings has definitely suffered, and as much as that pains me I also think it is very much necessary given the current state of things.

However, this is not to suggest that the behaviors which drove me to blog in the first place have been entirely squashed. I’ve still been keeping up with most of my shows (although I’ve fallen behind on a few, like The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy and How I Met Your Mother), and I’ve still been tweeting about most of them and writing about The Office (and, last night, Strike Back) for The A.V. Club. That being said, I know that there are some things which have been left somewhat more vague, and so I wanted to drop in with a few thoughts and a link to something else I’ve been working on.

First and foremost, I exchanged some emails with my colleague Ryan McGee on the subject of how critics review television comedy, a fitting subject given that I recently took part in an academic conference on the subject of TV comedy (which my colleague Jennifer Smith summarized for Antenna). This is something that he had suggested earlier this Fall, and struck me as a good way to enter into a dialogue without having to carve out the time for a podcast. The conversation spanned over the course of a week or so, and I hope it touched on some issues that can spur on some more conversation.

Ryan has posted Part One of the conversation over at Boob Tube Dude, and I’ll be posting Part Two here at Cultural Learnings on Monday. Please leave any comments you might have, as this is really something that requires a broader discussion than just the two of us to really come to life.

Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies [Part One] – Boob Tube Dude

Next, though, I want to spend at least a bit of time discussing the new shows that have remained programmed into my DVR after premiere week, which proved to be a fairly small (and generically limited) collection. I’ve also thrown in a few thoughts on new series that have yet to premiere, and one that has already premiered but is still relatively new all things considered.

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Hope Springs Intermittently: Stories of the 2011 Emmy Nominations

Stories of the 2011 Emmy Nominations

July 14th, 2011

My favorite thing about Emmy nomination morning is the sense of hope.

It lingers in the air before the 5:35am PT announcement – last night, as both coasts drifted off to sleep, people on Twitter were posting lists of contenders that they were crossing their fingers for, still believing that shows like Fringe or Community had a shot of breaking into their respective categories. This is not a slight on either show, or on their fans who choose to believe. As always, some part of me wishes that I didn’t know enough about the Emmy nomination process to logic away any chance of sentimental favorites garnering a nomination.

My least favorite thing about Emmy nomination morning is the moment the bubble bursts. When the nominations are actually announced, it’s this constant rollercoaster: one nominees brings excitement while another brings disappointment. The bubble hasn’t burst yet, at that point, as there are often enough shifts in momentum that no one emotion wins out, leaving us struggling to figure out just how we feel.

The moment it bursts is when you open the PDF and see all the nominations laid out before you, and when the math starts adding up. Twitter has quickened this process: you don’t need to wait until critics and reporters break down the nominations, as everyone is tweeting the sobering details by the time 8:45am rolls around. Excitement in one area turns to disappointment in another, with one favorite’s surprise nomination becoming deflated when you realize that other favorites were entirely shut out.

As always, I was one of those people sorting through the list of nominations, and the bubble did burst at a certain point. It was the point when I remembered that surprise nominees are often unlikely to be surprise winners, and that for every category with a surprising amount of freshness there’s another that reeks of complacency and laziness. These are not new narratives, of course, but they’re narratives that overpower any sense of hope that could possibly remain after a morning of sobering reality, and that temper any enthusiasm that might nonetheless remain.

Although we cannot say that there is no enthusiasm to be found. While there are no real dominant narratives at this year’s Emmys, I do want to focus on a number of stories that I consider important based on the nominations, some of which involve excitement and others which involve that defeatist Emmy spirit we cynics hold so dear. One deals with how a network fights to remain relevant after giving up its Emmy bait, while another deals with the failings of an oft-derided set of categories. The others, meanwhile, look at the difference between being nominated and being competitive, as well as why it might be that an entire set of categories can’t help but feel like a disappointment.

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Review: FX’s Wilfred is Weird (in More Ways Than One)

I am very curious to see how people respond to FX’s Wilfred, which debuts tonight at 10/9c on FX.

On the one hand, I’m interested in how divisive the show’s premise will be: this is a decidedly weird premise, and the show doesn’t spend any time trying to explain or justify it in tonight’s premiere. “Happiness” begins with Elijah Wood’s Ryan imagining his neighbor’s dog Wilfred as a bipedal, pot-smoking dude in a dog suit – creator/producer Jason Gann, to be specific – and simply moves on from there.

However, on the other hand, I’m wondering what those expecting something truly bizarre are going to think when they discover that Wilfred isn’t as weird as its premise might indicate. Now, don’t get me wrong: this is still a weird show, and all three episodes sent to critics feature moments which play on the premise quite directly. And yet, at the same time, all three episodes boil down to some pretty general themes, and this is at its core the story of a depressed man exploring his identity with the help of a friend. That the friend is imaginary, and that he is actually a dog, is not really the point of it all, which was kind of surprising given that “Guy in a Dog Suit” was pretty much all I knew about the show going in.

While I find Wilfred to be occasionally amusing, and certainly think that the premise holds narrative potential, what I’ve seen so far ends up coasting on the premise without really exploring it to any large degree. Individual setpieces may signal where the show may succeed in the future, and Wood and Gann may be strong anchors around which to build a larger comic world, but this is a surprisingly small show given its larger-than-life premise.

And while that may benefit that show in the end, it has resulted in a bit of a slow start that might engender a mixed reaction.

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A Comic Transition Plan: Season Two of CTV’s Dan for Mayor

Review: Dan for Mayor Season Two

June 5th, 2011

As CTV’s Dan for Mayorone of my Top 10 shows of 2010, if you non-Canadians remember – returns for its second season, things have changed.

It isn’t just that the eponymous Dan has now officially become mayor of the fictional Wessex, Ontario. The first season was built around that campaign, with all of the show’s characters eventually taking some sort of role in its success. Now, with Dan having taken on the office of Mayor, the challenge facing the show’s writers was how to keep their favorite characters around.

Their solution is more functional than elegant, and it raises a number of interesting questions related to seriality in situation comedies. Treating the first season as a prologue of sorts, tonight’s premiere (airing at 7:30 ET on CTV) wastes no time finding ways to re-establish spaces in which these characters can interact on a regular basis. It’s a transparent re-ordering of the series, one that makes the premiere a bit jarring, but it also transitions the show into something simpler, and more sustainable, than what came before.

And, thankfully, it still manages to be plenty charming in the process.

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