Today I wrapped six weeks of writing about Orange Is The New Black, two episodes at a time, at The A.V. Club. It means I’ve written a lot of words about the show, and lived in its development more than most people, and it’s created some frustration as I’ve read a series of trend pieces that function as an interrogation of its progressive statements regarding diversity in television.
To be clear, this is rarely frustration with the overarching arguments being deployed. The core of pieces at The Nation, the Daily Beast, and Roxane Gay’s piece at Salon—the best of the three—in recent days have been seeking to complicate readings of the series’ diversity as a dramatic step forward. In many reviews, the diversity of the series’ cast has been considered praise-worthy, and Gay nicely captures the sentiment that has similarly driven other authors to resist this critical consensus:
“I’m tired of settling for better instead of truly great. I’m tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experiences of people who are not white, middle class or wealthy, and heterosexual.”
It’s an important argument, but it’s one that I’m seeing deployed with Orange Is The New Black not because the series is wholly representative of this problem but rather because it is a text with a degree of cultural relevance in our current pop culture moment that undoubtedly connects with this problem. The Daily Beast’s Allison Samuels didn’t even watch Orange Is The New Black before lumping it in with other pop culture examples. The Nation’s Aura Bogado only watched six episodes before quitting on the show’s first season. My reaction to these articles is not a rejection of the basic principles on which the authors stand, but rather a rejection of their relevance to this particular series as it evolved over the course of its first season.
“Dash, Flash, Crash”
November 17th, 2010
Last week I posted about concerns regarding Modern Family’s relationship with questions of race and ethnicity (albeit focused on the former), and over at TV Overmind the commenters were…well, they were angry. My point was not to say that the show is racist, but rather that there are moments when questions relating to sensitive issues are located within the production of the series rather than character actions.
Let’s take, for example, Phil’s “If you ain’t white, you ain’t right” t-shirt which angers an African American taxi cab. It’s highly offensive, sure, but it plays into his cluelessness in ways we recognize. It is the intersection of his inability to realize what his words mean with questions of race in today’s society, and its continued presence (“And this year I predict total White domination!”) makes it seem less like that single flashback is necessary in order to construct the joke. It seems like something Phil would do, makes me laugh, and happens to transition into the best episode since “Fizbo.”
In other words, next time you hear me ragging on Modern Family? Manny’s birthday.
The Construction of Race in Modern Family’s Second Season
November 10th, 2010
ABC’s Modern Family has always been concerned with questions of race: that Gloria and Manny are Colombian, and that Lily is Vietnamese, were prominent factors in the series’ pilot, so questions of race (and racism) have been evident throughout the series.
And yet, something seems different in the second season. While nothing has been fundamentally changed in terms of questions of race, the show is going to racial humor more often and in a few instances from a different perspective. I would never go so far as to say that the series is racist, but in its desire to increase the amount of racial humor it seems to have forced the issue without allowing it to flow naturally from its characters or even its storylines.
While it is not enough to condemn the series, I would argue that the way race has been presented so far this season shifts ownership of these dynamics to the people behind the scenes as opposed to the characters within the series, creating problematic questions of authorship that threaten both the series’ realism and its complexity.
Interview: Talking Huge with Savannah Dooley
September 7th, 2010
If you’re a regular visitor, you know that I spent much of my summer obsessed with ABC Family’s Huge, a show which really surprised me in its premiere and continued to build throughout the summer. After starting as an interesting glimpse into the experience at a summer camp designed to help teenagers lose weight, over time it became a nuanced take on adolescent self-discovery. Without directly subverting summer camp cliches, the mother-daughter development team of Savannah Dooley and Winnie Holzman elevated their simple structure into the summer’s finest drama series.
[For all of my reviews of Huge's first season, click here.]
However, since it was more or less just Todd VanDerWerff and I writing about the show, there wasn’t a whole lot of analysis being done, so I felt a certain obligation to do what I could to dig deeper into the series’ subtexts – as a result, after reaching out to the production, I got in contact with Savannah Dooley, who was kind enough to answer some questions via Email about how the series developed, the ways in which the characters evolved over the course of the season, what awaits the show should ABC Family decide to pick up the back half of Season One, and the latest news on the chances of that pickup in the months ahead, all of which can be found after the break.
“Run For Your Wife”
October 28th, 2009
Last week, I noted that there were elements of the episode that felt like post-pilot syndrome, re-establishing existing traits in a way that indicated the episode was intended to air earlier in the season. And, this week, the same experience repeats itself: “Run for the Wife” plays like the show’s second episode, ending with an emotional beat which confirms while subtly expanding the pilot’s message, its character beats feeling like the pilot on repeat more than anything new or particularly inventive.
What separates the two episodes is that last week’s was an epic family event that brought everyone together, while this week very clearly delineated the three storylines based on the couples (with only a phone call to connect them). And while the show gets some really enjoyable broad humour from those get-togethers, when playing out of order these isolated stories play somewhat better, where you don’t need to worry about adding up what we know about the ways the characters interact and can just enjoy them acting as we expect them to.
It makes for less conflict and perhaps a less unique setup, but part of me was able to enjoy the episode somewhat more as a result.
[Looking for who won the 15th Season of The Amazing Race, featuring Meghan and Cheyne, Sam and Dan and Brian and Ericka? Find out at this link!]
Who Won The Amazing Race 13?
Eleven Legs, eleven teams, and eleven hilarious mistakes by Dan & Andrew have brought us to this point: we have three teams racing to the finish, searching for that flight back to the United State of America and the finish line.
Who made it there first? To find out how they did it, read Cultural Learnings’ full review. To find out who it was, and whether they deserved it, click on below.
“You Look Like Peter Pan”
December 7th, 2008
After last week’s heartbreaking exit of Toni and Dallas, this finale is bittersweet. You have one team that’s been dominant, one team that’s been a bit tough to watch, and one team that for all rights shouldn’t even still be there. The season never really picked up much steam after a certain point, the explosive rivalries ending up being both early and driven by stupidity more than emotions (no offense, Kelly and Christy, but REALLY.)
Going into this leg, I believe that this can only be satisfyingly be won by Nick and Starr – yes, I think there is some type of story to be found in Dan & Andrew’s potential triumph, and Ken & Tina’s marital position would make for (at least) not an entirely boring victory, but I want to see good racers win for running a good race.
Or, perhaps to satisfy my demands, Nick and Starr can get the race-equivalent of pixie dust and fly to the finish line.
“Do You Like American Candy?”
October 5th, 2008
The second episode of The Amazing Race is always one of the most awkward: there isn’t yet any really compelling stories yet between teams, within teams, or within the race itself. And yet, unlike the first episode, there isn’t the need for a lot of exposition, so the producers have to hope that in the distance between one spot and another in close proximity the racers fall into every possible cliche.
Well, the producers lucked out: while some of it disheartened me to see, as personal favourites took a turn for the race, everything from airline drama to clue misreading turned up for a leg that, even without anything close to a suspenseful ending, told us a lot of things about these teams, defined some new relationships between them, and even gave us a couple of lessons about Karma. In the end, it’s an entertaining second leg that bodes well for the season ahead, if not quite blowing us away with anything particularly mindblowing.
“Bees Are Much Calmer Than All This!”
September 28th, 2008
I probably wrote something very similar to this last season, but the best Amazing Race premieres are quite simple: they feature no objectionable individuals, they feature interesting tasks, and give us a good introduction to the teams without feeling like we’re spending more time watching them fulfill their stereotypes than watching them enjoy the chaos that is The Amazing Race. Invariably, though, this is what happens: every thing people do becomes about their cliche: when the separated couple bickers, it’s about his cheating. When the pair of Comic Book Geeks figure out a way to solve a challenge, it’s about their unique intuitive thinking skills. And when someone is particularly objectionable, what reality producer isn’t going to put them front and center?
So, since it’s the only thing we can really judge, this group of competitors feels like one that could be fun to watch beyond its cliches. The first episode follows the usual pattern: the flights, the bunching, the elimination that feels slightly undeserved if perhaps a bit welcome. But whether it’s Superbad, our villains less objectionable than most, or the suprisingly level-headed nature of the young siblings Nick and Starr, the stereotypes feel like they are less blatant, that these people aren’t just mugging for the sake of being on reality television. Yes, Terence and Sarah are perhaps as objectionable a team as the race has seen this early on, but let’s focus on the broad strokes, shall we?
And the broad strokes are as enjoyable as ever.