Cultural Review: One Day At A Time turns a cynical instinct into a culturally-specific triumph

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Michael Yarish / Netflix

On Friday, Netflix debuts a new series from Norman Lear, but I don’t want to talk about either the streaming service or the iconic producer.

This is, admittedly, somewhat counterproductive. One Day At A Time is part of a growing collection of multi-camera projects for Netflix, and thus part of their larger programming narrative—the service continues to expand its profile in the TV industry seemingly every week, and its investment in this “traditional” genre is undoubtedly part of this. And as for Lear, my disinterest in discussing his involvement in this reboot of his 1975 sitcom is not meant as a slight on his legacy or his contributions to this series, which are all deserving of praise.

However, in both cases, I struggle overemphasizing these parties when discussing the myriad strengths of One Day At A Time, a show that thrives in its specificity despite being a product of a culture of reproduction. While Netflix will get kudos for distributing the series, and Lear deserves recognition for his pioneering of a sitcom model imagining television as what Newcomb and Hirsch dubbed “the cultural forum,” One Day At A Time succeeds because it finds purpose and meaning where none was guaranteed, or even likely.

The origins of the series, as presented by Vulture, can be read two ways:

When legendary sitcom producer Norman Lear kicked off the book tour for his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, the head of production and development at his company, Act III Productions, had a thought. “I wanted to get him back into TV to show people how relevant he still is,” said Brent Miller, the Act III executive. “It’s something people miss.” The idea to revive one of Lear’s legacy properties — the 1975 CBS sitcom One Day at a Time — was floated, but with one crucial difference, driven by the results of a marketing survey showing that single Latina mothers are a desirable target demographic: This time, it would center on a Latino family.

The first way is to focus on Miller’s goal of bringing Lear—a television icon—back to the industry, a timely one given the debut of NBC’s The Carmichael Show and the increased focus of ABC’s Blackish into cultural issues during this same period. That goal is admirable, and no one would be upset at the idea of Lear coming back to television.

The second way, however, is to focus on Miller’s actual strategy. Instead of having Lear work on a new series, perhaps partnering with a young writer similar to Carmichael‘s Jerrod Carmichael to develop a new property, the immediate instinct is to remake one of his existing series. Moreover, the choice to focus on a Latino family wasn’t motivated by a perceived lack of representation: it was motivated by a marketing survey, chosen to make the concept more desirable to Sony (the studio that held the rights, and would go on to produce the show) and Netflix (the distributor who would eventually purchase it).

This is not, ideally, how creativity is supposed to work, although it’s typical in the television industry. There’s a suggestion here that Miller—perhaps from past experience—did not believe that an original project from Lear would find a home, and that’s unfortunate if true. But the idea that this had to exist as a reboot of an existing property, and that its focus on a Latino family originated with a marketing study, points to the television industry’s unwillingness to abandon traditional profit motives, even when creating something that can—and, considering the final product, should—be framed as a step forward for representations of Latino families on television, and even when Netflix theoretically should be able to function outside of those logics as a self-proclaimed “disruptor.”

And so the fact that One Day At A Time is a great and meaningful television show is in spite of—rather than as a result of—its origins. Some of this credit goes to Lear, certainly, but it has much more to do with those who came on to run the series managed to turn it into something far beyond what its origins required. There is a version of One Day At A Time that barely goes beyond its initial pitch, telling generic family sitcom stories but with Latino actors, and living up to its promise for Netflix (interested in targeting niche audiences as a subscription-based service) and, on a basic level, to Miller’s initial goal of reviving Lear’s production company. However, what debuts on Netflix Friday is far from generic, and it has everything to do with what happened after the show was initially conceived.

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Cultural Interview: Shameless executive producer Nancy M. Pimental

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Shameless (Season 7) – Photo: SHOWTIME

When Showtime’s Shameless returned last week (which I continue to cover for The A.V. Club), it was months earlier than normal, the second season to air this calendar year. It meant a lot of Shameless in a short period, which reinforced that Shameless has quickly become one of Showtime’s longest-running hour-long series, now entering its seventh season

I had the chance to speak with Shameless executive producer Nancy M. Pimental, who’s been with the show since its first season, earlier this summer, and was mostly interested in how the show is looking to age into its final seasons, however many they may be. The conversation starts with a moment from last season that, for me, could have easily been a part of a theoretical series finale, and moves from there to cover topics related to upcoming character arcs, keeping storylines fresh after seven seasons, and how much they’ve thought about where they want each character to end up when the parties involved decide there’s been enough shamelessness for one lifetime.

Cultural Learnings: In the middle of last season, Fiona walked into the empty Gallagher house after it was auctioned out from under them, and my first thought was that this could have been the very last scene of the series.

Nancy M. Pimental: Really?

Yeah, the house has seemed so crucial to the show, and so the idea of it being a symbol of the end made a lot of sense to me—of course, then they ended up getting the house back, and the storytelling reverted to the status quo, but did you ever think of it as carrying the weight of finality at all?

Wow, no, but that’s interesting. I like seeing things through other people’s eyes, how it landed on them. We did not think it was final—what we wanted to show was just the kind of reality of living where they live, and how everything is a juggling act. So, you’re getting one ball in the air and paying one bill, and then something else ends up creeping up on you. Living in that socioeconomic environment you’re not planning for the future or anything—if anything we were just trying to show reality, as opposed to closure.

Was there any point where you considered abandoning the house, or is the standing set element of it too substantial?

Yeah, I think it’s too substantial. As writers we explore every option—“Oh, would it be interesting if everybody moves into the Milkovich house,” or “What if everybody splits up and goes to live with their respective partners?” I think we definitely explore every idea.

The season did end up playing with that latter idea, dividing up the characters while the house was in jeopardy. It actually made me wonder if you might go through with it, but eventually you did bring everyone back to the house.

You know, the truth is it’s such a fine line, as just practically and realistically as people get older they move away from their houses. I have friends who have kids that are that 16 and 17, and they’re never around anymore, and I think it’s natural and normal. And so we want to tell the truth, but sometimes it’s not great for storytelling, because you do want to see a family unit conquering or overcoming some obstacle.

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Sorry, Not Sorry: NBC’s Timeless resists the “serialized rabbit hole,” and is better for it

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Timeless—debuting tonight at 10/9c on NBC—is a strikingly old-fashioned television show at its core.

This is not intended as a slight—the show is, inherently, a throwback to the likes of Quantum Leap or something like Sliders, where episodic time travel is used as an anchor for a combination of standalone adventures and ongoing thematic character work. And when executive producers Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan arrived to present the show as part of NBC’s press tour presentation, they weren’t hiding this old-fashionedness. Where some shows might have run away screaming from the idea of being a throwback to a late 80s time traveling procedural as three characters (a professor, a former soldier, and a technician) travel through time to stop a would-be terrorist, they were more than happy to cite Quantum Leap as an inspiration point, even as a contrast to a more “quality” time travel brand like 12 Monkeys.

It’s a refreshing position, although a somewhat uncommon one, and one that somewhat contradicts the way the show’s pilot contorts itself to assure the viewer that it contains meaningful serialized elements: like most modern pilots, Timeless ends with lots of complications that create questions for future episodes, an instant mythology that will play out over the course of the coming season. But whereas I could imagine a world where the producers promised that this wasn’t “just a procedural,” Ryan insisted something different on the show’s panel: “this isn’t a show that is going to fall down a serialized rabbit hole.”

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No one watched a great Emmys telecast, which really shouldn’t surprise us

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The 2016 Emmys were, quite objectively, a well-produced show.

They came in on time, helped by a couple of absent acting winners. They included a meaningful number of surprises, including wins for young stars Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) and Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), to help offset the predictable series wins for Veep and Game Of Thrones. They had a dynamic host in Jimmy Kimmel, who managed the combination of prepared bits and contextual quips admirably. They had a diverse array of winners, and Academy president Bruce Rosenblum used his speech to call attention to below-the-line workers, bringing out two craft winners from the Creative Arts ceremonies for a deserved round of applause. They even managed to find a way to mount specific In Memoriam tributes to television greats—the Garrys, Shandling and Marshall—without making the evening too somber. While there are winners I’d quibble with, there was nothing in the narrative of the evening that to me demonstrates a failing on the part of the producers.

The 2016 Emmys were also, objectively, the lowest-rated ever.

This dichotomy has to be frustrating for producers, who put on a show that I would identify as a successful celebration of television as a medium, but who were summarily punished for that. And so as CBS prepares to mount its latest version of the Emmys next year, the question becomes whether or not parties involved believe that there is a need to change the central goals of the Emmys to draw larger audiences.

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Choose-Your-Own-TV-Future: Pantheon University and Amateur Webseries

Two years ago, I was sent an email by the co-creator of webseries Jules and Monty. What I discovered when I went to watch these Tufts University students’ vlog-style reimagining of Romeo and Juliet in a college setting was not simply a charming production but also a meaningful symbol of how the accessibility of web distribution has reshaped the creativity of young producers. Here you have a group of college students who saw an independently produced webseries (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) and its cultural footprint and said “we can do that,” and then went ahead and did it thanks to the help of a campus TV station with an interest in making web content and the mainstreaming of the equipment/software necessary to make it happen.

I wrote about Jules and Monty both on Tumblr and here on the blog, but the students at Tufts—with co-creators Ed Rosini and Imogen Browder now branded as Neat-O Productions—have kept creating. But these creations have taken a different path than Jules and Monty—that show caught on with the fan communities that had emerged around the literary webseries of the moment, generating over eight thousand views of its finale and over twenty for its premiere. But followup webseries Wavejacked failed to ignite in the same way: it was less romantic, pushed the boundaries of genre, and latched onto a cultural reference point—old time radio plays, by way of Welcome to Night Vale at times—that didn’t necessarily appeal to their existing audience. And yet its success should be measured less in terms of views—still over a thousand for the finale, the measure of true viewership—and more in the fact that its creators didn’t just adapt another romance. They told a different story, explored different themes, and made a conscious effort to engage with LGBT representation in the process. The end result could be a bit scattered (in part due to a fragmented release structure), but it would have been easy to just fall into a pattern and they resisted that.

Pantheon University, this year’s production, represents the apex of the idea of college students making their own webseries by combining the media industry happening around them and their own creative impulses. Like Jules and Monty, Pantheon is an adaptation reimagining stories in a college setting, but in this case it’s the sprawling Greek mythology. This gives them the freedom to explore genre, moving between different tones and styles as the characters and their stories shift. They’ve even been inspired by the rise in Netflix’s all-at-once distribution pattern to build a puzzle-like structure, with the episodes released at once and able to be watched in any order (although with a suggested order). If Wavejacked was Neat-O pushing the boundaries of what they were interested in exploring and how they wanted to explore it, Pantheon University is channeling that ambition into creating something truly distinct.

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The strangest thing about Stranger Things is its (potentially) undefined future

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Stranger Things is the latest in a long line of originals from Netflix, a stable that is growing to the point where any one series is no longer really all that pivotal to their brand identity. Netflix doesn’t really put a significant promotional pitch behind a show like Stranger Things: they do some light marketing, some press (if critics/reporters are interested), and then season one becomes a litmus test. If it’s a “hit,” it goes into the list of shows that Netflix will push harder for a second season. If it’s not, it becomes like Marco Polo, which received almost no fanfare when its second season debuted earlier this month.

Stranger Things does pretty well in this litmus test. Critics embraced the show—although it received a slightly lower metacritic aggregate score than Narcos, it also had eleven more reviews in total, suggesting a wider interest in the series from the press. If I had to pinpoint a reason for this, it’s because Stranger Things feels different. Netflix’s series have at times slotted comfortably into existing genres: Narcos into the Breaking Bad anti-hero mold, Marco Polo trying to be a historical action epic, etc. And while Stranger Things‘ cinematic points of inspiration are none-too-subtle, it has less precedent in television, and thus feels novel even though one of Netflix’s first original series (Hemlock Grove) was a spin on the horror genre. The 80s period, Spielbergian, Stephen King-esque take on the material stands out amidst what I once dubbed the “psychosexual horror arms race” ongoing elsewhere in the genre, and the show overcomes some shoddy procedure—more on that after the jump—to construct a compelling milieu, fun characters, and a mythology that draws you in without getting overly complicated.

But there is another litmus test in Stranger Things that I want to focus on, which is this: what kind of television show is this in our era of limited series and seasonal anthologies? At only eight episodes, Stranger Things sits in a decidedly liminal position in an evolving TV industry, and the way the first season ends tells me that even those making the series aren’t entirely convinced where they want this show to fit. It’s a fascinating decision that creates an entirely new “postmortem” conversation about a season of TV: What, indeed, do we want a second season of Stranger Things—all but guaranteed given Netflix has never canceled anything, and certainly wouldn’t cancel something with reviews like this—to look like?

And, perhaps more importantly, do the show’s creators and Netflix feel the same way?

[Spoilers for “season one” of Stranger Things to follow.]

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “The Winds of Winter”

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[After spending this season, as with last, writing about Game of Thrones at The A.V. Club, I was in Europe during the finale, which meant my colleague Caitlin PenzeyMoog stepped in. But since I’ve reviewed every episode of the series, it seemed odd not to be weighing in, so below are my thoughts. They are from a book reader’s perspective, but ultimately carry no significant spoilers from material yet to be adapted into the series.]

Most television is didactic on some level: while ultimately no show can control how its audiences watch it, it embeds certain codes by which it should be interpreted. In early seasons, it teaches us things about itself, which we will then use to map out the journey as it gets deeper into its run.

Game Of Thrones’ early seasons—pulling from Martin’s own lessons in the novels—taught us that anyone could die, and that no one was immune from the type of tragedy that befalls those in or near or subject to power in Westeros. Its middle seasons amended this lesson to show us that there are no easy paths to power, sidelining characters like Daenerys and Arya on long journeys of self-discovery that distracted from their central goal. It trained us to watch Game Of Thrones as a non-linear exploration of power in its various forms, embracing its muddied morality and considering the consequences that befall all those who lay in its wake.

But television shows change, and with them their lessons. For five seasons, the show trained its audience to be on the edge of its seat wondering where the narrative could go next, but this season has been a retraining of sorts. Suddenly, there need to be easy paths to power (albeit with long roads taken to get there), because the show is near its end. Suddenly the morality needs to become less muddled in places, because the powers of Westeros need to be in a position to unite against the threat of the White Walkers (a “big bad” the show introduced in its very first scene, yes, but then trained us to forget about by developing so slowly). Suddenly, there are characters that can’t die, because the level of investment in their arcs—Jon’s rise from the dead, Arya’s two entire seasons in Braavos, Sansa’s torture at the hands of Ramsay—is too great for them not to play some type of role in the endgame ahead. Game Of Thrones has changed, and its sixth season was about retraining us to watch the more predictable show it’s become.

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