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.
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.
A lot of television criticism becomes a critique of execution. Good ideas are put forward, but something’s off: a performance doesn’t quite land, the character logic doesn’t quite track, or limitations of budget or time—basic realities of making broadcast television—stand in the way of telling the story the way they wanted to.
But then you have cases like tonight’s American Crime, which I believe is executing the story it wants to tell at a high level. It’s just not the story I thought they were telling, and dramatically alters the scale and focus of the show in ways that in my experience undercut what made the show so compelling earlier in the season.
During the panel at the Television Critics Association press tour for the series in January, the producers were asked a range of questions about the viability of the show’s premise—documenting ten singles in one night in one bar—before I got a chance to ask my question, which was basically a good-natured way of asking “Did anyone try to convince you not to do such a thing?”
Television development is a game of risk/reward. Mixology represents a substantial risk for creators Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, as it’s their first television show and they’re playing with narrative in ways that most would advise against. As I noted in asking my question, there is no escaping this premise—whereas other shows can throw out their premises (see: Cougar Town) or make significant adjustments to characters as they evolve over time (see: Parks and Recreation, The Office), Mixology is tied to telling one story about ten characters in one night in its first season (which debuts tonight at 9:30/8:30c on ABC).
To their credit, Lucas and Moore were fairly open about the fact that this was a swing. Speaking to reporters, Moore described the process of the show’s creation:
“We just kind of sat down and thought what would be the best show, most interesting show to us, how to do it differently, how to show people, like, meeting and falling in love and that comedy in a different way. And we didn’t really think about, sort of, the structure of TV and how it works and all of the rules.”
It’s easy to scoff at this—I do it often when film writers move into television, seemingly with no attention to the medium’s specificity—but in talking with Lucas and Moore after the panel it became clear they understand television enough to know they’re breaking some rules. Although the room didn’t exactly buy Moore’s attempt to sell the show as “Lost in a bar,” it was at least a gesture toward the televisual tradition the show leans on, and on principles of episodic and seasonal storytelling the show needs to address to succeed. Mixology has aspirations, ones that make it an interesting experiment in how we connect with characters, and how stakes function in television comedy.
It’s also a show that, six episodes in, makes more sense than it did at first, if not enough to make it a fully successful experiment.
While Cultural Learnings has certainly been put on the backburner as I spend my summer studying, my willpower to keep myself from writing about television is at its weakest during Emmy season. While you would think that an early analysis of the leadup to the nominations and a piece on the nominations itself—focusing on Downton Abbey’s successful transition to the Series category—over at Antenna would be sufficient, I found myself hitting the site’s word count limit while still having a whole collection of narratives left to play out.
Accordingly, there are two points I want to make here. The first is the way in which this year’s awards demonstrate the capacity for a show to fall completely off the radar, and the other is what this year’s awards mean for the different networks and channels who are always looking to retain a footing within the race for nominations.
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.
At this point, Cougar Town is sort of like a history lesson.
This isn’t to say that I had forgotten that Jules and Bobby were once married, and that the former has been paying alimony to the latter, but it hasn’t played a role in the show’s storytelling since the Cul-de-Sac Crew came together. We’ve just sort of accepted Bobby as a fun guy who lives on a boat, and since finances have never been a major concern for the show it’s not as if there’s any real question of whether the alimony will make or break the show.
Rather, it becomes the latest in a series of investigations which return to a storyline that could disrupt the series’ dynamic and then prove that it is not going to actually disrupt the series’ dynamic. And while I do think that “Keeping Me Alive” is pushing the pattern a bit too heavily, and the show will have to introduce an actual storyline at some point, there’s enough to keep this episode grounded for me to continue to sing the show’s praises.
When Cougar Town changed (for the better), it could have completely ignored its past: considering that Jules dating younger men was a failure, there was every ability for the show to just pack up and move on.
However, while the show did change its focus to the community developing amongst the characters, “The Damage You’ve Done” actively unearths the show’s past. Jules runs into one of her ex-boy toys, someone who I had completely forgotten existed, and the show returns to an event that I had no recollection of which it could have swept under the rug.
And yet, in some ways it’s Lawrence and Biegel showing off: they’re sticking their tongue out at the skeptics, proving that the community they’ve developed is strong enough to withstand explosive secrets. However, at the same time, the episode is not without its consequences, maintaining the sense of weight that the show has carried even as it has established its casual atmosphere.
There’s an interesting duality to Cougar Town: the series is more consistently driven by change than any other television sitcom, and yet at the same time it feels the least vulnerable to the effects of those changes. “Makin’ Some Noise” is about how Jules and Travis each deal with a major change (Travis going to college), and yet it never seems as if those changes will be insurmountable or even that challenging.
Instead, the episode manages to create the sense of real change while also emphasizing that nothing is going to actually tear about this particular cul-de-sac. It’s the best of both worlds, delivering the sense of familiarity we expect from sitcoms without abandoning the real emotions of Travis’ move and its effects on his relationship with his mother (and her relationship with Grayson).
I am officially to the point where I am done “defending” Cougar Town: I refuse to accept that anyone who has recently watched the series could think it is anything but honest, earnest and hilarious, and so I’m just going to pretend that there are no naysayers out there. While many turn to Modern Family for their television comfort food on Wednesdays, for me Cougar Town manages to hit the same emotional notes while abandoning neither the honesty nor the snark.
There is nothing complex about “All Mixed Up,” largely relying on the strong interpersonal dynamics that developed over the course of last season, but the episode says something about those dynamics in light of recent changes. It successfully makes the argument that while their relationships will sustain them through any number of challenges in life, it will not be able to make it so that those challenges don’t exist. This is a starkly honest show (as I note above), and this allows them to say something tangible and real about their characters without introducing false conflict.
In other words, things aren’t “All Mixed Up” at all.