Tag Archives: Comedy

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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Season Finale: Shameless – “Father Frank, Full of Grace”

“Father Frank, Full of Grace”

March 27th, 2011

By the conclusion of its first season, I would argue that Showtime’s Shameless found something of an identity independent of its British predecessor. This is not to say that the show is better or worse, something I can’t judge given that I’ve seen only brief glimpses of the British series, but I felt as though the first season seemed driven by characters more than versions of characters. Between the work of Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan and Emma Kenney, the Gallagher siblings feel as though they (if not necessarily the world they inhabit) are real people who I want to see face the challenges that result from their position. Their story never felt like we were seeing someone else’s story transposed onto these characters, as each performer seemed to be driving the characterization as much as any sort of influence from across the pond.

That is a testament to the strength of the cast, and the writers for working with them, but it is only one component of the series’ future. The other side, the part where we consider the world that John Wells and Paul Abbott have created in Shameless’ Chicago, seems problematic as the show heads into an extended hiatus before a second season. “Father Frank, Full of Grace” has some strong moments, but it has already put into motion an enormously problematic return to the status quo which threatens to undermine whatever strong character work might be done.

Or, to put it in other words, it’s already threatening to be just like every other problematic Showtime series.

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On Zombies: Community and The Walking Dead

On Zombies: Community and The Walking Dead

October 31st, 2010

I’ve already written enough about Halloween episodes (both in my review of The Office at The A.V. Club and in my piece on Halloween-themed TV episodes at Antenna) that writing a review of Community’s “Epidemiology” in that context seems like a waste of time. In fact, part of me feels as if it’s too late to really add anything new to the discourse.

However, having now watched the first two hours of AMC’s The Walking Dead – which premieres tonight at 10/9c with a special 90-minute opener – I think that I want to talk about zombies, and their function as genre. In a movie, zombies are easy: you introduce zombies, chaos ensues, heroes emerge, a conclusion is reached (which is either the heroes proving themselves capable of subsisting within a zombie-infested nation or the zombie outbreak being contained, presuming a happy ending is desired). Admittedly, I’ve only watched a handful of zombie movies thanks to being largely averse to suspense, but the point I want to get across here is that there’s a clear timeline. There is a situation, there is a conclusion, and you move on from there.

When you move this notion into television, however, you’re forced to live in that space, which is a problem that The Walking Dead will have to face should it join the rest of AMC’s lineup. Community, of course, is a very different situation, but it is nonetheless interesting to note that seriality plays a pretty substantial role in how their zombie story is told, and so I think tackling them both simultaneously will speak to some of the things which impressed me about Community and some of what concerns me about The Walking Dead.

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Season Premiere: Modern Family – “The Old Wagon”

“The Old Wagon”

September 22nd, 2010

“Time marches on, huh?”

The central storyline in “The Old Wagon” is about nostalgia: the Dunphy family keeps their station wagon around not because it’s functional, but because it holds treasured memories of their past that they are unwilling to let go.

My growing issue with Modern Family is that it doesn’t feel like a beat up station wagon with character; instead, it feels like one of those models which takes people’s nostalgia for classic cars and then crams it into a shiny new package. There are elements here that I enjoy as a viewer, and elements that are unquestionably well-executed, and yet the ultimate package feels as if it has been manufactured to create that response instead of earning it.

In an episode which emphasized the importance of reflecting on how fast things change in our lives, Modern Family demonstrated that absolutely nothing has changed since the show sprang to life a year ago. “The Old Wagon” is not even close to being a bad episode of television, but it fits so comfortably into the show’s patterns that it honestly frustrates me more than a legitimately bad episode would.

At least then there might have been a single moment of growth.

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Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

Misdirected Scorn: Why 18 to Life Deserves Parole

August 3rd, 2010

I am not surprised to learn that critics, as a whole, are not jumping on the bandwagon for 18 to Life, the Canadian comedy which was recently purchased by The CW to fill out part of its summer schedule and which debuts with two back-to-back episodes at 9/8c. I watched and more or less enjoyed the show’s first season when it aired on CBC, but I did it without much emotional attachment, and certainly without any critical analysis (which is why reviews never materialized beyond the pilot). I appreciate some of the series’ choices, and am intrigued by the show it developed into, but it is unquestionably a simple pleasure rather than a complex reinvention of television comedy.

However, I was a surprised to see how many critics have been stuck on the series’ premise, and disappointed to see how many critics are unable to get past the stereotype of Canadian television and summer television as lesser entities in expressing their dislike of the show. It’s been a while since I’ve read pre-air reviews of a series which I’ve seen in its entirety, but most of the series’ reviews ignore the show itself and instead focus on attacking either its origins, its scheduling, or the apparent offensiveness of its premise – while I understand that these are all part of the series’ impact, that these critics have not bothered to watch closely enough to see the kind of show which 18 to Life is becoming seems a disservice to a show which is just trying to be an old-fashioned traditional sitcom.

Which doesn’t make it brilliant, but does make it something that doesn’t deserve this level of scorn.

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Cultural Catchup Project: “Buffy vs. Dracula” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Buffy vs. Dracula”

July 16th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

“Buffy vs. Dracula” is both a thematic companion for and a definite departure from the series’ past. The last two premieres have featured Buffy facing questions about her identity (in “Anne” and “The Freshman”), and her altercation with Dracula is built around similar questions; however, whereas it seemed as if Buffy was struggling to stay afloat amidst the world changing around her at the start of the third and fourth seasons, here she seems to be struggling within, gaining new perspectives on her power and its control over her actions and desires. In that sense, the episode represents a clear continuation, and evolution of numerous elements at play within the fourth season, especially within the First Slayer’s appearance in “Restless.”

However, at the same time, “Buffy vs. Dracula” is also a tad bit silly. I won’t go so gar as to say that it is cheesy, but there’s a clear disconnect between the Dracula who takes part in Buffy’s story and that character’s influence on the rest of the episode. While the core idea of Dracula’s involvement is well executed by Marti Noxon (the first writer to take on a premiere other than Whedon), the rest of the episode relies on comic scenarios which are not so much unwelcome as they are incongruous with the episode’s central function. While it isn’t a departure for the series to engage with comedy, the way it is deployed in the episode rather lazily fills in the gaps between the dramatic scenes, failing to integrate the two parts of the episode successfully and truly live up to its potential, potential which nonetheless remains clear based on the strength of the eponymous comparison.

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