Tag Archives: Cultural Learnings

Transitions: Covering The Office for The A.V. Club

Transitions: Covering The Office for The A.V. Club

September 21st, 2010

As a freelance critic with an emphasis on the “free,” my goal is to write about what interests me: while I am, admittedly, in the midst of transitioning back into the world of academia, criticism is simply part of how I watch television, and so my goal is to find those series which compel me to write about them despite my lack of free time in which to do so. This includes complex serialized dramas like Mad Men, unsung comedies like Cougar Town, intriguing new drama series like Lone Star, or complete – if pleasurable – messes like Glee.

It also includes The Office, although it might not under different circumstances. Last season was a disaster for the show creatively: while Jim and Pam’s wedding was a highlight, the rest of the season was a meandering affair which tried to find comedy in corporate turnover and came up empty-handed. The problem with the Sabre arc was that it presented itself as an insurrection but was in fact wholly ineffectual: in fact, the office actually devolved under Sabre’s leadership, with Michael and Jim returning to their original positions and Andy and Erin offering a rewind to the days of Jim and Pam. While things appeared to change on the surface, the structures of the show were more stale than ever before, and this discrepancy forced myself and many others to reflect on why we were still watching the series.

If the result of this reflection was “Michael Scott” or “Steve Carell” (it was neither for me), then the seventh season promises to be testing: with Carell officially departing at the end of the year to move onto other opportunities (and to spend more time with his family), the show is in a period of transition unseen in television comedy since Spin City (where Michael J. Fox left the series in 2000, replaced by Charlie Sheen). The question becomes whether the show can survive without Carell, both in terms of how Michael’s departure will affect the office ensemble and in terms of how viewers will respond to the unquestionable star of the show departing.

While many may find this concerning, I’ll admit to finding it pretty fascinating: the show is in the unique position of being able to plan an entire season around an impending change in the series’ structure, which makes the seventh season an exercise in transition and preparation that is not often seen in television comedy. Suddenly the show has a purpose again, balancing the end of Michael Scott’s arc on the series with the process of preparing to introduce someone entirely new next year. I may not have complete faith that they’ll be able to pull this off, but instead of watching one of my favourite shows slowly melt away in front of my eyes I get to see the show scramble to ensure it can continue on without its star. While creatively I am a bit apprehensive, I am more critically intrigued than I’ve ever been with the show, and that’s really what matters.

And it’s what led me to accept an offer to cover the show for The A.V. Club, as my title gave away long before you got to this particular sentence – with A.V. Club staffer Amelie Gillette writing for the show, they needed someone from outside of the inner circle to cover the series, and so I have the ominous task of filling Nathan Rabin’s shoes in the season ahead. It’s a tremendous opportunity to engage in a more public form of critical discourse, as I am looking forward to seeing how the commenters respond to the changes and how the critical community at large responds to the (hopefully) creative behind-the-scenes efforts to pull off this transition. I too, of course, will need to transition to a different environment writing for TV Club, but that will simply be part of the journey: I’ll avoid listing names so as to avoid turning this into a laundry list, but I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the collective team writing reviews for the site, and to be in their company is truly an honour.

Whether or not the show will live up to this honour is yet to be seen, but frankly I’m just glad that The Office feels like a journey again: after a season without direction, the show has a clear purpose heading forward, and for better or worse I’m along for the ride.

The A.V. Club – TV Club – The Office

So, look for my first review on Thursday night – I’ll likely post a notice here as well as include a link in the sidebar.


Filed under The Office

Cultural Catchup Project: Alert Status “Restless” (Buffy and Angel)

Alert Status “Restless”

July 16th, 2010

There was some talk late in the comments on my less than hyperbolic – which, for the record, still qualifies as positive – take on “Restless” about how I wasn’t responding, worried that I was scared away by recurring dreams where I’m backstage at a performance of “Death of a Salesman,” I missed every rehearsal, and the audience is made up of nothing but angry Buffy fans.

The truth, of course, was that I was taking a bit of a breather, but I won’t lie and say that the response to my “Restless” review wasn’t a bit…intense. I understood going into writing the review that I wasn’t seeing what it seemed like others were seeing, that the parts of the episode I enjoyed felt like they were in conflict with some of the elements which felt underdeveloped, so it’s not as if I expected to be met with a chorus of agreement. However, there was definitely a point within the comments where it seemed like the response (subtly, and never vindictively) shifted from “I think you need to look at this more carefully” to “Why didn’t you look at this more carefully,” which is actually a perfectly logical question which is unfortunately largely antithetical to this project, which is why I wanted to take a moment to discuss it before diving into Season Five (and Season Two of Angel) in the days ahead.

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Cultural Catchup Project: State of the Project Address

State of the Project Address

May 7th, 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.

So, we are now two seasons and four weeks into this process, so it seems like a good time to check in on the progress thus far. I think I wanted to be through a bit more of the show by now, if we’re being honest, but my slow speed has resulted in more writing, and more writing has resulted in some more fabulous discussions, so I’m going to say that the project us off to a successful start.

However, there’s a few points I want to make as we head into the next stage of this journey:

1) Keep the Comments Coming

I am now starting to understand the reasons that Buffy fans are so devoted to this show by watching it, but your comments confirmed this long before I necessarily discovered it myself. While I am occasionally worried that my inability to participate in many conversations (due to fear over spoilers, or a lack of knowledge to be able to follow the sprawling conversation threads that have emerged), you have all been pitching in to keep conversations alive long after I expect them to be over. Every time I get an email notification about another comment on the pieces, it means that someone else has been inspired to talk about the show based on this project, and I have your great contributions to thank for that. I’m not used to getting a whole pile of comments around these parts, so it’s been really exciting and I look forward to more conversations in the future.

2) Quick Whedonesque Note

So, when I started this project, I knew enough to know that it would likely eventually get to Whedonesque, which is ideal: it lets a huge community of Buffy fans know I’m undertaking this project, which is sort of the point (I am writing this for myself and all, but the community element is certainly why I’m doing it the way I am). However, after two of the pieces went up on the site, the third was taken down due to what effectively amounts to oversaturation – at the site’s “Why was my post removed” blog, they noted that people are probably aware by now that I’m watching Buffy, and reminding them about it is unnecessary. This makes sense to me, so if you’re amongst those who’s submitted or considered submitting a piece (which, thank you), just let it rest and perhaps there’ll be a point down the road where a reminder may be acceptable (as this is going to be going on for a while).

3) The Schedule

Now, last week I was posting every day for a while because I happened to find a lot of episodes that felt noteworthy and that I had time to cover, but that sort of pace isn’t really going to work for me at this point. Also, I don’t want you to feel like you need to be constantly checking the site to see if a new piece is up: sure, if you want to visit and see what else I’m reviewing that’s wonderful and marvelous, but I want to try to stick to something of a normal schedule. As a result, my plan for the near future is to go back to my original strategy and post on the weekends: my goal is to write three pieces each weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), so you know when to expect them and so that I’ll have time to pull the pieces together (since there’s, at least for a few more weeks, plenty of shows to cover during the rest of the week). When we get into summer, it’s possible this schedule will change and I’ll switch to Saturday/Monday/Thursday or something (to give more time for comment threads to play out on their own and to keep down the high volumes of reading), but for now this is what works best, and what will start tomorrow morning with my thoughts on the start of the third season.

I want to thank everyone for reading along: it’s been great watching along with fans of the series (plus I know at least a few people inspired to watch the series for the first time by the project), and I’ve been humbled by the response to the project to this point – I’m very much looking forwarding to continuing on with the series, and look forward to many great conversations to come (whether I’m involved in them or not).




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The 2010 Cultural Catchup Project: The Final Countdown

The Final Countdown

April 7th, 2010

There is just over 24 hours left to go in the Cultural Catchup Project’s Reader’s Choice poll to decide which show I will be watching first, and it’s not quite coming down to the wire. As it stands, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel have a commanding lead with 42% of the votes, doubling the nearest competitor (The Shield) which is down to 21%. The Sopranos and Newsradio (at 19% and 18% respectively) are in a close battle for 2nd, but have very little chance at catching up to the leader at this stage in the game.

Now, however, is your chance to vote or try to change the course of history (or, more accurately, to potentially sway this meaningless poll in your favour). While I considered a run-off vote to give those the 3rd/4th place shows’ voters a chance to recast for one of the other series, I don’t have the time to pull that off properly, so I’ll leave it up to those who aren’t having the poll go your way: if you want to change the result, tell your Twitter followers or reach out to someone who has a lot of Twitter followers and try to pull the poll in your favour.

I am at the mercy of your democratic choice, and look forward to the results, whatever they may be. So, vote away, and I’ll be posting the results early Friday morning – the poll closes at 11:59pm ET tomorrow, April 8th.

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Goodbye, 2009: A Brief Rumination on the Year That Was

Looking back, 2009 was a great year for television, and I’d also argue that 2009 was a great year for the online television community.

This has been the first year where I have felt comfortable self-identifying with a particular term within that community, “critic.” It isn’t that I would suggest I only started writing criticism this year, but rather that being unaffiliated with any media outlet, and lacking any formal journalistic training, places me in a liminal position between critic and “blogger,” a term which has gained an unfortunately (and unfairly) derogatory context over the past number of years.

Friend of the Blog (and of myself – I just really like the term “friend of the blog”) Dave Chen wrote a piece this week in response to a charge that film bloggers are killing film criticism as we know it, and he rightly argues that such a claim makes broad generalizations regarding the quality of bloggers writing about film. It’s a fantastic read overall, but this passage in particular resonated with me:

Fragmentation is not death. And film criticism can still remain a respected form of cultural examination, far into the future. But it starts with a spirit of acceptance and magnanimity. When those who have been doing this for a long time try to help those who haven’t – instead of lamenting the current state of things – I think we’ll all be better off.

And it got me thinking of what 2009 meant for me personally, in the year where I entered the world of television criticism in earnest. I won’t pretend that there isn’t the same sense of vilifying fragmentation in television criticism (as this essay demonstrates), but I would argue it is a minority opinion; considering my own experience, entering into the world of television criticism based on a blog which started with no such intentions, I have been humbled and honoured by the level of support offered by established critics. Through the joys of Twitter (which saw an increase in critical presence over the past year), critical dialogue has become a collective conversation about this medium we love, a conversation that I’ve loved being a part of even within the confines of the digital space. There was a moment earlier this year where a large group of critics (myself included) got into a lengthy discussion about Chuck and a number of other subjects, and I pondered aloud where else such a conversation could take place. The immediate answer I received was a bar (touché), but the idea of recreating in a digital space that type of interaction has (in my mind) invigorated the television critic’s position in the online television industry.

So, as we enter 2010, I wanted to thank all of the critics who have been kind enough to interact with me over the past year, as well as my fellow bloggers who have added their own voices into the mix. At the same time, I also want to thank all of Cultural Learnings’ readers for commenting and offering your own voices into these conversations; I want to be able to follow the examples of those who have much more experience at this in terms of interacting with readership, so I truly appreciate any tweets or comments that may come my way. I firmly believe that the online television community is in fact a larger whole, and that critics, academics, bloggers, readers, and simple viewers are all working towards a common goal of the appreciation (whether critical, academic, or just for simple pleasure) of this medium.

My only hope is that the year to come continues to demonstrate the collective intelligence and love for television that exists within this great group of individuals, whether they be established critics who do this for a living or people like me (or, people like you) who do it out of pure enjoyment.

All the best to everyone in 2010,



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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Six – “Reinventing How We See the Wheel”

“Reinventing How We See the Wheel”

December 18th, 2009

[This is Part Six in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

I started Cultural Learnings in January 2007 for two main reasons. The first was that my brother Ryan had a blog, and thus its proximity to my life made it seem like a cool thing to do. The second was that I was in a “Politics of Mass Media” course and the idea of using a blog as a way of brownnosing extra credit appealed to me. So, in the early days (which, for the sake of my pride, have largely been purged), there were posts about a myriad of subjects, as whatever struck my fancy made its way under the collective banner of Cultural Learnings.

As noted throughout these pieces, a number of factors influenced the switch to a television blog, whether it was the return of Battlestar Galactica and Lost from their respective hiatuses or the false optimism engendered by Heroes’ first season. And in 2007, I wrote a piece that suggested (quite accurately, at the time) that the fan campaign surrounding Jericho was what made Cultural Learnings what it was in its first year. It made me realize that what I wrote had an audience, and that said audience could be enormously passionate about things in ways that I simply was not. It was what convinced me of the value of writing about television online in a blog format, and my experience in that community (despite my lack of affection for the show itself) was an important part of this decade.

However, if there were a single show that defined television criticism in this decade for me and quite a few others, it would have to be According to Jim

…wait, scratch that. Yes, I have to make a joke to distract you here, as I’m about to provide more praise for David Simon and Ed Burns’ The Wire, an epic tale of urban decay and personal tragedy that broke the hearts and captured the minds of critics and a relatively small number of viewers. It’s a show that will be near the top of almost every critical Top 10 list, and a show that until last summer I had never had the pleasure of watching. And that, if you look back in the archives, I’ve written about far less often than you might think, which isn’t entirely going to change here.

Rather than being the show that I’ve written the most content about, or the show that had the greatest emotional impact upon watching it, The Wire defines the past decade of television for me because it’s the show that has most made me want to be a television critic, to be able to not only analyze it more carefully but also spread the word and facilitate further discussion using the power of this blog. While I could probably get away with calling it the best television series of all time, my blind spots require me to simply say that no piece of television has had a larger impact on how I live my life than The Wire, both in terms of my choice to write television criticism and my aversion to hardware stores.

And I’m not sure there will be another show like it in the decade ahead.

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Filed under Television The Aughts & I

Television, the Aughts & I – Introduction


December 13th, 2009

Ten years ago, I did not watch television.

That’s a terrifying thought for someone who now lives and breathes the medium, spending a great deal of time and energy to criticize television in my spare time for little to no monetary gain, but it’s true. To be entirely fair, this isn’t entirely uncommon (the fundamental life change, not the insanity that is my devotion to television criticism): a lot can change in a decade, especially when that decade represents over forty percent of your existence. But there is some sort of fascinating narrative of self-actualization in how I went from the occasional episode of Friends and a teenage love of The Simpsons to watching anything and everything that the end of this decade has to offer.

I’ve been grappling with how, precisely, I was going to offer my own perspective on the television decade that was, primarily because the above fact puts me at a distinct disadvantage. I did not start watching television obsessively or critically (if we can pinpoint the moment we start forming opinions, which seems a bit slippery) until 2004, which means that there are some shows that I simply have not watched, and more importantly half of the decade where I had a limited view of the industry and how it was operating. Now, all critics have their gaps (there are, after all, some critics who haven’t seen The Wire or who never watched Battlestar Galactica), but my gaps aren’t gaps at all since there’s nothing on one side – I came to this decade late, and as a result understanding its .

However, reading Emily Nussbaum’s seminal rumination on the decade that was and its transformation of television from idiot box to cultural discourse, I realized how much my own experience with television in this decade is actually reflective of, well, television in this decade. The story of how I became the television viewer I am today is not that fundamentally different than how the cultural perception of television became what it is today, a relationship that has less to do with me (I am but a simple man) and more to do with the quality, diversity, and industry changes that defined this industry over the past ten years.

And since I’m not comfortable enough defining the best television of the decade (outside of serving as a peanut gallery on TV on the Internet) when I’ve yet to see The Sopranos, or The Shield, or The Office UK, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Angel, or Breaking Bad, or all of Deadwood, or all of Big Love, etc., I’ve decided to take an autobiographical journey through the decade in search of those shows which changed my television viewing habits and helped define a decade of television in the process. And while it may seem strange to define the decade through my own experiences, one of the things I’ve learned at Cultural Learnings is that everyone and no one is unique when it comes to television: we may all have different stories about how we came to be fans or appreciators of television, but we all have stories, and I can only hope sharing my own will inspire some of you to offer your own tales of television addiction (or, should you be so moderate, television interest) in the various posts that will follow (and you’ll be prompted to do so) in order to shed light on experiences beyond my own.

I’ll be posting six “essays” (if that’s what we choose to call them) over the next six days, and in the process I will specifically highlight a number of shows which defined my televisual experience over the past ten years. However, there are a few things you need to know about this collection of shows:

  1. Some shows included would not make an attempt at an actual “Top 10” or perhaps even “Top 20” list of best shows of the decade, while others most certainly would.
  2. The most common reason a hit show you really like didn’t make the list? I haven’t watched it.
  3. Other common reasons? That it wasn’t “important” enough to my television experience (like Freaks and Geeks, which I came to only very recently), or was so similar to another show on the list that including both would have been redundant. Or, it’s entirely possible I just didn’t like it.
  4. Yes, I plan on watching all of the shows I haven’t watched named above (in fact, the DVDs for many of them are on the shelf above my desk right now).
  5. In terms of spoilers, I don’t plan on going into anything too specific, but I do discuss the end of a few series so if you’re really paranoid just check the Post Tags to see if there’s a show you’re actively avoiding.

And so, with those details out of the way, the lineup:

Part One: “Beginnings”

Part Two: “Coming of Age”

Part Three: “Getting some (Critical) Perspective”

Part Four: “Reality Doesn’t Bite”

Part Five: “Late to the Comedy”

Part Six: “Reinventing How We See the Wheel”


Filed under Television The Aughts & I

BSG: The Long Goodbye – Introduction



March 23rd, 2009

I have written a lot about Battlestar Galactica over the past two years of this blog. One of my very first posts, in fact, was about how Battlestar Galactica was more or less taking over my life, leading me to see parallels in literature, in every day life, and expecting in some way that it would slowly meld with my own life. And, on Friday night, it pretty well did: after watching the finale, I shut myself into my room and turned out an epic, sprawling and rather indulgent review that was part catharsis and part exorcism. It was not, however, a goodbye.

I don’t think I’ll ever say “goodbye” to the show, what with the DVDs I could watch, or the academic papers I might eventually write, but at the same time I felt after writing that review that I need some more time, and some more posts, to really come to terms with this ending. And so, throughout the week I’ll be posting a myriad of thoughts on the show, whether it’s some links to the views of other critics, or an extended analysis of Season Four’s narrative structure, or potentially even something I’ve been resisting for a while but may have found its ideal time frame in the wake of the finale. I’m also considering the rather insane task of confronting the issue of the finale’s religious elements, but perhaps I’ll come to my senses before wading into that particular conflict.

Regardless, it’s one last chance to get some of this off my chest before I know I’ll have to put it on the backburner in favour of academic pursuits.


The Critical Response to “Daybreak” – A collection of various critical analyses of the finale, with some of my own insight sprinkled in for good measure.


Finale Discussion – A two-hour discussion of the series finale done with Devindra Hardawar and Meredith Woerner, recorded as a special edition of the /Filmcast, is now available for download at the above link.


The Trouble with Twenty – As ironic as it sounds, an analysis of how the problems of feeling like the season needed more time could have been solved by shortening its season to tighten the show’s narrative.


The Real Higher Power – With all this talk of God and religion, let’s realize who really holds the most control in the BSG universe: Bear McCreary, composer of the Gods, controls our emotions and reactions more than any writer, producer, or higher power ever could.


Romancing the Cylon, Revisited – My obsession with BSG is perhaps best represented by my undergraduate thesis about the series’ connection with Medieval Romance, so what better way to finish this cathartic week than spreading it to the world?

[Come back daily for another dose of The Long Goodbye.]


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False Pluralism: Emmys go from 5 to 6, but not from Wrong to Right


False Pluralism:

From 5 to 6, but not from Wrong to Right

If you’re the kind of person who is reading this article, there are certain hopes you have in life.

They were once personified by Lauren Graham, critics’ darling and star of Gilmore Girls, who went seven seasons without an Emmy nomination. Then, you had The Wire, a low-rated but critically acclaimed HBO series that despite being hailed as the greatest series of all time failed to garner any non-writing nominations. And then there’s Lost, which after winning an Emmy in its first year out faltered due to its genre elements getting in the way of its taut and well-constructed drama, only returning in 2008.

The last decade or so of the Emmys have been defined less by who was winning (dominated as it was by The Sopranos and The West Wing), and more by who wasn’t even getting invited to the dance. In the internet age, this is to be expected: internet chatter is always more focused on the negative than the positive, and when the Emmy system is a complex unknown to most people assumptions are made and grievances are aired. The three above examples, and countless more, will go down in the annals of message boards or blogs as those shows which represented a black spot on the Emmy Awards – and, unfortunately for the Academy, their record is getting spottier every year.

But hope is not gone for a show like Lost, or shows like Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights, for the Academy is making another change to its nomination structure:  they’re taking all Drama and Comedy series and acting categories into six horse races. Once reserved for a tie, the six-way battle is now the standard, and to quote Academy president John Shaffner this move “exemplifies the academy’s awareness of the amount of great television and fine individual work that is seen across the enormous spectrum of the television universe.”

Of course, what Shaffner is really saying is much simpler: “Dear Internet fans, *Insert Favourite Show* now has a better shot at being nominated, aren’t the Emmys relevant again?”

And sorry, Mr. Shaffner, but this wasn’t the only change, and your statement is an inherent contradiction of the OTHER methods taken by the Academy today. While the Emmy system was before extremely complex, (which I try to explain here), they’re going back to the drawing board: gone are the Panels that made up 50% of the final standings, replaced by, in the case of series, nothing but the popular vote of the entire membership and, in the case of acting races, by small, selective sections of the membership.

Which is officially the most egregious example of “one step forward, two steps back” that I’ve ever seen.

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Why I’m watching the Golden Globes instead of 24

globesFrom the title alone, this seems like it’s going to be one of my usual long-winded essays on the situation at hand, lengthy paragraphs on the sheer entertainment value of drunk Jack Nicholson heckling acceptance speeches and detailed analysis of my frustrations with season six of 24.

But when it comes to these two particular pieces of television programming, I have no powerful feelings in either direction: I do not despise 24, I do not love the Golden Globes, and yet I am deciding to watch the former.

The reason is really quite simple: the Golden Globes is capable of surprising me and I don’t really feel as if 24 is able to do the same. The Golden Globes, should the various awards go in directions surprising and different from expectations, have the chance to change the ongoing Oscar race, while 24 is unlikely to head in any direction that we would consider surprising (perhaps if they hadn’t spoiled their own “Yes, we’re desperate enough to resurrect a dead character,” this might be different).

I’m actually, by comparison, excited for the Golden Globes – I’ve obviously seen Slumdog Millionaire, so I’m rooting for it in its major categories, but there are some other big questions at stake especially in terms of acting momentum (where only really Supporting Actor (Ledger) is looking secure). Plus, with no musicals or comedies in contention for the eventual Oscar for Best Picture, it will be intriguing to see where the Globes go in terms of Musical/Comedy picture. And this is only on the cinema side, where my interest clearly doesn’t always lie: the television nominees weren’t that impressive, but I am nonetheless curious to see what hilarious impression of the current television landscape the HFPA comes up with.

24season7I have every intention on watching the seventh season of 24, but my priorities are for the things I know I will enjoy and that I know have some potential to be surprising. So tonight, I’ll be liveblogging the Golden Globes, and tomorrow night I will be watching How I Met Your Mother. If the seventh season gets off to as good a start as some of the reviews indicate, then that’s wonderful: I’ll be able to catch up later in the week when I’m not busy rewatching Battlestar Galactica Season 4.0 in order to prepare for Friday’s premiere.

However, if 24 is higher on your TV viewing hierarchy than it is on mine, I simply hope that it does not disappoint: I may be heading into this season with a fairly critical view of the show’s potential, but I would never begrudge anyone their enjoyment of what remains to an extent a well-produced piece of television with a solid central performance.

Season 7 of 24 begins its two-night, four hour premiere tonight, Sunday January 11th, on FOX (and Global, in Canada) at 8/7c, continuing at the same time tomorrow; the Golden Globes, meanwhile, start at 8/7c (with a red carpet special airing the hour before) on NBC (CTV).

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