No one on the panel for Fox’s 24: Live Another Day seemed surprised to be questions about politics: 24 was a lightning rod for criticism of its politics, and those politics have become no less controversial four years after the show concluded its eighth season in 2010. Their answer was measured and purposeful, acknowledging the political world they’re working with and promising to reflect contemporary issues such as drone strikes; they also argued, however, that theirs is not a political show. Jack Bauer, they said, is an apolitical hero.
This is not true, but it’s not surprising that the producers would argue this is the case. It’s the classic evocation of encoding/decoding logic, in which the people who create television claim no political intent, leaving any political implications to the whims of the audiences who take the series and run with it. However, it is one thing to say that there is no specific political intent, and another to claim that a series is apolitical. By creating a series that clearly touches on and engages with politics, 24’s producers created a political hero—although interpretations of those politics vary, and I’d agree the show never presented them as explicitly “Political” in the sense of Republican/Democrat, the issues at stake cannot be made apolitical through sheer will. I would accept that 24: Live Another Day does not come loaded with a specific political message, but the idea that a show so steeped in the politics of terror could be apolitical is definitive proof that those who make television will run from the idea of politics as quickly as possible.
Tonight at 9:30/8:30c, FOX debuts the pilot for Enlisted, a new military comedy from Cougar Town co-creator Kevin Biegel, with Men of a Certain Age co-creator Mike Royce on board as his co-showrunner.
I don’t want to talk about the pilot. This may seem strange: it’s the episode that’s supposed to demonstrate proof of concept, establish characters, and get viewers interested in seeing more stories in this universe. It’s also, all told, a solid pilot, one that highlights the bond between three brothers that is undoubtedly the heart of the show, so it’s not as though this is a case of needing to ignore the pilot to get to the good episodes after it. If you tune in to watch Enlisted tonight, you’ll find a well-crafted pilot that makes a clear, amiable case for tuning in next week.
Two days after critics questioned the fledgling cable channel’s cancellation ofTotally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, and what it meant for its future, FXX joined the long line of cable channels who have chosen to build their brand on the backs of syndication rights. And given that FXX is owned by NewsCorp, who also owns 20th Century Fox, that the channel would emerge victorious in the basic cable channel sweepstakes for The Simpsons is not a huge surprise. The decision allows Fox to keep the show within the corporate family, while simultaneously providing a cornerstone around which the FX brand and FXX specifically can differentiate within the competitive space of basic cable.
It’s not quite the “Simpsons Channel” that had been rumored in previous years, but it comes with what some would consider to be a comparable model: FXNow, the channels’ streaming service, will have exclusive rights to The Simpsons within a non-linear space, which some could argue is the most lucrative part of the deal. As DVD sales plummet and streaming becomes the de facto model through which many young adults receive their content, The Simpsons represents a substantial piece of television history, and one that its fans are likely willing to revisit. When Marcia Wallace passed away last month, how many Simpsons fans rushed to revisit “Bart The Lover?” When you’re standing outside a restaurant talking about the quality of your meal and you give it your lowest rating ever, seven thumbs up—I actually did this last night—there’s a chance you’ll want to rush home to check out “Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner.” In a world where Simpsons references are a language for a certain generation, the ability to stream this content has tremendous value, and would push use of an app that otherwise would struggle to compete with services like Netflix.
There are obviously some complications: for example, FXNow has commercial breaks within episodes, meaning there will be no space in which commercial-free episodes of The Simpsons will be available to stream. However, more importantly, I remain firm in my belief that the most valuable resource to Simpsons fans is not the ability to watch the show whenever they want, but rather the ability to reference the show at a moment’s notice. Within this deal, The Simpsons is being used as a leverage point to build a channel brand, generate revenue, and maximize potential revenue for a new channel; within popular culture, however, The Simpsons is used as a generator of meaning, a way to communicate that is best served with a different non-linear application that this deal would seem to render impossible (or at least highly unlikely).
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.
More practically, the show hired a writing staff in addition to its three creators (Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk). While this hasn’t eradicated the problems with consistency that have plagued the show since its first season, it has made the simplicity of the “3 Glees” no longer adequate as a strategy for understanding the show’s creative formation.
However, simultaneously, a Tuesday night class meant that there was really no way I could continue to cover Glee in the way I had in previous seasons, outside of a few weeks where screeners were made available in advance. This meant that updating the “3 Glees” page even in order to reflect the writing staff’s contribution was simply not going to happen, which means it quietly went on an indefinite hiatus this fall.
Allow me to make the hiatus permanent as we begin 2012. Although I no longer have a night class on Tuesdays, and thus could continue to review Glee if I so desired, I think I’m taking this as a natural breaking point. While I intend to keep watching Glee, and I remain open to writing about the show when a particularly strong/weak episode emerges, this seems like as good a time as ever to say that I might be running out of ways to describe Glee’s failings.
There is something very effective about “The First Time,” a poignant piece which uses the backdrop of the performance of West Side Story to tell three parallel stories of romantic love moving to another level.
There is also something very contrived about “The First Time,” an episode that still feels the need to force the issue of sexual intercourse in a blunt fashion, lest we be unclear what the episode was about.
I’ll admit that the tension between these two elements never quite disappeared throughout the episode, one which I can admire for its simplicity even as I cringe at the way it creates that simplicity through exclusion and a narrowing of perspective. That I ultimately consider the hour a success says something about “The First Time” as an episode, but I’m not convinced that we can suggest this as a key turning point for the series so long as its structure is so exclusively tied to the episodic structure of the hour.
When “I Am Unicorn” ended on what I guess we could nominally consider a cliffhanger, I was sort of stunned.
See, in order to have a cliffhanger you need to have a narrative, and that’s something that Glee has largely avoided since the conclusion of its first season. Now, to be fair, the show has had recurring storylines that have occasionally been made more prominent: Kurt’s bullying arc, for example, was a major force that changed the dynamics of the entire series by moving Kurt to the Warblers.
However, the narrative that emerges in “I Am Unicorn” (and which was foreshadowed last week) is holistic, encompassing a larger percentage of the show’s characters than ever before. It’s a collection of narratives that, while remaining tied to the show’s central themes and the musical conceit that the show has relied on, are not about the Glee club winning Sections/Regionals/Nationals and that on some level aren’t about “the Glee Club” as an entity.
Instead, they’re narratives about characters: they may be uneven, and they may not necessarily pay off in the end, but by the end of “I Am Unicorn” I was convinced that Glee is capable of being a subtle show when it wants to be.
Considering that I haven’t written about a single fall pilot, it might seem unfortunate that I’m choosing Terra Nova. It isn’t the best network pilot I’ve seen, or my favorite: I those crowns would probably go to ABC’s Pan Am, a show that I thought understood its purpose and communicated it more effectively (if not necessarily more subtly) than any other series. I’d also suggest that Terra Nova is not the worst network pilot by a sizable margin, as regardless of its many flaws it is definitely going out of its way to make a major impact (which is more than we can say for a show like Charlie’s Angels).
What draws me to Terra Nova, then, is simply that until tonight I had not seen it. Having screened so many of the pilots earlier in the summer, the sense of “instant reaction” was missing over the course of the past week, which was something that Terra Nova was able to deliver. There’s a thrill in seeing the snarky tweets piling up in Tweetdeck, or finally piecing together what critics who had seen the pilot (in multiple different iterations) have been talking about for weeks. Premiere week is all about first impressions, and the absence of real first impressions has led me to largely focus on a few tweet reviews and a lot of time following the ratings and waiting to see how second episodes fare.
However, there are a few things about Terra Nova that need to be discussed. Most broadly, and what will I guess prove the basic thesis of the post to follow, is that Terra Nova is a classic example of a series being trapped between more and less. It’s like a television magic trick at this point, in which producers have to provide more exposition and explanation in order to keep viewers from being confused, but then they need to include enough mystery that they build anticipation and excitement. As a result, both the exposition and the exclusion end up feeling forced, resulting in a pilot that bears the fingerprints of producer/network manipulation.
It’s also, honestly, not that bad if you just consider it as your run of the mill drama series; of course, that’s the last thing the show wants us to think.
Since watching Glee’s third season premiere late last night, I’ve seen a number of fairly harsh reviews of the episode, and I’m not entirely sure I’m on the same page.
Now, let me clarify that: I agree with pretty much everything that Todd and Ryan suggest in their own reviews, and I wouldn’t say that they were too harsh by any stretch of the imagination. However, my reaction to the episode wasn’t nearly as strong, whether it was positive or negative. I think it was one of those cases where the episode in theory was more offense than in practice, the very idea of the various storylines more problematic than the execution.
Normally I find this particularly annoying, but something about the mood I was in last night led to a fundamental lack of emotional response. It’s one of those situations where I’ve become numb to the pain, no longer at the point where I’m expecting the show to correct its mistakes or remain consistent in its storytelling. Instead, “The Purple Piano Project” was broken down into parts in my mind, and I was able take the parts I liked (as isolated as they might be) and more or less shrug my shoulders at the rest of it.
Which makes for a better viewing experience, but maybe not the kind of viewing experience FOX is looking for as Glee faces the perils of both Junior Year (as a television show) and Senior Year (as a narrative device) simultaneously.
Although, let’s remember that Falchuk, Brennan and Murphy have some friends along for the ride this time around.
As Rachel and Kurt stand on stage at the Gershwin Theater in New Your City, with the land of Oz behind them, Kurt suggests that they take this opportunity to belt out the closing song from Wicked, “For Good.” When Rachel remarks that there isn’t an orchestra, Kurt says the above line, and “New York” begins to fall into place.
Glee’s competition episodes have always felt like they’re sort of off in their own world, a world where show choirs earn standing ovations and where all of the season’s troubles can melt away through the sheer power of song. There was this giddy look on Naya Rivera’s face right before New Directions broke into “Light Up The World” that sells the kind of euphoria that being up on that stage can inspire, and these episodes have been among Glee’s strongest largely because of the emotional pull that the performances can inspire.
Nationals is the largest competition that the show has done so far, but its scale is not demonstrated in the number of songs or the seriousness of the competition. Instead, “New York” turns the euphoria up to 11, transforming the trip to the Big Apple into a glimpse of the dreams that seem so close yet so far away. Up until the moment where New Directions finally makes their way to that stage, this episode is like one long dream sequence, a world where original songs are written and rehearsed in a day, where musical idols are casually encountered, and where Gershwin Theater employees are willing to give two high school kids from Ohio some unsupervised time in a Broadway theater.
And “New York” would have damaged the show irrevocably if it hadn’t shattered that dream as it does. By returning back to the reality of Lima at episode’s end, Brad Falchuk makes it clear that the dreams present in this episode are unattainable, perhaps downright imaginary depending on how far you think the show is willing to stretch its own reality. However, in the spirit of the show and in a decision I don’t entirely hate, he also emphasizes that there’s room for dreams in Lima, Ohio.
At least until a year from now, when the dreams will contend with reality once more.