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Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya: A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya

November 20th, 2009

In the promos for the season finale of Season Six of Project Runway, Lifetime uses dramatic music and a deep-voiced announcer to try to build suspense for the big reveal. However, in their language, they have something wrong: they create anticipation for the reveal of who is “the next big name in fashion,” and my immediate response is “who cares?”

See, what works about Project Runway is that it transfers the aesthetics of the fashion industry into terms that are unrelated to the fashion industry. I know nothing about fashion, but I know a lot about what Nina Garcia likes to see in fashion, or what the series values in terms of creativity. It’s created an audience that, even if they have no knowledge of the fashion industry, have gained knowledge of what Project Runway considers fashion. As such, rather than caring about what these young designers do in the context of the fashion industry, we care about how they situate themselves within the show’s cast of characters from seasons past. For a viewer like me, Bryant Park is the setting of the finale of Project Runway, not a global fashion event, which is why Lifetime language is demonstrative of the season’s failures: I don’t care if they’re a big name in fashion, I want them to be a big name for Project Runway.

And I can confirm that Irina, Althea and Carol Hannah will not be names to remember, a fact which has more to do with the way the show treated them than it does with their individual personalities and talent. And while we’ll never know if this season would have been more interesting if it were in New York, and if the production company hadn’t changed, what we do know is that Season Six failed to provide both the next big name in fashion and a single memorable name for this franchise.

[A few more thoughts on Project Runway, and then some thoughts on both Top Chef and Survivor, with spoilers after the jump…]

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The Office – “Mafia”

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“Mafia”

October 15th, 2009

The Office is a show that is going to have its share of filler episodes, moving between larger storylines (like last week’s wedding) and the next major storyline. Sometimes these focus on the day-to-day of the office environment, which is often quite fun for how it brings out the supporting characters more carefully. However, sometimes they’re episodes like “Mafia,” which play out very simple ideas in a way that is minimalist to a fault.

It’s not that the show doesn’t work when it slows down like this, but it needs for something to be particularly interesting or clever for me to buy it. This episode had the potential for Michael to go completely overboard, which isn’t my favourite character trait, but instead he just kind of sat there passively experiencing the whole episode. It makes sense that an episode that has both Jim and Pam (two huge parts of the office’s dynamic) missing, and in which Michael has nothing but creative space and free time scheduled for the day, is going to feel a bit lackadaisical, but at the same time it seemed like there was a pay-off that just never came in this one.

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Top Chef Las Vegas – “Vivre Las Vegas”

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“Vivre Las Vegas”

September 9th, 2009

I think I’ve discovered the effect of watching Top Chef week by week.

As particularly obsessive readers of the blog might know, I went through the first five seasons of Top Chef at a pace of about two a week (that’s seasons, not episodes) over a period this summer, and obviously got a little bit addicted to the show. I was curious to see just how I’d react to not being able to turn on the next episode as soon as a chef got sent to pack up their knives.

What I’ve discovered is that it’s made me really impatient, although in a way that really defines how the sixth season is thus far progressing. There is some amazing talent in this year’s cast, and I think that’s the problem: the sheer gulf between those individuals and the rest of the field is so large that I want to be able to watch the next episode not because I’m desperate for more Top Chef but because I want them to cull the herd as quickly as possible so we can see that core group go head to head in what could be one of the most competitive Top Chef finales ever.

For this reason, I was quite pleased to see “Vivre Las Vegas” eliminate two chefs who were pretty well dead weight, as it means we’re that much closer to really getting down to business in Vegas.

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Season 6 Premiere: Top Chef Las Vegas – “Sin City Vice”

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“Sin City Vice”

Season 6, Episode 1

You might remember earlier this summer when I suggested that I would be spending my free time this summer writing about my first run-through of HBO’s super-serious Western Deadwood, but the lack of posts on the subject would indicate that this plan changed. You see, things got busy at various points in the summer, and during those moments I struggled to find time to sit down and deconstruct/unpack incredibly subtle and evocative hours of television in a style that David Milch truly owns. It was just too much for me to handle, and while I do intend on getting back to the project once my academic projects are finished it just wasn’t the right recipe for when I needed to take a breather from the drudgery of completing a major research thesis.

However, speaking of recipes (oh aren’t I clever), the show that ended up filling that gap (along with some catchup with The Big Bang Theory as well as indulging in the down under stylings of Project Runway Australia more recently) was Top Chef, Bravo’s cooking competition series. Considering my position as a critic, this makes a lot of sense: the show has been quite well-regarded by critics, recently garnered its second straight Emmy nomination, and even got a name-drop on 30 Rock at some point in the last couple of seasons. That’s a solid combination of factors to convince me to track down the first five seasons of the show in preparation for this week’s sixth season premiere.

Of course, there’s one problem…I don’t actually, you know, like food.

I’m aware of how crazy that sounds, but it’s true: I’m an enormously picky eater, my diet consisting of perhaps three entrees and a handful of snack/breakfast/dessert/pastry options, so this show doesn’t appeal to the Foodie or, well, any part of me on that level. While I also lack fashion knowledge, there is a visual element to Project Runway that creates a pretty objective perspective on which to judge the competitors. However, on Top Chef it’s about flavour and about subtle decisions that I really have no context for. I’m (not seriously) considering putting myself out there to the show as a judge under the moniker of the “Paletteless Wonder,” as I really have no context for whether these dishes sound good or terrible until the judges provide their opinions.

But the fact that I not only stuck through five seasons, but also was left frustrated that I couldn’t immediately move onto the sixth which premiered on Wednesday, is a testament to the show’s ability to convey the love of food in conjunction with the personalities of the chefs in order to pull people like me into these competitions. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed Top Chef Masters, where established chefs like Hubert Keller and Rick Bayless competed in the various competitions, as much if I hadn’t already seen other contestants go through it: I may not love food, but there’s something about seeing people achieve greatness in their chosen field that is truly spectacular, especially in the somewhat “out there” nature of Top Chef challenges. Seeing them go where I had seen all of the other chefs go before was a real touchstone for how much I’ve become attached to the show, and how happy I’d be to see it come back for a sixth season.

And as the show takes to Las Vegas, it becomes very clear that this is the same show it was before: sure, there’s plenty of Las Vegas puns (did you hear that the stakes are high?), but at the end of the day this seems like an enormously talented collection of chefs with perhaps the most “notably” established individuals we’ve seen yet. And while I liked the way Top Chef Masters stripped out the tension in order to focus on the cooking, some part of me is glad to see a new collection of oddballs prepared to do whatever it takes to win the title of Top Chef in a very strong premiere.

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Nurse Jackie – “School Nurse”

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“School Nurse”

June 29th, 2009

When a show introduces a protagonist who has small children, and appears interested in investigating their family dynamic, there are really only two choices. One is to dehumanize them entirely, turning them into an amalgamated responsibility that influences them in some way, while the other involves taking them and turning them into an additional commentary on the protagonist’s behaviour. Medium, for example, had Allison’s kids begin as a sign of a normal life she wasn’t able to lead thanks to her ability, but eventually morphed into a scenario where all of her daughter’s inherited her psychic abilities. It’s really the only way a show can run for any period of time while still acknowledging the way the children age and act differently on a regular basis.

What we see in “School Nurse” is the use of Grace as less a mirror and more a potential burden on Jackie, a test of her ability to turn her back on her family. Grace’s anxiety over the world raises a lot of the usual questions facing a mother who is drifting away from her home life to some degree, but it also touches on the idea of knowing, and of being able to somehow sense that unrest that Jackie has tried to keep hidden.

It’s a worthwhile point of interest for the show, and a sign that there are no intentions of using the children as just an object; as long as they keep things subtle and nuanced, I’d say that the show is in fine form.

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Nurse Jackie – “Sweet ‘n All”

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“Sweet ‘n All”

June 15th, 2009

If we look at Weeds, The United States of Tara and Nurse Jackie as similar shows (which, being half-hour, female-led, Showtime-airing dramedies, they really are), one of their most defining characteristics is that each of their pilots found them “in medias res,” as whatever story there is in the series has already been in progress for quite some time. We weren’t seeing an origin story, or a whole new situation that forms the setup for a series; rather, in each instance, we find women struggling from various ailments (supporting a family through selling drugs after her husband’s sudden death, coming off of medication for multiple personality disorder, and an addiction to painkillers and adultery, respectively), and we’re missing that point where their suffering (going broke, becoming numb, etc.) went so far as to bring them to their current position.

I think that sets Nurse Jackie apart from these two shows is that there is nothing funny or light-hearted about her current position: Jackie’s adultery appears to only be hurting her husband and children, and her drug dependency is certainly not something to be considered humorous. While not seeing that moment when Nancy turned to drugs, or when the numbness proved too much for Tara to handle, wasn’t a big deal, it’s kind of a huge deal that we don’t understand why Tara would betray her happy little family; the drugs we can understand as part of a broader physical addiction, but without linking the two together it becomes a problematic element of the series’ “in medias res” setup.

“Sweet ‘n All” does not really come close to resolving these concerns, but shows a subtle and nuanced approach to doing so in the long run. Through the power of the fabulous Edie Falco and the complexity of the Hadron Collider, Nurse Jackie has moved one step towards filling in its own gaps, even if the rest of the show didn’t really evolve much beyond the pilot.

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The Office – “Casual Day”

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“Casual Day”

April 30th, 2009

Alan Sepinwall posted a link on Twitter to a piece at NPR’s Monkey See Blog about The Office Season Five that I would tend to agree with. In the article, Linda Holmes makes the argument that on a character level this season has been one of the show’s strongest, especially for Michael. Considering that we started the season with Holly, and then eventually moved onto the Michael Scott Paper Company, this has been a big year for the show’s lead character, and a year that has almost never been defined by sheer comedy.

I don’t know if Holmes had seen tonight’s episode when she wrote the piece, but it’s a fine justification of her central thesis: it was almost as if the episode was Michael trying to fall into his former broad comedy and rather selfish attitude but the show around him demonstrating that it isn’t willing to let it happen. As the Michael Scott Paper Company and Dunder Mifflin merge together, tensions are certainly high, but letting the more laidback “Casual Friday” element of the storyline play out alongside the more legitimate tension of the reunion really made this half hour stand out.

I’m not quite sure if I’m in a position to call it the best season ever, but it’s certainly making a strong case for it with only two episodes left.

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