Tag Archives: Survivor

Who is Miles Mendenhall? Confronting Work of Art‘s Enigmatic Antihero

Who is Miles Mendenhall? Confronting Work of Art‘s Enigmatic Antihero

August 4th, 2010

To take a page out of Mad Men’s book, “Who is Miles Mendenhall?”

In basic terms, Miles Mendenhall is one of the artists on Bravo’s Work of Art, simultaneously the summer’s most problematic and most fascinating reality series. The series is a total contradiction, emphasizing the value of art by subjecting artists to challenges which seem designed to dilute their work and maximize reality television drama, and yet the resulting pressure placed on artists gives us a front row seat to their creative process which would otherwise be impenetrable (I wrote more about this earlier this summer).

Miles sits at the heart of this contradiction, in that he seems to be the most talented artist amongst those remaining but is also the one contestant who is unquestionably “playing the game.” Never before has there been a reality television contestant whose behaviour revealed so clearly the slippery notion of “reality” within these series, and without him I strongly believe that Work of Art wouldn’t be half the series it is. Regardless of your opinion of the way he is playing the game, the fact remains that he has managed to be one of the first reality contestants in history who panders to the cameras while simultaneously subverting the artifice of the reality show he’s taking part of.

Love him or hate him, you’ve got to admit that’s a work of art.

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Reality Bites: Survivor’s Fall from Grace with Emmy Voters

Reality Bites: Survivor’s Fall from Grace with Emmy Voters

July 10th, 2010

Anyone who watches Survivor could tell you that this year was its best in a very long time: blindsides became standard, immunity idols became common currency, and Russell (for better or for worse) introduced an entirely new way of playing the game. For fans of the show, it was everything you could hope for, combining the twist and turns of the best seasons with some of the players from those seasons with the “Heroes vs. Villains” structure of the Spring season. Overall, the year was definitive evidence that the Survivor formula is still capable of surprising us, and that twenty seasons into its run Survivor is still a viable reality series.

And so it may seem strange that, after experiencing one of its best years ever, Survivor was shut out of the Reality Competition series category at the Emmy Awards (although Jeff Probst is nominated again in the Host category, which he has won twice). This isn’t a huge surprise, really: after all, The Amazing Race has won this category for seven straight years, so it’s not as if one can expect a great deal of turnaround in terms of the nominees. However, Survivor hasn’t been nominated for the award since 2006, and I think the fact that it’s yet to be nominated again reveals something very interesting about the Emmy voters.

Primarily, it reveals that they don’t actually like reality television.

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I’ve Been In This Town So Long: The Serial Subtexts of Survivor’s “Heroes vs. Villains”

“Slay Everyone, Trust No One”

February 11th, 2010

Every season of Survivor is effectively the same as the one before: the players might change, but more often than not they bring nothing new to the game that hasn’t been seen in some form before. For every “twist” the producers have tried to throw into the game, it all ends up being the same in the end, which isn’t really a problem since the game is at its most compelling when it finds itself in familiar territory. Because we know what’s happened before, and because we have no idea whether the players involved know what’s happened before, we get to watch them walk in the shoes of the players who came before, either triumphing where they failed or tripping up where others succeeded.

What’s interesting about “Heroes vs. Villains,” the twentieth season of the show, is that it simultaneously reduces the game to a simple battle between good and evil while creating a game structure that is without question the most complex the show has ever seen, layered with subtexts (previous alliances, previous rivalries, personal experiences, etc.) that stretch back far into our memory of the show’s early seasons in a more overt way than ever before. By bringing the tribal competition to the surface, along with the binary that often emerges between those the audience loves to hate and those the audience wants to see go to the end, the show is creating the ultimate mind game: they are forcing characters with more emotional and gameplay baggage than ever before into a game which threatens to rigidly define them, ignoring the various subtexts in such a way that they can’t help but surface the first time anyone dares mention the word alliance or whispers about how successful some players have been in the past.

The result is Survivor at its most confident, pushing all the right buttons and getting some all-time great moments, some substantial comedy mixed with some engaging drama, and enough introspection to quite literally sink any other reality show that wasn’t build for just that sort of psychological inquisition.

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The Office’s Bait and Switch: The Irrelevant yet Attractive TV Clip Show

The Office’s Bait and Switch

January 22nd, 2010

Last night, many of you likely tuned into NBC at 9pm ET to enjoy what the network was billing as a “new” episode of The Office. And, sure enough, the episode began with a cold open that tied into ongoing continuity, as a banker (played by David Costible) stops by the branch to do some due diligence in the early stages of the company’s restructuring. We find Michael Scott up to his usual tricks trying to make the office seem more exciting, having Dwight play a sentient computer and riding a Segway for no discernible reason, and we have Pam there to help guide us through his insanity (fake accounts are okay, but Pam is not on board with Fake Stanley).

It sounds like a solid setup to an episode of The Office, but “The Banker” wasn’t actually an episode: as soon as the Banker went back to talk to Toby and asked a question about any potential liability issues, the spidey sense was tingling, and sure enough it was right. Toby began flashing back to previous events, and the episode revealed itself to be a clip show in disguise.

What I find so fascinating about the clip show as an episode structure is that it is becoming both increasingly irrelevant and increasingly attractive in this modern age. While television economics and concerns over lengthy delays between episodes results in a desire to have more “original” content to keep viewers engaged, the clip show seems less necessary when viewers can catch up with previous episodes on DVD or on Hulu, and where “clips” are a part of our everyday lives as opposed to some sort of novelty.

And yet it’s not going to go away entirely any time soon.

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Cultural Anniversary: Thanks for 3 Great Years

On January 18th, 2007, I started this blog.

On this, its three-year anniversary, I want to thank all of you for reading, and give special thanks to those who have linked to one of my 1467 posts, retweeted one of my far too many tweets, invited me to be on your podcast, commented on one of my reviews, conversed with me via email or Twitter, or inspired me to continue writing about television with your own work.

I sometimes wonder why you’re still reading, but the fact that you are means a lot to me – while I have trouble imagining a world where I don’t write about television, I have more trouble imagining a world where I’m not part of this wonderful online community of critics, scholars, bloggers and fans alike, so I greatly appreciate your continued patronage.

Today is, otherwise, just like any other day here at the blog: I’ll have reviews of Chuck, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory later tonight, and probably some thoughts on Big Love and Life Unexpected over the next few days. However, I’ll also be contributing over at MediaElites.com with my good friend Todd VanDerWerff and others in the months ahead — you can find my first piece, an investigation into the challenges and opportunities facing reality shows like Project Runway and Survivor in the short gap between seasons entitled “It Seems Like Just Yesterday: Clean Slates and Narrative Continuity in Reality Television Scheduling,” up at the site as you read this — so there’s some new adventures on the horizon.

Thanks for coming along with the ride,

Myles

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part Four – “Reality Doesn’t Bite”

“Reality Doesn’t Bite”

December 16th, 2009

[This is Part Four of a six-part series chronicling the 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.]

In Part One, I suggested that I had no real vivid memories of television before 2001, and while this is effectively true I do have a memory about reality television that predates that time. I was watching Entertainment Tonight (I swear, at one point this was a perfectly logical thing to do), and they had a short news blurb about how a Scandinavian reality show concept was coming to television amidst controversy. The show was, in fact, Survivor, and when they talked about the premise (people stranded on a pacific island left to fight it out for a million dollars) I thought it was one of the stupidest things I had ever heard.

And then I watched 19 seasons of it.

What I quickly discovered was that I love what we’ve now come to call the Reality Competition genre, shows which capture the thrill of, you know, competition with the added dose of, well, reality. To use other words is convenient to help justify watching the shows, equating them to a social experiment or a chance to live vicariously through others, but there is something about seeing people you come to know and care about compete against one another for a cash prize that continues to see me tuning in week in and week out.

Now, when analyzing the decade as a whole it may seem strange – more than strange, it’s probably a bit misrepresentative – to limit the limitless reality genre to only its competition format, but for me the competition format has been the far more important and positive television force. While there is, in fact, something borderline exploitative about some elements of the reality genre, competitive reality is the unique mix of casting and a cleverly designed structure, shows which utilize various narrative tools (especially editing) in order to welcome viewers into experiences that are not their own in a way that empowers us to, in a limited form, psychoanalyze our social interactions, race around the world, or care about something about which we know extremely little.

And while it isn’t in fact for everyone, it’s definitely something that has been an important part of my television experience over the past decade.

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Twitter-reviewed: Survivor, Grey’s Anatomy, Ugly Betty and Brothers & Sisters

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Once I get this enormously far behind with some of the week’s shows, writing blog posts isn’t really possible – I’d have loved to have dedicated a half hour to ranting about the one-dimesional Grey’s Anatomy, but if I did I wouldn’t have had time to see the tribes finally merge on Survivor.

So, I did what any self-respecting and laptop-owning soul would do: I sat with my laptop, caught up on four shows from this past week, and Tweeted my thoughts. The end result was perhaps an over-explosion of tweets for my poor followers (Sorry! I’ll spread it out more next time), but it’s also some bite-sized thoughts on these episodes.

So, if you’re wondering why I’m not covering some shows, following me on Twitter might just be a great way to continue to have a discourse on them here at Cultural Learnings!

Grey’s Anatomy

Started watching Grey’s, and Alias flashbacks had me pausing it and digging into some media studies essays instead.

Onto ‘Grey’s Anatomy’: Melissa George? Decent. Mary McDonnell? A bit one-dimensional. Ghost Denny? Le sigh.

‘Grey’s’: A week after dumping Hahn, introducing two new characters that only have one speed is not going to help the controversy.

‘Grey’s’: I think the Izzie/Denny storyline would have taken a more interesting turn if she had burned down the clinic to erase his memory.

[I didn’t tweet it, but seriously: Ghost Denny is physically real? Ugh.]

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Cultural Learnings’ 2008 60th Primetime Emmys LiveBlog

I’m foregoing the Jimmy Kimmel-style opening hour that ABC is airing (Edit: Or I was, until a particular moment), or any of the red carpet deals, in favour of digging into some of the actual awards themselves. I wrote my predictions late this week, and had planned to write up more of a general preview, but time got away from me.

In truth, there’s isn’t much to say that I didn’t say when the nominees were announced: it’s an awards show that offers the most opportunity for legitimate winners accepted by both viewers and critics that the Emmys have seen in recent years. At the same time, it also has every opportunity to remove all relevance the Emmys could ever have. This is the double edged sword of having more progressive nominees: the fall from grace is only going to be harder.

For example, the Best Actor in a Drama Series category is like a ticking time bomb: Hugh Laurie, Michael C. Hall, Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, Gabriel Byrne all stand as strong candidates from well-liked shows, but James Spader (Three-time winner in the category) sits waiting to wipe out any sort of optimism we may have about the rest of the awards. Even those of us who watch the Emmy Awards with great interest are going to be shaken by such a decision: as the night goes on, we are going to have many of these moments, beacons of hope either raised up or snuffed out.

So, follow along as we go on this epic rollercoaster ride, this wondrous journey through a year in television as a bunch of (likely) out of touch or (hopefully) intelligent saw it.

7:30pm: I was informed by my brother that Tracy Morgan was going to be part of Jimmy Kimmel’s opening Barbara Walters mock-fest, and I’m darn glad I turned in considering that it features a baseball-bat wielding Morgan attacking the set of How I Met Your Mother in order to enact revenge against nominee Neil Patrick Harris.

7:33pm: Okay, so this has definitely more comic value than expected: notification process goes from Ben Stein, to Brad Garrett, to Nich “Buttercup” Lachey, to William Shatner, to Rachael Ray, to Kobe Bryant, to Jon Hamm, to Martin Short, to Nastia Liukin, to THE HOFF, to Regis and Kelly, to Tina Fey. Purple Monkey Dishwasher style. And then she dances. And she owns a Macbook like mine. This makes me happier than it should.

7:42pm: Selma Hayek was on Ugly Betty? Her whole self? I don’t remember…most…parts of that.

7:49pm: Is anyone aware of a Canadian network who is actually doing a pre-show? I realized at a certain point that I didn’t care enough to find one – instead, relocating to the basic cable TV and catching the end of the newly Steven Weber-infused Without a Trace.

7:56pm: We’re getting close – Tom O’Neil over at The Envelope has the order of events, so we’re starting off with Oprah! And then Supporting Comedy Actor (go NPH).

7:58pm: Honestly, how many crime procedurals did storylines with nearly murdered leads? CTV is having a field day sensationalizing Without a Trace and CSI: Miami.

8:00pm: And here’s our opening, complete with the various memorable TV quotes being quoted by various industry types. There’s too many to note: ends on Spader and Shatner.

8:01pm: Man, am I ever glad to see the normal stage again: Oprah, meanwhile, saunters out to welcome us to the show reminding us that nothing else speaks to us like television. That was a really, really bad line about the book buying, though – we get it, you own our souls.

8:04pm: And now it’s our cavalcade of hosts, with Probst going tie-less, and Heidi Klumn wearing a suit. It’s really, really attractive. Meanwhile, Howie talks over everyone, Seacrest is his schmaltzy self, and Heidi Klum kind of looks like she is terrified to be there amongst these people. Mandel breaks out the political jokes, and they keep saying it isn’t a bit, but Bergeron and Klum are just standing there. It’s just strange. This whole five hosts thing seems…unfortunate. “The odds have improved considerable,” though, is sharp.

8:07pm: And Shatner for the save.

8:08pm: Okay, that being said, I will have to say that Heidi Klum is muchbetter in the dress. And now for our first award: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, both nominees later in the show and one of them enormously pregnant, to present Supporting Comedy Actor. This comedy bit is too simple by half, but they love it. Nominees: NPH, Rainn Wilson, Cryer, Piven, Dillon. This is, sadly, Piven’t to lose.

8:10pm: The graphics feature really cheap little picture photoshop work, and it must be said: NPH definitely had the best little clip. And the Emmy goes to…Jeremy Piven? Ugh, I’m getting bored out of my mind with this, Emmy Voters. Please, for the love of all things good, stop giving this man awards.

8:11pm: Jeremy Piven gets mad points for making fun of the opening, though, but still – completely deserved, but utterly pointless and growingly frustrating win. I hate being so frustrated with a win that in a bubble makes so much sense, but the history says otherwise.

8:15pm: I’m hoping that a Jeremy Piven vs. The Hosts feud goes on all evening, but I don’t think Probst or Klum could handle it. Okay, actually, from her appearance on HIMYM Klum could handle it.

8:16pm: “LIVEEEE!…it’s like a nervous tick.” Oh Bergeron, you’re so much better than your show. In other news: they’re going to let Bergeron and Seacrest handle most of this type of stuff, I hope.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Dissecting the 60th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Nominations

Emmy nomination morning is kind of like Christmas morning – you’re all excited about it as it approaches, wary of the potential surprises and the like, etc. But, unlike Christmas that ends in the complete elimination of suspense, the Emmy Awards are the start of a whole new game. In this case, not only do we react to what just happened (The good, the bad and the ugly of it) but also to what will happen in September when somebody in each of these categories has to win one of the darn things.

For now, it’s time to take a look at the big stories out of this morning’s nominations (You can check out the fill list here).

30 Rock Domination

The Good: With a ridiculous 17 nominations, 30 Rock is the most nominated series at the awards. This includes nods for the series itself, Alec Baldwin, and Tina Fey, along with two writing and one directing nomination for the series, along with well deserved guest acting noms for Elaine Stritch, Edie Falco, Carrie Fisher, Will Arnett and Rip Torn.

The Bad: The rather unfortunate snubs of Jane Krakowski and Jack McBrayer sting a little bit, but they had tough races and this isn’t too much of a surpise.

The Ugly: Steve Buscemi and Tim Conway do not deserve guest acting nominations for this show – Buscemi was great, but he was barely in the episode, while Conway coasted on his past success with a role that never fit into the episode. Matthew Broderick, Dean Winters and David Schwimmer all did considerably better work on the series, and that they are not represented here is extremely unfortunate.

Lost is Back in the Race

The Good: In perhaps my favourite news of the ceremony, a bump to six nominees in the Drama Series category sees Lost make it into the fray ahead of Grey’s Anatomy, securing its first nomination in the category since its first season. Michael Emerson also grabbed a Supporting Actor nomination, as expected, while I’m extremely pleased to see Michael Giacchino pick up a nod for his great composing for “The Constant.”

The Bad: Still a bit annoyed that so few other supporting players were eligible for the major awards, so it’s a bit disheartening to see most of the show’s nominations coming from sound editing, mixing, editing, etc. when the cast is so deserving.

The Ugly: Despite getting the show nominated for an Emmy, no room is found for “The Constant” in writing or directing categories; the latter isn’t too disappointing, but the former is a bit more surprising and disheartens me as to Lost’s chances in the major categories.

Pushing Daisies Blooms…and Busts

The Good: Announcing the nominees was good luck for the ever charming Kristin Chenoweth, who along with co-star Lee Pace picked up an acting nomination to go with the series numerous technical, writing and directing awards resulting in the third highest total with 12 nominations.

The Bad: Unfortunately, they weren’t joined by their co-star Chi McBride, who really should have made the Supporting Acting Top 10.

The Ugly: And yet, despite all of this, the show failed to net a nomination for Best Comedy Series, an omission that just doesn’t make any sense. I will rant about who I think should have gotten the boot in a moment, but this is an oversight that will haunt the Emmys for a long time in my books, and is surprising considering both Pace and Chenoweth making their respective races.

Damages Gets it Right

The Good: So much, mainly the fantastic inclusion of Zejlko Ivanek in the Supporting Actor race, is right with this picture. Along with Ted Danson, they are a strong force in that category, and they’re joined by Glenn Close in the Best Actress race, and writing/directing/series nominations for the fantastic pilot.

The Bad: While it’s not quite what I’d call a bad thing, it’s a big surprise to see Rose Byrne snubbed in Supporting Actress Drama. Mind you, I was never a fan of her performance so I would personally not put her into the category, but that Emmy voters didn’t is surprising.

The Ugly: Not much, to be honest – while I felt the series fell apart at the end, the nominated performers and the Pilot were both great, so I’m content with this performance.

The Rise and Fall of The Office

The Good: Rainn Wilson and Steve Carell return to the nominations circle along with their series this year, including a number of directing and writing nominations for the uneven but very solid fourth season.

The Bad: Amy Ryan, fantastic in the finale “Goodbye, Toby” gets snubbed for her great turn in the episode, joining Sarah Chalke as examples of Emmy voters ignoring great performances from younger female competitors in favour of older ones (With Sarah Silverman being the only youth candidate, and a kind of annoying one).

The Ugly: Jenna Fischer, deserving of a win last year, doesn’t even break into Supporting Actress Comedy this year, and John Krasinski literally has his spot stolen away in Supporting Actor. Apparently the love for Jam at the Academy is limited, which is unfortunate as they both do great work.

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Cultural Learnings’ 2008 60th Primetime Emmy Awards Nominations Predictions

When I started my Emmys coverage for this year’s ceremony a while ago, I (as always) had a lot of plans: previews of every category (Got through a lot), reviews of every submitted episode (Almost got through those), and all sorts of other grand schemes that never come to fruition. This is the nature of being a television critic of sorts: you have a lot to say, but balancing it and the rest of your life (See: Watching Television, clearly) can be a bit of a challenge. Let it be known I took most of that free time doing my duty and finally watching shows like The Wire, Six Feet Under and Flight of the Conchords.

However, there’s no way I could possibly procrastinate on writing up my various predictions. Predictions are one of those things that I think about more than I write about (I tried writing more this year, and after a while it petered off). Great sites like AwardsHeaven or Coco at the Movies or TV with Abe keep detailed lists for weeks or months ahead of time updating when the Top 10s come out, but I tend to ruminate a bit more introspectively. We’ll see how that goes this time around, when our access to the Top 10 lists for various categories makes this task easier, yes, but also far more competitive. But, I’m not in it to win it, so to speak; I’m just an Emmy fanatic who enjoys the thrill of participation.

So, without further adieu, my predictions for the nominations for the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards.

Outstanding Drama Series

  • Boston Legal (ABC)
  • Damages (FX)
  • House (FOX)
  • Lost (ABC)
  • Mad Men (AMC)

This is a very hard category to call, and admittedly I’m following my own interests here: there’s every chance of Grey’s Anatomy replacing Lost on this list based on its popularity alone, but something tells me that Lost’s episode submission (The fantastic “The Constant”) will elevate them through. Mad Men and Damages represent the new crop of summer cable hits, while Boston Legal and House should ride baity submission and Hugh Laurie, respectively, to nods.

Lead Actor in a Drama Series

  • James Spader (Boston Legal)
  • Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
  • Michael C. Hall (Dexter)
  • Hugh Laurie (House)
  • Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)

The first four are pretty much locks: while his show is too bloody to make it into major categories, Hall’s Emmy pedigree and the fantastic nature of his performance should get him the nomination he deserved last year. Meanwhile, “should have won before” Laurie and newcomer and Golden Globe winner Hamm will try to dethrone undefeated Emmy king Spader, and that last slot is up for grabs. I’ve gone with Bryan Cranston’s brave performance in the AMC series, one I need to finish watching at some point (Only got through the opening two episodes). Gabriel Byrne is the other option, but I believe that if Cranston made the Top 10 people were watching, and he would have performed well on the panels.

Lead Actress in a Drama Series

  • Sally Field (Brothers & Sisters)
  • Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer)
  • Holly Hunter (Saving Grace)
  • Glenn Close (Damages)
  • Mary McDonnell (Battlestar Galactica)

Those following the Emmy race will sigh at that last name – while the first four are more or less locks based on name recognition and showy performances, the fifth candidate in this category is somewhat more open. However, with previous nominees like Mariska Hargitay and Minnie Driver waiting in the wings, the chances of an actress from a science fiction series breaking through are slim. However, frak that kind of logical thinking: I want to have hope, for once, that they’ll see through the Science Fiction and discover a tremendous performance that is worthy of consideration.

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