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Daily Reads: Judd Apatow’s Bill Cosby Crusade, A History of the ‘Very Special Episode,’ and More

Daily Reads: Judd Apatow's Bill Cosby Crusade, A History of the 'Very Special Episode,' and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Judd Apatow’s Bill Cosby Crusade. 
On Monday night, Judd Apatow performed a short stand-up set on the Tonight Show and it featured pointed attacks against Bill Cosby. Apatow has been very vocal about his opinions on Bill Cosby after many, many women have come out and said that they were assaulted by the actor and comedian. But why has Apatow gotten so vigorously and personally involved? Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey explores Apatow’s crusade against Cosby and its place in Apatow’s recently published book.

And it is personal — the comedy of Bill Cosby was a bond shared by [Apatow] and his dad, and those bonds are stronger than oak. They last your lifetime, which is why so many men spend their lives rooting for the sports team their dad loved, a fandom less about the franchise or the game than about the memory of a common experience. And last fall, Apatow discovered that he and his dad’s Yankees were probably rapists. He took it personally. On top of that childhood connection, there’s the love of comedy that prompted Apatow to conduct those interviews and write that book; he’s one of the most visible and vocal of all comedy nerds, a guy who inserted vintage Shandling clips and Groucho references into “Freaks and Geeks,” who made an entire movie about the form in 2009’s “Funny People” (a film about the kind of guys who’d decorate their apartment with framed Redd Foxx album covers). And from that standpoint, the paternal connection is both literal and metaphorical. “I’m a comedian. I see him a little bit as our comedy dad. It’s like finding out your comedy dad is a really evil guy,” Apatow told Marc Maron in January. “And when the community is pretty silent, I feel like, if no one’s gonna talk, I’m gonna talk.”

2. Revisiting “Deadwood,” a Lawless Prelude to TV’s New Golden Age. 
David Milch’s “Deadwood” is one of HBO’s early flagship series, and one of the very, very best in the medium. It follows the town of Deadwood and its citizens, and how it transitions from a lawless land to an organized collection of individualists. The New York TimesAlessandra Stanley remembers “Deadwood” and its place in TV’s New Golden Age.

Before “Mad Men” or “The Americans” found new ways to reclaim the past, this was a period piece ahead of its time, a modern drama set during the Dakota gold rush of the 1870s. A grim, washed-out palette of sepia and gray replaced the familiar Technicolor panoramas of John Ford westerns. This depiction of the West was sophisticated and deeply layered, sometimes comical but always brutal. Fetid, crowded, filthy Deadwood wasn’t just primitive — it was primal. Murdered men were fed to pigs. Sex in the brothels was almost as callous. The characters spoke a new language, too, an incongruous mix of poetry and profanity that hasn’t been matched by any other show, not even the first season of “True Detective.” Mr. Milch spiked the commonplace blasphemy of the 1870s with obscenities so crude they would make rappers flinch. But threaded through the spew of swear words would be sudden flights of near-Shakespearean eloquence. Comforting a slighted henchman, the town pimp and saloonkeeper, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), was soothing: “Whatever lurks ahead, whatever grievous abominations and discord, you and me walk into it together, like always.”

3. The Evolution of TV’s “Very Special Episode”. 
If you’ve seen enough TV, you’ve probably seen some version of the “Very Special Episode,” the episode of a show that’s designed with a moral message in mind, whether it’s saying no to drugs or staying away from strangers. These episodes are often heavy-handed and boring, serving up a commercially-approved moral stance through the mouths of characters we know and love. The Atlantic’s Tyler Moss explores the history of the Very Special Episode and how it defined morality for a generation of TV viewers.

From child molestation on “Diff’rent Strokes” to Will’s emotional “deadbeat dad” rant on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the very special episodes of ’80s and ’90s sitcoms introduced young viewers to intense, real-world issues. Like carefully crafted public service announcements, they took characters audiences laughed with and cared about — Theo Huxtable, D.J. Tanner, Zach Morris — and put them in close contact with harrowing life events to send a moral message. To sophisticated modern viewers wary of soapboxes, very special episodes are now dated relics that feel excessively earnest and painfully overt. Consequently, after being a small-screen staple for years, this often awkward model of entertainment is nearly nonexistent. And yet while the device itself may be dead, the socially conscious objective at its core has evolved, and lives on in a spate of subtle, cleverer TV series. In their time, very special episodes were the modern equivalent of Grimm’s Fairy Tales: a sitcom formula designed to foster dialogue, with a serious tone that helped parents talk to their kids about drugs, sex, and violence. VSEs trace their roots back to the Norman Lear sitcoms of the ’70s, such as “All in the Family” and “Good Times,” which directly tackled social issues for the first time. Eventually they grew into something more clumsy and predictable. “I think that might have had to do with cynical marketing opportunities as much as a desire to serve the public,” says Arthur Smith, an assistant curator at the Paley Center for Media Studies. “[Very special episodes] were always scheduled for sweeps weeks, and so clearly had ratings expectations.”

4. The Semi-Lost Brilliance of John Sayles’ “Baby It’s You”. 
Oscilloscope Laboratories’ new film blog Musings has already featured work by ex-Dissolver Scott Tobias with his opinions on “The Honeymoon Killers” and the power of Joshua Oppenheimer’s camera in “The Look of Silence.” Now, Musings features work from another ex-Dissolver, but only this time it’s Keith Phipps, former editor-in-chief. Phipps looks back at director John Sayles’ first film at a major Hollywood studio, “Baby It’s You,” and the difficulties of working with a major studio.

John Sayles’ third feature film as a writer and director, “Baby It’s You” is the first time Sayles made a film in which a major studio had some sort of creative input. The film’s story came from Amy Robinson, an actress and producer who drew on her own experiences as a New Jersey teenager. A company called Double Play provided the financing, but Paramount signed on for the distribution, fighting Sayles for final cut and expressing special concern over the insufficiently upbeat ending. Sayles won the battle only to see the film receive a token release in the spring of 1983 — where it competed with the sex comedy “My Tutor” — then retreated back to the world of independent production. His next film, “The Brother From Another Planet,” would have no such interference. Neither would the one after that or the one after that. Sayles had already made balancing what Hollywood wanted against what he wanted part of his career calculus, penning screenplays for films like “The Howling” and “Battle Beyond The Stars” and using the money to finance his own projects. (He still does this, working usually without credit as a script doctor.) With “Baby It’s You” that calculus got out of whack. While it’s not hard to see why Paramount had a hard time figuring out what to do with the film, the same qualities that made it an odd fit in the 1983 marketplace make it worth rediscovering now.

5. Random Remembrances of Conversations with Alex Rocco
Character actor Alex Rocco, best known for his portrayal of Moe Greene in “The Godfather,” passed away on Saturday. Rocco had an illustrious and storied career in Hollywood, working with many, many different kinds of people, including interviewers and journalists. The A.V. Club’s Will Harris pays tribute to Alex Rocco and details “the most profound relationship [he’s] ever had with someone [he’s] interviewed for Random Roles.”

From the very beginning, there was something a little bit different about my interactions with Rocco compared to my previous Random Roles interviews, starting with the fact that he made a point of reaching out immediately after the interview went live. It was just a brief message, but he took the time to praise the piece, praise me as a writer, and offer his thanks, reiterating his email address (“if you want to keep in touch”) and closing by thanking me again and saying, “It was fun talking to you!” I wrote him back, of course, telling him that I was glad he’d enjoyed the piece as much as I had and — remembering that we’d had to split our interview into two calls because I’d had to take my daughter to her ballet class — I attached a picture of my daughter in the outfit she’d worn for her butterfly-themed birthday party, so that he’d have a frame of reference to the kid that had me so wrapped around her little finger that I had to ask Moe Greene if I could call him back. When he wrote me back a little over two months later with his question about the book, he added, “Hope the ballet butterfly beauty is still dancing.” After another email and a few phone calls, it was decided that I’d have a proper sit-down with Rocco when I came to Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association press tour. The specifics of the meet-up were very much scheduled on the fly, to the point where we only confirmed the date of our meeting a few hours before it actually took place. Being a stranger in a strange land without a rental car, I took a cab from my hotel to Rocco’s residence, where I was greeted warmly by his wife, Shannon. She and I chatted for a few minutes in their living room while we waited for the man himself to emerge (during which time I couldn’t help but giddily notice his Emmy for “The Famous Teddy Z” sitting on a nearby shelf), and during the chat, what I experienced was, for lack of a better phrase, the sweetest possible grilling a guy could get. But it made perfect sense: wouldn’t you want to know as much as possible about the person who might be helping your significant other write his memoir?

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