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Daily Reads: How ‘Empire’ Broke the Respectability Barrier, the Water at the Heart of ‘The Martian,’ and More

Daily Reads: How 'Empire' Broke the Respectability Barrier, the Water at the Heart of 'The Martian,' and More

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

1. How “Empire” Broke Down Stereotypes By Embracing Them. 
The Fox hit series “Empire” follows the trials and tribulations of a hip-hop music company Empire Entertainment and the Lyon family behind it. The series’ first season is one of the few shows in recent memory to garner more viewers each week, topping out nearly 22 million people for the first season finale. So what makes “Empire” so popular? Over at the Huffington Post, Zeba Blay writes about how the series broke down the respectability barrier for black television.

“Empire” has marked a shift in how we think about “representation” on network TV. We’re in what could be described as a kind of second wave of representation and diversity — we’re nowhere near where we need to be, of course, but with the success of shows like “Empire,” “Black-ish,” and Shonda Rhimes’s TGIT, networks are finally beginning to realize that all-minority casts or leads don’t necessarily deter white viewers and, moreover, that white viewers are not the only people watching TV. More importantly, though, the respectability barrier is slowly, but surely being broken down, and “Empire” in a way is emblematic of this. The respectability barrier was erected by “The Cosby Show,” the success of which was tied to the fact that its characters showed a different “kind” of blackness that had never been seen before on television — the upper-middle-class, well-educated, wholesome black. But as “The Cosby Show” challenged stereotypes, it also introduced the idea that portrayals of black people on television would appeal to wider audiences if they were “respectable” black people. If the ratchet, floor-length fur-wearing black girl is a kind of stereotype, more recently the “young black professional” has in its own way become a kind of trope, a palpable way to acclimate audiences to seeing black people on screen who are, at least, rich and educated. This is of course in reference to small-screen heroines including Olivia Pope, Annaliese Keating, and Mary Jane Paul, and it isn’t to say that their presence on television hasn’t been seminal, even revolutionary. But Cookie Lyon is a new kind of black woman on TV, and she’s one that we desperately needed. She’s a fearless businesswoman who is about her money and also fiercely loyal to her family, but she isn’t Claire Huxtable. Claire Huxtable broke barriers, but in 2015, there’s a new one to break: the idea that the only black characters worth empathizing with onscreen are ones with so-called perfect backgrounds.

2. The Watery Coincidence at the Heart of “The Martian.” 
This Friday, Ridley Scott’s new film “The Martian” opens in theaters. The story of an astronaut on a manned mission to mars that gets left behind for dead on the planet who has to find a way to survive and get back home, “The Martian,” among many things, is a great depiction of NASA at its most inspiring and heroic. Though Scott consulted NASA throughout the development process to make the film more accurate, only recently did NASA announce that they actually found water on Mars. The LA Times’ Steven Zeitchik explores the research behind “The Martian” and the watery coincidence at its center.

When Ridley Scott was making “The Martian,” the new science-heavy film that has Matt Damon stranded on Mars, he did what few film directors ever get the chance to do: he called NASA. At the other end of the line, after a few relays, was James L. Green, the director of the space agency’s suitably important-sounding Planetary Science Division. Over several teleconferences, Green guided Scott and his team through the current scholarship, ensuring that the science for the film about Damon’s astronaut-botanist Mark Watney would be as correct — and the designs as accurate — as knowably possible. “We just wanted to help him paint the picture,” said Green, a high-ranking D.C.-based NASA official and a key figure in the U.S.’s Mars exploration efforts. “You want to get the science right. Once you do that, you can put a lot of other story elements in,” Scott said. The Hollywood-NASA collaboration is underscored by the simultaneous release this week of “The Martian” and the revelation in the journal Nature Geoscience that researchers have discovered evidence of present-day liquid water on Mars. While coincidental, the timing couldn’t be better. The latest discovery advances scientists’ inquiry into how life could survive under Mars’ brutal conditions — exactly the focus of “The Martian.” “Someone just asked me if the R.S.L.’s were near Ares 3 and could Mark Watney have used the water,” Green said in a phone interview Tuesday, referencing the acronym for the apparent water evidence and Watney’s spacecraft in the film. “The conversation has already shifted.” Though few endeavors match the painstaking work required for Mars research, the process of putting together “The Martian,” based on Andy Weir’s novel, came with its own brand of rigor. Scott and his team, who used rover-generated real-life images of the Red Planet, would send dozens of questions to Green on a weekly basis, on everything from radioisotope systems to the look of potential “habs” — the residences for future Mars astronauts. The questions would be answered by Green or funneled to the right expert, then come back to Scott’s team and make their way into the production.

3. Trevor Noah’s Daily Show Prepares For the TV Apocalypse. 
Last Monday, Trevor Noah took over from Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” to continue the “war on bullshit.” Though Noah will most likely make his stamp on the show in the coming weeks and months, at this point Noah’s show heavily resembles Stewart’s. But in what ways will Noah potentially change up the news comedy institution? Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff writes about how Noah’s “Daily Show” will in theory be his “ClickHole to Stewart’s Onion.”

Noah made headlines in July when he said at the summer Television Critics Association press tour that he planned to target Fox News a little less than Stewart and internet news coverage more. To be fair, this wouldn’t be hard. Fox News was Stewart’s great white whale, and any successor would necessarily have to pivot somewhere, in order to avoid being written off as a retread. But choosing internet news coverage in particular seemed a bit of an odd pivot. For one thing, TV isn’t really set up well for the still-text-heavy coverage the internet offers up. For another, the increasingly decentralized nature of internet news coverage (i.e., you read pretty much whatever comes to you via social media streams) means that there’s no one monolithic place for Noah to turn, no Fox News or CNN of the internet. But when I asked him about this at the recent press conference, Noah got a little more specific. This isn’t a question of directly mocking any internet news providers on a consistent basis. It’s about looking at the approach of internet news, everything from weird headlines to stories that collect tweets from the ground of a major news event. “Our go-to source is no longer dictated by a small group of cable news outlets,” Noah said. “Sometimes, a story is made and breaks on Twitter. We have to find a way to react to that.” These are media practices that haven’t really come under mass scrutiny. Perhaps “The Daily Show’s” most significant role in Stewart’s era was to push back against cable news sloppiness. And internet news could certainly use such a comedic watchdog — a ClickHole to Stewart’s Onion. But there’s still the central problem of how hard it is to make the internet fun TV to watch. Cable news comes with that built-in advantage: It’s already on TV.

4. On Trevor Noah’s Smooth and Safe “Daily Show” Debut. 
But how did Noah actually do when he finally sat down in the host’s chair? Did he bring a new energy to the show or did he imitate Stewart’s? Did he steer the proverbial ship forward or did he burn it to the ground? Grantland’s Andy Greenwald reviews the debut and comments about how the test of Noah’s chops won’t be judged today or tomorrow, but down the line.

But the goal for profit-generating franchises like late-night shows shouldn’t be appeasing yesterday’s fans. It should be making and sustaining tomorrow’s. With that in mind, Comedy Central absolutely made the right choice when it gave “The Daily Show” to the relatively untested Noah. (Though “gave” isn’t entirely the right word. Noah made some winning jokes about it, but it remains absolutely true that the network reached out to Louis C.K., Amy Poehler, and Amy Schumer before him.) The network isn’t looking past the 2016 election with this hire, but neither is it fixated on it. The goal is for Noah to be there for Kanye in 2020 and Charlie Bit My Finger in 2024. His shtick will be fully formed by then, his moments of Zen will be his own. As any opera singer can tell you, a voice can be trained, shaped, and developed over time. But all the experience in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t hit the right notes on day one. And hitting the right notes was exactly what Noah did last night, to an almost absurd degree. Anyone stepping into a fine-tuned vehicle like “The Daily Show” for the first time would be forgiven for fumbling with the keys. But Noah revved the engine like a pro. There were no evident nerves as he zipped through a perfectly fine segment about the Pope. He tangoed nimbly with Jordan Klepper without once stepping on the correspondent’s toes. When Noah looked into the camera and swore to continue waging Stewart’s self-proclaimed “war on bullshit,” I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience ready to grab a shovel and a bottle of Febreze and join him.

5. Make It Real: The Director Stays in the Picture. 
In the history of documentary filmmaking, there has been somewhat of a tradition for some documentarians to become the film’s subject or authorial voice or, at the very least, be in front of the camera. It often provides the documentary with a more obviously personal voice. Film Comment’s Eric Hynes examines three recent documentaries that cast the documentarian in the film, including the latest from Michael Moore.

To peg these films as personal/autobiographical/megalomaniacal does little to express what’s actually, formally at play, and what’s achieved by breaking the filmic fourth wall. After all, it’s a wall already of paper-thin construction, effectively breached whenever the camera moves or a cut is made. At this point, tolerance for Moore’s onscreen shtick is a matter of taste. What’s of enduring interest, particularly with this new film, is how unapologetically shticky his shtick is. Outfitted in requisite ball cap covering an ever-defiant nest of unkempt hair, his thick-framed glasses, untucked shirt and blue jeans, his costume has become as consistent, and nearly as enduring, as Chaplin’s Tramp. The conceit of “Where to Invade Next” is baldly comedic. Moore appoints himself as an emissary of the United States, effectively representing the whole country in an endeavor to steal ideas from foreign countries. He cracks wise with fashion designers in Italy. He becomes a common-sense skeptic among teachers in Finland and with jailers in Norway. He cheekily plants an American flag behind the desk of an Icelandic lawyer. The onetime working man Moore is playing a filmmaker playing a working man playing America, and everyone on screen and in the audience knows it’s an act, a broadly comedic bit. There are many enervating, unsubtle and imprecise things about the film, but there’s sophistication and even, after nearly three decades of variations on his themes, something poignant to how Moore utilizes himself in it.

6. “The Muppets” Best Musical Moments. 
The new “Muppets” series is well under way, and though the show has faced a mixed critical reception, its pop cultural legacy stands complete in tact. Much of this has to do with the legendary original “Muppets” show, a series that appealed to both children and adults, and was biting without being cruel, fun without being saccharine. Case in point: Pitchfork’s Quinn Moreland surveys the best musical moments on the original “Muppets” show.

Elton John (Season 2, Episode 4): When Elton John appeared on “The Muppet Show” in 1978, he was the first real rockstar to host the program, following a string of comedians and country stars. However, in between the production of the episode and airing, John announced that he would be retiring from performing live (this only lasted a year and a half, but is still a fun fact that makes this performance even more of a treat). As Brian Henson explains in the episode’s opening commentary, John’s appearance on the show occurred as he was exciting his career’s more flamboyant stage. Henson explains that John agreed to do anything on the show except wear all those “crazy flamboyant costumes with the big feathers and glasses.” Of course, the Muppets got their way, and John performs “Bennie and the Jets”, “Goodbye Yellow Road”, and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” in full regalia. The show’s highlight is John’s rendition of “Crocodile Rock”, which remains one of the show’s most famous performances. Dressed in rainbow peacock plumage, a mirrored headdress, and pink glasses, John plays the song in a swamp, backed by the Electric Mayhem.

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