Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Ash vs. Bruce Campbell: The B-Movie Legend Returns to TV. A cult film actor with many credits to his name, Bruce Campbell is best known for his role as Ash Williams in Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” horror-comedy series. Raimi and Campbell return to the series with the Starz original series “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” the TV sequel to “Army of Darkness.” Grantland’s Steven Hyden profiles Campbell in honor of his new series and illustrates his various personas.
During the Q&A, most of the Q’s were for Campbell, and his A’s typically weren’t actual answers, but rather reiterations of Ash’s asshole shtick. As “Ash vs Evil Dead” showrunner Craig DiGregorio explains to me later, there are three Bruce Campbells. “There’s the Bruce that you just kind of hang out and talk to, who’s just the best, nicest guy,” he says. “And then there’s the Bruce at Comic Con who turns it on. He’s amazing at it — he can say mean stuff to people that ask questions, and it comes off in such a charming, funny way. And then there’s all of the characters he plays.” “I think Bruce, nowadays, is some combination of Bruce and Ash — he’s like Brash,” concurs Raimi. “I think that those groups wanna see Ash. They really like that character, and Bruce is the ultimate actor. He wants to give it to them, so he takes on a little bit more of that character’s persona.” In the past decade, Campbell’s highest-profile roles have been in television — he was an ex–Navy SEAL named Sam Axe (which sounds like Ash) on USA’s long-running series “Burn Notice,” and he was cast as Ronald Reagan (who’s basically Ash as a senior citizen) in the current season of the acclaimed FX drama “Fargo.” He’s also played a heightened version of himself in niche projects that appeal mostly to diehards. “My Name Is Bruce” — a 2007 horror-comedy that he starred in, directed, and co-produced — featured Campbell in a “Galaxy Quest”–esque scenario in which he is mistaken for a real monster slayer. “Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way” was a fantasy novel he published in 2005 after his memoir, 2001’s “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor,” became a surprise best seller. “Meta” Bruce resembles “Comic Con” Bruce — conceited, selfish, a little dumb, and yet ultimately heroic. Campbell’s greatest talent is his ability to simultaneously personify and satirize an outmoded form of peacocking masculinity. Here in this SUV, as he transitions from performing for a worshipful public to the solitude of his hotel room, Campbell is stuck somewhere between “real” Bruce and “Comic Con” Bruce. But who, exactly, is the real Bruce? “Well, I wouldn’t get too deep now. You’re going to bonk your head after about a foot under the water,” Campbell tells me. Then he makes an analogy to old-timey comedian W.C. Fields.
2. How TV Fell Back in Love With Soaps. If you’re paying attention to television at the moment, you’ll notice a great deal of soaps currently on the tube. Shows like “Scandal,” “Empire,” “Nashville,” and even “Game of Thrones” resemble the soaps of the “Dallas” era. Vulture’s Margaret Lyons explores how TV fell back in love with soaps after spending so much time with anti-heroes.
Like any other prime-time TV genre — newsmagazines, game shows, crime procedurals, family sitcoms — soaps go in and out of fashion. “>Dallas” invented the modern prime-time soap in 1981, and established a few genre-defining traits: They tend to have an open world. Lots of characters enter and exit, many of whom are well developed with complex interior lives. Acting choices aim for the grand over the subtle. Emotions are heightened almost to the point of caricature, and the plot goes to extremes. The early ’80s marked the genre’s first glory era — alongside “Dallas,” the 1981 lineup included “Dynasty,” “Flamingo Road,” “Knots Landing,” and “Falcon Crest,” among others. There was a boomlet in the ’90s, with shows like “90210” and “Melrose Place,” and ABC tried to jump-start the genre with “Desperate Housewives” and “Ugly Betty” in the mid-2000s. Other soaps cropped up, but nothing major really stuck, especially with shows like “House” and “Lost” and their respective imitators on the rise. Teen soaps, particularly “One Tree Hill,” scrambled to fill the void. What sets apart the modern era from most of its predecessors is that many don’t present explicitly as soaps but double as shows we classify as “prestige” television, from historical fiction to political intrigue. It’s the soapy twists and pervasive melodrama, however, that keep people coming back. Today ABC is making the biggest bets on a new soap boom. “Blood and Oil” is its stab at a “Dallas”-esque soap, though it just saw its 13-episode first-season order reduced to ten. The network’s also home to “Nashville” (always better the soapier it is), “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Mistresses.” “Quantico” is an action drama that borrows heavily from soap traditions. (“How to Get Away With Murder,” while occasionally sudsy, is really more of a legal drama, given that it has a focused, central plot and isn’t particularly nimble in terms of introducing and eliminating new characters.) The CW has “Reign” and the wonderful “Jane the Virgin,” which combines the campier elements that define daytime soap and a winking metanarrative, including the characters’ favorite telenovelas. E! has “The Royals.” BET’s “Being Mary Jane” veers closer to a genuine drama than a soap, but then veers right on back with stolen-sperm story lines and a car crash that disfigures our heroine’s face. PBS has “Downton Abbey.” Netflix’s “House of Cards” doesn’t know it’s a soap, but the more its scope expands, the less grounded it gets — plus the number of characters who have committed murder keeps inching upwards, right into melodramatic-soap territory. “Vikings” toes the soap line when its characters keep secrets, particularly when there’s pregnancy-related “she doesn’t know that I know” chicanery. If you’re a fan of kissing, murder, long-standing feuds, and wild secrets, this is not a bad age to be a TV fan.
3. “Star Wars,” Elvis, and Me. So, if you haven’t heard, there’s a new “Star Wars” film on the rise, which inevitably means that previous generations will look back fondly when the original “Star Wars” premiered and remember that they were ever so young once. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott remembers how anything could have defined his generation, but it ended up being “Star Wars,” even if it itself was a self-conscious pastiche.
Three important things happened in the middle of 1977, each separated by a little more than a month: “Star Wars” was released, I celebrated my 11th birthday and Elvis Presley died. One of those things is not like the others, I know, and strictly speaking there wasn’t then and isn’t now anything beyond calendar coincidence that links them together. But those random events nonetheless go a long way toward explaining my relationship to popular culture. And not only mine, of course. Modern life is a series of generational milestones. We calibrate our collective identities according to the shared experience of public events, including hit movies and popular songs. Whether we like them or not, those become part of the architecture of our private selves and also a kind of currency we trade with our peers. Elvis, in his mid-40s at the time of his death, was for kids like me immutably the property of the old, a reminder of the moment in our parents’ youth when everything had changed. The Beatles represented a similar, slightly more recent earthquake: They too belonged to the past. We had sung their songs in nursery school and heard them on “Sesame Street.” Nostalgia had claimed them. “Star Wars” was different. It was ours — our own special tectonic shift, after which the landscape was forever altered. Or so the story goes, in both its heroic and tragic versions. The wild success of the film now known as “Episode IV — A New Hope” has been held responsible for much of what followed, the good along with the bad. “Star Wars” supposedly helped put an end to the risk-taking and artistic ambition of 1970s New Hollywood and ushered in an era of blockbuster domination that continues to this day. Twenty-first century grown-ups who bemoan the hegemony of fantasy-based franchise movies — which is to say most of us, at one time or another — have only our own youthful enthusiasms to blame. But the first “Star Wars” trilogy is also credited with opening up a dazzling world of fan culture, liberating nerds and geeks from the condescension of their elders and the mockery of their classmates and placing their passions at the center of the universe. Like rock ‘n’ roll before it, this cultural dispensation may not have been immediately respectable, but it proved to be instantly profitable and endlessly renewable. How new was it, really? History has a way of making novelty look secondhand. Elvis made his indelible mark on baby boomer consciousness by putting a white face and an adolescent pout on a style of black Southern music that had been around a long time. Beatlemania was built mostly on echoes of Elvis and Chuck Berry. “Star Wars” was, if anything, an even more self-conscious throwback, a film student’s act of promiscuous homage, a hodgepodge of styles and allusions.
4. The Experimental Legacy of “Treehouse of Horror.” Any “The Simpsons” fan worth one’s salt knows about the annual “Treehouse of Horror” anthology event. Each “Treehouse of Horror” has three short horror segments that exist outside of the series’ proper world and canon, allowing the writers and animators to have fun with the holiday. The Atlantic’s David Sims writes an appreciation of the “Treehouse of Horror” segment.
Early “Treehouse of Horror” episodes were particularly avant-garde in their lack of emphasis on laughs. Though “The Simpsons” was a ratings smash, in its early years it was first and foremost a family sitcom that hadn’t yet developed the larger world of Springfield. After a successful debut season, the show tried out its first Halloween special in the second season, inspired by Halloween anthology comics of the 1950s, “The Twilight Zone,” and the thrill of telling a story “out of canon” — allowing the show to kill off characters or turn them into monsters without harming “The Simpsons’s” larger continuity. The first “Treehouse of Horror” has two straightforward horror-comedy segments (the family in a haunted house; the family getting abducted by Kang and Kodos), and ends with a surprisingly straightforward adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” which has Bart in the titular role but otherwise mostly adheres to Poe’s text. I’ve written about the audacity of “The Raven” before when discussing the legacy of Sam Simon, one of the show’s developers. He insisted on doing the segment despite the creator Matt Groening’s fears that it’d come off as too pretentious, and produced a lovely six-minute piece of animation that summarizes Poe’s famed tale for a family audience without sacrificing its dark core. Perhaps no other “Treehouse of Horror” segment would ever be as artful, but the episode’s success allowed the writers to continue pursuing nightmarish little tangents once a year, with enough jokes to keep the creepiness in check. In “Nightmare Cafeteria” (from “Treehouse of Horror V”), Bart and Lisa find out their school is cooking misbehaving children and serving them as lunch; the episode is intense enough that it has them wake up at the end of it, dismissing it all as a horrible dream. As they wake, Marge assures the kids there’s nothing to be afraid of, “Except for that fog that turns people inside out.” Said fog seeps through their windows, and within minutes, an inside-out Simpsons family is doing a number from “A Chorus Line” to close out the episode — a brilliant example of how the show’s horror could turn on a dime from unsettling to funny and back again without inducing whiplash.
5. Reverse Shot Symposium: Paul Westerberg’s “Adventureland.” Reverse Shot is hosting a symposium in which its contributors discuss the “true” authorship of various film texts, like Juliette Binoche’s “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and Arthur Freed’s “Meet Me in St. Louis.” It’s to illustrate that the possessive way we define films, with the director always preceding the film, limits auteurship and film’s collaborative spirit. For the symposium, Adam Nayman writes about Paul Westerberg’s “Adventureland,” and how the music of The Replacements defines the new cult classic.
The most moving character in “Adventureland” is not James or Emily (both of whom are superbly played by actors a few years away from critical respectability), but Joel (Martin Starr), a more senior Adventureland employee who wears taped glasses and smokes a giant, Sherlock Holmesian pipe (“It’s a repulsive affectation,” he tells James). Starr was indelible as the most extreme outsider in Judd Apatow’s “Freaks and Geeks,” and Joel is a similarly marginal presence. He seems eager to function as a mentor to James even as he recognizes that the newcomer is a handsomer, more socially functional version of himself. Joel is clearly in love with Emily, but he defers to James and instead pursues Sue (Paige Howard), whose post-make-out session rejection is couched in an unapologetic anti-Semitism. (This is a startlingly nasty scene, and when Emily comes to her friend’s aid, her blustery rage feels exactly right). Joel’s humiliation is magnified when James literally has to fight his battles for him after the pair are harassed by drunken rednecks, and peaks when James comes to visit him at his parents’ squalid suburban abode, which is an obvious source of embarrassment for a character who sees himself — like James — as being dead-set against the rabble. A self-deprecating slacker who holds up his have-not status as a badge of honor while not so secretly yearning for the success and satisfaction he makes a show of rejecting, Joel is undoubtedly annoying. But he knows it, and he owns it, and this cognizance makes him a Westerbergian figure — the sullen fool who speaks the truth. “Adventureland” is a big-hearted movie, and Mottola’s script stops short of ridiculing James and Joel’s literary pretensions; when they lament the fact that Herman Melville died broke and unappreciated after writing “Moby Dick,” it’s a real conversation, couched in idealism and insecurity. And it’s nicely framed by Mottola, who shoots them reclining on a grassy hill at dusk while Jesse’s childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush) naively re-enacts a Vietnam War firefight — a strangely resonant juxtaposition that scrapes at the sides of something sweetly and ineffably sad. The running joke of Frigo punching James in the balls could be an illustration of the hero feeling existentially cock-blocked by his surroundings. But instead of just subverting suburbia a la “American Beauty,” what “Adventureland” gets at, in scene after beautifully measured scene, is how the cyclical rituals and values of its location — allegorized, by the freestanding merry-go-round metaphor of Adventureland itself, with its loop-de-loop skyline — are neither warmly Rockwellian nor surreally Lynchian. Instead, James’s experiences, from his too-coy nice-guy courtship of Emily to his (wordless) discovery and acceptance of, and complicity in, his father’s alcoholism, are presented as profoundly ordinary.
6. Mega-producer Greg Berlanti on the Girl Power in “Supergirl” and “Blindspot.” New network shows “Supergirl” and “Blindspot” both feature female protagonists and come from producer Greg Berlanti, who also has hands in shows like “Arrow” and “The Flash.” Variety’s Debra Birnbaum sits down with Berlanti and discusses the recent success of “Supergirl” and what else is in store.
Q: Do you think “Supergirl’s” late October launch helped?
A: I think CBS’ whole plan for it (worked), from top to bottom — to reach out to people who like comics, people who don’t like comics, men, women. Their entire launch — where they placed it on the schedule, behind an episode of “Big Bang” — all of it was masterful. And all of it was why they’re so good at doing what they do. They were always, from the beginning, very precise at how they wanted to introduce her to the world. They did exactly what they told us in the very first marketing meeting. We walked out of it in awe, all of us, when they laid out exactly what they were going to do.
Q: And audiences really wanted a female superhero.
A: The initial success of both shows should get more people who work in the business realizing that there should be more female-led action movies. With both “Supergirl” and “Blindspot,” both men and women equally were interested in seeing a female-led action piece. Tonally, obviously they’re very different. But I think people are more interested in the idea and the quality of the content.
Q: How are you going to keep the momentum going?
A: Our recipe is to keep making episodes and telling stories that we would be interested in seeing. The job is a lot of hours and really challenging and we have to tell stories we’re passionate about. We all check our guts. I’m certain we’ll make mistakes along the way. You can learn from them really quickly in TV. Early episodes of TV I compare to out-of-town plays. You can make them better. You don’t have all the time in the world, but you have time to make them better and improve them as you go along.
Tweet of the Day:
I’ve only got one mandatory casting for the all-lady Ocean’s Eleven. Barbra Streisand MUST be the Elliot Gould. MUST. Accept no substitutes.
— Teo Bugbee (@tmibugbee) October 30, 2015