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Daily Reads: How Advertising Shapes TV’s New Age, Inside Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian,’ and More

Daily Reads: How Advertising Shapes TV's New Age, Inside Ridley Scott's 'The Martian,' and More

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

1. The Price Is Right: What Advertising Does To TV. 
Even in this so-called “Golden Age of Television,” through the peaks and valleys of broadcast, cable, and Internet options, television is still an advertiser’s medium. It was built upon advertising and it still rests upon advertising. However, in this new age, its place in history has never been more diverse or confused, with many artists trying to reclaim advertising even though it has co-opted the very medium they work in since its inception. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum explores advertising in TV in the age of winking product integration in “30 Rock,” the Coke scene in the finale of “Mad Men,” and the very existence of “Mr. Robot.”

In TV’s early years, there were no showrunners: the person with ultimate authority was the product representative, the guy from Lysol or Lucky Strike. Beneath that man (always a man) was a network exec. A layer down were writers, who were fungible, nameless figures, with the exception of people like Paddy Chayefsky, machers who often retreated when they grew frustrated by the industry’s censorious limits. The result was that TV writers developed a complex mix of pride and shame, a sense that they were hired hands, not artists. It was a working-class model of creativity. The shows might be funny or beautiful, but their creators would never own them. Advertisements shaped everything about early television programs, including their length and structure, with clear acts to provide logical inlets for ads to appear. Initially, there were rules governing how many ads could run: the industry standard was six minutes per hour. (Today, on network, it’s about fourteen minutes.) But this didn’t include the vast amounts of product integration that were folded into the scripts. (Product placement, which involves props, was a given.) Viewers take for granted that this is native to the medium, but it’s unique to the U.S.; in the United Kingdom, such deals were prohibited until 2011. Even then, they were barred from the BBC, banned for alcohol and junk food, and required to be visibly declared — a “P” must appear onscreen. In “Brought to You By: Postwar Television Advertising and the American Dream,” Lawrence R. Samuel describes early shows like NBC’s “Coke Time,” in which Eddie Fisher sipped the soda. On an episode of “I Love Lucy” called “The Diet,” Lucy and Desi smoked Philip Morris cigarettes. On “The Flintstones,” the sponsor Alka-Seltzer ruled that no character get a stomach ache, and that there be no derogatory presentations of doctors, dentists, or druggists. On “My Little Margie,” Philip Morris reps struck the phrase “I’m real cool!,” lest it be associated with their competitors Kool cigarettes. If you were a big name — like Jack Benny, whom Samuel calls “the king of integrated advertising” — “plugola” was par for the course. (Benny once mentioned Schwinn bikes, then looked directly into the camera and deadpanned, “Send three.”)

2. Inside “The Martian.” 
Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” has garnered a mostly positive reception with many claiming it’s his best film in years (well, those who weren’t fans of 2013’s “The Counselor.”) Based on an originally self-published book by Andy Weir, “The Martian” follows the struggles of NASA astronaut, botanist, and mechanical engineer Mark Watney (Matt Damon) when he’s abandoned on Mars by his crew. He has to survive on an inhabitable planet and try to contact Earth to bring him home. Rolling Stone’s David Fear travels inside “The Martian” with Scott, Weir, and Damon as they explain how they made this survivalist blockbuster.

Ridley Scott still remembers, vividly, sitting down in a movie theater, watching the lights go down and experiencing as a game-changing moment as “2001: A Space Odyssey” sputtered to life onscreen. “It had been out less than a week,” the filmmaker recalls, settling into a chair in a cavernous hotel conference room in Toronto. “I sat in theater all by myself in the middle of the day, in Queensgate, London, with a pack of cigarettes — you could smoke in theaters in those days. It was a brand-new 70mm print, and that cut from the bone to the spaceship, it was just…it was so majestic.” He closes his eyes for a second, then looks over at author Andy Weir, who’s hanging on his every word. “I’ve either tried to crib from or outright rip off that movie numerous times in my career,” the filmmaker conspiratorially stage-whispers, “and I’ve never been able to do it quite right — until, possibly, now.” It’s easy to see how the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s space-is-the-place epic might loom large over “The Martian,” Scott’s tale of an astro-botanist named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) left to fend for himself on the Red Planet after being abandoned during an emergency evacuation. Granted, no Star Child shows up to watch this cosmic Crusoe use his wits and scientific smarts to fight for his life; no singing evil supercomputer tries to sabotage his team, led by Jessica Chastain, once they realize he’s still alive; and back on Earth, the all-star cast that makes up the movie’s Mission Control response squad (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels and a particularly kooky Donald Glover) aren’t getting any help from humming monoliths. But along with a few visual nods, the “Alien” director’s adaptation of Weir’s self-published Web serial-turned-bestselling novel shares a chin-stroking curiosity and existentialist vibe with its intellectual sci-fi predecessor. The movie certainly delivers the spills, chills, thrills and even laughs you’d expect from a Hollywood blockbuster, but it also stops to look to the stars and wonder: What does it mean to be human? Where do we fit in to the big picture?

3. Trevor Noah’s First Week On “The Daily Show” Reviewed. 
Last week, Trevor Noah slipped into Jon Stewart’s chair (and show) with relative ease. Though still new to the talk show format, as well as the nitty-gritty details of American politics, Noah had a decent first week taking over “The Daily Show” both playing to the format’s strength as well as his own. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff reviews Noah’s first week and documents his strengths and weaknesses.

Positive: Noah compares Donald Trump to several African presidents. The best “Daily Show” of Noah’s first week was the Thursday show, and by far its best bit was this extended riff on the idea that Noah found Donald Trump sort of welcoming, because the billionaire reminded him of several African leaders. By far the pinnacle here is when the package cuts together Trump and former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin saying much the same things. What makes this package so exciting isn’t just that it’s funny — though it is that. It’s that it feels like something unique to Noah’s version of “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart might have done something like this, but it never would have had the sly charm Noah brings to the bit. The punchline when he says Trump would be America’s first “African president” kills precisely because Noah seems so pleased to be getting away with it. (Noah’s laughter at his own jokes was one of the first week’s weaker points, but he gets away with it here.)

Pitfall: Noah interviews Chris Christie. This was the best of Trevor Noah’s first-week interviews — and it shows just how far he has to go if he’s going to be as effective at the task as Stewart was (and Stewart was far from a great interviewer). The chat with Christie is breezy, and it’s obvious Noah has the basics down when it comes to asking the candidate strong questions. But there’s very little sense that he’s in control of the discussion, or that he’s willing to push in slightly less affable directions. This is not to say Noah needs to enter every interview in a confrontational manner, but he’s too often unable to salvage an interview that’s headed in a direction he didn’t want to go. This is where his greenness is most evident.

4. “Rick and Morty’s” Biggest Twist Was Its Heart. 
Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s hit animated sci-fi dramedy “Rick and Morty” ended its near-perfect second season on Sunday, and it will be quite a while before audiences will be able to see the show’s unique brand of cynical sentimentality. The push-pull between cynicism and sentiment, the belief that the universe is random chaos that holds every human being with utter indifference versus the belief that life has meaning and value because of self-constructed communities that convey relative importance, is central to the series’ perspective, but this tension was pushed to the foreground in the finale. The Atlantic’s David Sims explores the damaged, but beating heart of “Rick and Morty.”

“Rick and Morty” was co-created by Dan Harmon (with the animator and voice actor Justin Roiland) and like his long-running cult hit “Community,” it manages to be both innovative and classical in its storytelling. The defining pattern of “Rick and Morty” is that Rick always ends every episode on top through a combination of brilliance and cynicism, so the idea of him as a self-sacrificing hero should seem maudlin and inauthentic. Harmon and Roiland could have easily aired a new wacky sci-fi adventure with their ornery hero and his sidekick for years. Instead, they let Rick’s bitter amorality, and Morty’s ongoing protests at the trail of destruction they often left behind, build up slowly over the season. Harmon’s legacy in television will be that of the creator who’s never satisfied, to bountiful, creative effect. As “Community” kept getting miracle revivals from NBC (and later Yahoo) despite low ratings, Harmon constantly had its characters explore the diminished purpose that came with having to tell more stories in the same setting, and the depressing reality of a group of people who’ve been attending community college for six years. That kind of meta-narrative frustrated some viewers and critics, but partly because it’s tethered to the relatable disappointment of working hard to go nowhere. “Rick and Morty” has the opposite approach — it’s about characters who take multi-dimensional leaps and bounds with every episode — but also confronts relatable human truths about the intangible pull of family and loyalty.

5. “Some Came Running” Features One Of Frank Sinatra’s Finest Performances. 
Veteran critic Glenn Kenny writes a Decider column about the various barrage of streaming options available all across the web. This week, Kenny writes about Vincente Minnelli’s “Some Came Running,” a film he admires so much he named his blog after it.

MGM was keen to adapt the sprawling 1957 novel by James Jones, his followup to the pre-WWII epic “From Here To Eternity,” the film version of which was a great success for Columbia Pictures in 1953. Jones’ book, six years in the writing, focused on the struggles of Dave Hirsh, one-time novelist turned soldier, who returns to his home, a sort of Anytown U.S.A. in Illinois, after years away. Jones’ book was one of those Search-For-Meaning-In-Complacent-Postwar-America deals, and it became a bestseller in spite of brutally negative reviews. Harvey Swados, writing in “The New Republic,” called its events “continuously sordid, and more than faintly nauseating,” lambasted its “sophomoric and jejune philosophizing,” and concluded that it was an “extraordinarily immature and undisciplined book.” The studio tasked star director Vincente Minnelli to streamline the 1,000-page plus novel to fit the contours of the screen melodrama, a then-popular genre, focusing on the band of small-town outsiders portrayed by Sinatra, Martin, and MacLaine — the latter two play a gambler and a prostitute with whom Dave becomes entangled. Loneliness and longing bang up against small-town hypocrisy as Dave’s pulled toward respectability by his weasel brother and a local schoolteacher (Arthur Kennedy and Martha Hyer respectively; Kennedy, a great character actor, really does a great job here playing a Major Dink, and he, MacLaine, and Hyer were all nominated for Oscars for their work). It all ends tragically, as screen melodramas of the time tended to do. But Minnelli, who began his film career in production design, was a master of color, composition, and camera movement, aside from being, as is noted of this movie’s hero, “a terribly sensitive man.” The direction of this widescreen movie has a palpable breadth and sweep. (And the HD version playing on Netflix shows off its qualities very well.) His male leads weren’t crazy about the director’s meticulousness. When he got meaty a role in “From Here To Eternity,” Sinatra was practically a Hollywood bottom feeder, but by the end of the Fifties he was feeling his oats again, and he bristled at all the waiting around he and his relatively new pally Dino had to do on set, reportedly walking off more than once. But for all that, Sinatra’s performance is one of his most quietly impressive, and Martin and MacLaine are equally great. Their work, combined with the movie’s impeccable cinematic sense, make “Some Came Running” soar.

6. Class Politics (and Real Estate Porn) in Showtime’s “The Affair.” 
Showtime’s “The Affair” follows the emotional fallout of an extramarital liaison between a New York City schoolteacher (Dominic West) and a young waitress (Ruth Wilson). Like many other premium cable shows, it exhibits plenty of fancy high-cost furnishings and the daily details of the 1%, as it is more often than not those people paying for the subscription and watching the very program. Salon’s Sonia Saraiya explores the class politics (and the real estate porn) at the heart of “The Affair.”

In my cynicism about the class politics of television — and as a Brooklynite who lives not far from the Meier building — I am inclined to dismiss at least some of “The Affair’s” luxury as the television version of Catalog Living. Especially on premium cable networks, who know exactly who is paying for their programming, shows about the mundane neuroses of rich white people take up a lot of space — and Noah and Helen are so rich that they barely seem to live in the harried, money-conscious, waiting-on-line New York City that most of its 8 million residents live in. Their lack of daily worry for things like parking tickets and cab fare — and the conspicuous lack of public transit — is as much a signifier of their privilege as their vacation plans to go to the family summer home in Montauk. This is exacerbated by the storytelling problems of the show, which splits each episode into two halves, and then tells the same events from the point of view of another character. In the first season, those perspectives were split between Noah and Alison, and took place almost entirely in Montauk over one summer. In the second, Noah and Alison have moved to Cold Spring, on the Hudson Valley, while Noah and Helen negotiate the terms of their divorce. Helen now has a perspective, which adds a lot of necessary depth (and gives us the added benefit of seeing Tierney do more things on-screen, which is never a bad thing). But the show is paralyzed by its own vision, at times; the problem with making a show about singular perspectives is that those people are necessarily self-absorbed. So it’s been hard to tell if Noah feels entitled to his wife’s money, or stifled by it; it’s hard to tell if Noah and Helen are effortlessly rich, or just perceive of themselves that way. “The Affair” has used this ambiguity, these necessarily isolate perspectives, as a lens for examining romantic relationships. Lurking in the background, though, is far more interesting subtext about the politics of gentrification. The leads in “The Affair” are both the gentrifiers and the gentrified; Helen, who owns their brownstone through her trust fund and grew up on the Upper East Side, is diametrically opposed to bicycle-riding Alison who picks up catering shifts for wealthy visitors. Montauk, in the mid-2000s, was the subject of its own hand-wringing about gentrification, as the ostentatious wealth of the Hamptons crept all the way to the lonely little fishing village all the way at the end of Long Island.

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