Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. How “South Park” Perfectly Captures Our Era of Outrage. It’s hard for a TV show to remain relevant and vital in its fifth season let alone its nineteenth. “South Park” has gone through its ups and downs, but this year Matt Stone and Trey Parker have serialized the narrative and made it more broadly topical than ever. The New York Times’ James Poniewozik explores how this season of “South Park” perfectly captures our era of outrage in light of last night’s finale.
Now, it was as if our culture had been shining an Eric Cartman-shaped Bat-signal and “South Park” answered. You could see the news from college campuses — safe spaces, trigger warnings — and conclude that America was more radically leftist than ever. You could read a dispatch from the Republican primary — border walls, refugee panic — and conclude that it was more reactionary than ever. The country is deeply polarized, and between two poles is precisely where the quasi-libertarian “South Park” most likes to swing. “South Park” used to be so anti-continuity — its episodes are often written days before airing — that the show would kill the same character, Kenny McCormick, every week. By shifting toward serial stories, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone have been able to make more complex arguments this season: acknowledging, for instance, that sometimes outrage culture has a basis in actual outrages. An episode on police brutality posits both that South Park’s cops are needed to keep the peace and that many of them joined the force to have carte blanche to beat up minorities. And where past “South Park” satires once looked at single issues, this season is sketching something like a grand — if messy — unified theory of anger, inequality and disillusionment in 2015 America. Even as the p.c. wars rage, the town of South Park is being gentrified: It’s attracted a Whole Foods and built Sodosopa (South of Downtown South Park), an enclave of hipster eateries and condos built literally around the house of the dirt-poor McCormick family. The townspeople are delighted, until they realize many of them can’t afford to join the few, the smug, the artisanal. Under the town’s chichi new facade is a familiar slurry of resentment (of the privileged, of immigrants, of elites) and fear (of terrorism, of crime, of economically falling). And all that, in the “South Park” worldview, drives people to a self-pitying narcissism that extends to politics but also goes beyond it. In the season’s darkest episode, “Safe Space,” the townspeople assign a single child to filter every negative comment from their social media, to protect their self-esteem from all manner of “-shaming.” After the boy nearly dies from the strain of filtering the entire Internet’s hate, an allegorical figure named Reality — wearing a silent-movie villain’s cape and mustache — shows up to scold South Parkers with a lecture that sums up this season’s Swiftian brimstone morality: “I’m sorry the world isn’t one big liberal-arts college campus! We eat too much. We take our spoiled lives for granted. Feel a little bad about it sometimes.”
2. “Carol” and “Brooklyn”: Miles Apart, But a Universe Away. Two of the most acclaimed films of the year, Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and John Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” both take place in 1952 New York. Though they share a setting, they’re vastly different films with unique visual styles and contrasting perspectives on America. The Washington Post’s Sonny Bunch writes about how both films’ radically different views of American life and the freedom it affords.
“Brooklyn” feels like an outsider’s view of America, one that embraces wholeheartedly the idea that this is the land of opportunity, an exceptional place where anyone with heart and moxie can make it work. And that’s not too terribly surprising, given that “Brooklyn” was directed by an Irishman (John Crowley) and adapted for the screen by a Brit (Nick Hornby). A few miles away, meanwhile, a much sadder drama is playing out. “Carol” tells the tale of Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), whose love is forbidden by the squares and the stiffs of 1950s America. Carol — an elegant upper-class woman with a huge home in New Jersey — is in the midst of divorcing her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), whose suffocating manner she can bear no longer. Therese is a confused young woman in a suffocating relationship of her own, struggling with her attraction to women in a society that literally considers such relationships little more than deviant mental illness. Whereas “Brooklyn” is shot with a sharp brightness, “Carol’s” world feels cold and unwelcoming. This is an America where refinement and elegance are stifling, where seedy motels bring both a modicum of happiness and the danger of exposure. This is no land of opportunity, no melting pot where the past can be cast aside and a new life made. Todd Haynes’s view of America is far darker than Crowley and Hornby’s. It’s the view of a man from the inside who has always been made to feel like an outsider, as though he weren’t welcome.
3. “The Danish Girl,” “The New Girlfriend,” and Why Tone Matters More Than Empathy. Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” has received mixed-to-negative reviews for its antiseptic portrayal of the first-known person to receive a sex-reassignment surgery. Hooper’s film has been slammed for being too restrained and too disinterested in the messy parts of life, so afraid to offend that it says nothing at all. RogerEbert.com’s Alan Zilberman examines how tone matters more than empathy in “The Danish Girl” and “The New Girlfriend.”
Both “The Danish Girl” and “The New Girlfriend” are about smart, curious women who must reconcile their affections with their own sense of womanhood. They welcome Lili and Virginia, to a point, and then come to a crisis where they must deal with the consequences of these new identities. The key difference between the two films, interestingly, is how they depict sexuality. While “The Danish Girl” opens with a sexually active couple, Gerda and Lili are more platonic. Hooper frames Gerda and Lily as observers: there is a long sequence where Lili stares at her naked body, and considers the possibilities of biological transformation. In “The New Girlfriend,” Claire is more of an active participant in Virginia’s life. Instead of a languid moment where Virginia admires herself, there is a lengthy sex scene where both she and Claire deal with the regret and attraction that defines their relationship. Tense and erotic, Ozon raises the stakes of his film by realizing that sexuality never exists in a vacuum, and discovering another’s body can be awkwardly funny. The crucial misstep, the thing that ultimately undermines “The Danish Girl,” is how Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon view their drama through a modern prism. Lili has the luxury to fully understand what she’s feeling, even though medicine and psychology did not understand it at the time. Hooper’s direction also undermines his attempt at empathy: he makes bizarre framing choices — including shots dominated by negative space — and edits that make light of Lili’s struggle. There is a cut between Lili’s body and Gerda slicing a carrot, and the association is cringe-worthy because Hooper opts for a cheap gag. Ozon, on the other hand, films “The New Girlfriend” like a thriller, with an inexorable build-up of tension. He creates a situation where living as a woman is Virginia’s only option; in a bravado sequence, Virginia attends a drag revue and the empowered performers awaken the options in her mind. The revue leads to a strange climax, with Virginia defiantly shouting, “I am woman!” with a mix of anger and high camp. “The New Girlfriend” earns its joke because it lands on a courageous note.
4. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” Can Quote the Bible But Not Feel Like It’s Preaching. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a holiday classic precisely because it grounds a holiday steeped in commercialism to its religious and historical roots. Christmas can mean many things to many different people, but on some level, it is about the story of a miracle in a manger. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff explores how “A Charlie Brown Christmas” can preach Bible passages without feeling like it’s preaching anything religious at all.
Linus’s speech doesn’t beat you over the head with the idea that Jesus is the only way to lead a truly happy life — though you could read it that way if you chose (and many Christians have done so). It also doesn’t argue that life is an endless, meaningless grind — though you could also read it that way. No, it’s just the answer to a question. Charlie Brown asks, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?” Linus answers. Depending on your religious viewpoint, Linus is either expressing the hope that animates the Christian Advent season or simply explaining the roots of the holiday, so Charlie Brown can remember that this enormous, commercialized event began as a tiny religious celebration. Linus is not speaking as an expert — he’s speaking as someone who remembers the line he has to deliver in a Christmas play. (This is subtly set up earlier in the special, when he’s trying to memorize it.) And so “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is slightly different from the “Peanuts” comic strips in one crucial way. Though Charlie Brown continues to feel glum, he finds momentary solace in Linus’s words. Religion isn’t an all-purpose panacea, but it will help you get through the day. Contrast this with many of the comic strips, where the focus often remained squarely on Charlie Brown’s pain in the moment. But the frustration that prompts Charlie Brown’s outcry is still fresh in the audience’s mind when Linus speaks. The Christmas season has given Charlie Brown tremendous anxiety. The play he agreed to direct isn’t coming together at all. And the tree he bought to liven up everybody’s holiday spirit was mocked for being so scrawny and small. The answer doesn’t solve everything — but it helps in a way that works both as religious expression and in another way. Another crucial thing to note: If we read “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as a Christian work, then its ending isn’t a call for salvation or conversion. Instead, it’s a call for Christian kindness and charity, for looking out for your fellow man in his hour of need. Linus first expresses this virtue when he answers Charlie Brown’s question. But the others follow suit when they go with him into the snowy, dimming streets of the “Peanuts” neighborhood, the sky filled with twinkling, irregular stars. Charlie Brown places an ornament on his little tree, then believes he’s killed it — returning to the pain that prompted his question — before his friends revive it with their amazing decoration skills. The scene provides another answer for how to deal with human suffering, this one less overtly religious in nature. Religion is one way to try to deal with the horrible parts of life. But so is friendship, and reaching out to others around us to make sure they’re doing okay. There’s a reason so many religions, including Christianity, boil down to, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” It’s the best way of creating that moment of silent solace for as many people as we can.
5. Veteran TV Critic Alan Sepinwall on the Best Shows of 2015 and TV’s New Era. Critic Alan Sepinwall has released a revised version of his book “The Revolution Was Televised” on the New Golden Age of TV. But Sepinwall admits that now we’re currently living in a different era altogether of streaming services, and Peak TV. Signature’s Scott Porch interviews Sepinwall to discuss the best shows of 2015 and the new era of television.
Signature: Do you think having a prominent ad-free option out there will accelerate the shift from cable to streaming?
Alan Sepinwall: There’s going to come a point at which I’m not sure the economics will work. Part of the reason that Hulu and Netflix and Amazon are able to do what they’re doing is that someone else is paying the bulk of the freight for those shows. If not enough people are watching those shows on network or cable, you won’t see as many of those shows being made and won’t see Amazon and Hulu benefitting from that without jacking up their subscription fees. We’re at a moment right now where you’re able to see a lot of great stuff for not a lot of money, and I don’t think that’s going to last.
SIG: So for a network show that Hulu picks up a year after it runs on a cable network, the network has already recouped the production cost of those shows?
AS: Right. Like when Netflix started running “Breaking Bad,” Sony and AMC had already paid to make those episodes. Netflix wasn’t getting those episodes for free but was getting them for a lot cheaper than it would have been to make that show. Now it’s an important part of Netflix’s catalog.
SIG: At $8 a month, a streaming network needs about 250,000 new subscribers to make a $25 million show. Those seem like good numbers for a streaming network adding 2 million or 3 million new subscribers a year.
AS: There are more and more new shows being made than ever before, and that number is probably going to keep going up for a while. But at some point the bubble has to burst; the business can only support so much content.
6. The Weird Athleticism of the Victoria’s Secret Model. Last Tuesday, CBS aired the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, featuring numerous supermodels modeling lingerie in a spectacular, high-profile event. Every year, the event garners criticism from those who believe it perpetuates unrealistic beauty standards and that it’s weirdly desexualized for a show marketed as “the sexiest night in television.” Yet, The Atlantic’s Megan Garber praises the weird athleticism of the Victoria’s Secret model and how the event foregrounds a “novel approach to female beauty.”
The sportiness of Victoria’s Secret’s models (who in this case included both the company’s standard runway walkers and the ones whom it has elevated, Milton-like, to its arsenal of “Angels”) was an idea the show returned to again and again. In between the event’s official, hour-long proceedings — the heeled-to-the-heavens Angels and sub-Angels stomping and smizing as of-the-moment pop stars including Ellie Goulding, The Weeknd, and Selena Gomez performed in the background — the show filled its air with tales of the rigorous training the models went through to prepare for the event. And with supercuts of the women sharing their favorite workout routines. (“Pilates, racket sports, barre, weight training, resistance bands, squats.”) And with languorous shots of them kickboxing and trampolining and running and lifting — all while clad, of course, in VS-branded athletic wear. The overall impression reflected, indeed, a point that Victoria’s Secret’s creative director, Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou, is fond of making about Angel-ing: “It’s like being an Olympian.” Lingerie-focused runway-walking, as Victoria’s Secret presents it, requires the kind of physical stamina and mental focus and ongoing dedication normally seen only in high-level athletes. If you follow the logic, then the airing of that walking becomes its own televised sporting event. The show broadcast last night wasn’t live — it was a heavily edited version of the show that took place last month, in New York. But what it sacrificed in immediacy and suspense, it compensated for in its other Olympics-on-TV approaches: its pageantry, its contextually justified celebration of the human body, its presentation of its athletes’ backstories. The shots of the models prancing in arted-up underwear were interspersed with shots of their “regimens.” The models themselves testified to their own athleticism, with comments like: “I work out seven days a week, sometimes twice a day.” And: “I really use every muscle when I’m on the runway — walking with heavy wings you have to really have your body be the strongest that it can be.” And: “The Fashion Show is the event where you really step it up.” And: “There’s millions and millions of people who will see it on TV, so there’s nowhere to hide on that runway. You really have to think about that when you’re in the gym, in pain. You’re like, ‘Come on!'” The point was driven home, relentlessly. (Another model: “I totally think we’re athletes. I mean, we have to work out all the time, just like an athlete.”) The women, via reality show-esque confessionals, shared stories about their commitment to exercise, their desire for strength, their need for stamina — all of this aimed toward beauty, yes, but also, Victoria’s Secret suggested, at something both broader and more basic: athletic achievement. One model boasted that, after a workout, “I’m a sweaty mess.” Another noted that “I think it’s kind of badass when a girl is tough and shows what she’s got.”
Tweet(s) of the Day:
directors let’s give Eno’s “The Big Ship” next Sundance off
— PAPPADEMGHOST (@PAPPADEMAS) December 10, 2015
Last night’s Colbert had Marion Cotillard, Joanna Newsom, *and* George Saunders. Gotta be the most grad-school late-night show of all time.
— Tom Breihan (@tombreihan) December 9, 2015