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Daily Reads: The Problem With TV’s ‘Traumedies,’ ‘The Carmichael Show’ Tackles Bill Cosby, and More

Daily Reads: The Problem With TV's 'Traumedies,' 'The Carmichael Show' Tackles Bill Cosby, and More

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

1. The Problem With Prestige TV Comedies.
While the concept of “prestige dramas” gets quite a bit of mileage in television discourse, prestige comedies is a relatively new phenomenon. For a while, it was just “Louie” and “Girls” that held up the mantle, but now there a plenty of half-hour shows that privilege character drama over comedy, and some of that frankly aren’t that good. Slate’s Willa Paskin examines the new Netflix series “Flaked” and the larger problem with prestige comedies.

“Flaked” is irritating exactly to the extent that it takes Chip’s plight too seriously. Unlike “Girls” or “Transparent” — or “The Mindy Project” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” for that matter — “Flaked” half-heartedly frames Chip’s behavior as comic while believing it is fundamentally tragic. The show creates situations that are meant to be amusing but stomps all over them with a subtext that insinuates Chip is a tortured soul, not a dysfunctional comedic personality. In the first episode, Chip becomes fixated on Stefan (Travis Mills), a new AA member who doesn’t show up for a meeting because he is understandably hassled trying to open a new coffee shop. Over the course of the episode, it becomes clear that Chip is obsessing about Stefan missing the meeting for purely selfish reasons: He is anxious that Stefan doesn’t like him anymore. Chip shows up at the coffee shop and, like a seasoned reality TV personality, says he’s heard that Stefan’s been upset. Having planted the seed himself, Chip responds to Stefan’s curiosity about it with, “You can’t control what other people think of you.” The balance of power has been restored: Chip is again the alpha former alcoholic. “Sorry you had to see me freak out,” Stefan says. “It’s OK. It’s not about me,” Chip replies. In this instance and so many others, Chip shows himself to be an ego monster cloaked in New Age aphorisms, but “Flaked” is so downbeat that it wrings this scene for pathos, not uncomfortable laughter. Honestly, though, the specifics of “Flaked” are less curious to me than the larger trend of which “Flaked” is a part. These shows — which the “Transparent” writers have dubbed “traumedies” — are, as Rosenberg says, what pass for prestige in the world of comedy these days. Why then are they so sporadically comedic? I do not mean these shows aren’t sometimes funny, though they are more often “funny.” But they are distinct from sitcoms in that their relationship to humor is at will. Sometimes they will try to be funny, and more often they will not. (This is why I have not lumped “You’re the Worst” or “Master of None” in with this trend, though they abut it. Both of those shows contain jokes.) Making people laugh involuntarily is just about the hardest thing to do on television, but it is a win-lose proposition. A sitcom is funny, or it is not. If it is not, it is a failed sitcom. Traumedies do not exist in such a stark dialectic: They can be funny, or they can be “funny,” or they can be neither, while still being anthropological, moving, insightful, fascinating, or even just barely bingeable, relying on innate human curiosity in even the wisp of a plot. This is not to say that great comedies such as “30 Rock” and “Broad City” are not also anthropological, moving, insightful, fascinating, or bingeable. But, first, they are funny. It is also not to say that making a great traumedy is easy. Greatness is always hard. The growing horde of lesser traumedies underscores the excellence of “Transparent,” “Louie,” and “Girls” much the way that awful anti-hero dramas underscored the brilliance of “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” Given similar parts, some people build art, and some people strew junk on the ground and hope it is mistaken for art.

2. “The Carmichael Show’s” Responds to the Bill Cosby Problem.
Jerrod Carmichael’s new multi-camera sitcom “The Carmichael Show” takes on topicality like the best Norman Lear shows of yesteryear. The last episode tackled the thorny question of enjoying Bill Cosby’s comedy after the numerous accusations of sexual assault. Vulture’s Pilot Viruet reviews the episode and examines the series’ handling of the issue.

What truly sets “The Carmichael Show” apart from its peers is its dedication to representing all of the viewpoints on a subject, while paying close attention to the particularly complicated aspects of that subject. “Fallen Heroes” isn’t about the family deciding whether or not they believe Bill Cosby assaulted those 55 women. The episode is questioning whether or not it’s possible — or even morally justifiable — to separate an abuser’s horrific behavior from his talent. This certainly isn’t a new problem. Both Woody Allen and Michael Jackson are mentioned as examples (Maxine enjoys their work, even though she knows the allegations against them), while two other great jokes include the family absently wondering if they can watch “Ted 2” despite Mark Wahlberg committing a hate crime, and bringing up Michael Richards when they decide to start binging “Seinfeld.” Cosby is just the latest example of a problem that persists in popular culture, and it’s especially complex within the black community. In fact, “Fallen Heroes” is a perfect example of why diverse actors, writers, and television shows are so necessary and important if we want to understand our lives and our culture. A series like “Modern Family” would never provide the same kick on Cosby as “The Carmichael Show” does. “Fallen Heroes” manages to put into words — funny words! — the strange crossroads that many black people, myself included, have when it comes to Cosby. Again, it’s not a question of if he did it — I absolutely believe he is guilty — but instead, a question of what this does to the legacy of his comedy and “The Cosby Show.” That show was important to black people because it gave us the opportunity to see ourselves and our skin color on television — and to see ourselves reflected in a positive light, not just as wordless waiters or heartless gangsters. “The Cosby Show” was something that many black families watched together. It was a bonding experience between parents and children, and between siblings. It was also just plain good. It’s impossible to watch it today without the women’s horrifying allegations in the back of your mind, but it’s also hard to just completely forget “The Cosby Show.” Its place in pop culture, sitcom, and black history is too vital.

3. The Master Builder: An Interview With Jack Fisk, Terrence Malick’s Production Designer.
Whether you’re like or dislike Terrence Malick’s late-period work, or his entire oeuvre for that matter, one thing that’s difficult to find fault with is his films’ production design courtesy of Jack Fisk. Currently the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Moving Image in New York, Fisk has also collaborated with David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson, and now his work can be seen on screen in two releases: “The Revenant” and “Knight of Cups.” For Reverse Shot, Nick Pinkerton interviews Fisk about his career and his most recent work.

Reverse Shot:
 Your last couple of films with Terrence Malick have been, for a change, placed in recognizable contemporary settings — Sonic drive-thrus, supermarkets, Las Vegas casinos. These are environments where the hand of an art director is going to be a little less evident. Did you build any complete environments in “Knight of Cups,” or was it more a matter of accenting existing environments?

Jack Fisk: You know my work on this film and the last film we did in Texas [the upcoming “Weightless”] is mostly finding locations or places to shoot in. There was no construction. I didn’t even have a construction department. Sometimes we would augment interiors with set dressing and props that we would make, paint a few walls, but generally the work become more design of locations. And the locations… Terry wanted to shoot everything. We worked so fast on that film [“Knight of Cups”]. We were in a little van driving around Los Angeles, it was reminiscent of films schools, the way we all started out, when you had no money and you were sneaking shots. We would say: “We want to be in Santa Monica between Ocean Ave. and 4th St. between 9 and 12.” And they would give us a little pocket of space, and we would go in there like a commando unit. The props would be in one van, the actors would be in a van, and the camera would be in a van. And we’d pull up to a street, when Terry saw something that struck his fancy, or that we had pre-planned. Usually we had something pre-planned, but a lot of the time an image would just strike Terry and we would hop out and start shooting on the street. And then if too many people noticed that there was a film company there — we didn’t look like a film company — we’d get back in the vans and drive around the corner and attack some other location. Terry wanted to show Los Angeles. I was excited to show Los Angeles in a much different light than I’ve seen it represented in films. The way I did it in “Mulholland Dr.,” for example, was much different than this film. Generally it was more like I was just a searcher, I was bringing stuff to Terry all the time. But he knew so much of Los Angeles. His film career began in Los Angeles, working as a writer, and then as a student at the American Film Institute, as a filmmaker. So he was familiar with a lot of the town. And some of it was reminiscent of things that had been in his life that seemed important to him. I think the image of the ocean was important: We all came out of the sea at one time, or at least that’s the way I think of it. And it’s so pleasant to shoot on the west side. So we filmed a lot of it in Santa Monica, Venice area. Then we would go to the Case Study Houses in Hollywood, some of the other locations that stand out in the film. We went as far west as Pasadena where we shot the Japanese gardens at Huntington Gardens, and then later we went out to the desert, all the way out to Las Vegas to shoot some desert stuff. Las Vegas is kind of the epitome of an artificial world. By the time we got there we were shooting in buildings that had their own painted ceilings, they didn’t need any work. And then we shot a lot of scenes in the desert between Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

4. Vanishing Point: On Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups.”
The actual quality of Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” notwithstanding, the film has produced some phenomenal critical writing from many, many different sources, such as this: At Cinema Scope, Adam Nayman reviews “Knight of Cups,” along with Kanye West’s most recent album “The Life of Pablo,” and the rote virtuosity of Malick’s latest work.

The results, for this critic at least, were mixed. Whereas the veiled, Carson McCullers-ish autobiography of “The Tree of Life” felt fully inhabited, “To the Wonder” was so untethered that it up and floated away into the ether. Granted, films that provide the kind of consistent visual lift-off achieved by Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are few and far between, and as a compendium of glances and lingering looks, “To the Wonder” is nearly peerless: a stray take of Ben Affleck embracing Rachel McAdams in a grassy field crowded by buffalo has stayed with me while the money shots of other, richer movies have faded. If anything, it’s the apparent effortlessness of all that beauty that makes me a bit dubious. What is at stake as these two visionary artists (plus production designer Jack Fisk, to give us a Holy Trinity) remake the world in their image, one implacable tracking shot at a time? By now, the configuration of Malick-Lubezki’s late aesthetic is predictable to the point of self-parody: typically, the camera hovers a few paces behind a human subject’s head as he (or sometimes she) perambulates towards some far distant vanishing point, often parallel to some sort of barely perceived movement on the periphery. The world is always wide open in Malick’s films, and when his characters do find themselves indoors, there’s usually a window somewhere in view to extend their (and our) sightlines past the walls. My memory banks have forever stored a moment in “The New World” where Christian Bale sits forlornly on his porch while, in perfect deep focus, we see Q’orianka Kilcher exiting through the back door — a perfect example of the filmmakers’ tendency to build escape hatches into their compositions. And yet for all the agility of the camerawork, watching “Knight of Cups” is not quite a liberating experience. Rick’s Pilgrim’s Progress through a 21
st-century Hollywood Babylon presided over by empty suits and half-naked sylphs is enervating in a way that exceeds the entertainment-factory critique at the film’s core; where admirers have invoked “La Dolce Vita”(1960) and “La Notte” (1961), I kept having ugly flashes of the discount Fellini-Antonioni knock-off “The Great Beauty” (2013) — a.k.a. “The Life of Paolo” — a film whose ambivalence about upper-class decadence scans as the artificial posturing of a piddling art-house pseud. Terrence Malick is an exponentially greater artist than cynical Paolo Sorrentino, of course, and refreshingly earnest to boot. But his intimations of deep-down suffering and heartsick yearning, affixed to Bale’s painstakingly affectless performance, simply aren’t convincing, at least not to these (sympathetic) eyes, and ears. It’s not just that the dialectic between the earthly and the ephemeral (twin sources of rapture and mortification) had already been expressed in “The Tree of Life.” Hypothetically, there’s plenty to be gained from Malick shifting his sights from the past to the present and his location from the heartland to the coast. The problem is that for all of “Knight of Cups'” attempts to defamiliarize its rural and urban California landscapes, the central visual idea of Los Angeles as epicentre of facades is only virtuoso by rote. More surprising (and potentially troubling) is the use of homeless and impoverished Los Angelenos as sculptural elements within the frame, a quasi-documentary impulse that complicates (but does not contradict) the nouveau-rich decadence glimpsed elsewhere.

5. HBO’s “Togetherness” Tells Tiny Stories Better Than Its Contemporaries.
Television is jam-packed with shows about middle-aged, upper middle class ennui, and while some of these shows are worthwhile, just as many are disposable. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff argues that HBO’s “Togetherness” tells tiny stories about marital strife better than its contemporaries.

What most impresses me about “Togetherness” is the way that it’s willing to be a series about tiny pebbles dropped into otherwise placid ponds, with the aim of observing how the ripples affect everything else. As season two winds down (don’t worry, I won’t spoil what happens), the show tweaks a few small pieces of its formula, suggesting that season three will figure out how those small changes start a ripple effect of their own. I said up above that “Togetherness” is not particularly interested in encapsulating the experiences of everybody who watches it. It’s an intimate, specific series, one that won’t be offended if you haven’t lived a life like the ones it depicts and want to change the channel. (That it’s surrounded by so many other shows like it cuts against it, to say nothing of diversity on television, but that’s a question the whole industry continues to grapple with.) “We’re still educating ourselves into how to tell stories in this fairly new, longform narrative, HBO-invented form of storytelling, basically. We enjoy it, and we feel pretty well-suited to it.” Jay Duplass told me. “It comes down to relationships after that, how the characters are relating to each other.” “Togetherness” wants you to understand these people. Maybe you don’t agree with everything they do. Maybe you think they’re occasionally awful. Maybe you think they’re usually awful. But it’s hard to watch the show — even the parts of it that don’t work (that charter school story!) — and not come away with a better appreciation of the psychologies and emotions of its characters. It’s not a series that wants to reflect you back at you, so much as those neighbors you only sort of know but keep meaning to get to know better. It’s voyeuristic, but in a way that makes you feel like you’re getting to know somebody else — even if they’re fictional.

6. Dirty Harry and Popeye Doyle Fight For 1971’s Premier Tough Cop.
The A.V. Club’s “History of Violence” column continues to produce some of the most interesting writing about the history of action cinema. This week, Tom Breihan examines 1971’s “Dirty Harry” and “The French Connection,” and how “Dirty Harry’s” legacy still lives on.

There are so many things about “Dirty Harry” that would return, over and over, in action movies. The trope where the hero happens across a robbery in progress — one that has nothing to do with the movie’s main story — and stops it is an action movie standby. It starts with Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry,” and then it goes on to torch-carriers like Steven Seagal in “Hard To Kill” or Brian Bosworth in “Stone Cold.” The movie’s lighting style, which constantly makes Eastwood look like an avenging god, is another starting point; it’s easy to imagine a young Michael Mann taking notes on that scene of Eastwood, on a rooftop, bathed in red from a church’s neon light. The dynamic between Eastwood’s inspector Harry Callahan and his levelheaded partner, Reni Santoni’s Chico Gonzalez, is an early version of the whole loose cannon/straight arrow chemistry that would repeat in many buddy cop movies. But the movie’s main contribution is inspector Harry Callahan himself. Callahan wasn’t the first movie cop who plays by his own rules. Three years earlier, Steve McQueen had played a very similar guy in “Bullitt,” a movie that “Dirty Harry” ripped off indiscriminately. Both movies take place in San Francisco. Both have driving, badass Lalo Schifrin psych-funk scores. Both are loosely based on real-life figures involved in the Zodiac Killer case. “Dirty Harry” wasn’t even shy about biting. McQueen is even one of the many stars who turned the part down, which is weird to think about, though not as weird as the fact that Frank Sinatra almost played Callahan. Still, even if Callahan had his own precedents, he’s still the blueprint for so many of the ice-blooded action-movie heroes who would follow. He was rigid, morally upright, and unimpressed with any authority who would try to get in between him and his job. He’s also a sarcastic asshole. The first time we hear him deliver his “Do I feel lucky?” monologue, he’s taunting a bank robber who has no real chance to retaliate. It’s too long to be a one-liner, but the effect is the same. And most importantly, Callahan is willing to break the law completely and disobey orders if that’s what it takes to stop bad guys. The main bad guy in question is such a nasty fuck that, by the movie’s logic, Callahan’s zealotry makes sense. Scorpio, the movie’s serial killer, shoots women and children and priests. He rapes and kidnaps. He smashes a bottle over a liquor store owner’s head for fun. He acts like he’s been morally wronged when cops try to stop him. He uses the system for all it’s worth, then pays a guy to beat him up so that he can blame it on the cops. He screams and whines and cries and cusses. By the end of the movie, he’s hijacking and terrorizing a school bus full of kids. If the movie had gone on long enough, he probably would’ve tied a woman to some train tracks. The movie never makes any attempt to turn Scorpio into an actual human being. We never learn why he’s out there killing. We barely learn anything about his pre-serial killing life. But we do see him, and he looks a whole lot like a floppy-haired flower child. At one point, Siegel’s camera even zooms conspicuously in on his peace-sign belt buckle. It’s no secret that “Dirty Harry” was a huge hit because it was playing on the tensions and the social climate of its time. The movie gets to cast Callahan as an upright enforcer because he’s got a villain as uncomplicatedly evil as any in movie history. And that stark, black-and-white division between the two characters is how we, the audience, end up booing the bleeding-heart district attorney who lets Scorpio go on a technicality, setting up the movie’s awesomely shot final showdown.

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