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Daily Reads: White Privilege in ‘Broad City,’ An Oral History of ‘South Park,’ and More

Daily Reads: White Privilege in 'Broad City,' An Oral History of 'South Park,' and More

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

1. White Privilege in “Broad City.” “Broad City” is one of the most acclaimed comedies on television, but Kyla Wazana Tompkins and Rebecca Wanzo of The Los Angeles Review of Books write about how the show reduces poverty and low-paying jobs to short-lived indignities.

Wanzo: …something about the way their characters’ economic precarity is played for laughs is a little annoying at times — perhaps because it turns on their being middle-class and white. Poverty, struggle, and comedy have long gone together. But I think I enjoy such comedy more when it turns on the idea that nobody should live like this, vs. the idea that specific types of people shouldn’t live like this. Cleaning toilets is “Broad City’s” example par excellence. A running joke is that Abbi, one of the two central characters, wants to be a trainer at the gym where she works, but she is cleaning staff and is always being sent to clean gross stuff in the toilets. Except for people with such a fetish — and I’m totally not judging — few people love cleaning toilets, particularly ones that are not their own. Abbi always asks to do other things, but she was hired, clearly, to be cleaning staff. So the joke seems to turn on her constant disappointment, but also on the abjection in her cleaning toilets. Some people spend much of their lives cleaning up after others. Many of them are working poor, working class, immigrants, and people of color. So the show’s joke relies on the idea that people who clean are not, should not be, people like Abbi. Read more.

2. The Bleakness and Brilliance of “The Americans.” With each episode, “The Americans” only gets bleaker. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker argues that this is why it’s a great show.

“The Americans” is a bleak show that ends each episode with heartbreak.
It’s also a thrilling, moving, clever show about human intimacy—possibly
the best current drama out there (at least of the ones I’ve been able
to keep up with!). Dread is its specialty and also its curse; it’s what
makes “The Americans” at once a must-watch and a hard-sell. This is a
surprising conundrum because, judging by a plot summary, the series
sounds like it should be a fun watch for anyone: it stars two attractive
actors, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, as married spies with secret
lives. By day, they pretend to be mild-mannered travel agents raising
kids. By night (and sometimes by day; they have great babysitters), they
put on crazy wigs, have sex with other people, participate in complex
espionage schemes, and occasionally murder someone. There are memorable
“eww” scenes, too, including a brutal sequence of amateur dentistry and
another in which a corpse was folded, with alarming realism, into a
suitcase. But “The Americans” refuses to do what similar cable shows
have done, even some of the good ones: offer a narcotic, adventurous
fantasy in which we get to imagine being the smartest person in the
room, the only one free to break the rules. Instead, “The Americans”
makes the pain linger. 
Read more.

3. How “Empire” Treats Stereotypes. “Empire” is the next great TV show, but does it break or bolster stereotypes? NPR’s Eric Deggans investigates:

For some, Cookie is the embodiment of all the stereotypes black women face on TV. Dressed flamboyantly with floor-length furs, color-coded nails and eyelashes big as manhole covers, she’s quick to anger and ready to throw down at a moment’s notice — beating her youngest adult son with a broom when he disrespects her, while lovingly using the three-letter F-word to refer to her gay son. Still, that sometimes-twisted motherly love is what helps keep Cookie from being an empty stereotype, according to Darnell Hunt, an expert on media and race who leads UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. Read more.

4. Indie Filmmakers and Religious Cinema. Modern religious cinema is largely embarrassing choir-preaching stuff, but Alissa Wilkinson of The Atlantic thinks it can be saved by indie filmmakers.

Filmmaker Joshua Overbay was in the audience when “Calvary” premiered at Sundance last year. “I asked [director John Michael McDonagh] why he made such a blatantly ‘religious’ film,” Overbay told me. “He expressed his frustration with recent cinema’s failure to use the religious experience as a means for doing what cinema does best: examine the human condition. For him, the faith experience is filled with mystery, pain, and deep questioning: Why does evil exist? Is there a God? Is there a spiritual presence at work in the universe? And if not, how can we find meaning?” Rodrigo Garcia, writer and director of “Last Days in the Desert,” isn’t religious, but said he saw his film as a way to work out his questions about what it means to live and to die. He told me that his Jesus is a man who goes into the desert to seek answers. “Some people who have seen the movie ask me, ‘Does the movie say that Jesus is the Son of God, or is not the Son of God?’” he said. “And I say, you know what? I don’t care. Jesus—the historical Jesus, the faith Jesus, and the literary Jesus, because Jesus is also a character of fiction—they’re all interesting to me. They all face an incredibly huge human conundrum.” Read more.

5. “You Must Remember This.” Last year, former LA Weekly critic Karina Longworth launched the podcast “You Must Remember This,” about forgotten and secret Hollywood history (it’s a must-listen). Scott Porch of Longreads interviewed Longworth about her work:

One of the more emotional episodes was Carole Lombard, and you broke up a little bit in that episode. Why did you decide to keep the version that you recorded?

I didn’t plan to start crying when I was reading the script that I wrote. [Laughs.] There are definitely some stories more than others that I feel a personal connection to. I don’t really know why. There’s something about the idea of Clark Gable, cinema’s icon of masculinity, sitting in a Las Vegas hotel room drinking waiting for someone to confirm what he already knew, which is that his wife was dead. That just kind of destroys me. I left it in because it felt really honest. I try to walk the line between trying to get as close to the truth as possible and telling it in a cinematic way with my personal stamp on it. It would have been dishonest to cut out the part where my voice broke. Read more.

6. A “South Park” Oral History. “South Park” has been running for 18 years, but it started out as a short, “The Spirit of Christmas.” Entertainment Weekly’s James Hibberd put together an oral history of the video.

Trey Parker: The whole thing went viral before anyone really even knew what viral meant. Brian’s friends loved it so much that they were copying VHS-to-VHS and then giving it to friends. We heard a rumor that George Clooney has had it copied like 300 times. Then months went by. And then we were at a party and these guys were like, “You guys have got to see this!” They made everyone gather around the TV and played “The Spirit of Christmas.” Matt and I are like, “Dude, we made that.” And they’re like, “No, we know the guys that made this — and they just got a meeting with MTV.” We’re like,“What?!” Brian went to MTV and said, “No, no, these are the guys who made it.” And then we were like talking to people in New York and they were like, “You’ve got to see this Christmas thing.” We’re like, “Dude, we made that!” It was the most surreal thing. We were at bars trying to pick up girls and being like, “We’re the guys that made ‘The Spirit of Christmas.’” We were kind of like little rock stars. Read more.

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