Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Is There Really Too Much TV? At the 2015 Television Critics Association press tour, FX Networks CEO Jon Landgraf said in his unofficial annual “State of Television” address that there is “too much television,” and that the excess of competition has created a bubble that has made it difficult to “find compelling stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories.” The idea of “too much TV” has been around for a while now, but how much validity does it have, and what are its implications? NPR’s Linda Holmes explores the concept in depth in the first of a series of essays about the state of television.
As we talk about the state of television, we will return again and again to this idea: television is a seductive medium in lots of ways, and it is important not to be seduced. In this case, it is important not to be seduced by the idea that in the Netflix model, as long as nobody learns whether people are watching a show or not, you achieve a durable creative Nirvana where nobody cares about money, where it’s all about the art forever. Everybody has to get paid. Netflix will apply some standard to whether original series are worth pursuing from a business perspective, whether or not they’re telling you what it is. Whether their experimentation with creators will hit a wall at some point, we simply don’t know, because we don’t know whether it’s financially sustainable in its current form. Maybe they’re confident the subscriptions they’re gaining from their original programs easily pay for their production; maybe not. But this narrative of success based more on buzz than data is one that John Landgraf saw coming a mile away and started arguing against long before it really seemed necessary. Pointing it out was both honest and absolutely right, but it was also a powerfully intelligent executive presenting a forward-thinking counter-narrative with a competitive angle. So it doesn’t take a particularly determined cynic to see in Landgraf’s claim of too much television both a wise and experienced eye and a strategist for whom a narrative of “enough already” is well-timed. FX is done with its enthusiastic Make More Everything phase: Landgraf said he believes they’re making about as many shows as they can while preserving quality and consistency. So for him to argue against proliferation in television now is a little like waiting until your own little tin bucket of berries is full before pointing out that the entire group you’re picking with really ought to leave something on the trees for the birds. On the one hand, you’re probably right. On the other, easy for you to say — you’re having pie later.
2. Rose McGowan Is Starting a Revolution. Ex-actress Rose McGowan is having quite a year. She got dropped by her agency because she tweeted about the prevalent sexism in the film industry, she fired her acting manager and has moved into directing, and she’s slowly becoming Hollywood’s #1 feminist whistleblower. Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur profiles McGowan and examines her acclaimed actions calling out Hollywood’s discrimination.
The night of June 17, Rose McGowan tweeted a screenshot of casting notes she had been sent for an audition. They read: “Please make sure you read the attached script before coming in so you understand the context of the scenes. Wardrobe Note: Black (or dark) form fitting tank that shows off cleavage (push up bras encouraged). And form fitting leggings or jeans.” With the screenshot, McGowan tweeted: “casting note that came w/script I got today. For real. name of male star rhymes with Madam Panhandler hahahaha I die.” After tweeting it, she simply went to bed, not thinking much of it. When she awoke, the tweet had gone viral and was starting to be picked up by the media — it was, after all, about a high-profile project, Adam Sandler’s new Netflix movie “The Do Over.” “I was like, oh dear — if you think that’s bad,” she remembered thinking. “I was mostly flummoxed by everybody thinking that was so horrible; it’s just par for the course. It was more a stupidity offense — bad manners offend me. And then I was thinking, How many people’s hands did that pass through before that was just sent out to every woman coming in?” McGowan then said in a deadpan tone: “The role, by the way, is for a supermodel who’s obsessed with Adam Sandler.” She fell silent, looked at me pointedly, and started to laugh. One week after her tweet about the Sandler audition, McGowan screened her short film “Dawn” — her directing debut, which had premiered at Sundance in 2014 — for the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. “Which is one of the highlights of my career so far. It was a huge honor,” McGowan said. As she left the stage after the Q&A, she checked her phone and saw an email from Innovative Artists, her agency — dropping her. “Like, ‘We no longer want to work with you,'” she said. She felt a wave of “semi-panic — my ankles shook a little.” But McGowan worked through the fear. “And then I was like, fuck ’em! Fuck you,” she said for emphasis. And then I just wrote back, ‘You’re hilarious.’ Because I thought it was hilarious.” She also tweeted about it, of course: “I just got fired by my wussy acting agent because I spoke up about the bullshit in Hollywood. Hahaha. #douchebags #awesome #BRINGIT.”
3. The Death of the Bond Girl. The “Bond girl” has evolved far beyond the disposable women who drift in and out of the James Bond franchise to either die, sleep with Bond, or have the pleasure of saying a few choice lines of dialogue. Now, the “Bond girl” has actual characterization and depth, and has led to better female spies in film. Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson traces the evolution of the Bond girl and how the franchise that spawned it eventually updated its gender politics.
When, exactly, did the Bond girl die? Around the time Daniel Craig emerged out of the ocean in a tiny bathing suit in “Casino Royale.” Leaning away from laughable characters like Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones, the Bond franchise introduced exquisitely beautiful but also fascinating women: Eva Green’s haunting, tragic Vesper Lynd; Naomie Harris’ highly trained agent Moneypenny; and Judi Dench’s doomed M, the most important relationship of all in “Skyfall.” In “Spectre” we’ll see Bond romance both Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci, but the way director Sam Mendes talks about those characters in a new production video (“they both have great mystery, they both have depths, and for that you need fantastic actresses”) means that while the label “Bond girl” may never die, the concept it promotes — that the spy genre is only for the men and the women they own — is long gone. And once the Bond franchise kicked down the door, a whole crop of women eagerly joined in. It shouldn’t surprise us at all that a female-friendly director like Paul Feig would be at the forefront of this movement. His film “Spy” offers Melissa McCarthy the opportunity to slip into the role of super-spy. Showing up old boys’ club members like Jason Statham and Jude Law, McCarthy’s Susan beats highly trained assassins to a pulp, all the while slipping in and out of a parade of disguises and alter egos. McCarthy’s scene-stealer status is challenged only by Rose Byrne as the impeccably evil Bulgarian arms dealer, and the highlight of the film is a Bechdel-test-bashing battle of insults between the two women on board a luxury aircraft. But women had surprisingly great roles to play in even less obviously feminist films. The “Mission: Impossible” franchise, to its credit, has been moving toward a great character like Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust for a while now, with impressive side characters played in previous films by Keri Russel, Maggie Q, and Paula Patton, who had an impressive barefoot fight scene in the previous installment. It turns out those women were all opening acts for Ferguson’s Faust, who emerges as the true star of “Rogue Nation.” And it’s not easy to outshine the wattage of Tom Cruise. Faust is deadly, complicated, in emotional turmoil (over her job, refreshingly, not a man), and an astonishing physical force to be reckoned with whether it’s under water, on a motorcycle, or backstage at the opera. She’s not romantically entangled with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt — though he understandably falls for her as hard as audiences do — and her bathing-suit moment has less to do with glamor and more to do with ensuring the survival both of Ethan Hunt and the data she needs to double cross him. Most of all, Faust, with her insistence on removing her fashionable heels before a fight or flight, seems almost a direct — if unintentional — response to the other women who weren’t treated quite as seriously by their action franchises.
4. Wesley Morris on “Straight Outta Compton” and N.W.A. With Artificial Sweeteners. The new biopic “Straight Outta Compton” details the rise and fall of acclaimed West Coast rap group N.W.A., and the lives of its principal members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy E. The film has had somewhat of a divided reception, with many praising its cumulative heft despite its predictable structure and internal bagginess, but others decrying it for filing off the edges of N.W.A.’s history and reducing every character to their most appeasing qualities. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris reviews “Straight Outta Compton” and expresses disappointment that the films reduces the complexities of the group’s cultural import.
It’s not an oral history you’re getting with “Straight Outta Compton,” just the smushy boilerplate that happens anytime screenwriters (here it’s Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) get near musicians. This is “Behind the Music” stuff that never goes far enough behind. There are cameos by someone pretending to be Tupac and by Keith Stanfield, who’s pretty great in his couple of scenes as Snoop Dogg. But by this point, you’re no longer in a film; you’re on a Wikipedia page conveyor belt. In fairness, were I telling a story that involved Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) — record executive, Dre’s ex-business partner, and convicted criminal — I’d be a fool not to do something with him. But this movie leans so desperately on Knight’s purported evil that it even keeps him clad in satanic red. Every scene in his presence reroutes the movie toward psycho-thriller camp. This seems ludicrous for a film about young black men being released at this moment, a year after a summer where poor police-community relations roiled the country again. But “Straight Outta Compton” demonstrates a merely flirtatious awareness of the reality of what’s happening now. Its strongest scenes — the ones in which Gray’s characteristic muscularity and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s usual richness come off their leashes — involve the tension between the black community and law enforcement. The movie has pungent encounters with the Los Angeles Police Department, first when officers assault members of the group (“I’m the original gangster up in here,” one white officer more or less says, before he throws Ice Cube on the hood of a car), and later, when an absurd run-in precedes a car chase involving Dre. There’s another scene in Detroit between the group and the dozens of officers who’ve come out to demand that the group omit their anti-cop hit from their show. They do the song and are arrested, leaving behind a riot, notable for the number of young, white hands banging on the police van as it speeds off with the group. Rap’s decade-long drift to the center was almost complete. But the most distressing LAPD run-in happens during a recording session in beachy Torrance, a city just south and west of Compton with scarcely a black resident. The guys have broken for lunch when a handful of cops descend upon them. The suddenness of the takedown is clumsily staged, but Gray maintains his composure, and the boldness sticks with you. The presiding officer is black and speaks to Dre and Eazy and the gang with the hateful disregard typically used in the movies by white officers. The power of the encounter comes at you from all sides. Heller’s outrage feels like disillusionment. He really can’t understand what’s happening. He sees his partners stomach-down on the pavement, and it hurts him. He tells the officer that these young men are artists — rappers — to which the cop replies that rap’s not an art. It’s the exact opposite racial position in which Giamatti found himself in “12 Years a Slave,” where the trader he played acquired and sold black bodies with cold-blooded hauteur. Here he’s seething over their mistreatment, and it’s the rare example the movies have in which white people’s speaking on behalf of black people rocks you — because when these black men try to speak for themselves, no one’s listening. You know what “eureka” songwriting moment that confrontation will produce, and you can’t wait to see it happen. You crave the anger and defiance of that song.
5. The Dark Side of Television’s Golden Age. Ask anybody with a passing familiarity with television of the last twenty or so years and many of them will mention something about a “Golden Age.” With the rise of premium cable, serialized storytelling, and now streaming services, the “Golden Age” is very much, but the discourse around it isn’t all peaches and cream. The Pacific Standard Magazine’s Noah Berlatsky explores the dark side of TV’s Golden Age and the classist language inherent in the discussion surrounding it.
Yet these recent homages to the serial narrative’s literary origins tend to erase the most important pioneer of its popularity on television: soap operas. As Newman and Levine point out, “soap opera” is customarily a term of denigration in television criticism: To say a show is like a soap opera is to convey that it is melodramatic, improbable, gushy, or ridiculous. Today’s serials — which are available on demand for those who are heavily scheduled, and often weave “serious” stories about crime and violence — would seem to be at odds with fodder that is stereotypically directed at bored housewives. But critics championing the former might do well to at least acknowledge the latter, which has long weaved sequential narratives with multiple characters on television. Following Newman and Levine’s point, we might ask, do formal qualities distinguish the “Sopranos” from “Days of Our Lives”? Or is the real difference found in assumptions about who is thought to be watching? Today, the soap opera doesn’t attract the demographic (or the audience numbers) that it used to. But its role as an injurious pejorative for criticism couched in anti-housewife sentiment remains. When Stephen King and the “New York Review of Books” dismiss “Mad Men,” they call it a soap opera; when George Romero wants to take the “Walking Dead” down a peg, he does the same. Instead of signifying the complex narrative foundations upon which these critically beloved shows were built, being called a “soap” is the ultimate diss for a Golden Age show. You could follow Newman and Levine’s lead and make similar points about other markers of quality television. Current Golden Age shows are often praised for their complex, grim anti-heroes, one iconic example being Bryan Cranston’s Walter White on “Breaking Bad.” But many of the most popular daytime soap characters, like Anthony Geary’s Luke Spencer on “General Hospital,” were similarly troubled anti-hero characters — Spencer, like White, was even involved in organized crime. There isn’t much of a difference in subject matter or approach between the Golden Age and the pre-Golden Age forms of television. But there’s a big difference in perceived audience and legitimacy — a difference built on invidious, class-based stereotypes.
6. “Dangerous Minds” at 20: Has the Ultimate White Savior Story Aged Well? Twenty years ago last Tuesday, “Dangerous Minds” entered theaters; the film, starred Michelle Pfeiffer as LouAnne Johnson, a discharged Marine who applies to teach high school, only to be surprised to be placed in a school filled with “tough” minority students living in racially-segregated, economically-deprived neighborhoods. Though the film received mixed critical reception, it was a surprise box office hit, but now the film is mostly remembered for popularizing the “white savior” trope in film. The Guardian’s Ashley Clark looks back at the film and sees if its white savior story holds up.
Consequently, although “Dangerous Minds” means well, it’s notable for being one of the most egregious examples of Hollywood’s “white savior” trope, in which a white hero(ine) will act as the truth, the light and the way for some blighted minority figure(s) (see also: “Freedom Writers,” “The Blind Side,” and this year’s Kevin Costner mush-fest “McFarland USA”). In the film, Johnson pointedly takes a special interest in three particular students: reluctant gang member Raúl Sanchero (Renoly Santiago); Callie Roberts (Bruklin Harris), a young black student who gets pregnant; and Emilio Ramírez (Wade Domínguez), who becomes embroiled in a fatal personal conflict with a hardened criminal acquaintance. In one scene, Johnson is branded a “white bread bitch” by an enraged grandparent of African American twins who have dropped out of class. Johnson tells me that this never happened. “I asked them ‘Where did that come from?’ They said: ‘We were sure that some of the black and the Hispanic parents must have resented you.’ I said: ‘For what? For helping their kids? Hell, nobody ever, ever said anything to me like that.'” Director John N Smith, a veteran of the National Film Board of Canada who was handpicked by Bruckheimer to make his Hollywood debut, takes responsibility for the changes: “I had done a feature on black kids in Montreal and I felt that it needed that kind of edge,” he told me. I ask him what he means by “edge.” “A more political point of view. As something much tougher for a white middle-class teacher to confront – kids who have in their normal daily lives all kinds of issues to face. When you happen to be walking through a park and there are cops there, you could end up in trouble.” It’s a laudable aim, but one that’s not truly reflected in the film, which ultimately sidelines the kids’ experiences to make Johnson the focus. In its final scene, the kids, after begging her to stay, paraphrase Dylan Thomas to literally tell her: “We see you as being our light!”
Tweet(s) of the Day:
Everyone is excited to see the new batch of filmmakers at Sundance, so they can find out who will be drafted by Star Wars or Marvel.
— Keith Calder (@keithcalder) August 15, 2015
I’m gonna shock the world and write a TV pilot where the main character’s life spirals INTO CONTROL in the first ten minutes.
— Michael Price (@mikepriceinla) August 16, 2015