Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. Television 2015: Full Drops and Single Shots. Over at NPR, Linda Holmes is writing a series of pieces about the state of television in 2015 based on reports from the annual Television Critics Association press tour. Today, Holmes writes about the “full drop” Netflix model of releasing television shows all at once and how it negatively affects the cultural conversation surrounding it.
There’s nothing about streaming services, though, that says they have to do a full drop just because they can. That happens to be how Netflix and then Amazon decided to do it, and because they were the first two big players to get attention from streaming original series, their choice started to look like an industry standard. They have chosen to treat single-episode delivery, usually accomplished weekly, as a byproduct of broadcast scheduling – a weakness of old media. Hulu has chosen the opposite path. Hulu is delivering original series one episode at a time. That has a couple of possible advantages, according to Hulu’s head of content, Craig Erwich. One is that they can choose to begin airing shows before an entire season has been produced, just like broadcast and cable channels do. That could speed up the process of getting shows to viewers. But another is based on a paradox of new media that nicks the sparkly veneer of on-demand, binge-watched, just-help-yourself TV of the future that is sometimes so nice to imagine. Here’s the way he put it, which unfortunately makes it sound like it network-talk that doesn’t mean anything: “We want to give viewers the opportunity to discover their favorite shows every week. Like you, we value the shared experience and the joy of the watercooler that is television.” Here’s the way in which it actually does mean something: The full-drop model, the ultimate in modernity and new media, isn’t great for the ongoing cultural conversations that have been such an important complement to the development of better TV. While once-a-week viewing might seem like an old-media relic, it turns out to be a new-media advantage if you’re talking about new-media conversation and engagement (for instance, Twitter) rather than new-media episode delivery (for instance, iTunes). There’s probably been less interesting writing about the craft of a show like “Orange Is The New Black,” and it’s probably been read by fewer people, than would have been the case if writers and viewers had watched and processed one episode at a time, rather than feeling obligated to watch it all at once and then spit something out before people got bored and moved on to the next show. What are the odds that the brilliant Mad Style series, in which bloggers Tom and Lorenzo took days to analyze the clothes and décor in each “Mad Men” episode, would have been undertaken and so closely followed if all the episodes had come out at once?
2. “Straight Outta Compton” is Straight Outta 2015. F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton,” the biopic of famed rap group N.W.A., has divided critical opinion over the past week or so, with some enjoying its unique spark of life within the predictable rise-and-fall structure, but others just find it too tired and neat of a depiction of a complex group. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody reviews the film and discusses its dual relationship with police violence and capitalist power structures.
In a major dramatic scene, set at a concert in Detroit, before the group takes the stage, a police officer, backed by many others, sternly warns N.W.A. not to perform the song he refers to gingerly as “F the Police.” Of course, once on stage, the group, in a moment of sublime defiance, performs it. That performance prompts Gray’s greatest directorial flourish of style, a vast, helicopter-like traveling shot hurtling toward the stage and circling behind and around the performers. With this majestic and thrilling maneuver, Gray shows that this performance — the song and its substance — is the very essence of the movie, its raison d’être. The police fulfill their ominous promise, moving to break up the show — a shot rings out and the action degenerates into a small-scale riot and a chase, and results in the band’s arrest and rough treatment by police officers. But what issues from the conflict is an even more exemplary moment, when Jerry reads the band a warning letter from the F.B.I. about the song. Though Jerry advises the group to take the government’s threats seriously, Eazy-E sees the letter as the best form of free publicity and decides to go public with it. The group’s music makes for good business because it’s more than enjoyable for its audience; it’s essential news. In delivering what the musicians consider a journalistic report on life in Compton — with, as its defining aspect, the relentless threat of police violence — they render themselves not merely popular but indispensable, now as then. “Straight Outta Compton” is also — appallingly and infuriatingly — straight out of 2015. The sense of siege in the face of the authorities that N.W.A. reported on in the nineteen-eighties is unrelieved today. The difference now is the sense of nationwide urgency that goes with it. The deal with which the movie concludes is Dr. Dre’s sale of Beats to Apple for three billion dollars, and there’s no irony in that conclusion. Within the vigorous entertainment of “Straight Outta Compton” is a sharp-minded realism about the machines within the machines, the amplifiers of money and media that, behind the scenes and offscreen, play crucial roles in the flow of power. Whatever old-school rap-style boasting is implied in the inclusion of Dr. Dre’s grand financial coup, it’s also a challenge: one of the authors of “Fuck tha Police” is now armed with an awful lot of money.
3. Peter Bogdanovich on “She’s Funny That Way”. At age 76, legendary director Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon”) has a new film out, “She’s Funny That Way,” a screwball comedy in the vein of Ernst Lubitsch starring Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Will Forte, and Jennifer Anniston. RogerEbert.com’s Jim Hemphill sits down with Bogdanovich to discuss his new film and his earlier career.
Q: You’ve written extensively about the era when actors were under contract and somewhat exploited yet also protected and nurtured by the studios, and how that flip-flopped into an age when stars had all the power but were less able to build careers because the system that facilitated that no longer exists. What’s your take on how the business has evolved in terms of the place of the actor in how movies get financed, made and released?
A: The financing all depends on who’s in the picture. You attach the cast and then you get the money. I’m dealing with this now on a movie I’m preparing with Brett Ratner — you need at least one name that means something foreign, and somebody that means something domestic, and then you can make the picture. Of course, when we did “The Last Picture Show” it was the other way around — they liked the book and agreed to do it, and then we cast it, which it seems to me is the normal way to do it.
Q: Of course, then you did a major star vehicle right after that with “What’s Up, Doc?” Which was an interesting job for them to give you, given that “The Last Picture Show” wasn’t exactly a screwball comedy.
A: That happened because Barbra Streisand saw “The Last Picture Show” before it opened — it wasn’t even finished — and she loved it and wanted to work with me. She owed Warner Bros. a picture, so they sent me a script called “A Glimpse of Tiger.” I thought it was okay, but I didn’t want to do it. John Calley called me and said, “Barbra really wants to work with you. If you had to do a picture with Barbra Streisand, what would you do?” I said I’d like to do a screwball comedy like “Bringing Up Baby,” and he said, “Great, do it.” He didn’t say “Can you do comedy?” He just let me do it.
Q: “What’s Up, Doc?” gets me back to thinking about “She’s Funny That Way” and the fact that like that earlier film it has a somewhat theatrical, classical acting style. Was it tricky getting a group of contemporary performers on the same page to strike the right tone? Did they understand the traditions you were building on?
A: Well, at one point Owen said, “You know, I don’t like screwball comedies all that much.” So I just said, “It’s not a screwball comedy,” and he was fine — to him it wasn’t a screwball comedy! As far as tempo and pace and things like that, I just dealt with it on set; if things weren’t moving fast enough I told the actors to speed it up. Jennifer didn’t want to go that fast and I told her she had to make it faster — I said, “The words have to come out of you like diarrhea.” Working with the actors, that’s when I’m really making the movie — I don’t do rehearsals anymore, because at some point I realized it’s freshest to just get it on the day. We shot this one pretty fast, twenty-nine days or something…you know, I don’t do a lot of unnecessary angles or any of that stuff.
4. UnREAL: Anti-Heroes, Genre, and Legitimation. Lifetime’s new series “UnREAL” recently ended its first season and the show has garnered some noticeable critical acclaim. Set behind the scenes of a fictional “Bachelor”-like show, “UnREAL” has been praised for its satirical bite and its complex depiction of female anti-heroes. Over at Antenna, collectively authored media and cultural studies blog, Jason Mittell assembles a team of media scholars to discuss the Lifetime series and topics of genre and legitimation in the cultural sphere.
Jason: I agree with most of what everyone says here about legitimation, but to return to my initial prompt on this issue, I’m curious if others find the “hook” of the show to be framed around Rachel’s morality. One thing I find so compelling is to watch her do things she knows are wrong politically and ethically, but she convinces herself that she has no choice so she rationalizes her behaviors in an assortment of ways. As the season progresses, she becomes more emotionally invested in the show and her role in it, letting go of the rationalizations and just embracing her power to ruin people for fun and profit. Meanwhile, Quinn is the embodiment of Ayn Randian self-interest (but in a fun way, rather than Rand’s own leaden drama), setting up an ethical pole that Rachel wants to distance herself from, but keeps moving toward. This moral dance, which is obviously much more than just the “‘Breaking Bad’ but with a lady!” frame, is what kept me rapt throughout the season. And, since I don’t know many of the examples of precedents y’all have mentioned, this figuration of the feminist reluctantly working to uphold the worst of patriarchy seems innovative to me. Do those precedents similarly rationalize their knowing misdeeds as being for the greater feminist good?
Kathleen: I see the point about the “dance,” but it’s a familiar one to some viewers. Since the 80s scholars have noted that soap opera viewers prefer their villainesses to other female characters. As Kristen noted, Lifetime viewers (myself included) will prefer the “bad girl” movies. If anything, industrially speaking, Lifetime is already positioned as “darker” than its current actual competitor, the Hallmark Channel (I get that’s not how any of this is being positioned in the trades, as Lifetime wants its reputation stock to rise. But from a viewer perspective, they offer similar kinds of programming with very different tones). The relationship between Quinn and Rachel is a complex one, but I wouldn’t put it in such stark moral terms or such polarized terms. I think the season starts that way, but I think as we see Rachel make increasingly bad decisions, we also see Quinn increasingly humanized. In other words, I enjoyed the dance between the characters, but not as something particularly innovative, but as something very well done in the case of this show.
5. “Total Rickall”: Clip Shows and Bad Memories in “Rick And Morty”. Adult Swim’s “Rick and Morty,” Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s animated series about the adventures of an alcoholic mad scientist and his naive grandson, has been on a roll in its second season, producing a different kind of great episode every single week. Last Sunday’s episode, “Total Rickall,” may have been the series’ craziest, darkest episode of the young series so far. The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen reviews the episode and explores television’s lack of clip shows and the need for bad memories.
Do television series even do clip shows anymore? Reality series probably still churn one out every now and again, but it’s a rarity otherwise; no one turns on the latest episode of “The Walking Dead” expecting to see Rick and the rest regurgitating five minute chunks of previously aired misery. But the “clip show made up of clips that never actually existed before this episode” format, while not exactly a cliché, is at least something that’s been done. “Clerks: The Animated Series” did it. “Community” did it. And now “Rick And Morty” has done it — sort of. While a half hour of Rick and the rest (wait, what?) cueing up glimpses of horrifying hilarity that we’ll never see in context wouldn’t be completely out of place for the series, it also wouldn’t be quite enough on its own. “Rick And Morty” doesn’t need to constantly top itself, but it would be a legitimate letdown if the writers ever brought in an old concept without presenting it in a different light. And so we get “Total Rickall,” a clip show in which the clips themselves are the enemy. Or at least representative of the enemy. The failing of past clip shows (even the self-aware ones) is that the plots are nearly always terrible, for the simple fact that it’s really fucking hard to build a good story when you have to keep coming up with reasons to cut away to a completely different story. (“Shades Of Grey,” the awful “Star Trek: The Next Generation” clip show, gave Riker a brain infection that had him reliving his past to try and cover for the clunkiness. It didn’t work.) Here, though, Morty and his family are beset by alien parasites who insert themselves into people’s lives by giving them false memories, ala Dawn from “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” which means that every time someone says, “Remember when…,” another alien gets a chance to essentially come into being. Instead of groaning at each new flashback, or even appreciating them as ironic commentary on the phoniness of flashbacks, those memories create rising tension. They’re funny, but they’re also dangerous — which, thankfully, makes them funnier.
6. Who Was That Mysterious Middle-Aged Bald Guy In Like Every Early ’80s MTV Video? In the early 1980’s, it seemed like every music video on MTV featured a mysterious bald man who would pop into the frame every so often. He would rock his squareness in relation to the artists’ coolness, but no one quite knew who he was. The people at Dangerous Minds explores this phenomenon and try to track down all the video he appears in.
One demographic that may have been initially counted out, but who undoubtedly contributed to the success of early MTV, was elementary through high-school-aged kids who had loads of free viewing time on their hands. Kids who would end up spending hours a day obsessing over this new medium — a medium which moved so much faster than what they had been used to seeing, having grown up on network television. MTV ushered in the age of ADD. I was one of those captivated kids, and what a fascinating time it was to become “musically aware” with this brand-new, content-starved format repetitively pumping-out clips from whatever handful of (mostly new wave) acts that were forward-thinking enough to devote the time and energy to shooting videos. Suddenly bands you would NEVER hear on the radio, were appearing on TV screens nation-wide and the kids were eating it up. In those early days of obsessive MTV viewing, I began to notice this one guy. This one middle-aged, balding, bespectacled man. This one guy who was conspicuous for his squareness among pretty boy rock stars and hot models. This one guy who seemed to be in like EVERY freaking video. Was he a video director inserting himself Hitchcock style into his clips? Was he a record label president? Was he the bands’ coke dealer? Who the hell was this guy?
Tweet of the Day:
SHOW ME A HERO: more great prestige teevee about how embarrassingly terrible white people are
— Sales On Film (@salesonfilm) August 17, 2015