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Daily Reads: Wesley Morris on ‘Key and Peele,’ Hollywood Actresses on the Industry’s Stubborn Sexism, and More

Daily Reads: Wesley Morris on 'Key and Peele,' Hollywood Actresses on the Industry's Stubborn Sexism, and More

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

1. Race to the Top: The Meaning of “Key and Peele”. 
The Comedy Central sketch show “Key and Peele” ended its five-season run last night, cementing its legacy as one of the best sketch shows of the 21st century, and along with “Chappelle’s Show,” one of the best sketch shows to tackle race in America. Grantland’s Wesley Morris reviews the series and how it handled race and racism in the Obama era.

It seems apt that the tenure of a biracial president occurred during a watershed moment for biracial stars — Drake, Dwayne Johnson, Blake Griffin, Russell Wilson. These sorts of popular changes spoke to a browning of American life that contributed to the myth that the country had moved beyond race. “Key and Peele” began in 2010, as a string of national scandals — involving everyone from Henry Louis Gates to Shirley Sherrod to Trayvon Martin — had begun to disabuse us of that delusion. The show followed “Chocolate News,” Comedy Central’s previous attempt — after the premature demise of “Chappelle’s Show” — to keep black comedians and the subject of race on its air. “Chocolate News” practiced sketch comedy that might have been too old-school black for a network whose other programming was still largely white. Its star, David Alan Grier, had been satirizing race on TV for two decades at that point, and he was neither as go-for-broke lethal as Chappelle nor as ornately fantastical as Key and Peele. The sketches on “Chocolate News” were broad, obvious, and occasionally toothless, but 10 episodes weren’t enough of a weathervane to deem the show a failure. Nonetheless, an 11th episode never materialized. American television has always been fundamentally white. Its points of view emanate from the vantages of those who control the industry and create its content. If it deals with race as a problem, it typically can do so only if it believes there’s a solution. But as a black viewer, I’m never looking for contrition, simply an acknowledgement of a condition; I don’t need television — or American culture — to provide a remedy. Black America has tended to see the discrepancy between the cultural importance to diagnose and the delusion to attempt to cure. Merely giving a nonwhite person a speaking role is not absolution. That contradiction is visible to a black audience almost anytime it sees itself chauffeuring, housekeeping, mammying, best-friending, sidekicking, saying everything about white characters while saying nothing about itself. That was the biracial brilliance of “Key and Peele.” It understood race as real and racism as inevitable, and never lost sight of the way in which individual white people can be agents of change but also of offense, wittingly or not supporting a system of demoralization.

2. Actresses on the Stubborn Sexism of Hollywood. 
It’s no secret that institutional sexism in Hollywood is a major problem. It places all the power in the hands of men, it limits the creative expression of women, and curtails the diversity of theatrical releases. But now more than ever, women are speaking out about the sexism in the industry. The New York Times’ Julie Bloom speaks to a number of Hollywood actresses about their opinions on gender discrimination in the movie business.

Are women in Hollywood unfairly denied opportunities to act, direct, write and produce?

Julianne MooreI’ve had a lot of luck in my career and I’ve worked with a lot of really wonderful directors, so I can’t complain. When people start putting this on the entertainment business, I’m like, “Wait a minute, this is endemic to our culture at large.” [However,] sometimes I read a script and there’s only one female in it. That’s not what my world looks like. I have days where the only men I see are my husband and my teenage son, but the rest of the day, I go to my yoga class, I see a female friend for lunch, I talk to my female manager on the phone. So how is that even possible?

Cate BlanchettI do think there’s a sense in the industry, and in most industries, that a woman can’t screw up. Look at the number of second-time male directors: If for some reason their film doesn’t do well, in eight to 12 months they’re back in there again, someone backs them. It’s always on the marketing schedule that a woman has directed the film, which on one hand you want to celebrate, but on the other does put a remarkable amount of pressure on, is it going to work? So the numbers people go into it with their arms slightly crossed, and I think that has an impact on the courage of a woman’s creative expression.

Ellen PageAbsolutely, women and all minorities [are denied opportunities], African-American men, African-American women, trans men, trans women, the list goes on.

Matt Zoller Seitz on the Enlivening, But Familiar “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”. Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show”premiered on Tuesday to mostly positive reviews. Critics highlighted Colbert’s confidence and skill, while also noting that the late night format constricted the full extent of his talent. Veteran critic Matt Zoller Seitz reviews the new series and points out how Colbert’s greatest asset is that he’s an actor.

It became clear last night, if it wasn’t clear already, that Stephen Colbert has an advantage over his late-night competition: He’s an actor. There’s a depth and solidity to actors that comic performers can never quite match, and it manifests itself in moments like the one we saw last night, when Colbert, newly installed as the host of “
The Late Show,” engaged in a long conversation with a demon amulet that may or may not have represented his CBS boss, Leslie Moonves, and urged Colbert to shill for the show’s sponsor product, Sabra Hummus. It was a funny bit, anyway — one that, in time-honored Letterman tradition, became less funny as it went on, then somehow inexplicably funny again — but it took a turn for the sublime when Colbert waxed rhapsodic on the amulet’s Satanic power, then seemed momentarily overcome by the horror of what he had become. “I must be forever enslaved by its hideous drone, and make certain…” He trailed off and stared blankly down at a spot on his desk. “Sacrifices,” he finished. The weirdness of the pause was amplified by Colbert’s unnerving intensity. It was the kind of moment that NBC’s Jimmy Fallon or ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel or TBS’s Conan O’Brien would have italicized and tossed off, if their writers had thought to create it (and who knows if they would have; it’s the kind of moment that only Colbert could do properly, anyway). They would have winked at the audience and moved on. Colbert let the moment hang there, and for a marvelous second, the show turned into a late-night version of “Angel Heart.” He was feeling it. Colbert is really feeling the moment — when he seems to let a silly bit overtake him, even possess him, he becomes a true star, the kind of person you’re never not happy to see.

4. Why I Was Wrong About “You’re The Worst”. 
The FXX comedy “You’re The Worst” was one of 2014’s best surprises, and one of the best debut seasons for a comedy in recent memory. However, when the show premiered last season, many critics dismissed it offhand based on the first few episodes. The Hollywood Reporter’s TV critic Tim Goodman explains why he was wrong about “You’re The Worst” and how it’s one of the funniest shows on TV.

I didn’t particularly like the pilot of “You’re the Worst” but, truth be told, some of that was because I also didn’t like the pilot of “Married,” another FX series that debuted on the same night. I reviewed them together. I didn’t like the second episode of “Married” much either, but — and here’s where it gets a bit tricky — I did think the second episode of “You’re the Worst” was an improvement on the first. Yet that very barely came through in the review, which was only the beginning of the missteps. Next I heard that series creator and writer Stephen Falk said, rather loudly to one of my co-workers, “F— Tim Goodman!” Not an uncommon reaction, surprisingly enough. And I’ve got thick skin so yada yada yada — on to the next day. Then, slowly at first, people started really liking “You’re the Worst” on my Twitter feed — other critics, followers, people I know and like. Then response turned into raves. It was becoming a thing. So I pledged to revisit the show. (“Married,” on the other hand, did not generate much second chance notices from anyone.) But the time had passed. I had abandoned both shows and was drowning in new stuff. Looking back now, of course, part of this is fallout from Too Much TV, part of it was watching four episodes of two series and not liking three of them — which unfortunately overshadowed the fourth episode of you know what. Later, at the Vancouver International Film Festival, it was relayed to me by someone meeting me for the first time that Falk noted I should be shot or punched on sight. Good times! Who’s the worst now? Yes, still me. I know. Anyway, fast-forward until lots of time had gone by and millions of TV series had passed across my eyes and there, in a very small window of opportunity, was a chance to binge watch “You’re the Worst.” So I did. And I laughed. And laughed. And watched and watched.

5. David Hemmings, “Blow-Up,” and the Red Buildings on the Stockwell Road. 
Rob Baker’s blog “Another Nickel in the Machine” covers the history of 20th century London, focusing on everything from music to film and how it informs the culture of the city. In his new post, Baker writes about the making of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” and the lead actor David Hemmings.

Stockwell Road isn’t the most exciting and handsome of roads. It may have been once, but the Luftwaffe and typically unimaginative post-war redevelopment put paid to that. It’s got a skateboard park, if that’s your thing, and David Bowie was born in a road just off it, but even he moved to Bromley when he was six. And that’s about it, to most people, even if they live there, it’s just a road that joins up Stockwell and Brixton. If you walk towards the Brixton end, however, and you stop and look carefully at the end of a terrace, you can see a tiny bit of maroon-ish red paint showing through some peeling cream emulsion. It’s the remnants of a lot of red paint and a clue that in the winter of 1966 this road made a glamorous appearance, alongside David Hemmings, the model Veruschka, and Vanessa Redgrave, in the swinging Sixties film – Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” It was the Italian director’s first film in English (he had just signed a lucrative deal to make three English-language pictures for Italian producer Carlo Ponti), and it was David Hemmings’ first major film role. On stage, however, Hemmings had already been a star, of sorts. In 1954, thirteen years before “Blow-Up” was released, a twelve-year-old Hemmings had appeared, as a boy soprano, in Benjamin Britten’s opera “The Turn of the Screw.” To prepare for the role of Miles, in the as yet uncompleted opera, Hemmings had left school and his home in Tolworth, a southwest suburb of London, and had gone to live with Benjamin Britten at Crag House in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. ‘It was one of the most wonderful times of my entire life,’ Hemmings once remembered: ‘we all gathered round the piano – Peter Pears, Jennifer Vyvyan, Joan Cross, Arda Mandikian, Olive Dyer and me… He really constructed the opera round our voices.’ Hemmings throughout his life never wavered from saying that Britten’s conduct with him was beyond reproach, at all times. In John Bridcut’s Britten’s Children, Hemmings says: He was not only a father to me, but a friend – and you couldn’t have had a better father, or a better friend. He was generous and kind, and I was very lucky. I loved him dearly, I really did – I absolutely adored him. I didn’t fancy him, I did go to bed with him, but I didn’t go to bed with him in that way.

6. “These Are Their Stories”: 20 Years of U.S. History, according to “Law & Order”. 
In a few days, “Law & Order” will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Twenty-five years of ripped-from-the-headlines plots, curious suspects, and high-flying courtroom antics. In honor of its anniversary, The A.V. Club staff tracks twenty years of U.S. history through “Law & Order” plots.

1991: Religious Faith vs. Personal Choice. In “God Bless The Child,” an episode that aired in October of 1991, “Law & Order” tackled both religious faith and parental choice. After a couple’s daughter dies of strep throat, the “order” portion of the gang is called in to determine whether her death was preventable. Stone, in turn, must attempt to determine whether the girl’s parents wanted to seek help, only to be pressured into holding back due to their religious faith. Ripped from 1989 headlines about the Alex Dale Morris case, where a 4-year-old died from something that could have been cured by simple antibiotics, “God Bless The Child” represents a thought-provoking blend of both idealism and law. Though viewers might not have agreed with the religious family’s decisions, they at least had to question whether they should have had those rights in the first place.

1992: Racism and Affirmative Action. Race was a big issue for “Law & Order” from day one. In season two’s “Intolerance,” the issue gets bigger than just black versus white. When a Chinese-American honors student is killed, detectives investigate, eventually coming up against a racist WASP mother whose son was competing with the dead kid for a scholarship. Affirmative action was introduced in the United States in the 1960s, and has been the subject of countless lawsuits and studies since. The issue was reignited in the early ’90s, when a number of universities were just starting to shift away from the policy. (“Intolerance” is also a twist on the 1991 Wanda Holloway case, where a Texas mother was convicted of hiring a hitman to take out her daughter’s competition at cheerleading tryouts.) “Intolerance” takes an issue — racism — that’s as old as time, brings it up to date, and gets both parents and schools involved.

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