Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The Rise of the Millennial Sitcom. Sitcoms thrive on familiarity and repetition. When one sitcom presents a commercially successful premise, trope, or archetype, other sitcoms follow in the hope that they can bank on the success of the original. Case in point: Vulture’s Jenny Jaffe examines the rise of the millennial sitcom and all the tropes that come with it.
But in the last few years, a new kind of sitcom has emerged on cable and streaming networks, complete with its own tropes. We now have “the cell-phone emergency” (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Broad City,” “You’re the Worst”), “the mid-afternoon brunch” (“Girls,” “Broad City,” “You’re the Worst”), the “dating-app disaster” (“New Girl,” “Man Seeking Woman”), the “wander-the-city walk-and-talk” (“You’re the Worst,” “Girls,” “Love,” “Master of None,” “Broad City”). Classic network sitcoms traded in the “will they, won’t they” sitcom staple; shows like “Broad City” and “Girls” have embraced the “are they or aren’t they” — that messy gray area between friends with benefits and friends with benefits who act like a couple without ever labeling it. “Broad City’s” Ilana and Lincoln, “You’re the Worst’s” Gretchen and Jimmy, “Girls’s” Hannah and Adam, and now Jessa and Adam, are all couples we’ve encountered (or been a part of), but I’m unaware of this kind of relationship having been addressed on TV more than five years ago, beyond the question of whether or not a certain couple were, indeed, “on a break.” Sitcoms of the ’90s like “Will & Grace,” “Friends,” “Caroline in the City,” “The Nanny,” etc., were largely aspirational — even if their characters didn’t have the things they wanted, they seemed certain about the directions in which they were headed. They looked for love, marriage, and family; they climbed clear corporate ladders; they made firm decisions, even if they were difficult. This classic-style sitcom still exists, in high quality and quantity: “The Mindy Project” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” for example, are also made for (and, to some extent, by) millennials, but their major goals are not attempting to reflect the specific concerns of a generation. By contrast, sitcoms like “Broad City,” “Girls,” “Master of None,” and, most recently, “Love,” seem destined to become time capsules of a highly specific moment in a generation’s development. While each of these shows is distinct in tone and humor, they share similar concerns: They star 20- or early-30-somethings in major cities and feature characters who are educated, have relative financial stability, the dubious luxury of being able to date around instead of settling down, the choice between passion and money, infinite time to wander the streets talking about life, and a more complicated relationship with sex. Once upon a time, sex was an affair that happened only beneath L-shaped sheets and reflected the fears of what having, or not having, sex with someone meant or didn’t mean (“Will & Grace,” “Friends,” “Frasier” — pick a show from NBC’s 1999 Thursday night lineup, and there’s an episode built around this exact concern). In these millennial comedies, the comedy is mined from navigating real sexual experiences. “Broad City’s” portrayal of pegging, “Love’s” botched three-way scenes, and “Master of None’s” depiction of how sex evolves over the course of a relationship are all previously uncharted comedy territory. Partially, this has all been made possible by the freedom of producing a sitcom without the pressures of a Big Network — the older-skewing audience, the rigid Standards & Practices, the fear of losing “traditional” advertisers — but it’s also a reflection of a new generation of creators and viewers, for whom “alternative sex” is not something to ridicule, but something to embrace and, eventually, cultivate an Ilana-esque blasé attitude about.
2. Ben Affleck’s “Broken” Batman. You may have heard that there’s a new movie featuring The Man Who Dresses Up As A Bat And Fight Crimes fighting The Invincible Alien With A Moral Conscience And Incredible Strength. “Batman Vs. Superman” will certainly be taking over multiplexes soon and the public will be able to decide if Ben Affleck can effectively step into Batman’s shoes. The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff profiles Ben Affleck and his take on the “broken” Batman character.
For Mr. Affleck, the dual role of Batman and his wealthy, womanizing alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is a straight-ahead bid for marquee-idol status after the 2014 thriller “Gone Girl,” which cast him as a dysfunctional husband caught in a complex revenge plot. But this popcorn fare is also a somewhat bewildering choice for someone with an increasingly prestigious reputation as a filmmaker in his own right, one who directed and starred in “Argo,” which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2013. While fans of superhero movies always grouse about their casting, the selection of Mr. Affleck for “Batman v Superman” seemed to arouse an especially vehement and personal animus when it was revealed in 2013. The comic-book blockbuster has shone an intense spotlight on Mr. Affleck following the announcement that he and his wife, Jennifer Garner, plan to divorce after a 10-year marriage. Amid a torrent of tabloid reports alleging bad behavior, infidelity and questionable tattoos, he finds himself at maximum attention at an especially humbling moment. “It never seems like a great time to have your privacy invaded,” Mr. Affleck said warily. “Obviously this is a particularly hard time.” Then, the day before this interview was to take place, he was hit with a bombshell. Vanity Fair magazine published an interview with Ms. Garner, in which she discussed the dissolution of their relationship. Speaking of Mr. Affleck, she told the magazine: “I always say, ‘When his sun shines on you, you feel it.’ But when the sun is shining elsewhere, it’s cold. He can cast quite a shadow.” In person, Mr. Affleck was friendly and funny, but also soft-spoken and vulnerable. At times he seemed anxious and out of sorts, as if waiting for some other shoe to drop. Despite vowing not to, he did eventually address Ms. Garner’s Vanity Fair profile. And though he said he could not pinpoint why he chose to play Batman right now, he did offer a broader theory on the parts that currently appeal to him. When he watches other movies that strain to make their protagonists likable and valorous, Mr. Affleck said: “I find that boring. Instead, I think it’s interesting how we manage the best version of ourselves, despite our flaws and our weaknesses and our sometime tendencies to do the wrong thing.” He has also realized that for all of his Hollywood success, some part of him will always feel like a relentless striver who must prove, through his work, that he has a right to be there. “That never goes away,” he said. “All these habits that we develop, that help us at some point, they have flip sides. In this case, it’s hard to turn that feeling off.” Addressing himself, he added, “It’s O.K. to just chill for a second.”
3. What TV Can Learn From “The 100” Mess. Television showrunners have always had a tricky relationship with their fans. There’s a burden to please and appease them, as they are big supporters, but also not to pander to them or design the show so it can only be enjoyed by a small group of die-hards. Variety’s Maureen Ryan examines the mess “The 100” showrunners have found themselves in and how the rest of television can learn from it.
If you wanted to come up with a playbook for how to handle TV promotion and publicity in the age of social media, a few of the major rules might look like this: 1. Don’t mislead fans or raise their hopes unrealistically; 2. Don’t promote your show as an ideal proponent of a certain kind of storytelling, and then drop the ball in a major way with that very element of your show; 3. When things go south, don’t pretend nothing happened; 4. Understand that in this day and age, promotion is a two-way street: The fans that flock to your show and help raise its profile can just as easily walk away if they are disappointed or feel they’ve been manipulated. It all sounds like common sense, right? Except that “The 100” managed to break all those rules and more in the last ten days or so. And the tumult surrounding the show contain lessons that other shows and showrunners could learn from. The short version: A number of fans of the CW show are angry about how the exit of a lesbian character was handled, both within the narrative and by representatives of the show on social media. Given the slipshod and dismissive way things played out in both spheres, they have every right to be upset. The character, Lexa, was killed off in the middle of the season in a manner that invoked any number of cliches about lesbians on TV, and the fact that in January, showrunner Jason Rothenberg took to Twitter to tout the actress’ appearance in the season finale made her death all the more baffling and disappointing. One fan on Twitter summed up the general mood among a substantial subset of fans by saying, “I feel like I’m being used to keep up their ratings.” I’ll get into more details in a bit, but “The 100,” a cult show with a rising profile, really stepped in it by breaking every single one of the rules above. For two years, the show has sought deep and frequent engagement with its fans — but once it was clear that the March 3 episode of “The 100” had set off an ever-expanding array of firestorms, especially among LGBTQ fans, many of the powers that be associated with the show acted as if nothing were particularly amiss. That was one of many mistakes. What has occurred since March 3 is not just a problem for “The 100” and the CW, it’s a cautionary tale for all of television, which increasingly depends on fans to bang the drum for shows and increase their profiles. As it happens, the resurgent CW just made a big bet on fan-driven entertainment as the future of TV. The network just renewed all of its shows, in part because it measures engagement in a host of ways; overnight ratings are no longer the be-all and end-all. Social media engagement counts for a lot, and word-of-mouth promotion is often what makes or breaks a marginal show. That’s especially true at the CW, but in the age of 400-plus scripted shows, that’s also the case for many other programs on broadcast, streaming and cable. But intense fan engagement is a double-edged sword. The fans who know how to help raise a show’s profile and make noise on social media are also whipsmart in any number of other ways. Today’s TV viewers won’t stand for being used as pawns, nor will they help promote a show when they feel it has let them down. With the events that occurred in the March 3 episode of the show, many think “The 100” did just that.
4. Swing States: The Realpolitik of “The Middle.” Many TV shows, especially sitcoms, present financial stability or depict upper middle class character so that storylines aren’t limited by plausibility, and often so that they reflect the experiences of the demographics tuning in. But by ignoring entire swaths of people in this country, especially the middle class, is to pretend that they don’t exist. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum examines the sitcom “The Middle” and how it captures a certain brand of middle class optimism.
In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America,” she dissects the darker history of positive thinking, the cult of optimism that has, in recent decades, she writes, metastasized into “an apology for the crueller aspects of the market economy.” “The Middle” is a sitcom-shaped meditation on this phenomenon, but it’s not purely a critique. On the one hand, Frankie’s beliefs do make her miserable and, often, hard on her family. (Her kids’ adjectives for her: “lazy,” “angry,” “tired.”) There are echoes of early “Roseanne” — the creators of “The Middle,” Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline, both wrote for the show — whose pilot episode satirized the dangerous New Age babble sold to factory workers: “If your mind can conceive it, and your heart can believe it, then you can achieve it.” The affirmations Frankie clings to feel like curses when they don’t come true. On the other hand, there’s Frankie’s daughter, Sue, a lover of rainbows and unicorns, for whom positive thinking has been a lifesaver. At nineteen, Sue is so devoted to the Web site kickingitteenstyle.com that she once wrote her own version, Sue’s Tips for Sue-cess. Now that she’s at a local public college, a professor steers her away from turning in poems titled “A Recipe for Peace in the Middle East,” pushing her toward critical thinking. Fellow-students upset her with the news that cops can be mean. But rose-colored glasses protected Sue from what would have been a truly ugly adolescence, had she absorbed the world’s view of her: homely, mediocre, a nobody. She could have folded. Instead, she became self-reliant enough to back out of an engagement to her high-school boyfriend, a sure path to her mother’s life. Sue’s sweetness is a type of moral strength, a force of Christian decency rare for TV. Although Sue’s old enough to vote, we’re unlikely to see her first Presidential election. Unlike the Norman Lear-inspired “Black-ish,” “The Middle” has never addressed real-life politics. (Including, significantly, racial ones: it’s set in a mostly white Midwestern area, and although Axl’s best college friend, Hutch, is black, when the two are hassled by a cop Hutch’s reaction is no different from Axl’s.) But the sitcom still manages to press on a modern economic bruise, hard. After Super Tuesday, Trump voters were described in the “Times” as being unified by one motivation: “a deep-rooted, pervasive sense of anxiety about the state of the country, and an anger and frustration at those they felt were encroaching on their way of life.” On their worst days, that’s the Hecks. While the neighbors give Frankie the side-eye, she is driven crazy by a feral single mom, Rita Glossner (played with hilarious ferocity by Brooke Shields), whose family has all the pathologies the Hecks lack: drugs, violence, absent dads. A sitcom can skirt the tough stuff: no Heck ever uses bigoted language, or talks immigration, not even Mike’s prickly hermit of a father or his socially awkward brother. But they’re white, working-class Christians in a small town in a red state. Frankie Heck is no xenophobe, but she’s frustrated, overwhelmed, and thirsty for inspiration. Could she be drawn to a smiling orange demagogue who promised that she’d “get hers”? She might. If Frankie longs for anything in her life, it’s for someone to make America great again.
5. Why Don Cheadle Had to Make His Miles Davis Biopic. Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” has long been a passion project for the actor, and now it will soon be released this spring. Rolling Stone’s David Fear interviews Cheadle about the film and why he had to make it.
RS: Was it harder trying to nail Miles as a character than as a musician? Or keep yourself from mimicing the tics that people know of him?
DC: You mean like the rasp, for example? Vince played me an old tape of him before he lost his voice — he sounded just like me now. It was kind of uncanny. But I just watched a lot of old footage, made sure I had the basics down. Mostly, I tried to connect myself to him. You know: “I’m a musician who studied music for 20 years. I’m a player. I’m a creative person. I’m a writer. I’m an artist. I’m a painter. I’m a dad.” All these things that Miles was as well. So it was about trying to pull him towards me and play off of that. Anyone can do the rasp. It’s doing the voice behind it that’s tough.
RS: Now that you’ve spent so much time trying to get into his headspace? Does Miles seem bigger or smaller, more human, to you after this?
DC: I don’t think my idea of him any different than it has been. The knowns about Miles’ life have always been the knowns. He never hid the good, the bad or the ugly of his life. But it was interesting to go through the autobiography and then check those same stories against other people’s testimonies, and it’s like fucking “Rashomon.” It’s all different, and it was in the space between those accounts that we thought, That’s where Miles is. Aim for that.
RS: Do you think people will find fault with the fact that some aspects of his life get left out?
DC: Probably. The first time I had told people I was going to be doing this film, most of them were like, “Well how are you going to deal with the heroin addiction? That’s going to be a dark place for you to go to.” I said, “I don’t know that I’m going to bring heroin addiction into it. I don’t know why that needs to be a part of it.” And there are people who’ll have issues with that, or some of the other unsavory aspects of who he was not being in here. I get it. All of us have a lot of shit. Hopefully, this movie starts a bigger conversation about him: Let’s talk about the drugs. Let’s talk about the abuse. But let’s also talk about the music. Because that’s just as big a part of he was. The irreverence for rules, the restlessness, the mindset of “I just invented cool jazz — OK, what’s next? Modal jazz? Fusion? Let’s follow that and see where it leads.” That’s what made him a great artist. You can’t leave the music out.
6. How They Pulled Off “Creed’s” Two Biggest Shots. Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” was one of the biggest movies of 2015. It pushed the “Rocky” franchise into the 21st century and featured some of the best boxing scenes in recent memory. Filmmaker Magazine’s Matt Mulcahey sits down with camera operator Ben Semanoff to discuss the film’s two biggest shots.
Filmmaker: How early in production did that shot start to take shape?
Semanoff: This is actually one of two or three shots that evolved into oners [on the day]. The plan originally was just to follow Adonis and Rocky through the hallway and out into the ring. And then on the day Ryan [Coogler] said, “See what you can do here in the dressing room.” And that became, “Why don’t we just follow them out [of the dressing room] into the hall.” We tried a take and everyone was blown away by how seamlessly it worked.
Filmmaker: The three shots that are stitched together for that “oner” obviously occur in sequence in the film, but how far apart on the schedule did they actually fall?
Semanoff: They were way apart. The locker room was shot at a small stadium — I believe it’s a soccer stadium — in Philadelphia and then the point where they go into the darkness and then they come out of the darkness in the stadium, that was all shot on stage at Sun Center Studios in Philly. The [final piece] after the lens flare was shot on a separate stage [at Sun Center] probably a week later. [Each piece] was separated by at least a week.
Filmmaker: Did you have much experience with the MoVI beforehand?
Semanoff: At that point I’d only had a little experience with the MoVI, but I was familiar enough with the technology to know that single operator mode wasn’t what we wanted to use. In order to pan the MoVI [in single operator mode)], you have to set a threshold in the software that says, “Anything up to this amount of variation, don’t pan, keep it stable. Once I break this threshold — whether it’s a degree or two degrees — that means I’m panning, so please pan.” There’s always a little bit of a lag when it’s in single operator mode. I told production that whoever they got the MoVI from, I had to be able to operate it remotely and I didn’t want to use a joystick. I wanted to use a set of wheels. I’ve operated off a joystick a million times, but a joystick is much better for fast action and that wasn’t really what we were doing. We were following him in a very deliberate way and I wanted it to be a very elegant shot so I wanted the control of a set of wheels. Production searched and searched and searched and they couldn’t find anybody that had that capability and I said, “Well, I know Larry McConkey does because I’ve used his in his shop.” So they got on the phone with Larry and the planets aligned and Larry was available to come in and do a couple MoVI shots and some of the additional camerawork in that big fight scene.
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