Watching Criminal Minds with my In-Laws

First off, apologies. This has been a super-busy couple of weeks for me filled with family visits, writing for my “real job” and lots of admin work to boot.

In the meantime, I would urge you to visit my most recent post on the online journal that I co-edit, Flow . The article is on the 25th anniversary of one of my favourite mock-documentaries, The Canadian Conspiracy and the article can be found here:

So my last post talked about the pleasures of watching TV with my wife’s grandmother. Since she left town, I can’t quite bring myself to watch the show, if only because I feel that I would need to watch with my Dancing With the Stars buddy (who I should call for an update about the show.

In the meantime, I’ve been getting behind on my usual shows, as well as watching lots of TV with my wife’s parents.

We watch different shows too. Rather than watching the latest Mad Men or other “quality” show, they would much rather sit down to the three or four shows that they religiously watch – NCIS, Criminal Minds, and the now-extinct 24.

A couple of things strike me when watching these shows. Firstly, they are all about super-special crime fighting teams led by a serious leader. Second, each of the team has their own specialty, one is the fast-talking genius, another is perhaps the martial arts expert, one is the female computer-geek, and one (my mother-in-law informs me) is the hunky eye-candy.

I think that Shemar Moore is who my mother in law refers to as the "hunk" in the show...

I’m also intrigued by the presence of the geeky, female computer expert, who seem to appear in every version of these shows and virtually have interchangeable personalities.

There’s Abby from NCIS

Who is presumably what grown-ups think of when they think of goth types…

And then there’s Criminal Minds’ Penelope Garcia, who has a penchant for wearing plaid or flowery twin-sets, and whose quirk is talking in hip-hop lingo to the hunky Shemar Moore throughout the show, while she quickly accesses the info that the team needs to solve the crime.

Maybe this is because I’m currently reading William Goldman’s great book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He talks about how the main difference between TV and film is that the TV industry is predicated on speed and the need to get things done really fast.

While I don’t necessarily agree with Goldman when he says that TV always features “low quality acting,” I do think that his description of TV actors as “one-takers” is an interesting point of comparison between TV and movies.

Here, he talks about how TV acting is populated by “one-takers,” a term that denotes actors “who can give you a reasonable line reading the first time.”

Though I could have chosen just about any clip, I feel like this one, with its flat delivery, the exposition of “quirky” dialogue and the sheer volume of words is typical of the kinds of exchanges in the show.

I feel like this idea extends to these shows derivitive nature as they almost seem to be written as first drafts as well.To me, Criminal Minds seems a little bit like a cross between every serial killer film that I’ve ever seen, with a little bit of  soap opera thrown in for good measure.

And perhaps this is all part of the appeal. The shorthand nature of TV, recognizing its character types the first time, as well being hooked by the ongoing storyline has my in-laws hooked, and I can’t say I blame them at all.

Hearing my mother-in-law talk about the intensity of last season’s finale, its obvious that these shows are doing something right to engender their high ratings and their appeal to a more adult demographic. More to the point, it makes me think that sometimes I ought to be thinking more fully about why despite the fact that these serials are so appealing to a huge audience, we still insist on analyzing “boutique” programming instead.

Watching With My Wife’s Grandmother – Dancing With the Stars Edition

Apologies in advance, dear reader for neglecting you and my blog in the past little while. Believe me, it has hurt me more than it hurts you.

Part of the reason for my absence is my wife’s family’s visit, which has yielded some pretty interesting observations and which I hope to write about this week.

They have different viewing tastes than I do, to be certain, but I am beginning to realize something very basic about watching TV with them around.

Quite simply, watching TV in groups is much more fun than watching it alone.

I have been getting that impression for a while now. As a media studies instructor, we force our students to watch certain shows (for educational purposes, of course). One of the shows that always goes over well is NBC’s The Biggest Loser, which produces predictable laughter, but also the occasional unpredictable tear…

Recently, my wife and I have also made the pilgrimage to Austin’s famous Alamo Drafthouse to watch some of the latest episodes of Mad Men. Though I had seen one of the episodes we watched before, the audience revealed some of the episodes big laughs, as well as illuminating the intricate comic timing in the particular episode.

Dancing With the Stars, Season 11

So last night’s experiment began with my wife’s grandmother, who asked me to put on Dancing With the Stars, just so we could see Bristol Palin dance.

Well, it began with that way, but we instantly broke the  promise when we watched the entire show.

Even though the rest of the family made fun of my wife’s grandmother and I, they all ended up watching in the end. As Jennifer Grey (of Dirty Dancing fame) they all conspicuously left whatever they were doing to watch with us.

(My wife even choked up a little when Jennifer got sad at the memory of Patrick Swayze…)

A couple of points. First, I have never watched this show at all, with my wife or anyone else. I’ve never really gotten the appeal. I’m not so much a fan of watching shows where people can’t do stuff, I would rather watch people who can.

I may have gone on about this somewhere else, but I think that this is part of the major appeal of reality TV that features people who can’t do stuff. For one, it generates a (false?) sense of belief that your average person can do anything they put their mind to – who cares about training for years to become a dancer?

The other thing I think it does is cultivate a false sense of expertise in the viewer. Please don’t be mistaken, I’m not trying to insult anyone, but my experience in watching these shows has made me an “expert” on interior design, fashion, cooking, singing, and obviously, dancing.

Just like Tim Gunn, I am now an expert in fashion

My second point is, TV is a social medium. As we sat there Grandma and I swapped stories about who we liked on the show, who we thought was terrible and why. She filled me in with which host was mean, which one was gay and which one was nice, and I filled her in on who “The Situation” was.

I even flipped over to a moment of Jersey Shore, just so she could see the crew in action. When she saw him she said “Oh, obviously he’s on steroids.” I also tried to tell her about his new product, a vodka infused with protein, and she was as perplexed as I was about why he was famous.

Which brings me back to my original point, which seems to be that watching with someone else stimulates debate, conversation and sharing.

Neither of us could figure out why Bristol was there in the first place, or why she scored so high, but it seemed as though her badness was just as important as whether or not she was good.

Most important, it generated a shared experience, and something else to talk about as we two “experts” ranged through topics like who could dance, who was a good entertainer, and who should just give up and go home.

Last Night’s dancing summary:

I’ll stop here for now, but will probably talk a little bit next time on the pleasures of watching Modern Family as a group tomorrow.

Watching Vinnie Chase’s Dark Slide

Up until now, you would have probably gotten the impression that all my wife and I do is watch reality TV together. We watch scripted shows too especially those on HBO.

Watching Entourage has always been a bit of a distraction for my wife and I. Seemingly the least substantial of the HBO shows (well, until Bored to Death, but don’t get me started on that one), Entourage has almost always offered the fantasy life of Hollywood without any of the bad stuff that comes with success.

That is, until this season, which has taken a very dark, yet rewarding, turn.

Until now, every season followed a typical story arc.

Hollywood slacker Vinnie Chase turns down a blockbuster franchise and gets to work with an auteur director. Along the way, he has sex with dozens of women and smokes as much pot as he can.

Vince’s manager, E rises through the corporate ladder with the help of his rich, dutiful and beautiful fiance Sloan.

With a little struggle, Johnny Drama and Turtle get whatever they want in the end, whether this is a tv series, girlfriend or a record label.

As for Ari, no matter how horrible he is to people and no matter what abusive slur comes out of his filthy mouth, his empire, agency and power have grown every season.

Oh, and along the way, famous people drop by to talk to Ari, (like the recurring appearances of Jeffrey Tambor and Bob Saget) and real-life celebrities stop by to uncomfortably say hello to Vince and his crew.

“Once you have everything…what next?”

One thing that’s always bugged us about the show is that there have never really been any consequences for anyone’s actions. They get away with everything but murder and the role of dumb luck plays an important role in how Vince’s career functions.

(Just like the time in Season 6 when Vince turned down everything he was offered, only to get a part in Martin Scorsese’s “Gatsby”)

No one else has to make any choices either. Money, power and success just seems to keep falling in everybody’s lap in the enchanted world of Hollywood.

Vince even has a friendly relationship with the paparazzi and the media, who somehow let him eat unhindered at coffee shops, and are never judgmental about his lifestyle.

(This is Tobey Maguire just trying to get out of  a parking lot…)

There’s never anything terribly offensive about Hollywood, where even the most cutthroat agent is a sweetheart who loves his family.

The tagline for this season preview poses an interesting question, once you have everything, what next?

The  addition of porn star Sasha Grey as Vince’s new girlfriend has also added some much-needed weight to the show, by actually referring to Hollywood’s “sister” industry (pornography) as well as dishing out some moral complexity.

More to the point, her character has provided the series an excuse to revel in Vince’s dark side and to question whether he’ll get out of this dark territory.

As opposed to previous seasons, where the characters can behave in whatever way they want –  doing as many drugs, having as much sex, insulting as many people as they can – Season 7 finally presents its characters with consequences.

The result of all this is they payoff for the invested spectator. Even though my wife and I would consider ourselves casual viewers at best, this season has led us to reinvest in the cast of characters, who are actually making complex choices rather than shallow ones.

More to the point, they’re finally following through on what their characters represent. Vince’s casual attitude towards everything – blowing off appointments with agents and generally doing whatever he feels like – has actually led him into the dark worlds of jealousy, addiction and the ugly side of Hollywood success.

For Ari, his obnoxiousness, workaholism and mean-spiritedness has resulted in his loss (or potential loss) of what was once most important to him.

In other words, people are finally paying for their bad decisions.

To me (and Aristotle) this is the basis of conflict, and ultimately, Drama. Up until now, the show has really had nothing at stake. We have long known that the gang will always be okay, and that their world is one of fantasy and pleasure.

Without giving anything away, I will say that the last episode of this season showed, that world of guilt-free pleasure is no longer the one that the gang inhabits. In a stunning reversal of formula, this season does not end as happily as every other previous one…

In other words, even if you jumped off the Entourage wagon long ago, this season might be the one to reinvest in. The show’s acting, story and direction are much better than it has been in years and seeing other sides of the characters has revived our long flagging interest in the series.

Say Yes to the Dress?

A quick plug – if you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my guest post on my good friend Annie Petersen’s blog: Towards a Unified Theory of Beard Acting. Annie’s blog (Celebrity Gossip: Academic Style) is pretty awesome, and she writes about celebrity gossip (and celebrity, more generally) in the 21st Century.

So far, I’ve mostly talked about shows that I watch with my wife that I don’t mind watching. For the most part, they’re pretty harmless. They neither offend, nor do they inspire me. But I haven’t mentioned my wife’s favourite TLC shows, What Not to Wear and Say Yes to the Dress, neither of which I like.

I’ll get to What not to Wear in a later post. Say Yes to the Dress is popular in the house because a) it’s short (22 minutes) and b) it’s available on-demand making it the perfect lunchtime viewing.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the show is basically about 3(ish) brides as they try and fit their ideal wedding dresses and the drama in front and behind the scenes. We are led through the experience by our helpful experts as they attempt to navigate what my wife says is an incredibly emotional experience.

Say Yes to the Dress also focuses on situations that are inherently dramatic. Like any good documentary, the event is supercharged with family drama, uncertainty and a character (a bride) who ultimately asks a narrative question  – will she or won’t she find it?

All of this works for a pretty effective, compact viewing experience.

The show is also totally split along gender lines of a particular sort. It’s about weddings, particular kinds of women and the build-up to what the show presents as the most important moment of their lives. More than this, everyone is looking for the perfect dress, which often brings out the best and worst in people.

(poor, beleaguered staff…)

Maybe this is part of the reason that I don’t get it. I feel like the show provides my wife the opportunity to relive and revisit some of the emotions leading up to her own wedding and project her own emotions onto the participants on the show. Her personal experience becomes a constant reference point and place to compare with what she’s viewing.

For instance, when an overbearing grandmother attends the fittings, as occurs in this episode, she might say that I don’t understand what a vulnerable position that a potential dress wearer feels along with the exposure of being judged.

(note – this is nothing like my wife’s family)

Another constant on the show is when potential grooms show up to lend their “expertise.” At these times, she’ll look to me and say “I’m so glad that you weren’t there.”

I can’t help but agreeing. But occasionally, as with all the fashion-y shows that we watch together, I occasionally offer some terrible opinion of roucheing and other words I have never used before.

What’s interesting to me about the show is it seems to be an example of the self-generating franchise on Reality TV. Not only has it spawned a spin-off (Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta), but the cabal of TLC “stars” stop by to engage in cross-promotion. Just like that time when Michelle Duggar and the family stop by Kleinfeld’s.

Which brings me to 2 final points.

1) No matter what happens within the episode, no matter how horrible the people are to each other, and no matter how awful these people treat the staff, the emotional result of the ending is always the same.

There is always images of at least one wedding that packs an emotional wallop, and contains the show’s happy ending.

2) As we finish our lunch and the show winds down, my wife will turn to me and inevitably say something about wanting to redo our wedding all over again.

(I think that this implies a bigger budget. This doesn’t bother me.)

I wonder if other women feel the same way and whether the wedding is an event through which they compare other moments in their lives to.

This seems to be what happens with my wife, as she uses the show to negotiate her own life, happiness and scope of the wedding as a reference to the lives, happinesses and scale of the would-be brides in the show.

My theory is that all Reality TV works like this to some degree, as we measure the amount of talent, beauty, or perhaps incompetence against our own self-image. But this is definitely material for another post.

You Must Meet My Wife

She lightens my sadness,
She livens my days,
She bursts with a kind of madness
My well-ordered ways…

One thousand whims to which I give in,
Since her smallest tear turns me ashen.
I never dreamed that I could live in
So completely demented, contented a fashion.

– Steven Sondheim, “You Must Meet My Wife” from A Little Night Music

This picture is meant to be ironic...

So I realized the other day that my original intention for starting this blog was not just to put down my thoughts about TV but to try to watch TV through someone else’s viewpoint. Not only was this supposed to mean watching my wife’s shows with her and telling you what I think, but watching with someone whose thoughts and feelings are very different than mine and reporting what they think.

The blog was always meant as both a tribute to my wife and an experiment for me. Today, I’m going to try an communicate the ways in which she inspires my work more generally and this blog in particular.  I also haven’t conveyed how central her opinions, her emotions and the investments in her TV habits are to this larger project as I watch her watching stuff.

So without further ado…

Meeting My Wife

(Also meant to be ironic...)

So introductions. Obviously I’m going to say that my wife is the most amazing person I know. She’s a talented actress, she’s super-smart and more than a match for my ambitions and idiosyncrasies.

We talk about deep stuff – religion, politics, the purpose of art – what’s wrong with the world and what’s right with it, what we want to do with our lives when we grow up.  You know, the usual.

She puts up with my terrible jokes, which is more than you can ask from any partner.

My wife is also a very strong, independent woman. She’s very pragmatic, stoic and level-headed in everyday life. Which is one of the reasons that I find her reactions to TV so fascinating, as it often brings out the opposite reactions in her.

Watching With My Wife

One of my great joys in life is sharing the experience of  watching anything (plays, movies, tv) with my wife.

On our first date, we went to see a play together. Occasionally, during the performance, I would glimpse over to look at her. In her face, I could see my wife experiencing every emotion the characters projected. Not only was she emoting with them but was seemingly feeling their heartbreak on the stage. At these moments, tears ran down her face. I found out later that these reactions were not unique to this particular play, but happens when she watches anything.

This is another way of saying that she cries a lot, but she cries in all the right places.

She cries at the moments when the artist wants her to, in the parts where every fiber of their craft works toward the explicit goal of moving someone to tears. She cries when she sees people suffering on TV. She cries when she sees people overcome adversity. She cries when she sees people happy.

She feels in ways that I don’t. Things move her in different ways than me. Most of all, watching with my wife is such a pleasure because it reveals to me just how big her heart is. In my opinion, this is one of her best qualities and often I am moved simply by how much she is moved.

My Wife is the Ideal Spectator

When Oprah cries, we cry...

More than anything else, I think that this makes my wife the ideal audience member. Hopefully, this is a far cry from saying that my wife is a sucker. What I want to say is that she is the perfect person to watch while watching TV, because I think she is the ideal person that creative people had in mind when designing these shows.

Certainly this is another way of saying that she is part of the demographic that these shows are meant to appeal to, and by proxy, the kind of woman that is meant to be moved by these works.

So, when she cries watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, or Say Yes to the Dress or at the end of Modern Family it’s not simply because she’s a sucker, but because its the show’s purpose to move her and people like her.

Where we go from here…

So let’s call my first week of postings a warm-up to better and (presumably) deeper things to come. Ultimately, I want to be asking why and how these shows and movies are playing into gendered assumptions of TV viewing, and why they work so effectively. I’m hoping that this blog raises some questions about pleasures of watching TV as a couple, as an individual and as a man watching what are presumably marketed as women’s shows.

Finally, I want to try to find the in-between places, where my wife and I are moved equally by what we watch and find the moments where gendered spectatorship break down. I assume that this project is more universal than specific. That more than just my family unit watch Oprah as a family and that there is productive stuff in between where all of us can find some common ground.

The Colony: or, The show the wife won’t watch with me because it’s too scary

Okay, seriously, this show is my contender for one of the best reality series’ ever. If you haven’t caught it, or you don’t get the Discovery channel, get it on DVD or find it somewhere else.

The Colony is a riveting show produced by The Discovery Channel that is a “controlled experiment” which simulates a global catastrophe in the form of a viral outbreak. It’s also pretty frightening, and I almost expect the participants to need to fend off a full-blown zombie attack at any given moment.

Though it resembles other reality shows (people on an island, people in a house) in its basic format, The Colony takes this to a whole other level by creating a fictional world for its survivors to inhabit and forcing them to behave as if the premise were true. To add to the realism of the scenario, the inhabitants must negotiate their way in an urban wasteland, which just happens to have been conveniently provided for the producers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

That’s not all – not only do the colonists have to survive in this environment for 50 days – off the grid, without fresh food or water, increasingly paranoid about each other and exterior threats, but they must behave as if there is a real epidemic going on.

As such, the colonists begin the game in 72 hours of quarantine, if they encounter anyone else outside of their home, they need to isolate themselves until it is determined that they don’t have the virus. Also they have to scavenge for materials that can determine their survival – not just berries and food – but materials for transport, security and other things.

This is where the show gets really fascinating for me. As opposed to reality shows that pit the contestants against each other, and where personality is king, it seems as though each of these participants are selected for their impressive skills and their ability to make stuff out of nothing.

So far the colonists have:

1) Rendered rotting pig carcasses to create biodiesel fuel to power their tools, 2) Made bridges over rivers out of planks of wood, 3) built a working blacksmith forge so that they can hammer metal into different shapes (like swords, for instance)  4) made a windmill that can actually power batteries, 5) Using yeast, an old heater and some copper pipe, made ethanol!

This is in addition to the many other day-to-day things that the survivors do, like boil and filter potable drinking water, and foraging for food.

Reno and Sally build a working windmill

So, not only are the colonists extremely useful, but they’re definitely the types that you would want to have on your team in a viral outbreak.

(For future reference, should you need to survive under these circumstances you’re going to need a construction foreman, auto mechanic, artist-inventor, carpenter, logger, anatomy instructor, model and retired contractor.)

Which brings me to the scary part…

In addition to their weekly Macgyver tricks, the colonists have to survive outside threats, such as other people who come in their compound demanding their supplies and violently confronting the participants. This is really the show’s X-factor, as the producer’s have created lots of tension and drama by presenting threats that seem all too real.

Attacked by arson

If the clip works, you should be able to see that the producer’s have set a nearby house on fire, to emphasize the seriousness of the “experiment.”

Another super-scary scene came when one of the colonists was actually kidnapped by these outside marauders…

A costly ransom

Along the way, experts (scientists) in human behaviour lend their expertise during these moments of crisis, to help us understand how starvation effects people’s mental states, and how security is important to the survival in an actual viral outbreak. In this way, the show is simultaneously informative and exploitative.

The other really upsetting part about the show is that this wrecked 16 acre area is in America. The fact that this abandoned neighborhood could feasibly serve as a setting for a global catastrophe only adds another level to the already harrowing experience of watching the show. It’s not too far a stretch of the imagination to project backwards to the original inhabitants of this area who actually had to survive a catastrophe!

Final Thoughts

I know that there are definitely precedents for what this show is doing (Frontier House, Ranch House, etc..) but I feel like this “experiment” goes beyond what I’ve previously seen. The programmed threat from without is a really big difference, as is its fictionalized scenario. In some ways, it reminds me of another reality game-show, Murder in Small Town X, which worked a little bit more like a murder mystery parlor game than a reality show.

This show was also pretty complicated, charging contestants with the task of solving a Twin Peaks type murder and encountering Twin-Peaks like residents in a fictional small town, while doing their best not to be “murdered” themselves.

The common element in both is being completely terrified at what will happen next, as well as the presumed pleasure of watching people survive in pretty overwhelming circumstances. The Colony does both, making you marvel at the perseverance and know-how of the contestants, as well as their handling of really crazy circumstances.

I think I’ll leave it here for now, but would love to hear your thoughts on this or any other topics. Also, since I’m relatively new to this, I would love to get anyone’s advice on how to properly embed video clips…

Men With Blue Cue Cards: Andy Cohen, Bob Barker and Jerry Springer?

The first time I saw this guy on TV, he was running one of the now-famous (if not infamous) Real Housewives reunions. I immediately asked the wife two questions: a) who is this guy? and b) why is he being so mean to these women?

For those of you who don’t know, (I’m still trying to figure this out) Andy Cohen is the executive producer behind Bravo’s hit shows such as Top Chef and the Real Housewives franchises. He has also recently made a turn as host of the reunion shows and his own weekly program, Look What Happens: Live.

(for more explanation as to the who, The New York Times does a better job of explaining here.)

What is interesting to me about his turn as a host is just how similar his on screen role is to previous talk show hosts like Jerry Springer, game show hosts like Bob Barker, and reality tv show hosts like Jeff Probst.

Aside from each of these people carrying around ubiquitous blue cue cards with their names on them, these figures are, as my friend Eliot describes them, actually axial characters.

(note to Eliot – feel free to correct me if I’m misquoting you and mad props to you and your theory!)

In the traditional sense, an axial character is the person who the entire show centers around. They’re the actors with the most close-ups and the characters who are most often privileged with the main story (or, at the very least, who get the last credit in the opening sequence).

In his astute analysis of reality tv (what he calls the “reality-tv-show-ification of genre”) Eliot has argued that we actually watch reality tv for is its bizarre combination of game show, talk show, people in a house show, and ultimately its host, who becomes the figure that we latch onto and who we actually want watch.

So just like I Love Lucy (which centers on Lucy) or a gazillion shows which feature comedians as stars (like Gallagher! or Carrot Top – to name a few of the shows I’d like to see) we watch The Real Housewives, Survivor, The Bachelor(ette) for the host, to see what they would do and to hear their thoughts as they comment on the action.

(Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I’m still mad at Anderson Cooper, who, despite all the good he’s doing on CNN, was a much more interesting character as the host of The Mole).

Which brings me back to Andy Cohen. What strikes me is his willingness to jump in on the action, and also his snarky habit of commenting on it. This raises my original presumption of his mean-ness, even though he seems only to be channeling questions that we want to ask the real housewives, et. al. In this fashion, he seems more like a surrogate figure, but one that brings out the worst in people’s natures (which makes for great TV) rather than the better.

In this way, the shows become a high-end Springer, who is not only the anti-Oprah in so many ways, but still somehow manages to fit in his final thoughts, no matter what occurs on the stage in front of him.

On that note, a final thought about Cohen’s own show, which looks extremely cheap and made on the fly. In this way, it almost functions as the opposite of the slick production values of the various Bravo shows, perhaps revealing the schism between Bravo’s perceived production of what I will call “quality reality tv” and the reality of its small-scale production.

WWHL's cheap-looking set

In a lot of ways, Watch What Happens Live struck me as a kind of high-end Wayne’s World where people sit around in cheap looking chairs, a low-end dark wood set, and despite their stardom (or popularity) famous people visit the set and speak uncomfortably about being there, as Jerry Seinfeld recently did.

http://www.bravotv.com/watch-what-happens-live/videos/the-andy-cohen-show

(note how the first thing Jerry says in the clip is “why am I on this show?”)

Perhaps part of the appeal is still the show’s lack of slickness, possible spontaneity, and star drawing power (last night Naomi Campbell called in to talk to Teresa Guidice, the famously hot tempered NJ housewife), but more to the point, we are drawn to Cohen’s personality as the axial character and man who explains it all for us.

Until next time, take care of yourselves, and each other.

“Shut…the front…door!”: Rachel Zoe, Bravo and the professional person show

I’m curious about the wife’s enchantment with this show. Her constant refrain while watching is: “who are these people?” Mostly her comments relate to Rachel, Rodger and Brad’s flat, affectless delivery and their tendency to accentuate a crisis with by finishing every sentence with this is a total “fashion [fill in the blank].”

As opposed to other Bravo shows, particularly those with housewives in them, Rachel actually works really hard. This is not to say that other Bravo starlets don’t do anything, it’s just that the things they do (starting a recording career, beginning a fashion line, making appearances at the mall) seem less like jobs and more like incidental (and made up) trappings of the show. Case in point, NYV housewife, Countess Luann’s big “hit” “Money Can’t Buy You Class” (a personal favourite…)

Instead of these made up activities and social events, Rachel seems to attend events that are not made up, like actual fashion shows. Even more to the point, she seems to work for the people who are a part of this world.

This season, as with every other, so far as I can tell, is built around the narrative event of having to find Oscar dresses for Demi and Cameron (only referred to by their first names, of course). Along the way, Rachel argues with her husband Rodger, and frolics with her fabulous assistant Brad.

On one level, I truly appreciate what Rachel does. As one of the best stylists in her field, her celebrity clients always looks great at the end of the season as they grace the red carpet. On the other hand, Rachel’s skinny presence on screen and marital tension with husband Rodger sometimes makes for ambivalent and uncomfortable viewing.

Zoe has denied all rumors of anorexia, to the point of it becoming the B-Plot in one of last season’s episodes. This may be true, but as opposed to everyone else on the show, who are almost always pictured eating something, there is a notable absence in the show, namely Zoe’s deriving sustenance from anything other than fashion.

Now I’m not one to judge on this. I really don’t know enough to comment, but the constant topic of conversation between the wife and I as we watch is the fascination that we have while debating the “is she?” or “isn’t she?” issue.

In Tuesday’s episode, the absence of food was notable as Rodger, Brad and Rachel sat down to dinner and the men ate big bowls of pasta, while Zoe had some tea. This creates an interesting tension within the series, as do questions of Zoe’s constant headaches, fainting spells and general symptoms of overwork. Her baggy clothes (and fluffy robes) only accentuate the issue, particularly when you can see the jutting rib bones of her chest.

We also talk about the two modes of dress on the show – formal and stylish vs. fluffy hotel bathrobe…

The other thing that interests me about the show this season is the seemingly increased tension between married Rodger, Rachel and Brad as the latter two spend more time working together.

http://www.bravotv.com/the-rachel-zoe-project/season-3/videos/being-married-to-brad

Rodger’s arc this season seems to involve his dissatisfaction with the arrangement, as professed in almost every one of her interview sections.

This tension could speak to Rodger’s displacement in Zoe’s career, as he increasingly complains about his role in Zoe’s company, her workplace and her relationship with Brad.

More on all this later, but all of this seems to have coalesced in next Tuesday’s episode, which will resolve the ongoing pressure on Rachel to choose between having a baby and a career (bowing to pressure from her sister and husband) planning a big Seder dinner (where we may actually see her eat!) and coming down from her post-Oscar busy season.

More to come, including thoughts on Top Chef, Bravo in general and Andy Cohen – The New Jerry Springer?

(and as always with works in progress, etc…would love to hear your thoughts so feel free to comment)

Scott Pilgrim, Nostalgia and growing up

Okay, so if you know me, you know that I actually can’t stop talking about this movie.

I know it’s not perfect. I know it drags at the end. I know that there are a couple too many evil exes, but still, I can’t help liking it.

I can’t think of the last time that I really enjoyed watching something this much. More to the point, I find myself engaging with the film as a fan for (perhaps) the first time since Star Wars. Part of it is borne of the fact that I really enjoyed the graphic novels, which unfold more slowly and take time with the characters that the movie doesn’t have room for. There’s also the whole immersion in Toronto, which making Scott Pilgrim one of the great “city films” as far as I’m concerned.

I also really think that the movie captures something elusive and kind of true. The self-obsession of boys in their early twenties.

Part of it also relating to Scott Pilgrim and the biggest part is probably my nostalgia, as Scott and his friends drink in the same places, go to the same schools and talk about the same pop culture stuff that I remember doing in my alternative life back in Canada.

(There’s also the whole matter of living in a basement apartment, sleeping on a mattress, being poor and owning no stuff.)

So yes, I relate to this movie. Or, at least a younger version of me does. I certainly relate to the location, as it all takes place in a city I used to live in and in neighbourhoods I frequented.

Some of the similarities continue. I played bass in a terrible band called Sexual Chocolate (Scott plays bass in a terrible band named Sex Bob-Omb).

I was usually in-between jobs or under-employed, I constantly obsessed about my relationships with women, and I wasn’t always necessarily the nicest person, even though I really thought I was. Plus, I was a starving artist (a playwright? really?) who expected the world to come to him instead of making the effort to tackle it myself.

(my [terrible] plays and unfinished  films all attest to this fact, as they all deal with Gen-X slacker figures who are similar to Scott and who likely sleep on mattresses too)

For me, the graphic novel (and movie) presents that whole in-between phase of being a young, poor guy in the city and not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing with yourself. For the most part, as with many post-adolescent protagonists, this means immersing yourself in pop-culture, hanging out with your friends and going to parties.

The question of identity is also pretty important to the way the film and the story works. Scott is definitely the center of his universe. He relates to everyone as an extension of himself, in very much the same way that literature and moviedoms appealing youth protagonists – Holden Caulfield, The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock to name a few.

Both stories deal with boys growing into men, even thought they’re not quite ready to enter adulthood.

What I find almost touching about this film (and book) is that as opposed to the aforementioned protagonists, Scott not only finds that the secret to his problems was himself all along, but that this realization forces him to apologize to the people he’s wronged.

In other words, part of the reason that Scott appeals to me is that he actually grows up, gets a job, becomes responsible and owns up to his mistakes.

For me, this is different than what happens to Holden and Benjamin. They remain static, trapped in a presumably youthful state and remain fixed there in our minds for good. A favourite English teacher of mine said that  as he got older the more he would get sad for Holden Caulfield and his mixed-up adventure. In other words, Holden is trapped in snowy New York City forever, just as Benjamin’s future is uncertain, despite his last youthful act of rebellion.

Alternatively,  the last impression that we get from Scott is something altogether different. He faces his existential drama and comes out of it changed for the better and slightly more independent for having gone through the whole adventure.

Scott and Todd Face off in Toronto landmark Honest Ed's

Ultimately my personal engagement with the film has allowed me to remember my early twenties more fondly than I have in recent years. By relating to Scott, investing myself in the film’s youthful energy and slackerdom left behind, I feel like I have forgiven myself for some of my youthful mistakes.

Steve Martin’s Shopgirl is another film that makes me feel this way. To me, it’s one of the other rare films that’s not overwrought or heroic in its depiction of post-university folks growing up, but merely (and realistically) chronicles what this feels like as you transition between phases of your life.

I’ve heard that the Eclipse series has a similar effect on women (though, feel free to call me on this…). That they don’t necessarily love Jacob or Edward per se but that the series helps them revisit a time when they experienced the beginnings of teenage love, the burgeoning self-awareness and the life-and-death stakes of it all.

And perhaps, ultimately, that’s what nostalgia is all about – allowing yourself to wallow in  homesickness for a place you never really lived and the heartsickness for a person you never really were, while reconciling your past and present selves.

Post 2 – The Ground Rules, Real Housewives and the saddest show of all…

A couple of thoughts on last nights programming, plus a couple of preliminary notes.

First, the name change. As it often occurs, my wife will suggest a great idea and then I’ll misremember it. Hence the change in blog title which I believe reflects a certain “with-it-ness,” (or, at least a Sarah Palin folksy-ness) as well as a slightly more universal appeal (?)

Second, some ground rules.  As TV and media are fairly fluid and there’s so much to talk about, occasionally I may commandeer the blog to work out a couple of thoughts related to my own research, but rendered with the aforementioned folksiness – you betcha!

I’ve also promised to do my best not to reveal “the wife’s” identity, though most of you pretty much know it already. I’ll do my best not to paint her as a stereotypical figure (as often occur in blogs about other people) but to treat her and her opinions fairly.

Third, I’m hoping to post as often as possible so that the shows stay fresh in my mind and to account for the rapid movement of opinions and posts about TV and so that I’m not unduly influenced by others’ thoughts.

So, onto last night’s programming

The Real Housewives of New Jersey

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this show, which I find both repellent and amazing to watch. As far as I’m concerned, the last episode of the last season made for amazing TV, especially with the climax where Theresa threw the table.

Last night’s “Super-sized Reunion Show” offered more of the same, although last week’s episode featured Andy Cohen physically restraining Teresa from attacking Danielle.

(note – my apologies for the link view, it’s only my second day on the job – if anyone can tell me how to properly embed clips, I would be greatly appreciative!)

What is so fascinating to me is the legal background (all the stuff they can’t talk about) and their constant references to things that did not happen on camera.

In the latest episode, the strangest exchange was between Teresa, Danielle and Jacqueline, who all talked about what was and was not stated on their blogs, their replies to tweets, and their inclusion of all sorts of new media.

Teresa constantly says “read my blog!” and a pivotal moment in the episode comes as Jacqueline passes Danielle her iPod to show her that Danielle replied to a tweet from a fan who said that she wished Danielle’s daughter would commit suicide. Too complicated to explain, but also somehow reflective of our current state of media overexposure.

(this last point is the wife’s – who turned and said “who knew that we’d be talking about this technology even two years ago” but probably put it much smarter than that )

I’m not sure what to make of all of this, or the proliferation of the Housewives franchise to Washington and soon to Beverly Hills. While others have commented that the New Jersey edition reflects America in the post-recession, it doesn’t seem to me that it represents any adjustments to the new austerity, if anything, it presents the opposite.

In terms of what this means to (and for) women, what is so upsetting to me is the show’s revelry in what would seem to be terrible values. Capitalism and its indifference to the people’s lives (the housewives themselves) would seem to point to a celebration of surface values, while simultaneously reinforcing the bonds of family.

Also, the show’s emphasis on plastic surgery and botox makes for insane continuity between the shows as the characters’ botox and breast implants seems to create just one model of femininity – a false one. Even more than this, I’m not quite sure what is “Real” about any of these women anymore.

On the other hand, this makes for really amazing TV – conflict, drama, intensified story arcs and a newsworthy set of pseudo events (such as Danielle’s budding music career). Also curious is the report that the NJ housewives are somehow better representatives of Italians than those found on the Jersey Shore – another story altogether.

I will likely come back to this, and especially Andy Cohen’s role as the producer (ringmaster?) of the show, but he, Bravo, and the franchise all deserve much more weight in separate posts.

Hoarders

My first encounter with the saddest show ever. It seems to me that it presents the same problem, but with an eye to the other side of social class. In other words, it’s still about the same embrace of commodity culture, but (for lack of a better term) by the lower class.

Moreover, it seems to me that A & E’s whole strategy is to cater to the same audience as Bravo (middle class) but present them with the issues of poorer people (addicts and hoarders). In these cases the accumulation is of garbage and drugs rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars on trips, McMansions and Sweet Sixteens.

More to come, thanks for reading.