Arrested Development: Talking About Television in the Digital Age.

Well, the early results are in: Arrested Development has been a huge hit that has also totally decimated the value of Netflix stock. The Associated Press (here) has made the unsubstantiated claim that the recent, significant drop in Netflix ‘s stock is directly linked to the mixed critical reception of the new season of Arrested Development.  This piece at the AV Club (and I’m sure elsewhere too) points out that the new episodes were actually a huge boon, making up 36% of Netflix traffic on Sunday, the debut of the episodes. But the AP has engaged in a logical fallacy, that two events happening simultaneously must therefore be directly related; the kind of logic that lead Homer Simpson to buy Lisa’s tiger-proof rock.

lucille

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There are other forces seemingly at work in the Netflix stock tumble, but the misreading by the AP seems rooted in a problem many of us are having with new models of television distribution–how to judge success and failure. For film, it’s a bit easier; the opening box office weekend tells us a lot about the success of a film, especially if we are focusing on mainstream releases with major studio distribution. If a film flops its first weekend out, odds are that it won’t be a success. Studios then look to international markets to recoup the profits for such films–this is the narrative one can find for almost any Hollywood blockbuster that underperforms. Television used to be (and to some extent still is) a genre that grows in value over time.  In the 90s, Seinfeld was given more than one stay of execution by executives who saw its possibilities and ended up being one of the most successful and profitable sitcoms of all time.  If the show had been judged by its first few episodes, it would be seen only as a failure.  But AD (and House of Cards and others) are now dropping whole seasons at once, which leads to the false assumption that they can only be judged by their immediacy. And though AD’s second life is in large part the result of people binging on the show through DVDs and streaming, creator Mitchell Hurwitz has encouraged audiences not to binge on the show and to let it unfold for them more organically.  Hurwitz wants us to slow down to appreciate the new season, while the AP judges its success and its consequences for Netflix as a company based on 24 hours worth of critical and audience response. How are we to proceed?

Beyond the critical reception one finds in the media, there are also the informal networks of criticism–posting about the show on Facebook, watching with friends, discussing episodes with colleagues, etc.  For me, this has lead to some interesting consequences. On Sunday evening a group of friends and I gathered to watch the new episodes.  One wanted to cap our viewing at three episodes maximum. Another wanted to pull an all-nighter.  We ended up watching four, a compromise borne out as much out of our disappointment as it was out of diplomacy. By the end of episode two, everyone looked about awkwardly, hesitant to admit how unhappy we were with those opening episodes and pouring ourselves Lucille-glasses of white wine to bolster our reserves. My boyfriend even decamped for the bar, uninterested in watching anymore.  On Facebook, people mainly registered polite disappointment and general observations about the quality of the humor, the aging of the cast, etc. Some friends had finished the show while others had only watched a couple of episodes.  This kept the conversation tentative and spoiler free.

I’m now about two-thirds of the way through the season and I agree with some of the critical response that says the show grows over time. Certain jokes do become funnier and as the intricacies of the plot reveal themselves and characters interact a bit more, I’m having a better time.  I have a lot more to say about the show; the structure is well worth discussing at length, as is the frequent reliance on some downright racist humor (sorry Asian Americans!).  I want to save that until I have had a chance to watch all the way through and maybe even re-watch. Admittedly, I wouldn’t give very many shows such leniency. I doubt many House of Cards viewers did (even with its estimable pedigree) and I can’t imagine anyone felt that way with Hemlock Grove (with its far less estimable pedigree). So the hesitation I see among my friends to say too much too soon seems to be the wiser path for us, particularly with a show as deserving of patience as AD. The digital age provides us levels of instant gratification that are great and I wouldn’t want to go back to a time where I didn’t have streaming options, downloadability, or my DVR.  But the immediacy of delivery shouldn’t rush our critical faculties–I’m not particularly interested in those reviews produced by people who watched the show in one day so that they could meet a publishing deadline.  Instead, that immediacy allows us to watch shows more conveniently and then potentially rewatch them, returning to moments we liked or found interesting. That seems to be the greatest benefit of our new television age.

Amazing (and Exhaustive) “Arrested Develoment” Link

No matter how lovely the weather on Memorial Day I will most likely be spending it indoors, watching Arrested Development on Netflix.  I will no doubt want to write about it but I honestly just can’t wait to ravenously consume it.  In the meantime, NRP has produced a lovely, thorough map of the running jokes on AD.  You can find it here.

I don’t know what mad genius produced this, but it’s exquisite.

Binging, Purging, and Daytime TV’s Reanimated Corpses

And there they were, standing cheek to jowl, two old foes reunited on the battlefield.

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That is Victoria Lord Gordon Riley Burke Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks and Dorian Cramer Lord…aw fuck it–Viki and Dorian.  On April 29th, One Life to Live and All My Children–formerly of ABC–returned to television, kind of.  After being booted from daytime TV back in 2011, both shows were resuscitated by Prospect Park Productions as web series broadcast via Hulu.  As a younger man I watched both shows religiously, but ensconced in my 30s and gainfully employed, I can only manage to keep company with my first love, One Life to Live.

OLTL began in 1968, meaning the show lasted 43 years on network television, garnering audiences of 8+ million during its height, and down to less than two million as it slouched towards cancellation.  The longevity of most soap operas rarely gets the notice rightly deserved.  Though we are down to only four on network TV (the zenith being 11), many of those–Guiding Light, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, and others–have existed literally for decades, outliving not only other shows, but actors, genres, and distribution models. For as much as they have been consistently mocked, their longevity proved how special the soap opera could be.  Does their return via internet television say the same?

Television in general is in murky territory these days.  Like the music industry, television hasn’t quite found a way to monetize itself in the digital age and the fragmentation produced by Youtube, Netflix, and proliferating cable networks has produced a lot of hand-wringing among executives and plenty of thought pieces by media commentators.  Though variety certainly hasn’t helped soap operas (no show is exempt from the perils of audience fragmentation) the writing was on the wall years before the internet came to play such a powerful role in the television landscape.  Second tier soaps like Loving and Another World were canceled in the 1990s.  Attempts to replace those shows (The City, Port Charles, Sunset Beach, and Passions) never quite caught on, because the audience was already heading to the exit. Or rather, heading to work. The most obvious culprit in the death of the soap opera was gender equity and the economic stagnation of the middle and working classes. Women could no longer dawdle about the house Betty Draper style but had both the opportunity and necessity to go to work in order to maintain a decent standard of living.

So while a large portion of the audience went off to work, another portion could simply fulfill its television needs elsewhere. Some people mourn the days when tens of millions of Americans sat down at the same time every week to watch I Love Lucy or Dallas. On the opposite end of the spectrum,  Entertainment Weekly recently ran a column about those shows that are best consumed in “binge” form, such as Lost or Arrested Development.  The idea of watching large chunks of a television show in one sitting is new, but has caught on, and Netflix (and perhaps even Amazon) are betting that many viewers prefer binging on TV. The next season of Arrested Development (following its unceremonious cancellation by Fox in 2003) will be dumped like a bucket of chum into the shark tank of Netflix subscribers in one day; I myself will spend much of Memorial Day taking part in the eating frenzy.

But soap operas were perhaps the only genre (game and talk shows excepted) that provided both the structure of ritualized television watching with the pleasure of binge consumption.  You could watch five hours (five!) of any given soap opera (except the half hour ones) in a given week.  That’s almost as many hours of entertainment in one week as you will get from the recent Arrested Development season; in one month, you get more episodes than an entire season of Man Men.  And in a year you would spend more hours in Llanview (or Port Charles, or Salem) than you would in the entirety of the time spent on the island in Lost.  Though that often produced quality-control issues, including flubbed lines and cheaper production values, it did provide the requisite dopamine levels that TV consumption can produce.

That binging, however, was structured.  Sure, you might be one of those few people in the 80s and 90s capable of programming your VCR so that you could watch your soap later in the day, but most people who watched sat down at a specific time, structuring the afternoon’s errands and activities around their favorite soap operas.  That structure was itself a large part of the pleasure: eating lunch during Days of Our Lives, coming home from school right as General Hospital started, doing laundry during Guiding Light, etc.  Those rituals and activities also took the edge off of the show’s weaker elements, the sometimes bad acting and wobbly sets, for example.  Let’s be honest, even the most committed soap opera fan is aware of the genre’s weak spots, which are part of the pleasure.  Though I have been captivated by some exceptional story telling on daytime TV and some quality performances, soaps are defined for both their fans and detractors by some of the clunkier and campier elements.  But those flaws were part of the charm, and while you whiled away at your homework or housework, such elements could be quietly ignored until the show’s energy amped up.

But what will viewers do now that they can watch these two shows whenever they want? Now that the ritual has been replaced by the convenience of television on demand, will people still want to turn in and will viewing habits change the nature of these shows? The evidence suggests it already has.  Recently ,the producers of AMC and OLTL have revised their scheduling of the shows. The shows began their online run with 4 half-hour episodes a week, with a Friday recap episode (already down from the five hour long episodes in their original broadcast run). Viewers are not watching on a regular time table and finding it difficult to keep up with all the episodes. As a result, production company Prospect Park will now air each show twice a week, with a combined recap episode on Friday. This means only one hour of new content a week for each show, which makes them almost indistinguishable from prime-time serials like Scandal and Nashville (both of which are rebroadcast on Hulu as well).  In that regard, it seems difficult to imagine how these shows are going to compete in the media marketplace.  Without the excessive time commitments that matched their excessive narratives, without the ritual pleasures of daily viewing, and without the production budget found on other shows, how many people will consistently tune in once the pleasure of seeing these shows brought back from the dead has passed?

As I said earlier, I have followed One Life to Live since I was a teenager.  I watched it on summer vacations and after school, I watched it in college before and after classes, I tuned in on days off in my adult life.  The sight of Viki and Dorian fighting again (this time over Dorian disgraced senate career and CIA coverups!) felt like a return home for me as a viewer.  And given the show’s inauspicious end-run on ABC, it felt good to see these characters back in action. But nostalgia can’t be the engine for a television show for very long and I can’t imagine too many new viewers flocking to the show.  I can’t imagine an audience twenty years from now telling stories about sitting with their mothers watching One Life to Live on a laptop.  When Guiding Light transitioned from radio to television in 1952 it ran for 15 minutes.  As the years progressed it became 30 minutes, and then a full hour in 1977. OLTL also started at 30 minutes, and only became an hour-long show once it proved its durability.  I suspect what we are witnessing now is the reversal of this process, of an entire genre winding itself backward,  shrinking to the size of a pin as old televisions used to do when you turned them off.  Many of the conventions of the soap opera have translated to prime time television and other genres; what the daytime serial offers to viewers in the 21st century still seems unclear to me.

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and W. Kamau Bell’s “Totally Biased”

The central conundrum of the Fox media empire continues. The corporation that can create venal reality television while publishing The Wall Street Journal, produce Fox News’s “War on Christmas” with Family Guy‘s “I Need a Jew” song, has now rent that  Murdochian conundrum to its deepest division yet: the corporation that has so fouly racialized Obama’s politics is also bringing us the most progressive comedy on television: W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased, which returned to the airwaves last week.  I want to grab everyone I know, shake them vigorously, and demand they watch the show with a fervor I haven’t experienced since Enlightenment.

But I want to step back first, to two shows that can perhaps be seen as precursors to Totally Biased: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and specifically their hosts, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  The heat of these shows has cooled over the years from their mid-aughts heyday, when the right wing railed that 20-somethings only got their news from these comedy shows.  Now Stewart and Colbert have nestled comfortably into the mainstream, as lower-rated Johnny Carsons sending us off to bed comfortably.  They both deliver liberal dissatisfaction in different registers, Stewart with a kind of Jack Lemmonesque exhaustion at our ugly world and Stephen Colbert with a bloviating Bill O’Reilly persona that he has sustained–almost remarkably–for over 8 years.

Both shows have a lot of recommend–in particular, their interview segments.  While their brand of humor has gotten commonplace and a bit dull for me, both Colbert and Stewart, in different ways, have elevated the television interview, Stewart’s recent thoughtful conversation with Al Gore as a prime example.  But both shows also ring hollow, and more so as the episodes and years pass on.  Stewart and Colbert spend the overwhelming bulk of their time criticizing the mainstream media, pointing out foibles, errors, and idiocies across the cable and network news spectrum.  This can be hilarious, and also serves a kind of watch-dog quality to the mainstream news media.  Stewart’s iteration of The Daily Show (he became host in 1999) grew into this role following the debacle of the 2000 election; Colbert debuted in 2005 with O’Reilly and other Fox News demagogues in his sites.  And in the early aughts, with Fox News on the ascendent and cable news in general spiraling out of control, both men felt like a breath of fresh air. But the longer both remain on television, the less urgent their comedy seems.  Fox’s schtick has become predictable, and CNN’s desperate pandering in the face of lower ratings is more pathetic than especially risible.  Yet each night, Colbert and Stewart rack up the faux pas of the media landscape, rolling their eyes and sighing at the collective stupidity on display.

If both men offered their audiences something beyond that eye-rolling perhaps the humor wouldn’t seem so empty and easy.  But over the years Colbert and Stewart have shown a lack of critical insight into their own projects.  The Daily Show‘s “woman problem” of 2010 revealed this, as Stewart essentially claimed that his show is liberal, and therefore can’t be sexist.  The show seems to have taken no real opportunity to think about the legitimate charge of sexism, always keeping one token female correspondent around and trotting out  creator Lynn Winstead whenever the sexism charge emerges (The Daily Show might look to Rachel Maddow, Melissa Harris-Perry, Erin Burnett, and other women on cable news and take some inspiration). But the most obvious example of both show’s political laziness was their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”  Ostensibly, the  dual rallies (Stewart’s sincerity operating in contrast to Colbert’s arch irony) were meant to diffuse the extremism of American political debate, where marginal and extreme  voices have presumably taken over.  I suppose that’s a worthy goal, if one’s understanding of politics comes exclusively from cable news outlets.  Essentially, what Stewart and Colbert called for was a more fruitful media conversation about  American politics.  This is hardly the material of a rally, and held in contrast to rallies about the Keystone Pipeline and immigration reform, “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” looks petty indeed.  And to me, it reveals the fundamental pettiness of both shows’ political vision.  Stewart and Colbert seem animated by the nostalgia one sees in the film Good Night and Good Luck, where the media used to be a bulwark against potential abuses of power.  Stewart in particular is a prophet/clown, dreaming with his audience of a time when someone like Edward R. Murrow will come to save us.  His chummy relationship with the (admittedly hilarious) Brian Williams reflects this problem; these handsome, natty newscasters simply want a liberal consensus, which is just a bedtime story.

But W. Kamau Bell moves the conversation forward, and that is what makes the show so special to me. Totally Biased borrows from the Stewart/Colbert template that has become a commonplace of half-hour comedies. His opening segment is a commentary on the week’s news events, with Bell offering jokes and commentaries along with news footage and images.  But Bell elevates the conversation with his trenchant ability to discuss race and the media in a thoughtful way.  Last week’s episode involved Bell walking through Harlem with a nondescript white guy, offering people of color on the street the chance to ask the man anything about white people they wanted to.  The responses were hilarious at times, while also being humane and very smart.  And Bell worked his magic effectively, allowing those on the street to speak their peace and as a result, reveal some thoughtful and trenchant comments about race to emerge (think of it as the exact opposite of Jay Leno’s smug “Jaywalking” routines).  This man-on-the-street bit reveals Bell’s great gift as a host; that he can be both tremendously smart and funny while allowing a lot of space for others to have their say.  There is no Colbert-like monologue here.

Last week’s episode revealed this quality in two other distinct moments.  Bell’s guest was MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry.  During the course of the interview Bell played a clip of himself on Perry’s weekend morning show, in which she took him to task for a glib comment about black women he made.  In essence, Bell said something dumb, was rightly chastised for it by Harris-Perry, and then invited her onto his show to allow her to do it again and thank her for her criticism!  It wasn’t a shame-faced mea culpa, but a moment of tremendous honesty in which Bell willingly gave up a portion of his authority on his own show, and which lead to a charming and smart interview.  The final major bit of the evening involved comedian Janine Brito reflecting on the coming out of Jason Collins, and the media’s neglect of his lesbian foremothers.  Bell’s writing crew seems to be remarkably diverse (in contrast to The Daily Show and Colbert Report) and they regularly contribute to the show on camera as well as off.  What this all adds up to is a host who graciously and gracefully shares his modest weekly half hour with a diverse crew of queers, people of color, and other progressive misfits.  Bell’s show doesn’t fantasize about the old days of a media consensus; Totally Biased attempts to create a safe space where diverse people listen to one another, laugh, and occasionally hug it out.

Sissy That Walk, Jason Collins: Life Lessons from Charles Nelson Reilly

The coming out of NBA player Jason Collins has scratched a long-standing itch among professional sports in the United States.  For the past several years, pundits in the media have speculated on the possibility of the first “out” professional athlete in a major American team sport.  The NHL has even been setting the stage for its once or future queen, recently teaming up with the You Can Play Project, a group that combats homophobia in professional sports.   And though some figures like ESPN’s Chris Broussard have used the opportunity to remind the public of Christianity’s ostensible condemnation of homosexuality, the overall consensus among athletes and the public has been supportive and respectful.

I have had serious issues with the way this conversation has played out prior to Collin’s recent interview with Sports Illustrated.  First, it has ignored or elided both past figures (like Martina Navratilova in tennis) and present (like the WNBA draftee Brittany Briner), revealing the professional sporting world’s lack of interest in women and women’s sports.  Secondly, pundits have been clamoring for a heroic figure–a gay Jackie Robinson–who would break the pro sports world’s gay glass ceiling.  The problem with that fantasy is that the burden is placed on the gay person (usually seen as a man) who would overcome the homophobia of those around him.  There has been little or no discussion of how structurally homophobia is built into sports, from the earliest days of little league to the very public homophobia of men like Broussard or baseball’s Ozzie Guillen.  Just as white people produce racism, heterosexuals produce homophobia, and though it is great to celebrate the bravery of Collins (or Billie Jean King or any other trailblazer), those heroic narratives tend to ignore how complicit a large group of heterosexual people are in the production of the closet that Jason Collins came out of.

The dream of the gay professional athlete (beyond its sexism and blindness to structural homophobia) also reveals a more specific dream; the dream of a butch gay man.  There have been LGBT people out and proud in all walks of life for some time now.  Though it makes sense that people hope cultural institutions like the NBA or MLB would have a publicly gay figure, as these sports play such a pivotal role in the cultural imagination, the other side of this dream is to have a man who looks and acts like any normative male, but just happens to be gay.  When another sissy actor, another interior designer with a reality TV show, or another lesbian professional athlete comes out, we shrug.  These people are mere confirmations of our understanding of homosexuality–sissies, fairies, bull dkyes all.  Where can we find a gay man who exudes a confident masculinity without a whiff of the queen’s queer mannerisms or the leering eyes of a faggot?  A gay professional athlete allows a lot of people–gay and straight–to breathe a sigh of relief about all of those sissy behaviors that haunt gay men.

This is not to belittle Collins or his tremendous act of bravery.  Collins has spoken eloquently about all those who have come before him (including Navratilova and Briner) and wears the number 98 on his Jersey to memorialize the death of Matthew Shepard.  Collins has fashioned himself as a spokesperson for gay rights and the larger gay community he is a part of  within the uncertain realm of the NBA.  And a handsome gay black Christian male who is also a professional basketball player broadens our understanding of what gay means in really special ways. The criticisms I have is toward the public conversation predicated on the willful unknowingness of the straight community to the gay world and that community’s dream to have a gay man who looks just like them.

All of this is a long segue in praise of the sissy, and one sissy in particular: Charles Nelson Reilly.

CNR

For those who don’t know him, Charles Nelson Reilly began his career on the stage (the original Hello Dolly!) but became perhaps most famous for his regular appearances on 1970s games shows like $10,000 Pyramid,and best of all, Match Game.  Here Reilly played himself–a flamboyant, sarcastic queen who always looked on the world with a jaundiced but absurd eye.  I spent many years in high school and college watching Reilly on Match Game reruns on GSN.  I was captivated by him–by his flamboyance, his humor, his silliness, his boldly patterned shirts.  Though Reilly was never quite “out,” he certainly wasn’t in.  In this regard he shared a lot in common with fellow game show seat warmer Paul Lynde.  But I always preferred Reilly, who was  more humane and more generous, than the vicious (but hilarious) Lynde.  Being a queen seemed to make Lynde a bit bitter, but Reilly sashayed across the television with a smile and a wink to the audience.  And both in first run and reruns, Reilly brought gay flamboyance into the average American living room, teaching his audience the cadences and content of the gay male sensibility.  Being a closeted gay kid in the Midwest, Reilly provided me with an outlet for my sexuality that wasn’t the tragic narrative of the closet (or the dangers of the world Shepard’s death taught me), but based on survival by humor.  Being the only gay man in the room (as Reilly was on Match Game) he taught me how to carve out a niche for myself, and how to survive the straight world not by blending in, but by standing out.

Watching Reilly’s surprisingly touching one-man show (filmed as The Life of Reilly), one sees that his sexuality cost him.  Despite his training as an actor and early stage success, larger career success eluded Reilly; he recounts being told by a television executive early in his career that he was too queer for television.  Reilly couldn’t do what Rock Hudson could, live as a gay man while playing straight for an oblivious audience.  And so he took what work he could get.  If you were to ask Reilly if he was happy with his career you might have heard a note of sadness–surely he wanted more from being an actor than to trade double entrendres with Match Game‘s ghoulish host, Gene Rayburn. But that sissy provided me with a lot of laughs and a lot of comfort during my own confused queer emergence.

So I again say kudos to Jason Collins–I’m glad to know that he’s playing for my team.  And my hope is that his presence–and the other future gay athletes who will continue to emerge onto the scene–signals a broadening of the gay community; that we will not retreat to the safe, normative world of male professional sports and leave all those troubled weirdos behind.  It’s not easy being Jason Collins, or Martina Navratilova or Charles Nelson Reilly and the best world will have space for all of them and others.