Joho the Blog » tv

February 13, 2017

Ricky Gervais's "Life on the Road": Review

[NO SPOILERS YET] Ricky Gervais’ new TV movie, Life on the Road, now on Netflix, suffers from the sort of mortifying errors committed by its protagonist, David Brent, the manager of The Office with whom the movie catches us up.

[TINY SPOILERS THAT WON’T SPOIL ANYTHING] The movie is amusing in some of the main ways the original The Office was. David Brent is an unself-knowing narcissist surrounded by people who see through him. It lacks the utterly charming office romance between Tim and Dawn (Jim and Pam in the US version). It lacks any other villain than Brent, unlike Gareth in the original (Dwight in the US version). It lacks the satire of office life, offering instead a satire of self-funded, doomed rock tour by an unknown, pudgy, middle-aged man. That’s not a thing, so you can’t really satirize it.

Still, Gervais is great as Brent, having honed uncomfortable self-presentation to an art, complete with a squealing giggle that alerts us to his inability to be ashamed of himself. And Gervais sings surprisingly well.

[SPOILERS] But then it ends suddenly with Brent being accepted by his band, by the office where he’s been working as a bathroom-supply salesperson, and by a woman. Nothing prepares us for this except that it’s the end of the movie and Gervais wants to give his character some peace and dignity. It’s some extraordinarily sloppy writing.

Worse, the ending seems way too close to what Gervais himself seems to want. Like Brent, he wants to be taken seriously as a musician and singer, except that Gervais’s songs are self-knowingly bad, in the style of Spinal Tap except racist. Still, you leave the movie surprised that he’s that good a singer and that the songs are quite good as comic songs. Brent-Gervais has achieved his goal.

Likewise, you leave thinking that Gervais has given us a happy ending because he, Gervais, wants to be liked, just as Brent does. It’s not the angry fuck-the-hicks sort of attitude Gervais exhibited during and immediately after The Office.

And you leave thinking that, like Brent, Gervais really wants to carry the show solely on his shoulders. The Office was an ensemble performance with some fantastic acting by Martin Freeman (!) as Tim and Lucy Davis as Dawn, as well as by Gervais. Life on the Road only cares about one character, as if Gervais wanted to prove he could do it all by his lonesome. But he can’t.

Ricky Gervais pulls his punches in this, not for the first time. Let Ricky be Ricky. Or, more exactly, Let Ricky be David.

3 Comments »

August 31, 2016

Socrates in a Raincoat

In 1974, the prestigious scholarly journal TV Guide published my original research that suggested that the inspector in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was modeled on Socrates. I’m still pretty sure that’s right, and an actual scholarly article came out a few years later making the same case, by people who actually read Russian ‘n’ stuff.

Around the time that I came up with this hypothesis, the creators of the show Columbo had acknowledged that their main character was also modeled on Socrates. I put one and one together and …

Click on the image to go to a scan of that 1974 article.

Socrates in a Raincoat scan

1 Comment »

April 25, 2015

Our new plummy acting

I have to say that I’m enjoying our new hammy acting style. But hammy isn’t the right word for it, since it implies a lack of craft. So I’ll call it plummy. (The fact that I’m a kosher vegetarian has nothing to do with this.) Our new plummy actors are fully in control of what they’re doing. They’re on purpose pushing it a little further than realness, knowing that we know that they’re doing so.

Leo Dicaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is not hammy or plummy.

Leo in Wolf of Wall Street is plummy.

Had he gone for a Brando-like realism, Wolf would have been as depressing as businesspeople-are-shallow movies like 1959’s What Makes Sammy Run?

Every character in American Horror Story is plummy. Most of the actors on Justified are plummy. Well, the male actors. They get to have way more fun than almost all the women. (The exception: Margo Martindale who played Megs, the Big Bad in 2011. And guess what? She won an Emmy for it.)

Everyone on Fargo, both the TV show and the movie.

Everyone on Veep. which has has gotten ferociously funny this season.

Tony and the Henchmen on The Sopranos. Not so much Carmela or Dr. Melfi, although Nancy Marchand‘s Mom the Destroyer certainly counts.

I’m not sure that Breaking Bad is a great example of this, but Better Call Saul is…again, for the men more than the women, with the exception of Julie Ann Emery‘s Betsy Kettleman.

I’m not saying this is an unprecedented style of acting. In some ways it’s similar to the old days when stars were visible through the roles they played: You could see Cary Grant behind the lines he suavely delivered, and you could see Marilyn Monroe through her bombshell comedienne roles. Or at least you thought you could.

But the current style of acting is different. These actors are as invisible in their roles as Brando’s generation was. But what they’re making of themselves on screen isn’t intended to be mistaken for real life captured by well-placed hidden cameras. They are clearly playing roles. They’re just playing the hell out of them.

So why the men more than the women? As everyone who has watched TV in the past five years has pointed out, the new great series have been dominated by stories of men struggling with their flaws. The women too often are there to “ground” the characters around them. They are often phenomenal actors — Edie Falcon? Get out of town! — but are just not allowed to push beyond the natural. I’m sure it’s all just a coincidence though.

 


Mad Men isn’t on this list because I think the acting aims for naturalism, perhaps because we already see the distance between the roles people play within their world and who they might be if they were less constrained by the 1950s and 1960s social norms.

1 Comment »

September 26, 2013

TV’s best season ever?

I didn’t watch the Emmy’s, but I still didn’t like ’em. It’s not that I disagree with who got the Emmys (although I do). Rather, this TV year is a disproof of the Emmy’s premise. It has been arguably TV’s greatest year, too big for picking single favorites.

Much of this has to do with the flowering of the “100-hour narrative,” as Steven Johnson calls it. Stir in the way the Internet and the rise of DVRs and on-demand TV have returned control of our interest to us, and you have an amazing year of TV. I’m not even going to be able to list all the obviously great shows: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones. Even flawed shows had their perfections: the plummy acting on House of Cards, the delicious noir-ness of Justified, the incredible acting turns on Dexter. Yes, Dexter. Jennifer Carpenter was consistently amazing on that show as Dexter’s sister, and Michael C. Hall did a great job with a character who at heart was 85% gimmick. So You Think You Can Dance had an astounding year. (Try to ignore the audience sounds, and the Jenna Elfman sounds, for that matter. BTW, I’m also quite fond of this…and it’s not even his best work.) Even The Office had a great last season.

Now you’re going to want to be annoyed with me because I left out shows you thought were great. Good! You’re making my point. This was an amazing year for TV.

And from this set — much larger than these examples — you’re going to pick one best actor or one best drama? Give it up, Emmys. Give it up.

Comments Off on TV’s best season ever?

September 21, 2013

Breaking Bad’s growth, followed by some VERY WELL-MARKED speculative SPOILERS

NO SPOILERS until the big red notice.

Actually, I take it back: BROAD THEMATIC SPOILERS AHEAD. No plot points, however.

Breaking Bad has become one of my favorite shows ever. Yours too, probably. But it didn’t start that way for me.

The first season was driven by its premise: what would happen if a kindly chemistry teacher had to cook meth to cover his medical bills? (Ok, so that spoiled the first episode for you. Really?) That season was a series of set pieces, the sort of things you’d imagine if you took that as your premise.

The next two seasons were driven (it seemed to me) by the escalating plot and by letting Walter grow into a role, as if the writers said, “What would happen if Walt became a Tony Montana, or a Tony Soprano, except really really smart?”

But in the last two seasons, the show became a living thing, driven not by premise, role, or plot. It has become emergent. And this is enabling it to explore themes — e.g., What is the nature of evil? Is there justice? Can we know ourselves? — without severing those themes from the people who are living through them.

[Still no spoilers] This is how the great dramas have worked. I’m reluctant to make the comparison, but there is no separating the character of King Lear, Macbeth, or Huckleberry Finn from the themes their works explore. Because the themes are worked through by highly specific people, it becomes impossible to decide exactly what the general lessons of the text are, which tells us something about the nature of morality.[1] I like what Emma Smith says in her wonderful podcast lectures on Shakespeare: His plays unsettle questions.

Breaking Bad has become truly unsettling, and not just because of the violence or even because we can see ourselves in all of the characters. It is unsettling because it is pursuing themes through fully realized people in a world with no simple rules.


[1] I am here echoing a line of thought pursued variously by Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, Iris Murdoch, and others, often focusing on Jane Austen. E.g., Philosopher’s Beard, Rose Woodhouse responds, Gilbert Ryle pdf


How Breaking Bad won’t end [SPOILERS about the story so far!!!]

SPOILERS about the story so far!!!

SPOILERS about the story so far!!!

So, here’s how I think the show will end, where “I think” should be read as “I know I’m wrong.”

The most recent episode, Ozymandias, was one of the best hours of TV ever. But one thing bothered me about it: Gomie. We see his body in the dirt, but not his face. The episode didn’t spend a second on the death of the only (almost) unsullied Good Guy in the series.

Now, maybe that’s the point. But it felt wrong. So here’s certainly how the next two episodes won’t go (a.k.a, proof that I am not Vince Gilligan).

I do think Walt has bottomed out and has begun the turn. He’s done the thing that even he has defined as the worst possible: turning Jesse over for a slow death, after tormenting him with how easily Walt could have saved the love of Jesse’s life. (I will accept the argument that ever since Walt poisoned the kid, he’s been running in circles at the bottom of the moral barrel.) But Holly’s “Ma ma ma” (wow, that kid can act!) has made him see that he doesn’t have a family and doesn’t deserve a family. So, he begins to do the best thing he can for his family, which is to pretend to be as evil as he actually is by lying about it having been all his fault, which of course it was. (Genius scene.)

In the final two episodes, I think Walt continues to try to turn things around as best he can. I expect no more rank evil from him. But this show is better than most about showing the consequences of our actions. So, how about this:

This Sunday’s episode begins with Gomez’s family coming to grips with his death. The DEA tells them Walter White was the killer. They’re heartbroken.

Walt comes back from the Bad Guy Protection Service in order to try to set some things right with his family. But just as he is about to take the ricin himself, Ms. Gomez shows up with a gun, fires … misses … and kills Skyler. (Maybe Walt Jr. instead, but I’m not made of stone.) Fade out to twangy Breaking Bad music.

If anything like this happens, you all owe me ONE MILLION DOLLARS.

2 Comments »

February 6, 2011

The Eras of Late Night Memory Test

I’m fairly good at associating the U.S. presidents of my lifetime with the decades in which they were in office. But, I find myself unhinged in time when it comes to the late night talkshow hosts. I am constantly surprised upon hearing, say, how long Leno has been on.

You too? Let’s find out. Here’s a quiz. (All answers authenticated by the experts at Wikipedia.)

Year Steve Allen started The Tonight Show.

Year Jack Paar took over.

Start and end years of Johnny Carson’s hosting of The Tonight Show.

When did Carson move the show from NY to Hollywood?.

What year did the Tomorrow Show (which came on after the Tonight Show) start?

During what years did the Dick Cavett Show run on ABC as a late night show?

What year did Late Night with Letterman start?

Whom did Letterman replace? That is, who had been the host of the Tomorrow Show?

Who was host of The Tonight Show during most of the years that The Arsenio Hall Show was on?

Who was President during the year that Jay Leno first took over The Tonight Show?

When did Conan O’Brien take over Letterman’s Late Night?

What year did Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show begin?

Extra Credit

What road served as a bizarre euphemism for “penis,” expressing a ritualized fear of castration, on Carson’s Tonight Show ?

What object did Ed Ames accidentally turn into a surrogate penis, resulting in the longest laugh in Tonight Show history?

Do we sense a disturbingly Freudian pattern here?

Who played the non-endearing but frequent guest on the Tonight Show who went by the name “Aunt Blabby”?

What game show host had a late night talk show on a major network for a season?

What did Merv Griffin create that is probably known by the most people?

Name the funniest sidekick on any late night talk show?

Have you ever seen a complete episode of Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show?

3 Comments »

May 19, 2009

“The Daily Show”: a fanboy’s notes from the audience

Our thoughtful and inventive children gave us tickets to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” for Chanukah. Yesterday was the day.

We had an easy ride from Boston to NYC on the MegaBus, which was clean and on time. But, although they promised free wifi, it was actually wifi-free once we left Boston. (Word order makes such a difference!) Nevertheless, for $15 each way per person, it’s hard to muster a good head of complaint.

We stayed at the Blakely Hotel, which was excellent, especially since they let us put four in a room. The rate included a continental breakfast. Put a few of those together on a plate and you’ve got yourself a breakfast.

We spent the morning and early afternoon walking around lower Manhattan, then subwayed up to the Museum of Natural History — oh those bones still amaze, plus, unlike today’s fancy-dancy science centers, you can actually learn stuff there — and then walked through Central Park to the Daily Show studios on 11th Ave., between 51st and 52nd.

When you get the tickets (an email), you’re told that the line starts to form at 3:30. So, some of us got there at 2:30. Sure enough, there were ten people ahead of us already. At 5:15, they actually let you into the building. So, it’s a looong time on line, or, as some of you say, in line. While you are waiting, you are read a long proclamation of restrictions: No large bags, no weapons, no drugs, no food, no gum. All phones off. Be prepared to go through the metal detector. Show your drivers license. (No one under 18 is allowed in.) No twittering or blogging, especially since your electronic devices have to be switched off. No flash photos. Don’t ask Jon to hug you, kiss you, sign autographs, or “anything else creepy.” There are bathrooms downstairs, but once they let you in, they will not let you out.

Once we seated, there was another hour of waiting, much of it with punkish rock music blaring, not quite loudly enough to drown out the 18 year olds behind us who thought they were very witty indeed. After a while, the warm-up comedian came out. No set jokes, just audience interaction. The audience seemed to love him. He was a little too much of a humiliate-the-audience sort of guy for my taste, but I’m old and easily made to squirm.

Then Jon Stewart came out and took questions. Because the show was running late — during rehearsals they discovered some of the material, “how you say, sucked,” JS explained, and it had to be rewritten — he only took four or five questions, which he used for riffing. When someone responded that it was his first time in the city, JS explained why NYC “is a city that works” compared to DC, which irrationally has four “Eighth Streets,” and therefore is a “shithole.” (As you might imagine, it was way funnier in JS’s hands). Some kid started to ask whether he should go to the funeral of his best-friend’s fiance’s dad, and JS cut him off and said, “Yes! You go to the funeral” even though you don’t know the dead guy, because your best friend asked you to. And you try not to make the funeral all about you. It was moral-stance-as-humor, which we love JS for (and, I suppose, some hate him for).

Anyway, JS’s warm-up was great. He’s smart, funny, and a mensch, which is why we came down from Boston to see him.

The show was pretty good, but you can judge for yourself here. I loved the opening segment, about Obama at Notre Dame. The Wyatt Cenac at-desk interview was pretty funny, but I am not his biggest fan; our kids loved it.

While waiting, we had speculated about who the guest would be. Might it be Will Ferrell, who was in town for SNL and has a movie opening? Might it be Joss Whedon, simply because we love him? How about Dick Cheney, and if so, would it be appropriate for me to yell “War criminal!” from the audience? As it turned out, the guest was Indianapolis 500 driver Sarah Fisher.

By the way, throughout the taping, it was odd to hear JS swear. I think it actually works better with the bleeps; the swear are jarring. At least until we get used to them.

At the end, Stephen Colbert came on the monitor and they chit-chatted. It went on for an unusually long time, and it was only after JS said something like, “Ok, let’s do this,” that we realized that they were really just chit-chatting; the official, on-air promo started after that. It was actually pretty charming. When Colbert said what he’d done that weekend, it took JS’s prompting to get him to say that not only had he received an honorary degree, the university named a building after his father, who had been a provost (or something) there; Colbert’s reticence to brag was, of course, at odds with his persona.

Then it was over. We walked to 9th Ave, twittered for vegetarian restaurant suggestions, and ended up having a terrific meal at Zen Palate. Then, onto the MegaBush for a 2AM arrival.

Was it worth doing? Absolutely. We all love the show. If anything, we admire JS more than ever. It’s a long wait, and you are merely a prop for the show, but there Jon Stewart was, right in front of us! Being all Jon Stewart-y!

Our one regret: At the very beginning, JS made some comment about something weird happening in the audience. We always wonder what he’s going on when he makes these audiences references. But we couldn’t see what weird thing had happened! Nooooo! [Tags: ]

7 Comments »

April 17, 2009

[ugc3] Understanding evolving online behavior

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Over-emphasizing small points. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are hereby warned.

John Horrigan of Pew Internet and American Life, gives a “non-Koolaid” presentation. He says that about 12% of Internet users have a blog. The percentage of people doing some form of content sharing is not increasing much at all. The demographics says that 18-24 do the most sharing, and then it goes down in pretty much a straight line. The change over time is not distributed evenly across age groups. Younger adults are turning away from the 6 core UGC behaviors, the 24-35s are increasing. The rest: not much change.

But people are increasingly going to social networkingIf UGC is migrating to rules-based environments, is it a good bargain? On the one hand, good governance can build sustainable mechanisms. OTOH, bad governance is a risk, so you want an open Internet.

Q: A decrease in activity among younger folk? Because they were so heavily involved initially?
John: They’re going to social networking sites instead of maintaining their own sites. But UGC is still an important activity to them.

Q: The changing behaviors as people age and how that will effect UGC?
John: Impossible to answer because we don’t know how the tech will change.


Mainak Mazumdar of The Nieslen Company begins by looking at blogging topics. It’s quite diverse he says. Next: size. Wikipedia has many more topics than Britannica. Also, social networking is very big: Member communities are #4 on most visited lists, after search, portals, and software manufacturers. #5 is email. Social media is big everywhere. (Biggest: 80% of Brazil. 67% in US.) The US is showing comparatively slower growth in “active reach of member communities.” Time spent in CGM has been increasing. So is the time spent on social networking. 35-49 years are the fastest growing audience for social networking sites. Teen consumption of SNS is going down, because they’re going more and more mobile. Mobile will be huge. TV will be big. People are watching more TV. Big media companies are doing well. “Becoming a mother is a dramatic inflectin point and drives women to the Web in search of advice and a desire to connect with others in her shoes” (from the slide).

Is the Net a game-changer for research companies? He compares it to scanner data in the 90s and online surveys in 1990s. In 2000s, perhaps [perhaps??] social networking will once again change the game. Reasons to think the Net is a game-changer overall [i.e., exceptionalism] : Pervasive, sticky, generational.

Q: Is TV watching growing on all screens or just on the living room screen?
Mainak: Time spent watching TV content on a TV.

Q: Maybe SNS have surpassed email because email was used to listserves to serve the social function.
Mainak: We’re talking about how long you spend in Outlook + Web mail. We install monitors that report on how long you spend in each application.

Russ Neuman: Be careful of projecting out from the current tech. It can be disrupted easily.

Q: Older people are entering SNSs. I call them “parents.” To what extent will that change what started out as a youth movement? Is the move to mobile a move out of the SNS as they become mom and dad’s spots? [Oprah is on twitter.]
A: Yes. Some younger teens are going straight to mobile and circumventing the Internet.


Eszter Hargittai talks about the role of skill in Internet use. Yes, young people use digital media and spend a lot of time online, but it’s true that they engage in lots of online activities or that they’re particularly savvy about the Net and Web tools. So, the idea of “digital natives” is often misguided.

She’s particularly interested in the skills people have and need. Her methodology: Paper and pencil surveys to avoid biasing towards those comfortable with using Web tools. 1,060 first year students at U of Illinois. Most of the data comes from 2007, although she has some pre-pub data from 2009. The question is: What explains variation in skill? Gender, education and income predict skill. “The Web offers lots of opportunities but those who can take advantage of them are those who are already privileged.”

This has an effect on how we intervene to equalize matters. You can’t change socio-economic status. And it turns out that motivation doesn’t seem to make much of an effect. You can only be motivated to do something that you already know is a possibility. She shows new data, not ready for blogging, that show that very small percentages of users have actually created content, voted on reviews, edited Wikipedia pages, etc. The number of teenagers who have heard of Twitter is quite low. [Sorry for the lack of numbers. I’m not sure I’m supposed to be reporting even these trends.]

Mainstream media remain strong. Eszter points to the media story about Facebook users having lower grades. Eszter looked at the study and finds it to be of poor quality. Yet it got huge mainstream play. Eszter tweeted about it. She blogged about it. The tweet led to a co-authored paper. Even so, the mainstream probably won’t care, and most of the tweets are still simply retweeting the bad data. The Net is a huge opportunity, but it’s not evenly distributed.

Q: A study found that people online are lonely. It was picked up by the media. The researcher revised to say that it’s the other way around. It wasn’t picked up. The media pick up on the dystopic.

Q: Your data reflects my experience with my students. They don’t blog, they don’t tweet. There’s a class component to this.
Eszter: We measure socio-economic status. Why does it correlate? We’re exploring this. We now ask about parental support of technology use, rules at home about tech use, etc. So far we’re finding (tentatively!) that lower-educated parents tend to have more rules for their kids.

Q: What happens when there’s universal wireline connection?
Eszter: As the tech changes, the skill sets change. The privileged stay ahead, according to my 8 years of studies.

Q: What skills should we be teaching?
A: Complicated. Crucial issue: The evaluation of the credibility of sources. There’s an extreme amount of trust in search engines. That’s one place we need to do more work. And librarians are highly relevant here.

Q: How do people use the Net to learn informally, e.g., WebMD?
Eszter: There are lots of ways and types to do this. But, first you need to know what’s on the Web. You need good search skills, good credibility-evaluation skills.


Cliff Lampe talks about how Mich State U students use Facebook. He presents a study just completed yesterday, so the data isn’t yet perfect. 97% of his sample are FB users (although Cliff expresses some discomfort with this number). Mean average of 441 friends; median = 381. Ninety percent of these they consider to be “actual” friends. 73% only accept friend requests from people they know in real life. Most spend just a little time (under 30mins) at FB per day. About half lets their friends (but not everyone in their network) to see everything in their profile. Almost everyone puts a photo of themselves up. Vast majority have a photo album. About a third think their parents are looking at their page. Overall they think they’re posting for their college and high school friends.

He talks about Everything2.com, a user-generated encyclopedia/compendium that is 11 years old. Why have people exited? Research shows they left because other sites came along that do the same thing better. Also, changes in life circumstances. Also, conflict with administration of the site. There’s a corporitization of some of the UGC sites. He also has looked into why new users don’t stick: They don’t glom onto the norms of the site.

Q: Are reasons for exiting a negative network effect? More than 150 and the network deteriorates?
Cliff: We see that in Usenet. But not so much at Facebook where you’re just dealing with your friends.

Q: Any sites that have tried to drive away new users?
Cliff: Metafilter has a bit of that. Slashdot has a “earn your bullshit” tagline.

Q: Are your students alone or with others when they are online? Are they aware of the technology?
Cliff: The rise of the netbook has had an effect. Most of my students experience social media as a group activity. But a lot of them are not that savvy. They generally don’t know how Wikipedia operates. [Tags: ]

2 Comments »

April 12, 2009

Onion parody game more satisfying than Oliver Stone’s combined work

Last night I watched two things on TV.

First, I caught up with some of The Onion’s news clips. One was a report about a video game — “Close Range — that consists of nothing but shooting people in the face. Although the “news” item wasn’t The Onion at its hilarious best, it was at least brief.

Then we watched Oliver Stone’s “W.”

When will I learn? Stone continues to be the worst major director of his generation. Perhaps we can quantify this by saying that he’s the worst Academy Award-winning director in my lifetime. That’s not to say that everything about every movie he makes is awful. But it doesn’t matter, for all of those good moments put together are washed away by the mighty river of awfulness that goes by the name of “Alexander” [My review and followup]. So, yes, “W” has some ok moments. Well, actually it doesn’t. It has a good vocal impersonation of Bush, and the humorous revelation that Richard Dreyfuss actually sort of looks like Cheney. But otherwise it’s made out of 100% cliche and cardboard. It also has two more of Stone’s signature qualities: It goes on too long (it should have stopped when Bush wins the presidency) and it uses embarrassingly failed tropes that Stone thinks are arty. (In “W,” he cuts to Bush alone in a baseball field, as if in a dream. Or something.)

My conclusion: The four minutes parody news report from The Onion, of average quality, is far superior to all of Oliver Stone’s work put together. Especially if you were to put all that Stonage together and actually watch it.

PS: The Onion lets you play “Close Range” for free.

[Tags: ]

Comments Off on Onion parody game more satisfying than Oliver Stone’s combined work