Television

Blood and Guts and Fluff

How torture scenes are dumbing down TV

(Flickr/Creative Commons)
One of the reasons Game of Thrones quickly overcame my aversion to medieval fantasy stories was its fresh approach to storytelling. From the diversity of characters to the emphasis on the voices of those of diminished status, the show lays waste to some clichés of television. Which is all the more reason that I was disappointed this past Sunday when the show resorted to what has become the most tiresome trope on television: the use of torture scenes to create tension. I’ve really hit a limit this time, and would like to ask the world of TV writers to try to go a year---longer, if possible---without raising the stakes by chaining one character down as another comes up with elaborately sophisticated ways to inflict pain. It’s a shame, too, because one show that has a right to plenty of torture scenes is Game of Thrones . It has a medieval setting, after all, so torture makes as much sense as heads on stakes and a lack of electricity. Indeed, the writers’ truly inventive torture---...

What Veep Captured about Washington

A scene from Veep.
The Washington Post has a feature in its Style section called "Hey, Isn't That...?" which reports on celebrity sightings in the District. It isn't a gossip column like you'd find in a paper in New York; it's just brief, breathless accounts of how an actual celebrity was right here in our town. Like, Susan Sarandon was spotted at a restaurant in Georgetown! Pinch me! It shows just how provincial D.C. can be. Which is why people here seem very taken with Veep , the HBO program that premiered last night. As Tom Carson pointed out last week, there are some things the show gets wrong, like the fact that people treat the vice president without much deference. And there are some things it gets right, like the look of offices on Capitol Hill (incredibly cramped, with people having to step over each other to get to their desks; see the picture that accompanies this post). And of course, some characteristics and scenarios are exaggerated in unrealistic ways—that's comedy. But the show's two...

There's No Politics Like Show Politics

You'll have a better time watching Veep if you don't expect the show to tell you much about the real or even "real" Washington.

(AP Photo/Matt Sayles, file)
Brought to us by The Thick of It and In The Loop creator Armando Ianucci and starring Julia-Louis Dreyfus as ditzy, vainglorious Vice President Selina Meyer, Veep , which premieres Sunday, is HBO's bid to break TV's long-standing jinx on shows about politics. And ... jinx, you ask? Hey, bub, what about The West Wing ? That's just it. The hat trick of The West Wing—which was at its worst and least convincing, you may recall, when obliged to gingerly dramatize Jed Bartlet's re-election campaign—was that it wasn't about politics at all. Certainly not in that greasy-pole way Disraeli told us about and that Robert A. Caro, whatever his frighteningly humorless virtues, fails to enjoy. With nary a sleazy careerist in sight (power for power's sake, ugh) The West Wing was about governance, something altogether loftier and more selfless in Aaron Sorkin's civics-infatuated imagination. Despite its argot-happy, hallway-trotting D.C. trappings, the series was basically a high-minded medical drama...

Don't Blame Feminism for Your Bad Sex Life

Why is the new HBO show Girls treated as symbolic of its generation and not other shows?

Courtesy of HBO
I didn’t get to watch the premiere of HBO’s new series Girls before witnessing the amazing amount of hype that managed to create a backlash before the show even aired. Having now watched it, I really wish I could have gone back in time and done so without reading so much about what the show says about TV, women, Brooklyn, education, the economy, and sex. I think I would have liked it more being free to watch it as I do shows about a group of male characters—a show about unique people doing stuff and being relatable because they are individuals. This is not to say that the pressure put on Girls as an emissary of single women has been all bad. It’s opened up discussions about the lack of racial diversity on television in a way that shows about white men seem to resist. But overall, the burden placed on this single show has been frustrating, especially when it comes to representations of sex. That one character has soulless, delusional sex with a guy who doesn’t share her expectations...

Approaching Peak Bitch on Television

TV is overrun with unflattering portrayals of women—where's the uproar?

AP Photo
The new TV series GCB —originally titled Good Christian Bitches after the book of the same name—premiered last month on ABC. Don’t Trust the B–– in Apt. 23 will premiere on the same network April 11. Can you imagine a network using “the N word” in a show title? Don’t trust the N-word in Apt. 23 . That won’t happen, but between 1998 and 2007, the use of the word “bitch,” on television tripled , from 431 uses on 103 prime-time episodes in 1998 to 1, 277 uses on 685 shows in 2007. I don’t have the figures for 2012, but I’d be willing to bet that this latest development means our culture is even more comfortable with the term. If you’re about to tell me that bitch is a power term, take a look at what Merriam Webster has to say about it. Definition of BITCH 1 : the female of the dog or some other carnivorous mammals 2 a : a lewd or immoral woman b : a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman —sometimes used as a generalized term of abuse 3 : something that is extremely difficult,...

Stacked Decks

The Titanic’s surprisingly timely centenary

Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images
Is it callous to call the Titanic ’s sinking everybody’s favorite disaster? No doubt, but you know what I mean. Considering how oodles of the tragic minutiae no buff can do without bump up against the climax’s unknowns, April 15, 1912, is like an ideal cross between the assassination of JFK and the Alamo. The unprovoked attack on a blameless iceberg by the pride of the White Star Line is far from the worst maritime disaster on record. It’s dwarfed in loss of life by the 1945 torpedoing of the Nazi leisure tub turned refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff . Only three years after the Titanic ’s demise, the Lusitania ’s sinking in 1915 had more historical consequence, rallying neutral America against the Huns and dangling the temptation of playing world policeman. For resonance and romance, though, there’s no contest. On a bitterly cold night 100 years ago, modern civilization didn’t just say goodbye to more than 1,500 boosters. It gained an industry. Now that the centenary is here, Titanic--...

Peter Dinklage Is a Baller

The producers of Game of Thrones succeed in writing a disabled character who is more than his disability.

(AP Photo/Dan Steinberg)
Confession: I only recently started watching Game of Thrones . Despite all the hype from people whose taste I trust, the swords-and-dragons thing just doesn’t appeal to me, even as much as horror or sci-fi. I must now admit I was wrong in my prejudice. The show’s deft characterization and careful plotting have overcome my native hostility to anything with a Ren Faire vibe. Of particular interest is the character of Tyrion Lannister, brother of the deceitful queen and a Renaissance man stuck in a medieval world. He’s also one of those rare characters in Hollywood: someone who has a disability but is not defined by it. Thus is the way of our new Golden Age of television, that a seemingly old-fashioned fantasy series would take a progressive approach to portraying disability that activists have been demanding for decades. Disabled actors struggle to find work in an environment that prizes the able-bodied, the young, the beautiful, and the impossibly thin. There are disabled characters to...

When Network Anchors Stop Being Polite ... And Start Getting Real

Peter Finch in "Network"
Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing , among other things, is coming out with a new HBO series called The Newsroom . What can we expect? If Sorkin's oeuvre is any indication, we can expect lots of rapid-fire dialogue delivered while people are walking purposefully down hallways, surprisingly cogent explanations of issues, and, above all, thorny moral quandaries tackled with bold truth-telling. Let's take a look at the trailer: This looks to me to be in some ways a news media version of Sorkin's The American President and, frankly, like a news media version of most films about politicians. I wrote about this a while back: "There's usually a scene in which the candidate begins giving a speech, stops in the middle and says, 'This is ridiculous,' to the horror of his handlers and the confusion of the crowd, then tosses away his prepared remarks and speaks from the heart. And it works—everyone is captivated, and the candidate achieves success, at least temporarily." In this case, it'...

Why Politicos Love "Game of Thrones"

The show satisfies the teenage cynic in all of us who thinks only sex, ambition, and revenge matter at the top.

(Helen Sloan/HBO)
I can't help wondering how many politicos—and long-suffering political spouses, too—are secretly hooked on HBO's sexy, hugely entertaining Game of Thrones, whose very lively second season kicks off Sunday. Not because they can identify, mind you. It's just hard not to imagine them envying their fantasy equivalents in George R.R. Martin's brutally uninhibited realm. In the Seven Kingdoms, contrition is as unknown as push-polling or George Will. Shouting "Seize him!" in a tone of icy hauteur is the conventional way of indicating you feel affronted. The preferred method of character assassination is lopping an opponent's head off, and the only sex scandal likely to trigger much outrage would be an episode without any. Honestly, can't you picture Newt and Callista humming "Over the Rainbow" between fistfuls of popcorn? Or Bill and Hillary warmly texting "If only" from two different continents? Best of all, there are no issues, no thorny policy questions, indeed no ideology as modern-day...

Mad 21st Century Men

The world of Mad Men still feels familiar despite the show's long hiatus.

(AP Photo/Rex Features)
I’ll have to work this in quickly before it becomes a cliché, but despite the show's title, female characters have eclipsed male characters in audience sympathies on Mad Men. Identity is the show’s primary concern, putting the rapidly changing gender roles of the '60s at the center of its plot developments. And, the face showrunner Matthew Weiner gave post-'60s America is a female one. One thing seems certain to pass, despite the show’s unpredictability: Peggy Olson will eventually eclipse Don Draper, her mentor. Feminist viewers take delight in watching Peggy and some of the other female characters endure and overcome sexist treatment in no small part because we don’t have to put up with that kind of overt misogyny anymore. We cringe when a male character tells Joan to her face that he thinks of her as a “madam from a Shanghai whorehouse” who is “walking around like you’re trying to get raped.” Then we get to revel when Peggy stands up to the offender, and feel gratitude for the real...

Six Seasons and a Movie!

Community finally comes back on the air tonight to finish up its third season, and it's kind of a big deal for the show's rabid fans.

(Flickr/reway2007)
Community returns tonight after NBC unceremoniously put it on hiatus halfway through its third season, and it's a television event you would have had a hard time not knowing about if you spend any time online. While few expected the low-rated cult hit to see a fourth season, fans at least felt they needed closure, and far more for this show than for other single-camera critical darlings like it, such as 30 Rock or possibly even Arrested Development . Why? Because despite its well-deserved reputation for kooky, abstract humor, Community has some of the best-developed characters on television. More importantly, they’re characters who have evolved and changed as people, giving the audience a deep need to see how our beloved study group at Greendale Community College finally ends up. Ever since Arrested Development ushered in the era of single-camera sitcoms that get more critical ink than viewers, the form has tried to distinguish itself from the traditional three-camera soundstage...

A Homeric D'oh

The Simpsons celebrates a television milestone but where has all the edge gone?

(Flickr/wallyg)
Watching The Simpson s now is like watching the movie version of the Broadway show based on John Waters’ classic Hairspray . The form is the same, but the spirit just isn’t there. When the 500th episode of the show aired Sunday night, I couldn’t be bothered to care. The main problem is that the show jumped the shark more than a decade ago and, while it still manages to pop off plenty of laugh lines, it lacks the satirical heart that made it truly groundbreaking when it made its debut 23 years ago. The Simpsons first aired when I was in the seventh grade, and like much of the country, I fell in love with the characters and embraced it with the same enthusiasm that I had shown for other, more wholesome programs like The Cosby Show . Certainly, The Simpsons felt rougher around the edges, darker, and definitely more controversial than previous sitcoms. Homer frequently leapt on Bart and choked him in rage. Marge was stupid, and Lisa misunderstood. Still, the show adhered to the sitcom...

The Clinton Experience

A new PBS documentary puts Bill Clinton’s flawed presidency into measured perspective.

(Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)
H ow can you make the story of Bill Clinton and his presidency read like anything other than a rollicking escapade? Easy: Turn it into a PBS documentary. Clinton , which debuts tonight, is a two-part, nearly four-hour installment of the American Experience series that at first seems doomed to flatten the story of the 42nd president—a man of endless appetites and unquenchable ambition who rose from a troubled home in small-town Arkansas to become one of the most talented and disappointing political figures we’ve known. The polite, muted quality of the PBS documentary form makes a strange fit for its penis-brained, mercurial, and brilliant subject—the string music, the hushed narration of Campbell Scott, the all-too-steady chronological march. In the end, though, the form redeems itself, at least partly. Clinton is well worth watching. Its stately predictability gives us a chance to look back at the mad Clinton years, take a breath, and make some small sense of its craziness. There is,...

Is Aspirin a Contraceptive?

Nope. He was saying: Ladies, keep your legs shut. 

Honestly, the last couple of weeks, I've started to wonder: Is the Republican Party committed to a full-employment program for pundits focused on gender and sexuality? Every day, my jaw and the floor have had yet another encounter. Yesterday there was Foster Friess , the Santorum backer, saying that "aspirin between the knees" prevented pregnancy. I don't know about you, but I had to check to find out what the heck he was talking about . Was he saying you can use aspirin as a spermicide? As a post-coital douche? Nope. Apparently it was an old joke, before my time (and I'm old), that if a woman tried to hold an aspirin between her knees, she couldn't open her legs wide enough for some boy to get in. Wow. My mother just told me—this must have been back in, oh, 1973—that for people who needed it, Planned Parenthood could be very helpful. Turned out that I was just realizing I didn't need it, but I appreciated her vote of support. And somehow I never got to say anything about Fox...

Comedian In Chief

Public Policy Polling has been a boon for political journalists over the past few years, partially for their extensive and accurate numbers—they were the only ones noting the rise of Rick Santorum in Minnesota last week—but also for their sense of humor. In addition to surveying the major political races, PPP tackles the all-important topics such as which NFL player is more popular than all of the presidential candidates (Tim Tebow of course ) or how Stephen Colbert would perform in the South Carolina Republican primary. When the latter question produced a 5 percent result for Colbert—putting the comedian ahead of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman—he rolled out a joke candidacy that culminated with a joint rally with Herman Cain in Charleston. Now it seems that PPP has found another celebrity who registers a solid base of support. Rosanne Barr, who recently announced that she would be seeking the nomination of the Green Party, drew 6 percent of the vote when PPP polled the national...

Pages