There's not a lot of Big Money to be made, nor is there a coherent culture of pride in making it (it's there, but it feels more diffuse -- just like the charts generally, there seem to be lots of smaller ways to success with fewer Big Stars). Listening to recent hip-hop, I'm struck by how out of their time most wealth boasts sound, as though they've been held over for three-plus years and are just getting first airing. The still-increasing prominence of trap-rap is a fascinating exception to this, and I'm reminded of a line on
This is in response to what I believe is Mike's first post-Obama Clap Clap post about the new FOX show "Glee," which I provide incoherent commentary on there. Read that post first; this is largely a response.
My problems with "Glee" are functional, not conceptual, which means that I need to see more episodes before passing judgment. Pilots are notoriously sketchy, jamming unnecessary exposition through in ways that keeps characters thin and telegraphs stuff that will be explored deeper and better in future episodes. (An unfortunate lag between ep 1 and ep 2 if what I'm hearing about a return in the fall is correct; seems kind of like a death knell, but we'll see.) The show is almost asking us to bring our caricature knowledge of older high school comedies (notably Election and, as Mike points out, Bring It On; I'd also throw in some Christopher Guest, at least one of whose actors appears here) to the table to sell the majority of its jokes -- overly uptight wife works at a thinly disguised Linens and Things and has an addiction to Pottery Barn (no stated jokes), butchish cheerleading coach pours herself a power shake in the middle of a convo (overly stated joke), prissy former teacher gets on medicinal marijuana which he sells to other teachers (bizarre jokes). I guess we're supposed to find the idea of these things funny, but they're not in themselves presented in a very funny way.
The adult characters are woefully uncharismatic, particularly the lead, a kind of clean-cut Matthew Broderick in Election role who seems miscast, if not terrible. Problem is that Broderick, aside from having a fascinating, fully developed character, brought an immediacy to his role in our knowledge of where he'd been -- to see the Ferris spark dulled speaks volumes that the lead adult's fresher face (he looks like an older college student who just got out of Teach for America or something) just can't and won't speak until we know him better (and I doubt it will work even then, but hey it's not like I want shows to fail or something). The OCD guidance counselor(?) is over-written and over-played, the other characters are cartoons, and not even particularly GOOD cartoons. The most character I found was in the face of the memorialized glee club teacher until 1997 whose good-natured matronly appearance at least fit a cliche schema I already had in my head.
The lead teen characters are much better, but also underwritten -- the lead guy is another Election rip-off, except that this show doesn't understand the complexities of high school hierarchy like that one did. The jocks in Election are for the most part dumb but agreeable to the extent that someone doesn't get in their way. These jocks go out of their way to terrorize, putting a wheelchair-bound glee clubber in a porta potty to tip over, tossing very odd effeminate character Kurt (who sounds like he's undergoing estrogen therapy for a sex change operation) into a dumpster but respecting his wish to preserve his Marc Jacobs jacket. It wants to have its characters both ways -- both 21st century savvy AND completely beholden to creaky old high school stereotypes that were played out at least by 80's sex comedies if not...y'know, since forever.
More interesting in Mike's critique is this:
A key moment in the pilot is where Finn confronts his fellow football players and gives a great little speech which starts like this: "We're all losers. Everyone in this school. Hell, everyone in this town. Out of all the kids that graduate from this school, maybe half will graduate college and two will leave the state to do it." This is true, but it would have been unthinkable to express such a thing earlier in the decade. It would have violated the ethos of total committment that dominated the 00s--one which produced some great results for pop, if not so much for government. While the glee club is maybe just another competitive activity, the show is clear that it's a pretty stupid one, and all the characters except Rachel seem to know that. They do it, then, because they like it, because they get something out of it. It's smaller than cheerleading but bigger than just being a quiet nerd trying not to be noticed. I like that, even without the football player, the characters aren't just a clique to themselves, but are individuals from different circumstances doing something for the pleasure of it. What the show endorses, then, is not victory or social stasis but mastery.
This was an excellent line that felt out of character (Finn is so stupid that he doesn't even know that women don't have prostates, but he's well-versed in collegiate statistics of area kids?), but it's the spirit that gives me hope not necessarily for this show but for this idea of a moving on point, a major cultural breaking point that I think many of us in the obsessive pop-talk sphere have been searching for, sometimes fruitfully but usually not, for several years. It's the mini-bling of television, a post-downturn vision of big budget production that reflects its time, and perhaps provides some commentary, without feeling like a stale rehashing OR uncharted territory. As I said, as of right now it's mediocre, but it's a new kind of mediocre, and its mediocrities have everything to do with the particularities of its execution and just about nothing to do with the central premise, which I think Mike nails in his analysis.
I've been racking my brain for shows that absolutely could not have been made before this Now Moment, or rather in a moment that was not, let's say (somewhat arbitrarily), before the cultural shifts of a second Bush term. Not just post-9/11, but that moment where hope and enthusiasm (for many) were crushed by a feeling of the need for some significant soul-searching, perhaps political realignment (the continued ballooning of the progressive blogosphere), and at a more everyday level, changes in how one might even conceive of a future, let alone plan for it. And those things have changed even more since then, but entertainment that feels "true" to this sort of Now does seem rare.
Examples I can think of include:
*"Battlestar Galactica": I'll post about more later; those things are hard to write!
*"Arrested Development": despite Mike's suggestion that it's post-Seinfeld, I would argue that that before its actual airing, that sort of "aristocracy with its legs cut off" vision is more in line with, say, Latin American politics of a country like Argentina than the U.S. (it's like the American sitcom of Lucrecia Martel's La Cienaga) -- it was even, quite literally, about the imminent collapse of the housing bubble, as we stopped to consider whether or not these homes were actually going to be worth anything, and saw what happens to the wealthy whose money are tied up in rapidly deteriorating systems of what basically amounts to constant money laundering.
*"How I Met Your Mother": a traditional sitcom in the "Friends" mold that was unthinkable, even for the "lower-class" "Friends" rip-offs from the good ("Drew Carey") to the awful ("Townies"...remember "Townies"??) in the mid-90s. Two structural differences: (1) an extended set of "series arc" narrative expectations from the set-up of the show (he will eventually reveal Something Big to us, even if individual episodes are more random -- it's "leading somewhere," not struggling year to year to justify its existence) and (2) a more modern conception of courtship that starts to pull marriage down from thirtysomething to late-twentysomething, which is a small but significant shift. It's not NORMAL in this show to consider 40-year-olds who just haven't found the right person; there's a sense of importance in some kind of traditional family unit that "Friends" developed very late, mostly due to the fact that they'd run out of other ideas and twists, and that "Seinfeld," much to its credit, never adopted at all. As far as content goes, more on "HIMYM" later, we're still doing ketchup on the series, but it's pretty awesome.
*"Reno 9-11": typical of the (re?)professionalism of improv comedy in the 00's that followed a bottoming out of I-M-P-R-O-V in the late 90's/early 00's with the new "Whose Line." I would argue that "Reno" is less influential but perhaps more makeshift-canonically important than the U.S. "Office" (though not the UK "Office") in both the comparatively radical nature of its subject matter (blue collar workers whose personalities, not simple caricature types, have been long since set) and form (collapses distinction between sketch comedy and coherent episode narrative). And it has a lot of "Glee"'s own archetypes: the post-Beyonce diva, who in "Glee" actually more closely resembles Jennifer Hudson's character in Dreamgirls, Effie; more complex "butch woman" whose sexuality is kind of beside the point; ditto for "gay man" (this is one thing that "Glee" royally botches in the pilot).
There are also writing-on-the-wall shows, notably "Freaks and Geeks," which may well be the most counter-intuitively influential television show of the first half of the decade, and "Daria," which seems to lampoon the early 00's with a jaded eye backward from after the early 00's, but without a kind of cautious optimism that characterizes present work. It's a quintessential 90's show, and yet its skewering of incipient 00's culture is so astute that it resonates with me now, like a faint signal from c. 1997, anticipating that things could get much much worse, and fuck, some day you're actually going to be nostalgic for this moment, so watch your back. I kind of want to include "Malcolm in the Middle" in this category, but don't think I will.
If anyone can think of any others, feel free to float yer theories.
What we're seeing now, I think, is the fall-out of a few of these zeitgeists, and a deeper ingrained feeling of the dawn of a new era (for better or worse) in the DNA of these shows. It may be clearer in television than it is in movies -- which feel particularly dead zone in recent months, maybe years -- or in music, where the industry itself is in too much disarray to understand any smaller narratives coherently. Industrially speaking, television is probably the one media industry that can comfortably fly below the radar of economic upheaval without clinging frantically to its various channels of funding (movies just take too much damn capital up front) or diffusing beyond linear, maybe monocultural?, coherence (the music industry just takes too LITTLE capital up front).
I think the first shift I noticed was probably in children's television: there's a LOT of "High School Musical" -- the version that was as cool for teenagers as it was for their little brothers and sisters -- in "Glee," but there's also a lot of mini-bling in other children's programming. Unlike the hyper-rich parallel universes of HSM and "Hannah Montana," shows like "iCarly" and "True Jackson VP" and "Sonny with a Chance" throw legitimately middle-class characters into slightly more upscale situations. But in all three cases, the emphasis is on their demonstrable abilities over assumed abilities ("Sonny with a Chance" vs. "Hannah Montana") and their rags-to-riches success through unconvential, sometimes Internet-based, popularity mobility (as opposed to social or economic mobility, which are kind of beside the point for "SwaC" and "iCarly" from what I've seen). These shows more often rely on "doing your best" over "achieving your wildest dreams." This is a positive development in children's entertainment, and I'm not sure how much is luck of the draw (of Demi Lovato's own appeal as a post-Kelly Clarkson everywoman to Miley Cyrus's "we will launch you now!" trajectory) and how much genuinely reflects a cultural shift.
Then there's "Glee," which reminds me most not of Bring It On or Election (though there's a LOT of Election in it) but Sugar & Spice, underrated and on the whole merely good but darkly funny and genuinely smart in a distinctively 00's sorta way (for one thing, I can't imagine a subplot based on a girl's puppy crush on Conan O'Brien before the 00's). It was a bit like old stereotypes refusing to click nicely back into their sanctioned positions due to no real fault of the creators -- subtle cultural shifts altering slightly how character details could be filled in, how narratives could resolve, how dialogue could be written, in just so many little ways that it honestly felt like a whole new bag.
And I guess that's my hope and fear for "Glee" in a nutshell -- that the creators aren't so committed to the high school hierarchy cookie cutters that all of the little details that they get right almost unconsciously will eventually be smoothed out in favor of what's already safe. You can see the potential for staleness in the stereotypes that don't work (the cruel jock extras, the prissy former glee club teacher, the meathead coaches), but you can also see potential in the ways that the main characters do work, the contemporary particularities of their situations, which sometimes are painfully forced (sez the [white] lead Rachel: "my two dads, one white and one black, are gay and mixed their sperm, so I don't know which is the real father yuk yuk!"), may lead to something that can transcend the cookie cutter. But I doubt it -- most great shows don't need the cookie cutter, even as a set of training wheels.
One that does spring to mind as a show that seems to have at least found its legs is "Parks and Recreation," which absolutely could not have happened before Now -- esp. considering one of the main characters is a longtime government appointee whose sole goal is to dismantle the government, because he doesn't believe in it. That this character is so natural in our culture that it's an obvious source of parody is telling, though this guy has (appropriately) probably been there since Reagan. I'm hoping Mike writes on this one -- he probably likes it more than I do, but I think it's dealing in many of the Big Ideas he's sketching out in that piece.