“I’m fat. That’s not lost on us…Everyone on TV’s 78 and a half pounds, so we have to address it.” -Billy Gardell
We’ve had a lot of conversations recently about how men are represented in pop culture these days, so I’ve been spending some of my time at the Television Critics Association asking some questions about new male characters that will form a series of posts over the next couple of days.
Shonda Rhimes’ new show Scandal stars a women: Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a fictional version of Washington, DC fixer Judy Smith (she represented Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy’s family), who is an executive producer on the show. But it’s also about that woman’s relationship with a powerful man, in fact, the powerful man. Olivia’s former boss is the president of the United States, and apparently he’s a single man, who isn’t quite ready to let her go even though she’s returned to private practice. In real life, it’s impossible to imagine a president of the United States who isn’t married. It’s difficult to believe that a man who had never been married or a single divorced man would be able to get over questions around his personal life, though a widower might manage it. But I asked Rhimes if she thought that despite that conception, Americans long for a sexier vision of the president.
” I don’t know if America wants a sexier president” in the real world, she said. “I know when I was working on the show, it was delightful to have a sexier president, to imagine the president as a man as well as a leader of the free world.” She noted later that she hoped the show wouldn’t be pigeon-holed, noting, “I don’t think this is a show about relationships.”
It’s a dichotomy that raises some interesting issues. I don’t know that we’re always very good at letting men express yearning or desire in popular culture, even though we’re at a place where we’re getting more comfortable watching women objectify men on-screen, and presenting men to be objectified by women in the audience. I wonder if it has something to do with a dynamic we see play out repeatedly in American politics, where we constantly downgrade a politician’s power (particularly the president) any time he compromises or doesn’t get everything he wants. Of course, we accept the inevitability of compromise and disappointment in ordinary people’s lives. But it’s hard to imagine someone being both a forceful chief executive and not getting the girl, or getting the girl and then getting dumped. It’s why action stars never have interesting romances: the only outcomes are success, the hero leaving the girl, or the girl dying through the machinations of the villain.
In a jaw-dropping panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Sex and the City and 2 Broke Girls creator and producer Michael Patrick King doubled down his defense of the rampant racial and ethnic stereotypes in 2 Broke Girls, suggesting that they would not change even in response to notes from the network that suggested “dimensionalizing” the non-white characters in the supporting cast.
“Nina likes to say we’re an equal opportunity offender…I personally am thrilled with everything we’re doing. I’m happy with the growth. I feel we’re growing. I think there’s room to grow. I’m thrilled with the arena, with CBS, who knows what a big, bold joke means,” he told an audience of critics, many of whom have argued that the show’s signal weakness is its heavy reliance on obvious racial humor. “I don’t find it offensive, any of this. I find it comic to take everybody down…Being a comedy writer gives you permission to be an outsider and poke fun at what people think of other people.”
King defended the jokes about Matthew Moy’s diner manager Han Lee, saying “I like the fact that he’s an immigrant. I like the fact that he’s trying to fit into America. I like the fact that in the last 3 episodes we haven’t made an Asian character, we’ve only made short jokes.”
He also said that he thought the show was an authentic representation of the relationships between people of different races and backgrounds in gentrifying New York neighborhoods.
“I feel that it is broad and brash and very current. It takes place in Williamsburg, NY,” he said. “It is a complete mashup of young, irreverent hipsters, old-school people, different nationalities, different ethnic backgrounds. And what our show represents is that mashup of smart girls and a wide range of characters. Nina [Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment] likes to say we’re an equal opportunity offender. I like to say that the big story about race on our show is so many are represented. The cast is incredibly multi-ethnic, including the regulars and the guest stars. We sort of represent what New York used to be, and still is, a melting pot.”
King did acknowledge that the show would continue to develop supporting characters of color like Garrett Morris’s Earl, who he said got a more substantial storyline in an upcoming episode. And he suggested that while his obligation was to expand the two main characters (who he said had their origins in stereotypes as well) first, he “didn’t think the [supporting] characters were one note. I thought they were the first note.”
But it was an undeniably tense session, with King at one point calling out The Wrap critic Tim Molloy and, in a lame attempt at proving the humor he was defending can work, suggesting that Molloy’s Irish heritage is the source of sexual problems. I’m told that critics asked these kinds of questions at summer press tour, so it’s difficult to believe that CBS in general, which has another broad ethnic show debuting in Rob, or King in particular would have been surprised by them. Perhaps he genuinely believes that these sort of jokes are cutting edge in the same way he suggested that the show’s sex jokes reflect the fact that the show is “8:30, on Monday on CBS in 2012. It’s a very different world than 8:30 on Monday on CBS in 1994.” If this is as far as we’ve come, we’ve got a long haul ahead of us.
By Ryan McGee
If you believe the economic realities on display in several of ABC’s recent comedic programming, then you think that current vocational trends predominately favor women. In terms of television, however, this “mancession” simply doesn’t exist, especially when it comes to developing strong three-dimensional women that can support a program’s narrative. Characters like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation and Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife are exceptions that prove the rule, to an extent. But even their arcs are based within an ensemble structure, a structure which has strengthened the shows even while decentralizing their female protagonists.
Should shows be built around a single character pillar, regardless of gender? That’s a perfectly good question to ask. Breaking Bad didn’t really gain power until Walter White stopped overshadowing his onscreen compatriots. And Parks started to flourish only after simultaneously toning Leslie down while expanding the world around her. But it’s infinitely more likely to launch a show based around a chemistry teacher gone to seed than an overly optimistic female government worker seeking to improve her community. We’re somehow more OK with the former than the latter, at least in our entertainments.
The problem isn’t just that there are so few females in the anti-hero position. It’s that the anti-hero position is such a default in television following The Shield that it’s limited the way in which stories can be told on the small screen. Leslie Knope’s optimism is downright revolutionary in comparison to her narcissistic, self-loathing, yet self-justifying counterparts in primetime. It’s not enough to simply be an ordinary person that strives to do good only to face obstacle after obstacle in achieving that goal. We have to watch shows give us walking talking figures that are grotesque, funhouse mirror versions of our own worst impulses in order to either work through our own issues or take heart in knowing our vices pale in comparison to the Tony Sopranos, Vic Mackeys, and Jax Tellers of the world.
When females do end up in this “anti-hero” slot, the shows don’t often know what do with them. A long string of semi-recent Showtime programs have dealt with complicated women, but often in uncomplicated ways. Other than The United States of Tara, which spent three seasons coming to grips with its own conceit, the network’s signature female-led shows demonstrate women behaving badly without true context for their actions. As such, their supposedly outlandish behavior exists in a curious vacuum in which Jackie Peyton, Cathy Jamison, and Nancy Botwin pantomime grief, rage, and illicit behavior in a relatively sterilized environment. They don’t get into the true moral muck of their male counterparts, often because the shows shy away from making these women into the monsters men are so often allowed to become.
All of which makes me wonder why we’ve decided that horrible people need to be at the center of shows, when simply having flawed ones will do. Enter Cordelia Chase, someone not high on the list of even Joss Whedon acolytes as the poster child for basing an ideal television lead upon. I’m not here to start a flame war over whether or not Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel was the overall better show. But I am here to say that I tend to prefer Angel by a slim margin, and Cordelia Chase helps tip the balance in that show’s scale. That may make many of you reach for your replica Mr. Stabbys and seek to stake me. But hear me out.
Cordelia Chase appeared in the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on March 10, 1997, and made her finale appearance on Angel in its 100th episode nearly seven years later. Like many characters on Buffy, she was initially written as a stereotype only to reveal hidden layers along the way. Big deal, you say: so did everyone else on that show. Which is fair, but what’s intriguing about Cordelia is that her story, like that of Xander’s, was initially one in which she was an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Buffy was the Slayer, Willow eventually turned into the world’s most powerful witch, and Giles was both a Watcher and an excellent performer of Who covers.
But Cordy? She didn’t have anything going for her except the nagging feeling that she should be doing more with her life. Her original status as the Mean Girl stemmed from economic and social superiority, but like many pop culture figures in that position, it was a façade more than a reality, a role that she played because she saw no other way. It’s interesting that what inspires her trip to Los Angeles (and, by extension, over to Angel) after graduation from Sunnydale isn’t anything demonic, but rather mundane: tax fraud. Stripped bare of both economic comfort and psychological comfort post-graduation, she moves to LA to become an actress. Of course, what she finally finds is purpose.
By Tyler Lewis
Over at my own blog, I review the fifth season premiere of The Game, which aired last night on BET:
“If Mara Brock Akil and BET want to make a black nighttime telenovela where the cast never interacts with one another, where the relationships established in the first three seasons are thrown out in favor of separate, unconnected, over-the-top storylines for each of the five leads, then it should decide on what kind of show that is and settle on a consistent tone.
Because I do think the ship has sailed on any hope that The Game will be the show that folks wanted to be brought back. I think the audience has accepted it (and, likely, moved on). The producers should commit to it.”
It just seems odd to me that fans resurrected a show – a black show – only to have the producers of that show gut everything about the show that made fans want it back in the first place. And by “odd,” I mean “wrong.”
The Game was a sitcom with real heart and humanity in its first three seasons. It was a show that was incredibly funny, but also managed to create six characters that struggled and matured in believable ways over the course of those seasons. The plotting always flowed from the characters.
But on BET, the show is shallow and tonally inconsistent, and most of the characters have been flattened. It uses a drug-addicted model to ineffectively humanize and save Malik Wright, but doesn’t even bother to make her a three-dimensional character that the audience can care about. It reduces one of its most intriguing and sympathetic characters, Tasha Mack, to the very thing – ghetto fabulous loudmouth – she was initially created to subvert, even as it finds new and intriguing ways of deepening self-hating, cheap Jason Pitts (providing Coby Bell with the opportunity to prove yet again that he’s the show’s greatest, most versatile, asset). And it forgets almost entirely that the male characters are football players since we never see them at practice or in the locker room anymore.
I don’t know if BET knows that its version of The Game plays like everyone involved has contempt for the audience that saved it, but…well, it does now. This is not the show that fans wanted back and worse, in its new incarnation, it doesn’t even work on its own terms.
The bridge is yours.
-Great background on and analysis of the decency case argued before the Supreme Court yesterday.
-For Downton Abbey fans, this piece about Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her cook is a fascinating read.
-We are, apparently, getting an Into the Woods movie.
-As usual, Caitlin Flanagan makes with the totalizing, but there is interesting stuff in her review of Blue Nights.
-Why is Hollywood suddenly so nuts for Linda Lovelace?
At yesterday’s session with the showrunners for ABC’s comedies, Steve Levitan said that while the network mostly shields him from people who have moral objections to his portrayal of a gay family as normal and well-adjusted, he’s got an answer for those who reach him directly:
I get shielded from most of the nutjobs. Occasionally something will leak through on Twitter or something. But it’s so rare. One of the biggest surprises of our show is that America or the world really has embraced Mitchell and Cam. We’re in 200 markets around the world, including, by the way, Vatican City, and they’ve embraced Mitchell and Cam. I think that’s interesting. It’s easy for people to object to something in the abstract. But when you make it personal and show that these people have good hearts and are loving, committed parents, it’s hard not to love them. So I say to the hard right, watch the show and see if you have it in your heart to love Cam and Mitch.
This, of course, goes straight to the motivation behind keeping things like gay families off the air. The lies people tell about gay people and their relationship, gay people and their ability to raise children, can only persist in the absence of contact with healthy gay couples or images of them.
Downton Abbey scored 4.2 million viewers in its return on Sunday, 1.28 million viewers more than Mad Men averaged in its most recent season and just 280,000 viewers below what Community averaged in its second season (in other words, numbers NBC would like to see again as a minimum). The numbers are cheering if only because it’s nice to see that public television can score a program that’s as compelling as network offerings, that if public broadcasting is to be the bastion of eggheads and intellectuals, that there are 4.2 million of them willing to turn out to support quality programming.
But what does it mean for what kind of slate PBS might put together? I’ve been having some trouble finding ratings for the U.S. airing of Sherlock on PBS, but it certainly seems at least like an anecdotal success. Luther got poor ratings on BBC America, which may be a product of the network’s availability as a standard part of cable packages, despite the fact that it seems like a logical crossover for those of us nostalgic for The Wire. I wonder if it might have been more successful on PBS, and helped PBS build a bit of edgy cred, as Luther is nothing if not often and significantly uncomfortable. I do think it’s a challenge for PBS, both in terms of its public support and building a broader audience long-term, to be seen as too British. But how awesome would a drama block that starts with Downton, continues to Sherlock, and ends with Luther be?
One of the more interesting lines of questioning about GCB (formerly Good Christian Bitches) at the Television Critics Association press tour has been whether “Christian” is a bigger hurdle for the show than “Bitch.” There’s one way in which that makes sense: this would hardly be the first time that practicing Christians felt like Hollywood hadn’t portrayed them accurately or fairly. (It would make less sense to suggest that Christians are not a market.) In response, series creator Robert Harling* suggested something that shows an appealing degree of structural awareness. Apparently, we should think of the church in GCB the same way we think of a precinct office in a cop show or an emergency room in a hospital, and expect that the show will be bounded by the internal rules and expectations of the church.
“There are rules. And you have to be respectful of those rules,” he said. “Even if it’s a temple or a mosque or whatever, you have to be aware and respectful of faith systems. And, you know, the joy of it is watching these people try to function within these rules. And the rules remain the same. The respect for the faith remains the same…the goal is to watch people try to be good.”
Long-time readers will know that I’m a freak for stories that are driven by bureaucracies, whether it’s a police department, a branch of the federal government, or a school. We have a lot of cop and hospital shows because we’re very familiar with the Hollywood version of how those bureaucracies work and what the dramatic beats exist in those spaces. But expanding the kinds of organizations we’re familiar with and that characters can work in is a worthy goal. Kristin Chenoweth joked of gay men, for example, that “There’s one in every church,” an idea I’m certainly familiar with but which I’m not sure is obvious to non-churchgoers. Establishing that kind of thing and getting folks familiar with it (though not to the point of boredom) and doing similar things for synagogues and mosques could make for some pretty fun storytelling in a new environment.
*Who wrote Soapdish, which I adore. If you have not watched it, you should check it out.