Deadline points out that this pilot season has been a great one for non-American actors. It seems worth noting that the geographic diversity they’ve pointed out contains, as far as I can tell, zero racial diversity. I’d be much more intrigued by and excited for a trend of American shows and movies tapping non-American actors if they were bringing in new talent, and new experience, from, say, India. Or China. Or Iran. Or Egypt. Or from non-white European communities. Substituting one set of white actors for another isn’t really a sign that television’s changing.
I was looking through the acting nominations for the Comedy Awards, and it really struck me that in a lot of ways, 2011 was a richer year for women in comedy than it was for men.
In movies, Jason Bateman got a nod for Horrible Bosses, Steve Carell was nominated for Crazy, Stupid, Love, Jean Dujardin was tapped for The Artist, Zach Galifianakis for The Hangover Part II, and Owen Wilson for Midnight in Paris. None of these are particularly innovative roles, and all of them (except Dujardin, whose range I don’t really know) fall pretty squarely within these actors’ existing ranges: Bateman is a tense straight man, Carell is sympathetic and slightly clueless, Galifianakis is disconcerting and wild, and Wilson is winsome. There are a few things that I think were left off this list—I’ll defend The Trip until I run out of breath, Patton Oswalt was great and under-recognized for Young Adult, and I’m not really sure why 50/50, which was nominated elsewhere, didn’t score acting nods—but I can’t think of a performance by a man that’s not here that was a revelation. Ditto in TV, which was dominated by utterly predictable nods for Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock, Ty Burrell in Modern Family, Steve Carell in The Office, and Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. I’m glad to see Louis C.K. in there—his performance in Louie was arguably my favorite thing on television in 2011. But it’s not like he has a lot of peers.
For women, on the other hand, the nominations are actually a lot of fun. I didn’t love Horrible Bosses, but seeing Jennifer Aniston get totally raunchy and ridiculous was a fun stretch for her. Ditto for Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher—depending on how she takes her career next, she could leave horrid romantic comedies behind and steer more in the direction of Charlize Theron in Young Adult, who really ought to be here. Melissa McCarthy was a miracle in Bridesmaids, and Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne, who had an utterly breakout performance in that film also could have easily been nominated. Television has its predictable notes—Tina Fey, for a deeply uninspired season of 30 Rock and Sofia Vergara for Modern Family. But you’ve got Zooey Deschanel in there for a debut performance in New Girl, and Maya Rudolph could easily be there for Up All Night, along with Laura Dern in Enlightened, Kat Dennings or Beth Behrs in 2 Broke Girls (that show’s massive flaws are not their fault), any of the women in Community‘s cast or Eliza Coupe or Elisha Cuthbert in Happy Endings.
And if Whitney or Are You There, Chelsea? had been less terrible, and we’d fulfilled all the potential of the lady comedy boom, this could have been an even more crowded field. I may not be equally addicted to every female comedy performance on the market these days. But it seems like there’s a lot of space available for new actresses to enter the field, and for actresses with existing track records to step out of their comfort zones. If those conditions persist, that’s a recipe for an embarrassment of riches.
We’re deep in the midst of pilot season casting frenzy, the time of year when networks cast a bunch of actors and start figuring out what’s actually going to work in their schedules come fall. We’re a long way from any of these concepts actually being a show. But in browsing through the Hollywood Reporter’s list of all the shows in development right now, these are the ten—from a story about an Alaskan cult to a secessionist nuclear sub—that have me most excited. And after how disappointing the 2011-2012 pilot season was, I need some pick-me-ups:
Counter Culture, ABC: Look, I’d probably be in for a show about older women running a diner in Texas under any circumstances—we need some sort of recompense for Good Christian Bitches, and I’ve been excited for stories about women who are in the demographic I’ll be joining in a couple of decades. And I’d sort of like to see a female-led equivalent of Cheers. But given that Margo Martindale’s in the cast, I’m particularly excited. She’s always fantastic, and if the show’s willing to make jokes about Mags Bennett’s Apple Pie, all the better.
Untitled Dan Fogelman project, ABC: I love Comedy Central’s Ugly Americans, the network’s riff on immigration reform but with actual aliens and monsters. And I have a lot of Men in Black nostalgia. Maybe that makes me weak. But a show about a gated community full of aliens sounds pretty funny. And potentially a great way to riff on the inherent weirdness of the one percent.
Last Resort, ABC: Given how deeply Hollywood and the military are intertwined, I almost can’t believe that a major network is making a show about a nuclear submarine crew who refuse to fire the missiles they have aboard and go AWOL, declaring themselves a tiny, independent nuclear nation. It might be awful, but the fact that something this wonky about nuclear policy (and this potentially anti-war) is being made at all has my ears all pricked up. Also, it stars Andre Braugher.
Partners, CBS: Okay, I may be rooting for this show in part because I want it to beat Ryan Murphy’s The New Normal in the gay-family-comedies-of-fall-2012 competition. But the cast, which includes Ugly Betty’s wonderful Michael Urie, David Krumholtz, who can ride the good vibe of 10 Things I Hate About You literally forever, and Brandon Routh, who’s been doing a wonderful job of reinventing himself as something other than simply amazingly handsome, is strong. And more comedies about gay men and straight men who are uncomplicatedly friends are a nice thing to have, and a step beyond the sassy gay archetype.
Untitled Louis C.K., Spike Feresten, CBS: If Louis C.K. wasn’t involved in this show about young people trying to make it in the recession economy, I’m not sure I’d be interested. And even his streak outside of Louie is a little uneven. But C.K. is on a streak so hot right now that I’d be excited for anything he’s even tangentially involved with.
The big news out of this New York Times story about changes in measuring the ratings is that Modern Family has finally dethroned American Idol to become truly the most-watched show on American television. But to my mind, the most fascinating tidbit, particularly given the conversation that’s been going on about is this one:
Those competition shows also tend to be recorded and viewed later much less frequently, so the DVR has been a special enhancement to scripted shows. Among the prime-time hits that get a 40 percent or higher lift among 18- to 49-year-olds because of time-shifting: Fox’s “House,” “Glee,” “New Girl,” and “Alcatraz”; ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Revenge”; and NBC’s “The Office” and “Up All Night.” “It used to be that you figured even the most ardent fans of a show saw only two of every four episodes,” Mr. Levitan said. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think with DVR and other ways people can catch up more and more, people actually see the entire season of a show.”
I’d be curious to know if that’s actually true—I’ve been looking through a bunch of studies of viewership and haven’t been able to find relevant survey questions to that effect, and if you have them, I would be delighted to see them. But Nielsen has found that younger viewers (and by that, I mean viewers 6-11) in particular tend to rewatch shows that they’ve DVRed multiple times. Now, if people are actually making more of an effort to catch every episode of their favorite shows, where previously they dipped in and out, and if we’re raising a generation of kids who watch episodes over and over again, that could be a response to shows that have become more progressively serialized over time. But if those shifts are driven by technology and the culture that’s grown up around television viewing, then it would make a lot of sense that creators are responding to that trend with a move towards serialized narratives that are seeded with conversational details and easter eggs and comedies that are packed with mile-a-minute-jokes. If your viewers, or at least a chunk of them, are going to look at you in a very different way, it makes sense that you would respond to those signals and imperatives.
This is…shockingly sensible:
Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt may be the most prominent media exec making this important point: ”Our whole (entertainment) ecosystem should try to create affordability,” he told investors today at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference. “A lot of the people who are living paycheck to paycheck want our product, but simply can’t afford it. Many entertainment executives are in denial about this, but it’s happening.” Big Media ignores that fact at its peril: The vast majority of the industry’s profits come from cable networks — but the chief of the No. 2 cable company says that the pay TV business “is fundamentally not growing.” Programmers and networks have ignored that: “What they’re trying to do is grow by raising prices” on companies like Time Warner Cable, Britt says. That may work for a while, but “it clearly is not sustainable.” One of his strategies to deal with that is offering TV Essentials — a low-cost package of channels that doesn’t include costly sports services led by ESPN as well as popular networks such as TNT, Comedy Central, Fox News and MSNBC. “We’re clearly moving away from one size fits all,” Britt says.
It’s not the end of bundling, but it’s an important experiment, and it’ll be fascinating to see how it works out. I always think of the opportunity to buy premium cable channels without the rest of the package as the thing that would bring in new subscribers and prevent full-on cord cutting, but maybe Bravo, USA and company would be enough to keep people hanging on. I doubt that Time Warner would release a comprehensive dataset publicly, but I would love to know how many people who are planning to leave end up deciding to stay once they’re offered TV Essentials, and how many subscribers the new service brings in.
Britt also explained that the company is experimenting with a metered-useage internet subscription plan in Texas. As irritating as we super-users might find something like this—my Netflix streaming alone would send me into penury, much less the whole blogging from home thing—this is clearly the future. We already see it on phone data plans. And most cable and internet companies are offering differential pricing on speed. Tiering in both of those areas may mean that not everyone gets the same quality of service, but if it means that some people can afford access they might not otherwise have, and we’re paying overall to maintain the network we use, that’s probably a good thing. I agree with those of you have complained about the fact that the same companies provide our cable and internet, and who think it stifles pricing and plan innovation. But these are good experiments.
The bridge is yours.
-President Obama: not quite ready to conquer Hollywood.
-The Streep domination passes to a second generation.
-The origins of Keep Calm and Carry On:
I think that, in the wake of Fox’s decision to cancel Terra Nova, its once-promising but ultimately dull science fiction show about people fleeing a polluted planet to reset humanity’s past, James Poniewozik is right that the failure of the show will diminish the chances of networks taking a chance on purely sci-fi show in the future:
The networks do still occasionally do science fiction, of course; Fringe is still hanging on on Fox, for instance. But since Lost, and the many failures to re-create its success, they’ve tended to focus on small-scale, real-world shows with little sci-fi twists (Person of Interest, Alcatraz) or fantasy (Once Upon a Time, Grimm). The epic-scale, effects-intensive sci-fi show has always been a tough sell on the networks, and to its credit, Terra Nova was trying a brand of sci-fi we hadn’t seen a lot on TV. Now big sci-fi will be an even tougher sell.
This is unfortunate. But it raises what I think is an important question both for the networks and for those of us who would like to see a lot more quality science fiction shows on them: can we think more creatively about communicating that the stories we’re telling are set in the future without using a lot, or any, special effects?
Obviously, the answer ought to be yes. The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the most chilling dystopias in literary memory, requires some mass-produced costumes, but most of the work of communicating that we’re in a very different place with very different values is done through language and the norms that govern the interactions between characters. Children of Men has some effects work of the shooting-things-and-blowing-things-up variety, but most of the way we understand that things are dreadful is, once again, done through costuming, through the news footage that we see aired on television broadcasts the characters watch, through their demeanor and what gets them excited.
In other words, doing world-building due diligence up front could eliminate costly effects work down the line. Language is definitely something that evolves, and evolves rapidly, and is a clear and entirely free way to signal that you’re in a different place. The substitution of “frack” for “fuck” in Battlestar Galactica may have seemed goofy at first, but the term has definitively entered the lexicon, geek and otherwise (I imagine it’s one of the reasons “fracking” for “hydraulic fracturing” sounds persuasively negative, as well as nice and crackly). Ditto for graphic design: the gorgeous orange and white butterfly flag iconography at the heart of Kings, the red logos and typography in Ralph Fiennes’ slightly futuristic adaptation of Coriolanus, or the cut-off corners on the paper in Battlestar were all cheap ways to visually cue that we’re not in the present, at least as we know it. And while etiquette and behavior may seem like dorky considerations, they’re also a terrific way of communicating where power lies, and how intense the division between classes and castes is. Writing a guide to character interaction, whether in terms of address, physical contact, or relative physical positioning might seem silly up front, but it could also create a coherent sense of being in a vastly different setting.
Cool toys and the reshaping of our environment are some of what will make our future look and feel very different. But many of the changes will be seated within ourselves, and our attitudes. We can make science fiction that’s somewhere in between Person of Interest and Terra Nova, and that’s more genuinely interested in exploring possible futures than either one of those shows.
In the wake of Whitney Houston’s death, unfortunate references to her past crack use—even though it appears her death was related to prescription drug use—were rampant. Take, for example, John Kobylt, the co-host of Clear Channel’s The John and Ken Show, who delivered this gem, from the theoretical perspective of Houston’s friend: “It’s like, ‘ah Jesus, here comes the crack ho again. What’s she gonna do? Oh, look at that, she’s doing handstands next to the pool. Very good, crack ho. nice.’ After a while, everybody’s exhausted. And then you find out she’s dead.” The remarks landed them a suspension and an agreement that they, as well as channel staff, would attend sensitivity training.
There was no such punishment for Fox commentator Eric Bolling, who decided it was clever to respond to comments by Rep. Maxine Waters by declaring “What is going on in California? How’s this? Congresswoman, you saw what happened to Whitney Houston. Step away from the crack pipe, step away from the Xanax, step away from the Lorazepam because it’s going to get you in trouble. How else do you explain those comments?” He was wise enough to roll back the comments immediately, but not to have refrained from making them in the first place.
It’s amazing that, given how racialized references to crack use are, and how ugly they can be when combined with implications about an accused female user’s sexual behavior, that people with any pretense to respectability, like Bolling, are still bringing it up. Kobylt’s remarks were ugly and insensitive, not only to Houston, but to the people in her life who cared abut her and who were affected by her addiction. Bolling’s are nonsensical—they have literally no point or relevance but to reach for a spurious stereotype about black women. It’s one thing to refer to crack cocaine use if someone is actually consuming crack cocaine. But it would be delightful if we could stop using it as a sloppy, ugly attempt to signal something meaningful.
I’m sure there are some people out there who feel a nostalgic affection for Kirk Cameron from his time on Growing Pains. Or who are as crazy as I am and got brainwashed through repeated viewings of Listen To Me, the goofiest debate-team-solves-the-abortion-debate-romantic-comedy-that-Roy-Scheider-did-for-the-paycheck ever. But no matter which category we fall into, I think we can all agree that Cameron, an evangelical Christian who’s increasingly chosen to make niche movies for that audience ranging from Left Behind to Fireproof, has largely retreated from the mainstream conversation. So I wonder if it might have been wiser for GLAAD to save its energy when Cameron declared, predictably of equal marriage rights that “I think that it’s unnatural. I think that it’s detrimental and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.” It’s one thing to push back when major figures in the mainstream conversation give credence to views that are on their way to permanent residence on the fringe. It’s another thing to elevate someone who has specifically dedicated himself to a niche to the national conversation by condemning him.