A year ago today, I joined the ThinkProgress family. It’s been such a treat hanging out with old friends here and getting to make new ones. Thank you for all the conversations, emails, ideas, suggestions, and arguments. I hope you’ve been having even a fraction of the fun that I have. And to celebrate, here’s a summer jam:
I know I haven’t written much about Mad Men this season—I think the show’s more likely to result in one big piece than regular check-ins. But I did spend a couple of hours talking to Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan and the AV Club and HitFix’s Ryan McGee about what feel like the big three shows of the moment last night for their podcast, which is up here. Check it out!
Dick Clark Is Dead at 82 | TMZ is reporting that American Bandstand and New Years Rockin’ Eve host Dick Clark is dead at 82. Clark had suffered a strike and Type II diabetes, and apparently finally sucuumbed to a heart attack. Clark was, to a certain extent, a reminder of a time when American entertainment had more narrow offerings but a broader consensus. The 22.6 million people who tuned in to count down to midnight with him and Ryan Seacrest are about as many people who watch anything together anymore. Seacrest and American Idol are the heirs to Clark’s legacy, but the era when that legacy would have been worth the most is past, and passing, and it’s not yet clear what’s to come.
The speed of the conversational cycle around Girls has been whiplash-inspiring, from critical praise, mine included, to a range of critiques that run the gamut from the weirdly sexist and nasty to the thoughtful and convincing, particularly when it comes to the show’s non-approach approach to race and diversity. There’s no answer to the charges that Girls is extremely white, and that all four main characters are the daughters of famous people, some of whom have extensive connections in show business. Whatever relationship those facts have to the actual quality of the show, they are undeniably true. The people of color we see in the pilot are Joy Lee, once Hannah’s fellow intern, now an employee at the publishing house that has declined to hire Hannah, and the black man who harasses Hannah on the street on her way home from the hotel where her parents were saying. There’s no member of the ensemble cast the show can point to as evidence that Hannah’s world is broader, or that the one of the goals of the casting process was to hire people of color. Ultimately though, I don’t think this conversation is about Girls. I think it’s about the fact that this is an arid media landscape, and when people crawled to the oasis, some of us found the water we were looking for, but not everyone did. And the important thing to do is to find more oasises, and to define what we need from all of them, rather than burdening one show with the obligation to satisfy everyone’s thirst.
I’d suggest that we need two broad categories of diversity on television: broad shows that include broadly diverse casts, and shows that take deep dives into necessarily narrow settings. While we’ve made some progress on making the former kind of show diverse, we’ve done worse at making sure that those deep dives don’t just explore white settings and the perspectives of white auteurs who have created them.
A show like Happy Endings or Bent where the characters are racially, sexually, and somewhat socio-economically diverse, is one of the things we should be striving for, but it isn’t the only thing we should want. Heterogeneity is a fact of life for a lot of people, and for a lot of settings, but not all of them. There are settings where an overwhelmingly-majority white main cast seems thematically and appropriate, as is the case with the seasons of Mad Men that precede this one. I think there is an argument to be made that the whiteness of Girls is a manifestation of how cloistered the characters’ lives are. In two years in the city, they’ve mostly failed to establish relationships outside the group of people they graduated from college with. That may be the show’s myopia, or the characters’ limitations, or both, but as with many things in Girls, those perspectives are not actually one and the same.
If Hollywood was genuinely interested in telling a wide and creative array of stories, we’d have shows where it made sense to have an all-black, all-Latino, or all-Asian core cast as well, and I think that’s something we should want. I’d have been deeply irritated by the insertion of a white roommate as a core member of the ensemble on Living Single because the network thought that sort of decision would increase the marketability of the show to a white audience. That would disrupt the characters’ ability to assume that they have certain cultural reference points and life experiences in common, and correspondingly, their ability to discuss them without pausing for explanations. The futzing with Margaret Cho’s sitcom All-American Girl to first make her seem more legibly Asian to audiences, and later to replace Asian characters with white ones would be unacceptable even if it was in service of an overall network goal of making sure all shows had mixed-race casts. People are different when they’re in homogeneous settings, and there are interesting stories to be told there, whether a piece of culture explores the lives of Orthodox Jews or Baltimore drug organizations. I want television to carry me places that I don’t already go, but I’m relieved that Girls exists because it means that I also have a flawed, weird little home on TV, and I want everyone to have something that feels that way to them, because it feels wonderful, and I don’t take it for granted.
There’s a world in which Girls‘ whiteness wouldn’t be so alienating: a media landscape in which we had a healthy mix of shows and movies created and run by men and women, people of color as well as white folks, and dedicated to the deep exploration of experiences that range from tight, insular groups of friends to the mechanics of bureaucracy. Girls is successful because of what makes it different from existing television, not because of the whiteness and class perspective it has in common with many of the people who make television. For those of us who like it, Girls is currently very technically accomplished and a lot of uncomfortably true fun. The test of whether it’s important will be whether it serves as the thin edge of a wedge that opens up television further. That’s an impossible burden to put on any show. But whether it asked for them or not, Girls is carrying a lot of those already.
Lesley Arfin, apparently a writer on Girls, has tweeted: “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” This is about as un-constructive and un-self-aware a response to this kind of hugely valid criticism as you can possibly get. As Jay Smooth put it to Lena Dunham on Twitter, “You need to come get your people.”
One of the reasons Trayvon Martin’s death has struck such a chord is that his killing adds another young black man to a tragic pantheon that includes Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo, and it gives the sense that learning lessons from one of these deaths doesn’t give us what we need to prevent the next one. Telling a young black man to respect the cops as the mother in Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots,” his remembrance of Diallo and now Martin, does doesn’t save that boy from a vigilante with a gun and the backing of a Stand Your Ground law. And it’s easy, because there are differences in these cases, to focus on them as individuals, rather than examining the sense of anger and entitlement that motivate both people like George Zimmerman and the cops who killed Diallo, and Bell, and Grant.
So in that light, I’m glad to see that a project from writer and director Ryan Coogler about the last day of Oscar Grant’s life is coming together, starring Michael B. Jordan, who should be considered a major, major talent, as Grant, and produced by Forest Whitaker. And I’m particularly glad that because Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer is involved, playing Grant’s mother, people will be required to pay attention to the movie rather than dismissing it as some sort of angry, marginal indie. The format of the movie will apparently follow Grant through the last day of his life, meaning that it will be framed in such a way to build sympathy between the audience and someone who will be murdered by its end, rather than offering up a black man as a vehicle for the exploration of a cop’s psyche and morals.
And in a sense, Spencer’s presence will make a valuable point for audiences who see both movies: black families face the same risk of seeing their children legally murdered today that they faced sixty years ago. The risks are different in intensity, the avenues to pursue justice and reform somewhat more accessible. But they’re still there. The Help did a major disservice to its audience in adapting the book in a way that removed images of white violence against blacks, whether it’s the details of protagonist Aibileen Clark’s son’s death or the beating a young black man suffers for accidentally using the wrong bathroom that leaves him blinded. It was a movie that allowed white viewers to escape any complicity with racism, and then made sure they didn’t have to confront the most revolting consequences of racism either. Hopefully, this movie will honor Oscar Grant by making neither of those mistakes.
The bridge is yours.
-Mo Ryan talks Game of Thrones changes with D.B. Weiss.
-Kim Cattrall approves of Girls.
-Can it be Vamps-o-clock already?
-Tyler Perry is an evil genius for passing this off:
io9 went to Marvel’s big press junket for The Avengers, and came away with some details about where the franchise will go next after its tentpole-to-end-all tentpoles: Loki will get dressed-down back in Asgard, Thor will go world-hopping, Tony Stark will go back against the wall, Captain America will work for S.H.I.E.L.D. and end up in political intrigue, and Hulk is basically done. Notably, there are no details about Black Widow, Maria Hill, or Hawkeye. There’s a lot of discussion about how changes in tone and setting will prevent sequelitis. But it sounds like Marvel’s committed to the same basic formula: dude gets in bad way, world gets in bad way, dude figures out things about himself, dude saves the world.
I enjoy that formula—it’s fun, it’s showy, and it’s been effective even if I think its returns are somewhat diminishing. But it ignores all the ways in which Marvel could avoid sequelitis by expanding the world in which its heroes live and telling different kinds of stories. Some of the new characters Marvel’s considering adding to the roster would shake things up. Doctor Strange would add a more contemplative air to the proceedings, and you could riff on the omnipresence of New York in movies if the movie followed the whole mystical-consultant-in-Greenwich-Village thing (speaking of which, an uptown-downtown, Doctor Strange and Luke Cage 1970s teamup would be all the awesome and a hilarious joke on interracial buddy cop movies). An Inhumans story could be a way to get into alien rivalries—the backstory there is the enmity between the Kree and the Skrull empires and genetic experimentation on human beings, which could be tonally very different and move the Marvel franchise into pure sci-fi. And a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, also apparently in the running, could jump forward into the future depending on which team Marvel wanted to explore.
But none of these formulations do the smaller, low-fi, tonally utterly different stuff that happens within the Marvel universe all the time. Marvel could make movies that draw their drama simply from the fact that superheroes exist and explore how society changes as a result, whether it’s She-Hulk litigating a legal regimen that takes superheroism into account, or Luke Cage recognizing that superheroes will spend more time on the immediate threats to humanity as a whole and less time reforming it. They could resurrect a hero like Deathlok, a cyborg who tries to balance between using his powers and not letting them overwhelm his humanity, as a way to meditate on powers that are imposed on characters rather than natural to them (something Wolverine tried and largely failed to do), and providing a futuristic setting that could steal some of the thunder from the upcoming Judge Dredd movie. And you could play with the idea that superheroism sometimes means solopsism with a Dazzler movie that could be a metaphor for the power we give celebrities. It might be very smart for Marvel to start diversifying kinds of stories and lower-budget plots if only as a hedge against the day when the formula that’s been very successful starts producing diminishing returns for them—and because there’s so much more creative and narrative potential for them to play with. Which characters and storylines do you think Marvel should consider adapting for screens big or small?
One of the biggest stories in Hollywood over the past week has been the falling-out between Mel Gibson and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Gibson, in a move that that garnered justifiable skepticism from those of us offended by his repeated expressions of anti-Semitism, planned to make a movie about the Maccabees, an army of Jewish rebels who reconquered Judea and expelled its Greek occupiers, reestablishing the Temple and experiencing the miracle of lights that’s the basis for Hanukkah. Eszterhas was supposed to be writing the script. Warner Brothers rejected the script. Eszterhas released an exceedingly lengthy letter full of allegations that Gibson had behaved bizarrely, frighteningly, and in a way that indicated he continues to despise Jews. Gibson said that Eszterhas was covering up for the fact that the script was a disaster. Whatever the truth is, two things remain. First, it would be nice to mine Jewish history and scripture for awesome movies. Second, these two should probably stay far away from these stories. But here are five ideas that someone else should take up!
1. Deborah and Yael: Jewish men aren’t the only potential badasses who would make for great movie heroes. Deborah’s the wife of a commander who made her husband promise at the beginning of a war that a woman would have the honor of killing the enemy commander. Said enemy commander wanders into Yael’s tent, upon which she takes care of him, lulls him to sleep, and hammers a peg through his temple, killing him. Quentin Tarantino would approve.
2. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: It doesn’t have a happy ending. But trying something incredibly brave and humanity-restoring in the face of certain defeat isn’t any less brave. And the decision by Warsaw’s Jews to resist transportation to the Treblinka concentration camp is tremendously moving.
3. Esther and Mordecai: This is a great story about the reembrace of identity even under incredible odds. Esther, the secretly Jewish wife of a Persian emperor decides to break the rules that govern her contact with her husband when she learns that one of his advisors plans to manipulate him into a pogrom against the Jews in his kingdom. That defiance of convention at great personal risk to Esther makes for great drama. And Esther’s relationship with her cousin Mordecai, who raised her after she was left an orphan, is also a wonderful story of a friendship between a man and a woman without the slightest hint of sex in it. There’s a relatively recent, but decidedly indie movie on the subject.
4. The Book of Joshua: If you want a pioneer story, Joshua, which documents the settlement of the land and the clashes with the people who already live in the areas the descents of the Twelve Tribes want to settle. This is as close to a Jewish Western as we’re going to get. It could be a story that touches a lot of nerves. But it’s go an epic sweep, and contemporary relevance.
5. People of the Book: Text is important in Judaism, so why not tell an awesome story about the survival of a Torah? Geraldine Brooks’ novel People of the Book imagines the survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah through occupation, Inquisition, pogrom and war. It would make a terrific series of short films, and it’s a great testament to the almost religious power of art, even to people who don’t share the religion that art is created in service of.
By Andrea Peterson
Yesterday, Microsoft announced Halo 4 will reach U.S. consumers on November 6, 2012 — also known as “Election Day.” To call the Halo series important would be an understatement; the first-person shooter is without a doubt the flagship series for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console and has sold over 34 million games worldwide. Sales of the most recent installment Halo: Reach were record breaking at the time, with over $200 million in sales on its first day This begs the question: With thousands of gamers likely to line up at midnight to pick up a copy of Halo 4, how many will choose to stay in and play over getting out to vote?
According Nielsen Games, as of October 2011 35% of 18 to 24 year olds owned an Xbox 360 – the exclusive release console of Halo 4. That’s 35% of the only age group to show statistically significant growth in the 2008 cycle that will have something exciting to distract them from voting on Election Day… and 35% of the President’s base: President Obama won 66% of votes from 18 to 30 year olds in 2008. And unfortunately, gamers who know they will be unable to tear themselves away from the Master Chief on Election Day may find it harder to vote due to new barriers and limits on advance and absentee voting thanks to conservative voter suppression efforts around the country.