Per the good folks at ComicBookMovie.com, who base their reporting on a Disney investors’ call, Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and directed The Avengers, will return for the movie’s sequel for Marvel, and also will be developing the planned ABC Marvel superhero show. It’s about as perfect a fit as I can imagine, giving the artistic and commercial success of The Avengers. And if the ABC show centers on a woman, it would fit beautifully with Whedon’s brand, given his success with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, arguably the best successful superhero show of the last two decades, and his terrific expansion of Black Widow in The Avengers. Such a move would also help expand make Marvel’s on-screen universe more balanced, making this continued pairing an especially good fit.
With the announcement this morning that NBC bought a drama pilot that “follows an idealistic secret service agent who finds himself at the epicenter of an international crisis on his first day on the job. He will need to cross moral and legal lines as he navigates the highest levels of power and corruption on his search for the truth,” it’s official: Secret Service agents are the latest pop culture trend. We’ve already got two movies about attacks on the White House thwarted by a current Secret Service agent, Channing Tatum in Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, and a former Secret Service agent, Gerard Butler in Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen. In Political Animals, Secretary of State Elaine Barrish confides her presidential ambitions to her main Secret Service agent before anyone else. Eliza Coupe even showed up as a hilariously rigid agent in Community.
There’s an obvious difference between comedic and soapy portrayals of Secret Service agents and serious ones. But I think the fact that we’ve reached three in the latter category is indicative. Whether or not the threats against Barack Obama made during his presidency have been more credible, or at least more backed by true intent than the threats faced by both Presidents Clinton and both Presidents Bush, there is, I think, of the presidency being under threat. If you believe it’s obvious, as I do, that President Obama is a U.S. citizen, there’s something upsetting about the continued fringe campaign to prove that he is some sort of impostor, whether smuggled in from Kenya or a secret Muslim. Presidents have always been the subject of nastiness, whether it’s Rush Limbaugh referring to Chelsea Clinton as the family dog or a filmmaker imagining the assassination of President Bush. But there definitely feels something particularly pointed about the refusal to deny President Obama the facts of his own life. The attacks on his presidency may not be physical, but they encourage a paranoid uneasiness about the presidency. I can see why we’d want to escape into fantasies about defending the institution, and the most visible, looming manifestation of it.
I hope you’ll forgive me for being a little Mars-obsessed this week, but I couldn’t resist this gorgeous French short film called Terraform, that sketches a deft and lovely scenario by which we might remake Mars’ environment to be more hospitable to ourselves:
Terraforming and geoengineering are the kinds of things that feel terribly far away, but aren’t as distant as they seem. Through tremendous effort, the U.S. government managed to reclaim some of the Dust Bowl. Israel has massive reforestation efforts underway. Scientists are experimenting with iron fertilization of phytoplankton blooms as a way to sequester carbon in the ocean. We aren’t using solar mirrors or releasing new species into the atmosphere yet, but it’s hard to imagine that as the pressures of global warming increase, we won’t try more expansive means to moderate our environment, avoiding extreme weather and the human catastrophes that result from it.
This dramatic approach to climates and atmospheres, whether Earth’s or another planet’s, would make for epic storytelling and grand, non-disaster storytelling. And it’s incredibly rich ground for science fictional discussions of ethical issues and our attachments to and arrogance about our residence on Earth. In comments at io9, from whence this video came, folks are discussing our willingness to destroy microbial life on Mars to make the atmosphere breathable for humans. Then, there are changes to geography itself: if we felt strongly about the destruction of Buddhas by the Taliban, should we feel equally strongly about changes we might make that would dramatically change key geographical features of the landscape? It all comes down to a central question: does the world belong to us, or us to the world? That answer determines how much we feel the right to change the world around us, and how much we feel an obligation to adapt ourselves to the world we’ve made, and have to live in.
In The Campaign, out this weekend, Will Ferrell plays an incumbent Congressman who’s running what’s supposed to be an uncontested race, when a pair of wealth brothers by the name of Motch put up a genial dummy, played by Zach Galifianakis, to run against him. Unsurprisingly, Galifianakis confirmed that the brothers, played in the movie by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, are meant to be a stand-in for the real-life industrialists and right-wing political funders Charles and David Koch, and mentioned in a recent interview that he found the pair “creepy.”
Other public figures might consider the movie, and Galifianakis’ uneasiness about their influence to be a tribute to their effectiveness. But the Kochs don’t seem to be taking it that way. Phillip Ellender, Koch Industries’ president for government affairs, issued a statement on the brothers’ behalf, saying:
Last we checked, the movie is a comedy. Maybe more to the point is that it’s laughable to take political guidance or moral instruction from a guy who makes obscene gestures with a monkey on a bus in Bangkok…We disagree with his uninformed characterization of Koch and our beliefs. His comments, which appear to be based on false attacks made by our political opponents, demonstrate a lack of understanding of our longstanding support of individual freedom, freedom of expression, and constitutional rights.
While the Koch brothers have become a staple of political coverage, it’s taken longer for them to become fixtures in popular culture, and Ellender’s response suggests they’re not enjoying the attention. This summer, they’ve made an appearance by name in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, when anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) attacked guests on his show who were members of Tea Party groups for not being aware of who their funders were. His coverage earned a rebuke from network owner Leona Lansing (a scenery-munching Jane Fonda), who cautioned Will’s producer against further coverage of the Kochs lest they pull their brands’ advertisements from the company. declared “I got where I am by knowing who to fear,” she said. “They drop Brinks trucks on people they disagree with.” It was a weirdly sinister portrayal, in contrast to the lighter satire The Campaign is expected to offer up.
But as long as the Koch brothers are making heavy investments in political campaigns and grass-roots organizing, they’re probably going to keep popping up in movies and television, at least until someone gets the idea of painting casino magnate Sheldon Adelson as a malevolent power behind the throne, which will probably take Adelson deciding to support someone more credible than Newt Gingrich. Until then, Charles and David Koch might as well enjoy the spectacle of liberals fearing them, and the debate over which one of them Aykroyd and Lithgow are each meant to be.
There has been an enormous amount of discussion about whether NBC is failing or not in its broadcast of the London Summer Olympics, summed up by Linda Holmes’ excellent post bridging the gap between NBC’s business interests and viewers’ interests, neither of which are mutually exclusive. But beyond the questions of tape delay and streaming, I’ve been thinking about some ways to make the Olympic broadcasts more invigorating, and so have many of you. I took to Twitter to ask for suggestions. Here are the best ones, along with a couple of ideas of my own:
1. If you’re going to tape delay events, make good use of that constraint to provide continuity and momentum. “For commercials, pick up where they leave off rather than skipping stuff (parade of nations),” suggests Elizabeth Rosenzweig. And Mina pointed out that edits should be aimed at genuine slack time in events: “Using the editing options afforded by tape delay to show more events. Eg, Show a score immediately after a routine.”
2. Check the nationalism at the door. “I’d love to see more focus on int’l athletes,” offered Brian Forte. “Olympics are about bringing the world together, but NBC only talks about USA.” NBC has done a decent job of covering non-American Olympians in events where they are clearly preeminent, like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, or Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, who was the subject of an interesting biographical piece that got at the tensions of his training in Australia. But the coverage is still oriented towards sports where Americans tend to make strong showings. A more interesting primetime broadcast would show more willingness to introduce sports where Americans aren’t dominant and with which American audiences tend not to be familiar, and to focus on athletes whose presence is geopolitically important, whether it’s the Saudi women or the experience of stateless Olympians.
3. More historical and technical pieces, fewer profiles. One of the best profiles of the Olympics broadcasts I’ve watched was of Olga Korbut, the 1972 Soviet gold medalist whose emotional performances both popularized gymnastics and became a Soviet propaganda tool. It was a deft explanation of all the elements of artistic gymnastics and of the ways individual athletes can become symbols, and the rich footage NBC used in the piece were a great way of demonstrating how the sport has evolved. Stepping away from stories of personal struggle might take some of the spotlight off individual American athletes, but it would allow NBC to provide greater perspective on the events and geopolitics of the games, beefing up the news magazine content and providing variation in the broadcast in the process. In addition, NBC would be crazy not to partner with the outlets who have provided some of the most outstanding graphical coverage of the games, including the New York Times, which has provided impeccable, easy-to-comprehend technical breakdowns of individual sports.
4. Give viewers a clear schedule. “Did they use to have a clicker that showed how long until the next event? I miss that. When is track and field? in 18 min,” wrote in Adam. NBC’s primetime coverage is extremely long, and there’s something punitive about pushing marquee events, especially those with strong appeal to younger viewers, like gymnastics, to the absolute end of the broadcast. “More apparatus finals in Gymnastics, plus the men’s 400m final in Track & Field coverage. Also, qualifying in men’s springboard Dviing, a men’s Beach Volleyball quarterfinal, and the men’s sprint final in track Cycling,” isn’t actually a descriptor that lets a family plan their evening viewing. I’m sure that’s how NBC wants it, to get as many people glued to the television as long as possible. But a more comprehensive schedule would make sure fans could be there for the events they care about most, and would help parents make decisions about whether letting a child stay up for fifteen more minutes actually made sense.
5. Eliminate poolside, trackside, courtside, etc. interviews. If fluff is the enemy, the interviews with athletes immediately after they compete are even more egregious than profile pieces. I’ve yet to see one elicit useful perspective on the event or surprising emotion. And they intrude on athletes’ chances to celebrate or grieve, and for us to cheer their victory or share their disappointment. Bob Costas has made his mistakes in these games, but he’s a strong interviewer, and I’d rather save all these snack-sized bites and let him make a meal of one or two athletes each night (and hopefully, to include some non-Americans).
This weekend, Comedy Central will air its roast of Rosanne Barr. The timing for the comedienne seems simultaneously painful and fortuitous. Her NBC pilot Downwardly Mobile, an attempt to recreate the magic of Roseanne with its portrait of recession-wracked resident of a trailer park, wasn’t picked up. Her previous show, a reality program about her macadamia nut farm in Hawaii, was an embarrassment and failed to earn a renewal. Twitter’s provided Barr with a platform she’s frequently used in service of obscene and counterproductive political rants. And her campaign for president’s continued long past the point when it could be either a career-revitalizing stunt or a sharp jab at the major-party contenders. The roast will either be an embarrassment, or a chance for Barr to demonstrate a gameness that could revitalize her public persona.
But leading up to the taping and in the aftermath of it, the coverage has been dominated by insult comic and Friar’s Club Roastmaster General Jeffrey Ross, who showed up to the red carpet dressed as Joe Paterno and then joked that Seth Green, who is a redhead, hadn’t “gotten this much attention since you shot all those people in Aurora.” (Comedy Central subsequently said it would cut the joke.) I understand that the schtick is meant to be offensive, but in both cases they’re so anemic and grasping that it’s hard for me to muster much in the way of reaction to them. Especially given that they’re sort of lame by the kind of standards Ross has laid out for himself.
I’ve been spending some time with Ross’s I Only Roast the Ones I Love: How to Bust Balls Without Burning Bridges, in part because I recognize that insult comedy is not a form that I feel naturally comfortable assessing. And his intentions in it, as stated, make a lot of sense. “It is the Roastmaster’s belief that gracing someone you admire with unfiltered honesty is the highest form of respect you can pay them—especially when it’s delivered in the form of a well-crafted joke,” he writes.”When I was asked about producing a roast for boxer Mike Tyson I felt like I had to decline because under my own criteria he just didn’t seem a worthy recipient. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around honoring a convicted rapist and part-time cannibal.” That’s a really interesting intention, especially partnered with the mandate Ross lays out to insert some deep and genuine kindness in a roast, both to hammer down that the event is an honor, and because in the midst of peeling the skin off someone, saying what you love best about them has a greater impact.
The problem comes for insult comics, I think, when their jokes don’t live up to those intentions, which themselves lay out really rich and sensitive comedic territory. It’s not actually true, I don’t think, to say that Seth Green doesn’t have a lot of fun, because he seems to have a pretty awesome job for a grown person and a generally satisfactory life, and the joke doesn’t get at anything about either him, or the man who killed twelve people in Aurora, Colorado. Similarly, Ross cites Larry the Cable guy’s joke as part of what he’s learned to armor himself against, “I get a lot of flak from critics for being homophobic, but lemme tell you somethin’…I think having invited Jeff Ross here tonight proves how much I love the queers,” fails to live up to Ross’s roast standards. What ends up being revealing about that joke is precisely its dishonesty: Larry isn’t willing to declare himself either gay-friendly or a homophobobe, so he employs a “some of my best friends are” ruse that ALSO doesn’t reveal anything true about its subject.
I really think most comedy that fails and ends up being offensive or hurtful is reaching, in its tellers’ intentions, for some kind of truth, and fails when people have profoundly different visions of what’s true, or what the comic wants to argue against. Daniel Tosh set himself up to battle a straw feminist in suggesting that rape always is funny when all he had to argue is that under certain circumstances, jokes about sexual assault can be funny and powerful. He ended up singed, and apparently, rethinking his act. I think Dane Cook wanted to say something true about the awful mundanity of the Aurora shootings, but didn’t ground the routine in commonly-held feelings about The Dark Knight Rises, and was too soon besides. The mistake in situations like these is thinking the truth is obvious or close by, when in reality, it tends to require more careful excavation. That doesn’t mean comedians can’t play a part in that process, but that they sometimes deny themselves a useful role in it.