Friday, August 31, 2012

Conservatives Are From CBS, Liberals Are From the BBC

Ah, the final days of August in an election year. We’ve just finished with the Republican National Convention and I’ve avoided writing about it, even though it is a piece of television, largely because I probably won’t be able to write about the Democratic National Convention and I really feel that if we’re going to mock, er…um, talk about one party, we should do the same for the other. As such, our political content here remains relatively low.

Nevertheless, we’re about to head into a time of increased politics on television as we gear up for the election in November. So in honor of the quadrennial event, here’s a potentially probing question as we head into the full election season: Does the kind of television you watch have any relationship to your political identity?  A new article in the Washington Post suggests that perhaps it does.

One of these men influenced the other, but it's not entirely clear which is which.

Some politics on television is obviously not a novel thing. It doesn’t take much more than a cursory look to realize that The West Wing is pretty much written by liberals, for liberals whereas 24 was a neo-conservative’s dream for how the War on Terror should be fought. Likewise, that The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report are the two shows that rank the highest amongst the ultra-left viewers shouldn’t come as a galloping shock to anybody. But what’s interesting is the shows that find themselves weirdly stuck in the electoral middle.

A&E’s Storage Wars and BBC’s Top Gear are both reality shows that feature a similar set up and are thus political brothers despite being slightly more preferred by Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Somewhat conversely, American Dad ranks only as “On-The-Fence Liberal” which may come as a surprise to fans of Seth MacFarlane’s other shows which tend to be more straight up left-wing. Also surprising (to me, anyway) was that ESPN’s college football coverage is ranked Ultra-Conservative. Given the right-wing claim that liberals vastly outnumber conservatives in American colleges, you’d think so many of them wouldn’t just stop watching all sports once they got their diplomas.

 "Can you believe amongst all our liberal arts degrees not a one of us thinks that Keynesian economics is a viable solution to modern financial problems? Crazy!"

The reality, I suspect, is that most shows are comfortably in the political center in terms of viewership, for the simple reason that most shows want (and need) to garner as large of an audience as possible in order to stay on the air. None of the shows that are covered in the WaPo article have any particular political bent, so the only information we can really glean is that people tend to watch a lot of mainstream shows on well-established networks.  Candidates may be tempted to mine these data for some kind of insight (President Obama not too long ago remarked that Omar from The Wire was one of his favorite television characters), but to breathe too much into them is obviously going to be folly to pretty much everyone who isn’t a marketing director looking for a big name endorsement.
Just a quick post on this hot and humid Friday to announce some news...

MTV cancels Jersey Shore

 I think I speak for all of America when I say, THANK THE LORD.

Next week, all of TV Sluts' regular contributors will be on vacation--that's right, we're all going to Las Vegas along with some other friends for a week of fun in the sun and debauchery. I am sure there will also be some television watching in there (hey, it's us), but posts will be probably be on the thin side. Though I have been meaning to post about BBC America's Copper, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, and So You Think You Can Dance...but no promises as to whether it will actually happen. It's a vacation after all!

In the meantime, if anybody wants to send a guest post my way feel free!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dammit, Joss!

Words cannot express the wonder and delight I feel at this moment... Joss Whedon To Write, Direct 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' TV Pilot.

And yet, my heart quakes with fear... What if this is another Firefly - an awesome show that will get scuppered after only a few episodes, leaving us forever wanting more? Or another Dollhouse - an amazing premise ruined by TV execs and foisted on a somnambulant public? I'VE BEEN HURT SO MANY TIMES.

*deep breath* Calm down, Sri, it's going to be okay. I will now comfort myself with news of the second installment of Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog. Also, this picture of Felicia Day.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dance Moms Are Evil

When I was younger, my parents were supportive of my extracurricular activities... as long as they didn't interfere with school. Sometimes that was frustrating, because I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I often wished that my parents were the dedicated, band booster, forensics coach, dance mom types. 

Dear little Sri - count your freaking blessings.

The most terrifying thing on television.

The Dance Moms on Lifetime make the women on Toddlers and Tiaras look like Carol Brady. They fight like cats in a sack, jockeying for position while trying to seem like they're above such petty concerns. What's worse is they hide behind their children, swearing up one side and down the other, "I'm just doing what's best for my daughter."

The hell did you just say?

It doesn't start or stop with the moms, however. The dance coach of the company, Abby, is a vindictive horror. She never hesitates to set her students against their mothers, each others, and themselves. Once, she told a 10-year old girl who lost first place by one point that what she did was: "Great. But not good enough."

To add another level of wrongness, there is a fierce competition between the two dance companies - Abby Lee and Candy Apple. I took dance when I was a kid, and my dance teachers were kind women who emphasized learning and fun. By contrast, to call the coaches at Abby Lee and Candy Apple "harpies" would be an insult to the winged monster community.

The final twist of the knife is the earnestness and innocence of the dancers themselves. You can tell by the wide-eyed looks on their overly made-up faces that they are but pawns in these women's sickening game. I realize that I'm usually much kinder in my reviews, even to other reality TV shows, but honestly.... these Dance Moms need to be stopped.

Run, girls. RUN!

My Cat From Hell

I am not a cat person.

Let's just establish that right here at the beginning. It's not that I hate them (though I like to joke around that I do), they just aren't the pet for me. I prefer dogs: lovable, goofy, affectionate, jelly-belly dogs. Preferably beagles. So nobody was more surprised than me when I got addicted to a show on Animal Planet called My Cat From Hell.

Jackson Galaxy is a rocker. You can tell because he has weird facial hair and lots of tattoos! Also, he drives a pink car. But he is also a cat behaviorist and with the help of a camera crew and millions of corporate dollars, he travels the country helping train cats and their owners (mostly their owners) to resolve disastrous cat-related situations.

Aww, isn't he adorbs?

Some cats attack one or more of their owners. Others run out of the front door anytime it is opened. Some lie in wait for unsuspecting human victims, or attack other cats and dogs in the house. And then there is the pee--on the floor, on the bed, on the clothes. Pretty much anywhere you can think of it, these cats will pee there. But the point is that they are all acting out, sometimes violently, and the effects are more than just some scratched arms and ruined clothes. People's relationships with each other are impacted by the cat's behavior and when things are starting to fall apart--here comes Jackson to save the day!

What I really liked about the show is that Jackson makes it clear that the cats are not acting a certain way because they are crazy or even ill-treated, it's because the humans usually lack a fundamental understanding of cats' instincts. Cats are made to hunt and kill things. That's basically it. Your average house cat may be "domesticated," but you can't breed out instinct. They want to hunt, to pounce, to mark their territory, and to feel that the home is theirs. And it's when these instincts are not given appropriate outlets that cats...well, turn on you. WITH CLAWS.

 AHHHH! Why, Fluffy, whyyyyy?

Jackson visits a home three times: first to diagnose the problem and suggest ways that the humans can alter their behavior and interaction with the cat. The humans need to change and then the cat will follow is basically the theme. Then Jackson returns a few weeks later to check in on their progress. He will usually make a few more suggestions and assign more "homework," and then come back again a few weeks later to check in one final time. And darn it if the cats don't respond.

At the end of the day, the cats aren't evil* and aren't acting out for no reason, it's because the humans haven't adjusted their behavior to what the cats need. And sometimes it comes down to something as simple as playing with the cat every day with a certain type of toy so they get an outlet for their hunting instinct (prey and play). Sure, some cats are more aggressive than others, but there are tricks like rearranging the furniture or investing in certain products that can help the problem. 

As someone who has had little long-term interaction with cats, I find My Cat From Hell fascinating. And Jackson is a really nice, funny person (and NOT your typical reality over the top character) who genuinely loves cats and their owners. Or as he likes to say "human guardians." Or as the cats like to say, "human servants."


Monday, August 27, 2012

Mastering the Art of Happy Little Cloud Gardens

I’m not sure if the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has suddenly been re-staffed by a bunch of hipsters or something, but keen internet observers may have noticed over the past few weeks a series of new videos that… ahem… re-examine some old television favorites.

Have you ever wondered what a Julia Child demo track might sound like or what kind of tunes could be spun from Bob Ross’s “happy little clouds”? Well, my friends feast your ears upon these:

Warning: watching all three may cause uncontrolled nostalgia and a desire to contribute to a local broadcasting system supported by “viewers like you.”

Watching these videos reminded me of exactly how large a role PBS played for me when I was a kid. My family eventually did get cable, but for a long time we only had whatever we could pick up with a pair of bunny ears. This meant that a lot of the television I watched as a kid was publically-funded and produced largely through government grants and private donations.

For a while now, I’ve mocked the Republican talking points about how Democrats want support for programs like PBS because it’s part of a plan to indoctrinate young people into a more left-leaning school of thought. The thing is I’m not so sure that the GOP isn’t completely off track; they just seem to have missed a really critical step. Watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood didn’t turn a young Clovis into a liberal, but it did encourage me to use my imagination, to explore the world around me and to not be so afraid of people or information that was new or different that I wouldn’t go looking for it in the first place.  

The only ideology that public broadcasting promotes is a deeper understanding of the world through learning about new things. If it just so happens that learning about new perspectives and gathering new information about the universe causes young people to question things more directly, which in turn may lead to an examination of their political beliefs, well perhaps the political parties that seek to defund those structures should engage in those same acts themselves to understand why that happens.

Meanwhile, the Summer of Nostalgia races toward a close, but not before we all get the chance to see Julia Child’s dance mix on the virtues of roasted potatoes. We all win.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Political Animals

The entire 6 episode run of Political Animals is waiting at home on my DVR...but I put off watching it until our guest-blogger, Chris, could weigh in. Based on his review, I know what I'll be doing all weekend.

I should start out with an admission. I was supposed to write this post about four weeks ago. But, the more I got into the storyline of Political Animals, the more I wanted to wait until the series was over to share my thoughts. And, to put it concisely, I loved the show.

Political Animals is a six-episode “limited series event” on USA Network (read: mini-series). It focuses primarily on Secretary of State Elaine Barrish, played by the magnificent Sigourney Weaver, who also happens to be a former First Lady who divorced her former President husband shortly after losing her own run at the Democratic nomination. Former President Barrish cheated on Elaine several times while he was Governor and President; the whole thing is very Clintonesque. But I digress.

The family also includes sons Douglas, who is Elaine’s Chief of Staff and engaged to be married, and T.J., who is openly gay and struggling with addiction issues. Also ever-present is Elaine’s sassy mother (and former Vegas showgirl) Margaret. What could ever go wrong with this family?!?

(The Barrish family, with the ever-present reporter off to the left.) 

Like I said, I genuinely enjoyed this show. Admittedly, I’m a HUGE Hillary fan, so the similarities between her and the main character didn’t hurt. Plus, unlike most series that stretch a story on for 12 or more episodes, this felt very succinct. Elaine is more popular than ever now that she’s Secretary of State, and she’s struggling to balance her current duties, her future political ambitions, and her family crises. It doesn’t help there’s a determined reporter at every turn, alternating between unlikely ally and threatening foe.

I appreciated that the show didn’t focus on the President, but rather a Cabinet official who may or may not harbor future political ambitions (I can’t spoil everything, you know?). Somehow, while managing to focus the story on Elaine, the creators did a good job at giving each main character their own plot, and managed to pretty much resolve them all within six episodes.

Ultimately, Political Animals left me satisfied in the story, but wanting more, which is a good thing in my book. I’d rather not be drawn out through 12+ episodes with some faintly connecting arc. If you’re going to tell a story, tell the story and do it right! Being on USA, I would count on a marathon at some point. Its well worth your time, especially given the hints of a second season!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Heart Will Go On (For At Least Four Episodes)

There’s a story, one you may have heard, set in the first part of the 20th century about mankind’s hubris. The story is about two young people, unknown to each other, who set out on a ship across an ocean and who meet along the way. Our two young heroes, hale and attractive as they are, are of course brought together despite the obstacles of class and society around them on board this ship, only to have it all threatened when the bloody thing encounters disaster in the form of an iceberg and sinks to the bottom of the sea, taking many other members of the world’s largest floating class metaphor with it.

But here’s the thing: this story is not Titanic. It’s Titanic. Confused? So were all the characters in the new miniseries that aired this year. That many of them also followed a narrative story similar to Jack and Rose, despite slight variations on their class, position on the ship, employment and background, only adds to the inevitable comparisons between the two.

 Yes, yes, yes. Get to the good stuff. Which characters have sex in a 1912 Renault in the ship's cargo hold?

This Titanic, not to be confused with the 1997 mega-blockbuster starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as the K-Stew and R-Patz of the grunge era, comes to us from the mind of Julian Fellowes, better known as the creator of Downton Abbey. Just like that show, the miniseries uses the world of the British class system in 1912 as more of a backdrop to showcase the different lives of the people onboard the ship, rather than tell the story of the ship itself. And while the characters from the two shows aren’t exactly cookie-cutter versions of each other, viewers of Titanic will have no problem identifying the same tropes, from the ridiculously overly-wealthy countesses who are appalled at the indignity of having to board lifeboats that also hold second class passengers to the ever-present servants who, shockingly, have thoughts and opinions of their own, almost as if they were actual people.

It’s impossible not to compare this miniseries with James Cameron’s film. Many of the same types of characters populate both and, sadly, the quick-and-easy dualism that was so strong in the film hasn’t really gone anywhere for the miniseries. The upper classes are uniformly stuck-up, entitled (literally, in many cases) and turning up their noses at all the immigrants and other mundanes who didn’t have the decency to be born with an estate. The Steerage and the working class are all honest, hard-working, pure of heart folk who just want a life of opportunity in (say it with me, preferably with an Irish accent) “The New World.” Each class of course has an exception; Amongst the First Class it’s Lady Georgiana who at 17 years old is blue-blood, but has a proclivity for attending Suffragist rallies and being attracted to “revolutionaries and freedom fighters.” In the bowels of the ship, it’s Peter Lubov, an immigrant who murdered London police officers and convinces a young Irish mother to have an affair, despite her husband and children being only decks away.

 With so many different kinds of us on board, you'd almost think there was a metaphor at play here. Oh who cares - Waiter, more freshly ground immigrant pate, please!

The focus on the wide variety of characters is really the only thing about this version of the story that makes it worthwhile watching over Cameron’s film or even other earlier films like A Night To Remember. The story is told slightly out of sequence; each of the first three episodes roughly follows a different class from their boarding of the ship right up until the critical moments of the sinking as the prow slides under the water and the true panic sets in. The fourth and final episode ties all three classes together and resolves the plotlines, including who lives and who dies. This multi-perspective approach gives the miniseries it’s only real toe-hold on the Titanic cinematic legacy, oftentimes showing the same scene two or three times only from the perspective of the different classes each time. The end result is a central character in episode one is barely a tertiary character in episode three and though we see some of the same action, each time around we see it with all the antecedents of a different class, and cast, of characters.

All this attention on the people, of course, means that we get very little attention on the actual ship. Unlike Cameron’s film, in which Titanic was as much of a character as the romantic leads were, we really barely see her at all. Almost no attention whatsoever is paid to the ship herself, save for the one moment in each of the first three episodes when the iceberg is either spotted or when it collides with the ship and her final plunge into depths, and even that is only seen in the background as a bunch of cold, wealthy people shiver in their furs and wonder when another boat will come to rescue them. As such, the entire series feels like it could have been set in a typical English drawing room, right up until those surreal moments when the world’s axis starts to shift, literally and metaphorically, and water and immigrants begin to rush into the luxurious sets.   

 Or as modern day Republicans call it, "Class Warfare."

Your mileage may vary as to how important Titanic herself is to the story of her sinking. As it is, there are plenty of real-life luminaries to focus on, including all the usual suspects in the form of Molly Brown, J. Bruce Ismay, the Astors and Captain Smith. The “downstairs” contingent is made largely of fictitious names, seeing as how many of the real-life staff of the Titanic didn’t exactly survive to make names of themselves. The exception, again, being Peter Lubov, who was a real gang leader in London’s East End in 1911, escaping from the city never to be heard from again. You know, until he boarded the Titanic and got sexy with an Irish lady. Or so we’re told.

Because 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the obsession with the event is understandable and, to the extent that it can, the miniseries attempts to wrap itself around what has long been the central perception of that tragedy; that the ship was a microcosm of the nascent 20th century not only in how unfortunately proud mankind was for building an “unsinkable” ship, but also for the various class divides that were only starting to be questioned and found wanting.  Unfortunately, it lacks for the time to really explore the issues, since when your ship is slowly sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, not many characters are inclined to wax philosophical about the Bigger Meaning Of It All. As viewers, we’re left both expecting it to hit the same action-y notes as the film and hoping that it will give us something more. Truly, a titanic task. (Sorry. I had to go there.) As such, it comes off a little like a smaller version of both the more famous film and its spiritual predecessor, Downton Abbey. Still worth the watch, especially for Titanic buffs, but like several of the characters in the end, you’ll be left feeling a bit at sea.