Category Archives: Mailbag

The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mailbag: Why TV is Good (for me, at least)

“Why do you watch so much TV? And how? I’d think you’d wanna read books more than watch TV!” ~ H.J., Trenton

I love books. I wouldn’t be a grad student now if I didn’t. But I watch TV too, and love it, because TV, as ABC told peeps in  network ad campaign a few years ago, is good. Maybe not always good for you—which I suspect you believe this, which is why you ask this question—but definitely good. See, there are a few things you should know about me:

  • I love movies. Growing up, I was borderline obsessive about movies. And movie stars. And directors. And movie trivia, and history.
  • I love narrative, and characters. Which you can probably tell from a lot of the posts I’ve written right here at the blog.
  • I love BIG narrative, sprawling, long, grand storytelling.
  • My favorite flicks are, maybe, The Godfather (I/II), All About Eve, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Tootsie, Claudine and Titanic. And at the risk of sounding like an old, cliche-ridden fuddy-duddy…they don’t make em like that anymore.

As for movies, somewhere around when I dropped out of college, back in 1990, movies started, in my opinion, to get pretty bad. Special effects were on the rise; characterization was on the wane. Even a lot of the so-called high-brow “indie” flicks that I was supposed to like, being, you know, “middle class” and “educated” (haha), didn’t engage me beyond the hipster cred they were supposed to endow upon me. Going to the movies started to feel like an expensive bore, a reason to go on dates or stay in the general pop culture conversation rather than the transcendent experience movie-going had been for me as a teenager.

That was around the time I started to see how smart many TV shows actually were in comparison. Shows like Law & Order, L.A. Law, thirtysomething (and even sitcoms like Roseanne and Seinfeld) just felt like richer viewing experiences that welcomed (and blossomed with) repeated viewings that exposed nuances beyond the surface appeal. A season of Knots Landing felt like a sexy page-turning thriller. The X-Files was spookier than any sci-fi crap coming down the movie pike, with better stories. And as good as those shows were, we weren’t even close to the next so-called Golden Age of TV that would start in the late 90s and continue right up to today, with its almost novelistic attention to texture and character and detail that absorbs you right in. You could tell something was going on in TV when many movie and theater writers, stars like Aaron Sorkin, started to gravitate to TV, and not just for the money, but because they could stretch out and tell an interesting, long-form story that allowed them time to develop characters and deal with mature themes—the sorta themes you weren’t going to find in the typical thrill-ride cineplex offering that had to appeal to everyone (but especially little boys) to feel like a success. Even the so-called prestige Hollywood pic seemed to be dumber than usual (this would be  a good place to call out American Beauty again, but I’ve beaten up on that poor horse so much I’m starting to feel sorry for it.)

Once HBO decided to devote itself to narrative dramas and sitcoms, the gig for movies, as far as I was concerned, was up. Even if HBO positioned itself as TV for people who didn’t really watch TV—it wasn’t TV, remember, it was, ahem, HBO—it was, nonetheless the place to go for narrative genius, for sophisticated storytelling, for flawed, dynamic characters. A place where you didn’t feel stupid getting involved in the action. A place that gave birth to Showtime’s beauts like the criminally-underrated and underexposed Brotherhood, and TNT knowing drama as they do now with The Closer and other good shows.

So, there you go. I watch TV because, on the real? Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Weeds, Rescue Me, The Good Wife, Louie, Modern Family, Vampire Diaries, Dexter—as well as dearly-departed shows like The Wire, The Shield, The Gilmore Girls and The Sopranos—make movie writing and acting look like bad high school plays that only want to suck your brain as dry as your wallet. Even the bowlderdized rerun episodes of Sex and the City are smarter and funnier than any of the chick-flick movies made in the few years since the show became such a cultural touchstone (and that’s including the movies based on the actual show!) And frankly, other than perhaps the Avatar-scale visual grandness you can only get in the movie house, TV shows just look better than movies these days. (I think there’s a conspiracy in Hollywood to make actresses look as bad as possible—compare Kyra Sedwick on The Closer or Regina King on Southland vs the Sex and the City gals of late!—perhaps to get them all to retire so that the execs can only greenlight boy-films by boys for boys who aren’t all that interested in girls yet?)

And oh yeh, as for how I do it? DVR is a wonderful thing, baby. (And I must give a shout-out to Moms Bryant, for introducing me not only to literature but also to the greatness that was I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and TheHoneymooners , TV classics all.)

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The SPB Mailbag: On Interviewing Beyonce, Diddy, Rodman & other assorted superstars

I really enjoyed your Prince interview. What was the best interview you ever did?” ~ D.E.

Thanks for the nice words, and no thanks for that hard question! Only because as similar as they can be in structure, tone and style, in many ways no two celeb interviews are the same. Maybe because no two celebs are the same? (That’s debatable; if you ever wanna believe in cloning, hang out in hiphop for a few days…just kidding!) Also you can almost never tell, before-hand, what you’ll get out of a subject and whether what you do get out of them will be useful to you or interesting to the reader. So, to answer your question fairly: I’ve had a few “best” interviews ever, either because of the “subject,” the situation or the outcome of the story.

The subject (a tie): Dennis Rodman and Beyonce. Dennis because, come on, could you find a richer subject than The Worm in all of American sports in the mid-90s? He was not only wrecking the league in rebounds and defense, but he was also a cross-dresser! He ran with drag queens (or female impersonators, as he’s wont to correct people, fabulously)! He talked about his potential bisexuality! What (black?) athlete is giving you all that? Also he let what was supposed to be an hour-long lunch interview turn into a whirlwind three days in Chicago, letting me completely inside his clubbing/Taco Bell-eating/vintage-shopping/Pearl Jam-loving world. You can’t ask for more than that from an interview subject. Well, you can, but then you’d probably be killed after getting the lowdown.

Beyonce, because she managed, it seemed, better than any other “superstar” I interviewed, to play “star” and “friend” at the same time. We talked about being Virgos; we sang Dreamgirls lyrics together; we canoodled on the couch in SONY Studios. Okay, that last thing didn’t happen, obviously. Sue me for daydreaming. What I’m saying is that homegirl knows how to be a star yet remains down-to-earth enough to make you feel like everything between you is cool—not exactly a secret, but a nice little pact of privacy that feels almost like a protective shell; she’s taking care of you so that you’ll take care of her—in print. You can hear some of the interview (and one of our giggle-fests) here at Giant.com

The situation: Sean Combs/Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Diddy. I’ll just call him Puff here, since that’s what he was going by when I did the article. My time with Puff taught me two things: 1) how to be insinuating enough that you can turn an allotted “hour or two” with Prince or Rodman or Shaq into a coupla days or more and 2) sometimes having as big an ego as your subject can net you quite a few gains. In Puff’s case, I sorta knew him from the scene, just cause we were both 20-something kats running around the hiphop world of 1990s NYC. We went to the same parties, fashion shows, openings and restaurants. And as a result he, luckily, sorta thought we were on similar trajectories (you see how that turned out). So even while the interview was going on, there was still that little bit of territorial wariness that came from us being popular peers on the scene. Funny moment: In a cab, my pager (pager! whoa! dating m’self!) goes off again. Puff says: “Damn, nigga, you get as many pages as me!” Surprise went to respect went to trust. I didn’t get all his secrets, but I got enough. And I was able to be the first one to get the info about his “firing” from Uptown Records, literally having to stop the VIBE presses to get it into the story.

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The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mailbag: On Blogging, Stephen King, & other assorted heartthrobs

“I really want to start a blog but I don’t know how. What should I write about? What if I can’t find something to write about every day? How do you do it?” ~ A.C.

Most bloggers I know of do not post every day. I don’t. I can’t, and don’t think I would if I could, time-wise, or wanted to. More power to those who do blog every day, but I believe that one should give your readers time to breathe, to recover from your pretensions and go enjoy someone else’s every so often, ya know? Nah, but seriously: write when you have something to share, about things you feel passionate about. I got another email from someone who asked why I didn’t post more “political” entries at Scott Topics™. It’s not that I don’t think about politics—in the “refudiate,” “health care as reparations,” snookered NAACP sense—it’s just that I don’t write that well about it, so why expose the world to my limitations like that when there are so many more peeps out there willing to do it? If you want to blog about books, do that; if you wanna blog about sports, do that. If you wanna mix it up, do that.  Or, here’s an idea: get a buddy or two and start a blog together. Neither one of you would be pressured to be on the grind every day, and you can switch off responsibilities. I blog, mainly, because I don’t have an outlet like journalism anymore, and because it’s such different writing from the main, “scholarly” work I’m doing now, blogging sorta clears my intellectual and emotional palate (or is it palette? can’t one of those be cleaned too?) before going back to that work. In other words I guess blogging is like a nice mint at a restaurant for me, only without everyone else’s germs all over it.

“I see that you’ve mentioned Stephen King often at your blog: So what’s your favorite Stephen King novel?” ~ R.T., Austin

The Stand. Sometimes I think its because, in Mother Abigail, it has the best Magical Negro of all of the ones that have Magical Negroes (or at least Good Morally Centered Negroes) in them, like The Shining, IT, The Green Mile, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (King can even make a real live person into a MN! That’s talent!)—heck, Misery opens with the words “Goddess / Africa.” But back to business: Yes, The Stand is my favorite: it’s epic in scope, just the way a good apocalyptic tale should be, yet has incredibly tender, intimate moments; it might show off King’s gift at building believable, relatable characters better than any of his books (other than maybe Christine, which is actually a quite touching book in some ways, mainly because of the finely-wrought teen-aged characters), and it has a hurtling sense of inevitability to it, like a prediction of things you only think you’d like to see come, if only just to say it was cool. I also think that The Stand contains one of King’s best characters in Harold Lauder, perhaps the most sincerely tragic figure in all of the SK novels that I’ve read.  Thanks for this note. I think it’s time to re-read The Stand again. Like I have time.

“I saw your tweets about James Franco. What’s your fascination with him?” ~ H.J. New Jersey

Um, I’m guessing, since you sent me this email last night, that you are alive, right, that you have a pulse? How’s this for a reason to be fascinated: He’s fine.  (Please don’t tell my girlfriend I said that.)

“On Facebook, you list your political views as “heteroflexibility” and your religious beliefs as “homoflexibility.” What do those words even mean????” ~ F.K.

See answer to the question above.

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