Rolling Stone follows up the True Blood cover with a celebration of Mad Men, calling it “the best show on TV.” I’ve always thought so, but after this week’s episode—Don’s “lost weekend”, Peggy’s assertiveness, when-Roger-met-Don, Pete’s Cosgrove-inspired meltdown—it’s feeling more like the best show ever (well, other than The Wire…or (the first 6 seasons of) The Gilmore Girls, I guess, but I digress…) Here’s the cover: Don Draper with Peggy, Betty and Joan, three of the women in his life. Seizing the pop culture moment, before the backlash begins, baby…? (Oh, before I forget, might that reference made to Don’s new art director—who’s clearly an insecure, sexist mess!—mean the possible return of dear old Gay Sal? Hope so…)
Category Archives: TV
“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.)
All this love. All this pain. All my TV shows, or at least a bunch of them, have these characters suffering the slings and arrows of love affairs dying or being broken up or just coming to sad, centuries-old ends. On True Blood, Eric’s revenge murder has broken the thousand-year relationship between Russell, the Vampire King of Mississippi and his consort Talbot. On Big Brother, the houseguests evicted Rachel, the Vegas barmaid/chemist who made fire-engine red hair extensions famous, breaking up her alliance with swim coach/physicist Brendon, and temporarily putting a halt on their blossoming affair, by far the fastest-starting showmance in the history of my TV viewing. And on Mad Men, Don Draper’s not ending a love affair, but he’s learning a lesson about using women and the emotional fall-out of taking them for granted.
The thing is this, though: Why does the end of a vampire love affair resonate more strongly for me than the one between the “real people” on Big Brother? Why did I feel more moved by Russell’s howl of pain and fury than I did Rachel’s tears and Brendon’s pouts? Might it have something to do with the fact that, apparently, competitive reality shows and the showmances that drive them have run their course with me? From day one of this new season of Big Brother—the first season I’ve closely followed in about two years—I knew I wasn’t going to get too emotionally involved with this cast of characters. Why? Because there was something too knowing about each of them, too ready-for-the camera without being ready, it seemed, for the world. Is this what’s happened to society since the advent of reality tv? Have we created a nation of wannabe stars with personalities that seem dipped in acid and lizard spit? I don’t mean to be mean—or maybe I was just raised with a certain amount of decorum and politeness—but these people don’t seem merely dumb, they’re so cavalier about the feelings of others that they all seem like they’ve forsaken their humanity in the pursuit of half a million bucks. The things these people say about each other! The love affairs that begin three days into captivity! The breathless rushes to judgments and alliance-building, based on nothing more than shared commitments to clichéd notions of heteronormative masculinity!
I’m beginning to think this season of Big Brother might be the last one I can watch with any dignity. I find myself thinking the worst things about these people, wondering how they even function in the real world when they seem like such babies and monsters on TV. You know something’s very wrong when even the queer guy, Ragan (who seems like he might a cool dude), is one of the biggest dupes in the cast. Then again, perhaps he’s just laying the groundwork for a career in Internet porn like one of the last queer guys to appear on BB, so blind trust might be a quality he’s trying to cultivate before a national audience. (And I have a question about Ragan: what sorta PhD has 300 grand in student loans to pay back? Wow.) I will say this, however: the truly creepiest moment on Big Brother this season (and clearly, there have been many) was when CBS took a camera to Brendon’s ex-fiancee‘s house, where she detailed how she’d dropped him, calling him all kinds of names as she “watched” an episode with her family. If he was such a bad guy that you killed the engagement, why appear on his reality show to bad-mouth him—and let your mother add to the dissing? It felt so exploitative and nasty I couldn’t pull my eyes from the screen to finish my bowl of pasta. Apparently one doesn’t have to get “cast” on a reality show these days to show your true wannabe colors. Sometimes the easiest thing to say is, “No.” I think.
As for Mr. Don Draper: poor thing’s about to lose his best friend to cancer just as he seems to be swirling around the bowl in a mucous-y blend of whiskey and hooker hook-ups. I’m glad he’s away from Betty, but what has he gained in the process? An ugly apartment in the Village? I’m hoping this season of Mad Men gives Don a real good professional challenge to overcome, because his personal life is getting increasingly hard to watch, almost as bad as poor Joan and her Vietnam-bound hubby. (Side note: Can’t the casting directors of these shows start finding some new actors for parts? Maybe I just watch too much TV—quite possible, at least until school starts!—but seeing Sam Page as Joan’s husband so soon after seeing him play Bree’s dead husband’s long-lost son on Desperate Housewives starts to confuse me after a while; I keep mistaking back-stories and mixing up character motivations.) Hmmm, now that I think about it, yes, I’m probably watching too much TV. But hell, at least it beats going to the movies for inception, I mean, “entertainment.”
Vive l’amour! Vive le Television! (I’m not being pretentious, I just have all this French in my brain as I’m studying to pass a language exam in two weeks. Pray for a brotha.)
Later today I’m posting a TV piece, mainly about True Blood, Big Brother and Mad Men. But I just had to post this cover shot from the new issue of Rolling Stone magazine. What do you make of it? You can go to RollingStone.com to get more info about it (and more pics, too…)
Okay foodies, supporters of black women’s professional (and culinary) dreams, and all-around SPB peeps, I need your help. An old friend Heather Johnston is a Finalist in the Food Network/YouTube Challenge with her Video for Arancini, a delectable fried risotto croquet. The winner of the contest gets a trip to NYC (which is literally 5 miles from where she lives lol) but more importantly, she’d get a sit down with major Food Network casting agents. And we could always use another fierce sista on the Food Network, right?
I’ve known Heather since I was a junior in high school, thinking about colleges. She was a local girl, at Harvard at the time, and came to my school to tell us all about the Big Crimson. She was so real, so down-to-earth (and pretty), I immediately started thinking about the Ivy League—after always thinking I’d never go to college, just go to Paris like James Baldwin (!) and “be a writer.” I did end up a writer, but only after going to a different school—but I still give thanks that I was able to meet Heather, who was doing what we all should do, reach back and bring some others along. Funnily enough, I did end up at Harvard, some twenty-five years after meeting her!
Heather’s had quite a life since she graduated back in the day: this married mother of 2 daughters made 3 independent films with her husband-of-21-years/partner Gordon Ericksen, before transitioning to food, after graduating from The French Culinary Institute in 1997. Her vlog SoGood.tv, where she covers food, wine, some travel, and food politics issues like sustainability and hunger, has been around since 2006. (You can follow her @sogoodtv on twitter), and she’s been featured in Essence as well in USA Today, where SoGood.tv was called one of 5 Blogs to Watch.
So here’s where you good peeps come in: Heather needs your vote! Go to Heather’s page (see vid below). Watch the video and then CLICK the thumbs up button when the prompt comes up either at the 10 second mark or at the end. You can do this EVERYDAY UNTIL AUGUST 16th!!!
Now…Go and make some arancini…and VOTE! Share and spread the word!
Every few months here at SCOTT TOPICS™ I like to assess my level of happiness. Of course, that can be a sorta futile exercise at times, considering a) the general state of the world and b) how busy I make myself and some of the ridiculous decisions I’ve made (go back to Brown AND still work at Giant AND try to finish a novel?) and continue to make (get a PhD?). That said, I did get to spend a great month in New York, visiting with my Mom and Pops, the greatest parents in the world (or at least they were from 1970 to 1980, and then again sometime in the late 90s—only kidding, Bryants, you know I love you), and seeing my lil sister, who keeps me grounded and likes to wax nostalgic with me. So I try to be thankful for the good things even when I’m chastising myself for being lazy or boring or jealous of my friends who got a chance to actually get a vacation this summer.
So, here’s my list of Reasons to be Cheerful. Maybe some of them make you happy as well…
- Janelle Monae‘s album, yes, but also her amazing new video for “Cold War”—stunning, as they say, in its simplicity, making perfect use of her expressive face, and doing what rarely happens for me: making me like the song more than I had just listening to it on iTunes. As a constant complainer about the paucity of cleverness, drama and creativity in contemporary pop music, Janelle Monae has given me faith that music (and videos) that makes you think and feel can still be made with grace and smarts. Check out the vid here if you haven’t seen it:
- Mad Men: Still so entertaining that I actually watch it first-run (and miss baseball) instead of DVR’ing it, just cause I have to. Even when its disgusting 60’s-era sexism and racism rears its ugly head—as, one guesses, it must, to stay realistic to the time—it’s never not watchable, and always resonant with such timeless meditations on loss, identity, desire and the often covert intricacies of pleasure. Scrumptious.
- Shane Vogel’s Scene of the Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance: A book, among a few others, that gave me faith that perhaps this grad school thing might just work out. Vogel’s cultural history of the “Harlem Renaissance” nicely traces some of the historical debates around African American “uplift” as it theorizes on the critical cultural work done by the “Cabaret School” of entertainers, writers and musicians who found space in the nightclubs of Harlem to critique many of those debates. Maybe my favorite scholarly text since discovering Daphne Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent last school year.
- Cardullo’s: A gourmet delicatessen in Harvard Square that actually makes sandwiches, which seem to be in short supply around Cambridge, other than the Subway stores I stumble upon. It’s the closest I’ve come to a stylish NY sandwich spot, where I can also get gourmet jam or pasta sauce if I’m so inclined (or flush with cash). And the peeps who work there are actually pleasant and nice—something else in short supply in Cambridge. (Is it a New England, or Boston, thing?)
- The SPB Q Grad Chapter and otherwise: The success of my new blog feature excites me to no end. Glad that so many cool peeps have agreed to do my fun little questionnaire. Good to share some behind-the-scenes interests of folks doing great work in their fields. Upcoming Qs (Grad Chapter or otherwise): Farah Jasmine Griffin, Christina Sharpe, Alexander Weheliye, Patrik-Ian Polk, Bassey Ipki, and some others I’m just starting to confirm!
- blip.fm: Thanks to my new Twitter friend @Fortitude1913, I’ve discovered this fun website that allows you to DJ your own playlists. It’s like a virtual digging into the crates. Music Geek Central. Go give it a whirl.
- Twitter: I wasn’t much of a social network-type til my agent and editor convinced me, around the time of HUNG’s release, to get into the blogging/Internet world to make my presence known beyond print media. When I got to Brown in 2007, like every other undergrad in the world, I joined Facebook. And loved it. Then came Twitter, which I resisted in a major way—way too much screen time that wasn‘t devoted to work. Then I tried it, and the community of new peeps in my life, mostly other grad students going through a lot of the same dramas and issues, has made this new experience bearable in an crazy way. Go on if you haven’t; you might find a community that needs you as much as you need it. (shout-outs to @soulunderthesun, @happybrowngirl, @redclayscholar, @ashoncrawley @negrointellect @sherealcool, @roopikarisam & all the other phd-seekers who’ve made my Twitter-time fun.
- My lacrosse stick: Who, even though I sometimes used to lose him due to fear, insecurity, time constraints, away games or combinations of any of the above, always managed to get found. And I gotta shout him out for letting me call him “my lacrosse stick” in very public spaces. ; )
- Peter Pan Bus: When I don’t have to be in NYC in a hurry (and thus fly), it’s easy (and cheap) to hop on the Peter Pan bus from South Station. Amtrak isn’t even on my radar anymore when I can sleep, chill, watch a flick or go on the Internet…for 18 bucks, and be in NYC before I know it.
- Darieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination: I came close to working with Professor Scott at Berkeley but decided to stay on the East Coast for my studies, but I can still learn a whole lot from this brother, an incredible writer and thinker. I cannot wait to get my copy of his new book in the mail later this week. Robert Reid-Pharr calls this theorization of the relationship between blackness and abjection “sophisticated, provocative, and indeed, titillating.” Sounds like a winner.
- EBONY Magazine: Of course I grew up reading Ebony like every other black kid in the US of A. Never got a chance to write for it til last year’s tribute to Michael Jackson. Now, there’s a new editor-in-chief, my old Brown classmate author/editor Amy DuBois Barnett, and I’m already writing for them. My “making-of” love jones article runs a coupla issues from now. Sending good thoughts to Amy in her mission to redefine EBONY for a new era and generation. Let’s all support a sister.
- New De La Soul music: A coupla days ago I got a mysterious email. Opened it to find a link to a brand-new track by my favorite rap group of all time. De La’s recording a new album and this track, called “The Return of DST” might be on it. It’s a hot, funky, catchy lil record, clever as usual: paying tribute to DJ Grandmixter D. ST., the song eventually mutates into the actual Fantastic Five’s “gusto is going home with me” freestyle. (Which is sorta cute considering The Fantastic Five sampled The Headhunters’ “God Made me Funky” on that record—which was also sampled by De La on De La Soul is Dead‘s “Pease Porridge” and “Take it Off” from 3 Ft. High and Rising. It all comes full circle, old school to new school and all the way back again…) Hear the song here at SoulCulture.com.
So, till next time: don’t worry, try to be happy, and remember the things that make you cheerful…Oh, by the way, for those of you who don’t know the original song that gives this blog post its name and theme, here’s a video of Ian Dury and the Blockheads funky 1979 song:
I never ever thought I’d ever say this again, after pretty much writing off the show after one of the confusing and awful Maryanne-as-slave master episodes last season, but: I’m starting to really enjoy True Blood. It’s not that it’s gotten any better to me; it just feels more entertaining. And my reasons for enjoying it can be summed up in two words: Denis O’Hare.
I’ve been a fan of O’Hare’s work ever since I saw him in the original Public Theatre production of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out. I loved the play and O’Hare’s expertly-rendered, heartbreaking performance as the gay accountant of a recently-out baseball star so much that I saw it again on Broadway. So, to be blunt, I was sorta nervous when I heard he was subjecting himself to the trainwreck of over-acting and bad writing that was True Blood, a show that somehow managed to make otherwise good smart actors (cf. Michelle Forbes, Evan Rachel Wood, Lois Smith, Adina Porter) into screeching, unappealing cartoons.
Well, maybe O’Hare’s too good or too smart. Because his work as Russell, the King of Mississippi is nothing but funny and engaging. He plays the blend of put-upon husband and petulant royal to the hilt, as if he knows it’s all one big joke anyway, so why not invest it with a little heart and humor and, as my buddy Al, calls it delicious evil? Perhaps his lover Talbot put it perfectly when he told the King, “You’re acting like a century-old child.”
O’Hare’s presence has given me something to pay attention to when I’m looking away from the dubious racial imagery True Blood has been playing with all season. Ever since the overly-symbolic representation of Maryanne as slave master last season, it seems as if Alan Ball and his staff of writers have decided to just go full-out with all the master-and-slave shenanigans, most often putting Tara (and regular readers know how I feel about that particular disaster) into some of the most stereotypical slave images I’ve seen in a piece of American pop culture since Mandingo—and that movie was about antebellum times (and, believe it or not, in some ways smarter than True Blood; see it if you haven’t)! Tara chained to the bed in the southern plantation in a Victorian era-looking (white!) cotton dress, held down to the whims of her white “owner.” Tara escaping the chains, and fleeing barefoot across the plantation, dogs snapping at her heels. Then, after one of the dogs catches her, it transforms into a nude white guy mounting her in a very sexual way. I know bodies (and the various ways of queering of them through dress, behavior and, well, death) play an important part in the True Blood ethos, but when you’re dealing with the black female body, in an overwhelmingly white, Southern, (over)sexualized context, perhaps you’d wanna re-think some of the visual tropes you’re trotting out for your upscale, liberal HBO audience. The sad part is this: I’m not even sure that Ball and co. actually realize the power of playing so indiscriminately with such overdetermined imagery. Do they think they’re making some statement about race and gender? Or are they just trying to push the envelope? Either way it’s coming off in a rather distasteful and disturbing way. It’s not Great TV. It’s racism.
Anyway, it has been interesting to observe the more explicitly queer aspects of the show take root, starting with Sam Merlotte’s dream in which Vampire Bill glamoured him into a shower sex romp. Of course we didn’t see it happen—Sam was saved, literally, by the bell (the ringing of his phone)—but it woulda been good; seemed to be more chemistry between the shape-shifter and the Vampire than I’ve ever witnessed between Bill and Sookie. I was happy to see Lafayette get some loving—well, at least a kiss—from the only other dude-of-color to ever appear in Bon Temps since Eggs got shot. And how about sly old Eric Northman? (I love that character’s name even though up until last night the man himself didn’t do much for me.) If there’s one thing Alan Ball’s characters know how to do it’s to use sex as a weapon. Too bad Talbot had to be on the, um, receiving end of Eric’s revenge scenario. But only True Blood could make the prelude to murder into sexy freaking foreplay—with a striptease, natch! I loved the convo before they got down in the groove: Eric “It’s been a long time since I’ve done this.” Talbot “A man.” Eric “No, a vampire.” Funny, sexy, piquant with expectation.
For a second there I thought I was watching an episode from the first season!
See the scene below:Vodpod videos no longer available.