Sunday, January 24, 2010

10 for '10: A Decade in Pop Culture (Television)

Acting as our introductory course is television. Why television? Well, honestly, it's cause it's the easiest. But a more analytical reason would be that, out of every pop culture medium we have seen thus far, television has progressed in quality and sophistication the most. Music and film have taken turns for the worst, and while one can find quality in those areas, neither of them are more ubiquitous than television.

So what happened in the last ten years? There's one gleaming turn of events that comes to mind: Reality shows became king (and you'd be hard pressed to find one of those on this list [I still love you Top Chef]). For example, VH1 converted it's "MTV for Adults" status into a get rich quick scheme involving past contestants of a ever-perpetuating cycle of trashy, Jerry Springer-esque dating shows (which, if you think about it, is pretty brilliant). This mentality became quite pervasive in the past decade, influencing the big four networks to rethink their business model (i.e. investing in low-cost, cheaply produced reality programming). Subsequently, quality, hour-long shows got the short end of the stick and we get to suffer with the wrath of The Jay Leno Show. This inconvenient consequence, however, did prove to bear some fruits that were advantageous to cultivate. The cable networks decided to fully embrace the now fringe niche demographics that yearned for quality programming on television, and because of this, they excelled. On a list of ten, you will find only four that belong to a major network (two of which were canceled before their prime). The rest belong to premium cable or foreign entities, all of which pride themselves in quality entertainment.

And quality it was.

This decade redefined comedy. No longer did we have three static camera shots, lazy cutting and editing and a studio audience to dictate when we should laugh. Comedy became sophisticated, postmodern, deeply humanistic and, of course, down right hilarious.

This decade redefined genre. Well, actually, not so much redefined it, but retained genre's original purpose: using its reputation as an un-aristocratic medium to more easily comment on the human condition. Being both retrospective and introspective, genre is now synonymous with drama. For the first time in television's short history, people can watch a series of television and take something away from it; not just cheap thrills and temporary buzz, but an experience that is both long-lasting and influential.

I tried to base the list on a criteria that addresses longevity, influence and how well it represents the recurring themes of our past decade. Because of this, only three of the shows have not yet ended, while the rest have had completed their runs and have gone through the trials and tribulations of cultural idolatry. It goes without saying, there are a ton of shows that just missed the cut. Here's the "barely missed it" list:

30 Rock
Battlestar Galactica
Breaking Bad
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Flight of the Conchords
The Office (US)
The Shield
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
True Blood

And now, without further ado, here's the list. I hope you have as much fun reading this as I had writing it.

10. Freaks and Geeks

"The dance is tomorrow. She's a cheerleader. You've seen Star Wars 27 times. Do the math."
-Neil Schwe

It's interesting when a show has the capability to trigger our soft spot for nostalgia, but what makes it down right impressive is when that show takes place in an era you weren't even a part of. Of course, Freaks and Geeks, by plot design, was meant to speak specifically to a lost generation. Instead of focusing on the kitsch pastiche that the 80s is so often known for, the show sublimely focused on the universal themes of coming into adulthood, through the perspective of the freaks who loved being losers and the geeks who had no other choice but to be.

What made the show work turned out to be its unraveling as well. Unlike any other sitcom before it, the show did not resort to one-line zingers, static camera set ups or a studio audience. instead, the show acted as if it was a digital projection of our high school experiences. Missing was the grandiose representations of rites of passages (our first kiss, our first date, fake id's, etc). The show did address those issues, but in a way that avoided the fleeting romantic interpretation and focused on the unpredictability and, often times, pure humiliation and awkwardness that comes with being a teenager.

Freaks and Geeks was canceled after it's first season, probably because of the aforementioned above. Quite simple, there was no market for it. The youth were too busy getting their brains washed by teenage fantasies on the WB (Dawson's Creek and Popular), which left little room for cultural works. All too often, we, the audience, turn to the popular arts as a form of escapism, which, in my opinion, breeds an unhealthy focus on expectations that will most likely never come into fruition (Pacey will never buy a wall for you, Ryan Gosling will never built your own art room for you, and Heath Ledger will never hire a marching band and organize a showtune). The lasting pleasure in a show like Freaks and Geeks is that moment of recognition when we see ourselves reflected on screen; a startling realization for all those who survived the ritual that was high school.

Must See Episodes: The Garage, Tests and Breasts, The Little Things

9. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

"If 'con' is the opposite of 'pro', then isn't 'Congress' the opposite of 'progress'? Or did we just fucking blow your mind?"
-Jon Stewart

Recently, an online poll conducted by Time Magazine announced that Jon Stewart was voted America's most trusted newsman, days after the passing of the journalistic legend Walter Cronkite. While many would argue that having a comedian as a trustworthy journalist is an omen of the coming apocalypse, I would argue that comedians, as well as other purveyors of various social mediums, are themselves a different kind of journalism.

Journalism has taken a turn for the worst since 2000. The consequences of Reagan's decision to abolish the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 has reached the limit's precipice, with media organizations on both sides of the political spectrum using hyperbole, sensationalism and even escapism to reach their chosen means. The most glaring of examples, Fox News: an organization that is run by people too smart (Oh hi, Rupert) to believe in 2/3 of the polemic, unsound and illogical rhetoric of conservative mouthpieces. Both Rupert Murdoch and Sean Hannity have gone on record in the past discussing how television journalism is now a "show", much like professional wrestling. The drama is fake, but the consequential pain is real.

Recently, Sharon Begley of Newsweek wrote an article titled, 'Lies of Mass Destruction', where she discusses how the GOP has successfully started a small, albeit vocal grassroots movement against healthcare reform. Sociologist Stephen Hoffman is cited, in which he talks about 'motivated reasoning'; a phenomenon he describes as, 'Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or dis-confirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe. For the most part, people completely ignore contrary information and are able to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information". Fox News, and its army of babbling baboons knows this. They prey on the weak, frightened and anxious- with their main intention to reap monetary gain through the use of fear mongering. This is journalism today: a monster that has distanced itself from the original noble intentions of journalism.

Jon Stewart, much like Hannity, Beck and Murdoch, also has a modus operandi that varies from journalism's original purpose; only difference is Stewart fully acknowledges that. He's a fucking comedian. His job is to make people laugh, first and foremost. It is not to inform nor is it to progress the medium of journalism. His motive is to point out the world's obvious truths by exposing the liars who decide to hide them. It just so happens that this job has been significantly easier in the past decade, thus making Stewart a champion for those who wish to read through the lines. The reason why he is America's trusted newsman is because of the very face that he is outside the spectrum of traditional news. Without the motive for profit or the desire to construct the public consciousness, Stewart is in a position more conducive to point out the evident ironies and contradictions of everyday events. Now, while Stewart is by no means a necessary, or even sufficient, source of news information, what he represents is his legacy; his willingness to challenge authority, break from the status quo, and encouragement to better oneself not through one program, but through every option and outlet available. It is not so much the content itself that is important, but the philosophy behind the content that is.

Must See Episodes: The Jim Kramer Episode, The Bill O'Reilly Episode, The Mike Huckabee Episode

8. Mad Men

"Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened."
-Don Draper

The youngest show on our list, Mad Men exudes a shuddering confidence in itself. It's tight, taut, refined and alluring, as if creator Matthew Weiner intricately placed the pieces of the jigsaw years before the actual conception of the show. An almost perfect show, the acting is superb, the writing should win a Pulitzer and the cinematography is glamorous enough to convince me to invest in a Blu-ray player. But this isn't all that makes Mad Men so promising (I say promising because it is only in its third season). Any show can dress good looking people up in suits, hire a great and experienced cinematographer and call it a day (in fact, many shows are very much like that). It is the thematic elements of Mad Men that make it so versatile and not just another pretty face.

Mad Men is about America--simplistic, almost cheesy to say, but that's it in its most essential and pure form. It captures the last great turning point of American society-- the last breath of the "American Dream". The place: New York City; the true synecdoche of America, a place of opportunity, riches and beauty. The time: 1960; a time where, not just the States, but the world was on the brink of social revolution. The world and its idealism was changing. People didn't want to be told what to do, as the show eloquently says through a hippie mouthpiece, it wants to "feel something". Matthew Weiner takes advantage of this idealism born from the loins of the 60s and instead of reveling in the revolutionaries, he takes a look at the purveyors of tradition: the original American Dream. A race of people stuck in their social and sexual roles, unwilling to change and ignorant of the things that frighten them so. By centering the show around a 1960s ad agency (Sterling Cooper), we see what the relics of a forgotten America believe what consumers want, subsequently revealing the morals and mores that have since been abandoned.

The first season of Mad Men boasted the tagline 'Where The Truth Lies". Other than the obvious cleverness in the meaning's double entendre, the tagline provides the quintessential exegesis of the cultural importance of this very young show: it is a study of the subjectivity of truth and how that truth is defined in a world that is already gone. It is by no mere instance of happenstance that our main characters, the purveyors of consumer culture-- those who try to dictate what we value and don't--are liars, thieves, racists, homophobes, bigots, closeted homosexuals, repressed women and cheaters. Mad Men is about the American dream before it came true.

Must See Episodes: Meditations on an Emergency, The Wheel, Maidenform

7. Deadwood

"Tell your God to ready for blood"
-Al Swearingen

Another show cut tragically cut short due to financial mumbo-jumbo, Deadwood is possibly the best, most mature and laudable postmodern take on the mythical American Wild West. While Westerners of yesteryear dealt with modern narratives dealing with pre-subscribed roles (The Good, The Bad, The Ugly), creator David Milch and his team of fearless writers took the spaghetti out of Western and took a myth as large and symbolic as the American West and Wild Bill Hicock and made it into bloody Shakespeare. The Western is a genre that is the closest thing that we will ever have as pure, good old fashioned, American-born folklore, and because of this, the genre has been dissected, hollowed out and ultimately butchered since the beginning of modern American narrative. In this context, Deadwood is not just a a brilliantly enjoyable show, it is a milestone in American culture; a landscape so rich, detailed and thoroughly original that one forgets about the preconceived notions that come with a myth as large as cowboys and Indians.

Must See Episodes: Suffer The Little Children, A Lie Agreed Upon, Boy the Earth Talks to

The Office (UK)

"Life is a series of peaks and troughs. And you don't know whether you're in a trough until you're climbing out, or on a peak until you're coming down. And that's it you know, you never know what's round the corner. But it's all good. 'If you want the rainbow, you've gotta put up with the rain.' Do you know which 'philosopher' said that? Dolly Parton. And people say she's just a big pair of tits."
-David Brent

At the end of the 20th century, static multi-cams, laugh tracks and punchlines masked as dialogue dominated the airwaves of American television, subsequently setting the global precedent of what makes us laugh. Enter Ricky Gervais' incarnation of the boss from hell. Loud, cheeky, boorish and most of all, offensive, David Brent single handily changed the landscape of contemporary comedy.

The Office had a simple premise. Building around the sensibilities of his born English wit, in addition to utilizing the brilliance of his comedy heroes (i.e. Christopher Guest), Ricky Gervais and co-creator Stephen Merchant focused on odd, unusual and cringeworthy situations. The primary one being Ricky Gervais' inexcusably ignorant branch manager David Brent and his inability to be liked, even though he so badly wants to be. At first, the awkwardness is too much to bare. I found myself cringing every time David Brent would inappropriately make an off-colored joke about "colored" people. After the third or fourth episode, however, I not only found myself on the floor in stitches, but realized the brilliance in the satire and it's surprisingly hidden humanity.

Humanity is what makes The Office more than just a run of a mill comedy. It showed that comedy, like drama, could have a lasting, influential effect. It could be thoughtful and well-planned out. It could, ironically, bring the genre to the realm of possibility. While the concept of the mockumentary has been done numerous times, creators and writers Gervais and Merchant utilized what made the mockumentary so intriguing to begin with; they took advantage of the ability to look into the characters' deepest and most inner thoughts. Combined with boisterous laughs brought on upon the tension of awkward silence, The Office is now remembered as a monstrously influential hit, with the ability to make us laugh underneath the shrouded context of middle-class ennui.

Must See Episodes: Training, Motivation, Christmas Special

Six Feet Under

"You can't take a picture of this. It's already gone."
-Nathaniel Fisher Jr.

I read a comment once on a thread (possibly Ain't It Cool News; the cross section where inbreeds and their mentally challenged offspring come ot converge to pontificate about David Fincher and his favorite sexual positions) regarding the HBO drama Six Feet Under. My memory is vague, but the comment went something like this:

"Pft. That show is only for cunts and fags".

Or something along the borderlines of where homophobia and sexism come together to create one horrible hate baby. Anyway, I bring this up only to point out the inherent irony in the viewing habits and opinions of the contemporary audience. It seems like these days, people are so afraid to wlak around without their armor, as if succumbing to anything remotely relating to one's deepest emotions would reveal themselves to be weak and consequently ridiculed. Six Feet Under is the apotheosis of that sentiment. Creator Alan Ball, after writing an equally as revealing screen play, American Beauty, wanted t convey everything hysterical, tragic, glorious, ironic and disheartening about what it is to be human. A broad and bold concept, something that most dramas aspire to do, but Ball used the backdrop of a funeral home as the most sensible context to comment about the contrasting polarity of life and death.

The show focuses around the Fisher's, a family that runs their own funeral home business that is brought together by the death of the father. Through five seasons, the show focuses not only on the grief stricken families that come to the Fisher's for their services, bu the Fisher's themselves, who are equally as tragic, funny and fickle as life itself. It would be too easy to say tha ths show's preeminent themes are life and death. As true as that statement would be, it is just too broad and unspecific for a show that is so profound and transcendent. Instead, this show is all about the little things. You know, like relaitonships, parenthood, sex, drugs nad secrets. While Grey's Anatomy and shows akin to it have trained us to believe that the significant moments in our lives would be pictured, framed and frozen in our memory for the rest of our lives; when in reality, the most significant moments in our lives are ones we don't even know are passing by, and the ones that we expect to turn out to be nothing but just another day. Yes, Six Feet Under is a drama, but the reality of these "moments" portrayed on the show make it more authentic than any half baked "reality" show on air today.

Must See Episodes: Everyone's Waiting, Life's Too Short, That's My Dog

4. Arrested Development

"I'm afraid I prematurely shot my wad on what was supposed to be a dry run, if you will. So I'm afraid I have something of a mess on my hands."
-Tobias Funke

While 'The Office' represents eveyrthing that is great about British comedy in the last ten years, Fox's Arrested Development, about a WACKY family and "the one son that has no choice but to keep them together" (yep, stolen directly from the intro), was the shining beacon of hope (much like Obama, circa 2008) for American comedy on broadcast television; that is, of course, before they were canceled (Thanks Rupert!). There's two ways we can go about this. The first way, we can refelct on the groundbreaking satire of corporate greed, political correctness and distinct diversity that makes the American family so enjoyable to dissect. Or we oculd just talk about the laughs per second ratio that was higher than any other show known to man (even Glenn Beck! HEYO!). I'd rather not reflect on both (you see what I did there? By mentioning it, I did reflect on it. It's a trick they teach you in Journalism school. Although I never attended, I hear the lecture halls are just superb). To put it simply (and I want to, because right now, I am flipping tired [compare this review with the Daily Show one. My interest has clearly wained), Arrested is the amalgamaiton of everything we love about comedy. Each episode is so densely packed and layered with so many running jokes and recurring themes the viewer can gain so much from repeated viewings. Half part clever and half part down right asinine, Arested is the cultural touchstone of the new American comedy.

Must See Episodes: Bringing Up Buster, Pier Pressure, Righteous Brothers

3. The Sopranos

"Anybody else would've had their fuckin' intervention right through the back of their head."
-Tony Soprano

It's almost a cliche to have this show on any top ten list. Ask anyone about the best shows of the decade, and they'll most certainly mention The Sopranos. Try it. Ask your 89 year old Chinese grandma. After Devil Beside You, Fated to Love You and Hana Kimi, she is almost guaranteed to add The Sopranos to that stellar list of Hong Kong drama. She'll also mention that (spoiler alert!) Adrianna had it coming (goddamn bloody rat). But cliches are ubiquitous for a reason, mostly because they all started off as true at some point in its conception, and The Sopranos proves to be no exception.

This is the show that started it all. It was 1999. Television was wrought with cliches. Moles penetrating New York Undercover, secret romances in the ER and conclusions that was all in Pamela Ewing's dream (I know Dallas was in the 80s, but come on, seriously. A dream? What the fuck?). Then, like a big yellow bus hitting Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, came David Chase and his television magnus opus that proved that not all quality cultural works were reserved for the big screen. Wwith its landmark creativity, superb writing, intricate structures and nuance emotions, The Sopranos was the first of its kind, showing other TV showrunners that they can say something of substance without succumbing to network pressure and lazy writing.

On paper, The Sopranos was just another story about the mob; a subject in American culture that continues to captivate audiences. There's something about rooting for organized bad guys that just tickles the subconscious desire to be as unabashedly amoral as Tony Soprano usually is. But The Sopranos was so much more. It's writing (verbose and eloquent), acting (should have won best acting statues at the Oscars despite it being on television), storylines (why the fuck is there a dream sequence in a mob show?) and its direction (Chase used the camera as it should be used: a character of its own) all reinvented the genre of television. The show's best and most exemplary moment was its final scene. Shot along eveyrone's favorite drunk karoake tune (Journey's Don't Stop Believing), creator David Chase orchestrated a montage of images that, if stood alone, would be nothing more than a man entering a room, a young girl parallel parking and a fat Italian man eating an onion ring. But put together, it was one of the most taut, haunting and intense secnes ever put together on film. And the final shot? The controversial final shot? I'm on the boat of believing it to be simply brilliant. Screw the haterz (how's that for eloquence?)

Must See Episodes: Made In America, Pine Barrens, College


"'Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and honor those whom they have slain'. So what's the difference between a martyr and a prophet?"
-Benjamin Linus

I'm writing this as Sandy (my beloved roommate) is partaking in THE greatest adventure of her relatively young life. Her mission: finish all five seasons of LOST before the sixth and final season begins on February 2nd, 2010. We're currently watching season 2 episode 21 titled "?". As Eko and Locke are skipping through the jungle, I realized that even though this is probably my 15th time watching the episode I love every freaking second of it. Subsequently, I also realized that I could more or less recite much of the dialogue off the top of my head. I know every cut, every pan, every close up and every brillaint musical cue by Michael Giacchino. I also know (this one scared even me) who wrote the episode and who directed it (FUN FACT: Darren Aronofsky [director of Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, and self professed LOST fanatic] was supposed to direct "?", but had to drop out while prepping 'The Fountain']). The ultimate sign fo uber-geekage led me to my last revelation; LOST isn't merely a television show; it's an obsession.

This genre-busting, television landscape-shifting, electically metaphysical show about survivors of Oceanic 815 landing on a strange and mysterious island, like The Sopranos, showed that television could be more than just reality and soap. With a massive budget of 11.5 million dollars, LOST's pilot stretched the boundaries of what television is capable of. What the pilot gave us was a ball-busting action adventure, filled with mystery and suspense, filmed in a pristine location one would think could be possible only with a major film studio backing, and a lush soundtrack provided by a symphony orchestra and not from someone's protools on their iMac. The grandiose and epic feel of the show is not the only thing that viewers can take away from the experience. LOST would be nothing wihtout the substance of the writing. The mytholoy, the lessons in history, philosophy, and physics, and the overall appeal to the universal character emotion, LOST has perfected it all.

In addition to the stellar writing, solid actors and a twisty narrative, it is also probably the single biggest gamechanger of the television landscape of this decade. More than any other show in what EW's Jeff Jenson calls the 'Second Golden Age of Television', or what NPR's David Bianculli calls 'The Platinum Age', LOST reinvented the viewing habits and tastes of the American audience. Moreover, it also changed the literary, cultural and monetary value of what a television show could be worth. Taking advantage of its 'event-viewing" status, LOST utilized means of convergence culture with maximum efficiency. The internet, smart phones, alternative reality games, novels, video games and live interactive events were all included in the full realization of gratification.

Subsequently, LOST became not just a television show, but a brand. Probably the most sold show across the glove, LOST has touched a cathartic chord throughout all cultural barriers. An amalgamaiton of different cultures, archtypes, ideologies and beliefs, LOST is a shining illustration of where our beloved medium has ended up in our postmodern/posthuman/posteverything society.

Must See Episodes: The Constant, Through The Looking Glass, Deus Ex Machina

1. The Wire

"If the Gods are fucking you, you find a way to fuck them back. It's Baltimore, gentlemen; the Gods will not save you."

The cultural landscape of American art is much like America itself; an amalgamation of different cultural characterstics and flavors, ultimately culminating in one giant beautiful mixed baby. Most of our classical and modern pop music is borrowed from the likes of foreign legends like Mozart, Beethoven, and, for the latter, The Beatles. Film was perfected long before Orson Wells got his hands on deep focus, with films like Battleship Potemkin and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari accomplishing the techniques and narrative devices that Hollywood now takes for granted. Long story short, in film, music, art, literature , you name it; much of American art is a celebration of Eurocentric cultural works (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). Which leads me to my main point: Television is the true American artform. Although it started off as a means for new communication, television has morphed into the one artform Americans created, popularized and perfected; consequently setting the standard. With that said, The Wire has reached the limits of television's precipice, being the one television program that, more than any other American cultural work to date, so eloquently characterizes the social, political and economic state of our union, all with meticulousness, astuteness and dimension of a Charles Dickens novel. Quite simply, The Wire is the greatest and most authentic American story ever told.

Originally, The Wire looked like just another cop procedural drama With the white-archtype hero, Officer McNulty, leading the pack. But as the episodes unfold, as the characters from the street, the hall and the law intersect and circumvent each other, and as the subtle commentary on eveyrthing that is pardoically ostensibly hidden (the dengradtion of the lower underlcass) are revealed, the viewer can only sit in awe of the ambition of a mere television show; unraveling like a Greek tragedy rather than something we might expect from a medium that covets bad singers and benighted New Jersey stereotypes. Using Baltimore as the representaiton of every fragmented American city, the show illustrated the slow and gradual breakdown of the already broken lower class; concentrating on everything from the drug trade, the working class, our broken public education system to our conventional institutions that are not only symbols, but purveyors of our society (i.e. City Hall, the police, the press).

Exceptionally conscientious with an atypical moral compass, The Wire is pure zeitgeist; a rare and accurate look at the flow of decisions made by powers that be, often abhorrent and obscene, and the aftereffects on sects of society most in need. Ultimately, however, mitigating the disheartening nature of the themes, the show rewards the power of redemption and the slow but influential impact of people who choose to do good.

Must See Episodes: Corner Boys, Middle Ground, Late Editions

1 comment:

C.M.E said...

Despite being an English major, i hate reading anything that isn't in novel form. Directions, menu's, articles.... i go illiterate. Only the lord knows why. However, i read all of this. At work. i like what you say, so keep saying it.