Category Archives: Television

Variety Shows Then and Now

It recently occurred to me—while watching a Muppets movie—that there is a noticeable different between television variety shows from the time when The Muppet Show was on TV and today.  Back then, variety shows with song, dance and miscellaneous acts tended to have a stable company performing regularly, and drew in guest performers.  Sometimes the guests were “new” potential stars, being “introduced” through the show, but as much or more often they were established professional entertainers of some sort.  Today, in marked contrast, the traditional “variety” shows (and specials) are mostly gone, but in their place are “reality” shows framed around competitions.  These are sometimes exclusively singing or dance oriented, or might be open to a variety of “talent show” acts beyond just song and dance.  These new shows often have judges, either supposed industry “experts” or entertainment celebrities, who pass judgment on the competing acts.  These differences between similar television shows of these eras actually matches up quite closely with the “market” logic of the present “neoliberal” era.  Now, the shows have “elite” judges and a bunch of rabble competing for some sort of recognition or prize, their being too little reward allocated for all performers.  There is no job security for the contestants, who have to compete against each other–the judges standing apart from that competition.

Legion

Legion

Legion (2017- )

Fx

Director: various

Main Cast: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder


Here is an example of television living up to some of its potential.  Legion, a flagship “prestige” show made by some of the largest media companies in history, mostly succeeds.

The show has the production values of cinema rather than of most things on television.  The basic sitcom-style show is presented as filmed theater.  Think of the “filmed before a live studio audience” approach.  There are edits and one or more cameras, but the camera is like a “neutral” observer of a space in which actors work through a script.  In contrast, nearly every (season one) episode of Legion has a long slow-motion sequence, a montage of close-ups of inanimate objects, etc. There are many elaborate sets and costumes, and numerous episodes have scenes filmed on location outdoors.  There is also extensive integration of music to help convey meaning/perspective rather than just set a mood — the soundtrack is most impressive.  These are common devices, but they are common to cinema rather than TV.  In fact, most of the series can fairly be called pastiche.  Everything is old, sometimes knowingly old.  But this is not a drawback (copping from They Live is a great idea, for instance).

The cast is excellent.  The characters are good too.  Jemaine Clement as the pretentious wanna-be beatnik is delicious.  Bill Stevens is excellent as the lead, though Aubrey Plaza kind of steals the show in the last half of the first season.  While some of the casting could be called multicultural pandering, it resists such labels — rather than the dubious Commander Chakotay character on Star Trek: Voyager, we have the ass-kicking mutant Kerry Loudermilk (Midthunder).

As to the story, well, it poses some fascinating questions, even if the quasi-resolution of the first season falls back on boring convention.  Much of the show is set in mental hospitals, and relies extensively on scenes involving psychological therapy sessions.  (Fredric Jameson posited such things as being a key part of an American Utopia).  A central question is whether the main character is insane/schizophrenic or a powerful mutant with magical powers.  The way this is presented across the first five episodes is to suggest that the main character’s entire personality is constructed to create a certain appearance to the outside world.  Actually, this parallels a crucial insight of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan!  Personality is an attempt to cover the void of being.  The last few episodes draw away from this, turning instead toward a pagan “endless battle between good and evil” motif.  But even in the last episodes, the show openly acknowledges that the main character being encouraged to reconsider his entire life of memories from the standpoint of being a misunderstood demi-god rather than as a mentally defective wreck might well be manipulative pandering or self-serving empowerment fantasy (or both).

The first season does grind to a halt somewhat in episode six, but picks up again in the last few episodes, only to falter as the series bends over backwards to leave the main plot unresolved to allow for later seasons (though it does this less obnoxiously than The Strain, for instance).  This would have been better conceived as a mini-series than a multi-season series, probably.  But it does deserve credit for being among the more complexly “adult” level comic/superhero/sci-fi productions of its day, even more so than franchise-related films.

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty (2013- )

Cartoon Network

Director: various

Main Cast: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer, Sarah Chalke


Rick and Morty is a sci-fi comedy cartoon that revolves around the adventures of Rick Sanchez (Roiland) and his grandson Morty (Roiland), increasingly also joined by his granddaughter Summer (Grammer).  Rick is a kind of genius mad scientist who works out of the garage of his daughter Beth Smith (Chalke) and her husband Jerry (Parnell).  He is kind of an alcoholic, and regularly drools and belches.  He has invented the means to travel to other dimensions in which parallel versions of all the characters exist.  The characters encounter many aliens.  Most of the episodes are spoofs of popular films and TV shows.

Rick is an existentialist, convinced of his own superiority.  He travels around different universes for lulz, seemingly indifferent to consequences — other than ensuring his own safety — and enjoying whatever pleasures he can along the way.  His most abiding characteristic is a deep cynicism towards everyone and everything around him.  He fits perfectly the observation about “the secret seductive lure of cynicism: living in truth and goodness is boring; the only authentic challenge is that of Evil, that is, the only space for extraordinary achievements is to be found in transgressive idiosyncrasies.”  (Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates).  And yet the entire series is kind of about how Rick is really more than a cynic, that he has empathy and bigger plans.  But he recognizes how most people are basically just stupid or evil or both, even as they pretend or try to be otherwise.  In spite of Rick’s high intelligence, his grandson Morty — constantly ridiculed by Rick (that is, all of the Ricks of all the dimensions) as being stupid — has a higher sense of morality.  Most episodes revolve around the interplay between Rick’s intelligence run amok and Morty’s bumbling yet morally constant skepticism.  Morty regularly calls out Rick’s moral ambivalence and the pair almost rights all the wrongs they commit — as the seasons progress, there is much wreckage accumulated from their past adventures.

What sets the show apart from many others, cartoon or live action, is the psychological depth of the characters.  In spite of the zany sci-fi plots, usually absurdist takes on familiar pop culture films, TV shows, etc., Rick’s moral shortcomings are generally called out and he grudgingly redresses them.  In one episode from season two, “The Ricks Must be Crazy,” the show offers a (sideways) critique of capitalism and accumulation of power, told through a story about Rick creating a miniature universe (“microverse”) inside his vehicle’s battery, with the universe’s inhabitants decived into creating electricity for him.  The season three episode “The Rickshank Rickdemption” (based on The Shawshank Redemption), has Rick (supposedly) inventing all his gadgets to find a way to recreate a limited-time fast-food dipping sauce created to promote a movie.  So, this presents him not as a simple hedonist, but someone who enjoys simple pleasures that come along tangentially in his adventures seeking the mythic sauce.  It is about avoiding being imprisoned by illusions, as Beth and Jerry seem to be.

This is one of the best and smartest shows on TV, due to the great characters, the intriguing parody/satire plots, and (especially) the biting critique of cynicism.

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (2016- )

TBS

Director: unknown

Main Cast: Samantha Bee


For a time, it seemed like Samantha Bee had launched the most successful post-Colbert Report, post-Daily Show (with Jon Stewart) spinoff.  It was a rare show with a feminist perspective.  And yet, with her show’s unprincipled, theocratic endorsement of Hillary Clinton leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, engaging in all the worst irrational tropes and hypocrisies, her show really undermined everything it might have achieved.  The show regularly denounces Donald Trump and his supporters; Hillary Clinton and her supporters are hardly given any criticism — the tenor of the election cycle episodes has been, “well, obviously Hillary is better” without any substance to back up that sneering and superficial position.  Third party candidates are occasionally mentioned, but usually only Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party.  They do mention and joke about Jill Stein of the Green Party, but usually that is to dismiss her (like a gag where they put the wrong name up in her place in a graphic that also showed Gary Johnson).  But, see, anyone who watched the show before the post-primary election cycle was heavily underway might notice that Stein’s positions align much more closely with those expressed by the show’s humor.  Maybe more glaringly, the show is tremendously hypocritical.  Ronny Chieng, a correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, did an October 6, 2016 segment called “The O’Reilly Factor Gets Racist in Chinatown.”  He included clips from an episode of The O’Reilly Factor show in which a reporter goes to Chinatown in New York City and basically mocks the inhabitants with “gotcha” interviews (frequently with people who clearly don’t speak English, the only language the reporter seems to know).  Now, such remote location “man on the street” gotchas can be done in a funny way (Robert Smigel did a “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” bit in Quebec for Late Night With Conan O’Brien years ago that humorously insulted French-speakers in English, with an obvious nod to the fact that the interviews were preposterous).  But the Full Frontal correspondents don’t do that.  Instead, they do remote segments like the one on October 5, 2016 (“Rigged!”) in which they do “gotcha” interviews with patently uniformed and ignorant Trump supporters.  As Paul Street put it, “Elite commentators love to mock and marginalize the childish mindset of those who think that everyday people (the rabble’) should actually be in charge of their own societal and political-economic affairs (imagine!) and thereby deprive elites of their supposed natural right to rule.”  So, there were no “gotcha” interviews with patently uniformed and ignorant Clinton supporters — the audience is implicitly pushed to draw the conclusion that there are none — not to mention any of her corrupt cronies.  The issue here is not that the Trump supporters are correct (the ones shown on air are mostly stupid and self-serving, at best).  They aren’t, even if they have real grievances.  The issue is that the show displays an obvious partisan bias, hypocritically engaging in more or less the same tactics as the Republican political far right in the service of the Democratic political center-right (and Full Frontal isn’t even on MSDNC, er, MSNBC!).  Given how genuinely funny Samantha Bee is, it is a shame to watch her show sink into a mire of self-congratulatory neoliberal stumping for a particular candidate (Clinton).  What a waste of talent.  Perhaps the show will become interesting again once the election cycle ends.  But viewers should cast a skeptical eye on it knowing what it devolved to during the 2016 election cycle.

If the best thing about the show initially was its feminism, consider how the following comment from Nancy Fraser fits (emphasis added):

“Mainstream feminism has adopted a thin, market-centered view of equality, which dovetails neatly with the prevailing neoliberal corporate view. So it tends to fall into line with an especially predatory, winner-take-all form of capitalism that is fattening investors by cannibalizing the living standards of everyone else. Worse still, this feminism is supplying an alibi for these predations. Increasingly, it is liberal feminist thinking that supplies the charisma, the aura of emancipation, on which neoliberalism draws to legitimate its vast upward redistribution of wealth.

Like a magician using distraction to perform an illusion, Full Frontal focuses on one very narrow (if still important) set of issues in order to obscure and deflect attention away from numerous other extremely important issues.  It’s worth thinking about what the show refuses to mock…

Baskets

Baskets

Baskets (2015- )

FX

Director: Jonathan Krisel

Main Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Martha Kelly, Louie Anderson


Situated between the films of Wes Anderson — sentimental tales of oddballs who fail to live up to their promise — and Louis C.K.‘s TV show Louie — eccentric, philosophical “dramedy” drawing from disparate elements of tenderness and cruelty — plus drawing on the past work of star Zack Galifianakis — full of sudden and futile yet endearingly harmless rage.  Louis C.K. (co-creator, co-executive producer and a writer of the show) seems especially prominent in influencing the way the show emphasizes the grandeur in the sheer range of opposites in human emotions and relationships.  It is the idea that sadness, heartbreak, anger and frustration are as valuable as satisfaction, joy and serenity.  Much of Baskets revolves around a particularly compelling vision of friendship and family, one that sees deeper value in people choosing again and again to stick together through fights, failures and temptations than in one-dimensional portrayals that are all smiles, hand-holding and shared values.  Pushing this a bit further, the point is that incongruous, even antithetical sentiments coexist in juxtaposition with each other without either merging into some kind of unified hybrid or one set of happy/good values victoriously dissolving an opposite set of values.  Many of the best qualities of the various relationships between characters emerge only after the worst qualities come out, and only because of that coupling.  The main characters stick together through often painful hurdles.  It is a paradoxical sort of triumph that embraces its own messiness.  Don’t wait for transcendence in this series.

The main character Chip Baskets is a “classically trained” clown (really a French mime) who moves back home to Bakersfield, California and takes a job as a rodeo clown.  He transitions from being “Renoir” the clown to “Baskets” the clown.  Flying in the face of the role of a rodeo clown — protecting rodeo riders from bulls — he performs pretentiously unhelpful artistic routines in the face of complete audience indifference, if not outright hostility, as the bulls run him down.  Galifianakis is forced to come to terms with one humiliation after another — often entirely self-inflicted — and with his life being seen as a total failure by most of the world outside a meager handful of companions.  He is hopelessly naïve.  Time and again he takes foolish pride in absurd rituals, inconsequential achievements and ridiculous demands — like going to a fast-food restaurant drive-through window and trying to order from a long list of obscure drinks such a place would never have, mentoring a fellow rodeo clown into the normalcy of a low-wage fast food job, or watching a short demo video that came with a new television set over and over again to marvel at the picture quality.  Despite his narrow pursuit of “classical” clowning he has almost no sense of social norms or how to earn a conventional living.  At least, he seems to avoid succumbing to the dictates of norms and conventions.  The show clearly has sympathy for him anyway, or maybe because of that intuitive, ersatz defiance.

Martha Kelly and Louie Anderson are fantastic in supporting roles.  The show (most of the way through the first season at least) never falls short on great performances.  The show comes close to a Felliniesque parade of grotesque characters, with a slant toward the pathetic.

This is one of the most arty and elusive shows on American TV.  At the moment it is also one of the best.

Johnny Cash – The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971

The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971

Johnny CashThe Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971 Legacy 88697 21230 2 (2008)


TV variety shows were pretty popular on American networks around the time Johnny Cash got his own in the late 1960s.  It didn’t last long, as in Cash’s view he and the network execs just didn’t see eye-to-eye.  Cash wanting to do a lot of christian material was a big source of friction, supposedly.  The “rural purge” by TV networks also played a significant role.  Anyway, some material from the show had been released on The Johnny Cash Show (1970).  Though the title may be a bit misleading, The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show: 1969-1971 is entirely different from the earlier album and contains material never before released on record — apparently recorded by Cash and tucked away only to be discovered and restored after his death (something that seems irrelevant given that the TV network’s tapes still exist; the origins of this album seem tied up in licensing disputes between ABC and CBS of no substantive interest to music listeners).  Only a few of the performances are by Cash.  Most are popular artists doing their hits or covering popular country songs.  The performances can be a bit rough, with Cash coughing or other singers just not being miked well.  And Waylon Jennings doing Chuck Berry‘s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is cringe worthy (this is the worst of his performances on the episode it was drawn from).  But there are a few nice moments, like Ray Charles doing “Ring of Fire” (though the bass player is a bit off and Ray’s breathy whispered vocals sound like they weren’t captured well).  The best things here though are a duet between Cash and Joni Mitchell backed by strings and piano on Bob Dylan‘s “Girl From the North Country” and James Taylor doing his signature song “Fire and Rain.”  The earlier album from the TV show was better, but this is still enjoyable enough.  This one, however, captures more thoroughly (and however awkwardly) the rural-urban exchange that Cash’s show embodied. Dylan gave an interview where he said, “I think of rock ’n’ roll as a combination of country blues and swing band music, not Chicago blues, and modern pop. Real rock ’n’ roll hasn’t existed since when? 1961, 1962?”  He also said, “And that was extremely threatening for the city fathers, I would think. When they finally recognized what it was, they had to dismantle it, which they did, starting with payola scandals and things like that. The black element was turned into soul music and the white element was turned into English pop. They separated it.”  In a way, Cash’s show brought some of these elements back together, across the music industry’s lines of segregation, maybe not always into an inseparable combination like rock ‘n’ roll but at least in the same nationally televised stage.

NOVA – The Great Math Mystery

NOVA: The Great Math Mystery (April 2015)

PBS

Director: Dan McCabe and Richard Reisz


“The Great Math Mystery,” an episode of the long-running PBS science show, is in essence an analysis of mathematics and analytic philosophy.  In the program, about 99% of the show consists of people from the analytic philosophical school talking about math, plus one token representative from the Continental Philosophy school (Stephen Wolfram) and a few comments by analytic philosophy people about the Continental Philosophy view.  What this show desperately needed was a dose of the “fairness doctrine” by giving something closer to 50% of the airtime to the Continental view.  Ideally, Alain Badiou would have been featured, because he is perhaps the most well-known living philosopher to argue about the nature of mathematics from outside the caste of “working mathematicians”. Count this episode among the many that PBS airs that is a polemic disguised as an even-handed treatment.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014)

PBS

Director: Ken Burns

Main Cast: Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Edward Herrmann, Peter Coyote


Ken Burn’s documentary of the Roosevelt family, focusing on Teddy, Franklin Delano, and Eleanor, is for the most part the same sort of pablum found in almost all of his films.  It posits the Roosevelts as the greatest political family America has ever seen, and probably ever will see, and the protectors and masters of liberal politics.  If you want a film that questions political dynasties at a fundamental level, or any such critiques, you are watching the wrong sort of film.  As Mason Williams has written, the documentary focuses on the personal somewhat to the detriment on the public aspects of the Roosevelts.  In that sense, it is a film built on a very reductionist, essentialist worldview, not far off from biological determinism.

The film is organized chronologically, beginning with the family’s move to America and their success in business, and then leads into Teddy Roosevelt’s political ascent.  This is followed by Franklin’s political ascent, and then Eleanor’s widow years.

Commentary on Burns’ Jazz still applies:

“By now his technique is as predictable as the plot of an episode of ‘Friends’: the zoom shot on a still photo, followed by a slow pan, a pull back, then a portentous pause — all the while a monotonous narration explains the obvious at length.” Serpents in the Garden

One quirk in this film is the casting for voice actors.  Paul Giamatti portrays Teddy, and he’s a hilariously poor choice.  Nick Offerman seems more apropos.  It may seem like a minor issue, but it sheds light on a problem with the entire project.  The film seems like it fits the facts to the people working on it, rather than the other way around.

We are to believe that the Roosevelts were great due to the individual greatness of people like Teddy, a favored son of a wealthy family with opportunities most would never dream of.  As a portrait of his personality, largely irrelevant to his public legacy, it probably is fair.  There is some treatment of his activism against business — this was the only president to give a speech railing against the “malefactors of great wealth” and back it up with some action.  Though Burns’ stops well short of adopting historian Gabriel Kolko‘s position that Teddy’s administration actual helped big business (to achieve stability) rather than constrain it.  His hubris following his presidency is his undoing, and the film does thankfully look askance at Teddy’s racism and imperialism.

The story of FDR’s life is most interesting in describing the time before he contracted polio.  He was a dandy and a mamma’s boy.  And he was insufferable.  After contracting polio, the narrative shifts to his overcoming the effects of the disease to forge his political career.  It certainly was an achievement.  There is discussion of how his medical condition was concealed from the public with the assistance of the media.  There is, however, a clear bias in favor of FDR, in that the filmmakers clearly see FDR as knowing what is best for the public more than the public does for itself, thereby justifying this media complicity.  One historian after another lines up to emphasize how the media of today wouldn’t do that, and someone like FDR, or Teddy even, would never win a major office as a result.  But they don’t talk about a media “propaganda” model, or campaign financing.  Instead, it is a matter as simple as tabloid journalism focusing on personal ailments and the like rather than the “real issues”.

The coverage of FDR’s presidency is mostly fawning, uncritical gushing.  Ken Burns has always forged a sort of suburban liberalism in his films.  This one is no different.  FDR is presented as the president of the people, the most leftist.  Anyone to the left of FDR is simply ignored.  This is problematic.  There is little to no mention of FDR’s “brain trust” and the assortment of advisors who urged more leftist policies than FDR was willing to accept, often to the detriment of lasting outcomes.  FDR’s programs are praised, criticized for tactical errors but not for being inadequate at a theoretical level.  FDR’s VP Henry Wallace is marginalized, to Eleanor’s chagrin, and Harry Truman is unleashed on the world.  Negotiations during WWII are the most curious part of the film.  Burns’ view of the war is unreliable, and clings to Cold War paranoia.  For instance, there is constant suspicion of Josef Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union.  Stalin’s concern about Western encroachment is dismissed as paranoia.  And yet, history has shown Stalin’s concerns to be entirely justified.  As Burns’ film aired on TV, the U.S. was actively involved in fomenting a coup in Ukraine, to move NATO closer to Moscow and implement a financial takeover.

FDR and Winston Churchill are portrayed as the saviors of the world who defeated the Nazis.  This, again, isn’t particularly accurate.  The Nazis were defeated primarily by the Soviets, in what they called the Great Patriotic War, as the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa.  Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, violating a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, with the largest invasion force ever assembled in the history of warfare.  Over four million Axis troops participated in the invasion.  Over five million Soviet citizens died repelling the invasion.  You won’t hear any of this from the Ken Burns film (details are available, for instance, in Harrison Salisbury‘s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad).  Instead, Stalin is a skeptic holding back Churchill and FDR.  D-Day turns the tide of the war (really, it barely worked, and then, only because of failures of the Axis powers during Barbarossa).

FDR gets very much a pass on his support for the Manhattan project.  Robert Oppenheimer ran the program, and later famously commented that it should have bee shut down “the day after Trinity,” in reference to the test explosion code-named Trinity.  Sure, Truman ordered the bombs dropped not FDR, but he was just carrying to conclusion an FDR program created for that purpose.

Burns is yet another of those “liberals” who asserts that politics should go a certain amount to the center-left and not one step further, with no justification whatsoever for where that line in the sand is drawn.  There are no leftist critics of FDR featured.  The late historian Howard Zinn noted how much of FDR’s presidency can be explained through simple imperialist ambitions.  He also wrote “The Limits of the New Deal” in New Deal Thought (1965):

“When the reform energies of the New Deal began to wane around 1939 and the depression was over, the nation was back to its normal state: a permanent army of unemployed; twenty or thirty million poverty-ridden people effectively blocked from public view by a huge, prosperous, and fervently consuming middle class; a tremendously efficient yet wastefully productive apparatus that was efficient because it could produce limitless supplies of what it decided to produce, and wasteful because what it decided to produce was not based on what was most needed by society but on what was most profitable to business.”

Economist Alan Nasser has written about how FDR worked to undermine Social Security and preserve business profit interests.  FDR was a committed fiscal conservative.  He was not a supporter of social programs.  He was forced to adopt them by popular pressure and unrest.  Burns’ film makes a particularly egregious mischaracterization of the Bonus Army.  These were WWI veterans who protested outside the White house to receive a promised bonus early, in view of the dire circumstances of the Great Depression.  The film mentions them being a problem of the Hoover administration.  This is true, as far as it goes, but the Bonus Army marched again during FDR’s presidency.  The film does not mention this fact.  FDR opposed their demands, and congress overrode FDR’s veto to pay the veterans their bonuses early.

Eleanor emerges as the best of the Roosevelts.  Not only as the lead author of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also as a voice of conscience against FDR’s crass political machinations.  It is too bad she wasn’t president, or at least that FDR had listened to her and made Henry Wallace his final running mate instead of Truman.  Like the others, her public accomplishments take a back seat to personal details of her life.

So, at the end of the many, many hours of this film, one is left knowing rather little about what the Roosevelts accomplished politically, and more a portrait of the lifestyles of the rich and famous who like to dabble in politics.