KICKING TELEVISION: ‘The Ranch,’ Redemption, and the Multi-Cam Sitcom

KICKING TELEVISION: ‘The Ranch,’ Redemption, and the Multi-Cam Sitcom

It’s a strange time in the life of the sitcom. Somehow, television seems suddenly incapable of producing a true hit comedy, a show that goes beyond simple ratings success and enters the cultural zeitgeist. While Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory—both of which premiered last decade—capture viewers and Emmys, the shows have never penetrated the fabric of Western culture. No one calls another “such a Claire” or inserts “Bazinga” into their everyday parlance. The last sitcom to find such relevance was Friends, which left the airwaves in 2004. While the drama, be it Game of Thrones or Mad Men or the soap of Shondaland, has found a way into life beyond television, the sitcom has been left out of our conversations and colloquialisms. This is partly because of ambitionless productions, partly due to the ebb and flow of viewers’ tastes, but mostly because we, as viewers, have been left wanting for better comedy fare.

I’m critical of the sitcom, and yet hopeful for its return to prominence. But, perhaps I’ve been too hard on the form. Maybe it’s time to lower expectations to find a suitable metric with which to measure artistic success. I came to this realization while watching Netflix’s The Ranch. When I first tried the latest Ashton Kutcher project, I got about two and a half minutes in before giving up. Formulaic plot, grating laugh track, Ashton Kutcher. But a day later I returned, because I felt I owed any attempt at art more, because I have the utmost respect for and affinity with co-stars Sam Elliott and Debra Winger and wondered what they were doing in a sitcom, because I have fond memories of Kutcher and co-star/co-producer Danny Masterson in That ‘70s Show, and because I was bored and there’s not much left I haven’t watched. And though The Ranch won’t single-handedly change the sitcom, it is a surprisingly deft, funny, and insightful portrayal of Middle America, and a hopeful sign of a resurgence of the multi-cam sitcom. Once a prominent form that was always TV’s connection to theatre, its association with art over entertainment, the multi-cam has given way to the single-cam sitcom, reserved mostly for family comedies (The MiddleLast Man StandingFuller House) or Chuck Lorre.

The Ranch is about a former high school football star Colt Bennett (Kutcher) who returns home to his family’s struggling Garrison, Colorado ranch after failing to make it as a pro. His parents Beau and Maggie (Elliott and Winger) live separate lives, torn apart by Beau’s stubbornness and a dying way of life. Maggie owns a bar in town, and lives in an Airstream out back. Beau runs the family business with the son who stayed, Rooster (Masterson). They are middle-class farming Americans: Bud, bourbon, and bovines. But while TV tends to make caricatures out of the red states and their denizens, The Ranchtreats them with respect and deference. The characters in The Ranch feel genuine; people struggling to make ends meet in a world that doesn’t pay them much attention.

The Ranch is the first sitcom, or TV series for that matter, to accurately and respectfully discuss middle class families and values since Roseanne. For whatever reason, sitcoms tend to revel in the lives of the upper class, featuring characters with fabulous jobs, luscious apartments, and lives of privilege. Poverty is either mocked or ignored, though usually played for laughs. The Ranch doesn’t aspire to find its characters better lives; it concerns itself with the hardship of the lives they live. Like RoseanneThe Ranch is about paying bills, supporting your family, and settling down with a beer at day’s end.

Politically, The Ranch differs from Roseanne in its right wing leanings. Jokes are made at Al Gore’s expense; the liberal world of the blue states is mocked for its folly. But, in turn, The Ranch doesn’t mine Beau Bennett’s conservatism for easy laughs, but rather respects a character who may have voted for George Bush simply because in his democracy that seemed like the best choice for his family, his ranch, his livelihood. And The Ranch doesn’t linger on the clash between Democrats and Republicans as a point of narrative, but lets it exist in the fabric of the show’s setting.

The Ranch also shares a kinship with Roseanne in the way it allows the comedy to disappear into drama. Roseanne was graceful in its discussion of adolescence, poverty, domestic abuse, gender roles, loss, and sexuality. While The Ranch has yet to delve into such issues, and perhaps never will, like ‘Roseanne’ it is not afraid to leave the jokes and laugh track behind and settle in silence, or anger, or sadness. Freed of the twenty-two minute episode constraints of the network model, Netflix gives The Ranch the luxury of long scenes that defy the laugh-a-minute construct of the contemporary sitcom. The way that part one of season one (part two will be released later in the year) evolved promises that issues of substance may be addressed, and the series has proved itself capable (aesthetically, anyway) of crafting such television.

At the core of the show is redemption—primarily in the reparation of a fractured family, a fractured way of life, a fractured class—as Colt tries to make amends for his failings as a son, as a football player, as a man. In many ways it’s also about the redemption of the multi-cam form, an art lost in the raging sea of single-cam comedy and a form that’s lost its way. But beyond that it’s about the reclamation of the careers of its cast. Kutcher never became the rom-com/action star that Hollywood and Demi Moore expected after the breakout success of That ‘70s Show, and always seemed like Charlie Sheen’s stand-in on Two and a Half Men. Masterson disappeared into the abyss of on-and-gone series like Men At Work and off-camera successes as a DJ and entrepreneur. Winger, once Hollywood’s it girl, a three-time Oscar nominee, left acting for seven years in the late 90s. To see her in a multi-cam sitcom—and being wonderful in it—goes against the image of a preconceived difficult star, who took her craft (and self) too seriously. And Elliott, well, Elliott was born to play a rancher. His genius pervades each scene, and to see him both satirize and build upon his caricature is sitcom perfection.

I didn’t have high hopes for The Ranch, but somehow fell for its simple charm, its subtlety, its quiet ambition, and its cast. When season one, part two arrives, I hope it’s able to maintain its delicate balance between comedy and drama, its affection for blue collar America, and its use of the liberty of Netflix. I also hope that they give Elisha Cuthbert, who plays Colt’s high school sweetheart, more to do. Cuthbert was sublime in the gone-too-soon Happy Endings, and the only thing worth watching in One Big Happy. While I would also love more of Elliott and Winger, Cuthbert hasn’t quite gotten her due as an actress, perhaps because the industry prefers to see her as a Maxim pinup, literally The Girl Next Door. She seems to embody the essence of comedic brilliance, and the ability to temper that with dramatic flare. There’s a quiet perfection to her comedy, like she doesn’t seem to know she’s in on the joke. Hers is role that is often left scraps, the love interest. But her talents beg for more screen time, which would allow The Ranch to continue to evolve into, dare I say it, a model for what a relevant multi-cam sitcom can be.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of  Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: ‘Fuller House’ and the Stasis of Nostalgia

KICKING TELEVISION: ‘Fuller House’ and the Stasis of Nostalgia

One of the most vivid memories I have of my adolescence is gorging on Doritos and Pepsi in my friend Tim’s basement and watching TV. There was no junk food in my home. I used to try and make my own Orange Crush from tonic water and orange juice. I was not a cool tween. I don’t know what the cool 12-year-olds were doing on their Friday nights in the late 80s, but they definitely weren’t in Tim’s basement laughing at the comedic stylings of the Olsen twins, cutting-it-out with Dave Coulier, digging on Jesse and the Rippers, crushing on Candace Cameron, and augmenting our sugar cravings with the sweet banality of Full House.

Full House has returned to the television landscape as Fuller House, part of a wave of reboots. The Netflix series essentially flips the premise of its forbearer; recently widowed DJ Tanner-Fuller (Cameron) welcomes her sister Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) and best friend Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) into her home to help raise her three sons, as DJ’s recently widowed dad (Bob Saget) accepted help with his three girls in exchange for room and board for his brother-in-law Jesse (John Stamos) and best friend Joey (Dave Coulier). Sterile hilarity follows, as do occasional guest appearances from series originals Saget, Stamos, Coulier, and Lori Loughlin. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (Michelle Tanner)—Forbes Celebrity 100 listed, fashion icon paparazzi subjects—declined participation

Full House wasn’t a show that revolutionized the sitcom or embedded itself deeply in the cultural fabric of TV, but that didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now. It wasn’t offensive or malicious. It was benign—comfortable. It served its purpose as a family comedy, a staple of ABC’s TGIF lineup, and a sitcom that made 12 to 14 year-old me laugh bootlegged Crush out my nose. Tim did not live in a sugar-dry home. I remember very little about the show other than hanging out in that basement, ignorant of my absence of cool, and happier for it. Teendom came soon after, and being cool became infinitely more important, and so I didn’t watch much of the later seasons of Full House. The only time the show entered the zeitgeist was in conversation about the Olsen twins, the websites counting down to their 18th birthday, and the piracy of their youth by the infancy of the Internet’s intrusiveness.

I’m not sure how many Full House episodes we actually consumed in that basement. But that’s how my memory places the show, and that’s where Full House will remain, regardless of the truth, whatever that may be. Memory is static—it exists in our solipsism. Television is a mnemonic device as much as a form of entertainment. It gives personal associations cultural and temporal references points born of its archival inertness. It’s a literal record of a performance, but a figurative record of individual experiences. No one else, not even Tim, likely associates Full House with Pepsi and Cool Ranch, but for me the affiliation is so vivid, so real as to have the essence of fact.

Our televisions and streaming apparatuses have become inundated with reboots and revisions of beloved series, and Fuller House has chosen to rest in its past, much like The X-Files echoes its earlier seasons, as if Mulder and Scully had just been waiting in stasis for us to find them. Properties are given the choice to either contemporize their efforts or mine nostalgia for viewers. Fuller House attempts to revel in the nostalgia of Full House in order to build upon its audience, much as Star Wars did with The Force Awakens. Star Wars provides a new foundation for a narrative that will leave behind the past while Fuller House stays in the past. The mixed family of Fuller House lives in the same home as the extended Tanner family did on Full House; the set is nearly exactly the same, as is the comedy. Maybe they should’ve killed Danny, Jesse, and Joey off in the first episode, but that would’ve made for a different show—a darker, perhaps more interesting series—one that would ask that its original audience disregard nostalgia and indulge in a universe that has aged as its viewers and their universe has.

The show is keenly aware of itself as a cultural entity; often making reference to the absence of the Olsens and the fact it’s a reboot. In almost breaking the fourth wall, the show continues its participatory nostalgia in winking at the audience it indulges as we do. It dances the edge of satire, with grand canned oohs and aahs and reactions to the guest appearances of Saget, Coulier, Stamos, and Loughlin. In fact, a close watch of Fuller House finds a much more complex sitcom then what shows on the surface, discussing loss, the modern nuclear family, and puppy ownership. But the core of the show remains its fascination with an ever-static past, both theirs and ours.

Interestingly, the reboot’s three principles—Cameron-Bure, Sweetin, and Barber— have been mostly absent from show business since the original series. Removed from the cultural landscape, its almost as if they’re characters were off living the twenty-one years between episodes as we were. Perhaps this is why the original’s leads—Saget, Stamos, Coulier, Loughlin—who have remained part of the zeitgeist, have mere ancillary roles in Fuller House. (Okay, maybe not Coulier.) In this way, the show is honoring both universes, that of Full(er) House and our own, respectful of the associations of memory that exist in relation to the original. 

There is nothing revolutionary in Fuller House, other than that it is fearless in living in the past. Complete with groan-worthy catchphrases—old (Oh Mylanta!, How rude!, Have mercy!) and new (Holy chalupas!)—the show remains committed to the bygone era of TGIF and the big, fluorescent family sitcom. Watching the series will probably not attach a marker of memory to this moment, to my now. I’m able to procure my own sugar these days. But the show is successful in recapturing its own youth, and perhaps a bit of mine.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: Bingeing on Judd Apatow’s ‘Love’

KICKING TELEVISION: Bingeing on Judd Apatow’s ‘Love’

In love, I’m Paul Rudd eating cupcakes out of the garbage. My failings are not malicious. I was single for a long time. And I’m a writer. And I used to live in the woods. Loneliness and solitude are—were—my jam. I wouldn’t say I’m good at marriage. It’s a process, I keep telling my wife and my therapist, which makes her furious and makes him nod. The love part I’m good at. I think.

I’ve never been very good at moderation, so the advent of streaming media was made for people like me. I am Netflix. My predisposal to binging is indicative of what makes me a less than ideal husband. I’m incapable of diffusing any manner of consumption. I crave excess at the expense of reason or commitment or even Friday night. Let’s watch six hundred and thirty-one minutes of ‘House of Cards’! is not a loving proposition, but to me it’s the very definition of happiness.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between my gluttonous leanings and my marital duty I binged on ‘Love,’ Judd Apatow’s new Netflix series. I was initially apprehensive because—though I like many of the productions that Apatow has been involved in—I was worried Love would be a TV adaption of his bromantic comedies. But ‘Love’’s Gillian Jacobs’ effortless wit and against-type female leads in ‘Community’ and ‘Life Partners’ were outstanding performances, and the supporting cast—Brett Gelman (excellent in the gone too soon ‘Go On’), Kerri Kenney-Silver (reboot ‘Reno 911’ please)—provided hope. I worried about Paul Rust, though I knew very little about him except a faint recollection of hating ‘I Love You, Beth Cooper.’

A show that is about love is an ambitious undertaking. Of course, most shows are about love on some level, except for Chuck Lorre productions. But to be so forward about the intentions of your series’ discussion creates almost impossible expectations. In discussing love, ‘Love’ asks that the audience consider their own experiences with the state. Gourmandizing the series inflates the scope and breadth of that experience, or it did for me anyway. Binging on ‘Love’, whether by accident or by design, was a cathartic and introspective three hundred minutes, which asked me to reevaluate how I have loved or been loved..

‘Love’ is the story of Mickey (Jacobs), a program manager at a satellite radio station, and Gus (Rust), an onset tutor, navigating the peripheries of modern day LA. I didn’t love Rust early on—he seemed too out of place as a lead, my issue not his— but as I ate through the first few episodes, he grew on me. He’s not a typical male lead, but perhaps that’s why he eventually appealed to me. I can identify with someone who’s not the archetype of masculinity, who errs on the side of idiosyncratic, who isn’t the most beautiful of God’s creatures, who dances like a drunken Muppet, who crushes up. But early on he and Jacobs develop a chemistry that seems organic and true, which is absent from most film and TV. And I like that they’re in their 30s, and close in age. I’m sick of leading men who get older while their love interests remain the same age. It’s masturbatory and false and, frankly, tired.

At some point in binging on ‘Love,’ I fell in love with Jacobs. Or maybe I fell in love with Mickey, I’m not sure. Jacobs is brilliant, and she embodies the hesitancy of love. She’s the type of flawed character I adore, the kind I like to write and am drawn to in literature. Mickey wants to be loved, but her manner suggests either she doesn’t believe she deserves it or she’s afraid of it. I think I love Jacobs/Mickey because I’ve lived in that realm myself; I’ve occupied that self-destructive fear of the possibility of happiness.

At the core of any good romcom, or relationship, is a meet cute. To dismiss this trope as simply a tired device of the genre is folly. Mickey and Gus meet cute in a convenience store when Mickey has forgotten her wallet and the chivalric Gus covers her cigarettes and coffee. Meeting cute isn’t an easy plot device but rather a truthful one. Most of us meet our partners cute and it provides a narrative foundation for our lives together, just as it provides narrative foundation for romcoms.

In the meet cute at the end of ‘Love”s pilot, Mickey and Gus are enduring hangovers, one spiritual and the other of spirits. We tend to under-quantify how much alcohol has to do with love. Some would argue it’s more effective than or Tinder. It’s surprising that every beer, bourbon, and hard soda commercial doesn’t promise romantic bliss more explicitly—like: Drink Bulleit Tonight and You’ll Get Married Next June!—because they’re certainly employed as vehicles for love. Love discusses alcohol in these terms, as a facilitator, but also finds Mickey in AA, though she’s less than committed to the process. AA has become a convenient trope of television; ‘Mom,’ ‘Nashville,’ ‘House of Cards,’ ‘Nashville,’ ‘Flaked,’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ are among the series that use the mutual aid fellowship as a plot device. It’s a convenient exploitation; it provides a forum for characters to share, to be vulnerable, to provide drama. But here it becomes evidence of Mickey’s deeper failings, and not of the simplicity of what her addictions reveal about her character.

In their relationship’s infancy, Mickey and Gus get to know each other through conversation on an afternoon trip around LA, reminiscent of ‘Before Sunrise.’ We don’t see the early moments of love revealed so simply—so artfully—very often on television. What ‘Love’ captures with near perfection is the nervous furor of the virginity of companionship hopeful of affection. Mickey and Gus are not in love yet, but you can see the roots of something. We’re nervous with them—for them—as we indulge in the vicariousness of their burgeoning ardor. To witness its slow growth is something special on TV, where series race to establish love and then leave viewers with one hundred episodes of monotonous consummation.

In love and television there’s nothing more tired than the date. I’m not sure I’ve been on a date since I took a girl to see ‘Singles’ in 1992. My wife and I eat dinner together in restaurants, is that a date? But ‘Love’ uses “the date” in a unique and creative way, as a confused Mickey, wary of love, sets Gus up on a date with her roommate Bertie (the beyond excellent Claudia O’Doherty). Mickey participates in the date from hell by texting both Gus and Bertie, manipulating the evening, but ultimately endearing all three to each other. O’Doherty’s Bertie could’ve been a stock character, a wacky roommate, the Aussie sidekick. But instead there’s a truth to her, consistent with the series conceit, a sincerity that comes out as she Skype bakes with her mother or makes lame, nervous jokes. If season two of ‘Love’ gets bored of Mickey and Gus, I’d follow Bertie wherever life, or love, took her.

By episode seven of ‘Love’, Mickey and Gus have consummated their relationship. But they do so before their first date, and then fall awkwardly into a relationship of sorts, but one that’s difficult to watch and disappointing for the lovers. Soon after they become what many of us become in relationships: bored and self-destructive. Mickey’s fatigue and despondency manifest themselves in alcohol; she gets drunk and more awkward. Gus’ manifests in sexual greed; he has an affair with an actress on the TV show he works on.

While at this point in their narrative they’re not quite together, their egos, flaws, and fears convince them to implode. They’re suffering from the realities of post-infatuation. As I watched this I couldn’t help but recall the many, many, many, many times I’ve done this in relationships. It also made me realize how many people I’ve hurt in my self-destructive laziness. Watching it in ‘Love’ is cringe-inducing, in a positive way, in that it is genuine, true, that I understand it because I’ve behaved that way, and in seeing ‘Love’ I feel the shame and guilt I somehow avoided when I committed those crimes of dispassion. Ultimately, Mickey and Gus commit to each other, but in a way that seems perilous and unstable, but isn’t that how we all enter into love? Unsure, unprepared, but hopeful?

‘Love,’ in many ways, is about secondary and tertiary characters. And so is love. Those around us inform our relationships. They filter our emotions, our eccentricities, our fears. ‘Love’ fills around its leads with representations of elements of love. Iris Apatow plays life without sexual love, the wonderment of adolescence, before love confuses and drains. She’s confident, honest, and I trust her performance as a kind of younger version of Mickey from an alternate universe, a child actor who Gus tutors. Her character is a revelation, and may be the best thing about the show, but it is her mother’s (Leslie Mann) comedic timing and wit that shines here. Gelman is Mickey’s boss, with whom she indulges in an affair that confronts the act of love without love, of love as a weapon, and in doing so illuminates many of Mickey’s disturbing fears, fears about love and acceptance and sexuality that we all have. Kenney-Silver plays a future version of Mickey, her neighbor Syd, a woman who has endured love and settled in it. Gus’ apartment is often filled with a ragtag collection of his friends who get together to sing non-existent theme songs to films without theme songs. It’s a representation of the silliness of love, of the kinds of strangeness in us all that a prospective partner needs to accept, or at least tolerate, in order for love to be completely realized.

There’s a true awkwardness to the interactions between characters in ‘Love’ that is absent from these types of romantic narratives. The absence of the time constraints of traditional television promotes the natural, organic feel of the show. And in that manner, the show becomes a living treatise on love itself, and examination of an emotion that is attached to nearly everything on television but rarely with the subtlety and deft touch that Apatow et al. have used in creating the universe of ‘Love’.

There’s a quiet, beautiful moment in Love’s second episode when Bertie and Gus carry a chest-of-drawers into Mickey’s house. The two agree—having just met her—that Mickey is the best. She’s cool, right? So cool. But a little scary, right? She is a bit scary. But so cool. At its best, this is the very essence of love; fear infused with the divine. The same can be said of the series; it excels in moments of simple truth, allowing subtlety to carry the exploration of emotion.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: O.J. Simpson v. The People

KICKING TELEVISION: O.J. Simpson v. The People

A friend of mine recently posted a photo of himself on Instagram with a C-list celebrity who was visiting my hometown. It really shouldn’t have annoyed me—though it did. I mean, what do I care what people do on social media? I’m sure people are perturbed when I post links to my columns or openly question the integrity of bourbon lemonade. At least they’re not posting photos of cats or newborns or newborns with cats, right? But, when I took a moment to calm myself, I realized what frustrates me about our cultural obsession with celebrity is not the celebs themselves, but the pathological need to attach ourselves to them, no matter their character or accomplishments.

My distaste for fame-driven obsessive addictive disorder is not new. I’ve never understood People magazine or Entertainment Tonight or TMZ or Brody Jenner. For a while I had a weekly column for the Playboy offshoot The Smoking Jacket, for which I spent most of my virtual inches mocking the Kardashians and Hiltons. Perhaps somewhere in my sympathetic mind, I can accept obsessions with musicians or actors or whatever Ryan Seacrest is, but the celebrity afforded to spoiled, privileged, talentless, walking selfies angers me to no end. The Kardashian/Jenner cartel is the worst of the offenders. The beginnings of our allowance of celeb contributions to the cultural discourse can be traced to the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Our celeb culture, as it is today, is the fault of the OJ Simpson trial.

In some alternate universe, this column would be about NBC’s Frogmen being renewed for its twenty-second season. The O.J. Simpson vehicle, about an elite team of Navy SEALs freelancing out of a Malibu surf shop, would no doubt be celebrating its Law & Order-esque longevity with special crossover episodes with NBC’s other hit dramas The Blacklist and, well, The Blacklist, and guest star arcs from Al Cowlings and Caitlin Jenner. Matt Lauer would sit down with Juice and ask about how Orenthal James was able to escape the mean streets of San Francisco for NFL and Hollywood stardom, about growing up with rickets, about his father’s sexuality and gender, and his death from AIDS. In this alternate universe, racism is a forgotten nightmare, the gender gap is but a sliver, policing is done with hugs, and Scott Disick works at a Taco Bell in Encino.

Simpson was, and is, the product of our obsession with contrived royalty, our elevation of athletes, and our malignant, wilful ignorance of sexism. I’m amazed it took this long for his story to find its way to television. FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson revisits the trial of the century, the spectacle that was everything for 15 months in the mid-nineties. Its accuracy is debatable. Its realization is flawed. Its performances are heavy-handed. It stars everybody. But despite its faults, it provokes a discussion of what the Simpson trial came to represent, how it changed the manner in which our culture disseminates “news,” and how we are dangerously obsessed with celebrity and stardom.

On June 17th, 1994, someone’s parents were away. I was in my second to last year of high school. We moved in for the weekend to drink beer and be young. That night, a Friday, Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks played on a muted television in the corner of the family room while we listened to music too loud and ignored the neighbors’ warnings. People came by. At some point, someone pointed at the TV. There was a white SUV racing slowly along a highway. We would have thought nothing of it, if it hadn’t interrupted a live sporting event. We turned on the sound. And, like much of the rest of North America, we watched Al Cowlings plodding along in the now infamous white Bronco, O.J. Simpson hiding in the back with a gun, chased by what seemed like the entire LA police force. It was odd. It was surreal. It was narrated by Tom Brokaw. We had no idea what would come next, that what would follow would define the late 90s, and change the way we, as a culture, fed on celebrity.

My memory of the year that followed is confused by time and media saturation. I recall watching most of the trial, as CNN played it and nothing but it all day. I remember watching much of it from the campus pub at Carleton University or in a friend’s apartment, as we skipped our first-year university classes, got high, ate pizza, and marveled at the spectacle of celebrity and the judicial system. The trial became a show unto itself, a dramedy set in the L.A. world of glitz and celebrity, drugs and debauchery, money and mayhem.

People who were not celebrities, who lived not for the spotlight nor were given to accomplishment deserving of that spotlight, were suddenly household names. Lance Ito, Mark Furhman, Roberts Shapiro and Kardashian, Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, Johnnie Cochran et al. Kato Kaelin was a homeless surfer. Greta Van Susteren was simply a lawyer who answered a CNN producer’s phone call one morning. Suddenly they were household names. They were given a voice. The cast of characters was endless, and it seemed odd even then that I would know the names of these people, let alone the intimate minutiae of their lives, let alone spend every day with them, or CNN.

The People v. O.J. Simpson willfully subscribes to the injustice of celebrity worship. The series celebrates the virtues of fame, evidenced in allowing Kris Jenner and the Kardashian brood an unwarranted part of the narrative. Perhaps this is some sort of high satire of the culture that was born of the Simpson trial, but I refuse to give the series that much credit. The series had an opportunity to take the “trial of the century” and use it as a platform to discuss what it meant in terms of media, race, celebrity, justice, and the American dream. The series is guilty of a first-year creative writing class crime: telling and not showing. It concerns itself with grand monologues, that reveal character and narrative. Perhaps in the mid-nineties California lawyers were known for their soliloquies, but it comes across as false and lazy writing, like a voiceover in place of exposition. The People v. O.J. Simpson is also given to contrived moments, like in episode 5 when during opening statements co-prosecutor Bill Hodgman has a heart attack, which never happened. Why embellish what’s already shocking?

An entire episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” which concerns itself with Clark’s aesthetic and her challenges as a woman in a male-dominated environment, misses a chance to indict a culture that treats workingwomen as second class citizens. In a disproportionate number of scenes, she’s crying or swooning over Sterling K. Brown’s Christopher Darden, which I suppose is intended to elicit sympathy and enrich her character but instead comes across as a sexist depiction of an accomplished and intelligent woman. Sarah Paulson’s performance as Clark does its best with the material she’s given, but The People v. O.J. Simpson’s writers are intent on blaming Clark’s incompetence on gender. The focus is on her fragile character (which doesn’t seem believable), her struggles as a single mother in the midst of a custody battle, and her crush on Darden. And her hair. Six episodes in and we’re on her third hair style, and while Clark’s hair was certainly tabloid fodder during the trial, a more ambitious series would have moved past what we already knew from watching CNN and lingering in the grocery store checkout aisle. Don’t attach gender to the conversation; attack the media that continues to unnecessarily and offensively make that attachment.

The obstacles the series gives to Clark are all domestic, while Darden gets intellectual challenges. A perfect juxtaposition is in how they’re challenged as attorneys. Clark asks for a recess to go home to her children; Darden asks for Simpson to try on the infamous glove for the jury, which hurt the prosecution and gave birth to the trial’s catch phrase, Cochran’s: “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.” There’s no way that in 1994, Marcia Clark, as a woman, was able to rise to her level of prominence in her vocation by being as fragile as the series suggests.

Clark’s true challenge was the insurmountable obstacle she faced in Simpson’s “Dream Team” of attorneys, the power of his celebrity, and the impossible spectacle that their union produced. The series is guilty of what its real-life characters were guilty of during the trial and the era, and what we’re still guilty of today: reducing women to elements of aesthetic and gender. Clark is more than a woman with a law degree. The series uses her chain smoking and drinking to make her “one of the boys”, but these are easy devices. It questions the media that would comment on her conservative attire, but celebrates that same media in giving narrative attention to the Kardashians. The contradictions get in the way of the performances, and what’s left is a disappointing dissemination of an important moment in our cultural evolution.

The flaws in the series are all tied to its inability to indict celebrity, a root cause of the prosecution’s own failures, as if it’s nervous to offend. In casting the series with well-known actors, The People v. O. J. Simpson becomes its own victim of celebrity. Prominent performers are given to camp performances as if in some form of self-parody. John Travolta (Robert Shapiro) eats scenes like a termite infestation. David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian) says “Juice” so many times I fear an undead Michael Keaton’s going to appear on a sandworm. Nathan Lane (F. Lee Bailey) looks ready to burst into Albert Goldman. Writing that makes Dan Brown sound like Emily Dickinson does not help the performers. It’s difficult to endure Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s O.J. blurting out, “Oh my god, Nicole has been killed? Oh my god, is she dead?” or Schwimmer delivering “OJ, come on, please, do not kill yourself in Kimmy’s bedroom” without weeping for the future of the written word. Courtney B. Vance’s monologues make Joe Morton’s Scandal performance seem subdued. Connie Britton has an all too brief appearance as Faye Resnick, whose lingering celebrity as a result of her exploiting her friendship with Brown Simpson has given her a career. Britton’s Resnick would have been an interesting lens through which to filter the story and our celebrity obsession, but instead, the The People v. O.J. Simpson wonders if Kimmy’s ok.

The show is all spectacle and very little substance. Perhaps that’s its intent, to mimic the absurdity of its source material, but a story that is such a part of the fabric of our culture, it would have been far more interesting and appealing in the hands of, say, Noah Hawley (Fargo) than Ryan Murphy (GleeAmerican Horror Story), who’s a producer on the series and directed several episodes. Murphy’s style, which has its proponents, is one of exhibition over exposition, which works in musicals and horror stories, but not so well when the purpose of a series is to critically explore a crucial moment in American history.

But, like the trial itself, I can’t stop watching. It has made me guilty of the crimes I condemn. I’ve become obsessed with the series’ glorification of everything I hate, by circumstance rather than design. And in revisiting the trial, I’m left to revisit myself by way of nostalgia. Did I really waste that much of my life watching this train wreck of injustice? Is this why I got kicked out of university the first time? Is it weird that I know that Evan Handler was in Frogmen AND The People v. O.J. Simpson?

It’s possible that the series could redeem itself in its final episodes, just as it’s possible Travolta’s hair will grow back. The series could have been an interesting conversation about obsession, about the failings of contemporary journalism, about racism, about sexism, about corruption, about the incompetence of the legal system, about how in twenty-two years very little has changed besides haircuts and technology. Instead, it comes across as a prequel to Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

On Louis C.K., ‘Horace and Pete,’ and the Meanness of Donald Trump

On Louis C.K., ‘Horace and Pete,’ and the Meanness of Donald Trump

I woke up late on Saturday morning to good news in my email inbox: a new episode of ‘Horace and Pete,’ Louis C.K.’s online series, had dropped. The first part of the email was fun and games as usual, but then there was a PS, during which C.K. delivered a lengthy and much-publicized rant against Donald Trump. As one might expect, C.K. had choice words for Trump, calling him a liar, a bigot, the equivalent of Hitler–all fair labels. Most saliently, though, C.K. called Trump out for a couple of things: he stated that he’s “not one of you. He is one of him,” urging readers not to be fooled by Trump’s promises. And he described, at length, Trump’s bullying, threatening tendencies, his pure meanness. Meanness should be distinguished from cruelty: meanness is inherent, deep, and yet also tacky; cruelty is slightly different, possibly situational. There’s a reason why C.K.’s words on the meanness and pretense of Trump should be taken seriously, and that his rant should not be dismissed as yet another self-serious celebrity’s conscious political statement. The reason is that C.K. is a student, practically a scholar, of both these qualities in humans. This knowledge is in glowing and wince-worthy evidence in Episode 6 of ‘Horace and Pete.’

Pretense and meanness are, in fact, what the series is all about. Horace (C.K.) and Pete (Steve Buscemi) are cousins who thought they were brothers until Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), their late uncle (to Horace)/father (to Pete), revealed otherwise, running a bar which seems like a solid establishment but is in fact losing money and serving watered-down drinks. Horace presents as affable but is in fact highly dishonest in his relationships, and, in some ways, mean-spirited, with a damaged, unhappy daughter and a son who doesn’t speak to him. Pete seems like a retiring sort, but is in fact heavily medicated—without his meds, he begins having visions. And then there’s the meanness. Throughout this brilliant series, characters say unabashedly mean things to each other, from Uncle Pete’s call to Horace to say hi to his “fat daughter” onwards. The drama’s characters regularly tell each other to go fuck themselves, believably, with full-throated anger. And they do mean things too; in one particularly harrowing and beautifully executed episode, we learn that Horace’s marriage ended because he slept with his wife’s sister. Repeatedly. And we learn this after Horace’s previous wife has announced that she’s cheating on her current partner with his father.

Episode 6 cranks this sort of ultra-meanness up a notch. It
begins benignly, as Pete springs around his bedroom, preparing for a blind
date. Then we cut to the date itself, as Pete and Jenny, played with great
honesty and forwardness by Hannah Dunne, muddle around a bit and then speak openly with each other about their attributes and shortcomings. Nothing mean yet, really, but in the next scene, which takes place after the two have become a couple, Pete and his new partner have dinner with Horace and Horace’s sister Sylvia (Edie Falco), a tightly wound, short of phrase, long of vindictiveness, cancer patient. The dinner starts awkward and gets worse as probing questions turn into snappish judgments (she’s 26, he’s 46). And then, finally, the kicker: Horace explains, explicitly and bluntly, Pete’s condition. Crushed, Jenny leaves, but not before telling Horace and his sister off, as Pete sits, head bowed, destroyed and ashamed. After Pete leaves, Horace and Sylvia go on eating dinner. So, the siblings have taken an unstable, lonely man, who was clearly enjoying a chance at happiness, decided that he wasn’t being forthright enough about his past, made a decision for him, crushed him, and then savored a plate of family-style spaghetti and meatballs. If you want a definition of meanness, look no farther. But simultaneously, if you want a definition of nakedness, the absence of pretense, the conclusion of this dinner gathering would be an apt illustration, as well. Nothing is hidden. Everything is revealed. Everything is ugly. Pass the parmesan.

What is the origin of nastiness? The sad reality is that its origins are often hard to place. One could hazard a number of explanations for why Horace spills Pete’s beans for him: he didn’t want a painful situation to develop later; he was doing his cousin a favor by not allowing him to become involved with a woman not mature enough to handle Pete’s reality; he was protecting Pete’s stability by stopping things before he got in over his head; he was bringing truth in where there had been none before. But none of these explanations are quite as strong as: he felt like it. And: humans are like that. So, the spectacle of Trump must be quite interesting to Louis C.K.: a man who says whatever he wants, and who promises to commit acts of great barbarism if elected President, for no other reason than impulse. Simultaneously, Trump is a pretender, someone who acts as if he has compassion for the downtrodden and yet has none, clearly. C.K. understands this man, because he’s watched this behavior in others, and he has allowed it to spark ‘Horace and Pete,’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Louie.’ In C.K.’s dramas, the urge to be nasty or brutal or mean floats around like a life force, at times seeming like its own character. There are other impulses as well, but the injustice humans do to each other is often the catalyst behind each storyline. Dissembling is germane to C.K.’s work as well; C.K. plays himself, in a sense, in his dramas and in his stand-up–and yet who is this man? C.K. pretends to be a likable schlub, an everyman, a junk food addict, an ordinary guy–and yet, look: he’s assembled a remarkable cast for ‘Horace and Pete,’ with a theme song by one of the best songwriters of the past 50 years, a drama packed with incisive, acute analysis of American sadness. Not the work of a schlub! C.K. demonstrates by example that there are two kinds of dissembling. His is the good kind. Trump’s? Something else altogether.

KICKING TELEVISION: The Superhero Procedural

KICKING TELEVISION: The Superhero Procedural

Some people say that we’re in the golden age of TV, but those people also tell you the small screen is the new novel. The argument is an oversimplification that doesn’t recognize the evolution of the digital landscape, which sees TV as more than what’s available on your 50” plasma. Television, in actuality, is going through its microevolution, the speciation of the medium as we watch TV as we know it divide and isolate itself from its origins. And in its current phase of speciation, TV has developed superpowers.

Or, rather, developed endless superhero series.

There’s a lot to love about superheroes. Their narratives engage a variety of issues, often subversively, making excellent use of metaphor along the way. The characters are well-drawn and patiently constructed, crafted over decades. The villains, vices, and virtues in the universe of the superhero are analogous to real-life evils: big business, corrupt politicians, prejudice, substance abuse, and fighting for the common man. Superheroes can leap tall buildings in single bounds. Superman, as a character, makes sense to us because we can both admire and identify with the themes of love, loss, loneliness, otherness, and good versus evil writ large across his life.

The root of the appeal of the superhero series for networks and digital content providers is obvious: a built in audience that understands the malleability of the property and existing narratives from which to populate a series. Comics tend to have multiple universes, timelines, narratives, and writers, so their audience understands an adaptation may take licence to suit the needs of a new medium, and may have many voices contributing to its construction. Characters may be added or amalgamated, origin stories retold or rebooted, and narratives diverged from expectation or canon. 

None of this is new, either. From George Reeves’ Superman of the 1950s and the kitschy Adam West Batman to the questionable appeal of Lois and Clarkand Smallville to the before-its-time genius of The Tick, television has, with varying degrees of success, brought many a superhero universe to the small screen. But with the expansion of television—or what we call television—comes the need for more and more content. And there are only so many Kardashians.

A recent count by Den of Geek put the number of comic book television adaptations—for the most part super- or antiheroes—at no less than forty, adding to the dozen or so currently on TV. What I’ve found interesting is that for the most part they’re not compelling at all. I love superhero narratives. I love the popcorn excursion of a summer Marvel blockbuster. But for some reason, when they venture to TV, I lose interest.

Writer and producer Greg Berlanti has been responsible for bringing four DC Comics properties to TV. SupergirlArrowThe Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow were developed for the small screen by the erstwhile formerDawson’s CreekJack & Bobby, and Brothers & Sisters writer. And, frankly, all of those productions have the teen soap quality of his former endeavours. They’re dating arcs wrapped around saving-the-world narratives, romcoms with action sequences. Perhaps that’s what happens when big screen ambitions meet small screen realities, but I just can’t bring myself to invest in the series. I made it through two seasons of Arrow before Stephen Amell’s abs proved tiresome, two episodes of The Flash just to take solace in the fact that Tom Cavanagh was still alive and getting work, the pilot of Supergirl before groaning, and I don’t know what Legends of Tomorrow is.

The disappointing adaptations are not limited to Berlanti. Over at ABC, where good projects go to be Disneyfied, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter failed to yield products equal to their promise. Perhaps they should’ve let Shonda Rhimes produce. FOX is doing its best to kill any interest in Batman with Gotham, a show that answers the question no one asked: What was Gotham City like before it was interesting?

Admittedly, I’m being a little harsh. These adaptations aren’t awful. They’re not Dads. The problem is, we’ve simply got too many superheroes doing the same thing, much as we have too many medical and police procedurals, too many white men hosting late night shows, too many sitcoms that don’t make anyone laugh. The problem is that, as with many TV forms, those producing the programming are disinclined to push the limits of the medium. Superheroes are easy, and they’re ultimately forgettable. They’re taking up schedule space, but they lack the enduring longevity and inherent legacy of the literature that birthed them.

The only place where superheroes seem to thrive, at least in terms of presenting interesting and dare I say literary series, is on Netflix. Unrestricted by the network model, the properties they’ve invested in have shone.Daredevil is a gritted, violent twist on the procedural that is a tribute to its source material and rids us the memory of Ben Affleck in tights—until this summer, anyway. Jessica Jones is an intelligent, bold, and creative essay-like dissemination of consent, rape, PTSD, gender stereotypes, sexuality, and patriarchy. Jones uses the format of a noir thriller as a mode for the titular character to confront her, and our, issues.

The streaming service will add Luke CageIron Fist, and Marvel’s The Defenders to its superhero stable by year’s end, and one can only hope that they employ the same formula that made Jessica Jones compelling: ambitious adult television that engages in important contemporary issues that just happen to have characters who have superpowers. Jessica Jones addresses societal concerns that the rest of television either ignores or mocks. Hell, Jessica Jonesaddresses societal concerns that the rest of the western world either ignores or mocks. The series confronts more important issues in 13 episodes than the media can manage in a year.

The challenge content producers have is to keep the viewer from feeling the affects of a saturated market. The medium evolves quickly in a digital universe, and the ever-fickle viewer can only allow a few brief moments of interest before attaching to something new. Look how quickly the sitcom died. Superhero series could be primetime game shows before the calendar bleeds into 2017. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, TV has failed to adapt to its new realities as swiftly as the market has. So how does the superhero series remain a viable TV genre without simply over-producing existing properties?

Like any art form, the best way to adapt to evolution is to disseminate materials in a different way. Music has adapted to technology by introducing new techniques, new genres, and new ways of arranging old chords. Visual art has stumbled sideways into new media and interactive installations. Like any TV genre, the superhero series needs to find new ways to tell old stories. One such ambitious endeavour is NBC’s Powerless (sidenote: this is the first time since 1987 NBC has been referred to by anyone as ambitious), which Varietynotes is “a workplace comedy set at one of the worst insurance companies in America — with the twist being that it also takes place in the universe of DC Comics. The show is about the reality of working life for a normal, powerless person in a world of superheroes and villains.”

Genius. Exploring a universe from the periphery is exactly what the genre needs, not unlike Marvel One-Shots, short films set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that explore less grand and hero-inclined narratives. In one of the shorts, a couple finds a Chitauri gun left over from the attack on New York seen in The Avengers, which the couple uses to go on a crime spree. It’s a fascinating look into what happens in the margins of the superhero universe. This is the route Gotham should have taken instead of desperately pandering to its source material by featuring villains before they were villains and heroes before origin. But Gotham is victim to a malady that has befallen many TV genres: becoming common, and blending into seemingly endless TV landscape.

With endless source material at the disposal of desperate programmers, the superhero series is now a genre, like comedy or drama or reality TV. Television, as an art form, is better off with its inclusion. It promotes a more diverse schedule. But in order to remain relevant as an art form, it needs to adapt and challenge itself to avoid the descent of the sitcom into recycled and tired concepts or the pandering simplicity of network dramas that refuse to break the tropes of their structure. Truthfully, it needs a hero.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of  Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: Network TV Needs A New Model

KICKING TELEVISION: Network TV Needs A New Model

nullThis week my wife and I watched Channing Tatum and Beyoncé on Lip Sync Battle about 3.42 million times. We did not watch the episodes in their entirety, nor did we watch them during their scheduled broadcasts on a network called Spike, which I’m not sure if we even get with our cable package and whose sole purpose seems to be fixing bars and indulging in forensic criminology. There is no metric to account for our viewership, other than YouTube hits, but who knows if we were even watching Channing channel Bey on Spike’s actual YouTube channel as opposed to someone who posted the clip themselves. Afterwards, we wondered: When is Lip Sync Battle on Spike, and does anyone watch those broadcasts, and if so, why? How was that viewing experience skewed towards the viewer as consumer? What advertisements (read: revenue for somebody) were we exposed to that we absorbed subconsciously?

And why is television, as a medium and industry, so reluctant to evolve to this new mode of consumption?

I’ve had a handful of good ideas in my life. The neighborhood I grew up in had a small village at its center, removed from the chaos of the city’s urban core. It was lined with dated pubs and Mom n’ Pop stores. When I was in my late teens, I joked with some friends on our walk to school that we should dropout, buy up all the neighborhood’s dilapidated storefronts, and wait for the property values to soar. We made no such investment, and the village is now filled with million-dollar condos and kitty-cornered Starbucks, well beyond my means.

Sometime in the early aughts, a friend of mine was working for the post office, and in an inspired moment, I suggested that the USPS should offer free email addresses where people could move their traditional postal services to a digital platform as an established brand. They could be like Hotmail, I mused, but with all your bills and existing mail routed easily to your virtual inbox. My ideas were laughed at. I should’ve investigated further. Seems like a revenue stream the USPS could’ve used.

In 2010, when Conan O’Brien was unceremoniously removed as host of The Tonight Show, he began selling himself to other networks. I mused, to no one in particular, that O’Brien should just broadcast his show on, sell ads as he wished and cut out the nuisance of networks. That would’ve been a bad idea, since is Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard’s official message board, but O’Brien’s would’ve served the same purpose.

The red-headed stepchild of late night ultimately chose to bring his humor to TBS, where he now languishes around ninth place in the ratings behind Last Call with Carson Daly, which apparently did not go off the air in 2009, and something called Watch What Happenswhich, best I can tell, is a show about someone named Andy Cohen and the people who happen to be in his living room at any given time.

One of the challenges of the current TV landscape is that there is no adequate metric by which to measure viewership. The Nielsen ratings are an anachronism, still using a small section of viewers as representative of an increasingly complex and fickle national audience. Today’s TV consumer is not the 1940s viewer for whom the system was developed, white middle class families with one television and three stations. The Nielsen ratings fail to effectively account for PVRs, streaming options, partial content (clips on YouTube etc.), group viewing, and, yes, illegal downloads and streaming of content. While advertising executives are apparently still attached to the relic metrics, their blissfully ignorant patriarchy will soon be itself a relic and we may as well prepare ourselves for the evolution of the medium known as television.

Network TV is already adapting to the new realities of the digital generation—albeit slowly—mostly due to the aforementioned old white guys and their interest in metrics. All major networks offer some form of streaming service. CBS is launching a digital network and has content deals with Amazon and Netflix; ABC is owned by Disney, who is part-owner of Hulu, the streaming service that now offers some original programming; and FOX is also a part-owner of Hulu. NBC is owned by Comcast, so they still want you to buy cable and believeUndateable is funny. All of the networks’ streaming options have flaws such as delays or issues with availability. All are tied into antiquated notions of revenue streams and a failure to adapt to an audience vastly different from the one that made their industry rich.

Cable is a different animal, one much more difficult to analyze in terms of metrics. While cable networks require subscriptions in order to augment their revenues, their respect for the art of TV evident in their programming and their polarity in relation to networks suggests a much easier transition to usage by a digital generation. HBO and Showtime already offer over-the-top subscription video on demand, distributed as a standalone offering without cable, and OS apps provide additional avenues for viewership.

It has never made sense to me that networks don’t live stream their broadcasts. Why should stockholders and advertisers care about how an ad is absorbed, as long as it reaches an audience? Watching from a computer or mobile device adds avenues by which broadcasters may insert advertisements and sell their wares. Popups, sidebars, on-screen links, easily shareable and tweetable links. It seems like the obvious evolution. Instead, the viewers are able to watch illegal streams or PVR (so as to adapt viewing to their own schedules as opposed to an arbitrary network schedule) without ads or the opportunity for revenue growth.

Which brings me back to Conan O’Brien. When NBC returned Jay Leno and benign humor to The Tonight Show desk, why was there no enterprising executive whispering ambitious thoughts in O’Brien’s ear? He had a built-in audience and rabid fanbase who skewed younger and had already adapted to the conveniences of digital viewing. Could a show not be owned, produced, controlled, and broadcast by O’Brien’s Conaco production company? TBS issued a press release just this week that boasted Team Coco’s YouTube channel’s “2 billion video views, with fans clocking more than 6.2 billion minutes of viewing time. The channel, which features clips from current and past episodes of CONAN, along with online-exclusive music and comedy, has grown its fan base, as well, climbing to more than 3.5 million subscribers.” What role does TBS play in that success? Are syndicated reruns of 2 Broke Girls and The Big Bang Theory invaluable lead-ins? Conan’s live viewing popularity (albeit by an admittedly flawed metric) puts him in a conversation with Andy Cohen instead of Jimmy Fallon, suggesting TBS merely provides a venue for O’Brien to compete in a race he can’t possibly win, no matter the mode for quantification. The minute he signed with TBS, he relegated himself to last place. The network has neither the pedigree of NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX nor the unequivocal cool of Comedy Central or HBO.

Had O’Brien been convinced to broadcast Conan exclusively online, who knows where he and the medium would be now? An online platform would have allowed O’Brien freedom, both creatively and financially, from the tyranny of network executives. With a built-in audience, he could’ve easily attracted advertisers and unique revenue streams. He could’ve been a pioneer in an industry desperate for someone to colonize the new realities of a digitized medium. At the outset of satellite radio, Sirius decided that they’d need a property to build around, and that property was Howard Stern. While not a direct parallel, one can imagine O’Brien building a similar, if more tailored, empire around himself.

An established TV property like O’Brien isn’t currently available on the free agent market, and may never be again, unless the cast of Friends wants to reunite to continue the series or a Game of Thrones/The Walking Dead crossover can be realized. But there are options for enterprising artists who see the network/cable model as a slowly dying. If Zach Braff, with limited appeal or filmic acumen, can crowdsource $6 million for Wish I Was Here, imagine what a web-based TV enterprise with marketable talent could inspire. The supernatural ratings that The X-Files has managed with its continuation of the series some 15 years after it left TV perhaps lead to the argument that creator/showrunner Chris Carter should’ve brought Mulder and Scully somewhere other than FOX, who pre-empted the seminal series return for NFL post-game self-flagellation.

Network television is not exactly a place that naturally promotes ingenuity or progressive thinking. Networks make the Catholic church seem avant-garde. More appropriately, they make Chuck Lorre seem avant-garde. And much like my USPS and gentrified neighborhood moments of inspiration, I have no background in losing packages or fair trade coffee—I have no idea if this will work financially or technologically. But I’m part of the generation that has intimately experienced the shift from analog to digital, and I sit somewhere close to the 18-35 demographic that apparently dictates how many hours of Chicago-based drama we’re spoon-fed each week. And I know that as soon as this column is posted, I’m going to watch Channing and Yoncé 4211 more times. It seems to me now would be the time to invest in the inevitable transition away from an outdated model. I have no money to invest, myself, but I think I have Matthew Perry’s phone number somewhere, and I claim the rights to all intellectual property herein, which I will offer for 11% of revenues born of these concepts. 

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

KICKING TELEVISION: Mindy Kaling, Me, and The Death of Network TV

KICKING TELEVISION: Mindy Kaling, Me, and The Death of Network TV

nullI have an awkward attraction to Mindy Kaling. Awkward, because I have a complicated relationship with the characters she has played on The Office and Mindy. They seem obsessed with pop culture, their glossy public aesthetic, and the material. So I shouldn’t be attracted to her, because those obsessions annoy me. And yet, I want to have a dysfunctional relationship with her characters. I want to fight about Taylor Swift songs playing in our Mercedes. I want to go through a painful divorce with them, and reconcile one day in the romcom style of the art they find heroic. So, when Fox predictably cancelled The Mindy Project last year because it was a funny, well-written show that didn’t attempt to solve naval crimes, I was somewhat heartbroken. But then Hulu came along. The online network picked up the show, and Mindy and I were reconciled, just like in the movies!

What’s above is analogous to the current state of television in that the Internet and streaming services are the future of TV. Earlier this month, the National Football League broadcast a London game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills on the Internet. Yahoo served as the tilt’s exclusive venue (with the exception of the Jacksonville and Buffalo markets), the first such broadcast in league history. The NFL, always at the forefront of broadcasting and profit, was ostensibly using the game as a precursor to telecasts in markets beyond North America. And though the viewership numbers are under some discussion, one can imagine that this is the future of sports television. And as go sports, so does the rest of TV. Sport is the last bastion of live viewing, and has always been a leader in evolving to suit consumption habits. Sports were on cable long before The Sopranos gave life to HBO. Monday Night Football moved to ESPN a few years ago.

As the technology and the audience change while the networks don’t, TV is being consumed and celebrated beyond its once seemingly indestructible monopoly. HBO, Amazon, and AMC were feted at the Emmys; Hulu and Netflix are creating interesting, popular, and successful programming; and NetFlix’s CEO declared that their shows aren’t just better, but that all TV will be on the Internet by 2030. Is there any hope left for the network model?

Network television has been trying to fend off the rise of alternative broadcasters for over a decade. NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox were besieged by the onslaught of cable. But while HBO et al. were expanding the breadth and ambition of the medium through innovative and original programming, the networks had the sanctuary of convenience and tradition, not to mention brand authority. Plug a TV into a wall and you can watch Big Bang Theory. And even if a Chuck Lorre laugh fest isn’t on, the viewer recognizes that eventually something they like will probably come on CBS soon enou… oh hey, it’s Mark Harmon! Network TV was safe and comfortable.

But out of nowhere, at least to the anachronistic and ignorant rule of the networks, came the Internet. The constraints of traditional television were gone, like twenty-two minute sitcoms and seven-day schedules to shoehorn CSIs into. Programming is released on any schedule, viewers vote on pilots to promote to series, and the audience can consume products at their leisure. And the Internet doesn’t have to bow to censorship. But, instead of embracing the technology and adapting to inevitability, the networks have fought back with inferior efforts and multiple incarnations of established dreck. And now their end is nigh. Advertising revenues for broadcast television have plateaued, and advertisers are “predicted to spend more on digital platforms than television in two years.”

My own viewing habits are indicative of the evolution of the way we consume TV. I haven’t had a TV in nearly a decade; only recently has that changed. All of my viewing was online, mostly through less than legal means. It allowed me to pick and choose what I wanted to watch, on my schedule, without commercials or Dick Wolf productions. The picture quality, the sound quality, and the technology were at times less than ideal. But the price was right: nothing. And I never had to sit through an episode of something I loathed.

But don’t take my word for it. Take consulting firm Deloitte’s:

Streaming video services, now used by more than 42 percent of American households, are heavily changing media consumption habits across generations, according to the ninth edition of the Deloitte "Digital Democracy Survey" released today. The study reveals that streaming content has overtaken live programming as the viewing method-of-choice, with 56 percent of consumers now streaming movies and 53 percent streaming television on a monthly basis, as compared to 45 percent of consumers preferring to watch television programs live. Moreover, younger viewers have moved to watching TV shows on mobile devices rather than on television. Among Trailing Millennials (age 14-25), nearly 60 percent of time spent watching movies occurs on computers, tablets and smartphones, making movie viewing habits decidedly age-dependent.

In August I purchased a cable package, in part because I write about TV and I can deduct it from my taxes, and in part because I gotta have my Shondaland Thursdays without delay. And what I’ve found in the decade between cable subscriptions is that they look a lot like the Internet. Albeit an overpriced and less user friendly Internet. There’s on-demand viewing, but it takes some getting used to and there are still commercials. The picture quality is without peer, but I feel like I’m always being sold something. My package inexplicably doesn’t include HBO, but I can watch Modern Family at any time of the day.

The reason I keep the cable, other than the advice of my accountant and my affection for Ellen Pompeo: sports. I can watch nearly any event live, in perfect HD, with pause and playback features. Sports had always been the one drawback to my online viewing decade. Either options available to me were too expensive, the illegal streams lagged or were non-existent, or simply watching on a 13” screen didn’t do the spectacles justice. But as the Jags-Bills experiment predicts: sport is not long for extreme online convenience at a reasonable expense. And when that day comes, and it is coming soon, my subscription will be stricken from my monthly bills.

So, with the rapid change in technology suggesting that networks adapt a new model, one would think that the quality of their programming would evolve to counter their dissipating audiences. But that has not been the case. The fall pilot season has been awful, and television events like a live broadcast of H.M.S. Pinafore can only hold the fort for so long. Network programming is analog in every sense of the word. It is tired and dated and enjoyed mostly by your parents. Programming still aspires to mediocrity and adheres to antiquated formats. How many hospital serials that run forty-two minutes plus commercials from 10 to 11 can a generation handle? The networks are trying to offer audiences online options, but their streaming services are designed for your parents, as is the programming. Despite their efforts to offer on demand viewing on multiple platforms, they’re still selling a product that was designed for a platform (traditional TV) that has evolved beyond six channels and a set of rabbit ears. Networks are large companies with near infinite resources and a keen understanding of technology, and yet they seem to still believe that a century old model will continue to be successful. CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox seem to be trying to bleed the last few dollars out of a generation that will soon be watching NCIS in their retirement homes on iPads programmed by their grandchildren.

I missed last night’s episode of The Mindy Project. According to Hulu, in “Mindy and Nanny” Mindy has to “fire the world’s most difficult nanny: her mother-in-law. Jody tries to save Jeremy from his manipulative girlfriend.” It sounds delightful. I’m going to watch it as soon as I send this to my editor. I’m going to watch it in my pajamas, eating watermelon and Halloween candy using my parents’ Hulu login while drinking a pumpkin beer on my couch at 1:11 in the afternoon. Just the way TV is meant to be consumed.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013).Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.



is like most of my failed relationships. Much of what I desire leaves me too
soon, unfulfilled, unresolved, unloved. Tangential and peripheral lesser characters,
often caricatures, play too large a role. Expectations are high. Infidelity abound. But good television, like love, is ambitious, patient, and true to
itself. Often TV is none of these. Series are rushed to order based on a
premise and not a realization. Unappealing actors are forced into unsuitable
roles. Katherine Heigl is involved. Most often, though, TV is a victim of its
own parameters. It’s designed to live infinitely, or at least for enough episodes
to be syndicated. Narrative arcs are left open, because to close them is
suicide. In recent years, however, the mini- (or event) series has returned to
prominence. The successes of True
and American Horror Story
have revitalized the genre, giving birth to new opportunities for
storytelling and for actors. Even love has a complete cycle, and USA’s DIG (premiering March 5th) is
an example of how a mini-series can be successful by limiting its life.

DIG is particularly ambitious in its theological concerns and the international scope of its narrative. Action takes
place in Norway, New Mexico, and Jerusalem. The event series centers on an FBI
agent stationed in Jerusalem, Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs), who while
investigating the murder of a young American becomes embroiled in a 2000-year old
mystery. The series also stars Anne Heche as Connelly’s superior and lover, and
David Costabile as Tad Billingham, an enigmatic cult leader. The cast is
rounded out by a uniquely diverse cast including Ori Pfeffer, Regina Taylor, Alison
Sudol, and David Ambrose, which in and of itself separates DIG from what we are accustomed to on TV. It’s multiracial,
multi-generational, and multilingual. Yes, DIG
has subtitles. SUBTITLES! How will the American viewing public cope?

DIG doesn’t care. Nor should it. The
best TV is made with story in mind, not demographics or live plus seven numbers
or syndication. DIG comes to USA from
Homeland executive producer Gideon
Raff and Heroes creator Tim Kring. To
combine the credits of the two to make a series is a good recipe for TV
that goes beyond simple loglines and average ambition. Star Jason Isaacs was
also intrigued by the unlikely collaboration, noting “generally showrunners
like running the show” and not as a duet. But, Raff and Kring are “enormously
successful at telling stories on television. Both leapt at the chance to do
what they were born to do, which was tell a story with a beginning, middle, and
end.” And when taken through the elements of the story, it “scared the living
shit” out of him.

was excited to work within the mini-series medium, and it suits his tremendous
talent. He’s a leading man without wearing it on his sleeve. He found DIG “inherently satisfying, like telling
a joke with a punchline.” His last series, Awake,
was an event series trapped in the body of a planned serial. The premise, a cop
awakes in two realities, was ahead of its time (way back in ’12) and its
aesthetic was too progressive for network TV. If it had premiered today on
Netflix or Amazon or, indeed, USA, it would have had a better life and place in
the canon of great television.

according to Isaacs, maybe it lived long enough: “When you make 12 hours of
complicated satisfying television, as we did with Awake, and it works, that’s a triumphant achievement. In the UK,
drama series are only six episodes long. [Awake]
was two drama series. In America [as opposed to the UK] if it doesn’t run for a
decade people look down . . . with slight embarrassment in their voice. I thought
[with Awake] we did a remarkable
thing. Not sure that we would have sustained it or done many more. Twelve hours
is as much as I want to see about most things.”

that perfectly illustrates the inherent flaw of the multi-year serial. It
becomes a victim of its own immortality. Awake
may have died prematurely, but DIG is
set to live the perfect life. Heche calls the event series “its own art form,
as opposed to ‘let’s see where it all goes,’ which is what we’re used to on
television. [As opposed to viewers wondering] am I still going to be hooked
after six years?”

unlike Awake, what is immediately
striking about DIG is its aesthetic.
It has a grainy filter that very much suits its diversity of locals and gives
the series an unvarnished feel. It reminds the viewer of international series
more likely to come out of Canadian-Croatian co-productions, and I mean that in
the most positive way. Costabile mentions “the risk that the network was
taking… and their [USA’s] interest in going outside of what had been
successful for them. Much bigger, much more provocative, and much more
challenging to their audience.” And DIG most certainly takes, and conquers,
those risks.

as many a good TV show has discovered, simply being good and ambitious isn’t
enough. The TV graveyard is full and caskets are falling into the creek behind
the chapel. It wasn’t too long ago when a show wasn’t on one day, and the next
day it was. Now, there are multi-platform rollouts for even the smallest of
shows. From social media to YouTube to interactive websites to junkets by the
dozen. DIG had a multi-city touring installation
called DIG: Escape the Room, which allowed viewers to indulge in the spirit of the show long before they could revel in its
reality. Heche, who is excellent in what is essentially an unforgiving and
forgotten role, notes that the scope of what goes into promoting a show is
“incredible. You have to bombard the public. It’s not just, ‘I’m going to go do Letterman and I’ll do The Today Show and then I’ll be home.’”

series needs its antagonist, and DIG
is very fortunate to have Costabile play Billingham, who’s somehow part of the
theological mystery at the heart of the show. A few weeks ago in this space I wrote about how Costabile was in
need of a vehicle to match his incredible talent. In DIG, he is the villainous edge the series needs. But the best
villain can’t know they’re the bad guys, and only in that can the character
succeed. The Joker doesn’t know he’s evil, Michael Corleone is a good man, he
thinks. Jason is just out for a walk with a machete and a hockey mask. Says
Costabile, “when people do things that look at and consider bad or morally
bankrupt or morally questionable it’s dangerous for me, as a performer, to villainize
them. You’ll lose out on the possibility that they could be charming or
likeable in need of something else in a loving way. [Tad Billingham] has a misguided
sense of the world, but if I played him that way he’d appear at odds with

is a veteran of the most interesting television of the past
decade: DamagesBreaking BadThe WireHouse, The Office, Flight of the
Conchords, United States of Tara… His
IMDB page reads like a Labor Day weekend marathon binge of the best of the
past decade. Once again, in DIG, he
is the best thing onscreen, which is a huge accomplishment, as his co-stars are

DIG is not quite in the pantheon of
TV’s most noted endeavors, but nor does it want to be. It wants to be
something special, if just for a moment. It wants to indulge in itself, its
aesthetic, and its contextual universe, and it does so with a delicate touch,
patient exposition despite its finite nature, and superb storytelling. And it
can stand as a sea change in how interesting and dynamic television can be fed
to a North American audience. Simply put, DIG
is great television. If television is indeed like a relationship, DIG is a lover you can spend some time
with, guilt-free, unencumbered by commitment or the future. It is a moment in
your life, a moment in your television life. And it’s worth the time.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

Hannah Horvath from GIRLS Is the Last Thing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Needs

Hannah Horvath from GIRLS Is the Last Thing the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Needs


studied poetry at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 2007 to
2009, and had an amazing experience in Iowa City, primarily because,
as a non-traditional student, I was largely left to my own devices by
the program’s famously hands-off curriculum. To be a thirty year-old
poet at the nation’s oldest graduate creative writing
program—seventy-eight years old this year—is to marvel at how anyone
in America can be permitted so much license with so little
responsibility. Currently, the university fully funds all Workshop admittees with
tuition remission and either fellowships or teaching assistantships, and
it requires in return little more than attendance at one three-hour
writing workshop per week. Sure, in the first of a student’s two years
in Iowa City, he or she is likely to take an ungraded
seminar or two (one run by and for working writers, rather than through
the university’s English Department), but in the second year of the
curriculum, most students do little more than take independent studies
and thesis hours. It’s a two-year writing vacation, and one I was happy
to have as a poet still finding my footing. What it isn’t, or shouldn’t
be, is a hideaway for entitled, directionless young people for whom
living anywhere but a cosmopolitan enclave on the nation’s East Coast is
a source of shirt-rending psychic turmoil. By sending Hannah Horvath
(Lena Dunham) off to Iowa City for two years at the Writer’s Workshop,
HBO’s Girls is giving not just the Workshop but the discipline of creative writing in general exactly what it doesn’t need: a bad rap.
student body of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop comprises, at any one time,
about a hundred poets and novelists; depending upon the semester, the
permanent faculty is made up of three or four poets and three or four
fiction writers. Speaking only from my own experience—but mindful, too,
of the similar experiences reported by dozens of fellow Workshop
graduates—you couldn’t ask for a more talented and artistically diverse group of classmates than the ones you routinely find in the Workshop’s
creative writing courses. That said, you also couldn’t find many
bohemian communities in the United States that are less diverse in
several important ways: namely, in terms of race, ethnicity,
socioeconomic status, and educational background. By and large, the
student body at the University of Iowa’s most revered graduate program
is white,
upper-class, and well-pedigreed. Blacks and Latinos in particular are
woefully underrepresented, as are members of the working class and those
from smaller, regional institutions of higher education. When I
attended the Workshop in the late aughts, an appreciable percentage of
my classmates hailed from just two universities, Harvard and Stanford;
had wealthy parents (some of whom were donors to the program); or had
lived for years in provincial but ostensibly worldly enclaves like those
found in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
be clear, everybody in America has every right to apply to the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop if they wish—and, if admitted, to
attend. My classmates between 2007 and 2009 were no more responsible
for the circumstances of their birth than I was then or now. And the
majority of the largely white, upper-class, well-pedigreed student body
at the Workshop is made up of talented, committed authors whose future
work will undoubtedly be worth reading. The question, rather, is whether
the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—institutionally, that is, and not as a responsibility of any individual (faculty, student, or staff) associated with
the program—does the discipline of creative writing an implicit
disservice by leaving the impression that creative writing is reserved
for children of privilege from the coasts. If the hard sciences have struggled for
years against the (not entirely) unfair impression that they do
little to actively recruit women and minorities, the struggle of
creative writing since its first appearance in academia in the 1880s has
been to shirk the sense that it’s a haven for sheltered,
arrogant, self-indulgent bullshitters.
of the above is Exhibit A for why it’s a sad day—and by no means a
cause for celebration—when we discover that one of the most sheltered,
arrogant, self-indulgent bullshitters on American television today is
likely headed to Iowa City. Whether you love the show Girls
or detest it, it’d be tough to call series lead Hannah Horvath anything
but that archetypal spoiled white kid with whom the streets of New York
City are increasingly lousy. Unlike previous generations of young New
Yorkers, this generation seems less invested
in either the history of the city or, more importantly, its
unparalleled contributions to American art and the American literary
community in particular. And while it’s fair to say that Girls critiques this new class of New York City-dwelling enfants terribles
as much or even far more than it glamorizes it, the fact remains that
the medium of television invariably glamorizes anything it depicts, and
American viewing audiences invariably under-theorize their
entertainments. Whatever Lena Dunham’s motivation might be in depicting in
agonizing detail the lives of seven to ten young people many of us would
want nothing to do with, the fact remains that New York City is already
popularly identified with such figures but the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
(to its great benefit) is not. Bringing Dunham and crew to town will
erase once and for all
the lingering fantasy that the most visible institution in graduate creative
writing is a diverse, resolutely populist haven.
Perhaps this is one reason the University of Iowa has now formally denied Dunham’s request to film episodes from Season 4 on the university’s
campus. The official explanation is that such filming would cause
disruption to the institution’s educational mission—possibly
true–though more plausible would be an acknowledgment that University
of Iowa in general and the Writers’ Workshop in particular has
little to gain by being dramatized through the eyes of an entitled and
only intermittently self-aware New Yorker. For the Writers’ Workshop to
be ready for primetime, it would need to commit itself to a
forward-looking admissions policy—one in which former students of
faculty members, or current students of friends of faculty members,
receive no leg up in the admissions process; one in which existing
pipelines between certain colleges and the Workshop (notably, Harvard
and Stanford) are stopped up; and one in which all forms of diversity
(including socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, and sexual orientation) are
given at least some consideration by application readers.
all the blame for the Writers’ Workshop being so homogeneous falls on
the Workshop itself. As someone who’s interviewed literally thousands of
MFA applicants since 2006 as part of his doctoral research, I can say
that many such applicants, particularly those who are gay or non-white,
are leery of moving to a town in Iowa that’s 83% white and (not unusual
for a small city) overwhelmingly straight. Given how politically
progressive the town is, however, and frankly how homogeneous most
American locales unfortunately are—my own home state, Massachusetts, is
84% white, but I don’t hear of artists refusing to move there—it’s
regrettable that some of the nation’s most talented poets and writers might potentially
feel Iowa City isn’t welcoming to anyone but the Hannah Horvaths of the
world. The truth is that the
Writers’ Workshop offers a community in which anything goes and
everyone is welcome, a fact made more probative by the Workshop’s
dramatic segregation (culturally and geographically) from the bulk of
Iowa City’s university and non-university communities. The best way to
feel stifled at the Writer’s Workshop is to come to it with
overdetermined expectations about what writing (or, for that matter, Iowa)
really is; another is to come to Iowa City adamant that you’ll do
nothing to complicate your relationship with your past—whether it be
your past as an artist, or your past as a cloistered resident of New
York City.
Nothing in the plot of Girls thus
far indicates that Hannah is ready to leave behind either her New York
City sensibilities or her sense of herself as not just unique but
superlative. Writing is neither a glamorous profession nor one in which
practitioners benefit much from self-glamorization; the age-old adage to
“write what you know” is profitable only when you first forget what you
know, something Hannah has never seemed capable of or even very much
interested in doing. Not only is Hannah unready for the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, the Workshop—however much it might be able to see Dunham’s interest in it
as a net positive—isn’t ready for her, either. And until the discipline
of creative writing does more than it has thus far to focus attention
on writing as a sustainable practice for the many rather than the few,
for the working
class every bit as much as the well-heeled class, the sort of attention
Girls can bring to it will likewise be more a danger than a boon.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.