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.

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: Seeing Ourselves in the Golden Globes

KICKING TELEVISION: Seeing Ourselves in the Golden Globes

nullThere are few things I detest more than celebrity culture. But, in stark contrast and wrapped in hypocrisy, I love the Golden Globes. Not that long ago, just after my now wife and I had become friends, we were taking a nice walk on a beautiful spring day in Montreal, headed out for some breakfast to try and get to know each other better. I was tipping shy that day, a bit in awe of her beauty—a beauty that I refuse to describe analogously through comparisons to indie songstresses or pixied actresses—and was kind of fumbling through early friendship questions. What are you reading? I dunno… not much—Saunders. What bands are you in to? Uh, Silver Jews. Do you like stuff? Hmm. Mostly just things. My responses provided no insight, revealed no interesting character beneath my Bon Iver beard and unwashed aesthetic. I was losing her. But then, in a flash of inspiration, and out of nowhere, I uttered: All I really want out of life is someone to watch the Golden Globes with. And a love was born.

What was important in this transcendental moment was that I didn’t profess my desire to have someone to watch TV with. That would’ve been too simple and lacking of perceptive interiority. And I didn’t claim a longing for the Oscars or the Grammys or the People’s Choice Awards. Affection for those ceremonies offers suggestions of alternate character: Glamour and elitism, fondness for trite song writing, celebration of the pedestrian. The Golden Globes suggest an understanding of culture, but also a devotion to the playful, a love of honesty, a tenderness towards organized chaos, and respect for accomplishment and an open bar. In an inspired moment I revealed myself to someone who is three leagues beyond me, and perhaps endeared myself to her.

What I love most about the Golden Globes is the way they reflect the time in which they exist unlike other forms of pageantry and celebrity. The Oscars always seem dated, with safe jokes and anachronistic musical productions. The Grammys don’t seem to understand that music exists outside of Top 40 radio, which further exposes the insulation and ignorance of celebrity culture. The Emmys try to get it right, but then celebrate The Big Bang Theory and Jon Cryer as comedy, and not in a meta way. The Golden Globes—perhaps organically, perhaps by design—communicate a moment in our culture, a snapshot of where we are as a people.

Case in point: The ignorant and transphobic jokes at the expense of Caitlyn Jenner, Transparent and its exceptional star Jeffrey Tambor. Of Jenner, host Ricky Gervais quipped: “I’ve changed. Well, not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously—now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she’s had. She became a role model for transpeople everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers, but you can’t do everything.” He then joked about Tambor’s testicles. No only are these punch lines not funny, but they’re unfortunately indicative of where our tolerance is in terms of understanding LGTBQ issues. That it’s still acceptable to use these issues as punch lines shows that we have yet progressed to the level of understanding we need in order to assimilate all people into our culture. It was like Gervais had told a black joke in 1985 or a gay joke in 2005. It reveals the distance between where we are and where we need to be.

Despite Gervais’ failed humor, the Golden Globes provided, as they always do, a forum for the celebrated artists to address larger societal concerns. Transpeople’s issues are important right now, and Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox are important beacons of that conversation. Last night, Leonardo DiCaprio and Alejandro González Iñárritu (after wins for The Revenant) both asked that indigenous people’s issues be more prominent in our cultural and political discourses. In many instances, certainly too many, venues like awards ceremonies are the only place much of the audience would be exposed to issues more relevant than the Kardashians’ meal choices. And while at the Oscars or the Grammys or the Cable Ace Awards such speeches could come across as preaching, the laid-back and jovial manner of the Golden Globes seems to make political messages more palatable to the audience.

Beyond societal concerns, the Golden Globes provide a place to reflect upon the condition of the mediums of film and TV, and the roles they play in cultural discourse.  Last night, Gervais recycled jokes from previous eras and hosting efforts, mocking Charlie Sheen’s addictions, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s adoptions, and Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism. And while not being funny, they did illuminate and illustrate where we seem to be as a culture artistically, certainly in film and television: We seem to be out of ideas. Now is a time of recycling and rebooting; from Star Wars to The Muppets to old white men in late night film and TV, we seem to be plagued (except in some exceptional cases) with an inability or unwillingness or fear to be ambitious or innovative. The Golden Globes were a reflection of this, from Gervais’ jokes to Sylvester Stallone’s Best Supporting Actor win for Creed to the endless close-ups on Harrison Ford. Even the appearance of BFFs Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer seemed rebooted, like a joke we’ve seen before: this time, the punch line didn’t hit.

The funniest part of the production, and further reflection of the disparity between society and the entertainment we’re fed, was the excessive bleeping of cursing. How is it possible, in an era of unconscionable violence both in art and reality, that expletives can be deemed so dangerous? This is indicative of the flawed manner in which we address issues in society. Swearing in a Versace gown is unacceptable, but the 2nd Amendment is important. Expletives are dangerous but Donald Trump isn’t. The Golden Globes, through the flaw of their network oversight, illuminate this hypocrisy. Perhaps futilely, but at least its there. Nary a celeb would dare drop an F-bomb on the Oscars, even while drone bombing plays live on other channels.

In a more positive light, what I do love about the Golden Globes is the honesty it seems to project, in stark contrast to the polished and tapered product of celebrity we are fed by Entertainment TonightPeople Magazine, and publicist-driven narratives. Other awards ceremonies revel in that culture of disingenuous production, but the Golden Globes celebrate its absence. Everyone has had a few cocktails. Lips are loose. Mistakes are made. There are always a few moments of truth that we don’t often get from the Hollywood machine. Rachel Bloom’s exuberance in her upset win as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy TV Series, Denzel Washington and his wife without their glasses stumbling through his acceptance speech for his Cecil B. DeMille Award, Jamie Foxx’s noting the absence of recognition (at least musically) for Straight Outta Compton and his love for his daughter (Miss Golden Globe), and Tom Hanks’ Denzel impression are examples of polished and pampered stars being human. And I find something inherently beautiful about that.

We filter ourselves through celebrity. We quantify our aesthetic through its dissemination. We value our art in contrast to theirs. And their success—family, fame, fortune—is what we aspire to, no matter how impractical those aspirations are. I writhe at the lack of humility and grand ego that encompasses it all—both the celebrity and our obsessive filtering. But, once a year—when it’s at its best—the Golden Globes provide a glimpse of the virtue of celebrity and a reminder that these are simply people at the top of their industry, all dressed up, and out for a night of free champagne.

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: Depression and the Sitcom

KICKING TELEVISION: Depression and the Sitcom

nullThere were times not too long ago when I was not happy. Not because I was alone, which I was, or I was wasting my life, which I was, or because I was immersing myself in bad decisions, which I was. My unhappiness was easily masked. It was kept secret. I took a perverse pleasure in that secrecy. Mental illness, in my experience, takes on its own life. It becomes a tangible entity, an unwanted partner, a relationship with the self built on parasitic dependency, among other dependencies. And yet, when depression is portrayed on TV, it seems so foreign, so abstract, a caricature of what the illness really is; sometimes a literal caricature (like in BoJack Horseman or The Simpsons) and sometimes a more subtle cartoon, like in Two and a Half Men.

In the sitcom, depression is just another punchline. The canon is filled with scripts that mine depression for laughs. Alcoholism on Cheers or MomFrasier’s desperate help line callers, Two and a Half Men’s hedonism and loneliness, or years of trauma comically manifesting in the fallibility of the real world on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, are all born of some form of depression. It’s interesting that sitcom writers can find creative ways to discuss cancer (The Big C), divorce (Louie), war (M*A*S*H), homophobia (Will & Grace), class and domestic abuse (Roseanne), race (All in the Family), or alcoholism (all of them), but examples of engaging and inventive discourse on depression are hard to find. Even on shows that feature psychotherapists, like Frasier or The Bob Newhart Show, depression is a caricature.

I’m not condemning that mode. In my writing, I’ve used my struggles with happiness as a vehicle for humour. I have found self-deprecation in discussing my own struggles cathartic. And I would imagine that’s what sitcom writers find as well—or they’re just monsters that love other people’s suffering, like Republicans or cable news.

Accurate and deft sitcom portrayals of depression may often be found in animated series. Moe the bartender’s annual suicide attempts on The Simpsons are played for laughs, but careful consideration of Moe Szyslak finds a nuanced and skilled portrait of a character struggling with mental illness. His frequent attempts at self-harm and his violent oscillation between anger and indifference are contrasted by sentimental and selfless acts like reading to sick children and a genuine and hopeful capacity for love.

Similarly, BoJack Horseman manages to discourse on despondency and emotional disorder through the filter of an anthropomorphised horse/former sitcom star with a skill live-action comedy can’t seem to muster. As a faded member of the institution that is—for the most part—incapable of balancing comedy and analysis of mental illness, the titular character (voiced by Will Arnett) in the animated Netflix sitcom tries to manage his pain through attempts to find solace and context in those around him: A pink Persian cat/agent, a freeloader, yellow Labrador Retriever/rival, and a Vietnamese-American feminist/human ghostwriter who herself is spiralling into depression. Like many manic depressives, BoJack self-medicates, and though this is certainly played for laughs, moments born of his depression lend themselves to salient and sobering moments of self-realization that are rarely found in a sitcom, like, “You know, sometimes I think I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me and now its all gone. And I’ll never get it back in me. It’s too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn’t it?” Compelling reality, straight from the animated horse’s mouth.

Animation lends itself to intelligent consideration of something so difficult and inherently personal because as an audience (and as creators) the idea of sadness can exist in the abstract. The static nature of animation in The Simpsons and BoJack Horseman provide a forum for discussion, which allows the audience to filter mental health through the transcendental. One of the most difficult aspects of depression is recognizing it, and perhaps we, as an audience, find it easier to recognize it in an anthropomorphised horse than in a mirror.

Sitcoms are not typically a place where we confront ourselves. Sitcoms love to gloss over more serious conversations when given the opportunity to use them to evolve their narratives. Depression is a walking nightmare; it’s an attempt to quiet a screaming cancer while everyone watches the tumour grow. The TV drama makes it a character flaw or a tick, often treated as an affectation or virtue. Dr. House is depressed as a result of his atrophied leg, but a genius. In Scandal, Millie becomes depressed after the death of her son, but predictably recovers. In Nashville, Juliette suffers from post-partum depression, but will inevitably return to country music stardom. In all of these cases, and so many more, depression is the result of something. It has a cause that the character can address directly. The depression is almost tangible, a character with a background story who can be operated on, prosecuted, persecuted, killed off or written out.

But depression doesn’t have a cause. It’s born of nothing. One day it just exists. There is medication, but there is no cure.

Enter Aya Cash.

Cash’s portrayal of Gretchen’s spiralling depression in this season of You’re the Worst is nothing short of brilliant. I was an unabashed fan of the first season of the FXX sitcom, but I had concerns about how the re-imagination of the boy-meets-girl story would play out after boy (Chris Geere’s Jimmy) and girl (Cash’s Gretchen) moved in together. It seemed like the world of You’re the Worst may have had nowhere to go other than devolve into farce. And that would’ve been fine, but unspectacular and certainly unambitious—two regular traits of sitcoms seen in recent additions to the genre (Truth Be Told) or inexplicably still airing (2 Broke Girls) trading on recycled jokes and premises. But somewhere in episodes 3 and 4, the show took an unexpected turn concerning Gretchen’s clinical depression. And somehow, magically, creator Stephen Falk and his staff of writers have managed to take a serious and precious subject that the sitcom form has been mostly incapable of disseminating and used it to increase the show’s narrative scope while still being the funniest thing on TV outside of MSNBC debates.

What’s most impressive about You’re the Worst’s use of depression is that the world of the show has continued on despite Gretchen’s pain. The series hasn’t paused its narrative to focus solely on Cash’s character’s spiral—plot unrelated to her illness is still featured prominently. And therein lies the horrible truth of depression: The world doesn’t stop for it. So, while Gretchen falls apart, the universe the show has created goes on, with the characters Sunday Funday midday day drinking exploits, Lindsay’s (Kether Donohue) frozen semen, visits from Jimmy’s family and his temptations with infidelity, and Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) burgeoning relationship. While a lesser show would try to make the entire season about Gretchen, You’re the Worst instead allows her depression to exist within the show, and in so doing finds one of the most true and realistic depictions of mental illness to ever grace the small screen, and certainly the best to ever be on a sitcom.

The frustrating futility of a disease without a cure is beautifully depicted in episode 9, "LCD Soundsystem." Gretchen stalks a seemingly perfect couple, whose idyllic life she idolizes and aspires to. They have the nice house, the cute baby, the cool jobs—an aesthetic that suggests happiness and the life she believes she could have if she weren’t sick. But in a dose of reality that mimics the crushing severity and impossibility of mental illness, the couple ends up being as flawed and disappointing as Gretchen’s own existence. The husband is lecherous and desperate, hitting on Gretchen and dismissing his perfect life and family. The couple fight. The moment when she—and the audience—realize this is equally familiar and heartbreaking, while Jimmy (as many acquaintances of the depressed are) is wonderfully oblivious, and the look in Cash’s eyes in that instant are Emmy-worthy if ever a performance was. Without dialogue or animation, Gretchen’s eyes suggest a deep and resound loss, as if helplessly watching the very notion of ever being happy sink slowly into a dark and vengeful abyss

This is where the peerless brilliance of You’re the Worst’s recent season can be found. In episode 3 Gretchen misses her old "posse" and throws a party to reunite them. In episode 4 she sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night, where (we discover in episode 6) she has gone to cry alone in her car. Carelessly, and without warning, Gretchen and the audience are confronted by her depression. That violent and graceless fluctuation is perfect effigy of the sudden onslaught of mental illness. And though there will be laughter around Gretchen as the season progresses, Cash’s character exists in frightening isolation, familiar to those who have suffered from a similar affliction.

There are still a few episodes of You’re the Worst left this season, and who knows how many years of the show and its universe. I’m curious how it will deal with Gretchen’s depression and balance the tropes of the sitcom. Television is escapism. It is not the responsibility of artists to adhere to the audience’s needs. The sitcom is a form of expression, and a way of taking some small microcosm of common existence and giving those who actually exist in it a moment of solace. Cash’s performance is a caring tribute to those who suffer from mental illness, and a lesson for other sitcoms on how television can be ambitious and funny while respecting both the audience and the medium. Certainly humour may be found in dark and troubling places, but so can understanding and compassion. A well-crafted sitcom can respect its traditions—and audience—while aspiring to new modes of employing the genre.

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.

Kicking Television: EXCLUSIVE Behind-the-Scenes Look at the USA Series DIG with Co-Star David Costabile

Kicking Television: EXCLUSIVE Behind-the-Scenes Look at the USA Series DIG with Co-Star David Costabile

In this
Indiewire exclusive, we go behind the scenes of the new USA series DIG with its co-star David Costabile (Suits, Breaking Bad, Damages). DIG,
from creators and executive producers Tim Kring (Heroes) and Gideon Raff (Homeland)
is the story of a murder in Jerusalem, but set against the backdrop of a much
larger mystery that takes viewers from Norway to New Mexico and into the
depths of the Holy Land. Costabile, recently praised
in this space
as an actor in need of a vehicle, plays Tad Billingham, a
deceptively charming author, TV personality, and leader of a cult who plays a
crucial role in the mystery.

series also stars Jason Isaacs (Awake),
Anne Heche (Save Me), Alison Sudol (A Fine Frenzy, Transparent), Richard E. Grant (Downton
), Regina Taylor (The Unit),
Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under), Omar
Metwally (Non-Stop) and Ori Pfeffer (World War Z).

KICKING TELEVISION: The ‘House, M.D.’ That Love Built

KICKING TELEVISION: The ‘House, M.D.’ That Love Built

nullI’m not very good at love. Now, in
the St. Valentine’s season, I’m lucky enough to be in love. She’s very patient.
She tolerates my idiosyncrasies and flaws. We’d like to get a dog. My folks dig
her. I’m not quite sure how many times I’ve been in love before. At least once.
Most likely two-and-a-half times. And once in high school, but that doesn’t
count. I suffer from acute loneliness, which often leads to binge television
watching. At least once every two years I revisit my favorite series: Lost, Friday Night Lights, West
. They stand in as replacements for love, for companionship. Lately, in
the throes of a new relationship, I have found less of a need to binge on
TV. But a few weeks ago, as I quickly flipped past Gilmore Girls as a Saturday night viewing option on NetFlix, I
stopped briefly on House, M.D. At one
time, it had been in my binge rotation. As an argument for the virtues of Rory
and Lorelai filled my periphery, I wondered how House fit into the mix. In the absence of love, Lost, Friday Night Lights, and West
all told some sort of love story. Jack and Kate. Small town America
and football. Aaron Sorkin and whimsical banter. But House seemed on the outside, counter to the affections of my
loneliness. And then it occurred to me, in an epiphanic moment of distant
wonder, that House is the greatest
love story television has ever told. The love between Drs. Gregory House and
James Wilson, that is.

I’m not talking about the kind of
love you find in House fan fiction.
And I’m not talking about the kind of love that existed between Cameron
(Jennifer Morrison) and House (Hugh Laurie), a love born of daddy issues and a show’s attempt to create sexual tension. And I’m not talking about the Cuddy
(Lisa Edelstein) and House love, which always seemed contrived and formulaic. What existed between Laurie’s House and Robert Sean Leonard’s Wilson defied
the traditions of television which ran deeper and were more transcendent than Sam and Diane,
Ross and Rachel, Pepé Le Pew and Penelope Pussycat.  

Not unlike the love I have now, I
almost missed out on House. Just as
my partner and I briefly parted ways for superficial and ancillary reasons this
past December, I dismissed House as
typical serialized fare. It was ER with fewer characters. Hugh Laurie was
over-the-top. The guy from Dead Poet’s
(Leonard) seemed under-used. The Australian was too pretty. And I
never liked Edelstein as an actress, particularly her underwhelming performance
as an escort on West Wing in all four
of my viewings of it. But like love, I gave House
a second chance, and I became enamoured by it. Maybe even obsessed. Dare say I
loved House, and all its
idiosyncrasies and flaws.

What drew me most to House was Laurie’s performance, and it
is indeed brilliant. Playing a drug-addicted and gifted diagnostician proved to
be a character for the ages.
Holmesian problem solving at first seemed too much in the tradition of Columbo, but Laurie made it feel
genuine, as the solution to the diagnosis fulfilled his character’s need more
so than that of the arc and narrative of the episode, counter to the traditions
of the genre and tropes of the procedural drama.  And Leonard’s Wilson was the Watson
to Laurie’s Holmes. But more than anything else on the show, I was drawn to the
extreme friendship between House and his oncologist conscience. It was the kind
of love between friends that simply isn’t shown on TV or in film, and certainly
not between men. According to the TV and film auteurs of today, all male friendships are
some form of bromance, or homoerotic exercise, or dudebro vehicle. Judd Apatow,
or Lethal Weapon, or Judd Apatow. On House,
we were treated to a love between men that I remember from home, from youth,
that I’ve missed in the transience of my adulthood, a kind of love that is
beyond sex and marriage and poetry and children and Christmas dinner and
minivans and mortgage rates and the new Keurig and Viagra and debt and
infidelity and data plans. This was a love story that aspired to more than what
the medium had ever attempted to offer before.

Every great love story revels in
the mythology of its origins. House and Wilson met as Romeo and Juliet did: at
a medical convention in New Orleans. Wilson started a bar fight in a bar after
Billy Joel’s "Leave A Tender Moment Alone" was played repeatedly by
another patron. Having witnessed the event, House posted Wilson’s bail and an undeniably real love was born.

In early seasons, Wilson enabled
House’s addictions and extremes. He writes, or allows House to forge,
prescriptions for Vicodin. He supports, or excuses, House’s alcoholic
tendencies, his affection for prostitutes, his acerbic wit. He indulges or
celebrates the oddity of House’s genius. Enabling is a form of love, as long as
it does not endanger anyone. Wilson always controlled his affections. He
managed House. He was his conscience, his sponsor, his moral center. And though
at times it bordered on burden, the friendship certainly wasn’t one-sided.

This love can best be seen in an
episode from Season 3, "Son of Coma Guy." House awakens a man (the
brilliant John Laroquette) from a coma, and he and Wilson take him to Atlantic
City for a last hurrah before the ultimate sleep. House has to euthanize the
man in order to preserve his organs and save his son. While Wilson’s morality
would never allow him to lead such an act, he supports House’s morality in providing an
alibi and advice on methodology. Love is unconditional in this way, and love on
television would rarely aspire to this form, a love so true it is literally
criminal. Joey would never have helped Dawson bury Pacey’s body.

This altruistic love continued
throughout the series. Wilson would manage House’s mania, take him to rehab,
comfort those bruised by his violent pathology. House provided the buttoned-up
Wilson with his freedom, his shy eccentricities, his inner manchild. From
adolescent pranks to monster trucks to binge drinking, House allowed Wilson to
be free to the confinements of his responsibilities. House saved Wilson from bad
relationships, from a life of stasis, and a lack of companionship. He paid a
child actor to pretend to be Wilson’s illegitimate son to provide the tangible
realization that kids are a hassle. Chandler would never do that for Joey.
Hell, he slept with Kathy.

In House’s final season, the roles between House and Wilson are
reversed when the oncologist is diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, it is Wilson
who is embattled and prone to questionable decisions, who is faced with his
mortality the way House’s addictions continually forced him to. After failed
treatments (both traditional and experimental), Wilson is resigned to death,
something that House has never been able to consider as an option for his
patients. At this moment, House realizes he may lose his one true partner, his
one true love.

"You don’t have to just accept

"Yes I do have to accept this. I
have five months to live. And you’re making me go this through this alone. I’m
pissed because I’m dying and it’s not fair and I need I need a friend. I need
to know that you’re there. I need you to tell me that my life was worthwhile
and I need you to tell me that you love me."

"No, I’m not going to tell you that
unless you fight."

If there has been a more true and
honest declaration of love on television, I have not seen it. Wilson’s affirmation
is a thesis statement of their relationship, and the essence of true love
itself. House’s inability to do exactly as his friend needs is in and of itself
an act of selflessness and love.

In the series final episode, House
has faked his death to escape jail so that they may spend the rest of Wilson’s
life together. The entire series had been built on the premise that House
needed the puzzle of diagnosis, the Holmesian existence, in order to live. It
was more to him than the Vicodin, or the pain, the Vicodin, or Cuddy,
or family. But in this final act, a final act of absolute love argues that the
series was not about House at all, but rather the long tale of a complicated
platony, and in more universal terms the human need for companionship above all

And fittingly, astride their
motorcycles, leathered up in a wink of homoerotic wit, the two men drive off
into the sunset, to their final moments together, an epic nod to the iconic
fades into sunset.

Love is at its worst on television
and on Valentine’s Day. In these instances it is a caricature of itself. The
difference is that on TV the love portrayed is unattainable. On Valentine’s
it’s unrealistic. An overly sugared candy heart. A sitcom of emotion. Love on
television tends to be superficial, shallow, and simple. It is stained by the
inevitability of reconciliation, the false promise of happiness, and The Bachelor. What Wilson and House
shared eclipsed our hollow idea of love.

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.