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.

Watch: How Much Are the Oscars Shaped by Advertising?

Watch: How Much Are the Oscars Shaped by Advertising?

Most contests, of any sort, are rigged. The course by which the "winner" is chosen is never a straight one, and extenuating circumstances almost always shape outcomes. And yet we notice them. The Oscars are no exception. As many angry or indifferent essays may be written each year (!) about the ceremony, and about the awards, and about who won, and who was left out, and who should have been included, the Academy Awards nevertheless register with us, even if we’re not entirely sure how the awards were assigned. This deft and smart video essay by Leigh Singer takes a look at how the awards shape themselves, spotlighting the advertising motion picture companies do, by way of the insidious "For Your Consideration" tag, with its many variations. 

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.

Watch: James Burrows: From ‘Taxi’ to ‘Cheers’ to ‘Friends’ to You

Watch: James Burrows: From ‘Taxi’ to ‘Cheers’ to ‘Friends’ to You

The majesty of the sitcom is in its
familiarity, through both form and setting. When the medium is most successful,
the audience is made to feel at home, where everybody knows your name. But in
the annals of American art, the sitcom director is nameless.

Television doesn’t celebrate the auteur
the way film does. While the Scorseses, Spielbergs, and Allens et al. are fêted
for their artistry and filmic authorship, television’s directors are anonymous,
secondary, and uncelebrated. Traditionally, actors receive TV’s affections and
ceremony. In recent years, the showrunner has risen to prominence. But in the
background, TV directors ply their trade in obscurity, as if the productions
directed themselves.

Buried even further in the mythos of the
medium is the sitcom director. In film or television, comedy has always been
relegated to secondary status. Acclaim for the humourists comes only when they
step into the dramatic spotlight. From Red Buttons to Robin Williams, the funny
have been asked to be furious when they desire their community’s utmost

Which makes one wonder: If James Burrows
had directed dramatic films and not the funniest sitcoms of multiple
generations, would he still revel in the shadow of Hollywood?

If you’ve watched television anytime in
the past four decades, James Burrows has made you laugh. His IMDB page reads
like a survey course of the best in sitcoms: Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, Cheers,
Taxi, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace, The Big Bang Theory

But his Wikipedia page reads like that of
a professor of a survey course of the best in sitcoms. Its brevity is shocking,
and indicative of the status afforded to sitcom directors.

Burrows has been nominated for an Emmy
Award for directing an episode of a sitcom 24 times. He has received one
nomination every year since 1980, excluding 1997 and 2004. He has won an Emmy
five times. He has directed 30 sitcom pilots. His resume is unparalleled.
Imagine if Coppola had won an Oscar every eight years. His face would be placed
on a billboard next to the Hollywood sign. Instead, Burrows continues to work
without the adorations offered to his big screen brethren.

At a spry 71, he keeps stepping behind
the camera because he loves the medium he helped establish.

The sitcom in its multi-camera form is
the closest thing that TV or film has to stage productions. James Burrows’
inherited affection for the form has redefined it. The contemporary sitcom is
all James Burrows, from the joke setups to the audience’s laughter. And his
work has the utmost respect for the audience. As Burrows once noted: “I’ll tell
you what I love about directing: the surprise. You never know what’s going to
happen with your piece until an audience weighs in.”

But why is Burrows a lesser-known genius,
and why has his medium been stumbling towards irrelevance? Recently NBC, home
to the Must See TV sitcom blocks that starred Burrows projects for much of the
80s, 90s, and aughts, announced a fall schedule with only one hour of sitcom
programming. Has the form lost its way? Is Burrows a dinosaur in a nearly
extinct medium? The answer can, perhaps, be found in the words of the director
himself: “Most of the pilots I choose do not have high-concept ideas,” says
Burrows, “so for me it’s not the idea as much as the execution of the idea…  You take a bar in Boston, that’s not a
high-concept idea. But if it’s executed well, it makes a great show.”

One of the oldest jokes begins simply:
Man walks into a bar.

While the absence of concept helped
develop the sitcom as an art form, the high-concept approach has contributed to
its death. The premise of the situational comedy is simple: Provide a setting
and characters. Comedy will ensue. When the sitcom is most successful, this is
the recipe, as it was in most of the programs Burrows was involved with,
whether or  not they went on to become
iconic parts of American culture. And the sitcom should be welcoming, identifiable,
universal, and above all, funny. But it has moved away from that. The sitcom
now leans towards the cynical, the mean-spirited, or the pedestrian. As Burrows
says, “I have a fun clause in my contract. If I’m not having fun, I can leave.”
The American audience has stopped having fun, and has
left for dramas, reality TV, and film.

James Burrows is a giant in film and TV’s
smallest medium. In between commercials, he has been crafting our laughter
since the mid-70s. As the sitcom changes, and perhaps stumbles towards
obsolescence, it is making a violent departure from the Burrows sitcom, to
single camera and mockumentaries, to dramedy and to parody. But television’s
greatest director’s influence will forever be seen, in Labor Day weekend Friends marathons, in a network’s feeble
attempt at a mid-season replacement, and in the laughter born of an
unmistakably Burrows setup, whether on TV or out in the ether. Burrows has
taught generations what funny is, and it’s funny to me that so many of those
generations may not even know his name.

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.

Steven Santos is currently a freelance television editor/filmmaker based
in New York. He has cut docu-series for cable networks such as MTV, The
Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal
Planet. His work can be found at He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut ( You can also follow him on Twitter (!/stevensantos).

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.