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Thursday, Dec 17, 2009
In a New York Magazine essay, Emily Nussbaum argues that TV became Art in this past decade. But thanks to Buffy that had already happened at the end of the previous one.

This was the decade in which television became art. So argues Emily Nussbuam in a recent New York Magazine essay, “When TV Became Art”. She certainly makes a strong case that 2000-2009 was a pivotal age for TV and I strongly recommend her essay to anyone interested in the development of television over the past decade. I agree that this was, all in all, the finest decade for great television.


Others have argued that TV had arisen as an art form in earlier decades, some (though in dwindling numbers) arguing for the fifties, based on the series that presented staged plays for a television audience, including such original masterpieces as “Twelve Angry Men”, written by Reginald Rose for Studio One, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, written by Rod Serling for Playhouse 90. Later, Robert J. Thompson, in his widely cited Television’s Second Golden Age: From Hill Street Blues to ER, argued for the eighties as the crucial period.  But Nussbaum has numbers on her side; it is difficult to argue against the sheer quantity of very fine shows that emerged in the past ten years. The number of truly great series from the past ten years is so substantial that it might surpass the number of great shows from all previous decades combined.


Nonetheless, I want to take issue with Nussbaum.  I think that chopping the overall picture up into decade-sized blocks obscures the reality.  I believe that one can point at a precise point where TV became art, and that point was the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No one questions the enormous influence that Joss Whedon’s quirky series exerted on other shows, but I do not believe that many people realize the degree to which it altered the TV landscape. TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards. 


In contrast, the show that Nussbaum promotes as the apex of TV as Art, The Wire, has not actually played a crucial role in that development. The Wire is a beneficiary of the birth of TV as art, a promulgator of that development, not its cause. There is no question it is a truly great show, but it really did nothing to change TV. Television had already changed, and we largely have Buffy to thank for that. To be fair, Nussbaum does mention Buffy and Joss Whedon frequently in her essay, obviously crediting both the show and the creator for much of the best that the decade had to offer, but she seems to imply that TV as art was a work in progress as the decade began and it most definitely was not.


Although many realize just how revolutionary Buffy was as a series and the impact that it made on the medium (many TV creators site it as their favorite show while others acknowledge its direct influence), not everyone is aware of how groundbreaking the series was or of the number of concrete changes it wrought on television. It was not merely a great TV series in its own right, it helped redefine what TV could do.  Let me enumerate some of the changes made, all of them rather substantial.


One of the most important changes that Buffy brought about was a new understanding of long story arcs on TV.  A very brief history of narrative on television is in order to provide a context for my point. For most of the history of television, the format of series was episodic. On almost all shows (excepting soap operas), no matter what happened on one episode of a series, the next week would witness a complete reset.  If James West was beaten to a pulp or even shot on The Wild, Wild West, the next week he would be as fine as ever. 


No matter what happens on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Dick and Laura would never refer to it again.  As a result, each episode was self-contained and ignored any kind of narrative order.  Watch the episodes of It Takes a Thief in any order that you wish; juxtapose an episode from season four and then from season two and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. This began to change with Hill Street Blues and the shows that Robert J. Thompson applauded: St. Elsewhere, China Beach, L. A. Law, and thirtysomething. For the first time on primetime television, stories got messy and spilled over from one episode to another…


Dear reader:


Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole—until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.


Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.



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Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009
Scrubs is back with some of the same characters and all the old plot lines. So why did they leave out the greatest sad sack in the history of television and his ukulele playing girlfriend?

There is a show on the air right now that is claiming to be Scrubs, but it clearly is not the same show. It is like a cloned sheep that looks a lot like the original, but every time it tries to walk it falls over and starts to shudder. Something just is not right with it.


Scrubs ran for eight years. It was one of the most consistently funny programs on TV. The combination of humor and pathos was pitch perfect for the hospital setting. The characters all grew beyond their original one-note set-ups. Even the minor characters were three-dimensional. And it went off the air last spring with one of the most satisfying finale episodes I’ve ever seen. I laughed, I cried, I reached closure.


But now it is back with about half the old cast. The new version seems intent on recycling key plot lines from previous seasons, perhaps thinking that the move to a new network also means that there is an entirely new audience. The result is vaguely familiar and ultimately unsatisfying.


I wish that Scrubs had gone the traditional spin-off route instead. Take one or two minor characters, put them front and center and name the show after them (see Maude or Frasier).


I nominate Ted and Gooch. Call it Ted and Gooch.


Sam Lloyd was so good as Ted the hapless hospital lawyer that I would start to laugh every time he appeared on screen. He sang TV theme songs with an a capella group,  lived with his mom, dreamed of standing up to his boss and had one particularly memorable moment where he lost a battle of wits to a dog. In Scrubs’ sort-of final season, Ted found love with Gooch (Kate Micucci), a ukulele playing oddball who was his perfect match.


In the first three episodes of Scrubs Reloaded, Ted was nowhere to be seen. Then, in episode four, Ted and Gooch came back for one last goodbye before heading off in an RV to visit every state in the U.S. That’s your spin-off right there. Ted and Gooch Hit the Road. I’d watch that (but in the meantime I’ll have to settle for streaming Best of Ted clips online).



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Monday, Dec 14, 2009
The new TNT show aims to close the gap between Mars and Venus.

Last Sunday, two girlfriends and I met up for a hike, followed by lunch. While we huffed and grunted our way up hills, and then proceeded to replace the calories we’d burned with burgers and fries, we talked about the usual things: our relationships, our careers, whether we want to have kids and when, our frustrations with the adult world and all its associated problems and responsibilities.


And then, on Monday, I watched the three main characters of the new TNT show Men of a Certain Age do pretty much the exact same thing.


The show has certainly generated some early buzz, partly because it features three highly recognizable actors and has been relentlessly promoted, but mostly because everything about Men of a Certain Age—from the title to the Wonder Years-esque opening credits to the characters’ discussions about the size of their manly posteriors—evokes a kind of touchy-feeliness that has historically been the domain of female-centric shows like Sex and the City or Grey’s Anatomy.


The low-key dramedy centers around three middle-aged friends (Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher) who are dealing with marital rifts, faltering careers, receding hairlines and thickening waistlines. They are indeed men of a certain age—pushing 50 with trepidation and mired in emotional baggage. For anyone who laments the erosion of traditional masculinity in American culture, this is not the show for you. Based on the promos, a friend of mine suggested the show would be better titled, “Men with [lady parts].”


The show’s premise appears to hinge on this conspicuous upending of TV gender roles. (Meanwhile the ladies of cable TV, Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter, continue their regularly scheduled program of kicking ass and taking names.) I’m no proponent of hyper-masculinity, and I think there certainly is a place in the television landscape for a show that explores male relationships outside of the testosterone-fueled, eternal frat boy model. The best thing Men of a Certain Age has going for it so far is that it’s refreshing to see men on TV actually acting their age. The pilot’s greatest flaw is that I don’t believe that men of a certain age—or of any age for that matter—really relate to each other this way. Moments like the one where Romano’s character gazes wistfully out of the diner window and muses, “you look in the mirror, you see yourself . . . you recognize yourself, and there’s that little bit of you that you don’t”, strike me as deeply disingenuous. For most of the episode it feels as though the show is working too strenuously to hone in on the expansive female angst market.


Men of a Certain Age isn’t even television’s first foray into this arena. Way back in 2001, NBC brought us The Other Half, otherwise known as “The View With Dudes”, featuring Mario Lopez, Danny Bonaduce, and Dick Clark as hosts of the morning chat show. In 2007, Dylan McDermott and Michael Vartan starred in the short-lived Big Shots about a group of CEOs with girl problems. Neither of these efforts proved very successful, but Men of Certain Age has a better pedigree and garnered a solid audience and generally positive reviews for its pilot episode, so it will be interesting to see how things progress. Maybe the world is finally ready to watch a group of straight guys obsessing about the size of their butts. However, given that I am decidedly fed up with the hysterical aging woman stereotype (I’m talking to you, Courteney Cox), I can’t say that I see much appeal in watching these characters follow their female peers into a tired trope.


If you want to watch men talking to each other in a diner, I suggest watching the 1982 Barry Levinson film Diner instead. The film captures the depth of male friendships in a way that feels more authentic, with less angst and more funny.



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Friday, Dec 11, 2009
The reigning teen drama finishes its first semester of college, and not much has changed.

The transition to college has always been particularly treacherous territory for teen shows. High school is such fertile ground to mine for drama, full as it is of angst and social hierarchy and romantic growing pains. High school is awful and wonderful in ways that are essentially universal. But college is different. College is where the common experiences of growing up start to diverge. College cultivates individualism instead of squashing it. College is fun, which is good for real life, but rarely as the setting for a one-hour drama.


Interestingly, Gossip Girl, which just wrapped up its fall season, seems to be navigating the waters better than many of its predecessors. Which is to say that the shift to college life hasn’t had much of an impact at all so far. This isn’t necessarily a compliment, because Gossip Girl was never really a show about high school to begin with. It’s about sex, fashion, scheming and beautiful people being young and rich in New York. Occasionally there had been a storyline revolving around college visits or an affair with a teacher (I’m fairly certain there’s never been a scene set in an actual classroom), but the show has rarely delved far enough into the inner lives of its characters for them to demonstrate any real emotional evolution or coming of age. Where the beautiful people spend their time—high school, college campuses, penthouse apartments, coffee shops—doesn’t really matter. It’s all just window dressing anyway.


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Thursday, Dec 10, 2009
I've stuck by it through thick and thin, but Ugly Betty is over for me. Poor acting, ridiculous plots, and sanctimonious moralising have put an end to it.

I am done with Ugly Betty.


It’s been a long time coming, but this week was finally the week I called time on my two-year relationship with this soap opera set in the fashion dynasty of Mode. For a long time, Ugly Betty was the staple of my Friday nights. Yes, it was saccharine and Betty was irritating, but I put up with it anyway. However, halfway through the third season, I decided that enough was more than enough. The pros—the wonderful performance of Michael Urie, the divine comic duo that was Mark and Amanda, Judith Light as matriarch Claire—were vastly outweighed by the cons. At the risk of sounding childish and immature, I do not see how America Ferrera could possibly have won an Emmy. Her performance is mediocre at best (although the one-note and holier-than-thou attitude of her character does not help matters). There are brilliant comic actresses on TV, and Ferrera is just not one of them. The writing has descended further and further into the black hole that is soap opera.


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