Category Archives: Television

Whatever happened to Kevin Spacey?

The AV Club examines Kevin Spacey’s performance on House of Cards:

Like Olivier’s Richard—and like Francis Urquhart, the British politician played by Ian Richardson in the original BBC miniseries House Of Cards—Frank often turns to the camera to soliloquize and share his strategies, and the pitch-dark view of the world behind them, with the audience. In Spacey’s House Of Cards, these little lectures are helpful if you’re trying to keep track of what’s supposed to be going on, but Spacey doesn’t use them to come on to the audience or win anyone over. In terms of fleshing out his character and forging a direct relationship with the viewer, he might as well be reading his stage directions out loud. He’s pasty looking and dead-eyed, and if he’s reminiscent of any speech from Shakespeare, it’s not from Richard III, but Puck’s line, “What fools these mortals be,” spoken in a spirit of weary resignation. He’s barely recognizable as the actor who took a brief, recurrent role on a network crime drama and turned it into a non-stop fireworks display, and not just because that was 26 years ago. Underwood is different from the kinds of bad guys Kevin Spacey used to play, because he takes no pleasure in being the smartest guy in the story; he comes across as smug and self-satisfied, but also a little irritated at how easy most people are to fool. But how much of that is the character, and how much of it is the actor himself?

NYTimes: ‘Mad Men’ Enlists the Graphics Guru Milton Glaser

Imagine the pressure on Mad Men‘s marketing people – their promotional material has to measure up to the iconic ads depicted (and imitated) on the show itself. Somehow they’ve managed it throughout the show’s run (remember the Season 6 poster?), perhaps never better than this year’s work by Milton Glaser.

Please Don’t Let [Redacted] on HIMYM

Vulture:

There are only four episodes left of How I Met Your Mother, which puts us right into “stick the landing” territory. And last night’s episode, “Vesuvius,” seemed to fall in line with the theory that [redacted]. I buy that theory for a number of reasons, though HIMYM has long enjoyed misdirection — let’s give the [redacted] Theory a strong maybe. And let’s also be clear: If [redacted], I will never forgive this damn show.

Spoilers, so don’t click through if you care and aren’t up to date on HIMYM. Suffice it to say that I gave up on the show’s ever being good again so long ago that I no longer care how (or if) it resolves. But, for what it’s worth, I’d be completely fine with this, because it isn’t coming out of nowhere, and because it is actually relevant to what is theoretically the central point of the show – how the (annoying) protagonist met this lady.

But while we’re here, I’d like to take a moment and highly recommend another show: The Returned (streaming on Netflix) is a dark, fascinating, and visually stunning show about a quiet town in the French Alps where some people die and then later come back to life. It’s in French (with subtitles). But fight through it (if you can handle a lot of suspense, a fair amount of violence, and a European amount of nudity), because it’s awesome. And the first season (which is all that exists so far) is just 8 episodes, so it’s not a huge time commitment.

The Adventures of White Men: True Detective and Me

Over at io9, “Tristan2Z” has some interesting thoughts on a show that really is fascinating (but is also deeply focused on the concerns and perspectives of two straight white dudes).:

I still read fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire and Prince of Nothing/Aspect-Emperorthat manage to be subversive while remaining in line with traditional works in terms of cast make-up and diversity. I love the ideas, the imagery, while still thinking this would be even more amazing if it did not follow the same path where anyone not fitting into the White Male “norm” is marginalized or presented as a hive-minded other.

With True Detective it is slightly different. I feel that the story they are telling has to be the way it is. That’s not an endorsement or me saying that I don’t want something more varied in cast. I think this story, set in the South in the 90s primarily, has to be told the way it is being told. This is about two men who believe they are masters of the universe, Cohle because he is smarter than everybody else and can see the why of almost anything, Hart because society has always told him that he is at the top of the pyramid.

It’s hard to criticize great shows for lack of diversity – good art is often very specific and idiosyncratic, and changing any element risks upsetting what can be a delicate artistic balance – so perhaps it’s unfair to challenge True Detective‘s failure to represent other sensibilities. But as Tristan2Z points out, without depictions of diversity in our art, those outside the “norm” feel marginalized. It seems worth making a concerted effort to address this, especially in mass-market media like television. If the next season of True Detective (the plan is to return with another short season, with a new cast, setting, story, etc.) again centers on white guys, I will be disappointed (even if, like the current season, it’s really well-done).

Did Top Chef’s finale tarnish its brand?

The AV Club ponders that question today (spoilers, of course), basically alleging that the producers picked a compelling narrative and pushed an undeserving chef to the top to fit that narrative. I think that reading probably has the facts exactly backwards. It’s much more likely that the producers had to scramble to create that narrative using extremely selective edition from weeks of footage in order to make a legitimate win look interesting.

Top Chef has a problem: it’s two shows at once. It’s a cooking competition, which naturally involves some elements (taste, smell) that home viewers can’t possibly evaluate. In that competition. But it’s also a carefully edited fairy tale, in which struggling cooks start from obscurity, are forged in the harsh fires of competition, and emerge with incredible cooking skills and great sportsmanship: as Top Chefs. (That’s one storyline, supplemented with 1) happy-to-be-there kids who never really had a chance but gave it their all and surprised themselves with how good they could be; 2) overwhelmed scatterbrains – often home cooks or caterers – with quirky personalities; and 3) arrogant jerks who think they’re great but have a lot of growing up to do before they deserve a place in the Kenmore Kitchen with Toyota Tundra and Bello Family Wines.) The fairy tale, put together by producers and editors to create or reinforce the portrayal of drama, may bother purists, who feel it skews their understanding of what “really” happened. But I suspect it’s also why most viewers tune in.

As I see it, the first show – the cooking competition – is the one where integrity is a meaningful concept. The winner of each challenge should be the contestant the judges (who are actually there; who see, smell, and taste the food; who don’t see all the behind-the-scenes drama) believe did the best job. At the end of the season, the last person standing should be the one who’s earned the title. But that presents a problem. What if that person’s actually not that interesting?

I think that’s what we had this season. Spoiler time. 

Now it’s hard to really know – all of this can only be based on the footage the producers chose to show us – but my guess is Nick Elmi is really neither a particularly villainous guy nor a mediocre chef. Rather, he’s a spoilsport, whose stubborn insistence on not getting eliminated meant that other, more interesting contestants had to lose.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the footage we saw accurately depicted his behavior (even though we all know it probably didn’t). What did he do that was so wrong this season? He wasn’t nice to his servers. Okay, so? Did it affect how his food turned out, or how the service was when it came to his food? Presumably not (we even have footage of Tom and other judges saying as much). He didn’t give up his immunity to save Stephanie. Yes, and? The point of the competition is… winning the competition. He earned that immunity, the entire purpose of which was to save him if he were otherwise at risk of elimination. He made choices (like making a dish that might not turn out well) knowing he had immunity. And when it came down to it, he needed it. This is a non-problem – it’s good competition! 

Now, what did he do that was so right this season? He cooked food that was good enough to get him to the finale. And then he cooked food that was good enough to win Top Chef. With respect to the integrity of the show (and to the possible tarnishing of the brand), that’s all you need to know.

So what do you do in this situation, if you’re the producers? You comb through all your footage, looking for ways to make Nick look more interesting (e.g., you show every single time he gets pissed off in the kitchen, even if it’s only three times over the course of a weeks-long, intense process in which every participant surely did the same thing). And because you want to keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the entire hour every week, you make sure, as always, to make the competition look as close as possible – even if, in reality, it wasn’t that close, you give equal screen time to positive and negatives for each competitor. The end result is that at the end of the season there’s plenty of ammunition to argue for the winner – and against the winner. But in addition, there’s a story, a progression, by which the viewer can see how the winner got there. This works great when the producers have the right footage to portray that progression coherently, but it creates a lot of confusion, and a lot of room for disagreement, when the producers lack the footage they need. What happens when the personalities don’t really clash? Or when the woman who exudes confidence, professionalism, and genius doesn’t quite manage to cook well? Or when the guy who “feels” like he’s not quite there actually puts out the best food anyway? Then you’re in trouble.

What’s the best indication that Top Chef producers did their best this season to make an ugly process look like cohesive narrative? The fact that it didn’t really work all that well. This season’s runaway star was Shirley Chung, who steadily demonstrated great cooking, a great attitude, and an amazing story – she’s an immigrant who worked her ass off, learned from her experience, and formed a memorable bond with Emeril Legasse, of all people. I loved watching her compete and I really, really wanted her to win. She didn’t even make the finals! What kind of idiot producers would pick Nick (or Nina) over her? Shirley’s a great chef with a story that people will tune in for, and had she made it all the way to the end, not a single viewer (or reviewer) would suggest for a second that she didn’t deserve it. I guarantee you everyone behind the scenes at Top Chef was rooting to keep her story going as long as possible. Her absence only makes sense in one scenario: a legitimate cooking competition, in which she just plain fell short at the wrong time.

Shirley’s elimination is one of the most memorable examples, but this history of the show is bedazzled with results that confound our understanding of drama, character development, and karma. Each example just goes farther to demonstrate to me that we’re looking at entertainment professionals doing their best to spackle a facade of coherence on an unpredictable (and sometimes unjust) process. I just don’t see how one can suggest that Top Chef‘s results are based on anything but the judges’ honest analysis of the food they’re presented with. The AV Club’s piece talks about “the illusion of fairness” on Top Chef but I think that’s completely, completely wrong. The show’s biggest problem, if it has one, is its need to present the illusion of plot.

Well Done

A nice appreciation of Bravo’s Top Chef from Andy Greenwald points out the obvious: the show has a lot more integrity than most of its peers, but (in part for that very reason) has gotten a little boring. I’ve enjoyed this season but in the last few years I’ve grown to appreciate Top Chef Masters too, because it distills what’s unique about Top Chef (the actual talent on display; the lack of manufactured interpersonal drama; and (most of) the participants’ dedication to the craft, rather than celebrity) and dumps the dead weight that gets eliminated in the first 2/3 of the season.