Thursday, March 27, 2008

It's gonna be awesome...

Thanks to Diablo Cody (with verification from IMDB), I found out that I Love You, Beth Cooper is actually being made into a movie. Yes! I read this book over New Year's Eve and it was absolutely hysterical, perfect movie material. Written by a Simpsons writer, it barely needs to be adapted, that's how perfect it is. It also fits in with our craving for nerdy high school boys: Popular Beth Cooper is the girl Denis Cooverman has pined for all four years of high school, and he reveals this in his valedictory speech. Massive hijinks, of the sexual, violent, and comedic kind, ensue.

Friday, March 21, 2008

American Idol: As Mainstream As It Gets

Every week my father complains about the contestants on American Idol. But aside from the usual “no one stands out like Carrie Underwood or Jordin Sparks”, he’s downright dismissive about contestants that sport unorthodox fashion choices: dreds, funky, multicolored hair, large tattoos, earrings in unrespectable places…he was even against Taylor Hicks because his gray hair labeled him a geezer. My parents don't like contestants that are too outside the mainstream. They find them weird and off-putting, no matter how talented they are.

When I heard that Amanda Overmyer was eliminated this week, instead of the expected bland Barbie Kristy Lee Cook, I began to think they’re onto something.

Apparently I'm not alone:

I'm not saying that you have to pick a hit to win, but a hit is a hit for a reason…That was a lesson I learned from the Idol producers. I used to submit for clearance the most random songs, like ''Rockin' the Suburbs'' by Ben Folds. I had no rhyme to the reason — I just liked those tunes. …But Ken and Nigel would always give me suggestions-that-weren't-really-''suggestions'' (because that would be unfair), saying that I needed to pick something the public knows and likes and that shows off my voice — essentially, a hit song. I think I was trying to tell them, ''Hey I'm cool, look! I'm a fan of Motörhead, yippee!'' But luckily they didn't let me sing ''Ace of Spades.'' …They remind me that this whole thing is more like a political primary than a music concert.

Now, granted, this is from an ex-contestant, but what he's saying is true, and as much as many would love for them to feature more offbeat songs, it's not going to happen. Seeing further that Carly Smithson landed in the bottom three proved that viewers want someone who fits in the mainstream mold, as she received high marks from all the judges as well as the crowd. The three most successful Idol performers are Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, and it’s easy to see why. To just compare the current contestants to them is unfair, but so is trying to picture them on the radio, if only because several of them can fit provided they have the right song at their disposal. After all, even long-haired Bo Bice came in second place and scored a modest single on Adult-Contemporary radio. Why? Because that song fulfilled the “rocker” niche, with just a little hard-edge/bad boy to him, yet still at the core was mainstream.

Extrapolating from this (and I know from doing my own research that people say they don't vote based on looks, but on talent), it's clear that people want what's comfortable. It's easier to judge contestants when they sing recognizable songs; if you don't know them, you don't care. Voters might say they choose on talent, but with the little time they have to review the candidates they need to go with what they’re given, and if they’re alienated they tend to want those candidates out of the way. Boring performers, they reason, can get better with the right improvements and songs, whereas weird ones will only get weirder. This idea isn’t new—for even casually watchers, it’s a virtual “duh”—but it's getting recirculated as performers are willing to showcase their true selves.

I myself have criticized the show for being too mainstream, too bland, but by season seven now most people have realized and accepted that the contestants must fit within a narrow framework that is accessible to a wide audience yet still fall within a suitable genre. And hey, even I have come to understand that I don't really care for certain "nonconformists" myself; I like innovation within a certain archetype. I'm less judgmental than my father--I don't rule out bandannas, or bald heads on white guys--but they're usually not my favorites. But it is American Idol after all, and I'm sure there are definite trends and types with the people who actually vote versus the viewers and at the end, as Simon pointed out just this week, the show is a popularity contest. Most music fans like both mainstream acts and cult favorites, and, as Amanda so refreshingly acknowledged, she has her niche, and it wasn't comparable with the show. She knew she would have to change who she was, and that would never have worked.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


While debating whether or not SNL has been endorsing candidates has been a hot topic recently, Entertainment Weekly spotlighted a related--and potentially more important--story: The fact that Saturday Night Live is pulling relevant political punches again.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spotlight: Mark Harris' EW Columns

The back page of Entertainment Weekly is currently split between two columnists: Stephen King and Mark Harris. Obviously, Stephen King gets all the press, the accolades, but he generally just lists stuff that he likes and dislikes and tries to tie it to something else. He’s usually somewhat removed from current popular entertainment, especially regarding music, and I end up disregarding most of his opinions because of this.

But I want to shine a light on the far superior but lesser-known Mark Harris:

His two recent columns, “Unpopular Demand” (Indiana Jones cover/March 14 issue) and “I Love You, Now Change” (Tyra Banks/February 22) were both spot-on. “Unpopular Demand” finally puts into words a concept I’ve danced around a lot recently, noticing how my own television habits have changed: that there are two types of television, Eye TV and Ear TV.

Basically, Eye TV are the shows you sit down for, and when you do, everyone SHUTS. UP. These are the shows you obsessively go online for, to rewatch favorite moments to make sure you accurately caught the right inflection of a command in a pivotal scene, to disassemble plot points, to stridently analyze character motives, to make sure your new favorite quote is letter-perfect. Ear TV is American Idol, or really any reality show: the shows you flip during, catch whenever, and generally watch when you’re in the mood for television.

Most of us have always delineated our television shows by this model unconsciously. Things like news and sports, music videos and reruns are often automatically in this category, but it’s only now with all the different media and entertainment options out there, not to mention the strike, that have really changed how we perceive television and the way we make it fit into our lives.

The truth is, much as we love our Eye TV, due to its intensity and inherent awesomeness it’s hard to have more than a handful of shows that we can dedicate ourselves to. When a show burns us, or falls below our expectations (aka sucks/becomes boring), it can be downgraded to Ear TV, and those are sad days, when we understand that the love has faded and it’s not working out. Ear TV is useful for catching up on things, having a conversation topic, but it’s not very fulfilling; there’s a reason us TV fans live and die by our favorite shows. It’s a catch-22: rare is the person who has the time to full-on devote a good portion of their life to several shows passionately, and frankly, even I find it unbelievable and a little loserish when I come across people like that, but we all want good programming, and we want it consistently.

“I Love You, Now Change” is the rare EW piece that shines a light on national politics, and not just on a show that satirizes national politics. It’s another pro-Obama article, but that’s not what’s important. He highlights a speech Obama gave in Los Angeles on January 31, during the last Democratic debate before, as he terms it, “Superconfusing Tuesday” (heh), where he addresses the ever-pertinent entertainment query of censorship versus artistic freedom, and just who is responsible for what. Like so much of what Obama says, he manages to sound reasonable, bringing both sides together in a way that just feels so natural. He talks from being a parent, facing the choices in monitoring what his children watch, but also places the blame on Hollywood for putting inappropriate advertisements in family programs and settings:

I do think that it is important for us to make sure that we are giving parents the tools that they need in order to monitor what their children are watching…not just what’s coming over the airwaves, but what’s coming over the Internet. […] It is important for those in the industry to show some thought about who they are marketing some of these programs to…”

As Harris so beautifully puts it, “There are rare moments in the political life of an issue when somebody suddenly redefines the center by articulating a position that sounds so much like a commonsense consensus that it becomes very hard for anyone to argue the point, either to the right or to the left.”

Harris continues, Obama “effectively killed the subject of the ‘culture wars’” by being so reasonable, finally saying what we all believe. I would like for such evenhandedness to continue, letting me enjoy my programs in peace at appropriate hours and not be horrified coming across racy material when it's family time.

I like many programs that would theoretically be labeled “adult entertainment” (minus the porn), but I’ve definitely noticed a steady decline in what can’t be said and shown on not just television, but the radio. It boggles my mind that Z100 will edit out words like “asshole” and “drugs” while PLJ, which has just as many young listeners thanks to their parents, does not. Compare early Friends to late Friends and see the difference in their conversational topics, and how risqué (yet how blasé) discussing sex becomes. It’s not because all those young viewers in 1994 grew up; it’s that by 2004 the culture demanded that the only way to make the characters credible was to have them talk dirtier. Friends wasn’t real in any other context, but somehow this change had to happen. Was it to catch up to the rest of the shows on television? To the viewers they were losing? To remain popular? Whatever it is, entertainment and American culture today is much, much coarser than it ever was. Even teen and child stars and programs aren’t immune to this; it can be argued they accelerated the decline. These issues never reached critical mass until preteens had their own culture, until Britney Spears hit the market.

The truth is that it’s probably just going to either plateau, or more likely, get worse. We’re not going to go back to Leave It to Beaver, unless it’s done ironically and Beaver is changed to something less…perverted. Preventing or masquerading the illicit entertainment is hard and inevitable going to fail, but the blame, like most things, is both a societal one and an individual one. We need to be discerning with what we choose to watch, especially in front of young audiences, but we also need to not be paranoid that every children’s show is featuring a teen girl who has a scandalous personal life.

And please, for the love of God, don’t put a television or a computer in your child’s bedroom.


I missed the first five minutes of the Britney Watch episode of South Park tonight...because I was skimming the recent Britney Spears issue of RollingStone.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Review: High School Confidential

High school—that rich trove of hormones and anxiety—has always had a kinship with television. It’s the microcosm of life, it seems, since everything is compared to it, and television eagerly exploits and glorifies this idea. Truthfully, however, most high-school themed shows are nothing like real life—even the ones considered more in vein with reality are dramaticized, with intense highs and crackling lows.

WE tonight aired the first episode of an eight-week documentary series that followed twelve girls for all of their high school years. Now I know when these girls were selected nobody knew the storylines, but how accurate can they reflect real concerns of teenagers when one quarter of them become pregnant? One girl even gets married. Come on. The teen pregnancy rate isn't that high! Where are the worries about grades, the cliques simultaneously forming and falling apart, the wondering why the girl who sits across from you hates you so much? What about the competition for the lead in the school play, the band politics, the vindictive teacher? SATs, college essays, the motivating coach? From what I’ve read about the show, it seems that the series is just one big pile of issues these girls face. Neither I nor anyone I know in high school dealt with an abortion, and all the sex talk seems like an executive’s idea of what the storyline should focus on.

At first I wondered if the fact that the kids lived in Kansas had anything to do with it; after all, the culture in a given place dictates attitudes and behavior. I assume that growing up in Southern California is quite different from suburban Colorado from rural Massachusetts, but hey, maybe that’s just my TV telling lies. Seriously, though, once people go to college or move to an area outside of one they grew up in, they realize that attitudes, tastes, and just life varies tremendously based upon the culture of the geographical region they are inhabiting. Obviously the differences vary to a degree, and a good portion of that is grounded in the individual’s own personality and interests.

I mentioned a few of my reservations to this show regarding its authenticity to real teen girls to some young female coworkers, and they retorted I’m too far removed from high school to know (and I'm the youngest). I took umbrage at this—apparently it’s way harder now to get into college, so I image all the bickering about grades and worries over extracurriculars to be magnified, not lessened. Social networking hadn't happened when I was in high school, so I'm not even including the MySpace and texting that is the virus that afflicts teenagers now. I’m also not discounting suicide, depression, or the usual mopey-teen afflictions, but a constant focus on these big stories misses the whole experience, and makes it less about a group of normal high schoolers than just a pastiche of teen problems.

Truthfully, American High did this story better back in 2000, and that series had boys. The PBS doc (the executive producer later went on to 30 Days) covered a cross-section of kids from different backgrounds and different grade levels in one high school for one year. It was absorbing, and showed the kids in action, but also their hopes and fears, their troubles, and how even though they were in the same school their lives were very different. I don’t remember anything particularly “dramatic” happening to those kids, only that I was very attached to many of them by the series’ end, and wished they weren’t so many years older than me.

High School Confidential is edited as a series of interviews of each girl over time, intercut with some footage of them trying out for a dance team or pictures of them at different ages. We rarely see any actual action. We are just told what’s happening, and the only other people to speak are the girls’ parents and boyfriends. No siblings or friends, which makes the narrative incomplete. The storylines feel far removed from actual teenage life, and that’s only highlighted by the editing choices made.

What feels most real is how young the girls look, especially comparing their ninth-grade selves with their slick hair and bangs three years later. The styles look the same, but some things don’t: Cappie goes on length about the distinction between the haves and the have-nots in terms of cars, but nowadays many young teenagers cannot or will not drive. I’m unfamiliar with Kansas, and I know the car conundrum is as old as high school itself, but the show did not bother to present any other argument, any sort of conflict regarding this decision, and this is huge for a teenager.

It's that same problem that runs throughout the episode: We don't see the struggles, the choices not made, the agonizing decisions that truly affect them. Things happen, they report. Their lives are not news. Maybe that's why things like pregnancy surface--because that's always news, that's always a shocker, even when it shouldn't be. These girls’ stories are allegedly true, but they do not ring true. If you want real drama, stick with the fictional kind.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Is Saturday Night Live Endorsing Clinton?

After watching the first two post-strike episodes of Saturday Night Live, the political commentary left me laughing but also wondering if SNL was endorsing Hillary Clinton.

As much as I love Tina Fey’s smackdown of misogynistic voters/Hillary Clinton haters, it’s pretty obvious that she’s for Ms. Clinton. It’s the “Texas and Ohio, it’s not too late!” that really pushes it over the edge. In fact, all the jokes—both that week and the Ellen Page episode—criticized Obama and left Amy Poehler’s Hillary fumbling to get her word out. The much-discussed sketch—referenced by Hillary Clinton in the Ohio debate (5:10 mark)--came across as very much pro-Clinton, since the audience could sympathize with her. She just wants fair treatment. Even though Tina Fey was head writer, it’s hard to tell how much of that particular episode she wrote, and that sketch was written by veteran SNL political sketch writer James Downey. Yet all of a sudden the line between what’s funny and what is actually an endorsement has blurred, in a way I don’t remember ever happening in the other two elections SNL has covered that I’ve watched: 2004 and 2000. This has become a way of measuring if the political comedy is valid, if it is underscored by some sort of favoritism by the creators.

When Hillary appeared on the March 1 episode, there was so much speculation on this topic that she referred to it: “That scene you just saw was a reenactment, sort of, of last Tuesday’s debate, and not an endorsement of one candidate over another. I can say this confidently because when I asked if I could take it as an endorsement I was told absolutely not.” The line elicited laughs and cheers. But while they do skewer her in the sketch, calling out those things that others won’t say, how she’s determined to be “so ingratiating, annoying, and bossy” that everyone will cower to her as president, an argument can be made that the sketch leaves the impression of again pitying Ms. Clinton for how unfairly she is treated compared to the white gloves Obama is given. It’s in the Weekend Update that the zingers are leveled on Hillary, but unfortunately (or fortunately) they are not repeated online; we’ll only see those in reruns this summer.

But it’s the cumulative effect that matters.

So far, over the past three episodes, I’ve found the skewering roughly equal. SNL, like the rest of their media brethren, have focused more on Hillary overall than Obama, mainly due to her visibility and because frankly there’s more to go on: her desperation, her personality, her wonkishness, her husband, her history…Obama’s critiques are even in Clintonian terms, in that they are framed around lampooning Clinton. The opening 3 am sketch—a parody on the red phone ad—was more about Hillary than Obama; it’s her dark vision of the future, but it’s also acknowledging that Obama could be president, and that even if he is, she’s still going to hold the reins, so either way America’s electing her. It’s a very clever skit.

I noticed the Hillary focus last week, too. This time there was no Tina Fey to hold responsible. Maybe it was because I was looking for it, maybe it was because so many other people have Obama blinders on—and certainly, SNL makes sure to remind the world that this is true and the mainstream media have since begun to take pains to rectify that. The show's been a change agent before--in 2000, Al Gore famously used the lockbox sketch [thank NBC Universal for not having old sketches up online for my inability to link it] to correct what his advisers felt was his woodenness on the podium.

Whether or not Tina Fey actually endorses Hillary Clinton is irrelevant. There are some fans who take her character Liz Lemon’s line in 30 Rock (“There is an 80% chance in the next election that I will tell all my friends that I'm voting for Barack Obama but I will secretly vote for John McCain.”) as proof that she has no political allegiances and she’s just trying to be funny. None of the writers on the show have appeared or announced their endorsements and I don’t think they will. It will ruin what they’re trying to do.

SNL will never endorse a candidate and they shouldn’t. But as their political satire has gotten sharper and relevant, they have to pay attention to what they are doing. This shouldn’t make them sissies nor make them hard-nosed on anything, and despite what Tina did on her hosting night, she made one of the most memorable and funny moments on not only the show in a long time but also one of the most pointed. She knew what she was doing, and she didn’t care. If only more people would take such risks.