Sunday, December 28, 2008

Giving Boston Legal Its Due

I tend to be a little grand in terms of storytelling, I've never been limited by anybody's sense of reality.

--David E. Kelley

Boston Legal isn’t a show that gets a lot of press. It’s an adult show, made by adults for adults, and the average age of the cast is somewhere in the late 50s. It’s polemical, and the characters are essentially mouthpieces for creator David E. Kelley’s views on everything and anything political, cultural, historical, legal…you get the picture. His characters are ridiculous, often acting like spoiled children who use the law to spout off their own opinions in the hope to win some ridiculous lawsuit.

Meaning that it sounds very much like many of his other shows.

David E. Kelley has a certain style, one that you either embrace or completely reject for being completely preposterous. It’s apparent in many of his most famous shows—The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public. The only one of these I’ve never seen is The Practice, another “for adults only” show.

Despite being a huge fan of Ally McBeal back in the day, I would never have sat down and watched Boston Legal on my own because of its reputation as an adult show. My parents watched it, and I got suckered in—surprised by how much I enjoyed the political back-and-forth, the fact that he raised pertinent and topical issues, often “ripped from the headlines” in a much less lurid fashion than is usually implied. Of course, Kelley’s overt statements—half an episode was devoted to why we should vote for Barack Obama—made the show objectionable for many but standout in that it went where shows rarely go.

Probably the best-known aspect of the show is Denny Crane and Alan Shore’s relationship, featured at the end of every episode where they sit on a balcony high-rise overlooking Boston, smoke a cigar, have a drink, and wax philosophically. Bromance is usually labeled onto younger men’s friendships, but in the case of two adult men, the word merely reduces their relationship to something trivial. These are two men not afraid to say “I love you”—over and over again, with endless florid expansions on the subject.

The actors—including the leads Candice Bergen, James Spader (who won the Best Actor Emmy last year in quite the upset), and William Shatner—are very good, making the ridiculous human and believable.

David E. Kelley is the master of the monologue, and only he can take ludicrous premises and make you believe. As he puts it (through Alan) in his fantastic injunction against the Chinese conglomerate that bought out the law firm in “Made in China”, “Did you know the kinds of cases that we argue, week to week? Typically preposterous, mostly unwinnable on their face, and yet we win them, whether we have grounds or not.” That not only sums up Boston Legal, but pretty much any David E. Kelley law show.

In the penultimate episode, Denny Crane (Shatner)—genius lawyer, notorious womanizer, and all-around character, suffering from Alzheimer’s—wants to try an experimental drug that has shown promise. He goes to the Supreme Court to advocate for it. He also asks his best friend, Alan Shore (Spader), another brilliant lawyer, to marry him. Now that homosexual marriage is legal in Massachusetts, he wants to marry Alan so that he can be in charge of all his medical and financial decisions, especially as his faculties deteriorate. The firm he is head of, Crane, Poole & Schmidt, is being bought out by the Chinese, which gives the main characters plenty of time to rail against communism, China’s human rights violations, and the nature of democracy. Oh, and Shirley Schmidt (Bergen), the other partner, is getting married to Carl Sack (John Larroquette), her colleague. Looks like a double wedding!

It’s the first time in 20 years that David E. Kelley won’t have a show on the air—but he’ll be back sometime in the next year, for another law show. Boston Legal had one of the richest audiences on the air, but its “mediocre ratings” caused ABC to cancel it—a fate befalling other shows that have very rich demos and older audiences.

Boston Legal is now rerun on ION, another network that reruns “fuddy-duddy” shows (bring back The Wonder Years!)…which means that it won’t gather many new fans outside of the ones it already has. I watched the last two episodes (aired as one two-hour finale) on, and I was struck by how different the “experience” was: The ads revolve around “adult” concerns. Blackberry was the biggest advertiser, followed by Tropicana (it’s healthy!). What a contrast to other shows—perfume, gadgets, junk food! These ads were often silent too, and makes you click continue in order for the show to continue, which I dislike—I want my shows to automatically play!

Boston Legal will be remembered as a show that won many Emmys that many people thought were undeserved, partly because it ran against popular fare like Lost, The Sopranos, and 24, and featured a bunch of older actors running ridiculously around a law firm, but it deserves some respect—for showcasing issues and concerns not usually deemed relevant for a television audience.

Note: Check out this Wikipedia description on Candice Bergen's character, Shirley Schmidt:

Shirley is portrayed in the series as the ultimate ideal woman: smart, sexy, graceful, dignified, a great lawyer and businesswoman, phenomenal in bed, easy to fall in love with and impossible to get over.

The Merchants of Cool

In doing some “research” for my Britney Spears entry, I came across this Gawker piece, which reviewed “For the Record”. The reviewer mentioned he recently watched Frontline’s documentary on the merchants of cool, and compared the two. I came to Frontline today to watch a documentary on the US Navy I caught the end of several months ago, and when I couldn’t find it, watched “The Merchants of Cool” instead, which aired in 2001. Whoa, nostalgia!!!

One of the first people interviewed is Malcolm Gladwell (with a very short haircut), whose essay in the New Yorker on coolhunters formed the basis of the documentary. (I first discovered this concept when I read The Tipping Point, which lifts a chapter from his article).

The special reminded me very much of my “Media & Persuasion” class in college, and no wonder—one of the experts interviewed wrote a book that was a text in class (which I thought was slightly outdated and also-ran). Obviously many of the statistics are outdated and the documentary is very much a capsule of a specific moment in time, but many of its overarching themes are still present in society today, if in a different context and format.

TRL is the big thing, and there’s a lot of discussion around rap-rock music, Limp Bizkit and the Insane Clown Posse (in fact, it was that clip that made me feel déjà vu, as there’s a chance I’ve seen this documentary at some point in the last seven years.)

Here, the internet is shiny and new! Media fragmentation! AOL and Time Warner are still buddies, and Viacom rules the universe (which might still be true). There’s no talk of how the internet is killing whole industries, no mention of Napster...iPods haven’t been invented yet and the Macs used by some of the marketing companies (using what some consider unethical practices) are the old-time blocky ones. Real children’s and tween’s programming is given lipservice in the form of MTV, but there’s no acknowledgment of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel’s grip on the youngest generation of Americans. Social networks are still years away. TRL is the epitome of cool.

But what I found most fascinating, in this clip (Chapter 3, The MTV Machine--no embed capabilities), was the synergy between advertising, marketing, and real programming, how MTV used a launch party for as content for one of their brand new shows at the time, Direct Effects (which aired after TRL for a few years).

Although the documentary itself cursory mentions Eminem, he’s a focus in a lot of extended interviews, from Jimmy Iovine to Brian Graden to Dave Sirulnick. There’s a lot of discussion focused on music, marketing, and the intersection of the two; a lot on history as well. It’s interesting to look at this piece—while still relevant—as also a unique moment in time, before the internet overtook practically everything, when the economy was good and everything was flush, when even the angry music wasn’t depressing.

As for Eminem—an artist who’s gone largely out of the spotlight the last few years—even MTV was a bit naïve when it came to promoting him:

[D]o you worry about fanning this flame?

Yes. At MTV, we are absolutely in a constant internal discussion about our role in the media. One thing that is true now that wasn't true 10 years ago is that 10 years ago, we might have been the only proprietor of a certain kind of art or a certain kind of product. Now, in this particular age, there are 20 channels playing music videos on television. There are endless channels programming for a young audience. On the computer you can get access to absolutely anything musical and otherwise. I worry less about what we're perpetrating and more about just finding the right line for ourselves. And it's a very fluid discussion; what is true today may not be true six months from now.

And as MTV, I don't feel we can ever stop having the discussion. There's a tendency to say, "Well, we found our line. Let's move on." But you can't do that, because culture is always shifting. It is a non-stop discussion, because we take the responsibility very seriously to not put dangerous things out there. At the same time, the reason the audience trusts us in the first place is because we don't censor. We present their art in the most honest way. . . . We won't cross violence lines. We won't cross certain language lines. But otherwise, we will let the art express itself as purely as possible.

Well, let's take an artist like Eminem. He may be the most popular and most controversial figure at the moment. You not only went with his videos--but you really gave him a platform. Tell me about the internal decision there. Why did you decide to go that way?

Around Eminem, what you have to remember is that his second album had a different tenor than his first album. There is definitely a through line, and you can see the progression. When we decided and planned. . . we had not heard the second album in its entirety. What we had was a very sanitized, friendly, saturated video that was very much targeted right at a young consumer, and that video was perfectly innocent. It passed all of our standards in terms of violence and language. And away we go.

It's only after we had a chance to really listen to the album and we had a chance to sit down with lots of other groups . . . that we began to have second thoughts in pulling back the promotion. And we did, in fact, pull a lot of the promotion back. And we decided we don't want to censor the artist. The video's going to play on the channel if the audience chooses to have it played on "Total Request Live." But we did feel a responsibility to express the other side of the controversy. So we did this half-hour special on hate lyrics. I think it's infinitely better for us as MTV to get out both sides. . . . That's a better role for MTV to have than to simply say, "Let's not show this and let's not talk about it," because that's disingenuous.

Is it fair to say that you may not have done the two-week thing had you known the full album?

Yes. Hindsight is always 20/20. I don't know that. That would sound like a cop-out if I just said we wouldn't of, but certainly the picture became clearer over the ensuing weeks. And like I said, since the discussion is fluid at MTV, we weren't afraid to say, "You know what? Let's pull back on promotion, and let's tell the other side of this story."

You have wonderful documentaries about the issues that are raised by the rest of your programming. You don't see yourselves as moral guardians. You can't act in that role.

I would say that MTV works on two levels. We see ourselves as champion of artists. And whether we like it or not, the themes that artists sometimes choose to embrace reflect sometimes anger, sometimes views that we would never agree with. For the most part, we aren't going to censor the artist, beyond standard television network standards. As MTV, we do believe that we have some broader role in educating consumers, in getting behind social campaigns like our campaign to vote, our campaign to stop violence. So we tried to make both coexist on the channel. Artists can express themselves, but so can we.

And doesn't this sound interesting?

And at about the same time, Roland Joffé came in and pitched the show "Undressed." And his pitch was really interesting, because he is fascinated by these small conversational moments that ultimately really say volumes about a relationship. His pitch was that you don't get honest until you get home at night and you start to get in bed. Once you . . . get undressed--which was his metaphor--that's when you start to get real.

I saw only a few eps, and was kind of squicked out but perversely fascinated--it was very much soft-core porn, just really awkward and not terribly realistic, though it was porporting to be.

Many of the extended interviews are pretty interesting, even just for skimming purposes. I recommend Dave Sirulnick on MTV, TRL, and how they influence the culture; Jimmy Iovine for the historical background with teenagers and music, and how MTV fits into that; Brian Graden for MTV as a business and many of their strategies; Robert McChesney on the state of the media and music landscape in 2001; and Todd Cunningham for how MTV conducts market research.

P.S. A guy named Barack directed “The Merchants of Cool.” Ha!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Outlining the Record

I love this moment:

This is the Britney I like—cute, cheerful, one who has good video concepts. I don’t know why the director decided to go with this for “Womanizer”:

As Ellen Carpenter at Spin writes,

[“Womanizer” is] a lusty blend of The Office and Alias, the flashy, streamlined vision of the modern sex wars takes place in some sleek corporate setting — as if the high-school girl from "…Baby One More Time" has become a vampy career woman and brought her school's back-up dancers with her. There are Louise Brooks wigs, "Mad Men" glasses, choreographed dance sequences, and not a single stripper pole.
Although the song has grown on me (I wish I remembered my first thought upon hearing the song—something about her voice belonging to a old, craggy woman who had been chain smoking for fifty years), I’m dismayed (I know, I shouldn’t be) by the gratuitous nudity. Really, Britney, a naked you veiled in sweat and smoke? This has been done by oh, everyone, including you. It’s not titillating in the least, especially as there isn’t a semblance of seeing anything remotely interesting.

Carpenter happens to agree with me. There’s no reason here to show off her body—it doesn’t fit into the storyline of the video—except because she can, and that’s not always the best reason. It’s not risqué or cool, not even vaguely interesting, but practically expected. Blah.

"For the Record" shows Britney living her life—one dominated, as one might expect, by dance rehearsals, photo sessions, and security, security, security. She’s always surrounded by people, never alone, and you rarely see her with her children. It’s hard to think of starlets as actual mothers, and Britney is a glaring example of why. It’s not that she’s not motherly, it’s because she just doesn’t care for them directly and have the mindset of what most mothers have. As Carpenter again puts it:

Ever since Britney trotted out her tagline "not a girl, not yet a woman," she's been stuck in some kind of limbo. Though she has two children and two failed marriages under her belt (if she wore a belt) none of us can quite consider her an adult. Certainly not the kind of adult we think of her putative role-model Madonna as being -- someone who self-exploited with a bit more flair and authority.
"For the Record", available online by MTV in 23 different installments (!!!!! And yes, I watched it all in a row, Fantasy commercials be damned), received a lot of criticism for false advertising, for not showing us the real Britney and the “truth” behind her last few years of craziness. There are few details in “For the Record”, that’s true, but I enjoyed the documentary, ostensibly to promote her new album, Circus. Britney came across fairly intelligently, and her goofy humor is apparent when she happy and enjoying herself, usually interacting with her close associates. Britney very much has a babygirl voice, one that has been exploited in conjunction with her body for years, but it shines through most genuinely when it is unencumbered by pop stylings.

But we always want to learn more, and her past few years have only made us want to see the reasons behind the odd behavior. Britney, true to form, likes to tease us, promising that we will understand her through her music, but that’s rarely the case. Why should we expect so much out of dance pop?

Britney Spears is making a habit of putting out albums with titles that promise more self-revelation than she's ultimately able to provide. Last fall, she released Blackout...which turned out not to have anything to do with experiencing blackouts. This year, it's Circus, with a title track that's not about the madhouse her life has become but just a brag about her prowess as a whip-cracking sexual ringmaster.
That’s the opening to Entertainment Weekly’s review of Cirucs, which has generally received positive reviews. But as with most music of her genre, the review barely means anything. It’s hard to believe that Blackout came out a year ago—we’re so used to Britney the Paparazzi Princess that her music has become quite the backburner, even though it’s supposed to fuel her life. Up until a few months ago, it was kind of a big deal that she had never won any moonmen at the MTV Video Music Awards, despite being, arguably, their biggest star this decade. So, engineered for her “comeback”, she wins a few for “Piece of Me”, a song that's supposed to be about how she loses herself among her celebrity life. Bleh. Really, out of all her songs she could win for—especially for Video of the Year—“Piece of Me” should not even remotely be on the shortlist. But it’s supposed to be “deep”, a real look at the inner Britney—all bunk as far as I’m concerned. So many artists nowadays especially sing and moan about the perils of being famous that it all gets so trite to the listener, especially as it’s not a universal experience. But that’s a rant for another time.

I have no doubt that Britney will go on being Britney, and we will be treated to plenty more gym-ready gyrations, just as we will go on endlessly discussing her life. But don’t go on expecting a real breakthrough.

P.S. Though I’m not a fan of Lily Allen, she has a pretty good cover of "Womanizer".

Friday, December 19, 2008


I am totally going to this show next year.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Love Stories

A couple weeks ago, I wanted to write about how the success of House gives me faith in America. House is a complex show that deals with philosophical issues, about medical ethics, of right and wrong, connecting with people, of how to live. The fact that it is one of America’s top-rated shows—and one that is well-acted, generally well-written, and both a critical and fan favorite—makes me very happy. But I also realized that House does something that is very rare on television shows: two of the main characters, Gregory House and Lisa Cuddy, are both single for a long time.

As most people know, these are two characters who flirt and argue with each other, and often their scenes are fun to watch. They are the standard couple that fans are suppose to root for, and of course they’ll get together at the end of the series, as is television convention. What is notable is that their relationship obstacles are themselves—their own stubbornness, expectations, beliefs, habits, and personality quirks—and not other people. House does not date. Cuddy does not date. This is pretty big for television; most shows have boyfriends and girlfriends and affairs and would-be suitors that rotate out of the main characters’ lives, with various missed chances and misunderstandings. But as House has continued the past few weeks, with Cuddy and House kissing and acknowledging their attraction to each other, there have been those classic television misunderstandings, most notably in last week’s episode, “Let them Eat Cake”, where House is off flirting with a woman he hired to play a prank on Kutner and Taub. Cuddy sees this just as she’s about to forgive him for an earlier incident, since House had done something special for her.

Last weekend, I saw three movies that revolve around “grand” love affairs: Twilight, Australia, and a Bollywood hit titled Fanaa, which means “Destroyed in Love” in English. While it’s true that love stories follow similar arcs—there’s a meet cute, often involving a misunderstanding or a dislike, a gradual time of becoming friends, then really good friends, periods of crisis that draw the two together, the requisite confusing/scared emotions, the obstacles that keep the two apart (whether external or internal, or a combination)—it doesn’t mean that they are particularly interesting, victorious, or that they work at all. A formula does not mean success.

This is why most love stories aren’t good. They just aren’t. They’re everywhere, and that’s one of the problems—love stories are supposed to be special, exciting, meaningful, infused with pain, yet there’s an unbreakable sense of connection, friendship and yes, love, that underscores it all. That’s what the good ones do. You can follow all the rules, and still not have the story matter. Twilight, Australia and Fanaa had many of the standard elements, but none of them were particularly good. What struck me and my compatriots in watching the movies, though, was that there were thematic and tonal similarities: while all of them were over-the-top, the drama was ridiculous in Twilight and Fanaa. There was too much back-and-forth, too much “I can’t live without you!” hysterics. There was too much talk of dying for each other, of “You can’t be with me, because I will get you killed! I will ruin your life! And therefore we must STAY AWAY from each other!” In both Twilight and Australia, there was a scene where one of the leads doesn’t know how to dance and is shy. The genders were reversed, but the dialogue was practically the same in both movies, despite that one dealt with cowboys and the other vampires.

Love stories are overhyped, fit into any story because it’s considered a necessary element of success. Upping the ante by introducing politics, death, illness and other catastrophes is often considered another requirement of epic romances, but it’s not necessary and often takes away from the central story. That’s what happened in Twilight and Australia (although Australia's story wasn’t really about the romance, but was a substantial part of it). These elements are usually so over-the-top that they obscure the real romance and move it into parody, drawing out the movie so we just don’t care any more. That occurred in all three movies.

What’s missing in the movies, and in most love stories, is the friendship behind the leads. In Roger Ebert’s review of Twilight, he says, “They’re in love with being in love.” Bella and Edward spend the movie giving each other smoking, lustful looks and discussing why they can’t be together (he wants her blood too much), but there’s nothing else besides attraction that hold them together.

The central question of any love story should be: why do these two love each other? Why them? The audience needs to see why each cares for the other, why each genuinely likes the other. Most treat this question superficially, glossing over it for the more exciting romantic tension that awaits. But tension is meaningless and not as much fun if the fundamentals aren’t there, if the reason for the tension is perfunctory and silly.

I’m convinced that Michael Patrick King wanted to create a great love story in Big and Carrie in Sex and the City, and that’s the overwhelming feeling I’m left with whenever I see the finale. (I’m excusing the movie here because I feel it retreads a lot of the same ground, but it could work within this framework, since their love ends happily after a massive screw-up.) Here we see why Carrie and Big just have this overwhelming affection for each other—that they can laugh and flirt and just be fun with each other, and each likes the other’s playful attitude, that person’s love of New York City. Despite all their problems, they go back to each other—a controversial point in most romantic relationships, because this tendency can be destructive, hampering the necessity of moving on. Carrie and Big’s epic love story is one thing I take away from the show, and I think he succeeds in creating a lasting, captivating story, one with many believable, heart-wrenching turns.

One of the reasons The Office is such on shaky ground this season is that it doesn’t know what to do with its central couple, Jim and Pam. The show was phenomenal in its second and third seasons partly because it was powered by the unrequited love between those two, and the second season finale “Casino Night”, where Jim confesses his love to Pam and then kisses her, is considered by many to be the best episode of the series. Watching the friendship between the two, Jim’s longing and confusion followed by Pam’s longing and confusion, was at times exhilarating, heartbreaking, and frustrating, and garnered lots of fans of both the show and the characters. By coupling the characters early enough in the series, considered a radical move by many, the show set us up to watch their relationship grow. But the lack of romantic tension, sad to say, was not replaced by genuinely interesting and compelling storylines, but ones that had the potential to be so and then written off. Romantic intrigue was passed onto other characters, poorly, as if one great love story can be substituted for another.

While The Office can and hopefully will bounce back from the stupidity this lackluster season has brought, it could show what many want to see: a full-fledged, real relationship, without the excessive drama that plagues most television and movie romance. It can be done, and it can be done well—it just takes imagination and a real commitment to write a story based around interesting and compelling characters. But too often it just doesn’t seem palatable. After all, it’s very hard to write about a relationship in television or in the movies that’s about the after part of “happily ever after.” The joke is that it doesn’t exist.

As Emily Gould put it recently, when discussing Gossip Girl:

It’s rare to watch a tv show’s writers basically confess that they’ve hit a wall. Imagine if, somewhere around the third season of Friends, Ross had sat Rachel down and said, “You know, we’ll never stay together, because there would really be nothing to hang the misunderstanding-based hijinx of this show on.” When Chuck told Blair that “the game” is “what we like,” he might as well have been staring into the camera and addressing the audience directly. ‘When we finally get together,’ he’s saying, ‘you’ll know that Gossip Girl’s writers have finally gotten that memo from CW headquarters that they’ve got another episode or two to wrap things up.’

But less cynically, or maybe more cynically: the audience basically never gets to watch the ever-after part of romances – it’s boring, we’re given to understand, all that moviegoing and hand-holding. Love affairs have three acts, we know from tv, and even, a little, from our own experience. There’s the thrilling beginning, fraught with obstacles and delicious suffering. And then there’s the middle, the happy normalcy phase that actually maybe doesn’t even exist and is just a slow slide into the mediocrity and boredom that signals the end. Maybe there are just two acts, then.

And when act two is running its course, it’s back to the drawing board again.