Sunday, January 25, 2009

If Only

I never did post my Rihanna post--all those notes didn't add up to a coherent essay--but reading The Times Magazine's cover story on female desire just made me think of Rihanna's "Don't Stop the Music":

  • She meets a stranger, and they immediately fall into lust
  • The music here, like in many songs, is a euphemism for desire
  • It embodies a perfect fantasy: girl meets hot guy at the club, and they immediately get it on, but it's sexy, not skanky

The video in my head is so much hotter than the real thing:


Maybe Beyoncé's man-hating songs are used as a warning to Jay-Z--as in, don't mess with Sasha Fierce, cause I will own you.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Brand Integration, 30 Rock, and the "Responsible" Point of View

I tend to keep a few magazines piled up on my desk at work—ones that feature stories I want to read, but aren’t so pressing that I take them home. I had about four that were there for months, and finally decided, since they were at that point where no one else would want them either, to take them home.

I was looking through the newest one, a New York with David Patterson on the cover, dating from October that I had plucked to read a Times story, when I came across a hidden treasure: “What Tina Fey Would do for a SoyJoy”, written by a fave of mine, Emily Nussbaum. It’s about brand integration in television shows, and specifically discusses 30 Rock and MadTV, two shows that have been on my mind recently.

Television is expensive to produce, and ratings are going down, down, down. So what are TV execs to do to make money? Introduce brands inside the programming. This has gone on for some time—dating back to the early days of TV—and it’s been controversial for nearly all that time, too. But advertising is hot property (just look at shows about advertising, Mad Men and the forthcoming Trust Me), and stories about ads also enable the producers to use real products to tell those stories.

Websites and magazine features connect viewers with the brands their favorite characters wear, so why not just have the characters say what they’re wearing? But that’s hard to do well. A big deal was made a few years ago when Alias and Ford struck a deal requiring the characters to constantly call attention to the vehicle. It made a mockery of the program, taking everyone out of the action; it was so obviously an ad that had an expensive budget and story tied to it that the idea of a television show seemed besides the point.

30 Rock is a case study here; Nussbaum frames the show as the tension between art and commerce, exemplified by Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy. This is also where the set up for many of the jokes come from, all meant to give double the laughs since they’re satirizing many things at once:

In the show’s fifth episode, Donaghy talks with Lemon about integrating brands. “I’m sorry, you’re saying you want us to use the show to sell stuff?” Liz asks.

JACK: Look, I know how this sounds.

LIZ: No, come on, Jack. We’re not doing that. We’re not compromising the integrity of the show to sell—

PETE: Wow. This is Diet Snapple?

LIZ: I know, it tastes just like regular Snapple, doesn’t it?

30 Rock has done this a few times, notably with Verizon. But while it’s a wink-wink to the audience and the advertisers, it still leaves a somewhat queasy aftertaste—yeah, you’re shilling, you’re just being tongue-in-cheek about it. Fey has said that she wants to point it out to her audience always, but as the article makes clear, that isn’t always possible, and in fact, one brand prominently displayed was widely believed to be a fake: SoyJoy. The integration didn’t really work, since no one actually realized it was a brand, and the brand itself didn’t get the boost it was looking for, since it wasn’t placed within the series as they wanted it. They were an afterthought, squeezed into the story for the sake of commerce. Not always the best way to get a brand mention.

But these kinds of jokes get old quickly, as Joss Whedon points out: “You can’t do it again and be cute, because then it’s a different type of shilling. Eventually you realize the reason they’re making a joke is because there’s something abhorrent going on.”

I don’t mind brand integration it as long as it works within the story. I am a story purist. It’s all about verisimilitude. The problem is, whether or not a brand is used in storytelling it tends to be noticed if it’s prominent enough in the scene. I’ve seen Seinfeld episodes where Jerry has a box of generic corn flakes on his counter, and that looks just as weird as seeing Sprite cans in front of a bunch of writers on 30 Rock, one because the absence of a recognizable brand is bizarre, the other because it’s so obvious that it’s product placement. It made perfect sense for Dwight to temp at Staples, for Don Draper to wax eloquent on Kodak cameras, for Lorelai Gilmore to express shock when Christopher bought a Volvo; all of these times I was fully following the story, with no thought about companies buying airtime and the deals that were exchanged. If it makes sense for a character to have a Mac, then no one will wonder how much money it cost for Apple to have the computer in the scene.

Interstitials, extras—things like webisodes, blog posts, and other interactive elements that make up the rest of a television show’s official site—have also become a battleground. Actors often aren’t paid extra for them, which of course causes problems. It can also cause confusion deciphering the actor from the character. Most NBC shows have a “Chime In” promo that airs right before the cold open; this is to prompt viewers to stick around for the show and to generate excitement. For The Office promo, Jenna Fischer taps the microphone three times, mimics the “ba ba ba” of the NBC jingle in a fun, flirty way, and John Krasinski, who is standing beside her adoringly, responds, “Boy, you’re cute.” How sweet. Except they are identified by their real names—“Chime in with John & Jenna” appears onscreen—not as Jim and Pam, who would actually do an exchange like this. John and Jenna aren’t dating; it is their characters who are in love with each other, not the actors themselves. It’s not cute, or endearing; this forced element (no matter how natural it appears onscreen) takes the audience out of the show. If they shill for NBC, they should do it as themselves; if it’s a funny bit in-character, then they should be identified as being in character. Of course, it’s Joss Whedon (interviewed in this article on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), who sums it up: “We invest in the reality of the show! And this is one of the ways they’re picking apart the idea of the narrative, keeping you from knowing if it’s a show or not…. They want to take the story apart so they can stuff it with as much revenue as they can. And ultimately what you get is a zombie, a stuffed thing—a non-show.”

Exactly. I understand a network and a show has to make money. And webisodes and blogs and podcasts can be fun—as long as they don’t mess with the core product.

So what about the Responsibility Project?

Liberty Mutual runs ads every week in the New York Times magazine, framing "The Ethicist" column, posing a scenario and offering several ways of solving it, asking which is “the responsible point of view”. Liberty Mutual’s campaign is the Responsibility Project, a series of films that pose thorny situations and the choices the characters face. Liberty Mutual also struck a deal with NBC as part of the Responsibility Project to offer television that offered “responsible viewpoints” and to help develop scripts that featured this mindset.

Liberty Mutual is an insurance company, and they, like Dove, are marketing themselves based on a feel-good principle. Having television that explored ethical viewpoints could be interesting, if the show doesn’t get preachy and bogged down by company objectives. But what exactly is the responsible point of view? Isn’t the point to explore the options, that sometimes what one person thinks is right is completely wrong and immoral for another? Mandating a mindset doesn’t work; the Family Friendly Programming Forum tried to make family-friendly programs, working on the pilot of several shows, most notably Gilmore Girls. Most shows that are labeled family-friendly tend to be anything but—The Secret Life of the American Teenager, 7th Heaven—even Gilmore Girls, especially as the show continued, made a mockery out of marriage and fidelity, two important values when discussing family. Too many people are leery of corporations watching and controlling our every move; even when they try to do good (and many do), it’s hard to shake the notion of ulterior motives (money money money).

Pretty much everyone interviewed for the New York article is a 30 Rock fan. I am not. I’ve seen maybe about half a dozen episodes, a few from this season and last. I do not find the show funny, though I concede I haven’t seen many of the “best” episodes, as I’ve understood them to be. According to Nussbaum, “What makes the show funny, and timely, and terrifying, is that on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon always loses.”

Which is exactly my problem.

Liz Lemon (a terrible, self-defeating name…which is probably the purpose) is supposed to be the Neurotic Single Woman. She’s supposed to follow in that long line of 30ish single women who worry about their singleness—Mary Tyler Moore, Ally McBeal, Carrie Bradshaw. She babbles, she’s awkward, she’s often the sanest one amidst the crazies. Not only does Liz never win, even the smallest battles, but she’s constantly made a fool; no one at her job respects her. They walk all over her, but she has to corral her castmates together to make sure they can function, while she can barely function herself. Tina Fey has said that Liz Lemon is her single alter-ego, that if she didn’t meet and marry her husband she would be just as pathetic as Liz Lemon. For what bugs me most of all is that Liz Lemon is pathetic. She is fake-perky, always trying to hide those tears of shame and embarrassment by starting another ill-advised endeavor, failing at that, and then doing something shameful to get over her feelings. She never has any pride. She doesn’t stand up for herself. She’s not funny, she’s sad.

I welcome a real discussion on 30 Rock, why people think it’s funny, why Liz Lemon is the complete opposite of how I characterized her. As I’ve said, I haven’t seen enough episodes (nor have the notes), to write a real review of her character, why I don’t find her as appealing as she should be. I enjoyed her immensely on Saturday Night Live, but I find her strikingly unfunny—and sometimes insulting—on 30 Rock.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

You Won't Be Watching MadTV

The news was buried in an article on Spike Feresten in the Times on December 20.

MadTV is no more.

Defamer got the scoop.

Always the scrappy underdog to Saturday Night Live, MadTV, though never earning much respect or ratings, still managed to make a pop culture dent. After all, a guy at work did dress up as Stuart for Halloween this year, and my cousin, far from being on the tip of the zeitgeist, is known for having a wicked impression of Miss Swan, two characters that were mainstays on the program.

MadTV never could compare to SNL, partly because it was a taped program. They did not focus on news or politics, but on funky, oddball characters, but their biggest strength was by far their music video parodies, which they were able to be so successful at precisely because the show was taped. SNL copied them with their digital shorts, right around the time Andy Samburg was hired. Madonna, Britney Spears, John Madden, Whitney Houston and Kenny Rogers “starred” in many of their most well-known skits, and they also frequently mocked Apple (see “iRack”). Yet looking back over many of the highlights, a real sense of the pop culture of the last decade shines through, and there were times when they were right on the money—Feist’s "1234", “Trapped in the Cupboard”, and the Abercrombie kids mocked the absurdity that each brand was trying to sell.

Like SNL, the show did have musical guests perform, although the one thing that stood out about them was that they weren’t cool or big enough to go on SNL. Most didn’t make it that far—the artists didn’t upgrade and the viewers switched over or off before the act even began. The acts always seemed superfluous, tacked onto the end because it was some rule that variety shows had to have them. We all knew cast members contorting their voices and bodies to play real stars were far more entertaining.

MadTV had the fortune to start at 11, which meant a half-hour of their best stuff followed by viewers flocking in droves to their cooler counterpart. I’ve lost many arguments comparing SNL to MadTV, but the truth of the matter is, SNL always got the clout, even when they didn’t deserve it. SNL’s best asset, as they showed last year, was in political comedy. MadTV’s best asset was ripping upon the nation’s favorite television shows, music, and celebrities. Despite being on the air for fourteen seasons and having a syndication deal on Comedy Central for the last few, the show never got any respect, even though some of their impressions and parodies are on par if not better than SNL's best. Nicole Parker's Britney Spears, for example, is the best I've ever seen.

I’ve spent quite a few hours in my life amusing myself with MadTV parodies on YouTube. I’m including some of my favorites below.

I never get tired of this, ever.

A newbie but a keeper. Her Hannah Montana is spot-on.

My dad is obsessed with this clip. It's probably one of the most-watched videos in my household.

Again, spot-on dis of the concept and what Christina was trying to do. Purposefully dressing as skanky as she could possibly be for this video was the wrong tactic.

JT was begging for this.

Chingy’s “Holidae Inn” was never used for something better.

Doesn’t make much sense, but who doesn’t love an “Umbrella” parody, especially with Nicole Parker?

The only thing good about “My Humps” was that this was created.

I could have just linked this above, but this is seriously one of MadTV's best.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Two girls on the bus line today were wondering why Beyonce is all anti-man when she's married. At they specifically cited "Single Ladies" as evidence.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

No, Not All Teen Girls Get Pregnant: Why I Hate The Secret Life of the American Teenager

I came on Facebook a few days ago to see a number of people going crazy over the return of The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I’ve never watched this show. I have no desire to watch this show. From the little I know, the lead teen girl gets pregnant. Because obviously every teenager knows someone who got knocked up if she didn’t herself. I envisioned other contemporary-teen problems, of mean girls and MySpace and blah blah blah. But no, the show is way worse.

With the news that teen birth rates have skyrocketed and that virginity pledges don’t work (which we already knew already), I question the wisdom of having a show—and a terrible one at that—that focuses on teen pregnancy. Oh, you say, but it can serve as a warning! And now that all these girls are getting knocked up, they can relate! Please.

One or two of the articles I read discussing these two studies mentioned the rash of high-profile teen pregnancies, and how that could be seen as “glamorizing” teen pregnancy. I think the spike is a combination of a lot of factors, and I don’t want to discount or endorse that idea. But I absolutely do not think having a show like Secret Life is helping.

Secret Life was created by Brenda Hampton, of 7th Heaven fame. This should make most normal, rational people quake in their bones. 7th Heaven moralized, but it did it in the worst way—showcasing certain value sets by letting its characters run amok, behaving badly, generally being abhorrent, amoral people, but it was all ok in the end as long as you waited til you had sex to get married and believed in church and god. It fostered “traditional family values” in the worst way. The Secret Life of the American Teenager, from what I’ve read, does the same thing.

The show was actually passed by FOX. Maybe they thought that the moralizing wasn’t for them, but on the surface, this is a show MADE for them. The show has one hell of a titillating title. Of course it’s going to arrest a certain type of teen and their parents.

But it’s precisely those teens and parents who should stay far, far away. For one thing, I don’t think the title is representative of anything. I think a teenager’s secret life would be far more interesting and far less soapy that what this show’s got going one, what with the pregnant teen marrying a boy that’s not the daddy, cause he’s awesome and the daddy’s not. What teenage boy in his right mind would do such a thing?!?!?

The show is supposed to show all aspects and all consequences of what happens when a teenager becomes pregnant. There are major characters who are religious and vow to wait until marriage. Despite this, the show is filled with stereotypes. The lead, Amy, is a “good” girl who slipped up and had sex with some rowdy playa—except she was too dumb to realize that she actually had sex.

I always feel, watching teen shows, that it’s a must that someone gets pregnant. There’s always a pregnancy scare and some point, and then it happens. But why? I no longer find these plots amusing—on any show. They’re rarely dealt with sensitively or realistically, and it just makes it seem like everyone is too busy having sloppy sex to do anything else with their lives. Yeah, girls get pregnant, and teenagers are stupid. But teenagers are more than that, and it’s insulting to always see it boiled down to the same things. I went to a small high school, and my sophomore a junior girl I didn’t know got pregnant. This was big news, whispered about constantly. But really, that was it. Everyone I was surrounded by was far more worried about colleges and grades and teachers and other mini-dramas that were a world away from pregnancy. And I honestly don’t believe that in this we were that different from millions of other teenagers in the United States. I had quite a secret life in high school, but it certainly didn’t involve me getting knocked up. The fact that the central character gets married is another thing that shown as positive—gotta love those family values!—with no mention of how insane that really is. And at the wedding, there are no adults, and fake IDs are provided for all the high school students...even though several said they wouldn’t drink. Right. But it’s ok, guys—she’s keeping the baby and she’s getting married, to hell with breaking the law and just having a huge-ass bash! Hooray!

A poster on Television Without Pity explains how awful the show is below, saying the show “reads like really bad fanfic written by middle schoolers”:

While I was less than shocked that SLOAT was riddled with stereotypes (my old roommate watched 7th Heaven reruns far into her twenties) I was actually surprised that the show manages to denigrate all stereotypes. According to this show, all Christians are overly preachy and naive, as well as hypocritical and judgmental, everyone in therapy must be considered crazy by not only teenagers but Deputy District Attorneys as well, mentally retarded people hire hookers over the internet to be their friends, teenage girls are universally morons, non-religious people go around jumping into bed with any person they can get their hands on, single mothers are oversexed and don't care about who they sleep with, married man or not, etc, etc. And also? Ben? Is a stalker. For real. He needs serious therapy. Not cool. Not cool at all. This is actually what parents want their daughters to see as an ideal of romanticism? What?

This is no holds barred the worst show on television. Absolutely the worst. No question. I knew it in the first ten minutes of the show... and the whole therapy thing, which was totally weird random and unrealistic, as well as the fact that everyone felt the need to whisper the word "abortion" when they said it at all AND the fact that the show moralizes constantly without being able to figure out what it's moralizing about (condoms are good, but premarital sex is bad; abortion is wrong, but it is every persons personal choice; christianity is good but christians are crazy) has done nothing to prove me (and everyone else on this board wrong).

But this is the part I totally cannot figure out -- I watched all of this monumentally stupid shows monumentally stupid episodes in the last two days. And while I'd really like to plead overwork and exhaustion, I find that argument insufficient to explain my inability to simply turn off the damn television. I know others have faced a similar plight and yet I cannot stop wondering what is the freaking deal? Why can it not be turned off? What weird hold does Brenda Hampton have over the population of the world and is there any way it can be harnessed for good rather than evil?

It’s shows like this that not only give teenagers a terrible rap, but also warp their viewers’ minds. A young kid, a middle schooler—and as this is on ABC Family, there are many watching—will form really weird and potentially damaging ideas about love, sex, and high school. And then when that time comes, they might realize that something isn’t quite right. But while the premise behind The Secret Life of the American Teenager could be interesting if done well, it’s clearly shallow and silly, wrapped in a guise of morals and real family drama that everyone can relate to. At best it’s a silly soap that enthralls a bunch of people for some time, at worst it distorts a real and complex issue, reflecting the mixed-up notions of a nation that just doesn’t know what to do with its teenagers.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

On End-of-the-Year Countdowns

In another sign of I’m getting old, the number one song on Z100’s Top 100 Countdown of 2008 is Chris Brown’s “Forever”, and for the first time, I could not conjure up the song in my head. While I’m familiar with many Chris Brown tracks—“Kiss Kiss”, “With You”, "Run It", “Wall-to-Wall”, his duet with girlfriend Rihanna “Hate that I Love You”, “No Air” with Jordin Sparks—I had no clue about this “Forever”. I was mystified. The number one song according to the Top 40 station in one of the biggest cities in the world and I do not recognize it? What?

So I looked up the song online, and yep, I don’t know the song. Ok, maybe I’ve heard it once or twice (though I see how it became the jingle for Doublemint gum, though because I rarely watch TV now, I don’t know the commercial), but it doesn’t ring familiar at all. Strange…Oh. Wait. I do vaguely recognize the opening chords, but that was a signal for me to skip it. Okay then.

I’m beyond getting mad at countdown crap like this. I realized, wading through the list, that I listen to so many stations and because I purposely skip over songs and artists I don’t like (I think I’ve managed to not hear either of Leona Lewis’s singles in their entirety, a feat I’m proud of), my perceptions of what is popular and what is not is somewhat skewed. I used to try to guess what the number one song of the year would be, trying to nail it earlier and earlier in the year. A number one song has to hit its peak at the right time of the year, in a certain time of July/August, be inescapable, yet not annoying, and not a fad. I also realized that I had to tailor my guesses to the individual outlets—VH1’s top songs were not mutually identical with PLJ’s, even though they overlapped a lot. But I’ve consistently fallen short, with my guesses coming up in the second (or fifth) spots. This year, I considered (frightfully) Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love”, since avoiding it became an Olympic sport (alas, number one for VH1), and Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music”, since that music never stopped for several months. Do not underestimate staying power.

I checked out some other stations that did countdowns. The lovely thing about the internet is now I can just read their lists; Z100 thankfully put theirs up before all the airings were done, so you don’t even have to listen to the whole countdown! (Which, as we all know, drags on and on in the 60-80 range.) Obviously Lil Wayne, Rihanna and Chris Brown rule in terms of singles and even cross genres; if the New York metropolitan region had a country station, the same would be said for Taylor Swift, who I think does much better in all genres outside of this region. The ubiquitous (and best sing-along chorus of the year) “Low” actually came out late in 2007, or else it would have undoubtedly been #1.

The problem with countdowns is I have never understood how they figure out what song places where. You can argue relative placement (and I have), but even that strange mix of sales figures and airplay does nothing for me. I remember “Sorry” being pretty damn big, a lot bigger than #98, which is a spot reserved for songs you heard once back in May, or a song that was released December 1st, but somehow that doesn’t register. I guess I just made sure to crank up that tune whenever it was on VH1. There were many other “huhs?” when skimming through the list--“Hot N Cold” is a bigger hit that “I Kissed a Girl”?—as well as good half-dozen or so songs about which I just had no clue. When I didn’t listen to a station for a week or so, or ignored FM radio for several days on end, I just felt so behind, even if day-to-day, even week-to-week, playlists don’t change that much. But then one day you realize that you haven’t heard Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song” in a while, and that that song has already peaked. And then you’re kind of sad, because you really liked that song.