A General Antidote to Aaron Sorkin: Take Once When Necessary

by on Jun.26, 2012, under television


“What do you believe in?”


“Come again?”

“Malthus, but mandatorily. Compulsory depopulation by infanticide, suicide, genocide, or whatever other means suggest themselves. AIDS, for example, that’ll do, why should queers be so special?”

“I see.”

“I also believe in cigarettes, cholesterol, alcohol, carbon monoxide, masturbation, the Arts Council, nuclear weapons, the Daily Telegraph, and not properly labeling fatal poisons, but above all else, most of all, I believe in the one thing that can come out of people’s mouths: vomit.”

(–The Singing Detective)

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Breaking Bad

by on Jul.23, 2011, under television

I mostly agree with Chuck Klosterman that Breaking Bad stands above the top tier of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire in its moral starkness. A few caveats:

  • Deadwood remains my favorite-ever show, though it was clearly less successful than any of Klosterman’s four.
  • That “the ultimate takeaway from The Wire was more political than philosophical” is a point in its favor, and David Simon’s critique of institutions is one of the most politically complex and philosophically interesting (and entertaining) things to ever appear on television.
  • Breaking Bad is fantastic, but also unbearable to watch. I only just brought myself to finish Season 3 last week. If it were a feature, it would have released some tension by now. It never releases tension.
  • The holy top tier is very boy, although The Sopranos has vital female characters and Mad Men’s are arguably more central to its purpose than its men. I think there’s a case that Six Feet Under doesn’t make this cut because of sexist bias.

Still, he’s right about the dazzling central feature of Breaking Bad, which is that Walter White is long past the sly gray area that Weedsinhabited for its first three seasons (so, I gather, is Nancy Botwin). Plenty of people have died because of Walter’s actions who didn’t have to; not only has his cost to society vastly outweighed the benefit of providing for his family, he no longer even has those personal stakes: he’s both beat his cancer into remission and racked up enough cash to serve that initial purpose.

But I don’t think Klosterman’s exactly right in his conclusion:

There’s a scene in Breaking Bad‘s first season in which Walter White’s hoodrat lab assistant Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) tells Walter he just can’t “break bad,” and — when you first hear this snippet of dialogue — you assume what Jesse means is that you can’t go from being a law-abiding chemistry teacher to an underground meth cooker. It seems like he’s telling White that he can’t start breaking the law after living a life in which laws were always obeyed, and that a criminal lifestyle is not something you can join like a club. His advice seems pragmatic, and it almost feels like an artless way to shoehorn the show’s title into the script. But this, it turns out, was not Jesse’s point at all. What he was arguing was that someone can’t “decide” to morph from a good person into a bad person, because there’s a firewall within our personalities that makes this impossible. He was arguing that Walter’s nature would stop him from being bad, and that Walter would fail if tried to complete this conversation. But Jesse was wrong. He was wrong, because goodness and badness are simply complicated choices, no different than anything else.

In the world of Breaking Bad, this argument applies more to Jesse than it does to Walter. Jesse is capable of horrible acts, but tortured by them; without Walter’s guidance, he’s a knucklehead, not an evildoer.

But Walter is native here, and to the manner born. Or at least sculpted long ago. Walter has a pulsing vein of barely tamped-down rage that cancer slices open like a box cutter on a vein. His boss at the car wash, the old friend who purportedly cheated him out of millions, his existence — something about the impersonality of cancer brings out something in Walter that is ready for bad and has no need of breaking.

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Things We Don’t Hear About in America

by on Dec.21, 2010, under television, Travel

I was watching the British TV show Misfits (highly recommended, imagine Skins with superpowers), and one of the characters mentioned his “ASBO.” So I Googled that and found out about Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, handed out in the UK for minor offenses and restricting the recipient from engaging in specified behaviors. From that Wikipedia page I jumped to a memorandum submitted to Parliament by the National Association of Probation Officers, describing some of the most outlandish of these orders. Like:

A 13-year-old was served an order banning him from using the word “grass” anywhere in England and Wales.

In February 2003, a 16-year-old boy was banned from showing his tattoos, wearing a single golf glove, or wearing a balaclava in public anywhere in the country.

A 26-year-old West Lothian man has been made the subject of an ASBO after playing the Band Aid single “Do they know it’s Christmas” dozens of times daily to the annoyance of neighbours. He has been banned from “playing loud music, stamping his feet and dropping objects.”

And my personal favorite:

The oldest recipient of an order to date is an 87-year-old who among other things is forbidden from being sarcastic to his neighbours.

All under Labour governments! Just imagine what the Tories will do.

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How to Write a Good Spec TV Script

by on Nov.26, 2010, under television

I worked this summer as a reader for one of the network television writing fellowship programs. I was one of four readers who together read about 1100 scripts. Last year, when my writing partner and I did the same program, we had written one of 8 scripts admitted from a pile of 900; this year the number of slots were the same, so the odds were even lower. After talking to someone at Thanksgiving about the process of applying to another one of the fellowships, I decided to write up some tips I gleaned from reading such a big pile.

The trend right now for hiring in television is towards original material (“pilots”) rather than sample episodes of existing shows (“specs”). However, most of the writers’ fellowships still require specs. I think this is a good thing; I think it’s important to master a spec episode of an existing show before attempting a pilot, even if agents, managers and showrunners are less interested in reading specs right now. Even if you’re not planning to enter a script in one of the fellowships, I still recommend writing a spec of a show you love. Hopefully this advice will be helpful.

(continue reading…)

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The Weeds Season Finale

by on Nov.16, 2010, under television

I agree with the A.V. Club: after a couple of horrendous years, this season of Weeds was surprisingly great.

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Things That Look Like Other Things IV-1

by on May.16, 2010, under Movies, television

On Glee a few episodes back, Rachel produces a revival of 70’s story-song “Run Joey Run” as part of a plot to vamp up her reputation. What Puck (or any other participant) doesn’t know is that she’s not just casting him alone as the love object, but instead has enlisted all three of her male attractors. The final video shows Rachel in a doomed romance with a boy played alternately by Puck, Finn and Jesse.

Since Rachel introduced her project with a suggestion that her audience might not have all the necessary film vocabulary to appreciate her project, I was prepared for some kind of winking acknowledgement of That Obscure Object of Desire (previously here). But instead, Rachel’s advanced film knowledge was just a jokey reference to her use of bad iMovie effects, and everybody got mad at her for showing how many boys she had revolving around her.

I thought it was cool. Buñuel vs Lea Michele! ¿Quien es mas macho?

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Playing Straight

by on May.09, 2010, under television

I wouldn’t have heard of this stupid, question-begging Newsweek article if Kristin Chenoweth’s skewering hadn’t lit up everyone’s Facebook page. Ramin Setoodeh argues that gay actors like Sean Hayes in the musical Promises, Promises and Jonathan Groff on Glee can’t convincingly play straight characters. Chenoweth writes in defense of her co-star Hayes, saying “yes he can” which is about all you can say to someone who, knowing that an actor carries the dreadful gay, can no longer suspend disbelief (what if he’d rather do me than little Kristin Chenoweth? Shudder). But the response still dignifies his argument far too much.

First, Groff on Glee. Speaking as a straight man experienced in the ways of high school musical theater, talented musical theater high school boys are pretty fucking queer. We haven’t quite learned the ways of conventional masculinity, which leaves us freer to express ourselves on stage but also never terribly persuasive as leading men. My h.s. drama apotheosis was playing Henry Higgins, who as an educated British man is queer enough. My other big lead role was as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, for which I played up my shrimpiness and probably put a little too much Yid inflection on So Sue Me. Frank Sinatra was a subtler Nathan. The romantic lead role, Sky Masterson, was played with much more convincing masculinity in that production by a boy who was out to a few friends even back in 10th grade.

Groff’s high school champion vocal stylist carries an ineluctable whiff of queer? We all did. Chalk a point for verisimilitude.

Missing from the article is any sense that a little queerness might give an actor some performance-inflecting insight into the crude construction of straightness. Missing is any nuance whatsoever into the last-legs binary of gay and straight at this fragile historical moment. America loves Glee, people. “Straight” is in decline. For the killing blow, look to the straightest man on television, How I Met Your Mother‘s Barney Stinson, played by America’s number one gay, Neil Patrick Harris. Harris’s Barney, a priapic epicure, is as much a straight man as the leads of Absolutely Fabulous were straight women.

This will be a hard lesson for the 27 members of Facebook’s Barney Stinson is NOT gay! group to learn. Their cri de coeur after the jump.

(continue reading…)

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Skins: What$!%?

by on Mar.12, 2010, under television

Brief spoilery rant:

(continue reading…)

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Chuck Fans Lose Their Goddamn Minds

by on Feb.10, 2010, under television

Yesterday I headed over to Alan Sepinwall, my favorite TV blogger, to check out his predictably entertaining recap of Chuck from the night before…and there was already a bit of a kerfuffle kicking up in the comments section. By yesterday afternoon, the argument was almost 300 vituperative comments long and so heated that Sepinwall felt obliged to do an interview with the Chuck head writers, which in turn led to another 150 or so angry comments.

The source of all the anguish? Chuck kissed a girl other than Sarah, and Sarah got a back rub from Clark Kent.

Look, I remember hanging out on the Television Without Pity boards and complaining at great length about the last 1.5 seasons of Gilmore Girls, and I’ve ranted myself about the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, so I’m not one to deny fans the right to get upset at their favorite TV shows.

Here, though, I think we have a clear case of shippers gone berserk. No, this week’s episode of Chuck was not particularly good, but the season up until now has continued last year’s strong run. (We got Buy More Fight Club and Captain Awesome on a mission. That’s pretty good right there.) It reminds me of all the people on the TWoP boards who weren’t so much upset that the new showrunner in Gilmore Girls season 7 turned Lorelei into a simpering, inarticulate freak as they were that she married Chris instead of Luke. But as long as the characters remain reasonably true to themselves and the writers are telling good story, who the hell cares how they’re paired up?

The sad thing is that Chuck is such a marginally rated show that even the defection of a small, crazy segment of its audience could doom its chances for a fourth season.

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Um, Of Course I Watched ‘Jersey Shore’

by on Feb.09, 2010, under television

She may not have been lucky in love on the “Jersey Shore,” but Snooki has found herself a man – and he’s just her type.

“He is just like my typical guido juicehead with like a good personality,” Nicole (Snooki) Polizzi told RadarOnline. …
He is freaking banging.”

Can somebody maybe write a zombie movie called “Juiceheads?” I would probably watch it.

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