Outside Reading — Ever So Curious edition

The Unexpected Profundity of Curious George by Rivka Galchen

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I’m always going to susceptible to a smart story involving Curious George, and this piece is smarter than most. For The New Yorker, Rivka Galchen explores how well the adventures about the inquisitive little monkey have aged and digs into the shared biography of the two authors, married couple Margret and Hans Rey, in an effort to consider how their experience as refugees shaped the storytelling. Galchen makes interesting connections that further illuminate the deep resonance to be found in the Curious George books. In particular, the specific details Galchen excavates from the various books are always well chosen and amusing. There’s a loving admiration of even the most daffy components of the books, those authored by Rey and a few other choice examples. What I now need — and I do mean need — is for Galchen to expand the thesis to deliver a deep reading of Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant.

 

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How to Draw a Horse by Emma Hunsinger

Also from The New Yorker, Emma Hunsinger is given a sizable chunk of digital real estate for an autobiographical comic about, to put it most simply, the time in her adolescence when she strained to add horses to her artistic repertoire. It is, of course, about much more than that. Hunsinger’s sharing is heartfelt and poignant. What really impresses is the way she takes full advantage of the form in which she’s working. There are single images that carry the weight of full confessional monologues and others that achieve added power through imaginative desconstruction. Basically, How To Draw a Horse succeeds so completely because it’s a story that couldn’t have been told any other way.

 

A 40-Something Looks Back at ‘Thirtysomething’ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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Now that “Outside Reading” is the thing we do ’round these here digital parts every Saturday, I suspect I’ll be typing out Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s name a lot. She’s delivered winner after winner for The New York Times in recent years, whether celebrity profiles, long-form investigative pieces, or withering take-downs of cultural nonsense. This week, she published an article that uses a semi-nostalgic, mostly curious rewatch of the late-eighties/early-nineties drama Thirtysomething. Brodesser-Akner lands on a piece that is properly amused by the decidedly of-the-moment trappings of the original series, but it also slides into melancholy — sometimes even bruising — memoir. In doing so, the article offers the reminder that for all the attempts to consider pop culture through a critical framework, it’s almost inevitable that these TV shows (and movies, and books, and albums, and, and, and) strike us as viewers in a way that deeply personal. I had my own dalliance with Thirtysomething back when it first aired. Since I was watching while in college, I’ve long thought I was seeing it as a sort of instructional manual for the looming adulthood that secretly petrified me. After reading Brodesser-Akner’s piece, I wonder if there were some other wounds that were being bandaged up. Maybe the strongest testimonial to the pleasures of the article is this: After finishing it, I immediately put in my preorder for Brodesser-Akner’s forthcoming novel.

 

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Watching Elizabeth Warren Come Alive by Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick has long been my favorite writer at Slate, and her new piece drawn from following Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail is the first that makes me believe the Senator from Massachusetts could very well succeed in her run for the U.S. Presidency. That’s not exactly the argument that Lithwick is presenting, but her clear-eyed reportage on Warren’s approach is telling. “Warren shines in her unscripted Q&As precisely because she isn’t trying to please the Unknowable American Electorate of 2020,” writes Lithwick. “She is just trying to answer whatever the questioner is asking in the moment.” I could go on at tedious length about why that simple approach is precisely what any politician needs to do in this fraught national moment, and I likely will indulge in some expounding too many times between today and November 2020. For now, I’ll refrain and let Lithwick’s article carry the weight.

Outside Reading — It’s Not TV edition

 

Don’t Let Nationalists Speak for the Nation by Jill Lepore

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This piece showed up in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, and it perfectly expresses one of the most painfully fraught dilemmas of the current political moment in the U.S. I’ve long admired Jill Lepore for her ability to identify the echoes in the nation’s history, combining the the facts with a shrewd and subtle understanding of the ways in which base human psychology keeps tripping us up. I especially appreciate her glancing — but pointed — acknowledgement of the Democrats’ complicity of cowardly silence in allowing the emergence and then dominance of a toxic expression of the nation’s supposed character than completely ignores the real strengths of our ongoing experiment. I suspect it might be expertly excised from her new book, This America: A Case for the Nation, which is remarkable in and of itself because she also released a massive tome of U.S. history within the past year.

 

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Every HBO Series, Ranked by Noel Murray and Scott Tobias

Much as I’m susceptible to a good list, I sometimes slip past the many, many completist pop culture rankings flung into the multiverse by the good folks at Vulture. So I almost missed this comprehensive breakdown of the every drama and situation comedy series produced and aired under the HBO banner. Then I realized the list was compiled and the accompanying article written by Scott Tobias and Noel Murray — who were part of the team that elevated AV Club to its bygone peak and then presided over the late, great film site The Dissolve — causing me to circle back to it as quickly as I could. As I would expect, it’s a pure delight. The capsule reviews miraculously nail down the strength, flaw, and flavors of the programs in just a few sentences, and even the ranking entertains, from the laudably damning placement of disastrous prestige fare such as Here and Now and The Newsroom to the generosity extended to relative oddities from the long roster. And the top five looks exactly right to me.

Outside Reading — Sweepin’ the Clouds Away edition

Sesame Street early

The Forgotten Tale of How Black Psychiatrists Helped Make ‘Sesame Street’ by Anne Harrington

I’m bound to be enthralled by any smart story that digs into the earliest days of Sesame Street, the PBS program of my youth that was centrally responsible for elevating Jim Henson and his cohorts from oddball talents tapped for the occasional commercial or variety show spot into beloved entertainers with a very unique act. Writing for an Undark magazine series that allows authors to share material they couldn’t quite fit into their book-length works, Anne Harrington explores the purposefulness of Sesame Street‘s message of diverse inclusion, focusing on the contributions of a groundbreaking psychiatrist who helped program producers realize a slightly refined vision of the show. It was an early expression of the treatise “Representation matters.” Sesame Street helps — and still helps — build better citizens, and Dr. Chester Pierce is a major, under-lauded part of that social contribution.

 

An Audience of Athletes: The Rise and Fall of Feminist Sports by Britni de la Cretaz

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As someone who regularly laments the ever-steepening decline of print media, I’m also prone to enjoy an expert recount of a bygone magazine with a distinctive mission. So I was an easy mark for Britni de La Cretaz’s deep dive into the history of womenSports, a magazine launched in part by Billie Jean King and meant to serve an audience being entirely ignored by ongoing publications such as Sports Illustrated. The article includes so many firsthand accounts by participants in the magazine’s surprisingly lengthy, highly bumpy history that de La Cretaz can almost give the work a feel of an oral history. And she manages to subtly address the persistence of the misogyny that hindered the magazine from the beginning, but the commentary never becomes too overt or didactic. Her blog post exploring a flare-up of conversation about the coverage of women’s sports that coincidentally coincided with the publication of the main article is engaging in its own right.

 

Breaking: Nobody Knows What’s Going to Happen in 2020 by Rebecca Traister

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As if the 2016 presidential election season wasn’t exhausting enough in its orchestrated drama and craven capitulating to a unqualified bigot, the next go-round is bound to be even worse, if only because it has, ludicrously, already been underway for months. Even the most reputable sources are signaling their coverage will be shaped by no learned lessons. The New York Times lands on our front steps every morning, and I’ve already grown irritated by how often front page stories are framed around addled speculation and depictions of supposed interpersonal conflict within the Democratic party that affords the hard work of government service — and seeking public office — with all the import of high school heartbreak. Treating elections like sporting events in news coverage is poisoning the republic. In her usual inimitable fashion, Rebecca Traister breaks down the problem with clear eyes and firm conviction, arguing for the value in backing away from the need to predict, as well as the perhaps more fervent need for those of us roiled by the current political cataclysm to seek reassurance in forecasting that assuages fears about how the coming years might proceed into yet darker, more toxic territory. In terms of the 2020 vote, Traister insists we should forget about nebulous, fundamentally unprovable concepts like electability and seek out the political figures who are actually prepared to provide concrete answers. It’s sound advice, and I hope a broad swath of the electorate takes it. I have my doubts, though.

The Long Haul — Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

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Kaley Cuoco as Penny in The Big Bang Theory (2007 – 2019)

Before Penny, there was Katie. Well ahead of the time The Big Bang Theory became the modern rarity that is a broadcast network series capable of enticing several million people to click to it on a regular basis, it was a failed pilot, rejected for the 2006-2007 television season. In the original iteration, Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki still played scientist roommates whose staid, somewhat insular existence is upended by the arrival of an attractive young woman. A wreck found crying outside their apartment building, Katie (Amanda Walsh) is streetwise and caustic, a party girl who might be enduring a spell of bad luck, but who also operates with a level of confidence that almost comes across as bullying behavior. Written by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the clear intent is to develop the type of friction that can lead to endless possibilities for comedic storytelling, but the balance is all wrong.

The show was rejiggered and a new pilot shot the following year, this time adding a couple friends for the roommates and, more importantly, softening the outlook and demeanor of the woman who is introduced to the main characters’ lives, setting the series in motion. There was still a reliance on a contrasting lack of refined knowledge held by the newcomer, and the creators still seemed to have only the vaguest idea of who this character might be beyond a figure that set the various socially awkward gents’ libidos aflutter. But there was also an easy charm and an evident unschooled intelligence immediately at play in the role, which exemplified the better show The Big Bang Theory was in this second try. The critical recasting of the female lead pointed to further improvements to come, indicating the overlooked secret of the show’s monumental success. Parson won the Emmys, and Galecki and later addition Mayim Bialik were the other regular cast members who received acting nominations from the Television Academy, but it’s the performance of Kaley Cuoco as Penny that truly made the show work as well as it did.

While wildly popular, The Big Bang Theory also stirred up a lot of animosity, mostly from people who saw nasty mockery in the depiction of, for lack of a better term, nerd culture. To my eyes — which have spent a decent amount of time scanning comic books and other associated fare — the show always seemed to take an affectionate if gently jibing approach to the geekier culture favored by the characters. And I can further attest that the jokes were far more accurate than the usual detached snark equating comics and science fiction with hopeless arrested development. Even so, the detractors weren’t entirely without justification, especially early the show’s run, when Penny’s bafflement at the pile-ups of arcane information positioned her as a stand-in from viewers who were only just beginning, for example, to become acquainted with the concept of a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Critically, though, Cuoco played the character’s struggles to interface with her new friend group with more sweet uncertainty than eye-rolling contempt. The appreciation she felt for these people was evident and pure.

What best illustrates the value of Cuoco’s performance is how much better The Big Bang Theory got as it expanded the number of female supporting characters, providing Penny with a more varied cadre of companions. To a large degree, Amy (Bialik) and Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) were introduced to the show as love interests for male characters, but they flourished because of the naturalness of the friendship developed with Penny. The Big Bang Theory had elements of a workplace sitcom and was sometimes driven by the same romantic relationship questioning that has been injected into the veins of practically every network comedy since at least Cheers, but it was first and foremost about people simply hanging out. And Penny, more than any other character, was the hub of the wheel, drawing everyone together in a convincing fashion.

None of this would have worked if Cuoco didn’t deliver the most grounded performance in the show. All the other characters had some amount of wackiness to them, and initially Penny skewed to a similar easy shorthand, maintaining vestiges of the wild child of her rough draft predecessor. The recently aired finale hinged its emotional climax on the growth of Parsons’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper, but it’s Penny who grew up most realistically across the show’s twelve seasons, settling into a recognizable version of adulthood, marked by the kind of compromise that can feel initially disappointing before revealing itself as a relief. Cuoco was only twenty-one years old when The Big Bang Theory premiered, and the progression through which she carried Penny reads as a proper rendering of easing away from spirited youth to a different state of being that preserves a useful gleefulness and open-hearted camaraderie while finding firmer ground.

In the broad strokes of The Big Bang Theory, Cuoco added a vibrant humanity that kept the show from straying too close to the cartoonish, which remained a perilous risk throughout the run of the show. When Sheldon’s collection of antagonistic traits sometimes teetered near caricature, it was the clear fondness Cuoco’s Penny retained for him that carried the narrative through. Penny never seemed a mismatch among these markedly different people, mostly because she exhibited an intuitive grasp that they were, like her, people in need who didn’t quite know how to express it.

There’s probably no more pivotal moment in the whole length of the series than the scene in the season two episode when Penny gives Sheldon an especially well-chosen Christmas gift. There’s kindness and happy generosity of spirit to her gesture, and she also has a slightly amused confusion at the heightened level of his reaction. The wonderful cap to the scene is Penny’s overjoyed pleasure as Sheldon clumsily pushes past his own aversions to give her a hug of thanks. Whatever antics and comic conflicts were at play, The Big Bang Theory prevailed because it was primarily about people who simply liked each other, and that progressed to be the familial love that defines a group of close friends. It’s Cuoco’s performance that provided the path to that fine outcome.

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Previously….

—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

The Art of the Sell — Stranger Things and New Coke

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

As someone who experience formative years during the nineteen-eighties, culturally guided by Steven Spielberg’s films and Stephen King’s fiction, I am fully prepared to acknowledge my enduring affection for the Netflix series Stranger Things is tightly bound to the expert evocation of a number of my experiences from the era in which it is set. I can point to a myriad of skilled storytelling tactics employed by the brothers Duffer and their collaborators, but I must concede that the well-deployed trappings of the age leave me cheerfully spellbound. And I’m especially smitten when precisely the right era signifier is front and center in promotional efforts, which leads me straight to the latest mini-campaign in the long lead-up to the third season.

Among the odd cultural touchstones set to factor into the upcoming season of Stranger Things, a misbegotten brand relaunch evidently looms large enough to inspire a tie-in effort. In the middle of the eighties, Coca-Cola responded to a marketplace so newly competitive that the term “cola wars” was coined by showily revamping the recipe of its flagship product. New Coke debuted in 1985, prompting the publisher of Beverage Digest to tell CBS News, “This has got to be the boldest  consumer products move of any kind, or any stripe since Eve started to hand out apples.”

The prominent inclusion of one of the most famous U.S. brands in a buzzy streaming series didn’t involve paid product placement, but synergy is its own enticement. Coca-Cola collaborated with the creators of Stranger Things to brew up a special teaser, combining a treacly, very-eighties jingle with relevant clips culled from the upcoming season of Stranger Things. And it is a work of multi-faceted marketing perfection.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

 

Golden Words – The Larry Sanders Show, “Flip”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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The Larry Sanders Show debuted on HBO in 1992, at a time when the cable network barely had any original series. The only other ongoing programs of note were the horror anthology Tales from the Crypt and the sex-laden sitcom Dream On, which was mostly notable for its relentless intercutting of old television clips representing the lead character’s subconscious. Created by Garry Shandling and Dennis Klein (though Peter Tolan also put a sizable stamp on the series), The Larry Sanders Show depicted the backstage tumult at a late night talk show, buffeting the viewer with scathing showbiz satire, with a particular focus on the interweaving and conflicting narcissistic tendencies of practically every person working in the field. It was brilliantly conceived and rendered, boldly redrawing the borders of what a television comedy could be. The awards-giving bodies — especially the Television Academy — simply couldn’t figure out what to do with it.

Only a few years after the Emmys shifted eligibility rules to expand beyond over-the-air broadcast offerings, The Larry Sanders Show became the first cable show to nab a nomination in one of the best series categories. In its six season run, it collected fifty-six total Primetime Emmy nominations. Demonstrating the industry’s reluctance to honor cable series at the time, The Larry Sanders Show lost time and time again, earning only three trophies, one of the great feats of futility in the awards show’s history. The shutout lasted until the fourth season, when Rip Torn won a supporting actor prize for playing Arthur, the grizzled veteran talk show producer. Following that, the show went unrewarded until the episode that was very literally the Academy’s last chance: the series finale, entitled “Flip.”

In keeping with the show’s meta element, the last episode of The Larry Sanders Show was about the last episode of the identically-titled late night series hosted by Larry Sanders (Shandling). Essentially mirroring and condensing to a single show the extended departure of Johnny Carson from The Tonight Show, right down to the imperative to have a musical performer sing goodbye to the retiring host. And Larry signs off while sitting on a stool in front of the stage’s main curtain, just as Carson did. While “Flip” includes a big chunk of the show within the show, the main driver of the episode are the anxious machinations to make the finale of Larry’s run in late night properly memorable. Even on the way out, Larry’s ego, more than anything else, is what’s on the line.

The episode contains the usual array of bruising jokes, but there’s also a notable amount of sentiment laced throughout it. Without ever feeling like it’s crossing over to overly comment on the end of the version of The Larry Sanders Show that bore Shandling’s name as a main creator, “Flip” allows for a sense that the ending of a television program is a jarring dissolution of a large working family, tied together tightly, but temporarily. All these intense relationships click off like an old television tube, leaving only a ghostly dot. Staying true to form, though, the sweetness — and bittersweetness — can always be undercut, as with the fantastically profane tirade Larry’s sidekick, Hang Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), unleashes at Larry and Artie as they sit reminiscing after the show has wrapped.

Winning in the directing and writing categories, it’s clear that “Flip” stood for the entirety of the run of The Larry Sanders Show for Emmy voters. Still largely compromised of traditionalists, the awards body might not have fully understood the show, but there was a grudging recognition that it was important, maybe even that it was forecasting where television was headed. Around one week later, Sex and the City premiered on HBO. The Sopranos aired its first episode seven months later, and the transformational it’s-not-TV era was properly underway. Before that seismic shift, it was The Larry Sanders Show that demonstrated the untapped possibilities of the form. Trails require blazing.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

From the Archive — Late Night with David Letterman

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On the occasion of the announcement of the second season premiere date for David Letterman’s Netflix program, I luckily have this archival piece loaded up and ready to go. Written for the “Flashback Fridays” feature I mounted at my former online home, this was one of several attempts I made at reckoning with the enormous influence Letterman and his NBC program (and, to a lesser degree, his follow-up on CBS) had on my comic and creative sensibilities.

I should acknowledge this piece was going to post (or re-post, in a way) today regardless of the actions of Netflix’s PR department. After launching the “In the Archive” feature several years ago to mine old writing efforts, I think I’ve basically run out of words to import to this space. I may revive it periodically if I ever stumble upon any other dusty pieces of writing (there are loads of old reviews from my radio movie reviewing days that I haven’t physically unearthed, but I’m hoping still exist somewhere in my household’s deep storage), but I’ve got something else in mind for Saturdays moving forward. But that’s next week….

Late Night with David Letterman debuts

It made no sense for David Letterman to get a job hosting a new late night talking show to air following the enduring institution of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. While a favorite of Carson, who had an astounding level of clout at NBC (and really in show business in general) in the early eighties, Letterman had already endured one disastrous failure at the network with his short-lived morning talk show. To many observers, creating the program Late Night with him and for him was just transplanting a known mistake to a different time of day. Instead, the show simply changed comedy.

It was a splendid contradiction from the beginning with Letterman taking a chainsaw to the very conventions of a late night talk show even as he so clearly revered them (I suspect he’d take greater umbrage at someone speaking unkind words about Carson than a person slinging insults at his mom). The show was greatly informed by the brilliant deadpan absurdity of head writer Merrill Markoe as filtered through Letterman’s unique sensibility, an appreciation of the purely goofy mixed with an an especially aggressive brand of irony. He also had an purely Midwestern uptight approach to the guests on the show which made his celebrity interviews a little awkward and the interviews with borderline crackpots wildly entertaining. In fact, during the earliest years of the show, when big name bookings were hard to come by, the producers discovered there were few things funnier than Letterman thrown into complete discomfort by a guest, meaning a steady parade of the likes of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Brother Theodore, and Harvey Pekar.

After taking a crack at sitcom guest spots and a turn as as a member of a variety show troupe, it was clear that something different was needed for the gap-toothed comic from Indiana. Basically, showbiz had no place for David Letterman, so he had to invent his own. And Late Night was a constant source of amazing comic invention. The current overpopulated landscape of late night talk shows is currently marked by a smothering control of the proceedings, but Late Night felt spontaneously and unpredictable. Any gag was fair game, and pushing against the very form of the show was the greatest gag of all. Letterman once did an entire show from the confines of his office, an experiment that culminated with regular guest Teri Garr taking a shower in his bathroom. The camera might rotate, a fountain of wine might be installed in front of his desk, they might leave the progression of the show up to audience vote. In some ways, the creation of the Top Ten Lists was the worst thing that could have happened to the show. It provided a structure that was confining, a recurring obligation that blunted the need for fresh creativity. It’s a problem that those working on the show recognized at different times, trying to discard the concept occasionally over the years, only to be forced to revive it due to its popularity. It was a sign that the show and Letterman’s comedy was moving from upstart to institution.

Without Letterman and his groundbreaking show, comedy would look very different now. I’m convinced that shows like The SimpsonsArrested Development30 Rock and others that stood somewhat outside of themselves as they delivered wry commentary on the foibles of their characters would have never come into being, or at least would have been incredibly different. Despite their emphasis on the sort of deep news coverage that never interested Letterman much back in the day, there may be no clearer progeny of Letterman’s Late Night than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. They are shows about being a show where the comedy is self-commentary. Even the correspondents have a certain Larry “Bud” Melman quality about them.

The show may not have arrived with the greatest fanfare. Instead, it was sort of friendly shrug, which took the pressure off, made it seem like it could be anything Letterman and his crew wanted it to be. That’s what made it free, and that’s what made it great.