Whitney is for the parents, kids.

I also watched Whitney last night. It will tangle a viewer up! It is a show that is a mess, and a mess that you think you should watch so that you can talk about such messes, but then the mess is so sticky and bad that you think you should leave the room.  Like a lot of things lately, it got me conflicted.

The good news is we have a show about with a central female character.  I was interested in the sitcom to see if it hearkened back to that earlier era of “real lady” sitcoms from the early 1990s, when we had Roseanne and Grace Under Fire.  Sure, the advertising for Whitney was certainly selling a young-ish kind of misery (well parsed by Splitsider here)  instead of the middle-aged ladies above, but the show suggested it would have whiffs of the same autonomy of a complicated woman leading the show, using the gap between idealized femininity and real life as a motor for the show’s comedy and heart.

The bad news is Whitney spends 98% of the show in underwear. Like, for the entire week that they produced the pilot, she went to the costume trailer and maybe asked “still no pants? ” I think there is so much lingerie in the first episode to scream to the audience, “really, it’s okay, we are not that kind of show. Nothing you know will be threatened here. We aren’t a ‘smart’ show. Look at her ass! No challenges, promise!”  And then, the show goes on to suggest that having a girlfriend who eats or who uses mild sarcasm is coded as “loud” and overall an unattractive burden to the poor lout who happens to love her.  We see this as a classic hot chick tries to hit on Whitney’s boyfriend, wondering at his insane choice (in a very attractive successful woman, who seems to maybe slouch more than the hot girl?).

I don’t see this as an attempt to win over a female audience. This is not Girlfriends or any kind of network ready SATC rehashing.  This show is pretending it wants me to watch it, which is why it has such a strange boomerang of irony and generic form (the much commented on laugh track, three cameras, and constant wink). As Troy Patterson said at Slate:

Well isn’t she fresh. And isn’t that stale…There is a peculiar flavor to this cheese. If you caught a snippet of Whitney unawares, you would be forgiven for assuming that it’s one of those shows-within-a-show that exists to caricature bad television.

My guess is that this more akin to network TV branding lineups as “Laughapaloozas” in the early 90s, appropriating what they lately identified as youth culture and using its energy to promise a safe explanation to everybody else. What I’m saying is, I think Whitney’s  target audience are not 30 somethings who identify with the  weak gawk and struggle of commitment and having nice things (really, who has a couch in their bedroom, or a dresser in their walk in closet? And lingerie is expensive, folks). I think it’s for the parents of those 30 somethings (I’m including myself in this 30ish demographic).

This show does shit for women, women in comedy, and women in Hollywood.  But, it does promise our parents that we are loved even if we aren’t married. That our vague professional careers (she is a photographer) are legitimate. That partners with long hair are really nice young men. That our parents’ divorce did affect us, but it didn’t really harm us. Whitney lets parents watch their be-hoodied, belching, whimsical and sloppy ‘untraditional’ kids turn out as conventional and unworrisome as a parent could hope. If your parents watch Two and a Half Men, then I bet they will watch this. And when they do, they will probably talk about you.

This show is going to make it as a generational artifact of what we hope other people are up to.



Don’t Fail Me Now

Dear Millicent,

It is a cruel thing when something you love lets you down. It is also one of the most powerful things that television can do besides inform you about disasters and keep you company when other people are sleeping. TV is not the most respected of mediums, and I hold the same expectations for most things that I watch on TV as the over-thick general fiction novels I used to hoard from the Tucson public library: pleasure first, with an outside chance of mastery.

And TV has a fair chance of being supergood. The 2000s have been full of breathless television. We are such a good generation at mixing quality with pleasure, just look at our trends of food and drink. In the 1990s, our swoons were limited to Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure and MSCL. I was a much younger viewer then, a different demographic entirely, but I just don’t remember anybody talking about how great TV was. I watched a thousand pounds more of it a day, but it rarely landed in my gut like art. It landed like salt.  It was delicious. It was the stuff that made a future dreamable, collaged, and fully outfitted.  It was what people were doing somewhere.

But that’s barely here or where. I want to get back to heartbreak. I want to talk about Bramwell. Netflix had recommended the show to me for months, and I kept pushing it aside because it looked a tad…bunned? The title card was of a Victorian woman by a fireplace looking all inquisitive and honest while sitting next to a microscope.  It looked like a grown up American Girl movie.  What finally pushed me into this 31 hour affair were the comments over at The Hairpin in response to a post I had written about the maxi-drama Poldark.  Somebody said that the main character got into “scrapes.” If you speak Anne Shirley, I listen.

And the first episode swallowed me whole. It was Victorian, but about syphilis! And it was feminist, well-written, and well-costumed.  Half procedural (think a kind of feminist Victorian version of House), half melodrama about what it’s like to be a working Lady (by the way, I want to start a new academic branch called Lady Studies), Bramwell is a dream come true.  You get mystery, you get silver chafing dishes, you get extreme power structures to dissect, and you get the fun of another time and place. Surgeries happened every episode, often on the kitchen table!  Genre at its best, teasing out all the big ideas, but foremost entertaining and soothing its audience while it pokes at the tender bits of what a society makes.

I was in love. I savored the show, knowing it only had 31 episodes the way I knew Anne of Green Gables series only had 8 books. It was a lovely length–long enough to know you couldn’t gobble it, but finite. It was constructed smartly enough that you fell into full trust with its creators. The characters are complicated. They say the perfect thing, but it isn’t the one you were expecting.  Elinor Bramwell is a trained doctor who starts a hospital in the East End. She lives with her father, also a doctor, and is constantly navigating her future and place. Can she be a wife and a doctor? Will she be an old maid? What were the expectations of class, virtue, and philanthropy in Victorian England?

As with our particular stories of headstrong, intelligent women who have just the right spark of pluck and grace, we all immediately identify with our lead. She is Elizabeth, Anne, Rilla, Wonapalei. I watched this show looking for answers (I watch a lot of television looking for revelations, personal or universal). How do we find work that uses our best skills? How do you navigate privilege and service? How do you utilize, dismantle or deflect patriarchy? I’m not kidding. There were breathless moments in this show, usually alone and late at night, where I thought we were getting somewhere, me and Elinor.  I thought by episode 31, some new answer was going to get cracked out of me.

I thought this all the way up to episode 29, where I so want to tell you what happens, but cannot, because I also really want you to watch this show.  But I want you stop watching at episode 29. Then turn it off like the book is over.  No more pages.

I also want to find Lucy Gannon, the show’s creator and main writer, and beg an interview with her. Something huge happened between the end of the second season (episode 29) and the strange 4 hours that make up  season 4 (episodes 30-31). My guess is that Gannon would defend her choice, but I want to know why. Did the producers go crazy? Did she want to sober up all of us slobbering romantics, pegging our lives on the constructed adventures of gamine do-gooders? Something happened! Professionally, personally, cosmically, Bramwell got fucked.

All I can say is that the feminism, heavily installed in the series, fully goes out the window. Beloved characters disappear with no explanation, characters become unrecognizable, and the theme music gets really bad.  Up until the very end, I was holding my breath, sure this was all a grand architecture to make the ending glow like the best of television endings. But it didn’t. It did the worst thing, and pretended that the crap was just what we wanted. It broke our hearts. There are lots of us, according to the old Masterpiece Theatre forums on the PBS website.  We are all astonishment.

So now I have to go back to answering my own questions about my life, without the crutch of what would Elinor do? And she was played by a Redgrave (Jemma), and you know you can always trust a Redgrave!

It was dreamy while it lasted. And then, the evidence changed, all collapsed.

Lesson: good endings must not be assumed, and in television, dreadfully, cannot be earned.




Archived Video of the Day: Bill Cosby as Mr. Tooth Decay, or How to Market a Smile

Dear CF,

In light of your Jay Smooth crush (he is indeed braintastic and marvelous) and my newfound obsession with smiling as a shortcut to building a certain kind of empathic resolution that satisfies an audience, I thought it might be interesting to look at Bill Cosby in his youth. He’s the ultimate smiler and the anti-Jay in some respects, though with just as public an interest in race relations.

I just said he’s the anti-Jay, but actually there’s something about Jay Smooth’s earnestness and perfectionism as a performer—the demons that haunt him in “Beating the Little Hater,” for instance—that reminds me, weirdly, of Cosby, whose quest for the perfect unracialized and unthreatening and unmarked smile is bizarrely represented, I think, by some of his TV commercial choices. I’m including them below. They include (with no apparent contradiction) toothpaste and Coke, both of which are offered as vehicles toward the ultimate smile.

First, though, it’s interesting to see him before he’d quite figured out who he was going to be in front of the camera.

Exhibit A.

Here he is, at age 27. The interviewer asks him whether he feels pressure to base his comedy on the fact that he is “colored.” He says he feels that expectation but refrains from fulfilling it, although he emphasizes that he has racial material and actually focuses on that for the rest of the clip. He tells one of many “warm stories” he has about being black, this one about wanting food at a restaurant and being forced to eat in the kitchen. In a semi-subversive move, he says it all worked out because you get the best sandwiches in the kitchen anyway, then says he boycotted the establishment when they tried to seat him in the restaurant instead.

In talking about his comedy, he characterizes the difference between himself and other black comedians like Dick Gregory (interestingly, I think) in the language of movement: he says wants to move around the stage, not stay still and talk about government. He wants to talk about Superman, about Noah and the ark. (He seems, in other words, to equate stage movement with topical mobility.) Then he turns obliquely back to race and presents a “racial stereotype situation,” an anecdote about how has to eat watermelon in the closet that does a similar kind of subversive work:

Exhibit B.

Here he is a few years later, having perfected his onscreen persona. There’s a determined uptwist to his mouth that keeps his expression jovial, and he’s perfected the trademark Cosby squeal. He talks here about building stardom:

Exhibit C.

And here he is as the ultimate Smile Salesman. These are some TV ads he did for Crest (with Fluoristan! back when anything ending in “istan” didn’t send Americans running for the hills). These are from 1969, the same year as the above. He plays Mr. Tooth Decay, and is dressed (in one) in a black tuxedo while sitting on the very very white oversized teeth he’s trying to foil. In the first ad he watches resignedly—philosophically, almost—as a huge toothbrush with white toothpaste comes to “bathe” him. In another he chats with a karate expert named Bac Teria. In a third he confronts three children—a black boy, a black girl, and a white boy—in a police lineup and talks about the importance of dental care. In another he’s dressed in sweats and boxing gloves, using a tube of Crest as his punching-bag, yelling  “Things are getting BAD—there’s a lot of healthy TEETH around.” When I get STRONG enough,” he says, “this world isn’t going to be BIG enough for the TWO of us!” The tube of Crest swings back and knocks him down.

All of this sounds appallingly racist, and it is. And yet I think Cosby comes close to pulling it off: to effacing—even in a stark black-and-white stage set in which he is black and dressed in black and representing tooth decay that will be whitewashed clean by white toothpaste in a white container—the racial expectations he seems to find so comedically uninteresting. In other words, to inhabiting the part not as a black man or as a black comedian but as a comedian (unhyphenated).

I can’t embed the videos, which are part of Duke’s new archive available at Adview. The Crest commercials can be viewed using Itunes here. See the first four. Procter and Gamble still brag about the commercial’s effectiveness at improving sales and dental health among African-Americans, a demographic that had been overlooked in advertising.

Exhibit D.

And here he is in 1979 advertising Coke, “simple refreshment that makes you smile.”

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The sober, somewhat diffident man with the downturned mouth in the first video is so different from the man in the last one, whose rhetoric more or less compels you to smile, requires it so strenuously that it breaks the fourth wall and uses a Calvino-esque trick of narrating your reaction to you: You may think you’re watching me, he seems to say, but I’m actually watching you. And you are smiling.

Cosby didn’t write these ads, of course.  Some Don Draperish type did that. But there’s something almost Faulknerian about how Cosby seems to have forged an identity that’s synonymous with Smile As Concept. His eyes smile, his cheeks smile, the squeal in his voice smiles. His association with and specific use of smiling transcends specific expressions and products—it’s elastic enough to range from dental health to its opposite, Coke-consumption.  But the smile, and its claim to transcend racial categories, definitions and fears, is ultimately what’s being sold.

I think Jay Smooth shares with Cosby a slightly evangelical impulse to perform a kind of racial/cultural brokerage. He’s better at it—at any rate he’s more explicit about it. By almost never swearing, by avoiding slang, by championing the out-of-the way artist, he’s consciously trying to liberate some of the constraints on what hip hop is, or of how it’s been traditionally understood. By framing his own performance that way, though, he’s also (and this seems important) compromising on some of the defining characteristics of hip hop—the very characteristics that make it most offensive to outsiders.

Right? Doesn’t this seem like a somewhat Cosbyish move?

In an interview at The Media Drop Jay Smooth has this to say about the hip hop station he started in 1991:

So our job has become to provide an alternative to that.. Not because i think Jay-Z or 50 is wack, but because for us to play them would be redundant. Also, since I am on a station that strives to represent on a different level politically and intellectually, I have always tried to set a different example for what a hip-hop radio show can be… to show that you can have a totally different demeanor than most other hip-hop jocks have, be a nerd who likes to talk about politics and hardly ever uses any slang, and still be just as “down”, just as legitimate as a representative and member of the culture. Which is not to look down on anyone else’s show but when everyone sounds the same its easy for kids to think you have to be that way to be down. When really, anyone can be themselves and be respected if they have the love and knowledge of the music. Lemme stress again I’m not saying my show is better than anyone else’s, just trying to be a different flavor in that sense.

He’s trying, in other words, to expand the convention, to let the geeks play with the freaks. He’s trying to be an inclusive Firecracker!!! What do you think? Is this a gloriously smart liberation of the thing or an over-expansion of hip hop to the point where the definition becomes either too broad or defines something else entirely?



That Peaky Cap, and Then Some

I just watched the 30 Rock episode where Tracy’s little league team runs parallel to Iraq.  It was so good, my heart almost flipped out of my chest.  This happens especially with television.  TV, especially sitcoms, can blindside me with delight because I have no expectation for them to actually enthrall me.  Perhaps my little neuron receptors are particularly slutty and at ease when watching TV, but, my my, the thrills can be so lovely.

Onto other delights: Rosalind Russell! I watched His Girl Friday at your bidding, and was charmed by her hat, her shoes, and her.  On a list of my favorite things, Rosalind Russell is up there with Pika Pika and cucumber sandwiches.  Have you seen Auntie Mame? If not, run to it.  The costumes alone can save a life with their cheer.

As with any of our recent Netflix/Nitpicks, I have some thoughts:

  1. Is it at all an issue that Cary Grant makes her carry all the luggage at the end?
  2. Does Grant want her back only because she is beyond his control?  He seems sincere when he tells her to run to her fiance on the train, and he seems genuinely surprised by the counterfeit money.  She assumes it was all part of his grand plan.  Was it?
  3. I especially wonder this because Grant is so two-faced throughout the movie.  He constantly lies to people.  Why not her?
  4. I appreciate how fully she is shown to enjoy her work in the movie.  Cary Grant seems less of a loss than her job. He seems to know this himself.  Everybody agrees she is a fantastic writer, and we also get to see her skills as she interviews, tackles, and buys info.  She is fully alive in those scenes, and it is wonderful to see it onscreen.  She runs down a prison guard.  It’s great!
  5. A woman jumps out a window.  A surprisingly well developed character commits suicide in response to the unjust media.  It is a grave scene for such a light comedy.  The death seems to have no effect on Grant or Russell.  They are laughing at the end.  Even the convict in the desk, Williams, doesn’t seem too shook up about the suicide.
  6. Best line, in my opinion: “Get back in there, you great mock turtle!” Grant says this to Williams when he is hiding in the roll top desk.
  7. The woman who jumps out the window…the did a great job of dressing her so you kinda wondered what kind of girl she was for asking as stranger up to her room.  Her boobs seemed very shiny.
  8. Why is it called His Gal Friday? The entire movie takes place in one day…was it a Friday? Or, a Thursday? She just doesn’t seem like she was ever the personal assistant/secretary type.
  9. If we know one thing from movies, it is that people who sell insurance are safe, conservative, and dull (thus, Along Came Polly).  Also, one should also never marry somebody who doesn’t want rum in their coffee at lunch if everybody else at the table is having it (that scene particularly reminded me of Oceans 11).
  10. That great joke about them sleeping together in the hotel when they were hiding out on some other story.  She mentions the case was probably illegal, and he shoots back something like “that wasn’t the only thing.”  Salty, salty.

A captivating movie, with more plot than I expected.  I also like how the hat she is wearing throughout moves from a high fashion piece to floppy reporter gear by the end.

Hooray for Netflix wonders.  Hooray for Rosalind Russell and her beautiful legs and sharp wit.  Hooray for stories about women who are really really good at what they do.

And hooray for the blessings of television when they come along,