January 28, 2011

With Snooki headed to the Triad this weekend, including a stop at Wake Forest University, it seems like a good time to reflect further on The Jersey Shore and, by extension, other reality shows that attract viewers with outrageous characters and bizarre situations.

Obviously, MTV is targeting a young audience with reality series like The Jersey Shore (not to mention with dramas like Skins), so I decided to ask some of my Wake Forest undergraduate and graduate students whether or not they watch and why.

The series is clearly polarizing.  (You know from my previous post how I feel about it!)  There are a number of students who dismiss the series out of hand, and one told me that not only does she not watch it, she no longer admits to being from New Jersey.

For others, it is entertaining precisely because of the colorful characters and the situations explored in each episode.  There seem to be three categories of viewers.  The first group cites the entertainment value of programming that is so outrageous that “you just can’t make this stuff up.”

As one student put it, the show offers a catharsis by allowing “people to poke fun at or learn from types of people who they would otherwise probably have no interaction with.”

The second group is related but more restrained in its approval and appreciation for the show.  These students watch because they cannot seem to turn away even if they are ambivalent about The Jersey Shore.

Their response seems a lot like morbid curiosity.  Most of us have experienced this – you are driving by a car accident and don’t want to look, feel badly about looking, but can’t help but look.

Rubbernecking from across the room while multitasking may be the preferred way to encounter Snooki, The Situation, their pals, and their frenemies.  There is a social aspect to the series for some viewers.

Finally, a third group of viewers emerges. The final group is the one I speculated about in my first post on this show.

Some students report that they do appreciate the public indignity of the characters on the show because their lack of self-awareness (this is a kind way of referring to what’s going on with The Jersey Shore regulars) and bad behavior makes viewers feel better about themselves in comparison.  One should hope…

Because my observations and conversations about viewers of The Jersey Shore are anecdotal, I can’t speak to the proportions of viewers who fall into these categories, just that there are distinct viewing patterns among my students.

At least hearing from students themselves sheds some light on the question many parents, faculty, and Wake Forest staff are asking:  Why Snooki?






January 27, 2011

I can’t decide how I feel about the MTV show Skins (Mondays 10 p.m.).  The show is frank in its depiction of teenage angst (much of it focused on sexuality), but I don’t have a problem with that aspect of the series even though I understand why some of the pervasive and destructive behaviors presented, such as excessive and illicit drug use, make people (especially parents) uncomfortable.

From what I’ve seen in the first two episodes, however, the claims by some groups that Skins is exploitative and crosses into the area of child pornography (because teenage actors are scantily clad and simulating sex acts) seem overstated.

On the other hand, I’m not a cheerleader for Skins because for every scene that seems authentic and revelatory in some way, there is another that is sloppily produced or silly.  For now, I’ll continue to watch and see how the series develops.

But, I can’t help but compare it to Shameless, the new Showtime series I’ve written about before and continue to enjoy more and more as it progresses.

Shameless deals with some of the same issues confronting teens in Skins and does so in a similarly straightforward way but with a great deal more emotional depth in the characterizations and with better storytelling and production values.  I’m excited to see each new episode and hope the series continues to entertain at a consistently high level (Showtime, Sundays 10 p.m.).


James Franco

January 26, 2011

Did you see James Franco on The Daily Show last night?  Is there anything that guy can’t do…and do well?  If there is, I haven’t seen it yet.  Guess we’ll find out more on Oscar night.


January 23, 2011

I watched the pilot of David E. Kelley’s new legal series Harry’s Law last week (Mondays, 10 p.m. on NBC).  Kathy Bates plays Harriet Korn, a burned out patent attorney who is fired from her firm because she has lost interest in her job to the point of giving up any pretense of engagement.

Almost immediately, she ends up in the hospital emergency room twice – once when a jumper hits her on his way down and foils his suicide attempt without seriously injuring her and again when a car driven by a bold, young attorney hits her.    She takes the first on as a client and the second on as an associate and opens a law office in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Cincinnati.

How is it?  Too soon to tell, but I love Kathy Bates, so I guess I’ll give it a try.  Really, though, the series premiere has me thinking about an earlier series created by Kelley.  Here’s a reprise of a commentary I wrote about Ally McBeal at the end of its television run.  I find that I still feel pretty much the same about the show.  Despite its quirkiness and polish, the series troubled me routinely.

WFDD Commentary From 2002

The final episode of Ally McBeal aired on Fox Monday night…and the show went off the air pretty much as it arrived with Ally not sure where she’s going or where she’s been but consistently self-absorbed and teary-eyed because she doesn’t have the right boyfriend.  I have a problem with this, and that’s because Ally McBeal—like all forms of public discourse—is more than “just” a TV show.

Do you remember that bold TIME magazine cover with a row of floating headshots of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem in black and white against a black background and Ally McBeal, the only fictive character of the group, in color hovering over the caption “Is Feminism Dead?”  It is the suggestion of the magazine cover that yes, we have entered a postfeminist age where substantive issues like…say…social justice have been replaced by endless public preoccupation with the private, and more often than not, the superficial.

I’m certainly not one to discount the importance of our interior lives and personal relationships, but shows like Ally McBeal and Sex in the City seem to me part of a larger trend toward declaring the women’s movement passé, nevermind that pay equity, universal health coverage, affordable and available child and elder care, and the right to self-determination—all foundational pieces feminists have worked to establish—are as relevant and unresolved today as ever before.  On TV, however, these waiflike characters teetering on stiletto heels and topped by meticulously tousled hairstyles seem to get indignant over little else but the right to wear a micro-mini skirt and skimpy top to work without losing the respect of their colleagues.

What makes me indignant is that this passes for mere entertainment.  After the TIME cover created a hoopla, the creator of Ally McBeal, David Kelley, and the actor who played Ally, Callista Flockhart, appeared widely in the media talking about how the show was not making a political statement—it was just a TV show.  I find that folks in the entertainment industry frequently resort to this appeal when they don’t want to acknowledge the implications of their work amid public questioning.

I wait impatiently for the day…and will undoubtedly be waiting for a long time… when a significant number of writers and directors and producers recognize that all stories convey sets of values.  I’m talking about motion pictures, television shows, and even commercials.  They’re all value-laden, not only in terms of what’s included in the text, but what’s omitted from it, and from the larger social context.  Sometimes the values are consistent and explicit, more often they are implicit and even conflicting.  But always they are political.

Why do I care about Ally McBeal?  Because the public narratives we encounter overlap with the personal narratives we construct in our daily lives—in other words, stories we hear over and over again shape the way we perceive the possibilities and limitations we set for our own lives.  Besides, I happen to believe that social justice is more important in the scheme of things than being able to wear a tank top to the office.




January 19, 2011

Why, why, why?  Why did Michel Gondry make The Green Hornet (aside from the green answer)?  Why wasn’t his comic book film quirkier?  That’s what I would expect from the director of films like The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

But, no, there is no “more” here.  Just another Seth Rogen show with juvenile humor plus a lot of cars crashing and rolling.  Yawn.  Don’t get me wrong, Rogen is likeable enough, but there’s nothing new here from him, from Gondry, from the genre.

I am also peeved that the film isn’t showing flat (anywhere that I noticed) in Greensboro.  I really didn’t want to pay the extra fee for 3-D for this movie.  My advice:  skip it.



January 19, 2011

Most of the time I like (but don’t love) Ron Howard’s movies.  They tend to seem a lot like the man comes across in interviews – competent, decent, and optimistic.  For me, Cinderella Man and Apollo 13 tend to rise above the others.

Just like Spielberg films, though, I tend to find Howard’s work a little too “Hollywood” and manipulative on a fundamental level.  I’m not against a happy resolution, but it’s the whitewashing effect that bugs me, a sense that circumstances and character arcs are a little too good to be true, too contrived.  I crave authenticity.  Even the magical can be made to feel authentic.

Funny, the biggest complaint I have about Howard’s new, often somber, film is it’s utter lack of authenticity.  I didn’t believe one single moment of this film, which kept me from engaging with it.


January 11, 2011

Showtime has two new Sunday night shows – one with a British influence that makes fun of American television and another that is a remake of a British series.  Episodes airs at 9:30 p.m. and Shameless follows at 10:00.

At first I thought Episodes, which brings a successful husband-and-wife writing team from England to LA to remake their hit series, was a bit dull, unbelievable, and predictable.  After all, do married people really paw one another that much?  Is this a comedy or a fantasy? And, how many cable shows of this mien do viewers really need?  The end of the pilot picked up a bit for me, even though I fear the LA jokes will wear increasingly thin. Still, I’ll give it another look.

Shameless has more punch and promise.  William H. Macy deftly handles difficult roles, and here he plays the unlikeable, alcoholic patriarch of the Gallagher family.  I’m not even sure how many children there are in this supremely dysfunctional household, but eldest daughter Fiona, played by Emmy Rossum, is the one who keeps everything together and serves as the emotional anchor of the family in the pilot.

I’m also intrigued by a storyline involving teenage brother Ian (Cameron Monaghan), whose slightly older brother Lip (Jeremy Allen White) finds gay porn in their shared room and quickly figures out who put it there.  There is ultimately an understanding struck here that demonstrates the skill of the creative team behind the series while showing the audience how this family survives despite the obstacles it faces, at least some of which are self-imposed.

The outlaw ways of this clan are not for the faint-hearted.  Some family dramas are best played out on TV instead of in the actual living room.  Still, I’ve set my DVR to record the series.  If subsequent episodes live up to the promise of the pilot, I don’t want to miss anything.