Love and Television, aka First World Problems

 

Their haircuts are cooler but our TV is bigger.

My husband and I have been together for over 11 years. And except for one year back in 2001, when we thought we’d “experiment” with not having cable (a terrible, failed experiment, by the way), we have also been watching television together for 10 years. Generally, if a couple is compatible with each other — sharing similar views on politics, childrearing, home decor, and food — then their tastes in television will also be compatible. Let’s call this our “TV relationship.” Our TV relationship has remained healthy and thriving for the last decade since we share key viewing preferences: we will watch any HBO “original series” at least once and will likely keep watching it, even after we determine that it is awful (John from Cincinatti, I’m talking to you); we will watch every single season of Survivor, ratings be damned; we will watch any series featuring characters who regularly get shot, beheaded, scalped, or mauled (but not eaten); we will watch any MTV reality show that makes us feel better about who we are and the life decisions we have made (i.e., every MTV reality show); we will not watch any comedies containing laugh tracks (bye bye, Whitney). I should also point out that TV watching takes place during a specific time-frame in my house: a. after the children are asleep and b. when all other work has been completed. So we generally watch TV between 9 pm and 11 pm. Likewise, there is just one DVR in our house, so if TV is being watched in my house, my husband and I are probably watching it together.

You should have seen what he did to the other guy. No really, he SCALPED the other guy.

A few years ago, there was a definitive rift in our TV relationship, precipitated by the premiere of a new “cycle” (not season, Tyra doesn’t like seasons) of America’s Next Top Model. My husband and I love gamedocs (Survivor, Top Chef, So You Think You Can Dance), and this one delivered the works: competition, delusional bulimics, and most importantly, Tyra Banks. “Top Model comes on tonight!” I called from the den. These sort of TV-based announcements are like foreplay in my house. In fact, my husband and I send each other links to reviews/publicity about new TV shows in the same way that other couples might send each other sexually suggestive e-mails. The subject line is “Oh baby” but the e-mail itself reads “We should watch this, right?” But when I announced the new cycle of America’s Next Top Model, my husband was not very excited:

Him: I think I’m done.

Me: What do you mean?

Him: I think I’m done watching America’s Next Top Model.

Me: [incredulous] You mean you’re just … not going to watch it anymore?

Him: You can watch it without me.

So I did watch America’s Next Top Model without him. Alone. But it just wasn’t the same. Every time Tyra told some ingenue to “smile with your eyes” (later becoming the portmanteau, “smize”), there was no one on the couch next to me with whom I could commiserate over the stupidity of asking someone to smile with a part of the body that cannot smile. And every time a contestant explained “I’m not here to make friends!” there was  no one on the couch next to me with whom I could say “That’s the 10th time someone has said that this season!” I made it through that cycle of America’s Next Top Model, but it was to be my last. The show just wasn’t as much fun to watch without my husband around.

After that first blow to our TV relationship, it became easier for one of us to drop out of a show. When this happens, it is customary for desperate campaigning to ensue, with one partner attempting to convince the other that a terrible mistake has been made. The dropped show is the “BEST SHOW ON TV!” or the dropped show has finally “hit its stride!” “Don’t you want to come back and start watching it again?” For example, when I gave up on the 90210 reboot after just three episodes (I missed the original cast too much), my husband, an ardent fan of all teen melodrama, would make casual comments like “It’s a shame you stopped watching 90210 because this is the best season yet.” Or I’ll tell my husband, “There was a scene in Parenthood last week that was an exact replica of the conversation we’re having right now. Isn’t that funny?” And my husband, aware of what I’m doing, will reply, “Yeah, I’m not going to watch that show again.”

Deal breaker.

Of course there are certain shows that I watch, knowing full well  that my husband will never watch them with me (Project Runway) and there are shows my husband watches that he knows I will never ever watch with him (Walking Dead). There is no attempt to convince the other person of the merits of these programs. I will not watch a show containing zombies and my husband will not watch a show in which  people discuss asymmetrical hems and “taste levels.” These are “deal breakers.”

DEAL BREAKER.

Yes, differences in TV preferences are a part of any couple’s life. They cannot be avoided. But there are ways to keep your TV relationship as stable and functional as possible. This is important because, as the old saying goes, the family that gazes together, stay-zes together. To that end, here are some tips for promoting the longterm health of your TV relationship:

1. Don’t Box Him/Her Out

I enjoy HBO’s How to Make it in America. It’s not my favorite show, but I like it’s focus on fashion and hipsters, as well as it’s wicked awesome opening credit sequence, which is worthy of it’s own blog post. But my husband is lukewarm about the series; he only watches it because I do. Just after Season 2 premiered a few weeks ago my husband went out of town. 2 episodes of How to Make it in America sat on the DVR, beckoning, “Watch me, Amanda. Your husband doesn’t even like this show. He won’t care….” And so I did. The next week, I watched another episode without him, noticing that we had acquired 3 in our DVR queue (I hate an unwieldy DVR queue). When I encouraged my husband to catch up on the series, he was dismayed. “You’re boxing me out,” he whined. It was true. What motivation did he have for watching a series he only mildly liked on his own? Conclusion: if one partner is lukewarm on a series, make sure you watch it together. Otherwise, you will be watching it alone forever and always.

2. Give it a Chance

Blerg.

Sometimes when I get those not-sexy-unless-you-love-TV e-mails from my husband, in which he attempts to seduce me into watching a new series, I think “Ugh, this looks terrible.” I feel like the authority on these matters since it is I who has the PhD in visual media. What does the software programmer know? I’m the expert here! But there is something to be said for allowing your significant other to select some programming, even if you are sure that the show is going to be horrible. Case in point: my husband decided to put Whitney in our DVR queue (Whitney for crying out loud!!!). I was resistant, but ultimately agreed to watch the series premiere. The show was not nearly as awful as I thought it would be, but it had a laugh track, and that is a deal breaker. So even though I am no longer watching Whitney with my husband, I did try it. And that’s all you can expect in your TV relationship. Conclusion: take your partner’s preferences into account and give all new programs a chance.

3. Watch it Anyway

Foreplay.

Another key to harmony in your TV relationship is something you are probably already doing, and that is “compromise.” Longterm relationships are all about compromises. Especially when those relationships involve the watching of TV. Earlier in this post I mentioned that my husband and I always watch Survivor – in fact, my husband and I have watched every single season  of Survivor together, except for seasons 1 and 2 (which predate our moving into together in 2001). So in a way, Survivor is most representative of our TV relationship. But the thing is, I have lost some of my love for Survivor over the last few years. I still believe that it is the greatest game show of all time, but I started watching it at a time when reality TV was far more compelling than scripted television. But right now TV is just so good that I would prefer to spend the limited amount of time I have for TV viewing on something else. But I don’t.Why? Because Survivor is what my husband and I watch together. Some couples have a vacation spot or a restaurant or a song that symbolizes their relationship. My husband and I are united by Jeff Probst and “The tribe has spoken.” So I will continue to watch Survivor even though I’d rather be watching Parenthood, because only one of those shows includes my husband on the couch. And that makes TV viewing 65% more enjoyable (these are hard scientific numbers).

But now I’m curious about your own experiences with watching TV with your partner (current or former). For those of you in long term relationships, what hardships have you faced in your TV relationships? Are there shows your partner loves and that you despise? Do you have more than one DVR in your house?

I’m also curious about TV relationships between non-romantic couples. For instance, do you regularly watch TV with a roommate, sibling, or parent? If so, how do you keep that relationship stable?

Please share below…

Nucky Thompson: The Gangster who Won Me Over

When Boardwalk Empire premiered on September 1 of this year, I was unenthused with Terence Winter’s decision to cast Steve Buscemi in the role of the series’ central protagonist, Nucky Thompson. Traditionally the gangster hero is played by an actor (almost always male), who is formidable in stature (Vito Corleone), personality (Rico Bandello), or both (Tony Soprano). The gangster is the very definition of a “tough guy.” If he shoulder checks you on the street, you’re not going to demand an apology.   The gangster inspires fear, even when he’s a puny as Little Caesar‘s (1931, Mervyn Leroy) Rico Bandello.

By contrast, Buscemi is a character actor best known for playing weaselly, neurotic, or pathetic characters. In Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino) he objected to his assigned alias, Mr. Pink (“Why do I have to be Mr. Pink!”) and petulantly refused to tip his waitress, inspiring one of my favorite movie lines of all time:

Mr. Pink: [rubbing his thumb and index finger together] You know what this is? It’s the world’s smallest violin playing just for the waitresses.

In The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel and Ethan Cohen), he is Donny, one of  The Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) bowling buddies. While good-natured, Donny is incredibly annoying and is often told to “Shut the fuck up!” Buscemi has a face that almost demands that it be told to “Shut the fuck up!”

Even when animated, as he is in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001),  Buscemi plays Randall Boggs, a duplicitous chameleon who delights in his profession (the scaring of children), and is consumed with jealousy over the success of his rival, Sulley (John Goodman). As always, Buscemi’s character  fails to master his bigger, smarter, braver and, almost always, better looking, foes.

As a fan of  Buscemi’s work, this is how I like him. He is a “character actor,” after all. Character actors, by definition, are not the leading men. They are there to support, antagonize, or bewilder the leading men. Thus, I was surprised to hear that he was cast as the lead in a television series. A movie only demands that an actor be charismatic for 2 hours but a television series asks that actor to command the screen week after week. As I watched the opening credits of Boardwalk Empire, which, like The Sopranos, features its protagonist taking stock of his domain, I was doubtful:

Buscemi stands on the beach, looking like something out of a Magritte painting; he appears stylized and  inscrutable, devoid of the fire and passion I expect of my gangster heroes. “This is not going to work,” I sighed to myself.

After the first few episodes of the series, I believed that I was right. A gangster story is only as good as its hero, and Boardwalk Empire lacked one. Nucky seemed too calm, too polite, too contained, too un-Buscemi-like, to carry the series. In his seminal piece on the genre, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (1948), Robert Warshow argued that “[t]he gangster’s whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual.” Thus, Nucky’s seemingly reasonable demeanor stands in stark contrast to one of the gangster hero’s central qualities: his excessive nature. The gangster’s outsized desires and ambitions are what lead to both his success as well as his demise.

Nucky, by contrast, appears to be a conciliatory man. He gives money to anyone who asks for it, endures back talk from his ward/employee, Jimmy Darmody  (Michael Pitt), and wines and dines politicians whose piggish desires clearly disgust him. We don’t see Nucky lose his cool, punch a disrespectful underling, or accidentally kill anyone (as say, Tony Soprano might do). What kind of gangster hero is that?

But as I continued to watch the series I realized that Nucky was a  great gangster hero and that Buscemi was nailing the role. While other gangster heroes are defined by their unbridled passion, their inability to contain their desires and emotions (such as Tom Powers’ suicidal decision to avenger his best friend’s murder in Public Enemy), Nucky’s power lies in his ability to be in control at all times. And given Buscemi’s small, 5 foot, 9 inch frame, such control makes sense. A Tony Soprano can throw a punch when he likes, but a little man like Nucky would invariably fail as a physical aggressor. Instead, Nucky must rely on his intellect and reason in order to remain dominant.

This quality is best exemplified in the finale, when Jimmy, who has recently discovered the role Nucky played in the procurement and rape of his mother at age 13, confronts Nucky at a party. Jimmy is not just angry about the abuse his mother endured, he is also hurt to discover that Nucky took care of him out of an obligation to the Commodore (Dabney Coleman), rather than out of love. Jimmy always saw Nucky was a father figure but he now realizes that Nucky just viewed him as another item on his long to-do list. When Jimmy directly poses this question to Nucky, the aging gangster responds, “What difference does it make?” Nucky seems almost perplexed by Jimmy’s anger, as if the love between a father and a son is incomprehensible to him. And given Nucky’s abusive relationship with his own father, it probably is.

Just because Nucky appears controlled on the outside does not mean the man is not excessive. He is just adept at having others enact his excess for him. For example, when Nucky discovers that Margaret Schroeder’s (Kelly MacDonald) husband, Hans, has beaten her to the point that she has a miscarriage, he decides to have the man killed. But Nucky’s decision proves to be dangerous to his empire. It attracts the interest of Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), who is sure that the murder is somehow linked to Nucky. We only find out in the finale that Nucky’s decision to have Hans killed was based purely on emotion; his son died when he was just a few days old and therefore the death of any baby strikes a nerve. Even when telling this story to Margaret, Nucky’s emotions are barely visible, registered in the twitch of his lips or perhaps a moment when we can detect tears in his eyes. But only for a moment. Then he shakes it off and once again becomes “Nucky Thompson.” For this reason, one of my favorite moments of the season was when Nucky burned down his father’s home. It was so out of character for him, but also very revealing of the emotions he normally keeps buried.

Nucky must reign in his emotions and dispassionately govern those around him in order to maintain his power. The few moments when he does slip up and allow his emotions to take over, such as the murder of Hans,  are the cause of most of his problems. Indeed, his hasty to decision to fire his brother Eli (She Wigham) will likely prove to be his greatest mistake yet: the finale closes with Eli, Jimmy, and the Commodore conspiring to oust Nucky from his seat at the top of the Boardwalk Empire.

In this way, Nucky hearkens back to one of cinema’s most beloved gangster hero’s, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). Like Michael, Nucky uses reason to get ahead and both men know how to run a tight ship. Nucky  and Michael embody the mantra, first articulated by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) inScarface (1932, Howard Hawks) “Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it.” However, both characters inevitably alienate those who love them most because of their inability to emotionally connect. Terence Winter must be aware of these parallels because the season finale clearly references The Godfather‘s famous Baptism scene:

In the above scene from The Godfather, Michael and his family are attending the baptism of their infant son. As Michael’s son is washed clean of his sins, and Michael repeats the prayers, his henchmen kill off his rivals one by one, thus securing his place at the top. Similarly, in Boardwalk Empire, Nucky speaks at a voter rally in support of his hand-picked candidate for mayor of Atlantic City. As Nucky assures the crowd that a Republican administration will crack down on crime, specifically seeking out the individuals who murdered five bootleggers in the woods at the beginning of the season (the true culprits being Jimmy and Al Capone, of course), we see Nucky’s henchmen carrying out this “justice.” There is even a moment in which Jimmy slits the throat of Leo D’Allessio (Max Casella) as he sits complacently in a barber’s chair, a direct reference to Moe Green’s (Alex Rocco) execution as he received a massage.  If The Godfather‘s baptism scene was about the contrast between family and business, and how it is impossible to keep the two separate, Boardwalk Empire‘s homage is about the contrast between American politics and crime, and how it is impossible to keep the two separate. Applied specifically to Nucky Thompson, this scene is also about the contrast between reason and passion, brain and body, and how, soon enough, Nucky will not be able to keep them separated.

So while initially I felt that Steve Buscemi was wrong for the role of Nucky Thompson, and that Nucky Thompson was the wrong character to play the role of gangster hero, I am happy to say that Boardwalk Empire has changed my mind.  Buscemi, with his small, squirrelly body and his sad, trout face, was the perfect choice for a character who has spent a lifetime privileging his ambitions over his emotions.

So what do you (or did you)  think of Steve Buscemi in the role of Nucky Thompson? Do you find him, ummm, sexy? ‘Cause I certainly don’t. No, not me. Don’t find Buscemi sexy at all. Now look away, nothing to see here folks…

MAD MEN FINALE Recap

I was not able to watch the Mad Men finale on Sunday night because I was simply too tired to stay awake for it. The problem with writing a Mad Men finale recap late is that you might as well not write it at all. By now all of the die hard Mad Men fans have already gorged themselves on recaps and reviews of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” And after reading some particularly insightful pieces ( for example James Poniewozik’s review on Time.com), I wonder how much I have to add.

But the thing about Mad Men is that it almost begs you to write about it. So gorged or not my friends, I hope you have some room for dessert:

1. The Divorce

If any TV couple should get a divorce, it’s Don and Betty Draper. In addition to lying to his wife for the last ten years about his family, his past and his real name, Don has systemically cheated on his wife. “Cheat” doesn’t even really encompass Don’s behavior over the last 3 seasons — he has pursued extramarital affairs with a persistency and zeal unmatched by even Three’s Company‘s Larry Dallas.

larry

And while Betty’s transgressions were less severe, she did have sex with a stranger in a bar bathroom and nurtured an emotional relationship with Henry Francis (who I do not trust AT ALL). As Don chides, “All along you’ve been building a life raft.” Oh Betty.

Don and Betty should break up and yet, watching them go through the various motions of the TV couple divorce — meeting with a lawyer, having “the talk” with their children — I couldn’t help but feel very sad. Indeed, when Don crawled into bed with Sally, who slept in Grandpa Gene’s old pull out cot  to be closer to her exiled Daddy (even though, as she states, “Gene’s room is creepy”), I was overwhelmed with emotion. There was hardly room for the two of them in that creaky little bed, but in he crawled, still wearing his suit. Don’s children seem to be his only link to his emotions — to the real person (is he called “Dick Whitman”?) under the Don Draper veneer — and so I see this divorce primarily as Don’s loss, rather than Betty’s. Though my guess is that Season 4 will reveal the toll that divorce is taking on Betty.

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Don assures his children, "It'll just be temporary"

2.  Joan!

I love Joan. Who doesn’t love Joan? And the moment that Don, Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper and Lane Pryce began to plot how they might abscond from Sterling Cooper with their accounts and files in tact I turned to my husband and said “Joan! They’re going to get Joan!” And when Joan returned she was once again wearing her iconic pen around her neck — a symbol of her power and independence that had been absent from her ample bosom for most of the season. Welcome back pen and welcome back Joan!

Joan Holloway

Joan at full capacity

3. Peggy

I imagine that if you tried to hug Peggy Olsen she would be one of those people who stiffen and then pat you uncomfortably on the back. Peggy is not sentimental but, paradoxically, she is a successful copywriter because she understands sentiment all too well. Don even tells Peggy — in an attempt to woo her into joining his new firm — that she alone understands that “something terrible has happened” (which I took to mean “Peggy, you understand that people are fundamentally sad and you know how to exploit that sadness in order to sell them consumer goods”).

In this episode Peggy finally seemed to recognize her own worth as a copywriter and as an asset to Don. She initially tells Don to shove it when he tries to strong-arm her into leaving Sterling Cooper, making it clear that she is not like the other women in Don’s life. If he wants her, he’ll need to spill his guts. And when he shows up at her apartment, hat in hand, Peggy weeps. Sure, they were discussing work, but they were also discussing their complicated relationship. When Peggy asks Don if he will stop speaking to her if she refuses his offer, he counters, “No. I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.” “Damn that Don Draper’s smooth!” was my husband’s reply to this. But I think Don was being sincere. Peggy is more than just a great copywriter to Don — they are each other’s double and Don finally admits that out loud in this episode. I hope their relationship is explored more in Season 4.

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Peggy joins Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce

4. The Lighting

With its superb cast, nuanced writing and slow burn narratives, it is easy to overlook Mad Men‘s understated formal style. This season — and especially in this finale — I have been captivated by the show’s Rembrandt lighting. For example, after Roger and Don convince Pete Campbell to leave Sterling Cooper they head to a bar to commiserate and plot their next move. The set is soaked in shadows, with pockets of brightness here and there. This lighting style is reminiscent of The Sopranos, which also used chiaroscuro lighting to depict a homosocial milieu. In this mix of light and darkness men discuss the things that (they think) they need to keep from their women: their sexual dalliances, their (dirty) business, their feelings.

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Another great moment in Mad Men lighting

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An all male milieu in The Sopranos

This is also the lighting that is frequently used in the flashback sequences to Don’s childhood. In the finale Don’s father is killed in the darkness of the stables, with father and son alone in the shadows.

5. The Music

Many recaps have already compared this finale to a heist movie (also here and here), with Don, Roger and Bert assembling a team of the Sterling Cooper’s finest in order to steal the dying company’s riches. Roger was firing off zingers like George Clooney and everyone looked like they were having a grand old time. This mood was enhanced by the jaunty music used throughout the episode. Is it my imagination or does this series rarely employ non-diegetic music during an episode (saving it instead for the finale scene/closing credits)? I found myself really noticing the music during these scenes, as if the show was winking at us, letting us know that this heist storyline was all campy fun. This music noticably disappears in the scenes with Betty and in Don’s flashbacks to his childhood, which are highly tragic.

Overall I found the Season 3 finale to be immensely satisfying — the perfect cap to a wonderful, nuanced, slow burn (NOT SLOW!) season. I can’t to see what Season 4 holds in store…

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Until Season 4, Don Draper...

The Water Cooler

When Silvio (Steve Van Zandt) shot poor, weeping Adriana (Drea de Matteo) in the middle of the woods on The Sopranos it was a “water cooler” moment. When Paula Abdul complimented American Idol Season 7 contestant, Jason Castro, on his singing performance, saying it was better than his first performance that evening—even though at that point in the program all of the contestants had only performed once—it was a “water cooler” moment. And when Omar (Michael K. Williams) was shot by a small time hopper while buying a pack of Newports in the final season of The Wire, it was certainly a “water cooler” moment.

The problem for me is, I don’t have a water cooler. Well, let me rephrase that. The faculty lounge at East Carolina University, where I work, does indeed have a water cooler. And I do have conversations with people when I’m standing there, filling my environmentally conscious stainless steel water bottle. But we rarely discuss television or movies or media. We are usually talking about our classes or our students or about the latest round of frightening budget cuts. In my profession, where people are in their offices only a few days a week and only then, for a selected range of hours, it’s difficult to depend on the water cooler as a location for discussing last night’s episode of True Blood or the newest theatrical releases.

And that, my dear readers (are there any of you out there yet?), is where you come in. Sure, there are a lot of wonderful, thought-provoking, innovative media studies blogs out there (see my blogroll for proof). So why did I need to start one myself? Because I need a water cooler. I need a place to discuss those “oh my God!” moments, those “John Locke is in a wheelchair?” moments, those water cooler moments.

But this blog won’t just be about current television shows or movies that are playing at the multiplex. I will also revisit older shows and films of interest, and will take occasional forays into the world of tabloid media (my other passion). I may even talk about my teaching. Once and if things really get cooking, I hope to invite guest bloggers to offer their opinions.

My hope is that you can read this blog with your morning coffee. I hope that what I have to say will enhance your experience of what you’re watching now or encourage you to go out and see something new.

More than anything though, I hope to have a conservation with those of you out there who love watching movies and television, who aren’t ashamed of the deep emotional connection you feel when sitting in front of the screen. What made you laugh out loud? What broke your heart? Am I too emotionally invested in the well-being of Nicolette Grant (Chloë Sevigny)?

I want my water cooler. Can you make that happen for me?