My TV Pet Peeves

I can’t believe it’s been a month since my last post. Please forgive me, readers, and blame my pet humans instead. Both of these humans will be in some form of regular day care starting in August and yes, the thought of  putting #2 in daycare does give me the weepies and intermittent panic attacks. However, daycare  means that I will be able to return to blogging with some regularity. “Phew!” you must all be thinking, “Thank God she’s coming back!” Well, you’re welcome.

Now on to my post, before #2 wakes up. He has a sixth sense about my productivity. That is, he frowns upon it and likes to disrupt it with all the tricks of his trade:  too-short naps, poop bombs, and my personal favorite, big, gummy smiles.

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There are several blog-worthy shows currently on the air – True Blood, Top Chef, and soon, July-25th-soon, Mad Men! But I wanted to use this post to write about something that has been percolating in my brain for a few months now: my television pet peeves. As an avid TV watcher, I am pretty adept at suspending my disbelief. I accept that vampires, werewolves, and demons exist when watching shows like True Blood and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I accept that there is a magic island filled with polar bears and electromagnetic energy when I watch Lost. I even accept that the idea that the teenagers in shows like Gossip Girl drink martinis at hotel bars without getting carded. And I always accept most of those overused TV tropes documented at the great site TV Tropes. But there are a few tropes that I cannot stomach and which force me to yell at the television set every time they occur (which is a lot). I don’t have a good explanation for why these particular violations drive me up the wall, but here they are in no particular order:

1. My Water Just Broke!

"My water just broke!"

Despite the fact that approximately 490,000 babies are born every day, television shows rarely get the details of childbirth right. Most labor scenes begin with a character saying — usually at some inopportune time, like in the middle of a kidnapping (Desperate Housewives), in a stalled elevator (Saved by the Bell) or, in a car during a traffic jam (Blossom) — “My water just broke!” Despite its prevalence on television, most women  will go into labor long before their water breaks. This trope sticks in my craw because I believe it does a real disservice to first-time parents, who, despite reading all the books, still don’t recognize that labor has started without the iconic (but relatively rare) rupturing of the membranes. Case in point: when I went into labor with my first child, it took me several hours to convince my husband that I was truly in labor. I kept telling him, rather undramatically, “I think I’m in labor.” And he kept saying things like “Did your water break?” and  “The doctor said you wouldn’t have the baby until next week.” and “Let’s watch the end of  So You Think You Can Dance.” I did watch So You Think You Can Dance, but I was totally in labor. Had we been trapped in an elevator and had I yelled “My water just broke!” I’ll bet my husband would have believed me. Stupid TV.

2. Where’s the Umbilical Cord?

Don't worry, I'm a doctor. And a monster.

Giving birth to a baby is an exciting plot event and therefore TV scribes like to stage childbirth in all sorts of wacky places: see # 1. The  brave laboring woman will often yell to a scared bystander “Whether you like it or not, this baby is coming NOW!” Or conversely, a brave bystander will yell at the scared laboring woman, “Whether you like it or not, this baby is coming NOW!” Much chaos and sweating and fetching of hot water will then ensue, followed by the birth of the baby, who is  immediately placed in her quivering mother’s arms. It is at this point that I yell at the TV “Where’s the umbilical cord? You people need to cut the umbilical cord! That baby’s still attached to the placenta!” I get so agitated by this omission that I can’t fully enjoy the melodrama of the moment. Please writers, next time have someone cut the umbilical cord. That’s all I’m asking.

3. Going to Bed/Waking Up with Lipstick On

That's a lot of bronzer, lady

On the Glee episode “Home” (2010), April Rhodes (Kristin Chenoweth) must spend the night at Will Schuester’s (Matthew Morrison) apartment. As she slips into bed, singing some song I can’t remember, all I can focus on is her lips. Her shiny, lipsticked lips. I keep thinking about how, the moment she rolls over in bed, that nice white pillow case will be covered in sticky lipstick. Then she’ll roll back and get sticky lipstick in her pretty blonde hair. Gross. No woman goes to bed with lipstick on unless she’s drunk and passes out before getting the opportunity to wipe it off. I hate this TV trope. It drives me up the wall. “Take off your lipstick!” I scream as characters slip beneath their crisp, clean sheets. I understand that TV shows like Glee, Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl (all prime offenders in this regard) do not aim for realism. But it is possible to make a character look like she isn’t wearing make up and still make her look pretty good. At least take off the shiny lipstick, people. No one goes to bed wearing shiny lipstick. No one.

Even perpetually poised Betty Draper appears make up free when going to bed

4. Children who Don’t Resemble their Parents

Darby and Damon with their mother Jessica, on HUNG

When two very good-looking humans have sex with each other and make a baby, that baby usually ends up good-looking too (see Shiloh Jolie-Pitt). When a very good-looking human makes a baby with a funny-looking human, the results are less predictable (see Alexa Joel). Thomas Jane and Anne Heche are both very good-looking humans so it stands to reason that their offspring would be hot, or at least, not too shabby. But on the HBO show Hung, the offspring of Ray (Thomas Jane) and Jessica  (Anne Heche), played by Sianoa Smit-McPhee and Charlie Saxton, are pretty darn unattractive (sorry, I’m not trying to be bitchy here). My guess is that this is the point of this miscasting — to be funny. Ray lives in a dying city, has a job at a underfunded school, a catty ex-wife, and two sullen Goth teens who failed to inherit his dashing good looks. Hilarious! But I find this visual joke distracting since these children look NOTHING like their parents. It’s just too hard to accept that they’re related. I was also frustrated by the casting on a much better show, Six Feet Under. I love Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, and Lauren Ambrose, and I can’t imagine any other actors in their roles, but those three look nothing like each other.

5. Teenagers with Too Much Power

Brandon Walsh, big man on campus

This pet peeve dates back to my 90210 days (the original, not the reboot). I was always amazed that Brandon Walsh (Jason Preistly), the student body president of fictional California University, was so important to the university’s daily workings. He was always meeting with the Dean and being asked to join task forces and to advise big university muckety-mucks on major decisions. In the Season 5 episode  “Homecoming” (1994), Brandon is pressed to challenge the presence of a visiting dignitary, Quintero, who has been accused of torture. Brandon launches his own investigation into the accusations (conveniently meeting a gardener who was a victim of Quintero’s regime), and serves Quintero a subpoena. Because administering international justice is the responsibility of the student body president. On a related note, I also hate it when teenagers achieve things that it takes adults years of hard work and dilligence to achieve. For example, I scoff everytime a character on Gossip Girl mentions that Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) was published in The New Yorker. The odds of getting a story published in The New Yorker is so slim, and yet broody old Dan Humphrey gets his banal work published there.

6. Newborn Babies Who Are Actually 6 Month Olds

One of the few believable newborns on TV

I understand why a television show cannot use a newborn baby when portraying the birth of a newborn baby. First, newborns are ugly. They are wrinkly, swollen, and many of them have coneheads (due to being pushed through the birth canal). Newborns are also highly susceptible to colds and infections and so it’s not a great idea to have them on a crowded television set. I get it. Nevertheless, it drives me bonkers when we are shown a fresh-from-the-womb baby and he is fat and bright-eyed and not at all smushy-faced. Once again, this trope does a disservice to novice parents, who, when handed their fresh-from-the-womb baby, are probably wondering “Why is my kid so ugly?” Friday Night Lights is one of the few TV shows that used a baby resembling a newborn. Gracie Bell Taylor, when she first appeared on screen, was bug-eyed, scrawny, and splotchy. Of course, as she got older, Gracie Bell continued to be bug-eyed, scrawny, and splotchy, so um, at least that kid’s getting some sweet royalty checks!

These were all of the pet peeves I could come up with before # 2 decided to take his signature too-short nap. He is currently offering me big gummy smiles and attempting to poke a slobbery finger in my laptop’s USB port. He is a productivity-disrupting super genius. But, I’d like to know what TV pet peeves you have — particularly the ones that don’t seem to bother anyone but you.

BIG LOVE Season 4 Premiere: I Want my Beach Boys!

I had big plans to dissect the Big Love season 4 premiere but instead I find myself completely distracted by the fact that, after 3 seasons, the show’s creators decided to change the opening credit sequence. As I sat on the couch, waiting to hear the plaintive strains of French horn and harpsichord that open the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” I was instead assaulted by “Home,”a song by some group called the Engineers.

This should not be that big of a deal, but you see, I’m a big fan of opening credit sequences. Credit sequences are arguably one of the most important segments of the text, both in film and television, because they are the first images the viewer encounters. Traditionally, television credit sequences have served a simple function, namely introducing the show’s cast, creators and guest stars, usually against the backdrop of a few images representative of the series.

The Cosby Show‘s opening credits:

Friends’ opening credits:

This trend has changed somewhat in recent years. Programs like Deadwood (2004-2006), Desperate Housewives (2004-), Six Feet Under (2001-2005), Dexter (2006- ), True Blood (2008- ), and others have replaced this traditional format with a sequence of disconnected, “dreamlike” images that are more “generic,” than specific, more connotative than denotative. These credit sequences clearly borrow their stylistic cues from music videos, which employ chains of disparate images that stress discontinuities in time and space to evoke abstract concepts.

Deadwood‘s opening credits:

Desperate Housewives‘ opening credits:

Of course, in this day of DVRs and TV on DVD, many people fast forward right past the opening credits. But the above sequences serve more than a utilitarian purpose — their imagery begs to be watched over and over. They beg for analysis. And I’m pleased to see that many TV scholars have recently turned their attentions to analyzing opening credits: Angelina Kaprovich on Dexter’s opening credits, Lisa Nakamura on True Blood‘s opening credits, Myles McNutt on Nurse Jackie‘s opening credits, etc.

Big Love‘s original credit sequence:

Although I always watch Big Love via my DVR, I almost always watch the opening credits all the way through. Why? First, there’s the music. I’m not a big Beach Boys fan but “God Only Knows” gets me every time I hear it. As so many music critics have mentioned, it is highly unusual for a love song to begin with the line “I may not always love you…” What I love about the song is precisely this honesty. When Carl Wilson sings, “If you should ever leave me, life would still go on, believe me,” he isn’t making any grand claims — he knows that the world does not begin and end with his beloved. But he still recognizes the beloved’s significance, as well as his own insignificance: “God only knows what I’d be without you.”

This mixture of idealism and realism, devotion and resignation,  fits well with the imagery in Big Love‘s original credit sequence. When the sequence opens we see Bill (Bill Paxton), bathed in heavenly light, reach out with confidence to his first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn). They ice skate in a circle. When there is a cut to a medium close up of Bill we expect to see Barb again, but instead he is embracing second wife, Nikki (Chloe Sevigny), who studies his face in total absorption. Her gaze is different from Barb’s — less confident, more awestruck. Yet another cut reveals Bill’s third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin). This may be favorite moment of the sequence — Margene, the youngest and newest bride, seems the most unsteady on her feet. And she embraces Bill like a ballast in a storm.

We then see Bill and the three women form a circle, each hand clasp shot in a close up:

And then in a series of shot/reverse shot sequences Bill lovingly acknowledges each of his wives. They all seem perfectly calm, perfectly content:

The bright blue sky, lush greens and soft lighting reflect the idealism of this arrangement, the “Principle” by which these four adults have chosen to live their lives. But in the midst of their bliss, we see a crack forming in the ice, which splits the four adults apart. This split could signify the various struggles the quartet faces over the course of each season. It could also represent the inevitable separation/destruction that will come with death:

Bill, Barb, Nikki and Margene now find themselves lost, searching for each other amidst a series of white veils:

Until they all finally reconnect…at a dinner party in space?:

This final image could be a rendering of the Henricksons’ existence in the afterlife — the family’s reward for faithfully adhering to the Principle. Or, more simply, this image could represent how the Henricksons are continually able to reconnect after each crisis. By opening each episode in this way the viewer is reminded of the characters’ own “big love.” No, I don’t support polygamy, but I find Big Love compelling because the show makes it easy for me to believe that these four people truly love each other and truly believe in the lifestyle they’ve chosen. They believe the sacrifices of polygamy are worth it — not because Bill is power hungry or his wives are brainwashed — but because they really do believe. A show about the devious Alby (Matt Ross) and his drone-like wives would not be nearly as interesting or poignant.

The new opening credits:

So, I suppose you could argue then that this change in the opening credits signals a profound change in the show’s characters and their relationships with one another. Los Angeles Times critic Allyssa Lee writes “…there’s no togetherness in this one. They’re all pretty much alone in their frames, except for the last one, where Bill and someone else are just reaching — only, they never connect. It’s all so … so distant. And so lonely,” while The Wall Street Journal‘s Dawn Fallik opens her recap with “We’re back in Utah and no longer skating on thin ice in ‘Big Love.’ Instead, the new intro has us falling, falling, falling through the air, as the four members of the Henrickson clan try to build a church, open a casino and bury past problems. We’re no longer in Beach Boy territory, folks.”

Sure sure, I get it. But I feel like this new sequence fails to establish what is so important about Big Love — why viewers keep tuning in week after week — the connections between the Henricksons. In this sequence Bill, Barb, Nikki and Margene are unable to touch each other. I think this is the wrong tone to set for this show week after week. And frankly, the final image’s nod to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, is pretty ludicrous.

Finally, so it doesn’t seem as if I stopped watching the Big Love premiere after the credits, here are a few things I loved about last night’s episode:

Alby, dressed in possibly the dorkiest outfit ever, picks up a fine hunk of man (Ben Koldyke) at the park. Must have been those pasty white legs.

They served ice cream sundaes at the opening of the Blackfoot Magic Casino. Mormons are so naughty.

When Lura (Anne Dudek) hears that Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) is dead, she immediately goes to the safe to break out…a can of Coors light! So that’s the drink teetotalers choose when they really want to celebrate?

Lois (Grace Zabriskie) always finds a way to make to money (latest venture: smuggling exotic birds), leading me to wonder what kind of life she might have led had she not gotten mixed up with Juniper Creek. CEO of a Fortune 500 company perhaps?

Also, I don’t care what the critics say, I will never tire of Lois’ and Frank’s (Bruce Dern) attempts to kill each other in new and inventive ways. I love how Frank picked up Lois, outfitted in a girlish dress and head scarf, as if they were two kids on their way to the malt shop, a goofy moment made even more ridiculous by the two goons in the pick up truck who were planning to…tie Lois up in public?

Bill, who possibly had the most reason to hate Roman, is the only person who has the decency to close the dead man’s eyes.

So what did you think of the premiere? And are you happy with the new opening credits? Please share your thoughts below.

Evan Rachel Wood Ain’t MY Vampire Queen

Like many True Blood fans I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood), vampire queen of Louisiana, whose existence had been leaked through various entertainment news sources weeks ago. Last week I was tantalized by the sight of her lavish home and the image of a pale female foot, bathed in a stream of blood. And as a fan of Wood, whose portrayal of a teenage terror in Thirteen (2003, Catherine Hardwicke) blew me away, I was sure that the young actress was well-equipped to handle the role of an 1100-year-old vampire queen.

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But last night I found myself underwhelmed. I don’t blame Queen Sophie-Anne’s failure on the writers–who gave her choice lines like “I haven’t been interested in men since Eisenhower was President”–or the costume designers–who gave her beautiful white gowns and bathing suits to luxuriate in (plus a vintage copy of Vogue to read!). No, this character fell flat due to Wood’s lackluster performance (though EW’s Ken Tucker disagrees with me).

Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be more than 1,000 years old, but Wood plays her like a precocious child playing dress up. Such a role is certainly challenging–Wood needs to convey the sense that she is an old soul even as she lives in a teenager’s body, a state of endless arrested development. But it has been done before and done well. Here I can’t help but think of Kirsten Dunst’s turn as Claudia, a mature, blood-thristy vampire trapped in the body of a sweet, prepubescent girl for all of eternity, in Interview with a Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan).

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I believed Dunst’s performance–indeed, I found it to be highly disturbing. Dunst expressed her frustration with her small, child’s body and its incompatibility with her adult hungers. You could see her age in her eyes and in the way she carried her body. Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be elegant, regal and a commanding presence (she is the QUEEN after all) but as Wood plays her she is more like an annoying celebutante in the vein of a Paris Hilton or a Lydia Hearst. Blech.

paris_hilton

I am not giving up on Evan Rachel Wood (girlfriend did look hot), but for now I remain unimpressed.

P.S. Not enough Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) in last night’s episode. Just sayin’.

I’m Thinking More MEAT!: Some Thoughts on True Blood, Episode 10

True Blood seems to get better with every episode that airs. When it premiered last fall I was unimpressed and was close to giving it up. My new Southern friends here in North Carolina assured me that Sookie Stackhouse’s (Anna Paquin) accent was laughable (what did I know?) and the series’ vampire plot seemed like Buffy-lite. But slowly the show found its footing. And now I’m obsessed.

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I attribute much of the show’s allure to its mastery of the slow burn. What I mean is this: while many programs with rich, soapy plots (The O.C., Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girl)) rush through their storylines, anxious to bring them to a climax before audience interest wanes, True Blood is a true tease. Mysteries remain mysterious and flirtations go on and on and on (I am particulary taken by the brewing attraction between Sookie and Eric [Alexander Skarsgard]). Furthermore, we are always finding out something new about the show’s characters–they evolve and become more complex with each episode.

Maryann Forrester’s (Michelle Forbes) story arc is another great example of True Blood‘s deft storytelling technique and character development. Maryann first appeared at the scene of Tara’s car accident at the end of Season 1, cradling a pig and looking devious. The writers made us suspicious of her character then, but buried her secrets behind Maryann’s sweet, disarming demeanor. In this way we were much like Tara (Rutina Wesley); we know something isn’t right about Maryann, but what is it? That she smokes too much weed, buys too much delicious fruit, and parties too hard for a woman in her 40s?

trueblood-maryann01

It is not until almost halfway through Season 2 that we find out that Maryann is an immortal supernatural being and somehow tied to the god, Bacchus. She thrives on unfettered human drives like hunger, lust and violence. The scene in last night’s episode (“New World in My View”), where Maryann crafts a pyre of meat and flowers while the sounds of buzzing flies fill the air was the apotheosis of the excess she had been slowly and cannily directing all season long. It was a satisfying moment.

The best scene of the evening, however, had to be when Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) (who really deserves an Emmy for his work this season) and Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) (who will always be Frank Sobotka to me) outwit Maryann’s angry mob by outfitting Jason as the “God who comes.” These two characters are consistently portrayed as the biggest morons in the town of Bon Temps, but they are able to (momentarily) save Sam Merlotte’s (Sam Trammell) life by using their wits. So there’s something else rattling around in Jason’s brain besides the drive to drink beer, screw and kick ass? Good to know.

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An honorable mention goes to Lafayette Reynolds (Nelson Ellis) (any scene with Lafayette is a great scene as far as I’m concerned), who banded together with his estranged aunt (Adina Porter) to yank Tara free from Maryann’s spell. At one point Lettie Mae prays for her daughter’s salvation but trails off in despair and, without missing a beat, Lafayette finishes her prayer. Lettie Mae turns, looking surprised. “Jesus and I agree to see other people. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk from time to time” he responds in his usual deadpan manner. So Lafayette has religion? Yet another nuance we can add to his already rich character.

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And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “the Queen” (Evan Rachel Wood), who Bill (Stephen Moyer) visits just before the episode ends. We see only her white leg, covered in a stream of blood, before the screen fades to black. As always, True Blood, like any good tease, leaves me wanting more.

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?