Month: July 2010
Televising New Orleans in 2010…or Why Sonny isn’t Watching the REAL WORLD: NEW ORLEANS
I love the Real World. I’m not proud of this. I’ve tried to quit several times. I managed to stay away from the series in both 2001 (“Back to New York”) and 2002 (“Chicago”). But then in 2003 came the famed “Las Vegas” season, the season that gave us the gift of Trishelle, and I was hooked again. I also skipped the “D.C.” season (even though my husband still watched) and I was so proud of myself. But people, there is no support group for addiction to bad reality TV. There is no methodone for this heroin. So this season I find myself hooked yet again. To justify my addictions I did what I always do — I decided to write about it.
So check out my short piece on Antenna (a media and cultural studies blog operated and edited by graduate students and faculty in the Media and Cultural Studies area of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison). I’m writing about my experiences watching HBO’s Treme alongside MTV’s Real World: New Orleans and their very different depictions of the city of New Orleans.
Here’s the link. Give it a look and leave a comment!
The End of THE HILLS
If you read this blog, then you know that I am a little obsessed with The Hills. In particular I’ve always been fascinated with show’s peculiar brand of unreality. But when the sixth and final season of The Hills premiered on April 27, the show’s mode of address appeared to shift. While earlier seasons of the series existed at one move away from reality, with cast members clearly performing their roles and hitting their assigned marks, the season six premiere actually felt real.
For five seasons Adam DiVello successfully kept the world outside of The Hills separate from the world inside The Hills: Lauren Conrad never mentioned her clothing line while she cried over lattes with Lo at some trendy L.A. eatery and Heidi Montag, God love her, never mentioned her singing “career” on camera. But when Heidi’s massive breasts and chiseled jawbone appeared onscreen in the season six premiere, it must have been clear to DiVello that the bizarre, paparazzi-filled, fame-mongering lifestyles of his cast members could no longer be distinguished from their seemingly isolated,”normal,” onscreen personas. Heidi Montag and her grotesque plastic surgery broke down the wall between diegetic and extradiegetic and the result was some pretty fantastic television. At last The Hills was addressing its impact on its own cast. It was as if a reality show was not just admitting that the reality it captured was not real — it was admitting that the reality it captured was profoundly warped by the very fact that it was being captured.
I was awfully pleased with my conclusions about season six. I even wrote a piece about it for another media studies site:
“In its final season The Hills has morphed into a treatise on the “reality” of reality TV “stardom,” a reality crafted by the rewards and labors of a life of constant surveillance and confession. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that this season can also serve as an allegory of the current cultural moment—in which we are starting to take stock of the high costs of self-exposure.”
I thought that was a fairly tidy conclusion. But the problem was that I came to this conclusion after only two episodes of the new season had aired. Soon after that, Spencer and Heidi disappeared from the show. The moment these two cast members exited the show, the diegetic once again split from the extradiegetic. My thesis — that The Hills was becoming self-referential and even critical of the reality TV machine — was effectively disproven. Ooops, my bad.
Why was Speidi’s exit so momentous and so disappointing for a fan like me? Why did it destroy my thesis? Avid readers of tabloids knew that Spencer Pratt was kicked off the show for threatening one of the show’s producers and for his anger problems in general. Since Heidi’s biological functions are controlled by a small, external remote that Spencer carries at all times, she naturally had to leave the show as well.
It would have been fascinating if the real reason behind Spencer’s exit had been addressed within the show — that he was simply too dangerous to keep on the set. But DiVello was clearly not ready to relinquish that kind of control. He was forced to acknowledge his young casts’ extradiegetic lives but he was not going to acknowledge that The Hills was a show. Instead, the episode, “This is Goodbye,” featured lots of scenes in which people who have no interest in Spencer and Heidi, like Lo and Kristin, sat gravely with people who do have a lot invested in the couple, like Holly Montag and Stephanie Pratt. While Lo feigned interest and compassion (something Lo does exceptionally well), Holly and Stephanie cried rivers of black mascara over the televisual death of their siblings. Their conclusion? No more contact with Spencer and Heidi until they stop being crazy (good luck with that, ladies).
After this episode, Speidi disappeared from the world The Hills, effectively cleaving it back into two parts: the constructed world before the cameras and the real world outside of the cameras. Naturally, the cast members resumed their emotional detachment: Kristin pretended to pine after Brody Jenner (really? Brody Jenner?) and bland Audrina pursued and then ended a bland relationship with bland Ashlee Simpson Show alum, Ryan Cabrera (yes, the show always referred to him as “Ryan Cabrera.”) With the exit of Speidi — that Tasmanian devil of emotional instability — The Hills once again became boring and emotionally detached.
The emotional complexity first witnessed in the season premiere did not return until the penultimate episode, “Loves Me Not,” when Heidi’s mother, Darlene, flies to L.A. for a visit with her daughter, Holly. Darlene is anxious to see Heidi and Holly frets over her inability to locate her sister. It is clear that Holly not only misses her sister, but is also distraught over her mother’s pain and her own powerlessness in the situation. Over lunch Darlene admits that she hasn’t slept in months and has been force to take prescription sleeping pills because she is so distraught over her daughter’s absence. “I’ve been mourning the loss of a child,” she tells Holly. Both women cry. And yes, so did I. Because the whole Heidi story is truly sad. The pursuit of the spotlight has resulted in the loss of her fledging career, her good looks, and most tragically, her family.
It is difficult not to compare Darlene’s and Holly’s weeping in this scene with Kristin’s own “breakdown” at the end of the same episode, when Brody Jenner tells her that does not in fact love her. Maybe it’s because Kristin is not skilled at emoting (she’s no Lauren Conrad) or maybe it’s because I have the extradiegetic knowledge that she’s dating one of the show’s cameramen, but I could not buy into the “emotion” of this scene. I do not believe that Kristin “loves” Brody. Notice how I have to put quotation marks around everything?
Thus, despite the hyperreality of Speidi’s image, they were, nevertheless, the only element capable of bringing reality into The Hills. This became painfully clear during the series finale “All Good Things…” when The Hills girls (minus Heidi) sit down to assess their lives and their futures and let the platitudes fly. “I feel like I need to be alone for once,” Audrina sighs. “Yeah!” the girls reply. “I want little babies,” Lo squeals. “Awwww!!!” the girls cry on cue. The girls are striving for some kind of connection here, but nothing resonates. In fact, I could sum up the The Hills finale like this:
Kristin: Blah blah blah.
Lo: Totally! Blah blah blah.
Audrina: Like, for real. Blah blah blah.
Stephanie: I know, right? Blah blah blah.
Brody: Bro! Blah blah blah.
And then, there’s that final scene. As Kristin drives away from Brody and Brody stands there pretending to look forlorn (or constipated?), the camera cranes backwards and the sunny California backdrop turns out to be an actual backdrop that lifts up to reveal … wait for it, wait for it … CAMERAS! Do you mean to tell me that these people have been followed by cameras this ENTIRE time? That the The Hills is a TV SHOW?!? I thought Kristin, Lo, and Audrina were just really tiny people who crawled into the box in my livingroom every week!
This “shocking” ending was Adam DiVello’s attempt at self-referentiality, the self-referentiality this show has so desperately needed since about Season 3. But for me it’s a case of too little, too late. DiVello pulled back the curtain, but behind it was simply another curtain. A truly shocking ending would have been a roundtable featuring Speidi, Adam DiVello, and the rest of The Hills cast hashing out their conflicts. Man, that would have been great. But hey, it’s not too late, Adam DiVello. Why not give Speidi a call? Something tells me their schedules are open…
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.
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!
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?
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
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.
4. Children who Don’t Resemble their Parents
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
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
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.