A few months ago I was having a conversation with my brother and made a reference to Survivor, one of the first television programs to merge the conventions of reality television with those of the games how. “You’re STILL watching Survivor?” he asked, clearly incredulous. Though most of my other reality TV affairs have come and gone (America’s Next Top Model, Hell’s Kitchen, The Bachelor), I still find myself tuning into Survivor each season.
The success of so many reality shows today are fueled by our enjoyment of the schadenfreude that comes from knowing that we would most certainly never defecate on the floor in front of a group of people while wearing a formal gown (no matter how badly we had to go) or puke into our hands at the dinner table, the way contestants on the dating shows Flavor of Love and Rock of Love , respectively, have done. That’s because in these and in other shows (Nanny 911, The Real World, Bad Girls Club, to name just a few) the viewer is positioned above the cast member. Producers are banking on our elitism and disdain.
Likewise, shows such as So You Think You Can Dance , Project Runway and Top Chef, position the viewers below the cast members. With these shows we lift our eyes to marvel and envy the innate and cultivated talents of the contestants, knowing that we could never achieve that same level of skill. As one Top Chef contestant, Dale, put it a few seasons ago, “You sit on the couch watching the show and be like [sic] ‘Oh I could do that shit.’ Um, well you know what? Most of you? You can’t. ‘Cause it’s really fucking hard.” Dale may not win a spot on the newest season of America’s Next Top Grammarian but he does make a good point. The average viewer cannot whip up an artful amuse bouche in 5 minutes using only items pillaged from a convenience store. But the great thing about Survivor is that it showcases ordinary people — people just like you and me — pushing themselves to do extraordinary things.
Here are a few other reasons why I tune in season after season:
1. The Man
Jeff Probst is, in my opinion, the best game show host of all time. His detailed play by play commentaries during reward and immunity challenges are always informative and often funny. And during tribal council he has the uncanny ability to ask exactly the questions we were hoping he’d ask. He can put contestants on the spot — by challenging their circuitous logic or by bringing up an issue he knows they do not want to address — and somehow not come off as exploitative or mean-spirited. Probst IS Survivor.
2. The Premise
After 19 seasons, Survivor is still great because it is built on a brilliant premise: take a group of average Americans (with the occasional super-athlete or former member of the military occasionally tossed in) and put them on a desert island for 39 days. Require these people, many of whom have never even been camping, to build their own shelter and forage for their own food (sometimes the show’s producers give them rice and beans to start the game and sometimes they don’t even give them flint to make fire). When the contestants weak from hunger, thirst and lack of sleep, force them to compete in grueling physical challenges. And the amazing thing? Even with all of this to worry about, when their legs are covered in rashes and spider bites and their clothes are brown and brittle, these people still find ways to strategize, strategize, strategize.
3. The Hunger
Watching a video of a malnourished family compete for their dinner would be horrifying and even sickening. But watching people who have chosen to place themselves in extreme living conditions compete for their dinner is completely engrossing. I love watching a prim Southern belle eat grubs from under a rock for “protein” or a large, muscled man make do with a few bites of rice. Nothing will match the joy I felt back in season two when Elisabeth Hasselbeck (then known as Elizabeth Filarski) pulled out a clump of her own hair, a side effect of malnutrition. “She really is starving!” I said to myself with glee. This is sick, I know.
4. The Challenges
The reward and immunity challenges alternate between physical and mental competitions, but they are always difficult and intricate. Contestants have to dig holes and shimmy through them, dive under water to unlock treasure chests, assemble puzzle pieces to build ladders. Even the simplest challenges — such as having contestants perch on top of a tiny ledge to see who can stay there the longest — are endlessly fascinating.
True there have been some weak seasons (Survivor: Palau) and weak premises (breaking down the tribes by race?) but on the whole Survivor remains a consistently satisfying reality TV powerhouse. So while the premiere of Survivor: Samoa was down 22% from last year, I for one will continue to watch.
Only three episodes have aired but I am already a huge fan of Glee. Hell, I was a huge fan 5 minutes into its premiere last spring. My enthusiasm for the program largely stems from my love of the American film musical: Glee is peppered with elaborate, often integrated, musical numbers. Even the show’s nondiegetic music is sung a capella. Sure, the musical television show has tried and failed to gain traction with American audiences, but Glee seems like it’s going to make it.
In the months following Glee‘s sneak preview/premiere back in May, however, some quiet rumblings began (also here and here). The show includes an African American female character, Mercedes (Amber Riley) who is … wait for it … overweight and sassy. The show also includes a homosexual character, Kurt (Chris Colfer), who loves Liza Minelli and obsesses over his fashion choices and a wheel-chair bound character, Artie (Kevin McHale) with thick, horn-rimmed glasses and sweater vests. Yes, these are a lot of stereotypes.
Of course, stereotypes are not inherently problematic, particularly when a show seems to revel in its stereotypes. For example, Glee is filled with numerous high school movie clichés, including snotty, blonde cheerleaders (Dianna Agron) and a squat, laconic football coach (Patrick Gallagher). But, the early complaints about Glee have been that its African American, Asian, homosexual, and handicapped characters have taken a backseat to the show’s white, heterosexual, able-bodied characters. Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith) have received far more screen time, characterization and most importantly, solos, than any of the other young characters. For example, in the premiere episode’s “big number,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”, it is Rachel and Finn who not only monopolize the juiciest bits of the performance, but also turn the song into a romantic duet. I’m not sure that Artie, the parapalegic or Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), the Asian American character, have had more than 2 lines between them yet. And yet, these characters all over Glee‘s promotional images and in its trailers. As the blogger at Alas! A Blog put it “Diversity consists of real parts, not just tokenism.”
By including (and promoting) a diverse range of characters and then not utilizing them within the narrative or the musical numbers, the show seems to be saying that tokenism is enough. It’s a simulacrum of diversity. An all white cast would not be more politically savory but it would be more honest.
However, there are indications that the show will start allotting more screen time to some of its other perfomers. In the most recent episode, “Acafellas,” the primary narrative revolved around Will’s (Matthew Morrison) attempt to reclaim some of his lost confidence by starting up an all male a cappella quartet that performs 1990s era hip hop. This naturally leads to an a capella rendition of Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.” Naturally.
But the show’s secondary storyline finally yielded some screen time to Mercedes and her somewhat inappropriate crush on Kurt. Kurt’s rejection provides the segue for one of the episode’s main musical performances, a sultry, dare I say “window busting,” rendition of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows.” I was happy to see Mercedes have her moment in the spotlight because Amber Riley can really sing. And she looked pretty fierce in her black jumpsuit and fringed red jacket (even if such clothing is completely inappropriate for washing cars). The episode also featured a tender moment when Kurt finally vocalizes, for the first time, that he is gay. Glee often operates at one move away from reality, but this scene was both grounded and touching.
This most recent episode seems to indicate that the show will shift its storylines (and its solos) to different characters from time to time. I hope this is the case because, as I mentioned, I really like musicals. And a capella versions of “Poison.”
But what do you think? Is Glee going to be the kind of program that pays diversity a lot of lip service without actually putting it into practice? Or do we need to give this show more time to grow?
The True Blood season finale was all about knowledge and whether it is best to have it or to remain in ignorance. First, Maryann (Michelle Forbes) prepared for her nuptials to the god-who-comes and once again asked Sookie (Anna Paquin) “What are you?” Sookie’s response “I’m a waitress. What the fuck are you?” was humorous, but unenlightening. We could also hear the fear in Sookie’s voice — what is she really?
While Sookie is frightened by her own ignorance, Hoyt (Jim Parrack) discovers the perils of learning the truth. While under Maryann’s influence his mother (Dale Raoul) reveals that Hoyt’s father did not die bravely, fighting off a burglar, but took his own life. And the desire to keep his mother safe from an imaginary burglar is what kept Hoyt from going to college, leaving home or having a life of his own. “I should’ve known the truth when I was 10!” he screams before walking out on his mother. This knowledge may permanently destroy his relationship with her (good riddance, I say).
There were other examples of the knowledge/ignorance theme in the finale. The residents of Bon Temps have agreed to practice collective amnesia, rather than admit to the things that they did while under Maryann’s spell. Ignorance may be the best policy, however, as evidenced by Eggs (Mehcad Brooks), who could not handle the knowledge of the murders he committed. He appears to lose his mind and demands to be arrested.
But there was more to this finale than the simple tying of loose ends. What I really appreciate about True Blood is that it has used its finale episodes to put the next season’s plotlines in motion. So here’s what we can expect from Season 3:
1. Sam Merlotte’s Origins
We know that Sam’s (Sam Trammell) adoptive parents were terrified by his shape shifting and consequently abandoned him at a young age. In the finale he returns to their home for answers about his past. In keeping with the theme of the evening his mother warns him that it is in Sam’s best interest to remain in ignorance. His biological parents are “bad people,” she tells him. But then we see a close up of a monitor. Who is on the other end? In the next shot we enter a room loaded with medical equipment and pervaded with the sucking and beeping noises of a body kept alive by machines. This is Sam’s estranged father and he is dying. I loved that there was no attempt to explain what was wrong with Sam’s father — he simply handed Sam a scrawled note with the names of his biological parents. At the bottom of the note were the words “I’m sorry.” I can’t wait to see how this story unfolds in Season 3.
2. Bill’s Kidnapping
Like many fans of the show, I have very little tolerance for the blissful romance between Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Sookie. I rolled my eyes continuously throughout the scene in which he takes her to a fancy French restaurant in a gag-worthy lavender cocktail dress and then (ugh) proposes marriage (I did, however, enjoy learning that it is only legal for vampires and humans to marry in Vermont). Although the writers likely wanted my eyes to fill with tears as Sookie jubiliantly reentered the dining room to tell Bill that yes, she will marry him! only to find him gone, I actually cheered a bit. This means that Season 3 will open with Bill and Sookie apart and, I’m guessing, Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) moving in for the kill. Sweet! Oh yeah, I’m on Team Eric all right.
3. The Murder of Eggs
I was not particularly sad to see Eggs die. First of all, I never caught why people called him Eggs [note: since posting this I have been schooled: Eggs is a play on his real name, Benedict]. Also, his relationship with Tara (Rutina Wesley) always seemed somewhat artificial to me — created under and perpetuated by Maryanne’s spell. I’m confidant that she can find a better mate (like Sam perhaps? Hint, hint, writers). Jason (Ryan Kwanten) shot Eggs in an attempt to grab at the heroism he feels he missed during the Maryanne debacle, and although Frank Sobotka, errr, I mean Andy (Chris Bauer), created a believable cover story for Jason, I’m betting the truth will out as Season 3 progresses. In fact, I’m betting Jason will out himself. The boy has a guilty conscience.
4. And then there’s Jessica
Man does Jessica (Deborah Ann Wohl) hate being an eternal virgin. The question is, how long will her blood thirsty rampage last before Daddy Bill finds out? Oh wait, Bill’s been kidnapped. Horny truckers across Bon Temps better watch out.
The CW is awfully fond of rebooting television shows of the past. Last year they resurrected Beverly Hills, 90210, calling it simply 90210. I quit the show after a few episodes (I had reached my quota of trashy teen-targeted television shows for the season), but my husband hung on. He was a die hard Beverly Hills 90210 fan in the 1990s and he didn’t want the dream to die.
As a die hard fan of the original Melrose Place I had similar motivations for putting the new version in my DVR queue. Deep down I knew this show was going to suck, but I was drawn to it like a stupid moth to a stupider flame.
Did the first episode suck? Well, I suppose that depends on what you were expecting. I was expecting a beautiful young cast (check!), soapy storylines (check!), clunky dialogue (check!), cameos from Laura Leighton and Thomas Calabro (check! check!) and girl on girl action in a convertible (wait, what?). Yes, the show did exactly what I expected it to do. But, there were a few moments that had me screaming at my TV (I was pleased to see that Defamer also had a post devoted to Melrose Place‘s implausible plotting):
I found Lauren’s (Stephanie Jacobsen) storyline to be very confusing. First, people address her as “doctor” but she is still in medical school. I asked a doctor friend of mine about this and she assured me that had she been addressed as “doctor” while still a medical student, she would have corrected the mistake. Next, I found it odd that Lauren’s suitor kept attributing his mother’s speedy recovery to Lauren and her wonderful doctoring skills. As my doctor friend informed me, while medical students do have their own patients “they are also the patients of your attending and resident. You never make your own decisions or write your own orders.” So either the show’s writers have no understanding of how the medical profession works or they want us to believe that Lauren is an egomaniac who takes all the credit for the recovery of a shared patient and allows herself to be addressed as “Dr. Yung” when she is not yet a doctor. This is a lot like when Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestly) had all that pull as student government president at California University or when Gossip Girl‘s Dan Humphries (Penn Badgley) got his short story published in The New Yorker (The New Yorker for crying out loud!), that is, it’s the common TV trope of giving the show’s young protagonists way more power and pull than they would have in the real world.
a. The 5 year anniversary video Jonah (Micheal Rady, of the short-lived Swingers) made for Riley (Jessica Lucas) was a sweet idea. But who filmed all that footage of Jonah and Riley kissing in a swimming pool, having pillow fights, and romping on the beach? The camera was clearly not on a tripod since it often moved to follow the couple’s actions. So do Jonah and Riley normally bring a camera man into the bedroom while they engage in clichéd cute couple behavior? Because she seemed awfully surprised to see that video.
b. So let me get this straight Jonah: you are a struggling filmmaker living in Los Angeles and an A list director offers you $100,000 to write a script based on your “award winning” student film. But you reject that offer because you know that said director is just trying to ensure that you don’t put the footage of him making out with his daughter’s BFF on the internets? Jonah, is that because you are a true “artist”? Because, as Ella (Katie Cassidy) gushes, you have a “point of view”? Ella, did you see Jonah’s anniversary video? Jonah, you are a douchebag.
For the first 5 minutes of David’s (Shaun Sipos) conversation with his father, Michael (Thomas Calabro), I was thinking that he was the son of Michael’s ex-wife, Jane (Josie Bissett). Yes, that would mean that David had an affair with his aunt Sidney (Laura Leighton). Then I realized he was probably Kimberly’s (Marcia Cross) son with Michael and felt MUCH better [note: since publishing this post the second Melrose Place episode has aired and it turns out David’s mother is neither Jane nor Kimberly. Michael Mancini was quite the man-whore!] . But this little misunderstanding proves that the writers need to do a better job of reminding us about the various plotlines of the old Melrose Place if they are going to reference them in the new Melrose Place.
I have seen Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear) and you, madame, are no Amanda Woodward.
Will you watch Melrose Place again? I will, but only to watch Ashlee Simpson-Wentz butcher her lines.
In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris’ column, “TV’s Great Bad Mommies” was devoted to the “bad mommies” featured on Showtime’s Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara. These women “invite you to be appalled — because, as we all know, few guilty pleasures are as nastily satisfying as secretly ragging on somebody else’s parenting skills.” His column concludes with a nod to Mad Men‘s Betty Draper (January Jones), who “performs motherhood like a scripted role — and experiences parenting less as a fulfillment than as the steep price she agreed to pay for the life of privilege she once wanted.”
I both agree and disagree with Harris’ assessment of Betty’s approach to motherhood. While it is tempting to see her as an ice queen, as a woman who merely endures her children in order to gain access to club lunches, furs and a maid, I think this view also discounts the richness of Betty’s character. Because Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) childhood is such a compelling mystery, it is easy to forget that Betty also experienced a traumatic childhood. Her story, like Don’s, is only revealed to the viewer in pieces.
We have learned, for example, that the late Mrs. Hofstadt was a beautiful, regal woman, but that she was also a real bitch; Betty discusses her with a mixture of reverence, fear, and resentment. Furthermore, as we discovered in last night’s episode, “The Arrangements,” Ruth Hofstadt took rather Draconian measures to ensure that her “fat” daughter lost weight (and kept it off). While sharing a tub of chocolate ice cream (with salt?) Gene (Ryan Cutrona) tells Sally (Kiernan Shipka) about how her Grandma Ruth would take her mother shopping and then make Betty walk all the way home. This parenting left an indelible mark on the adult Betty, who rarely puts anything other than vodka or cigarettes in her mouth. Oddly, Gene finds the story to be amusing, colorful even, rather than disturbing. He also urges Sally to become something other than a housewife, explaining that her grandmother did drafting work for an engineer in the 1920s. Smart women, it seems, should do things.
While this exchange exists, in part, to show some of the disdain Gene harbors for his daughter’s shallow existence, it also illustrates that he is surprisingly progressive for a man of his age and time. He sees that Betty is living a life of unrealized potential (I can’t wait for the episode in which Betty receives a copy of The Feminine Mystique ) and worries that Sally, an intelligent and curious child, will grow up to do the same. “You can really do something,” he tells Sally with sudden gravitas, “don’t let your mother tell you otherwise” (I originally had a link to this scene below but it has been removed by AMC. Phooey).
After purchasing a bag of peaches for his beloved granddaughter, Gene collapses in the A & P. Sally is naturally devastated by her grandfather’s death–the only adult to take a genuine interest in her has died. Therefore, when the news is delivered to Betty by a solemn police officer, it is fitting that neither of these two adults acknowledge Sally or her grief. Instead they leave her outside to sob alone in her ballet outfit. Later, when Sally rebukes her parents and aunt and uncle for laughing over a joke (she is too young to understand that laughter is often a part of grief), Betty chastises for her for being “hysterical.” “Go watch TV, Sally,” she commands. During this exchange the mother in me longed to reach my arms through the television screen and embrace Sally. And I wondered how I was supposed to feel about Betty and Don since they did not.
Indeed, at these moments it is difficult not to hate Betty Draper. But we must remember the lonely childhood Betty must have endured walking home from the grocery store, wiping the tears from her chubby cheeks, wondering all the while how she might gain the approval of the cold woman waiting for her at home. Betty was raised to shut herself away from food and emotion–she can’t even bring herself to discuss her father’s will with him. “Can’t you keep it to yourself?” she pleads, “I’m your little girl.”
This is not an excuse for Betty’s approach to mothering, but it is an explanation. Meanwhile, Sally is left to mourn her grandfather alone in front of the television, while images of self-immolating monks dance before her eyes.
So what do you think? Is Betty meant to be a sympathetic character, or do the writers want us to hate her?
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.
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.