TV Forever <3
Last week, Amy Poehler’s poignant “I Love You Boston” video made its way around the internet. Amidst anxiety and trauma, she answered teenage Millie’s submitted question: how can we positively engage with the constant images of our media-saturated world?
I watch NBC’s musical television series “Smash” every single week. But judging from its recent switch from Tuesday to Saturday night airings, I may be the last one doing so. About halfway through its first season, once-hopeful critics abandoned constructive criticism for “hate-watching” the show, focusing the majority of their reviews on mocking the absurd scarves Debra Messing’s character Julia wore to appear playwright-ly. The network fired then-showrunner Theresa Rebeck at the end of last season, replacing her with TV veteran and former “Gossip Girl” showrunner Josh Safran. And while “Smash” version 2.0 still isn’t good by “Mad Men” standards, it’s created a new vision for the series with much lower aims which, for the most part, it seems to achieve.
Old “Smash” had lofty goals. The brainchild of Steven Spielberg, the show focused on the creation of a fictional Broadway musical. It was originally purchased by current NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt at his previous post at premium cable network Showtime, home to critically acclaimed series like “Weeds” and “Homeland.” Though “Smash” inevitably took on a different tone when Greenblatt moved the project to NBC, it was still poised to become an acclaimed network drama. And early on, critics had hope. It had flaws from the start, but reached legitimately cathartic moments. Episodes came together in songs that deftly captured the struggles of being young and confused and trying to make the dream work. But as the series continued, Rebeck ignored the most compelling aspects of the show, focusing instead on an array of storylines featuring Julia’s relationship with her son Leo, a pointlessly whiney, emotional teenager who is possibly the worst written character in television history, and Ellis, a scheming young assistant who ruins everyone’s lives just for the sake of being an annoying, evil human being. The great moments that “Smash” could achieve occurred with less and less frequency.
When HBO announced last week that it would not renew “Enlightened” for a third season, television viewers everywhere wondered: What is “Enlightened”? The show had a small fan base, to the say the least, but we true devotees aren’t quite ready to say goodbye. So, in the tradition of “Arrested Development” fans of past, I’d like to throw one final plea in the ring: Please bring back “Enlightened” and let more people see the quiet show that achieved some of television’s greatest feats.
On the surface, “Enlightened” is about Amy Jellicoe, a corporate employee trying to take down her morally corrupt company from within. But as Todd VanDerWerff at The A.V. Club notes, one of the show’s biggest issues—one that most likely cost it potential viewers—is that it’s nearly impossible to describe. I spoke with someone recently who’d seen every episode and still told me she couldn’t quite figure out the show: “What’s its mission statement?” It’s a valid question. “Enlightened” will regularly dictate a moral philosophy in an introductory voiceover and completely challenge it by episode’s end. If anything, the series is about the limits inherent in offering a single point of view. Its mission is to not come down on one clear side of anything.
The February debut of Netflix series “House of Cards” has critics in a frenzy—but not over anything that actually happens on the show. The topic of discussion is instead its method of distribution. The company released all 13 of the series’ episodes on the same day, making it in some ways resemble a long movie more than a traditional television show.
I would like to put on my optimistic hat for a moment and come out in support of the binge release with a dream of what could happen in a future Netflix world. Yes, it’s possible that the shift will move the medium toward film in problematic ways. Unlike traditional networks and premium cable channels, Netflix doesn’t prescribe the number and length of a TV season’s episodes. Critic Jaime Weinman predicts an unavoidable trim down: writers free from restriction will condense what was once a 20-hour season into a three- or four-hour chunk. But while this shift is technically possible, I’d argue it’s far from inevitable. Could the events in the twenty-hour first season of “The West Wing” happen over the course of three? Probably. But would I (and so many others) have fallen in love with Josh Lyman, one of its characters, in just that small amount of time? Probably not. Likewise, Walter White of “Breaking Bad” wouldn’t so devastate viewers with his moral decay if we’d only known him as an upright citizen for the underside of an hour. Length is an integral part of the television experience. It allows viewers to get to know a world intimately and to gain familiarity with its characters to the point when they feel like real people.
Last week, the Internet exploded with the latest wave of backlash against HBO series “Girls.” The Feb. 10 episode, “One Man’s Trash,” featured creator and producer Lena Dunham’s character Hannah engaging in a sexual escapade with an older, handsome stranger, played by a guest-starring Patrick Wilson. Amid controversy over how the unconventionally attractive Hannah could possibly snag such a nice-looking man, I’d like to say the following: Thank you, Lena Dunham. Since its premiere in 2012, “Girls” has been both acclaimed and derided, with much criticism focusing on the show’s representation of class privilege. Personally, I’ve never understood this line of attack. Yes, the show explores the lives of privileged women, but it never claims to do otherwise. Critics in this camp seem under the impression that “Girls” wants to represent its generation and fails to do so by focusing on only one specific subset. But at the moment when Hannah utters the widely reprinted quote that instigated this misconception—“I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice, of a generation”—she is on drugs, begging for money on the floor of her parents’ hotel room. Her proclamation is ironic. “Girls” aims to speak only for the world it depicts—one of privileged, highly educated, under-skilled twenty-somethings with strong yet vague desires to pursue art—and does so, for the most part, with startling acuity.
But what has puzzled me the most about the discussions of privilege surrounding “Girls” has been the absence of dialogue about Hannah’s atypical Hollywood appearance. While I do think that the complex rendering of the show’s characters is progressive in itself, on the most surface level, it’s true that the experiences of wealthy white people in New York is not new territory for television. However, focusing on a female protagonist that lacks typical body privilege is.