If you like comedy, but you’re tired of Trump jokes, the last couple of years have been frustrating. Your choices for political comedy on American television range from The Daily Show, which is pretty much all about Trump, to three different shows from Daily Show alumni – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper – which are also pretty much all about Trump. John Oliver’s turn towards Trump is particularly irritating because his show made its reputation on in-depth examinations of underdiscussed issues, like patent trolling, public funding of stadiums and the exploitation of chicken farmers, and had made a point of largely ignoring Trump for months before gradually becoming yet another Show Against Trump.
Shows without an explicit political bent offer no escape: Saturday Night Live features Trump so frequently that Alec Baldwin will likely be eligible for the Supporting Actor Emmy again this year, even though he’s ostensibly a guest star. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert does so much Trump material it was able to spin-off a recurring animated segment called Our Cartoon President into its own TV show. Colbert was always going to be more political than the average late-night host, except he’s actually not that much more political than the rest anymore: Seth Meyers does a weekly politics segment on Late Night called “A Closer Look” which is, of course, mostly about Trump and Jimmy Kimmel is constantly taking cracks at him. Even that spineless hair-ruffling weasel Jimmy Fallon has started to do regular Trump jokes now, and he’s Jimmy Fallon, the most inoffensive man who’s ever existed.
Continue reading “Can You Believe It: Trump and Political Comedy”
The first time I clocked a deceitful edit in RuPaul’s Drag Race was my second viewing of the show’s sixth season. During preparation for that season’s iteration of Snatch Game, a challenge in which the queens impersonate a celebrity, RuPaul cast doubt on competitor BenDeLaCreme’s plan to portray Dame Maggie Smith. Three shots follow: first, Ben looks at RuPaul while audio from one of Ben’s confessionals plays over it (“Ru does not seem into my idea.”); next, a shot of Ben’s wig on a foam head while the audio continues (“I’m shaken–my confidence is definitely shaken, but, I–”); finally, it cuts to the confessional itself where a puffy-eyed Ben is speechless, either just finished crying or just about to start.
Except that last part isn’t true, because, later in the episode, Ben talks about his adolescent struggles with body image and his mother’s death from cancer when he was thirteen. “I just–”, he begins to describe the loss in voiceover, and then it cuts to a much longer shot of Ben speechless in the same confessional from earlier. It’s clear in this longer shot that Ben is stumbling over his explanation of how he felt when his mother died, not Ru’s lack of enthusiasm for his Maggie Smith impression, especially since he actually won Snatch Game. The editors had blatantly cut footage of Ben crying as he recalled his grief and moved it earlier in the episode to make it look like Ru had shaken Ben to his core.
Ever since, I’ve been completely sceptical of the Drag Race edit.
Continue reading “RuPaul’s Unreliable Editing Race”
When Michael Schur was coming up with The Good Place, he asked Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof for advice. “[Lindelof] told me, ‘Here are the pitfalls. Here are the traps you can fall into. Here’s the problem you’re going to hit’…” Schur said, “He actually I think said to me, ‘You just need to know where you’re going.’”
Lindelof’s advice was presumably drawing from experience, because Lost absolutely did not know where it was going. For the six full-length seasons it ran, it was an incredibly messy show, narratively convoluted and incoherent, brimming over with set-ups that were never paid off – and not in a David Lynch way, where it’s meant to be surreal and not intended to be “solved”. It only took Lost until its second season to do a “what if this character is in a psych ward and this is all in his head” episode, something Buffy managed to stave off for six years. The finale of Lost aired eight years ago to a polarised reception, and its reputation has only depreciated in the interim. It regularly makes lists of the worst finales of all time, and is practically synonymous with “all the mystery-box shit turning out to be nonsense” and “wasting years of your life on a show that turns out to be crap.”
So here’s the thing: Lost was a great show, finale and all. And I think that those who came away from the finale scratching their heads kind of missed the whole point of the show – because Lost was always a show about religion.
Continue reading “God Allegedly Has Bigger Plans for Me: Religion in Lost”
If you read a lot of pop criticism and entertainment journalism, you’ll be a familiar with a debate about “separating the art from the artist” or some similar turn of phrase. This is a very old debate, but it’s come to occupy ever more space in discussions about art, especially popular art, in recent years. The main driving force behind its increasing prominence has been the proliferation of online publications covering entertainment news and producing reviews and criticism over the last ten or so years. Such platforms are making more information and commentary on the entertainment industry and more opinions about art available to more people than ever before. Over the years, plenty of people who make art have been exposed for doing bad things, and so naturally the issue of how we should relate to art made by bad people has come up pretty regularly in these publications.
But that was before Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (for the New York Times) and Ronan Farrow (for the New Yorker) exposed Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator. I don’t know why this one was the tipping point, but in the months since, dozens of other sexual predators working in the entertainment industry, in news media and in sports have been similarly exposed. In fact, there’s been a seemingly endless wave of revelations about powerful public figures – almost exclusively men, to no great shock – who have abused their power in order to sexually harass and assault other people, including minors.
What used to be a largely seasonal phenomenon of finding out a celebrity was a bad person, getting bombarded with thinkpieces about it and then forgetting about it when something else came along to make you anxious about the world has now become an apparently permanent state of revelation.
Continue reading “Art and the Artist”
Why do people still love Friends so much?
To be clear, I love Friends. I’ve seen every episode of Friends multiple times. It was a good show, and often a great one. It was such a massive juggernaut hit at the time that it’s inevitable that it would have some staying power – I can’t imagine a world where Friends was forgotten, consigned to the ash heap of history. Anything that big hangs around for a while. Culture doesn’t have a reset button, you just turn it at right angles and draw over what’s already there.
But Friends isn’t just hanging around in the background. It’s still hugely, actively popular. BuzzFeed’s clickbait pop culture listicle/quiz department pumps out posts about Friends on at least a biweekly basis. People get engaged on the Central Perk couch on tours of the Warner Brothers lot. The whole series was recently added to Netflix in Ireland and the UK, and – even though the show finished fourteen years ago, even though it’s been in reruns constantly, unavoidably since then – it was treated as a legitimately big deal.
And that’s weird. It is so far outside of the norm of televisual afterlife that “it’s a good show” doesn’t go a tenth of the way to explaining it.
Continue reading “The One Where Pop Culture Disintegrates”
The final battle between good and evil at the end of The Matrix Revolutions is the best part of a very flawed movie. Whatever else the Matrix sequels did wrong – and they did a fair bit – the last fight between Neo and Agent Smith is basically perfect. It’s not just a punching contest, it’s a distillation of every moral value at stake in their conflict. I know that’s a controversial statement because I’ve seen so many people make fun of the best part of the scene:
Agent Smith: “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why, why? Why do you do it? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception! Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now! You can’t win! It’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson?! Why?! WHY DO YOU PERSIST?!”
Neo: “Because I choose to.”
I worry about what it means that such a beautiful and simple encapsulation of what it means to be a human being is so routinely mocked for its alleged meaninglessness: “Because I choose to”. There is something in our language, always present, but more and more prevalent as we sink deeper into the grey muck of modernity: we don’t know how to talk about freedom. We don’t know how to speak about each other as beings with free will. We speak of people driven by rage, rather than people who choose the path of rage. We speak of people who can’t help but be who they are and do what they do, rather than people who consistently choose to continue in their habits. We speak of people as if they’re machines, rather than people.
Some of it is well-intentioned, I’m sure. There are legitimate critiques of theories of freedom that ignore the ways we are prevented from exercising our free will. But we’re at risk of sprinting towards the other extreme. We’re at risk of denying that free will exists at all.
Continue reading “Because I Choose To: The Horror and Hope of Free Will”
I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy and compassion. I believe in those things, as deep down as I believe in anything. I always thought this was relatively universal, at least outside of right-wing fringe groups, but I don’t really think that anymore. Not just because a Yale professor wrote a book literally called Against Empathy (in a video for The Atlantic he explains that empathy for victims is used to justify the Iraq War, but conveniently doesn’t mention if empathy can and does motivate anti-war activism), but mostly because of how often I find myself recoiling in horror from political discourse. I can’t cheer an elderly man getting brain cancer, no matter what he’s done. I don’t think that someone who punches a Nazi is suddenly as bad as a Nazi, but I can’t comprehend the ease with which people advocate the punching. I oppose violence in all its forms – structural or personal – and I don’t think that any person deserves to be killed, by the state or anyone else. I don’t think “deserve” comes into it. I don’t have the stomach to be a revolutionary.
Continue reading “Goodness or the Choice of Goodness: Vice Principals, Empathy and Deserving”