Industry Lore and Algorithmic Programming on Netflix
Nick Marx / Colorado State University

Netflix
Part 1:

Over the last several years, much digital ink has been spilled on Netflix, its allegedly slavish devotion to data, its stubborn refusal to make any of that data public, and its plans for world domination. In the absence of conventional metrics for comparing it to linear television networks, we’re left to cobble together incomplete findings from third-party research firms and infer broader generalizations about Netflix instead. We’d be lying if we said this two-part column isn’t grasping at the same straws, but we hope to reframe some of the available information about Netflix in order to avoid characterizing it as a “red menace” or something inherently threatening to television’s business-as-usual. Doing so can help critics and scholars better understand the context for Netflix’s success and its role as a cultural forum.

Despite growing concerns that Netflix’s algorithm-driven model will replace organic culture with cold, T-1000 ruthlessness, data may well serve to activate new sets of creative possibilities instead. TV producers have always worked within a set of industry constraints. Historically, these have been based on a body of common sense drawn from a combination of passed-down lore and information derived from highly flawed statistical services such as those offered by Nielsen. Working within these limitations, moments of immense creativity emerged, as did a long list of uninspired, derivative drivel.

The Netflix-led “Data Era,” we suggest, promises not to be all that different. Although new data gathering methods may well improve audience-targeting practices, such improvements amount to little more than new industry lore informed by more precise, but not necessarily more useful, information. As a result, new programming possibilities may well open up, with executives now being able to see virtue in unusual connections and combinations that once would have been perceived as nonsense. But how can we better conceptualize this balance of agency and machinery? If we posit at the least a soft connection between data and programming for dissertation help, what does this say about the nature of innovation and creative choice-making? The first part of this column explores the former question, the second, the latter question through a close look at the Netflix original comedy series BoJack Horseman.

Popular press accounts love to portray Netflix content as mostly the product of complex computer algorithms, but it’s important to remember the people interpreting those data, and how they do so differently from linear television. Generally speaking, Netflix’s structure for the relationship between entertainment products and data about them combines human intuition for knowing how to talk about and appreciate media content with a sophisticated system for organizing that content into categories as uniquely customized for a given subscriber as possible. For instance, Netflix employs an army of part-time media buffs to watch and tag content with generic information, the primary data that shape its increasingly-personalized recommendation system. Netflix maintains relatively distinct workplaces, too, between its engineering corps and data scientists based in Northern California and its talent and content acquisition team in the production centers of Southern California. As Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt notes of this division of labor, “The contract between us, roughly, is whatever they buy we figure out how to get the most value out of it by putting the right stuff in front of the right people.”

Ultimately, and not unlike a traditional network head, final say for original programming falls to Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, whom profiles portray again and again as a sort of television Billy Beane, the baseball executive known for popularizing the use of advanced metrics in the sport and the subject of 2011’s Moneyball. Sarandos’ daily dilemma, to paraphrase Todd Gitlin, might be called “the problem of knowing too much”: finding useful needles of data among haystacks of distractions AND determining how to use those data to marshal resources for content (and organization of that content) that speaks to loyal viewers.

Although the network is notoriously tight-lipped about how and to what ends it deploys data analysis, small indications exist that, in the aggregate, provide a clearer picture about the decision-making process behind Netflix originals like BoJack Horseman. For instance, in interviews creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg highlights Netflix’s eagerness to offer notes on the minutest of creative choices like background music, as well as its amenability to serialized storytelling and binge watching, something he saw as crucial to the show’s comedic sensibility. One can infer, then, that Netflix provided Bob-Waksberg with data supporting these creative choices without forcing them, as accounts of “Netflix-as-culture-machine” would have us believe. For other original shows, Netflix has revealed the importance of title cards to a viewer’s browsing experience and how data about color patterns drive viewers of, say, a PBS prestige drama to a Netflix original like House of Cards.

Netflix Color Chart
Detailed Color Comparison of Hemlock Grove, House of Cards, and Arrested Development
Another commonly circulated myth about Netflix is that its long-tail library means that there’s something for everyone to choose from. Of course, as anyone who’s ever been frustrated not to find their favorite recent release knows, this isn’t the case. Netflix’s library is finite and subject to the same bidding wars and vagaries of windowing and syndication as linear television and film. In this sense, Netflix seeks not to create or license the perfect show for every viewer, but to guide each viewer as carefully as possible to a title in its catalog with which it hopes s/he will have high engagement. Hunt indicates that “Our vision is you won’t see a grid and you won’t see a sea of titles. Instead you’ll see one or two perfect suggestions that perfectly capture what you want to watch right now depending on your mood and who is with you, who is sitting with you at the TV right now.”

So what do Netflix’s programming decisions say about its desired or presumed viewership? For most of its short history, Netflix’s original shows have functioned a lot like HBO’s in the 2000s–programs that need to generate buzz and drive subscriptions, not necessarily shows that will make up their production cost. Until recently, this has meant dark or sensational dramas like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. But the network’s increased forays into original comedies offers further fodder for understanding how Netflix targets certain viewing groups as it continues to grow. At the end of 2013, Netflix hired a new executive to oversee comedy development, Jane Wiseman, whose credits include niche-but-buzzy network fare like New Girl, Community, and Parks & Recreation. Her pedigree and shepherding of BoJack Horseman highlight two key aspects of Netflix’s comedy strategy. First, to develop comedies that resonate with the aesthetic and binge-ability of the prestige dramas–like those mentioned above, as well as Mad Men and Breaking Bad–already owned or licensed by Netflix. Second, to develop content translatable to the international market in order to avoid the time and cost of region-specific licensing as Netflix expands globally, aiming to be in 200 countries by 2016.

To that end, Netflix has signed comedian Adam Sandler to a four-picture deal, one described by Sarandos as “data trumping conventional wisdom” because of Netflix research indicating Sandler performs much better on home video and in foreign markets than at the American box office. The network’s forthcoming day-and-date release of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel also represents a clear attempt to establish a foothold in the lucrative Chinese market, but in a way familiar to Western fans of the original film. With this two-pronged approach, then, Netflix is re-interpreting an industrial blueprint in place since the dawn of the FOX network and merger mania of the late 1980s. But what difference, if any, exists in the resulting original programming, and what does this mean about the nature of creativity in the “Data Era?”

Part Two explores this question by looking closely at the Netflix original comedy BoJack Horseman.

Image Credits:

1. Netflix
2. Netflix Color Chart




“SNL 40” and the Death of Liveness
Nick Marx / Colorado State University


SNL 40

Liveness has long been popularly thought to be at the core of television’s essence as both an information and aesthetic medium ((Of course, the notion of liveness as television’s ontological essence has been thoroughly critiqued by television scholars over the years. See, among others, Jane Feuer, “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology,” in Regarding Television: Critical Approaches—An Anthology, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Los Angeles: The American Film Institute, 1983) and Elana Levine, “Live! Defining Television Quality at the Turn of the 21st Century,” http://cmsw.mit.edu/mit3/papers/elana_levine.pdf )). Today, though, what’s left of the collectively-experienced, evanescent moments made possible by live broadcasting provide the only incentive for audiences to tune-in at appointed times and schlep through commercial breaks. Over a decade in to television’s on-demand-driven era of convergence, we’ve grown alternately to embrace and tolerate liveness mostly for major sports match-ups and special events like awards ceremonies. This trend only seems likely to continue with every new record-breaking telecast rights deal between networks and sports leagues or record ad rate for an Oscar broadcast. At the same time, and with considerably less hullabaloo, the pleasures and possibilities of liveness have inexorably ebbed from just about every other form of scripted television entertainment. This has been particularly apparent in the last two seasons of Saturday Night Live, coming to a head earlier this month with the sketch comedy stalwart’s 40th anniversary special, “SNL 40.”

As it’s always been with SNL, the small, fleeting moments tend to be the show’s most significant ones. To the chagrin of many SNL devotees, Eddie Murphy’s appearance on “SNL 40” was stilted and brief, awkwardly cutting to commercial when it became clear Murphy would give little more than a perfunctory “thanks.” Noted small person and longtime Lorne Michaels confidant Paul Simon closed the show with “Still Crazy After All These Years,” a gentle performance no less touching than the first time he sang it on SNL’s second episode in 1975. Maybe the most meaningful small moment of the special, though, arrived at the end as several generations of SNL cast-members and celebrities crowded the studio 8H stage to wave goodnight. Michaels grudgingly received their well wishes as the credits rolled, but not before The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon quickly darted over and shared a private sentiment that elicited a rare, publicly visible smile and laugh from Michaels.

Michaels and Fallon

Jimmy Fallon snags a personal moment with Lorne Michaels during the closing credits

Fallon had opened the show performing a medley of SNL highlights alongside Justin Timberlake in exactly the kind of quick-hit mash-up that’s ready made for Internet spreadability. Of course, excerptible digital videos have become The Tonight Show’s calling card under Fallon and Michaels, extending the show’s cultural reach beyond late night in much the same way The Lonely Island’s digital shorts did for SNL a decade ago. Eddie Murphy’s “SNL 40” appearance has similarly lived on in social media conversations not because of what he did or said onstage, but because of the stories popping up in its wake. According to former cast-member Norm Macdonald, Murphy declined the opportunity to lampoon Bill Cosby’s many sexual assault allegations in a “Jeopardy!” sketch, a decision for which Cosby then publicly thanked Murphy.

As Mike Myers and Dana Carvey unintentionally noted in a “Top Ten” list during their “Wayne’s World” sketch, liveness has become the least important aspect of Saturday Night Live, particularly as a site of aesthetic innovation. Splitsider’s Erik Voss made a similar observation in breaking down last season’s brilliant “Darrell’s House” sketches, in which a public access television host played by Zach Galifianakis frustratedly asks for several of his flubs to be fixed in post, with the version containing his requested cuts airing half an hour later in SNL’s live broadcast. According to Voss, the sketch demonstrates an experimental sensibility—one fundamentally based in liveness—rarely seen in SNL’s predictable parade of pre-“Weekend Update” parodies of celebrities and political goings-on.

Wayne's World

A “Wayne’s World” sketch highlights the lagging importance of liveness for SNL

SNL’s move away from liveness is partly a matter of survival. The show is in year two of a very rough rebuilding process, and it has increasingly relied on recorded material—comprising a full third of the show now—and writers trained at the Internet comedy powerhouses of Funny or Die and CollegeHumor to ease the transition. The diminished role of liveness on SNL is also a matter of generational tastes. The baby boomers of SNL’s early cast and writers were weaned on the vaudevillian holdovers and boozy breaking of live, network era, variety-style comedy. The current cast, all of whom were born after SNL’s 1975 premiere, are more literate in the millennial sensibilities of mash-up and distracted viewing.

More than anything, though, SNL is participating in a broader debunking of liveness as television’s ontological essence. Certainly, live events continue to be incredibly important to television networks and advertisers. Their cultural import, however, is highly dependent on their afterlife among social media networks and news cycles, or at least upon the success or failure of the next hastily-produced awards show to generate clicks. Some live events seem to be cynically conceived of as a Twitter trending topic first and as a television entertainment program in name only. With an increasing investment in collapsing the distinction between the two, SNL might just as well have displayed a graphic for “Liveness” during the “In Memoriam” segment of “SNL 40.”

Image Credits:
All images are from the author’s personal collection.

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The “Comedy of Exasperation” and Satire TV in the Obama Era
Nick Marx / Colorado State University

Daily Show Obama
 

Satire TV: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
On Election Day earlier this month, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, looking bored and irritated, casually told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he hadn’t voted. Stewart’s remark prompted predictably put-on outrage among social media outlets and media outlets not strictly defined as social but whose primary news sources are social media outlets. The controversy drew to an end that evening on his show when Stewart apologized for being “flip” and clarifying that he did indeed vote. The entire non-event has since been swallowed up by so many revolutions of the news cycle, but it nonetheless provides a key example through which we can understand contemporary satire TV’s relationship to political discourse.

 

The 2000s rise of comedians like Stewart, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Michael Moore, and Sacha Baron Cohen (among others), alongside a generalized opposition to George W. Bush among left-leaning scholars of media and culture, spawned dozens of studies lauding the pro-social aspects of political satire on television. ((See Gray, Jones and Thompson, Satire TV, New York: New York University Press, 2009; Gournelos, Popular Culture and the Future of Politics: Cultural Studies and the Tao of South Park, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009; and Day, Satire & Dissent, Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2011. )) Often, in amending the “low culture” status of what were still putatively understood as late-night comedy programs, these studies sought to highlight satire TV’s oppositional potential, clarify its critique of dominant socio-cultural ideologies, and argue for its growing importance alongside more “serious” forms of public deliberation. At the same time, popular (and, to a lesser extent, academic) discourse questioned the real-world efficacy of satire TV and whether or not the commingling of humor and politics translated into quantifiable change or hastened the American polity’s cynical reaffirmation of the status quo. ((See Baumgartner and Morris, “The Daily Show Effect: Candidate Evaluations, Efficacy, and American Youth” and Rottinghaus, Bird, Ridout, and Self, “It’s Better Than Being Informed: College-Aged Viewers of The Daily Show.” ))

It’s tempting to read Stewart’s quip as evidence of the latter, or, more specifically, as symptomatic of the resentment wrought by Obama’s many “failures” to rectify the complex social, financial, and diplomatic sins of his predecessor. Instead, I’d suggest that it comes more from a “comedy of exasperation,” what Kyle Stevens calls “a condition of being angry while lacking an object to express one’s anger at, [one that] emerges most insistently in a moment distinguished by wireless technologies and global financialization; in a time when we cannot point to the powers that control our daily lives.” ((Kyle Stevens, “Where Vanity Meets Volition: Technicity, Self-Monitoring, and the Comedy of Exasperation.” World Picture 9, summer 2014. http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_9/Stevens.html )) In some ways for dissertation writing, Stewart and company are victims of their own success, having become so adept at clarifying for viewers the myriad power structures governing contemporary American citizenship that their sheer abundance can seem overwhelming. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning recalls the “comedy as cynicism” critique a bit too much and forecloses a productive dialogue about how satire TV, despite the diffusion of its targets, continues to play a vital role in political discourse.

Before outlining that role, however, it is imperative to note here that in order for satire TV to evolve as a megaphone for political dissent, it has to broaden the tent. That every one of the comedians I’ve named above identifies as white, heterosexual, and male not only reeks of complicity with longstanding assumptions about the belongingness of (straight white) men and comedy, but is also creating some stagnation in the genre. True, The Daily Show has sought diversity in its correspondents, and several notable programs have recently or look like they’ll strive for the same (FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell; Comedy Central’s planned The Colbert Report replacement, The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore; and, possibly, Chelsea Handler’s 2016 Netflix program), but televised political satire could be much more engaged in supporting the identity politics it so regularly lampoons. Furthermore, satire TV would do well to explore the possibilities of the non-commercial platforms being inexorably vacated by public-interest journalism. Though clearly compromised somewhat by its place on the subscription network HBO, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight stands out as a recent model for how satire TV can explore long-form investigations relatively free of commercial constraints.

After two decades of development, though, it’s worth highlighting how satire TV in the Obama era has moved beyond the sound-bitable bumbles of George W. Bush and targeted more broadly the residual social, cultural, and political power structures left in his wake. The most nefarious of these are the various iterations of “post-”ness as they relate to marginalized identity formations. To that end, the work of The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams has recently brought refreshing perspective to popular debates about gender and sexuality, particularly as they intersect with constructions of race:

 

Income inequality is the other issue taken up most trenchantly by many satire TV shows of late, but none better than by Stephen Colbert’s buffoonish blowhard character. For as forgettable or self-serving as many of the interviews on Stewart’s or Maher’s programs are, the segments provide Colbert with his primary performative space. His baiting of interviewees who are “in” on the act often allows them to articulate their positions more cogently than they would in other mediated discussion spaces, as in last summer’s interview with Capital author Thomas Piketty:

 

If satire TV in the Obama era has shifted focus to the everyday lived experiences of social and economic inequality, one parallel development worth monitoring is the extent to which political satire is no longer the sole domain of liberal Comedy Central-types. The spread of nasty television “satire” in programs like Family Guy and Tosh.0 that operate under the guise of “equal-opportunity offenders” indicates that much contention remains about who and what are considered appropriate targets of comedic ire. If satirists can’t always clearly identify or agree on “an object to express one’s anger at,” this thinking goes, better to simply attack everything and see what sticks, especially if, given the narrowcasting strategies of cable networks, it draws well with 18-34 year-old males. In the meantime, exasperation might continue to be the best televisual option we have for expressing truth to power.

Image Credits:
1. Daily Show

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Nowhere to Go but Up: Redeeming HBO’s Eastbound & Down
Nick Marx / University of Wisconsin – Madison

Eastbound & Down

Eastbound & Down

In June 2008 HBO took a minority stake in the comedy website FunnyorDie.com. As part of the pact, HBO ordered an original television series from the site’s main creative minds, Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers). At the same time, the duo’s Gary Sanchez productions was preparing to release The Foot Fist Way, a low-budget comedy written, directed, and produced by North Carolina filmmakers Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride. Even though Foot Fist performed modestly in limited release, Ferrell and McKay latched on to the trio’s comic sensibility and solicited them to produce the HBO comedy series Eastbound & Down (premiering February 15).

While I’ve only seen the pilot episode, I’d like to consider some already apparent issues; namely, that there’s a lot to not like about Eastbound. The series follows the bottoming-out of disgraced baseball pitcher Kenny Powers as he returns to his southern hometown and takes a job as a middle-school gym teacher. Kenny (played by McBride) is abrasive, spiteful, and unrelentingly egotistical. He drinks frequently and heavily. He cusses, especially at women and children. The other characters populating Kenny’s world-including his manipulable brother, his now-engaged former flame, and various starry-eyed fans-often serve more to absorb Kenny’s abuse than they do to put him in his place. By the end of the series’ pilot episode, we learn that Kenny grudgingly intends to stay at the school until he can work his way back to the major leagues. But if the program’s producers wish so strongly to portray their protagonist as a despicable person (a point driven home after a seemingly interminable sequence of Kenny snorting cocaine), how do they expect audiences to root for him week after week?

I don’t mean to suggest that we can’t be drawn to unlikable characters, especially comedians. Indeed, Kenny is part of a rich heritage of loathsome comedy protagonists, from Archie Bunker to Al Bundy. The most common strategy for creating audience rapport with such characters is to build their respective goal-driven actions into a story arc of maturation and/or comeuppance and to allow them to be seen as pitiable along the way. Eastbound, however, indicates that this is not the model it intends to follow. In one early scene, we see a close-up of Kenny lying on his bed after a rough day, crying. Just as we begin to feel for him, we cut to a wider shot showing the contents of his bedside table, including a stack of pornographic magazines. This quick betrayal of the audience’s sympathy is exacerbated in the following scene. Before his first day of school, Kenny pensively guzzles beer in his car while listening to his autobiography on tape. We’re treated to the following:

Undaunted, I knew the game was mine to win. Just like in life, all of my successes depend on me. I’m the man who has the ball. I’m the man who can throw it faster than fuck. So that is why I am better than everyone in the world. Kiss my ass and suck my dick, everyone.

Not only is Kenny’s profane soliloquy a refusal to allow the audience closer to him; it’s also an indication of how hard he is willing to push other characters in the Eastbound diegesis away. There is no maturation or comeuppance plot on the horizon for Kenny. If we’re going to follow Kenny’s crusade back to the big leagues, it will be on his terms.

Danny McBride as Kenny Powers

Danny McBride as Kenny Powers

Given its rejection of the traditional redemption narrative, Eastbound might be better viewed as another instance of so-called “cringe comedy” (offensive or embarrassing situations specifically designed to cause audience unease). Here, the pitiableness and maturation of the protagonist are secondary; the success of a cringe comedy series hinges on the degree to which its televisual asshole speaks to the asshole in all of us. Audience sympathy for cringe comedians, however slight it might be, is made possible by the highly personalized nature of their humor. The results can range from series structured around the idiosyncrasies of their protagonists’ comedic personas (as in the selfish misanthropy of Larry David) to ones serving as showcases for virtuosic performances (as in the chameleonic multitasking of Sascha Baron Cohen or Summer Heights High’s Chris Lilley). In the case of Eastbound, though, star Danny McBride (though he as a reputation as an adept improviser in the films of David Gordon Green) doesn’t have an established comedic persona on par with that of Larry David or Ricky Gervais. As a result, grappling with our repugnance for Kenny Powers at the strictly textual level yields a limited understanding of the series. I argue that we view Eastbound in a broader discursive context, as being integrated with its conditions of production and the cultural milieu it both constructs and comments on. Seen in this light, we can account for the stylistic elements of cringe comedy at play, as well as understand how those elements compel us to consider the larger implications of a character that acts purely in his own self-interest.

One character we might use as model for expanding our reading of Kenny Powers is South Park’s Eric Cartman. Cartman, like Kenny, drives the narrative of his show with racist diatribes and self-serving actions, often without retribution. In one recent example (“The Snuke”), Cartman’s misguided suspicions of a Muslim boy set off a chain of events that saves the town from annihilation. The episode’s uncomfortable life lesson is that sometimes, according to Cartman, “bigotry and racism [save] the day.” Such sentiments are clearly problematic, yet characters like Cartman and Kenny Powers go unpunished for having them. When considering offensive representations beyond their visceral, “cringe” impact at the textual level, though, we can see their integration into a variety of industrial and socio-cultural discourses. In the case of South Park, Cartman exposes the absurdity of extremism in American news media and political rhetoric; in the case of Eastbound, Kenny Powers embodies a collective American lassitude after nearly a decade of being told we were bigger, stronger, and faster than everyone else.

Kenny Powers is, appropriately enough, an offspring of the deluded narcissists Will Ferrell has long specialized in playing. And while FunnyorDie.com might too be seen as an exercise in Hollywood narcissism ((See Heffernan, Virginia. “Mocking Stars and Beer Ads. Yawn.” The New York Times, 31 May 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/31/technology/31screen.html?_r=1.)) , its mix of professional and user-generated content has become a financially viable model that dozens of comedy sites are scrambling to emulate. Ferrell has maintained the site’s profile in part by using it as a cross-promotional tool for other projects, like last year’s touring sketch-show in support of his film Semi-Pro that also provided outtakes for the site. ((Curiously, especially for a series with Hollywood talent as recognizable as Ferrell attached, Eastbound has seen little promotion on HBO and broadcast outlets. Instead, the focus has thus far been online. When FunnyorDie.com premiered the second season of Flight of the Conchords weeks ahead of its run HBO, for example, and the episode ended with a promotional short for Eastbound.)) . On February 5 he began a live stage-show directed by McKay, “Will Ferrell: You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W. Bush” that will also be televised on HBO. Ferrell’s Bush impersonation falls right in line with the likes of Talladega Nights‘ Ricky Bobby-both are impetuous cowboys oblivious to those around them-so it’s plain to see how Ferrell and McKay were drawn to the same characteristics in McBride’s The Foot Fist Way.

Kenny Powers Promo

Kenny Powers Promo

It’s also tempting to draw parallels between Bush and Kenny Powers-both are disgraced national icons returning home, reluctant to own their blighted legacies-but here again Ferrell proves useful. His Bush impersonation reads as straight parody, an exaggeration borne out of the manufactured (and, by now, passé) red/blue divide. Conversely, McBride’s portrayal of Kenny, for all its surface crudeness, is more than a mere Hollywood response to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. With Eastbound being shot in their native North Carolina (far from LA-based HBO executives) and using mostly local talent, McBride, Best, and Hill utilized their creative freedom to create a portrayal of the south that feels more lived-in than gleaned from collections of stereotypes. ((See the interviews with McBride and Best in Stephenson, Hunter. “Exclusive Set Visit! HBO’s East Bound and Down.” /film, 3 December 2008. http://www.slashfilm.com/2008/12/03/exclusive-set-visit-hbos-east-bound-and-down-with-danny-mcbride-david-gordon-green-and-ben-best-cameo-by-gina-gershon/)) While I wouldn’t argue that the series posits any “authentic” notion of the south, it does create a comedic hero that embodies American cultural tensions of the recent past while warily embracing the changes to come.

Kenny, inspired by former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker (who was also played by Ferrell on SNL), provides numerous reminders-literal (steroid use in baseball), metaphorical (Kenny’s shortsighted splurge on a jetski), and pop cultural (his stints in rehab)-of Americans’ selfish recklessness in the mid-2000s. But no moment better expresses it than a confrontation between he and his brother Dustin. As Kenny drunkenly pouts late one night, Dustin implores him to get used to living a modest lifestyle and to change his selfish behavior. Kenny seems to take this to heart, and the score swells as we see a moment of reflection flit across his face. Clearly, though, Kenny has heard what he wants to. “You’re sayin’ I gotta get back on top again,” he says, despite Dustin’s protests. “I gotta remember that I’m a winner, man. I need to remember that I am better than everyone else.” The exchange perfectly captures the selective hearing of pro athletes who thought they’d never be caught, political leaders sure we’d be greeted as liberators, and homeowners who never stopped to ask if it really was too good to be true. Sure, change is coming, and we’ll get back on top again. But for the time being, we’ll all, like Kenny, continue to wake up with a wicked hangover.

Image Credits:

1. Eastbound & Down
2. Danny McBride as Kenny Powers
3. Kenny Powers Promo
4. Front Page Image

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