Sitcom Aesthetics, Intertextuality, and Lucky Louie

Lucky Louie

Lucky Louie

When I first sat down to write about Lucky Louie, HBO’s first foray into the multiple-camera proscenium sit-com, I had no attachment to the show other than its aesthetic practices, which are significant enough. After all. HBO’s crucial place in the history of the sit-com lies in its regeneration of “film style” (i.e., one camera) shooting practices. Its first show, Dream On (1990-1996), used this technique so that it could cut between the characters and old movie clips. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998), HBO’s flagship series until the 1999 debut of The Sopranos used one camera shooting techniques to parody the multiple camera techniques of the talk show. Finally, the one camera shooting style of Sex and the City (1998-2004) took the cut away one camera moments of Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998)–which foregrounded Manhattan in the midst of a traditionally shot multiple camera show–and made them the dominant motif of the show’s exploration of single women’s lives in New York City.

The aesthetics of Lucky Louie seem deliberately designed to herald, yet again, HBO’s crucial importance in the history of television. Like All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979) before it, the show revels in its low rent style. Norman Lear’s experiment was built around a radically flat and barren x-axis set, purportedly to showcase in isolation Archie Bunker’s racism. Lucky Louie features a similarly bare set, also shot on a noticeably less nuanced videotape, especially in comparison with the aforementioned HBO signature shows. In its refusal to apply the sit-com form to the major political issues of the day as did All in the Family, Lucky Louie perhaps skips back even further, to the very origins of the television sitcom itself, rendering a sex- and expletive-filled version of The Honeymooners (CBS, 1952-1953): Louie (Louis C.K.) and his wife Kim (Pamela Adlon) struggle to make it in their grungy apartment building in the big city, supported by their friends, Mike (Michael G. Hagerty) and Tina (Laura Kightlinger), echoing the struggles of Ralph, Alice, Ed, and Trixie fifty years ago.

But then something remarkable happened: I began to like the show. I find this odd to say the least: It is a distinctly unlikable show, filled with unfunny R-rated stints consisting of men’s verbal assaults on women’s anatomy. Louie’s friends are homophobic and downright detestable. However, in the show’s first ten episodes, I have not yet encountered one that does not, at discrete moments, shock me with its intelligence. In fact, I think of all the shows I am currently watching, Lucky Louie is the most intertextually rich show on television. In the pilot (June 11, 2006), Louie’s and Kim’s daughter, Lucy (Kelly Gould) has a childish fit at having been given, by their upwardly mobile African-American neighbors, a black Barbie. In the middle of her 4th birthday party, Lucy begins sobbing about how much she doesn’t like the black Barbie. The scene comes straight out of Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959), at the beginning of which Sarah Jayne demonstrates her first sign of radical assimilationism when she rejects her black doll in favor of the white one that her “adoptive step-sister” has. However, the Lucky Louie pilot moves beyond this now ancient 1950s liberal critique of racism. When Louie goes into the hallway to throw out his trash, the black neighbor, Walter (Jerry Minor), sees that among the detritus is the black doll. When Louie tries to cover for his insult, Walter explains that they only bought the doll because they were “half off.” Walter calls Louie on his intentions–“I get the feeling that you’re only trying to acquire a black friend”–which Louie admits to immediately.

Jerry Minor as Walter on Lucky Louie

Jerry Minor as Walter on Lucky Louie

Three episodes later, in “The Long Weekend” (July 2, 2006), Louie and Walter again engage in some of the most honest engagements with race on American television. Standing outside having a smoke, Walter observes matter-of-factly that it must be great to be white. After some denial, Louie finally fesses up: “Yeah, it’s pretty sweet.” Walter retorts, in a hilarious deadpan delivery, “If white people aren’t having a good time, what’s it all for?” However, the episode is built around Louie’s failure to find success, despite his whiteness. This time, he has spent the rent money for a $300 Frankenstein doll on E-bay. Louie exits his conversation with Walter explaining, “See, I don’t even know how to be white.” Whatever the show’s more general problems, it is moments like these–interrogating the complex relationships between race and class in America–that converted me into a fan of the show.

In its examination of the white working class, Lucky Louie builds on HBO’s expertise, established most clearly in its equally innovative reality show, Family Bonds (2004). The pilot ends with the mother teaching her son to ride a bike after the abusive father has failed, a moment that stands in my viewing experience as the most heartfelt and honest depiction of the kind of community I grew up in when I was young (and my family was poor). In its depiction of frank sexual relations among married people, Lucky Louie furthers a different HBO strength, one found most explicitly in Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present). While the show is rightly celebrated for its improvisational examination of public social dysfunction, what strikes me as most relevant to my life is Larry’s spot-on and quite wonderful relationship with his wife Cheryl. They talk frankly about their sexual desires. At one moment, I think the show’s best, Cheryl complains that Larry never initiates sex. He explains that he is always available, but that he is merely being respectful of Cheryl’s personal space. While the gendering of things is very different in my own relationship, it is refreshing to see frank discussions of sexuality on television that ring true of what goes on in real bedrooms.

Because it is a show based on an R-rated comedian’s act, Lucky Louie is awash in sexuality. However, beyond the unfunny sexist jokes that Louie’s male friends share with him, back in the private seclusion of their bedroom (of course made public for us in the audience), Louie and Kim are honest, flawed lovers. In a hilarious preamble for an episode, “Drinking” (August 6, 2006), Louie lies awake obsessing over his paralyzing, existential dread. His babbling about death wakes Kim up. To shut him up, she gives him a hand job. In a hilarious moment, she asks him if he’s still thinking about death, to which he replies in the negative with a happy grunt and a smile. At this point the credits roll. I can think of few moments on American television that so delightfully capture the idiocy of male sexuality.

\"Kim\" of Lucky Louie

“Kim” of Lucky Louie

Lucky Louie is most obviously a show whose importance lies in its radical aesthetic style. On this point, I have given the show short shrift. Week in and out, it uses the traditional x-axis set of the family sitcom with virtuosity. In the episode, “Discipline” (July 23, 2006), clearly the best so far, Louie is trying to keep Lucy from becoming a spoiled brat, and being undercut by Kim, who, because she works all day, is overly indulgent with the child. As Louie is trying to give Lucy her first time out, somewhat incompetently by locking her in the closet (which the show’s pilot and subsequent episodes have established as the place he likes to masturbate) on the right hand side of the set, Louie rushes over to screen right to lock Kim out of their front door. As he is doing so, Lucy escapes from the closet and runs towards the camera in the front of the set. This moment captures wonderfully the potential of stage design in the American sitcom.

However, what has me excited about the possibility that the show will continue beyond its initial twelve episodes is its intertextual depth, not at either the aesthetic or narrative level, but at the level of the individual, throw-away moment. As one final example, in the episode “Get Out” (July 30, 2006), Louie’s friend Mike’s teenaged stepdaughter is going through a rebellious phase, running away and living with a sleazy middle-aged man named Carl. Their friend Rich explains the behavior at the dinner table in terms he seems to have learned from watching too much Animal Planet: “Mike is the dominant male. He wants to kill Shannon and eat her.” While the line itself is unfunny and sexist, it indicts the phony science and anthropomorphism of the natural history programming rampant across the basic cable outlets. Any show that is smart enough to do something like this will keep me watching next week.

Image Credits:

1. Lucky Louie

2. Jerry Minor as Walter on Lucky Louie

3. “Kim” of Lucky Louie

Please feel free to comment.




“Big Man on Campus Ladies”

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter

I once had a wonderful conversation with my introduction to feminism class. The mostly nineteen-year-olds in attendance seemed pretty content to validate women staying at home and raising families. I thought I could cause trouble by arguing that it was their moral imperative to find work that they found rewarding and engage in it. Given the historical banishment of women from working in the public space, it rested on their shoulders, I argued, to not let neo-conservatism decimate the profound social effects of the feminist movement. Whether or not they chose to have children in addition to that was external to the discussion.

Now a year later, I am not at all sure whether I did more good than harm. I of course see it as my central mission to encourage women students to excel, and allow them to see the sociological evidence for the continuing oppression of women in patriarchal culture. And, I certainly want to model for my students that my life — a world of reading books, watching movies, and writing about them — is exemplary of how being happy and productive is more deeply rewarding than the status quo messages they often receive from parents, churches, and other apparatuses of conformity. However, a recent episode of the Oxygen cable network’s sit-com, Campus Ladies, has me thinking about that day in my feminism class in particular, and more generally about the pitiful status of university pedagogy in this very sick culture of ours.

Campus Ladies is a wonderful — politically smart and often quite hilarious — improvisational comedy created by Christen Sussin and Carrie Aizley about two middle-aged women, Joan and Barri, who decide to enroll in college. The show is executive produced by Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry David’s beleaguered wife on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show is important for a number of reasons, one of which is the way in which it attests to the spread of HBO techniques to other television outlets, in this case a women-centered basic cable network.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is a groundbreaking show, constructing hilarious comedy out of misanthropic behavior. For its New Year’s Eve programming, HBO offered a “cringe-athon,” airing all of the last season’s episodes back-to-back. When an emotional affect, the cringe, becomes the basis of an advertising scheme, we can be pretty confident a new narrative domain has been defined. However, Curb Your Enthusiasm is very much Larry David’s vanity show, building an axial narrative around his bad behavior. The women who surround him either suffer in a state of confusion (Cheryl) or are shrill and mean (Susie, his agent’s wife). The innovation of Campus Ladies is to apply the cringe-com method to female experience. What would the female equivalents of Larry David look like? What would they do?

The show gleans its social critique from outrageous gender reversals. In the series’ boldest episode, “No Means No,” Barri gives a Vicodin to the university’s star quarterback, Malcolm Rice. In a drug-induced state of freedom, Malcolm takes Barri into his fraternity house bedroom and confesses that he always wanted to be a star of musical theatre. He sings, in falsetto, “I can sing so high like Mandy Patinkin,” which creeps out even Barri. The scene resumes with them lying in bed, Barri in post-coital bliss, Malcolm in a state of confusion. Malcolm stumbles out of his room, screaming so all at the crowded party can hear him: “Barri Martin date raped me!” Barri and Joan suffer through the second act of the show, scorned by the entire campus community as the “raper” and her friend. However, things end happily when the Dean explains to Barri that she was Malcolm’s “moped,” “a woman whom a man wants to ride, but doesn’t want anyone to see riding.” Barri returns to the frat house with football-shaped cupcakes, hoping to apologize. When everyone continues to scorn her, Malcolm intervenes and announces to everyone that Barri did not rape him. Barri offers a hilarious counter-apology: “If mounting you saddle-style made you uncomfortable, I’m sorry too.” The show thus takes a very serious, and taboo, campus social problem, and renders it subject to comedic treatment by reversing the gender roles of the participants. Like all great comedy, the show sides with the outcasts — the Iranian Abdul; the overweight R.A., Guy; and Joan and Barri, the middle-aged women constantly harassed by perky teenage girls who make them feel as if they do not belong at college.

the cast of Campus Ladies

the cast of Campus Ladies

The episode that has me all aflutter, however, is entitled “All Nighter,” and features Joan and Barri immediately getting themselves into a cringe-worthy situation. They arrive late at the first meeting of their class, “Women in American History.” In a series of comic interruptions, they completely disrupt Prof. Fabre’s class. She finally kicks them out. However, it is Prof. Fabre’s outright discriminatory behavior that is remarkable. When Fabre refuses to believe that Joan and Barri are students, she quips, “Perhaps if you leave in time, you might get home and see a new episode of Oprah.” The students chuckle behind their backs, thus linking Fabre’s behavior to the perky blonde twins who torment Joan and Barri throughout the series. Later, when Joan and Barri go to Prof. Fabre’s office to try to apologize, Fabre again heaps on the feminist vitriol: “If the two of you have come to swap recipes, I’m not really in the mood.”

The show works to establish Joan and Barri’s victory over Fabre in the oddest political terms. Fabre demands that the women deliver an oral presentation on an important figure in feminism. Joan and Barri pull an all-nighter trying to decide on their topic. They finally choose Fabre herself. Joan and Barri out Prof. Fabre before the students, reporting on how she and her lover lived in Chile. After the presentation, they cross paths with Fabre and her lover, Ming, on the campus quad. While Fabre is outraged and humiliated, Ming is quite grateful: “You guys did us a favor.” Ming forces Fabre to apologize to our heroes, which she does. The episode ends as the twins walk by, trying again to terrorize Joan and Barri. However, Barri gets the last laugh, sticking a sign on one twin’s back that reads, “I’m farting.”

Of course, from Animal House (John Landis, 1978) onward, most American popular culture has been ignorant and insulting toward academic life. College is represented as a place where students party with wild abandon, and professors and deans are stuffed-shirts who try to ruin all of the fun. But the political contradictions in the “All-Nighter” episode of Campus Ladies are particularly confusing. Why would a show that wants to defend the marginalized (overweight, middle-aged women, and lesbians) equate vacuous, normative-obsessed teeny boppers with a feminism professor?

I worry that there is a particular vitriol reserved at this moment of American culture for professors. In very different circumstances, two films this past fall have demonstrated that professorial abuse is the new domestic violence. In The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005), Jeff Daniels plays a professor father who pelts his family with tennis balls as the film opens, and it only gets worse from there. In Bee Season (Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2005), Richard Gere plays a Jewish studies professor who so pressures his daughter into winning the national spelling bee that she judiciously chooses to lose the tournament on purpose rather than feed his megalomania. I wonder if in a culture where authority has so demeaned us (from Bush’s illegal wiretapping to Michael Brown’s mishandling of the New Orleans debacle to the Enron leadership’s thievery), these texts use academics as authority figures as the easiest target available to channel our rightful anger.

While I know plenty of arrogant professors — both men and women — who behave like Fabre, I also know many others who deserve more than caricature. I would love to believe that I am one of the latter, but I worry now that my rhetorical flourish in front of the feminism students was more Fabre than Rose Morgan, Barbara Streisand’s ebullient professor in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Is it possible to critique a culture of housewifery without abusing housewives?

In the very same class, I took an equally critical — and again, rhetorical — position concerning having children. When I was explaining why I was a bit late for class, because my son was ill and I had to swap him with my wife on the way to class, a student rolled her eyes and told me to stop complaining because I “chose” to have children. I tried to calmly explain that “choice” is actually quite complicated: did my wife’s passionate desire to have kids leave me a “choice?” We proceeded to have a conversation about mixing the raising of children with an academic career. Again to be controversial, I asserted that it might be better to have professors with children dealing with college students.

Of course, immediately afterwards, I backtracked from this position: many of the single women professors I know are my role models for excellence in the professoriate, and gay men and lesbian professors do not have the same access to having children that I did. The contradiction between these two positions, advocating careerism and parenthood, indicates to me the value of, not radicalism, but instead centrism. Professors need to take reasoned positions that account for complexity. In our representations, we are going to find many mean, terrible professors like Fabre, and a few glorious ones like Streisand, but what we need, and what I would like to present in front of my students, is the real one, flawed yet functional, well-meaning yet sometimes wrong.

Links:
Campus Ladies
IMDB: The Mirror Has Two Faces

Image Credits:

1. Rosie the Riveter

2. the cast of Campus Ladies

Please feel free to comment.




“You Got to Know When to Hold Em”: Notes Against the Academicization of Television

by: Walter Metz / University of Montana-Bozeman

November 28, 2005 From a sociological point of view, the most remarkable thing that happened to me, upon returning from living in Germany for a year, experiencing so-called “reverse culture shock,” was not the expected panic at grocery stores the size of football fields, but the discovery of how little I knew about poker. When I left the United States in September 2003, I knew how to play five card draw, and vaguely knew there was a version with seven cards, with the salacious moniker, “stud.”

When I returned in August 2004, my television was awash with every basic cable outlet branding its own version of “Texas Hold ’em.” Because you only get dealt two cards, hold ’em is a game of statistical simplicity, making its prospects as a televisual event seems unlikely indeed. However, within a few weeks, I was completely hooked on this odd sports reality programming. My TiVo is now loaded with its permutations: ESPN’s World Series of Poker, The Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown, and Game Show Network’s “Battle Royale,” whose various short series typically pit celebrities (example: the James Woods “gang”) againstpoker professionals (like Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber, so named because he hides his face behind a hooded sweatshirt after he makes an aggressive bet).

James Woods

James Woods

The aesthetic conventions of television coverage of hold ’em are remarkable. The presentation of the game allows you to see every player’s “hole cards,” the two cards that are dealt face down. Players then make five-card poker hands out of these cards, combined with five cards dealt face up in a community row. Next to each player’s hole cards, the monitor indicates the statistical probability that his or her hand will win. This practice constructs the television viewer as an omniscient guru who is encouraged to treat each gambler’s misstep with utter contempt. The viewer is almost never reminded by the off-camera analysts that the gamblers’ bets and folds are made in the dark, without benefit of knowing the other players’ cards.

Armed with this televisually-constructed superiority, I went to my local Target store and bought myself the paraphernalia necessary for my own hold ’em game. Despite watching some hundreds of hours of the game on television, in real life my seven-year old son proceeded to decimate my chip stacks with alarming regularity. He then went on to beat all of his friends at daycare in their own hold ’em tournament. I will leave the discussion of the morality of children playing poker at their daycare center for another occasion. I think it is wonderful, and would defend this against the inanities of the Montessori system to my dying day, but some other time.

Arrogantly assuming that my son was just some sort of hold ’em prodigy, I proceeded to buy the various hand-held and video game versions of hold ’em. My favorite is the World Series of Poker game for the X-Box because you get to play against (and lose to) the famous poker players (Chris Ferguson, Johnny Chan, etc.) that you see on the television coverage. Alas, I will not be selling my house and moving to Vegas any time soon: in the game, you are given $10,000 for the entry fee to the “Main Event” of the World Series of Poker, and I have never made it beyond the first table, leaving the tournament in 3,000th place or below (and thus not winning any money) each and every time I have played.

Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

I belabor this story of my television poker viewing because it indicates something crucial about spectatorship and academic life. I have learned absolutely nothing from watching television poker. I do not even remember the episodes that I have watched, such that I will watch some five or ten hands before it dawns on me that I have already seen this tournament, and know who is going to win. My wife leaves the room when I watch poker, finding it the most boring thing about me.

My wife and I have had this argument before. Before DVD sets of television shows were available, I would fill 8 hour VHS tapes with 20 episodes of The Simpsons and watch them again and again. She would berate me for watching the same thing ten times, but I would explain that sitting with the Simpsons all night was much better than crying myself to sleep. However, in the back of my mind was always the academic justification of my television viewing: somewhere down the line, I would be ready to write that great Simpsons essay, armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the exact episode locations of all of the smart stuff. After all, this obsessive, compulsive textual analysis of The Simpsons at night was remarkably similar to my day job, where I use the same skills to teach students about the novels of Herman Melville and the films of Fritz Lang.

However, I can see no such defense for my watching the World Series of Poker. Even if there are academic articles to be written about hold ’em (a sociological understanding of the rise in popularity of the game and its televisual presence at this historical moment seems important), I certainly have no interest in writing them. And it would be incorrect to say that I am a “fan” of television poker. It is clear that there are fans (they come to the tournaments, both as players and as spectators in droves), and that television poker has a star system of professional players like any other sport, but this is not why I watch. In fact, I find most of these players, like the ill-behaved Phil Helmuth, just the sort of regressive, infantile character that I urge my students not to be like when they grow up.

Instead, I believe I am using poker in the classic sense which sees television as a piece of household furniture. The little statistical battles in television poker are soothing to look in on, and yet are fully disposable. Whether Robert Williamson III wins the hand that he is “all in” on or not, my life will continue, and in fact when I encounter this very same hand three months from now, I will not remember whether he won, and the five minutes of drama it provides will give me just as much pleasure then as it does now.

Calling television disposable is a cardinal sin in academic television studies. We fight to have our study of this medium respected by those who study William Faulkner professionally. I am not arguing that we should not wage this battle–I was just recently told that I did not get a university research stipend because my project was on Bewitched, and therefore self-evidently not serious–but I wonder if it is not time to write more honestly about the many facets of television. One such facet is absolutely academically defensible; for example, Lost is as important to the early 21st century as its equivalent, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, was to the 15th century. However, another facet is that we watch television to relax.

Relaxation is a crucial human emotion that is pretty far afield from academic life. When we relax, we feel guilty because we are not getting the writing done that we are supposed to, even when we are at home. So instead, we are encouraged to relax more productively than “just” watching television; I feel less guilty when I am at the health club exercising because that is productive. It turns out that such productivity–keeping my body healthy–is pretty annoying and not at all relaxing.

When I was a kid, my Aunt Eleanore used to refer to watching television as “looking at” television. I always thought that was a strange way of putting it, but now I think it completely appropriate. Academic television studies have tried to shift “watching television” toward connotations of “analyzing” and “thinking.” That is good, because it focuses attention on the active, intellectual engagements we make with television. However, I sometimes also just “look at” The Simpsons and the World Series of Poker, and that is just as important to who I am as is my analytical book on Bewitched. Here’s looking at you, Phil Gordon!

Links
ESPN Poker
Travel channel World Poker Tour
Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown
Game Show Network

Image Credits:

1. James Woods

2. Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

Please feel free to comment.




The Los Angeles Misanthrope

A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

In my book, Engaging Film Criticism, I argue for the importance of academic critics intervening into the reception of films while they are still being attended to by the general population. One of the terrific things about on-line publication is that it allows for such interventions, since the normal channels of refereed academic publication are simply too slow to allow for it. Of course, popular film reviewing has the benefit of such contemporaneous intervention, but its function is to serve taste culture — will Roger Ebert’s readership find spending money on a particular film worthwhile — rather than to generate knowledge and understanding.

Of course, when it comes to television, there is not nearly so well developed a critical apparatus. Popular film reviews are ubiquitous, while television reviewing is limited to a few newspapers. Entertainment Weekly is really the only major popular publication that treats television as thoroughly as film. However, the same problems with academic interventions into the critical landscape of television exist as they do with scholarly film reviewing. Academic journal articles and books on television take far too long to intervene into discussions about the potential meanings of shows while people are watching them with enthusiasm. While there are websites, like Television Without Pity, which analyze each new episode of favorite shows, such as The Simpsons, the discourse on these sites is not necessarily bound by the rigor of scholarly analysis. This is not to say that the reception of shows on these web sites is without value; on the contrary, these sites provide tremendously valuable data about the reception of television, data which any film reception studies scholar would drool over were it available for, say, the 1930s films of Frank Capra.

As with film reviewing, we need a middle-ground institutional space where today‚Äôs television shows are discussed using the historical and theoretical tools of academic media studies. I think the success of FLOW will lie in its ability to produce such middle-ground criticism about shows that are usually too new to be engaged by academics at the time when such interventions would actually matter. The extensive thread that has developed in response to Jason Mitell’s two articles about Lost is, I think, a very encouraging sign about the success FLOW is having. I have been sharing these discussions with my friends outside of the academic circuit, people who love to watch and talk about Lost with me. If I were to have these conversations with these friends three years from now, when the academic articles on Lost will finally start circulating beyond the ephemerality of academic conference papers, these interventions would be far too late.

It strikes me that one of the repercussions of the academic delay in writing about television is an emphasis on the overall structure of the show rather than the individual episodes through which we actually encounter it, and about which the internet fans predominantly write. I think we’ll see a number of academic studies of Six Feet Under, for example, now that the series finale has aired, and that its entirety can be assessed. At the very least, the academic will wait for the end of a season in order to speculate on the structure of the show beyond the individual episode. For example, Mittell’s articles about Lost come after the season one finale, anticipating the premiere of season two. I am not arguing against either seeing the entire series as a complete text, nor the segmentation of television into seasons. However, I think there is another aspect of television’s segmentation and flow that can be attended to if we take our reception of television shows at their most discrete level, that of the individual episode. In order to pursue what can be gained by doing so, I want to do a close textual reading of the most recent episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Bowtie,” which aired this past Sunday, October 2, 2005. I think Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the most important sitcoms ever on television. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created in Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998) a highly literate version of George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), a comic critique of “civilized” social relations. In his new show on HBO, David strips his earlier work of its network-induced hedges, producing the boldest examination of social dysfunction since Moliere’s The Misanthrope (1666). If I were to write the typical academic analysis of the show, that is, do what I am trained to, I would select out some of my favorite episodes and piece together an argument about the show’s overarching meaning. For example, I think the show is boldest when it tackles religion in contemporary American social life. This would lead me to the analysis of an episode like “The Baptism” (aired 11/ 18/2001) where Larry stops the conversion from Judaism to Christianity of his potential brother-in-law, much to the chagrin of his wife Cheryl’s Christian family.

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Academics always cheat in this way, stacking their argument with the best possible textual evidence of their position. Instead, I propose that we put our money where our mouth is and see if our methods can be brought to bear on more randomly selected material. When I teach film criticism, for example, I have students select the film that they want to see at the movie theatre over the weekend. My challenge is to then go to the film cold, select academic reading material to illuminate it, and teach that material to the students the next week. I intend my analysis of “The Bowtie” in this “put up or shut up” spirit.

“The Bowtie” begins with Larry sitting in the office of Omar Jones (played by Mekhi Phifer), a private investigator. In the season opener, “The Larry David Sandwich” (aired 9/25/05), Larry thinks he heard his father, while lying sedated in the hospital, whisper that Larry was adopted. Larry desperately wants to know if this is true, so that, as in Freud’s “Family Romance” fantasy, he can disavow his dysfunctional parents. However, Omar is a Black Muslim, and only works for “his community.” Larry comically suggests that he could volunteer calling out bingo numbers for this community, but Omar is unconvinced: “Bingo is a distraction.”

Larry then borrows Omar’s key to the restroom in his building. There, Larry has an encounter with a man in a wheelchair. Like the best of Seinfeld episodes, Larry’s encounters will all build nuance around this theme of “community,” finally culminating in an ending scene which clearly states the show’s liberal political position. In the bathroom, the man in the wheelchair chides Larry for using “his stall,” the larger one equipped with accessibility railings. Larry tries to defend himself, arguing that “I haven’t seen a handicapped person in the bathroom, maybe ever.” After a fight about the politically correct term for the man’s condition, “handicapped or disabled,” the man wheels himself into the stall, muttering that Larry is “a douche bag.”

In yet another encounter with members of a “community,” Larry and his agent, Jeff, walk through a parking lot where they discover a man walking away from his car, parked in a handicapped spot. Larry confronts the man, “What’s with the walking?” to which the man replies, stuttering, arguing that his disability makes it appropriate for him to park in the handicapped spot. Larry loses this encounter as badly as with the man in the wheelchair: this man stutters that Larry is a “fucking prick.”

Once Larry and Jeff arrive at the restaurant, Jodi Funkhouser (played by Blossom’s Mayim Bialik), treats him very nicely, rudely ignoring Jeff. When Jeff asks Larry the reason for the differential treatment, Larry explains that “The word got out that I am a friend o’ lesbians,” that they love him “moreso than any other community, including Jews.” However, Larry soon spoils this goodwill, when Jodi’s father, Marty, explains that she is now engaged to a man. Larry responds too enthusiastically to this news, causing the lesbians of Los Angeles to scorn him publicly.

In the meantime, Larry has picked out a dog at the pound. Cheryl’s African-American friend, Wanda, comes over to their apartment to see the dog. When the dog barks aggressively at Wanda and a black workman, but not at Cheryl, Larry, or the white workman, Wanda tells Larry that he owns a racist dog. Wanda hilariously observes that Larry has chosen a perfect name, Sheriff, for “a Klan dog.”

Things continue to deteriorate for Larry’s reputation with the episode’s various “communities.” At a dinner party, a table of African-American people is being boisterous. When Larry asks them to be quiet so that he can order his food, he is ignored and ridiculed. One of the men at the table accuses Larry of being a racist because of his dog. When Larry inquires as to how the man knows about the dog, he responds, “Because we talk, Larry.” Here the episode sets up its comic critique of identity politics, building a paranoid sense of Otherness in which the members of these “communities” really are in direct contact, conspiring against Larry. A bit later, Omar calls Larry, chiding him for his behavior at the banquet, having gained a direct report from the people at the table because: “We talk, Mr. David, we talk.”

However, in a pastiche of a Seinfeld episode, the narrative of “The Bowtie” redeems Larry in the eyes of the “communities.” As Larry is talking to Jodi’s new fiance Dan, he prattles on about not understanding women’s “equipment,” arguing how brave Dan is for not being intimidated by Jodi having had sex with women. “That whole area is mysterious to me,” Larry argues, directly replicating a famous conversation between Jerry and George on the earlier show. When Larry meets Jeff the next day for lunch at a restaurant apparently staffed and attended by the lesbian community, Larry is offered dessert “on the house.” Jeff observes, “You, my friend, are back in the lesbian busom.” Larry meets his friend Rosie O’Donnell on the street, who stood up for him “at the meeting” of Los Angeles lesbians. Rosie informs Larry that now “all lesbians love you” because he caused Jodi to be “back on the team,” again replicating the sports metaphor used by Jerry and George on Seinfeld to absurdly describe heterosexuality and homosexuality as opposing sides on a baseball field.

The rest of the episode is devoted to Larry’s victory over the communities’ conspiracies against him. Larry enters the bathroom again in Omar’s office building. Having learned his lesson, he waits to use the regular stall, even though the handicapped one is free. However, when the same man in the wheelchair emerges from the regular stall, Larry takes the moral upper-hand and chides him. When the man explains that the “normal” stall was free, so he used it, Larry turns the tables on his politically correct language use: “We don’t like to be referred to as normal. We’re able-bodied.”

The show ends with a bravura statement of its liberal political position and its critique of radical identity politics. After having agreed to take Larry’s adoption case, Omar emerges out of his building to retrieve his bathroom key, which Larry keeps forgetting to return. When Larry sees Omar rushing toward his dog, he is petrified that the racist canine will ruin his goodwill with the Muslim private detective. However, Omar pets Sheriff, who is gentle. The episode ends with the dog attacking Rosie O’Donnell instead! The scene itself has already made its point against the atomization of social life into a set of restrictive communities by emphasizing that the assumption of the dog’s ability to replicate human racism was built on circumstantial evidence. But even more interesting is that this entire ending scene takes place in front of what film scholar Tom Conley, invoking Derrida, calls a written rebus, a piece of writing inside the image which provides the allegorical key to its meaning. In this case, the rebus is the name of a food vending cart in the background of the image, “Selma’s.” Here the show invokes the liberal Civil Rights movement; the fight in Selma, Alabama being one of its greatest struggles-against the bowtie-wearing black Muslim, Louis Farrakhan, whom Omar clearly parodies. The show argues for the value of liberalism over the radical and false separation of people into monotheistic identity categories. The dog, alas, has more sense than the people. Whatever Sheriff’s behavior at Larry’s apartment, on the street, he has the good sense to bark at Rosie O’Donnell, the giver of craptacularly bad talk shows, over Mekhi Phifer, a wonderful actor; as acerbic, and correct, a comment as Curb Your Enthusiasm has ever made.

Image Credits:

1. A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

2. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Please feel free to comment.




The Televisual Tour de France on OLN: Confessions of a “Cynic”

by: Walter Metz / Montana State University-Bozeman

Bike Crash

Bike Crash

The state of television viewing in my household during the month of July is remarkable. For three entire weeks, my satellite dish’s Personal Video Recorder is running virtually non-stop shuttling the antics of Lance Armstrong on the Outdoor Life Network’s coverage of the Tour de France to the hard drive.

My family loves watching the tour, but I am firmly convinced that bicycle racing is a sport only televisable in the age of the PVR. Most of the time, the best riders sit back in a big group of bikes called the peleton. Lance Armstrong has won seven years in a row, and during most of the hundreds of hours of his victories, he has been hidden at the front of this peleton, flanked by his teammates (first on the U.S. Postal Service team; now, in perfect post-network fashion, Team Discovery Channel). The other team members are — in some gender studies crucial way — called domestiques because their job is to ride their bikes back and forth from the team car to get water so that Lance can keep properly hydrated.

For a sporting event, there is little of interest to watch during most of the race, except for the beautiful French countryside. Without the PVR to zap the commercials — a typical basic cable string of self-promos and John Basedow’s abdominal muscles — the boring race would begin to compete with the advertisements in a grand competition of stupefaction. Once in a while, Lance will decide to climb a mountain at a superhuman speed that no one else could possibly match, but he only needs to do this once or twice a summer to assure his overall victory in the “general classification,” as the genial British OLN announcers, Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett, refer to the overall race lead. The ends of most races feature a mad sprint, whose excitement lasts for less than one minute, but Lance does not join in for fear of a tour-ending crash. I keep hoping that Lance will lose, given the hype that OLN heaps upon him. Aren’t the other riders — perpetual second-place finisher, German Jan Ullrich and this year’s upstart, Danish Michael Rasmussen — just as heroic as Lance? Rooting for the hyper-scientifically-trained Lance strikes me as only slightly less offensive than rooting for the Yankees.

Bike Crash

Severe Bike Crash

It baffles me why anyone would want to ride a bike in the first place: It is a mode of transportation specifically designed to be a pain in the butt (and remember, I am a film scholar, whose primary function in life is to sit in uncomfortable chairs in the dark!). I have friends who ride to work with their infants in crazy yellow contraptions tied to the backs of their bikes, as an environmental statement, but no such thing can be true of the sport bicyclists, as they discard at least 100 plastic water bottles on each race course every day. In his winning podium appearance on the Champs-Elysees on Sunday, July 24, in which he was, in unprecedented fashion, allowed to address the crowd, Lance chided the “cynics” who dispute cycling’s importance. I speak to you as an unrepentant cynic: as a television critic, I find cycling as bizarre a televisual event as ever. For a different opinion, please see John Levesque’s defense of OLN’s coverage as “exotic” and “exciting,” two adjectives that would have never crossed my mind, ever.[1] OLN shows each stage of the race as many as four times a day, constituting somewhere between a half and three-quarters of its daily schedule. It is perfect narrow-casting: basic cable outlet OLN links its coverage to outdoors programming meant for viewers interested in fitness. That’s not me — my walk to the university’s library from my office is exercise enough, thanks — but I continue to watch. I wonder, however, what the future of the Tour de France coverage will be without Lance Armstrong. Like the NBC Olympics, OLN’s coverage is focused on Armstrong as a representative of the United States, despite the fact that Team Discovery Channel (and more ironically last year, Team USPS) is mostly an international conglomeration of bike riders. My guess is that OLN will air the tour next year as well, but the ratings will be so abysmal that they will abandon the tour like some sprinter done in by a hors categoire climb.

The implications of my family’s now three-year-old July ritual are profound, and indicative of the state of post-network television. I recently decided to suspend my satellite programming so that I could get more writing done, until it dawned on my wife that this meant missing next year’s Tour de France. This, it seems to me, is the brilliance of narrow-casting. Other than an occasional rodeo bull ride, we never even think about watching OLN outside the month of July. The fact that we cannot suspend our $100 per month programming because of one event in one month on one basic cable network is a pretty strong defense of their business model. Vive le television! Vive le tour!

Note
[1] Levesque, John. “Tour de France an Exotic Diversion.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. July 21, 2005. Accessed: July 25, 2005.

Links
Outdoor Life Network
Offical Website for Lance Armstrong
Bike TV

Image Credits:
1. Bike Crash
2. Severe Bike Crash

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“Can There Be Television Without Star Trek?”

by: Walter Metz / Montana State University at Bozeman

Star Trek Enterprise

Star Trek Enterprise

With the usual dismay of a fan whose favorite show is being cancelled, I watched the series finale of Enterprise (UPN, 2001-2005) last night. The cancellation of the show is bad news, I will argue, for television history. The development of the Star Trek franchise has been a prominent part of American media history of the past forty years. A low-rated NBC show in the late 1960s, Star Trek (NBC, 1966-1969) developed a cult following in the 1970s, resulting in a lucrative series of feature films and a first-run syndicated sequel, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), itself the source for more feature films. Even more television shows resulted, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (also first-run syndication, 1993-1999) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). This latter show was used to help launch UPN, an idea for a (at the time) fourth network that had been brewing at Paramount since the 1970s. Of course, by the time the network debuted in 1995, it was the sixth network (behind Fox and the WB) in a televisual landscape already saturated with cable channels. This was the economic climate in which Enterprise found itself when launched in late September 2001, not insignificantly three weeks after 9/11.

Like most television shows, Enterprise was cancelled because of low ratings. Its premiere episode garnered respectable ratings (7.0 with an 11 share). By the third season, the weekly ratings hovered around a 2.5 with a 4 share. The collapse of Enterprise says something significant about the changed nature of Paramount’s position. UPN now no longer needs a flagship Star Trek show to compete in the industry. In the 1980s, Star Trek was one of the company’s few reliable brand names. The thought of launching a television network without Star Trek as its flagship would have been unthinkable. Now, however, the network airs more typical, banal shows that compete far better in the marketplace. For example, a piece by Steve Rogers of Reality TV World boasts, “America’s Top Model Setting UPN Ratings Records,” highlighting the reality show’s 4.9 million viewers on January 11, 2004. The Enterprise episode, “Chosen Realm,” which aired that week on January 14, by contrast, had only 3.9 million viewers. Given these economic conditions, will a new Star Trek series ever be launched? After all, reality TV is very cheap to produce, and Star Trek is, by definition, special effects-intensive and thus very expensive to produce. If television becomes Star Trek-free, should we care? I believe we should: television without Star Trek would be lamentable. However, my rationale for this position is not what you might expect.

I should start by saying that I am a thoroughly schizophrenic Star Trek viewer. On the one hand, I have never missed an episode of any of the Star Trek shows. On the other hand, I find these series’ Gene Roddenberry-inspired utopianisms thoroughly unpalatable. I see little evidence that the dysfunctional United Nations might serve as a model for interplanetary politics, even in the very distant future. I also find the racial allegorizing of most of the series completely impotent: the representation of discrimination against aliens does not necessarily engage real-world racism because people’s racist impulses on Earth are founded on misguided interpretations of their surroundings. For example, some of my Montana students tend to believe Native Americans are lazy because they happen to live near a reservation. Without the real-world legacies of racism (no one on our planet has ever suffered from, or perpetrated, discrimination against the Klingons), it is quite a stretch to believe that anti-racist allegories have much ideological force.

Of all the Star Trek shows, I liked Enterprise the best. It muddied the utopianism of Roddenberry’s Star Trek by making our intrepid human explorers thoroughly incompetent and outgunned at every turn. Furthermore, the Vulcans, those Mr. Spock-like rationalists praised by Roddenberry’s system, are revealed as scheming hypocrites. What is important about this is that the ever-expanding Star Trek televisual universe requires radical alterations to the basic premise of the franchise to keep it alive.

Enterprise accomplished this radical modulation with virtuosity. After 9/11, the writers completely altered the course of the show, ending the first season with Captain Archer standing amid World Trade Center-like urban ruins, the result of a “Temporal Cold War,” an attempt by aliens to keep the Enterprise from arranging the development of the United Federation of Planets.

This plot arc resulted in, I think, one of the best seasons of television of any show, its third season, in which Enterprise is thrust into “The Expanse” in order to avenge the murder of millions of people in Florida, the result of a sneak attack by a species known as the Xindi. This 9/11 allegory shifted the show fully serial, as each week we watched to find out if the Enterprise would be able to navigate this hostile section of space and destroy the Xindi’s weapon before it could annihilate the Earth. While Star Trek: The Next Generation shifted semi-serial in the early 1990s, with an astonishing season-ending cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds” (5/18/90) in which Captain Picard was transformed into a cyborg, Enterprise‘s third season resembled the fully serial and thus melodramatic nature of the prime-time soap opera and its ratings-grabbing cousin, 24 (Fox, 2001-present).

Enterprise seems a show thoroughly designed to alienate its fan base. One of the things I really dislike about Star Trek are all those scenes with people standing around discussing space-time anomalies. Enterprise minimized this science babble, instead embracing the melodramatics of television drama. In my favorite scene in the show, we wonder whether Commander Trip Tucker (Connor Trinneer) and Subcommander T’Pol (Jolene Blalock) will have sex while rubbing each other in the decontamination chamber. Even Dynasty‘s Crystal Carrington never did anything to compete with that.

But the most melodramatic change involves the song sung during the credit sequence. In the Star Trek televisual universe, this is sheer sacrilege. All the Star Trek shows save this one begin with some inspirational instrumental music designed to capture the seriousness of space travel. Enterprise instead features Russell Watson singing, “Faith of the Heart”: “It’s been a long road, gettin’ from there to here.” It’s a catchy tune in its “Greatest American Hero” cheesiness, so much so that my seven-year-old son and I looked forward to singing along with it every Friday night. Whatever its musical failings, the song indeed captures the changed theme of the show: It expresses the melodramatic desire these characters have for not letting the Vulcans push them around anymore, to go out and boldly explore where no one has gone before.

All of which is to say that what killed Enterprise in the ratings is what makes it great — by which I mean, typical — television. Unlike my love of cinema, my engagement with television relies on intimacy and familiarity. For example, I love to watch Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1972), not because its episodes are brilliantly-written or that it is hysterically funny, but because after a few episodes watching the endearing characters (witty Samantha, scheming Endora, and befuddled Darrin), I am hooked on the experience of being with them to confront their daily crises. After seeing the 254 episodes multiple times, I still want to be with them. Such is the case with Star Trek, multiplied via an array of different series in a way impossible with Bewitched, and hence the dismal failure of its spin-off, Tabitha (ABC, 1977-1978). Star Trek builds a universe of intimacy. I know it as well as I know my own backyard: My backyard has worms while Star Trek‘s has wormholes. To make a new Star Trek show, one has the luxury of 39 years’ worth of such intimacy. Unlike Bewitched, it does not have to be built from the ground up. This is the lesson of Enterprise: to delve into the back story of where the Federation came from is to delve into the back story of television itself. To not be able to experience this return of intimacy in another Star Trek show would be devastating.

Sources:
Enterprise Nielsen Ratings.
Rogers, Steve. “America’s Next Top Model Setting UPN Ratings Records.” Reality TV World. January 30, 2004.

Links:
Star Trek Fansite
Film Roar: Star Trek Enterprise Cancelled

Image Credits:
1. Star Trek Enterprise

Please feel free to comment.