My Own Private TV

by: Erin MacLeod / McGill University

With the “TV on DVD” phenomenon in full effect (Golden Girls, My Little Pony and Friends, and Too Close for Comfort — among many others — have all been released in the last few weeks), almost any show you’ve ever loved that’s been either relegated to reruns or sporadic glimpses on various cable channels is available for a small fee from Amazon.com. As an absolute TV junkie, I’m happy that I can get a hold of my favorite small-screen gems in their pristine, commercial-less form rather than buying some crappy VHS version off Ebay.

But for those of us who were, for many years, in the business of trading copies of television shows, what does this all mean? My somewhat fuzzy full season of The Ben Stiller Show was a prized possession that became worthless on 11 December 2003, the date that the complete 1992-93 season was released on DVD for the low price of $26.99.

Billed as “the funniest show you never saw” in the time since it was cancelled after one season on Fox, my video copies of Ben Stiller episodes made me part of a larger community — people who’d seen the show when it originally aired, but moreover, people who cared enough to share quality television. Sure, it’s great that Ben Stiller and its sketch comedy brilliance is available to everyone, but it seems that something’s been lost. To more fully understand this issue, it’s best to recount the tale of the supposedly triumphant DVD release of another one-season stunner: Freaks and Geeks.

On one of the many commentaries included in the eighteen episode set, creator Paul Feig talks about how he wanted to make a television show about teenagers that didn’t trade in stereotypes — avoiding the archetypal nerds with taped glasses and, on the other hand, steering his focus clear of the beautiful people. The pilot’s initial scene clearly illustrates his vision. Opening with a vacuous conversation taking place on the bleachers between a jock and his perky, blond cheerleader girlfriend, the camera immediately juts downwards, under the seats, and plants itself on a group of scruffy kids: the “freaks.” Fittingly, the soundtrack shifts from some upbeat strumming to Van Halen. Clearly this isn’t going to be Dawson’s Creek. After one freak hails the merits of Jon Bonham’s drumming, the music swells and we shift to the “geeks”; they’re laughing at each other’s Bill Murray impersonations when interrupted by a group of slightly (and only slightly) “cooler” looking bullies.

It’s been only three minutes, but at this point Feig has established his characters. They’re not cardboard cutouts of various high school archetypes, they are real kids — as Feig himself puts it, “people I knew.” We don’t have the extremes, the heroes and zeroes here; we’ve got kids who simply go about the business of growing up. It’s simply not possible to find a comparable teen show that, over and above presenting teen angst, simply let kids talk to each other. This truthful approach garnered passionate fans, yet poor ratings, and thus wasn’t exactly appreciated by the network hacks. Executive producer Judd Apatow famously revealed that Garth Ancier, NBC’s programming director at the time, wanted “the kids to have more victories” — the cookie-cutter climaxes so prevalent in most teen movies and TV shows.

Avoiding the classic showdown between the cool kids and the dorks (think Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, and, more recently, Mean Girls), the truthful and realistic Freaks was riveting viewing for those who could relate. When the show was cancelled after months of futile fan protest in March 2000, fans were left to tape and trade episodes of their beloved show. Postings on the Freaks net message board are testament to this fact — not only are people furiously discussing the show in detail, but for the years between initial fall 1999 airing and DVD release in April 2004, the board’s threads are chock full of trading requests. Ebay bootleggers were a last resort, providing desperate fans with access to illegal tapes and DVDs.

Eventually, after a long struggle for music licensing (original licensing agreements do not fit with the new DVD reality) and 40,000 signatures, Shout! Factory made the dream of Freaks fanatics come true. The show that was yanked off the air because not enough folks were watching it would now be available to anyone who could cough up the cash to buy the box set.

I should be happy, but I can’t help but be a little disappointed that the process that brought Freaks to DVD re-inscribes the very same type of narrative that the show itself tried to avoid. Feig once said that “most people, when they write a high school show say, ‘If I knew back then what I know now, boy would I have ruled,’ and you know, they write the show that way. So all of these kids are popping off good ones and they’re making the other kids look dumb.” The fans who related to Bill, Neil, Sam, Lindsay, Nick, Kim, Ken, and Daniel ended up in a situation where they had to think of a scheme to get back at the nasty, popularity-hungry executives who took away their show. Much like the stereotypical high school power struggle, the fans took the role of the nerds who had to prove themselves — they had to figure out how to pop off the good ones that would get them a win. Here we find a victory that might make Garth Ancier proud.

Sure, Feig and Apatow created a “Special Edition” box set that was initially offered only to committed fans who’d signed the petition, but the fans vs. network situation ends up much like Feig’s description. It’s nice to rule the school, but once you are in with the popular kids (as one episode of Freaks made painfully clear) you tend to forget where you came from.

The community that is created as a result of love for a TV program — especially a short lived one — is disrupted by this instantaneous availability. For the average viewer, before the advent of VCRs, television was an incredibly ephemeral medium. VCRs gave way to personal taping and committed fans could dutifully collect episodes of their favorites. TV on DVD (and TiVo, for that matter) makes any of that care — not to mention the patience required during the wait for the next episode — irrelevant. The ability to watch episodes on DVD not only eliminates any waiting for commercials (or the fast forwarding through ads), but it also enables viewer to consume television at a much faster — and perhaps thereby less thoughtful — rate. You could down the whole of Freaks in a single day if you wanted to.

Interestingly, a recent topic on the Freaks message board asks viewers to state exactly when they first saw the show — some claim to have been in on it from the first commercial teaser, others admit that they were initiated only after it came out on DVD. I know that I should celebrate rather than disparage these newcomers, but regardless, the irony of the Freaks case throws into sharp relief this new relationship viewers must develop with television and the shows they care so deeply about. What will it look like? Until then, however, does anyone have any tapes of Undeclared they’d like to trade?

Links:
The Ben Stiller Show Web Memorial
Freaks and Geeks Website
Heather Hendershot’s Superfreaks article on FLOW

Please feel free to comment.




Laguna Beach

by: Anna McCarthy / New York University

“Oh my God, didn’t Morgan get pretty?” This was a friend’s response when I asked if he’d seen Laguna Beach, a new MTV reality show billed as “the real Orange County.” He wasn’t actually commenting on a character’s looks. Rather, like everyone with whom I’ve discussed the show, he was parodying its signature mode of dialogue: utterly banal phrases, voiced with blithe serenity, in exaggerated teenage upspeak.

I first became interested in Laguna Beach because my students were talking about it. Like them, I was amazed at the hyperbole of its Southern California teen stereotyping. But after watching a few episodes, my interest shifted. I started to ponder the place of the show — and the place of reality television more generally — within conventional typologies of television melodrama. I became convinced that Laguna Beach has something to teach us about the latter realm. Laguna Beach is only the latest example of reality TV’s resourcefulness in developing new techniques and formats for “unscripted, directorless” television. Yet it seems that regardless of its direction, reality TV remains firmly within the realm of melodrama, dependent for its appeal on the ability of characters to externalize emotions and internal conflicts through speech, expressions, and gestures. I am hardly the first person to consider the relationship between reality TV and the melodramatic imagination. What I hope to contribute, through an admittedly excessive discussion of formal strategies in Laguna Beach, is a sense of how the terms of what Ien Ang calls melodrama’s “emotional realism” are shifting. The lesson of Laguna Beach, I think, has to do with its creative mustering of techniques from the formal inventory of documentary history, techniques it recycles as tools to propagate popular melodramatic conventions.

The subject matter of Laguna Beach — the everyday lives, loves, and rivalries of rich white teenagers — makes it difficult at first to notice the show’s unique formal presentation. According to its producers the show attempts a cinematic style. What does the term cinematic mean in this instance? It seems to involve several stylistic choices, a number of them derived from the conventions of fictional drama on television. The show is not shot on film, but its widescreen aspect ratio suggests an anti-video sensibility. Unlike other reality shows it uses elaborate lighting setups. Blonde hair and tanned skin emit an especially painterly glow in Laguna Beach, distinguishing its interior scenes from the high key studio look of shows like The Real World. In further contrast, many scenarios are clearly staged for the camera. We see teenage boys squirm and mumble as they endeavor to carry on a group conversation on a set topic: will they stay in touch after graduation? And we witness both ends of telephone conversations, a strategy that signals the show’s commitment to narrative form and continuity over the pretense of spontaneous action. These staged moments position the teenage cast as improvising actors rather than sociological subjects. Together with the show’s lush cinematography, they forge a connection between Laguna Beach‘s “real Orange County” and the dramatic show it aims to supplement: Fox’s lavishly shot teen soap hit The O.C.

But there is more to the show’s stylistic project than visual references to celluloid TV drama. The meaning of cinematic in Laguna Beach clearly exceeds conventional usages. At once highly particularizing and endlessly flexible, the term embodies the semiotic promiscuity that, as John Caldwell notes, suffuses almost all of the TV industry’s aesthetic categories. For Laguna Beach‘s producers, cinematic means more than simply the high production values of TV drama. Paradoxically, it also seems to refer to their interest in the rigorous codes of objectivity, as opposed to emotional manipulation, that define documentary form. In this respect, the term seems to carries on its overburdened chassis connotations of seriousness and higher purpose. These connotations are reflected in some strikingly unconventional aesthetic choices. Most reality shows rely extensively on hand held camera. Laguna Beach, in contrast, features an unusual amount of footage shot with a tripod. What’s more, the camera tends to maintain a discreet distance from the interactions it observes, capturing moments in long shot, with one long take. The result is a sense of Wisemanesque detachment, underscored by naturalistic “unsweetened” sound, that seems to invite viewerly comment on the teenage dramas that play out onscreen in such prosaic arenas as the family meal, the bitchy conversation, getting ready for prom, and aimlessly driving from one place to another.

This dependence on the long take and the long shot is more than a nod to documentary tradition. It enacts the promise of unmasking suggested in the “real Orange County” tagline, a promise embodied most concretely in the show’s editing. Take the beginning of the prom episode, where a noticeably unconventional audio transition brings us from the credits to the action. The visual track shows aerial views of palm trees on the coast, followed by an eye-level shot of the cloistered arches of an upscale strip mall where Lauren and Lo shop for dresses. It would be typical in TV editing to de-emphasize this transition from the credits through an audio crossfade in which ambient sound at the mall gradually replaces the theme music. But instead we get an abrupt sound edit, synched to an image cut, in which the white noise of traffic suddenly splices in at the same volume as the Spelling-style theme music that came before. It’s not so different from the sound editing techniques that defined another So-Cal melodrama: Todd Haynes’ Safe.

Indeed, this kind of intrusive editing is the principal technique through which Laguna Beach marks its difference from other reality programs. Time and again the rhythms of Cinema Verité govern the choice of when to cut. In the graduation episode, Kristin tells her friends that she and Stephen will stop seeing each other when they go to college. Although she insists that she’s happy with that decision, a delayed edit allows the camera to linger, exposing this sentiment as rationalization. Similarly, the producers choose to retain elements of the action that The Real World‘s production bible would prohibit, most notably moments when cast members look at the camera. Often, these moments lead us to question the sincerity of the emotions playing out onscreen, as in the scene where Lo’s seemingly loving attempts to comfort her mother, distraught at the prospect of her daughter’s graduation, are undercut by the sly glances she cannot resist stealing at the camera. In such moments, the show reminds me more than anything else of An American Family. Regularly refusing the release of the edit, and focusing on the gestures through which people bottle their emotions (The tight-lipped, pleasureless manner with which Pat Loud sips her drink and Lauren’s brittle, affected laugh, finely calibrated to torture Kristin) forge connections between Laguna Beach and the august history of television documentary.

How, then, does Laguna Beach contribute to the shape of television melodrama? The answer has to do with its instinctual combination of teen emotional preoccupations with Verité style. For Peter Brooks and subsequent critics, melodrama hinges on characters’ ability to articulate their interior states through speech and, at least in the classic formulation, music. The figures of melodrama are immediately self-knowing, fully capable of expressing their feelings to others. When they repress or distort these feelings they communicate that fact too, through gestures and facial expressions. Emoting without mediation, they hold nothing back in their efforts to act out personal history and form ethical insights on the deeds and behaviors of others.

This sounds a lot like what goes on in the tortured and hungry world of The O.C. The difficulty of achieving such emotional facility without a script may explain why reality shows in the past have relied upon interviews or devices like the video confessional as a tool for emotional reflection. In the The Real World, cast members use the confessional to articulate with adolescent confidence their total and complete understanding of themselves and those around them, but especially themselves. Characters in traditional melodrama don’t need the prompt of a video camera to spur their confession — everything they say is confession.

Laguna Beach‘s promise of emotional realism hinges on its ability to achieve melodramatic expression without the confessional, and indeed on its refusal of the artifice of confessional speech in both teen drama and its reality TV predecessors. This refusal is embodied in the graduation day episode, where we encounter the show’s own version of a stock teen melodrama character: the budding filmmaker who confronts people with a camcorder and gets them to say what they’re feeling. Like Brian Austin Green in the first season of Beverly Hills 90210, videographer Claire (clearly a plant) follows the protagonists around asking them how they feel about graduating, what they think the future holds for their generation, and so forth. But direct address to the camera visibly fails as a melodramatic technique in Laguna Beach. Stephen, Lauren, Lo, and the others comply with the request, but what they say bears little resemblance to video confessionals we’ve seen before. Instead of emotional display, their responses range from noncommittal evasions to meaningless platitudes.

Eschewing such conventions, Laguna Beach turns to a tradition that established itself as the opposite of melodrama’s cheesy formulae: the rigorous observational modes of independent documentary film. Is this still melodrama? Yes, in that it results in candid and acutely drawn portraits of emotional conflict. In calling their approach cinematic, the producers imply a desire to connect their work to both the emotional depth of classical Hollywood melodrama and the sociological depth of observational cinema. The show’s thesis might ultimately be phrased this way: true melodramatic engagement emerges not from the speeches that characters make but rather from the degree to which we are allowed to analyze these speeches, reading emotional realism in gestures and acknowledging the fraught subtexts of everyday speech. If this is the direction reality TV is headed, I am happy to leave the flaccid theatrics of The Real World behind.

Links
Laguna Beach Info
MTV Laguna Beach site
I Love Reality

Please feel free to comment.




Super Freaks

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College

I am a film snob. There are a few TV programs that I feel truly passionate about, but when push comes to shove, I just plain prefer movies. Part of their appeal is aesthetic. Most TV is visually dull as dust.

With the exception of some splashy music videos and a few remarkable showcase episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Hush” and “The Body”), TV doesn’t look or sound very interesting. It is at its aesthetic best when it sticks to close-ups, focusing on faces and feelings.

Whatever TV lacks in form, though, it sometimes makes up for in content. TV may not look good, but it feels good. And I don’t mean this in some plug-in-drug, opium-of-the-masses kind of way. What I mean is that in recent years more and more smart, well-written shows focusing on women and relationships have emerged. They feature the complex female characters and psychological realism absent from so much contemporary cinema. Shaun of the Dead is a sharp zombie movie, Infernal Affairs is a brilliant thriller, and Elephant is a beautiful study in anomie (and tracking shots), but none of these recent films include compelling, fully elaborated female characters. For this we must turn to Gilmore Girls, Alias, Buffy, and Freaks and Geeks.

Aren’t there any contemporary films that can compete with these programs? Though chick flicks tend to lay on the Prince Charming happy endings a bit too heavily, at least they are interested in women as more than buxom side-kicks. So when Mean Girls came along, I thought I’d be in for a treat. If the critics were to be believed, this was the Heathers of our age, a thoughtful examination of the sociology of high school…with some cool outfits too. If not as incisive as Heathers, it would at least measure up to Legally Blonde and Clueless on the girl power scale. I’ll admit, though, I was a little nervous, as I had seen Lindsay Lohan on Ellen explaining that the film’s message is “just be yourself.” Great advice from a teenager who just got a boob job.

The film opens with the socially adrift “new girl” trying to figure out which crowd of high school girls she wants to hang out with. She’s good at math and is immediately invited to join the Mathletes. Hey, wait a minute, this sounds a little like Freaks and Geeks! In fact, the more I watched the film, the more it disappointed me because it couldn’t match the brutal honesty of Freaks and Geeks. The nadir of Mean Girls is the scene where each girl gets on a platform with a microphone, apologizes to all the girls she has been cruel to, then plunges backwards into a “trust fall” and is caught by the other girls. This is exactly the kind of bullshit that the geeky guidance counselor on Freaks and Geeks would propose, and the kids would be forced to do it, and they would hate it and know it was stupid.

Freaks and Geeks showed teenagers rebelling against both adult authority and the expectations of their peers. Such a program should not have had a problem finding a huge adolescent audience. But it did. Though the show developed a core audience of devoted fans (and earned a number of Emmy awards for writing), it never became a hit. Eighteen episodes of Freaks and Geeks were produced, though only thirteen aired before it was cancelled. The show’s creators were allowed to make the show exactly the way they wanted to, ignoring NBC’s advice that the characters should have “less depressing lives” and that there should be “one decent-sized victory per episode.” Though plenty of male adolescent hysteria is expressed (garage band traumas, first kisses, disco outfits, and a curious obsession with ventriloquism), the show also highlights two very compelling female characters. Lindsay is the mathlete who leaves her geek identity behind and joins the freaks and burn-outs who cut class and smoke grass. Kim is a freak, with a depressing home life and a relentlessly bitchy demeanor. In fact, NBC at first would not even air a Kim-centered episode because they thought its darkness would scare away viewers.

At the end of Freaks and Geeks‘ one and only season, Kim is still a bitch (irresistibly so), and Lindsay has not rejoined her mathlete compatriots. The lead burn-out has discovered he is actually good at one thing: Dungeons and Dragons. The boy who Lindsay dumped has a girlfriend he’s not crazy about and has taken up disco to make her happy. The sarcastic freak has a girlfriend, though she was born with a penis, so he has had to work through a few anxieties. As for the geeks, one got the girl of his dreams, but broke up with her because she turned out to be boring, materialistic, and Republican. Another is suffering through the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and a third had a pretty good make-out session in a closet, but, on the down side, his mom is dating the school’s gym coach.

Freaks and Geeks was poignant, smart, and hilarious. Anyone who was ever humiliated by a gym coach, chosen last for a team, or teased for athletic inability will be elated by the episode that climaxes when the geeks are made team captains and immediately choose the short kids, fat kids, and smart kids for their teams instead of the dumb, insensitive jocks. At the same time, viewers will realize that in this non-Brady Bunch universe, the punishment for insulting the jocks will surely be some ass-kicking in the showers later. Perhaps Nielsen households are dominated by jocks, because, ultimately, the ratings weren’t high enough, and the show was axed. Busy Philipps (Kim) surmises, “Television is run by rich white men who are told what to do by rich white men, who want a formula to sell the most soap.” Philipps’s soap reference is apt, because it is the precedent of the soap opera, with its characters that develop over long periods of time, complex extended story arcs, and a dedication to examining emotional realities and psychological motivations, that enabled a show like Freaks and Geeks to exist in the first place. One season of Freaks and Geeks is twelve hours of viewing. It’s not enough, but it adds up to about ten more hours of character development than one finds in most films. There are, it turns out, a few things that TV does better than movies.

Links
Freaks and Geeks
Women in film and television bibliography
Buffy‘s website
Media representations of gender
Mean Girls website

Please feel free to comment.




Homework

by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

The first presidential debate garnered predictable media excitement. The tv run-up included a week’s worth of entrenchment, with usual suspects — anchors, analysts, seeming armies of spinners — setting up shop outside the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

There’s a big problem with young people not voting. –Drew Barrymore, The Best Place to Start (MTV 28 September 2004)

The revolution will be televised, mark my words. –P. Diddy, The Oprah Winfrey Show (ABC 28 September 2004)

Today it seems like practically everybody is calling herself an activist. –Yvonne Bynoe, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip Hop Culture

The first presidential debate garnered predictable media excitement. The tv run-up included a week’s worth of entrenchment, with usual suspects — anchors, analysts, seeming armies of spinners — setting up shop outside the University of Miami in Coral Gables. For days they anticipated what each candidate must do to appear “presidential” for those 62.5 million viewers who ended up watching, gazing solemnly into their teleprompters as they asserted the event’s “importance,” not only for Bush and Kerry, but also for voters.

Some reporters ventured off their established locations to interview people on campus, usually former Clinton Secretary of Health and Human Services and current University president Donna Shalala, but also the occasional professorial type. But if — as they demonstrated all week and all the night of 30 September, the mediators really only wanted to talk to one another — their background space was typically cluttered with placards and bodies — most all of them young. brandishing signs, pointing to their t-shirt logos, talking on cell phones, smiling and waving to friends out in tv-land, these kids were everywhere.

And they are members of the demographic that so-called experts say don’t know and don’t care about world events, domestic politics, or this year’s election.

Of course, much of this “youth” effect was site specific. If the debate were held in a location harder for students to enter or less fun for them to crash, it’s likely that the backgrounds for Hardball and Larry King would have been less busy, less antic, less peculiarly chaotic. And if the Today Show has taught tv talking heads anything, it’s that an enthusiastic background crowd makes any interview look more energetic and vital, perhaps even more compelling. In a word, more like reality tv, that supposed ratings magnet for, among other viewers, “kids.” At the same time, these kids — who come with their own backgrounds, interests, and dimensions — are increasingly turning to non-reality tv for their sense of how the world works. Drew Barrymore finds out as much during her trek across America to discover the whereabouts of the “youth vote” for her “Choose or Lose” documentary, The Best Place To Start. When she asks university students (“boys,” as she calls them) where they got their “information,” they tell her: The Daily Show, described repeatedly by Stewart as “fake news.” The next day, Barrymore has her own experience confirmed in seeming “real news” — while riding in her bus (understandably, she hates to fly, following 9/11), she opens a newspaper and then displays the headline to her cameraperson: “There’s an article in USA Today about how comedy with Bill Maher and Jon Stewart is making politics palatable to young males.” She sees this as “sort of ironic,” given that she was just talking about this very subject, but the point is less “ironic” in the way she means it than straight-ahead telling: in a universe where the real news lies and spins as a matter of course, what better source for some semblance of “truth” than speakers who tell you upfront they have ideas, construe askew, and read between lines?

No surprise, the post-debate breakdown that outdrew all others — especially in the coveted “adults 18-34” bracket (otherwise known, in Bill O’Reilly’s estimation, as “stoned slackers”) — was The Daily Show. Reportedly, some 2.4 million viewers saw Jon Stewart point out that Iraqis have in fact been trying to protect themselves, against U.S. troops (“I think that’s actually kind of been the problem”); that naming Poland as “your second country” in a list of coalition partners is hardly effective in building confidence in the U.S. “mission.”

When it comes to watching tv this political season, confidence is key. If watching O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, or even Tom Brokaw is an act of faith, seeking out alternatives is increasingly a combination of wit and perseverance: kids look hard for what they consider quality tv. And tv (quality or not) is looking for them. Consider the many and mighty efforts of the past months: the Bush and Kerry girls soliciting registration on the MTV Video Music Awards (one of many deployments that had Shaila K. Dewan worrying the “children” were becoming “weapons of mass affection” [New York Times, 5 September 2004]); Christina Aguilera’s own “Choose or Lose” special, Sex, Votes, and Higher Power (in which she spends 20-some minutes explaining the differences between the presidential candidates’ stands on abstinence, abortion, and funding for women’s shelters, tactfully leaving little doubt as to her own ideas on these issues); MTV’s proliferating “Choose or Lose” PSAs (by J. Lo, Alicia Keys, Jadakiss, Hilary Duff, and Kanye West); or the multiple, much-publicized campaigns by P. Diddy (who’s pumping his “Vote or Die” campaign every Friday on 106 and Park), Russell Simmons’ “Hip Hop Action Summit,” and the currently touring “Vote for Change” crew, including Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Jackson Browne, Babyface, the Dixie Chicks, Keb Mo, and James Taylor, among other not-so-youthful rockers. The get-kids-to-vote movement has even caught the attention of tv forums usually directed at so-called adults: everyone from Deborah Norville to Oprah Winfrey to Larry King wants to know how the youth vote has turned so crucial. And, no small thing, their producers want a piece of this lucrative bandwagon.

All this sudden love for kids might be considered disingenuous, even exploitative, if not for the well-performed sincerity of the most prominent pitch-people. This isn’t to say that such “celebrities” might actually secure the “youth vote” in a sustained, coherent, or even sensible way. Alan Wirzbicki of the New Republic is particularly skeptical of Barrymore’s effort: “She talks about voting like a civic virtue that one should practice along with all the other virtues — and to fight the man, or whatever” (“Celebrities and the Youth Vote: Star Power,” 23 September 2004). It’s true, that at 29, Barrymore retains a naïveté that seems as cloying as it is adorable. Here, in her honesty, she seems most unreal. But that might just be what makes her most persuasive on tv.

Barrymore realizes during her documentary that young voters are caught up in a cycle (“That chicken and egg thing,” explains Hillary Rodham Clinton), left out of politicians’ appeals because they don’t vote, and not voting because politicians don’t attend to their concerns. This cycle, apparently by definition, both stems from and reproduces what Farai Chideya calls a lack of trust in political, economic, and legal systems. This disconnect has to do with ideology as much as generation, class, race, and gender: in her new book, Trust: Reaching 100 Million Missing Voters, Chideya writes, “Today’s political landscape is the result of a forty-year movement by social and fiscal conservatives to claim political power and reshape intellectual debate” (35).

While it’s called “conservative,” such reshaping largely rejects democratic ideals articulated during previous eras, and explicitly rebuffs viewpoints that might be termed “diverse.” It’s the logical next step in the cycle, to judge non-believers summarily, to skip even pretending to care about kids’ concerns. This attitude is hardly confined to self-proclaimed “conservatives.” At a later point in her excursion, Barrymore comes across another newspaper, featuring a photo of herself speaking with Wesley Clarke in New Hampshire (a conversation that, she noted in her “confessional cam,” made her feel slighted, indeed, treated like a “10-year-old”). Captioned “Get Off the Bus, Angel,” the image underlines that this girl is going to have trouble being taken seriously.

This even as she makes her most sincere and frankly public effort to get “educated.” Barrymore reveals her own insecurities (in one scene, she’s in tears while talking to producing partner Nancy Juvonen on the phone, fretting, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” That’s okay, soothes Juvonen. She can incorporate that very ignorance into the project. And so, Drew is inspired once more, and sets forth to “stop feeling like politics was so daunting and start making it more personal.” To this end, she visits with celebrities whom she feels influence those “boys” she met in New Hampshire, that is, other boys. Following brief and mostly conventional observations by Stewart, Chris Rock, Michael Moore, and James Carville (who fusses that at malls, he sees “kids hanging out, with this vacant look”), she finds Bill Maher himself, who tells her, “Young kids, I notice a lot, will say, ‘I don’t follow politics because politics is dirty,’ as if that somehow makes them cleaner. That doesn’t make you cleaner. That’s just an excuse to not do your homework.”

Moved to do some homework, Barrymore heads to Selma on a “Civil Rights quest,” because, she says, it marks voting rights history, namely, the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where police stopped marchers by force in March 1965, and the National Voting Rights Museum. Here she talks with black people, and participates in a black kids’ classroom exercise, where she discovers (apparently to her surprise) that most everything you do is affected by voting, from the food you eat to the air you breathe.

When she leaves, Drew spends a few minutes hugging the kids good-bye as the handheld camera watches from a low angle, underlining the earnestness of the moment, despite its wholly overt banality. While it hardly inclines you to trust in the possibility that political imbalances will work out, or that race and class relations might be changed, for a second, you think this authentic white girl believes it. From here, Barrymore walks across that historic bridge, to look back on what she’s learned. “I come from a privileged world,” she observes, “but I’ve always been enlightened by struggle. No matter where we come from, all over the world, whatever location, from whatever history, we all have the power to make a difference. And in the voting booth is one of the most tremendous places where this is evident. I have also come to believe that we all passionately want to feel a part of something, so that we are not alone. And although voting is a very personal ritual, it brings us all together in the most profound way.”

Following this moment, so fragile, so faux-haunting, the scene cuts to Drew sending in her vote by mail, in a tender, home-video-ish sequence. It’s way too MTV, way too connived. But it’s also familiar, careful, and self-knowing, a kind of Real World flash for those who know all the tricks, the viewers who were far ahead on the reality tv curve that now bedevils adult primetime. Even if you still don’t understand why voting is “important,” an obligation as much as a right, you may also be moved to do your homework.

Links of Interest
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Alan Wirzbicki’s New Republic article on Barrymore
Chideya’s work Trust: Reaching 100 Million Missing Voters:

Please feel free to comment.