Monday, September 2, 2013

Abortion and the soaps

It's blogging for choice day and, while this post doesn't really follow the "why you should vote pro-choice" theme of the day, in honor of the occasion I wanted to post a bit about some soap storylines I've been tracking lately. I became interested in the ways that soaps handle abortion when GH had a very thoughtful story about teenage Lulu Spencer's unplanned pregnancy in the summer of 2006. Unlike the typical plot of most American entertainment programming, in which the woman considering the abortion changes her mind at the last minute, or has a last minute miscarriage or, in the latest round of reproductive comedies, never gives abortion serious consideration, Lulu actually had the abortion in the GH story. And while it was a trying experience for her, and one she remembers with some pain, she suffered no long-lasting negative consequences, no "subtle" form of punishment for her decision. It was really an amazing and moving story, careful to present all "sides" in the issue, but never wavering in its assertion that Lulu had every right to make the choice she did and even asserting that this was a good choice, the right choice. Most of the other characters supported her decision and defended her right to choose and the ones who did not--such as her brother Lucky--had some mitigating circumstance that explained their perspective (Lucky was a messed up drug addict at the time--not exactly a ringing endorsement for the anti-abortion cause).

As I began to research past abortion stories on soaps, I found that many seem to have fallen into the more typical patterns of this kind of storytelling in American media. The earliest such story appeared on Another World in 1964, when Pat Matthews' illegal abortion almost killed her. The first legal abortion was of course Erica Kane's on All My Children in 1973--an event the show notoriously negated in recent years when the fetus Erica thought she had aborted appeared in Pine Valley, fully grown after having been miraculously saved by the unscrupulous doctor who had performed the initial procedure. Needless to say, this "unabortion" had soap fans in a serious uproar, incensed not only at the absurd revision of history but even more so at the political ramifications of undoing this landmark event.

There have been many more soap abortion stories over the years and the process of researching them is a long and challenging one. But I have no doubt that viewers have seen some thoughtful deliberations on the part of characters they care about while watching these stories. Some surely have included subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the evils of abortion, but others, like Lulu's story, have presented much more careful consideration of the matter than we tend to get anywhere else in our popular culture.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

P&G wants you!

Procter & Gamble is conducting two phone polls, through the same number: (1(800) 331-3774). One asks about whether the company should continue to advertise on MTV and BET. This is in response to a number of complaints about the "inappropriate" content of music videos aired on these channels. The other is about the Luke and Noah ("Nuke") same sex romance playing out on P&G's As the World Turns these days. I've called twice now--yesterday P&G thanked me for my opinion and ended the call (you can press 1 for keep going with Nuke, 2 for ending the story). But in today's call I was informed that the information gathered in this poll will not determine story but will provide company executives with useful information. Guess they are anticipating major outcry no matter which direction they go.

The soapy blogosphere is all over this story, so I won't go into more detail here. But the old-fashioned nature of the phone-in poll strikes me as a bit odd--perhaps just a way to appease the protesters, making it look like P&G is addressing the matter as they proceed with a story that seems immensely popular with fans?

Update: Here's Ad Age's take on P&G's polls and their possible outcomes.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

If Angela and Brian had sex . . .

Among my all-time favorite TV producers are Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Their Bedford Falls company has generated a number of series whose characters have lived on for me long past their initial runs. There is probably no series on TV I have re-watched more than My So-Called Life, but their other prime time dramas are also faves: thirtysomething's '80s angst, Once & Again's it's-all-just-so-hard multi-generation tales, even the somewhat lackluster Relativity. We've even named our kid Leo in part through the inspiration of the Leos that have populated the Bedford Falls-averse (Michael and Hope's infant son, Relativity's leading man, the hunky younger-man doctor Karen Sammler dates).

Because of my love for all things Zwick/Herskovitzy I was so, so excited when the duo's new series, quarterlife, began its life as an internet-only series. Since then, NBC has picked up the already-produced episodes for broadcast, and I look forward to seeing them on air this February. But we've been keeping up with the online episodes, nonetheless, and I am happy to say that they've finally gotten really good, finally are beginning to live up to their producers' impressive cred.

The online eps of quarterlife range from about 7 to 14 minutes each, but these segments are clearly that--segments of hour-long TV episodes chopped up for twice-weekly internet streaming. It's a clever idea and all--finding a way to distribute a series when the nets decided not to pick it up--but it seems a bit disingenuous to call 44 minute broadcast TV episodes chopped into bits an internet series.

Just aired are the segments that make up what would be the 4th broadcast episode. Written by Devon Gummersall, also the actor who played MSCL's unrequited lover/uber-geek Brian Krakow, "Goodbyes" has all the markings of great prime time drama, and of Bedford Falls drama in particular--parallel plotlines that enrich each other in the similarities and differences of the characters' experiences, subtle dialogue that exposes character, sweet humor laced with awkwardness, Snuffy's music--just lovely and perfect.

Most perfect, however, was the story told in this episode about the growing romance between Dylan and Eric. I've liked both of these characters all along, but "Goodbyes" moved them up a notch for me into the pantheon of great Ed and Marshall couples or, better still, Ed and Marshall maybe-couples and sort-of-couples, for romance in the Bedford Falls-averse is always fraught and painful. In particular, the story of Dylan and Eric in this episode fulfills my fantasy of seeing what would happen if MSCL's Angela and Brian were to finally, actually, and really get together, a possibility only briefly hinted at in the final moments of that series. Dylan has always been an Angela-esque character and, in "Goodbyes" Eric proves himself to be the sensitive, if slightly bumbling, man that Brian always seemed he could become. Their scenes in bed make this particularly clear, but I also see it in some brief moments of this "episode":

Dylan and Eric coming inside with their bikes is sweetly reminiscent of Angela and Brian's bike straddled talks. And the moment when Dylan walks upstairs evokes for me the shot of Angela walking upstairs in the MSCL credit sequence (and taken from the pilot episode):

Too much of the early quarterlife episodes dealt with Jed and Danny's frustrated efforts to become filmmakers-- a plot way reminiscent of Michael and Elliott's story on thirtysomething, an arc I love in that show but that reads as old and boring when it features Jed and Danny. Now, however, thanks perhaps to the intervention of Brian Krakow himself, quarterlife may be becoming more My So-Called Life than thirtysomething. I always knew that Angela and Brian were destined for each other--or at least for a really awkward attempt at destiny.

Farrah, the 1970s, and me

I'm a bad blogger, or delinquent at the very least. Just wrote a little something about Farrah and the 1970s for the Duke University Press blog (publishers of my book on sex and 1970s TV). So read it over there--and maybe, maybe more here soon from me.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Giving blogging a whirl

So I've decided to give blogging a try. Not sure exactly why, as I've been resistant to its time-suck capacity for a long time. I think I may be a wee bit frustrated by the media scholar blogosphere, at least that of it that I have discovered. It's pretty boy-centric, and really, really serious. I spend plenty of my time doing scholarly writing. If I'm going to blog I'd like to have a little more fun with it. I'm also perpetually frustrated by more popular writing about media, especially TV, so I hope that my scholars' perspective will offer something different. That said, I'm hoping that this blog will combine some of my favorite elements of other blogs I enjoy. I'm quite the lurky fan of Dr. Crazy's Reassigned Time and hope to achieve her blend of the personal, the political, and the professional. I admire lots of the academic feminist blogosphere, and am happy to track the few feminist media scholars' blogs written by women (if there are more of you out there, please let me know!). I do love lots of non-academic but still sharply critical media writing to be found online, especially sharp soap opera criticism, which is abundant these days in the increasingly disappointing world of US daytime soaps (this is way pre-writers' strike, so don't blame the scabs). I guess we'll see where this blog takes me. I hope to keep posts kinda brief and to write about things I am reading and watching and thinking about. This may at times deal with ideas I'm struggling with in my teaching or my research, but it may also deal with the hairstyles of the General Hospital actresses. Take these for example (screen caps from the great Serial Drama):

The blondification of these gorgeous brunettes is a crime. Stop the highlighting!

Also on the soap front is this exciting new promo for
Guiding Light's new shooting style (also to be used on P&G's other soap As the World Turns):

This cheaper production mode is looking mighty good here. In a time of great threat to the soaps' survival (not just the writers' strike but declining ratings all around), there are some fascinating instances of creativity and innovation at work. I don't think that the soaps are bound for extinction, as some have predicted, but change is definitely afoot. With so much of it for worse, I'm hoping that P&G's experiment in borrowing reality TV-style shooting is as promising as it appears here.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Trials of ebay

Over the weekend I stayed up way past my bedtime to bid during the final minutes of several ebay auctions. What was I bidding on? Full year runs of Soap Opera Digest magazine from the late 1970s. Did I win these auctions? Hell, no, as they quickly became too rich for my blood--the last going for $102.

A single seller is offering up her lifelong collection of SODs, year by year, as she prepares to move. You may think this sort of thing would sell for a few bucks, but their rarity makes them quite valuable to those in the know. The winners of my failed auctions seem to run TV collectible businesses and so surely know the market for such things. Most old soap mags sell on ebay in single issues, and most are from the 1990s on. I'm sure these folks will be able to sell off the collection they are acquiring, probably issue by issue, making back their money and then some.

But my desire for these yellowing stacks of industry propaganda comes from a different place. Lots of TV ephemera is hard to come by, but little of it is as difficult to track down as the soap press. Very few libraries retain their holdings beyond a couple of years, and some libraries (ahem, Milwaukee Public Library System) don't have any soap publications, past or present. As a graduate student, I was blessed by the South Central Wisconsin Public Library system's collection of SODs from the '70s on (when the mag began), all handily stored in Madison's Central Public Library. I spent many delighted hours there devouring these magazines, which offered me story details, the occasional feature story of interest, and lots of letters to the editor full of great audience info. Made my dissertation, and the subsequent book, much better.

Now, as I begin to work on another book project exclusively focused on soap history, I very much want access to those old SODs again. One problem: the Madison Public Library THREW THEM OUT. I found out about this last year and so my indignation has (barely) abated, but I can easily get worked up about it again. Please note: this is one of a HANDFUL of libraries in the country that have any run of SODs beyond the past few years. According to Worldcat, only the Popular Culture collection at Bowling Green has a full run (not even the Library of Congress keeps them, though they do have Daytime TV, a now-defunct pub of the same genre that was also quite helpful to me in past research).

When I saw that this ebay user was selling off a nearly complete collection of SODs I had fantasies of owning the whole lot, of turning myself into the archive no one else cares to maintain. Alas, the financial investment seems too great and so I will likely trek to Bowling Green for a few fleeting days with these texts.

I do admit that the huge challenge of doing this sort of work is pretty appealing to me--brings out my youthful ambition to be a private detective, a la children's lit heroine Trixie Belden (Nancy Drew was too wimpy for my tastes), or an intrepid spy, a la Harriet the Spy, also a favorite read of my past. While I do believe strongly that our libraries do a disservice when they neglect to archive popular publications or, for chrissakes, THROW THEM OUT, the persistence required to actually track these things down is part of the fun of researching denigrated cultural products like soaps.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

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A few more thoughts . . .

A friend told me he heard a rumor that I was "boycotting" the Flow conference, a rumor surely inspired by my last post. I told him that I wouldn't call it a boycott, rather that I thought it impossible for me to attend a conference held on Yom Kippur, given my personal situation.

I don't know who labeled my situation a boycott, but it seems to me representative of a certain view of the work and life of academics, or at least of the academia I know, in that it assumes that I must have made a choice against the conference rather than having to grapple with a tension between my identity as a media scholar and my other, more personal, roles. Rather than a choice against the conference this was a situation shaped by choices I have made in my personal life that are not readily accommodated within academia. These choices are not about religion, but rather about sustaining certain kinds of personal relationships (in this particular case, to my immediate and extended family) for which there is no clear place in academia. These relationships include those with my partner (in that it would be inequitable for only one of us to attend a conference in which we are both interested), with my child (for whose care I am responsible), and with my extended family (whose babysitting generosity and religious observance I respect). Perhaps I should include my relationship to the Jewish community here, but my particular dilemma in this case was more about the Jews in my family than a community at large.

These thoughts are really not specific to the Flow conference, rather they are about the academic culture in which I take part. The academic culture in which I have been socialized (primarily through graduate school and the world of my "field," with which I engage most regularly through conferences) is one that seems to assume a 24/7 living and breathing of the work. In part, this may be because we study media, and thus cannot escape our object of study even when in our "down time." I imagine this may be different for the chemist or perhaps even the literature scholar, though other fields surely feel the same 24/7 work mentality in their own respects, as well as some shared ones.

Now, please understand that I love this aspect of being a media scholar--that the work, the ideas, suffuse all of my life, not just some segmented "work time." I would love to be able to live in a world in which I am always surrounded by others as interested in and passionate about media, especially TV, as I am, and who want to talk about it in the ways I do. This is in large part what I loved about graduate school, that immersion in a world of people and ideas focused on similar interests and passions. When I came to graduate school, I couldn't believe my good fortune in finding such a community of like-minded people. And in many ways, I still reap the benefits of that, as I live with a like-minded media scholar and so get to experience that 24/7 world moreso than might someone who is single or partnered with a non-academic or even an academic in another field.

And yet. The real world is not graduate school. And the harsh truth that I think many of us must encounter when we move into jobs (hopefully) and other responsibilities is that a 24/7 life of the mind, of scholarly passion and commitment, is kind of impossible. Even if one chooses to keep one's personal ties limited and to focus on the work as a result, it can be difficult in the world post-grad school to find the like-minded souls you once knew. Many of us work in places where we are not surrounded by people engaged in the same ideas and interests as we are and thus we make other kinds of friends. So my real life, day to day friends are not necessarily fellow media scholars, but psychologists, and doctors, and stay at home parents, people with whom I've found other ways of connecting than our intellectual passions. And I have family members, both older and younger than me, who need my attention and time, or to whom I owe certain considerations (as in the case of not being able to ask anyone to babysit over Yom Kippur).

My point is that the ideal of 24/7 intellectual immersion that academia demands/promises/threatens is not a practical one for most of us. It is a patriarchal ideal, as well, in that it assumes an academic who can be readily freed from real world obligations and commitments in pursuit of the scholarship. This person has of course traditionally been male. Male academics have always had connections and obligations outside of their work (to partners, children, etc.) but have also lived in a culture in which it is assumed that their work can and must supersede those private links and that someone else (typically a wife) will be there to take care of them. The picture of an academic, male or female, who cannot or will not subsume those links fits less well into an academic culture that sees all else as secondary to the intellectual (and social) pursuits of the professorial life.

Dr. Crazy wrote about similar issues a while back, talking about the ways that academia is inhospitable to a personal life and I really liked what she said but couldn't figure out how to articulate my take at the time. So this is my awkward attempt to do so, not to complain about any one problematic policy in academia, but instead to reflect on what I see as the patriarchal roots of academic culture, roots that assume an ease of separation between academic life and personal life that is not always possible, and that has consequences that we are not all willing to accept.

UPDATE: Just saw this column at the Chronicle of Higher Ed that reports on the impact of such matters for women in the sciences.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Soapy Research Questions

The Ryan's Hope viewing experiment continues. I need to spend a bit of non-workout time with an episode or two to count the number of scenes per episode and their length, but there is no doubt that scenes go on for much longer in the RH of 1975 than they do on any soap today. A couple of other observations/questions (mostly so I can remember these thoughts when I eventually try to turn some of it into an argument):

1) the show seems to have multiplied its number of sets as of episode 17. From that point, we're seeing new sets each episode. None are fancy; all are very bare bones, but it's nice to get a wider view of the community this way. My guess is that they could only build so many before production began but, as of a few weeks in, more were up and running.

2) Men keep asking women out for meals and I'm having a difficult time reading the social mores of the time because I'm often not quite sure if this is an invitation to a date or just a friendly gesture. In the case of Bucky's offers to Faith, I know it is a date. His interest in her, and her oddball standoffishness, are at the center of the story. But I don't know how to read Ed Coleridge inviting Nell Beaulac, who is recently estranged from her husband, out to eat. Or how to read Roger Coleridge (Ed's son!) similar offer to Nell. [Update: Just saw ep. 21, when they do go out and Roger DEFINITELY sees it as a date.] Or Roger's offer to Mary, who seems more age-appropriate for him. And I think maybe Bob Reed also asked Mary out to eat. Are these the equivalent of the present-day soaps' "chemistry tests"? If so, they are so much more subtle that it is difficult to tell what they are suggesting. In fact, most things are much more subtle than in the present day soaps (or at least in that sinking ship, GH, which may very well be the worst I've seen it in my 25+ years of viewing). But RH keeps me guessing. Do Roger and Bob have things for Mary? Do Pat and Faith have a past? Does Delia really know that Frank and Jill are having an affair? I'm watching for clues to all of these questions as much as for the big plot points. Either it's really careful soap plotting or I just don't get 1975 social cues.

[Update: I think it's really careful plotting. In episode 20 we get the first real clue that something may be physically wrong with Nell--the dreaded soap headache!--while in the entire first month of the show she just seemed oddly determined to move on with her neurological research. But that determination is slowly, slowly going to be revealed as a cover for something else going on with her. Such careful long-range plotting! Love it!]

I've also been making plans to move forward with my soap research this summer and fall. One archive I plan to visit is UCLA's Film and Television Archive, as they have the most extensive collection of actual soap episodes anywhere I've seen, including episodes from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the pre-home VCR era and thus the era before fans were archiving episodes themselves. The most amazing part of their collection is a nearly full run of General Hospital from its debut in 1963 well into 1970. Both the fan and the scholar in me are beyond excited at the possibility of watching GH from the beginning. But.

Researching soaps = not easy. First, of course, is the time factor. I can't watch 7 years of GH episodes in an archive in California unless I were to live there and to view regularly for months. Even if this were possible, there's another but.

Some of these episodes are what the archive considers "archival copies." This means that no one can see them. Ever. The copies are too poor or fragile or something to be available for viewing. This is not just the case with some of the GH episodes but with MANY of the other soap episodes they list in their catalog (such as early '70s All My Children--the Erica abortion story!--and many others). I'm not a trained archivist, of course, but I just don't understand why they would hold such materials in the collection with these constraints.

Another problem: many of the GH episodes, as well as many other of the older soap episodes in the collection, are classified as "research copies." This means that the archivists must transfer the copy to VHS for me to view. The catch is their policy on such copies, which is to copy no more than 10 hours of programming per researcher. Now, the archive has other copies readily available for viewing, episodes that, presumably, others have watched in the past and that have thereby been transferred to VHS already. But this is a scattered selection, and one that does not include some of the real gems in the collection. With much advance notice, the under-staffed and under-budgeted archivists seem willing to stretch those 10 hours a bit for me. But it is doubtful that they will be willing/able to transfer the 30 or so (if I'm being honest, it's more like 40) hours I would most like to be able to see during my trip.

So my next task is to try to prioritize the list of what I would like transferred. I've already decided to limit my viewing to material before the early 1980s as the home VCR era that ensues thereafter makes it more likely that I will be able to see some of that material via fans' collections (plus my own memories and tapes). But, beyond that, I have several possibilities. Possibility no. 1: do I see as much GH as I can and have an in-depth sense of one show's past? (Keep in mind that that depth is inherently limited, as I can't watch all the episodes they have.) Possibility no. 2: If I do focus on GH, do I scatter my viewing across the years they have, or focus it so as to watch a particular story unfold? If the latter, how to choose an entry point? Or (possibility no. 3) do I spread my viewing across shows and time periods, to be more representative? (But how can you really get a sense of how a soap storyline is told by watching an episode here and there?)

I get irritated by claims that researching soap history is "impossible" because of such constraints, so don't think I'm saying that (and don't tell me that in comments, either!). But such are the practical considerations any archival study entails, albeit with particularly constraining constraints for the study of soaps.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Who to praise? Who to blame? Daytime soaps and the mystery of the head writer

My perusal of soap discourse online these days tells me that soap viewers spend a lot of time discussing the shows' head writers. When shows go bad, the head writer is to blame. When they're good, the head writer is praised. Hence the consistent Guza-bashing, Higley-mocking, and Carlivati-worshiping that fills the soapy internets of late. My sense is that head writers have not always been attributed with this degree of power. The best example of this I can think of is the Gloria Monty tenure at GH. A number of different writers served under Monty's command, but everyone always attributed the show's ups and downs to Monty. Today, we seem to hear much less about EPs in daytime than we do HWs.

Soaps are of course quite different from prime time TV in that, in prime time, the primary creative force behind most shows is a hybrid writer-producer--a Joss Whedon, a Shonda Rhimes, an Alan Ball. Creators are executive producers are head writers in prime time. In daytime these are two distinct roles, at least they are most of the time. The primary exceptions I can think of are the Bell shows, where Bill Bell was HW and EP for Y&R and Bradley Bell still fills both roles for B&B. If I am remembering correctly, this was the formula tried for Lynn Marie Latham at Y&R, as well, and, while I don't watch the show, many seem to think Latham's tenure there was a disaster. Since so few soaps follow this model, I've got to think that the intense production models these programs follow necessitates this sort of split in duties.

I've always had a kernel of skepticism for fans' effusiveness of praise and/or vitriol for the head writers of soaps. I can't help but think that the forces shaping the creation of these shows are too complex for their success or failure to be attributed to a sole cog in the machine. But I think I may be starting to believe that the HWs really are the source of all good and all evil in soapland. The significance of the role has become especially clear to me with the new season of GH: Night Shift, which is being written (and produced) by non-GH folks (in contrast to season 1 of the show, which was helmed by GH HW Bob Guza and EP Jill Farren Phelps). I've already made clear my despair at season 1 and my hopefulness about season 2. That hopefulness continues to gather steam three episodes in.

GH: NS is being written by a newcomer to soaps, Sri Rao. Rao is a difficult figure to suss out. The guy doesn't even have a Wikipedia page! But his production company has a way-cool website that presents Rao and the company as "indie" creators of TV. My preliminary digging tells me that Rao positions himself as a writer-director-EP, that he has written a play, made an indie film, and created teen series for The N (as far as I can tell, this series has never aired). He's also a self-proclaimed GH fan (since age 8, he declares--and given his early 30s-seeming age I think this dates the beginnings of his GH viewing to the same period as mine). He's also a Wharton School of Business grad. (I dated one of those once upon a time and, trust me, not what you'd expect of a soap writer.) In all, he seems like a young, cool, smart guy who, unexpectedly, also knows about and loves soaps, GH especially.

While NS is not perfect (I'm with most other critiques I've read on the "no, just wrong"-ness of the new Leo Julian and his pairing with the lovely Saira Batra), I'm enjoying it immensely more than I do GH these days. Robert Scorpio's return and brain-tumor induced confusion that made him run around acting as if it were the 1980s were about as perfect as I'd want them to be. (My favorite was the tossed-off crack to Jagger: "Where'd you get your training? DVX?") And I was all choked up at Robin's reactions to everything. Funny, touching, nods to GH history all over the place--what a soap-wonderful treat. This show is so vastly different from the Guza-written daytime GH that it seems to me to be the alternate life the show might have had, had it veered differently in, oh, the late '90s or early 2000s or so, when I think so much started to go south.

In any case, I'm encouraged that the ABC Disney/Soapnet brass had the good sense to hire Rao and I will continue to harbor my secret fantasies of him taking over GH proper. That said, no doubt head writing a 5 day a week daytime show is way different than a 13-week season of of a p-t spin-off. But perhaps someone like Rao is the fresh perspective daytime--and GH in particular--so desperately needs.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Wanna feel old?

Molly Ringwald turns 40 today. Defamer Australia brings us this lovely tribute to Molly in all her '80s glory. My favorite parts are the Facts of Life clips and Breakfast Club dancing scenes. How is it possible that I still covet Molly/Claire's brown boots after 23 years?

Please note as well the brief glimpse of Andrew McCarthy's mug in Pretty in Pink. I never got the appeal of the bland Blane, especially with James Spader's sleazy bad boy and Jon Cryer's geek-adorable Duckie hanging around. Nonetheless, I was excited to see Blane all salt-and-pepper-haired and charming on the Lipstick Jungle pilot recently. He's playing a bazillionaire sweeping the Linsday Price character off her feet. I found Brooke Shields pretty insufferable, but Nico, the magazine editor played by Kim Raver, was likable. I've only watched the first episode so far, but would rank it higher than Cashmere Mafia, its fellow Sex and the City clone, which was ten kinds of awful. Jungle had a better sense of humor, a more sympathetic character in Nico, and Andrew McCarthy, after all.

The Breakfast Club was the first movie I sat through twice. That's two times in a row. In the same theater. Watched it once and stayed to watch it yet again. I think it may be the only movie for which I've ever done this. There's something about being a teenager, and seeing a story of your world (or kinda your world, with a bit more "typing" going on than might be the case in daily life) beaming out from a screen. Unfortunately, I've yet to have the same kind of experience as a thirtysomething. Lipstick Jungle? Cashmere Mafia? Not my world. Maybe we become less susceptible to the fantasy that our lives are worth screening as we get older, so we're less likely to believe that an on-screen world resembles our own. Or maybe the media industries have little interest in capturing the lives of real-feeling adult women. It's moments like this when I miss Lorelei Gilmore, a real-feeling adult woman, a TV friend, existing in an unreal world I wanted to visit every week.

GH: Night Shift was really pretty good?

Astounding soap fans worldwide, last night's season premiere of General Hospital: Night Shift on Soapnet was, well, it was, it was . . . good. Now, while the first season of Night Shift drew decent numbers for Soapnet (note, however, that these numbers were especially high for the first ep and not as much thereafter), all the soap fans and bloggers I've encountered online pretty much agree that it stunk. Bad in so many ways, more than I choose to recount here. For me, the greatest testament to its stinkiness was the fact that I did not watch all of it. Me, the most obsessively completist TV viewer I know, and a 25+ year GH fan to boot, simply could not handle watching all of that godawful show.

So promises of Jagger and Robert aside, I approached the new season quite warily. Now, it had plenty of faults, like some super-cheese acting, some excessively obvious Grey's Anatomy aping, and some wackadoodles character shifts. But, on the whole, it was . . . good. What was good about it?
1) It was funny. Yes, I said funny.
2) It returned Antonio Sabato, Jr. to my screen. And in a towel, no less. And his enunciation has much improved since his first GH stint 13 or so years ago. And he's still totally charming. And his connection to Robin was so meaningful to anyone in the know.
3) Robin and Patrick were truly at the center of the story. And they were as adorable and full of chemistry and interesting as they always are (in their too-too brief appearances on GH proper).
4) It made sense, told its story well (and coherently--big ups for that!--ahem, season 1), was entertaining, drew effectively on GH character history. The good parts made me remember why I like soaps, and especially why I like (or, rather, used to like) GH so much.

Not so good was the recast Dr. Leo Julian's personality transplant. The old Dr. Leo was a laid back dude, bopping around the hospital with his earbuds in place, rock t-shirts upon his chest. New Leo is a big grumpy grouch, beating up on the interns.

Although the George and Izzie reboot intern characters were a bit too much copycat to take, I give the NS folks props for having the guts to make the "George" (Kyle, right?) actually gay. And even in its train wreck first season, NS was much better than GH at racial and ethnic diversity. That seems not as explicit a purpose this time around, although characters of color do have much more to do here than on the mothership. (I was even happy that the holistic medicine doc--sorry, names fail me now and too lazy to look anything up--who seems to be ethnically "other," albeit vaguely so at this point--is Robin's old med school pal. This is what today's GH is missing--one of many things, of course--multiply linked connections for each character on the canvas.)

The faults of GH proper (and surprising goodness of NS) are all the more clear to me in my first couple of weeks of OLTL viewing. I really don't have time for this, but I decided to see what all the OLTL fuss was about. And I think I kind of get it. First, funny! Campy, at times, but all in good fun. And so, so many links between characters and stories, much more so than on GH, where characters with no links to anyone appear and stay in their little story bubbles. Plus, I realized something totally missing in the GH male characters of late--no goofiness! OLTL's young stud, Rex (not to mention the hilarious David Vickers) is traditional soap hunk-looking, but full of goofy charm. He reminds me of GH's Frisco Jones in the '80s. GH's Spinelli is all goof and little else, and is not allowed to be a hunky, romantic lead (Bradford Anderson could do it if given the chance).

Just my rambling thoughts. Couldn't let the fact that NS was actually . . . good pass without remark.

Girl TV Update

Some new shows, some old shows, here's what's up with my TV watching for and about the ladies:

-- Because of my last, glowing post about quarterlife, I want to make clear that, while the episode I praised, "Goodbyes," was super-fantastic, the rest--not so much. To be honest, we have yet to watch the final 3 or 4 segments of episode 6 (the final ep). We'll do so, but the show just did not live up to the best of the Zwick-Herskovitz-averse. Except for "Goodbyes"--a must-see for all MSCL fans.

- Two new woman-centric sitcoms on my viewing schedule these days: The Return of Jezebel James, created by Gilmore Girls' Amy Sherman-Palladino, and Miss Guided, the ABC show featuring the wonderful Judy Greer. Fox is clearly trying to burn off the Jezebel James eps, airing them on Fridays with little fanfare. From the first two eps, I can say it is definitely not great, but it has some winning elements, including some trademark ASP laughs and a great mom character played by Dianne Wiest. But Parker Posey, usually a great presence, is just . . . odd here. MZN and I keep thinking of all the great comic TV actresses who would work better in the part, taking on Sarah's annoying quirks while still making her sympathetic. Lauren Graham, of course, but also a Jennifer Aniston, a Courtney Cox, a Judy Greer!

Which brings me to Miss Guided, which had me laughing hard enough to pause the DVR. Here's one of the promos. The brief shot of her crying, in the green Homecoming dress, was what got me (it's a longer bit in the actual episode):

Maybe I'm a sucker for anything that lovingly mocks '80s high school geekdom, but I'm thinking that Greer's Becky Freeley may be up there with Tina Fey's Liz Lemon for me as a welcome kind of relatable sitcom heroine missing from TV for too long.

- Another update on a previously mentioned show. I somewhat sheepishly admit to having continued to watch Lipstick Jungle. It's not what I'd call good, but the fact that I watch it before the other series with episodes stacked a mile high on the DVR (Grey's Anatomy, I'm lookin' at you) says something about the pleasure it must be giving me. In part, I'm pretty sure this is because of the clothes, which are FABULOUS. Here's one image of the ladies in their fabulous coats:

But I've just spent way too much time searching for pictures online. NBC's "Shopisodes" will be happy to show you more. I think I just fell deep into a target marketed hole.

But in addition to the clothes, I like the fact that these beautiful women have relatively realistic bodies and faces for their age--well, except for Lindsey Price, and I think Kim Raver looks like this because she's pregnant, but still.

- I could say more about General Hospital, especially my growing discomfort with Sarah Brown's cartoonish proportions, as well as my appreciation of her compelling acting, but some Idol results await.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

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Religion, culture and the politics of academia, or why I'm not going to Flow

Sorry to break my blogging silence with the screed I'm about to write, but something is bugging me and I want to have my say.

An exciting development in the world of TV and media scholarship in recent years has been the advent of Flow, an online forum for somewhat informal, timely writing by media scholars. Published by graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, the journal also spawned a conference two years ago, which I attended and enjoyed. The second Flow conference is being held this week in Austin, and I'm not going. Why? Because the first day of the conference overlaps with the Jewish high holiday, Yom Kippur, often regarded as the holiest of holidays in the Jewish religion.

I'm Jewish, but am not religious. For my immediate family, Jewish holidays are occasions for family togetherness, but not especially for religious observance. I don't go to synagogue services or participate in other religious rituals. In this respect, I might have attended Flow without it impeding on any particular religious conviction. But attending the conference would most definitely have been problematic for my cultural identity--and for the practical realities of my life as a Jewish parent, daughter, and daughter-in-law.

As a Jew, even a non-religious one, I find offensive a culture that takes Jewish observance for granted and sees it as insignificant. The Flow organizers have been apologetic about the conference scheduling but I still find the choice to schedule it on this day to be insensitive and culturally myopic. I do not believe that an academic conference would be scheduled over Christmas or Easter, even if many of the academics in the field had little or no religious investment in the holiday. And the organizers' offer to schedule Jewish participants' panels on days other than the holiday and to direct those interested to the campus Hillel services fundamentally misunderstands the community- and family-based nature of Jewish culture.

While I chose not to attend in part in protest of this kind of cultural prejudice, I also felt that my participation was impossible for practical reasons, even though those reasons are also culturally contingent. I am married to another Jewish media scholar, and so any time we both want to attend a conference we must make arrangements for the care of our 4 year old son. We typically manage this about once a school year with the generous assistance of our extended families, who travel to our home or take our son into theirs when we both attend the same conference. (Sure, we could bring him with us, but his presence requires that one of us NOT be involved in the conference at any given time--not a very acceptable situation to either of us.) Each of our extended families are more religiously observant than are we, so it would be impossible for us to ask them to care for our son on this holiday. And I, for one, would be ashamed to ask, knowing full well the significance of this particular holiday and the general disregard for Jewish culture in American society more generally. Asking my family to babysit on this day would reproduce the insensitivity that the Flow organizers have perpetuated, albeit unintentionally.

That's why I'm not going to Flow.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

I'm sad about my networks

My 4 year old son had a phase in which he would say, at times, "I'm sad about my friends." After some probing, we figured out what he meant by this. He meant that he missed his friends, that he was sad not to be with them, that he hoped to see them again soon.

That's how I'm feeling these days about TV -- I'm sad about my networks.

It's now reached that point in the fall TV season (and, trust me, there is still a fall TV season, despite industry claims to its elimination) when I've sampled pretty much everything and have whittled down my options, settling into something of a regular line-up of shows to continue watching. It's not lookin' good. At this point, I can only think of two new shows that have achieved "season pass" status (in TiVo parlance, even though my main DVR is--sniff--no longer a TiVo). And neither of these shows is a favorite, by any means. In case you wonder, they are Privileged, on the CW, which I like for its smart, plucky protagonist, but which isn't so great on the whole, and Raising the Bar on TNT, Steven Bochco's new lawyer show, which I think I like mostly for the retro feel of it (the man DOES know how to write a lawyer show, after all), even if I find the sexual and gender politics rather retro, too. Since I'm a few episodes behind, I'll reserve further comment on that, but I do have some thoughts I'd like to share eventually.

There is certainly other competent fare on the nets these days. I thought The Mentalist and Eleventh Hour both work as procedurals with slight continuing character arcs and the charms of Simon Baker ALMOST convinced me to keep watching the former, but no. I thought Worst Week was sort of funny, and the same for Kath & Kim, which I know is heresy given the massive pan it received. But, again, no real desire to watch more of either.

I do still plan to watch at least one more episode of Easy Money, which has a somewhat new premise in its check-cashing place setting, and I think Valentine, also on the CW, is worth watching here and there for its hyper-corny Love Boat appeal. But, on the whole, I'm really sad about my networks. Other than fun reality competish shows like The Amazing Race, Dancing with the Stars and--looming in the new year--Idol, the broadcast nets just aren't bringing it.

And don't get me started on what makes me sad about the daytime soaps.

My favorite shows of late have all been on cable, and have all recently concluded or are finishing up their seasons--Project Runway, GH: Night Shift, and Mad Men. (Oops. There's also Friday Night Lights, another fave, being brought to me by Directv in advance of its NBC run next year. This show is fabulously back to season 1 greatness. But again, it wouldn't have been if just on NBC.) I don't want to be one of those high falutin' types who turns my nose up at the broadcast networks. (OK, probably not much danger of that as I continue to watch Dancing and Idol.) But I really think they ain't what they used to be, those networks. Maybe I have changed as much as have they, but I am fond of much TV and just can't get excited about any of those nets' new shows. This comes on top of last year's strike-shortened season, in which I ended up taking on very few new series, as well. Even those series that have survived since then only achieve half-hearted liking from me. If it weren't for the amazing wardrobes, jewelry, and those Chuck and Blair moments I don 't think Gossip Girl or Lipstick Jungle would be showing up on my Now Playing list at all.

As I continue my ongoing project of dubbing my VHS collection to DVD, I can see that the network TV of yesteryear had so much more appeal. Today I dubbed a favorite episode of the short-lived Herskovitz/Zwick Relativity and recently I've been transferring some mid-'90s GH (Claire Labine years, for those in the know). Shows like those could really make a person love TV.

Now I'm really sad about my networks.