MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Friday, March 31, 2017

March 31, 2017: Televised Fools: Social Satire



[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of recent comic TV shows. Share your thoughts on these or other televised foolishness, present or past, in comments!]
On four comic shows from which we can learn a great deal about our society and culture.
1)      Key & Peele (2012-2015): During its five seasons and fifty-three episodes, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s Comedy Central sketch comedy series was more than just consistently hilarious; it offered some of the most biting and insightful reflections on race in America that I’ve ever seen (in any genre or medium). (By all reports, Peele’s new horror film Get Out manages the same impressive balance of entertainment and social commentary within that genre.) If I were to suggest any one cultural work to represent race in America in the age of Trayvon and Obama, it would have to be Key & Peele; a viewer could dive into almost any episode and come away with a better understanding of the lightest and darkest of both this crucial issue and our national community.
2)      Inside Amy Schumer (2013- ). I would say many of the same things about Amy Schumer’s Comedy Central sketch comedy show, which has aired four seasons and has a fifth coming at some point in the future; only her show focuses its social satirical lens most consistently on issues of gender and sex. Schumer is particularly adept at utilizing parody in the best ways about which I wrote in yesterday’s post: see this Friday Night Lights sketch on football and rape culture; or this clip from her transcendent, episode-long parody of Twelve Angry Men. But her entirely original sketches are just as biting, as illustrated by this one on female celebrities experiencing their “last fuckable day.” Between the two of them, Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer could comprise the entire syllabus for a course on 21st century America and you wouldn’t run out of things to talk about.
3)      Last Week Tonight (2014- ): The Daily Show veteran John Oliver’s weekly news satire show on HBO is an entirely different animal, not only from sketch comedy shows like those but even from The Daily Show and its ilk. What Oliver does best—and, perhaps, what only Oliver does—is produce in-depth segments, usually running in the ballpark of twenty minutes, that examine a complex issue at great length, featuring a mixture of humor, investigative reporting, and impassioned arguments and activism. If you haven’t seen any, I don’t think you can go wrong, but I would recommend in particular this one on the death penalty, this one on prisons, this one on refugees, and this one on online harassment of women. Like many folks, I used to say that The Daily Show offered more accurate news than most of the news media; that might well still be true, but I don’t think any current show offers better reporting on vital American issues than Last Week Tonight.
4)      Full Frontal (2016- ): Another Daily Show vet, Samantha Bee’s weekly news satire show is the newest of this batch (it debuted just over a year ago), but has already impressed me (and everybody else I’ve ever talked to about it) with its blend of reporting and humor (a la Oliver’s show) mixed with Bee’s unique, fiery, and never less than compelling voice and perspective. Once again, I don’t think you can go wrong with any clip, but this one—Bee’s response to Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape scandal from last October—is a particular favorite and exemplifies all those qualities that have made this show much-watch television so quickly. As I wrote in this post on the media and the 2016 election (written in the halcyon days before that election actually transpired), to my mind the majority of the best coverage of that campaign came from the Olivers and Bees of the media world. That’s partly a disturbing reflection of the state of other parts of the news media, to be sure; but it’s also partly an illustration of just how vital these kinds of social satirical voices have become in our society and culture.
March Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other TV comedies you’d highlight?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

March 30, 2017: Televised Fools: Archer



[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of recent comic TV shows. Share your thoughts on these or other televised foolishness, present or past, in comments!]
On the pleasures and limits of parody, and a show that transcends both.
As someone whose list of childhood pop culture favorites includes both Weird Al Yankovic and the Zucker Brothers/Jim Abrahams films (especially Top Secret! [1984] and Hot Shots! [1991]) in very prominent spots, I’ve always had a soft spot for the difficult comedic art of parody. When they work, parodies certainly utilize the pleasure of familiarity, of riffing off of stories and images that we already know and enjoy seeing twisted into a comic new one; but they also and just as importantly have to offer their own distinct humor and pleasures, laughs and stories that don’t simply rely on the parodic elements to succeed but engage audiences in other ways as well. To my mind, on the other hand, failed parodies like many Leslie Nielsen films from late in his career—such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It [1995] and Mafia! (1998)—offer only note-for-note parodies of their respective genres, with little if anything that’s original or compelling about their own jokes and stories. Such limited parodies might work for a Saturday Night Live sketch or some other short-form humor, but stretched into a full-length movie the thrill of parody loses its appeal relatively quickly and in these failed parodies the audience is left with little else to keep them engaged.
One of the most successful parodies I’ve encountered in recent years is the FX animated TV show Archer (2010- ), the 8th season of which premieres on the FXX network in less than a week (in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note that I’ve been gradually catching up on the show on Netflix and have only watched into the 3rd season at this point, so as usual I welcome comments from folks with more Archer-watching under their belts [and anyone else]). The show’s original premise seems to have been as a more or less direct parody of the James Bond films, only with our superspy protagonist being a much less classy, much more proudly oafish American. Similarly, the main setting for the show’s espionage world (at least in its original few seasons; I know the premise has been “rebooted” a couple of times in recent years) was the same kind of Cold War environment in which Bond originally and long operated, with the Soviet Union and the KGB the most consistent adversaries for Archer and his (now unfortunately named) ISIS colleagues; yet Archer from the outset purposefully bent that setting and timing in a variety of ways, from a character with World War I service to 21st century pop culture references aplenty (among many other anachronisms). Given the difficulty of sustaining a parody over seasons of at least ten (and usually thirteen) episodes, this balance of on-point parodic elements and twists on the genre and world makes sense and helps keep the show feeling fresh.
Yet like all the best parodies, as I argued above, Archer works as well as it does because it features a number of features that are entirely its own, and distinguish it from both the genre its parodying and the parodic elements it includes. An excellent case in point are two of its central female characters: Malory Archer (voiced by Jessica Walter), superspy Sterling Archer’s Mom as well as his boss at ISIS; and Lana Kane (voiced by Aisha Tyler), a superspy in her own right and also Archer’s on-again/off-again love interest and rival. Both have aspects of familiar James Bond characters—his tough boss M, famously played by Judi Dench in recent years; and his many fellow agent love interests—but within the first few episodes (thanks to both great writing and wonderful performances) each had already taken shape as a distinct and interesting character in her own right, and by the end of Season 1 they were two of my favorite characters on television. Similarly, the show has gradually developed a deep well of recurring catch-phrases and in-jokes, pleasures that depend not on a genre or parody but precisely on rewarding those viewers who have been coming back to the show for its own sake. Despite that childhood of Weird Al songs and Zucker Brothers films, I don’t believe I’ve ever watched multiple seasons of a parodic TV show—but Archer represents the best of that genre, and a wonderful comic pleasure all its own.
Last TV fooling tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other TV comedies you’d highlight?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March 29, 2017: Televised Fools: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt



[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of recent comic TV shows. Share your thoughts on these or other televised foolishness, present or past, in comments!]
On two characters who walk that fine line between humor and offensiveness.
When I wrote this post a couple years back, critiquing the very popular (and very funny) sitcom Friends for a few of its less admirable elements, I didn’t quite acknowledge the inescapable fact of situation comedy that would certainly provide an important context for any such critiques: that sitcoms, with few if any notable exceptions, rely on exaggeration and (to at least a degree) stereotypes for many of their laughs. I don’t know exactly what proportion of audience laughs to televised minutes is necessary to make a sitcom successful and keep it on the air, but I think the number is decently high; there’s a reason why so many sitcoms have used the laugh track to try to emphasize those many moments for desired audience response, after all. And to get those laughs quickly and consistently, more subtle or sophisticated humor (which many sitcoms have certainly featured) has to be balanced with exaggeration, slapstick, punchlines, and other kinds of humor that aren’t necessarily realistic (could anyone really stand to be friends with someone making as many sarcastic jokes a minute as Chandler Bing?) but that can get and keep an audience laughing.
One problem with humor based on exaggeration and stereotypes, though, is that it’s always perilously close to offensive (as, I argued there, were the anti-intellectualism and homophobia in Friends). Perhaps no current sitcom has demonstrated that challenge more fully than Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which chronicles the life of a 29 year old woman who escapes from 15 years in a doomsday cult and tries to navigate 21st century life and New York City with the mindset and experiences of a 14 year old. Kimmy herself, played pitch-perfectly by Ellie Kemper, is too innocent and na├»ve to be offensive; but the show’s two most prominent supporting characters are a different story. There’s Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), a struggling actor who is so flamboyantly gay that he makes Jack from Will & Grace look like a wallflower by comparison. And there’s Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), an elite Manhattan socialite who, we gradually learn, is actually of Native American heritage but passing for white. The identities of both characters are frequently played for laughs (at least in the first season; I haven’t had a chance to watch the second yet and welcome any responses in comments as always!), with Krakowski’s identity and struggles being the most potentially troubling as the actress herself is not Native American.
I can’t say for sure whether these characters and performances are or would be offensive to you, fellow AmericanStudier, and that’s of course part of what makes this question so tricky: humor is very much in the funny bone of the beholder, and what’s on the funny side of the line to me might well be on the offensive side to you (and vice versa). Similarly, I can’t speak for either a gay or a Native American audience member, and certainly believe that the perspectives of different communities need to be heard and engaged with when it comes to cultural representations of them. But at the same time, sitcoms can and should represent characters with different sexualities, racial and ethnic heritages, and all other aspects of identity; and as long as they also need to utilize exaggeration and stereotypes for at least some of their laughs, then their work with those and all characters is going to continue to occupy an uneasy space on that fine line. I suppose all we can really ask is that those most exaggerated qualities are balanced by some humanity, by a sense that these are extreme versions of real people (rather than pure stereotypes, as the worst kinds of sitcom characters have often been). And thanks to the talents of their respective actors, both Titus and Jacqueline do achieve those vital moments of humanity in the course of Kimmy’s first season.
Next TV fooling tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other TV comedies you’d highlight?