Friday, November 30, 2007

GOD DOESN'T MAKE CARS CRASH, AND YOU KNOW IT: Kathryn Joosten has become its a H!ITG! of high level on TV recently, with roles on The West Wing, Joan of Arcadia, Desperate Housewives, with a well-deserved Emmy award. The beloved Mrs. Landingham gets a profile in today's L.A. Daily News briefly discussing how she first got into acting, and that her first acting gig was at Disney World.
WE ACCEPT THE REALITY OF THE WORLD WITH WHICH WE ARE PRESENTED: While none of us may be living like Truman Burbank, mistaking a giant stage set for our everyday world, we do inhabit a culture in which "reality" and "entertainment" are no longer mutually exclusive categories. In studies like Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) and Neal Gabler's Life: The Movie (1998), cultural critics and historians argue that turn-of-the-millennium America has become what Postman calls the "Age of Show Business," an era in which, as Gabler puts it, "entertainment has conquered reality."

Both Postman and Gabler see TV news programs as the earliest and best (or worst) examples of reality turning into entertainment. In the 1970s, local news stations battling for ratings developed the audience-grabbing formats of "happy talk" and "action news." Network news introduced magazine shows like 20/20 (1978) and Dateline (1992), packaging "serious" stories with music, graphics, and dramatic narration. During the 1980s, TV also began treating entertainment as news, as Entertainment Tonight and Hard Copy drove the engine of tabloid television and took celebrity gossip to a whole new level. Finally, with the emergence of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle, viewers could enjoy wall-to-wall coverage of real-life crises -- what Frank Rich dubbed "mediathons" -- complete with theme songs, logos, and an entertaining cast of characters.

Parallel to this entertainmentizing of reality came the realitizing of entertainment, especially via reality TV. Beginning in the 1970s, hosts of daytime talk shows like Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey found enormous success by focusing less on celebrities and experts and more on ordinary people, both as guests and in the studio audience (a trend that would take a turn to the absurd in the '90s with Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael). Another strand of reality programming featured what David Letterman would call "Silly Human Tricks": Real People (1979), That's Incredible! (1980), and especially America's Funniest Home Videos (1990), truly one of the most influential TV shows of the past generation for its message that every moment of viewers' lives was potential "entertainment." From there, it wasn't that big a step to The Real World (1992) and Survivor (2000), in which "real people" become "cast members," taking on "roles" and acting out "plots" for viewers' enjoyment.

Obviously, this blog's readers lurve their well-crafted reality TV shows, and plenty of critics, both professional and amateur, agree. But is there a cultural cost to our obsession with reality-based entertainment (and entertainment-based reality)? How has the reality boom changed our definition of popular culture -- indeed, our definitions of both "reality" and "entertainment"?

Next week: video games, multiple-arc TV shows, the Internet, and other topics addressed in Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You. Feel free to follow along at home.
THE GOOD HOUSEKEEPING SEAL OF APPROVAL MAY CARRY LESS WEIGHT THAN INITIALLY BELIEVED: Back in those heady early decades of universal refrigeration and newly less-back-breakingly-onerous housewifery, our foremothers really knew how to dazzle with a pat of butter and some canned soup. This site captures the heyday of terrible food in all its glory. Ten PM Cookery is a good one, not to mention this display of things that should never be suspended in jello.

(thanks to my neighbor for passing this one along)
10 > DEATHLY HALLOWS > 100: The NYT list of the ten best books of 2007 is out, as is its list of 100 notable books from the year. Given how few of these I have read so far, I will almost certainly need to read How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, which made the Top 100 list.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

RED, WHITE, AND GOLD: Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor a writers' strike will stop High School Musical 3 from starting shooting in January. Interestingly, while the script is apparently done, songs are still being written, which seems to me not to be a particularly good way to write a musical, at least one that integrates the plot into the songs. Any bets on a release date? I'm thinking Thanksgiving 2008, same slot as Disney hit with Enchanted, since the late summer date used for HSM2 is probably too tight a turnaround.
THE STRIKE IS OVER, YOU WERE WITH ME ALL THE WHILE: After what I suspect will turn out to be a deeply painful if not crippling 19-day shutdown of the Great White Way, the Broadway stagehands' union has reached an agreement with the League of American Theaters and Producers. Feel free to read up on the terms -- changes in minimum staffing for load-ins, timing of the continuity call, and so forth -- if you like, but as far as I'm concerned, the important detail is that I get to go see The Farnsworth Invention this weekend.

So go see a Broadway show -- and while you're at it, go eat at one of the theater district restaurants that have taken a monumental beating over the last few weeks.
A MODEL'S PORTFOLIO IS SECOND IN IMPORTANCE ONLY TO HER ABILITY TO READ CHINESE STREET SIGNS: I'm too lazy to check, but I do believe that a few weeks ago I warned of the danger of an ANTM contestant's arc peaking too soon. Since this show should really be called Tyra's Chicken Soup for the Tall Anorexic's Soul (and don't think too hard about that title because it will blow your mind), if you learn your heartwarming lesson from Tyra too soon, or if you suffer a relapse, you're going to be sent packing, literally. Advice to future contestants: Tyra will cure you of bitchiness/arrogance/lack of personality/autism in due course; don't try to rush things, okay? Incidentally, wasn't Tyra's comment that the bottom two this week take the best pictures but have trouble communicating just an admission that she cares more about good television than about good models?

Two things to add to the Immutable Laws of Top Model (along with "there is always an Ebony, and she is always a bitch"): the first two talking heads are the bottom two, and the prize for being in the bottom two three weeks in a row is a ticket to sequesterville.
IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU GEEK OUT: Even though it appears in the "Television" section (Because what respectable news paper has a "Massively Multiplayer On-Line Gaming" section? Or "Nerdstyles", maybe. "Dorky Living"...) I can't help loving the chummy marketing-as-journalism article that the New York Times website ran yesterday on my own current favorite video game, EVE Online.

The Times' article conveys much of the platform's appeal, describing the player politics and diplomacy, the integrated teamwork necessary to build stations and control space, and the richness of the overall game universe and paths to take through it. However, it neglects any treatment of the deft balance the developers have struck between safe zones for newer (or conflict averse) players and free-for-all areas for the more advanced gamers who enjoy taking each other on directly. As far as mass appeal and deep playability, this balance is one of EVE's biggest victories. Another is that EVE characters gain skill -- and even game wealth, if you you are deft with market orders, auctions, loans, and contracts -- while their players are at work, or at the gym, or spending time with family. Play smart, and the time-suck is gone from the MMO experience. Best of all, the EVE team seems unwilling to "cheat" any aspect of the world they're creating, and set out in every direction to see just how smart they can make it. Quoth the Paper of Record:
After all, what other game has a Ph.D. economist on the staff who publishes a quarterly newsletter about the game’s virtual economy? What other game recently announced plans for an elected player council with ideas drawn from philosophers from Aristotle to John Rawls?
Blah blah, Rawls, blah blah Ph.D. More simply put, no MMO has ever put as much thought into balancing so many aspects of such a complex game world and lasted long enough to make dollar one. No game has ever had a steeper learning curve or (relatedly) a lower percentage population of vulgar, angry morons. That's not to say it isn't a video game, complete with explosions and mayhem. It is. Explode another player completely, and you get to take home their frozen corpse.

E.T.A.: Here's the Wikipedia link. Which gives a quick taste of EVE's complexity.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I GUESS THEY ALL THOUGHT THEY WERE BETTER THAN THEY REALLY ARE: Heidi, and everyone, brought the smack down tonight on a Project Runway which presented a challenge which many of us have long sought, and it ended up being such a hot mess that I'm not quite sure we'll ever see it again. Or, maybe for that reason, we will. This was an insanely entertaining hour of calamity television, even if I'm still not sure who half the designers are yet.

'30 Rock' rolls ads into story lines

CAN WE HAVE OUR MONEY NOW? Yes, a wireless phone company paid to be mentioned on "30 Rock" last week.
FROM THE DESK OF THE VICE PRESIDENT FOR EAST COAST TELEVISION AND MICROWAVE OVEN PROGRAMMING: In the early 1980s, some 50 corporations dominated the production and distribution of American media. Today we have the Big Six: GE, Disney, CBS, Viacom, Time Warner, and News Corp. In some ways, this "corporatization" isn't a very big deal; after all, popular culture has always been commercialized and commodified, and today's media conglomerates are, to an extent, simply larger versions of the entrepreneurs and industries of decades past. Yet the rise of Big Media has also significantly altered the ways in which pop culture is produced, distributed, and consumed, and those changes are in turn reshaping the culture itself.

Even in the 1960s and 1970s, business conglomerates from Gulf+Western to Transamerica to Kinney National had targeted entertainment companies for takeover, recognizing the profit potential of popular culture. But the fever for mergers and acquisitions really took off in the 1980s under the business-friendly Reagan administration. During the mid-eighties, all three major networks were bought up (ABC by CapCities, NBC by GE, CBS by Laurence Tisch), and 1989 saw the marriage of Time Inc. and Warner Communications. Over the past two decades, media mergers have accelerated even more -- Westinghouse-CBS, Disney-ABC, Time Warner-Turner, Viacom-CBS, AOL-Time Warner, GE-Vivendi -- fed by developments ranging from the demise of "fin-syn" rules to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to the commercial explosion of the Internet.

As several ThingThrowers know far better than I do, media consolidation has become a hot-button issue over the past few years, especially in the worlds of politics and journalism; critics argue that corporate ownership of multiple media outlets will stifle critical voices and encourage cultural homogeneity, while defenders of media corporations insist that consolidation will actually promote higher quality and greater diversity. In order to sidestep both the forbidden realm of political debate and the lure of brilliant-but-impenetrable discussions of vertical integration, let's look specifically the effect of media consolidation on popular entertainment. In what ways has the corporatization of popular culture affected your experience of movies, TV, radio, music, the Internet? Is the entertainment produced by the Big Six fundamentally different from the entertainment produced by "independent" media companies? If so, how?
AND THEN THERE WERE TWO. OR THREE. OR THIRTEEN? We haven't talked about House, M.D. for a bit, but since last night's episode marks a breaking point until January's return it's a good place as any to pause and reflect.

Like Alan Sepinwall, I've been a bigger fan of the Survivor/fellowship arc than most of the multi-episode stories they've done -- certainly more than the Vogler stuff, though I liked Tritter more than most did. I am not completely satisfied with the outcome of the search (warning: link contains spoiler as to last night's results) -- and still don't quite know what Cameron and Chase are still doing on the show -- but to discuss those details gets us into spoiler-y turf best left for the comments.
I WONDER WHAT THEY WILL USE FOR EMBALMING FLUID: Dr. Robert Cade, who created Gatorade in response to the question "Doctor, why don't football players wee-wee after a game?" has moved on to that big sports drink in the sky.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A GREAT ARTIST CAN COME FROM ANYWHERE: Based on what I've seen so far this year, I absolutely want to see Disney push for a Best Picture nomination for Ratatouille, which would be only the second film to be be so nominated. (Beauty and the Beast being the first.)

This factoid from the article: "28 R-rated films have been nominated for best picture in the last 10 years, while only two PG-rated movies — Finding Neverland and Good Night, and Good Luck — have. And none with a G rating have made the cut."

Book World Live -

WARTHOG POOP SHOOT: ALOTT5MA fave Anthony Bourdain did a live chat with WaPo readers yesterday. It's a fun one:
Washington, D.C.: Would you ever consider challenging Chef Flay or Batali on Iron Chef? Would the Travel Channel even allow this?

Anthony Bourdain: No way. I'd get my ass kicked. And with my luck, the secret ingredient would probably be Tofu.

Alexandria, Va.: What do you like so much about Japanese cuisine? (I'm totally falling for it myself, but I can't figure out why. It's weird. )

Anthony Bourdain: Fresh, clean, refined--it removes all but the necessary. And because it's the end product of centuries of thinking very seriously about food and pleasure. And because the Japanese can and will pay 300 dollars a POUND--wholesale--for the best fish.
Yes, there may be an ALOTT5MA Award in his future.
GOOSE, WHOSE BUTT DID YOU KISS TO GET IN HERE? The new Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is out and with the biggest new names on the list being Tim Raines and David Justice, this may finally be the year Goose Gossage gets the call. Perhaps the continuing steroids scandals, will make voters re-evaluate their positions on deserving sluggers Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, too.

If I had a vote, it would be Goose, Hawk, Rice, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris. Who's on yours?
THE TWIG HAS SNAPPED: For cycle 10 of America's Next Top Model, the unmemorable Twiggy will be replaced on the panel by Paulina Porizkova -- a/k/a "Mrs. Ocasek," or, as part of Steve Martin's fourth first Christmas wish, "that model Paulina somebody, I can't think of her name."

Of course, I still miss Janice Dickinson.

Monday, November 26, 2007

RICHARD POSNER RAPS: Or so he might, after seeing this collection of rap songs displayed in mathematical graphic form. Note the direct correlation between money and problems, a depiction of rhymes in the rap of House of Pain vs. raps in the Bible's Psalms, and Venn Diagrams of what MC Hammer will and will not allow you to touch,.

Your Choice - Who Will Be Person of the Year? - TIME

SHE DID SOMETHING VERY, VERY HARD AND SHE DID IT VERY, VERY WELL: We may still have a week's worth of November to go, but Entertainment Weekly has already named J.K. Rowling its Entertainer of the Year, a decision I have trouble questioning. (Perhaps a combined award for George Clooney and Matt Damon, the effortless stars?)

With that one in the books, Time's Person/Occupation/Pronoun of the Year is sure to follow, and they are starting to solicit your opinions. Is this yet another award for Al Gore to win? for Rowling? For Steve Jobs, and a third straight victory for the tech sector? Or another weird concept?
COME ON, FEEL THE NOISE: We note that the lead singer of Quiet Riot has died. The best remembrance seems to be via Ben Folds:
I'm rocking the suburbs just like Quiet Riot did,
I'm rocking the suburbs except that they were talented,
I'm rocking the suburbs, take the checks and face the facts,
that some producer with computers fixes all my s****y tracks, - Superchunk - CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina - Alternative / Indie / Rock -

WHY THE SUDDEN CHANGE? When indie rock icons Superchunk release a new song after years of quiet, we listen. And when it's a cover of Destiny Child's "Say My Name", we listen and smile. It's part of Guilt By Association, a neat compilation of guilty pleasure songs reinterpreted by contemporary artists.
VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED: When it comes to managing controversial content, pop-culture producers have repeatedly (and understandably) favored self-regulation over government control. From Hollywood's Hays Code to the Comics Code Authority, producers and publishers had generally policed themselves, telling artists and performers what sorts of content they could and could not present. By the 1960s, however, this method of self-censorship had come under attack -- from artists pushing for greater creative freedom, from audiences wanting more realistic popular culture, and from critics demanding clearer warnings about potentially offensive material. Over the past forty years, the major media industries have introduced "ratings systems" designed to address all of these concerns; in the process, however, they have sparked further debates about parental responsibility, community standards, artistic expression, and corporate ethics.

Movies were the first medium to adopt a ratings system, with the 1968 debut of the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), that mysterious body that screens Hollywood features and assigns "letter grades" indicating the films' appropriate audience: G, M (later PG), R, and X. (PG-13 arrived in 1984, NC-17 in 1990.) On the one hand, the MPAA ratings system allowed filmmakers to break free of the Hays Code's restrictions on language, violence, and sexuality; on the other hand, the CARA board's methods seem inscrutable and their decisions arbitrary, with many directors and moviegoers complaining that the ratings are more lenient with gore than with sex or profanity. Moreover, the MPAA ratings carry significant commercial consequences: the difference between a PG-13 and an R can be tens of millions of dollars, while an NC-17 can close off crucial avenues for advertising, exhibition, and DVD sales. Since 2000, the MPAA has also augmented the letter ratings with content advisories, but some critics say that these brief descriptions are more amusing than helpful. (The MPAA's secrecy and double standards were snarkily skewered in Kirby Dick's recent documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated; the whole film is available at that very NSFW link.)

Television, of course, had generally shied away from controversial content, for fear of alienating advertisers or antagonizing the "family audience" so central to the medium's success. But as TV shows increasingly featured more "adult" language and subject matter in the early 1970s, critics pushed the FCC to act. In 1975, under government pressure, the Big Three networks instituted the "Family Hour" from 8:00 to 9:00 Eastern, promising that this hour would remain free of offensive content. Although the Family Hour died in a court challenge the following year, the networks continued to tread carefully. By 1990, growing public and political concern over TV programs had led to the Television Violence Act, which prompted networks to institute "viewer discretion" warnings. Eventually, as part of negotiations over the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the TV networks rolled out a full system of on-screen ratings, built around age-based standards and linked to the new technology of the V-chip. Here again, though, critics charge that the TV ratings system lacks consistency and transparency -- and besides, most parents still don't know how to use the V-chip.

The music industry avoided ratings systems until 1985, when Tipper Gore and the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) convinced their political allies (and spouses) to hold hearings about indecency in pop music lyrics. Some PMRC supporters simply wanted the record companies to provide ratings or warning labels, though others hinted at possible federal legislation. The September 1985 hearings furnished some of the most entertaining moments in pop-culture history, from the PMRC's squirm-inducing recitations of the so-called "Filthy Fifteen" songs to the eloquent statements offered against content regulation by the improbable trio of John Denver, Dee Snider, and Frank Zappa. Fearing imminent government action, the RIAA quickly announced the creation of "Parental Advisory" labels (a/k/a "Tipper stickers"), to be affixed to albums with potentially offensive lyrics. But the RIAA has resisted calls for a more detailed ratings system, arguing that the number of recordings and the subjectivity of lyrical meanings make a full-scale ratings program impractical. Some performers, however, feel that even the Tipper sticker goes too far, since its appearance on an album (like NC-17 on a film) means that several major retailers will refuse to stock that item.

So, how do these ratings systems influence your experience of popular culture? As a parent (if you are one), do you find the ratings useful for screening your kids' pop-culture consumption? As an adult consumer, do you feel that the ratings affect your pop-culture choices?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

HOPE IS A DANGEROUS THING. HOPE CAN DRIVE A MAN INSANE: That was some football game. I fear we may have seen the last of Donovan McNabb in an Eagles uniform, and this is not how it was supposed to be. Great plan, so close, but for once Madden was spot-on with his inside/outside analysis on the Eagles' passing opportunities. This stings.
MONEY DOESN'T MAKE YOU WEALTHY: There was a lot to admire about this leg of the Race -- no flights, no bunching, a perform-for-the-locals task that was judged somewhat more rigorously than the Kiev leg where they had to rap before Burkina Faso's Randy, Simon and Paula ... and yet, it was still some of the most drama-free suck we've had in a while. Why? The tasks were straightforward and not time-consuming, and it was darn near impossible for anyone to gain ground. I do like my racing to be based on merit, not randomness, and so while I appreciate that previous success begat good outcomes here, the past was too much of an anchor here.

Also: I hate hate hate it when teams whine, and we had two really bad version of it -- the "how dare you use a strategic element we provide you!" -- i.e., the U-Turn (an improvement over the Yield) -- and a particularly unfortunate "why didn't you let us win!" from the second-placers.