Jane Hu and I wrote a recap/review of all of the new network sitcoms—A to Z, Black-ish, Manhattan Love Story, Mulaney, Selfie—for Dear Television at The Los Angeles Review of Books. We talked about narrative trickery, gay panic, and, of course, the ubiquity of cellphone slapstick on TV:
“Phil: It really just ends up seeming like a show about Love in The Time of Texting featuring characters who have the technological agility of grandparents. What’s your take on these works of art in the age of whatever?
Jane: When did the cellphone become the primary motivator of plot in television? Or has this, in a sense, always been the case? (I’ve been watching a lot of Louis Feuillade, aka-early-silent-serials, recently and wow does he place pressure on the telephone.) As a very brilliant supervisor of mine once asked: do we use the phone to talk to one another, or do we talk to one another in order to use the telephone?”
“Fall Sitcoms: A Dear TV Rundown”
I watch a lot of Home and Garden Television. So do you, probably. Here’s a piece I wrote for Pacific Standard on why HGTV shows are like crime procedurals, why “character” doesn’t always mean what we think it means, and why “open concept” doesn’t just refer to upgraded kitchens anymore:
“The ungenerous way of characterizing this would be to say that HGTV is selling a capitalist fantasia that would be severely complicated, even frequently unspooled, if it were to be extended past the space of the episode. The generous way of characterizing this, though, is that HGTV is not interested in progress—only process. Indeed, it’s not invalidating the former critique to say that, just like Law and Order and CSI, these shows are procedurals.”
“Open Concept: Why do so many people watch HGTV?”
I’m back at “Dear Television” proselytizing Amazon’s terrific new series, Transparent and creator Jill Soloway’s next-level revisions of the ensemble family dramedy form:
“As the camera spins and cuts around the large table, the siblings build what is recognizable as the shorthand of familial intimacy. They finish each others’ sentences, they don’t respect each others’ physical space, they tease, they coddle. But as the speed of the cuts and pans increase and the siblings’ faces become slashed with barbecue sauce like the sets of a samurai film, this intimacy begins to feel barbaric, bullying even. This is the ensemble as perpetual motion machine, the family as out-of-control whirligig.”
“That’s Not the Way it Feels: Transparent’s Ensemble”
I wrote a short piece for Slate on comedy, cruelty, plastic surgery, and the hilarious, semi-tragic Late Period of the late Joan Rivers.
“The central irony of Rivers’ face, as it’s evolved over the years, is that the more artificial and mask-like her appearance became, the fewer and fewer shits she seemed to give about what anybody thought of her. Writing about Rivers’ face work, Roger Ebert said, ‘I think it’s wrong for most people. But show business is cruel and eats its old, and you do what you have to do.’ To think of her surgeries as necessary, as tithes demanded and paid, is to get a vivid reminder of what Hollywood does even to women who are not sex symbols.”
“The Fall and Rise of Joan Rivers”
I’m back at “Dear Television” in The Los Angeles Review of Books with a piece on one of my favorite new shows of the summer, The Leftovers, and the somewhat ambivalent way it’s been received:
“A few weeks ago, Kelly Braffett, Vulture’s recapper for the show, wrote, simply, ‘Not enough is happening on this series.’ And, indeed, this is the point. Tom Perrotta characterized the fallout from the Sudden Departure in his novel thusly: ‘Nothing happened.’ The thing that happened already happened. It’s over. That’s not what this show is about.”
“Get Lost: Why You Should Be Watching The Leftovers“
So, I’ve broken my summer hiatus for good with this piece for Slate on one of my favorite movies, The Big Chill:
“The temptation is to see The Big Chill as a drama of privileged poses or a comedy of inside jokes, but we are surrounded, in popular culture, with increasingly diverse ethnographies of small groups and epics of small stakes. The Big Chill can’t and doesn’t speak for everybody, but isn’t that the point?”
(For what it’s worth, the original title of this piece was “Chill Wave,” which is, I think, a pretty cool title.)
“The Big Chill and the Quarter-Life Crisis Film”
I’m on a bit of a hiatus from online writing this month while I’m traveling to visit family and do some research, but, this week, Meredith Blake of The Los Angeles Times was nice enough to interview me for a post-Emmy nomination think piece. But even better is that she quoted me right next to Diane Lockhart herself, Christine Baranski! For the win.
I’ll be back soon with new Dear Television and a few other projects.