Antenna Editors – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 First Forum Conference, USC School of Cinematic Arts Wed, 11 Nov 2015 17:29:42 +0000 by guest contributors Eleanor Huntington, Kelsey Moore, and Robert Sevenich


(photos by Sebnem Baran and Jinhee Park)

On Friday, October 16th and Saturday, October 17th, USC School of Cinematic Arts hosted the First Forum academic conference. This two-day event, “On the Fringe: Understanding Alternative and Subversive Media,” was executed by the ZdC Graduate Council through the Bryan Singer Division of Cinema and Media Studies, the co-sponsorship of the USC Graduate Student Government and the African American Cinema Society. First Forum assembled an international collective of industry professionals including filmmakers and actors, Academy archivists—as well as scholars—professors and graduates students—across an array of academic disciplines. The weekend events included five academic panels, a USC faculty roundtable discussion, keynote address, the exclusive screening of The Assassin (2015) with the presentation of the prestigious Sergei Eisenstein Award to its director Hou Hsiao-hsien, and “The Legacy of Blaxploitation” event. While coming from multi-generations and diverse backgrounds, research experience, and professional objectives, the conferences participants—comprised of panelists, respondents, guest and keynote speakers—were all committed to exploring filmmakers and media researchers focused on non-traditional works as well as marginalized modes of production, consumption, and reception for underrepresented spectators.

Much of the conference focused on the graduate student panels. Though the majority of presenters attend prominent Californian institutions including USC, University of California, San Diego, California State University, Northridge, and University of California, Santa Barbara, there were also participants from Northern Illinois University, University of Toronto, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. The panelists approached “fringe media” by defining and locating the fringe in particular generic, geographic, or historic contexts. The scholars identified fringe media in such disparate examples as public access television, ultrasounds, and K-pop fan activism and showcased works from widely diverse locations, including India, Kenya, East Timor, and Cuba. The five panels, featuring three to four presenters, established urban spaces, technology, cult cinema, national cinema, and pornography as the foci, which presented a broad knowledge range for conference attendees with little background in fringe media.

FirstForum6(Faculty roundtable — moderator Lorien Hunter, Akira Lippit, Michael Renov, Priya Jaikumar, and Marsha Kinder)

Following the completion of the student panels, the faculty members of the Bryan Singer Division of Cinema and Media Studies took center stage at an incredibly well-attended and well-received roundtable discussion on the role of academics in addressing marginalized fields of study. Drs. Priya Jaikumar, Akira M. Lippit, and Michael Renov, in addition to Professor Emerita Marsha Kinder, connected their own experiences researching and writing to issues facing the current generation of aspiring academics. This roundtable provided an opportunity to highlight the diversity of research at USC among its most noted scholars while it also allowed graduate students the chance to witness preeminent scholars debating the contentious issues involved in researching marginalized media topics.

In conjunction with these enriching panels, First Forum hosted and co-sponsored special presentation and events. Afternoon events included “Coming Soon! A History of Movie Theater Advertisements in the U.S.” presented by Academy film archivists Alejandra Espasande and Kelly Kreft. This visually enhanced presentation successfully tracked the historical trajectory of film advertisement from its beginnings grounded in vaudeville—and other forms of mass entertainment—to the conception and modernization of the film trailer. Espansande and Kreft concluded their work with an in-depth glance at the archival process itself and emphasized the importance of the archival field and its place within film scholarship.

FirstForum2(Academy Film Archive Presentation)

Their presentation was followed by a sneak preview of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assasin (2015), which was co-sponsored by USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Outside the Box [Office], East Asians Studies Center (EASC), USC Visions and Voices: The Arts and Humanities Initiative, and First Forum. Following the screening, USC professor Dr. David James presented Hou Hsiao-hsien with the School of Cinematic Arts’ Eisenstein Award, which has been presented only three times before. It is awarded to “world filmmakers for distinguished and visionary contributions to the cinematic arts,” and its past recipients include Agnès Varda, Costa-Gavras, and Pedro Almodóvar. Dr. Akira Lippit, Vice Dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, moderated a Q&A with the esteemed director, and their conversation primarily focused on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s unique style and the significance of the image.

The evening special event, “The Legacy of Blaxploitation,” was co-sponsored by USC’s African-American Cinema Society and First Forum. This discussion, moderated by Dr. Christine Acham, featured revered panelists Melvin Van Peebles, Antonio Fargas, Scott Sanders, and Michael Jai White. The panelists discussed on various elements of the 1970s Blaxploitation films, including the enduring influence of Peeble’s legendary first film, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1970), and its effect on contemporary films such as Sander and White’s Black Dynamite (2009). Alongside accounts of individual films, they discussed the influence of Blaxploitation as a filmic movement. Panelists reflected on the economic influence of Blaxploitation films within the 1970s mainstream Hollywood market, and recognized their importance in introducing the black male anti-hero to the screen. This event—as well as First Forum’s additional special presentations—expanded the conference’s overall examination of “fringe media,” as it allowed for spaces of discourse concerning marginality that exist outside the traditional scope of academia.

FirstForum5(Christine Acham chats with guests discussing Blaxploitation)

Before the weekend was officially capped off with a celebratory party at Hotel Figureoa in downtown Los Angeles, Dr. Fatimah Tobing Rony provided insight into her current research that builds on her revolutionary publication The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle in her keynote address to the conference. Following two days of student panels and outside events that sought to focus attention on media that is too frequently marginalized, her speech, entitled, “After the Third Eye: Theory and Practice,” cemented the importance of all the scholarship presented in moving towards a more inclusive academic and mediated landscape. All the presentations on fringe media during the First Forum conference spoke the evolving industrial practices, accessibility concerns, niche spectatorship and pleasure, and ideologies of the academy. Ultimately, the presented research and impassioned—even polemic—discourse surrounding marginalized media emphasized the increasing need to interrogate underrepresented entertainment production, distribution, and consumption.

Eleanor Huntington, Kelsey Moore, and Robert Sevenich are second year Masters students in the Bryan Singer Division of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California.

This post is part of an ongoing partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies’ Cinema Journal.


A Tribute to Barbara Klinger Tue, 03 Nov 2015 15:00:17 +0000 380803_web

This year, Barbara Klinger retired as Provost Professor of Film and Media Studies at Indiana University. Though we’re sure we’ll continue to see superb work from her, we wanted to honor her career to date. Thus we asked several who have worked with her, past and present, to offer some words.


“Cinema’s Contextualist”

from Dan Hassoun (PhD Candidate, Indiana University):

It’s interesting how texts can take on biographical meanings beyond their longer place within a discipline. When I was a college sophomore at the University of Minnesota, dipping myself for the first time into the strange and byzantine world of film theory, I had read virtually nothing of the disciplinary canon beyond the few texts explained in a handful of intro-level courses. In other words, I vaguely knew that there was a difference between signifiers and signifieds, that Hollywood was a culture industry of capitalist ideology, and that spectators identified with some sort of cinematic apparatus that regressed them into babies looking into mirrors (my 19-year-old self was a tad fuzzy on this final point).

It was within this context that Barb Klinger’s Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home would stretch and challenge my ideas about what critical cultural scholarship could be. Here was a text, densely thoughtful and accessibly written, that engaged issues of cinephilia, home theater, sharing and memory, repeat viewing – in short, cinema’s receptive contexts – in ways I could immediately relate to. In particular, the book’s use of audience surveys to examine practices of repeat movie viewings was eye-opening for a sophomore who had been learning to associate reception research with the boogeyman of “positivism.” I’m not overstating anything when I say that Barb’s work helped teach me that the empirical, the historical, the theoretical, and the critical need not be exclusive endeavors.

It wasn’t until later that I could place Barb’s work within a longer history of the field. Barb was certainly not the first to write critically on extra-theatrical cinema or everyday (particularly domestic) uses of screen technologies; after all, she belonged to a trajectory of scholarship on media audiences and space that included the work of Ann Gray, David Morley, Lynn Spigel, Anna McCarthy, and many others, some of whom predated and influenced Barb’s work, others of whom were writing alongside her during the 1980s and 1990s. It was also only later that I learned about Barb’s own extended influence in this field, from the many scholars who have cited and engaged her ideas across fan studies, reception, new media, authorship, historiography, and more; to her advisees and colleagues at Indiana University; to the Department of Communication and Culture that she helped to found.

As I write this, the future of critical/cultural media studies at Indiana is uncertain, as Communication and Culture has been dissolved and incorporated into a new Media School dominated by production, design, and social scientific approaches. As a PhD student navigating this new institutional terrain, however, I am grateful to have Barb’s work in my back pocket as a continuing example of what thoughtful research in this discipline can look like. If her work helped to guide me into this line of study, I look forward to it (and her future output) accompanying me into the next phase of my career.


“The Real Deal”

from Chris Holmlund (Professor, University of Tennessee-Knoxville):

Barb Klinger has been a cherished friend of mine for a long time. Her modesty is invigorating, her “can do” attitude exemplary. She makes a point of reaching out to and supporting junior as well as senior scholars: I’ve witnessed her thoughtfulness, based in genuine interest, time and again. I know she loves teaching – and travel – so I very much hope that she will be snapped up for visiting or guest professorships periodically, because it is too sad to think that she will never imitate Princess Leia in a classroom again. (Actually I’m not sure she ever did do that, but I do remember with relish her quick transformation into Leia to illustrate a point at a Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference some years back.)

I am pleased that Barb is now able to concentrate on her research, and to explore Chicago, her new home town. She has done so much fine service, at Indiana University, through SCMS, and for the field, that she deserves a bit of downtime. As a former SCMS President, then Past President, from 2011-2015, I was lucky to work with her as President-Elect, then President. I would be remiss if I did not signal what a great job she did organizing the 2013 Chicago SCMS conference. As President she moved Board meetings along skillfully. Despite long days we got lots done and we enjoyed ourselves, in good part because Barb is organized and gracious. She knows how to create a friendly atmosphere by according everyone their due and periodically adding subtly funny comments that sneak up on you and get you chuckling. She is unfailingly professional, and she is kind. Such a great combination!

Like many, I greatly admire her scholarship and appreciate the way it has evolved. Think about it: she’s gone from melodrama and meaning (her first book on Sirk) to beyond the multiplex. Today she is engaging with 3D and our trans-mediated world. The range of her intellectual engagement is impressive: from cult film to piracy, cable TV to YouTube parodies, transnational TV thrillers, and more. There is good reason why she has twice (in 1997 and 2010) won the prestigious Katharine Singer Kovács Best Essay Award, for articles in Screen and Cinema Journal, respectively. She takes fans and fandom seriously because she has always been intrigued by reception; indeed one of her very first articles, “‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited: The Progressive Text” (Screen, 1984) engaged with Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Paul Narboni’s influential 1971 essay.

Over the years Barb has evolved from a film into a media scholar. There is no fear that post retirement she will disappear from view; on the contrary, she will, I am sure, continue to be active. I very much look forward to reading what she writes next and to seeing her as often as possible. Barb Klinger is the real deal, in so many ways.

Kudos to you, Barb, on your retirement, warm thanks for everything, and hugs!


from Gregory A. Waller (Professor, Indiana University):

I don’t think that there has been anything published by my colleague, Barb Klinger, that hasn’t been a model of impeccably researched, theoretically savvy, and carefully wrought, finely tuned scholarship, demonstrating again and again that quantity is never a substitute for quality when it comes to an academic career. And, even without recourse to a citation index, I’d venture to say that Barb’s articles and books have become essential reading across a range of scholarly interests: for starters, 3-D and home theater, Hollywood melodrama and Jane Campion, historical reception studies and transnational fandom. If you know her work largely through Beyond the Multiplex, then you owe it to yourself to read her essays on The Piano, Titanic viewed in Afghanistan, Hollywood’s “adult films” of the 1950s, and The Big Lebowski. If you are not familiar with her current work on the extended afterlife of Hollywood classics like Casablanca, including the role of radio adaptations, rest assured that this research project more than measures up to Barb’s ambitious and exacting standards.

All that you might already know. And you’ve likely encountered Barb in her presidential alter-ego as the major domo of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, an organization that somehow manages to get six years of service out of its top elected official. But unless you’ve been at Indiana University, where Barb spent her entire academic career, you don’t know her as an exemplary department member, principled university citizen, and terrific mentor for graduate students. (And you probably don’t know her abiding fascination with the Rolling Stones and the darkest international televisual crime serials as well as her ability stay cool and on target when conducting a public interview with Meryl Streep in a 3000+ seat auditorium filled with fans and university officials.) These are the very qualities that go far toward making the academy the kind of place we always hope it can be. After I joined her department at Indiana as a chair hired from outside, Barb’s knowledge of the institution, her professionalism, and her smart advice saved me more than once from rashness and folly born of frustration. She’s been all that anyone would want from a colleague, and for me the way she conducted her life as a working academic at a large public university made her multi-faceted scholarship and her contributions to the profession at large that much more impressive.


from Brenda Weber (Professor, Indiana University):

There are many qualities one might praise about Barb Klinger: her ceaselessly excellent scholarship, her all-around pleasantness and good-natured decency, her calmness in sunshine and in storm, but one of the things that has meant the most to me as a colleague and friend is her spot-on advice as a mentor. I began my tenure-track job at Indiana University in the Department of Gender Studies as a literature and media scholar in a domain dominated by people from the social scientists. Don’t get me wrong, these people were (and continue to be) great colleagues and friends, but they weren’t really able to help me think through the intricacies of my projects or to chart out the meanings of the finer points that relate to media theory. By and large, they also weren’t the people I was working with on doctoral committees. My department also didn’t have many senior scholars, and so I found it necessary to outsource my mentoring needs, and Barb was always a steady and reliable voice of thoughtful guidance and support. Indeed, she taught me something quite critical about how to teach graduate students. I remember one occasion in particular when Barb and I served on a doctoral dissertation committee together. I watched in awe as she asked a student to name the five major points of a key book in the field, refusing to give the student any help or encouragement in the answer. Through it all, she never flagged in her insistence that the exam be absolutely rigorous. This was a true watershed moment for me: prior to this point, I had not been willing to push students or to demand that they rise to a level of excellence (mostly being grateful that they wanted to put me on their committee in the first place). I was absolutely gobsmacked at how fearlessly Barb held them to task, and I saw her act as nothing short of courageous since it said to students that female professors needed to be taken as seriously as male professors and that we would hold our students to a level of excellence that allowed those students to know they had been thoroughly and fairly vetted by the protocols of academic benchmarks. Barb taught me through example that I wasn’t doing my students any favors by giving them a “free lift” into ABD status, and I have heard many of them (now long post-PhD) say how grateful they are for her standards of excellence, since those former students who are not professors in their own right can walk into any room or march onto any page knowing that their ideas have been fully vetted and proven. That firmness in a moment when one otherwise might be overly conciliatory taught me much about how to do my job conscientiously and ethically.



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Fall Premieres 2015: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Tue, 06 Oct 2015 14:00:06 +0000 By the end of his run with The Daily Show, Jon Stewart had been both credited by some with doing more than anyone else to save American politics and journalism, and damned by others for doing more than most to destroy the very fabric of democracy. How does Trevor Noah compare? A group of experts on political entertainment and/or comedy discuss his first week as host.

First, some quick introductions:

  • Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) co-edited Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era and is author of Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality.
  • Amber Day (Bryant University) is author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.
  • Chuck Tryon (Fayateville State University) wrote for many years at his blog The Chutry Experiment on political television, and is author of the forthcoming Political TV.
  • Geoffrey Baym (Temple University) is Professor Colbert himself, having written many of the canonical treatments of Colbert, and is author of From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.
  • Ethan Thompson (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) co-edited Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era and is author of Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture.
  • Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.


Jonathan Gray:

With each of the other major change in hosts of the various late night shows in the last few years, the new host has been given considerable scope to change the show considerably. It may still be called The Late Show, therefore, but the set’s different, the band’s different, Colbert’s not doing Top Ten lists, Rupert and Biff are gone, etc. What struck me immediately about The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, therefore, was the same old voice announcing the date, the camera swooping over a fairly familiar looking set, while the same ol’ theme song played. Interestingly, then, while a lot has been made about whether Noah can “replace” Jon Stewart, in fact he seems only to have been asked to fill the chair and role of convenor, as Jon’s show, style, and feel are very much still in play. This extends even to Noah’s comic style at time: I’ll discuss a few differences, but so much of his delivery, his play with the camera, his faces at the on-screen bad punny section titles, and so forth felt very “Stewartian.” Even the crappy, unfunny, politically sterile segment about police racism and brutality on Wednesday night’s show feels like the junk that Stewart’s lesser staff members phoned in some times.

I wonder, though, how much of this continuation is a bridging strategy. I think here of the advice I give to grad student lecturers, to teach the regular professor’s class as the professor did, and to leave changes to the second time they teach it. Maybe Week 10 or Season 2 of Noah’s Daily Show will look as different from Stewart’s Daily Show as Colbert’s Late Show is different from Letterman’s, but for now it’s a shrewd move with a not-entirely-popular choice for replacement to keep the machine running rather than reinventing it.

And run it did. Noah is good at this job. He’s funny, he mixes groany dad jokes with edge with skill, as did Stewart. He has good chemistry with the camera. He exudes an intelligence becoming of the role. Nor is he just aping Stewart completely: his own segments seem to move quicker, his delivery and pacing crisper; his relative youth means he doesn’t need to adopt the patrician mode that Stewart did increasingly; and like John Oliver, he can use his non-Americanness to great comic and satirical effect. I was not one of Noah’s many detractors, but I still expected far less than he provided in those first three nights.

Still, though, he’ll need to improve with interviews to keep me from turning off the TV half way in. While the experienced Colbert was booking Jeb Bush and Joe Biden in his first few days, The Daily Show’s bookers either lost their mojo completely, or were savvy enough to give Noah training wheels, opening with Kevin Hart then moving to the founder of a new dating app. Even Chris Christie was a wise first “real” interviewee, since one can count on Christie to know the audience and show and move the interview himself. Even then, in the interviews Noah has been feckless, clearly out of his depth, starstruck, wooden, and a far, far cry from Stewart. Admittedly, Stewart was a superb interviewer, and it’s early days, but the beauty of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was the two shows in one — critique of the news, then an interview with bite — and unless Noah is a quick study, and as much as the producers may have kept a lot of the old Daily Show, the new one may be only half its former self. I’ll definitely stick around, though, and I don’t begrudge Noah the need to improve.


Amber Day:

This first week of Trevor Noah’s tenure on the Daily Show has had its ups and downs, but I do think that the host shows a good deal of promise.

I agree with Jonathan that the interviews have been disappointing.  In particular, the first two interviews both began with what seemed like a pre-rehearsed (or pre-agreed upon) opening joke that fell so flat as to be almost unintelligible (Kevin Hart’s supposedly disappointing gift of ties and the Whitney Wolfe conceit that interviewer and interviewee were on a date).  Like Jonathan, I may well end up turning off the program half way through (or more likely, cherry picking segments to watch on the Comedy Central website), though I do acknowledge that being a good interviewer is a skill that is entirely different from delivering a tight monologue, and one that will almost certainly take some time to develop.

On the other hand, I think that the comedy portions of the program this past week were well done.  Noah’s self-deprecating bits about the perils of trying to fill Jon Stewart’s shoes struck the right opening note, while momentum continued to pick up as the week progressed.  Here, the one segment over which I disagree with Jonathan was the correspondent piece about racial profiling and police brutality.  I thought the segment did a very good job of highlighting the radically divergent ways in which the majority of white Americans versus black Americans view the police force, while very deliberately allowing the spokesperson for a police anti-bias training program to make a case for why such a program is necessary and what it is meant to accomplish, a message that slipped through in the background while the correspondents clowned in the foreground.  Though it was certainly gentle, I think it was a form of advocacy journalism tailored for an exceedingly touchy subject.  I happened to be watching that episode with my mother-in-law, whose political views are widely divergent from my own, but it felt like a conversation starter that we were both comfortable with, while it did still have substance.

The other highlight of the week for me was the extended story on Donald Trump being akin to an African president, detailing his striking similarities to notorious military strong-men and megalomaniac dictators like Gaddafi or Amin.  Though Trump is certainly an easy target, the piece allowed Noah to use his own background and knowledge to provide global context for the American political race, while also producing a very funny segment.

Going forward, Noah will, of course, have to grapple with the ins and outs of American party politics, but he would do well to continue to draw liberally from his strengths: an international perspective, as well as a heightened sensitivity to contemporary race relations.  If he can manage to bring some of that savviness to his interviews, he will have it made.


Chuck Tryon:

During the opening monologue of his debut episode on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah promised to uphold the legacy of Jon Stewart by continuing the “war on bullshit.” For those of us who became accustomed to Stewart’s relentless attacks on cable news, however, Noah’s contributions actually look quite a bit different, at least so far. Thus far, Noah has generally offered a much more genial perspective, one that draws on his experiences as a non-U.S. native to denaturalize some aspects of American political discourse rather than focusing excessively on cable news (although he did offer a mildly humorous critique of cable news’s tendency to focus on distractions such as “pumpkin spice” season). That being said, like Jonathan and Amber, I also see plenty of room for Noah to grow into the role of Daily Show host and to adapt the format to his comedic strengths, in much the same way that Stewart refocused the show away from Craig Kilborn’s sterile, apolitical humor.

This “outsider” status was powerfully displayed in the inspired segment in which Noah compared Donald Trump to a laundry list of African dictators. Like Amber, I appreciated this segment, in no small part because it provided a more global perspective on American politics, but also because it brought a fresh perspective to the Trump parodies, which have become overly obvious in recent weeks. Other segments were somewhat less successful. I was somewhat ambivalent about the police brutality sketch, in that its politics seemed somewhat incoherent to me, but that’s likely a product of the writers finding their stride, rather than any limitations on Noah’s part. The “Panderdemic” segment also showed promise, as Noah worked to pick apart the ways in which politicians seek to appeal to specific voters, often in disingenuous ways.

Perhaps the biggest concern about Noah has been his performance during interviews. But it’s worth remembering that Stewart, especially during his early career, seemed equally star-struck during interviews. And while I’m no fan of Chris Christie, Noah was probably better served by taking a relatively genial tone with him. In fact, Noah did offer a subtle pushback against one of the common tropes of conservative politics, in which presidential candidates campaign against “the government,” even though they are part of that government. He also managed to tease out some of the absurdities of Christie’s draconian immigration policy. These moments suggest that Noah may be a quick study on American political discourse, and I’m willing to give him time to develop his skills as an interviewer while waiting for Colbert to start.

Ultimately, I think Noah will grow into his role as host of The Daily Show. It’s unfair at this stage to hold him to the high standards established by Jon Stewart, who seemed to become the political conscience of cable television over the last few years, but given time, I’m hopeful that Noah can bring a unique perspective to the fake news genre.


Geoffrey Baym:

I want to build briefly on Jonathan’s suggestion that Trevor Noah has kept “the machinery running” through his first week.  While it is right to consider what changes Noah will make to the program as he settles in to the role, I’m also quite interested in the power of the machine to operate as designed.  Or to put the point differently, we’re seeing what I would characterize as the institutionalization of the form.  When so many of us began paying careful attention to The Daily Show more than a decade ago, it seemed like something unprecedented and risky – a novel mechanism for engaging with and interrogating the public political conversation that had more to do with the particular vision and talents of the host than it did the power of formal convention or institutional lineage.  And the host himself long insisted that he was an institutional outsider, a jester throwing spitballs, rather than the opinion leader and influence broker he so clearly became.  That of course is the point of the long-running joke: “From Comedy Central World News headquarters in New York, this is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Unlike those long-established and institutionally entrenched news outlets on the other channels, Comedy Central of course had no “world news” operation, nor a “headquarters” where nationally significant command and control decisions could be made.

Notably, that intro line remains – the only difference being the last two words (“with Trevor Noah”) – as does the swooping camera motion, the spinning globe, and the theme music.  All of this suggests that the joke has taken on new complexities, it seems now to fold back in on itself.  Like the institution of nightly news it long imitated, The Daily Show truly has become more than the personality and skills of its host. It is an institutional product – conceptualized by a team of producers and writers, governed by production conventions and audience expectations, and located in a particular cultural milieu.  It may have a new set, new font, and a new graphics package, but those are the same kind of cosmetic changes that all news operations make periodically, just as they bring in new anchors and new correspondents from time to time.  Certainly, Noah’s personality and interests will begin to shape the content.  Chuck and Amber are right that the Trump-as-African-Dictator gave us a glimpse at the more global and ethnically nuanced discourse most of us are expecting to see from Noah.  And of course, his interviewing skills are far from where they’ll need to be.  But through a wider lens, this Daily Show is remarkably like the last Daily Show (or the one that John Oliver hosted while Stewart was on leave directing Rosewater), and that continuity is for me the major take-away here.

Finally, there are important linkages to be made between the institutional consistency of The Daily Show and the work that Colbert (and Stewart apparently) are doing on CBS.  After nearly a month on air, the Late Show looks a lot like a more grandly theatrical, if perhaps slightly less subversive, Colbert Report.  Just the other day, John Oliver sat with Colbert for an interview, with the two explicitly positioning themselves as former Daily Show correspondents.  Oliver, of course, has taken the genre of news parody in a new direction on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, devoting 18 minutes per episode to deconstructing often obtuse public problems.  Meanwhile, back on Comedy Central, Larry Wilmore (formerly The Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent) is still holding on with his panel discussion program, The Nightly Show.  Scholars of TV and political communication have long been looking for “The Daily Show effect,” and finally I think we can identify one.  Jon Stewart’s show spawned numerous copycats, both in the US and around the world, but more importantly, it has seeded the landscape of political television and created a new kind of media institution while doing so.

TV STILL - DO NOT PURGE - The Daily Show - Trevor Noah (CREDIT: Peter Yang)

Ethan Thompson:

A few minutes into Trevor Noah’s first interview with Kevin Hart it hit me, and I felt oh-so-stupid for not realizing it sooner: the shift from Jon Stewart to Trevor Noah is first and foremost a generational shift.

Stewart was 37 when he started back in 1999. Have you seen a photo of him recently? Noah is now just 31. Stewart’s departure was a chance for Comedy Central to reset the show with a new host who might appeal to a more youthful demo. The olds will keep tuning in anyway, and if Noah isn’t quite suited to their (my) tastes, there’s always Oliver, Wilmore, Maher, Colbert, and/or Myers to queue up on the DVR or switch the channel to later. The Daily Show may be the house that Jon Stewart (re)built, but Daniel Tosh has done more for Comedy Central in recent years, and I expect that that is the audience the network hopes to attract. I wish them luck.

I could think of at least a half dozen people I would have rather seen taking over the anchor spot, but that’s because I was thinking of established people in the post-Boomer/Generation X cohort. Dumb me, and smart Comedy Central. I thought Noah’s first week of programs was solid. He has the presence and personality to carry the show as host, and the various correspondent pieces showed that the program can sail on without Stewart’s guiding hand. I’m glad that Comedy Central is investing in Noah as a host who might cultivate another generation of satire fans.

Noah’s biography is compelling and much has been said about the potential his global perspective might bring to the show. This amorphous “global” perspective was rightly ridiculed on his first show. Still, the standout piece of the first week for me (and apparently the others writing here!) was Donald Trump: America’s African President. Whether or not this was a product of Noah’s global perspective, it was both meaningful and funny.

Television satire, especially the fake news variety, is expected to live and die by the personalities of the performers. Ever since Chevy Chase transitioned from Weekend Update host to movie star after the first season of SNL, fake news has been a springboard, with Colbert’s ascension from Daily Show correspondent to the Colbert Report to his CBS show the corresponding bookend. Stewart’s tenure is an anomaly.

The truth, of course, is the other writers and producers are largely responsible for making the show funny and meaningful on a consistent basis. I hate to take too much credit away from Noah, because I do think he has done a good job and it would be a different show without him. However, I think what Geoffrey Baym describes above as the institutionalization of news satire may ultimately be most interesting to consider. Comedy Central can choose a youthful host without a track record because the form has gelled enough that the program is not dependent upon the host the way it once was. There won’t be anything revolutionary about Noah’s Daily Show the way Stewart’s once seemed. The form, and not just the viewers, have matured.


Nick Marx:

Geoffrey’s description of the “institutionalization” of satire television and Ethan’s observation about generational shifts echo a lot of what I thought about the Stewart-to-Noah transition before last week–that The Daily Show has more or less become Saturday Night Live at this point.  That’s intended neither to slight nor compliment either show, but to highlight how both have been integrated into political, industrial, and social discourses beyond the programs themselves.  Noah’s hiring (like that of SNL’s Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones, or short-lived Daily Show correspondent Michael Che) was less about late-night transitions than it was about race, gender, and televisual representation.  It’s been heartening to see Noah, then, arrive in Stewart’s chair with little else around him changed and instantly shine.

Conversely, I was often much more appreciative of the way Stewart’s Daily Show shaped broader public deliberation about important topics™ than I was of his on air presence (good riddance, exaggeratedly-Jewish-Jerry-Lewis voice!).  Noah seems to be, at least so far, a much more conventionally funny and likable stand-up comedian.  I expect that we’ll see a lot more bits rooted in Noah’s race and nationality (like the Trump-as-African-dictator segment), and I hope the show will continue experimenting with correspondent segments in act one, or even entirely interview-free episodes.  Like Colbert’s Late Show, The Daily Show is clearly still struggling to find a new voice while paying proper homage to its predecessor.  Fortunately, it’s also got the charismatic ringleader to find that voice quickly.  Here’s to hoping Noah doesn’t jump ship after seven or so seasons to make buddy comedies with Will Ferrell.


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Fall Premieres 2015: ABC Wed, 23 Sep 2015 17:04:52 +0000 abc2015


The Muppets (premiered September 22 @ 8/7) trailer here

Surely one of the most anticipated new shows of the season, The Muppets returns Kermit, Fozzie, Piggie, Gonzo, and company to prime time 17 years after Muppets Tonight was cancelled, and 34 years after The Muppet Show ended. Filmed in Office confessional reality style, it follows our multiple leads as they produce Up Late with Miss Piggy. Start polishing Gonzo’s Emmy.


Showrunner Bill Prady claims that when people learn that he is the force behind ABC’s The Muppets, they say the same thing to him: “Listen, the Muppets were a really important part of my childhood. Don’t fuck this up!” I haven’t met Bill Prady, but I’m one of those people. The Muppet Show on CBS (1976-1981) was a much-anticipated event in my home, enjoyed by adults and kids alike. I’ve introduced my own kids to the show on DVD, and watching it as an adult has reinforced my appreciation for the show’s clever writing, multi-layered humor, and engagement with current events.

I was excited to hear the show was being updated and reworked for ABC, and hoped it would build on the success of the 2011 The Muppets movie, which received strong reviews and did well at the box office. But I was also worried that the reboot, shot in mockumentary style and made to be “more adult,” would fail to capture the essence of its predecessor. While I respect that Jim Henson meant The Muppets to be more an “adult property” than a kids’ property, after watching the pilot, I won’t be watching The Muppets with my kids. I don’t agree with One Million Moms’ claim that the show is “perverted,” but I did find the humor to be a little too straightforwardly and immaturely adult, and I felt the characters were a bit more jaded and dysfunctional than I’d like them to be. ABC sees The Muppets’ long-lived popularity as a guarantee that the new series will lure audiences, but the 13-episode venture does risk negatively impacting the relationships fans have already built with the characters. I’ll keep watching, but if Bill Prady steers too far from the characters I love, he may be hearing from me!

Melissa A. Click (University of Missouri) studies media audiences and loves the fall TV season!


Turning on the The Muppets felt immediately familiar: the characters, the rhythm, the back-stage business. But that feeling soon wore off and what was left felt a little too much like a preamble – like the web-series roll-out to the next movie. Like Life in Pieces it suffered from under-development of its characters and premise. One might think that the characters’ familiarity removed the need for such introduction but these iterations were so different from the originals (Kermit without Piggy? Fonzy without jokes?) that I needed more narrative than this first episode offered to adjust. The series’ over-reliance on the mockumentary format also added a feeling of distance that hampered the need to connect us to these new muppets (Donald Trump would be very concerned about their low energy).

Despite these challenges, The Muppets had its moments. Some of its behind the scenes humor favorably reminded me of some of 30 Rock’s media-savvy humor. (I will already be using its opening scene in class this week). While, in this episode, trying to balance peeks at the Muppets’ social lives, the labor of putting on Miss Piggy’s show, and moments of the show itself was simply too much, the premise of the set-up, which allows for a wealth of guest stars and bands for the Muppets to play off, has a great deal of potential. While some have remarked on the way in which making the Muppets more “adult” took from their sweetness and warmth, that base point has seemed to keep The Muppets blessedly free from some of the race to the bottom humor that has cropped up in other series. In what has struck me as a sparse fall season, The Muppets has potential but will badly need to improve its focus and pacing to capture that Muppet Magic.

Kyra Hunting (University of Kentucky) studies genre, representation and children’s media.


The Muppets‘ narrative format is well adapted to the small screen in this newest iteration of the 1976-1981 The Muppet Show. Unlike Muppets Tonight!, which aired in 1996, The (current) Muppets may benefit from network audiences’ recent memory of NBC’s docu-comedy hits The Office, 30 Rock, etc. This format also allows for classic Muppet antics, such as the writing team segment where the Muppet crew cannot be effectively corralled by showrunner Kermit.

My favorite plotline, though, was Fozzie’s brief relationship with a human, played by actress Riki Lindhome, and the inevitably disastrous introduction to her parents, Jere Burns and Meagan Fay. Unfortunately, the plot ended with Fozzie initiating a breakup, and so we return to the primary Muppet cast.

The Muppets pilot was fine, and perhaps even promising in terms of what a pilot tries to achieve—some modicum of character interest and plot tension. The question, for me, will always be: why the Muppets? The disappointing answer is: money. While I try not to defame the idea of remakes and relaunches—these endeavors have been rewarding elsewhere—the Muppets feel outdated, not nostalgic, to this super fan. Maybe it’s the psychedelic ravings of Dr. Teeth and his stoned band members or Rizzo’s slimy pick-up lines, but the 1970s ethos doesn’t translate.

I also can’t shake the fact that Disney seems desperate to squeeze money out of the franchise, which undoubtedly has cost them millions in marketing. Their purchase of the Muppets (2004) came 15 years after initial sales talks with the late Jim Henson. Today, The Muppets relies on transgenerational fandom to pick up decades of slack; adults who watched the Muppets at their zenith in the 1980s will introduce their kids to the characters. However, for this obsessed fan, the show will always be 25 years too late.

Caroline Leader (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies family media and franchising.



Blood & Oil (premiered September 27 @ 9/8) trailer here

Following the largest oil discovery in American history, a young couple move to North Dakotan to get rich. Think Dallas, though it’s probably best they didn’t call it Williston. Don Johnson plays the big oil tycoon, with a large cast of others including Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford, Revenge’s Amber Valetta, and Delroy Lindo. This primetime soap has been in the trades a lot due to a rocky production history including dumped showrunners, a move from USA Network, and more.


If you’re old enough to remember Don Johnson sporting a pink T-shirt under a shoulder-padded linen jacket, then seeing him in plaid flannel and a cowboy hat (as the oil baron and domineering dad Hap Briggs) in ABC’s new nighttime drama, Blood & Oil, may be a little jarring. If you’re even older, and pining for J. R. Ewing’s bad old good old Dallas and its oil-fueled rivalries, you may be disappointed. The cowboy hats are smaller here in North Dakota, and the Bakken is no Miami or Dallas.

There is plenty of drama in the first episode. All roads lead to Rock Springs, it appears, as the little town is in the midst of a major oil boom. Recently wed Cody and Billy LeFever (Rebecca Rittenhouse and Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford) are following the crowd, planning to set up a laundromat and make an honest living. When that fails out of the starting gate, they set their sights on land. Trouble is, that land is coveted by Briggs, the “baron of the Bakken,” and his devious wife, Darla (Amber Valletta). Plot twists ensue, covering more ground than one might think possible in a 42-minute pilot: pregnancy, extortion, jail time, an oil fire, a rig crash, even a dead moose. All the elements of your typical prime time drama.

But in the drive to stuff the show with as many soap opera-style scandals as possible, some key elements get left out. The issues that for many are the real stuff of drama in the North American oil boom, like the infrastructure strain, the toll on immigrant families (for an important take on this, see J. Christian Jensen’s 2014 documentary White Earth), and — the oil-soaked elephant in the room — the impact on the environment and climate – are not uttered. Neither is the word fracking. The show also feels a little dated, given the recent impact of the global decline in oil prices. But cheap oil isn’t very dramatic.

Melissa Aronczyk (Rutgers University) writes about representations of oil and the climate in popular media.


“I get it. I’m pretty sure I get it.”

“You don’t get it. If you got it, we’d be talking season 2 already.”

“It’s a metaphor, right? Like a visual sort of a metaphor.”

“It’s more than a metaphor. Let me spell it out, again. So, the oil drill thing. You know the pointy thing on the end of the seesaw kind of thing? That thing. It goes in and out, up and down, like, over and over, all rhythmic like.”

“Uh huh.”

“And, when it, well, when it hits the spot, so to speak, there’s this big gush.”

“Of oil.”

“Right, of oil. And then everyone’s all in ecstasy or whatever. Just like…”

“Sex, yes, it’s sort of like sex.”

“And the characters sometimes pay a lot of money for the oil and they lie to get it and it makes them feel powerful and stuff.”

“Also, like sex. I guess?”

“You’ve got it. So we’re greenlit?”

“I mean, I like the metaphor. It’s a good metaphor. I’m just not sure it’s going to sustain a whole network series”

“What do you need?”

“Well, could we possibly do this so it premieres at the worst possible time?”

“So, wait until oil prices have plummeted and North Dakota is shutting down rigs, undermining the whole conceit of the show?”

“Yes. That. Love it. Oh, could you also have Don Johnson do an unplaceable accent?”

“That’s actually a really good note. Yes.”

“And, well, this is delicate, but, are there going to be any people who aren’t of the fair skinned variety?”

“Well, we were going to have a Native American woman.”


“How about we just have her talk about spirit animals then disappear?”

“That works.”

“Oh, and an African guy.”

“But he’s just the cook who takes care of the handsome white people right?”

“Look, we’re professionals. Of course he’s just the cook for the white people. Do we have a deal?”

“If I say no, are you just going to explain the metaphor again?”

“I am.”

“Fine. Deal.”

Matt Sienkiewicz (Boston College) teaches and writes about global media, politics, and comedy.



Quantico (premiered September 27 @ 10/9) trailer here

Priyanka Chopra is at the center of this thriller focusing on the lives of several FBI Training Academy recruits, told in flashbacks, leading up to a massive terrorist attack that incriminates one or more of them.


Perhaps because I watched Blood and Oil—an abandoned, smoldering oil-well-fire of a disaster—right before Quantico, the latter show held my begrudging interest—at least for a while. Using an academy exercise for exposition and character description exposed as much about our interviewers as our interviewees by showing-not-telling (rather unlike the “remember-I’m-not-your-partner-or-your-girlfriend-anymore” conversations between Liam and Miranda). This modicum of cleverness, however, was easily overwhelmed by the show’s overly-telegraphed reveals (Nimah’s twin, Alex shot her father), its silly Breakfast Club montage of Arrow shirt models misfits coming in on a Saturday for the “toughest boot camp and hardest grad school,” the FBI’s apparently terrible accountability for monitoring their gun inventory and conducting background checks, and the shockingly weird ending in which the Quantico director hijacks an FBI van to free n00b Alex “only you can fix it” Parrish.

My two principle complaints against the show, however, are these:

  • the glib use of terrorism as a plot device. The preview for the next episode describes the attacks as a “riveting whodunit mystery,” reinforcing the pilot’s treatment of a pernicious and debilitating mode of contemporary warfare as nothing more than an inciting incident for clever plotting. Indeed, given the emotional weight ascribed the bombing, Quantico could just as easily be about a bank heist (but then, as the broadcast logics go, how would they “realistically” incorporate so many people of color while smugly teaching their audience about “tolerance” when we finally learn [just a guess] the attacks were carried out by a [more narratively central] white person.)
  • No one ever puts their hand up to the brim of their baseball cap and keeps it there while going through a crowd unless they definitely just did something and are nonchalantly trying to blend in (just fyi, FBI).

Kit Hughes (Miami University) is writing an alternative history of television, taking into account its development and use within the American workplace.


My first thought on completing Quantico was that the episode seemed to have twice the time that the other pilots of the week had. In its hour long slot it successfully drew an image of the distinct world of Quantico, introduced a relatively large ensemble, and set up a substantial ongoing mystery. While a season/series long mystery has become almost requisite for this year’s drama premieres (Blindspot, Minority Report, Scream Queens, The Player, Heroes Reborn etc.), Quantico was the first series that effectively made me feel invested in the outcome of its story arc.

Much of this investment comes from the excellent performance of Priyanka Chopra as FBI agent, Quantico student, and terrorism suspect Alex Parrish. But the credit goes not only to Chopra’s performance but also to the writers for giving sufficient time to her development as a character. Smart and confident, haunted by her past (her father was an FBI agent who she killed for attacking her mother) and sexually adventurous, her character (and her dynamic with fellow female Quantico candidates) reminded me, favorably, of the women of Grey’s Anatomy in its early seasons. (A connection I am sure ABC hopes more of its audience will make.)

It is hard to imagine many of the other over-stuffed pilots this season taking the time to watch a character jog, but Quantico showed a strong understanding of when to give itself space. The series takes place in two time periods – the “present” aftermath of a terrorist attack that Alex has been framed for ,and Alex’s time in Quantico a few months earlier where she worked alongside the real culprit of the attack. Quantico uses this conceit to allow for a tremendous amount of narrative information without feeling either slow or chaotic. How all these elements (serial mystery, FBI training, past and present) will interact over the long term is yet to be seen and I am not sure what the series’ second or third episode will look like. But in this case, I think that is a good thing.

Kyra Hunting (University of Kentucky) studies genre, representation and children’s media.


This was fun, although it was hard not to detect a little flop sweat from a show trying this desperately to grab and keep your attention. Creator Joshua Safran’s “Gray’s Anatomy meets Homeland” tag is apt, with a bunch of young, hot FBI trainees under suspicion for executing a post 9/11 terror attack on Grand Central Station.

One narrative gimmick is nested within another. We get a flashback structure, seemingly obligatory in high concept dramas today, where Alex Parrish (played by preternaturally good-looking Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra) is compelled to recall her FBI training in order to discover who is framing her for the attack. This is all very loose, since most of the FBI scenes use omniscient narration and aren’t connected to Alex’s point-of-view at all. But the show has so many narrative threads to introduce, it would be impossible to stick to the subjective flashbacks it nevertheless wants to employ in places. Within the flashback the trainees are assigned to dig up revealing information about one another, allowing the show to quickly get to the hidden motivation of each character, which in most cases appears to be some kind of family trauma. Doesn’t anybody want to join the FBI out of a sense of civic duty anymore?

Quantico has a lot going for it. Chopra’s star quality is off the charts, and a few supporting actors stood out as well, like Tate Ellington as the friendly (maybe TOO friendly??) gay trainee Simon. And if you’re bored with what’s happening at any one instant, just wait ten seconds. Hopefully, with the pilot out of the way, the show will be willing to put on the brakes just a bit, without sacrificing its frenetic appeal.

Bradley Schauer (University of Arizona) writes about the American film industry, past and present.



Dr. Ken (premieres October 2 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here

Ken Jeong gets his own sitcom. Starring alongside Trophy Wife’s breakout awesome Albert Tsai, and Dave Foley and Suzy Nakamura, Jeong is a doctor (in case the title didn’t cue you in) and a dad. ABC’s second sitcom focusing on an Asian-American family in as many seasons sounds good, till you see it placed ominously in the graveyard that is a Friday night slot.


Ken Jeong’s memorable roles as Senor Chang in Community and Mr. Chow in the Hangover gave him the star power to helm his own sitcom, but there’s little trace of his trademark unexpected, off-the-wall antics in Dr. Ken. Here Jeong is toned down, particularly since he starts out the episode a bit edgy but ultimately must be understood to be a good doctor and a good dad. His therapist wife and two kids are cute (perhaps not Black-ish adorable, but that seems like an impossibly high bar at this point) and their conflicts are familiar, in a good way. I like them all. I’m a little worried that audiences won’t stick around to see what hijinks this cranky doctor gets himself into (and then out of) for the rest of the season. It’s also unfortunate that the show is stuck in the format of the multi-camera family sitcom shot in front of a live studio audience—it literally feels dated already, particularly when compared to family sitcoms like Modern Family that can no longer be said to be pushing any boundaries.

That said, I’ll keep watching, hoping it gets quirkier and less formulaic as the season progresses. Fingers crossed that there will be a scene to rival Jeong as the doctor in Knocked Up, yelling at Katherine Heigl about how her cervix is like a soggy peach. Also, let’s be real, I’ll support this sitcom because it’s Asian American, and the only way we can alleviate the burden of representation is by allowing room for 90s-era immigrant dads AND cranky doctor dads; Indian American gynecologists AND overseas call center workers. I may have gotten a bad case of the “rep sweats” while watching this pilot, but I think the proper diagnosis is just to stay the course and hope that relief is on the way.

Lori Kido Lopez (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies Asian Americans and media and is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship.


Watching Dr. Ken is like an acid trip back to 1990s sitcom hell without the high. Replete a storyline about raves and ecstasy, and 1990s sitcom stars Tisha Campbell-Martin and Dave Foley. Wait, is that a reference to Circuit City? Non-funny ‘90s nostalgia overkill. I can smell the gin he needs to drink just to deliver these lines seeping out of Dave Foley’s pores through the screen. But I still love that girl drink drunk. I love Ken Jeong too. And yes, for the first time in American history, there are TWO sitcoms on TV that boast Asian American casts. With Ken Jeong writing and producing Dr. Ken, he is also heightening the visibility of non-white creative labor within LA’s very white male sitcom production community. Although I am reluctant to analyze Dr. Ken from a critical race studies perspective, because every sitcom is engaging with race and the work of representation, and it is unfair to make Dr. Ken bear the burden of responsible complex nuanced depictions of non-whites. We should expect that from every sitcom. And wouldn’t it be nice if there was an interracial marriage and we could step away from segregating sitcom families by ethnic/racial categories? Technically Ken and his wife Allison are at least somewhat interracial, as Jeong is the child of Korean immigrants and TV veteran character Suzy Nakamura is Japanese American. Although I doubt this show will attend to cultural specificity, and rather, continue to portray the Parks as pan-Asian implicitly Korean Americans. I want to give this show time to hit its stride and find a voice. I know it’s not fair to judge a sitcom based on pilot alone, and Margaret Cho is going to be a future guest star. But I also want to watch a comedy that is funny. So step it up Señor Chang.

Eleanor Patterson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the cultural politics of post-network broadcasting.


Dr. Ken is a challenging show for me. Even though the number of Asian American family sitcoms has increased 100% —we now have 2!—the limited, but growing, AA roles still create the sense that we must root for any visibility, especially when we are leads on both sides of the camera (it took 20 years for another AA family to appear after Margaret Cho’s All American Girl!). But while watching Dr. Ken being amazingly unfunny and generic, I question if any visibility is good visibility because the show is bad. And I feel guilty and sad for typing that because it’ll probably be canceled and AA family sitcoms will decrease by 100%. But the show is really bad…

Dr. Ken is mostly colorblind and that’s a problem for me. I like Fresh Off the Boat because I feel it has insider humor that I can giggle about with AA/POC, but broader humor that won’t completely alienate other viewers. Dr. Ken doesn’t have either. If anything, it is an argument that using colorblindness to “normalize” us (read: make us White) doesn’t work on any level; the family is interchangeable and I personally don’t relate to anything as an Asian American.

When the show does “address” race, it’s the racist boss who gives away vacation days in lieu of not being racist. Of course, the mostly minority cast, in colorblind fashion, happily accepts like racism isn’t a big thing. Hah? And what a waste of supporting characters. I’m glad the show has such a diverse cast, which makes it sadder when you end up with a sassy/”urban”-accented Black nurse and a nerdy South Asian doctor. And while Constance Wu plays a vital part in FOB, Suzy Nakamura (and all of the women) barely register behind Jeong’s character. One word review: Sad.

Tony Tran (University of Wisconsin-Madison) researches Vietnamese diaspora and new media in urban spaces.



Fall Premieres 2015: FOX Tue, 22 Sep 2015 18:29:59 +0000 fox2015


Minority Report (Premiered September 21 @ 9/8) trailer here

Since Almost Human did so well for them, why not try the dystopian future sci-fi procedural again, right? Trade out Michael Ealy, Karl Urban, and Minka Kelly for Meagan Good, Stark Sands, Nick Zano, Wilmer “Fez” Valderrama, and Laura Regan. It’s 2065 (ie: 15 years after the film’s action) and a decommissioned “precog” (clairvoyants) takes to helping a detective on the side. No Tom Cruise, but lots of air holograms will be pinched and swiped to remind you of the film.


Minority Report opens with a monologue that quickly explains the events of the 2002 film adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick short story. That version was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Tom Cruise and, although it was well received by critics, is certainly one of the deeper cuts from both their filmographies. The intro to the episode informs us that, for reasons I dare not attempt to consider here, the television show is a direct sequel to the movie and takes place 11 years after Tom Cruise’s character shut down the unit of the police force that used psychic humans to stop crimes before they happened. The assumption that anyone watching this pilot saw and/or remembers the movie vividly enough to care about continuity, if nothing else, highlights the absurd level to which the “shared universe” philosophy has come to dominate the media industry. The main problem with the show thus far, is that a lot of time is spent having characters explain what the pre-cog unit was, and how life was so much better when we arrested people before they committed crimes instead of cleaning up the aftermath; a sentiment which is antithetical to the moral of the film they are trying to connect to. These quibbles aside, and despite being delivered in stiff and heavy-handed fashion, there are some genuinely interesting ideas introduced in this first episode. I find the relationship between the pre-cog siblings to be ripe with tension and well worth exploring over a season. The show also contains some visually interesting set pieces, and the characters — although only shells here in the pilot — have some real potential to grow in interesting ways. In short, although perhaps leaning a bit too hard on its predecessor, there’s enough original schlocky sci-fi story potential to make this latest Fox procedural worthy of further investigation.

Nicholas Benson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a media and cultural studies scholar with a focus on production cultures, media franchising and failure.


It has been argued that finding the right elements—the chemistry of the lead actors, the cultural moment for a television show to land, the spark of creativity in the writing—is like magic. Arguably, our contemporary media-driven society is the perfect time to assemble a show about multi-cultural characters engaging in a highly developed and esoteric procedural world, making overt and prescient quotes about the issues of the day (surveillance, big data, social media, the police state), and debating the present day (re: retro) as a humorous curiosity amid a crushing techno-futurism. That show is here, and it is called Mr. Robot.

But this review is about Minority Report, a show that manages to neuter even the tepid Steven Spielberg film, which serves as the show’s direct antecedent. That film included an interesting analysis of the police state, but was a far cry from the bleak and anxiety-ridden vision of Philip K. Dick’s prophetic critique of surveillance society in the original short story.

Today’s Minority Report (also produced by Spielberg) is an orgy of techno-porn, a spectacular spectacle that wants to boggle the mind even as the eye merely ogles the screen. The complex backstory isn’t fleshed out very much and the plot to kill the candidate for mayor is so cockamamie it’s beyond unbelievable. But there are hints that the show might be able to make compelling arguments applicable to today’s data-driven society. Since “precrime” was outlawed after the events of the film (the future being pretty tricky to pin down), the Mayor mentions his new plan to fight crime—using surveillance, big data tracking, and algorithmic manipulation to detect when crimes would happen. These are some really perceptive and timely issues—if I were a precog, I’d say they were topics bound to be hotly debated during this election cycle. I just hope that the show knows that as well.

Paul Booth (DePaul University) studies fandom, time travel, and digital technology and is the author most recently of Playing Fans and Game Play.


I have a love-hate relationship with the film on which this series is based on: it’s a Philip K. Dick adaptation that doesn’t bear too close philosophical investigation; it’s a fun action movie with Tom Cruise; it’s an interesting premise and yet the world building seems lacking to me. So it isn’t the first film I’d expect to be adapted for a long term TV series.

And yet the idea of the precogs and their partial visions is certainly enticing. And the pilot offers both the basic setup (female cop and one of the male precogs who’s come back from his isolated retreat), the weekly story line (precog gets a vision of a crime to be committed and they need to prevent it), and the larger mythos (the threat to all three precogs to be taken back in).

However, the pilot felt more like a cable summer show than prime time FOX, and even there it’d have to quickly improve its chemistry between the characters, world building, and crime story to keep audiences. At the moment it’s too generic to really engage either with the potentials of the world or the philosophical impact of the Precrime premise and its non-stop surveillance replacement. And I have a feeling this is one show where FOX’s all too quick cancellation policy may indeed be a mercy.

Kristina Busse (independent scholar) studies fan fiction and fan communities and is co-editor of Transformative Works and Cultures.



Scream Queens (Premiered September 22 @ 8/7) trailer here

Ryan Murphy turns to the horror-comedy realm in what hopes to be an anthology series. The sisters and pledges at Kappa Kappa Tau will be picked off one a week, introducing something of a whodunit (Murphy has said it’s like Ten Little Indians). Emma Roberts, Lea Michele, and Abigail Breslin star with the dean of scream queens herself, Jamie Lee Curtis, as dean of the university.


When I set my DVR, I was excited about the idea of reviewing Scream Queens. I had binge-watched Popular in a week, almost made it to the very end of Glee, ranked American Horror Story seasons…..I knew what I was getting with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck (the good and the uneven) and thought I liked it. Then I was hit with the phrase “white mammy” in the first 15 minutes and wondered what I had gotten into.

I don’t think it is fair to say Scream Queens isn’t smart or savvy but it is desperately in need of an editor, and of the standards department spoofed in yesterday’s Muppets episode. Scream Queens‘ greatest brutality, for better or worse, comes not from its gory murders but from its social machinations and humor. At its best Scream Queens satirizes privilege, exemplified when a group of sorority girls dance gleefully to socially critical song “Waterfalls” while letting another girl die upstairs. My favorite line of the night, “I’d love you a lot more if other people love you too,” had just enough restraint to hit true as a critique. At its worst, the episode leaned to the outrageous simply because it could, moving from cutting to tasteless.

By placing most of its worst lines in the mouth of abhorrent sorority girl Chanel #1, some might see it as “excused” but the joke is the lines not Chanel as the teller and worse yet isn’t funny. One of the episode’s most effectively winking moments, a recreation of a scene from Heathers, was weakened by a cringe-worthy ongoing joke about a deaf Taylor Swift fan. And yet…one line that offended me the most as an extreme lesbian stereotype I sat with for an hour and began to see as a jab at a common “subtly” homophobic refrain. At the end, I find myself oscillating between seeing the potential for camp and satire where cringe-worthy lines are occasion for thoughtfulness and seeing an offensive failed attempt to shock and spoof that fell flat. I am just curious enough which to stay tuned, but I doubt for long.

Kyra Hunting (University of Kentucky) studies genre, representation and children’s media.


Admittedly, my expectations were low when I tuned in to Scream Queens. The series, which centers on a sorority house at a fictitious university, took all of the actors I dislike from Glee (Lea Michele) and the American Horror Story franchise (Emma Roberts), and put them together on one show. Ryan Murphy as an auteur doesn’t seem to suffer from a lack of ideas for television series. However, Scream Queens, like some of the more recent entries in the American Horror Story franchise, reads as a half-baked idea masquerading as a television series pilot episode (and I have no idea why I had to sit through two hours of this crapfest).

Murphy seems to take the “check box” approach he took on Glee with Scream Queens featuring the popular guy and girl, the nerdy outcast girl, the gay guy and the sassy black girl. In fact, the characters seem to be drawn from the broad (and un/underdeveloped) caricatures in Glee. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Cathy Munsch is essentially Sue Sylvester 2.0, “Mean Girl” Chanel Oberlin (Roberts) is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of Santana. It all just feels stale, and surprisingly joyless.

Certainly Murphy has enjoyed a degree of success with Glee and the American Horror Story franchise, but Scream Queens is what happens when television auteurism runs amok. Murphy (I think) likes to imagine himself as a master of satire and parody, but it doesn’t work. Instead, Murphy scripting Chanel to call the Kappa Kappa Tau house cleaner a “white mammy” and a “white slave” before forcing her to say, “I don’t know nothing ‘bout birthin’ no babies” from Gone with the Wind, it just feels tone deaf. Additionally, when Murphy has Nick Jonas’ gay character Boone lust after alleged heterosexual heartthrob Chad, it feels forced and – as much as I loathe the word – stereotypical. Kiki Palmer’s Zayday Williams seems to be in the cast in order to provide the series with a sassy black girl. Unlike Sammy Davis Jr., I don’t have “high hopes” for the show. Scream Queen is what you get when auteur happens to bad show runners.

Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (The New School) studies race, gender and sexuality in American media as they intersect with production and audience reception.


If one of the marks of good satire is a tone we’ve come to recognize as “tongue-in-cheek,” Scream Queens, the newest series from small screen auteurs Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, has its tongue planted firmly in the next zip code, wagging at us in incessant defiance. Emma Roberts stars as Chanel Oberlin, ruling matriarch of Wallace University’s Kappa Kappa Tau sorority and adolescent adversary to Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis), Dean of Students who would like nothing more than to see KKT’s club of pumpkin-spice-latte-drinking clones picked off campus one by one. Lucky for Ms. Munsch, a serial killer is stalking KKT and is only too happy to oblige.

To say that Scream Queens is intentionally offensive in its particular brand of off-color humor, (“That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean…I call her ‘white mammy’ because she’s essentially a house slave”), would be a gross understatement. And while horror spoofs of the Scary Movie ilk often do depend on jabs of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., Murphy and Falchuk never let us come up for air, marathoning misanthropic mockeries one after the other. In attempting to create the perfect Mean Girls meets Scream mix tape, Scream Queens mostly comes off as just plain old mean.

But if there is a silver lining here, it’s surely Curtis, playing the rebel-turned-administrator with a healthy dose of selfie realness, channeling her own aged Laurie Strode of Halloween: H20.

Andrew Owens (Boston College) studies horror, gender, and queer media.


Did you ever watch Glee and catch yourself thinking, “Man, I really wish someone would just murder these kids?” Well you’re in luck! From a verbal description, the new horror television show by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, sounds thematically more closely related to his more macabre fare like Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story. But it is in many ways more evocative of the high school musical (not to be confused with High School Musical). Scream Queens‘ one-dimensional characters are overacted to the extreme. Its color schemes, in both set and costume design, are similarly loud. Its cinematography is overly stylized, jumping from too-perfectly-composed symmetry to discomfitingly unbalanced deep-focus shots.

Many, if not all (I don’t recall any significant Toland-influenced deep focus shots in Glee), of these techniques seem directly descended from Glee – a show whose tireless, noisy, hoopla grew very tired very fast. Where Scream Queens departs from its predecessor is that the kind of nervous energy built up by overcaffeinated television finds highly satisfying, humorous release in horrific murders. Whereas most horror builds tension by playing on fear, it seems that Scream Queens is more intent on raising the audience’s blood pressure with well-crafted annoyance before releasing the tension in violence.

It’s a horror-comedy whose comedy aspects take a strong cue from Tim and Eric. And although it functions as a kind of televisual double-negative, it is quite fun.

Philip Scepanski (Vassar College) studies comedy, trauma, and television.



Rosewood (Premiered September 23 @ 8/7) trailer here

Morris Chestnut is the best pathologist in a city that television has told us needs a lot of them, Miami. Jaina Lee Ortiz is the Miami PD officer who must work with him to solve murders aplenty.


It wouldn’t be a new TV season without a disposable generic procedural crime drama. Rosewood fits the bill perfectly.

Beaumont Rosewood (Morris Chestnut) is a hyper-intelligent, hyper-smug, and hyper-smarmy private pathologist in Miami with a quick tongue, cool clothes, a cool car, and a ridiculously cool office (a high-tech crime lab somehow crossed with a trendy design firm in a gentrifying neighborhood). As usual in this genre, he’s surrounded by grumpy, ill-equipped detectives who resent yet accept his genius, and he has “issues” (in this case, a ridiculous raft of debilitating yet conveniently invisible medical conditions). The acting is safe, but enjoyable and solid enough, despite the creakingly well-worn plot and trimmings, and the production exploits its Miami location for predictable, yet edge-less spectacle (blue skies and waters, palm trees, beautiful bodies in swimwear, and latin dance music, but minus the ominous atmosphere of Miami Vice). Basically, we’ve seen this all a million times before.

The only significant, and refreshing, difference this time is that Rosewood is black, his reluctant crime-solving partner is Latina, and white characters are thankfully scarce. Fox and the producers deserve some credit for the multicultural casting and worldbuilding, but it’s sad that this is still exceptional enough to merit notice. Sadder yet is the wasted opportunity with this cast and the general premise. I believe there’s still creative mileage to be had in crime TV, particularly with characters we rarely see in lead roles otherwise. It’s just too bad that material that’s neither pitch-dark and opaque (like True Detective) nor light and predictably bland (like Rosewood) rarely gets a chance on American TV.

Derek Kompare (Southern Methodist University) is the author of Rerun Nation (2005), CSI (2010), and many articles on television form and history.


It’s easy to spot the things that Rosewood thinks make it stand out amidst the other shows focused on a cop teaming up with a consultant to solve murders: the cop is a widow (that’s one), returning to her Miami hometown (that’s two), who gets an unwanted partner-in-crime-solving in the form of a private pathology consultant (that’s three), and who treats his patients like mysteries because he himself is dying (that’s four).

None of these are remarkable: the widow and terminal illness stories come via heavy-handed exposition, the Miami setting is established through every trope imaginable (with the generic Latin music somehow managing to sound even more generic than it is on other shows), and the novelty of a private medical examiner is erased the moment you realize it just means the show is glamorizing private medical practice and the fancy technology for-profit doctors have access to. Rosewood has nothing to add to the genre it belongs to, no matter how many it times it reminds us of these low-impact points of distinction.

What it has is an African-American lead in Morris Chesnutt, and a progressive view on inclusion that includes a no-big-deal lesbian couple (Rosewood’s sister and his assistant), both of which are meaningful in theory but meaningless in practice. It’s no shock that Fox’s marketing has barely focused on anything but Chesnutt’s star presence, as this is an almost impressively empty shell of a pilot. It’s not necessarily hard to imagine a second episode of the show, but I can’t imagine anyone finding much impulse to do so.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion Univerity) studies the media industries and wrote a dissertation chapter about TV representations about Miami and he still had almost nothing to say about this show.



Grandfathered (Premieres September 29 @ 8/7) trailer here

Uncle Jesse is now Grandpa Jesse. Ageless “Can Work With Kids” John Stamos plays a recently divorced bachelor, restauranteur, player who discovers he has a son … and a granddaughter. Josh Peck, Paget Brewster, and Christina Millian co-star in this single-cam family sitcom.


Grandfathered has the perfect kind of high concept—selfish lothario discovers within the series’ opening minutes that he is not only a father, but also a, well, you get it—for a broadcast network sitcom, but tonal clashes drag the pilot down. If the last decade of cable television has taught us anything, it’s that it’s certainly not impossible to build a comedy around an unlikable lead. Where Grandfathered gets it wrong, though, is how hard it works to redeem Stamos’ character Jimmy by the premiere’s end in the most transparent ways possible.

Take the show’s soundtrack, for instance, which cues viewers’ emotions with all the subtlety of Google’s “Parisian Love” ad. Jimmy spends the first two acts indulging in the kind of unfunny enlightened racism and misogyny that usually begets comeuppance of some kind. Instead, we get Jimmy rushing his granddaughter to the hospital to the tune of the opening piano riff of The National’s “Fake Empire,” then celebrating later with his ad hoc family to Jamie Lidell’s “Another Day.”

The supporting cast turn in fine performances but don’t come anywhere near anything resembling a punchline. It’s the John Stamos show, for better or worse. If Grandfathered is to survive its first season, it will need to take a cue from The Grinder, the kindred spirit sitcom that leads it out. If building your series around an aren’t-Gen-X-playboys-with-Peter-Pan-complexes-crazy kind of appeal, go easy on the pathos.

Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.


Grandfathered is not a funny show, which is disappointing because I expect more from Danny Chun. Although it is pleasurable to watch John Stamos run down the street holding a baby in a tailored suit. Hashtag ladyporn. If you are wondering where washed up teen idols go to die, look no further than Grandfathered, as this show boasts the acting talents of both Josh Peck and Christina Milian. Or rather, their cheesy overacting makes Stamos and Paget Brewster look like John Gielgud and Judy Dench. The premise is contrived, but show me a situation comedy that isn’t, and in theory, I really like the prospect of making a man raising a child and trying to balance work and home life visible on television. At the climax of this episode, Stamos’ character Jimmy is babysitting while working at his trendy restaurant, and not only is it impossible for him to work, but the baby gets sick and he needs to take her to the hospital. This trope has been used countless times in film and TV to convey the post-feminist consequences of being a working mom, and so perhaps Grandfathered can do some of the cultural work of re-gendered parental labor … if it gets picked up, and there might be enough Full House nostalgia to make that happen. However, Grandfathered recuperates hegemonic masculinity by characterizing Jimmy as a successful and wealthy metrosexual bachelor. In fact, we viewers are meant to believe that Gerald only really decided to seek out his father so Jimmy could teach him how to be a ladies’ man. So I’m not sure that any gender constructs are really going to be subverted here. Or if any humor is actually going to occur.

Eleanor Patterson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the cultural politics of post-network broadcasting.



The Grinder (Premieres September 29 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here

Fred Savage and Rob Lowe are brothers and both lawyers, kind of. Savage is an actual lawyer, brilliant but a horrible speaker, while Lowe is coming off years as a beloved TV lawyer. Lowe comes to work with his brother, to provide the pizzazz. Lowe is in three new shows this year, but trailers suggest he’s having all sorts of fun in this one.


Fred Savage, where were they gone, your Wonder Years? No fear, Rob Lowe, aka-twice The Grinder, is here! And the grind does not rest until “Grinder rests.”

Packing in a punch with his appealing persona of thin-lipped, everyday-smart superiority, sweetened by his role as the perennially-sunny Pawnee city manager in Parks and Recreation, Lowe brings nuance and serenity to his misleadingly outlandish character Dean Sanderson’s desire to help his brother, Savage’s Stewart Sanderson, get his Boise, ID lawyer groove back. Savage, in turn, excels (maybe even more) as straight family man aptly cutting his TV star-brother lines of doubt and incredulity.

The two actors play off of these conflicts with enjoyable chemistry, thanks to a keep-story-points-simple four-act structure. I was snickering throughout the pilot, and hope future episodes retain the meta plus ‘en famille’ commentary. The Grinder, at its heart, promises to be a show about two brothers who haven’t yet mapped out the ways they care for each other, while also being sophisticatedly self-reflexive and toasting-marshmallows-at-academic-retreat critical. Accepting that domains of culture are unrelentingly bound up in each other, the writers furnish several chuckle-worthy sketches upfront:

  • Celebrity intertwined with lawyering (Lowe: “Right now, all this case is about is apartments, rents. What it should be about is… character”; Savage: “Oh sure, acting on a TV show is the equivalent of going to law school!”)
  • Childhood in the shadow of adulthood (Savage Jr.: “I’ve been really coming into my own lately, and I think he’s picking up on that.”)
  • Entertainment inseparable from justice (Plaintiff: “I feel like I’m in a Grinder episode right now”; Sanderson Sr.: “I love watching a transformation!”)

So, by the time the climactic court scene rolls around, we know how to read into even minor characters, such as Rose Abdoo’s stern yet star-struck judge or Kumail Nanjiani’s incredulous prosecutor. All in all, recommended, and hoping for something less tired than a case-every-week approach (although, writers, please look to 30 Rock for pro-tips on how to name South Asian characters. #Leonard?!?!).

Ritesh Mehta is a recent PhD in Communication, and studies popular entertainment and production culture.


Fred Savage has mainly been working behind the camera over the last few years, directing episodes of Garfunkel & Oats, Two Broke Girls, Modern Family and others. But I am happy to see him on a network comedy again, especially one as clever as The Grinder (we can all forget about Working now, right?). This show’s self-reflexive meta-humor is tightly written and the entire cast is fantastic. Kumail Nanjiani has a cameo in the pilot, need I say more? And Rob Lowe and Savage seem to evoke the chemistry of a leading pair that has been acting together for a while. Lowe seems to be channeling his Chris Traeger performance here, aloof, vain, although perhaps more selfish and superficial. But it works well. And Savage’s nebbish note card reading beta-male is hilarious. If the show seems familiar, it is because I would argue that The Grinder’s witty dialogue and premise owe much to Arrested Development and 30 Rock’s legacy. Savage’s Stewart is our Liz Lemon/Michael Bluth sardonic straight man to Lowe’s Dean, whose mentoring of Stewart, blind confidence and witty comebacks are reminiscent of Jack Donaghy. Lowe also channels the Bluth clan with his oblivious arrogance and narcissism. Sometimes the hyperbolic dialogue is overdone and misses the mark. And, really, the men folk go fishing after a day in court? But my main complaint is that the female characters have no substance. Stewart’s wife only seems to have dialogue when she is sitting in the marital bed supporting her husband. Meanwhile, we only get to know Stewart’s daughter in her role as sexbait to help her younger brother’s social status. However, this show made me laugh, and on that evidence, The Grinder rests.

Eleanor Patterson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the cultural politics of post-network broadcasting.


As a longtime fan of Castle, I’ll shamefully admit that I’m sometimes charmed by stories of charismatic people proving themselves inexplicably competent at jobs others have spent years training for. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the inherent problems in that setup, however – and that kind of recognition is what makes The Grinder such a delight. Rob Lowe’s character, Dean, is essentially Castle, a man whose experience with a particular fictional narrative (in this case, playing a lawyer on TV) leads him to believe he’s capable of performing that job in real life. The humor of the pilot largely stems from the ridiculous and inexplicable confidence both Dean and his fans have in his abilities, contrasted with the frustrated disbelief of Dean’s brother Stewart (Fred Savage), an actual lawyer. That parody plays to the strengths of both Lowe (drawing equally on his over-the-top Parks and Recreation character and an exaggeration of his 1980s heartthrob appeal) and Savage (who absolutely nails the sardonic, awkward, frustrated nebbish). Meanwhile, the show engages in an additional, and successful, layer of parody with scenes from Dean’s TV role as “The Grinder,” which are full of dramatic music cues, overwrought soliloquies to the jury, and other tropes of the legal procedural genre.

Beyond that, however, the show’s narrative successfully twists the Castle formula by presenting a more realistic account of the balance between charisma and knowledge. Ultimately, Dean’s acting experience does help his brother’s case, but it’s Stewart’s comprehensive knowledge of law that truly saves the day – and Dean’s attempts to study for the bar exam point to a recognition of the need for real training. I’m not sure where the show will go next – and it could very well fall into the traps it seeks to parody and overturn – but I’m cautiously optimistic.

Jennifer Margret Smith (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a PhD student with scholarly interests in the superhero comic book, production studies, and mediated representations of identity.


Fall Premieres 2015: CBS & The CW Tue, 22 Sep 2015 16:03:20 +0000 cbs2015


The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (premiered September 8 @ 11.35/10.35) advance clips here

Dave Letterman retired, Stephen Colbert left The Colbert Report, and though no longer playing the role of Stephen Colbert, Stephen Colbert will now host (albeit without the Colbeard).


see Antenna’s roundtable discussion here.



Life in Pieces (premiered September 21 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here

At this point in the American family sitcom’s history, what new spin could one give it? CBS is banking on telling four independent stories from the same extended family each episode, with cast Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, Colin Hanks, Thomas Sadowski, and more.


With Life in Pieces, CBS’s new vignette-based family comedy, I was hoping for Rashomon or Boomtown with a sense of humor: a family comedy with narrative overlap and distinct subjectivities through a sustained bit of storytelling. Instead creator Justin Adler gives something seemingly tailored to the assumed short attention spans of contemporary viewers. The 30-minute pilot includes 4 short, self-contained stories, three of which introduce the three adult children and the family matriarch and patriarch, and one that brought everyone together at a faux funeral/70th birthday party. At 6 minutes per bit, the writers and actors have very little time to get anything moving or make us care. Sure, by the episode’s end we have a good idea of the who, what, and where, but the 4 parts pass so quickly, the viewer neither learns much about the individuals (who pretty much appear as gross stereotypes because of their lack of time to develop), nor has a reason to care about them. It reads a little bit as if Adler said, “hmm, I’ve done amnesia (Samantha Who?) and I’ve broken the 4th wall (Better Off Ted), but I need a gimmick. Ooh, ooh, parallel stories!” The show could well pull together. It has strength in its cast: two-time Oscar winner Diane Wiest (Bullets Over Broadway, Hannah and Her Sisters) as the matriarch, James Brolin as the patriarch, and Colin Hanks (Orange County, Dexter, Fargo), Betsy Brandt (The Michael J. Fox Show, Breaking Bad), and Thomas Sadowski (The Newsroom, The Slap) as the grown kids. The pilot has some funny bits and ends with Brolin being rushed to a Jiffy Lube while locked in a casket. If it can figure out how to create cohesion between the bits, it might have some staying power. I mean, I give it points just for saying Jiffy Lube.

Kelly Kessler (DePaul University)’s work primarily engages with gender and genre in the American television and film, often as it relates to the musical.


In the quest to replicate the success of ABC’s Modern Family, few attempts have felt as strained as CBS’ Life in Pieces. While copying much of the fabric of that series–an extended family of adult parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, and kids, albeit all thoroughly white and heterosexual this time–episodes are divided into four parts. While this could have been an interesting programming tactic, distilling plots to five-minute chunks between ad breaks, this show also airs earlier, yet goes raunchier. By halfway through the pilot we’d already endured painful riffs on post-birth vaginas and adolescent penises. It’s not that the ABC show doesn’t also go into that territory; it’s just that they do it much better, as winking farce, rather than as Seth MacFarlane on a bulldozer.

Some might be surprised that this is on CBS. But this material is squarely in the comfort zone of the network that’s relied on Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly, The Big Bang Theory, The Rules of Engagement, and Two Broke Girls. A wrinkle this time is that the raunchy yuks are produced single-camera style, rather than via the usual multi-cam laugh-track machine. More shockingly, there’s formidable comic talent in front of that single camera: James Brolin, Dianne Weist, Colin Hanks, Betsy Brandt, Dan Bakkedahl, Zoe Lister Jones, and Jordan Peele. That’s a hell of a lineup, and it almost actually redeems it. The material is full of typical pilot shrillness and flop sweat, but the cast, pros all, gives it their best shot.

In an alternate universe, the same cast might have worked in a quieter, slyer, darker comedy. But since that’s not the flavor in Lorre-land, we’re stuck with this. And while it won’t grace my screen again, I won’t be surprised if it actually works exactly as it was designed.

Derek Kompare (Southern Methodist University) is the author of Rerun Nation (2005), CSI (2010), and many articles on television form and history.



Limitless (premiered September 22 @ 10/9) trailer here

Jake McDorman gets a pill from Bradley Cooper, reprising his role from the film of the same name, that gives him super intelligence (cause that’s Bradley Cooper’s gift to give, apparently) and perfect memory. Jennifer Carpenter plays the cop who tries to reel him in to help her and boss Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.


Everyone wants something. But is there something everyone wants? There’s a whole lot of theory and a fair amount of experience that suggests not really. But, what the hell, it’s pilot season so Limitless is going to give it a shot.

NZT is a pill that makes you very smart. Apparently, being smart can get you things you want: money, women, a human liver.

Fair enough. But watching a chemically enhanced fictional character get the fictional things it fictionally wants is neither the stuff of great entertainment nor that of passable ratings. Imagine if Superman spent his time thinking up brilliant plans so that he didn’t have to fly.

Fortunately, that’s not what Limitless is about. It’s about a fantasy far bigger and more relatable. It dramatizes the same attraction that drives popular infatuations with big data and convinces young men to attend Pick Up seminars instead of just joining a gym or learning how to have a civil conversation.

It’s the tantalizing delusion that there really are answers to the messiest, most complex problems of human existence. That love only looks like an impossible Escher staircase because we haven’t seen it from all the angles. That getting rich is about plugging in the right variables in the right equations, not popping into existence at the right time in the right place. Hell, Bradley Cooper even shows up to remind us that death is the one puzzle that we can never truly solve, the one game we can never truly beat. Unless, of course, it isn’t.

Take the clear pill and find out. It’s what we all want.

Matt Sienkiewicz (Boston College) teaches and writes about global media, politics, and comedy.



Code Black (premieres September 30 @ 10/9) trailer here

Starring Marcia Gay Harden and Luiz Guzman lead the cast of this medical drama focusing on an overcrowded and understaffed ER in LA, and based on the 2013 documentary of the same name.


My interest in Code Black has more to do with its production history than its logline—after the show’s table read, Maggie Grace (who is 31) left the series, and producers replaced her with the already-cast-in-another-role Marcia Gay Harden (who is 56). It makes for a fun counterfactual: how different would the show be if the residency director bossing around the new residents was much closer to them in age, and without the same sense of presence that Harden brings to the part?

It’s admittedly more interesting than the show itself, which is rarely bad—the exception being the d-bag male resident who seems drawn from a d-bag male resident catalog—but is operating in some very familiar spaces. While based on a documentary, the show feels closer to ER, distinctive primarily in the fact that it resists any single point-of-view in its pilot: we get various backstories (grieving mother starting a new career [Harden’s original role], golden boy, etc.) but the various residents end up all blurring together. And while the sheer volume of patients-of-the-week fits the show’s focus on the chaos of a “Code Black,” there comes a point where no single character or story or even moment feels like it sticks with you.

There’s nothing wrong with the storytelling engine in place here, and the casting switch has given the show a solidness that feels comforting in its own way (especially if you take this as a stealth spinoff of Harden’s character on Trophy Wife. But the “So what?” of the whole affair makes it difficult to recommend the show beyond a case study in how the ups and downs of TV development can dramatically reshape a series’ identity.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies media industries and definitely paid more attention to the pilot’s casual violation of IRB protocol than your average viewer.


Code Black, a term meaning an influx of patients without enough resources to treat them, is aptly named, for it was just as overcrowded with problems.* The first and most distracting was The Good Wife’s new wig, which we saw early in a tease for the premiere, that poor dear. Give back Johnny Depp’s toupee, CBS.

Unlike Grey’s Anatomy, there’s nothing glamorous about Angels Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, a place so afflicted even its blue fluorescent lights cast a jaundice-yellow glow. The set is dirty, the walls all scuffed up, and the action plays on a constant background of dying people of color waiting hours for treatment while a troop of doctors fuss over a young white girl and her feelings. But before you write me off as a queen with a heart raisin, though normally an accurate assessment, hear me out: Weren’t we supposed to translate all these gritty aesthetics and the show’s own premise into a cultural criticism about race, class, gender, and the injustices of this country’s healthcare system? Because if so, what happened in the script, and why was it so hyperfocused instead on the female resident’s age?

There was remarkably little plot in this episode, and the patients moved in and out of importance so quickly, I failed to grasp onto someone to actually care about. It really did feel like video footage of an ER rather than a TV show, and yes, that could be simply symptomatic of it being a sweaty pilot, but it could also mean it will never explicitly address issues of race and class. Will they ever mention why this hospital is always in a code black? Maybe. Or maybe we’re just supposed to infer from it looking vaguely “inner-city.”

Of course an implied cultural critique is not helped here by centerpiece Marcia Gay Harden, a woman who plays roles so typically Hollywood glam and posh, she actually gets away with the name Gay. Look, I am normally all in for MGH, but I’m not here for another white savior show, and I feel some confidence she’s about to be blindsided, Sandra Bullock style. That’s if Code Black succeeds ratings-wise, which it might since Madam Secretary is somehow still a thing.

*I did enjoy the joke about the IRB, though. That was satisfying.

Taylor Cole Miller (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies syndication and queer television.




AntennaFallCWFox 3

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW, October 12 @ 8/7) trailer here

Because stalking is always an endearing premise for romance (?!), and because crazy women are the bread and butter of many a comedy (?!), this musical rom-com focuses on a woman who ten years after being dumped decides to move across the country to pursue her ex.


From its opening scene, a flashback to the end of a short-lived romance at summer camp, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s humor relies upon gender disparities. While Rebecca imagines her first romantic and sexual relationship as a meaningful one, Josh does not. He suggests they “take a break,” to which Rebecca responds, “What? But I love you!” “And thanks for that,” Josh says, unmoved by thoughts of emotional attachment and long-term commitment.

With such an introduction, I settled in for a tedious rehash of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Set to music.

Thankfully, however, CEG quickly moves to problematize the differences between men and women. Rather than simply assuming an inherent binary gender division, it considers why women experience the world differently from men and sympathetically explores painful experiences common to many women.

By the end of the opening scene, the show has introduced viewers to anger at divorced and unloving parents, suicidal behavior, and talk of abortion. By the episode’s end, the show has expressed a host of feminist critiques. The sexist double-standard of beauty culture is depicted in a manner both humorous (woman struggles to put on Spanx) and graphic (full bikini wax results in blood splatters on the bathroom wall). The exploitation of women is figured through sex work and unfulfilling pink collar office work. And, perhaps most significantly, a woman’s unwavering romantic attachment to a man—the very premise of the show—is found to be untenable. When confronted with the accusation that she moved across the country for Josh, Rebecca counters with the absurdity of such a decision. “So you’re saying that I moved here from New York, and I left behind a job that would have paid me $545,000 a year for a guy who still skateboards?” she asks sarcastically, only to realize that she actually has. For a woman to sacrifice so much for a man is “crazy”—not as in a Beyoncé lyric celebrating the overwhelming effects of love but as in an actual mental health issue.

I may be taking it too easy on CEG. It puts racism and anti-Semitism on display but, at times, only to produce an uncomfortable situation. Mental illness is played for laughs, perhaps too uncritically. The show’s tone can be confusing, and musical interludes outlast their purpose. In spite of these problems, I’m curious to see how dark the show will get, how unappealing yet sympathetic (particularly to women viewers, I suspect) the main characters will get, and how many feminist-inflected jokes will make it to air. For these reasons, this strange and potentially disappointing show is worth watching.

Jennifer Clark (Fordham University)’s work in television studies tends to gender concerns both historical (women’s labor and role in production) and contemporary (representations of masculinity and anxiety).


I want to like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because it’s created and written by women, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, and directed by a woman, Joanna Kerns. I’d hoped that meant the series would engage a feminist sensibility in its humor (especially given Bloom’s history producing funny yet thoughtful videos). Raising my hopes, Entertainment Weekly compares the series to Portlandia and Flight of the Conchords, and calls it “an empowerment fantasy.” Going a step further, Time asserts that the show flips “the Bechdel Test on its head.”

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a great example of how passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean a media text is feminist. Bloom’s character, Rebecca Bunch, has spent much of her life miserably cramming down her own feelings, yet it’s hard to watch her leave her job as a respected lawyer to relocate to West Covina, California, chasing an ex-boyfriend she dated for two months at summer camp as a teenager. Rebecca needn’t become Alicia Florrick, but I wish she hadn’t spent the remainder of the pilot chasing after her long lost beau Josh to the exclusion of anything else. The one great moment in the episode is the musical number “Sexy Getting Ready Song.” Rebecca’s song describing her preparations to see Josh that evening is humorously interrupted when a rapper, who (presumably) enters the song to objectify the women dancing in Rebecca’s fantasy, expresses horror at what it takes women to get ready for men. He apologizes and walks off set, reemerging at the end of the episode to apologize to a list of women he had previously disrespected.

I loved these moments in the pilot, but believe that this humor is at odds (at least so far) with Rebecca’s character. At the end of the episode when I’d hoped she’d give up on Josh and move on, her co-worker Paula pledges to help her get Josh just as he texts to ask her to dinner. These two are going to have to talk about more than Josh to keep me watching!

Melissa A. Click (University of Missouri) studies media audiences and loves the fall TV season!


When I first heard the premise of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I immediately thought of Felicity, in which Keri Russell’s character moved to New York because a guy she’d had a crush on, but never spoken to, was attending college there. It was presented as only slightly crazy.

For Felicity, though, the choice was Stanford or the similarly prestigious University of New York. For Rebecca, it’s between $545,000 dollars a year in New York City vs. a bigoted boss in West Covina, where “People dine at Chez Applebee’s” and the beach is four hours away. She comes off deranged.

It’s the most original show this season—star Rachel Bloom parlayed YouTube videos into a co-writing gig—and yet still seems derivative. It’s like Glee, in the sense that the lead is a Jewish overachiever who sings and dances. Or maybe it’s more like Smash, because of the original songs, and the Broadway stars. Some songs had funny lyrics, but I never laughed out loud, except at the Simone de Beauvoir- referencing rapper.

Rebecca does not seem all that rootable so far, although she got more so when teamed up with the similarly crazy Paula. The notion that the last time she was happy was when she was 16, at summer camp, and that she’s trying to recapture that through the seemingly boring, aimless, Josh, is sad. So are allusions to a past suicide attempt. I get that we are in the age of anti-heroes, but this seems like it’s supposed to be a straight-up comedy, not even a dramedy like Orange is the New Black or Nurse Jackie are supposed to be. It’s hard to imagine how this holds up long term.

Cindy Conaway (SUNY Empire State College) writes about girls on teen dramas and dramedies.


Roundtable on The Carmichael Show Mon, 21 Sep 2015 17:07:43 +0000 1

Following Alfred Martin’s initial review of The Carmichael Show here at Antenna, he, Khadijah Costley White and Phillip Cunningham had a roundtable discussion on the new show.


Phillip Lamarr Cunningham (Quinnipiac University) is a scholar and critic of popular culture.

Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (The New School) studies race, gender and sexuality in American media as they intersect with production and audience reception.

Khadijah White (Rutgers University) is a writer, producer, and scholar studying race, gender, and politics in media.


AM:     Ok. Well, I’ve been kind of in my feelings about The Carmichael Show because as my review of the series suggests, it’s kind of old school, but still there’s something charming about it. It simultaneously works and doesn’t work.

PC:      In a nutshell, what do you believe doesn’t work about the series?

AM:     It feels like a throwback to the “turn to relevance” series of the 1970s because it attempts to tackle “issues” in each episode. That feels forced to me in a way, but then it also kind of works. Although I will admit that it feels heavy-handed like a Tyler Perry movie in a lot of ways.

KW:    It’s definitely a black version of All in the Family, but I think it’s a necessary intervention. I mean, as an educated black person, it feels like “What If Tyler Perry’s World Met Me?”. Part of the reason it works as a program that keeps us tuning in is because it takes a really familiar black sitcom format and brings it some real politics. I’d say it’s more like Good Times than anything Tyler Perry can muster.

AM:     But I don’t feel like it gets the “offensive” in the way Archie Bunker was supposed to be offensive. So, while All in the Family was deemed cutting edge for the 1970s, I don’t think the same can be said for The Carmichael Show. I think it’s dealing with “issues” but it’s doing so in a way that is palatable for a network television audience. Where All in the Family, Good Times, Maude and other [Norman] Lear “turn to relevance series” were deliberately trying to make statements, I feel like The Carmichael Show is doing it in a way that feels dated and perhaps even forced.

PC:      Well, it’s heavy handed in that there’s always a resolution, it’s a self-contained narrative, etc. However, it almost feels as if he is trying to subvert that traditional black sitcom in a way.

AM:     How so, Phil?

PC:      Take the recent issue about the gun, for example. Certainly, we’ve seen sitcoms deal with gun issues, but the very idea that black men pack heat and, as the father suggests, do so in order to protect themselves from cops or white people feels a bit subversive to me. Now this is not to suggest that the show’s subversive nature always works, but I think it makes the attempt.

AM:     But I think it is in some ways undermined by the way the series needs to resolve itself. Ultimately Jerrod (who is the series’ axial character) ends up turning around his position on guns.

PC:      You’re right, Al. That certainly may be the weakness, but subversion does, in part, require that one negotiates with network constraints, genre conventions, and so on.

AM:     I think what bothers me is that its episodes seem to exist solely for the purpose of “bringing up issues” rather than them necessarily developing in a way that feels organic.

KW:    Yes, but the cool part is that it really exposes all the many issues about which black people think and discuss, the kinds of views that you’d have hashed out at your own house. That’s satisfying. There’s a sense of interiority; all the scenes are in the home. It gets at the ways in which black people engage in these sophisticated political conversations when they’re with each other, some of which involve race but mostly don’t. Everyone is able to articulate a really solid, logical argument.

AM:     I think the point you raise is a good one, Khadijah, but I think part of the issue I raised is that I’m not convinced that the series is having a conversation about blackness for black folks. I’d be surprised if given the way its audience has grown that the majority of the folks watching are, in fact, black.

KW:    I’m okay with that, inasmuch as I feel like it’s presenting the kind of complex and dissonant conversations we have with one another.

AM:     So it might also be that it’s a conversation happening about blackness out of class in a way. Also, I think its placement within the home is a central component of the black-cast sitcom. Other than Frank’s Place, I’m not sure there’s been a black-cast workplace comedy; black folks are always tethered to the home in the black-cast sitcom. Even something like Girlfriends and The Game were tethered to the home even as certain scenes happened at work. Living Single is, at base, a black-cast sitcom about black women living together (and Maxine).

KW:    I think your point about class is an important one, Alfred, and one that is really important here as an alternative to black-ish. This is an intra-class sitcom that I don’t know we’ve really seen since Roc.

AM:     Since Good Times and Roc, the only other working class black family in black-cast sitcom has been Everybody Hates Chris.

KW:    I’d leave out Everybody Hates Chris, because they owned a brownstone in Brooklyn and the mother was a stay-at-home mom. But the Carmichaels also own a home and have a housewife, and that gets at the way sitcom conventions don’t do class well at all.

THE CARMICHAEL SHOW -- "Kale" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, David Alan Grier as Joe Carmichael, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, Loretta Devine as Cynthia Carmichael -- (Photo by: Ben Cohen/NBC)

PC:      Well do we even know what Jerrod is supposed to do in the show? Is he playing Jerrod the comedian? It doesn’t seem so, it hasn’t mentioned (yet) what he actually does. We know Maxine is a therapist-in-training.

KW:    We know Jarrod went to business school and seems to be doing well for himself based on the apartment and neighborhood he lives in.

AM:     And we are very clearly to understand that his apartment is a “come up” from where he came from. The family space is giving me Roseanne Realness.

KW:    Yes, Alfred, I was totally thinking Roseanne!

AM:     The show implicitly is dealing with class mobility as well–that (perhaps) black notion that the parents worked hard so their children could do better than they did.

KW:    But his brother is still struggling. We get a sense that, like so many of us, Jerrod made it but his brother and sister-in-law are still trying.

AM:     But I think that is the implicitness of the series. Jerrod succeeds because he worked hard. His brother didn’t because he’s lazy and trifling (and liked “ghetto” women).

KW:    No, I don’t get the sense that his brother doesn’t work hard. He’s maybe not as ambitious, but I don’t think it’s about laziness. For me, there’s such a sense of authenticity in this show because of its complexity–for example, the episode “Gender,” which focused on transgendergender identity. It was done so deftly, especially in terms of stomping on the idea that the black community is entirely homophobic or unable to have a conversation about gender.

AM:     That episode had me in my feelings. I felt like it was a very facile way to approach that topic. But I think that’s endemic of the genre. I just sat there looking at my screen…

PC:      I think you’re right about that episode being facile, but I think there’s something to be said that the resolution wasn’t neat.

AM:     I tend to hate the “neat” transition from gay to transgender. I think I got hung up on that.

KW:    Well, he said he was gay to test the waters. That felt somewhat like what a kid figuring stuff out might do. And there’s something really powerful about a person who appears to be a black boy who is a basketball star identifying as a girl and saying that she’s not confused about that identity! That is subversive. Like look it up in a dictionary and that scene is next to the word subversive.

AM:     I think it would have worked better to just have to deal with transgender-ness without gayness.. While I don’t profess to be transgender, I do know that a transition from straight to gay (in my case) wasn’t an overnight move. By attempting to do both, it gave both the short shrift

KW:    I think it was an attempt to fit in discussion about transgender identity and sexuality in one episode. A little simple, but fair-play in the world of sitcom plots.


AM:     Thinking about flow, do we think the stakes were/are “just” much higher for black-ish given its spot with Modern Family (and needing to capture a bulk of that audience and being run in the “real” TV season) versus The Carmichael Show as a summer series?

PC:      Well, black-ish is at least partially about the tensions in feeling distant from a “traditional” black life. The Carmichael Show is somewhat steeped in that “traditional” black life in a way.

KW:    In part, because Modern Family isn’t really so modern, there’s a chance that black-ish felt the need to be a lot more conservative, too. But that allowed The Carmichael Show to aim for a different feel. I mean there’s a theme song! Sort of. A live audience! We’re in 1993. Like, if The Cosby Show and A Different World had a baby.

AM:     Can we talk about that? I don’t feel like I am in love with the live audience and the laugh track. I feel like it seeks to telegraph (and control) the funny in a way that makes me stabby.

KW:    In part, I think it’s because we’re dealing with comics who are used to performing in front of live audiences. It helps them in their work. Also, I think it’s very much about nostalgia.

AM:     Part of the live studio audience is really about cost. A three-camera, proscenium set-up series is cheaper to shoot because there are a limited number of sets and often limited editing (because it can be edited while it’s being filmed).

PC:      Well those nostalgic touches are really what make The Carmichael Show a bit of a postmodern black sitcom.

AM:     In the sense of pastiche or in some other way?

PC:      It’s taking those conventions and embracing them, on the one hand, and attempting (the keyword here) to subvert them, in another way. I think Alfred is right when he suggests that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

KW:    For sure, I mean, there are a lot of Gina/Martin moments with Jerrod and Maxine In terms of her trying to accommodate “traditional” domestic roles and feminist ideals.

AM:     I’m still not sure I’m on board with the series as subversive, though. To what degree are these Gina/Martin moments really endemic of the ways relationships function in the sitcom broadly and the black-cast sitcom specifically? Put another way, do we see Gina and Martin because we have them as cultural touchstones?

KW:    The hyper-confident dark-skinned comic with conservative tendencies and his light-skinned, awkward, professional girlfriend? I think that dynamic is there.


PC:      In a way, the well-to-do light-skinned and/or biracial girlfriend/wife has become a hallmark of the black sitcom. In The Carmichael Show, Maxine is clearly marked as a bit of an outlier, which in a way makes her distinctive. Nobody in The Carmichael Show is trying to negotiate with whiteness, which I think is amazing. In fact–there hasn’t been a white person on The Carmichael Show, right?

KW:    Yes! So true. I don’t think there has been a white character. This show is trying to single-handedly keep black people employed, and in an age of colorblind comedy and drama, that’s important.

AM:     I can certainly raise my glass and drink to that. They are very clearly aware of their blackness and interact little (if at all) with a broader white world. In that sense, coming back to what (I think) Khadijah said, there is a sense of interiority in the series–almost in that Amos ‘n Andy way where there is a self-sustaining black world that does not consider or interact with whiteness.

KW:    But it’s also one that’s having really challenging conversations. What other show is doing this? Gun control? Police brutality? Even Scandal couldn’t do that right.

PC:      I think the brilliance of Maxine is that she’s not relinquishing her biracial identity either.

AM:     I think where Maxine does, in a way, represent whiteness in that her views are seen (I think) to stand in for whiteness (often attributed to her white parent).

KW:    We haven’t touched Nekeisha, and I think, in part, because I’m conflicted.

AM:     Can we see that as somewhat subversive and postmodern? Nekeisha as the “quintessential” black girl name and them playing with that?

KW:    On one hand, what she does in a lot of cases could be called cooning. Stealing TVs, showing up just to get free food, threatening to fight or cut people.

AM:     I admit that I hollered when she “found” that television in the “Protest” episode!

KW:    I did, too. Though I also cringed because I wasn’t sure where the “protestors are looters” storyline was going to go. And she has this big weave. I mean, in certain ways, I’m not sure about her.

PC:      However, I love the relationship between Bobby and her because it is complex (for television). Here is a divorcing couple who still have to navigate the same spaces.

KW:    Exactly. And I love that she’s still family.

AM:     But, to an earlier point, doesn’t she make blackness more complex as a “rainbow” of blackness that doesn’t sit firmly within respectable?

KW:    To be honest, I think it’s clear that the male characters are the core of the show. They end up performing the typical stoic, reasonable male role and the women often provide the humor and the jokes.

AM:     I’m not sure I’d concede the center to them because of La Divine.

PC:      Well, it’s interesting how Divine and Grier are actually de-centering Carmichael. And I’m wondering if that’s due to intention or just Divine’s powerful persona and Grier’s embrace of this character?

AM:     But I don’t think that’s on the page. I think it’s them and their skill. One thing I wanted to discuss that we haven’t really touched upon is why NBC? Why not BET or Comedy Central or some other cable network? What does an NBC sitcom (even if they were being burned off two at a time) mean with respect to a politics of representation?

KW:    Well, in part I think the turn to black is about what’s happening with for-pay web TV, the same way we got black sitcoms with the rise of cable. I’m not sure what it says about representation, though. I mean, NBC gave us The Cosby Show.

THE CARMICHAEL SHOW -- "Pilot" -- Pictured: (l-r) Lil Rel Howery as Bobby Carmichael, Loretta Devine as Cynthia Carmichael, Jerrod Carmichael as Jerrod, Amber Stevens West as Maxine, David Alan Grier as Joe Carmichael -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

PC:      It’s interesting to think about the success of The Carmichael Show in lieu of the failure of Mr. Robinson, which also debuted this summer and with a bigger celebrity at the helm.

KW:    Maybe we should comment on why Mr. Robinson failed, other than it being a sad attempt at The Steve Harvey Show. It has a black lead, but blackness isn’t a central theme of the show. It felt like an old UPN show.

AM:     I think a lot of shows with black leads got greenlit this season so that the industry can watch most of them fail and then say, “See, we told y’all all this blackness wasn’t gone work.”

KW:    I think they got greenlit because Empire was successful. And because they don’t know why, that gives Jerrod Carmichael more editorial control.

AM:     For sure they did. But I still think the strategy remains the same from an industrial perspective. We’ve been to this rodeo before. I think the “major” networks are still attempting to “broadcast” when cable is narrowcasting, so their somewhat myopic view of “universal” has to supersede anything else. black-ish succeeds because there’s nothing really that black about it.

PC:      Well, The Carmichael Show also has benefitted from when it aired.

AM:     Meaning that the ratings assumptions were lower because it was a summer show?

PC:      Exactly, Al. It had the good fortune of airing new content just before the fall season really kicks off. If it was a mid-season replacement, we might not be having this conversation nor would it likely be renewed. How does the show grow from this point? Or can it even do so?

KW:    I think more discussions about their careers and choices, especially between the women, would be useful. I mean, neither son has children. That’s interesting.

AM:     I’d like to see it move less in a direction of “turn to relevance” and attempt to do some more in the way of character development. I’d love for it to get rid of the live shooting and laugh track. I just tend to be a postmodern viewer who wants to decide where I think the funny is located.

KW:    I want it to keep hashing out these tough debates we have within our own family. I think it’s helpful to have a space where everyone gets presented in a really humanizing way, regardless of education or occupation. I think that pushes against respectability, too.

PC:      My primary concern is whether it can remain funny with its current approach on a full season order. Right now, the success for the show has been that it has tackled black taboo, but there’s only so much left of that to address.

KW:    Well, I want to nominate that we title this discussion “Y’all All Nasty!!!” after Mama Carmichael’s favorite expression on the show.

PC:     Agreed.



Fall Premieres 2015: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Sat, 19 Sep 2015 20:12:32 +0000 maxresdefault

Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report is one of the more critically acclaimed shows in American television history, earning Colbert praise and awards for his satiric right-wing narcissist pundit character. So what happens when Stephen Colbert the person rests that character to take over The Late Show after years of David Letterman ruling late night? Antenna asked several experts on satiric and comic television to comment on his first week at the Ed Sullivan Theater in semi-roundtable fashion.

First, some quick introductions:

  • Chuck Tryon (Fayateville State University) wrote for many years at his blog The Chutry Experiment on political television, and is author of the forthcoming Political TV.
  • Dannagal Goldthwaite Young (University of Delaware) has published a humongous amount (yes, that’s the official term) on satire and political entertainment, and performs with ComedySportz Philly.
  • Amber Day (Bryant University) is author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.
  • Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.
  • Geoffrey Baym (Temple University) is Professor Colbert himself, having written many of the canonical treatments of Colbert, and is author of From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.



Chuck Tryon:

For many of us who have spent the last decade relishing the sharply subversive political satire of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert’s shift to Late Night with Stephen Colbert has prompted a wide array of questions: How would Colbert adapt his sly political commentary to the larger stage of a network show? How might he conduct interviews now that he is not playing a narcissistic pundit? And finally, how might his show rework the tropes of the late-night talk show for the YouTube age?

Many of these questions were answered almost immediately. Colbert’s debut sketch, in which he likened Trump jokes to eating Oreos was an inspired bit of political comedy, one that would have been at home—with slight tweaking—on The Colbert Report. But the segment also signaled a slight willingness to play with the form of late-night comedy. The sketch functioned much like a “cold-open” on Saturday Night Live and tapped into Colbert’s considerable skills as a comedic performer. Colbert has also made an effort to include guests outside of the Celebrity A-list, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and in both cases, Colbert acknowledged the disruptiveness of their technological and business innovations, even while testing the limits of some of their business practices.

But the most noteworthy moment for me during the show’s first week was Colbert’s heartfelt interview with Vice President Joe Biden, in which Biden offered a disarming account of his grief for late son, Beau, while also explaining how his despair was making his decision about whether or not to run for President an even more difficult choice. Because we are accustomed to seeing Colbert playing his superficial persona, the sincere interactions between these two public figures was especially striking. It was—for me at least—a strikingly humane moment, one that used the late-night format to powerful effect by offering us a remarkably frank conversation not just about the grieving process but also about how his life experiences have affected his politics. It’s also the kind of interview that Colbert’s persona might have prevented him from doing in the past.

I know that some critics have complained that Colbert is not pushing the boundaries of the late-night format enough, that the show has not been more subversive. But many of these complaints focus too much on the broader generic formulae—the monologue, the sketch, and the interview—without looking at how Colbert is using these features to carve out a valuable niche that mixes political satire with thoughtful interviews. If Colbert’s satirical pundit was the political voice we needed in the Bush era, his sincere humorist may be the perspective we need in a post-Obama political climate, one that is dominated by the undeniable fakery and buffoonishness of Trumpism.


Dannagal Goldthwaite Young:  

For people only familiar with Colbert, the self-described “narcissistic conservative pundit,” from the persona he had adopted for 9 years on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, the Stephen Colbert who we met last week on The Late Show might seem like an entirely new person. Oddly enough, this person, this “new” person, the one who does a clown-like jig and a disco spin to the music of his house band; the one who lets his guests shine while he listens and heartily laughs at their stories; the one who takes off his comic mask to talk to the Vice President of the United States about death, grief, and suffering… this is the real Stephen Colbert.

Colbert was initially trained as a long-form improviser. He’s not a stand-up comedian. And while he is known for his work with Second City in Chicago, his introduction to improv goes beyond Second City style short-form, to long-form, truth-seeking improvisation. As an undergraduate, he performed at iO (ImprovOlympic) at the Annoyance Theater in Chicago under the great Del Close, with a focus on long-form improvisation that emphasized “Truth in Comedy” (a philosophy of improv that Close expanded upon in a co-authored text by the same name).

Long-form improvisation involves the construction of a new reality within a set structure, often, The Harold structure. The Harold facilitates the development of characters and relationships onstage, and encourages players to think beyond his or her own character or scene. The Harold involves 1) a group “opening,” 2) three separate scenes, 3) a group game, unrelated to the scenes, 4) a second set of scenes offered to heighten the first set of three, 5) another group game, and 6) a final set of scenes to unify and resolve plot points from the earlier scenes. Within that structure, relationships emerge, narratives are constructed, characters are heightened and secrets are often revealed. But the beautiful – almost magical – element of the Harold is the third set of scenes that unite the characters and plots from the initial seemingly unrelated scenes.

To do this requires emotional honesty onstage. It also requires patience, listening, and a true spirit of “yes, and…,” which, in the world of improv simply means accepting your scene-partner’s offer and building upon it to further the scene and heighten the reality that you jointly construct. Stand-up comedy – the genre of comedy from which many late-night hosts emerge (Jay Leno and Dave Letterman, specifically) is focused mostly on the self – and the audience, to the extent that the audience furthers the energy of the comic.

Short-form improv comedy, the genre performed by ComedySportz and TheatreSports (and used by Second City in the brainstorming and development of sketches), involves improvisation, often within the context of a game structure with a gimmick that shapes the nature of the comic sensibilities that result. This shorter, game-based genre of improv taps into some of the same philosophies as long-form, but the gimmicks and time constraints can encourage more self-focused play, and can limit the kind of “collaborative discoveries” that happen through long-form.

It is the honesty – the truth in comedy – that I think are striking in the way that Colbert is approaching his new show. In the monologue of his second show, when he told the story of how the premier had gone so over time that CBS wasn’t sure if it would make it to the air – you got the sense that Colbert was sharing an honest moment of performer panic with us – the audience at home. Even in the way he interacts with his house band, John Batiste and Stay Human, it is with the spirit of deference and collaboration so typical of improv work.

And in no place can we see his improv roots more clearly than in how Colbert conducts his guest interviews. While some late-night hosts might mug for the camera or be focused on the next question while the guest answers the first, Colbert is present in the moment, responding to the “offer” given by the guest, and heightening the “scene” either emotionally or comically. It is not an accident that Biden opened up to Colbert as he did.

Just as is true of the comic structure of The Harold, Colbert’s show can be thought of as a new long-form comic structure in which “relationships emerge, narratives are constructed, characters are heightened and secrets are revealed.” I can’t wait to see what unfolds in the next scene.


Amber Day:

I will admit that I have never been a fan of traditional late-night shows, so when Colbert announced his impending move to the CBS slot, I worried that he and I might be parting ways. I am happy to report, however, that I have been buoyed by much of the material emerging from these early episodes and I anticipate that the program will hold onto its real estate on my DVR. My relief does not stem from Colbert’s intervention in the form. As Chuck points out, he hews to the well-established formula for late-night programs fairly closely. But what he brings to the format are all of the prodigious strengths he spent years honing on The Colbert Report.

In fact, I would argue that his persona as host of The Late Show is remarkably similar to that of The Colbert Report. This is because, even when playing a blowhard conservative pundit, Colbert was always able to winkingly allow his real self to shine through. It was never difficult to discern what his own opinion was on a particular issue, as he used his character to either tear open inconsistencies and hypocrisies, or to allow a guest he respected to put her best foot forward. His giddy exuberance was also never far from the surface. And, as Danna explains, it is his training in improvisation which allowed him to hold it all together, expertly responding to an interviewee’s statements while maintaining his character.

Thus far on The Late Show, the strongest segments have been the monologues in which Colbert made use of his keen satirist’s voice and the interviews in which he has drawn on his own interest and engagement with the guest’s work. The least interesting bits, in my opinion, have been those that were scripted to appear spontaneous – such as some forced repartee with the band, or pre-scripted goofy interludes like the one in which a tennis champion lobbed balls at the host (which just looked like it hurt). On the other hand, when Colbert seemed to be enjoying the moment, eagerly collaborating with Stephen King on a hypothetical horror plot involving thinly veiled references to Donald Trump, or dancing wildly to a Paul Simon song, it was hard not to get vicariously caught in the enthusiasm.

Ultimately, it is the personality of the host that sets the tone for individual late night programs and is likely the element that most strongly attracts or repels viewers. My enjoyment in the show is partially determined by the fact that when Colbert makes lewd jokes, they don’t come in the form of a “va va voom” directed at female guests (a la David Letterman). Rather, they consist of self-deprecating humor about his lack of underwear, or veer toward gentle gross-out jibes directed at figures like Donald Trump (whose carpet presumably does not match the drapes).  Colbert’ s personality as someone who is intellectually curious, quick-witted, open-hearted, and hyper-sensitive to hypocrisies is what carried the last show and likewise what will carry this one.


Nick Marx:

I’ll temper the hotness of this take by saying that it’s early, and although the Colbert Late Show hasn’t been great in its first two weeks, I’m certain it will be eventually. The Colbert Report was our most important satirical documentation of Bush-era economic and cultural policy, so I’m hopeful The Late Show can rekindle some of that critical edge, if only to counterbalance Fallon’s pandering. Colbert the Late Show host is much more Ernie Kovacs than David Letterman, though, so he’s unlikely to hold up the same cracked mirror to celebrity culture that Dave did. Instead, early episodes indicate that his primary target will be television itself, whatever we all disagree that is nowadays.

The Late Show is mercifully light on monologue and quickly moves Colbert behind a desk so that he can talk politics. These segments have been funny (e.g. the Oreo bit), if a little transparent in their network-notey-ness to keep it up with the Trump talk. Colbert’s real venue for innovation seems like it could come in the interview segments, where (as Danna notes), Colbert’s improv training looms large, an approach the comedian mentioned many times in the run up to this fall. If the explosion of interview-based comedy podcasts is any indication, there remains an appetite for inventive and unpredictable exchanges between two humans talking to one another. Colbert highlighted one end of his emotional range in last week’s Biden appearance, and one has to wonder where else he can go with game guests who discard their promotional boilerplate and follow Colbert down the “yes, and” rabbit hole.

There are no shortage of challenges facing The Late Show, but of all the men (and only men, as Vanity Fair reminds us) recently with skin in the late night game, Colbert has to be the odds-on favorite to be both funny on a nightly basis and memorable in the long run.


Geoffrey Baym:

Over the first two weeks of Colbert’s Late Show, the underlying theme, or ethos, of the program has become increasingly clear. There were several hints, even on the first night. They were more subtle than the thesis statement Colbert offered on “truthiness” on that first Colbert Report a decade ago (“anyone can read the news to you,” he proclaimed. “I promise to feel the news at you”). On the Late Show, however, the clues have come in bits and pieces. Take the house band’s name, for example: “Stay Human.” Or the musical act the first night, a star-studded performance of the old Sly and the Family Stone hymn “Everyday People.” Or the provocative question Colbert asked Jeb Bush about whether he had any real political differences with his elder brother George, a question that began as an ode to the bonds of family and a proclamation for Colbert’s love for his own brother (who was there in the audience and mouthed “I love you” in reply).

We saw it again two nights later in the remarkable interview with Joe Biden, which, as my colleagues here have noted, offered an unprecedented kind of emotional authenticity – a deep, tender, and serious exploration of tragedy, loss, and perseverance. Before the conversation turned to the recent death of Biden’s son, however, Colbert introduced Biden by proclaiming: “You’re not a politician who has created some sort of facade to get something out of us, or triangulate your political position or emotional state to try to make us feel a certain way.  … How did you maintain your soul,” he asked, “in a city that is so full of people that are trying to lie to us in subtle ways?” Later, as Biden openly pondered his own emotional strength in the face of a possible presidential run, the band (Stay Human) broke again into a riff from “Everyday People.”

And we’ve seen it on every show since then. We saw it in the interview with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who discussed the hardship of his childhood in war-ravaged South Korea. We saw it in the less emotional, but powerfully authentic conversation with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who spoke quite honestly about the actual workings of the Supreme Court – the unguarded moments never available to public view when the nine justices sit together and discuss the case at hand. Despite the ideological differences, Breyer explains, there is “never a voice raised in anger” and no one is ever “insulting, not even as a joke.”

We saw it in Colbert’s praise for Bernie Sanders as “incredibly authentic,” because no “focus group in the world” would ask for a candidate like him. We’ve seen it throughout the first two weeks in Colbert’s recurrent digs at Donald Trump, which return continually to Trump’s hollow performance of politics (what Chuck here calls his “undeniable fakery”), his self-evident nastiness, and his deep lack of reasonableness. Finally, we saw it in Colbert’s set up for his bit with Carol Burnett, in which he explains that he usually appears on stage before taping begins to take questions from the audience. That, he ironically suggests (and irony most certainly remains a core device for this iteration of Colbert), is intended to “humanize” him, and “it is important to maintain the illusion that I am human.”

I’m not certain that any of this is the “real” Colbert. Or rather, I’m not sure it matters. What does matter is that Colbert is constructing a deeply humane televisual space. It may lack the cutting sharpness of his ironic interrogation of political spectacle, but it no less provides a momentary antidote to a political landscape and media environment so deeply scarred by simulacrum and spin.



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Fall Premieres 2015: NBC Tue, 15 Sep 2015 14:43:32 +0000 nbc2015


The Carmichael Show (premiered August 26 @ 10/9) trailer here

Jerrod Carmichael is joined by Greek’s Amber Stevens West, Doc McStuffins’ Loretta Devine, LilRel Howery, and David Alan Grier in this family sitcom.


Note that this initial review will be followed up by a roundtable discussion on the show later this week with Alfred Martin, Khadijah Costley White, and Phillip Cunningham.


The Carmichael Show stars comedian Jerrod Carmichael as axial character Jerrod as he navigates his relationship with live-in girlfriend Maxine and his overbearing family. The show, part of the growing frenzy that includes the networks bulking up on more quantitatively racially diverse series and casts, is ultimately a strange series on its face.

On one hand, it feels dated in its use of the laugh track, proscenium shooting style and live, studio audience. The series uses two main sets – one that includes the apartment Jerrod and Maxine share, and his overbearing parents’ home, which looks as if it was recycled from 1980s/1990s sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Roseanne.

On the other hand, the sitcom feels fresher than I expected. While the laugh track is distracting, the series settles into a wonderful groove, largely because of the work of Loretta Divine and David Alan Grier as Jerrod’s loving and overbearing parents. However, adding to the series’ freshness is that its storylines are rather current. While the series pilot is mostly concerned with “pilot business” such as setting up relationships and broad overviews of characters, the second episode (NBC is burning off episodes two at a time) is called “Protest,” and deals with a set of protests following the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Charlotte (where the series is based) and discusses aggressive policing and the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The episode attempts to grapple with these issues while simultaneously “keeping it light” enough to be a sitcom.

The bottom line is that the cast is strong and the writing has gotten better after it got over the business of the pilot episode. Given its third and fourth episodes, called “Kale” and “Gender,” respectively, it seems the series is resurrecting the issues-based series. “Kale” deals with race and healthy eating habits, while “Gender” is concerned with the cast attempting to grapple with (and understand) transsexual identity. I’ll certainly be staying tuned to see how this series develops.

Alfred L. Martin, Jr. (The New School) studies race, gender and sexuality in American media as they intersect with production and audience reception.



Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris (premiered September 15 @ 10/9) trailer here

An American adaptation of England’s Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, Best Time Ever will see its titular host offer a variety of acts, games, pranks, stars, and such.


In early 2005 I attended the Broadway opening of the jukebox musical Good Vibrations. One of the takeaways of the evening was that the closest thing to a celebrity on-hand was Neil Patrick Harris, and who cared about Neil Patrick Harris. In less than a year NPH hit with HIMYM and soon became one of America’s favorite gays and a perennial and lovable awards show host. His charisma and singing, dancing, and acting chops made The Best Time Ever an intriguing prospect, but instead of bringing back the Broadway-style numbers and cheeky sketches of 1970s variety shows, the opportunity was wasted. One need only know that Carrot Top made an appearance to understand how truly awful it was. What emerged over the seemingly never-ending hour was an embarrassing train wreck projecting an air of Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve meets The Man Show meets the X Games meets Solid Gold meets Double Dare meets The Jamie Kennedy Experiment meets Remote Control meets American Gladiators meets Circus of the Stars. It wasted the A-list star power and talent of NPH and Reese “guest announcer” Witherspoon on an interminable string of audience participation bits, awkward banter between celebrities, bad karaoke (forcing poor Gloria Gaynor to trot out “I Will Survive” yet again), big glitz/small payoff physical gags, and a big final musical number. No, it didn’t capitalize on NPH’s proven Broadway showmanship; instead it vomited a chaotic mixture of marching band, sleight of hand, cocktail tricks, and pogo stick choreography all over the viewing audience. I have absolutely no idea who this was targeting, and the Marvel Universe Live! and (TWO!) Fisher Price commercials seemed to illustrate that they didn’t either. America loves NPH, but I’m not sure anyone could salvage that show. I’ll just hold out hope that Hugh Jackman can parlay his Wolverine and Broadway chops into a sellable variety show.

Kelly Kessler (DePaul University)’s work primarily engages with gender and genre in the American television and film, often as it relates to the musical.


As NPH asks: Why is NPH doing this? Good question. Which leads us to our new game—Questions? Cue Bieber’s What Do You Mean? Sponsored by Ask Jeeves (Google it).

Does Reese Witherspoon need money for her legal fees? Do people find the dumb blonde banter funny? Are most of the game titles just pop songs? People do know that Alabama vs. Wisconsin @ AT&T Stadium was in Arlington, TX, not Dallas? I would be pissed, because do you know how much nachos cost at AT&T Stadium?

Why is Nicole Scherzinger a Price is Right model? Asians do karaoke games better—that’s not a question, just a fact. Carrot Top? Is that Matt Iseman from American Ninja Warrior? How did they do that? Does Witherspoon always talk in third person when climbing things? Is that The Voice? How did they do that?   When does The Voice premiere with their new season? (Answer: Next Tuesday on NBC).

Did anyone notice there was so much advertising that it felt weird when the cups on The Voice didn’t have Starbucks logos? Did you know the Jeep Renegade is a versatile yet stylish car? Did you notice they used American Authors’ Best Days of My Life again in a Jeep commercial (one that appeared during a commercial break, not during the show)? No way Gone Girl, Kohler, Hilton Hotels, and Sharper Image can get crammed in, right?

Verdict? Had a few funny moments, NPH has the energy and charisma to mostly hold my attention, I like the randomness, needs more product placement, “pranks” are too PG, the Show at the end of the Show was…there. Would watch again if it accidently appeared while channel surfing, but I’ll probably pick up the highlights on YouTube the day after while eating a Fiber One Chewy Bar.

Tony Tran (University of Wisconsin-Madison) likes to ask questions about Vietnamese diaspora and new media in urban spaces.



Blindspot (premiered September 21 @ 10/9) trailer here

A naked woman (Jaime Alexander) is found in a bag in Times Square, with no recall of who she is or how she got there, with an elaborate, mysterious full body tattoo that offers clues to an FBI agent (Sullivan Stapleton) that unravel a large conspiracy.


The show starts in high velocity and rarely slows down in its pilot. Within a couple of minutes we’ve met the basic characters and set up the weekly story in which a new tattoo will be explored as well as the longer storyline in which Jane Doe’s mysterious background will get explored.

I loved the Bourne Identity premise, especially when Jane started kicking ass and taking names. That was particularly a relief after we saw her in physical and psychological pain through much of the earlier parts, severely traumatized and tuning toward an unprepared FBI for help. But the story is quite clearly hers and she demands to be part in researching her own mystery. Given that I empathized with her trauma and cheered on her agency and attempts at situating herself in this to her new world, I was strangely unsettled by the hints given to us in the end that she participated in her own victimization.

I’m not sure I’ll stick around for more than a few eps depending on how this will play out, but I was definitely not bored with this pilot. In fact, if anything, I am worried they’ll be able to sustain this frantic pacing and whether the overall conceit will collapse and become absurd within a few weeks/months. This struck me as a show that might have done better with the shorter UK format, but we’ll just have to see if the leads can carry the fairly contrived and yet nevertheless weirdly familiar plot. But I may just stick around a bit longer for Jaimie Alexander being both vulnerable and self assertive in turn. Because who doesn’t love Lady Sif?

Kristina Busse (independent scholar) studies fan fiction and fan communities and is co-editor of Transformative Works and Cultures.


Yesterday The Wall Street Journal reported the (obvious) fact that NBC hasn’t had a hit show in two years, and as a result, has more fall offerings (14 new shows) than any of the other networks. Aside from Sunday Night Football and The Voice, the only recurrent program on NBC’s schedule that is reasonably attractive to both viewers and advertisers is The Blacklist, a procedural that pairs criminal-turned-informant Raymond Reddington (James Spaeder) with FBI agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) to solve never-ending terrorist plots and unravel the twisty mysteries of Keen’s past. It should come as no surprise, then, that panicky NBC greenlit Blindspot, created by Martin Gero and produced by hot ticket Greg Berlanti. The show mimics The Blacklist’s premise by pairing FBI agent Kurt Weller (Sullivan Stapleton) with mystery woman Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander), whose amnesia and numerous tattoos offer clues to drive at least ten seasons of mysteries. I confess that I do watch The Blacklist (don’t judge me) and likely will continue to watch Blindspot because I’m curious about Jane Doe’s past. But I find the “woman with a mysterious past who must figure out her strengths while guided by a strong and all-knowing man” storyline tiresome. While Blindspot’s Jane Doe may have the potential to become a strong and interesting female character, I’d be more intrigued by a pilot that—instead of placing its female lead naked in a duffle bag in New York’s Times Square—introduced her as a powerful character from the start. Blindspot won’t help NBC change its dwindling status among the networks, but NBC’s (over)reliance on the new show does signal the need for the network to focus on developing programs that tell innovative and unexpected storylines instead of thinly veiled facsimiles.

Melissa A. Click (University of Missouri) studies media audiences and loves the fall TV season!


Last TV season, Jaimie Alexander guest starred as an amnesiac woman warrior on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Practice must make perfect, because in Alexander’s hands, Blindspot’s Jane Doe is a dynamic heroine. She deserves a far better show built around her. As it is, Blindspot’s only bright spot is its leading lady.

Any crime procedural is only as good as its central partnership, and Sullivan Stapleton as stoic, seasoned FBI agent Kurt Weller has a generic gruffness that’s predictable. That the Australian Stapleton can’t convincingly settle into an American accent is distracting; that there’s yet another square-jawed, blue-eyed white man in the lead is just boring.

The supporting cast sports a little more diversity, though the narrative constraints of a pilot episode mean that little is learned about them. One of Jane’s tattoos does point to a potential storyline concerning FBI director Bethany Mayfair, played by the underrated Marianne Jean-Baptiste. However, IMDB doesn’t list Jean-Baptiste as a cast member beyond the pilot, so this thread may be disappointingly dropped.

The promotional material for the show focuses on Alexander’s naked, tattooed body, so it’s no surprise that the talented actress spends far too much time strategically covering herself or standing in artfully cast shadows. The fetishistic study of this woman’s body parts is oh-so-conveniently integral to the show’s narrative, so it’s doubtful that Blindspot will move beyond all this looking.

Whether or not Blindspot can be more than a tattoo-of-the-week episodic procedural remains to be seen. The pilot mires Jane in a potential terrorism case so easy to solve that it makes one wonder if every tattoo will lead to a story so rote. The overarching mystery of Jane’s identity and the motive for her intricate tattoos promise some serialized elements, but the elaborate set-up may demand a payoff too big to actually deliver.

Laura E. Felschow (University of Texas-Austin) is researching gender in the superhero genre from an industrial perspective.



The Player (premiered September 24 @ 10/9) trailer here

Rich bastards bet on whether Philip Winchester can stop big, nasty crimes from happening, and Wesley Snipes makes the whole thing happen. Taxes are paid in full. And NBC uses the most over-used line for anything set in Vegas in their website’s blurb: “the house always wins.”


“I need you to wrap your head around the impossible, Alex.”

Look, there’s nothing wrong with a show that has a ridiculous premise. Television is a fictional medium, and so the idea of a syndicate of billionaires betting on crime in Las Vegas does not preclude The Player from working as entertainment. Alex Kane driving a motorcross bike through an abandoned mall to “Tick Tick Boom” as bad guys fire automatic weapons at him is not without its charms.

Where the show runs into problems is when you move beyond its premise and its sensationalist action to the character at the center of it. The pilot knows it has to work hard to explain why anyone would willfully work for “The House”—which sets the odds on crime—when the opening scene of the series is the last employee lying dead in the desert. The show wants this job to appear dangerous, so much so that they show us the odds on our hero’s death, but this is still a TV show—we know that the real impossible is the marketable lead (who got his action credentials on Cinemax’s Strike Back) meeting the same fate as his predecessor.

But what’s frustrating is that the writers saw no other possible option to get him to that point than speedily fridging his ex-wife/partner before act one had barely gotten started. The juxtaposition between the schlocky action and the constructed tragedy never reconcile, and that isn’t helped when her death is thrown into question for the purpose of creating a serialized mystery component for the rest of the season. The dynamic that brings the pilot to its close has potential—a competent action hero with a direct line to all-powerful tech support grappling with the moral complexity of these components—but the emotional dimensions of the pilot have nowhere to breathe, and that moral complexity feels at odds with every other signal of what the show is betting on.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies the media industries and wonders if pilot season is secretly billionaires just gambling on what they can convince people to watch.



Heroes Reborn (premieres September 24 @ 8/7) trailer here

Was anyone even still watching when Heroes ended? Still, Zachary (Chuck) Levi joins the cast, and HRG himself returns (Jack Coleman), albeit joined by the others who couldn’t get post-Heroes jobs (in other words, to save the world, one apparently no longer needs the cheerleader).


Second verse, same as the first.

There’s a telling moment at the end of the second hour (!!) of the Heroes premiere when Zachary Levi’s character Luke has stolen Noah Bennett’s car, and he looks at the Heroes symbol hanging from the review mirror. “Who’s car is this?” he asks his wife Joanne, after the two of them have inexplicably shot up Primatech paper.

There’s no mystery to “who’s car this is” because we know the answer; but in depicting that symbol, the show alludes to the previous seasons of Heroes (2006–10) that serve as background and fodder for this new miniseries. The problem here—and it’s a larger problem within the Heroes Reborn narrative—is that the symbol, half a DNA strand in an S-shaped curve, propelled an immensely compelling mystery in the original show. Here it serves merely as a mnemonic, reminding us that “Yes! We’re Watching Heroes!” while doing nothing to deepen the mystery or move the narrative onwards.

In fact, nothing really moves this plot forward. While I enjoyed the preview of the upcoming season—lots of action! And guest stars! And story!—I was underwhelmed by this season premiere. Two hours (with, as NBC incessantly droned, limited commercial interruption) should have been enough time to develop the characters and plot. Instead, the story about resurrecting the investigation of the “Evo” (evolved human) population took almost 90 minutes to unroll while other elements (the CGI video game scenes?) seemed to be completely superfluous. I’m sure things will start to come together as the show progresses, and as a miniseries it will certainly be able to weave a stronger arc than the last few seasons of Heroes did originally. But I found the whole experience tiresome, like I was watching Heroes try to out X-Men the X-Men, and I’m not sure I’ll have the stamina to care if the show continues to plod instead of develop.

Paul Booth (DePaul University) studies fandom, time travel, and digital technology and is the author most recently of Playing Fans and Game Play.


Heroes Reborn has big shoes to fill: when Heroes premiered in 2006, it set itself apart through intensely serialized storytelling, a visual style reminiscent of comics, and transmedia extensions. All of these aspects have become commonplace. Particularly considering the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and multiple superhero TV shows, Heroes Reborn faces an uphill battle in terms of garnering viewers. Did the premiere build a strong foundation for this undertaking? Not entirely. While I didn’t find the premiere terrible, I also didn’t find it innovative. I appreciate that Heroes Reborn gave many nods to its predecessor (complete with awkward car product placement) and anchored its narrative in some of Heroes’ central themes (conspiracy, identity struggle, impending catastrophic event). More disappointing were the lazy techno-orientalism weaving through the Tokyo storyline and the one-dimensional female characters. There is some potential even in those weak aspects: I found the video game sequences interesting in terms of folding a typical transmedia extension into the main text, and the reveal of Molly Walker might suggest that there’s more to her than the weak storyline she had in this episode.

In terms of transmedia, there isn’t much—9th Wonders is a cover for a standard show Tumblr account, and the app seems to repackage information also available at NBC’s website. The prequel web series Dark Matters is richer in content, but familiar in form. Most interesting is the ARG-style HeroTruther YouTube Channel: launched in June and without any apparent connection to the show or NBC, but the mostly low viewing numbers suggest it didn’t have the impact often expected of promotional ARGs.

Melanie E.S. Kohnen researches television, digital platforms, the media industry, and cultural diversity.



Truth Be Told (premieres October 16 @ 8.30/7.30) trailer here

This sitcom follows two couples who are friends, with facile commentary on sex, race, and relationships. Marc-Paul Gosselaar, Vanessa Lachey, Tone Bell, and Bresha Webb star, after Meaghan Rath was pulled away since another show starring her was greenlit, and was in her first position. Titled People Are Talking in development, till they realized that pretty much nobody was talking about this one.


Look, Truth Be Told is bad at its very core. The show believes that it has something significant to say about race and gender, and the truth is it has nothing to say: every joke skims across the surface of anything significant, reducing complex cultural issues down into not simply bad jokes, but bad jokes that fail to accumulate into anything approximating reasonable human behavior.

But here’s the thing: I knew this. It was clear from early critical reactions, and from tin-eared comments from creator DJ Nash about writer diversity at the Television Critics Association press tour. What I didn’t know was that #TruthBeTold would be so incompetent from a production perspective, especially given How I Met Your Mother vet Pamela Fryman in the director’s chair. The show is aiming for a hybrid format similar to HIMYM’s, with a significant amount of outdoor scenes in addition to standing sets, but there’s one problem: this is an ugly mess of a television program.

I’ve never seen anything like it as far as broadcast sitcoms go. Whatever Fryman was going for completely falls apart: the compositing work on the daytime driving sequence is embarrassing, the lighting differences between the indoor and outdoor scenes are too jarring to be seen as realistic, and the laugh track appears to be being played on a mid-2000s iPod dock just off-screen given the lack of fidelity. And yet it’s the editing that’s the most obnoxious, going for the type of quick cuts that HIMYM was known for but failing to understand the necessary flow for such jokes to land. In one scene, a character continues a sentence she started outside after having moved inside, and how anyone who watched the show felt this was anything but distracting confounds me even more than the writers who believe this trifle to be anything close to provocative.

Myles McNutt (Old Dominion University) studies media industries, and voted for Kodos in the show’s on-screen “Thorny Issues” social media polls.


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Fall Premieres 2015: Cable (Reality & Variety) Tue, 15 Sep 2015 14:06:11 +0000 cablereality2015


Monica the Medium (premiered ABC Family, August 25 @ 8/7) trailer here

ABC Family is aggressively pursuing the lucrative demographic of Penn State student-mediums who have never played Flip Cup by featuring their very own Monica Ten-Kate with this reality show.


This show is trolling anyone who has ever said that “kids these days” are self-obsessed, spoiled, and narcissistic. Monica, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a medium. She claims she’s also just a normal girl trying to find a job and a boyfriend. Her search for the job in the pilot is comical, inasmuch as it’s dominated by her concern over whether she should come clean that she is a medium, when everything else in the pilot suggests she’s incapable of not telling people she’s a medium (‘cause, you know, when I meet someone, this is the first thing about them that I want to know). Cutaways to the people to whom she gives “readings” are all sympathetic and glowing, meanwhile (as when a young woman expresses amazement at the fact that Monica knew her mother’s cancer had metastasized, a detail she didn’t share with anyone, but, erm, if you die of cancer, doesn’t that kind of require metastasization?).

Indeed, not once are we treated to someone who is skeptical of her abilities, motives, or mental health. Instead, the show seems intent to use her being a medium, and her friends’ and potential suitors’ acceptance of it, as a parable for how we should all be more accepting and understanding. Monica the Medium should just be allowed to be Monica the Medium, it seems to be saying … even when that involves accosting strangers with manipulative, trite sentiment about dead loved ones. Admittedly, reality television’s bread and butter lays in offering us people to judge, and boy do I judge her, but the pilot’s unwillingness to cast even an iota of doubt on her claim to talk to dead people, or on her insistence that she must pass on messages from these dead people whenever she feels like it, had me wondering whether to despise the show or Monica the Medium more. Bad joke, real sentiment: this show is now dead to me.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is author of Television Entertainment and Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and is currently studying media dislike, while disliking this show.


“It’s really hard trying to find a guy while you’re a medium and you’re a college student. It’s next to impossible, actually.”

It would be easy to write a derisive review of ABC Family’s new foray into reality TV, Monica the Medium. I could say that Monica the Medium is certainly no Buffy the Vampire Slayer, despite Monica’s repeated uttering of bastardized versions of the core themes of that beloved series. Where Buffy intertwined humor and depth, here the sense of lightness and loving parody is missing. (I mean, there are some pretty funny lines in this series, but I’m guessing that their humor isn’t intentional…) I could also say that despite sharing a network and arguably a target demographic, Monica the Medium is no Pretty Little Liars—that ABC Family juggernaut that has managed its mix of multiple filles fatales, whiplash plot, and questionable fashion for six seasons and counting.

What Monica the Medium does offer is a somewhat awkwardly constructed glimpse into the lives of a group of college students not marked clearly upper class (a la The Hills) nor lower class (a la Jersey Shore) who cringe as their friend Monica goes into regular situations—parties, workplaces, a fashion boutique, a nail salon—and brings her emotional conversations with dead people (talking with “the spirit” as she calls it). She inserts the inappropriately emotional and the “spiritual” into each space, rupturing expected norms of behavior and replacing pleasantries with tears and cherished or (supposedly) suppressed memories. Somehow she seems to know the intimate and private and makes it public before returning to the closure of a sequence; (she does indeed finally buy an outfit and get a manicure, after in both situations speaking to multiple dead people related to the various staff).

Look, I’m not saying this is great TV; (it’s certainly no Unreal, nor even Everlasting, the fake reality show on Unreal) and I don’t know if it will find an audience, be that an audience that laughs at it or with it. But for its insistence on bringing emotion and “spirit” into the everyday (and not via horror movie tropes or destructive femme fatales), combined with its seemingly unintentional ridiculousness, it might see viewers sticking with. I for one will give it a few more episodes and will be keeping an eye on the reviews to see what pleasures it offers its viewers.

Louisa Stein (Middlebury College) is author of Millennial Fandom and studies gender, media, and audience culture.



Todrick (premiered MTV, August 31 @ 10/9) trailer here

We’re just gonna quote MTV on this one: “quadruple-threat Todrick Hall lets fans into his creative factory and introduces them to the passionate troupe of creative collaborators who pour heart and soul into his weekly videos. Unwilling to wait for Hollywood to make them stars, Todrick and his faithful crew write, choreograph, style, and direct full-scale productions weekly – all while balancing side jobs to pay the bills – to try to make their dreams come true on their own terms.”


Todrick’s title theme song gets one point clear: this is a show about Todrick being Todrick in “Toddywood.” Todrick even assures himself in his own theme song that the show is, in fact, about him: “Just making sure!” Todrick tells Todrick. And this makes it confusing because I’m not sure how meta the first episode is meant to be. Todrick has a video idea of critiquing celebrities who will do anything “crazy” or “freaky” to extend their 15 minutes of fame. But is this a critique of himself—a castoff of American Idol Season 9 who desires fame—as he goes around town doing self-defined crazy and freaky things for attention? Perhaps he knows this, but the show and his crew don’t really seem to even be aware of this point.

Even when Todrick isn’t about Todrick, it is about Todrick. A subplot involves the upcoming birthday of his makeup artist, Nicole, but the show is less concerned about her and more focused on Todrick’s benevolence in planning a surprise birthday video (and downplaying the issue that he is forcing her to work on her birthday). Also, Todrick manages to track down one of Nicole’s (supposedly) favorite music artists, Kelly Rowland, but in Todrick fashion, he films himself with Rowland giving a shout-out to Nicole. You know, instead of giving Nicole the day off to actually meet Kelly Rowland.

However, the subplot is probably needed because the show is literally a behind-the-scenes look at Todrick’s YouTube channel, and sometimes feels it would be better just as a YouTube video. With that said, Todrick is undeniably talented and it does give a sometimes interesting, if slightly fabricated, look at the frantic and DIY nature of producing YouTube videos. Yet, as someone indifferent to Todrick, I would prefer the condensed YouTube version.

Tony Tran (University of Wisconsin-Madison) researches Vietnamese diaspora and new media in urban spaces.


Early into the pilot, Todrick’s star writes a song as a gift for his make-up artist, Nicole Faulkner. With clipboard in hand, Todrick Hall enumerates his vision for “The Birthday Dance,” which producer Jean-yves “Jeeve” Ducornet quickly assembles by a wall of monitors and synthesizers. Hall then records his vocals, “the easy part” of the song’s compressed (and unreliably plotted) journey to becoming YouTube ephemera. Hall and his team also record a video, find costumes and develop choreography for it, and integrate fan-made clips and singer Kelly Rowland’s birthday message into it. Faulkner also sacrifices her birthday for the production, which overlaps with the shoot for Hall’s riff on tabloid culture “Who Let the Freaks Out.”

Hall’s studio visit takes two minutes of screen time, but it’s a formative moment. When MTV launched in 1981, it would have been more interested in putting “The Birthday Dance” into rotation than in crafting a narrative around its creation. Of course, Todrick benefits from a post- political climate supposedly removed from MTV’s original, racist “rock videos only” mandate (a lie Nicki Minaj challenged by asking “Miley what’s good” the night before Todrick premiered). But MTV has always commodified pop stardom as a lifestyle, with music functioning as part of an artist’s brand. In that regard, Todrick honors a programming tradition that stretches back to Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes (1985-1987). It also reveals the chipper resourcefulness and pathological entrepreneurialism often required to “put on a show,” whether the performer is a vaudevillian entertainer or a YouTube celebrity with an army of telegenic industry hopefuls, Toddlerz (Hall’s term for his fanbase), and the off-screen hand of manager Scooter Braun to raise him up. The music is incidental, but Todrick’s half-open window into pop celebrity’s psychology and invisible labor is nonetheless compelling and ripe for critique.

Alyxandra Vesey (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the relationship between identity politics, music culture, and media labor and her dissertation analyzes recording artists’ contributions to post-network television.



Suddenly Royal (premiered TLC, September 9 @ 10/9) trailer here

An American auto repair advisor researches his ancestry online, only to find out that he’s actually royalty, heir to the British Isle of Man. So he and his family pack up and move to their kingdom. A Princess Diaries whose star will likely never end up playing Catwoman, this seems so much like it’s faux, yet it seems it’s for real (well, as real as reality shows are), and that dude honestly thinks he’s a royal, and has done so since 2007, though he only recently moved there.


Hey, if Donald Trump or Scott Walker could become President, why can’t David Drew Howe become King of the Isle of Man? The premise for this show is pretty amazing, as Howe finds he likes his ancestral line better than Ben Affleck likes his. This situation doesn’t exactly occur every day, which produces a fascinating generic hybrid – there’s an “outsider in bucolic England” angle that feels a lot like one of the BBC’s favorite genres (except that many of those involve murders, so oddly I was watching very closely to see who would have a motive to kill, say, the royal secretary), mixed with a bit of House Hunters International and its ilk, as middle America deals with smaller beds, horses next door, and insufficient numbers of local takeaway restaurants. Yet undergirding it all is run-of-the-mill reality television being run-of-the-mill reality television: the cutaway counterpoints, the closeups on smirks, etc. And thus watching Suddenly Royal produced an interesting experience that was both utterly familiar and fresh.

Howe may need grooming into royal material, but he’s absolutely ready for television, as I found his sense of humor a lovely mix of homey Dad-joke and dry, delicately edgy (when his daughter expresses concern about how they’ll make money on the Isle of Man, for instance, he dryly offers the possibility of plunder and pillage). Howe’s wife Pam plays his straight (wo)man well, so there’s some comic schtick on offer. And all three family members’ attitudes to their circumstance is amusing, even refreshing. This is TV being TV really well, and an engaging hour. I expected to dislike or be bored by this, but instead I will definitely watch more, and encourage you to give it a shot, even if only to experience the odd genre hybrid for an episode.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is author of Television Entertainment and Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and evidently prefers would-be-king narratives to entitled teen medium narratives.



Uncommon Grounds (premiered Travel, September 14 @ 11/10) no trailer available at this time

After having searched the world for rare coffee in Dangerous Grounds, host Todd Carmichael obviously still has more high-flying international coffee man of intrigue business to conduct in this new show that will explore various countries’ culture through their coffee.


There is nothing particularly uncommon about this documentary-style reality program. The premiere’s flimsy narrative sees the La Colombe founder immersing himself in Japanese culture so as to secure an agreement with the company UCC to mass-produce his new coffeemaker, ‘The Dragon’ (a hybrid between a siphon and pour-over device). Along the way, Carmichael and his cameraman ‘Hollywood’ experience a night out in Tokyo with Japanese businessmen, a visit to a Sake plantation, and an Aikido lesson.

One of the program’s persistent themes involves Carmichael’s fish-out-of-water status – “I’m the loudest person in Japan, even when I’m using my indoor voice” – and its partial resolution through the identification of common cultural touchstones with respect to life and business. This is where the series is most interesting – and most revealing with respect to the current cultural moment. In Carmichael’s admiration for Japanese obsessiveness, efficiency, and precision, we see the basis for a common ground between Japanese culture and the relentlessly-driven entrepreneurialism of contemporary US culture. With Carmichael’s background as an extreme endurance athlete and risk-taking businessman, he finds a lot to admire in the Japanese work ethic and obsession with perfection. All he needs is a basic understanding of the conventions of Japanese business culture to secure the deal.

The final scene before the climactic business meeting encapsulates the banality of this instrumental approach to cultural immersion. As Carmichael meditates in a traditional temple, a voice-over relates his thoughts about the upcoming meeting. An activity that is ostensibly devoted to peace and wholeness becomes the final step in preparing to seal a business deal. This dynamic is emblematic of a program that might have offered earnest cultural exploration and exchange, but which ultimately functions primarily as an extended commercial for American entrepreneurialism, Carmichael’s company, and his new brewing device.

Christopher Cwynar (University of Wisconsin-Madison) researches public media, digital culture, and consumer-citizenship.


According to Uncommon Grounds’ host Todd Carmichael, “Japan is the third-largest coffee importer in the world. They’re known to spend upwards of $1,000 a pound for the best beans.” On his previous show, this piece of information would initiate a trans-Pacific boondoggle for the daredevil co-founder of Philadelphia’s coffee roaster and café La Colombe Torrefaction to find the best coffee the country has to offer. But for the premiere of his new Travel Channel show, Carmichael sets his sights on Japan to find a manufacturer for his new glass brewer, the Dragon.

Carmichael anticipates that his maverick businessman posturing will create friction with Japanese commerce’s supposed “penchant for precision and detail” (though, conveniently, he forgot to pack a suit). To prepare for his presentation for Ueshima Coffee Co.’s executives, Carmichael and his cameraman Hollywood spend a week in Tokyo and Kyoto drinking with businessmen, eating sushi on the Shinkansen, visiting the Chikurin Sake Brewery, taking in a fish-cutting presentation and a multi-course meal with its owner Niichiro Marumoto, learning Aikido’s basic principles, and meditating (!) on the Travel Channel’s dime. Unsurprisingly, Carmichael hoists a box of UCC-produced Dragon brewers during the end credits–the price of doing business on basic cable.

The Travel Channel likes to cast middle-aged white male gourmands as rock stars whose escapades viewers can enjoy from safe distances. It’s a branding strategy that reeks of chauvinism, regardless of how many Uzbekistani weddings Anthony Bourdain attended on No Reservations. Uncommon Grounds doesn’t challenge this, in part because it presents culture’s commodification as international currency without problematizing the U.S.’s position in this exchange. But when the product is a coffee maker—an appliance that processes an ecologically and politically fraught consumer good—there needs to be a deeper discussion than the one Uncommon Grounds is willing to engage.

Alyxandra Vesey (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies the relationship between identity politics, music culture, and media labor and her dissertation analyzes recording artists’ contributions to post-network television.



The Bazillion Dollar Club (premiered Syfy, September 22 @ 10/9) trailer here

A six episode docu-series that follows two startup incubator founders in Silicon Valley as they try to advise companies towards, well, a “bazillion” dollars by offering such gems like “if you’re not willing to risk everything, you’re going to fail.” Rinse and repeat with HBO’s Silicon Valley afterwards.


This is a formulaic documentary-style program based on a 16-week startup accelerator ‘boot camp’ offered by the angel investors and startup gurus Dave McClure (of 500 Startups) and Brady Forrest (HighwayOne). Over the course of the season, these two will endeavor to help six different startups to ‘accelerate’ their growth in terms of revenue, customer, base, and, most importantly, fundraising.

The first episode sees the duo dispensing tough love and hard-bitten wisdom to Ethan Appleby of Vango, which seeks to be ‘iTunes for art’. The Fassbender-esque CEO is feeling the pressure of trying to keep his dream alive while following through on behalf of the other core workers who have sacrificed time, money, and energy to contribute to the project. This becomes a plot point as Monique, the effervescent and industrious client relations specialist, requests a raise. Appleby cannot afford to lose ‘Mo,’ but he also can’t afford to ‘give her the raise she deserves.’ The only solution is to find some more money – somehow.

The fate of the company – and Mo’s raise – ultimately seem to come down to a 3-minute talk that Ethan is to give to potential investors on a 500 Startups ‘Demo Day.’ Will Ethan be able to distill his message down to its essence and deliver it with confidence, charisma, and enthusiasm? In effect, the question is whether Ethan can effectively sell himself and embody the promise of the idea he represents. In this respect, BDC provides a straightforward reflection of a society in which many believe that the path to freedom and fulfillment involves the marketing of the self and the building of something that can be validated in the marketplace. It is an unexceptional reality program, but its portrayal of startup life is likely to appeal to those viewers who themselves dream of beating the odds to achieve exceptional success on America’s tech frontier.

Christopher Cwynar (University of Wisconsin-Madison) studies public media, digital culture, and consumer-citizenship.


My experience of watching of this show is a testament to the power of flow, not simply in the all-on-television form famously explicated by Raymond Williams, but including the ebbs and flows of social and cultural context. I watched this while waiting to see billionaire bigot Donald Trump interviewed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, hoping that Stephen’s satirical fangs were still in tact. And I watched on a week in which the news was dominated by three stories: (1) young CEO Martin Shkreli deciding that his company Turing would increase the price of Daraprim – a drug used to treat patients with AIDS – from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill, (2) young-ish former Boy Wonder of the GOP, Scott Walker, announcing the suspension of his campaign to become President, in the wake of failing to secure enough investment in either cold hard cash or likely voters, and (3) British Prime Minister David Cameron being allegedly revealed to be, quite literally, a rich pig-fucker. And thus I was so very primed to dislike the young white entrepreneurs of this show. As Vango’s head expressed regret that he “couldn’t” pay a valued staff-member what she’s worth, I wondered how much his shirt cost. As the coaches told him how to present himself, so that people will give him their money, my mind drifted to thinking about Walker boring live audiences, unable to get yet more donor money. And as the show marched its way through a tour of how wonderfully awesome, smart, and able young white CEOs can be, I thought of Shkreli, Walker, Cameron and their egos. I’ve seen too many instances of the corporate world’s excesses this week, and of “the art of the deal” hubris. Admittedly, if the show was actually gripping, I might have stayed in the here and now, instead of floating away on a current of flow, but it isn’t: it’s just yet another celebration of the uncelebratable.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is author of Television Entertainment and Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.



Road Spill (premiered truTV, September 23 @ 10.30/9.30) trailer here

Focusing on what people really talk about in the privacy (or, nationally televised, reality television “privacy”) of their own cars. Also promised by truTV are hilarity, road rage, and moral dilemmas.


People Other Than Comedians In Unremarkable Cars Being Unremarkable. So, here’s how it works: regular people get in their cars and drive around, then answer tepid questions pitched at them, such as “is it too intimate to share the same toothbrush?”, “how far out of your comfort zone have you gone to please a loved one?”, “who is grosser in the bathroom? Men or women?”, or “what do you think about men in Speedos?”. I’d spare the judgment if this was something that someone did with a cheap camera and put on YouTube, but it’s so weird to see this on non-public-access, commercial television in 2015 – and a whole half hour of it – especially when some people are saying there’s “too much good television.” It might work as a radio show, albeit a boring one, but the visuals are entirely irrelevant here. Then the commentary is like something you’d overhear on a bus, in a restaurant, or at the mall. You might chortle a little and note it to someone you’re sitting next to, but you’d then go back to your conversation and zone out. So here’s my suggestion, to round out the review: next time a student wants extra credit, tell them to watch a season of this and write a 20 page paper. Make em work for it. Harder than anyone involved with this show seems to be working.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) already has too many bios on this page.



Fashionably Late with Rachel Zoe (premiered Lifetime, September 24 @ 10.30/9.30) trailer here

Stylist and designer Rachel Zoe hosts this talk show focused on fashion, “beauty,” and pop culture.


It was only three minutes into the premiere of Fashionably Late with Rachel Zoe that I was thinking about Watch What Happens Live!, the Bravo late night chat show hosted by Andy Cohen. That’s not surprising given that Zoe stepped out of the shadows of her celebrity styling clients for her Bravo series The Rachel Zoe Project. It’s also not surprising given that WWHL! has been an incredible success for Bravo, and Lifetime is clearly patterning Fashionably Late in its mold, positioning it after Project Runway, which they directly nabbed from Bravo. But Fashionably Late doesn’t only carry vestiges of WWHL!—it’s also obviously attempting to mimic E!’s Fashion Police following its dramatic fall from grace this year following Joan Rivers’ death, Giuliana Rancic’s racist comments at the Oscars, and Kelly Osbourne’s departure. In fact, the segment “#whatwereyouthinking,” in which Alba was asked to reflect on some style choices from her past is a direct steal from Fashion Police.

It’s probably telling that I spent the majority of the episode thinking about all the things it cribbed from other cable channel weekly chat shows—the show itself was not terribly compelling, feeling mostly like a rehash of concepts I’d seen before. As someone who really enjoys Rachel Zoe, who has always appreciated her quirks, her unapologetic style, and her catchphrases, I felt like this venue muted her. Maybe she was so busy being crammed into different existing boxes that she wasn’t allowed to be Rachel Zoe. In truth, I enjoyed the teaser segments that aired in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the premiere much better. (See here for one example) Here’s hoping the format loosens, Lifetime stops trying to steal its competitors’ ideas, and Zoe finds her groove. I’m not sure I’m going to hang around to find out, though.

Erin Copple Smith (Austin College) studies media industries, focusing specifically on product placement and conglomerate cross-promotion.



The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (CC, September 28 @ 11/10) promo here

Noah faces the daunting task of winning over would-be audiences likely divided into those who regard Jon Stewart as amazing and likely irreplaceable, and those whose lack of interest in Stewart or active disdain for him likely overflows to the show and the format in general. But with Trump and Walker still in the GOP race, at least the jokes and criticism will come easy.


Note that we will post a separate discussion of The Daily Show after it’s been on for one week



I’ll Have What Phil’s Having (PBS, September 28 @ 10/9) trailer here

Media scholars may best know Phil Rosenthal as the protagonist telling Russians why they suck in Exporting Raymond, the documentary about his attempts to translate Everybody Loves Raymond to Russia. Apparently, he’ll now be telling other people of the world why they suck (even if their food doesn’t always) in this food and travel show.


I was worried that the appeal of I’ll Have What Phil’s Having would hinge entirely on how easily one could digest an hour of Phil Rosenthal’s mugging. Thankfully, that’s not really the case. For the most part, the program realizes that the food and the city (here, Tokyo) are the true stars of the show. On the surface, there’s not a whole lot that distinguishes this from No Reservations beyond the hosts’ very different personae (Rosenthal’s vacillation between wide-eyed excitement and wider-eyed incredulity vs. Anthony Bourdain’s labored, hypermasculine cool). Like Bourdain, Rosenthal cracks wise through a tour of local food that covers street grub, haute cuisine, and little in between.

Although the program follows American food TV’s disappointingly traditional convention of ensuring that the viewer has a compatriot tour guide/avatar to lead our way through the unfamiliar terrain, it’s reasonably light on the Othering that winds up insulting the host city and the audience’s intelligence in equal measure. Which is not to say that it’s absent—there are a few groan-inducing references to a “Blade Runnerish” collection of bars and some exaggerated, bug-eyed reactions to still-living sashimi, but Rosenthal’s approach to cross-cultural encounters is somewhat more earnest and playful than one might expect.

But again, I’m really here for the lovingly shot food and cityscapes. On that front, the show more-or-less delivers. I’ll Have What Phil’s Having doesn’t quite reach the heights of what food television can achieve (for my money, that would be Netflix’s recent Chef’s Table, a beautifully shot, warts-and-all exploration of the equal measures of genius and madness required to be one of the world’s greatest chefs). But it’s a decent-enough food travelogue, even if it’s not adding a whole lot that connoisseurs of the genre haven’t already seen.

Evan Elkins (Miami University) researches and teaches issues pertaining to the media industries, media criticism, globalization, and digital technologies.


PBS’s new program “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” suggests in its title an equivalence between its host, Phil Rosenthal (Hollywood showrunner, creator of Everybody Loves Raymond) and the audience, but you can only be a peer of Rosenthal’s if you have quite a bit of money—or fancy friends. In the premiere episode, Phil eats at a range of restaurants in Tokyo, Japan, but the majority of them are super, duper fancy (molecular gastronomy fancy). In my less generous moments, I viewed Rosenthal as a dilettante. Yet his manner is what makes him more of an “everyman,” for he balks at the most exotic fare, including eel (bones and all), ants (they taste like lemon), and freshly killed (and uncooked) shrimp.

This program is aiming for the niche covered so well on basic cable by fellow travel food hosts Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods) and Anthony Bourdain (Parts Unknown). What this program has not yet figured out, though, is that Zimmern and Bourdain thrive, in part, based on the personality of their hosts. Zimmern is childlike and bold in his enthusiasm for all things gross; Bourdain is all sharp edges, but he is also an incredibly knowledgeable chef with noble aspirations. Rosenthal lacks expertise, but what he can offer is humor and a deeper look into his personal life. In particular, the show is missing its biggest possible appeal in the fact that Rosenthal’s brother is the producer! When Phil skypes with his parents from Tokyo, his father repeatedly asks for the unseen brother, Richard, much to Phil’s chagrin (“here is the son you actually love,” he complains as the camera turns towards Richard). The entire show came alive in this moment of relatable family joshing. With so much food TV out there, this show needs Rosenthal to let us see him as a father, son, husband, and brother, because those are the things to which his audience can relate.

Karen Petruska (Gonzaga University) studies the media industries, television history, and media policy.



Adam Ruins Everything (truTV, September 29 @ 10/9)

Adam Conover moves his show from a College Humor web series to the big time (if truTV counts as the big time). You can see an example of his College Humor show here, and quickly get the idea: brief explorations of a wide variety of issues, trying to uncover things and go against the current of popular belief, with comedy and irreverence.


Adam Ruins Everything has bold ambitions. Its first episode sees the host tackle a series of beliefs around “giving.” He notes that diamonds as emblems of romance are completely a product of De Beers’ advertising, he explores the silliness of Tom’s Shoes promising to give a free pair of shoes to a random African kid for every pair you buy, he interrogates the (il)logic of canned food drives, donating blood after natural disasters, and saving ring tabs for charity. It’s visually interesting, too: Daily Prophet-style, authors’ dust jacket photos come alive and talk to him, plenty of animation and CGI are used, and there’s a pace to it. He even gets bonus points for having professors on and (!) for using footnotes on screen to show his sources. It’s trying to be edutainment for adults, and I appreciate the attempt to debunk that which needs debunking.

But holy moly is this a big stinking pile of mansplaining. The pilot consisted mostly of host Adam Conover telling an oh-so-naïve young white woman how dumb and ill-informed she is. She was set up as one half of a couple, but somehow her fiancé didn’t need the lessons like she does. Even worse, she’s a teacher, so Conover’s performance is predicated on telling a woman who thinks she’s smart that, no honeycakes, actually you’re not. Then, when she’s disappeared, as a coda to the show, he accosts another wrong-but-pretty white woman at a bus stop. Admittedly, he embraces and owns the fact that he’s annoying, but never that he’s a sexist jerk. The show reminds us he’s “ruining” things for people too often, virtually suggesting that he’s (a very, very white) Morpheus come to give the women and schoolgirls of the world the red pill. Indeed, the CGI and animation set him up as some omniscient, omnipresent being. As much as the show seems to want to be educational, it’s draped with the ickery of talking to a male audience who are presumed to have had the blue pill, and who just need a few more factoids as arsenal in their mission to fix all the pretty little heads of the universe. Maybe future episodes will see him lecture dudes too, but it’s utterly tone deaf for a pilot to be this full of mansplaining, so I’ll just put the show down over here and not come back to it.

Jonathan Gray (University of Wisconsin-Madison) has numerous bios up this page.



The Brain with David Eagleman (PBS, October 14 @ 10/9) trailer here

A six-part study of the brain, how we think, how we feel, and how it all works, hosted by neuroscientist and best-selling author Eagleman.