NBC – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Roundtable on The Carmichael Show http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/09/21/roundtable-on-the-carmichael-show/ Mon, 21 Sep 2015 17:07:43 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=28368 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: NBC http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/09/15/fall-premieres-2015-nbc/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/09/15/fall-premieres-2015-nbc/#comments Tue, 15 Sep 2015 14:43:32 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=28085 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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Branding Hannibal: When Quality TV Viewers and Social Media Fans Converge http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/08/24/branding-hannibal-when-quality-tv-viewers-and-social-media-fans-converge/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/08/24/branding-hannibal-when-quality-tv-viewers-and-social-media-fans-converge/#comments Mon, 24 Aug 2015 13:00:51 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=27934 Hannibal, Allison McCracken and Brian Faucette discuss the show's and network's branding efforts in relation to their appeals to "feminized" audiences. ]]> Post by Allison McCracken (DePaul University) and Brian Faucette (Caldwell Community College)

[Note: This is the first of a three-part series highlighting some of Hannibal‘s unique contributions to the television world, to commemorate its final week on NBC. The images and video in this post contain spoilers. Also macabre humor.]

Hannibal completes its third (and last) season this week, despite its critical acclaim and the devotion of its passionate fanbase (known as “Fannibals”). Critics have praised the program’s reconceptualization of the horror series and its compelling version of the familiar Hannibal character, but Hannibal has left its mark in other ways as well. This short series of posts examines how Hannibal has engaged with questions of gender: in remixing the markers of quality TV, in embracing the potential of its position within the fannish archive, and in privileging a complex teen girl character within its narrative.


A common exclamation for new viewers of Hannibal is “I can’t believe this is on network!” This astonishment reflects the dominant cultural hierarchies of value in which television critics have elevated non-network shows as “quality TV” for discerning viewers over network shows largely assumed to be mindless fodder for the undiscerning masses. As Elana Levine and Michael Z. Newman have argued (and critic Noah Berlatsky recently affirmed), such critical divides of taste and value perpetuate inequalities of class and gender in which quality is associated with middle class, male audiences/”masculine” tastes, and non-quality tv with mass, largely female audiences with “feminine” tastes.

This divide has become even more obvious as white middle-class audiences have largely fled the networks, preferring the suburban pastures of original programming on HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc. In the face of this divide, networks have been even more willing to serve the audiences that remain by developing programming for undervalued viewers such as teens, women, queer people, and people of color, many of whom still watch live TV. In addition, networks have developed more programming from less critically regarded pulp genres (as opposed to “adult dramas”) such as musicals, science fiction, and horror.

NBC’s Hannibal is unusual in its ability to bridge this cultural divide by successfully developing a “class and mass” brand that has provided an innovative, unique model of program and promotion. Hannibal‘s brand appeals to and actively serves both quality TV audiences and an intensely invested fan base, led primarily by young women utilizing social media. The easy co-existence of these seemingly odd bedfellows is particularly remarkable given that the presence of young women is often seen to degrade (“feminize”) the quality bona fides of any media product. Yet just as Hannibal queered its source material, the program’s producers were able to develop a mode of promotional address that combined quality markers with overt acknowledgements of its fandom. Far from “degrading” the text, this integration has resulted in a richer, more experimental, more politically progressive program and a more inclusive viewer experience.

IMAGE2 Hannibal+series+premiere+billboard

In 2011, amidst the backdrop of reboots, rebranding, origin stories, and sequels, Hannibal seemed to be a perfect fit for NBC. The recent popularity of horror on American television—in series like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story—suggested to the network that a reboot of the familiar character of Hannibal Lecter would allow them to tap into this growing viewer demand. At the same time, NBC sought to establish a “quality” brand for the show. For example, the network committed to thirteen episodes rather than a full season, a break with network traditions that replicated the practices of cable’s prestige programs. The network also chose to skip the pilot stage because of the involvement of the French Gaumont studio group, who purchased the rights to the novel—and thus the characters from—Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which would serve as the foundation for the series. The inclusion of Gaumont as a producing partner gave the show an international feel; European high-art aesthetics were evoked throughout the series, which included location filming in Paris and Florence.

Gaumont’s CEO Katie O’Connell then hired Bryan Fuller to write the first script and serve as showrunner. As the creator of several critically acclaimed series including Pushing Daisies (2007-09), Fuller brought with him his own auteur brand. He promised to reimagine the source material by altering key aspects of the original books, including diversifying the cast; focusing on character development and motivation; and establishing a signature lush, beautiful, and sophisticated style for the program that would look and feel expensive. Likewise, NBC promoted these “quality” production aesthetics throughout its publicity for the series.


Still, Hannibal struggled to find an audience on NBC, which, unlike premium outlets, needed the buy-in of at least a portion of its mass audience for the program to succeed. In this regard, the network and the program’s producers encouraged the activities of the Fannibals. Demographic research suggested that a significant portion of the audience was “young, smart, well-read women,” which delighted Fuller, who adored their creative production, their appreciation of the show’s dark humor, and their emotional investment in his development of a romance between Hannibal and Will Graham. The network embraced the community, setting up an official Tumblr account for the series and sponsoring a fan art contest (winners below). The NBC Hannibal Tumblr mods have been widely praised for their understanding of the platform and their supportive, respectful interaction with fans.

Image4 FanArtContestWinners

In addition, Hannibal‘s producers and cast members, led by Fuller (in flower crowns, below), have frequently used Twitter to encourage fan activity, including regularly live-tweeting episodes; re-tweeting fan art and GIFs; and giving fans access to script pages, production details, and set photos. This sense of community between the series producers and its fans generated tangible results in the form of a third season renewal, as network officials and producers have openly acknowledged. This final season has both rewarded Fannibals’ ardor and affirmed quality TV tastes by further shifting the series from its procedural beginnings. Set partially in Europe, this season utilizes an art-house style of filming and focuses on character relationships in even more depth and detail, particularly that between the two leads. By developing program content that appealed to viewers across gender and class lines and by involving and supporting their “feminized,” network audiences, Hannibal constructed both an innovative program text and a series brand that will hopefully inspire television producers working across platforms to explore more ways of blurring cultural hierarchies.



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In Memoriam: Peg Lynch and Her Records of Broadcast History http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/08/03/peg-lynch-and-her-records-of-broadcast-history/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/08/03/peg-lynch-and-her-records-of-broadcast-history/#comments Mon, 03 Aug 2015 14:00:19 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=27741 Ethel and Albert, recently passed away at the age of 98. Her contributions to radio and early television may not be well known, but materially this forgotten show exists. ]]> Peg Lynch

Post by Lauren Bratslavsky, Illinois State University

“You’re early. There’s an episode… houseguest arrives early and I’m unprepared.” Peg Lynch’s voice trailed off as she opened the door to let me in. At the time, she was 94 and still mentally composing episode plots for the long-ago radio and television program she created, Ethel and Albert. It was a show about nothing really: a miswritten phone message, a broken light bulb, a failed dinner party, and so on. I stumbled across her show when I was poking around my university’s special collections. I read some Ethel and Albert scripts and was amused. I researched what I could about the show, but was disappointed at the overall lack of information. I learned from the archivist that Lynch was still alive. I nervously called her up and asked her some questions about what it was like to work in radio and television, especially as a woman. Lynch didn’t think it was that special, or why anyone would care about her experience in the business, but she invited me to her home to meet her. I later learned this was one of her endearing attributes – that is, inviting people to her home and treating them lovingly as long lost relatives.

I was a bit stunned to see Peg Lynch’s obituary more than a week ago in The New York Times. I knew that her health had taken a turn for the worse and that this may have been the 98-year-old woman’s last leg. What surprised me was the fact of the obituary itself, which led to obituaries in Variety, LA Times, and elsewhere. It was not that Lynch didn’t deserve the lengthy write-ups and accolades of her work in radio and television; she was long over due for such recognition. I was amazed that her little-known career was finally gaining notice. For a few years now, I’ve queried radio fans and television historians whether they’ve heard of Ethel and Albert, which gained a nation-wide audience in 1944 to 1950, then a television audience from 1950 to 1956, and back to radio until the 1970s. For some, the characters rang a bell, but very few clearly recognized the show or Peg Lynch.

NBC Ethel and Albert title card 1To be fair, there are many radio and early television programs that are obscure, and indeed unmemorable. What makes Ethel and Albert, and the later radio incarnation, The Couple Next Door, remarkable is that Peg Lynch created the show and wrote every single episode by herself and starred in both the radio and television versions. The only analog to Lynch’s creator-writer-actor career was Gertrude Berg. Berg’s career is well documented in the history books and broadcasting lore, most likely in part due to the notoriety associated with the blacklist as well as awards, as noted in her obituary. Lynch’s work, never touched by controversy or industry awards, became just one of the thousands of entries in program encyclopedias. Without mechanisms such as television syndication or lasting celebrity status, like that of Lucille Ball or Betty White, Lynch fell further into obscurity. Had it not been for an email sent by Astrid King, Lynch’s daughter, the New York Times most likely would not have picked up on the news of her passing. And then, write-ups of Peg Lynch, “a pioneering woman in broadcast entertainment,” would not have circulated as it did.

A page from Peg Lynch's scrapbook, posted to her Facebook page.

A page from Peg Lynch’s scrapbook, posted to her Facebook page.

Why is Peg Lynch’s career significant for radio and television history? While obituaries frame her as a pioneer, I think a more apt description is that she persevered in an industry that was constantly changing and predominately male. As outlined in her obituary and in far greater detail on her website, Peg started in radio as a copywriter in the early 1930s at a local, small-town radio station in Minnesota. When she asked for a raise that reflected her many responsibilities, which included such tasks as writing ad copy and a daily women’s program, she was denied. She quit and continued to work in different radio stations, making her way out of the Midwest and to New York City. All the while, she held on to her creation, Ethel and Albert, a middle-aged married couple who were known for their gentle and realistic bickering. She first pitched Ethel and Albert to NBC in 1944, who made her an offer but wanted 50/50 ownership over the rights of the show. Lynch walked way. Instead, Lynch secured a network deal around the time NBC-Blue turned into the ABC network. Someone at WJZ (NBC-Blue/ABC’s flagship station) got a hold of Lynch, offered her an evening slot and allowed her to retain full ownership. Ethel and Albert was not sponsored by one company, but rather was part of the co-op model of radio sponsorship. In 1946, Ethel and Albert was a short-lived test case for television at WRGB, GE’s experimental studio. Ethel and Albert remained on the radio until 1950, when Lynch was offered a real television opportunity: a ten-minute recurring segment on NBC’s The Kate Smith Hour. First, in 1953, NBC had Lynch turn her popular ten-minute segment into a half-hour network sitcom, sponsored by Sunbeam. Sunbeam dropped the live sitcom in favor of a different genre, the spectacular (as chronicled in Variety). CBS then picked up Ethel and Albert, sponsored by Maxwell House, as a summer replacement for December Bride in 1955 (an awkward promo for the switch over is on YouTube).

Peg-Lynch-PapersDespite decent ratings, CBS did not continue working with Lynch. I suspect this decision had something to do with I Love Lucy and CBS not wanting to have two programs featuring bickering couples, even if Ethel and Albert were far more subdued and realistic than Lucy and Desi. ABC aired Ethel and Alberts final television run, which was sponsored by Ralston Purina (Chex cereal and dog food). The show ended in 1956, at another transition moment when sitcom production moved from New York to Hollywood and from live to film. As Lynch recounted in her oral history (available through the University of Oregon’s Special Collections), there was talk of moving the show to Hollywood, but she preferred to stay on the East Coast. And really, she was tired of the weekly pressures to write new episodes while rehearsing and performing live. After television, she did some commercial work. Oddly enough, Lynch went back to radio, penning a near-copy of her original creation but under the title, The Couple Next Door for CBS Radio. Lynch had a couple more runs on the radio in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically on NBC’s Monitor and then NPR’s Earplay. With the last radio show in 1976, titled The Little Things in Life, Lynch’s long broadcast career ended.


The story of Peg Lynch can serve as a sort of public service announcement to those of us who toil in archives and seek out broadcast history’s margins. Two points in particular come to mind: the materiality of broadcast’s forgotten histories and the active role we play in shaping the use and availability of the material record. First, echoing Laura LaPlaca’s recent Antenna post, if we focus on all that is gone (and resign to the fact of this lack), then we overlook “the broadcast archive’s extraordinarily expansive physicality.” Lynch’s creative output is indeed physically available, even if mentions and critiques of her work are largely absent from our histories. The initial radio and television broadcasts were ephemeral in the sense that they were live broadcasts, moments of popular culture that began and ended in their programmed time slots. But there is a whole swath of materiality that exists in various forms and locations. There are the paper materials that Lynch saved throughout her career: scripts, letters, and a few other paper materials. Lynch’s mother compiled news clippings, photos, and various correspondence into scrapbooks. Decades after the height of her career, Lynch received an invitation to establish an archival collection at the University of Oregon in 1969 (how and why that happened is a whole other story), so all those scripts, scrapbooks, and paperwork are open for research (and soon, there will be more).

Throughout the 1970s and well into the 2000s, the physical meetings and tape-swapping of old time radio fans sustained the memory and the audio record of Ethel and Albert and The Couple Next Door. The fan conventions seem especially crucial in the age before the internet, as in, a time before old time radio websites posted shows and interviews. The conventions, and later on, the fan websites, fostered networks of old and new fans (Lynch loved her fans and her fans loved her). Even more material records exist now that we can search databases of digitized trade publications (like this article in Radio and TV Monitor, written by Lynch about the benefits of marital bickering, that is available on Lantern). References to the production side of Ethel and Albert certainly exist in the vast NBC corporate archives. The audio tapes exist in physical form and circulate digitally on the web. And the live television program? Those exists, too. Nearly every episode was filmed on a kinescope, which Lynch owned and now safely reside at the University of Oregon.

Which brings me to my second point: As radio and television scholars, we participate in recirculating the canon as well as seeking out new examples that corroborate or challenge existing histories. Just the very act of taking an interest in a little-known program or writer can help broaden the scope of broadcast histories or refine particular stories, such as the case of a little-known woman who was among the very few people to create, write, and star in her own show. The Peg Lynch Papers at the University of Oregon had been mostly dormant since they arrived decades ago. The archivists had various priorities in their immediate purview – the limited resources in such an institution necessarily limits which donors to follow up with in their twilight years. Thus, active interest from a faculty member or a researcher can help call greater attention to little-used or little-known collections, especially those collections whose creators are still alive. Those kinescopes of every episode? Up until two years ago, those were under Lynch’s couch and in cabinets in her home. After my first visit to Lynch’s home, I told the archivists about my visit, including the films and the fact that Lynch was still relatively lucid and had stories to tell. I’m sure that those kinescopes, as well as more papers, audio tapes, and ephemera would have made it to Oregon, thus joining the rest of Lynch’s collection. But the oral history? The personal relationships? The chance to participate in a collective nudge to ensure the preservation of a so-called ephemeral broadcast history? That probably would not have happened without some active participation and good old phone calls.


We can celebrate all that has survived, while prodding to discover what else exists. And we can continue to draw from the canon, while interrogating the wealth of materials that exists in the hopes of broadening and refining our histories. So long, Peg.


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Honoring Hilmes: Strange Report http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/05/14/honoring-hilmes-strange-report/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/05/14/honoring-hilmes-strange-report/#comments Thu, 14 May 2015 13:00:42 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=26493 Strange_Report_title_cardPost by Jonathan Bignell, University of Reading

This is the ninth post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

The aspect of Michele Hilmes’ work that has most affected me is her brilliant historical analysis of the related but distinct broadcasting traditions of Britain and the USA in Network Nations (2011). She has documented and evaluated their long-standing links, but also shown how each has defined itself by repudiating the other. The lesson that I have learned from Michele is that when we look closely at the detail of history, there are always more complex and more interesting things to discover. This post is just a brief example of such a discovery. What looks like a British show imitating an American format turns out to be a US production made abroad. Its conventionally transatlantic casting includes a Lithuanian playing an ex-patriate Minnesotan, and alongside the “swinging London” of the mid-1960s we see the decaying Victorian houses of the inner city.

My former colleague Billy Smart kindly gave me Network’s DVD release of the action series Strange Report (1969-70) recently. At first glance, it looks like a rather less successful example of the British action shows that flourished in the 1960s and briefly succeeded across the Atlantic too (as discussed in my 2010 Media History article). British series like The Saint (1962-69), The Avengers (1961-69), and The Champions (1968-69) adopted versions of US industrial organization to make programmes that would be saleable to US networks, by shooting on colour film, on location (British drama was still mainly shot on video in the studio), and with an upbeat “mod” aesthetic.


Strange Report seems initially to conform to the format. Each week a retired British Home Office criminologist, Adam Strange (played by Anthony Quayle), solves sensitive cases in which government departments cannot become publicly involved. Strange is aided by a young US Rhodes scholar, Hamlyn Gynt (Kaz Garas), and Strange’s next-door neighbour, the vivacious model-cum-artist Evelyn (Anneke Wills).

But rather than representing international modernity, Strange Report remains surprisingly bound to its London setting. The series was filmed from July 1968 to March 1969 on location in London and at Pinewood Studios outside the city. To solve cases, the methodical and avuncular Strange uses his personal laboratory at his house in the run-down Paddington district, and his cerebral approach is complemented by Gynt’s physical vigour and Evelyn’s familiarity with London’s trendy bohemian culture. The British Film Institute’s excellent online guide, screenonline, notes that: “Locating the show in a recognisably contemporary London allowed the programme to display a degree of realism and authenticity unusual for its genre.” One episode is an investigation of violent student demonstrations (shortly after the revolutionary events of May 1968 in Paris), while another is about immigration and racism (in 1967 the British Member of Parliament, Enoch Powell, infamously predicted “rivers of blood” after immigration from Britain’s former empire increased). Stylish action-adventure series rarely addressed such concerns. Although the middle-class, middle-aged Strange tamed these issues by the end of each episode, the disparate quasi-family of protagonists seem closely engaged in their milieu.

Two of the featured actors were British: Quayle trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was a member of the respected Old Vic theatre company from 1932. After army service in World War II he was a leading actor and director at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which would later become the Royal Shakespeare Company. He featured in the British war films Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and The Guns of Navarone (1961), as well as the epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Aneke Wills featured in a TV adaptation of British children’s novel The Railway Children in 1957, and in Doctor Who from 1966-67 as companion to Doctors William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. These were iconic English actors in significant British film and television roles. But Kaz Garas who played Strange’s youthful American sidekick was born in Lithuania, not the USA, though he based his career there.

NBC brochureThe most interesting aspect of this transnational programme is that its executive producer was Norman Felton, best known as the creator and producer of US network series Dr. Kildare (1961-66), The Lieutenant (1963-64), and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68). Felton was a transatlantic figure himself; he was born in London, but his family migrated to the US in 1929. His parents returned but Felton stayed in the USA, won a playwriting fellowship to the University of Iowa, and worked in theatre, then radio at NBC. In the 1950s he worked in TV in New York, writing and directing for live anthology dramas like Alcoa Hour (1955-57), Goodyear Playhouse (1955-57), and Studio One (1948-58), and by end of the decade he was executive producer of Playhouse 90 (1956-60). He became MGM’s director of television, and formed the company that made Strange Report, Arena Productions, in 1961.

Felton was in London during production in 1969, and the British ITV network broadcast Strange Report that year. The intention was that production partner NBC would screen it in the USA and that a second, US-set series would be made in which the characters would relocate across the Atlantic. In January 1971, NBC got around to screening Strange Report on Fridays from 10:00 to 11:00 p.m. EST until September, but the second series was never made, apparently because Quayle and Wills did not want to travel. The strange story of Strange Report complicates the history of British drama and its relationships with the American market, offshore co-production involving the US networks, and the innovative collaborations between British and American personnel in the 1960s. And this is just the short version of the story….



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Honoring Hilmes: Across the Borders http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/05/08/honoring-hilmes-across-the-borders/ Fri, 08 May 2015 13:00:22 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=26383 Hilmes3 copyThis is the fourth post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

Post by Jason Jacobs, University of Queensland

The impact of Michele Hilmes’ scholarship on me is best told by tracking its contribution to my early formation as an academic. In 1990 I was fishing around for a PhD topic; I’d spent the final year of my film degree at the University of Warwick under the charismatic mentorship of Charlotte Brunsdon, who had introduced a compelling television studies strand into the capstone Film Aesthetics course and, as a result, I found myself writing and thinking a lot about television. It was that period of British television when the last great dramas were still in recent memory: particularly that golden year, 1986, when the BBC transmitted The Singing Detective, The Life and Loves of a She Devil and The Monocled Mutineer; also the year, in fact, when public service broadcasting effectively ended as a practice in the UK. That, in turn, stimulated my curiosity about the history of television drama: Where did these great things come from? What traditions do they inhabit and respond to? With these questions in mind it made sense for me (plus I hail from the region) to enroll at the University of East Anglia under the supervision of Charles Barr, who had recently published a piece in Sight and Sound which had contrasted the achievement of Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema with the dearth of work on television history. There really was very little written in the UK about the history of television that wasn’t anecdotal or mostly concerned with institutional history (such as Asa Briggs’ History of Broadcasting in the UK, rather like – but not quite – Barnouw’s three volume history of US broadcasting). Nothing, certainly, to compare to the work in Thomas Elsaesser’s magnificent collection Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, which was launched by him shortly after I arrived in Norwich.

hollywoodbroadcastingOf course, as the famous parable by Richard Hamilton instructs us, what I assumed were issues unique to my intellectual tastes and dispositions, turned out to be part of a much wider cultural momentum. There was work being written on television history, and the best of it was coming from the US: indeed most of my reading in my first year of PhD came from US based scholars, in particular William Boddy, William Urrichio and, of course, Michele Hilmes’ Hollywood and Broadcasting. This was precisely the rich, theoretically-inflected revisionist history I craved and, for a long while, my thesis had a strong US component. I even lived in Manhattan for several weeks in order to view as much early material as I could at the (then) Museum of Television and Radio. The advantages of scarce primary material! I didn’t meet Michele until a few years later in Madison and it really wasn’t until the early 2000s that we began to meet and talk fairly regularly. By then television history had considerable momentum, but it remained nationalized. Which is to say there was still that Briggs-Barnouw division: US history on one side, the rest on the other. When we were working on The Television History Book together there wasn’t a moment when we doubted the wisdom of bringing national television histories together – that underpinned, in a very small space, our shared belief in the intellectual fascination of flows of talent, technology, training and ideas between broadcasting nations. It is an indication as much of Michele’s commitment to this as it is to my weakness, that without her example I may have let it drop – so strong had the cultural-nationalist inflected British television history become.

There’s still a bit of that around, but it looks and sounds odd. A couple of years ago Michele was the keynote at a conference in the University of Reading, UK, and although her paper was typically stunning in its ambition and delivery, during questions I noticed some senior British academics carried the whiff of indignation at the effrontery of a Yank speaking so well about aspects of ‘their’ television and its connections and absorption in the US. Afterwards, as I drove Michele and her husband Bruce back to my hotel for a nice cup of tea, we reflected on the odd shortsightedness of such a response. One thing about Michele and her work (and as the title of one of her books puts it!) that is so distinctive and unusual is that she is all about making connections across the lines, and not about policing borders or holding territory.

I don’t have a copy to hand, but in his wonderful book, True Friendship, Christopher Ricks talks about Eliot and Pound’s friendship as incorporating competition, yes, necessarily – but never ruthless competition. Over the past few years I saw a lot of Michele as our projects converged, both interested in transnational relations between British and American broadcasting. Sometimes we’d run into each other at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham Park, or when I was up to my neck in the NBC archives in Madison. Once, over margaritas in her lakeside home, we both expressed a desire the other would publish first – it would be so helpful! I’m glad to say Michele’s Network Nations was first. Here’s an image that shows how helpful it has been, and continues to be for me. Each yellow leaf a reminder to return to her again.



Why NBC’s The Wiz Makes Sense Even As It Doesn’t Make Sense http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/04/10/why-nbcs-the-wiz-makes-sense-even-as-it-doesnt-make-sense/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/04/10/why-nbcs-the-wiz-makes-sense-even-as-it-doesnt-make-sense/#comments Fri, 10 Apr 2015 12:05:38 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=26054 The Wiz over The Music Man as its next televised musical in this particular historical moment?]]> The Wiz Promotional PosterOn March 30, 2015, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of people making sure that I knew The Wiz had been selected as the NBC’s next live musical following The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. Initially, The Wiz seems an odd choice. While the Broadway adaptation was a modest hit when it opened on Broadway in 1975 (initially propped up by seed money from 20th Century Fox, who had pre-purchased the film rights), it is not heralded as one of the great musicals of the 20th century, although it won seven 1975 Tony Awards. The film adaptation, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, is historically and industrially maligned. Many scholars, including Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, Ed Guerrero and Christopher Sieving briefly mention The Wiz in their books and articles, but only within a conversation about the film’s box office failure (with respect to its budget) and the suggestion that The Wiz’s financial failure contributed directly to Hollywood’s refusal to greenlight black-cast films thereafter. So, why would NBC turn to The Wiz over The Music Man as its next televised musical? I suggest that there are three broad reasons that The Wiz makes sense in this particular historical moment.

The Wiz Musical SoundtrackFirst, as it did in the 1990s (and will likely do again in the 2030s), television has “discovered” that black people watch television and that white people will watch some television when there are black and brown bodies on the screen. Call it the Scandal/Empire effect. With the television industry scrambling to blacken/brown their landscapes for the 2015-2016 season, The Wiz largely follows this trend to help diversify NBC’s screen – a network that lags behind ABC and Fox with respect to the representation of black and brown actors in leading roles. This also marks a departure from NBC’s previous broadcasts The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, which featured largely white casts. Audra McDonald was the only major black/brown actor in The Sound of Music – and even she received criticism in some circles for being cast despite her credentials as a then-five-time Tony Award Winner. In this (re)turn to blackness, The Wiz at turns lets NBC have it both ways: it can broadcast a musical that will feature a predominantly black cast, thus jumping on the “diversity” bandwagon, while at the same time, The Wiz is one of the few Broadway texts (or at least soundtracks) that multicultural audiences embrace, without the lure of “stars” to make it attractive. The potential for a cross-section of multicultural viewers likely proved far too attractive for NBC to resist. Which brings me to my second point…

The Wiz BroadwayThe Wiz, like NBC’s previous live musicals, is family-friendly fare. It continues to be a go-to musical for elementary and middle/junior high schools across the country (even ill-advised all-white schools have been known to tackle productions of The Wiz). I was in two productions while in junior high school (shout out to Mrs. Rowe and Mr. Nelson!). In this way, NBC is likely banking on a segment of the audience who can draw on the nostalgia of performing (or preparing to perform) The Wiz. In addition, unlike Empire, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, The Wiz does not delve into “adult content” that might make it touch and go for parents wanting to watch the broadcast with their children. Much like NBC’s The Voice, The Wiz presents the potential to be a cross-racial, cross-generational television-watching experience.

This version of The Wiz also has to serve two gods. First, it has to serve the ratings machine, as any television show does. But, second, and more importantly, it has to serve the more fickle Broadway god. In this way, in an attempt to make The Wiz relevant, the production team will attempt to use the success of the recent Broadway revival of Pippin as its template. Pippin, like The Wiz, is a period piece. Pippin got around that “problem” by turning the production into a Cirque de Soleil-style event. The score remains fundamentally 1970s, as does The Wiz‘s score, but this novelty worked for Pippin (it ran for almost two years, won four Tony Awards and recouped its $8.5 million investment in eight months). Presumably, the conflation of an industrial interest in black viewers/audiences and the circus theme is expected to deliver on both fronts for NBC and Broadway producers.

The Wiz HeadlinesHowever, the reasons The Wiz looks good on paper also could present problems for NBC. Importantly, the Broadway and film adaptations of The Wiz are often conflated. Many/most of the stories I read on NBC’s version of The Wiz talked about the 1975 Broadway adaptation, but used imagery from the 1978 film version. While that may seem like a nit pick on its face, the two versions are different. The Broadway iteration maintains much of what we know from the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland – Dorothy is still a little girl from Kansas – while it updates the language to hew closer to 1970s black cultural dialect. But most importantly in its Broadway iteration, The Wiz used a completely new score, which gave us the beloved “Ease on Down the Road.” The film adaptation “ages” Dorothy to a 24-year old kindergarten school teacher (likely because of casting Diana Ross as Dorothy) and moves her to Harlem in an attempt to make it something that “might pass for a ghetto fairy tale” as The New York Times’ Vincent Canby suggested. But the film version also plays with the score a bit, adding the Scarecrow song “You Can’t Win,” which replaces “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.” In addition, because the DVD (and television syndication) functions as what Paul Grainge calls “markets of memory” (10-11), the preserved and re-circulated version of The Wiz will likely be vastly different than what NBC presents. Aside from the ways that the Broadway version (which NBC is presumably presenting) and film version are fundamentally different, this version of The Wiz will add “new material” provided by Harvey Weinstein. In this way, making this new version of The Wiz is akin to a person who has had one too many facelifts – there’s something familiar, but also fundamentally different.

Of course, the jury is still out with respect to how this new The Wiz will perform, but I predict that it will deliver the ratings NBC needs to continue its engagement with live, televised Broadway musicals (particularly because hate-watchers are gonna hate). But as the industrial infatuation with black viewers undoubtedly wanes, don’t hold your breath for NBC’s next musical to be Sophisticated Ladies, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Dreamgirls or any other black-cast musical. NBC selecting The Wiz as its next musical, I suggest, is not about its blackness per se, but about what televisual blackness means at this socio-historical moment.


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The Conflicted Populism of Parks and Recreation http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/03/05/the-conflicted-populism-of-parks-and-recreation/ Thu, 05 Mar 2015 15:00:11 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=25508 ParksandRec-AdamScott-ChrisHaston-NBC-751x500In the Parks and Recreation episode “Pie-Mary” (Season 7, Episode 9; original airdate: February 10th), Jennifer Barkley, Ben’s campaign adviser, tells Leslie and Ben that it is impossible to underestimate voters because they are, basically, idiots.  Judging from the last seven seasons of this series, one could be forgiven for thinking that voters, especially those in small-town America, are indeed the embodiment of mob mentality idiocy, prone to crude and often barely-disguised rhetoric and propaganda from the powers that be.

Part of this, of course, has to do with the series’ diegetic location. As Staci Stutsman has suggestedParks and Rec participates in a long-standing television tradition (also seen in other media) of painting the Midwest as a land of backwards, obese, parochial nitwits.  At the same time, however, I would also suggest that it has to do with the series’ fundamental political project.  While Parks and Rec has, rightly, been lauded for its fundamentally liberal/progressive point of view and generally optimistic perspective on politics, this has always been tinted with a bit of (perhaps psuedo)-intellectual snobbery, which invites viewers to engage in the contradictory feelings of somewhat patronizing affection for the “ordinary people” of Pawnee, as well as a related feeling of head-shaking frustration at their unwillingness/inability to think critically for themselves or to be grateful to their eternally-beleaguered public servants.

One of the series’ running gags typically involves one or more of the townspeople leading the others into a rousing chant of whatever inane suggestion has been put on the table.  This has included, among many truly absurd suggestions, changing the town’s motto to focus on a man’s goldfish (Crackers, the orangest goldfish in Indiana).  The town meetings are almost inevitably full of unbridled chaos, a populist nightmare in which reason, sanity, and all of the traditional elements of good government and reasoned argument are quickly (and, it must be admitted, humorously) abandoned, leaving Leslie and her fellows shaking their heads in resigned despair.  In an interesting twist, in the final season the townspeople finally join with Leslie in her desire to call Gryzzl out for its invasion of the town’s privacy, a show of solidarity and support as shocking to Leslie as it is to us in the audience.

GryzzlNor are these good citizens susceptible only to their own chaotic desires, for the people of Pawnee are notoriously prone to the two forces that, in the populist frame of mind, almost always work against the people: big business and big media. From the successful attempt to recall Leslie (orchestrated by the business interests that she relentlessly curtailed) to the rantings of such media personalities as Joan and Purd and the increasing ubiquity of tech giant Gryzzl, fast food chain Paunch Burger, and chronic polluter and exploitative candy company Sweetums, Pawnee is a microcosm of American politics and culture writ large. While the series makes it quite clear that the corporations and media personalities bear the brunt of the blame, it also does not shy away from pointing out that the citizens of Pawnee share a measure of responsibility in their own manipulation.  The notoriously fickle and pseudo-libertarian people of the town seem to revel in their own state of exploitation; they might be exploited, but damn it, it’s because they want to be. And no government do-gooder is going to take away their right to fast food and sugary candy.

And yet, Parks and Rec is not always so condemnatory of its small-town voters. As Ben put it so memorably way back in the third season, the people of Pawnee may be weirdos, but they’re weirdos who care. Given that this series consistently validates and valorizes Leslie for precisely the type of caring that seems to be a prominent feature of so many Pawnee residents—right down to the woman who wants the slugs removed from in front of her house without killing them—this compliment crystallizes the series’ attitude toward the average American voter.  It is, in some ways, an optimistic point of view, suggesting that, given the right type of encouragement and service from their government servants and intellectual betters, the American electorate, fundamentally good-willed at heart, can be guided and encouraged to doing the right thing for everyone.

Right up until the end, Parks and Rec seems quite undecided how it wants us, its presumably educated viewers, to view the American electorate.  Do we see them as wacky yet lovable weirdos all too easily led astray by the malevolent and self-serving forces of the media and big corporations?  Even a seemingly innocuous and fun episode such as “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show,” which showcases all of the things the series utilizes to show that there is still some good in the world—Andy’s ludic energy, April’s endearingly bizarre morbidity, Leslie’s ruthless good cheer—also features ads from Paunch Burger (encouraging people to indulge in their food or else risk being labeled a “nerd”).  And, even in an otherwise optimistic and upbeat finale, we still see a citizen of Pawnee express profound ingratitude toward Leslie and company, even after they went out of their way to fix a swingset at his request.

Yet even these signs of disquiet cannot entirely dampen the triumphant spirit that Parks and Rec leaves us with, as we celebrate with Leslie the unquenchable hope for a better and more just future, and the hope that we can all do our part to make it come to pass.


The More You Know About Cross-Promotion http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/02/04/the-more-you-know-about-cross-promotion/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/02/04/the-more-you-know-about-cross-promotion/#comments Wed, 04 Feb 2015 15:00:11 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=25384 I have a confession to make: I did not watch the Super Bowl.  But that didn’t keep me from knowing exactly what happened: the crazy last few minutes of the game, the best and worst of the commercials, and (of course) Katy Perry’s halftime show.

Imagine my delight when a friend & colleague posted a note to my Facebook wall alerting me to the fact that Katy Perry had appeared under what looked to be a replica of the classic “The More You Know” star, made famous in the NBC PSAs of our youth.

Below is an example, a 1990 Will Smith PSA on the benefits of staying in school.

And here is Katy Perry performing “Firework” during Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show:

And, because the internet is awesome, here’s a side-by-side comparison…

TMYK Comparison 

…and a mash-up:

 TMYK Mash-Up

As a scholar of media conglomerates and the logics that govern their operations, I have found the entire event immensely fun.  The question I got peppered with (well, if you count three friends’ comments as “peppering”) had to do with whether or not I thought Perry’s production was an example of planned cross-promotion, as the Super Bowl aired on NBC this year.

NBC TwitterThe short answer is that I don’t know.  I do know NBC was very quick to take advantage of the situation, tweeting out the “More You Know” logo at 7:23pm Eastern–a tweet that has been retweeted over 4000 times, typically with comments like “Nicely played, NBC!”  That tweet alone helped people make the connection between Perry’s performance, the PSA series, and NBC. Although many people of a certain age are likely to remember the PSAs, it’s quite likely that they would not remember them to be an NBC product.  NBC’s quick thinking (or advance knowledge and planning, perhaps) aided in closing the loop to take full advantage of the cross-promotional opportunity.

The long answer is that I don’t care, and you shouldn’t either—because NBC definitely doesn’t.  I’ve been grinning about this all week, because it beautifully illustrates something crucial to understanding the nature of cross-promotion: it doesn’t matter if it’s pre-planned or not, and it works better when it doesn’t appear to be arranged.

Like all forms of product integration, where advertisements are embedded within content, cross-promotion works by appearing “natural” and “organic” to that content.  When Jimmy Fallon has stars of NBC TV series on The Tonight Show, it’s an instance of cross-promotion, but it wouldn’t necessarily strike anyone as odd because Jimmy Fallon has lots of stars on The Tonight Show.  The star’s appearance on Fallon offers a potential double win for NBC; the star may draw fans to The Tonight Show, and the appearance might draw Fallon fans to the star’s series.  And that, of course, is the logic behind cross-promotion.  The risk NBC takes in engineering these opportunities is that if the audience feels duped, or like the network is trying to trick them, they might be turned off—but that sort of reaction is highly unlikely if the cross-promotion is thoughtfully conducted and unobtrusive.

And therein lies the beauty of Katy Perry’s ride on the “The More You Know” star at Super Bowl XLIX: it appeared to just happen with no forethought.  That sense of happenstance was a huge win for NBC, as audiences got to feel smart by noticing it, tweeting about it, commenting on Facebook, or saying something to their friends at the Super Bowl party.  That reward coupled with an accompanying nostalgia for an era when NBC was enjoying the height of their must-see-TV glory days imbues the entire incident with a rosy glow for audiences and, in turn, for the network.  Just as the appearance of an NBC star on Fallon offers a potential double win for NBC, so does a situation like this.

If it was pre-planned, it was an absolutely genius move made even better by no one from Perry’s camp or NBC stepping forward to claim credit for thinking of it.  If it wasn’t pre-planned, NBC got really lucky with Perry generating nostalgia for a PSA campaign that they could link to their network.  And whoever was manning the Twitter account on Sunday deserves a bonus.

I can hear the higher-ups at NBC now, gleefully counting up the many folks who ventured to YouTube to look up videos of 1990s PSAs, only to be flooded with warmth and affection for the bygone days of the network.  “Oh man…remember when NBC had Friends?  And ER?  And Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?”  NBC remembers, and they’re glad that now you do too.  And it’s all because Katy Perry rode a star around a football stadium on national TV.


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Fall Premieres 2014: NBC http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/09/19/fall-premieres-2014-nbc/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/09/19/fall-premieres-2014-nbc/#comments Fri, 19 Sep 2014 15:38:31 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=24446 AntennaFallNBCThe once-venerable, then-vulnerable NBC has become venerable again, at least by 2014’s standards: they come into the year at number one, and have a stable of returning shows that make it plausible they’ll stay there. The big questions for NBC are whether they will continue their shift in priorities: already abandoning half their Thursday comedy block, the occupants of the single hour—Bad Judge and A to Z—look vulnerable, with focus shifting to The Voice and the comedies and dramas that work to capitalize on its broad audience. It’s a strategy that will work in the short term, but it’s also a strategy that depends on The Voice’s stability, something that feels more uncertain than NBC would like to admit.



THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA [Premiered Sept 17, 2014]

Debra Messing stars in an hour-long comedy procedural about a mother of twin six-year old hellions who just also happens to be a great detective—the mystery is how she keeps it all together. Alternate title, per NPR’s Linda Holmes: MomCop, CopMom.


Melissa Click, University of Missouri

Mysteries of Laura aired on the heels of the America’s Got Talent series finale in a special timeslot to help draw attention to the new series, which will regularly air beginning September 24th at 8pmET/7pmCT. The dramedy, based upon the Spanish series of the same name, successfully drew in 10.2 million viewers, but I’m guessing most viewers won’t return for another episode. The series features Debra Messing (Will & Grace, The Starter Wife, Smash) as Laura, a talented NYPD homicide detective with an out-of-control home life.

Messing is a talented comedienne, but she’s not enough to make the show watchable—the show’s jokes come and go too quickly to encourage laughter (plus, they’re not funny), and the pilot didn’t focus sufficiently on the homicide to generate much mystery. Laura’s complicated life is so messy it stressed me out. Her estranged husband Jake (Josh Lewis) is a cheater and a horrible father, Laura’s twins are so out of control they are kicked out of preschool (and URINATE on each other), and any space surrounding Laura (her desk, her car, her home) is trashy and cluttered. Yet somehow Laura manages to get the bad guys AND solve the crimes. The only true mystery surrounding Laura is the number episodes that NBC will air before the series is cancelled.


Kelly Kessler, DePaul University

My decades long disdain for Debra Messing made me incredulous from the get-go, but I’m generally sold on a fine balance of gunplay and family melodrama. Add the twin angle and I was willing to take a leap of faith. That said, Laura falters on most fronts. The show wants to join the ranks of Cagney and Lacey, Rizzoli and Isles, and The Closer, all of which embraced cop drama, quirky characters, messy love lives, prying families, and a little bit of sexism.  Although Laura goes through the paces, its hackneyed dialogue, awkward acting, and weak titular character land like a ton of bricks. The tone is set somewhat lighter than the aforementioned lady cop shows, but the humor falls flat and renders Laura naught but a hot mess (e.g. out-of-control mother, wishy-washy near divorcee, hostile co-worker). With trite lines like “solved another case Colombo,” “you’re a middle aged police woman just like on TV,” and “just a mother with a shiny badge, a loaded gun, and very little patience” it’s hard to make it through the show without wincing.  Instead of reveling in a nice balance of humor, drama, and pathos, I was just embarrassed for everyone involved.  Even a good actor like Enrico Colantoni (Just Shoot Me, Veronica Mars) seemed awkward and wooden, as if he knew something had gone awry.  At the end of the day (or episode) Laura just doesn’t have the pizazz of a Brenda Lee Johnson and not even her seemingly feral twins can save the show.  I suppose it’s possible that the series can work itself into something watchable, but the premiere episode hasn’t found that yet.


Nora Patterson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Mystery #1: Why does NBC think Debra Messing should play a homicide detective? Mystery #2: Can’t successful women on TV ever seem to balance work and life? Mystery #3: Is there something Liz Lemonish about Laura? Messing wears dishelved clothes, eats anything she finds, and is constantly sparring with estranged husband Jake, as he undermines her authority and kisses her in rapey ways. She just told you she wants a divorce  –  why are you kissing her? Mystery #4: What idiot thought any of these jokes are funny? There was one nice moment where Laura is rushing to get her family ready for a preschool interview, because apparently those happen at home on a weeknight. Messing is in Spanx as she gets her children ready, and this moment captures an absurd and humanizing portrayal of single motherhood so absent from television. However, the charm is smashed as Laura literally makes her kids drink cough syrup so they will be quiet. This show is horrible. The pilot uses gay and racial stereotypes like they are going out of style. The plot is contrived, and the pacing seems uneven. And while Debra Messing’s amazing comic talents shine through, they are wasted on this uneven dramedy. It is no mystery that this show will be cancelled shortly.



BAD JUDGE [Premiered Oct 2, 2014]

Kate Walsh stars as a party-loving judge who lives the contradiction of being bad at living a healthy life but great at punishing those who break the law—I would tell you more, but it’s on its third showrunner, so other than this your guess is as good as anyone’s.


Phil Scepanski, Vassar College

A judge who should be officious is actually a libertine. This premise, while not groundbreaking, offers the framework for a potentially funny comedy. In fact, Bad Judge has a lot going for it. Star Kate Walsh has proven capable of playing comically world-weary characters well. Adam McKay (Anchorman, Stepbrothers) co-created and co-executive produces with Will Ferrell among others. Gary Sanchez Productions’ track record includes Eastbound and Down and Drunk History. The courtroom setting provides ample space for Ferrell and McKay to exploit the stable of Funny or Die talent as guest appearances.

Unfortunately, these elements did not translate to a strong first episode. Ostensibly the result of a tortured production history, it crams a lot of plotlines into the first episode. A grain of salt is appropriate here though, as this is fairly common to pilots and this one in particular is the result of mashing together multiple independent episodes. On the positive side, the central of Bad Judge‘s many plots proved at least moderately engaging. After having sent both his parents to prison, the judge acts as an offbeat but effective protector and mentor to a young boy. So the judge, who should be uncaring has a heart. That’s a workable angle. Plus, Chris Parnell and Horatio Sans turned in fairly strong guest performances.

The show suffers most in the sections trying to play up the “bad” angle of the show’s title. Alcoholism, casual sex, a sweet van, and a love for outdated music unconvincingly signify coolness. These aspects of the character’s life should be the source for Bad Judge‘s humor, but largely fall flat. A gag in which Walsh’s character says something embarrassing and attempts to cover it by claiming “This is Your Hickey” is a song seemed especially hackneyed to me.

Moving forward, Bad Judge might get its act together when the backstage issues settle down. I’ll give it some more chances. If you want to take the risk of joining me, just skip the pilot.


Matt Sienkiewicz, Boston College

I think I remember reading something about Man Ray watching ho-hum Hollywood films with his hands in front of his face, shifting his fingers to convert Technicolor melodramas into kaleidoscopes.

This wouldn’t work very well with Bad Judge, unless you’re into flat lighting and municipal colors.

I did, however, find the key to enjoying this pilot in a gentle twisting of the otherwise uninspiring text.

If you don’t do something, this a clunky, character-driven one-cam about a quirky justice based loosely on the judge in George’s Jerry pilot who sentences the guy to be Seinfeld’s butler.  Also, if you let the show come to you, you have to deal with the bad judge’s patronizing, supposedly endearing and very Blind Side-y relationship with a precocious African-American kid whose parents she has convicted on something or other and feels bad for.

Ah, but what if the kid isn’t real?  Watch closely.  Doesn’t he just seems to appear out of nowhere in half the scenes?  Who talks like that?  Everyone else in the show keeps telling the supposedly bad judge to ignore phone calls that, from her perspective, pertain to the welfare of a child in need.  Doesn’t add up does it?  If he’s not real it does.  Give it a shot.

So, if you insist on keeping your mental hands in your mental pockets, then Seinfeld’s always on somewhere, go for that.  But if you’re intrigued by my probably apocryphal, certainly pretentious Man Ray metaphor then well, I had a good time.



A To Z [Premiered Oct 2, 2014]

Ben Feldman and Cristin Miloti play a couple who unexpectedly stumble into a relationship that might well be the product of fate, which the series’ frame narrative reveals may be more complicated than its alphabetical title would suggest.


Karen Petruska, University of California – Santa Barbara

I went into this program blind, not even knowing that Ginsberg from Mad Men is the male protagonist (fun surprise). But within the first thirty seconds of the show’s introductory voiceover (by Katey Sagal) that told us the program will relate the comprehensive eight-month long relationship of Andrew and Zelda, from A to Z, I worried I would hate this show. Sagal speaks in a clear cadence, relating a fairy-tale esque story of falling in love, with a bouncy, happy tune producing a sense of (annoying) whimsy.

Both leads are charming, and their push and pull between romanticism (Andrew) and cynicism (Zelda) provides needed tension. And yet…the show lacks edge. Whimsy, it seems, only works when paired with something dark (a la Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies). There are hints of edge, as Andrew works at a dating site that now intentionally plots to keep its members from falling in love to maintain the site’s subscriber base, but the hints are not enough to balance the cliches.

Starring the actress who portrayed the long-rumored, much-desired, eventually-beloved, cruelly-killed Mother from How I Met Your Mother, it seems odd to me that A to Z, too, would begin with a gimmick as its hook. Because it seems this is a rom-com about a couple who DOES NOT make it to the altar. Portraying a “comprehensive” relationship of only eight months creates a show with a clock: when the clock runs out, the show—and the relationship—will be over. Why build a sitcom with a clock, unless you plan to violate the clock at some point? But even here, the program is vague—do they break up? A clearer answer might provide not only balance but also build trust in a fan base already burned in the past.


Jennifer Smith, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Though I was tempted to make the “A to Twee” pun that I’m sure others have already gotten to, cutesy affectations aren’t the problem with A to Z.  The hipster and Manic Pixie Dream Girl elements aren’t my favorite stylistic choices, and they betray the show’s desperate desire to be 500 Days of Summer: The TV Show, but they aren’t inherently offensive.  I can just shrug, admit the style isn’t for me, and let others enjoy it.

What I find harder to ignore is the inherent creepiness of the central relationship as introduced.  Playing on time-worn “stalking is totally adorable” tropes that I’ve railed against elsewhere, the pilot presents Andrew as utterly disrespectful of Zelda’s boundaries, making insistent claims about their destined love based on fantasies he built around her before they ever spoke, then scouring the internet for photos of her to “prove” his correctness when she initially turns him down.  Though I’m sure the showrunners don’t want us to directly link Andrew with Ben Feldman’s character on Mad Men, it honestly isn’t hard to imagine him giving Zelda his mutilated nipple in a box by the end of this series.  “Run away!” I yelled at my screen, but of course Zelda didn’t; by the end of the episode, she was the one apologizing for doubting Andrew’s ravings, and I was the one banging my head into a wall.

This is a shame, because as a comedy, the pilot works quite well.  I laughed out loud several times, and a number of extended jokes (the Baaeder-Meinhof Phenomenon, Lea Thompson’s cameo) stood out to me as being especially clever, well-delivered, and well-timed.  But the romance part of this pilot is so distasteful that it fails as a romantic comedy, and I won’t be tuning in again.



MARRY ME [Premiered Oct 14, 2014]

Happy Endings creator David Caspe returns with another irreverent comedy, this one focused on a couple (Casey Wilson, Ken Marino) whose delayed engagement creates tension between them and their friends and family following a proposal mishap.


Nicholas Benson, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Annie (Casey Wilson) and Jake (Ken Marino) have been together for five years. When Jake finally decides to pop the big question, Annie has a major life crisis ruining the big moment. The show proceeds from there in an I Love Lucy inspired debacle- fest, as all of Annie’s attempts to fix the problem bring us deeper down a rabbit hole of awkwardness and mild hilarity. Wilson and Marino have great chemistry and when they’re together the show is on its strongest footing.

Ultimately, Marry Me is entertaining, well written, legitimately funny, and, as if all that weren’t enough, stars Tim Meadows as one half of a biracial gay couple (would we call that efficiently diverse?).

What I like about this show is not what it is now, but what it has the potential to be. It opens a space in prime time broadcast comedy to complicate the usual relationships we see on television. Instead of the early “will they or won’t they” stage or “the married for 20 years with kids” stage, this is something that could explore the middle stage where there are shades of grey, and room for more nuanced stories to be told.

Is Marry Me Woody Allen material? Not at all, but it’s as close as broadcast TV is getting right now.


Karen Petruska, University of California – Santa Barbara

Marry Me may end up being a fine show about two people who know each other very well, who accept each other’s flaws, and who struggle with the usual obstacles on their path to the altar. But the pilot is not good. Or perhaps, the pilot is not good if you are a female audience member looking for a show that refuses to traffic in the worst clichés about women.

Cause get this—our heroine is so desperate for a marriage proposal that she ruins the moment where he’s finally ready, when (the show suggests) she should have continued to wait patiently, trusting that he knew the right moment. All I could think about was why TV couples never discuss marriage? Why do they have zero context for the timeline of the other person? What is the illness in our culture that a marriage proposal can only be romantic if it is a surprise? Doesn’t that expectation automatically preclude valuable pre-engagement discussions of hopes, dreams, values, fears, and desires?

Clearly, I was watching the wrong show.

In a flashback scene, we witness our heroine accidentally implying that she loves her boyfriend, and then immediately becoming nervous that he has not yet said it first. And her awkwardness in that moment is what I am supposed to laugh at.

If this show were a bit wiser, these moments might be somewhat satirical, exposing odd inequalities that form foundational concepts for what = romance. Despite being a comedy, though, her anxieties are played straight, with her neuroses meant to be endearing. Marry Me is a sorry state on how TV executives view love and women in general.  Considering it is written by the lead actress’ husband, I’m genuinely perplexed and plenty bummed that this show hasn’t offered more of value besides tired clichés and cheap jokes.


Jennifer Smith, University of Wisconsin – Madison

As someone who holds a lot of good will toward Ken Marino, who really deserves a steady TV paycheck to complement his talent, I had high hopes for Marry Me.  Ultimately, though, this pilot is just all right.  Its humor, particularly the opening sequence, relies heavily on audience dread of a character’s imminent humiliation, so those who, like me, have to watch scenes like that in cringe-mode while peeking through their fingers, should be forewarned.  The jokes themselves are hit-or-miss, and sometimes oddly-delivered; female lead Casey Wilson has obvious talent and strong comedic timing, but she tends to substitute sheer volume for emotional expression.  Luckily, the show makes up for middling humor with believable chemistry between the leads and a romantic plot that successfully walks the tightrope between sentimentality and believability.  I found myself rooting for this couple, which is more than I could say for the couple on NBC’s other new rom-com, A to Z.  And though this is, at its core, yet another show about a straight white couple, I appreciated that family and friendship were presented as just as valuable to the protagonists as romantic love, and that Wilson’s dad was raised by an interracial gay couple (even if the joke about which one is her bio-dad is even older than the first time I personally heard it, on Glee).  Nothing stands out as particularly spectacular or particularly awful in this thoroughly mediocre pilot, but considering the poor quality of most sitcom pilots, that may be high praise.  At the very least, I’m willing to stick around for a few more episodes to see if it improves.


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