It’s Time to Complain About Getting Things Re-Started

So! There’s a new show featuring muppets on the air, and some people very vocally don’t like it! That’s probably not, in and of itself, a very big deal: lots of people vocally don’t like lots of things. But I’m going to spend a few words here Being Annoyed at this particular complaint1, given that it is yet another example of Things Are Different, and Different is Bad, or, at its worst, My Nostalgia is Not Being Properly Served.

1 start here or here, and the negative comments here (although that’s not a negative review as such)

Some groundwork: the new Muppets’ show was relentlessly advertised as “Adult”, and in advance of the show, puppet ubercouple Kermit and Miss Piggy broke up2. The new show takes place in the fallout of that event, with Kermit the Liz Lemon of a talk show hosted by Miss Piggy, forced to continue to work with her. Mercifully3, the “adult”-ness is present in a couple of ways. The adult-ness mainly comes from further real-ish-ing4 the characters – there are a couple of jokes about various addictions in the first episode (Animal’s is funnier than Zoot’s, they both get a lot of complaints, I like them both). The insecurities that drive the characters are brought to the forefront: The Muppets didn’t invent Kermit’s frustration, it made it more of a state than grounding it in gags. Ditto Fozzie’s frustration. Ditto Miss Piggy’s fragile ego.

2 the first episode shows us that this actually happened outside a screening of Pitch Perfect 2, which is probably a perfect movie to break up to because ugh.
3 Now is as good a time as any to just say, flat-out: I liked the first episode. I liked the ideas, I liked the jokes. I agree that it was not  as good as Jim Henson in his prime, but jesus fuck, nothing is Jim Henson in his prime, and I’m happy about the attempt regardless.  
4 oh, you know what I mean

This is, functionally, a reversal of the old Muppet Show: there the characters were clearly getting in the way of the show, but the show was the thing,, so the show happened, even when it happened badly: at least half of the sketches in each episode of TMS are actually sketches that, in the world of the show, aren’t working. This is a look at those characters from the other side of the show – constantly near-failure because of their own issues, but veterans at this point5, so the show generally works (which we know because we see lots of excited fan interaction).

5 I will say, one of the things that makes every iteration of The Muppets easier to keep separate is that basically non of it is canonical: this isn’t in continuity with any of the movies, any of the previous tv shows, or any other aspect of the Muppets property that I’m aware of.

Accusations, then, tend to be that the Muppets “shouldn’t” be more character-focused. Kermit “shouldn’t” be mean, Fozzie “shouldn’t” be insecure to the point of pathology6, etc. etc. The Muppet Show was always meta-entertainment: it was a failing variety show of the type that, in the mid-seventies when it ran, was hopelessly outdated. In 1974, this was a puppet show (a form that had very little place on tv) about the kind of tv show that the audience’s parents had watched (or that the older viewers watched when they were younger viewers). The incongruity is what made a lot of it work, and the old-fashionedness necessitated that it construct jokes that held up over time: Danny Kaye and the Swedish Chef is a masterpiece of physical comedy anywhere, Gonzo jumping his motorcycle into Statler and Waldorf’s balcony would actually probably hold up on the newer incarnation of the show, and there can’t be enough praise for Piiiiiiiiiiigs iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace or Veterinarian’s Hospital. When it failed to work, it failed to work because it was a meta-fictional anachronism with a bunch of moving parts: Rich Little’s episode is rightfully widely maligned7. Petula Clark is clearly some sort of weird contractual thing – she does very little in her episode, and doesn’t seem to want to be there.

6 an oft-derided bit from the pilot has to do with Fozzie’s ultimate reaction to Riki Lindhome’s (his girlfriend) parents not liking him at the end, a piece that I found Seinfeldian and bleakly funny, but that is, apparently, going to murder people in their sleep I guess?
7 there’s a bit where Rich Little is doing a (truly hideous) Gene Kelly impression in a “Singin’ in the Rain” sketch that switches to a John Wayne impression for seemingly no reason other than Rich Little knew his John Wayne was a big hit, and his Gene Kelly was execrable. It’s tone-deaf, terrible, and actually not as funny: if Rich Little had, like the rest of the Muppets, been willing to fail, it would’ve been much better.

The point of all this is: The Muppets have, in the end, always had an element that was about showbiz itself. The Muppet Show was a fake stage show. The Muppet Movie ends with them getting the Standard Rich and Famous Contract8. The most recent filmic reboot The Muppets ends with them re-entering the public eye. It’s always been a part of it. And right now show business is laid more-or-less bare: there is no longer a shadowy Orson Welles figure offering the opportunity. We know how it works, as viewers. So instead of pretending like it was still a hidden, invisible mechanism, they laid it bare9. If it had come back, as the negative reviews seem to assert it should have, as a throwback-y, vaudevillian stage show, it actually wouldn’t have any available references to most of its audience except itself: even people (I am one of these people) who take an interest in very old forms of comedy probably did so as a result of watching The Muppet Show (I am, again, one of these people. So are nearly all of the old-comedy fans I can think of having talked to about it). That kind of self-referential cannibalism is unsustainable, and would leave us all with very little to go on, and even fewer viewers – Saturday Night Live is the update of the exact form being parodied here, and people hate it.

8spoiler alert!
9 in part by getting a bear laid! Wakka Wakka!**
** Hi Alex.

But there’s also another problem here, and that’s that The Muppets, as originally conceived and performed, were conceived and performed by a very specific person, with a very specific set of other people. Even positive reviews talk about how far afield The Muppets is from the Henson-era Muppets. And it is. Jim Henson was a singularly talented puppeteer who was also, along with Frank Oz, a constituent part of one of the greatest comedy duos of all time. Neither of them performs their muppets anymore. So Kermit doesn’t have the advantage of being a real-life stand-in for his puppeteer10, so they have to write a character, and since they have to make changes anyway, why not give him a new direction? Fozzie was always, by his nature, the most complex muppet character – he was oblivious, and comedy-obsessed, and gloriously unaware of himself and the reception of his comedy, despite being convinced that his terrible overbaked jokes were the height of comedy – but the least humanized for all that. Miss Piggy was the apotheosis of puppety cartoonishness – a diva in the operatic sense, her confidence not actually undeserved (unlike Fozzie, she’s got excellent jokes), Piggy existed as something of an inverted Fozzie. The rest of the muppets (and performers) fall somewhere in the triangle. But opening it up to make it an ensemble show – a good idea – means the dynamic changes. But without Henson and Oz (who was both Fozzie and Piggy, and thus was able to swing back and forth in his dynamic, maximizing the jokes11), Kermit, Fozzie and Piggy can’t have the same characters. Or rather, they could, but it couldn’t possibly be any good, because the performers (and, honestly, Steve Whitmire has been doing Kermit for 25 years, I think he’s got his Kermit pretty well figured out) are different people, and vitality is more important than nostalgia every single time.

10 although if basically everyone around him at the time is to be believed, Jim Henson was much more like the frustrated neurotic version of Kermit we get in The Muppets than the long-suffering comedic foil from The Muppet Show.
11 actually, for my money the finest execution of the Henson/Oz dynamic is in a series of Sesame Street sketches where Grover (Oz again) sells things to Kermit he couldn’t possibly need – toothbrushes, a hairpiece, or, my personal favorite, earmuffs – this is practically a class in joke distillation, and in the sturdiness of the two-hander vaudeville form.

And that’s it: nothing is harmed by there being another television show with the Muppets in it. The old episodes of The Muppet Show are right there. You can go watch them any time, nothing is going to happen to them. The Muppet Movie will remain the best possible version of these characters and this story, no matter how much this tv show reimagines them (and no matter how much The Muppet Wizard of Oz or whatever the Lady Gaga thing was called exist to disappoint). But opposing the existence of the tv show because it’s “wrong” for the characters to be performed differently is not only insane, it’s the kind of argument that makes no sense on its face: if you’re going to adapt a property12 you should have something to say about it. Otherwise, if you’re just remaking the thing to pander to the people who are (as The Telegraph and io9 are above) demanding to be pandered to, you can’t help but do everything a disservice.

12 NB: it is not, actually, necessary to do this! The assumption this whole argument undertakes is that the adaptation exists, so why not judge it on its own merits? I don’t actually care, one way or the other, about adaptation in and of itself: mostly it annoys me that everyone that reads a book immediately wants it to be a movie, and my annoyance at remakes is mostly because that’s money that could be funding an original, and it’s chunks of the conversation that could be had about something worthwhile, rather than how dumb it is to make The Thing naked or whatever.

Oh, and can it with the complaints about Denise: they couldn’t have made it any more obvious that she’s naught but a plot device – she looks barely-finished, she has no personality, Kermit and Piggy will be reunited by the end of the season. It’s not even a question. Hating The Muppets because you hate Denise is like hating 30 Rock because you hated Greenzo. It makes you sound dumb.

The 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards

So! Here we are at the Emmy’s again. This is all very exciting. This is the year of the big shakeup. They’ve redefined comedies and dramas, they’ve separated talk shows from variety shows1, and they’ve made up some rules about what counts as a “guest star”. Theoretically, this should make the whole thing fairer. In practice, it’s unlikely to lead to much change quite yet: the same shows are still on the air, after all, and if there’s one thing the Emmy’s can be counted on, it’s a remarkably consistent sameness in that regard.

1 this is, apparently, in response to a letter published in Variety, which was written by Scott Aukerman (of Comedy Bang! Bang!), and which is, as far as anyone can tell, further cosigned by having the writing staff of CBB – headed up by Aukerman himself – write the awards ceremony this year.

That said, we’ve got a job to do here, so let’s get to work.

Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special
If The Atlantic is correct, and we are at “peak TV”, the way through would seem to be the miniseries – make it shorter and it’s not only better television from a writing perspective, but it’s also easier to gain and keep an audience2. American Crime deserves points for trying, and is probably the best pulp on this list, but probably isn’t actually “outstanding” as such. Wolf Hall is fine, as far as these things go, and ignites mainly from the excellent performance by Damian Lewis, about which more later. Bessie is a fine piece of biofic, Hello Ladies manages the extremely difficult trick of putting a satisfying and even kind-of funny conclusion to a hot mess of a television show. I really like The Honourable Woman, though.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Honourable Woman

2 actually, the cable-adopted 12-episode series seems to be a response to this, as does the predisposition of content packagers like FX or Adult Swim to allow creators to not necessarily adhere to a strict “one season at the same time every year” production schedule.

Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series
It will probably go to either The Daily Show (for the end of the current host’s monumental run) or The Colbert Report (whose host made the switch to network television). Inside Amy Schumer and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are still ongoing (and thus unlikley to be favoured by the emmys this year). Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that it will be Key and Peele, which is a shame, because it should be Key and Peele.


Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series
And here we are back to largely-familiar ground. Louie’s most recent season was not its best. I still don’t really “get” Episodes3. Transparent has some really good episodes, but the pilot is the one that was nominated, and it isn’t my favorite. Last Man On Earth’s “Alive in Tucson” deserves full points for bravery and for Will Forte’s performance, but the writing isn’t really in the same league. “Election Night” is a super-great episode of Veep, in terms of Veep. But honestly, comedically speaking, my heart goes out to Silicon Valley.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Silicon Valley, “Two Days of the Condor”

3 it seems fine? People like it more than I can explain, is what I’m saying here.

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series
Another category that sits under the shadow of the end of a long-running dominant player, this category sees Mad Men nominated twice. Also a fine episode of Game of Thrones, a very good episode of Better Call Saul, and a really excellent episode of The Americans.  Maybe now that Mad Men is gone these things can actually start going to The Americans?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Americans, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special
Why are there seven of these, instead of the more-reasonable five? Your guess is as good as mine. There are many things to like about Olive Kitteridge, and chief among them is how well the direction serves the whole thing. That’s some good direction. So there you have it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lisa Cholodenko, Olive Kitteridge

Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series
I notice variety and talk didn’t get broken out down here, just up in the series categories. THIS IS MORE FASCISM. Part of the problem here is that I have no real idea how to quantify “good” direction on a talk show. The camera is always in focus, the shots all line up, just like they do in every episode. Theoretically there’s a high degree of technicality in the segment work and cues and whatnot, but again, they do it every day? So I’m disqualifying the David Letterman, Daily Show, Jimmy Fallon, and Colbert Report nominations. Which leaves us with Amy Schumer, which is how it should have been all along anyway.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Inside Amy Schumer, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”

Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series
No Mad Men here, so the sole leaving train is Boardwalk Empire, a show that it became increasingly hard to get excited about over its run. It did not improve measurably before its last season! Two Game of Thrones episodes here, the ridiculous “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”4, and the admittedly-impressive (although also ridiculous) “Mother’s Mercy”. Next. Homeland continues to exist! The Knick is an excellent and under-watched piece of television5 that will hopefully get some Emmy attention and then become super-duper popular and also make it so that people stop watching Game of Thrones.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Knick, “Method and Madness”

4 this is the one that kicked up renewed fuss because of its rape scene, which was presented as character development for another character entirely and also left the roughly-correspondent scene from the book pretty far behind. Season 5 of Game of Thrones was marked this year largely by its “edginess” at the expense of storytelling. Y’know. Even moreso.
5 whatever we, culturally, did to make Clive Owen stop appearing on our screens, can we never do it again? kthx.

Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series
The direction is the one area of Veep that I sometimes find a little bit lacking. It’s not bad, it’s just not always really serving the comedy. Louie and Silicon Valley get by on good, if uninspired, directing just fine. Transparent, and especially “Best New Girl”, is full of excellent directing choices, but I’m going to be kind to The Last Man on Earth, since the direction is responsible for most of the comedy in “Alive in Tucson”.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Last Man on Earth, “Alive in Tucson”

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
There is a lot of American Horror Story in this here category. While it’s true that Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson and especially Angela Bassett all put on some of the most watchable performances of last year, it’s also the case that, much like everything else associated with AHS, they aren’t actually good so much as entertaining. Zoe Kazan is very good in Olive Kitteridge, but not so good that she isn’t easily dismissed here. Mo’Nique does a fantastic job as Ma Rainey in Bessie, but I think this one goes to Regina King, who plays a disapproving, deeply-religious sister much better than I would’ve thought she would in American Crime, which in most other ways falls short of anything nearly as good.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Regina King, American Crime

Oustanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
See above w/r/t Denis O’Hare and Finn Wittrock for AHS, since the same thing applies down here6. Richard Cabral does a serviceable job on American Crime, but is clearly no Regina King. Bill Murray is reliably good in Olive Kitteridge – it’s not like he stopped being Bill Murray – and Michael K. Williams is reliably good in Bessie – it’s not like he stopped being Michael K. Williams – but I mentioned it before, and I’ll say it again: Wolf Hall wouldn’t even be (and, indeed, is not much of the time) any good without Damien Lewis.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Damien Lewis, Wolf Hall

6 although in the case of the most recent season, Finn Wittrock, in between being an enormous ham-and-cheese sandwich, was one of the few people (along with Wes Bentley) who was capable of being genuinely frightening. Sort of.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
I’ve mentioned in past awards write-ups that I don’t necessarily think an actor needs a new award if what they’re doing isn’t really new to the character7. So Joanna Froggat is basically out, but Christina Hendricks (whose character does all sorts of non-Joan-standard things toward the end of Mad Men) is in. Emilia Clarke is out (Daenerys remains Daenerys), but Lena Headey is in (Cersei Lannister really went through some stuff). Of course, all of that is academic, because really what we’re looking at here is Uzo Aduba’s excellent turn as Suzanne Warren in Oranges: The New Black and Christine Baranski’s surprisingly-excellent Diane Lockhart on The Good Wife.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Uzo Aduba does a job that clearly warrens an award, here.

7 the counterpoint to this, and the reason that the people at the Emmy’s WON’T GODDAMNED LISTEN TO ME is that the environment around the performance changes, which grants it different qualities even if it’s basically the same thing. I do see the merit of this argument, and obviously it’s the way the Emmys are governed, and I’m not interested in straying into yelling-at-clouds territory here, but I fundamentally disagree with it as a reason for an award. I may write more about this at some point in the future. Or I may not! Either way, my point is: you do one thing, you get recognized with a nomination for it one time.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Look, I think Better Call Saul is fine, but there’s a very Lucas-ish need to dig up too much backstory and fit it in too neatly. So it’s not Jonathan Banks, as delightful as he can be8. Jim Carter of Downton Abbey and Michael Kelly on House of Cards are doing fine, mostly, but not moving the Earth. Peter Dinklage is, now and ever, the best thing about Game of Thrones, but he’s not doing anything he hasn’t been doing the whole time, and it’s just not a thing that bears rewarding. Ben Mendelsohn is fantastic on Bloodline, as is everyone else on Bloodline. Alan Cumming is very good on The Good Wife, I guess?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Eh, it’s Ben Mendelsohn. Bloodline may not quite live up to its pedigree, but it’s awfully good anyway.

8 that is too a reason. Shut up. Yes it is.  

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Alright, throwing out Mayim Bialik9 and Julie Bowen, who are doing the same thing here as always, we’ve got an awfully robust category here. Allison Janney is so good she makes Mom good, Anna Chlumsky is fantastic but, as I’ve remarked about shows I don’t like, also does the same thing every year, more-or-less. Jane Krakowski is a national treasure, but there’s some pretty uncomfortable racial business with her character that keeps me from cosigning it enthusiastically10. Kate McKinnon, who is very funny, is very specifically nominated for the Taraji P. Henson episode of Saturday Night Live, which is so specific that it makes me head explode, and disqualifies her from winning. Gaby Hoffman is very good on Transparent, and Niecy Nash was fantastic on the disappointingly underrated Getting On. And also The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt nom should have gone to Carol Kane.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Carol Kane, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. TAKE THAT, EMMY PEOPLE.

9 no one on The Big Bang Theory can be doing what’s called “Acting” in any but the most rudimentary sense in the first place.
10 also the nomination should have gone to Carol Kane.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
My injunction against people doing the same thing every year winning hurts Adam Driver the most – he’s always been the most watchable thing about Girls, and as it sinks further into itself and becomes less and less compelling, he only stands out more. But he, like Ty Burrell and, unfortunately, Tony Hale, just keep doing the same thing every time. So, in terms of episodes nominated for, “The Mole” is a great episode for Andre Braugher, one of the most consistently funny people on television, but he’s outclassed here. On the one hand, Keegan-Michael Key’s performances in “Sex Detective” include his GOAT Luther, but the title sketch belongs to Jordan Peele, and so it seems a little slanted. Also, I just really, really like Titus Andromedon, and the episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that brought us “Peeno Noir” (“Kimmy Goes to School”) deserves all of the awards ever.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tituss Burgess, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie
This is quite a category. We can eliminate Jessica Lange for her impressive accomplishments in scenery-chomping, which, again, are very entertaining, but not necessarily good. I really like Emma Thompson’s job in the New York Philharmonic version of Sweeney Todd\, but I’m annoyed by televised recordings of stage performances being counted11. Queen Latifah is very good as Bessie Smith in Bessie, and Felicity Huffman is very good in American Crime, but neither of them is that good. Mainly because Frances McDormand’s work in .Olive Kitteridge is revelatory. It’s also not quite as revelatory as Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Honorable Woman.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Honorable Woman

11 there is literally no reason for this other than my own contrariness.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
Good grief. This is a letdown after the lead actress category. Adrien Brody is fine in Houdini, Ricky Gervais is as good as he ever is in Derek12, American Crime is weirdly over-nominated, and Timothy Hutton is the one I would eliminate. David Oyelowo does a fine job in Nightingale, but the rest of Nightingale isn’t very good, so he may just be looking better by contrast. Mark Rylance is something like the seventh or eighth best actor in Wolf Hall. Richard Jenkins is fine in Olive Kitteridge, he does a good job, but if we’re going to give it to someone from OK, we might as well solve the dilemma of the women’s category.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: At the buzzer its’ Frances McDormand from Olive Kitteridge, because she deserves it more than these people.

12 which is to say: not very?

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Look, there’s a bunch of people here that are always doing the same thing. There’s Tatiana Maslany who does a bunch of things. And then there’s Cookie Lyon, proving that I’m wrong all those times I say teeth-gnashing, playing-to-the-rafters ham is not good acting, because it damn sure is here.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taraji P. Henson, Empire

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Well, the award is for acting, not bloviating, so we can throw Jeff Daniels right out. It’s also not for accent work, and, at this point, that’s pretty much what Kev Spay has going on on House of Cards. Bob Odenkirk is adding new dimensions of backstory to Saul Goodman, but see above w/r/t the problems there. Liev Schreiber is about as cool as you could want on Ray Donovan, but, y’know. Coach Taylor does all the things you could want him to in Bloodline, which is usually enough to go pretty far. But really, it should go to Jon Hamm, who always found new ways to Draper it up, and never fell into rote behavior. Plus dude just got a divorce. He could use the win.


Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
I love Lily Tomlin. She’s flat-out one of the funniest people in the world, and she’s a delight in everything she’s in, including Grace and Frankie, which, nevertheless, is not really actually award-quality work13. Edie Falco: still doing that one thing. It’s a good thing. It’s still that thing. Amy Schumer and Lisa Kudrow both put up very good work that’s pushed out by the top two. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is so good on Veep that it’s difficult to quantify, but since Parks and Recreation is gone, it’s probably, even for me, hard not to give this one to Amy Poehler.


13 although now that I think about it, a supporting actress nomination for June Diane Raphael wouldn’t be entirely out of place.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Jesus. What do I even do with this category? I like all of these people. All of these people are great. Except Matt LeBlanc. Fuck Matt LeBlanc.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Everybody. Except Matt LeBlanc. Fuck Matt LeBlanc.

Outstanding Reality-Competition Program
Welp. So. Not The Voice or Dancing With the Stars or The Angry Ghost of What Used to Be Project Runway, because those are all terrible. The Amazing Race is an impressively-reliable workhorse. So You Think You Can Dance is a real delight. But, as with every time I have to write up this category, my heart belongs to Top Chef.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Top Chef. It was even better last season than it’s been in several years!
Outstanding Limited Series
By the time we get to the “series” awards, my beliefs are generally pretty well spelled out. So this goes pretty quick. It’s neither American, bet it Crime or Horror Story. It’s not Wolf Hall because, again, that’s mostly good because of Damian Lewis, not its own merits. Olive Kitteridge is very good, but The Honorable Woman is better.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Honorable Woman

Outstanding Variety Sketch Series
Look, if Scott Aukerman’s letter was good enough to change the content of the ceremony, and his considerable talents enough to enable him writing for the show, then his damn sketch show should be getting an Emmy14.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Comedy Bang! Bang!, dammit

14 although big ups to Between Two Ferns, which did win another Creative Arts Emmy.
Outstanding Variety Talk Series
Even just limiting it to the three shows that don’t exist anymore, you’ve got something of a horse race on your hands. So Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or David Letterman?

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jonphenvid Stewbertterman, The Late Daily Report

Outstanding Drama Series
Downton Abbey, Homeland, and House of Cards are all coasting at this point. I really only have the one complaint about Better Call Saul, but it remains relevant here. Game of Thrones would be more appropriate for a Daytime Emmy, regardless of when it airs, because it’s a goddamn soap opera, designed to titillate and little else15. Orange is the New Black and Mad Men are both good shows that figure out new and interesting ways to tell their stories, but only one of them will be back here next year.


15 the little else* in this case being primarily Peter Dinklage.
* you’ll have to forgive the pun. I don’t know what came over me.

Outstanding Comedy Series
Does anyone outside of the Emmy-granting body actually think Modern Family deserves this? Good grief. Louie was fine, but it’s good that he’s taking some time off of it. The rest of the category is overstuffed with worthy candidates, so I’m going to go the unorthodox route and point out that the show that made me laugh the most (and I’m, y’know, the person who’s right) was Silicon Valley


And that’s that, everybody! Tune in next year when I figure out some other stuff to say about Fucking Game of Fucking Thrones.

On Superheroes, and Their Non-Immortality

So, if you haven’t heard, Steven Spielberg had the temerity to suggest that the box-office-topping lifespan of the superhero genre might be finite. He predicted, a year or so ago, that studios over-rely on huge mega-budget films to perform profitably all over the world, and that this was unsustainable. That statement, as it was, was generally met with nods and approbation. When he opened his purview slightly to include the specific information here – that those mega-budget movies are, increasingly, superhero movies – it is suddenly a matter of some controversy. It’s become a hot-enough button that people (here’s Chris Evans, here’s Zack Snyder, here’s Emma Thompson) are being asked – with varying degrees of agreement/disagreement – what they think of it.
Even leaving aside, for a moment, the actual thing that Spielberg said, the fact of Spielberg’s career as a director and producer leads one to believe, whatever one thinks subjectively of his films as films, he certainly can be said to have some idea of what’s popular. He also has a pretty good idea for making films in genres that aren’t particularly popular at the time he’s making them. So it’s fairly easy to stop extrapolating that he has something against superheroes, necessarily: he turned a monster movie into one of the first real summer blockbusters (Jaws) well after monster movies were done selling, and over the course of the eighties turned a serial-inspired adventure series (the Indiana Jones films) into a wildly popular series of films even while his contemporaries were spectacularly failing to do that. I would conclude, given this, that he is not putting down a genre when he says that, someday, it will probably stop being at the top of the market.

Once again, this is because he thinks that the over-reliance on movies with huge budgets and action plots are going to be an industry-wide problem1. He specifically calls out westerns, which is interesting for a couple of reasons, and may be a more subtle comparison than it gets credit for. Westerns were the source of action films through the mid-seventies or so. Similar to comic book movies, they underwent a shift to upstartish, “darker”2 fare, albeit not entirely: much like comic book movies today, there were still “traditional” westerns being made3 (The Outlaw Josey Wales, for example, came out in 1976). The most egregious miscalculation for westerns – and one of the most egregious miscalculations in cinema history – came when United Artists essentially bankrupted themselves for noted boondoggle Heaven’s Gate, a western which was so over-budgeted, and so under-seen, that it was shorthand for titanic failure for years to come. A studio put their reliance on a high-budget, high-dollar property, and literally lost the farm when it didn’t work4. That this happened during the switch-over into the current summer-blockbuster model, and the shift in the public’s affections from the West (the old frontier) to Space (the final frontier) made people extra gun-shy about Westerns in general, and the genre entered its niche, from which it has not really resurged.

1 a problem he is in no small part directly responsible for! As a producer, at least, he’s certainly right on the front lines of the four-quadrant mega-huge movie, even if as a director he’s moved into decidedly less enormous fields.
2 or at least more “serious” and “weighty” – think Butch Cassidy, or The Shootist, or Another Man, Another Chance
3 also, not to get too far ahead of myself, but this is somewhat hard to pin down, because western’s didn’t exactly stop being made, they just stopped dominating the market, and there weren’t nearly as many of them.
4 this is, admittedly, a highly simplified version of events to make a point about apparent invulnerability, and how it’s different from actual, factual invulnerability. The economic and artistic details/lessons/interpolations of Heaven’s Gate are not only enough to fill several books, they have actually done so. For our purposes here, however, it’s important that an out-of-control Western created huge problems.

So to say that this – a confluence of market forces (which are in flux almost by definition), popularity (which is a hugely variable thing, dependent on the whim of a bunch of people), and an emblematic failure (that is, a film that failed so hard that it was possible for anything that looked like it to be avoided) – is something that could never happen to superheroes because their stories are too varied just seems like bad math. Parents now are taking their kids to see these movies, and cementing into their kids brains that this sort of thing is what their parents find entertaining. That nearly inevitably means that those kids are, eventually, going to look for their own thing, and not go see superhero movies5. And when that happens, all it will take is some financially disastrous film to become synonymous with the excesses of the genre, and it’s more-or-less gone the exact same way. The audience has every incentive to leave, the masses move on to another thing, the world becomes slightly different. There has never been a genre that hasn’t lost an enormous amount of popularity in basically this way6.

5 while this is probably inevitable, it is probably worth pointing out that Westerns got to be king of the roost for a good quarter-century, so it’s not like all of this is likely to happen tomorrow.
6 there isn’t always a lynchpin that drives the audience onto the next thing, but there usually is. Mostly what the abandonment of genres all have in common is that young people lost interest first, and carried the audience over to the next thing on their back.

So what’s the problem? How is a director/producer saying “this won’t be as popular as it is now forever, and also these business practices (which everyone already hates) are going to go bad soon” diminishing your capacity to enjoy a thing? I get that the popularity of superhero films are leading to bolder, more interesting superhero films (like Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, or James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, or the Russo Brothers’ Captain America), but that was also possible before: Tim Burton made a highly-idiosyncratic and personal (if extremely poorly-aging) Batman. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies predate (and, indeed, presage) the whole thing, having been made in a climate that wasn’t super-hospitable to superhero movies. Blade, Richard Donner’s Superman, Ang Lee’s Hulk7, The Crow, Hellboy, all were made in times when the market was preparing to be, but not actually, accepting of superhero films. They’re still there. They still happen. Just like Westerns!  Westerns still come out literally all the time. So while everyone is enjoying whatever comes next – action movies about the oceans, or, I predict, present day gritty realism – rest assured that your thing will not go away!

7 shut up. It was better than you remember it being.

Until that time, there’s plenty of reason to be annoyed (as Emma Thompson is, above): there’s another new Spider-Man movie, yes, but also the Avengers follow-up was an overstuffed disappointment, Marvel is showing that they are less-willing to work with directoprs that are interesting (firing Edgar Wright), and DC is showing that they still have absolutely no idea how to give anyone what they want8. If this is the signal-to-noise ratio, I would be ok with having to wait a little longer between good superhero movies.
8 Man of Steel remains, as I predicted, an ill-advised mess, and a grimdark reboot of Superman a terrible idea because 1) it alienates Superman fans, who very specifically don’t want that, 2) it alienates non-superman fans because it’s dark and ultraviolent and 3) it alienates people that don’t mind more realistic superheroes because it is, fundamentally, still Superman)

Of course, if I act more quickly, I can also start pitching my The Maxx spec script, and maybe I can bring about this downfall myself.

On Building Listeds

The end of summer is, traditionally, a great time for music publications to make big attention-getting lists. It’s the sales dead zone between the summer rush and the holidays – few people are releasing records until the fourth quarter of the year, so it’s a perfect time to fill some column space calibrating your general editorial stance – because that, more than an attempt at making a “definitive” stance on something, is the goal here. Well that and getting the eyeballs of readers old and new, serious and casual. Lists such as these, dumb and lazy as they can be, always require something of an impressive calculus of readership-pleasing (or not pleasing, as it were).

The first goal of both publications`1 is to maintain their position as the standard-bearer for the market-segment to which they are pitched most directly, and, in so doing, reaffirm to their current readers that they, clever ducks that they are, are reading the correct tasteful publication. In Rolling Stone’s case, this means topping the list of the greatest songwriters of all time with Bob Dylan, because they’re still Rolling Stone. It’s decades into the Rolling Stone editorial purview, and it’s beyond unsurprising2. The Pitchfork choice, however, is somewhat more interesting – Pitchfork is, at this point, pretty well established as an old-guard, standard-bearing musical publication, but they didn’t exist in the eighties, so they have, functionally, no history in this arena upon which they could draw. So this choice was, in whatever small way, important to the construction of their general stance on things: now they’ve said that the best song of the 80s was “Purple Rain,” and as with all #1s in this sort of list, that’s all about where they think their current readers are coming from, rather than an attempt to tell people something they don’t know.

1 but especially Rolling Stone, who, at this point, are basically in the respectability/canonization business, which requires that they first and foremost be in the “you should listen to us” business.
2 this is not a referendum on Bob Dylan’s skills or prominence as a songwriter – generally there is a reason these things happen, after all, it’s just to say that if anyone but Bob Dylan had been #1 it would’ve been a major departure, and thus not successful at the “shore up current readers” objective.

Of course, the reason for all of this entrenchment of opinions and editorial proclamations is (because these are money-making propositions, mind) to gain readers, and therefore ad impressions, and therefore advertising revenue. So it’s no good to appeal only to the people that are already reading it – you have to draw new people in. The utility of these lists as a reader-grabbing tool is pretty well-established (even if it’s diminished somewhat with the ability to find just about anyone’s list of just about anything at just about any time), and it’s an important expenditure of the cachet earned by appealing to your core audience enough to be taken seriously – “this,” it says “is what the people who establish the opinions you’re meant to be sharing think is important”. Editorial, curated lists remain one of the things that old-style music media can still pretty well – by being able to gather a group of at least fairly-competent opinions, and tabulate the votes or whatever, they’re able to spread a pretty wide net, and catch, at least somewhat, the consensus opinion of a certain subset (“songwriters”, or “the eighties”3) that stands as a record of “what this particular set thought about this thing at that time”. Thus new readers, curious about what, say, the people that really didn’t like the most recent Night Beds album, or that really did like the most recent Tame Impala album, think about the 80s, a decade which, at this point, most of the Pitchfork readership was barely (if at all – according to quantcast their readership is split almost equally between 18-24 year olds and 25-34 year olds) around for.

3 a trick which isn’t really a reader-oriented trick, but rather a content trick that enables the axes of reader-pleasing to be as easy to move along as possible, is that the categories are pretty open-ended. “The 80s” less so – obviously the song needs to have been released (or at least come to major prominence) between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1989. The songwriting list has a much more vague set of qualifications – what, exactly, are you measuring when you’re measuring “songwriting”?* But the idea, in both cases, is to make something restrictive enough to have a definitive answer, and open enough to allow for a surfeit of options.
* true story, this piece originally started its life as an attempt to answer precisely that question – it’s a hard one, and the shortest possible answer is: it doesn’t really, except in the vaguest possible way. Keep your eyes on this space for some more thoughts on that.

All of those casual readers, however, aren’t going to stay for just the #1 pick, and that’s where the difficult balance of factors comes into play. Go look at the Rolling Stone list, if you haven’t already. RS has been in the business of doing this for so long that every time they do it it’s practically a composition lesson in how to make these lists work – every few entries is a very well-known entry, and the left-field choices start early (but not too early), and increase in frequency all the way to the bottom (who has their own personal list honed to the point where they could quibble with the choice for, say, #96?). I’m certainly not cynical enough to guess that there is some weird master-list formula, but I also don’t believe it to be impossible. Pitchfork probably less so – they’ve got a much more malleable sort of penumbra to begin with, partly because they have, in this case, the advantage of not being the codifier of much of what rock criticism is thought of as being. The whole effect, then, is one of keeping your interest with the choices, as well as making occasional concessions to the readers who just picked it up.

The interest aspect also helps in another sense: the “gaining and/or keep readers” imperative is only one of the axes upon which this kind of list building moves. The other is the content itself, which can serve to position the editorial “coolness” and/or credibility of the magazine. This is done only in part by flattering the audience (as outlined above). The other important bit of maneuvering is that of shifting the point of view of the magazine such that new things are included and old things forgotten. Again looking at the RS list, you see a lot of pop songwriters, and a generally poptimist bent – RS is the old-guard, doddering standard-bearer for rockism, but in the current climate of “everything popular is good and everything good is popular”4, it is necessary for a dinosaur of dying old print publishing to re-establish their boundaries as being at least inclusive of exactly the old-model songwriters they used to poo-poo as part of the rockist establishment. Pitchfork, which has a similar, if not as entrenched or long-standing, relationship with traditionally rock-based music, doesn’t have to do quite as much to move its sights – it’s associated with being trend-chasing and mercurial, after all, and so doesn’t have to pay the same lip service to rock-solidity. Nevertheless, there’s always a bit of recalibration while things that are currently in vogue5 are elevated to greater prominence, and things that have fallen somewhat out of favor are pushed back a bit, to be brought forward again when they’re back in style.

4 see elsewhere in this space for more about anti-rockism/poptimism, and how it’s reversing, eating itself, and generally becoming the also-smothering (although more inclusive, and more sociopoltiically easy to swallow – they are both potentially bad, just not equally bad).
5 in the case of the songwriters list, it’s the current acceptance – and encouragement – of hired-gun songwriters, in the case of Pitchfork it’s the nigh-mania for mid-eighties-style R&B. I would love to see what either of these lists would’ve looked like ten years ago (at the forefront of rockism, and during the end of the time that Pitchfork was part of any kind of vanguard).

But the most important goal – once you’ve, using the three steps above, shown all of your readers how important this list is to tastemaking in general, is to show them how much more there is to know. That’s where the willful drive to obscurantism comes in6 – the easiest way to convince an individual reader that he needs to keep up with your publication is to convince them that there are huge, constant gaps in their knowledge, and that only you can help to fill those gaps. This is harder in an age where more is available with less effort than ever before, but it’s still not impossible – after all, how are you going to know the historical importance of Liquid Liquid without someone first alerting you to it?

6 this is also, notably, the aspect of list-making that is more evident in Pitchfork than in Rolling Stone – Pitchfork is built on that sort of curatorial archive-keeping, whereas RS is more about caononization and the conveyance of that attitude on their of-the-moment judgments.

Lists are popular – they’re fun to read, they’re fun to argue over, they’re generally even fun to write (seriously, I do a bunch of them every year, they’re great), but they’re also, in this kind of “big event” sense, also more about the publication they appear in, and that publication’s aspirations for their place in the larger world (or reaffirmation of same, since neither Pitchfork or Rolling Stone is in a position to be called aspirational, particularly). Also, although Paul Westerberg appears on both lists, he isn’t high enough on either.

Among other things.