Friday, March 4, 2016

Top Chef 13-09: Restaurant Wars, Part 1

Thirteen seasons and ten years in, Top Chef has lost quite a bit of its luster.  Like all competitive reality shows that last long enough, it seems resigned to an eternity of good-enough, cheap-enough television that is inoffensive but no one feels strongly enough.  There are certainly worse fates for TV shows and the people who create them, but it seems worth noting that smart TV-critic types no longer talk about the show, Bravo has stopped pumping out spin-offs, and among fans the feel is that the show peaked with season 6, or maybe 8.  But hey, they always have Restaurant Wars, right?

By this point Restaurant Wars has become the most hallowed part of the Top Chef season, with a reputation for conflict, controversy, and good-looking food -- all the things that cooking competitions promise.  At the same time, it often seems like the most reasonable challenge of the season, asking the chefs to do exactly what they do for a living, just on a much shorter timeframe.  In terms of structure, it marks the point in the season where the competition gets serious and we start to actually know who all of the chefs are.  This reputation has obviously influenced the chef-testants, who bust out a pre-composed song for the occasion[1].  People talk about having "make it to Restaurant Wars" as a goal, and great the challenge with a mixture of excitement and nervousness.  This is the benefit of self-mythology: for those within the show-universe it seems real.

Naturally, Top Chef has recently taken to exploiting the reputation of Restaurant Wars by stretching it out to two episodes.  This violates the near-Aristotlean formal unity of reality competition: every episode contains one challenge (plus usually a Quickfire), and at the end someone is eliminated, so there's a natural narrative arc leading to a one-on-one showdown.  The Amazing Race has pulled this trick for years now, generally resulting in anticlimax and the feeling that one episodes' worth of content has been stretched out into two.  This year's edition of the challenge deals with this problem by splitting not just the episode but the challenge into two parts, a lunch and a dinner course.  This gives the episode as a stand-alone narrative a kind of coherency.  No one is eliminated, but at the end it seems clear that one team has "won" the lunch portion of the challenge, with the other unable to complete their service do to poor time management.

Splitting the challenge in two actually proves to be a fairly ingenious move.  In previous editions of the challenge, the focus of both the episode and the judges was on the chefs who assumed the roles of head chef and front of the house.  Those that won usually got the individual award, while those that lost were usually eliminated.  In one instance, the head chef went home for what appeared to be clearly the mistakes of a subordinate.  The chefs that filled this role also became the focal points of the narrative, leaving other chefs marginalized in the challenge that was supposed to mark the point where everyone became a major character.  This change makes the challenge both a fairer competition and better drama, to say nothing of letting Top Chef stretch it out for two episodes.

The aforementioned drama, however, has been a bit lacking this season.  In part this is do to the problem that any long-running competition show faces: there are only so many great undiscovered chefs/singers/fashion designers/tattoo artists/whatever in America, and out of that group there are only so many willing to participate in an intense and invasive reality show, and out of that group there are only so many with big personalities who make for compelling television, and after several years you or some other show has probably got to them all.  Different shows react to this limitation in different ways.  For instance, Project Runway still fields casts with bold personalities by largely not caring if they can design non-hideous clothing.  Top Chef has taken a different approach by selecting talent over charisma -- the contestant pool featured a gaggle of James Beard nominees, which I gather is impressive.  The result is that its credibility as a competition is still in tact, but viewers generally find it hard to care about anyone besides maybe thinking that Philip is a bit of a tool.  Even when split into teams, there's little to pick between two restaurants with fairly generic names (District LA and Palette) and vaguely-defined new American cuisine.

A schoolyard pick'em fails to generate much drama, other than setting up a redemption arc for last-picked Isaac, but it does create two different group dynamics.  There's always sort of a Goofus-and-Gallant arc to Restaurant Wars, and this year is no exception, but there is a bit of editorial subversion as to who exactly is who.  At first glance, District LA appears to be cohesive, despite including two chefs (Philip and Kwame) who have butted heads throughout the competition, while the members of Palate disagree about the direction of their restaurant before finally delegating responsibility.  However, by the time lunch service starts, it becomes clear that Palate is the one doing everything right.

The episode's narrative focuses on one decision made by District LA's head chef Jeremy, specifically to hold everyone else's orders while focusing on the judges.  Framing the chef's errors as personality flaws or at least strategic errors makes a much better narrative for Top Chef than the minute differences in cooking techniques, and here the episode pounces, having everyone and their mother comment on either the decision or how behind schedule District LA ends up as a result.  We are naturally repulsed by this decision, as despite our love of bourgeois cooking shows we desire equal treatment and would not like to have our own dinners delayed for any hoity-toity judges [2].  As strategy, this is uncertain -- there's no tallying of comment cards from diners or any other way for ordinary customers to have an impact on the decision, so the judges (who often act as the most petulant diners imaginable) are in fact the only one that matters.  Then again, given the always uncertain criteria for Top Chef challenges, it's hard to say that neglecting the other diners won't hurt either.

The actual food for this episode is largely unspectacular.  The cinema-of-attractions side of Top Chef is seeing fancy dishes with foams and reductions presented in cinematic close-up, looking positively sensuous.  The food in this episode fills that role, but the judges are unimpressed, describing it as somewhat safe.  After lunch, they declare that honours are even, conveniently setting up next week's dinner course as the deciding round.

This leaves us with something of a split ending.  We're told by the judges that the two teams came away from the first round just about even.  Visually, however, we're presented with District LA scrambling to fill their tickets before eventually realizing that due to their previous decisions they can't finish service -- a first, as far as I can recall.  Meanwhile, Palate is firmly in the Gallant role, calmly cleaning up their kitchen as the other team panics.  Regardless of the results of the competition, the individual episode's narrative concludes with a decisive winner and a decisive loser.  And yet, in next week's decisive episode, the judges never bring up District L. A.'s failure to complete lunch service, making the drama of the first episode ultimately inconsequential.

Some have argued that this is the flaw of recent Top Chef, that the stories it tells via editing no longer make sense.  The argument goes that the show is so intent on surprising and misderecting us that the results of the competition seem divorced from the story we've been told throughout the episode, leaving the audience confused and sometimes upset.  This culminated in the season 11 finale, where fans were largely outraged about the winner.  I'm more inclined to believe that the narratives are more uninteresting than nonsensical, that even the best editing would strain to get us invested in a clash between bland chefs temporarily creating bland restaurants.  Whatever the fault is, Restaurant Wars still seems capable of creating the contemporary definition of drama, namely conflict.  The difficulty is creating classically-defined drama -- a logical and compelling story.

[1] Notably, they burst into song before the challenge is announced.  This means that they know the challenge is coming just by how many contestants are left, which suggests both that the contestants are aware of the larger narrative structure of the season and how formulaic Top Chef has become.

[2] Although I'm pretty sure that the "diners" here eat for free, so we probably wouldn't complain.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Independent Lens: Autism in Love

This is going to be a little more personal than most of what I write here.

As a teenager, I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a diagnosis that officially no longer exists and is now part of a wide "autism spectrum", possibly because of the Internet.  There's a history of autism on both sides of my family, and the shoe seems to fit personality-wise, but it's never been a part of myself that I've felt very comfortable with, and these days I mostly don't think about it.  Part of it is that most autistic people I've met seem to be worse off than I am, and adopting it as an identity makes me feel like I'm co-opting their disability.  Part of it might just be that I don't want to be disabled, and that if I squirrel into my own little world I can pretend that my behaviour and desires are normal, or at least a normal part of the spectrum of humanity (and, of course, they are).  The public image of autism, when not a quirky TV detective, is that of a mute child who inflicts noble suffering on their family, the type of child who can perhaps be eliminated by fun-runs or vaccine boycotts.  Who would want to identify with that?

With that in mind, I approached "Autism in Love" -- a part of PBS's Independent Lens series -- with equal parts interest and caution.  I may have been able to suppress thoughts of my own autism over the years, but the topic of love cannot be suppressed in a society obsessed with it, and in particular love that takes the form of sexually monogamous cohabiting couples.  For the autistic it can be difficult navigating friendships, let alone romance, and a relationship can seem like a danger to our self-sustaining routines.  Recently I've been wondering if coupledom and romantic love are even things that I want, and if it might make sense to identify as asexual.  This is immediately followed by the idea that such thoughts are nothing more than sour grapes, sops for my own inability to get a date.

"Autism in Love" sort of deals with the issues that have been on my mind recently, and sort of doesn't.  All of the autistic people profiled seem to have clearly decided on romantic love as an important goal, even if this goal leads to anguish for at least one of the interview subjects.  The film profiles four autistic people with different relationships to love and at different stages of their lives -- one searching for love, two in a relationship with an uncertain future, one at the end of a long marriage.  They also span the spectrum of sociality, from the presentable if slightly icy Lindsey to the almost-stereotypical Stephen, who speaks like a child but can bark out answers to every question on Jeopardy!.  This could all feel a little schematic, but there is a tenderness to the film that insists on its subjects' uniqueness as more than data points on a spectrum or different stages in one over-arching narrative.  If you haven't seen it, the film is available at the address below for those in the US:

The autistic couple, Dave and Lindsey, are the closest thing to normal we get.  Both are young people with jobs, living together and pondering their next steps.  Autism is presented as a sort of obstacle to both people expressing themselves, but for the most part these are perfectly mundane relationship issues -- one partner wants more commitment (i. e. marriage), while the other is in love but unsure.  It's just that this time there are analogies to quantum physics.  If anything, their blunt and analytic modes of expressing themselves leads to less evasion of the central issue.  This storyline ends in a happy resolution, with Dave proposing marriage at the end of the film.  There's a sense of hope in this scene, not just for Lindsey and Dave but for all autistic people and the very possibility of autistic love.

The presence of the camera seems more uncomfortable in this storyline than the others.  Whereas Stephen and Vinny largely address the camera, we see several scenes of Dave and Lindsey interacting with each other as though the documentary crew wasn't there -- Lindsey coming home from work, her meeting with a friend, and of course the climactic proposal scene.  Of course, documentaries have long employed similar techniques, but the switches between fly-on-the-wall and fly-in-the-soup are noticeable.  Perhaps it is because Dave and Lindsey, rather than being questioned by the filmmaker, question each other about much the same subjects.  Still, perhaps the most formally intriguing moment in a film that is generally formally conventional is when Dave, after repeated questioning by Lindsey, says that he doesn't want to have this discussion on camera.  It's a moment that makes you abruptly aware that these people are being filmed, and raises the question of how much is not being discussed on camera, and how much should be.  Like all documentary subjects, Dave and Lindsey are showing a certain part of themselves for the camera, and the inclusion of this one small line is a quiet but needed awareness that this is definitely a partial view.

The proposal scene, however, is when this staginess becomes a benefit.  After all, a marriage proposal is always a spectacle, and one that is always informed by the countless proposals with swelling music we've seen in movies and TV shows.  So Dave stages this scene, but it is filtered through the autistic communication barrier in a frankly beautiful way.  The two begin by having the same kind of abstract conversation about their relationship we've already seen a couple times, one that threatens to end in the same stalemate.  Then Dave gets down on his knees and manages to get out what he had decided to see.  Lindsey takes a seemingly agonizing time to respond, and one remembers her note to the interviewer at the beginning of the film that she might take a minute to think before answering any question.  And then, finally, she agrees.  Director Matt Fuller notes in an interview that this scene, as neat a resolution as it offers, happened organically.  Even so, it's a nice synecdoche of the hope that the film offers -- that despite all of the barriers and inability to say what we mean, love is possible.

Stephen's story is not the beginning of a love story but the end of it.  When we first see Stephen, he appears every bit the autistic man we expect -- living with his parents, able to vocalize only simple thoughts, working a simple job at the post office.  It is only later, when we return to Stephen that we learn that he has been married for over a decade to a fairly neurotypical woman named Gita.  There's a bit of cruelty to this reveal, as its shock value rests on our assumption that someone like Stephen could being in a relationship is extraordinary.  The relationship seemingly violates our cultural idea that the two sides in a marriage should be equal -- Gita admits that part of the attraction of Stephen is that she feels like she doesn't have to work as hard to maintain their relationship.  In this sense, this is a genuinely non-normative relationship, and one that's refreshing to see on TV, especially between square middle-aged people.

It would have been nice to see some of the normal, everyday coexistence between Stephan and Gita, but by the time the film begins Gita is already in the late stages of cancer treatment.  As such, this plotline becomes a tragedy, with the happy life lived between people of different neurological stripes visible only through remnants and now-empty apartments.  The pathos here probably shouldn't feel so earned, but it does.  Late in the film, Stephen manages to choke out "Gita is dead.  Gita died", and for once his linguistic difficulties appear as an entirely comprehensible difficulty with the world.

The third story of the film, dealing with a single young man named Lenny, is perhaps more heartrending.  Lenny's difficulties are not holding onto love but finding it, and a possibly unhealthy fixation on getting a girlfriend as a way to demonstrate his normality.  These are difficulties that many autistic young men (like myself) can empathize with.  And yet, Lenny is a difficult character to embrace.  He acts hostile to both the people around him and his imagined lover, insisting that he would have to be superior to any girlfriend.  He despairs about his condition and wishes he had never been born autistic.  He is not about to be the posterboy for either the charities or the activists.

And yet it is precisely this aspect that makes his story the most fascinating.  Lenny is the dark side of autism, the one who suffers from his condition and the one who says the things others don't want to admit they think.  After all, how many men have a conscious or unconscious desire to dominate and feel superior to their romantic partners, but simply know better than to admit it?  How many people with physical or mental disabilities quietly wish to themselves that it was otherwise?  Lenny is the uncomfortable presence that forces us to admit truths that do not easily fit into narratives about disabilities -- including the fact that people with disabilities can sometimes act like assholes.

The filmmaking in this segment feels the roughest, the closest to cinema verite.  Lenny's long rant before his institutionalization, which the camera observes without comment, feels more film festival than PBS.  (Of course, the Independent Lens series theoretically encompasses both).  The resolution is not happy or hopeful -- while we may find the glow of love amidst sadness in Stephen's mourning for Gita, Lenny's new job at a grocery store doesn't feel the same way.  Maybe the thing that is most forbidden to admit about love is that some people never find it.

In the end, Autism in Love didn't really resolve my own questions and anxieties about love.  It demonstrated that love for autistic people is possible, but frequently treacherous -- although, is that really that different from love for neurotypical people?  Does one aspect of my self determine my relation to the world of romance?  This deserves more introspection, or maybe less.  But what Autism in Love did help me examine was autism, a part of my identity I find it hard to embrace.  The film highlights both the bright and rough parts of autism, and ultimately suggests a way through the difficulties to happiness.  Whether or not that happiness is love, I think that this hope is valuable.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Steven Universe 2-25: The Answer

I try not to get into the utilitarian questions of whether a show is good or bad here -- generally, if I'm following a show past its first few episodes I think it has at least some merit or point of interest.  But it must be said: Steven Universe is special.  Out of everything I watch, it's the only show I would describe as truly great, able to pack more meaning, humour and drama into 11 minutes than most shows manage in a season.  And while I'm equally reluctant to plot television on some linear scale of political progressiveness, the fact that there's a kid's adventure show that deals matter-of-factly with queer relationships and gender fluidity without ever feeling like a political project is pretty great.

The title "The Answer" suggests that this episode will be a sort of big reveal that solves everything, but it isn't.  It doesn't even really provide an emotional resolution.  The story of how Ruby and Sapphire became Garnet has not yet been revealed, but it also seems sort of irrelevant to how the characters interact now -- and if pressed, most people would probably have imagined something close to what the episode presents.  Instead, what is most revelatory about "The Answer" is the background details to the actual love story, which reveal and confirm much about the gemworld mythos.

Steven Universe is presented consistently through the titular character's perspective, which is to say from that of a child growing into adulthood.  Outside of the initial dozen episodes or so, we learn about the outside world when Steven does.  This mirrors adolescent experience.  Along with coming-of-age, there is a coming-of-understanding when we begin to learn about the outside world and how it came to be this way.  As a child, elementary history and geography are fairy stories -- the world is an extended stage for our own personal melodrama.  (Some people never get past this stage, I'm afraid to say).  But we do learn about the vastness of our world, sometimes from formal education but more memorably from when it intersects with and overwhelms our personal experience.  Because of this it's unsurprising that Steven only learns about Homeworld when it's about to crash down on our shows, and only knows bits and pieces of the long-ago war from his guardians' stories.

It is also not surprising, then, that Garnet's bedtime story inadvertently reveals the harshness of Homeworld's caste system.  It is an alien perspective in the truest sense, where societal position overtakes individual identity to the point where three figures with identical appearance and the same name can work together without thinking and fuse into one larger version.

It's also incredibly alienating to us, the viewer, to see a character we know as an individual -- and one with a big personality no less -- as simply one of a set.  It's not even immediately clear which one is the Ruby, and such a question is impossible to the gem point of view.  Using the value contemporary American society places on individuality, the opening minutes of "The Answer" (after the cozy frame narrative with Steven and Garnet) alienate us from conventional ways of conceiving ourselves before going on to reaffirm these ways through a fairly conventional romantic storyline.

There's a dystopian element to the rigid society of the gems, even if Garnet treats it as matter-of-fact backstory.  In writing about dystopias it's easy to lapse into a libertarian worldview that pits society against the figure of the individual.  Steven Universe, however, frames resistance as not an individual act but an interpersonal one.  It is Ruby and Sapphire's feelings for each other that motivate them to defy the gems' caste system.  Garnet herself is a symbol of the dialectic nature of rebellion in Steven Universe, transcending not only high and low in gem society but the opposing figures of individual and collective that dominate contemporary discourse from children's shows to political debates.

One of the things which is so disruptive and disgusting to Homeworld gems about the permanent fusion of Ruby and Sapphire is that they are two different types of gems.  This is a neat inversion of heteronormativity, where the union between similar entities (homo) are seen as natural and those between different ones (hetero) unnatural and antisocial.  Fusion is not always a metaphor for sex, but in this story it definitely has those connotations.

Ironically, the aspect of Ruby and Sapphire's relationship that is queer to human eyes -- that both members have female forms -- is entirely different from, and in fact antithetical to the aspects that make it queer to gem eyes.  The point, then, is not simply to defy the normative but to recognize that what is normative is changes over time and is conditional on society.  Think of it as kids' Foucault.

This is, ultimately, an important message.  The challenge of queer politics is to recognize and accept the different without homogenizing it -- in other words, to accept those with different lifestyles and orientations without doing so because you believe that they are just like you.  Such a perspective is not the same thing as resistance, but it does make resistance possible.  And so while it would be a stretch to call Steven Universe revolutionary, in its casual acceptance of everything from alternate family structures to queer relationships to literally alien perspectives, it does present a potential unusual for any genre, let alone children's fantasy.

Friday, September 18, 2015

unREAL 1-02: Relapse

Can TV do criticism?  My immediate answer would be yes -- there's been a long history of TV wisemen from the robots of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to the faux-journalists of The Daily Show dissecting other media, often other television.  Even there, though, the critique often becomes a kind of spectacle.  People watch these shows to laugh, not to get legitimate insights on the objects of critique.  (Well, there are certainly some people who watch The Daily Show for this, but I think even Jon Stewart would agree that the show isn't meant to substitute for the news).  So, if even non-fiction shows are more entertaining than critical, how can an hour-long drama -- on Lifetime, no less -- make a serious critique of television?

That is precisely what the new series unREAL promises to do.  By dramatizing the behind-the-scenes production and editing of a reality competition show (okay, it's The Bachelor), unREAL exposes and deconstructs the conventions of reality TV.  The creative arcs that appear organic on reality shows are shown to be the result of cruel psychological manipulation from the producers.  In one scene in "Relapse", the women take part in a candlelit "Cinderella ball" that is revealed to be nothing but a cheap set, a nice summary of the series as a whole.  In this project, unREAL seems aligned with the past few decades of critical writing in the humanities, which has obsessively demystified and deconstructed everything it could get its hands on.

At the same time, unREAL is also a narrative of its own -- a story of redemption for a mentally unstable and frequently cutthroat producer, who finds herself torn between ruthless selfishness and rebellion against the show she works in.  While unREAL's writers and producers aren't manipulating their cast and presenting the resulting narrative as authentic in the same way that the producers of  the show-within-a-show Everlasting are, they rely on many of the same narrative techniques -- the set of "bounties" given to the producers mimic the challenge structure of reality competition shows, and the first episode's climax pivots on whether a likeable contestant will be eliminated or not.  The premise of the series may suggest a revelation of the truth, but what lies behind the reality show is of course another fiction.

Still, the series makes a good show of demystifying femininity.  After a first episode full of made-up glamour, "Relapse" opens with a montage of a grungy Rachel, still dressed in her "This is What a Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt, making crude preparations for the morning.  As she sniffs her armpits and applies just enough deoderant, what becomes apparent is not the production of glamour but the production of normalcy -- the work needed to simply go out into the world, and the negotiation made between comfort, sloth and vanity.  Rachel's self-production is rather low-key, emphasizing her bodily crudity and disdain for the outside world, but the indie-rock music emphasizes it as an action, not just an automatic response.  And then, when she goes out into the world, the music cuts out and she has to face the depressing reality of cold craft services and another day producing reality TV.

The way this scene is shot is somewhat puzzling.  The formal mechanics make it seem like Rachel moving out onto the set is a shattering of illusions -- darkness being replaced by harsh light, fist-pumping music by a mechanical voice.  But the contents of the montage are hardly a glamorous facade -- if anything, they're a little demystifying in themselves, showing a female protagonist in a distinctly unglamorous and slovenly position.  So what illusion is taking place in the montage, and why is it shattered at first light?  Is the illusion that Rachel has any control over her own apperance, her own body?  This would track well with the ending of the episode, in which Anna's appearance is distorted into something entirely removed from her own actions or agency.  Or is the point that even Rachel's cynicism does not prepare her for reality?

One of the major themes of the series is performance.  It's not simply that the people on reality TV are performing a role instead of being themselves -- it's the question of what roles they're asked to play, why, and how such an act is able to masquerade as real.  At least in the case of Everlasting, the performance of heterosexual femininity is the key to many of these questions.  The women in Everlasting -- and, implicitly, the women on The Bachelor -- are restricted to an affect of romantic longing, loving but not lustful, sometimes jealous or angry (if they're the villain) but never sad or rebellious.

The central conflict of the episode, then, is what happens when such a performance breaks down and the performer is forced into new affective territory.  Anna finds herself bereaved by the death of her father, and that grief has no place in the Everlasting household.  The death carries threats to Everlasting's affective regime on two fronts.  On a micro level, it threatens Anna's focus on Adam and her commitment to the show's presentation of instant adoration.  On the macro level, Anna's dead father shifts the show-within-a-show's erotic dynamic by displacing Adam as the sole male love object.  (Everlasting would be a Freudian's field day.)  It's worth noting that the first thing Anna does after learning of her father's illness is flee the set.  The image of her in her princess dress with dirt-black feet is a nice summary of the thematic moment, her princess image sullied by the real world.  Anna raises the terrifying prospect that the fantasy objects of reality TV may have emotional attachments beyond the central romance.

And yet, in some sense, this attachment is also a threat to unREAL as a series.  If Anna, one of the contestants who has been given character and a guest-starring role, really is indifferent to Adam and the competition at large then she is at best useless and at worst counterproductive as a character.  unREAL may want us to believe that reality TV is false and morally ambiguous, but it doesn't want us to believe that it's unimportant.  And as a Lifetime melodrama[1], it demands romantic attachment no less than the reality dating show genre.  Later on in the series, Anna actually does fall in love with Adam,  Like Everlasting, unREAL wants to sell us romance, although it's a much different type of romance -- dark, illicit and unstable.

So Adam, somewhat improbably, leaves the set along with Anna and accompanies her to her father's funeral.  While there he acts as a kind of surrogate father, providing emotional support and protecting her from confrontational relatives.  In doing so, he once again becomes the focus of her emotions and restores his position as the emotional centre of Everlasting.  As I mentioned above, the transfer of affection and attention from would-be husband to father and back again is very Freudian, and there's something almost disturbing or transgressive about celebrity reality star Adam at the family funeral.

Given this, I think "Relapse" underestimates the ability of reality TV to incorporate outside threats into its narrative.  The visit from the family is a staple of competition reality shows, and sick relatives are often used as a way to create an emotional connection to the contestants.  It's fairly easy to imagine a reality episode that unfolds exactly this way, with Anna's father's death creating sympathy for her and a closer connection to Adam.  It even makes the bachelor himself look good.  And indeed, this is how "Relapse" plays out, with Anna's visit home allowing Adam to show his good qualities and grow closer to both Anna and Rachel.  Perhaps the narrowness of acceptable narratives in Everlasting is a way to avoid revealing the artificial narrative of unREAL.

The B-plot here is somewhat perfunctory.  Rachel's old roommate blackmails her for owed rent money.  What's most notable is that the video she uses as blackmail is a fairly innocuous recording of Rachel and ex-boyfriend Jeremy making out on the beach.  It doesn't seem like something that would shock the jaded crew of Everlasting.  Maybe the suggestion is it's a sex tape, but it's unlike unREAL to not be explicit about these things.  Ultimately, it seems like what Rachel really wants to avoid is exposing her own emotional vulnerability.  This episode doesn't really explore her feelings on this matter, instead using the blackmail as motivation for Rachel's ultimate betrayal -- editing Anna into a psycho villain.

The C-plot is more interesting, if perhaps not as developed as I would have liked.  Jay attempts to coax the two black women he is "producing" to act the part of the sassy-on-the-verge-of-crazy black woman.  One refuses, citing her dignity, and the other -- Athena -- accepts, citing her small business and the need for publicity.  unREAL suggests that race is performed just as much as gender on reality TV, with black women who don't conform to the limited roles available to them ignored and quickly dispatched (as is the woman who refuses to play Omarosa here).  Neither woman really makes the right decision, because there isn't a right decision to make -- to refuse to take part is simply to disappear, and the pragmatic reasons that Athena names shouldn't be dismissed.  Then again, this is how Rachel and Quinn justify their own participation in a crooked system -- that to not participate is to become irrelevant.

Athena makes her mark by immediately accusing an innocent white woman of racism, thus fulfilling the fears of definitely-not-racist white people everywhere.  This, too, nicely captures mainstream culture at the present moment: a superficial version of identity politics used to power the same old spectacles.  Witness the way that Rachel and Quinn use feminist rhetoric to justify their terrible behaviour and egg their female charges into fighting each other.  Ultimately, the Jay/Athena plotline opens up a very promising avenue of critique for unREAL -- one which it unfortunately doesn't explore that much.  Over the course of the season to come, unREAL marginalizes this plotline to focus on a love triangle between white people, which, not to belabour the point, is exactly what happens in Everlasting and what unREAL purports to denounce.

In the end, Rachel submits to the titular "relapse", giving up her moral attempts to subvert the genre.  Anna becomes edited into a psycho villain, the reasons behind her actions entirely cut out.  This is perhaps the most potent act of demystification that unREAL performs, showing how anyone can become a hero or villain at the whim of the producers.  When they are not enticed to act in a way that fits a stereotype, that stereotype can be thrust upon them by omission.  Even if the narrative portion of unREAL unfolds in ways disturbingly similar to the genre it skewers, its critique of reality TV gives its viewers the tools to demystify any narrative, even that of unREAL itself.  Maybe this is the best possible outcome of critique on TV -- not that a TV show does the critique for us, but that it gives us the ability to perform critique ourselves.

[1] I use the word "melodrama" here not as a pejorative but as a genre.  As a feminine genre, melodrama is typically disrespected and legitimated even less than male-oriented "low" genres like science-fiction and crime.  Of course, there's also a lot of bad melodrama, and I don't want to excuse overwrought writing under the name of genre, nor argue that we necessarily need to treat all genres as equally valid.  But unREAL is an example of how a melodrama can be well-written and even engage in social critique.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Barclay's Premier League: Burnley vs. Arsenal 4/11/2015

In popular memory, sports break down to fleeting moments -- the brilliant goal, the pennant-winning home run, the career-ending knockout.  The rise of the highlight as a feature of first evening news programs and then Internet videos confirms this.  What can get lost is the mundane, work-a-day aspect of so much sports broadcasts.  The soccer match I'm going to write about tonight, despite being fairly important for both teams involved, oozes with that average, week-in-week-out feel.  It's a match between the second-best team in the league and the second-worst, where the result was never in doubt.  The British commentator at one point makes a wry quip that Arsenal star Mesut Ozil wouldn't have circled this match-up on his calendar when he signed up with the club, with the implication that, despite being given a plum TV spot, few fans would do the same.

European soccer leagues, where the most important domestic title is won in the round-robin league and not a knockout tournament, place more importance on these ordinary matches -- last year, a slip-up against lowly Crystal Palace may have cost Liverpool the title.  This importance is offset by the disparity in quality in these leagues, where most games involving elite teams are seen as a fait accompli, and any unexpected result is seen as a major embarrassment.  This game is theoretically vital for both teams -- Arsenal need to win if they have any prayer of catching up with league leaders Chelsea, while Burnley need to haul themselves out of the relegation spots, but the difference in stature between the two seems makes it seem anything but epic.

And indeed, the gameplay is far from memorable.  It's one of those games that is euphemistically called "scrappy", meaning basically that there are a lot of fouls and clumsy passes, and neither side performs all that well.  Arsenal score once and seem to be content to hold onto their lead for the rest of the game, with both of their highly-touted forwards rather muted.  Burnley put through a few good efforts on goal, but all are comfortably saved.  The game ends up as everyone envisioned it, and the commentary immediately begins focusing on the future: whether either team can achieve their goal before the end of the season.

Even the goal is scrappy, with the ball wildly careening around the goalmouth before bouncing off Aaron Ramsey's knee and into the net.  It's a play that seems more the result of numbers and dogged determination than actual skill, although doubtlessly Arsenal have practiced such set-ups on the training ground ad nauseum.  The number of strikes and deflections before the goal seem only fitting for a game that was defined more by hard work than brilliance.

So why do we watch these games, beyond a bizarre investment in the fates of professional athletes who have momentarily pledged allegiance to a particular brand?  Do we just gamble two hours of our time in hopes that something exciting will happen?  There is the fact that these games are part of an ongoing narrative, a narrative that at times threatens to overwhelm the action -- but the main beats of these stories, Arsenal's surprising ascendancy and Burnley's gritty struggle to remain in the Premier League, have been repeated better elsewhere, as in Arsenal's 4-1 triumph over Liverpool the week before or Burnley's improbable victory over defending champions Manchester City.

But still, there are operatic tones to the game that engross even as the stop-start play repels.  Burnley emerge as genuinely heroic figures, or perhaps tragic ones.  Every week, they seem to be trapped in a Sisphyean struggle, battling against the inevitable power of money and history [1].  In seemingly every game the commentators remark that they have put up a good performance in a losing effort.  In another context, their constant fouls would be seen as no more than dirty -- witness the hatred reserved for midtable Stoke City -- but here they take on the air of pluck, a lightweight intelligently tossing sand into his much larger opponent's face.  One constantly has the feeling that Burnley is not far away from a heroic equalizer, but despite Arsenal doing everything to let them back in the game, the moment never fully comes.

If you're into English nationalism, which many Premier League fans are, there's an added resonance to Burnley's struggles.  This is a team composed predominantly of non-celebrity English players, with names like Tom Heaton and Danny Ings, hailing from a small and predominantly white city and playing out of a stadium named Turf Moor.  They seem to have strolled out of a hazily-remembered but often discussed footballing past.  On the other hand, Arsenal is a team who were among the first to bring in foreign players, and are now dominated by them -- they are sponsored by Air Emirates, whose name adorns both their shirts and their stadiums.  I'm not suggesting that the gallantry of Burnley is entirely dependent on nationalist sentiments, but one finds a hint of them in an announcer's shocked statement that not one Arsenal player on the field is English, or the frequent press grumblings about "foreign mercenaries".  If we are inclined to gravitate towards underdog stories in sports, we must remember that such stories can be used to any kind of political end.

In the end, the game is forgotten almost as soon as it is over, with both teams heading towards more important chapters in their stories.  Perhaps there are those in the stands who will look back on this game as a landmark, their first live match or the site of a first date, but for most it will vanish into the endless roil of spectacle and boredom.  Arsenal are competing for different stakes than Burnley, but they are also finding themselves struggling against the weight of already-established history, with a large gap between themselves and the leaders and a dwindling number of games to make it up in.  Nick Hornsby once wrote that soccer fans exist in a constant state of bitter disappointment, and insignificant but tragic games such as this provide a clue as to why.

[1]Which is not to say that Burnley is noncommercial, or in any way rebelling against the oligarchical nature of modern soccer -- if anything, their goal is to become a major brand just like Arsenal.  But in sports, teams come to embody things that are not entirely logical.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Top Chef 6-14: Season Finale, Part 1

Whereas most reality shows take glee in rolling around in cultural trash, Top Chef has aspirations (some would say pretensions) of being classier and perhaps more edifying.  Like its stablemate Project Runway, it aims to bring a high-cultural world to a mass audience without losing the sheen of prestige that comes with that high culture.  The later episodes of each season are especially serious in tone, with most of the reality-TV drama gone as weaker contestants are weeded out and strong chefs have to bring their A games.  It's the equivalent of the play-offs, when all of a sudden everything seems to really matter.

But that's not a garauntee that the final episodes of Top Chef will be compelling television.  This is an obvious point: we can't actually experience the great taste of a masterfully-cooked dish.  There's an appeal to watching someone be excellent at something, whatever that something is, but in the case of Top Chef that excellence seems more distant to the viewer than perhaps in any other non-cooking competition show.  Despite this, Top Chef has succeeded in being good television because of its ability to present compelling narratives about what it means to pursue that excellence.

Season 6 is often regarded as the high-water mark for talent on Top Chef, but there's been relatively little interpersonal drama, and most of it has involved Robin being irritating and people reacting by being dicks to her.  The four chefs left, while obviously talented, are not the most compelling characters Top Chef has ever produced: Mike Voltaggio is vaguely douchey without ever rising to the level of villainy, his brother Brian is dull, Jennifer is talented but seems perpetually drunk, and bearded Kevin is the most likeable by default.  There are a couple of narrative frameworks created by the competition -- Jennifer's downward spiral, the sibling rivalry between Mike and Brian, Mike's vague snobbishness towards Kevin's cooking -- but they're presented almost as an afterthought.  The pleasure comes not in watching these fairly staid people interact, then, but in seeing the culinary invention as they try to one-up-each-other.

This is where season 6 really finds its success.  While we still can't taste the food on screen, seeing obvious innovation is exciting.  There's also the fact that food does in fact have visual appeal, especially the type of cuisine made on Top Chef, which frequently resembles more of a food-based art exhibit than a fulfilling meal.  Unlike in some seasons, there's no clear favourite to win, and everyone left is a contender.  So the season 6 finale works because we don't really need a narrative to care about who wins the competition: we want to see excellence.

As per usual, the finale is held in a different location than the main season and is filmed substantially later, usually after the season has begun to air on television.  As a result, there's a sense of re-acquaintance when we see all of the contestants.  It's only been a week since we last saw them, but the time that's passed is conveyed in their appearances and their refreshed attitudes.  Kevin's facial hair is even more out of control, and Padma has acquired both a baby bump and a bizarre bowl-cut.  The physical changes create a sense of renewal, a sense that this chef has already "made it", and also a sense of separation from the harried chef driven through the meatgrinder of challenges that is the regular season.  These are the contestants with their best feet forward, aware of themselves as both reality TV stars and as top culinary prospects.

The finale this year is set in Napa Valley, and that carries with it all the contradictions of wine country.  Padma arrives on a bronze train with a dining car, rustic and antiquated, but also with the air of old-world cultural prestige that defines fine wine.  And of course, the contestants have to cook on the train.  This is the weird class jumble of Top Chef: making fine cuisine with ingredients like Napa grapes, the type of food that would normally be served for obscene amounts of money, but doing so in an ad-hoc environment usually peopled by low-level service workers like the people who bring you pretzels on the train (train attendants?)  But of course, this is also the contradiction of the fine dining world: elegance and expense up front, monotonous body-destroying low-wage labour in the back.  Top Chef glamourizes this reality, but also is not afraid to call upon the toughness of being a line cook and coming up through the culinary ranks as a source of virtue for its protagonists.  This is, it seems to me, a very neoliberal maneuver: downplay labour exploitation in favour of portraying work as a (competitive) art, while at the same time making the ability to survive said exploitative labour the be-all and end-all of morality.

This particular challenge doesn't so much focus on toughness -- the obligatory mentions that real cooks have to do this work is by now long dead -- so much as it stresses the wacky environment and the difficulties it presents.  (It's not unlike the much-maligned "cook in a gondola" challenge from season 9 in that.)  Also, the winner gets a Prius.  People always win cars on reality competition shows, and it's one of those well-established tropes of the genre that doesn't serve a whole lot of purpose -- it doesn't really raise the stakes, as it has no real weight in the show's narrative, and even as product placement the strained enthusiasm of the contestants has to be a poor advertisement.  ("That's a pretty sweet prize to win" says Kevin with no notable affect).  To be fair to the contestants, it's hard to get excited about a blue Prius.

The omnicompetence of the chefs means that we don't really get the slapstick promised by unprepared people trying to cook in a moving train car.  The less exciting part of the challenge, cooking with Napa grapes, actually ends up shaping the dishes much more.  In Top Chef, food and wine have always gone hand in hand, as in the magazine that heavily sponsors the series (and provides a regular judge).  As someone who doesn't drink, this feels a bit strange to me -- no one ever asks chefs to pair a meal with a particular brand of cigarette, or their favourite type of cocaine -- but I gather it's a well-established part of the culinary world.  Nothing says prestige and sophistication like fine wine, and this prestige seems to exist even when the wine is in its embryonic form of the grape.

Bryan doesn't quite understand the importance of Napa prestige in this challenge, and uses a Concord grape instead of a local variety.  A miffed guest judge criticizes him for this, under the guise of locavorism.  Kevin is the only one to make a desert, showing that he's once again much more on my wavelength than the other contestants.  But the dish he makes ends up looking more like something you would stick a flower into.

The winner is Mike, who is rapidly emerging as a frontrunner.  His dish includes one of his patented conceptual tricks, this time placing the grapes on a wooden skewer with scallops.  It's a simple enough gimmick, putting one food (grapes) in the context you would usually find another (meat), but it's worked time and time again, especially when you add a perennial judge-pleaser in scallops.  Mike seems to have a better ability to conceptualize dishes, and that communicates skill to a TV audience much more than taste.  Jennifer and Bryan's dishes were both praised, but I couldn't follow all of the permutations Bryan's grape took, and Jennifer just seemed to throw it on top of a chicken dish.  Mike doesn't really have the mad genius persona of Marcel or Richard from past seasons (his aura is more that of your vaguely douchey college roommate), but his ability to come up with simple but inventive concepts for dishes makes it easy for Top Chef to present him as the frontrunner.

Following the Quickfire, we get a few brief moments of the chefs hanging around their hotel suite between challenges.  This is normally the milieu in which drama happens, but since everyone is being stubbornly civil to each other, it's just a quiet moment.  There's a kind of recognition, if not beauty, in seeing the contestants do totally mundane things like fix their hair or eat breakfast.  Were it not for the pointless voiceover where Jen tells us that she wants to win, this could almost be mistaken for a scene from an arthouse film.  I'd like to see a little more of this reality in my reality TV.

For the elimination challenge the guests have to cater a crush party, which was sadly not what I thought it was.  The event kind of has its roots in the traditional harvest festival, but abstracted to a point where it becomes indistinguishable from every other gala the Top Chef contenders have to cater.  Still, the aesthetics of harvest and the autumnal setting do add a rustic glow to the episode that the sanitized and geometric world of high cuisine usually lacks.

Actually, this episode kind of sits at the nexus of the culinary world's contemporary contradictions.  There's a back-to-the-earth focus on natural ingredients and farm freshness alongside a veneration of dishes that said farmers would neither recognize nor want to eat.  Food as presented on a Top Chef tasting menu is denatured, usually no longer resembling its original form and certainly having nothing to do with the sustenance of the body.  I don't want to bang the food-populist drum quite too loud, as simply rejecting high cuisine in the name of common sense has its own problems and contradictions,  But this season highlights these ideas in the narrative pitting Kevin and Mike Voltaggio against each other.

The crux of the conflict, as both men explain in confessional interviews, is that Kevin cooks simple Southern food while Mike cooks more complex modernist fare and looks down at Kevin's cooking with condescension.  If this was a movie, we know how it would go: Kevin's simple down-home cooking would eventually overcome Mike's snooty and elitist ways.  But reality, even reality TV, doesn't go quite as smoothly.  For one thing, neither man fully fits their role in the slobs-versus-snobs narrative.  As mentioned above, Mike is not Marcel -- with his frat-boy haircut and baseball cap, he looks just as much like a slob as Kevin does.  And despite the narrative, Kevin isn't exactly serving big platters of chicken and bits.  He twists and transplants Southern tastes into a format that's ultimately pretty familiar to the Top Chef world.  And Mike's desire in this episode to highlight the natural taste of farm-fresh ingredients hardly fits this profile.  This is the blessing and the curse of reality shows -- no matter how much the producers try, the narratives are never neat and tidy, and as a result conflict often ends up being more multifaceted and nuanced than scripted television.

There's nothing particularly complicated about Jen's fall from grace.  She started out at the top, and seemed to grow increasingly disorganized and manic as the competition wore on.  What's weirdly unnerving about this narrative is how there's no apparent cause for Jen's meltdown.  This episode tries to drum up a narrative about her going in too many different directions, but really what we see is an example of the inexplicable self-sabotage that affects so many people in real life.

Along with the narrative, there's a lot of proccessual stuff too: we hear about how Bryan prepares his ribs and how Jennifer adjusts to her coals dying.  This detail in part serves the same function as technobabble - even (especially?) if we don't know what the chefs are talking about, having them talk about it in detail still conveys their competence.  For those who know about all the cooking techniques mentioned, I doubt the series will really add much educational insight, but it may create a point of connection -- "oh, I should try that thing with the duck fat!".  The strength of Top Chef is the way it folds these processual moments into the broader competition narratives that are, at their core, unrelated to whether the cook chooses to braise or roast their meat.  This is best embodied in Tom Colicchio's tours of the kitchen (dubbed by some as the Sniff and Sneer), where he quizzes contestants on both what they're cooking and how they're feeling right now.  The trick of Top Chef is that it isn't really about food, but it manages to convince us that it is through carefully sparse moments of technical information.

The challenge proceeds as these things usually do: luxurious close-ups of the meal in question, brief comments from the judges, and a couple quotes from amazed diners.  The judges seem to both overreact and underreact: Gail responds to a salty dish like she's been punched in the face, while the top dishes just get tight-lipped approval.  And then we get the judge's table, which is actually a little different than usual.  There's a lot of disagreement among the judges, which could potentially highlight the arbitrariness of the whole selection process.  But we do have the narratives to lend credence to the result -- Kevin cooks simple, Michael and Bryan cook complex, and Jennifer is talented but is in a downward spiral.  So Jen goes home.  This is, in fact, where more recent seasons of Top Chef have gotten in trouble.  Instead of building up a narrative that justifies the elimination, later seasons attempt to fake the viewer out by using reality TV tropes to subvert the viewer's expectations.  With viewers still having no way to judge the decision, this can lead to confusion and even a sense of injustice, as with the eleventh season finale.  Season six uses a more conventional structure -- when you hear someone get the phone call from home, you know they're going to be on the chopping block -- but it works.  There is, after all, little room for the avant-garde in reality TV.

Given the formulaic nature of the genre (and fans who are not interested in seeing it rise above that formula), how can we critically gauge reality television?  To be more specific, what is it that makes Top Chef's sixth season so acclaimed and its ninth so despised?  The calibre of chefs?  The personal conflict on display?  (TV producers assume that viewers want a lot of drama, but the mostly conflict-free season 6 is better liked than the drama-filled season 2 or 9).  The personalities?  The unpredictability?  The prettiness of the food?  This season, and this episode, has some of these qualities and very little of others.  All we know is that we are drawn into the series and, in the end, satisfied.  Perhaps, instead of dragging over the expectations of scripted television, we need a new critical apparatus to figure out why.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Chris Gethard Show 141: Should We Keep Doing This Show?

In my last post, I talked about how network TV shows have their creative direction constantly affected by the network's ability to cancel or renew them.  In an age of long-term story arcs, the network show is never quite sure just how long it will last.  On the exact opposite end of this spectrum is The Chris Gethard Show.  A product of public-access television and Internet streaming, the show can go on for precisely as long as the creators keep showing up to the studio.  And as a call-in/variety show, Chris Gethard doesn't have to think about when a story goes on to be wrapped up.  Theoretically, this show could go on forever, or at least until New York is underwater.

This is the most absolute form of creative freedom you'll find in TV (as in most popular art forms, freedom and obscurity go hand in hand).  But as we've all learned from Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility -- or, more precisely, with great freedom comes great significance.  Ending Chris Gethard would be a deliberate act, one that cannot be blamed on ratings or storylines.  There can be no "save our show" campaign, as the fans would have to uncomfortably argue that the show should be saved from those who create it[1].  I don't like to talk about "agency", but in independent art the agency of the creator is both blessing and burden.

"Should We Keep Doing This Show?" is a mostly symbolic attempt to extend this agency to the fans of the show.  The format is about as barebones as Chris Gethard gets: each caller phones in and responds to the titular question with either "yes" or "no".  After three weeks of deliberation and ambivalence by the creators, the yes-or-no format is refreshing in its directness, although it doesn't stop one caller from hemming and hawing through a longwinded list of TV analogies.

This episode is the culmination of a month-long arc titled "Evolve or Die", with each episode dealing in some way with the possible impending end of the show and the possibility of its reinvention.  This is another divergence from the chronological world of the TV series, which resists both evolution and death.  If anything, there's a palpable fear of The Chris Gethard Show becoming an institution, or even a regular job.

In part this is a discomfort with the show's success and its ever-growing cult following.  A few weeks prior, a remarkably sober panel discussed how Gethard could no longer describe himself as the underdog.  What was a scrappy public access call-in show watched by no one is now an internationally-watched show that is praised and criticized just like any other TV program (by people such as myself).

The Chris Gethard Show's improvisational interaction with its audience and friendly, accepting ethos (summed up by Mal Blum telling the audience "no one should ever be alone" the previous week) created an affectionate bond between performers and audience that was far beyond the usual relations of fandom.  Several viewers have spoke of the show as a kind of therapy.  But what is becoming increasingly clear is that this relationship is not all warm feelings, but also constitutes a responsibility, perhaps even a burden.  In previous episodes, Gethard despaired at the idea that he would have to stay on the air to keep helping people through their mental issues.  He said that it wasn't his responsibility to look after the mental health of strangers, especially at the expense of his own mental health, and that's certainly true.  But perhaps what's psychologically helpful about the show is precisely that it allows the audience to believe that they aren't strangers to Chris Gethard and the rest of the cast.

After weeks of experimentation, including the shocking cold open of "Why Did You Stop Watching The Chris Gethard Show" and the solo lunacy of "I Can Be Bad All By Myself", we get a conventional Chris Gethard opening: Murph screams at the camera, the LLC play the opening theme (sans Hallie this time), and the panel introduces us to the theme for the week.  It's a classic Chris Gethard panel too, with all of the show's regulars.  This return to convention serves two purposes in the episode.  Firstly, giving the audience what they've come to expect after weeks of scorning them is a gesture that helps invite them back into the fold.  (Although this is mitigated a moment later when Gethard chastises the audience for chanting.)  Secondly, it repeats the typical opening with the knowledge that this might be the last time it happens.

The actual call-in portion of the show is fairly straightforward.  There's some early pretense at keeping score, with Bethany drawing a tally on Jesse's chest, but pretty much everyone who calls in says "yes", and even the few who say "no" just want to see the crew work on other projects.  Whatever mixed feelings that are felt by the crew aren't shared by the audience.  This puts the creators of the show in a somewhat awkward position.

What emerges from the conversation is less a sense of creative exhaustion than physical exhaustion.  Gethard says "I'm very tired, almost all the time.  I'm growing up.  I don't know if I want to spend my whole life getting hit with broom by relative strangers".  As such, this string of episodes has felt a lot like Gethard asking the audience and the rest of the crew permission for a decision that he's already made, frustratingly disguised as a discussion.  This is permission that, for the most part, the audience refuses to give -- most if not all would be accepting of Chris's decision to end the show, but there are few "nos" among either callers or panelists.

But a funny thing happens.  A guy calls from Pakistan, and talks briefly about the weird cricket-star-lead revolution that's taking place in his country.  Gethard gets excited at the prospect of connecting to someone in such a radically different situation.  Towards the end of the episode, a guy with tattoos ased on the show calls in and proceeds to blow everyone's minds.  Far from the dejected, exhausted Gethard of "Why Did You Stop Watching?", we have the Chris Gethard of endless and uncomplicated enthusiasm, the force of positive energy that provides the ethos of the show.  He starts making plans for "If we come back".  By the end of the episode, I was distinctly more convinced that we'd see the show return than I was at the start.  The audience renewed their commitment to the performers, not by simply voting "yes" but by engaging Chris on a human level.

As usual, there's a lot more weirdness going on around the edges of the episode's main topic.  The set of The Chris Gethard Show is designed to convey total anarchy: there's Mimi on the Hoops, a man behind the plant, and a bunch of people in costumes sitting behind the main action.  These aspects are rarely commented on, but there's a sense that any one of these people could step up and become the protagonist of the show at any time.  Starting with its tradition of including "randoms" on the panel, The Chris Gethard Show has made the line between performer and audience porous to the point of nonexistence.

This sense of anarchy extends to the show's proceedings, where unexpected tangents often take on a life of their own.  The most notable example was a monologue by the Human Fish.  Besides being a great visual, the Human Fish usually doesn't do much more than his typical "A vs. B" judgement.  But suddenly, he speaks at length, and of course he has a complex inner life, and the flimsy backstory about him being here to learn about human society becomes meaningful and even touching.  The moments that have been self-conscious markers for the show's dumbness, like the "eat a burrito off my belly" episode, are moments of hope here.  When he announces that he will be returning to the sea, it's a more poetic rationale for why it might be time to end the show than any other justification made over the last month.

Less memorable is a recurring bit where the writers try out "characters we have to get on the show before it ends", which are of course all stupid one-note puns (Santa and Satan, Dr. Heckle and Mr. Snyde, the Nun-Chucks).  The purpose of The Chris Gethard Show's writers, as the show is usually better when it's being spontaneous, and as such the writing has often been the but of jokes.  This hews pretty close to the alt-comedy isn't-it-funny-to-think-someone-would-laugh-at-this routine, which I'm not a big fan of.  But even these jokes are enlivened by the positive energy that flows through The Chris Gethard Show, which suggests that maybe terrible puns deserve to be celebrated as well.

If this is the last episode of the show, it will be an odd one but definitely a fitting one.  Lots of television series, some quite mainstream, have done self-reflexive finales, but I can't think of any that have tackled the act of ending a beloved show so head-on.  But even with such a seemingly depressing topic, so much positivity comes flooding in through the phone lines and the energy of the performers.  Even the grimmest episode of "Evolve or Die" had a moment where a story about Gethard going to a baseball game made everyone crack up.  Even though I hope the show comes back, there would be no more appropriate way to end than everyone beaming and trying not to laugh at the end of a night they were prepared to be miserable.

[1]Although this hasn't stopped Doctor Who fans over the past decade.