Saturday, March 31, 2012

Community 3-11: Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts

In the three-month interval between the previous episode of Community and this one, the show had gathered up such a massive, Katamari-esque ball of cultural associations that the actual text of Community had been more or less occluded from view.  Rather than being a low-key, dorky show that was only ostensibly about community college students it became the latest in a long line of TV martyrs.  Community became a stand-in for every show that was too smart or too good for TV: it was Arrested Development, it was Firefly, it was Freaks and Geeks and Deadwood and My So-Called Life.  The Internet, never much motivated by anything other than having its entertainment taken away, raged against the soulless and inept NBC machine.  People who never watched the show were suddenly passionate about its possible cancellation (we can call this "the Conan effect".)

(I'm a huge fan of the show and think it's one of the best comedies on TV, but I got sick very quickly of all this sturm und drang.  In general I find ratings discussion about the least interesting way of considering TV aside from pure recap, and I wish we could just talk about the show without it always turning into a discussion of demographics and timeslots and how the network is screwing Community again but, well, here we are.  And in retrospect, by not having it on the winter schedule NBC only pushed its return back like a month, which doesn't seem worth all the drama in the end.)

Given that, it's hard to read "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" in any context except that of the return of Community, even though this was probably not considered at all in its production.  Texts acquire cultural baggage which can overwhelm their literal meaning and existence -- just try to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and give it a fair shake.  Curiously, this episode contains a pretty significant plot point -- Shirley's wedding -- that was all but ignored in the discussion over it.  The meta-drama around Community has, I think, become much more interesting to many people than the drama and gags within the show.  But I think the show still has some power and merit of its own that raises it above merely an object of obsession.

"Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" starts out with a big table scene, one of the staples of Community.  These scenes are usually some of the most purely enjoyable because they allow the characters to bounce off each other and trade some of the show's rapid-fire jokes and free association without the burden of having to push forward a plot.  I would kill for an entire episode of this, as unpalatable as it probably is to the networks ("Cooperative Calligraphy" comes close, but is still based on a central plot).  In this case there's a bit of a shift-up, as the scene takes place around a cafeteria table instead of the usual big study room table, but the basic beats remain the same.

Of course, the scene isn't completely plotless, as it lays the groundwork for the overarching storylines of the episode, but these elements are introduced in a way that feels spontaneous and distinctly non-storyboarded.  A lot of times the more sitcommy scenarios in Community can feel too schematic, but these scenes always have the air of improv, with a new character coming in with a hook and everyone reacting to them, but not being afraid to go off on a tangent.  Pierce coming in with his "entrepreneur" look -- a great piece of costuming -- and a handful of dumb gadgets is the perfect kind of addition to this scene.

(The over-the-shoulder shot is interesting here, and highlights one of the advantages of a single-camera comedy.  Instead of observing the characters performing as though we were a stage audience, the camera places us amongst the characters themselves, as though we were actually a part of this circle of friends.)

This freeform scene is interrupted by the arrival of Andre, Shirley's ex-husband, who is back to propose marriage to her.  Andre is an interesting kind of disruption to the group.  He doesn't have a real comedic character hook, and with him comes the reminder of Shirley's past and her family.  Their children rarely appear, but there's a tension that their existence creates: unlike the rest of the group[1], Shirley isn't an unburdened twenty-something who can go off on whimsical adventures without having to worry about responsibilities.  Community chooses to elide this sometime in favour of involving her to the whimsy, but "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" very consciously deploys this.  Even before they start fighting about whether Shirley should be more or less involved in Greendale, Andre's presence suggests an uncomfortable reintroduction of the real world to the surreal setting of Greendale.

That dynamic -- the surreal being threatened by the real -- is what fuels most of the subplots in this episode.  As much for its characters as for its audience, Community is a safe and welcoming bubble where imagination can be unleashed without a real fear of consequences.  As much as these characters fight, they still make up a fairly warm group of oddballs that mutually support each others' fantasies -- a community, if you will.  From a more negative perspective, this is a state of arrested development and a bit of a cult, something the show isn't afraid to recognize.  "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" is a part in a coming of age story, in which our sheltered characters realize that they have to face the real world through a ritual experience, the wedding (which is really an "okay-now-you're-really-an-adult-party-time-is-over" ritual), but also isn't afraid to recognize that coming of age kind of sucks.  (This can also be seen in "Mixology Certification".)

The most obvious expression of this is in the plotline where Abed and Troy attempt to act normal for Shirley's wedding, excising their weirdness through an all-day Dreamatorium session.  When the two arrive they're so dry and normal that they're abnormal, ending up seeming halfway between sarcastic and door-to-door missionary.

It's a testimony to the comic skill of Donald Glover and Danny Pudi that they manage to make the most intentionally dull lines hilarious.  But in the end the two manage to re-whimsify themselves with only a hint of struggle against the temptations of the normal world.  Although Abed and Troy will eventually have to face the real world, for now they can put it off.  (The temporary-ness of this resolution is acknowledged in the very next episode, "Contemporary Impressionists".)

Jeff and Britta are also forced to confront adulthood in this episode, mainly through the fear that they'll become their parents.  This is another one of the nightmarish aspects of growing up -- the increasing suspicion that you're slowly sliding into a life that you spent your entire teenaged years disparaging.  If Abed and Troy live in a continued childhood, Jeff and Britta are in a continued adolescence, constantly rebelling against what's expected of them -- but the wedding presents the onset of terrifying adulthood, so terrifying for these two because they have no model for adulthood other than one they see (with some justification) as a kind of doom.

Once again, the show doesn't resolve this fatalism entirely.  Jeff and Britta believe that they are doomed to unhappy marriages, despite their antipathy towards marriage in general, and almost marry each other in a hilarious drunken shout-fest.  Shirley and Andre talk them down, by arguing that marriage can be happy with hard work and open communication [2], but it still leaves marriage as an inevitable future -- one that Jeff and Britta are free to make the best of, but one that they can't avoid.  (The Jeff/Britta pairing has a similar air of inevitability, something that Community frequently plays around with.)

This dynamic is reinterpreted most interestingly when it comes to Shirley's plotline.  In "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" she's torn between her impending marriage and her career ambitions, which involve opening up a sandwich shop with Pierce.  The choice between romance and career is a very typical one, the foundation of a thousand romantic comedies, but it exists in an interesting dynamic with the plotlines discussed above.  If we use the model of these other stories, that would position Shirley's wedding as the inevitable sign of adulthood that she has to confront.  But that doesn't quite work.  Rather, it seems like advancing her career is a form of growth for Shirley, converting her from a housewife constrained to the domestic to a full human being [3].

In other words, while for the other characters Greendale is a retreat into a childish world, for Shirley it creates the possibility of her own coming of age.  And unlike the other characters being dragged helplessly towards an inevitable adulthood, Shirley is actively pursuing it.  Through her Community is possibly suggesting a resolution towards the dilemma it presents in this episode.

Despite this, however, the issues she faces still aren't settled.  She doesn't get the restaurant with Pierce, and Andre still isn't fully accepting of her ambitions -- he just loves her enough to put up with them for now.  As with the other plotlines, the conflict is deferred, but not resolved.  This is a really smart approach to serialization, which uses both the episode and the series as distinct narrative units.  Problems can be addressed within the framework of an individual episode, but this is always temporarily pushing back the inevitable reality that these characters don't want to face.  It's like a comedy version of The Shield, but perhaps more formally deft.

Oh yeah, and this episode was really funny.  Sometimes that gets lost.

Next week: "Is it true that when they told you of your wife's death you said 'Oh no, now I'll need a fourth for bridge"?"

[1]Pierce isn't a twenty-something, but he doesn't have any dependents or real responsibilities, so in many ways he's closer to the younger characters than Shirley.

[2]Honestly, I'm with Jeff and Britta (and Laura Kipnis) on this one.  "Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts" more or less repeats the societal refrain on romantic relationships, which is that they "take work" but are life-defining and necessary, making marriage an institution that never fails, but only is failed.  To be fair, Community also offers alternate models of living contently (Troy and Abed never seem desperate for love), but the big moment of sincerity at this episode's climax does seem very orthodox.

[3]The idea of business as being liberating from the patriarchal domestic sphere was a tenet of Freidan-esque liberal second-wave feminism, and has been beat up by smarter people than me.  It still gets reproduced unabashedly by capitalist media, and this episode of Community falls into line with that.  I know it's unreasonable to expect my favourite shows to be models of radical leftism, but suffice to say that in the fight between patriarchy and entrepreneurship I'm stepping out of the way.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Archer 3-12: Space Race Part 1

(This is either the ninth or the twelfth episode of the third season, based on where you place the three-parter that aired in the fall.  Wikipedia sayeth this is number twelve, so I'm going with that.)

So, how seriously are we supposed to take the plots in Archer?  Of course, this is a comedy that plays fast and loose with reality, history, and narrative sense, set in some strange mixture of the 1960s Cold War world and our present day.  The plots are usually obvious take-offs of spy movie conventions -- in this episode the Moonraker-esque space jaunt.  It's all supposed to be rather silly, but is it possible to say that an episode of Archer is poorly plotted?

Not that "Space Race", the first of a season-closing two-parter, is that poorly plotted episode.  For the most part it operates just fine, moving the main cast from one space-related set piece to another, and ends with a decent twist that was, like any good twist, in retrospect totally telegraphed from the last scene.  The implausibility of this all -- a group of secret agents being sent into space with a day's training -- is pretty much par for the course.

Despite this, there are moments when the strain of the Archer formula starts bogging down the show.  Discovering that Pam and Cheryl stowed on board is not really a surprise because, well, they've done that on pretty much every other far-flung adventure the spies have had, and the show needs to get the full cast up into space.  They're hilarious characters, but they don't really do anything in this episode to justify their presence beyond their usual weird-sex schtick, and I'm starting to worry that the show is relying too much on its breakout characters.  I mean, Pam is great, but there's a definite danger of her becoming the next Kenneth.

The episode as a whole feels kind of padded out.  This is always the danger of two-parters, the usual format for stories that don't quite fit into the standardized episode format but could probably be trimmed down to maybe an episode and a half.  This episode in particular is all first act, focusing on getting our characters up into space and setting up what should be a fun showdown with Astronaut Bryan Cranston's[1] band of space mutineers next week.  The jokes and plot beats all seemed sort of repetitive.  How many times do we have to see Lana vomiting after all?  Once is clever foreshadowing for the inevitable pregnancy reveal next episode, after the fifth time it's overkill.

And... I sound like a giant curmudgeon again, don't I?  Of course, Archer doesn't have to be relentlessly moving the plot forward, and some of the most fun moments are random tangents.  For people that are invested in goofing off with these characters, this episode was a lot of fun (see, for instance, Todd VanDerWerff's glowing review.  I don't want to rag on TVDW, who I usually like, but this review kind of reads like an account of a great party instead of a television show.  "And then those guys I love showed up, and we all sung Danger Zone together!")  I don't want to dismiss that pleasure -- as I've argued before, part of the sitcom tradition (which is at least a strand in Archer's DNA) is that it's an environment of virtual friends that you can easily step into every week.

But Archer is not, and never really has been, a hang-out show.  Even if the plots aren't usually the most interesting part of any given episode, they are there for a reason.  Most obviously, they provide a steady stream of new material for the episode's running gags to bounce off of.  So a lack of progression in plot leads to a lack of progression in jokes.

There are certainly one-liners in Archer, but pretty much every episode has a string of running jokes.  These jokes are developed over the course of the episode, put into new backdrops, permutated in strange ways, and finally taken to a ridiculous crescendo.  There's something of this here -- we have, for example, Archer spending most of the episode trying to get Drake to say "danger zone", one of his well-established pop-culture obsessions, but this only happens in the closing line of the episode.  Here the structure of the jokes mirror the structure of the storyline, with Drake's seeming ignorance being flipped around to reveal that he has always been in a savvy, superior position.  And it's a really fun treat for TV addicts.

Sometimes these jokes can be sustained and developed across multiple episodes or even the course of the series.  For example, in a previous episode Archer became addicted to sex with Pam (which is apparently mind-blowing), and one of these scenes included a paddle as an unremarked-upon background element, suggesting a kind of undefinably chaotic, slightly kinky, sexual whirlwind.  In "Space Race Part 1" the paddle returns as a kind of hilariously precarious zero-gravity modesty-saver.  It's an inspired bit, even if I am rather uncertain about Pam's presence in this episode.

However, the key to this structure is the progression, which this episode neglects too often.  One of the recurring lines here is "Read a book", always preceeded by an unlikely character lecturing another on some obscure academic point, a part of Archer's tendency towards out of place high-culture references.  This is funny the first couple times, but the same joke is just repeated too much without variation.  The same holds for Lana's above-mentioned vomiting, or any of the other recurring gags.

"Space Race Part 1" is far from being a bad episode of television -- there are a lot of genuinely funny parts, and nothing really unpleasant.  It basically takes the Archer cast and lets them play around in a more science-fictional setting than usual, and so for fans of these characters it's a treat.  But it's worth examining because it seems to reflect a kind of laziness that established series sometimes drift into, where it becomes merely enough to set your characters spinning, have them do their thing, and go home.  The Simpsons is probably the most visible and extended descent into this -- instead of more ambitious earlier episodes, the plots eventually descended into "The Simpsons go to X" or "deal with Y".

Obviously Archer isn't at that level, at least not yet, but this could be an early warning sign.  Or maybe it's just the kind of sub-par episode that every show turns out.  But it does make me a lot less sure that Adam Reed (pretty much the sole writing staff) knows the real strengths of his show, the more subtle structural strengths instead of wacky characters.

Next week: "I know what an analogy is.  It's a thought with another thought's hat on."

[1]I'm all about the Cranston, and he does a great job as the rogue commander here, being so trustworthy that the obvious betrayal seems genuinely surprising, but at the same time believable.  Still, he might be too good an actor to be a celebrity guest star.  I didn't realize that it was him until the end credits, and while looking back you can hear his distinctive cadence come through at points, there's never really a "Hey, it's that guy!" moment.  Which is good in its own way, but it's strangely subdued for a show that devoted a whole episode to "Hey, it's Burt Reynolds!" earlier this season.

(On the other hand, I can't imagine the voice of Bryan Cranston is a huge ratings draw, Emmys or not.)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Good Wife 1-06: Conjugal

We open on a scene that is blatantly not a scene.  A big, burly black man straight out of central casting robs a convenience store, all of which plays out in action-movie fashion, including shakycam taken to an almost parodic extent.  This is a show -- specifically a low-budget, ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie, but not the show we're watching, and everything from its stylistic choices to its colour palette inform us of this.  When we pan back from the TV into the law office we're used to, it's the comparison of sensationalized television to a more complex and less convenient reality.

Of course, The Good Wife is in itself a strange version of reality, no matter what it chooses to compare itself to.  It's a glossy primetime legal drama, about good-looking lawyers with perfect hair who always end up defending the right side of a case, and its central characters -- despite their personal problems and downfalls -- exist in the rarefied air of the 1%.  The visual style is an elegant, comfortable mixture of golds and browns, which is definitely different from the action movie faux-realism of the film within the show, but not really any more or less truthful.

Compare and contrast:

These are the ideas that The Good Wife continually toys with: truth and deception, reality and fantasy.  Throughout "Conjugal", and the series at large (at least judging from the episodes I've seen so far), we're offered a variety of fakes and simulacra, with the heroes creating these deceptions as often as not.  The episodic plot here is a fairly straightforward treatment of this: Alicia and Carrie are charged with defending a death-row inmate, who they discover has been falsely convicted.  The false narrative is replaced with a true one, resulting in a triumph for justice.  Elsewhere in the episode, things are not so simple.

Take the titular conjugal visit, which is staged so that Alicia can get information from her husband without them being monitored.  The express purpose for the visit is fake -- they don't even share a bed, with Peter sleeping on the floor.  The simulacrum bedroom that the prison provides is a transparent example of falseness.  But it is a legitimate reconnecting experience for them, and in the end the lie becomes a form of truth -- the two being around each other clearly begins to heal their marriage and Peter's mental state, even if they don't physically do the deed.

I have to give a lot of credit to Josh Charles' performance here.  Peter is theoretically a repulsive character, but Charles invests him with a charm and at least an appearance of decency that makes it obvious why Alicia would try to save their marriage.  It's also suggested repeatedly that Peter was more effective and scrupulous in his professional life than most of his colleagues, drawing parallels with Elliot Spitzer, who just happened to have his personal dirt dug up just as he was moving against the banks.

The idea of falsity also comes up at the beginning of the episode, with the inmate's widow.  We first see her making what appears to be a personal, emotional plea to Alicia, begging her to recognize the humanity of the man she's defending and offering her a picture of their family.  Later on we learn that she went through the exact seem routine for Carrie, producing an identical photograph.  Both lawyers are amused at the woman's duplicity, but don't fully condemn her -- "Hey, it worked, didn't it?"  There are types of falseness that "Conjugal" resolutely condemns, such as the police officer's negligence and deceit, but it also recognizes that deceit can be employed to good ends -- and that it can also contain elements of the truth, as the wife's story certainly does.

The standard episode of The Good Wife features a case-of-the-week plotline as well as an ongoing narrative involving Alicia's background as the wife of a disgraced politician.  "Conjugal" is more episodic than most, with the above-mentioned conjugal visit being the only real part that touches on Alicia's past, and that advances character more than the plot.  It's a bit of an odd choice, as what we have here is a stock legal drama plot that is well-executed but not exactly reinvented.

Lawyers may be the third point in the holy trinity of TV professions, but unlike the other two -- cops and doctors -- TV has to go a lot farther to establish attorneys as a force for good.  (I would probably disagree with the idea of police as being automatically heroic, but most people wouldn't).  In reality Alicia would spend a lot of time defending guilty men, which is a necessary aspect of the criminal justice system, and it may be possible that these cases happen in the margins between episodes.  But, at least in the episodes I've seen thus far, Alicia falls on the side of justice, and cleanly[1].

This isn't to say that the episodic plotlines aren't enjoyable in the same way that a lot of genre entertainment is -- even if we know the end result, there's a lot of pleasure in seeing how we get there.  But there are also problematic aspects in this structure that it's hard to ignore. The tone of this episode, in which the courageous white lawyers save the life of a burly black guy, has undeniable Blind Side-ish overtones.  The accused's wife asks the lawyers to consider the man as a human being, but the show never really does -- he's a cause, and little more.  (Hell, I can't even remember his name).  In a series that spends a lot of time complicating conventional narratives, it's disconcerting to see the savior narrative presented so straightforwardly.

So we have an unjustly sentenced black inmate, but "Conjugal" seems to go out of its way to disclaim the racial outrage that usually comes with such cases.  There's some suggestion of racism in his conviction, but this is all pinned on an individual, the corrupt police officer who rigged the line-up.  Worse, there's a scene where the lawyers discuss the inaccuracy of cross-race identification, and their brought-in expert describes it as a reciprocal and universal phenomenon.  She demonstrates this by showing how Kalinda (the only non-white cast member) can't correctly identify a white man.  This turns an issue that's often attributed to personal racism into something that's scientifically natural and not specific to any one race.  In other words: Hello rich white audience.  You know, it's totally not your fault that you can't tell all those black guys on The Wire apart.

We end up discovering that it was simply another black criminal who did the crime, although this is assumed on fairly shaky ground.  A situation that has potential for institutional criticism becomes a story about one lazy cop who got the wrong perp.  All so that we can get the money shot of our cuddly inmate tearfully forgiving the white woman who misidentified him.

And so I end up once again frustrated with the two disparate parts of The Good Wife: the interesting and nuance ongoing storyline and the fairly standard episodic storylines.  It's a good idea for a format, one that preserves the episode as a significant narrative unit while still being able to tell a longer-form story, but one side of the equation undoubtedly feels fresher than the other.  Perhaps it's just that the case-of-the-week narrative are obviously structured around a familiar format, and have to hit the same beats like clockwork, but they just feel too pat and morally simple compared to the more complex world of politics the show is enmeshed in.

Of course, if The Good Wife was just about Alicia's relationship with her husband, it would probably be a movie and not a TV show.  And its impetus for episodic plots seems a lot more natural than, for example, the one in Pushing Daisies.  With a little more elbow grease and nuance, the cases of the week could become as interesting as the long-term political dealings... and judging from the increasing praise the series has gotten for parts I haven't watched, I don't think that's an unreasonable hope.

Next week: "Would you say we'd be venturing into a zone of danger?"

[1] To its credit, The Good Wife is willing to devote episodes to a lot of less sensational cases -- the episode after this is about a slip-and-fall suit, for instance.  But there are some institutions of TV lawyering that don't change.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon 2/24: Paul Rudd

I'm almost not sure what to say about another episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon -- my first piece on the show a couple weeks ago kind of exhausted my comments on the format, and the content is by design not supposed to have a lot of depth (although sometimes the most interesting media can be that which is ostensibly shallow).  But my patented Episodist Random-Episode-O-Tron has pointed me towards it once again, so here are a couple observations on another episode of Fallon's little corner of late-night.

-This week is "Broadway Week", which at this point in the week consists of Fallon standing in front of a theatre plugging the show before the opening credits and a song from a Broadway musical instead of the usual indy-rock guests.  Still, it's nice to have a theme that separates this episode from the standard installment of Late Night, even though that mainly amounts to discovering in the interviews that apparently every celebrity has done a stint on Broadway at one point or another.  Since Fallon announces in this episode that next week will be "Bruce Springsteen week", apparently the theme idea is sticking around.

The Broadway performance this night -- a medley from Sister Act -- comes off pretty badly despite being the only Broadway-related thing on the show.  Songs from musicals are rarely great outside of their context, and this one in particular is a confused number where a bunch of people sing ecstatically in nun costumes for no apparent reason -- and if you wanted to see that, you could go to church.

-Speaking of hacky jokes...

The opening monologue still isn't very good, which is half because of the canned current-events "zinger" humour and half because Fallon is still uncomfortable doing stand-up.  Tonight's desk segment, which has basically the same kind of topic-joke-move on format, this time with a strained "Thank You note" theme attached, is mysteriously much funnier, although a lot of the punchlines are still sort of obvious.  Maybe there's a different pool of writers that work on these segments, or maybe it's just that the desk segment uses less zeitgest-y topics, ranging out for jokes about TV cliffhangers, sit-ups, and Popeye.  Or maybe it's just the "sentimental" music cue constantly re-starting, which flips between being annoying and hilarious like any good repeating gag.

-This episode's main guest is Paul Rudd, who is okay.  It's one of those moments where you expect a comedic actor to give funny interviews, but in his appearance here he just seems like a regular guy who occasionally makes an okay joke.  Rudd is a fairly popular actor, but he hasn't really developed a persona -- he can't "play Paul Rudd", and that makes for a forgettable, if perhaps unusually honest[1], interview.

The second segment eschews the usual game format for another, slightly rarer Fallon standby, the weird fantasy segment, in which Fallon and Rudd talk about (and display posters for) a realm of imaginary B-movies they starred in.  It's only really weird by the thoroughly mainstream standards of  late-night talk shows, but it is a nice twist on the usual snow job, and there's almost an endearing love for shitty movies that makes the later plug for a Tyler Perry film seem almost heartfelt.  The only issue, and this is one of Fallon's likeable flaws, is the inability of both guys (but mostly Jimmy) to keep a straight face.

-Movie promoters need to do a better job picking clips to show. The one for the movie Paul Rudd is ostensibly here to promote, Wanderlust, is a generic piece of lol-hippie jokes that doesn't really make me want to see the film but at least is a theoretically comedic scene.  When Gabrielle Union comes on, the clip for the Tyler Perry movie she's doing seems to be all set-up for some later joke that never comes.  Either something is going wrong at the switchbox or (and this is depressingly more likely) these are actually the best moments of the movie.

-Still, for all the ordinariness of this night's show, there are still some moments of strangeness poking through that make it worthwhile.  (Strangeness is latent in almost every piece of commercial fluff, it's just a question of how much the creators let it be expressed.)  Memorably, the keyboardist of The Roots spends an entire segment wearing googly eyes for no reason, with the camera constantly cutting back to him while Fallon tries to go about with his scheduled bit, as if pretending that nothing is going on.  With a bit lower budget and more strange facial hair, this could almost pass as a Tim & Eric segment highlighting the strangeness of conventional TV.

There's another moment of weirdness during the Rudd interview, when Rudd and Fallon set up the clip, but instead of cutting to the film clip it shows... a clip from Rudd's interview on David Letterman, with the exact same dialogue setting up the exact same clip.  This seems like a way of both guys calling out themselves on their artificiality and their replacability as cogs in the great media-promotion machine, and it works especially well because both of the exchanges seem natural in and of themselves -- it's only when placed together that the artificial convenience of them starts to stink).

(I'm half convinced that this is just something added into my avi by a merry band of pirates, because the two guys on screen don't react to it much.  If it is, big ups to the pirates for being creative in their vandalism.  If it's not, big ups to the show for a genuinely surprising moment.)

I'm not going to say that strange moments like these are what I watch the show for -- that's a cop-out, like saying you read Playboy for the articles.  The benign talk-show comedy, as easy as it is to mock and criticize, is also a genuine pleasure most of the time.  But it's the moments where the show bursts at its seams, where it shows awareness of its own limitations and is willing to scratch if not smash those walls, that I get snapped out of my stupor and sit up and take interest.

Next Week: "You go to the deepest heart of Appalachia, you will not find a town smaller than Chicago."

[1] I want to use "honest" here as distinguished from "candid", which means putting on a cry-ey face and airing strategically planned dirty laundry.  Sometimes, being honest means being boring.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Top Chef 3-05: Latin Lunch

Food television is one of the stranger genres that emerged out of the great cable TV explosion.  Shows like Top Chef or Food Network programming seem completely unsuited to the medium, as food interacts primarily with the senses completely removed from TV.  On Top Chef the judges pay lip service to food needing to appeal to all five senses, hence their favouring of elaborate plate setups, but in reality taste is what's really important, with smell and touch also playing key roles.  This means that, unlike a show like American Idol (or Top Chef's unofficial sister show, Project Runway) the audience has to be told, not shown, whether contestants are succeeding or failing.  From the soft-porn shots of each contestant's dish, it's really impossible to tell whether it tastes good or bad.  This would seem to violate some of the most important rules of storytelling, and completely estrange the audience.

From a different perspective, it seems only natural that art and popular media would deal with food -- after all, it's a critical part of daily lives, and something that appeals to us on a visceral level.  A cooking show can be educational, offering a direct intervention into our lives, or sympathetic, providing us with something we can relate to our own cooking experiences.  However, Top Chef does neither.  It's hard for the ordinary mom making a tuna casserole to relate to the stainless-steel kitchens and haute cuisine of this show, and as far as the educational aspect goes I've watched several seasons without figuring out what the heck emulsification means.  (Imagine my shock when I finally looked up foie gras on Wikipedia).  Moreover, the type of food that gets cooked on Top Chef is not exactly something that appeals to a mass audience.  Before this started airing, if you asked me to draw a Venn diagram of fine dining connoisseurs and reality TV fanatics, I probably would have given you two circles several metres apart.

But despite this all, Top Chef works, both commercially and aesthetically.  It's currently in its ninth season with several successful spin-offs and is widely recognized as one of the best reality TV shows around (although this may be damning with faint praise).  Even though I'm a fast-food junkie who would probably hate most of the dishes on the show, I love it anyway.  And this is because, although Top Chef certainly doesn't elide the topic of food and the pleasures of food porn, it's not fundamentally about food.  It's a story about competition, and a perennially well-executed one.

After the previously-ons and opening credits, "Latin Lunch" starts off as most Top Chef episodes do, with a rare moment or two of the chefs hanging around their home apartment.  The whole "having to share a house" part of the competition is a vestigial element of previous competitive reality shows, as it rarely seems to be more than a producing convenience here.  Every once in a while they'll be some trivial drama when someone is using all the burners to cook breakfast or something, but it mainly seems like an odd addition to try and add cheap drama to a series that is at least ostensibly focused on competition.

I say "ostensibly focused" for a reason, and not just because I like using big words.  Format-wise, Top Chef appears to be all a battle about culinary skills -- there's only a minute or so of hanging around the house before we jump into the first challenge, and the competitions are loudly announced by jarring smash-cuts to super-serious bumpers.

But this appearance is somewhat deceiving.  While the vast majority of its runtime is spent in competition, the bedrock of Top Chef is the kind of interpersonal relations, carefully edited narratives, and sudsy drama which propelled Survivor to the top a decade ago.  The key to Top Chef's success is how it weaves these stories primarily through the cook-off segments[1], allowing it to eschew the aesthetic of trashy reality TV (wannabe actors screaming at each other in a McMansion) in favour of high-culture sheen, while delivering all of the pleasures of those trashy shows.  In other words, it's a guilty pleasure without the guilt (and this may be what lead to its critical success more than anything else).  On a second look this becomes clear even in the one-minute prologue to this week's challenges, which quietly lays the groundwork for all of the episode's major storylines: the increasing difficulty of the competition, Joey's redemption for previous poor performances, and Hung's arrogance and growing insanity.

This brings us to the show's major strength, editing which is among the best on TV (at the very least, it's among the most editing on TV).  In this episode there are eleven chefs still in the running, which means that on top of any interpersonal stories there are eleven narratives to weave together into a short amount of time.  Some of these narratives are simple -- the basic conception, construction and cooking of a dish -- and these tend to be the ones that are lost in the shuffle, the quiet contestants you don't really notice until they make it really far.  Dishes that succeed or fail, or cooking narratives that display the contestants' personal traits -- like Hung's arrogance over his later-pilloried rice -- get more time.  And all this is not counting the Quickfire Challenge, which is the same thing in even less time.

The visual style of Top Chef is, then, often chaotic, filled with many second-long cuts of people running around the kitchen or chopping vegetables.  This style not only allows the show to fit in all of the different contestants and their narratives, but creates an undeniable sense of tension and conveys the stress the chefs are going through.  The panic of the kitchen gets taken to another level this episode when Hung starts running around with a knife, almost stabbing another contestant.  That there are still coherent narratives through this is a minor narrative, and the skill of the creators of Top Chef should not be underestimated just because it's a reality show.

Of course, reality TV conventions are still here in force.  For instance, "Latin Lunch" features a prime example of the "loser edit", where a contestant who's previously been in the background is suddenly developed and focused upon, only for them to get eliminated at episode's end.  So in this episode we have Lia suddenly being all over the place, with the episode focusing on her anxiety about the competition, her growing friendship with Casey, and the flaw that leads to her downfall -- her unfamiliarity with Latin cuisine.  All that was missing was her calling a loved one or revealing that she had cancer.

This is a shame, as Lia was one of the more likable people on the show this season.  The perpetual front-runners thus far are arrogant Tre and Hung and obnoxious Howie and Joey, without anyone really worth rooting for.  On the one level, this is oddly reassuring: if the most successful chefs happen to be unlikeable (and this doesn't seem like a stretch in such a competitive profession), then they should win, and the plucky underdogs should go home.  But reality TV is all about manipulating reality into a narrative, and it's a curious narrative that the Top Chef producers have chosen here.  Given that you can edit someone to have just about any personality you please, it's hard to see how they're going to pull this into a satisfying narrative.  Or maybe I'm just an oddball and we're supposed to find Joey endearing or something.

The challenges for this episode are fairly standard, the sort of mid-season treading-water stuff that makes for a fine but not especially memorable story.  The Quickfire involves the chefs attempting to make dishes out of frozen pie crusts, one of many challenges that involve salvaging low-culture food products and reworking them into haute cuisine.  There's a comparison to be made here between the show's own aspirations, attempting to class up the reality format (at least on the surface) and its fondness for this type of challenge.  If that comparison is accurate, it bodes well for the show, because the chefs never fail at converting the kind of cheap food that us lesser mortals gorge ourselves on into something that at least looks and sounds like it would fit into any pretentious French restaurant.

The elimination challenge, which takes up the bulk of the episode, challenges the contestants to cook a Latin cuisine dish for the cast of a telenovela.  This challenge embodies a lot of the ethos of Top Chef.  First off, no celebrity is too obscure or too unrelated to cuisine to work an episode around.  Secondly, there's a commitment to mass appeal that at least tempers the show's high-culture pretensions.  No matter how much these meals may appeal to someone with "developed palates", they also need to succeed with less knowledgeable audiences like the actors of this episode.  In the past, contestants have had to cook for children and the TGI Friday's audience, and people have gone home for failing to appeal to the people they dismiss.  In that sense there's an unexpected egalitarian streak to Top Chef.  Finally, the show argues that being a good chef means being well-rounded, able to cook any style and any type of food.  In the actual culinary world, Lia's unfamiliarity with Latin cuisine might not hold her back this much [2], but here it makes her an incomplete chef and ultimately dooms her.  There's an expectation of universal mastery which is reasonable if you want to call someone the best, although perhaps not quite practical.

So we have here the essential contradiction (or perhaps just contradiction) that keeps Top Chef going: the clash between the trashy and the refined, the feels-good and the good-for-you.  It's compulsively watchable due to the skill of its execution, and it placates both the elitists who wouldn't normally deign to watch reality TV and the reverse elitists who spit on your foie gras.  And maybe that goes a bit towards explaining why I can't stop watching it.

Next week: "If it ain't Bjork, don't fix it."

[1]If I was feeling provocative, I might make a comparison between this and pro wrestling, which similarly weaves a fabricated narrative through the natural emotional beats of a competition.  Or at least pro wrestling does that when it's done right, which it rarely is.  Top Chef is, of course, moderately less fixed.

[2]The dish she's sent home for does look genuinely bad -- a bunch of trout on a soggy polenta cake -- so the lack of flexibility isn't the only reason for Lia's dismissal.  And it's rare to see food that looks genuine unappetizing on this show, where I frequently suspect that all of the food is actually pretty good despite the disgusted faces of the judges.