Critical tidbits

by James Somers, March 8, 2010

TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests. –David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction

DFW develops, in the essay excerpted above, what ends up being a fairly coherent theory of television: of how and why we watch it, of what makes a particularly effective episode or commercial, of the ways in which the medium spells trouble for the enterprise of contemporary fiction-writing, etc. I recommend it heartily, not least because of its restraint: DFW somehow manages to explain why the average American watches six hours of TV per day without calling us all idiots and, importantly, without declaring an end to our culture or intellectual life.

I bring this up mostly to excuse myself from having to present such a complete self-consistent picture. I figure that if I did, it would only end up being a sham version of what DFW already laid out in that essay.

So instead what I’ll do is simply write up a quick idea or two about a small set of TV series (and films) to which I’ve given some thought. It’ll be a bit scattered, but I hope the following critical tidbits do at least some useful work:

1. People often miss the point about Seinfeld. Some think its chief achievement is the clever dovetailing, at the end of each episode, of a handful of zany interleaving plotlines—like how in “The Marine Biologist” George saves a whale whose blowhole, it turns out, was actually plugged up by Kramer’s golf ball. When It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia called itself “Seinfeld on crack,” this is mostly what they were referring to: the idea of three guys and a girl getting themselves into outrageous situations that somehow “come together” at the end.

Others think Seinfeld mostly works because of its high-pitched playful banter, as demonstrated in Family Guy’s spot-on “tickler stickler” parody, the idea there being that all the show amounts to is week after week of funny (but formulaic) wordplay.

I think the truth is a bit trickier than that. The banter helps, for sure, as do the “aha” endings. And of course we shouldn’t forget about fundamentals like good acting and funny material. But I think the twin keys to Seinfeld‘s watchability are (a) that it deals mostly in funny trivialities and (b) that it trivializes just about everything else.

In that sense it’s unlike nearly every other show, which at some point tackles something serious. Even South Park moralizes, and even Family Guy will occasionally get emotional. But Seinfeld never lets its guard down. Everything that could possibly challenge or scare an actual emotional human being is just ignored—even if a situation gets bad, like if someone dies or if a relationship goes south, the characters always engage it and emerge from it with the same Seinfeldian stance, which is, ultimately, about distance: they live their lives at arm’s length, at the level of a joke.

That’s why the show is so much fun to watch (on top of the physical comedy, the stand-up material, etc.). It’s a way to disengage from reality, far more effectively than you might with American Idol or The Office or even (early seasons of) The Simpsons. Because in those shows conflict matters—amid the humor and upbeat escapism there is real tension and real danger. In Seinfeld, though, it’s all milk cartons and bottle deposits and big toes and parking spaces.

2. Friends mostly works because the cast members are all great-looking. Otherwise we’d probably hate these people or find them boring. The men are either effeminate dolts (Joey and Ross) or smarmy dickheads (Chandler and Ross), and the women consist of Phoebe, a barely likable (and only for some) ditz, the mean and demanding Monica, and Rachel, an essentially empty character whose principal role for 60% of the series is to be a romantic option for Ross.

The rest of the show is a series of straightforward gags, mishaps, and trite lessons about relationships. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—the gags are funny, the mishaps create suspense enough, and the lessons about relationships are no triter than any from other great shows like Home Improvement or Family Matters.

But I strongly doubt we’d stick around if it weren’t for the fact that these characters are so pretty. It’s how Joey becomes likable and it’s what keeps Rachel interesting.

Sure, actors everywhere are great-looking (except in the UK, it seems). So it may seem unfair to call out Friends specifically. But the point is that looks here tie the show together, in a way that they wouldn’t elsewhere, because this show doesn’t have much else going for it.

3. Comparing the early to later seasons, it’s clear that The Office has gone downhill—Michael Scott used to be more believable (like Homer, he starts out as a plausible character but degrades into a parody of himself), Jim was more likable (the underdog pining for Pam), and everyone still acted as though this was, in fact, a documentary. If anything has improved over the years it’s probably the use of Dwight and the haircuts of everybody else.

What also becomes clear from watching Seasons 1 and 2 is the extent to which the show was driven by the tension between Jim and Pam. It’s amazing how deflated all those sidelong glances and awkward moments feel when you watch it knowing what eventually happens.

4. The West Wing and Sorkin’s engineering of cheese:

I’ve cut a couple of scenes from A Few Good Men (watch them: they’re awesome) that highlight a peculiar “trick” of Sorkin’s, namely, his ability to command cheesy, tinglish moments—in which the audience feels as though something good and strongly human has happened—practically at will.

My point is that these moments (with the second of the two linked clips being the prototype) have an articulable pattern, and that once you notice it, individual instances (sprinkled all over the early seasons of The West Wing) lose a bit of their magic—because now you know how they work.

5. The West Wing and the late seasons:

I do think the show goes downhill after Sorkin leaves at the end of season 4, and here’s why:

  • Even though the later seasons juggle two whole enterprises (the campaigns and the White House), the action in each episode is far simpler. One or two stories dominate, and our pleasure is in the suspense of seeing them unravel; whereas the earlier seasons were about how the characters handle situations, these are about the situations themselves.
  • Since the earlier seasons were so much more about characters and their dilemmas, and less about what happens next, there was more time to play. The dialogue was a lot chippier, and the core plotlines were rounded out by episode-long gags and silly moments, the sum of which made the show so much fun to watch. In the same vein, the early episodes had time to show us these people’s personal lives; they did the hard work of making the characters likable. The rest of the show just burns the capital accrued in the first four seasons.
  • I know it’s partly excused by his health condition, but the President becomes a shell of his former self as the show goes on. Some of the best scenes in the early TWW are of Bartlet being wonderfully eclectic, esoteric, and right, and inspiring the hell out of an already inspired bunch. There’s almost none of that later on. My pet theory is that only Sorkin could write for Bartlet, and that once he’s gone, the President becomes just another driver of the plot, feeding off his weighty reputation.
  • CJ as chief of staff is a lot more serious than CJ as press secretary, and a lot less likable. Leo as VP candidate is a lot weaker than Leo as chief of staff, and a lot less likable. Will as Russell’s man is a lot more hostile than Will as one of the guys, and a lot less likable. Josh as campaign manager is a lot less dynamic, and more tired, than Josh as deputy chief of staff, and a lot less likable. Etc.
  • The campaign trail is by its nature leaner than the West Wing, and the cinematography captures this nicely: the cameras shake more, the hues are colder, etc. The only problem is that the show becomes shakier, and colder, as a result.

6. Why, in a word, did The Simpsons used to be so much better than it is today? Because it was warm.

7. Mowgli is a bitch. In case you don’t remember, let me briefly recap The Jungle Book:

  1. Bagheera finds Mowgli, and decides, after briefly hesitating, to take care of him (“If I had known how deeply I was to be involved, I would have obeyed my first impulse and walked away”). Puts him under the care of a pack of wolves.
  2. Wolves, instead of eating Mowgli, decide against all odds to raise him.
  3. Eventually the wolf council decides that, since Shere Khan is on his way back, Mowgli can no longer stay with the pack… and Bagheera offers to take him back to the man-village.
  4. But Mowgli doesn’t want to go back to the man-village. In fact he makes a monumental fuss about it. He runs away, eventually happening upon Baloo “dooby-dooby-dooin'” around. What’s the first thing he does (to a bear he’s never met, and who approaches to console him)? That’s right: he slaps him on the face. “Go away,” he says.
  5. Baloo takes it all in stride, as Baloo is wont to do. We have a great thrill watching Baloo and Mowgli’s friendship develop—it’s arguably the best part of the movie. “The bear necessities,” etc.
  6. Mowgli and Baloo and Bagheera get into all kinds of trouble: elephants, monkeys, snakes, and so forth. It’s a real laugh riot, but these guys put their lives on the line, time after time, for Mowgli and his reckless, selfish desire to stay in the jungle.
  7. Bagheera convinces Baloo to take Mowgli to the man-village, because things at this point are just getting too dangerous with Shere Khan around.
  8. Mowgli feels betrayed and runs away. Finds himself with a foursome of loser vultures.
  9. Shere Khan returns and challenges Mowgli. Mowgli accidentally thwarts him with fire (it literally takes a lightning strike for him to win). But it works: Shere Khan’s done for.

At this point, everyone (including Bagheera) is just having one hell of a time relishing their newfound peace. It looks like Mowgli is going to live in the jungle after all.

But wait! Out of the clear blue sky, a twelve-year-old girl wearing hoop earrings and lipstick gives Mowgli the coyest eye-fuck you’ve ever seen in a Disney movie, and off he goes, leaving Bagheera and Baloo behind.

Is this not completely absurd? Here’s a kid who spends the whole goddamn movie whining about “staying in the jungle,” getting everyone into trouble over it, and who finally gets what he wants thanks to two parts <everyone else’s sacrifice> and one part <luck>—but pulls a 180 because he sees a provisional piece of ass?

He doesn’t even say goodbye.

7. Scrubs is emblematic of a feminine sort of comedy, almost the complete opposite of Seinfeld, in which the regular jokes and gags take place against a backdrop of intense emotional reflection. J.D. is plagued by self-doubt and he talks, with the audience as interlocutor, to work through his “issues.” It is (or was) a good show, but I personally have a hard time watching it, probably because I’m so used to Seinfeld.

8. Hackers is not one of these movies that’s good because it’s bad or because it’s campy or because its fans are just nostalgic. It’s good because of scenes like this.