Of Top Models, Glee, and Face Off

Cover Girl (film)

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With most new television seasons beginning in February, there isn’t much for us TV junkies to watch until then. My vows to read more fall by the wayside however, when on a day off I get hooked on America’s Top Model. The over the top theatrics of Tyra Banks and the very bizarre yet all too common phenomenon of outrageously campy gay men telling women how to walk, model, and wear clothes were not good selling points for me, but I’m always a sucker for people trying to make it in whatever industry they choose. Most of the time these things are about chance “talents” pertaining to one’s looks or how one moves. It was fascinating to see how the industry can transform an ordinary girl into a “high fashion” model. What all this has to do with fashion (and I use that term loosely) and how this is supposed to sell clothes is beyond me. You might as well leave the clothes on a hanger. But it was either watch this or watch a women-murdered-of-the-week show. The male gaze is always evident in these shows; from birth (toddlers and tiaras and their gay male trainers) to death.

Still I have nothing against programs that are competitive in this way, as long as it’s NOT about singing. There are way too many singing shows on television. Many, many people can carry a tune and sing well, but that’s not what these types of shows are looking for. They are looking for stand-out looks and star quality. They try to make the audience the casting director and at the same time humiliates them and us while doing it. Yes, American Idol, I’m talking about you.  Why anyone would want to tune in to Simon Cowell’s degrading remarks and boorish behavior is beyond me. But what about those programs that aren’t competition? Take Glee for instance. There is absolutely nothing interesting about this show (exception Jane Lynch). It doesn’t resemble real life at all but that’s not the point. This program and High School Musical are about selling music, again and again, and providing a forum for making social statements about gay teen boys and harassment they go through. Worthy, yes, but when will we see teen lesbians and what they go through? Again, it’s still a male gazed culture. These shows and others that feature music as background material are merely trying to sell new music and music long thought dead. They know that teens watching these programs will go out and buy just about anything. Blame WB and it’s stable of shows like Dawson’s Creek, Supernatural, The Gilmore Girls and for this phenomenon.

UPDATE: My daughter made me watch a marathon of Glee that she recorded on the DVR and ok, I have to admit, there’s something compelling about it. The singing’s good. But perhaps my grudging respect has got to do with the football jock, Puck, who falls for the tough fat chick.  That swayed me. smile.

They are also increasingly product placement commercials since most with DVRs zoom past commercials inserted every 5 minutes. America’s Top Model is all about Cover Girl cosmetics. Project Runway is all about L’Oreal and Garnier hair products. Top Chef features appliances and cars.  Survivor is about Dorritos, soft drinks, and bathroom products. You don’t even have to have a plot driven show any longer as long as you have products inserted. In a way, this is far more preferable than the inane commercials we are inundated with every 5 minutes. But what does that mean for programming? Why would we rather watch this stuff, even with all the commercials interwoven with the action? Are we really such voyeurs of humiliation?  Or, are we sheep doing exactly what we are led to do?

A new show that I started watching, uncorrupted yet by product placement, is the SyFy Channel’s Face Off. No doubt they are waiting for popularity polls to pick up to begin placing major products, but for now, they are product free.  Up and coming make up artists face challenges in the traditional Top Chef format of a 15 minute challenge and a bigger competition in the remaining hour.  One in particular was fascinating. Contestants had to paint a nude human into a giant photo backdrop. The judges were top make up artists in Hollywood and the host is a Westmore, of the great movie make up Westmore dynasty.  What’s also fascinating about this show is realizing that this, and other shows, is where all the nerds you knew in high school went. Every make up artist has an ear lobe plug, every Project Runway contestant dresses bizarrely it seems but a more universal truth is evident among all these shows; human beings come in two sizes; selfless/friendly and selfish/hateful. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between.  Of course we are only shown what producers want us to see, but I have a feeling it’s not far from the truth about these people. (You can’t tell me that Camille Grammar isn’t exactly as she’s portrayed on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills!) Still, Face Off shows promise, which means it will be promptly ruined by something. Count on it.

But this kind of television is junk food. There are two classifications of entertainment; High brow and Low brow. It works for literature, movies, television, anything pop culture throws at us. And what makes something “high brow” or “low brow?” Why the audience of course. Depending on which programs you watch, which books you read, where you get your news, you are classed into a particular category. It’s been going on for centuries, even before television came on the horizon.  It also shows itself in politics.  The great unwashed masses are supposed to sit back and let the elite run the show. To rebel against that is to make a few people very, very nervous. They tell us what we like, what we should eat, what we should wear, how to take a vacation and where, which politics and social issues are important, you name it, they tell us about it. And you are supposed to LEARN what they want you to learn from it, all while spending money. If you are going to sit in front of the television and insist on being “inactive,” they are going to push shows like Heavy, Biggest Loser, I Was a Fat Teenager, and the like, all intermingled with diet and exercise equipment commercials. The housewife with small children at home is supposed to learn from WE, OWN, Lifetime Channel, and ABC’s Hallmark Channel, and TLC that you need to stay indoors and take care of your children because to go out of these safe zones will result in parasites, stalkers, murderous boyfriends, missing children, etc.  That’s the purpose of television after all; to tell you what to think, how to live, and who to hate, as well as to fill us with fear of the big wide world. Looked at as an occasional snack, television is amusing and relieves boredom. But a steady diet of it will fill you with nothing but “empty emotional calories” and will probably just make you angry. Are we going to let them get away with that?

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The Walking Dead– Me included

The Walking Dead

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Ok, so, fresh back from a wine tasting tour of Hermann, MO, I have contracted some respiratory thing and am coughing and spewing massive gross things. Like you needed to know that. Bleck. Married life is fine, however, life and all the ordinaries go on. The weather has turned snowy and colder and television is just the ticket. What have I been watching in Mad Men‘s stead? How about a nice zombie series with lots of gore and violence? I’m talking about AMC’s The Walking Dead.  For me, watching the first episode is like reading the first chapter of a book. You can tell a lot from that. And the first episode of this TV serial is very, very good. However, that’s the last I was interested in this series, although I watched all of the episodes.  (Hey there wasn’t anything else on!) In this case the first episode was not a herald of more to come.

The opening episode is all kinds of good. It has the wonderful surreal feeling of 28 Days, when the lead character wakes up in a hospital with no one around. The feeling of not being aware of your surroundings, having been in a coma, and missing out on one of the biggest events in human history; the zombification of everyone but a few has to be the greatest way to start a show like this! Andrew Lincoln plays Rick Grimes, a sheriff who is in a coma from a gunshot wound he sustained in a car chase during his normal life. He wakes up weeks later and the world has changed. He is bewildered and cannot take it all in. He encounters his first zombies and does what we would all do, defend himself by instinct. He’s not sure what to think! We have great questions thrown at us about the humanity of seeing our loved ones become zombies and how we would react to that. Rick meets up with a man and a boy who, unfortunately, we never see again. But that too seems like how things would really go in this instance. Compelling television here.

The greatest scene in this whole series is the one where Rick encounters a half “dead” zombie crawling through a park. The zombie woman is driven by the extremely harsh need to eat human flesh; a drive so strong that she is crawling by pulling herself along, grasping the earth and grass with her hands and we see she has no bottom half of her body. All “she” it wants is to eat.  She tries and tries to chase Rick but can’t. He runs on, but toward the end of the episode, when he’s found his house, met other people, and formed a plan for finding his own wife and sone, he goes back to the park, finds the zombie woman still crawling, and performs a supreme act of human kindness. Brilliant.

That’s as good as this series gets. Somewhere in the second half of the second episode the show turns into just another Stephen King, end of the world, ensemble cast. The only standout is Steven Yeun who plays Glenn and probably Michael Rooker who plays Merle. Stereotypical characters abound and we even see some of the same people who have turned up in King’s televised works, like Jeffrey DeMunn and Laurie Holden. This is no surprise since the creator/producer is Frank Darabont; a King devotee and partner in serialized graphic novels, television series, and books.  It’s SO Stephen King that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Frank Darabont” is another alter ego of King’s. King seems to have a lot of them. But alas, Darabont is a real person!

King’s influence on Darabont abounds however. King’s decline as the KING of horror began, I’m sad to say somewhere in the 90s after publishing Bag of Bones his last really good novel. But that’s a whole other post. King has become clichéd and never more so than this series as a supreme example. If you’ve seen “The Langolliers” and “The Mist” you’ve seen The Walking Dead. All are fine stories but suffer from one-dimensional characters and horribly overdone stereotypical behaviors. It appears that Darabont can only deal in the same stereotypes that King thrives on; the religious fanatic, the abused and/or adulterous wife, the alpha male, the child, the longsuffering wife,  the wise older gentlemen, the loose cannon, racist, etc. You name it, it’s all in there and I could have written the screenplay from Episode 2 onward, it was that predictable.  I wish that the quality of the first episode could have been carried on into the rest of the series. As it stands now, I don’t care to see any more, especially anymore of the awful acting by Sarah Wayne Callies. Puh-lease!

I’d give the first episode a watch though, but know this going in… episode one is the best it’s going to get. Read the graphic novel instead!

That Jealousy Thing

Anonymous Mormon girls

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I am absolutely fascinated by that TLC Channel television program Sister Wives. Although religion is hardly EVER touched on in this program, we know that the particular sect they belong to is a fundamentalist LDS sect that still practices polygamy openly in their Utah town. And really, it’s not polygamy because they don’t legally marry their extra wives. They are only legally married to the first one and then have “spiritual” marriages after that. We will also never see the ceremony because Latter Day Saints are notoriously secretive with their ceremonies.

Last night was the season finale with the fourth wedding for Kody Brown and while it may be a flash in the pan or a tiny glimpse of what goes on in polygamous marriages, the entire season was worth watching. I watched all of them with mixed emotions. At first you are curious. Then you find yourself really sympathizing with the wives. I must say there were some very touching moments, like the birth of third wife, Christine, and Kody’s baby girl and a very poignant scene where Meri, Kody’s first wife, is helping him get dressed for his fourth “wedding.” There’s a moment where it’s just the two of them looking at each other and smiling and you can feel the love and/or sexual tension in the air and then you have to snap out of it and go, “wait, what?” she’s helping her husband marry again!! In a very odd sort of way, it works for them. They share duties with the children and they share the husband. What they cannot seem to get away from is the jealousy and that’s only natural. How can you not be jealous that the man you love is sleeping next door with another woman, even if it is another “wife?”  What’s even worse is that they DO consider it marriage so that you cannot even protest it. Meri and Kody go out for their 20th anniversary and Meri confesses her struggle with jealousy to him. She asks him, “What would you think if I wanted to have another husband?” and he answered, “I think that would be vulgar!”

And that right there is the message of polygamous marriages where the husband is king and the woman is an object used to satisfy her husband’s needs, wants, and fulfill his dreams of fatherhood; populating the earth and the next realm to come with little Browns. He can sleep with whomever he wishes after a “spiritual” marriage, but if she does, it’s “vulgar.” Yet these women all appear very happy with Cody and I guess kudos for him for keeping them all satisfied…. ahem! Or maybe in their innocence or ignorance they don’t know what that means. Who knows?  However, they are not really breaking any laws. Their children seem well-adjusted and happy. And the wives? I wonder how many wives will be “allowed” into the family fold before it’s all over?

Mad Men’s Premier

I finally watched the TiVo’d episode of Sunday’s premier of Mad Men on AMC. It is probably one of the most well written shows on television right now and I had absolutely no expectations going into it. I’m not one of those who likes to endlessly pick apart a program like Lost fans do or even The X-Files and I was a fan of The X-Files. I am not a fan of too many convoluted plot lines, not because I don’t want to think but because no show has ever pulled off a satisfying resolution that made sense from all that went before (exception Battlestar Galactica) No, sometimes I just like to watch a little slice of life and remember the good ol days of the Sixties. NOT. I like to watch for a good story, good acting, and a compelling plot.

Don Draper is one of the most compelling characters I’ve seen on television, but the one who really fascinates me is his wife, Betty. June Cleaver she is not although she would fit right into that kaffeeklatch on surface.  What fascinated me this time around at the beginning of Season 4  is that one doesn’t really know Betty Draper. We have no way of knowing what she thinks, what she wants, or if she even thinks about anything at all when she sits and smokes her cigarettes. We cannot get inside her head. She is a character on which all of us housewives can project our feelings. The way Betty Draper treats her children is interesting. Betty comes from privilege, which is telling, and every time one of her children needs something she is dismissive and is often what parents now would call abusive. This is the “be seen and not heard” parent. Betty would be happy if her kids sat in front of the TV all day and left her alone. In a way, she’s almost like a piece of furniture in the Draper household; good to look at and admire and to demonstrate functionality.

On Sunday’s episode, Betty is at a Thanksgiving dinner in her new husband’s home. Her son and daughter are with her and everyone is trying to be nice but the atmosphere is extremely awkward and tense because of the new arrangements. Betty’s daughter Sally has the audacity, when asked, how she likes her food and Sally says that she doesn’t like it at all. Of course Betty is appalled that Sally said anything out loud and forces her to eat her food, which Sally promptly throws up on her plate.  Betty is even more appalled and drags her daughter out of the room by the arm. Obviously she’s not embarrassed to be doing that in public.

Ah, the memories! Betty is certainly not a good parent, but who was in the pre-historic Sixties? Like Sally, there were many awful dinners at our house growing up. Our step-monster (e.g. step-father) would force us to eat the grossest things (we thought) and one time, after being forced to eat all of my portion of disgusting cow’s liver, I threw up all over him. That was a very satisfying experience. Did I get in trouble for that? You bet your ass I did, even though it was his fault. To this day I have never ever touched organ meats again nor have I ever forced my kids to eat anything. I mean what message does that send?

Mad Men is a great show because it doesn’t whitewash the Sixties and it presents people in all their good moments and bad, just like life. Of course, if it were exactly like real life we would have many varieties of women and men in all sizes and shapes, but we don’t and have to start somewhere. For that, we need to watch re-runs of The Sopranos. But Michael Weiner does try. I’ll give him that.  As long as Mad Men makes me think about real life and all its gritty reality, I will continue to watch it.

Top Ten Reasons We Don’t Blog

  1. Because we are too busy watching inane television shows about obsessed people, hoarders, chefs wanting to be top of the pile chefs, cook-offs, throwdowns, wipe-outs and other time wasters that are just mindless distractions from having to think too hard.
  2. Because work wipes us out 8 hours a day and we don’t want to think anymore when we come home.
  3. Because politics makes us so crazy we can’t write about it or we’d slam the monitor down on the floor.
  4. Because we believe our heads are full of sawdust and we don’t have a creative thought in it.
  5. Because we are too busy reading historical romances, horror, and thriller novels by people with Swedish names.
  6. Because it’s too hot.
  7. Because our cat chews on our ankles wanting to be fed or to play and we have to chase them down.
  8. Because we are just too lazy.
  9. Because our anti-depressants make us not care about the news.
  10. And finally, because we think everyone’s heard or read whatever it is we have to say before.

Justified

Best new show on television right now:  Justified. Timothy Olyphant doing what he does best. An officer and a gentleman. U. S. Marshall Raylan Givens returns to his hometown in Kentucky and ends up dispensing his kind of calm, reasonable justice on the townsfolk. Never did a guy make a cowboy hat look so good. 🙂