Bad Taste v. Free Speech: Does Dave Chappelle Cross the Line in his Netflix Specials?

Dave Chappelle has long been known for his crass humor, incendiary remarks, and wanton political incorrectness. He uses frequent profanity and smokes on stage. He ridicules transgender people, Asian audience members, and celebrities in equal member. He opens his Netflix special trying to prove he can land a joke with a punchline about kicking a woman in her genitalia. There is no universe in which you could argue he is a comic for the soft-hearted. So is his comedy going too far in the wake of the #MeToo Movement? This argument I believe comes down to one of political correctness, something that Chappelle regularly scoffs at, saying early on in the special “as a rule, I don’t feel bad about anything I say up here.” That’s all fine and good; if we start limiting what people can say for fear of offending other people, we enter into a dangerous and slippery slope of censorship. However, what is a problem is trying to diminish or defend the gross misdeeds of powerful men in Hollywood like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis CK.

The latter man is a frequent subject of Dave Chappelle’s recent comedy special The Bird Revelation. A longtime friend of Chappelle’s, Louis CK is a stand-up comedian also caught up in the #MeToo Movement who was accused of masturbating in front of a number of unwilling women, many of them fellow comedians. This is disgusting behavior but in a New York Times article titled “Dave Chappelle Stumbles Into the #MeToo Moment”, they point out that Chappelle doesn’t seem to be as upset about it as many others, saying that the woman who reported CK’s behavior had a “brittle spirit”. The article muses that his bit about the misconduct “often have the feel of someone digging a hole to prove he can escape.” But they also note that it seems “like tired shtick.” People seem to be less amenable to his brand of hyper-offensive, “shock-jock” style of comedy. One must therefore ask the question of whether he goes too far with his apparent minimization of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, or whether people are being too thin-skinned in the face of

While I agree with him that there is definitely a more conscious sentiment with most Americans nowadays, I don’t believe they are necessarily “brittle”; they are more concerned with helping fight discrimination now than they were in the past, more willing to speak up about injustice (and they now have a much stronger voice because of social media). I would never want to prevent Chappelle from saying whatever he wants to say, but I do think he and other comedians with his style of humor will have to accept that what audiences found funny 10+ years ago they will no longer find funny today in the wake of these widespread scandals. What is important though is that people be allowed to say what they want in a comedic setting, even if we don’t find it funny; it’s a right of all Americans to be crass and potentially insensitive, and a comedic setting provides a more cathartic environment to discuss otherwise depressing and even painful subjects. Comedians can be very blunt and direct with criticisms and analyses of current events under the umbrella of comedy and a lot of good can come of their discussion, bringing to light issues and various perspectives that other mediums would be afraid to broach.

But does Chappelle’s special offer this kind of frank discussion of the issues? Or is he minimizing the experiences of the victims in order to defend his friends and heroes who have been caught up in scandal. Paste Magazine argues that it most certainly does not in an article titled “Dave Chappelle Can’t Shock Jock His Way Out of the #MeToo Movement”. Writer Jamie Loftus says that Chappelle did the piece as “his way of exercising his right to ‘fuck around.’” But to Loftus, that means he didn’t “come prepared to talk about one of the most significant national conversations of the decade but still inexplicably devote your entire set to it.” That he “assumes he will be able to riff out a comedic symphony, and does not.” His material doesn’t spark the kind of new perspectives and icebreaking commentary on the issue, meaning he comes off as an ignorant dick who cares more about his hero Bill Cosby and his friend Louis CK than he does about the victims who started the #MeToo Movement.

But despite all this, Loftus argues that there is some merit to this; she says “The Bird Revelation isn’t interesting to me for its comedic value, because it’s not insightful, memorable or particularly funny given Chappelle’s bar of excellence. Instead, think of it as a time capsule, a way to capture a very particular system of thinking just as that system of thinking is becoming a massive liability.” And this is true. American audiences in the past have been far too willing to overlook the transgressions of artists and entertainers because we are seriously entrenched in a celebrity culture; we worship the funny people we see on TV and the great auteurs that create masterpieces on the big screen. One need only look at Roman Polanski and Woody Allen’s continuing body of work that “great men” get almost unlimited leeway in our culture.

Is this way of thinking changing however? I’d like to end with a look at an article from The Guardian titled “Kevin Spacey deserves to be scorned. But can I still watch House of Cards?” Author Hannah Jane Parkinson asks whether or not it is wrong to appreciate works of art by deeply flawed artists. She wonders whether we “should regard artists as products of their times” but then says that “nothing ever changed when good people did nothing.” If we continue to allow artists to do work after committing heinous acts like rape or assault, we continue to give passes to them because of their talent. So she says “good, may they never work again,” a sentiment I fully agree with. But the hard question is whether or not “we also stop appreciating their oeuvre”. This is a challenging question and one that Parkinson notes could have many factors. Does the artist’s transgression make a difference? Can we appreciate the art of someone who masturbated in front of a woman but not someone who raped a drugged 13-year old? Do we regard them as a product of their time, giving leeway to old artists for whom racism was commonplace? The problem I see is that these rules are subjective; what some people would find unforgivable others would be willing to overlook if they liked the artwork enough. And while I personally think we should be able to separate art from artist and appreciate it outside of the transgressions of the creator, in most cases doing so provides financial support and name recognition to the artist, so it is certainly a wicked problem and one that I honestly don’t have a good answer for. I see the draw to both sides and would not be willing to put forth an absolute position either way.

Being a Fan or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Inner Geek

At least we have reached a topic I can weigh in on with a (short) lifetime of experience. Since the 6th grade (if not before) I have been involved in a number of fandoms that make up an important part of my identity — for better or for worse. I grew up engrossed in everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter to the DC comic universe. One wonders why I chose to watch The End of the F***ing World; I have to maintain brand loyalty. (Actually I’ve seen every Marvel movie and all of Jessica Jones, really I just wanted a change of pace). I have 3 tattoos, all from various fandoms I am a part of, and am very aware of my status as a social misfit overly invested in media. While it is something I greatly enjoy and will continue to do so, I recognize there are some potentially debilitating effects of my commitment. One need look no further than the disastrous re-release of the szechuan dipping sauce at McDonalds in honor of the Rick & Morty episode featuring it. Fans flooded the restaurants, jumping on tables, reenacting scenes from the show, and screaming obscenities at workers when the sauce packets ran out. This is NEVER acceptable behavior and I am ashamed to admit I am a fan of the show now after this ludicrous display. When someone’s life is defined entirely by fandoms and not belief systems or interpersonal relationships, it is incredibly harmful both to them and those around them. They seek to emulate the characters in the show and live their life by the imaginary rules the show follows; those rules often don’t translate to real life. Perhaps the best example of this concept is the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”.

Black Mirror is a superb show and “USS Callister” is, alongside “San Junipero”, my favorite episode of the series. It is a punishing look at the world of one of the most famous shows of all time as well as perhaps the most famous fandom of all time, Star Trek and its fandom the Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever I like Star Wars). It takes a look at the real-world consequences of trying to emulate the characters of the famous 1960s television show. Its main character is a programmer named Robert Daly who creates a virtual world where he can inhabit the persona of Star Trek protagonist Captain Kirk in all but name. In Star Trek he is an effortless womanizer, sleeping with any woman he pleases, is cool, calm, and collected, and orders his crew around with efficiency. For these very same reason he is a prime example of toxic masculinity, and this is what “USS Callister” outlines so effectively. In his desire to live the fictional life of Captain Kirk he creates a world of real people and then tries to force them to invest in the fantasy the way he does. He sexually assaults his female coworkers and threatens violence on anyone who disobeys him. While this type of behavior is played as manly and suave in the show, in real life is is creepy and unacceptable. In Jenna Scherer’s article for Rolling Stone, “‘Black Mirror’: How the New Season’s Breakout Episode Guts Toxic Fandom”, the episode rails against the possessiveness of toxic fandom, with fans in this category believing they own everything about the property they obsess over and trying to recreate that possession in their daily lives. He, like so many other “disaffected nerd-bro” tries to hook up with his coworker and when she isn’t interested, he “finds a way to possess her the same way he meticulously collects his complete set of Space Fleet DVDs.” Fandom should be about enjoyment, not possession and exclusivity, and CERTAINLY not about coercion and abuse. I sat here for awhile and couldn’t think of a good segue so let’s talk about cult fandom.

As I mentioned before I watched the first four episodes of The End of the F***ing World and I can certainly see why it would attract a cult following. It has all the staples of a cult classic: low budget appearance, disaffected youth, a very dark sense of humor, flashes of extreme violence, and general anti-establishment sentiment taken to its almost comical extreme. Main character James is a self-proclaimed psychopath who has killed many animals and is looking for his first human victim. He finds it in Alyssa, a petulant child who delights in raging at anyone and everyone around her. All of these things lead up to a following not of mainstream appeal, but of those disillusioned by the world around them who look for people seemingly like them who are willing to live a completely atypical life. While I struggled a bit to get into the show (I didn’t find either of the characters relatable so I wasn’t really invested in their struggle; James’s dad seemed nice enough, if a little banal) it did have a very distinct appeal and aesthetic, and the later episodes involving James’s first kill were quite tense. However, without a doubt the best example of a cult classic show on our viewing list this week is the Netflix original series Stranger Things.

Stranger Things is such a perfect example of cult television because it features the hottest thing to be a fan over: the 1980s. Everyone is in love with the 80’s right now; I am, and in 1989 I wasn’t even a twinkle in my daddy’s eye. My parents graduated high school in 1991! Stranger Things hold a nostalgic appeal that encourages people to go beyond the text to explore the 80’s more thoroughly. Increased interest in classic 80’s staples like Rubik’s Cubes and Back to the Future abound (those bomb Nike shoes from the second movie that lace themselves were released a couple of years ago!) And the 80’s maestro himself, Steven Spielberg, just cashed in big on the 1980s appeal with his movie Ready Player One. Stranger Things features a ton of this 80’s nostalgia, inviting people to go get retro movie posters and toys and the like. Even Netflix is cashing in on this further with other 80’s themed shows like GLOW. But once again, fan obsession rears its ugly head even in the idyllic world of 80’s nostalgia. Dee Lockett writes a depressing piece for Vulture.com in which she chronicles the struggles of fan v star, where 15-year old actor Finn Wolfhard was being endlessly harassed by Stranger Things fans to hook up with his 14-year old costar Millie Bobby Brown. This is obviously not ok and he once again links to the disconnect between reality and the world of the show; he said on Twitch “people don’t understand that we’re people who aren’t the characters in the show … and then they attack my friends.”

As a fan myself, it’s depressing to see fellow fans taking properties so seriously that affects their daily lives and the lives of those around them. Being a fan is fun; you can gush about shows, books, movies, and games with people who love those things too, can make inside jokes and memes, and perhaps the most valuable geek currency of all: references. But you need a healthy dose of life outside your fandoms; I like to go camping, drive ATVs, play board and card games with my family. I’m learning to cook, working, and going to school. Being a fan is an important part of my life but it doesn’t define it; for me being a fan is a positive and progressive form of cultural engagement where I can bond with people who would otherwise be strangers over Harry Potter because of my dark mark tattoo or Star Wars because of my many, many t-shirts. But for people whose lives revolve solely around shipping unwilling teenagers and screaming “Wubba-Lubba-Dub-Dub” on the counter of a McDonalds, it is a negative form of engagement indeed, and sets the widespread acceptance of fandom back immeasurably.

The Voice of Multiculturalism: Is it Better to Preach or Immerse in a Non-White America?

The most compelling example of multiculturalism in the three episodes that I watched was the examples in On My Block. While the show did at times uphold some of the stereotypical representations of ethnic minorities (there are heavily tattooed Latino gang members throughout) these representations are there to draw attention to the very real problem of gang violence that exists within extremely poor neighborhoods that tend to have high minority populations. I got a very Boyz n the Hood vibe from this film, and found myself becoming extremely nervous about the group of academic misfits and hoping they wouldn’t meet the same fate as Ricky Baker from that film. The show takes an unflinching look at gang culture and watching Cesar try and at the end of the episode fail to escape his gangland roots was heart-wrenching. The show does suffer from a number of regressive stereotypes that may bring down its strong message to an extent; Olivia, played with passion by Ronni Hawk, ends up coming across mostly as the sassy latina stereotype that has been built up in the past by actresses like Jennifer Lopez and Rosie Perez. Jason Genao’s Ruby Martinez is attempting to fulfill the stereotype of the suave, sexual latino hearthrob like Ricky Martin or Antonio Banderas, although the show does an excellent job of subverting this stereotype by making him bunk with his grandmother (herself an extremely Catholic hispanic old lady stereotype, something we’ve seen before in this class in One Day at a Time), being forced to try on a gaudy pink dress, and generally making him an awkward dweeb.

The most divisive show by far is the Netflix Original Dear White People. I myself have mixed feelings on the show; as a white person I often felt like I was being attacked and preached at by the show. This was a double-edged sword; while the pointed and blunt nature of the commentary on race relations (and the powerfully uncomfortable scene of the blackface party) was a great tool for provoking thought and a change in perspective, the condescending tone the show often took (providing the same generalizing stereotypes of white people that black people have so long been subjected to) would occasionally make me feel defensive and therefore less receptive to the ideas they were putting forth. I find it very unlikely that the show would change the minds or worldviews of bigoted members. I try my very hardest to put myself in other people’s shoes and understand what they are going through, and even I was struggling to accept some of Sam’s more biting commentary; a bigot who has no desire to understand others will merely see it as an attack on their belief and dismiss it out-of-hand.

Justin Simien, the creator of the show, says in his interview on the KCRW podcast of The Business that it can be challenging for minorities to tell their stories because they face opposition from largely anonymous groups like the alt-right. He mentions that in a later episode Sam engages with an online troll and it causes her to lose her snarky commentary because she’s so disheartened. She so badly wants to beat him, but by engaging with him he’s already winning. Simien points out something similar happening in his own life where his show was being attacked by an alt-right member on the internet. He messaged the member, saying he was misrepresenting Simien’s show and the member said he knew that, but it was to appeal to his base. How are minority members supposed to effectively combat such a ridiculous movement? There is no person to talk to, Simien points out that most of them are either Russian bots or only identified by random images or stock photos of people, and they don’t even care about the content, just that it’s about a minority group.

Luke Cage on the other hand is far more subtle in its challenge of white people. The show is set in a predominantly black neighborhood in New York and according to a Salon.com article titled “‘Luke Cage’ and the racial empathy gap: ‘Why do they talk about being black all the time?’” only features two white characters who “recur often enough to appear in six or more episodes of the freshman season.” The lack of white people in the show sparked a lot of controversy on Twitter with many white users calling Luke Cage racist because of its lack of white representation, even though it was an accurate representation of the racial diversity in the area it took place in (Harlem is an overwhelmingly black neighborhood and it should shock no-one that black people are featured so heavily throughout). It is a powerful message to white people, who feel while watching Luke Cage the way many African-Americans feel while watching anything from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. Luke Cage and its “commitment to blackness” face an uphill battle according to the Salon.com article; it points out that “while it’s easy to single out [Tim] Burton, whose movies are whiter than a three-day-old corpse, he’s one of many directors who almost never casts people of color. Woody Allen hasn’t featured a black man in a consequential part since Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Melinda and Melinda,” which was released in 2004. He’s directed 12 films since then. Filmmakers ranging from the Coen brothers to Wes Anderson have been called out for the lack of black faces in their expansive ensembles.” It also says that lines spoken by people of color in a major motion picture, the total time they speak usually adds up to less than a minute. It’s a serious problem in the industry and one that needs to be addressed. Time will tell if the cocky, in-your-face style of Dear White People or the more quiet but natural tone of Luke Cage will be more effective at changing both people’s minds and the conventions of the industry.

The Wokeness of Netflix’s Reality TV

An important note should be brought up here before we go any further: I hate reality television. I find it to be canned and not very similar to reality at all. It feels like a scripted show trying to act unscripted; everyone’s reactions are overdone and they are often drawn out far too long with commercials killing the flow of the show entirely. With that in mind watching the first episode of Queer Eye was an enjoyable experience and I would definitely be interested in watching more. Nailed It fell a little more into the overly processed reality television, although through no real fault of its own; Queer Eye takes place in the real world in a regular man’s dingy basement apartment whereas Nailed It takes place on a soundstage set up so that contestants each have their own little kitchen to create monstrosities cakes. Nailed It wasn’t without its charm as watching the sassy older woman (and cake baking legend) tease the contestants was entertaining, as was listening to the French chocolate master Jacques Torres critique one contestant’s odd choice of footwear. I believe the difference in “reality” between these two programs can be explained by their difference in subgenre.

A large part of reality television can be subdivided into different genres; the shows we watched were no different. Queer Eye was a makeover program about 5 gay men who spend time with a straight man who isn’t living the kind of life he wants and needs some help getting out of his rut. What made the first episode of Queer Eye so compelling was the powerful culture clash between the very openly (even stereotypically) gay men of the “Fab Five” and the conservative southern culture that subject Tom was a part of. What ensued was not the Five acting condescending towards the seemingly backwards rednecks, nor was it Tom and his fellows disparaging the Five for their alternative lifestyle; rather it was a uplifting tale of openness and acceptance as Tom freely discussed his thoughts, feelings, and fears with the men and they gave him great advice and genuine, caring support. The show ending with the rugged Tom openly crying after his newfound friends had to leave was extremely touching; despite the relatively short time we got to see their friendship grow, the outpouring of emotion felt earned, far different from the dramatic, ham-fisted emotional plugs like the golden buzzer on America’s Got Talent or the chair spinning on The Voice.

These types of emotional plugs are seen most often on the talent show subgenre of reality television, and that is exactly what Nailed It is. It has a competition, prizes, expert judges, even a little video backstory of each contestant. However, Nailed It does depart to an extent from the talent show formula to an extent; their contestants are all bad bakers on a baking talent show. So the audience gets to watch merely who screws up their cake the least, as opposed to who makes the best cake. It is an entertaining departure that makes the show feel a little fresher than some other shows like American Idol, although it’s hard to say if Nailed It will create a lasting impression like I believe Queer Eye can.

Critics of reality television say that it lacks staying power. The Hollywood Reporter said that “in 2015, [Netflix] chief content officer Ted Sarandos told Netflix investors ‘the disposable nature of reality’ made it less interesting for streamers.” While the Reporter says that Nailed It “finds the funny in home baking disasters, rather than celebrating near-professional amateurs,” the format is still largely the same as the innumerable baking shows that came before it and I can see the argument of it lacking staying power. Queer Eye on the other hand is “a woke celebration of LGBTQ rights.” It has staying power because it battles for acceptance that, while slowly making headway, is still not near where it needs to be. It shows the talent and the humanity of all these men and, perhaps even more importantly, that people from wildly different walks of life like Tom and the Fab Five can become friends and share a real connection. This is the kind of show that gives people hope and can maybe open the mind of those who do not want to accept the LGBTQ community. That is what makes shows like Queer Eye non-disposable.

Once Again, Corporate Interests Sully Artistic Goodwill

Online streaming giant Netflix is viewed as the savior of documentary filmmaking. It’s servers are hallowed ground for the struggling art, and University of California Long Beach media studies professor Sudeep Sharma says that many people view the Netflix service model as that of a library; they see Netflix as “a repository for a whole history of a cinematic genre and, through streaming, [Netflix] can serve the needs of an enormous subscriber base that transcends any one location or community.” This is all well and good, but is it accurate? Sharma says not quite. He argues that “unlike a library or another nonprofit entity, which maintains collections and material on the basis of scholarly need or historic purpose, Netflix’s choices are driven by commercial needs.” This means that their collection is fundamentally different from that of a library; it’s offerings “have to perform” or else they will be removed in Netflix’s revolving door of content. Their shows are offered “under some kind of limited time frame” according to Sharma meaning that the “contented offered on the service is constantly changing.”

This can be very problematic for documentary filmmakers looking to take risks and push the boundaries of the genre. Sharma says that Netflix operates more as a “newsstand” than a library; they are pressured by corporate interests to push stories that will sell, gain public attention, and in turn make Netflix more money. A risk, while having the potential to capture an audience and turn a profit, is just as likely in the eyes of corporations to utterly flop, losing money and credibility in the process. This causes companies like Netflix to play the safe route; a traditional documentary about a hot-button issue will likely gain a respected critical review and garner enough attention to be “worth it”.

But let’s not disparage the traditional documentary too hard. I chose to watch Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, and while it isn’t a rare animation like The Tower, an abstract story like Pearl Button, or even a meta-narrative like Cameraperson, its message of fighting political corruption through civil disobedience and peaceful protest all hit home, especially in today’s…questionable…administration. Joshua hits all the right notes for a quality traditional documentary, with a compelling subject, a high point where everything goes their way, a low point near the end where all hope seems lost, and then an end with an optimistic tone about how the fight for justice is not yet over. I found myself fully invested in his story, drawing parallels between CY Leung and our own pandering, ineffective congressmen, as well as between Xi Jinping and our own wannabe overlord President Trump. It’s a powerful documentary to add fuel to ongoing movements like MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March.

Despite all of these important points, I fully agree with Sharma. This documentary and others like it get privileged because of its safety. That’s not to say I didn’t find it enriching, I had no idea before watching this documentary about the struggles that Hong Kong was facing in maintaining its independence. I also found it fascinating that so many of the interviewees had a British accent, even the teenagers who grew up after the handover; it shows how different their culture is from that of China and I was completely on their side after the movie where before I was just neutral and uninformed.

How does this traditional documentary compare to its episodic brethren? I watched the first four episodes of Evil Genius, a documentary about a frankly psychotic woman named Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong who committed a heinous robbery and several even more heinous murders throughout her “troubled” life. One of the biggest differences I found between Joshua and Evil Genius was the increase in melodrama throughout the latter program. Joshua is one piece, meant to be watched in one sitting. You will find both its beginning and its end in the same program. Evil Genius on the other hand is episodic, which means it needs to maintain viewer interest across parts. That meant that each episode ended with a somewhat hackneyed cliffhanger, revealing a dramatic new piece of information right at the end of the first three episodes and not expanding upon it until the following one. This makes it have a distinctly more “reality TV” feeling, trying to ratchet up tension to keep viewers watching across episode gaps rather than a purely factual, briefing-style show like you would have seen in news coverage of the same event. There are also several reenacted, dramatized scenes (most significantly the silhouetted event which depicts Brian Wells getting captured and collared) that makes it feel more like Criminal Minds than The Thin Blue Line.

Once again, my criticism sounds harsher than it is. I was invested in Evil Genius; I wanted to find out whodunit, whether Wells was a willing accomplice, and why people were so drawn to this crazy rambling crone (and how much her poor lawyer was being paid to listen to her rant). Rothstein’s obnoxious narcissism rankled me and Hoopsick’s 11th hour confession surprised me. There does end up being more of a narrative arc in Evil Genius than Joshua; as I said before it plays out like a police procedural slowly revealing details and providing misdirection as to who was and wasn’t involved to keep viewers guessing and in the dark as long as possible. Joshua on the other hand lays the facts out for all to see, focusing on pushing its message as opposed to creating drama and suspense (except when the cops showed up, I got Tiananmen Square flashbacks and was immediately trying to remember when Joshua’s interviews took place).

To conclude, I think it is unfair to say whether or not viewing these nonfiction pieces are more or less meaningful than watching fictional or scripted television. While these can teach you about real historical events and educate you about the world around you, many people gain this same information from news broadcasts and look to television as an escape from the depression and drudgery of their daily lives. Television should be what you want it to be, and escapism can be a valuable commodity for a lot of people. To say that one is more meaningful than the other is ascribing one’s values to everybody else. I have had plenty of meaningful experiences with fictional television, just last week I watched Coco with a friend and drank wine and cried (I promise I’m not a middle-aged white woman). I also got choked up watching the documentary Mom & Me, which I think shows the power that both fiction and nonfiction programming can have.

About Time Cartoons Remembered Heavy Metal Rocked

For decades, cartoons have been known as the children’s medium. Saturday morning was the time for cartoons, when kids got up before their parents and tuned in to classics like Looney Tunes and The Flintstones. While they were marketed towards children however, even classic cartoons like these held cultural relevance in the adult world. Fred and Wilma Flintstone for example, are the earliest example of a TV husband and wife who slept in the same bed that can be seen today (a program in the 1940s, Mary Kay and Johnny, also did this, but the filmed episodes have all been lost to time). This helped to remove some of the taboo around sex and other kinds of physical intimacy so pervasive in the first half of the 20th century and normalized, for both parents and their children, the notion of sharing a bed with one’s significant other (the most famous sitcom of the era, I Love Lucy, while progressive in certain respects, still showed the famous couple sleeping in separate beds). Now, spouses sleeping in separate beds is a laughable concept unless you’re the president of the United States. This is largely because cartoons, due to their unrealistic aesthetic, can “address material that live action television cannot due to the exigencies of performance and censorship that broadcast content is subject to”, according to University of Otago communications professor Holly Randell-Moon.

This artistic freedom really began to be taken advantage of in the late 90s, fully hitting its stride in 2001 with the debut of Adult Swim, a subset of Cartoon Network which played TV (mainly cartoons) marketed towards adults at late nights. One of the things that makes them so much more free of restrictions in the television medium is of course the fact that their shows are animated. Imagine how much BoJack Horseman’s cost would increase if it were live action; lavish parties, cross-country travel, and a stolen Hollywoo icon. Not to mention the absurdity of highly anthropomorphic animals coexisting alongside humans, stealing our jerbs and whatnot. It’s a premise that a live-action television show would never even attempt and yet it works perfectly in BoJack Horseman; seamlessly woven in throughout the show like BoJack proclaiming he can drink a lot because he weighs 1200 pounds or Princess Carolyn getting kicked out of his car and landing on her feet because, well, cat. (Come to think of it, old ladies with too many cats often call those cats princess so even her name works).

Cartoon shows can get away with far more lewdity than live action shows can as well. In the first episode of Big Mouth (or maybe it was the second or third, I did end up watching several) protagonist Nick sees his best friend’s penis and is haunted for the next day or two by giant penises playing basketball. All penises mentioned are seen in as graphic detail as the show’s simplistic animation will allow, and on no live action television show on today would an scene featuring an adolescent’s genitals be permissible. Sexuality and is a far more easily explored topic in the animated world than it is in live action, at least in the United States. Underneath the endless juvenile jokes was an earnest look at the struggles, the pain, and the awkwardness of our formative years, and I found myself invested in the show.

Cartoons can also explore the world of parody far more readily than live action can. Part of this is that parody is often making caricatures of real things, taken to their illogical extreme to where they don’t look much like they actually were, but you can tell what they’re supposed to be regardless. Take F is For Family for example. Bill Burr plays Frank Murphy, perhaps the most white suburban dad name I will ever hear. The show takes place in the 1970s, or rather what people remember the 1970s being like. Dingy wallpaper, giant TVs, and conservative hairstyles and outfits plaster every corner of the show, and the boxer whose title fight make up the centerpiece of the show’s plot is a staggering drunk Irishman (named Irishman). The whole show is life taken to its comic extreme (just like Murphy’s implacable rage), and yet it feels more believable than a live action “period piece” like That 70’s Show. Actors portraying past events inevitably bring their reputation and recognition with them (we’ve seen Ashton Kutcher in modern day, we know he’s not from the 1970’s), but a cartoon can be timeless, a character purely from its time.

And you know what? Despite all of this supposed advancement in cartoons now starting to be made for adults and achieving new acclaim, we forget that someone already did it 37 years ago. The cartoon film Heavy Metal was a sexy, drug-fueled, science fiction extravaganza featuring John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, and an epic score by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein. While not a shining example of feminism or sobriety, the film delves into adult themes like fascism and man’s inhumanity towards man. It’s dark, funny, and crude all at once, and its influence on this new wave of mature cartoons cannot be overlooked. It’s time mature cartoons get the recognition they deserve because some of them have been hard at work for decades using the unique freedoms of animation to both explore and make light of the live-action world around us.

The Science Behind the Sitcom

Pili Valdés, writer for Remezcla magazine, was present amongst the live audience for the taping of the first episode of season 2 of the Netflix original series One Day at a Time. In her review she provides a lot of insight into the taping process that viewers who have never been to a live-studio taping of a show may not have. One of the insights that she provides is the fact that the taping process for a studio audience is around 4 hours for a ~25 minute show. The audience has to remain engaged and supportive of the cast for the entire time with only one “pee break” halfway through the taping. This is no easy feat and she says that both the cast members and the audience are instrumental in keeping morale up. In her words, “if you have to be stuck in a room with strangers for four hours, these are the strangers you want to be shut in with. I’m talking about the cast and the audience. In between takes, the cast would mingle with each other and with us plebes.” The audience members at her taping included an R&B singer who did impromptu songs between takes and a professional salsa dancer “who, after being egged on to share his talents, slayed Marc Anthony’s ‘Valio La Pena’. To his delight (and ours) Rita  [Moreno] was watching and congratulated him. He then took the mic from the comic and professed his love for her. At that moment, he was all of us.”

All of this interaction serves to create a kind of community atmosphere that isn’t felt by TV viewers hearing only the highly canned laughter that a comedian “helped to calibrate our laughs.” She goes on to point out that the canned laughter is in fact real; “you remember Full House? Friends? You remember those annoying laughs that you thought was a fake laugh track? That’s us! And they need to calibrate us because they can’t run the risk of us being too loud or too soft with our laughter.” The taping of a traditional multicam sitcom is far more complex than any of us critics of the format could have guessed; despite its low-brow reputation, the show is so calculated and exacting that they have an ancillary comedian on-hand to correctly gauge the volume of studio laughter.

The laugh-calibrating comedian is not the only member of the sitcom crew that is often overlooked in the creation of a multicam sitcom. In the Friends documentary “The One That Goes Behind the Scenes”, an in-depth look is given to the unsung team of heroes behind the legendary show; the writers. A team of 12-ish writers slaves away coming up with solid jokes for each show, finding away to advance the plot without breaking the core dynamic of the show. They are always on a tight schedule and rewrite the script constantly even through rehearsals, all the way up to the actual taping of the show. If jokes don’t land or if a writer is off their A-game on any given day, other writers have to step in and look for ways to shore up weak material. It is a far more strategic process than I personally would give a sitcom credit for and it certainly gave me more appreciation for the art form.

Despite all of this very intelligent and practiced work, the multicam sitcom has become woefully outdated. From the stale, nerd insult-fest that is The Big Bang Theory to its painfully unfunny spin-off Young Sheldon, modern sitcoms fail to keep their finger on the pulse of viewers looking for a show with depth, choosing instead to stick firmly to the conventions of the genre and broadcast to a wide, generic audience. They don’t tackle socially relevant issues outside of the classic “special episodes” and have very little to add to the discourse of society. Enter One Day at a Time. Paste Magazine writer Manuel Betancourt claims that “One Day at a Time’s thirteen-episode season is, for all intents and purposes, a series of very special episodes.” And he’s right; the show tackles a whole host of relevant issues in its first season, from illegal immigration to cultural heritage to PTSD to homosexuality. It is a show that has much to add to societal discourse, especially in our current, tumultuous political climate where immigrant families like One Day at a Time’s Cuban Alvarez clan may be feeling pressure from seemingly every side and need a source of comfort and support.

Family, Feminism, and Fun in Genre Television

It is well-known amongst those within my social circles that I am no stranger to science fiction. You may have read my critically acclaimed essay “Coming of Age and Gender Roles in Ender’s Game”. I also like Star Wars. After having watched the first episode of the Netflix original series Lost in Space, I will say this; the show is pretty good. It follows the time-honored story tropes of the genre; the chief catastrophe is a spaceship crash, as frequent an occurrence in sci-fi as space flights. The family of protagonists is so absurdly calculating and scientific it makes the family harder to empathize with. Luckily for Lost in Space, the acting and the solid family writing overcomes that and makes their dynamic the most gratifying part of the show. As GameSpot writer Michael Rougeau says in his review of the show, “What makes Lost in Space a true binge is not the moment-to-moment drama. It’s the characters and the talented actors who portray them.” And he’s right; every time begins to veer into the off-putting child genius a la Charles Wallace in spring’s A Wrinkle in Time, actor Max Jenkins gives his character Will Robinson new depth as he wrestles with his place on the crew and his struggles with fear in high-pressure situations.

The family dynamics also tend to buck the conventions of the genre. As I mentioned before, the family is absurdly calculating and scientific, as sci-fi protagonists often are. But they do an excellent job of adding more mundane, believable interactions between the members that help to ground them firmly in our world; we can see our own spats with our siblings as Mina Sundwall’s Penny and Taylor Russell’s Judy argue over comms as Judy is stuck in an icy lake. Rougeau puts it best; “The Robinsons aren’t the vanilla nuclear family you remember from the original…Their bonds are messy and complex, which is much more interesting.”

One show that does less to buck conventions is the Netflix original Godless. While it is no doubt an excellent example of the Western genre the film seems mostly content to stick to the conventions of the genre; tiny, dusty towns dot the sweeping desert landscape; bad man in black hats terrorize these towns, resisted by men in white hats. There is a bit of revisionism however; women are granted far more agency in Godless than they did in old west classics like Stagecoach. The show is often billed as a “feminist western” (although the show’s creator denies that, saying that as he is a man, he cannot be a feminist spokesperson and can only honor the women he had read about). Scott Frank writes for Rolling Stone that “much of the action takes place in the literal no-man’s-land of La Belle, a town run almost entirely by women courtesy of a silver-mine collapse that killed off their husbands.” He further points out that this female-run town hearkens back to revisionist westerns like the fantastic McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

But such a setting can do only so much for the show; the protagonists are still supported by a benevolent Native American stereotype, and nearly all the male characters in the show seem to be doing some version of either John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn or Clint Eastwood’s man with no name. They’re gruff, hyper-masculine outlaws and lawmen, and while Sophie Gilbert says for The Atlantic that “rather than endorse these motifs, Godless leads viewers to interrogate them,” they are present nonetheless and do little more to challenge what has already been challenged in the western by the likes of seminal classics like Unforgiven.

One show that is less a subversion of genre and more a hybridization of genre is the horror-comedy Santa Clarita Diet. While mashing up horror and comedy is nothing new (Young Frankenstein came out almost 45 years ago, do you feel old yet?) this show does an excellent job of maintaining the humdrum of everyday life down to the banal office conversations with one minor exception; Drew Barrymore is a zombie. Or rather her character is, but in all honesty the effect is the same; Barrymore capably plays the silly, airheaded ditz we frequently see her as in her Adam Sandler rom-coms. While the show is billed as a horror-comedy, the first episode at least remains quite firmly in the comedy realm; except for two disgusting scenes, one of Barrymore chewing off Nathan Fillion’s fingers and the surprisingly worse one being Barrymore projectile vomiting all over a house she is supposed to be selling, the film holds a very lighthearted, fun tone about a woman learning to love life and connect with her daughter in new and meaningful ways like buying a Land Rover. Jacob Oller in his review for Past Magazine likens it to another show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, that it follows the latter’s “method of surrounding its dark, psychologically- or physically-upsetting narrative turns with hyper-sunny aesthetics, saturating each shot with catalogue color even when the gore flies. It’s as if the traffic-discussing members of the Saturday Night Live skit ‘The Californians’ were in a Saw movie.” And it is funny; my favorite funny scene was the Super Troopers-esque spat between a member of the sheriff’s department and the local police officer that Barrymore and crew get caught between near the beginning of the show. It’s stupid silly banter that perfectly contrasts the stupid silly murder that ends the episode.

Addiction, House of Cards, and You

Doing anything that isn’t sleeping for 6 hours is tough. Watching Kevin Spacey systematically destroy other people’s lives for 6 hours is even tougher. Spacey’s Representative Francis Underwood fills the screen with a dark, menacing presence that always seems to be one step ahead of his opponents. From seducing Zoe Barnes with the promise of power to tricking Marty Spinella into punching him in order to break the teacher’s strike, Underwood’s calm, exacting mannerisms simultaneously draws the viewer in and repulses them in equal measure. Watching him perform for 6 episodes back-to-back is akin to riding a dizzying emotional rollercoaster. In his essay “Forward is the Battle Cry”, The Netflix Effect contributor Casey McCormick says that “binge-viewing changes the stakes of narrative engagement by reframing the temporality of viewing experiences to optimize emotional intensity and story immersion.” (McCormick)

The stakes are raised immensely when binge-watching; the viewer is completely invested in the story for far longer periods of time than when watching a network television show (or even a feature film) and so the emotions from the previous episode are carried forward into the subsequent ones. I found this to be painfully true while watching House of Cards. I watched the episodes with my roommate and the emotional toll on him was so great that he gave up halfway through episode 5 and went to go play video games. For him it was watching Peter Russo, Corey Stoll’s tortured Philadelphia congressman, wither and die under Underwood’s iron fist that became too much to bear. Despite the fact that Russo is a sleazy politician who engages in all manners of illegal vice, McCormick says Russo is presented as “a regular guy” (McCormick), a kind of everyman that viewers naturally sympathize with.

Russo acts as one of the more significant spectatorial “surrogates” throughout the show. McCormick says that Russo’s battle with addiction parrots the viewer’s desire to binge watch the show itself, a kind of meta-commentary on the addictiveness of the Netflix TV model. He says that Russo is one of many addict surrogate characters who “present a spectrum of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ addictive behaviors. This spectrum serves as a kind of instruction manual on how to be a good binge-viewer.” (McCormick) Russo lands on the ‘bad’ side of the binging spectrum. He allows his addiction to control him, taking from him his girlfriend, his chance to be governor, and at the end of the season, his life. It is truly heart wrenching to watch Russo desperately try to save his 12,000-man shipping yard only to realize that Underwood has far too much dirt on him to let that happen.

So what are we left with from this emotional turmoil brought on by binging? Zachary Snider (no relation to the beleaguered Hollywood director of near-identical name) says in his chapter, “The Cognitive Psychological Effects of Binge-Watching”, that binge-viewers “tend to react to the events in the narrative as if they were real, increasing the likelihood of an emotional response.” (Snider) In fact, the psychological effects on viewers can be so strong “by increasing their rate of empathy for shows’ characters, and [creating] confusion when viewers process these narratives too quickly, which ultimately hinders viewers’ real-world judgements and interpersonal relationships.” (Snider) Binge-viewing shows like House of Cards can be so damaging that viewers have a hard time adjusting their real life after binging. So perhaps at the end of the day, my roommate fell on the ‘good’ side of the spectrum of binge viewing, knowing when he had had enough. I fell on the bad side, ending alone in the dark, feeling depressed after all the ruthless actions I had seen Frank Underwood commit. Here’s hoping I don’t end up like Peter Russo.

Blockbuster Spies Hard and Dies Harder

Streaming service Netflix is a cultural icon. It has at least 104 million subscribers and countless more leechers (like myself) who use their friends and family members’ accounts. But despite its complete dominance in the online video streaming marketplace, less than 20 years ago it was locked in a heated battle with the company Blockbuster. A company now well on its way towards fading into obscurity, Blockbuster used to be the premier way for people to watch movies at home. They had thousands of locations across the country where people could go and rent movies, watch at home, and then return them to the store. However, in the early 2000s Netflix started cutting deep into their business with a far more convenient solution wherein DVDs would be mailed to users and then they could just mail it back when they were finished. Plus, no late fees! You could keep the disc as long as you wanted but you wouldn’t receive a new one until you had returned your last one. What was Blockbuster to do?

Netflix Evangilist

Their answer was to commit corporate espionage against Netflix, learn the secrets to their success, and then create a cheap knockoff of the company and win their business back. The problem was the man tasked with pulling off this operation was a pure businessman; Shane Evangelist. While Evangelist was capable of doing a standing backflip, he was incapable of understanding why Netflix was so successful even up against a titan company like Blockbuster. He attributed it to their distribution centers and fancy website, so he tasked some innocuous looking associates with pretending to be Netflix fans and getting tours of their facilities, all the while taking pictures and asking questions about their inner workings. He also hired software developers to tear the Netflix website apart bit-by-bit and replicate it with the Blockbuster theme painted over it. But like Leslie Nielsen’s bumbling Agent WD40 in Spy Hard (a movie you can watch right now on Netflix), he didn’t have a clue of the big picture; websites and distribution isn’t what made Netflix so successful; its understanding of its customers was.

Data analytics was what really made the Netflix machine tick. Netflix could track how long people kept movies, what kind of movies specific people liked, and would remind people if they didn’t have movies in their queue to watch. Netflix’s selection quality also far outstripped Blockbuster Online’s collection; they offered a wide array of quality movies to their viewers (much higher quality than the videos of fires burning in a fireplace or fish in an aquarium that Blockbuster offered to surpass the numbers of Netflix) and were even giving independent filmmakers a platform to launch their movies, appealing to a wider audience who didn’t otherwise have easy access to indie fare. So, despite the fact that Blockbuster Online understood their usurper’s distribution centers and their website, they didn’t understand the intangibles, the backend magic that made the company work.

Netflix Blockbuster dead

The final nail in the coffin was Blockbuster’s inability to see that it would be the online streaming market, not Netflix’s original DVD mailing system, that would truly revolutionize the market. Gerald Sim notes that “[Netflix CEO Reed] Hastings’ nous and foresight regarding online streaming as the catalysts in a zero-sum game between the companies” (Sim 2016) was necessary both for him to have and Blockbuster execs to lack. This streaming service allowed for near-infinite expansion of the programs offered to subscribers (they were limited only by their free time, not number of channels, DVD mail time, or checkout limit). The freedom offered by online streaming also gave way to a “Golden Age of Television” where extremely high-quality shows directed at specific audiences could flourish, not having to battle for airtime against broadcast shows aimed at the widest possible audience. However, Netflix is still not alone in offering these services. After vanquishing the stagnant beast that was Blockbuster, Netflix now faces new adversaries like Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, all vying for the biggest piece of the vast online video streaming market.