Comedy and #MeToo: What’s funny about victim blaming?

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Dave Chappelle. In middle school, I would stay up late tuning into The Chappelle Show and re-watched his stand up specials he recorded at the height of that era well into my senior year of high school. I knew he had stepped away from the show, but like all of us, I didn’t exactly know why. All I knew was that I desperately wanted him back on Television. I heard rumors that he was living in South Africa for a stint or he was actually out on some soul-searching journey in the middle of the Sahara. In “Equanimity,” Chappelle’s second to last Netflix special, he tells the audience that people thought he was smoking crack while he was out of the spotlight for 12 years. Living in a small town, watching Chappelle was my first introduction to a lot of racial issues. The way Chappelle lampooned and made fun of white people made me more self-aware of my upbringing and, in the long run, more cognizant of my own actions. But when Dave came back and talked about why he walked away from doing another season of The Chappelle Show and $50 million dollars, it was because the comedian felt that white audiences were using his comedy as a way to further perpetuate racism. And to be honest, I see that. I think Chappelle’s skits allowed me to safely laugh at black stereotypes without any further reflection on just what exactly I thought was so funny. Chappelle’s “Tyrone Biggum” sketches gave me a chance to laugh at a crack addict, which just so happens to be a prevalent stereotype facing the black community. Watching the show felt like an “in” for me with black culture without any of the real work of self-reflection. While Chappelle was being subversive and unapologetic, this wasn’t how the material was landing for a majority of his audience. So he left and had his “Paul Revere” moment as he puts it in “The Bird Revelation,” in a moment of biting self-awareness according to Jason Zinoman of the New York Times.

 

So Dave has been back for a little while and the world has changed in the 12 years he hasn’t been in show business. When it came time to watch his new stand up special, I didn’t know what to expect but I felt more uncomfortable than I expected to. As far as comedy specials go and how hilarious Chappelle has been the majority of his career, both “Equanimity” and “Bird Revelation” just aren’t that funny. Instead, what they offer is an examination or perhaps a confession of a mentality of a man who’s just beginning to question things in the wake of #MeToo. Of course, I knew that Dave was approaching middle-age and had been unplugged for a bit but what I wasn’t expecting was the comic to wax poetics about history and the sexual abuse allegations facing Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK. But how Chappelle does this is all the more confusing. During “Bird Revelation,” Chappelle tells women in the audience countless times that they are “right,” and offers anecdotes which are supposed to support the idea he understands what it’s like. In one moment Chappelle delivers painful honesty, admitting his own shortcomings before going on tangents, which make him sound like someone’s out-of-touch but well-intentioned uncle. And that’s pretty much how I felt while I watched his two specials, especially as a fan. This wasn’t the guy that made me laugh anymore, but like someone I had respected falling short of his responsibilities to be a better person.

 

But even crazier, perhaps that’s what Chappelle is going for here. Maybe he’s going for complete honesty through the guise of comedy even when it’s not funny and it’s certainly not pretty to touch on Zinoman’s quotation of Steve Martin. But it is honest and that might count for something. Good comedy ought to toe the line and make us revaluate societal standards. I would lie if Chappelle didn’t make me think about “trying the system” and “imperfect allies” but he deserves to be wrong too. This isn’t an excuse for men with platforms to say whatever they want and not face criticism. I would agree that Jamie Loftus’ proposal that these two specials can serve as a type of litmus test when it comes to men confronting problematic attitudes in other men. It’s my hope that this conversation can continue and it surely must if things are to change.

Are fandoms the new breeding ground for toxic masculinity?

Listen, I hate things that are popular. Game of Thrones? Yep, I hate just because a lot of people like it. Hating popular things makes me cool and interesting to talk to at parties, I’m just sure of it. I love to be the “edgy” one in my friend group and cut my friends off when they start talking to me about how cool the new Marvel movie is going to be. Sorry, Branden, it’s actually not going be cool at all. Wake up. Being insufferable to the people you care most about it is pretty much the coolest thing you can do nowadays.

 

But in all seriousness, fandom has always been kind of an odd thing for me, especially as a Star Wars fan in recovery as I tend to call it. I just can’t do the constant debating about whether the next iteration of Star Wars is good or not. I just can’t do it anymore. I’m done reading think pieces on why Luke Skywalker drank blue milk from a sea monster. So when I see how Marvel capitalized on “nerd culture,” and nearly adapted every bankable superhero imaginable and then some (because who asked for a Cloak and Dagger show?), I’m skeptical, to say the least. And then there’s toxic fandom, which seems to have become more rampant in the digital age. I remember seeing the outrage surrounding the video of Stranger Things star, Finn Wolfhard not stopping to sign autographs for a group of adults that were staked outside his hotel. The woman in the video exclaims multiple times, “I haven’t met you before, Finn” and “this is so rude,” as Finn passes by. The idea that an actor owes anyone anything has always been a bit preposterous and this immediately stuck out to me as an incident of toxic fandom. Then there come all the cases of people online “shipping” Millie Bobby Brown and Wolfhard, even going as far to Photoshop their faces on the bodies of the Joker and Harley Quinn from the God awful, Suicide Squad movie. Besides having terrible taste, it’s just creepy. What unsettles me most is that in late-stage capitalism, fandom seems to grant individuals the right to claim ownership of anything and this means human beings as well. When everything is for sale, it seems fans miss the connection between the characters on screen and the real people that play them, believing that they too owe them something in return for their undying service to the franchise. It’s also why it’s hard for me to get behind Marvel today when it all just reads as nothing more than deeply entrenched marketing. It seems like there’s just nothing quite as profitable appealing to and establishing new fan bases for IPs. The whole thing just reeks of inauthenticity, as the neoliberal marketing tool is to make people think they are ones in the captain’s chair, so to speak.

 

So that brings us to The “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror, which quite masterfully depicts the crossroads between fandom and toxic masculinity. Jesse Plemon’s Captain Daly exhibits the unsettling truth behind men and their perceived ownership of intellectual property, which seems to always suggest a far unhealthier obsession towards controlling the women involved within and outside of their fandom. When we meet Daly he seems like the type of jovial starship captain many viewers are probably familiar with but as the episode progresses he basically turns into the Travis Bickle of Star Trek, when we see how alone and unconnected he is from the real world. What makes Daly the monster he truly comes from how he commodifies the women around him in his digital world to act the way he wants and says the things he wants to hear. It’s also in these moments that the connection between brand ownership and the male ownership of woman’s sexuality becomes more and more apparent. In 2018, if I’ve seen real conscious efforts from individuals confronting toxic masculinity in all the spaces it shows up in but as the digital age advances and brands become ever so encapsulating, I fear that men will be allowed to further isolate themselves from society and create new spaces for toxic masculinity to thrive. If you’ve ever visited 4Chan, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Daly here serves as a cautionary tale for what happens when men seclude themselves from the real world and instead take refuge in their fantasy worlds. Fandom itself isn’t the lone gateway to this type of misogyny but in a world built on these power structures, it would be ridiculous to think they won’t show up in these cultural spaces as well.

Netflix diversifies for the better?

Over the course of the summer, I’ve been coming to understand just how deep Netflix’s marketing strategies go in terms of gaining new audiences. If we truly are in late-stage capitalism, what better market is there for Netflix than the people of color mainstream television has avoided representing for decades? While this sounds callous of me, I believe that Netflix’s devotion to diverse programming should be met with skepticism before any type of praise. My skepticism also stems from last week’s reading of scholar Brittany Farr’s criticism of Orange is the New Black and her thoughts on identity politics and the neoliberal market. When it comes to the representation of people of color, it’s always my worst fear that it’s nothing more than a marketing ploy as systems of inequality are further perpetuated in this country.

 

So where do Netflix’s Luke Cage, On My Block, and Dear White People lie on the representation-o-meter? Well, pretty good…I think. Before continuing, it’s worth asking who these programs directed are towards. Are they for an audience of people of color who have been underserved by traditional programming or are these for primarily white audiences that have always been catered too? In Luke Cage, we meet Luke in Pop’s Barbershop, a black-owned business serving a black community. My gut tells me this is how many white people, myself included, already perceive blackness in America as it’s been canonized in pop culture (Barbershop anyone?). While it might not particularly bad, I would say it’s a tad stereotypically but I can also see how this would be a good tactic to invite a diverse audience into the story as the barbershop serves as the meeting place for black masculinity in the neighborhood and introduces us to some key characters. As for Luke himself, he’s the strong, silent type that one would equate with someone with super strength. His struggles to do the right thing and serve his community are immediately understandable and I found him to be an appropriate main character for the show. When it comes to other characters I have mixed feelings. Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth is a hyper-masculine and vicious crime lord with a penchant for inducing physical violence on those that fail him. While we’re seeing a black man in power, it’s ultimately founded on the violence that white America seems to already associate with black men and why this role could be questionable. On the flip side, Alfre Woodard’s conniving counselor is a welcomed change to the white man we would usually see in this role. Perhaps slightly catered to the white gaze, Luke Cage constructs a world where black people can be their own heroes and villains and that’s truly something different than the traditional superhero formula.

 

I was particularly fond of On My Block, even with some of its initial cheesiness. While it relies heavily on the tropes of Latin Americans, with its depiction of gangs, the show represents a neighborhood that most white Americans aren’t used to. It’s also a little reminiscent of the movie, Dope, which I found pretty refreshing stylistically and character wise. I wouldn’t be surprised if that movie didn’t serve as a bit of an influence to this show. Watching leads navigate their environment, societal pressures and interpersonal relationships was a complicated and often funny endeavor. I loved how well the humor landed here in the face of larger societal issues facing each one of the protagonists. Seeing Jamal deal with not disappointing his masculine father while trying to stay true to himself made a huge impact on me in terms of how it made me think of the other ways in which black masculinity has been constructed in media.

 

Looking through some of my classmate’s blog postings, I’m not shocked to see how Dear White People struck a bit of nerve with them, with a title that seems to call out rather than call in. However, I would like to argue that’s the entire premise of the show: to call out problematic behavior in a society that has been constructed from said behavior. I believe that the truly uncomfortable aspect of the show resides in the fact that it requests the viewer to come to terms with how they’ve perpetuated racist power structures in America, even if we’ve thought we were just telling jokes or being funny. For my classmate that called the show “blatantly racist,” “divisive,” as well as saying that the black anger directed at white people was “generally unrealistic,” I would encourage them to actually listen to the show’s creator, Justin Simien’s interview with KCRW as it’s particularly revealing to how white audiences where outraged by the show. Simien in the interview talks about how much of a struggle the movie and the show were to create as studios and audiences alike intentionally misunderstood it. I have a feeling this might be happening with this classmate. I think it’s always uncomfortable to have your behavior called out and it’s why I can understand how another white person would be put on the offensive while watching Dear White People. However, I think watching programs like these should be a chance to reflect and listen instead of speaking when white people have already done so much of that throughout history as well as today, mind you.

So you thought you didn’t like Reality TV

While Queer Eye and Nailed It! don’t break the reality TV mold, both offer something a little different in the landscape of unscripted Television. Queer Eye is a blatant makeover program, yet tackles issues of masculinity and gender expression when it comes to every man the “Fab Five” meet. And while anyone who has seen the Great British Baking Show will feel right at home with Nailed It! the Nicole Byers led-vehicle offers gentle feedback to amateur bakers for laughs. Both shows fit under their respective genres but use their standard forms to coax different reactions from the viewer.

 

I want to start with Queer Eye here, not just because I am a massive fan, but because the show’s genre-specific approach has more going for it than meets the eye (wink, wink). On the surface, we have five men, Antoni, Tan, Karamo, Bobby and Jonathan who are all experts in their respective fields that range from cooking to hair and, of course, fashion. Like any other makeover show, concerned friends or family members contact the hosts about the poor state of the episodes’ subjects who are in desperate need of Fab Five’s help in order to become who they really are under their shoddy exteriors. While the concept sounds shallow and the viewer might be puzzled how Antoni’s simple guacamole mix is going to turn someone’s life around, the real magic of the show resides in the conversations the men have with the subject regarding masculinity. It didn’t take me long to notice it was the only show in recent memory where I saw men actually cry together on screen. In the first episode, “You Can’t Fix Ugly,” the show starts with Tom who is about as manly as they come. He’s got an unkempt beard, a rattily voice, wears practically the same outfit every day and absolutely loves cars. The idea of five queer men remaking a guy like this made me nervous, to say the least and I didn’t feel any better once I saw what his house was like. While Tom may be a bachelor, his house is anything but a pad. So, when I saw Tom open up to Antoni about wanting to get his former lover back, I was shocked. And once Tom talked to Karamo, I was practically in tears as he encouraged him to invite his ex-wife to his car show. I noticed that I genuinely rooted for another man to succeed in his emotional endeavors on television and reach self-actualization. But when it came to watching Tom cry at the end of his makeover, I lost it and began crying too. What I was watched went far beyond just a simple makeover show. It gave me hope that a better future for men exists in which we’re not afraid to be open towards our feelings and can communicate our emotional needs. To see a guy as rugged as Tom succeed in this endeavor filled me with that hope.

 

While I certainly didn’t cry watching Nailed It!, I was certainly charmed by the show’s “just go with it” attitude. The production quality of the show is kitschy to say the least but in a way that seems pretty aware of itself as Nicole Byers makes tongue in cheek jokes to the contestants. Watching people fail miserably is something people are probably no stranger to witnessing on television, but this baking show doesn’t just offer cheap laughs at the demise of baked goods made by nervous amateurs. In fact, there’s a real genuineness that arises from watching average people try their best, knowing full well nothing they touch will ever become a masterpiece. This comes out in the judges’ critiques too as Jacques Torres and Sylvia Weinstock, along with Byers, are quick to make jokes at the expense of the bakers but are just as sure to offer some encouragement. If this where Hell’s Kitchen none of these bakers would last a minute, but like a polite friend, the judges seem to acknowledge what the contestants were going for with their often flawed creations. It’s not television that will necessarily make you think, but it might encourage you to have a little more patience for those

Netflix and the Newsstand

 

Netflix and feature-length documentaries have a very interesting relationship indeed as highlighted by the scholar Sudeep Sharma in the chapter, “Netflix and the Documentary Boom.” Of course, the “boom” Sharma is referring to is the increased cultural space documentaries have come to occupy in regards to their availability on Netflix’s streaming service. In fact, there seems to be an endless rotation of documentaries on the public’s mind and cultural conversation; most notable films like “What Happened, Miss Simone,” “The Wolfpack,” and “Jim and Andy.” The revolving cultural presence of these films is also why Sharma calls Netflix a “newsstand” and not a library as it offers “material on a rotating basis that is continuously changing based on the available that is continuously changing based on the availability of material (that can “expire”) and the ostensible desires of consumers (Sharma, pg. 144).” If Netflix were a really a library, Sharma believes that users would be able to choose from a vast collection of documentaries that are provided for scholarly reasons but this isn’t so with the streaming service. Instead, “Netflix’s choices are driven by commercial needs (Sharma, pg. 144).” I find Sharma’s argument compelling, as it matches up with my perceptions of how hot-button documentaries seem to rocket into the public sphere before they are replaced with something more timely. Sharma believes that these titles have an “immediacy and broad similarity in terms of subject matter (Sharma, pg., 145).” My initial fear regarding Netflix’s newsstand model is that potentially subversive documentaries are passed over ones that conform to commercial standards and thus diminish cultural understanding of important political issues. I also worry that these films become the stereotypical water cooler conversation pieces and don’t push individuals in communities to advocate for change. Yet, I want to be careful in assuming that just because a documentary is commercial and genre conforming that it cannot be impactful or educating to the viewer.

 

I believe this is certainly the case with the documentary the 13th with its deeply unsettling argument that slavery has never truly ended for African Americans in this country. Using archival footage, sit down interviews and b-roll footage the 13th takes a critical eye to the political events that followed the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865 that essentially created a loophole for the continuation of slavery through the prison system. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay uses documentary genre conventions to make sure the viewer keeps up with the conversation as the heaviness of the subject matter of the film almost mandates a simpler narrative form. Yet where most documentaries use archival footage, and 13th certainly does as well, it also incorporates news footage in order to show the continuation of the issue of hand as the film declares that the imprisonment of Black bodies is simply treated as “business as usual.” While 13th is certainly digestible in regards to its film format subject matter is anything but and leaves the viewer deeply disturbed with only a few tinges of hope for the future.

 

While 13th shoots for emotional poignancy and political reform in its one hour and forty minute runtime, Evil Genius tries to make sense out of one of the most bizarre crime stories in four, one-hour episodes. It all begins with the introduction of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a woman who was always considered different growing up but changed when mental illness began to take control of her life. This is set up through narration and old photographs before the film moves on to show news footage of Brian Wells robbing PNC Bank armed with a cane-gun and a bomb strapped around his neck. The viewers also watched the standoff between police and Wells before the bomb detonated, killing the pizza deliveryman on the scene. It’s a chilling start to the mini-series and begs questions to the viewer that they most certainly want to be answered. It’s an excellent tactic to bring the viewer into the whodunit aspect of the show but also encourages the viewer to binge the next three hours worth of material. It also brings up one of my main issues with the series is that the documentary only fleshes out information that has already been discussed at length in the media. The only true revelation lies at the end of the documentary when one of Wells’ friends explains her involvement in the case and that he was innocent in all of it. It’s also why I struggled to find the show “meaningful” than any other piece of scripted or fictional programming, as the whole show became too bloated for the topic at hand. Evil Genius uses the same genre standards as any other documentary but takes twice amount of the time for material that seems like it was stretched too thin.

These aren’t your dad’s cartoons or are they?

Let’s just go ahead and say it: cartoons are for kids. It was a form that could be easily and cheaply produced in order to keep kids entertained so their parents wouldn’t have to deal with them. My first inkling of this was when I watched Scooby-Doo as a kid, only to find myself frustrated that Shaggy and Scooby were running pasted repeated scenery in order to escape the monster of the week. This type of “limited animation” with its simple choreography, repeated cycles of movement, stress on dialogue and simple graphic forms was an intentional technique employed by Hanna-Barbera animators to reduce cost and speed up production (Randell-Moon, alt. p.139). This is a really clever way to get around budget constraints and, admittedly, a pretty charming one as well. If only I had known this as a kid maybe I would have been whistling another tune. However, in my adolescence, I came to discover and love a whole slew of animated programming thanks to Adult Swim. It’s also why I was particularly interested in this week’s viewing of Bojack Horseman, F is for Family, and Big Mouth. But first, I want to explain a little bit more of my background with adult animation.

 

In my formative adolescence, I watched programs like South Park and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, two programs that really shook up my idea of what animated television shows could be. Of course, Space Ghost introduced to me how Adult Swim’s original programming consisted of repurposed and re-edited Hannah-Barbera characters. This is also emblematic of how Adult Swim’s other shows were united by the shared post-modern ethos that played upon the metaphors and tropes of bad TV (Randell-Moon, alt. p, 137). Now, my younger self probably didn’t know all that back then but I did know that it made for some damn funny television.

 

As a young teen, South Park was unlike anything I had ever seen before with its commitment to politically incorrect humor and “anything goes” attitude as the show mocked countless celebrities and public figures. However, even then it was clear that this was really due to the show’s form of animation, as they didn’t have to worry about portraying people or places in accurate ways. This lines up nicely with scholars Randell-Moon and Randell’s writings on animation as they write that “animation has a particular form of anarchy” as it “operates as a potentially non-regulatory or subversive space by virtue of its very artifice and the assumed innocence that goes with it (Randell-Moon, alt. p.139).” In other words, South Park was more subversive than other shows because it’s use of animation and child characters caught me off guard when the humor became crass and profane, which I loved as a young teen when I felt like everything else was a little too “censored” for my liking everywhere else.

 

So when it came down to this week’s viewing of Bojack Horseman, F is for Family and Big Mouth, I wasn’t surprised to find out that these programs were tackling issues and topics that I had really only seen in live acted television including addiction, emotional abuse and the ugly sides of puberty. Starting with Bojack, the show has much more in common with Showtime’s Californication than it did with any Saturday morning cartoon I watched as a kid. However, Bojack’s use of animation catches the viewer off guard, like I was when I originally watched South Park, to illustrate points that would be nearly impossible on lived television. Here the showrunners across all three of this week’s programs are able to get away with much more than if viewers were witnessing actors perform these ridiculous actions. This is in part because all three shows are able to build off the frameworks of previous animated works like the Saturday morning cartoons that I mentioned above. You wouldn’t find Big Mouth’s Horny Monster on a show like Scooby-Doo and for good reason, but the show’s use of a depraved character in a format typically used for children creates new meanings and connotations for the viewer, encouraging them to engage with the text. It’s also how this format’s inherent subversive can be utilized to recontextualize issues to the audience.

So if anyone still doubts what cartoons can do, they just might not be paying attention.

 

 

 

One Day at a Time: A Case for the Multi-Camera Sitcom

I’m not going to lie, when I found out that I was supposed to watch a sitcom for last weekend’s homework I rolled my eyes. I can’t count the times I’ve cringed watching CBS’s The Big Bang Theory or had to politely fake-chuckle in order to not offend a room full of Friends fans (Seinfeld is better). See, I was in the camp that thought that the multi-camera sitcom was a thing of the past and without merit today as shows like Modern Family and Parks and Rec had managed to do just fine by shedding the format. Mockumentary, to me, seemed like the new standard in sitcom comedy and I so began to treat all sitcoms that stuck to the old formula as beneath. Kind of pretentious, I know. Thankfully, that all changed for me this weekend. Although, I don’t think I’ll be tuning in for anymore of Sheldon’s antics.

So there I was, firing up an episode of One Day at a Time, dreading the fact that I had to watch six hours of a format that I thought had lost any type of cultural relevancy. What I got instead was a television program that won me over in the first 10 minutes and packed with well-earned sentimentality. I would be lying if I said that Rita Moreno’s audacious entrance for the show didn’t do something for me as the audience cheered and whooped in excitement. For the first time in awhile, my internalized pretensions seemed to melt away. It really did feel like I was a part of something bigger and more immediate than myself. I believe the knowing that One Day at a Time was taped in front a live studio audience had much to do with this. To hear an audience react to an actor’s performance in the privacy of your own living room feels strikingly communal; almost dissonantly so. Where else do you hear the reactions of complete strangers than the movie theater? In a sad way, I guess in a pitiful way I felt less alone, but more importantly I felt like I was witnessing something meaningful that went beyond my grievances with what I had perceived as tired format. Much how Penelope Alvarez, the show’s mother, makes do with what she has, One Day at a Time does so with the multi-camera formula. This type of quasi-communal viewing made the laughs and drama on screen that much more immediate and this was especially with the topics this show deals with.

One Day at a Time tackles issues of the Cuban-American identity and representation, posttraumatic stress disorder, immigration, sexual identity and even gun ownership. Each episode is marked by quick and witty dialogue as characters send a volley of quips back and forth. It was the initial humor that immediately grabbed me, even with how cautious I approached the show, ready to criticize any punch line I deemed beneath my standards. But the show’s familial warmness and sentiment really kept me engaged. The onscreen chemistry felt real to me and I began to care immensely about the Alvarez’s (and Schneider too).

I felt that the show’s use of topical issues in an outdated format was particularly subversive and something that I wasn’t prepared for. While other shows like This is Us have been praised for its handling of controversial topics, the use multi-camera format lends itself to something else. I believe this is empathy itself. To know that you’re not the only one listening and seeing something onscreen is powerful, perhaps beyond what I am capable of capturing with words. It’s a sensation I wasn’t expecting to experience this weekend when I sat down on the couch and I like to think I’m not the only person to feel this way. It’s hard to not laugh along after a cheesy quip when an entire room erupts, but when you hear that same room stunned in silence it’s another feeling altogether.

After watching the first six episodes of One Day at a Time, I felt that I had no other choice but to continue into the second season and I’m glad I did. If someone like me can grow to love a format they loathed, imagine what else a charismatic family can do for a country of viewers.

 

 

 

 

Decoding Genre: What makes Godless and Lost in Space so interesting?

 

While Netflix has gleefully constructed new genres in order to dictate taste, the service has also offered up two particularly interesting television programs, Godless and Lost in Space. While Godless isn’t the feminist western that it’s marketing promised and Lost in Space a reboot of a brand that had a movie starring Joey from Friends (Matt Leblanc), both of these shows do something interesting in terms adhering to genre standards as well as examining them.

Starting with Godless, we have the standard gang of outlaws, a mustached marshal, a hotshot quick draw Roy Goode, a stubborn widow, and a bunch of townsfolk that are at risk from the brutality of the Old West. Only here the premise is a little different, the town of La Belle is comprised of nearly all women after a mining accident killed practically all the men. This story detail was heavily marketed in the promotional materials and was part of the reason why people construed this miniseries as the feminist western it’s clearly not as the much of the show focuses on the handful of male characters. Yet to take a critical eye to the Western genre, it makes sense that masculinity would be at the forefront of the program as it has always been. For one, the rugged individual, particularly the rugged man that normally fills this role, is a staple to the genre and one that Godless presents a few criticisms of in the face of senseless killing and death. Displays of blazing gunfire leave citizens dead in the dust, something that has been particularly worshipped in the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, with their distinct and cool visual style. Instead, Godless opts for a different type of sentimentality, that life doesn’t actually come cheap in the Old West.

Lost in Space was also highly interesting with its premise of a family trying to survive the cold reaches of space together. Anyone who’s seen even seen one of the Alien movies knows how this usually doesn’t end well for a ship’s crew let alone an entire household. After the Robinson’s crash land on a frozen tundra and their situation turns from bad to worse, the viewer comes to understand that the drama at hand isn’t due to just the unfortunate circumstances, but the tension between a family that is anything but perfect. This isn’t the sunny 1950’s version of a nuclear household; it’s a family that’s had to deal with an absent father struggling to reconnect with his kids and a mother willing to do anything to keep a family together, whether that be breaking ethical codes or putting herself at risk. The peril here becomes a larger metaphor for the internal fights that reside in each member of the Robinson family as Judy’s audaciousness as well as sacrifice for Will, gets her frozen in ice, forcing the family the dig her out as the conditions worsen. Will’s own confrontation with the mysterious life form mirrors his anxieties about not being understood by his family and his father’s abandonment of him. The Robinson’s here aren’t the ragtag crew of Alien’s “Nostromo” but a family very much in need of confronting their relational problems as danger pursues them. We want them to succeed and to survive but at the end of the day, this family has issues to work out amongst themselves. Without a home, the non-location of space allows us to further examine the dynamics of a family as any supposed normalcy has gone out the window, or to be more accurate, has been sucked through a wormhole.

House of Cards: Is that the episode where…

Depending on whom you talk to, I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure of binge-watching the first season of House of Cards twice. Once when it debuted on Netflix with all thirteen episodes available to watch and again last weekend. When House of Cards was coming to Netflix, the idea of releasing an entire season in one day seemed ridiculous to me. I no longer had to wait for next week’s episode and after “Chapter 1” came to an end I didn’t stop the autoplay from carrying me into the next chapter. Besides Lost, it was the only time I had binge-watched a show and this was an entirely different experience. By the time I began watching Lost, it had already been off the air for four years and the cultural conversation around it had died down; this wasn’t so for Netflix’s new original series. It seemed like everyone was hooked like me and we were witnessing something together, but admittedly in the confines of our own spaces, huddled behind our own laptops. Having already seen it once, I felt like I would be less susceptible to the shows’ tricks in how it arrests viewers and keeps them watching. While I was ever so aware to what was going on, I wasn’t any less grabbed by the show on the second viewing, even when I laughed off overly dramatic lines that first shook me when it debuted. House of Cards knows what it’s doing and it admittedly does it well.

 

For one, I would agree with Casey J. McCormick’s argument that the momentum of the show’s narrative was what prevented me from stopping the next episode from playing. Frank Underwood’s thirst for revenge is embroiling, to say the least, and as the web stretches farther and farther you can’t but help gets strung along as well. Again, the show knows it’s doing this to the viewer with Frank’s dialogues to the viewer who is probably only inches away from their computer, as his gaze builds upon what McCormick calls a “textual intimacy.” The chapter format for the show does this as well, as no episode as a definable title. When I discuss the show with someone who has seen the show as well as binge watching it, I’ve noticed we both suffer from a sort of confusion where it’s hard for us to recall what things happened in that episode. In fact, the conversation transforms into both of us trying to recall if a specific event happened in the same episode as another specific event. The chapter format here is completely unhelpful in this way, but it’s clear that the show intended for binging. This type of character and narrative absorption is effective and it’s clear from my conversations with other viewers that we’ve both been sucked into the seedy underside of the show’s depiction of the nation’s capital.

 

Yet, this sort of confusion that arises out of two people talking about the show is interesting in its own right and perhaps speaks to the darker psychological effects Zachary Snider writes about in regards to binge watching. McCormick admits that the narrative structure of House of Cards primes viewers to watch the show in as few sittings as possible something showrunner, Beau Willimon has always been adamant about. In my conversations, it has always been the case that other viewers have watched it on their own, much in the same way I have and these conversations seem to always happen after the entirety of the season has been watched. Of course with the release of more seasons, I have fallen behind and barred from discussion in the prevention of hearing spoilers. This it’s own type of social ostracization even if the intent is good. It seems that no one is ever in the same spot when it comes to the viewing and it’s always an uphill battle to catch up and be apart of the conversation. But this doesn’t happen in the company of friends or family, the viewer is obligated to do so on their own, away from the public, huddled once more behind the glowing screen of the laptop.

Netflix and American Exceptionalism

 

Wouldn’t it be just a shame if a Silicon Valley tech startup didn’t have some corporate ethos-soaked origin story?

In this way, Netflix is truly no different from other jingoism toting tech companies like Apple, Amazon, and Tesla. We have the classic David vs. Goliath story of Netflix killing the behemoth that was Blockbuster Video with dashes of neoliberal tropes of “individuality,” “disruption,” and “freedom” thrown in for good measure.

I mean how cool must Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings feel to hear himself compared to Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White or House of Cards’ Frank Underwood by media scholars like Gerald Sim? As the connections between all three and American Exceptionalism is anything but subtle.

But to really understand the connection, it’s important to talk about just how Netflix seemingly “killed” Blockbuster. The public often forgets that Blockbuster too offered a DVD-by-mail-service, which allowed its customers to drop off DVDs at the store for quicker turnaround. However the company was doing this at a loss, something Hastings was quick to point out to Antioco in their “dramatic” Sundance Film Festival meeting in Utah. Scholar Cameron Lindsey makes note that Netflix’s prediction algorithm has always been “somewhat legendary” although mysterious as the company has never divulged much information about it. Couple this with Antioco’s poor judgment with investors and backlash from Blockbuster suggesting Planet of the Apes for its Black History Month category and the picture starts to take form as Netflix was able to slip past the sinking ship.

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Of course, this has all been told through the Business Wars podcast with its characteristical revelry tone towards corporate drama and spectatorship, something that Sims has noticed the company has been able to brand at the same time as Hastings has Netflix has “democratized” television. In Netflix’s fight to the top, Sims writes that the Hastings has been a mere institutional agent, not a true disruptor, using neoliberal narratives of individuality to brand Netflix apart of other competitors like Amazon, Hulu and HBO all with their own threats of being disrupted by new competitors that could enter the market and play the game better than they do. In this context, Hastings use of these tropes goes far beyond just the neoliberal economic system but how the culture itself extends a mythology about itself. Perhaps nowhere in recent memory have we seen Netflix brand itself the true provider of autonomy with its anywhere access for customers and a slew of “Netflix Original” programming that’s synonymous with quality itself.

Yet how much autonomy Netflix has given users is incredibly questionable with the new media benefiting the corporate structure before the consumer. Sims cites the AMC’s corporate decisions around Breaking Bad were elided for a more populist narrative and how data was used to determine that users would watch House of Cards. While these can be called “smart business practices” they certainly do not match with Hastings claims of Netflix users being unshackled from the programming system. In short, “what people want” has been “both, quantified and commodified” by the “Netflix Quantum Theory” as Sims puts it. Sims believes it proves that there is a literal system for appealing to differentiated customers based on the sort of democratization and personal freedom the company has touted it gives customers while at the same time profiting off a constructed brand identity.

But it’s also important to note that trouble may lie ahead for Netflix as it struggles to appeal to East Asian markets with the constant threat of disruption from platforms like Crunchyroll while it manages to keep atop rising production costs for its original series and films.

Is Hastings really the one who knocks? Time will tell.