By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, November 6, 2012 - 0 Comments
The interesting thing about this U.S. election’s impact on U.S. television is the fact that its had any impact at all. Remember all the references TV made to the election of 2004? No? That’s because there were hardly any. Even though it was a close, hard-fought election in a deeply divided country–just like this one–TV mostly stayed away from it. It was a very timid time for TV: networks were panicked by 9/11, by the FCC, by the shrinking audience (it’s still shrinking now, but they’re used to it).
And so open political references were almost taboo unless they were done obliquely, like Arrested Development‘s parallels between the Bluth and Bush families. The Simpsons famously never had a caricature of George W. Bush on the show, let alone John Kerry. South Park‘s election episode in 2004 portrayed the election allegorically as “a choice between a giant douche and a turd sandwich,” making the episode a perfect capsule of how mindless Trey Parker’s centrism was at the time.
Since then, there’s been something of a thaw in television, and while it’s hardly become daring or anything, there are a lot more direct references to this election than eight or even four years ago. At least three half-hour comedies have done episodes where characters argue over the election, and mention the candidates by name. The New Normal was the first, then came 30 Rock. Then came Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, a show that I thought was developing into a pretty good innocuous family sitcom; Allen apparently didn’t think so, though, because the show is back this year retooled (at his behest) into an All in the Family imitator, and the season premiere was about Allen arguing with his daughters over the election, and he thinks Obama is from Kenya, and makes “community organizer” jokes, and the whole episode sounded like a couple of politically-opposed Twitter feeds mashed together into a script.
Well, most political arguments on scripted TV (or unscripted, for that matter) sound like Twitter feeds, since there’s no room for nuance or developed arguments, even assuming the writers have any on hand. Usually what happens is one character says something that’s a grotesque caricature of the Republican or Democratic position, and the other character either a) responds with an equally grotesque caricature of a reply, or b) is completely stopped in his tracks by the incredible all-consuming logic of an argument any real person could rebut in five seconds. This is why 30 Rock was the best of these three episodes: apart from having the funniest writers, it was intentionally silly and caricatured, and made the political arguments more about the characters’ personal issues.
But even if those other two shows were trying to be All in the Family and failing, the fact that they even tried is a sign that television has emerged a little bit from the defensive crouch of the ’00s. Of course there are other reasons why shows might choose not to deal with topical issues like elections, most obviously the fact that an election episode dates the show for all time. (However, I think producers are naive to believe that avoiding topical references will help them be “timeless” in syndication. I watched shows in the ’80s that mentioned the election without ever mentioning the candidates’ names, but they still had the hair, the clothes, and the brick cellphones, and nothing was going to keep them from becoming dated.) And, as noted, these issues are usually beyond what the show is capable of dealing with anyway. But all in all, it’s probably better to see shows deal with issues rather than avoid them, so I think I’m glad we live in an era when the words “Obama” and “Romney” are not among the seven words you can’t say on TV.
By Barbara Amiel - Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 12:00 PM - 3 Comments
You’d think, given the prices, “Book of Mormon” audiences would be more finicky
There’s a bit of a Mormon moment right now. Think me crazy, but I rather like the sound of a life in which men address each other as “elder” and the womenfolk call each other “sister”—or, when circumstances warrant, “sisterwives.” There’s a respect lost when complete strangers who obtain your credit card take to addressing you by your first name. When the HBO series Big Love brought Mormons into our living rooms, I also rather warmed to the idea of receiving testimony. Though Big Love never quite made the notion clear, I think receiving testimony is a moment when what you want to do gets heavenly sanction.
This line of thought accelerated last week on seeing The Book of Mormon, the most sought-after ticket on Broadway. The plot line is an account set to song and dance of some Mormon missionaries taking their message to Uganda. Doesn’t take a high IQ to predict whose side the writers (credits include the animated series South Park) and audience are on. Let’s just say it isn’t God’s. The play is a musical with superb performances, bad music and largely adolescent lyrics. It’s guiltily watchable, rather like the sloth of reading a bad book at the beach on a hot day. Given the sky-high prices of the tickets (don’t ask, but scalpers are getting nearly four-digit prices for back-of-theatre seats), you’d think the audience would be a tad more finicky over the song Hasa Diga Eebowai, loosely translated as “F–k you God,” rather than screaming with joy over the endless repetition of that banal scatology.
Making fun of Mormons is easy stuff. Mainstream Christians and Jews have the mists of time to cushion any inspection of their peculiar stories.We’ve got accustomed to the Red Sea parting, Lazarus rising. It was all so long ago. The patina of antiquity, backed up by great religious institutions reaching back a thousand years or more, bequeaths respectability. Christian congregations don’t sneer when their minister reads, “Behold there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.” That’s the Gospel according to Matthew. But when your prophet is not named Matthew but Joseph Smith and his revelation takes place in the upstate New York of 1823 during a visit from the angel Moroni, who tells him of religious writings buried on gold plates along with two stones called the Urim and the Thummim, the message sounds rather Lord of the Rings.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, January 7, 2011 at 3:40 PM - 3 Comments
Shows from CSI to South Park are cashing in on our fascination with the disorder
Move over, drug addiction: compulsive hoarding is the most popular real-life disorder on television. After the success of two reality shows about people who compulsively save all kinds of junk—A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Buried Alive—many shows in the last year have done fictional stories about the issue. Experts don’t seem to know whether or not this is going to be a good thing for public awareness of the condition. Gail Steketee, a professor at Boston University and co-author of the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, told Maclean’s that a CSI episode called “House of Hoarders” offered “some accurate verbal information” about what hoarding is, but that “stepping on dead bodies amidst the clutter definitely overplays the problem.”
CSI wasn’t the first gruesome procedural to get to this topic. Earlier in 2010, Ann-Margret won an Emmy award for guest-starring on Law and Order: SVU as a woman who refused to throw away sheets that she bled on, and Bones dealt with the murder of a man who couldn’t bring himself to throw anything away in his smelly apartment. Hart Hanson, who created Bones and co-wrote the hoarding episode, told Maclean’s that his staff looks for timely topics to build murder mysteries around, and that hoarding provided a perfect arena for sleuths to investigate: “We liked the idea that the hoarder had something of great value hidden in amongst the crap—in our case, a radioactive gnome.” They were even able to tie the story into the previously established character traits of their hero, Booth (David Boreanaz), whose messiness “classified him as a ‘level one’ hoarder. He collected junk. And we put that in the story.”
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 2:20 PM - 3 Comments
I haven’t had much to say about the new run of South Park, and I don’t see much excitement about it online or in the news, either. The show goes through periods of relevance and irrelevance: it was huge in the first season, the bubble burst in the second season, and it became a phenomenon again with the movie. Right now it seems to be only marginally relevant, though it’s still entertaining thanks to the basic strength of the characters. It does seem, though, like Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become the stereotypical Hollywood writers who don’t get out much and no longer have a lot of life experience to draw on for their comedy (since they spend all their time either making the show, or just being rich and happy). Thus, in the four episodes they’ve done in this run so far, we’ve had an episode making fun of pro wrestling, not exactly a timely target. And when Parker is really stumped for an idea, he just makes fun of a reality show he watches: one of the four recent episodes was a parody of Ghost Hunters, and the most recent one was a parody of Whale Wars. Plus Parker’s usual obsession with video games:
I think South Park is at its best when it just has the kids acting like kids, anyway, so the lack of hard-hitting topical humour doesn’t bother me, and the characters (especially Butters) are funny enough that even a phoned-in episode can make me laugh. But a lot of the show’s appeal is its timeliness and its ability to create buzz. And for the moment, it’s going through one of those phases where it doesn’t seem to be creating a whole lot of buzz, because the episodes are a bit insular, based on stuff that Trey Parker is obsessed with but maybe the rest of the world isn’t. The most notorious example was last year when he devoted two episodes to what he thought was the phenomenon of Peruvian Flute Bands in malls, only to realize that many malls do not, in fact, have those bands.
It’s an occupational hazard for comedy writers, who frequently wind up writing stuff in that they’re interested in, or that makes sense to the locals, without making this stuff make sense to an international audience. Shows made in New York have all kinds of New York references; L.A. shows have a tendency to get obsessed with diamond lanes, Vin Scully, and other things that non-Angelenos couldn’t care less about. (Okay, I cared about Vin Scully when he was doing NBC’s game of the week. He’s not any more, yet The Simpsons still has Harry Shearer do his Scully impression.) It’s a little more pronounced with South Park because it’s so clearly a product of Parker’s personal obsessions, so when he gets into something that isn’t really a topic of world interest (did you know that wrestling is fake?) it takes over the whole half-hour.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, September 14, 2009 at 10:46 AM - 0 Comments
I didn’t even think the South Park “Fishsticks” episode was one of their best, but it was an example of Trey Parker’s continuing ability to write jokes that somehow stick with you, and that you just can’t help quoting. (Some shows lose this ability; The Simpsons, even in the Mike Scully years, produced tons of lines that entered the culture, like “Save me, Jeebus!”, but it hasn’t done a lot of that lately. Or if there have been a bunch of compulsively-quotable Simpsons bits from the last few years, I’ve missed most of them.) Last night, even before Kanye West’s “Beyonce should have won and everybody should care what I think” incident, the Kanye West episode of South Park – and the term “gay fish” — was being quoted literally every half-minute on Twitter, and frequently on blogs.
It’s not like the satirical point of the episode, or any South Park episode, was particularly deep or elightening. The point was that Kanye has no sense of humour and is really conceited; we knew that going in. But South Park hasn’t lasted this long because it’s some kind of brilliant intellectual take on the modern world (every so often, like after the movie, people will argue that, but it never lasts long, because Parker always winds up demonstrating that his understanding of issues never goes beyond what he reads on somebody’s website). It’s lasted because it has the ability to take a joke, or combine two or more jokes — Kanye’s humourlessness and the “fishsticks” joke — and come up with comedy bits that never get out of your head.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 1:17 PM - 0 Comments
I enjoyed the season premiere of South Park more than last year’s; I won’t talk a lot about it because it hasn’t aired in Canada yet (the Comedy Network will have it this Friday at 9:30), but as often happens, Trey Parker started with really easy satirical targets, the Jonas Brothers, moved on to even easier targets, “purity rings,” and finally moved on to the easiest target of all. Which is fine. South Park always takes on easy targets.
But the tip of the hat to A Face in the Crowd was fun, and it was good to see Kenny get an episode again; he had one last year, “Major Boobage,” but I didn’t care for that one much — the extra money they spent to do the hand-drawn Heavy Metal style animation just seemed to make the episode feel a little heavy and slow. This was an episode that actually drew on the things that made Kenny a fun character in the early years: he’s the only one of the four boys who is genuinely interested in sex. (Stan has a very chaste relationship with Wendy; Kyle has no apparent interest in girls; and Cartman talks about sex but doesn’t actually understand it. Kenny is the only one of these kids who isn’t an innocent on some level.) More Kenny stories, please.
This episode also demonstrated again that Parker and Stone are no longer as out in front of pop-culture trends as they used to be. Last year, several of their episode dealt with trends or issues that were basically over by the time they did the show. Toward the end of the season they managed to satirize the current trends among kids (like Twilight), and this one was obviously supposed to be a follow-up to those episodes, by parodying the Jonas Brothers as the current big thing. Except that their 3-D movie bombed, so between the time this episode was conceived and the time it aired, the subject seemed a little out of date. Not that it really matters; it’s just that South Park’s ability to do episodes about things that are happening right now, once a much-hyped part of its appeal, now doesn’t seem to be as strong as it was.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 1:21 PM - 0 Comments
The last few South Park episodes didn’t change my opinion that this season has been disappointing, and I agree that the election episode was a one-joke thing, but I did enjoy it more than their 2004 election episode, “Douche and Turd.” That one was based on the premise that there is no difference between the candidates, a faux-hip premise that felt like a stale leftover from 1996. But watching Randy Marsh (one of the best characters on the show) decide that everything in the world is awesome and perfect because his favourite candidate won, that’s a satirical point that actually makes sense, and it makes particular sense with Randy, because he’s an idiot who over-reacts to everything. SP is almost always better when it goes for character, which is why the Randy sections of this episode were better than the Ocean’s 11 parody, and why the best parts of the recent two-parter were Craig’s deadpan meta-comments on what a bunch of assholes the main characters are. The biggest problem this season is that they’ve mostly let character play second fiddle to movie parodies — a problem that a lot of shows have when they’ve run a long time, but a bigger problem for South Park because their movie parodies are almost always exactly the same (basically, they just repeat the plot of the movie and rely on the different situation/setting to provide the comedy).
(And yes, it’s pretty clear that this episode would have been much the same if McCain had won. You’ll notice that the hard-core conservatives in South Park, like Kenny’s family and Uncle Jimbo, were not hanging out with the McCain supporters, so that this group could have been turned into Obama supporters if it went the other way. I mean, sure, Randy’s been a liberal in other episodes, but Randy’s insane, so he could have changed his mind.)
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, October 10, 2008 at 2:05 PM - 0 Comments
…It’s a dangerous sign when a show does an episode that feels like a rehash of an earlier episode. Especially when the new episode isn’t as good. What I’m saying is that while I’m totally on Trey Parker’s side in hating what Spielberg and Lucas have done to their franchises, this was not as funny as virtually the same story in “Free Hat.”
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 5:07 PM - 1 Comment
Tonight is the premiere of the second half of South Park‘s 12th year. (Every “season” is really two seasons, one batch of episodes in the first part of the year, and another batch in the fall.) It’s not on in Canada simultaneously, but there will be lots of places to view it.
The first half was kind of disappointing, despite some good individual moments and despite my article declaring that the show was better than ever. Based on seasons 9 through 11, I still stand by that, and the episodes this season certainly had some of the qualities that had made me enjoy the show more than I used to — meaning, less right-wing haranguing (I’m sorry… “libertarian” haranguing) and more character-based stories. (“Canada On Strike” was the only episode so far this season that really fell into the old South Park Continue…