Culture Crash 19-12: Junk Food TV

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

When people talk about television, there’s generally a skew toward prestige TV. We discuss the achievements of Breaking Bad, LOST and Orange is the New Black, we marveled at the talent of Sterling K. Brown and Elisabeth Moss… and deservedly so! Those shows and actors are incredible, and they have entertained many of us for hours on end with their high concepts and thoughtfulness. But there’s another brand of TV that’s easy to overlook, what I call “junk food TV.” In this comparison, those prestige shows are your nice dinners out: they are prepared with care by professionals. This junk food TV is what you reach for when you just need something easy and fast and delicious.

For me, it’s MTV’s The Challenge. I’ve watched it for years – I know the running resentments and simmering dramas. I enjoy the athletic challenges, the backstabbing of the votes. It’s pure entertainment. For others, this is the role that Riverdale, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, or heck, even Family Feud.

Lately, my wife has come home and decompressed from hectic days by watching Nailed It on Netflix. Nailed It is a show where home bakers try imitating complicated recipes from professionals, who make decadent desserts look easy. The home bakers typically fail spectacularly, and then everyone has fun laughing and commiserating with each other. It’s fun, it’s light, it’s enjoyable.

Not every day can be a day when I feel up to the emotional weight of watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Leftovers. Sometimes, I need to relax by flipping on The Challenge and watching 30-somethings try to race across platforms 20 feet over water and then vote their friends into elimination challenges. That’s just the way it is.

Junk food TV rarely wins awards or gets celebrated, but sometimes it can be what allows us to relax on a Tuesday night, and that is worth appreciating.

I’m Evan Rook.

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Culture Crash 19-11: Do we all have the cultural taste of our 15 year-old selves?

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

There’s an anecdote from a 2015 Hollywood Reporter profile on Lorne Michaels, the famed producer of Saturday Night Live, that has always stuck with me. Michaels has been the man in charge of SNL since its inception back in 1975, which means he’s overseen the iconic series through generations of new writers and performers and he’s heard time and again that his show just ain’t what it used to be. Michaels has seen this cycle often enough and in regards to so many different casts that he has reached a simple conclusion: Everyone says the show peaked when they were in high school.

One high school senior’s favorite cast is a disappointment to a bunch of 20-somethings.

This is a tale as old as time. Older generations lament younger generations’ taste in everything. Famously, this is true of music. Older generations despised the music of Elvis, then the Rolling Stones, and now, I guess, Kanye West. In fact, in a similar vein to Michael’s anecdotal discovery, data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes in his book Everybody Lies that Spotify data suggests our favorite music is what we grew up with. Specifically, he says women’s musical taste is formed between 11 and 14, while men’s taste is formed between 13 and 16. Stephens-Davidowitz says for instance, that “Creep” by Radiohead, is the 164th most popular song among men on the cusp of 40, but it doesn’t even rank in the top 300 of men nearing 30 or 50.

We like what we liked in high school. 

And I can add to the phenomenon: My favorite movie is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I’ve often said nothing will ever top the experience I had of going to the theater at midnight when I was 15 years old, tagging along with my brother and watching the comic book crime epic unfold and… it turns out, I’m probably right. It’s not necessarily because it’s the best movie of all-time, but it mattered to me the most when my receptors were at their height.

I appreciate new music and new books and new music, and I flock to see new movies. I often love them. Maybe I’ll even watch some Saturday Night Live highlights. But for me, those things all peaked in the late 2000s. For you, they probably peaked when you were 15. And of course, this is all fine. But let’s get along about it. People can like different things, and we should probably try to keep these things in mind and cut younger generations some slack when they say anew movie or a new song is their favorite ever. It’s just human nature.

For links to the Hollywood Reporter profile (on Lorne Michaels) and to purchase Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s book (Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are) head to our site Viewpointsonline.net.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-10: Netflix’s Russian Doll

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Streaming TV services like Netflix and Hulu have revolutionized the medium, in part, simply by expanding access. Hundreds more scripted shows are being made right now than ever have before, and this has meant more diverse writers and creators. But Netflix, in particular, is responsible for another revolutionary idea: dropping entire seasons of shows all at once. It’s become something of a signature for the company, which encourages binge-watching entire seasons of shows like Stranger Things and Ozark in a day or a weekend. With that, many creators have started to say it feels like they’re making a 10-hour movie instead of a TV show.

And that line of thinking has been a little controversial. The problem with that thinking is that, of course, it isn’t a 10-hour movie, it’s a TV show. Critic Alan Sepinwall frequently notes that the nature of TV is episodic. Even if you encourage binge-watching, some viewers will go one episode at a time and each episode needs to be entertaining in its own right.

Well, Netflix may have finally answered the bell and delivered a show that truly feels like an actual extended-length film. It’s called Russian Doll, and it comprises of eight episodes that are each roughly 23 minutes in length. This makes the entire season a little over three hours long, which makes it actually feasible for a lot of people to watch it all in one sitting. And that might be the ideal watching situation.

Russian Doll is similar to Groundhog Day or Happy Death Day, in that it focuses on someone stuck in the same moment. Star Natasha Leon plays Nadia, who keeps dying and being reborn into the same moment at her birthday party.

Russian Doll is a bit of an enigma. It’s sort of like NBC’s The Good Place in its mysterious structure and the central theme of what we can accomplish when we all help each other.

Toward the beginning of the season, I was a bit confused, unsure what exactly I was watching. But around episode 3 or 4, the story really kicks in and it sprints through the finish line. 

It is like a long movie, and it works well all at once. It also works well split in half or sure, episodically.

Russian Doll is now streaming on Netflix.

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Culture Crash 19-09: Audiobooks

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

How do you pass the time on your commutes? Do you tune into the radio? Put on a podcast? Or maybe you listen to an audiobook?

Audiobooks are undergoing a bit of a renaissance right now, and their newfound portability is a main reason why. For a long time, listening to an audiobook meant shelling out big bucks or sitting on a library wait list to obtain a huge, unruly set of tapes or disks. You’d put them in, one after the other, and listen to books on tape for long car rides or an arduous flight.

But now, audiobooks can be the most convenient way to read- or at least, consume- a book. Gone are those days of cassette after cassette, now audiobooks can be purchased from Amazon’s Audible service or, most likely, borrowed for free through your library subscription via a web app like OverDrive. Once you’ve gotten your audiobook, you can save it right to your phone and click play whenever it’s convenient.

Personally, I love driving to the sounds of a good book and experiencing an old favorite through new eyes or being able to easily tear through a good thriller.

One big question in the mind’s of many an audiobook listener is which works best for them: are they listeners who want to get the biggest bang for their buck on a mammoth of a book, or to zip through some shorter books on your commute. For example, you can really invest weeks worth of commutes on nearly 48 hours of listening to Stephen King’s The Stand or 21 hours of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Or, you could pick up some shorter like Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, which clocks in under 9 hours and can easily be finished in just one week’s commuting time.

Much like reading a real book, I find that different seasons and moods predispose me to different audiobooks. Do I want a funny, light memoir like Amy Poehler’s or a dark, scary horror novel? It always just depends.

Regardless of your inclination, it might be worth it to try listening to an audiobook when riding the train or driving in heavy traffic. It might just make your commutes feel more productive. And if you’re looking for a recommendation to get you started, Bryan Cranston’s narration of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War classic The Things They Carried is one of my favorites.

Get help with finding audiobooks from OverDrive.com.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-08: Television Shows Creating “Expanded Universes” of Their Own

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

We live in an era of expanded universes. We have Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, and so, so many others. Multiple shows and movies all connecting into one timeline has been an incredibly successful business model, especially for blockbuster movies.

But now TV shows are starting to spin their own sort of inter-connected universes, as well. One such show is the cult favorite Veronica Mars. Originally a UPN show, Veronica Mars ran two seasons before UPN and WB joined together to form The CW, where the show aired its third and seemingly final season. Season 3 ended in 2007 and the series went dormant until a 2013 Kickstarter campaign raised enough money to convince Warner Brothers to fund a movie version. In 2014, Veronica Mars the movie was released and then, emboldened by the show’s cult following, creator Rob Thomas and writer Jennifer Graham wrote two novels continuing Veronica’s story. Since then, there has been a meta-web spinoff and now, Hulu is producing another season of the show. From there, who knows? Maybe Hulu will be the end, and maybe Veronica will live to see another day. At a minimum, Veronica Mars will be a series that spanned four seasons of TV across three networks, plus a feature film and two novels. That’s not too shabby.

The other show creating a universe for itself is Breaking Bad. The show famously picked up fans over its initial run on AMC by streaming on Netflix. Breaking Bad’s first season never broke 1.5 million viewers, but by the time the show ended its run, it was regularly drawing about 5 million viewers, with the finale attracting 10 million. After its finale, Vince Gilligan expanded the story of Breaking Bad into a spin-off prequel series about the origins of everyone’s favorite shady lawyer, Saul Goodman. Now, Gilligan and co. are creating a Breaking Bad sequel movie, which will reportedly follow the story of Jessie Pinkman for debut on Netflix.

We live in an age of streaming TV and on-demand movies. It has never been more lucrative to continue an existing franchise, and I don’t expect Veronica Mars or Breaking Bad to be the last shows to try to keep spinning new yarns across various formats and media. Expanded universes aren’t just for comic books anymore.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-07: The Academy’s Unforced Errors

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

As you may have heard, this year’s Oscars have been a disaster since the word “go.” Over the past few months, the Academy has announced a Best Popular Film award, that Kevin Hart would be the host, and that only two of the nominees for Best Song would be performing. All three of those ideas stirred up controversy and all three have been reversed. Best Popular Film has been shelved for discussion another year, this year’s awards show will not have a host, and all the Best Song nominees will perform.

So, problems fixed, right? Well, not so fast, because the Academy is committing another unforced error. Higher-ups at the Oscars have begun insisting certain awards will be announced during commercial breaks and occur off-air to trim the show’s runtime, and I guess to skip on giving hard-working craftspeople their shining moments.

Awards are, of course, arbitrary. Ranking art is a personal endeavor, so calling someone the Best Actress or Best Director of a certain year is relatively insignificant. What many of us who love awards shows like the Oscars are attached to is the celebration of an art form we cherish. I disagree with the winners more often than not, but I like seeing the craft celebrated; I like having a list of things worth checking out, and I like getting a glimpse behind the scenes at the editors, screenwriters, and costume artists who make the movies we all go see. To steal these moments from those artists is to ignore the greater purpose of the show in the first place.

It’s not supposed to be about stargazing celebrity obsession. I mean, okay, of course, it is. But it isn’t just that, or at least it shouldn’t be. It should also be a celebration of filmmaking. To eliminate so-called “lesser” awards so Lady Gaga or Christian Bale can have more time to shine is a shame. The Oscars air once a year. I wish the Academy would let that show serve to honor as many people as possible and not just the famous ones in the fancy tuxes.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 19-06: Missing Gems in the Deluge of ‘Peak TV’

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Welcome to Culture Crash, where we examine what’s new and old in entertainment.

Vulture reported that 495 scripted television shows were broadcast and streamed for the first time in 2018. That’s up from the 216 series that aired less than a decade ago, back in 2010.

With such a boom in the sheer volume of the medium, thanks largely to the growth of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video… it can be easy to lose track of everything you’ve been meaning to watch.

Case in point for me is the Showtime limited series, Escape at Dannemora. The show began airing just a few months back in November, but in TV time, that’s eons ago. Anyway, I meant to watch the show when it was coming out but forgot all about it until the show began hitting the awards circuit. Patricia Arquette specifically has won both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Award for her turn in the series, and that was what finally reminded me to give the show a try.

Boy, am I glad I did. Escape at Dannemora is based on a real 2015 prison break in upstate New York and stars Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro as two prison inmates, and Patricia Arquette as a prison employee who becomes tangled up in their web. All seven episodes of the series were directed by Ben Stiller, but make no mistake: this show is a dramatic thriller, not a whimsical comedy. It’s really good and now streaming on Showtime’s various web apps.

But Escape at Dannemora isn’t the only shows I missed in the waterfall of TV content.

High on my to-watch list are AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl, based on the John le Carre novel of the same name and Netflix’s Bodyguard, which is a hugely successful political thriller that originally aired on BBC One. Of course, at some point I may need some comedic relief, in which case I’ll turn to, maybe Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Netflix’s American Vandal, two shows I’ve started but have not finished.

The reservoir of TV content is very, very deep. Sometimes, that can be daunting. And sometimes, that can mean stumbling back on something that dominated the zeitgeist for a few fleeting moments several months ago, and having a blast discovering those things for yourself.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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