Culture Crash 19-12: Junk Food TV

cc 19-12

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 19-10: 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 19-06: 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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Culture Crash 19-03: Movies to Look Forward to in 2019

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

With a new year always comes new things to look forward to, so let’s take a look at some of the movies people are anticipating the most in 2019. As a warning, there are a lot of them.

Of course, superhero tentpoles aren’t going anywhere. Marvel will release Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. While DC will release Shazam! And a cinematic universe-adjacent take on Batman’s archnemesis called Joker. Not to be outdone, the X-Men label will put out two films in 2019, Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants.

But it’s not all superhero movies, even if it feels that way. 2019 will also see Netflix release Velvet Buzzsaw, which will couple Jake Gyllenhaal back up with director Dan Gilroy after their last team-up, Nightcrawler, thrilled audiences. Director Richard Linklater will be back this year with an adaptation of the hit novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, starring Cate Blanchett. The Toy Story franchise will see a fourth installment hit theaters in June, Quentin Tarantino will debut his 1969-Manson-Family-era film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Al Pachino in July. Ang Lee returns with Gemini Man, a sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch’s adaptation comes out in October, starring Sarah Paulson, Nicole Kidman, Ansel Elgort, and Jeffrey Wright.

Is that all? No, not even close. Additionally, Stephen King fans will once again fill the theaters for Pet Sematary, coming in April, and IT: Chapter 2, which will conclude the Losers Club’s tale in September. And, buckle up: 2019 will mark the theatrical return of Downton Abbey, a re-imagination of The Addams Family, a reboot of Charlie’s Angels, and an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. There will be a new Godzilla movie, a new Men in Black movie, and even a live-action/animation hybrid version of Sonic the Hedgehog. None of this is to even mention that Frozen 2 and Star Wars: Episode 9 will be released during 2019’s holiday season.

Phew! That’s a lot, and what’s crazy is there are still so many other titles coming out this year. For example, I can’t wait for the new James Grey sci-fi movie, Ad Astra. For years, experts have lamented the death of moviegoing and yet, 2018 marked the highest grossing movie year of all time. Clearly, with this 2019 slate of releases, the movie industry is looking to outdo itself once again.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 18-51: Roma

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

A new movie recently popped up on your Netflix homepage. It’s called Roma, and it’s director Alfonso Cuarón’s passion project. You may know of Cuarón from Gravity, Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También, or even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In Roma, he tells the story of Cleo, a young maid in Mexico City during 1970 and 1971. She and her fellow maid, Adela, live with a family and end up being the people most responsible for keeping the home together. They cook, clean, they even help put the kids to bed.

Cuarón has been forthcoming about the fact that the movie was inspired by his own childhood. It’s even dedicated to his family maid, Libo. One of my favorite things about Cuarón is how Cuarón filters his memories through Cleo’s experiences. When the Corpus Christi massacre starts taking place outside the window of a shop Cleo is in, the camera doesn’t shift to show this moment in history. It stays with her, and we follow her back into the world through the chaos. 

Roma is a Best Picture contender and a Best Director contender, but even more important, it’s a masterpiece. You truly get to know and care for Cleo. You understand her struggle. And further, the film is technically brilliant, with beautiful cinematography and featuring such realistic sound design that I actually turned around in the theater on two different occasions, thinking someone was making noise inside the room, when in fact, it was coming through the speakers. It’s a movie that is well-served to be seen in theaters, but if that’s not an option near you, then that’s where that Netflix subscription comes in handy. Roma is now streaming– Just make sure to eliminate distractions and let yourself be swept up in the story. It’s a trip into the past that is worth taking.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 18-50: A look ahead at the movies set to dominate awards season

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

Awards season is officially upon us. The Golden Globes have already announced their nominees, which are as questionable as always. Year-end lists are being finalized, and Oscar buzz is reaching a roar for some contenders. But now is also the time when many of these movies are being released in the first place. So, here’s a guide of what to keep an eye out for to get ahead of the nominee pool.

A Star Is Born and First Man are two contenders that have already spent some time in theaters. While First Man has begun to fade a bit and failed to generate much interest from the Hollywood Foreign Press, it did grab a nom for Claire Foy. And, it would be a minor shock if she and Ryan Gosling were both shut out of the actor races at the Oscars, while the film is still strongly in the mix for Best Picture. Of course, A Star Is Born may be the centerpiece of this year’s field- with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga poised to each receive multiple nominations. Cooper for acting, writing, and directing; And Gaga for acting and songwriting.

Beyond those, Barry Jenkins has released his follow-up to Moonlight with If Beale Street Could Talk. A wonderful adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, the film expertly uses lighting and cinematography to celebrate black love… and to tell the heart-wrenching and familiar tale of a corrupt criminal justice system. The Favourite is another strong contender this year. Its trio of actresses- Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz have garnered a lot of attention for their roles in this comedic take on the royal period piece that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before. And Netflix’s big swing this year comes in the form of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a Spanish-language film that is inspired by Cuaron’s own childhood in Mexico City. Roma is in a limited number of theaters and is now streaming on Netflix.

Of course, there are other contenders as well. BlacKkKlansman and Eighth Grade are streaming on-demand. Black Panther is on Netflix. Adam McKay’s Vice will be released on Christmas, and other contenders like Widows, Can You Ever Forgive Me, and Green Book are all in theaters now.

It’s a busy time of year for all of us- and especially for the film community. The options are out there, and the time to stay in the loop for nomination season is now.

I’m Evan Rook. 

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Culture Crash 18-48: Watching Sports with a Second Screen

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

It used to be that when you were watching sports, you were only watching with the people in the same room as you. Maybe your family gathered around to watch Sunday Night Baseball, maybe you went to a friend’s Super Bowl party. Either way, you discussed the matchups amongst yourself, relying on the person next to you to pick up on any subtleties you missed.

Now, sports have become the gold-standard for entertainment that demands a second-screen. Watching a game is aided immensely by having your phone or a tablet at your fingertips. You can look up in-game stats, you can track scores of other games, or you can look through your Twitter timeline to share in the agony or ecstasy of your team’s failures and successes with a host of other fans and analysts in real time.

No longer do you have to sit at home and watch a game independently. Now, you’re at a bustling sports bar for every game, and the entire internet is sitting alongside you. The NBA Finals, World Series, and Super Bowl all completely take over the social media world, dominating the trending charts with hashtags and relevant players and coaches names. Within minutes of last year’s NBA Finals Game 1 ending, already the internet was full of memes making fun of the moment LeBron James yelled at JR Smith for not knowing the score in a crucial situation down the stretch.

It’s not all memes, though. The internet can also truly illuminate what’s happening on your TV screen. Have a question about a particular penalty or play? You can submit it to your local newspaper’s beat writer and occasionally get a response. Think Drew Brees looks slightly off in the third quarter? You can make that observation on Twitter and see if others agree or disagree with your assertion.

Management and coaching staffs have analytics guys crunching numbers to decide who starts and who sits. Now, us fans have social media, where we can parse through that same information to second-guess our teams every step of the way. Gone are the days when you have to watch a live event in the dark. Now, QB ratings, field goal percentages, and trade rumors are constantly just a click away, and as soon as the game your watching is over you can trust that social media has all the highlights you need to see from the other games you missed.  

I’m Evan Rook. 

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