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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (1/23/15) 1:14am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  <none>
Movies:  The Social Network
TV:  Cougar Town

The Social Network
This is the 2010 film about the founding of facebook.

It was written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher.  And you know, it's a damn lucky thing Fincher did direct it. The source material bounces between two fairly erudite fields: web development and intellectual property law.  And Aaron Sorkin is not a screenwriter that slows things down, spells things out, and patiently holds your hand.  His scripts for network television hourlongs often ran to sixty pages.[1] So when he covers the founding of facebook, he pretty much has his foot on the gas the whole time.  Yes, he tells you exactly how Mark Zuckerberg scraped all the Harvard frat-house data to compile the original "facesmash" site -- but he does it in a rapid-fire voiceover that is pretty much solid computer jargon.

Fortunately, Sorkin includes a really strong personal story that underlies all this talk of voir dires and angel investors and apache vulnerabilities.  And equally fortunately, Fincher is brilliant at bringing this out.  I mean, yes, on the service we all notice how "Finchery" Fincher is being here: there are the uncomfortably balanced shots, the patient steadicam work, the sickly green color cast.  This will all look very familiar to anybody who's seen House of Cards.

But I recently saw this commentary from the amazing Tony Zhou, pointing out how good Fincher is at just directing people in a room, talking.  He can very subtly convey who has high status, who wants something from the other guy, who's concealing something, and on and on and on.  And so this movie, in its whirlwind of legal and business and software action, has Fincher to patiently guide us through it.  Eduoardo doesn't trust Sean.  The Winklevosses are split on whether to sue Mark.  You watch the personal story play out, while all the facts and jargon play as a sort of background percussion.

I found the whole thing intriguing, because I've worked in software long enough to see these sorts of things -- fighting over whose idea it is, who gets to implement it, who winds up as the highly-remunerated hero -- play out in real life, albeit on so small a scale as to be almost farcical.  It's neat to see it play out in a big-budget motion picture.  Still, it's an unpleasant reminder of the ascendant "bro-grammer" culture that's been encroaching on, if not taking over, my line of work over the last decade or so, and the way we just take it as given that any great programmer will be a twitchy, misanthropic egotist.

But beyond that, I don't really have much to say about The Social Network.  It's as good as everyone says it is.  Worth watching.

Cougar Town
This is the ABC sitcom starring Courtney Cox as a 40-year-old divorcée who goes on the prowl for younger men.

Only it's not.  It's very not.

With every television show you watch, you're really seeing two shows.  The first is the story you're watching, the characters and what happens to them, the episodic plots and the larger arc.  The second is the story of the show: it's about the cast and crew trying to figure out what the show is, how it works, and what it wants to be.

Sometimes that "second show" is triumphant, like when, over its much-maligned first season, Parks and Recreation transformed itself from a political Office knockoff into something more unique and warmhearted.  Sometimes it's frustrating, like when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent most of its first season desperately spinning its wheels, waiting for the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier to give it some forward momentum.

But rarely is the second show as insouciant as it is with Cougar Town.

Some background: Cougar Town started as a running joke in the writers' room of Bill Lawrence's more famous show, Scrubs.  "Oh, I bet we could sell a show in a second if we just said, I dunno, 'Look!  It stars Courtney Cox!  And she's bangin' young, hot dudes!  And it's called..." -- pause for dramatic effect -- "'Cougar Town'!"  And apparently the joke took on a life of its own, to the point that, as Scrubs was quietly disappearing into the wilderness of its "medical-student season", they actually started production on Cougar Town.

And it was a show about Courtney Cox banging young, hot dudes.

And then the most fascinating -- and perhaps unique -- thing happens.  Cougar Town looks at its own premise, shrugs its shoulders, and says, "Nah."  The pilot, the episode that gives the audience a promise as to what the show's about, has Courtney Cox pursuing a young guy, taking him home, doing sexy things with him, and presumably dumping him by the end of the episode.  The next few episodes have her out and about in the dating scene.  Then the next few episodes have her trying to make a longer relationship work with just *one* young hot dude.

And then he's gone, and with him, the premise.

Let me be clear: NO SHOW DOES THAT.

By halfway through the first season, Cougar Town has walked away from the whole raison d'être of its title.  It's just not about that any more, because that show is boring and stupid.  A secondary character, Barb, who is defined purely by that premise -- she's a mid-40s woman who's utterly devoted to pursuing and capturing a coterie of young lovers -- sticks around in the background.  She puts in appearances, and in those moments the comedy comes from just how off-putting it is to see that pandering, cartoonish universe intrude back into the show.

So what did Cougar Town decide to be instead?

It decided that no, it's a hangout comedy about a bunch of 40-year-olds.  No high-concept.  No real narrative through-line.  No sign of, say, the narrative experiments of How I Met Your Mother or the intense, foregrounded love triangles of Friends.  It is as premise-less as a comedy can be.

So it doesn't have a premise.  What *does* it have?

To my considerable surprise, it has world-building.  Yes, a breezy, episodic hang-out comedy takes its time to build up the world of these residents of the same suburban cul-de-sac.  In one episode, they introduce Penny Can, a game where you, yes, throw pennies into a can.  And over the future episodes, the game recurs, with new rules layered on to it every time.  And things like that just keep building over the course of the season: the group's penchant for playing (essentially) "that sounds like a song"; the roving packs of surprisingly well-groomed feral dogs that wander the neighborhood and wander into people's houses; the guys taking time alone as a perfect chance to finally listen to some Enya.

Even while nothing was happening, the show was taking every episode as a chance to spin off further from normalcy, and to become more and more itself.

The other thing it has is a very, very strong point of view.  Bill Lawrence was himself 41 when the show premiered.  Courtney Cox's lead character in the show is 40.  The show is, very clearly, what you get when this showrunner turns his comic sensibilities away from the medical profession, and turns the lens inward, on himself and his friends.  Underneath all the Scrubs-y magical realism, the show is *about* something.  There are incredibly melancholy undertows to the show -- about failed marriages, lost youth, the vague suspicion that your baby really doesn't like you that much, and so on.  It keeps the callout humor and the heightened characters from floating away into pointless, Family Guy territory.

And to me, personally, this means a lot.  I turn 40 this year, a fact which still strikes me as bizarre, impossible, and unspeakably tragic.  On some level, this show, as silly as it is, quells that gnawing suspicion that everything that's going to happen in my life has happened already.  It reassures me that my life isn't over.  There are still stories.

For next week: I'm watching season one of the overlooked animated gem Bob and Margaret while exercising.  I'm currently reading The Shallows, and Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale.  We've started watching season two of Community (which is amazing) and season one of Black Mirror (the first episode was okay).  Next week, I'll write about Being Mortal and Big Hero 6, and I'll start to watch Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert.

[1] This is weird because a network hourlong, minus its commercials, runs about 42 minutes, and screenplays typically run one page per minute.  So a sixty-page, forty-two minute story is blazing through a lot of rapid dialog.

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