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

Sunday (7/9/17) 10:40pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:   <none>
Movies:  <none>
TV:  BoJack Horseman [season 2], The Carmichael Show [season 1], O. J. Simpson: Made in America, TableTop  [season 3]

BoJack Horseman [season 2]
This is the second season of Netflix's animated series about a washed-up ex-sitcom-star in a alternate-universe Hollywood filled with anthropomorphized animals.  In this season, BoJack stars in his lifelong dream project, and Diane becomes an embedded reporter in a European war zone.

This is an amazing season of television, but it's damn hard to write about.  An example: BoJack is willing to wade into controversial territory.  They did a whole show exploring the Bill Cosby sex scandal, with a particular eye on the vicious blowback against anyone who reports sexual misconduct in Hollywood.  And my gut instinct is to say, see, the fact that this is animated provides a certain remove, and it lets the show dive into such charged, painful topics.

The problem is, that's bullshit.  If that conclusion were true, we'd see lots of animated shows take on modern horrors like this, and we don't.  Even South Park, for all its vaunted satirical glee, wouldn't send up the reddit crowd as a bunch of mouth-breathing rape apologists -- that wouldn't fit their evenhanded, "view from nowhere" take on satire.  Hardly anybody ventures into that terrain, animated or not.[1]

And that happens again and again -- you try to figure out where this season of BoJack fits into the bigger picture, and you can't quite make it fit.  There's just damn few things to compare it to, because BoJack is so thoroughly doing its own thing.

The best I can do is to shrug and say, well, it's a half-hour comedy with zany situations, so let's contrast it with 'normal' sitcoms.

One contrast: sitcoms often have the "idiot plot" -- the plot that only functions because everyone involved is an idiot.  The whole storyline is about a bunch of wacky, likeable people having a big, crazy misunderstanding.  If any of them actually communicated with each other like round-earth humans do, the plot would quickly resolve and disappear.  That's why the happy endings are easy -- it's only arbitrary plot churn that caused the conflict in the first place, so there are no hurt feelings at the end.  Somebody just explains the misunderstanding, and we're done.

At its best, BoJack does whatever the opposite of an "idiot plot" is.  Instead of a problem that only an idiot could get into, the characters land themselves in situations where, no matter how smart they are, there's no way they can crawl out unscathed.  If you're starring in the movie you've dreamed about making your whole career, and the studios are turning it into a treacly, pointless piece of pablum... unless you pull an audience-insulting deus ex machina, that situation is going to wreck you.  The same goes for realizing your boyfriend is never leaving his wife.  The same goes for lying to your husband that you're on assignment when you've given up your reporting gig (if not your life) entirely.

The normal sitcom world is one where crazy plot contrivance gets you in trouble, but your basic virtue as a human being makes everything okay in the end.  BoJack is a world where everything is okay in the beginning, but your self-destructive tendencies land you in misery and ruin in the end.  In fact, this was basically the season where the show gave each of the characters exactly what they wanted, and then watched each character, in their own way -- BoJack, Dianne, Princess Carolyn -- find a way to bring it down around their ears.

(Which, by the way, also served as way for season 2 to keep same characters but put them into new circumstances.)

And the show is relentlessly accurate in how it depicts that self-destruction.  BoJack himself is an eerily dead-on take on depression, to say nothing of all the other issues he contends with.  And regarding Dianne's response to crashing and burning at her her dream gig -- blearily parking on the couch, watching trivia shows, and wallowing in Cheetoh-dusted failure -- I wrote "THAT IS ME AAAAA."

I've talked before, only half-jokingly, about shows having "originality capital" -- like they have only a fixed amount of originality.  If they blow it all on (say) innovative nonchronological narration, then the rest of the show has to be almost fiercely traditional, because the originality cupboard is now bare.

BoJack makes me wonder if there's a similar thing for "accuracy capital".  Maybe an audience would find it unbearable to watch a show that's realistic in every respect.  And so, BoJack, with its agonizingly specific take on self-destruction, may find its 'accuracy' budget has gone out the window.  And that's why we're left with, most obviously, the kuh-razy alternate-universe Hollywood full of talking animals -- but also the heavily stylized sitcom banter that the show defaults to.  Same goes for the whimsical antics that Todd gets up to, including the most gloriously withering takedown of improv I've yet seen.  (The Office, you tried really hard, and you'll get a lovely parting gift.)

But in a way, the show's cute sitcom affectations feed back into the show's agonizing realism.  This is because there's a clever thing you can do in broad sitcoms that often pivot to serious scenes.  You can set up something that's entirely acceptable in a sitcom -- some standard sitcom move that goes unexamined because it's just perfectly routine for sitcoms -- and then pull the rug out from under the audience by treating it as a real thing.  The best example I can think of offhand is Community's running gag of dressing Dean Pelton in ridiculous themed outfits -- and then there's the one day where he realizes that he looks ridiculous.  "I have to go to the bank later," he says, with the dismal air of a man baffled by his own life choices.

And so it is with BoJack.  The best example here is with the baboon who runs by BoJack's house in (I think) every single episode of season two.  You watch it as an animated-sitcom viewer and think "ha! a recurring gag!"  They're showing you a thing they had in the earlier episodes, like the "Hollywoo" sign, and it gets the "ha! I recognize that!" laugh.  But then the babboon shows up at the end of the season -- "It gets easier.  Every day.  But you have to do it.  Every day.  That's the hard part." -- and no YOU'RE crying from an honest but hopeful appraisal of mental illness.

I was amazed by what a hopeful note the show struck at the end, after an entire season of characters ruining everything good in their lives.  I also teared up at the telephone conversation in the bar between Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter, where they find ways to say "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you" without the shame of saying the actual words.

And somehow it's still packed with jokes.

It'll be some time before I watch a season this good again.

The Carmichael Show [season 1]
This is the 2015 multicamera sitcom about stand-up comedian Jerrod Carmichael and his politically-contentious family.  Season one is just six half-hour episodes.

I liked this show a lot.  And that is borderline shocking to me, because I was pretty sure I was done with multicamera sitcoms.  Sure, there had been one great one in my youth (WKRP, which still holds up), and some fun, surreal romps like NewsRadio since then.  But I could never get into Seinfeld or Friends, and as the 90s dragged on, sitcoms seemed to get more and more and more harmless -- just background noise for when you're folding your laundry.  Someone says a witticism.  The laugh track laughs.  You laugh, not because anything feels that funny, but because you feel like you're supposed to.  There's lots of snarky badinage, so it feels 'edgy' and transgressive, but really, you know it's just powerfully-bland comfort food.

I had forgotten about the 1970s.

Or rather, I knew that the 70s had had its sort of "Norman Lear tradition" of socially-engaged sitcoms about lower-middle-class families.  I knew that, in my own time, Roseanne tried to follow in that tradition (though I was never that impressed with it).  But I hadn't been *around* for All in the Family or Maude or Rhoda or anything like that, the first time around -- in my early childhood they only existed as quaint, harmless reruns.

So I was really unprepared to see a traditional, multicamera sitcom gleefully wade into politics.

Probably the biggest surprise of The Carmichael Show has to do with "politically incorrect" humor.  There's always that comedian who says things that are offensive.  But that material always carries with it the frisson of "OMG, somebody is finally talking about this issue OUT LOUD."  And sometimes I figure that the problematic material is an adequate and necessary price to pay to get those moments of "someone is finally speaking of this".  But no, you can that same frisson out of a classic, Lear-style sitcom.  You just set up a core cast of characters who have sharply different takes on the world, and find excuses for them to argue about taboo hot-button issues.  Suddenly, you're not awkwardly punching down, and you're stepping into 'undiscussable' territory.

That's how The Carmichael Show plays it, centering on Jerrod, his girlfriend, and his family.  It hews absolutely to all these multicam-sitcom conventions, but it feels like a breath of fresh air.  And it feels useful -- even necessary -- to have a show like this in our current political climate.  Making art, set in modern times, where nobody argues about politics -- that in and of itself makes a political statement, and probably not a good nor intended one.

That said, the jokes still land.  And it feels much more character-based than just one-liners -- i.e., much of the humor comes from just closely-observed characters acting like themselves, rather than delivering the perfect bon mot.  And it still has room for ridiculous running gags that feel true to family life, like everyone remarking on Jerrod's "threatening gait".

And I admit, on some level I feel like I'm being a voyeur, getting a quick glimpse at a small part of black culture.  IIRC, no white character ever appears in season one.  Not only are they sidestepping the lazy "white people are like <x>, but black people are like <y>", they're moving beyond "some black people are like <x>, while other black people are like <y>" and going straight to "this particular black person is like <x>, but this other black person is like <y>".  And in going specific like that, it develops interactions -- like, say, Maxine and Jerrod's mother disagreeing about how protesting should work -- that feel like they might reflect larger conversations in the black community.

Anyway, the first season is just six episodes, so it's a quick watch if you're on the fence about checking it out.  Apparently they got to make a second and third season before just recently getting cancelled.

(Side note: I do strongly appreciate 90s sitcoms, if only because 80s-style "very special episodes" badly needed to be stabbed through the heart with merciless irony.)

O. J.: Made in America
This is the 2016 ESPN documentary about OJ Simpson -- his football career, the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, and everything after.

It is astoundingly good.  It may be as good as any documentary I've seen.

The shock, for me, is that the documentary is also terrifying.

On some level, this is a 7½-hour documentary about the justice system failing.  And I don't just mean the trial itself, although the documentary presents a compelling case that Simpson committed a double homicide and got acquitted.[2]  But that trial itself feels like the result of larger factors.  The documentary consistently uses Simpson as a lens through which to look at larger social issues.

For instance, it talks about how the LAPD mistreated people of color.

And it's one thing to know about that intellectually.  You can hear Black Lives Matter, you can look at statistics, you can see that African-Americans endure systemic injustice from American law enforcement.  But the documentary hammers home how it *felt*, especially in LA in the decades leading up to the killing.  It hit its most intense moment, for me, when a black teenaged girl gets shot in the back of the head, point blank, by an annoyed shopkeep.  The whole thing is caught on video.  The shooter gets off with a few months' probation.  And that's not even starting in on the Rodney King beating, which gets its own unflinching look.

I'll never really grok the terror, or the rage, of living under that, but it made a lot of sense that the predominantly black jury would feel reasonable doubt -- thinking that maybe, just maybe, the LAPD framed a black man. 

And beyond that, you start seeing how one facet of institutional racism becomes this miasma that spreads through the whole society.  It ensured that, when the police brought in a murderer, most of the black population wouldn't believe the police.  And then you had a white population that responded to *that* reaction with uncomprehending shock.  Once trust is violated with one community in LA, trust starts eroding everywhere.

There's another angle that's less explicitly called out, but still present: the way society dismisses claims of domestic violence.  They show the police photos of Nicole Brown from the previous times she'd been beaten.  They play her 911 calls.  And maybe the most harrowing thing is the tone of voice to the later calls -- not so much whimpering or terrified or angry, but just... resigned.  Like, "Welp, this will accomplish nothing, but let's go through the motions."  And you see how clear it is, in retrospect, that she's going to die.  And you see a police force either unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it.  And OJ's friends all say, "Eh, he's a great guy, I'm sure this is nothing."  He's successful. Everybody likes him.

Again, it's just terrifying: your life is in danger; the police don't care.

And both of these forces collide in the murder case, and you find yourself both understanding how OJ walked free and marvelling that justice is ever served in the US.  It's a stinking mess, and we're still mired in it.

Really, I'm just scratching the surface of this production.  It shows us the start of the sort of round-the-clock, infotainment-style news we're stuck with now.  It chronicles Simpson's own complicated relationship with race through his life.  It makes Simpson's football career fascinating in and of itself.

This is riveting, important viewing.

Tabletop [season 3]
This is the third season of Wil Wheaton's webseries where he plays tabletop games with his friends.

I honestly don't have much new to say that I didn't cover with seasons one and two.  Mostly in season three, I'm damn impressed with the wide variety of games they bring to the, er, table.  They play with Go-style territory conquest with Kingdom Builder, show gaming for kids with Catan Junior, bring in fascinating bluff games with Love Letter, play an odd cross between board-gaming and D&D with Mice and Mystics, and play whatever the hell Tokaido  is.  Under these circumstances, I can even forgive their playing Cards Against Humanity, just because yes, it's another gaming mechanic, one that's wildly different from all the others in the season.

It's still delightful to watch everyone immediately try to take down Wil, no matter what the game is.  The gameplay still serves as a surprisingly good showcase for the players' personalities, especially with the 'talking head' interview segments interspersed through play.  And it's still very much a "sit down to watch one episode and suddenly two hours have gone by" sort of show.

Lots of fun and well worth watching.

For next week: so, so much to catch up on: Baby Driver, Colossal, The Big Sick, a couple books, and I still have to write about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  Slowly but surely.

[1] The only exception I can think of is The Carmichael Show, which is just as sui generis among live-action sitcoms.
[2] It also quite evenhandedly presents the arguments against that conclusion, too.  I could see people who went into this thinking OJ was framed come out of it thinking the same thing.  Beliefs are resilient.

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