"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Timely Discussion of Friday Night Lights (including spoilers)

This is in no way culturally timely (sorry for the misleading title), but I just finished watching the series Friday Night Lights. I know I'm late to the party. I nearly always am. But since my wife recently got to rant about the show Smash, I thought I might rant about something I've watched.

I read a part of the original Friday Night Lights non-fiction book and enjoyed the feature film based on the book, but I wasn't about to invest in a weekly TV show about football. But I read a lot about stuff and the critics kept telling me it's a great show and that it's not really about football anyway. Or at least, there's very little football in a show about football. Then my wife watched it, the whole series while I was busy doing other stuff, and she kept telling me it's a great show and that it's not really about football anyway. So a few months ago I decided Friday Night Lights would be my new treadmill show.

There are five seasons, only the first of which is a regular full season of episodes. The rest all have 13 or 15 episodes each. This is due to a couple of things: the writer's strike a few years back, which killed more than one worthy show (RIP Life and Pushing Daisies), and the fact that NBC cancelled the show, like, three times each season then decided to bring it back. I think the last two seasons ended up broadcast on Direct TV before being burnt off at some point on NBC. Still, the show remained a critical darling and they kept telling me I should be watching it.

Oh, well. So here I can understand how the series could be uneven and require some retooling. Five years is a long time to drag it out, but since no one was watching they never really had a chance.

I liked it enough to watch, that's true. In fact, the parts I enjoyed the most were the football parts. Even though every single game comes down to a last second effort (big problem #1), the game sequences drive the show and even gave me a push on the treadmill for these few months.

And even though the majority of the characters, whether youthful teenagers or grown adults, are annoying and unrealistic (huge problem #2), a handful of characters are seriously engaging and worth the investment in their lives. First of all, Coach Taylor and wife Tammy have some tough times and try their best with what they are given. Their story comes full circle at the end of five seasons and is particularly satisfying. The few kids worth watching: Matt Saracen is a worthy underdog, loser Landrey is essentially likeable, and Tyra redeems herself and gets out of the trap that her home in Dillon, Texas, has in store for her.

How can you NOT root
for this guy?
Then you have Tim Riggins. This is the character played by Taylor Kitch, who is this year enjoying the notoriety of box office failure John Carter and guilty pleasure Battleship. Tim Riggins is a good guy. Somehow he overcomes the fact that he sleeps with every girl (or woman) he knows by actually caring about them all. And clearly he's an alcoholic, apparently since the age of thirteen or so. His drinking is taken for granted and the show never addresses this at all (massive problem #3), but in spite of everything, you still want him to win, not just the football games but the game of life.

If you haven't seen Friday Night Lights, especially if you plan to one day, maybe you should stop reading now. I'm about to list a few more problems with the show and you probably won't know what I'm talking about. Plus, to quote River Song, "Spoilers!"

And I'd bet these issues have all been discussed ad nauseam on the forums and chat rooms and blogs. I can't be the first person to notice these things (as I've said, I'm rarely the first one to the party), but if you have watched the show, I'd love to hear what you think.

Other problem # 4: How old are these teenagers anyway? The "Pilot" episode establishes that star quarterback Jason Street is in his final year and makes big plans with BFF Tim Riggins, girlfriend Lyla Garrity, and his future in the NFL. Apparently this senior football star's best pals are only sophomores in high school because they both stick around Dillon High for three full years. Coach's daughter, Julie Taylor, starts the series as a sophomore herself, but stays in school for four years before graduating and going to college. Finally there's Landry Clark, who at the beginning of season one is made out to be the smartest guy in high school before he's even started high school because he sticks around for four years, too.

And why didn't anyone do anything about
those bangs?
Other problem # 5: Julie Taylor. Season 2, Boo Hoo. You have a new baby sister who gets all of Mom's attention. Poor girl! It's okay to act like a brat week after week. Season 5, way to make the decision to sleep with your married TA three weeks into college! Don't worry, Matt Saracen will take you back. You can walk all over him for the rest of your life and he'll take you back.

Other problem # 6: Where did that character go? Not only from season to season, but even in the midst of a season, FNL might present a story for one or two episodes, then never bring it up again. In season one, it was Voodoo Tatum, a displaced Katrina survivor who was recruited illegally, then kicked off the team, then magically shows up many episodes later as their adversary in the state finals. Not one word about how he mysteriously ends up eligible to play on some other Texas team since he wasn't eligible to play in Dillon.

And in season five, where was JD McCoy, the star quarterback of Coach Taylor's new rivals, the Panthers? Not one word. It's frustrating because this would be so easy to fix with just one line somewhere: "The Panthers suck this season, so his dad took his son and the coach to greener pastures." Instead we are left to conjecture.

I haven't even mentioned how too many episodes are way too nice. How too many things end up just swell for these people who consistently make poor decisions. It's manipulative, in fact, but if you can accept that, focus on the characters who aren't complete tools, and let yourself feel the drama of the actual football, you might enjoy yourself.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Talent Is a Ticket to Nowhere (Guest Post)

My husband, Brent, has been preoccupied lately with the successes of a few (very few) writers who have self-published their novels. There is a feeling that by self-publishing they’ve somehow subverted the talent-driven system of agents and publishers. To that, I snort though my nose and cry “Hah!”

(Blog owner's note: My wife says I've been preoccupied, but apparently she's been preoccupied herself since rewatching the entire season of Smash already this summer. I've offered her the platform of this blog to get some things off her chest.)

I don’t believe in the talent-driven system. As far as I’m concerned it’s a myth that we share with others to promote hard work and persistence – it’s the Santa Claus of the creative world.

Cute braids require long hair,
not a mullet.
I lost my faith in this particular Santa Claus when I was 7-years-old and I auditioned for a part in a community production of the Sound of Music. I loved that show. I knew all the songs. I could expertly tell you the story from beginning to end without leaving anything out. Unfortunately, I had two things working against me: my 1977 mullet hairdo and my big mouth. I mentioned the audition to a friend who had luxuriously long brown hair and an adorable lisp. She mentioned it to her mother who proceeded to bring her five daughters (all with flowing manes of very not-1970s hair) to the audition. Although the girls had never seen the show, sung the songs, or imagined themselves dancing at the Captain’s ball – they all got cast in the available parts, leaving nothing for me. Apparently, the length of their hair was really all the talent required.

This was the first of my run-ins with the dismal reality of art – it’s not really about talent. Most recently, I’ve been struck by this fact as it relates to a TV show I’ve been watching: Smash. I’m a Broadway fan. I moved to New York for two years, mostly because it meant I could go see plays anytime I wanted. So, when they announced Smash in the television lineup, I was camping out to buy my ticket. Unlike many others, I tuned in all season, and while I admit there were some flat episodes, overall I liked it.

The central conflict of the story is the competition between two actors for the role of Marilyn in Marilyn! The Musical. (Technically the fictional title is Bombshell. But I think Marilyn! The Musical is catchier. Don’t you?) Karen is just off the bus from Iowa. She’s na├»ve and starry eyed and just wants you to let her be your star. We’re told repeatedly that she is very, very talented. In contrast, Ivy comes from a musical theater family. Her mother is played by Bernadette Peters (who seems to be playing Patti Lupone) and Mama is an established, Broadway Phenom. Ivy has spent years working in the chorus of different Broadway shows, but has yet to break out. Luckily for her, one of her best buds is writing the music for Marilyn! the Musical and he thinks she’d be perfect as Marilyn. She, too, just wants to be given the chance to be your star.

The show has painted some stereotypes a bit thickly. Karen is sweet and refuses to do anyone dirty to get the part. Ivy is cynical and ruthless enough to do whatever it takes. We see this in the second episode where both women are invited to sleep with the director. Karen walks out. Ivy starts taking her clothes off.

Karen on the left.
Ivy on the right.
Who's more Marilyn?
As the season progresses, Ivy is cast as Marilyn in the workshop production, but as the show moves closer to Broadway, she is replaced by a “big name” movie star. Back to the chorus goes Ivy. Meanwhile, Karen becomes the understudy to the movie star. All this leads up to the climactic season finale when big name movie star pulls out of the show during Previews and the creative team has to decide who will go on as Marilyn that night. The director, against strong, loud, and logical argument, chooses to have Karen play the role, rather than Ivy. Everyone else on the creative team just KNOWS that this is a mistake, that Ivy should be the one to do the part. But the director, in a really blunt moment, explains that when he closes his eyes, he sees Karen as Marilyn, not Ivy.

In reading reviews of the show’s season finale, most of the critics have been scathing in denouncing the director’s choice. Mostly because in comparing the two performances throughout the season, Megan Hilty, who plays Ivy, seems to be the more talented than Katherine McPhee, who plays Karen. In reality, they lament, she would be the one who would get the part. But she wouldn’t. That’s my point. In TV, film, and theater, the part goes to the one who fits the director’s vision, not to the one who out-Stanislavskied everybody else.

Who writes this movie if not for
one lucky man?
The evidence of this permeates the creative world. Damon Lindelof (writer of the Lost series and Prometheus) in a recent interview explained that he got his job writing for J.J. Abrams because he knew an executive at ABC. I’m not saying Lindelof isn’t talented because clearly he is. What I am saying is that he lucked out by knowing someone who had the power to get him in the room. How many other, perhaps more talented, screen writers toil away in obscurity because they don't have the good sense to grow up well-connected?

In another example, a few years ago NBC’s summer reality show, Last Comic Standing made the news because its celebrity judges (including Drew Carey) walked out of the final episode in protest over the announced finalists. They publicly complained that the people standing on the stage were not the people that they had picked as the funniest comedians. The producers of the show ignored the expert judging they had recruited in favor of fulfilling their vision of who should win.

It’s a hard fact. Talent isn’t a ticket to anything except frustration and grief unless it’s paired with luck, connections, or a pretty face. So to Brent and the rest of the world, I say publish or perish. If the internet is the only connection you have, then use it. Fifty Shades of Grey is a small price to pay if the internet also reveals another Shakespeare--or Depeche Mode.

P.S. Brent thinks it’s very important that I disclose that he’s never watched an episode of Smash. Perhaps this is why he still believes in fairy tales of talent.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Own "It Gets Better" Campaign

NOTE: I wrote this post a couple of months ago in response to some Facebook mishegoss, yet I never posted it because it turned out differently than I had planned. Still. It's fun. Enjoy.

Nothing about monocles
in here. Uncool.
In eighth grade, I was your typical jock, popular enough to win the student council elections to become president of Gold House. I wore Sperry Topsiders with no socks, pleated slacks, and Izod polo shirts with an upturned collar when I wasn't wearing a tie or an argyle sweater. I would have accessorized with a top hat and monocle as well, but it's really hard to see with glass in front of only one eye.

Despite the supposed popularity of such a look in prep schools or Ivy League universities, public school eighth graders didn't wear ties if they could help it. It was the first time I realized I was differently minded. Fortunately, this particular peculiarity was socially acceptable; unfortunately, it was a gateway to a more severe sort of deviancy.

By the middle of my freshman year in high school, dressing Preppy wasn't enough.

Clown or Cool?
I shaved half of my hair off only to mousse and blow dry the rest in mischievous and provocative ways. My thrift store threads mixed plaid and paisley and three shades of black. One time after an evening with friends, I arrived home with--for no reason other than to look like Gary Numan on the cover of his Berserker album--blue hair, blue eyeliner, and blue lipstick. My aberrant behavior had taken its toll on my previously accepting father, and he demanded that I never appear this way again. He forbade me to see my friends, as if their bad influence might lead me next to paint my toenails or my tongue blue, too.

I thought I looked like Joseph Smith.
Maybe I should have gone with a cravat.
Other restrictions presented themselves. At church, some Sundays I wasn't allowed to pass the sacrament like the other young men dressed in their white shirts and sport coats. My hair was too pointy, or they didn't like the way I wore my plaid shirt's collar up with my tie. Then at high school graduation, I couldn't do anything with my hair or I wouldn't be able to wear the mortar board. I rebelled by wearing plaid shorts and black Converse high tops under my gown. Little did they know.

Now imagine her much less
 pretty and with a goatee.
At BYU, it got worse. Brigham Young University couples its Honor Code with a Dress Code, which gives license to the accusation that you are less than honorable if your shorts don't touch your knee or your manly long hair does touch your collar. At that point, I stopped wearing my collar up. Plus, the 80's were over; I had to let it go. My hair grew long in front and was shaved short in back. I sported an A-line haircut before Victoria Beckham was ever Posh Spice.

I obeyed the letter of the Dress Code, if not the spirit. Still, I was treated like a second-class citizen, subjected to meetings and interviews that my roommates weren't despite their near-constant viewing of Singled Out on MTV.

The lesson here, kids, is when people judge you for looking funny, know that it gets better. It gets better because eventually you will stop dressing that way. A forty-year-old teacher wearing blue lipstick is making no kind of statement.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Insecure Writer's Support Group: News

This week I've joined the Insecure Writer's Support Group through Alex J. Cavanaugh's blog.

I have news. I got an email from an editor I talked to at a writer's conference almost nine months ago. I sent him the whole of Trendy Poseurs Go Home, which he requested because he wanted to read a YA novel that was completely devoid of the paranormal. So his recent email said he just started reading what I sent him, which is understandable because it takes a long time to get through submissions like this, but I had given up on that particular possibility long ago. He said he liked what he was reading and wanted to make sure it was still up for grabs before he read the rest.

I immediately responded and said, yes, yes, by all means read on and enjoy. And how much do you want to pay me for it? Should I start planning my book tour? Who's going to play me and my twin in the Charlie Kaufman version for the screen?

Sometimes my brain does that, it's true. But in reality, I know it's a long shot. A very long shot, like aiming a laser pointer at the moon.

When I tell people, they go, oh, that's so cool. It is, but it's not. In my head I'm thinking it's a small step that could too easily disappear like your footsteps on the beach. I most likely will wait another nine months for another response and it will be a kind but firm rejection.

What do I do in the meantime?