Archive for February, 2013

The Newsroom: ‘The Best Possible Version of the Argument’

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Newsroom (HBO)

For a writer who specialises in drawing inspiration from the details of real life – who employs the known facts of recent history, utilises sharp biographical research, and explores the machinations of complex, identifiable institutions as source material – Aaron Sorkin somehow manages to write truly beautiful dreams.

In The West Wing Sorkin presented an image of a sitting American administration filled with honourable, hardworking, ferociously intelligent people, all fuelled by a longing to leave the future world a better place than the one into which they were elected.  His fictional government was overstuffed – on both sides of the partisan divide – with people who faithfully believed in serving their constituents to the best of their ability; people who used integrity, compromise, and reasoned debate as the cornerstones of their decision making process.  In The Social Network, a screenplay for which he won an academy award, he made even the most emotionally stunted and narcissistic characters ring true with identifiable (if not always admirable) aspirations and motivations.  In A Few Good Men he celebrated military service and the tenacity of truth (even if you couldn’t handle it!) in a culture that at times necessitated secrecy.  In Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip he…

ah…

Well, to be honest, I really don’t know.  Although, as a television narrative set behind the scenes of a late night sketch comedy show (one that screened on NBC), he seemed to be laying the metatextual groundwork for his hilarious ‘walk-and-talk’ appearance with Liz Lemon, years after his own show’s cancellation, on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock – the show that did in fact successfully carry the premise Studio 60 was loosely built around to its fruition.

In truth, I’ve enjoyed Sorkin’s work in the past – found it worthy and intriguing, been struck by its loquacious elegance – but previously I’ve not been swept up in the raptures reported by many of his fans.  It’s certainly not that I don’t care for his work – merely an acknowledgment that although there are many people whose opinions I greatly admire that have told me of their adoration for Sports Night (which I have not seen at all), or of their fervent belief that The West Wing (into which I have only dipped) is the best show ever made for television, so far I have not joined this enamoured throng.

But then I watched the first season of The Newsroom – the series he created and wrote for HBO – and okay.  Okay, I see it now.

Because wow.

Sure, I can happily leave aside all the tortured will-they-won’t-they back-and-forth of the ensemble’s principle younglings, Jim and Maggie, who have circled each other all season in a progressively tedious square dance (particularly when, by the last few episodes, the gravity of their emotional cowardice has now pulled Don, and bystanders like Lisa and Sloan into the well…)  I can overlook some of the more fantastical beats (for example: anything Bigfoot; confusing Georgia the state and Georgia the country; the general slapstick) that, in an effort to enliven the mood, can risk tipping into comic contrivance.  And I can even forgive the moments when characters inch perhaps a little too close to sermonising.  I can ignore all of that, because at the heart of this narrative, underneath all that might superficially appear to be political and social commentary, is a celebration and defence of language that is utterly inspiring.

Yes, as is often noted of his work, Sorkin’s dialogue is rapid and rhythmic.  It skips along like a Frank Capra film; playful and lively, with characters leapfrogging each other’s verbal play with snappy rejoinders and witty retorts.  These figures speak like you wish human beings could – sparring and riffing and speckled with playful snark.

More than that, however, Sorkin argues over the application of language, of the beauty of rhetoric and its potential abuse, of the influence this misappropriation can have upon the validity of discourse.  He explores the misuses of grammar: he ponders the difference between ‘whom’ and ‘which’; over the worrying semantic blur in defining corporations as individuals; over arbitrary definitions, such as referring to all undocumented immigrants with convenient, blanket terms like ‘illegals’.  Sorkin implores the viewer to be mindful of the expressive potential of our language, and the semantic shift that can swiftly occur when one is not observant of its casual misuse.

And oh, those speeches…

Pleas for a return to intelligent discourse in political debate (no matter what your affiliation), for meticulousness and determination in journalism.  Petitions for an audience hungry for comprehensive information and reasoned analysis amongst the frantic, hyperbolic cacophony of the twenty-four hour news cycle.  Appeals for a moment of digested respite amongst the daily pursuit of the sensational for ratings, and each network’s desperation to break news first, no matter how ill-informed, specious or riddled with speculation.  A battle cry to discard the farcical pageantry of journalism – from Fox News and its slavish devotion to pundit talking points, to CNN and its addiction to techno-porn like electronic graph salads and holograms.  Sorkin’s characters rail against the vulgarity of giving soapboxes to the most extreme, unsubstantiated viewpoints simply because it makes for explosive (and trivialised) entertainment.

The first scene of the series literally depicts the central character, Will, sandwiched between one such barrage of reductive rhetoric at a university forum.  He sits between two extreme caricatures of the bipolar spectrum in American politics – the vapid liberal and the belligerent conservative; each feeding off the other’s spite to validate their own indignation – and as he hears them rail against each other in their predictable, bullet-point oversimplifications, his head is buzzing.

Finally, irked by all this impotent rage masquerading as political debate, and goaded by the host into picking a side, Will eventually erupts, unleashing an impassioned screed.  He rails against such self-perpetuating victimhood, and the fruitless divisiveness it cultivates, even berating a student who had naively asked – in the midst of all this petty squabbling – what makes America the greatest country in the world.  It is that presumption that so infuriates Will, it seems, that willingness to just leap to a presumptive surety before even bothering to consider the facts.

Indeed, in the final moments of the first episode it is revealed that despite his proffered excuse that he had suffered an adverse chemical reaction, Will had not in fact taken any vertigo medication before his meltdown – he had simply overdosed on all this mindless vitriol.  In truth, his mind, like the media discourse at large, had been in slow process of atrophy, numbed by the arbitrary maelstrom in which he was being buffeted.  The clichéd cycle of needlessly bipartisan oratory, the thoughtless phrasing of redundant questions that invite only pabulum regurgitation as response – his mind was choking in a haze of apathy, and it responded instinctively, purging the air in a flourish of Sorkin’s signature resplendent verbiage.

It is likewise fitting that this episode – and therefore the whole fiction of The Newsroom – starts with a momentary eruption of truth that was caught and distributed virally (captured by a hall filled with mobile phones, streamed through YouTube, dispersed through Twitter, disseminated in blogs; all mediums that are referenced in some way or another in the first episode).  After all, never before has the world been so inundated with platforms through which society can express itself with immediacy and freedom (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing this very spiel in blog form), yet at the same time, it has never felt so acutely that the voices at the centre of that maelstrom – those traditionally tasked with the pursuit and curation of objective truth beneath all the empty rhetoric – have completely abdicated their role as the watchdogs of social discourse.

Between reporters so desperate to break stories ‘first’ (even if only microseconds before their competitors) that they risk spewing inaccurate speculation onto the air (to use but one example, after the tragic massacre in a Colorado cinema last year, ABC journalist Brian Ross named an innocent man as a suspect for the crime); or commentators blithely spinning fabrication to suit their narratives (again, to use but one example, conservative pundit’s ludicrous parroting that President Obama’s trip to India cost upwards of 200 million dollars a day, and involved a 3000 person strong entourage with a third of the navy along for the ride – a nonsense addressed directly in The Newsroom); or where celebrity scandals saturate screen time daily while ongoing foreign tragedy or social inequity at home gets comparatively peripheral attention.  In a world where it seemed to take satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart screwing around with a Super PAC in the run up to the election for many in the media to start concentrating upon how repugnantly and uncomfortably intermingled such unpoliced attack groups can become with candidates pursuing higher office.

Amongst all of this speculative, subjective noise, The Newsroom, and its central protagonists, pleads for a moment of introspective calm – a cherishing of objective truth, and an interrogation of fact, in order to allow for rational debate.  As the executive producer of the fictional News Night program MacKenzie McHale states:

‘That studio is a courtroom.  And we only call expert witnesses.  Will is the attorney for both sides.  He examines the witness and reveals facts.’

It is a pursuit in search of – and offering a defence for – context.  They refresh the grammar amongst the hyperbole, theoretically allowing for a space in which debate, stemming from impartial truth, can prosper.

The recurring textual touchstone of the series, referenced repeatedly throughout the season’s run and cited at the inception of the new News Night journalistic mission statement, is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  At first, Will is inspired to reclaim his journalistic integrity through an appeal to this ironic heroic quest; later he will proudly declare Don Quixote’s mission as his mantra.

In the original novel, a nobleman named Alonso Quijano falls in love with the tales of chivalry and justice he has spent years absorbing.  He becomes besotted by a nostalgic fiction, a ‘Golden Age’ of man that he longs to preserve.  It is a highly self-reflexive work – a metatextual self-inspection of fantasy and Romanticism* – one that inspires Quijano, emboldened by the tales of valour and virtue in Romantic fiction, to change his name to Don Quixote, and set out upon a misguided attempt to ‘civilise’ the world – a knight errant believing he can restore a corrupted social disorder.

… But he was mad.

The piercing ironic comedy of this work comes from the realisation that Don Quixote, stirred into action by beautiful fantasies, heads out into a world filled with dangers he neither understands nor can recognise, blind to the debasement that stares him in the eye.  And so, on his journey, he is routinely physically and psychological beaten down.  Most famously, he ’tilts’ at windmills; literally mistaking windmills as giants, he attacks them in a self-destructive charge that risks devastating himself on what it revealed to be an utterly foolish errand.**

The Newsroom too embraces this kind of romantic sensibility.  The show name-checks Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, remembering them fondly as exemplars of an age in which the news was a bastion of reason and independence.  And again, perhaps that’s the great appeal of Sorkin’s writing.  His work (and in this particular text, his characters) are enflamed by nostalgia, by a longing for a better time, perhaps remembered more vividly and idealistically than it ever truly was.  They take that nostalgic impulse and hone it to a razor’s edge on the millstone of their hope; defying the odds, arguably flying in the face of present reality, they yearn to recapture the best of what we believed ourselves to be.

There is a recurring gag in The Newsroom whenever someone cites Don Quixote.  Frequently when Cervantes’ character is mentioned, it is noted that he was never wholly alone in his quest.  People refer to themselves as his companion and aide Sancho Panza, or even his fantasised lady love, Dulcinea – but no one, ultimately, is willing to be his horse (or donkey, rather.***)

But I want to be the horse.

(Or donkey.  …Whatever.****)

Damn looking silly.  Damn tilting at windmills.  I’ll be the horse.  To carry such a noble madman?  To be filled with such wondrous hopeful intent?  It would enrich us all; would prove the dream of reasoned argument and an end to empty rhetoric a glorious reality.  Or at the very least, something worth trudging toward.

Now, in the interests of living up to this narrative’s own demand for responsible counterargument, one might respond to Sorkin’s pleas for an obstinate impartiality by observing that he himself, in the service of creating an engaging fiction, utilises highly persuasive rhetorical techniques.  There are times when the dialogue borders on diatribe, and the prescience these characters exhibit over the unfolding events in which they are embroiled might read as a form of narrative sanctimony.  One might observe that these flourishes in his writing are themselves manipulative stylistic choices that give a rather ironic dramatic flourish to his calls for objective judiciousness…  However, as a tremendous fan of hyperbole myself, I would respond to such criticism by saying, respectfully, um… shut up.

Please?

It is a beautiful dream.  One worth passionately defending as Sorkin – through his fictional band of tenacious believers – does.  And as an alternative to the undigested parroting of fear-mongering, scapegoating, obfuscation and accusation that too often passes as discussion in modern broadcasting, it presents a much needed respite from the daily erosion of our analytical soul.

As Jack McCoy says (okay, I know his name is Charlie Skinner, but Waterson will always be the astonishing McCoy to me):

We can do better.

All of us.  We just have to decide to.  And Sorkin’s The Newsroom is the beautiful dream that proves we still long to do better – even if we currently fall short of the goal.

And personally, I would rather be moved by a dream, to yearn for something better, than to wallow in the cynicism of a reductive bipolarity that too often masquerades as news.   Thankfully, Sorkin’s is a fiction that proves there is still hope for rational intelligent discourse, even if only in our fantasies.

File:Don Quixote 6.jpg

IMAGE: Don Quixote Fighting A Windmill by Gustave Dore (1863)

* A textual self-reflexivity that the extraordinary writer Jorge Luis Borges would later explode outward even further in his prose with the short fiction ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote‘.

** Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter VIII.

***And no: this is not a Democrat reference, by the way).

**** For the record: it’s a horse, named Rocinante.

A Valentine To Yourself (a thought)

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , on February 16, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Winnie the Pooh by E.H. Shepard

Valentine’s Day has once again arrived (or come and gone two days before I bothered publishing this blog – but come on, go with me here…), and so we have once more witnessed the yearly cycle of sentiment glisten and bloom, erupt in a cascade of confectionery and flora, and eventually wither into the desiccated remnants of discarded candy wrappers and musty vegetation.

It’s easy to rag on Valentine’s Day.  Few (if any) other holidays can match it’s often crass commercialism.  It is responsible for some of the worst filmic crimes in human history (I submit to you Valentine’s Day directed by Garry Marshall, your honour).  It comes with a raft of soggy expectations that can be fraught with potential disappointments: the presents, the dinners, the dates, the trying not to be revolted by the couple macking out at the next table over (and yes, I just said ‘macking out’ – live with that for a while…).  And perhaps most criminal of all, it annually overtakes whole candy aisles of the local supermarket that should be beckoning me to slide ever deeper into a perpetual sugar coma, but that instead end up repelling me with rows full of saccharine cartoon cupids and gushy love hearts.

Nonetheless, Valentine’s Day can still be responsible for some endearing expressions of genuine emotional truth, even amongst all the pre-packaged syrup.  For me, the first such example that springs to mind is a line that has been frequently (although wrongly) attributed to A.A. Milne, author of the exquisite Winnie the Pooh books.  It is a sentiment that has come to be adapted into several romantic gifts cards I have seen circulated around this time of year.  It reads:

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.

It is a cute sentiment, and even though in its original context it was not meant to be so (after all, it is derived from the relationship between a teddy bear and his owner) it is frequently considered an intensely romantic opinion to express to a lover, saying, essentially: I could not stand to live without you; I would rather die than lose you.

But you have to watch out…

People in love can get rather playfully competitive.  The simplest statements can suddenly turn into an adorably sickening  game of conversational poker, with everyone bidding higher and no one calling check: ‘No, I love you more…  No, I love you more…  No, I do…  I do…’

So when the inevitable moment comes that someone offers this piece of Pooh wisdom and their partner immediately says back, ‘Oh yeah, well I hope I live to a hundred minus two days…’, then suddenly it will be three days, then four, and then – well then you are on your way to an inevitable love-dare situation that can only end poorly.

I should point out again, however, that in truth, A.A. Milne never actually wrote this line, despite it being frequently attributed to him.  It comes from a book entitled Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, a work inspired by Milne and Shepard’s magnificent source material, but not actually produced by either.

Nonetheless there is usually some picture of a wistful Pooh accompanying the words (in his original Edward Bear form, elegantly sketched by E.H. Shepard), staring up into the sky with his gentle eyes, contemplating, one presumes, the unutterable magnitude of adoration and kinship that this sensation conveys, a longing for emotional oneness that wholly transcends the verbal.

…That or honey.  He was always big on honey.  (And I guess in that light Pooh presents the perfect encapsulation of the modern Valentine’s Day – either pondering love or simply hearing his tummy rumble for something sticky and sweet.)

The extraordinarily beautiful original version of the tale, from which this sentiment is loosely derived, actually comes from chapter 10 of The House at Pooh Corner, ‘An Enchanted Place’.  It proves to be the final adventure with Pooh and Christopher Robin, where bear and boy share their last depicted walk together, and Milne affirms the majestical beauty of their shared imaginative experience.  The two are discussing their future, and Christopher is worrying over what will become of their friendship as he grows up, with Pooh characteristically struggling to follow along with the train of thought.  Christopher asks:

‘Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.’
Pooh thought for a little. ‘How old shall I be then?’
‘Ninety-nine.’
Pooh nodded. ‘I promise,’ he said.

It is an exquisite sentiment, filled with a celebration of the magic of childhood wonder, and a nod to the inevitable, poignant maturation of self that still longs to stay connected to this innocence and creative abandon.

In its original form, this coopted premise is a love note to the most precious and private and hopeful part of one’s own identity – the part of the self that is optimistic and imaginative enough to still believe.

In its later, modern reappropriation we have a sentimental, but wholly misappropriated statement that, taken to its extreme, is borderline psychotic, and that viewed superficially might just all be about having a sweet tooth…  Yep, seems about right.

What was my point?  I don’t know.  Sometimes my head gets a little fuzzy – just like You-Know-Who.*  I guess all I wanted to say was:

Happy (belated) Valentine’s Day.

…I bought you all some chocolates, but then I ate them.  It’s what Pooh (or his falsely attributed facsimile) would have wanted.

Winnie the Pooh illustrated by E. H. Shepard, written by A. A. Milne

IMAGE: Winnie the Pooh by E.H. Shepard

* No, not Voldermort.

Advertainmentorial: Blurring the ‘Journalism’ in Games Journalism (a rant)

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , on February 8, 2013 by drayfish

Image

IMAGE: Advertisement for Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

The unprecedented fan backlash that emerged following the release of Mass Effect 3 early last year had a number of unforeseen consequences in the world of videogame journalism.  Most immediately it revealed a stark and needlessly hostile division between the gaming press and a subsection of their readership; but it further exposed some rather complicated interrelations between those critics and the publishers they are tasked with reviewing.

In the wake of the negative fan response to Mass Effect 3, many in the press condemned those unhappy with the ending presented by Bioware as ‘entitled whiners’, describing them as indulged consumers who, in their opinion, threatened to irreparably damage the legitimacy of videogames as an artistic medium.  In the opinion rant offered by Colin Moriarty (Playstation editor for IGN), his ferocious, infantile attack even refused any fan even the basic right to express their dissatisfaction once their purchase had been made.  You either admit you liked it (as he did), or shut the hell up.

Frequently, these arguments boiled down to a variation of one rhetorical plea: how can games be considered Art if the audience dares to question the absolutism of its creator’s vision?  It is a premise that embraced a reductive, narrow illogic that fundamentally misunderstood the whole history of art; but more than that, it revealed a self-righteous indignation at the heart of the gaming press itself.

After all, it was they in the press themselves who had spent years hyperbolically parroting the promises of Bioware’s publicity machine, ensuring player’s that, yes indeed, their choices would matter, that they would help shape the ending that they chose.  Indeed, in an extraordinary amount of cases, it was they themselves that had repeated these very sentiments in their reviews of the game (your choices matter; you define your ending; you decide your fate), and yet they immediately sought to discredit the fans who wanted to question those statements after making their purchase and finding it a distinctly different experience from the one promised.

But as many in the games media shook their collective heads in disappointment, lamenting that their audience was failing to live up to their expectations, the heightened scrutiny that this controversy stirred soon revealed some rather glaring omissions and conflicts of interest – few of which had been previously disclosed – all of which left the moral high ground from which they clucked their tongues a little unstable beneath their feet.

After all, Jessica Chobot, one of the principle representatives of gaming site IGN (one of Bioware’s most vocal supporters throughout), actually appeared as a character in Mass Effect 3, muddying the journalistic distance one might hope for in a publication’s criticism or review.  Indeed, it was a decision that made the ferocious screed Moriarty spewed at disgruntled fans appear a little personal.  (At the very least it threw a glaring suspicion over his ugly, and weirdly wounded vitriol.)

Similarly, the majority of reviewers of Mass Effect 3 were sent copies that could not import decisions from previous save games (here) meaning that they had no way of speaking to what is arguably the central conceit of the game experience (a fact many did not disclose in their copy), with consequentially few (if any) speaking of the face import issues that spoiled the experience for a great number of players.

And amongst innumerable other such examples, the publication Game Informer was happy to publish pre-release quotes such as Case Hudson’s promises of no ‘A, B, or C ending’ in expansive, gushing advertorial articles (here), while going on to not only fail to question the hypocrisies in such promises in their 10/10 review, but actively dismiss fans who questioned such contradiction after the fact.*

Sadly, however, incidents such as these have proved to be merely the tip of the iceberg in an industry that appears to lack the necessary objectivity that a word like ‘journalism’ necessitates.  As even a cursory exploration of the medium’s press reveals, in just the past several months a startling amount of evidence has surfaced that suggests that the relationship between publisher and reviewer has become, at times, uncomfortably cosy, with the average reader left unable to disentangle what is unsolicited analysis, and what is coerced, encouraged, or influenced by the very publishers who are supposedly being critiqued.**

* Jeff Gerstmann gave a negative review to Kane & Lynch and was summarily fired by Gamespot who caved to Sony’s threats to pull their advertising and exclusives.  The reasoning offered for his termination was that he ‘couldn’t be trusted’ to be an Editorial Director (here).

* At the most recent GMAs, gaming journalists were offered the chance to win a Playstation 3 console if they Tweeted advertising for the upcoming Tomb Raider game.  When a Eurogamer’s Robert Florence questioned whether or not such a practice was above board considering that they were meant to be the critics, not the cheerleaders of these products, he was fired (here).

* Publishers routinely send swag to reviewers as ‘gifts’ to accompany the review copies of their games – things like pens, clothing, crazy expensive chess sets (here), and offer expenses-paid ‘preview’ excursions to hotels and events.

* Activision blackballed Gameplanet, refusing them interviews with the makers of their games, because they wrote (extraordinarily briefly) about one such junket in which Activision invited a bunch of gaming journalists to an exclusive all-expenses paid hotel event, questioning the legitimacy of such an advertising technique (here).

* Sony felt comfortable threatening Kotaku with blackballing when they tried to report on an upcoming Sony service, even emailing them some borderline extortion menace that included the lines:

‘I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor…. I can’t defend outlets that can’t work cooperatively with us. / So, it is for this reason, that we will be canceling all further interviews for Kotaku staff at GDC and will be dis-inviting you to our media event next Tuesday. Until we can find a way to work better together, information provided to your site will only be that found in the public forum.’ (here)

* Electronic Arts seemingly sought to manipulate reviews of Battlefield 3 in Norway by withholding review copies to reviewers that gave bad reviews to previous installments, and forcing reviewers to fill out questionnaires about what they might score it (here).

So to summarise: confirmed cases of obscuration, extortion, enticement, coercion, all in a systemised ongoing blur between advertising and criticism…

Many in the games industry claim that such actions are uncharacteristic and minor aberrations in an otherwise ethically sound field.  They would argue that it is unjust to look upon such incidents as anything more than the misbehaviour of a misguided few who stepped way over the line and were swiftly corrected; but to me, dismissing them as isolated events completely at odds with the standard practice of this field is highly disingenuous.  Rather, these events are evidence of an ongoing systemic pattern of behaviour that has shown no signs of cessation or legitimate regulation.

The firing of Robert Florence happened only months ago – and that decision has not been reversed.  Sony’s and Activision’s bully tactics appear to be ongoing – or at least have adapted over time.  Game publishers continue to send swag to reviewers along with copies of their game; still preview their games in exclusive expenses-paid junkets; and utilise their marketing divisions to determine which outlet will be provided what level of access and which exclusives.

While I agree that people need to exercise reason and personal assessment in their purchasing, to pretend that the division between PR and critique in this industry has not been inextricably blurred, to dismiss the reality that there are few (if any) places to seek out analysis that has not been clouded by the uncomfortably close relationship of publishers and reviewers, is wilfully naive.

While it is not (and is never) as simple an arrangement as ‘I will give you this ludicrous, expensive chess set and you will give me a great score for my game…’ it is instead a system of comingled marketing and analysis has become so engrained – indeed, so expected – that the discerning consumer looking on is now incapable of reasonably drawing a line between what is unsolicited, honest review, and what has been swayed by an undisclosed familiarity with the publisher.

There are innumerable means of influence and persuasion – and yes, they are a part of every business that employs advertising to survive – but when it is common industry practice to ply games journalists with merchandise to invite them to linger longer upon, or think better of a game***, and then those very same people are later tasked with the analysis of that finished product, a line has been crossed that I believe must be considered with reservation.  (And again: the recent game-journalists-tweeting-publicity-to-win-a- PS3 scenario is a worrying product of a system that currently appears to be functioning without strict regulation.)

Indeed, the fact that the ‘reviewers’ of games are thought of as potential advertising opportunities in such a manner – potential billboards that can be won over and utilised to spread product awareness – is precisely the issue that makes trusting any opinion offered by these figures suspect.  Roger Ebert may get free tickets to the films he reviews, but he is not pictured wearing a Spiderman 6: Rise of the Arbitrary Sequel hoodie at the time; he won’t be denied access to interviews with directors and programmers if he slags off a movie (because publicity is not part of his purview); and the advertising that keeps his job afloat comes from a more diverse field of companies than merely the makers of those film themselves.

When I disagree with Roger Ebert – and I frequently do (the man loved Speed 2) – I do so because it is his personal perspective that I conflict with, not the entire perpetuation of the publicity/critique system that he works within.  At present those divisions have not yet been established firmly enough in this medium – and until they are, until such gratis gifts and payed, wooing previews are the exception rather than the rule, such scepticism will, by necessity, always persist.

So no, this is not a field swimming in fraud and dishonesty, but it is hardly a paragon of incorruptible principle, either – and when onlookers of the whole Mass Effect saga see two facts: ’75 perfect scores’, alongside a player Metacritic score of 1.5, I think a little more scepticism on both sides is healthy.

* And Game Informer (a publication owned by GameStop) announced that Mass Effect 3 was their Game of the Year for 2012 on the very same page that they advertised the release date and details of the ‘New Wii-U edition!’

** And an article like this one by Erik Kain at Forbes is an extraordinary (and rather disheartening) place to start (http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/10/26/all-the-pretty-doritos-how-video-game-journalism-went-off-the-rails/)

*** Ninja Stan, a moderator on the Bioware forum who has previously worked for Bioware (and with whom I had the original discussion that evolved into this rant), confirmed that Bioware, like innumerable other publishers, has routinely employed techniques such as supplying free beer to games journalists at events like PAX in order to entice them to linger longer at their booths and think more favourably of their games.

‘Franklin Comes Alive’: Arrested Development and Communal Delusion

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2013 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Arrested Development (from Entertainment Weekly)

Much can and has been said about the impending, miraculous return of a little show called Arrested Development – the fourth season of which is currently being filmed and is scheduled to be screened on Netflix later this year.*  Admittedly the majority of what I would offer to such a discussion consists of me descending almost immediately into gleeful, froth bag hysterics, or winding up into a rage at the idiocy of the show’s premature cancellation – but that fact notwithstanding, much can be said.  For those unfamiliar with the series, however, those perhaps looking on in curiosity as fans like myself squee with joy at every detail dribbling out of the production of the new episodes, it is probably quite difficult to comprehend how a failed sitcom could overcome such a protracted hiatus to make its Lazarus return (six years is an eternity in television, with every one of the principle actors moving on to new projects) – and even more, why at this point anyone should care this much that they have.

It is a simple truth that it is always difficult to summarise humour.  Explaining why something it funny usually results in dreary treatises of clinical description that utterly strangles any possibility of joy from comedy.  Nonetheless, when discussing a great sitcom, one often speaks of the moments that capture some truth about the series, a moment that can be seen to lift the show from hilarious to sublime.  Perhaps the first paintball episode in Community where Chang enters in a John Woo blaze; maybe the moment of unspoken forfeit when Kramer slaps down his losings on the kitchen counter in Seinfeld’s ‘The Contest’; possibly meeting Dr. ‘Space Man’ in 30 Rock’s ‘Tracy Does Conan’; or having David Duchovny go all Basic Instinct on Larry in The Larry Sanders Show episode ‘Everybody Loves Larry’In each of these instances, what is depicted on screen is so funny, and so perfectly encapsulates the sensibility of the larger text on so many different levels, that the show becomes immortalised as one of the defining works of narrative humour, and frequently they spring to mind when trying to explain that program’s charm.

For Arrested Development the show’s mercurial narrative overflows with such comparable beats, offering flashes of orchestral  comic genius that leap out from the screen: GOB theatrically crying, ‘Return from whence you came!’ before hurling a dead dove into the ocean, for example; watching Charlize Theron ‘magically’ walk on water, only to have Tobias, on fire, unable to sink in that pool moments later; the family trying to run a fundraiser to combat the scourge of the disease ‘TBA’ (literally: ‘To Be Announced’); the many lessons one can learn through pranking with a one armed man; Buster’s run-in with a ‘loose seal’; watching the nation scramble to war at the threat of WMDs, only to ultimately deflate the conflict with Henry Winkler delivering the finest line-reading of his career: ‘Those are balls…’**

But personally, when I look back at the span of this series, the moment that cemented the show into a work of comedic transcendence, that symbolises everything that this anarchically imaginative narrative can accomplish, occurs in the third to last episode of season two, ‘Meat the Veals’.  Here, at last (how did the show ever function without him?) we are introduced to another son of this eccentric family: a little man they call Franklin.

Mr. F.

But first: some history to help put this show’s miraculous return into context, and to justify its unique capacity to bring the dead to life…

As those already familiar with Arrested Development and its first three tumultuous years on air can attest, Arrested is the panacea of hope for every beloved televisual narrative that has been snuffed out before its time.  For every Firefly unjustly ripped from the air; for every Deadwood that never got to play out its final beats; for every Law and Order that was smothered in its infancy (only twenty years?!  Are you crazy NBC?!), there are precious few Futuramas and Star Treks brought back from oblivion.  But Arrested Development – thank the almighty television gods – has now proved, against all odds, to be one.

In its original run (2003-6) it mystified the executives at Fox who seemingly looked on in abject horror as this award-winning, critical darling, with a rabid (if small) fan-base, underperformed in the ratings.  For three seasons it skimmed along the edge of cancellation, each season’s order of episodes getting scaled back, from 22, to 18, to 13… to 0, with Fox itself eventually giving up trying to promote it completely, waiting over a month after it bothered screening the program regularly to callously dump the final four episodes in a glut all on one final night: Feb 10th, 2006, directly up against the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics.

Throughout this battle to stay alive, however, Arrested retained its acidic wit, even masterfully integrating the issues of the show’s gradual downscaling and flagging ratings into the subject matter of the narrative: the truncation of the studio’s episode order was referenced in the series two episode ‘Sword of Destiny’ when Michael is seen arguing on the phone with a client who has suddenly decided to reduce the amount of housing they had ordered the company to ‘build’ from 22 to 18 (‘You initially told us to design and build 22 homes, now you’re saying 18 – that doesn’t give us enough capital to complete the job anymore.  We’ve already got the blueprints drawn up and everything’); and in that same episode, the idea of moving the company to a new floor in the building is also raised – an idea perhaps referencing the show’s proposed timeslot change (moving them to a new floor in the building that ‘costs less’).

More overtly still, the brilliantly titled ‘Save Our Bluths’ (or: ‘S.O.B.s’) – an episode that had the family scrambling to save their business with a fundraiser awareness campaign – sarcastically contained every conceivable television grab-for-ratings staple possible: gratuitous celebrity guest-stars (Andy Richter played himself and his four identical brothers); extraneous 3D effects (put on your glasses now so that Gob can throw a tomato at you for no reason); a hyped-up, ultimately arbitrary ‘Which of these beloved characters will die?’ mystery (spoiler alert: it was the perfunctory extra who had only enough lines to establish herself as an unsympathetic racist); and contained several reminders of the narrative’s new primary mission statement, which sounded (as they almost certainly really were) like studio notes on the script: characters were repeatedly reminded that they had to appear more sympathetic, and have identifiable problems that could be easily resolved through a series of frivolous, ultimately heart-warming escapades.  The episode even began with the masterfully earnest Ron Howard, narrator of the series, breaking the fourth wall by reminding viewers to ‘Please, tell your friends about this show…’***

Ironically, however, for a program that exhibited this kind of acute, snarky, meta-textual self-awareness, much of the comedy within the narrative stemmed from the characters remaining blissfully, hysterically unaware of their own foibles and failings.  From oldest son GOB’s (George Oscar Bluth’s) cocktail of inferiority complexes that manifest themselves in overcompensatory pageantry (a stage magician with a penchant for travelling via Segue and wearing ‘Seven thousand dollar suits – Come  on!‘), to youngest son Buster’s sheltered, indulged life (a man in his thirties who still wants to wear matching sailor outfits with his mother, and whose dating history stretches little further than his mother’s best frenemy and a torrid affair with his Roomba).  From daughter Lindsay’s need to overcome her self-esteem issues through protesting and activism – no matter how ill-advised or contradictory (in one episode she advocated both for and against circumcision, in another for her brother’s right to ‘die’ via fake-coma), to granddaughter Maeby, a fifteen year old rebelling against her mother’s rebellion by landing a job as an enormously influential movie producer responsible for multimillion dollar budgets (her adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea, The Young Man and the Beach, surely lost nothing of the original’s pathos…)

Even central protagonist Michael, a figure who in any traditional comedy would play the straight man amidst this menagerie, is in fact a figure so distracted by his longing to be a ‘good guy’, to appear selfless and benevolent, that he is blind to his own selfishness and false sense of superiority.  …And all of this is before one even touches on a character like Tobias Funke (never-nude, graft-versus-host sufferer, cross-dressing British housekeeper, ‘analrapist’, who repeatedly prematurely blue himself).

On every level this is a show concerned with its characters’ incapacity to see the truths of themselves, revelling in their escapades a peculiar subverted narcissism that borders on the demented.  What truly set the show apart, however, was its capacity to revel in the fantasies of these characters to borderline delusional extremes.  And it is at this point, in one of the series’ most absurd imaginative allowances, that Franklin appears.

GOB, it is revealed, created Franklin Delano Bluth in an effort to liven up his magic act with some light ventriloquist banter.  He was a puppet, loosely ‘inspired’ by the somewhat controversial Sesame Street character Roosevelt Franklin.  But unlike his muppet namesake, who it has been argued skirted the edge of racial sensitivity, Franklin Bluth blindly stampedes right over it.  And so, moments after his ‘birth’, Franklin is offering GOB’s mother some ‘brown sugar’ and laying down some truths ‘whitey’ apparently wasn’t ready to hear.  (…Although, as GOB admits, ‘African American-y’ wasn’t ready to hear them either.)  Soon enough, GOB and Franklin are recording duets about being both ‘brothers’ and ‘not heavy’ (Franklin with his own microphone and headphones), and crooning witless, self-penned lyrics like:

It ain’t easy being white…

It ain’t easy being brown…

All this pressure to be bright.

I got kids all over town…

Like a surreal homunculus, Franklin immediately embraced his gift of life and began seemingly acting independent of his creator.  Indeed, by the third season Franklin is so assertive that he is instrumental in helping solve a court case, and undertakes a bold new business venture that puts another (this time literal) feather in his cap…

To the outsider it might seem ludicrous that a puppet could be so imbued with life, or that anyone could fail to delineate between themselves and the inanimate object strapped to their wrist, but one of the defining attributes of GOB is that he is so starved for a kind of egomaniacal gravitas that he fully invests in this skewed anthropomorphism.  What is even more extraordinary, however, is that everyone else invests in the reality of him too.

People talk to Franklin.  They speak about him when he’s not there.  George Sr., offended by a crack that Franklin has make about his wife, Lucille, reacts by strangling the puppet – not the incompetent ventriloquist who artlessly mouthed the comment.  When Buster puts him on, Franklin lets out a swift tirade at matriarch Lucille, shouting: ‘I don’t want no part of your tight-assed country club, you freak bitch!’ – an outburst that takes Buster himself by surprise.  Even Michael, the character most disinclined to encourage GOB’s flights of fantasy, periodically acknowledges the puppet’s individuality.  While trying to get off the phone with GOB, he gives in to this bisection of personality (despite the fact that at this moment the character is literally nothing more than a voice on the line), saying: ‘No, I don’t want to talk to…  Heyyyyy, Franklin.’

Franklin becomes symbolic of all the illusory excesses at work in this family’s dynamic, every impossible longing that they project upon the world, that obscures their reality: Tobias’ acting career; GOB’s desperation to be the new David Copperfield; Lucille’s life of entitlement and excess (her stomach cannot ‘handle’ curly fries).  Franklin presents for them an imaginative focal point, a communal delusional indulgence in which they can all hubristically embolden their own fantasies.

But the moment in which all of this coalesces into the perfect nonsensical epiphany comes when GOB, desperate to please his escaped convict father, agrees to sneak him past a condo security guard in the back of a limousine.  When the guard wanders closer to inspect the cabin and offers a friendly greeting, GOB offers a nervous hello, one that is followed immediately by Franklin leaping up and shouting, ‘I ain’t your daddy!!  Hey, brother!!

The guard – who is African American – looks down at what appears to be an offensive racial stereotype perched on the blithely ignorant rich Caucasian man’s hand.  He tells GOB to pop the trunk and roll the windows down.  For a moment everything stops a beat.

In the front of the limo, the nervous GOB fidgets desperately, and the camera zooms in on his face.

In the back of the limo, the fugitive George Sr. looks terrified, and the camera zooms in.

On GOB’s hand, his expression unchanged, Franklin Delano Bluth stares unblinking.

…And the camera zooms.

Throughout the entirety of the series, Arrested Development knowingly cultivated a mild cinéma vérité aesthetic.  Ron Howard narrates the interactions of this family in a sincere, detached tone, as though describing the behaviour of snow leopards or water buffalo; boom microphones swing into view; editors insert footage and clippings that reveal salient information (the cutaway to Tobias’ ‘Analrapist’ business card remains a haunting warning against abbreviating occupational specialties).  Despite being pushed further into the background of the viewer’s attention than in a show like The Office or Parks and Recreation (where people talk directly to camera), Arrested frequently used this documentary presentation to inform and propel the narrative, sometimes to speed up the exposition, sometimes for a swift gag; but here, in this one fantastical lens shift, this style reveals something far more.

Not only had the characters invested in the ‘reality’ of Franklin – ballooning out from GOB and his duo enterprises (duets; double-acts), through the family at large (‘Heyyyyy, Franklin…‘), to the wider public (Franklin is called as a witness in a court case, and is another time handcuffed as a hostile suspect by police) – but now, in that one ingenious zoom, the documentary crew invests in him too.  This interlaced hallucination is so absorbing that it pulls others into its gravity and we watch them eschew the objective truth of this world and embrace the skewed irrationality of this deluded family, further endowing their imagination with substance.

Franklin was no longer an ill-proportioned Muppet copyright-infringement – he was suddenly a character with his own motivations and fears – one to be scrutinised with the ‘journalistic’ lens of the camera along with the other participants of this strange docu-drama.  No longer were we watching GOB with a colourful sock on his hand; this was now GOB and Franklin, together again on another mismatched buddy caper, each with goals and motivations and a rich personal history.

Franklin – much as his self-titled album of duets suggests – comes alive.

Further, by laughing at the audacity and mania of this directorial decision, we, as the audience, seal the deal: this is Franklin.  Mr. F.  Worthy addition to the Bluth family bonanza, connectively given life by the collective comic unconscious, now left staring down the lens of the camera, shivering in fear lest he be discovered for the hysterically deluded fever-dream that he is.

And when a show has the capacity to breathe life into the wholly inanimate – to give sensation and autonomy to an ill-stitched glove with no anatomical scale – it has moved beyond simple farce and satire, and waded headlong into Dr. Frankenstein’s anarchic lair, so overabundant with imaginative fervour that it can defy such a simple inconvenience as ‘cancelation’, and reanimate the old in a blaze of the new.

So I very much hope to see Franklin back in the mix come the broadcast of season four.  Hopefully, as I type these very words, his name is being etched on the filming call sheets.  So come on, internet!  Where are the real spoilers?!  I already know that Liza Minnelli is confirmed to return, and Scott Baio is back; but have we heard anything from Franklin’s representatives?  has his agent been approached?  Pay him whatever he asks for producers!  He’s worth every penny.  And those tiny tracksuits aren’t cheap…

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Fox)

* In what has recently been confirmed to be a longer run of episodes than first announced.  Glee…

** And while we’re at it: Henry Winkler merrily jumping over a shark?  Priceless.

*** Indeed, beside the live-to air episodes of 30 Rock (which I intend to speak on sometime soon) there has probably never been a more elegantly self-reflexive moment of television than this episode, with more of a statement to make about its own purpose, and the mind-bending recursive descent that can occur when that window into the text’s production is explored.

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