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Austin Scarlett and Santino Rice
Victoria Sturtevant

Hi, Charlotte.  I like the friendship of A & S as well, and do think it radiates outward.  I think their personal style also sets a tone of individualism that is quite different from most makeover shows.  These are two guys who have no investment in the narrative of class rise through the acceptance of a fashion uniform that is so prevalent elsewhere.  Actually, I think Clinton and Stacy would take away Austin’s floral scarves and tell Santino to get a haircut! 

(And a shout out to Yael Sherman. who gave a terrific SCMS paper on WNTW this past year).

Keri Russell and Will Arnett star in Running Wilde
Collin Coleman

Hi Michael,

I think you raise a really significant question about the issue of a split between good and popular network comedy.  It does seem to be grouped by network (smart, sophisticated comedy of NBC’s Thursday night and ABC’s Wednesday night versus the simple Monday nights on CBS) and yet there are points of crossover (what do we make of ABC’s new Better With You?).  One in particular that strikes me as unique is CBS’s How I Met Your Mother.  This show seems to fall into your "mass" category through it’s use of stationary camera/laugh track format associated with Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and other CBS sitcoms.  And yet the narrative complexity - flashbacks/flashforwards, narrative predictions, etc. - speaks to a more quality-seeking audience.  Does this style of series represent a push towards a meeting of mass and class appeal, or is it simply popular because of separate but equal approval of two types of audiences?

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Aymar Jean Christian

I can’t wait for ‘Law & Order: EIU’! ‘Law & Order: Parking Patrol’ was an instant classic.

I think you’re right. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because it actually looked like they were changing this week. ‘The Event’ was good but not amazing. ‘Lone Star’ was unnecessarily dull. ‘Undercovers’ was my last hope; it was brave to cast two black leads for an essentially non-black show. But while it was well-written and action-packed, they chose two pretty uninteresting black people! Same problem with ‘Lone Star’; James Wolk is cute but not complicated. A bunch of the new shows exhibit a bad habit: giving us what we like (pretty, friendly people) without making it compelling, or interesting. Steve Buscemi could never get his own network show. That’s a shame.

The ratings keep heading south, so I imagine if they don’t get it soon, they’ll be forced to become another HBO, Showtime or FX, if only because those channels will start pulling in better numbers!

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Jennifer L. Pozner

You’re very right that for quality, compelling scripted storytelling, we more often have to turn to cable rather than network TV, which is so often lackluster. But I think the answer to your question about the nets ("Can we really blame them") is… yes.

Yes, we can blame them for responding to market fragmentation from cable outlets and other competitive elements with lowest-common-denominator, hackneyed sitcoms ("According to Jim," anyone?), derivative dramas ("The Simpsons" once did a joke about "Law & Order: Elevator Inspectors Unit"), and product-placement-driven shlock reality shows. They could have chosen to invest in better, more creative storytelling, and risk-taking, diverse casting. They have not done so. When rarely they do, hits happen ("Lost," "Ugly Betty") on network TV, proving it’s not impossible. But it’s all too rare, because network programmers are too afraid of risk-taking, too afraid of diversity, and since the Telecom Act of 1996, too myopically profit-oriented to consider quality a primary requirement for a primetime slot.

Austin Scarlett and Santino Rice
Charlotte Howell

First, great post, Victoria!  I, too, find the show to be a surprising morsel of sweet encounter.  I think the heart of the show is acceptance, especially seen in some of the scenes with just Austin and Santino.  Their friendship seems refreshing and based in mutual respect, which is especially compelling when following this season’s increasingly antagonistic Project Runway.

Moreover, that respect, as you aptly point out, extends to the women they meet and dress.  I think the key element of these encounters is the foregrounding of the fact that they are making one dress for a special occasion.  They repeat how amazing they find the women and communities they encounter and don’t push to change them in any significant way.  While I love What Not To Wear, I’m always troubled by the undercurrent of wardrobe change=life change that Stacey and Clinton espouse.  There are certainly links, but I appreciate On the Road with Austin and Santino for its acceptance of the way people choose to express themselves through fashion.

 

The Event promo art
Victoria Sturtevant

Hi Erin,

Great post.  It seems very timely, given the ripples from David Bordwell’s TV blog post a few weeks ago, and particularly this idea, which rings very true to me:

"Once you’re committed, however, there is trouble on the horizon. There are two possible outcomes. The series keeps up its quality and maintains your loyalty and offers you years of enjoyment. Then it is canceled. This is outrageous. You have lost some friends. Alternatively, the series declines in quality, and this makes you unhappy. You may drift away. Either way, your devotion has been spit upon."

All TV involves this leap of faith, but the stakes in these new, incredibly complex, high-risk shows are just through the roof.  I like Michael’s analogy of the blind and crazy bus driver.  I myself sometimes get on the bus, but bail at the first sign of trouble.  If I had been watching Lost from the get-go (I wasn’t), I would have stopped watching roughly at the first appearance of a polar bear. 

Do you think these high-risk shows are going to stick around, or since for every Lost there seem to be ten FlashForwards?  Or are the payoffs high enough to justify the formula?  They seem to magnify everything that is both good and bad about TV.

Austin Scarlett and Santino Rice
Victoria Sturtevant

Hi Nedda,

Thanks for the comment.  I’m glad I’m not the only one who likes this show!  For the record, I think that 90-minute format is the dumbest thing Lifetime has done with PR (on a list of dumb things).  "Bloated" is the perfect word.

The previews for "On the Road" made it look like circus sideshow television, and it’s hard not to read that as a barometer for what the execs at some level expect or want from the show.  The emphasis on "deserving" women, and "We’re not just changing looks we’re changing lives" nonsense has been foregrounded in the publicity, but not so far in the actual productions.  I worry that with more time (or even just more seasons, as what seems like a little shoestring adventure hardens into a promotable formula), these are the elements they would expand. 

Right now "deserving" means almost nothing on the show.  Yes, these are nice women, lots of single moms, brides, people with special talents.  But what is striking is how average they all seem.  And their lives aren’t being changed—they’re just getting a nice dress.  Everybody deserves something nice once in a while.  This is the quality I fear the show would lose if given too much time.  I would hate to see it turn into a long therapeutic discourse on female empowerment through fashion and the friendship of witty gay men.*  We have enough of those already! 

*I say "gay men," but for clarity’s sake, I should note that Santino is bi, according to several interviews with him.

Austin Scarlett and Santino Rice
Nedda Ahmed

Hi Victoria, Great post! I too have gotten sucked into this show, even though I was skeptical at first. I agree that the show has managed to avoid becoming a circus sideshow act, and I applaud Austin for the bravery he shows in going places where he would normally not be welcome.

Here’s my question: I wonder whether the 30-minute format is part of what’s saving the show from exploitative indulgences? In a 30-minute (or less, if you factor in commercials) show, they really have to pare down to the show’s essence. If the show was an hour, would we see more scenes of uncomfortable-ness? I, for one, would stop watching if that happened… Project Runway feels somewhat bloated nowadays since Lifetime has given it the 90-minute treatment.

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Aymar Jean Christian

You can see the graph in the video in fuller detail here.

Sean Geoghegan

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Interesting posts these. The political  economy argument seems to me to as significant as the historic. I feel the subject can be broadened to include other festivals (the influence of Cannes), indie auteurs and the short film. As a director who trained at the National Film & TV School in the UK I’d have to add that film schools promote/admire this model also. I was asked to write an essay on "my favourite director" on entrance and it was a toss up between Trauffaut (auteur with eclectic taste) and Houston (could be very writer friendly). I chose Houston who made howlers as well as classics. Combined auteur traits and journeyman attitudes. As most film directors are apt to. Interestingly my own tutor was the thematically unclassifiable Stephen Frears.

What interests me is the ‘discovery’ of indie auteurs through the festival circuit. The promotional aspect - that they have been uncovered by sassy (experienced) Producers. This is bizarrely reminiscent of the Hollywood ‘starlet’ era. There’s a sort of prestige and pride attached to ‘finding’ new auteur talent that understandbly boosts the saleability of the product through the rather snobbish indie/art house cinema circuit.  The genre they continue to operate in (No.1 in the auteur model rule book) is in the ‘realist tradition. This is the British obsession with class writ large. The basis of our movie history. By realism of course the Brits mean naturalism with poetry. The edgy aesthetic, the easy camera, the unforced performances - the auteur’s ticket and the critics wet dream. Andrea Arnold & Lynne Ramsay claimed their auteur credentials by presenting a view of the lower class via an aesthetic that both patronises and frames them. Shane Meadows (journeyman exemplar) is much closer I feel to the actuality. He offers a spririt of working class life that chimes with his own. It should be noted that camerawork and not the shaping of the narrative (script) is a significant apparent ‘signature’ of the indie auteur. Meadows takes a classic approach in this regard.

I was asked when I left Film School who I thought our best film director was by a film critic/ journalist now the film buyer at the National Film theatre (BFI Southbank). "Terence Davies" I said without a second thought. I still feel he is our finest - a real auteur. A storyteller; the telling impresses as does the story. The way he tells, tells me something about him too.

A contemporary UK auteur who keeps the journeyman spirit alive for me is Ben Hopkins. He writes. He produces fantastic and unusual alternative worlds. His visual flare is indicative too of his personality. The spirit of the imagination it seems to me is the main component these new indie auteurs appear to be bereft of. In the case of Iñàrritu who’s interview I will not be viewing – his credibility and common decency also seem to be virtues that are severely lacking.