Tag Archives: recommended TV

Comedy about the Worst of Us

In this series, we have been looking at the audience identification with Comedy shows and the kind of affective response that we have towards such shows. The first post focused on why we cry while watching a comedy show and the second examined how a serious topic can be discussed in a comedic program. This post will expand on the previous two ideas and examine how the affective quality in a comedy actually makes us care about people that we normally would not in our own real life. While we have had the worst of the worst on ‘serious’ or ‘Quality TV’, none of those shows normalize the troubling, sociopathic behavior as much as a comedy show.

We need to look at one of the many sitcoms to see behavior that is completely devoid of basic human decency that is perfectly acceptable within the world of a comedy. Historically, we have seen some of the worst aspects of humanity, from indefensible selfishness to pure sociopathy, and pass them off as normal human behavior in comedy shows including Full House, Friends, Scrubs, How I met your mother, The Big Bang Theory (to name only a few). How does this work? How do comedy shows succeed in making us identify with a character that is clearly despicable, even when serious dramas fail to do so?

This argument needs to be clearly examined in the context of TV having presented us many likable villains, or villainous leads over time. From the Original Gangster (literally) Tony Soprano, to Vic Mackey, Omar Little, Dexter Morgan, and of course, Walter White, TV dramas are full of protagonists that range from morally ambiguous to thoroughly corrupt. We like them and root for their success to no end, but identification requires something more. These characters’ situations are entirely strange to us, that even though we may share the nature of the emotion that they experience, we will never understand the full meaning of the experience. We always foresee their inevitable comeuppance despite enjoying their success at defying the social order. This distance cannot be traversed by the audience to enter their worlds.

However, despite our distance from these characters, they all share an element that we aspire to—being a badass. The indisputable aura of coolness makes these characters appear more seductive than their immediate narrative circumstances. Although we may never be able to relate to these characters we seek to identify with them in a fantastic wish-fulfilment, as they do things that we cannot. They can exact revenge, or tell off a superior in a way that we can only dream of in our everyday frustrations. The abrupt and violent streak that we may not indulge or even tolerate in our lives becomes the key to a life that offers a glamor and thrill beyond our grasp.

At the same time, we often find ourselves slipping into relating to the experiences of equally terrible people in TV comedies. It is easy to enjoy the antics of narcissistic, psychopathic and utterly selfish characters in TV, from Lucille Bluth to Selina Meyer, because the shows already begin with an assumption against levity. While drama expects you to be in awe of their characters, comedies invite you to laugh at the characters as much as we laugh with them. These enfants terribles bask in their pettiness and their syrupy malice is just another way of looking at our follies without ever directly addressing them. These characters say devastatingly cruel about their loved ones, and we at least think of saying those things, while a threat or an action that truly puts them in harm (as in a drama) is unthinkable to us.

Also, despite their separation from our world, comedies still exist within the realm of possibilities. That is, despite the events taking place in the White House, Selina’s problems with her co-workers’ (and sub-ordinates’) incompetence are entirely relatable. These shows often articulate things in a better way that we wish we could have said in those contexts. These characters are brought to our level, if not worse than us, and we are (unsurprisingly) more empathetic towards their struggles than those of serious characters.

So many times, we pity Catherine. But we love seeing her getting crushed.

In HBO’s Veep, the President of the United States, Selina Meyer’s treatment of her daughter always teeters at the edge of emotional abuse. In the season five premiere she makes an off-hand remark to her daughter, asking her: “Catherine, why is that your hair?” The truly horrifying nature of this comment can only be understood when we realize that she means no malice when she says that. As a President of a country, Selina already has very little time for her daughter, and when she does, she has nothing but the sharpest of words – and these words are not meant to hurt her, and in that, they hurt more. Selina’s contrasting position as a powerful and noble figure in international politics and a barely functioning parent is shockingly funny, but also truly humanizing. While I cannot imagine Barack Obama ever saying something politically incorrect to his daughters, Selina’s humiliating words are embarrassingly familiar.

Despite this apparent celebration of malice, TV comedies are able to restore balance with narrative justice, such as entirely placing Selina’s political future at Catherine’s discretion when she inherits the family’s fortune. And not to mention, when Catherine makes her own comment about Selina’s hair.

TV also limits the toxicity of lived encounters in fictional narratives. Black-ish’s acerbic matriarch Ruby is another terrifying character who embodies some of the worst traits of familial relationships. Her intrusive and belligerent nature would be unbearable in an immediate context, but is offered with a slightly more nostalgic and indulgent outlook in a TV show. Fans of any of many comedy shows would instantly recognize as toxic certain characters while fully indulging in the comedic aspect of such situations. Of course, shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and Louie have built their house on a bedrock of despicable and maladjusted characters full of self-loathing. Yet, we see a little of our eccentric friend or an annoying relative in such characters. The darker the circumstances, the deeper the laughs.

Perhaps this is due to the important fact that serious dramas also bear an obligation to make moralizing gestures where the villainous characters are ultimately censured and pay a price for their behavior. Comedy shows escape such responsibilities, because they are just meant to be laughed at. But in their failure to be human, these characters reveal the worst in us to nudge us along introspection and evaluation of good behavior. The fact of our laughing at these characters helps shape unexpressed thoughts of good behavior because of their folly. That is why we will always have the mean-spirited Falstaff-like characters who grow more complex, but continue to perform a restorative moral function in comedy.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Recommended TV: Speechless on ABC

This post begins with a non sequitur. Instead of directly arguing for the merits of the show that I am trying to get you to watch, I am going to explain the obvious reasons why you should watch a good TV show besides it being a good TV show. It has been a while since I posted on this site, and strangely, it also coincided with the annual summer break on the TV schedule. [It is one of my pet peeves that the scheduled TV summer break is irrelevant in the world of digital streaming and OTT content, but I will leave that aside for now. Clearly I am going to use the break to explain away my own laziness!]

So there are at least a half a dozen shows that I am watching (or failing trying to) at this time. Besides the great shows recommended by friends, family and Netflix, I am obliged to keep up with the upcoming scheduled network programs as well. One of the strangest, and beautiful things about network programs is that the audience voice matters and does not matter in two extreme and oppositional ways. First, if a show is underwatched in the outmoded AC Nielsen measurement, it is condemned for the chopping block. However, once the numbers are in, the critical reception and fan cultures have little influence on the show’s continuation.

While a show like Breaking Bad with less than 2 million viewers per week in its initial season was renewed for bigger and badder things in the latter seasons (which also ended up pulling monster level 15 million ratings for the last few episodes), a show like Hannibal on NBC could not drag its internationally subsidized production budget into a fourth season due to poor ratings. Leaving aside the less obvious shows like The Grinder (Rob Lowe’s best comedic performance), even the more widely appreciated shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreations, 30 Rock, Better off Ted all had to fend off the specter of cancellation throughout their run.

And that is why Speechless deserves your attention, because it fell from 7 million viewers to 4.5 over the course of the first season, and opened to a modest 5 million in the second season. Compared to ABC’s Modern Family (9 million viewers) and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory (up to a surprising 20 million viewers), Speechless’ position as ABC’s third best comedy might maybe good enough for a few more seasons, but not enough to be featured as a headliner as the show deserves to be treated. I guess that is rant over, so let us take a look at the show itself.

Formally, Speechless is far less daring as some of the modern sitcoms. The A and B plot lines are very clearly demarcated and the characters are, at times, typically indistinguishable from other dysfunctional TV families from Malcom in the Middle and The Goldbergs among others. However, the content of the show makes up for any timid imitative practices from other shows. In fact, the patient evaluation of simple situations may seem as obvious and tiresome to many. What kind of a ramp should a disabled child uses in a high school? Is a garbage disposal ramp an acceptable alternative to an adaptation or is it insulting to the user? How do disabled children fight? How do they express anger? Should adaptations help bridge access for them to do things that are perceived to be bad, just as much as they allow them to do things that are socially approved? The questions in Speechless move from the mundane and practical to serious grounds on social acceptance and good behavior.

In a different era, a show like this would have been deemed too depressing or heavy on reflections for a prime-time network TV comedy. And yet, along with shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat, ABC continues to present families of all shapes and colors, while maintaining an engaging and entertaining storyline. Speechless encourages people to laugh about these things, but not in a mean-spirited way. It normalizes the needs of disabled children without trivializing them, thus performing an important function of communication that goes beyond representation. And yet, these attempts of remaking similar narratives with the focus on access feels like an intentional ploy to produce a show that can produce popular images which help visualize, if not normalize the issues of adaptation.

Disabled characters do not have a lot of visibility on network TV, unless they are used as narrative props for a specific episode or in a quirky, upbeat role as a sidekick. ABC’s new comedy Speechless engages with questions of access and disability head on, presenting important questions without exceeding the typical conventions of the sitcom. This is a precious little show, which examines the questions of what kind and degree of adaptation is acceptable. The disability presented in this show is not a magical way in which life moves on without any difficulties. The show actually lingers on the struggles without making it about sympathy or overcoming the odds. It engages with the difficulties without judgement, and that makes Speechless rather unique.

The show examines JJ, the protagonist who communicates through a words written on a board, in the context of his family and friends. The representation of siblings and parents whose lives are linked to the disability of their family member is handled with an optimism that emphasizes the importance of awareness and practical knowledge rather than an old-world idea of stoic and unquestioning togetherness. There is a lot of heart and very funny one liners in this ABC sitcom, but most of all – it is a manifestation of the transformative power of TV.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

 

Borgen – Great TV

We live in a time of great political pessimism. Across party, state and regional lines, there is a growing anger with the quality of leadership and a skepticism about whether they have the best interests of the people in their hearts. Many TV shows have represented this anger in their dark portrayal of political figures ranging from the Machiavellian House of Cards or the pitch-black satire of Veep. Consistently, these shows echo or even preempt contemporary political fiascos, painfully emphasizing a bitter hopelessness for its audience. Contrarily, shows from an earlier era that presented an upbeat and idealistic view of politicians like The West Wing no longer resonate with the seemingly unresolvable entanglements we encounter today. Borgen, an episodic political thriller from Denmark treads a fine line between being its idealism and cynicism and delivers one of the finest TV dramas of this era.

With its riveting thirty episodes, Borgen has received near-universal acclaim since it hit the airwaves in 2010. Counted among the Scandinavian TV royalty that rose to global prominence in the late 2000s alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing 2007-12) and Broen (The Bridge 2011-), Borgen follows the life and career of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg. Borgen’s simple and clear narrative engages with different aspects of the political process as well as its media and public perception. While the intricate plot and the complex perspectives are compelling, it is clear that we watch the shows for its well-written characters. Chief among them is Moderate party-chief and statsminister, Birgitte Nyborg. Sidse Babett Knudsen delivers one of the best performances on TV as the dramatic protagonist who is tough, intelligent and moral. She is the epitome of a statesman, whose values-driven, progressive policies fly in the face of established conventions. And yet, not once do we mistake Prime Minister Nyborg for a naïve politician as she expertly maneuvers her way through a sea of political and personal treachery without compromising on her ideals. The narrative victories that she wins are not through shortcuts, and sometimes, they are not even victories. Nyborg endures unfazed through the circumstances, both as a witness and an ideal respondent in the face of adversity. Instead of presenting a simplistic heroic arc, Borgen offers something that we all long for; not just a protagonist we can root for, but an inspiring model for grace under fire.

In Borgen, Brigitte Nyborg and her staff negotiate for the survival of both their ideals and their government in the fragile balance of a multi-party system. The restrained tone and the deliberated style of writing works surprisingly well within the largely episodic format of the show. The show succeeds where some other shows fail because it refuses to offer unexpected twists or clever narrative-play at the cost of character and plot consistency.  It is not that characters do not change their minds or act erratically. However, any erratic behavior is a result that naturally grows out of their context and painful character introspection. The best moments of the show blend character-based drama that also exposes the political play and the machinations behind the institutional walls. However, it does not bask in the glow of mocking all notions of political integrity. When Kasper Juul (played by Pilou Asbaek), the charismatic spin doctor, orbits around the political drama with his brand of circumstantially convenient morality, Nyborg grounds the show in her principles stating that she wants to do politics in her own way. Her steadfast and upright approach recovers the idea of politics from the scheming and treacherous world we see in Game of Thrones in favor of administering the state and its people in the best possible way.

One of the fan-centric joys of watching a fairly niche program is to see actors from such programs achieve international mainstream acclaim. Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Pilou Asbaek and Sidse Babet Knudsen have all found success in international film and TV (in Pitch Perfect 2, Game of Thrones and Westworld respectively). I am not implying that Hollywood is the yardstick of success that the actors should be measured against. Instead, I am very happy to see these actors in performances where I can follow them without subtitles. While on the subject of subtitles, Borgen was so compelling that I found out if there are ways of learning Danish enough to follow the show without subtitles. Unfortunately, the watching easily outpaced any efforts of learning a new language. And yet, like the equally brilliant Broen (Bridge), this show has framed the eponymous Borgen in particular (the Christiansborg Palace which houses the parliament and other government offices), and the city of Copenhagen in general with its iconic shots.

At the time of writing this, there is an American version of Borgen in the works. I have mixed feelings about this. On one side, the American show will certainly get greater global visibility. However, in the current political context, an American remake is dangerously susceptible to sliding into a cynical and negative approach. Alternatively, if there could be a fourth season of the show, that would be great.

Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.