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Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Nov. 24)

Nov 24, 2014

When the credits come up at the movies, the pages in a book run out, or the last commercial rolls over the end of a television episode, the story might be over. But the discussion is just getting started. Here at Act Four, we’ll get together every week to talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. We’ll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world, from "Star Wars" to "Scandal."

Welcome back, everyone! I had an amazing time last week, and I so appreciate you all coming back for a second installment.

I want to start with a quick piece of unfinished business: last Monday, I promised you I'd be binging "Serial" on my drive back to my parents house for Thanksgiving. And I kept my promise. So please, go crazy with the "Serial" questions. I'd particularly appreciate a chance to work through some of my thoughts on the series for a longer post I'll be publishing tomorrow.

And other than that, have at it!

Homeland's theme this season seems to be about bad choices, limits to power (seeing everything but being unable to act when Saul gets recaptured), and how the US is getting outsmarted at every turn. But, from my perspective, if you're going to comment on these issues, you have an obligation to also seek answers beyond "smart crazy Carrie will save the day" which, I'm afraid, is where Homeland is headed. Do you agree that a show like Homeland has to offer something about solutions and, if so, do you think it's likely that it will?

This is always the big problem with shows that use specific characters to dig into the guts of big institutions, isn't it? If you want the show to run forever, and the main character is the big hook that you use to loop audiences into the show, that character is always going to be limited in what they can learn about their institution and how much they can turn against it. If you can't have "Homeland" without Carrie Mathison, than Carrie Mathison can never really turn against the CIA or leave it (Unless Carrie pulls a Brody and runs off and joins ISIS or something, leaving Quinn to track her down. Which I would totally watch.).

Obviously, a show like "The Wire" dealt with this problem by having multiple protagonists, and ultimately by having its main character get booted out of the Baltimore Police Department for behaving in a way that was so corrupt that even the BPD couldn't tolerate him. The institution saved itself from someone who wanted to make it better by pushing him to transgress in a way that even he couldn't really justify.

The only similar hope I could see for "Homeland" would be to really drive Carrie off the rails, and not in a "Tasneem switches her pills" kind of way. If Carrie becomes so broken and bloodthirsty that the CIA is the only home for her, that could be a damning indictment of the CIA. But there are limits to how far shows with "unlikable" protagonists are actually willing to sully those characters. "Homeland" is an anti-hero drama, not an actual tragedy.

I think you mentioned that you wonder about the "what if" world if Jennifer Ehle had been cast as Catelyn Stark on "Game of Thrones" like was originally planned. I kind of have that with Marisa Tomei in the Emily Mortimer role on "The Newsroom." It still would be terrible to you, but I think it would be better sort of terrible.

Huh, this is the first I'm seeing this, and actually, I kind of like this suggestion! My biggest problem with Mac, both as director of the newsroom, and as foil and romantic object for Will, is that she seems to have absolutely zero idea how to do her job, much less to do it in a modern newsroom environment. It truly drives me bananas.

So often, I try to convince myself that Mac is actually the next grifter persona of Phoebe, the art dealer who pretended to have hollow bones and seduced Jack Donaghy on the first season of "30 Rock." (Yes, watching as much television as I do professionally will make your brain weird.) But this is a good suggestion, too. Tomei has an earthiness to her that I really like--I think she would be much more credible as someone who came up in a male-dominated newsroom and has the confidence to be directing a big cable news show. 

I don't know that this would save the show for me. Probably the only thing that could do that would be a clearer focus on the lower-level staffers, turning the anchors and executive producers into more remote supporting characters. But someone less milquetoast in that role (or just a less milquetoast role in that slot period) would definitely do a lot to elevate the show for me.

I read the Post's top 10 books of 2014, and it depressed the bejeebers out of me. I guess I don't expect a new Jane Austen, but I'd like something I can read at bedtime that still enables sleep.

Of course you can ask about books! You can ask about anything. There's a question in the queue about my favorite kind of cheese that I am hoping to get to sometime today, because I dearly like cheese and have many opinions about it.

Now, follow up on this if I'm interpreting you wrong. But it sounds to me like you want a recommendation that will be substantive without being a searing meditation on good and evil, and that will be entertaining without being fluffy. Do I have you right?

If so, let me make a couple of recommendations. "Station Eleven," which appears on our top-ten list, is a post-apocalyptic novel, but definitely not one that is an excuse for the author to wallow in grim pleasure about just how awful humans actually turn out to be when everything goes wrong. Instead, a lot of it is a lovely meditation on art, with interesting, touching characters. I wrote a bit about it last week if you want to learn more.

Also, I'm simultaneously chatting with you and sending my editor fixes on a piece about just how much I loved Jenny Offill's "Dept. of Speculation," a novella about a marriage. It's definitely not Jane Austen, just stylistically. But the unnamed narrator is definitely the kind of chick I can see a contemporary Lizzy Bennet hanging out with and talking to about marriage. Plus, bonus Carl Sagan content. I really can't recommend "Dept. of Speculation" highly enough. 

And finally it's not from this year, but have you read Meg Wolitzer's "The Interestings"? Her back catalog is just a lot of fun to dive into in general.

Just wondering if Baby Franny will be back before the end of the season or was nagging-just-to-nag big sister all we get?

On Franny's reappearance on "Homeland," I have no good guesses. I would imagine Carrie ends up back home at the end of the season, even if it's just to give up her daughter for good. I don't exactly see Carrie settling into happy domesticity with a sexy, guilt-stricken ISI agent and Brody's ginger baby.

Wondering whether Dick Clark envisioned the "booty off" that was last night'so awards show.

Well, Dick Clark was a forward-looking gent, so I would never say never. What I think he probably did anticipate is that every generation uses pop culture to define itself as distinct from the ones that preceded it, and that pop music in particular has been a way for young people to express and discuss their sexual independence. And whatever else he predicted or invented, Clark probably would have handled things with class. That's a look that never really goes out of style, no matter what the physical obsession of the pop culture moment might be.

After watching the last episode of "Once Upon a Time," it seems Rumplestiltskin has reverted to his old evil ways. But, what exactly is he up too? Is the Snow Queen his ally or his enemy? Are you clued in to what may be coming down the pike? I do not know if I could wait another week! Dumb American Music Awards! ;)

I will admit to being behind on "Once Upon A Time" given how crowded my Sunday night television schedule has gone. But I know a couple of writers on the show, so I'll try to come up with a good (non-spoilery) answer for you. Shoot me an email at and I will do my best to get you a satisfactory update.

I never get why the "gentlemen's club" in Flashdance is always mocked for being too avant-garde for the blue collar patrons, but the advertising firm on "Mad Men" is so avant-garde beyond belief. Some of the ads are so terrible and high concept and never "get a celebrity endorsement" or "this product costs less" or any sort of real ad.

It's a common saying that you can never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, but I would actually argue that this is not always the case. And while it might be more true that we're likely to get snarled up in the complexities of public policy or foreign entanglements, I tend to think that culture has the power to cut through a lot of that. It hits us at an emotional level, not an intellectual one. So while it's easy to say that blue-collar strip club patrons would have a certain kind of tastes, or to scoff at "Mad Men" ads, it's easy to forget that pretty sophisticated culture has, at times, been a huge hit.

I've been watching "Twin Peaks" for the first time, for example. And while that show is incredibly weird and avant-garde and surreal, it pulled a 22 rating with its first episode. Those sorts of numbers are unimaginable today. It took viewers away from "Cheers," which is ostensibly the sort of straight-shooting thing that viewers would prefer to the wild mind of David Lynch. Now sure, it's true that the series' ratings fell off in its second year. But that's quite something to think about.

I do think you're right to identify the lack of celebrity endorsements as a slightly odd thing for "Mad Men." That said, I suspect that absence is mostly due to Matt Weiner and company not wanting to get into the celebrity impersonation business. "Mad Men" feels so lived-in that having folks playing celebrities could break the spell.

i love the idea of serial as a window into our criminal justice system, rather than just a story about what happened between adnan/hae/jay/(jenn?)/whatever. I can imagine serial season two easily turning into a broader essay on that (although i don't think it actually will, i think they will try to do something that significantly broadens the universe of what serial can be rather than narrows it.)

I'm so pleased that you said this, because it gets at the idea I'm writing about for tomorrow. Short version here (since I want you to come back and read the whole thing!): as a bing-listener, what struck me most about "Serial" is the extent to which Sarah Koenig is the main character and the central drama is not really whether Adnan killed Hae, but how Koenig makes up her mind about his guilt or innocence.

I totally understand why people have difficulty with that framework. And I would be fascinated to hear a different version of "Serial" that, as Jay Caspian Kang suggested, was presented like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's "Random Family," situating the characters in a more richly-observed social context. As we were listening, I kept telling my fiancé "I want to know more about Hae's family! I want to know more about this school and this magnet program! I want to know more about these detectives!"

But I do find Koenig's framework compelling, and here is why. More and more, a lot of our public discourse consists of us taking positions on what we think of prominent people. Is Bill Cosby a rapist? Does Michael Vick deserve to be bak in the NFL? Should Daniel Handler have had to put up this much money to make up for his National Book Award fiasco? Normally we make these decisions relatively quickly, and with none of the depth of the investigation that Koenig brings to "Serial." Deepening that process, drawing it out and doing it in public makes all the steps involved in reach these kinds of decisions visible to us. And in our current media and public discourse environment, I think that's tremendously valuable to have as an example.

I was very distressed to find out that they are taking a Thanksgiving break and not releasing the next installment until the first week of December! I decided to start listening to the podcasts again and I find it so frustrating that I can't call Sarah Koenig and ask her specific questions. Maybe you guys at the Post can get her to do an online chat like this one?! Also, great to see you as addition to the weekly line up. I enjoy your writing a lot!

As a binge-listener, I'm definitely feeling cut off, too! I imagine Koenig is pretty busy right now, but I'll absolutely look into whether we might be able to do some kind of debrief with her. And thanks so much for your kind words. That is super-nice of you to say. 

There are SOME MANY aspects of American life that the trial of George Zimmerman touched upon, but one to is the death in the absolute belief in CSI. This was trial where if it were a plot on CSI, Dexter and other knock-off shows, they'd have it solved before the end of the second act. But real courtrooms are murkier with physical evidence never being as clear-cut as Michael C. Hall or Marg Helgenberger would make it seem like alone dueling expects. I kind of wonder if people will finally get over it as this "true" objective truth that is the most important aspect of murder trial.

I'm glad you brought this up, because it's something that troubles me frequently about pop culture's relationship to the criminal justice system. The idea that reasonable doubt is so easy to eliminate, and that reaching that point can be outsourced to science rather than figured out ourselves is unnerving. 

Part of the reason I find "Serial" fascinating is that I wonder if it could end up being a model for a new kind of pop culture crime story, one that involves much more complex investigations and that is much more open to uncertainty. Certainly, we've seen some of this in pop culture in the past. Alan Sepinwall recently pointed to the "Three Men and Adena" episode of "Homicide," which is an amazing and devastating example of this sort of investigative storytelling. I know it would drive folks who like neat, clear, surprising endings around the bend. But I wonder if it would be good for us both as entertainment consumers and as citizens.

I was lying in bed this past Saturday morning listening to Scott Simon interview Bill and Camille Cosby about the exhibit that's opening featuring pieces from the renowned African-American art collection -- a long-planned showing -- and suddenly Simon starts asking Bill about recent discussion of salacious allegations against him (which may or may not be true). Maybe it's just because I'm a married woman, but my immediate reaction was, "Dude, Cosby's wife is sitting right there. Show a little respect." I can't possibly be the only person who felt that Simon chose the wrong time and place to raise this issue, can I?

I held this question over from last week when it came in, because I was running out of time and wanted to make sure to take a moment to answer it properly.

I totally understand how awkward it must seem to ask someone about criminal allegations against them in front of their spouse (or children). And I want to be clear that these are criminal allegations against Mr. Cosby, not just, as you put it, salacious ones. But at the same time, there are no particularly good moments to ask such questions. And for entertainers, who are often interviewed in the context of their work, and who have often been able to expect fairly respectful approaches to their personal lives, opportune moments may be even rarer.

I think Scott Simon asked the question because the allegations were reaching a significant pitch in the media. And as impolite as it might have seemed for him to do so in an interview that's about Cosby's art collection and where his wife was present, I don't think Simon should have let Cosby use his family or his wealth and generosity as a shield. In the time since Simon did the interview, other prominent journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote a long feature about Cosby's family advocacy, have said that they regretted not reporting out the allegations against Cosby more aggressively. Maybe Coates' piece would have been a more appropriate place to raise the question of whether a man who has been accused of such things has the standing or wisdom to lecture others on how to raise themselves up by changing their behavior. But since that opportunity passed and the issue was again in the public eye, I think Simon did the right thing, and handled the question with all possible grace.

What is your favorite flavor of cheese?

I love Port Salut and Manchego. The former is especially good on crackers and served with roasted vegetables. But unfortunately because of bad genetic inheritance, I can't eat cheese that much. So now I save it for special occasions.

It must be asked: Team Peeta or Team Gale?

As much as I dislike ending up on the opposite side from Roxane Gay in a matter of significance, I'm Team Gale (although maybe this means we can each go our own separate happy ways). Maybe that's just because I like doing my own baking. But I also admire Gale's political anger and sense of strategy, even if the uses to which those attributes are sometimes put completely and utterly freak me out. I appreciate Peeta's kindness, but I think his persistent solicitousness might ultimately bore me. All good romances need to have a little friction.

In a follow up to the Daniel Handler fiasco, I feel like a lot of awards shows have presenters who are better known than the up and comers who are being nominated for the awards. That's why people watch. So how do you suggest a presenter be entertaining while not detracting attention from the nominees (other than not making bigoted jokes).

This is a good question, and a difficult one. Clearly, awards shows are tremendously difficult things to pull off, which is why the huge ones like the Golden Globes and Academy Awards seem to constantly be at risk for disaster (Help us, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, you're our only hopes!). And a lower-profile ceremony, like the National Book Awards, may actually be in more danger of going badly wrong because the presenters have the (correct) impression that fewer people are watching live.

So in circumstances like Handler's presentation, what I would suggest is this: talk about the author (but in a substantive way that tells us something about her work, not just about her allergies) and talk about what you've learned from her and her work that might influence you (other than that you shouldn't tell watermelon jokes even as part of a larger story about how you're really a cool, decent guy who knows where the lines are). Give your elevator pitch for why I should read the book or watch the show or learn to love the artist as you have. Speak earnestly, but with the knowledge that you're not speaking to the in crowd.

Folks, we're out of time, which I regret, because there are still so many of your great questions in the queue! So I promise that next Monday (12/1), I'll have thoughts on Beyoncé's "7-11" video, discussions of "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation" as they relate to "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and further thoughts on darkness in novels and "Transparent."

And please have a wonderful Thanksgiving if you'll be celebrating it. I'm certainly feeling thankful for the chance to hang out with all of you.

In This Chat
Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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