Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Jan. 26)

Jan 26, 2015

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 "Serial."

Hi everyone! I wanted to start by thanking you all so much for being so patient with me last week. I was on my way home from a family funeral, and the wifi on the bus I was on just absolutely refused to cooperate with the Post's chat software. I hated to miss you all, and I appreciate the great questions that have come in during the days that followed. I'll try to keep today's chat going a little longer to make up for my absence next week.

Alyssa, Your take on the current season of Girls - in today's post - is as spot on as it gets, at least for me. I fell for the show in its first season and have followed it ever since (even though as a non-white, 50-year old male, I don't fit the assumed demographic for the show's viewership. But the show became almost unwatchable in Season 3 because the female characters were so distasteful. I tuned in this season hoping things would change but so far, not so good. So far, as was the case last season, the show is at its best when Adam, Elijah, or Ray are on screen. What does it say when the best characters on a show called Girls are the guys (with the exception of Marnie's creepy, manipulative, songwriter partner)?

Thanks so much for the praise, though I want to step very, very carefully here. One thing I might have been clearer about in the piece to which you so kindly refer is that I don't think Lena Dunham has somehow lost control of "Girls" or that the ever-more-noticeable stagnation of at least three or four of its main characters is anything other than entirely intentional. And I don't think that this makes them "bad" characters, though I agree it's a notable shift that the male characters in the series are a bit easier to get attached to these days (though having seen the next three episodes, I'd caution against optimism there, either).

All of that said, yeah, if Hannah Horvath were my friend, we might be having a gal-pal breakup at the moment. And I think this, too, is intentional, though I'm not sure where it leaves us with the show. Last season, I *loved* watching Hannah pull it together at her advertorial job. The scene where Hannah goes and buys a gorgeous new dress set to Lily Allen's "L8 CMMR" made me feel a tremendous amount of happiness. And when she burned out on that gig but got into Iowa instead, I felt like many of us have felt about difficult friends, that the last frustrating screwup was just preparation for the real thing that will move them forward. But if Hannah's just going to keep giving up on anything remotely promising, I need a break from her.

This is an interesting meta-relationship to have with a television show. I'm not quite sure I've ever had this experience before. But it does leave me wondering how Lena Dunham is going to convince me to keep investing, if, as reported, she wants to keep making "Girls" forever. At this point I really just wish for her, and the sake of her prodigious talent, that she'd make something entirely new so I can start asking different questions about her and of her.

I feel like "The Fall" was written by somebody who doesn't like the rape and/or murder police procedure and it pretty subversive about it. At one point to the killer even makes a home movie and yells directly to the camera as if the real -life audience "Why are you watching!?!" Plus there are so many great observations that the awesome one about why men fear women versus why women fear men. Also really like how sometimes the show explores the limits of Gillian Anderson's character DI Stella Gibson's thinking i.e. when she names the victims to the killer, she left off the name of the man he killed. And the show calls her out on that. Her brutal view on men's relationship to women doesn't fit a man dying to save his sister's life so she ignores it.

I was lucky enough to get to talk to Allan Cubitt and Gillian Anderson about "The Fall" earlier this month, and what they told me basically echoes what you're saying here. Two things that are worth remembering. First, Cubitt is a veteran of "Prime Suspect," a series that provided DNA for almost every innovative crime show we've got today, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of female detectives. And second, Cubitt is directing every episode of the second season of "The Fall"; he told me he was very attentive to how other series shoot violence, particularly against women, since he doesn't want "The Fall" to look or feel the same way. In other words, there's a very deliberate attempt to do things differently.

Bet you're glad you weighed into that one! Now that the box office for it is over $200M how much more free publicity do you and Mike Moore plan to provide it?

So, I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. Are you suggesting that the box office somehow proves me wrong in my aesthetic judgement of the movie? I've heard this from quite a few people, but that's not actually how my job works. I'm supposed to bring my own perspective to culture, no matter what everyone else thinks, and to try to lay the groundwork for some interesting debates. If people enjoy those debates, even when they disagree with me, then I'm happy. But I think I'd be pretty unnecessary to the Washington Post if everything I wrote was a pure and simple affirmation of something that a lot people like.

Are you suggesting that Michael Moore and I have similar views of the movie? Because that's also not even close to accurate. I think it's a bit odd to criticize "American Sniper" for being about someone who does a very particular job in the military. I don't think the movie functions as pro-war propaganda. And I also don't think I ultimately liked it as much as Moore suggested he did.

Finally, maybe you're saying I shouldn't be paying attention to "American Sniper" because you have some objection to it that you're not actually stating here? If that's so, that's also a misconception of my job. Often--though not always--when a movie performs this well at the box office, there's something important and interesting happening in the culture, and it's worth it to try to figure out what that is. In the case of "American Sniper," I think there's a real opportunity here for Hollywood to try to suss out its historically very complex relationship to the military, something I wrote about at length on Friday.

According to Star, he proposed to her on New Year's Eve; she asked him to ask her again next year. I read this again on a sports source. Evidently she has been told that supermodels who marry lose half their earning power. Another sports source has him saying that he & Kate had lots & lots of sex, and he has pictures. I find that totally lacking in class, and I've lost some respect for him (not all, as he does want to marry her!).

Yuck! What a tacky thing to say. Maybe you brag about your sex life with your very attractive girlfriend to your boys (and then, I'd suggest a very carefully-curated set of your boys) over beers, or something. But when you're talking to a journalist, talking about the naked pictures you have of your significant other is not just crass, it's an invitation to get hacked. 

Ever since it began, Giada at Home started with a shot of Todd, their daughter Jade, and herself on the beach. At first Todd carried baby Jade but, as she grew, she walked alongside them. It was easy to spot what season it was by how big she was. Now there's still Jade but no beach and no Todd. I think it's sad.

Maybe that was a leading indicator of what we learned at the end of last year: that de Laurentiis and her husband have separated and plan to divorce. This is obviously sad, but it's also a bit of an illustration of the pitfalls of making your family a part of your brand. If your family circumstances change for any reason, be it death, divorce, illness or even a growing child's understandable desire for privacy, there are higher stakes for you than there might be if you'd kept your private life to yourself. It's been interesting to me to see some famous women make the shift from confessional culture to the choice to draw the veil over certain parts of their lives. I particularly loved Lena Dunham's discussion of this in her book "Not That Kind of Girl".

Both of those shows had their finales last night, and at this time we don't know if either will be back. I did not think Galavant, so funny and lighthearted, was the right lead-in to Resurrection, which was very dark. I loved Galavant, which had a lot of lines about wondering if there will be a Season 2. It was a really cute show with some excellent guest stars. Resurrection gave us an episode which could be a series ending and answered some questions but not all, leaving wiggle room for a season 3. I hope it's back, if only to learn if Rachael's baby boy was a blood brother to Rosemary's baby and/or the Omen's Damien!

Television scheduling is a very difficult combination of art, science and black magic, and anyone who's interested in it should be reading my buddy Joe Adalian obsessively (he writes for New York Magazine). I've learned so much from him. But even a relative naif like myself can see what you see: that this was a weird, weird matchup.

Can I ask you a question in return, though? Do you think there's something risky about our current media environment where shows that get cancelled early get resurrected by outlets eager to try to win some loyalty from those series' nascent fanbases? I wonder if there are some things that are going to be kept alive longer than they necessarily ought to ("Community" comes to mind). And I'm also curious about whether or not this actually works. Are fans of "The Killing" actually watching other Netflix out of loyalty, or out of what the pickup said about Netflix's supposed tastes? What is Yahoo going to offer "Community" fans after "Community"? I just really wonder if maybe some creative churn is a good thing, as disruptive as it might seem.

I'm sorry for your loss. You shouldn't feel bad about missing a chat...I feel like this was probably the most legitimate excuse to cancel.

Thank you, that's really sweet of you to say. I really did want to make it work. Spending time with you guys is a pleasure, and honestly, it would have been a balm to me after a sad day.

I liked it, but it's so uneven. So much good, but so many bad plotlines (that blonde dancer that even the show gave up on in S2). Also Homeland or Mad Men can have so many no-where plotlines, but also the TV show is cheap and can kind of look it. Not always, but they do a pretty bad job of faking SoCal (esp. when Kal & Tariq are suppose to be in Big Sur). But you are right about how sex positive this show is and how characters do things because they enjoy sex rather than some plot mechanics. Kaldrick King storyline is one, but I liked Abby (nobody's fav character) when she starts sleeping with her co-star (Brett Dier) on the Christian family drama. Everything would tell her not to it, but she likes having sex with that guy so she does it which is totally human thing to do. Anyhow, I could go on and on (oh Raquel, RAQUEL!), but just passing along that your "The L.A. Complex" preaching hasn't gone unnoticed.

This makes me so delighted. I am going to tell Emily Nussbaum that we have not lived our lives in vain.

And for what it's worth, I totally agree with you about every single problem you've identified with "The L.A. Complex." It *totally* looks cheap. It cycled through storylines a little bit too fast (though I think more shows could learn from its hybrid of story-of-the-week, serial storytelling and anthology format, an insight I wish I had been able to articulate before you wrote in to me). Not all the stories were equally good.

But *man* was it emotionally acute. Kal and Tariq just utterly slay me. I will not be happy until Andra Fuller has all the work that he deserves (and it's a *lot* of work). The comedy writing subplot was so smart and specific and dark and weird; it took a lot of the issues in "30 Rock" even further than the comedy format let Tina Fey do. RAQUEL FOREVER. Let's keep spreading the gospel together so everyone involved gets the residuals they so richly deserve.

Is it just me, or is the word “awesome” overused? When something is described as “awesome” these days, it probably isn’t awesome. Why do you think this word has become so popular?

To widen the lens here a bit, I think both enthusiasm and outrage are presently overused as modes of discourse. When we spend all of our time in these two states of reaction, the world gets kind of flattened out. We can't tell the difference between a well-intentioned faux pas and malign intent, or between a cinematic masterpiece and something that just made us feel good for the moment (much less between a supposedly definitive viral takedown and an article or a speech that actually permanently shifts the larger discourse). This is a recipe for a lot of confusion and disillusionment. If everything is awesome, how come a lot of it feels so hollow? And if everything is so awful, how come it's so difficult to mobilize people to change anything? Living in a state of greater nuance may mean we miss out on the myriad opportunities for social positioning that swirl around us these days. But it also means we're in greater touch with our own feelings, politics and cultural reactions.

Just follow-up on last week's chat about "Agent Carter." Another on-screen portrayal of this was Julianne Moore's character, Laura Brown, in "The Hours." Here is woman who at least is somewhat aware that she's a lesbian and has zero maternal feelings, but she married a kind and goofy-looking man, keeps his home and bares him two children because he remembers this shy bookworm in high school and the thought of marrying her got him through the hell-on-earth of the South Pacific. On one level it's beautiful love story and on another level no way should Laura Brown have married that guy and had kids and she kind of ruining her life, her husband's life and her kids' lives. Yet Laura Brown even says, "They came home from the war... They deserved it, didn't they" and it means herself. It's another weird portrayal of the "Greatest Generation" where the women, no matter how noble, are either being asked or willing submit their own happiness and personhood for the sake of some one else even if they are perfectly descent and lovely men.

I'm just going to pass this along as is, because it's a nifty little bit of cultural analysis, and everyone should read it! (Also, it gets at some things I've been thinking about what it is that we actually owe veterans and their families, which I'll discuss at greater length later.)

Why do kids get made fun of for still liking Star Wars at an older age?

It makes me sad to hear that this is happening to anyone. And if it's happening to you, I'm really sorry, and I hope you are doing okay. If you ever want someone to talk to about "Star Wars," I am here: my email address is And if you ever need anyone to tell other kids that making fun of someone for liking "Star Wars" is certifiably lame behavior, I will write you a letter to that effect on official Washington Post letterhead.

But as for why people do this sort of thing? We have a weird relationship with enthusiasm right now. We're getting over a moment of hipsterish distance from culture, where it wasn't supposed to be cool to wear your excitement about music, books, television or movies too openly. In reaction to that, we're seeing folks embrace the things that they love much more visibly. But in part because people still feel sort of vulnerable and anxious about doing this, and because we're all still sort of getting used to the idea of being excited, we sometimes can be cruel to people who don't share our enthusiasms. That way, we can maintain some kind of distance from outright enthusiasm and insist that we're still cool, even as we're making ourselves vulnerable by letting ourselves adore the things we love the most. Anyone who is being mean to you about liking "Star Wars," if that's in fact what's happening to you, is probably afraid to acknowledge how much they love another movie or television show.

I'm sure you saw this, but Wil Wheaton had the best response. "So don’t you ever let a person make you feel bad because you love something they decided is only for nerds. You’re loving a thing that’s for you."

Yes, I hope the reader who wrote in with that question sees this. Thanks for passing the link along.

Is she the daughter of Prof. Martha Nussbaum? If so, ask her if she remembers being in a play called "THe Cookie Crumbled" in summer camp when she was about 9. I was the junior counselor/stage manager for that show. I wasn't supposed to have favorites, but she totally was my favorite. 100%.

I...have no idea, but I will pass this along!

Well, another award show has been telecast. Aside from the usual comments that are expected from the panelists on "The Fashion Police," does anybody know what kind of swag people receive in their goodie bags at this show? Thanks.

People had a good breakdown of the swag bags at this year's SAGs (Sorry for the horrible, intentional rhyming. I am terrible.). These bags are such weird things--a lot of similar, though less-lavish, ones get handed out to us during the Television Critics Association press tour. I don't take stuff other than DVDs I can use for review purposes because of the Post's ethics rules, but the things in them often have the patina of luxury but are in fact sort of irritating. Bad tea-flavored alcohol is not actually that desirable.

Any thoughts on who will/should win the Grammy this weekend for Album of the Year? As a pop music fan, I love how "pop" the spread is this year. I'm torn for who should win. Beyonce's album was my favorite of 2013, and Sam Smith's was my favorite last year. They are pretty different and both are excellent. I also love the Beck album (the Ed Sheeran album is fine; Pharell's album has a few good songs, but is a little disappointing overall).

I will be totally honest with you: I'm less well-equipped to handicap music awards than I am a lot of other fields. Because music is not narrative, there's often less that matches with my particular brand of criticism (though I love writing about music videos), and music is one of the few genres where I increasingly just try to go with what I enjoy rather than developing a critical expertise.

One day it will mark you as unforgivably old.

I have pretty much always been a fogey, so I imagine when that time comes, I'll be okay with it. Nothing will ever make me ashamed of the enjoyment I got out of the X-Wing books.

I've fallen hard for The Good Wife in recent months. I didn't watch the show at all, but decided to give it a try a few months ago after hearing about how good it is. I got so hooked on it, that I've been watching it straight through at a rate of about a season a month. I'm finally in the current season, with just 8 episodes before I'm caught up. My TV viewing tends to favor the shows that do well at the Emmy Awards. I loved Breaking Bad and have been devoted to Mad Men for years. That said, now that I've really gotten into The Good Wife, I'm disappointed it doesn't get more recognition. Sure, Julianna Margulies gets a lot of credit (as she deserves), but it's shocking that the show's 5th season didn't get a best drama nomination last year, when seasons of shows I love but were less spectacular did get nominated (House of Cards season 2, Mad Men season 7, and Downtown Abbey season 4--particularly that last one). Given that the Emmys have so moved away from honoring traditional network television, do you think The Good Wife's home at CBS could actually be a detriment now when it comes to awards? Or do you think there's something else going on? (Including possibly that I just love the show more than most people.)

"The Good Wife" is amazing, and you are neither alone in discovering how wonderful it is nor in getting belatedly frustrated about the lack of recognition it's received relative to its excellence. When I am the dictator in charge of pop culture awards, every accolade heaped on "House of Cards" will be redistributed to "The Good Wife." And I think you've identified a significant problem: if "The Good Wife" aired on Netflix or HBO, it would be hailed as a genius reinvention of the legal procedural and a hugely smart look at modern technology. But put it on CBS, and that weird eye logo becomes a lens that diminishes it in a lot of viewers' eyes. It's a shame.

The latest trailer for this new Tina Fey/Robert Carlock joint "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," has me excited -- if only because I think it's high time someone turned Ellie Kemper loose on the world. But I'm still rather surprised that this show went to Netflix -- you'd think that NBC would want to treat Tina Fey as one of their franchise players, but it's Netflix that's confidently giving this show two seasons right off the bat. Has the game changed for network programming?

Well, if you look at the way the current NBC leadership has behaved, they're much more focusing on trying to find old-school broad hits than they are on developing the kind of small but fanatical audience that adored "30 Rock" so much. NBC is producing the show, though, and as Tina Fey pointed out at TCA press tour, that means they had an incentive to find a place where the show would do well. And according to Robert Carlock, that didn't seem like it was going to be NBC.

"We were just having conversations with NBC about scheduling and about where we could go and where they could launch us, and it was just a really honest and productive conversation we were having with them about the larger landscape of comedy right now," he said at press tour. "And we just said, “'Could we explore other options?'" Netflix ended up being the option that made the most sense for Fey and Carlock in terms of getting "Unbreakable" its best shot to succeed, and for NBC in terms of the show doing well and being a financially viable property.

All of that business talk said, though, I enjoyed the first three episodes of the show a lot and talked to a bunch of the cast earlier this month, so I should have a nice, juicy feature about it for you closer to its launch in March!

Just got my Amazon Fire thing, so it's do-able, if it weren't! Those darned sports with their blackouts make it impossible! Who decided blackouts were okay, anyway? And helloooo sports owners, I would gladly pay to stream the games online. As long as you're making money, does it matter how you get it?

The Federal Communications Commission has a good primer on sports blackouts here. And you've hit on something important: cable carriers will continue to pay completely insane amounts of money to sports leagues for distribution rights because situations like this are what keep people like you from losing cable. What you want, and what you'd be willing to pay for isn't really the point, given that individual consumers are going to be regularly outbid by the cable giants.

I'm aware how late to this game I am - and I'm only midway through S2, so there is so much more to be watched. BUT. It is great. And binge-watching it gave me bad dreams. And also, in life I have realized I am not a person who wants to sit on the iron throne. For whatever that's worth.

I think this is one of the very interesting elements of both George R.R. Martin's novels and HBO's series. We get to watch all sorts of characters rise to power and see how that power inevitably strips away much of what is best about them. It's an incredible tragedy. And the costs for people who want more ordinary lives, whether they hope to be peaceful farmers, or quiet scholars, are devastating.

We've just heard about an upcoming "Supergirl" show at CBS. Berlanti already has successes in Arrow and The Flash on the CW. Why do you think these shows are succeeding, and what would you like to see Supergirl do differently, to keep the genre fresh?

I think Berlanti's done a great job of keeping relationships at the front and center of "Arrow" and "The Flash" and for recognizing that people's feelings are just as significant a source of stakes as various evil plots. Mrs. Queen's death on "Arrow" hits hard not just because it's violent and upsetting, but because of everything we know about her complicated relationships with Oliver and Thea. That's very smart. "Supergirl" should keep all of this in mind. And I wonder if it might be able to keep a lighter, more comedic touch. That's something that's been very much missing from our current environment that I'd love to see more of.

Okay, all, I have to go write about Ava DuVernay's new movie project and finish a ginormous piece on the Korean culture wars now that the kerfuffle over "The Interview" has died down. But thank you as always for coming and hanging out with me. Your questions have been so amazing! See you next Monday.

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