Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Mar. 19)

Mar 19, 2018

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.

Hi everyone! How are you doing? Are you Mondays off to a good start? I'm kicking off my week with a marathon of doctor's appointments and jury duty, so it's vastly more pleasant to be spending time with you lovely people than taking care of anything else on my agenda. Let's get to it!

I know you said you haven’t watched all of them, but based on the ones you have seen do you agree that 13 episode seasons are just too much? At least in most cases? It seems like the main story could support a strong 8-10 episode season, but then they put in distracting side stories to get to the lucky 13.

In general, it has often been unclear to me how Netflix decides how long seasons of its shows should be. Theoretically, the absolute strength of their model should be that they can be totally flexible with episode lengths and season lengths, so one season of a show could be eight episodes while the next could be twenty, depending on the story the showrunners want to tell. After all, if the whole idea behind producing original content is for Netflix to have lots and lots of episodes in its library, who cares how each individual show gets there, right? I think this problem shows through particularly clearly in the Marvel shows, where our heroes often spend much of the season chasing around one major antagonist, and then do a certain number of episodes that basically seem to be padding. But I think it's a broader problem than that. 

Ok based on last weeks chat I was able to find time to see it in the theater. My gut reaction afterwards was “that movie was weird”. I can see why they were nervous about it and struck that deal with Netflix.

It is deeply, deeply weird! I would never pretend that wasn't the case. I hope you enjoyed at least some of that weirdness, though! It's a really beautiful movie, in ways that enhance the overall strangeness of it.

I basically agree with you and with the studio that it made a certain amount of sense to strike the Netflix deal. And the movie did get a wide release in the United States, during which at least some people were able to take advantage of the opportunity to see it on a big screen. My sense, though, is that "Annhiliation" will end up being kind of a cult classic that people come to in their own time. It'll get repeat screenings at art houses long after it's come and gone from wide release, and seeing it on the big screen will become a special experience. That may not be the experience Alex Garland and his colleagues hoped for when they first made "Annihilation," but in my book, it's definitely not a bad outcome.


I really enjoyed Love, Simon. I saw it on Friday and still feel like I'm on a happiness high from the experience. The conversation around it, as well as other recent kid/coming-of-age films like Lady Bird and even A Wrinkle in Time, has made me think a lot about what people expect from these kinds of movies, mainly in that people's reactions seem to stem a lot from how much it speaks to their personal experiences and whether or not they can "see" themselves in a particular movie. Personally, I've never really related to any teen/high school movies on a specific level (frankly, my teenage experience would make a very, very boring film), but rather, I find that the best ones tend to capture a general feeling of what it's like to grow up that I can connect with. So, I guess my question is, what do you think makes a coming-of-age film work? How much value should be placed on authenticity and relatability?

This is a fantastic question, and I'm going to make it the subject of this week's newsletter--or depending on how far I take it, maybe even a stand-alone post.

You had some book recommendations in a February newsletter. You recommended two books by Ann Lamott. I ended up reading "Help. Thanks. Wow." as a result and it was very refreshing. Are her other books similar? I accidentally deleted the original newsletter in an email purge and don't have the other Lamott book you recommended. Any other suggestions? Thank you!

The two books by Anne Lamott that I wrote about in the February newsletter were her two books on the first year of a child's life: "Operating Instructions" is about her experience as a mother to her son Sam, and "Some Assembly Required" is her diary (with contributions from Sam and his partner Amy) about the first year in the life of her grandson Jax. I read them both in February because my husband and I are expecting our first kid in May, and I wanted to read something that was both going to be very honest about the difficulties of that first year of parenthood, but ultimately hopeful about the joys of it, too.

That said, I would recommend a lot of Lamott's non-fiction (I have not actually ever read her novels). If you liked "Help. Thanks. Wow." you might very much enjoy "Traveling Mercies," one of her other books on religious faith. And if you're at all interested in writing, I dearly love "Bird By Bird," which captures the frustrations and triumphs of writing, as well as being practical and useful, better than many other more purely instructive books. Happy reading!

Thank you for this. May I offer a minor amendment to one thing you said? You wrote, "The experience was a vital reminder that privilege is only valuable if you actually use it." I suggest you add something like "and most valuable if you use it on behalf of others who don't have it." I think that's the point you were trying to make, and keeps students from, e.g., justifying their cutting to the front of the line as a use of their privilege.

You are, of course, correct. Another way to say what I meant was that privilege is often most meaningful when you use it to take risks that other people cannot but on behalf of people who could stand to benefit from your help.

Given that, in some circles, golf has become a marker for supporting the President, do you think its popularity will increase or decrease in the coming few years? I gather that it had been declining as a participation sport, since fewer men have time for a tee-time on weekends than in the past.

This is an interesting question, and I had half-typed a response to it before poking around and coming upon this report by the National Golf Foundation about golf participation in 2016. That year, the number of first-time golfers rose to new highs, and the number of people who said they were interested in playing was also up. It does seem like there was a small dip in the number of people who actually stepped on a course, but the number of regular golfers went up a bit. There's nothing in the report that suggests that these numbers have anything to do with President Obama, who was then in his last year in office, and who played golf, or with President Trump, who was then running for office. So I'm not sure if we should expect either a spike or a decline in golf participation as a sign of political affiliation. In any case, it would be complicated to disaggregate those numbers from the influence of the economy; golf is an expensive sport, and when wages are up or the economy is strong, it may be easier for more people to play, or for the people who play to play more often.

Is it just me, or has television been lackluster so far this year? I'm still enjoying most of the returning shows that I follow regularly, yet other than Black Lightning, nothing new has piqued my interest. Maybe there's just so much TV right now that it's harder for individual shows to distinguish themselves, but it feels like a case where quantity hasn't translated into quality. I'm also concerned by how much the medium seems to be following in film's footsteps by relying more on familiar brands. What has been your impression of these first few months of 2018 TV? Anything coming up worth looking out for? I believe last week you mentioned liking Legion season 2 at least in the initial episodes, which is really good to hear as someone who dug the first season a lot, but is there anything else, especially in terms of new shows?

I'm hoping to get to my screeners for "Trust" sometime this week, in which case, I may have something else to recommend to you--or not. I share your feeling of the blahs, compounded by being behind because of a long trip in February, and the onset of some medical issues that have been extremely time-consuming to manage (but that are well under-control). For the first time in a while, I think I've felt a bit more excited by movies than by television, which has not generally been the pattern that defines my career thus far.

I used to write for a couple web sites about TV but it didn't work out with either of them. I assumed I'd get to do it again eventually but I'm now realizing that was 2015 and it's been three years. The thing is that I find myself kind of wanting to write about what I watch no matter whether people read it, only a very small number of people read it or no one reads it. If you didn't get to write for the WP, would you have the same urge and how might you adjust your time to suit the fact that you're writing but not for much of an audience.

Hmmm, that's an interesting question, and kind of hard to consider as a hypothetical. I *did* spend a couple years writing a pop culture blog that I wasn't paid to do, but that was very much an experiment I was conducting to see if pop culture was something I wanted to write about full-time, and to see how many ideas I could generate. So it wasn't necessarily something I was doing purely for pleasure, though I did enjoy it; it was an act of career discernment. 

Right now, most of my hobbies are things that are deliberately very different from cultural consumption and analysis, in part because watching movies and television, and reading many novels generally turns on the work part of my brain and thus is not terribly relaxing. So I think if I stopped writing about pop culture full time, I'd have to see how my relationships to those activities changed, and whether the analytical urge clicked back on but in a way that was stimulating as a hobby rather than feeling like work. This is not to say that I don't enjoy what I do, but it's definitely no longer a way that I relax, if that makes sense.

I saw this movie yesterday with my teen daughter. She and I both liked it, rather than loved it. Having read your conversation with Christine Emba, though, I find myself utterly unbothered by the objections you made. The It does evil things -- well, I liked that the It didn't only affect, e.g., political and business leaders but also parents and teachers and schoolkids. (I also felt, or maybe just imagined, that the It also sometimes makes people hate others, and carry hate onto social media and into the voting booth.) The Mrs. are too beautiful -- well, I was happy to see women (of diverse sizes, ages, and ethnicities) being beautiful. The kids' school has a poster of James Baldwin and displays about literature -- well, I was happy to see a vision of a positive school that actively celebrates literature, as most schools do, and places Baldwin among those authors. Those choices obviously shape the movie, but I don't think they bend it out of shape. It's clear that you and Christine treasure the book, and I don't have strong memories of it, so that might be at work. And I definitely think you should try to ask Ava DuVernay those questions; the answers would be fascinating.

I'm going to let you in on a secret: there's no objective truth about whether a work of art is good or bad. So if you didn't have the same reaction that Christine and I did to the movie, that's fine; it's not something you have to defend, and though I very much enjoy arguing about culture for a living, I don't necessarily care very much about convincing everyone that I'm right as long as I can start a good conversation.

There are several YouTubers that have become immensely popular despite relatively small subscriber bases. These include channels like Jacksfilms, whose owner Jack Douglass works hard to produce funny shows like Your Grammar Sucks, Yesterday I Asked You, Fix Your Pictures and Twitter Bios, parodies, sketches, songs, even haikus. Such shows are filled with allusions to pop culture and make satire out of everything, from bad grammar to the irregular flag of Nepal to Alexander Hamilton. Why isn't the Post covering more of these rich yet undiscovered areas of pop culture?

I believe you've answered your own question: I'm assuming when you say that these channels are popular despite not having big subscriber bases, you mean that people care about them very passionately. There are a lot of things that small numbers of people care about passionately but that I can't ultimately make room in my schedule to cover because if I write about them, no one will read them. That's not to say that I never dip into subcultures, or that I don't write about things that I care passionately about and that I want to convince other people to care about. But rather, it's a balancing act; I have to feel like there's at least some constituency for what I'm writing about. I should note that I'm only speaking for myself here: I work out of the Opinions section, not the Style section, so I can't speak to coverage decisions elsewhere. I am only one person, and so I have to husband my own resources and time, and there's just not a huge amount of space on my plate for YouTube coverage at the moment, though that could always change!

So I just watched "All the President's Men" for the first name and it was a weird experience. One is that so, SO many other movies and TV shows rip it off so it was weird since it was far from fresh. I know that's weird to write about a movie released in 1976, but still so much of the BIG scene have been referenced. It kind of fell flat. I was like an episode of the early seasons of "The X-Files" or that episode of "The Simpsons" where Sideshow Bob ran for Mayor of Springfield. A lot of faces in half-shadow in parking garages and poorly lite streets. Also the end is kind of weird. The resignation is just in a line of telefax and the movie ends. No reaction of the public of the story and it did feel any climatic especially when Watergate isn't THE story that everybody knows like the audience would have in 1976.

You're describing an experience I've actually had fairly frequently, since I grew up without access to much in the way of popular culture, and by the time I've gotten around to seeing some classic works, I've absorbed so much of the work that was influenced by them that it's hard to see them purely fresh! That said, it can be very cool to see the wellspring that other culture came from; people don't always know that they're seeing something that will be frequently imitated when it's first released, so I think it can be illuminating to approach pop culture from the other side around.

Just wondering what movies or TV shows are on the horizon that you are looking forward to? For me it’s the second seasons of Legion and Westworld. Although I don’t see how the second season of Westworld could live up to the first in terms of twists and generally messing with the viewers heads.

"Legion" and "Westworld" for sure. I'm glad "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is back, though I didn't get a chance to watch last night's episode yet. Ditto with the final season of "The Americans," a show that has meant a lot to me, and that will wrap up this year. I saw "Isle of Dogs" last week, and I'm very excited to see how you all react to it. I don't know that I would affirmatively say I'm looking forward to it, but I am extremely curious to see "Ready Player One" at a screening next week. I cannot wait to see "Chappaquiddick," which looks fascinating and justly disturbing.

Don't know if Jack Kirby's magnum opus (well, ONE of 'em, anyway) is on your radar but I was encouraged to see that it's Ava Duverney's (sp?) next project. Kirby's work predated STAR WARS by six years and told stories of "The Source" and centered on an abandoned son in direct conflict with his dark, twisted father, all with the mentorship of a wise, bearded older man. Haven't seen WRINKLE yet but it looks like she's got the right visual sensibilities to pull this off.

I was very iffy on the CGI in "A Wrinkle In Time," so I will be curious to hear you report back after you've seen it.

The real actual jury duty, or the initial selection? I've been to three initial selections and on every one the defendant decided to plead guilty. Kind of a let down.

The initial selection. I'll be curious to see how many lawyers want a 7-months pregnant lady with gestational diabetes on their panel (if any). And while you describe those pleas as a letdown, it's worth remembering that plea-bargaining is a problem with the criminal justice system, too! A lot of people aren't actually getting the jury trials that we think of as foundational to the American justice system.

Over the weekend, I saw the show about the upcoming reboot of Roseanne. I don't watch a lot of TV, but I used to watch Roseanne when I was a teen. There seems to be a trend to bring back old shows with the kids all grown up. Boy Meets World became Girl Meets World. Full House became Fuller House. Will and Grace came back. Big Bang Theory went the other direction with Young Sheldon. What do you think? Is it easier to bring back an old show than coming up with something new?

The fragmentation of the television audience, driven in part by the fact that there are just a huge number of original scripted shows on the air these days, means that both the networks and streaming services are very interested in any show that comes with what's called "pre-awareness"--in other words, a spin-off of an existing show, a revitalization of a cancelled show, or an extension of a show that was on years ago and was generally agreed to have had a pretty healthy run! I don't know that this is great for consumers, but it speaks to a deep conservative streak in the industry at the moment, which exists in part because this is a legitimately challenging business environment to make TV in. This tendency is also intensely pronounced in the movies, too; it's why you see so many superhero and franchise movies, and so many movies based on pre-existing intellectual properties, from "The Lego Movie" to "Jumanji."

Anything interesting about the way people in other countries are interacting with Americans, these days? I was stunned to see there are many countries that are having "March for our Lives" marches even though the subject of the protest is US gun policies that they don't share.

In February, we found that people were extremely gracious in Italy, and mostly worried about a similarly reactionary swing in their upcoming national elections, which did ultimately come to pass. We got a lot fewer questions about American politics and the general state of American society than we did while traveling in Asia over the past few years; I think there's probably just more coverage of domestic politics in Europe than there is in, say, small cities in Vietnam.

Tonight's the third episode of the new series "Good Girls" on NBC, which I probably wouldn't have begun watching but for Hank Stuever's praise of it (since I'm skeptical of over-kill commercials during the Olympics for new series). "Young Sheldon" on CBS (love Annie Potts as his subversive MeeMaw) and "Will & Grace" 2.0 have also been unexpectedly delightful.

Passing this along for anyone else who might find it a pick-me-up!

Just wanted to say sorry. GD stinks. I was borderline for it for my first two kids and then full on for my third. Hope you feel ok!

Thanks! I actually feel great, which makes it somewhat weird to be managing a chronic condition, but is a good incentive to keep up the hard work I've been putting in. I really appreciate the check-in.

The Post's former TV critic Lisa de Moraes told of attending a seminar by Roger Ebert in which he dissected "Citizen Kane," which (like the chatter's experience with "All the President's Men"), included all of Orson Welles' then-ground-breaking innovations which have been ripped off and turned into clichés by lesser auteurs. As someone living in the DC area at the time of Watergate (so was totally well-versed in the background), and who attended a matinee viewing of "All the President's Men" on the day it opened, I can attest that it's a brilliant film.

What was going to that matinee like? I'd be very curious to know what the movie felt like at the time. Was it eerie? A relief?

I read this article ( and one statement in particular from the producer struck me - "Rudin, however, has said in response to the lawsuit that he “can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. . . . The world has changed since then.” In that case . . . why not look for a contemporary playwright with a take on racism in 2018? Yes, the world has changed (maybe not as much as everyone would like), so why not produce something new instead of rehashing the old? It seems like an odd decision to choose a 60-year old novel and then complain about its viewpoint. Perhaps he needed a famous title to attract financial backing?

This gets at the same question that another poster asked about recycled concepts in television! I'd also note that this is likely less about wanting to produce a play about racial bias and seizing on "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a likely option, and probably more about the chance to adapt a hugely popular intellectual property in a new format. It's the same incentive structure that is giving us a "Mean Girls" musical (which, from my experience in DC, is fine but not memorable).

I count this as one of the most complicated movies ever. IMHO It was written for the time it was made, when most of the audience knew some of the details. I can see how a first-time watcher would be overwhelmed (not saying that was the case with the OP)

As someone who loves very complicated movies with big casts, a la the recent (and to my mind, brilliant) adaptation of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," this is a plus for me! But it is an interesting thought as a factor in how the movie may (or may not) have aged.

OP here. Not a full theater, IIRC. Having read the Post and followed the televised hearings during Watergate, as well as having read the book, my interest in the film was how it could be translated onto the big screen. Although fearful of being disappointed, I was anything but.

Huh, interesting! Though it's true that I often enjoy going to matinees as a critic because they're quieter.

I have been a Type 1 diabetic for basically my entire life - about 18 months old when it hit, I am told - so I understand the challenge way more than most. Good luck! Hopefully it's just 'gestational' diabetes....

I have a cousin with Type 1 diabetes, so I have some small sense of the challenges you both have been through. I'm working hard to make sure that this isn't a permanent condition. I appreciate everyone's best wishes for the outcome.

Have you ever seen "Citizen Kane"? Thoughts?

I have, though not for quite some time. I think I probably don't have a lot to add to the broad critical consensus about it! I can see what's so obviously technically impressive about the movie, but it wasn't one that hooked me for the ages.

And yet, Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical "South Pacific" (based on James Michener's Pulitzer-winning tales, published in the late 1940s), still is revived from time to time.

And we keep revisiting "Gone With The Wind," sometimes from different, revisionist perspectives, too! The measure of a great problematic work, I think, is that there's stuff that we're still drawn to despite our changing politics and sensibilities, and that stuff forces us to reckon with the stuff that hasn't aged well rather than stuffing it in a closet and pretending we were always too enlightened to like it in the first place. I think "Gone With The Wind" is racist. I also think it's brilliant, and its brilliance makes its racism even more of a failure.

That's all for today, folks. Thanks for hanging out with me, and I'll look forward to seeing you all next Monday.

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