Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Mar. 27)

Mar 27, 2017

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.

Greetings, everyone! It's a busy week: Trump's announcement of a new initiative to make government work more like a business has me pulling out the hat I used to wear when I covered the federal workforce at Government Executive Magazine; "Bones," the show that helped make me a TV critic is coming to an end; "Legion" is wrapping up a terrific first season; and I have to catch "Ghost in the Shell" before I leave for New York on Friday morning. What's on your cultural agenda? What are you excited about? What's letting you down? Let's get to it.

So I finally finished the first season (against my better judgment). While I can objectively say it gets better as it goes on, the last two episodes are something I wish I had never seen. The show's tone veers around so wildly an is sometimes so dark, horrifying, and depressing in ways I don't want to think about in our current climate. I watch shows like this for escapism, not for feeling like I need to call the hotline phone numbers they show after a couple of the episodes end. While it is a ridiculous show, do not sit down for this expecting the sense of whimsy, awful MST3K-worthy writing and acting, and occasional emotionally deep moment to compensate for its overwhelmingly disturbing segments.

I can speak only as someone who has read Lev Grossman's Magicians books, not as someone who has watched the series (as readers here keep asking me to do). But judging by the plot summaries, I'm guessing what you're referring to is the revelation that Julia was sexually assaulted, and the Martin Chatwin revelation. I actually thought these plotlines were one of the best-done parts of the novels, but I do understand that if you're watching the show as escapism, they would be extremely jarring. I think you're offering a reasonable warning to other viewers, but it sounds to me like this is probably one of those cases where it's worth distinguishing between your reaction to the difference between what you expected and what you got, and an aesthetic judgement. I make these kinds of distinctions all the time, and they're not easy, but I find they're clarifying for me to make.

So I went to the exhibition last Wednesday with my pass, I had an appointment in Foggy Bottom and was already late for my 12:05p ticket. Went to the LEnfant metro and ran to the Hirshorn. I got there at 12:17pm hoping for the best. There were only a few people in line for the 12:30 tour and someone came to me and asked for my ticket. He said that the 12:15p had just left and I could join them. Inside there were definitively more people and what I did was going directly to the lines for the rooms then in between I checked the mesmerizing art in the wall, wow. Since I was by myself I was pair up with other person which was OK (there is no way that with those lines they will let in only one person). The 20 seconds per room goes awfully fast so my advice is: get in observe then take a photo but just don’t concentrate on the photo because you will miss a lot. I just want to say that I want to go back and wish I could have gone again to one of the rooms but totally forgot that once you get into the room with the stickers you can’t go back (). All in all it was a great experience, and yes, it was quite busy on a Wednesday, I can’t imagine how it will be on a weekend. Also, I’m always in the lookout for places to eat around the museums and even though is not that close I was surprised to see how many food trucks were lined in from of L'Enfant Metro near the USDA Grad School exit; lots of choices but I ended up going to the L'Enfant food court because there is an Amsterdam Falafel there…it was a great way to finish off the day.

I think your read on how to approach the exhibit is spot-on: given the limited amount of time you're going to have in the mirror rooms, the fact that you are, by design, included in the image they create, and the whimsical nature of the show, inevitably folks are going to want to take pictures in the rooms. That said, taking one and then trying to focus on the actual experience of being inside is as good a balance as you're going to achieve.

And I love the increasing prevalence of food trucks on the mall! It's a real failure that the Mall has failed to develop great food options, and while the food trucks aren't necessarily the same thing, they're a decent stop-gap.

I find I'm not as interested in it this season as I was the last two, and I don't know why. The acting is excellent, as is the writing. Maybe I just don't care about migrant workers or teen prostitutes? I am sorry that Timothy Hutton has a smaller part than he did the other two seasons. Could that be it?

To answer that question, I would probably need to know more about what you liked best about the first two seasons! What did you like about Timothy Hutton's performance the first two times around? I would be curious to know more about your reaction to the crimes that are the subject of the season; do you find the victims less sympathetic for some reason? If so, what is it?

Did you see "To Walk Invisible" on PBS last night, the bio-pic about sister-authors Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë? I agree with one reviewer who noted that for a film that was supposed to be about women's achievements, too much time was devoted to their one (wastrel) brother. Also, the Yorkshire accents were difficult to understand at times (wish there'd been subtitles!). But otherwise, there was much to like about it.

Score one for the subtitles fans in this chat! I admit I hadn't considered this when explaining my general opposition to subtitles, but it's a reasonable concern.

This is getting ridiculous. I could not have clicked for tickets any faster, but today the website went all wonky! I actually got a message saying those tickets are not on sale yet when they clearly were! Arrrrggghh! Do you know how long people have to wait in line in the morning for same-day passes?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be hours, or more. I would be willing to bet that if you went on a weekday, or on a day when the weather was really unpleasant, that you might have slightly better luck. I agree that this is a situation that is incredibly frustrating. I also don't know what would work better. If anyone in this chat has experience with audience management or online ticketing and does have insights, share 'em.

There are at least two novels depicting immigrant Portuguese dairying families in Devin Nunes' district. I wonder how similar they are to Nunes' own experience.

What novels? I would be incredibly curious to learn more about these books!

That sounds like code for weakening the protections of the Civil Service Act. Grrrr.

Right now, it sounds to me like they're trying for tech-style "disruption." I don't know how deeply anyone in the administration has thought about federal workforce management. But given my interest in these issues, I'll be keeping an eye out for any developments.

One of the things I appreciate most about "Bones" is that Temperance Brennan is unreligious. There are so few positive role models in entertainment of such figures, especially female ones.

Yes, she's a good example of someone who adheres to an extremely strong set of principles without arriving at those principles via a belief in a higher power. I also appreciate the way the show has used her relationship with Booth to suggest that being an atheist doesn't make her intolerant or incapable of recognizing the ethical and aesthetic value religion has for him. It's a nice balance, without requiring either person to give up their beliefs.

So in the end did you get to watch "American Psycho"?

The whole point was that I couldn't yet, but that I will try when there's a peg for it!

Do you think Senator Cory Booker and Mindy Kaling will actually have their Newark, NJ., dinner date? LINK:

Hah, that would definitely be entertaining. I enjoy Kaling's Twitter persona a lot. I'm all for politicians having love lives, as long as things like this aren't a substitute for substantive politics!

Am I a Bad Feminist (TM) for feeling exhausted by "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"? I love the songs and the way they take on taboo themes, but the "what crazy antics will Rebecca and the gang get up to this week!" plots feel increasingly tiring. I'm not even halfway through season 2 and having the urge to quit. Worth it to keep going? Maybe the problem is not the show itself, but binge-watching too many episodes at once?

There are so many good strains in this question that I'm going to take this as the subject of this week's newsletter! Short answer: no. Your cultural preferences are never the determinant of whether or not you are a good feminist.

I was not prepared to fall so deeply for this show but now I'm pining for it to return. Any word on when ?

Some preliminary digging suggests that TBS hasn't set a return date for the series. It should be back sometime this year, which I'm sure is not exactly what you were looking for, but at least means it'll be back in the next nine months!

Since you made your bones covering Bones, are you planning on sending the show a fruit basket, or at least a thank you card?

Nah, criticism doesn't really work like that. But I will write a little tribute to the show tomorrow.

No, I don't find the victims less sympathetic, but they interest me less than the dynamic last year of the poor boy in private school with the wealthy (fish out of water) and his hard-working sad mother vs. the smug parents and headmistress. Also the dynamic of the importance of a winning athletic team vis a vis attracting the students they want and getting donations. And of course the closeted gay youth.

It's interesting to hear your perspective on this. Do any other readers feel the same? Or, conversely, are you finding this scene of "American Crime" more engaging than previous seasons?

You seem to be very thoughtful and serious. The questions you take are all very proper ( albeit dull ) and I predict you will last three weeks as host of this chat unless you liven things up a little and take some of the more outlandish questions posed to you.

I've been hosting this chat for three years, so you can rest easy on this score. And I have to say, most of the questions that come in here aren't that outlandish! So Canada plans to legalize it by July 1, 2018. But I noticed that elected politicians involved use the term "cannabis" rather than marijuana. In the federal Health Minister even stopped herself halfway through saying marijuana to use cannabis instead when speaking to a group of reporters. No insight into why this seems to be an effort by the Canadian government, but maybe you are like me in in being curious about language and how things are named. Maybe "marijuana" is too associated with Latin Americans and negative cultural imagery of that group? Maybe cannabis has more scientific feel to it?

Cannabis is, in fact, a scientific term rather than having a merely "scientific feel." Marijuana refers to the dried flowers and leaves of the plant; one term subsumes the other. It's true that the term "marijuana" originates in Spanish as it's spoken in Latin America, but it's such common usage today and I do think politicians are avoiding it as a way to avoid making people think of Latin America. There are absolutely true that there are racial implications in our discussions of marijuana use, but I'm not sure that's the reason for this change in terminology. 

Hey, this isn't a particularly well-formed question, but I'm a woman (in politics/policy) still feeling the results of the election in a very personal, gendered way. This is making it hard for me to get excited about pop culture telling male stories (even excellent things like Moonlight and Crashing grate on me for this reason), and I'm having trouble finding great movies, books, TV shows, etc. that are about more than watching boys and men have experiences. Can you help with some recommendations beyond The Handmaid's Tale (which I love, but it's not great for the anxiety and resentment I've feeling either...)? Sorry for how broad and unwieldy this question is; thanks for considering it.

I mentioned earlier in this chat that it can be helpful to separate whatever you're going through emotionally or your own expectations for a work from your aesthetic judgement of it. Put a pin in "Moonlight" and "Crashing" for now. You can always come back to them when you feel ready for them. You don't have to feel guilty for not being ready now.

In terms of stories about women, I have a whole bunch of recommendations for you! Maggie Nelson's "The Argonauts" is written from a woman's perspective, but is all about looking at gender in a twisty, liberating, sexy way. I really enjoyed the dishiness of Linane Moriarty's "Big Little Lies," and the HBO adaptation of it is gorgeous and extremely well-acted. I quite enjoyed Emma Cline's 'The Girls," which is a fictionalization of the Manson Family, with a particular attention to female freedom and what women find appealing about each other. If you're in the mood for royalty, Netflix's "The Crown" is a great look at the beginning of Elizabeth I's reign, and Tina Brown's "The Diana Chronicles" is a delicious and well-reported look at Elizabeth I's daughter-in-law. I loved Alexander Chee's "The Queen of the Night," about a circus performer-turned-opera singer, which I highly recommend if you want to get lost in something for a while. And as always, feel free to email me if you want more tailored suggestions. I am always happy to help:

Do you watch it? It's the best science fiction/space show that I've seen in years! It took me about a quarter of the first season to really get into it, but now I'm hooked. Given that it's on Syfy, I'm really surprised at the quality.

My husband is the "Expanse"-watcher in our family; I tried reading the novels, too, and neither stuck with me. Do you think I could jump in with the second season and still have a sense of what's going on? If so, I'd consider giving it another go. 

Just saw the trailer and I gotta say, I'm PSYCHED. the book is fantastic, and I've been worried about the show not living up to the book.

I'm very much excited to see how this turns out, but I still have absolutely no idea how "American Gods" works as a television series, as opposed to a a mini-series or a movie.

What's good on hulu these days? I really want to watch the Handmaid's Tale, but I'm not sure if I want to pay for a hulu subscription for just one show, as great as the show looks. And I love the book.

I've seen the first three episodes of "The Handmaid's Tale," and it is really, really outstanding. I don't normally recommend that folks pay subscription fees for a single series, but this one is just that good. I'm not big on any of Hulu's other originals, but the service does have a great backlog of shows, which is especially nice given that Netflix's library is dwindling. Watch "Hill Street Blues"! Or catch up on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" before the show comes back in April! There are a lot of options, and not all of them have to be current for a Hulu subscription to be compelling.

Sort of riffing off of legion... do you ever think about types of shows that, say, sepinwall or Todd love, but you are less infatuated with? do you think it's general themes that appeal to them and not you (or the opposite), or do you find it show specific?

I do! I'm not sure I could precisely articulate them all the time, but I do both think about this and talk to Todd and Alan (as well as other critics) fairly regularly about what we're liking and not liking and why. I think all of us have performers, or themes, or emotional tones that just do it for us, and those things can rise out of a developed aesthetic sensibility, or can be highly personal. I realize that's probably not a useful answer. I should note when it comes to "Legion" that I absolutely love that show, I just haven't written about it yet, though I will this week.

Please give us your best description of what you imagine the look on your face was when the comment came in about you lasting three weeks hosting this chat.

There was giggling.

Wasn't she the Virgin Queen?

This is what happens when your editor comes over to ask you a question right in the middle of typing an answer. Elizabeth II! Elizabeth II!

I gotta rock and roll to a meeting, folks. See you here next Monday!

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