Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Sept. 18)

Sep 18, 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.

Hi everyone! How are your Mondays going? The first and second parts of my big deep-dive into Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's "The Vietnam War" are online, as well as the first episode of the podcast I did with them. Happy to talk about that, "The Deuce," the Emmys, or anything else that's on your minds today. Let's get to it.

I was mostly pleased with how the awards went last night. I was glad The Handmaid's Tale did so well, as I thought it was an excellent series. Ann Dowd's win was a nice surprise--although pretty much everyone in that category was great this year. I was also glad to see Big Little Lies do well. The only thing I was disappointed in was Veep's win for comedy series. Really would've liked to have seen Master of None take it or, if not that, Blackish.

I thought the second season of "Master of None" was fairly undercooked, though I was delighted to see Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe win for writing for "Thanksgiving," which I thought was the best episode of the season. I cannot wait until Waithe's series, "The Chi," premieres on Showtime. "Veep" is a reminder that the folks who vote on Emmys often experience a lot of inertia, which is too bad. But I was so excited to see "House of Cards" finally get knocked off its pedestal that I was willing to forgive them that.

Also, Ann Dowd forever!

As someone who really dug the movie, I find the intensely polarized reaction to it fascinating. With the caveat that cherry-picked quotes in The Hollywood Reporter aren't necessarily representative of audiences as a whole, a lot of the more viscerally negative responses to the movie that I've seen suggest an aversion to being challenged or made to feel uncomfortable, whether due to the film's graphic elements or the story's allegorical nature. Obviously, it's perfectly valid to not like mother!, as it's definitely not something that would appeal to everyone (then again, neither are Marvel movies), but I do feel like people can be too quick to write off or disengage with art that doesn't immediately please them or fit their expectations. What are your thoughts on how to handle culture/entertainment that provokes discomfort?

This is a great question. We'll make it the subject of this week's newsletter.

It took me all weekend to figure out that the URL to the story won't work on Firefox, but does work on Chrome. Unfortunately I didn't have time to read it in advance. Can I please get an extension on my homework?

My stuff is never homework! But yes, I'd be happy to talk about the piece whenever you get a chance to read it.

Every time I see James Franco in "The Deuce," keep waiting for the reveal that he's not actually an identical twin, but one in a series of clones from a secret cloning project.

Hah! I hadn't thought of that, but I can totally see why you might feel that way. I have to say, I find Frankie the least compelling part of "The Deuce" thus far, and the scenes with the two of Francos definitely detract from the show a bit for me. That said, I have a lot of faith in David Simon and George Pelecanos, so I assume this is all going to pay off in some particular way -- or at least I'm willing to give them a chance to convince me that this is leading somewhere I'll ultimately find compelling. That said, Darlene and Eileen are my two current favorite characters.

I'm sure you'll get a lot of questions about this, but the morning after, I'm still seething about Sean Spicer's appearance on the Emmys. It was clueless on so many levels. I knew Hollywood was full of hypocrites, but seeing them flaunt it so blatantly was infuriating. How did the Emmys think this would go? Did they just not care? Why is Spicer getting a "rehabilitation tour" or whatever instead of just fading into obscurity? Mostly, though, it emphasized the emptiness of Colbert's monologue, which managed to contain tons of jokes about politics but completely avoided actual issues. Even the obligatory mention of diversity was botched when he chastised the audience for clapping even though *he was the one who started the clapping* (also, Andy Samberg did a way better version of the same joke in his monologue at the 2015 Emmys). Lastly, Spicer's appearance reminded me how much I resent SNL for getting Trump to host during his campaign - a fact that seems to have been completely forgotten in all the awards the show got. Sorry for the rant; I hope at least some of it is coherent.

I will confess to having not watched the Emmy telecast, since I've been feeling kind of under the weather and my colleagues in the Style section had it so comprehensively covered. I think Colbert just thought that it would be funny, and possibly that the whole thing would mock Spicer as much as it rehabilitated him, which is not the same thing as saying the bit actually worked that way.

But yeah, look, I think a lot of folks in the entertainment industry focus first on what they think will be a good bit or a good piece of drama, and second on their politics. I don't know how deep or thoughtful the progressivism that a lot of stars espouse actually runs. It certainly hasn't been enough to eradicate the persistent inequalities in the industry. 

I'm not saying you're wrong to feel the way you do. I just think it's worth it for all of us to cast a more gimlet eye on woke celebrities, or even celebrities who make a living doing political humor. There's a reason these folks are in the entertainment business rather than in public service. For a small number of them, they may feel like their most viable route to making a world a better place is through the money or audience they can amass through an entertainment career. But for a lot of them, politics are a way of enhancing and burnishing their reputations rather than a primary concern. That's okay. But we also have to keep it in mind when they ask us to invest in them as figures of social change or significance. That's a position that benefits them as much as the movements they profess to support. It's not malign. But it's not disinterested, either.

You mentioned this on Twitter yesterday - are you going to give us a taste of it or will we just have to use our imaginations?

You'll have to use your imaginations. Sorry!


This TV show that we're all living in is way, way, WAY too obviously and ridiculous. It's exhausting, although in this case, moderately amusing. 

I'm feeling sort of down and despairing at the world right now (for all the obvious reasons!) so I'm looking for good books and TV that are decidedlybescapist but also positive and optimistic in a way that feels plausible. Any suggestions?

Do you watch "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"? If not, that is my number one suggestion for where to start. There are a lot of episodes, the characters are nice people it feels worth rooting for, it's extremely funny, and the series is an argument for what a police department could be. Plus, you'll get to see Andre Braugher do this.

I don't know if you like fantasy, or if you're willing to tolerate plausible plotlines within the confines of a fantastical universe as part of these criteria. But if you are, then I highly recommend Katherine Addison's "The Goblin Emperor," which is, among other things, a story about how a person suddenly thrust into a position of leadership can end up good at governing. I definitely find it a tonic in this present moment.

Also, I don't know if you can tolerate fizzy stories about the hyperwealthy right now, but Kevin Kwan's "Crazy Rich Asians" trilogy is definitely escapist in the silliest possible way. If you have more specific criteria, let me know and I can try to be of more help.

Not really a question, just a comment.I am a historian, and someone who experienced the Vietnam War more closely than I would have liked --my father was one of the State Department officials pulled over the wall on the day Saigon was evacuated, and he later married a South Vietnamese woman whose father and brother were officers in the South Vietnamese army . I taught the Vietnam war to my classes for many years and always tried make sure my students saw the broader historical context, as the opening episode tried to do. I was pleased to see so many Vietnamese (on both sides) interviewed but somewhat surprised that there was interviewee to give the French side of the events covered in this episode. I also didn't see the need for so many flash-forwards to American soldiers doing the same things in the 60s as the French soldiers in the 50s, but I guess for an American TV audience it's hard to sit through 90 minutes of a program that's not about them. My 13-year-old granddaughter is already tired of shots of soldiers slogging through rice paddies--and there are 16+ hours still to go. I was also pleased to see the background on the filmmakers and their connection to the war. Champ and Dewey Ward were close friends of my parents when we were with the Ford Foundation in New Delhi in the early 1950s, and my sister and I were the same age as their sons Andy and Geoff. (Andrew Ward went on to become an academic historian writing about the history of India, though Geoffrey Ward has gotten much more public attention through his writing for the Ken Burns series). I appreciated the way Geoff's screenplay sees the war through the eyes of contemporaries without being too blatant about the 20/20 hindsight.

That's fascinating! Thanks for telling me about that family connection. They sound like an amazing couple.

Is everything turned on at your end? Nothing showing up on my computer?

Hmmmm, I'm not sure what to tell you. Maybe try refreshing the page?

Am I the only moviegoer who, with every (intended) scary scene in "It", said to myself, "OK, they did that (clown's rows of scary teeth) in "Alien"...they did that (bathroom sink with hair wrapping around girl's head) in "Poltergeist"....they did that (clown's paint mixer-like vibrating head) in "Jacob's Ladder"......they did that (clown's vulva-shaped uvula surrounded by spikes) in "Teeth".....they did that (boys banding together to stave off evil) in "Stand By Me".....they did that (bathroom bloodbath) in "Carrie" and "The Shining".....they did that (cylindrical stone well with horrors below) in "The Ring"....?

Horror fans, do you have thoughts on this? Did you find "It" less scary because you felt like you'd seen the images that were intended to frighten you in other places?

Good or bad, Sean Spicer got attention and a lot of write-ups this morning. That it's called show BUSINESS is a cliche, but beyond any public shaming or hypocrisy, attention isn't something they'd avoid?

Yeah, I think that's probably right. 

I thought this year's Emmys were very well paced, not bogged down by big "entertainment" numbers that always clog the Oscars. That said, as much as I appreciate keeping to a schedule I thought giving the bum's rush to Sterling Brown was bad form. He wasn't reciting a list of his entourage but speaking personally and, I thought, eloquently of what the award meant. Surely they could've spared him another minute and dropped a line of scripted "humor".

As a number of folks pointed out, Nicole Kidman was allowed to speak for far longer without being played off. In general, I would really prefer for awards shows to leave more time for the people who are actually being honored. I know that speeches don't automatically make for the most dramatic spectacle, but I do think doing so would add a note of celebration and genuine sincerity that's often sorely lacking from these kinds of things.

I'm a cord cutter w/o cable. So I watch over the air or download special things from iTunes. Most of what got celebrated last night didn't interest me but I do enjoy Fox's Lucifer, Gotham, CBS' version of NCIS, etc. I noted that none of them ever seem to get nominated or even mentioned. Why not? (As for Handmaids, I saw the movie years ago and decided I didn't need to revisit it. Chilled me then.)

Honestly, I think that in general, critics and the television Academy don't tend to find those shows as impressive. That's a bummer; I, for example, would love to see more awards go to "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," a show that's entering its fifth season in a  pretty strong comedic and emotional stride. There are exceptions: there's been a fair amount of love for "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Jane the Virgin." But overall, I get why it would irritate you.

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about whether the broadcast networks, which it sounds like you watch a lot of, can keep up with streaming services in terms of their budgets, the stars they can attract, the sort of directorial experiments they can do, and the lead time they can have to polish projects before they make them to air. That's often lead to the television awards shows prioritizing shows with a certain kind of tone and big names over shows that are episodic rather than serial, among other things. I don't know if that's a permanent condition, but in general, I think the perception is that more sophisticated and important work is taking place elsewhere on the dial (or on streaming services). I'm not saying that's correct. I'm just saying that's where the consensus seems to be.

Kind of bummed that the show came up completely empty but I didn't feel any of last night's winners were unworthy. And I guess Lange and Sarandon aren't hurting for recognition.

It's a good sign for the state of a medium when there are a lot of worthy contenders in any category. And a situation where movie stars get imported to stock limited series like "Feud" or "Big Little Lies" is always going to lead to a pileup of nominees in those characters.

I like the Handmaid's Tale as a book, but I don't understand the current fascination with it as somehow a warning call for what a theocracy in the US could look like. (which I understand to be part of the reason this keeps showing up in thinkpieces and on Twitter) But the threat of American theocracy device only makes sense if there was some material strain of US Protestantism that, if taken to its logical conclusion, could somehow morph into the society we see in the book. I've spent a lot of time in and out of various forms of conservative and liberal Protestantism, including some pretty unusual strains, but I've never come across anything even remotely like this. The book (and I would assume the TV series) comes across as something only someone without any experience with fundamentalist Christianity could dream up. A great story, but lacks a minimal connection to even out-of-the-mainstream Christianity. Which keeps it from bearing the weight everyone seems to want it to carry for our current times.

The only thing I would add to this note is that President Trump is far more libertine than Puritan. Maybe "The Handmaid's Tale" would be a more prescient warning if Mike Pence had been elected president on an actually theocratic platform. But that is just not the case. If anything, the evangelical Protestants who backed the President seem to have made a lot of cultural compromises in the 2016 race.

Supergirl. It's so relentlessly upbeat and optimistic. I mean, sure, there are villains and alien invasions and people do have bad days and all. But Melissa Benoist is so darn perky and charming without being annoying, and the show swerves into its cheese factor.

A good call!

This is pretty cool!

Yes, I love our design team and their ability to do stuff like this.

Guys, I'm sorry we've been having some technical problems. I've forwarded your notes to our tech team, and hopefully we'll sort out whatever the underlying issue is. I'll be back here next week at the same time. Hope you're all doing well in the meantime!

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