Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Oct. 9)

Oct 09, 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 you doing? Are your weeks off to a good start? I was in Chicago last Thursday and Friday for a meeting with a bunch of civic leaders from across the country, so I'm still feeling pretty awed by that. This morning, I'm catching up on "The Deuce" and "Ghosted"--my recap of the former will be up a little bit after this chat. So let's get to it!

I seem to be out of step with most of your readers and also Hank Stuever's because they enjoy programs that leave me cold while he has mocked shows I enjoy. Of the new series, I have really enjoyed The Good Doctor, Wisdom of the Crowd, and The Orville (which HS hates). I tried watching Ten Days in the Valley and found it too dark for me. I really wanted to like The Gifted, but again it was a very dark show (physically dark as well as thematic). I still watch Hawaii Five-0 and Blue Bloods, and Lucifer, and Scandal, and I choose to watch Bull and record This Is Us, which I watch the next day. I also read J.D. Robb, and Faye and Jonathan Kellerman and the Rizzoli & Isles books, and my favorite--Anne Perry. I am a college graduate, but I sometimes feel as if I'm totally out of it.

I don't think you're out of it. I do think your tastes are different than mine and Hank's, but that doesn't mean you're out of touch. (Hank and I also have fairly different tastes, for what it's worth.)

Let me try to break down what I mean a little bit. As a critic, I think I"m often looking for what feels new to me in pop culture. Because analyzing pop culture is my job, I can't really use it to relax or unwind: my brain just turns out when I'm watching TV or a movie (at least for the first time), and often when I'm reading novels as well. As a result, shows that are designed to be comforting or relaxing often don't do very well for me; I find my attention drifting during shows that follow familiar formulas or deliver the same emotional beats every time. Instead, what holds my attention tends to be something that genuinely challenges me, or that I haven't seen before.

That means I really love watching "The Deuce," David Simon's new show about the sex industry in New York City in the 1970s even when it makes me scared and sad. The show is talking about sex, and power, and police corruption in ways that I haven't seen before, and even when it's grim, it also makes me laugh. In a similar (but also totally different) way, I love Michael Schur's "The Good Place," an incredibly weird comedy about an experimental hell dimension, both because it has great performances, but also because it's just so totally fresh to me. 

It's okay if you don't prefer television that functions this way. If, as it sounds like for you, TV and novels are a way to relax rather than to get yourself keyed up, then you're doing exactly what's right for you, and you should feel confident in those decisions. That said, if you're curious about where you can find more discussions of the stuff you do love, let me know (you can always email me at and I'll try to think about how I can help.

I'm gobsmacked that you and your readers didn't list the most essential book: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown "Learning from Las Vegas"

I've never heard of it before! I'll get myself a Kindle sample, stat.

What the H*** were you thinking? Please respond or we will assume the obvious (that you think that using Dove is desirable because it somehow turns African American women into white women) which is also pretty much the worst. I don't usually get into boycotts; however, absent a seriously abject apology and maybe firing a few higher ups who approved this disaster, I might be on board for one. Not going to be on the chat live because I have a ticket to the NMAAHC for the afternoon. I wonder how much I will see that will remind me of this terrible ad? Though maybe most of that is upstairs with the hot combs and skin lightening cream.

It's pretty weird to me that you would interpret me potentially not answering a question in a frequently busy chat as a sign that I think Dove's latest marketing disaster is a good idea. It's ESPECIALLY weird to me that you would think this when you don't plan to be here for the chat. That said, enjoy the NMAAHC; I loved and was overwhelmed by my first visit, and I can't wait to go back.

On the actual substance of this Dove ad (which readers unfamiliar with the controversy can find here), I am obviously with you in finding it completely confounding. I literally have no idea what the company intended to convey. It's an incompetent piece of advertising on every level. Is the ad supposed to communicate that Dove is a really powerful cleaning agent? If so, then the woman in the upper two pictures should be covered in dirty, not an entirely different person of an entirely different race altogether. Are we supposed to think that all women are the same, or that race is a costume, or that black women can have inner white women? If so...just, what? The total incoherence gets to me as much as the racism does; this reads less like malevolence and more like utter idiocy. I would be infinitely curious to know how this got greenlit.

I think your answer depends on how much you like Dr. Seuss.

I think Dr. Seuss's cartoons are racist. I also think he was capable of brilliance.  I'm assuming you're referring to the kerfuffle in which an elementary school teacher rejected some Dr. Seuss books from First Lady Melania Trump on the grounds not only that they're racist, but that they're tired. To which I would note that if you think Dr. Seuss's children's books are racist, you should see his cartoons of Japanese officials, soldiers and civilians from World War II; those things are a doozy of racism. I have a collection of his political cartooning at home, and while I find a lot of the work grotesquely offensive, I also think his work is an illuminating and disturbing testament to American sentiment during the war, and one that makes the narrative of American greatness during that conflict a lot harder to swallow without complication. 

I don't personally tend to give Dr. Seuss books to the kids in my life, and I supposed I'd need to re-read them before I decided which of them I wanted in my own home library. I do think Seuss had a genius for anarchic, goofy imagery that I find incredibly resonant; I also appreciate that his children's books include genuinely scary and challenging ideas and images. They're weird, colorful worlds, but they're not soft and sanitized ones.

Wife and I just finished Westworld. We missed the Sense8 buzz. Is it worth viewing?

I couldn't get into it, but I know folks who absolutely adore it. Your mileage may depend on how much you like the Wachowskis' work. Don't use "The Matrix" as the metric for this. If you were really into "Cloud Atlas" (which I loved) and "Jupiter Ascending" (on which I was meh), "Sense8" may be for you.

I think the poster was demanding a response from Dove, not you.

Good point! Sorry, OP; I misread you, and share your utter confusing.

The tone to Blade Runner 2049 is much different from the original. It's far less film noirish and in portions is downright lush. How much should a sequel follow the original's guiding principles even if the story is new?

This is a great question, and I'll make it the subject of our Wednesday newsletter.

...they're too popular. Linda Holmes of NPR recently confessed her shame at being a Big Bang Theory fan. It's the most popular show on television yet, like voting for Nixon, nobody admits to doing it. Critics tend to like the edgier more 'difficult' shows because they see so many bad shows.

I mean, I would never pretend that no one watches "The Big Bang Theory" or act like the fact that I don't watch many multi-camera sitcoms isn't a hole in my coverage. I'd also add that critics need things to write about regularly, and highly episodic shows that are intended to follow a predictable formula sometimes aren't the greatest fodder for what we do. It's much easier to recap a more serialized drama to look at how subsequent developments build on an existing theme, or to write about the bold stylistic choice in an experimental show than to check in and note that a well-honed machine is essentially still running pretty well.

are you still writing your weekly recaps? What did you think of the "Pence as prop to shore up outrage over NFL protesters" scene?

I had a bunch of work travel that knocked me out on Fridays when I tended to be writing these. They'll resume this week, and there will DEFINITELY be thoughts on Pence and the NFL. 

The quick version, though: I've been sort of puzzled by my fellow liberals who are befuddled that the Trump administration is going to war with the NFL. They're not really doing that: if they were, they'd be trying to eliminate taxpayer funded stadiums, or to lean on the league about its handling of domestic violence, or whatever. Instead, they're going to war with black and brown NFL players, and trying to paint them as disrespectful and ungrateful millionaires. I don't know about this as a mainstream strategy. But as a base strategy, I'd be willing to bet that this is successful. Americans like pro athletes, but they also like pro athletes to fit into a nice, neat box where they perform well physically and don't have a lot of inconvenient opinions. 

This was a totally new concept for me. Is it the images only people find offensive -like the Asian characters in Mulberry street, or are the stories themselves now seen that way? I adored his books as a kid, and have given them to children as recently as a couple of years ago.

I'd like to throw this one to the audience, if that's okay, since I haven't read so many of these books in decades, and I'd like to hear what other people think. I do think there's been some suggestion that the Cat in the Hat borrows tropes from minstrelsy. But again, I'd like to hear what other readers' impressions have been.

Obviously, it makes sense for Harvey Weinstein to pay a price because he did bad things and/or broke the law. But I still think there's a point in being his defense lawyer as Gloria Alred chastised her own daughter for doing, but I also wonder what you would recommend for Harvey Weinstein himself. I saw you tweeting that Hollywood should divest from Weinstein immediately (which, of course, makes sense) and expressed worry that he'd make films again. Assuming he eventually pays his price (and since we don't have a death penalty in place for workplace harrassers), it seems reasonable that at some point he'd want to make films again. It's also worth bearing that his film making instincts and efforts have contributed a lot of positive and rich stories to be told by a pop culture that otherwise might have been driven by crash consumer instincts. In that sense alone, it might be a mistake not to separate the art of the sinner from the sin.

I totally think Harvey Weinstein has the right to counsel were any of the allegations against him to rise to the level of a criminal complaint. Rather, what I think what a lot of people found troubling was the idea that Lisa Bloom, who was advising Weinstein on gender dynamics in a capacity that has never really been clear to me, was also in business with her; he had optioned a book from her. The whole thing felt sort of weird and icky and insincere, especially since Bloom's messaging on how Weinstein felt and what he was doing kept shifting.

As I've written elsewhere, it's obvious that the entertainment industry has both made major contributions to social progress with the work it puts out, and totally failed to embody that social progress in its own business dealings. That's as true of Weinstein as it is of everyone else.

But I think you've skipped over a major part of this equation. What do you think "his price" should be? Who gets to determine it? I definitely don't think that going to a women's march, giving money to Democratic candidates and endowing a chair named for Gloria Steinem somehow earn you the right to sexually harass women, and I don't think the women Weinstein harassed would feel that way either. Who gets to determine whether Weinstein has made up for his past wrongs? And who gets to decide whether he's demonstrated that he's capable of working in a responsible manner going forward? These allegations aren't a matter of private perviness; they're about a professional abuse of power. 

I can't say I've really seen much in the way of new shows that interest me. What do you think? Am I missing anything?

I am likewise pretty blah on this fall season, and increasingly, I've started to wait until the first round of cancellations to dive into anything. Given the breadth of my mandate, it's just too much to give every new series a couple of episodes when a lot of them are not going to make it. So far, I'm loving "The Deuce," giving a second episode to "The Mayor" even though its premise nearly gave me a post-Trump-induced heart attack, and will keep watching "Ghosted" because I love Adam Scott and Craig Robinson too much to believe that this show will continue to be this bad. "The Orville" didn't seem to have much of an independent rationale to exist. And I'll get to the new "Star Trek" in a week or two.

I watched Scandal, and I may be the only viewer who wondered where Mellie and Fitz 4-year-old Teddy is. And why is his father in New England rather than close to his son, especially as their older son was murdered? Where is Ella, Cyrus adopted daughter, also about 4? Hopefully with male prostitute Michael, who loves her. I can picture Quinn and Charlie taking their baby everywhere.

I foresee an extremely dark spinoff series about these poor children.

OP may also have been referring to the story this week about the new Seuss museum in Massachusetts with a mural that had a racist Chinese character in it. (Which was drawn from the Mulberry Street book and which the museum is going to replace.)

Possibly! Would love to hear from other readers on this subject.

One of my fondest memories of his work was seeing Jesse Jackson read Green Eggs and Ham on SNL waaaaay back in the day. It was brilliant.

The link is here, for anyone who needs an afternoon giggle.

One of the things that struck me after watching the new Blade Runner is that the best comparison may not be the original movie, but rather another sequel - 2010, the followup to 2001. Both originals were profound thought pieces; the sequels weren't nearly as much so, but in the case of 2010 told a fun original story, answered some long standing questions, and involved old characters. I thought 2049 was a very good film, and in many ways it did the same thing as 2010, but I think there's an argument to be made that where it ran into problems was precisely because it tried far too closely to hew to the original. Thoughts?

Hmmm, I'm not sure I agree with that. I actually found it relatively refreshing that "Blade Runner 2049" was willing to jump forward into the future without harping too much on the connective tissue in the thirty intervening years: it didn't need to much around explaining where the replicant resistance came from or how it thrived in much detail, it didn't dwell too much on the is-Deckard-a-replicant question (which is good, since I find it relatively boring), etc. Instead, it was willing to build on the latter movie while being resolutely its own, gorgeous thing.

from his era, but I think calling the books racist against African Americans is going a bit far since African Americans are simply absent (there are a few racial stereotypes in Mulberry Street and some ethnic ones too). Which is not particularly great for using limited space in pubic libraries these days. However, now there are other books that are written using the early reader rules that Geisel used (limited vocabulary, repetition of new words after they are introduced, etc.) and aren't Dick and Jane boring. Back when the Dr. Seuss books came out, he was the only one that wrote using limited vocabulary and still telling a vaguely interesting story. Here is the real issue. There is a hole in the lives of kids where they are more than capable of listening to and understanding complicated stories and aren't quite able to read them for themselves. The young relatives in my life have just gone past this time, but for a while they were both reluctant when it came to independent reading. They liked Harry Potter and similarly complex stuff, but couldn't read it on their own. Dr. Seuss used to be the only thing out there that even attempted to fill that gap. Now there are others. I guess if you really push it, you could say that Horton Hears a Who has some implications of colonialism, but you have to really push it and it comes out *against* ignoring the rights of people who could be ignored. I loved Yertle the Turtle growing up. I think it was because my dad loved reading dictatorship propaganda to his three year old. He was fantastic with that one.

Thank you for sharing this perspective; I don't have as strong a sense of the children's book market as I do some other current markets. Other authors who come to mind include Barbara Cooney and Ezra Jack Keats, though they don't necessarily use repetition and rhyme the way Seuss did, which makes them a bit less mentally sticky.

did you see it? Made me think (really!) it should be a national holiday.

It's in my (very backed up) "black-ish" queue. I'd be curious; had you been familiar with Juneteenth before the episode? I'd love to see a Juneteenth national holiday, but I wouldn't have high hopes for its institution (or celebration with dignity) under the current administration, unfortunately.

Okay, it seems like we're running a little slow today, which I attribute to the holiday. I hope those of you who are not here are out doing something more fun! I'll see you all here next week, same place same time. And until then, take care.

In This Chat
Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
Recent Chats
  • Next: