Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Oct. 16)

Oct 16, 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 there, everyone! How are you doing? I spent the weekend up in New England, where the weather was beautiful and I remembered how badly I miss actual autumn, so I'm enjoying this very slightly cooler weather and watching the latest episode of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Let's get to it!

What are your thoughts on the trailer? I was pretty underwhelmed. Sure, it looks great, but that's to be expected these days. I really wanted something that would make me think we were getting an original story, and I didn't see that at all. It looked like a lot of the same themes as ESB- Jedi training, being tempted by the dark side, etc. My honest opinion with this new trilogy is that they should have just called it a remake/reboot from the beginning, instead of this hybrid mess where you get new versions of the original characters, but also still have many of the original characters still around, albeit with their dreams crushed.

I will be honest: I'm paying a lot less attention to and investing a lot less energy in trailers these days, in part because I'm well aware that you can make a pretty good trailer out of just about anything.

That said, I totally agree that it's disappointing that Lucasfilm doesn't seem to have been able to find a way to move this franchise forward. I know I'm a broken record on this subject, but I thought the Expanded Universe novels, comics, TV shows and video games did an incredibly good job at this on two levels. First, they managed to actually take the original main characters and put them in new situations and have them face new challenges. Second, they also had the confidence to tell genuinely new kinds of stories, something that Lucasfilm attempted but didn't pull off in a particularly strong way in "Rogue One." I don't really think it makes sense to present these new movies as a reboot; it's not as if they're telling the same story with new actors. But I do wish Lucasfilm was demonstrating a lot more confidence than they have in these early installments.

My two favorite TV shows lately (The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire) both ended this year, and I need something to help fill the gaping void in my life. I want to take a break from super-serious/violent HBO-type dramas, but I'm still looking for something with real substance and weight. I guess the thing I'm closest in the mood for is Friday Night Lights, which I've never gotten around to watching, but it's no longer on Netflix, so I'm not sure that's a viable option right now. Any suggestions?

I am totally happy to help you with this particular query! To kick off, let me direct you to Where To Watch, which will help you find where things you want to watch are available to stream ("Friday Night Lights," for example, is available for purchase on Amazon -- standard disclaimer, Jeff Bezos owns the post -- and I'd submit that it's worth the purchase price). 

One place to start might be with British costume dramas, which like many HBO-type dramas, are actually soap operas, but are less concerned with disguising that fact because they have more confidence. "Call the Midwife," for example, is a really smart look at post-war health care and gender norms in Britain, and there are definitely scenes that are harrowing, but it's also a fundamentally nice show that isn't afraid to tell love stories and have fun. If you're feeling wedded to Netflix, "The Crown" is just ridiculously gorgeous and an interesting tour of the major issues in Queen Elizabeth II's reign. I don't know if you've watched "Parenthood," which is chock-a-block with issues, none of which involve anyone getting burned to death, or "The Good Wife," which is probably the smartest show about the role of technology in contemporary life ever made. 

In terms of currently-airing shows, if you're not watching "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," it is both completely hilarious and fairly deft about a range of issues in contemporary policing. And "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," which Showtime developed and then passed on, has plenty of emotional heft and musical numbers, but is also just incredibly fun. Hope this helps, and feel free to ask for more suggestions if you have specifics!

I read an intriguing interview in the Atlantic with Alan Jacobs, the scholar of religious literature who has a new book coming out. He fears that we are anxious and exhausted because every day brings people a fresh requirement that they "mark their place on the ideological landscape through social media." This resonated with me, especially because social media have a tendency to reward brevity and clarity (rather than nuance), as well as speed and frequency (rather than reflection). We simply can't live every day in outrage, or paint everyone with the same shade of villainy for every outrage.

This is an interesting observation, and will be the subject of this Wednesday's newsletter.

That's pretty much exactly what I would call TFA. Guess we will have to agree to disagree. Anyway since I haven't mentioned it here in a while if you want EU stuff check out Star Wars Rebels. They are working some things back in, most notably Admiral Thrawn.

They're extremely similar in terms of emotional beats, but they're not literally the same. That's the standard by which I determine if something is a remake.

I actually saw this in a movie theater this weekend (which I rarely do) and, while I didn't think it was perfect (almost three hours is too long for most any movie), I thought it was great and enjoyed it. BUT. Who thought this would be a blockbuster? I liked it but I'm a 49 year old fan of the original, and while it does enjoy a cult following, it's no Star Wars or even Ghostbusters that would draw in a new generation of fans. I feel like they're gonna take a bath on this one...

I loved "Blade Runner 2049," and intend to write a little more about why later this week, but despite that fact, and despite the fact that I think the film moves in a surprisingly snappy fashion despite its run time, I totally agree with you about the movie's prospects. It's completely bananas that anyone would greenlight a $150 million sequel to "Blade Runner" (keep in mind that advertising costs for a movie like this may run as high as the movie's production budget). So far, "Blade Runner 2049" has made $158.6 million at the box office, which definitely is "bath" territory.

Of course, this is the reason that movie studios and producers invest in multiple movies at once. Some things that don't cost very much money turn out to be wildly profitable: see "Get Out" for one recent example. Some things that are incredibly, irrationally expensive flop.

But at the end of the day, I'm so glad that "Blade Runner 2049" exists. It's sumptuous and it made me feel melancholy and tender.

I know you are a fan of Season 1 -- Have you been watching Season 2? I just streamed season one over the long week-end, and became hooked!! I am enjoying the first episodes of Season 2, although I have a growing sense of unease that the frenetic pace and literal joy from the first season cannot be sustained much longer. What are your thoughts? Can this show go on longer than two seasons?

I am! And I totally agree that I have no idea how the show can sustain itself, but that's part of the pleasure of watching it. "The Good Place" is such a weird, experimental high-wire act, and I have absolutely no idea how it got on broadcast television in the first place. As a result, I'm mostly just appreciating it for as long as it lasts rather than worrying about whether it will make it to another year. Some things are perfect and weird, and even if they crash and burn, I'll be glad that they exist in their temporary, lapidary splendor.

PSA for your local library. Even if a show isn't on your streaming service, your local library may have the DVDs. I don't have cable or subscribe to any services and I check out movies and TV shows from my library all the time. They may not have everything, but it may be worth the trip. And totally agree with Alyssa re: FNL. Worth every cent and more. I bought the whole series on DVD after it ended and we've watched it start to finish a coupe of times. WWTTD? Go Panthers!

Thank you for this reminder! I have been bad about using my local library, in part because I am fortunate enough to be able to buy pretty much any book I want, but that doesn't mean that libraries aren't fabulous resources. And they absolutely should be funded as such. 

Your interview with Alan Sepinwall made me think about why we fans secretly, and not so secretly, liked Walter White (and Don Draper and Tony Soprano) and disliked Skyler White (and Betty Draper and Carmela Soprano, to differing extents). It might be simple male chauvinism -- our anti-heroes are men, and so in a choice between the anti-hero and his wife, we prefer the man; we all feel nagged by our spouses at times, so we will naturally resent any fictional nagger. But I think it's deeper than that. I think we admire Walter because we want to be free to take action as he does. We are trapped in our ordinary lives, but in breaking bad Walt is also breaking free: he doesn't take any guff from his bosses, he makes a big pile of cash, he can buy whatever kind of car he wants, etc. We identify with this move, both "bad fans" and good ones. But good fans recognize that Walt, like every human, must act in accordance with morality and must treat the people in his life as subjects and not objects. Bad Fans essentially argue that Walt's means justify his ends, even though the series explicitly argues against this point.

I totally understand, and even to an extent, sympathize with this! But part of what disturbs me about the vision of male liberation is the way it's tied up in the denigration of other people.

Why is the fantasy alternative to being nagged by your spouse emotionally abusing her, even raping her? What is so great about being Tony Soprano, who is plagued by anxiety, has a horrible relationship with his mother, lies to his kids and is constantly uncertain about the reliability of his subordinates? I have a much better sense of why people might want to be Don Draper: he's handsome and stylish, he has a lot of consensual sex, he's actually financially and professionally successful, and I suppose in some quarters, that makes up for his crippling emotional issues and constant sense of terror.

One of the reasons I'm a feminist is that I think feminism has the potential to be good for everyone. Feminism, done right, could have freed Walter White from his sense that he has to be the only person supporting his family, and that the alternative to being a schlub is being a master criminal and emotional terrorist. Feminism could have given Don Draper the benefits of Esalen without him having to go totally walkabout on his life. I understand why a lot of folks might want to live a different life than the one that they do. But it bums me out that anti-heroism is what passes for an alternative.

I sent an email on the topic, but thought I might check here in the forum. What generally is your policy on taking speaking gigs for organizations or things around the DC area?

 My inbox is a mess, due to some recent travel so it's possible that I missed it. Can you send it again? alyssa.rosenberg@washpost.com. My policy is that if it's an engagement I feel comfortable taking and that I can fit in my schedule, I'll do it and I generally don't take speaking fees to prevent conflicts of interest.

Remember Pushing Daisies? Man, that show was amazingly perfect and weird. I'm so glad we've gotten away from standard network television shows and the Nielsen ratings so more perfect and weird shows can be created for perfectly weird people like moi-self.

I do! One thing I think about a lot these days is both that the new business models that have supported so many great, weird new television shows are wonderful, and also that I have no idea if they're sustainable. Netflix is spending an insane amount of money on original content while letting go a lot of shows, like "30 Rock," that were a big draw for original subscribers to the service. I don't know if that's going to work out for them, and I'm not going to make a guess about that, but I definitely think it's worth watching. The big promise of the post-cable era was that it was going to be cheaper and easier to get all the content you want, but as content fragments across an expanding number of subscription-based services, it's getting costly to keep a wide library, and occasionally annoying to find whatever you're looking for at any given moment. That's not great for customers, and I don't know if things can keep up this way.

To follow up on the original poster, I was intrigued, but I'm no fool. You can string together any series of scenes to make people think something is going to happen. But I think the trailer for TFA vs the actual movie proves that you can easily mislead the audience, too. It's got little effect on my decision to see the movie, which of course I will.

Ditto. Of course, it's not as if I have to make a decision to spend my money on it; I assume there will be a critics' screening, I'll go to that, and then I'll figure out if I want to see it for a second time on my own dime. The barrier to entry is a lot lower when all it costs me to see a movie is my time.

I am SO LOOKING FORWARD to these two films.

I was fairly meh on the second "Thor" movie, but I'll go see this one in part because I do like the silly side of the Marvel universe. And OBVIOUSLY I am extremely excited about "Black Panther," which (as I'm discussing at more length tomorrow) is giving me an excuse to make up for the gaps in my Afrofuturist education. I would watch literally anything Ryan Coogler directs; I don't know if you've seen "Creed" and "Fruitvale Station," but both are well worth checking out before February 16.

The way to avoid the expanding cost, presumably, is to decide what you want to watch on one service ahead of time, watch that for a month or two, then switch to a new service while canceling the last. The problem is that this requires you to decide what you want to see well in advance. The beauty of streaming is to be able to watch what you want, when you want and not be beholden to the schedule. This is just a new kind of schedule. Self-made, perhaps instead of always happening at 9:00 on Tuesdays, or whenever, but antithetical to the browse and find something you like convenience we were supposed to get with streaming.

I think that's generally impractical given how often shows and movies go on and off of streaming services, and given how difficult it is for the average person to watch all of a show on a very set schedule! 

I loved the one season of Wonderfalls, and while I was disappointed at the time it only lasted one season, in retrospect the talking stuffed animal theme may have become annoying. Plus I read an interview with the director about where he wanted to take subsequent seasons, and now I'm just glad to have those perfect few episodes.

This is one of the reasons I'm often hesitant to see cancelled shows get picked up by other outlets. It's true that sometimes wonderful things get cancelled ahead of their promise (see recently "Survivor's Remore"), but it's also true that sometimes letting a series go on indefinitely without some artistic constraints can ultimately be disappointing, even to the extent of undermining what came before.

Any thoughts? I'm trying to decide how to use my "$5 all day Tuesday if you are a member" slot this week. Already saw Blade Runner.

I haven't, but my friend Soraya MacDonald was decidedly mixed on it. I hear really good things about "Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman," and I loved "Wind River" if either is playing somewhere near you.

Thanks for coming by, everyone! I hope your Mondays continue well. Thanks to reassurances from the folks on Twitter (who, like you, know I'm a bit of a coward about horror), I'm going to start "Mindhunter," and I'll be seeing "I, Tonya" later tonight, so I'm sure we'll have a lot to talk about next Monday. Until then, be well, and let's hope for more genuinely autumnal weather here in DC.

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