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

Apr 16, 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.

Happy Monday, everyone! How were your weekends? I'm watching last night's "Silicon Valley" and trying to decide if I can force myself to read James Comey's memoir when it comes out tomorrow. If any of you have an interest one way or the other, let me know; it might help me make up my mind.  Let's dive into your questions.

I know a personal favorite of yours, "The L.A. Complex" comes there. It seems "looks like it was shot in Canada" has become ubiquitous with cheap or crummy. Poor Canada. CanCon seem to have the opposite effect of making Canada look awful.

Yes, poor Canada! Especially because there are shows that shoot in Wilmington and a bunch of other places to save money as well! It's not just our neighbors to the North who have ended up with budget-conscious productions.

Maybe I should be fussier about how locations look than I generally am, but I've basically found that I can forgive geographical inconsistencies and less-than-elaborate-looking sets as long as what's happening on those sets and in those scenes makes sense, is well-acted, and is framed in a way that is reasonably compelling. Some television is hugely enhanced by a distinct shooting style. And in some series, that's just not hugely key to what's going on, at least not for me.

I know the Westworld showrunners offering to spoil the entire second season turned out to be an elaborate prank. It still frustrates me a little just how much of the conversation around the show has been driven by a specific subset of fandom, since I find Westworld compelling for vastly different reasons (i.e. I couldn't care less about theorizing and "solving" it). While engaging in discussions and hearing different opinions is obviously an important part of consuming culture, lately I've been enjoying watching TV that's less high-profile, older, or otherwise just doesn't have the accompanying noise of shows like Westworld or Game of Thrones. So, I guess my question is, how do you think the internet and social media have affected the way that we watch TV? Do you think it enhances or detracts from the experience, or does it depend on the specific show for you? How do you balance keeping up with pop culture conversations versus approaching something on your own terms?

I am literally 100 percent with you on being exhausted by the tendency towards "solving" television rather than experiencing it. And the way I handle that tendency in social media, and keep it from infecting my own criticism, is by rigorously ignoring it. I don't read pieces that speculate about what will happen on a given show or that parse obsessively through a set of supposed clues. I don't click through Twitter threads that purport to do same. I cheerfully inform people that I have no particular theories if they try to get me to affirm theirs, and while I'm happy to talk about what outcomes might be consistent with the broader themes or values of a show, I freely admit no special knowledge on any of these subjects. I know it may seem as if everyone is discussing a show like "Westworld" in a given way, but I promise you, that's not the case; there's always a community of people who want to experience a show as it unfolds (sometimes to the point of considering everything a spoiler and also not watching the show in a timely way, which makes them pretty impossible to deal with or accommodate, but that's an entirely separate conversation). Always feel free to mosey on over to this chat if you'd like to raise a question about what you've just seen, as opposed to trying to predict what you will see.

My husband and I just finished watching the “Outlander” and “This is Us “ series. The acting was terrific in both, but I found many of the episodes were downers. Can you recommend a fun or funny series we can start watching to balance it out? Drama is an option, but we need some humor and optimism thrown in. Thanks so much!

Sure! If you'd like something that has period details, a la "Outlander," and a little bit of grit, but also a generally optimistic view on the world, you might try "Call the Midwife," which I am behind on, but very much enjoyed in the early seasons. I don't know if you've watched "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood," but both of those series might give you the sort of cathartic weeping experience that so many people seem to enjoy about "This Is Us," combined with a bit more uplift; in particular, a lot of the problems the characters face on "Parenthood" are decisively First World Problems in a way that I always thought make the series fairly relaxing. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is my go-to recommendation for a currently airing show that will make you feel good about the world and that is, moment-for-moment, the most joke-rich show on television. Of course, I'm always happy to tailor these recommendations for you more if you've seen these, or want to tell me a bit more about what you're looking for.

Did you get screeners? Will you be doing recaps a la GOT?

I have some screeners, and as with last season, I will be recapping "Westworld," with the caveat that we'll be working on finding someone else to stand in for me once I go on maternity leave. I love you all, and I very much enjoy "Westworld," but once this Tiny Human makes an appearance, my unpredictable late nights are going to be devoted to her needs for a while.

It seems to me that if some states or countries are going to offer huge incentives to film in those locations, then it's practically malpractice not to do so. After all, "Black Panther" is still engaging even though parts of Wakanda were actually filmed in Georgia. Sure, I get distracted sometimes when "New York" looks suspiciously like Toronto or "Washington" looks suspiciously like Brooklyn or Baltimore. But if I can believe a man can fly, I'm willing to believe that Northern California looks a lot like Vancouver.

Oh, sure. I think sometimes people look at the wealth that individual people in Hollywood have and forget that it's a business where the people making the products have budgets that they need to try to meet, and that they'll look for reasonable economies that allow them to meet those budgets (that doesn't even begin to get into the specific challenges of shooting in certain locations, including DC, which we discussed in a prior chat). 

Santa Clarita Diet, if you are also OK with lots of blood. Second season is even better than the first! Catastrophe is funny but the sad parts will hit you in the gut.

I absolutely could not stand the grossness of "Santa Clarita Diet," which is viscerally disgusting beyond the level that "lots of blood" would imply, which is why I don't recommend it. But "Catastrophe" is another good recommendation, depending on your tolerance!

WaPo has plenty on the Comey memoir. Would it really benefit your work if you brought your take to it? And you're about to have a baby! This isn't the time to force yourself to do anything you don't want to do (except keep hydrated...I never drank enough water during my two pregnancies!).

I suspect that I may feel more informed about certain conversations if I read "A Higher Loyalty," and I am also just interested in the writing and craft of any book that ends up occupying such a big role in the conversation (I reviewed "Fire and Fury" on those terms) and that may end up getting adapted for the screen. 

As for forcing myself to do things towards the end of this third trimester, I promise I am not doing anything that is the emotional or physical equivalent of laboring in the salt mines! I wouldn't be wavering on this if I didn't have some genuine interest.

I'm a big fan of both the Outlander books and tv series. I'm not involved in any of the online chat groups, but I enjoy reading Diana Gabaldon's Facebook comments about the episodes. Knowing the author's take on changes to the characters and plot is much more interesting than hearing other fans whining.

That would probably not personally be my jam, but I do think this is a good reminder that you can find lots of different ways to engage with the art you care about on social media!

I for one am interested. But I suspect other people are going to do that reading too. If you don't do it, I think we'll be okay. (OTOH, if you'd like to subcontract that one out to a chatter who is an experienced book reviewer, let me know...)

I don't take freelance pitches for Act Four, but I appreciate the suggestion/offer!

I don't know what to think about this show. It's very well done but a bit off-putting for me as a tremendous fan of all the gravel-crunching Emma Thompson films of that time. The leads seem to be much too young for the roles, although maybe that's just me getting older, the male lead in particular delivers so many lines *exactly* like Anthony Hopkins did, and the additional time spent in a series rather than a film doesn't seem to add anything to the story. Welp, maybe I have made up my mind about this series after all.

It sounds like it! I think you're right, though, that it can be hard to overcome what feels like an iconic film adaptation of a particular work. I still haven't watched the Keira Knightley "Pride and Prejudice" or the latest "Little Women" miniseries, because for me, Jennifer Ehle will always be Lizzy Bennet, and the 1994 adaptation of "Little Women" is just it for me. Perhaps I'll get over that some day, and if another adaptation of one of those works came out and other people I respected were deeming it absolutely essential or getting to some new truth of the book, maybe I'd give it a shot. But sometimes, it's okay to hold close to the thing that you love.

Any thoughts?

On my list of things to check out, but I haven't yet gotten there.

I'm with you there. Ever since the creators of Lost produced a "mystery" that was incredibly transparent in Season one and then tried like heck to see the idea that the end wasn't going to be what it was obviously going to be to try to stretch out their non-existent mystery for additional seasons...only to have the whole thing turn out EXACTLY as everyone knew it would from the start... Well, color me suspicious. Sometimes the writers are that good, but most of the time, if you can't figure out what the 'mystery' is it's because the writers are confused and/or don't have a plan.

Well, I think there's a difference between building a show around a mystery, a la "Lost" or "How I Met Your Mother" and fans trying to get ahead of a story that is inevitably going to unfold on its own terms rather than just...letting the story be told. I don't think turning everything into a big mystery in order to try to get fans hooked on speculation is necessarily very good for television writers, but it's a different thing from having to deal with that sort of speculation because it's become a mode of consuming entertainment.

It's worth it for the job they do with the side story about her friend, Charlotte Lucas. The version of that character in the Knightly fronted P&P is very good, I thought.

Hmmmm, okay, that's moderately tempting!

Can't go wrong with these! One Day at a Time, Grace and Frankie (mainly for the story lines involving Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin), The Amazing Mrs. Maisel.

Ditto on the endorsements for "One Day at a Time" and "Grace and Frankie"! I was trying to come up with ideas that most closely matched what the original poster told me they watched, but these further-afield suggestions are all terrific, and a service to your fellow chatters.

"little one." Not sure why. Just seems obnoxious. Maybe more so when the baby is actually outside the mom. Especially when the baby has become old enough to follow instructions in some circumstances. However, I rather like "tiny human." And I'm not sure why the emotional reaction is different. Please note that the antipathy to "little one" isn't personal. There isn't any one in my life who I dislike who uses or used that phrase.

I think I, personally, like "tiny human," a term that my cousin and I started using sort of as a joke, because it implies that the baby is a person with a will, a certain amount of agency, and an emerging personality, rather than something merely cute and squashy. That said, I think everything to do with babies and children produces pretty visceral reactions in many of us, and I'm trying hard not to police my own reactions or to let anyone else's visceral reaction (as opposed to genuinely knowledgeable or interesting suggestions) influence me too much.

So as a follow up to the HOWARDS END question, are there any works of classic fiction of which you like to see every adaptation? Ones that you would love to see get a new, (better) treatment?

This is a great question and I'm going to snaffle it for the newsletter becuase I want some time to think about it.

Baltimore and Brooklyn look a lot more like DC than LA looks like Minnesota. Yeah, I'm still laughing at the mountains on Little House on the Prairie - so sue me.

Heh, entirely fair! Although the geography that the Ingalls family travels through over the course of the series changes a fair bit along the way!

I like the idea of adaptations where we see an entirely different POV on the work (ex: Wicked). It's fun to see a story you know from a new vantage point vs. trying to re-play the exact same version of the same story over and over.

I definitely think it's possible to get creative with these sorts of things, and that these alternate narratives can be illuminating. I'm not sure I'd necessarily call them straight adaptations, though perhaps that's a bit overly-picky of me.

Seems like this weather has us all a little lethargic today, so I'm going to close up shop a few minutes early. See you here this time next week so we can talk "Westworld" and various and sundry other things!

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