Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (May 15)

May 15, 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.

Greetings, everyone! Thanks for your patience with the rescheduling of this chat so I could go to the "Solo" press screening yesterday. The embargo's lifted, so I'm happy to answer some questions about it if you're curious (my review will run on May 24). I'm also excited to read Jia Tolentino on incels, talk about "Westworld" and the delightful rescue of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" from cancellation, so let's get to it! Before we do, though, one quick programming note: if I don't have this baby before then, next Monday's chat is definitely going to be the last before I go on maternity leave. I'm going to miss you all terribly, but I also know you'll store up a lot of great conversational topics and questions in my absence. 

When I saw Michael C. Hall in the second season of "The Crown" as then sitting U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy there was a thought "I bet he's got a deal for a show with them." I know a lot of people who stream "Dexter" on Netflix. Sure enough he has a pretty teenybopper gone missing in idealic small town drama entitled "Safe" and I watched two episodes of it. One thing I'll give it is that for show let in the present-day with a lot of teenybopper characters, it is really leaning into the tech side with smartphones, social media websites being organic feeling and driving the plot (at least I felt so since there are some random leaps in other parts of the show so far). Maybe it's because sadly we know have some real-life examples of how tech has been involved in murders that TV screenwriters can draw on that.

I have to admit that your use of the term "teenybopper" distracted me, since I associate it with such a specific period of American history. That said, I think you're right that it only makes sense for savvy TV writers to find ways to incorporate technology and social media into their storytelling; since this is how we communicate, it's inevitable that criminal communication is going to take place in these venues as well. That said, I was reading a really interesting book this weekend called "Bring the War Home," about the role the Vietnam War played in contemporary white supremacist movements, and there's a section in it on early racist organizing online, and the legal obstacles that existed to investigating communications in those spaces. Clearly technology and the law are going to continue to interact in interesting (and perhaps depressing) ways, so it makes sense for good writers to find the storytelling potential in those interactions.

I think the first memory of a movie I saw at the theatre on the bigscreen was "Honey I Shrunk The Kids" (I vaguely remember getting emotionally invested in the fate of that giant ant). So Rick Moranis is coming back to our screens for a SCTV reunion (a watch I never have seen although obvious familiar with its cast subsequent work). Moranis had this almost ubiquitous career and left it when his wife Anne died while their children were still very young. With so much nostalgia for the 1980s around (dear Lord there is so much), I think Rick Moranis is at least one I can get on-board with this time.

I had not actually known the backstory of why Moranis quit acting until this week, and found it genuinely touching. There's really something to be said for that kind of dedication to your family, and recognizing that your presence in your children's lives is not something that money can either buy, or compensate for. In this case, I view this reunion less as a cheesy marketing thing or a cynical attempt to resurrect Moranis' career through nostalgia; it's simply him returning when he's ready. There's nothing groanworthy about that.

Of course deepest sympathies to loved ones. I do wonder what is the right balance in the press coverage between acknowledging that romantic relations are major and important part of a person's life and just defining her by the famous men she dated. Although she was very open out talking about those romantic relationships when did press over the years including to just last week.

Sometimes, two questions or comments in the chat queue will pop up next to each other in a way that makes me smile. The comment that was submitted right next to yours read: "Never seen the 1978 'Superman' movie before and just saw clip because of the passing of Margot Kidder. She's more memorable to me now in a few minute then anything in the latest films."

This is not to remotely judge the later questioner, but it does get at something that I think can happen in these sorts of situations. When a famous person passes away, especially when they are someone who is well-known but not universally known, and when they die in their sixties, an age that most of us now think of as relatively young, sometimes the pieces that are written about them start with the things the writer remembers most. That isn't always going to be the most substantive part of a person's career, and it's not always what the person writing might focus on if they had more time to turn around a piece; it might just be what stuck in their mind. Sometimes, writing on that kind of passionate impulse can produce good work, especially when the thing that struck you about a deceased artist is a part of their repertoire that other people might not have valued as much. (I was always glad that when Nora Ephron died, my first instinct was to write about her journalism and commentary, which I adore, rather than her movies, which I knew everyone was going to write about.) But sometimes the thing that settles in our heads isn't the most important part of someone's life.

I appreciate the "previously on" part of most shows, because sometimes I can't remember what happened on a particular episode that came on 6 months ago. BUT, I hate it when it basically becomes a spoiler. On the previously on in Sunday's Westworld they showed the scene of the Man in Black mentioning he had a daughter. As soon as we saw the new young lady character in the episode, I immediately knew she was his daughter or why else would they have shown us that clip?? So how does a show balance reminding the audience about things that occurred awhile ago without tipping their hand on what is about to come in the next hour? I don't have a good answer.

Huh, that's a great question! I didn't actually see the "Previously on" element of this week's "Westworld" because I watched the episode as a screener, which didn't include it. So the twist was very much preserved for me, though I figured that character had to be there for some reason, and as soon as her identity was revealed, it made a lot of other things she'd done and said make much more sense.

I haven't actually pondered this question very much before you posed, but I think I would come down on the side of saying that on plot-driven shows, "Previously on" summaries should be limited to reminding the audience of information that's absolutely critical to understanding the events they're about to see, and that it's plausible that they might have forgotten. Since this new character was introduced so recently, and since the episode explains, repeatedly, that the Man in Black has a daughter, alluding to either her existence or the Man in Black's previous references to his family in the "Previously on" segment seems unnecessary.  Far better for viewers to be surprised and then appreciative when something is revealed than to focus on nudging people towards guessing plot developments that are coming down the pike anyway. The idea of "solving" television shows is pernicious and annoying, and no aspect of a show or its promotion should be oriented towards it. (Yes, I know I'm grumpy.)

I immediately assumed you'd given birth prematurely. By now, I assume you wish...

I'm actually doing okay, fortunately, though the heat we're having today is trying my patience. I've been lucky enough to have a pretty physically comfortable pregnancy, and I'm happy to give this kid a full 40 weeks to cook.

Watching the trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody (the Queen movie with Rami Malek), I found myself getting inexplicably angry. It's just a trailer, and Rami Malek is a good actor, so maybe the movie could end up being great. But there's something about the obvious effort put into channeling Freddie Mercury that feels vaguely grotesque and belittling. In general, I'm not a fan of biopics, with a few exceptions (recently, Jackie and Loving), but biopics about actors and singers in particular feel like pale imitations of the people they're supposedly celebrating. The only good one I can think of is Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine, and that's technically fiction. What's the actual point of these movies other than to give actors awards-bait roles? Do you think it's possible for actors to play famous actors/performers without coming across as self-congratulatory or inadvertently diminishing their subjects?

I think the answer lies partially in the two examples you've cited as recent biopics you liked. "Loving" works in part because while the Loving v. Virginia decision is famous, the Lovings themselves were fairly private figures, and because the movie shows an actual interest in getting to know them as people, rather than treating their lives as a framework on which to hang a bunch of familiar historical events. Because we don't have a strong sense of the couple, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton aren't stuck doing impersonations, and their work is the opposite of flashy: it's quiet and interior.

"Jackie" works in kind of the opposite direction. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was such an overwhelmingly famous figure, and our perception of her is so defined by her elegance and grace that there's something genuinely thrilling about seeing Natalie Portman nail her physical appearance and diction, but turn them to brittle, manipulative, even harsh ends. The movie works because it upends an existing perception of a phenomenally famous person rather than confirming it.

These are the two categories of biopics that to me, generally work well: those who introduce us to people we should know but don't, and those willing to challenge a very established impression. I do think something like "Lincoln, " which places an extremely famous figure in context in a way that we're quick to ignore can also be effective. But I have no desire to see mere impersonations on screen. Give me an actual interpretation any day.

I saw the Childish Gambino video and was thoroughly disoriented. It's clear that Childish is trying to make us ponder the intersection of entertainment and tragedy. But there are too many references that I don't get, and moves I simply don't understand. (What's the significance of stopping in the middle of a song for several seconds to light a joint?) I have the feeling that this is an important work of art, but I simply can't understand it, and don't know how to begin to try. I'm feeling as though I'm too much of a middle-aged white guy to approach this, and I say this as someone who's been able to understand Beyonce. How should I deal with it? Or should I just let it go?

This is a fantastic question, and I'm going to tackle it in this week's newsletter.

List the pros/cons of the Baby Boomers achievements/failures.

I am super not sure I am the person to do this! It's actually a question I'd like to see tackled by a whole panel's-worth of people with very different perspectives, though.

Your plans (assuming you haven't given birth yet)? Who do you think will walk Meghan down the aisle, now that her father is in bad odour for selling photo ops of himself? Will you make the WaPo's replica of the wedding cake? https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/voraciously/wp/2018/04/25/heres-how-to-make-your-own-version-of-prince-harry-and-meghan-markles-royal-wedding-cake

I might go watch with some friends, but my guess is that I'll end up curled up at home; these last few mornings when I can sleep in are pretty precious to me, but this is tempting. Sadly, I have gestational diabetes, so no cake for me. :( Though maybe I will attempt this once we've got the baby home and I'm allowed to have sweets again.

And as for who will walk Meghan down the aisle, this whole thing with her dad just feels incredibly sad to me. Obviously, her family involves a lot of turmoil, and it must be so painful to have that tsuris playing out on such a hyper-public stage. I don't have a strong guess as to who will walk her down the aisle, but maybe her mom? I think that would be lovely, if it's something she wants; they seem to share an exceptionally close bond.

Do you find Ryan Reynolds funny on-screen?

I do! I actually quite like him. I don't know if you've watched "Definitely, Maybe," one of my favorite semi-recent romantic comedies (and a fascinatingly lacerating movie about the disillusionments of the Clinton years), but he's great in that, in a much more low-key way than he is in the "Deadpool" movies. If I'm still pregnant this weekend, my husband and I are planning to catch the sequel since I missed the press screening.

I'm glad BROOKLYN 99 was rescued by NBC, but I feel almost like it's given me a false set of expectations that more canceled shows will get post facto resurrections. I feel so certain that THE EXPANSE will be picked up, that I know my disappointment if it doesn't happen will be out of proportion with how much I actually like the show (even though the book series is still ongoing, so I'm not cut off from the story if it happens.)

Well, to be fair, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" is not the first show that this has happened to! If anything, "Community" was probably the precedent-setter for this, followed by "The Mindy Project." I'd be curious to know why you think "The Expanse" is going to be picked up? In the case of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," the show is produced by NBC's studio, so NBC had a financial incentive to pick the series up, and make and air more episodes it could sell into syndication and streaming; this was as much about corporate synergy as fan passion. (It helps that NBC had shows from Mike Schur, who co-created "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," that it could package with the series in a comedy block.) That's not a bad thing, of course; sometimes corporate incentives align with all that makes us feel good in the world. But it's definitely the reason why it happened.

When the news story broke, my immediate reaction was to wonder whether they'd paid Michael Cohen to peddle influence with Trump. Why isn't the President vowing to bring these phone manufacturing jobs to the US instead???

That is a question for the president of the United States, not for me!

My oldest brother used to tease us or really anyone around their 13th birthday by saying, "so you're going to be a teenybopper" and it just stuck in my head for years and honestly just like the word even if usually meant to invoke young Frank Sinatra fans. Kind of forget sometimes that it was part of a family joke.

Hah! I mean, it is a specific marketing term, and I believe it persisted somewhat beyond the era in which it was invented.

Loved the homage to Lost with James Delos hanging out in a subterranean hole for a long time. I thought this was one of the strongest episodes to date (both seasons) because it expands the purpose of the park, beyond just a very expensive playground. It makes sense that this technology can be used to extend the lives of the ultra-rich. Online chats are awash with guesses on who the other human-host hybrid is. The smart money is on Ford, but it could be a number of others as well.

Interestingly, the showrunners for "Westworld" very much did not intend this episode as an homage to "Lost," though obviously a lot of people saw it that way. And I have to be honest: I really have no interest in speculating on this sort of question. It's just not the way I watch "Westworld," or any pop culture.

I remember Slate's June Thomas had a problem (well, "a" implies singular which would be incorrect) about the first season of "House of Cards" in that there were no "previously on" and so later on in the season when stuff like the guy who worked on the college newspaper along side the Cabinet nominee that F.U. tanked suddenly started to matter again, she felt it wasn't unfair to say she could remember all that happened there 10 hours later.

She's not wrong about that; "House of Cards" had so many characters, and was so terrible at making them memorable that it really could have used a "Previously on" segment, especially from season to season.

I appreciated your farewell to Brooklyn Nine Nine. Like you I was ready to let it go, but I'm delighted that NBC is picking it up, in a way that doesn't feel shoddy. (I'm a little worried about the 13-episode order but I'm not going to let it spoil my day.)

I honestly think a 13-episode order is fine. I don't really expect "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" to be on for more than this additional season, and giving them room to explore a few final storylines seems totally reasonable. I'll take what I can get.

I'm getting a bit annoyed at the different timelines that the show keeps playing with. It makes it annoyingly hard to follow, and the way that story threads are dropped and picked back up seems to lead to large plot holes. For example, Elsie looks like she's in amazingly good condition for being chained up in a cave for what I assume is weeks, with naught but protein bars and a bucket(and apparently no water). Is the timeline hopping approach the creators are taking leading to sloppy writing? Do you think Westworld would benefit from a more straight-forward approach?

I do not feel like I have a good sense of how much time has passed in the most recent timeline, but I agree Elsie seems in pretty good shape, relative to the circumstances in which she's been abandoned. I think the show has done a slightly better job of signaling times with costume and setting this season, but it's still all a bit complicated.

Yay for "Brooklyn Nine Nine"! When Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted that it's one of the four things he watches, I realized that with "New Girl" ending, and B99's season being almost over, I'm going to be missing nice characters until "The Good Place" comes back.

I really hope both he and Guillermo del Toro, another prominent fan of the show, make appearances in the new season. That kind of thing can be distracting, but in this case, I would be charmed by it (and I would trust the writing staff to do fun things with them). I can also imagine Holt overcoming his resistance to the idea of a hip-hop musical and going nuts for "Hamilton," a la Kwazy Kupcakes.

I just wanted to send some kudos to you on your willingness to buck the liberal/feminist line and say what you believe about people and situations even when (I suspect) you know that you'll get pushback and perhaps accusations of being a sell-out. I'm not going to give any examples, but I think you'll know what columns of yours I'm thinking of. I don't always agree with you, but I do admire your independence of thought. On the staff of a newspaper that has a depressingly sameness of ideological thought, you do stand out. Congrats and the best of luck on the birth of your first child.

My goal with my writing and my conversations with you guys is always to try to be honest about where I am, even if it's complicated or evolving. I don't agree with you about our supposed ideological homogeneousness, not least because I've had a lot of room and encouragement from editors to pursue that goal. But I do appreciate the kind words and good wishes.

Game of Thrones like to throw red herrings in the "previous on" segments along with the foreshadowing, so it can work both ways.

Yes, they're smart about that.

Do you have any specific plans for TV to watch during the early days of parenthood? My wife was partial to sitcom reruns when both of our kids were born. My strategy was to watch baseball with them. I guess I'm recommending something nondemanding.

Definitely a lot of baseball. I grew up on the Red Sox, and my husband is a Yankees fan, so we're a mixed household. But thanks to my parents, the baby already has a Red Sox hat...

Okay, folks. That's all for now. I'll see you next Monday, unless the baby intervenes, in which case I've made arrangements for a notice to be posted. Have a great rest of your week!

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