Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Dec. 10)

Dec 10, 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! How are your Mondays going? I'm finishing my "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" catchup and trying to decide how I feel about the fourth season of the show. And I'm still in awe at how terrific "The Good Place" has been this year. What's making you happy this week?

I remember watching "The Dark Knight Rises" and really hating on it and it also made think of flaws I'd either overlooked or didn't notice in "The Dark Night." Sort of the same thing with M. Night Shyamalan's work making think less of "The Sixth Sense." Does anybody else have that where you noticed the faults in bad subsequent project make you realize so-called "good" early ones had them as well?

Hmmm, this is an interesting question. This is sort of the opposite scenario, but I went back and read the rest of Meg Wolitzer's novels after I read "The Interestings," and while I liked a lot of them, there was nothing that came together quite as perfectly as "The Interestings." I was glad I read her other novels, since it helped me get a better sense of her craft and style and why all the elements came together so perfectly in "The Interestings."

So I was talking with some people and somehow my big brother's strange middle name came up and I mention it's a great-grandmother's maiden name and I got a look. It felt weird. Using "maiden name" is not the hill I'd die either way so I don't mind not using it and I also don't mind using it and "woke" crowd giving the side-eye.

My mom kept her name, and my siblings and I all have it as our middle names. Since she didn't change her name, I don't think of it as her maiden name, just her name. I think it's an old-fashioned term, and given the fact that plenty of people have had sex before they get married, an archaic one. But I'm not sure I think of it as problematic, just awkward.

I would like to recommend a good book of short stories for my book club. I haven't seen too many in recent "best of" year-end lists (or I overlooked them). Any recommendations for something published in the last 1-2 years? We read "Olive Kitteridge" a few years ago but I don't think we have read a collection since then.

I don't know if your book club is amenable to horror, but if you are, I might recommend "The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror" by Daniel Mallory Ortberg (published under the name Mallory Ortberg). I have not actually read the collection, but if you all take it up, it would give me an incentive to do so, and I love Ortberg's work. 

Beyond that, I'll put it to the room. Thoughts, folks?

My dad would make jokes about unpaid dowry. My mom's family obviously didn't give him any dowry since it wasn't 1784 and it was just a stupid joke. We were talking about it over the holidays and I just type "dowry" into Google News wondering is it even a thing still and learned it very much is and very depressing to read about it.

Yeah, this is one of those areas where progress around the world happens at a highly uneven rate. I think there are potentially scenarios where doweries work in a way that are more ceremonial and less problematic. If you really want to be depressed, but about a subject where you can potentially do something to help, you might look into rates of child marriage, which is still not banned everywhere in the United States.

Follow me on this... I haven't robbed a bank because I know the police would catch me and I'd go to prison for long time. I think impeachment has gotten a bad name. I don't get why there is idea that candidates must run away from the term as fast as they can. It's so much actual impeachment, but the treat of impeachment should keep any president in check let alone our Moron-in-Chief.

I see where your logic is coming from in theory, but I want to poke at it a little bit in practice. The deterrence theory makes a certain amount of sense, of course. But I want you to consider one difference. It's fairly routine for criminals who are caught by the police to be tried and go to jail (for those of you in the audience, let's stipulate to the fact that a fair number of crimes aren't solved, that there are major problems with our plea-bargaining and trial systems, etc.) But a president of the United States has never been impeached, convicted and removed from office, so we have no idea what the impact on our political system would be like if this took place. At minimum, the vice president who was elevated to the presidency would face all sorts of rumors about mechanations they much have pulled, hindering their effectiveness in office. At worst...well, it's hard for me to consider what the worst-case scenario here would be. Theoretically, impeachment is meant to cover a wide variety of misdeeds, so the threshhold to its use is low. But because the consequences of its use are so unpredictable, the threshhold is higher. At least that's how I think about it, and I suspect this motivates a lot of politicians' thinking as well.

You mentioned how pop culture about American politics not depicting a Donald Trump stand-in. I feel like the leadership in "The Purge" movie series and "Handmaid's Tale" seem like a prediction/warning about Vice President Pence and Bible-thumping politicians. I feel if Donald Trump wasn't such amoral and irreligious person, his followers think of themselves "moral" voters. Just watch Evangelical Protestant leader in interviews explaining how they ignore Donald Trump's unrepentant infidelity.

Look, it's a huge mystery to me how many evangelical leaders manage to support President Trump enthusiastically, as opposed to viewing him as a vehicle for a terrible compromise that will get them the judicial appointments and other policy changes they want. But it's impossible to deny that's what's happening. 

I'm actually talking about something else, though. I'd really love to see pop culture trying to imagine entirely different modes of political leadership into being. It's one thing for pop culture to reflect the existing environment back to us and help us figure out how to think about it. It's another thing entirely for pop culture to help us expand our political imaginations and our sense of what's possible. Both are useful. But I think on the former, pop culture's gotten into a bit of a rut, and I wonder if we could get out of that rut by focusing on the latter project.

My parents' marriage license lists my then 25-year-old mom as "Spinster."

That is kind of awesome.

I have been a fan of CEG since the beginning, and i"m also struggling to make sense of my feelings about this season. I didn't necessarily want to ramp things up to a crazy climax, but sometimes it feels like a long epilogue. I've liked moments like the Rebecca/Nathaniel/Josh trio singing about how alone they are in the premier, but it was kind of shocking the way Valencia and Heather's main stories seemed to wrap up a third of the way through. Maybe later I'll understand the direction more.

I think that's right. I also feel like the music generally hasn't been as strong this season? 

And as a larger point, I wonder if it's tricky to dramatize someone trying to be good. This season of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" actually makes me think more of "The Good Place," which manages to maintain its antic energy in the service of morality and good intentions.

Making me happy: this week's episode of The Good Place, which impossibly was even better than the previous episode. Making me antsy: the fact that we won't see the next episode until January 17.

For those of you who are not caught up on "The Good Place," beware!

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How great is D'Arcy Carden? It speaks to the other performers on "The Good Place" that they've created characters sufficiently distinguished that their characteristics can come through in a way that doesn't feel like an impression when they're being played by someone else. But her ability to pull off playing all of them in "Janets" was just remarkable. I really hope she gets some recognition come awards season.

I am a pregnant lady considering doing what your parents did with my kid's name (I did not change my name, I would like my kid to have my last name in part as well as his Dad's, but I am worried about hyphenation being unweildy). As someone who has their mom's last name as a middle name, would you say it's a good idea?

I think it's been fine! Honestly, I don't use my middle name terribly frequently, so if you want to feel like your kid will use your name on a regular basis, this solution might not get you that jolt of recognition. If you simply want your name to be carried on, it will work fine! When my husband and I had our kid earlier this year, we chose to honor both sides of our families in different ways, so my mom's name didn't continue down to a third generation, but then, we didn't give the kid my father's name, either.

We read Florida by Lauren Groff. Some of the group liked it while some didn't so lead to an interesting discussion.

Passed on!

I think The Hobbit movies make me reflect a little more badly in Return of the King. You can see the origins of the excesses in The Hobbit on pacing (so many endings) and poor CGI integration (dead army and Legolas's silly elephant stunt) in the last of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Oh, yes, this is an obvious one! I'm not sure why I didn't think of it, but I totally agree.

Came out in 2015, Shirley Jackson's "Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings."

More recommendations!

I know a couple where the husband took the wife's last name. No hyphenate or anything. Just outright changed his name. What should his previous last name be called?

Good question! I should ask my friend who did that.

I haven't read as many short-story collections as I wish, but Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others is pretty fascinating. It contains the short story that Arrival was based on, if that movie was your thing. I also generally like the Best American Short Stories series. Obviously, the individual stories can be hit or miss depending on your taste, but they usually give a decent view of what's out there, and this year's is edited by Roxane Gay, so I'm excited to see what she puts together.

This is turning into such a great reading list!

Okay, I'll bite. How would nation-states have been better than superheroes at fighting Thanos? The usual arguments in favor of superheroes are (a) they are more powerful than nation-states, and (b) they are more flexibly and rapidly deployed. Also, (c) it's easier and faster to assemble a coalition of the willing. (Which is a reminder that every super-team is effectively an argument for developing geopolitical alliances.) Of course, every superhero movie asks us to have faith that the hero will make the right call about who to fight for, and I am happy to grant that the Battle of Wakanda did not use Captain America's strategic experience to good effect. But I'm struggling to see how you move from the battle to the virtue of nation-states.

For those of you who don't follow me on Twitter (a place where, admittedly, I am spending a lot less time), my husband and I were feeling braindead over the weekend and rewatched "Avengers: Infinity War," which made me feel grumpy. Me grousing about the Battle of Wakanda was really me complaining about the way the movie needs the characters to make a series of bad decisions in order to move the plot forward. If Wakanda is supposed to be so militarily and technically powerful, it's bizarre that they don't appear to have an aerial or artillery response to Thanos' invasion. A country with a fully-formed military could have executed flanking maneuvers! They could have dropped napalm on Thanos' beasties and kept the shield up! Thor could have just chopped Thanos' arm off! I could go on and on, but the whole thing just made me incredibly grumpy. Plan better, action movies!

I remember Hanna Rosin talking about it and in the abstract she loves it and how wonderful, but in the real world whenever she finds examples of it, it's an extension of issues the man has with his own family rather the more ideal reasons.

That is not at all my experience! But in both directions, this is probably why we shouldn't use anecdata to make decisions.

Now that Margaret Atwood has said A Handmaid's Tale follow-up is coming next year, can we start talking about the expectations -- the original novel has reached pop culture icon status and I'm worried about a let down...

I wrote about this in last week's newsletter, actually! As a general rule, I am not a fan of follow-up novels to books that weren't originally planned to be serials, but given Atwood's work in the MaddAddam trilogy examining a scenario from multiple perspectives and timelines, and given that this follow-up is going to be set 15 years later than the events of "The Handmaid's Tale" and told from multiple perspectives, I'm willing to at least see what it's all about.

The feminist hand-wringing over a Pence presidency by comparing it to the Handmaid's Tale just seems so wildly uninformed. The book itself (and the darker television series) indicates a lack of familiarity with modern evangelical Protestantism, even less mainstream versions of those religious practices. I suppose all polemics benefit from straw men, but I find it very difficult not to roll my eyes at the comparisons between Pence and a Gilead-style set of political beliefs. It's become a more literary version of Godwin's law.

I agree with you that this is a frustrating analogy, though for different reasons. The moment we're in much more closely resembles the period that, in Atwood's imagining, was the run-up to the events of "The Handmaid's Tale." We've got the pornographic, decadent culture without the fertility crisis, or at least without the fertility problems reaching the same proportions.

In our particular current case,shouldn't a lot, if not all, the blame for impeachment go to the President rather Congress since he is the one committing the crimes. It's this weird thing for the blaming for catching or holding the President to account is being discussed as a negative and kind of wish a bit more focus that the President willfully did these things to subvert a fair election.

It would be so lovely if any part of our political system functioned in a logical way, wouldn't it?

So I finally watch the latest Avengers movie. One thing I think Hollywood (unsure what term to use) doesn't understand is one thing I like from a superhero movie is people being rescued. That's the thrilling part and the part I enjoy. Literally half of Earth's population dies. It's like in Iron Men 3 when Air Force One blows up and a bunch of staffers get sucked out of the airborne plane. I was so used to destruction in superheros movies didn't even occur any attempt to rescue them would take place so Iron Men does and saves maybe 8 or 9 random people we never see again, I was surprised and I love it.

Let's discuss this a bit in this week's newsletter!

Both these shows have been treading water in the early part of the season building up to unleashing the crazy. Good Place did it this week with the return to the afterlife and CEG was breaking fourth walls all over the place telling exactly when the "season" was ending. SPOILER ALERT: Valentine's Day. There is a metaphor in movies where the first two acts are getting to the fireworks factory and the last act is watching it explode. I expect a really big barnburner from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It's right in the title. They need to pay it off.

Oh, I totally disagree with this assessment! "The Good Place" had tons of plot connected to the characters' development early in the season, even if it wasn't wacky plot, and the show is so joke-dense that feels like itself even when the events of the episodes operate at different paces. By contrast, the music on "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" has felt much more off this season, and the characters are muddling around in different directions rather than proceeding together as a whole.

A friend was over for dinner Friday night and when I learned he loves "The Good Place" and hadn't watched last week's episode (neither had I) I suggested we watch it. I mentioned at the beginning this chat's love for Janet. Well, we were just blown away by what a terrific episode it was and in particular how terrific "Janet" is. What a great episode!

You are a good dinner party host.

Maiden names is sort of minor issue in Texas driver's license since when a bride takes her husband's last name, her "maiden name" legally becomes her middle name. Actually an issue in voter registration too particularly in cases of divorce. 60 Minutes did a segment some years ago if you can find it.

Huh, this is fascinating! I had no idea. I guess that makes those post-divorce name changes more complicated.

Folks, it's meeting o'clock! Thanks for chatting, as always, and for coming to the conclusion that "maiden name" is one for the social history books. See you all next Monday for, shockingly enough, our last chat of the year!

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