Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Mar. 25)

Mar 25, 2019

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 are you doing? Did "Us" scare the heck out of most of you? Did you get out and do anything outside on this beautiful weekend? My husband and I took the baby to the zoo, and watching an orangutan take the entire O-Line with a huge crowd (including one very excited little kid who kept explaining "It's Chewbacca!") was probably the best collective entertainment spectacle I've been to since the kid was born. Now, to your questions!

What projects are you most looking forward to this year? So far, have there been any that haven't lived up to the hype/expectation?

I'm curious to see "Avengers: Endgame," though I'm not sure I'd necessarily describe it as something I'm hugely anticipating. Oddly, I feel the same way about the final season of "Game of Thrones," despite it being a show that arguably has defined my career as a critic: honestly, I just kind of want to get them both over with. I was bitterly disappointed by "Captain Marvel" and I'm bracing for both "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," since the live-action remakes of them feel like a direct hit at the heart of my childhood cultural experiences. I'm exceedingly curious to see "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," even though I suspect it may not be my thing (Tarantino generally isn't; I respect what he's doing, it's just not for me). I'm *definitely* excited for "The Irishman," "Gemini Man," "Ad Astra" and "The Report." And I am both looking forward to and fearing Greta Gerwig's "Little Women," which probably has the most upside potential for me, but could also break my heart. Having seen the finale of "You're The Worst," I'm very much looking forward to discussing it with all of you. And I can't wait to see the end of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." I'm still thinking about "Triple Frontier," so I guess that counts as something of a win? And I'm trying to decide if I'm too much of a fraidy-cat to see "Us," which I'm sure is great, but also seems to press on some of my specific phobias in a way I'm not sure I can handle.

I recently started watching this series on Netflix and am now hooked on the complex lives and struggles of the characters. It's one of several foreign series I've enjoyed (Bodyguard, Broadchurch, River). I also rewatched Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lawrence's breakout movie, and loved it as much as I did the first time. Good options abound!

Good to know!

I totally why he's well regarded as a presidential candidate and I'm not even associating the name in my head with him, but Apropos of nothing since last week, I haven't been able to "Paco O'Toole" out of my head.

What is he up to? Maybe this chat should just become a full-time Paco O'Toole fan fic.

I recently finished watching "Sons of Anarchy" and I couldn't help but feel like it started out pretty solid, then really went downhill, despite seemingly having the ingredients to be a really interesting, complex show. Are there any shows that come to mind where you feel this way, or any that should be bad but have turned out to be pretty good?

Oh BOY did I feel like this about "Sons of Anarchy," which I actually did not watch all the way through to its conclusion; I don't remember exactly when I stopped, but there was definitely a point at which I felt like the character studies got lost in almost pornographic violence and baroque plotting and I just couldn't take it any more. I think "Homeland" also took this trajectory really dramatically, and I haven't watched it for years.

In terms of shows that were risky but have really paid off, I feel like the concept for "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" had an extraordinarily high degree of difficult and has totally stuck the landing. Ditto "You're The Worst." They could have been off-putting and exhausting, and instead, they're charming, emotionally engaged, and even sometimes really revivifying.

Hi Alyssa, There's been some discussion about spoilers and what the statute of limitations is. I get not being able to avoid spoilers after a movie has been out for a while, but I'm looking forward to seeing "Us" which just opened last Friday. Friday morning there were already several articles up on different websites with headlines like "Let's Explain the Ending of 'Us'." How can you already be discussing the ending the day the movie opens - even if I plan to see it opening day, these headlines were in the morning when I was at work! I don't even read reviews anymore because it seems like every writer feels compelled now to not just give a critique but to have Important Thoughts About That Ending and they publish it immediately to get ahead of everyone else's analysis. What gives?

An excellent question! Let's discuss in this week's newsletter.

It's hard to even remember the storylines really. They killed off a lot of characters and plotlines so hard to remember who is still around and who isn't. I wish I was more invested in Jon Snow and Khaleesi becoming lovers than I am. I honestly trying to think of what big resolution I'm invested in. The Lannisters? Cersei and Tyrion? Cersei and Jaime? Meh. It's both too big and too small when you have the apocalyptic army of the frozen dead to deal with and also sibling rivalry to solve.

I think this is an excellent question, and it's honestly one I'd like to toss to the group: who are you still invested in on "Game of Thrones." I need to write a piece about this, but my strong feeling is that the only way for "Game of Thrones" to end with integrity is to end as grimly as possible. If it turns into a fairy tale, all the work it did to deconstruct those courtly tropes will be for naught.

That said, I am not made of stone, and I am a fan as well as a critic. So here's what I continue to be emotionally invested in:

-I continue to think that Arya will die, because the Faceless Men can't be defeated that easily, but now that she and Sansa have reconciled, I can live with it.

-I would like to see Jaime and Brienne together again, even if it's only briefly. Those two are my OTP of the show, honestly, and I would love for them to acknowledge it before they both inevitably die horribly.

-The only acceptable happy ending in "Game of Thrones" would be a revolution that signals the possibility of democracy in Westeros, in which case I want Gilly and Sam to open up a little shop or work a little farm somewhere together. Those two crazy kids deserve to be okay.

Other than that, I think I'll probably be fine with any outcomes. 

It seems a while back we heard news about a TV show based on "Fire and Fury" and a movie based on Gabriel Sherman's book "The Apprentice" about Trump. Do you think any of these projects will get actually made, do people have a desire/appetite to watch these or make these?

Last I can tell, the adaptation of "Fire and Fury" had a director attached, and I don't see anything to indicate that HBO has halted production on it. So my sense is that it's still a work in progress, and that it'll probably end up airing, maybe next year to capitalize on the election?

But whether anyone has interest in the darn thing once it airs is a separate question, and it may be very different if Trump wins re-election. I suspect that if he wins, a certain type of audience for projects about Trump's venality may be so exhausted and depressed that they can't bear watching these pieces. In the leadup to the election, folks may whip themselves up by revisiting his most infamous hits (though of course, that's not exactly activism). What happens after that is much more questionable, and if I were a TV executive, I'd be moderately conservative with my checkbook. The news cycle is too crazy for any of these accounts to stick in the public imagination for long, such that people will still be clamoring for the adaptation several years later.

I haven't read a thing on it so far. I feel like I've been burnt by this stuff before. I'm waiting a bit when it gets settled before going into it. It's like the bad or good buzz about the last movie release. I still kick myself for paying into the hype machine of "Prometheus" before anybody knew it was another "Alien" movie.

Well, we don't have the full report yet, either, so you may be smart to wait to read the analysis.

I read the Sean Collins article about Netflix that you tweeted about. But I'm not really surprised that a producer of mass culture is planning to produce more culture that resembles previous successes. (I'm equally unsurprised that Netflix is feeding our popular hunger for violent programming, as Steven Zeitchik wrote in the paper yesterday.) It's all very well to wish for new and original content, but the number of John Landgrafs and Chris Albrechts who actually have the authority and interest to greenlight distinctive stuff is small.

Even Chris Albrecht's record at Starz wasn't all it cracked up to be. I think Sean's point was that Netflix positioned itself to be something different, but then ended up being guided by the algorithm in ways that yes, we probably should have suggested. His point isn't merely that Netflix is making popular entertainment; it's that Netflix is guided by data to the point that it sometimes guides decisions as granular as plot developments. That is freaky and weird and homogenizing, and the exact opposite of what its decision to sign creators like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy to big contracts portended. It's almost the inverse of auteurism.

Sometimes a show's title can be off-putting, e.g., the sitcom "Cougartown," which was reputedly much better than its title would suggest. Likewise, "The Seinfeld Chronicles" became just "Seinfeld," while "These Friends of Mine" became "Ellen."

Yes, that definitely can have an impact!

Can we talk about how/why there are so many Theranos-related projects in development/which ones you think are the most interesting/relevant? I get that we love grifters but it seems like there is a new thing every day.

I think the audacity of this particular alleged fraud, the amount of money involved and the prominence of the people who lent her support have made Theranos the ultimate grifter story. There's also the fact that Holmes herself remains an enigma, which means people are eager to dig in and try to fill the interpretive void. Also, given that it's a good subject, a lot of people got to work on it simultaneously, which is just a thing that happens sometimes. I'm very much looking forward to Adam McKay's take on the case.

I was so late to actually watching "The Sixth Sense" that the twist was already part of pop culture by the time I saw it years later. I think I was around 10 when I first saw the movies, but I grew up on, "Luke, I am your father." (apparently in the actual scene Darth Vader never says that particular line) so it never occurred to me that it was big surprise for moviegoers in 1980.

As someone who also grew up pretty divorced from pop culture, I've had this experience, too. In a way, it provides a nice test of whether a piece of pop culture is truly spectacular: if you can see it knowing the basic contours and even the twists and iconic lines and still be blown away but it, there's something special there. Truly great art is much more than the sum of its parts; I definitely felt that way when my husband showed me "The Godfather" for the first time.

I think it was the creators of "Lost" who wanted to kill off Matthew Fox's character in the plot and the network executive told them not to because something about when you know anyone, including the lead, can die so early the viewer gets less invested. I can't think of any character, Arya, Tyrion, Jon Snow, Dany, etc... who I could see dying at some point way more the finale. And I was invested in other characters like Osha and they were killed off pretty quickly without much to-do so.

Well, one of the things that distinguished "Game of Thrones" from other so-called Golden Age shows was its willingness to kill off Ned Stark and flip your perception of what the series was going to be.

I would be frustrated with a fairy tale ending, but also an inconclusive one... where characters ride of into the sunset with no solid resolution. Give me a Six Feet Under type ending and I will be happy.

I suspect we'll see everyone die for real, without having to peep forward into the future to find out.

I forget if Yara is still around? Theon was a character that I didn't care about in Season Two, but talking to somebody who was made me turn around my opinion on.

Euron claims he has her, and Theon wants to go off and get her back.

The ultimate example for me is "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." I thought the title was stupid and ignored the show... until "Firefly" came along. Once I discovered the Whedon was a genius, I binged every episode.

I really need to rewatch "Buffy" and see how it holds up for me now, especially as a parent.

Even before he was affirmatively brought back, I assumed that the logical end was for almost all the important players die while defeating the Night King (excepting Sansa). Notably, Gendry would manage to survive, and Sam would then be able to prove he was the last remaining heir and set up a Baratheon "restoration." Sansa would support this as long as she got to keep her title as Lady of Winterfell. Of course, Gendry would have no real understanding of statecraft and would be immediately swarmed by advisors who would keep things in Westeros "the same as they ever was."

I actually think that's probably far too hopeful?

I kind of wish AMC's "TURN" about spies during the American Revolutionary War was better. I mean it did me a better understanding of the often forgotten Third Amendment, but still. It was the kind of show you knew they spend money on yet somehow made it look cheap? They had they big on-location settings, but then they just look bare and empty. That was just one of its problems.

Yeah, that one never clicked for me, either.

I'm also excited to see the McKay movie, especially with the Jennifer Lawrence casting. Feels like she hasn't been making as many movies lately and I think she can do a lot with this character.

Yeah, she's been pacing herself a little. I definitely think her ability to show you what her character is going through without speaking a word or making that subtext text is going to be exceptionally valuable in this particular role.

I often find this to be true when shows are adapted from other better projects. I just started TNT's "Animal Kingdom," an American version of David Michod's excellent Australian crime flick with Jackie Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, and Joel Edgerton, and it seems promising but is stumbling a bit.

Yeah, that's a tricky one. It's almost definitionally diminishing returns. This is also a case where "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" defies expectations!

They killed off Ned Stark, but they still had a thousand and one other characters. We're down to a half dozen by now.

They've had a lot to work through, and they've sure done it!

So, did YOU see "Us" already, or not yet? And if so, what did you think? (Apologies if you've already written a review and I just missed it!) I saw it Sunday afternoon (so not opening night, but fairly early in its run, I guess) and enjoyed it a lot. Horror isn't really my genre, so I am glad to have seen it during daylight hours, and with friends, though I also didn't find it as directly "scary" as some movies have been for me. I thought the story was really, really good, and I feel like there's a lot of depth to the layers of meaning, as well as to the performances of the actors.

I'm still considering whether I'm going to see it; I have an extremely low tolerance for horror, and since I had my kid, I've really struggled with pop culture where kids are in grotesque danger. I'm trying to give myself a lot of time and space with these feelings; my kid is only ten months old, and so I'm trying to remind myself that a lot of things are in flux and I'll come down on a new normal with moviegoing, as with everything else.

Hi Alyssa! Thanks so much for hosting this chat! New here, but how did you come to name this chat Act Four?

Honestly, when I came to the Post, they wouldn't let me name the blog after myself (which I thought would have been simpler), and after we lawyered and rejected a million other things, Act Four was kind of what we were left with.

I held up for me very well, and my daughters love it. One of the few shows with a female teen lead not constantly thinking about makeup, hairstyles and boys (Demons and other hellish beasts are much better).

Hah, totally. Maybe we'll save it for when the kid is old enough to enjoy it; my husband watched it with his parents, so it would be fun to do it as a family show for a second time.

I remember seeing Casablanca for the first time when I was in college, and feeling like it was full of cliches.... until I reminded myself that it was where those cliches came from!

Those moments are always super-fun. And "Casablanca" is indeed a motherlode of tropes and sayings.

...the two best movies I've seen in the last year have been documentaries. They Shall Not Grow Old was the closest any of us will ever get to understanding the conditions on the Western Front, and Peter Jackson finally used his obsession with film and sound enhancement technology for good. (It also is the only movie I've watched in 3D where it made a significant, helpful difference.) And this weekend, Apollo 11 put you back 50 years - and had minimal handholding or editorial comment, which was a remarkable but brilliant decision. I wish we could see more like both.

I feel similarly about "Won't You Be My Neighbor," which is both a lovely celebration of Fred Rogers and a melancholy acknowledgement that he lost the fight of his life to make television a kinder, more manageable, less-damaging format.

The Buffy question is interesting to me as well! I watched it when it was on-air originally, which coincided with my college/just-after-college years, and now I'm a parent (and have learned a lot more about both the world in general, Joss Whedon and his oeuvre specifically, and sexism, racism, and all the other forms of power/control dynamics that we live with). I suspect - without having gotten around to actually rewatching them very recently - that the treatment of the issues the show raises might not have aged super well. I don't know if I *will* get around to rewatching the whole thing and finding out for sure, in this age of so many other (and newer) choices for TV and other forms of entertainment/art, but it's interesting to think about, for sure!

I suspect Xander in particular may not age beautifully.

I know you don't like the violence and gore in TWD, but it went downhill fast for me the second Neegan was introduced. I would much rather a show end strong than to lose steam and become terrible.

Completely agreed.

But also not not ever either? Buffy wants to be homecoming queen or whatever is treated as awful. "Buffy" was also a show that wasn't anti-girlishness either which is super rare.

An excellent point.

I was in No CA when the film came out. A local DJ announced to anyone listening that Vader was Luke's father and caused such an uproar that he was fired. Spoilers were simply not tolerated then...

That poor DJ!

Your response makes a lot of sense to me, thanks! I am a parent too (my kids are not so new to me, though, as they're six and ten years old now) and definitely have also found that a lot of things, including "kids in danger", hit me harder emotionally than they used to. I wish you well in your own determinations about what works for you, and when. I'll say that for me, the violence around kids *was* somewhat horrifying, yes, though knowing that it's all just a movie, it was maybe *less* horrifying than when I read about real-world bad news involving children. For what that's worth, which might not be much, on this subject!

It's definitely a complicated question, and I'm trying not to rush myself in terms of figuring out my feelings.

Folks, I have to bop to my 2pm meeting. Thanks as always for your time. I hope you all have great weeks!

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