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

Sep 16, 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.

Hi everyone! Sorry for our slightly delayed start; was tied up in a bit of administratvia. If you have the fortitude for it, my top-of-the-hour recommendation is Netflix's "Unbelievable," which is one of the best examples of showing not telling I've seen in recent pop culture. It's just incredibly impressive, and Merritt Weaver, Toni Collette and Kaitlyn Dever are all incredible. Also, it's very much worth reading the ProPublica story the show is based on.

If the whole affair with the Pierces are a stand-up for when Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal from the Bancroft family, I wish they had noted that WSJ editoral page has been not taken very seriously looney rightwing long before Rupert Murdoch because the Bancrofts want it that way since in real life they are much closer to Connor Roy than Columbia astronomy PhD candidates. That brand of old WASP looney Republicanism is also that could have fun and interesting to see onscreen rather than the zillionth stuffy liberal stuff we got with the Pierces.

I think my biggest problem with "Succession" is that its treatment of the actual content WaystarRoyco puts out is incredibly perfunctory. Sure, there's the minor subplot about what I assumed was supposed to be a Tucker Carlson stand-in, but it's generally treated in passing. This seems like it should be a much bigger issue! Even the plot with Shiv's candidate is presented in almost entirely personal terms: there's no real exploration of the specifics of what's being said on air. I understand why the show's made this decision, but it means that the audience is occupying the same hermetically sealed space that the Roys themselves are, walled off from ideology. It leaves us freer to enjoy the drama, but it definitely distances from the costs their fortune imposes on everyone else.

Maybe nobody else will agree with me, but Nan Pierce (or it is Nan Pearce?) kind of sucks. I wasn't really into this TV show, but I'm watching it so if I am, I do kind of what Logan Roy to expand the energy he usually reserves for taking down his own progeny onto somebody else who bases multibillion decisions on ONE hacky standup comic routine.

Oh, she's completely infuriating, which I think is supposed to be the point! The Pierces fancy themselves much more moral than the Roys. But it's just that they have a different price point.

I grew up in a small town that it was so isolated that the kids of the rural areas were unused to a traffic light or chain coffee shop. Banning hummers (the marketplace did that for us for once) isn't the same as banning all cars, let alone pickup trucks. I feel like AK-47s and AR-15s are to "hunting and fishing" rural America crowd what a hummer is to a pickup truck. They are way more expense, impractical to anything you actually want to do. There is no skill to an assault riffle for people interested in marksmanship since the point to you fire as many bullets as possible at once and you are bound to hit something as opposed the "ready, aim ready" since what's the point of aiming.

Thank you so much for sharing that perspective. There are a couple of interrelated phenomena running through your letter that I find fascinating. There's the question of what is branded as "real American," and the relationship it bears to the actual preferences of actual human beings in certain demographics. Then, there's the question of how we define expertise; what we think guns are for and what how we use them is supposed to communicate; and even what independence and masculinity look like. Untangling all of these things is crucial to how we decide what's valuable and admirable as a society. And even if certain gun legislation is passed, we're still going to have to work out these cultural questions. 

This essay by Emily Nussbaum, in her new book "I Like To Watch," is one of the best works of criticism I've read in a long time. It grapples with the question of what we should do with art made by bad men (Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, Louis CK, etc.), and she talks about her own struggle to find a satisfying answer, but ends by saying we must engage with that art, to see the misogyny (and other sins) that haunt it and that we imbibe without knowing it. I've been thinking about it constantly, (I am sure you have read it, Alyssa, since she gives you a shout-out in the book's acknowledgements. But everyone else should read it too.)

Emily is so, so, so, so good, and it was such a lovely gesture. I'll pass along your endorsement to everyone, and toss in my additional vote of confidence for James Poniewozik's "Audience of One," about Trump and television.

I'm puzzled by the occupation of "social media influencer," as I can't fathom the notion of wanting so much to follow, let alone emulate, a celebrity (especially those famous chiefly for being famous). Would you please explain the phenomenon to this senior citizen in one of your Wednesday posts?

You got it. Thanks for asking! I'll tackle this in the Wednesday newsletter.

I do wonder in the TV and feature films will ever do much to solve American gun culture. You don't realize how much guns are a part of so much entertainment media. I don't mean it in a money-see-monkey-do kind of way, but there are often presented as the solution to so many issues. I guess I was just thinking about it having noticed much guns are a part of movies.

It is amazing looking back at an earlier generation of action movies and seeing how different the shootouts were. "Dirty Harry" involves a revolver, for goodness sake! It's incredible how high stakes everything is, how fast the guns fire, how long it is before the characters need to reload. I don't have actual data on this, which would be very useful, but it makes sense that Hollywood is setting a certain baseline for what we think is normal, at least in the context of the movie theater. This is one of the reasons I appreciate smart action choreography, when we can get it; a well-shot and designed fistfight will almost always be more expressive than a gun battle.

Just wanted to add that I'm also very interested in Bad Education since I really dug Cory Finley's Thoroughbreds, but I wasn't sure whether to mention it since it doesn't appear to have a distributor or release date yet

We'll have to keep a collective eye out!

Admittedly, I only watched season 1 of Succession and have been following season 2 entirely through Twitter memes and reactions, so maybe I shouldn't get to have an opinion on the show. But it kind of frustrates me that the main message of the show seems to be "Rich people: they're just like us!" While the acting and dialogue are undeniably sharp, they end up turning what's supposed to be an incisive commentary on the frivolity of wealth into a voyeuristic spectacle of wealth. Is satire inherently ineffective if it's enjoyable? Has any drama been so overtly tailored toward social media popularity? Why won't people watch Lodge 49, a satire of capitalism that actually cares about people? Sorry for rambling, but every Sunday, my Twitter feed is full of people gushing about Succession and I can't take it.

Oh, I have a forthcoming column about this, so I don't want to say too much, but that's not the message I take away from "Succession" at all. Rather, it's that rich people have much more resources with which to make themselves miserable than the rest of us do, and that their own foolishness may be the only justice available to us. I find certain things about "Succession" enviable -- mostly Shiv's hair and stylistic vibe -- but the utter misery of the show helps me manage that envy by reminding me that there is no emotional cost I would pay for those things.

Also, I think "Succession's" quotability has a lot to do with its appeal, frankly. It's just fast and funny, for something as dark as it is.

Since you asked in the last chat, the fall movies that I'm most looking forward to seeing are Knives Out, Waves, The Lighthouse, Atlantics, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Last Christmas, and most of all, The Rise of Skywalker. I know you're not a fan of the recent Star Wars movies, but I love these characters and have been impatient to see how they wrap things up since seeing The Last Jedi in theaters. I also still want to see Lucy in the Sky despite the pretty negative reactions from TIFF. I've been missing Legion a lot, so I'm going to need my Noah Hawley fix.

For all I grumble about the recent Star Wars movies, I will absolutely go see them and end up spending a lot of time thinking about them. So I am with you! I saw "Ad Astra" last week, and I'm seeing "Judy" this week, so 16 months after having a baby, I finally feel like I'm back in a real screening schedule. It should make for a much more fun Oscar season for me, and hopefully, a more engaging chat for you guys.

On paper it makes zero sense for the extremely status conscious earl's daughter to end up with the Marxist Irish Catholic chauffeur. It wouldn't make sense. BUT I kind of think I wanted Lady Mary and Branson to end up together. Michelle Dockery and Allen Leech were more compelling onscreen together than they ever were upper class men she was set up with and the lower class women he was set up in the final seasons. Maybe it's just of function of TV where we feel we know these characters and some rando nice copywriter at Lady Edith's women's magazine for Branson or random toff who likes racing cars for Lady Mary wasn't as good as the two of them together (I had to double check online who they ended up with in the end).

I think that one of the reason we had this nice fizz of tension between the two of them on the show is because we -- and they -- knew they would never actually get together so they could relax and enjoy each other's company without feeling either pressure or censure. Branson would never marry someone who wasn't a rebel from that family. He's compromised enough, and honestly, we wouldn't like him if he went full sell-out either.

probably a silly question - i love the memes i see on FB or other places but where do people find them?

This is actually a very good article on this very subject!

I'd always assumed that early Appalachian country music was de facto strictly segregated by race, so I had no idea that at least a few white country musicians interacted and performed with black ones, and that (other than the banjo) black music influenced country music. Fascinating.

Burns and I have argued on and off for years about whether or not he says exactly what he really means about race in his movies, but one thing I think is undeniable in this and other movies is that he's very interested in giving historic credit where it's due. And with country music, as with class politics in America, if you acknowledge that working class people were black as well as white, the way we talk about many, many things has to change.

Who wins the "fat-shaming" war in our popular culture? I'm guessing Corden, in part because he's more likable professionally (and perhaps also personally).

This is one of those many cases where the right side may appear to win in the pop culture discourse, but it's still facing a very uphill battle in the world at large. Corden is right! He's charming! He makes a good case, and one that's backed by science! And yet, heavier people still face unbelievable discrimination, contempt, and basic logistical hurdles to everyday living.

I just want to talk about this excellent show with someone! The actress who played Marie was excellent; of course so were Toni Collette and Merritt Wever. Master class on why we need more women in law enforcement. And never accept the first offer!!

The thing that's striking me about it through a couple of episodes is that "Unbelievable" is a fantastic illustration of the power of showing rather than telling. You don't need a line in the first two episodes that says "the cops investigating Marie's case are bad." It's just so overwhelmingly clear from all the minor choices Det. Duvall makes that she's getting vastly better information and setting herself up for success in a far more comprehensive way than the cops assigned to investigate Marie's report do. It's exceedingly well-done.

One, was it about the silliest title? I guess curious if "The Young Pope" ever came up in the Live Chat before and if you saw it and what you thought of it. It was just on my mind because I saw the trailer for follow-up season with Jude Law and his bulge. When I think of "Catholic bigotry" I wonder if it's Catholics bigotry to towards others or others bigotry towards Catholics since I suppose both exist.

I think it's ridiculous and fabulous and menacing in interesting ways, and I'm looking forward to the follow-up. I don't know that I think the program is bigoted against Catholics, although of course I'd like to hear from faithful Catholics on this subject. I do think the show suggests that the Catholic heirarchy is simultaneously extremely powerful and potentially ridiculous. 

Big fan of Danny McBride and John Goodman. But what is this show? We're five episodes in and I still don't understand where the story is supposed to be heading. Nor have they really defined John Goodman's character beyond that he's struggling with the loss of his wife.

I need to watch this, but I would enjoy it if any other readers wanted to weigh in.

It's a pretty bleak show, so If one of the commanders had the first name Art, his handmaid would be Ofart which would sound like "a fart."

Oh dear.

I know I'm a bit late to it by a few years, but I am alone in following down a rabbit hole on the drama in Thailand with the downfall of Princess Srirasm. The drama of whether or not Meghan Markle shuts a car door or not really can't match it.

One of the great benefits of not having a monarchy of our own is that we're free to enjoy everyone else's!

Will there be a 3rd season?

I really, really, really hope so. But no word yet.

With Felicity Huffman in the headlines, I think Ryan Murphy (or anybody) doing a season of "Feud: Behind the Scenes of 'Desperate Housewives'" is something I'd watch.

Hah, yes, I'd definitely watch that. I really wish we were getting the Charles and Diana riff on that show, though I'm not sure anyone could do it any better than Tina Brown did in "The Diana Chronicles."

still haven't managed to set up wifi at home, though it is definitely a project for next weekend (after going for a last good bye to the Newseum on Smithsonian free museum day). So, once I do that I will be able to get access to amazon prime and Netflix (yes, I will be paying for it). Looking for recommendations in their proprietary content. The Crown is on my list. So is Dark Crystal. But I guess I have a lot of "not regular cable" TV to catch up on. Honestly, I still have Chernobyl on my DVR to watch when I am in a mood to handle that level of depressing.

If you want something truly fun but also well-done and moving, I highly recommend both of Jenji Kohan's shows, "Orange Is the New Black" and "GLOW." They're smart, observant, funny and often loving. "Mindhunter" is wonderful if you're up for serial killer shows, but if you're not, I totally understand. "American Vandal" is incredibly funny and low-stakes, a great sendup of the true crime boom. And I've been meaning to watch "Bojack Horseman" and "Russian Doll." I will be honest, I watch a lot less Amazon Prime content, though some of "Transparent" is quite good, and I keep meaning to watch "Carnival Row," which looks amiably ridiculous.

Thank goodness they leave out the politics and substance of what's being said on air. Politics have pervaded everything, and it's delightful to have a show that is about media and the issues surrounding it without talking about the politics.

With all due respect: the media and the issues that surround it are intensely, irrevocably political. When the president's closest adviser is television, it can't help but be.

So the premise of this show is a young woman is assaulted and people don't believe her or it's met with a collective yawn? Yeah, me and many of my friends have been there and have no desire to watch it played out on-screen.

I totally understand why you would feel that way, but a lot of the show is actually about the pair of female cops who team up to eventually prove that young woman wrong. (That's not a spoiler, this was a long reported feature a long time ago.) If it's not something you feel up for revisiting, I totally respect that. But I do think it's up to something powerful and interesting that might be worthwhile for people who have not been in your position. I hope you and your friends are finding some measure of peace and security.

They did a lot toward helping reduce tobacco smoking in the past few decades.

Branding matters!

for the upcoming season. I guess maybe "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" but that is largely because I was totally a Mr. Rogers kid when I was growing up. And by the time it started, I had my own baby brother called Daniel, who wasn't a striped tiger, but my mom allowed me to pretend he was as long as we played gently (which the character would have wanted anyway, so I was inclined that way). Star Wars and 1917 are likely to benefit greatly from being on a gigantic screen, so maybe those. Other than that, absent huge adoration from a source I trust, I'm likely to wait. $10 to $13 for entertainment that is not live doesn't get me out of the house that often. A play or a concert? Sure. More than worth the effort. And DC is swimming in low cost options for that. But unless I can get a really cheap matinee, I'm more likely to skip.

I will say, "Ad Astra" looked amazing in the Dolby theater where I watched it. Highly worth it for the spectacle alone -- and maybe for the spectacle only.

I don't know why it comforted me when I saw that Downton Abbey movie was getting positive reviews, but it did.

Sometimes, it's nice to spend time with the minor problems of basically decent people.

I recently shared with my sister Sonia Saraiya's article Positing SUCCESSION with other shows about the pleasures of watching rich people, or formerly rich people, struggle. My sister, who is currently obsessed with the show, said that she never found it funny and didn't get why it was characterized as such. I told her about how a thing that interests me about the show is it as a sort of follow up of VEEP (Saraiya's article got into this a little), where the hurt from the insults and the bad acts have to linger, and we and the characters live if not deal with the consequences. SO what do you think of it as a comedy? Do you like my interpretation of it as a post-comedy?

Let me get my column out! And now I have to read Sonia's, because I think we have some ideas in common.

It would've been too lazy a solution. For the same reason that I was so glad that Frasier and Roz didn't wind up marrying one another on "Frasier" (instead, Roz got promoted to station manager, which was a far more satisfying ending).

I am glad I'm not alone!

Since drawing a fake storm-track on a map with a Sharpie is something that most people can understand is devious (because most of us follow weather forecasts on TV or online nowadays), I wonder if it will be behaviors like this (and, inevitably, further ones) that damage Trump -- compared to, say, the overall impact of the interest rates the Fed sets, which I suspect is beyond the average citizen's comprehension.

My colleague David Byler actually wrote a great piece about this a while ago, in which he crunched the numbers and found that the perception of Trump's competence has much more to do with his approval numbers than any of the flashy scandals or outrages. The sharpie is potentially both: it's flashy and visual, but it's also about the president potentially endangering people to feed his ego. I'll ask him to look at the numbers again and see what he thinks.

Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay for Reese Witherspoon's "Vanity Fair" adaption, but it left out stuff from the novel that really showed the English class system and how it works different to rich and poor. In the novel, Aunt Matilda's servants have been working for this wealthy woman for years so they have accumulated some wealth, but after she dies, they go to work for her penniless nephew Capt. Crawley since he is from an "ancient family" and even though he own the building they live in and he is their landlord, he acts as butler for the Crawleys because he doesn't know what else to do. Becky Sharp ends up stealing from her servants who have more money than her which is so great and why the class system is garbage and awful. There is no status in America for servants with underbutlers and second housemaid v. third housemaid and I'm happier for it.

Although I think it's worth noting that a lot of us employ people to do some of the work of servants, without treating them as live-in, full-time employees. We have a cleaning service, and we employ a nanny (who we pay legally and pay Social Security taxes for); we may not think of  the people who hold those jobs as servants, having rebranded them as service sector positions. But we still outsource our work.

...I do remain curious what you think of that scene, and how it will translate to television. One other thing based on your comment last week about Jordan writing about relationships: you're right. He's not particularly good at it, but that is unfortunately par for the course for most science fiction and fantasy writers, and compared to his peers he's probably about average. However, the one saving grace is that there's a substantial amount of blind-leading-the-blind comic relief later on with the boys from Two Rivers thinking that their friends know far better how to deal with the opposite sex than they do while they're blundering through things.

I think they should probably do it as a stand-alone episode. And it would be interesting if they switched techniques to let you know you were viewing something unusual, whether they went with motion capture or animation.

What's your take on his new act? I don't know if he really believes his nasty dismissal of Michael Jackson's accusers but saying molestation by a superstar is a badge of honor really stinks. Is he just trying to make waves and become relevant again?

I need to watch it. The reports about it just make the whole thing sound so depressingly dated that it's hard for me to convince myself to give it a try.

I'm a bit late to the party, but I wanted to say I enjoyed your Matrix roundtable with Sonny and Peter. It's amazing to recall just how exciting it was to go to that movie with no idea of what was going to happen. I did notice, though, that Sonny was the only one who mentioned the sequels. I have never seen the sequels, having heard some bad things, and wonder whether I should do so. What's your critical recommendation?

Thank you! We enjoyed writing it. And think of it as a prototype for something new that we'll be able to announce...soonish. I think the sequels are...okay. It's worth watching them.

It's meeting o'clock. Thanks so much for the great conversation today. See you all here this time next week!

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