Mourning the voice of 'Forensic Files': Pop Culture Live with Alyssa Rosenberg

Feb 25, 2020

Is your favorite book or show over? The discussion here is just starting. Pop culture writer and editor Alyssa Rosenberg will be online every Monday at 1 p.m. Eastern for Pop Culture Live, where she'll talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. She'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. Submit your questions comments on pop culture and her latest columns.

Read Alyssa Rosenberg's columns or catch up on past Act Four Live chats.

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Hi friends! Thanks so much for your patience regarding our shifting schedule over the past couple of weeks. I somehow did not realize that I had President's Day off until the last possible minute, and as much as I adore you all, it made sense to spend the day with my small human. And the combination of the Weinstein verdict yesterday and putting the final touches on the Post Opinions Simulator, which I project manage, was a LOT. So I am grateful to you all. Now, let's talk about whether it's bad for CGI dogs to put real dogs out of work!

I was horrified to read about fans lacing into the brilliant young classical pianist Yuja Wang for needing to wear sunglasses during her recent Vancouver concert. What is wrong with these people??? And how can we actively stop it (as opposed to doing nothing)? LINK: "Pianist Yuja Wang issues emotional reply after critics shame her for wearing glasses on stage":

Oh my Lord is anyone who is criticizing Wang telling on themselves. There are all sorts of reasons she might have needed to wear sunglasses during a recital, among them a medical procedure, eye drops, or an allergic reaction. In fact, she was wearing sunglasses to hide the fact that she had been distraught over an encounter with Canadian customs officials, and wanted to go on and perform without letting the audience see her distress.

The thing is, even if Wang had chosen to wear sunglasses simply as a fashion choice, it would be ridiculous to get up in arms about it! The idea that classical music is only enjoyable if everyone wears a very limited wardrobe or adopts a very specific class posture towards the performance is deeply silly. It's good to dress in a way that shows basic respect for your audience or your fellow concertgoers. It's bad to actively disrupt the performance. Sunglasses are not a crisis-inducing violation of norms. Everyone involved in this story, including Canadian border security, and excluding Wang, needs to take a deep, deep breath.

Do you agree that the conviction of Harvey Weinstein represents a sea change in popular culture?

I don't.

When I say that, I don't mean that I think his conviction is insignificant. It obviously is. The precedent that juries understand that people can have complicated, ongoing relationships, even ones that include consensual sex, with the people who rape them, is vitally important. That Weinstein's victims, even the ones who won't get their day in court, are going to get a measure of justice, is a huge thing.

But one jury does not an entirely different culture make. And the conviction of one movie producer won't suddenly transform the industry from which he emerged. The number of speaking parts for women in mainstream movies has hovered between 28 and 33 percent for a decade, without significant movement. The number of women directors is far lower. The number of women running significant movies studios is rising, but we may not see the impact of their decision-making for years.

The fight against sexual violence is literally centuries old. It's not going to end in two years. It's not going to end with one trial. Convicting Weinstein is progress. But it doesn't change everything.

Maybe this is wrong, but I would rather watch something from a traditional male perspective that was true and real than something starring a woman that felt false and artistical? I mean they aren't often remaking Kate Hudson romcoms with Chris Pratt in the lead and if they did, I think it would be false too.

I'm swiping this question for this week's newsletter, since it gets at something I've thought about a lot for a long time.

This weekend, I finally got around to watching "Bulworth," the 1998 satire. And I didn't laugh once. (Well, actually, Joshua Malina, playing a minor part, did some physical business in one scene that made me chuckle.) It's a pretty good movie, but what might have played as funny in 1998 doesn't seem funny in 2020. Have you had this reaction to older movies or TV shows that you see late? How do you deal with it? I suspect we are all going to face this now that we are living in Peak TV.

In general, I feel like comedy ages more quickly than humor. I actually find "30 Rock" less funny than I used to, and that's a show of relatively recent vintage; some of the cultural norms that it relied on for its humor have become outmoded in a way that lessens the sting a bit. A lot of "Saturday Night Live" has not aged brilliantly. And the New York Times actually just published a great piece on Hank Azaria's decision to stop voicing Apu on "The Simpsons" and the process that got him there that is very interesting in this regard.

Hi Alyssa, I'm reading Act 4, and wanting to react to your comments about American Dirt. My response has been to spend more time reading the 'here's good latinx literature' stuff and less about the scandal per se, so it's been much more good for me than bad. You don't have the same freedom I do to just ignore, but I wanted to recommend the strategy in case you could manage some of it. And I'd love to see you tackle that perspective as a column, or an Act 4 piece! Thanks for your work!

In general, I do think that it's often a good strategy to champion great work as a substitution to troublesome work, rather than tearing down troublesome work and then acting if there's just a void left behind without other work left to rush into it.

I was so excited for the new Forensic Files, which debuted this weekend. But I was extremely disappointed that it has a new narrator. I miss that voice. I don’t know if I can accept the new one. I may have to stick with the reruns even though I’ve seen each one at least a dozen times by now.

What do you love about the original narrator? I find voice work so interesting, but I sometimes find it harder to describe what I love about a voice performance than one where the person is present.

Is it really returning to TV or was that an early April Fool's joke I saw yesterday?

I do not believe there is any plan to bring it back for television; among other things, it would be a nightmare to reunite the cast at this point.

Did you see any of this? As crunchy gravel shows go, I thought it was pretty good with several unexpected turns, like the plot swerve at the end and the <gasp> nakedness. It did seem VERY rushed in reaching its conclusion. I know it was an unfinished novel but why make it a nearly unfinished TV show?

I'm not sure that Andrew Davies thinks of his adaptation as "nearly unfinished," but look: it's really hard to fill in the blanks left by someone else's unfinished work. The folks who were adapting "Game of Thrones" clearly struggled with pacing and filling in George R.R. Martin's narrative, and he's alive to tell them how the whole thing is going to end.

I read that a recent Italian soccer match was played before an empty stadium, owing to concerns re Coronavirus. How much impact do you think the spread of the illness will have on pop culture, as people increasingly stay home as much as practical instead of attending events (sports, concerts, movies, etc.) in person?

Potentially a huge one! We're already seeing some of this impact in China, where premieres for Disney's live-action adaptation of "Mulan" and "No Time to Die," the latest James Bond movie, have been cancelled or postponed. The International Olympic Committee has said they might outright cancel the Tokyo Olympics if the virus isn't under control by May. As someone who believes incredibly strongly in mass cultural experiences, I'm gravely concerned: COVID-19 strikes right at the heart of our ability to have those unified moments of transportation together.

The story around the Weinstein verdict reminded me of an exchange I had years ago on a message board. Someone said that they didn’t like feminists because they think all men are rapists who need to be taught not to. This was shortly after the Steubenville OH case where one witness said that he didn’t realize that what he saw was rape. It was also not long after a not yet president Trump said that rape in the armed forces was inevitable when they became coed. I pointed to the former and tried to say ”doesn’t this mean we need better rape education@ and the latter to say “why doesn’t this offend you as saying men are rapists”. I don’t remember a response, but a lot of the talk about Weinstein makes me think we haven’t moved far enough away from either example.

I think there's a very interesting tension in how people talk about men, masculinity and rape. On one hand, there are people who--with all apparent serious--say that convicting Weinstein will leave men confused about what it's appropriate to do with women. On the other hand, there are people who insist that #MeToo is inherently demonizing men. I tend to believe that men are smart enough to know the difference between, say, penetrating an unconscious person and having sex with an awake and enthusiastic participant, or between a woman who is basically frozen into non-reaction and a woman who is giving all the signals that she definitely wants to have sex. Suggesting that men are just dumb ol' lummoxes is as anti-male as suggesting that men are just mindless, violent rape machines.

The "Scrooge" remake with Susan Lucci and the "...Wonderful Life" redo with Marlo Thomas never seemed to move past the novelty factor, either.

Yeah, in general, it's not a tactic I'm terribly fond of.

It's never really left, judging by the rerun marathons every weekend on my local PBS stations.

Well, there is that...

Part of what makes those shows great are that there were a number of voices that previously weren't heard. Tina Fey did a masterful job of running Rock, and the Office had a large number of women and people of color as writers and producers, and also onscreen. It still feels vibrant and fresh - and maybe there are too many woke scolds telling us how we should feel about pop culture, but if it's funny, it's funny.

Oh, I think we can do a little better than that here! Part of what made "30 Rock" so funny--and what still makes parts of it work quite well--is that it was genuinely shocking to hear some of the sentiments the characters expressed on a national television program. As norms change, the bluntness and shocking nature of those jokes loses the power to surprise, and so the way they're received inevitably changes. That's not about anyone being a "woke scold," it's about some comedy being dependent on its environment for how it lands.

How does a person decide the difference between cultural appropriation and fusion culture? Especially WRT cuisine, the line seems mighty blurred, unless something's flagrantly appropriated.

This is one of those questions where it's just very difficult to develop a hard-and-fast rule for people to use in evaluating whether something feels like it's crossed the line. But in general, I think that whether something feels like cultural appropriation depends on how it's done and how conscious the person carrying it out is of what they're doing. If you're a white chef cooking in a traditionally black tradition, who else is cooking in your kitchen and managing your front of house? Who are your suppliers? How do you credit them? How do you talk about what you do? Do you acknowledge that you're cooking in a tradition that was developed by people with very different life experiences? Or do you act as if you invented the cuisine yourself? Generosity of spirit and an acknowledgement of the cultural circumstances in which you're working can go a long way to make things feel like an homage rather than a theft.

While comedy may age quickest, everything ages. Some eventually become a sort of period piece to the time in which they were made. What do you think needs to happen to make something age in that way?

In general, something probably needs to be a very pure expression of emerging or defining norms, or to be very pegged to current events and references. Either way, it's hard to intentionally make art that will become a period piece since it's hard to know what references, styles and norms will come to define an era! It's much easier to do in retrospect.

Makes me wonder why defunct sitcoms like "Friends" and "Big Bang Theory" can command such massive amounts of money for reruns on Netflix, etc. And seriously, how many folks want to watch a "Friends" reunion?

Apparently a whole bunch of them! And honestly, I think a lot of the appeal for these shows are that they're comfort food: people are rewatching them rather than necessarily discovering them for the first time.

We're liking the new Awkafine is Nora... show, she seems the real deal as renaissance women go yes?

Ugh, both "The Farewell" and "Nora from Queens" are on my to-watch lists, and I'm shamefully behind. Maybe they can be my quarantine viewing. Or just my later-this-week viewing.

A lot of it probably has to do with familiarity since I’m so used to the original voice. But I find his no-nonsense rich baritone voice soothing and a reassuring, which reflects the same way I find the show reassuring in that they always catch the bad guy. Compare that with the sing-songy up and a down irritating narration of Dateline, which drives me crazy. But the new voice isn’t bad. It’s British, which I always like, but it’s not the same. I’m also a big fan of the Frontline narrator’s voice, which is kind of similar to the old FF narrator. They should have hired him if they couldn't get the old voice back.

The original poster noted that they just discovered that the narrator died in 2016, but I wanted to pass this along because it's a nice description of what makes a voice a good match for subject material.

So do I. In fact that would be my dream job. You could be successful and even famous without being hassled in public because no one knows what you look like. I've always thought it would be horrible to be famous and have complete strangers stop you in public, which is why I've never approached a famous person in public.

A couple of months ago, I was having lunch with an extremely famous person at an event in a private room. Someone showed up to try to solicit autographs from this person at the private event. I've always known intellectually that extremely famous people sacrifice a lot of privacy, but it was still jarring to have an even indirect experience of what it must feel like to be that closely-observed, and to feel like you could never say no even to people who are being hugely, even grotesquely, invasive lest they be tarred as jerks. It was illuminating and sad.

Some definitely age more gracefully than others. I loved "Hill Street Blues" when it was on the air but it looks incredibly creaky in retrospect. But I still love watching "TAXI" reruns when I find them. Great cast, low stakes, and the writing and directing still holds up. I think.

Low stakes can often be a very good thing!

I get this vane of thing of "teaching men not to rape" and "blame the rapist and rape culture" and it's totally fair, but in the same way you teach your children not to steal, some people still steal and locking your car door isn't a bad thing either. Yes, yes, even locking your car door doesn't mean you won't be carjacked and it's still carjacker's fault.

Sure! Common sense is never a bad thing. And there are many good reasons to encourage, for example, people of all genders to think about not binge-drinking, a behavior that has all sorts of risks other than the possibility that you'll get raped or rape someone.

Do you know whether or nolt U.S. books being printed in China are being delayed due to Coronavirus causing factories and shipping to be slowed?

I don't know, though it's clear that Chinese and Hong Kong printing companies who work for American publishers have already been dealing with tricky fallout from the trade war.

I would like you to elaborate. I disagree with your take. I still think it is funny, and rather prescient about performative liberalism, money in politics, the role of women in the workplace, as well as other culutural issues facing the US. I recently rewatched the episode where John Slattery plays "Steve Austin" a conservative running in Rhode Island, and his slogan was basically just "Make America Great Again" but as told from a baby's perspective. "Ooga booga big...ooga booga strong!"

Oh, I'm not saying I find the show entirely unfunny today. But I do think that the show's perspective on feminism is somewhat more limited than it appeared to some viewers at the time, and that Liz now appears less ahead of her time than viewers might have once believed her to be. I also think the show somewhat underestimated the extent to which racism ended up resurgent in American politics.

This was first a book set in England that was turned into an American movie and now they’re switching the gender. I’m so dang tired of everything being retread and people thinking that it’s somehow clever because they changed the nationality or gender. I crave originality, and I suspect a big reason Parasite won was because of its originality. Almost all of the other nominees were either a look back or a retread - a war that already happened for 1917 and Jojo, a race that already happened, a nostalgic look at Hollywood, a comic book movie that has been done before, and a remake of a book. Marriage Story was perhaps the only other original concept.

I genuinely like and admire some of those looks back in time, but I can't disagree with you on craving originality!

FYI the OP - me - also wrote that description. I was answering your question as to why I liked his voice so much. Sorry to monopolize the chat.

You are not at all!

Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson?

Meg Ryan! 

My personal favorite scene in 30 Rock is the one where Jack helps Tracy reach a personal epiphany by role-playing characters from Tracy's childhood. Jack plays the characters as though they are stereotypes straight out of 1970s sitcoms, and the point of the joke is that (a) we now (c. 2006) see the outrageousness of those stereotypes and (b) Tracy nevertheless responds to them as though they "work." The problem is that, if you are too young or otherwise don't know the source of the stereotypes, the scene comes off as racist, and a little mean. 30 Rock was never afraid to be a little mean to its characters -- all the characters, of all races, all political stripes, all classes, and two genders -- and the meanness has also aged badly.

Oh, yeah, that scene is absolutely brilliant but also totally reliant on a shared cultural knowledge that some viewers may not possess.

Famous people also have to deal with how utterly stupid people can be. A friend of mine knows Linda Lavin and she told me that one day not long ago they were together in a lobby in NYC and a woman approached her and said “Didn’t you used to be Linda Lavin?” Her response: “Still am honey!”

Oh my goodness. Good for her!

When I saw the trailer for The Call of the Wild, and I heard the sentence "The Yukon is a dangerous place," I turned to my companion and said "I'm out." And then when I heard "And then I met Buck," I turned to my companion and said, "I'm out, again." The CGI dog is so obviously CGI and so obviously out of place in this setting that it lifts you out of the movie. I was always conscious of the artificiality. I say, if you have a movie about a dog, get a real dog, and if you need to show the dog playing a harmonica, frame the shot from behind the dog. (Or use peanut butter on the dog, a trick that we learned about on "30 Rock.")

I feel like the epitome of decadence is spending $109 million so a dog can play a harmonica.

What's Julia Roberts, chopped liver?


Have you see "Call of the Wild" yet? That CGI pooch is really distracting in the trailers.

Yeah, it's definitely weird. I actually liked the movie more than I expected: Harrison Ford is pretty great and the movie's willingness to just let Alaska and Canada be beautiful and to allow you to appreciate it is wonderful. But it's definitely distracting, and the movie doesn't clearly need to exist.

Back to the grind, folks. Thanks, as always, for your presence, and we'll gather next week to talk about getting scared senseless by "The Invisible Man"!

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