Pop Culture Live with Alyssa Rosenberg

Apr 06, 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.

Follow Alyssa Rosenberg on Twitter here.

Hi friends. As many of you know, this is our last regularly-scheduled chat together, though the plan is for us to continue meeting occasionally to mark big pop culture milestones in whatever form they take in the future. I know this is hard news for a lot of you, and I so appreciate the show of support from so many of you.

But as a bit of reassurance: this does not mean I'm getting fired. And I have a lot in the works for you.  Eugene Robinson and I are running a book club to get us through this period of social isolation. I podcast every week at “Across the Movie Aisle” with my co-hosts Sonny Bunch and Peter Suderman, and we’ll be continuing to discuss streaming releases even though movie theaters are closed. You can sign up for an occasional version of my newsletter, which is ending as a Post product, but which I’ll be continuing at TinyLetter. As always, you can find me on Twitter here: @alyssarosenberg and reach me via email at alyssa.rosenberg@washpost.com. I am not going away, and I will be here for all of you specifically. So let's get to it.

R.I.P. Shirley Douglas. www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/shirley-douglas-dies-at-86-1.5522758 One, I didn't realize from Sarah Sutherland from "VEEP" was also the daughter of Kiefer Sutherland. Two, her prosecution for her activism in the late 1960’s causing her not getting work permits in the United States probably hurt her movie career. Also like that Kiefer Sutherland, although his father Donald is much more well-known, has a long history of saying that it was seeing his mother on stage and how watching the most familiar person in the world to him, his own mother, become this totally different and unknown person to him in her performance that inspired his own acting ambitions.

I'm assuming you're not talking about Sarah Sutherland's 1960s activism, given that she was born in 1988!

I do love seeing acting families--at least those whose members get along--talking about each other's work. Jennifer Ehle's appreciations for Rosemary Harris are always very touching. (And if anyone's looking for distraction, Ehle has been doing live chapter-by-chapter readings of "Pride & Prejudice.") That is a really moving thing for Sutherland to say, especially given how women's careers are so often downgraded and how they're expected to be very constant figures to their children. To see someone embracing his mother's transformations like that is very compelling.

I told my sister this week that this is probably not the time to watch a show about how public institutions are failing the people they are intended to serve, so hold off on "The Wire." But I'm interested in an HBO (re)watch. I will admit, though, that I am too easily distracted these days to stay engaged with sustained narratives, so I may not join you for "Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under."

I think there's a very intriguing split between people who are enjoying watching worst-case scenario stories during this crisis, and people who are opting strongly for escapism. I will admit to enjoying a bit of both: my husband and I are unwinding with familiar sitcoms after the work day is done and the toddler has been persuaded to go to bed, but I've also been rewatching or watching things like "Contagion," "Deepwater Horizon" and "28 Days Later" for the podcast, and getting a lot out of them. The sitcoms help turn off my brain before bed. But the horror stories remind me that in the middle of despairing circumstances, there are good people doing hard work to keep themselves and their values alive. It's not comforting, of course, to watch stories about venality and bureaucratic incompetence. But the heroes' experiences are rather spine-stiffening: I'm not going to have to invent a vaccine, or save anyone on an exploding drilling platform, or evade fast zombies and fallen British soldiers. I just have to stay home, and make him as nice a place as possible for my family. And I can definitely do that.

What I have loved most about this chat is that we can bring all kinds of questions about the ways all kinds of mass culture affects our lives, and you welcome every kind of question, and answer them with intelligence, kindness, and grace. Even if we are long-winded. (Guilty.) I will miss chatting regularly with someone who has your breadth of interests. Thank you for everything! Best wishes - Rico

Thank you so much. I truly treasure your kindness. I promise we will find new, creative ways to keep this community alive.

I think that you and Peter and Sonny took too narrow a view of the future of movies on the podcast this week. You aren't wrong that these will be very hard years. But if you look ahead three or five years, I think that people are still going to want to go to movies. They are still (relatively) inexpensive nights out for people, and many of us have been conditioned to the idea that movies are best seen in the immersive environment of a theater. (I will admit that one of my pleasures, seeing a movie amidst the laughter, gasps, and cheers of other people, has been declining for years; I don't know why moviegoers sit on their hands.) Sure, AMC might go bankrupt because it has too much debt, but then that means there will be an opportunity for someone else to expand -- smaller chains like Bowtie or Marcus, perhaps. The only thing that could hasten this is if the studios can't survive without making permanent changes to the business model; you were looking at the theatres' business model, but I haven't seen enough info about the studios to suggest that they will want or need a new model.

I hope your assumption that there will be pent-up demand and that people will be eager to go back to theaters proves correct. That's going to be a critical question, and we have no sense yet how deeply the fear of covid-19 is going to linger. There are still a lot of unknowns about precisely how transmissible the coronavirus that causes it is, and the degree of asymptomatic transmission. Until people can trust that they won't pick up an infection from, say, a hastily-wiped down seat arm, or from the seemingly-healthy patron in the seat next to them, I suspect there will be a lot of reluctance and willingness to wait for things to come out digitally.

I want you to be correct. I just don't know if you are.

That said, I do think the loosening of the Paramount Decrees could be what keeps the AMC real estate as movie theaters, instead of turning those lots into another black hole that can't be filled by a decimated movie industry. Maybe a Netflix or an Amazon will buy them. But I doubt a smaller chain would be willing to take on the debt to expand on that scale right now, if they could even get access to the money to do it.

Taken from the title of the MASH series finale, which I think still remains one of the highest rated TV shows ever. Thank you for chatting with us so faithfully and for sharing your thoughts and experiences as a pop culture maven. We wish you well, personally and professionally.

Thank you so much. I hope the same for all of you as well.

I'd love to join someone in a rewatch of Dead Like Me. I didn't watch it when it was out originally but last year I binged the whole thing and it was so good! Great stories, both funny and sad. Everything I ask for in a rewatch.

Putting it out there! Original poster and people who might be interested, if you email me at alyssa.rosenberg@washpost.com, I'll connect you!

Here is one example of Kiefer Sutherland taking that performance of his mother at the 10:07 mark vimeo.com/150679824

Thank you for sharing this!

I read a couple of reviews of Quibi and the both mentioned how its odd that a device designed for people "on the go" is launching at a time where most people can't go anywhere. But I also read people saying that the anxiety of this time has really destroyed their attention spans. Honestly, I'm having a hard time seeing how if at all my attention is affected.

One of the things I'm watching most closely is what happens to entertainment industries that, more than most, were designed for an economy where people still had commutes. Podcasts, particularly true crime podcasts, have taken a not-insubstantial hit as people stop using them to fill their bus, train or car rides to work. In general, I wouldn't be shocked if true crime takes a big, sustained hit: it's not going to be as salaciously diverting when huge numbers of Americans are newly dying untimely deaths. 

The bigger challenge for Quibi, though, is that it's a) a new product, b) in a new format, c) that isn't closely associated with an existing brand in people's minds. Frankly, I think Apple TV is going to have a lot of problems and they're a much more conventional product, pushed to people on the devices they would use to watch content anyway.

Thanks so much for your appreciation of Adam Schlesinger, who we've discussed in this space before. I was unusually upset about his passing, which made me think about celebrities, because of course I never met Mr. Schlesinger. I think our reaction to celebrity deaths may be a reflection of the place we assign them in our lives, rather than of their absolute importance, and we can do that to celebrities for any number of reasons. In this case it's because I felt as though I was one of maybe five people who appreciated him enough. Thanks for being one of the other four.

My heart hurt so, so much when I heard about Schlesinger's death. How many artists have given such pure pleasure to so many listeners, and been so clearly invested in the worth of the joy that pop music can describe? I do have to say, though, that I was heartened by how many people wrote tributes to him, and how many different ways they found to appreciate his work. That's the mark of someone very special, and though it doesn't make up for the way he was so cruelly taken from us, it's not nothing, either.

and barely keep track of what is going on in the world. I've had a few zoom meet ups with old friends. That is nice. I watched an NT Live film of a play that was funny. And a few shorts that were briefly available on line from the Belfast film festival. But I still haven't even signed up for Netflix (keep meaning to) and right now the only thing I really want is to find my extra rolls of packing tape so I can send the hand sanitizer I found on Sunday to my parents. Which is totally part of some kind of magic thinking on my part that I can protect my parents from 200 miles away (which I can't), but there it is.

I think you are not alone in that. Our reactions to this particular moment are going to be all over the place: some of us will find our attention spans completely destroyed, some of us will escape into long, complicated fiction. Some of us will crave unsparing depictions of past pandemics, some of us will want the most transporting nonsense we can possibly get our hands on. We may find that we want totally different things from day to day. There is no right or wrong way to manage your cultural consumption during a pandemic. All that matters is what works to keep you sane and committed to the processes that keep us all safe.

Besides saying thanks for the chat (and trying to keep it alive), appreciated the callout for a subreddit that requires a lot of work from those of us who contribute. It's probably the most heavily moderated one on reddit - you'd best be able to cite your sources that aren't Wikipedia! - but for one day a year we get to have a bit of fun. I did particularly appreciate that a mod had to explain that the tabulation of how many NTA/YTAs got voted had little to do with if they were indeed the a**hole (spoiler: yeah, they generally were) but more our own creativity in putting...creative...interpretations on behavior. Fair winds and following seas.

For all of you who missed the joke, it's a very good one! And relevant to the book club I'm doing with Eugene Robinson.

Speaking of Jennifer Ehle and her mother Rosemary Harris, curious if you ever saw the movie "Sunshine" from two decades ago where they played the same character with Ehle in the first part of the movie and Harris as the character in her later years?

I did! They're both great.

across the globe. That could come from a huge number of people getting it and recovering, though no one is sure how long such immunity will last. It could come from an effective vaccine, possibly needing to be modified and retaken each year. The National Academy of Sciences did a two lecture series on social/physical distancing, and at no point did they suggest that cutting off transmission and ending up with no carriers and therefore no risk of re-emergence was a possibility. That has only happened once in all of human history that I am aware of (small pox) and it required a vaccination program that I don't even know if we could reproduce at this point. The most important point that they made was that very, very, very effective reduction of transmission rates only got you a spike almost as bad as the no reduction in transmission at a later date. The public health people see the way forward a moderately effective reduction of transmission (around 40% lower than doing nothing) as the way to get to transmission through the population without overwhelming the health system. And it takes a long time to get there with a lot of people getting sick in the meantime. It frustrates me no end to hear people talk about this disease as if not getting it ever is an option for most people. It isn't. Most of us are going to get it. Some may put it off long enough to get a vaccine instead. Some may get it late enough for there to be an effective treatment. But without antibodies in your system, you will be at risk for a long time to come.

Indeed this is why it's going to be complicated to restart the economy.

Just wanted toilet you know that this chat is one of the things that made Mondays seem like a week could get better than the last

You are very dear.

It was...ok. The problem that it seemed to have all season is that while it's incredibly creative to kill off your main character and go from there, the strategy of trying about 15 different plot arcs to replace him didn't seem to work very well. There were a couple (the dead destroying land of the living, for instance) that probably could have served as season long anchors if they'd written around them, and the Groundhog Day episode was a nice reminder of what the show could be like when it clicked, but despite some snappy dialog it had the sad feeling of many TV shows nowadays where the showrunners make a mercenary decision: prioritizing their creative skills in looking for/working on their next paycheck rather than finishing up the show they're currently working on. Still, a great adaptation that proved far more interesting than the books.

I'm interested to hear that you weren't crazy about the books! I liked them a great deal.

As the pandemic has gotten worse and worse, I've thought about re-reading Albert Camus' "The Plague", then I thought, nah. Instead I'm reading Terry Pratchett's discworld books. Highly recommended.

I've been thinking about tackling Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series again.

Just saw news of her death. A distinctive talent, not a huge star but always memorable.

And memorable is worth a lot.

Also very sad about Adam Schlesinger's death. I worked in a kitchen for his resort in the middle of nowhere during a summer in college and there was a girl named Stephanie there who was going on and on one afternoon about her mom and this quiet dishwasher just starting singing, "Stephanie's mom has got it going on. She's all want and I've waited so long." and all the other dishwasher starting singing along. I so, so funny and I think every time I hear that song.

Oh, that's a wonderful memory! Thank you for sharing.

It's encouraging and inspiring that he wasn't defined by one big hit (and a bunch of great albums) and remained creative and engaged right till the end with TV and theater projects. A great shame.

I know. Considering how many songs he wrote or co-wrote for "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," it's almost obscene to consider how much original music we're losing as a result of his death. I am so, so sad.

Once they ride off into the syndicated sunset, do you see a likely contender for "big American comedy show"? Fractured media and fractured populace seems like infertile ground for a comparable successor.

Indeed. I'm genuinely not sure, especially as television faces challenges and liability issues getting production restarted again. That lag, as much as anything else, is going to make it tricky.

I especially admired her for being a militant anti-royalist. She turned down being made a Dame on principle.

I had no idea!

Each time you chose one of my posts for your Wednesday email topic, I felt so validated, because I knew I was picked anonymously based on the quality of my idea. Great ego boost! Will keep reading your work.

I do hope you'll all keep writing to me when the urge strikes: I have loved chatting with you all so much over the years, and I'm going to miss you very much.

Dear friends, it's time to go. Please know what an honor it has been to spend this time with you every week. We will be back, perhaps when the movie theaters finally reopen. So keep an eye out, and we'll find a time to be together again soon. Until then, stay safe, stay entertainment, and please don't hesitate to be in touch: alyssa.rosenberg@washpost.com.

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