Hello M’Lady

How Inside Amy Schumer and Comedy Central have taught me that I’m a terrible person.

That sketch “Hello M’Lady” aired on Inside Amy Schumer, and it’s the one that should’ve gone viral instead of a very funny but mostly predictable Aaron Sorkin parody.

I’ve already seen bunches of comments online that the point of the sketch is to make fun of socially awkward creepy guys who come on too strong. Anybody who’s spent any time in any geek-oriented field like comics or video games or physical games or existing as a human being is already familiar with the myth of the “Nice Guy,” the hopeless romantic whose shyness dooms him to a lifetime of unrequited love. What makes the sketch so on-point is that it shows how, even when we’re acknowledging it as a problem, we still concentrate on how it affects the guy. It’s just one more thing that women are expected to just deal with.

Even when we say we’re doing something for the benefit of the ladies, it’s still always ultimately about the dude.

Believe me, I’m well aware how insufferable it is when somebody on the internet tries to explain a joke. But I’ve spent the last couple of days watching clips from Inside Amy Schumer, and realizing that they’re not just funny, but actually kind of brilliant. But I’d never bothered to watch it, not because I wasn’t aware of it, but because I thought I already knew exactly what it was.

The creepiest realization is that the reason I’d always dismissed it is exactly the kind of thing the show frequently makes fun of.

Red Bull and Slim Jims

I’m about to get to my mea culpa for being a Bad Progressive, but I’m not letting Comedy Central completely off the hook. They’ve done a lousy job of promoting the show. Not in terms of exposure — there’s been no shortage of promos for the show, and Schumer herself has been inserted into what seems like every single one of their Comedy Central Roasts and stand-up specials.

But the promos have made the show look essentially like Ms. Tosh.0. She makes a raunchy joke and then does a look how naughty I am! grin. I’d heard a mention of “feminism” here and there, but it looked like nothing more than another example of the vapid “women can make jokes about sex too and that’s empowerment!” flavor.

From the bits of her comedy routine I’d seen, I assumed I had that all figured out as well. I thought it was all just the surprise of seeing raunchy jokes coming from someone you wouldn’t expect, kind of like a female Bob Saget. (She even has a gag about finally having sex with her high school sweetheart that’s a lot like Saget’s joke about finally marrying his girlfriend of nine years). She’s a party girl, but she’s all edgy! And then the twist was her character of a ridiculously clueless, self-absorbed, over-entitled white woman… so kind of like a blonde, gentile, Sarah Silverman. Nothing wrong with it, really, I just felt like I’d seen it before.

Inside Amy Schumer has a sketch specifically about the series’s own marketing. A group of guys in Comedy Central’s target demographic are being asked about the content of the show and the ratio of sketches to interview segments, and all their responses are about Schumer’s appearance and whether or not they’d bang her. At the end, they’re rewarded with Slim Jims and Red Bulls, and Schumer considers it a victory because a couple of the guys said they would bang her.

It’s not exactly subtle. So it’s a little creepy to realize I’d essentially done the same thing. I’m not in the “would bang her” camp for obvious reasons (obviously, she’d need to have at least a 10% better dumper), but I still was basically dismissing Schumer based on her appearance. I’d thought that she was too pretty to be saying anything all that complex.

Liam Neesons Though

I can’t even use the excuse that my time is valuable or anything; I’ve seen entire episodes of Workaholics and Tosh.0. And they’re every bit as much the shallow, predictable “outrageous” comedy you’d expect. I’m wondering if that’s part of their (assumed) popularity, even: they’re easy to watch because they don’t take any effort. There’s nothing challenging about them.

But a lady-oriented sketch comedy show with a transgressive feminist message has to be didactic, though. You’re laughing, but really you’re learning about yourself, and life, and cat massage.

When Key & Peele was first announced, I wasn’t interested in that, either, for much the same reason. I assumed that it wasn’t “for” me. Even if I didn’t end up feeling like that one awkward white guy on stage at Showtime at the Apollo, I’d still feel like I was watching Chappelle’s Show. I’d be on the outside looking in. Sure, there was nothing telling me I couldn’t watch, but the show wasn’t really going out of its way to include me.

Which turned out to be total bullshit, obviously. Smart comedians can make their material relevant and universal. Key & Peele start from being movie nerds more than anything else — something I can totally relate to — and pull in satire and comedy about race and gender politics and never make it feel inaccessible, preachy, or alienating. They’re almost always more absurd than message-oriented, and it helped that Jordan Peele’s impression of Obama, plus their goofy East-West College Bowl video going viral, gave everyone an “in.”

That’s a message in itself, really. Take that mild hesitation and unease over “am I going to be able to enjoy this show without worrying whether I’m in the target audience?”, multiply it by every other show on every other television network, and then keep trying to make an argument that asking for more diversity in the media is unnecessary and the equivalent of introducing quotas.

All of that makes that Newsroom parody sketch the safest way to introduce people to Inside Amy Schumer. Mostly it’s a pitch-perfect parody of an Aaron Sorkin series, with the one line that delivers the real “voice” of the series: “and I realized: A woman’s life is nothing unless she’s making a great man greater.” Then there are jokes about finger-banging and a short bus, to make sure there’s something for everyone.

Tell Me What All My Remotes Do?

It’s not the best one, though. This sketch about sexting (after the street interview section) is so good; just about every second and every detail is brilliant, from the emoji to the romantic music to having it start and end with her eating plain spaghetti out of a colander.

There are silly sketches about “Finger Blasters” and an inappropriately homoerotic workout and TV makeovers and unconventional therapy and dating a guy who only loves her for her terrible perm because the show’s first obligation is to be funny, and because Schumer’s never afraid to make herself the butt of the joke.

But then there’s the sketch about what it’s like to be the only woman at Hooters. Or how women and men have wildly different impressions of a one-night stand. (Most comedy shows can only aspire to one day having a scene as brilliant as the one where she’s tasting wedding cakes while he’s wanking to the picture on a jar of pasta sauce). Or how women are never allowed to graciously accept compliments. Or a very realistic military game in which nobody else’s character was sexually assaulted, so Amy must’ve done something wrong. Even in a three-way, she’s got to acquiesce to what the men want.

Even when the premise of a sketch is relatively straightforward, it’s still smarter than it needs to be. A sketch where Amy negotiates over herpes with God is an extended riff on her Clueless Party Girl character, but it’s filled with little bits of brilliance. In particular, Paul Giamatti’s “I have got to stop making so many white girls,” and the completely unexplained older man putting his hand on the shoulder of Amy’s sister.

And of course, Schumer’s already addressed my assumption “She’s too pretty to be saying anything that complex” and made a joke not just about how dumb that is, but about how women are supposed to believe that something like that is a compliment.

You Can’t Win

The “Hello, M’Lady” sketch is brilliant for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is the way the friend answers “Is that your boyfriend?” with “Fuck you, no,” without skipping a beat. The most brilliant aspect of it is showing that even “look at the poor pathetic losers” is giving more sympathy to the guys than to the women who have to deal with them. Romantic comedies teach us how unrequited love is so romantic and how you should just keep at it guys, and you’ll eventually win her over. What the woman actually wants? Irrelevant.

Extra double-plus brilliant is presenting it as a combination of dating app, Angie’s List, and Turbo Tax. First the app lists all the aspects of the woman that only the guy can recognize, and then it lets ladies take advantage of these “human hobbits,” ungratefully using them for things like helping a boyfriend move, or getting a free iPhone. That’s exactly how a lot of these guys think: self-obsessed while telling themselves they’re being selfless, and absolutely convinced that women exist to take advantage of them. It shows that this “harmless” passive-aggression comes from exactly the same place as outright misogynist aggression: the belief that women have something I want, and they’re keeping it from me. Even when “nice guys” convince themselves that it’s noble because it’s about romance and chivalry instead of sex, that’s bullshit because it’s really about something just as crass and base: power.

Meanwhile, the actual, not-imaginary women are left in the same place as always: powerless. “You can’t win.” And “it’s inevitable.” Just another chore to deal with because some guy decided to make you feel guilty.

That’s already a lot packed into one sketch, and then there’s the punchline that carries throughout the whole series: “Fuck it.” She’s not a victim. As long as she’s stuck with it, why not have fun with it? Ultimately it’s a comedy show, not a message show, and the savvy part is realizing they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Not Really JK

When somebody’s entire public persona is a character, it can be hard to tell what’s sincere and what’s part of the “satire.” I think it’s a lot braver to trust the audience enough — or more accurately, not be so hung up on the audience — to feel that you don’t have to draw the line for them. Male comedians don’t have to stress out about telling too many jokes about drinking or about sex, and they don’t have to keep winking at the audience to let you know they’re not really that racist, or they’re just kidding about being so self-absorbed.

There’s something implicit in Schumer’s comedy that turns every criticism into a kind of commentary. Anything you might be thinking about or saying about her, what is it really saying about you?

The joke in “Love Tub” seems on the surface to be just another version of Amy Poehler’s one-legged Amber character from SNL: she’s on a dating show, she’s a mess, and she doesn’t care. But there’s a little more going on here.

For one thing, she’s not explicitly playing a character; she’s just “Amy.” She’s not making the best life decisions, but she’s also not the one getting hung up on a reality dating show where the “prize” is a dude choosing among a pack of women to join him in the love tub. She’s the only one who’s getting what she wants, and what she wants right now are vodka and some curly fries.

The clincher is when the bachelor takes off Tiffany’s dress while creepily whispering “Congratulations.” When you see Amy riding off in a limo finally getting her curly fries and then leaning out the door to throw up, you’ve got to wonder who really is the “winner.”

And then you look at the YouTube comments calling her fat, or calling her a bitch, or making some sexual comment, and something magical happens: they’re rendered even more irrelevant than YouTube comments already are. When somebody owns every aspect of his persona, he’s unassailable. And when a woman owns it — you don’t get to make comments about my drinking, or having sex, or what I wear, or what I eat, or what I look like, because I’ve already commented on it — it’s the most frustrating and threatening thing for an insecure man to see. And that’s awesome. She doesn’t have to say what’s “real” and what’s not; it’s all real, and it can be tragic and frustrating and unfair but most often really funny.

A young female comedian is already starting out in an environment where hecklers are going to try to shit on her live set. TV executives are going to try and concern troll her into losing weight. Entertainment journalists and bloggers are going to talk about her responsibilities as a feminist. Some people in the audience are going to call her fat or ugly. Other people in the audience — including at least one well-intentioned but dense gay man — are going to say she’s too pretty to be taken seriously. Other comedians are going to announce that they don’t think women can be funny, in their own feeble grabs for attention. There’s going to be pressure to be highbrow but not so highbrow as to be alienating, and pressure to keep the politics out of comedy and just be absurd. And then pressure to split the difference, making funny videos that’ll go viral while still having a very special episode tackling some social justice issue.

Inside Amy Schumer navigates through all that and ends up with a sketch about sending a sext photo. It starts with the pressure that’s put on women to look sexy, then puts Amy through all kinds of abuse for the sake of making her look good, and then ends with a simple moral: “Just get fucked.” Said not as an insult or an objectification, but a simple reminder to get what she wants and enjoy herself. That’s not just naughty; it’s genuinely subversive.

How I Spent My Decade

Internet, did I ever tell you about the time I spent the better part of a decade watching a contrived, sentimental, raunchy, silly, and formulaic sitcom, and bawling my eyes out over it?

When the series finale of How I Met Your Mother ended, I felt as if I’d just watched someone do the trick where they pull the tablecloth out from under a complete table setting. I wasn’t awestruck, but more impressed that they were able to pull it off at all.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it was bonafide magic.

This was a finale of a series that has “the ending is a surprise” built into the entire premise, so of course everything that follows is a big spoiler.

How I Met My Sponsor

If there’s a single episode that sums up the entire series, it’s… well, of course it’d be the one where Marshall picks up Lily at the airport during a snowstorm. But for the point I’m trying to make, the definitive episode is the one that was a shameless ad for Microsoft.

The reason it’s definitive is that the series regularly took stuff that absolutely, positively should not have been able to work, and then somehow pulled it off. It was corny, gimmicky, and prone to stunt-casting. It often seemed inordinately pleased with itself. It took each of its characters and gave each of them a flaw that made them genuinely unlikable. It took running gags and ran them deep, deep into the ground. And it constantly vacillated between raunchy and unabashedly sentimental.

But then it somehow absorbed it all, commented on it, and used it to its advantage. Starting out, it was kind of insufferable; it assumed the cast was way more charming than it actually was. (One episode in the first season had Ted & Marshall staging elaborate sword fights in their apartment, which is a big part of why I didn’t start watching regularly until the second season). Then as they got more confidence to do running jokes (like the slap bet), it made the sentimental stuff hit harder because it seemed like such a surprising contrast, and not just unearned melodrama. Over time, the characters’ quirks became genuine annoyances, if not outright sociopathic behavior. But then “Spoiler Alert” based an entire episode around that, then resumed course. And “Three Days of Snow” ended on a completely contrived bit of made-for-TV romance between two characters who call each other “Marshmallow” and “Lilypad,” but the last scene still makes me cry every single time.

As for the Microsoft episode: How I Met Your Mother was never at all interested in subtlety, but this was completely over the top. Windows logos all over the place, Maury Povich picking up an Xbox 360, all of it taking place in an alternate universe where anyone referred to Bing as the default search engine, and that’s without even mentioning how the characters had explicitly been shown using iPhones in previous episodes.

But it actually worked. It was another gimmick episode, but it was still pretty funny. And not just in spite of, but in defiance of the product placement. The show had been around for over 100 episodes by that point; it was pretty ludicrous to believe that a bit of network-driven brand promotion was going to destroy its integrity, at least any more than the years of aggressive marketing that CBS had been inflicting on the series in the form of Barney Stinson “bro”-themed books and Robin Sparkles merchandise. They ended up just using the advertising as part of the absurdity, but also using it to make an otherwise unremarkable episode memorable. Now it’s “the one with all the product placement.” On a series that’d been running for that long, being forgettable was a much greater danger than selling out. Plus it made this guy from Cult of Mac absolutely livid, which is of course a huge part of what makes it so delightful.

And more than that, it seemed to be in defiance of the idea that “selling out” was even relevant. The idea that genuine artistic integrity is actually based on anything that shallow.

Recognizing that is genuinely subversive. I always got the impression that I was at least 10 years older than the target audience for the series — but then, it’s hard to tell, because the show has guys ostensibly born in the 80s who are absolutely obsessed with Star Wars the way that only sitcom show-runners born in the 70s could be. And I grew up in an era where everyone was still getting an idea of how counter-culture worked after nobody was sincere about anything any longer. An era in which David Letterman mocking GE on his long-running NBC series was considered “subversive,” as was going on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt that said “Corporate Rock Still Sucks.” It didn’t take long for it to became clear that all of that was just posturing, and it ended up feeling all the more artificial because of its impotence.

How I Met Your Mother side-stepped that by acknowledging that its running gags, stunt casting, corporate marketing tie-ins, its formulaic sitcom format, even its deliberately post-modern premise, were all just window dressing that would never make or break the series on its own. They set themselves up with the problem of how to tell an earnest, unabashedly sentimental and hopelessly romantic story to an audience that was so self-aware and jaded that it had already spent a decade getting tired of being jaded.

How I Fixed Your TV Show

At least, that’s the show that I’ve been watching for years (and recording-and-meaning-to-watch for the past few years). It’s probably a mistake to assume too much self-awareness of an audience, though; some people just want to be calmed by the colors and moving shapes of insipid non-challenging network television and jump up on their sofa and clap whenever the funny gay man says “Legendary.”

Okay sure, it’s generally bad form to start insulting people who have a different opinion of a TV show. But I’ve got little patience for the kind of arrogance that makes somebody on the internet say, “Uh, yeah, we fixed your show for you. You’re welcome.” Even less when the “fixed” version is so, so much stupider.

To save everybody the trouble of watching it: the “fixed” version is just a few minutes of the last half of the finale episode, helpfully sanded down to remove anything at all surprising, challenging, unconventional, or that could be mistaken for a sign of actual story development or any kind of purpose to the preceding nine years of television.

It actually ends with Ted saying “and that’s how I met your mother,” cut to credits. I imagine the bright yellow umbrella was a big help as well, since anyone who thinks that that’s the “kind of sappy that totally jives with everything HIMYM viewers should have come to know and love” is someone who’s still amazed by object permanence.

Elsewhere on The AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff concedes that the finale didn’t retroactively invalidate the entire series, but that the show-runners were “shitty long-term planners” who painted themselves into a corner early on and were just too incompetent to pull themselves out of it. Which is not just colossally incorrect, but baffling and arrogant. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the people who complained that the movie A.I. turned to shit as soon as the “aliens” showed up. It says “because my assumption turned out to be incorrect, you failed.”

Here’s the point where VanDerWerff’s take goes completely off the rails:

This is all well and good if the story the series is telling is that of the show’s title. But it’s not. The story the series ultimately settled on was that of not just how Ted met Tracy (and told his kids all about not just that but also several seemingly unconnected adventures) but also how his kids told him to get out of his own head and start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time. And this isn’t something Bays and Thomas pulled out of their ass to give a series that ran too long a happy ending!

Can you see the problem? It’s a word that starts with “f” and ends with the assumption that Bays & Thomas had less understanding of how American episodic television than the average message board poster. It assumes that the series was never anything more than a raunchy mainstream comedic soap opera; Friends for millennials. That there was never any “message” to it apart from “Who gets to fuck Robin now?” Which itself ignores the immature and misogynist attitude that people take for granted as acceptable in romantic comedies, and assumes that this long-running and popular sitcom couldn’t possibly have been commenting on that.

It assumes that How I Met Your Mother was ever really about how Ted Mosby met his kids’ mother. Worse, it keeps assuming that even after the series suggested several times over, and the finale definitively proved, that that could never have been the case.

How I Met Your Mary-Ann

I’m absolutely not claiming that I saw the ending coming. In fact, a few years ago I read that interview with Jason Segel, where he mentioned the idea of the entire story being told after the mother’s death, and I promptly forgot about it. It just seemed like tone-deaf, hipster posturing: Screw you, viewers, she was dead the whole time! Boom, edgy! That’s what you get for getting emotionally invested in a dumb old sitcom!

A couple of episodes ago, when they all-but-explicitly said that the mother was dying, I was extremely pissed off. If they did that, it would retroactively destroy any love I ever had for this series. The reason was that I didn’t see any way they could possibly make it work. It would only ever be a manipulative attempt at pathos instead of the genuine sentimentality the series has always excelled at. And worse, it would’ve violated the entire premise of the series. “Kids, as we sit in honor and remembrance of your mother and the one true love of my life, let me first spend hours telling you about the years I spent having sex with other women.”

But that’s the only way the series ever could’ve ended. I’ve read a few people say that the show-runners painted themselves into a corner when they recorded the kids’ final scenes for the finale, sometime at the end of the first season. That’s not true. They painted themselves into a corner the moment they said, “Let’s make an American ongoing television series called How I Met Your Mother.”

It has what’s probably the most contrived premise for a television series since Gilligan’s Island. The thing that the show’s ostensibly “about,” the thing that all the characters are striving for, is the one thing that can never be shown without the series ending. In fact, if you wanted to reveal the title character at all, you’d have to significantly change up the format of the entire series. Like, for instance, making the entire last season a compressed-time version of a single weekend that was pivotal for all the characters’ relationships.

The format of the show has always carried with it an implicit joke: Ted Mosby’s the world’s worst storyteller. Not only has it taken him years to get to the point with all his various distractions, but he’s spent a year telling his children about all the sex he had before he met their mother. But as meta-observations go, that’s about as insightful as pointing out that Mystery Incorporated are never chasing actual ghosts, or everything in Three’s Company was based on a simple misunderstanding. Not only did the HIMYM team make the above video for Comic-Con in preparation for the final season; they’ve made the joke in the series itself. As soon as it was revealed Stella wasn’t the mother, an episode had her walking in on the story with two blonde-headed kids, asking, “Is your dad still telling that story?!”

They did a lighter-touch, sincere version of it this season with the aforementioned saddest episode, when we learn that Ted and Tracy have learned all of each other’s stories, and she warns him not to get lost in his stories. The finale says it outright: Ted insists that he kept the story short and to the point, after his daughter points out that the story was hardly about Mom at all.

The credits sequence hasn’t changed since the second episode of the series. It’s always been a bunch of snapshots of Ted and his best friends hanging out at the bar. As if to suggest that those memories were the entire focus of the series all along. Finding his wife was the framing story for those memories, not vice-versa.

Throughout the season, they establish Ted as an unreliable narrator, for instance with a character named “Blahblah” and the running gag of using sandwiches as a stand-in for pot. Which could’ve been nothing more than a stylistic flourish or television gimmick. Or more likely: a constant reminder that Ted was telling these stories, and there was a reason he was choosing to tell these stories in this way.

And there are all the finale’s callbacks to the show’s pilot episode: showing the cast in their first appearances, and ending on the iconic scene with the blue french horn. VanDerWerff (whom I usually agree with to an uncanny degree) spends several paragraphs missing the point — and again, that in itself isn’t the problem, since I already confessed to getting the same clues and freaking out at the idea that there wasn’t going to be a purely happy ending with The Mother. The problem is seeing an artist pretty much explicitly tell you what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and still insisting that it was clumsily or poorly planned. He writes:

But think back to the wonderful ending of the show’s pilot, to the moment when Ted’s kids realize the woman he met was their Aunt Robin, not their mother, and think about all that has been lost in the quest by Bays and Thomas to write themselves out of that moment, even when several viable alternatives presented themselves. The series finale of How I Met Your Mother insists that life happens to you, like it or not, that the bad things can’t be swept away in a single moment. It’s a pity that the men writing it tried so hard to stick to those guns once it became evident how far the show had trended away from their original plans.

He describes it as a desperate attempt to “write themselves out of that moment,” when the entire series has been five good seasons and four meandering ones attempting to deliver on that moment. I just re-watched the pilot, and the ending, which is indeed wonderful, is essentially a line-for-line prediction of the knee-jerk reactions to the series finale. The daughter’s upset that Ted promised to tell them the story of how he met their mother, but instead went into detail about how he first met Aunt Robin. And then when he’s asked how long it’s going to take to tell this story, he says, “long.” They might not have known it was going to be ten years long, and it frankly shouldn’t have been ten years long, but they were fully aware that episodic television means you’re not going to get a straight line from A to B.

More than that, it sets up the theme from the beginning; it’s not some retcon that came out of left field for the finale. At 27, Ted was already a hopeless romantic, so impatient to find The One that he described his perfect wedding to one first date and said “I love you” on another first date. He was contrasted with his two best friends who’d each already found their one true love in college, and his other horndog friend who was vehemently against the idea of “one true love.”

How I Met Your Step-Mother

A lot of viewers — myself included — believed that meant we were watching a romantic comedy series about a man’s mis-steps and false starts on the way towards finding the love of his life. What we got instead were several seasons with the story arc of incurable romantic Ted believing he’d found The One, having his hopes dashed, giving up on the idea, and then being encouraged to find the next The One.

All the while seeing his commitment-phobic friend lecturing him on the arcane rules of dating and manipulating women for sex (the kind of attitude that says stuff like “start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time”), but gradually growing into the kind of man who could have a mature honest relationship with a woman as an equal.

And simultaneously, Ted was seeing his other friends start at the end of any romantic comedy, the “and they lived happily ever after” part of their lives. Over time, they went through adversity, questioning their ideals, balancing their dreams with reality, and learning not to take their love for each other for granted and doing the actual “work” of being a married couple.

Which is why the shallow interpretations of the finale have me annoyed enough to go off on a tirade. There’s something defeatist if not outright elitist about it, an assumption that because the story takes the format of a formulaic sitcom, that’s all it can ever be. It’s all stunts and catch phrases and running gags and gimmicks and sex jokes, with the occasional sappy moment we all know and love. And all of those other stories are just killing time until Ted gets his happily ever after.

But this was, from the start, a sitcom that wanted to do more. It wanted to show that Ted was growing up and learning from these experiences too. That being an “incurable romantic” actually means having a juvenile idea about what relationships are actually about. VanDerWerff says that by spinning everything back to Robin, that both Ted and the show are guilty of “oneitis,” being so focused on one person at the expense of someone else who’s a better fit. That’s a complete mis-read; Ted’s story, from the pilot to the finale, is a rejection of the idea that you only get one.

(There’s even a foreshadowing of that in a running gag, deliberate or not: Barney’s constant insistence that Ted call him his best friend instead of Marshall, when nobody else cared to make the distinction).

Ted did find the love of his life. If my math is right, he and Tracy were together for as many years after their first meeting as the entire length of the series. And one of the many brilliantly-handled aspects of the last season was that we only ever saw that their relationship was perfect. She blended perfectly into the group. She wasn’t just “Ted’s girlfriend” but someone who genuinely changed all their lives. Their meeting was genuinely charming, as if the writers had saved up all the wit and romance caught in the drip pan of nine seasons and put it into one scene. We never saw their fights, only the years of happy memories that Ted had. Even during “the worst times,” we didn’t see ay of the suffering, just the acknowledgement that they were completely in love. One of the most perfect details was that they didn’t get married for years, not until after they’d had two children, and it was in small ceremony with their best friends. Ted’s perfect, fairytale wedding never happened, because all his abstract plans for his perfect romance stopped mattering as soon as he found the real thing.

Contrast that with the “fixed” ending up above, and you can get an idea why it’s annoying that anyone would call that superior. It’s not just that it’s an insipid, juvenile “happily ever after;” it undermines the entire series. It says that Ted was right all along, and he just needed to kiss enough frogs before he found his princess. It trivializes this relationship by setting up that she’s essentially just “the one after Victoria, and Zoe, and Stella, and Robin…” and also trivializes those relationships by setting them up as essentially practice runs from which he learned nothing. It ends with all the characters essentially unchanged from the pilot episode. And it just ignores the most obvious problem: we’ve been spending all this time hearing about everyone except the mother.

The ending that we got, however, owns that and puts the entire series in context. It doesn’t matter that the story barely has the mother in it, because we got everything we need to know: she was perfect, and she’ll be forever perfect in his memories.

And Ted’s story doesn’t stop the moment he meets Tracy, either. The thing that broke he and Robin up the first time was that they wanted different things from their lives: he saw himself having a fantasy wedding and settling down to a life in the suburbs with a perfect wife and two kids; she saw herself traveling around the world at a moment’s notice and had no interest in settling down. And in the seasons that followed, they both learned that it’s worse than futile to try and form a plan for the rest of your life while in your 20s, since you end up comparing everything that actually happens to that unrealistic plan.

Ted discovered — in what, in retrospect, seems like one of the most poignant storylines — that the house was just a shell, and he was still impatiently putting together aspects of his ideal life instead of letting life happen to him.

Robin discovered that the things she’d always assumed weren’t important turned out to be hugely important to her — in her most poignant storyline, she discovered she couldn’t have children and had to figure out why that was so devastating to her. And while the will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth with Barney was most likely an attempt to squeeze a few more seasons out of the series, it ends up fitting in with her story just as well. Barney was a cartoon version of the kind of no-strings-attached, whiskey-and-strip-clubs, complete freedom of being able to drop everything and do something completely reckless that she’d always believed she wanted. The wedding wasn’t a distraction; it was a process of the both of them growing up and learning what real commitment and selflessness was. And importantly: they were genuinely in love, and they continued to be in love after the divorce.

It’s fitting that she broke up with Ted because of their “expiration date,” her fear that she’d be tied down to one place and lose what she thought was her freedom, but then found herself thirty years later in the same apartment in the same city, still surrounded by her dogs. Both she and Ted got what they wanted, at least for a few years, but then the complication is that their story kept going.

There’s a reason Ted’s story — and therefore, the series — started with his meeting Robin. It wasn’t to set her up as the first in a line of failed relationships until he found the successful one. It wasn’t to say that the kids’ mother was fine but it was always Robin that he truly loved. It was to show that Ted at the beginning of the story is a different person than he is at the end, even if he doesn’t realize it until his kids point it out. (Yet another example of why the “fixed” version is so lousy: the framing story just becomes inert, an acknowledgement that everything interesting that happened is in the past). It’s because that relationship is one of the most important relationships of his life, even though it wasn’t — or maybe because it wasn’t — a romantic one. It’s because telling the story makes him realize everything he got from the relationship, while at the time he was always comparing the relationship to what it could be.

There was an excellent episode in the last season called “Sunrise,” in which Ted finally gives up on his one big final romantic gesture and symbolically steps down as an obstacle between Robin and Barney. Robin finds out, and she and Ted spend the night on the beach, talking about their relationship up to this point. In one of the simultaneously corny and beautiful scenes that HIMYM always did so well, Ted finally lets go of Robin and sees her floating away, like a child’s balloon. It’s one of the scenes that the finale puts in a new context, making the obvious interpretation seem shallow. Even if they both thought so at the time, Ted wasn’t really letting go of Robin, so that she could go on to marry Barney and he could go on to meet Tracy. Ted was finally letting go of his childish version of Perfect Robin. The version that was keeping him forever focused on what he thought he could have instead of appreciating what he had.

After the finale, that blue french horn stops being just a prop for the big Say Anything moment in a shallow, “One big gesture and my quest to win the girl is complete” romantic comedy. It becomes an acknowledgement that they’ve had a long history together. Everything has an expiration date, the worst thing you can do is let worries about the future stand in the way of enjoying the present.

And of course, it solves the problem they set for themselves in the pilot episode. If you want to tell a love story for adults that still builds to a climactic moment when one runs to the other and delivers a big, sweeping romantic gesture, you want it to be with a character we love and have gotten to know for longer than a season. There’s no one perfect story. You don’t have to choose between love at first sight and the depth of understanding that comes from knowing another person for a long time. You can have both.

How We Blew Your Rambaldi-Device-Finding, Cylon-Discovering, Island-Escaping Mind

I’ve spent years poring over the details of Lost, trying to put all the pieces together and predict what was going to happen. For a long time, I believed Battlestar Galactica was going somewhere and that the opera house dream would make sense. It seems weird to me now, but I even put a good bit of effort into trying to figure out Alias.

When I started reading people’s responses to the How I Met Your Mother finale, my first thought was that they were treating it as if it were just some kind of mystery story, or a puzzle to be solved, instead of letting themselves get genuinely invested in it. But really, it was a pretty neat mystery story. It used flashbacks and flash-forwards better than a conventional sitcom really needed to. It was exciting to get clues like the Econ class or the yellow umbrella doled out, like the episodes of X-Files that unpredictably dipped in and out of the larger continuity.

And just thinking about the finale in the context of the other episodes, and how it re-contextualizes the other episodes, has been interesting. Obviously, not all of it is deliberate, and a lot of it really was nothing more than a half hour of goofy television. But I’m impressed by how much of it fits. It really does seem as if they announced their intentions with an unconventional pilot, and then spent the next decade carrying it out. Of course, when your theme is “unexpected stuff happens,” it’s a little easier to say after the fact that nothing was a tangent.

I’ve been interested in long-form episodic television storytelling since the first time they showed The Smoking Man. I never would’ve expected that the first series to pull it off successfully would be a silly little formulaic sitcom that often could made me cry. If they’d gone for about three seasons shorter, and if the gang had ever made any black or Asian friends, it would’ve been about perfect.

A Country Boy Can Survive

on a multi-million dollar multimedia and merchandising agreement. A bit of faux-populism is more valuable than any number of duck calls.


Whenever a TV celebrity says something offensive, there’s no shortage of coverage on the internet and jokes on Twitter. So I don’t really need to get into a tirade about all the obviously stupid aspects of the Duck Dynasty guy’s interview with GQ in which he talks about anuses and vaginas, compares homosexuality to bestiality, and says that black people were a lot happier before the Civil Rights movement gave them a sense of entitlement.

Except… except the whole thing is so densely-packed with absurd wrongness that even thinking about it for a fraction of a second reveals a dozen new ridiculous details foretelling the collapse of Western Civilization. For instance, it wasn’t until I was just now writing the sentence above that I made the connection and fully appreciated the absurdity of a hard-workin’ good ol’ boy just statin’ his mind in an interview with Gentlemen’s Quarterly.

Anyway, The Onion A.V. Club has been doing an excellent job recapping all the false persecution and rampant hypocrisy around the whole thing, so my words here could do little to add or subtract.

But I can say what I personally find most offensive about it. It’s not the casual comparison of homosexuality to perversion, since that’s been going on for decades, and we’ve heard it plenty of times already. It’s not the bald-faced offensiveness of comparing the Civil Rights movement to entitlement, since that’s just a combination of the matter-of-fact racism I’ve unfortunately been hearing tossed around since I was a kid, plus the Tea Party-era attempts to disguise bigotry and classism as fiscal conservatism. It’s not really the hypocrisy of the A&E Network for profiting from a bunch of self-described “rednecks” who’ve been outspoken bigots, suddenly developing a conscience after four years, because come on: reality television. It’s not the hypocrisy of Sarah Palin calling for freedom of speech when a television celebrity is fired for making obviously racist and homophobic comments, after she was curiously silent when a television pundit is forced to resign after implying that someone should shit in Palin’s mouth as a means of pointing out how casually she’s trivialized the genuine horrors of slavery. And it’s not even the hypocrisy of anti-gay sentiment coming from a bunch of people who are even more fixated with beards than any gay man I’ve ever met with an actual, openly-acknowledged beard fetish.

Persecutin’ ‘n’ Manipulatin’

No, the most surprisingly offensive thing to me is this Facebook update from Sarah Palin. Now, to be fair, I have to give Palin some credit for her remarkable evolution over the years. When she was picked from obscurity to be a vice-presidential nominee in 2008, she was clearly out of her element, a local politician thrust not only into the ruthless world of Washington politics, but the national media. But instead of fading into obscurity, she fought to establish herself as a vapid media opportunist, and then a laughably dismissible clown, before finally coming into her own as a full-fledged live-action cartoon. And in her carefully-constructed Facebook update:

Free speech is an endangered species. Those “intolerants” hatin’ and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.

she actually writes out “hatin'”.

The attempt to equate freedom of speech with freedom from consequence? Please, that’s not even Bullshit 101. That’s Remedial Bullshit. When I think about how much time has been wasted over the years as smart people have tried to explain how the First Amendment works to people using their willful ignorance for political manipulation… we might’ve even found evidence showing that global warming is manmade, or discovered a vaccine that doesn’t cause autism.

The calculated use of “intolerant” in an attempt to throw back progressives’ own language in their faces, to suggest that it’s the people spewing out bigotry who are really the ones being persecuted? Yawn. Seen it. It’s been years since Ann Coulter lamented the intolerant society that would no longer allow her to call John Edwards a faggot. No offense, Ms. Palin, but you’re strictly amateur class when compared to that.

But the master stroke — and this, keep in mind, is coming from a guy who regularly types “y’all” in emails without thinking twice about it — is encompassing decades’ worth of faux-populist, faux-conservative, faux-Christian, faux-American media manipulation into a single apostrophe. It would be impossible to come up with a more perfectly false and hypocritical defense of not just Duck Dynasty, but the entire state of pop culture that allowed a show like Duck Dynasty to become so popular.

Just a Good Ol’ Boy, Never Meanin’ No Harm

Let’s all be clear, here: The Official Statement from the Robertson Family, complete with its photo of multiple generations of abandoned wives and children As Seen on TV, all united in their belief of Constitutionally-protected freedom of speech and freedom of religion, all devoted to their faith in the teachings of the Bible, standing strong, Job-like, in the face of a society that has lost sight of the simple values of honest talk and brotherly love — that’s on a website currently hosting a pop-up ad for the Bank of America, special holiday hours for their store, and booking info for the entire family, with separate sections for the Wives and Teens, each with a glamour shot and a bio.

In other words, these sumbitches are crazy rich. Just like Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee, and Paula Deen, and Dan Cathy. And acknowledging that these persecuted free thinkers have more money than I’ll ever see in my lifetime isn’t an attack on the wealthy, any more than saying “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christmas. But it does make the “simple gifts” schtick awfully hard to swallow. It’s Boss Hogg trying to pass himself off as Jed Clampett. “Lemme jus’ head on down to the cement pond and record the latest social media video promoting our line of greeting cards.”

When I started growing my beard out last year, I heard enough cracks about Duck Dynasty that I watched an episode to see what all the fuss was about. (It’s been going on for at least four seasons, apparently). And it was, unsurprisingly, the biggest load of faux-populist bullshit I’d seen on television. It wasn’t even the orchestrated train wreck cash-grab that was Here Comes Honey Boo Boo; as horrible as that was, you still got the sense that everybody involved was aware that it was just a modern-day freak show, the money all but visibly changing hands and going towards a “college fund” that would eventually be used for medical bills, treatment for addiction, and psychological therapy.

No, Duck Dynasty was worse, because it was an hour of a bunch of people reminding the ever-present video cameras that they were nothing more than God-fearin’ simple folk.

Growing up in Georgia, I spent decades immersed in this crap. I’ve been to the studios of The 700 Club and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL. I’ve seen countless hours of Hee Haw and The Dukes of Hazzard. In college I lived in a house in which the Nashville Network played virtually non-stop, with the slickly-produced videos interrupted with interviews with the self-described rednecks and cowboys who weren’t no different from nobody else. Lately, I’ve been seeing videos in the mall food court that are practically indistinguishable from the ones I saw 20 years ago: add a steel guitar and some “haw haw haw ‘Merica” twang to a mass-produced pop song and all of a sudden you’re celebrating down-home values.

To be clear: I’d never, ever fault or criticize somebody for wanting to believe in all that. You’d have to be a real asshole to mock the most fundamental of good values while you’re condemning the manipulative people who are corrupting those values. It’s that manipulation that I’m criticizing.

I Will Always Love Dolly Parton

One of the most common reactions to this whole nonsense — apart from the depressingly predictable attempts to martyr a bigot with an “I Stand With Phil Robertson” movement — is “Well, who’s really surprised?” These guys are from the South after all. Of course they’re “Bible-thumpers,” and naturally they’d be racist homophobes.

Speaking as a southerner, I’m sick of people passing off their racist bullshit as part of their Southern Heritage. Speaking as a Christian, I’m tired of people passing off their own bigotry as being in any way Christ-like. These clowns don’t speak for me, and I want them to stop acting as if they do. Each time they’re caught doing something patently offensive, the response is always, always, that they don’t care much for “political correctness,” and they’re just saying what everybody’s thinking but is too afraid to say out loud. And each time one of these things blows up in their face, it should become clear that “No, you’re not saying what everybody’s thinking. You’re just an asshole.”

To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to a logical analysis of the objective merits of anuses vs. vaginas. But I am just gay enough to think that Dolly Parton is one of the best people there is. She has absolutely made a fortune out of taking the “simple Appalachian folk” concept and cranking it up to eleven. There’s no doubt that she built a multimedia empire — including not just some greeting card line but a theme park — based on basic values and humble beginnings. She’s unquestionably got a carefully-constructed public persona based on an accent, a body, and just the right amount of self-deprecation.

The difference is that there’s no bullshit there. In everything I’ve ever seen, she’s up front about how different her life is after all the hit songs, and the movies, and the money, and the plastic surgery. She says that she’s still got the same core set of values that she’s always had, but then she actually follows through on it. And even though she’d have every opportunity to fall back on feeble excuses based on her age or her upbringing or the place where she was born, she accepts everybody in her audience. She could totally get away with the “that’s just the way I was raised” excuse for bigotry, but for as long as I’ve been aware of her, she’s always been contemporary and always been inclusive.

It’s the difference between selling honesty and actually being honest. And the difference between “politically correct” and just plain “correct.”

So Sarah Palin is welcome to descend further into self-parody. And the whole Robertson clan can shove their redneck martyrdom bullshit up their own illogical anuses, and fade back into wealthy obscurity. Along with all the other aspects of the South that are better left forgotten.

There’s probably no stopping people from trying to turn a region into a commodity. If people are still dressing up as Centurions for photo opportunities around the Coliseum in Rome, thousands of years later, there’s probably going to be no end to “We’re po’ but proud” merchandise in my lifetime. It’ll be annoying and as authentic as a Cracker Barrel gift shop, but it’s ultimately harmless. What’s not harmless is trying to pull the worst aspects of the last 200 years as an inseparable and even noble part of it. I want to get to the point where, when somebody says he’s a southerner, you can’t make any assumptions other than his attitude towards gravy, sweet potatoes, and how much sugar should go into cornbread. (Answer: absolutely none).

My Problem with The Big Bang Theory

An analysis of inequities of power, income, social status, and issues of representation in the popular media. “Holy shit, get a life”

After some consideration, I have determined exactly what it is about The Big Bang Theory that makes me uncomfortable: It’s not funny.

Or more accurately: I don’t think it’s funny, while millions of other people — including many in my peer group! — absolutely love it.

And I think that’s ultimately the entire problem. There’s a blog post called “The Problem With The Big Bang Theory” that was passed around back in September of last year, and now for whatever reason has been getting a lot of circulation again in the past few days. In it, the author explains how the show doesn’t celebrate nerds, but simply continues to mock them. The character of Penny, the normal one, is the only character the audience is supposed to identify with; the others are supposed to be seen as weird and alien. Plus it’s a little racist, a good bit misogynist, homophobic, and it makes fun of people with genuine mental disabilities.

The only part of that post that I agree with is the one complaint that the author quickly dismisses: the show relies on lazy humor. It has references for their own sake, not as part of a well-constructed joke, or even to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and inclusion over a shared memory. The references just come across as pandering.

I wouldn’t be able to go into detail, since I’ve only seen a handful of scenes from the series and never a full episode; my opinion of the show sounds about the same as Angus T. Jones’s opinion of Two and a Half Men. But in one of those scenes, as the characters were fighting to be heard over the laughter, there was a whiteboard in the foreground covered with an Objective C class diagram. For those of us who roll our eyes whenever we’re subjected to ridiculous abuses of technology in CSI and the like, an accurate inclusion of something real computer programmers would actually use would seem to be entertainment nirvana. But in the show, it just sat there, inert. It might as well have had an arrow pointing to it, with the caption YOU RECOGNIZE THIS.

Turning It Off And Back On Again

You could contrast it with The IT Crowd, a series which inverted the power dynamic of The Big Bang Theory by making its nerds and geeks identifiable, and making its “normal” character the subject of mockery. You could say that, but you don’t have to, ’cause you got pronouns, you can say: The IT Crowd understood how to include familiar references without drawing attention to them. It made its references both more subtle and more absurd. The nerd-pandering EFF stickers and action figures and T-shirts (for which Graham Linehan requested recommendations on Twitter) are kept to the background and almost never explicitly acknowledged. The only episodes that were explicitly about technology were deliberately ridiculous, centering around Friendface or convincing someone that the Internet was a black box with a light on it.

While I think it’s true, more or less, that The IT Crowd flipped the predictable premise by making the nerds the heroes and making fun of the normals, I don’t think that says anything of merit. For one, because The IT Crowd wasn’t about IT any more than Father Ted was about Catholicism. And more importantly, because The IT Crowd didn’t choose sides. It made fun of all of its characters. It spent as much time making fun of Moss for being dysfunctional and weird, and Roy for being insecure, horny, and a little homophobic; as it made fun of Jen for being dense and shallow.

That blog post tries to compare Big Bang Theory to Community, and concludes that the latter is better, partly because the audience is meant to identify with Abed. I say that’s absurd; almost half the episodes showed how Abed is deeply dysfunctional. Community was meta-television — often self-consciously so — that made fun of the idea of protagonists vs. villains, identifying with any character over the others, and the entire premise of a situation comedy.

In fact, both Community and Big Bang Theory started with the same structure; Community presented itself as a fish-out-of-water premise with Jeff Winger as the normal guy surrounded by a bunch of crazies. It then dismantled that premise by making it clear that he was every bit as messed up as the other characters, but they all grew to depend on each other. That doesn’t sound so different from the first season or two of Big Bang Theory. The biggest difference is that Big Bang Theory focused on the old “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline, while Community referenced it, mocked it, rejected it, and then repeatedly used it.

Nerd Blackface

All of that leads me to two conclusions:

  1. The whole “geek chic” thing is gradually turning into something malignant; and
  2. Don’t attribute to complex social dynamics and inequalities of power what can be more easily explained by inequalities of talent.

For the first part: I’ve seen The Big Bang Theory described several times as “nerd blackface,” which makes this all heartbreaking because I absolutely love that term. But the problem with it is that it results in weirdly defensive over-reactions, and it relies on simplistic assumptions that act as if Revenge of the Nerds were a documentary.

For instance, that blog post, in which the author feels obliged to establish her [I’m assuming, based on the rest of the blog] geek cred. It’s always a little sad to see someone feeling it necessary to establish themselves as a geek when their blog is full of animated GIFs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you’ve already made it quite clear you’re a nerd, and to be clear that is awesome. It’s like a few weeks ago, when the ridiculous “fake nerd girl” kerfluffle arose, and a lot of women responded by establishing themselves as legit nerds. Instead of doing the more sensible thing and simply pointing out that the entire notion of a “fake nerd” of any type is asinine and immediately dismissible.

Another example: this honest, heartfelt, and probably well-intentioned post (in Gawker-friendly list format!) by Annalee Newitz called “Six Good Habits I Learned From Being Bullied as a Geeky Kid.” Sincere kudos to Newitz for putting herself and her experiences out there, and it’s always welcome to see a reminder not to let yourself be driven by what other people think of you. But the whole thing seems to be predicated on the old ideas that nerds are somehow more discerning than the mainstream; and that the best revenge is being successful while seeing the people who bullied you fall to obscurity and realize that their best days are behind them.

The first idea is belied by The Big Bang Theory. It’s a Chuck Lorre television series, which almost by definition means it’s mainstream. And a ton of nerds love it, to the point of buying the merchandise, identifying with the characters, and naming scientific discoveries after catch phrases from the show. Plus it’s a mainstream television series that must have a sizable percentage of nerds on staff, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have whiteboards full of Cocoa Touch class names. (Or for that matter, have frequent guest appearances by celebrity nerd hero Wil Wheaton).

That Tumblr post specifically calls out Wheaton, Sara Gilbert, and Jim Parsons for being more or less Uncle Toms because of their participation in the show; I say that’s absurd. Their participation should be a clear sign that the whole notion of Jocks vs. Nerds is simplistic and exclusionary. “Nerd” isn’t some homogenous group — even if you try to subdivide it into geeks, dweebs, and geeky dweebs — everybody’s into weird stuff and has had their own experiences of feeling rejected or feeling like an outsider, to some degree. If that were in doubt, I’d think the revelations that Rosario Dawson knows Klingon and Vin Diesel plays D&D would’ve laid waste to that tired old notion. But still, I frequently see people trying to martyr themselves and put forth the idea that nerds are somehow The Chosen Ones, suffering nobly until their time in the spotlight. In fact, what they’re doing is anything but inclusive; it’s building an internet treehouse and attaching the sign “No Pretty People Allowed” out front.

The most blatant example of that is The Guild music video “I’m the One That’s Cool”, which I find disturbing in at least a dozen ways. How is it that a bunch of actors wearing unflattering hair styles and accentuating their overbites is not as much a case of “Nerd Blackface” as anything on The Big Bang Theory? Is it because actress and producer Felicia Day has firmly established her geek cred, while a Jewish television writer — who ends every episode of every series with a wall-of-text vanity card only legible to those who record the show and pause it — is one of those beautiful people jocks? (And while I’m at it, one of Lorre’s high-profile privileged early jobs was writing for Roseanne, just like another television series creator who never earned his geek credentials).

Even more important than the question of “who’s this coming from?” is whether it’s a good message to be sending at all. It ignores the fact that some of the biggest bullies I’ve ever encountered were nerds who themselves got bullied when younger and were trying to over-compensate for it in adulthood. Or that if you’re an adult and still complaining about the jerk who pantsed you in high school, that means you haven’t really gotten over it and moved on.

“Nerd” or “Geek” isn’t a protected class, and it shouldn’t be one. Some of the most awful people I’ve run into have been at nerd conventions, and some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered have been at board game conventions. The stuff nerds like isn’t necessarily any better or smarter than the mainstream; for the record, I don’t personally like The Guild at all, either, but I’m glad that it exists and that there are tons of people who can enjoy it. If the thing that unites a “community” of nerds is that they’re really, really invested in the stuff they enjoy, then shouldn’t that be the focus, instead of bitterness over the people who don’t appreciate it?

So essentially, I’m saying: Get off the 20-sided dice, we need the plastic.

How Not To Tell People How To Make A Rape Joke

And then there’s the attempt to attribute the problems of the show to some imbalance of power between Normals vs Nerds, or Gays vs Straights. That’s a lazy trend that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately, and it’s worse than just a Geek Pride debate because it actually intersects with genuinely serious issues.

A couple of months ago, there was an internet controversy when Daniel Tosh insulted a heckler with a stupid and insensitive comment about rape, and hundreds of people were tripping over themselves to be the most vocal to condemn it. There was a post called “How to Make a Rape Joke” on Jezebel — Internet go-to site for shallow social analysis — that correctly called out Tosh for being a moron, but then went off into straight-up BS territory by trying to establish what’s offensive vs. what’s acceptable, and trying to explain to readers how exactly to tell an offensive joke. The author insisted that it’s about context, that sexual assault is more statistically likely to be sensitive to more members of the audience than other horrific events, and that it is ultimately about making jokes from a position of power mocking those with less power. She concluded by trying to explain why when Tosh makes a rape joke it’s offensive, but when Louis CK makes a rape joke it’s funny: it’s because Louis CK has spent 20 years making it clear that he’s on the side of good, and that he’s against rape.

Which is bullshit. What makes one offensive and the other funny is that Tosh is an opportunistic hack, and Louis CK is actually an extremely talented comedian. Lindy West’s claim that there’s some kind of hierarchy of offensiveness, where sexual assault trumps cancer, AIDS, industrial accidents, and infant death, is just plain ghoulish. And her tortured attempts to explain it in terms of actuarial tables based on CDC data is 100 kinds of wrong-headed bullshit. The only difference between Tosh’s comments and Louis CK’s joke is that the author thinks one is stupid and the other is funny.

And she’s right, but for all the wrong reasons. Louis CK has built a career out of being an awkward misanthrope, and he’s made fun of women, men, rape, race, politically correct language, and repeatedly called his children little shits. A huge part of his stand-up material depends on shock value. Tosh’s depends on shock value, too. To imply, as that Jezebel article does, that Tosh actually believes what he’s saying, and he hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt because he may actually be in support of sexual assault and complicit in “rape culture,” is ludicrous. Louis CK didn’t spend the last 20 years earning the right to not have audiences automatically assume he’s pro-rape. Unless you’re a writer for a blog that makes ad revenue off of links to controversy, you should automatically assume that no one is actually making light of rape, until they prove otherwise.

What Louis CK spent the last 20 years doing is learning how to construct a joke. Louis CK’s joke that West quotes depends on shock value just like Tosh’s comments; the difference is that one was cleverly constructed, while Tosh’s comments are the shallowest version of “wouldn’t this be shocking?” possible. Tosh’s whole schtick is firing a shotgun blast of every racist, misogynist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive thing he can think of — and from what I’ve seen, I’d guess it’s literally every single one he can think of — and grin through the whole thing because he’s being naughty and subversive. There’s little cleverness or originality to it, and he almost never takes it any farther than the initial shock value. (I’ll admit that I’ve laughed at some of Tosh’s material on the YouTube clip show, but always when he takes the joke to an absurd extreme, instead of just going for the obvious “old joke about Mexicans/blacks/gay people/asians/women”).

A lot of people have defended Tosh by pointing out that he makes fun of everything and everyone, which is something that West acknowledges and then dismisses. She tries to counter by explaining how there are things that are appropriate and inappropriate to make fun of, which is missing the point entirely. The defense, such as it is, isn’t that Tosh is making fun of the wrong things. The defense is that by making fun of everything, he’s in reality making fun of nothing. It’s simply crossing the line for its own sake. Contrast it with, say, Sarah Silverman, whose stand-up routine is a similar uninterrupted string of offensive, shocking things, but who’s a lot more clever about making it clear whom she’s mocking. To put it in Big Lebowski terms: Silverman is clearly opposed to conservatism, misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. Tosh believes in nothing.

What’s most heartbreaking is that the Louis CK joke that West quotes in her article isn’t really a “rape joke” at all, but instead makes fun of and dismisses her entire argument. The entire shock value of the joke comes from the initial implication that there’s ever an acceptable excuse for rape, or in fact that there are degrees of acceptability when talking about horrible things. It doesn’t depend on context at all; it’d be funny no matter who told it, because it only requires the audience to know the difference between right and wrong. Please, bloggers, if you’re going to take it upon yourselves to explain jokes to people, at least take a few minutes to study how jokes actually work.

Everything I Know About Human Interaction I Learned From Buffy the Vampire Slayer

And “how jokes work” gets back to why I’ve got a problem with that attempt at analyzing of The Big Bang Theory. It tries to drag in issues of social inequality, popular culture’s representation of women, and homophobia when the better explanation is that the jokes simply don’t work for some of us.

I blame Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or really, the fact that popular entertainment started getting really good around the same time that self-publishing in the form of blogs became really viable. It meant that “low art” like Buffy — which was designed to be as easy to pick apart as any good parable or fairy tale — got analyzed and over-analyzed, to the point where self-apparent interpretations were accepted as genuine insight. Back when colleges first started offering courses that gave literary analysis of Watchmen, or discussed Buffy in the context of feminism or folklore, people commented on how unusual it was. But it quickly became accepted as commonplace. That, along with Oprah and TV psychologists, meant that pop psychology or social studies came to be seen as on the same level as academics.

And anyone who thinks I’m being overly dismissive of “low art” or pop culture is free to read any of my long dissertations in defense of pop culture. In brief, though: my defense of “low art” and rejection of “high art” is not that low art is as nuanced or as complex, but that art is about communication, and there’s no inherent superiority of obscurity for its own sake. A piece of entertainment that is intended to be “easily digestible” — e.g. how Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the supernatural to intensify the trials of adolescence and young adulthood — can be every bit as valid as something that invites multiple interpretations.

In any case, and whether that’s the actual cause or whether I’m full of it, the result has been a glut of shallow interpretations of media and popular culture passed off as more complex and insightful analyses. For example, using cultural context and background to determine the right way to make light of sexual assault. It’s similar to how some feminist blogs explain their use of the word “bitch;” or Dan Savage’s stunt attempt to “take back” the word “faggot;” or the people who twist themselves into knots explaining exactly how and when it is or isn’t appropriate to use the n-word, based on the race and cultural background of the speaker and his or her audience. In reality, though, it’s all much more simple: the n-word (and for that matter, the c-word) is fucking irredeemably hateful and offensive, and no one should use it, ever.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the same type of false logic used to try and explain how the game Cards Against Humanity is “problematic,” how certain scenes in American Horror Story are objectionable while others are fine as lurid entertainment, and why the violence in Tomb Raider is more objectionable than the violence in any other video game. With the first two, at least, it’s a misguided attempt to establish a “do not cross” line with something that exists entirely to make the “line” irrelevant. And all of them to one degree or another assume that modern audiences are primarily made up of sociopaths, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, unable to tell even the difference between right and wrong. And yet, somehow able to discern what it is that makes death from AIDS or the Holocaust somehow less sensitive than sexual assault or racism. It assumes that the audience is actually reveling in or making light of the horrific, and then compounds that by suggesting that there are degrees of what’s horrific and what’s appropriate fodder for comedy.

Even worse than that, it makes discussions about actual issues spin out of control and descend into unproductive noise. It’s how “you don’t understand a joke” gets interpreted as “you can’t take a joke.” Or “your analysis has no merit” gets interpreted as “your premise has no merit” and then “racism/misogyny/homophobia don’t exist.” And why people so often get infuriated to hear “You’re over-thinking it,” when the actual complaint is “You’re making an easily-dismissible mockery of what is actually a serious but ultimately simple issue.”

Which is the most roundabout possible way of explaining my accusation: that article about The Big Bang Theory is over-thinking it. That’s not to say that smart, tech-savvy women aren’t grossly under-represented in the media. It’s not to say that homophobia is no big deal. It’s not to say that it’s okay to make fun of people with mental disabilities, and it’s not to undermine the damage caused by being bullied or socially ostracized.

All I’m saying is that you don’t need to mention any of that to explain why the jokes in Big Bang Theory feel uninspired and clumsy. Or if you do use that as your justification, then you have to explain why it’s okay for The IT Crowd to make fun of nerds and gay people, Community to make fun of the mentally disabled, and The Guild to pander to an audience of self-described geeks, but not okay when Big Bang Theory does the same thing.

Instead of trying to come up with a tortured explanation involving in-groups and outsiders, traditional inequities of cultural power, gender roles and role reversal, and institutionalized sexism and racism, the simplest explanation works best. All require people to be able to laugh at themselves, some people are simply better at writing jokes than others, and not everyone is going to find the same thing funny.

Everything Crashed Into the Cuckoo’s Nest

American Horror Story: Asylum is either awful with a few moments of brilliance, or brilliant in its awfulness. Or both. Or neither.

This post is probably full of what could technically be called spoilers, but with something like American Horror Story: Asylum, it feels like warning about spoilers in a fever dream. With something that’s so incoherent that even the characters aren’t particularly changed or surprised by anything that happens — like, for instance, having a break-out attempt interrupted by zombie mutants — I’m not even sure if the audience is supposed to be surprised.

I’m not sure how any of it works, actually. It’s so similar but so far removed from camp that it’s almost like a transmission from hundreds of years into the future, once camp has evolved into something culturally different. Back when I watched True Blood, I said that it was shamelessly confident and over-the-top; AHS feels like a bunch of people watched True Blood and complained, “why does everything on television have to be so realistic and boring?” It’s like Axe Cop, if the writer weren’t five years old, but instead a twelve-year-old going through an extremely vivid puberty.

Or as if the producers got a bunch of writers together for a brainstorming session, and said “Mental asylum. Go.” And after a few hours of free-form idea association, as the producers were gathering note cards from every surface of the room, someone asked, “That was productive; how long is it going to take you guys to edit it?” And they replied, “‘Edit?'”

It’s crazy nuts is what I’m saying. I didn’t see the first season of the series, so I can’t compare the two. I started watching with season two, specifically because I loved the idea of an “anthology” series, where the story resets each season, and all the actors start playing different parts in a new story.

From reading descriptions of the first season, though, I think the basic idea is the same here: start with a pastiche of ideas from dozens of different horror stories (season 1: haunted houses and ghosts, season 2: B-movies and prison exploitation flicks), roughly assemble it into something resembling episodic television, and then leave the rest to a bunch of good actors being completely, absurdly committed to the material. (That’s another possible analogy: it’s like they made an entire series out of Ted Levine’s scenes in Silence of the Lambs). (Also, no pun intended with “committed,” but now I wish I had intended it.)

And also: do as much as you can with Jessica Lange, because she’s terrific.

As great as Lange is, though, I think you can pretty effectively sum up the entire American Horror Story: Asylum experience with Chloe Sevigny’s character. I admit I haven’t thought much of Sevigny one way or the other, but you don’t have to make any obvious references to Brown Bunny to acknowledge that she goes all-in. Here, she plays a sexually-liberated woman in the early 60s committed to an asylum after being branded a nymphomaniac. Over the course of this season, she’s: delivered a few speeches about the oppression of women; propositioned the evil surgeon in an attempt to get free; negotiated her way into an escape from the asylum; sacrificed herself (by fellating a guard) to help the others escape, right down to saying “go on without me!”; been captured and raped by the evil surgeon (who’s also probably a Nazi war criminal); laughed at his deformed penis in the midst of the aforementioned rape; woken up on an operating table to find her legs had been cut off; and now as a result of mad science experiments been turned into an immortal, cannibalistic mutant, who most recently asked adult Anne Frank to “please kill me.”

And she’s the B-story, by the way. I haven’t even mentioned the serial killer, the alien abductions and implants, the plucky young lesbian reporter wrongly committed and given shock therapy, or the nun who’s been possessed by a demon. It’s all thrown together and pureed into an exploitative pop culture mash-up, where scenes are smashed together so quickly that you’re never given time to realize that none of it makes a lick of sense.

Sevigny’s is the shallowest of any of the named characters, just barely made more complex than “chronic masturbator guy” or “head-banging woman” or “The Mexican.” She’s a character entirely formed from cliches and one-note motivations and laughably terrible dialogue. And yet, when you’re in the moment, it all kind of works — scene by scene, I’m engaged. She comes dangerously close to being around 2.5 dimensional.

Nuns, aliens, serial killers, mutant zombies, Nazis and Nazi hunters, lesbians, nuns possessed by demons, creepy aversion therapy hand jobs, snuff porn-loving mad scientists, shock therapy, bare-assed caning, corrupt monsignors, bakery sex with an axe murderer, phone calls from hit-and-run victims, thrill-seeking killers, and at least for a while there, the chance to see the guy from Maroon 5 getting stabbed over and over again. It’s what Sci Fi Channel movies aspire to be.

It’s a strange, other-dimensional construct, like a tesseract theorized by David Foster Wallace — something that exists solely to be watched, beyond the idea of whether it’s “good” or “bad.” It’s a show where a character is simultaneously Anne Frank and an insane person who believes she’s Anne Frank, and both realities are true, and somehow neither reality seems to be as shockingly poor taste as it should be. A singularity where the very concept of camp has collapsed on itself, leaving a mass of engrossing images that transcends any notion of good, bad, quality, exploitation, taste, or coherence.

Also there’s no way that Zachary Quinto’s character isn’t the Bloody Face killer. I called it last week, but I’m making it official now.

The City That Never Blinks

Being a nerd, I have opinions about the Doctor Who mid-season finale, “The Angels Take Manhattan.”

The opening pre-credits sequence of “The Angels Take Manhattan” do a pretty good job of encapsulating Steven Moffatt’s entire run on the series. There’s plenty of intrigue, it’s full-to-bursting with style, and it ends with an absolutely spectacular image. An image that made me laugh out loud from recognition, the kind of thing you could easily imagine building an entire episode around. And it’s an image that completely falls apart if you think about the plausibility for even a moment.

Or to put it another way: “Don’t think. Think and you’re dead. Don’t pause the recording. Don’t second guess. And don’t think. Good luck.

If you spend even a split second wondering how an alien being can be gigantic, hollow, metallic, and have had thousands of tourists milling about inside of it; or how a giant statue could be standing outside a hotel without having every pair of eyes in lower Manhattan on it; then you’re lost. Reality has grabbed you from behind and stolen the last hour of your life from you.

Doctor Who — at least the modern version — doesn’t pretend to be a science fiction series. But this episode doesn’t even seem to take the Star Trek: Next Generation route of using a hand-waving sci-fi concept as a metaphor for a human story; or the Star Wars tactic of ignoring the science completely, just using it as backdrop for an old-fashioned adventure story. I’m not even sure I agree with Charlie Jane Anders’s take that it’s a story about stories.

I’d say that it’s more of a series of cool images and emotional moments, loosely strung together to impersonate a narrative. When it works, it’s amazing: I still say that “Blink” is one of the best single episodes of television ever made. When it doesn’t, it completely falls apart — a brilliant opening can turn into a finale that’s so nonsensical it ruins the entire story.

I don’t think “Angels Take Manhattan” was amazing, but I wouldn’t call it a disaster, either. If you look at it strictly in terms of what it was trying to do — cap off two and a half years’ worth of stories, which covered over twenty years of a person’s life as well as the destruction and re-creation of the entire universe — it actually works pretty well.

My biggest problem with it was including the Weeping Angels at all. They’re a perfect example of the Boba Fett Law Of Unnecessary Overexposure, a cool idea that gets increasingly ruined the more you revisit it. Fortunately, the ill-intentioned business about mind-controlled corpses, or people being turned into angels after seeing a picture of them, seems to have been dropped. Unfortunately, it was dropped in favor of a few new concepts that completely abandon logic in favor or setting up some cool images and dramatic moments.

Going into detail about what works and what doesn’t requires a spoiler warning.

Continue reading “The City That Never Blinks”

What I Learned From The Movies On TV

Live TV is sending me serious signals that it wants to spend more time apart.

You know how whenever they make a movie about a child’s heartwarming friendship with an animal, they almost always include that one scene where the kid’s telling the animal to run off into the wild, but it’s dumb and it doesn’t understand English, so the kid has to fight back tears and start yelling at it and calling it names and shouting “I hate you!” in between sobs because the kid knows that it’s the only way the animal can truly be free? I think TV has started doing that with me.

Every so often I’ll make a big production of finally going without a cable or satellite subscription, but I always come running back. Usually when I switch from a full-time job back to freelancing, and it usually comes down to the creepy feeling of being alone in an apartment with no live broadcast feeds coming in. It either conjures up memories of being a kid alone in the house, convinced the Rapture had come and passed me by; or it has me feeling like I’m in my own version of I Am Legend, except it’s San Francisco, so the zombies are hipsters and aggressive panhandlers asking for cigarettes and change.

So I have a hard time letting go, but DirecTV is making it easier.

First was the response when I tried to cancel a few months ago, and they instead switched me to a cheaper plan that whittled away the most inessential channels. It’s made it clear that no, I really don’t need to have two separate cooking channels, and that reruns of Jem and GI Joe weren’t just harmless exercises in kitsch nostalgia, but were actually feeding the emptiness at the core of my soul. And I learned that watching programming with Guy Fieri tests the limits of the idea “well, it’s better than nothing.”

Then there was that nonsensical dispute with Viacom, where Comedy Central and Nickelodeon (I don’t care what anybody says; The Legend of Korra is a fantastic series) suddenly disappeared from the line-up. It was bad enough that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were two of the main reasons for my keeping a satellite subscription. What made it inexcusable were the attempts by both companies to drag customers into a petty, public squabble, like children in a divorce.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to argue against piracy by making the case that content providers actually do perform a service, and insisting that ordering a la carte programming directly from production companies would be neither as simple nor as inexpensive as people seem to think. But that service is almost entirely the handling of stupid rights and licensing issues like these. I’m not paying for a satellite dish, a DVR, or their near-useless customer service; the issue of distribution is all but insignificant at this point. Instead, I’m paying for their legions of employees to negotiate with other legions of employees to guarantee that I can keep watching my stories without having to hear a desperate plea from Hulk Hogan.

Most recently, the release of OS X Mountain Lion added AirPlay to desktop Macs, so it’s finally convenient to watch stuff on the network websites on a big-screen TV. And today, Hulu Plus finally got a channel on the Apple TV box. I can’t explain exactly why it’s a big deal on Apple TV, when it’s already been available for a while on the Xbox 360, but whatever the reason, it suddenly got a lot more appealing.

Hulu’s got a ton of rights and licensing baggage of its own — most bizarre to me is that 30 Rock isn’t available on Hulu Plus, when it’s the show they use most often to advertise Hulu. And I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that some rights issue will pop up sooner or later, causing Apple to black out the most useful websites over AirPlay. Still, there’s enough on there that almost everything I watch regularly is covered, and a trip to iTunes will take care of the rest. When I tried this experiment a few years ago, it turned out that buying full season passes to every series I watch even semi-regularly would still end up being cheaper than a satellite subscription. And there’s only been more programming added to the web since then; it’d be even less expensive now.

Finally, and most importantly, the programming itself has helped push me over the edge. I’ve started to clear out stuff I’ve had recorded on my DVR forever, and I’ve tried actually watching more of the trash TV that I’ve been convinced I’ll miss if I ever go dish-less — usually Sci-Fi channel original movies. It’s been uniformly horrible. Just in the past few days:

  • 51: This was a Syfy movie from last year with Bruce Boxleitner as a soldier with a conscience dealing with rampaging aliens at Area 51. Even by the standards of Syfy originals, it was dire. It took the photocopier shotgun approach, emulating every science fiction movie it could think of: here’s the part that rips off The Thing, here’s the bit we took from Aliens, here’s a little scene from Jurassic Park. But the deadliest of aliens just looked like a veiny version of the Greendale Human Being. The wise “friendly” alien looked like Margaret Cho doing her impression of her mother, but talked like a pitched-down Siri. After an hour of bad effects, bad costumes, bad gore, and a ridiculous ending, I thought it couldn’t get any worse.
  • Showdown at Area 51: It got worse. This one is also about Area 51, and it also stars Jason London, but it’s not a prequel or sequel and was actually from several years earlier. It shows how much I’ve lowered my expectations that I was actually looking forward to Matt Houston‘s special guest appearance, but I went away disappointed. The most remarkable bad thing about this bad movie is at the end, where our heroes are escaping from the cave that has the alien device that could destroy the world if they didn’t stop it. The cave’s going to explode, of course, and they have to get out just in time, naturally, and they have to jump away from the explosion behind them in slow motion, obviously. But as they’re jumping out of the cave, you can see that the rock wall behind them has been just covered in graffiti for the Insane Clown Posse. It’s right there, big as day, “ICP” spray-painted on the cliff face that hid an ancient alien device. The location scout saw the title and the cast list and just stopped caring, right there.
  • Date Night: This just made me feel bad for Tina Fey, because she just came across as being so much better than the material. Still, as far as completely disposable comedies go, it’s not the worst. But it’s been sitting on my DVR for about a year now, a holdover from when I still believed I had to catch movies before they disappeared from the movie channels.
  • MacGruber: I’m not stupid; I knew it was going to be bad. I just didn’t understand how bad. What I don’t get is how you can make a movie that dependent on being raunchy and still manage to make it so humorless that the raunch just becomes boring. I also don’t get how that group of people can make a movie in 2010 that ends up being that homophobic. I’m plenty sensitive to homophobia when it comes to politics, but I still say that anything and everything’s fair game in comedy, or in whatever MacGruber was. But when all of the comedy in the movie’s supposed to be at the main character’s expense, it doesn’t make any sense to say “It’s funny what an assholish buffoon this guy is, and also gay people are weird and gross.”

From now on, any time I complain about not having enough time to read, or being out of the loop on what’s going on in video games because I don’t have enough time to play the big releases, or even not getting the chance to caught up on good television, I’m going to be the haunted by the memory of spending eight hours watching movies on TV that ranged in quality from execrable to “not the worst.” I still haven’t read any of Infinite Jest, but I have seen both Will Forte and Ryan Phillippe prancing around pantsless with a celery stick up his butt.

Winter is Coming! Direct to your home! For a new low, low price!

Even making generous guesses at the amount of revenue available from switching from a subscription model to an a la carte one, the numbers still don’t add up.

This began as a response to an interesting comment on my post about threats to pirate the Game of Thrones series. I got carried away, as I tend to do, and the comment became too unwieldy for the comment form.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to call anybody out or dominate the conversation, but that I think this is a genuinely interesting way to talk about the topic. It’s at least more interesting than watching people contorting themselves into knots trying to come up with a rational-sounding counter-argument to “People shouldn’t steal stuff.”

All the quoted sections are from comments by Tom Coates.

Why are you paying HBO $240 a year to get to see True Blood and a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones. If you think that’s genuinely what it’s ‘worth’ to see those shows, I think that you are—bluntly—wrong.
Is your argument REALLY that people should be paying $240 a year for True Blood? Because that just doesn’t sound in any way plausible. Not one bit.

No, that’s not what I’m saying. That’s why I no longer subscribe to HBO.

My argument was that for at least a year, HBO was getting (at least) around $240 from me for watching True Blood. So I was a more valuable customer to them than the guy who says “I don’t want all that; I’ll give you $40 for it. Deal? No? Okay, then I’ll steal it.”

My argument was also that there are millions of people like me who do subscribe to HBO and pay for their service. So when MG Siegler says that if he doesn’t like the terms, he’ll just take it for free, he’s not just hurting some faceless corporation. He’s taking advantage of stuff that millions of other people are paying for. It takes some mighty big stones to expect any sympathy from the people who are paying companies for stuff that he gets for free.


I’m guessing a lot of other people out there are NOT prepared to pay $240 a year to get to see True Blood, and that—frankly—many of those *would* be prepared to pay $40-60 to get to see the Season via iTunes when it’s broadcast. So you need (say) eight of those people to download for every one who buys HBO. That seems *entirely* plausible to me, frankly.

I’d be in that group of people who’d be prepared to pay $40-$60 to get the Season Pass on iTunes. The point of that blog post is that it’s unlikely that’d be enough.

I do think it’s being needlessly combative to dismiss all the actual numbers as being completely unknowable. It’s not that I agree with the claim that piracy numbers significantly equate to potential sales. I think it’s “needless” because even by doing the simplest, back-of-the-envelope calculations, the economics still don’t make sense.

Ignore the 8:1 ratio, and make it even simpler. Let’s say that Game of Thrones (instead of True Blood, just for the sake of keeping the conversation consistent) goes on iTunes the day after broadcast, for Siegler’s suggested figure of under $40 for an HD season pass. And HBO is actually $16/month on DirecTV, not $20. So one year’s HBO subscription is $192. $192 / $40 = 4.8, which means that you’d need a 5:1 ratio of iTunes season pass sales to HBO subscribers.

(Obviously, that ignores Apple’s cut, along with whatever deals it gets from DirecTV or Comcast. But it also ignores the fact that HBO doesn’t make all its money from selling one TV series through one source. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it even).

If a ratio of 8:1 is plausible, I’m assuming that you think 5:1 is plausible as well. But can you name any other TV series — or for that matter, any other product — that has seen a five-fold increase in ratings simply by lowering its price? I think that’s the part that’s completely implausible.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the finale of Game of Thrones (the highest-rated episode of the season) had 3.9 million viewers in the first night of broadcast. (The article goes on to say that the show averages 8.3 million viewers when you account for repeats, DVR, and on demand). This report puts it at 3.04 million viewers.

Are we supposed to believe that making the show available on iTunes would suddenly turn Game of Thrones ratings from 3 million to 15 million? Or even more unlikely, that you could convert 8.3 million viewers to 40 million? That assumes 15 million viewers would be interested in an epic fantasy series at all, much less that they’d be willing to pay $40 a head (no pun intended) for it.

A couple of obvious counter-arguments: this assumes that it’s either all subscriptions, or all iTunes season pass sales, and not a combination of both. It assumes that if HBO made its programming available same-day (or day after) on iTunes for $40 a season pass, that they’d lose all their subscribers. Obviously they wouldn’t lose all of them, but it’s clear to me that they’d lose a huge portion. There’d be very little incentive left to subscribe, unless you were one of the rare viewers who watched every series on the channel and you just couldn’t get enough of Kung Fu Panda 2.


And the even more obvious counter-argument: even by the generous, over-simplified example, they’d need 15 million viewers on iTunes + season passes to make the same revenue they get from 3 million viewers on subscriptions alone. But would they need all of those 15 million just to be profitable?

Obviously not, but it’s not as clear-cut even in the simplest calculation. Take that one estimate from The Hollywood Reporter that it cost $60 million to produce the series. Every discussion of Hollywood that I’ve ever seen says that a feature film has to make double its production cost in order to become profitable, because of marketing and distribution. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that it’s significantly less for TV series than it is for movies, and assume it’s 1.5 times the production cost. That would mean that GoT has a “break-even” point of $90 million.

I don’t know what Apple’s cut for TV shows over iTunes is, either, but just assume that it’s the same as for apps: 30%. That would mean that for every $40 season pass to GoT, HBO gets $28. By those numbers, a season pass of GoT would need 3.22 million season pass sales to break even.

That seems reasonable, right? They got 3 million viewers just in one night via subscriptions. But that’s the problem with directly equating ratings to sales: again according to Entertainment Weekly, the sales of GoT DVD sets are “through the roof” and broke all kinds of records. That record-breaking value: 350,000 units over 10 days.

That’s a much better indication of how many people are actually willing to pay for the whole season. I don’t know how to get the number of iTunes season pass sales for the same season 1 set of GoT, or if that information is even available to the public. No matter how much more convenient it is to buy stuff over iTunes than to pick up a physical DVD set, I’m pretty sure that that convenience doesn’t translate into ten times more sales. I would be stunned to learn if it’s even twice as many (700,000 units, still a good bit short of 3.2 million).

But that’s for a TV series that’s already a year old, and has had its big events long since spoiled all across the internet. Of course there’s going to be a drop in sales. How much do the sales increase if you reduce the time between broadcast and season pass/DVD set availability? I don’t know how to estimate that, other than to say “less than 2.5 million people.”

On the one hand, you’ve got a known market of 29 million subscribers, paying you $192 a year. On the other, you’ve got a demonstrated market of 350,000 customers, paying you around $30 a year. Somewhere in the middle, you’ve got the iTunes market.

We do know at least that MG Siegler and the guy from The Oatmeal have pledged to chip in $80 towards our $90 million estimate. Counting the actual bankable value of that, that leaves: $90 million.

If it’s silly for the RIAA and MPAA to directly equate piracy numbers to lost sales — and it is silly — then it’s every bit as silly to claim that those numbers significantly equate to potential sales. A company simply can’t make projections by treating torrent download figures as actual sales. A company can only make projections based on what people actually buy. I can’t imagine a TV exec would last very long if he could promise ratings would double or more, simply by opening the show up for download.

What I can imagine is that execs would be eager to do it if they had ample evidence it would actually work. When even a rough estimate fails to hold up — even though it’s based on numbers completely pulled out of my ass and still altered to make them more generous — I don’t see how the actual numbers could work.

A Word from Our Sponsor

Moreover, frankly, the world changes, and people’s business models have to change too. If all the other broadcasters think that they can make money by selling on iTunes the day after broadcast for a certain amount of money, then of COURSE expectations will be set for shows on HBO to be similar. And people will justifiably start asking ‘why am I paying so much for this’ or ‘why can’t I get it at the same time as I get all my other shows’.

And to those people, you point out: “all your other shows are subsidized by advertising.”

If anyone is paying $40 per season to watch Mad Men, which is broadcast with commercials on AMC, and is still confused as to why he can’t pay $40 per season to watch HBO shows immediately after they’re broadcast, then I’d suggest he’s not paying enough attention to Mad Men.

And anyone who underestimates the impact of advertising should consider this: an episode of True Blood a while back had two male vampires having sex with each other followed by one ripping the other’s heart out. The series regularly combines the “nudity,” “graphic violence,” and “adult language” warnings not just in a single episode, but in a single scene. HBO does have a standards and practices department, I’m assuming, but a significant part of the reason producers go to HBO is to be able to make content that’s not beholden to advertisers.

There’s Right, and then There’s What’s Right

And one way or another, whether it’s moral or reasonable or not, people are going to start moving to either other shows or they’re going to torrent it. Because it’s easy and it works.

Is that right? No. Is it basically inevitable? Yes. Does that mean that their existing business model might be under threat? Yes. Is that fair? Bluntly, that’s an irrelevant question.

If the question is irrelevant as to whether it’s unfair to HBO, then why is it relevant whether it’s unfair to customers? Why should HBO — or any of us — care whether or not Siegler is stamping his feet and complaining that he doesn’t get to watch Game of Thrones exactly when and how and for how much he wants to? He’s already demonstrated that he’s not a guaranteed source of income to HBO, and he’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to take advantage of those of us who do pay for what we get. If fair is irrelevant, then why should I care what he says?

Saying “fair is irrelevant, this is business” is always the position that’s presented as if it were the most pragmatic one. But in fact, it’s so short-sighted as to be completely unrealistic. An economy where one party in every business transaction is treated unfairly is unsustainable. If someone can’t even speculate on a business model that doesn’t end up with HBO losing money, then that’s not saying “I want HBO to make its content more widely available.” That’s saying “I want HBO to go out of business.”

I don’t want HBO to go out of business. Not for HBO’s sake, but my own, so that I can continue to watch vampires having gay sex and ripping each other’s hearts out.

Sermons vs. Stupidity

And meanwhile, a whole bunch of people actually are moving away from cable completely, because it’s an expensive standing cost each month that they don’t need to pay and they don’t want to pay. They want to own the shows and be able to watch them when they want to. Again, if HBO’s business model doesn’t stand up under those circumstances, and other people’s models do, and if HBO isn’t prepared to find some way to change, then — and surely this is obvious — HBO will fail.

Again, there’s a difference between what is fair and reasonable and what is going to happen. We’re in a transitional period here. Obviously the possible viewers buying things from iTunes is likely to grow massively over the next ten years. And the desire to be able to buy bespoke, just the things you want, to watch when and how you want, is not going to evaporate. So, I’m afraid, one way or another, HBO are going to have to find some way to adjust to it.

HBO has been adjusting to “transitional periods” quite profitably for most of my lifetime. Before the rise of VHS and DVD, they distinguished themselves by being the most convenient way to watch movies at home. Then they distinguished themselves by being the only way to get sex & violence on TV. Then they distinguished themselves by being the channel that produces highly desirable series and shows them without commercial interruption. It’d be an enormous mistake to talk as if HBO is run by idiots who can’t tell which way the wind is blowing.

And the “whole bunch of people” who are moving away from cable aren’t yet enough to replace a subscription model. If the market were there, they’d be milking it for all it’s worth. But the market just isn’t there.

People keep acting as if my posts and comments are “moralizing” about piracy. But piracy doesn’t offend me nearly as much as stupidity does. When Siegler and others say that HBO can provide the same thing that ad-supported channels do, and that HBO’s resistance to do so is purely out of greed or artificial scarcity, that is a gross display of willful ignorance. The facts simply don’t support it.

When Siegler and others say that piracy is their only option, and that it effectively sends a message to the production companies, that’s just insultingly disingenuous.

It’s entirely plausible that yes, “over the next ten years,” the market will be such so that people will be able to buy their programming a la carte. Assuming it happens, that’ll be great! But that doesn’t change the fact that Siegler is saying willfully stupid and disingenuous things right now.

NOW how much would you pay?

How to stick it to The Man. Step 1: Display a complete ignorance of how media companies work.

Boy, do I feel foolish! For two years now, I’ve been paying anywhere from $60-$90 a month to a satellite TV provider, for hundreds of channels I don’t ever watch. I’ve been doing it to pay for the shows that I do watch, and I just had no idea that there was a better way.

Fortunately for me and millions of stupid people like me, M.G. Siegler’s got it all figured out. There are these things called “torrents” that let you download television programming from the internet for free, sometimes even before it’s broadcast in your area! All you have to do is:

  1. Download a BitTorrent client for your system.
  2. Find the torrent file for the show you want to watch.
  3. Tell yourself that you’d be perfectly willing to pay for the show if those damn media companies would only let you.
  4. Download and enjoy.
  5. Don’t put any additional thought into it, apart from rationalizing it on the internet.

Siegler’s devoted a lot of deep thought to this moral quandary:

The problem is that I’m not an HBO subscriber. Believe me, given the quality of their programming, I would love to be. Unfortunately […] You cannot give HBO your money directly. They will not accept it. They are fully in bed with the cable companies and are not going to get out of that bed anytime soon, because of what they get paid to perform their unnatural acts in that bed. A lot of money.
Because of the aforementioned naughty cuddling deal HBO has with the cable companies, they also cannot (or will not) offer up their content via a legal means, such as iTunes, in a timely manner.

Clearly, it’s HBO’s fault. They’re wallowing in cash from their dark dealings with the cable and satellite monopolies, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to give up any of that profit just for the sake of Doing the Right Thing.

It’s a tough decision, and Siegler is being extremely bold by being the first person on the internet to admit that he’s pirated media.

It brings me no great pleasure to do it, and I’m not technically sure that I’m allowed to say this, but I’m going to because HBO has left me no choice: I’m going to be pirating season 2 of “Game of Thrones.”

I’m going to be forced to scour the shady underbelly of the Web to find the show.


Again, I’d gladly pay for it. But I have no way to do so, outside of forking over an obscene amount of money on a monthly basis to a cable company, and/or waiting a year. I’m just not willing to do that. My hand is being forced.

And when someone posts a link to the webcomic The Oatmeal that said exactly the same thing as his blog post does, and which was forwarded to the Facebook and Twitter feeds of every single person on the internet a few weeks earlier, Siegler makes it clear why he’s writing: it’s “worth putting it into words again and again and again and again, until something changes.”

It’s clear: there is no other option.

Except, well, being patient and waiting for it to come to iTunes. Like adults without an over-inflated sense of entitlement do. That’s basically the approach that Andy Ihnatko suggested, in his post “Heavy Hangs the Bandwidth That Torrents the Crown”. That was one of the most perfect articles ever written about the topic. At least, it was before Ihnatko felt the need to qualify it with an addendum about how media companies force people into piracy. Apparently the notions of personal responsibility and “two wrongs don’t make a right” are too nuanced for the internet to be able to process.

Oh right, I forgot that there is one other option: paying for it with cable or satellite service and a subscription to HBO, like millions of other people do. But Siegler thinks that’s outrageous:

Why would I pay upwards of $100 a month for something I have no interest in? I just want HBO.
When I watched the first season of “Game of Thrones” this past week, I watched it through iTunes, where I happily purchased the entire season for $38.99 (in HD).

So as he repeatedly makes clear, Siegler is perfectly happy to pay for his television programming. Well… up to a point, anyway.

Let me see if I can piece together the terms of this transaction: it has to be less than $40 for the entire season. He has to be able to download it to his computer and watch it anywhere. And he shouldn’t have to wait any longer than HBO subscribers in any time zone in the world in order to watch it. If profit-hungry HBO doesn’t agree to those terms, the only recourse for the consumer is to download a torrented version.

Why is HBO being so damn unreasonable?

At The Onion’s AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff posted an article called “Patience and piracy: Why helping yourself hurts good TV.” It’s got more rational thinking and insight than a hundred Oatmeal strips stacked end-to-end. But, because of all those troublesome words and ideas, it didn’t go viral. (And because it didn’t have “Piracy” and “Game of Thrones” in the title, like Siegler’s post, it didn’t do as good a job of link-baiting. “I’m being forced to pirate Game of Thrones against my will!” is a much more internet-friendly title than “A Winter of Piracy is Coming.”)

Here’s where things get a little tricky. And speaking as someone who watches a lot of television, I have special insider knowledge of how media corporations do business that Siegler, a partner in a venture capital firm, couldn’t possibly be privy to. So excuse me for getting technical here, but bear with me: an epic fantasy series consisting of dozens of hours of footage filmed in various locations with several prominent Hollywood film stars is not an inexpensive production.

Whew, sorry to blow your mind with all that jibber-jabber. Let me dumb it down a shade:

We all know how TV works — you watch it for free or download a season pass for around 40 bucks on iTunes or Amazon. But then, this isn’t TV. It’s HBO. And over a decade ago, HBO responded to the decreased demand for their feature-length movie schedule by putting the spotlight on well-produced, innovative, quality original programming, and also Hung. And it’s not just the case that they produce “tentpole” series like Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Rome — television series with feature film budgets. They also produce stuff that probably wouldn’t be feasible elsewhere, like Deadwood, Bored to Death, and even True Blood. (Which isn’t an epic production like the others, but still straddles the line between lowbrow enough for broadcast TV but still too raunchy and too niche for broadcast TV).

That model isn’t cheap. And I’m sure that HBO appreciates the thought, Mr. Siegler, but your generous contribution of 40 bucks before Apple’s cut isn’t quite enough to cover it. For that matter, your $15 a la carte subscription to HBO wouldn’t cover it, either. What covers it is that “naughty” relationship HBO has with the cable companies. It’s kind of like that $600 smart phone you bought for $300 plus a cellular contract.

Except there’s even more to it than that. HBO can afford to produce shows like Game of Thrones because HBO has established itself as a company that can produce shows like The Sopranos (and Rome, Deadwood, etc). People will pay for HBO because of the programming that they can only get on HBO. That exclusivity is baked into the value of the company, and therefore into the cost of its programming. They’ve sneakily hidden this fact into their shady deals with unscrupulous cable providers and by making it the tag line of an entire marketing campaign: “Only on HBO.”

If you can spend $2.99 for an HD copy of the latest episode of Game of Thrones at the same time as a cable subscriber who’s paying over $95 a month for his cable and HBO subscription, then there’s no incentive for him to keep subscribing. And then there’s nothing to separate the digital release of Game of Thrones from that of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, even though two of those series are subsidized by advertising and one isn’t. And there’s no incentive for HBO to keep funding weird, original, expensive, commercial-free television series.

None of this is really all that complicated.

But in this case it’s different, because Siegler and others like him really want to watch Game of Thrones and nothing else that HBO offers. Well, a couple of years ago I really wanted to watch True Blood and nothing else that HBO offers. What I did was I torrented an episode, and I felt like an asshole about it. Then I paid $20 a month for an HBO subscription. So please don’t anybody try to present a confession of “I didn’t feel like an asshole about it” as a battle cry of “I’m taking a stand against Big Media!”

Would I prefer to pay $40 or less to get a season pass of just the series I want to watch? Of course I would. But I was cursed with a conscience and the nagging tendency to think about things for more than a half second. And I quickly realized that paying for the stuff I don’t want to watch helps pay for the stuff that I do want to watch. And that the stuff I watch for “free” has been paid for with advertising.

(Incidentally, the next time I read anyone suggesting that digital versions of print media like books, comics, and magazines should of course be cheaper than the print versions, because the cost of printing has been removed, I’m going to devote all my energy to perfecting my slap-someone-over-the-internet technology. Don’t say you weren’t warned).

And am I suggesting that DirecTV and HBO are just barely scraping by with subscription fees and DVD sales? Of course I’m not. Both NewsCorp and Time Warner are doing quite well for themselves, last I checked. But I missed the day of ethics class where they told us that it’s okay to take stuff without paying for it as long as I was taking it from rich people. And unfortunately for me, their financial success doesn’t obviate my personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility is what it all comes down to, because that’s the part we actually have control over. Marco Arment, someone I usually agree with about everything except coffee, wrote a post (with diagrams!) called “Right vs. Pragmatic” in response to the Oatmeal cartoon and Ihantko’s blog post. And for most of that post, he’s right. The response to piracy from “big media” has just been bone-headed. All the litigation and legislation against piracy on behalf of the RIAA has been a failure both financially and in terms of PR, and now the MPAA is making all the exact same mistakes. The DMCA sucks. And it’s stupid to hold onto an outdated business model when there is still plenty of money to be made providing content through more accessible channels like iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, etc.

But in that entire post, there’s one very important point that Arment fails to emphasize: Responsible, grown men should not be throwing their fucking trash on the floor in the first place.

If you want to really make a stand, instead of just talking about it to make yourself feel better, then actually take a stand. Don’t buy TV from HBO if you don’t like the way they do business. Don’t help advertise it, either, by posting big pictures from the series on your blog and using the title in your post title and talking about how the show is so great that you’re willing to steal it. And if you like the show and would like it to be available on iTunes, then buy it on iTunes. If you want the show to be available on iTunes sooner, then buy a show you like that’s already available, and make it clear that there’s a demand for television through that channel that’s greater than what they’re seeing from cable or satellite subscriptions.

HBO execs have about a 0.0000% chance of reading a post on your website. They have a slightly higher chance of seeing your download of the torrent file in the logs of a pirate website years from now when the site gets threatened for shutdown. They’re guaranteed to read the income statements from Apple.

All that said: everyone should check out that Oatmeal comic one last time, and give him the final say. Scroll to the bottom of the page, after the big chunk of ads that help pay for his bandwidth, and read the last three words.

“Please don’t steal.”

Snow White and the 4 8 15 16 23 42 Dwarves

The series Once Upon a Time is part Fables and part Lost, which makes me wonder why I ever believed I wouldn’t get hooked on it.

I didn’t have high expectations for Once Upon a Time. Along with Grimm on NBC, it’s one of the two not-quite-Fables series airing this season; the Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano or Armageddon vs. Deep Impact of our day. As I was watching the pilot episode, I wondered if they even bothered going after the Fables license, or if they just decided to cut out the middle man — and, to be honest, continue the Disney tradition — and exploit some public domain stories. As it turns out, they did go after the rights for a Fables series, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason.

Watching it felt like I was being unfaithful.

But now that I’ve got Bill Willingham’s approval, I can admit it’s a pretty good series. And it’s really not all that much like Fables.

They both start with a bunch of disparate fairy tale characters living together in the same town in the modern world. After that, though, Once Upon a Time feels like it owes less to Fables than it does to Lost.

That’s fair enough, since all the marketing material reminds us that two of Lost‘s executive producers are behind the show. So you can excuse all the appearances of Apollo bars, and the fact that the entire format of the series is taken directly from Lost: TV-pretty people trapped in a secluded location trying to figure out a series-long conundrum; each episode featuring two parallel stories in two different timelines, with each timeline giving context to the other.

And that’s okay, because that format is just as clever and flexible now as it was during the Dharma Initiative days. Even better, it actually makes sense here. In Lost, the flashbacks were used to stretch out the intrigue: we’d learn details about the characters based on past events. In Once Upon a Time, the situation is flipped: we in the audience know more about the characters’ stories than the characters themselves do. The premise is that they’ve all been placed under a curse that’s made them forget they’re storybook characters, to guarantee that none of them will have a happy ending.

That’s the most intriguing part to me, because it means that we have a better chance of getting a happy ending from Once Upon a Time than Lost was ever able to deliver. Everything in Lost depended on stretching the mystery out for as long as possible. Fables is in the same position, more or less: it’s an indefinitely ongoing story that has to keep building on itself. But with Once Upon a Time, we already know how the story’s going to end: they’re going to live happily ever after. The intrigue comes from the telling, and the re-telling.

Are Mary Margaret/Snow White and David/Prince Charming going to get together? Of course. Who are the bad guys? The Evil Queen and Rumplestiltskin. How did they all end up trapped here? It was a curse from the Evil Queen. We know what’s going to happen, the appeal of the stories is seeing how they happen. No “Are they in Purgatory?” style blue-balling here.

Of course, they get to take advantage of their series-long intrigue as well. It’s all in the details, filling in the stuff that wasn’t covered in the original stories. What exactly was it about Snow White that made the Evil Queen so angry? Plus there’s all the secret origin stories — they’ve already done Prince Charming, Jiminy Cricket, Rumplestiltskin and the Huntsman, and made them more interesting than I would’ve thought possible.

And for those of us who watched Lost looking for occurrences of the numbers, the Dharma logo, cross-overs of familiar characters, and implausible coincidences, there’s plenty of material here. Familiar and not-so-familiar characters pop up, and we can speculate on who they are and how their stories intersect. In this week’s episode, we saw how Snow White first met the dwarves. Before the Christmas break, the sheriff that everyone assumed to be the Big Bad Wolf turned out to be a different character.

On top of that, there’s the recurring appeal of Fables, which is seeing how fairy tale characters get translated to the modern day. And they’re usually clever and subtle. A bearded pharmacy owner reveals his fairy tale identity as soon as he sneezes. Red Riding Hood works for her grandmother and delivers food. A cleaning woman named Ashley turns out to be Cinderella. (That one was my favorite). I’m still hoping that they do an episode with a young blonde girl breaking into the home of three big, hairy gay men.

Another thing that I really like about the series is that it’s completely driven by female characters. The two heroes and the main villain are all women. And it’s done seamlessly, by virtue of the source material. Most of the fairy tales focused on female main characters, and yet still managed to make them all passive. When you update those characters to the modern day — or when you retell the original stories with a modern sensibility — you end up with stories centered on strong, intelligent, and independent women.

The casting (and stunt casting) helps, too. Jennifer Morrison is cool as hell and had me hoping for an entire season that she’d be Ted Mosby’s kids’ mother. It’s nice to see Ginnifer Goodwin not in insipid romantic comedies that try to pretend she’s not astoundingly beautiful. I have to admit to having a voice-crush on Raphael Sbarge since he played a Han Solo rip-off character in Knights of the Old Republic. Lana Parrilla has one note she has to keep hitting over and over again, and she’s still managing to change it up slightly between episodes (but they really need to give her something more to work with instead of just saying “You’re not welcome here, Miss Swan” repeatedly). And Robert Carlyle does fey, creepy, and menacing better than most.

Plus they’ve done plenty of guest appearances from actors from just about every nerd fantasy series I like: Pam from True Blood as Maleficient. Krycek from The X-Files as Hansel & Gretel’s dad. Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Hansel & Gretel’s witch. Charles Widmore from Lost as Prince Charming’s father.

I don’t think Once Upon a Time is as ground-breaking a series as Lost was. I can’t see it ever doing anything as stunning as the season two reveal of what was inside the Hatch. It’s not quite as hip or self-aware. (Which is partly a good thing, since going too self-aware with fairy tale stories would be insufferable; remaining a little bit square is exactly the right tone to hit). It relies a little too much on green screens and CGI (although it makes up for it with great costumes). And I do have to wonder how they’re going to get a series’ worth of material out of the premise.

It didn’t grab me instantly, like the Lost pilot did. But it’s had a great slow build-up so far, plenty of clever moments, great pacing, and just enough intrigue to carry it through the first season finale. And it’s really nice to see a series that doesn’t rely on dragging out mysteries, but recognizes the value of a familiar story told well.