Why write about TV?

I’ve written a great deal about TV — three short books on negative character traits in contemporary television, a peer-reviewed article and now a planned book on Star Trek, and countless blog posts and online publications. I’m even teaching a course that’s primarily about television this fall, namely a study of Watchmen and its HBO adaptation (with the latter being the main object of interest for me). Yet I find myself a big exhausted and disengaged by the culture of TV commentary. Part of that is simply the fact that there has been a vast overproduction of commentary and “takes.” Many of these pieces are written by people I admire and are of very high quality, but the sense of being rushed or forced somehow haunts even the best pieces for me.

I would like TV analysis to be “insight recollected in tranquility,” and the current online publication culture simply is not compatible with that. Trying to keep up is the only way to effectively get read, at all. In six months, no outlet is going to publish your piece about how you just realized something about Succession — there’s a window, and that window is now. I can blog about it and my friends will see it and maybe even like it, but that’s no way to build a reputation or a career as a writer. I understand that it’s a privilege that my full-time teaching job allows me (and in many ways requires me) to sit that out, and perhaps part of my fatigue is a form of survivor’s guilt, because there are many possible alternative timelines where I might have been pushed out of academia and seen the TV commentary game as the only way to maintain some kind of intellectual engagement in my work.

I don’t think that overproduction or weird personal vibes are the only factors here, though. There’s a fundamental unclarity about the task of TV writing. Continue reading “Why write about TV?”

Clarification of my relationship with Zero Books

Since Angela Nagle, author of the Zero Books title Kill All Normies, has begun writing anti-immigration columns in pro-Trump publications, I thought it would be helpful to clarify my relationship with that imprint. Long story short, there was a complete and total turnover of editorial staff while Creepiness was in production. The new leadership obviously did not share the same values or editorial standards as the founders, as shown by the fact that they didn’t just publish Nagle’s deeply flawed, partially plagiarized book — they publicized it intensively. At the same time, they left “orphaned” authors like me to languish, even though I had already provided two of their previous bestsellers.

I had to do my own publicity for years, with very limited success, because I was told that they had no resources. So to see them finally put some effort into marketing for such a deeply questionable book was infuriating. Meanwhile, the New Yorker had requested a review copy of Creepiness and COULDN’T GET AN ANSWER from the publisher. They ignored a request from the New Yorker! I had to personally send them one of my author copies. When I complained about this situation, the new editor — who is now on record as saying that they don’t do editing and hence Nagle’s plagiarism is fine — offered to make it up to me by hooking me up with a podcast interview with a little-known Zero author. I declined.

So if anyone wants to paint me with a guilt-by-association brush here — you have your answer. They disowned me completely before I even realized what was happening.

The dystopian vision of high school

Gerry Canavan has linked to a nice article on why Americans’ high school years seem to shape them so disproportionately. It’s worth a read, though I think it might still lean a bit toward the more sensationalistic and dystopian vision of high school that American culture fetishizes.

I recognize that the experience can be very difficult and even traumatic for some people, particularly those with non-normative sexual identities. Yet these dystopias are not about people with such obvious “problems” — they are precisely about what the culture at large regards as “normal” people. And this of course means mostly white people: all the mainstream cultural fantasies related to the black or Hispanic high school experience are fantasies of a white teacher swooping in to save them, and this includes even The Wire.

If those of us who are broadly “normal” look back honestly on our high school years, I imagine that most of us would find that it looks more like Freaks and Geeks or My So-Called Life than like the “classical” pop-culture high school with its clearly-defined groups, its ruthless status competitions, etc. — a time characterized above all by confusion and unusually intense emotions. What does it say, though, that those shows, universally regarded as truer and more realistic than standard high school fare, were lucky to make it through a single season?

In other words: Why is our cultural fantasy one that puts forward high school as a non-stop reality TV show? Continue reading “The dystopian vision of high school”

A proposed variation on the theme of the workaholic dad who doesn’t understand the true spirit of Christmas

Over my visit home for Christmas, I saw snippets of several movies focusing on the theme of the workaholic dad who doesn’t understand the true spirit of Christmas. One widely-known example is Jingle All the Way, in which the former governor or California [sic] stars as a father seeking to find the hottest toy of the season on Christmas Eve, having shirked his duty to buy it earlier. The movie opens with him making sales calls and missing his son’s karate event as a result — simply part of a broader pattern, we are meant to understand. I didn’t wind up seeing the ending, but I assume that Arnold was ultimately made to submit to the totalitarian demands of Christmas.

What I’d like to see is a movie in which workaholic dad sits his son down and says, “You know what? I’m not really interested in your karate thing or what specific toy you’ve decided you want for Christmas. Continue reading “A proposed variation on the theme of the workaholic dad who doesn’t understand the true spirit of Christmas”

A Rereading of Kotsko’s Pop Culture Writings

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece called On Male Culture, wherein I proposed that one of the best things men could do as feminist allies was to become internal critics of male culture. As I have taught feminist texts this semester in my social sciences class, it increasingly strikes me how much awkwardness vs. sociopathy maps onto typical ways of talking about women’s way of relating vs. men’s — relationality vs. hierarchy, connection vs. separation, etc. — as well as onto queer theoretical notions of straight male identity as defined by its very unattainability and its continual vulnerability (hence making the identification with the overwhelmingly male “fantasy sociapath” a perpetual temptation).

From this perspective, the fact that I wrote Awkwardness using all male examples (most controversially, Judd Apatow films) seems to make more sense. Continue reading “A Rereading of Kotsko’s Pop Culture Writings”

The Lesser Evil and the Eternal Irony of the Community: Or, Cable Dramas Urge You to Vote Democrat

[Note: This post talks about plot points in a television show you might be meaning to watch!!!]

Boardwalk Empire may turn out to be the last child of the classical era of the “high-quality cable drama.” Like Mad Men, it is a descendant of The Sopranos with an eye for period authenticity. Unlike Mad Men, however, Boardwalk Empire is just coming into its own — the ending of the last season announced a new ambition and daring, and the current season seems on pace to fulfill that promise.

Nevertheless, there are limits to the creative possibilities in a “high-quality cable drama,” particularly one saddled with the genre conventions of a mafia story. Continue reading “The Lesser Evil and the Eternal Irony of the Community: Or, Cable Dramas Urge You to Vote Democrat”

Tony Soprano’s coma dream

My post yesterday about last seasons of “auteur” shows reminded me of something that’s bothered me for a long time: what’s the deal with Tony’s multi-episode dream when he’s in the coma in the first half of season 6? Feel free to castigate me in comments if you all had it figured out already, but it occurs to me that it’s the clearest possible example of a “meta” statement that detracts from the actual narrative — the sole function is to say that if we (the audience) dream of being Tony Soprano, his deepest dream is to be one of us.

This fits well with the theory that The Last Psychiatrist proposed as an alternative to my sociopath thesis: if what is appealing about Tony is his absolute and unshakeable self-identity, his radical self-consistency, his fantasy is to be a bumbling awkward guy who somehow fails to match up with his publicly recognized identity. From another perspective, if the men watching wish they could have constant access to casual sex like Tony does, Tony wishes he was the kind of guy who just couldn’t bring himself to betray his wife even in the most favorable possible circumstances.

Again, I’m sure my astute readers had already figured that out. If so, consider this a Sopranos open thread.