Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wherefore Art Thou, Emmy?

by Eric Peterson

I hated myself for staying up and watching the Emmys until the end. After all, I had a busy day at work the next day, and could have used the sleep. And yet, it's not like this was a typical Oscars show that flirted with midnight (Eastern Time) before the awards were all handed out and the L.A. after-parties could begin.

And I was liking the show. No, the Sean Spicer cameo didn't sit well with me. First of all, I could have written that joke. Secondly - and perhaps more importantly - he doesn't deserve a warm welcome anywhere after facilitating the complete destruction in Americans' faith in our own government for six months. Finally, I could have written that joke. But I was liking the rest of it.

Aziz Ansari & Lena Waithe win an Emmy
I particularly enjoyed the diversity of the winners. I didn't enjoy the television industry's love letter to itself with regard to how inclusive they were. Because whatever. But the folks who actually walked up to receive trophies were a diverse bunch, and that was cool. Lena Waithe was the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing a comedy series. Aziz Ansari (an "Indian kid from South Carolina" was how Waithe described him) shared that award. Donald Glover was the first black person to win an Emmy for directing a comedy series. Sterling K. Brown was the first black actor in over two decades to win for Best Actor in a drama series. Reed Morano was the first woman in over two decades to win Best Director for a drama series. Riz Ahmed, a British actor of Pakistani descent, was the first South Asian actor to win an acting award at the Emmys.

Of course, some of my warm and fuzzy feelings about the rainbow of honorees were dimmed slightly when the producers of the Emmys cut off Brown's microphone before he finished his speech. Sure, this kind of stuff happens, but Nicole Kidman had just delivered what seemed like a lengthy list of thank-yous moments before, and the orchestra didn't make a peep. And moments later, they let Elisabeth Moss finish. Just sayin'.

But I liked the show, even though I haven't seen a lot of the shows and performances that were nominated. My own ignorance on this point was on my mind, because two days before, Variety published an article called, "Almost Nobody Watches Most Emmy-Nominated Shows," and that knowledge made me feel less alone.

And, it also seemed completely normal to me. There's just way too much television today for any one viewer to consume everything that might appeal to them unless they are lucky enough to get paid to watch television.

And, it also reminded me of the one reason why I like awards shows. Despite the fact that only 5% of television-watchers in America have ever watched Master of None (for which Waithe & Ansari won a writing Emmy), The Handmaid's Tale (for which Morano won her directing Emmy), or Atlanta (for which Glover won his directing Emmy) -- they might, now. If it weren't for Emmys or Oscars or Tonys or Grammys, or Pulitzers, the only television (or movies, or plays, or music, or books) that we'd ever see would be that which is explicitly designed to make the most money. Basically, every movie would be aliens blowing up the halls of Congress, every TV show would be cheaply made reality television, and every book would be Twilight. The fact that these awards shows exist make it somehow profitable for networks and studios and Broadway theaters and publishing houses to invest in quality. Because after a show or a movie or a play or a song or a book wins an award, there's a sizable audience out there who buys tickets or pushes the "download" button. And hopefully, quality art continues to be made by industries for whom the ultimate incentive is and always will be money.

So no, I'm not going to stay up to watch every award show until it's over. When I do watch, I will rail at the foolish choices of those voters and pontificate loudly upon why their choices were so, so wrong (still not over Brokeback Mountain losing - but that's another post for another day). But I'm ultimately glad that these shows exist.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I need to go watch that episode of Master of None. It just won an Emmy.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Laugh, fool, laugh...

by Stacey Fearheiley

So, why DOES Netflix have a whole category dedicated to stand up comedians?  Why do the ratings of comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, Late Night, Conan and the Daily Show  surge when tragedy hits?  Why are the biggest laughs in movies often in a scene at a funeral?

I remember several weeks after my father, to whom I was very close, died, I was reading an article in a magazine and there was a statement made that looked weird to me.  It didn't seem accurate.  I wasn't sure I believed it.  I sat there for a quick minute and realized that there was one person who would know about the accuracy and so I picked up the phone and started dialing my dad's phone number.

I believe I got about 3 numbers in when I realized what I was doing.  I stopped dialing.  I hung up the phone and I said aloud, " I don't have that area code."  There was a beat. Then I giggled.  And I knew my dad would have chuckled as well.  But my question is, why didn't I burst into tears?  What made me think that bizarre thought and then laugh at it?

Maybe it's because laughter and tears, happy and sad, comedy and tragedy are but 2 sides of 1 coin. Without one, the other isn't as understood.

As this world has seemed to be exploding and imploding, literally and figuratively for about a year, we have, as a society, been turning more and more to our comic entertainers.  Colbert has never been more popular. Samantha Bee has soared and SNL hasn't had a season like their last one in YEARS!

But this need to laugh through tears, to find humor in the abysmal isn't a new thing. Bob Hope was successful in his career before WWII, but his legacy that endures will be how he entertained the troops overseas through several wars.  How he made GIs laugh in the literal middle of war, with bombs sounding in the background, knowing that many of those young men would never make it back to the U.S.

In my lifetime, I'll never forget Jon Stewart talking to the camera for the first time after the attacks on September 11, 2001.  The Daily Show after 9/11 

What he said was exactly the answer to my questions.  The need to feel after we think we couldn't feel anymore.  To feel something better.  To feel like there is hope.

Why do we have so many comedians?  Because we need them.  Especially when it feels like there isn't one reason to smile.

When comedians talk about going back to work after tragedy, they talk about timing.  It is a thin line between the "right time" and "too soon."  In politics there doesn't seem to be "too soon", but for natural disasters and man-made terror the line is more blurred.  For the victims of the hurricanes and earthquakes, it may still be too soon to joke about the storms themselves as they are dealing with the nitty gritty of the aftermath.

But, Conan will still do his "Clueless Gamer" routine, Colbert will drop some "Midnight Confessions", John Oliver will talk about "How is this still a thing?" stuff and Netflix will keep adding to its comedian show catalog.  Because we need it.  Even if it is temporary.  Now more than ever.

I had a chance to see a bit of Comic Relief's Hand in Hand fundraising telethon last night, as it raised money for the victims of the hurricanes, etc.  Not a lot of funny, but a lot of good spirit.  And we need that too. Music was in abundance.  And while we need the comedy, we also just need the arts in keeps us human.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Reclaiming my Time

by Eric Peterson

In the past few weeks in America, oh now let's see ...
  1. Actual neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville and killed someone.
  2. Transgender servicemembers are being banned from the military for seemingly no reason.
  3. Hurricane Harvey became the single largest rain event in our country's history, burying our fourth largest city in a trillion gallons of water.
  4. Recipients of the DACA program have learned that the program is being ended, and if Congress takes no action, they'll likely face deportation.
  5. Hurricane Irma has strengthened to a Category 5 storm and is headed straight for Florida.
It's times like this when I sometimes pause and wonder why Stacey and I spend so much time watching movies and TV shows so that we can meet on the weekends and have long extended conversations about them. I mean, the nominal "leader of the free world" is a spray-tanned toddler and the planet is apparently trying to eat us alive, and this is what's important to us?

And you know what? Yes. Yes, it is.

For starters, I love movies. I love good television. Additionally, I love books and theatre and music. I have a love/hate relationship with awards shows, but I still end up watching them and caring who wins. I grieve (in my own way) when young artists die too soon and older artists leave behind a stunning legacy of work to inspire the next generation. I believe that pop culture is art. And I believe that when art ceases to be important, we're in real trouble.

Your hosts. And wine.
Also, if you haven't already noticed, most of the POPeration! episodes we record are basically me laughing hysterically. Stacey has always been able to make me laugh, no matter the topic, and so no, I won't give up the hours we spend together planning the next episode, fighting over which movies and TV shows we need to watch the following week, and recording our conversations; it's just too much fun.

And I need a little fun right now. I need some joy in my life. I suspect I'm not alone.

It can be very easy during troubling times to resist those things that bring you joy, but I believe it's a huge mistake. Yes, you should watch the news, if you can stand it; I do. Yes, if you feel so moved, you should protest; I did, and I probably will again before too long. But no, you should not stop doing things that make you happy. Walk your dog. Watch the game. Knit. Play a round of golf. Lose yourself in a good book. Travel. And if you're like me, see a movie you loved as a child or binge the latest must-see show on the streaming service of your choice.

Above all, laugh. If you don't have a Stacey in your life, you should get one. Vent about the state of the world if you need to, but at least tell a joke while you're doing so, and then change the topic eventually and do something that makes you happy.

Also, podcasts. Podcasts are good. I know of a really excellent one you should try; we're on Apple and Stitcher and Google Play and iHeartRadio and YouTube and ... okay, you get my point.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Of Asians and Aliens

by Eric Peterson

Earlier this week, British actor Ed Skrein (Deadpool, Game of Thrones) was cast as Ben Daimio in an upcoming reboot of Hellboy, based on the comic book published by Dark Horse Comics. Daimio, the character, is of Japanese descent. Skrein, the actor, is not. Controversy ensued.

Ed Skrein (L), Major Ben Daimio (R)

And the controversy was, let's be honest, sort of predictable. It reminded a lot of people of Tilda Swinton being cast as "The Ancient One" in Marvel's Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johannsen's work as Major in Ghost in the Shell, based on a Manga comic.

In both of those cases, a white performer was cast as a character originally written as Asian, and the decision was roundly criticized. Some argued that Hollywood was essentially taking a role away from an Asian performer, others lamented the fact that Asian audiences wouldn't have the pleasure of seeing themselves represented on screen.

But there was something different about this story, and it is this: within days of the casting decision being announced, Ed Skrein withdrew from the movie. He announced his withdrawal on Twitter.

Needless to say, many were happy to see this. Wired magazine published a piece called, "Ed Skrein leaving Hellboy Proves How Easily Hollywood Could Stop Whitewashing," and the headline at the Guardian was "White Actors Must Stand Up to Whitewashing. Ed Skrein Shows How."

But, naturally, there were some detractors, who believed that Skrein was both the victim and a perpetrator of political correctness. The conservative website The Daily Caller noted that "with Skrein out of the picture, the Hellboy production team will have to find an actor more suitable for the role — or at least an actor without any qualms about pretending to be someone he isn’t."

Which sort of misses the point. Skrein wasn't hired to play an Asian character (hopefully the days of Mickey Rooney as the Chinese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's are behind us), but  what is far more likely  the film was just going to make the character white. By stepping down in the way that he did, Ed Skrein has all but guaranteed that the producers of Hellboy will cast the role with an Asian actor. And the character will once again be Asian. And, as others have noted, it will now be more difficult for white actors to play characters who were originally people of color. People will wonder why they accepted the role. After all, look at what Ed Skrein did.

In other cross-racial comics casting news, Senegalese actress Anna Diop (24: Legacy) was cast as Starfire in Titans, a new television series based on DC Comics' The New Teen Titans. Starfire's given name is Koriand'r, and she hails from the planet Tamaran. Koriand'r, the character, is an alien with orange skin. Diop, the actress, is not. Controversy ensued.

Koriand'r (L), Anna Diop (R)
Not many people are stepping forward to own their outrage over this particular piece of casting news, but a quick search of internet comment threads — where stupid goes to die — is full of outraged fanboys. I suppose the fact that Starfire is orange and the most famous orange person in America happens to be a white nationalist is confusing to some.

Aside from the orange skin, Starfire also has green eyes — not green irises, but green eyes  like, the entire eyeball is green. Also, when she flies, her enormous hairdo becomes, in the words of George Perez, who created her look, a "Mighty Mouse contrail."

My point is that Koriand'r possesses an ethnicity that no human being possesses. She's literally an alien. And yet, because fans of Teen Titans have never really thought of her as a black girl, some people feel something upon seeing her face and hearing this news, something between irritation and outrage. It must be tempting for some to conflate these two stories, to wonder why Anna Diop can play a character who isn't black while Ed Skrein should be celebrated for stepping away from work when his character isn't white. But these two stories are not the same.

Firstly and most obviously, Ben Daimio is of Asian descent. Also, Asian actors exist. Meanwhile, Starfire is an alien. There weren't any Tamaranean actors in the SAG directory for Greg Berlanti to call. Secondly and more importantly, white audiences are not in need of seeing themselves represented on screen. If a young white boy wants to see people like him wear a silly costume and save the world (or the universe), he's got Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Henry Cavill as Superman, Chris Evans as Captain America, Ben Affleck as Batman, Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Chris Helmsworth as Thor, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern, Zachary Quinto as Lieutenant Spock, Charlie Cox as Daredevil, and the list goes on and on. Let's say you're a black girl who likes comic books, and you'd really like to see yourself up on screen, well ... there's Halle Berry as Storm. At one point, there was also Halle Berry as Catwoman, but she's not really a hero and the movie was also not great. There's Zoe Saldana as Lieutenant Uhura. There's also Zoe Saldana as Gamora, but she's not really black; she's ... green. And now there's Anna Diop. Who might end up being orange, and will almost certainly have alien eyes. These two situations are not, in any way, equivalent.

Perhaps when a white audience member can prove that anything has really been taken from them when a person of color is cast to play a role with an ethnicity that doesn't exist, I'll be able to equate the two. Until then, congratulations, Anna; thank you, Ed. Because of you, our fantasy worlds now look a little bit more like reality. And believe it or not, that's important.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

My Heart Can't Handle a Third

by Stacey Fearheiley

Frank asked me the other day who would be the third?  Third?  Third what?
"Jerry Lewis, Dick Gregory....and who?"  Ahhhh, I thought.  The rule of 3s, that when there is a celebrity death, there will not just be 1 or 2...but 3.  And so we waited.

And while we waited, we thought about the two that just left us.  Two very different comedians and yet both history making and cliche' smashing talents.

Dick Gregory made you think....whether you wanted to or not.  He was that smart, that good, that talented and that funny.  So sharp, his wit left scars.  He fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement with a keen eye for observation and the ability to communicate in a distinct and new way.

Jerry Lewis became an industry and icon, charming not just the post WWII society trying to normalize their lives...but actually the whole country of France.  His slapstick and mime abilities have rarely been rivaled in the past 70 years. His years of charity work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association raised awareness and billions of dollars for disease research.

Two legends who helped define the second half of the last century in comedy, gone.  Social media and news shows all created their own tributes--some better than others.
Comedians, actors, politicians and other celebrities weighed in on the influence both had on careers and the industry itself.

This is not to be just another tribute piece. This is a bit of what we'll miss...a bit of history...of what influenced the present to be the way it is.  Maybe the fact that we have SO MUCH "entertainment" to choose from, has kept us from looking back at some pieces that changed how comedy is done, reacted to, and remembered -- until the artists are gone.

Pop culture is an evolving is changed daily by what is happening now...and builds on what has occurred in the past.  Here is a bit of the past that got us to where we are today.

Dick Gregory.  Jerry Lewis.  Thank you.  True legends don't leave us with just "bits of funny", they leave legacies.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Not all Blogs are Funny

by Stacey Fearheiley

I’m not Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert or John Oliver….obviously.  I bring this up for a reason.

POPeration! came about because of a desire to entertain people…especially Eric and myself.  To talk about stupid stuff that is popular and makes us laugh.  For me, entertainment should be first and foremost ENTERTAINING.  If I learn something, great…but I better be entertained.  So, when POPeration! calls itself entertainment…it better be just that.  But sometimes…with certain subject matters…that’s hard.

This is the part where who I am NOT comes in.  The grace, class  and dignity that the aforementioned entertainers continue during their shows (for Stewart, when he had one) cannot be matched by me.  They are able to go beyond the immediate headlines, no matter how disgusting, depressing or grave, and find hope and most times at least a kernel of amusement.

This week’s POPeration! episode about “hot button topics” included the topic of race.  It was taped a couple of weeks ago.  Before Charlottesville.  Before the U.S. President sat quiet, then read a statement he didn’t write, then went back and basically condoned not only those actions taken by, but the organizations themselves, representing white nationalists…Nazis.  I’m not sure we could’ve talked about the subject with as much levity if we were taping now.

Race in America is a thing.  It is a HUGE thing.  The movies and television shows we discussed (Get Out, Dear White People) tell us that, while it MIGHT be getting better, we still have a VERY long way to go.  And, frankly, it’s on the white folks to push the effort a long.  Because it is we and our legacy that are the heavy anchor dragging on its speed.

I will not go into a long lecture here.  There are plenty of people more eloquent than I who are out there doing it.  But I will say this:  popular culture aspects aside, this needs to be fixed.  The fact that in the last several years there have been movies and tv shows depicting race as being the central theme to their stories should tell us what we need to know, as white people.   1.  Racism is still here. 2. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away and 3. It’s past time to fix it.  We should be  mortified that we haven’t fixed it yet.

Not convinced?  I dare you to watch these:  MoonlightGet Out, Dear White People (Netflix), 12 Years a Slave, Birth of  a Nation (2016), Do the Right Thing, In the Heat of the Night, Hidden Figures, Mississippi Burning, The Butler, Selma, Glory, The Color Purple, Amistad, The Help, blackish, Key & Peele, and even Blazing Saddles

These are only a small portion of what is out there. If you’ve seen them before, watch them agaim.  Challenge: if you are white, watch them as the black people depicted in them.  What do you come away with then?  These pieces of art and pop culture are also a mirror to our society…where we come from and where we still are.  These are the artifacts that future generations will judge us by.  That in the 21st century the same problems are being “debated” that began centuries before is shameful.

Eric and I are not shy about letting people know where we stand on certain topics.  So we understand if some listeners stop listening because of our opinions. We love pop culture.  Love pontificating about it.  But we also love our country and to ignore what is happening with silence is part of the problem.  My hope is that POPeration! continues to be entertaining…but I want us to be valid as well.

My last word on racism in the country is this…it is NOT an opinion.  It is a fact.  And it is a fact that needs to be changed.  And it is a fact that until all citizens, no matter what race, are safe and treated equally, within the law and practically, we will not be able to make American great again.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

My Current Binge

by Eric Peterson

I had a great time discussing how streaming TV is changing the way we're watching television on this week's show. We also talked about the "binges" that we've really enjoyed in the past, including my personal favorites, Jessica Jones and Happy Valley.

There's another show that's captured my imagination recently; we didn't talk about it on the show because when we recorded that episode, I hadn't seen it yet -- but my current binge is another Netflix show: Ozark, starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney.

Jason Bateman & Laura Linney in "Ozark"

One reason why the show is so good is its premise -- a financial advisor from Chicago who somehow got mixed up with a Mexican drug cartel makes a deal that involves moving his entire family from their urban life to the Missouri Ozarks. If it has any legitimate ancestor in television history, its closest relative is probably HBO's The Sopranos. With a dash of Green Acres.

Like The Sopranos, it flip-flops effortlessly between crime drama and family drama, focusing much of its energy on an anti-hero patriarch who does very bad things while at the same time trying to be a good dad (he doesn't expend nearly as much effort in the husband department, but there are reasons for that). But unlike James Gandolfini, you spend the first half of the season wondering why the hell Michael Bluth is even here. And eventually, yes -- we get around to that. He's perhaps not quite so miscast as he initially appears; in fact, he's pretty darn wonderful.

And while the very first episode had me worried that the amazing Laura Linney would be simply "the wife" in a story that belonged, in every way, to her character's husband, she very quickly came into her own, playing a character that is worth an actor of her considerable talent.

Julia Garner
While I'm gushing about the cast, I also want to say one tiny word about Julia Garner as local criminal genius Ruth Langmore. When she appeared in Ozark, I thought I'd seen her before and couldn't quite place her; a quick trip to her IMDB page reminded me that she was the granddaughter to Lily Tomlin's acerbic grandmother in Grandma (a terrific little indie if you love Tomlin or sharp-tongued grandmothers or both). She's just as good here, if not better.

Like any good binge, each episode ends with a moment that makes me hunger for more. Sometimes, it's a genuine cliffhanger, other times it's just an "oh-shit" moment that nonetheless incites a viewer's curiosity; I tune in to the next episode as soon as I can because I just have to know what happens now. The final shot of the very first episode simply shows the newly relocated family standing by a lake in Missouri, surrounded by trees. The camera moves back, to reveal a puzzle of forests and lakes that's so expansive, it seems never ending. Also, you can't help but notice that the cliff they're perched on is a lot higher than you originally thought it was. A bit obvious in its symbolism, maybe -- but it served the story and worked for me, and I was immediately hooked. The second episode ended with a simple declaration of fact, spoken by Laura Linney to her two children. It's only shocking because most television mothers would have lied at this particular moment, and she doesn't. And I couldn't click on Episode 3 fast enough.

But mostly, I think this show succeeds because of a singular artistic vision. As I've just noted, it's very aware of its episodic structure -- at the same time, it feels more like a 9-hour film in ten installments than a series of 10 separate episodes about the same people. And it does things and goes places that a 2-hour film just can't. Jason Bateman probably deserves most of the credit for this; he's an executive producer on the show and directed 4 out of the 10 episodes. In addition, the show's creators (Bill Dubuque & Mark Williams) along with two other writers (Paul Kolsby and Martin Zimmerman) do the lion's share of the writing. Other writers have popped in for an episode or two, but these four were involved in scripting all 10 episodes of the first season. And that kind of consistency matters when you're telling a story about characters you think you know, only to find out three episodes later that there's a side to them you had no idea about.

If you're watching Ozark, leave a comment, here or on our Facebook page, and tell us what you think. Or, tell us what you're binging these days and why. After I finish the last couple episodes of Ozark, work my way through HBO's Big Little Lies, then polish off Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I might give it a look.