In the midst of studying for another exam, somewhere past Butler’s essay on gender as performance but before magical realism in Woman Warrior, I decided that I needed a little pick me up. Lately, I have been obsessed with both The Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Celebrity Apprentice (season 9, because of NeNe Leakes, obviously), and guess what – my couple-minute breaks turned into a couple of hours, while my much-needed entertainment bites turned into binge-watching. Unsurprisingly, I found it somewhat difficult to hit the books again, but more importantly, my sense of self-control and focus was completely shattered.
So, here’s a little “you can do it” motivation to get back on track. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with 8tracks, an internet music service that lets you upload music and create gorgeous-looking and sounding playlists that are then searchable by mood, genre or whatever else. Best of all, it’s completely free (and legal)! So, here’s my latest playlist, Nikola’s Inspirational Mix, for that shot of confidence and focus we all lack from time to time. Hit play and get busy!
I hated her, so much… [stammers] it-it- the f – it -flam – flames. Flames, on the side of my face, breathing-breathl- heaving breaths. Heaving breaths… Heathing…
There are few movies that deliver so little in comparison to the viewers’ expectations while still managing to be hugely entertaining and engrossing from beginning to end. And boy, does Clue fit into this category. It is a great big rollercoaster of fun that ostensibly manages to deliver nothing in terms of genre expectations. One may think that the movie would be a traditional whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie, and it stands to reason, especially considering that it was based on the popular board game Clue (aka Cluedo in all territories but North America). This also might be a good time to mention the movie’s gimmick, the fact that it has three possible endings that were randomly distributed to different theaters upon the movie’s release. The late, great Roger Ebert noted that this was
…sort of silly, since it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference who did it [...] If this were a better movie, that might mean you’d have to drive all over town and buy three tickets to see all the endings. With Clue, though, one ending is more than enough.
I suspect that Ebert’s attitude may be indicative of the critics’ disdain of the movie. I’m certain they all went to the theater, press passes in hand, fixated on the idea that they would be seeing a whodunit that would move in a straight line towards the reveal of the killer, tying up all the questions neatly and leaving the viewer satisfied after figuring it out along with the movies’ characters.
Not really. Although the film, if I were absolutely hard pressed to categorize it according to genre (and why would I be? it’s my website and I’ll cry if I want to), is at its most basic a classic murder mystery, director Jonathan Lynn of The Whole Nine Yards fame seems much more interested in the quirky cast of characters than the story at hand. Since the characters are mostly made up of their counterparts from the board game – in other words, nothing else but the gender and the vaguest idea of demeanor as communicated by the cheesy game illustrations – the director and the cast have a lot of fun playing with them. Some of them fall flat, for sure, but the fact is easily overshadowed by some great acting and almost cartoonish slapstick, and this is where Clue actually turns into a full-on comedy. To start, Tim Curry has rarely been more fun than here, playing an archetypal butler character. Madeline Kahn’s performance has gained a cult following, and the “flames” scene is easily one of the funniest, most ludicrous moments in a film that makes it a principle not to take itself too seriously. Finally, there is Lesley Ann Warren playing Miss Scarlett as if she were on steroids, utilizing her body and facial expression so broadly, one would think she was on a stage in front of a blind and deaf audience. Oscar material all of this ain’t, for sure, but these are performances of such sincerity and will to entertain, that anyone who finds themselves resisting a smile must be a snob of the worst kind.
And then the murder mystery itself. Although the movie ultimately doesn’t give an f who did or didn’t do it (and, it seems, neither do the characters), the ride is so much fun, and the three endings, stacked one after the other on DVD and BluRay, are an expected twist that works fantastically well. It speaks to the ability of the director, as well as the screenwriter, to navigate this many characters and possible plot lines and finally result in a fabulous little crime mystery that adds up to logic (even though, after seeing the movie twice, I still can’t quite figure it out, nor do I try to). It is, however, the journey that really counts, a fact that is true with any other whodunnit movie if you really think about it, and this particular journey is made up of fabulous character actors and a whole lot of quotable one-liners that are absolutely side-splitting. Clue is the perfect movie to watch with friends, and besides, who plays board games anymore?
Here is a quick post just to let everybody know that my second piece for The Huffington Post has been up for a couple of days. The article is called “Keeping It Real in Atlanta,” and it’s a piece about how the show The Real Housewives of Atlanta is laced with social commentary and representation while at the same time fitting squarely into the exploitative reality TV niche.
The piece has been getting some traction already, and while the comments are mostly negative (or not even negative; they just question my point of view, which is great and constructive and interesting to read), I’m happy the piece is interesting enough for people to take the time out of their schedules and comment. If I were to compare, my previous post about Keira Knightley and Joe Wright only got two comments and they were quite wonderful. So, a little from column A and a little from column B, I guess. Now, if only I could figure out how to reply to commentors on The Huffington Post, I would be a happy camper. I am not worried too much, though – the fact that I’m even writing for such a splendid website is getting me all giddy!
I am already contemplating my next article, but with so much going on at the moment, it’s gonna be a while until I sit down and crank it out. I am super excited about my (possible) next article, and here’s a little tip: it involves a doctor which strange nutritional tendencies, a police officer who needs his help and a super popular horror trilogy (or quadrilogy, or even pentalogy, depending on whether you are a purist or not). Any guesses? Until then, make sure you read my two HuffPost pieces by clicking on the links in this article, or the pictures in the sidebar!
Here is a little note just to let you know of what fabulous things have been going out with me lately, and what will become of this blog.
Those that follow me on Facebook or Twitter may know that I have become a new blogger for The Huffington Post. Obviously, this is a huge honor, as HuffPost is such a huge and influential online newspaper. While I have essentially been given a carte blanche to write in any section I want to, I will direct my focus on phenomenological things that I think are super interesting in the fields of film, pop culture and, perhaps, literature. The first post went up in roughly a month ago, and it was a meditation on the three films director Joe Wright has made with Keira Knightley (in other news, Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina). The response has been great so far, and I have today submitted another little piece, this one on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which just so happens to be my favorite reality show ever. Any other people obsessed with NeNe, Kenya and Co? Let me know! The post should be up on The Huffington Post as soon as their editors look over it, and I will be posting the link on the sidebar of my blog.
Since The Huffington Post is such a great platform for my musings on popular culture, film etc, I have decided to turn this website into a blog of sorts, where I will post little articles that wouldn’t really fit on The Huffington Post, the links and other reading that I like and maybe even some personal blogging. This means that it will be updated way more often – the articles that I write in order to provide some insight into culture take me a long amount of time until they are beaten into shape just the way I want it. I am excited, then, to be posting about other stuff on here and hopefully getting some interaction.
Make sure you click through here to see my page on The Huffington Post, or you can use the links in the sidebar. Either way, make sure you fan me and share my stuff with your friends – that would be greatly appreciated!
And don’t forget, I don’t hate comments.
I am a sucker for a movie franchise. Actually, scratch that – I am a sucker for any word-of-mouth, everyone’s-talking-about-it, must-see movie of the year. More importantly, I tend to usually like at least something about these blockbusters enough to leave the theater feeling glad I’ve taken part in the collective hysteria, at least minimally. Sometimes I’m even thrilled.
The Harry Potter franchise got me giddy when I first read the first book at the age of 11, so I was the perfect kind of audience when The Philosopher’s Stone was released in 2001. Obviously, every next film got me even more excited and I loved every spell-binding minute of the series. The hysteria surrounding The Da Vinci Code made for some good conversations of the watercooler variety, as well as a mostly enjoyable film that was considerably weighed down by the ridiculous quasi-controversies. Finally, the Twilight series is coming to an end, and although the public discourse on the movies, as well as the books, is of the love-it-or-hate-it kind, I still found myself enjoying some of it – the first movie was a good time with a weirdly relatable teen relationship at its core, while most of what has followed made for rather droll movie experiences. I am kind of excited to see the final film at some point, if nothing then just to see the series finally end so that Robert Pattinson can do other things in life.
However, when it comes to movie adaptations of Tolkien’s works (by which I mean, of course, the Peter Jackson trilogy, as the other ones can’t really qualify as blockubusters), I’ve always had a hard time really getting into the story. I found The Lord of the Rings in its book form excruciatingly hard to get through, its endless descriptions of Middle Earth’s flora making me cringe, and Tolkien retelling the events as opposed to putting the characters in their center finally making me abandon the story midway through The Two Towers. I remember really liking the first movie – the mystical quality of Cate Blanchett-narrated intro, all the way to the creepy Nazgul and Liv Tyler’s chase scene. But with every film that followed, with every majestic gorgeous set and mouth dropping special effect, there happened something that left me thinking, “eh?” It’s not so much that I do not see why these films are considered great cinema – it is all shot with such attention to detail and assembles some truly great actors to carry out this huge, epic story, and all this I get and respect. But I’ve always felt it is emotionally hollow to the point where it removed all the joy from watching these movies for me – in fact, by the middle of the second movie it managed to alienate me so much that I was never quite able to recover, nor care. The characters kept wading in and out of focus, while things just happened, without proper explanation or gravity for those of us who haven’t read the books – Gandalf coming back from the dead, or Galadriel’s freakout over the ring, for example. Finally, I found the whole good vs. evil thing too simplistic – Sauron is not even a character and barely a villain and has zero psychology, while the idea of greed as most detrimental to a
person’s hobbit’s character is mostly reduced to actors hissing at each other.
That’s just my two cents. I believe both the books and the films are culturally relevant as masterworks of the fantasy genre, of which there are many fans, but this viewer was not pulled in.
And then came The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Now, this was a book I liked. It had a good flow, and was self-contained in a way that allowed me to enjoy a straightforward adventure uninterrupted by endless battles happening elsewhere, while still being aware of a sense of the scope of Tolkien’s world. Moreover, it had the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter, which is probably one of the most enigmatic and edge-of-my-seat reads I’ve ever experienced (if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out; check out this webpage, which contains both the first edition version, as well as the canonical second-edition version, which fits better with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in mind and is the one the movie is based on). It is because of this chapter that I felt that the most interesting of Tolkien’s ideas were in fact contained in The Hobbit - for one, it introduced the One Ring, as well as Gollum, who is by far the most fascinating of all Tolkien’s characters.
But my God, was the movie a letdown. It seemed to go absolutely nowhere, with all the interchangeable Dwarfs eating and drinking and singing, not to mention the endless cameos and stories within stories that, alongside the Dwarfs’ musical numbers, delayed the film for at least an hour. And even then I found the film to lack tension – the scene with the Trolls, for examples, lacked all of the book’s tension, while every single joke fell flat. The Wizard Radagast giving CPR to a hedgehog was just ridiculous, but not nearly as much as him being pulled on a sleigh by rabbits. Character motivations were either unbelievable (Why would the dwarves leave Gandalf in Rivendell, when he is clearly the most competent of all? Speaking of competency, the film gives no reason for Bilbo to be on this adventure, and in spite of Martin Freeman’s incredible charm and charisma, the Hobbit feels like an intruder in the movie where he is the titular character), or broad to the point where it felt like an after-school special (don’t be mean to people, learn to forgive and forget, etc.).
The best part of the movie was clearly the Riddles in the Dark sequence. Andy Serkis’ Gollum remains the best thing about the franchise, and his acting here is better than even the split personality disorder showcase from The Two Towers (or The Return of the King, I’m not sure). He and Freeman have palpable chemistry together, and this was the only scene where I was genuinely invested in what was happening.
Which leaves us with two more movies to go through. I am pretty certain I will wait to see them on Blu-Ray, as I feel that The Unexpected Journey was too big a price to pay for just one amazing scene. It is a pity that what was supposed to be a lighthearted, fun adventure with a standout scene or two, is now an unwarranted epic trilogy. Superfans of Tolkien, rejoice. I, on the other hand, am done.
Lara Croft, the world famous archaeologist and thief. Also, a kick-ass chick extraordinaire. And as if that wasn’t enough, Lara easily transcends her line of business, as well as her main function as a game and movie character. The entire game-movie-comic book franchise aside, Lara has become a staple of pop culture everywhere, a sex symbol even. She is so badass – the reason why people love Lara Croft is probably the same reason why people love The Bride in Kill Bill, or Sydney Bristow in Alias. These chicks aren’t afraid to get dirty, and willingly enter dangerous situations and environments for better good. And since 1996, when Lara first came onto the scene wearing her trademark blue tank top and tight shorts, she has been getting down and dirty in a myriad of locales and battled dozens of enemies. Through constant re-invention, sometimes spot-on and sometimes not so much, the Tomb Raider franchise has figured prominently in the gaming industry.
Lara has been making rounds around the blogosphere for some time now, as the Tomb Raider franchise is to receive its second reboot come 2013, and the most drastic one by far (the first ‘M’ rated game in the series). Apart from the radically improved graphics and the open-world gameplay, the thing in which this incarnation of the game differs mostly from its predecessors is that it features a younger, pre-tomb-raiding Lara who, after surviving a shipwreck, is forced to develop her survival skills and thus grow into the Lara we know and love today. She is no longer a seasoned badass who is, at least partly, responsible for what happens to her by consciously flirting with danger. Rather, she is a victim who the player is supposed to provide with agency while she is tortured, beaten and, in the words of Ron Rosenberg, the executive producer at Crystal Dynamics, raped. While the rape scene has been dismissed as a misinterpretation since then, many have taken offense with what we know of the game so far, and the new, agency-devoid Lara.
Many have written on how the above gameplay video sounds like torture porn; how when only listened to but not looked at, it sounds a lot like actual porn; how the new focus on Lara as a victim who needs to be defended by the player reeks of Freudian sexism, not to mention the traditional “men as subjects, women as objects” binary. And while some of this may be true, it could be argued that this is a discourse that stems from our tendency of scapegoating and going a tad too far in our (by all means important) quest for social justice. In other words, while it may sound like Lara is participating in a brutal orgy, maybe what needs to be remembered more is that porn itself is not made for the pleasure of women, and more often than not, pornography treats women as objects and with a pr0nounced lack of compassion. Judging by the trailer, Lara’s pain is more than legitimate. And if one is concerned by the very fact that Lara, as a woman, finds herself in a situation where she has to overcome adversity, develop her survival skills and even (even!) fight off unwelcome sexual advances, then one has not really considered the broader picture.
How previous Tomb Raider games (or any game for that matter) have had agency in the hands of the characters is beyond me. After all, the point of video games is for people to play God – build this Sim’s house a certain way, make the plumber stronger by chasing after a mushroom, or swan dive Lara into a lake, or your character will suffer the consequences. In Lara’s case, she has battled lions, tigers, centaurs and even T-Rex. She has been chased by huge stone balls that often crushed her to death, or she has plunged into a sea of spikes upon which her body lay visibly disfigured for a few seconds before the player had a chance to reload the game. And of course – of course - that Lara is a set of pixels manipulated by the player. She cannot have real agency no matter how you look at it. It might also be prudent to note that the franchise has included some pretty fierce women apart from Lara. The 2006 reboot introduced the characters of Amanda and Anaya, both capable in their own rights, thus downplaying Lara’s singularity when it comes to her “field of work.” The main antagonist has been in the form of Natla, the half-goddess introduced in the original game. And all of the male characters are either silly sidekicks or thugs that are easily disposed of. Even though Lara may not have ever had agency (for all her courage and persistence, the agency still rests with the gamer; people say that Lara shouldn’t be “rescued” or “protected” don’t understand the basic concepts of gaming), she’s definitely had pizzazz.
Now, the main difference is that Lara is younger, inexperienced and scared. She isn’t doing what she does for the fun of it, but out of sheer necessity. And that is a situation many a video game character has found him/herself in. Sure, not many male characters get raped and this definitely means that the “video game” reality is skewed, and I am not on board with that. But Lara, while not actually raped in the game, is still far from being a damsel in distress, and if anything, the endless debate around Lara’s skimpy outfits has resulted in a much more realistic figure this time around that doesn’t seem sexualized at all. After all, Lara has sort of made her career on being a cold, emotionless walking set of boobs. And now that she finally gets a psychology, God forbid that psychology involves fear or trauma.
While I never would remove Lara’s right to her boobs and knees, the reboot seems like a step in a good direction for Crystal Dynamics. Kudos for making Lara a human being, and bothering to flesh out her story rather than just having her take on another T-Rex. Thank you for sticking with the idea that a fierce woman can still be a femme. And while it is certainly not necessary for her to be raped (or attepted-raped, whatever) to achieve some sort of character depth, a myriad of bad things had already happened to Lara in the history of Tomb Raider. And if the screams of a girl in pain remind you too much of porn, then I have no further arguments but to withdraw, shaking my head in the process.
Thus, I will be happy to save Lara yet again when the reboot comes out. And it cannot come fast enough.
It is astounding how grounded in reality a film as quirky and dreamlike as Amélie can be. Although it is this dreamlike feel that most people will remember when reminded of the Audrey Tautou cult favorite, what the film is essentally about is the loneliness of the modern individual. Indeed, the characters are all endearing and cooky and right out of a picture book, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes sure it all looks like a damn vintage picture book, with its saturated color palette of yellows, and reds, and greens; but all of these quirky characters are painfully lonely (particularly the titular character, and I would argue that her psychological canvas is not a little droopy because of it), which makes her world of make believe sad instead of happy, beautifully barren instead of joyously abundant.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Amélie (or in its French original, Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain), for those not in the know, is a story of a twenty-something Parisian girl, played by Audrey Tautou, who works as a waitress and has a keen eye for identifying people’s troubles and griefs. After discovering a long lost box of childhood treasures, she endeavors to return it to its owner and is overwhelmed by the emotional response she causes. Amélie then proceeds to quietly fix the lives of everyone in her community, oblivious to the fact that her altruistic tendencies are in disproportion to her own needs, as she seems unable to improve her own existence.
Director and co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet seems set on provoking an emotional response from the audience and thus eliminates any irony in Amélie’s perception of the world. One of the ways he achieves this is rooting the film in modern day Paris that looks not like the Paris of postcards and travel books, but like the Paris where people actually live. While certain tourist sites are definitely represented (most notably, the Sacre Cour –dominated Montmartre), Amélie spends a lot of time in such unromantic spaces as subway and train stations, cafes, and even sex shops. On the other hand, the movie is intentionally made to resemble a fantasy, right down to the few instances of talking furniture and moving photographs. Such fantasies seem a necessary response to the gritty urban living, particularly that which lacks any human connection, as Jeunet constructs it. Thus, the characters are only linked by shared working or public spaces, but unless they have either voyeuristic or bullying tendencies, they rarely interact with each other.
Such a bleak vision of modernity lends an even more fantastical element to Amélie’s pursuits. Indeed, the altruistic, caring creature seems an anomaly; the impish Tautou plays the character who we feel cannot exist in our own reality. Her kindness becomes the most fantastical of all elements in the story, and it is there that Jeunet drives his point home. There undoubtedly comes a moment in the movie where, as I’ve mentioned before, Amélie’s sanity seems to corrode and her unwillingness to take care of and assert herself seems almost pathological, replaced instead with childish games and puzzles. But this pathology is deeply rooted in Jeunet’s worldview, as it again comes from places of deep insecurity and hesitation that is the natural state of the modern man or woman (one of the more brilliant sequences illustrates this by having Amélie pursue the man of her dreams inside an amusement park horror ride). When Amélie finally gets her happy ending, it is a picture book moment, a fairy tale brought to life – they both lived happily ever after.
What to do, then, with the movie as cheating as Amélie, all crème brûlée on the outside and tristesse on the inside. It is almost predatory in the way it sneaks up on the viewer and demands a reaction to such common tropes as innocence lost (but possibly regained), real-world Cupids and good deeds not only unpunished, but rewarded in spite of what people may say. It is a film that recognizes that there is extreme sadness even in places as magical as Montmartre, but at the same time fervently believes in the possibility of a happy ending.
Oh, The Hunger Games. After you were first published in 2008 to great hysteria, culminating in being challenged by the American Library Association for excessive violence and sexual content, you have made it to the big screen. After a marketing campaign so intense, I felt like I’ve already seen half the movie by the time I sat down in the movie theater by some, I would come to learn, very loud and excitable teenagers. And after eating up all the world’s money in your opening weekend ($214 million, to be exact), everyone and their mom is now in some way attached to you – lovingly or otherwise.
To anyone not yet familiar with the phenomenon, it is a story set in dystopian America where the society is controlled by that old Roman motto, panem et circenses - literally, bread and games. In fact, this new America is indeed called Panem – there are plenty of metaphors in The Hunger Games, some of them quite transparent. The circenses in question are the annual Hunger Games, a manifestation in which 24 “tributes,” a girl and a boy from each area of the continent, are randomly placed in an arena for a televised fight-to-death showdown. Apart from being publicly scrutinized for having teenagers kill each other off (author Suzanne Collins does not hold any punches, and appropriately so), many have compared the novel to a 2000 Japanese movie Battle Royale, some even accusing Collins of plagiarism. The general consensus seems to be that both works of fiction operate on the same idea in different ways. More importantly, Collins’ novel works mainly because the action is deeply rooted in the fictional universe, owing a lot to such standards as 1984 and Lord of the Flies.
The fictional universe is what makes up the first hour of the film, and is in fact the better of the two halves. Although it would be wrong to perceive the two acts as binary opposites or even chapters, there is a definite feeling of a dichotomy. The first hour or so begins on the impoverished outskirts of the country, where we meet our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and get fascinating exposition on life in the gutter of übercapitalism, before she ends up being a tribute and is whisked away to the heart of the country, where richness and decadence abound. The design of scenery, costumes and set pieces are astounding and if sometimes they verge on ludicrous, the talent keeps it firmly rooted in reality (look no further than Elizabeth Banks in the role of a PR person dressed for Cirque du Soleil’s Vegas stint, but giving a performance that never fails to ring true; the same goes for such names as Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz, a surprising and welcome addition to the cast). After the tributes, including Peeta Mellark (played by the awkwardly hunky Josh Hutcherson) and a host of other, unnamed ones, go through the training process, they are dropped in the arena. The Hunger Games finally begin.
First off, after the grandeur of at least ten huge set pieces (Katniss’ home, the train, the exterior’s of the Capitol, the training room, etc.) the movie suddenly finds itself operating in a singular setting, which despite being big, feels pretty unvarying. The arena is for the most part a huge forest, with a meadow here and a river there. And although the action pieces are always well-executed and at times thrilling, there is a definite shift of focus from the majestic special effects to the characters and their survival. On the plus side, Lawrence and Hutcherson are capable actors, and whenever they are on screen, the movie is grounded and humane. However, the other ten characters (just like in the book, about half of the kids are eliminated right off the bat, benevolently making the story easier to follow; don’t look at me like that, you know it’s true) are virtually indistinguishable from each other, and as the Games progressed, this reviewer found himself observing the chase rather than thoughtfully participating in it. Even when the Very Emotional Death happens, I was left somewhat unshaken. The movie seems to rely a bit too heavily on its premise (Kids Killing Kids! Very Very Sad to Everyone But Assholes!), but without the actual carnage that Collins cleverly used as criticism on violence, the cinematic Hunger Games seem more like a video game than an actual life-or-death, high-stakes event, as the film seems eager to go through the motions andget those titular Games out of the way. In this particular respect, I would even go so far as to say that the film is less concerned with its underage deaths, but at the same time, I can only assume the brainstorming and effort it took to fashion a screenplay that is true to the book, but also tame enough so that the Guardians of Propriety (also known as the MPAA) give it a PG-13 rating.
Yes, the film plays the Games somewhat safe, but safe is not necessarily stupid. In fact, now that the world has bid adieu to the Magic Man from Hogwarts, the void left for a smart, competent teen action film seems to have been filled. I am very much looking forward to the sequels, and I hope that, just like the original, the next installments are more Orwell and less, well, Stephanie Meyer. May the odds ever be in the filmmakers’ favor!
To watch a show like NBC’s Smash seems almost surreal. It is an hour-long primetime drama with a touch of musical – a concoction with such a specific interest that it seems unfathomable any network but HBO would even dare to touch it. Obviously, this is a good thing. If American institutions and TV fixtures such as Cops, Lawyers and Doctors are finally starting to get some competition, why shouldn’t that competition be in the form of another American institution – that of musical theater?
In truth, there is one other show that might be categorized as a surprise hit, a musical anomaly that managed to hit a nerve with viewers. Here are a few hints: It is set in a high school whose population is divided into the Uncool Show Choir Members and Everyone Else, its favorite story lines involve bullying and worshiping of pop culture icons such as Madonna and Lady Gaga, and the characters like nothing better than bursting into a Top 40 song, whether it fits the narrative context or not (it is usually the latter).
Yes, it might be too easy to compare Smash to Glee, simply because both shows can be loosely categorized as musicals. And let’s be honest here – the music of Glee is not what makes the show such a huge hit. Sure, the impressive sales of each episode’s music sure help the show’s endurance on TV. Looking at Glee’s drama, however, the success seems less surprising. What this show does is no more than identify whatever problems teenagers might have (pregnancy, bullying, budding sexuality, ambition), and then creating an almost archetypal character for each of these (Quinn Fabray, Kurt Hummel, Finn Hudson, Rachel Berry). Don’t get me wrong – Glee does this with extreme sensitivity and smarts, maintaining a clear line between being representational and preachy, and it often seems to get away with it by means of incredible writing and a sense of humor. But it is hardly revolutionary – its success mirroring and appropriating such textbook examples as Beverly Hills 90210 and My So-Called Life for today’s tumbling, tweeting generation.
This is why Smash seems so ballsy. It is a show about Broadway people, plain and simple. Taking its tropes from cult pieces such as Funny Girl, A Chorus Line and Gypsy, it is the show theater people wished Glee was. The two protagonists, Karen and Ivy, are both starry-eyed hopefuls, competing over the lead role in an upcoming musical based upon the life of Marylin Monroe. The story is not only classic, but it refreshingly doesn’t feel the need to update itself, instead choosing to rest in its realm of theater geeks and Broadway stars. As if Marilyn Monroe wasn’t enough of a throwback reference, the show organically mentions everything from My Fair Lady to Wicked, connecting to those over-cultured viewers who might not necessarily believe that such characters and storylines would have to be played for irony, the way Glee often does.
One of the reasons Smash succeeds in its task of connecting to a large viewership over a topic many find unrelatable (or even intolerable) is its great cast. The greatest player in the ensemble is without question Debra Messing, back on the network which established her as one part of the Will & Grace duo, now playing a musical composer with such versatility and quiet charisma that she manages to steal every scene she is in. Megan Hilty shines as Ivy, a regular fixture on the Broadway scene, set on scoring the role of Marylin at all costs. Although she is the one the viewers might love to hate, Hilty throws a curveball by playing Ivy with plenty of heart and a gentle tenderness that makes her competition look bland. Which brings us to Katharine McPhee, whose character Karen is a fresh ingénue that I always feel should root for, but is continuously upstaged by Hilty. Finally, there is Anjelica-fucking-Huston, playing (and looking) like a tough Broadway producer, a character so badly written and over-the-top, it makes me want to write to NBC and plead that they not waste such an obvious talent.
The writing is indeed Smash‘s biggest issue – after a strong pilot episode, the show spiraled down into a patchwork of at least a dozen subplots, some good, some plain awful (Anjelica. Huston). Instead of letting the plots flesh out organically, information is dumped on the viewer to make sense of. For example, in the most recent episode entitled Enter Mr. DiMaggio, Will Chase’s character was introduced through the point of view of two already established characters , then quickly followed to his home, where we got a wholly unnecessary (and honestly, boring) exposition of some sort of family drama, which will surely play a part later - but for now, it just makes the show drag. It might be too early to consider this as a problem as only three episodes have been broadcast, but Smash had better find its footing soon, as its chief competitor has some of the best writing on television right now.
Finally, there is the music, which I cannot praise enough. If not simply for the fact that it does not try to cram ten songs into an hour-long episode, then Smash should be applauded for its stunning original music, all of which belongs to the narrative of creating Marylin: The Musical. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I would go see this musical if it ever makes it onto real-life Broadway, and judging by the quality of the music (the song Let Me Be Your Star is spell-binding), this does not seem completely impossible. Each episode generally includes one cover song, and while some made sense contextually (Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful, as well as Gretchen Wilson’s Redneck Woman), this practice tends to reek of commercialism and iTunes deals – the recently performed Bruno Mars sequence was almost distasteful in its blatant disregard of the show’s context.
Ultimately, Smash is a show that should be watched, if nothing else, for what it brings to TV. Its assembly of talents aside, it tells a universal story of fame and ambition, made all the more fascinating by its Broadway setting. Also, there’s Megan Hilty, who brings more star quality than I suspect even Marylin herself could.
Being a soon-to-graduate English major, as well as a published writer, it was high time I claimed a piece of the Internet Machine as my own space to write, promote and thrive on. Every individual with a creative streak needs a place to assemble and present the masterpieces and the scraps. NikolaWrites is that space of mine.
The concept behind the website is simple. It is a portfolio of my published works, be it in magazines, websites or other media. It is a place where I can be contacted via comments, email, or a variety of different social networks. Finally, it is the home of my blog, where I will be extending my fascination with arts and popular culture in all of its varieties. The objective? To promote, dissect and create a forum for culture enthusiasts and allies, as well as a personal platform for my work.
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