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Episodes: Friday mailbag (June 30)


Emily VanDerWerff

Jul 01 2017

9 min read



It's been a bit of a quiet week in the ol' mailbag. Remember to send in your questions!

James writes, pivoting off my article on multi-camera sitcoms (which I will link to again!):

One of my favorite sitcoms has always been the late lamented Sports Night: I even got my sports-hating wife to watch it and fall for it. But I often have had friends recoil from it complaining about its laugh track (which is only there in some episodes, as I'm certain you already know). Is this just my friends acting pseudo sophisticated about single cam sitcoms, or is there something uniquely bad about Sports Night's laugh track (badly mixed, a bad fit for the show, etc?)?

There's something uniquely bad about Sports Night's laugh track.

Very early in the show's run, ABC tried to get Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme to add an actual live studio audience to Sports Night tapings. I genuinely don't know how long this lasted, because as you'd expect, it was a disastrously bad idea. The walk-and-talks were hard for viewers to follow, nobody knew which lines were supposed to be jokes, and the show's creatives resented having the audience there. (This has always been a little surprising to me, given that Sorkin's a playwright.) Anyway, the audience was ditched almost immediately -- like I don't know if they ever got so far as to tape a full episode in front of one.

By the time the show dropped to a standard laugh track, the explanation from all involved was that it would be like M*A*S*H, where it was clear the audience wasn't real, but the laughs worked because the jokes and characters were razor sharp and well-drawn (at least at first). I think most audiences can tell when a laugh track is a laugh track, but if the jokes are strong enough, that can be overcome. M*A*S*H worked because the jokes, generally, were strong enough, and the series didn't overuse it, sometimes dropping it for particularly serious or format-breaking episodes.

Sports Night, as much as I love it, doesn't have hard jokes. It has what a lot of TV writers call like-a-jokes, which is lines that aren't funny on their face, but they become funny because of delivery or rhythm or something like that. (Single-camera comedies are lousy with like-a-jokes.) Sorkin isn't a great joke writer, but he's a master of rhythm. He can make you think you've heard something funny just from how the words he chooses fit together. (Someone else who's very good at this? Tina Fey. She is a great joke writer, but if she can't nail the joke, she'll go for broke on the right combination of words and almost always succeed.)

But like-a-jokes only work if you're allowed to sort of chuckle at them at your own rhythm. They can't stand up to too much scrutiny. And a laugh track, unlike a live studio audience, exposes every joke to scrutiny. So the track in Sports Night has several levels of "bad idea" behind it, and I wish the show's creators had prevailed and gotten ABC to let them drop it.

Zach writes:

Do you have a particular stance on the interaction between criticism on an artistic level and criticism as a means of promoting (or combatting) certain political/cultural norms? How consciously do you factor elements like "representation" into the way you review stuff?

Where I could offer a pretty exact answer above, the answer to this one is "it depends." I wrote a little bit about the factors driving this shift in this very newsletter a few months ago, and I still think Jaime Weinman's piece on this for Vox is a really good look at the impetus behind it. (Jaime is... let's say skeptical of socially conscious criticism, so it's amusing to me that people have often read his piece to be a piece boosting said style of criticism.)

But I guess this is asking what I think, and what I think is that there's no one obvious answer. It wouldn't have occurred to me to write about The Beguiled as an example of how we minimize the destructive tendencies of Civil War era Southern women, or about the perils of privileging white feminism over intersectional feminism. And that's because a.) I dunno that it's the sort of thing I can speak about with great knowledge and b.) it just didn't occur to me in the moment because I don't know the source material super well. But I'm glad I got to read others' pieces about the erasure of the slave character from the film's narrative, because they were thought-provoking.

I think it's worth noting, also, that you can take issue with a work's politics and yet still think it's a great work of art. There are plenty of people writing about The Beguiled's issues with race (or, to use a TV example, The Handmaid's Tale's issues with same) who say that they still really liked The Beguiled. Similarly, I thought 24 was pretty much a fascist fantasy -- but I still thought it was a terrific TV show and watched it religiously. I think we too often hear, "This has some issues with race" and assume the critic is writing the work off entirely, when that's often not the case. They're just saying, "This has some issues with race," because it was produced in the United States, which (and I don't know if you've heard this) has some issues with race.

All art critiques or reflects the systems in which it is created. And it doesn't do either equally. It might critique this aspect of society and yet reflect this other aspect, without realizing the troubling attitudes that aspect stands in for. A work can be really sexist, yet fun to watch. What does that say about the work, about the critic, about society? And so on.

I tend to approach these things with two rules. The first one is: Do the political aspects stand in the way of good storytelling? And this is a big one! There are a ton of movies and TV shows with the default white male protagonist where another character might be a more interesting lead character (imagine, say, Vinyl from the pov of the Juno Temple character, and the show instantly gains a spine it didn't have). Because I know this aspect of TV really well, I feel like I can say, "Maybe the lead shouldn't have been the white guy" without it feeling like I'm being a political opportunist.

But my second rule is that whenever possible, you should criticize the system, rather than the artist. Do I think Sofia Coppola has done some stupid things around race? Sure. But she's a filmmaker, who makes movies I love (and The Bling Ring, which I just couldn't get on the wavelength of). What makes her problems stand out more is the fact that the film industry is not actively trying to find Sofia Coppolas who aren't economically privileged white women. It is, instead, content to keep giving chances to the same handful of filmmakers. And this problem only deepens when you consider that Coppola is still kind of an outsider. Some of that's by her own design, sure. But she's never going to be on the list to make a Marvel movie, and a studio isn't going to give her a $200 million budget to make, I don't know, Joan of Arc. She's not Colin Trevorrow!

I think, as someone with a lot of inherent power and privilege, just based on my status in the US, it's important that I sit back and listen when others are talking about their problems with something. I reserve the right to disagree, but I also don't see the point in saying, "No, you're wrong!" to someone whose life experiences are so radically different from mine. I don't think there's a one size fits all answer to any of the above, because we haven't thought of all the questions to ask yet. It's just important to listen, to step back, to try to change the system when you can, and to hold the door open for people when you can.

Devin asks maybe the most incredibly specific question in the history of the mailbag, but that's okay because it has a pretty easy answer:

Do you have any idea what the purpose is behind SyFy’s scheduling of 12 Monkeys? They ran the whole season over a weekend, never aired any reruns, and only had the episodes available On Demand for a month. That seems like a burn-off to me, but they also renewed it for a final Season 4. I just can’t figure out if they value it or not.

Networks are desperately trying to figure out how to adopt pieces of Netflix's model without being able to adopt it whole hog. And what better way to experiment with this than a show you've already renewed for a final season that has a dedicated but small fanbase? 12 Monkeys is more valuable to UCP (which makes it) in the long run that in the immediate future, too, so experimenting with its airing makes a lot of sense.

I hear, a lot, this question of "value" or "respect," and increasingly, once a cable or streaming show is in season three or later, it doesn't really matter. Networks and ESPECIALLY streaming services are thinking about these questions in far different fashion than we're used to, more interested not in drawing attention to something right now but in maximizing its potential for the long haul.

Or, put another way, expect to see more wrap-up movies like the Sense8 one as we head into our BRAVE NEW FRONTIER.


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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