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Monday mailbag! (June 2021 edition)

What workplaces should be on TV? And what 'ships does Emily like?
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Emily VanDerWerff
Jun 21 2021
12 min read
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Welcome to the Monday Mailbag, published the third Monday of every month! It's June 2021, and y'all want to know about movie cats, TV workplaces, and which Muppet I would date.

Jenni asks via email:

I’m currently watching Grey’s Anatomy on nights my brain feels like mush, and it’s made me think about television workplaces. There have been so many medical and legal shows, but I’m curious what underrepresented workplace you think would make for a great tv show setting? I’d love to see a Party Down-style show about an independent bookstore events team, for example.


As devoted readers of the newsletter surely know, I am fascinated by TV workplace settings and why some seem to stick and others don't. Remember the discourse in 2020, when a lot of people thought Brooklyn Nine-Nine could very easily be set in a post office? I was the lady who was, like, "Sure, but what's your story engine?"

Hospitals, police stations, and law offices are such perennial settings for TV shows because they allow for a lot of high-stakes drama to walk right in through the front door. And more importantly, that drama can take many different forms from week to week. Shows about firefighters, for instance, have a spottier track record (though a few have worked), because you eventually get to a point where they're fighting seemingly identical fires week after week after week.

But here's another question: How many episodes are we talking here? If you're doing a six-episode season of half-hour episodes, you have a lot more leeway than if you're doing 22 episodes at an hour. Party Down worked because it had just enough premise for its shorter seasons. If it had run even 13 episodes per season, you might have gotten a little sick of it.

This is to say: I think that TV has mostly found successful workplace settings, and when it hasn't, it's just because the tonal needle it needs to thread is so specific that maybe only one particular writer can do it. And with all of that out of the way, I will say that I think a series set at a newspaper in a small Midwestern town that's kind of falling apart could make a good comedy or a good drama. So maybe that.

Bonus answer for a sitcom: a late-night truck stop on some forgotten highway somewhere. There's a lot of potential there for what you most want in a workplace sitcom: a strong ensemble of oddballs and even more potential for other oddballs to walk through the door.

Friend of the show Sara Ghaleb asks:

(Sara's question reads, "Emily, which are the best cats in movies?")

I spent at least some amount of time thinking about this, and I also asked my wife and fellow cat aficionado Libby Hill. We like this list we've come up with, but if you don't like our answers, there's an entire website devoted to the cats of cinema and television to peruse and prove us wrong.

  • The cats of Kedi: If you haven't seen this documentary following the street cats of Istanbul, you are really missing out. It's mesmerizing, and the kitties in it are so good. (Cinema Cats entry)
  • Ulysses, Inside Llewyn Davis: The gold standard for fictional cats. A real champion, and I want to hug this cat, who deserves so much better than what Llewyn Davis could give to him. (Cinema Cats entry)
  • The cat, The Long Goodbye: I love this Robert Altman movie, and I love that it is about a private detective who has to figure out a way to trick his cat into eating the wrong brand of cat food. (Cinema Cats entry)
  • Jiji, Kiki's Delivery Service: I tried to eschew talking cats here, but no list of great movie cats would be complete without Kiki's black cat familiar. (Cinema Cats entry)
  • Jones, Alien: I mean, duh. (Cinema Cats entry) (I forgot that Jones is also briefly in Aliens!)

Reese asks the most important question of all:

("What show would most benefit from replacing one lead character with Julia Louis-Dreyfus?" Reese asks.)

Louis-Dreyfus is a peerless comedic actor, which means I want to put her in a drama, to see if she can unlock her inner Bryan Cranston and push all of her skill in the direction of terrifying people. This is why I think she should play Queen Elizabeth II in the final two seasons of The Crown. She's not remotely old enough, and her accent would surely be shaky, but don't you think there would be a cold, creeping terror at the center of her portrayal? I kinda do.

Barring that, let's make her an Aunt in The Handmaid's Tale. I think there's potential in this idea!

digs asks:

("If your romantic movie interest were to be portrayed by a Muppet, which Muppet would it be?" is the question.)

Rowlf.

The more I become comfortable with my attraction to men, the more I become terrified of figuring out what it would mean to me to be attracted to a man who did not, in fact, have my best interests at heart, because it's territory I didn't figure out how to navigate as a teenager. If I can say one thing for the gravely voiced, fuzzy dog Rowlf, it's that he is deeply masculine while not being scared of sharing his feelings. He's also a magnificent piano player. I truly believe Rowlf and I would clear my main relationship bar: He would be willing to go to the farmers market with me on Sunday mornings and hold my hand while we perused the wares. And then we would be escorted from the market because Rowlf is a dog and dogs are not allowed.

Finally, Kevin asks:

("Do you have any preferred 'ships?" is the question.)

The answer to this is both "yes" and "no." I seem to lack the gene that leaves me aching with hope that two characters in something I'm reading or watching will get together. I've never once had something ruined for me by two characters I longed to see get together instead remain best buds. I have had certain properties ruined by the creators forcing a romance I just didn't buy onto the narrative. The whole Elizabeth/Anthony affair in For Better or for Worse is the greatest offender here, but I'm also increasingly worried that Avatar: The Last Airbender is going to do this to me with Aang/Katara.

But, like, I have plenty of characters I ship with each other! At present, I'm deeply into the twisted dynamic between Jude and Cardan in Holly Black's The Folk of the Air trilogy, precisely because I'm aware what a terrible idea such a pairing would be. A dark and terrible part of me wants to see Poppy and Ian on Mythic Quest get together, and who doesn't love Gerri and Roman on Succession?

But the one 'ship I was super into that ended up being canon was Nick and Jess on New Girl. While the rest of the world was fawning over Ben and Leslie on Parks and Recreation (a relationship I don't really like), my wife and I were describing ourselves as "a gender-flipped Nick and Jess") and then..... well...........................

Anyway, it's a good thing I didn't name myself Jess.

("Fun" story: I almost came out in 2013 because I saw a dress Jess was wearing in a New Girl episode and wanted to wear it so badly, and a voice in my brain said, "Zooey Deschanel is older than you. You can totally wear that dress." It was like I was levitating out of my body, friends.)

Anyway, I also ship Bea Casely and Brenda Bentley, gauche though that may be. And Andy Wheyface and Red Dutton. Honestly, maybe the characters I ship most are those I write, because I get to tell them what to do and whom to kiss.

Wow! Hope you enjoyed plumbing the depths of my pscyhe!

Remember: The third Monday of every month is MAILBAG MONDAY! You can tweet me questions at @emilyvdw or email them to me at episodes.pitches@gmail.com or just post them in the comments of this article. I'll pick another five to answer in July!


Talk back to me: Movie cats and/or fictional 'ships: list your favorites in comments. Go.


What I've been up to: I sang an ode to Poppy from Mythic Quest, then wrote about the complicated but oddly brilliant fourth season of The Handmaid's Tale. And since it's a Handmaid's Tale review, you'd better believe I made a personal revelation!

Season four also gains at least some power from the moment in which it is airing. This is a show about a woman who’s been through an intense, traumatizing event, who feels incapable of leaving that event behind. As everyone around her attempts to have a nice, peaceful, “normal” life, she keeps insisting they look back at what happened to them, to the degree that some of her friends and loved ones start to seem a little bit exhausted by her. She’s kind of a pain, but it’s also hard to ignore that she’s right. Horrors are happening right next door, and whatever anger everybody feels is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t match the void inside her. You tune those horrors out — even for your own well-being — at your own peril.


The Handmaid’s Tale has always been accidentally timely, but season four is its most accidentally timely season. It’s kind of about the long hangover from Covid-19 and quarantine and kind of about a whole bunch of other things. Most of all, it’s about telling yourself things are okay because your circumstances have changed while the lives of millions of others remain as terrible as they were before.
Season four doesn’t take place in our world, but also it does. Call its reality Joe Biden’s Gilead.


What you missed if you aren't a paid subscriber to Episodes: Actually, the latest Avatar recap went out to all subscribers, but maybe you missed it! Also: I've got one of my favorite freelance pieces I've published yet coming up this Wednesday. Sign up so you don't miss out!

For the first three episodes of its final season, Avatar: The Last Airbender returns to a very season one tone. These episodes are better than most comparable episodes from the first season, but it is a little surprising to have the show return to its travelogue roots after so much of season two was spent either inside the walls of Ba Sing Se or trying to get there. It's doubly surprising considering that, hey, Aang died at the end of last season.
Aang's death and secret resurrection actually change up the status quo of these episodes more than you'd expect. Since nobody but our crew knows that Aang is alive, that means that he can be the secret weapon in the battle against the Fire Nation. What's more, the remaining resistance is composed of a ragtag crew of warriors who are scattered among a few smaller groups. I love a ragtag band of freedom fighters, so this is a promising setup for the season.


Read me: I'm late linking to this terrific look at a police procedural that really did try to change how it tells stories in the wake of the 2020 protests after the murder of George Floyd, but Kathryn VanArendonk's piece on NCIS: New Orleans is a fascinating look at an experiment that ended with the show's cancellation.

For most of its run, NOLA’s protagonist, with the fantastic TV name Dwayne Pride (Scott Bakula), has been a familiar, plays-outside-the-rules kind of cop, often making unilateral decisions about when to ignore the law in favor of what he sees as justice. In its seventh season, NOLA began to incorporate stories more explicitly skeptical of Pride’s tactics and wove them together with broader observations about the challenge of life in New Orleans for anyone without his cultural advantages. One NCIS investigator is frustrated when he realizes how few social services are available to a young mother experiencing homelessness. Loretta Wade, the show’s medical examiner played by CCH Pounder, finds herself burned-out, caught between the exhaustion of COVID and that of worrying about the safety of her Black son. Pride himself goes from self-certain white knight to a man questioning his privilege. The show’s new direction has been obvious enough that a vocal portion of its viewership grew frustrated. Fox and Newsbusters ran glibly furious coverage of the season, explaining that NOLA had “doubled down on false liberal propaganda.” Facebook and Twitter commenters registered complaints about the show’s “woke”-ness. But the ratings — 5 million viewers an episode — were decent, and for every tweet complaining about the show’s new “anti-police and anti-white” agenda, there were others praising the show. (Why the show was canceled is unclear — the network said simply that it had “hit the end of [its] cycle.”)


Watch me: Into the Woods is far from my favorite Stephen Sondheim show. I know, I know. I'm a monster. But I really liked this video untangling all of the complicated ways in which it helps you understand its byzantine plot structure. It made me appreciate the show more!


And another thing... Is the year almost half over? Yeah? That means it's time to check out the video of cats and dominos! An annual tradition!


Opening credits sequence of the week: Honestly, the theme song to Joe's World slaps, and I won't hear otherwise. Not sure what the premise of this one is from the opening. "I guess this guy has a family?"


A thing I had to look up: I thought Party Down only had 10-episode seasons, and I was right. But I still had to look it up.


This week's reading music: "Nos Veremos" by Y La Bamba


Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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