Sunday, January 30, 2011

Writers on TV

I was going to try to keep pop culture out of this blog, and here I am going back on the resolution only ten posts in, but I'm sneaking this one in as a “writing” topic. For several years I've been trying my damnedest to stay out of the pop culture loop, simply because there are too many good/culturally “important” things to check out – bands, TV shows – and not enough time to do it at all, let alone stay current. So I resign myself to being an average of five years behind on bands and three seasons on TV shows. If the hype is big enough, I'll hear about it and finally give in and see what all the fuss is about; if the show or band is hip enough I'll hear about it from a friend (thus I found my way to Florence and the Machine and Community). Making no active effort to stay hip and current whatsoever therefore acts as a protective, semi-arbitrary filter keeping me from being too overwhelmed from all of this brilliant art clamouring for my fractured attention.

Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

Well dammit, we can't, not even with everything faster and faster and more convenient all the time – Pater outlined the problem over a century ago, and late capitalist consumerism and online “connectedness” have only made the dilemma of secular relativism (or relativist secularism) worse: there is nothing but material pleasure (of which the aesthetic is the most spiritual kind), and we will simply never be able to take in even a portion of it before death is here. And in the meantime, the urgency – the anxiety – to do so only intensifies. (No joke: I saw a parenting book, written by a teacher, the other day, on how to encourage kids to read, in which an elementary school student was quoted – approvingly, I guess – as saying, “I feel sorry for all of those books waiting for me to read them.”)

But still, occasionally, you can discover things not by hype or buzz or recommendation but by chance – by googling around, as once in an ancient times you might have found things by wandering the library and judging books by their covers or even by flipping through the channels or watching, zombie-like, anything that came on TV. Like the time I discovered The Talking Heads by watching infomercials all night with a friend – early David Byrne looking very sexy indeed, all sweaty and angular and unnaturally intense while wailing “Psycho killer – qu'est-ce que c'est?” In this case what I found was HBO's Bored to Death, and I found it by reading Heather Havrilesky columns on Salon (which I used to read), trying, without caring very much, to find out what she had to say about Community, which I read somewhere else that she liked.

Community is a pretty good show, as far as recent American sitcoms go. It's consistently fairly clever, fun to watch with a friend. Bored to Death, however, is in a different league. After trying out a few episodes, I naturally looked up the cast and creator on Wikipedia. Jonathan Ames sounds like a sub-par David Sedaris... and I'm not even interested in reading Sedaris. But why do writers of middling talent so often make superb TV writers? Is it because we expect less from the medium, so the merest hint of “literary” talent and intelligence gets us inordinately excited? Or maybe it's that there really is a difference between art and entertainment and a place in our lives for both, but neither novelists nor TV writers seem to know how to entertain anymore (setting art completely aside) – so when someone's doing a good job of it, we enjoy and appreciate it?

Anyway, Bored to Death hits a lot of my sweet spots. It's about as New York Jewish (of my fantasies) as it's possible to get, with its writer main character and all of the smart, rapid-fire psychoanalytic wit that presumes you've actually read Freud and Jung. And all of the other contemporary Jewish hipster touchstones are in place: the pot-smoking and the bearish bearded comic writer Ray seem to be out of Judd Apatow movie; the comic books and “Jew out of water” premise of a Jewish detective comic-like hero appear to be a page torn from Michael Chabon. But this is what TV, that most effortlessly pomo of mediums, does so well: it takes every major cultural reference (or just the smart ones) of the past decade or so and, by jumbling them together in a knowing pastiche somehow makes them seem so much fucking cooler than they did originally. (BBC's Life on Mars worked much the same way.)

The New York of Bored to Death is the New York I want to live in, not the bizarrely Jew-free New York of Mad Men (especially bizarrely given that the late 50s/early 60s was arguably the peak era of New York Jewish creativity, from Nichols and May and Woody Allen to Dylan and Ginsberg, so to create a show set in that time and place that focuses on WASPs seems downright perverse). But – four episodes into the first season, at least – that's just the attractive setting. I don't have a clue what the show is actually about: it doesn't always stick to its premise (which is good because I'm not sure how many wacky cases they can come up with) or to satirizing the New York literary world. Luckily, I'm too entertained to care what  it's about, or whether it knows. There seems to be an underlying theme of the difficulty of relationships: the main character, “Jonathan Ames,” can't seem to get into one (or get any action) after his girlfriend dumps him in the first episode; whereas his best friend is in a “successful” long-term relationship that seems like even worse torture. The show also situates itself firmly in the comedic “loserland” where 30somethings have felt most comfortable for several decades now (see the superb British sitcoms Black Books and Peep Show), and somehow we believe that these two semi-successful artists are the losers they claim to be even though they're a lot more successful than we are. Maybe it's because they're so miserable and directionless, like the rest of us; but at the same time, to our entertainment and probably theirs as well, over-articulate about it.

The New Yorker's ambivalent review of the show is so personally nasty in tone it sounds like it was written by an ex-girlfriend of Ames's, or the best friend of an ex-girlfriend – which seems appropriate for the little community of the New York literary scene. Or maybe it's just Nancy Franklin's version of irony. At any rate, she rightly praises Ted Danson's performance as Jonathan's womanizing magazine editor boss. Up there with, and maybe surpassing, Chevy Chase's performance on Community as a recovery of a comedian fondly remembered from one's childhood but who's now “too old for TV,” Danson nearly explodes the screen with his charisma (and chiseled good looks, gone too long from the small screen and even more impressive with the shock of white hair). The new role draws on certain aspects of Sam from Cheers, namely the womanizing and alcoholism; in other ways it's a total rejection of Sam's lunkheadedness and blue collar down-to-earthness. Danson is so strongly associated with that role, who knew he could be totally convincing as a cultured, philosophizing, high-powered magazine editor who makes casual reference to Proust in the context of discussing his fixation on a woman's armpit hair? (Sounds more like Freud, once again, than Proust to me, though.)

Franklin also singles out the stand-out exchange from the episodes I've watched so far. It's a bold bit of writing that requires an absolutely deft comic touch by the performer, and Jason Schartzmann (consistently adorable as “Ames”) delivers. Jim Jarmusch tells Jonathan that his novel was “Dark, funny, perverted, beautiful,” and adds (deadpan), “You must really suffer from the terrifying clarity of your vision.” To which Jonathan replies, “Thank you. I do suffer.” I was reminded, somehow, of side-splitting deadpan moments in Preston Sturges, like William Demarest putting a coat-brush up to his face to illustrate the ease of disguise, barking a bunch of nonsense German, and telling Henry Fonda, “Guess who I am.” At the same time I was autobiographically reminded of some of the absurd things people have said to me in my various brushes with a literary career, like the program director at theatre school who said, shooting me a penetrating look, when I fell into silence while sitting in his office, “What are you thinking, Elise?” As though the dark and fascinating contents of my writer's mind would spill out at this signal. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was thinking about how I couldn't wait for the day to end so I could go to my apartment and watch Jarvis Cocker videos on YouTube.

Franklin thinks that Jonathan replies “in all seriousness,” but I think Schartzmann's delivery is too comically ingenious to be pinned down that easily. What's funny about Jonathan's reply is that it's mere politeness: the Romantic idea of the suffering artist reduced to party small-talk in the course of a business deal. The deadpan delivery of the performers may resemble Sturges, but the reduction of such a grand idea to a trivial pleasantry is Wildean. It's not exactly that we don't believe Jonathan could write a novel that's “dark, funny, perverted, beautiful.” The satire involved is not so direct as to mock the idea that Jonathan can write or that a compliment of this sort could ever be sincere or accurate, however blurb-like the phrasing. It's that this ability attributed to him has nothing whatsoever to do with his daily life, which involves trying to get laid, and his boss trying to get laid, and his best friend trying to get laid by his girlfriend, and trying to get a movie deal, and standing around at parties, and getting stoned and drinking and avoiding writing, whether shit assignments or serious novels, and, of course, talking and talking and talking. (And now and then a detective case.) Where does one fit suffering into that day? It goes on – we believe it, of Jonathan or ourselves – but we don't see it happening. The scene may have changed from the French provinces to the New York literary world, but it's the same modern ennui, stifling to the Romantic expressiveness that's the stuff of art, or one (and still the most familiar) idea of art. Only now the ennui has spread from the ignorant provinces to the cultural centers, as we continue to believe in a dream of art that we can't connect to the mundane selves we've learned to be through media like TV... although the way was paved for its mundanity by the realist novel, including Madame Bovary....

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