The ‘How I Met Your Mother’ Finale: Proof that We Should Cool It With the High Concepts

himymI actually enjoyed watching the How I Met Your Mother finale at face value: I laughed, I cried, I looked forward to having one fewer show to get through on my DVR every week. But that last thing, in particular, also points to the weaknesses in the show that this finale revealed. I hung in there because I’d invested so much and the title had promised me something that wasn’t delivered until the very end. The title, it turned out, was a fake-out, though. The show wasn’t really about how Ted met the mother of his children, who actually dies before the “present” of the story-telling. The show was actually about how Ted had spent his whole life in love with Robin. Meanwhile, we spent a whole season this year on Robin’s wedding to Barney, which, it turns out, dissolved within a few years.

I’m happy Ted finally got what he wanted. I’ll never totally believe that Robin loved him back.

Here’s the thing about all of this, though: If the show hadn’t been called How I Met Your Mother, and it had simply been about friends in their 20s and 30s, the time in life when your friends are your family and your life, the time before you get married and have kids and grow apart, it would have been a great show. It would have been a better show, actually. It wouldn’t have spent so much time course-correcting toward the final goal, twisting itself in knots for entire lame seasons. It could have just lived a simple, natural life. Hell, it could have still involved the poignant narration from the future, which did allow for some wonderful time-jumping and lent significance to those fleeting moments of young-adult friendship.

In some ways, high concepts like Mother‘s make for narrative innovations and, yes, it’s great to see sitcoms trying new things. But it’s actually more challenging to keep audiences watching by just telling good stories about characters we love, which HIMYM often did, particularly in the early days. I want to love the in-development How I Met Your Dad because I’ve enjoyed Carter Bays’ and Craig Thomas’ shining moments with HIMYM, and I like the star, Greta Gerwig. Let’s hope HIMYM‘s lessons pay off in a clearer route toward meeting Dad next time around.

In Praise of a Spoiler-Free Life: Why I Loved Being Surprised by ‘The Good Wife’

THE GOOD WIFEI had no idea what was coming when I settled in with a little bit of wine and a late-night viewing of The Good Wife yesterday evening — my partner had gone to bed, but I felt like staying up alone a little longer with my TV. I even thought I might just watch some of the episode while I enjoyed my glass of wine, then save the rest for the morning.

No chance of that once I saw Will Gardner bled-out on a hospital gurney. So dead. A major character and the star-crossed lover of our heroine, the one she seemed to be heading toward a reconciliation with, dead. I honestly caught myself trying to come up with ways he could not really be dead. But all I came up with were the worst, most hackneyed fake-outs — nothing becoming of the continuously gutsy showrunners at The Good Wife. They consistently manage to reset the show without feeling cheap, and without disrupting what the show’s true journey is: the transformation of Julianna Marguiles’ Alicia Florrick from a doting political wife to, well, a badass bitch. (When I saw her husband, Peter, calling her a “bitch” in the preview of upcoming scenes, I actually cheered to myself: damn right, she’s a bitch. About time.)

It’s a strange truth about enjoying narrative art in general, and television in particular: Surprises, even when they hurt, provide some element of delight. I think it’s because we like knowing we’re in the hands of storytellers who are going to keep things fresh and real at all costs. I think it’s also because we like feeling that our investment in the story is worth something, that it’s leading to some deeper truths.

It turns out the death resulted in part from actor Josh Charles’ decision to leave the show. (To which I’m tempted to say, “What?!?” But we all have our own creative journeys, and it takes guts to leave a successful show to remain true to yourself.) For me, this had an extra resonance: I would have known this was coming if I still worked at Entertainment Weekly. We always knew (what with it being our job) when an actor was leaving a show, when a major plot twist or death was coming, often because our editors were negotiating to get “exclusives” on such developments — fodder for the popular “spoiler” blogs or first interviews with actors whose characters met surprise demises. I didn’t mind spoilers; I still liked seeing how shows executed their twists.

But man, was it strange, devastating, and, in the end, satisfying, to experience Will’s death the way the characters did: as a horrifying surprise.

Can You Watch a Show Wrong?: What I Learned About Fandom

Invader Zim, if you didn't know.

Invader Zim, if you didn’t know.

I attended Bowling Green State University’s Popular Culture Scholars Association conference this weekend to speak, and the panel discussion I loved the most was one about modern fandoms. Perhaps it’s because this isn’t an area in which I do a ton of research, or perhaps because the internet has spawned so many new ways to participate in and study fandoms — in any case, it was damn fun to hear about some of this research. I could go on and on about all three panelists, but for now I’ll tell you the three coolest things I learned:

1. There’s this amazing-looking cartoon called Invader Zim, and some people are psychotically passionate about it. The presenter, Tim Jones, actually said fantastically interesting things about this show’s relationship to Barthes’ “Death of the Author” theory — and, in fact, inspired me to use the Death of the Author in another project I’m working on. It seems the creator of Zim, Jhonen Vasquez, actually ranted at a symposium that certain of his fans who were misinterpreting his work from his point of view were “watching the show wrong.” I love that idea, as it speaks to so many hostile TV experiences of late, from the Lost finale on through every other internet freak-out. But mostly, I was excited to learn about this show with very cool illustration and what looks like a kind-of dystopian world view. Best of all, his presentation yielded a sentence that would have been nonsensical to me before I’d learned all of this: “There is a lot of concern about poseurism in the fandom of Zim because of the popularity of Gir shirts at Hot Topic.”

2. I might understand this whole “Brony” thing finally. Two very smart young men, Jason R. Nguyen and Kurt Baer, explored “Ethnographic Methodology and the My Little Pony Fandom.” First of all, they have a great blog where they’re explaining and documenting their efforts. I’d heard about this “brony” phenomenon — mostly straight-identifying men who watch and discuss My Little Pony — in bits and pieces of media coverage/outrage. Naturally, most of the coverage doesn’t have to work that hard to make the idea of grown men watching a little girls’ pony show seem suspicious. But through Nguyen and Baer’s entertaining presentation, I think I understood it much better, and it seems to come down to camaraderie like any other fandom. But the key is that most people may not realize that what they’re fandoming over is a very clever reboot of the My Little Pony franchise that is designed to go above and beyond normal kid fare. What I’m saying is, I think it’s just a good show that isn’t that pervy to enjoy, and we shouldn’t judge straight men for liking something traditionally “girly.” We wouldn’t fret about a group of straight women discussing Transformers.

3. It doesn’t matter whether the endless reboots of beloved franchises are good or not. At least, to Hollywood it doesn’t. They make tons of money whether fans love or hate their newest Superman, Batman, Hulk, or Star Trek vehicle. In fact, a certain segment of cynical fans go to these movies just so they can then get online and tear them apart. Quincy Thomas’ presentation title said it all, with a perfect pun: “These Reboots Were Made for Mockin’.”

What Does ‘Feminist Comedy’ Look Like?

TwoBrokeGirlsI attended Bowling Green State University’s Conference on Cultural and Critical Studies this weekend to give a keynote address, and I caught some thought-provoking panels along the way. The one most obviously in my wheelhouse was one on Saturday about gender and comedy, featuring papers about Two Broke Girls, Shit Girls Say, and Girls. (So many girls!) An interesting question emerged during the discussion among the three panelists: What does “feminist comedy” look like?

This question came up in response to the Two Broke Girls paper, in which scholar Nancy Bressler posits that the humor in Two Broke Girls comes off as “empowering” to women only by putting down and stereotyping the male characters. Instead, she argued that truly feminist comedy would be a more genuinely empowering alternative. Okay, so what would that be, exactly? The ten minutes or so of discussion didn’t quite allow an entire new genre of comedy to be created, but it’s an interesting idea. I’d start with Girls, which, as another scholar, Molly Weinberg, discussed in her paper, allows its female characters to be who they are — sexual, messy, awful, funny, lots of things women have traditionally not been allowed to be.

A few of my other thoughts on a more concrete kind of feminist comedy:

1. Comedy that highlights feminist issues. This is the obvious answer. Some of it exists, too. My friend Katie Goodman does a whole musical-comedy stage show in this vein.

2. Comedy that uses humor to point out the injustices of inequality. A good example of this came during Louis C.K.’s standup special last yearOh My God, wherein he did a bit on the courage that dating requires: “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women.” A moment later he adds, speaking for all men, “You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.” As if I didn’t love Louis C.K. enough already.

3. Comedy that sends up the very tropes used against women. This is what I think 30 Rock did best, giving us a relatable heroine who’s self-aware enough to identify as a feminist but still beat herself up for falling into more traditional traps like body-image issues and the desire for a partner. Mindy Project does this, too, most notably during the many ridiculous sex and romance scenes in which Mindy’s unrealistic expectations, stoked by romantic comedies and women’s magazines, come crashing down on her. Check out this shower sex scene for a taste. And this bit where she tries to dismantle a stripper pole at a frat party is about as explicitly feminist as you can get.

In Praise of Susan on ‘Seinfeld’

SusanrossI’m prepping to interview Heidi Swedberg, who played Susan on Seinfeld, and I’m particularly excited: I have a real soft spot for George’s almost-wife.

She started as the only female NBC exec in the room when Jerry and George pitched their sitcom idea. She championed that idea and got it approved — she must have had quite a bit of pull to get their “nothing” concept through, given that it had gotten a chilly reception otherwise. But her tragic flaw was her taste in men: She started dating George, even though she turned out to be bisexual. With both men and women to choose from, she still opted for George in the end! Given that he had zero redeeming personal qualities, it’s hard to imagine why — except perhaps she simply had a self-destructive streak.

Then (SPOILER ALERT) she died from licking cheap wedding-invitation envelopes, the ultimate insult.

I like to imagine what the Susan story would look like if she were the tragic heroine of her own television show (a drama, obviously). I think it would be a metaphor for modern womanhood: A groundbreaking female TV executive with liberated sexual mores is put in her place by heteronormative culture until she is finally killed … by her own impending wedding.

Rest in peace, Susan.

The ‘Veronica Mars’ Movie Trailer: OMG I’m Excited.

I was nervous to watch the newly released trailer for the Veronica Mars movie. I didn’t want to be disappointed in my first taste of the movie, nor did I want my memory of the show besmirched. When I read about the plot — a grown-up Veronica gets back into sleuthing when her ex Logan is accused of murdering his girlfriend — it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to see Veronica and Logan coupled with anyone but each other; I didn’t want Logan still getting in serious trouble like this; I didn’t even want Veronica to have become a lawyer who talks to Jamie Lee Curtis. (I don’t know why I felt this way. I just did.) However! Once I watched the clip, I saw that it gave me that familiar adrenaline rush that says, I can’t wait to watch this. The familiar characters still themselves, still bantery and dark and awesome. Loving that even Max Greenfield, who played the cop Veronica dated before he became recognizable as Schmidt on New Girl, is returning as well. Oh, Kristen Bell, you can do no wrong.

TV Shows I’m Looking Forward to in 2014

Everybody else did year-end lists, but because I am forward-thinking (and slow), I thought I’d share some of the shows I’m most excited about this new year — both new shows and shows that have me hooked already.

NUP_155554_16711. About a Boy: NBC’s doing an adaptation of the Nick Hornby book-turned-Hugh Grant movie, which would have me intrigued enough, if not confident that such a show was necessary or capable of living up to its source material. However, this has some major things going for it. One is Minnie Driver, whom I have adored since Circle of Friends and who has done zero things since then that I disliked. The other is exec producer Jason Katims, who tackled similarly uphill adaptations of much-adapted material with Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. And absolutely zero things went wrong with either of those (save a bum episode or two). Sign me up.

2. Brooklyn Nine-Nine: I came to Fox’s new Andy Samberg-as-hipster-cop comedy late, randomly deciding to watch a few episodes on demand during the holiday programming lull. Now I can’t wait to see more.

3. Intelligence: I wouldn’t normally pay attention to yet another CBS drama where somebody with a special power does something to solve crimes or mysteries or whatever. But: Josh Holloway stars. I can’t allow Josh Holloway to be on a television screen that I’m not looking at.

4. Mad Men: Yay, it’s back! Sometime in 2014! For the first half of the last season, whatever that means!

5. Girls: Yay, it’s also back! Jan. 12, in this case.

6. Late Night With Seth Meyers: I once had a plan to marry Seth Meyers. (We both live in New York, and he was working at Rock Center, just blocks from where my office was. I saw him on the subway sometimes. It seemed plausible.) But I think he’s married now, and I’m happily coupled, so I’ll settle for watching his new late-night show (taking over for Jimmy Fallon, who’s taking over for Leno) instead.

7. Cougartown: The underrated comedy returns to TBS Jan. 7 to make me feel like a teetotaler in comparison to Courteney Cox and her wine-swilling friends.

8. American Idol: I still can’t help myself after all these years.

9. Melissa & Joey: If someone can explain to me why I love this show so much, I’ll give you a cookie.

10. Suburgatory: Gosh I’m relieved this is returning.

Things I Learned About One Direction by Watching ‘SNL’ This Weekend

It is a function of my age that I was swooning over Paul Rudd, not One Direction, on Saturday Night Live this weekend. In the grand tradition of old people assessing the new young boy bands, I now present to you the things I learned upon encountering these five young men on my television:

1. They are very genial. They did a nice job playing themselves in both Rudd’s opening — that amazing harmonized sing-along with his Anchorman castmates, Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, and Steve Koechner — and the pre-taped sketch about Rudd being a middle-aged dad and hardcore 1-D (is that what the kids call them for short?) fan.

2. They are very good-looking. I don’t mean this in a creepy way, I swear. I was just really struck by how handsome every last one of those young men is. In my day, they used to stock the back rows of the boy-band dance line with some quite “relatable” and “accessible” looking dudes. (As they say in Almost Famous, the “out-of-focus” dudes in the back.) These kids have got hair and cheekbones and perfect skin and flat abs for miles.

3. They dress really well. I like those velvet smoking-jacket type getups. Very classy, stylists.

4. They apparently sing Kidz Bop versions of Mumford and Sons songs. This was what I gathered from their musical performance. I did, however, like how they took turns singing and kept shifting their little circle around to rotate the next one in. That was cool. Probably dancing would not be a good idea to Mumford and Sons songs, because it would just be kind of a hoedown-jig type thing.

5. That Harry Styles one’s hair is bananas.

Why That ‘Sound of Music Live!’ Thing Was Brilliant

nbc-releases-first-sound-of-music-live-trailerMore than a week ago, I had a very long and complicated dream about me being in The Sound of Music Live! on NBC. The network had been promoting it so much that this was what weighed on my mind come sleepytime. The fact that the Sound of Music classic film, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, shaped my entire childhood (along with The Wizard of Oz and Grease, obviously), probably figured into this expression of my subconscious as well.

I resisted the idea of watching it, for fear of both retroactively ruining my memories of the movie and torturing my musical-phobic boyfriend. But then my sister posted on my Facebook wall asking if I was going to watch it. I thought for the first time: Hmm, maybe I am. I logged into my social media last night, sadly past the time of the performance of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” but mid-”Lonely Goatherd,” and saw almost nothing but hilarious, mostly snarky, occasionally affectionate, Sound of Music posting among my (pop culture-obsessed, heavy on the TV critics) friends. I gave in.

And while Carrie Underwood was in over her head acting-wise, and I disliked this script as compared with the film version, and Stephen Moyer is no Christopher Plummer, and it was downright boring at times (if you didn’t have Twitter), I must say that as a TV event, this thing was all up side for the otherwise beleaguered NBC. It was a Hail Mary that landed solidly — I personally imagine a pre-Vatican II-habit-wearing Audra MacDonald catching it easily as she belts out otherworldly notes. Here are the many reasons why it was brilliant:

1. It was review-proof. Guess what happens when you do live TV? You can’t send out screeners, because they don’t exist. Critics can tear it apart, but only the day after it airs, while the ratings roll in.

2. Live TV is henceforth and forever a spectacle. As soon as we figured out how to make taped TV, live TV became a thing. I loved seeing the actors on a stage set performing live like this because I’ve studied enough TV history to know this was what they always used to do in the early days. First because they couldn’t tape; and even sometimes after because they didn’t really know what to do with tape yet. Live-audience sitcoms were, and sometimes still are, like plays because that’s what made the most sense to the folks inventing television from scratch. In any case, now being truly live injects performances with a daring energy because there are no second takes. Even my musical-phobic boyfriend surprised me by declaring his support for this risky and inventive endeavor. I do wonder if next time they’ll consider a live audience, because it felt so weird to watch, say, Audra MacDonald murder “Climb Every Mountain” only to eerie silence.

3. Musical theater is fun. As noted, I grew up on musical theater and its film cohorts. (Mostly the film, as I was in the Chicago suburbs.) I love how ludicrous and entertaining it is — people breaking out in song for no reason rules. People singing for real is an awesome spectacle when done well. The folks on that stage last night were all old-school talented; Underwood may not be able to act, but she can sing. Many people have pointed out today that this ridiculous production probably introduced musical theater to lots of kids, particularly those who tuned in to see Underwood. That’s great. I’m as prone as anyone to moaning about how we give these roles to sparkly famous folk instead of the absolute best Broadway has to offer — no doubt Sutton Foster deserved this gig, and possibly would have come out a huge star. But I also understand that Carrie is a draw, and, hey, we all survived just fine, right?

4. Snarky live-Tweeting is also fun. I got sucked into the live-Tweeting, and that is extremely rare for me. It’s a genuine thrill, though, standing at the national watercooler in real time. Sometimes social media is great, despite its many drawbacks. And at least most of the people I saw Tweeting were snarky, but not too mean. That’s the sweet spot. The social media era was made for this kind of production, and I guarantee that was part of NBC’s plan. This is the best roundup of great Tweets. (Warning: It is both long and insanely addictive reading.)

5. NBC’s plan worked. Trending on Twitter makes you an “event” and forces people to watch in the moment or feel like they’ve missed out. It gets you around the DVR and streaming problems. That’s why only sports, singing contests, and awards shows can pull in decent numbers anymore. In this case, the ratings killed. 18.5 million is monstrous for these days. We’re so gonna see Grease Live! starring, like, Selena Gomez or something. And I’ll be watching.

6. P.S. Laura Benanti for every role, please! She played the Countess in this production, making it even harder than in the movie version to believe that the Captain would ditch her for Maria. (I adore Julie Andrews, and her chemistry with Plummer was off the chain in the movie, but I still find myself as Team Countess in my adulthood. That woman was gorgeous, had her shit together, was loaded, and was actually really cool — remember when she was the one who told Maria to jump the Captain already? This amazing McSweeney’s mock wedding cancellation letter says it all.) Benanti sang and acted the shit out of everything she had to work with here, and wore a killer dress. (Scroll down a bit here.) I loved her on Go On. Love her even more now.

The Anti-Heroine Blues: Why We Need ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black’

2008-sex-and-the-city-002Meg Wolitzer said in a recent interview with The Guardian that she had to work hard, in a sense, to make the heroine of her (wonderful) novel The Interestings, Jules, as terrible a person as she wanted her to be. “The character is not standing for women everywhere,” she said. “I had to write that on my forehead and look in the mirror. I had to let myself be free to be really irritated.”

Therein lies the eternal problem for female writers and female characters, one we’re inching toward solving but one that still plagues us: It’s the chicklit vs. serious lit issue, the Sex and the City vs. The Sopranos issue. And we’re dealing with it more than ever in our Golden Age of Television even as we get over the “Is it chicklit?” debate in books. Emily Nussbaum wrote a beautiful defense of Sex and the City‘s legacy in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, responding to the new book Difficult Men, which traces the illustrious rise of Great TV in the last decade, featuring, front and center, the White Man With Serious Problems That Are So Serious He Can Make Everyone Finally Take Television’s Power Seriously. I love The Sopranos and Mad Men, too, but if I see another ad for yet another new show about a white, middle-aged man who does bad things but presumably symbolizes important literary truths, I may just curl up in a ball and watch nothing but Fresh Prince of Bel Air reruns and Melissa and Joey for the rest of my life.

Nussbaum points out that Sex and the City cracked open the sitcom genre before, well, all those shows we now recognize as at least a little revolutionary, like The OfficeSATC mixed comedy and drama in heretofore unseen ways. (Mary Tyler Moore invented this, but SATC‘s infidelity, cancer, and death took it to new depths.) And most importantly, it allowed its main characters to display deep flaws. As Nussbaum writes:

Before Sex and the City, the vast majority of iconic “single girl” characters on television, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore and Molly Dodd, had been you-go-girl types—which is to say, actual role models. (Ally McBeal was a notable and problematic exception.) They were pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved, and they were also, crucially, adorable to men: vulnerable and plucky and warm. However varied the layers they displayed over time, they flattered a specific pathology: the cultural requirement that women greet other women with the refrain “Oh, me, too! Me, too!”

Her next point strikes me as the real issue:

Women identified with them—“I’m a Carrie!”—but then became furious when they showed flaws. And, with the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), men didn’t find them likable: there were endless cruel jokes about Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Carrie as sluts, man-haters, or gold-diggers.

While Tony Soprano or Walter White or Don Draper show plenty of bad-boy tendencies (otherwise known as little things like adultery and murder), they’ve never been subjected to the kind of derision these women have. I believe we’re finally taking television quite seriously — maybe even too seriously, at times — as an artistic medium. I’m happy about that, as a person who studies the form, and I believe that Tony, Walter, Don, and their ilk deserve a lot of the credit for it (along with, of course, those characters’ brilliant creators, also, of course, all white men). But I think we’re also still struggling with an issue the literary world has long wrangled over: taking white, straight men’s stories more seriously than anyone else’s. All the girly, or gay, or nonwhite characters are seen as mere “niche” programming, fodder for the niche cable channels or at least obviously segregated marketing. Girls is a prime example; I can’t tell you how many men have whispered to me, “Is it okay that I like Girls?”

This all adds up to why I love Orange Is the New Black so much, why I’m responding to it on every possible level. It’s funny, it’s deadly serious, it allows (obviously) a range of flaws in its mostly female cast, and it’s made by mostly female writers with a brilliant female showrunner, Jenji Kohan. And perhaps those drab orange uniforms will help everyone see that it’s no mere sparkly trifle to be dismissed.