Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: TV

Goin’ Out

The ending of ‘Bob and Rose’ is just as lovely as everything which came before. As the simple and romantic xylophone theme song reaches a glorious climax, the various single characters, straight women and gay men, are shown getting ready to go out on the town. “You gotta get out there!” Holly tries to convince her reluctant friend on the phone. “Anything can happen! One of these nights, we’re going to get lucky!” A chorus of cell phone conversations about where to meet up, what shoes to wear and past and future hook-ups (“Did he call you back?” “Bollocks he did!”) rises above the Manchester skyline.  Coupled with shots of a strob-lighted dance floor, Holly delivers a stream of consciousness ode to clubbing, a rosary chant for the single girl:

“It’s Saturday night. It’s Happy Hour. It’s Ladies’ Night. It’s Singles’ Night. It’s ‘girls get in for free’. It’s cueing up in the rain, and dancing in the heat. It’s every pub and every bar and every club and every single one of us.” The scene of dancing straights is interspersed with scenes of Bob’s friends at gay bars, cruising and strutting around not unlike the triad of ‘Queer as Folk’. The climax argues that gay, straight, female, male, we’re all the same and that being single and going out clubbing is just as valid a happy ending as being in a monogamous couple. Compare this with the standard romantic comedy end in which every character pairs off or disappears.

If it’s a truth universally acknowledged in British TV that any problem can be helped by a cup of tea, ‘going out’ as a solution comes a close second. Every age group in the United Kingdon and Ireland seems to get out and have fun more than their equivalents in stick-in-the-mud North America: old men nurse pints in pubs, young people do tequila shots, middle-aged ladies don feather boas and pink cowboy hats for hen parties.

Knowing not a soul in Dublin when I moved there, I had to go out in order to make friends and not spend my evenings watching ‘Golden Girls’ on my laptop. Sometimes, nothing happened. But sometimes I met new people, danced until my legs ached, kissed a random guy (there was a tendency to treat making out like the equivalent of a ‘thank you for the dance’ handshake). The night when I forced myself to talk to a group of Americans, made friends with a wonderful girl from California (“Max, you’re such a beautiful person!”), made out with an adorable Irish guy (after, startled by his advance, I knocked his cigarette out of his hand, alsmot burning myself), and walked home in a daze, with five new numbers in my mobile, was probably the most fun night of my life.

And even the nights went something went wrong were good for a funny story, like the time the twink I had been dancing with all night started makin out with another guy right in front of me (“What cheek!” my new fag hag friend declared) or on Halloween when I got kicked out of the bar for allegedly being too drunk. I loved walking back home to my little apartment in Ranelagh, just outside city centre. One night in the rain, a drunk young woman joined me as to not have to walk by herself. Another time, I made friends with a group who were walking behind me after I laughed at their funny stories of waking up in the garden: “Oh! I’ve gone to far! I’ve slept in soil!” I joined them for “chippies”. It was remarkable how much life you could see walking hom at three am: people texting or yelling into phones, couples making out or fighting, guys peeing or vomiting.

Truth is, friends you make superficially often end up being only superficial friends: I never saw the “chippies” gang again, not the cute Irish boy I made out with. I moved home largely because I felt like I had roots here that needed to be tended rather than continuing planting seeds in inhospitable foreign soil.

But I’ve stopped going out in Toronto. I had a number of reasons: people here are less friendly; Church Street is dead; it’s too expensive; too tiring; too cold. They are all pathetic excuses. I worried that the chattiness of Irish clubbers had spoiled me for going out in Canada, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if I never make the effort to go out and give new people a chance.

I miss dancing. I miss finally getting inside a warm bar. I miss the irreplaceable feeling of getting slightly shit-faced in public. Most of all, I miss the expectation of the beginning of the night, when anything’s possible.

Despite my achey legs, I’m not old yet. There’s still time to be Nathan from ‘Queer as Folk’ or Holly from ‘Bob and Rose’. Despite my two new jobs, my responsibilities at WORN and my need to save up for India, I’m getting out there once again.

It’s all happenin’.

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Labels or Love

After rocking British TV with 1999’s ‘Queer as Folk’, about the lives of a trio of club-hopping gay men in Manchester, spawning imitators both American and Sapphic, creator Russell T. Davies wrote a mini-series which was, in its own way, just as revolutionary. ‘Bob and Rose’, a simple title for a complicated love story, is about a gay man and a straight woman who fall in love. Neither Bob (Alan Davies), a mild-mannered teacher, nor Rose (Lesley Sharp), a straight-talking office manager, were expecting to fall for the other, but the shock of their first unplanned sexual encounter is overshadowed by the shock that they both want to do it again.

Obviously, Bob has trouble wrapping his head around having a girlfriend. He insists that he is not going through a phase, not going back into the closet and definitely not bisexual or straight. Rose is the only woman he is attracted to and he can’t get her out of his mind. Rose has her own adjusting to do, but once the pair stops trying to explain and label everything, their love becomes simple. How everyone else deals with it is anything but.

Neither Rose’s girlfriends (who ask her why the thought of homo sex doesn’t turn her stomach) nor Bob’s bitchy gay pals can understand, while his father is beaming with pride (“Don’t be too happy, Dad!” Bob snaps), and his mother, who leads the group Parents Against Homophobia, takes it as a personal rebuff. And Bob’s best friend Holly (‘Spaced’s Jessica Stevenson), an extreme and a bit cruel stereotype of the fag hag, jealously wonders why it wasn’t her he fell for.

Not surprisingly, the series, while critically acclaimed, did not become an international phenom like ‘Queer as Folk’. But the show had an unlikely influence on ‘Sex and the City’: the writers, all fans of ‘Bob and Rose’, created a fictional British drama about an interracial couple called ‘Jules and Mimi’ for Miranda to draw inspiration from when she starts dating an African-American. It’s funny that ‘Sex and the City’ was winking at the concept of using a fictional show for inspiration as that series inspired over-analyzing woman and gay men the world over (comedian Bruce Daniels: “It’s all about listening in on gay guys’ arguments at the diner at four am after a night of clubbing. ‘I’m Samantha!’ ‘No, I’m Samantha!’ ‘Bitch, you’re Miranda!’”).

Actually, the influence might not be so unlikely: a year after ‘Bob and Rose’ premiered, ‘Sex and the City’ featured a guest appearance by Nathan Lane, playing a flamboyant and presumably-gay piano-player who inexplicably marries a woman.

But back to ‘Bob and Rose’.

“I don’t know,” my friend Dervla said sceptically when we watched it together. “Isn’t it a bad message for the gay community?”

Some queer activists agreed with her when the series first aired, accusing the show of portraying homosexuality as a phase (although there was a counter reaction among bisexuals who related to the discrimination the couple faced from Bob’s gay friends).

Although I am not one for all that Foucaultian social-constructiveness ‘we’re all bisexual’ bizz-natch, I never once questioned the show’s premise. Firstly, the casting helped: neither Bob nor Rose look like traditionally sexy leads (with Sharp’s unglamorous portrayal being particularly brave), but their sex life is discussed so much that by the end you can’t help but view them as sensual beings. Despite being only six episodes, the beginning of the affair is given a properly patient pacing, with realistic set-backs and awkwardness,  making the unlikely romance all the more believable when it blooms. We’re in British ‘kitchen sink’ drama world, so people go out to the pub or “for a curry”, ‘Coronation Street’ characters are discussed like they’re real and it’s thought that any problem can be solved with a cup of tea.

But what led me to believe the premise most of all is that Russell T. Davies based the story on the surprising love story of a friend of his:

“It came partly from real life, from a friend of mine who was the gayest man on earth… Then he suddenly falls in love with this woman and that’s it—marriage, kids, the lot. It was extraordinary, inexplicable—a chance in a million. And the most incredible thing was our reaction to it. We all took the piss, didn’t believe it for a minute. I thought he was leading this woman astray and it would all go horribly wrong. I found out though after talking to him that it was that rare thing, a real life love story.” He concludes, “To see your own prejudices at work is amazing.”

My own official line at press time is that sexuality is complex, mysterious and changeable. We have barely begun understanding its motivations. (The same thing could be said about love.) It’s best to keep an open mind about these things, as anything can happen.

That’s not to say I’m going to end up with a woman.

Sorry ladies.

JT, Xtina and Britney

As many of you probably know, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, along with Keri ‘Felcity’ Russell, Ryan ‘Breaker High’ Gosling and JC ‘the other cute one’ Chavez, were all on ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ together in the early 1990’s. Who would have thought JT, as a superstar twenty years later, would revive the same geek-chic spectacles!

C is for Cleavage

 

Katy Perry, of the neon costumes and bubbly voice, makes total sense as a guest star on Sesame Street.  (Unlike her Dadaesque rival Lady Gaga, who wore a dress made from massacred Kermit the Frog dolls which I’m pretty sure the United Nations recognized as a Crime against Puppetry.)

In the clip, Perry wants to play dress-up with Elmo but, being the diva that he is, he waffles and runs away. She then launches into a version of her song ‘Hot N Cold’: “You—Want to play—So I wore—Dress-up clothes…”   

Suddenly, Katy Perry’s carnival clothing style makes perfect sense: this whole time she’s been trying to play dress-up with Muppets! And when your play date is covered in fluorescent fur naturally, you know you got to bring it.

Anyways, the scene was posted on youtube and some parents voiced concern about Katy’s cleavage, particularly in the running sequence. Despite the fact that she’s wearing a sheer top, and that without a bit of skin she would be unrecognizable as Katy Perry, the producers went all “Yes–and then No” and shelved the number.

How disappointing to Katy, Elmo and all the little gay toddlers out there! Perry’s boyfriend comedian and sex maniac Russell Brand (a reporter recently suggested the two be nicknamed ‘Krusty’) already tweeted “Today’s episode will not be brought to you by the numbers 34 and the letter D.”

I heard an intriguing thought about it on MTV Canada, of all places, when the host asked if a less-busty woman would have been criticized for the same outfit. “Was Katy Perry dropped because of her body type?”

They’re just boobs, people. They’re not a big deal, but Americans have a habit of freaking out over them. Remember Janet Jackson’s Nipple-gate? In France, topless ads are in supermarkets and porno sold openly at newsstands. I’ve heard that First Lady Carla Bruni attends charity banquets stark naked.

And most children have already seen boobies. At least, their moms’.

That’s all I have to say about this, but I felt I had to note the story. The overlapping of Katy Perry, ideas about sexuality, and the Muppets is right where I want to be.

Ross and Rachel

If you were a pre-teen in the late 1990’s, it was all about Ross and Rachel. Sure, Chandler got the best one-liners, and Phoebe’s pseudo-hippie zaniness made her a favourite of my Grade Seven crew, but Ross and Rachel taught us about love, and break-ups, and what grown-up relationships were supposed to be like. When we linked ourselves with the characters of Friends, which of course we did all the time, I was inevitably Ross, the sensitive, slightly-nerdish, archetypal nice guy.

Nowadays, overrun with Michael Cera-esque sensitive heroes (this month Scott Pilgrim opens, in which Cera literally plays a comic book hero), it’s hard to remember that back in the day David Schwimmer was seen as a breakaway from the traditional leading man. He was trumpeted on magazine covers (“Do Nice Guys Always Finish Last?”) and cultural critics wondered if we were entering a new era of feminized masculinity. Then Schwimmer’s film career tanked (like those of all his Friends co-stars), metrosexuality and hipsterism became marketing tools, followed by a retrograde mildly-homophobic ‘real-man’ backlash, and Friends DVDs sit idly on bookshelves gathering dust.

It doesn’t help that Friends is rerun seventeen times a day. It seems like at any hour you can dip into the adventures of those six over-caffeinated Gen Xers and all you have to do is figure out where Ross and Rachel’s romance is at. From the very first episode, when Rachel (Jennifer Aniston, as you know) storms into the coffee shop in her wedding dress, having left her boring fiancé at the altar, and we learn that Ross has been crushing on her since High School, their fateful courting was at the nexus of the show.

The writers skilfully drew out every stage in their relationship (he likes her, she doesn’t know; she likes him, he doesn’t know; they’re almost together, then not; they are together, then not; they’re ex’s; they’re almost on again, but not; she ruins his wedding; they wed by mistake; etc.) to the full comic effect. I consider Ross and Rachel the blueprint for other sitcoms on how they can get a decade’s worth of episodes out of one relationship, and I get frustrated when the love stories of Niles and Daphne or Mr. Shuster and Ms. Pillsbury pointlessly fizzle out.

The only problem was that we all knew they would have to end up together in the end. Somehow, the geeky palaeontologist and the ditsy assistant-buyer would get over their shit and make it work. I still watched the last episode, even though I hadn’t tuned in for years: the show went from being a mildly-dirty chronicler of the dating lives of New York twenty-somethings, to one about the childish antics of over-tanned thirty-something actors who were more famous than their show and demanded a million dollars per episode.

The last episode had Rachel contemplating leaving New York for Paris and Ross’s attempts to get her to stay (like she’s Carrie and he’s Big, as if), and her change of heart, if memory serves, on the airplane, and she hops a cab downtown back into Ross’s arms. Despite not having dated for years, we’re meant to believe that now the two will actually make  it, happily ever after. The fact that we have watched them be jerked around by eachother for years is ironically evidence that they are meant to be together, rather than proof of the opposite.

And it kind of makes me wish that I had a person in my life who I had loved, and been through everything with, and who I learned to be just friends with, while secretly assuming that we’d end up back together, just in time for the happy ending before the credits roll. What troubles me is I probably could have had that with my big Ex, but I had needed to push him out of my life in order to simply cope and get through the days. Now, while it’s still too soon, it’s a bit too late.

But turning to more recent heartaches, I finally sucked it up and wrote the Gentleman an email. He got upset at me for writing about the break-up on this here website, I got upset at him for the whole thing, I explained how much I cared and would miss him, he wrote back similarly nice things, and that was that. Despite me never having been able to be friends with ex’s, we said we’d meet up and talk when he’s back from his latest trip. Not a bang, but a whimper.

Should I try internet dating again? I definitely don’t feel like it, but the alternative may be chastity until one of my friends pressures me into creating yet another smart but humble, sexy (but not too sexy!) plenty of fish profile in order to simply meet people.

I began writing an email to a guy who I dated for awhile and have seen on and off periodically, but then I changed my mind, deleting the subject line letter by letter.

I’m kidding myself if I think I’ll get over the loss of the Gentleman, my second longest boyfriend, by throwing myself at someone else.

I’ll wait, because, despite it all, I’m still a romantic and I’m searching for my Rachel.

Hollywood Endings and Fame Monsters

Was any of it real?

After six seasons of hooking up, breaking up and making up, The Hills saga has drawn to a close. The series, which followed a group of leggy Los Angeles women as they searched for love, went shopping, got yelled at by bosses and stared off into space, was the ultimate unreal reality TV show. The filming and awkward incoherence of speech suggested it wasreal life:  the subtitles, present when the cast was gossiping at a loud night club, were helpful in simply trying to figure out what the characters actually meant.

But even the most naive viewer could tell that the situations and editing were as contrived as high theatre. Good girl Lauren Conrad, best-friend-turned-nemesis Heidi Montag and space-cadet Audrina Patridge essentially played versions of themselves, versions which had low-paying fashion internships (while they actually got paid millions by the show) and apparently had no qualms about their most private moments being filmed by MTV.

Dan Levy (handsome hipster son of Eugene) and Jessi Cruickshank built a career out of dissecting their lives on MTV Canada’s The Aftershow. Quaintly, as if they were Miss Manners, they would often focus on what one should do in a social situation: “What do we think, should Audrina tell Ryan about her ex?” The sycophantic panel would put in their two-cents (when they could get a word in edgewise) and the audience would cheer or boo according to the character’s likeability. Most bizarre was when one of the cast-members showed up and answered questions about supposedly-real events in their lives, always inarticulately.

“What was it like witnessing Brody and Kristin fight?”

“It was… weird…” the young woman would say, holding the microphone nervously like a bomb.

The Aftershow played a key role for fans of The Hills, beyond the comfort of having one’s guilty pleasure shared. Dan and Jessi were undeniably real and brought some much-needed Canadian self-deprecation. And they were much better role models than Lauren et al. “It was almost parenting, in a really fun, young, sort of way,” Levy told The Toronto Star recently. “Saying, ‘Hey kids, you can watch the show. We do, but let’s not be Heidi Montag. We can watch Heidi Montag, but let’s not be her.’ ”

In a fitting tribute, Dan and Jessi hosted a glitzy farewell special worthy of Oscar night at LA’s Roosevelt Hotel. Sitting by the pool on white couches, they re-introduced the ladies (who exclusively wore short dresses and high heels) and their much-scruffier men. True to form, the cast didn’t say much, beyond weak plugs for future TV/movie/fashion line careers.

The big scoop of the night was the return of Lauren Conrad, who had been the heart and soul of the show. Along with her classic All American prettiness (not ruined even by her famed mascara-streaked tears) she was the only character with any kind of wit, and the series plummeted when she left after the fifth season. Like a cruel joke, producers cast Lauren’s enemy from Laguna Beach as her replacement, the phenomenally unlikeable Kristin Cavaralli. She was introduced as the archetypal bitch until, in true surreal The Hills fashion, she suddenly became everyone’s best friend. The limp series finale centred on her decision to move somewhere unspecified in Europe because everybody had a boyfriend except her, and hunky Brody Jenner’s lacklustre attempts to get her to stay, as though she was Carrie leaving for Paris and he was Mr. Big.

As if.

In an article about the ‘American Dream’ for Vanity Fair, David Kamp described the “existential ennui of the well-off, attractive, solipsistic kids” of The Hills as the “the curdling of the whole Southern California wish-fulfillment genre on television”. “Here were affluent beach-community teens enriching themselves further not even by acting or working in any real sense, but by allowing themselves to be filmed as they sat by campfires maundering on about, like, how much their lives suck.”

And this “curdling” is viewed all around the world. We have found the perfect export for post-modern America: a television show, essentially an advertisement for stores, clubs and magazines, which not only glamourizes the shopping-bag-swinging-swagger of America’s young elite as they pound the pavement of palm-lined-boulevards, but implies it is completely acceptable to live one’s life on camera, even if it is not one’s real life. No wonder the new generation has no problem posting pictures of themselves in bikinis on facebook, or confessing the most private details to billions on youtube.

But if Lauren Conrad represents the obvious lesson of The Hills (that you too can dominate every area of media, even the New York Times bestseller list, if you are pretty and sunny and shameless), the series also demonstrated the dark side of celebrity, not by who was present on The Aftershow but by who was not (and completely absent from the series finale as well): that two-headed hydra, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag.

Heidi had been Lauren’s best friend until meeting Spencer and, through back-stabbing gossip, became the show’s central villain, albeit a clueless one with no self-awareness. The couple quickly alienated everyone, but as their friendships declined their fame rose. They went on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and ‘wrote’ ‘books’ about how to become famous (befriend famous people, it turns out). Like true villains, they supported John McCain. Spencer dabbled in the world of white-boy rap and Heidi got an insane amount of plastic surgery (including eight procedures in one day, which could have killed her), turning her looks from those of an attractive 25-year-old into those of a well-preserved 45-year-old.

They had, simply put, become Hollywood monsters.

In the show’s final season, they had become too dramatic even for The Hills, as Heidi disowned her mother after a teary fight over her surgery (again, with The Hills, we have no idea what’s genuine) and Spencer grew a beard, began believing in the power of crystals and yelled at everyone, all the time. Now, it is rumoured that they are getting a divorce, but it all could be a scheme to build hype for a series of their own.

Neither were present at The Aftershow special, but, presumably out of family loyalty, Spencer’s sister Stephanie and Heidi’s sister Holly showed up, only to inform the hosts that they had not spoken to the couple in months. Holly had to sit through a montage of vintage clips of Heidi and her old face, and broke down in (real?) tears. “She’s the best person in the world,” she gushed. “And I have complete faith that we will be reunited.”

Only later did we learn that Spencer, due to his erratic behaviour, had actually been banned from the special, but had shown up outside the hotel creepily wearing a grey beard and old-man make-up (I guess as a disguise to help sneak in). “I feel like I’ve been hated a lot on this show,” he ranted, “and I came here for some closure!”

The actual ending of the series was far more interesting and self-aware than I would ever expect from the creators. Brody said goodbye to Kristin as her car drove off, presumably to the airport on her way to “Europe”. But just when you expect the credits to begin, the scene of a leafy LA neighbourhood behind Brody becomes a paper backdrop, and is taken down to reveal an urban alleyway. Cameras, microphones and a film crew enter and Brody, breaking character, congratulates them. As the shot pulls away we see that we’re on the back lot of a studio, and Kristin jumps out of her car and runs back to Brody for a hug.

This brilliant ending suggests that the entire thing was an act, that nothing we watched over the last six years was real. Brody admitted as much to Dan and Jessi when he said, “Kristin and I might not even be friends… you don’t know what’s real, it was a TV show.”

While the makers of The Hills left fans questioning the authenticity of the entire saga, they unintentionally, through the real real lives of Spencer and Heidi, provided a cautionary tale of where being addicted to fame can lead.  

The Accidental Extra

I’ve made my film debut. I play a helpful barista. You may think that’s not much of a stretch, but I think my character was probably better at that than I am.

But I’ll start at the beginning.

Whenever I come into contact with famous people (which, of course, happens all the time), I like to play it cool. I think about how I would not like to be fussed over, how I would like to be treated like a regular person. Anyways, what’s less cool than getting all flustered over a celebrity?

But when I first spotted Ken Finkleman, the creator of The Newsroom, inspecting the espresso cups at my store a few months back, I froze. He looked exactly as he always did, ageless and wearing his trademark dark Fellinni sunglasses.

For the uninitiated, The Newsroom, whose initial series lasted one season in the mid-1990’s, was the smartest and funniest show the CBC ever aired.  It stared Finkleman as George Findlay, a news director for a “crown corporation” broadcast (clearly the CBC). It must have been the cheapest show ever to produce as the entire series took place in television studio offices. George was a petty, megalomaniac liar, but because he never wins you kind of feel for him. Zany characters and Canadian guest stars abound (refreshingly, mostly politicians and columnists), but the show’s real strength was dark, deadpan humour, years before Ricky Gervais and Larry David’s vehicles.

My family’s favourite line, oft-quoted randomly at the dinner table, occurs when George is complaining to his hapless assistant Audrey about his long-drawn-out feud with the cafe in the building, accusing the workers of “anti-white racism” and deliberately giving him “shitty muffins”.

“Most of the commercial apple products made are not made with real apple. They’re made with turnips, and apple flavour. The entire muffin industry in this country is a joke.”   

My reasons for being nervous were twofold: I was star-struck as a fan, but scared that he may actually be like George and be mean and make it so I never watch the show again. But it was fine: he asked about espresso cups and then left. On his second visit he asked a different question about them, and I worked up the courage to admit that I remembered him from before because I knew his show.

Last week, my co-worker Nando told me that we’d be closed Monday afternoon so that a TV show could be filmed in the cafe, but he didn’t know anything about it. I finally got to question the guy who was acting as the crew’s representative when getting him his third Americano.

“It’s called Good Dog, it’s for CBC,” he said. “Do you know Ken Finkleman?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah, it’s his show. We’ve been filming all over the neighbourhood.” He took his coffee. “Thanks!”

Suffice it to say, I was very excited to see that I was working on Monday and not annoyed at all that my shift ended ludicrously early, because I might get a glimpse of Finkleman and some of the filming.

A glimpse?

It’s quite interesting to watch a film crew set up. We had barely got our customers out the door when twenty-odd people stormed the cafe, lugging equipment, milling around, one guy even with tray of fancy snacks. A woman, I have no idea what her official job was, quickly became my friend on the set.

“Okay, I need two coffees and an espresso. Keep a tab of that for the show, but don’t let anyone else add to it. Just me!”

Out of nowhere, Finkleman appeared, scouting shots and directing extras.

“Well,” Nando said to the three of us still working. “Someone could go down to the basement and collapse boxes if we have nothing to do up here…”

Sometimes, you have to put your foot down.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Do you want me abandon the set of someone who I’ve been a fan of since I was a child?”

“You can stay, Max.”

Not five minutes later, the friendly woman approached us.

“Does one of you want to be in the scene? We just need a barista to hand off coffee.”

Silence.

“Max, do you want to?”

“Um. Yes.”

So then the intense assistant director came over and asked me how long espresso shots take to pour (truthfully, it depends), and if I could manage to do something with the machine before finishing two drinks off (“We just need a bit of action”), and if I could remember to inform the camera man “two-to-three” seconds before I started walking that I was going to start walking, and I had to remember to turn to my left, towards the shot, and…

There was a moment when I got afraid, when I thought I was going to mess it up, especially when the shot seemed to hinge on how fast I could finish Finkleman’s espresso. I had visions of our temperamental machine pulling a really long shot and me ruining the whole thing. But I stayed brave, and rehearsed being a barista over and over again, while actually being a barista and getting the extras coffee.

My coworkers huddled behind the counter and whispered, occasionally making it into the shot. “I can see the young lady with her arms crossed!” yelled the director.

We did a couple test runs and then prepared for the first scene. A make-up woman said hi, but walked by.

“I don’t need anything, right?” I called, hoping that I might get a touch-up.

“Nope, you’re gorgeous.”

I wish I had at least shaved that day.

In the scene, I finished off an espresso, take it and a coffee over to Finkleman and his friend at the till, and smile as they say thank you. I was preoccupied with getting the drinks in the right hands for when I handed them off because the two actors kept switching sides on me. After our first shot, Finkleman looked at me through dark glasses.

“Max, that wasn’t really a double espresso, right? It poured really fast.”

“No,” I admitted.

“You can make it pour longer. It’s okay if it takes a bit more time.”

I don’t know what I was more excited about, that Ken Finkleman knew my name or that he just increased my screen time.

Then, in the scene, Finkleman and his friend walk over and sit down and talk. I could almost write out the entire conversation, I heard it so many times. It had something to do with Finkleman being a “higher concept” than his friend (“It’s a network decision!”), and a winter-spring romance, and Larry David (remember when I said he was indebted to Finkleman?). During one shot, someone on the set was checking out our coffee merchandise and dropped something, making a giant clanging noise as the group of the crew covered their mouths and looked embarrassed. Among the normal-looking extras, two gigantic men in army fatigues were wandering around, who I found out would be part of a dream sequence in a later scene.

After that, they remembered that they wanted just a shot of me making the coffees.

“Max, glasses!” the director said. “Wait, were you wearing them before? It doesn’t matter, we just saw your hands.”

Just my hands? Anyways, I took off my glasses and went to prepare the drinks.

“Wait, which hand was the espresso in and which hand had the coffee?” I asked, spinning around. Finally, somebody said the espresso was in my right. I have read about far too many continuity errors to mess up my first screen appearance.

I made the coffees, turned to my left, I (may have) bit my lip, God knows why, and I handed the drinks off. We did two takes.

“Very nicely done,” Finkleman said. “Profession.”

Even if he says that to all the extras, I got a warm fuzzy feeling, not the feeling generally associated with Ken Finkleman.

They did one more shot in the cafe and it looked like they could finish up.

“We’re wrapping early today,” Finkleman told me.

“I like to think we had something to do with that,” I joked.

“Yeah, that and the fact that we can’t do the next scene because of the weather.” Then we discussed Toronto weather for awhile. I wanted to tell him what an honour it was to part of his show, but I couldn’t think of a cool way of doing it.

From what I could tell from the monitors, the scenes looked good. My store was an excellent location pick, very spacious and modern, with big windows. The windows actually caused a problem during Finkleman’s conversation shot, when a little girl and her Mom walking outside stopped and stared directly at the camera. When they shot it from a different angle, you can just barely make out the same woman peeking her head between the wall and a plant. The crew had a good laugh about her.

Some people will do anything to be on TV.

Glee?

I think I’m giving up on Glee. I know right. Like many people, I feel that I should be watching it. And it’s not even that I don’t like it. I caught up on the first half of the current season on DVD and thought that, while uneven, the show had much promise. I liked the idea of the glee club being a place for all the misfits (although I agree with the New York Times writer who said that the show betrayed its own premise by filling out the club with hot cheerleaders and jocks). I naturally fell in love with Jane Lynch’s Coach Sue Sylvester and think she’s one of the all-time great TV villains. And the fabulous image of football players getting their groove on to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ on the playing field is burned on my retinas for eternity.

But as anyone who has been following it knows, something went wrong with the second half of the first season, although there’s no agreement as to exactly what. Some critics and fans have placed the blame on cheesy celebrity cameos, on gimmicky theme episodes like the Madonna and Lady Gaga ones, or on the show’s obsession with schmaltzy 80’s power ballads. Others have criticized the writers, chiding them for ignoring formerly-important characters and storylines, continuity mistakes and, to borrow John Doyle’s word, “insane” plot twists. Even Coach Sylvester, reduced to a caricature, can’t save the day: she’s been given two musical numbers, both witless tributes to 80’s-early 90’s pop videos, but essentially no plots. If the character was real, she’d march into the writers’ room and shout, “I’m the strongest player you’ve got team, so unless you want to go back to writing cue cards for the brain-dead, cougar housewives of Minnesota, I would wipe that Cheetos dust off your fingers and get back to your keyboards!”

It wasn’t the revelation that Idina Menzel was Rachel’s Mom that sent me over the edge. I actually kind of liked that, as they look exactly alike, although, like the Mr. Shuster and Emma Pillsbury plot before it, I got frustrated at how quickly the writers nipped an interesting story line in the butt. With all the shit she’s going through, Rachel needs a parent of some kind, as her invisible gay Dads have yet to be seen.

Anyways, no, it was a seemingly small straw that broke the camel’s back. In the Lady Gaga episode (and seriously, wouldn’t it be much cooler if, instead of lamely plugging Gaga and Madge throughout the episode, they just used their  songs exclusively without mentioning then?) gothy former-stutterer Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) is told by the school principal to stop dressing like a vampire and start looking like everyone else. Mr. Shuster, who was called into the office as well (presumably his role as Spanish teacher and Glee club supervisor is to oversee his students’ appearance) defends Tina, explaining that she’s shy and that one of the way she expresses herself is through how she dresses.

Problem is, Tina is dressed in a completely different style! Normally, her look is a kind of alternative-tomboy-skater-girl thing with a hint of goth: toques, striped shirts, shorts, clunky boots. In the scene in the principal’s office she is dressed in what we shall call High Goth: a black lacey top-hat is involved. Later, instead of maybe using some of the less-shocking items from her previous Avril Lavigne-esque wardrobe to stay out of trouble, we see her in a baggy, grey sweat suit. But after she threatens the principal by bearing her ‘fangs’, cause he apparently believes in vampires (whatever), she’s back in a High Goth long black dress.

What I think must have happened is when the costumers got the script they were worried that Tina didn’t look goth enough so they had to goth-her-up, hence noticeably change her style in an episode which was all about expressing yourself through clothing. Great guys.

It doesn’t seem like the biggest deal, but you can’t just change elements like that about a character for one episode. Maybe I’m infused by years of Sex and the City and my WORN internship, but clothing matters. As does Mr. Shuster’s divorce and Quinn’s pregnancy.

I’m sorry Jane Lynch: I think you’re amazing and that it’s adorable you just got hitched, but I’m having trouble getting myself excited for the season ender. Which is sad, because Glee was the only new show I was following. Considering my arm’s length awareness of Lady Gaga, Twilight, Mad Men and formal shorts with spandex, I worry I will be even more divorced from contemporary pop culture.

And that’s my second post about TV shows and clothing in two days. Tomorrow, I shall blog about nuclear fission.

No I won’t.

Rue McClanahan

Rue McClanahan was the overlooked member of The Golden Girls. As the sensual Southern Belle Blanche, she was not given the best lines nor was celebrated like Bea Arthur or Betty White. Even Estelle Getty, with her ham-fisted Borscht-belt delivery, got more attention as the sassy Sicilian Sofia. I remember my Dad awhile ago saying “I never was a fan of what’s her name… Blanche, but the other three sure are pros.”

As a society we still have little sympathy for the ‘slutty one’, especially when she is confident and unashamed. Although the other characters mocked her for it, Blanche’s sexual openness was remarkable for TV. You still rarely see characters who worry about one-night stands and menopause at the same time. In I’m the One that I Want, Margaret Cho discussed her sexual epiphany: “I wondered, ‘Am I gay? Am I straight?’ And then I realized: I’m just slutty. Where’s my parade?” After the term ‘slut’ has been successfully reclaimed, I look forward to that parade, led by Margaret, Kim Cattrall and Rue McClanahan, three generations of unapologetic sexual women.

Despite third-(or fourth-) banana status, Blanche was often given emotional ‘issues’ plots, such as when her rival sister had  breast cancer, she was sexually-harassed by an adult education professor or her brother came out as gay (again, groundbreaking for 1980’s TV). Especially next to Maude’s Bea Arthur, it was surprisingly Blanche who often voiced the show’s feminism, such as when she threw out her overweight daughter’s fiancé because he treated her condescendingly. She gave a rousing speech to a Daughters of the Confederacy society who didn’t want to accept her because one of her ancestors was Jewish and from Buffalo: “You say you’re about American history? I am American history!” And when her father “Big Daddy” passed away, she visited her parents graves and broke your heart when she realized she was “nobody’s little girl anymore.”

Rue’s was a more naturalistic acting, her jokes built not around zingy one-liners but by poking fun at Blanche’s overconfidence and vanity. This might be the reason she was viewed as the least funny of the girls, but she was responsible for some of the show’s funniest moments. When Dorothy tells her that her visiting friend is a lesbian, Blanche, after initially getting over the shock that anyone wouldn’t like sex with men, accepts it. “That’s not all,” Dorothy continues. “She has a crush on Rose.” “Rose,” Blanche says, blankly. “Rose. Well, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard! She’s staying under this roof and she falls for little Miss Muffet and not me! Who ever heard of something so ridiculous!” “Blanche, get a hold of yourself!” Dorothy growls.  

In another classic episode, Blanche has trouble keeping composed when Rose brings home a date who is a little person. Trying to get a hold of herself in the kitchen, she tells Dorothy that she must play the welcoming hostess because otherwise it would look “unSouthern.” She grabs a plate of appetisers, waltzes into the living room, asks “Shrimp?” and, with perfect timing, turns back giggling and waltzes out in humiliation.

While Blanche was never really portrayed as dumb, it was always hard to believe she worked at a museum, especially when, during the sparse episodes her job was mentioned, she discussed art not artefacts.

‘Wow, Max,’ you may be thinking, ‘you know this show as much as that other show about four single women who discuss men and sex over coffee and desserts!’ I do. When I moved to Dublin, especially before I got a TV, turning on The Golden Girls youtube channel was my only entertainment (besides, you know, like reading). I will always have a fondness for those ladies because of how they distracted me during those first difficult months, and I’m glad to see them rerunning the show again on TV. We need more reruns of shows like that instead of the round the clock snark of Family Guy.

Fans of the show should have known something was up when Rue wasn’t present during Betty White’s lifetime achievement award ceremony a couple months back. Perhaps with time the legacy of her acting and character will raise her from being the Ringo of the quartet to being acknowledged as a great comedienne playing a taboo-breaking role. Maybe then I’ll know how to spell her last name.

Sex and the City and the Desert

High above Times Square a billboard of four women beckons with alluring smiles and glimpses of leg. The film’s title glitters like gemstones. Though air-brushed, the women are unmistakable to people the world over: Kristen Davis, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and, naturally in the centre, Sarah Jessica Parker, twirling a blue sheer dress with famed high-heels on display. Or are they Charlotte, Samantha, Miranda and Carrie? Not since the Spice Girls have a group of women so melded with their famous alter-egos, nor represented unabashed post-feminist girlishness to so wide an audience. As the creators of Sex and the City once gushed about the show’s far-flung international fans, “This is America to them!”

The girls are pictured not in front of the New York City skyline but rather in the desert, giving the unfortunate impression of a Las Vegas revue. As all fans of the show know by now, the desert represents not Nevada but the United Arab Emirates, where the girls go on an “all-expenses paid” vacation. “I can hear the decadence calling,” Samantha purrs in the trailer with the gusto hitherto used describing sexual conquests.

On Saturday, May 1st the ladies gazed down on Faisal Shahzad as he allegedly parked a white sports car filled with home-made explosives in Times Square.  Two street vendors spotted the abandoned car and notified police, who evacuated thousands of people from the Square. Although no one was hurt, authorities claim that the car could have produced a “significant fireball”, spewing shrapnel in all directions and killing many people. Two days later, police pulled Shahzad off a plane at John F. Kennedy airport. He was resigned to his fate; according to the Toronto Star he told border guard who arrested him “I was expecting you.” The plane was going to Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, where he had spent eight months last year.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Sex and the City spiked in popularity, becoming a symbol of not only New York but of the resilience of the American way of life. The last episode filmed before the attacks was titled ‘I Heart NY’ and the first one of the next season featured shots of NYPD cops, the stars and stripes, and a navy dance at which Samantha, eyeing the cute sailors, declares “God bless America!” What comfort New Yorkers will feel when, perhaps still jittery from the failed Times Square plot and unearthed 9/11 memories, they go to the theatres on May 27th and see their ladies ditching their city to ride camels in Patricia Field’s flamboyant fashions, cruise hot men wearing either skimpy Speedos or ludicrous Laurence of Arabia drag, and sip brightly-coloured cocktails while discussing blow jobs.

One wonders what Middle Eastern viewers will think as well, for all of these activities may be illegal in the UAE. This is after all a country that just sentenced a young British couple to one month in prison for kissing in a restaurant. A month before that, an Indian couple was sentenced to two months in jail for sending flirtatious text messages, and earlier another couple were arrested for having sex on a beach. As with many decency laws, the authorities enforce the rules when they feel like it but can define them any way they chose, even arresting a woman for wearing a short skirt. Gay men, who have always played an important role in the creation and devoted following of Sex and the City (the trailer for the new film features what appears to be a gay wedding with special guest Liza Minnelli), fare even worse in the UAE: twenty-six men were arrested in Abu Dhabi in 2008, all receiving five year sentences and allegedly being forced to take hormone treatments.

Why would a show that celebrated single women as the ‘new bachelors’ and revolutionized what sexual topics people felt comfortable divulging  to their girlfriends go to the UAE? Michael Patrick King, the director of the sequel, told Vogue magazine’s Vicki Woods that the theme of the film was women struggling with traditional roles, and because the Middle East is where women’s roles are most “conventionally defined” he decided to set part of the movie there. “Also,” he continued, “because America slash most of the world is in a bit of an economic crunch still, I felt like everybody needed a big, extravagant, splashy, expensive vacation.” But is this really the year to celebrate indulgent spending, especially in a Muslim country? Vogue being Vogue, Woods wanted to discuss the role Islamic culture played on the costumes.  “You have to look at clothing and women and women’s bodies completely differently,” said Sarah Jessica Parker. “And you start to see how you can still see so much with someone covered. And how exciting that is and how beautiful it is and how draping can be incredibly sexy.” It is the denial of sexuality, rather than its expression, which is behind all that draping.

The irony is that the UAE didn’t allow the studio to film there. Instead, Morocco stands in for the UAE, which Woods points out “is a bit like saying Tribeca is standing in for New England.” Why did the film makers not just make it Morocco instead of directing a two-hour luxury travel ad, glamourizing the parties and sexy adventures tourists can have in a place which locks up people for kissing each other on the cheek? By ignoring draconian decency laws and reminding New Yorkers of a near-terrorist attack, the film makers may have abandoned both the ‘sex’ and ‘the city’.