Monday, March 27, 2017

March 27, 2017: Televised Fools: Catastrophe

[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of recent comic TV shows. Share your thoughts on these or other televised foolishness, present or past, in comments!]
On three ways to contextualize Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s funny, raunchy Amazon original series about sex, relationships, and parenting.
1)      Narratives of Parenthood: A number of prominent recent film comedies, from Knocked Up (2007) to Juno (2007) to Baby Mama (2008), have used nonconventional pregnancies and unexpected possible parenthoods to challenge our collective narratives of those eternal human experiences. In some ways, the 2015 first season of Catastrophe—which begins when Delaney’s American businessman gets Horgan’s Irish schoolteacher pregnant during a brief fling while on a London trip, and chronicles the pair’s next steps after receiving that shocking news—echoes those edgy films. But because it allows the story to unfold over a half-dozen episodes, and because its second season was set some years later with the couple now parents to two children, Catastrophe is able to explore both pregnancy and parenting in far more graphic and realistic (extreme, perhaps, but realistic) detail than do those movies. As a result, I’d argue that the show offers narratives of those universal experiences that, in their combination of humor and realism, are pretty distinctive on the pop culture landscape.
2)      The Special Relationship: Catastrophe is certainly first and foremost focused on those themes of sex and family—but because Delaney’s character moves to England to live with Horgan’s at the start of the first season and they have remained there throughout the series to date, it also consistently features stories of the culture clash between this American expat, his Irish fiancĂ©e (and then wife), and their English friends and community. I’m far from an expert on British television (and as usual, additions and corrections very welcome in comments!), but I don’t know of too many shows that explore the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. through the lens of a romantic relationship in this way. As the characters are originally drawn, Delaney and Horgan are in many ways stereotypical representatives of their respective nations—and while Delaney has changed most obviously through his expatriation, I believe Horgan has likewise evolved through her relationship with and marriage to this very American man. Just another level of social realism subtly explored by this funny show.
3)      Streaming Series: Catastrophe is far from unique in being a show that is released all at once on a subscription site for instant streaming—each of my next two shows are produced in precisely the same way (Netflix in their cases, but the principle is of course the same). I’m sure there are Cultural and Media Studies dissertations being written on whether and how that form of production changes either the shows themselves or the audience experience of them, but without quite that much research I would say two things. First, it allows for a sitcom to function much more like a serialized drama—plotlines on Catrastrophe carry over across multiple episodes in a narrative form that feels quite distinct from the classic TV sitcom (which of course has itself evolved over the years). Second, it can sometimes be a problem when it comes to humor—at least for this viewer, binge-watching more than a few episodes of a comedy at a time can produce a feeling of repetition that dulls the edge of the humor somewhat. And no matter what your particular viewing experiences, Catastrophe proves on all these levels that television comedy is certainly distinct in 2017.
Next TV fooling tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other TV comedies you’d highlight?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

March 25-26, 2017: Crowd-sourced Spring

[As spring gets ready to spring, this week’s series has focused on the season in American culture. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and spring connections of fellow AmericanStudiers. Add your bloomin’ thoughts, please!]
Following up Monday’s post on Williams and Eliot, Wade Linebaugh writes, "I've been fascinated by the contrast between these two poems for a while and I LOVE reading them together. For me--and especially because The Waste Land hits first and makes such a significant splash--I often read the two as warring over language and culture itself and especially the American idiom. For Eliot, so much of him doing the writer's work of 'shoring the fragments against his ruins' always reads to me as a heroic stance he considers himself uniquely set for. His deep and allusive writing is a way of mobilizing the history of language and writing as a way to /craft/ something to stand in opposition to bankrupt or entropic modern culture. I read Williams, by contrast, as willing to see something that opposes entropy springing up. For the browns and lifelessness in "Spring and All" there's also the wildcarrot leaf and that fantastic awakening of the roots in the final line. And knowing Williams's imagery and taste for 'the american grain,' I always see a kind of faith in his version of Spring.

Anyway, that's just me. I always see a conflict about the culture they see around them, partly because Eliot is so situated in Europe and matches that with such densely allusive verse, and Williams is so powerfully American and relies on a set of poetic imagery to match. Neither sees anything entirely bankrupt, I agree, but Eliot sees a world he has to fight to make meaning in. Williams sees the perennial return of organic life, which always just manages to do its thing on its own...even when it's March and the snow feels endless and you can't even imagine how the trees around going to manage to push out buds. At any rate I feel myself pulled powerfully by both of them at different times."
Andrew McGregor Tweets, “It’s not Spring without a reading of Casey at the Bat!”
Melanie Newport Tweets, “I keep coming back to this very enjoyable cartoon.”
Olivia Lucier writes, “When I was a kid my mom read me Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. I always liked the illustrations. Very spring like! Although not a classic novel. Still a spring story!
Floyd Cheung shares “Toshio Mori’s story ‘Lil’ Yokohama.”
Rob LeBlanc writes, “I would share the unabashed mid-1960s pop-rock enthusiasm of Gary Lewis and the Playboys' ‘Green Grass.’”
Natalie Chase notes, “With Easter right around the corner I can't help but think of the very opening chapter of Love Medicine...‘The World's Greatest Fisherman!’”
And finally, Nancy Caronia shares that “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is my choice for cultural critic of 2017. Here's a new piece he wrote on Get Out.” Jeff Renye adds, “Kareem is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. Interesting fella.”
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other spring connections or contexts you’d share?

Friday, March 24, 2017

March 24, 2017: Spring in America: The Mayflower and the Maypole

[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]
On two contrasting images and narratives of spring for America’s earliest English arrivals.
Sylvia Plath’s sonnet ”Mayflower,” another Plath poem that should be more widely known than it is, captures quite eloquently, through an extended metaphor connecting the ship to an actual flowering plant, the quality I most admire in the Pilgrims: their perseverance, in the face of some of the most daunting circumstances (including but in no way limited to Cape Cod in December!) to have faced any fledgling American community. As Plath indicates, their faith (particularly in the concept of Providence) provided one critical element to that perseverance; as I’ve written elsewhere in this space, Tisquantum (or Squanto) provided another. But in any case, I agree wholeheartedly with Plath that, like the may flower after which they named their ship, the Pilgrims embodied “how best beauty’s born of hardihood.”
That flower, as Plath envisions it at least, was the bud of the hawthorn plant—and, not quite coincidentally, it is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (who was throughout his life and career hugely interested in his Puritan ancestors) which provides our clearest illustration of a very different side to May for that fledgling New England community. As fictionalized in Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (1836)—and as documented in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation—one of the earliest splinter groups from the Puritan communities was that led by Thomas Morton, the man who came to be known as “the pagan Pilgrim” for his embrace of a far livelier and more celebratory set of practices. Those celebrations were exemplified by the May-Pole that Morton and his followers erected in their town of Merry-Mount (Mt. Wollaston), and it was perhaps the appropriation of this be-flowered “pagan” symbol that led to the full condemnations of Morton and his community by Bradford and his fellow orthodox Puritans.
So two images of spring: as a beautiful, hard-earned reward for enduring the winter; or as a time of excess and luxury, of plenty and its resulting vices. And two corresponding images of the Puritans: as a persistent and hardy community, blossoming into American fullness after making it through their first and hardest winter; or as an overly dour and intolerant bunch, suspicious of any deviation from their norms and most especially of anyone, anywhere, having a good time. The truth? As so often on this blog, all of the above, or more exactly a combination of them all that hopefully leads us toward something more and different and stronger. Spring, like any season and experience, can indeed bring out the worst in us (whether we see that worst as carnival or condemnation); but it can also allow us to wonder at the best, of who we are and of the world we live in. There’s value, I believe, in engaging with each and all of those sides.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So how would you engage with the season? Thoughts on this or any of the week’s posts? Other takes on spring in America?