Archive for 20/20

Bruce All Nineties

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV advertising, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2015 by Tom Steward

One of the perils of writing a topical post – unbeknownst to me, who would report the crucifixion a day after the resurrection – is that the story continues after publication. Since posting on the 90s TV revival and the media’s response to Bruce Jenner’s 20/20 interview, both storylines have advanced significantly. So rather than set another plate spinning, I’m going to bring you updates on these unfolding stories…you know, like those journalists you probably read about in history books used to do!

I was second-guessing myself while hailing a revival of 90s TV, having only a handful of examples and holding the suspicion it might have been a coincidence that three 90s shows were the latest in line for an inevitable nostalgia reboot. But at the virtually the same time I published the post, it was announced that Full House, an early 90s sitcom my ignorance of which is why G shall never ratify my TV Doctorate credentials, will return on new-bottle-for-old-wine internet channel Netflix. Digging deeper, I discovered that another 90s sitcom, Coach, starring an actor who looks like a young man in ageing make-up Craig T Nelson, is about to be revived. As G reminded me (after her weekly routine of pretending to have read the blog rather than just the title!), one of our new favourite sitcoms Fresh off the Boat is set in the early 90s, with a gangsta rap soundtrack and guest stars from Twin Peaks to (re)boot. I guess it’s about a fashion for the decade as much as simply retrospection.

This is what Craig T Nelson looks like before make-up!

This is what Craig T Nelson looks like before make-up!

It’s hard for me to engage with this 90s-retro fad as nostalgia. Syndication ensures that when it comes to TV, the past is always present. Besides, 90s shows are technologically and stylistically consistent enough with current production practices not to jar today’s audience too aggressively, and could easily be mistaken for something that was made when Twitter was in its infancy. More personally, it’s because I went into a pop culture coma in the late 90s and any TV still on at that time remains my Spreewald pickles (an oblique reference I use if only to force you to watch Goodbye Lenin!). It feels more to me like these shows are coming off an extended hiatus. Or maybe the people involved are simply lucky enough to have remained in the zeitgeist. Craig T. Nelson is coming off Parenthood and the Full House cast have recently been on screens in Dannon Oiko commercials. As for Fresh off the Boat, well, even nostalgia has to move with the times. In the 90s, nostalgia was That 70s Show.

I previously reported a rare instance of news satire’s coverage of current events being considered inferior to that of TV news. The (not so) current event was Bruce Jenner’s gender realignment, discussed in an interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and Conan were culpable for insensitive and – crucially – unfunny jokes that reeked of transphobia. Now seemingly unable to mock Jenner’s gender and sexual orientations without further controversy, news satire is honing in on the one thing we can all ridicule her for without fear of reproach; being a Republican. As if some kind of plea of extenuating circumstances for their prior bullying of Jenner, both Conan and The Nightly Show did what all bad TV news does when it misses the mark and changed the story. The humour was directed at Jenner revealing he was a Republican, though interestingly omitting the part where the retired Olympian said he’d talk to the conservative wing (or torso) of his party about their mistreatment of transgender people and issues. Again, not funny.

Bruce Jenner scours room for Ted Cruz before coming out as Republican!

Bruce Jenner scours room for Ted Cruz before coming out as Republican!

There is some irony in Jenner identifying as a woman and a Republican simultaneously, but not enough for even the meekest gag and it’s no surprise given his wealth, age, and Cold Warrior status in American sports history. For O’Brien, the information was a neat way to deflect an apology for jibes which made Jenner’s gender instability seem grotesque. For Wilmore, couching his transphobic remarks in the familiar rhetoric of news satire’s anti-Republican diatribe (as wonderful a thing as that is) was the best way for a left-leaning comedy institution to disguise its bigotry. I’m not suggesting that Jenner is now untouchable. He is, after all, part of a dynasty that live to be ridiculed. But I still believe that the responsible parties cannot simply brush what they have said under the carpet, lest all the people they demeaned retreat back into the closet.

Hidden Jenner

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2015 by Tom Steward

There was an unexpected role reversal in the world of TV news this past week. News satire – an institution that regularly attacks the bigotry and ignorance of network and cable news coverage – was itself accused of bigotry and ignorance in regards to transphobia, while a primetime network news special about transgender issues (albeit in the form of an interview with Bruce Jenner, hence why TV is interested in the first place) was widely praised for its sensitive handling of the topic. On Monday, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore – Comedy Central’s bland replacement for The Colbert Report – aired a segment ridiculing Jenner’s identification as a woman and chosen sexual orientation as abnormal, which were made to seem even more grotesque by comparing her to Pinnochio. This was responding to Friday evening’s 20/20 special on ABC, in which the former Olympian and Kardashian was interviewed by Diane Sawyer about being a man trapped in a woman’s body her entire life and her decision to transition to a woman, which she has been doing piecemeal for years.

Methinks Larry doth protest too much!

Methinks Larry doth protest too much!

At the heart of the controversy surrounding The Nightly Show was Wilmore’s apparent confusion about Jenner’s desire to become a woman yet having male genitalia and preferring women sexually. Now, if this seems to be representative of the billions of people around the globe who have spent their lives knowing they are a different gender than the one assigned to them and have, for reasons too numerous to mention, yet to make their (complete) transition, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. It’s hard to see where the confusion, or indeed the comedy, lies in pointing out these tragedies. If anything, this information helps us make sense of Jenner’s personal (mostly surgical) life choices in recent years, and there is, of course, the little known fact that what Bruce Jenner wants to be or do in her life is none of anyone’s fucking business. Even more appalling was Wilmore’s hetero-bullying tone, which seemed to suggest that this particular combination of gender and sexuality was above and beyond an average straight guy’s understanding of the world.

But 20/20 didn’t miss the opportunity to turn the tables on news satire either. Clips from Saturday Night Live and Conan making jokes at the expense of Jenner’s gender instability were featured in the programme. She was fair game when she was altering her appearance for reasons of vanity, but the punchlines were directed at gender. Conan O’Brien’s monologue jibe seemed to be urging Jenner to hurry up and pick a gender, as if that were somehow easy or necessary for us to recognise her as human. In defence of news satire – which I believe to be essential not only as a critical commentary on the news but also a superior alternative to it – these are atypical moments that in no way represent the genre’s treatment of such issues. It’s hard to imagine The Nightly Show’s tone of reporting on its forerunner The Daily Show which draws Arsenio-style primal screams at the mere mention of Elizabeth Warren. The Conan monologue gag seems unusually cruel, especially for a late-night talk show with a notably liberal following.

Hindsight is 20/20!

Hindsight is 20/20!

It is, however, possible to imagine Wilmore’s segment on The Colbert Report, with the thinly veiled prejudice cloaked in the self-negating irony of Colbert’s fake conservative newsman persona. But there’s no evidence here that we’re supposed to think of what Wilmore is saying as anything other than genuine (and if you ever suspected that Wilmore is capable of comedy that is less than obvious, remind yourself he is the creator of Black-ish!). If the problematic representation of transgender issues in news satire has been reported correctly, we should also note that the success of TV news coverage in dealing with the same issues has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Bruce Jenner 20/20 special was motivated by relief that it wasn’t the most hideously offensive piece of journalism ever aired. But interviewer Diane Sawyer adopted the persona of a sceptical and disgusted parent, asking questions only the most hateful (and thus least important) person would. It’s insulting enough, even without the patronising implication that this is what the public would ask. We also have to take into account TV news’ much worse track record when it comes to reporting on the transgender community: Piers Morgan’s media war with Janet Mock, Katie Couric’s inappropriate intimacy interviewing Laverne Cox. Nobody’s getting it right but news satire is wrong less often than the news.

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