Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Community Season Three Promo: Do I sense a 'Glee' parody in the works?

The first promo for Community's third season is here, and things are looking just as crazy (and hilarious) as ever. Check out the short version of the promo below; a longer version can be found on Community's Facebook page.

I'm really excited about all the John Goodman goodness present here. It certainly looks like Dan Harmon and the writers are using the man's bulk and voice to great comedic effect, and it will be great to see him square off against Dean Pelton (Jim Rash, who got promoted to series regular this year!). I wish we could have seen a little Michael K. Williams (The Wire's Omar, for those of you who aren't awesome enough to know that), but I'll take what I can get at this point.

I'm also really hoping that the elaborate musical number teased in the longer trailer indicates a full-length Glee parody. I've enjoyed the good-natured Glee mockery we've seen in several episodes up to this point, including the first paintball episode, the flashback episode, and Jeff's memorable exclamation of, "I hate Glee! I don't understand the appeal at all!" I'm excited to see what the show can do with a full-on parody.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The five scariest Doctor Who baddies (and no, the Daleks aren't included)

Doctor Who returns this Saturday for the second half of its sixth season, and I really couldn't be more excited. One of the reasons I'm so excited is that the fantastic trailer promises the return of two of my favorite Who villains, the Weeping Angels and the recently introduced Silence. So, in honor of the series' return, take a look at this list of the five scariest villains to grace Doctor Who's screens in the rebooted series. And no, this list won't contain any Daleks or Cybermen; I have to agree with Steven Moffat when he says that the Daleks have become "the most reliably defeatable enemies in the universe."

5. The mysterious presence
As seen in: "Midnight"

Photo courtesy of

"Midnight" is a classic bottle episode of Doctor Who. This follow-up to the large-scale two-parter "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" has a premise as simple as it is terrifying: the Doctor, along with other assorted vacationers, is taking a trip to see a sapphire waterfall on a diamond planet called Midnight when their vehicle breaks down and a mysterious presence takes over the mind of one of the passengers. They can't leave, because the sunlight on Midnight is so strong it would take them out in seconds and because the planet has no air. The Doctor is left trying to figure out why previously normal passenger Sky is suddenly repeating everything he says as he tries to mediate between the passengers who want to throw her to her death and those who don't. When Sky begins speaking the Doctor's words before he can, the hero suddenly becomes the object of fear. The baddie in "Midnight" doesn't even have a name, which makes the chaos it sows on the ship all the more frightening.

4. The Family
As seen in: "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood"

Photo courtesy of

I may have mentioned before how much I absolutely love these two episodes of Doctor Who for the way the story delves into the meaning of humanity, the importance of love, and the burdens of being the Doctor. One thing I generally leave out, however, is the villainous Family of Blood who instigate the entire plot by chasing the Doctor until he is forced to disguise himself as human. The Family are a terrifying, bloodthirsty pack of hunters whose menace lies in their cold implacability; the Doctor knows that they will never, ever stop hunting him. The fact that one of the Family, Sister, takes over the body of an innocent girl with a balloon adds to the menace by playing on fears of evil children that can be seen in so many horror movies. The real reason the Family is so frightening, however, is their effect on the Doctor. He disguises himself not because he is afraid they will kill him, but because of the rage and terror that underlies his ultimate punishment of these hunters. Any villain who can turn the peaceful Doctor into a vengeful god is a force to be reckoned with.

3. The Master
As seen in: "Utopia"/"The Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords" and "The End of Time"

Photo courtesy of

The Master is one of the few original Doctor Who villains to appear in the rebooted series, and he's the only one who actually stays menacing this time around. Much of the credit goes to John Simm, who plays the Master as a deranged god, an all-powerful Time Lord whose mind has been twisted to the point of insanity. His name says it all; he wants to control the world, the universe, time itself. We find out during "The End of Time" that the Master's madness is the result of the other Time Lords manipulation, but his ultimate redemption doesn't make his unhinged brutality any less unsettling. Just look at the way his wife, Lucy Saxon, cowers blank-eyed before him in "Last of the Time Lords," fresh bruises adorning her face, and try to question the terror the man inspires.

2. The Weeping Angels
As seen in: "Blink" and "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone"

Photo courtesy of

"Blink," the first Doctor Who episode to feature the Weeping Angels, is a magnificent piece of suspense filmmaking. When I went to the Home Depot several days after watching it and saw some angel-shaped figurines in the garden section, I stared at those things so long without blinking that I thought my eyeballs would dry up and fall out of my head. That's the thing that's so scary about the Angels; the only way to keep them away from you is to ignore all your natural instincts and physiological responses and stare at the thing you fear for as long as you can. The Angels are terrifying precisely because you can't run from them. You have to have a staring contest with your fear, with little chance of winning, and what could be scarier than that?

1. The Silence
As seen in: "The Impossible Astronaut"/"The Day of the Moon"

Photo courtesy of

There is something scarier than having to stare, unblinking, at what you fear most, and that's being unable to remember what it is that you're so afraid of. The reason the Silence are, to me, the scariest villains in Who history, despite being the newest, is the knowledge that they are everywhere and you will never know, because even if you discover their existence you'll forget within seconds. If I see the Master or a Weeping Angel or the Family, I know to run, or to stay and fight. If I see the Silence, however, I will immediately forget about their existence. The thing that is so absolutely, oppressively frightening about these creatures is the idea that they are controlling every facet of your life and your world, and that there is no way you will ever stop them, because you won't even know what they're doing. And that is the one thing that is scarier than the Weeping Angels.

Apple's five greatest pop-culture moments

The reaction to yesterday's announcement that Steve Jobs is stepping down as CEO of Apple Inc. has been mixed, to say the least. Some people have heralded this development as a victory for freedom and democracy, while skittish traders' worries about the company's future led a drop in stock prices. Whether you love Jobs or hate him, it can't be denied that Apple would never have become the instantly recognizable, globally dominant brand it is today without Job's perfectionist involvement. So today, let's mark the end of an era by cataloguing Apple Inc.'s greatest moments in pop culture.


The ad that started it all, Apple's famous "1984" ad ran during the 1984 (ha!) superbowl and introduced the world to Macintosh personal computers. The Ridley Scott-directed spot featured an atheletic iconoclast (Apple, of course) disrupting her homogenous, dystopian society by throwing a hammer at a figure who looks suspiciously like George Orwell's Big Brother. (The resemblance was not lost on Orwell's estate, who sent Apple a cease-and-desist letter that prevented the commercial from airing again.) Ironically enough, the company that once cast itself as the brave instigator of a rebellion now has it's own army of mindlessly devoted drones.

Legally Blonde

Photo courtesy of

Sixteen years after "1984," Apple still held only a small percentage of the personal computer market, which was dominated by Microsoft. So, in 2001's Legally Blonde, the bright orange iBook purchased by Reese Witherspoon's Elle stands out among her classmates' uniformly drab laptops. At this point, Apple still represented an individualist spirit even as the company was seeping into the public consciousness due to exposure in other places. For example...

Sex and the City

Photo courtesy of

Over the course of six seasons, Carrie Bradshaw may have changed clothes, shoes, handbags and boyfriends at a dizzying pace, but she was always faithful to her Mac laptop. The models may have changed, but the computer Carrie used to record her musings on life, love and sex alwlays bore a glowing Apple logo. Suddenly, a generation of single, stylish aspiring writers wanted Macs on which to compose the "great American novel" while sipping some complicated Starbucks drink.

"Get a Mac"

The uniquitous Mac/PC commercials that ran from 2006 to 2010 were simple, recognizable, and funny. They continued Apple's portrayal of itself as a young, hip, original alternatuve to stodgy OCs. The problem was that, by this point in time, Apple was experiencing explosive growth due to the iPod (and later the iPhone), and their claims to a unique, underdog status were starting to grate. Plus, anyone who knows anything knows that John Hodgeman is way cooler than Justin Long.

White earbuds

If Eric Northman has them, they must be cool. Photo courtesy of

The iPod may have revolutionized the way people listen to music, but it was the white earbuds that accompanied the players that became an instantly recognizable symbol. Seeing those bright white buds peeking out of someone's ears meant that person was young, smart and cool enough to be an Apple customer. (They also indicated that their person liked their music to sound tinny and unbalanced, as those of us who actually care about audio quality ditched the white buds in favor of headphones that actually work.) Those earbuds marked Apple's transition from a maker of computers for geeks to a worldwide phenomenon. When Apple Inc. eventually takes over the planet, and everyone has a link to iTunes in their brain, just remember: it was the earbuds that started it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How not to end a TV Series

Matthew Fox as Jack in the final shot of the Lost finale. Photo courtesy of

The AV Club just ran a very interesting article that dealt with the problems inherent in sustaining the momentum of fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time, as well as the tricky proposition of ending such a series. The article is a response both to fan criticism of the glacis pace at which George R.R. Martin is producing ASOIAF and Neil Gaiman's reaction to that criticism, which came in the form of an essay called "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch."

The situation in which Martin currently finds himself is one familiar to many authors and fans of long-running fantasy series. It also happens to be extremely relevant to fans of serialized, mythology-heavy TV shows with unsatisfying ending, like Battlestar Galactica (which I just finished watching) and Lost (the finale of which I can finally talk about without vomiting from rage). There are a number of parallels between these two shows and various literary fantasy series, and I think these parallels can help explain why the finales of Lost and BSG were so explosively bad.

One of the problems that author Zack Handler brings up in the AV club piece is the issue of a series ending up much longer than originally planned because of a writer's tendency to "get lost inside his work." This was a huge issue at various points during Lost's run, most notably during the pointless Hydra station arc in season three and "Stranger in a Strange Land," a.k.a. that episode where Bai Ling gives Jack his tattoos and the audience takes a nap.

These particular irrelevancies remind me of So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, the fourth book in Douglas Adams' other wise fantastic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. The book isn't as bad as "Stranger in a Strange Land," but it is just as pointless. Most of the characters we've come to adore - Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Marvin the Paranoid Android - are completely absent, and in their place we get Arthur and his new girlfriend Fenchurch having sex on the wing of an airplane. The one or two relevant facts we learn could have been introduced in the next book, perhaps at the moment when we learn that, between the two volumes, Fenchurch has died, rendering So Long even more pointless than it already appeared.

The previous problem was not necessarily the fault of the Lost writers - at that point in the series' run the show had no end date, so Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were actually trying to stall the plot. Lost's biggest problem was the finale, which Cuse and Lindelof can blame on no one but themselves (just as Ron Moore is solely responsible for the clusterfuck that was the BSG finale). The flaws of these two finales are eerily similar, and they boil down to two fundamental issues: an attempt by the writers to wrap up every individual character arc at the expense of the larger issues, and a solution to the show's ongoing mysteries that throws the complexity of the series out the window in favor of a sudden descent into religion-fueled, pseudo-philosophical mysticism.

I should probably mention here that I don't have a problem with the religious aspects of these shows, which were present from the beginning. I do, however, have a problem with grafting a simplified religious ending onto a complex, multifaceted TV series and pretending that it explains everything. In particular, both finales contained an ultimate message of faith trumping science and reason. I've talked about BSG's anti-intellectual streak before, but it bears repeating that the ultimate "faith is good, science is bad" conclusion is a disservice to the four seasons that BSG spent exploring the complexities of faith, the dangers of dogmatism and the horrors of conflict driven by religion, instead replacing these issues with an inane warning to be afraid of dancing robots.

The Lost finale did exactly the same thing a year later, which I can only explain using the following imaginary conversation:

LINDELOF: Hey Carlton, did you check out that BSG finale?
CUSE: Yeah! I loved how they discarded the complexity of the whole series and boiled everything down to a simple pro-faith, anti-technology message!
LINDELOF: I know! We should totally do the same thing.
CUSE: Awesome idea! And while we're at it, let's ruin Jacob's evocative cork metaphor by putting a literal fucking cork in the island!
LINDELOF: We are going to win so many awards for this.

What I'm trying to say here is that Cuse and Lindelof resolved one of the most interesting conflicts on the show - the tension between science and faith, as personified by Jack and Locke - by giving Jack a religious conversion, just as BSG did with Gaius Baltar. This not only cheapened six seasons of rich dialogue about the nature of science and faith, it spat in the face of viewers who feel science to be useful and who, for whatever reason, don't happen to be among the faithful.

I wouldn't have had such a problem with the religious aspects of these finales, however, if they had actually helped to explain the shows' larger mysteries. Instead, the writers ignored the mysteries in favor of resolving every character's arc. I'm certainly not saying they should have completely ignored the character arcs - it was nice to see Sawyer and Juliet's sideways-world reunion and Helo and Athena's happy new life with Hera - but all the focus on these arcs meant there was no time to answer the many other questions raised over the series' runs. I for one would have liked to find out more about the Island's electromagnetic properties, or the importance of the Opera House beyond having Gaius and Caprica carry Hera all of three feet into the CIC.

Admittedly, it was always going to be absurd to expect the writers to answer every question and please every fan. Hell, even the final book of the classic fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia suffered from the same problems discussed above. Narnia is actually worse in some ways, particularly the fashion in which C.S. Lewis condemns Susan because she was a teenage girl interested in - god forbid! - boys and makeup. (If you haven't thought through the implications Susan's fate before, I highly recommend Gaiman's short story "The Problem of Susan," although you probably shouldn't read it if you don't want to hate Lewis). Ending a mythologically complex series is hard, and very few people have ever managed to do it successfully. I'm still angry about the resolution of Lost, but I can understand the kind of pressure Cuse and Lindelof were under. I just wish they had worried less about placating the fans, and more about crafting an ending as groundbreaking as the series that led to it.

In conclusion: pray for Fringe, because trust me, they're going to need it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

So, the last five episodes of "Miracle Day" were irrelevant?

Jack and Angelo on the run. Photo courtesy of

"Immortal Sins," the most recent episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day was awesome. Maybe not Children of Earth awesome, but in the context of the current, lackluster season, it was a breath of fresh air. The episode focused almost solely on Gwen and Jack with an absolute minimum of Rex and Esther, it featured some classic Russell T. Davies boundary-pushing, man-on-man action, and it actually advanced the plot in a meaningful way. The only problem was that the plot development rendered the previous five episodes - everything since the season premiere - completely irrelevant.

But let's star with the good. (Warning: SPOILERS ahead if you havent's seen "Immortal Sins".) The renewed focus on Jack and Gwen and their always-complicated relationship was excellent, allowing for some lovely emotional moments and a nice dose of character development. Eve Myles did a great job with the tricky beat where she described how she "got off" on her work with Torchwood, how it had hardened and made the deaths of Tosh, Owen and Ianto seem somewhow worth it. It was an excellent, dark spin on the way she described Torchwood in the opening episode of Children of Earth; if "the whole wide world is bigger," then the value of the people who inhabit that world begins to lessen.

Both Myles and Barrowman also did a great job selling the scene where they both vow to sacrifice each other in order to save what's most important: Gwen's daughter and Jack's life, respectively. Myles made Gwen's desperation palpable, but I was most impressed - not to mention disturbed - by Jack's coldness and absolute selfishness. If you've never watched Doctor Who you've never seen a mortal Jack before, a Jack who actually has something to lose. Even for those of us who remember mortal Jack, this new callousness is shocking. I wonder if Gwen and Jack's relationship can ever recover.

The real developments of the night - the ones that create so many problems with the previous five episodes - happen during flashbacks to the 1920s. Over the course of the episodes we see Jack meet, seduce, freak out and ultimately get betrayed by Angelo Colasanto (Daniele Favilli), a young Italian immigrant who, we learn at the end of the episode, is still alive and has information about the Miracle, presumably because he's behind it.

This is a pretty fantastic plot development, because it ties the Miracle directly to Jack. The fact that Angelo obviously has something to do with it, along with a conspicuous shot of a women holding a bottle of Jack's blood, seems to imply that Angelo and his allies (which hopefully include Phicirp, just to keep that story from being completely pointless) managed to synthesize something from the blood that keeps people from dying. I'm not sure that I buy that being a fixed point in time and space - something I always equated to Earth in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series being like a bubble in wallpaper that always comes back no matter how many times you push it down - is something you can find in blood, but I'm willing to go with it for the sake of the story.

(Speaking of being a fixed point in time and space, I think it's a continuity error when Jack describes himself to Angelo using those words. According to the Doctor Who timeline, Jack becomes immortal in "The Parting of the Ways," when TARDIS-possessed Rose brings him back to life. He then gets left behind, finds his way to Earth in an attempt to find the Doctor but accidentally lands in the 1800s, where he joins Torchwood and waits for the Doctor. Jack doesn't find out why he's immortal - the fixed point thing - until "Utopia," which takes place in the early 2000s, between the first and second seasons of Torchwood, which means that he couldn't have possibly explained his immortality to Angelo in 1928. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that scene breaks continuity, which someone should have been watching out for. Anyway, back to the point...)

The problem with the revelation about Angelo, fascinating as it is, is that it invalidates every episode since the premiere. Why did we spend so much time with Phicorp and the overflow camps when it really got us no closer to the solution to the Miracle? This is the first episode in a while that's actually left me eager to watch next week, but it's also frustrating to know that so much of the season has been a waste of time. Clearly, Davies needs to stick to either episodic television or five-episode, Children of Earth-style arcs.

Stray Thoughts:
  • Jack's new willingness to protect his own life at all costs provides a terrible answer to a burning question from Children of Earth - why did Jack take Ianto into Thames House, knowing what he did about the 456? It's starting to look like he either didn't care at all, or didn't care enough.
  • On the other hand, his description of the short-lived Firebird was gorgeous, and the idea of a creature that only lives for a moment is a resonant one for an immortal.
  • Rex and Esther actually did something useful this week!
  • No Jilly and Oswald for the second episode in a row. Are they just as irrelevant as everything else? (I'm going to say yes.)
  • Yay for the return of PC Andy Davidson! I love him.
  • "You're Welsh. You wouldn't notice if all the vowels were missing."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why Gaius Baltar is the real hero of Battlestar Galactica (and why that's not always a good thing)

James Callis as Gaius Baltar in "Dirty Hands." Photo courtesy of

Two years after the final episode of Battlestar Galactica, I finally got around to watching the critically acclaimed SciFi (now Syfy) series, and I have to admit that it was great. The writing and acting were uniformly excellent, the issues were explored with a bracing realism and ambiguity, and the men were good looking. I plan on writing more about BSG in the future (and yes, I'll be offer my opinion on the... uninspiring finale), but for now I want to talk about my favorite character, Gaius Baltar, and why he's the real hero of the show (as well as, as the title says, why his heroic character arc isn't necessarily a good thing).

I know that some of you are probably cursing me for my blasphemy in arguing that Baltar is the hero, rather than Admiral Adama or Starbuck or Athena, and I'm prepared for your angry comments. All I ask is that you hear me out first. I understand that Baltar is not what one would generally call "heroic" - "cowardly" and "self-involved" are all adjectives that apply better - and I'm not trying to devalue the other characters. However, based on his all-too-human personality traits, his ultimate character arc, and a masterful performance by James Callis, I feel pretty comfortable saying that Baltar is, when you really get down to it, the hero of the entire series.

One of the major questions raised during BSG's run was the issue of what it really means to be human, and no one illustrates humanity at its best and worst quite like Gaius Baltar. His character, with an instinct that valued self-preservation above all and an ability to manipulate in order to get what he wanted, could be the absolute worst kind of humanity. But he also had moments of incredible insight and clear-sightedness, of unbounded love and devotion, of pain caused by others' lack of faith in him, that crystallized the best of what it means to be human. Baltar was always, undeniably human, more so than the steadfast Bill Adama, the morally unshakeable Lee, or even the heroic-but-tormented Starbuck. They were all exceptional people, with exceptional strength, while it was Baltar's conviction that he was exceptional that lay at the heart of his cowardice.

One of my favorite episodes of BSG is "Dirty Hands," an episode that came towards the end of season three, during the run-up to Baltar's trial. The episode really belongs to Chief Tyrol, and details the struggle between his labor-union idealism and the pragmatic realities of the Fleet; however, Aaron Douglas allows the episode to be stolen out from under him by Baltar, specifically by the mesmerizing speech that Gaius delivers to Tyrol from his jail cell. In the scene, Baltar lays out the class inequality that plagues the fleet, likening relationship between the high-ranking military and the crew (as well as the elite civilian officials to the working class) to a feudalistic society in which jobs are inherited rather then earned by merit. Baltar, himself the son of a farmer from Aerilon, describes the way in which he renounced his heritage and changed his accent in order to be accepted in a higher, Caprican society, likening the calcified hierarchy of the twelve colonies to the current rigid class system aboard the fleet.

Callis' work in this scene is absolutely magnificent; he grabs the audiences' attention and refuses to let it go, making a series of tricky emotional, intellectual and linguistic variations seem natural and unforced, while also ensuring that the audience knows that Gaius is putting on a show. This is a moment in which Baltar is completely in control and, more importantly, completely right. It is one of the moments in which Baltar's total clarity on the issue at hand reminds the viewer why he was considered the smartest man in the twelve colonies and managed to get himself elected president, and makes us forget about all the times we completely despised his weakness.

That weakness, however, comes back in full force during his trial, during which the craven self-preservation that characterized Baltar comes back in full force. The real accomplishment of the trial is that it makes sure that the viewer is rooting for a not-guilty verdict even as Gaius demonstrates the many reasons that people hate him so much. I have never loved Lee Adama as much as I did when he argued for Baltar's defense, because he took the words right out of my mouth. Baltar had been chosen as a scapegoat because he was arrogant, because he was weak, because people just didn't like him very much. The people needed someone to blame, and they chose the most cowardly among him because nobody cared about Gaius Baltar's well-being. The thing is, his cowardice and arrogance didn't make him guilty; they made him human. As Laura Roslin learned from the priest Elosha during her delirium on the Cylon basestar, she needed to save Baltar's life because he was the worst of humanity, and if the worst of humanity can't be saved, then humanity itself doesn't deserve to survive.

Since Baltar basically represents humanity on the series, it isn't all that surprising that his character arc is ultimately the most heroic (and most problematic, but I'll get to that later) of any of the characters. After four seasons spent in cowardice and denial, Baltar finally makes a selfless decision: choosing to stay on the Galactica in order to help rescue Hera. There had been hints of this kind of courage in his character before, most notably when he intially refused to sign the notorious "death list" presented to him by the Cylons on New Caprica, but it wasn't until "Daybreak: Part II" that Baltar really became a hero. And he was rewarded for it. Caprica Six finally loved him because of the pride his decision inspired in her, Hera was safe, and he was ultimately allowed to settle on Earth, rest, and start a farm with the bleach-blond love of his life. (Although really, how long can that haircolor last without the conveniences of modern technology? But that's a problem for another post.)

Now, I love Gaius Baltar. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. He's my favorite character on the entire series (well, second favorite: Head Baltar is my favorite), and I was really pleased that he got his moment of redemption and his happy ending with Caprica Six, who is also completely fantastic. However, I don't  think that his ultimate hero status is a good thing, and that's because of the arc that gets him there. The arc of Gaius Baltar takes him from an atheistic man of science to a deeply religious (and yes, I do think his religious conversion is genuine in the end, even if it doesn't start out that way) man who is willing to forgo technology and take up a simple life of farming on Earth.

The problem with this character arc is that it betrays the pervasive anti-intellectualism that runs through Battlestar Galactica. This anti-intellectualism is personified in Gaius Baltar, the brilliant scientist whose arrogance and absolute certainty that the world works according to his rules literally leads to the genocide that opens the series. The fact that Baltar, along with the rest of the fleet, is only redeemed when he gives up on science and goes back to being a simple farmer is a clear example of the distrust of intelligence and technology that is reiterated in the most obvious terms in that frakking ridiculous present-day coda. (Also, the fact that I just used the word "frakking" in a blog post makes me die inside.)

As Jacob over at Television Without Pity says in his recap of the finale, "courage, not intelligence, is what earns you love, and the right to exist." The message of the show is that, to paraphrase the talented Jacob again, forward progress ultimately leads to the kind of decadence (drunken debauchery, etc.) that characterized Caprican society. The fact that Gaius Baltar, the man whose mind cured Laura Roslin's cancer, saw the class structure on the fleet for what it was, built a machine to detect Cylons for fuck's sake (ah yes... that's more like it, much better than "frak") can only be redeemed when he lets go of his intellect and returns to his farming roots is a dangerous message. The war between humans and Cylons didn't happen just because the Cylons were invented; it happened because they were treated as something less than human, just as Gaius Baltar, the worst of humanity, so often was. The problem isn't the technology, it's the people who use it.

Anti-intellectualism is certainly not an issue unique to BSG; Lost also displayed a persistent anti-intellectual streak over the course of its final season, and indeed throughout much of its run. The problem seems bigger on BSG though, largely because, unlike Lost, it's not a series that generally paints things in such absolute terms. By simplifying all the beautiful complexity of this issue into a simply dichotomy in which technology is bad and simplicity is good is anti-intellectual rhetoric at its worst, the show eschews the realistic shades of grey that characterize so many of its debates in favor of a stark, black and white explanation. I expected better than that from this show, and that's why, despite my love of Gaius Baltar, I wish that he wasn't the ultimate hero. I wish that he had gone down swinging, fighting for the science to which he had devoted his life. That's the heroic stand I wanted to see.

The Nielsen system obviously isn't working, but can it be fixed?

Fringe is generally considered a ratings failure for FOX, despite garnering the same number of viewers as The Walking Dead, which was considered a smash hit for cable network AMC. Photos courtesy of and

The Huffington Post recently published an article decrying the current Nielsen rating system. "TV Ratings: Are We Looking At Them All Wrong?" is an interesting read that nicely details the problems with the Nielsen rating system and ways in which it may or may not be evolving to suit the needs of the digital age. It's also, however, a painfully obvious rehash of things that bloggers, critics and creators have been pointing out for years. Yes, the Nielsen rating system is obviously becoming obsolete in an era where many viewers watch TV on their laptops and cell phones, and yes, network executives and advertisers need to completely rethink the way in which they look at a given series' popularity. Anyone who knows anything about television knows that. The problem is that reworking the system to suit an increasingly digital, fragmented landscape is going to be massively complicated and full of holes.

One of the major problems with the current ratings system - as any critic will tell you - is the way in which the Nielsen rating of a given show has become the major indicator of whether or not that show will get picked up for another season. The way the Nielsen ratings of a given show are constantly hyped, distributed and analyzed by critics and viewers alike has led to a perception that a show's Nielsen number is the be-all and end-all of that show's future. As an ardent Fringe fan, I experienced this first-hand over the last year. Every Friday morning (Saturday morning after the show was moved) I would check the previous night's ratings, desperate to know whether they had fallen or risen, hoping that my show would be saved even as I watched the numbers slowly decline.

But then something wonderful happened: the show was renewed! Fringe will be coming back for a fourth season after a fantastic, action-packed, emotional, shocking finale that was seen by less than 4 million viewers. And I have to attribute this to the FOX network executives - who I don't want to let off the hook completely, as they often make some head-scratchingly bad decisions - understanding a new reality of television: that maybe having a niche show with four or five million devoted, engaged viewers is just as good as having a monster hit.

The thing is, there aren't a lot of monster hits anymore. Any network exec aiming for a new Seinfeld or M*A*S*H or even a Lost is going to be disappointed, because that's not the way the market works anymore. Cable programming has turned TV into a niche viewing experience where people can choose from hundreds of options rather than three or four. This has resulted in an increasingly fragmented - and, in my view, increasingly diverse and high-quality - viewing experience. The explosion of well-made, artistically important television in the last ten years has been unprecedented. The upside is that there is more choice than ever out there for viewers, and more high-quality programming than ever before. The downside is that the sheer number of options drives down the numbers for any single program, and the current rating system has no way to account for that.

As choices increase, the very idea of a "major" network is becoming obsolete. Many of the most buzzed-about shows on the major networks - ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX - are drawing in audiences comparable to those of cable series. In particular, shows whose demographics skew younger, such as Community, 30 Rock, Fringe and Parks and Recreation have low Nielsen numbers. These shows also happen to be the ones that advertisers covet, as they draw in the all-important 18-34 demographic.

These shows draw lower ratings for a number of reasons, but one that proves a major problem for the current system is the fact that this demographic is more likely to watch TV on their laptops or phones, as opposed to their TVs. As a 22-year-old student who doesn't own a television, I can tell you that most of my viewing happens on Unfortunately for the shows I love, online numbers are only taken into account several days after an episode has aired; the number that gets publicized the morning after is the number of people who belong to Nielsen families and who watch the shows on TV. The fact that Nielsen boxes generally go to families also skews the ratings, because anyone who has ever watched TV with their parents can tell you that it often isn't their first choice of programming.

The obvious way to fix this problem would be to count Internet viewers right along with TV viewers. Watching TV on the internet, however, is an entirely different beast than watching it live, and it one that advertisers don't like as much. One of the great benefits of Hulu is the fact that, rather than having to watch twenty minutes of commercials interspersed with your show, you only have to see four or five thirty-second ads. The problem here is that advertisers want you to watch their ads on TV, all twenty minutes of them, rather than just seeing a few per episode online. And yes, the ads online can theoretically be more targeted than ads on TV, which is good for advertisers, but tell that to the damn Geico ads that plague my viewing experience despite the fact that I don't own a car.

The solution to this problem could be to offer a subscription service. Hulu is doing this with Hulu Plus, which costs eight dollars a month but offers more episodes, classic TV shows, and movies, all free of commercials. There have also been a lot of rumors going around that eventually Hulu will become a subscribers-only service. The major problem here, however, is that people are used to getting at least some TV for free, and while about half the households in the US are paying for some variety of cable, it's going to be hard to get people to forget about the fifty-plus years they spent getting their television for free. (I know some of you are going to draw a parallel here with the way that people were getting their music for free until iTunes came along, and now they're perfectly happy paying, but it's not the same thing. I came of age during the Napster era, but I still spent most of my life buying CDs, so it wasn't a huge shock to me to pay for music on iTunes. In fact, it saved me a lot of money on music.)

Another problem with asking people to subscribe to a streaming video service is that there are plenty of ways to watch TV online for free. They may not be strictly legal, and they may not always be the best quality, but they give those of us without TVs an opportunity to watch not only major network shows, but basic cable and premium channel shows as well. As long as those alternatives are out there, a sizable percentage of the young population (most of my friends included) is not going to pay to watch TV. Particularly if the cable companies keep jacking up their prices - cable costs rise on average 5% a year in the US, and they're not going to stop any time soon.

The point I'm trying to make in this incredibly roundabout way is that there is no way to really fix the Nielsen ratings so that they account for all the people who watch any given show. I haven't even gotten to the people who watch past TV seasons on DVD, or who buy the episodes from iTunes or Amazon. There is some talk of using a vague metric of "engagement" - according to the HuffPost article, Nielsen is also tracking "online discussions, Twitter feeds, Facebook shares and all the other ways that TV fans are interacting with their favorite shows online" - but this concept is nebulous at best and, given the TV shows that are most covered online, would probably lead you to believe that True Blood and Mad Men are the most popular shows on television. The real trick to figuring out a show's popularity in the digital age is going to be combining the traditional viewer count with online numbers and popularity metrics like discussion boards and Facebook and trying to plug the holes as they come up. It's not an easy task, but it could help little shows like Fringe survive as long as they deserve.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How To Fix "True Blood" and "Torchwood"

Two of these things are awesome, and one is not. I'll let you guess which is which. Photo courtesy of

I've been complaining a lot about True Blood and Torchwood: Miracle Day recently. This is partly because there's nothing else on and I have to write about something, and partly because neither show is... well, good. Torchwood is probably more offensively bad, but that's largely due to the heightened expectations created by Children of Earth. Season 3 of True Blood didn't leave me with much hope, so there was less distance to fall.

However, I'm a television believer; I'm not going to completely write off a show because of a bad season or two (unless that show is Glee, which I've just about given up on). So, in the spirit of constructive criticism, I'm going to offer three suggestions to improve these shows, along with examples of shows that get it right. Listen up, Alan Ball and Russell T. Davies, and maybe think about implementing these next season.

1. Plot balance is hard to achieve, but that doesn't mean it's unimportant.

True Blood and Miracle Day lie of the opposite end of the plot balance spectrum; the former is overplotted to the point of chaos, while almost nothing happens on the latter. True Blood needs to make any given plot point last for more than one scene, while Torchwood needs to lose the episodes that don't advance the plot, like last week's "The Middle Men."

Who does it right: The Vampire Diaries

Unlike Miracle Day, The Vampire Diaries is driven by an unstoppable forward momentum that is constantly driving the action. However, she show also knows when a plot point is worthy of playing out over several episodes. The backstory of the sun and moon curse was one of these plot points, unlike Eric's amnesia storyline on True Blood, which is rapidly squandering all the enthusiasm I used to have for it.

2. Trim the fat.

Both these shows have characters and storylines that are boring, annoying, and distracting to the point where they stop the action dead every time they appear. True Blood suffers every time Tara, Debbie and Alcide or the Hotshot werepanthers take center-stage, while Torchwood's Esther Drummond sucks the life from the screen with every appearance. Get rid of them and viewers won't feel the need to channel surf every time they pop up.

Who does it right: Game of Thrones

For a show with a huge number of characters to keep track of, there are none that fail to command attention during their time in the spotlight. There was no point during Game of Thrones' first season when I found myself wishing that a scene would hurry up and end so I could get back to the "good" characters. I certainly can't say the same for either True Blood or Torchwood.

3. Give the show some stakes.

True Blood's biggest problem is that viewers have been trained never to worry about any of the characters, because any dangerous situation will invaribly resolved in the next scene. Torchwood's problem is that the very premise of "Miracle Day" gets rid of death. Vera's demise two episodes ago should have solved this problem by demonstrating that people can, in fact, still die, but the stakes were no higher in the last episode than they had been before. Even Jack's mortality has done nothing to create danger, since his storyline hasn't involved any injuries worse than a papercut since he was poisoned in the second episode. Ironic, since this is the same show that shocked viewers by killing Ianto Jones in Children of Earth.

Who does it right: Battlestar Galactica

The first season may have ended with Bill Adama shot, not beheaded (it's not like the show was written by George R.R. Martin), but the threat of death has been pervasive since the beginning. Opening a show with the near-extinction of humanity will do that. The many deaths that followed only reinforced the sense that anyone could die at any moment, particularly if that character had spent the episode finding happiness and redemption. I have five more episodes to watch, and I'm willing to bet that at least half the original cast bites it before the end, even if all that's left of humanity manages to hang on. The constant threat that the human race will be lost to the universe forever; now, those are some serious stakes.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Five-Seasons Test

Michael Kenneth Williams as The Wire's Omar Little. Photo courtesy of

I recently read a really interesting piece by Steven Hyden of the AV Club. The AV Club is always providing interesting food for thought, but I was particularly fascinated by Hyden's piece, which proposed a new rubric for judging a musical act's greatness, one which the author called the five-albums test. Hyden proposes that, in addition to judging artists based on their popularity and their level of critical acclaim, an additional way to measure an act's excellence is by reviewing their musical output in order to determine whether that artist put out five consecutive great albums. Hyden claims that this new rubric includes artists like Fountains of Wayne and Kanye West in addition to traditional heavy-hitters like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. He also uses this rubric to cast some doubt on the greatness of acts like the Rolling Stones and - sacrilege of sacrilege! - Bob Dylan.

Hyden's piece is interesting enough in its own right, but my attention was piqued by the author's comparison between music and TV shows: "[The five-albums test] just feels right, perhaps because there's a handy parallel with TV shows, which generally have to survive for five seasons in order to reach 100 episodes, which the magic number for syndication." He goes on to acknowledge that many important and influential shows only lasted a few seasons, but maintains that "the greatest and most beloved TV shows in history ... held it together at a high level of quality for at least five seasons."

I certainly won't deny that many of the shows Hyden mentions, such as M*A*S*H, Cheers, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, The Sopranos and The Wire, are undeniable accomplishments. I happen to think that the five seasons of The Wire are the single greatest accomplishment of television, and that those five seasons represent as close to perfection as I've ever seen on TV. I also appreciate that Hyden mentioned great, groundbreaking shows that never made it to the five-season mark, likening Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks to artists like The Sex Pistols and Nirvana. However, I think there are a few holes in Hyden's argument (at least as it pertains to TV - I'll leave it to greater minds than mine to examine his five-album rubric more closely), and they make the five-seasons test an imperfect judge of TV quality.

One of the major problems with the five-seasons test is that the length of a TV season varies wildly, depending on the network that broadcasts a show. While traditional network shows like The Simpsons generally run between twenty and twenty-two episodes per season, HBO series like The Wire only run ten or twelve. The smaller episode order means that the extra budget, time and attention that would normally be devoted to an addition ten or twelve episodes can instead be used to make each episode better. This gives shows broadcast on cable networks a serious advantage compared to those broadcast on the major networks.

Another problem with using the five-season rubric to judge TV shows is the fact that the survival of a TV show is far more dependent on the will of the network executives (as determined by the ratings) than the survival of a musical act is dependent on the record executives. Obviously, if an artist isn't selling any records, the label will be far more likely to part with them, but there's always a chance that the artist can find a new record label. And since records are (generally) much less expensive to produce than TV series, there's less of a chance that a label will drop an artist. There are obviously caveats to this rule - Kurt Cobain died before Nirvana could reach five albums, and the Sex Pistols could never get it together to record a follow-up to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here Come The Sex Pistols - but, by and large, producing five albums is easier than keeping a TV show alive for five seasons. As a Fringe fan, I've come to accept that the fourth-season pick-up is probably just a temporary reprieve, and that there is a high likelihood that the show will never get a fifth season. Does that mean the show's chance for true greatness hinges on the whims of a Fox studio executive?

The biggest problem that I have with the five-season rubric, however, is that TV seasons are generally more a part of a whole than albums are. This is more true with serialized shows like Lost and Fringe, in which the ultimate outcome of the story is just as important as the quality of the individual pieces. I would argue that Lost had five great seasons (and yes, I'm counting season three, so deal), but the finale and the episodes leading up to it were so unsatisfying that it took away from the accomplishment of the preceding seasons. I wouldn't, however, say the same thing about a show like The Simpsons, which has undoubtedly gone down in quality since its first, wonderful six or seven seasons, because The Simpsons was never building to a conclusion in the way that Lost was. There were no questions that would never be answered, or answered in an irritatingly superficial way, so the knowledge of the show's later seasons takes nothing away from the enjoyment of the early episodes.

I'm really not trying to insult Hyden here - I think his piece is fascinating, and is sure to spark countless debates about the way in which "greatness," whether in music or in TV, is determined. And Hyden certainly notes the ways in which his rubric is imperfect. I just happen to think that the five-season judgment ignores a lot of truths about television. Some of the great, brilliant-but-cancelled shows that only lasted a few seasons are probably so beloved because they never descended into creative fatigue. While I still mourn the passing of Better Off Ted, I wouldn't have wanted to see it mired in the repetitive storylines and increasing unlikeability of The Office, and I would never want to witness the sharp realism of Freaks and Geeks turn into the soap-opera that Glee has become. I also shudder to think of the Sex Pistols becoming corporatized in an attempt to appeal to mainstream listeners. It's hard to sustain greatness over the years-long slog of producing a TV show, and only a select few manage to do it without the seams showing. I would rather have a few short seasons of a truly great TV show than have those early seasons soured by a slow decline into mediocrity.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Death Shows That "Miracle Day" Might Have Some Life

Arlene Tur as Dr. Vera Juarez in "Categories of Life," the fifth episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day. Photo courtesy of

I may have been a little hasty in my harsh judgment of Torchwood: Miracle Day. While the show still isn't the equal of the superb Children of Earth, "Categories of Life" marked a definite rise in the series' quality. There were some excellent, tense action scenes, real progress in the search for the Miracle's cause, and an excellent cliffhanger that left Dr. Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur) burning to death inside what was basically a crematorium while Rex (Mekhi Phifer) pounded desperately on the door.

The final, climactic scene was probably the best of the episode, and possibly of the series so far. The lead-up to that climax was also nicely tense, as Rex and Esther (Alexa Havins) infiltrated one of the overflow camps that were set up in the last installment, while Gwen and Rhys, now back on their native turf, infiltrated the camp where Gwen's father had been taken. It was nice to see some British accents back in the mix, and the tension of the parallel storylines was effective as both the Welsh and American contingents got themselves into a mess they couldn't escape from. The final realization that Phicorp was using the camps to burn people who were still alive, albeit braindead, was nicely staged as well, with Gwen realizing what was happening just as a desperate Rex filmed the crematorium (or "module") that held Dr. Juarez as it went up in flames.

The exposition in this episode consisted of finding out that governments were now categorizing people into three groups: Category Three, which consists of normal, healthy humans; Category Two, people who have a persistent injury or illness; and Category One, people who are braindead or in comas. The latter category, we learn by the end of the episode, is basically just providing fodder for the burning happening in the modules. While we still don't know why the forced cremations are happening, and who is ordering them, the existence of the modules provides much higher stakes in the ongoing story, particularly for Gwen, whose father has just been reclassified as Category One. These people may not be dead, but we can assume, given what we know about the Miracle, that anyone who is burned to ash in one of the modules isn't coming back out.

The parallel storyline, featuring Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), was less compelling. Pullman did an excellent job delivering his final speech, in which he asserted that humans had now evolved to become angels, and the speech was nicely cross-cut with footage of Vera's death-by-module. However, it's beginning to seem that the writers are just putting Danes in a holding pattern until they need him for something. His character arc is the same in every episode; he starts out on top of the world and in demand, then his popularity seems to be endangered, and five minutes from the end of the episode he pulls of some sort of spontaneous plan that puts him back on top. While the idea of humans becoming angels will surely throw some nice new crazies into the mix, and while Owald's newfound ideology is sure to come into conflict with Phicorp, the people who are burning these "angels" alive, over the course of this particular episode nothing really changed for him. And since Jack (John Barrowman) was left out of the recon mission, he got to spend the episode doing nothing but trying to intimidate Oswald. The only good scene he got was when, pretending to be Rex's boyfriend, he got to play the "worried lover" role in a completely over-the-top fashion that ended with Rex flipping him the bird. Funny, if a bit juvenile.

While this episode certainly had its problems - I didn't even mention how obvious it was that the camp director was going to snap and do something to Vera, and Esther continues to be boring - it was the first episode since the initial hour in which I actually wanted to see what happens next. If this trend keeps up and Oswald actually gets to take part in the main story, the second half of the season could be a lot better than the first.

Stray Thoughts
  •  The mysterious guy talking to Jilly (Lauren Ambrose) was supposed to come off creepy, but to me he just came off as a douchy frat-boy type. Not intimidating.
  • What was Jack trying to get Oswald to say in his speech?
  • If Phicorp caused the miracle, why are they now trying to get rid of people?
  • The supposed "storage" room that housed people without insurance was a nice bit of commentary on the current state of the American health-care system, as written by a bunch of British people. A little on-the-nose, but well done nonetheless.
  • If Vera was going to die, it's a shame she didn't take off those awesome boots before they too get burned into nothingness. Other people need nice clothes too!
  • Gwen's reaction to her daughter's new, grandma-chosen, entirely pink outfit was awesome, and totally Gwen.
  • More Rhys! I love Rhys.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

True Blood: Eric's Vampire Nature

David Tennant as the Doctor in "Human Nature" and Alexander Skarsgard as Eric in "You Smell Like Dinner." Photos courtesy of and

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love the Doctor Who two-parter "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood," and anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows that I am enjoying the hell out of Eric's amnesia storyline on True Blood. It wasn't until the most recent episode, "I Wish I Was the Moon," that I realized that these two things were connected. Much of my fascination with the new, memory-wiped Eric Northman has to do with my deep and abiding love for those two Doctor Who episodes.

I put this together during the last episode, when Eric, captured by Bill and knowing that he was about to face the "true death," told Pam that he didn't want to become the "viking god" Eric again; that he didn't want to know the man who, along with Pam, "killed and fucked" his way through humanity. Sweet, guileless new Eric wanted to remain the man he had become, the man who loved Sookie and would do anything to protect her. Anyone who has seen "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" will see the similarities. In these episodes, David Tennant's Doctor becomes completely and fully human in order to escape from the titular ruthless family. He settles down in England under the name John Smith, teaching at a boy's school and falling in love with Joan Redfern (Jessica Stevenson). He knows nothing of his past as The Doctor.

Eric's line to Pam is heavily reminiscent of John Smith's reaction when he finds out his true identity, and is forced to make a choice: whether to remain John Smith and live happily with Joan, or whether to become the Doctor, the man who is "like night and the storm and the heart of the sun." When told by his companion Martha that the Doctor never gave her instructions on what to do if he should fall in love, he is horrified, fearful of dying in order to become a man to whom it would never occur that he might fall in love. It makes his ultimate decision to turn back into the Doctor and save the world painful and tragic rather than triumphant, and emphasizes the loneliness of the last Time Lord.

The Doctor and Eric are similar characters in many ways, even without their amnesia arcs echoing one another. They are both deeply lonely men, constantly living with the knowledge that they are different and that they cannot have the one thing they want: love, whether it be with Joan Redfern or Sookie Stackhouse. Eric is violent and frightening, but the Doctor is as well, a man whose name in Lorna Bucket's language does not mean "healer," but "warrior." And they are both marked by deep tragedy; Eric by the murders of his family and the death of his maker, the Doctor by the extinction of his own people at his hands. The personas they take on when their memories are lost are their only chance at redemption. Redemption through love.

I know, as (I hope) do the True Blood writers, that Eric can't remain amnesiac forever. The vampires need their Viking God to defeat the witch who wants them all to burn. Bill needs his sheriff. Pam needs her maker. Having seen "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood," I know how Eric's relationship with Sookie must end. As beautiful and hopeful as he is now, he must at some point go back to being his true self, and break her heart in the process. Let's just hope that, like the Doctor, he learns a few things along the way.

Monday, August 1, 2011

How Prevalent is the "Teen Show Barbie Body"?

The girls of 90210. Photo courtesy of

A friend recently recommended that I check out a piece by Anne Helen Petersen about the way in which teen shows promote a very specific body image, which Petersen calls the "Teen Show Barbie Body." This particular physical appearance - exemplified in the shot above of the girls of the CW's 90210 - is described as "tall, relatively small breasts, pilates-toned ... and long, slightly wavy hair, parted slightly to the side, with no bangs ... their facial features are all remarkably similar, which is to say, Anglicized." The shows that Petersen specifically calls out are 90210, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and my beloved The Vampire Diaries.

While I certainly agree that TV shows in general, and teen dramas in particular, present a problematic body image that millions of teenage girls are exposed to when they sit down to enjoy the twists and turns of their favorite shows. However, that doesn't mean I completely agree with Petersen; I have a number of problems with her argument, not the least of which is her excessive use of commas. I won't harp on that particular problem (it's just my inner grammarian making an appearance), but I do take issue with three of her points; one, that she leaves Glee out of the equation; two, that none of these shows' stars will never move on to "true stardom" because their appearance is not "marked by some distinct feature"; and three, that none of these actresses resemble "normal" teenagers, and that their lack of normality creates a problem.

Part of the reason that I'm so bothered by Petersen's analysis is her use of The Vampire Diaries, one of my favorite shows, as an example. Loyal readers of Pencils Down, Pass the Remote know how much I love TVD, and they also know that my love for the phenomenal Nina Dobrev knows no bounds. To hear Dobrev - who plays two completely different characters so brilliantly that I often forget they're portrayed by the same actress - lumped in with the interchangeable sticks of 90210 as a "decent" actress with no potential for movie stardom makes my blood boil.

I also happen to think that Petersen largely leaves out the most egregious offender, barely mentioning Fox's Glee, a television phenomenon whose audience is probably greater than that of the previous four shows combined. The major problem I have with Glee - well, one of many, many problems - is the way the show constantly preaches that being "unique" and "different" is okay, while showing through the writing that, while being unique is all well and good, a girl can only land a boyfriend if she's stick thin with good hair (or if she's Lauren Zizes, and her entire purpose is to redeem Puck as a character). Petersen does point out that the majority of the women on Glee would fit in perfectly well with the cast of 90210, but she fails to bring up the offensive lack of storylines - romantic or otherwise - for the members of the cast who actually look different. Exhibit A: Mercedes. Exhibit B: Coach Beiste. Exhibits C-Z: Also Mercedes. Plus, she leaves out the fact that Lea Michele started out the series looking like this:

Photo courtesy of
but by the start of season two had dropped a considerable amount of weight and now looked like this:
Photo courtesy of
The point being that, while there was an entire episode dedicated to Michele's Rachel keeping her stereotypically Jewish nose, there has never once been a mention of the fact that she dropped two dress sizes from her already small frame before the premiere of season 2.

Petersen also claims that none of these "teen barbie" actresses will ever go on to "true stardom" - by which she means film stardom, the ranking of which so far above TV stardom is material for an entirely different piece - arguing that these girls are not distinctive enough to see true success as a film star. Petersen provides a list of actors who are distinguished by being "beautiful, inexactly," ranging from Greta Garbo to Angelina Jolie to George Clooney. Now, I would certainly take issue with the idea that Clooney is not conventionally attractive, but instead I want to point out some of the stars she conveniently leaves off the list. One of the most notable is sex symbol and movie star Rita Hayworth, an undeniable screen siren who only became famous after undergoing an extensive makeover to make her appear more Caucasian and strip away the Spanish physicality of Margarita Carmen Cansino (Hayworth's birth name).

For a contemporary example, look no further than Brad Pitt, conventionally attractive partner of the "inexactly beautiful" Jolie. I would argue that, in recent years, Pitt has become a much bigger film star than Jolie, who at this point is known largely because of her tabloid exploits while Pitt has managed to separate his reputation as an actor from the constant paparazzi coverage. Pitt has succeeded as a film star in spite of his conventional good looks, and I happen to think that Dobrev, with her classic beauty and her formidable talent, could probably do the same.

I also take issue with Petersen's argument that shows like Freaks and Geeks and Veronica Mars are inherently better than the teen dramas she singles out because they present more "realistic" high school students. I love Freaks and Geeks just as much as the next critic, but that's not the kind of show that The Vampire Diaries is. It's a show about freaking vampires! It doesn't have to be realistic. And while most high school students don't look like Nina Dobrev, there are very few television actors that resemble high school students. Veronica Mars' Kristen Bell is considerably better looking than most of the people I went to high school with, as is Freaks and Geeks' James Franco. Petersen doesn't seem to understand that television actors, at least in the US, are all better looking than the vast majority of the populace. That's why they become actors.I'm not arguing that this isn't a problem, but it's not a problem with these particular shows; it's a proble, with TV and movies in general, and the culture of beauty and sameness that they promote.

However, I don't think that the teens on The Vampire Diaries are as unrealistic-looking as Petersen seems to think. Of course, when you post promotional photos like this:

Photo courtesy of
 the actress is going to look unrealistic. It's a photo meant to promote the show in which Dobrev is wearing designer clothes, has had her hair and makeup done for a photo shoot, and has probably been airbrushed within an inch of her life. Meanwhile, when Dobrev appears as Elena she looks like this:

Photo courtesy of
She's still thin and beautiful (Nina Dobrev would look good in a paper bag), but she's dressed like a normal high school student in jeans, sneakers and a jacket. Her hair is styled, but it isn't "the type of hair that is impossible or requires a tremendous amount of labor" as Petersen claims. Maybe it's just because of the environment in which I grew up, but many of the girls I went to school with showed up every morning at eight a.m. with shiny, flatironed, salon-perfect hair. I certainly wasn't one of those girls - I have curly hair that is extremely difficult to tame and I happen to value my sleep - but to me, Elena's hair doesn't look out of the ordinary, and neither do her clothes.
I certainly don't think that television, movies and media promote a healthy body image for women, and I also have my own set of body-image issues that are, in all likelihood, the result of the constant media barrage of impossibly thin, flawless women that grace TV shows, films and magazines. I just don't think it's fair for Petersen to pick on talented young actresses like Nina Dobrev or her costars Candica Accola and Katerina Graham. These girls may be thin and pretty, but none of them are as terrifyingly skinny as the girls of 90210, and they're also more talented (and on a better show). It's certainly not fair of her to argue that none of these girls will ever become film stars because of her inaccurate idea that great film stars are only famous because of their distinctive features, rather than their talent and charisma. Let's stop picking on the casts of teen soap operas, and instead focus on the real problem: magazine editors, casting directors and studio executives who have created a pop-culture world in which the only acceptable body type is one that very few women can ever hope to attain.