The fairer sex

I usually shy away from narcissistic media.  Kismet (a play about a play), Tropic Thunder (a movie about a movie), Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy(a book about a book, ok, it’s a stretch).  Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is a great example of narcissistic media, feeding off a belief in the brilliance of one’s field often comes across as neither entertaining nor illuminating.

Episodes struck me as such a show and so I ignored it until a friend recommended it.  I found it cheeky and self-deprecating, this show about a British writing couple trying to recreate success in LA has its moments of both humor and introspection.

It is the character of Beverly, the British wife/writer (Tamsin Greig) that has most intrigued me.  Beverly is a chronically pessimistic, unhappy, nit-picking shrill compared to her just-go-along husband who is willing to take on all setbacks as an exciting challenge.  Her one-liners are what we wish we were witty enough to think much less say, and her frank portrayal of reality in the face of so much Hollywood fakery helps us sympathize with her alienation.  But I can never really get behind her in the face of her husband, who seeks only to  please all parties enough to do what he loves.  Their dynamic is the real heart of the show (and, one suspects, the show-within-the-show) and anyone who’s ever had to drag a loved one into something interesting can relate.

In an earlier post, I pointed out that many of the female leads today are the fun-blocking, nagging wife roles.  These women hold back those lovable, goofy, well-meaning men from occasionally enjoying themselves.  This isn’t new to the small screen, Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up was criticized for casting all the women as balls-and-chain to the likable guys and their pursuit of identity.  Women are being portrayed as the grounded, realistic sex forcing the dreamers to accept their plight.  I struggle to think of a single fun-but-not-flighty female lead currently on (though I’m hardly an expert on everything currently playing).  Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, Claire Dumphy on Modern Family, Fionna Glenanne on Burn Notice, even Marge from the Simpsons are all downers (the ensemble cast of Community stands out).

Comedians have been playing up the stereotypes of the sexes for ages.  But shows like Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer managed to succeed with female characters that aimed high and kept it light, though its hard to mention either show without reflexively saying “strong female role model,” that’s how unique of a situation it is.  Come on TV-land, let’s see a different type of woman.

Media type: Television
From: Episodes
Title: episode four
Watch it at: (sadly just episode one)

SLOW – Red Light Ahead!

Or maybe yellow light.

I’ve noticed NBC has really clawed its way back to the top of prime time network comedy after its post-Seinfeld, post-Friends collapse.  30 Rock and the Office have stood out, but they’re not quite enough.  NBC reached out this year with a new show called Perfect Couples‘ and since it’s Hollywood we shouldn’t be surprised that a rival network has a show that touches on the same theme: Traffic Light.

Both shows are about the wacky trials and travails of the 30-something crowd.  Whether you’re 30, 60, or 15 you can understand the painfulness of becoming an adult: leaving behind the near-limitless potential that defines childhood.  Or at least, that’s what the shows are hoping for.  It’s interesting that this “growing up is comically hard” theme used to be the domain of Friends, Scrubs, and even the Office.  You know, shows about 20-somethings?  Here of course goes the obligatory line about how this generation seems to hit milestones later and later.

Still, PC and TL have their moments, mainly pushed by the more outlandish of the characters.  Unfortunately, this means that TL is doomed for mid-season replacement as its lone wildcard is the commitment-phobe Ethan, played cheekily by Brit Kris Marshall.  While funny and providing room for a conveyor belt of eye-candy guest stars, there’s only so much of the goofy bachelor routine we’ll handle.  And tonight showed that the other two couples are lacking both the comic plots and acting chops to really carry the show.  PC on the other hand has two “crazy” couples (the ultra-devoted, and the ultra-impulsive) that are written and acted well, and even lets the straight-man couple Dave & Julia have their moments of insanity.

But these early-30s relationship shows are like bite-sized candy bars: the initial kick feels good but there’s no lasting satisfaction.  After you enter a social scene that doesn’t involve a keg and flirting banter about midterms, we all can relate to the sacrifice of some individuality for security, the unrealized dreams we had for careers, and the distance of friends who’ve succumbed to careers or family.  These are all comic things that we can laugh about it, but in the end a 30-minute sitcom needs to make us escape our lives a little.  It can’t be like a stand-up routine, just exaggerated observational humor.  Shows like Arrested Development, Community, Seinfeld, and Futurama were amazing because they took characters that were simply unreal and let them play in situations that the audience knew didn’t exist!  What’s more, these shows appealed to anyone not just those reflected by the white, middle-class cast and situation.

I think it’s at this point that I point out it’s a crime that both shows basically stole their theme from the League.  FX’s solid late-night comedy about a group of guys who socialize over fantasy football does a much less lame version of showing men reverting to inner boy and carving out some irresponsibility from their lives.  And not a single character can claim to be the straight man in this comedic group.  Also, unlike its network counters, the League manages to show the women as full characters, not just nags or emotional wrecks; surprising for a network that exclusively targets men.


Media type: Television
From: Traffic Light
Title:  Credit Balance
Watch it at:

The agony of choice

What to start this blog with?

I’m an OCD type: after skimming the current week’s Economist, I put it in a pile of magazines (stacked chronologically) to revisit in my spare time.  Which means I’m finally getting to the double-edition put out at year’s end.  As one would expect, there are a number of gems in this issue.  One of the highlights was a much-forwarded article on the futility of going for a PhD (popular in the academic circles).  Of course the issue also had an article on the history of the modern suit…

Still, I was struck by the insight of ‘You Choose’.  In it the authors examine how the increasing amount of choice has come to paralyze our decision-making abilities, decreasing sales, increasing frustration, and fueling a whole new branch of self-help.

On first glance, more choice seems like more money: diminishing returns, but always better.  Try finding a vegetarian-friendly restaurant in a small town or watching a good sitcom during the summer.  Indeed, in an age where inequality seems a product of limited options available to the disadvantaged we are indoctrinated with the power of choice.

But it’s not always so.  ‘You Choose’ makes good use of available marketing studies as cautionary tales.  A California grocery chain found that customers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam after a taste test if there were only six flavors as opposed to 24.  This despite the fact that more shoppers stopped by with more flavors.  Head & Shoulders saw a 10% uptick in sales when it downsized from 26 to 15 varieties of shampoo.

The article quotes very-informed sounding individuals who point out that greater choice means a greater chance of finding the perfect choice, and our frustration at failing to find said perfect choice rises as we waste more time searching.  As an undergrad I experienced this same feeling searching through an exhaustive course directory looking for an elective; and then again when it came time to purchase my first car (Scion tC, no regrets on that front).

When reading this argument I was struck by a particular predicament I find myself in.  As a graduating doctoral student I am faced with a plethora of choices right now: which companies to apply for a job, which city do I want to live in, is my girlfriend ‘the one’?

This last point may sound unrelated, but recently I heard the analysis that when to marry is at its basic an economics question: is my mate better than what I’m likely to find if I continue to look, discounting the time?  In other words, consider finding a spouse like picking a dollar bill from a hat.  The denomination of bills in that hat ranges from $1 to $100, and the proportion of each bill is inverse to its value.  If you pull a $20 are you likely to throw it back and keep picking?  Of course you are if you know there’s only a few more $20s than $50s.  But what if you know that for every five $20s there’s but a single $50 but 100 $1s?

Thus, in a world where we are connected to an ever-wider group of people of ever-more diverse backgrounds and personalities, our choice for spouse is almost exponentially greater than the previous generation (and mind-boggling greater than their parents’).  Similarly, the author hypothesizes that modern women have greater choice on when to have children and feel ever more stressed about having a family.

Am I arguing against choice because of my own indecisiveness (and stereotypical fear of lost youth)?  No.  More choice means a wider availability of niches, supporting more individualized tastes.  Amazon makes more money off all the books in its “long tail” then on the few blockbusters that Dan Brown produces.  More choice means more competition from businesses, driving down prices and increasing the pressure for innovation.  Of course, being a newly minted PhD, the current plethora of choice in the labor market means fewer offers and lower pay!


Media type: Magazine Article
From: The Economist – Dec 16 2010
Title: ‘You Choose’
See it at: