Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Caught Between a 30 Rock and a Hard Place

Vulture surely got a result they weren't expecting when they pitted Sex and the City against 30 Rock in their latest Sitcom Smackdown, but they probably got the result they wanted. Nothing sells web hits to hordes of angry internet users craving to be heard quite like a losing battle between two projects that represent entirely different things to entirely different audiences, but with one heavily slanted towards a modern day online community. Starlee Kine's piece is a finely written and laid out examination of how and why both series work to their defined mission statements, but how her personal preferences for how television can and should work made her pick Sex and the City as the winner. Take this paragraph a nice example:

Del Close, one of the creator’s of modern sketch improv, wrote a book that laid out what he considered the foundation of comedy. In a nutshell, it’s “Be honest. Don’t go for the jokes. There’s nothing funnier than the truth.” What I find so unusual about SATC is that it allowed its characters to express that they were dissatisfied and sad. If they felt lonely, they said it, without meta commentary and while still keeping it funny. There’s very much a pre-SATC world and a post- one, and there is something refreshing and authentic about this show being able to have done this.

It's a sentiment I agree with and I am impressed that Vulture didn't pull some backstage shenanigans and make Kine go back and award 30 Rock simply because it's cooler and the hip thing to do. Where I think Vulture went wrong is by going out of their way to post a separate entry featuring the greatest hits of the worst insults and slams against the article as well as its (female, remember) writer. Granted, they also included many that criticised Vulture themselves, but let's not kid ourselves here - these people wouldn't be so angry at them if 30 Rock had lost to something more credible than that show about the four old ladies who shop and fuck a lot. While I indeed chuckled at some of the comments - I particularly laughed at "THUNDERROAD74"'s observation that Sex and the City is "dated" compared to 30 Rock, which is a fool's argument since the latter started two and a half years after the final episode of the former. Furthermore, the final season of Sex is actually an exceptionally well-crafted from a technically point of view and looks a lot better than 30 Rock's more typical, albeit shiny and modern, network sitcom aesthetic - the Vulture piece sadly appears to give encouragement to the back-slapping dopes that revel in sexist gibberish. Comments that tend to focus much on Sex and the City's perceived superficiality, even though anybody who actually watched the series from beginning to end would know that very superficiality was both deliberate and commented on by its makers. Dem bitches be cray, etc (and would rather make jokes about anal sex than the equally fine comedic art of farts).

Jenna: Wow! How ‘Sex And The City’ are we right now? I’m Samantha, [points at Phoebe] you’re Charlotte, and [points to Liz] you’re the lady at home who watches it!
30 Rock 1.20 - “Cleveland”, src
Of course, one just needs to look at the comments on negative reviews of geek-friendly Hollywood movies to see that people have skewed views of online criticism. If their team loses, so to speak, that doesn't necessarily make it bad writing and vice versa. I find it frustrating when people say something is a good review simply because it echoes their own sentiments about the product at hand. I'm not quite sure how any rational person could read Starlee Kine's article and not think that, never mind the end result, it's a well-written, well-researched piece of television writing. It's insightful to both programs and isn't dismissive either way. In the end it comes down to personal biases of what makes better television and it's a shame that Vulture sullied Kine's rather brave stance ("brave" in the entirely hyperbolic sense of the world since we're discussing little more than one website's article) with that sequel of sorts celebrating people whose comments leaned so heavily on sexism and... er, well, no, mostly just sexism. Feels like they've undermined their erudite writer just for the sake of troll-baiting lulz. One commenter calls Kine a "teenage writer" because, lol, girls like clothes and shoes and boys and can't handle all those elaborate 30 Rock jokes about Blimpies and Alec Baldwin's effeminate assistant. Another says she's a "fine writer" but "missed the point", and another person thought the result made them want to "sit on a knife!" Please do. If you read more of the original article's comment section like I did then trust me, there was plenty more where that came from.

(For what it's worth, "eastsidegal" at least was able to find a sense of humour in all of the commotion: "I couldn't help but wonder when this contest spiraled out of control.")

Personally I love 30 Rock with its ability to tell more jokes in a minute than many can in 22 (or 42) and lovably neurotic Liz at the centre. However, I too would have thrown my vote to HBO's landmark series. I have a stronger association with it on a personal level - it was the first television show I watched that I have to sneak around to watch - and actually find it more rewatchable, which is perhaps where Kine is coming from, too. No matter how many times I've seen this episode or that, the jokes still land as well today as they did back that. For all six seasons I was invested in each of the four main characters - the show was a fantasy for the most part, but the actors made their characters feel positively real. That's something that 30 Rock never really achieved and it's a reason why I continue to toot the horn for a series like Golden Girls, Cougar Town, and Friends. Effortlessly blending the comedy with genuine emotion. I loved watching Jenna Maroney's extravagant diva antics as much as anybody, but occasionally Sex and the City would hit upon an incisive and funny observation about the world, even just the fantasy world the characters inhabitied, that would hit a more potent note as well as tickling the funny bone. It was a show that was almost always working on a level that the instantly dismissive could never hope to view it on and it deserves respect.

Liz Lemon dresses up as Princess Leia in order to get out of jury duty, so of course the anonymous army would barrack for her. It's just a shame that a series as refreshingly taboo-busting and aimed at an all too under-served audience (not to mention starring a bunch of actors of an all too under-represented age) appears to have been thrown under the bus of time and internet snark. One just needs to look at the weekly assault on Lena Dunham and Girls to see that a show that doesn't go out of its way to get a certain demographic on its side is doomed to forever have to play catch up. For that matter, I'm sure you've read this hilarious piece at CollegeHumor that hypothesises "if people talked about Seinfeld like they talk about Girls". Wonderful, biting stuff that. Starlee Kine made, I think, the right decision, but her most satisfactory moment was writing a piece of criticism that was informed and insightful. Which is more than we can say for commenter "blizzardkrieg":

"I didn't actually read the article, I just scrolled down to see who won and then swore."

Indeed.

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