I love shows about shows. From Dyke Van Dyke to 30 Rock I find the manic activity that comes from putting on a show to be fascinating and fun. I find plays about plays, movies about movies, even meta music videos such as Blink 182’s Rock Show to be good times. The modern archetype is The Larry Sanders Show which ping-pongs from the show itself to the backstage maelstrom that the show devolves into. This was Garry Shandling’s homage to a late night talk show complete with crusty producer, needy sidekick and zany office staff. If you want to check out Garry Shandling’s effort before Larry – it was far more offbeat and ahead of its time – Its Garry Shandling’s Show was a show about putting on a show. Garry played himself and the show was very original because it was about putting on the show we were watching. It was all meta, pop culture skewering stuff. He was basically spoofing himself as the show was happening. The concept was great and the jokes were funny.
When details about HBO’s effort The Newsroom came out I was pretty pumped. I like the hustle and bustle of newsrooms from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to WKRP and movies like The Paper. But I was left nonplussed by the latest Aaron Sorkin joint. Jeff Daniels is basically Anderson Cooper being the voice of reason, truth and justice in the morass of cable news. In an overview the show is ham-handed. (But with Sorkin that is like saying my steak is too meaty.) You sort of know that going in. The odd thing is how it deals with female characters. They can’t seem to write emails and are obsessed with what dudes think of them. Then there is the character of Sloan – played by Olivia Munn. She’s a babe – no doubt about it. When you’ve been on the cover of Maxim and Playboy, that’s your thing, and us straight males love you for it. My most hated piece of dialogue in any piece of writing is the obligatory hot woman saying, “I may be a hot but that doesn’t mean…blah, blah, blah,” because it’s cheap and trite. Only men who are obsessed with the hot women would write things like that. I work in an office with some sly foxes. Not Olivia Munn quality but some solid talent. Do I do a victory lap when Lisa from Sales dresses like an Earls waitress for our staff meetings? Yes, but that’s a small part of the day, not enough for a plot point. Basically, we don’t care how hot you are as long as you do your job. And if you have to start a sentence with, “I may not look like an economist but….” that says more about you than your bosses.
We know going in that there are going to be pretty people on TV. I hate when it’s pointed out in such a clunky manner. It is a non-ironic, truly genuine plight of the “hot chick’s burden”. Indeed, the attractive work hard on their physiques and profiles – but are we to root for Sloan as the hot underdog? Are we supposed to hate her? Olivia could do a semi-comic series or film based on the hot chick’s burden or ludicrousness thereof. But to present it sincerely is baffling. And then let’s not forget the torrent of the blogosphere that it is actually the “white” hot chick’s burden. As there were no black people on Friends, or on Girls and we start a whole other rigmarole.
I could not finish Season 1 of The Newsroom. I once met the nation’s foremost authority on Santa Claus who ragged on Shakespeare. How his bits were good, the writing, the poetry was great but the plays, the plots were below reproach. To him Hamlet wasn’t a hero, but a ditherer – and he felt the standard, everybody get married/everybody dies endings was a cop-out. I sort of feel the same thing about The Newsroom; if you just take some nice speeches, they’re okay standalone writing but woven in a show – I feel it doesn’t work. As if the pearls of wisdom are written and then shoehorned into episodes.
The finest newsroom stuff is in the Canadian version of The Newsroom which had a nice following for its few episodes. But a plucky upstart was on in the mid-nineties from Australia called Breaking News in the US or Frontline down under. It’s about a show that was part Dateline or 20/20 and part Hard Copy. You see youngsters, before judge shows were on all the time the airwaves were peppered with very aggressive quasi-news shows filled with the tabloid journalism of hidden camera stunts, paparazzi stalking, and just general Nazi and booby features. Frontline shows how these shows are put together as a fast-paced sitcom. The lead, Mike Moore, is a sort of parody of newsman in the Ron Burgandy/Ted Baxter ilk which in itself I’m not a fan of. Murphy Brown could not be the ditzy airhead anchor that male talking heads are. But that’s a personal thorn. Moore has good hair, a nice voice, but is stupid. Although they do portray him of the master of the gotcha or “head kicker ” interview. He is highlighted with Brooke the reporter. She’s hot. She’s a bitch. She knows it. Everybody knows it. It’s just a fact – and the show draws a lot more jokes and drama than Sorkin’s pork fisting does. My favourite is Marty the beleaguered investigative reporter complete with bags under eyes and trench coat. Marty is upset at Mike’s status, and acerbic at Brooke’s look. There is Jeffery who is Mike’s only friend. Mike is rich, dates hot chicks, and out of touch with the working class man. His only buddy is the weather man, who is basically the audience. He points out Mike’s foibles then grovels to stay friends, and Mike dismisses him casually and often punts his thumb down as Jeff gets too big a star. Frontline’s key is entertainment from misery. Abortions, catholic pedophilia, ethnic strife, are all dealt with a certain charm and whimsy. I despise the term “nothing sacred” – by its simple mention you admit that some things are sacred and you’re so cool. In Frontline, money is sort of sacred, but glory is more so. Who gets the scoop, who gets the awards, who gets her own prime-time special? If you build up just one thing as sacred then the other stuff is now is less so and therefore can be ridiculed. As an art form I like when dumb things are kept sacred.
The same Aussie comic troupe is responsible for my other current youtube fave, Funky Squad (both of which are available on YouTube – complete episodes and some behind the scenes documentaries). I was originally told to watch this in Grade Seven. My parents were bitchin’ in that as long as I got up for school I could stay up late. My junior high science teacher was peculiar dude – who would spend recess talking about classic TV and rare finds. He told me to watch Funky Squad, midnights on CKND. CKND after dark was awesome. MAD TV the night before it was on Fox, Wrestling from the USA Network, Viva Variety from Comedy Central and Funky Squad from Australia. Funky Squad was a seventies cop show send up. But done more as Austin Powers in a homage than an Airplane! spoof. It was presented as a human cartoon. When doing these types of shows, one has walk the tight rope of camera winking and maintaining the genre. Funky Squad achieve this by making a long SCTV or SNL sketch. But they have endings.
Pretty much everything has to be post-post, neo-modern, retro-chic these days. We both love nostalgia – when we are all thinner, cooler and hipper and hate it because we are all lamer, dumber, and less confident. But I like the self-aware nostalgic trend in TV. I like how TV itself doesn’t give these shows glory. Academy Awards went to movies like Shakespeare in Love, The Artist, and Argo – because they were about the art and the art is the best. The Simpsons never got the industry respect in their hay day because Seinfeld and Frasier took home Emmy’s. Community and Portlandia are cult hits at best. Fans of these shows can take to international lengths to discover new – old meta-fun.
Raphael Saray is the Northern Saskatchewan emcee/ “hype man” for “Alan Gerber’s Soul Review.” Featuring former Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley and Janis Joplin band guitarist Alan Gerber, and is the future ex-husband to Alan’s high heeled daughter Hannah.