Sundae TV Awards 2020

What a weird year for television. What a weird year to even be talking about television. Set aside the obviously extreme circumstances in which much of this TV season has occurred and still so much has changed. The finales of Orange is the New Black and BoJack Horseman were twin sunsets on the brief moment in time when it seemed like streaming television would be a brave new frontier of ambition, innovation and experimentation, just as the arrival of Disney+ and HBO Max confirmed it would just be another battleground for giant corporations. Disney put so much money behind their FYC campaigns that Ramy (Hulu), What We Do in the Shadows (FX) and even The Mandalorian (Disney+) racked up tons of Emmy nominations out of nowhere. And then, of course, there’s the situation we’re all in, the almost total shutdown of television production, the glut of Zoom episodes we’ve thankfully managed to avoid watching, the insane spectacle of John Krasinski making a good news aggregator YouTube show to raise people’s spirits and then selling the concept to CBS All Access without him attached. The finale of The Blacklist was only half-shot, so they animated the rest of the episode and aired it on actual television.

It feels kind of absurd to look back on this year and talk about how good the television was, but here we are. The Sundae TV Awards 2020. We can’t really claim these are what we think should have been nominated at the Emmys, or should win, since there’s an impossible amount of television to watch in the world. But if we were the only two members of the Television Academy and we could nominate any TV that aired in the most recent television season (from June 2019 to May 2020), and we only cared about the seven major awards in drama and comedy, this is what you’d get. 

You can see each of our full slates of nominees at the bottom of the post. 

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Westerns, Part 2

Two years ago, I wrote about starting to watch westerns. It was mostly about the gap between westerns as I imagined they would be through cultural osmosis and westerns that I actually watched: defending westerns from the preconceptions of those who haven’t seen them. I was rejecting the view of westerns as a reactionary monolith. No genre is as uniform as the popular imagination frequently remembers westerns to have been.

I’m not sure if the rhetorical function of the western in popular discourse has shifted or if I’ve just noticed different parts of it, but I haven’t seen much of “westerns, of course, went into decline when audiences became uncomfortable with racist depictions of Native Americans” lately. Instead, westerns seem to be more often invoked as… a defense of superhero movies. The westerns/superheroes comparison is probably as old as the contemporary superhero boom – westerns, the story goes, dominated Hollywood for a time, just as superheroes have in the last few years – but was kicked into overdrive when Martin Scorsese called Marvel movies “theme parks” and a million nerds lost their minds. There were a lot of arguments made against Scorsese, from calling him a racist for not thinking Black Panther is extremely important to long Twitter threads of ugly CGI landscapes or medium shots of actors looking sad to “prove” that Marvel movies are cinema.

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Double Features #7: Genre Buddies

The worst thing a cover of a song can be is faithful. The point of a cover should be to shift a song in a different direction, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix transforming “All Along the Watchtower” from a cryptic folk song to an apocalyptic howl of electric madness or Take That turning Barry Manilow’s dark, dramatic piano ballad “Could It Be Magic” into a synth-driven dance track. It’s fascinating how a change in genre – something so often treated as cosmetic, even superficial – can make the same song sound completely different.

I wouldn’t describe any of these films as covers of each other exactly, but I feel a similar thrill watching them together and thinking about them, the thrill of common elements changed utterly by their context, style and genre. Like they’re singing from the same hymn sheet, but with wildly different approaches to the material. Some of the shifts are smaller than others, but all of them reflect on each other in really interesting ways, and most importantly, all of them rule.

Here’s five more double features.

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Staring into the Great Unknown in Mistress America

There’s a scene roughly 20 minutes into Noah Baumbach’s 2015 film Mistress America where Brooke (Greta Gerwig) takes her younger step-sister to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke) to the restaurant she is planning to start. The shutter anticlimactically opens up to reveal an empty, echoey series of rooms. But as Brooke walks through them, she tells Tracy about her vision for the place and it gradually blossoms into life in our minds. “It would be like a community center and a restaurant and a store, all in one… It would be the place that you, like, love to be.” Tracy is whisked away in this vision, thrilled by Brooke’s passionate explanation and the restaurant’s nostalgic name: “Mom’s.”

In a later scene, Brooke pitches the restaurant to her former boyfriend and potential investor Dylan (Michael Chernus). She stammers nervously and fidgets awkwardly as she tries to explain it again: “It’s a restaurant… but also, like, where you cut hair. Can I start over?” Brooke finally gets her time in the spotlight, her potential big break to finally realise her dream, and she chokes. 

These two scenes perfectly capture everything about Brooke Cardinas. On first impressions she appears supremely self-confident, delivering a seemingly unlimited stream of entrepreneurial ideas and pithy witticisms that Tracy quickly falls for. Brought together by the imminent wedding of Tracy’s mother and Brooke’s father, Brooke is everything that Tracy, an insecure, rudderless college freshman, aspires to be: driven, wildly-passionate, and unstoppable. A resident of Times Square (where they first meet, Brooke stretching out her arms to yell “welcome to the great white way!”), she is the kind of person who becomes the center of attention in any situation, a confident modern American woman who always appears both one step behind and ahead of everyone around her. 

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You Should Watch Family Plot

Quentin Tarantino loves saying that directing is a young man’s game. He’ll talk about not wanting to end up like Billy Wilder, as if the bum notes at the end of Wilder’s career make him a vaguely pathetic figure, instead of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time who happened to end on a bad run. Tarantino will compare filmmaking to boxing, an analogy that makes no sense if you think about it for ten seconds. “A boxer,” Abel Ferrara said, “—one split second of distraction and you could be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life… [W]hat’s gonna happen to you on a set, honey? Your assistant is going to spill hot coffee on your lap. How the fuck does that make you a boxer, Jack?”

But still, it’s easy to see where Tarantino is coming from, because even great directors do not generally make great films in their seventies. I love Billy Wilder dearly – The Apartment might be my actual favourite film – but by 1978 he was making Fedora, a film that’s bad in ways that make it seem almost doomed. It’s not fun enough to be an enjoyable piece of trash and way too dumb to be anything else, and is clearly written to have a legend go hog-wild in the lead but instead has, essentially, some lady, who is fine. I love Charlie Chaplin, and I can’t imagine ever watching A Countess from Hong Kong again. It has a creaky, slow quality, like it should be a 1930s screwball comedy but it was made in 1967 by a seventy-eight-year-old. Both feel like movies made by old men trying and failing to make films that you can’t really make anymore, in ways that make me miss what those men could do when they were younger. Martin Scorsese is seventy-seven and just made three of the best films of his decades-long career, not even counting the documentaries he made in the same period, but that feels more like an exception that proves the rule.

At least, that was my line of thinking going into Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-third and last film. I expected it to be an interesting failure, or at best, hopelessly in the shadow of the great films Hitchcock made decades earlier.

But Family Plot is great. It is about as thoroughly enjoyable a way to spend two hours as has been committed to film.

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Notes on The Last Jedi

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Bully.


I feel like I need to clear the air a little before I start. I knew I’d want to write about The Last Jedi for this series pretty much immediately after watching it. It had parts I found breathtakingly beautiful, among the best things in the entire Star Wars franchise. It also had parts so bad I sincerely entertained the notion my screening was shown a joke version of the film for a prank show (the Yoda scene, mostly). I don’t know what an interesting cinematic failure is if it isn’t The Last Jedi. In accordance with our ethos of cold takes, I waited to start writing until (1) I’d given myself adequate time to sit with my thoughts, move beyond my initial impressions and hopefully deepen my analysis, and (2) there was no ongoing cultural discourse of significant scope or fervour around the film. I didn’t want my take on the film to be hot in either the sense it came too quickly after I watched the film or the sense it was too pegged to any particularly heated discussion unfolding when I wrote it. The former to ensure I developed my ideas well and the latter to ensure I wasn’t overly invested in responding to specific takes on the film that might be personally infuriating, but weren’t actually that interesting or relevant. So I waited.

It took the most devastating global pandemic since the Spanish flu to get people to shut up about this movie for five minutes.

The Last Jedi might not be the most controversial film of all time, but I can’t think of another that has continuously generated such a consistently high volume of discussion and debate for so long. People may have committed acts of terrorism over The Last Temptation of Christ, but they didn’t keep doing it for three years after release. The film came out, people saw it, the controversy abated, the world moved on. Not so with The Last Jedi. Obviously, a major part of that is the existence of social media as a permanent global forum with no space limits. Even with a 24-hour news cycle, only so much can fit in a newspaper or in a broadcast at a given time. News websites don’t have space limits, but they have the practical constraints of a human workforce that can’t pump out endless coverage of infinite topics (at time of writing). Social media knows no such limits. If thousands of people decide to spend their time arguing about whether a film is good or not, the only limit is their own patience.

But the changing nature of how we communicate only explains how The Last Jedi discourse lasted so long, not why. The 2016 remake of Ghostbusters also generated lots of controversy and discussion, months of it, but it was a dead topic within a year of its release. Not The Last Jedi. Until just a couple of months ago, it was still an active battlefield of culture war nonsense. Tens of thousands of words in op-eds and essays, thousands of hours of video on YouTube, and that’s not even touching on the tweets. People have written books about it. And I guess I needed to give all this context just so I could be clear about one thing before I dive into my own thoughts on the film.

I do not care about any of this.

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Mythic Quest and the Pursuit of Anti-Capitalist Media [Current Affairs]

There’s an idea—passed down from Adorno in a game of telephone—that products of the culture industry must necessarily reflect capitalist values. This is superficially very convincing: if I were a capitalist, I would probably fund works that reassert the status quo, even subconsciously, since if I were a capitalist the status quo would be going pretty well for me. You can find lots of supporting examples if you look around: the valorization of ragstoriches stories that obscure the near-impossibility of real-life social mobility, particularly in the United States; the entire cop show genre, which essentially functions as propaganda for the police; even the original Ghostbusters, which has a plotline about how the EPA shouldn’t investigate unlicensed nuclear reactors.

I wrote an essay for Current Affairs about Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet and the problem of making art in a corporate environment. You can read it here!

We Are the Sunshine Nation

McFly – guitarist and singer Danny Jones, guitarist and singer Tom Fletcher, bassist and singer Dougie Poynter, and drummer Harry Judd – had seven number ones in the UK. With their 2004 debut Room on the 3rd Floor, they became the youngest band to ever have a number one album, a title previously held by the Beatles. And I hated them. I hated them in the shallowest way imaginable. I was a Kerrang! kid, dressed in black, listening to pop punk and emo and nu-metal. Genres were much more stratified then, and I thought pop music was more or less inherently suspect. I thought McFly were a boy band, so I turned my nose up at them on principle.

I was a dumb kid, but I wasn’t alone. “[A]ll the usual credibility-gap closers – numerous Beatlesque albums, gigging at the Barfly, releasing on an indie label – still haven’t quite shifted the perception of McFly as Busted Club Juniors,” Iain Moffatt wrote for the BBC in 2010. McFly were a punching bag, more often than not: dissing McFly was a shorthand to credibility. Kasabian went after them, calling them a “pop band for kids”. An extremely young Daniel Radcliffe went after them, lamenting that the kids at his school like McFly instead of The Libertines. Someone who came fifth on RTÉ’s talent show You’re A Star in 2005 went after them. They were nominated four times at the NME Awards… for Worst Band and Worst Album.

All these years later, pop music is taken seriously by default. Rock is basically dead, and everybody listens to everything now. Calling something “pop” as a way to dismiss it seems like a relic of a time long past. No-one would claim that Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna or Ariane Grande aren’t serious artists, even when they’re criticising them. Rolling Stone declared One Direction one of the greatest rock bands of the century this year, tongues barely in their cheeks.

Yet McFly have not gotten the re-evaluation they deserve. I got into McFly as an adult, basically by accident, and discovered a yawning gap between the band McFly are and the band they were, and still are, perceived to be.

Part 1 – the boys in the band

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McFly have spent pretty much their whole career being referred to as a boy band. But were they ever one?

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Mickey Rourke: The Star That Should’ve Been

I used to think no one pursued a career in entertainment without hoping to be famous, but that’s not true. There are plenty of faces you’ve seen in films over and over, but couldn’t tell me their names if your life depended on it – and they like it that way. There are plenty of working actors, writers, musicians who just want to make a living doing something they love. But with Mickey Rourke, it seemed he was destined to be a star, regardless of what his initial goals were. The look he had, the roles he played: he should’ve been the next big thing. And he kind of was, but he kind of wasn’t. Either way, it stopped. The general consensus is that it stopped because Hollywood had enough of him and his attitude. Maybe he had enough of Hollywood. Maybe it was suicide by cop. Maybe he didn’t know that an actor couldn’t want the amazing heights of fame and so, like someone too cowardly to break up with someone, even when they know they should, he made them make the decision for him. He made the cop shoot him, the girl leave him, the industry toss him.

And so that might be the key to understanding the whole “reluctant star” thing. “Careful what you wish for” may not always apply, especially when referring to someone who did no such thing. Did Mickey Rourke sit in his bedroom daydreaming of – wishing for – the Hollywood glitz and glamour? I doubt it. He just wanted to be good and for people – not everyone, but some nebulous, satisfactory someone – to respect him for it.

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