It’s Not Your Art, It’s Ours

Last month, James L. Brooks announced that The Simpsons had decided to pull “Stark Raving Dad”, its classic episode guest starring Michael Jackson. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Brooks said that he and fellow producers Matt Groening and Al Jean agreed to stop airing the episode in reruns, drop it from the show’s streaming service and cut it from future DVD releases. HBO/Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland has brought renewed attention to the accusations against Jackson of serial child sexual abuse, and many have had to answer difficult questions about how to relate to Jackson and his work. Brooks et al. apparently felt this was most appropriate for a show that had collaborated with Jackson.

“I’m against book-burning of any kind,” he explained. “But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.”

Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, most people would instinctively concede that the producers are perfectly entitled to do with their property what they will. But that’s exactly where they were one hundred percent unequivocally wrong.

The Simpsons doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us.

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The Rise and Fall of Last Week Tonight

This article is part of the Rise and Fall series, taking a look at shows that were once great and are now not. Previously, Brooklyn Nine-Nine


Every week, a new Last Week Tonight video shows up in my YouTube subscriptions page – the main story John Oliver covers in the show is uploaded to YouTube the next day – and every week, I dutifully watch it. It’s always disappointing. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to focus on something ultimately trivial or obvious, like his recent piece debunking psychics. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to cover something important but without a point of view or anything to illuminate, like his recent piece on automation. Sometimes because it’s so frustrating that it makes me genuinely angry, like his recent Brexit update that in twenty-plus minutes tossed off the Irish border in a line.

I ask myself all the time if Last Week Tonight changed or if I changed. The answer is a little of both, I’m sure, but I can pull up one of his old segments from 2014 or 2015 every so often, and they’re so, so much better than anything Last Week Tonight is doing now that I can’t understand how anyone can talk about John Oliver like he’s still the king of late night – unless it was a comment on the barrenness of the field, I guess. Last Week Tonight may have always been flawed, but it once was entertaining and informative. It once felt like a thing of value.

Now it sucks.

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Cop Shows and the Carceral State

The police procedural is possibly the television genre par excellence, ever since Dragnet debuted in 1951 and spawned a wave of imitators. Though the sitcom may be the most perfect televisual form, the police procedural is the one best suited to the rhythm of broadcast, each twist and turn toward the mystery of the crime’s resolution keeping the viewer engaged through ad breaks. No other genre has endured so long and changed so little, with some shifts in style, sure, but virtually none in the basic formula.

On just the Big Four networks (plus the CW), in the current television season, there are some fifteen or so police procedurals on the air, including Blue Bloods (in its 9th season), NCIS (in its 16th season) and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (in its 20th season). Note my count excludes three superhero shows (Gotham, The Flash, Arrow) whose protagonists are police officers of some kind, as well as any shows about people investigating crimes who aren’t cops. And those are just the ones still in production. The most cursory channel surfing will lead you to a hundred different channels who almost exclusively broadcast reruns of old police shows, from Kojak to NYPD Blue to the lately departed CSI franchise.

Cops shows are popular, ubiquitous and seemingly infinite. When one falls, another rises to take its place. They’re incredibly long-lived compared to other genres: NCIS started during the first term of George Bush’s presidency and it was the most-watched television show in the entire world in 2014 and 2015. They’re beloved by people of all ages, but particularly the middle-aged and elderly. This makes it all the more concerning that cop shows are, intentionally or not, mass propaganda for the carceral state.

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In Defense of the Canon

Pretty much the only time you’ll hear someone mention the canon in the year of our Lord 2019 is to explain why it’s bullshit: the canon is a bunch of stuff made by old or dead white dudes that a bunch of other old or dead white dudes decided was important, and everything outside of the canon is deemed, by implication, not important or worthwhile or particularly good. The canon is the epitome of cultural elitism; any English undergrad can tell you all about it.

The idea of a canon comes from the Bible, with the books deemed good, important and true being preserved and assembled as part of the Biblical canon, and other writings – like the gospel where the cross is a character that talks, or ones about Jesus as a kid – getting left on the cutting room floor. The idea of a literary canon is a kind of outgrowth from this: collecting the good and important works of literature – Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare – as the ones worthy of study, the ones any educated person should be expected to have read. The literary canon is the stuff you’re supposed to read in school or college, but probably didn’t. There are tons of very legitimate criticisms of what makes up the literary canon: it tends to be disproportionately male – Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Virginia Woolf would be the big exceptions when it comes to novelists – and almost exclusively white, and the people who decide what gets deemed canonical (academics and critics) have similar demographic problems. But the big difference between the Biblical canon and the literary canon is that there is no official list of classic books, with everything else likely to be lost or destroyed. The literary canon is necessarily in flux. When Herman Melville died, he was an obscure writer living in poverty, but a few decades later some hip literary types in New York realised no, wait, Moby-Dick is really good, actually, and now here we are.

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Cancelled Too Soon: Manhattan

This article is part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, Sense8.


Life under Peak TV is a life of suffocating excess unless you’re prepared to pretend most of it isn’t real. (Apple’s streaming service? Not real. DC Universe? Not real. The Handmaid’s Tale? Definitely not real.) I’m well used to the familiar rhythms of oh-have-you-ever-heard-of-this, no-what-is-it, oh-it’s-this-show-you-have-to-watch, maybe-I’ll-see-if-I-have-time, but now and then someone will catch me off guard. I’ll be reading some article about a series that’s just been greenlit. “Oh neat,” I’ll say to myself. “I’m glad John Leguizamo is getting work. But what the hell is the Paramount Network? Is that new?” Reader, it was.

Peak TV has prompted a wave of networks to break into the “original programming space”. Fresh faces compete not only with established networks, but old ones suddenly deciding they can do more than just show reruns of Becker. On the younger side, you have the likes of Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, which basically only exists to carry his wrestling show, Lucha Underground. Vice launched their own network, Viceland, in 2016, with Spike Jonze as its creative director, so if you were wondering what Spike Jonze has been doing instead of making movies, he’s been overseeing lots of perfectly fine documentaries and also, for some reason, a television show where James Van Der Beek plays Diplo? Pivot burst onto the scene in 2013 with exclusive imports like Australian comedy-drama Please Like Me and British sci-fi thriller Fortitude, followed by some weird Joseph-Gordon Levitt thing and a Meghan McCain talk show, and then folded almost immediately. Even the Scientologists have their own network now! Meanwhile, among the sleeping giants of US cable: Epix, whatever that is, woke from its slumber to make a comedy where Nick Nolte is a former President of the United States; truTV, the reality TV network, realised its apparent true destiny as an incubator for alternative comedy; MTV decided it was time to stop screwing around and commit to original scripted programming with a bevy of often-acclaimed shows, then cancelled everything except Scream, and then announced Teen Wolf would return as a podcast, of all things.

It has been, to say the least, a tumultuous few years for television, with not just wave after wave of shows getting cancelled but whole networks vanishing into thin air. (RIP Chiller, we hardly knew ye.) Unsurprisingly, the casualties have included plenty of great television whose only fault was airing on channels that no one realised had their own television shows. Even shows that could’ve been – that should’ve been – the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad.

Shows like Manhattan.

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I Just Hope I Don’t Get More Out of This Than You Do

It’s been almost three years since one of the worst webcomic artists in the world published one of his worst webcomics of his career. The artist is Adam Ellis, formerly of Buzzfeed, whose work is likely familiar to anyone who’s ever used Facebook: it may well be mathematically impossible at this point to go a whole hour on Facebook without catching sight of his bug-eyed self-insert in a “relatable” and yet “funny” scenario. The comic in question was posted to Twitter with the caption “shhh” and depicts one of those deeply unfunny people who thinks not liking or knowing much about sport is a personality being silenced by an American football fan who tells him to “let people enjoy things”.

I loathe it more than most of his awful, awful work because, while I find “sportsball” types risible, it can’t mount a more thoughtful objection to their behaviour than “let people enjoy things”. It’s a nice slogan, but obviously a terrible blanket policy when people enjoy lots of bad things, and not just aesthetically bad, but morally bad. But even when there’s arguably not a significant, urgent moral dimension to something people enjoy, the “let people enjoy things” mantra makes me nervous. It’s one thing as a response to someone who’s snobby or pushy with criticisms of your likes or interests on an interpersonal level, the kind of people who comment on how unhealthy your food is or rag on the shows you like for no reason. But at any more macro level, like in online cultural discourse and, increasingly, in professional critical writing, it eventually becomes a way to deflect unflattering critiques or is so internalised that it pre-empts criticism at all.

Of course, Ellis and his comic aren’t responsible for the rise and spread of this attitude in online cultural discourse – how could it be, when Ellis’s work consists almost entirely in arriving three years late to observations that were already trite the first time they were verbalised? – but it’s emblematic of it in a way little else is, and for that, I hate it.

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The Best of The Sundae #2

It’s been over a year since we first took a look back at our work and picked the best of it for your easy reading pleasure. A lot has happened since then. We’ve gone through two whole Oscar and Emmy cycles. We each had an essay published in Bright Wall/Dark Room – Dean on Blade Runner and Ciara on Weekend at Bernie’s II. Marvel fired James Gunn due to an alt-right smear campaign and now he’s writing Suicide Squad 2. We were shortlisted for an Irish Blog AwardJonathan Chait got BOFA’d.

But, most importantly, we kept writing and publishing, and now we have even more stuff to choose from for our second best-of round-up. So, if you’re a long-time reader, here’s an invitation to revisit the classics. If you’re a recent reader, catch up on some stuff you might not have read. And if you’re a brand new reader, take a crash course in what we’re all about.

Here’s the best of The Sundae so far. Again.

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Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Spoilers through to the end of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.


Orange Is the New Black has become a cautionary tale of the streaming era of television. When it first debuted in 2013, it quickly became hugely popular, one of Netflix’s most watched and acclaimed original series. It was at the forefront of that brief moment when “Netflix original series” meant something: ground-breaking television, exploding our very conception of what television could be. With its sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, binge-friendly structure and mixture of comedy and drama, Orange Is the New Black was the kind of show that was regularly preceded by a “I can’t believe you haven’t seen” and followed by an exclamation mark.

But not anymore. The show’s fourth season was polarising, but its fifth was widely disliked, to the extent it made any impact at all. It’s become just another show in Netflix’s bloated catalogue, just another past-its-prime show that you’ve forgotten is still on the air.

Orange is the New Black seems destined to remain in a sort of TV purgatory,” The Guardian writes, “It has more than enough fans to sustain itself on Netflix and the streaming site is keen to back it considering it’s still one of its most-loved originals. But does it feel as vital as it did when it was first released?”

The answer is supposed to be no, so obviously that it doesn’t need to be said. But here’s the thing: in its latter years, Orange Is the New Black has become something more important and much more radical. I tend to rag on Peak TV quite a bit – if I say something “could only exist in the streaming era” I usually mean that it’s bloated, incoherent and insufficiently concerned with making individual episodes high-quality or enjoyable. The second season of Jessica Jones could only exist in the streaming era, and it fucking sucks. But Orange Is the New Black, too, could only exist in the streaming era: a beacon of light guiding the way to all that streaming television has the possibilities to be.

At what other point in history could a TV series get made – and become hugely popular – that argues, full-throated, for the abolition of prisons?

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Fan Boys: The Phantom Menace

People tend not to have a great sense of scale, which isn’t the best quality when we’re so prone to making grand proclamations about entire populations of people. For example, a common refrain since the 2016 US presidential election has been variations on “we now live in a country where nearly half the people voted for Trump”. Now and then someone will point out that, with 60 percent turnout, it was more like a quarter. But that’s still not right. It was 46.1 percent (vote share) of 60.2 percent (turnout) of 71.6 percent (eligibility) of the US population in 2016, or just under 20 percent. This isn’t to minimise the horror of the election result or Trump’s presidency in any way. Every evil thing, every atrocity, that has occurred in the past two years still happened, and, if anything, it just makes it more fucked-up that it didn’t even take a majority to happen.

That’s why it bothers me when I hear this “we now live in a country…” thing, whether about Trump or Brexit or any of the other awful election results of the past several years. If your main political opponents actually comprise less than 20 percent of the country, but you react as if it was half, you can’t possibly be responding in the most effective way. Accuracy matters, especially with something as high-stake as the fate of democracy, and it’s frustrating to constantly see well-intentioned people be so sloppy with reality. Not that low stakes should let people off the hook: standards of research and fact-checking in entertainment journalism are in the gutter and it drives me up the wall. And while it’s obviously not as significant as the rising tide of fascism (though it’s often presented as comorbid with it), when it comes to misrepresenting the scale of a social problem, there’s little critics and journalists have fucked up more than their coverage of “fan boys” and their allegedly toxic effects on society.

Normally, I find articles like this difficult to write, because it requires me to cite specific examples of bad writing and I don’t enjoy going off on other writers, for the most part. But this one will be super easy, because, for once, I can shit on the writing of someone whose writing I already constantly shit on.

This is a callout post. For myself.

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Behold the Man Who Is a Bean

Night on a deserted street in London. Saint Paul’s Cathedral shines on the horizon. A beam of light shoots down from the sky and expands into a spotlight. A man falls from above and lands smack on the ground. He wears a tweed jacket and red tie, brown slacks and a white shirt. An angelic choir begins to sing in Latin.

Ecce homo qui est faba.

“Behold the man who is a bean.”

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