This Week’s Music on Television

This is Spinal Tap

Another week of slim pickings for late night music with a few notable exceptions: On Wednesday, Spinal Tap drops a shit sandwich on the Tonight Show stage and on Saturday, Astralwerks’ greatest export, Phoenix do SNL. The full schedule below.

Tuesday: 90s rockers Gomez on Jimmy Fallon.
Wednesday: Spinal Tap do Leno. Ex-Primus bassist, Les Claypool, on Jimmy Kimmel.
Friday: Lily Allen on Jimmy Kimmel.
Saturday: Phoenix on Seth Rogen-hosted SNL. Promising.

Dichen Lachman looks like a half-Asian Barbie doll.

Hot DAMN. Eliza Dushku’s not so hard on the eyes, either.  Too bad both of them are well nigh impossible to watch on Joss Whedon’s new, post-Firefly disasterpiece, Dollhouse.  (I wonder if Tahmoh Penikett would rather bump uglies with Lachman or former BSG castmate Grace Park?)

Beyond his eye for exceptionally good-looking young ladies, I never really understood Whedon’s appeal.  If Buffy was a campy, allegorical exploration of the microdrama of suburban teen life, and Angel wrestled with the demons of post-adolescence — like, say, unwanted and “unresolved” pregnancies [EN: that second link is absolutely lousy with spoilers] — what the fuck was up with FireflyThirysomethings in space?  And now why is Dollhouse — a less campy allegorical exploration of America’s Hollywood complex? — SO UNREDEEMABLY BAD?  My best guess: it’s too hard to suspend disbelief at the model of value it’s proposing — ie, the “exuberant” [sic] price tag for watching Dushku try to act her way out of a wet paper bag.  At least the worst actor ever to tarnish a David Simon production, Mike Kellerman, P.I., has found work again.

(And for anyone keeping score, It’s always sunny in Philadelphia‘s version of “The most dangerous game” TOTALLY schools Whedon’s.)

– J.C. Freñán

Mark my words, bitches.

Which teen drama’s marketing elves will transform Choir Of Young Believers into an It Band this year?

Keep your ears open some time this fall, I’d say.  (TubaTV is, like, way ahead of the curve.)

Good news for people who love TV news.

The lovely ladies of Dillon, Texas are back, yall.

It looks like Dillon, Texas’s answer to Winnie Cooper will be back for a fourth — maybe even a fifth! — season.  (Schlep on over to Pajiba — imagine Christofuh Moltisanti saying “conniver” — for the full scoop.)  Thank you, DirectTV, for your very clever business model.

So… does this mean we’ll have to deal with JT’s daddy issues for another year?

Mexico and the televisual war on drugs

This month’s triumphant return of Breaking bad — hands down the smartest, funniest, most poignant show on television at the moment — has me wondering whether we aren’t currently experiencing a sort of hangover from the media’s intoxication with all things Latin in the 90s. To wit: when the Botwins trade Agrestic for Ren Mar in the fourth season of Weeds, the previously unproblematic Mexican origin of Nancy’s product suddenly becomes an abiding concern. What troubles Nancy isn’t so much the product itself as the other kinds of commodities being smuggled into the States along with it: namely, underage Central American sex workers. Likewise, the successful production of crystal meth in Breaking bad is represented as being potentially dangerous, but ultimately a matter of how well one understands chemistry. The problem with meth, then, is not on the supply-side: the source of Walt White’s woes is the infrastructure involved in distributing an illegal drug in New Mexico.  Latino gangs, that is.

(A quick aside: for all its brilliance, The wire only really alluded to the port of Baltimore as a choice position within a larger, international system of contraband circulation during its second season.  The geographical — not to mention material — origin of West Baltimore’s drugs was left un-interrogated. Again, it was the confluence of human trafficking and drug trafficking that prompted the Baltimore PD’s scrutiny of the docks.)

So what Jenji Kohan and Vince Gilligan discover when they unveil their respective commodity-fetishes is not a system of social relations structured around the rational exploitation of productive forces, so much as a series of unproductive corpses. Behind these, a different kind of fetish: the well-worn stereotype of the Mexican bandido.  When Weeds begins asking itself where Nancy’s grass comes from, Guillermo transforms from wise-cracking machista to sociopath in under half a season.  Similarly, when Walt wants to start wholesaling his meth, he has to deal with Breaking bad‘s resident vato loco, Tuco.

Qué camisa, ¿no?
¿Memo Herdez el grande?

What’s so interesting about this stereotype, though, is that it’s not the exclusive prerogative of xenophobes north of the border. Here’s just one particularly uncanny quote from Ignacio Altamirano’s late 19th century novel El Zarco, which remains a classic of high school curricula in Mexico to this day: “The lowland bandits were cruel, above all. Horrible and superfluous though a cruelty might be, they would commit it, out of instinct, out of brutality, out of the sheer desire to augment the people’s terror and delight in it… [Their] character was extraordinary and exceptional, an explosion of vice, cruelty and infamy the likes of which had never before been seen in Mexico.”

This comparison, restricted though it may be to the level of homology, suggests that the figure of the narco/bandido poses something more than a strictly racial threat, something more than a threat to the national (b)order.  I suspect this threat, when coupled to the ego-reducing effects of illegal intoxicants, is rather that of irrationality, in both economic and psychological senses: that is, the unproductive (intoxicated or assassinated) body.

I’ll close these preliminary observations with a challenge: I think it’s time — high time, even — that American television unequivocally cross the US-Mexico border.  Rather than being transfixed by the grotesque figure of a Pablo Escobar (as in Vincent Chase’s dismally over-acted vision of “Medellín,”), rather than seeking morbid titillation in the flayed corpse of an American FBI agent (a la Weeds), I think the (liberal, educated, premium-cable watching) American public is ready for a more thoughtful analysis of the political economy that actually sustains international drug trafficking.  If you’re reading, HBO, TubaTV has a teleplay for you.

– J.C. Freñán

“It Was Written”: Kings, Slumdogs, and Prophecies

I’ll just go ahead and say that I thought Slumdog Millionaire was weak. And without getting into every crack in the film’s lacquered surface (the implausible plot, the dopey politics, the corny resolution), I’ll focus on the central conceit of the film, which, I think, is the ultimate copout of any story: we learn, in the opening minute of the film, that Jamal, our protagonist, will reach the end of the yellow brick road because “it was written.” Prophetic tales aren’t just lazy, they’re manipulative. They follow the same grammatical skullduggery that old Dick Nixon employed when he uttered the famous words, “mistakes were made.” Prophecies evacuate agency. Just invert the punchline of Slumdog into active voice, and we realize that “it” wasn’t “written,” but someone (say, the writers?) actually wrote it; or if you want to stay within the borders of narrative, the characters did it.I gotta thank God / 'cause he gave me this chance to rock hard.

Kings, NBC’s latest period drama, is a tale of prophecy; creator Michael Green (of Everwood and Heroes fame) projects the Biblical tale of David onto a modern city-state called Shiloh that looks a whole lot like NYC. (For those of us who didn’t enjoy the privilege of Sunday morning cathecism, you’ll at least have heard of the David who slung stones at the towering Goliath, and knocked his ass flat out. Same dude). In the Kings pilot, our blond-haired, blue-eyed David rises up to a Goliath (the codename of the neighboring nation’s tanks), chucks a grenade instead of a stone, and blows it to smithereens. In an inspired bit of writing, Green colors David’s heroics ambiguous: despite the press clamoring otherwise, David admits that his dramatic slaying of Goliath was, in fact, a sheepish attempt at surrender. I was with Kings at that point – upending a familiar story is always a good move – but by the end of the pilot, David actually does find courage to diplomatically “slay” Goliath, raising the white flag in front of a line of tanks and crossing the L-O-C, to redeem his slain brother’s death. It’s not that bad a moment, really, but the Platoon-like histrionics and the dolorous, quasi-Arab singing took it into schmaltzy territory. It’s a land that Kings returns to constantly.

When you have prophecies, flocks of animals and swarms of insects often intervene as symbols and plot devices (the pigeon that saves David’s life in the second episode embodies both). There are massive deus-ex-machinas (a quiz show, let’s say) that enable a comedic resolution (the heterocouple getting hitched) with a payoff (protagonist becomes crorepati). But they can work, too; think of the prophetic convention in Shakespearean tragedies, for instance; or to keep the Filmi bus running, think of Maqbool, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Hindi adaptation of ‘Macbeth,’ which opens with two crooked Mumbai cops prophesying Maqbool’s rise and fall in the criminal syndicate. It worked, ‘cause the characters were memorable and complex and fucked up in recognizably human ways.

Welcome to Shiloh, cocksucker.So far, the characters in Kings are a mixed bag: the twenty-somethings are entirely two-dimensional, and the lines of good and evil have neatly been demarcated between the hetero-pairing of David and Princess Michelle and the dastardly, hedonistic, gay Prince Jack*. The elders, however, aren’t so easy to peg – King Silas (played by Ian McShane) vacillates between his own desire for power and his acceptance of (and even desire for) the responsibilities of power, between violence and peace, between war and diplomacy, between hyperliterate blowhard and hardass (he’s a lot like our old pal, Al Swearengen, that way). The queen, too, is complex: a daughter of wealth and leader of her own army of domestic life, who clearly knows a thing or two about the marriage between court and capital. And I am digging the entire quasi-American kingdom, set in a modern, neoliberal world – Kings certainly has an opportunity to explore power in some novel, interesting, if archetypal ways.

What worries me is that the whole prophecy schtick will become the tenuous thread through which anything ever happens in Shiloh – last week’s episode depended so much on “signs and wonders” to propel David to save the day. Then again, we (like the old guard in Kings) only know that the Aryan prince here is being chosen for something, and aren’t exactly sure what that something is (I’ll take a stab, and guess, he becomes King). But maybe, like all the grizzled veterans of Shiloh, David will emerge in three-dimensions, become more Miyan “Macbeth” Maqbool and less Jamal “Slumdog” Malik.

Green says, just give it time. And I guess that’s fair.

Who wants to be a millinaire!

  • Brent Hartinger of AfterElton points out that Kings de-gays the David and Jonathan story, erasing the romantic bond between the two characters in the Biblical story.

– Thumbu Sammy