TBT: Orson Welles and Andy Kaufman

What a wonderful thing the interwebs is.

Here’s Orson Welles interviewing Andy Kaufman in 1982, when Welles subbed for Merv Griffin on his daytime show. There’s a whole lot of weird in that sentence. Maybe the weirdest thing about the actual footage, though, is how not weird it is.

Latinos are here to get your daughters pregnant!

NBC has announced its fall 2013 line-up and it includes a show featuring a Latino family!

The show–called “Welcome to the Family”–stars young up-and-comer Joseph Haro (who’s had roles on “Glee” and “Awkward”) and Ricardo Chavira (of “Desperate Housewives”). Normally, I would be praising this as a step forward, especially for a network that hasn’t done much to represent non-white characters since Bill Cosby. But then I saw this preview for the show:

This show is a prolonged and recycled version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with one huge twist–it confirms rather than seeks to dispel some of the prominent and racist stereotypes Latinos face in the US.

Latinos are the second largest ethnic/racial group in the US, second only to what the Census labels “non-Hispanic whites.” Television does not reflect this basic reality. I don’t think anybody would disagree that this is a major problem–not only for entertainment but for our collective need to forge a healthy, multiracial society. The images we encounter in the media are part of that evolving recipe.

NBC has had a hard time presenting a more diversified face reflective of the present and future. When they have it’s usually been in small ways that also come with fulfilling a larger stereotype. For example, I would cringe every time I saw a Latino gangbanger on “Law and Order,” a show that also featured (for a time) a very human Latino character (Reynaldo “Rey” Curtis) played by Benjamin Bratt.

Show’s like “Friends” or “ER”–both which took place in cities with large Latino populations–only rarely ever featured brown faces as part of their worlds. When they did, it was cause for celebration. I can remember how excited I was when ER nurse Chuny Marquez (played by Laura Cerón) had her own story arc in the top-rated NBC drama.

NBC should be the best poised for a real integration of Latinos. They are the worst network by ratings, putting them in a position of very little to lose by taking a chance. They also own Univision, the major Spanish-language network of the US. With projects like NBC Latino they have shown a desire to not only tap into the Latino consumer market, but to do so by providing them products that meet our particular needs and experiences.

“Welcome to the Family” is not that show. It is a show that portrays the integration values of the 1960s with the un-interrogated race awareness of the 21st century. In our present day context–when racialized fears helped frame massive deportations, structural poverty and under-education, and social marginalization–it feels like a bigger set-back than any advance.

Is Boardwalk Empire destined to be great?

My friend Steven Rubio offered an interesting couple of blog posts on the premiere of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. You can read his first review of Sunday’s episode here, and his addendum to that post here.

What interests me most about what he wrote (so much so that I’m writing this post instead of a wordy comment on his own blog) is contained in the intro to his addendum:

There is no denying the impressive potential of Boardwalk Empire, but the way it is being trumpeted as the bellwether of HBO’s return to greatness has a tinge of sexism to it. The idea is that since the end of The Sopranos, HBO hasn’t been the same, but that Empire is just the thing to take the network back to the top.

He elaborates briefly (if you need it) by explaining the undertone of this hype is that the post-Sopranos offerings from HBO weren’t manly enough to rival the earlier phenomenon. I don’t disagree with hi analysis, but I was thinking about it differently.

I will admit, I’m in the “hype camp.” While I’m not saying Boardwalk Empire *is* the greatest show on TV after one episode, it remains in the running. More than anything else, that fact alone, placed within the larger context surrounding the hype, means it is competing in a contest where it is the sole contender.

Let me explain.

I think The Sopranos was, for HBO, the first time it seemed “pertinent” at all levels of popular culture. The Sopranos was simultaneously loved by mainstream critics and awards shows, the watercooler public, and the elite cultural analysts. It’s rare thing, historically speaking, to be widely considered the “best” show on TV as well as be the cultural phenom everyone is talking about. Right now, that post is vacant. However critically well-received shows like Mad Men are, they don’t rise to the phenomenal level of The Sopranos. Heck, more people are certainly watching and talking about Glee and a short list of other bubble-gum-for-the-brain shows ahead of Mad Men and Breaking Bad combined.

Some of the hype surrounding Boardwalk was unavoidable when you consider the last time a show held the position I describe above was probably The Sopranos. The void of a reigning champ and the recent history of HBO as the title’s home further fan the flames. Now add to that the similarity to Sopranos and the talent behind Boardwalk Empire and you get a better picture of why so much attention is being paid to it.

In many ways, at this, the first evaluative stage, the contender status is Boardwalk Empire’s to lose. Once it showed it can compete–and I think yesterday’s premiere established that–it has a much harder road of having to prove itself on its own merits. But that road is also made easier with the kind of hype the show carries.

Steven and Robert Lloyd (of the LA Times) have a lot of similar things to say about the show, with Lloyd having the advantage over us in that he has already seen six episodes. In his review he wrote:

It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread but rather a well-made sort of sliced bread, a thing you have had before but prepared with quality ingredients by bakers who know their business. If it doesn’t seem as fresh or new or gripping as the Scorsese-Winter brand might suggest, it’s in part because it’s rooted not only in the conventions and obsessions of the director’s own canon but in a decade’s worth of “Sopranos”-influenced cable television as well.

I think this familiarity and skill is going to give Boardwalk Empire an easier time of reaching the crown than other shows. We want a show to talk about like the days of The Sopranos. We want to watch a show that we all think is the best and have little to make us think otherwise. And we want a common cultural experience, events that are so much rarer in a world of 200 channels.

Boardwalk Empire fits our assumptions about what makes a good show and then sprinkles on that names like Buscemi and Scorsese, conforming to our assumptions about what makes something great. Even the hesitation coming from the real critics (most of whom seem to be calling it really good but not great) helps set the stage for the popular opinion push we so love because it makes us think that this is a show of the people.

Again, I’m not disagreeing with Steven, or even Lloyd. I guess I am saying that I liked the show and I think it has about as right a combination of timing and ingredients to establish itself as a huge hit. Like the rest, however, I am still waiting for that to happen.

Australian blackface and Harry Connick Jr.

Are Australians racist?

If you haven’t heard about the blackface controversy Harry Connick Jr. found himself in last night, then start by seeing this.  It is a performance on an Australian show on which Connick served as one of three judges.  The show, Hey, Hey It’s Saturday was a staple of Australian TV for 27 tears, running from 1972 to 1999.  Last night’s episode was a reunion/anniversary kind of thing, when these men performed:

First off, I think Harry Connick Jr. deserves props for his stance. He found himself in an awkward position–both for the fact of being a foreigner on a beloved Australian show as well as being on a comedy/variety show to begin with. That he spoke out immediately, and managed to get the show to allow him the space to further voice his objections, is admirable. I want to be clear here: he did what was right. When it comes to his own personal context–being from New Orleans; as the son of an attorney who worked in a racially-tense city; as a musician who works with African Americans playing African American and Southern styles of music–to do anything but, would have been wrong. While I don’t believe in rewards for people doing what they should do, when the context of doing different is so powerfully before them, to resist it is admirable, indeed.

The Australian press has been having a field day with this news, mostly revolving around the above question. This article sums up a lot of it. If you read this blog often, you know my stance on this kind of stuff. The “Are we racist?” line is a useless one since, inherently, the answer for everybody living in the modern world is “Yes.” It’s much more useful to think about how ideas about race continue to shape our relations and beliefs, and how they often do so to our collective detriment.

An “Are we racist?” line almost precludes us from doing the kinds of individual and collective reflections necessary to make sense of the insidious nature of racialized beliefs.  We think about “intent” more than we should instead of focusing on “context” and “result.”

For example, Australian “Snap polls on the internet” seem to suggest most folks think the skit “wasn’t racist, but a harmless, indeed funny, tribute to the Jackson Five.” Leaving aside the unscientific nature of the polls, other news stories seem to be portraying the same belief as being held by mainstream Australia. There problem is, to think of it as a “tribute” means you have to negate the very deliberate and focused way they are fulfilling the “script” of “blackface” to the most specific kinds of detail: non-blacks painting their faces oil black; speaking in racialized patois (while even using distinct, US-based African American expressions); performing in an extreme, Sambo-esque way, and so on. Their older performance from 1989 was even worse! This time around, the include the “Michael” figure as a “white face,” thereby making it a racial critique rather than tribute.

One of the performers had this to say after:

“I’m Sri Lankan-Australian, there’s an Indian-Australian, a Greek-Australian, an Irish-Italian-Australian and a Lebanese-Australian. We’re all Australian.

“I think the fact that all six of us have gone on to very successful careers as doctors demonstrates the fact that Australians care more about ability than race.”

A perfect example of the “intent” argument that falls from this line of reasoning. What it ignores, however, is the broader context of ignorance and uncritical sympathy that lies at a lot of actions like this.

Harry Connick Jr. faced some fire for doing what he did, an even more dynamic demonstration that something wrong is at work here. He issued the following statement on his blog:

I have watched the media storm that has erupted over my reaction to the Hey Hey blackface skit. Where I come from, blackface is a very specific and very derogatory thing.  Perhaps this is different in other parts of the world, but in the American culture, the blackface image is steeped in a negative history and considered offensive.  I urge everyone in the media to take a look at the history of blackface to fully understand why it is considered offensive.  I also urge you to review the Hey Hey tape and you will see that I did not ascribe any motives to anyone, nor did I call anyone a racist.  The blackface skit was a surprise to me and I was simply shocked to see this on TV.  I do not believe that the performers intended any harm.

At first, it kind of felt to me like he was backing away. But then, it seems appropriate. He really helped refocus the argument again away from “intent” and more toward the broader context of seeing this as not problematic. More props to him.

2009 Emmys are White

Television is the most prominent cultural vestige of white supremacy in the US.  Take a look:

This is a picture of Shohreh Aghdashloo. She won an Emmy Award tonight for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie” for her work in House of Saddam.  Besides being a talented actress, she’ll go down in the history books as one of only three people of color to win a 2009 Emmy Award.

Actually, people of color are so poorly regarded in the television industry it’ll probably be sometime before she’s even in their proverbial “history books.” I mean, the other nonwhite winners included writer/producer Matthew Hubbard, one of the 12 winners for 30 Rock (“Outstanding Comedy Series”); and an African American male who was part of the team of 14 who won for The Amazing Race (“Outstanding Reality-Competition Program”)—whose name I don’t even know!

Not counting dancers, members of the band, and the stage crew, there were only even three other people of color on stage tonight: Tracy Morgan, Chandra Wilson, and LL Cool J!

There was an assortment of nonwhite actors who were nominated for awards tonight and didn’t win (Morgan and Wilson among them).  But this doesn’t mitigate the problem, just like a few more folks of color winning awards would not have.  The more fundamental problem is the way the experiences of communities of color aren’t a priority on or in television, whether its network or cable.  There aren’t a lot of roles, because there aren’t a lot of writers, because there aren’t a lot of producers and executives, and so on.

Throughout television’s history, the “white American” experience has been normalized as “our” collective experience. The single great exception to this has been the integration of Jewish voices and experiences, rooted to their presence in the pre-television-entertainment industry.  Even that is minor compared to the vast majority of television programming.

The situation on TV isn’t likely to change very soon, and TV will remain the worse for it.  As their ratings decline, putting into question whether the medium is even going to exist in the same form a decade from now, one way they might improve is by trying to represent a fuller slice of what life is like for people in this country.

At least they can put up some more nonwhite faces.  It would be a start!

Miami Vice (25 years ago today)

Miami Vice premiered on NBC 25 years ago today, on September 16, 1984.  The show that became synonymous with the decade of the 80s both reflected the visual and emotional aesthetic of its times as it simultaneously shaped them.

It was a seemingly superficial concept, encapsulated by Brandon Tartikoff’s two-word vision of “MTV cops.” But the end result was much more than that.  While music and stylized cinematography provided high-profile features of the show, its stories helped reshaped what adult TV looked and felt like.  Michael Mann, executive producer of the series, chose to set the show in Miami, giving it ample opportunity to showcase women in bikinis, neon lights, and nightclubs.  It also provided a dark, gritty, urban backdrop and the specter of drugs.

And Latinos.  Latinos (as actors or characters or both) figured prominently in the show from day one.  Lead actor Philip Michael Thomas was not Latino, but he played “Ricardo Tubbs,” a former NYC cop who has Latin roots of some kind.  In the first four episodes, Lieutenant Lou Rodriguez was played by Gregory Sierra.  He was replaced with Edward James Olmos in the role of Lieutenant Martin Castillo.  Saundra Santiago played Detective Gina Calabrese; while bit player Martin Ferrero appeared frequently as Izzy Moreno.  Taking place in Miami, and frequently revolving around the business of drug smuggling, Latinos appeared in most episodes as shady, dark figures and other kinds of criminal-looking types.

Surprisingly, the show never finished a season higher than the ninth spot in the overall ratings, achieving that feat in its 2nd season.  It tapered off big time in the ratings after that, finishing 23rd, 36th, and 53rd in the final three seasons, respectively.  But the ratings don’t reflect the show’s impact on the culture.  Don Johnson became a household name after 1984.  The theme song by Jan Hammer went to number 1 on the charts.  The show spawned original hit singles from Glen Frey, and made bigger hits out of songs by Phil Collins and Dire Straits.

And the stories!  My favorite episode just might be “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” the third episode of the second season.  From beginning to end it suggests what made the show great–the style, the music, the actors.  And the plot is just about as dark a story as I had ever seen on TV.  The complexity it represented stuck with me, but not half as much as the final scene.  I can still remember watching it.

If you want to spend the time, the entire 48 minute episode can be viewed below from Hulu.
Vodpod videos no longer available.