Emmys with a Side of Bacon: 2011 Edition

The 2011 Emmys take place tonight, and we’re still kind of squinting at them, trying to figure out what’s going on. We were prepared to post in outrage when the nominations came out, but with the exception of the nearly across-the-board snubbing of Community (boo! Boo, I say!) they were…largely adequate. No, seriously, we agreed with 56% of the nominations, which is more than double our norm, so it was hard to get too outraged. Whether this is because the academy is drawing closer to our tastes–or we to theirs–or just because we’re not terribly excited by the dramatic offerings so we shrugged and accepted what we were given, this could have been worse.

Still, we’re always interested in who wins, and are often astonished. And just as often, that astonishment is not the good kind. This leads to all kinds of curiosity about what people vote for and how they come to vote that way. We also wonder how outcomes might be different if different voting systems were used. So this year, we solicited our own Bacon voters and asked them to rank the nominees, just like the real voters do. Let me note for the record that our sample is small compared to the actual voting pool, and that it was certainly non-random (although the real Academy membership is, too). There’s another key difference between our voters and the real ones we’ll get to in a minute, but I can vouch for the fact that the Bacon pool is made up of serious TV watchers and thoughtful voters (even if the winners listed below sometimes ended up different than our personal choices!). Thanks again to all who participated!

So what did we learn? Different ways of counting up votes often led to nominees swapping places, but that was usually something like swapping third and fourth places–it typically didn’t change winners. When it did make a difference, however, it made a pretty big difference, as you’ll see below. We were also interested to find that, generally speaking, people rank things they’re unfamiliar with last. “Buzz” or critical acclaim just didn’t seem to matter much, at least to our group of voters–if they hadn’t seen it, it came in last on their ballots. The one exception to this was when there was something they genuinely loathed in the category–they were happy to rank that behind something they’d never laid eyes on. We can’t prove it with these data, but we wouldn’t be surprised if that’s human nature and the real voters work this way, too. Similarly, some voters reported ranking people higher simply because they like them from other projects, not because of their work this year. Again, it wouldn’t surprise us to learn that the Emmy voters think that way, too.

One key difference that might affect things like the above, however, is that we didn’t ask our voters to actually watch the episodes the nominated shows or actors submitted. Real Emmy voters are divided into panels and sent DVDs containing the submitted episodes, which the producers or performers select as their best work. Voters sign an affidavit saying they’ve viewed the submissions before making their selections, although of course no one’s watching them do the watching. This seems to be the key–an actor from a less popular or established show might come from behind with a canny or stunning episode submission. Our voters didn’t have that luxury (maybe next year!), but at the same time we can only hope the real voters take advantage of it. We may never know for sure, but we have two data points from our little game that are interesting: Two of our voters’ least favorite candidates, Paul McCrane from Harry’s Law and Gwyneth Paltrow from Glee, have already won Emmys this year, as the guest categories were awarded at the Creative Arts Emmy ceremony. We can’t entirely separate out all the factors that might have contributed to that–Paltrow’s a movie star “slumming” on TV; McCrane had the type of David E. Kelley bombast we’re just tired of–but maybe their episodes were persuasive.

The finding that might have surprised me the most, however, was that everything’s loved by someone: Almost every nominee got at least one first place vote. Pretty much everything, no matter how little viewed by the public or how disrespected by the critics, has someone who loves it. The only exceptions? Harry’s Law‘s Kathy Bates and Paul McCrane (an actual Emmy winner, I remind you) and Two and Half Men‘s Jon Cryer. Yes, even Gwyneth got a first place vote–everything’s got someone who loves it. Perhaps even more surprising, there wasn’t a single case where two ballots were identical. Let me reiterate that: there was not a single case where two people completely agreed who or what deserved an Emmy. Not one. That’s something to put in your pipe and smoke as we think about how the voting happens and why voters make the choices they do–even in a relatively small, relatively homogenous group such as our voting pool, there was no agreement on what’s good, bad, enjoyable, annoying. Maybe we’ll never figure out the patterns at all–maybe there aren’t any.

Or maybe we’ll try having voters actually watch the submissions next year, and we definitely want to see if a different pool/different voting systems make a difference at the key nomination stage. Never say die! So plan now to be a Bacon voter next year!

Drama Series: Friday Night Lights (FNL–and pretty much everything associated with it–were the clearest winners in any category.)

Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights

Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights (Britton had the most #1 votes of any nominee in any category, making her, I guess, the Pork Queen Extreme.)

Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones (An interesting case–Dinklage was much loved even by people who ranked GoT very low in the series category.)

Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: Christina Hendricks, Mad Men (Mad Men‘s only win, and nothing else came terribly close. We’re unsure whether that’s because our pool doesn’t watch it as much as real Emmy voters, if they felt it had been recognized enough in previous years, or if there was a push to reward FNL‘s last chance.)

Guest Actor in a Drama Series: Michael J. Fox, The Good Wife (We note he has actually already lost to the aforementioned McCrane.)

Guest Actress in a Drama Series: Joan Cusack, Shameless (Cusack is perhaps the best example of residual affection from other projects, as many of our voters reported never having heard of Shameless, let alone having watched her in it. Cusack lost to Loretta Devine of Grey’s Anatomy.)

Comedy Series: Modern Family (An easy win over a 2nd place Parks and Recreation, which people either loved or hated.)

Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Ah, and here we hit trouble. Using the Emmys’ preferential ranking system, the top three choices are Steve Carell from The Office as the winner, Jim Parsons from The Big Bang Theory in second, and 30 Rock‘s Alec Baldwin in third. Other voting systems, however, flop that all around, with the most common outcome being Baldwin winning ahead of Carell and Parsons. Since the preferential ranking has benefited both Baldwin and Parsons in the past but never Carell, we’re content giving him the win, but it’s interesting.

Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope (A winner by a comfortable margin; it will be interesting to see the actual Emmys and whether this is an artifact of our specific pool or if everyone has such excellent taste. As she is awesome.)

Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: A tie, between Ty Burrell of Modern Family and Chris Colfer of Glee. Alternate voting systems pretty invariably had Burrell in front. (Colfer was remarkably polarizing even among our voters, whom I happen to know lean toward people who actually like him even when they were ranking him low, so it’s hard to imagine that real voters wouldn’t have the same polarization for about a hundred reasons, including his episode submission positioning him as the genuine contrast candidate.) (I should probably also note the opportunity for a new CBS mulit-camera, laugh-track sitcom called Everybody Hates Jon Cryer, because wow, most voters really, really did.)

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: Ooh, fun, more trouble. The preferential voting system actually used by the Emmys gave us a pretty clear win for Glee‘s Jane Lynch. Other approaches, however, bumped her all the way down to third, behind Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen (in that order). (Glee is an interesting case–it did poorly in series, but some voters seemed to carry that over to the actors, while many were willing to “forgive” the actors the show’s sins.)

Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: Will Arnett, 30 Rock (He actually lost the Emmy to Justin Timberlake’s SNL hosting gig, which finished fifth in our pool. Screeners? Star…whoring? Our voters being uninteresting in bringing sexy back?)

Guest Actress in a Comedy Series: A tie, between Raising Hope‘s Cloris Leachman and Glee‘s Dot-Marie Jones. Alternate voting systems put Jones on top. (Gwyneth Paltrow actually won. I’m sure she’ll be posting instructions on how to turn your own Emmy into a fashionable paper towel holder for your guest house kitchen on GOOP soon.)

I have a sneaking suspicion the actual winners will look quite different–that’s the pattern so far–but it will be interesting to see where and speculate as to why. Please join us in untangling it all!

For Whom the (Cloister) Bell Tolls, or Why We Hope Steven Moffat’s DOCTOR WHO Is an Island

For people who were so enjoying Doctor Who, we’ve been pretty silent on all things Whovian around here lately. The Steven Moffat era of Who returns to Auntie Beeb and BBC America tonight, and…well, we’re not sure we’re returning along with it. We just aren’t loving The Amazing Cold-Hearted and Illogical Adventures of the Eleventh Doctor and His Companion, The Skirt. And not loving something we were so enamored with makes watching the new stuff all the more difficult.

So what’s the problem? There are certainly things to applaud in Moffat’s Who. While we’re not sure it always works, the decision to explicitly stretch story arcs across the entire season is both ambitious and a wink back at Old School Who. Trusting established “outsiders” like Richard Curtis and Neil Gaiman has resulted in stand-out episodes. The child characters Moffat creates tend to be very successful, perhaps revealing how much he adores his own kids and how much his version of Doctor Who is directed toward kids. There’s been some brilliant set-up (those Silence-sighting hash marks are creeeeeepy).

And if some of that set-up hasn’t paid off, well, how different is that from the Russell T Davies-era Who we so loved? It’s not like we didn’t forgive RTD for sins against storytelling similar to what Moffat is committing. For every example of Moffat ruining something wonderful he’d done before, like taking the Weeping Angels out of the Wester Drumlins basement, you can find an example of Davies doing the same thing. I still refuse to acknowledge that ridiculous “Doctor 10.5 riding off into the sunset with alternate universe Rose disaster that undid the beautiful ‘Doomsday’” thing ever happened. While Moffat sometimes seems to fall in love with an idea and pursues it down a bad, bad road regardless of what it does to the story (no one tell the Doctor someone will kill him in the future, or he’d have to take sensible action!), Davies did that, too (Yoda Doctor of “Last of the Time Lords” is nigh unforgivable.)

But it turns out that nigh unforgivable isn’t the same thing as unforgivable. While our purpose here isn’t to pit Davies against Moffat—they both have strengths and weaknesses—their consecutive eras make for a sad comparison: why were we so willing not just to forgive but to embrace Davies’ sometimes lumpy Who, but we’re about to change the channel on Moffat’s?

  1. Puzzle Problems

It’s not like previous eras of Who locked down excellent science fiction logic. Why, for example, does Meglos need a human to fabricate a Doctor disguise…you know what, don’t even bother trying to answer that. Davies, in particular, made up egregious Point B nonsense to wrest the story from Point A to Point C (“It’s a magic diamond! That the Time Lords threw from inside the Time War! Wheeee!”). Moffat’s stories, however, tend not to bother with things like connective tissue at all. Instead, he merrily hops from Point A to Point C without worrying about whether that shreds the story beyond recognition. How does Rory go from being dead to having his consciousness in a plastic body that’s supposed to behave like a Roman? “Don’t know—he feels himself dying and then feels fuzzy and then feels Roman.” But…how? “Don’t know—doesn’t matter. Got to blow something up now.” But that doesn’t make any sense. “Eh. Call it a miracle.” Moffat doesn’t try to connect Thing A to Thing C at all—he just declares it to be so.

Perhaps the worst offense is the use of the TARDIS as a magic wand. There’s a reason stories about time travel employ rules preventing the characters from going back in time and removing the dramatic catalyst: without the dramatic catalyst, there’s no drama. Moffat’s blatant disregard for general sci-fi tropes about time travel and paradoxes—let alone rules actually established over decades of Whovian lore–remove any sense of tension or consequences from the story. Need a way out of trouble? The Doctor will pop in in a bubble of time and provide the solution. You know what that is? The last 20 minutes of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where they think to go back and provide themselves with conveniently placed garbage cans and key chains.

But what bothers me most, and this has its roots in the puzzles themselves being a failure, is that the reason puzzles work in stories is because the way they slam together in the end provides emotional catharsis (which, as you’ll see, will lead to our #1 complaint about Moffat’s Who). Sometimes that catharsis is joy, sometimes it’s relief, sometimes it’s a chill down the spine, but it’s emotion. Moffat’s puzzles aren’t providing that emotion, at least in part because their construction is shoddy.

The thing that’s so frustrating is that Moffat has shown he can make the puzzles work to provide emotion. I know I’m in the minority, but I love, love, love “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and it’s got nothing to do with Reinette. I love it because the reveal of the puzzle at the end—the audience learning something that the Doctor will always be haunted by but will never know—makes me cry every time I see it. The puzzle resolution itself has an emotional power that seeing a coffin being carried away doesn’t. Sally Sparrow’s delight and relief at figuring out that she’s the Doctor’s key is actually a big fat cheat, but it’s not as much of a cheat as what Moffat’s trying these days, and it’s an emotional catharsis that completes the entire episode. To paraphrase the great CJ Cregg, “The puzzles are bad. If the puzzles were unknown, I could help you, but they aren’t. They’re just bad.”

  1. Gender Issues

I’ve been trying to be patient with Moffat’s gender problems, but I finally reached my boiling point around the time they started making a game of Amy’s reproductive system. Kay Reindl’s tough but accurate piece on this development outlines very nicely why using Amy’s uterus as a plot point is misogynistic rather than cute, and Moffat’s problems with women hardly begin and end there.

Who are the women in Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who? Alien queens, nurses, soldiers. The problem is the pattern that emerges when looking at them all together: virgin/love interest, wife, mother. The whores or the wombs, the pretty or the evil. Over and over and over. It’s fine that Nancy’s a mother, both to the empty child and to her little band of WWII misfits. After all, the manager of the Flesh plant is a woman. It’s not a big deal that Reinette is, to be delicate, a courtesan—after all, the cool Sirulian Sherlock Holmes and her sidekick are women. But line them up. All four of Moffat’s Davies-era female characters fall straight into the major feminine archetypes: mother, whore, virgin (as far as Larry’s interests are concerned), wife. Now Amy’s a supplicant and a womb. Yay. Is Liz 10 a virgin queen? The “Vampires of Venice” baddie is just trying to protect her offspring—mommy. There are women in “Victory of the Daleks” and “The Lodger,” but they exist to be in love. And so on and so on, ad infinitum. Which is a long damn time when there’s a TARDIS involved.

What of Moffat’s most prominent women, Amy and River? The Amy we know has mostly been rendered non-existent—literally, what we thought was her was not, more than once—and the real Amy gets to be wife and womb. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a woman being married or having kids—in fact, those things are great. But when Moffat got a chance to create a Doctor Who companion, he made one who is nothing but those roles instead an actual human woman with thoughts and feelings of her own that include but are not limited to her family connections and responsibilities. Luckily, Amy’s been available to wear short skirts.

And River? At least she’s fun. But she’s fun because she’s just Captain Jack all over again, minus the Y chromosome. River is Moffat’s replacement Mary Sue, which is why she’s kind of awesome, yet oddly lacking any real depth.

It’s not terribly hard to see the gender issues playing out in Moffat’s overall handling of female characters, but he has trouble with his male characters, too. Looking over his body of work, he seems only to write immature men. And his immature men can be lots of fun when that’s what the story’s supposed to be about: Sherlock and Watson (whom we are loving—there’s the Who we wish Moffat had made), or Captain Jack, or Jeff and Steve and Patrick. But when he forces the Doctor into that box we get a Time Lord who becomes something heartless and twisted, with the brutally self-centered attention deficit of a child. Matt Smith is trying hard, but he’s being asked to play a Doctor who’s coming up on a thousand years old but who could show up on an American sitcom with a wife who is way out of his league. Part of the fun of the Doctor is that he sometimes bursts his seams and shows us an intelligence and perspective beyond human experience. Moffat’s immature Doctor is an all-too familiar brand of fake humanity.

  1. Moral Dilemmas

Again, we don’t mean to pit Davies against Moffat, or to imply that Davies-era Who has no flaws. But in thinking about what we’re missing from Who these days, we fell into discussing “The Waters of Mars,” a story we’ve not yet reviewed at TV Bacon. While we’re split on the end—Susannah doesn’t enjoy watching the dark turn it takes, while I dance around in a little circle singing, “Valeyard! Valeyard!”—we are both staggered by the difference between that episode and Moffat’s stuff. The Doctor’s dilemma in that episode, as in so many of the best of Davies’ episodes, was a moral one. It wasn’t a problem that could be solved by being clever or using the sonic or the TARDIS to fix everything. There was no winning scenario—the Doctor had to choose the best of two bad outcomes and it hurt to watch him do it. It made us hurt for him, which made us love him all the more. The Doctor knows what fixed points in time are, so can he refuse to save Pompeii? Should he have prevented the Dalek race from ever being born? Was it wrong to destroy the Racnoss, or was it just wrong to take steely pleasure in it? Was it wrong to depose Harriet Jones? There’s a moral question like that underpinning all the best of Who.

There’s very little of this exploration in Moffat’s Who, which creates an Eleven who is that arrogant, dangerous Time Lord Victorious from the end of “Waters of Mars.” He doesn’t have moral dilemmas, he’s not bothered about the consequences of his actions, he doesn’t even pause long enough to worry about the people who might get trampled under his feet or feel bad when innocent bystanders end up as collateral damage. Consider the particularly nauseating example of the solution to the Silence infestation of Earth in “Day of the Moon”: humans being hypnotoaded into being weapons of niche destruction. Perhaps it’s a testament to the vividness of his storytelling, but think about what Moffat has created here: in that world, thanks to the Doctor, every time you or I turn around we might feel a compulsion to splatter open a skull. There’s very little to love about a character with so much power who wields it so carelessly.

Part of what’s so maddening is that Moffat often has the opportunity to explore the moral dilemmas right in front of him and refuses to do anything with it. “The Beast Below” was more interested in playing with pointless clown police than in grappling with the moral issues the story set up. Matthew Graham’s Flesh two-parter had all kinds of moral shades available to play with, but right after showing that Flesh and Human should get along the Doctor dispatches Flesh!Amy for a shock reveal. “The Waters of Mars” slaps the Doctor with consequences almost immediately after his bad choices. If there’s a consequence to the Eleventh Doctor’s behavior, Moffat’s hiding it inside a strangely constructed Rubik’s Cube, and we’re no longer convinced he isn’t more interested in playing with the puzzle than finding what’s inside.

  1. Emotional Connections

While we (obviously) have some issues with the details of Moffat’s sci-fi, our biggest complaint is that we feel nothing. We were willing to critique but ultimately overlook hot plot messes in RTD’s work when we got big emotional payoffs, and the same is true for Moffat—as much as crossing the timelines drives us batty, we’d likely get over it if a huge emotional payoff was attached.

There’s no love anymore. No heart. No joy. No sincere affection or emotion of any kind, far too much of the time. (We suspect this is why Rory is so popular, and our favorite Moffat-era character: he’s the only one who consistently displays any genuine feelings for anything or anyone. Everyone else is too busy being glib and clever and showing off.)

And yes, the Doctor has always been glib and clever with a predilection for showing off. But he’s also been a man with two hearts overflowing with affection for the people who cross his path (until/unless they prove themselves unworthy of that affection, and then they better watch out). He used to look at the whole of the universe with a childlike joy and sense of wonder. Now we’re too busy twisting into pretzels to experience wonder or attachment or loss.

Consider our favorite episodes of Moffat’s reign—both “Vincent and the Doctor” (Richard Curtis’ work) and “The Doctor’s Wife” (hello, Mr. Gaiman) tie the Doctor to love. One person he loves is a new friend; one is his oldest friend of all. Both tether him to something outside of himself, stretching the Doctor so that he’s bigger on the inside. The Master once mocked the Doctor’s choice of moniker: “the man who makes people better.” But watching Vincent have a moment away from the ache of his mental illness to hear a museum curator discuss his work as timeless is so moving that it makes the Doctor’s rule-breaking worth overlooking. Seeing the one being who always makes the Doctor better finally get to say hello to him is nearly 50 years’ worth of emotional payoff. Compare that to the revelation of River’s identity, which should be a huge moment and instead feels like a magician shouting “ta da!” and pulling nothing out of his hat.

One of our greatest frustrations is that Moffat has shown in previous work that he can bring the emotion. The Doctor’s pure joy in “The Doctor Dances” is a sure tearjerker. Donna asking if “I’m all right” is Time Lord for “really, really not all right” in “Forest of the Dead” is one of the most piercing moments of Season 4 of New!Who. So why doesn’t he want to make us cry now?

We wonder if weak characterization is part of the emotion problem, not just with the main characters but compared to RTD’s ability to draw colorful, memorable one-off characters we immediately cared about. It’s a good part of why Gaiman was successful—every new person on screen was interesting and, to some extent, deeply sad. Fake and imaginary Amys make it impossible to create deep characterization, and the Doctor doesn’t seem interested in anyone else. That leaves a lot of emotional weight for Rory to carry, with very little help from either side characters or plot to get there. If the theft of a baby can’t make us cry, we’re having a hard time connecting with your world.

While we’d stand by the argument that some parts of Moffat’s Who are simply not well-executed, it’s also true that there’s nothing inherently wrong with flattening out the moral aspects of the show or going for sprung traps over emotion. We suspect that Moffat thinks he’s making a return to Old School Who, and maybe he is. I do think he takes his kids into account when writing this stuff. And the Davies era really was a major update to modern television expectations in terms of infusing emotion into the show. So yay for Moffat if a retrofit is what he wants. We’re just not enjoying watching it with him.

Summer Rewatch–MAD MEN, Season 1: Drinking the Cream, Eating the Butter

It makes me cranky, but I’ve been out of step for a while now–with the Emmys, the critics,  the cultural zeitgesit, and even my fellow Baconeer:

I don’t like Mad Men. At all.

I tried, I really did. I made it three episodes into the first season and quit in disgust. Since then, I’ve checked in here and there but haven’t been able to see the appeal. Some of the latter is surely that this is not the kind of show you can just drop in on–without the slow build-up across seasons, you can’t experience the payoff. But I don’t want to invest in the slow build-up, because these characters are terrible people. You wouldn’t know if from reading TV Bacon, since I clearly watch way too much TV and then spend time writing about it, but I actually do have a life, and that life is too short to spend time with terrible people.

And yet…the Emmys. The critics. The zeitgeist. Susannah swears up and down that by Season 4 viewers get the payoff of investing in these terrible people when sweeping cultural change kicks them in the teeth. Wouldn’t I like to see these terrible people kicked in the teeth? Yes. Yes, I would.  So here I am, spending some of the summer TV doldrums (what, I’m going to watch Franklin and Bash? Please.) giving Mad Men a second chance.

Turns out maybe I was wrong. Well, sort of. Some of the time. Except when I wasn’t.

Three-quarters of Mad Men (the first season, anyway) is a pretty great show. The excellent craftsmanship has always been obvious–it’s beautifully designed, brilliantly costumed, tightly written, and, for the most part, competently acted. The closing shot of the pilot, framed like a period ad, is genius. That’s contributed to my previous irritation, actually–that something so lovingly and brilliantly made could at the same time be so offputting. There’s just so much reveling in white male privilege, to the point where the show almost seems to enjoy it. (And when you consider Sal and Carol, it’s really about reveling in straight white male privilege.)  “Almost” is key, though. In this better chunk of Mad Men, the show is actually gently puncturing the privilege. There’s almost always someone higher up the food chain who undercuts the male characters’ choices, and even the most privileged characters often don’t get what they want. The first time I tried to watch, I was so uncomfortable that I missed most of the humor. But as long as the show is employing a biting (if often subtle) wit, it’s an exploration of (straight) white male privilege that’s aware of the privilege itself. That doesn’t always make Mad Men fun, but it definitely makes it chewy.

The problem, of course, is that almost every show ever has in one way or another been an exploration of straight white male privilege, and who needs to see that again? The inferior quarter of the season is devoted to tenderly caressing the brows of the point-of-view characters who have everything but are still empty inside. They’re a weird amalgam of Marx and Rand, alienated from their labors by the fact that they make nothing and sell nothing but desire, yet somehow burdened by their gallons of expensive alcohol and fine suits and large suburban homes. They drink all the cream and eat all the butter (literally, in artery-clogged Roger’s case), and yet they’re giant open wounds of want. To which I can only reply: You may go directly to Hell. You may not pass Go, you may not collect $200.

Wah! I have a high-paying job and a beautiful wife and children and a huge house and dinner on the range, but that other woman won’t make out with me! Wah! Shut up and eat your bacon and egg sandwich already. The idea that these men who are crushing everyone around them under the weight of their privilege should be pitied because while they’ve been everywhere they haven’t been to them is just excruciating, and when it’s not undercut by knowing humor it’s next to impossible to watch. As I sat gritting my teeth through that grueling third episode, “The Marriage of Figaro,” it all started coming back to me–I quit the first time around for a reason. Luckily, the summer rewind structure allowed me to zip right along, because the next episode, “New Amsterdam,” is one of the best of the season at using sly wit to puncture the oppressive privilege saturating the story. But with such short seasons, a quarter of the episodes being weighed down with asking us to dredge up such distasteful sympathies feels like a lot.

Interestingly, the tribulations of these swingingest of Dicks are linked to a wail that typically comes from mean girls: they’re unhappy because they’re not real. They can succeed at the advertising game because being empty allows them to make empty things, but nothing can satisfy the big empty inside because they aren’t being true to their real desires. But unlike the female and minority characters, the structure of the male characters’ privilege is such that their emptiness is entirely of their own making. Since they chose it, why is this lack of authenticity so crippling? Why is sleeping with a downtown artist more real than sleeping with a suburban housewife? Drink some cream and get over yourselves, gentlemen. And why is this lack of authenticity constructed as a bad thing for everyone? Dick Whitman had a terrible life–why shouldn’t Don Draper enjoy the life he created instead? Why am I being asked to sympathize with people who are black holes of want even when they have everything and seem entirely unconcerned with the fact that others have little?

And yet…that’s only one quarter of the episodes. The majority of the season really does peel back and expose the privilege, and it is so much funnier than I remembered to boot. The distasteful stuff is just so distasteful. Still, I embarked on this experiment assured that if I invested the time, I’d get the payoff, even if that payoff takes four seasons to come. I’m interested in seeing more of the parts of Mad Men I’m liking, and I’m interested in seeing the 1960s roll right over the parts I don’t. I’ll never–never–understand Peggy and Pete, but are lawnmowers and floor wax enough to get all this dairy out of my system?

To be continued…

Emmy Nomination Ballots Out: Hello, Rob Lowe; Goodbye, Charlie Sheen

Emmy ballots are being posted! (Performers, directors, and writers; note that they are .pdf files. ETA: Here’s a gateway to all categories–the hairstyling/makeup submissions are really fun to read!) We haven’t had much time to look over them, but there are always a few standout crazy moments:

  • Always fun to see the different writing submission strategies (which are also, of course, dependent on the makeup of writing teams)–The Middle submits one, Modern Family submits nine. Nine. Glee submits one per writer, Cougar Town submits eight. Friday Night Lights submits only the series finale; Covert Affairs submits eight and Burn Notice nine. I don’t know that one strategy is superior to another (hard to imagine Burn Notice, which I like very much, getting a nom, while Modern Family will likely get a few), but it’s fun to play with.
  • No America Ferrera for Guest Actress for The Good Wife? Boooooo.
  • No Jennifer Aniston in Guest Actress for Cougar Town? Odd.
  • As suspected, Rob Lowe–God love him–thinks he’s a lead actor on Parks and Recreation. Maybe Charlie Sheen’s absence will open up a slot for Lowe (is there a back door through which Sheen can still make it in? That…is probably not a good way to ask that question).
  • Oh, y’all, Community submitted the Christmas episode in the animated category. Love it!
  • The headshots are golden. Nice knit hat, Alan Cumming. Jennifer Love Hewitt managed to find three different headshots for her three different submission. Bless.

What interesting tidbits are you finding?

One and Done–Are There Any Solutions to Emmy Love Affairs? (And Should There Be?)

Over the past few days, we’ve been examining how often Emmy voters go for the tried and true and to what degree this prevents other deserving shows or performers from winning. The numbers suggest there’s a lot of clumping–in many categories, we’ve gotten nearly 2/3 recycled winners over the last two decades.

The first question, I suppose, is whether this is a problem. If there are obviously superior shows or actors, why should they be punished for being superior–why shouldn’t they get an Emmy every year? We tend to be okay with that in other competitions, like sports–if someone is clearly fastest or strongest, they win, regardless of whether this blocks other athletes from victory. Judging something as subjective as art makes that comparison suspect, but multiple winners might fairly claim they’re simply better.

Feelings on that likely lie with whether you’re in the winners’ camp or the losers’. Die-hard fans of The West Wing are probably less troubled by that show’s four straight wins than fans of The Sopranos are. Fans of CSI: Original Flavor (should they exist) are probably frustrated by the six awards the West Wing and Sopranos crews soaked up. When the Baconeers have picked our potential nomnees, we tend to find we agree with the Academy about 25% of the time. To some extent, people who aren’t crazy about repeat winners just have to accept that Emmy voters’ taste doesn’t match their own.

What’s a little more unsettling, and less just an issue of subjectivity in judging art, perhaps, is the way repeat winners might reveal just what makes up that taste. In terms of shows, patterns appear to reveal a taste for upper-class, well-polished, professionals. Lawyers, politicians, lawyers, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, lawyers, TV producers, lawyers, real estate agents/contractors, lawyers, fashionistas, lawyers, admen, and lawyers tend to dominate. Looking at this, it’s amazing shows like The Sopranos, The Office, or Everybody Loves Raymond ever won. As we’ve pointed out in previous pieces, anything labeled as “genre”–science fiction, mystery, romance–stands little chance of being nominated, let alone winning. While it’s true there are few shows about the experiences of people of color on TV, such shows are even less likely to be nominated for or win Emmys. Yes, I’m still bitter about The Wire. As the television universe continues to both expand and splinter, more and more quality–and niche–programming is being made. With so much more good stuff to choose from, repeat winners seem less and less justifiable.

Could making changes to the Emmy procedures help break these logjams and spread the wealth to repeat nominees like Hugh Laurie or Steve Carell? Could changes break up the class-taste nexus and bring recognition to other parts of the television spectrum? If so, what should those changes be?

The short answer: heck if we know. We’ve played with lots of possibilities–more categories? Recognizing ensembles? Recognizing the rise of the dramedy?–and have found them all to be largely as arbitrary as the current system. How do you decide who’s a lead actor, a supporting actor, or an ensemble actor? How funny does a show have to be before it gets moved from a drama to a comedy? We don’t know, and we suspect the industry doesn’t know either. We’d love to hear your suggestions, and provide a few possibilities to kick off the chat:

  • Getting rid of categories altogether for nominations. We tried this as an experiment and were astonished how quickly things came together and how easily we were able to find victors in the traditional four acting categories from our list of nominees. Granted, our experiment was very much a pilot study, as the Baconeers tend to be on the same page on TV–how would a broader application work? We kept the nominees segregated by sex–should even that be done away with?
  • Viewing panels. The Academy has tried several variations on this over the past few years, including general voting that created a 10-candidate list from which a “blue ribbon panel” chose the final nominees as well as screening panels for final voting that ensured that–unless they fell asleep in the screening–panelists were voting based on the actual work instead of buzz or social networks. Some argue (and I might agree) that both of these systems shook up the repeat/multiple patterns, but both systems were probably more expensive than the current system and may have further diluted the pool of willing voters (not a great thing if you want to broaden the taste profile of voters). 
  • Forcing winners to sit out a year. Sure, maybe winners tend to be of very high quality (maybe). But are repeat winners really that much better than their competition? If we just said “one and done,” the last five years would look like this:

Drama: 24, The Sopranos, Mad Men, ???, ???

Comedy: The Office, 30 Rock, ???, ???, Modern Family

Actor, Drama: Keifer Sutherland, James Spader, Bryan Cranston, ???, ???

Actress, Drama: Mariska Hargitay, Sally Field, Glenn Close, ???, Kyra Sedgwick

Actor, Comedy: Tony Shalhoub, Ricky Gervais, Alec Baldwin, ???, Jim Parsons

Actress, Comedy: No change

Supporting Actor, Drama: No change

Supporting Actresss, Drama: ??? (Blythe Danner clipped from the year before), Katherine Heigl, Dianne Weist, Cherry Jones, Archie Panjabi

Supporting Actor, Comedy: Jeremy Piven, ???, ???, Jon Cryer, Eric Stonestreet

Supporting Actress, Comedy: No change

Going back only five does lose some of the pattern in some categories–which may be a good sign–and obviously new winners would depend on which years you remove from multiple winners. But there would be more variety. Is that a good thing, or is this merely a Hugh Laurie problem that doesn’t really need fixing? Would opening up just one slot–the repeat or multiple winner–per year open enough room for genre candidates? The first basic cable shows have been nominated in the last few years–is this a sign the Academy tastes are shifting? Is the issue fixing itself? Since our tastes don’t always match the actual nominees very well, we’d hope so–what do you think?

Monday: Ballots are out! We’re hoping for nonsense and weirdness. Rob Lowe, I’m looking at you.

M Is for the Murders That She Ordered: TV’s Best and Worst Moms

Susannah is off being feted for Mother’s Day; I, on the other hand, am cheerfully/crabbily boycotting. This, then, seems the perfect Bacon nod to Mother’s Day: celebrating those TV moms who did it right and side-eyeing those who could have used a refresher. Or a visit from Social Services.

Let’s look at some heroes first:

10. Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox), Cougar Town: Heaven knows she’s a tad on the clingy side–we expect a whole episode to be built around Trav finding a NannyCam implanted in roommate Kevin. But when push comes to shove it turns out Jules knows when to back off (even if she doesn’t want to) and when to step in. What makes her a compelling candidate for the good list, however, is all the mothering she does of the Cul-de-Sac Crew that makes up her little constructed family. No one in the neighborhood is going without wine, advice, or hugs while Jules is on the job. (Well–maybe Tom.)


9. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Downton Abbey: We love our PBS costume dramas, with Downton Abbey the latest obsession. Isobel Crawley’s progressive ways make her not only an encouraging, inspiring mother to reluctant heir Matthew, but, in the ways she’s searching out to let him be lord of the manor while keeping a toe in the career she’s so intensely proud of, the mother to a new age. Plus, she’s got the cojones to toe-to-toe with Dame Maggie Smith’s fearsome Dowager Countess of Grantham without even flinching.

8. Virgina Chance (Martha Plimpton), Raising Hope: Virgina might seem an odd choice, given that she gave birth at 16 and then raised a son for whom a Wal-Mart level job was a huge step up, but the pilot demonstrated that Virginia’s someone you want on your side. Between walloping the serial killer who would become the mother of her grandchild on the melon with a household appliance and tenderly singing said granddaughter to sleep, Virginia’s got all the mothering bases covered in her own way.

7. Jackie Tyler (Camille Coduri), Doctor Who: Jackie’s another tough initial sell–it certainly takes the Doctor a while to warm up to her. As her layers are peeled back, however, we find a fiercely protective Jackie who fought on after being widowed to raise a girl so brave and resourceful she can hold her own with a Time Lord. On top of that, Jackie’s observant enough to worry about how Rose’s journeys are changing her. “Let me tell you something about those who get left behind,” she tells someone perceived as a threat to her daughter and the Doctor, “because it’s hard, and that’s what you become: hard. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I will never let her down, and I’ll protect them both until the end of my life. So whatever you want, I’m warning you, back off.” We’ll take Jackie’s tough love any day of the week.

6. Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner), The Simpsons: She’s brought down tyrants through the hearth arts (scotching Mr. Burns’ gubernatorial campaign with one well-placed entree). She’s shielded Lisa from the Simpsons Gene. For the love of Pete, she’s homeschooled Bart Simpson. Marge has given up a lot to put her kids first, but she might be rewarded one day by being the mother of a president. And Bart Simpson.

5. Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong), My So-Called Life: The anchor of a show that was too good for this world, Patty could bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and nurture Angela through all the heartaches great and small that come from just trying to grow up in this world. And in her spare time, she could do the same for Rayanne and Rickie. We wish Angela had been our friend in high school, mostly so we could hang out at her house and have Patty mother us.


4. Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), Friday Night Lights: If mothers are judged solely on how their kids turn out…well, they shouldn’t be. But if they were, Tami’d better hope Gracie Belle turns out well, because Julie Taylor is working our last nerve. But the Julie saga is actually a perfect example of why Tami’s a great mom–by turns sympathetic and demanding, she gives her kids all the support they need to succeed and then insists that they work hard to be all they can be. Then she does that for an entire town of kids. Add to that her example as a wife and professional (well, most of the time), and she’s top-notch.

3. Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad), The Cosby Show: Claire’s the head badass in charge, and everyone in her house knows is. She’s head disciplinarian, head cattle prodder, head listening ear…she might be the #2 dance leader in the house, but you get the idea. To be fair, the dream life the Huxtable kids live has a lot to do with their socioeconomic status, but Claire is an equal partner in providing that, too. And she does it all with class, sass, and, yes, being a badass. If I could choose one of the moms to be instead of one of the moms to have, it might be Claire.

2. Sarah Connor (Lena Headey), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Tortured, torturing. Shooting, being shot. Taking on the military-industrial complex to save her son, who will lead the glorious revolution against our robot overlords. Sarah’s not just mothering John Connor, people–she’s giving up her hopes and dreams, and maybe her own life, to save us all.

1. Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), Gilmore Girls: She may every once in a while be a little overindulgent, but Lorelai’s determination to give her daughter the childhood she herself never had sets off a cascade that starts with a teen mom raising her daughter in a potting shed and ends with Stars Hollow’s Most Beloved Girl Ever graduating from Yale. Along the way, we see one of the warmest, most supportive mother-daughter relationships ever shown on TV. We might want to be both Lorelai and the daughter she raised.

And to those moms you might not want to emulate:

10. (Tie) Lucille Bluth and Lindsay Bluth Funke (Jessica Walter and Portia de Rossi), Arrested Development: One makes her youngest son so codependent that when trying to escape her he mistakes the warning “Loose seal!” for her name and loses a hand. She then uses his prosthetic replacement in…happy times and leaves it in the dishwasher for him to find. The other merrily ignores her daughter until she wants to date said daughter’s high school boyfriend. The apple doesn’t fall far from the funny, funny tree.


9. Mom (Tress MacNeille), Futurama: On the surface, a sweet, bustled woman who just wants you to be happy because she loves you so much. Underneath the corset, a corporate overlord who just wants to suck the life (and all of your money) out of the entire galaxy. Don’t disappoint Mom–she might slap you. Or send her army of killer robots to express her displeasure.

8. Lianne Mars (Connie Bohrer), Veronica Mars: Imagine a mother who gives up every vestige of her old life, including being able to see or care for her teenage daughter, in order to protect that daughter from nefarious folk. A candidate for the best moms list, right? Sure, until she returns, drains her daughter’s college savings going to fake rehab, and then steals a very hard-earned paycheck on her way out the door a second time. Veronica became a better person with Lianne out of the picture anyway.

7. Colleen Donaghy (Elaine Stritch), 30 Rock: Highly critical. Ridiculously demanding. Acid-tongued. Unaffectionate (“Tell him his mother loves him. But not in a queer way”). The anti-matchmaker. And almost sure to bring all of these delightful qualities to the next generation (“I see you brought the bag…that my bastard grandchild will come in”). Like some of our moms on the best list, Colleen did the best with what she had, but now that she has more she’s happy to use it to keep twisting the knife.

6. Ellis Grey (Kate Burton), Grey’s Anatomy: It seems like we should have felt sorry for Ellis Grey, given that her career as one of the foremost cardiothoracic surgeons in the world was cut short by early-onset Alzheimer’s. And maybe we would have, if she hadn’t treated her husband with contempt, cheated on him and then pushed him out of their daughter’s life. Or expressed nothing but disappointment in Meredith, while spitting on her dreams at every opportunity. Oh, and then there was the time Ellis slashed her wrists in front of her daughter, just to manipulate a lover. Meredith drives us up a tree, but she comes by her crazy honestly.


5. Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), Weeds: We’d like to watch this show more regularly, but we can’t get over the intense discomfort we feel when Nancy puts her children in grave danger not only because she’s running a weed business, but because she’s just so bad at it. We can understand being scared about losing her lifestyle along with her husband, but in what world did exposing her children to criminals and druggies become a better choice than downsizing and getting a crappy desk job?

4. Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), Justified: Well, she’s all about family, you have to give her that. A rural version of the Godfather, Mags is willing to use anyone to further her Kentucky kingdom, and that includes selling out her sons, pitting her sons against one another, manipulating her sons, putting her sons in danger, asking her sons to commit heinous crimes…and if they don’t obey to her satisfaction? She smashes their fingers with a ball peen hammer. Sure, she feels deeply sad when things go badly for said sons, but you’ve also gotta suspect she’s got one of those poisoned mason jars set aside for everyone in the family, just in case the need should arise.

3. Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), Damages: Patty would like you to know that she loves her son very much, albeit in her own heartless, extremely demanding way. That’s why she lies to him about his paternity, disowns him, has all of his belongings removed from her home, attempts to bribe his pregnant girlfriend, and has said girlfriend arrested for statutory rape. At least she was pretty understanding when, in return, he tried to run over his mom with her own car.

2. Betty Draper Francis (January Jones), Mad Men: Look, I can understand how soul-killing it might have been to try to live the traditional roles that were imposed on women in the 50s and 60s. It’s not all the smoking and drinking and dieting she does while pregnant, or even the frequently administered spankings that make her such a bad mother, because, hey, it was a different time and who didn’t let their kids play with dry cleaning bags back then? It’s the fact that she allows her bitterness about her strangled life to manifest as resentment of her children. Most of the other moms on this list at least manage to pretend to show some affection towards their kids every once in a while. Not Betty. When she’s not ignoring hers completely or telling them to go away and watch TV, she’s shutting them in closets, telling them to go bang their heads against a wall, or force-feeding them sweet potatoes in front of her new in-laws. But perhaps the worst thing she’s ever done was petulantly fire Carla, the maid who was the closest thing to a loving caregiver those poor kids ever had.



1. Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), The Sopranos: She’ll probably end up on every bad mom list you’ll see, and she’ll even probably come in at #1 on most. That’s what happens when you compare your children to dogs, fake a stroke to manipulate the entire family, ruin your daughter-in-law’s relationship with her own family, make it clear you think your son will tire of his wife…yeah, Livia’s a peach. Until another TV mom tries to persuade family members to kill her own son, Livia’s likely to be the undisputed queen of the damned. Where’s the Hallmark card that says, “I’m Glad We Got Over Your Putting a Hit Out on Me–Happy Mother’s Day?” In Livia’s cold, dead hands, that’s where.

BETTER WITH YOU: No, Not Really

I could waste your time describing the premise of Better With You (comparisons of distinctly dissimilar marriages within a family, yadda yadda), or with complaining about how the show wastes good actors like Kurt Fuller, Debra Jo Rupp, and Joanna Garcia-Swisher, but there’s really only one thing you need to know about ABC’s most recent addition to their comedy stable.

They use a laugh track. In 2010.

No, seriously.

They use a laugh track. I feel like I should be able to drop a microphone and walk away after saying that.

I have to assume that’s to tell the audience when to laugh, as we couldn’t quite be sure otherwise.

It’s the new Golden Era of televised comedy, folks. With the faux-documentary approaches of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family; with the genre-leaping dexterity of Community; with the jaw-dropping efforts to make a movie every week on Glee; with the slick editing on Cougar Town; with the whip-lash pacing of Better Off Ted, 30 Rock, and Archer, a lazily shot multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track isn’t going to make much of splash anymore.

Maybe they can decamp to CBS–they still use laugh tracks on stuff like Two and a Half Men. For obvious reasons.

Entrez-vous? MAD MEN, THE VENTURE BROTHERS, and the New Viewer

I tried to watch the new episode of Mad Men this week, I really did. Everything I hear says that the show is hitting new highs, and heaven knows I hate missing out on the zeitgeist. As I squirmed on the couch, however, I had to wonder if I’m just not meant to get it. I think some important stuff was supposed to be going down between Don and Peggy, but all I could see is what a jerk Don Draper is being. Loyal fans tell me these were momentous times, which leads me to wonder if the Sterling Cooper world just isn’t for me.

I think I cracked the actual code, however, while watching–of all things–the season premiere of The Venture Brothers (and, yes, I’m altogether too aware that this may be the first ever comparison between Mad Men and The Venture Brothers). The Monarch’s ode to his Butter-Glider (“no more hiding what is woooonderful”) made me laugh until I was wheezing:

Really, who can’t enjoy a little Butter-Glider humor? And yet, most of the episode was built on so many references, homages, and in-jokes  that the plot felt like a Jenga tower. Some of those references, as is often the case in The Venture Brothers, were to other pop culture phenomena (here several asides to Fantastic Voyage, Innerspace, David Byrne, Ghostbusters, House…even the episode title is a reference to an Oscar nominee), but many were references to little details in previous episodes. If a viewer hasn’t committed to memory–let alone seen–previous episodes like “The Family That Slays Together Stays Together,” “Return to Malice,” and “Pinstripes and Poltergeists”  (setting up 21’s twisted relationship with a dead 24), or second season premiere “Powerless in the Face of Death” (for King Gorilla’s backstory, the fact that there have been many Hank and Dean clones, and the montage of those clones’ deaths), that Jenga tower is almost certain to come tumbling down. “Powerless in the Face of Death” is more than four years old. It’s terrific, and people should commit it to memory, but that’s a lot of dedication to ask of a TV viewer. It isn’t just that the plot will make little sense without understanding what has come before–it’s that these gem-like little Easter eggs are the humor and emotional payoff of the entire endeavor. I found it delightful, but then I can recite the previous clones’ deaths. The show’s made for me, but it’s probably a lot less than inviting for a new viewer.

I suspect the same is true for Mad Men–that if a viewer is as immersed in the Sterling Cooper world from the very beginning, the organizing structure that is all of Don and Peggy’s little interactions over the years holds up the Jenga tower. And even more important than supporting the plot line, having those previous tidbits as the emotional underpinning allows for a cathartic payoff. But a new–or inconsistent–viewer doesn’t get the payoff, and I have to wonder if those viewers just give up. This isn’t exactly revolutionary–it’s not rocket science that one reason procedurals do so well, especially in reruns, is because people can drop in knowing nothing and leave happily 44 minutes later with the bad guy in jail. But it is interesting that these two examples, and perhaps most other examples of TV shows that reward hard work and paying attention, are on cable. Arrested Development scratched out four glorious years on FOX but never had a quarter of the audience of American Idol. ABC couldn’t sustain Pushing Daisies. How long can a show last if its very structure keeps new viewers from joining the party? To what extent do profit streams that take into account DVD rentals and sales and online access to content make such shows, with which viewers can catch up, more financially viable? Does the fact that we’re talking about payoff to small details set these shows apart from soap operas, which have ongoing storylines that demand commitment, or are we just being snobs? Is the only hope for complicated, Jenga tower programming networks that can be satisfied with a couple million viewers, while broadcast television is destined for little more than singing and dancing competitions?

OUTLAWS: Objection!

Full disclosure: I’m probably guilty of giving any new NBC lawyer show a more thorough going-over than usual, since said show was chosen over NBC providing me a weekly dose of David Tennant as a lawyer. In other words, I expect these shows to be outstanding to make up for the terrible, terrible cost they’re imposing on the world.

Sadly, Outlaws doesn’t make it over the bar of “watchable,” let alone outstanding. Jimmy Smits is his typical charismatic self, with enough gravitas to sell heavy legal plots and enough playfulness to sell Cyrus Garza’s troubled, disorganized side without weighing down the show. While I’m not thrilled with the female characters being relegated to Stieg Larsson or chick lit rip-offs, the cobbled-together legal team (including Carly Pope, David Ramsey, and Jesse Bradford) has a lot of chemistry. The scenes focusing on the team working to unravel a winning legal strategy have potential.

The problem is that the scenes bracketing the plucky team are so beyond the scope of suspendable disbelief that the entire show sinks under their weight. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, and even I know that when a court overturns a previous conviction the guy who was on death row 20 minutes ago isn’t immediately headed out for a Krispy Kreme. The opening scenes where Cyrus announces his departure from the Supreme Court–yes, the Supreme Court of the United States of America–while delivering an opinion from the bench are likely meant to show him as a maverick, an untamable iconoclast. Instead, it’s simply ridiculous. “Hey, y’all, I think I’ll step down from the Supreme Court. Kisses!” so thoroughly undercuts the character that it damages the rest of the show by making a what should be a serious approach silly. That’s not even mentioning the fact that Cyrus’ decision to become the defense lawyer in the trial he just ordered as a Supreme Court Justice apparently doesn’t wave any conflict of interest flags. Jimmy Smits feels very intensely about this issue, so it must be okay!

I like a good legal show, so I’ll keep hoping Outlaws figures out the law, but until then it’s hard not to wonder what David E. Kelley and Kathy Bates will be bringing to the bar–or what Tennant could have.

We Should Organize a Staff Field Trip to Shenandoah: Ken Burns Take on National Parks on PBS

I’m under double deadline here and am therefore forbidden from saying one word about television. Not one word. Not a word about there being Harlem Globetrotters on The Amazing Race or about how Community and Bored to Death are essentially the same (good) show or wondering how Trauma could open with not one but two helicopters crashing and yet not have Paul McCrane involved.

But I do hope you’re all enjoying Ken Burns’ latest opus, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, as much as I am. I’m soaking in national parks around here, and as such I forget sometimes what a miracle that is. Burns doesn’t–like the best historians, he tells a story, and this story is one of democracy. Thinking about the way the world operated until just recently, it’s astonishing that Yellowstone Park isn’t an aristocrat’s gated summer backyard. Thinking about the way the world operates these days, it’s astonishing that Bryce Canyon National Park wasn’t hoarded away by someone as rich as Mitt Romney. But they weren’t–they belong to us. The national parks are the places where this land really was made for you and me. Burns saw that slender thread and has woven it into his typical gorgeous tapestry, full of wonder, nobility, surprises, and good humor (oh, John Muir–you really were something). Someday we’ll be watching a five-part documentary on PBS entitled Ken Burns: America’s Best Storyteller. Going on right now on PBS, often with multiple showings a day and, in at least some locales, starting over from the beginning next week. You really do have to check your local listings on this one, but don’t miss it.