Wednesday, August 12, 2020

TV: Who gets to be the focus?

Unlike Katha Pollitt, we believe media portrayals and representation impact society. We think it's worth analyzing and responding to these portrayals. Whether you admit it or not, what the camera holds up to the country influences the way many people see the country and the world.


On TNT, THE ALIENIST just wrapped up a tight, eight-episode second season. Dakota Fanning really carried this season. Her character, Sara, opened up a detective agency between seasons one and two. She has specialized in missing children. When not attempting to figure out what happens to the pregnant women who are mistresses of various well off men, she and John (Luke Evans) went through the push-pull complications.

Dakota Fanning was strong in season one but she really came into her own this season. This season also featured more women: women who were pregnant, nurses who were taking care of them, etc.

But it didn't really feature any equal for Sara. The show seems content to be about multiple men and one woman.

We're reminded of the imbalance across the entertainment spectrum.

Take HULU which recently cancelled HIGH FIDELITY. As Zoe Kravitz has rightly noted, they are not a service known for diversity.  From VARIETY:

One day after Hulu canceled her series “High Fidelity” after one season, star ZoĆ« Kravitz called out the streaming service for not having shows with much diversity.
Kravitz took to her Instagram on Thursday to post some behind-the-scenes photos with her “High Fidelity” cast members after news broke that the show was canceled.
“I wanna give a shout out to my #highfidelity family. Thank you for all the love and heart you put into this show. I’m in awe of all of you. And thank you to everyone who watched, loved and supported us. #breakupssuck,” she wrote.

Zoe has a solid point. People of color barely exist on HULU. Women of all colors do not fare any better. For years, HULU has emphasized men over and over: THE CONFESSION, THE PATH, CHANCE . . . In fact, it often seems that if it weren't for homophobia, HULU wouldn't cast women in any roles. They'd just have Aaron Paul snog Kiefer Sutherland and brokeback what they couldn't bareback.

It's strange. Especially when you consider what has been the hit shows for streaming services.

NETFLIX? They hit it out of the park with HOUSE OF CARDS -- that show starred Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. They followed it with the largely female cast of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. Their other hits? STRANGER THINGS and GRACE AND FRANKIE. They've put out a ton of programs -- mostly starring men. Most of those tanked. Over at AMAZON, they offered garbage like ALPHA HOUSE (featuring neutered men who blustered), HAND OF GOD, MAD DOGS, SNEAKY PETE, JEAN-CLAUDE VAN JOHNSON and so much more. When did AMAZON finally have a hit show? THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL. Seeing a pattern? HULU should. It wasn't until they offered THE HANDMAID'S TALE that they had must-see viewing.

But it's as though the streaming services are the big four back at the end of the 80s and no one wants a hit show if it's led by women. They'll take it, the way CBS took MURPHY BROWN and ABC took ROSEANNE, but they don't really want it.

And when you grasp that the streamers are aping the big four in the 80s, you start to grasp why people of color aren't leading shows HULU produces. As in the 80s, people of color can be sidekicks or fish-out-of-water, they just can't be lead characters. The only exception to that is NETFLIX which actively seeks a diverse slate of characters and actors for their programming.

HULU wants applause for LITTLE FIRES. But do they think we don't notice that Kerry Washington's entire character is "the other"? Now Kerry Washington can play all types of characters, she's a diverse actress, but it is telling that when HULU finds a project with her that they like, she's the other. We had problems with AMERICAN SON but Kerry wasn't the other in that NETFLIX offering. HULU has a number of image problems and you'd think they'd be working to address those. HIGH FIDELITY delivered an audience. Why wasn't that enough?

With the lack of diversity on so many platforms, it probably in incumbent upon the streaming services to be as open as possible when ending a series.

And it's probably time for consumers/viewers to start applying pressure. HBO deserves applause for the diversity they offer. That's especially true in the diversity of roles that they offer actors of color. The same cannot be said for many others. Too many networks, when noting their actors of color, repeatedly point to shows that portray African-Americans as crooks. We can all be crooks and criminals but we can all also be other things. It's a shame that too many outlets, when they do cast people of color in major roles, are casting them as perps.

Zoe raised an important point.

And it's a point that causes us to shake our heads and grimace every time Ben Mankiewicz is yammering away about the new TCM podcast he's hosting. We shake our heads as he goes on and on about director Peter Bogdanovich. Peter's 81-years-old. He last had a hit movie with MASK. Peter doesn't get along well with actors. On WHAT'S UP DOC?, he tried to tell Barbra Streisand where to put inflections in her dialogue. She studied him for a moment, raised an eyebrow and asked, "Are you trying to give me line readings?" He never did it again. He never did it again with Barbra. She was the only reason the film was being made. (It started out as A GLIMPSE OF THE TIGER and was shut down, Barbra was brought onto the project to help the studio and her ex-husband Elliott Gould avoid a lawsuit.) Others weren't so lucky. Now Ryan O'Neal, for example, benefited from Peter's line readings and Peter acting out the scene to show him what he wanted. But most were like Barbra. Cher truly did not need line readings. Eric Stolz told her to just nod and do it her way, that he did that himself and Bogdonavich never noticed. MASK wasn't a happy set. That's been the reality of too many Bogdonavich films. MASK was a hit, WHAT'S UP DOC? was a hit, PAPER MOON was a hit, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW was a hit. That's really it. Now we both love AT LONG LAST LOVE -- a film that was trashed. But even if you want to allow for that, except for 1985's MASK, Peter hasn't had a hit since 1975.

Why is he being interviewed? THE PLOT THICKENS: I'M STILL PETER BOGDANOVICH. So what?

Yes, we're bothered by Peter's homophobia. Yes, Peter is personally nice to gay and lesbians. But let him talk too long -- or write too long -- and he's going to put his foot in his mouth. He also has a habit of 'inning' dead gay performers. It's ugly in 2020. Time has passed him by and then some. Peter spent his career making enemies. That's also a fact. And it's a fact that never comes up in the podcast nor does his sexism.

Those are reasons not to interview Peter, all of those.

But what bothers us is it's Peter -- a White male.

When you start out a new program with that, it doesn't usually improve.

Take a look at the offering of another famous-because-of-my-relatives person: George Stevens Jr. Junior never directed a classic film the way his father did and Ben never wrote classic scripts like his relatives. But Junior and Ben both cash in on the family name. Junior assembled 2012's CONVERSATIONS AT THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE WITH THE GREAT MOVIE MAKERS THE NEXT GENERATION FROM THE 1950S TO HOLLYWOOD TODAY. Yes, that is a wordy title but what's more disturbing is that this 2012 book offers 28 men and only 4 women. And of the 32 people? Only two are African-Americans (Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman). Those figures are shameful.

And when Ben Mankiewicz starts off with Peter Bogdanovich (who is one of the 32 people in Junior's book), we don't see it improving in the years to come. We see many more White men and every now and then a token non-White male.

Among the people who should have been chosen instead of Peter? Harry Belafonte, for starters. He's 91-years-old -- exactly how much time does Ben think he can wait before doing a podcast with Harry? Oscar winners Sidney Poitier (93) and Jane Fonda (82) are two more who have much, much more to offer in terms of experience and reflection. Faye Dunaway's 79, Cicely Tyson's 95. When are these artists getting their shot at the podcast.

Peter loves to play the victim. Usually with "I was happy and successful and people couldn't stand me for it" type talk.  At least that's not maudlin.  Other topics?  Point of fact, his centerfold girlfriend's tragic death did not elevate her to the level of artist and his need to inflate her talents long ago led to people crossing the street when they saw him coming down the sidewalk just to avoid him. Grasp that. Grasp that Ben Mankiewicz and TCM are serving up a completely unqualified guest -- someone who can't grasp why the industry turned on him, who doesn't realize that someone being gay isn't a bad thing or something to lie about, someone who is a sexist. Better guests were ignored because, apparently, the most important qualifications for Ben Mankiewicz are White and male.

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