A positive on-screen depiction of New Jersey

In contrast to the typical depiction of New Jersey on TV and movies, one writer suggests a new show portrays a positive vision of the state:

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I don’t want this attention. Jersey’s bad reputation for being America’s garbage dump has done a great job of keeping people out and our blocks relatively affordable. For years, Jersey City was protected by a forcefield of bad representation. Jersey is by far America’s favorite punchline of a state. Futurama imagined America’s founding fathers dubbing New Jersey “our nation’s official joke state.” Movie after movie refers to Jersey as “the armpit of America.” Even in Marvel’s What If…?, Harold “Happy” Hogan laments the only escape from a zombie apocalypse: “Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, we gotta go to Jersey.” MTV’s Jersey Shore continues to do a fantastic job of finding the best cast to represent the state and all it has to offer folks on the outside. Snookie and J-Wow knew exactly how to lay out the red carpet. The Sopranos also knew exactly how to showcase Jersey’s finest hospitality. Come for the bar fights, stay for the gabagool.

I would argue few places are depicted well on television or in films where the emphasis is usually on character and plots rather than on places, neighborhoods, and communities.

At the same time, certain locations can acquire a particular character through the way they are depicted over the years. Viewers might see only a particular perspective on or a portion of a place.

What would the average American think New Jersey is like based on what they have seen on screen?

If every life event was sponsored, baseball edition

I enjoy listening to baseball games on the radio. The pace of the game, the voices of the announcers, and the ability to do other things while listening add up to an enjoyable experience.

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Except for one growing trend: the number of commercial reads throughout the game. At this point, it seems like almost every baseball event has a sponsor. Strikeouts, walks, doubles, home runs, the fifth inning, the seventh inning…you get the idea. Baseball has a lot of small events and apparently they can be attached to an advertiser for the right price.

I am aware of multiple factors behind this. Radio is a dying business. Live sports is one of the few shining spots where there are certain to be listeners (or viewers). Commercialization is alive and well. There is money to be made here.

But, I can only imagine how this might spread to all areas of life. Go beyond the Internet and social media ads tied to your browsing and shopping habits. You tie your shoes; brought to you by [blank]. You run the dishwasher; brought to you by [blank]. You read a book; brought to you by [blank].

At this point, there do not seem to be any officials guardrails against more and more of this happening. People can push back but this has consequences. If I do not like the baseball ads, I can stop listening. But, if we move to more immersive devices – Google Glass, virtual reality headsets, a house full of Internet equipped objects – this will be very hard to push against or escape.

Kanye West does not like McMansions

I missed this information from two years ago; here is what Kanye West thinks about McMansions.

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The “YZY SHLRS” are not West’s first try at real estate development. Together with his wife Kim Kardashian West, the rapper transformed a McMansion in suburban Los Angeles into a cavernous, eclectic abode that has since unfolded on the covers of several esteemed magazines.

Earlier this year, Architectural Digest described the Wests’ residence as “one of the most fascinating, otherworldly, and, yes, strange pieces of domestic architecture on the planet.”

Characterized by clear, geometrical lines and white open spaces, filled with equally futuristic furniture, the home resembles a modern-day spin on a Belgian monastery, as West told AD.

The standout nature of the home, a reflection of West’s highly individualistic style, is not a surprise given the rapper’s annoyance with luxury properties that, despite their own embellishments, more often than not come off as the products of the same mold.

“The relationships that I have with architects, my understanding of sacred proportions, this new vibe, this new energy,” is what is driving West, the real estate developer. “I am tired of McMansions,” he told Charlamagne tha God. “That is wack. Everybody’s house is wack.”

His critique of McMansions and large homes is a common one: they are produced with similar features and styles. West hints that this is even the case at the level of home above McMansions where more resources does not necessarily translate into unique or quality homes. You can purchase a very expensive property and it may not be interesting or suit the particular needs of the residents.

At the same time, with his wealth and connections, West operates at a level beyond the typical McMansion owner. He has the resources to transform a large home based on a new vision. Mansion as monastery, as it were. He can pursue a particular plan and mold the home in ways that many McMansion owners cannot.

Now, if someone with fame and resources could help find a way to transform McMansions or relatively large houses (think 3,000-6,000 square feet) in the ways that West wants, this could help change the image of such homes. I imagine many McMansions owners would be interested in the idea of “sacred proportions” in their homes or differentiating their residences in significant ways from neighbors.

It cannot be a McMansion if it is valued at over $30 million and has mansion features

Actor Chris Hemsworth has turned a big home into an even bigger and more luxurious home in recent years. Is it a McMansion?

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After buying his Byron Bay family home for $7million back in 2014, Chris, 37, transformed the sprawling property into a compound that has been valued at between $30million and $60million.

The actor carried out extensive renovations on the six-bedroom home, and it now boasts a steam room, gym, media room and games room.

There’s also a stunning outdoor living area, play areas for his three young kids and a 50-metre rooftop infinity pool, which overlooks the ocean…

Angry neighbours were quick to say the rebuild reminded them of a suburban shopping centre, a refurbished RSL club or a regional airport terminal.

Others compared the home, which sits on 4.2 hectares, to a multi-storey car park and a ‘McMansion’.

While there is no mention of the square footage of the home, this description suggests this home is a mansion. Here are several reasons why: it likely has more space that a spacious McMansion (imagine 3,000-6,000 square feet there); it is not a mass-produced, cookie cutter home; it has numerous luxury features; it is not owned or renovated by a regular wealthy person but rather a global film star.

So why would a neighbor call it a McMansion instead of a mansion? I would guess that this was done to link the home to a pejorative term and to critique the architectural style of the home. A “mansion” could still be critiqued but the negative connotations are implied in McMansion. The other descriptions by neighbors have to do with the architectural style of the home, whether they are viewed as ugly or not consistent with the surroundings.

Is there a lesson in this? Here is one option: to fight the big home in the neighborhood, call it a McMansion. Label it a mansion and it might just justify the size, features, and architecture.

What children learn from HGTV #3: Houses are symbols of success and making it

In watching HGTV with children and studying suburbs and housing, I have several ideas of what kids learn while watching the network’s programming.

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Put together the ideas in the previous two posts – homes involve emotionally satisfying arcs and they pay off financially in the end – and add decades-long American ideology and houses are symbols of success and making it. The house, typically a single-family home on HGTV, is a visible, tangible monument that the owner is successful. Residents and show hosts talk about how the house symbolizes all of the struggle and work of a family. They talk about passing down a legacy to kids. They usually do not come out an say it but the home and its exterior provide a positive impression to neighbors and those passing by about the status of the residents.

Homeownership is celebrated on HGTV. An attractive house that meets the needs of the residents and broadcasts a message of success to others is the ideal. Almost no one wants to rent or live long-term with family or friends. Almost everyone is trying to move up to a better and/or more attractive home. The goal is to acquire one’s own home which provides well-being and financial security.

Ultimately, HGTV helps perpetuate homeownership and its link with the American Dream in the way it presents houses and what they are for. The people on the network find success in acquiring and improving homes and almost nothing else is discussed. Kids watching HGTV see that people need to acquire and/or improve a house to be a successful adult.

What children learn from HGTV #2: Houses pay off financially

In watching HGTV with children and studying suburbs and housing, I have several ideas of what kids learn while watching the network’s programming.

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In addition to the upbeat emotions on HGTV, the network relentlessly suggests houses are worth the financial investment. Numerous shows discuss how much money is involved, whether that is in the purchase price or the profit or equity made in repairing a home or the costs to particular changes. These are often not small sums; budgets are usually in the tens of thousands or more and few characters discuss how they have such money to spend.

But, the big sums of money are worth it in the end because homes are an important investment. Sure, they are to be enjoyed – and the reveals at the end of many HGTV episodes are full of positivity – but the money may be even more important. Everyone has spent a lot of money on these homes and they are worth it because they will be worth even more in the future.

HGTV often embodies the shift in the United States from homes as important centers of family life to financial investments. The money to be gained by owning or renovating a home is never far away on HGTV.

What children learn from HGTV #1: Houses are worthy of emotional investment

In watching HGTV with children and studying suburbs and housing, I have several ideas of what kids learn while watching the network’s programming.  

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To start, HGTV shows are built around emotional stories about home repair or home acquisition. There is a regular narrative arc where people want to improve where they live or find a new place to live, they face some obstacles along the way, and then they are successful by the end of the episode. The shows are filmed, edited, and scored in such a way to create such a positive emotional payoff. The shows suggest they are helping people find happiness.

All of this weds the idea of homes with happy feelings. The shows are upbeat, the search for a better homes a success, and viewers have a positive resolution. HGTV has very few negative outcomes or unsuccessful work. The characters rarely talk about emotional distress, financial difficulties, and difficult family relationships. Only rarely do people not find what they were looking for and even then the ending is cast as a successful change in focus. Any obstacle is easily overcome.

In sum, HGTV is an emotionally positive network. I could see why parents or families might feel comfortable having kids watch such happy outcomes. A new or renovated home is good for the well-being of the resident(s) as well as the viewers.

When no one knows how popular televisions shows are

The television streaming services do not release numbers on how many people watched their shows:

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But nobody else — not Disney, not Apple, not HBO Max, not Amazon, not Peacock — is providing numbers. Or when they do make an announcement, it’s relative: They might say it’s the biggest show in the history of Apple TV+, but that’s vague and data-free.

We’re heading into a football season next fall where Amazon is going to be the only place to watch the Thursday night game, and nobody I’ve talked to expects any viewer numbers to be released from Amazon. What a remarkable thing in the context of media history, that they don’t need to or feel incentivized to report these numbers.

The definition of success on their end is generating new subscriptions and retaining existing ones. Those are the key metrics. So a show that gets lukewarm reviews can be a huge driver of subscriptions. That’s the black box that we don’t really have access to, so we don’t know what is considered a valuable show. All of us — consumers and creators — are operating in the dark.

It’s a fascinating and discombobulating time. If you want to be open-minded and upbeat, you could say: For too long, there’s been this tyranny of the popular. We’ve all been bombarded by advertising that says “This is the No. 1 movie in America!” It was an incessant drumbeat and this syllogism that if it’s popular, then it’s worth your time. So maybe it’s healthy to break away from that.

The lack of data on viewership makes it difficult for serious observers – journalists, pundits, researchers – to know what Americans are watching and consider the consequences. This may seem inconsequential but those interested in what the masses are watching are then left to other methods to figure out what people are watching. Does a lot of Twitter activity suggest a show is popular? Do many conversations with friends and colleagues about the same show make for a popular show? Are subscriber numbers indicative of something?

Much has already been said about the fragmentation of television and other media sources in recent decades. The most enduring or cohesive media forms today might be viral videos or memes. Concurrently, the lack of numbers regarding viewers only adds to this trend and perception.

Satirizing the suburbs by poking fun at past depictions of suburbia

A review of a new television comedy notes that part of its appeal is that it plays with previous portrayals of the suburbs:

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The layers of brilliance within the writing continue. While the series satirizes the suburbs, the trio takes it a step even further. The show also makes fun of all the clichés in film about American suburbia – from Blue Velvet to American Beauty toThe Stepford Wives. Because each one of those films is trying to say something about the darkness of the suburbs, Three Busy Debras pokes fun at them by doing exactly not that. The series is so perplexing and over the top, not a single character learning anything to “progress” in their worldview, that it pokes fun at these tropes through their use of absurdist comedy. You can immerse yourself in the surreal world of Lemoncurd and witness the masterful work of Three Busy Debras for yourself by streaming the latest season on HBO Max.

The genre of suburban critique is alive and well in numerous culture industries including poetry, books, music, film, and television. For at least seven decades, these works have depicted the darker sides of suburbia, the true issues facing suburbanites beyond the shiny single-family homes and nuclear families. This is a familiar genre that both speaks to some realities in suburbs and tells similar stories over time.

Thus, I am intrigued by an absurdist or surrealist take on this. Are the suburbs just absurd and the only way to deal with them is to laugh rather than to try to overcome them or find out what is truly going on?

It will also be interesting to see how this fits in the long run with the other critical depictions of suburbia. Laughter and humor can be good ways to address difficult situations. Would suburbanites, the majority of Americans, laugh gently at absurd or surreal depictions or would it be the laughter of realizing how absurd the suburbs actually are?

“Sociologically he’s sick,” Officer Krupke edition

In recently watching the 2021 film version of West Side Story, this stanza from “Gee, Officer Krupke” stood out.

Yes, Officer Krupke you’re really a slob
This boy don’t need a doctor just a good honest job
Society’s played him a terrible trick
And sociologically he’s sick

The whole song plays with this idea: the Jets are not responsible for their actions as they have been failed by their families and society. Elsewhere in the song, they are said to have a “social disease.” Sure, you could penalize an individual offender – with the police, analysts, social workers, and the courts involved in the song – but that would fail to reckon with the sizable social problems at hand. Of course, the song is meant to invoke laughs.

How much is an individual an individual given their social surroundings? This is one of the questions I raise early on in an Introduction to Sociology class. In the United States, the emphasis is typically on the individual: they make their own choices, develop their own identity, and are responsible for their own actions. Sociology pushes back on that individualistic emphasis by analyzing the social facts and forces that shape and outlive individuals. And West Side Story has its own ideas about individuals and society with its retelling of Romeo and Juliet.