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?

What exactly makes for an “unscripted series”? The case of Flip or Flop

In an announcement about the end of HGTV’s Flip or Flop, the network said the show was an “unscripted series”:

“Tarek El Moussa and Christina Haack are long-time, fan-favorite stars on HGTV and it’s true that ‘Flip or Flop’ is coming to an end after an epic 10-season run as a top-rated unscripted series,” a representative for HGTV said in a statement to Insider. “More than 90 million viewers have watched the popular series since its premiere in 2013.

When this show is described as “unscripted,” what exactly does this mean?

Having watched a lot of episodes, here is my guess: there is not necessarily a set script for every episode. At the same time, the producers, El Moussa, and Haack make sure there are narrative elements to build an episode around including crises or cliffhangers for commercial breaks, summaries of the work at hand, and reshoots to get the right angles and lines.

When the typical viewer hears “unscripted,” is this what they imagine? It does not mean that the main actors just do their business, cameras are rolling, and they piece it together at the end. Does any reality show come close to that these days? However, there is likely some wiggle room of how much can be improvised or how much the main characters can get right in the first pass.

The wait for a weekly TV show versus binge watching a show quickly

We are far into a world where viewers of television shows can watch season after season of a show. Whether through a streaming service, on DVD, on a DVR, or on-demand, fans can watch everything right in a row. Depending on the length of the series, this can go relatively quickly or stretch out a while. Because of this possibility, I just recently started a list of TV shows where I have seen every episode and most of this has happened in the last ten years.

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In contrast, I had two primary options in the past: watch episodes as they aired each week or watch an occasional episode. For the first, I only really remember doing this for a few shows. The most memorable is Lost. We started watching late in Season One and did not miss a weekly episode for years. The show certainly took advantage of this with numerous cliffhangers and important episodes to start and close seasons. For the second option, I saw a number of TV shows through syndication as they worked through their cycles. For example, I am not sure I ever saw Frasier in its prime-time slot but I saw nearly every episode because of the 2+ episodes that there on every night.

The two types of watching are very different. Binge watching allows viewers to take it all in quickly. I can enable mass consumption. Feelings come and turn quickly with changing narrative arcs. The weekly or episodic watch required a certain discipline and memory or the kind of show where one could easily dip in for a few episodes and then tune out for a while. The resolution of stories takes longer.

It will be interesting to see how shows continue to navigate these options: release everything at once or a show at a time? How long can a traditional TV model of shows every week hold on? Or, will we see more hybrid approaches where episodes come out in different batches tied to story lines and times of the year?

Naperville’s status and Farley’s “Van Down by the River” performance inspired by Naperville bridge over the DuPage River

According to Naperville native Bob Odenkirk, he was inspired by his hometown when writing Chris Farley’s famous SNL skit “Matt Foley: Van Down by the River.”

Q: Speaking of “SNL,” that famous sketch for Chris Farley you wrote, about him living in a van down by the river — were you writing with Naperville in mind?

A: There is the DuPage River, and when I was writing that I did picture the bridge in Naperville over the DuPage. It was a bridge for stoners when I was a kid. Stoner kids hung out there. So this guy parking his van by a river — yes, that was the image I had.

There are several bridges Odenkirk could be referring to. Could it be this bridge (in a picture from nearly a decade ago)? This is a little removed from the busier downtown area and the more manicured areas of the lively Riverwalk.

Naperville has a reputation as a wealthy and large suburb with a thriving downtown and numerous high-status jobs. Does the image of a guy living in a van down by the river fit this or kids smoking pot by the DuPage River? Probably not and the city in recent years was not interested in marijuana dispensaries.

I cannot imagine a statue of Matt Foley near the DuPage River in downtown Naperville among the suburb’s collection of public art...but perhaps Odenkirk could eventually make the cut?

TV writers playing with floor plans for fictional residences, The Simpsons edition

The depictions of residences on TV do not always line up with reality (examples here and here). Here is another example: the writers of The Simpsons played around with some inconsistencies in the home.

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Weinstein engaged with Twitter users after posting the photo, responding to comments about the rarely seen “rumpus room” on the main floor’s northeast corner, the “mystery door” in the entryway, and other inquiries…

“Simpsons” fans may notice the layout doesn’t include the basement — a frequent location for various Simpson shenanigans. Twitter users chimed in, noting the different spots the show has placed the basement staircase.

Here is my interpretation of this “flexible” floor plan. On one hand, television shows need a predictable set of spaces. The audience needs to be able to recognize quickly where a scene is taking place. The behavior of the characters connects to where they are. In many shows, a residence, whether a single-family home or an apartment, is one of the most important settings as this is where the characters eat, sleep, and interact.

On the other hand, a rigid floor plan limits what can be done. Most homes and apartments would make bad television sets due to walls and angles not conducive to filming and/or particular activities. Parts of the home of the Simpsons family are fixed and predictable: the TV is in the same place, the kitchen looks the same, the stairs go upstairs from the front door, etc. But, other portions allow for some creativity. A mystery room? A basement that can turn into all sorts of things (I am recalling what happened there in the episode “Homer vs. the Eightenth Amendment”). An animated show does not suffer from the same camera issues but it too could benefit from slight changes to the floor plan that enable all sorts of plot lines.

The academic rabbit trails to watching a particular TV show for fun/analysis

In a recent trip to the campus library, I checked out the first season of a television show. I briefly interacted with the checkout clerk who remarked that I was in for a good viewing experience. My path to this show was not a straightforward one; rather, it involved reading, my own research, and a lot of time. Here is the path to this one TV show:

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  1. I develop an interest in the sociology of culture as an undergraduate studying both sociology and anthropology. The study of the “processes of meaning-making” becomes one of my primary graduate school interests and I continue to work within this subfield today. In my daily life, any cultural product or expression can then be both experienced and analyzed. This can be applied both to cultural activity as well as places, connected to my interest in suburbs and cities.
  2. Even as I continue with the sociology of culture, I also run into media studies, a field that combines insights from multiple fields and tackles all sorts of media. I teach a class titled “Culture, Media, and Society” where we consider multiple media and cultural forms including documentaries, films, television, comics, theater, music, art, news coverage, social media, and other phenomena. In conducting research on social media (several studies here, here, and here), I also encounter media studies research and journals.
  3. Several years later, I combine an interest in places and media by publishing two studies: one considers television shows set in suburbs and one examines the role of McMansion on The Sopranos. These works straddle the lines between sociology and media studies.
  4. In the summer of 2021, I read the book Divine Programming by television studies scholar Charlotte Howell. I watch one television shows Howell points out treats religion seriously (see posts here and here).
  5. With a little more flexibility in my schedule as we reach the holidays and approach the end of the semester, I decide to watch a second show featured in Howell’s book to continue to explore and enjoy how religion is depicted in television.

There are certainly other ways to come to a television show, including receiving recommendations from friends and family, reading a review, browsing or receiving a recommendation on a streaming service, and more. My path is probably not a typical one. But, I am also reminded of the ways that knowledge and studies develop as an academic: there is not necessarily a linear path toward a predetermined goal and a guaranteed outcome plus there can be a lot of time involved as ideas and projects wax and wane.

Divine Programming and the last two seasons of a critically acclaimed TV show that takes religion seriously

In September, I wrote about reading the academic study Divine Programming and watching seasons one and two of the TV show Rectify. I have now watched the final two seasons of the show, seasons three and four, and was interested to see the role religion played. Here are some thoughts.

  1. Religion is certainly not as important to the plot as it was in the first season. The number of times it is mentioned decreases. There is no presence of organized or institutional religion; it is all personal or individual.
  2. The primary religious character has a return to their faith in the final season. This does not mean everything turns out correctly for them or religion helps solve big issues. It appears that their privatized faith emerges again after going through some personal trials.
  3. The final episodes interact with the themes of hope and disappointment. Arguably, these themes run throughout the entire series; when Daniel is released from prison at the beginning, this does not necessarily lead to long-term consequences for the characters as they engage with what happened in the past and their current circumstances. These are themes that certainly fit with a religious theme. Why do bad things happen? Why are we disappointed? What gives us hope? In the end, the themes of hope and disappointment are left more to the individual characters and immediate family to address, not to religion.

Considering the full show, religion did matter in the narrative arc of the show but it was not a primary force, one that even a majority of the characters engaged with, and did not provide hope or disappointment in the end. Other forces and actors were more influential and the show, like many American narratives, puts a lot of hope in individuals and close relationships among family.

Lacking studio space with all of the TV and film production going on

With a lot of demand for new streaming content, production is moving to different places:

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A show the size of The Wheel of Time has to hunt for a part of the world large enough to contain it—especially at a moment when the boom in streaming television has overwhelmed studios from Los Angeles to Atlanta to London to Prague. “We are, as a worldwide industry, quite close to capacity because of this demand for content by our friends at Amazon and all the other streamers,” David Brown, the producer of Wheel of Time, told me. Los Angeles is booked out, and too expensive, anyway. Ditto Atlanta, where Marvel Studios regularly shoots. Ditto London, a longtime production hub that is currently oversubscribed—and, once again, too expensive. So Brown thought: maybe Budapest.

Central and Eastern Europe have traditionally been accommodating places to make movies and television. The locations are suitably grand and variable and ancient; the local expertise, honed by decades of Hollywood productions coming and going, is high-level and relatively affordable. So Brown initially looked at Hungary. But, he said, “I spoke to friends in Budapest who’d worked there, and they just said, ‘You won’t get in.’ ” Then he tried Prague, and found that the waiting list for production space was just as long. So, after some consideration, Brown and his production partners decided to create their own studio from scratch. “You know, we are a big company,” Brown, who is exacting and English and who has worked on everything from The Phantom Menace to Outlander, said. “The show is hugely ambitious creatively. So how do we fill that? That’s why we’re in this building that is 350,000 square feet.”

And so Jordan Studios, where the Wheel of Time production is headquartered, ended up in a remote corner of Prague, in a giant pale-blue complex of industrial buildings that used to be the warehouse of a trucking company.

This caught my attention as I have been working in recent years on research involving the locations of television shows. When you look into television production, it takes place in a number of predictable locations. There are centers of production where all of the space, workers, and synergy is present. In the story above, these typical centers were booked and/or expensive. So, they moved to Prague and put together what they needed in a context where Hollywood production is known and possible.

At least for this particular show, the filming in and around Prague may not matter as much because it is a work of fiction. All sorts of landscapes, inside and outside buildings, could work. At the same time, for many other TV shows and films, they claim to be in a particular location. But, would someone watching know whether if it was filmed in that said location or somewhere else? Through the work of studio filming, editing, and implication, how many stories are filmed on location and how many are filmed elsewhere? The viewer may not know. The filming location might be all sorts of places.

All that to say, the geography of production can continue to change with changing conditions and new content. And would the viewer know any different?

“Halfheartedly” air a first episode at 1:30 AM on FXX to keep the TV rights

An overview of a potential blockbuster Amazon TV show includes this paragraph about how the television rights continued:

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At the time of Judkins’s pitch, the screen rights to The Wheel of Time were just coming out of a byzantine and uniquely Hollywood maze—the books had been optioned by two former tech guys, who in turn licensed the rights to Universal, which developed the series as a feature and then shelved it. Then the tech guys enlisted two new producers, Mike Weber and Ted Field. In time, they noticed an obscure provision in the contract, as Weber recalled. It turned out, he said, that “if you aired an episode of television, the rights will vest in perpetuity.” As in, any episode of television at all. And so one mysterious night in 2015—just before the rights to the books were scheduled to return to Jordan’s widow—an episode aired on FXX at 1:30 a.m., halfheartedly adapting the first book’s prologue and starring, for some reason, Billy Zane. The show, such as it was, aired only once and was never seen again. “That’s not the prettiest way to do it,” Weber admitted. “But it cleaned up the rights.” (McDougal Rigney, who released an unhappy statement about this gambit at the time, has since come back into the fold as a consulting producer.)

This is one way to hold on to the rights. It sounds like it all was legal via an “obscure provision.” It would be interesting to hear more about why the provision was in the contract (was it considered a deterrent since it required a television episode to be made?), what was in the 1:30 AM episode, and how all the involved actors responded.

And if The Wheel of Time becomes a megahit in the vein of Game of Thrones, this will look like a necessary and genius move.

Do we live in a Ted Lasso or a Squid Game world?

Two popular shows present very different approaches to the world. Is the world full of redemptive possibilities and sharp conversation or is it a fight-to-the-death game under unfair conditions? Ted Lasso vs. Squid Game.

Take Ted Lasso. After an age of television anti-heroes and heavy themes on television, the lead character brings an upbeat approach to his new coaching position in London. While the second season hints that Ted’s good cheer may hide some life issues, the show’s arcs thus far suggest people can overcome challenges with friendship and good will.

In contrast, Squid Game presents people either facing significant issues or drunk on control and power. Opportunities for good outcomes are unthinkable as even winners survive more than they achieve a warm ending. The bleakness of urban and artificial landscapes add to the trauma that the main characters face.

Given today’s context, Squid Game may match many viewer’s moods. The dystopia may not seem that far away from a world troubled by inequality, lack of trust, and abuses of power. Ted Lasso may seem pleasant but it is just a pleasant or a mocking story when so many are struggling.

Yet, humans often embrace hope in difficult circumstances. Many stories throughout time feature virtuous characters overcoming obstacles and less hopeful people around them. Many want to believe that people will do the right thing when given the opportunity.

If people watch one show, I hope they also get a chance to see the other. Perhaps together they present important parts of human experience and how we might tell very different yet important stories.