TIME Music

Parklife Is the Cornerstone of Britpop, But It Shouldn’t Be

As Blur's "Parklife" celebrates its 20th anniversary, is it time to set the album free of its Britpop legacy?

It seems counterintuitive — if not just plain wrong — to call Parklife underappreciated. The third album from Damon Albarn’s band Blur, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, stayed on the charts in its native United Kingdom for 90 weeks, won numerous awards including Best British Album at the Brit Awards in 1995 and received rave reviews from critics. It was also the album many people point to as Ground Zero for what soon became known as Britpop. Therein lies some of the problem.

Britpop, for those who weren’t around and in the U.K. at the time, was an outgrowth of the British indie music scene in the mid-1990s that saw a re-examination of British guitar-based rock music in the wake of grunge’s noisy nihilism. Beginning in 1993, bands like Blur, Suede, Pulp and Elastica revived sounds and threads from earlier genres and bands, representing them with a new confidence and tongue-in-cheek attitude. By the time Oasis made it into the mainstream in the latter half of 1994 — refining that recipe to replace detached irony with a sincere belief in the myth of rock and roll — Britpop had become the soundtrack of the country, never mind a generation. “Cool Britannia” was a phrase uttered without sarcasm. Blur, and the Parklife album in particular, were the heart of that.

There was a time when everyone you knew knew songs from Parklife by heart. Parklife wasn’t underappreciated — but it was misunderstood.

Britpop fractured; there was no way that something that big couldn’t. By mid-1995, with new albums due from both bands, there was an apparent feud between Blur and Oasis that divided fans. Oasis had a proletarian appeal, eschewing the observational, dryly comedic lyrics that made Blur famous for passionate exhortations for listeners to “roll with it.” They reminded the public that they were “free to do whatever [they] like if it’s wrong or right [because] it’s alright,” never mind the lack of clarity on what “it” actually was. Consequently, Blur was derided as pretentious, insincere and overly intellectual. As Oasis’ stock rose, so did the belief amongst listeners that sincerity was synonymous with quality, and Blur’s Albarn found himself under fire from fans and critics for not singing about “himself.” As the larger genre limped towards irrelevance over the next couple of years — arguably culminating in Be Here Now, Oasis’ unexciting third album — the whole thing was declared little more than an exercise in 1960s nostalgia gone wrong by critics embarrassed by their wholesale embrace of it years earlier.

Listening to Parklife again today, one of the first things you realize is that there really isn’t that much of the ’60s in there. That’s not to say that the album isn’t filled with references and outright theft at times (“Jubilee” sounds like a close relative of David Bowie’s ”Boys Keep Swinging”, although not as close as Blur’s later ”M.O.R.”), but unlike Oasis’ fondness for the Beatles discography, Parklife’s lending library runs across decades: you can hear hints of XTC, Ray Davies, Gary Numan and the English New Romantics of the 1980s, not to mention the jazzy French romantics of the 1960s throughout the album.

For all that Parklife is the work of a young band — “the mind gets dirty as it gets closer to thirty,” one line goes, with the big three-oh still seeming like a distant destination — it’s a remarkably confident, even cocky album. (A line from critic David Quantick about the Beatles recording Revolver and realizing “we are young and we can do anything” — that combination of talent and the invincibility of youth — comes to mind.) But Parklife is also a kind one, as well. “We all say, don’t want to be alone” Albarn sings in “End of A Century.” In “This Is A Low,” he sings of melancholy as something that can bring comfort: “It won’t hurt you/ When you’re alone, it will be there with you.” Even the album’s “comedy” songs show empathy towards their target characters. “Jubilee” is an outsider hated by all, who would love to be accepted but “no-one told him” how to do it, or where to go. For all that the Blur of this era would be attacked for being too arch and unemotional, Parklife is as warm and inviting as anything Oasis (or any other Britpop band) released during the same period.

Parklife may have inspired other bands to reach into their record collections, but it has a breadth and heart that so much of what followed lacked (including the band’s own The Great Escape, which feels cynical and uninspired in comparison). It has an inclusiveness towards music that stands at odds with the small-minded attitude that ended up defining so much of what Britpop became. In many ways, Parklife is larger than the genre that grew up around it, holding it up as a standard-bearer so proudly. It sounds as fresh today as it did 20 years ago — a summation of British pop music up to that point in all its occasionally contradictory, throwaway glory.

TIME Television

The Cult of Orphan Black

Steve Wilkie

The science-fiction thriller returned to BBC America this weekend to much fan excitement — but what is it about Orphan Black that won fans over so quickly?

Ahead of Saturday’s second season premiere on BBC America, the Internet was abuzz at the prospect of the return of Canadian sci-fi drama Orphan Black, which centers around a woman who discovers that she is actually just one of a number — ten to date — of identical clones living around the world with no idea of their origins. The series is fast-moving and, at times, funny, but that doesn’t quite explain the fervor it has created amongst its fanbase so quickly. What does Orphan Black have that other shows don’t?

“I actually think that Orphan Black captures a lot of the things that make shows like Buffy [The Vampire Slayer] great in a way that Buffy imitators haven’t been able to,” says Lauren Davis, a writer for the science-fiction site io9. “It’s a female-centered show — and I think a lot of people underestimate how attractive that is for female viewers — with snappy dialogue, complicated relationships, accessible mysteries and a big bad. The characters are larger-than-life, giving the show the kind of escapism you might find in cartoons or action movies, but the relationships between them feel authentic.”

That last part — the believability of the relationships between characters — is something that Orphan Black has over potential competitors like the CW’s The Tomorrow People or Syfy’s Helix. For all that Orphan Black may share in terms of conceptual DNA with those shows, Orphan Black manages to offer soap opera to balance out the melodrama of the more outré content in a more savvy, organic way than its genre siblings. “There is a kind of delicious Desperate Housewives darkness to it, with a bit of heart,” Davis says. “It’s a show that lets you wallow in a sort of stylized violence while also connecting you emotionally to the characters.”

The key to that connection isn’t simply the writing, but the performances — and most important, the performance of Taitana Maslany, the lead actress who manages to juggle ten different characters in a way that seems surprisingly believable. “As an acting showcase for the lead actor, it’s fantastic,” cartoonist Mathew Digges, a self-proclaimed fan of the show, told me. “That’s probably the main reason I’m watching: the appeal and charm of the lead, and the amazing work she does playing different characters.” (Davis agrees, suggesting that Maslany’s nuanced performance gives the show a “you have to see this trick” appeal for newcomers unconvinced by the show’s concept.)

Maslany is certainly important to Orphan Black, in ways that go beyond her impressive portrayals. She’s literally the face of the show — promotional campaigns for both seasons have centered around portraits of the actor, trusting that her look alone will be enough to make people sit up and pay attention — and has embraced the role, interacting with fans online and name-checking them during promotional appearances. The online interaction between the show and its fans has been key in building a fanbase as well; the show maintains active presences on both Tumblr and Twitter, tapping into an eager audience ready to share early glimpses at what’s to come. Not for nothing were sneak peeks for the show’s second season debuted online months in advance of the premiere itself; the resultant excitement amongst fans worked to spread the word and create buzz in a way that traditional advertising could never have managed.

In many ways, that attitude toward the fanbase is typical of the show’s status as genre television that has learned from the mistakes (and successes) of others. Like Lost, Orphan Black has an apparently labyrinthine mythology behind it — but unlike Lost, it’s a show that is happy to offer answers to important questions sooner rather than later. Like Heroes, each new discovery appears to point towards a grand conspiracy behind events, but there’s a throughline (and, ultimately, endpoint) to that conspiracy that grounds the series to prevent the kind of messiness and creative tailspin that that series fell into after its first season. More subtly, it’s also a series that learned the lessons of a show like Buffy and keeps its core cast appreciably small. Audiences know very clearly who they can trust and who to care about.

Is Orphan Black the product of genre fans (or at least, viewers aware of genre tropes) who have been smart enough to look at what’s gone before and recognize what worked and what didn’t, then? There’s something neat about that realization, and fitting, as well. After all, what could be better for a show about clones than for its creators to make it from the most successful DNA of all its predecessors?

TIME movies

Has Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s Promo Spoiled the Movie for Fans?

Andrew Garfield;Paul Giamatti
Niko Tavernise — Columbia Pictures Andrew Garfield stars as Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man"

Six weeks ahead of release, all the big Amazing Spider-Man 2 reveals appear to have been spoiled by Sony's promotion for the film. How many pre-release previews of a movie is too many?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the unimaginatively titled sequel to 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, is still six weeks away from release — but you could be forgiven for believing that it’s been out for awhile, given the amount of promotion that the movie’s enjoyed. To date, Sony has released multiple trailers (and teaser trailers) for the movie, as well as online-only sneak peaks of scenes, featurettes with exclusive footage and more — including Instagram videos showing off some of the more eye-catching action sequences of the hero jumping around Manhattan.

In itself, this is nothing new; the amount of footage released for any big summer movie ahead of the film’s actual release has been creeping upwards for some time, as has the desire to harness the power of the Internet to sell old-school media. What is different about the promotion for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the seeming willingness of the studio to reveal the movie’s big secrets ahead of time in an attempt to grab the audience’s attention.

It’s not just that we’ve seen enough promotional footage to be able to piece together the origin of Jaime Foxx’s supervillain Electro, or discover that Norman Osborn, a childhood friend of Peter Parker’s, returns with some revelations about his father’s company in tow. It’s also been revealed that Osborn returns as a result of his father’s death and becomes the new Green Goblin (a supervillain whose presence in the movie had been a secret until it was revealed on a poster). These two plot twists feel as if they belong relatively far into the movie itself.

Trailers and promo featurettes have also been making much hay of the relationship between Peter Parker and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, while also featuring her plummeting from a great height and being caught by Spider-Man before the two fall through a plate-glass ceiling. Whether or not that counts as a reveal is open to question, but it’s certainly relatively unsubtle foreshadowing and arguably a dog whistle for fanboys familiar with the Spider-Man comic book canon.

It’s difficult to try and guess what was behind Sony’s decision to release so much information about the story ahead of time. Is it overconfidence in the movie? A sign that there are even more surprises that nobody will see coming? Or — potentially more likely, and more worrisome — proof that story is increasingly unimportant to big summer event movies, and that studios are willing to drop any pretense otherwise in favor of showcasing the special effects set pieces that audiences are paying money for.

As much as we may wish otherwise, after all, few people really pay that much attention to the writing when it comes to evaluating whether or not a summer blockbuster is worth watching or not. Sure, there may be complaints about plot holes or lackluster, but it’s rare that poor writing manages to derail a big summer movie that’s successful in all other ways. Disney’s John Carter may fall into that category, but it’s arguable that the reason for that movie’s failure had more to do with audiences’ lack of interest in the central concept than any specific failures with the screenplay.

The number of advance peeks at The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the amount of the movie that seems to have been revealed in terms of both runtime and plot, may prove to test this line of thought: it’s one thing for the special effects to have the larger appeal, but the notion of being told a story (however flawed) has always been present.

What The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s promotion may end up revealing is whether or not effects and performances are enough to draw a sizable audience when traditional ideas of narrative tension have been removed almost entirely. Barring the possibility of the various official spoilers acting as misdirection in service of larger revelations not yet hinted at, the only thing that’s really been left to the imagination about the plot of the movie isn’t an “if,” but a “how”: we all know that Spider-Man will defeat the various bad guys, but we don’t know what form that defeat will take.

That one missing piece may be enough to draw in the crowds, at least until word of mouth about the movie — positive or negative — kicks in and starts to skew results. But if it’s not, and Spider-Man fails to hit whatever box office heights Sony has targeted for him this time around, then that too will have turned out to be an educational (if costly) lesson about how important story is in today’s cinema. Spider-Man may be fighting for more than just New York City this time around: he might be unknowingly saving story for future summer blockbusters.

TIME movies

Can Veronica Mars Please Fan Funders and Newcomers at the Same Time?


Does the Veronica Mars movie owe too much to its core fanbase to be enjoyable to those coming to the concept fresh?

At the heart of it, most movies have three basic aims:

1. Be Good
2. Be Profitable
3. Be Good and Be Profitable

The much-discussed Veronica Mars movie, in theaters March 14, complicates matters by adding a fourth option: Make The Fans Happy. While that’s hardly a new concept, especially in the modern movie era of franchise management and constant revivals of existing ideas and characters, the case could be made that it’s never really been a core aim for a movie before.

Instead it’s been a value add, something that certainly doesn’t hurt — who better to act as unpaid viral marketers than the core fanbase, especially in the early days of production, after all — but could (and, traditionally, will) be sacrificed in favor of appealing to the masses if the two options are in opposition (See, for example, Star Trek rebooting instead of fulfilling hardcore fans’ dreams and going with a follow-up to Star Trek: Nemesis or Man of Steel’s manslaughter finale, which led to much uproar at time of release).

Disregarding the wishes of the hardcore fans isn’t really an option for Veronica Mars, however; they’re literally the ones responsible for the film being made thanks to the Kickstarter that funded production. It’s the rare case when saying “we couldn’t have done this without the fans” is not just lip service and good PR, but the literal truth. Because of that, some level of fan service — not this kind of fan service, thankfully — is almost certainly forthcoming.

This is where Veronica Mars runs into potential trouble, for a couple of different reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, there’s the simple question of just how much fan service the movie should provide — and whether or not that’s going to hurt the movie for newcomers.

It’s already been revealed via promotional material, trailers and Kickstarter updates that almost every major character that survived the three-season-long television show (along with some minor ones, as well) will make an appearance of some kind in the movie, for example. For fans, this is a selling point: just like the high school reunion that serves as a McGuffin in the movie itself, they get the chance to catch up with what all those familiar faces have been up to over the last decade, with all of the potential for schadenfruede that brings with it.

For those who didn’t spend an hour each week in Neptune, CA, of course, having quite so many characters show up and play roles of various levels of importance throughout the whole thing could make the movie appear too busy, or even outright confusing. For the movie to succeed on a level beyond nostalgia, it has to be more than the punchline to old jokes that half the audience has never heard before — but will those who put the money up for the movie in the first place settle for that?

That’s the second problem: The fan appeal of the Veronica Mars movie wasn’t simply the chance to see the characters again, but the chance of wish-fulfillment in the way those characters have developed both individually and in relation to each other. The love triangle between Veronica, Piz and perennial bad boy Logan was not only the engine of the last season of the show — Piz taking over the role of “alternate love interest” from the pining, flat Duncan, as fans of the show doubtlessly recall — but of much of the promotion for the movie, as well. Will Veronica and Logan get back together? Should they?

Just asking that question identifies the trouble: Not everyone agrees on the answer. In fact, if you polled the Mars faithful for their ideal “ten years later” scenarios for the majority of the cast, you’d doubtlessly get a number of different, likely contradictory, answers. That saying about being able to please all of the people some of the time, or some of the people all of time is about to be lived by the Veronica Mars crew. Funding the Kickstarter and offering the idea of a reunion movie? That was the “all the people, some of the time” part. The movie itself? Now we get to some of the people — well, you know the rest.

Reunions, as most people know by now, are problematic at best; anyone who’s lived through a favorite band reuniting can attest to that. The distance between limitless potential and concrete reality can prove difficult for many to come to terms with, and leave the result almost more disappointing than the alternative of it never having happened. As it stands, the Veronica Mars movie might end up both being good and making money — but if it does so without fulfilling the expectations of those who not only wanted it the most but paid to make it happen, can it really be considered a success?

TIME Television

Why Do People Still Watch Live TV?

House of Cards
Nathaniel E. Bell—Netflix Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards

Technology gave us control of when and where we watch TV — and yet, we still feel compelled to watch everything as soon as possible

Every technological advancement that’s arrived for television over the last three decades or so has sounded another death knell for the concept of “appointment viewing” — that is, actually having to sit down and watch TV at a particular time. The debut of the video cassette recorder alone meant that viewers were no longer beholden to network schedules if they wanted to watch their favorite shows — they could simply record them and watch them whenever they wanted (with today’s VCR descendant, the DVR, you can even ensure that your shows get recorded without even having to check a schedule).

As technology marched on, so it seemed that television fit into our busy schedules more and more. You missed a show altogether when it was on? That’s okay: you can buy the DVD box set, stream it through Netflix or Hulu, or just download it via iTunes or Amazon — assuming, of course, you weren’t using BitTorrent to pirate it on the downlow. Each new invention appeared to give us more control over when and where we watched our favorite shows, to the point where we don’t even need televisions to watch television anymore. It was a utopian vision of television in which we, the viewers, had all the power. Appointment viewing no more!

Except, of course, it didn’t really work out like that.

Don’t get me wrong: downloads and DVRs and streaming services do everything listed above. In theory, all of us have complete control — or, at least, as much control as our budgets and gadgets allow us, which can be sizable — over our viewing habits. And yet, millions of people in the U.S. watch television “live,” especially big event programming. Consider the “must-see” nature of the final episodes of Breaking Bad, the excitement surrounding The Walking Dead, early episodes of Homeland, or HBO’s current True Detective.

Similarly, on the weekend that Netflix released the second season of House of Cards, people spent their Valentine’s Day evenings watching Frank Underwood try and outwit a reclusive businessman. The same is true of the release of any of the Netflix series to date. Shows that were literally created to be watched at the viewer’s own pace are devoured ravenously by viewers, speeding through episodes without stopping. Why all the rush?

The answer, I suspect, is the Internet — or, to be more specific, social media. Much has been discussed, written and (occasionally) ranted about the “virtual water cooler” effect of social media —the way in which Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and other networks have become centers for conversation about subjects that would, in the past, have been the matter of chatter around a workplace hangout. In terms of media, that means a lot of chatter about the latest movie, music or TV show. But there’s one important element from the in-person interaction in the break room missing: You can’t tell the person talking to shut up, because you’re not as far ahead as they are.

Okay, that’s not exactly true; you can say that, but they probably won’t listen. In fact, it’s possible that they won’t even notice, because Internet conversation isn’t the one-on-one conversation that people are used to in person. It’s not even analogous to group conversations in person, for the most part; it’s more of a public performance, and one in which you are more often than not just one of a large number of listeners. Where you are in the narrative matters less than where everyone else is — which, almost inevitably, because of the speed of the Internet, means “as far ahead as possible.” As Doctor Who‘s River Song would put it with a smirk, “Spoilers, sweetie…”

For all the availability of spoilers online — just think of the number of websites that offer “sneak peaks” into future episodes of shows, leaked details of movies, and so on — it’s rare to find someone who’d admit to actively wanting to be spoiled on a favorite story. This puts people in a quandary, when it comes to social media: If someone on Twitter is talking about the end of the season and you’re only on episode 5, do you:
(a) take a break from social media for awhile;
(b) accept that you’re likely going to have the end of the story ruined for you, or
(c ) immediately feel under pressure to finish the season for yourself as quickly as possible?

Option (a) is obviously the right answer, and yet, life without Twitter…? That doesn’t sound like any fun at all.

Technology may have freed us from the restraints on our viewing schedules placed on us by television networks, but it turned out to be a zero sum game; at the same time as one hand offered us freedom, the other was ensuring that we’d have to keep up to date and fall under an equally artificial schedule created by our online communities.

“Appointment viewing,” it turns out, never really went away — it’s just that those responsible for the datebook have changed.

TIME Television

Downton Abbey and Rape: Anna’s Excruciating Fridging Problem

Where the British series fails, House of Cards flourishes

Amid the hustle, bustle and period melodrama of Downton Abbey this year, one thread stands out as particularly problematic: the rape of lady’s maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). What makes her assault so difficult isn’t the crime itself — although it felt as out of place in the normally placid series as Mr. Pamuk’s death-by-seduction in the first season — but its aftermath, and the character the show has emphasized as a result.

From the viewpoint of Downton Abbey, the person who suffered most wasn’t Anna, but her husband Bates (Brendan Coyle). At first, she tries to hide the attack to protect him from whatever calamities he’d cause seeking revenge, which leads to almost two full episodes focusing on Bates as the victim of circumstance, with Anna harangued for not telling him the truth.

Worse yet, when Bates learns of the attack, he blames himself for not being there to defend her or being man enough to magically prevent it from happening. Anna, in response, wants to put the whole thing behind them and start afresh, as if it were simply a mild disagreement that she wishes to pretend never happened.

Throughout comic-book fandom, there’s a term known as fridging, which refers to the practice of doing something horrific or tragic to a female character with the sole objective of causing an emotional reaction from the male lead of a storyline. (The term itself comes from a Green Lantern storyline in which the hero discovers his dead girlfriend’s body in a refrigerator. Subtlety was not a priority.)

In this season of Downton Abbey, the entire rape storyline is one long, slow, continual fridging of Anna, seemingly for the sole purpose of providing Bates inner conflict. While there are those who defend the treatment of the subject as being period- and class-appropriate, I’m unsure whether that feels enough of a justification for a show made today.

A plot line from the recently-released second season of Netflix’s House of Cards crystalizes these concerns about Downton‘s shortcomings. In the second episode, we discover that Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) was raped while in college. The revelation comes when she meets her attacker at an event in which he is to be honored by her husband, the newly-installed vice president.


Nathaniel E Bell / Netflix

Kevin Spacey (left), Peter Bradbury (center), and Robin Wright in a scene from “House of Cards” season 2

Initially, it appears as if House of Cards is heading down the same route as Downton; Claire tells Frank (Kevin Spacey) that her attacker is present, and he immediately jumps into alpha male mode, smashing a light in frustration at her refusal to allow him revenge. Later that same episode, however, Claire confronts Frank about the exchange. “You think I don’t want to smash things?” she asks him, adding “I know what that anger is, more than you can imagine.”

After recounting her experience, she talks about the way in which she deals with the memory. “Every time I think of her, pinned down like that, I strangle her, Francis, so she doesn’t strangle me,” she explains. “I have to. We have to. The alternative is — it’s unlivable.” When Frank prepares to leave the room, she adds, “You’ll still feel the hate in the morning. You’ll use that. But not on him.”

That one scene makes Claire the center of her own story in a way that Downton never allows Anna, while also setting the scene for Claire’s outing of her attacker later in the series, another event that emphasizes Claire’s ownership of her experience, with Frank explicitly placed in the scene as an onlooker unable to effect events at all.

For a series so obsessed with power and power exchange, perhaps it’s unsurprising that House of Cards manages to avoid the pitfalls that Downton Abbey couldn’t.

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