TIME Television

So What Do We Do About The Cosby Show?

(Left to Right) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable, Bill Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff 'Cliff' Huxtable, Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy Huxtable, Tempestt Bledsoe as Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
(Left to Right) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable, Bill Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff 'Cliff' Huxtable, Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy Huxtable, Tempestt Bledsoe as Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show. NBC/Getty Images

If it's hard to "separate the art from the artist" this time, it's partly because the artist worked so hard to intertwine them.

“I don’t know what I’m doing by telling you. I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns.” —Hannibal Buress

Mission accomplished. The re-examination of rape accusations against Bill Cosby that Hannibal Buress — and a growing number of women subsequently coming forward with their stories — helped trigger has changed a lot, fast. A story that had largely lain buried for years is suddenly everywhere. And that has apparently ended Cosby’s late-career comeback: NBC quashed an in-development Cosby sitcom, while Netflix pulled a standup special planned to air the day after Thanksgiving.

The most important stakes here are about justice, not TV shows. But as Buress suggested, the cultural stakes are not about Cosby’s future — they’re about his past, his legacy. On the one hand, the public is hearing that a beloved entertainer has been accused of using his power to sexually prey on women for decades. On the other, that entertainer created a long-running TV show that was a landmark not just of entertainment but of American society.

The Cosby Show is part of our history; it can’t be erased. (Even if TV Land has pulled its reruns.) It’s funny, insightful, moving, great. But it is now also — whatever you think of the allegations and the real-world consequences — weird, in a way that’s hard to shake.

To be clear, I’m not asking here whether it’s “OK” to watch The Cosby Show. The moral question of whether to support an artist financially is a different one (and, as Todd van der Werff points out at Vox, whether or not you watch reruns will make very little difference to Cosby’s bottom line now). I don’t want to police that call, and if we ejected every questionable artist from the canon — abusers, bigots, reprobates — our bookshelves and movie queues would be a lot lighter.

But it seems hard to hear what we’ve been hearing and not feel anything different when watching Cliff Huxtable making faces and dispensing wisdom. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a standard for the courts, for good reason. But it’s not a standard for life. If what you know or hear about an artist affects the way you see their work, you can no more will yourself to feel otherwise than you can force yourself not to blink.

Of course, bad people can create great works. People are complicated. Art is complicated. And so is the question of whether you can separate the art from the artist — the answer is different for every creator and every audience member. Whatever you think of the disturbing allegations against Woody Allen, for instance, there’s a good argument that although his movies have often relied on his persona, they don’t depend on your considering him a morally upstanding person. (Even if some, like Crimes and Misdemeanors, turn on issues of morality.)

With The Cosby Show, though, Bill Cosby the person is throughly and intentionally baked into it— his identity, his persona, his claimed authority. It’s not a show made as if it wants us to separate the art from the artist, and not just because “Cosby” is in the name.

Cliff Huxtable isn’t — like “Jerry Seinfeld” in Seinfeld — a carbon copy of his creator. But Cosby invested himself in Cliff in ways that were deeper and more binding. He drew on his own life, patterning Theo’s struggles in school, for instance, on his own son Ennis’ diagnosis of dyslexia. Cliff and the show shared Cosby’s interests in African American high culture, especially jazz.

Cliff liked what Cosby liked, felt what he felt, argued what he argued. He may have had a different job, but more important, he had Cosby’s sensibility and sense of didactic purpose. As Mark Whitaker pointed out in his biography — which ignored the rape accusations but delved deep into Cosby’s creative life — the comedian mingled his real and fictional lives so thoroughly that during the first season that “the producers and director started to notice something telling. When they were discussing scripts, he would sometimes slip and refer to his character as Bill instead of Cliff.”

That was part of the power of The Cosby Show: people’s affection for Cosby transferred to Cliff, and their respect for Cliff rebounded to Cosby (who at the height of the show’s popularity wrote the best-selling Fatherhood). Everything about this relationship between artist and creation said: Cliff speaks for me. And what Cliff had to say was also, deliberately, instructive: about how parents should speak to children, how white Americans should see their African American neighbors, how men should regard women. (See, for instance, the running jokes spoofing the clueless chauvinism of Sondra’s husband Elvin.)

I’ve rewatched those episodes a lot lately, especially in the last few years as my kids have discovered the reruns on Hulu. They’re still funny and powerful. They stand up, and they stand on their own. But they’re also designed to work, in part, by drawing on the moral authority of Cliff and, by extension, Cosby.

We shouldn’t erase The Cosby Show‘s place in TV history — the way it changed comedy, represented the unrepresented and reframed African Americans in pop culture — even if it were possible to do so. No one owes it to the rest of the world to stop liking The Cosby Show. But it’s also understandable if, this time, you can’t easily “separate the art from the artist,” when the artist worked so hard and so effectively, for so long, to meld them together.

The Cosby Show is a great, important, transformational piece of American culture. Nothing Bill Cosby does or has done in real life can ever change that; nor can that ever excuse anything Bill Cosby does or has done in real life.

But will it ever, entirely not be weird? There is no statute of limitations on that.

Read next: Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby and the Oppressive Power of Silence

TIME Television

REVIEW: An Amazon Kids’ Show Far Better Than Normal

Justice, Siegel and Boettcher in Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street. Amazon

Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street brings back the magic to older-kids' TV.

The rise of streaming TV has been a gift for fans of ambitious scripted shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black. Still, it’s odd that this new video medium has got the most attention for giving us more of what we already have a lot of–comedies, dramas and dramedies for adults.

TV, of course, is a lot more than that–and, in fact, people who use streaming services use them for a lot more. Families, for instance, use the archives of classic TV shows and movies to fill in the gaps of new entertainment. (In my house, we’ve been having a mini film festival of ’70s and ’80s flicks like Breaking Away, which are simultaneously adult and kid-accessible, without being saccharine, in a way that doesn’t exist as much now.) And kids, who’ve grown up accustomed to a grazer’s buffet bar of media, are naturals for streaming: they watch what they want on their schedule, while their parents don’t need to worry what they’ll come across flipping channels. “Flipping channels,” really, is one of those experiences–like searching for a pay phone–that my children only encounter now when watching the aforementioned ’70s and ’80s movies.

Amazon Prime Video has been the streamer that’s most focused on original kids’ shows, including the delightful, science-and-tech focused Annedroids, which premiered this summer and was quietly radical for advancing the idea that girls could get excited about robots. It also earlier this year debuted the preschool-focused Creative Galaxy and Tumble Leaf. Each of those shows was winsome in its own way, but they didn’t fill a dire need; there’s a surfeit of sharp TV for younger kids both on commercial and public TV. It’s when kids get a little older that the quality choices dry up, the Disney Channel sitcoms multiply, and you find yourself searching for reruns of Malcolm in the Middle.

But Amazon’s newest debut finally aims at that niche of original, non-obnoxious TV for tweens that used to be filled by series like Nickelodeon’s Adventures of Pete and Pete, back in my younger days when nickels used to have bumblebees on them.

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street, premiering its first season Nov. 21, is a kind of off-kilter, magic-realist hangout comedy. Amazon says it’s aimed at children 6 to 11–which, in kids’ aspirational math, means the lead characters are around 13–but this adult found himself gobbling the four episodes Amazon sent as if I were raiding my kids’ Halloween candy.

The title character (Sloane Morgan Siegel) and his two best friends, Mel (Ashley Boettcher) and Ranger (Drew Justice) live in a neighborhood that is both totally boring and unpredictably enchanted. The summer days drag slowly, the fall days are a string of school projects–and then they’re interrupted by the discovery of a mysterious pencil that has the power to erase memories or a menacing toad that has apparently placed a curse on an elderly neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan). Well-meaning Gortimer, brainy Mel and overenthusiastic Ranger throw themselves into the mysteries thrust upon them with the spirit of early teenagers, for whom the discovery that the world is profoundly weird is entirely unsurprising.

Normal Street‘s like a pleasant throwback, both in its attitude and its style. The stories, many of which involve eccentric but sympathetic adults, call back to a time when kid and adult culture wasn’t so strictly segregated (as in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, recently re-released on home video). The humor is sophisticated, but with kid’s-eye detail; describing a favorite luridly colored frozen treat, Gortimer remarks in a voiceover: “It’s said that the peculiar sounds that the machine makes when birthing an Arctic Sludgie are the laws of physics screaming in protest.” There’s also a kind of indie-film gestalt to the show, down to the soundtrack music, which recalls Mark Mothersbaugh’s for Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

The dream of the ’90s is truly alive on Normal Street, and yes, that does make me wonder a little if this is a series designed to appeal more to nostalgic former kids like me than actual kids of the moment. But I have to believe there’s a cross-generational appeal to the quirky stories from creator (and preschool teacher) David Anaxagoras as well as the instantly appealing characters.

The first episode, available on Amazon before the series premiere, is charming but a little sluggishly paced, but the following episodes only get better. A particular standout centers on Mel, the high-strung daughter of successful parents, who builds an artificially intelligent robot for a school science contest and finds her high-strung competitive attitude transferring to the machine. The story is far-fetched; the theme of early-onset stress is real. But above all it’s inventive and funny, as when the robot shows up for the science fair dressed in a T-shirt that reads Wiñata: “A person or thing,” the machine explains with deadpan cockiness, “that is stuffed so full of win that if hit with a stick it would spill win all over the floor.”

Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street is exploding with treasures like that line. And regardless of your age, I defy you to take a crack at it and not end up getting win all over yourself.

TIME Television

Enough With the British Remakes, American TV!

LUTHER Series 3
Idris Elba plays John Luther in BBC America's Luther Robert Viglasky—BBC

Fox, a Luther adaptation and the Teletubbies school of TV-making.

Over the decades, Americans have learned many a thing from British TV. The UK import Teletubbies, for instance, showed us a truth about how toddlers enjoy stories. You show them something they like, they shout, “Again! Again!” Play it back, verbatim, and it’s as delightful to them as the very first time.

You could say that Fox’s decision to make an American adaptation of the moody British cop show Luther, produced by creator Neil Cross and original star Idris Elba, is an example of the Teletubby school of TV development. As with Fox’s Gracepoint, adapted extremely faithfully from the British Broadchurch–down to star David Tennant reprising the lead role with an American accent–the network found a striking, original work, already widely available to U.S. viewers, and shouted, “Again! Again!”

Sure, anyone with the slightest awareness of TV history knows that great US series have been adapted from UK originals. There were Norman Lear’s All in the Family and Sanford and Son, for instance, even if they were made at a time when Americans couldn’t press a button and stream Till Death Us Do Part or Steptoe and Son. It’s all about the execution–finding a new voice for the new series, and giving it its own specific sense of culture and of place. You may or may not think NBC’s The Office equalled the original, but it was its own thing, its tone adapted both to American office culture and its characters built for the longer-run format of an American network series. These shows, at their best, throw something new into the American TV melting pot.

But a story about a brooding, rough-edged, antihero cop? Do we have any other kind? Nothing against the original Luther, but going abroad to import that trope is like scouring the British Isles to find a Philly cheesesteak to adapt. Between this, Gracepoint, and its various Brit-import reality shows—and following last season’s failed remake of the Australian Rake—Fox will have as many replicas of overseas creations as the Vegas Strip.

Cross and Elba are very talented, and I don’t blame Fox for wanting to be in business with them. But talented people do their best work when they’re creating new things that they’re passionate about. If Fox must make its own Luther, I hope it finds a way to distinguish it both from the British original and the many similarly themed American crime dramas.

As American history teaches us, there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from the British. But you only come into your own after you’ve declared independence.

TIME Television

Unfortunately, John Oliver, You Are a Journalist

Oliver, at right, interviews Stephen Hawking HBO

But who can blame him for not wanting to say so?

The latest sign that John Oliver has become the peer of his old boss Jon Stewart is that he now has to spend time declining honorifics that other people want to hang on him. In an interview with the New York Times’ David Carr, he laughed off the suggestion that he was pursuing “a kind of new journalism”:

We are making jokes about the news and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it’s always in service of a joke. If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is “comedy.”

Strictly on the basis of language, I have to applaud Oliver for rejecting the label of “journalism.” Though I’ve often used it myself for lack of a better catchall word, it’s a stupid word, used to lend an air of professional respectability to jobs that we should just describe directly: writing, reporting, analysis, criticism, opinion and so on.

There’s a kind of protesting-too-much, this-is-so-a-real-job overtone to the word. There’s also an element of judgment: journalism is not just reporting, but reporting of which I approve; not just non-fiction writing or speaking, but nonfiction writing or speaking that I deem worthy of respect. That’s probably, as with Jon Stewart in the past, the popular reading of the term that Oliver balks at. If he accepts the label journalist, he sounds full of himself, and that’s the death of comedy.

But if we’re going to use the term journalism at all, I don’t see how it doesn’t apply to the work done by Oliver and Last Week Tonight. (Which, incidentally, is produced by onetime magazine writer Tim Carvell, who years ago edited some pieces of mine at Fortune.) There’s far more to news and nonfiction today than who-what-where-when-why reporting. One of the biggest growth fields is “explainer journalism”–analyzing data and walking an audience through complex issues, often done with a distinct point-of-view, at outlets like Vox and FiveThirtyEight. [Update: For an in-depth comparison of Oliver’s work with that of people who actually call themselves journalists, see The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng.]

That’s journalism; a news analysis is journalism; an editorial is journalism. The chief difference between these and what Oliver does, if anything, is that he’s entertaining, so that, when he spends fifteen minutes arguing the stakes of net neutrality, people actually pay attention and even act on it. If that makes it “not journalism,” then it’s journalism that has the problem.

Not that I blame Oliver for avoiding the label. When someone calls Oliver, Stewart or Colbert a journalist, it’s often because that person wants something–for the hosts to commit themselves to a certain cause or to declare neutrality; for them to commit to a certain seriousness of purpose; for them to accept their “responsibility,” however the labeler defines it; for them to fit into some one-size definition of how a journalist should behave and what they should care about. That would definitely kill Oliver’s comedy, and along with it his–well, analysis or advocacy or whatever you want to call it.

So yes, John Oliver is a “journalist” as much as anyone in this business is. But I can understand why he needs to stay undercover.

TIME Television

Suffer the Children: Saying “No Thanks” to TV’s Child-in-Peril Stories

The Missing 2014
James Nesbitt, Oliver Hunt, and Frances O'Connor in The Missing. Liam Daniel

There's nothing wrong with a good story portraying terrible things. But there's no obligation to watch it over and over, either.

Early in the first episode of the Starz miniseries The Missing (premieres Nov. 15), the worst happens, as it does so often on TV these days.

Tony and Emily Hughes (James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor) are on holiday in a rural French town in 2006 when their five-year-old son, Oliver (Oliver Hunt), disappears in a crowd. He is, apparently, abducted; as the story flashes forward to 2014, they have never seen him again.

In between, they’ve lived eight years of agony. After the investigation goes cold, they’re left to torment themselves, wondering if Oliver is dead, and if so how, and if not–what might their baby have gone through for eight years, what might he be going through now? It’s hard to say which would be the mercy, but in their present, mercy is a remote concept.

I’ve watched the five episodes that Starz sent me of The Missing (there will be eight in total), and it’s very good, a swift-moving crime thriller that also takes the time to measure the effects of the crime on Tony and Emily’s marriage, their state of mind, and the lives of the French townspeople who were drawn into the investigation and may be again. Tony, who’s become a walking open wound, aching and refusing comfort, has returned to France, chasing another in a series of leads he’s been obsessively pursuing for eight years–only this one seems to pan out.

As he joins with Julien, the now-retired investigator on the original case (Tchéky Karyo), they begin to unravel a timeline and a chain of secrets, drawing closer, but to what, exactly? As the revelations mount, you itch for an answer, and dread it. We’ve trod this grim ground in a lot of British and European crime series lately, but The Missing is adept at showing the wear on the Hugheses and the disorienting nightmare of searching for a lost child in a foreign country. The Missing isn’t great, entirely original, or indispensible, but–I want to be clear and fair here–it’s very good.

And yet. Would I have watched it if it weren’t my job? Hell no.

This is not The Missing‘s fault so much as it is mine. We all have our not-for-me markers with fiction: mine is kids in peril. It’s not that I can’t appreciate, even enjoy a series based on it; Broadchurch, about the aftermath of a child’s murder, was one of the best things I saw on TV last year. But when I’m off the TV-critic clock, these shows need to clear a much higher bar for me. (Which is why I didn’t continue with Broadchurch‘s perfectly decent adaption Gracepoint; once was enough.)

It’s easy to say this and sound sanctimonious. But this isn’t a moral judgment. My squeamishness doesn’t make me a more sensitive soul or a kinder person or a better parent than anyone else. And though I hate shows that use the child-in-peril for easy dramatic stakes, this isn’t a moral judgment on The Missing. This show isn’t cheaply exploitative; just the opposite, it’s highly conscious of what losing a child does to a parent, how it never stops doing damage, even after years. The Missing is well aware of the consequences of its central crime, which is the right thing for the story but all the tougher to take.

In the grand scheme, TV is more authentic, not to mention compelling, when you know that there’s no artificial safety net around topics like endangering children. But Jesus–lately, TV has practically replaced the safety net with a trap door. For a bad crime show, killing or harming a kid can be a lazy way to show that you’re willing to “go there.” But even very good series are now going there, over and over and over.

Kids were collateral damage in Breaking Bad. True Detective led to a ghastly story of ritual child abuse, and it was haunted by the long-ago death of Rust Cohle’s toddler daughter. In Netflix’s excellent British import Happy Valley, the protagonist, who has never recovered from the rape and suicide of her daughter, investigates a grim case that puts other people’s children in mortal danger. In Showtime’s The Affair, not only is Ruth Wilson’s Alison mourning her child, who drowned as a toddler, but in the pilot Dominic West’s Noah witnesses his son’s (simulated) suicide and his daughter’s near-death by choking (which we see twice). Game of Thrones chucked a child out a window in its first episode. The Walking Dead–if you don’t know, don’t ask.

Harming children in a story is never a gentle nudge. It pushes an audience to extreme reactions. The death of a child upends a sense of natural order, it makes the world feel broken. The rage and helplessness it causes makes you want to find someone to blame–the creators who protray the violence, the audiences who enjoy the show. I could probably get more attention for this essay, and plenty of likes, if I gave it one of those finger-wagging headlines that social media loves: “Hey TV, Stop Killing Kids!” or “Sorry, Fans, the Death of a Child is Not Entertainment.”

TV doesn’t owe me that, though. It’s one of fiction’s jobs to face the worst of experience, not to leave an unexplained hole in place of terrible crimes, illnesses and accidents that–would that it were otherwise–do happen. Stories that handle the material with respect and awareness of its lasting consequence do a service; beyond the general role of art to reflect human experience, they provide a kind of emotional disaster preparedness.

But it’s also not anyone’s job as a viewer, or as a human, to face the worst in fiction, much less repeatedly. Again, I get why someone might make this argument. Like real-life violence–see the debate over watching terrorist beheading videos–the outrage that a fictional atrocity provokes makes people want to react morally one way or another. Either it must be a violation to portray this thing, and to watch it; or it must be an obligation, a mark of bravery, to bear witness. The counter-moralizing response to the one I talked about above is: you owe it to others–to real people who suffer and die–to confront this stuff. If you avoid certain kinds of dark material, you’re avoiding life, you’re in denial, you’re a wimp.

I have to side with the wimps here. Earlier this year, after watching a run of particularly unsettling stuff–maybe murders, maybe rapes, who can keep track now–I tweeted, “I watch a lot of disturbing TV. But I totally get ‘I’m tired of [unpleasant thing TK]. TV’s not a chili-pepper-eating contest.” There is no shame in saying: you know what, tonight I think I’ll just have the ice cream.

As for The Missing: if you’re up for an emotionally raw crime story that never lets its thrills hide its emotional repercussions, I can recommend it. And I hope you’re satisfied with the ending, which I will probably not stick around for. Every once in a while, I have to decide that my own nightmares are enough without borrowing someone else’s.

TIME Television

10 TV Series Besides Duck Dynasty That Should Be Musicals

Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson and Numan Acar as Haissam Haqqani in Homeland (Season 4, Episode 6). - Photo:  David Bloomer/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  Homeland_406_0527.R
David Bloome/Showtime

Sing, Saul Berenson, sing!

So Duck Dynasty is becoming a musical. Others may scoff, but I say why not! There’s an illustrious history of mixing TV and music; South Park sang its way to the movie screen years ago; and if Jerry Springer can be the basis of an opera, who are we to say the Robinsons can’t pull it off?

Of course, if TV has taught us anything, it’s that success will breed imitators. So producers, let me humbly suggest your next season’s worth of screen-to-stage adaptations:

Homeland. Nothing against his performance as Saul Berenson, but you cast Mandy Patinkin in something and don’t have him sing? Now that’s a crime against the state.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Teresa Giudice brings down the house with Chicago‘s “Cell Block Tango.”

Marvel’s Agents of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. An action-packed, danger-filled thrill ride starring, to hold down costs and not interfere with the storylines of future movies, all of Spider-Man’s non-superpowered peripheral characters. When it comes down to it, wasn’t the story really always about J. Jonah Jameson?

Firefly. Creator Joss Whedon wrote a musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Why not continue the story of the Serenity crew in song? Or it could just be a non-musical play if he prefers. Or it could be on TV, really, whatever works for him. A movie? Web video? God, I just want Firefly back.

Girls. Flushed with gotta-sing-gotta-dance fever after starring in NBC’s Peter Pan Live, Alison Williams headlines Broadway’s favorite hipster musical since Rent! Book by Lena Dunham, score by Edie Brickell.

The Good Wife. Advantage: Already employs Alan Cumming, Stockard Channing, and half the New York City theater community. Plus: Book of Mormon-style subplot involving Grace and her church group. Minus: Will probably have to include that chicken song.

The Walking Dead. How much can it cost to get the rights to “Thriller”?

AfterMad: The Bert Cooper Musical. He may have shuffled off Mad Men to the tune of “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” but now Broadway vet Robert Morse brings Bert’s loveable Japanophilia and Ayn Randianism to the afterlife!

Game of Thrones. Not the dragon-filled, special-effect-laden spectacle you were expecting, but instead an interactive, intimate dinner-theater event along the lines of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. How interactive? Just wait ’til they lock the exits and start playing “The Rains of Castamere”!

Smash. Just kidding! Not Smash. Never, ever Smash.

TIME streaming

REVIEW: High Maintenance Deserves Its Buzz

Blichfeld and Sinclair, creators of High Maintenance. Janky Clown Productions

This gemlike anthology, about a Brooklyn pot dealer and his clients, is one of the best things you can watch online.

When you tell people the subject of High Maintenance–the stories of a Brooklyn pot dealer and his clients–they can get the wrong impression. This fantastic online series, debuting three new episodes on Vimeo Nov. 11, is a comedy involving pot, but it’s not a pot comedy. It’s not stoner humor, like Harold and Kumar or even its closer analog, the choom-heavy Broad City. The stories tangentially involve marijuana, but marijuana is rarely the story itself.

Instead, the gemlike little tales anthologized in High Maintenance are about the reasons a character might smoke pot, which are myriad. Stress. Boredom. Illness. A date. Sadness. Celebration. Loneliness. Too much togetherness.

Or, let’s say, the end of the world. In the first episode of the new season–is “batch” the better word? “stash”? “crop”?–a young couple are going through the typical motions of white-collar urban life (work, barbecues with friends, lots of web surfing in their Fort Greene apartment) when one of them develops an obsession with survivalism. Maybe it’s the aftermath of Sandy, maybe it’s the zeitgeist, maybe it’s a way of feeling in control in his life. But one way or another, meal rations are purchased, survivalism lessons are taken, nerves are eventually frayed, and the couple decide to place a call to The Guy.

The Guy–the small-time pot dealer played by Ben Sinclair–is the one constant between High Maintenance episodes. Sinclair plays him with deceptively chill goofiness, but he also has a sneaky emotional intelligence that allows him to serve as kind of low-key confidante/bartender/therapist to his clients. (Sinclair writes, directs and edits each episode together with his wife, Katja Blichfeld, in an appropriately small-batch DIY artisanal enterprise. About which: the new videos are on demand for $1.99 each, or $7.99 for a bundle that will include three more earlier next year. Like The Guy, High Maintenance prefers to distribute in small quantities.)

Beyond that setup, every episode of High Maintenance can be what it needs to: there’s a new story each episode, which vary from six or seven minutes to around nineteen. (You can find older episodes, made before the show’s on-demand deal, for free on Vimeo.) A few characters recur, others disappear, but there is always The Guy, summoned on speed-dial, to help them maintain their high–or simply to help them maintain.

You’re probably sick of hearing about how a new show is “unlike anything else,” but the only close comparison to High Maintenance in series TV is Louie–whose “Fat Girl” monologue gets an on-point shoutout in the second episode–at least, in Louie’s self-contained, short-film-like segments. Like Louie, this is a series in sardonic love with New York City, but a different one: brownstone Brooklyn, which it shoots in vibrant color, and the freelancers and thought-industry workers who fill it, like Portlandia characters taken more seriously.

Despite the brief running time, each episode has a leisurely, languorous feel, which echoes the unhurried lives of its characters. They’re young and relatively unburdened, or older and unattached, working odd hours, adults with time to adopt intense hobbies (magic, birdwatching), watch TV online and nurse neuroses. (Emphasis on the latter; these people are, adjectivally, high-maintenance.) If High Maintenance were a person, it would be hanging out at Gorilla Coffee on a weekday afternoon, and if its characters were real people, they would watch High Maintenance. Their conversation topics are demographically GPS-precise–arguments about Vice News and Scandal, comparing vacation notes on Tulum, Mexico.

I don’t want to spoil too much story in the new episodes, partly because there’s less than an hour’s worth of them, partly because (again like Louie) their pleasure derives from how they amble along flâneur-like, taking side trips and conversational detours, until a plot develops almost without your noticing it. And yet each episode is tightly, often ingeniously plotted; they range from sweet romance to urban satire to comedies of manners, and each delivers more depth of character than TV episodes three times as long.

To blow one tiny detail, the third episode opens with a woman in a self-defense class, fighting off an “attacker” in a padded armor suit. She’s foregrounded, you can see the potential for a story developing about security and the city–why is she taking the class?–until the scene changes and you realize the episode is, in fact, not about her but about the guy in the padded suit.

It could have gone either way, I’m sure. (Indeed, some of the new episodes involve peripheral characters from previous seasons.) Part of the beauty of High Maintenance’s richness of detail and its specific sense of even the smallest character is that it makes you believe that any character in any scene could be the star of the story.

After all, as far as each of us is concerned, we’re all protagonists. Each of us has something we’re trying to escape, which ultimately is what The Guy sells. The genius of this show is how it uses its high-concept–so to speak–premise to get at something universal. If High Maintenance is aware of one thing, it’s this: The high is easy. It’s maintaining that’s tough.

TIME Media

Can the Republicans Save MSNBC?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel and Senator Rand Paul wave to supporters at a Republican Party of Kentucky election night party in Louisville on Nov. 4, 2014.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Rand Paul wave to supporters at a Republican Party of Kentucky election night party in Louisville on Nov. 4, 2014. Luke Sharrett—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The news channel and its left-leaning talkers are in a ratings slump. Maybe they need a better enemy.

If American liberals need one more thing to feel bad about after the midterm elections, Michael Wolff, writing in USA Today, has a suggestion: MSNBC’s ratings are in the dumps. The network, which Leaned Forward to become a kinda-sorta analog to Fox News on the progressive side during the early Obama era, has seen its numbers decline like the Democrats’ in the Senate:

The Democrats’ sinking fortunes have been pretty accurately charted in the declining ratings at MSNBC, the party’s house network, which culminated, on election night, in a 22% fall from the last midterm election in the all-important 25-to-54 age group.

By my read, Wolff is not so much arguing that viewers are voting against MSNBC in a political sense as saying that, with the Obama administration six years old, under attack and in its lame duck phase, there’s no excitement anymore in the Obamaism of Rachel Maddow and company. And with the thrill, the energy, the sense of forward momentum, goes the desire to watch. Its progressive audience may not be changing their views, but some are demonstrably changing the channel.

I don’t find much to disagree with in Wolff’s analysis so far as it goes. But I am surprised that Wolff, a scholar of all things Fox and Murdoch, doesn’t point out the analog to MSNBC’s slump: Fox News, at pretty much exactly the same point in the George W. Bush presidency.

Around this time in 2006, Fox’s ratings were down, while CNN and MSNBC’s were rising. And there were plenty of analyses–I wrote some of them–that in part, this may have been because the Fox lineup, ascendent on the early post-9/11 era, was feeling tired and malaised. It couldn’t have been that much fun for conservative hosts to defend Bush after Katrina and around the punishing midterms. Nor, it seemed, was it as much fun for the conservative fanbase to watch. As I wrote in early 2008:

Its primary-night coverage has felt staid and listless. Sometimes it has gone tabloid with celebrity-news, true-crime and scandal stories (WEBSITES POSTING SEXY PICS LIFTED FROM FACEBOOK). At other times it has retreated into a kind of war-on-terrorism news-talgia, playing up threatening chatter and new missives from al-Qaeda leaders while its rivals are doing the election 24/7; flipping to Fox can feel like time-traveling to 2002.

And then came one of the best things ever to happen to Fox News: Barack Obama. With the election and Obama’s rise, there was a new topic, a new dynamic–a new antagonist. The Republicans were losing, but losing too can be exciting in political TV, if you have a compelling enough Big Bad. Soon enough, Fox’s ratings were rising again like one of Glenn Beck’s Jenga towers.

Here’s the problem for MSNBC right now: the Obama administration is an old story, and not an especially fun one. But with 2016 starting in 2014, like Christmas in July, comes the potential for something equally as good for a politically-driven network’s ratings: a compelling adversary. Negative energy is energy nonetheless.

And with GOP primary season coming up, there is at least the chance that MSNBC’s talkers can array their energy against a truly motivating opponent, or opponents. A Ted Cruz or a Rand Paul threatening to shrink government to the size of a thimble. A Chris Christie, willing to explode on viral video on command and give lefty viewers the fight they want. Or even, God willing, yet another Bush.

Note that I said “there’s a chance.” There is also the chance that none of this will make a difference for MSNBC.

As Wolff points out, Fox had the advantage of being run by a genuine political operative, Roger Ailes, who wants the fight for its own sake and whose palate is keenly attuned to the cuts of red meat that the right prefers at any given moment. MSNBC, despite its outspoken hosts, is run by TV people, who don’t necessarily have that gut sense of what will get the base moving. (A lefty true believer, for instance, would not have Joe Scarborough as MSNBC’s morning host.) The network is programmed for ratings–which, ironically, may not be the best way to get ratings in ideology-driven cable news.

Then too, Fox News has been around for several turns of the wheel. It’s thrived under Democrats and Republicans, up and down times, Clinton through Obama. It has found how to stoke a sense of insurgent, aggrieved outsiderdom among its audience even when its politicians are in office. MSNBC–or rather, the current Lean Forward iteration–has really existed only while Democrats were rising (or at least in charge of the White House). We don’t now yet if it can make programming out of being the feisty down-and-outs–or if its audience will be invigorated or depressed by the approach.

And then there’s this: Hillary could win. And while that might be good news for MSNBC’s faithful, it won’t necessarily make a good new narrative for MSNBC the channel. If Hillary rolls to the nomination and then the Presidency–and doesn’t create some reason to see her as a marked departure from Obama–that doesn’t create a changed dynamic. Which means that any sugar rush that MSNBC’s opinion-driven shows get from the election could be short-lived.

A Hillary win could make MSNBC’s commentators happy, in other words, but the channel itself might be left to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

TIME Television

The Simpsons-Futurama Crossover: Not a Classic, But Beats Family Guy

THE SIMPSONS Meets ÒFuturamaÓ in a Special Crossover Episode!
FOX

A weird half-hour celebrates the Matt Groening shows' shared DNA.

Spoilers for last night’s episode of The Simpsons follow:

Back in the distant past, in another technological era, another century–that is, in 1999–Futurama was supposed to be the next Simpsons. It too was created by Matt Groening; it had Simpsons talent aboard (including producer David X. Cohen); it had a vast cast of characters and a satirical edge. The TV world and animation fans donned their shades on the launchpad and waited for Fox’s next big comedy to take off like a Planet Express rocket.

But Futurama was not the next Simpsons. Fox’s next big animated hit–eventually, after cancellation–would be Family Guy, which also premiered in 1999. It wasn’t the next Simpsons in quality (dear God, no), but it was the more direct, slavish imitation, building itself around a boorish fat guy and his family while cranking up the speed of its non sequitur jokes.

Futurama, on the other hand, was more obviously its own thing. It was a workplace comedy, but it was also, in its weird way, legitimately well-constructed sci-fi. It had The Simpsons’ cynicism about consumer culture–it saw the future as one big drink of Slurm–but it had a darker, less sentimental spirit. If it borrowed anything from The Simpsons, it was the tone of the Treehouse of Horror episodes, with their inspired grotesqueness, free from fealty to Earthbound realism.

Earlier this season, Family Guy aired a crossover episode with The Simpsons–or really, a Family Guy episode with Simpsons characters in it, but with Family Guy-style beats and gags. The whole exercise had an off-putting, “Dad, why don’t you love me!” feel to it, with Seth MacFarlane’s crew expressing sincere affection for the older show, but also seeming to try a little too hard to show they were cool with being a successful franchise that never got Simpsons-sized respect.

It says something, then, that the “Simpsorama,” the Simpsons-Futurama crossover, took place on The Simpsons‘ own air, in its own time slot. Of course, it’s not like there was another option; Futurama finally ended for good (or for now) last year, on its second home Comedy Central. But The Simpsons didn’t just let its spiritual heir crash at its house; it gave it the keys, producing an episode that was much like an episode of Futurama than The Simpsons.

Not a great episode of Futurama, to be totally honest. Compared with Futurama‘s regular-run episodes, which is their own goofy way were built on strict sci-fi plotting logic, dropping Bart’s DNA into a pool of radioactive sludge was a bit of a something-gets-hit-by-lightning crutch. (It was a stretch by The Simpsons‘ latter-year standards of disregarding its own rules of cartoon reality. This really might have worked better as a Treehouse of Horror episode–it even included Kang and Kodos.) And the resulting Homer-Simpson-must-die story was little more than an excuse to put the characters together and take a tour of Futurama‘s greatest hits.

But great hits they were, and for a fan of both shows, “Simpsorama” was at least a way to show how the two series–to borrow the episode’s metaphor–shared DNA but manifest it in different ways. Bender may look like metal Homer with an antenna, but his mercenary trickster personality is distinctly his own. (I could imagine him happily fleecing Moe for free drinks for the rest of his days.) The Simpsons aspects of this Simpsons half-hour mostly receded into the background, allowing a parade of favorite Futurama bits and characters (Lrrr and Ndnd, the Nibblonians, the Hypnotoad, Hedonism Bot–twice!–and a cameo by earlier Groening creation Binky from his comic Life in Hell.)

It wasn’t a classic episode, but–by imagining an alt-universe in which Futurama still shared Fox airtime with The Simpsons–it was a generous one. Toward the end of the episode, as the devil-bunny-Barts were slingshotted into space, Bart said, “You realize you’re cheering the deaths of millions of my children.” Really, “Simpsorama” simply celebrated the life of one of them.

TIME Television

The Newsroom Has One More Chance to Get Its Story Straight

HBO

In its last, short season, Aaron Sorkin's media romance is still flawed, but it might finally turn from an editorial into a drama.

The fans of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom may not be legion–though it had enough to carry it to its third, abbreviated and final season–but they are ardent. Over the previous two years, as I’ve criticized the series, there’s been a common refrain in their defense of it: Sorkin’s cable-news drama may not be at the level of his past series, but it and its messages are needed on TV.

Beware the show whose fans or makers believe it to be “needed.” Because there is almost always a corollary to that “needed”: “…by other people, besides me.” By the TV newspeople who are failing America. By voters led astray, through sensationalism and demagoguery, to make poor, uniformed choices in their leaders. If only these messages got out to them, if only they were made to be exposed to reason, then by God they would finally see, and we could begin unmaking the mess we, which is to say they, have made of the world.

You cannot make a great story starting from that posture. There is too little oxygen on that pinnacle. And for all its other faults (thinly drawn characters, its women in particular) and flashes of twinkle-tongued brilliance, that has been The Newsroom‘s founding flaw: to imagine itself less as a work of art than as a repair manual for civic society. The most quintessentially Newsroom tableau is a group of characters looking up (see photo above)–toward a monitor, maybe, or toward Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) making an impassioned speech, but really, their eyes are elevated Heavenward, as if gazing on better angels that only they can perceive. “Wake up, sheeple!” is not a dramatic principle.

To The Newsroom‘s credit, its second season seemed to acknowledge some of the problems with the first. Rather than positioning McAvoy and his ACN crew as the Gallant to the mainstream media’s Goofus on one true-life story after another, it built a story arc around the fallout from the network’s running with a bombshell military exposé that turned out to be a hoax. It was a less bad season, but also a less remarkable one.

But The Newsroom does have one asset going for it, one that runs through the rest of Sorkin’s TV work from Sports Night on: the belief that there can be hope even in a failed cause. And in the first three episodes of its six-episode final season (premieres Nov. 9), there are signs that The Newsroom could end its run as its best self.

Not at first, though, as suggested by the title of the first new episode: “Boston.” Oy gevalt. It’s become a parlor game to play “Next season of The Newsroom” whenever the media commit some screw up that Sorkin could later show ACN getting right, even if their principles cost them ratings. Sure enough, the first hour centers on the Boston marathon bombing, when major media outlets erroneously reported arrests and passed along the Reddit-posse “identifications” of suspects who weren’t. ACN, still reeling from last season’s Genoa fiasco, plays it careful, even if their principles–well, you see where this is going.

But at the same time, Sorkin starts building a final, fictional news-story arc that, like Genoa last season, serves the show better than its ripping-on-the-headlines approach has. Without giving away too much, the story does–again, as you might have guessed in 2013–borrow from the Edward Snowden NSA leaks (with Dev Patel’s Neal Sampat in the Glenn Greenwald role). But it uses that story as a jumping-off point rather than op-ed material, heading in different directions and imagining the ethical and legal peril for a news outlet trying to report on a secrecy-obsessed administration, and trying to balance its news responsibility with legitimate security concerns.

By the third hour, I can’t say I was in love with The Newsroom at last. But I felt like I was finally seeing the better version of itself that it could have been. I wasn’t watching a lecture–though several small ones still creep into the first hour–but simply the work of a sharp, intellectually engaged screenwriter taking a scenario ripe with conflict and seeing where it took him.

The same characters are here–albeit with fewer of the daffy moments that have plagued female characters like Mac–and they’re still operating in Sorkin’s preferred flawed-heroic mode. (Chris Messina’s corporate scion Reese sums up the philosophy well: “I’m a douche on the side of the angels!”) But it’s more compelling watching them when Sorkin has simply put them under plausible pressures–a potential hostile takeover of ACN on one hand, a federal investigation on the other–and lets them feel their way to an answer without instructing us on the way. This isn’t an editorial, it’s just drama with ideas built in. How do you run a business that has goals beyond just making money? How can a media outlet defend its independence against an ever-more-powerful security state–and how should it?

The Newsroom in the end will not, to paraphrase its Coldplay quote of the first season, fix America. But give it another few hours, and it might at least fix itself.

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