Learning to Appreciate Dancing with the Stars

May 26, 2010 at 11:38 am (Analysis, Review) (, )

For the past five years, I’ve mocked my parents relentlessly for their love of Dancing with the Stars. I’ve rolled my eyes fondly when my mom has called me at 9:00 on a Monday night with an exhortation to dial a certain toll-free number and give more votes to her favorite contestant. I’ve laughed derisively at the antics of the judges and hosts as I’ve passed through my living room on the way to my own preferred entertainment options. You could say, quite fairly, that I didn’t see the appeal of a cheesy dancing competition filled with D-list celebrities — for myself, or for the millions of viewers who apparently watched it every season.

Then, this winter, a few things happened in quick succession: I watched the Winter Olympics, I got sucked into the world of figure skating fandom, and gold medalist figure skater Evan Lysacek was announced as a contestant on season 10 of Dancing with the Stars. And suddenly I had a dilemma — would I watch this thing I’d always mocked, just for a celebrity I enjoyed?

The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding yes. Oh, sure, I tried to justify it at first, to mitigate the shame. “Oh, me? I’m just watching this to mock it. “For the lulz,” as they say on the internets. I’m watching it ironically. I just want to see how goofy Evan is, with his long, awkward limbs. And Buzz Aldrin! How can you not watch an octogenarian former moon-walker attempt to dance? Besides, it’s nice to have a reason to sit down with my parents twice a week. I’m doing it for the sake of family bonding!” I started voting for Evan — first with my phone, then with increasingly numerous e-mail addresses — and claimed I was only doing so because I worried his ultra-competitive personality would lead him to have a nervous breakdown if he got kicked off too early. As a final defense, I swore I’d only watch until Evan left — which, since he just earned second place on the finale last night, turned out to be a moot declaration. But about halfway through the season, I began to realize that I probably wouldn’t stop watching even if Evan was kicked off — because I’d begun to truly enjoy the show.

It’s pretty common for geeky people to react like I initially did to something like Dancing with the Stars. In a world where our geeky hobbies (comics, sci-fi, video games, etc.) are regularly derided as the childish trash entertainment of socially-stunted individuals, we frequently become defensive to the point of elitism, declaring our hobbies to be worthwhile and the entertainment of the masses to be worthless drivel. When you combine this geeky tendency with the tendency of high-minded academics (with whom I was surrounded for four years) to dismiss low and popular culture entirely, you can see how, despite all my best efforts, I found myself falling into the trap of dismissing entertainment with mainstream appeal without ever giving it a second thought. American Idol? Bleh. Two and a Half Men? Oy. And Dancing with the Stars? Oh, whatever.

I’m not going to claim that ten weeks spent with Dancing with the Stars completely cured me of this tendency toward elitism. I’m also not going to pretend it’s suddenly become my favorite show. But it did make me appreciate the value of entertainment that isn’t necessarily thoughtful or competitively rigorous. Is the game fixed from the start? Of course it is. Is it unfair to put people with absolutely no dance or athletic experience, like actress Niecy Nash, up against people who are, essentially, professional dancers, like Pussycat Doll and winner Nicole Scherzinger? Of course it is. But that’s not the point. The point is to enjoy the goofy, low-budget, good-natured fun of it. Since they’re all celebrities who are getting paid to be there and act as caricatures of themselves, it’s hard to really feel bad for any of the contestants, and the show does an amazing job of framing them to be likeable. I came into the show for Evan, but through the dances and pre-taped “packages” I found myself loving Niecy and Buzz and Pamela Anderson and football player Chad Ochocinco and sportscaster Erin Andrews and even Bachelor Jake Pavelka. (Reality star Kate Gosselin still managed to come off as consistently unlikable, but DWTS’s editors can’t exactly perform miracles.)

The show has its flaws, of course. The singers who perform covers of hit songs for the celebrities to dance to are frequently terrible, and not in a fun way like the bad celebrity dancers — I found myself covering my ears on the high notes of their shrieking cover of Adam Lambert’s “For Your Entertainment.” The results shows are padded far past endurable levels with commercial breaks and fluff, and in the two-week college dance team competition held toward the end of the season, the show made the unforgivable decision to pit the ballroom dance majors of Utah Valley University against the Rutgers University dance team that had formed on a whim four months ago. Mismatched celebrities competing against each other is one thing, but it’s quite another to embarrass normal, earnest college kids like the Rutgers students, and I found myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

But when some of the most-lauded dramatic television is full of unlikeable characters doing awful things (The Sopranos, Mad Men, half the characters on Glee), sometimes it’s nice to just watch a bunch of people who don’t take themselves too seriously acting silly and learning to dance — or, in the case of the judges and hosts, reacting to those dances. And while the dancing from the celebrities is rarely good, the show does make a conscious effort to showcase the art of dance, with the professional dances performed during the weekly results shows. (They also make an effort to showcase professional singers during those shows — Melissa Etheridge’s appearance was a highlight of the season.) Dance competitions, as a recent Entertainment Weekly article pointed out, are as old as the medium of television itself, and they tap into a cultural well that runs deep. There’s something about watching pretty people in glitzy, glittery costumes moving across a dance floor to music that charms even my jaded, geeky soul. And that’s not even taking into account the social aspect of the show — discussing the dances and contestants with friends and family, yelling at the judges and/or voters for making “bad” calls, and voting your heart out for the contestant you hope will take home the tacky, over-the-top Mirrorball Trophy.

I’m not sure if I’ll watch DWTS next season. It’ll depend, I’m sure, on the cast, and if there’s someone I can root for as enthusiastically as I rooted for Evan this season. But I’ve finally come to understand and appreciate the show’s popularity, and I hope to carry that lesson with me the next time I encounter a piece of entertainment it seems so easy to dismiss.


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Olympics in the Twitter Age

February 18, 2010 at 9:42 pm (Analysis) (, )

I’m watching the Olympics.

I’m aware that this does not make me unique. Half the world is currently watching the Olympics to one extent or another. But this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever watched a single Olympic event all the way through, much less glued myself to the TV to watch as many events as I possibly can. It’s really unusual for me, and I’m still trying to figure out how this happened.

Sports have never been my thing. I can objectively admire athletes’ talent and dedication, and while I’ve never been a real athlete myself, I can understand the appeal of playing sports – the rush of adrenaline, the fun of competition. I played floor hockey in middle school and had a great time, terrible as I was at it.

But watching sports, I’ve never really understood. Part of it is my need for a verbal narrative in my entertainment. I get as little enjoyment from dance, foreign language opera, and cooking shows as I do sports. I need a script, words I can understand and follow, driving the narrative, and sports commentators aren’t enough when the action is so visual/physical and essentially wordless.

My other problem is that I’m a delicate flower with a bleeding heart and I can’t stand watching people lose. It’s hard for me to take pride and joy in someone’s victory when I know it means loss and failure for someone else. Add that to all the injuries and falls that inevitably happen in most sports, and I spend most of my sports-watching time cringing.

But I’m watching the Olympics.

Part of the reason, I’m sure, is the point in my life I’m at. I’m living with my parents, working a job I don’t have to think about when it’s over each day, preparing for grad school in the fall. I have access to cable TV and no after-work obligations, and since my parents enjoy the Olympics they’re likely to be filling the living room anyway. That’s how I wound up watching the Opening Ceremonies – I came home, and they were on, and I settled in on the couch to enjoy my parents’ company and watch Wolverine play the fiddle in a canoe on the moon.

But the word “company” is key there. Because, however much I’m enjoying watching the Olympics, I wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much if my parents weren’t watching. Or if my friends weren’t watching. Or if dozens of the people I follow on twitter who live all across the world (from Canada to Australia) weren’t watching. Olympic fever has swept up everyone I know, and in the face of that enthusiasm and chatter, it was pretty much inevitable that I’d wind up watching too.

And I like it. I like that this is an event, a common thread between almost everyone I know, from close friends to distant acquaintances. As I’m writing this post, my father has just interrupted me to tell me how he spent half of a meeting at work today talking about yesterday’s curling competitions with his coworkers. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about. None of these people actually cared about curling (the most mockable Olympic sport), but the momentousness of the Olympics compelled them to watch, and this gave them all new common ground the next day.

They say the Olympics are meant to bring the world together, and I’m not sure if that actually happens. Certainly there’s plenty of political controversy involved that may, ultimately, outweigh the good the games bring. But I do know that the Olympics have succeeded in bringing common ground to some very uncommon people, helping me to get to know acquaintances better and making me feel like part of a huge, ongoing, international dialogue. It’s a really nice feeling.

I’m still not sure I actually care about any Olympic events. Not even figure skating holds my interest intrinsically. But I do care about the community feeling the games have spawned, in the age of Twitter, and I don’t for a moment regret the time I’m spending on my couch right now, watching women’s snowboarding.

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The Subtlety of Up in the Air

January 15, 2010 at 8:26 pm (Analysis) ()

In an attempt to blog more frequently about things that are not comic books, I’m going to try to make a good faith effort to update this blog more often. Not every day — I don’t have the resolve that my friend Caroline does — but certainly more often than the sporadic updates I’ve made thus far. Consequently, if there’s anything you, gentle readers, would like me to blog about, feel free to suggest something!

In the meantime, I thought I’d kick things off with a brief mention of Up in the Air, which has deservedly been the buzz of the internet of late. It’s a fantastic film, as countless people have said before me, and I don’t have much to contribute that’s unique. The acting is wonderful, the screenplay excellent, and the direction superb. But what really struck me about Jason Reitman’s filmmaking was the way he wields symbolism with a subtlety I envy.

Up in the Air is the story of a man obsessed with severing ties, to human beings and physical objects alike. He spends almost all of his life traveling alone from place to place on business and brings hardly anything with him, and in his spare time he gives “inspirational” talks about emptying one’s metaphorical “backpack” of material possessions and personal connections. With such a setup, it’s a given that 1.) he’ll eventually realize that this is unhealthy, and 2.) some use of symbolism will probably lead to this revelation.

But the fact is, despite this predictability, the film shies away from anything cheesy and explicit, even when the temptation is obvious. In one scene, a character sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” during karaoke. The song plays, with the lyrics on a TV screen behind her, but there are no meaningful cuts to the protagonist or pointed camera zooms when the line “suitcase of memories” flashes onscreen. It’s there, it’s fitting, but it isn’t the focus of the scene. The viewers have to come to the connection by themselves.

Likewise, in a pivotal scene, a character is seen reading The Velveteen Rabbit. When the protagonist walks in, the other character asks if he’s ever read the book. The protagonist nods. “Powerful stuff.” But the topic changes, then, and the story moves on. Anyone who’s read The Velveteen Rabbit — which is a large enough cultural touchstone that most of the audience is probably included in that group — knows how fitting the book is, how its themes of the importance of, and connection to, physical objects are exactly the things the protagonist needs to learn. And in the hands of a lesser director or screenwriter, the scene would have turned into a lengthy verbal exchange about that very connection. But Reitman just lets the book exist, trusting his viewers to understand the symbolic resonance, and continues to tell the story.

Not all films need to be so subtle. I saw Sherlock Holmes today, and the close-up shot of Irene Adler literally “busting nuts” isn’t subtle at all — nor is pretty much anything else in the film. It’s still a ton of fun to watch, and I wouldn’t tell Guy Ritchie to do things differently. But there’s an art to pulling back, to letting symbolism exist effectively without dressing it up in ribbons and neon lights, and I know from my own writing experience that it’s an incredibly hard art to master. But Reitman has mastered that art — or is, at the least, very nearly there — and it’s that artful subtlety that’s the real triumph of Up in the Air.

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Searching for Truth in Teen TV

January 11, 2010 at 9:30 am (Analysis) (, , , )

I’ve been meaning to make this post for ages. It first popped into my head when I watched the phenomenal Freaks and Geeks over the summer, a new entry on my list of shows I’ve come to love ages after they were cut short by the whims of TV execs. The idea found a resurgence in my brain early this fall when I tried to watch Glee, a show that turned out to be very much not my thing, all expectations to the contrary. But it’s taken me until now to finally put it into words:

I yearn for a TV show that will reflect my own high school experiences.

Now, by “reflect,” I don’t mean that I want to watch my own biography play out on the television screen. That would be creepy and unsettling. But much as I love shows about teenagers, and much as I tend to overidentify with all characters who remotely resemble me in fiction, I’ve never found a show that speaks to my own history, to teenagerhood as I knew it. And I don’t think my group of high school friends was particularly anomalous. Despite not being TV pretty (and, really, who is?), we were, in many ways, the outcast underdogs everyone loves to root for, the weird kids and the musical kids and the smart kids who band together in the face of their own unpopularity – just like the characters on Freaks and Geeks, or Glee, or a dozen other shows past and present. But we didn’t fit the picture of normalcy that TV is so concerned with portraying, for two major reasons.

1.) My group of friends was too culturally diverse.

I adore Freaks and Geeks, but it’s hard not to notice, when watching it, that the cast is… extraordinarily white. I realize this is partially due to the setting (the Midwest in the early 1980s, rather than the cultural hodgepodge that was my own early 2000s central New Jersey). But the fact remains that the cast was entirely white, and that this entirely white cast – with, at best, a couple of token non-white secondary characters – is the norm for TV. With the exception of Canada’s Degrassi, I can’t think of a single Western show about teens that breaks this pattern.

I, personally, am white. I’m used to seeing people who look like me on teen shows. But when I can’t see my friends surrounding those images of me, leading lives just as complex and important as my own, it’s hard for me to truly identify with those images. My high school friends were Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian, in addition to Russian-Jewish and Italian and Polish and Irish and Greek and a dozen other European mixes. And we didn’t cherry-pick one person of each ethnicity to be a member of our group. My friends were affected by their racial backgrounds on a daily basis, but they didn’t exist as stereotypes or satires (I’m looking at you, Glee), or model examples to teach the white kids about diversity. If I found a show that gave people who look like my friends the leading roles, and someone who looks like me a supporting role, I’d be much more able to identify with that show than I would with one that made me the protagonist and whitewashed the supporting cast.

2.) My group of friends was too gay.

Between 8th grade and my freshman year of college, all but two of my (numerous) male friends came out of the closet as gay or bisexual. So did two of my female friends. I acknowledge that this makes my group a statistical anomaly; the population percentages shouldn’t produce this effect, even in a group of outcasts, especially since most of these people were friends before any of them had come out, so they weren’t actively seeking out a group of other gay people. I’m not asking for a teenage Queer as Folk — in fact, that would be a terrible idea, because it would make the characters’ sexualities the entire focus of the show. But is it too much to ask for a show with two or more gay characters who are friends and aren’t romantically involved with each other?

Gay characters in teen shows tend to be saddled with a few stock storylines – coming out, parental disapproval, gay bashing – and are otherwise relegated to the background. These stories are important, certainly, and common to gay teenagers’ lives. But why can’t these characters also participate in narratives that have nothing to do with their sexualities? Why can’t they simply interact with other characters, straight and gay alike, in stories that are about them without being about the fact that they’re gay? I may be the protagonist of my own life, but my friends are the protagonists of theirs, and they deserve just as much variety in their stories as I do.

And what of those romantic storylines? Teenage shows – hell, almost all popular narratives – tend to deal with romance a large percentage of the time. As a straight girl, I see pictures of my own romantic ideals all the time, but I can’t help being indignant on my friends’ behalf that they so rarely get to see romances that resemble their own in mainstream media – especially mainstream media about teens. When teen shows have a gay character, that character tends to be little more than a token who never interacts with another gay person or has anything more than an unrequited crush (even in Glee, which is a show about a glee club, for God’s sake), and when I see that, I lose all ability to connect with that show. That’s not the world I know.

I desperately want a show to exist that would not regard these two facts about my group of friends as impossibilities for mainstream television. I also realize, whatever my personal desires, that these are not my triumphs to hope for. Should a show appear, and succeed, with an authentically diverse cast in both race and sexuality, my friends are the ones who will really reap the benefits. It will be their victory, not my own, because they are the people who are really being hurt by this lack of representation. I remain a straight white girl.

But I know that the networks avoid these kinds of shows primarily because they think they’ll alienate the straight, white, middle class young people like me who they (wrongly, but consistently) regard as their primary marketing target. And if my personal experience is anything to judge by, they’re doing exactly the opposite: alienating even the viewers they privilege by refusing to portray the world in which those viewers live.

Make better, truer shows, Mr. and Ms. Network Executive, and viewers across the cultural spectrum will follow.

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“It starts with the eyes”: The Homoeroticism of Fast and Furious

April 22, 2009 at 8:30 am (Analysis) (, )

Here’s a confession: I love the Fast and the Furious franchise.

Actually, no, that’s not entirely true. I’ve never seen 2 Fast 2 Furious (text message spelling in titles is a pretty big turnoff for my inner grammarian), and, as it lacks even my most shallow reason for loving the movies (Paul Walker’s pretty, pretty face), I don’t think I’ll ever bother to see Tokyo Drift. But I love the first movie, and, after two viewings, I’ve decided I love the most recent movie, too. Don’t get me wrong — they’re not art. The acting is bad and the scripts are worse. But I love the stupid car chases, I love the insanely attractive cast, I love the big dumb fun of it all, and I love the themes of betrayal and loyalty, two of my favorite fictional tropes, that run throughout.

And most of all, I love that the movies are really, really gay.

At the core of every good joke is a grain of truth, and there’s a reason Saturday Night Live‘s The Fast and the Bi-Curious sketch has received so much internet popularity. There’s just something inherently homoerotic about guys getting sweaty together in garages and racing each other through the streets in giant fuel-injected phallic metaphors.

But that’s the easy interpretation — the SNL interpretation, the joke interpretation. And while I enjoy that aspect of the film as much as the next person, what I really love about the films is the undeniable emotional core. The Fast and the Furious — and, to an even greater extent, the new Fast and Furious — is a love story between Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel).

(Extensive spoilers for the recent film below.)

Read the rest of this entry »

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