Slow Watch: An Introduction

Like many things from the past, the idea of Netflix by mail seems quaint.

Explain it to any teenager within reach and they’ll look at you like your crazy. It’ll fit right beside things like programming VCRs, TV Guide, the Walkman, and dial-up internet. Things that don’t seem to have a place in today’s instant climate. Why would you create a queue of movies and wait two (or three) days for them to be shipped to your home? They would ask this because streaming Netflix has been something they’ve had for as long as they can remember.

It’s not just teenagers either. A few months ago, I was surprised when I discovered Netflix’s DVD service still existed and had a healthy subscriber base. I didn’t make the connection to myself until one day I saw that red envelope in a neighbor’s mailbox. It sparked memories of Amores Perros, City of God, Cool Hand Luke, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest amongst many others that came in the mail. Each arrival was welcoming me to a different corner and time of film that I had never explored. It reminded me that these were films I was recommended and wanted to watch. That I selected them and anticipated their arrival. That wasn’t something that Netflix Streaming gave me.

I often found with Netflix Streaming that it took me longer to find something I wanted to watch. WIth the seemingly infinite amount of choices I found myself changing my mind within the first five minutes. There was no investment and ultimately I would fall asleep more often than I finished watching something. It’s not that Netflix streaming is a bad service (it’s not!), but I found that it didn’t work for me. So with that I signed up for Netflix’s DVD service, and luckily for me they offer the first month for free.

When I made the switch I decided to have some “fun” with it. Instead of simply watching everything I’ve missed over the years, I wanted to have a learning experience. One of my favorite things in film school was film analysis, and what better way to embrace that than to use Netflix DVD’s extensive archive of old movies.

In this space, I will be taking a deep dive into the past 100 years of film. I won’t just be watching them but I will be, trying my best, to analyze the films in the context of the time they were created in. The thing I’ve learned over time is whether or not a piece of art is deemed apolitical it’s existence says something about the time it was created in. So I look forward to learning about both film and history. To select the movies I’ve gone through IMDB and selected the top films from each decade. To prevent burn out, I’ve also decided to intersperse TV shows from Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz’s TV (the Book) to give breaks.

I like to call this project the Slow Watch. It is deliberate, it’s intentional, and it’s a process that intends to force me to not only watch watch I pick but to spend time considering it. In a world where everything is available at our fingertips all the time, I like the idea of slowing down and being stuck with something.

So keep an eye on this space as my first piece will be on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc.

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Parenthood and the Road to Hate Watching

NBC's Parenthood

The road to hate watching is paved with good intentions.

One of the biggest challenges I faced with being married and becoming a first time Dad was how my time was distributed. I was used to freedom, but for the better things in life you have to make sacrifices. For me one of those sacrifices was my independence as a television watcher. Instead I would be sharing my viewing experience with my wife. So long to the shows of watching shows full of violence, and crime and hello to watching shows that we both would find interest in.

After throwing a multitude of options out there we eventually went for an outside opinion. Thanks to the Babycenter forums we decided on NBC’s Parenthood, a show about an extended family, the Bravermans, from Berkeley, California. It came with high recommendations for the show’s quality and it’s propensity to cause viewers to cry.

Within the first few minutes of the pilot you’re dropped into what the show does so well and that’s not stopping to explain things. The initial hook for me was the story of Adam Braverman (Peter Krause) and his wife Kristina (Monica Potter) as they struggle through learning their son Max (Max Burkholder) has Asperger’s Syndrome. There other storylines that run through the first season, but this is the touchstone that everything is built off of. Adam being the most stable of Zeek’s (Craig T. Nelson) children now has to struggle through this thing which defines him. Adam and Kristina want their son to be “normal,” and throw everything into him while ignoring their oldest child Haddie (Sarah Ramos).

Like everything with Parenthood, what starts off as engaging slowly becomes toxic. As the show goes on Max’s rarely (mostly never) receives punishment for his outbursts. Instead these parents want the rest of the world to change. There is a moment in the second season where Max starts an incident in the grocery store that results in Adam punching a man. What could have been a teaching moment for his son turned into Adam acting out in anger and not getting any punishment for it.

What that veneer of pleasantry fades we are left with the privilege and entitlement of an upper middle class white family. As a black male this immediately becomes something that disconnects me from the show. It unveils how many of these characters I truly didn’t like, and unlike Breaking Bad these characters were supposed to be people we loved. Yet as my wife and I watched we found ourselves discussing how each character were borderline reprehensible.

When Crosby (Dax Shepard) decides to sleep with, Max’s behavioral aide, Gaby (Minka Kelly) while he is separated from his ex-fiance Jasmine (Joy Bryant) he is shamed. He tries to win her back by buying a house and doing other ridiculous things. Flash forward a season (or so later) and he sleeps with Jasmine after discussing with their son Jabar (Tyree Brown) that they weren’t going to get married. Jasmine equates this affair with what Crosby did to her because she’s cheating on Dr. Joe (D.B. Woodside). This completely lets Crosby off the hook in a scene where he tells Jasmine that he’s not as good as Dr. Joe.

Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen) and her husband Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger) decide that they want to have another child. After several attempts they discover that Julia can’t give birth naturally. So through a series of contrived events they end up in a situation where the “coffee girl” Zoe (Rosa Salazar) at Julia’s job is pregnant and willing to give her child up to the Grahams. This is until her boyfriend gets involved, having been broke all their lives he wants some financial reward because he sees the transaction as being one sided. Apologetic for the encounter Zoe comes to Graham residence only to be told by Julia that “she would have made a great mother” to Zoe’s child.

Yet these are the characters we’re supposed to root for. This is without going into detail about Sarah’s consistent enablement, or Zeek’s old entitlement and need for his children to support him. What at first seemed like a group I characters that I loved being around turned into a pack of characters I couldn’t wait to see something bad happen to. That switch was why I had to stop watching on episode 12 of season 3. It was too hard to watch something that I actively hated.

I hated how things tended to work out for the Bravermans. Adam lost his job as an executive at a shoe company to turning down a steady job with benefits to join Crosby in his pipe dream of running a studio. The studio needed tons of work but within a few weeks (or a month) they managed to attract Cee-Lo Green. What made that turn worse was Cee-Lo, who left upset after the first day, returned happily to record the very next day. It was a moment that was meant to pull at our sentimental heart strings but instead it was contrived.

This past weekend while on a playdate, I talked with a friend who stated the secret for his getting through Parenthood was to stop watching like himself (a black man) and watch like the target audience. This, I must admit, is a skill I don’t (and probably will never) have. I wanted to know if others felt like I did and before Saturday, I couldn’t find anyone. Google search after Google search resulted in love fests and I didn’t know what to think.

My wife, at one point, believed that I needed to see characters die or commit crimes to enjoy a show. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t even need tragedy. I need characters I can believe (whether I like them or not) and a reason to care and be invested in their lives. An example of this is Men of a Certain Age (not streaming anywhere, but find it!), a show about three men approaching 50 and dealing with their changing lives. What that show did that Parenthood didn’t was give us moments that were earned (good, and bad), reasons to care, and examples of how faults can force characters to improve or how they can cause them to suffer. All I ask for is quality, and I don’t think that’s too much.

How Justified Avoids Cliches

Warning: this post contains spoilers from season five of Justified. 

While FX’s Justified never received the accolades of Breaking Bad, or had the critical acclaim of the Wire, it was quietly one of this era’s best TV shows. The series, based on an Elmore Leonard short story, found strength in character, setting, and an amazing refusal to fall to cliche. It was these strengths that made Justified the best Leonard adaptation because it held true to his own strengths as a writer.

As with his novels, Justified does a great job of not giving us characters that are one thing. An example of this is season five villain Danny Crowe (AJ Buckley). He was introduced as a strong, violent character who shoots first, second, third and just never gets around to thinking. By itself that gives us a character that we’ve seen before. What Justified does so well is dive into the specifics of a character making them standout. It was his last episode “Weight” that delved into it to great effect.

While Danny mourned for his dead dog Chelsea, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) arrived. Danny explained that Chelsea came from a puppy mill that was ran by his friend. All the puppies were dead except for one, and he took that puppy in. It was an incredibly touching moment that rang true. It didn’t make Danny a good guy, no… it made him human. Which led into the reason this was his final scene on the show.

In this scene it also showed how deftly Justified toyed with and ultimately discarded Chekov’s Gun. Throughout the season Danny Crowe threw down the 21 foot rule challenge. The 21 foot rule is the distance that anyone with a knife within 21 feet is a threat. Danny was willing to test it out with his machete against anyone with a gun. No one took him up on this episode and it was none other than Raylan who took him up on it. Right after finishing his sob story, this scene took place.

The scene was a play on the high noon showdown, Danny believed he could kill someone by charging with his machete before his opponent could fire off a shot. Raylan who prided himself in being a quick shot was ready but before Danny could get there in his charge he fell in a hole… The result was levity and death, but something true to Justified. You don’t always get what you think you’re going to get, and as a fan that was always a blast.

Saturday Mornings

black-african-american-child-kid-watching-tv-television-j186-07-621

As a child, my favorite day of the week was Saturday. More specifically Saturday morning.

While many people my age or older also have stories about how they would watch any number of cartoons for me it was different. I would wake up at 4 am and quietly walk out to the living room. I grabbed a bowl of cereal and sat in front of the screen. It was so early that the local FOX affiliate didn’t have programming. The local NBC affiliate was playing Ron Popeil infomercials, but I was up anyway… Waiting… Excited.

There was something about this that was liberating. As the youngest of seven there was rarely a moment I not only had the entire living room to myself, but also control. The first cartoons started at 7 am, and by the time my siblings were up I already watched four different shows. I wasn’t ready to give up this power because I knew exactly what I wanted to watch. By mid-season I knew the rhythms of each channel. In the time before DVR I was king (at least in my living room on Saturday mornings).

I had a relationship with TV prior to this with Sesame Street, but Saturdays were different. They were by choice and not for educational purposes. It was then that I learned how much I loved television. While I lost track of this love when Saturday morning cartoons died out, I found it again when TV reached its “Golden Age.”

It’s not just that I love watching TV to shut my brain off. I like to think about what I’m seeing. To think about what the motivations are, the subtext, and just be a fan of the entire process and the execution… or not. The same way I enjoy a book, I enjoy television. It doesn’t have to be stupid, and I don’t expect it to be, but it all doesn’t have to have high aspirations.

Despite now being a father and husband, I still get excited about television. While I don’t sit as close, or watch as obsessively I still break things down in a way that no one else cares to hear. That’s just me and since people don’t always love to talk about it I’ll share it here.

Hope you enjoy my company because I know I do.