Monday, March 9, 2015

"The Word That Effectively Ended My Career"

I have been reluctant to delve into this area, but I am glad somebody did.  Now I can talk about it while dodging the responsibility for bringing it up.

The “other guy” in this context, is Neal Gabler, a former film critic and journalist, who grew into a First Class cultural commentator.  I say “First Class” since, judging by his writing – I do not know him personally – Gabler generally agrees with me about things.  And to me, that speaks glowingly in his favor. 

Neal Gabler was the first writer I was aware of to observe that evangelical Republicans had taken their religious certainty and applied it to the political arena, any deviation or ideological compromise thus becoming the unforgivable equivalent of ecumenical heresy. 

This insight may appear unimpressive today, but Gabler may well have been its originator.  Imagine witnessing the first “Spit Take” – somebody’s drinking something, somebody says something ridiculous, in response to which the drinker suddenly sprays what he’s been drinking explosively out of his or her mouth.  Today – and perhaps for the last fifty years – that’s a clich√©.  But imagine seeing it for the first time.

(SHRIEKING WITH LAUGHTER)  “Look what he’s doing!

To me, Gabler’s religio-politico-connection observation was equally exhilarating.  But without the shpritzing.

Published in the February 15th Los Angeles Times, Gabler returned with a piece concerning the evolution of “edginess” in commercial entertainment.  Though the artist’s virtual job description is to be surprising and outrageous, Gabler posits an explanation for the current popularity of edginess that goes beyond artistic impulse. Or commercial necessity.  (For example, by showcasing “edge” in its series programming, cable TV offers audiences something network TV, with its commitment to broad-based entertainment, cannot.  Leading to the obligatory “Shirts off!” and serial hostage executions on Homeland.)            

Over time, edge inevitably begets more edge, the original edginess having dulled viewership sensibilities by its repetitiveness.  More importantly, to be successful, edginess needs to resonate with the prevailing attitude of the times.  (Gabler notes the last incursion of edginess – the late-forties, early-fifties cinema noir tradition – which was in sync with post-World War II-era sensibility and its accompanying (impending nuclear warfare-engendered) Armageddonal dread.

Gabler argues persuasively that it’s back.  But this time, it goes deeper.

“The artistic definition of edge may be ‘daring’ or ‘innovative’ as in ‘cutting edge,’ but there is also the psychological definition – nervousness, anxiety, uncertainty, as in ‘being on edge’ – and the definitions are connected.

“Those psychological components of edginess pretty much describe the country’s post-recession mentality; that we live within a nimbus of edginess, of darkness and defeat, and that cultural edginess is a powerful correlative of what many Americans are feeling.”

“Edge is where there is no center for a nation that seems to have lost its center.  It thrives in our atomized, traumatized, post-connected society that often seems to be spinning in a cultural downward spiral.”

Who knows?  Maybe Gabler was just having a bad day.  But his pronouncements struck a chord, especially when he observed this:

Edge is both more pervasive than noir and more elastic.  It can even permeate comedies like ‘Transparent’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black.’”

And therein lies the personal bombshell.  Comedy changed.  And it did not wait for cable to do so.  “Edge” was looming on the horizon a quarter of a century ago, when my agent took me to lunch – never a good sign; he invariably broke bad news while providing complimentary food and beverage – and he told me straight out,

“You gotta get edgier or you’re finished.”

To me then and to me still, that was the equivalent of telling a leopard,

“Spots are out, kid.  You gotta go ‘stripes.’”

If leopards could talk, they would undoubtedly respond,

“I can’t do that.”

And then eat my agent for bringing that impossibility up. 

The handwriting was on the wall.  And it was smudged, dark and dirty.

I did not want to write about our current entertainment mirroring a bleak and rudderless reality.  It seemed like too much of a downer.  Gabler, however, went for it.  So if today’s post depressed you, blame him.

It’s funny.  When I originally wrote the title for this post, the word I was thinking of that effectively ended my career was “edginess.”  Now I’m thinking – and being me, it is barely imaginable – is it possible that the word that effectively ended my career was actually…


I mean, think about it.

I was incapable of delivering the bad stuff. 

And I was banished from the game.


Griffin said...

Trying to think of any 'edgy' comedies that are on now - or, rather, that I watch. Mike & Molly? No. The Middle and Modern Family? Not to my way of thinking. The Middle is quirky, I think - is that also being edgy? Big Bang? No. Mom? Maybe occasionally. 2 1/2 Men was getting very edgy as they headed toward the edge of the world but I kept watching cuz they were the lame duck and I was curious as to how far they'd go. The new Odd Couple? Not yet.

Dramas I watched regularly, but went over the top, such as Justified, got just too edgy, if that's the term to use when they - the show runners - have to out do themselves each week. And by out do, I mean find an even more heinous way to kill off a character (or several). That and buying into Harlan County KY being the center of the crime universe was a bit of a stretch.

One that I consider edgy that I do enjoy is Chicago Fire. They put their firefighters in some hellacious predicaments weekly, but, they don't have to kill people by the gross in order to have a good show. Chicago PD, Dick Wolf's other new show, is not to my liking, but that has nothing to do w/edginess.

Anyway, thanks for allowing me to ramble - I assume you've allowed it though you can probably delete me at will!

What in your opinion, makes a comedy edgy? Or more to the point, what would you do to make one of your shows edgy? I enjoyed Major Dad, for the most part, so how could it have become edgy and remained a family comedy?

Griffin said...

Oops, forgot a couple of current premium cable comedies. I was a fan of Weeds in their early years, but it wore out its welcome. Same is true for current Showtime comedies, Shameless and Nurse Jackie. They're all edgy, to be sure, but when they extend too long, I lose interest.

The Big C, also Showtime (I think) went 4 seasons and ended on its own terms. 4 seasons was about right.

All the above mentioned shows call 10-12 episodes a season, so in the real world, maybe 2 full seasons is their limit?