Tag Archives: entertainment

Surreal Cereal

Man, I just love cereal, don’t you? The way each individual froot loop tastes exactly the same as every other froot loop in outright defiance of the concept that the colors represent different froot flavors. The way Cap’n Crunch leaves the roof of your mouth with wicked road rash. The way that Corn Flakes literally taste more like cardboard than cardboard (and honestly, who in their right [or wrong] mind would eat corn in flake form?).

Yep, cereal is awesome.

What’s that? Oh. OH.

This post is about Serial. No, no, don’t get up. I’ll save you the trouble and deduct ten points for opening my post with that terrible joke.

''Serial'' (podcast) logo.png

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Serial is a spinoff from This American Life which focuses on a murder trial from 1999 Maryland. When I first heard about the show, I thought it was a fictional piece stitched together to look (or rather, sound) and feel authentic, but it’s not. It’s an actual case which has actually been tried. Headlined by This American Life’s Sarah Koenig and following the trial of Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee, Serial has done for podcasts what The Daily Show did for news, which is make you give a damn about something that you were tired of.

As is the requisite with any sort of review post, I should disclaim that there are spoilers ahead, but they are minor. Essentially I’m only going to spoil the ending, which sounds like the worst thing I could do, but if you listen to even a couple of episodes, you will probably have an idea of how the thing will end, and you will probably be right. I’d also remind you of the ridiculousness of getting upset at having a series that’s over a month old spoiled for you. It’s out there. It happened. It’s over. It is not our fault if you get the ending spoiled for you at this point. So, SERIOUS SERIAL SPOILERS AHEAD.

I’ll start off with the effect that the show (I feel compelled to call it that, even though ostensibly it isn’t, but whatever) had in my household. I heard about Serial and silently filed it in a “to do one day if I ever get around to it” folder. It sounded interesting, but nothing I couldn’t put off. Then my wife heard about it, and since she’s finished her Masters’ program and is looking for things to do with her newfound free time, she loaded it up and had a listen to it while out for a run one day.

Then she got home from that run but kept her headphones on to listen to episode two while puttering around the house. She asked me if I’d heard of this Serial thing. I said I had, but I didn’t know much about it. She put her headphones back on and went in for another episode.

By the next day, when she had her headphones on again, I was feeling a little put out that my wife was spending more time with her podcast than with me, and she was dying for me to get on board, so we both listened to the first episode (she for the second time). I heard it. I processed it. I resisted.

She asked me what I thought, and I tried to get into this whole metatextual analysis of whether or not the format is right for what they’re trying to do, and why this is any different from any existing true-life crime show. Hemming and hawing about how I had kind of enjoyed it but didn’t really see what the big deal was, I excused myself. Later that night, she tried to say good night to me, but I didn’t hear her, because I had my headphones on in bed, listening to episode two.

For the next two days, we didn’t share much conversation at home aside from “What’s for dinner?” and “What episode are you on?” while we both poked around the house listening to Serial on our headphones. Finally, yesterday, we both finished (and I’m ashamed to admit that I finished ahead of her thanks to my work commute and some stolen time on a lunch break) and resumed normal human interaction.

I’ll say this. There’s nothing particularly novel about the show, or even the case it examines. If you’ve watched any true-crime show, it’s pretty much like that, minus the crime scene pictures and mugshots. The host shares her thoughts on this or that aspect of the case, then there’s a cut to an interview with a witness or an audio playback of a police interview or courtroom testimony, and then it’s back to the host. Nothing special.

And (here’s your spoiler) the ending is entirely unsatisfying. Koenig spends 12 episodes of anywhere from 30 to 55 minutes each agonizing over whether Adnan is guilty or not, and at the end of 12 she’s no closer to a concrete answer than she is at the end of about three episodes. Which is to say, he was probably wrongly convicted (based on the overwhelming dearth of hard evidence of his involvement in Hae’s death), but he is also probably not completely innocent either (there are too many coincidences and too many things people know that they couldn’t possibly know for him not to have been involved at least in some way). To sink in the requisite hours to listen to this thing and then not have a big climactic reveal at the end feels like a terrific let-down (a sentiment the host herself admits having misgivings about). Koenig and her team put in all this work — we the audience put in all this time listening — it seems like everybody deserves an answer, and the show doesn’t offer one. (They offer theories in the ultimate episode, but for each theory, they also offer perfectly feasible rebuttals). It’s frustrating.

But. (There is always a but.)

For some reason, when I was listening, I just couldn’t stop myself. I’d go back like a rat in a maze for the next tidbit, sneaking in five or ten minutes between meetings at my workday on Monday, kicking back during my lunch hour, listening on the way to and from school, just to hear the next piece of the puzzle. It establishes some sort of hold on you, like a leech suctioning itself to your thigh, and just won’t let go.

I’m not sure exactly why I found it so compelling.

Each episode focuses on one particular aspect of the case: there’s one episode, for example, where Sarah and an assistant drive around the town trying to recreate various possible sequences of events for the day the murder was committed. This microscopic rather than macroscopic view gave me the feeling that there was always something else to know, something just out of sight to be covered in the next episode. The soundtrack is quirky and sparse, never getting in the way but cleverly accentuating the feelings of doom or doubt that creep in as certain bits of evidence are revealed. The host’s certainties echoed my own as she learned more, but every time she seemed convinced, there was a new piece of evidence to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. I was personally convinced of his guilt and innocence about four or five times over throughout the series. And finally, the case has so many moving parts and entangled elements … well, it’s easy to see why the producers chose this case to build the series around. The (alleged) killer and his victim were from overbearing families that didn’t want them to see each other. There’s a friend who gives up the killer to police with a story so improbable it seems impossible to make up, but wait — he’s a drug dealer and social misfit who’s not exactly trustworthy in the best of times. Friends at school alternately can’t believe Adnan was involved in the murder or aren’t shocked in the least, depending on whom you ask. And at the center of it all is Adnan himself, whom Sarah interviews regularly on the phone. He’s charismatic and charming and intelligent and eminently likable, and somehow the show introduces and entertains both possibilities: that he’s a good guy who’s been the victim of the worst luck in the world, and that he’s an insanely smart psychopath who plays the nice guy so well it’s impossible to detect the snake lurking under the surface. Oh, and this all happened about fifteen years ago, so everybody Sarah talks to has a memory like a bag of potato chips (mostly empty, and even the solid stuff at the bottom isn’t really good for you).

And as for the series not giving you any sort of resolution for the story it’s told… well, that’s life, innit?

Like I said, the series poses no answers, for all its trying. But I think the swings between certainty and doubt, between liking Adnan and hating him, between trusting the evidence and not believing a shred of it, are themselves evidence of a narrative that’s been masterfully crafted to rope in readers and keep them listening week after week. (Heck, it roped me, and I thought I didn’t like it after the first episode.) You need only google “serial theories” to find yourself in the midst of entire communities of people arguing, sometimes vehemently, about the case and why Adnan is irrefutably guilty against people who fervently believe he is untaintedly innocent. Granted, that’s arguing on the internet for you, but the fact remains: people across the country have had their lives consumed with this thing.

As for myself, the unabashed cynic and hater of all things popular, I didn’t want to buy the hype. I thought it’d be, as so many other stories that take the nation by storm are, like ice cream: delicious and sinful and in no way having any depth or beneficial to your health. But there’s something more to Serial. I have to say it’s worth the time it takes to experience it. I might even say it’s brilliant. Certainly it’s well done and compelling. However it holds up as a story, it certainly holds up as a podcast. And, love it or hate it, millions of people are talking about it, which basically puts it on the same level of pop-culture import as Kim Kardashian. Probably higher of late if she hadn’t done that thing with her butt. Without hesitation I can declare that anything to do with Serial is a better use of your time than anything to do with Kim Kardashian or her butt. It hasn’t just left a mark in the landscape of podcasts, it’s left a smoldering crater. Serial, I mean; not Kim’s butt. Incidentally, “smoldering crater” is the end I’d picture for Kim Kardashian.

And her butt.


Do We Hate Women This Much?

My wife and I don’t have cable.

I view this as a good thing because gone are the nights of watching something just because it’s on.  (Oh, a 36-hour marathon of Law and Order, Extra Sassy Unit?  SCORE.)  If we want to watch something, we have to seek it out.  But it’s also a bad thing, because there are times when there is a serious dearth of decent entertainment to be had, and that time is the summer time.

Anyway, if you, like we do, get your programming on a streaming device, you know the glory of the commercials that you see five, six, twenty times in an evening.  The computer tailors ads to your interests and funnels them into your eyeholes, banking I suppose on the law of averages; if I see the ad enough times, I’ll just go ahead and buy / watch / ingest the damn thing.  One thing I won’t ingest, however, is the show on the advertisements of the last couple of weeks, Celebrity Wife Swap.

A brief sidebar.  As a creative type, I think — and it may be wishful thinking, I’ll grant you, but that won’t stop me thinking it — that Reality TV may have run its course.  It’ll kick around and thrash in its grave for a little while longer, and we’re certainly not done with the likes of rinkydink shows like Duck Dynasty or Pawn Stars, but the days of Reality dominating the discussion are over.  Recent ratings of powerhouses like American Idol and others tell me that.  The fact that a bizarre, quirky, what-seems-like-it-should-be-a-niche-diversion show like The Big Bang Theory can run the show when it’s airing tells me that.  But that doesn’t stop the Reality ship from setting out to sea again, like the Exxon Valdez transporting its load of hey-you-need-this-stuff-for-real on a crash course with your unsuspecting occipital lobes.

/soapbox on

I won’t be watching Celebrity Wife Swap, in the first place because it’s just another Reality show putting “ordinary” people in “everyday” situations and I have real fargoing life if I want to see that.  But this show has really struck a nerve with me, and I’ve not even watched an episode (I don’t even know if it’s a first run or if it’s back for another “unbelievable” season).  To be clear, it’s struck two nerves.  One: can our entertainment-obsessed society delegitimize women ANY MORE?  Two (and it’s a far lesser concern than the first point, but it still irks): it seems on the surface like the worst kind of celebrity worship extant.

Let’s start with marginalizing women.  It’s not bad enough that our “great” nation’s highest court has just placed the rights of intangible corporations above the rights of women, or that women’s roles in narrative entertainment are always viewed and evaluated through a male gaze, but now for your evening entertainment, we have Wife Swap, a show whose very title is working to shoot Feminism in the kneecaps in between adverts for spaghetti sauce and overpriced luxury sedans.  If you’re a regular reader of the blarg here, you know I’m an English teacher, and as an English teacher, I tend to fixate on language.  The way things are said matters.  Think about the LANGUAGE OF THE TITLE OF THIS SHOW.  Celebrity Wife Swap.  “Swap.”  What do you swap?  Property, first and foremost.  The searing I-can-hardly-call-it-subtext-with-a-straight-face subtext of the title says that YOUR WIFE IS YOUR PROPERTY.  Brilliant, I knew there was a reason I married my wife.  Now I remember, it’s because I got sixteen acres of land and a couple of donkeys into the deal.  Wait, no I didn’t, because it isn’t THE FARGOING DARK AGES ANYMORE.  The last time people were considered property in this country, I’m pretty sure there was a pretty significant disagreement over it, and that disagreement reached the conclusion that hey, no, people aren’t property.

To dig further into the entrails of this fetid carcass of a show title, what sort of property do you “swap?”  The kind of property that has no practical value to you anymore.  The toys that you’re done playing with.  The intrinsically worthless “collector’s items” that you’re hoarding for no reason other than that they’re “exclusive” or “limited edition.”  “Swap” is a word most at home between preteen boys and their baseball cards.  What’s that?  Dated reference?  Sharknado.  Um… Pokemon cards?  No?  Damn… look, the point is, you swap something because you don’t want it anymore.  So your wife is your property, and you’re done playing with her so your neighbor can have her for a while.  Brilliant, ABC.  I mean, the housewives that are watching this steaming pile of horse turds are probably past the point of redemption, so I’m not worried about them, but what about the next generation of women in this country?  That’s the message we want to send on NETWORK TV, of all things?  It’d be one thing if an obscure cable network were showing it to garner some viewers, but this is a broadcast network.  We have to do better.

The other point, here, is much more of a personal one, and it’s one of celebrity worship, which is one of the most useless forms of idleness and of opiating the masses that I’m aware of.  I understand a fascination with celebrities… to a point.  They star in your movies and TV shows, they run the touchdowns, they lounge around inheriting hotel fortunes.  Bully for them.  By all means, watch the celebrities in your movies and TV shows, watch them run the touchdowns, watch them do whatever the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian do WHEN THEY’RE DOING THE THING FOR WHICH THEY ARE FAMOUS.  As soon as you start wasting your time worrying about what Ryan Gosling has going on in his personal life, you’re essentially saying that your own life is less interesting to you than the life of somebody you will never meet.  Ultimately, celebrities are just people.  On one level or another, their lives are as mundane as yours and mine.  When we (and by “we” I mean people who are not me, because I don’t go in for that sharknado) live vicariously through celebrity, we give up a bit of ourselves, and that is really, really sad.

So what’s the point?  The point is (and I’m conjecturing, here, because again, I’ve not seen an episode and I don’t plan to) that Celebrity Wife Swap is going to show you some of your favorite “celebrities” and put them in the ridiculous situation of stepping into another family’s life for a few days for the purpose of your amusement.  This is idiotic thinking of the highest order.  One family’s life is not like another’s, OF COURSE there will be conflict and misunderstanding and argument about what should be done.  It doesn’t take celebrity to make that situation any more compelling (and here I say compelling not in the sense that it’s actually compelling but in the sense that the network execs think we’ll just HAVE TO WATCH IT).  What, then, is wrong with putting celebrities in this situation?  Because it’s just an iteration of knocking down the other guy to make yourself feel better about your life, which is lazy and lame and sad.  “Oh, look at how silly *insert celebrity name* looks trying to deal with *other celebrity name*’s wife, MY LIFE IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN THAT.  God, I feel good about myself.”  No.  Don’t.  Begrudging somebody their success is just being selfish.

You might argue that the show is just a bit of frivolous fun, that I read too much into it.  Maybe so, but if you want an idea of how screwed up a society is, look at what they do for fun.  Roman gladiator arenas, anybody?  Greek debauched wine-fueled orgies?  TV is possibly our nation’s greatest escape, and the things we PUT on TV and the things we WATCH on TV say a hell of a lot about us.  In short, if you’re watching the show, you should be ashamed, because you’re telling the network that this is the kind of thing you agree with.  That is, you agree with trading women like cattle and with watching the lives of other people rather than living your own.

/soapbox off

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