Monday, August 29, 2016


This is one of those posts where I really want your input.

In 1982 there was a popular movie released called VICTOR/VICTORIA by comedy stalwart Blake Edwards. I went to see it in a full theater and the movie was getting tons of laughs. But none from me. And it really worried me. I’m supposed to be making my living by knowing what’s funny and what makes people laugh and yet here was this big crowd in hysterics and I didn’t know why. Was I completely out of touch? Was I former Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch who suddenly one day couldn’t throw the ball to first?

That’s the way I feel about UNREAL.

First, let me back up, my TV mentors were Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, and James L. Brooks. I learned from them that writing becomes richer and deeper if you strive to celebrate the human spirit, not just load up your script with jokes.

Now times change and styles change and I’m willing to concede that this approach might be deemed out-of-fashion, passé, or naïve to today’s hardened audience.

And that brings me to UNREAL.

I had never seen the show. It’s on Lifetime. For a long time I didn’t know it even existed. But I started hearing good buzz. And the creator is Marti Noxon who I greatly admire. The reviews were sensational. The show even won a Peabody Award. So I grabbed my TV Academy screener discs and eagerly looked forward to discovering this hidden gem.

The premise of the show is this: It’s a fictional behind-the-scenes look at a reality competition show like THE BACHELOR – warts and all. I like shows that pull back the curtain. So premise-wise I was all in.  And I understand that it's not a "comedy." 

After two episodes I felt the same dread as when watching VICTOR/VICTORIA. To me this was one of the most cynical TV series I had ever seen. The fictional crew making the show (EVERLASTING) had utter disregard and contempt for any of the contestants. Their only goal was to make flashy television, no matter how deceitful or hurtful they had to be to achieve it. And the contestants were all portrayed as narcissistic golddigging airheads.

Now I’m sure that’s EXACTLY the way it is in real life. I believe Ms. Noxon worked on one of these shows. Authenticity is not an issue.

I know it’s a cliché to say you must have someone to root for. And agree it's not absolutely necessary.  I like HOUSE OF CARDS and Frank & Claire Underwood are reprehensible but it’s set in a arena where the entire world hangs in the balance, and ultimately I hope they’re led out of the White House in handcuffs.

But UNREAL is about a cheesy reality show -- an easy target.  Full disclosure: I don’t watch shows like THE BACHELOR. I’m sure if I did I would be more invested. But from where I sit this series is very mean-spirited. And I just find it uncomfortable.

So I ask you readers – what am I missing? Is it mean-spirited but that’s the fun of it? Is that considered “edgy?” Is there humanity that I’m just missing?  Is this just the current style?  Are moral characters now uninteresting?  Are we just now desensitized to human suffering?  

As a writer, I was always taught to love my characters – even the antagonists. It doesn’t feel to me that the writers of UNREAL love their characters. In some cases it seems they loathe them. But again, that might be the point. That might be the hook. I’m sincerely asking because I would love to perhaps view this show from a different perspective and give it another try. I hate being out of step, especially in my own industry. So is it a generation thing? A sensibility thing? Or something else I’m just missing entirely?

Or, as a last resort, you agree with me?  

Let me know what you think. I'm really curious.  Thanks in advance. 


Jim S said...


I know how you feel. I don't get Louis CK. For a long time I heard he was the comic's comic. I saw his show on HBO. I didn't like it, and I wasn't alone. It was cancelled. I saw Louis on FX. Didn't like it, didn't go back.

So I decided to look up his stand up act on YouTube. I watched several different bits. Didn't laugh once. Just saw a lot "nice guy" passive-aggressive anger. But that's me and I don't have to watch his stuff.

Second, Marti Noxon is a woman.

Tammy said...

I've heard good things about the show but haven't had the chance to watch it yet, I think the mean spiritedness you mention has been putting me off. Anyway, just wanted to point out that Marti Noxon is a woman, and also she has no reality background as far as I know (the other co-creator does, so I guess there's some truth to whatever they're portraying).

Daniel said...

I've never seen "UnReal" but the appeal of "Victor/Victoria" has always baffled me. I never found it to be funny or all that interesting.

ally said...

I believe that good comedy, or at least the kind of comedy I enjoy, comes from love. For a show like UnReal, it comes from disdain, condescension, or even hate, which makes me uncomfortable and unlikely to enjoy the show.

Rashad Khan said...

Hate to be "that guy," Ken, but...Marti Noxon didn't create "UnReal." Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer on "The Bachelor," did. Lifetime brought in Noxon at the start of season one to help Shapiro run the show -- and according to several articles I have read, Noxon and Shapiro were at creative loggerheads at some point during the year; and although Noxon remains as an EP, most of her energies are focused on her OTHER series, Bravo's "The Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce."

Rinaldo said...

Since you asked... I should say that I've seen only the first couple episodes of UnReal myself. I enjoyed them well enough, there's just a lot of TV out there (and a lot of other things to do in life), and it fell off my radar in favor of things I enjoyed (or needed to do) more.

But I guess I don't require my characters to be relatable, or redeemable, or "nice," even in a comedy. Maybe my favorite TV comedy of all time is Fawlty Towers, and I don't think Cleese & company loved Basil Fawlty. AND I've enjoyed the shows you've created and worked on, too, so it's not that I'm nihilistic or anything like that. Probably the MTM era and style is still the one I have warm memories about. But after a few decades of that, I was really ready for some shows with the "no hugging, no learning" attitude that Seinfeld famously aimed at.

Scott H said...

Ken, first, Marti Noxon is a woman (you refer to "Mr. Noxon" in your post).

Second, thanks very much for sparing me the effort to watch "Unreal". Like you, I don't watch Bachelor-type reality shows (or any reality shows). Like you, I heard a lot of critical acclaim for the show, especially the first season. Now I know not to waste my time on it. There's enough cynicism in life--I don't need to seek it out in "entertainment."

Steve Mc said...

I think back to 'Twin Peaks'. Folks raved because it was so 'different', I agreed but struggled to find it to be 'good'. The TV and advertising industries love to feel like they're in front of what's hot or trendy, regardless of how effective (or good) it might be. Like you, I loved 'The Night Of' but some people found it slow and tedious (probably the viewers of 'Unreal'). I thought that 'The Producers' and 'Book of Mormon' were two of the most tedious theatrical experiences of my life and feel like I'm part of some underground comedy 'resistance' movement when I find like-minded people who agree about those shows. As my mother was fond of saying, "There's a cover for every pot."

Rashad Khan said...

So, here's what I think:

By all accounts, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro views her tenure on "The Bachelor" as soul-sucking; an ordeal that led her to have a combination nervous breakdown and "Jerry Maguire"-esque crisis of conscience. Therefore, in that light, I view "UnReal" (and "Sequin Raze," the short film upon which the series was based) as Shapiro's opportunity not just to peel back the curtain, as you say, on the behind-the-scenes doings at a popular "reality" series, but also to exorcise the psychological demons that have plagued her since her time in those particular trenches.

Now, having said all that...? I am inclined to agree with you, Ken. For all of its insider winks and OMG-jaw-say-hello-to-floor plot twists (which, from what I am hearing, has become an issue for fans and critics alike in season two), "UnReal" is an unrelentingly dark comment on the human condition; and the fact that it is about a genre of television that exaggerates and relishes our absolute worst traits as human beings makes it no more tolerable to watch.

In other words, Mr. Levine, you haven't missed a thing.

Shrill1 said...

Just one man's opinion, Ken: I watched about half of the Unreal pilot, kind of liked it, but turned it off. It seemed overwritten and overly cynical and off putting. When it's overdone, you don't have characters, you just have robots spouting snarky lines. It's the same thing with all those movie comedies where the adult characters all act like poorly socialized children.

Earl Boebert said...

I think the fascination for me is watching Constance Zimmer as Quinn. To me her performance approaches (but does not equal) Peter Lorre's in Fritz Lang's "M." The character makes your flesh creep but you can't take your eyes off them. Somebody really should cast Ms. Zimmer as Lady Macbeth. She'd leave no doubt in anybody's mind who was running *that* operation.

Second season was a letdown, supposedly owing to a falling out between the show runners. But the first season was one for the books.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

2 things...
Are any of the characters who are non-contestants enjoyable/interesting (whether they are detestable or not)? Goodfellas is the best example of awful awful people that we can never root for in any way. But damn, it has to be watched every time its on.

I'm sure you know that Marti Noxon is a not a Mr. but a Ms. (just filling in the rest of the readers who may not know that Ken had a typo).

Mike Barer said...

I had not heard of the show, but I don't think you need to worry. Humor is really in the eyes of the beholder.

Anonymous said...

I've not seen UnReal but I had a similar feeling with Mr Robot that everyone seems to enthuse about. I was 4 episodes in and I didn't like any of the characters or connect to them so it felt like a chore watching it.

I am thinking about that piece of advice you say: "What's the 100th episode?" so maybe people are intrigued by the premise but over time, it'll need more relatable characters and people that you care about to keep the show going.

Mork said...

I had the same feeling about "Unreal"; at the time of its premiere, Alan Sepinwall raved about it in his blog, so I gave it a shot.

I don't see it. I forced myself through the first episode, but turned off the second halfway through. There was nothing enjoyable--not a single moment where I even found myself smiling, never mind actually laughing. But I also wrote it off with the same idea you had; namely that, as a non-viewer of "The Bachelor" and its ilk, I'm not in the target demo.

Jim Kearney said...

Maybe give Victor/Victoria another chance?

"I hate being out of step, especially in my own industry. So is it a generation thing? A sensibility thing?" Yes, Ken, your sensibility and that of your generation of comedy talent is far superior to what passes for "original" programming today.

The words of your colleague David Hyde Pierce back in 2004 come to mind: "They say that television and comedy in television is changing. And I just want to say when it changes back, call me."

We should call you all back, and make America funny again.

Stephen Marks said...

"I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it", isn't that the same with comedy? You didn't see any so now you can't define what the show is. Same with morality, difficult to define. Name one moral character in any of the shows you worked on. There weren't any. Different degrees of morality made some characters more likable then others. "Are moral characters uninteresting?", must be, because I've never seen any, perhaps the Flying Nun.

Lets turn this one around, I personally found Big Wave Dave's and the one episode of Mary I've seen very funny, great TV and better then most of the shit I've watched. Almost Perfect? Not so much. Most of the people that come here loved Almost Perfect, so where does that leave me? Out of touch?

And as for Blake Edwards, this guy had more strike outs then Dave Kingman wearing a blindfold and I guess V/V was one of them for you. If he had just stuck a Pink Panther somewhere in there, maybe a crowd scene or something, maybe you would have laughed Ken.

Ellen Todd said...

I think it's a generational and cultural thing. I'm a gen-Xer... I've always said that I love Baby Boomers because they are more open-minded than my parents (who were born in the 30's), but they HAVE MANNERS and a sense of decorum, unlike many of my generation. I grew up in a Beaver Cleaver sort of home, so I'm not super jaded like many of my friends who came from broken homes. I'm a Baby Boomer, trapped in a Gen-Xer body!

I hate shows like "American Idol" for the reasons you described. A friend insisted that I watch some of the auditions, as it "is hilaaaaarious"! It just seemed mean; 'left me feeling uncomfortable/sorry for the contestants, and slimy for watching "entertainment" comprised of people being humiliated. NO THANKS. I'd rather watch early seasons of Cheers over and over; the story lines AND HUMOR are still totally relevant... AND, I don't feel "creepy" (thank you, Beaver Cleaver) for watching!

Drew said...

The show is definitely cynical, and I'd understand any anti-hero fatigue (though this is a show about anti-heroines, which have been less explored in TV). For me, I really enjoy its portrayal and commentary of women being undermined by men in professional settings and how they combat it, and the constant manipulation between men and women (as well as the effects of that between women). It's a show about gender first and morality second.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I'm pretty sure I've complained about this before, but seriously, what's with all these promotional shots for shows featuring the cast all standing together in glamorous poses, yet they have those dead, lifeless eyes, staring into our souls with the intent of stealing them?

Oh, and Ken, what's up with yhe CAPTCHA system being more aggressive on the blog now? I just had to sit through three puzzles in a row of having to click the certain squares until there were none left.

blinky said...

In a parallel comment: Alan Sepinwald called BoJack Horseman the best show on TV. I have tried to watch it several times and it just seems like a mean spirited mess. But I have not seen Unreal or The Bachelor.

Chris said...

That's "Ms. Noxon" to you, sir.

Anonymous said...

Did you watch Season 1 or Season 2? Season 1 was interesting as it showed a heightened version of the behind the scenes machinations of a reality show. All the manipulations and self-centered characters felt grounded as it was clear that what was most important was to produce the "best" possible version of Everlasting. The second season in comparison is a total mess. If you were charitable you'd say they were parodying reality shows where the next season always has to be bigger and crazier than the previous. What this means for UnReal is that the already big personalities of season 1 were blown up even further to the point that they are practically cartoons. On top of that they expanded the number of plot threads and characters in the show which would be great if they were small and nuanced but rather everyone's role is as big and crazy as everyone else's.

Corny said...

I think Unreal is entertaining in the same way that this election is. It's cynical, corrosive but it is strangely captivating. It's true that "writing becomes richer and deeper if you strive to celebrate the human spirit," but I think that's a two way street. Writing becomes richer too, when it explores the depths to which the human spirit can plunge. And in both our politics and our entertainment we're pushing the boundaries of reprehensible behavior.

Michael said...

I'm a fan of UnREAL. It took me episode 4 to see the humanity of the characters. Try to give it a shot. I can admit that the show has flaws but it's still entertaining in a sense that it's intriguing to see that this is highly likely the thing that reality producers do in real life and some people who worked in reality shows admitted that the show is somehow closer to what reality shows do behind the scenes.

Plus, Constance Zimmer's performance as Quinn is probably of my favorite TV performances of all time. She's the best. It would be really lovely to see her win an Emmy,

Harkaway said...

I'm with you, Ken. I also had heard good things, so recently worked my way through the first series. It didn't resonate with me, primarily, I think, because I have never watched reality shows.

But more to the point, it is not a comedy, but a drama where you are invited to laugh at people on occasion. You can't make that great a comedy about something that is completely cynical and I think this was meant to function more as an exposé.

I understand Marti Noxon's contribution was to give it structure and that the second series (in which she has not been involved) was much less successful, possibly because structure allows tension to build and demand release--sometimes in the form of a laugh.

Much better to spend your time with something truly innovative like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is funny, but also has heart.


Steve Bailey said...

I've never seen "Unreal," but regarding "Victor/Victoria": I thought it was hysterical, but Pauline Kael of the New Yorker tore it apart. So I should think you, of all people, should know that it's okay to have different tastes in entertainment! :>

Ken Levine said...

Oops. Typo. MS. Noxon. It's been corrected. Thanks.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I have to say, I love VICTOR/VICTORIA. The fun was partly watching Julie Andrews play against type (this movie and S.O.B. really let her bust out of THE SOUND OF MUSIC), but also Robert Preston, James Garner, and Lesley Ann Warren's work in it.

UNREAL, however...I don't watch reality TV. The first season I found interesting because here were these two women who every episode had to figure out how to get "great TV" out of some corner the contestants or staff had backed them into. The problem-solving was interesting even though the methods were despicable.

What I didn't like was the fantasy-camp element which saw the bachelor fall in love with the *producer*. The second season I couldn't stand at all - I think SGS took her story arc from the troubles she and Noxon had, and the show turned into producer power struggles. Which: who cares?


Don R. said...

I've not seen Unreal, but my wife and I tried to watch Veep -- we're big fans of the Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, so the idea of so-called "cringe" comedy isn't lost on us -- and gave up after a few episodes. It just seemed flat. We watched the first few seasons of "Louie" and thought most of the episodes were fine, but gave up halfway through the latest season because...we don't really know why, it just seemed off. I've seen where Sepinwall and other critics say we're living in a golden age of TV, with so many great shows, but my wife and I are finding it hard to find shows we want to sit down with and follow week after week. There are nights where we'll watch one of the retro channels for an old Newhart or Barney Miller and feel like miserable old fogeys.

Anonymous said...

I've never thought you need tight jokes or stylistic innovation or deep thinking about the human condition or astonishing acting performances or a voice in the writing that we really haven't heard before... But when I watch a show, I need it to give me ONE of these, something that feels fresh or pushes the boundaries of the status quo. (Rarely, if the characters are really likable, a show can get by enough on charm, but for me, that's rare. I stuck in with the pretty terrible first season of Parks and Recreation mostly because of the charm factor, and was pleased to find that the jokes did get better with each successive season.)

UnREAL doesn't deliver on any of these, and consequently, it's just a well-constructed, heavily-plotted melodrama. And I can admire the writing for being high quality, the craft of it, but still not have any desire to watch it because I find the artistry lacking. House of Cards are borderline for me on this front, because some of the performances are interesting, but I'd much rather watch a drier portrait of political corruption on a federal level a la The Wire. Other recent shows like this that are "close but no cigar" for me are e.g. Masters of Sex, Homeland.


Pete Grossman said...

Haven't seen the show, just thinking since "hate watching" then bashing a show is unfortunately fashionable , this may be the kind of mindset that makes UnREAL popular.

Michael said...

Friday Question: It looks like David Hyde Pierce has largely avoided TV since FRASIER ended, except for a short stint on THE GOOD WIFE. I would assume an actor of his talents would be in high demand - any insights as to whether he is no longer interested in TV or is it a case he hasn't been offered the right part? If Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc can come back, there has to be a place for Pierce.

DrBOP said...

Still amazed that many folks thought reality shows were NOT scripted. Even MORE amazed that some still do.

And apologies for this, in that I tried to paste only the relevant paragraph (but THR don't allow 'dat); about three-quarters down the page, Mistah Seinfeld checks in on the single vs multi-cam debate:

And come to think of it, Friday Question:

If you were invited to appear on Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee (which you NO DOUBT should), which city, and what car? (And exactly how would you do the "disappointment gag/take" upon first seeing the car that Jerry had chosen for you? Only Jim Carey has said anything negative about the chosen car....a Lambo he said was "so not me" the joke is there for the taking ;^)

MikeN said...

Joe Scarborough, if you sat thru 3 captchas, it means you FAILED the first two. How does it feel knowing you can't even prove you are alive?

Rashad Khan said...

I'm not Ken or David Hyde Pierce, but I think DHP has resisted a full-time return to series TV for the simple fact that "Frasier" would be a tough act to follow. Just ask Kelsey Grammer.

K.W. Leslie said...

Ken, I believe you’re right. You’re meant to dislike—yet still be interested by—the awful characters. You’re to hate-watch the show, root against them, and hope one day they’ll get theirs. Yet subconsciously want them to prolong the agony so you’ll have more to watch. In other words, much the same way a lot of people hate-watch reality TV.

Of course, if you don’t like to hate-watch anything (except maybe rival baseball teams), it won’t be any fun.

Stephen Marks said...

Okay before this gets too far, Mr. Ken Levine, an award winning comedy writer of some of the biggest situation comedies in the history of TV references a movie about a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman then calls Ms. Noxan "Mr." A typo? Hardly, this was Mr. Levine being so subtle and devious that I will gladly accept the 1 million dollars he offered to anybody who could catch the subtext. Baby needs a new pair of shoes.

Todd Everett said...

I hate to break the news to you, Ken (and I'm surprised that nobody else has picked this up), but Marti Noxon is a woman.

Peter said...

I haven't seen Unreal, so I'm unable to comment on that, but I feel the same as you but on the general state of comedy movies. There was a time when Hollywood made comedies that had scripts with actual jokes, character delineation and wit. Now, almost every time I go to see a comedy film, I despair at the poverty of imagination and creativity. At the risk of sounding like a bitter unproduced writer - which I admit I am - there are singularly untalented hacks writing total shit that invariably consist of characters talking Ebonics, characters making random pop culture references and characters walking in slow motion to rap music.It takes zero talent and skill to write a script like that. As Paul Feig often shows.

For example, a film like Trading Places wouldn't get made now. It's clever, sharp and very funny. It's got character development, satirical social commentary and actual funny jokes stemming from the situation and from characters. Most so called comedy writers now wouldn't have a clue how to write something like that. That's why you get turds like Ride Along 2 that appeal to morons and probably took about one day to write.

Rant over.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@MikeN I didn't fail the first two, I passed them, but had to sit through two more anyway.

In fact, just as I'm posting this message, I had to go through two more of them again, and like last time, passed both of them.

Steven Brandon said...

If you enjoy the gossip-filled, soapy fun of shows like The Bachelor - you will enjoy Unreal - it's basically a parody that looks at the seedy underbelly or reality TV. I was once a contestant on such a show and let me tell you - all the contestant manipulation and shenanigans is actually quite accurate!

The show is not for everyone - but probably for the Lifetime audience.

Ken, have you seen Bojack Horseman? That's more up your alley - being about a sitcom star - trying to come to grips with his life. It's a slow start but after episode 5 I was hooked.

Kosmo13 said...

Yes, the Prove You're Not a Robot test sometimes rivals in complexity the drunk-driving test in "The Man With Two Brains."

<< Name one moral character in any of the shows you worked on.

Father Mulcahy?

Judge Walter Franklin?

Ron said...

Regarding David Hyde Pierce, I don't pretend to know why he hasn't done another series. However, knowing television's fondness for merely repeating what worked before, it's probably safe to say that the vast majority of the scripts he's been offered since FRASIER ended would have had him playing thinly disguised variations on Niles Crane, and that can't have done anything to encourage him to jump back into a new show.

Joseph Scarbrough: When I post to this blog from my home computer, I rarely get the captcha's. When I post from my cell phone, though, I have the same experience as you and usually get three or four of the silly things before it'll let me post.

Dana King said...

As a writer myself, I take mild issue with one of your statements that may be key to why you don't like this show. (Which I admit I have not seen.) It's not critical for there to be a character the audience roots for, but there must be at least one they can empathize with. Miss that part and the show isn't worth watching and the book isn't worth reading. Nothing will turn me off something faster than a lack of someone I can empathize with, or even give a shit about.

Myles Warden said...

Completely agree. Fell for all the hype and buzz around it's premiere and couldn't get thru it. Gave up during the 2nd episode as well. Never once on the edge of my seat. Never once thrilled or smiling. Also don't watch the Bachelor but I used to watch a lot of other reality dating shows and generally like things that "pull back the curtain" as well. Also love Constance. Somehow this didn't do it for me AT ALL tho. Glad I'm not alone.

Myles Warden said...

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend deserves EVERYONE'S attention! 👍

CRL said...

David Hyde Pierce has been in 6 Broadway shows since Frasier ended, and he's scheduled to do the revival of Hello Dolly in 2017, so it's not like he's been idle.

MikeN said...

Joe, maybe you think you've passed them, but the computer certainly doesn't. I've never gotten a second round when I was sure I had gotten them all. I think a big mistake is the street signs, you have to ignore the post holding up the sign.

Johnny Walker said...

I haven't seen UNREAL, but from your description it sounds like a biting satire -- admittedly with no-one to root for.

That said, and while I'm also a fan of Noxon, but I can say this: The two years she ran BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (seasons 6 and 7), after Joss Whedon placed his attentions elsewhere, were *incredibly* depressing. I know Whedon fully supported Noxon's direction, but Whedon's Buffy was a classic, but relatable, Hero. She went through crap, but she was strong in a way that we, as the audience, admired and wanted to emulate. She was steadfast and loyal and witty and, yes, human.

When Noxon took the helm, she became MUCH more human. She was suddenly moody, withdrawn and tormented, and quickly went off the rails. She even turned on her friends. (Imagine Sam in CHEERS spending an entire season miserable and withdrawn, bitterly insulting Norm and Cliff whenever he saw them. Sure, BUFFY handled drama, and would do dark storylines, but the change wasn't that far off.)

Whedon used this change in character for an amazing episode he penned halfway through season 6 (that remains one of the best -- "Once More With Feeling"). It revealed the reason for her change in behaviour, and it was very human, and it made sense, but Buffy never progressed after that revelation. She started the season broken, and, for the remainder of Noxon's run, she stayed broken. She was no longer the Hero. She no longer had qualities we admired, she could no longer handle the pain of her life. Rather than showing us how to deal with difficulties, she succumbed to them herself.

It was like Arthur Conan Doyle decided to do a bunch of stories where Holmes stopped solving crimes and started dealing with dementia... Yes, a very human and heartbreaking tale that would be, but it would no longer be Sherlock Holmes, and indeed Sarah Michelle Gellar no longer felt it was Buffy. She quit the show when her contract came up for renewal.

There were some amazing moments in Noxon's stretch as showrunner, but her tastes definitely run to the darker end of the spectrum, without much interest in balancing things out.

Johnny Walker said...

Well, after reading Rashad Khan's comment, perhaps I'm completely wrong to point the finger at Ms Noxon. It may well have been her co-producer who is really responsible for the apparent overt cynicism.

PS - I would still be very interested in your thoughts on the "sad com", Ken. From Rick and Morty to Bojack Horseman to Louis CK, it seems we're drowning in darker comedy these days. I wonder what that's about.

Peter said...

Just heard the news that Gene Wilder has died.

In an era when every two bit no talent is called a legend, Gene Wilder truly was a legend and a comedy genius. He gave me so much joy with his acting. And in interviews he always came across as thoroughly decent and down to earth.

Another great has left us. Thank you for all the laughs.

Ken, will you be writing a tribute to him? Would love to know which of his films you like.

courtney said...

Compare and contrast the Lifetime show with Lisa Kudrow and company's work on The Comeback for HBO. Lisa's Valerie Cherish may have have been a vacuous, washed-up star of an 80s sitcom, but in the making of her reality show, you were shown a very human being underneath the Hollywood facade.

Kudrow's take worked on entirely too many levels to ever have made the cut at Lifetime...

Neumms said...

I haven't watched, but I wonder if what it needs is a counterpoint, a fish out of water, say, the sweet new college grad working there. Then someone-a sympathetic character--is experiencing the horror as we viewers are. Maybe it's like Bob Newhart amidst the oddballs, Maya on Just Shoot Me, the girl in Baskets.

Jay said...

I think we’re supposed to root for the Rachel character, at least in the first season. That’s difficult because she doesn’t transcend the pressures of the situation – i.e., she does what you have to do if you’re working on a reality show. And it isn’t pretty.

What UnREAL did well in the first few episodes was to reveal what those sintuational pressure are and how the producers on The Suitor manipulate the contestants into doing things that may be bad for the contestants but good for the ratings. For those of us who have seen The Bachelor only from in front of the TV, the backstage view was a revelation. We leaned that the word “produce” is a synonym for manipulate, and that the producers manipulate the contestants into increasingly contrived situations designed to elicit powerful feelings, usually unpleasant

But then Noxon-Shapiro started doing to their characters what the producers on The Suitor did to the contestants – manipulate them into increasingly contrived situations designed to elicit powerful feelings, usually unpleasant.

In the second season (which I made the mistake of watching), the root-for character is Jay (Black and gay), but he doesn’t get much screen time, so his character is not fully developed. What we see is that he lacks the desperate ambition of some of the characters and the nastiness of others, and he wants to do the right thing, not just “produce” his contestants.

Peter said...

For anyone interested, this is a wonderful interview with Gene Wilder just three years ago in which he talks about his career and what he thinks of modern comedy. He was as entertaining and witty as ever, particularly when he talks about the right way to use swearing in comedy and the wrong way.

Daniel said...

During the first season, Unreal had one main central conflict: Could Rachel work on a reality show and still be a good person? Unfortunately, it became clear pretty quickly that she couldn't. By the end of the season, it was obvious that she was just as soulless as the people she worked with.

Every once in a while, the writers remember that Rachel is supposed to have a conscience and give us an episode based around a compelling moral dilemma. But for the most part, it's just a show about awful people doing awful things. The only central conflict is: Which awful person is in charge? So the show is mostly a series of increasingly horrifying stunts, in the name of satire.

Constance Zimmer, however, deserves an Emmy, and she may get one, if anybody is still watching.

Pat Howard said...

I had a similar experience I read all the praise I just didn't get what was so great about it. Everybody bitchin. I lasted 2 showsor maybe it was 1 1/2 it sucked.

Stephen Robinson said...

JOHNNY WALKER: That said, and while I'm also a fan of Noxon, but I can say this: The two years she ran BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (seasons 6 and 7), after Joss Whedon placed his attentions elsewhere, were *incredibly* depressing. I know Whedon fully supported Noxon's direction, but Whedon's Buffy was a classic, but relatable, Hero. She went through crap, but she was strong in a way that we, as the audience, admired and wanted to emulate. She was steadfast and loyal and witty and, yes, human.

SER: I agree. The final two seasons of BUFFY suffered from what I call "concept collapse." Noxon apparently wanted to explore the complexities of adulthood but 1) even my 20s weren't that depressing. "FRIENDS with vampires" would have been a better hook than "REQUIEM FOR A DREAM with some laughs here and there" & 2) ANGEL was airing at the same time and was, I believe, doing a better job exploring the theme.

Buffy leaving high school was a mistake but hard to avoid given that the cast is mortal and thus aging in real time. So, what *is* the series about if Buffy's an actual grown up? They then wrote out her mother (imagine FRASIER suddenly losing Martin) and Giles left (of course, he was no longer the librarian and they even had very meta episodes about "what the hell am I still doing around here with these kids?"). They tried to shift to college but that also fell apart because college is *never* as interesting as high school (TV shows keep thinking it is and trying to make this transition from 90210 and beyond). Oh, and then they gave Buffy a sullen teenager to look after. Huh? Again, imagine FRIENDS is Rachel and Monica have to take care of a needy, emotionally disturbed 15 year old. Yeah, the jokes just write themselves!

CHEERS is a show that deftly avoided "concept collapse." And it would have been easy to do so. It managed to shift successfully from a romantic comedy (Sam and Diane) to a comedic ensemble. I don't think the writers and cast get nearly enough credit for achieving this. It also replaced two major stars while understanding what was vital to maintain in the cast's chemistry without simply giving us Coach 2 or Diane 2. In Coach's case, they didn't try to replace Sam's "kindly uncle/father figure." But they didn't "defang" Sam by making Woody his surrogate son. Rebecca provided opportunity for the screwball comedy flirtation with Sam but she was such a different character, we didn't feel like we were repeating ourselves.

I never got the impression that BUFFY figured out what the show would be once major elements changed: Loss of setting, loss of maternal figure, loss of paternal figure, aging of cast. Really, the series had ongoing storylines about why Xander and Giles were still around. It was as if they were filming writers meetings.

Andy Rose said...

Totally agree with the Anonymous person who wrote about Mr. Robot. I just started watching, and just stopped watching after 3 episodes. (I was really done with it after the second, but I decided to be generous and give it one more chance.) Beyond the characters not being very empathetic unless you're a borderline psychopath, the show blatantly lifts notes from other, very well-known films. The basic storyline -- paranoid socially dysfunctional guy meets crazy guy who recruits him into an underground scheme to wipe out the world's debt and has awkward relationship with emo woman -- is straight from "Fight Club." (Which made the supposedly Shocking Twist I've read about even more predictable.) The intense, well-dressed businessman who turns out to be violent and crazy looks like an "American Psycho" redux. In case you're confused about anything, the main character narrates to the audience AND talks to a therapist. (We really need two forms of exposition?) And on top of it all, they throw in a contrivance where the main character knows whatever he needs to know about other characters because he can hack just about anything and read their email and bank accounts.

The show is visually impressive and cleverly directed, but that wasn't enough to keep me watching.

Diane D. said...

To answer your specific questions:
Is it mean-spirited but that's the fun of it? Yes (for those who like it)
Is that considered "edgy"? Yes (and if it's not edgy, it is boring and shows a lack of sophistication)
Is there humanity, but I'm just missing it? No (humanity is not a requirement)
Is that just the current style? Yes (more's the pity)
Are moral characters uninteresting now? Yes (see comment #3 above)
Are we now just desensitized to human suffering? No, not in general. (and that is the strangest thing of all)
Is it a generational thing? Or a sensibility thing? Mostly generational, but sad nonetheless.

They feel sorry for people who don't get it, and I feel so sorry for them if they don't get the kind of comedy you write, comedy that makes you laugh uproarously, makes you smile and shake your head in understanding, melts you with its charm, makes you care about the characters so much you'll be arguing about how it ended 40 years later---comedy that sometimes makes you cry.

CRL said...

Again, imagine FRIENDS is Rachel and Monica have to take care of a needy, emotionally disturbed 15 year old.

Wasn't that Ross?

JJ said...

Just wanted to thank Stephen and Johnny for the interesting discussion on Buffy. I never watched the show, but still appreciate both of your insights on the show as it progressed. Very relevant to this and any discussion about TV series being "about" something interesting.
As for Unreal, I watched two acts and turned it off. I don't like to cringe for its own sake. It seemed to be a show very much "about" how awful reality shows are behind the scenes. Noted. It's like watching a show about gruesome skateboarding injuries... but I'm aware of the unpleasantness, and don't need to watch it on a loop. Still, some people can't get enough broken legs or cringeworthy stories.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The shift out of high school to college is one that many, many teen dramas have struggled with. And yet it's odd that it should be. High school has the cauldron of people unlike you who know a lot about you that you can't escape...but college is the place where people reinvent themselves after all that in what they hope will be a more congenial environment. Self-reinvention is such a deeply American theme you'd think college would be a promising setting for that.

But to do that, the teen drama would have to have the courage to sideline its existing stars. I always thought GOSSIP GIRL would have worked a lot better if the show had stayed in high school with the younger characters instead of trying to go to college with the older ones. Like BUFFY, the show eventually found it simpler just to drop all the college stuff. The only teen drama I can think of that took that approach was FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS - and for them, it worked.

I would hate to try to guess exactly how much Noxon changed BUFFY from what it might have been if Whedon had been more actively present. But I'll note this: I really didn't like GIRLFRIEND'S GUIDE TO DIVORCE.



Anonymous said...

For me, unReal is a Breaking Bad or a Sopranos type show mixed with a reality show mixed with a night-time soap opera like Scandal.

The viewer knows that Rachel has been through something bad in her past and that she wants to be a good person, but she also want to be a strong person and to never let anyone walk all over her. Rachel has a surrogate mother figure with Quinn and their twisted relationship is more interesting to me than any relationship that Tony Soprano ever had with anyone.

That being said, the show is melodramatic and unrealistic in many ways. But it fills the void in the summer (when so few new dramas are on) and I cannot wait to see each episode every week.

I don't think the audience is really men, anyway. (It is in Lifetime after all.) I think it is a female empowerment fantasy gone wrong. It makes a woman want to be like Quinn when they come up against confrontation, yet scared that they would remain as bitter and alone as Quinn.

Women spend a lot of time thinking about how their behavior is perceived in the world and we love to watch other women be bitchy on TV (Cookie on Empire anyone?). We get a lot of the pleasure of mouthing off without any real consequences. But I also derived this pleasure from watching Hugh Laurie be a smart jerk on House. He would have been fired a million times over at any U.S. hospital, but he remained at Princeton Plainsboro General to be brilliant and verbally cutting for several seasons.

UnREAL is not a world I would ever want to live in, but visiting it for an hour a week is so fun. (Season two did go downhill, though.)

Anonymous said...

I didn't read all the comments, but I scrolled through the first few and I think my POV might be underrepresented. I watched the entire first season of Unreal and considered myself a pretty enthusiastic fan - but after a few episodes of Season 2 I walked away and have not looked back.

I am told by reviewers that the main relationship to be invested in is that of the two female leads, Quinn and Rachel. In the first episode of the second season, they got matching tattoos, just two girls out to make their mark in the television world. However, they have no problem going behind each other's backs at the slightest provocation. Rachel is pretty much of a mess. Quinn has the street smarts. They have sabotaged each other repeatedly to leapfrog ahead in the imaginary climb to the top (the one that exists in their own heads and maybe not anywhere else).

This series started out mean-spirited and got more so (and went crazy to boot). I don't think anyone truly cares about anyone else, not for the long term anyway. And I don't care about any of the characters enough to keep watching. At first I found Rachel appealing - but she shoots herself in the foot every chance she gets. Quinn fancies herself the dragon lady and never gets too far away from that persona.

There are some writers and sociologists out there who feel this is an important program - hence the Peabody Award, I guess. The folks in charge are fearless, it's true - they will stop at nothing to shock the viewer. But I keep asking, "What's the point?" And so I stopped watching.

Jay said...

The most unreal aspect of UnREAL is that its Everlasting is broadcast week to week. I assume that real reality shows like The Bachelor, Survivor, etc. are not screened till the whole thing is over, allowing the producers to edit it so as to create story lines that lead to the known end-result.

Brian Phillips said...

Briefly to Rinaldo, who said, "Maybe my favorite TV comedy of all time is Fawlty Towers, and I don't think Cleese & company loved Basil Fawlty."

Actually, according to Cleese, yes they did. He mentions in an interview that no matter how bad a situation he got into, especially ones of his own doing, Connie Booth (his then-wife/co-writer/Polly) still ached for him, even though they both knew he was written as a "monster".

As for UnREAL, I have only watched the trailers, but from the trailers, this reminds me of a cross between "Network" and "The Truman Show". Good writing trumps everything, but having watched a lot of TV and movies, I get disillusioned when I watch something that reminds me of something else. I have to like or be intrigued by the main character, hero or anti-hero and I am not getting that from what I saw. Faye Dunaway's character in "Network" was intriguing and malevolently obsessive, Ed Harris in the "Truman Show" was oddly charismatic, even though he was almost solely chasing after ratings. I'd have to see if they have written this showrunner with anything other than a devil-may-care, winner-takes-all attitude.

Many folks have bad work experiences, but venting it in a TV show/movie may or may not work out as well as you plan. Jonah Hill's "Allen Gregory" struck me as a long "I'll get you" to folks he knew and "UnREAL" strikes me as the same thing.

Johnny Walker said...

To be fair to Noxon, she was elevated to show runner after only a few years of writing on the show. She really was in the deep end. And Whedon, while supporting her, was happy to have left the story at the end of Season 5. It was only because UPN picked it up that we got Seasons 6 and 7 at all. So she had the unenviable job of trying to continue something the original creator was happy to have left alone.

Just one note on SER's response: Some of the things he brings up (like Buffy's mom and sudden sister) came from Season 5. The sudden sister was a very odd choice, and I still am not really a huge fan of that character (she never really did anything by herself), but the twist with her mother remains the best episode of TV I've ever seen. It's a shame that you really have to watch the previous seasons for it to have the impact it achieves, otherwise I'd just recommend people to watch it now. It remains potent and incredible and honest and adult -- and as now been publicly shared, was loosely based on Whedon's life.

But the rest of the stuff. Very true :(

Johnny Walker said...

Also, to make it clear and fair to Noxon, she had been the Golden Child on BUFFY, quickly moving put he ranks from Season 2 onwards. A lot of the best stuff in BUFFY heavily involved her, and Whedon leapt to her defence over Season 6... which seemed well planned, if poorly executed. (I just don't get what happened in Season 7 though, they added dullness to depression, and despite the resolute ending to 6, finally giving us Buffy back at the very end of the hell we'd endured, they seemed to refuse to let Buffy regain her heroic personality out of (presumably) a misguided attempt at making her troubles in Season 6 "matter". I can understand the theory, but she became defined by them, instead of learning from them and growing, which essentially made her a victim. I digress.)