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I’ve been watching some very dumb tv
Capsule reviews of trash
Hey gang, I’ve been hard at work on an essay I’m really excited about but it’s starting to run, uh, just a little long. In the interest of providing you, my faithful readers, with something to tide you over between book reports I thought I’d write some quick thoughts on the extremely low IQ shows Liz and I have been watching in the evening after Patrick goes to bed. The way our apartment is set up—really the only possible layout—our tv backs up against the wall of his bedroom next to the door so we are stuck watching things with minimal volume and subtitles on.
While I’ve gotten used to this arrangement, it basically precludes watching most anything interesting. Before he was born we were working our way through Girls (which I think is brilliant, for the record, and was really interesting to revisit now that I’m older than the characters and have lived in NYC) but since it’s, you know, actually art and you need the music cues and the performance subtleties to enjoy it, it’s off the table now. The one scripted show we have watched recently was season one of The Bear, which I may write about once we watch season two.
So we’ve shifted to a mostly reality show diet. I shouldn’t overstate this change—I introduced Liz to Survivor a few years back and we ended up watching all 40 seasons, yikes! From there we wended our way through the Gordon Ramsay cinematic universe (sound off if you want me to write way too many words about that staggeringly vast body of work), along with other competition shows that scratch the Survivor itch: Top Chef and Project Runway (the greatest to ever do it, the only ones that truly understand these shows are about process and know how to depict it), America’s Next Top Model (Tyra is literally insane and I love her), RuPaul’s Drag Race (as a straight man, great show), and so on. Now we’ve pumped the groundwater for all it had and the well has run dry. Our viewing has gotten notably more desperate in recent months. Allow me to bare my shame with the following rundowns of programming I have invested my limited time on earth consuming when I could have been reading, like, Finnegans Wake instead.
Dream Home Makeover
This Netflix show combines a conventional home renovation setup with Mormon lifestyle porn, in an oddly watchable mix. It follows Shea and Syd McGee, who run a design and reno company in Salt Lake City. Shea is the interior designer and her work is good, if a little all-white for my taste. Syd works for the company in a nebulous capacity but is clearly the primary caregiver for their two—eventually three—daughters, though this is never stated explicitly, for patriarchy reasons.
Shea is conventionally pretty, with expressive green eyes and dyed blonde hair styled in the same wave that everyone on tv has. Syd looks like all three of the Mormon brothers I grew up next door to. Many of their clients are couples of a similar age who look disconcertingly similar, leading Liz and I to begin playing a game predicting and then rating them on their level of clone-iness.
The other thing I like to do while watching is pay attention to the men during these sorts of client consult scenes. The women tend to take the lead in the interactions and are performing like eight layers of emotional labor while the guys just kind of stand there blankly—I don’t know, I think it’s funny. Anyway, their kids are cute and Syd is funny in a corny kind of way—it goes down smooth.
Claim To Fame
I rolled my eyes when Liz suggested we watch this Big Brother-style competition where the twist is all the contestants are related to a celebrity. I was wrong to do so because we were totally hooked and it’s somehow way more fun than it has any right to be. Hosted by Jonas Brother Kevin Jonas and his non-bandmate brother Franklin, the first season features among others Whoopi Goldberg’s granddaughter, Simone Biles’ sister, and Chuck Norris’ grandson, who is disqualified in the first episode for sneaking in a phone and hiding under the covers to research his housemates.
The first season in particular rocks because of the odd disconnect between how unserious the competition is (one challenge is literally a spelling test) and how seriously everyone involved is taking it. There are tears, meltdowns, and feelings of deep betrayal over a fight to figure out and guess what famous person everyone else is related to before they figure out and guess theirs. It’s also hilarious because how far a given character makes it has so little to do with their gameplay and so much more to do with how hard it is to figure out their relative—for instance, one of the first season finalists is a good old boy from Georgia related to a country musician. He knows nothing about pop culture and is oblivious to every clue about his opponents but no one can figure out his claim to fame so he coasts all the way to the end.
The theme of this newsletter is “oddly compelling” and this is certainly that. Deciphering the clues for ourselves was very fun. And if you love to watch tv and groan, “Oh my god, they’re all so dumb,” this provides it in spades. Also season two begins with the early elimination of Tom Hanks’ niece and she has the kind five-alarm freakout about how unfair it all is—“I should have gotten more camera time!”—that you just don’t get on reality shows anymore. Takes me back to the good old days of Jersey Shore season one.
More home reno, but this one is about farmhouses! I don’t think either of us really like this show and we often put it on last in the evening, get sleepy, and turn it off halfway through. What keeps my coming back is the almost parodic degree to which this show reflects the obsession with origins and authenticity in our homes that Baudrillard describes in The System of Objects, which I wrote about last year.
Farmhouse Facelift features the most dramatic renovations of any of these shows, taking them down to the studs, moving walls, producing something completely new within the shell of the old. But they are always sure to find some key details that emerge from the past and invest the place with the aura of the real—reclaimed wooden beams, original stonework, and so on. Compare to the Baudrillard:
There are two distinctive features of the mythology of the antique object that need to be pointed out: the nostalgia for origins and the obsession with authenticity. It seems to me that both arise from the mythical evocation of birth which the antique object constitutes in its temporal closure - being born implying, after all, that one has had a father and a mother. Obviously, beating a path back to the origins means regression to the mother; the older the object, the closer it brings us to an earlier age, to 'divinity', to nature, to primitive knowledge, and so forth….
The fascination of handicraft derives from an object's having passed through the hands of someone the marks of whose labor are still inscribed thereupon: we are fascinated by what has been created, and is therefore unique, because the moment of creation cannot be reproduced…
Let me try to shed some light on these two notions by considering a well-known example of nostalgic restoration, as described in an article entitled 'How to Fix Up Your Ruin'. This is what an architect does with an old farm in Ile-de-France' that he has taken over and decided to restore: ‘The walls, crumbling because of the lack of foundations, were demolished. Part of the original barn at the south gable was removed to make way for a terrace… Of course the three major walls were reconstructed. For the purposes of waterproofing we left a 0.7-metre space beneath tarred flagstones at ground level… Neither the staircase nor the chimney was part of the original structure… We brought in Marseilles tile, Clamart flags, Burgundian tuiles for the roof; we built a garage in the garden and installed large French windows… The kitchen is a hundred per cent modern, as is the bathroom…’
HOWEVER: 'The half-timbering, which was in good condition, has been retained in the new construction'; AND: 'The stone framework of the main entrance was carefully preserved during demolition, and its stones and tiles were reused.’ The article is accompanied by photographs which indeed clearly show just what is left from the old farm in the wake of 'the architect's soundings and categorical choices': three beams and two stone blocks. But on this rock would our architect build his country house - and indeed, the couple of original stones left in that entranceway now constitute the most fitting of symbolic foundations, reinvesting the whole edifice with value. It is they which exculpate the whole enterprise from all the compromises struck by modernity with nature in order to make the place more comfortable (an innocent enough intention in itself). The architect, now transformed into a gentleman farmer, has in actuality built himself the modern house that he wanted all along, but modernity of itself could not invest the place with value, could not make the house into a 'dwelling-place’ : true being was still lacking…
Man is not 'at home' amid pure functionality - he requires something like that luster of the wood of the True Cross which could make a church truly holy, some kind of talisman - a shard of absolute reality ensconced, enshrined at the heart of ordinary reality in order to justify it. Such is the role of the antique object, which always takes on the meaning, in the context of the human environment, of an embryo or mother-cell… These fetishized objects are therefore by no means mere accessories, nor are they merely cultural signs among others: they symbolize an inward transcendence, that phantasy of a center-point in reality which nourishes all mythological consciousness, all individual consciousness - that phantasy whereby a projected detail comes to stand for the ego, and the rest of the world is then organized around it…
As symbol of the inscription of value in a closed circle and in a perfect time, mythological objects constitute a discourse no longer addressed to others but solely to oneself. Islands of legend, such objects carry human beings back beyond time to their childhood - or perhaps even farther still, back to a pre-birth reality where pure subjectivity was free to conflate itself metaphorically with its surroundings, so that those surroundings became simply the perfect discourse directed by human beings to themselves.
Anyway, that’s this show.
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