Usually, the factors that pull you out of your focus on a movie or TV show are external. Someone forgets to silence their cellphone, or your mom asks you a question about the plot, or your date from OKCupid decides that a matinee showing of Dunkirk is the perfect time to start getting handsy. That kind of thing. But sometimes it isn't the fault of the unforgiving world around you. Sometimes movies and shows do the job themselves and awkwardly tear you from your haze, placing you in the uncomfortable territory of "Oh damn. I am watching something, and am terrifyingly aware of that." How do movies stealthily slit the throat of their own escapism? Well, they do things like ...
Despite the fact that modern TV is full of quality entertainment that would make movies break out in frustrated, jealous tears, it still operates on the archaic system of "Movies are where important things go, and TV is where you watch inconsequential drivel that serves as a placeholder for actual enjoyment." Don't believe me? Look at how shows treat guest stars who are mostly known from movies or other mediums. They are in awe of them. The camera lingers on them, telling you that while the regular cast is nice and all, you should now place your undivided attention on the god king who has just entered the room.
I'm always down for a good lingering camera if the context is right. Jeff Goldblum is returning for Jurassic World 2, and I will be deeply disappointed if his introduction shot stays at Beautiful Jeff Goldblum Face Level for anything less than 20 uninterrupted minutes. The same goes for when a character has seemingly died but then comes back triumphantly. When Lex Luthor showed up in the last episode of Smallville to remind viewers that Superman's future would not lack bald megalomaniacs, the camera seems to be more thrilled about this than anyone. And it probably was, honestly. Being a living, breathing Smallville fan was not, how should I put this, a "fulfilling" experience.
But the pause that might as well double as a "Clap Now" sign reeks of desperation, and rips away any chance to view what you're watching as smooth, organic fiction. I don't demand absolute reality from things. There is NO ONE in the world worse than someone who can't put their malfunction behind them for two fucking seconds and just HAS TO remind you that no, Batman couldn't do that in real life. Those people are fun traitors. But when the camera stops to gaze at the bigger star who is encroaching on the lives of the peons who normally inhabit the show, it's not just stopping the flow of the episode dead; it's reminding you that Hollywood has a definite hierarchy. A being of shining light and multiple movie deals has deemed this cast of characters worth their time, and we should feel blessed on their behalf.
Even worse is that usually, these guest stars are pretty damn talented. When Steve Carell left The Office, the employees spent a few episodes trying to find a replacement for him. This led to a parade of guest stars like Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, and Jim Carrey, and you'd think that comedy powerhouses like these, when supplied with jokes on one of the best-written sitcoms of the 2000s, would provide an avalanche of humor. Homes destroyed and families torn apart from the sheer magnitude of the fucking comedy. But no, they just kind of shuffled through the show as the camera jammed itself into their pores, as if to scream "ISN'T IT COOL THAT WE GOT WILL GODDAMN ARNETT TO BE ON THE OFFICE? ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR WILL ARNETT FOR LOWERING HIMSELF ENOUGH TO BE HERE."
Dramatic shows that have any number of "good guys" require guest stars to keep going. Unless the creators of Law & Order want every plot to be "Ice T was the killer all along, but we forgave him, because aww, just look at him," they need new talent to fill out the ranks of serial killers, pedophiles, and bartenders who just might have seen someone who looks like that. But this necessity has created a painfully obvious trend: Whenever a big name shows up in a series, they're going to be doing big-name stuff. And apparently, big-name stuff always involves ruining the surprise.
I've talked about Dexter in a few columns because, really, I'm still coming to terms with it. You devote eight years of your life to a show, and then it ends with the plot equivalent of a drunk pissing on your head from a third-story balcony. So you begin to think really hard about whether it was ever that good. And I've come to this conclusion: Yeah, it had some really great parts, but man, it had the worst "I wonder what THIS guest star will do?" poker face in the industry.
The first two seasons of Dexter tell a perfectly contained story. And then in Season 3, Jimmy Smits swaggers in with a kind of "I'd like to get a beer with that guy" charisma that only Jimmy Smits really has. But then Jimmy Smits turns into EVIL Jimmy Smits, and Dexter has to kill him. Then John Lithgow shows up in Season 4, and while he's great, the pattern is being established. By the time Colin Hanks burst into Season 6 with a plotline so terrible that it served as a Dexter Is Not Going To Get Good Again trumpet of the cancellation apocalypse, the standard had been set: If a new dude shows up on Dexter, that dude is almost 100 percent going to end up as Dexter's table dressing.
Obviously, if an established actor shows up on a prestige TV drama, they're going to be given a role with some meat to it. When William Hurt or whoever inevitably shows up on the fifth season of Westworld, they're not going to be given the role of Blowjob Robot Bartender #4. They're going to get Maniacal Douche Who Was Super Integral To The Creation Of Westworld Who We Never Really Discussed Before. And them basically spelling out what's going to happen in the rest of the season or episode doesn't stop them from giving a knockout performance. It just momentarily stops us from getting lost in the show.
It's also admitting that we've kind of pigeonholed what we think makes for good, guest-star-worthy roles. Someone with any kind of positive qualities? Pssssh. Demented Man Child That Makes Tiny Doll Furniture Out Of His Victim's Toenails? You can basically smell the Emmys on that one.
Having a sense of self-awareness can be helpful. It's what prevents you from deciding that your show about six friends who live in New York City is a fresh idea, and it gives you a moment of hesitation when you think "A guy named Harry meets a girl named Sally. HOW HAS NO ONE COME UP WITH THAT?!?"
Even adding a little self-awareness to your story isn't so bad if you do it in nice doses. The reason The Cabin In The Woods works so well is that it comments on horror film tropes, but doesn't rely on that to be effective. Compare that to something like Scream 4, where hoping that you get the reference is all that that movie has going for it. The first two Scream films are neat little venture into the nature of horror movies and their sequels, but by the time Scream 4 rolled around, the series had looped back through its own butthole and out of its mouth again in order to prove that it was still relevant. And it wouldn't have had to do that if it had done the basic job of a movie, instead of relying on blistering self-awareness.
Community at its best was a show with so, so much heart. The love that the writers had for the characters bleeds through, and it's a passion project carefully disguised as a typical prime-time sitcom. And in its early seasons, the series pulled off self-awareness pretty effortlessly. And maybe it's due to the fact that Community began to lose core cast members starting in the fifth season, and the last half of the show was plagued with a shuffling creative team, but the self-awareness which had initially set it apart from regular shows became a crutch. The emotional stakes were lost, and in their place were constant comments about the nature of TV, which is like hearing your cheeseburger explain its own ingredients while you try to eat it.
Even vague self-awareness can be jarring if it comes out of nowhere. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a fantastic movie when it's not talking about the spy movies that it's borderline-parodying. If that scene in which Colin Firth was taking out the church full of bigots was still going to this day, I'd be okay with it. And don't act like there isn't a version of "Freebird" that is three years long. I know there is.
But slapped in the middle of the movie is a conversation between Firth and Samuel L. Jackson about the nature of spy flicks, as if they're assuming that the audiences that have not yet seen the movie are already a little "out of the know" about what it's trying to do. Come on, movie. Give us some credit.
Movie soundtracks can do two very different things. They can heighten an experience, pulling you into the film in the way that a music-less scene could never do. They get your blood pumping without you even knowing, and pretty soon you're first-pumping by yourself in the theater and screaming that you'll be forever young at the top of your lungs. Hey, you're doing it too, not necessarily just me. But a soundtrack can also drop you on your head, revealing that the movie that you're watching is just a big marketing ploy by people who have figured that since you like Iron Man AND Ed Sheeran, putting both in the same movie at the same time will result in a dump truck full of dollar bills and hookers showing up to their houses.
How does it drop you from your cradle? Well, for one, it can bend the laws of time and space, forcing you to question why anyone would make a movie this way. Take the movie Hitch, for example, wherein Will Smith teaches dudes to talk to women, and teaches YOU to be more careful about picking out which Will Smith movies you go see. He teaches Kevin James how to dance in one scene, but starts his lesson by shutting off the music that's playing at a party in the future? Future humans were dancing to that song, Will. Don't cut a hole in the continuum of time when a motherfucker is trying to get down.
Will then puts on the song "Yeah!", which you might remember from it being more popular than oxygen in the mid 2000s. And then Kevin James dances to "Yeah!" both at Will's house and at this future party. My problem doesn't lie with the song "Yeah!" showing up at two different places at two different times, because, again, I've heard "Yeah!" more than I've heard the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, and "I love you" combined. It's just that this scene is edited in a way that makes you realize A) Hitch is a wizard, and B) this movie is a shallow attempt at getting us to like the song "Yeah!" more.
And sometimes a movie will feature a song that's performed by an actor in that movie. Like how Texas Chainsaw 3D plays the song "2 Reasons," and one of the characters listening to it and enjoying it is Trey Songz, the guy who sang "2 Reasons." That's not a slight wink and a nudge, filmmakers. That's a big invisible hand coming out of the screen to jar you out of whatever good things you might be feeling and reminding you to go download "2 Reasons," because the actor who fucking made "2 Reasons" in real life seems to really be enjoying "2 Reasons" in this completely fake life. If you want to give the audience a cue to simultaneously begin ignoring the movie and start playing around on their phones for a little bit, this one is as good as any.
Earlier, I mentioned guest actors, and spoke pretty harshly of them. My apologies, guest actors. To make it up to you, the rest of this column will be written by John Stamos, and he will be playing the role of me. I make these amends because guest actors aren't the worst things to take you out of TV shows. That honor goes to "event" episodes in which non-actors are given roles, and we're supposed to be cool with it. "Suck it up," your television says, "If it wasn't for me, you'd be playing charades with people you pretend to like."
The "events" I'm referring to are usually one of two things: musicians coming into town or pro wrestling events. And they're so awkwardly crammed into the plots that you can't help but feel your joy be driven from your body like a screeching ghost while you watch. Nothing says "No one wants to be here, especially the people on your screen" like a sitcom episode that features a rock star or a professional wrestler. For example, watch this clip of the time the band Anthrax showed up on Married With Children. But only do it if you want to see a dozen people lose their enthusiasm for the arts allllll at once.
If you watched that and found your sense of happiness to still be alive and breathing, watch Stevie Wonder's appearance on The Cosby Show, the kind of thing that only happens when the Devil is handling God's day shift. And if you still have any delusions about the positive power of fiction, dash them by staring into the abyss of any pro wrestler cameo on any sitcom ever -- cameos that are usually announced by characters who are suddenly into wrasslin'. This, as a wrasslin' fan, is absurd from the ground up. You don't just suddenly declare that there's a wrestling show near you and that you're into wrestling. You are into wrestling, and your family and friends spend their whole lives wishing that you'd shut the fuck up about it.
These episodes usually involve either a member of the cast and their stunt doubles clumsily recreating what a sitcom director thinks wrestling is like (like in Fuller House or The X-Files), or finding a way to work the fact that most wrestlers are seven feet wide into the plot (like in Boy Meets World or Smallville). Admittedly, the wrestlers usually seem like they're having a better time on the shows than musicians do. But nothing clips the wings of your flight into TV wonderland faster than the harsh introduction of pro wrestling logic into an otherwise normal show. "These five friends are on a mission to find success and love in the big city, and over the years, you will fall in love with their wit and their willingness to find pleasure in the small things in life. Oh, and meet their new landlord, Big Van Vader, who is roughly the size of a Woolly Mammoth."
Daniel is listening to "Yeah!", as it's the only thing that drowns out the loneliness. He is a brittle husk of a man on Twitter.
It sucks that your friends are always ruining movies for you, but you won't need friends anymore after you get the Amazon Fire stick with Alexa voice remote.
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