Thursday, December 02, 2010

Writing & the Concept of Cool...

I was reading this Heather Havrilesky review of "Men of a Certain Age" on Salon.com, a site which tends to be a punching bag of mine due to their ridonculousness [see "Conning Capitalism" on ThickCulture]. Heather brings up an interesting point, in that this new TNT show that features older guys talking like "post-menopausal women" and that the show eschews cool, making it charming. 

Early this year, I blogged about NBC's 'Parenthood', which is another show that isn't that cool, although it inserts hip songs to assure thirty- and fortysomethings that they're not totally relegated to irrelevanceland. I'm sort of curious how 'Men of a Certain Age' portrays this widening demographic of middle-aged viewers with broken dreams, diminished expectations, and a sagging 401-k portfolio. I'm a fan of Braugher, although he does have a penchant for being given overly dramatic lines, but I'm mainly going by his work on NBC's Homicide. and I have a sense that Bakula might be underrated and worthy of more than Quantum Leap or Star Trek: Enterprise.

Heather's review made me think of shows, writing, and cool. See, I think shows need a certain amount of cool, in the production, be it in characters, writing, and staging, as it gives shows a certain degree of freshness. There's nothing sadder than a show trying to be cool. Two and a Half Men being a textbook case. Charlie Sheen's Charlie Harper is a cookie cut-out cliché, which is fine for a audience with a mean age of 13. In contrast, Barney on How I Met Your Mother plays off a cool with better writing and better acting, but Charlie Sheen is no NPH. While I like 30 Rock, I think the cast tends to triumph over material that often tries too hard to be cool and/or clever, but isn't—or at least falls short of that goal.

Heather seems to find solace and comfort in the quotidian and understated tine of the show::
"But the utter lack of hipness of 'Men of a Certain Age,' the total lack of concern for what's deemed cool and what isn't, the complete disregard for matching the breakneck pace, the action, the swooning romances, the spitty outbursts, the shiny thrills of other TV shows, is exactly what makes this drama so lovable. Where other dramas would pack in more zaniness and intrigue in every available second of airtime, 'Men of a Certain Age' rolls out the familiar, the ordinary, and locates poetic folds and sweet pockets of emotion there..."
I would argue that this seems like creating a false dichotomy...equating cool and hipness with over-the-top production and performances—what I would deem as Hollywood slick {see:: Gray's Anatomy}. If the writing and performances are as mundane as this is leading one to believe, I'm not even sure this "lovable" drama stands a chance.


Seeing this preview clip, the premise of the aging uncooly doesn't mean a show is uncool. Ask Rusty Venture. Although, if the dialogue is indeed more like that of post-menopausal women, well, that's the target market and that ain't cool.

I think the challenge of TV and film writing today is writing to what I see is two schools of thought:: {a} mass-audience stuff that gives the audience exactly what they want and {b} more niche audience stuff that pushes the boundaries, but not too much, and has an air of cool. So, Mad Men's cool is the product of a tension with a glorious and sumptuous rendering of 1960s America with its ugliness that's identifiable, but that we're "over", at least in its overt manifestations. We get immersed in that world that fascinates us. Arguably, good reality television does the same. Some shows are faux cool like Dexter and Weeds, as they try to juxtapose the everyday with the criminal, but, in my opinion, the execution is OK at best. It's as if the juxtaposition trope drives the entire premise and appeal. I think these shows give their audiences a formula that tries not to look like a formula. The Office-NBC juxtaposes the everyday and the extremely quirky, which works best when it's not trying too hard—one of the tenets of cool.

I think genuine cool is something that resonates with audiences and it's more than a look and feel, which aren't unimportant, but more importantly represent an attitude and a cultural relevance. Marketing departments try to manufacture cool, which makes the field more of an art than a science, but cool is a fleeting thing. 

I'm rereading this and can't help but think that I'm being just as reductionist as Heather. I might be reifying cool as a saviour of modern entertainment, but, I do believe that cool matters. I don't think just anyone can produce, write, or direct cool. I look back on my screenplay work and I think I strive for cool, but only execute it in isolated bits and pieces. I feel it requires a certain cultural awareness and deep historical knowledge of things that are cool {things, symbols, ideas, memes, etc.} to draw from, but also an attitude that has both a confidence and restraint—along with telling a good fucking story.

Twitterversion:: [blog] Havrilesky review of 'Men of a Certain Age' causes musings on the concept of what is cool. @Prof_K

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