Tuesday, August 28, 2012

10 Things: Advice for Smash Season 2

After analyzing Bunheads' first season in an effort to suggest improvements  for its sophomore year, I've decided to do the same for another newcomer: Smash.  Now, I reviewed Smash during its freshman run, and found my enjoyment of it to be sporadic and sometimes conditional.  I love the concept of this show, but the first season succumbed to a lot of poorly-constructed drama that took precedence over character development.  For every amazing musical number, there was usually at least one sloppy writing decision that muted the characters' potential.  So, for Season 2, I'd love to see the show work out its kinks and come back strong!  Here's some ideas as to how.

10.  Keep it on Broadway.  In Season 1, Smash gave a big storyline to Karen's boyfriend Dev and his Wall Street job.  Or was it a government job?  All I know is he wore a suit and had career drama.  Whole scenes happened completely untethered from the Broadway environment, and we were expected to actually care about a character whose circumstances were entirely peripheral to the core focus of the show.  And no one did.  (Taxes?  Did he work with money?)  Piece of advice: this is a show about Broadway.  Everything should tie back to the theah-tuh.  

9.  Let the characters be good at their jobs.  Most characters on Smash are supposed to be Broadway veterans: esteemed playwrights, songwriters, directors, producers, dancers, or actors.  These people are successful creative types!  Why not show them being good at their jobs?  The narrative often skips straight to the end result without showing us any of the journey.  We know Julia is struggling with lyrics, but we don't see her have any real breakthroughs, and then suddenly the lyrics are in place and being sung perfectly on stage.  Why not show how Julia maneuvers through the creative process, and let us feel the reward of a successful problem overcome?  (Showing Julia successful at work also solves another problem: it redirects focus from her terrible family life, where the writers refuse to let that lady catch a break.)

8. Stop screwing around with Bombshell.  How much more can this show's changes take the front seat in the narrative?  We've seen nearly every incarnation of the Marilyn musical up until Previews - a modern update, shadow Marilyns, and a revolving door of leading ladies.  Of course, it makes sense that changes will happen while workshopping a show.  But now that Bombshell is in Boston and doing well?  How much more screentime can we devote to the musical itself?  It's a tricky question; especially considering that Smash's best creativity comes in the form of Bombshell's original numbers.  But surely there aren't a whole slew of new Bombshell songs that we've yet to hear, and somehow we're meant to spend the whole next season with the same musical.  So the best option is to take focus off the show itself, and put it on the people running it.  With more character-based storylines, this won't be a big sacrifice - in fact, it'll make the drama stronger.

7. Be stingier and more purposeful with the romance.  In Season 1, Julia had an affair, Tom had two love interests, Derek slept with Ivy and Rebecca Duvall in rapid succession, and Dev cheated on Karen with RJ and then with Ivy.  Every pairing rose and fell in a disastrously haphazard fashion, and suddenly this show had tangled every character up in shallow romance drama.  Note to writers: it's about quality, not quantity.  Sure, it may seem like great sudsy drama to cross wires so many times, but really, it relies on solid writing.  And hardly any of Smash's romantic entanglement make sense.  It's impossible to like any couple on the show, simply because the writers are squandering any purpose with the relationships and instead putting them together only to blow them apart.  And guess what?  When there's no effort invested in building the relationships, the audience doesn't care when they blow apart.  Yawn, snooze; it's hard to sympathize with broken hearts when we don't understand their motivations.

6. Do right by your ladies.  It's almost inarguable: the female ensemble on this show is phenomenal.  There's no shortage of talent in the ranks of Megan Hilty, Katharine McPhee, Debra Messing, and Anjelica Huston, and beyond that, their characters all have the potential to be well-developed and fully-realized.  And yet, Smash only treats two of those characters reasonably well, and seriously mishandles three of the four.  It is absolutely maddening to know what possibilities exist with these ladies, only to repeatedly witness Karen, Ivy, and Julia completely deprived of any agency in their storylines.  What's worse, Ivy and Julia in particular can't seem to catch a break in their arcs, and get crapped on week after week from sloppy writing choices.  It's annoying, and therefore should be no surprise to the showrunners that their male counterparts were so unlikeable to the audience.  Michael Swift, Ellis, Dev, and Frank are all set to make their exits from the show, which is ultimately a welcome turn of events for the female characters.  I can only watch Julia get guilt-tripped by three different men for so long.  Good riddance!

5. Introduce more POC.  Unfortunately, with the removal of Dev and Ellis from the cast, Smash's representation of POC will rest solely on the shoulders of secondary character Sam.  So let's bring a little diversity into the ensemble, shall we?  They've already hired Jennifer Hudson, which is a damn good start.  And Karen is also set to get a new roommate in Krysta Rodriguez.  Keep this going!  The Great White Way should not be represented literally.  (And while I'm asking for diversity, can we get an LGBTQ lady?  Smash has done wonderfully with gay male characters... any chance we can balance that out with a gay woman?  Just a thought.)

4.  Let Ivy win a few.  Ivy Lynn is, hands-down, the best character on this show.  I will go to the mat on that one.  She's driven, ambitious, and immensely talented.  She's been paying her dues in the chorus for years, waiting for her moment in the spotlight.  She has a complicated relationship with her mother, a former Broadway star quicker to criticize than compliment, and part of Ivy's drive for success directly connects to the desire to make her mother proud.  And ultimately, she's monumentally insecure, which often leads to her being petty, spiteful, sharp-tongued, desperate to please, and incredibly relatable.  But Smash really only manifests Ivy's flaws into bad decisions and unlikeable actions, and never rewards her strengths.  She's repeatedly crapped on by the narrative, and then when Megan Hilty flawlessly sings a heartbreaking solo, we're left wondering if the show means for us to feel for Ivy this much.  Regardless of intent, please, treat her less like a villain and more like a hero.  Let her win a few.  A huge swath of the audience loves her, flaws and all.

3. Give Karen a backbone.  For some reason, Smash is really insistent on portraying Karen as the wide-eyed Iowa girl trying to make it big in the city, and it's ultimately to the character's detriment.  Don't get me wrong; it's a fine starting point, but that's really all it is: a starting point.  It's a stereotype.  Why not dimensionalize Karen Cartwright?  She's not just the naive girl who might be too soft for the big city.  And that doesn't mean she has to show signs of hardness or bitchiness, either.  Just let her have a backbone!  Let her stand up for herself!  Let her be self-confident!  It's a great way to make the character pop off the page and away from the stereotype, and Katharine McPhee does great with those moments.  Basically, I want Karen to be strutting her stuff to "Redneck Woman" all the time.

2. For the love of humanity, quit it with this Ivy vs. Karen nonsense and make them friends.  Just do it.  I know it's a central conflict of the show but I'm tired of it - especially because it plays on two levels.  There's the ideological opposition between Ivy and Karen as performers, which gets discussed endlessly, and that bleeds over into actual opposition between Ivy and Karen as people.  This constant polarity between the two women is tiresome.  The whole point is that they're both great!  They have similarities, they have differences.  And there have been so many opportunities for these characters to relate to one another, but the narrative purposefully shrugs them away in favor of isolating the ladies in competition - both romantically and professionally.  Boo!  I'm over women-at-odds storylines.  Show me Ivy and Karen learning that they like one another, and supporting one another.  Show me that they can transcend the expectation that they'll hate one another!  Show me that there's mutual benefit in their being friends!  Of course, that's not to say that their relationship can't be complicated.  All the better if it is!  Any competition conflict becomes 10x stronger and more compelling when it's built on a real relationship with real flaws and strengths.  I'm all for nuanced lady dynamics.  And that's what the Ivy-Karen interaction has thus far lacked: nuance.  Final argument: Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty give Debra Messing and Christian Borle a run for their money in the chemistry department.  Why not let them show it?

1. Let the characters propel the drama.  Ultimately, this is the key to Smash being sustainably successful.  Develop the characters individually, with strengths and flaws, and let them interact with one another - for better and for worse.  Let there be real friendships.  Let there be differences of opinion.  Let there be emotions involved, and tough decisions made.  Conflict will come naturally when character interactions are at the wheel, and Smash is in desperate need of character livelihood.  These are real people with wants and needs, not just stage props for sudsy relationship drama.  If Smash expects to hold onto viewers beyond their flashy musical numbers, they need the characters to be developed, organic, and in charge of their storylines.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

10 Things: Advice for Bunheads Season 2

Last night marked the season finale for ABC Family's Bunheads, after a 10-episode summer run.  While reception for the show has been largely reduced to comparing it to Gilmore Girls and complaining about whitewashing (somewhat rightfully, on both counts), there hasn't been a lot of discussion about the show's actual merits.  For me, it's had a promising and well-written first season, despite a few misguided decisions here and there, and I was excited to hear it was renewed for a second season.  This is a glorious opportunity to continue what worked in Season 1 and redirect what wasn't as effective!  And of course, I have opinions.  So, here is a list of ten pieces of advice for a strong Season 2 of Bunheads.

10. Fewer town antics.  This isn't Stars Hollow!  While spreading kookiness over a whole supporting cast worked well for Gilmore Girls, I don't think Bunheads benefits from the same approach.  If nothing else, it just reminds us of Gilmore, and on top of the snappy dialogue, pop culture references, and Kelly Bishop's lovely presence, it can be a little much.  Especially when it's not even necessary!  Bunheads has its own laurels it can rest on.  So while Paradise is certainly allowed to have its quirks (but not its Kirks), there is so much interesting - and undeveloped - material for the actual main characters.  We've gotten hints of tragic flaws and fascinating character development for not only Michelle, but also Fanny, Sasha, Truly, and Boo.  Why take time away from actually progressing that by giving it away to passing townspeople we don't really care about?  (Seriously.  I still don't understand why Sebastian the Award-Winning Coffee Man was necessary.  Except to make Michelle care about coffee and getting a new grocery store.  And I don't really understand why that was necessary either.)

9. More from Sasha.  Now, I'm not talking blue-haired, cheerleading, acting-out Sasha.  The main issue with Sasha in Season 1 was simply that we never saw much from her point of view.  So it was easy to hate on her, because the audience didn't quite get the opportunity to see what was making her tick.  And we still don't know!  Michelle got Sasha to return to ballet class fairly easily, but we never really knew exactly why she left in the first place.  At some point, we need to get a glimpse into Sasha's head, and even if we don't know exactly why she's making the (sometimes bad) decisions she makes, we at least need to see her make them, and understand her on some level.  In the meantime, I'm filling in all the blanks I can, because the fact of the matter is that Sasha is a really great character and leaving her undeveloped is a wasted opportunity.  It's obvious there is a lot going on behind her prickly exterior, but we're only scratching the surface.  She is often a bitch with a sharp tongue, but she's also suffering a crappy home life, and is kind to her friends - Boo in particular - when it counts.  Seeing the contrast between hard and soft and when each trait manifests itself (and why) is the whole point of delineating a character like Sasha, and that's the issue thus far: we're not seeing it.  I'm hoping we'll begin to in Season 2.

8. No more Charlie.  I don't understand how this teenage boy singlehandedly (and unwittingly) unraveled two friendships with hardly any screentime worth mentioning.  Charlie drama seemed to lurk around all of the younger girls' storylines during the season, and I found it incredibly difficult to care about him when he seemed only to be the hot and douchey brother plot device.  It didn't go anywhere with Boo, it didn't go anywhere with Ginny, and it activated all kinds of petty behavior in at least four characters, all of whom I'd rather see doing something else.  Worse yet, the actor, Zak Henri, seems to have the most chemistry with Emma Dumont, who, unfortunately, plays his sister.  It might be most graceful if he just takes his exit.

7. While we're on the topic, let's just say this: less boy drama altogether.  Now, I realize that since this show effectively has two, arguably four, female leads, with four, arguably five, female supporting characters, we might need a little testosterone in the mix.  And that's fine!  This isn't a No Boys Allowed treehouse.  But at the same time, I have little invested in a revolving door of random high school love interests for these girls - especially if it's supplanting more interesting storylines for them that could play out independent of boy trouble.  There's plenty that can be done to explore Boo, Sasha, Melanie, and Ginny individually!  Beyond that, there's always interactions together in countless permutations amongst them.  (Okay, not countless.  Ten.  But that's still a lot.)  And if we're going to bring in love interests, at least make them interesting!  At least make them three-dimensional!  And at least make them interact with their female counterparts in unique, likeable, and specific ways.  With a Boo-Karl romance finally happening and a potential Sasha-Boy-Version-of-Sasha (okay, fine, Roman) dynamic on the horizon, I'm hoping Bunheads can meet that criteria.

6. More dance numbers.  Okay, I could be in the minority on this.  Bunheads has thus far endeavored a handful of proper dance sequences for the show, and reception seems to be split between love and hate.  But I, frankly, shuffle (and tap) into the love category - as long as the numbers are relevant.  I don't want there to be dance numbers simply because this is a show set in the world of dance.  I want there to be dance numbers because it is an organic way to communicate meaningful moments and character emotions.  How great was Michelle's "Maybe This Time" sequence, or Sasha's "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" routine?  While the latter may have been more dense and less emotionally revealing than the former, both served to underscore important moments for the characters in question.  To me, that's an awesome way to employ your dance setting, and I hope to see Bunheads do more of it.

5. More Truly!  Maybe I just want more Stacey Oristano (viva FNL!) on my screen, especially when she's playing the exact opposite of her Friday Night Lights character.  But Truly is a pitch-perfect foil for Michelle.  Bunheads likes to boomerang Michelle into Fanny's world, where she is often too spastic, and incompetent, or the girls' world, where she sometimes becomes that embarrassing adult whose jokes go over your head.  But with Truly, someone her own age?  Michelle's lightheartedness is good for her, and Truly doesn't ever dismiss it like the others.  Not only that, but Truly is already fascinating unto herself, in her hopeless love for Hubbell, and her ability to do for others but not for herself.  I just want to give the girl a hug.  And more screentime.

4. Bring in a WOC.  Of course, this is a rather famous request, owing to Shonda Rhimes' tweet asking for a black ballerina.  Then everything got blown out of proportion, natch, and I find myself sighing over the controversy, and paying attention, rather bitterly, to the non-white background dancers.  So why not just bring one to the foreground?  It's not like we can't have new characters, especially if they are well-developed, likeable, and round out the diversity.  And it doesn't have to be token casting: just make her important, three-dimensional, and involve her with the main storylines - and we're good.

3. Show Michelle with the kids!  So far in Season 1, we got little glimpses of Michelle interacting with Boo, Sasha, Melanie, and Ginny, but the show seemed reluctant to wholeheartedly swing Michelle into complete Teacher Mode.  Which is fine; Michelle herself is resistant to becoming a dance teacher and mentor for kids, and it'd be perhaps too heavyhanded to cleanly make Michelle a successful teacher in smalltown California, while easily shelving her original showbiz dreams.  (Especially when there's such good internal conflict there.)  But at the same time, Bunheads purposefully put Michelle in a teaching role, and made her pretty influential to Boo and Sasha in particular.  With Sasha, the show seems to be drawing a strong connection to Michelle, with the idea that Michelle gains Sasha's hard-earned respect by showing a rather adult-like backbone.  But even though Michelle was the one to convince Sasha to return to ballet, we never saw much preamble for that decision, especially considering their t-shirt stealing and shouting match that was never resolved.  Then, in the finale, Bunheads tried to pay this off with Sasha hauling out a momentous "O Captain My Captain" for Michelle, in reference to Dead Poets Society.  Don't get me wrong; I teared up with the best of them, seeing that Sasha was the first one to lay out a huge gesture of appreciation and support for Michelle.  But if that was the whole point, then why not take a more direct path there?  So my advice to Season 2 is this: don't be scared of showing Michelle in a mentor position.  Michelle's the one that's scared of that, not us.

2.  More Fanny!  It seems as though Bunheads might be flirting with the notion of reducing Fanny's role on the show, and I'm not quite sure why.  Every time Fanny mentions handing over classes to Michelle, or moving to Montana, a little bit of panic rises in my chest, and I want to shout at the TV screen but we hardly even know you!  With the scant and dwindling screentime, Fanny can occasionally slip into just the one dimension: tyrannical ballet teacher.  She has almost no real developed relationships with her students, and she rarely expresses sympathy towards, well, anyone.  Let's flesh this lady out, shall we?  Her back story is fascinating and tragic: she gave up a ballet career to raise a family, and now her only family has been taken away from her permanently.  For as much as Michelle is an awash-at-sea character, so is Fanny.  Don't let us forget that!

1.  Ultimately, though, the big takeaway is this: let the characters and their interactions rule the show.  Bunheads is a rare breed of television show that doesn't require a lot of complicated plot, simply because the characters are strong, complicated, and intertwined enough to create conflict on their own.  Relationship drama is key.  This entire thing can rest easily on the shoulders of Michelle and Fanny, by virtue of their constructed circumstance and characters, and the friction that goes along with them being inherently similar and different, in turn.  Beyond that, there are strong characters in Truly, Boo, Sasha, and even, with a little work, Melanie and Ginny.  In allowing these ladies their individual storylines and objectives, and giving them opportunity to disagree with and support one another in turn, you hardly need anything else.  Except those pop culture references.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friends and Feminism: Rachel Green and her Independence Arc

Rarely do I have deep thoughts about Friends, the TV show.  It's a show I grew up with, and I watched it with the basic reflection: did I like it?  Did I laugh?  Okay, good.  Only recently, eight years after their final episode aired, have I started to really think about the storytelling decisions on Friends - mostly because now I can't help it.  It's like watching Friends with a completely different set of lenses, looking at a show with great writing for the quality in the writing itself and not just for laughs.  The other day, I caught the Pilot and an episode from Season 3 back-to-back, and together they illuminated a lot about Rachel Green's early arc.  Of course, it's something I had never really processed before, and it gave me pause me to think about its execution and continuation in later seasons.

In the Pilot, Rachel Green runs out on her wedding to free herself from her fiancé, and cuts up her credit cards to emancipate herself from her father. She's all about independence! Which is super awesome.  I never quite appreciated how great Rachel's story is from the perspective of feminism, and the show makes good on that construct early on.  Marlo Thomas, one of the original television figures of feminism on "That Girl," was cast to play Rachel's mother.  Inspired by her daughter's liberation, Mrs. Green filed for divorce and wanted to take on New York City like her daughter.  Her best friend Mindy came to town, and even though Rachel encouraged Mindy to take a similar stand of independence, Mindy doesn't make the same choice, and returns to Long Island and her wealthy (cheating) fiancé.  In short, it's well-communicated that Rachel was intended to go from her father's house to her husband's house, and her bid for freedom from that in the Pilot was a conscious decision to emancipate herself and change the course of her own life, for better or worse.  How great is that?

Fast-forward through her job at the coffeehouse, and starting to date Ross in Season 2.  In Season 3, she finally gets a foot in the door for a dream career: she starts working at Bloomingdales.  Trouble is, the guy who's helping her with networking and transitioning into the job has a crush on her, and Ross is threatened by him.  It's paltry jealousy jokes for most of the arc, but a rather enlightening argument takes place at the end of "The One with Phoebe's Ex-Partner."  Ross insisted on going with Rachel to a fashion seminar, and embarrassed her by falling asleep and calling attention to himself.  Finally, we understand the true conflict:

Rachel: Y'know if what I do is so lame, then why did you insist on coming with me this morning?  Huh?  Was it so I just wouldn’t go with Mark? 
Ross: No. I... I wanted to be with you.  I feel like lately, I feel like you’re slipping away from me.  With this new job, and all these new people, and you’ve got this whole other life going on.  I know it’s dumb, but I hate that I’m not a part of it. 
Rachel: It’s not dumb. But, maybe it’s okay that you’re not a part of it. Y'know what I mean? I mean it’s like, I like that you’re not involved in that part of my life. 
Ross: That’s a little clearer. 
Rachel: Honey, see, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you.  Because I do.  I love you, I love you so much.  But my work, it’s for me, y'know, I’m out there, on my own, and I’m doing it and it’s scary.  But I love it, because it’s mine.  I mean, is that okay? 
Ross: Sure. (as he hugs her, he mouths an outraged "no")

This exchange is glorious, because it connects Rachel's Season 3 identity with her S1 original intent, two years later.  Rachel has something that is her own.  She's finally moved forward on her journey, found a worthwhile investment of her talents, and is expressing her independence with success.  It's frustrating that Ross protests this.  It's wonderful that Rachel rebuffs his protestations with reassurance not only in her feelings for him, but also in her own self-confidence, empowerment, and identity.  It is magnificent, that Rachel doesn't budge on the idea that maybe she's not doing this relationship properly because Ross isn't a part of every aspect of her life.  She's all about independence!  It aligns with her original intent, and is executed fantastically.  It's enough to bring a happy tear to my eye.

What sucks is that Ross doesn't really accept that sentiment, and everything blows to smithereens anyways.  Their devolution as a couple continues because of Ross' inability to get past the Mark jealousy, and in the infamous "we were on a break" miscommunication, he sleeps with the copy girl while Rachel is under the impression they're still together.  They break up, and the rest of the series is dedicated mostly to their dance around each other until they finally get back together for good in the finale.  Rachel's independence arc crops up at various further points as well, mainly resurrecting when she gets pregnant with Ross' kid and decides to raise the baby as a single mother.

What I realized, though, is that the show's final cliffhanger - and romantic resolution to Ross and Rachel's love story - creates a situation where Rachel has a job opportunity in Paris and is going to leave Ross behind.  She's accepted the position, after having been fired from her job at Ralph Lauren and turned down for a job at Gucci, and of course Mark returns to remind us that Ross has jealousy issues.  The prospect of Rachel leaving for Paris is too much, especially after having slept together one last time, and so Ross makes the grand gesture at the airport.  She "got off the plane," and decides to stay in New York with him.

I know that there are a lot of attenuating circumstances at the end of a complicated 10-year relationship, with Emma, and with Friends being largely the love story between Ross and Rachel.  I'm not saying that Rachel should have shouted at Ross in French and then stormed off to the plane to prove her independence.  You could argue that Rachel's independence arc had to evolve and transform to stay fresh, and that it's unrealistic to expect an absolute and inflexible character arc out of a show that intended to relatably reflect the trials and successes of every day life.  You could also argue that Rachel fulfilled her journey towards independence in the sum total of her seasons on the show, and one single gesture does nothing to refute that.  I definitely see the validity in all of these points.

But I still can't shake the notion that when you look at it in terms of Rachel's original arc, the ending is dissonant. Rachel giving up a career promotion to stay with Ross becomes slightly underwhelming, especially given his pre-established insecurity towards Rachel having something that he's not included in.  Some part of me wants Rachel to have jetted off into another adventure of independence, bursting through the door of a French café and changing her life, the way she did in Central Perk ten years previous.  But forsaking the specialness of Rachel's belonging to the group of six isn't satisfying, and I can't blame the writers for wanting her to stay local.  Maybe if Ross and Rachel had a conversation about trying to make their relationship work in symbiosis with Rachel's career, I'd be less picky.  Maybe if there'd been some resolution to what broke them up in the first place, at some point in the seven years' interim, it'd be easier to overlook.  Maybe if there hadn't been a constructed cliffhanger around Rachel having to choose, at the last minute, between Option A (Ross) and Option B (career) with no possible negotiation, there wouldn't be a lingering feeling that the writers didn't quite pay off Rachel's original intent as well as they could have.

Ross' story on Friends is about standing up for himself and finding love in the wake of his divorce.  Rachel's is about standing up for herself and finding independence in the wake of an unhappy life directed largely by expectations of womanhood.  So why did Ross' arc trump hers, at the very end?

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Culture Nerd's Guide to Olympic Coverage

I'm not a long-time fan of the Olympics.  I never harbored any secret yearning to be a gymnast, as many young girls often do - even though I was prime age for Magnificent-Seven-worship.  I have vague recollections of "The Dream Team," and there's of course the lingering memory of the bombings in Atlanta in 1996, the kind of tragic event that a little kid never forgets, but also never really understands. On the whole, the Olympics meant little to me as a child.  They were something that came to Atlanta when I was nine, and to Salt Lake City when I was fifteen.  I paid a minimum amount of attention.  In fact, when I went to college and met someone who was a self-proclaimed Olympic junkie, my first thought was, stupidly, "There is such a thing?"

In short, I've never really known how to get excited about the Olympics.  In the early 2000s, there was a lot of talk about the Olympics possibly becoming obsolete, with national investment dwindling, and the suggestion that host cities were better off not draining their resources into a venture that would ultimately become nothing more than a ghost town and a tarnished trophy of glory days.  And, since I had never particularly cared about the Olympics, I thought this might be an accurate description of the cultural trend.

Since then, two things have changed, and whether independently or connected, I'll never be sure.  It seems as though the world cares about the Olympics again - but maybe that perception is because I care about the Olympics now, for the first time.

Now I can't possibly understand how the Olympics couldn't be exciting.  By utter definition, it's designed to be both compelling and infectious.  There's something so winsome about bringing the world together in good-natured competition and sportsmanship, mingling the tradition of years past with the hope - even reassurance - that we can peaceably coexist on this planet even despite age-old differences in culture, language, race, and religion.

I began to realize this in Vancouver, in 2010, and am rediscovering it with London now.  (I thought maybe I was just a Winter Olympics kind of girl, but turns out Summer suits me just fine too.)  And something else I love about the Olympics, beyond the promise of diversity, unity, and global consciousness, is the idea that there's so much to learn.  There's so much data involved in the Olympics - from rules of a sport, to its scoring systems, to each athlete's individual strengths and weaknesses.  The nerd in me delights in trying to upload that into my brain, so that participating in the games becomes that much more engaging and rewarding.

It's this concept of Olympic information and the communication thereof that seems to be a double-edged sword in these London Olympics.  When the games are taking place in another country, the responsibility falls to the media of each nation to bring the news back home.  And when there's only one American news network providing coverage, the responsibility of information to an entire country of people falls on one corporation.  Monopoly of media inevitably causes problems.  We do, however, still live in a society where access to information is at an all-time easiest, and the London games are being touted as the first Olympics to take full advantage of social media outlets.  Theoretically, this means that news out of London should be synchronized, and made available to the American public in a fairly undiluted and unbiased format.  After all, it is news.

Alas, this ideal is only half-fulfilled.  Just as there is good and bad to, well, everything, there is to social media and its uses, and I fear the Olympics media coverage in the United States shifts easily and nonchalantly towards the bad - or at least the disheartening.  (I mean, there's a segment with Ryan Seacrest called the "Talkmeter," comparing American athletes' popularity with Angelina Jolie's right leg at the Oscars.  This doesn't seem like the harbinger of great reporting.)

Every day, as Olympic events are going on in London, information is being posted to the internet: real time reactions, results, and reports.  But if you want to watch them?  You might be able to see them live through NBC's website, if you have a good internet connection and already pay for cable.  (I do, and still couldn't access the videos.)  The best option is to wait until NBC's primetime televised Olympic grab bag, where they present the events of the day in chopped-up pieces, so that not only is there no excitement in wondering who won thanks to the days' spoilers, but also no stretch of time long enough to stay truly engaged before Bob Costas pops up, tells us what we should think about what just happened, and slingshots us into the middle of another notable American highlight we have no context for.  I can see the merit in this design: it's bite-sized pieces of the games so that Americans with busy schedules can see the highlights, like a clip show, and get the "most important" information.  

But at the same time, it has a few negative outcomes, especially when it's the only design for the citizens of the United States to experience the Olympic coverage.  (Again, media monopoly?  Problematic.)  The format condenses an entire day's worth of information, excising simultaneously the sustained joy, excitement, and energy of the Olympic competition.  If you'll allow me to adapt it to the age-old, over-used adage: it gives us fish, without teaching us how to fish.  Watching NBC's primetime coverage is like being spoon-fed information that has been boiled down for us.  It's already bottom-lined, essentialized, and wrapped-up with a bow of shiny American pride.  We don't have to know anything about swimming to understand that Michael Phelps is the best swimmer ever.  We don't have to see entire games or matches, just the last five minutes, or whatever NBC deems most important.

It's this suggestion as well that is somewhat disconcerting about bullet-pointing the Olympic coverage: in that NBC has to condense a whole day's worth of competition into roughly four hours, it also means that they choose what is "most important" to show.  What results is a tendency to editorialize on the assumption that Americans wish to be entertained by the Olympics, and only care about the American athletes' medal count to boot.  And there's no other option.

This editorializing seeps into even the most basic commentary on many Olympic events.  In women's gymnastics, the Russian team was subject to American commentary, which portrayed them as a group of "divas," and Aliya Mustafina in particular was repeatedly referenced as being stubborn, haughty, and difficult to work with.  The American team, however, was portrayed with zest and zeal, and NBC even found a story to sell: the Tragic Tale of Jordyn Wieber.  Wieber's failure to advance to the All-Around competition by only fractions of a point, despite being expected to make it easily, sparked a sensational story that basically resulted in her representation as the Martyr of Women's Gymnastics.  There was more focus on Jordyn Wieber's loss than there was on Gabby Douglas' and Aly Raisman's triumph - and hardly any mention of Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney, the Fab Five's remaining two, at all.  Instead, the team performance commentary was centered around "winning one for Jordyn Wieber," and it worked.  It got to be that I couldn't even hear mention of Jordyn Wieber without tearing up for the tragedy of what befell her at the games.  The association between Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber was so insisted upon that even during Aly's performances in the All-Around, the camera kept cutting to Jordyn in the audience (even though she was there, with McKayla and Kyla, to support Gabby and Aly's shot at a medal).  

The idea that the American media needs to decide first what Americans care about, in order to ensure their ratings, leads as well to a nasty whiff of ethnocentricity in American coverage.  I am all for American pride, and giving the American athletes a spotlight in front of their country.  I'm also all for learning more about the athlete's backgrounds: NBC is very good about airing interviews with the athletes, and clip packages letting the audience know the athlete's back story, and often family life as well.  That's been great, and helps to connect the viewers to the games and the athletes competing in them.  But in contrast to the onslaught of American coverage, there's hardly any illumination of anything not-American.  A tribute to the 7/7 victims of terrorism in London was omitted from NBC's Opening Ceremony coverage.  There's also been no mention of the fact that this Olympics coincides with Ramadan, and many Muslim athletes are choosing to adhere to their fast while in the competition.  Stacking this with the portrayal of the Russian women's gymnasts as diva villains, and it's hard not to reach the conclusion that apparently America just doesn't care about anything else.  

This only validates the pre-existing perception of the United States as a nation whose people can't be bothered to imagine anything beyond their borders because whatever might lie there is insignificant at best.  Only this time, a major corporation is nourishing this damaging stereotype, and the very real seed which lays at the root of the "ugly American" caricature.  What's worse, those citizens who do want more exhaustive, inclusive, and unbiased coverage are not only left to watch the Olympics without it, but are also at risk of being called "unAmerican" for a point of view that simply extends beyond the borders of our backyard and the myopic lenses of the media.  Putting forth any complaint about the coverage is seen simply as internet hatred, the vitriol of young people who idly bitch about anything and everything.  Deaf ears abound.

I get that NBC has to make money.  I get that they have to sell an engaging story.  But the underlying takeaway from the exaggeration of these concepts is that the media doesn't trust the intelligence and emotional investment of the American people.  We are being condescended to, with programming that bottom lines a wealth of nuance in athleticism, history, culture, and sportsmanship, and sensationalizes only our own involvement in the tradition.  Ultimately, it feels antithetical to what the Olympics is really about: bringing the world together on common ground, where culture simply means pride and patriotism for the athletic accomplishments of all nations.

In the end, I've found that the best approach to being involved in the spirit and tradition of the games is to seek out information on your own.  It's not easy, because there's 205 nations competing, in 300 events, with 14000 athletes, and only so much time in the day.  But the information is out there: you just have to find it.  Even though it's difficult to watch events as they air, you can go to the London Olympics website, which is not only an encyclopedic resource for athletes, event schedules, and medal counts, but also features live, play-by-play coverage of all events in real time.  There's also an accompanying app to download, where you can customize your Olympic experience.  There's other nations' news broadcast sites too, and videos where the commentators are far more positive about the athlete's performances.  

When it's all said and done, the actual bottom line to participating in the unfiltered joy and unbiased appreciation of the Olympic Games is to exercise the true power of social media, the light and truth that's always on the other side of oversimplification and editorialized "stories" - the information is available.  The excitement is out there.  It's up to you to find it.
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