This Reuters article describes how the British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was forced to release Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, early because the Evening Standard broke a publicity embargo and ran an interview two weeks to soon. Naturally, other newspapers, not wanting to be scooped by the Standard, also ran stories about McEwan’s book too early. Suddenly, Saturday was getting tons of press, but the books weren’t in stores, and now Bertelsmann’s Random House, which owns Jonathan Cape, wants the Standard to pay for the lost revenue that resulted from the runaway publicity chain reaction. The subtext to all of this, especially if you consider the story in light of the creation of the new made-for-tv Quill Awards, is that publishing companies, most of which are now owned by media conglomerates, are trying to market and sell books in the same way they might market and sell movies or music. In Hollywood, the financial success of many a film is determined by the opening weekend, or even the opening night, and all the marketing resources go towards getting people into the movie theatre on the opening weekend. The primary – though unstated – purpose of awards shows is to convince people to see the movies or buy the music that is being honored, not simply to honor it. My experience as a bookseller tells me that books don’t work this way. The book is the ultimate “word of mouth” product. The desire to read a good book is many times more likely to be initiated by a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader (or bookseller) than by a piece of clever marketing or even a prominent review. It’s my opinion that publishers shouldn’t be pushing for the huge first week numbers – forcing a book to boom or bust – but they should give books a chance to survive and thrive on their own merits… the way McEwan’s last book, Atonement, did.
The Wire’s David Simon is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and famously wielded his journalistic eye as creator of the critically acclaimed series. Though he officially turned in his reporter’s notebook years ago, Simon was moved to do a little freelance reporting for the Washington Post in reaction to a frustrating lack of accountability in the Baltimore Police Department. No one escapes his wrath here: the cops, the journalists, the bloggers.In the halcyon days when American newspapers were feared rather than pitied, I had the pleasure of reporting on crime in the prodigiously criminal environs of Baltimore. The city was a wonderland of chaos, dirt and miscalculation, and loyal adversaries were many. Among them, I could count police commanders who felt it was their duty to demonstrate that crime never occurred in their precincts, desk sergeants who believed that they had a right to arrest and detain citizens without reporting it and, of course, homicide detectives and patrolmen who, when it suited them, argued convincingly that to provide the basic details of any incident might lead to the escape of some heinous felon. Everyone had very good reasons for why nearly every fact about a crime should go unreported.In response to such flummery, I had in my wallet, next to my Baltimore Sun press pass, a business card for Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney of the Maryland District Court, with his home phone number on the back. When confronted with a desk sergeant or police spokesman convinced that the public had no right to know who had shot whom in the 1400 block of North Bentalou Street, I would dial the judge.I’m looking forward to Treme, Simon’s new show about New Orleans, but after reading this, I wouldn’t be too disappointed if he picked up reporting again instead.
…I’d have to bite the bullet and get Tivo, because in the last few weeks, the Christian Sabbath has become a televisual feast day for people of the book. The 8 p.m. time slot currently offers a difficult choice between NBC’s quasi-Biblical Kings (recommended by Emily) and HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (filmed in Botswana, a country that has fascinated me ever since I read Mating). Then, at 9 on PBS, there’s the Masterpiece adaptation of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, a Wire-like whirligig of plot and thespian energy that in many ways excels the novel.The rest of the week, alas, continues to be wall-to-wall reality show, and while the new Vivica A. Fox vehicle Cougars sounds intriguing, I guess I can hold off on the DVR. I have no expectation that the current embarrassment of riches on Sunday night is anything but a fluke.
Overboard, sensational, witty, funny and not-so-objective Sicko is a Michael Moore classic. It is also a lesson in how to take a not-so-controversial issue (providing health care to all) and turn it into a provocative subject (by suggesting that Cuba, France and Canada’s universal coverage works wonders).But there is something inherently good about Sicko’s provocative approach: it prompts debate about universal health care in the context of a government’s duty to its citizens. Moore questions the humanity of denying care to patients on financial grounds, i.e., your insurance plan. Private insurance companies are in the health-care business to make a profit and can only do so at the expense of the sick, Moore contends. Then, he embarks on a tour of Canada, the UK, France and Cuba to debunk theories that government-based, free care is detrimental to the well-being of society and health professionals.Along the way, Sicko visits families and individuals whose lives were deeply affected – emotionally, physically and financially – because of the for-profit system in the U.S. Moore asks why America, the world’s wealthiest country, is incapable of providing a service that a range of other countries – from similarly minded Western allies to Caribbean foe Cuba – regard as a birth right.Moore blissfully ignores certain aspects about other countries’ national plans for a more favorable view of their virtues to amplify his message. Inevitably, this leaves Sicko vulnerable to attacks from the director’s opponents and risks reducing an otherwise meaningful movie to preaching to the choir (e.g., Botched Operation, Crazy Moore Offers Wrong Prescription, says the New York Post).But whether you like him or not, Moore definitely shines a light on an issue that needs and deserves public and political attention in the U.S. – dare I say, a la Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. No wonder Moore was at Capitol Hill flanked by more than 10 Democrats Wednesday, all screaming and kicking for universal health care. (Yes, I wrote about it here.)As per usual, A.O. Scott of the New York Times nails it in his review. So, I’ll stop my gibberish now. Before I depart: I expected the Post’s criticism to stick, but after seeing Sicko I came to think that one has to be heartless and inhuman not to be moved by – or at least think about – the issues Moore raises.Sicko opens in the U.S. Friday, June 29. See it for yourself and let me know what you think – don’t worry, it’ll be worth your 10 bucks, you’ll get a laugh out of it as well as some food for thought.
My mom kept an old VHS copy of Bye Bye Birdie, recorded from a television broadcast, complete with commercial interruptions. I watched it at least once a month in junior high, so the opening moments of the second episode of the third season of Mad Men was a sense-memory jolt back to my childhood. The advertising executives and writers of Sterling Cooper sit around a long table in the projection room, watching the opening number of the Bye Bye Birdie film: Ann-Margret (born Ann-Margret Olsson) sings the title song, running towards and away from a camera that pushes in and pulls back on her, like the girl and camera are engaged in a coquettish, flirtatious dance.
The clip from Bye Bye Birdie, and the subsequent discussion of Ann-Margret’s allure, provide a framework for the episode of Mad Men. Pepsi wants Sterling Cooper to design a Birdie rip-off to advertise their new diet cola product. However, that advertising-related story is simply the element that pulls Bye Bye Birdie into the character’s lives. What the characters do as a result of watching provides their emotional story arcs for the episode.
Most television shows incorporate some popular books, movies, music, and even other television shows into their story lines. But most of the time, those references are shallow. In The O.C., loveable geek Seth Cohen would rattle off the names of whatever indie band was the new cool thing; in an episode of Six Feet Under, an ill-fated day-player read the then-hot book Fast Food Nation as a golf ball struck her in the head. She died and the book, a glorified prop, fell out of her hands.
A popular trend of this type is for geeky characters to use the word “Frak,” a minced oath developed in a burst of genius by Glen Larson, the creator of the original version of the geek-popular sci-fi series Battlestar Gallatica. Kudos to the other writers, who realized they could use it as an FCC-approved profanity too, so long as it was coming out of the mouths of geeky characters. (And doesn’t Seth Cohen just wish he were around to get a piece of that action!)
One reason these references are used is to tie a television show’s characters or world to our world, the “real world,” and to trick us into believing they live in it. Another reason is to trick us into thinking a character is cool, because they consume “cool” media. Pop culture references are an easy way to write quick characterization. A guy walks into the room and mentions the new issue of Green Lantern, you know what kind of guy he’s going to be.
These references are sometimes cloddish or clumsy, and work against the writers by calling attention to themselves. However, I love it when television shows reference other television shows. I enjoy the mixing of media, watching a world where the geeks say “frak” for fun, right after watching a world where “fuck” would be the strange-sounding replacement profanity.
Mad Men does something different, though, something better. The show’s writers use media references not just in passing, not just to create basic plot lines, but to develop emotional arcs for the characters. The characters in Mad Men react emotionally to the media they consume, just like we do in real life.
After seeing Bye Bye Birdie with a gang of salivating boys (and one closeted homosexual pretending to salivate), the only female copywriter at Sterling Cooper, Peggy Olson (same surname as Ann-Margret) goes on a related emotional journey, trying to find herself in the world of alluring women. Peggy Olson tries, and both fails and succeeds, to be sexy.
Peggy, dancing in front of her mirror Ann-Margret style and failing to entice, breaks your heart. Later, Peggy picks up a college kid at a bar using a joke stolen from the always sexy office manager, Joan. The kid is lame, a messy eater, and assumes she’s a secretary – but we know why Peggy goes home with him. Though part of us is silently begging her not to bag the loser, we are also elated that she’s able to.
And as viewers, we know how Peggy feels. All the books and movies and music and TV around us help to define our relationships with others and our views of ourselves.
The characters of Mad Men seem more like real people because their relationships with their pop culture are deep and emotional ones, because what they watch and read and buy affects the course of their lives and the way they see themselves. Even if I didn’t care about Bye Bye Birdie, Peggy’s emotional reaction to the film means more to me as a viewer than another character name-checking the year’s coolest new band.