52 Card Pickup

“House of Cards” first episode ends with congressman Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) digging into a rack of ribs at a barbecue joint in a rough neighborhood at 7 in the morning. It feels like the last scene in a mobster movie, but it’s just the ending of the first episode of Netflix’s slightly new (okay, not really new, I’m behind on the times) foray into television.

The show is a political drama centering around South Carolina congressman Francis Underwood, who is lead to believe he will become Secretary of State after playing a key role in the election of a new President. Underwood is skipped over and he vows to get revenge, starting by leaking documents to cub reporter Zoe Barnes. Francis’ wife Claire is also up to something similarly mischievous as she makes major changes to the nonprofit she runs. There are several other characters that come into play to – a drunk driving politician and his lover/intern, an aid who promises to get Underwood what he wants, and a chief of police with political aspirations.

The most unique aspect of the show are Underwood’s comments that break the fourth wall. He speaks to the audience directly about what’s going on his head. At first I found it jarring, but as I got used to it, I found it started to move the plot along.

I watched the first episode out of sheer curiosity, but I can say I will definitely be utilizing my roommate’s dad’s Netflix subscription again in the future.  Apparently, I’m not the only one either.

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Creating Subculture

A rowdy group of twenty-somethings looks for love, a three-generation family living under one roof battles newcomers to their neighborhood, rough fisherman work at the most dangerous job in America and fearless cops dodge a gang member’s bullets. Although these plotlines may sound different, they have a great deal in common – these are four of reality television’s latest creations and they are all set in and around Boston.

“Wicked Single,” “Southie Rules,” “Wicked Tuna,” and “Boston’s Finest” premiered to national audiences in 2012 and 2013 to varying levels of success. These shows often rely on stereotypes as the backbone of the plot – two of the shows have Boston’s infamous catchphrase “wicked” in the title – and therefore haven’t received too much praise from Bostonians. But like it or not, it seems like Boston has been popping up on TV screens more and more this year. Has Boston become the new “it” place for reality television?

                               "We like drama. We get engaged by the craziness of someone else’s life. I think it’s escapism as well, it allows us to escape, it allows us to be in the moment with something that’s not happening in our real world," said Angela Cooke-Jackson, an Emerson communications professor who has written on the subject of reality television," said Angela Cooke-Jackson. Click the above photo to see more opinions from Bostonians about reality television.

“We like drama. We get engaged by the craziness of someone else’s life. I think it’s escapism as well, it allows us to escape, it allows us to be in the moment with something that’s not happening in our real world,” said Angela Cooke-Jackson, an Emerson communications professor who has written on the subject of reality television,” said Angela Cooke-Jackson. Click the above photo to see more opinions from Bostonians about reality television.

“It all started with ‘Jersey Shore,’ pretty much,” says Avery Mangahas, a current Northeastern University student. “Those were a particular group of people in a particular place that had all these rules, and all this lingo and it was like another world. Like gym, tan, laundry, GTL, was a glossary of that place.”

Mangahas worked for Powderhouse Productions, a Somerville company that produced the A&E show “Southie Rules.” Mangahas says that networks are looking for the next “Jersey Shore” style mega-hit. Ever since that show premiered in 2009, reality shows from “Breaking Amish” to “Toddlers and Tiaras” have found success by focusing on a specific subculture that is foreign to most Americans.

“The networks are looking for cohesive cultures that they can just stick a camera on,” Mangahas says.

Recent box-office hits, such as “The Town,” “The Departed,” “The Fighter,” and “Gone, Baby, Gone” have put Boston on the map – a trend that television producers seem eager to latch on to. Those movies relied on Boston’s gritty reputation, which can also be seen in “Boston’s Finest” and “Wicked Tuna.” In addition, Boston locals provide an easy and immediate identifier to that “cohesive culture” with their accents, which can be heard on every new show. (One “character” in “Southie Rules” has such a thick accent that his appearances on the show are all subtitled.)

“The downside of ‘Jersey Shore’ and the backlash is that it is sort of exploitative and trashy. Networks are trying to move away from bad implications and get to see more ‘realistic’ subcultures,” says Mangahas.

Angela Cooke-Jackson, an Emerson College communications professor and co-author of the paper “Appalachian Culture and Reality TV: The Ethical Dilemma of Stereotyping Others,” says that these shows promote biases that permeate into real-world discrimination. She saw that first-hand when producers came to eastern Kentucky, where she was living at the time, and attempted to create a reality show with Appalachian stereotypes at its foundation. Although the show was shot down due to backlash from the community, it spurred her to write the paper on the ethics of using subcultures to create a reality television show.

“It makes people make assumptions about other groups that aren’t true,” says Cooke-Jackson. “Viewers just go, ‘oh that’s how they are.’ I can’t stand ‘Honey Boo Boo’ because it perpetuates this mentality about their culture that is inaccurate. It’s done for viewership, it’s done as a comedic thing, but it really can be damaging.”

Tim Grafft, the head of locations for the Massachusetts Film Office, which attempts to lure producers to film in the state, says that the increase in production is helping the state, for now.

“We try to market our region to filmmakers of any kind, because when a filmmaker – whether it’s a huge movie or a still shoot for a fashion ad – they hire people here, they spend money in restaurants, they spend overnights in hotels, so they generate economic impact in the commonwealth,” says Grafft. He predicts that this summer Massachusetts will have its most profitable season ever in terms of movie and TV production.

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Boston, the commonwealth is the fifth fastest growing state in terms of film and television production (and the number one state outside of the Midwest). The study states “local non‐fiction television and post‐production companies have experienced particularly dramatic growth in recent years.”

In the short term, these shows create jobs and revenue for the city. But are “Wicked Single” and “Southie Rules” damaging Boston’s educated, liberal image for the long term? Only time will tell, but so far neither show has hit it off with national or local viewers or critics.

Mangahas says that the reaction from local audiences to “Southie Rules” has been primarily negative, even erring on the defensive or angry side. But there have been some words of encouragement.

“I think there’s also a desire to support people who are like you or from your area even if what they’re doing is not necessarily the best you’ve ever seen,” says Mangahas.

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“I Wonder If We Could Give Our Eyes a Break”

“Parks and Recreation” aired two new episodes this Thursday, both of which were funny and touching, as per usual. One episode even included a mockery of senate filibusters and the Second Amendment. Have I talked about how much I love this show enough? Probably.

Amy Poehler also recently posted a new “Ask Amy” video about the Marathon Bombings and media coverage. It’s great and you should watch it.

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TV News

I recently read this article from Alan Sepinwall about the difficulty in keeping up with so many high-quality television shows. He admits that its a good problem to have as a TV critic, but I still feel for his pain. I’ve been meaning to watch some new shows so I could have some content for this blog, but it’s been hard enough just to keep up with the shows I already watch. It’s yet another example of how providers such as HBO are raising the bar.

Time magazine’s TV critic, James Poniewozik has an interesting article about “Arrested Development’s” release date. Netflix has obviously completely changed the way we watch TV, but Poniewozik suggests that it may even be moving into movie territory with its release of “Arrested Development” on the first weekend of movie season.

Remember how I posted about Vulture’s Sitcom Smackdown competition and said I would keep updating this blog with results? Yeah, that never happened. But Vulture did decide on a winner, “The Simpsons.” I feel like it’s well-deserved, considering the 25+ seasons of the show, and dozens of characters and phrases that have made their way into American pop culture.

And finally, Stephen Colbert’s political and social commentary never fails to make me laugh, even in times of tragedy.

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International Journalism, Startups, and Moving to Radio

In class today, we heard from guest speaker Maria Balinska, the founder of Latitude News, an international news site based in Cambridge.

Balinska founded the site a year and a half ago after working as an editor at the BBC for many years. While there, she says she learned about how to engage an audience and find a demographic, two of the skills she utilized when forming Latitude News. The site key demographic is educated, urban 30 – 40 year olds who feel they aren’t getting enough information about world issues from other sources. Balinska uses that information to give the reader what they want. In this case, many of their readers also listen to public radio, which gave Balinska an idea.

“Being in entrepreneurial space is an adventure. You can do anything, but that’s scary,” Balinska said. Latitude News certainly hasn’t followed the traditional journalistic path – they recently successfully used Kickstarter to fund a new podcast and asked readers what they wanted to see more of on the site, both unique problem-solving techniques. The team at Latitude then used the information they gathered to focus the podcast on “solution journalism.” Balinska says that listeners want to hear what other countries are doing to solve common problems. They also want to hear an author with a unique voice – something they won’t find from traditional sites like BBC.

She stressed that the marketing for her site was one of the most important aspects, but wondered, “Is the point of journalism to go viral?” She talked about Buzzfeed’s founder who stated that he could make anything go viral, and how that site has had success, even with the changing face of journalism.

“I think this is a time when you can make an impact. But you do have to be nimble, and the idea is not enough. Innovation isn’t just about technology, innovation is about content too,” Balinska said.

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Catching Up with Scranton

I stopped watching “The Office” after Steve Carrell left, oh, about four seasons ago. But the show was admittedly one of my favorites throughout most of high school. After watching an old episode recently, and the news that NBC might be planning a spinoff for one of the characters after the show ends this season, I decided to give the most recent episode a try. The episode centered around the co-workers seeing the first promo for the documentary that’s been filming in their office for the past ten years. The characters are upset by the footage of their private lives that appears in the promo. It’s an interesting twist to bring the mockumentary aspect of the show to another level, but it simply wasn’t executed well. Everyone – even some of the newer characters such as Clark – would have known at this point that the documentary crew cares about more than just their boring office lives. I was hoping to see a glimmer of the humorous spark that made me love the show for so many years, but it the episode fell flat, relying on a gimmick to keep an almost-dead show afloat for the last few episodes.

To read a recap from the A.V. Club, click here.

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Check Out These Blogs

For my blog, I follow various websites to keep in-the-know with what’s happening in the fast-paced TV world. Vulture is the main blog I follow. It’s the pop culture branch of New York Magazine, and they also post about movies and celeb gossip, but in my opinion, their best articles concern TV. The website boasts a good mix of TV recaps, news, and analysis on a wide array of TV shows. Their recaps and analyses are usually spot-on and it’s clear the writers are invested in the shows. The recaps are generally written for people that have already seen the show, so if you’re just reading to catch up on what happened in an episode you missed, you may be confused. My only problem with the website is that the search feature is sometimes hard-to-use compared to other sites. Also, it covers all the shows I watch, but if you’re interested in more independent or offbeat shows, you may have trouble finding what you’re looking for.

The A.V. Club’s TV section, an offshoot of The Onion,  is similar to Vulture in that it offers a wide array of TV shows, depending on your interest. Again, the writers love what the topic. Each episode of a show is graded on a A to F ranking, which makes it easy to see right off the bat if an episode is worth your time or not. My only problem with this website is the design – it can easily feel cluttered.

Both blogs have a very dedicated following, with the A.V. Club especially racking up thousands of comments on single recaps. The fans’ discussion of their favorite shows add to the articles immensely, and is another great reason to read these blogs.

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