Think Tank: “Treat Yo Self”

In the “Pawnee Rangers” episode of the fourth season of “Parks and Recreation,” Tom Haverford explains to the audience that he and Donna Meagle set aside a day every year in which all they do is pamper themselves. They splurge on clothes, fragrances, massages, mimosas and fine leather goods. “Three words for you,” Tom tells Donna. “Treat. Yo. Self.”

This is a side storyline in the episode, but out of all of the incredible plots and jokes “Parks and Recreation” came up with in seventh seasons, “treat yo self” is the one thing that I see on a near-daily basis. A Google search for “treat yo self” will give you 4 million results, and the actress who plays Donna, Retta, said in a recent interview that she hears the phrase at least 10 times a day. There are tens of pages on Etsy of joke-related t-shirts, prints, mugs and more. I see it on my social media feeds when people decide to publicly justify their splurges, and it’s a standard response in my friend groups when we’re waffling on whether or not to buy or do something we think is nicer than normal. Recently one of my friends posted a Snapchat of some caloric food with the phrase as a caption, which got me thinking about how pervasive the mantra is. I realized that as a phenomenon there’s more going on than just a funny joke.

It’s a thing a lot of people (especially millennials) know about, probably because of Netflix.

I’ve written about Netflix before and how streaming is changing our cultural experiences, so it’s unsurprising to me that something that’s actually pretty funny is a well-known thing. All seven seasons of “Parks and Recreaction” are on Netflix, so millions of people can watch and revisit them whenever they want. Because it’s available whenever and wherever, the jokes stretch much farther in the cultural psyche than if the show was only broadcasted live once or just put on expensive DVDs. People that discover “Parks and Recreation” through binge watching on Netflix get fresh takes of “treat yo self” and are let in on the joke, while fans of the show who rewatch “Pawnee Rangers” get to revisit the joke and file it away in their brains. And when I say it to myself, it’s an in-joke that somehow helps me justify buying a new sweater or expensive coffee from my favorite spot.

From one angle, something like “treat yo self” is a cultural shibboleth that’s made possible by something like Netflix. If you like “Parks and Recreation” and drop the “treat yo self” joke to someone and they get it, you know that you probably have similar cultural interests. Knowing what my friend meant in her Snapchat by “treat yo self” enhanced its meaning for me — in some way she wanted to justify why she was eating badly without a special occasion — and shared with me that she also watches the show. The widespread availability of the art makes this possible.

It’s resonant because of the economic conditions young people currently live in. 

If you watch the clip above, Tom clearly says that this is an annual thing — something he and Donna say is “the best day of the year.” From a broad view, it seems that people aren’t really paying attention to the joke, or that they just want to seem funny to people who would know it.

But the more I think about it, especially since I also use the joke differently, the more I realized it’s a facet of its role as a cultural shibboleth. I know so many people my age who are very worried about their financial situations and whether or not they’ll ever be able to make money, so anything that seems extra gets the “treat yo self” justification and a few laughs. Both Tom and Donna have secure, full-time government jobs, and can afford to set aside one day to buy things they don’t really need. Considering these details of the show are important in understanding the impact of the joke on its audience, in that the context that Tom and Donna find themselves in is something that a lot of people are striving towards. Comedy is a method many people use to feel better about their current conditions, and I think that’s what happening here in a broader way for the millennial set. I’ll be very interested to see if in the next decade “treat yo self” will still have the same meaning amongst members of my age group.

What do you think about “treat yo self”? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

 

Think Tank: TV Revivals and Reboots

I love "Gilmore Girls," but I don't need new episodes in my life.
I love “Gilmore Girls,” but I don’t need new episodes in my life.

“Gilmore Girls” is quite easily near the top of my list of all-time favorite television shows. For most of late middle school and throughout high school, I made watching afternoon reruns on ABC Family a ritual. I remember saying in my interview to be on my high school’s newspaper that the fictional character I was most like was Rory Gilmore.  I even watched it live on the WB on Tuesday nights. I wanted to go to Yale and be on the Yale Daily News. This is how much I loved “Gilmore Girls.” 

But when I read earlier this week that there are plans to revive “Gilmore Girls” for a limited run on Netflix, I was not a happy camper. In the last few years, revivals and reboots of old television shows and movies have become increasingly popular. When there’s an announcement that something is getting a Netflix season, the entire Internet explodes, and I saw at least five articles about the rumors of who was coming back and what the show might cover.

This has been at the front of my half-melted brain for the week, and I’ve been thinking about what this revival trend says about television in 2015 and how we consume culture. I’ve come to the realization that this trend is not a good one, and that there are several reasons why.

Internet culture and TV revivals are definitely connected.

Netflix has an incredible platform to deliver film and television across the globe, even though it’s not always the most helpful way to broaden our cultural horizons. When a show gets canceled, the conversation about moving it to online streaming is serious and becomes top entertainment news. If a production group wants to reinvigorate something badly enough, they make a Kickstarter and fundraise with the help of loyal fans. The Internet is an easy way to spread and strengthen fandom.

We’re living in a world where just about everything is instantaneous, and we demand that our cultural consumption is swift and easy. A revival like “Gilmore Girls” sort of speaks to that. We saturate the media with remembrance posts and listicles, and when we interview show runners or stars we always bring it up. The Internet won’t let anything ever die, so we just keep talking about the same things over and over and over again. Interviewers think that asking creators or actors questions about the shows or movies that they’ve moved away from is logical and interesting, because there’s some faction of the Internet that will go nuts. While this kind of reaction is significant to our understanding of how the Internet works and that there’s the potential to spread information like wildfire, a lack of temporal distance prohibits us from making good observations about the shows and culture in general.

This says a lot about how the audience views itself in the show-making process.

I might be in the minority, but I was satisfied with the ending of “Gilmore Girls.” I won’t make any specific comments for fear of #spoilers, but I liked how it left all of the characters. In my own head, I interpreted it in such a way that the ending was happy and that the characters ended up where they were supposed to. It solidified my understanding of the show and its universe in such a way that I could talk about it critically. I felt the same exact way about “Mad Men,” “Arrested Development” and “Breaking Bad.” They all became complete pieces of art, and I looked forward to reading retrospectives.

In one way, it puzzles me as to why other fans would want to crack the show back open. Sure, there’s probably more story about the Gilmore women to tell. But the show runners, who are in their own way artists, decided to end it in that way for whatever reason, whether it was artistic or financial or logistical. It’s the same pressure people put on J.K. Rowling to do more with “Harry Potter,” or George R. R. Martin to hurry up with more from the “A Song of Ice and Fire” world. We have such high expectations of the culture we consume, and think that in some way the people who make the things we like have to spend the rest of their creative lives revolving around those things. We also think that our collective power can make those things happen eventually, and that if we want more we deserve it. This cannot be particularly healthy for either side.

I love “Gilmore Girls,” but I really don’t want to read about it every day. There are too many other things to see and think about. There’s a difference between visiting an exhibit in 10 years about the show or buying a coffee table book of essays about the show, and having it constantly be at the cultural forefront.

We need to do a better job of making room for more original content. 

There are so many talented people in the world who have dreamt up entire universes and stories to tell on screen, and they never get to share them because we’re too busy trying to figure out how to revive or reboot stuff we’ve already seen. Taking inspiration or drawing parallels from different shows and other cultural areas is fantastic, but redoing them is entirely different. We should really be giving new creators a break and making space for them. In asking for and supporting original content on both our televisions and computer screens, we can do a better job of including marginalized groups or bringing awareness to important causes. Let’s close the books, television and films we’ve already made, and start to write even better ones.

What do you think about reboots and revivals? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

Culture Connoisseur: Flight of the Conchords

This looks weird but I promise it's fantastic.
This looks weird but I promise it’s fantastic.

This summer I haven’t watched that much television. I’ve watched assorted Bravo reality television shows sporadically, the end of Hannibal (RIP),  the second season of True Detective (which was incredibly disappointing) and Show Me A Hero (GO WATCH IT, but that is not the point of this post). But when I heard that Flight of the Conchords had announced a new tour and potential movie, I knew I needed to rewatch the series.

For the uninitiated, Flight of the Conchords is a comedy that aired on HBO from 2007-09. The show is about two New Zealanders, Bret and Jemaine, who move to New York to achieve their dream of becoming a rock band. However, they’re really terrible and don’t have much success in the world of the show. But the actual show is essentially a musical, and the songs that Bret and Jemaine perform as part of the show’s narrative are excellent. Bret and Jemaine are essentially versions of the actors who play them, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. They are a very good comedy musical duo that is also named Flight of the Conchords, so it’s sort of art imitating life imitating art.

I watched Flight of the Conchords for the first time during my sophomore year of high school, when my friend Siena introduced me to it. We were obsessed for the better part of a year, watching the DVD and referencing the show whenever we could. I don’t recall watching it again between then and recently, and thought that an announcement of new material warranted a rewatch. And because I realized that it’s even better than I remember it, I wanted to share. Here are a few reasons why you should watch (or rewatch) the show:

It’s really, really, really funny. 

Flight of the Conchords is an unusual comedy in that they use music to their advantage, which they weave into the storylines. They give homage to a lot off of different artists and music styles that you might recognize, which 15-year-old Zoë, even with her diehard appreciation of 1960s music, did not catch in the slightest.

What makes it even funnier is that the Flight of the Conchords in the show is a really terrible band that can never come up with good material or get a break, while the real Flight of the Conchords are comedic and lyrical geniuses. There are a ton of jokes about New Zealand, living in New York and being musicians. It’s probably PG-13 since there are multiple references to sex throughout the series, but it’s the tamest of tame for HBO: teenagers will find it intriguing and like the songs, while adults will think it’s really great comedy. I think most of the one-liners and general storylines are funnier than say, most recent Saturday Night Live sketches or the kinds of sitcoms CBS seems to think are funny. I laughed a lot this time around, which I don’t really remember doing at 15.  I think I was just trying to soak the show in.

Everything about this show is musical and it is great.
Bret and Jemaine. 

If you picked out a random Flight of the Conchords song, you’d think that maybe it was a nonsensical or slightly weirder children’s song. Amongst many other great subjects, they make songs about being robots, speaking French and business time. In context (and even if you have watched the show and it comes up on iTunes shuffle), these songs are hysterical. For example, in the show the “Hiphopopotamus v. Rhymenoceros” song happens because Bret, who has decided he wants to be called the Hiphopopotamus, and Jermaine accidentally run into two street muggers who want to take their stuff.  A quasi rap battle ensues. The lyrics are fantastic and creative and I still love them.

Like, you can’t sit there and listen to “They call me the Hiphopopotamus / my lyrics are bottomless” followed my a lengthy silence and not think it’s funny. One of my favorite episodes is about David Bowie from different eras coming to visit Bret in his dreams (“David Bowie told me to do it in a dream” is FUNNY) with an accompanying song.

I don’t want to spoil the first song of the series for you, but just know you’ll get hooked.

You’ll recognize some of your favorite actors.

Kristen Schaal, who was on The Daily Show, plays the band’s only fan. Eugene Mirman, who voices Eugene in Bob’s Burgers, plays the landlord. Aziz Ansari plays a fruit vendor who is xenophobic towards New Zealanders. Jim Gaffigan shows up in an episode in the second season. David Costabile, who plays Gale in Breaking Bad, is Mel’s husband. Even Art Garfunkel has a cameo. Kristin Wiig, Patton Oswald, Lucy Lawless, Judah Friedlander and Sutton Foster are in it too. The point is that there are a lot of quality actors that come to hang out with Bret and Jemaine, so it’s not just a podunk show.

There’s actually some really interesting subtext to it that makes it excellent television.

You didn’t think you’d get through a Culture Connoisseur without some cultural analysis, did you? Watching it at 22 years old made me realize that there’s some really interesting themes that you could totally parse out as part of an analysis on comedy television: xenophobia, sexuality, race relations, and much more. Above the comedy of the situations Bret and Jemaine find themselves in, there’s even an entire conversation happening about whether or not the American dream of success is even accessible and attainable. So in one way, you’re watching a comedy about two dudes making funny songs. But in another, you’re watching two New Zealanders’ views on what America supposed to be and is. I think that is incredibly smart, which is why it is such a good show that you should watch.

 

I promise this is funny.
I promise this is funny.

You can buy a DVD of both seasons for less than $20, or if you have Amazon Prime (or presumably on HBO Go) you can stream it for free. You can even buy the music if you like it.

Have you seen Flight of the Conchords? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Undergrad Adventures: ENG 451 Presentation

Photo of me getting said presentation, courtesy of my friend Sarah, who is a great source of moral support.
Photo of me getting said presentation, courtesy of my friend Sarah, who is a great source of moral support. (See my very messy white board diagram in the back.)

Last week, I got an email from my capstone mentor asking me if I wanted to give a presentation on my last capstone paper in his Modernism & Postmodernism class.

He is always simultaneously my favorite and least favorite person.
“No pressure at all” yeah okay uh huh

So I took part of the afternoon off of work and went and gave what ended up being a much bigger presentation/discussion. Despite none of this being for class credit, I learned a lot about public speaking and giving a talk.

Reading from a formal essay will not always work for a talk. 

When I did SCCUR, all I had to do was get up there, read my paper and push along PowerPoint slides. I did a pretty good job of explaining Yeezus, and just about everyone there was already interested in the material.

A class of English students who had maybe seen a handful of Community episodes each makes things just a little harder. This paper is all about the Community episode “Critical Film Studies,” which is heavily entrenched in Pulp Fiction and My Dinner with Andre references. The particular publication I’ll be sending this to is online, so it’s easy for people to Google “My Dinner with Andre summary” or “who is Abed Nadir.” But when you’re in a classroom full of people who may not have seen either movie (most people had seen Pulp Fiction, but nobody had seen My Dinner with Andre), you have to reorient yourself a little bit. I started out with small summaries of the episode (which we had just watched) the two movies, and the definition of the postmodern concept — the simulacra — I was working with. I also added some preliminary questions to get people comfortable with what I was about to say. It was an easier way to segue into very dense material that requires prior knowledge, even if you’ve just watched the episode. When you’re writing a paper for a specific purpose, you forget that not everyone will be on the same page. I think I need to be a tad more cognizant of that for next time.

Nothing ever goes exactly the way you plan it. 

I was originally only supposed to talk and facilitate a discussion for 15-30 minutes. The entire thing, including watching the episode, turned into nearly 1 1/2 hours. The class had SO many questions about the concepts and great things to say, and even started small back-and-forths amongst themselves — I didn’t initially expect any of the scenarios. It was great for me, since I had to think on my feet and got new ideas from their discussions. There are a couple of things they brought up and fleshed out that I hadn’t even thought of that I think will really enhance my paper. I love working with other people like that, because it puts everyone’s creativity in high gear.

You don’t really realize just how important a good room is for teaching until you’re in one that really sucks. 

The classroom that this class is held in is a long and wide room set up to be a computer lab, with four sets of group tables in the middle and computer stations around the perimeter. There was no front table or lectern, and a humongous space between the front tables and the white board. I have a clear and loud voice, so I don’t think I had issues with the people in the back hearing me. But I felt marooned at the front of the room — I had nowhere to put my notebook or my notes, so I felt like an idiot standing up there without an anchor. Plus, I had to write super big on the white board so the quality of my handwriting instantly plummeted. Tl;dr Some rooms are just not good for presentations.

 

I am a halfway decent public speaker.

I was really nervous at the beginning (partly because the concepts are difficult and partly because my research mentor was sitting. right. there.) But I soon found a cadence, and was able to use my hands and move around the room without bouncing or shaking, something I usually do. I faltered over some words, which I should have rehearsed beforehand. I know from my foray into writing scripts for video that you can’t write anything that’s hard to say, and even though this is originally for print, I should have modified some words to help them glide better.

All that being said, I got a lot of compliments from my fellow classmates and the professor, who said I was a good public speaker. I don’t buy that completely, but we’ll see when I have to give my next speech in April — another undergraduate adventure for another day.

What’s your experience with giving presentations? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Gold Star for the Internet: Mozart in the Jungle

I blew through all 10 episodes in about two days, so that's how good it was.
I blew through all 10 episodes in about two days, so that’s how good it was.

Let me tell you about my new favorite television show. (Some of you have already heard and been converted.)

Mozart in the Jungle is a fantastic dramedy that premiered a few weeks ago on Amazon. As a Prime member, I have access to tons of streaming video options, including Amazon-only releases. When I found out about this show, I watched the pilot and was instantly hooked.

I love the subject and the premise.

Hearing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the Hollywood Bowl is definitely on my top 5 life experiences list, and I love television, so the two things combined are right up my alley. The show focuses on a young oboist who is trying to get a seat in the New York Philharmonic, a brilliant but emotional maestro who is replacing an old one and an ensemble of colorful characters. (It’s based on this book.) I’ve seen and heard criticism that the actors aren’t particularly realistic musicians technique-wise, but I don’t think that particularly detracts from the show. In fact, you don’t really need to have any prior knowledge of classical music to appreciate the story.

As a side note, I very rarely cry when I watch movies or television shows. But I was so moved by one of the episodes that I started weeping, which I count as a very good thing.

It’s a beautiful show.

The production values are very high, which I really appreciate. To commit to having real instruments for every actor and make the apartments and offices look realistic is a sign that Mozart in the Jungle is serious. The show is set in New York, and the scenery is incredible. Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman co-wrote the pilot and are very involved with the show, and everything they do is brilliant.

The acting is superb.

Mozart in the Jungle has an all-star cast, including Gael Garcia Bernal, Malcolm McDowell and Bernadette Peters. Lola Kirke is also really great. There’s a really strong chemistry, and you can see it play out throughout the season.

For all of these reasons, Mozart in the Jungle gets a huge gold star.

The first season of 10 episodes is currently streaming on Amazon, and each episode is roughly 30 minutes long. If you decide to delve into it, let me know so we can talk about it!

Found any good television recently? Let’s talk about it in the comments.