Friday, June 29, 2007

How the Media and Corporate America's Class Prejudice Gave Us Chris Benoit

I know I'm a few days late on the Chris Benoit story, but there are some important things that have still not been said in the ridiculous media coverage. First, a little backstory. I was a wrestling fan when I was a kid, culminating in my high school years, which coincided with late-90s wrestling boom when it suddenly became sorta-cool to watch it.

Wrestling's decline coincided with my going to college, and I quit watching, though I still kept up with the business through the websites of pro wrestling's two major legitimate news sources: Wade Keller's Pro Wrestling Torch and Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer. Why did I do this? Because I knew something like the Benoit case was coming one day. It was amazing to me that a publicly-traded company like the WWE could get away with rampant abuse of its employees and never be called out for it. I knew one day things would hit the fan, though of course I never imagined it would be in such a tragic way.

WWE was allowed to get away with such foul business practices for so long because wrestling occupies a peculiar space in American culture unlike any other cultural product with the possible exception of pornography. It is a multi-million dollar business that everyone wants to pretend doesn't exist. The mainstream media can pretend wrestling doesn't exist and more or less ignore the premature deaths of 60+ wrestlers in the past two decades because they have convinced themselves that wrestling is only of interest to toothless hillbillies and hyperactive children and that the wrestlers who die don't deserve their pity because they are nothing more than roid-raging circus freaks.

However, thanks in large part to Vince McMahon, wrestlers are no longer performing at county fairs for the toothless hillbillies and on Saturday mornings for the hyperactive kids. WWE's primary show, Monday Night Raw, is consistently one of the highest-rated prime-time shows on cable. Raw airs on USA, the country's most-watched cable network. USA and its sister station Sci-Fi Network, which also airs WWE programming, are both part of NBC Universal, which is of course famously owned by GE.

So, wrestling is not a county fair sideshow, but a major show on a major cable network owned by a major entertainment conglomerate. Now, let's play with a hypothetical situation for a moment. What if several stars of Law & Order, another NBC Universal show, had died prematurely during the close to 20 years that show has been on the air? Additionally, what if there was strong evidence that the horrible working conditions on Law & Order, which included near-mandatory drug use in order to keep one's job, had been a major contributing factor in these deaths? Do you think NBC Universal would have allowed this to continue for such a long period of time without at least sitting Dick Wolf down to discuss the situation? Do you think the media would have allowed NBC to stick its head in the sand for so long?

This is exactly what has happened with WWE. NBC Universal and WWE's other corporate partners, which includes CBS Corp. (whose CW network airs WWE Smackdown), all major cable and satellite systems (who carry WWE's pay-per-view events) and a myriad of other video distributors, toy manufacturers and arena operators, have allowed McMahon to operate unchecked because they don't want to admit that they are making money off pro wrestling. Meanwhile the media, which doesn't want to acknowledge pro wrestling's existence, is silently complicit.

And we all know why. Because wrestling is strongly associated with the last group in America that it is socially acceptable to discriminate against: poor rural whites. Wrestling is perhaps the loudest and most embarrassing example of white trash culture. This somehow makes it acceptable for the media and corporate America to try and pretend it doesn't exist, even while they are quietly profitting from it.

Well, now that a young child and his mother are dead, it appears things might actually change. There are reports of WWE programming being cancelled in international markets and there is even talk of the board (remember, WWE is a public company) ousting McMahon as chairman and demoting him to stictly creative role. I don't ever see this happening, given McMahon's own history of steroid-fueled erratic behavior, but there will be major changes. It is a shame that class prejudice made it necessary for such a horrible tragedy to set these changes in motion.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Branding History

For movie fans in Arizona, it is hard not to love Harkins Theatres. They are a local family-owned movie theatre chain that started with a single theatre on Mill Avenue - Tempe's main drag - and now dominates the Phoenix area and has expanded into four other states. They have competed with the national chains and fought to keep ticket prices down while setting the standard for luxury viewing experiences. In addition to giving us a great place to view blockbusters, they also operate the only two arthouse theatres in the area - the Valley Art, their original theatre on Mill, and Camelview, which has been a big-city arthouse for a lot longer than we have been a big city.

So, with all that said, I must question their use and abuse of the Cine Capri name, which reaches a new level with the opening of their newest Tempe theatre this week. A little backstory: the original Cine Capri was an old-style movie house in Phoenix that was demolished in 1997. Harkins owned the theatre at the time, but not the land it was located on, and led an impassioned campaign to save it. Dan Harkins, the chain's chairman, vowed to resurrect the Cine Capri. And he did, sort of. He placed a 500-seat theatre with a screen the same size as the original Capri -the largest in the state-in a new multiplex located in the farthest northeast corner of Phoenix. I had a problem with Harkins using the Cine Capri name back then, but it seemed as if his heart was in the right place, wanting to preserve a piece of history, if only in name.

Then, quietly, and without many people in Arizona realizing it, Harkins began expanding the Cine Capri name to other states. Three of the four other states Harkins has expanded to now have their own Cine Capris, all denoting the biggest theatre in the area.

Now, this weekend, Harkins continues its branding of the Cine Capri name by opening one, with a larger screen and seating capacity the one in north Phoenix, in its new Tempe Marketplace multiplex.

Part of me is excited about the opening of this theatre, as the other Cine Capri is too remote and Harkins has vowed to convert its other Tempe theatre -Centerpoint - into an arthouse. But something bothers me about the conversion of Cine Capri from a physical place with a particular history to a brand name denoting bigger and better.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Adorno at Dunder-Mifflin

I am done talking about The Sopranos, but I have to pass along this article by the wonderful Heather Havrilesky at Salon. It said everything I wanted to say but only better. (On a side note, how sad is it that the once-brilliant Salon has two of its only interesting regular writers left covering TV and sports? If it weren't for Havrilesky, King Kaufman and Camille Paglia's bimonthly incoherent screeds, Salon wouldn't be worth the time at all anymore. A sad, sad fall from grace. Lets have a moment of silence.)

Also, before I get started on today's topic, a little note from the Reinforcing Arizona Stereotypes file. It pretty much speaks for itself, but one important note is that Russell Pearce, one of the key players in this tragicomedy of 50s era paranoia, is also kind of a white supremacist. Pearce's city, Mesa, also still refuses to flouridate its water because it may be some type of evil U.N. plot.

OK, onto the business of the day. I have been reading alot about Shakespeare and pop culture lately and mulling over the typical academic definitions of pop culture and mass culture. Most academics' ideas about mass culture still derive from Adorno's idea of the culture industry. This idea holds that mass culture is essentially no different from any other capitalistic product, homogonized to appeal to the lowest common denominator and please the largest number of people possible. This distinguishes it from folk culture - culture by and for the people - and high culture, which is not meant to please the masses, but challenge a cultivated audience. Nevermind that this idea was formulated before the birth of television and rock & roll, the twin forces that created modern pop culture and has therefore been outdated for over 50 years. I believe that this idea has become even more outdated, and possibly unworkable, in the past decade.

Why do I think this? I am thinking of one of my favorite TV shows, The Office. The Office is a quirky, original, critically-acclaimed show with several awards and a devoted online cult following. It finished this past season at 68th in the overall Neilsen ratings. In other words, it has all of the markings of a cult hit.

However, it has one big difference from other cult shows of the past. It is a cash cow for its network. NBC, which nearly did not bring the show back for a second season, has turned the show into its workhorse. It is the anchor of its Thursday night schedule, one of its producers has just been given a network executive job, and they ordered a practically unprecedented 30 half-hours for next season.

Why so much love from the execs for a show with such pedestrian ratings. Because, in today's fragmentary pop universe, overall ratings mean practically nothing. What matters is demographics, and The Office is a leader among demographics that advertisers crave, particularly viewers ages 18-34 and those with incomes over $100,000.

The "affluent" demographic has become increasingly important over the last few years and it has tended to favor low-rated, critically-acclaimed shows. This makes logical sense, as higher income is, on the whole, tied to higher levels of education. It is the "affluence" factor that has allowed NBC to keep low-rated shows like The Office, 30 Rock. and Friday Night Lights on the air.

This all leads to the paradox that may unravel the typical notion of mass culture. In an entertainment world in which the quality of the audience becomes as important, if not more important, than its overall size, there becomes a financial reward for producing quality television.

Obviously, this is a half-baked idea at best right now, but it is something to keep in mind.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

You're nothing

A little clarification for anyone confused by the beginning of yesterday's post. But really, if you didn't get that reference, what's wrong with you?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

David Chase is Dead to Me

David Chase, you're nothing to me now. You're not a brother, you're not a friend. I don't want to know you or what you do. I don't want to see you at the hotels, I don't want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won't be there. You understand?

A lot of Sopranos fans are still feeling this way close to 48 hours after wannabe artiste David Chase finally got completely lost up his own ass and chickened out of giving us a proper ending. As I have written here before, I have always been more critical of the series than most and have felt Chase's pretensions have hampered the series. Therefore, I was not as surprised as many that he would pull a stunt like this. However, that doesn't stop me from wanting to take him fishing on Lake Tahoe.

Of course, everyone is talking about the copout ending, but on the whole this episode was a huge disappointment. Its awkward pacing and hamfisted writing and direction (both by Chase) had already made the episode a failure before the abrupt cut to black, which might have worked if the 60 minutes before it had provided a proper setup. These problems overshadowed the many good aspects of the episode. Lets take a look at the good, the bad and the bungled of "Made in America":


  • Meadow: I knew that after last week's action-packed episode in which war broke out between the two families, the finale would focus on Tony's other family and that the final tragedy would not be Tony getting capped or arrested, but watching his kids, whom he had worked so hard to give a better life, following in his footsteps, morally if not career-wise. Meadow's denoument was a perfect followup to last week's great closing shot of her and Carmella mirroring each other in matching coats. This week, she finally became Carmella, reaching a new level of denial in saying that she was inspired to study law because of the racism of the FBI's persecution of Tony. The look on Tony's face let us know that even he realized that was bullshit.
  • Janice: Though she had little to do this past season aside from the premiere episode, Aida Turturro was given the opportunity to give Janice a proper sendoff. Janice is one of the most loathsome and unlikable characters in TV history, and the combination of genuine greif and self-pity she showed in mourning Bobby's death was pitch-perfect.
  • Tony and Uncle Junior: I thought Uncle Junior was done after the wonderfully heartbreaking scene of him petting the cat a few episodes back. But we needed a final scene between Tony and Junior, and it was brilliantly done. For me, the series ended there, as Tony realized the answer to his question for Melfi: "Is this all there is?" The answer was yes: this is what you can look forward to Tony. If you manage to survive a life in the mafia and not get shot or go to jail, you end up in a crummy retirement home, with no memory that you ever ran North Jersey. Brilliant.


  • Agent Harris: Matt Servitto's Agent Harris has been one of the show's great supporting characters, but everything about him in this episode was horrible. After years of hovering in the background, he suddenly, with no motivation, decides to compromise his professional ethics to support Tony in his gang war. Nobody knows better than Harris what a scumbag Tony is, so why would he suddenly choose sides. The idea of an FBI agent being seduced by the mob life is interesting, it is appropriate for a multi-episode arc, not the last half-hour of the series finale.
  • Paulie and the cat: The less said about this stupid plot thread, the better.
  • Phil's Death: The number one argument against ever letting Chase behind a camera again, as he shoots the climactic murder of the series like he was Chuck Jones. From the mawkishness of the two grandbabies to the ridiculousness that a mob boss at war would be so unprepared to the cartoonishness of Phil's head being crushed, it was a disappointing end for a series that perfected the art of killing off characters.


  • A.J.: The most interesting plot thread of the final season goes down in flames with A.J.'s SUV. I liked A.J. being cured of his depression by once again becoming his selfish and venal self. But his "cure" felt rushed and his rant at Bobby's funeral was hamhanded and redunant.
  • The final scence: And finally we come to it. I don't wish to contribute to the growing Talmudic commentary accumulating on the internet as we speak, but I will just say this. I loved the idea of ending the series with Tony not getting killed, arrested or turning government witness and instead ending up in a grimy diner with his screwed-up family, whom he has managed to infect with his "putrid fucking genes" and realizing that escaping his way of life means a lot more than working a legitimate job. But then Chase has to go and screw it up with his modernist trick. What was the point? Who cares anymore?