HBO Started Out as One of the Best Networks for LGBTQ Representation. How Did It Become One of the Worst?
In addressing HBO’s cancellation of Looking last year, Michael Lombardo—a gay man, and the former president of HBO programming—described his decision to end the series as “very painful” on “a personal level.” He believed that the show, in authentically portraying the lives of three fictional gay characters living in San Francisco, took a creative leap for representation on television, adding that it was something you “hadn’t seen on any other show, particularly [those] dealing with gay lives.” From the beginning, Looking was plagued by anemic ratings and threatened by HBO’s robust lineup of half-hour series in development. In the end, despite the network’s penchant for sticking with low-rated critical darlings, it decided to cancel the show after only two seasons—albeit with the offer to wrap up with a feature-length finale, which aired this Saturday night.
With the imminent end of Looking, the recent death of Game of Thrones’ most notable gay character, and shows like Enlightened and Getting On—both of which were created by gay men—pushed off the air in recent years due to low ratings, HBO is as hetero-centric as it’s been in a generation. The only programs to feature a prominent gay character on its current slate are Veep, in which first daughter Catherine Meyer began dating her mother’s (former) bodywoman, and Girls, in which Elijah finally received his own storyline in Season 5 after four years of playing sidekick. (In addition, no HBO showrunner is LGBTQ.) For a network that made a name for itself with films like And the Band Played On, series like Six Feet Under, and miniseries like Angels in America, this is a sad and surprising turn. Looking was not an ordinary queer show; its languid pacing, graphic but sensitive sex scenes, and nuanced approaches to theme and character development hardly screamed “commercial.” But the fact that HBO’s sole LGBTQ programming was a niche show—one that was never going to be broadly watched in the first place—makes its cancellation speak all the more directly to the network’s crisis of representation.
Celebrate Bojack Horseman Weekend With Crusader Rabbit, the First Made-for-TV Cartoon
It’s Bojack Horseman weekend, when we’re all hunched over our televisions binge-watching the newest season of the greatest animated television show since The Simpsons. So what better time to look back at the very first made-for-TV animated show ever, Crusader Rabbit, which kicked off the 67 years of TV animation that led, slowly and inexorably to Bojack? Crusader Rabbit isn’t just Bojack’s ancient ancestor in terms of its medium, it’s also part of a long line of cartoons with jokes pitched at adults as much as children. Without Crusader Rabbit, there's no Rocky and His Friends, without Rocky and His Friends, there's no Simpsons, and without The Simpsons, we’d probably be spending the weekend watching Netflix’s new Puppetoons series.
Crusader Rabbit was the brainchild of Alex Anderson, the nephew of animator Paul Terry. Terry, a former newspaper cartoonist, founded animation studio Terrytoons, where he created Mighty Mouse. More importantly, Terry also pioneered techniques of limited animation, allowing his studio to compete with better-funded rivals like Disney—the Tiffany of animation studios to Terrytoons’ Woolworth’s, according to Terry. Anderson worked at his uncle’s studio—first for an eight-month stint after high school, then later after World War II. When he saw a television for the first time, he realized his uncle’s cheap, fast techniques might make it feasible to move animation into the new medium. Terry was uninterested with Anderson’s pitch of an animated TV show—or, more accurately, worried that Terrytoons’ theatrical distribution partner Fox would drop them if they started doing business in the threatening new medium—so Anderson returned to Berkeley and set out on his own.
At Terrytoons, Anderson had pitched a character called “Donkey Hote” that was passed on by animators who didn’t want to draw donkeys. Anderson changed the character to an easier-to-draw rabbit, but kept the idea of Quixote, and Crusader Rabbit was born. Since the character was unnaturally bold for a rabbit, he paired him with an unnaturally cowardly tiger named Rags. His uncle let him keep the characters for his new venture.
To get Crusader and Rags on television, he teamed up with Jay Ward, a classmate and friend of his going back to grammar school. Ward had returned West from Harvard Business School with plans to get into real estate but was hit by a truck on his new venture’s first day. Anderson approached him while he was convalescing with the idea that they could form an animation studio together, Ward handling the business and Anderson handling the animation. The studio they formed was Television Arts Producers. Producer Jerry Fairbanks originally landed the show at NBC, but the network eventually passed, which meant Fairbanks sold it piecemeal to affiliates. The first one to bite was KNBH in Los Angeles (now KNBC), and on Aug. 1, 1949, audiences were introduced to Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger.
Seen today, what’s most striking about Crusader Rabbit is the great contrast between often-hilarious writing and incredibly limited animation. But the ideas and jokes are better than a lot of television animation that followed, from the very first episode. The opening voice-over is clearly inspired by Disney’s Goofy instructional shorts like How to Play Golf, but while Disney plays a straightfaced narrator against funny animation, Anderson sets the narration askew from the very first words:
Down in Texas, they’re still talking about the rabbit who had come down from the United States to wipe out the whole state of Texas. Obviously, the rabbit must have been Crusader Rabbit, for who else would have thought of such a wonderful idea?
Of course, Anderson couldn’t afford the kind of animation that made the Disney shorts work. Each episode is no more than five minutes long, with 10 to 15 episodes making up a single crusade, and, frame to frame, looks more like a comic strip than motion animation. Crusader Rabbit was dropped into shows like Romper Room (think Itchy and Scratchy on The Krusty the Clown Show), so, because there was no guarantee that audiences would see the episodes in order, each episode begins with gradually longer and longer recaps: By the end of a crusade, more than half of the show is recaps. (Which, of course, means that half of the show was already animated.) And wow, is there ever space-filling: The plot of one episode is, in its entirety, “Crusader Rabbit sits in a waiting room.” But there’s also plenty of inspired lunacy: Rags’ middle initial is “T” for “Larry” (his father couldn’t spell); Crusader Rabbit’s campaign to protect the rabbits of Texas from deportation is resolved when he hooks the rabbits on cream puffs, thus saving the Texas carrot crop.
After 195 episodes, the show collapsed in lawsuits: Jerry Fairbanks had borrowed production money from NBC and not repaid it; NBC foreclosed on the show without letting Anderson or Ward know. Another studio bought Television Arts and, with it, the rights to the character, producing more episodes (in color, this time) in 1956. Two seasons were released on DVD (and can be seen on YouTube), but after yet another legal fight, the later crusades—despite promising names like “Crusader and the Leprechauns” and “Crusader and the Mad Hollywood Scientist”—were never released.
As Crusader Rabbit collapsed, Anderson and Ward created two new characters that would later meet with lasting success: Rocky and Bullwinkle. Anderson managed to purchase the rights from the wreckage of Television Arts Productions and sold a half-interest to Jay Ward for less than $400. When they didn’t sell immediately, Ward returned to real estate while Anderson joined an ad agency. By the time Ward finally sold the show, Anderson didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, was happy in his advertising job and settled for a share of the profits. Rocky and Bullwinkle’s future, like Crusader Rabbit’s, was litigious: Ward registered them for copyright in his name alone, and Anderson had to sue his heirs to be recognized as the co-creator. Rocky and Bullwinkle, like many shows to follow, was hailed for being ahead of its time in its use of sophisticated jokes—but Crusader Rabbit got there first. Without it, animated shows aimed entirely at adults, like Bojack Horseman, might never have come aboud. Anderson addressed the show’s legacy in an interview with the Archive of American Television, saying, “We were criticized—everybody said our humor was too adult for kids. And our feeling was kids are a lot smarter than people admit.”
Elijah Wood Goes Full Barton Fink in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Elijah Wood seems to be having the longest, darkest tea time of the soul imaginable in the trailer for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, released at Comic-Con. The setup, as the trailer frames it, as much in common with Fight Club as with Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels: Wood plays a character named Todd, who has the dullest, most humiliating life imaginable, working as a bellboy at a place with the same dress code as Barton Fink’s Hotel Earle. That all changes when Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) shows up, forcibly pointing out the misery Todd’s been putting up with and plunging him into a new life of danger and adventure. Todd bucks against the eccentric detective wreaking havoc in his life, telling him, “I am not your Watson, asshole!” but once you invite Tyler Durden into your head, good luck turning back the clock.
The show, produced by Max Landis, looks competent and funny: Barnett’s blithe delivery is great, and Wood’s always had a talent for misery. Setting the show in the United States (while keeping Gently British) seems like a surprisingly good idea: making Gently play off against non-Brits makes the Douglas Adams’ cleverness in lines like “no private detective looks like a private detective—that’s one of the first rules of private detection” a lot funnier. Plus: Bloc Party! The show premieres on BBC America on Oct. 22.
Blair Witch was Hiding in The Woods All Along
Horror films are filled with magical transformations, ranging from the subtle to the hilariously over the top. But people who attended Friday night’s advance screening of Lionsgate’s film The Woods at Comic-Con were treated to the most horrifying transformation of all: the very film they were seeing changed before their eyes into a sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Deadline reports. Lionsgate had more or less kept the film’s status as a revival of the long-dormant series a secret, helped by the fact that, although the teaser trailer for The Woods clearly showed a found-footage film about young people being terrorized in the woods, the original Blair Witch Project spawned so many terrible rip-off found footage films that there was no compelling reason to make the connection. During the screening, the posters for The Woods in the theater lobby were swapped out for ones for the new film, simply titled Blair Witch. Lionsgate bought Artisan Entertainment, which produced the original film and its sequel, in 2003.
From the trailer, Blair Witch, directed by Adam Wingard, seems to hew pretty closely to the original’s much-copied formula: a mock documentary pieced together from footage supposedly shot by a group of filmmakers investigating the Blair Witch legend. In this case, one of them is the younger brother of one of the characters in the original film. In fact, the trailer plays like a greatest-hits reel, echoing the original’s apology scene, the stick totems, and, of course, the abandoned house with handprints on the wall (and a corner to stand in). What’s missing is the ultra-low-res production values that were part of the original’s charm, and, along with the film’s straight-faced website presenting documentary “evidence” of the Blair Witch, fueled rumors that the film was real. The difference in look can be chalked up to the fact that an iPhone looks better than the Hi8 camcorder used for much of the original, though the new film’s honest website is inexplicable.)
It seems like a long shot that a slicker, fan-servicey reboot of a concept from 1999 could really represent “a new beginning for horror fims,” as one of the trailers blurbs proclaims, but audiences will have a chance to judge for themselves on Sept. 16. Despite any pessimism in this article, no offense is intended to any Blair Witches or other sorts of witches reading this. Slate has the utmost respect for you and your stone cairns, so please limit your feedback to the comments section below.
Get a Glimpse of our Grim Future in the Trailer for FX’s Legion
There’s a disheartening theory that superhero movie fans started floating around the time Marvel started planning theatrical releases by the decade: The fact that superhero movies are sucking all the air out of the room doesn’t much matter because studios will still make all the types of films they always did, they’ll just also have superheroes in them.
Then Ant-Man, a heist film. Doctor Strange, mysticism. Spider-Man, contained teen drama. Thor sequel, fantasy. Guardians 2, space opera.— Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane) February 26, 2015
What’s more, superhero films were bound to get better, as Marvel and DC hired talented up-and-coming directors to lend their unique visions to their respective film franchises; never mind the constraints of the franchise or the other films they might have been making instead. A few years earlier, there was another reason not to worry that adult films were disappearing from Hollywood: Prestige TV would fill that void, with shows like Mad Men providing all the drama audiences used to get from mainstream films. Everything was fine! But now, with the trailer for FX’s Legion, superhero films extend their reach like Reed Richards into the realm of cable television drama, and all the worst prophecies have come true.
The show comes from Noah Hawley, who created FX’s Fargo, and could have spent the time he’s been working in the MCU on, at least, another competent cable potboiler. Instead, we get a show about an X-Men–style mutant with dissociative identity disorder. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays Legion, while Aubrey Plaza and Hamish Linklater take supporting roles. Legion could be top-notch, or at least as good as any superhero show will ever be—though it’s probably not good that Rachel Keller’s character has the sort-of-clever-but-not-really name of Sydney Barrett—but it’s a bad sign that superheroes have crossed the basic cable barrier. It’s only a matter of time before we get shows about superhero mobsters, superhero meth dealers, and Enlightened but Laura Dern can fly. Soon the only safe haven for nonsuperhero stories will be C-SPAN—but lately it’s been the worst superhero show of them all.
Apocalypse Kong: Kurtz Is a Giant Gorilla in the Kong: Skull Island Trailer
Continuing Comic-Con’s parade of tentpole trailers, Warner Bros. debuted a Kong: Skull Island trailer that asks an important question: How many shots can one film lift from Apocalypse Now while still starring a giant ape? The answer turns out to be: too many. From the to the helicopter attack through the wall of flames to the painted tribesman, it looks like director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is committed to echoing Coppola rather than Cooper and Schoedsack. This seems to extend to the structure, with Samuel L. Jackson as the helicopter commander who doesn’t know the mission parameters, standing in for Albert Hall’s Chief Phillips. (That presumably makes Brie Larson the new Dennis Hopper, since she’s got the camera; where John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston fit in remains to be seen.) But the monster at the end of the book is Kong, bigger than Brando on his worst day and twice as mad, so the metaphor starts breaking down there.
Kong: Skull Island is the second film in the Kong-Godzilla cinematic universe, which began, in its most recent incarnation, with Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. Trying to build a franchise factory around an ill-conceived 1962 Toho film may seem like folly, but cinematic universes are the new mortgage-backed securities: It’s more important that something be shoveled together into a series of films than that the source material be any good. As source material goes, better to steal from Apocalypse Now than Toho, but setting the film in the 1970s raises its own problems. Why would John Goodman travel to Skull Island looking for monsters when Kissinger and William Calley were right there at home?
Gal Gadot Battles the Central Powers and Chris Pine’s Sexism in the Wonder Woman Trailer
It’s been a long time since a DC Comics movie looked tolerable, much less fun, so the promising Wonder Woman trailer that premiered Saturday at Comic-Con in San Diego is a big step forward. It’s set during World War I: Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman is brought to civilization after aviator Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) washes up on her shore. Soon she’s going undercover to apparently assassinate German officer Danny Huston and running cavalierly across no man’s land deflecting mortar shells with her shield. But nothing the Germans throw at her is half as deadly as Chris Pine’s unthinking sexism and condescension. He tells her, “I can’t let you do this,” and her icy reply—“What I do is not up to you,”—makes a pretty good argument that, if we must have endless superhero movies, we should at least have more with female leads. (Marvel, despite having Black Widow just sitting around, won’t have a female-led film until 2019’s Captain Marvel, 11 years after Iron Man.)
Still, all is not well in the DC Extended Universe: Wonder Woman has a pretty deep hole to climb out of after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And DC keeps digging it deeper all the time: The Killing Joke, with its “Batman and Batgirl have sex” subplot, comes out on Monday, and Suicide Squad is not far behind. Wonder Woman is going to have to do more than redraw the map of Europe to save the day this time: She’ll have to convince people to forget the legacy of Archduke Zack Snyder.
Watch the Game of Thrones Cast Struggle Their Way Through This Blooper Reel
Benevolent is a more difficult word to pronounce under pressure than you might think, especially if you have to say it in Tyrion Lannister’s strange accent. That’s the takeaway from the Game of Thrones blooper reel, which revolves around one blooper in particular: Dinklage’s near-complete inability to make it through the phrase “the benevolent enslavers of Yolantis.” The reel debuted at Friday’s Game of Thrones panel at San Diego’s Comic-Con.
Wading through baroque honorifics is as important to Game of Thrones actors as technobabble is on Star Trek: This is a show in which one character is known as “Cersei of the House Lannister, first of her name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms.” (And that’s one of the easy ones—God help anyone who has to address Daenerys Targaryen.) As the story goes on, characters die off, and power consolidates, there are only going to be more titles for each person, so Dinklage had better spend his time off on tongue twisters. Check out the video to see how many different ways there are to mispronounce benevolent, plus Rory McCann failing to split wood, Emilia Clarke botching her Dothraki, and Kit Harington falling into freezing water.
The Week in Culture, “Speaking Receipts to Power” Edition
Kim Kardashian kicked off this week by re-enacting the famous scene (you may know it better as a GIF) from Waiting to Exhale of Angela Bassett setting fire to a car when she posted a few Snapchats of a phone call between Kanye West and Taylor Swift, and then stepped back to smile upon the destruction she had wrought. Though she’s been insisting otherwise for months, the videos exposed Swift as a liar. (Or did they?) An all-out celebrity civil war ensued, Kim Kardashian was praised for her masterful media manipulations, and we all learned an important catchphrase: Show me the receipts.
Battle rages on in other fronts as well. If you read this roundup precisely because it’s not about politics, sorry, because in this week of Republican National Convention hoopla, culture and politics bled into each other. Melania Trump Rickrolled a nation—maybe she was just taking a European approach to speechwriting?—giving us an excuse to learn the history of the phrase your word is your bond. The soundtrack to the festivities was provided by Tiffany Trump’s forgotten pop single and the GOP-trolling stylings of Third Eye Blind. The merch was gross, Fox News viewers couldn’t handle a woman’s bare shoulders, and Slate created a fun new Trump-style multilevel marketing scheme for you to try at home! We look forward to next week with “spicy boi” Hillary Clinton and a stirring address from demagogue Chloë Grace Moretz.
While we’re looking forward, we’re also looking backward—to the 20-years-ago release of De La Soul’s dark, confrontational Stakes Is High. Jack Hamilton reminisced for Slate: “Stakes Is High is an album about the virtuous rigor of history in the face of easy narratives about past and future, a work by veteran rappers that begins as a celebration of tradition, then enfolds as a genre critique, and by its end has transformed into a genre celebration and critique of gauzy nostalgia.” The album fits into a larger conversation about how ’90s hip-hop has aged—and how we all have.
While you’re thinking on that, a few more links for your weekend enjoyment:
- Is it just us or did UnReal go completely off the rails this season?
- Trek faithful will love Star Trek Beyond
- The ’80s were the glory days of pop culture’s obsession with slime
- A novel that exposes Singapore’s “sarong party girls”
- A Seinfeldologist on the show’s evolving legacy
- Ghostbusters did just OK at the box office, so of course female-led movies are doomed
- Carrie’s nameplate, Samantha’s jumpsuits: Revisiting Sex and the City’s fashion on Instagram
- The lonely lives of military wives
- Now anyone can apply for a blue checkmark on Twitter
- Goodbye to Garry Marshall, who made movies that were unabashedly women-focused
Always Be Marketing: The New Mantra for Today’s TV Shows
When Mr. Robot aired its Season 1 finale last September, USA Network execs were understandably happy about the show’s solid ratings, amazing buzz, and clear brand-changing potential. The launch was nothing short of a triumph, particularly in an era when grabbing viewers’ attention sometimes seems next to impossible. Until recently, USA might have been content to simply bask in that success for a few months, shifting its focus to other series until the time came to begin hyping last week’s Season 2 premiere. But that’s not how it works in the age of on-demand viewership: With audiences trained to consume shows however (and whenever) they want, networks are now promoting their biggest titles year-round, particularly when such series are in their infancy. Indeed, as soon as Robot Season 1 ended, USA was already actively pushing audiences who’d heard the buzz about Robot to binge the show online, while figuring out ways to keep those already hooked thinking about the series up until its return. “You can never stop messaging your franchise,” says Alexandra Shapiro, executive VP of marketing and digital for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Networks group. “The moment you stop is the moment the fans stop paying attention.”
Networks have different names for the new never-ending marketing. AMC talks about “Live plus 365,” playing off Nielsen’s various ratings measurement windows; Shapiro and her USA colleagues call it “the always-on phenomenon.” Whatever the terminology, the consensus in the TV industry is, with apologies to David Mamet, that networks should Always Be Marketing. Rob Sharenow, general manager of Lifetime and A&E, says the evolution in how viewers watch TV is what has prompted this seismic shift in how networks manage their programming assets. “It used to be enough to just say, ‘OK, Project Runway is coming back. Let’s just throw some promos on leading up to the premiere,’ ” he explains. “Now, it’s a more complicated, multilayered, ongoing game to keep your engagement, to keep people consuming it.” Or, as AMC/Sundance chief Charlie Collier puts it, “It’s our job to keep shows alive all year long.”