Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

Aug. 28 2015 10:45 AM

Watch Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence Dance to “Uptown Girl” on Billy Joel’s Piano

On Thursday night, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer—who recently announced that they are writing a movie together, to the great delight of the Internet—solidified their status as Hollywood power couple du jour when they climbed onto Billy Joel’s piano to dance to “Uptown Girl” during Joel’s show at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

Their jig was very likely rehearsed, but it still manages to seem goofily impromptu when Schumer and Lawrence start doing the can-can, then remove their shoes and scramble onto Joel’s piano to do the twist. Are Lawrence and Schumer the Jennifer Aniston/Courtney Cox of this decade? Only time (and a few more haircuts) will tell.

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Aug. 28 2015 8:32 AM

How Did a Show Like Mr. Robot End Up on USA?

This article originally appeared in New York magazine.

Here’s one big mystery that won’t be resolved by the season-one finale of Mr. Robotset to air next Wednesday: How in Monk’s name did a show so complex, twisted—and critically acclaimed—end up on USA Network? The cable giant has been cranking out summer hits for more than a decade, but starting with the aforementioned Tony Shalhoub vehicle and continuing with series such as Psych, Covert Affairs, and the still-chugging Royal Pains, those successes have mostly been popcorn procedurals, the video equivalent of beach reading. Mr. Robot, by contrast,may be TV’s most beautifully byzantine mystery-thriller since the first season of Lost, a show that encourages its audience to debate subtext and obsess over detail. It’s all very much off-brand for USA, and as execs at the network see it, that is exactly the point.

Officially, Mr. Robot came to life at USA a year ago, last summer, when network president Chris McCumber gave creator Sam Esmail the green light to begin casting and filming a pilot episode. McCumber, who credits USA development chief Alex Sepiol for “unearthing the project and putting it in front of” him, says he and his team were sold on the idea as soon as they read the script. “We realized we had a very, very unique show, which, if executed the right way, could be like nothing else on television,” he says. And yet, Esmail’s idea likely would never have gotten very far at USA had McCumber and his bosses not decided many months earlier that the network needed to shake up what had long been a winning formula for it. “We’ve been going through an evolution of our brand for a little while now,” the exec says. While USA has maintained a strong position relative to its competition—it finished 2014 as the most-watched general-entertainment cable channel—the network has suffered the same audience erosion plaguing most big, established cable networks: Viewership at USA fell more than 20 percent last year.

The dramatic increase in scripted competition has obviously had an impact, as has the move by consumers away from linear viewing and toward on-demand consumption. But McCumber believes there’s also been a significant shift in the kinds of programs audiences want, particularly the young viewers coveted by advertisers and thus targeted by USA. “We’re looking at changes in the demo, with [viewers] 18 to 49,” McCumber explains. “Millennials now make up the largest portion of that demo [and] are very sophisticated about the way they watch television. And now, if you look at the entire audience, they’ve all become very sophisticated about the kinds of dramas they want to see: more serialized, more characters that come from the real world and face real problems.” Or, in other words, not the easy, breezy, self-contained stories for which USA had become known.

Aug. 28 2015 8:02 AM

The Washington Post Says Salad Is Overrated. The Washington Post Is So Wrong.

This post originally appeared on Food52.

Tamar Haspel recently published an article in the Washington Post arguing that salad is overrated. And sure, salad gets a lot of attention—but Haspel calls salad overrated not because of the hype but rather because, she argues, it’s nutrient-poor, expensive, and a tax on our food system.

Hold that thought. To me and my colleagues at Food52, a salad can be so many things—not just a bowl of lettuce—so how could this be true? We have a salad confusion on our hands. Here’s where the article steers us wrong:

Aug. 27 2015 6:01 PM

Lin-Manuel Miranda on Jay Z, The West Wing, and 18 More Things That Influenced Hamilton

This article originally appeared in New York magazine.

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton (which opens on Broadway on August 6 after a much-praised run this past winter at the Public Theater), the founding father emerges as an immigrant striver and Constitution architect, one who struggles with his own sense of ambition—and the odd duel—and does it while rapping and singing complex and historically accurate lyrics. Ron Chernow’s biography was a key influence, but, as Miranda told us, far from the only one.

1. Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

Obviously the whole thing starts at the now-defunct Borders at the Time Warner Center, where I picked up Chernow’s Hamilton book. My girlfriend at the time, now wife, and I were going on my first vacation after [his 2008 musical] In the Heights, so I just wanted a big book to read on the beach. Ron’s book seemed like a really interesting beach read, and it ended up changing my life. The first two songs are lifted directly from it; the opening number is basically the first two chapters of the book.

2. Founding Brothers and American Creation, by Joseph J. Ellis

He does this thing where he just goes deep on an event. He circles the duel, he circles the farewell address—he throws everything at you on these certain events, and they were events I cover in my show.

3. Director Thomas Kail’s Mom

She’s a historical archivist in D.C., and she pulled up a ton of materials for me that I never would have gotten otherwise. With white gloves on, she showed me Hamilton’s condolence letter to Martha Washington. And she made me sandwiches every day! One of my favorite parts of the process.

4. Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita

Structurally, in terms of the shape of the musical, you can see their influence, in that we have a killer telling his story, like Che in Evita and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Aug. 27 2015 4:39 PM

John Oliver Really Loves Making Fun of How Terrible Americans Are at Geography

Anyone who watches Last Week Tonight even semi-regularly might have noticed that John Oliver loves giving geography lessons—except if his show were a geography class, Oliver would be the teacher from Hell. Is the highlighted country on the map actually the country he’s talking about, or will it turn out to be on another side of the continent entirely? As bad as Oliver presumes us Americans are at geography, these little tricks are not helping! “I don’t know when I’m going to get tired of this game,” Oliver grins, “but it’s definitely not now.”

Aug. 27 2015 4:02 PM

By Grabthar’s Hammer! Amazon Is Developing a Galaxy Quest TV Show.

The NSEA Protector and its trusty crew might once again fly onto our screens, this time with a TV reboot of the beloved 1999 sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, courtesy of Amazon Studios. Entertainment Weekly first reported this morning that Amazon is developing the series, though it also noted that development is still in early stages, and it’s unclear if the show would bring back the original cast or start over from scratch.

A lot of the original creators are on board for the new series, however.

Aug. 27 2015 3:25 PM

Spike Lee Is Finally Getting an Oscar

Whatever one’s thoughts on Spike Lee as a public figure—his views can be polarizing, to be sure—it seems absurd that in his nearly 40-year career, he’s only been nominated for an Oscar twice. (He was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing, which was famously shut out of the Best Picture and Best Director categories, and Best Documentary for 4 Little Girls.) But this year, the Academy will (sort of) make up for Lee’s past snubs by bestowing him with one of this year’s Honorary Awards.

It’s long overdue. While the director’s output has been spotty lately, he’s made some bona-fide classics, including Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, along with tons of other acclaimed, original films, such as The 25th Hour, She’s Gotta Have It, and Inside Man. The Academy also has a terrible track record of recognizing the work of black directors, with none ever winning Best Director. That said, Lee is in good company: Alfred Hitchock also won an honorary award after failing to ever win the Oscar for Best Director.

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Actress Gena Rowlands will also receive an Academy Honorary Award, and Debbie Reynolds the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, at the Governor’s Awards in November.

Aug. 27 2015 2:37 PM

Miley Cyrus Disguised Herself As a Reporter to See What People Really Think of Her

As she prepares to host the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, Miley Cyrus took a page out of Drake’s book and went undercover on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to find out what America really thinks of her—and the results are about what you’d expect. Disguised as an Australian reporter (with a highly questionable accent) Cyrus nodded in agreement as people expressed their distaste for her—and, in one case, “her whole family.” Some responses were more reserved (“I just like Taylor Swift better”), though even some haters admitted that they’d never listened to her music. Other respondents were more harsh, such as one man in a cowboy hat who asserted, “I think she’s starving for attention.”

Cyrus’ response? “You took the words right out of my mouth.”

Aug. 27 2015 1:47 PM

Netflix’s Narcos Is Harrowing, Surreal, and Exactly the Portrayal of the Drug War We Needed

The author of this piece won Slate’s inaugural Pitch Slam, a contest held in late July that gave Slate Plus members an opportunity to write for the magazine. If you’d like to participate in future pitch slams, consider becoming a member. Visit Slate.com/Plus to learn more.

The recent prison escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman makes for an undeniably good story. But there’s reason to be suspicious of the way drug lords use stories to cement their political power and historical importance. If watching political candidates relentlessly underscore their humble beginnings can teach us anything, it’s that all politics, the legitimate and the seedy, are as reliant on the myths of the self-made man as they are on actual policy. Narcos, which premiers on Netflix on Friday, dramatizes the relationship between myth and politics. The series is set during the 1980s Colombian drug war, but it’s more generally about the myths that drug lords, politicians, and cops tell the communities they serve.

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Narcos, directed by José Padilha, follows the rise of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, which gains unprecedented power with Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) at the helm. On Escobar’s heels are DEA agents Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) and Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who is the gravelly-voiced narrator of the series, hardened by years of disillusionment. For viewers, he connects what seem like disparate events into a complex network of cause and effect. But his poetic, soaring narration also suggests that Murphy might be bending reality to fit the framework of a good story.

Narcos defines its story as a “magical realist” one, blurring borders between the fantastic and the harrowingly real. Themes of luck and fate are juxtaposed with the very entrenched structural failures of government and law enforcement. The cinematography contrasts striking views of Colombia’s lush landscape with images of bloody bodies strewn in the street. Reality constantly disrupts fiction, as archival footage and photos are woven, often jarringly, through the plot.

But what Narcos might call magical realism is actually an old storytelling tradition: “narco cinema,” a Latin American genre comprised entirely of B-movies about the drug trade. Narco cinema hinges on a deep romanticization of the power and violence of drug lords. It turns cops into villains, drug lords into heroes, and beauty queens into narcos.  Underneath all the excessive violence and sex, though, it deftly exposes the weaknesses and corruption of government systems. In the movies La Banda del Carro Rojo (The Red Car Gang) and Salvando Privado Pérez (Saving Private Pérez), getting involved in the drug trade allows men to acquire the economic resources and manpower necessary to escape poverty and certain death. Films like Lo Negro del Negro (The Black of Blackie) and La Reina del Pacífico (The Queen of the Pacific) illustrate how the rise of drug kingpins like Arturo Durazo and Sandra Ávila is a direct consequence of inept law enforcement.

Narco cinema is so valuable because—by sneaking nightmarish images of violence into dazzling displays of wealth and power—it has become a crucial site of transgression and critique in a country where the stakes of speaking out against the cartels are high. By glorifying the cartels just enough to flatter them, narco cinema is the rare safe space where the complex relations between Latin American citizens and the drug cartels can be negotiated publicly.

American narco films, on the other hand, tend to heavily privilege myth and drama over realism. Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic prioritizes the domestic melodramas of Wakefield, whose daughter is an addict, and Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the pregnant wife of an American narcotrafficker, while ignoring the larger political implications of the drug war. As newly appointed drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), says, maybe fixing the problem just requires “thinking outside the box.” In the end, the film suggests that the biggest threat the drug war poses may be to the American nuclear family.

Narcos’ Escobar offers a striking contrast to the Escobar of Pablo Escobar: Paradise Lost, in which Benicio del Toro plays the eponymous drug lord. In that movie, through the eyes of the naïve Nick, played by Josh Hutcherson (who has fallen in love with Escobar’s niece, Maria), Escobar is a master myth-maker—an unknowable, unpredictable, and alluring man. But the movie fails to capture the realism of the drug war, even in moments when Escobar’s magical charisma gives way to his brutal side. Because Nick seems unaware of any socio-political context for Escobar’s violence, the film’s pivotal action sequence, in which Escobar’s hitmen kill a handful of innocent people, plays like a one-off surreal dream instead of the kind of daily occurrence regularly witnessed by communities in the midst of the drug war.  

Narcos is the first production in the true narco-cinematic vein to come to American screens. Unlike most American movies about the drug trade, it manages to glamorize its protagonists while still revealing the devastating structural problems they are working within. It understands a key dynamic in our real drug wars: the way drug lords and the cops and the DEA agents are all involved in the project of creating and fortifying the powerful myths around them, and they will do whatever it takes to secure their legacy. In the show, the DEA, as well as Escobar, are shown bowing to economic pressures and making unwanted compromises with government officials, all the while fancying themselves heroes and vigilantes.

In his narration, Murphy seems especially intrigued with exploring this conflation of “dreams and reality” in his storytelling. He explains Escobar’s lofty political aspirations—to become a congressman—as an inevitable byproduct of his meteoric rise out of poverty. (“Imagine you were born in a poor family, in a poor city, in a poor country and by the time you were 28 years old you had so much money you can’t even count it. What do you do? You make your dreams come true.”) Murphy cannot help but use the language of mythology to ominously foretell Escobar’s fate, comparing him to Icarus trying to fly too close to the sun. In the end, he warns: “Even magical realism has its limits.” 

The author of this piece won Slate’s inaugural Pitch Slam, a contest held in late July that gave Slate Plus members an opportunity to write for the magazine. If you’d like to participate in future pitch slams, consider becoming a member. Visit Slate.com/Plus to learn more.

Aug. 27 2015 1:14 PM

Kristen Wiig Plays an Egg Donor for Her Gay Best Friends in the Trailer for Nasty Baby

The premise has become a familiar one in indie rom-coms of the last few years: A gay couple asks someone of the opposite sex, sometimes their best friend, to have a baby with them. Conflicting emotions, wacky misunderstandings, and personal revelations ensue. There was The Kids Are All Right in 2010, and Gayby in 2012, and now there’s Nasty Baby, starring Kristen Wiig as the best friend, alongside writer-director Sebastián Silva and actor (and TV on the Radio lead singer) Tunde Adebimpe as the gay couple.

Not that Nasty Baby is without its twists.

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