Episode 122: In Pitch Dark, I Go Walking In Your Landscape

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Heard On BETA
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  Alex Cherry (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Twenty years later, “The Sopranos” still reverberates through prestige television. Critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall unpack why. Plus, critically acclaimed novelist Tommy Orange on his novel “There There” and comedian Jena Friedman offers a soft touch on some hard issues.

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  • Tommy Orange's 'There There' Expands Our Understanding Of Native Americans

    Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. He’s also the author of one of the most critically-acclaimed novels of 2018, “There There.” Orange’s debut novel has shown up on several “Best of 2018” lists.

    As Orange told WPR’s “BETA,” he remembers exactly where he was when he came up with the idea for “There There” at the end of 2010.

    “I had just found out I was going to be a father. I was driving down to L.A. to go see a show. And on the drive, the idea just popped right into my head. I’d been working in the urban Indian community in Oakland for many years and I knew I wanted to write a novel. At that moment, the idea to have a story about urban Indians where all their lives converge at a shooting at a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. That single sort of container for the novel is what I thought of in that single moment,” he said.

    “There There” is a polyphonic novel featuring the voices of 12 working-class Native Americans living in Oakland, California. The characters range in age from young to old.

    “I just like those kinds of novels,” Orange explained. “I like shifting perspectives, I think it’s true to life. I think we get a lot of voices and we have to try to make sense of it. And it all does interconnect somehow. There’s also kind of like a monolithic version of what native people are supposed to look like and be like — you know, stoic or sad or drunk or dumb. So, to explore a dynamic range of voices for people that normally have either no voice or it’s a false voice or it’s a stereotype, it seemed interesting and a way to expand the range of the way we’re thought of.”

    Orange grew up in Oakland.

    “It was in some ways an idyllic childhood where I had a set of friends and went to school and maybe one other kid was native. In a sense, we knew that there weren’t many native kids around. But we grew up with my dad who, his first language was Cheyenne, and he grew up with his great-grandparents in a way that native people don’t live like anymore. So, we grew up with him so it was a very urban Oakland experience. But the heaviest native influence or what made us feel that way was our dad and speaking in Cheyenne. He didn’t teach us, it was kind of more of a time of assimilation. But we were very aware of it. And there were certain stories that he told and made sure we knew about. And I didn’t actually know there was an urban Indian community until I started working in it, in my 20s.”

    Orange coined the word “Indianing,” which he uses to great effect in his novel.

    “I think particularly with native people, if somebody finds out you’re native, one of the first things that they say, or in my experience, and this happened on the tour recently, they ask me if I’m native and I say ‘Yes.’ And then the follow-up is always ‘Well, how much?’ People want to know what makes you Indian, whether it’s blood or what do you do, the verb of ‘Indianing.’ In college, I wrote a paper called ‘Chekhov’s Indian.’ So, if the gun appears in the first act, it’s going to go off by the third.”

    “Basically, talking about how to write Indian without doing the typically Indian stuff. If you introduce an Indian, do they have to do something Indian? And this is all based on stereotype and authenticity. And the stick we have to measure ourselves by is this old version of what being Indian is. And we need to expand the conversation about how many different things it can mean.”

  • A Hit Is A Hit: 20 Years Later, 'The Sopranos' Legacy Is Still Embedded In TV

    In January 1999, HBO debuted David Chase’s New Jersey-based mob series “The Sopranos” and the trajectory of television was forever altered. The show transcended the subscriber-based prestige channel to become an American classic piece of art and pop culture.

    Twenty years later, you can still feel the show’s reverberations through TV and streaming services’ seemingly endless sea of offerings.

    New York Magazine critic Matt Zoller Seitz and Rolling Stone’s chief television critic Alan Sepinwall were colleagues together at the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper during the show’s run. They understood immediately that “The Sopranos” was operating by its own rules and their ground floor entrance into covering the show — for both the Star-Ledger and the burgeoning world of online blogs and publications — would itself launch a new brand of cultural criticism.

    The ongoing fan appetite for discussing the show led to the need to publish episodic reviews of each installment in lieu of a general overview of the season. This has become commonplace today, and has grown into websites devoted to recapping shows and programs like “After The Thrones” and “Talking Dead” that are solely based on reviewing episodes of other popular TV shows.

    “I would come in on Monday. Someone got whacked in the episode the night before and I would say to my editors, ‘People are gonna want to talk about this, save me some space on the Tuesday front page and I’m going to write about it,’” Sepinwall told WPR’s “BETA.” “Those always got a much bigger response than anything else that I wrote for the paper, including advance reviews of ‘Sopranos’ seasons.”

    “I would often make the case — especially when we got a website — why don’t you let me recap everything,” Seitz adds. “Since I’m watching the show anyway and I’m looking for every excuse I can to write about it, why don’t I just write about every episode and the answer was ‘The readers don’t want that.’ Turns out that they did!”

    Seitz and Sepinwall have now collaborated and co-authored the book, “The Sopranos Sessions,” which offers comprehensive episodic analysis for the entire series and features several interviews with creator Chase, including his insights on the famously enigmatic conclusion.

    Chase was a longtime television writer with aspirations of being an auteur filmmaker. He ascribed those notions to the “The Sopranos” and he found a spiritual counterpart in Seitz, himself a film critic feeling his way around the television beat.

    “It was an unbelievable stroke of good fortune that I happened to end up at that particular paper at that particular time with the background that I had being a film critic who was fairly new to television criticism,” Seitz said.

    Seitz met and interviewed Chase during the filming of the first season in the fall of 1998. He was taken aback by the showrunner’s heightened taste in inspirations.

    “He was talking about (Federico) Fellini, (Michelangelo) Antonioni and (Jean-Luc) Godard and all these European art house cinema filmmakers who shaped him and I thought I’ve never had a conversation like this with anyone who produced a television show before,” Seitz recalled.

    When “The Sopranos” finally aired, it captured the nation’s attention, despite being centered on a morally gray mob boss played by actor James Gandolfini. Gandolfini’s performance, in fact, might’ve been the reason millions of people let mobsters into their homes each week.

    “Gandolfini gave the greatest performance in TV drama history. He was so charismatic,” argues Sepinwall.

    With Tony and his adventures with both family and Family, Chase pioneered a new era of anti-hero television characters and constructed the show in a way that didn’t spoon feed you answers, but instead posed many more moral questions to the viewer.

    “Before ‘The Sopranos’, the approach to getting a big audience in TV is the lowest common denominator approach. You dumb things down, you sand off the edges, you make everything as palatable and as easy to digest as possible,” said Sepinwall. “This went the other way. This went really complex in terms of morality, in terms of characterization, storytelling, everything.”

    “I love a show that tells me who’s boss. That doesn’t give me what it thinks I want. It gives me what it wants and it’s up to me to decide if I like it or not,” Seitz said.

    Matt Zoller Seitz, left, and Alan Sepinwall. Courtesy of Sirk Productions

    The pair argue that Chase’s uncompromising approach, along with a heavy helping of hilarious and poignant moments that resonated with a wide cross section of fans, gave the show its legacy and blazed the trail for the bevy of prestige television that followed.

    “All of the things that we think scripted TV has become in these last 20 years can be traced to the success of this show because there were all these unwritten rules about how television was supposed to function and what the audience would and would not accept,” said Sepinwall. “And the success of this show revealed all of those rules to be incorrect.”

    “Because it was a big hit, it gave other people who made television permission to make the kind of show that gave the audience what it wanted,” recalled Seitz, “not what they thought the audience wanted.”

  • Comedian Jena Friedman Delivers Light Touch On Hard Issues

    Editor’s note: This story contains language some may find offensive.

    If you like dark comedy, you’ll probably like Jena Friedman. Her fellow comedian Brock Wilbur has described Friedman as “the comedian who occupies a spectrum of comedy so dark it is almost impossible to see her.”

    So does she agree with this description?

    “You know, I would prior to 2016,” Friedman told WPR’s “BETA.” “I think now our country’s darkness has caught up with me. I think I’m just kind of talking about what’s happening. I used to get a lot of comparisons to Edward Gorey, if he were animated a little bit more.”

    Friedman has described comedy as both art and entertainment.

    “The entertainment aspect is just that we need other people to do what we do. I’ve always been envious of visual artists or musicians because I think they can create in a closed environment but comedians need an audience to know if our jokes are funny,” Friedman said. “We need an audience to make our art. It’s varying degrees of art, you know, depending on the type of comedy you want to do.

    “If you want to make people laugh all the time, I think it’s more entertainment. If you want to make people laugh but also maybe challenge them, it’s a little closer to art. There’s also spoken word which I fall into if nobody laughs. And you’re just an artist.”

    She’s said her favorite comedians are able to make sense of things the rest of us have trouble understanding. Can Friedman point to an example from her own comedy that accomplishes this goal? Maybe something from her standup set on Conan O’Brien’s show last year?

    “After Charlottesville, I was so sad. And you’re watching these guys with AR-15s exercising their free speech. And there was a lot of debate about what do we do? Do we let Nazis speak publicly? You know, people were like ‘Don’t punch Nazis,’” Friedman said. “And so I was trying to understand it and find comedy in it, and being Jewish, I do feel like I have license to kind of go a little further regarding Nazis.”

    In her Adult Swim series, “Soft Focus with Jena Friedman,” she finds herself interacting with real people.

    “I worked at ‘The Daily Show.’ I was a field producer there. And even prior to that, I was doing field pieces and I have some interviews online that are quite dated where I talk to different characters in the world,” she said. “I just like that stuff. I like combining comedy with real people. It’s funnier to me when it’s unscripted. It just feels relevant in a way because you’re actually talking to people.”

    In the debut episode of “Soft Focus with Jena Friedman,” Friedman did a story about campus rape.

    “‘Adult Swim’ is like a real comedy network. They do a lot of experimental stuff. A lot of their audience are kind of younger guys, and I just wanted to find an actually funny way to talk to them about that subject,” Friedman said.

    “So the segment, it’s kind of making fun of the investigative journalist, the intrepid reporter who is trying to uncover things but maybe isn’t as above board as she should be. But ultimately, I just wanted to like sugar coat ideas about consent and have people talking about consent. And it is like such a lightning rod of a topic.”

    In an interview last year, Friedman referred to a comment that her fellow comedian Jen Kirkman made in her Netflix special, “Just Keep Livin’?” — “That’s not a rape joke, that’s a rape fact, and I’ll stop talking about rape when men stop raping everybody, so don’t give me your outrage,” Kirman said.

    “I did actually have a job interview a while ago with a guy who had date-raped a friend of mine,” Friedman explained. “And then I wrote a joke about it and I’ve been trying to get that on late night. But the general consensus is we can’t air that.

    “I think that men are afraid to air things because a rape joke from a female perspective is a completely different joke than from a male perspective,” she said. “And even if you’re a woman on late night, as a guest on someone’s show, it’s still filtered through the lens of the host. It would be cool if there were female hosts in late night as well so that I think some of the jokes that might be uncomfortable coming from a male host’s show would be seen in a different context coming from a female host’s show.”

    The first episode of “Soft Focus with Jena Friedman” also featured Friedman’s conversation with the New York “Cannibal Cop,” Gilberto Valle.

    “I saw an article about him in The New York Post, bastion of journalism, about how he was dating again. And that’s why I wanted to talk to him. Because if you’re dating again and you are the Cannibal Cop, I want people to know that. It was almost like a public service announcement,” Friedman said. “And he was a really good sport. And all of that was unscripted. And not enough people saw it. And it’s one of the funniest things I think I’ve ever done.”

    The second episode of “Soft Focus with Jena Friedman” debuted at 11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25 on Adult Swim. It features a segment on sexual harassment in gaming and an interview with presidential hopeful and cybersecurity tech founder John McAfee.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Tommy Orange Guest
  • Matt Zoller Seitz Guest
  • Alan Sepinwall Guest
  • Jena Friedman Guest

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