Dearest Sternal Journalists,
My friend Joe and I have a saying: "Most writing is bad. Paid writing is worse. But well paid writing? That's pretty bad too."
Now, this saying is far less less about cutting any specific writer down, and more an attempt to lend a dose of realism to the sanctity with which we treat writing in all forms.
Don't get me wrong. The potential of any piece of writing is vast and amazing, whether it's a tweet, a novel, or anything in between. But somewhere along the way, we decided that most writing is very good.
Sure, there are tweets and articles and books and movies that we can all agree are bad, but we tell ourselves that those are the outliers.
I think it's because almost all writing is hard. Any writing written by someone with a specific intent and a desire for it to be good does require mental and emotional work.
But just because something was given a good effort doesn't mean it's a good product. You need only look as far as Cecilia Giménez's famously botched restoration of an 80-year-old painting of Jesus Christ to know that.
I bet it took a lot of hard work to make our Lord and Savior look like a bear who ate too much peanut butter in one bite.
So why do we have trouble reconciling that idea with writing? I think it's because writing is a thing all of us have had to do at some point, and then at some other point have decided whether we still do it or not.
Which means now there are two distinct camps. Camp one is people who still do it. Whether professionally, recreationally, or aspirationally, these are writers.
Camp two, the strong majority, are people who do not do it. They don't want to do it or they think it sounds nice, but they don't think they can, mostly because it is hard. Maybe they think it's boring or scary, but I would argue that both of those lead back to a belief that it is hard.
And both the writers and the non-writers have reason to lift up the myth of most writing being good. Writers because it raises the chances that their own writing is good, non-writers because they're just impressed someone is able to do the thing that they would never dream of trying.
--"What's wrong with this, Julian? Isn't the world a better place if people have a lower bar for enjoying and appreciating things?"
That would make the world a better place! But I don't think that's what happens. I think instead it creates a cognitive dissonance where people are labeling or accepting things as "good" without appreciating or enjoying them at all!
Which brings me to a recent New Yorker article about Emily in Paris.
--"Oh, brother. That's what this has all been about?"
Yup! Sorry bout it. A week ago, The New Yorker ran an article online titled, "'Emily in Paris' and the Rise of Ambient TV." "Emily in Paris," if you don't know, is a vapid show about a vapid woman who moves from Chicago to Paris for a job and is very small and beautiful and well-dressed and -coifed, but, for no clear reason, is treated like she is not. And also she's a social media expert who begins the goddamn show with 46 followers.
It is also, according to the author of this article, simply there to "provide sympathetic background for staring at your phone [and] refreshing your own feeds."
Now, that's a nice burn, and if this article had been a negative review of Emily in Paris, I would have chuckled and thought, "Eh, maybe for a rainy day" and moved on with my life.
HOWEVER that is not what this is. No, because the author used the existence of Emily in Paris to argue that "Netflix is pioneering a genre that I've come to think of as ambient television."
He describes this new genre as television with plots too thin to be confusing, such that you can have it on in the background while doing chores or just sit in front of the tv and zone out.
Here's the thing, motherfucker. THAT'S WHAT TELEVISION WAS FROM THE BEGINNING!
Yes, there's been a ramp-up of buzzier, more confusing-but-profound shows in the past decade, but there are still 1,000 new cop procedurals and sitcoms every year, both of which are structured to death strictly because you can tune in or out at any point and not have to worry about whether you've missed anything.
Seriously New Yorker! If you think ambient television started in the past few years, why did my grandma have SVU on in the background for 14 hours a day every day of the 90s and early aughts??
The article actually made one point that piqued my interest, and it was about B-roll:
What these shows all have in common is their placidity—there’s little in the way of conflict or tension—and their reliance on B-roll, the footage that filmmakers intersperse with their main shots to smooth transitions between cuts. There often seems to be more B-roll than A, however. Viewers can select from footage of beef getting sliced, shelves being filled, or walks through foreign cities.
If in fact there was a structural change about how and how often B-Roll was used, I might start to believe that we're witnessing the birth of a different sub-genre of television.
But how would one even figure that out? You would have to watch all of "Emily in Paris" with a stopwatch and see how many seconds of the show are dedicated to B-Roll, then find a show from an earlier era that's similar to Emily in enough ways, and watch that with a stopwatch.
Who would be crazy enough to do that, Sternal Journalists?
Here are my findings:
Out of the 27 minutes and 34 seconds of total runtime for Emily in Paris, 2m34s were dedicated to B-Roll and a whopping 25m00s were dedicated to characters and any other story. To be generous, I even counted footage that included Emily if she was small enough in the frame.
This comes out to 4.7% of the show's time dedicated to B-Roll.
As a comp, I picked Sex and the City, another half-hour rom-commish show about a woman navigating work and romance in a big city. Also, most notably, both shows were created by television writer Darren Star.
So, trading clubs for cafés and Manhattan skyscrapers for Tours and Arcs and the like, out of the 25 minutes and 24 seconds of total runtime for Sex and the City, 00m42 seconds were dedicated to B-Roll.
For a marginally shorter show, that's still 2.6% of the show's time dedicated to B-Roll.
By that metric, Emily in Paris is 2.1 points more vapid than Sex and the City. Hardly a revolutionizing of the genre. The writer says of Emily, "when you glance back up at the television, chances are that you’ll find tracking shots of the Seine or cobblestoned alleyways." The chances are actually only 1 in 20.
So my point in nitpicking this article is to demonstrate that bad writing can look very good. Emily in Paris is sleek, cute, and created by Darren Star. Therefore nobody wants to say that it's technically written poorly, which it is.
Well, actually, it's written technically very well. It is made to look like a tv show and do what a commanding majority of tv shows have been made to do since the beginning of television: give people something zone out to, and act as an advertisement.
(Because reminder: every Netflix show is an advertisement for Netflix. Every time you open Netflix or finish a Netflix show, you are shown an advertisement for two or more other Netflix shows. It is not commercial-free viewing.)
It is, however, bad. Something can be well written and still be bad writing. That's where most of us get lost when talking about writing being bad or good.
(It's also not something to bring up when someone is telling you they got joy from a show you feel is factually bad. Topic for another day: let bad things bring people joy. But if you're read this far, you're along for the ride.)
Because the bad writing behind the bad writing is the damn New Yorker article. It's beautifully written and gets in some really great zingers. But it's a bad take, and therefore bad writing. For a piece under the heading of Cultural Comment, it is painfully, culturally ignorant.
It makes the same mistake I've seen countless culture writers start to make when talking about television in quarantine: they mistake their personal experience for the predominant cultural experience.
What you have here is a critic bored out of his goddamn mind in quarantine, who has started watching shittier things. Before the pandemic, he could watch the shows he liked or needed to for work, and then go to like cocktail parties or slam poetry fights or whatever critics do.
But right now, he doesn't have as much to do, so he's started watching pure trash. As he watches the pure trash, two conditions are at play:
Condition 1: In his prior life, he was too distracted by slam poetry fights (or whatever) to notice all the trash out there, so he draws the conclusion that it has sprouted up for the first time recently.
Condition 2: Much more important condition. Whether he actually likes the trash or not, he finds it captivating. This underscores his idea that this trash must be new. If such captivating things had existed this whole time, he would have known about them. He must have! (He tells himself).
And so he writes this thing about a genre that must be new because (a) it is new to him and (b) he is entranced by it.
It's a misleading, but well written thing because he's a good writer, but he hasn't self-interrogated enough. So it's bad writing.
And people share this article and say things like "smh this is the state of the entertainment industry now." And it plants false seeds because this has always been the state of the entertainment industry.
And even worse than spreading a bit of low-stakes disinformation (which, granted, is way, way, way better than spreading high-stakes disinformation), this piece of bad writing by this good writer takes the place of the piece of good writing this good writer could have written (You can reread that sentence if you need to. It's a mouthful, but it's important).
Because a ton of us are watching and otherwise consuming trashier things than we used to. And what's that going to look like when this is all over? How are our habits changed forever or how will we change them back when we finally get a chance? I don't know, but I would love to read the writer of the Emily piece's thoughts on the topic.
But instead, when he writes a bad take florally, it gets published. And when Darren Starr, who wrote Sex and the City, which is wonderful and risky and funny, writes Emily in Paris, which is boring, derivative, and nothing, it gets made.
So we have to acknowledge (and celebrate!) that most of even the most successful writing is bad, because otherwise, we're left watching and reading a bunch of trash that won't get better because we won't let it or give it a reason to.
So say it with me!
Most writing is bad!
Paid writing is worse!
But well paid writing? That's pretty bad, too!
(And of course, that's all okay)
And now! Onto a few recommendations:
When Does the Club Shut? My friend Alex Hooper (Roast Battle, America's Got Talent) went to London last year and did some stand-up shows. He had a videographer friend traveling with him and they filmed some stuff they thought would just be for fun. But when the pandemic hit, they edited it into a stand-up special slash tour doc.
I watched it today and it's a ton of fun. And if you want ambient, this thing actually uses a lot of B-Roll of a beautiful European city. Since I just spent a journal getting very high and mighty about what's good and bad and why, I'll say that, sure, there are plenty of zany, fun jokes about drugs that may not change your life (though they are fun and funny). BUT the end packs a wallop and gave me goose pimples, as the British call them. If you like stand up specials and feel like a little whiff of inspiration, it's worth a watch!
Sex and The City. Damn! I'd never seen that pilot. It's a really good show. Nobody who wrote that has any business writing Emily in Paris. Don't watch Emily in Paris. Go watch Sex and the City.
First, We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen. My dad bought this CD in like 2004 and I listened to the first song off it for the first time in ages today. I will be enjoying the album this week.
And finally, I Need You to See This Ep. 3, where Joe and I talk about this NYer article without having yet read it, as well as a moment between Kid Cudi and Selena Gomez that popped into my instagram feed.
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Until next week, much love to all, and please tell me how and why everything I've written here is bad.