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The Naughts: The Television Show of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Television Show of the ’00s (photo)

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“It’s not TV, it’s HBO” goes the tagline, and in the ’00s, TV was “The Sopranos,” a series that not only defined a channel but, more fundamentally, a decade’s worth of living-room drama.

When David Chase’s series about the titular New Jersey crime family debuted in 1999, it came equipped with a conceit that seemed, dare I say, a tad too cute — a mob boss balancing his two “families,” and buckling under the stress of it all? Yet cute was something the program almost never wound up flirting with, instead carving out a position as both a key member of America’s controversial modern gangster-fiction canon alongside “The Godfather,” “Scarface” and “Goodfellas,” as well as the prime example of the small-screen’s potential to be an artistic venue equal to that of the cinema.

Ten years ago, no self-respecting critic would have made such a case, but bada bing, at the close of this decade, “The Sopranos”‘ influence is now so clear, and so monumental, that it can lay claim to having spearheaded an entire medium’s golden age.

This isn’t to claim that “The Sopranos” is the best show of the decade; in my humble opinion, David Simon’s “The Wire” definitively owns that title. But Chase’s mob show is unquestionably the one that set us down our current bountiful path, proving from the outset — when it garnered record pay-cable ratings, which further skyrocketed in later seasons — that marrying film-quality writing, acting and directing with serialized storytelling that allowed for truly in-depth characterizations and plotting was a recipe for immense critical and popular success.

12032009_Sopranos2.jpgFar removed from the ’80s soapy serials (“Falcon Crest,” anyone? I thought not), “The Sopranos” was an epic fiction unfolding slowly and in immense detail, affording a level of engagement, of immersion in its settings and protagonist’s headspace (with Tony Soprano’s noggin serving as one of TV’s all-time great epicenters of conflict), that many of its cinematic counterparts soon seemed slender and cursory by comparison.

This was exhaustive drama on a grand scale, a long-form novel come to life on Sunday nights. And every show to subsequently employ a continuing storyline, from “Sex and the City” to “Lost” to “Weeds” to “Mad Men,” did so primarily because “The Sopranos” proved that audiences were hungry for (and, thanks to the advent and prevalence of DVRs, capable of keeping up with) alternatives to the “Law & Order” stand-alone formula, not to mention the wealth of sitcoms, that dominated the ’90s.

To spend years getting to know evolving characters in their unique habitats is now a veritable requirement of TV drama, but that wasn’t quite the case until “The Sopranos” began plumbing the deep, dank recesses of its Garden State environment and the nasty, volatile tensions of its mob and domestic family units. Its influence wasn’t just the byproduct of its serial structure; it was also due to its canny use of genre, as the show hooked viewers with a seemingly recognizable mob world and then worked diligently to deliver the basic elements demanded by its fans (murders, double-crosses, criminal schemes) while at the same time not-so-subtly subverting and reinventing its conventions to concoct something fresh and exciting.

“Deadwood,” “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Dexter,” “24” and countless others have followed “The Sopranos”‘ lead by embracing bedrock genres and then twisting them into new and daring shapes. In doing so, many of these shows have also attempted to mimic not only “The Sopranos”‘ violence, profanity and all-around raciness, but its heart and soul, Tony Soprano, through their own brooding, dangerous, ultimately conflicted and empathetic anti-heroes. To concoct a compellingly ambiguous protagonist has become the way to launch a show and, more fundamentally, to give a network its identity, with Showtime hitching a ride on the good guy serial killer series “Dexter” and FX positioning itself as the network of The Shield’s corrupt cop Vic Mackey. Even HBO has often tried to duplicate “The Sopranos”‘ template with shows highlighted by charismatic baddies, from “Deadwood” and Al Swearengen to “True Blood” and Vampire Bill. One might argue that none of these offspring live up to their spiritual mob paterfamilias — and I’d say that only “The Wire” and its immense cast of morally complex, fundamentally human characters is up to the task — but certainly, doing like Tony, Carmela and the rest of their Jersey clan did has been the prime tactic of many an ’00s showrunner.

1222009_Sopranos3.jpgThat a basic cable net like FX made its name on provocative continuity-heavy dramas (not only “The Shield,” but “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me” and “Damages”), that the most critically beloved show on TV is AMC’s ’50s ad salesman gem “Mad Men,” and that the most buzzworthy show of the past few years is a narratively perplexing, multicharacter sci-fi mystery like ABC’s “Lost,” all goes to show how much “The Sopranos” has affected the current TV landscape. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s incessantly imitated habit of killing off beloved main characters, which has become so de rigueur that showrunners now spend inordinate amounts of time misdirecting audiences away from surprise cast member assassinations.

Nor does it factor in the “Sopranos” finale’s abrupt cut-to-black, a moment of formal and thematic audaciousness that incensed those fans who tuned in primarily for straightforward mob shenanigans, and thrilled those who recognized it to be merely the last of the show’s myriad daring cinematic gestures. Above all else, however, “The Sopranos”‘ enduring legacy is likely that, by proving the viability of bold, boundary-pushing, mature small-screen drama, David Chase’s landmark show has made cable the dominant realm of cutting-edge TV. After a decade of killings, it seems that Tony’s greatest whack may have been perpetrated on network television’s creative supremacy.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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