Jumping the Shark: Knowing When to Say ‘The End’

“I loved Grey’s Anatomy until I realised I hate it.”

A friend of mine and I were discussing our favourite television programmes recently when she came out with that little gem. Then we were off on a rant about how shows can start so well, be so compelling and then one evening as you settle into the couch you realise that you don’t even like your favourite programme anymore.

  • Grey’s Anatomy went from being a comedy/drama about a young woman struggling to both fulfill and reject her familial legacy to a mess of explosions, mass shootings, plane crashes, natural disasters and anything else that could hike up drama to obscure the lack of plot.
  • 24 went from the story of a day in the life of a counterintelligence agent pushing the boundaries to stop a terrorist attack to the same thing, over and over and over again.
  • The Inbetweeners went from the coming of age story of four boys at school to…oh, wait. That’s exactly what it was.

People often lament that US television shows go on for too long and fizzle out whereas UK programmes ‘leave the viewers wanting more.’ But do we actually want more? I think not.

We may feel we want more, because Tuesday nights just won’t be the same without the characters we have come to love. Because we crave more of the laughs or the tears or the shocks the writers have delivered. But what we really love is the story. And it’s important to know when a story is over.

In Grey’s Anatomy, the story is: will the aspiring surgeon succeed or will she fall prey to her inner demons? She’s succeeded. She’s a surgeon, she’s got the guy, they’ve built the house of their dreams, she’s triumphed over difficulties in getting pregnant, for goodness sakes, she even owns the hospital now. The answer is there. The story is over. A long time over.

24 was a great premise: one day, 24 hours and the problem that one character faces in that time. Except then they did it again and again, year after year with the same protagonist and the same problem. That’s not a story, there is no character development when the protagonist just repeats the same actions every season. Plus, it’s just ridiculous that one character would single-handedly need to resolve that many terrorist attacks, and all in exactly 24 hours.

And, now, we come to hailed success stories like The Inbetweeners and How I Met Your Mother. Why do these shows work? Because they have limited scope. There is a point when they end. The inbetweener boys finish school and Ted, presumably meets his kids’ mother.

All this to say that it is time for me to jump the shark. It has been a great year for me on No Dead White Men. I have enjoyed working with all the tutors, with our outgoing MFA director, Scott Bradfield, and my talented and dedicated cohort colleagues who took time out to write fantastic articles all year. They have written about varied topics from translation to procrastination, from teaching to reading and everything in between.

As we move on and a new cohort steps in, we think about beginning new scenes, new projects and bringing the old ones to a close. Because those endings are so very important and the ending is the hardest part to write because, in many ways, it defines the whole story.

So we’re going to end simply, with a thank you for reading and a hope that we haven’t gone on quite long enough to make you hate us.

Don’t forget to keep visiting No Dead White Men as it is taken over by the 2013/2014 MFA cohort and they tell their own, new story. I am sure they will be fantastic and have lots of interesting thoughts to share.

Thank you all for your loyal readership and support.

Your faithful 2012/2013 Editor,

Sinéad Keegan

MFA: The Next Generation

We have arrived. We are the new MFA cohort. And here will be the home of all of our interesting things to say.

Welcome to your blog.

Over the previous year, fearless editor, Stuart, and his colleagues have created and developed this blog as a source of information about the MFA program, the visiting lecturers and all things of interest to serious writers. As he passes the reins to me, I hope that you all will work with me to make this a blog that both interests you and adds to your experience as an MFA student. You will all, I hope, choose to contribute to this site whether it be in the form of book reviews, profiles of speakers, articles on current literary events and topics or anything else that arouses your interest and adds to the high level of discussion already here. As our blog name suggests, boundary pushing is welcomed.

As you work on your individual projects this year, please also think about creating a writing community and sharing with us what you’re doing. If you find something interesting in your research or an article you like, we’d like to know about it too. The more participation this site has from all of you, the more vibrant and helpful it will be. That old “you get out what you put in” lark, I know, but it’s true.

In that vein, I also want to reach out to previous MFA cohorts. Please keep in touch and we hope you feel that you are still an important part of the KU MFA community. Thank you for all your hard work last year, for posting very interesting content and especially to Stuart for creating and maintaining NoDeadWhiteMen.

Now our only challenge is to live up to the precedent set last year. I look forward to an exciting year filled with all your deep, not so deep, academic, humorous and cutting edge literary thoughts.

Your faithful editor,

Sinéad Keegan

Notes on Manhattan

Workshop last week with screenwriter and director Mark Norfolk, so it’s movies from me today. I feel I should pick a movie by my favourite director, Woody Allen. Manhattan is one of his best, but I’ve picked it largely because it’s got plenty of useful youtube clips available.

Here are some scribbles:

  • How to end a film brilliantly – The idea could have been swamped by clichés, but this scene of Allen trying to stop his ex-girlfriend from leaving is elevated by the pitch-perfect acting into something revelatory – Allen’s charming hesitancy, that combination of courage and shyness; the dove-tailing of Mariel Hemingway’s words with the sound-track; most especially the last, silent moments of Allen’s changing expressions… This is truly one of cinema’s most romantic films. Here’s that final scene:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x57-vdn908w&feature=related

  • It’s a cynic’s film, actually…. that final line: “You have to have a little faith in people” – isn’t it completely at odds with the story? The trigger for Diane Keaton chasing Woody Allen in the film is largely that her lover has spurned her. Allen only changes course to stop Hemingway leaving because Keaton has gone. Allen is all about the destinies of relationships being changed by tiny decisions, that could have gone either way, as if at the flick of a coin.
  • No, it’s a romantic’s film. The sweeping, swooning, lush Gershwin soundtrack. The moody black and white visuals.
  • Ok, a compromise. Perhaps the love affair is with the town, the architecture itself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHkLSi7oEuw&feature=related

  • Empty rooms – So many conversations happen off-screen, especially inside apartments, with characters moving from room to room and through hallways, past the view of stationary cameras. The device is a Woody Allen staple, used in virtually every movie from Annie Hall onwards.

In a similar style, there’s also a neat moment on a pier, Allen’s friends reading from his ex-wife’s book (Meryl Streep, sensational in an early role). As Streep’s words tear Allen’s reputation apart, the camera briefly looks out over wooden posts marking out territory in the empty, ramshackle harbour. I love the loneliness of the moment. (below, 40 seconds in)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ohw8jqyLPpU

  • Great bit of character writing – Mariel Hemingway as Allen’s 17-year old girlfriend – is she not in fact the most mature character on screen? The most patient, the most open, the least often dragged into petty or grand emotional deceptions?
  • Uncomfortable bit of character writing – Manhattan (1979) is the first of many movies where Allen writes his character into a plot where he is dating a young girl. This would be creepy enough, as he gets older and older. But then off-screen in 1997 he marries Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his long term partner Mia Farrow. The girl was 35 years his junior at the time. (Farrow had left Allen after finding nude photos taken by Allen of Soon-Yi as an 18-year old). Does real-life biography spoil this aspect of his movies in hindsight – or, after it’s been gossiped about in such depth, are we even bothered now?
  • Favourite visuals(1) the conversation between Allen and Keaton that takes place in silhouette in the planetarium. (below, poor quality, and not the whole clip – best I could find)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p52N81eX6To

  • (favourite comedy fragment – at the start of that last clip, with Allen and Keaton running in from the rain, the scrap of newspaper he is holding over his head to protect himself becomes farcically small, Allen still clinging).
  • Favourite visuals(2) the confrontation between Allen and his best friend Yale (Keaton’s ex) that takes place in a classroom, a skeleton standing next to Allen. Allen isn’t a director who is always thinking about imagery – he often emphasises dialogue, plot, character (at least when his career as an auteur gets going he does). But Manhattan (like his other black and white movies such as Broadway Danny Rose and Stardust Memories) is oriented towards the visuals.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeqbRbAyC4M&NR=1&feature=endscreen

  • Comedy moment #2: “my doctor told me it was the wrong kind”. Allen’s momentary pause afterwards is priceless.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQPu0KLJu1I&feature=related

  • Favourite relationship insight – Allen and Keaton, completely at odds with each other at first meeting when their partners are in tow. They’re so destined to get together. And so destined to fail afterwards.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8FpnM0NlXk&feature=related

  • Life-affirming moment – Allen recites into a dictaphone his list of reasons why life is worth living, ending with his ex-girlfriend, and then realises how much he wants to get her back. (first two minutes of link below)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIugrczLUl0

  • Copy / Paste moment – running along the streets to go back to Tracy at the end of the movie. Reminds me of Billy Crystal doing the same in When Harry Met Sally. They’re both naff runners as well. At least Allen doesn’t try to be heroic – stopping with a stitch and looking around awkwardly for a taxi (same link, 3 minutes in. This link also has the full dialogue for the end scene of the movie, 5 minutes in)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIugrczLUl0

  • How to start a film brilliantly – We hear Allen drafting the opening of his book several times – first too corny, then too preachy, then too angry… A sly way to ask us: how much of our identity is self-narrated myth, and how much do we try to perfect our fictions? How much of our self-image is shaped by where we choose to live? Should we be living as cynics or romantics?

How much faith should we have in another person?

Here it is, complete with fireworks and Rhapsody in Blue:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o6QKpNK9Cc

– Mike Loveday

The Sharp Call of Brass

 

THE SHARP CALL OF BRASS

 

 

AT 7:27 THIS MORNING WELLS TOWER woke me with three hard knocks. Loud and muffled. At the time I didn’t know it was him. I was asleep. He was at the door. Staring vacantly at the square chrome clock pillow-high, I reasoned It’s Sunday. Or Saturday. Then I muttered into the sweat-sour duvet something nobody was ever going to hear. Four more bangs  – this time, the sharp call of brass – and a shuffling from beyond two doors, my bedroom door and the one that opens, and closes, on the outside.  He was on the step. Waiting. I cupped my balls, turned over.

 

‘It was much hotter now, and the sun glared down through the sky like a flashlight behind a sheet.’

11:11. Man! My ankles were angry from having slept in socks too thick, they were pinching hot. I reached for a watch,  and holding my left arm out from under the covers, attached the watchstrap to it. I scruffed at my greasy hair, wiped my hands on the sheets then concertina-ed the duvet into three-even sections, neatly layered at the foot of the bed. I straightened one unruly corner, pulled on yesterday’s clothes.

I found him lying at the bottom of the stairs in a pale rectangle of dirty floorboards where a doormat with a cat’s face used to sleep. His scraped and distorted covering suggested he had squeezed first through the brass letterbox and then through the mouth of synthetic black bristles fitted on the back of it – is there a name for that? I flicked on the kettle, pissed.

On the table next to a borrowed copy of Conrad lie a creased scrap of paper with inky scratchings on it, things to do today. It was yesterday’s list with one item struck through. I made a pot of coffee, opened the fridge and stared at a chubby white paper cup, pineapple and coconut yoghurt. I looked away, closed the fridge door, sprayed the orchids on the kitchen windowsill, opened and closed the fridge again. The fridge appears different with a bright new trawler boat magnetically stuck to it. Trawling is when you weigh down the nets and drag for bottom-feeders. I poured coffee, shook out the last of the milk and took Wells to meet the sofa.

 

‘Derrick came back into the living room. “Gotta take a ride over the bridge,” he said. “Need to go pull something out of a horse’s pussy.”

“What kind of thing?” Bob asked.

“A baby horse, I hope.”

 

 

17:06 It is wintry dark now. The day left without saying goodbye. On the table there is a creased list of things to do. One of them is struck through, still. I shall call to work, tell them, half-sitting, half-lying, I am sick, I cannot leave the sofa and then imagine The Manager recradling the phone, cussing and shunting spectacles higher on her nose, wondering What to do tomorrow?  He may not come again.

 

 

– Stuart Bird

 

 

Quotations from ‘The Brown Coast’, Wells Tower; Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, London: Granta, 2009.

 

 

Wells Tower reads the title story from his debut collection:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/audio/2009/apr/09/books-podcast-wells-tower-short-story

 

 

 

 

The Art of Peeling Potatoes

 

 

A very tall Sicilian man, wearing a Speedo, lying on the pebbled beach of Postiano, asked me once, “Can you cook?”

“I can make pasta…and microwave things.”

“My God, never say the word microwave to an Italian!”

He also had a doctorate in food science.

Mom was a good cook, she just didn’t like to do it. She made a lot of Stouffer’s so that, “when the kids went away they could always have a meal just like home.” I’d help occasionally, peeling potatoes or some other menial task, but mostly setting the table and doing dishes afterwards.

I mastered pasta in college. I’m surprised I didn’t balloon, but buttered pasta with Parmesan cheese was my dish. I felt like I was cooking when I get the pot out and waited for the water to boil. I felt chefy when I tasted the pasta to see if it was cooked through. And I watched as my five foot one roommate flitted around the kitchen making fried chicken and pot roast.

My first long-term boyfriend was a decent cook. He worked in a bakery making cakes. I watched him make baked chicken, steaks, salmon, tacos, and an assortment of baked goods. I was excellent at washing dishes. And I’d added sauce to my pasta.

Last year I moved abroad and met a five foot tall Chinese girl from San Francisco named Stephanie. She cooked ear—by tongue?—just like her mother. She’d chop bowls full of peppers, chorizo, mushrooms, and a million other ingredients that she had picked up on a whim, throw them all together, add them to rice (she had her own rice cooker, of course) and call it jambalaya. She cooked for us on her birthday.

Before everyone left for Christmas holidays we had a meal together. Stephanie cooked honey sausage and supervised as our flat mate, Felicia, experimented with baked salmon over pasta with pesto sauce. That break, Felicia went home and cooked for her family and her boyfriend. Her boyfriend stood over her shoulder as she pour honey over sausage links, complaining it would be too sweet, then promptly devouring the entire plate. Felicia was hooked and when everyone returned after break for second semester, it was Felicia who started taking the lead. Stephanie stood to the side, pointing and making suggestions, but happy to have inspired a bit of experimentation. I was happy to eat the experiments and wash the dishes afterward.

We started watching Come Dine With Me that semester. With Stephanie and Felicia upstairs cooking away, I thought, “Eh, it can’t be that hard.” Turns out, the hardest part wasn’t going to be the cooking, but getting Felicia to hand over the reigns and stop stepping in when it was technically my night to experiment. If I wasn’t careful, she’d have everything prepped and in the oven before I had the counters clean enough to work on. Side dishes became my focus, as Felicia had decided she was going to master the main dishes, the meats. I did sauté some great green beans though. And that kitchen was some kind of clean.

This year, especially as Thanksgiving crept closer and closer, I thought back to that Sicilian on the beach and decided I was officially closing the microwave door, kicking the others out of the kitchen, and trying something myself. It helped that the first few attempts took place while Felicia was in Italy on vacation. I made teriyaki chicken stir-fry. It had been one of my favorite dishes of Mom’s and she used to save the leftovers for me so I could have them for lunch the next day. It was a success. With the help of my other flat mate, Anna, supervising, I even added peppers. Then I made Stephanie’s honey sausage. I was catching up, slow as honey dripping from a jar.

Thanksgiving rolled around. We’d made our first official Sunday Roast the week before, as practice. It had gone well, and we were hopeful. Felicia scheduled both Wednesday and Thursday down to the hour for baking and cooking. I was delegated most of the vegetable dishes. Felicia doesn’t eat many vegetables. With the exception of Anna’s green bean casserole, I was in charge of corn on the cob, salad, and four different kinds of potatoes and sweet potatoes. I peeled four bags of tubers. I even started to develop calluses by the end of the day. I made my grandmother’s salad and, with tips from Mom, boiled the corn. And in the end, the only thing that went—mildly—wrong was the burning of the marshmallow topping on the sweet potato casserole. But that was easily fixed with a quick scrape and a new bag of mallows.

As I feel I’ve mastered a few basics, and at least a fair amount of veg, I do hope to turn to mains soon. Though I know I will have to fight Felicia for them. It can be so easy to sit back and let her run around the kitchen, but I do envy that sense of accomplishment she beams as she sets food on the table and watches us all gobble it up. Soon I’ll set her to dish duty. I have plans for a crock pot—thank you Mom for the Christmas present—that will make it easier to sneak in a meal while Felicia is at work, and surprise everyone when they return to a flat smelling of roasting beef, gravy, chopped carrots, and of course, potatoes.

 

 

Sarah Veeder

 

 

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