Songs for the Struggling Artist


My Pandemic Guide to International TV – Part One

My guess is that international TV got its hooks into me these last two years because there’s something about getting so far away from the world I live in, they don’t even speak my language. Or maybe the extra “labor” of reading subtitles kept my attention when it was inclined to wander? Or maybe it’s like traveling in a period where I mostly just saw the kitchen table? Whatever the reason, the various streaming platforms have afforded me the opportunity of diving into international TV shows galore. Just in case you’ve been wanting to branch out, I thought I should write up some of my favorites and bring you into my international orbit.

I’m going to do this in a Two Part series as there’s, um, a lot here and I think it might be too much to sort through in one sitting. This first part features: Spain, Italy and Turkey

As you may know if you’re a regular reader of the blog, this journey began with Spanish TV shows. I’ve talked already about Cable Girls, The Time Between, Gran Hotel, 45 rpm and Velvet. I believe I’ve also made mention of High Seas (a show on which there is the world’s fastest vaccine development). Missing from this list are:

The Cook of Castamar – which was an absolutely lush period drama set in an estate in the 18th Century. It features an upstairs/downstairs love story, a few Dangerous Liason-y sort of love affairs and some royal batshittery. The ending is really abrupt, like they ran out of film and just had to hurry up and wrap it up. But other than that, this was one of my favorite shows of the year. The cinematography was like a Vermeer painting sometimes and the performances were extraordinary.

Morroco: Love in the Time of War which takes place at a military hospital in Morocco in the 1920s. It is full of strong lady nurses in crisp white uniforms having complicated affairs with handsome doctors. It also features some really impressive racism – and I don’t mean it’s good, of course, just kind of fascinating in its awfulness. I get the sense that Spain hasn’t quite grappled with these things yet. My favorite part of this show is something I’ve nearly written about multiple times but just never found the way.  It’s this love affair one of the Spanish nurses has with the Moroccan handy man. Everyone on the show is baffled by it. They just cannot understand what she’s doing with the uneducated Moroccan guy! And they never mention the fact that he’s just preternaturally handsome. Like, the man is an Adonis and not one single character is like: “Listen, I get it. He’s nice to look at. But – you should keep in mind he can’t read your letters.” The whole scenario made me laugh a lot. I mean – look at this guy:

“What do you SEE in him?” they cry, incredulously!

Oh, and Jaguar – a period drama about a spy ring who are trying to bring down Nazis who are harboring each other and helping one another escape in Franco’s Spain. It features the stars from Cable Girls, Velvet and 45 rpm so of course I had to watch it, even though there aren’t enough women in it. It’s a rough ride. But spies! Fighting Nazis! In the middle of a fascist regime!

One of the few shows I’ve watched that ISN’T a period drama is The Neighbor, which is a very boring title for a very eccentric and fun show. It’s a superhero story – but the man given the superpowers is kind of a shithead and he cannot figure out how to use his powers appropriately. The show goes to some extremely unexpected places. Never once have I been able to predict where it was going. It’s also very funny in a delightfully wacky way. I can’t figure out how to tell you the best parts of it without spoiling it, so, you know, watch a trailer.

Other contemporary Spanish shows I’ve watched:

Valeria which is a sort of contemporary Spanish Sex and the City. Watch it if you want to watch Spanish millennials pretend to have sex with each other in colorful apartments and to get a glimpse of some good looking Spanish Tortillas.

Money Heist which features actors from many other shows I’ve watched so though I tried to resist it (as it seemed like it was going to have too many guns and explosions for me) ultimately I succumbed and joined the rest of the world in being mildly obsessed with this show for a while. If there’s a Spanish show you’ve heard of, it’s probably this one. It has a dumb name in English, but its Spanish title translates to The House of Paper, which is much better. I only just finished watching it so I’m still digesting. I may have more to say about it later.

I believe I’ve already told you everything about the Italian shows I’ve watched: Zero, Luna Park, Luna Nera and Generazione 56k. I also watched An Astrological Guide to Broken Hearts which was a charming contemporary love/work story.  

One of my favorite shows of anywhere has been The Club, a show from Turkey that Netflix sold me on almost as soon as it came out. Sometimes they really nail it. (Most times they don’t. I find it hilarious how often they suggest shows I have already watched. Like, you know I watched that already. I watched it HERE!) Anyway – The Club mostly takes place in and around a nightclub in Istanbul, so it’s a show biz show and you know I’m a sucker for a show biz show. But it’s also about this period in the 50s where Nationalism and racism were on the rise. The Turkish Business Council seems to be gaining in power and targeting anyone who isn’t Muslim. Living in a country where Muslims are often the targets as I do, I found it very interesting to see these power dynamics reversed. One thing I learned from reading about it that wasn’t obvious in watching it, is that there are several languages spoken in the series. To my ear, it all just blended together, so I had no ideas folks were identifying themselves by their language sometimes. There’s one moment where a character speaks Greek to another who isn’t actually Greek and it condemns him. I’d love to be able to understand at least one of the languages spoken to catch some of these distinctions (or to have it noted in the titles which language was being spoken) but it’s just as thrilling with the subtitles as they were. And the musical numbers are both good theatre and good music. The story is complicated and I didn’t always trust where they were going but it made for some really interesting questions about redemption and loss.

The Club was so good, I instantly searched for other Turkish shows or movies but failed to find anything yet.

We’ll leave it here with my new taste for Turkish TV simmering.

Part Two will feature shows from France, Germany, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and beyond.

Look! Somewhere that’s not my apartment!

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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The Time Machine of Music

Music can be a time machine. Play Duran Duran’s “Rio” and I am instantly transported to a carpeted spot in front of the Barbie doll mansion I’d created in my closet in the mid 80s. Put on Primus’ “Nature Boy” and I’m in a cargo van in 1997 with several Shakespeare dudes who are wildly flinging themselves around, while the Shakespeare dude driver nods his head in time. I did not like this song at the time but now I do, not just because I’m angrier these days, but because of how quickly it can return me to the past.

Music can evoke a time and place more directly and precisely than just about anything. (Smell can be a direct line to the past. It’s maybe more immediate but, it’s also often less specific about time.) Music is an incredibly powerful tool – which is why I’m entirely flabbergasted at a trend I’m noticing on television. Why would you use music from a different era than the one you’re trying to evoke?

The otherwise delightful Pursuit of Love mini-series used 80s and 90s tunes throughout, despite the fact that this show takes place in the 30s and 40s. I enjoyed hearing that Joan Armatrading song after so many years but I couldn’t tell you what happened in the show during it as I was pulled into the late 80s for its duration. (It’s from 1977 but it was much later that I discovered it.)

Then there’s the show that got me all fired up about this. 45 Revoluciones or 45 rpm. It’s a Spanish show (surprise!) about a pop music business in 1962. I enjoy a lot of things about it, like the way the woman music producer and her assistant deal with some overt sexism from her tech crew or the way it models a male boss fighting for his female “mano derecho.” But…the music is a disaster. The pop star’s hit song, the one we hear over and over again, is not a song from 1962, nor is it a contemporary song written to sound like it’s from 1962. It is, instead a song from 2012 that went to number one in 24 countries. It is a hit song from 7 years before this show was aired and 50 years after the show is meant to take place. Where exactly do they want to take us in that music time machine?

I hate this song choice so hard. I think they’re trying to say “This artist is so ahead of his time he sings songs from the future!” Or they’re trying to connect contemporary music listeners with this period drama? Or they’re trying to evoke some kind of blend of time periods? I don’t know. But the story of the show is a singer who nobody’s seen the likes of before playing fresh new music that blows everyone’s minds. Then to represent him, the creators choose some of the most middle of the road music from the last couple of decades. “Let her go” may have gone number one around the world (Number 3 in Spain) but it is a song so banal that I only recognized it from hearing it in the grocery store on occasion and found it entirely unremarkable. No disrespect to lovers of this song but it does not represent a stunning innovation in pop music.

Similarly, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” which also makes an appearance on this fictional Spanish rock star’s album from 1962 is not a pop revolution in any way. Lady Gaga is glorious but she’s not out here busting up pop norms. She IS pop norms, albeit with wild costume and style innovations.

As I continued to watch 45 rpm, it got even more ridiculous with its music, careening wildly through time, moving from “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to “Shiny Happy People.” I shouted at the screen more than once.

I’ve learned that this show had the lowest viewer ratings EVER on that channel – and I don’t know if the music was what tanked it but I feel pretty confident it didn’t help.

Here’s the thing. All of that music featured in the show must have been VERY EXPENSIVE. With the money they spent to clear several worldwide hit songs, they could have hired multiple songwriters and composers who could have written them songs that evoked the period and ALSO felt a little modern. They could have had a soundtrack of new and exciting music that might have been a hit and might have drawn people to their show. Look at “That Thing You Do” which is a movie about a hit song from a similar period. The title song that Adam Schlesinger wrote for it became a hit and was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. Hit movie. Hit song. Could have been you, 45 Revoluciones!

Or alternatively, they could have used actual music from 1962. They name checked Los Pekenikes – which is such a great band name, I had to look them up and listen to them and apparently, a band called Los Brincos was an inspiration for the story. They’re really fun to listen to! Is there some belief that the youth won’t respond to old music? I’d like to direct you to the soundtrack of Stand By Me (which I played relentlessly as a teen) which came out in the mid 80s and was filled with mostly old 50s tunes. Because of that film, the title song (from 1961) made another journey to the top ten in 1986. All that music placed that film firmly in its period and it was a giant hit. It’s happened before that contemporary youth get super into music of the past.

But maybe the youth of today are different from the youth of yesteryear and somehow can only tolerate banal contemporary pop? Somehow I don’t think so. I do think they’re being fed an unusually dull music diet, though. There is a flattening of sound, of genre, of time that has been happening over the last 20 years and it can’t be good for us. As Jaron Lanier has pointed out, there hasn’t been an innovation in pop music since Hip Hop and Grunge  – several decades ago. Can you distinguish the sound of something from the first decade of this century from this last decade? I sure can’t. It has a timelessness in its consistency and conformity. This is weird, folks. Can you imagine not being able to distinguish music from the 70s from music of the 60s? Or the 40s from the 50s? There’s a little crossover, sure, but you can make a kind of generalization about pop sound decade by decade until you get to this century. I suspect that one of the reasons this weird time bleed is happening on TV has to do with that strange sameiness of music: Who cares when music is from, when you have no way to tell any of it apart?

I start to wonder if this is connected to the conglomeration of the music business. There are currently really only three music companies. Warner, Sony and Universal own pretty much everything. Things like the Grammys are company celebrations of those three corporations. With a distinct lack of diversity in the business end, is it any wonder the music has had all its edges smoothed over? (The same thing is happening in publishing, btw. There are three major players who just eat up the little guys.) I suspect all this leads to an ahistorical music business which bleeds into an ahistorical film and TV business and now we have TV shows where the music time machine takes us to all the wrong places. You set it for 1962 and half of you ends up in 2012. That is a problematic time machine.

And it may extend beyond just the music in the shows. 45 Revoluciones, which, I’ll remind you, is set in 1962, made casual references to both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the dialogue. Now – I was not yet born in 1962 but even I know that neither of these bands was a worldwide sensation yet in 1962. You know how long it took me to confirm that fact? Less than a minute. I didn’t even have to go to the library. The Rolling Stones hadn’t even heard of the Rolling Stones until July of 1962 so there’s just no way a Spanish rocker would be excited to open for a band that did not yet even have a single recorded. (This sort of error, btw, is a great example of why it’s important to have age diversity on a team. I cannot believe NO ONE on this show flagged this highly irritating detail.)

I think being cavalier about music’s role in time is a huge mistake. It’s a mistake for broken time machine purposes in that you might take your audience to a different place than you were aiming and it’s also a huge mistake in making it harder for all the other elements in a scene to establish the era. The costumes can’t do all the work. Neither can the props or the production design.

If you want to pull the audience in two directions time-wise, okay, but if you choose only really popular songs, then your audience will inevitably have prior associations with that music. The odds that something bad has happened while listening to that song for any of the millions of people who have heard it many times before are very strong. Just…you know – triggering someone’s memories of their assault is one reason why you might not want to use super popular songs in your TV show. Hire a composer! The average song on Spotify has 8 listens. Maybe use one of those?

I don’t mean to pick on 45 rpm – everyone is doing this dumb music flattening – but there’s something particularly ironic about a show that has the word revolution in its title that shows us music neither historical nor revolutionary. The show takes place in a moment in Spain where pop music was creating some interesting cracks in the regime of the fascist dictator. The show gives us glimpses of what the collision of rock n roll and Franco’s Spain was like. It shows us the big dilemma of being obliged to sell out to a dictator and how people resisted, either directly or covertly. (Ironically, this show has literally sold out to an entirely different sort of regime by virtue of the flagrant Coca Cola product placement.)  The regime creates real problems in the lives of artists and record execs alike. Apparently, instrumental music, as well as music in French and English, escaped the censors in those early years or rock n roll just because the regime didn’t take any of it seriously. I’ve been listening to the actual music from that era in Spain and sure, it doesn’t sound revolutionary now, because we’ve had 50+ years with things that sound like it.

But since no one’s invented a new genre in decades, since we can’t experience a current music revolution, why can’t we take a trip in a musical time machine and discover, at least, what a revolution sounded like in the past? When The Rite of Spring was first performed, it was so new, so revolutionary, people rioted. We’ve lived in a world with that music in it for over a century, so it’s not a revolution for us, but if you make a show set in the early 20th century about modernism and you don’t use The Rite of Spring, you better play us something that sounds like a modern riot. Maybe you’ll even find us our modern Stravinsky. But why not take us on a trip in your music time machine? It’s a mellifluous way to travel.

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I reference a lot of music in this post so I made a playlist of it so if you’re curious to hear any of it, it’s here.

Concert à la vapeur by J. J. Granville
It’s not technically a time machine but wouldn’t it be cool if it was?

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Sexy Jobs

What jobs are the sexiest? Like, if you want a character to be appealing and captivating and sexy, what job do you give them? Let’s say you want them to be at the center of a story – what job do they have? If you want to signal to an audience, “This character is sexy,” what do they do?

Apparently, in Spain, if your main character is a woman, the answer is “modista” – a modista is a seamstress, but not just a seamstress or dress maker, she’s also a designer. I am on my second Spanish period drama which features a modista at the center and it made me start to wonder what the sexy jobs are in our culture. Like – some of them are the same. The actor who plays the modista’s love interest in both shows plays a pilot in one and a war journalist in the other. Those are sexy jobs for men. They are just as popular here as I imagine they are in Spain.

But we don’t put seamstresses in our TV shows. I can’t think of a single American TV show that stars a seamstress. But in thinking about it, I realize that we also don’t make a lot of period dramas that place women at the center. I’m having trouble even thinking of one. If women have jobs at the center of a show in American TV, they’re mostly contemporary. They are nurses or lawyers or writers or doctors.

Certainly I don’t know all the shows there are. There are more and more all the time – but I am thinking of every workplace drama set in the past that I can remember and not one of them is American. (For the record, when thinking of women at work shows, I came up with Bletchley Circle, The Mill and Call the Midwife but these are all BBC shows.)

Anyway – I think I may have worked out a factor of why I am so obsessed with Spanish TV. Almost every show I’ve watched features women at work in the early 20th century. Some of those jobs are sexy (see modista, switchboard operator, chambermaid, novelist, hotel matriarch, amateur detective, secretary) and some are less so (housekeeper, innkeeper, the sexy modista’s stern modista mom). I don’t know that it’s the sexiness of the occupations of these women that interest me or just the fact that I get to watch groups of women at work together.

Because women have largely been left out of history books, I long for stories of women in the past. I found this Ms. magazine article about women’s history chilling. An English teacher tells a group of students, “Wouldn’t it be great if history books had as much information about women as men?” and hears her students say, “But women didn’t do anything.” I mean. They said that THIS Century! Something like twenty years IN to this century! This century – when they absolutely should have been exposed to more inclusive history or read things that haven’t actively excluded women’s contributions. So I find TV that highlights women at work in the past almost irresistible, particularly since the stories we’ve all absorbed from the culture have tried to convince us that women working is a new invention.

Watching women at work in the past scratches an itch for me I didn’t know I had. And yes, I know that period drama is not history but it does tend to expand one’s historical perspective. I know a whole heck of a lot more about Franco’s Spain and its relations with Europe and Morocco than I did before my dipping my toes, via Spanish TV, in those worlds. Outlander may feature time travel through fairy stones but I do know a bunch more about the Jacobite Rebellion and the Battle of Culloden in Scotland than I did before I watched it.

Anyway – if sexy jobs are what get us to tune in to stories about women and particularly about women in the past, I am really all for it. I don’t know what American early 20th Century jobs will be sexy enough for our people but I would like to watch one please. A Rosie the Riveter drama maybe? I mean, it’s a gimmee, right? Women in a factory working together? Does this exist and I just don’t know about it? (I know there’s a Canadian show about this. I would like to watch that, too. I’m gonna need a better International streaming platform, please.)

Meanwhile, I am still very curious about what the sexy jobs are. Male romantic leads tend to be architects and female romantic leads do things like run cupcake or pie shops. But are those sexy? I don’t know. Chime in. What are the sexy jobs? And can we have a TV show about them?

Sexy Dummy

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Men Crying

Disculpe, pero – I cannot stop watching Spanish television shows during this pandemic. This is the third time, I know, but I’m on my fourth Bambú show and watching it (and the others) has made me think about something I had never really considered before.

It was during the finale of Season 2 of Velvet (a show about a high fashion couture store in Madrid in the 50s) that I thought, “watching that character cry is one of my favorite things onscreen. I could watch that guy cry for five more hours.” And that reminded me of how much I enjoyed the crying of another man in another show by the same production company, Gran Hotel. These creators show men crying in a way I have never seen in American media.

I’ll start with my favorite crying man and the one who inspired me to think about this. On Velvet, Pedro is often the comic relief of the show. He’s a man who cannot stop talking, especially about the woman he loves, to absolutely everyone – strangers on the train, his boss, anyone who will listen. It’s very funny and a little ridiculous, but heartfelt. And this character also cries fairly often – almost always from joy. We don’t really see him crying from sadness or despair.  He cries, tears streaming down his face, from love and affection. He cries with love for his son, for his friends and for the woman for whom he pines. I find it quite beautiful and I do not think I’ve ever seen such a thing on American TV. I’ve seen it in real life, I’m grateful to say. But on screen? Never before.

Anyway – the tears that really made me think about this were not Pedro’s love-sick tears. They were his tears of empathy. Pedro (played by Adrián Lastra, by the way. I shouldn’t ignore the extraordinary skill of this actor in this.) expressed his sympathy to an older man who had lost the woman he loved and Pedro’s eyes filled with tears and so did mine and damned if we didn’t all cry together. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Two men crying together is apparently my jam. Attn. American media producers: I think you can start to make a dent in your toxic masculinity machine by putting more crying men on your screens!

Which brings me to the other crying man – the one from Gran Hotel. Unlike Pedro on Velvet who is pure clumsy goodness, Diego on Gran Hotel is the bad guy. We know he’s bad from the minute we meet him. He’s manipulative and dangerous and from the start we are worried about the female lead who is being compelled to marry him. He is trouble with a capital T. And, as the show goes on, he turns out to be a crier. He cries about genuinely difficult stuff. He cries over his troubled personal history and over his feelings for Alicia, the female lead. In fact, I think it is only when he is with Alicia that we see him cry. He sometimes seems to be genuinely distressed and sometimes seems to be using his emotions to manipulate her. I found it really extraordinary to watch a villain authentically cry. I feel like I’ve seen villains perform tears before – usually in a mocking way like, “Boo hoo hoo, Batman. I’ll get you later.” But I have never seen a bad guy use his own real tears as a weapon in his arsenal. I found it extraordinarily compelling. Because Diego’s tears are successful at shifting the tone of the room he’s in, in the fiction – but also in my response as an audience member. He evokes my sympathy, too, even though I’ve seen all the bad things he’s done. He shifts the needle, if only for a moment and makes us sympathize with him. I’ve heard about women weaponizing tears (and seen it demonstrated in Amy Cooper) but I’m not sure (again except with Amy Cooper) I ever really saw how that worked. But with Diego, I understand how he’s weaponized his tears, just like he’s weaponizing everything else. I’ve never felt such a contradictory set of responses to a (really terrible) villain getting their just deserts before. I was mostly cheering but also feeling sorry for him. It is masterful both from a writing side – and from a performance perspective. (Again, the actor should get so much applause. Thank you, Pedro Alonso.)

Thinking about this range of men crying within a small sample size of Spanish TV produced by Bambú Productions, I realized how limited my experience of this in American performance has been. We fetishize tears here, of course. Actors who cry (and snot!) win awards – so it’s not that we never see men cry. But the context is so much wider for crying than what ends up on American screens. I feel like there’s a door to open here. There’s a way to both expand our emotional vocabulary onscreen and, because things that happen on our screens impact our lives, it might spread out into our world, too.

I feel like a world where more men might be allowed to be like Pedro and cry for joy and for love and for empathy would be a better world, one in which I might be able to stop watching Spanish TV exclusively.

Pedro (Adrián Lastra) hugging Don Emilio (José Sacristán) on Velvet * I could watch these guys crying for days.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Searching for the Seams

After I became obsessed with Cable Girls, Netflix suggested a show called High Seas (Alta Mar) to me. It was by the same team, I came to discover, and I was quickly hooked. (Sisters solving murders on an ocean liner in the 1940s? Are you kidding me? Yes, please!) I got curious about the making of this show after watching the third season in which a deadly virus was brought on board – like, is this timely by accident or on purpose? When did this air and who made it? (Aired 2020 – made in 2019. What?! And the thing that stretches the bounds of credulity the most is not the ghost, no, it’s how quickly they make a vaccine.)

This all led me to another earlier show made by the same team – Gran Hotel. It features actors from both the other shows I watched and it has been a very nice distraction from this pandemic world. It takes place in the early 1900s and features various fun encounters with such new technology as electric lights! Film! Gramophones! Fingerprinting for criminal justice! It’s not as full of women being fabulous together as the teams’ other shows but it does feature the Gold Knife Killer and a satisfying forbidden romance.

Anyway – I’m not here to sell you on a show from 7-9 years ago. It’s actually highly possible, depending on where you live, that you’ve already seen it. It was HUGE, folks. Aired around the world and re-made in Egypt, Mexico, Italy and France. There was even one here in the USA just last year! Did you see it? Probably not. They canceled it already.

Gran Hotel was a global phenomenon that I entirely missed before. And I found out about its global hit-ness when I went searching for an answer to a question that I didn’t really know how to ask.

See, the show is finely crafted. The production values are high. Think Downton Abbey in Spain. The acting and writing are artful and yet the episodes seemed to finish in the weirdest places. They seemed to have been edited by someone who’d never seen episodic TV before. I was trying to understand how a show that was so high level could have such clumsy endings. I started to wonder if my sense of what makes an episode was cultural. Like, does my desire for a cliffhanger or a button or a conclusion make me particularly American? I thought – maybe in Spain they film their TV like one super long movie and then just chop it up wherever.

But none of that seemed right. After all, I’d just watched two OTHER Spanish shows that shaped their episodes just the way I’d expect them to be shaped. There was something UP with these episodes and it was starting to bug me.

You know, an episode would seem to end mid-conversation. Or there would be an enormous jump in time 15 minutes into the episode. I had to know, so I risked the possibility of stumbling on spoilers to research and find out.

Do you have a guess about why this was happening? I feel like I should have guessed it but it was so weird, I did not come close. Here it is.

When the show was MADE for Spanish TV, the episodes were 70 minutes long. When Netflix put the show on its platform, it cut those episodes into 41-44 minute episodes. This makes for some very weird episodes, story-wise.

And I cannot get over this choice. Netflix has gotten a reputation among film and TV people for being supportive of artists, for fostering artistic growth, for diversifying the field. At least that’s what my reading of the Hollywood Reporter would have me believe. Didn’t they have some ad campaign about stories being first a while back? But it’s clear here, in the case of this global hit, that the story didn’t matter nearly so much as their optimal episode length. (If I ever pitch a show to Netflix, I will be sure to pitch 42 min episodes.) They clearly have the data on the length of a show that people watch the most and so they hacked Gran Hotel into that length – endings, cliffhangers and dramatic tension be damned. It is really something.

Now, as I’m watching the show, I find myself trying to piece together what the makers meant to do. Instead of just watching the show, I’m trying to work out where the seams are, where the original endings and beginnings might have been. I’ve considered trying to watch it at the show’s act breaks – like – stopping the episode where it would have stopped and watching through the breaks Netflix has clumsily inserted. But that’s a lot of trouble. Instead I find I just sort of watch as much as I feel like and note the real changes when I see them. Some of the shifts are so big, I can’t believe I didn’t realize this was happening before. Each time it happens I become more shocked that Netflix decided to do this.

I keep thinking of the editors that Netflix hired to hack up this show. There they are, the business of beginnings and endings and arcs in the middle being their very bread and butter, and they are tasked to turn it into chunks. It just feels like a vet hired to carve up horses for dog food. I imagine Netflix paid them well – but their souls! Their little editing hearts!

This 41-44 length must be almost a religious number for Netflix for them to have chosen to undertake this work. I mean – it is so much more complex than just cutting a 70 minute episode in half. That might actually be a bit less destructive, in that at least episodes would end well every other time. But 41-44 must somehow be so much more optimized than 35.

I’m sure they have all the data – the way 41-44 may lead people to binge watch more than 35 or 70 would. I start to question my own watching. Am I more inclined to watch something that is 41-44 min than 35 or 70? I might be. It’s long enough to feel like you’re getting into a story but short enough that just going ahead and watching another episode might be okay. I hate that I might be as predictable as anyone for Netflix’s optimized algorithm.

And I think of Cable Girls and High Seas, the two subsequent Spanish shows made by this team, and realized that they were made WITH Netflix so their length is Netflix-optimized already. And I imagine their storytelling had to adjust to this change as well. There is a sprawling relaxed quality to Gran Hotel that is very different from the later shows.

It is a disquieting experience to realize that around the world (literally, as Netflix is having a profound influence internationally) our viewing options are being optimized for Netflix’s algorithms. This makes me nervous. Like, what if a country has an extraordinarily long attention span? What if people raised on Indonesian shadow puppet shows that last all day are suddenly expected to create work in 41-44 minute chunks? Does this effect balloon out? Do podcasts aim for the 41-44 minute mark? (Actually I know the answer to this. No. They don’t. They aim for 20-25 minutes as most podcasts are listened to in the car and that is the average commute time.)

I’m just so troubled by a giant corporate entity with so much global power cutting up well crafted artistic work. In a way, I’d understand it if it were a Broadcast channel. If ABC wants to air the original Gran Hotel, it doesn’t have 70 minute time blocks. It would have to trim it to fit into the structure that they have. Because the news is always at 11 and everything has to fit into their schedule’s model. It sucks for the work – but I get it somehow. But Netflix doesn’t have the evening news coming on at 11. People are literally watching whenever they want. There are no restrictions. And yet they have made some. It feels like a weird and scary amount of power – to collect the data of the length of show people are most likely to watch and then not only make their shows to exactly that length but to even edit previously made work to fit these specifications.

I love that they’re bringing me the world. While stuck in my apartment during this pandemic, I have been to Spain at the turn of the century, at the dawn of the telephonic age, and on a transatlantic ocean liner, as well as a few seasons in the Weimar Republic in Berlin and witch-hunting in Italy in some mythical medieval past. That is all an enormous gift. Each gift has been between 41-44 minutes.

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

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It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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The Inspiring Solidarity of The Cable Girls

If we’ve talked about TV in the last few weeks (and we MAY have talked about TV a lot in these virus times,) I’ve surely mentioned Cable Girls to you. I’ve become a bit obsessed. It’s a Spanish TV show about switchboard operators in the early 20th century. It is stylish and sexy and most impressively, about women’s solidarity.

There is nothing the women in this show won’t do for their friends. And I mean nothing. They will tank their relationships, start a strike, even stage a prison break. They are a group of friends who show up for each other in some really extraordinarily ways.

There are many things about this show stretch the bounds of credulity. It is very much like a telenovela in terms of its plot twists. Amnesia? Check. Love triangle? Check. Sudden appearance of an identical twin? Check. It is not a realistic show. But the bonds of these friends always seem absolutely credible. While I don’t necessarily believe the prison break, I do believe that they would do it to help one of their own.

Watching these women choose each other over and over makes me realize how rare it is to see women together like this. So often, on screen, women are portrayed as competitors, as spatting rivals, not colleagues. The women in Cable Girls (Las Chicas del Cable) begin as colleagues and grow into collaborators and friends and even accomplices and comrades in multiple heists and schemes.

Watching a team of friends pull off a heist is, I suppose, a fairly common dramatic structure. But it is rarely a team of women and almost definitely not a team of women whose difficulties arise from outside of the group, rather than within it.

It gives me enormous solace to watch a group of women friends take on the indignities of sexism or encroaching capitalism or the sexist structures around them and do it together. When the main character chose her friends over her lover and clearly articulated that that was what she was doing, this TV show showed me something I had never seen before. This show has these women continuously choose each other, over and over. No one can come between them. Everyone who knows these “girls” knows that if one of them is in trouble, the others have to go.

It’s powerful to watch a group of women take on impossible situations. It feels like what’s been happening on an international scale for the last few years. Groups of women are coming together, like the Cable Girls, and facing what seem like impossible situations and sometimes winning.

Is the show silly? Yes. Very. (Heist. Twins. Amnesia. It’s silly.) Is it soapy? So very much. But it’s, like, stylish soap. Sexy period soap? With pearls and cloche hats. I cannot get enough. Also, the Spanish is incredibly musical. I don’t speak enough Spanish to be able to identify what’s happening – but it seems like there might be a sort of stylized theatrical quality to the speech? I sometimes feel like I could sing it after watching an episode. Turn off the dubbing and turn on the subtitles for the optimal feminine solidarity experience. I wish I could also turn off the weird contemporary music in English that I’m guessing Netflix has added to appeal to us Americans but alas there is no music adjustment setting.

It might be just the right show for the moment – or just the wrong one. For me, in these times when I miss my own friends so profoundly, it is a comfort to watch a group of women support each other. In the absence of hugs from my community, I get some visceral joy from the group hugs that the Cable Girls have fairly often. For someone else, the absence of such comforts in our current situation of social distancing might make it hard to watch. But there are some robberies to make up for it, though, so maybe it’s just the ticket!

Anyway – I’m just a few episodes from the end of the final season, which I’m finding not QUITE as light and airy as previous seasons. Unfortunately, since it’s based on history, I sort of know how this Spanish Civil War situation goes and it’s not a happy story. It’s particularly not a happy development that may have opened the door for subsequent fascism around Europe so I’m not quite sure how the usual feel good Cable Girls are going to get through the end of this season in their formerly uplifting way. (Don’t tell me if you’ve already seen it.) But, see, if they do manage it – if they do find some way through that brutal fascistic experience, I think I might take some comfort in that. I think I might need that kind of inspiration.

It is a silly kind of revolutionary show of togetherness but maybe that’s just what we need to have modeled right now. Or what I needed to have modeled right now. If you’re my friend, I just want to let you know, I will help you with your bank heist if you need to escape your abusive husband. Just know that I will. (Unless you’re the police, in which case, I know nothing about that bank heist. What bank heist? I won’t snitch on my girls.)

photo by Fred Romero of Las Chicas del Cable in Madrid via wikicommons

This post was brought to you by my patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

It’s also called Songs for the Struggling Artist 

You can find the podcast on iTunesStitcherSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotifymy websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want to help me keep my friends out of trouble?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

Or buy me a “coffee” (or several!) on Kofi – ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis




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