From Nashville to Louis CK, the Americans - and their sitcoms - are coming

At last, Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation is heading to our screens - one of a host of great US dramas and comedies heading our way next year.

As far back as last summer, there was a buzz of tired happiness: “Finally,” we all screamed inwardly but also inevitably on Twitter, “it looks like BBC4 has acquired Parks and Recreation!” It was confirmed a few months later, and now, finally, the small band of Knope-lovers can sit with bated breath and watch our loved ones fall under the spell of Amy Poehler and her incredibly sincere and immensely funny ensemble cast.

Parks and Recreation is superb: it is one of my favourite American sitcoms of recent years, sitting very comfortably among the – very diverse –greats of the last couple of decades: Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Community, Seinfeld etc. But while it is one of the higher-profile and long-awaited acquisitions coming over to the UK in next year, it is by no means the only one. So what can you expect in the early part of 2013? There are a few gems, some honourable mentions, and a couple of DOAs. Let’s take a look at a few of the more interesting options.

Louis C.K. has engendered the kind of wild affection that only certain comics get after they’ve popped their clogs, so of course everyone is looking forward to his sitcom Louie (he created, writes, directs and edits the show), in which the stand up plays a stand up and is consistently, darkly funny. I caught up with the show after a recommendation from an internet-turned-real-life friend, and I am so excited it is finally crossing over.

If you’re looking for fine insights into the human condition, check it out on FX in January. (Enjoy a little dose of C.K. in the parody sketch of the show he made for Saturday Night Live back in November; Louie become Abraham Lincoln, and it was splendid). 

E4’s bought a couple of big, flashy American comedies, The New Normal and The Mindy Project. They’re both... okay. Much was expected of Mindy (Kaling, the terrifyingly talented former head writer at the American version of The Office), and she more or less delivers. The characters are taking a little time to find their feet, but it has a good gag rate, and a cast that’s easy on the eyes. The second import has the bigger potential in terms of garnering a big audience fast: Normal is a comedy about America’s changing demographics – in this case, a gay couple (Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells) and their surrogate, a single mother from small town Ohio. Ellen Barkin plays her no holds barred conservative (read ‘offensively unfunny’) grandmother. If you need more convincing/dissuading, it’s from the people who brought you Glee

ITV2 refuses to be left behind and has bought its own series for January broadcast too. Up All Night, starring comedy big hitters Christina Applegate (hopefully reprising her role in newly confirmed Anchorman 2), SNL alumni Maya Rudolph and Arrested Development veteran Will Arnett. It’s basically traditional single camera sitcom, focusing on Applegate’s return to the workplace after taking time off to have a baby. Quick review: it’s solid, but for a show with such pedigree, it oddly lacks zing. You’ll enjoy it, I wager, but you won’t belly laugh, which is a shame.

More successfully made is Fox’s Ben and Kate, starring Dakota Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don ‘Miami Vice’ Johnson) and Oscar-winner Nat Faxon (he co-wrote the screenplay for The Descendants) as a brother and sister renegotiating their relationship after he unexpectedly returns to town. There’s a delightful supporting cast, not least the sweetest child actor ever, as well as the siblings’ best friends played by Echo Kellum and the very, very talented and reliable Lucy Punch. I have heard bad things about this show’s ratings, which doesn’t bode well for its longevity but I hope it finds a home because it is an assured, very funny and immediately likeable little show. 

More4 has shown its class in previous years with its acquisitions (The Good Wife, The Big C, and Scandal among others), and it tries to continue its hot streak with Nashville and Boss. An early disclaimer: Boss has just been cancelled after two seasons in the US (with rumours of a film to tie up all remaining loose ends), but it stars an on form Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago politician dealing with his city’s needs – alongside a new diagnosis of dementia. Now that’s a premise. Precious few traces of Dr Frasier Crane are to be found here, and it’s not a bad thing because he’s a compelling dramatic actor.

Nashville is unsurprisingly, about country music, but only in the way that Friday Night Lights was about football. That was a (tenuous) link to reveal that it stars Connie Britton, formerly of FNL’s Dillon, Texas, and owner of the prettiest hair on television, who plays a fading country and western star usurped by young blonde upstart Hayden Panetierre. It’s not going to blow you away, but it is mostly well-observed light drama. The promo also featured the quiet, resigned zinger: “thank God for autotune,” which earns it at least an hour of grumpy watching. 

Other good news:  E4’s superior comedies Happy Endings and New Girl (which just keeps on getting better) are coming back, as is Archer and then later in the year, Justified (5USA). Less happy news is that no one’s picked up Parenthood, which has been one of my favourite series of recent years. You could argue that this is a reminder that we can’t have everything we want (which is just the right kind of lesson an episode of Parenthood would deliver, over a swelling indie soundtrack). Roll on 2013!

Nashville

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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