Joanna Gaines and Chip Gaines, hosts of home-improvement show, Fixer Upper.
(Photo by Brian Ach/Invision/AP)
It’s fitting that my experience of HGTV programs like Fixer Upper is limited to visits to my dentist (I don’t own a TV). There, lying horizontally on the dental chair, I watch drywall being torn down and linoleum floors uprooted just as restorative violence is performed on my teeth. In her recent Vulture piece on the strange, persistent allure of HGTV, Caitlin Flanagan exposes several truths. One is the deep connection between these shows and real-estate speculation — a link so powerful that not even the 2008 financial meltdown could break it. Another is that we might think we’re watching HGTV for the dramatic, post-makeover reveals, but the real source of pleasure lies in the (highly gendered) celebration of destruction. Fixer Upper might be ending after its upcoming fifth season — HGTV announced it this week — but the spectacle of temporary annihilation is bound to go on.
On Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna help home buyers on limited budgets get the most out of their investments by choosing “the worst house in the best neighborhood.” That’s an old real-estate canard that has long been dismissed, but no matter — when Joanna starts describing all the wonderful things she can do to it, thoughts about resale value melt away into dreams of sliding barn doors, over-tufted sofas, and newly built “mud rooms” where the kids can stash their backpacks and soccer gear. Once the buyers have chosen their new house, they’re whisked away and the work begins.
It is as though Chip has spent all of Act One in a quivering agony of self-control, but at last he is free. He grabs a sledgehammer and, with Joanna’s permission, starts bashing away at the first wall she has marked for destruction. SLAM! CRASH! BANG! Chip is finally in concert with his true nature. This banging away at walls is the centerpiece of every HGTV show that involves renovation — as do all of its most popular programs — and there is something profoundly satisfying about it, even though it’s a preposterous way to go about the task. Taking out a single wall when you want to leave the rest of a room intact involves carefully cutting the drywall, teasing it off, and then taking down the framing behind it. But the reckless bashing makes for good television, and it dramatizes the signal design imperative of HGTV: Whether you live in Burbank or Barcelona, you absolutely must have an open kitchen.
Honestly, I thought I was handling the Trump presidency okay. At least I wasn’t crying every day. I realize that not crying every day isn’t much of a litmus test. But when Trump codified his transgender military ban, I could no longer deny that I was struggling in other subtle and sinister ways: “I have to sleep more than nine hours a day or I cannot function physically,” or “My finances are shot because I don’t have the will to work and provide for a future that may or may not come to fruition.”
Of course, this is what fascists want for someone like me. They want me fatigued, struggling mentally, and hopeless. They don’t want me alive. Logically then, I should fight really, really, hard to thrive. I am trying, when I sit here to write for the first time in almost two months. I am trying, whenever I bring myself to get out of bed before noon, when I cook for myself. I am trying to imagine a fascism-free future. I am trying to imagine a future where evangelical Christians don’t take time out of serving the poor to disparage and damn the marginalized and their allies. I document the moments I laugh the loudest. I try to be honest with myself and with the people I care for.
To the untrained eye — one without twenty years of 20/20 hindsight — it probably seemed as if Kevin Smith was just building a body of work. From 1994 to 1999, he wrote and directed Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. If critics and audiences took that as the beginning of a film career, hey, that’s their bad. What Kevin Smith was really doing in the 1990s was building a platform for the business of Kevin Smith.
“He’s still the casual, improvisational creator who slapped together Clerks,” Abraham Riesman writes in his profile of Smith for Vulture, “only now, his professional project isn’t a movie. It’s his existence.”
To call him a filmmaker as of now would be either misleading or misguided. Sure, he still makes movies on occasion — weird ones, deliciously weird, completely unlike the slacker comedies that made him the peer of Tarantino, Linklater, and other indie luminaries — but they’re intermittent affairs. Nowadays, his primary stream of income comes from live performances to sold-out theaters, ones where he typically just gets on stage and talks about whatever for a few hours.
His other outlet for work is similarly based on rambling: podcasts, six of which he personally hosts — discussing topics ranging from Batman to addiction recovery — and many more of which he distributes as part of his imperial “SModcast” brand. He produces and appears on an AMC reality show that just got renewed for a seventh season. He preaches to a congregation of 3.24 million on Twitter and 2.8 million on Facebook. He tours the world. He’s in the business of giving his followers more and more Kevin Smith, and business is quite good.
That’s the key: everything comes back to Smith’s talent for and fixation on talking. Directing a TV show, going on a trip, having sex with his wife — it all provides content for him to speak to his devotees in live shows and on podcasts. “Especially at the theater shows, I think he puts it all out there and he doesn’t really shy away from talking about every aspect of his life,” says friend and Comic Book Men co-host Walt Flanagan. “And bringing it honesty, along with humor. I just think it makes an audience just sit there and become fully engulfed in what he’s saying.”
In other words, Smith has transformed himself into the perfect figure for our current media landscape. Audiences have a decreasing tolerance for entertainment that feels practiced and rehearsed — they want people who shoot from the hip, say what they mean, and mean what they say. Smith delivers all of that. In an informational ecosystem where there are far too many chattering voices, people want someone who speaks loudly and directly to their interests and worldview, and Smith and the SModcast empire do that. We’re all forced to self-promote and self-start these days, and Smith is a patron saint in that realm. Even if his time in the spotlight is in the past, few artists have more expertly navigated the present.
It was me friend Anna who encouraged me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After my initiation, Anna made sick playlists featuring the bands of The Bronze—the nightclub in Sunnydale, where Buffy took place—and shared the soundtrack to the infamous musical episode “Once More With Feeling” with me. But I don’t remember consciously watching Buffy—it feels like I absorbed it by osmosis, or drank a large, invisible Big Gulp of Whedonverse. Like all of the folks in the essays below, I find Buffy the Vampire Slayer engrossing and nuanced. It’s not perfect, but it is wonderful.
Anna also designed me a t-shirt with THE BRONZE emblazoned on the chest. It’s tight and black with white letters, and I get complimented every time I wear it. It fits perfectly underneath my jean jacket. I wear it when I want to feel prepared, strong, sexy. It’s what Buffy would want.
Some time ago, I compiled a writing playlist comprised of my favorite instrumental pieces. Propelled by instinct rather than reason, I included “Sacrifice,” the music that concludes the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My husband watched with mild bemusement as I clicked and dragged the file to a place of prominence within the mix. “Are you sure you want to listen to ‘Sacrifice’ while you’re trying to work?” he asked. “You cry every single time.”
One of my favorite aspects of Bastién’s analysis is the reminder that Buffy ends up single. Though you’ll find Buffy aficionados have Many Opinions about her love interests (we can all agree Riley is trash, right?), “This series was daring enough to say that its lead heroine’s romantic journey wasn’t her most important. Adulthood for Buffy was marked…[by] her relationship with her own identity and destiny.” This is an important reminder for women everywhere, I think. We can forge our own way. We don’t have to be at the mercy of the tropes foisted upon us.
Comedy’s one of the ways that we can protect ourselves. Alec Baldwin deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Sadly, he’s not going to get it from this president.
Can you explain that a bit more? How does satire protect us from Donald Trump?
The man has such thin skin that if you keep pressure on him — I remember there was a baseball game in Cleveland, and a swarm of flies came on the field and the batters were doing this [mimes swatting at flies] while the pitcher was throwing 100 miles an hour. Well, that’s Alec Baldwin and Saturday Night Live. It’s distracting the batter. Eventually Trump’s going to take a fastball off the sternum and have to leave the game.
There’s this idea that reducing Trump to a punchline could make him seem harmless or helps to normalize him. Is there any validity to that argument?
I guess it’s a possibility. On the other hand, Donald Trump can be Donald Trump, but if he doesn’t help the people that need help, then he’s just a jerk. That press conference that he held berating the news media? I mean, how do you build a dictatorship? First, you undermine the press: “The only truth you’re going to hear is from me.” And he hires the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Steve Bannon, to be his little buddy. Bannon looks like a guy who goes to lunch, gets drunk, and comes back to the office: “Steve, could you have just one drink?” “Fuck you.” How is a white supremacist the chief adviser to our president? Did anybody look that up? I don’t know. How’s this interview going? Do you think you’re talking to a normal person here? Don’t I seem like I’m full of something?
I wouldn’t trade my life or my past for any other, but there have been times when I’ve wanted to swap the writing life and the frigid self-consciousness it compels for the gamer’s striving and satisfaction, the infinite sense of passing back and forth (being an “ambiguous conduit,” in Janaskie’s poignant phrase) between number and body. The appeal can’t be that much different for nonwriters subjected to similar social or economic pressures, or for those with other ambitions, maybe especially those whose ambitions have become more dream state than plausible, actionable future. True, there are other ways to depress mental turnout. But I don’t trust my body with intoxicants; so far as music goes, I’ve found few listening experiences more gratifying or revealing than hearing an album on repeat while performing some repetitive in-game task. Gaming offers the solitude of writing without the strain of performance, the certitude of drug addiction minus its permanent physical damage, the elation of sports divorced from the body’s mortality. And, perhaps, the ritual of religion without the dogma. For all the real and purported novelty of video games, they offer nothing so much as the promise of repetition. Life is terrifying; why not, then, live through what you already know — a fundamental pulse, speechless and without thought?
In Vulture, book critic Christian Lorentzen suggests we dispense with terms like “postmodern” and “postwar” when discussing novels, and instead analyze them relative to the presidential administrations under which they were released.
What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).
That we’ve been passing through an era that especially prizes authenticity in fiction is no coincidence. These were years when America was governed by someone who’d written a genuine literary self-portrait, whose identity was inscribed with the traumas of the age of colonialism and its unraveling, whose political appeal hinged on an aura of authenticity and whose opponents attacked him by casting doubt on the authenticity of that identity. Now, as he leaves the scene, we’re troubled by questions of fakeness — a moment of fake news but also a time when the reassurances of big data have proved fallible, when a shared civic reality has cleaved definitively into a pair of mutually distorting digital bubbles, exposing a national identity crisis that America’s left and its writers (most of them creatures of the left) didn’t know, or want to know, was happening. Even the president-elect’s hair seems to be a fiction. No wonder some are pointing to science fiction as the best predictor of what’s to come.
Last week, ‘Tig’, a documentary about stand-up comic Tig Notaro–whose career reached new heights in 2012 after she opened a set by announcing she had breast cancer–debuted on Netflix. In January, at Vulture, Jada Yuan spoke with Notaro about the film, the assorted grave misfortunes from 2012 that are now behind her, her plans for marrying and having kids with her partner, Stephanie Allynne–and baring her mastectomy scars through an entire set, before an audience:
You did a topless set showing your mastectomy scars in New York this November. Why did you want to do that?
Well, I felt compelled after my surgery. It amused me to think of going onstage topless and not really acknowledging it. And just kind of in the same awkward way that it is to say, “Good evening, I have cancer, how’s it going tonight? Are you guys having fun?” Delivering it like, “Any birthdays?” And then I kind of put it out of my mind. But then when I started touring again a couple years later, I felt compelled, and I told a few friends that I was thinking about it, and they were all so excited. And then one person said that they were scared I couldn’t get the audience back if I did that, and then another person said they were scared it would be a stunt, and I feel very much like it is a stunt. [Laughs.] But it’s my skin, it’s my body, it healed, and it shouldn’t be taboo. It’s not a big deal. Cancer is a big deal, but my body — the aftermath — is not a big deal. I really did get a lot of feedback that people were stunned when I took my shirt off, and then 30 seconds later they didn’t even notice. I’m in a unique position after that album that I put out two years ago, and this would be the time for me to make that kind of statement and do that sort of action.