Also, is it still a double entendre if you didn't intend it?
POP CULTURE SPIRIT WOW
Hi and welcome back to Pop Culture Spirit Wow, the newsletter where you can find interviews with Tony-nominated actors one week and the next read stories about what a priest on leave learned when he watched a
dating show naked err, naked dating show (see below)!
I’m the guy who writes this thing, and I have to start by saying again how thrilled I am to have been able to talk recently to Kevin del Aguila about his work on the musical Diary of a Wimpy Kid and also cartoonist Eric Orner about his cartoon memoir of the life of Barney Frank, Smahtguy. Interviews like that require a lot of trust and patience on the part of the interviewees. I’m grateful to Eric and Kevin for giving me that!
I actually wrote one version of this week’s newsletter this morning, only to have put most of it aside after a couple big news items came my way later. Look forward to hearing more from me soon about ads on streaming services, the Apple TV detective show The Afterparty and more.
But that is then and this is now. Let’s get into it!
THE WOWND UP
This week news came out that Robert DeNiro, one of the world’s most celebrated actors, may soon be reprising one of his most riveting roles, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Is it a sequel to the original from Scorsese, you ask, perhaps something that answers what it was that Bickle saw in his mirror at the end of the original film? Or could this be the next great HBO miniseries, perhaps a prequel that also serves as a sequel, a la Godfather II? No and no. DeNiro—who denies this story—will reportedly be playing the character in a U.K. commercial for Uber, the rideshare company known amongst other things for its sexual harassment, assault and kidnapping of women. Asked whether she plans to reprise her role as Iris for the ad, actress Jodie Foster had this to say: “Fuck no.”
Meanwhile this coming Friday will see Netflix officially cease sending DVDs in the mail, the business it began 25 years ago that changed the face of video rentals, before the company did the same thing all over again almost a decade later with its streaming network. According to the New York Times—which offers some wonderful anecdotes from employees—even now the service sends out almost 50,000 DVDs each week and has around a million active customers, a fact to which many readers responded, “Is this a joke?” Those under 30 replied, “What is a DVD?”
Lastly, the streaming service previously known as HBO recently added to its service six seasons of the British game show Naked Attraction, in which one contestant is allowed to choose a possible partner from among six other contestants who stand naked and silent in glass cases before them. Said one female contestant, “He looks very caring. I think he would be good at cooking and gardening,” upon seeing one man’s penis.
PUTTING THE MAX IN MAX
So let’s start with the elephant in the living room—a metaphor that has perhaps never been more apt or disconcerting: Naked Attraction. I had already written most of this newsletter when I read about Max adding it to the service. And there was just no way I could mention it up top without following up to report on it.
Consider this your insider’s guide—Wow, is there any otherwise innocent catchphrase I can use that doesn’t end up sounding really sexual in this context? Let me take a second and see.
The early bird catches the worm. Christ, no.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. This should be okay, but I’m afraid there’s a double entendre in there somewhere.
Whistle while you work. Nope. Stop.
So here’s how Naked Attraction works. Six contestants, whom host Anna Richardson refers to as “singletons” stand inside boxes of different colors, the details of their bodies obscured from view (as seen above), while Richardson introduces the guest, known as the “chooser.”
Some choosers have moving stories, like the 57-year-old breast cancer survivors who has spent years now taking care of her 94-year-old mum, or the 75 year old adorable widower who discovered a whole new aspect to his life after his wife died. (It involved nudist colonies, men and many piercings.) Others are more your standard I want to find someone to love tales.
After we meet them, the “game” starts, with the lower half of each boxed person being revealed. (Yeah, this show does not mess around.) And Richardson then asks the chooser what they think about what they see. People tend to be polite and positive, but they’re also unafraid to say things are too small or large or not presented in the manner they prefer. And they go right up to the boxes; there is definitely a body as object rather than being quality to a lot of this.
Along the way Richardson is also constantly asking the chooser questions about their own sexual experiences, what gets them excited, etc. A lot gets shared!
Within a few minutes the chooser must eliminate one singleton, who is then fully revealed and introduced to the chooser, before walking off stage, saying a quick something and then being shown in clothes.
In round two the screen lifts up to reveal upper torso. In round three we finally see the whole person. And in the final round each person is given a prompt to speak, so that the chooser can hear their voices.
When there are just two singletons left, the chooser goes off stage, talks off their clothes, and then comes back to have the singletons comment on them. Which in theory gives the show a certain “what was good for the goose is good for the…”—Wow I just can’t use any metaphors, can I?
In fact it doesn’t work that way. The singletons are trying to win, so of course they’re not going to say anything critical, and this segment is just a minute or two, before the chooser finally makes their choice. Then we see the two of them go on a date (in clothes), and then we see them together a few weeks later and hear how it’s all gone.
And they do all of this in less than 30 minutes; each episode actually has two such “games.”
I watched a bunch of “games” after I read about the show. And here are my general reactions.
1) The show is less sexual than you think (and actually that’s what often makes it disturbing): You would think a show which is all about sex and involves naked people would be thrilling on some level, wouldn’t you? And yet, to see the lower half of a body first and having the choosers scrutinize them like slabs of meat—okay, that’s it, no more similes or metaphors for me—it feels clinical, not sexy. Honestly it can feel like they have no more personal human interest in the singletons than they would cadavers. Even once the choosers get to see the singletons’ faces, they comment on their features without the singleton getting to react beyond a smile. At times all of that is really stomach churning.
2) It’s refreshing to hear people talk frankly about their sex lives. While I’m sure what gets people watching the show is the opportunity to see people naked, the real hook of the show is listening to the chooser talk about their own sexual appetites and experiences. I found this particularly true with older contestants. You don’t expect that kind of frankness from them, or in some cases daring. Oftentimes there’s an incredible sense of freedom and delight there, too.
And, if you can believe it, pathos. At one point the 75-year-olds remaining singletons were asked to make something in clay to represent who they are (while still naked, which Ghost aside felt super unhygienic). And one of them, a trans woman, made a heart and said, I know this show is all about looks but for me what’s important is what’s on the inside. And the man immediately broke down crying, because it reminded him of his wife.
So yeah, there are moments that are actually meaningful, even touching. Even just seeing what older people have done with their bodies can be wild in a good way.
3) There should be more shows about older people or normal-looking people hooking up. As you might guess from #2, I think maybe the thing I like most about Naked Attraction is that it’s not a show that’s just about conventionally hot, young people landing a hook up. There is plenty of that (and a lot of it is just as annoying as you would expect), but the show makes room for other ages and kinds of beauty, too. That’s just not something you find on television, and it’s kind of great to see.
The 57-year-old woman, for instance, ended up with this likable 50-something business guy who had a kind of mole-ish look about him. And the two of them got into one another that after she chose him they could barely keep their hands off each other. Their chemistry was just electric.
To be clear, the show can definitely be awful, or just plain weird. At one point the woman above, who sings in her church’s choir, was asked to sing “The Lord is my Shepherd” while the men—who were fully exposed but for their faces—were asked to dance. That was just strange.
But I don’t know. In a way the show was less weird than I thought it would be, and more just people being people. And for me there’s something kind of great about that.
MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
As I’m finishing this the news is reporting that the Writers Guild have reached a tentative agreement with the AMPTP after almost 150 days on strike (which is just a few day short of the longest strike in guild history). Language is still being finalized, and the writers have not yet been told what the deal entails. But assuming it is as much of a milestone agreement as the negotiating committee is suggesting, it seems likely the guild memberships will approve it.
I don’t know that most of us can appreciate what the last five months have been like for members of the guild. For me, mostly watching and reporting on the strike as I’ve been going through these big transitions of my own, one big takeaway has been that where there is real courage there is also to be found community, joy and life.
If anybody out there needs to hear that right now, here you go.
As always, thanks for reading. If you want to help support my work as a freelance writer, consider tossing a couple bucks in my fishbowl. I’m on Paypal at paypal.me/jimmcdsj, and my Venmo is scannable below:
Thanks to all those who have been supporting my work. I really appreciate it. I’ll be back on Friday with more Wow!