‘Bridgerton’ Is A Delicious, Raunchy Tale Of One Very Hot Family

by Linda Holmes


It’s tempting to review Bridgerton thusly: “I highly recommend this Shondaland series, which will remind you a little of Jane Austen and a little of Scandal, and which prompted me to specifically decline to seek out the precise definition of an orgy.”

But let’s say a little more.

The eight-episode drama, which premiered on Netflix on Christmas Day, was created by Chris Van Dusen, who previously wrote for the Shonda Rhimes shows Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. It’s also the first scripted product of Rhimes’ deal with Netflix from her production company, Shondaland. Bridgerton is an adaptation of mostly the first book in a successful series of eight Regency romance novels by Julia Quinn. Taking place in the early part of the 19th century, the books follow the eight siblings in the Bridgerton family, four boys and four girls, as they seek the loves of their lives.

This first season’s primary story is of Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest Bridgerton daughter, as she enters the competitive marriage market. This involves a series of parties and dances where young women are introduced to young men, who later call on their favorites at home to be examined by their families for suitability. Daphne’s debut season gets off to a roaring start after she gains the favor of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), which makes her the object of much chatter. But after a couple of bumps that make her fear she’s losing her “value” on the market, Daphne comes up with a plan that involves the help of a hot duke named Simon (Regé-Jean Page) who doesn’t want to get married and needs a way to fend off the families who seek to foist their women on him. (Regency romance has a lot of hot dukes. They are to these books what elves are to … books that have elves.)

To try to explain what’s happening with all the Bridgertons would take pages, because although Daphne and Simon are the focus, several other siblings have B plots going on, including Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who is dating an opera singer from the wrong side of the carriage tracks; Eloise (Claudia Jessie), who could not be less interested in following Daphne to marriage next year; and Benedict (Luke Thompson), who likes to paint.

But wait! There is an entire other family, too. They are called the Featheringtons (of course they are), and their daughter Penelope (Nicola Coughlan, as delightful here as in Derry Girls) is best pal to Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton). She loves him from afar; he is a barely sentient lamppost about it, to the point where he has no idea how she feels, even when it’s very, very obvious. The Featheringtons have also taken in a young relative named Marina (Ruby Barker) who has a past of her own that is following her.

Is that all? OF COURSE NOT. All this is breathlessly reported to the entire town in an anonymous scandal sheet published by a writer who calls herself “Lady Whistledown.” Lady Whistledown! The Featheringtons! Let’s just lie down on the couch with some hot chocolate! (Sorry, got carried away there for a moment.)

Whistledown’s publications (think of them as Substack newsletters for the empire-waisted set) are an ingenious invention because they allow the plot to accelerate. What might take a long time to uncover in this world of “May I visit you for the next six months to earn the right to see your bare ankle in silhouette?” can be served up tout de suite when Whistledown, who somehow knows everything, drops all the hot gossip to everybody at the same time. She provides voice-overs too — and in whose melodious, majestic tones do we get to hear her dispatches?

JULIE ANDREWS. Julie Andrews, that is all.

Are parts of this show silly? Of course. Are some of these brothers dull? So far, yes. But let us not linger on details. Let us not fuss over where, exactly, the orgy question arises. Let us simply celebrate good television, made by a shop run by a woman who loves good television and written by people who are experienced in television.

Here, we need to step briefly into some mechanics-of-television talk. There’s a very common problem among streaming series, and perhaps especially Netflix series, where a season of 10 episodes feels like it should be eight, eight feels like it should be six, et cetera. Sometimes this is just general bloat that comes from a lack of motivation to cut anything. But there are a couple of other possible culprits. One is that a number of streaming series start out as feature film pitches, and then somebody has the brilliant idea to sell them to a streaming service as a series. This sometimes results in a somewhat ungainly process of just lengthening the piece and then cutting it into sections and making those sections the episodes. Another is that all across streaming and cable television, there’s a weird fondness for hiring established film writers to write television, and some of them … don’t know how.

Writing television requires writing to the rhythm of the episode, not just the season. An episode must have its own shape, its own rise and fall. (It’s one of many reasons “I think of this as an eight-hour movie” is often, though not always, a bad sign.) Obviously, in a serialized story, one episode will not be complete on its own when it comes to plot, but it should work on its own structurally. It should have a beginning, middle and end. That doesn’t always happen. Whole episodes are sometimes flat, because they’re in the flatter part of a season’s arc. Ideally, in a show like this, each episode should be both satisfying and tantalizing — you should exhale and say, “That was fun,” and you should also want the next one. I have wondered whether some of the tricksy kinds of episodes that are in vogue — the bottle episode, the episode focusing on the side character, the episode that’s out of the timeline — come about, whether they are good or bad, partly because they are ways to divide sections of the story other than learning to write to the rhythms of television.

Remember, binge-watching really came of age with DVDs, which didn’t have the Netflixian boosts of the auto-play and the credits-skipping and the part where they almost bodily shove you from one episode to the next episode. If you watched 10 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on DVD, it was because you affirmatively said yes, over and over. Yes, I’m going to press the buttons and watch another one. Or, in fact, yes, I’m going to go to the trouble of tuning in next week. They had to earn your button-push; they had to convince you to do more than let it roll along.

Shondaland makes television and makes it well. There are eight episodes of Bridgerton, and they all have endings that are like chapters in a good book: They leave you in a spot where you just want to read one more chapter before you turn off the light for the night. The end of the season concludes several stories, teases several more and has a couple of delicious mic-drop moments.

It’s made with wit (several classical arrangements of pop songs are used in the score), with flair (the duke’s mother figure, Lady Danbury, marvelously played by Adjoa Andoh, has the most fabulous hats) and with an earthy kind of abandon. (There is … a lot of sex. If you are the kind of person who is uncomfortable watching enthusiastic sex scenes with members of your family, be forewarned about a holiday sit-down with this one. Let it be known I warned you about all the butts, if this causes problems with your household.)

In closing, Lady Whistledown has cleared me to share the following scandalous tale in case it is of use: This reviewer began watching Bridgerton at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon and did not stop until she, normally an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type, finished it at 1 in the morning.

Can’t Find A Chess Set? You Can Thank ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ For That

by Neda Ulaby


Who could’ve predicted chess sets might become as difficult to find as toilet paper during the early weeks of the pandemic? Not Gerrick Johnson. The toy analyst with BMO Capital Markets found himself stymied while searching for a particular Cardinal chess set a few weeks ago.

“It was sold out everywhere I went,” he says.

Sales of chess sets have skyrocketed, says Mary Higbe, director of marketing at Goliath Games. The company sells six different kinds of chess sets, including those familiar red-boxed Pressman sets you’ve probably seen in the toy aisle at Walmart.

“Our October sales for chess were up 178% over the same period last year,” Higbe says. That’s a big increase. But something else unexpected happened at the end of the month. Now, she says, “our chess sales are up 1,048%.

Every so often a game comes along that captures the popular imagination. In November 2020, that game is chess. The reason? A Netflix period drama that debuted in late October.

“Ever since The Queen’s Gambit launched, our chess sales have increased triple digits,” marvels Elizabeth LoVecchio, vice-president of marketing at Spin Master. The huge toy company has a division of classic games — such as chess, checkers and backgammon — that owns about 70% of the market share in the United States.

LoVecchio says sales of these games started spiking back when people first hunkered down last spring and played games with people in their bubbles to keep themselves entertained. But what’s happening with chess sales since The Queen’s Gambit is “unprecedented — and we anticipate our sales rising further,” she adds.

Chess sets sales are rising in the secondary market as well. eBay registered a 215% increase in chess set and accessory sales since The Queen’s Gambit hit Netflix, with shoppers seeking out wooden chess sets nine times more than plastic, electronic or glass ones, according to an eBay spokesperson. Toy analyst Gerrick Johnson now warns that demand will outstrip supply.

“Six months ago, a year ago, these retailers weren’t saying, let’s load up on chess sets,” he notes. “Good luck finding a chess set this holiday!”

Both LoVecchio and Higbe agree a chess shortage may be added to 2020’s woes.

“Oh, for sure. I believe it,” Higbe says.

Chess has long been alluring, even dramatic. But The Queen’s Gambit makes it seem accessible, Higbe adds. And that just adds to the appeal of a game that’s both eminently affordable and pleasingly different every time you play it.

“You have to have patience. You have to really think about strategy. You have to plan ahead,” she says.

Valuable skills for playing chess — and getting through the dark few months before us.


In ‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things,’ A Couple Gets Stuck In A Dreamlike Limbo

by Glen Weldon

Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Jessie Buckley as Young Woman, Jesse Plemons as Jake in Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

After finishing writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, which hurls so many things at you as you watch it you find yourself bobbing and weaving just to keep up, I longed to talk it over with other people. It’s that kind of movie, wrapped in a thick shroud of fully intentional ambiguity that always threatens to thin to mere vagueness, and it benefits from the kind of unpacking that grows out of discussion. But as the film wasn’t out yet, I tentatively clicked on a few advance reviews.

There, to my surprise and no small amount of dismay, I found … just a whole metric ton of spoilers.

To be fair: This is the kind of movie it is almost impossible to write or talk about without revealing What’s Really Going On, unless one sticks to the barest bones of the plot.

So let’s do that. A young couple who’ve only recently gotten together (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemmons) take a long car trip during a snowstorm to have dinner with the guy’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their farmhouse. They have dinner. Things get awkward; weird stuff happens. The couple drives back to the city. The snow gets worse. Things grow more awkward. Weirder stuff happens.

That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t begin to convey what sets I’m Thinking of Ending Things apart, or what makes it so recognizably and indelibly a film only Kaufman can or would make. I will endeavor to do so here, without spoiling What’s Really Going On, by striving to keep things ambiguous, though we might have to settle for vague.

This is not, to be clear, a movie that harbors a Big Twist that must be protected at all costs. It’s not a puzzle that, once solved, surrenders everything that made it interesting in the first place. For one thing, you know that things are hinky from the jump — Buckley’s interior monologue seems strangely stilted, and keeps getting interrupted by Plemmons’ halting, unwieldy conversational gambits. These two people aren’t on the same wavelength, though one of them clearly wants them, aches for them, to be. So things between them, and around them, subtly shift, and keep shifting.

On the surface, the critique Kaufman seems to want the film to make — the one he keeps shoving into the mouths of this couple over and over again, particularly in the two long car drives that make up the film’s first and third acts — goes something like this: We humans subsist on false, manufactured, derivative narratives and inauthentic emotions to distract us from what is True and Original and Real.

But let’s be real, or, you know, Real: That whole notion, especially as it’s presented here, is a facile, boring one — the kind of pseudo-intellectual, solipsistic nugget of received, pre-digested “wisdom” you might remember getting spouted by the most tendentious, arrogant mansplainer in your college dorm, that one time at a party when he put down his acoustic guitar long enough to corner you over by the Funyons and demand you read Bukowski.

And that, it seems to me at least, is What’s Really Going On, here.

Kaufman’s true target isn’t anything so abstract and anodyne as “modern life,” or the way it encourages us to fall into intellectual laziness and disingenuously parrot thoughts, take up positions and form identities we’ve cribbed from things we’ve read or watched or heard. No, he’s directing his mocking derision at the people (let’s face it: the men, overwhelmingly) who lie to themselves about their own gifts, who too-eagerly embrace the need to be seen as the smartest, the cleverest, the most special, and who resolutely fail to connect with others because of it.

This being a Charlie Kaufman joint, we are reasonably safe in assuming that he’s calling out himself, and others like him.

Over the course of the film, we see memories of past slights — and a lifetime of outright humiliations — mix with a desperate longing to be, and to have always been, accepted, embraced, validated. To have one’s every pat, received notion about life, and visual art, and film, and the essays of David Foster Wallace (come on, that’s a tell) vigorously agreed with, and eagerly shared, by someone, anyone, else: Eternal Sunshine of the Incel Mind.

That’s a lot of conceptual work to lay upon the shoulders of your actors, especially when you keep buffeting them with continuous, mysterious shifts in mood, motivation, characterization, backstory and, not for nothing, wardrobe that would seem to deny them the bedrock emotional grounding that the craft of acting requires.

But Buckley is terrific, modulating her performance to accommodate whatever way Kaufman’s wind is blowing, from scene to scene. Plemmons is low-key terrifying in the way he eases from surly and resentful to pleading and pitiable to stoic and unreadable. Thewlis is by turns creepy and heartbreaking, and Collette’s is a performance you find yourself watching with open-mouthed incredulity and awe. Say this much: She adds yet another wildly uncomfortable family dinner scene to an IMDB profile already studded with them.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things may be downbeat — and hoo boy, is it — yet it avoids the dour misanthropy of much of Kaufman’s work. Only just, though. Your mileage may vary of course, but I found a moment, late in the film, when a character seems to forgive themselves for living an empty, emotionally stunted life quietly breathtaking, because knowing his stuff, I never expected Kaufman to permit himself or his characters (who are we kidding: himself) even the possibility of grace.

It’s not a sentiment I was prepared to extend to the character in question, nor do I think Kaufman expects the audience to. But it was nice to see Kaufman letting up on himself — or at least, the self he sees in the mirror — for even a second, given that he’s spent so much of his career flagellating himself for our amusement.

Saucy, Slimy, Super-Secret: Behind The Scenes With ‘Floor Is Lava’ Star … Lava

by Matt Kwong


If you’ve already watched the hit Netflix gameshow Floor Is Lava, you know the rules: “Don’t fall in,” host Rutledge Wood warns contestants, as they enter an obstacle course filled with 80,000 gallons of gurgling goop, “because the floor … is … lava!”

It’s a goofy grown-up take on a kids’ playtime staple, rebranded for adults as “the hottest game show in history.” Successfully traverse a chamber without falling into the sloshing “lava” below, and teams of three earn points. Fastest team wins a $10,000 prize — and a lava lamp. That’s it.

That’s the set-up for Netflix’s Floor Is Lava, which debuted in June and soon topped the streaming service’s list of most-watched shows in the U.S. But if that premise sounds simple, the real star of the show — that aforementioned soupy lava — is anything but.

“Look, we put a lot of research and money into trying to figure out what our lava was,” showrunner Anthony Carbone told NPR from Los Angeles. “That’s why we want to keep it our secret.”

It’s not just dyed water or trick lighting. The lava undulates. It glows. It even belches, splashing contestants and slickening surfaces players need to land on. 

“It’s hot!” a player yelps at one point, after getting sprayed. (Co-creator Megan McGrath wouldn’t say whether the synthetic lava feels hot, but she did insist “it’s not hot enough to burn you.”)

The “proprietary blend” of slime, as the executive producers call it, is so secretive that only a handful of crew members knows the formulation. Art directors and set designers signed non-disclosure agreements.

“Everyone wants to know what’s in Coca-Cola. Everyone wants to know what’s in the KFC spices,” Carbone said. “We have our own secret sauce.”

And it does look and feel saucy, with a distinct luminosity. The closest approximation Carbone could think of? “Panda Express’ orange chicken sauce,” he said.

Although he assured the lava is food-grade for safety, he can’t describe the flavor. “Touched it, smelled it, never tasted it!”

To achieve just the right slipperiness, executive producer Irad Eyal said the team enlisted Hollywood’s top slime manufacturers. For months, labs sent barrels of slime to dump into plexiglass boxes, he said. Producers would light it and throw items into it to watch how the slop would behave. To mimic the glow of liquid magma, chemists proposed adding glow-in-the-dark chemicals. Eyal said the team scrapped that idea for a sensible reason: “It turns out that in large doses, that stuff is very toxic.”


Cleanup is a whole system, too. Floor is Lava is shot in an old IKEA warehouse in Burbank. The set can be drained and refilled with 80,000-100,000 fresh gallons of slime. Between obstacle rounds, technicians wearing waders will use squeegees to de-glaze obstacles and “thousands” of towels to wipe down props, Carbone said.

Although executive producers wouldn’t disclose how deep the lava goes, co-creator McGrath did say viewers can at least imagine what a chamber filled with slime might smell like. The crew voted on a scent, she said, and picked something sweet.

“Fun fact: Lava smells like bubble gum,” she said. “Who knew?”

‘Hollywood’ Serves Up A Progressive Alt-History Parable, Thinly Sliced

By Glen Weldon

“My time in Washington,” Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris) says at one point in the Netflix miniseries Hollywood, “taught me a lot of things. I used to believe that good government could change the world. I don’t know if I believe that anymore. However, what you do — the three of you — can change the world.”

The year is 1947. The “three of you” she’s addressing in this scene are a trio of movie studio executives. The studio in question is a fictional one — Ace Studios — and the three execs are played by Joe Mantello, Holland Taylor and Patti LuPone. (Yep, two female studio executives in 1947; put a pin in that.)

The question to ask yourself before diving into the latest Ryan Murphy/Ian Brennan co-creation (after Glee, Scream Queens and Netflix’s The Politician) is: Do you agree?

Do you agree that government can’t change centuries of systemic racism, misogyny and homophobia, but movies (or in the situation dramatized in this miniseries — one movie) can?

Because know this: Murphy and Brennan believe it. In their bones. Their show Hollywood, which premieres Friday, believes it — its entire narrative infrastructure is built upon that notion, in fact — and it will spend its seven-episode running time striving to convince you. It will do so by positing an alternate history in which a plucky, diverse handful of brave Hollywood writers, actors, directors and producers shatter entrenched social, racial and gender barriers — accomplishing this task at a time when, in the real world, those same barriers still proved forbiddingly inviolate, and would remain so for long decades.

The result is confounding. What begins as a critique of media’s tendency to cling to the same scrubbed, self-serving, cynical narratives that deny full humanity to women, people of color and queer folk becomes … a tone-deaf paean to the Magic! Of! Hollywood!

On a purely plot level, however, it’s tough to quibble with how deftly the series weaves its disparate threads together. Jack Castello (David Corenswet) is a good-looking wannabe actor in postwar Hollywood with a pregnant wife and no prospects. He falls in with slick lothario Ernie (Dylan McDermott), who runs a prostitution ring out of a Hollywood gas station. (Ernie is based on the true story of Scotty Bowers, chronicled in the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.)

Jack’s fate will intertwine with that of the wealthy Avis (LuPone), black screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope) and his lunk of a boyfriend, Roy (Jake Picking). Roy, in turn, will fall into the clutches of scheming Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), who’s part talent agent, part carrion bird.

There’s also the idealistic wannabe director Raymond (Darren Criss) and his ingenue girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier), who’ll compete for a potential breakout role with the beautiful Claire (Samara Weaving).

Corenswet gets a lot more to do here than he did in last year’s The Politician, where he was mostly expected to smolder — there’s something agreeably doofy about his Jack. Parsons’ character is cartoonishly loathsome, but then Murphy and his writers do love painting with broad strokes, and anyway Parsons is having a ball. Mantello, as a wise, world-weary studio exec, is great at expressing both his character’s reluctant idealism and his tortured soul. LuPone gets to stretch her muscles, too, embodying her default regal hauteur in line readings full of consonants that slam shut like so many car doors, but she also finds moments of warm vulnerability.

Holland Taylor remains Holland Freaking Taylor, and that is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.

Is it fun to see this ragtag gang of good-looking outsiders triumphing over cigar-chomping Old Hollywood via togetherness, moxie, gumption and a few well-acted, performatively woke monologues? Sure. But it’s tough to shake the feeling that in trafficking in tidy uplift, this progressive parable is erasing the lived experience of those who — through no fault or lack of their own — couldn’t and didn’t manage to accomplish what these idealized, thinly drawn characters do. And though the series goes out of its way to supply moments of vindication to real-world figures mistreated by Hollywood like Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) — moments that are clearly intended as catharsis — in execution, they feel at best opportunistic and at worst appropriative.

Rewriting history for a better outcome isn’t inherently a moral and narrative dead end. When deployed with intelligence, restraint and nuanced, fully realized emotion, it can force us to grapple with the choices we collectively made in the past. Or, when it’s less layered and more pulpy, it can instead supply a sense of visceral, fist-pumping, Tarantinoesque exultation, even triumph.

Hollywood may think itself the former, but the series’ approach is too lightly imagined; what it achieves is closer to the latter: Inglourious Acters.

From the days of Popular and Nip/Tuck, a sense of glibness has always marked Murphy’s output; his various co-creators seem either to channel it into something a bit more grounded (PoseAmerican Crime Story) or to shape it into full-on, guano-crazy genre archness (American Horror Story). The genre here is “Hollywood Tale,” so you’d be forgiven for expecting a touch of camp, but the tone keeps vacillating, scene to scene, between sober and swoony, as if the show can’t make up its mind.

What it remains consistently throughout, however, is self-consciously well-intentioned to a fault, and absolutely certain of Hollywood’s power to set a world full of benighted yokels on the right path, through the sheer power of showing us all how selfless and brave and — heck, let’s face it — noble creative people are.

If there’s a second season of Hollywood — and given Netflix’s deal with Murphy, this seems likely — there’s evidence it will only double down on season one’s What If Courageous Filmmakers And Studio Suits Challenged The Status Quo dynamic. Along the way it will likely make a lot of the same very good points this season makes about the importance of representation and the idiocy of intolerance. And it will likely include some very good actors delivering on-the-nose speeches while wearing very good clothes.

And, as in season one, if you listen very closely, you will likely be able to discern a soft sound, a noise like a whisper, like a contented sigh that makes up this series’ insistent, omnipresent subtext: Yes, AmericaYou’re welcome.

Mindy Kaling Brings A New Nerd To TV, And Finds She ‘Was Not Alone’ As A Teen

When nerds are depicted on screen, they are often bookworms and wallflowers who struggle to stand up for themselves. That’s not the type of nerd Mindy Kaling wanted to focus on in Never Have I Ever, the Netflix series she co-created with Lang Fisher.

“There’s also the belligerent, confident nerd, and they want big things for themselves,” Kaling says. “We wanted to show an ambitious nerd … [who] wanted to lose her virginity, wanted to be cool, go to concerts.”

Kaling first became known for her role as Kelly Kapoor on The Office. She was also a writer and producer of the series, and she was the showrunner and star of the series The Mindy Project.

Never Have I Ever draws on Kaling’s experiences when she was in high school. The main character, Devi, is the 15-year-old daughter of immigrants from India and one the school’s top students. She’s nerdy and unpopular — but she’s also outgoing, opinionated and on the hunt for a boyfriend.

Kaling was initially hesitant to revisit her teen years for the project: “Like a lot of comedy writers, I think of my adolescence and childhood as incredibly embarrassing,” she says. “I thought it would honestly be too painful and embarrassing to relive those experiences.”

But Kaling filled the writers room with a staff of young Indian women, and once they began sharing stories, her outlook changed. “It ended up being very cathartic, actually,” she says. “It made me feel that all the stuff I was going through as a teenager, I was not alone.”

Interview Highlights

On where the idea came from to give Devi a temporary paralysis brought on by her father’s sudden death

It happened to the brother of my co-creator, Lang Fisher. … When we were talking about the series — there are so many teenage series … about love and sex and all of that — and we were both really interested, because we had parents that died unexpectedly, in talking about grief and how grief manifests itself. And [Lang’s] brother, after her parents got divorced, had about four months when his legs were paralyzed. And then, all of a sudden, they started working again. And they went to every doctor. They went to every psychologist. And it was this mysterious thing. …

Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) becomes temporarily paralyzed after the sudden death of her father in Never Have I Ever.Netflix

In researching it, this is something that happens to people, particularly young people, sometimes after trauma. So that was hard to resist as something to talk about. And after she spoke to her brother and got permission, we felt we wanted to use it in the series, because we thought it was a really fascinating physical manifestation of a teenager’s grief.

On how her experience of being a diversity hire for the writers room of The Office informed her movie, Late Night

[I’m a] proud diversity hire. … I think the [NBC diversity hiring] program was invaluable, and I think that NBC was, at that time, the only one of the major networks that was doing something like that.

At the time, I didn’t think so. At the time, I thought it was really humiliating, actually, because the way that that works is a diversity hire is no cost to the show. So when you get hired and you’re a minority and through that NBC diversity hiring program, you know that NBC is paying the cost of your salary, not the show. So that’s why the show is incentivized to hire minorities. …

There’s this phenomenon that … a writer gets hired for a year and then they only pay your salary the first year. So if you are going to continue on for a second year, they won’t pay your salary anymore. So you’d have this phenomenon on these shows — because other networks started doing the same thing — where you’d have a minority writer who is a staff writer, which is the entry-level writing job, and then the next year there’d be a different staff writer, because to promote them, the show would have to take on the cost of the staff. …

South African ‘Queen Sono’ Is A Savvy Secret Agent — And A First For Netflix

by Michel Martin

Queen Sono is both a classic spy thriller and a ground-breaking entertainment endeavor. The drama is Netflix’s first commissioned script-to-screen series from Africa, and the first such show to get major distribution in the U.S.

Filmed across the continent with a diverse cast featuring multiple languages, the show stars Pearl Thusi as a South African secret agent with a complicated past.

Creator and executive producer Kagiso Lediga has a background in stand up comedy and says his jump to a crime drama is “just a graduation of storytelling.”

“Stand up was the cheapest way to tell a story because you don’t require crews and lights and cameras,” he says. “It’s just you, and the mic, and a spotlight.”

There are a lot more moving parts now, and he acknowledges that being the first comes with some pressure.

“If you do stand up, you get into a room, you perform and you’re … representing yourself … ” he says. “People laugh? Great. People, don’t laugh? You just avoid eye contact and keep it moving.”

But when you’re making the first Netflix original fully produced in Africa?

“Everybody’s coming with this expectation,” he says. “It’s like what is the first African original? … What are we going to see?”

Interview Highlights

On why he wanted to tell a spy story

I’ve always loved the spy genre. You know, I love everything from John le Carré-type of spy stuff all the way to James Bond. And you know, what I like most about it is that you can infuse it with history. … You get to tell the story of a culture very easily.

So I thought, you know, that the world doesn’t necessarily have like a context of Africa. You know, Africa is always this place over there with kids that are covered in flies. And I thought: Africa’s way sexier, and what better way to show it off than through a spy story where you have like this great female agent who traverses the continent?

On featuring a female protagonist

For African women and for little girls to see a woman do that — you know, punching people in the face — because [those are] the kind of roles that men generally play on this continent. I wanted to flip that. I wanted to have women see themselves or see another female that’s empowered and maybe that could make a difference. You know, for like a 15 year old, 16 year old seeing Queen Sono, you know, that’s a great image. That’s, I think, something empowering for them going forward. That was sort of a driving force for me.

It is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere.

On Queen Sono being haunted by the murder of her mother, an anti-apartheid activist

Our recent history is apartheid. And it kind of is like the ghost — it is the elephant in the room. The legacy of apartheid is everywhere. It’s pervasive in general society. And for me, it’s very important that that narrative doesn’t get lost.

You know, like for young people who … might have been born 10 years ago, for them, it might just be regular that black people are always working on the side of the roads while, you know, the yards and the spaces are owned by white people. If you don’t sort of explain why that is, people are just gonna think that’s how God intended it. … The universe just likes it that way, you know?

And so I felt in this piece of entertainment, it’s important to tell that history. … I thought it would be like a cool thing to imbue the story with the history and see how that goes.

On creating the first Netflix original series where the whole production is centered in Africa

So you come with a spy thing and people recognize all the tropes, then they’ll go: ‘It’s not original.’ … And then you get people who get it and they’re like: ‘Oh, my God, this is unbelievable to see ourselves, to hear our languages.’ …

So then at some point you just have to kind of grow a thick skin and go with it, because we knew that it was going to be a tightrope walk, because you can’t please everybody, but you’re going to try to make something very original and fun — and I think we succeeded in that.

On how he’s doing in Johannesburg, during the coronavirus pandemic

We’re good. In my town, it’s illegal to go jogging or to walk your dog. So luckily, my dog is really, really old. So walking it would probably kill it. But it plays a little bit in the garden. It’s winter — winter’s starting. So that could also be bad news because it’s when people get flus and all of that type of stuff. But I think as a nation people are staying at home. We’re doing our best.

Netflix Promises To Quit Smoking On (Most) Original Programming

by Vanessa Romo

There’s a scene in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things where the skeptical police chief, Chief Jim Hopper, is at his desk chomping on an apple. He listens to a theory that a local teen may have been kidnapped by Russian spies. Fed up, he spits out the fruit, sticks a cigarette in his mouth and lights up.

But Netflix has now pledged to cut down on moments like this: The streaming content giant announced Wednesday that it will stub out depictions of smoking in future original programming aimed at younger viewers. The change won’t apply to existing shows.

The announcement comes on the heels of a new report by the anti-smoking group Truth Initiative released earlier this week. The study looked at several of the most popular programs among 15-to-24-year-olds and found that the amount of tobacco imagery in them has more than tripled in the past year.

The group’s research shows smoking and e-cigarette depictions were most prevalent on Netflix, blowing away portrayals on cable or broadcast TV. The biggest offender? Season 2 of Stranger Things. The researchers found that 100% of the episodes they analyzed of the show — a supernatural story about adolescents, set in the 1980s — included tobacco use.

The Truth Initiative timed the release of its now-annual report to coincide with Thursday’s debut of season 3 of Stranger Things.

In a statement, Netflix told Variety that it will not show smoking or e-cigarette use in future shows with ratings of TV-14 or below, as well as all films rated PG-13 or below, except for “reasons of historical or factual accuracy.” The company added that it would also limit depictions of smoking in projects with higher age ratings, “unless it’s essential to the creative vision of the artist or because it’s character-defining (historically or culturally important.)”

Netflix also said information about smoking will be included as part of its ratings.

The Truth Initiative noted that the pervasive rise of smoking on the small screen could pose a significant threat to a new generation of young Americans.

“Based on estimated viewership of these programs, results suggest that approximately 28 million young people were exposed to tobacco through television and streaming programs in these most popular shows alone,” the group said. “That exposure is a significant public health concern, because viewing tobacco use in on-screen entertainment media is a critical factor associated with young people starting to smoke.”

A 2014 report by the U.S. Surgeon General concluded “an R-rating for movies with smoking would avert one million tobacco deaths among today’s children and adolescents.”

NPR’s Andrew Limbong contributed to this story.

Rumors Of The Death Of The Rom-Com Are Greatly Exaggerated

The debate about whether romantic comedies are — or ever were — dead is an old one by now. In fact, I wrote about it five years ago.

It’s a sad but true fact that genres that fall between giant big-budget tentpoles and itty-bitty indies have receded in the last 20 years or so: the adult drama, the sports movie, the live-action family movie, and yes, the romantic comedy. It’s not a complete vanishing: Rom-coms continue to be made, and they continue to be recognized. 2017’s The Big Sick is an example that managed both a sizable audience and an Oscar nomination (for best original screenplay).

But we certainly don’t have the abundance of sunny rom-coms that we did from, say, the late ’80s through the early aughts: When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, yes, but also While You Were Sleeping and Clueless and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Maybe it’s changes to the business, maybe it’s the declining quality of scripts (does the genre have a new Nora Ephron? — of course not, nor could it ever), or maybe it’s that we don’t have the durable stars we did then who want to work in such a likability-driven form.

Come to think of it, maybe we’ve even made it nearly impossible to have those stars. To quote that piece from five years ago that’s even truer now:

Take note: Jennifer Lawrence is no longer neatly on the right side of this equation. Neither is Emma Stone. In fact, Lawrence recently interviewed Stone for Elle and — guess what! — it wasn’t universally received as adorable.

Still, we find ourselves in the middle of what many of us hope is a rom-com resurgence. The current box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians is partly a romantic comedy, though it’s not the classic meet-cute kind. It’s the meet-the-parents kind. What it does have is swoon-worthy beauty, wacky friends and a makeover, all of which are classic rom-com elements.

Much of the action at the moment, though, is on Netflix, where they’re cranking out what a lot of us loved in the ’90s — straight-up, unapologetic, sparkly-eyed rom-coms.

Note well: this isn’t to say they’re all good. The runaway winner for quality is To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, adapted from Jenny Han’s YA romance, starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo. It’s impeccably cast (which is half the battle), it’s well written and directed, and it has brought out in viewers what Alanna Bennett at BuzzFeed has cleverly — and accurately — termed “radical softness.”

Set It Up, which was released in mid-June, was also chatted up favorably on social media, although it’s not nearly as deeply felt or as well executed as To All The Boys. Its story of a couple of assistants trying to force a romance between their bosses was appealing mostly because it was such pure romantic comedy, such pure artifice that you rarely see anymore in service of the real center of any rom-com, which is Cute People Flirting.

The Kissing Booth, starring Joey King as a girl stuck between a possessive best friend and his possessive older brother, has its partisans. Given that its story romanticizes both violent tempers and boys fighting for control of a girl’s sexuality, I am not one of those partisans. (By which I mean to say: It’s very bad.)

But! The good and the bad often appear together. If Netflix is going to crank out original movies along these lines — thus dropping what once seemed to be its plan to make its reputation for original films on the back of Adam Sandler — then they won’t all be successes. Theatrically released romantic comedies weren’t either, which you know if you ever saw The Ugly Truth. (I hope you didn’t.) What matters is staying in the game.

What’s more, Netflix’s first best rom-com meant a lot to another underserved audience: The one that doesn’t want romantic comedies to be dominated by white casts and writers, as they were in previous “golden ages” (which is not to dismiss films that broke that pattern, like Brown Sugar and Hitch). Jenny Han wrote a lovely piecefor The New York Times that was in part about how hard it was to find a production company that wanted to have her heroine, Lara Jean — who was Asian-American in the book — played by an Asian-American actress. Netflix does some things well and some things poorly, but it does seem to have an interest in wriggling into spaces where more content would be welcome (as with comedy specials and baking shows). If that — and the success of To All The Boys — brings a broader variety of love interests to the screen, then all the better. (So far, this little mini-run has entirely heterosexual couples; there’s no reason that needs to be the case in the long run, and I’d bet it won’t be.)

So fear not for the future of the romantic comedy — the collision in a public place where people drop their possessions, the mistaken identity, or the idea of pretending to date your obvious perfect match. Don’t worry about the encouraging sidekick, the wise older person with their own rich history, or the fight that takes place in the rain. The meaningful glance, the misunderstanding, and the fancy party where the person who seemed ordinary suddenly seems extraordinary? They will all do fine. They will all persevere. The screen might get smaller, but the heart will swell, just the same.

Here’s To The Romantic Comedy Pleasures Of ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’

Well, it’s safe to say Netflix giveth and Netflix taketh away.

Only a week after the Grand Takething that was Insatiable, the streamer brings along To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a fizzy and endlessly charming adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA romantic comedy novel.

In the film, we meet Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), who’s in high school and is the middle sister in a tight group of three: There’s also Margot, who’s about to go to college abroad, and Kitty, a precocious (but not too precocious) tween. Unlike so many teen-girl protagonists who war with their sisters or don’t understand them or barely tolerate them until the closing moments where a bond emerges, Lara Jean considers her sisters to be her closest confidantes — her closest allies. They live with their dad (John Corbett); their mom, who was Korean, died years ago, when Kitty was very little.

Lara Jean has long pined for the boy next door, Josh (Israel Broussard), who is Margot’s boyfriend, and … you know what? This is where it becomes a very well-done execution of romantic comedy tricks, and there’s no point in giving away the whole game. Suffice it to say that a small box of love letters Lara Jean has written to boys she had crushes on manages to make it out into the world — not just her letter to Josh, but her letter to her ex-best-friend’s boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo), her letter to a boy she knew at model U.N., her letter to a boy from camp, and her letter to a boy who was kind to her at a dance once.

This kind of mishap only happens in romantic comedies (including those written by Shakespeare), as do stories where people pretend to date — which, spoiler alert, also happens in Lara Jean’s journey. But there’s a reason those things endure, and that’s because when they’re done well, they’re as appealing as a solid murder mystery or a rousing action movie.

So much of the well-tempered rom-com comes down to casting, and Condor is a very, very good lead. She has just the right balance of surety and caution to play a girl who doesn’t suffer from traditionally defined insecurity as much as a guarded tendency to keep her feelings to herself — except when she writes them down. She carries Han’s portrayal of Lara Jean as funny and intelligent, both independent and attached to her family.

In a way, Centineo — who emerges as the male lead — has a harder job, because Peter isn’t as inherently interesting as Lara Jean. Ultimately, he is The Boy, in the way so many films have The Girl, and it is not his story. But he is what The Boy in these stories must always be: He is transfixed by her, transparently, in just the right way.

There is something so wonderful about the able, loving, unapologetic crafting of a finely tuned genre piece. Perhaps a culinary metaphor will help: Consider the fact that you may have had many chocolate cakes in your life, most made with ingredients that include flour and sugar and butter and eggs, cocoa and vanilla and so forth. They all taste like chocolate cake. Most are not daring; the ones that are often seem like they’re missing the point. But they deliver — some better than others, but all with similar aims — on the pleasures and the comforts and the pattern recognition in your brain that says “this is a chocolate cake, and that’s something I like.”

When crafting a romantic comedy, as when crafting a chocolate cake, the point is to respect and lovingly follow a tradition while bringing your own touches and your own interpretations to bear. Han’s characters — via the Sofia Alvarez screenplay and Susan Johnson’s direction — flesh out a rom-com that’s sparkly and light as a feather, even as it brings along plenty of heart.

And yes, this is an Asian-American story by an Asian-American writer. It’s emphatically true, and not reinforced often enough, that not every romantic comedy needs white characters and white actors. Anyone would be lucky to find a relatable figure in Lara Jean; it’s even nicer that her family doesn’t look like most of the ones on American English-language TV.

The film is precisely what it should be: pleasing and clever, comforting and fun and romantic. Just right for your Friday night, your Saturday afternoon, and many lazy layabout days to come.