“Over-the-Top” Is Not a Bad Thing

(Let me begin by expressing gratitude to my readers, new and old–I thank you deeply for your support!)

In our Protestant-influenced American society, there is a great emphasis on modesty, propriety, and realism, even in our entertainment. We might dislike something because it is not realistic, because it is outsized or pushing the limits. However, one can argue that this makes for good art and humor. Playing it safe instead of taking risks can lead to boring outputs, and some might say it is better to go big or go home.

Some of the most wonderful works of art, in my book, are the ones that do just that–they go big or over-the-top. Well, not just a work of art but an entire genre: opera, even the more verismo works, is not meant to be real. It is exaggerated, grand, emotional, and most certainly not realistic. In what other art form, in the span of three hours, could there be blood, lust, murder, seduction, and trickery the way there is in Don Giovanni? Or what other kind of music could be as grandiose as a Rossini opera overture, complete with crescendo/accelerando, or a Wagner opera overture, scored for so many instruments that they make the floorboards thunder? In the world’s best theaters and stages, the productions are lavish, and you might get live animals, a car, dozens of dancers like the Radio City Rockettes or any other manner of showy set design–who wouldn’t absolutely love it? Old Hollywood gave us this abundance of performers on screen, such as with Busby Berkeley films or the splashing human mermaid Esther Williams.

But think of visual art as well. Picasso’s “Guernica” will leave a profound impression on the viewer when it is seen in his full, huge majesty, and the gory images recall the tragedy of war. You can walk through a Richard Serra sculpture in a museum, provided that the museum actually has enough space for it. Similarly, Frank Gehry and the late Zaha Hadid’s magnificent buildings are out of the ordinary, something futuristic that looks like it has arrived from another planet (think Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall or Hadid’s Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.)

Another area in which being over-the-top is welcome is in humor. Consider the 90s classic film “Election” starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. At first, it looks like a simple, plausible tale of an ambitious, goody two shoes student running for student body president and a disgruntled teacher who wants to thwart her. But the stakes get upped as the satire unfolds: a brother steals a girl from his lesbian sister who decides to avenge him, the teacher cheats with his best friend’s wife, and more. The movie gets funnier and funnier as it becomes more unrestrained, and in the end, everyone gets their due. All of this suggests a particular artistic device that helps things become more bombastic, and that is caricature. Think of our love of cartoons, and how the characters can do things and be in situations that humans can’t. “The Simpsons” is a prime example, for everything is exaggerated, outlandish, and beyond normal. Finally, no discussion of over-the-top humor can be complete without a mention of the late genius Robin Williams. We loved him because he was like a human cartoon, full of funny voices, outrageous statements, and zany energy. There would have been no humor had he sat quietly, making modest observations about the human condition.

Certainly, there is always the risk of the over-the-top becoming grotesque or vulgar, unpalatable. Many people felt this way about Madonna when she arrived on the scene, decorated with O-ring bracelets and lace midriff crop tops, writhing and dancing and singing about her sex life. There is always going to be the question of taste, and people who do not like overly dramatic, exaggerated art. But when done well, great artists really have something to say when they do something out of the ordinary on a scale that is larger than normal.

“The Chair” on Netflix: A Disappointment

I got a sneak preview to watch “The Chair” before it was officially available on Netflix (I guess I am cool enough to have had an ‘in’!) and the premise had really piqued my curiosity: a Korean-American professor is hired to be the chair of a flailing English department which is very much old guard, white male except for one black woman professor and one much older white woman professor. However, I was only able to watch one episode and part of a second before deciding to call it quits. I simply found the show very implausible and cliché-ridden.

What is novel is that the protagonist is an Asian-American woman who is an academic played by the talented Sandra Oh, and we see her speak Korean with her father–it is a rarity on screen to see anyone speaking a native tongue that isn’t Spanish. However, that seems to be one of the only things that really works for me in the show. Pembroke University, where his hired is presumably a top-tier one; sorry for the cultural arrogance, but we don’t see any Indian students in the classroom, which is completely unbelievable.

Also hugely inaccurate is the fact that the English department is all old white male, with the exception of a young black woman and an older white woman (excellently acted by Holland Taylor). No English department since the 70s has had all old white men who teach only Dead White Men; I grew up in a small Midwest college town and even there, the white men were teaching diverse writers and not all the faculty were white. This was what really killed it for me and made the show more of a caricature. This is not to say that there aren’t dinosaurs in departments and a lack of diversity in some (I left a terrible graduate program for this very reason). The one younger white male we see is again a cliché–Professor Dobson is the drunken, reasonably attractive man who is a little too close to his female students and can’t get his act together. English departments have been in the forefront of social progressiveness in the past few decades, both in terms of curriculum and faculty, incorporating multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ writers, and leftist politics. 

Also problematic is the tone, which seems to hover uneasily between comedy and drama. We have moments of tremendous humor, such as when Holland Taylor’s Professor Hambling comments on an employee’s vulgar, scanty clothing, and then moments of seriousness, such as when Professor Kim is saddled with the task of conveying to the old guard that their classes have declining enrollments. There is no subtlety; things are either screwball, slapdash comical, or darkly true. Everything seems pasted together, every trope and issue in an English department or academia thrown together for a half-hour episode.

Perhaps a piece of my disdain is because I have struggled so long for academia to be seen as more than the clichés of professors having affairs or old white men, and have written a story collection with a more accurate depiction of academia and the emotional dilemmas that go on in a cast of diverse characters. I also worked at the English department at Stanford University after college, so I have insider knowledge of how things work. But beyond that, I just found “The Chair” to be rather a mess, which is sad because it really had so much potential. It was really exciting to see that there was going to be a series with an Asian-American woman as the lead, and who knows, maybe the writers and creators will do what is necessary in the field of English: revise.