When I asked Tina Fey how she felt about the attack at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I wasn’t aiming for a big headline — though that’s exactly what her answer produced.
She was facing a roomful of journalists at the TV Critics Association’s winter press tour Wednesday, talking up her latest television series — an eccentric comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, that was developed for NBC but will be unveiled to the world on Netflix.
And although she looked supremely uncomfortable every second she was answering the question, the woman who led the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11 seemed a perfect person to ask about the importance of satire in a free society when gunmen kill a dozen people at the offices of a magazine for the humor it has published.
“Obviously, that news is terrible and tragic and upsetting,” Fey said. “When you look at that, or you look at even the controversy surrounding The Interview, it makes you remember how important free speech is, and it absolutely must be defended, and you cannot back down on free speech in any way.”
I had a follow-up question: Did she ever face pressure to limit her satire? “I think the closest memory I would have of that would have been back doing [Saturday Night Live‘s] ‘Weekend Update,’ which was a long time ago,” she added. “But even that was a different era. Because in a social media era where you make a joke on American TV and it can go worldwide, it’s a different environment. But … we’re Americans. … Even if it’s just dumb jokes in The Interview,” we have the right to make them.
Fey’s answer landed in stories published everywhere from Time magazine to the Toronto Sun, Huffington Post, Glamour magazine online and BuzzFeed. And — along with heartfelt commentaries from Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien — it offered a stark reminder that even as we hunker down inside the bubble of a press tour focused on the next six months of TV, this stuff we television critics obsess over can have a much larger meaning.
The struggle to cut through the nonsense of the industry to expose that meaning can be a central challenge at the TV critics press tour, where publicists, stars, producers and network executives are trying hard to both avoid hurtful controversy and maximize attention.
Even Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, focused on a woman trying to build a new life after she is rescued from a doomsday cult, finds its roots in a dark scenario that recalls the crimes of polygamist Warren Jeffs and the man who kidnapped several women in Ohio, Ariel Castro.
“The first several weeks that we were with the writers we spent talking about all the heaviness,” said Fey, acknowledging the show had to at least acknowledge the dark side of its concept before trying to make people laugh. “In a weird [way] it reminded me of going back to SNL after 9/11 and [saying], ‘OK, we’re going to do comedy. We’re going to find it.’ ”
Schmidt co-creator Robert Carlock said their show was a modern take on Mary Tyler Moore’s now-classic sitcom setup: a suddenly liberated, boundlessly optimistic single woman in the city. It may say something about TV in 2015 that they are telling such a traditional tale by giving Kimmy Schmidt an outrageous personal back story. In an age where 500 streams are accessible with a mouse click, subtlety may be the new buggy whip.
As critics here try sorting through the quickly changing nature of television, one guy who helped kick-start that revolution, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, uses the oldest of old-school media technologies to explain how people’s TV-watching habits are changing in a video-streaming age.
So far, the company is resolute in refusing to reveal specific viewership figures for each of its shows. But he did say that their data reveal that Netflix users tend to watch more than one episode of a show in one sitting and they tend to finish one show before moving on to another. Just like people read books.
Later, Sarandos told me that their data on House of Cards revealed that users reacted badly to a scene in the first episode in which Kevin Spacey’s character strangled a dog. His character, powerful Congressman Frank Underwood, was also speaking to the camera, which their data showed viewers also didn’t like.
And while some users who didn’t like the dog-killing came back to the show, many viewers who reacted badly to Spacey’s speaking to the camera — a technique that is a central feature of the series — did not, Sarandos said.
His point was that their data didn’t really lead Netflix to try to change how Spacey, executive producer/director David Fincher and creator/executive producer Beau Willimon were shaping the series.
But I also noted that no matter how much technology is changing how we consume media — essentially leading consumers to expect as much content as possible, as cheaply as possible, as soon as possible — some patterns are as old as the printed word itself. Much as we change, we also stay the same.
That’s a lesson worth remembering as critics here sort through press conferences outlining the next six months of TV, even while the turbulence of the real world occasionally intrudes.
Great art reveals us like nothing else. The struggle, over the next 12 days of the winter press tour, is to suss out exactly what the next few months of TV shows really say about what we value, what we hate and what moves us in a media world where boundless tragedy is just a mouse click away.