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Media Bites

Harper's 'Weekly Review,' the Land-Grant College Review, and the lesser-knowns of BBC America, all on our à la carte menu of things worth adding to your media diet.

August 27, 2003

The problem with serious news, of course, is that it's far too seriously newsy. Conversely, the problem with jokey news—Dave and Jay's monologues, and also more rarefied material like Jon Stewart's shtick—is that it's too broad, using the news merely as a springboard to yuk-yuk punchlines. A true connoisseur of frontpage absurdism recognizes that news itself is funny, that its inherent ironies and inconsistencies and jarring juxtapositions are good comedy—subtle, smart-guy, Channel 13 comedy—without any need for borscht-belt adulteration. Roger D. Hodge understands this. Each Tuesday the Harper's senior editor produces the magazine's "Weekly Review," an emailed news summary with the understated wryness of the venerable monthly's trademark "Index" and "Readings" sections. It's the stream-of-consciousness musings of a ravenous media consumer, and it specializes in an entertaining mix of nonsequitor news items. Note the Dada conclusion to yesterday's installment: "The U.S. crime rate hit a 30-year low, and a Canadian warehouse worker was killed by an avalanche of frozen food. A horse gave birth to her own clone. Egypt banned foreign belly dancers." Hodge has a disconcerting anti-Israel streak (which is perhaps only an unexpectedly non-pro-Israel one), but it's nicely balanced by the casual anti-Bushism we blue-staters so enjoy. (Last week: "'We'll have time to look at it and determine whether or not our grid needs to be modernized,' said President George W. Bush, who has opposed legislation to improve the grid. 'I happen to think it does, and have said so all along.'") Hodge is likely to offend you just a little in nearly every "Weekly Review," but he'll also offer plenty to make you smirk, raise an eyebrow, or maybe even chuckle quietly. And he'll never try to get a guffaw.

—Jesse Oxfeld

Literary journals look nice on your bookshelf, but how often do you actually read them? You buy one, after all, and it seems to scream, "I'm better than you, dummy. Even if you were going to actually read me, would you understand me and appreciate me?" But then there's the new Land-Grant College Review, which has serious literary chops but lacks that pretentious seriousness. "We chose the name Land-Grant College Review as a riff on the many longstanding lit mags that are operated by bigtime universities like Missouri, Iowa, and on and on and on," says co-editor Josh Melrod. "Even though we have a lot of respect for those journals they can be kind of staid and dry. We wanted our magazine to be different." Melrod and his co-editor Dave Koch fill LGCR with solidly talented by not-yet-Oprahfied authors like The Girl in a Flammable Skirt writer Aimee Bender, McSweeney's-published novelist Stephen Dixon, and novelist and short-story writer Thisbe Nissen. Plus, the premiere issue's art nearlyv steals the show, with designs that seem inspired by circus posters, the Farmer's Almanac, and Russian propaganda. When a journal doesn't take itself too seriously, it's much easier for the reader to want to take it seriously. And because the Land-Grant College Review never seems to put you down, it's definitely something you should pick up.

—Claire Zulkey

You probably already know to check out The Office—plus BBC demihits What Not To Wear and Coupling—before our American network execs spaz them up with glossy sets and laugh tracks. But BBC America has a few more little bits of a'right worth TiVoing before the Stepford clones hit basic cable. The first of these is Faking It—the wrong name for this strangely uplifting reality show, which places unprepossessing innocents in entirely new vocations and then sees if they can fool experts into thinking they're the real thing. While the American version has already proved itself stunningly obvious—a recent episode asked if a Harvard graduate can become a Texas cheerleader, setting us up for what will surely be another Reese Witherspoon vehicle—the British version openly embraces the My Fair Lady motif: A sheep-shearer finds he is quite at home with the techo-pop of a twee salon; a sassy Shropshire lass charms the gents despite an only intermittently posh accent. And speaking of Shropshire, the Beeb's charming Homefront in the Garden proves that only in England can clearing turf and murmuring about jacaranda be considered prime-time fare. The plot is simple—innocent nuclear family is horrified, then won over, by dreamy designer Diarmuid Gavin's bizarre creations, which include treats like steel space eggs and walkways in heath-y suburban plots. The Thom Yorke of gardeners, Gavin often gambols about to Radiohead on his hourlong exploits. The show is an update of Ground Force, the classic English garden makeover show that comes to TLC as Ground Force America this fall. For years, exposure to the militant brickwork and pasty lawn furniture of America has been neutralized by the show's peerless host, Alan Titchmarsh. But now that his two assistants, notoriously braless Charlie Dimmock and gentle giant Tommy Walsh, are taking over the American version, will pergolas appear in Peoria? Who cares? Stick with the BBC's original, and look for Scones 'n' Slags to appear in the meatpacking district any day.

—Lizzie Skurnick

Media Bites, an à la carte selection of lesser-known media stuff, appears occasionally.

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