Issue #14: Fleabag and Produce 101

We are in the platinum age of television.

Hello, my children.

We have quite a few new readers amongst our ranks this week -- welcome! If you have not yet read the HIGHBROW/LOWBROW manifesto, you can find it here. Note that this newsletter is meant to come out every Thursday. Also note that it is Friday. Also also note that I do not respect consistency, accountability, your time, or mine.

For those of you who were here last week — I survived my college reunion! I can’t say that it was “fun,” but it was worth attending. But as soon as I returned to NYC, my body fell apart and now (read to the tune of Big Sean’s I Don’t Fuck With You ft. E-40):



Yes. I caught one of those good ol’ warm weather colds. Is it 2009? Because FML!


You know that feeling of dread you get when you’re reading a really great book? You start off so excited because you’ve finally found something really special. It pulls you in and immerses you in a fully realized world. You forget about time. You fall in love. You luxuriate in the book’s sweet embrace. Then you start to realize… wait… there aren’t that many pages left. It will be your time to leave soon. That’s when the dread settles in. The dread of having to finish. So you try your best to savor the last few pages. You keep checking to see how many chapters you have left. Then, eventually, you reach that final chapter. That final page. That final word. It’s a perfect ending. The book was great all the way up to the end. You understand there can’t be more, even though you desperately want more. You will settle for rereading this one book until the pages fall off.

And then years (truly years) later, the author pops up on Twitter and is like, “Surprise! I’m actually dropping Season 2 next week lol.”

Okay, fine, I’m not writing about a book (I rarely read. I have read only two books in 2019. One was written by a friend and one is The Artist’s Way). I am writing about Fleabag, the perfect TV show from the mind of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t seen it, I’m sorry to say, you don’t know anything about anything. You don’t know art, you don’t know life, you don’t know the universe.

Fleabag is so good, it feels holy. It is best consumed when you know very little about it going in. Just know that every millisecond is packed with goodness and that you now have 12 gorgeous episodes to savor. I haven’t even told you that Olivia Colman plays Phoebe’s cunty godmother/pseudo-step-mother. If that doesn’t seal the deal for you, I don’t know what to say. You simply have no taste.

Fleabag Seasons 1 and 2 are available on Amazon Prime. There will be no more seasons beyond these two, which I learned just now as I was searching for photos to include in the newsletter. I am now in a full depression.


I would like to follow up my recommendation for a piece of groundbreaking television with another recommendation for a piece of groundbreaking television.

Too often, I see Reality TV get dismissed as frivolous, trashy, a “complete waste of your time, Simone.” But one thing reality TV never is, is boring. So when you tell me I have to watch a FULL SEASON* of a show “before it gets good,” I simply say, “Teresa Giudice is flipping tables over at Bravo, and that’s where you can find me, sis.”

My Reality TV diet consists three main food groups:

3. A group of horny twenty-somethings from Scottsdale or Scottsdale-like cities get sent to an MTV house where they binge drink and hook up for 10 weeks

2. Middle-aged millionaires drink spicy margaritas and scream at each other about whether or not they are being a “girl’s girl”

1. Korean teens compete against one another to see who can become the greatest pop star

Today, we will focus on #1. So come follow me and let me tell you about a little show called Produce 101.

In 2016, a Kpop talent search on an unprecedented scale was launched in South Korea. The goal: find the nation’s 11 most talented young women and form them into the perfect girl group.

Talent agencies would send their best into this cutthroat competition, hoping to launch the budding careers of their trainees. Each week, the girls would compete in a series of pop star challenges. Each week, the public would vote for their favorite girls. And out of the 101 contestants — yes, ONE HUNDRED AND ONE — only 11 would get to debut as the nation’s ideal girl group.

First, a quick Kpop vocab lesson: a trainee is a contracted member of a talent agency. These are usually children or teenagers who have auditioned for the agency and are deemed worthy to train. The agency will then pour a bunch of money into the trainee, giving them singing and dancing lessons, producers, choreographers, makeup artists and stylists, dorm-style housing, and meals. The training period can last for a few months and up to several years. During this training period, the trainees accrue an absurd amount of debt which they must eventually pay back to the agency. A lot of Kpop trainees end up working part-time jobs as restaurant servers or convenience store cashiers to support themselves. The goal for a trainee is to debut, which is when they are officially introduced to the world as a member of a group or as a solo act. Even after a debut, Kpop stars might have their income withheld until the debt to the agency is paid off. A debut is also not a fixed states. There are some cases of artists going back into training after a failed group debut. Still, for Kpop stars, also called idols, debuting is the holy grail.

One way that trainees can up their public profile and their chance at a debut is by competing on “survival shows.” These are essentially talent competitions where trainees sing and dance and hopefully go viral enough for their agencies to notice them. I’ve watched a few of these types of shows. They’re mostly fine. But none are quite as special and as spectacular as Produce 101.

Produce 101 was a hit before it even started. The producers promoted the new show by releasing a clip of all 101 contestants performing at once. I’m not kidding when I say UNPRECEDENTED SCALE. The first couple of episodes show the auditions. Agency by agency, trainees perform a little pre-prepared number. Some are truly fantastic, others absolutely eat it. The panel of all-star judges then sort each girl into classes A through F. A-class trainees, obviously, are the most talented of the bunch. F-class trainees are the ones that get the most hands-on coaching. Over the course of nearly 4 months, the girls perform live, trying their best to stand out. Each week, the public ranks them. Eventually, they start eliminating people and it gets truly brutal. It’s easy to develop attachments to your favorites and then become absolutely devastated when very cute 16-year-olds are ranked above the very talented 25-year-olds (who talk about themselves as though they are 95 and on their deathbed).

If you are not used to watching Reality TV from Asia, the editing style might feel jarring at first. But honestly, get over it.

I will link a few highlights of the show here and here and here and here and here and here. But if you really want the full effect of the show, I recommend you watch the actual episodes. You can find the first season here. There are English subtitles and, sadly, many annoying pop ups. But I trust that you can handle it.

(The crazy thing is, Produce 101 did lead to the formation of a truly perfect girl group. But that — and future seasons of the show — will be for another time.)


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*I’m talking Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones… how good can they be, truly?