All posts by Anne Helen Petersen

mcconnaissance

The McConnaissance: An Alternate Reading

Dear Television,

IN EPISODE TWO of HBO’s stunning new series True Detective, the laconic Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, spends a significant amount of car time with his partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), trading quips and offer the audience veiled truths about themselves. It’s a trope of the procedural: cops, even female ones, are aspiring towards a masculine ideal of hard laconicism. The only time it’s safe to talk about feelings, therefore, is within the bounds of the car, heads faced forward, and even then, those feelings are hidden beneath a heavy layer of insult.

But in True Detective, the trope gets revised: you have one traditional cop who doesn’t like asking or answering personal questions and another who not only speaks freely about himself, but the area, the universe, our fates as man, etc. etc. He’s like a one-man Cormac McCarthy novel, dropping poetic, sparse observations the way most of us talk about the traffic or the weather. It’s a hypnotic performance, and anything Rust Cohle lacks in realism he makes up for in gravitas… [READ MORE]

AHP_DearTV_11414 MG Original

Truthers and Darers

WHEN I WAS A KID, every girl I know played Truth or Dare. It’s a girl sleepover rite of passage, after all, which is part of the reason that, in the second episode of Girls Season Three (released in tandem with the first), Adam has no idea how to respond when a Shoshanna, operating in full vapid teenage mode, asks him if he wants to play.

When posed the question “Truth or Dare?,” however, I almost always chose the same thing: Truth. Always truth. The idea of knocking on someone’s parents door or eating 50 Oreos was always terrifying to my shy, goody-two-shoes self; plus, no 10-year-old is devious enough to come up with a “truth” question that’s that embarrassing. But I wasn’t the only “truth” girl: there were always others, just like there were always “dare” girls. Some people like to talk (and confess); others like to do (and transgress).

If you’re a Truth person, it’s not that you don’t have Dare moments — they just make you uncomfortable, and then you need to process them endlessly.  Same for Dare people: moments of Truth make them itchy and, usually, make them want to go do Dare things. It’s an imperfect way to think about personalities and what animates them, but it just might work.

Or, at the very least, it might explain some of what’s happening in Girls, which, at the beginning of its third season, has reached the point where characters seem to be reifying themselves — taking a concept and making it flesh — even more intensely than before. While talking to Shoshanna about the post-grad world, Hannah claims that college is the best because “your only job is to be yourself.” But she’s forgetting about narrative television, where a character’s only task is, really, performing character — being “themselves.”

And as seasons progress, barring dramatic soap opera-like shifts, each character settles more into his/her identity: Don Draper becomes more Don-ish; Rachel Green becomes more Rachel-ish. As viewers, we generally find it annoying, but that’s probably because it’s too similar to our own life and understanding of what’s happened to our friends and family. Part of why we watch television, after all, is to meet new people.

So when we return to Girls in these two new episodes, it’s not surprising that Hannah has become more Hannah, Shosh has become more Shosh, Jessa has become more Jessa, and so on. The charismatic attributes that drew us to them in Season One and, to a slightly lesser extent, Season Two, have crystallized into something harder, blunter, more repulsive. When Shosh tells Hannah that Jessa has a great life because “she’s beautiful and guys love her and she doesn’t even really want a job,” it’s the same insecurity that blanketed her when Jessa arrived on her apartment doorstep, but there’s something sharper, more bitter about it. Same for Jessa’s frankness in “Group” and her dismissiveness of others’ trauma. Given Jessa’s behavior over the last two seasons, it shouldn’t be surprising when she dismisses the trauma of a sexual abuse victim, but there’s something so much more cruel and unforgivable about it than mouthing off to her then-husband’s snobby parents.

In the classic three-act narrative structure, characters grow. We meet them, they face a challenge, and they surmount it; the good people become better, the confused people realize their potential, and the bad people become worse. That’s not how life works, but that’s how narrative works, and when it doesn’t — when characters remain static — that’s when we start using words like “boring” and “annoying” to describe the show.

But that static can also be enormously generative, even if it’s not as pleasurable as first encounters or triumphant character arcs. In these two episodes, our characters are more “themselves,” which makes it even easier to slot them into positions as Truthers or Darers. Hannah and Marnie are both fundamental Truthers: Hannah basically lives her life so that she can write about it, and since Marnie can’t write and doesn’t have good taste, she channels her confessions into boyfriend talk (“I want to have brown babies with you”) and unfortunate (but, for her, therapeutic) singing. She loves it when Adam tells her the story about the “Columbian” who dumped him because that sort of confession is a language she can understand. We might also call them overly cerebral, or verbal, but they’d always rather talk than do, think than change. It’s also why they’re best friends whose relationship is characterized by passive aggressiveness and jealousy: they’re too alike, which is just another way of saying that their modes of being the world unite and repel them from each other.

Adam and Jessa are, of course, Darers. Hannah explains that Jessa was that girl in college who was always dancing on the quad in rain boots in a bikini, and we all know that girl — she’s also the girl who hooks up with a random guy in a bar when she’s late for her abortion, or elopes with a dude she met two weeks ago. She’s completely reckless and the most fun at the party, and the only reason she hasn’t spiraled completely out of control is the net of privilege holding her up. Adam’s no different: he hates computers and television and “Facespace” because they’re all conduits of personal confession. As he tells Shoshanna, “I don’t catalog my mind,” which is precisely the sort of thing that Shoshanna (and Hannah and Marnie) spend all day doing. His most destructive daringness was fueled by alcohol, which he’s given up, but the impulse to be constantly doing remains. When Shosh explains just how remarkable it is that he’s been able to take good care of Hannah, it’s clear that he’s never even thought of it in terms of “sacrifice,” or really even thought of it at all — it’s just what he does. Adam and Jessa are both oppositional but necessary to Hannah: they infuriate and complete her.

Shoshanna’s the only one still in college, which is why it’s appropriate that she’s figuring out if she’s a Truth or a Dare person. Two years ago, she was all Truth: her “baggage,” her sorting into various Sex in the City characters, her spontaneous word vomit. But Ray’s devotion turned her into something daresome — the type of girl who wakes up on the top bunk of a random guy’s dorm room. Her plan for senior year (hook up one night, study hard the next) is classic senior year of college, but it’s also classic identity crisis.

I could have made some, but certainly not all, of these claims at the end of Season One, but ten episodes in, those characterizations would still be too hollow to hold weight. But after three seasons, we not only know and can make claims about these characters, but feel like we know more about them than the narrative enacts. In her post-episode HBO chat, Dunham claims that there are girls on Twitter that “know more” about Shoshanna than she does, which is another way of saying that we, as viewers, ascribe characters with meaning outside of what’s offered. Given the illusion that we know the character, we fill in the blanks with our own understanding of that type.

I do this; we all do this. I’ve always felt confident predicting Adam’s actions because I knew “that guy,” and while the four girls are less easily boxed as the four protagonists of Sex and the City, there are Marnies and Jessas, in various iterations of class and race and sexuality, all over our lives. As the maxim goes, the more specific the narrative world, the more universal it becomes.

We’ve now seen a fifth of the season, and very little has happened. Table setting; reminding us of what has happened and who these characters remain. But just as it’s wrong to expect too much change or redemption or growth from these characters, it’s probably equally wrong to be as pessimistic as to their development, however subtle, and what it might communicate to those who identify with the show. The characters of Girls might not alter their fundamental natures as Truthers or Darers — but their struggles to mature, even within those modes, might be tethered to our inability to conceive of them, or any 25-year-old, as capable of meaningful change.

FamilyStone

The Christmas Movie: A Hate/Need Relationship

Dear Television,

HERE’S THE THING no one wants to admit about televised Christmas movies: they’re all horrible. Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful moments in every Christmas movie: when Kevin rigs the entire house to look like a party dancing to “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” for example, in Christmas classic Home Alone, or every time White Christmas gives up the facade of being an actual movie instead of a Bing Crosby showcase.

But Christmas, at least in its modern, capitalist, de-Jesusified form, is an ideological construct that’s supposed to connote “family” and “love” and “celebration.” Many times, those feelings do arise — for me, it happens in the moment when my brother and I decorate Christmas cookies precisely in the style of our five and eight year old selves, which is to say like an expressionist hyper-sugared art project — but they’re almost accidental, or incidental, to the larger, awkward, passive aggressive interactions that attend family Christmas. It’s not our fault so much as the realities of modern society: most of us don’t live near our families, so when we all get together once (or twice) a year, it’s obviously going to be replete with frisson, which generates both positive and negative heat. The static, bland, overly positive rhetoric of Christmas thus helps paper over the dynamic, piquant experience of it.

And if Christmas is an ideological construct, then Christmas movies are its handmaidens. In each Christmas movie, “Christmas,” as a nourishing, essential event, is threatened in the first act, nearly lost in the second, and regained, in newly valuable, even more cherished form, in the third.

And once the Christmas movie migrates to television, repeating every year, often days on end, its purpose only amplifies. The Christmas movie, which itself underlines the importance of Christmas rituals, becomes part of the Christmas ritual! We can’t deal with our own complications of the Christmas ideology, so we retreat to watch others grapple with — and crucially, successfully address — those same problems. We feel better not because our Christmas woes have been solved, but the movie suggests that they are, ultimately, solvable.

In order for a film to become ritualized, however, it must hew to the ideological formula. It can be a little postmodern splintered, like Love Actually, or be filtered through the lens of comedy, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but it must also work to vivify the understanding of Christmas as about family and love, as opposed to its historic ideological engine (Christ) or its contemporary one (Capital).

And it’s not just about family and love, but successful family and love. There’s a reason why the French film A Christmas Tale, a critical darling, isn’t shown on continuous repeat on TNT: the subtitles, sure, but it also refuses to posit Christmas, and the family it “unites,” as utopian or successful. It’s by turns bitter and blackly hilarious, and no one wants to think those things describe Christmas.

Which leaves us with a genre of Christmas television events that are ideologically and narratively similar, with slight variations according to narrative mode (comedy, melodrama). I would say they differ according to desired audience, but the desired audience of the Christmas movie is everyone, which only further unites the films in their PG (maybe PG-13) palatability.

To be clear, I like Christmas movies. Who doesn’t like ideological closure! It is preposterously reassuring! But “liking” something, and reveling in the comfort and joy that washes over me for 120 minutes before I return to the beloved catastrophe of my own family Christmases, is a very different thing than claiming a Christmas movie as “good.” I love the haze of just too much cheap champagne; that doesn’t mean I recognize it, or would tell anyone else, that it’s good.

Which is precisely why Bobby Finger’s taxonomy of Love, Actually is so helpful. As he explains, the film is “a glossy, big-budget film with borderline-detestable examinations of love and romance containing perhaps three genuine moments that seem to be of our own universe, but Love Actually is one terrible Christmas movie that has strong-armed its way into the hearts of millions (including my own) despite being absolutely terrible.”

He then proceeds to break down each of Love, Actually’s nine subplots, dividing what he hates (almost entirely narrative and ideological problems) and what he loves (almost entirely affective traits). For example, in the Hugh Grant/Martine McCutcheon subplot, he hates that it’s “the first of three subplots in which a man falls in love with his female subordinate” and, furthermore, that that subordinate is “constantly referred to as ‘the chubby girl.’” Yet he loves that “Hugh Grant is SO cute when he dances to the Pointer Sisters” and the moment when “she jumps into his arms and he catches her!!!”

Quoted this way, Finger’s points might seem a bit flip, but his tone, exclamation marks, and use of capslock perfectly reflects the affective experience of watching a Christmas movie, which is basically a long series of squeals, sighs, and your mom saying “that’s just great” while everyone else thinks it.

We both love and hate Christmas movies — are repulsed by them in theory and compelled by them in action. Which is precisely how I feel about The Family Stone. Let’s give Bobby’s taxonomy a try:

THE PREMISE: A large, sprawling “modern family” returns to their family home in Snowy Somewhere, New England. The eldest son’s girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) is very uptight and the rest of the family is not very uptight. Hijinks ensue. 

I Hate:

  • The very idea of the large, sprawling “modern family,” in which every member represents a slightly different ideological strain, all of them progressive
  • Not living in Somewhere, New England
  • The construction of Sarah Jessica Parker, and her dedication to her career/getting shit done, as fundamentally at odds with being a loving family member.

Things I Love:

  • Progressive families are so feisty and ultimately lovable!
  • Nondescript New England towns are so quaint.
  • SJP’s transformation from a somewhat loathable character who merits, and wins, our sympathies.  When she dumps the egg thing all over everyone and then they all collapse in the kitchen laughing?  That is GREAT.

THE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS:

SJP is ostensibly the star here, but everyone gets approximately the same amount of screentime, effectively everyone into a supporting character.  Parents = Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson; Male Kids = Dermot Mulroney as upright but personality-less older brother, Luke Wilson as stoner slacker, Tyrone Giordano as deaf gay brother with black partner and adopted child; Female Kids = Rachel McAdams as crunchy acerbic teacher who takes no shit, Elizabeth Reaser as kind, agreeable, pregnant, and plot-less stay-at-home mom.  Plus Claire Danes as SJP’s charismatic, beautiful, socially graceful sister, Brian J. White as Giordano’s partner, and Paul Schneider as working class yet likable local cop.

I Hate:

  • The way obvious signifiers (e.g. Rachel McAdam’s NPR bag, SJP’s very tight bun) stand in for actual characterization
  • The way Tad (Tyrone Giordano) is laden not one, not two, but three types of Otherness (deaf, gay, and partnered with a man of another race)
  • The way that each relationship, ruined and potential, is predicated on finding love, which is part of why the two already happy couples get essentially no screentime
  • Any plot that posits that even people from very different walks of life can come together, reconcile their differences, and understand and love each other, given the proper motivation (Christmas, obviously)
  • The sheer number of people only reinforces the notion that a Christmas somehow gets better the bigger (and more present) your family is.

I Love:

  • The exquisite moment of (self)-recognition when I saw Rachel McAdam’s NPR bag and station wagon.
  • Luke Wilson c. 2005 and his slightly too small polos
  • Craig T. Nelson smoking weed with Luke Wilson c. 2005
  • Claire Danes’ glorious blonde hair
  • Bitchy Rachel McAdams
  • All of these supporting members together in one place, everything’s so crazy, no one knows what anyone else is doing, let’s all have big families!

THE PLOT: 

After SJP comes home to the liberal judgy family, hijinks do, indeed, ensue — eventually leading to some partner switching, some match-making, and lots of true love. But things have to get really bad first, and everyone has to cry when [huge spoiler for anyone who thought this was actually a romantic comedy, as one would based on the trailer] it’s revealed that Diane Keaton’s breast cancer has returned and she’s dying.

I Hate:

  • The feeling in my stomach at the big family dinner when SJP says a well-meaning but horrendously thing about how no one would hope that their child would end up gay because no one would wish that hardship on their child, and her obvious bungling is meant to stand in for a host of other well-meaning but egregious wrongs.
  • How stagey and obvious it is when Dermot figures out he’s in love with the girl (Claire Danes) who’s not uptight like her sister (SJP) and JUST HAPPENS to be gorgeous.
  • The weird interludes with the pregnant sister even though it’s clear that they edited out any plot complexity due to time constraints.
  • Feeling super emotionally manipulated by the surprise addition of a Cancer plot.

I Love:

  • Citing SJP’s drunk attempt to remedy her earlier wrong (“I LOVE the gays!”)
  • The moment when you see Diane Keaton’s mastectomy scar and break into tears
  • The moment when SJP gives everyone in the family a beautiful framed photo of Diane Keaton holding a child (suggested to be Rachel McAdams) and break into tears.
  • The moment when Paul Schneider shows up to ask Rachel McAdams out on a date and it gradually thaws her cold snarky heart.

THE RESOLUTION:

I Hate:

  • Persistent and naturalized conflation of Christmas narratives with heteronormative coupling narratives.
  • Cancer as narrative catalyst.
  • Paul Schneider ending up with anyone other than me.

I Love:

  • That Boring Dermot Mulroney ends up with equally boring Claire Danes, leaving the truly interesting characters (SJP and Luke Wilson) to hang out together.
  • SJP’s newfound chillness, as evidenced by the fact that she’s a.) dating a stoner; b.) wearing a v-neck sweater and c.) has her hair down.
  • Cathartically bawling as we realize that Diane Keaton is gone and everyone misses and loves her.
  • Rachel McAdams and Paul Schneider.
  • The mother of the family may have died and everyone misses her like crazy but EVERYONE IS HAPPY EVERYTHING IS AS GREAT AS IT COULD BE because FAMILY and CHRISTMAS.

Excuse the capslock: I’m too busy reveling as this particular Christmas ideology aims and hits its target of white, middle-class, educated people.

The Family Stone isn’t everybody’s Christmas movie. In fact, it’s not even that many people’s. It was a moderate hit and receives far less television play than Christmas stalwarts old (It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, White Christmas) and new (Love, Actually, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf). But Christmas movie fandom is not as simple as being attracted to the Christmas movie that’s directed at you. Christmas movies are directed at everyone, after all, or at least all white middle-class people, which is Hollywood shorthand for “all people.” It’s how we watch them, and with whom — how they, and their reductive yet charismatic messages incorporate themselves into an understanding of our own Christmases.

Growing up, my family never had a Christmas movie. We had cookie decorating and sledding and other rituals, but a movie was never part of it. As we grew older, and the rituals of childhood became less magnetic, movie-going — specifically, going to a matinee with my brother — became our ritual. But we’ve only seen one actual Christmas movie on Christmas, and that movie was, naturally, The Family Stone. It’s an intensely flawed film, but it marks an important — and one of the few remaining — rituals in my family, which is why I’ll watch it any time it comes on cable, anytime I remember the $4.99 copy I have stashed behind my more reputable DVDs.

In the end, it’s not the movie, or cute Luke Wilson, or even Christmas that I like. It’s the act of watching, and the even more important act of remembering.

“You have a freak flag. You just don’t fly it” —

AHP

¤

MusicVid

How to Make a Music Video About Nothing: Ke$ha, Pitbull, & “Timber”

Dear Television,

WE WATCH MUSIC VIDEOS for three overarching and often related reasons: hotness, dancing, and story.

You might not like to admit to the first one, but the amount of hotness in videos can only suggest that we like it. Whether the video is for Drake or Tim McGraw, Miley Cyrus or Celine Dion, one of its goals is to reaffirm the singer’s overarching attractiveness. The camera fetishizes different body parts depending on the singer and the type of music he or she sings: Rihanna’s videos focus on her thighs and stomach, One Direction’s focus on their smiles, Adele’s focus on her highly emotive face. Even the video for, say, Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit,” with its slo-mo headbanging and anguished close-ups, is invested in fetishizing their particular brand of alternative hotness.

Not all videos have dancing, but those that do are addictive. Think of the best videos of the last 30 years: dance figures prominently in 72% of them, with noted exceptions for a “story” entries described below. All of Michael Jackson’s videos, Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?,” Britney’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover,” Janet Jackson’s “If,” Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,”  Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop,” Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” — we watch them again and again, because the dance, in singular or group form, is hypnotic.

But the hotness and the dancing are (very rarely) narrative: they’re the descendants of what film scholar Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions.” Gunning used the term to describe the style of very early film shorts (think “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “What Happened on 23rd Street”) that didn’t adhere to established forms of narrative established by the theater. These films were operated like a game of “now you see it, now you don’t,” manipulatively addressing and arousing the spectator’s curiosity. Whereas “normal” narrative pretends like it’s a world unto itself, the cinema of attractions always knows it’s being watched. It presents a scenario, builds the tension, and then lets it explode. The muscles of Sandow the Strongman were an attraction; same for Annabelle and her Butterfly Dance. They’re on the stage; they even sometimes stare into the camera. They’re performing for the camera gaze rather than maintaining the subterfuge that the camera doesn’t exist. It’s vaudeville instead of theater, the variety show instead of the soap opera.

As camera technology became more sophisticated, the cinema began to adopt the three-act structure we now associate with narrative film, but the cinema of attractions never completely disappeared. Instead, moments of self-conscious spectacle integrated themselves into several genres: you see it especially in the musical number, the five minute fight scene, the never-ending gross-out joke. Even the slo-mo male gaze on a female body is a cinema of attraction, willfully violating codes of realism.

The narrative tries to paper over just how weird and implausible it is for, say, an entire school to know the choreographed danced moves to a song (hey Step Up), sometimes more successfully than others. But those moments of spectacle become the moments that matter: they’re the meat of the film trailer and the stuff you’ll find clipped on YouTube. They make SO LITTLE NARRATIVE SENSE, but we love them.

If music videos are hyper-condensed cinema, then it makes sense that they’d embrace and amplify similar techniques. On one end, you have the pure music video of attractions, replete with hotness, dance, and beautiful locations. These videos never detract from the message of the song, but they don’t add much to it other than, well, oomph. Beyonce’s Bob Fosse-inspired choreography has nothing to do with “Putting a Ring on It” other than, well, the moment when she points to her finger. It doesn’t mean they’re bad — see Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” in which the “narrative” is that a.) The Boss is handsome and b.) You could dance on stage — it just means that their mode of attraction is straightforward.


On the other end of the spectrum, you have the purely narrative video: something like the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s video for “Sacrilege,” Mumford & Son’s “Lover of the Light,” or Sigur Rós’ viðrar vel til loftárása,” all of which could be short, silent films unto themselves.


And somewhere in-between, the narrative meets spectacle. In a full-length film, you have enough narrative and exposition to suture over the moments of spectacular rupture. But in a music video, there’s just so little time to do that narrative work, which is why so many videos that attempt to tell stories, especially stories that don’t precisely match the lyrics of the accompanying song, fail so dramatically. Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie,” featuring Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan, works because the conceit is relatively straightforward: two people love each other yet abuse each other.


It’s quite literally melodrama: melos (Greek for melody) plus drame (French for drama), in which song is allowed to speak and amplify the drama onstage. Same for all of Taylor Swift’s oeuvre, which is characterized by its generally facile acting out of her songs. (See “Begin Again,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Love Story”). Michael Jackson’s best videos — “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Thriller” — all functioned this way; same for Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” or Britney’s “Toxic.”

But these videos aren’t without their moments of spectacle:


In contemporary Hollywood, executives use the term “blammos” to describe moments of spectacle — a sex scene is a blammo, as is an explosion, a car chase, a fight, or a musical number. Rumor has it that some execs institute a “blammo quotient” on blockbusters: one every eight minutes, for example — a calculation that certainly rings true when you watch the current summer fare. Applied to the condensed form for the music video, you generally have about ten seconds of narrative before you cut away to a spectacle shot, usually of an objectified body, best exemplified by “Toxic’ but also visible in, say, the “strut breaks” in Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” or the periodic return to longshots of Jennifer Lopez in “Jenny from the Block”; in A$AP Rocky’s “Wild for the Night,” there are no naked women, so the spectacle becomes the slums of the Dominican Republic, while Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride,” switches between the very suggestive sucking of a popsicle and close-up shots of cars.

My favorite videos are either full on spectacle or manage, improbably, to balance the semblance of a narrative with requisite spectacle. They’re not bloated or overly ambitious like Lana del Ray’s “Ride” or Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” They tell a simple, legible story, but they tell it with flash, but that flash somehow seems appropriate and motivated instead of gauche or awkward.  Videos as diverse as Madonna’s “Vogue” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” can do this — it’s all a matter of vision and fit

Which brings us to “Timber,” the new single from Pitbull and Ke$ha. Pitbull is a fascinating 21st century pop creation: he’s a Cuban-American entrepreneur who has wholeheartedly embraced product placement in his songs and image at large. His songs are incredibly catchy, always topical (“Timber,” for example, references a naked Miley Cyrus), and super radio-friendly. With his perma-uniform of white suits and sunglasses, he has come to stand in for my entire understanding of Miami. He is completely inoffensive — a rapper whose lyrics say very little and evoke even less. (Sample: “Me not working hard? / Yeah, right! Picture that with a Kodak / Or better yet, go to Times Square / Take a picture of me with a Kodak / Took my life from negative to positive / Just wanted y’all to know that”) As a Latino who signifies, visually and aurally, as “white,” he’s competing with Macklemore for most palatable, non-threatening, and highly lucrative rapper in the industry.

And as for Ke$ha, she’s a postmodern nightmare. As I’ve written elsewhere, she’s all surface, no substance. She seems to signify beauty, and sex, and rebellion, and weirdness — but poke that image and it deflates. From “brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack” to getting “sick and sexified,” there’s just no there, there. I have no doubt that Kesha Rose Sebert is an intelligent and savvy woman, but that doesn’t change the vapidity of the Ke$ha image.

There’s something alluring about an image that bereft of substance: I love hearing Ke$ha in the car the same way I love eating those pink, orange, and brown wafer sandwiches at church coffee hours. I taste something sweet, and then I taste nothing at all, save my unsatiated hunger.  Ke$ha, or the people who handle her image, have played with this vapidity: her video for “Blow” opens with the promise that “No mythical creatures have been harmed in the filming of this video,” and features a bunch of unicorn-masked men drinking champagne and getting shot at with rainbow guns by Ke$ha and special guest James Van Der Beek. It’s all mildly amusing and failed high concept, not unlike the self-staged play of your six-year-old niece.

It’s no surprise, then, that the collaboration between Pitbull and Ke$ha is at once completely meaningless and wholly addictive. It’s pure musical pastiche: there’s a power-country harmonica sample, a hip-hop vocal hook (that’s Ke$ha), and solid Miami club 4/4 beat.


Pitbull’s pre-hook:

Swing your partner round and round
End of the night, it’s going down
One more shot, another round
End of the night, it’s going down
Swing your partner round and round
End of the night, it’s going down
One more shot, another round
End of the night, it’s going down

Ke$ha’s hook:

It’s going down, I’m yelling timber
You better move, you better dance
Let’s make a night, you won’t remember
I’ll be the one, you won’t forget

Like so much of contemporary top 40, this is a song built on beats, not lyrics. The New Yorker’s recent piece on massive hitmaker Dr. Luke affirms as much: Luke (and other super producers like him) set a beat, and then they have people come in and shape words over them. The lyrics themselves matter far, far less than the song’s ability to make people move: all they need to be, in truth, is inoffensive.

The problem with these narrative-less, cliche-ridden songs, however, is that they make it really difficult to make any sort of coherent music video around them, especially if you don’t have any good dancers to just Ciara it up and make everyone forget that any music video should ever have a narrative ever again.

The only solution for a song of hollow signifiers? A video of the same. Only this particular video is so nonsensical, so completely unjustifiable, even on the basest of levels, that is perfectly manifests the state of the contemporary music industry.

I take that back: one half of the video makes quasi-sense. The video is “down home” in the way that True Blood is “down home,” which is to say that there’s a crappy, poorly-lit bar filled with women dressed like they’re auditioning for the Jessica Simpson role in the remake of Dukes of Hazzard. Ke$ha, of course, is one of them, and the spends this narrative foundling and dancing around various visual signifiers of backwards Southern/Westernness: saloon doors, antlers, cowboy hats, chaps, big beards, line dancing, jukeboxes, old trucks, long nails, fake bullriding, chickens, long nails, and trucker hats. It’s poor copy of Coyote Ugly, which is in itself a poor copy of an imagined South and/or West in which the “ladies of the night” paired cowboy boots with cut-off jeans and danced on the table instead of succumbing to syphilis and opium-addiction.

But! That’s all par for the Ke$ha course: this video could follow that narrative and be highly passable, if not notable. But how do you fit that with Pitbull’s brand? How does a white suit hang out in places with grass, or wood, or dirt? Especially if that white suit is too busy making paid club appearances to coordinate schedules with Ke$ha, who almost certainly recorded her hook days and states away from the verses of this song?

You put him on a beach. Playing with sharks? Maybe in Miami? With a girl. There’s some very brief gesture to the idea that the video of beach-bound Pitbull is playing on the jukebox in Ke$ha’s Western-Southern bar, but it’s fairly illegible. In order to distract from the gaping narrative disjunction, the director simply employs a full minute of rapid crosscuts between moments of spectacle: Pitbull touching sharks, Ke$ha leaning over truck suggestively, Pitbull with dancing lady friend in the background, Ke$ha fondling her own breasts, a single inexplicable shot of some brand of Vodka on a counter to coincide with its namedrop in the song, Pitbull’s tropical location, an aerial shot of a single shark, Ke$ha shaking her ass at the camera while grasping a saloon door, and so forth. The more rapid crosscuts, the more we’re led to believe that these narratives do, in some distant if indescribable way, belong in the same music video together.

The best videos either eschew narrative altogether or mindfully manufacture a space in which it can blend, as seamlessly as possible, with the requisite spectacle necessary to sell a contemporary music act. “Timber” suggests that in the age of computer-assembled mega-hits, there’s not only any need for artistry or originality — there’s not even a need for coherency. Why even gesture towards meaning when you can assemble a rapid stream of images that connote sex and money? Why choreograph, or plan, or direct, when you can just pile the things that please the most people most of the time onto one song and, by extension, one video?

I’ll always love the music video and celebrate the narrative experimentation — and revisiting of old classics — that MTV and now, YouTube, has afforded. But “Timber” is half-hearted masturbation without an orgasm; it’s citing everything you know without ever making a sentence, let alone an argument. It’s not new or experimental or exciting or evocative: it cost at least a million dollars, and it’s nothing at all.

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Good, Giving, and Game: Towards a Theory of SNL Hosting

Dear Television,

WHEN PHIL FIRST emailed to ask if we wanted to cover this week’s Saturday Night Live, he was not optimistic: “It’s a new one, but it’s with WhoGivesAShitJoshHutcherson.” (It was also with HAIM, whose employment of “bass face” merits a column unto itself.) But people do care about Josh Hutcherson — the Youngs care about Hutcherson, and SNL cares about the Youngs, or at least cares about their demo, which is why the hosts and musical guests seemingly oscillate between things 30-something bourgeois hipsters like (HAIM, Tina Fey, Ed Norton, The Alabama Shakes) and things 16-year-olds like (Hutcherson, Lady Gaga, Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber). Then there’s obvious ploy to get anyone over 40 to DVR the show, on display every time they invite a classic host (Steve Martin) or classic comedian (Martin Short, one last season’s best hosts).

So SNL picks hosts to attract demographics, that much is clear. But why do the celebrities pick SNL?

On the surface, the answer is clear: Publicity. Exposure. Promotion, especially for a new movie or album or season of television. But hosting Saturday Night Live also offers the opportunity to add necessary texture, humor, or substance to a star image — to turn “that guy who plays Peeta in Hunger Games” into a national name, something more than sum of his franchise parts.

Star images are the culmination of a star’s publicity, promotion, and textual appearances, but they’re also something more. They’re everything the star says in interviews, every outfit they’re photographed wearing, every appearance they make in films and commercials and award show podiums. But certain sound bites and outfits and appearances are accentuated over others and come to compose the core of the star’s meaning. Julia Roberts did all sorts of things before she was in Pretty Woman, but once she was in that film, it became the foundation of her image, inflecting every choice, every romance, every hairstyle. When she cut and dyed her hair to appear in Mary Reilly, for example, her fans balked. It wasn’t “right,” it was “all wrong” and unnatural — which is another way of saying it wasn’t her Pretty Woman hair, which was the way that audiences wanted to understand her.

We like to think of star images as natural — a reflection, just ever-so-slightly mediated, of the “real” person. But they’re the result of complex strategies of star production: a whole team of people who make decisions about what the star should say, who he should say it to, and how he should say it, and how that will make the star seem to mean a certain thing, like “cool girl” (Jennifer Lawrence) or “your ideal boyfriend” (Ryan Gosling). (I’m not suggesting that J-Law isn’t, in fact, dorky and self-effacing, but her PR team has absolutely told her to amp that performance to 11).

And if star images are products, then SNL functions as a prime, privileged means of image production. It can’t set the image core (at least not for its hosts), but it can inflect that core, give it something like heft and complexity and charisma.

As SNL has aged, it’s amassed an enormous pool of hosts, which means that there are relatively “open” spots in a season, especially for untested non-comedians. But every season, a few would-be stars get their chance. Most of these performers already have something big going for them: a teen franchise (Taylor Lautner), a huge album (Justin Timberlake), or a hit television show (Jon Hamm). But their images, at least at that point, are one-dimensional. Taylor Lautner was Jacob from Twilight and nothing more; Timberlake was a boy bander-turned-solo-pop-star; Jon Hamm was handsome Don Draper.

And then SNL proved that they — or at least two of those listed above — were something more, something bigger and star-worthy.

To excel at hosting, you must be what Dan Savage calls “GGG” — good, giving, and game. Savage uses it to talk about sex, but it applies to comedic performance as well: you’ve got to be a decent actor, you’ve got to give your time and energy to doing it right, and you’ve got to be up for the weirdest shit the writers throw your way.

Timberlake and Hamm are “good” because they are, bluntly, good actors. (Timberlake may falter on the big screen, but that’s usually an issue of casting: if he were playing his Social Network and Bad Teacher roles at all times, we wouldn’t have a problem). They can take direction, they hit their marks, they don’t “break” in reaction to a punchline.

They’re generous to their co-performers (Timberlake was always happy to let Fallon have the joke), but they’re also “giving” in a slightly different way: they learn their lines. It’s clear they’ve rehearsed — that they’re taking this comedy diversion seriously. (I enjoyed parts of Kerry Washington’s hosting turn from a few weeks ago, but she was visibly reading the cue cards 75% of the time).

And Timberlake and Hamm are both “game”: Timberlake was willing to do weird Color Me Badd riffs (before the ’80s were even that cool again) that involved a.) his penis and b.) having sex with his friend’s mother. But it’s more than just the viral hits — watch Timberlake in “The Barry Gibb Show,” from one of his earliest hosting appearances, and see a man willing to own the ‘70s androgynous pantsuit/temper tantrum.

(Right around 37:00 mark).

And Jon Hamm is likable and Jon Hamm-ish throughout his hosting gig, essentially reifying his Jon Hamm-ness, but he’s also so gamely bizarre in skits like “Jon Hamm’s Jon Ham,” about a bathroom stall ham dispenser.


After hosting SNL, the discourse about both Timberlake and Hamm changed. Suddenly, Timberlake was more than just a former Mickey Mouse Clubber who dated Britney Spears and might be the next MJ: he was funny, maybe even smart, with an indelible charisma that you have to battle to dislike. With that sort of layered image, it became impossible to write Timberlake off as just another boy band star turned solo. It thickened his image, made it stick — which is precisely why he’s still around today and not just an aging 30-something with an arguably disappointing third record.

As for Jon Hamm, he became something more than Don Draper. The famous Don Draper satire skit showed just how performative Draper is — how easy, in other words, it is to “play at” being Draper-ish, with the added bonus of highlighting Hamm’s distance from the Draper character. (You don’t make fun of who you are, just who people think you are). Television stars always have this problem: because you see them playing the same character week after week, their star images are overdetermined by their onscreen characters, making it very difficult for them to move on to marketedly different roles. (See: Jerry Seinfeld, the entire cast of Friends, etc.) Unlike movie stars, who only play a role for two hours, television stars are equated with a role for years.

Hamm could have been stuck to Don Draper forever, but he/his people made two calculated and, in hindsight, genius moves: he appeared as a very unsuave, unDraper womanizer in Bridesmaids, and he was very, very funny on SNL. And now he’s a bonafide star, with a Hollywood future that will extend far beyond season seven of Mad Men. He’s charismatic and handsome and talented, but lots of television actors have that. With the help of SNL (and the lack of underwear), however, Hamm built himself an actual star image.

As for Lautner, there’s many reasons why that kid isn’t a star, and lack of trying isn’t one of them. After the success of the first Twilight, his publicity team did a fairly masterful job of promoting his road from scrawny teenager to jacked werewolf, and he was signed to a slew of action roles that promised to make him into the next Tom Cruise. But unlike Cruise, Lautner can’t act. He also has no charisma, or agility as a performer, or even, it seems, a robust sense of humor — all of which were on prime display in his turn as SNL host.

The lesson: SNL can turn you into a legitimate star, but it can also prove that you maybe shouldn’t be one.

Which is why Josh Hutcherson’s turn as host was so quietly delightful. Here’s a guy who, on paper, should be a horrible host. He’s the (relatively) boring straight man from a franchise (albeit a better franchise than most) and his acting, at least in the first one, isn’t noteworthy. If there’s one thing people know about him, it’s that he’s not who they would’ve cast as the hot, strong-armed baker-turned-Katniss love interest.

From the beginning of the episode, Hutcherson was all about redeeming himself. In the first sketch, he roundly ridicules the passivity of his Hunger Games character, and in the digital short “Matchbox 3,” about a crew of subway performers who do their acts in very, very confined spaces, he not only makes fun of his height, but gives himself over fully to the role.

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(There’s something so winsome about the way he throws his hand in air in the intro).

And then there’s the most bonkers skit on the show, in which Hutcherson brings home his “new girlfriend” for Thanksgiving, only to surprise his family with the fact that she’s….a turkey.

It’s a classic example of weird, end-of-the-night SNL. It’s not funny, exactly, nor is it entirely satire, but Hutcherson’s ability to straight-facedly make out with a turkey should make us consider him as something more than sad-faced Peeta.

Because Hutcherson is, indeed, more than just a franchise star: he was convincing and embarrassed in The Kids Are Alright, and he’s been slogging through bit roles and kid parts since 2003. Like Hamm, Timberlake, and other recent SNL charmers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Miley Cyrus, Hutcherson is a workhorse — in classic Hollywood, they called actors like them “troupers” because they’d paid their dues, often since they were young children, in vaudeville troupes, where they’d laugh, cry, sing, dance, do stunts, and then do it all over again 24 hours later in the next town. They were GGG because their very livelihood depended on it.

Cary Grant was a trouper, so was Judy Garland — and both would’ve made superlative SNL hosts. Because when it comes down to it, SNL is the vaudeville show for the 21st century, with the ability to bring out the best and worst in its hosts. A hosting gig will always provide visibility. But if the performer is a GGG trouper, that gig can also make him or her a star. It didn’t quite happen with Hutcherson, but who knows: given another chance and more, weirder, material, it might yet.

Googling “Jon Ham,”

AHP

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In Praise of Quitting

Dear Television,

I’VE QUIT ONE JOB, I’ve quit two sports, I quit one (very ill-advised) diet. I finish all my books and once I start an article, I can’t stop reading it. But I quit television shows all the time — and more to this week’s point, I quit Homeland before Season Three even started. I quit The Bridge after four episodes; I quit Justified two weeks in to Season Four. I’m especially skilled at quitting teen dramas after two seasons, which is exactly what I did to The O.C., Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and even Veronica Mars. I quit Breaking Bad, and I will fight you if you try to shame me.

I don’t have any solid quitting policy: there’s no “three shitty episodes” limit or a checklist of unforgivable televisual offenses. It’s usually a matter of atrophy. A show is a priority until, gradually, it isn’t, and the unwatched episodes pile up in my DVR queue like moldering Moneysavers on the front porch.

The atrophy of fandom is nothing new. What I want to suggest with this post, however, is that in the contemporary attention economy, it’s a necessity — an ability to be cultivated and celebrated, not denigrated or shamed. Quitting television shows, especially shows that have betrayed us, is tremendously liberating, almost akin to removing oneself from a toxic relationship. I broke up with Homeland, in other words, and I feel great. 

We all know there’s too much good television. There’s too many good movies, too much good journalism online. But it’s only “too much” because we feel like we don’t have enough time to consume all of it — there’s a bountiful cornucopia of media out there, media that soothes and challenges and compels.

But in order to get to the good stuff, you have to be willing to embrace two contradictory impulses: You must be ruthless, but you must also be patient. You must be willing to allow a show’s voice to develop — to weather a first dysfunctional season, for example, or to reach a point of seriality that “boring” suddenly morphs into “gripping” — but you must also be ready to listen to the voice inside your head that says this makes me feel shitty.

At the beginning of the year, I’m always open to new stuff. A supernatural procedural that blends 18th century historical figures with contemporary crime solving? Okay, fine, sure. I receive some guidance from the people whose job it is to watch every new fall show (A thousand voices telling me to avoid Dads). But with everything else, I follow the mom-enforced dinner rule: take one bite. But I also follow the second part of that rule: namely, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it anymore.

If you’re going to practice this quasi knee-jerk strategy, however, you have to refuse to be stubborn. I hated tomatoes as a kid, and my stubbornness made it so that I didn’t even realize that the watery, mealy things on the top of burgers could be transformed into tangy, complex things when fresh and salted. You thus have to be willing submit (and often re-submit) yourself to a show and its charms. I didn’t like American Horror Story’s pilot; now it’s one of my favorite feminist shitshows on television. I refused to watch a show with Zooey Deschanel; now I’m in love with New Girl’s Nick Miller. I thought any show on ABC Family was regressive bullshit, but then Emily Nussbaum made the case for Switched at Birth and I saw the light. I’m always ready to be convinced of my wrongness, especially if that convincing only takes 42 minutes of my evening. A willingness to be wrong — to admit it, and celebrate seeing the light — might even be a hallmark of a good critic.

But then you also have to be willing to make unpopular choices. Quitting Homeland isn’t all that unpopular: every Sunday night, my social media feeds are filled with those dropping from it like once-manic flies, hoping to escape before the show reaches some lobotomizing stage. But quitting Breaking Bad was much more shameful. The first time I quit, it was because of “Grilled” — an episode that made me feel so anxiously nauseated that I couldn’t describe my relationship to the show as anything other than masochistic. Breaking Bad was filled with what I’ve termed “sticking points in serial television” — episodes that are so profoundly affecting that you can’t bring yourself to go beyond them.

The famous Friday Night Lights episode “The Son” was one of my most significant sticking points. Because of similarities to my own life and experience, that episode generated more than weepy sadness. I cried so hard the computer screen in front of me shook. It was a sticking point, but it wasn’t forever: quitting FNL after that episode, and not seeing what happens to my beloved Matt Saracen, would only make me feel more grief, not less.

But what would I gain from watching more Breaking Bad? People love to talk about the relatability of anti-heros, and I get it some of the time (Tony Soprano, Raylan Givens, Juliette Barnes), but Breaking Bad became one alienating adrenaline rush after another. The seriality pulled me along, but I finished each episode feeling a little more empty than before. Breaking Bad was, somewhat ironically, not all that different from drug addiction: it made me feel shitty, but I couldn’t resist its narrative gravity.

Don’t mistake me: Breaking Bad was doing a lot of complicated, fascinating, and daring stuff, and it’s certainly an excellent show that deserves (nearly all) of the accolades piled on it. I powered through my sticking point — all the way through Season Three — because it’s my job, both as an academic and a writer, to be conversant in these things. But professional obligation only needs to go so far: film critics should probably watch Saw, but do they need to watch all six? To be conversant in European Art Cinema, must I watch every Ingmar Bergman? Or can I just watch a few, figure out they’re not my thing, but appreciate them for what they are?

I needed to watch Breaking Bad, and I needed to be patient with it. But I didn’t need to finish it and feel horrible while doing it.

When you love a show, however, it’s difficult to feel generous towards others who don’t. In the summer of 2010, television scholar Jason Mittell wrote a lengthy piece “On Disliking Mad Men, effectively lighting an academic/quality television fire storm. Mittell works on “complex television” and has published broadly on The Wire and Lost; Mad Men should be a natural fit, taste-wise. But he watched a season, though about it broadly, and decided to stop. Many readers (myself included) begged him to go farther — in essence, we wanted him to understand our own devotion to the show. But our arguments (mostly about characterization, nuance, its treatment of history) didn’t address his fundamental, deep-rooted dislike  It was an unpopular decision, but he stuck by it. He quit, and he felt great.

When a sitcom is no longer funny to you — when you laugh once or twice a show, and mostly yearn for the days when you couldn’t conceive of anything funnier — it’s time to quit. When a show’s racism becomes egregious and or its moralizing becomes consistently ham-handed, it’s time to quit. When you force yourself to watch something just so you don’t feel left out, it’s time to quit. Find a new show! Start a new conversation!

When a teen melodrama has exhausted all possible couplings and resorts to car crashes, the underworld, or unmotivated changes in sexuality, it’s time to quit. Unless, of course, you start to think of it as a wholly different type of pleasure. I think this is what Phil is describing about his relationship with Homeland: it’s bad in the service of (hopeful) good, and he’s willing to suffer for the pay-off. Nashville has always been somewhat bad, but I’m endlessly willing to suffer that badness for the wonderment that is Hayden Panettiere’s storyline. When I watch The Notebook, I fast-forward through the nauseating old people parts; when I watch Nashville, I fast-forward every time I see Peggy or Lamar’s face. I make my own edit, and that edit makes me feel no pain.

Feeling chronically bad or bored or offended is always enough reason to quit a show. But there’s also something to be said for quitting before the show goes off the rails, thereby preserving its immaculate memory in your mind. This strategy involves a mix of clairvoyance and the ability to read entertainment trade journalism. Because sometimes you just know. Your favorite couple has broken up, or gotten together, or someone died, or someone didn’t die. The narrative has run its course, but the powers that be drag it on, hungry for the 100 episode-mark that will allow the series to be sold into syndication and create a huge financial windfall. For these shows, quitting while ahead just isn’t an option: so long as the show’s drawing the numbers the network wants, it’ll keep it alive until the showrunner’s contract runs out. It’s death by slow, overwrought, narratively exhausted torture, and it’s a fate shared by everything from Grey’s Anatomy to The Office.

Alternately, the industry itself gives you all the hints you need to know better. The show switched to a new network (Veronica Mars), it has a new showrunner (Community), it’s being revived nearly a decade later (Arrested Development), or one of the stars is outta there (Downton Abbey). Phil mentioned that his ability to stick with a show is predicated on trust — especially of a showrunner — and the above moves should signal that your trust in a show is no longer warranted. In these cases, a refusal to heed the signs of a show’s demise yields little more than a general distrust of the product you once loved. You didn’t quit, and now you’re bitter.

A combination of clairvoyance, industry news, and access kept me from watching the downhill seasons of so many of my cherished shows, which allows me to live in ignorant, willful bliss.  Veronica Mars and Logan Echolls are frozen in amber on their graduation day, and Carrie Mattheson is the strong, centered woman who said goodbye to Brody at the Canadian border. Unlike Phil, my investment in television is less with the process than the overarching product: he loves watching Homeland try its damndest to “add up”; I find it — especially when watching “real time,” with a week between each episode — infuriating. I don’t like the person I become when I hate a television show and continue to watch it. Instead of disliking myself, then, I just stick to disliking (and abandoning) the show.

Television viewing used to be characterized by its passive inertia: the ability of the network flow to glide you seamlessly from one show to the next. Why make a decision about what to watch when your favorite network has made it for you? A modicum of flow still remains (see, for example, the Netflix timed countdown from the end of one episode to the beginning of another) but most of us dictate our own media consumption diets. But we need to be economical: there’s too much out there to love, so why spend time watching what you don’t?

Don’t misinterpret this as a pass to avoid shows that are complicated or different or slow. We should all expose ourselves to things that challenge us and our tastes, and do so regularly. But we shouldn’t feel like our tastes should hew to everyone else’s: chances are we’re all lying about being caught up, or even liking, a show that we’re supposed to. I love watching television shows, after all, but I also love the liberation of quitting them. You might too.

AHP

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There Will Be Peplum: On the Television Uniform

Dear Television,

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, my favorite show was Star Trek: The Next GenerationThere are many reasons for this love, but chief among them was the uniforms. I loved how legible they were: how you saw a color, and a number of pips on the collar, and you immediately knew what that person did and how well they did it. How much, in other words, you could trust them. But it wasn’t a simple calculus: Admirals had six pips, but that actually meant that they were so powerful that they spent most of their time admonishing your favorite character, Captain Picard. Data had two pips and a third that was hollowed out — a symbol of his striving and liminality as, well, a robot, as well as his actual rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Sometimes the uniforms got switched up — I love the casual look from late-stage TNG, when suddenly everyone was chillin’ in mock turtlenecks and comfy zip-up cardigans from L.L. Bean.

When everyone’s in uniform, the smallest variation sticks out. Worf’s baldric (warrior sash, duh) Geordi’s visor, Crusher’s doctor’s coat, Troi’s jumpsuits. But those variations speak: they tell you more about the character, and the character’s purpose in that scene, than even hackneyed expository dialogue could. This is classic melodramatic costuming, in which outfits absorb excess of emotion — things that cannot or should not be said — and communicate them through wardrobe.

In the age of Tom and Lorenzo and detailed, episodic criticism, we’ve grown accustomed to analyzing costume choice. Joan’s roses on Mad Men, Olivia Pope’s literal employment of black and white on Scandal, even a complex color theory of How I Met Your Mother. Unpacking clothes is fun. Clothes porn is fun — I watched Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars as much for the clothes as I did for the characters. But therein lies the problem: the clothes bear more narrative weight than the actors themselves. I wasn’t watching the character, or the action, or the plot — I was watching the clothes; the body wearing them, and his/her acting, choices, and dialogue all seemed to drift away.

But Crusher’s lab jacket never distracted me. It told me something, and then it told me to pay attention because there was going to be some big disease that would spread throughout the ship and take away everyone’s ability to say vowels. Instead of breaking down specific outfits, then, I’d like to work towards a theory of the uniform — and its specific purpose on a show like The Good Wife.

The Good Wife doesn’t have Star Trek uniforms, although it would be awesome if it did, if only because Will Gardner would look GREAT in Riker’s jumpsuit. But the characters’ sartorial choices are circumscribed by their profession: high-end lawyers are some of the last remaining American workers required to wear suits on a daily basis. Professors don’t wear suits, doctor’s rarely wear more than a dress shirt and tie, those in tech apparently just wear hoodies. If you’re in local government, you only wear a suit if you’re Leslie Knope or Chris Traeger. If you’re on the police force, you only wear a suit if you’re a detective. So what do we have? Bankers, politicians, lawyers. Bankers are boring and corrupt, at least in the current public imagination, but it’s no coincidence that two of the best shows on broadcast deal with people from the last two groups: Scandal and The Good Wife.

In landscapes of power and prestige, everyone has to look just-so. You need to look respectable and put-together; you don’t want to blend into the background entirely, but your wardrobe should never become more important than your argument or your ideas. Even a bow-tie can speak louder than it should.

In these workplaces, gender display shouldn’t trump your message, but you also don’t want to distract with any sort of gender confusion. Hence: the woman’s power suit, which apes the standard male suit, with its boxy, square shoulders and well-tailored lines while subtly emphasizing the waist and breasts. The woman’s suit says I’m powerful but I’m a woman: be impressed, but don’t be scared.

The Good Wife may have a modicum of what Phil calls “blazer porn,” but it’s all about uniforms.  Ninety percent of our time with these characters is spent at the law firm or on case business — even when they’re drinking whiskey, they’re wearing their uniforms.

Let’s start at the center. According to The Good Wife’s costume designer Daniel Lawson, Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) has around 350 suits in her closet. These suits have a very specific color range: grey, darker grey, lighter grey, red, brighter red, navy, and darker navy. Sometimes there’s a bit of emerald green or even a bit of white tossed in, but that happens once a season, if that. When Florrick was shamed by her husband’s very public prostitution scandal and attempting to reintegrate into a workplace, her clothes were simple, with lots of grey pantsuits. As Lawson explains, she probably didn’t have a ton of actual suits, so her first season was mostly throwing shit together and trying to be as unassuming as possible. Still, the suit reigned.

Yet as Alicia rose through the ranks in the firm, had a steamy affair with her boss/old flame, and laid down the law with her husband, her suits got wild, and by wild, I mean they got peplumed.

More tailored — more willing to highlight her body — and more bold. A bow here, some colorblocking there. It’s still the uniform, but it’s a uniform she’s making her own, just as she reforges her identity from politician’s wife to that of a working, single, even sexual mother. It’s a subtle transformation, but I think it reflects the subtle work the writers are doing. You don’t need to thump the audience over the head by suddenly forcing Alicia into Samantha’s leftovers from Sex and the City to communicate a sexual and professional rebirth. All you need is some peplum and a pop of color.

When you look at promos for the show, however, Alicia’s rarely in uniform.

Promos, especially promos for a show with a title as horrible as The Good Wife, employ visual rhetoric that isn’t as subtle as the show’s. In a one-sheet, peplum can’t quite convey the same message as the hyper-sexual pose above — a pose, and a willing objectification, to which the “real,” non-ad Alicia would never submit. The clothing is off because the entire message is off: this isn’t a show about sexy lawyers banging each other all day; it’s a show about the intersections of sex and professionalism, about duty and desire — the sort of subtlety that a uniform can reflect so skillfully.

Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) gets more to play with, in part because she’s just so much more powerful. I was telling Phil that while I like Alicia, I love Diane, mostly because she’s an icy, ball-busting second-wave feminist, a description I intend as the highest of high compliments. Many of my female mentors fit this description — women who had to fight for their place in their field, who sacrificed tremendously, who didn’t worry about “having it all” because what they really wanted was a place at the table. These ladies take zero shit, but they’re also extremely mindful of the type of behavior and presentation necessarily to earn and sustain their places of power. Diane’s uniform — and the perfect way she arches her eyebrow — convey as much.

Diane isn’t middle-aged. She is, as the French would say, “d’une certaine age” — an age that affords a certain knowledge and luxury. She knows what looks good on her, and she has the capital to spend on it. Tailoring, jewelry, brooches, amazing, precise haircuts — she’s got it.  Sometimes her uniform tends towards the Alicia-esque suit, but she also rocks the sheath dress like a perfectly-fit glove, usually with some statement jewelry. These aren’t chunky faux-jewels strung on twine and purchased from Etsy — we’re talking straight up pearls and gold, a way of underlining I fucking made it. We don’t need clunky flashbacks or cheesy speeches about Diane’s past — that jewelry, paired with those elegantly tailored, square-shouldered dresses and that exquisite $200 haircut, which she may or may not pay someone to blow out every morning, says everything.

Costuming can provide instant character development, but it can also provide instant contrast.  Mamie Gummer’s sorority girl take on the lawyer uniform not only communicates what tactics she’ll adopt in the courtroom, but the intensity with which Alicia despises her. And as for Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), she still wears the high-powered uniform, it’s just a leather version of it.

There’s the blouse, the vest, the tailored skirt, the nylons, the expensive footwear — it’s a power suit for the street, and I don’t mean “street” as in “I grew up on the streets,” I mean the ACTUAL STREET, like walking around, performing surveillance, getting people to talk to you. Alicia and Christine’s clothes individualize them while still allowing them to hew to the expectations of gender and power performance, and Kalinda’s do the same. With her rotating wheel of knee-high boots, black skirts, and leather jackets, she looks like a powerful person, but instead of using that power to persuade a jury, she’s using it to persuade anyone to do anything she wants.

A lawyer needs a certain kind of authority and the uniform to convey it, and a street investigator needs quite another. One is rooted in class and intelligence. . . . .and the other is predicated on sex. As an Indian woman in an enduringly (if quietly) racist society, a woman like Kalinda knew that she’d never be an Alicia or a Diane, so she uses a uniform that will deflect attention from her race and make her the best at her job. Everyone’s too busy looking at her skirt to realize that she’s swindling them — and making a lot of money doing it.

And when The Good Wife characters take off their uniforms, it’s like Carnival: a time for true hungers and desires to run wild. Think of Alicia’s red dress at the gala, or Diane’s target shooting outfits. They’re not revisions of their uniforms so much as extensions, an opportunity to further underline character and whimsy and sex, much as the ventures into the Holodeck, and the creative costuming it afforded, did in Star Trek.

When she was cast as Diane Lockhart, Baranski told the costume designer that she didn’t want to be a “walking fashion Barbie.” Name partners in a Chicago law firm may spend a lot of money on high-end clothes, but they weren’t changing clothes twice a day or wearing hot pink pumps.

But her concern wasn’t just realism — turn Lockhart into a fashion Barbie, and suddenly the conversations about Diane are all rooted in clothing and consumption. Put her in the lawyer uniform, and she can still be fashionable, but conversations about her character become ones of action and speech: what does she do and say, and how does she do and say it?

In academia, female scholars, myself included, often fixate on what they wear, whether in the classroom at a conference. I’ve spent as much time figuring out what to wear as I present my paper as I’ve spent on the paper itself, and I’m by no means alone. Your clothes have to send all sorts of messages, layered with the same density as an academic argument. Footwear, tights, skirt length and style, jacket, satchel, earrings, make-up, hair — people say that academics have it lucky in the wardrobe department, because you can be as informal or formal as you’d like, but that sort of freedom actually makes things harder, not easier. Men have to deal with some of these overdetermined fashion choices, but it’s nothing compared to what women negotiate. Wardrobe matters because wardrobe communicates — which is precisely why so many schools demand uniforms.

If melodramatic costuming, particularly female costuming, was employed to express the inexpressible, then the contemporary uniform underlines these female characters’ ability to speak for themselves. Olivia Pope, Alicia Florrick, and Carrie Mattheson all wear uniforms. It’s no mistake that they’re the most self-actualized, complex, and compelling characters on television.

Don’t Underestimate the Peplum,

AHP

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Snake

You Won’t Read This Review of “Masters of Sex”: The Problem of Episodic Criticism

I WANT TO TALK with you about Masters of Sex. I want to talk about Michael Sheen’s acting, Lizzy Caplan’s costuming, and the friction between its serial and series elements. I want to tell you that the weepy, one-dimensional wife got, at least temporarily, less weepy, and that the show, for its initial resistance to Freudian conceptions of sex, has now seemingly gone full-Freud with its treatment of its protagonist’s neuroses. Most of all, I want to talk to you about the giant very obvious plot “twist” of this last episode.

But if I do, then most of you will stop reading — and it’s not so much because you’re spoiler-phobic as much as you don’t care, or at least not at this point. The reasons are legion: You don’t have cable. You have plans to watch it when it comes out on Netflix. You watched the pilot and have meant to catch up but haven’t. If you’re not at the precise point in the series as I am, who wants to read 1500 words about it?

Therein lies the tension in contemporary television criticism: the infinite space of digital publishing venues made incredibly detailed, lengthy, and immediate recaps/reviews possible, and while print magazines still publish traditional “reviews” of an entire season or DVD set and various outlets offer periodic think pieces on overarching trends, the day-after episodic critique is the new normal.

But writing about a specific show, especially a specific episode of a show, or a show that’s midway through its season, dramatically reduces your potential audience. People read reviews of books, movies, and albums all the time without having watched them, but no one reads a review of Chapter 17, or the second act of the play, or track eight, unless you actively love that piece of art.

When you’re writing episodic criticism, then, you’re writing for experts and fans. For some, this is a dream come true: your review can dispense with exposition and proceed with a sophisticated common vocabulary, really getting down into the nitty gritty of character dissection. The results can be compelling the way that any close reading can be compelling, but they also risk becoming hermetic or myopically obsessive. The more ornate the theory, the better: see, for example, Mad Men’s Bob Benson as Pete and Peggy’s child come back from the future to haunt them. Many of these theories are fun to think about, but they’re hollow — they don’t go anywhere.

The best criticism uses the art object as a launching pad towards topics bigger and broader; too often, episodic type of criticism mires readers in the narrative’s diegetic labyrinths.

Which isn’t to suggest that episodic criticism can’t be valuable. Serialized, “complex” television, whether in the form of Mad Men or soap operas, has long rewarded close dissection. What we talk about when we talk about the “One Man’s Trash” episode of Girls is (somewhat) different than what we talk about when we talk about Girls as a series. The rise of free blogging platforms, paired with the rise of “complex” television, didn’t necessarily make this criticism possible so much as it made it widely available. Some dude from Ohio may have been breaking down Star Trek: TNG episodes on a listserve for years, but after, oh, 2004, he could not only put it online (he could’ve done that for years; what’s up Geocities) or participate in a snark-fest on Television without Pity, but put it on his own domain that a.) loaded in faster than five minutes; b.) looked semi-professional; and c.) could be readily found via search engines and, more importantly, a search engine with the accuracy of Google. Blogger, WordPress, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and the reviewing apparatus expands unfettered.

That’s not intended as an official history so much as a reminder that where we are today is the result of a multiple industrial and technological shifts; together, they’ve created a universe in which nearly anyone, with nearly any fandom, can find others who want to think and write about it.

But those communities — of invested writers, readers, and commenters — are becoming increasingly niche and stratified. And the primary reason isn’t the internet so much as the sheer number of shows worth thinking and talking about. It’s what Alan Sepinwall calls the “too much good television” problem: in 2002, there were 28 original scripted dramas and 6 original comedies on paid and extended cable; by 2012, that number had risen to 77 original dramas and 48 comedies. And that’s not counting the networks! That is a CRAZY amount of television.

And a lot of it is good — if not very good, then good enough for people to want to read and talk about it. Just look at The A.V. Club: they’re currently offering episodic reviews of over fifty shows spanning genres, networks, and air times. You can find a review of the CW’s teen historical melodrama Reign as readily as you can find one of The X-Files or Homeland.

Popularity of these posts varies widely. A recent review of the fantastic Danish series Borgen had 22 comments, six Tweets, and one Facebook share; the most recent Homeland review had 551 comments, 23 Tweets, and 22 Facebook shares. Many more people are reading these reviews than these shares suggest, but they’re still not on par with broader, non-episodic criticism: Emily Nussbaum’s overview of Key & Peele received over 1200 shares, for example, and her Sex and the City corrective was shared more than 15,000 times.

But again, look at those numbers: people read that Sex and the City piece because most of them had watched it. Not a specific episode, but an episode. Whether they loved it or loathed it, they knew that they would be conversant with the review. As one of the early “golden age” shows that has come to stand in for an entire understanding of sex-positive, consumerism-driven postfeminism, Sex and the City was and remains a cultural touchstone — a show that you can use as an example in a public lecture, a means of rooting a concept, a way of being inclusive instead of exclusive.

SATC and other shows like it make television function as what Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, writing back in 1983, called “the cultural forum.” They pose ideological questions and implicitly encourage conversations about those questions: What does it mean to be a man providing for one’s family post-recession? (Breaking Bad) How can young people negotiate the contradictions inherent to postfeminism? (Girls). But the more that “television” proliferates, the less “must-watch” television remains a salient category and the harder it becomes to host forums for those discussions.

And so a new hierarchy of television criticism emerges: on the top, there’s a rapidly dwindling number of shows that function as broad cultural forums, sometimes, but not always, with ratings to match the sheer amount of discourse they inspire. Girls, Mad Men, Game of Thrones. Homeland until this season. Arguably The Walking Dead and Scandal, both of which are highly divisive — The Walking Dead because it’s been critically lampooned; Scandal because it wears its melodramatic credentials on its sleeve.

Then there’s the expanding raft of programs that inspire online recapping, reviewing, and rehashing. The most visible programs are the “quality” ones, and by “quality” I mean aesthetics/look (something like The Americans on FX), narrative complexity (Arrow on Fox) and/or critical acclaim (Parks & Rec on NBC). Shows with all three seem to inspire the most high-profile critical space (this is, remember, ostensibly a review of Masters of Sex), but you only really need one of those three to merit review-like discourse (just ask the Tumblr community around Vampire Diaries).

And then there are shows that seem not to matter — or at least not matter enough to talk about every week. Standard procedurals (Law & Order SVU, NCIS), first run syndication, broad swaths of reality television, children’s programming, the news, tosh.0, sports broadcasts, most cartoons, and other weird stuff and cobwebby television corners, some of it watched by far more people than a single episode of Mad Men. These programs are ideological gold mines, but we haven’t quite figured out how to talk about them with rigor or regularity.

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Television has long been framed as the “democratic medium,” and you could claim that the proliferation of content is one of the ways in which 21st century “television” will not only be unyoked from things like, say, televisions, but will also redefine what a “democratic medium” might look like. In the three-network era, television was democratic not only because it was free to anyone who could afford a set, but also because the limited amount of available programming ensured that most shows would, in some way, function as cultural forums. Even something as seemingly inane as Mister Ed was watched by enough people that when Mae West came on and did something suggestive, it sparked conversations. These conversations weren’t published and they almost certainly didn’t invoke aesthetics, probe implicit meanings, or use words like “showrunner,” but they happened.

Today, television is democratic in fiercely neoliberal way: if I like something, then I want it, and I want other people to like it the way I do. Freedom of choice becomes freedom to choose precisely what your media diet — and criticism thereof — includes.

The complexity and variety of the third golden age of television thus functioned as a catalyst for the first golden age of television criticism. Once that critical engine was set in motion, however, it had nothing to confine it: the current critical landscape is so diffuse, so niche-oriented, that I often feel less like I’m starting a conversation and more like I’m having one with myself, or others with very similar concerns and celebrations.

Don’t mistake me: I’m not asking for a troll posse to squat in the comments of our posts and tell us that everything we’re writing about Masters of Sex is wrong. Rather, I’d like for my writing on Masters of Sex — hell, anyone’s thoughtful, time-consuming, painfully crafted review — to reach more people, to engender something larger than a click. As an academic, I think about this constantly: how can we take our work, the product of months if not years of labor, and make it into more than a peer-reviewed, firewalled article accessed by eight confused students a year? It’s a question of depth versus accessibility — and it’s a tension by no means limited to academia or online television criticism.

But how do we take the public forum available to us and turn it into something better — something less niche and more inclusive, something less inside baseball and more cultural forum — without either a.) writing about NCIS every week or b.) offering unsubstantiated yet link-baity platitudes about television at large?

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This piece came about because I couldn’t think about something that interesting to say about S01E05 of Masters of Sex. It’s a quality show; it has quality elements. It has Lizzy Caplan; there are lots of shots of people watching other people have orgasms. It’s a show about white middle-class people during a vivid historical moment, and it’s very nicely done. But I don’t think it necessarily merits, or even needs, a weekly dissection. (Just ask Lili how hard it was to write her review).

With the growth of webseries and Netflix/Amazon original programming, the amount of television programming is only going to continue to proliferate. If we’re never going to regain the cultural forum of classic television, we can at least stop digging the cultural trenches even deeper. To do so, however, we have to think critically about how we’re reviewing — and viewing and reading — out of habit and history.

Again, I don’t think that episodic criticism is, by definition, at fault. Certain episodes demand more, and I’ve seen brilliant episodic criticism connect single episodes to broader trends, historical context, industrial imperatives, overarching politics of representation or, as Lili did yesterday, write not so much about the episode as the series at large and its rejection (and periodic engagement) with tired, facile characterization rooted in pop-Freudism.

But too often, episodic criticism turns into the snake eating its own tail, simply because there’s nothing else to do. That’s criticism that closes down meaning — that encourages people to believe what they believe about the show, the episode, and their meanings — rather than opening it up.  And it’s not as if the critics themselves love this form: it forces a style of writing that, judging from Twitter and podcast conversations, is much more exhausting and much less satisfying than other forms of criticism. There seems to be a reader-appetite for it, but who’s to say that readers aren’t bored as well?

We seem to agree that the third golden age is drawing to a close. We also seem to agree that there’s too much worthy television for any critic, paid or not, to watch it all, and few are enthralled with the current dynamics of episodic reviewing. It’s a perfect time, in other words, to switch shit up — to reconsider what the next golden age of television criticism might resemble — and reaffirm what makes this medium so infuriating, satisfying, and compelling in the first place. The internet changed our understanding of what television criticism could or should do. There’s no reason it can’t change it yet again.

AHP

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AHS

The Exquisite Repulsion of “American Horror Story”: An Essay on Abjection

Dear Television,

An African-American albino. A 200 year old woman who looks 45. A vagina that destroys all that enters it. A MINOTAUR. This is the stuff of abjection, and American Horror Story: Coven is overflowing with it.

You hear that word — abject — and think of something done horribly, wretchedly. In Coven’s premiere, the Supreme Witch, Fiona (Jessica Lange) tells her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) that her running of the witch academy has been an “abject failure”; ten minutes later, the tour guide of Madame Lalaurie’s home calls it a site of “abject horror.” It connotes a depth of something we don’t usually reach.

But I want to talk about a slightly different connotation to see if we can get to why American Horror Story treads the knife-edge between feminism and misogyny — and why so many of us can’t stop watching it.

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Abjection is more than just a depth of experience: it’s a theory of grossness, of confusion, of what we must reject in order to live. Stick with me here. The theory of abjection is most famously pronounced in the work of Julia Kristeva, who, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, theorized the role of the abject in the building of both society and the psyche. Abjection includes that which is dirty — feces, decay, etc. — but also that which crosses borders and confuses. The Judaic Tribes of the Hebrew Bible created laws concerning what was and wasn’t abject so that they wouldn’t die out: people naturally wanted to do things like have sex with their wives when the wives were on their periods, but when you’re living in the desert, as these Judaic Tribes were, you just can’t get yourself clean enough. Accessing the abject would be to risk disease and, ultimately, death.

So what do you do? You make a woman’s menstrual cycle into something dirty and shameful — and write laws (still on the biblical books) that send that woman to a hut while menstruating. Eating pork was made abject because pigs were likely to pass along diseases — and kill off the tribe. Incest was made abject because sleeping with your family members would result in genetically deformed children — and eventually kill off the tribe. Homosexuality was made abject, because if you didn’t have sex that could make babies, you’d kill off the tribe. By labeling certain things as gross, the tribe — and society — was able to survive.

For Kristeva, the abject applies to that which makes one retch, but it is also, on a deeper level, “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” These things disrupt the Symbolic, meaning they disrupt the way that language works: if you see something that looks like a tree, you expect it to be a tree. That’s how order works, how we get through everyday without going crazy. A thing is what its sign — and the way our culture understands that sign — says it should be.

But the abject messes with that: you see the muscular, shirtless chest of a man and you think “man.” But then you look up and see the head of an ox, and you think “animal.”  Even if we have a name for it in our symbolic (“minotaur”) it’s still compromising order. Men behave one way; animals behave another — what can you expect from this thing?

The minotaur is a pretty straightforward example, but society also rejects things that are much more subtly confusing: the androgynous, the confusingly mixed-race. Even if you, yourself, think that you’re okay with these sorts of ambiguities, you can recognize that society isn’t, as manifest in everything from the census form to the development of slurs used to denigrate and separate that sort of ambiguity as dangerous, unacceptable, not me.

Historically, the abject – refuse, corpses, blood – is what must be pushed aside, rejected, and labeled as Other in order to live. Literally: reject this stuff or you die. Modernity has made bacteria much less of a problem, but the deep fear and distrust of the abject remains. Rejecting the abject becomes a means of shoring up identity: by clearly labeling what I am not, I receive a clear understanding of what I am. By rejecting gender ambiguity, you solidify your own lack of gender ambiguity…. or so the psychological process goes.

But it’s never that simple. The abject is at once an object of fascination and of repugnance. It draws in as it repels, seduces as it disgusts. It “fascinates desire,” but must, ultimately, be rejected. We want to see a corpse, not because we’re weird, but because a body should mean life — and here it doesn’t. It confuses meaning, sure, but that’s gross and engrossing. So in order to make sure that no one will succumb to the temptation of hanging out with corpses, you’ve got to label corpses, and people who are fascinated by them, as disgusting and weird.

Thus the abject is thoroughly shadowed with shame. Trespass into the abject must not only be a societal violation, but a moral one as well. Desire for the chaotic, the border-breaking, the Other, is constructed as an offense to God or common morality. To be clear, there’s nothing about the abject that is a priori immoral: things, people, objects become abject through complex psychological processes. Some of this is bound up in the physical — I’m sure an evolutionary biologist could explain to you why feces smell “bad” to us — but a lot of it is ideological and, as such, erases its traces. Transgender people aren’t gross; they’re confusing to our conservative symbolic order and therefore constructed as abject, unnatural. We cloak confusion in the language of repulsion.

Visual art provides the perfect opportunity to feed the attraction to the abject while simultaneously satisfying the need to reject it. As film theorist Barbara Creed explains, you willingly go to a horror film to get “the shit scared out of you” — just think about that wording. The abject is explored right in front of you, but it’s distanced enough that you don’t have to fear being absorbed by it. It’s voyeurism, only you’re looking at the abject.

The main horror genres are all magnifications of the abject: the vampire movie is all about gender ambiguity and drinking blood; the zombie movie is about the animated corpse; the “meat” movie (Creed’s perfect word, not mine) is about humans who eat humans (Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes). Over the course of the film, you also get to watch as abjection is vanquished, usually by the protagonist, with whom we, as audience members, subconsciously align ourselves. In so doing, we vanquish abjection, leaving the theater secure in the knowledge that we are not them.

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Over the last two seasons, AHS has revelled in the abject. Sex with ghosts, stillborn babies, a housekeeper who looks one way for men and another for women, a nun possessed by the devil, sadist Nazi doctors, mutilated yet still living bodies, alien impregnations — and that’s just the first two seasons. The show has “an uncanny ability to provoke pure disgust,” according to Molly Lambert. “How many other shows can boast that they make viewers need to throw up?”

Some of these storylines, especially the focus on the Nazis and the Nuns, highlight recurring abject fascinations. We return to stories of Nazis and corrupt church officials, at least in part, because they’re so compellingly contradictory — the doctor who destroys; the steward of God who punishes. That contradiction — that confusion — is what makes us return to them again and again, but it’s also incredibly reassuring. By labeling even the relatively recent history as abject, we distance it from ourselves. They were this way; we are not.

Coven has two main focuses of abjection: slavery and the monstrous feminine. In the first ten minutes, we see abominations of human flesh, the work of the sadistic Madame Lalaurie (Kathy Bates). She turns one human body inside out; on another, she places the head of a beast. So far, so abject. But she’s able to do these things because of the primary abjection of racism: if you label an entire race as part animal, part man, part savage, part civilized, if you label that race as abject, then society will sanction the enslavement and othering of that race.

In this way, racism — and slavery — becomes moral. But Lalaurie took that compunction too far. In her desire to explore the abject, she herself became abject, which is why a mob stormed her house and, at least according to the narrative of Coven, hung her entire family. As for Lalaurie, she became an embodiment of abjection: the corpse that breathes and never ages. It’s no coincidence that all who cross her path once she emerges from the ground, nearly 200 years later, remark on the putrid smell.

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Women have long been a source of abjection: they’re the keepers of the menstrual blood; they’re selfish with their babies, trying to keep them from entering into subjectivity, always trying to get them to stay and hang out in the pre-symbolic, pre-language, forever bound to their doting mothers. In tales of abjection, the abject feminine manifests as the sprawling abyss — the mother who threatens to consume, to castrate, to make others into the gaping hole that is their lack. Creed points to examples of this all-consuming feminine in Alien, but I always think of the massive vagina dentata of Star Wars (the sarlacc — thanks, Google Image Search), so eager to consume Luke, Han, and Chewbacca, the very embodiments of righteous masculinity. In Coven, that’s Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who may look meek and non-threatening on the surface — just like a doting mother would! — but whose inner void (re: murderous vagina) threatens to consume not just your penis, but your entire life.

But the abject feminine doesn’t have to be represented as a lack or void. Per Freud, the fear of that lack is manifested in a substitute fetish object — usually some sort of substitute phallus — that distracts you from her lack. Medusa is the example par excellence, the powerful, potentially castrating female with her glorious penis-like hair. But witches also take this role: there’s a reason we draw them with pointy hats and protuberant noses.

The witches in Coven don’t wear black hats. They have normal, frankly beautiful noses. But they are castrating bitches, that’s for sure. Fiona destroys or incapacitates all men who stand in her way. Cordelia has a husband of some sort, but the narrative suggests that she’s also bad at her witchy job. The only man who lives at the school has his tongue cut out; Madison (Emma Roberts) avenges the men who gang-raped her by flipping their bus…with her finger. When a man questions Queenie’s (Gabourey Sidibe) authority and insults her, she effectively submerges his arm in hot oil. Two men kill crocodiles with big pistols; Misty (Lily Rabe) has the crocodiles eat them. Patriarchal authority figures who attempt to interfere — such as the policemen who visit in episode two — have their memories and, as such, the potential to wield any sort of power, wiped clean. And don’t get me started on the Frankenstein man Madison and Zoe make out of dismembered body parts.

The witches are dangerous — they’re abject — because they threaten order. But it’s a very specific sort of order, namely, patriarchal order. To be a bitch, to practice “bitchcraft,” is a particular demonstration of female power, at once magnetic and repulsive. Just think of how we wield that word: as a means of policing behavior (“God, stop being such a bitch”). But “bitch” can also be recuperated and celebrated; to declare oneself a “bad bitch,” for example, is to revel in and acknowledge the transgression of behavioral norms. A bitch like Fiona — single, independent, powerful — is so threatening (and/or attractive) because she’s seemingly dismissed the role patriarchy has set forth for her.

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In almost all forms of art, the monstrous feminine must be vanquished. She sticks around for awhile, letting us gaze upon and be fascinated by her, but her death is an absolute necessity if patriarchal order is to be restored. But things aren’t so simple in American Horror Story. It offers the basic abject pleasures of the horror genre, but it refuses to cooperate with the processes that call for the ultimate rejection of those pleasures. It screws with the processes that sustain the symbolic order — with the “Law of the Father,” as Jacques Lacan would put it, with patriarchy.

It’s easy to see why Ryan Murphy — an openly gay man whose work has been systematically denigrated by Hollywood — would be invested in this project, and would collaborate with middle-aged women who have been similarly thrust aside. In fact, Murphy’s oeuvre could be viewed as a sustained muddling of the lines that divide good and bad, high and low, queer and straight, campy and sincere, quality and pulp. As Willa Paskin points out, amidst the vaunted, masculine anti-heros of the so-called “third golden age,” AHS is an amalgamation of “undervalued genres, often dismissed as pulp” — horror flicks, women’s pictures, soaps, camp. But it looks great — the opening sequence alone is a study in aesthetic complexity — and boasts the same qualities that typify “quality” television (the auteurist showrunner; expensive production values; Hollywood actors; narrative complexity).

American Horror Story disregards hierarchies. It signifies as one thing and is another. It is, in other words, abject as hell. Which is precisely why it inspires the reactions it does: it’s addictive yet embarrassing; you love and hate it, can’t decide if it’s sympathetic or predatory, misogynistic or feminist. Fiona is a shameless ball-buster, but she’s also terrified by her own aging body, beholden to societal understandings of what “beauty” and “vitality” look like. Even as the “Supreme,” her power only extends so far: she can decimate men, but she can’t decimate patriarchal ideology. Those sorts of nuanced contradictions function as AHS’s narrative engine: it feeds on them, explores and explodes them.

In other texts and societal interactions, abjection is deployed as a tool of clarity — a way to delineate, to categorize, to shore up identity and classification, to de-abjectify the self. American Horror Story does the opposite: abjection begets abjection. You watch, and you might know that you’re not a witch, but you don’t know much else, either about the world or what you’re watching. It’s an exquisitely repulsive, wholly addictive place to be.

Yours in liminality,

ahp

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Netflix_image

The New Canon

This week, Dear Television — Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new addition Anne Helen Petersen — will be addressing Netflix. We have little interest in rehashing the arguments that the trade papers have done before, and better — “Is Netflix a network? Is Netflix paying too much? Why does Netflix persist in torturing us with refusal to release ratings numbers? Is Netflix taking over the world? What are they keeping in that hatch?!” — and more about what we’re calling “the Netflix effect,” or how Netflix (and other streaming services) have not only changed the way we watch television, but what we watch. These are questions, in other words, of accessibility…and also of laziness. Keep posted as we confess just how Netflix has facilitated our best and worst habits.

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Dear Netflix,

WHEN I WAS AN UNDERGRAD, my professor would talk about stars and directors by showing us actual slides of them, all loaded up into the Don Draper “Carousel.” Clips were on actual film, with actual projectionists, or an assortment of badly edited VHS tapes. When a professor recommended a film, I’d go to the video store and rent it for 99 cents, the standard fee for classic movies. I never missed a screening, because it would be nearly impossible to find many of the films on my own, let alone someone with a VHS that wasn’t the common room at the end of my dorm floor. It was the good old analog days, when film and media studies was still nascent, the internet only barely past dial-up, and internet media culture as we know it limited to a healthy growth of BBS, listservs, and AOL chat rooms. It was also less than 15 years ago.

My four years in college coincided with dramatic changes in digital technology, specifically the rise of the (cheap) DVD and the personal computer DVD player. Before, cinephilia meant access to art house theaters or a VHS/television combination in addition to whatever computer you had. . . . by the time I graduated, most computers came standard with a DVD player and ethernet, if not wireless, connectivity. That Fall, I signed up for Netflix. I envied those with TiVo. Two years later, the growing size of hard drives and bandwidths facilitated the piracy culture that had theretofore mostly been limited to music. Then YouTube. Then streaming Netflix. Then Hulu. Then AppleTV. Then HBOGO. Or something like that.

Today, we live in a television culture characterized by cord-cutters and time-shifters. Sure, many, many people still appointment view or surf channels old school style. I know this. I also know people watch the local news. Yet as a 30-something member of the middle class, I catch myself thinking that my consumption habits — I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Full Cable; I still appointment view several shows — are somewhat typical.

I’m so wrong, but not in the way I might have expected. My students taught me that. They watch Netflix, and they watch it hard. They watch it at the end of the night to wind down from studying, they watch it when they come home tipsy, they binge it on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Most use their family’s subscription; others filch passwords from friends. It’s so widely used that when I told my Mad Men class that their only text for the class was a streaming subscription, only one student had to acquire one. (I realize we’re talking about students at a liberal arts college, but I encountered the same levels of access at state universities. As for other populations, I really don’t know, because Netflix won’t tell me (or anyone) who’s using it.

Some students use Hulu, but never Hulu Plus — when it comes to network shows and keeping current, they just don’t care. For some super buzzy shows, like Game of Thrones and Girls, they pirate or find illegal streams. But as far as I can tell, the general sentiment goes something like this: if it’s not on Netflix, why bother?

It’s a sentiment dictated by economics (a season of a TV show on iTunes = at least 48 beers) and time. Let’s say you want to watch a season of Pretty Little Liars. You have three options:

1) BitTorrent it and risk receiving a very stern cease-and-desist letter from either the school or your cable provider. Unless you can find a torrent of the entire season, you’ll have to wait for each episode to download. What do you do when it’s 1:30 am and you want a new episode now?

2) Find sketchy, poor quality online streams that may or may not infect your computer with a porn virus (plus you have to find individual stable streams for 22 episodes)

or

3) Watch it on Netflix in beautiful, legal HD, with each episode leading seamlessly into the next. You can watch it on your phone, your tablet, your computer (or your television, if it’s equipped); even if you move from device to device, it picks up right where you stopped.

It’s everything an overstressed yet media-hungry millennial could desire. And it’s not just millennials: I know more and more adults and parents who’ve cut the cable cord and acquired similar practices, mostly because they have no idea how to pirate and they only really want to watch about a dozen hours of (non-sports) television a month (who are these people, and what do they do after 8 pm every day?)

Through this reliance on Netflix, I’ve seen a new television pantheon begin to take form: there’s what’s streaming on Netflix, and then there’s everything else.

When I ask a student what they’re watching, the answers are varied: Friday Night Lights, Scandal, It’s Always Sunny, The League, Breaking Bad, Luther, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Weeds, Freaks & Geeks, The L Word, Twin Peaks, Archer, Louie, Portlandia. What all these shows have in common, however, is that they’re all available, in full, on Netflix.

Things that they haven’t watched? The Wire. Deadwood. Veronica Mars, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Even Sex in the City.

It’s not that they don’t want to watch these shows — it’s that with so much out there, including so much so-called “quality” programs, such as Twin Peaks and Freaks & Geeks, to catch up on, why watch something that’s not on Netflix? Why work that hard when there’s something this easy — and arguably just as good or important — right in front of you?

The split between Netflix and non-Netflix shows also dictates which shows can/still function as points of collective meaning. Talk to a group of 30-somethings today, and you can reference Tony Soprano and his various life decisions all day — in no small part because the viewing of The Sopranos was facilitated by DVD culture. Today, my students know the name and little else. I can’t make “cocksucker” Deadwood jokes (maybe I shouldn’t anyway?); I can’t use Veronica Mars as an example of neo-noir; I can’t reference the effectiveness of montage at finishing a series (Six Feet Under). These shows, arguably some of the most influential of the last decade, can’t be teaching tools unless I screen seasons of them for my students myself.

The networks have long depended on a concept that scholar Raymond Williams dubbed “flow” — the seamless shift from show to commercial to show that creates a televisual flow so natural it’s painful to get out. Netflix does this as well, creating what one of my students has called “inertia problems.” One episode ends, and the countdown to the next begins in the corner. One season ends, and the next one pops before you. One series ends, and it’s ready with fairly accurate suggestions as to the type of programming you’d like to try next. The more you consume Netflix, the more you’ll consume Netflix.

And it’s not like they’re going to run out of content. As the Hollywood studios have tried to play hardball with what films they will and won’t lease, Netflix has turned its focus to television. And it’s not just quality and quasi-quality television: they’re flush with children’s, reality, and British television, with more seasons — and shows — added every month.

So maybe the HBO shows of the golden age fade into the distance, referenced but mostly unwatched, the 2000s equivalent of Hill Street Blues or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So what? As I wrote last week, I have little interest in fetishing “quality” television, especially as a means of reifying gendered, classist divides between “our” television and that television.

And HBO loves that division — they’re the ones, after all, who pioneered the slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” They’ve also stubbornly resisted any technology that makes its shows broadly available. You can’t get them on iTunes for months; you can’t use HBOGO unless you’re a service subscriber, and you generally can’t subscribe to HBO without also paying for extended cable — at least a hundred dollar cable bill. I get why they only want rich people watching their shows. I get how exclusivity, in and of itself, is one of the ways that HBO ascribes quality to its programming.

But you know what separates the “good” from the “significant”? Exposure. Not just initial exposure, like the hoopla surrounding the relatively unpopular Girls, but endured attention and familiarity. Viewers of broad ages and classes and tastes watching. Syndication used to do some of this work for us: that’s how I consumed M*A*S*H, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, classic Saturday Night Live, original Star Trek, and even MacGyver. It was MTV reruns, for example, and not ABC, that made My So-Called Life a cultural touchstone: the two words “Jordan Catalano” stand in for a host of dude-related agonies and ecstasies. Granted, you could watch Sex and the City on TBS, and The Wire on BET. But those were Frankenstein edits of the originals — and what little extended cable this generation does watch, it’s generally new content.

Netflix, and other forms of cheap streaming, thus takes up the role formerly occupied by second-run syndication. Only unlike the reruns of M*A*S*H I’d watch every night at 7:00 pm, these reruns are there whenever I want them and without commercials. With the rise of streaming services, we’ve avoided the term “rerun” and its connotations of the hot, bored days of summer. But apart from its foray into original programming, that’s what Netflix is: a distribution service of reruns. And as with second-run syndication, what’s available is what gets watched; what gets watched becomes part of the conversation. It’s not a question of quality, in other words, it’s one of availability.

HBO has always prided itself on being the cool kid in high school. It’s fine having only a few friends, so long as those friends are rich and influential. But no one can stay in high school forever: eventually your world changes, whether you want it to or not. And you know what happens when the cool kid goes to college? He gets lost in the crowd. There’s no one to remind everyone that he’s so cool or exclusive, of what the last decade of his life meant, or why he should be respected and feared today. Even if he throws a really excellent party, he’s still one of many doing the same.

For coolness and distinction to endure, it needs an indelible sense of legacy. HBO’s not in danger of losing that any time in the near future — at least so long as most of the people writing about television are those of us reared on the DVDs of its golden age. But think of the next generation of critics, whose tastes are guided, and will continue to be guided, by streaming availability. For them, Louie and Scandal will always be more important than Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Newsroom.

This summer, HBO finally gave credence to rumblings that they’d offer HBGO as a stand-alone subscription service. It may happen next year; it may happen in five. But each year they wait, each year that hundreds of thousands of viewers choose what’s at their fingertips over what’s not, their legacy fades. Perhaps that’s for the best? I mean, let it be said: I’m super okay with more people watching Friday Night Lights than Hung. But some, if not all, of those shows deserve better.

Ignore Al Swearengen at your peril,

AHP

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