All posts by bloglarb

sherlock-season-3-youku-exclusive-simultaneous-broadcast

Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of Several Million Chinese Fans

Image from ChinaSmack.

By Paul French

After a hiatus of a couple of decades China’s love affair with England’s greatest consulting detective is apparently back on. The BBC’s hit show Sherlock is a smash with Chinese viewers – Youku, a Chinese video-hosting website similar to YouTube, is screening the series and within hours of it screening in the UK on New Year’s Day, some 4.72 million Chinese had logged on to watch the latest installment, eager to find out how Holmes dodged death after plunging off the roof of London’s St. Bart’s Hospital at the end of the previous season. Weibo, China’s Twitter, was filled with chatter about the show by fans of “Curly Fu” and “Peanut” (the nicknames given by Chinese fans to Holmes and Watson, because they resemble the Chinese pronunciation of their names).

Holmes mania however is not new in China…It may have been a bit muted of late, owing to the range of books to read and programs to watch dealing with other characters since the burgeoning of popular culture consumption options in recent decades, thanks both to liberalization and piracy.  The Chinese love affair with the famous residents of 221B Baker Street, now renewed, goes back much further than crazes for other imports, from sitcoms like Friends to more recent shows like Breaking Bad, which have carved out sizable viewing niches in China.

I can illustrate this clearly via a personal anecdote from the mid-1990s.  A colleague and I found ourselves wandering along a deserted back street in Beijing in what were then the wild desolate areas of the city beyond the Second Ring Road (nowadays considered quite central, since the city extends out past the Sixth Ring Road!). We were on a quest to solve a mystery – did a couple of tough looking Beijing guys we’d met in London a year before really want to set up a joint venture with a British firm to disseminate Chinese statistics to the world? In London the two had seemed a bit shabby, with ill-fitting suits, scuffed shoes, and a fair bit of dandruff and in the course of a meeting they had smoked more cigarettes than London has tube stations. Nobody had taken them seriously and they’d been politely shown the door at every big market research firm in town. We thought they might be interesting to work with.

Their office didn’t inspire confidence – a jerry-built rookery covered in white lavatory tiles, with blue-tinted windows, rickety furniture, extremely large telephones, overflowing ashtrays and not a computer in sight. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we did a sort-of deal and then retired, inevitably, to a restaurant to seal our new shaky partnership. The place served Tibetan food and after all the talk of percentage splits, royalties and company formation details we entered the dangerous waters of small talk. We got off to a bad start by mentioning Tibet. The Chinese were ready for that and countered with British policy (as it then was) in Northern Ireland. We changed tack – soccer. Our new Chinese best friends were all Crystal Palace fans. (Note to American readers: that’s a rather obscure –it’s not at all obscure! – British team based in South London that had for some reason signed a Chinese player and so had a disproportionately large number of hard core Beijing fans.) That kept us going for a bit, but not all that long.

Soccer trivia exhausted, things finally picked up when one of their party – a large, jovial man who looked more like he’d come to fit you a new water boiler than one of China’s chief statisticians – leaned across the table and informed us that he was the Chairman of Beijing’s Sherlock Holmes Society. Everyone at the table nodded effusively as if he’d just announced he was China’s new Ambassador to the UK. As former English schoolboys we felt that at last we were on safe ground – Holmes, Watson, Mrs Hudson and Victorian crime solving. What didn’t we know about England’s greatest consulting detective, the good doctor and the canon of Conan Doyle? Well, quite a lot, as it turned out. The guy was a Holmes genius – every story, character, detail memorised. But he was sad – during his trip to London their itinerary had been so busy he hadn’t had a chance to visit Baker Street and pay homage to his idol (to be honest, he didn’t seem altogether clear that Holmes was fictional).

On a trip back to London a couple of months later I stopped by the rather tacky Sherlock Holmes gift shop on Baker Street and picked up a bag of Sherlockian  (as Holmes fans are known) souvenirs – key rings, fridge magnets and, at the time, a wonderful new invention: a mouse pad with a picture of a deerstalker hat on it. A return visit to the boondocks of Beijing ensued, the bag was handed over and our exciting statistical joint venture was sealed with copious amounts of beer in a bar with a bunch of random members of the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society who quizzed us (in those days before Chinese outbound travel became a hot topic) on how bad London fog was these days and whether we’d got round to paving the streets yet. Quite honestly it worked far better, and was a lot cheaper, than a Rolex and a Montblanc pen!

Ultimately my outlay of about the equivalent of US $20 at the Sherlock gift shop got us nowhere. A couple of months later the two guys disappeared; their offices were empty, their phones disconnected and I’ve never heard trace of them since. Still, I like to think that Sherlock mouse mat still gets a bit of use and that my old business partner of about fifteen minutes was tuned in to Youku to watch Curly Fu the other night.

As my brief business partner could have told you, Sherlockian deduction first came to China in 1896 – about a century before my Baker Street key rings arrived! That’s when Holmes was first introduced to Chinese readers in translations of four stories published in the Current Affairs newspaper. So popular were they with readers that in 1916 the Zhonghua Book Company published The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, which included 44 stories that rendered Conan Doyle’s prose into classical Chinese (wenyanwen).

Holmes was a hit! Conan Doyle’s late nineteenth century English logical reasoning was popular with an early twentieth-century Chinese government’s desire to encourage more empirical investigation of issues within a country that in 1911 had changed from dynastic to republic rule. Conan Doyle’s characters moved to the screen, too, when director Li Pingqian directed (and starred in) The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1931 – a film that wasn’t pure Conan Doyle by any means (it swapped London for Shanghai as a setting) but featured a lot of pensive thinking and logical deduction. In the 1920s and ‘30s Holmes was reinvented, copied, and adapted in various ways. Cheng Xiaoqing was a bestselling author who created Huo Sang, a Shanghai Sherlock Holmes complete with a sidekick, Bao Lang who, like Dr Watson, narrates the stories and provides a useful foil. There’s a nemesis of Moriarty-like proportions too – “The South-China Swallow.”

Holmes was also to survive The Curious Case of the Falling Bamboo Curtain and went on being published after 1949. The Maoist spin was that Holmes often battled evil brought about by capitalist greed and bourgeois injustice, which he sort of did, sometimes, if you think about it. In a time of relative hunger for foreign literature, as well as much else, Holmes and Watson retained their Chinese fan base. The men and women I was later to meet for beer in the Beijing Sherlock Holmes Society all began their love affair with Conan Doyle’s stories in the dark days of Maoism.

And Holmes never really left China. A new economic era in the 1980s saw a raft of new translations and re-issues as well as, once we got into the internet age, the emergence of Sherlockian fan fiction, much of which evidently focuses on one possible aspect of the Holmes-Watson relationship not usually played up in the West: the homo-erotic.

The often somewhat lumbering behemoth of the BBC has shown itself rather deft and fleet of foot in China with Sherlock. Faced with The Case of the Pirate DVD Seller and the Mystery of the Illegal Download Site, the Beeb has done some logical thinking and shrewd deduction of its own by screening Sherlock (with official Chinese subtitles) via Youku (which paid a licensing fee to the BBC) just hours after its British screening. Had they waited a few minutes more, they knew, the illegal downloads and bootleg DVDs would have hit the streets. Thankfully it seems today’s new crop of Chinese Sherlockians couldn’t wait even that long for their fix of the further adventures of Curly Fu and Peanut.

Why wait a few hours rather than make it available in China right when it first aired in Britain? Well, unlike a good Holmes mystery, China’s TV panjandrums don’t like surprise endings. The censors had to check for any anti-China content. This was a big issue, as this was Holmes’s return from the dead, and as any good Sherlockian knows he’d spent the years after his tumble over the Reichenbach Falls in that rather contentious spot of Tibet. Does our modern day Sherlock opt for a trip to Tibet and some “me time” in a monastery? Sorry, American viewers (without illegal DVD sellers on every street corner) will have to wait till January 19 for PBS to screen series 3 of Sherlock.

bogner_marathon_drawing

Woodland Pattern’s 20th Annual Poetry Marathon

By Juliet Suess

Milwaukee, Wisc.

Woodland Pattern began as a center for arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It has become a center for intellectual discussion on not just books but all art forms. This independent bookstore prides itself on creating a forum for learning about contemporary literature.  In fact, Woodland Pattern is the only arts organization in Milwaukee presenting contemporary literature to the public on a continuous basis. The staff hopes to promote a lifetime practice of reading and writing to the entire community.

LaneHall-DanGodston-Marathon

Woodland Pattern gets its name from a passage in Paul Metcalf’s Apalache: “South of Lake Superior, a culture center, the Woodland Pattern, with pottery but without agriculture…” according to their webpage. It was originally founded as a non-profit organization and became recognized nationally as a cultural hub because of the work of its volunteers.

The center houses both a bookstore and an art gallery that regularly hosts readings, art talks, exhibits, and more. The bookstore holds over 25,000 books and specializes in small presses. Woodland Pattern offers a valuable alternative to chain bookstores and school curricula.

Employee reviews emphasize multicultural literature and poetry.  While major bookstores upsell popular, mainstream literature, the staff at Woodland Pattern endorse books that add something new to the literary scene.

NickDemske-Marathon

Woodland also puts on large-scale events that celebrate culture. Next to come is the 20th Annual Poetry Marathon & Benefit on the 25th of January. The Marathon is 15 hours of poetry readings from mainly local artists, although there are also readings of fiction, song performances, and other types of performances. All performers are asked to raise at least $35 in pledges in support of Woodland Pattern’s 2014 operations and programming in literature and the arts.

“The annual Poetry Marathon is the living embodiment of Woodland Pattern’s community legacy. Go to it. Take part in poetry history.” Nick Demske, curator of the BONK! performance series in Racine and author of Nick Demske (Fence Books, 2011) said of the event.

PoetryMarathonGroup1

Because of the hard work and enthusiasm of the Woodland Pattern staff, the Niedecker Conference became a reality. Lorine Niedecker is a contemporary poetess, who died in 1970. The conference celebrates Neidecker’s 100th birthday and the contributions she made to the realm of poetry. These sorts of events set Woodland Pattern apart from mainstream bookstores: the emphasis is taken away from money and is placed on education and celebration of great writing.

Recently, Woodland put on their November Anniversary Gala at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which might be of interest, too. Alison Knowles of Fluxus “fame” was the featured performer. “It was pretty great,” Robert Baumann, director of marketing and membership at Woodland, said.

Woodland also just sold the archives to the Special Collections University of Wisconsin (Madison): over 25 years worth of photos, sound recordings, publications, correspondence, bookstore records, and other ephemera documenting Woodland Pattern’s growth as a literary nonprofit, according to Baumann.

JenKarmin-Marathon

At Woodland, it’s not just about books; it’s about art and learning. Woodland Pattern brings history to life through its selection of books and art. It is a testament to what bookstores should be about: love of literature.

Photo by Eelco Florijn.

Foreign Elements: A Q & A with Photographer, Author and Editor Tom Carter

By Alec Ash

[This interview was originally published on the China Blog tumblr on September 25, 2013.]

There have been expats in China since the first Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the 16th century. But what characterizes the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who call China home today? And what are the challenges and identity issues that they face?

Tom Carter, originally from San Francisco, has been living in China for a decade. He did a well received book of photography based on trekking 35,000 miles through 33 provinces for two years. More recently he edited a collection of true stories from expat China called Unsavory Elements, which has generated both praise and controversy.

I sat down with him over lunch in Shanghai, and followed up with questions over email, to dig deeper.

Alec Ash: Why did you feel there was a need for a collection of stories and anecdotes by Westerners living in China? What is it about that experience that interests you?

Tom Carter: It was a project whose time had come. The past decade has seen an unprecedented number of new books and novels about China, but aside from a handful of mass-market memoirs there was nothing definitive about its expatriate culture. As an editor and avid reader, I had this grand vision of an epic collection of true short stories from a variety of voices that takes the reader on a long, turbulent arc through the entire lifetime of an expat – bursting with ephemera and memories from abroad. That’s how Unsavory Elements was conceived.

Of course, the landscape of China in 2013 is vastly different than 2008 – generally considered the new golden age for laowai (foreigners) – and virtually unrecognizable from 2004, which is when I first arrived. Such rapid changes are the subject of just about every book on China these days. But swapping stories with other backpackers I bumped into on the road while photographing my first book, I noticed that there was something profound about our experiences and adventures – the tales we told might just as well have occurred in the 1960s or even the 1860s. And that’s when it struck me: the more China changes the more it stays the same. So I wanted to switch up the trends of this genre and feature stories that were not only timely but timeless.

AA: But how has the foreigner community in China changed over the past decades? Do you feel there’s anything Westerners in China have in common, among all the diverse reasons that people have to end up here?

TC: Expatriates in China are certainly a motley crew. I’ve lived and traveled extensively across many countries in the world, but none seem to have attracted such a diverse crowd as China, this eclectic mix of businessmen and backpackers, expense-account expats and economic refugees. It really could be the 1800s all over again, like some scene out of James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan [about the aftermath of the Opium War] except now with neon lights and designer clothes. What we’ve seen this past decade surrounding the Beijing Olympics is history repeating itself. The Western businessmen who have come and gone these past ten years during the rise of China’s economy are the exact same class of capitalists who populated Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1800s. They’ve come to make their fortunes and then get out – which is what we are witnessing with the recent expat exodus [now that China’s economy shows signs of faltering].

The darker side of China’s history also seems to be repeating itself. The Communist-conducted purges of “foreign devils” and foreign-owned enterprises that occurred in the Cultural Revolution are happening all over again – perhaps not as violently (with the exception of the looting of Japanese businesses during the Diaoyu Islands dispute in 2012) but certainly with as much vitriol. There was last year’s poster depicting a fist smashing down on the characters for “foreigner” and various video footage (possibly staged) of foreigners behaving badly, used to justify their Strike Hard crackdowns [against foreigners in China with black market visas]. The title Unsavory Elements is a playful homage to Communist terminology. To be sure, China has a love-hate relationship with outsiders – our success and our status here rises and falls on the whims of the government. In spite of this, as many foreigners continue to arrive in China as leave (or are expelled). So what do we all have in common? If nothing else, a degree of masochism.

AA: And how, if at all, does living in China long-term change you?

TC: I expect it’s tempered me, much like in metallurgy, from the constant pounding and heating and cooling and reheating of my patience. Suan tian ku la (sour sweet bitter spicy) is an old Chinese adage, and this country definitely serves up its share. But it hasn’t been easy to swallow. Westerners tend to arrive in China a bit hot-headed, and we’ve all had our explosive moments: with the taxi driver who runs his meter fast or takes us the long way, at a train ticket office jostling with queue jumpers, due to endless red tape, or when you are ripped off by your business partners.

Few foreign writers ever admit to having these moments so I encouraged my anthology contributors to be more forthcoming about their darker feelings – seeing red, so to speak. Alan Paul, writing in the book about a stressful family road trip across Sichuan, has a line: “I stood there bitterly looking down into that hole, silently damning New China’s incessant construction.” I can relate to that every time I hear a jackhammer. Even the famously mild-mannered Peter Hessler confesses in his essay to going ballistic with his fists on a thief he catches in his hotel room. I’ve been there as well, taking out all my pent-up frustrations on some poor pickpocket who wasn’t quick enough to escape the reach of this 6’4” foreign devil. I expect that having had my patience tried so often here has forged me into a calmer, more levelheaded person than the clenched-fisted, teeth-gnashing, Thundarr the Barbarian in Beijing I arrived as.

AA: A foreigner also has special status and perks from being in China – for instance, they always stand out, whereas back home they’re just another face in the crowd.

TC: Special status, yes, but not in the way it’s been mythologized. Sure, in the countryside it’s nice to be invited in for tea by villagers who’ve never encountered a Westerner before, but in Shanghai you’re bumped into and cut in front of and run over by cars like any other laobaixing or common person. That oft-eulogized “rock star status” was more of a vague concept that the Chinese used to have about the West – the branded clothing, the rebellious music, the casual sex. But actually there’s nothing special about being gawked at, openly talked about and cheated because it’s assumed that you’re wealthy. And there’s certainly nothing special about the hell-like bureaucracy foreigners are burdened with, or not having access to basic public services like hospitals, schools and even hotels, or the frequent suspicions that the government casts over us.

In fact, in just the past five years following the global recession of 2008 – during which nearly every world economy collapsed except for China’s – our collective esteem in the eyes of the Chinese has plummeted from superstar status to that of some invasive species, a metaphor which the environment journalist Jonathan Watts also makes in the book, comparing non-indigenous plants with foreigners. And there’s a wholesale fumigation of Western corporations [that exploit China’s low labor costs], which the Communist government now considers a threat, like the imperialist military incursions of centuries past. They want and need our business, but they are no longer going to make it easy for us. As a result, the Xi Jinping administration is coming down hard on foreign firms that have historically gotten away with shady practices like price fixing, influence buying and general non-compliance.

AA: Do you think it’s hard to adjust to life back home if you return? With no cheap taxis, eating out, cleaners, massages…

TC: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I’ve only been back to the States once in nearly a decade; China is “home” now. I’m not that laowai who skips out on China when it’s convenient, or because living here is no longer convenient. I’m also not that Westerner who has a driver or only takes taxis – I ride public transportation and my rusty trusty 40-year-old 40-kilogram Flying Pigeon bike. Nor do I hire old ayis [housekeepers] to do my dirty work – my wife and I raise our child ourselves, make our own meals, and clean our home ourselves. I can just hear all the gasps from colonialist-minded “enclave expats” who could never conceive a life in Asia without servants.

I did live in Japan for a year after four straight years in China, and found the orderliness and politeness and emotionlessness of it all quite difficult to adjust to. So I spent the following year wandering around India, which provided me with a much-needed dose of dust and disorder. After that I returned to China and for the following few years lived in my wife’s native farming village in rural Jiangsu province. That to me was like an epiphany, as if I had finally found home. But for my wife – who in her youth had strived to escape the countryside and eventually made her way up to Beijing, where we met – it was coming full circle back to where she started. So now we divide our time between Jiangsu and Shanghai, which I guess gives each of us the best of both worlds.

AA: I’ve had friends who went back home after living in China, but missed the excitement and buzz so much they couldn’t help but come back. Is China a drug?

TC: I should first disclaim that the Ministry of Public Security takes drug dealing in China very seriously, as Dominic Stevenson, who wrote about his two-year incarceration in a Chinese prison for dealing hash, can attest. But I’d venture to say that, like any drug, it depends entirely on the user’s own state of mind. If we’re making metaphors, for old China hands I’d imagine their time here draws parallels with the soaring euphoria and bleak depths of smoking opium, while China for the uninitiated is probably a bit like bath salts: the constantly convulsing nervous system, the paranoia, the god-complex, the rage.

I’d liken my own China experience to a decade-long acid trip. It began with liberating my mind from the restraints of Western society. Then I departed on an odyssey that took me tens of thousands of miles across China, experiencing various metaphysical and spiritual states as my journey progressed, punctuated by periods of intense creativity due to my heightened sensory perceptions. To a background score of warped erhu and guzheng [classical Chinese instruments], and the looped calls of sidewalk vendors echoing into the void, the kaleidoscopic chaos of this culture surged around me like the Yangtze river – in outer space. Now I’m one with China’s cosmic consciousness. I want to reeducate the communists with love. Or maybe I’m not even here. Maybe I really did perish during my Kora around Mount Kailash and none of this ever happened …

AA: Ground control to Major Tom. Your own story in the book is about a visit to a brothel with two lecherous laowai. How representative do you feel that this kind of foreigner in China is, especially those who come to try and pick up Chinese girls?

TC: It’s been fascinating for me to see how much polemic this single story has stirred. I kind of knew I’d be martyring myself when I decided to include my account of a boy’s night out at a brothel in the anthology instead of, say, a story about my marriage in a rural village, or about delivering our firstborn son at a public People’s hospital in the countryside. My publisher, Graham Earnshaw, even tried to warn me about the inevitable ire that would follow and suggested I pull the piece for my own well-being. His forecast was unfortunately accurate. Immediately following a Time Out review that dedicated most of its page space to criticizing my brothel story, certain women’s reading groups called for my arrest and deportation from China because, they said, I “patronized teenaged prostitutes”.

And yet, the story has received as much praise as it has hate. An equal number of readers seem to find it refreshing that a foreigner is finally writing about experiences many single males in the Orient have had but never dared admit – especially not in print. And considering the Party’s penchant for keeping extensive dossiers on Chinese and foreigners alike, I can understand their reticence. But I can’t help but consider as downright disingenuous the glaring omissions of any situation involving prostitution – an impossible-to-overlook trade found in nearly every neighborhood in every city and town – by certain best-selling Western authors in China. Do they not consider the women of this profession worthy of writing about? Or are they simply lying?

I’m not saying I had some altruistic intention with my story – it was just an absurd situation that my friends and I got ourselves into that also happened to make for ribald writing. But the truth is, I conceptualized the entire anthology around that brothel incident, because I wanted to compile a collection of candid and truthful experiences that left nothing out, including visits to your neighborhood pink-lit hair salon. Only the discerning reader can tell you how representative it is of them, but maybe, nay, hopefully, my story will kick off a new era of honesty by Western writers in China. We’ll see.

Photo by Eelco Florijn. The picture was taken in Kham, Tibet, at the Dongdola pass.

Best Television GIFS of 2013

Phil: Mad Men 

I WON’T BELABOR this, because DearTV covered it at length in the spring, but this was a weird year for Mad Men. And I mean “weird” in both the colloquial and literal senses. Andy Greenwald — and, I’m sure, plenty of other people — have noted that one of the unsung defining features of the so-called Golden Age of 21st Century TV is that the bloody, serious serial dramas at its center were inevitably also among the funniest shows on air at the time. This has been especially true of Mad Men, but rarely has the show been as madcap as it was this year. Perhaps as a counterweight to the season’s morose, death-hauntedness or as a nod to the Laugh-In vibe of the late sixties, this season was full of slapstick, camp, and sight gags. All of which made it the most perfectly GIFfable show on television by a wide margin. And that’s not a small feat. A period show that speaks in the language of the present, a show that, even subconsciously, is built to suit the micro-aesthetics of the contemporary viewing audience. It’s the kind of show I can and will continue to watch again, even at the local level, even on a loop. I’ve written many thousands of words on this stupid brilliant show. Please to enjoy the following wordless, indelible images in honor of a show I can’t look away from.

(Many thanks to HuffPo’s masterfully curated season six GIF archive!)

¤

LILI: BEST DANCES:

Enough said.

Mindy Project:

Brooklyn 99:

New Girl:

Orange is the New Black:

New Girl:

American Horror Story: Coven:

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:

¤

AHP: Best (and Worst) Romance:

Both real and imagined, the best way to crystallize a romance = GIF form.  And as for the “Worst” — I’m waiting for that show to remedy / destroy each of those romances come Season Three.

New Girl:

Orange is the New Black:

Top of the Lake:

Scandal:

The Mindy Project:

30 Rock:

Nashville:

Veep:

Game of Thrones:

¤

WORST ROMANCE:

Girls:

¤ 

Cole and Lucky Gus

Ambassador of Love

By Victoria Patterson

My brother and I grew up in a family prone to tragic holidays, but now with families of our own and growing kids, we’re trying our best to change the course.  “No drama,” my brother said, in our pre-Christmas Day strategy phone conversation.  “No more drama in our lives,” I agreed, quoting Mary J. Blige.

Traffic wasn’t as bad as usual on Christmas Day morning, though it still took us more than two hours to get from South Pasadena to my mom’s house in Pauma Valley: me, my husband Chris, our sons Cole, who was fourteen, and Ry, twelve, in the minivan, and also our beloved lemon-colored Bassett hound, Lucky Gus.

All during the drive, I prayed, gave myself pep talks, practiced breathing, and checked my pulse.

We loved our dog like crazy.  Arthritic at eleven-years-old, Lucky loved us more than we thought possible, and he’d grown up with Cole and Ry.

The boys had been one and three years old when we’d found a puppy wandering the streets.  When we’d returned Lucky to the address on his tags, the woman who owned him seemed to be ambivalent about having him back.

“If you don’t want your dog,” I said, emboldened, “we’ll take him.” She was in the midst of a divorce, had three children in diapers, and so she took our name and number.  A month later she called, saying, “Do you still want him?”

She’d always wanted a Bassett, she explained, since she’d grown up with one.  But Lucky was too much: he chewed everything, ran away every day, and her other dog hated him.

“I saw how you and your boys looked at him, and the way that he looked at you,” she said.  “He belongs with you.”

Lucky’s pedigree papers, which she’d also given me, showed that he’d been born to a breeder in North Carolina, and that his ancestors had names like Sir Napoleon Woodrow and Lady Natalie Tootee.

Lucky slept with my boys, rotating beds each night to be equal.  They called him their brother.  He was their brother.

Ry, Cole, Lucky Gus 2

When we arrived at my mom’s on Christmas Day, I watched Lucky jump out of our minivan and run—his happy trot—not to the tree or to the grass or to anywhere else, but straight to me, and I got my usual jolt of pure joy.

My mom’s husband Robert stood and hovered by a large trashcan while we opened our gifts, picking up the wrapping paper and throwing it away.  Lot of gag-gifts: Glow in the dark toilet paper, Superman socks.  My mom gave me a box of Chanel No. 5 perfume samples she got free with her purchases at Saks.

Robert made a big production of one final gift to Chris, my brother, and me. “Genuine leather Armani jackets,” he said, bringing them out from the garage on hangers. “So exclusive,” he claimed, “they aren’t on the market yet and won’t be for over a year.  These jackets are worth a lot of money.”

We thanked him, as I fought my suspicions, thinking, “Really?”

The dogs got presents.  My brother’s dog Sugar—an Australian shepherd found on the meridian of a busy freeway—ran around the house in a San Diego Chargers jersey, a little snug, her hair puffing out.  Lucky got a squeak bone toy reading “Fifty Shades of Fur.” He sat under the coffee table, mildly interested in the toy, holding it in his mouth, his tail thumping softly.

Everyone went outside for football before our Christmas dinner—our traditional game.  The boys love to play, especially Craig, my nephew, who was born with Spina bifida and is wheelchair bound.

I looked around.  There was Sugar but no Lucky.

“Where’s Lucky?” I asked.

I followed my mom to her small wading pool in the patio area, and she said, “Why’s the pool cover collapsed?”  It had folded up at the center, and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.”

I went to pull the cover straight and I saw him floating—slanted upward—his back legs like he was running.

I looked away and screamed and didn’t look again.  But I kept seeing and reliving that instant, especially at night when I tried to sleep, every day for weeks.

Someone pulled Lucky out of the water and attempts were made at reviving him.  I watched as my son Ry threw up his fists to curse the sky, asking, “Why?  Why, God, why?” I left him alone, sensing that he wasn’t ready to be comforted.

We wrapped Lucky in a Hefty garbage bag and loaded him into the minivan.  We hugged and said our goodbyes, ready to start for home, but a few blocks away, Ry remembered where he’d forgotten his cell phone by a tree, when he’d taken it out to play football, so we went back. Standing by the car as Ry collected his phone, Robert brought up the Armani jackets again.  “Don’t sell them on EBay,” he said.  “They’re worth over $1,300 each, very exclusive.  That’s why I bought them for you.”

Back in the minivan, Ry said, “What’s with Robert?  Why’d he talk about money and those jackets?” and I said that I had no idea.  “Actually,” I added, “it’s because he’s an asshole.”

It didn’t take long for us to notice an awful smell in the minivan.

“Is that from Lucky?” I whispered to Chris.

“No,” he said.  “I think it’s those jackets.”

A long drive, traffic, lots of weeping, and intermittent discussions about Lucky, and what we needed to do with his body, and more weeping.

The best dog ever, we all agreed.  No dog like him, ever, ever, ever.

“He loved everybody,” Ry said.

Chris called him the Ambassador of Love.

I phoned the emergency vet hospital near our home, and we brought Lucky.  A woman buzzed us inside.  Short dark hair, piercings all up one ear, she was somber and kind as she greeted us, and then she helped us put Lucky in an examination room.  She’d already called the cremation place, she explained.  He’d be picked up the following day.

Chris uncovered Lucky so that we could see his neck and part of his head.  He still looked so beautiful, except for his tongue, which hung from his mouth, a pink-gray color.

The woman let the boys make hot chocolate in the waiting area before we left, but they just poured it out when we got to our car.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  Though we’d stashed them in the laundry room, the whole house had begun to smell of the jackets, a rancid gasoline stink.  I got up and went to Google the tag name—Emporio Collezione—and saw proof of what I suspected: Fakes, selling on EBay for around forty bucks.  All over the Internet, warnings and tales of Italian men scamming people in Walmart and Costco parking lots, pretending to be on their way back to Italy with extra inventory, this one great opportunity!  This once in a lifetime chance to own Armani!

Infuriated, I called my brother the next morning to tell him.  “Don’t tell Mom,” he said.  “They’re not that bad, and the smell will fade.  It’s Christmas—isn’t it the thought that counts?”

“But why’d he have to bring it up in the garage in front of Ry?  We had our dead dog in the car!  What kind of a person says something like that in front of a kid who has just lost his dog?”

“He’s weird,” my brother affirmed, for about the thousandth time.

I didn’t tell my mom, and I gave my jacket away.  I began to troll the humane society and rescue sites, staring at the puppies and dogs.

We all missed Lucky.

Sometime late in January, I found a black Pug from the humane society and adopted her.  In order to function in the world, I realized, I needed a dog.  The first thing Rosita did when I brought her home was pee on the carpet.  She had ear infections, eye infections, and mange.

Now she’s healthy and happy and peeing outdoors, a very loving dog.

Happy Rosita

A good dog, my boys say. No Lucky Gus, that’s impossible, but a really good dog.

Then on toward spring, my mom came home from playing a tennis match to find Robert’s things packed and gone, a note on the dining room table.  He’d left her for another woman, the friend she’d been paying to help around the house.

A few months later, he begged my mom to take him back, which she did.

Not more than three months passed before Robert packed up and was gone again. So after fifteen years of marriage, my mom is divorcing him.

When I finally told her about Robert’s fake Armani jackets, she wasn’t surprised.

Someone in the Bank of America parking lot, she told me, bumped into Robert’s car. It was some Italian guy and rather than paying the claim through his insurance, the man talked Robert into taking those jackets, though none was big enough to fit him.  My mom refused to wear the one that he tried to pawn off on her and eventually gave to me, probably because of the smell.

There’s something fitting about Lucky leaving us on Christmas Day, we’ve decided, gone off to walk the Star Path.   He’d been born, after all, at the same time that my sons’ great-grandfather passed away, and we’d always joked that our dog was like a reincarnated undemonstrative, suffering, and difficult Grandpa brought back as Pure Love.

We can turn the narrative, I’ve learned, we can bend the tradition of the tragic holiday to hope. So this coming Christmas and each one after, no matter where they happen to be or who they’re with—and I like to imagine adventures and travels and truly intimate friends—my sons have vowed to toast Lucky Gus, Ambassador of Love.

lauradern

Year-End Free Skate: Best Endings, Worst Ending, Best Episode

PHIL: Best Episode Ending (Also, Best Musical Cue, Best Shocking Violence)

Game of Thrones S3.E3

Spoilers, okay?

I DON’T KNOW if it’s because it’s one of the only shows I watched weekly with a group of friends this year, but, while it’s by no means the best show I saw in 2013 or even necessarily my favorite, I had more fun watching Game of Thrones than anything else. This season, much ballyhooed for its grim results, was outlandish fun to watch every Sunday. The season started slow, but after a little throat-clearing and scene-setting, it was firing off stupidly, grimily entertaining hours of television like it was nothing. And that’s what was so fun about it. No one ever said adapting George R.R. Martin’s mighty book series is easy per se, but with the existence of a master outline and thus without the necessary creative pressure to conjure the compelling narrative that befalls Gilligan, Weiner and the like, Benioff and Weiss are free to put all their weight into execution. (Pun intended.)

And this season had a kind of balls-out (pun intended again), punk rock energy hurtling, as it was, toward the biggest set-piece of the whole series so far. As is surely well-known by now, this was the long-awaited season of “The Red Wedding,” the show and book series’ center-piece purge of central characters that took place in spectacular fashion at the end of this season’s penultimate episode. For all the rigamarole about how ingeniously the final season of Breaking Bad was conceived and plotted, imagine the challenge for Benioff and Weiss who had to plot out an ending half its fans already saw coming.

If I was making a list of the best episode endings of the year, “The Red Wedding” and its operatic bloodshed would certainly be on it. (Killing people on TV is a piece of cake, killing them with that much flair is quite difficult, I imagine.) As would the ending of the earlier episode “And Now His Watch Has Ended,” in which Daenerys Targaryen frees the slaves, unleashes the dragon, and drops the mic. (I admit that I’ve watched the ending of that episode a number of times since, and it somehow still feels surprising and exhilarating.) But those weren’t my favorites.

My favorite ending, the one that made me stand up in an ovation, the one that reminded me everything that’s good about this show and everything it will willingly, blithely do, was the ending of this season’s zippy, horrifying third episode, “Walk of Punishment.” It’s easy to forget that Jaime Lannister, the swashbuckling, sister-boinking, crown prince of jag-offs, has spent a majority of this series tied up and sitting on the ground. This episode, after striking up an unlikely friendship with Tilda Swinton’s XXL body-double Brienne of Tarth and conning his captors out of beating and raping her, it looks, briefly, as if Jaime might get to stretch his legs a bit. Not so! His jailer tempts him to the fire promising a tasty dinner only to pin him to the ground, hit him with some class politics, and CHOP HIS HAND OFF IN CLOSE-UP! (The clip below is obviously NSFW.)

Like the great comic set-piece that this actually kind-of is, the scene is all about timing. It’s dark enough that we don’t immediately know what’s happened, and because his hand is on a stump, it doesn’t move quite enough to make it immediately obvious. What this means is that, for a few silent seconds, we — Jaime included — are staring at an amputated hand without fully realizing it. Jaime screams, the frame stays still so we can really take in the site of Jaime’s stump — the bloodflow, like our attention, took a minute to catch up. The frame cuts to black, there’s a pause, and then, thank you, Game of Thrones, a Hold Steady song starts playing. Punky, talky, anachronistic Hold Steady, singing some silly, made-up, quasi-medieval ballad. The scene is a tragedy (one of the show’s most subtle achievements has been turning the villainous Jaime into something of a sympathetic hero) and it’s a joke. Not a lot of shows (Top of the Lake is one of the few others) can hit the tragedy and comedy notes simultaneously and with as much follow-through as Game of Thrones, nor do many shows stick so many difficult landings. We’ve got a lot of this show yet to come, and this moment made me excited for every goofy, gory, heart-wrenching moment of it.

¤

AHP: Best Episode Ending (also Best Violence)

Rectify, Episode 5

While others, including our own Jane Hu, were lauding the meditative beauty of Enlightened, I couldn’t deal. My repulsion from passive aggressive characters (also, most notably, in Six Feet Under) probably says more about my personal failings in terms of sympathy and patience, but even if I couldn’t stomach Amy Jellicoe, I loved the way Enlightened slowed itself down and considered the physical world. It wasn’t like a hackneyed thriller, in which nature (a storm, the sea, the forest) becomes a character in and of itself; it was more subtle and ultimately more generous than that.

But you know what did that even better? Rectify. It debuted during a dry television spell and, as a result, received more attention than a small, six episode Sundance production normally would, but as the summer series picked up, it faded to the shadows. The premise itself is a tough one: Daniel Holden spends 19 years in maximum security after being convicted of the brutal murder and rape of his 16-year-old girlfriend.

He’s released on appeal, and the task of reintegration into his very small, very Southern town is about as awkward as you’d imagine. But we experience that awkwardness not so much through weird interactions, of which Daniel seems blessedly ignorant, but his experience of the physical world. After 19 years in a cell, everything around him sounds, smells, tastes, feels more intensely, masterly refracted through the show’s sound design and cinematography.

It’s not, however, a loud show. It’s defined by alteration between absence and presence, the long, weighted pauses as Daniel chooses and delivers his words, and a meditative embrace of the air and space and seemingly infinite choice that now surrounds him.

Indeed, Rectify is a quiet show, almost therapeutically so. What some might call “boring” I find hypnotic and, somewhat ironically, magnificently tense, in part because you’re also spending each episode pondering whether this seemingly gentle man was, and remains, capable of great violence.

Which is what makes the sudden and surprising violence at the end of the penultimate episode so stunning – and so weirdly, if temporarily, gratifying, especially since it seems to both enact pain on a malicious character and answer our questions about Daniel. The episode ends on a long shot, our characters in silhouette, which functions to imprint the outlines of the violence and its ramifications in a way that a close-up cannot. It’s removed, observatory, much in the way that Daniel attempts to confront the world at large. And it’s absolutely chilling.

The next episode revises much of what we thought we understand — about Daniel, about the violent act itself — but that moment stays with me still, a crystallization of how television narrative, and the spaces and pauses and ruptures within, can still surprise us.

¤

Lili: Worst Episode Ending

Top of the Lake Finale

I often think of Top of the Lake as the underbelly of Northern Exposure, a show for which I have a major soft spot while lamenting its habit of turning an indulgent eye to the really weird things that happened to its female characters. (It’s narrated as merely idiosyncratic, for instance, that Maurice Minnifeld plucks a teenaged Shelly Tambo out of a beauty pageant that he’s judging because he is “in love”.) Both shows are in dialogue with a kind of frontier narrative: they depend on intense isolation and a de facto lawlessness deemed humane and productive in Northern Exposure — the way things ought to be — whereas in Top of the Lake it becomes a kind of rape-engine whirlpool under a still surface.

Regarded as a nature-based dystopia (as opposed to the sci-fi versions with which we’re routinely bombarded), Top of the Lake was gorgeously dark. That initial shot of Tui waiting for the lake to kill her captured how, in a universe constructed along these lines, women come to understand that danger resides not just in violence but also in inertia. (This is the crux of Robin’s distrust of Johnno, and for Tui, pregnancy and the lake amount to the same thing: destruction through passivity.) As it happens, the only person who actually dies in the lake is a man — and he’s murdered by the show’s main active principle, Matt Mitcham.

There’s something wildly mythic about ToTL, in other words. These are not ordinary people; there could be an Iliad about the events in Laketop. They are not immune to archetype. Nevertheless, the miniseries achieved a remarkably delicate balance: it staged a complex and fatally intimate psychological drama in a landscape whose sublime contours are most closely associated with the magical darkness of Lord of the Rings. There was clarity to the show’s progress; its successive revelations amplified our understanding without devolving into moral carnage and communal outrage. The power is public and its violations are private, and Elizabeth Moss’s pitch-perfect, down-to-earth performance as Robin grounds a script that might otherwise flail and drown in foggy despair. The thing about Robin’s case — and Tui’s — is that its very specificity, its isolation, protects the perpetrators. A single gang-rape fails to provoke horror. This is the essential loneliness of the rape victim. Robin’s incomplete picture of what happened, her mistrust of Johnno, her inability to function normally — all this is what the Mitchams of the world count on. Top of the Lake seemed like a brutal ode to erasure, to lethal and perpetual uncertainty.

The last episode undid a lot of what I’d considered — up to that point — the show’s exceptional portraiture of the ways in which the signs of violence are massaged away through ambiguity while the victim freezes from within. This is what the lake does; this was the power of the metaphor. By spiraling out into crime rings, the finale reduced Mitcham, a magnificent monster, attractive and sympathetic in the ways monsters need to be, to a confused drug lord. Even more tragically, it reduced Al’s calm white-knighting — the quiet, solicitous misogyny that was the show’s sharpest insight and greatest, most paralyzing triumph — to a neon sign of absolute evil. This show was so much better than its psychopathic solution. The psychopath is singular and exceptional and in every sense the opposite of the show’s interest in hushed, generalized disease.

With that revelation the show stopped being a mythic exploration of the psychology of the raped and the accidental collusions that make that psychology invisible, and became something much less interesting: the story of how a rape-ring got busted. The show’s commitment to ambiguity lives on, but in weird and uncompelling ways. The Robin-Johnno incest question got handled by a plot twist borrowed from Arrested Development: Yes they are! No, they’re not! BUT THEY MIGHT BE. (Was Al lying about this too? Whose DNA actually got tested?). The fact is, it doesn’t matter. This show’s heart was never in the forensics, the paternity tests, the meth-roofie factory. Those, we’d been trained to think, were never the real questions, but symptoms of a diseased world where everyone’s DNA is tainted by forces we don’t understand.

¤

Jane: Best Episode (also Best Melodrama)

Enlightened, S2.E6

What’s Todd Haynes up to these days? Last I knew, he was giving a talk in Vancouver, and now, I think, he’s in the process of filming Carol? Haynes last big release was the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, which was in 2011. His last film release was I’m Not There, which was in 2007. Was I even alive in 2007? Todd, why must you make us suffer.

So it was both a relief and surprise to find that he was going to direct one of Mike White’s episodes of Enlightened. It was titled “All I Ever Wanted,” aired on February 17, 2013, and made all of us weep. People called it the best episode of the season, and I kept wondering if they would still say that even without the knowledge of Haynes’s hand in the work. UM YES THEY WOULD STILL CALL IT THE BEST EPISODE BECAUSE IT OBJECTIVELY IS DON’T BELIEVE ME PLEASE TO WATCH RIGHT NOW. It starts off with this distant overhead shot, and immediately I was like “Oooooooooh. Draw me in, mysterious lurking camera angle/perspective!” And then immediately you’re inside the car, on a purse! On a hand! Whose hand and where is it taking the purse? Oh my god, I can’t wait to see what Haynes does to Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian crime/road-novel Price of Salt (aka Carol).

Haynes knows how to narrate by way of exclusion, and while a lot of his films might seem excessive and lush upon first glance (Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven), the core of what he’s doing, I think, is mining interiority by pointing viewers to what is absent, or what has been cut off. He’s interested in what can’t be said or properly articulated, and it’s related to why he’s so good at making us cry. There are a lot of uncomfortable pauses and missed opportunities in Amy Jellicoe’s meetings with love interest Jeff, but really Amy’s life is governed by her attempt to talk, or make herself present, where she ought to be invisible. White shined a light on such an impossible heroine, and we are so lucky that Haynes was asked to contribute.

If I had my way, Haynes would frame my life because he is just one of the realest, ballsiest formalists I know. And while I could link any number of shots or scenes here that exemplify this, all you really have to do is take one Google image to get the impact of his rigorous attention to framing. Try: “Todd Haynes, Safe, Julianne Moore,” or “Todd Haynes, Poison.” To get how Haynes’s framing translates into story, though, is to watch these shots as they unfurl, widen, pan, or cut in a sequential manner. “All I Ever Wanted” is a beautiful and quick entrance into the power of Haynes’s formal language. The last five minutes especially pack a punch; there’s a moment where Amy’s mother approaches her, hesitantly, as Amy is just on the verge of crying. They’re in a bedroom, the camera is at a medium distant from the two women (almost as if protecting them from us getting too voyeuristically close), and while they try to negotiate their uneven relationship of sympathy and intimacy, not a word is exchanged.

¤

Tourists taking pictures of a projected mermaid image in one of Macao’s luxury entertainment and consumption hubs.

Casino Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

By Tong Lam

Macao has long been known as the “Las Vegas of the East” and the “Monte Carlo of the Orient,” but ironically its reputation as a center of capitalist excess only really took off after it was reintegrated into a still-nominally Communist China as a Special Administrative Region. This happened in 1999 and a key part of the process was the opening of its gambling sector to foreign investors. Throughout the twenty-first century, Macao’s gambling industry has been expanding at an exponential rate. In 2012, the gambling revenue in Macao was six times that of the Las Vegas Strip.

The city has certainly come a very long way from the sleepy colonial outpost it was in the mid-1800s when gambling was first legalized there. Thanks to China’s surging economic development, it’s even come a very long way from where it was at the end of the last century. By now, instead of calling Macao the “Las Vegas of the East,” it might be more appropriate to flip the comparison and refer to the Nevada gambling hub as the “Macao of the West.”

There are three indoor canals inside the shopping arcade of the Venetian Macao, the largest casino complex in the world. Its sister facility, the Venetian Las Vegas, has only two such canals.

There are three indoor canals inside the shopping arcade of the Venetian Macao, the largest casino complex in the world. Its sister facility, the Venetian Las Vegas, has only two such canals.

Not surprisingly, thanks to the bustling local gambling and hospitality industries, money generated by tourism is now the driving force of the Macao economy. In addition to having casinos, shopping arcades, and hotels that are larger and more luxurious than their Las Vegas counterparts, Macao’s per capita GDP (according to the World Bank) is fast approaching $90,000, meaning it is just slightly below the world’s frontrunner Luxembourg.

Likewise, the number of mainland tourists visiting Macao is approaching 20 million per year, more than a 20-fold increase from a decade and a half ago when the city was still under Portuguese rule. Yet, significantly, leisure tourism, especially by members of China’s burgeoning middle-class, is only part of the reason for the city’s rapid income growth. An equally if not more important part of the story is the use of Macao’s casinos to launder money for China’s filthy rich. In order to bypass China’s foreign currency exchange regulation, many wealthy Chinese deposit their money with junkets in mainland China and then withdraw and use those funds in the numerous VIP gambling rooms scattered across Macao’s casinos. In a way, Macao’s economic growth is at least partially a reflection of Beijing’s inability to enforce taxation and currency, as well as its inability to curb many forms of corruption.

Tourists taking pictures of a projected mermaid image in one of Macao’s luxury entertainment and consumption hubs.

Tourists taking pictures of a projected mermaid image in one of Macao’s luxury entertainment and consumption hubs.

In light of this economic picture, two final things about Macao, which should come as no surprise, are worth noting.  A rising overall per capita GDP notwithstanding, the gap between the city’s haves and have nots has been growing dramatically; and despite all the official talk by Beijing of reining in corrupt practices in government and business sectors, and occasional crackdowns linked to this rhetoric, the rise of corruption in Macao shows no sign of abating.

Poussey

The Year in Television: Favorite Performance

Phil: KRISTEN SCHAAL as LOUISE in BOB’S BURGERS

SO, HERE BEGINS our round-robin discussion of the year in television. Today we do favorite performances. I shall begin with a grandiose statement undercut with a qualification: This year was a phenomenally good year, I think the think-piece generators of the world have agreed, for women on TV. That’s been said every year for the past little while, but it seems especially true this year if only because Orange is the New Black unceremoniously dumped about a dozen different chewy, complicated, gorgeous parts for a breathtakingly diverse group of women right on to our Netflix queues this year. The sexism of the TV biz has been well-remarked upon, and I certainly understand that the more times critterati declare a year to be the “YEAR OF THE WOMAN,” the more the general public is going to be convinced that these endemic problems are solved. But there has to be a way of acknowledging how fabulous it is that the criminally under-rewarded Elisabeth Moss was able to play TWO of the top five best roles on television this year on two different programs and Tatiana Maslany was able to play three times that many on the same show without it seeming like a false victory lap. Rather than declaring anything any more profound, let me just say that, in trying to figure out a favorite performance of the year, the only actors that come to mind for me are women. And that has not always been true.

All that said, the performance I want to single out is neither new nor likely to be included in any inspirational listing of how ladies got their grooves back in 2013. The performance that’s stuck with me most this year has been Kristen Schaal’s voice work as the criminally-insane youngest daughter Louise on Fox’s wonderful Bob’s Burgers. I came late to this cartoon, in part because I have a genuine distrust of Fox’s “Animation Domination” Sundays based primarily on the harrowing depression I feel whenever I encounter a new Simpsons episode and the gag-reflex that kicks in whenever Seth MacFarlane puts his slimy mitts on anything at all. But Jane pestered me into catching up on Bob’s Burgers this year, and I found what has been obvious to fans of the show for years: it’s very simply one of the best family comedies on TV.

I could go on with all of the convert’s zeal that I now possess about how it’s just as good as Parks and Rec or how remarkable it is for a television show as acerbic as this one to be as interested as it is in the concept and practice of love, but that’s for another time. Right now, Kristen Schaal. Schaal’s stand-up has always been uncomfortable to me. Partly because it’s supposed to be uncomfortable in a Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman sort of way, but partly also because sometimes the big conceptual jokes don’t stick. Schaal’s Louise, however, has none of the irony of Schaal’s stand-up act. She is high-pitched, unabashed, unkempt, contained only by the pink bunny ears she wears on her head. The easiest comparison is Charlie Day’s performance on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but where that performance is loud out of desperation and frustration, Louise is loud out of a psychotic lust for life. The way that Schaal is able to subtly modulate a mode of address that can mostly be described as “screaming-at-the-top-of-her-voice” is nothing less than stunning.

And this season, Schaal modulated that voice to a totally new place. Bob’s Burgers is amazing on the topic of adolescent sexuality. From eldest daughter Tina’s obsession with sexy dancing zombie butts to middle-child Gene’s confused interest in private parts, the show is terribly good and terribly innocent about staking out how weird sex seems to the minds of children. Louise, despite having perhaps the most fully-formed psyche of any of the kids, however, has largely maintained a critical distance from puberty until this season. In the third season episode “Boyz 4 Now,” Louise accompanies Tina to the concert of a One Direction-style boy band called Boyz 4 Now. Initially disdainful of this errand — ”Don’t waste your screaming on a stupid boy band. Screaming should be for rollercoasters, or axe murderers, or dad’s morning breath.” — Louise falls immediately, inexplicably in love with one of the members of the group.

Schaal’s handling of the anger and betrayal Louise feels as she finds herself attracting to a boy for the first time is actually quite moving. But, more than that, it opens up a new register of this top-register performance as Louise’s murderous rage turns to murderous romance. Schaal does Louise on a high-wire, and hearing her fall off this season was just as joyfully disturbed and disturbing as you might imagine.

¤

Lili: SAMIRA WILEY as POUSSEY WASHINGTON in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

Phil, I’m thinking of the joyfully disturbed women too. There’s been a lot of ambitious stuff on TV this year, and for those of us longing for better parts for women, it’s been a treat to watch some of the top-shelf stuff on offer: Top of the Lake, House of Cards, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, The Good Wife, etc., and yet there’s something a little decadent, a little fudge-like, about the experience. The sheer luxury of the thing, the abundance of top people and quotable lines, brings out the contrarian in me. What I really want, when I’m in a position to choose a jewel from the lot, is something just a bit plain, a perfect loaf of bread.

Orange is the New Black brims with talented actors. I think it’s the best thing that’s happened this year. But juggling that giant, magnificent cast sometimes required (or at any rate resulted in) a kind of affective shorthand, which in turn produced some slightly embarrassing over-expository preachy moments. This is especially true of the show’s much-discussed practice of expanding outward to outfit each character with a past. The results are spectacularly uneven. If you’ll forgive a swirl (of metaphors): Kate Mulgrew’s Red gets the most compelling back story, I think — let’s call it high couture. Miss Claudette’s is a touch melodramatic but whew is it memorable (bravo, Michelle Hurst). It’s to Dascha Polanco’s credit that her Daya Diaz brings a deeply compelling idiosyncratic sensibility to what might otherwise feel like a rehearsal of minority underworld tropes. Madeline Brewer channels her character Tricia Miller’s fragility, dimness, and psychology of debt in a totally heartbreaking performance — she does her material justice. Other actors are given less history to work with: Alex Vause’s past feels like a knockoff, and Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky and Vicky Jeudy’s Janae Watson’s stories are definitely (and disappointingly) off the rack. As for Taryn Manning, we can admire her total triumph at selling it while noting that Pennsatucky deserved better than to be both a meth-addicted serial aborter and a messianic uber-Christian murder-angel.

In any event, when I tried to think of the performance that stuck with me this year, as much comedically as dramatically, it belongs to a secondary character with limited lines, a second-stringer whose back story we don’t yet know: I’m talking, of course, about Samira Wiley’s Poussey Washington.

She was given less to work with than most of the characters on OITNB, and yet every scene she’s in glows. She’s luminous. Bird-like. Her presence is consistently irreverent and hilarious and — in the Christmas episode finale — an unexpected and sublime foil to Piper and Pennsatucky. Her performance of white people politics is one of the comedy highlights of the season; Wiley and Danielle Brooks have wild chemistry of a sort we rarely see on the small screen. (Somebody please give them their own show.) And if many people have written (rightly) about how moving they found Taystee and Poussey’s reunion in the library after Taystee returns from prison, Taystee’s disquisition on minimum wage in that scene feels (in my opinion) a tad didactic. It jars oddly with Poussey’s reflection on her mother’s death. My favorite scene between the two is this one, right after Taystee gets dominion over the TV:


“My name is Poussey! Accent à droite, bitch. It’s French. Poussey’s a place in France where my daddy served and kings were born and shit. Fuck you named after?”

I love this scene because of its erupting layers: it shows the stakes of the TV and the passion it inspires, it shows what Poussey unironically loves (Ina Garten!), and the way the WAC can genuinely affect the inmates despite universal protestations to the contrary. We sort of learn where both Taystee and Poussey’s names came from, killing whatever vaginal jokes might haunt the friendship. Best of all, we learn how the closest friends on the show fight — which, though I’d be lying if I said I had fully formed expectations, isn’t at all how I’d have predicted they’d choose their weapons.

You could say I’m grading “best performance” on a curve, thinking about who did the most with the least material. I can’t say enough about Wiley’s range. Her expression when Poussey watches Taystee leaving, the wry energy with which she wishes Black Cindy a “joyous Kwanzaa!”, her wit and intelligence generally contrasted with her consternation when she tries to scare the kid in the wheelchair — every scene this woman is in sparkles.

¤

AHP: HAYDEN PANETTIERE as JULIETTE BARNES in NASHVILLE

A classmate of mine once asked our professor how she would know how to approach and analyze her object of study. His advice: the broccoli will usually tell you how it wants to be cooked. In other words, the subject matter will suggest how to approach it.

That’s how I feel about Nashville: the subject matter (country music, Nashville politics, sprawling family drama, complicated teenage girls, figuring out how to cope after divorce) told showrunner Callie Khouri how to cook it, and with the encouragement of ABC, she’s allowed the pot to boil over. Repeatedly. But that’s far from a criticism. Even if Khouri’s own husband T. Bone Burnett resigned from his role as music director in protest over the direction of the show, I revel in its embrace of its soapy roots. Last season it was trying to straddle the line between primetime soap and quasi-quality drama; now it’s all melodrama, all the time, and it’s (almost always) delicious.

Plus I’ll forgive any number of boring scenes of over-acting Powers Booth so long as I get to see my girl Hayden Panettiere steal every scene as Juliette Barnes. When Panettiere was on Heroes, I found her flat, uninteresting, and unworthy of the hype — words that also describe my general feelings towards Heroes.  When she and Connie Britton were cast as rivals on Nashville, my allegiance was all for Mrs. Coach.

The narrative restricts Britton to a slightly more sequined version of her Mrs. Coach, but Barnes is something I’ve never seen on television: a tremendously powerful woman in constant battle with her history, but a history defined by class and its ramifications, not men. Like Britton’s Rayna James, Barnes has a lost love that defines her life — but that lost love is her addict mother, not a boyfriend. That a female character could be almost wholly motivated by the enduring memory of her class position — rather than the men in her life — is revelatory.

Granted, Nashville’s narrative keeps trying to throw potential love interests Juliette’s way. But there’s something about Juliette (and Panettiere’s performance of her) that makes it impossible for any of those boys to stick. It’s not as if she’s some ball-busting ice queen — or, more precisely, it’s not as if she’s just some ball-busting ice queen. Juliette busts balls, but every decision she makes is working towards escaping the specter of a little, dirt poor girl, living in a trailer with a mom who couldn’t even be relied upon to feed her. That might sound hackneyed, but the way the show (and Panetierre) work to complicate the interplay between the exploitation of that past (to promote her image and albums) and the actual experience of it is anything but.

Once in self-preservation mode, always in self-preservation mode. Juliette’s eviscerated inside, but the only way to stay on the path that took her out of the trailer park is to be perfect on the outside.

With a less talented actress, that duality could seem schizophrenic. But Panettiere nails it: in part because she’s so good at showing the slight seams in celebrity production (her dazzlingly fake smile; the way she turns it on for men in power), but also because she’s an amazingly talented music performer. It’s not just her voice (which is great) or her songs (which are perfect) but the delivery: watch her on stage and you understand everything. Or, more precisely, you understand just how authentically complicated her life is: she’s tasked with embodying the American Dream (and postfeminism!) every day and that shit is EXHAUSTING and terrifying and never as gratifying as she wants or needs it to be. In classic melodrama, the melos (song) expressed the ineffable emotion the narrative itself could not — it’s where you see sexual desire, anguish, regret, and power. The lyrics to Barnes’s songs do that, but Panetierre’s performance does it even better.

¤

Jane: ELISABETH MOSS as ROBIN GRIFFITH on TOP OF THE LAKE

I’m so glad we’re calling this “favorite” rather than “best,” especially since the latter adjective is having its moment now that we’ve reach the End Of Season. While I didn’t actually watch much new television past August, the consensus stays: women really brought it this year. And television gave them the space to bring it. Even off cable and network television, our beloved Netflix really gave their female leads room to shine in both House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black.

But when trying to parse through my favorite performances, I keep finding the female performances that stayed with me most one more remove from America’s already diversifying (relatively speaking!) television scene: import television. Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black (Canada), Sidse Knudsen of Borgen (Danish), Elisabeth Moss of Top of the Lake (Australia). All three shows are related to the crime drama, but explore the genre in compelling and surprising ways, making me wonder if perhaps these overworked women should all take a vay-cay in some shipping container with the homebound Carrie Mathison.

My pick of Elisabeth Moss’s performance as the verrrry complicated detective Robin Griffith is probably overdetermined. I mean, Jane Campion directed Top of the Lake. But unlike Maslany and Knudsen, Moss’s character contained this almost aggressive nervousness and anxiety that not only added to her role as uncertain detective in an increasingly odd case, but spoke, I’m guessing, to many viewers on a more personal level. Like Carrie in the first season of Homeland, we’re constantly on the verge of wondering what Griffith might not know about herself, and yet this awareness only draws us closer to her. While Robin is out trying to protect the women and children of Laketop, I grew increasingly protective of her. And, no spoilers, but rightly so.

Moss’s performance held what a lot of boundary-pushing dramas lose (as if by necessity) and that is nuance. But, like, a rigorous amount of nuance. Is Moss a method actress? At moments, her little breaths, gasps, pauses, and cringes made me wonder how much distance lay — in that moment — between Moss and Robin. I couldn’t believe this was the same woman who played Peggy Olson (who, if you return to season one of Mad Men, is almost unrecognizable from the ad woman we know now at the end of season six; listen to how her voice pitches up and how her phrasing melts at the end of her sentences, like she’s trying at once to disappear and integrate into the office environment). Moss gives performances that come across both intensely studied and breathlessly in the moment.

That Top of the Lake was a miniseries might be part of why Moss’s incredibly flawed and faltering character is so clearly crystallized. It’s hard to convey that level of ambiguity visually, and Robin Griffith’s wavering or paranoid “aura” comes across almost novelistically. It gets expressed through an accretion of (very telling!) gestures and shifts in voice and tone. Voice and tone are also, incidentally, huge words when it comes to the study of narratology.

I would almost describe Moss’s performance as descriptive. Watching Top of the Lake is like watching yourself watch Robin watch herself (or try not to watch herself) — the strange accumulation and crossing of perspectives is fascinating, and, again, incredibly novelistic. Moss is acting out a plot, Robin is caught in a plot she doesn’t entirely understand, but my favorite parts of Top of the Lake were incidental to plot. They were descriptive, occurring when Robin was, sometimes inadvertently, exposing something about her character. Of course, character is never extraneous to plot or the official task at hand — especially when you’re supposed to be an objective detective and Strong Woman — and Moss really got at something in her occupation of cohesive uncertainty.

The background noise and mood of Top of the Lake is astonishing, and, being a miniseries, we’re able to watch it over and over again and simply sink into Moss’s performance. It’s unnervingly good.

¤

00_d_cover_yearbook1

Our Favorite Things

Before becoming part of the LARB’s “China Blog” team (indeed, before that publication even began), several of the people who have been writing for it were deeply involved in “The China Beat,” a digital publication based at UC Irvine that ran from 2008 to 2012 and was edited first by Kate Merkel-Hess and then by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. One thing we did this time of year at that blog was to provide China-themed holiday gift ideas (some collected here), and we’ve decided to reboot that tradition for LARB readers. What follows is a list of some of our favorite things published in 2013. Each of the four regular contributors to the “China Blog” was asked to suggest three, a dozen in total (fits in with the Twelve Days of Christmas and all). We will all, of necessity, have to leave some favorite books off our lists, due to limits of space and, at least in my case, because one of the works I consider among the best of the year, The China Story’s Yearbook 2013: Civilising China, is available for free — so, for anyone other than a truly Scrooge-like cheapskate, zapping the PDF to a friend or family member could hardly count as giving that person a “present”. Our list, as you’ll see, is an eclectic one, with suggestions that will work for those who are fans of fiction and fact-based works and, in Tong Lam’s case, those who can’t get enough of trash talk.

– Jeff Wasserstrom

Hour of the Rat 5 and 6

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham’s Three Selections (N.B. well, four really, but she’s a humanist so math isn’t her strong suit):

1. There are more than enough big books about World War II published every year, but Oxford historian Rana Mitter has written one that’s a must-read for all history buffs: Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. Mitter has produced a work that is both an epic national saga and a deeply personal account of the war’s toll on China’s competing leaders, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Wang Jingwei (branded a Japanese collaborator after the war and today condemned as a traitor in China). Thanks to his beautiful writing style, Mitter manages the difficult feat of covering the country’s eight years at war in painstaking detail, yet never overwhelming or boring the reader.

2. Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury, is perhaps the most acclaimed China book of 2013. It’s indeed an excellent read, and perfect for the gift recipient on your list who is familiar with the broad history of China since the early 19th century but wants to learn more. Schell (full disclosure: my former boss) and Delury (a LARB contributor) structure each chapter as a capsule biography of a major figure in modern Chinese history, while setting that individual against the background of larger events happening during his (or in one case, her) lifetime. Like Mitter, they’re skilled writers whose way with words proves that history doesn’t need to be boring.

3. If you’re shopping for someone who enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books and is looking for something new to read, pick up the two Ellie McEnroe mysteries by Lisa Brackmann, Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat, which are set in China. Brackmann did a Q&A with Jeff Wasserstrom for the China Blog earlier this year, and I have a short review of both books up at my own blog, so I won’t say more about them here. But the combination of a strong female protagonist, a China setting, and engrossing mystery plots results in books that I think any grown-up fan of Nancy Drew would enjoy finding in her Christmas stocking.

boxers+saints

Jeff Wasserstrom’s Three Titles (N.B. my third choice is a two-in-one book, so perhaps arithmetic isn’t my forte either):

1)      If you are looking for literary stocking stuffers, it’s hard to beat the “Very Short Introductions” that Oxford University Press publishes, including several that deal in part or completely with China. My pick for this year’s gift buyers is James Millward’s The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction, which is under $10 and offers a deeply informed survey of this storied route, paying attention to the history and legends associated with it, and nicely combining attention to the standard topics, such as the flow of people and goods along it, with a good discussion of its role in the dissemination of artistic practices. It contains, for example, a memorable section on musical flows between Asia and other parts of the world. That’s no surprise, as along with being a leading historian of East and Central Asia, Millward is an accomplished musician who is part of the bluegrass band By & By – so if you want to be really creative with your stocking stuffing and have someone on your list interested in both China and music, toss in a copy of that group’s excellent debut album, too.

2)      For anyone on your shopping list particularly concerned about the fate of Tibetans in the PRC, Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong’s Voices from Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage, published by Hong Kong University Press and available for Kindle, is excellent. The authors, a husband and wife team of courageous commentators based in Beijing, weigh in powerfully on topics ranging from the destruction of Lhasa landmarks to acts of self-immolation. Violet S. Law is the skillful translator responsible for the book, and leading Tibetan history scholar Robert Barnett provides a gracefully written and very informative introduction to the Tibetan context and to the two authors.

3)      Finally, for anyone on your list who likes comics and graphic novels, there’s Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a two-in-one work that readers of this blog should be familiar with, thanks to Angilee Shah’s recent Q & A with its author. All I’ll add here is that it makes for enjoyable and engaging reading for young adults and the other kind alike, and academic China specialists will find particularly striking the way that some parts of the analysis are informed by scholarly works on the Boxers, several of which, including landmark studies by historians Joseph Esherick and Paul Cohen, are listed in a bibliography of books consulted.

Junkyard

Tong Lam’s Trashy Trio (N.B. one of these is actually five albums, so I guess this is another blogger who has a creative approach to numbers):

1. What will happen to the old and unwanted stuff cast into trashcans and recycle bins to make way for new gifts this holiday season? Adam Minter’s new book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollars Trash Trade, will fill you in, offering an insightful guided tour of a globally significant but little-known aspect of our economy and environment. While the book is not just about China per se, being the world’s largest recipient and generator of garbage, China is certainly central to the planetary circulation of trash and the enormous business associated with it. For readers who are interested in contemporary China and its inherent connection to global capitalism, Minter’s book is a fascinating and informative read. For more, see the LARB review by Susan Jakes.

2. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, as artist Thomas Sauvin’s photo book, Silvermine, makes clear, with its unique visual window onto China’s contemporary history. Silvermine is actually a set of five photo albums, each containing 20 photos published by the Archive of Modern Conflict. During the past five years, Sauvin salvaged, categorized, and edited over half a million photos taken from a recycling facility on the outskirts of Beijing, where old negatives are sent so their silver nitrate content can be extracted and recycled.

The Silvermine albums capture how ordinary Chinese people documented their everyday activities between 1985 and 2005, when silver film was in widespread use. These snapshots from numerous anonymous individuals, which depict activities like buying household appliances and visiting theme parks, offer a bottom-up view of China’s profound post-socialist transformation. This pricy book has been released in a limited edition (just 200 copies in all) and will surely make an impressive gift for any China junkie.

3. No list of trash-themed books would be complete without one that offers a broader understanding of our changing urban conditions, especially the accelerating pace of urbanization in the Global South. One notable 2013 book on this topic, with a China focus, is Xuefei Ren’s Urban China. Written for a general audience, this book surveys the unprecedented urban boom of a country that now has more than 125 cities with a population greater than a million. Ren’s book is not just about Chinese cities—It is also about citizenship rights, social hierarchies, inequalities, governance, political economy, and many other related issues.

ows_137236890088100

Alec Ash’s Selections (N.B. this is actually a trio of titles, pure and simple, so we finally have someone good at math.):

1. Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West by Peter Hessler

Hessler became a must-read for China hands (and a favorite of many of the simply China interested) with his 1997 memoir from Sichuan, River Town. Over the next decade, he came out with two more books and was the New Yorker’s man in Beijing, providing us with a steady IV drip of narrative writing over one of China’s most transformative periods. Then he left us, and now he’s doing the same in Cairo. But he left behind one last hurrah — a collection of his longform stories, beginning with his first piece for the New Yorker, about eating a rat in Guangdong, and ending with a dispatch from small town Colorado. It’s perfect for dipping into.

2. The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan by Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell

Mo Yan was the Chinese novelist of choice last year, after he won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. But I’ve always found him and his generation (Yu Hua, Ha Jin, Ma Jian, etc.) tiresome in that they mainly write about the countryside. For something more urban, and reminiscent of today’s China, pick up Zhu Wen. His collection I Love Dollars was a breath of fresh air — gritty, real, and relevant. This new collection of stories, also translated by Julia Lovell, is more of the same. It’s short, readable, and one of the best open sesames for contemporary Chinese literature.

3. For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wenguang Huang

Liao Yiwu has had quite a life, and is quite a writer. Incarcerated in the wake of the Tiananmen protests, for writing a poem called “Massacre,” he went itinerant on his release, and the oral histories that resulted from his travels were collected in The Corpse Walker. Now he returns to his years in prison, and uses them as a springboard for a stark portrait of contemporary China. It’s grim holiday reading, but in the midst of the vibrancy and forward motion of China, a reminder not to forget those who are left behind for having the courage of their convictions.

SFimage12813

Back to the Present of the Future: Continuum and the War on Terror

By Jonathan Alexander

I’LL BEGIN WITH A DISCLAIMER: as much as I love SF, time-travel stories are my least favorite.  Granted, notable exceptions abound: H. G. Well’s Time Machine, which arguably launches the genre of SF as a whole, and Greg Benford’s Timescape are both brilliantly executed fables that use time travel to meditate on social and ecological injustices.  In the hands of many SF TV writers, however, time travel seems largely an excuse to create impenetrable plot twists, a lazy narrative device leaving viewers scratching their heads and propelled to watch the next episode for some sense of resolution.  I love the Star Trek franchises, but their time travel episodes are amongst the worst offenders in this category of sloppy story-telling.

And then there’s Continuum.  The Canadian channel Showcase first broadcast this series in May 2012, and its third season is currently in production.  And despite my bias against time travel narratives, I think Continuum might be about the best SF TV I’ve seen in the last decade.  If you’ve missed it, you need to catch up before the next season airs.

Continuum’s plot primarily revolves around a future cop, Kiera (played by Rachel Nichols), who works in 2077 for the corporate state, federal governments having been taken over and run, in a rather fascist fashion, by profit-mongering corporations.  Kiera accidentally (maybe, maybe not) gets sucked into a time vortex that a group of condemned future terrorists open up shortly before their execution for having blown up corporate headquarters and killing thousands of people.  (Think 9/11 and the attacks on the WTC.)  The terrorists want to come back to the present to change things for the better (or at least their version of the better).  Kiera and the terrorists have to insinuate themselves into present day Vancouver–Kiera as a law enforcement agent, the terrorists as various activists, moguls, and present-day terrorists.  Along the way, Kiera and the terrorists run into a young Alec Sadler (played by Erik Knudsen), who, in the future, becomes one of the prime architects of the future corporate state, as well as the person who may be trying to sabotage the corporate state he’s created.  Kiera reveals who she is to Alec, who, a computer genius, is maybe not so stunned to learn that he will become the leading figure in creating the technologies that become the complete surveillance state of 2077.  Alec and Kiera help each other, for the time being, and are assisted and antagonized by a strong cast of characters, including Kiera’s police partner Carlos (played by Victor Webster) and former terrorist and now sketchy present-day entrepreneur Matthew Kellog (Stephen Lobo).

This sketch doesn’t even begin to do Continuum justice.  The plot increases in complexity with nearly every episode, leading you to a spectacular season two cliffhanger and leaving you wondering what the master plot really is: who really knows what’s going on, who’s pulling the strings, and what’s the end game?  Continuum offers us lots of loops, and at its best it’s reminiscent of Kage Baker’s delightful Company novels, which keep you guessing about what designs the future really has on the present. In less capable hands, such stories would be a mess.  But what salvages Continuum are the risks the show is willing to take with the viewers’ sympathies and identifications with different characters.

Let me explain.  When watching the first few episodes of Continuum, I have to admit I was kind of appalled.  Vancouver, where the story is set in both the present and the future, becomes a pretty but nasty place in 2077, a place where the trains run on time—or else.  Think corporate fascism–a timely trope given that, in the US at least, corporations are essentially given the same rights as people but also have access to incredible resources to enforce their will and manipulate the legal system.  The SF extrapolation is totally believable.  While we don’t get a complex sense of how corporations rule, we see many examples of their brutal and total control, complete surveillance, and limited protection of civil liberties; desirable commodities are only accessible to the bureaucratic class that keeps the companies running and profitable. The “smoking man” (William B. Davis) from X-Files plays the elder and future Alec Sadler, who seems to be in control of everything as head of the surveillance company running the state.  That casting choice alone signals that these are the bad guys.  Kiera is one of their hired guns, and we see her in multiple episodes, flashing back and forth between the present and the future, as a brutal enforcer, hurting those who defy the corporate police state.

But it’s her viewpoint we are asked to identify with primarily, and the story is largely given to us through her eyes.  And that’s our dilemma as viewers.  She represents an icky future, and you’re invited to sympathize with her desire to protect it.  Granted, she’s tracking down terrorists, who battle that state through 9/11-style attacks.  But wait: even that is complicated, because, well, you might not agree with their tactics, but you also don’t want to defend the fascist corporate state either.  And, as the series progresses, you are given no easy answers here about whom to like, or even whom you should be identifying with.  On one hand, we watch the corporate police state being born, particularly through the use of digitally collected information to keep tabs on the lives of citizens and arrest them even for sympathies that are anti-corporate; think of the Patriot Act as it might be administered by Wall Street.  One character from the future, Escher, represents a “corporation” that fully funds the Vancouver police force to stop the terrorists by any means necessary, especially after they blow up a building in 2012.  At one point, Kiera herself resorts to torturing Julian, Alec’s estranged step-brother who is helping the future terrorists in the present.  On the other hand, however, the show spares no love for the terrorists either.  Julian is made to look like a young Osama bin Laden, and his tactics seem especially sketchy; remember that blown up building I mentioned?  To complicate matters further, we also see how the present-day “terrorists” increasingly seem to want to fight with ideas, not force, and Kiera herself starts to doubt the justness of the future corporate state she’s trying to protect in the present.

You can probably tell that the show is steadily pitching itself as a complex reading of the war on terror at a time of economic crisis—a heady but smart conflation.    Early in the second season, we see Julian, in prison, reading The White Guard, an early book by Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov.  It’s a throwaway scene, but maybe a signal nonetheless if you’re paying close attention. Bulgakov, whose most famous work is The Master and Margarita, wrote The White Guard to depict the many factions (socialist, monarchist, etc.) fighting over Kiev during the 1917 October Revolution.  Bulgakov’s own sympathies were mixed, and he became a critic of Soviet policies, especially under Stalin.  So, Julian, the revolutionary, reading Bulgakov might be a clue that the show’s “take” on the war on terror, corporate malfeasance, and the economic downturn will not be simple.  At the very least, it’s hard to know who the good guys are, and your sympathies for one might have to change over the course of time as you weigh tactics, values, and endgames.

Such steady confusion of sympathies makes for heady, engaging viewing as your identifications with different characters form—and are then challenged.  The plots within plots call to mind Fringe, that rip-off of The X-Files.  But while Fringe and X-Files were willing to play with their main characters’ foibles, neither risked identifications as strongly as Continuum, which, at its best, makes you question your loyalties to characters as a way to make you question what you really think about terrorism, as well as how far we should–and should not–go in defending an unjust economic status quo.  Tricky stuff here.  You wonder, does the repression of terrorism in the 21st century actually result in the corporate take over?  And might the terrorists have a point in organizing against the nascent corporate state?

What begin as extreme poles–fascism and terrorism–steadily become more nuanced over 23 episodes.  Ultimately, Continuum might really be about the re-education of Kiera, who seems led to question who bad the bad guys really are, and if she herself might be a bad guy.  As such, in asking you to identify with her, the show might play to our re-education as viewers, or at least prompt us to question our sympathies in the war on terror and the desirability of having corporations call so many political shots.  Early in the second season, one of the more brutal future terrorists asks Carlos, the present-day police detective, if he’s ever bothered by the injustices he sees, the ways corporations seem to manipulate the law and citizens to turn a profit.  Carlos replies, “Guess I’m just used to it.”  Travis answers: “They need your complacency.”  The exchange seems pitched not just to Carlos but to us, sitting comfortably (for now) in front of our televisions.

In figuring a war on terror and the rise of corporate interests, Continuum pulls no punches.  Given its subject matter, it shouldn’t.  This is complex stuff, deserving of complex treatment.  You should catch up before the third season airs—or before the corporate state bans such provocative viewing.

¤