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Ambivalent about Horror

Dear Television,

TO LOVE HORROR is to love genre. As Annie’s piece on abjection and Phil’s on “Hellmouth” (new meme, anymore?) have both pointed out, discussions of horror very often lead to categorization. Whether in defining the psychoanalytical underpinnings of horror’s affective range or in noting the types of tropes that converge in horror narratives, the genre is one that repeatedly calls for its analysts to return to form.

In part it’s because horror is, as Annie via Kristeva has pointed out, seems so bent on complicating, and often undoing, form. The difficulty then is how to talk about (analyze, define, describe, categorize!) horror without taming it, or reducing it to a theory of socialization. If horror is what wants to challenge categorization or containment, then any discussion of it ought to take that messiness into account.

I am ambivalent about horror.

By this, I don’t mean that I’m uncertain about whether I like or do not like it, or even if it works or does not work for me in particular. (I do like it, and it does work. The ambivalence is partly why it works, which contributes to why I like it.) My ambivalence stems from the fact that I often don’t trust myself both in watching it and talking about it. When I saw The Ring at age 13, I thought the little Dreamworks boy casting his rod into a pool of water was generating the eponymous rippling ring. That, dear reader, is paranoid reading. I’m so quickly startled that it’s often unclear to me whether something is or isn’t Horror. For instance, is Bringing Up Baby a terrifying story? Yes, but I’m not frightened watching it. Is It’s A Wonderful Life scary? Um, sort of! B-horror flicks take it to another level, where you’re never really sure what Frankensteinian assemblage of caricatured tropes you’ll be met with.

Horror is a boundary-defying genre that invades other genres. It’s sort of like melodrama in that way, and indeed it’s often difficult to note where melodrama stops and horror begins. Like melodrama, horror might be better described as a mode than a genre, especially since even within the category of horror, we have the slasher, the psychological thriller, the Gothic, the paranormal, and oh my goodness this list needs to be updated. American Horror Story wants to gross you out, and it often does so via depictions of contorted or mangled bodies. Sleepy Hollow takes many liberties updating Washington Irving’s story, but it is ultimately dependent on the Gothic form (as is Buffy).

As a viewer, you might be absolutely okay with some kinds of horror, while unable to stomach others. (A friend can’t watch this season of American Horror Story because of the snakes. To use his words, “They don’t have any legs. What the fuck? When I see a snake, I’m like ‘come back when you have legs and then we can talk.’ Ugh, the way they move is so repulsive.” Which works well with Annie’s discussion on the abject, since the logic here is that snakes are something of an animal outlier.) But the thing about horror is that, even if you find gross-out flicks “gratuitous” or distasteful (oh so many food metaphors!), the very concept of horror almost obviates that criticism. What happens to the accusation of “gratuitous” when applied to a form that, by definition, seek push and reorganize boundaries? It’s exactly what seems excessive that makes horror so deliciously ambivalent, as well as so difficult to dismiss. And who knows what gets snuck in or communicated in — to use Phil’s metaphor — those messy wads of repulsion.

Gross-out films are one thing, whereas if you’re a television show hoping to get renewed or trying to maintain syndication, pride in putting off your viewers only works in that you still have them. I adore horror films because, as much as they unnerve me, the experience of being forced to sit through one is the closest I get to pure glee. But films end, even if the experience of watching them shows itself as one of discomfort, disappointment, or regret early on. Besides season two of American Horror Story, I’ve never been able to keep up with a horror television show that sustains any kind of season-long narrative arc.

Anthologies have often been my gateway to culture. They’re a way of introducing and explaining the form of something new to the viewer. When that something makes you uneasy, the security of anthologization can really help put you at ease, as a guarantee that you can do this because you’ve done it before. Growing up, I watched a lot of Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? (and read the book series, cf. Fear Street!), two shows that smartly contained distinct plots to single episodes. One could dip in and out, and mysteries were always solved by the end of each half-hour (except when they, y’know, weren’t because of those anonymous third-person camera perspectives that loomed right before the end-credits). These shows were catered to children, sure, but isn’t part of what horror attempts to do is to return you — with the support of psychoanalysis — to a childlike state? Horror, for me, makes the world anew. The uncanny turns what I thought was familiar strange again. It’s largely what I look for in storytelling, period.

These are less the reasons why I watch American Horror Story, which is actually the closest thing television has brought me to my other beloved genre: musical theater (sorry, Smash). And all those who have seen Little Shop of Horrors know musical theater really isn’t that far of a stretch from the uncanny, while horror certainly finds a friend in the campy. Broadway and horror, so wildly and aggressively performative, aren’t all that different in structure. When both ultimately follow form, there results some satisfying pay-off or pathos. The whole out-of-this-world-real-life-in-drag element of both makes them particularly amenable to one another (musical episode of Buffy or Jessica Lange’s dance numbers in American Horror Story, anyone? Also Coven features Patti LuPone. I repeat: Coven features NATIONAL TREASURE PATTI LUPONE). But the classic musical theater world is certain, whereas classic horror depends upon a kind of ontological uncertainty—a world that, no matter how weighted with stylized tropes, can always turn strange or surprise the viewer. So when you mix the too together in something like Tromeo and Juliet (which is based on a story that we really, really thought we knew by now), you’re surprised and, in this case, fairly grossed out. It’s unsettling, but that’s where the magic happens. Break a leg, Kathy-Bates-a-la-Misery style.

Why do kids tell each other ghost stories before they go to bed? It’s not to put them to sleep, but to play off the atmosphere of being in the dark, preferably outdoors in some wooded area. If a story can make one’s very immediate environment uncanny (cf. How I felt walking out of my first viewing of The Fly), I’d call that a success. The truly horrific is what threatens to approach life, filtering through our consciousness, and manifesting as our nightmares. Someone might tell Ryan Murphy that horror doesn’t need to happen in an asylum, nor does it always have to involve literal sexual assault. Horror most often happens where one least expects it say, in the home.

Sometimes I watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents when falling asleep. Netflix and Hulu both have the first four seasons (each contain 30+ episodes), and for someone who’s lost count of how many times she’s watched Cary Grant duck in and out of washrooms in North by Northwest, this is a true gift. The thing is, though, that while many of the episodes are eerie and haunted, they’re not frightening per se and they’re definitely not interested in causing the viewer to throw up. Alfred Hitchcock Presents — with its isolated episodes (perfect bedtime stories!) — is almost calming. It uses the ingredients of Gothic horror to continually witty ends, and it’s both comforting and fascinating to see such narrative tropes maneuvered by an auteur such as Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents is also compelling in that you have a respected director of film thrillers transported to the realm of television, and if anyone wants to see how the mediums diverge, Hitchcock seems like an ideal case study. Beyond being a true formalist, Hitchcock knew how to brand. The episodes might have been contained as though short films, but they were very explicitly made for television (in the intros and outros that couch each episode, Hitchcock often makes fun of interjecting commercials). The narratives in AHS follow the suspenseful moods of Gothic horror, but Hitchcock’s introductions mean we never take this mood in complete earnest. Hitchcock’s visage is always there first, pointing at the insideness of the narrative that his very presence bookends. We’re always saved by Alfred Hitchcock: Narrator at the end, and often we rely on him to give the punch line of the episode. I’ve also lost count of how many slapstick moments occur throughout the seasons.

In the world of televisual horror, Alfred Hitchcock Presents is my safe space. But then again, I didn’t live through the Cold War — my paranoia is not that that shadowed the atmosphere of suspense in Hitchcock’s work. Though that’s another gift that older horror pop culture gives us: it allows us to practice imagination and empathy, becoming attentive and vulnerable to the even the uncomfortable and invasive presence of other bodies.

Good evening,

Jane

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Are Sitcoms Sincere Again?

Dear TV,

I LOVE JANE’S take on the sitcom-as-Manchild and her point that the contemporary sitcom’s reliance on the manchild lets it get away with some pretty lazy comedic work. It’s all true: I love Schmidt but there’s a limit, and I’m glad he’s hitting some actual consequences this season. Still, I think there are some signs of growth in our Tuesday night lineup: Jess’s Nick is reveling in happiness and his untroubled (and distinctly un-Manchildish) liking of Jess. It’s weird and a little mawkish but it’s a kind of progress the show is really interested in highlighting, since there are several scenes whose sole function is to show them adorabling at each other. Nick may be impractical in a way that calls to mind the Manchild, but his crazy scheme to live in Mexico is the opposite of its Manchild-driven cousin — the kind Mindy’s Casey (and last season’s Nick) would come up with. It isn’t driven by that particular strain of ego, the kind that wants to be adventurous (or a DJ) or wallow in cereal damage and flit. Nick’s lunacy is driven not by the nomadic desire to Peter Pan but rather by fear that he and Jess will break up in the world he’s made a habit of Peter Panning in. That may be immature, but it’s a more adult form of immaturity.

Mindy’s boyfriend Casey, in contrast, has been walking the tightrope between Manic Pixie Dream Boy and Manchild in The Mindy Project until he fully morphed this season into sandwich-DJ-boy. I like what he’s done for Mindy — stretching the limits of her self-image till she realized she didn’t like them hyperextended — and I like that he was charming to the bitter end. It’s a better show for refusing to escort its exes offstage, a la Seinfeld, never to be seen again.

In fact, The Mindy Project is plagued with old exes. It’s a funny strength of the show: it rarely condescends to or cheapens the stories of ex-partners, and it dedicates some serious screentime to the largely unexplored problem of having exes who are not terrible people or (for the most part) sources of drama, but whose existence remains a problem. Both New Girl and The Mindy Project are kind; they take a generous view of the ex. They spend time on heartbreak and the painful duty afterwards to think about the other party’s third dimension and wish them well. I have to say, given how much energy the show has spent on this question — even Bill Hader’s Tom McDougall is back! — writing Mindy and Jeremy Reed as ex-lovers seems like a mistake. They’re not awkward enough.

Still, I think Kaling’s show is evolving past the Manchild too: Casey’s gone. Morgan, for all his flaws, is an adult with a remarkable emotional attention span. And Jeremy Reed, who threatened to become Mindy’s Daniel Cleaver, matured so suddenly and completely that he takes charge of the whole practice when everyone takes off in “Music Festival.” (He’s gained weight. This is an amazingly literal show — “Yeah, I’m okay. I mean, I’m shrunken into, like a miniature version of myself,” Casey says when he talks to Mindy from the photobooth picture, and maybe gaining weight means gaining substance.)”

This brings me to Brooklyn Nine-nine. I’m not charmed by Andy Samberg’s Peralta. I have to admit I don’t think the show has been very entertaining. (Yet, anyway.) A lot of it seems conventional and silly and expected. (There are exceptions — Fred Armisen’s cameo was gold, and there have been several jokes that really surprised me — so I’m holding out hope.)

I recognize, too, that part of my sense of having seen this before comes from its flavor. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has that overlit fake-workplace mood that characterizes some shows from the late 80s and early 90s. I’m thinking of Night Court and Wings, though not (for example) Cheers. I think its closest analogue might be Thin Blue Line, a Rowan Atkinson vehicle from the mid-nineties, about a police station, of which I’m stupid-fond. But the difference is interesting: Thin Blue Line is built around a main character only a few years older than Samberg/Peralta whose problem isn’t Manchildhood but premature middle age. And it’s kind of wonderful that his “antagonist” — a middle-aged detective who keeps trying to be a cowboy — is closer to the Samberg persona. The show dwells on the virtues and problems of policework as paperwork. Another way of putting it, I guess, is that Peralta’s problem (see “The Slump”) is often one of inspiration, which runs the risk of taking his work too seriously. (At these points, Jane, your McNulty comparison is totally apt.) The show operates on the fiction of a meritocracy: he’s brilliant! The captain hasn’t “earned” his place on the wall! Gina’s claim that the police are “the worst” doesn’t quite fit with the show’s worldview. What makes Thin Blue Line the better show, to my mind, is its portrayal of policework as pedantry and minutiae, repetition and reports, all powered by (in the detective’s case) the glorious myth of case-cracking and (in Atkinson’s) the fulfillment that comes from service to the Queen. That’s an interesting tension. If Thin Blue Line opens with Atkinson pompously instructing us on the work of the police and then undoing the lecture, Brooklyn Nine Nine operates like a sketch comedy that just happens to be set in a police station. But police stations aren’t blank spaces, especially now, and a precinct doesn’t work for me as the neutral ground for light comedy.

What these shows share, I think, is an impulse to grab, a little wildly, at innocence. They’re trying to restore the sitcom to its former place as straightforward, not winking. They resist going meta. They slip, of course, but the nannycam moment Jane mentions, the one that confirms Peralta as Manchild, is working so hard to be believable that its meta goes flat. We are in an electronics store and this is a television show! is the substance of its comment. (Not that we are constantly surveilled, not that a militarized police can abuse that surveillance, and not that the women are watching the man do the cool stuff onscreen, but rather that surveillance helps the police get their man. Look! They got him! He got him! And now we got them getting him!) They’re going for laughs and heart, not irony or a mock-doc frame that lets us pretend our way out of sentiment or sincerity.

I’m all for that nostalgic experiment. (Though, as I’ve said, I’m skeptical of its success across the board.) Here are my deeply subjective impressions: I think Mindy’s trying to bring the rom-com to television in an earnest way, and it’s working. I think New Girl is going for the warmth of Friends 2.0 and succeeding, especially now that it stopped fighting Jess and Nick together, though it feels like a plastic world to me in a way The Mindy Project doesn’t. I think Brooklyn Nine-Nine is trying to offer a workplace comedy unencumbered by the politics and ethics of Parks and Recreation, the cameras of The Office and the darkness of Cheers. I’m unconvinced by it, but what’s compelling about all three — and this is the reason I’ll keep watching — is that they’re going for the thing itself rather than commenting on the thing. I think we’re all a little bruised by meta-commentary, so I’m all for a night of TV that plays with returning to story as story, laugh as laugh.

Sincerely yours,

Lili

Can the Sitcom Grow Up?

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE — one of Fox’s new sitcoms — begins with a classic expository trick: the viewer’s first introduction into this world coincides with that of new characters’. (As if they weren’t all new to us.) The pilot presents commanding chief Ray Holt (played by an almost virtuosically stoic Andrew Braugher) to his police precinct, which features a solid group of personalities from the unexpectedly-good-at-his-job detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) to charm-monster administrative assistant Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti). It might be an old move, getting viewers acclimatized to a sitcom’s cast and environment via one of its own characters, but it works. It might even contribute to why multiple critics have described Brooklyn Nine-Nine as having one of the only solid pilots of this current season. (Which, to be fair, is a feat in any season.).

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a show about the police that doesn’t fall into the habitual category of dramatic police procedural — yet it’s not without its moments of action or suspense either. The show is, however, predominantly a comedy (couched in Fox’s Thursday night sitcom block between Dads and New Girl) that capitalizes on the presumed discrepancy (at least in television’s ambitious imagination) between police work and humor. Brooklyn Nine-Nine continuously comes up against its own subject matter when, say, Peralta cracks jokes at an elderly woman during the scene of a hold-up. In another scene, Peretti’s character flat-out tells two detectives the obvious fact that “Police are the worst.”

This move of emphasizing what’s absurd or oxymoronic in the banal isn’t exactly a new move for comedians (and this particular cast is filled with them), but I do think Brooklyn Nine-Nine is doing something slightly different in directly pointing to the absurdity, while simultaneously embracing its implications. Police are the worst, but what about these police? There isn’t a single character in the show so far that viewers are against. The show’s attitude is winking and earnest, skeptical and optimistic. In this way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine mirrors its creators’ (Michael Schur and Dan Goor) prior project, Parks and Recreation. And character types are transported across the two shows as well (Holt and Swanson; Rosa and April; Peralta and Knope; Scully and Jerry). With only four episodes under its belt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has found its pace faster than the unsteady first season of Parks and Rec, but that just goes to show how much might potentially change. Though I do think the show’s gesture — of stating the obvious while also undermining it — gives it a kind of earnestness that, like Parks and Rec returns an infectious hope upon its viewers.

Such hope perhaps means more when you look at the shows that air directly after Brooklyn Nine-Nine (New Girl and Mindy Project), as well as the particular network in which they all currently reside. As Andy Greenwald recently wrote, Fox has, if one disregards Dads, “emerged as the smartest, funniest, and all-around best night of comedy on television.”

The glory days of NBC’s Thursday nights — and I’m including all three decades of greatness here, the Cheers-anchored ’80s, the Friends/Seinfeld ’90s, and the Office/30 Rock aughts — crackled with wit and infectious, rom-comedic possibility. Viewers could park themselves on a single channel, secure in the knowledge that they’d be smartly entertained for at least 90 minutes. It was network TV at its best: both dependable and transporting, an intimate, unmissable party to which the entire country was invited.

In 2013, Fox has firmly supplanted NBC as the host of this party. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and Mindy Project, we get a series of sitcoms that feel not just inviting or comfortable, but at times even surprising. It’s a tough calculus to achieve, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine seems aware that the contemporary television sitcom needs to be as much a comfortable throwback as it does a novel entity in order to thrive.

About halfway into the pilot, Jeffords briefs the new commanding officer on the precinct, describing Peralta as “my best detective. He likes putting away bad guys, and he loves solving puzzles. The only puzzle he hasn’t solved…is how to grow up.” This seems coincidentally to be the fundamental puzzle of most male characters on television sitcoms — but might the same be said for the television sitcom itself? Is the television sitcom growing up, and it is, of all places, doing so under Fox?

To present male leads as exceptional at their jobs, yet adolescent-to-the-point-of-dysfunctional in their social lives is a familiar trope, and you find it in comedies and dramas alike (I wonder how much Peralta might be a play on The Wire’s McNulty). It’s almost a fantasy of the predominantly male-driven world of sitcoms to allow men to have it both ways. While a commentary on male privilege in general (oh, let us not bring up Dads), it affects the sitcom structure from narrative content down to its very form. In order to keep the repetitious plot of the sitcom world in motion, one must never let its men grow up too quickly, if at all. Perhaps a less dire way of looking at it: if men acted like adults, where would we find the comedy? But even this view is exhausting and potentially exhausted by now, for jokes about “the boy can’t help it!” are practically as old as the epic story.

Perhaps Molly Lambert’s category of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy (who “builds up the heroine’s self-confidence, providing comfort, inspiration, and nurturing vibes without demanding anything in return”) would be better suited not to describe male characters that are unbelievable, but are all too much so? The Manic Pixie Dream Boy isn’t a female fantasy in the same way the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is for men. He is neither docile, comforting, nor inspiring for our heroines. But this doesn’t preclude him from acting, in a way, as a kind of female fantasy. Rather, he is, like his female counterpart, forever immature, coyly incompetent, and cutely fumbling in his efforts — and yet surprisingly capable in accomplishing his culturally prescribed roles (here, solving crimes or catching the “bad guys,” as Peralta puts it, rather than baking a pie). Unlike the Dream Girl, however, our Dream Boys are often presented with a knowing wink.

Indeed, to call attention to the meta-ness of its types, Brooklyn Nine-Nine begins with Andy Samberg’s Peralta talking into a recording device in a camera store that then rebroadcasts his grinning talking head in the many screens populating the store. TVs within our TVs! The emphatic media framing — and subsequent reframings — of this opening scene, though, forces viewers to question not just Peralta as a character, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine as a show. Where are we, what genre is this, and how much do we trust the talents of this obvious goofball? (Peralta solves the crime by finding a hidden camera in a teddy bear, and then proceeds to mime in a baby-voice as the teddy bear to what we later learn is his co-worker/crush. I mean.) It’s a clever establishing scene by the show, but it’s also vastly forgiving to its male lead.

The competent and endearing manchild, though, seems to be a trend across Fox’s Tuesday night comedy bracket, and I’m wondering how much we are expected (or should) forgive it. I mean, is it really all that cute? There were moments when Samberg’s Peralta could easily substitute for Max Greenfield’s Schmidt in New Girl (another character who is notably good at his job, interested in fonts, yet absurdly immature and maladroit in his social life). Both Peralta and New Girl’s Winston “loves solving puzzles,” and both sometimes do it with their pants off (though, to be fair, the latter only likes puzzles — he isn’t all that good at them). This season of the New Girl has Zooey Deschanel as the most grounded character of the entire cast — an almost complete reversal from how she was introduced to the show. Instead, we have her dating Nick Miller — failed lawyer but hacky-sack-cool-kid — who shows development this season because he’s able to express his feelings. This is, of course, played up for laughs, as Nick pours forth on his opinions about the weather and horses and magic, stream-of-consciousness-style. In Mindy Project, our eponymous protagonist moves between being engaged to Blake Anderson (of Workaholics fame), to going on a date with Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan Tookers, to flirting with Glenn Howerton (aka Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny). Manchildren all around! Are these really our only romantic options?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Mindy Project especially feel new because they are playing on our knowledge of narrative tropes (police procedural and rom-com respectively), but I’m not sure how far this can be sustained. Perhaps the sitcom needs to grow up? Or maybe what I’m imagining is exactly what the sitcom doesn’t need — for if Greenwald is right in that Fox offers us a place of reassurance and comfort, then the network sitcom must never truly develop.

Sometimes firemen are women,

Jane

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Why We Watch Netflix In The Middle of the Night

Dear TV,

I WENT TO a puppet show last night. It was the story of the little mechanic who runs the human brain (pictured here as a moldy-looking engine room), zipping around adjusting dopamine and pressure levels trying to regulate his human’s behavior. There was one scene when the beleaguered homunculus was trying to get his insomniac to go back to sleep. How? He made him turn on the computer. “Season one, episode six,” he whispered, and the person’s rhythms relaxed back into REM.

I leaned forward to try to catch which show he was watching, but the title never came. It didn’t have to, I eventually realized, because the scene wasn’t developing a character by revealing his tastes in TV so much as it was appealing to a universal self-soothing mechanism; the experience of flipping around in the dark on a computer for something to watch has become that familiar. Netflix isn’t just The Way We Watch Now, the way Annie said, it’s The Way We Go Back To Sleep Now too. These days we can choose the perfect mood to chase away the nightmare, or the anxiety, or — less successfully — the sad. TV has gotten a lot more intimate, more entwined with our subconscious, closer. In this sense, shows have come to function as music, more symphonic poem than story, more repeating theme than plot.

(I, for instance, have recently medicated my anxious nights with Arrested Development, Peep Show, or Frasier. I turn to the first for its shadowless orange irresponsible cheer*, the second for the comforting bleakness of repeatedly hitting bottom again. As for Frasier, let’s just say its crises are underwritten by psychic safety.)

This isn’t that new, but as we think about how the Netflix and Hulu archives have changed our TV-watching habits, I think this tendency to watch television for reasons that have nothing to do with spoilers (or plot) has gotten stronger. TV has always been something we could have on in the background; it was a casual medium whose built-in inanity let us relax — this is the dubious charm of the late-night show. Over time, scripted stories got better and made more and bigger claims on our attention. Now, thanks to Netflix and other kinds of archival watching, there’s a funny middle ground. We might have Netflix on in the background not because we’re inattentive (or because it’s only mildly compelling) but because we watch TV now the way people watch movies: we rewatch. The shows that become classics are technically reruns, as AHP said, but even more so because they don’t flow from that place of happenstance that gives traditional TV its aleatory quality (“oh, it’s this one!”). Now we choose particular shows and we might — like the mechanic in the puppet show — even say “Season 1, Episode 6.” We rewatch, memorize entire sections, quote. The pleasure lives partly in the repetition and partly in watching things we know are coming be skillfully worked out — in watching the universe the show creates survive the minute scrutiny a fan loves to give it. In the really good shows those worlds are robust, and we can still find something new on a twelfth (or 48th) viewing.

Point being, as we talk about how Netflix technology affects the TV canon, one of the most interesting new contributing factors to a show’s long-term reputation is its resistance to repeat-watching. Spoilers, long the bane of the TV viewing public, are totally irrelevant in Netflix-world, and plotty shows that thrive on cliffhangers may not age as well. The real classics (in this sense, anyway) are the shows that reward rewatchers. Arrested Development is famously one of those shows. Across the pond, Peep Show and The Office are too. As Netflix has started to experiment with producing its own shows, it’s been interesting to see how different the results have been. I wish they’d release the numbers on how many people rewatch their shows. My guess: whatever the actual viewing numbers, Orange is the New Black has many more repeat-viewings than House of Cards.

I think it has to do with a show’s ability to keep its contract with its audience. House of Cards worked (for me) because it was gorgeously shot and seemed conscious of Spacey’s absurdity, his smallness relative to those epic sweeping shots of DC in the opening credits. He was a low-level Macbeth convinced he was Macbeth, and as he delivered his charming but pompous monologues, the bigger stories (to which he was oblivious) were swirling all around him. We weren’t supposed to take his sense of his own centrality at face value; his tragedy was that he thought he was a tragic hero. But a season’s aim is clarified by its ending, and the end of the first season was way too Francis-centric to sustain that reading. Francis is the center after all, and that makes the whole series, in retrospect, much less interesting. The universe is thinner than it seemed, and the show’s return to form (and Francis) betrayed our growing investment in a truly amazing ensemble cast and their stories, which revert to second-string. (This is my frustration with Mad Men too.)

Orange is the New Black does exactly the opposite: it begins, a little unpromisingly, as Piper’s fish-out-of-water story. To Piper’s credit, she keeps trying to call herself out on her own myopia, selfishness, and arrogance, and the show does too, by shuffling her to the side and expanding outward, investing more and more in the ensemble and less and less in Piper. More characters end up drawn as fish out of water than fish in it. It’s a magnificent, promiscuously sympathetic exercise. Yes, it falters sometimes: Pennsatucky is too monstrous by half (both shiftless meth-and-abortion-addict and murderous-fundamentalist-Christian), and Vicky Jeudy’s Janae Watson deserves a better story than the after-school special she got, but to these I say Sophia! Taystee! Red! Poussey — my favorite character in the show who steals every single scene she’s in even though we haven’t gotten her back story yet. The show is stunningly good at acknowledging the complexity and subjectivity of almost everyone involved. (Even the overdrawn Pornstache gets some dollops of sympathy.)

OITNB’s fishbowl ends up being a place from which you can see the world more clearly: the Maury Kind subplot was a brilliant sendup of the smaller fishbowl in which “This American Life” (the concept as well as the show) tends to take place. The show is a fugue of nested motivations, impulses, and stories that works hard not to sacrifice anyone, and — when that sacrifice is necessary — ruthlessly shows its effects. I will never get over Suzanne (“Crazy Eyes”) crying, and we will never get to feel better about that.

Do I need a Spoiler Alert to talk about the finale? Here’s one just in case.

It might be argued (and some have) that the show, like Piper, tries to call itself out on its own myopia and ultimately fails, but I’ll defend that finale as exactly the opposite. I think it’s a pretty incredible piece of television.

It’s always arresting when the ”good” woman goes dark, but to do so in a Christmas special is an unprecedented escalation in the Interesting TV Wars. I have never seen a Christmas special so lovingly executed, so gorgeously peppered with small moments of grace, in order to show both the effects of grace and what everyone outside it feels: isolated, misanthropic, partly dead. The Christmas pageant wasn’t mocked, its triumphs were fully earned, and yet Piper’s exclusion from them was just as fully warranted. The modulation in contrasts there was insane, it was filigree, it was totally amazing. If we worried that this show would devolve into Piper’s self-help story, that worry’s over. And if she isn’t a murderer, it’s on a technicality. That last shot of Piper smashing Pennsatucky’s face over and over, long after there was any sign of life, was an incredible piece of character assassination. I suppose one could argue that it’s still a Piper-centric ending in that it ends with her, but the heart of the finale is inside the auditorium, where Norma is singing. It’s Piper vs. the ensemble, and Piper loses. That’s a long way of saying that OITNB respects its own experiments and, in so doing, makes its world more real.

It’s been said that OITNB is a hard show to watch. Or rewatch. And yet, almost everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it has already watched it two or three times — unlike, for example, Season 4 of Arrested Development**. To quote one of the most rewatched shows on television: what’s the deal with rewatching?

There obviously isn’t a perfect correlation between the shows we rewatch for comfort and the shows we rewatch for quality; there’s too much bad TV, and too many bad reruns, for any right-thinking person to defend that thesis. But canon formation is a slow and sloppy thing. I do think that — for those of us built like the puppet in the play — when we reach for our computers in the middle of the night, it’s for a meditative kind of reassurance. It’s hard to square reassurance with footage of Chapman beating Pennsatucky, but maybe narrative safety isn’t the same as anodyne content. It’s more a matter of good building codes.

When we decide we want to walk down a well-worn televisual path again in the middle of the night, it’s for the mood or world that show creates. The impulse is almost more musical than narrative, but that world can only exist (that is, we can only trust it) if the show’s endings respect their arcs and its risky journeys are done well. When we’re riddled with anxieties in the middle of the night, maybe what we want is less a happy story than a good architect. Then, safe in the knowledge that there’s a god — or at least a decent mechanic — we can listen to the turning gears and go quietly to sleep.

Season one, episode six,

Lili

*Talking about the first three seasons only. Season 4 feels — psychically speaking — like a nightmare version of AD to me.

** It was fine, I don’t want to get into it, but it needed to trump all its prior victories and tie its million threads together into an amazing whole. It didn’t. That ending was a mess.

Bizarre Love Triangle: Me, Murakami and The Great Gatsby

By Kalliope Lee

Kalliope Lee

To Haruki Murakami

The late Matthew Bruccoli, who made a distinguished career out of studying Fitzgerald and his oeuvre, wrote in his introduction to New Essays on The Great Gatsby:  “The Great Gatsby and deserving readers will always find each other.  And the discovery must be a private act.  After that happens, the serious reader will require…help….”  The statement is nothing less than an oracular pronouncement, an enlightened master speaking in koans to his disciples, preparing them for the arduous, solitary path ahead.

Whether or not I was “deserving” of my own first encounter with Gatsby, I cannot deny a sense of fatedness.  After my childhood in Queens, my ambitious, upwardly mobile, immigrant parents moved us to the North Shore of Long Island, where the novel takes place.  Our new house was situated halfway between East Egg and West Egg.  Upon moving in, I unpacked a box of books, from which I pulled out a copy of Gatsby.  A synchronicity right out of Jung, so symbolically resonant in its mise-en-scene.  

I was nine years old and had never even heard of the book before, but I knew it belonged to my father, who had majored in English Literature at Korea University.  Likely, he picked it up while living in the States alone for a year before the rest of his family joined him.

I still have the book; in fact, it’s lying open next to me as I type this now, a Scribner’s Contemporary Classics paperback with a simple red and white striped cover.  The title and author are in the original Art Deco font.  The corners of the cover have lost their ears, and the binding has completely given way.  Even the Scotch tape used to patch together the pages has become brittle and desiccated, having lost its stickiness long ago.  The price on the back says $1.65.

I’ve since picked up other copies — the Oxford edition with Bruccoli’s commentary and the Everyman Library version.  Both are hardcovers, purchased with a view to their longevity.  But it’s the original paperback that draws me back — with its uneven underscoring and notes in the margins, scribbled at various times of rereading.  It’s become a historical document of sorts, charting the evolution of my understanding.  Like the timetable on which Nick Carraway writes down the names of those who come to Gatsby’s house, it too is old and disintegrating at the folds, a palimpsest.

My discovery of Gatsby was a “solitary act,” as Bruccoli deems necessary, the serendipitous find of a bookish misfit.  When we moved to the North Shore, there were virtually no Asians to speak of, and I felt my cultural disenfranchisement in all aspects of life.  Not only in school, but also, inversely, at home, where I was the disregarded Korean daughter among culturally favored sons.  In both worlds, and because I had no Asian girlfriends to commiserate with, I was relegated to the fringes.  So I sought with desperation a refuge in books.  Gatsby, in particular, sustained me.  Within its pages I stored my soul for safekeeping — while the rest of me went through the grudging motions of my pained adolescence. 

My other sanctuary was the city, where I’d escape whenever I had the chance.  I’d ride the Long Island Railroad, taking the same route Nick Carraway takes on his daily commute from Great Neck — the real town behind the fictional West Egg — to Manhattan, and his job as a bond trader.  When the train passed through Queens, I would see the Valley of Ashes, and the dispirited George Wilson limply pumping gas at his auto body shop.  I imagined Gatsby’s glorious yellow car driving past “with fenders spread like wings, scatter[ing] light through half of Astoria.” The journey released the images that had taken root in my imagination; the movement of the wheels and the chugging of the engine freed me to romp in the terrain more real than the reality I knew — and I was reminded again “that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”

As the city came into view, I would recite the lines, halfway between prayer and incantation:  “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”  I sensed the approach of a critical threshold, not only from Queens to Manhattan, but something more profound — literally so, as though we were descending into the shadowy underworld.  A dim, malleable place where, as Fitzgerald provocatively forebodes, “anything can happen…anything at all.”

Fitzgerald’s North Shore became my North Shore.  And every journey I took on the Port Washington/Penn Station line became a pilgrimage of sorts, the way Jay Gatz returned after the war to Daisy’s hometown of Louisville to pay homage to their love affair.  Each time, the path was forged more deeply in my mind, the attendant images evoked again and again, so that I could practically recite the entire book by heart.  The peculiar turns of phrase, the recurrence of puzzling motifs, its runic, fragmented quality, became more pronounced.  They began to nag at me, stealing my attention at unexpected moments.

Gatsby itself seemed like “the volumes…that stood on [Nick’s] shelf…promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.”  For instance, this very line holds a clue: the first two names of the triumvirate are common enough, but the third sends you on a hunt, all the way back to antiquity (not easy during an age without internet access) to a rather shadowy, enigmatic patron of new Augustan age poets.  References to Maecenas even in ancient literature are sparse, prompting further curiosity.  And the most famous of his charges, Virgil, is more maddeningly cryptic than Fitzgerald in Gatsby.  Soon the reader is caught in a Chinese box of puzzles.  And that is only one clue in a novel rife with such provocations.

My curiosity roused, I began gathering Gatsby facts and reading Fitzgerald biographies.  But my growing preoccupation wasn’t something I could share with anyone.  Not only would it have sounded absurd:  “Sorry, I can’t go out this Friday night; I have to stay in and re-read The Great Gatsby for the 23rd time because I’m trying to figure out what it really means.”  I also assumed others would judge it an eccentric and inexplicable passion as I did Star Trek conventions or trainspotting.  If I were to hazard the effort of explaining my peculiar hobbyhorse, my enthusiasm would have to be met with equal enthusiasm.  But I didn’t feel particularly optimistic, even in the face of those who’d read the book because I saw in their eyes and heard in their tones that they didn’t “get” the book like I did.  They had read it in high school, they would tell me, and didn’t see what the big deal was.

Though I cannot say that Gatsby was the sole reason I chose to major in the classics in college, its original working title, Trimalchio in West Egg, colored my decision.  I had become acquainted with the eponymous hero and flamboyant host in my high school Latin class, when we read Cena Trimalchionis.  Goaded by Gatsby, I read it again more critically in college.  Not surprisingly, like Fitzgerald’s reference to Maecenas, Trimalchio lured me into yet another puzzle — another cryptic text that opened another can of mental worms.  In graduate school, I read the Satyricon again in light of the entire classical tradition and its inter-textual influences, both past — and future.

I took a detour into T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which appropriated lines from the Satyricon, spoken by Trimalchio, for its epigraph: “For I myself saw the Cumaean Sibyl with my own eyes, hanging in a cruet, and when the boys asked her, Sibyl, what do you want?, she answered, I want to die.” From Eliot, I went on to his hero Dante and back to Dante’s hero Virgil and further back to Homer; I explored the neoteric poets, particularly Catullus and his connection to the patron, Maecenas.  Eliot also pointed the way forward, to Conrad, from whose Heart of Darkness Fitzgerald revealed to H.L. Mencken he had “learned a lot” and which he had “consciously imitated…in Gatsby.”  I went on to read other writers on whom Conrad exerted a significant influence and studied them side by side, hoping one would shed light on the other — and ultimately, Gatsby.

Growing claustrophobic, I left graduate school, trading my place among the dead and suffocating for more expansive pastures where Gatsby awaited, breathing, living, inexhaustibly deep.  If I’d navigated the maze of the western literary tradition with Gatsby as my companion, it would now compel me to come out of closet and disclose my true desire — to write fiction.

As much as I had faith in Gatsby, however, I had no confirmation that it wasn’t somehow “all in my head.”  I don’t know how long I would’ve lasted if I hadn’t discovered Haruki Murakami.  The lone Toru Watanabe, narrator of Norwegian Wood confides:

I would pull [The Great Gatsby] off the shelf when the mood hit me and read a section at random.  It never once disappointed me.  There wasn’t a boring page in the whole book.  I wanted to tell people what a wonderful novel it was, but no one around me had read The Great Gatsby or was likely to.  Urging others to read F. Scott Fitzgerald, although not a reactionary act, was not something one could do in 1968.

Reading these lines, I had to stop and calm myself.  It was a revelation — silent yet seismic.  Gatsby, the novel, also catalyzes the meeting between Toru and his friend, Nagasawa: “When I did finally meet the one person in my world who had read Gatsby, he and I became friends because of it.”  Murakami’s fictional world was giving me what I had desired in real life — a friend and mentor who intuitively understood and shared my obsession. And though I had not exchanged one word with the author, I understood it wasn’t a matter of words.  Murakami and I, to quote Fitzgerald’s opening of Gatsby, had “been unusually communicative in a reserved way.”

To be sure, one can glean the Gatsbian influences in Murakami’s work, not only in the conscious literary ways the author himself professes, but in its very vocabulary and metaphors, the way one picks up the accent or the mannerisms of a lifelong companion, or even takes on his features.

“Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel,” Murakami writes in his essay “As Translator, As Novelist,”

I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there).  Whatever the case, you can sense the level of my infatuation with The Great Gatsby.  It taught me so much and encouraged me so greatly in my own life.  Though slender in size for a full-length work, it served as a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which I was able to organize the many coordinates that make up the world of the novel.  I read Gatsby over and over, poking into every nook and cranny, until I had virtually memorized entire sections.

My meeting with Murakami and our shared enthusiasm for Gatsby was nothing short of deliverance, and this solidarity invested me with a sense of hope.  It championed my strange, secret mania for Gatsby, whose addiction had been perplexing even to me.  But most of all, I felt truly accepted for the first time in my life.  Whether Murakami experienced the pain of alienation as I did, his narrators, like Toru Watanabe, are solitary figures, preferring books and music to the company of peers.  And with this, my soul identified.

Fitzgerald confessed to a similar plight of exclusion:

That was always my experience—a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton…. However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.

Transferring this sense of indignation into his art, Fitzgerald rendered Gatsby, a parvenu par excellence, who by hook and by crook tries to make his way into exclusive East Egg society.  But Fitzgerald’s resentment, which prevented him from ever being “able to forgive the rich,” finds resolution in the resurrection of another secret society, whose membership doesn’t require money, but a different sort of wealth — esoteric, literary knowledge.  Though Gatsby ultimately “failed” to penetrate the upper class, Fitzgerald succeeded in joining another elite cabal, which boasted its own blue-blooded pedigree of literary cognoscenti.    Mental agility has been the alternate way “in” since the ur-upstart Hermes tricked his way onto Mount Olympus and secured tenure as a god (as legitimate as Zeus, who had fathered him illegitimately during a clandestine relationship with mother Maia).  Who needs money when you have smarts, which can get money and a lot more?  It can even catapult you from the time-bound realm of lowly mortals to the eternity of the gods.  Ars longa, vita brevis.  Fitzgerald seems to have been aware of these stakes, as the motif of time figures recurrently throughout Gatsby.  (According to Bruccoli, there are at least 450 time words in the novel.)  A spiritual son of Hermes, Fitzgerald’s true wealth was his prodigious verbal talent, and it is with this currency that he ensured his place among the literary immortals.

And yet, there was a price, a grave, bittersweet price, for this ultimate victory.  Just as Hermes learns the art of sacrifice en route to the top, Fitzgerald too paid dearly — with what he referred to as “the whole burden of this novel — the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” These sentiments are echoed with aching eloquence at the close of the novel, as Nick imagines Gatsby’s last moments, referring to the “high price he paid for living too long with a single dream.”

Though the publication and posthumous success of Gatsby proved redemptive of Fitzgerald’s sacrifice, the author’s longing did not disappear.  Its pathos, which inspired the most poignant, hauntingly elegiac passages of Gatsby, is a signature leitmotif that runs through his entire corpus and tragically, in the corrosive alcoholism that dissolved his talent and shortened his life.  This weltschmerz is both the Muse, who inspires, and the Siren who lures to death with her seductive whispers.  Daisy Buchanan incarnates both aspects.  In Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, the roles are meted to two love interests.  Emotionally fragile Naoko portrays the exquisite sensitivity of the artistic soul, which cannot bear the pain of reality and pines for the blissful union she once shared with her dead boyfriend — while spirited Midori represents its contrary world of hope amid the everyday rigors of reality.

Naoko’s eventual suicide and Toru’s wrenching grief over her death replay Nick’s sober reflections upon Gatsby’s murder.  For both narrators, time must elapse before they can tell their story.  Framed retrospectively, the deaths of Naoko and Gatsby become a trope for the loss of artistic innocence.  Or rather, the sacrifice of otherworldly waters of life, its womblike warmth, which is in essence creativity’s romance with the imagination, where anything can happen.  And where life is eternal, possibilities are infinite and the mind free to “romp” like “the mind of God.”

To finish a book, to publish the product, the writer must leave his Eden.  He must give up his union with the divine and enter the cold, hard reality against which his ideals may “break up like glass.”  But this is the price exacted.  It is the initiation of the writer.  Perhaps it is because Fitzgerald never experienced the extraordinary success of his novel in his lifetime that he sought wistfully his ideals in the anesthetic of alcohol.  Or perhaps it was the age of which he was a part that enabled his dissolution.  Whatever the case, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is linked intimately with his failure in life and his early demise.

Though I’m well aware of the dangers of ascribing qualities of an author’s characters to the author himself, I also know how desperately an aspiring writer needs a model to emulate.  Reading Norwegian Wood and following Toru Watanabe’s journey to the end — through his wrenching, cathartic grief over Naoke’s death and his subsequent return to the world of the living and the vivacious Midori — was heartening.  Not only had Toru chosen to commit to life, but so had Murakami, it seems.  A decision which is reflected in his lifestyle and his art — in his marathon running, healthy eating and the strict discipline of his prolific writing.  Novel after novel, Murakami mines more deeply the ore of his prodigious talent.

Murakami’s books have for me served as a commentary on Gatsby.  I read his work as if with a Gatsby divining rod, alert to allusions embedded in his narratives, which confirm my understanding of the classic.  Reading Gatsby through Murakami’s lens has also refined my perspective, as it refracted the success of Gatsby from the failure of Fitzgerald’s life.  Consequently, I could admire the novel, but choose to live otherwise as an artist.  I did not have to sacrifice my life for my art.  Or at least not in the destructive way Fitzgerald had.  If Gatsby had served as “a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which [Murakami] was able to organize…the world of the novel,” Murakami’s life served as a model for me.  His example inspired me to finish my first novel and see this rite of passage not as the beginning of the end, but of better, perhaps greater, things to come.  And for this, I love Murakami most.  But perhaps, and with terrible irony, it is a love that I can only imagine, keeping its hope alive eternally in my dreams, daring not to risk its meeting in a world where a rose can appear to be a “grotesque thing,” and the sunshine shows raw on “the scarcely created grass.”

Kalliope Lee studied the classics at The University of Chicago and Columbia University and received her MFA in Fiction from NYU.  She could not have finished her debut novel, Sunday Girl, without The Great Gatsby and Murakami’s books by her side.

Against Pop-Freud

Dear TV,

WE’VE TALKED A BIT HERE about Masters of Sex in relation to Mad Men and The Sopranos, and I want to wrap up our first week back at LARB by talking about how these shows use Freud. Here’s my working hypothesis: Masters of Sex is — surprisingly, for a show that’s explicitly about sex — a cinched-up anti-drama and a sustained attack on the tendency, in our “good” TV, to psychologize the antihero using Freudian psychoanalysis. It’s a show refreshingly uninterested in either the breakthrough or the climax.

It’s worth saying, first off, that a lot of good TV is Freud-sloshed. It’s not his fault, but Freud’s a handy deus ex machina for the storyteller who needs his characters sick but motivated and sympathetic in their sickness. I’ve long thought Livia Soprano turns on Tony when she finds out he’s going to a psychiatrist not because it implies that he’s weak or disturbed, but because she refuses to appear in that particular account of human nature. Casting himself as a patient means Tony’s surrendered to an ideology that — so goes the stereotype — saddles the mother with the psychic weight of a child’s development and blames her for its failures. Livia won’t accept that frame, and why would she? (Who but a sick Freudian subject would accept the burden of Freudian motherhood?) It’s a neat turn that Livia’s sociopathy gets medicalized as BPD in contemporary psychiatric terms. It’s more of the same, of course; BPD is the new “neurosis,” and in resorting to BPD, the show’s explanatory system just shuffles through generations of psychiatric history without changing its basic approach.

Freud might’ve spent the early stages of his career mainly on female patients, but these days it’s the male protagonists — the damaged recidivists — whose irrationality we’re invited to analyze, sympathize with, examine, understand. Insofar as Tony Soprano and Don Draper can claim our sympathy, it’s because they’re imagined as Freudian subjects whose relation to sexuality is determined in large part by childhood. Sure, it’s a little surprising that Draper’s backstory is actually more Freudian than Soprano’s, who at least gets the thing out in the open on the couch. But the point is basically that in this kind of Good Drama, a character’s momentum derives from a variation on Pop Freudian Causality, a kind of reaching back through human nature to a core of sex. Sex is why people do. Sexual trauma explains Don Draper and everything he wants and does — this, very broadly, is the point of all those overdone id-revealing flashbacks: Sylvia Rosen exists because a prostitute who resembled her raped him.

The trouble with a show that invites you to sympathize so completely with the flawed protagonist is that the answers pale next to the questions. Why does Don, an otherwise interesting, complex creature, commit adultery like a compulsive? If he’s as stuck as he seems, as permanently damaged, do we want to keep watching? So many people want poor Don to change; are these, they seem to say, really the limits of the possible for men in the fifties and sixties (and now)? Fans are dissatisfied with Don these days, and it’s because the Freudian approach has worn a little thin.

My friend Monica once observed that because almost everything is phallic, there’s a sort of symbolic bankruptcy to a penis. There’s just not much it can symbolize because somewhere along the way, penises became the thing that everything else is about. The brilliance of Masters of Sex, in my opinion, is that it finds a way out of this paradigm: it’s explicitly about sex, so it can’t be about sex. Masters, unlike Draper, is just REALLY INTO HIS STUDY. And Johnson’s REALLY INTO IT TOO. It’s not sublimation, it’s not repression. Sure, he seems to like Johnson, but that’s out in the open. There’s nothing delicious and secret about that, it just is. Yeah, he had an unhappy childhood. What Matt Weiner would have stretched out over four seasons comes out in two episodes. There could not be a less Freudian show.

That’s promising, I think, because it presents an opportunity to explore something other than the romance of repression. Mad Men’s narrative problem is that the penis at its core isn’t, in the final analysis, all that interesting, and neither are its lapses. Weiner’s is a beautiful manufactured universe of trauma and symbols and pain that reduces — if you insist on anchoring it too closely to Don, which Weiner keeps doing (to my chagrin) — not to a compelling account of a historical moment but to a particular man’s very sad and tormented sexual history. It accords huge explanatory power to a caricatured and uninteresting past. Sex was huge to Freud but it’s smaller now, and it’s small to Johnson — her ability to understand it as small, as something that does NOT explain the universe or the human spirit, sometimes seems like her character’s chief virtue.

It’s a neat little schema: the character who dedicates her life to studying sex is the one most keenly aware of its ultimate unimportance. By the same token, the show that’s explicitly about sex is the one with the narrative latitude to wander away and explore other things.

The point is, Masters of Sex isn’t a universe where cigars are (sometimes) just cigars*, it’s one where dildos are always dildos. Penises aren’t the ultimate referent; they can be made of glass and shared and are substitutable, and the most exciting thing about Masters’s Ulysses isn’t its phallic quality or the pleasure it confers but the light on the end and the camera. What’s cool about the glass penis is that it has a point of view. A penis you can see through: that’s disorienting. Why won’t it shrink obediently down into its own central explanatory principle? Why can’t we bask in the porniness this show seems to offer? It’s called — absurdly, as several have pointed out — Masters of Sex! Why isn’t it, well, sexier?

There are lots of reasons, I think. One is that Ulysses transcends porn by going for the grossly anatomical. The porn camera is importantly external (witness the importance of the money shot). There’s nothing inherently sexy about an EKG or about the birth canal. Being visually inside a woman isn’t actually that hot and neither are these inner signs of sex; confronted with images of arousal that  map onto an eye on a glass penis, the pornographic imagination just doesn’t have much to say. Sex, Masters of Sex says. Yes, sex.

(Another reason is that it’s a show that’s literally about a woman and a man looking together through a penis. In literalizing what every one of these Pop-Freudian shows do — let’s look through Don’s penis today! is a perfectly legitimate way to invite one’s partner to watch Mad Men, and I say that with some affection — it liberates us from the tacit unrelenting pressure to do so all the time. The penis gaze may be less sexy than the male gaze, but it might also be more interesting.)

The same is true of the show’s anticlimactic structure writ large: as you guys have pointed out, there’s something startling and unerotic about the show’s narrative style and speed: everything comes fast. What about foreplay? What happened to the interpretive work we’re used to doing? What about the layered metaphors? What about the slow unfolding? WHAT’S UP WITH ALL THE EXPOSITION? It feels almost condescending — perhaps we miss Mad Men’s flattering subtlety, the allusions, the accurate accents. What are all these men from the fifties doing having conversations about consent and stopping sexual encounters when the women aren’t into it? Aren’t the men of history all monsters? The viewer misses her sense of historical superiority. (Too late — as Jane points out, it’s long gone.)

This might be a virtue too. Many critics have pointed out that Mad Men sometimes becomes complicit in the misogyny and racism it depicts so anthropologically even as it flatters the viewer by implying that we’re Above All That now. Masters of Sex has no interest in making you feel good about the enlightened times you live in. It doesn’t keep Libby Masters as the downtrodden nitwit who calls her husband Daddy (though I worried it might), and it’s quite unsentimental in showing us Masters’s selfishness, egotism, and unlikability. We don’t start the series watching him sitting alone, romantically, in a bar, talking cigarettes with a black waiter; we aren’t invited to succumb to his charm before discovering he’s a cad. We first see him at an awards show where he’s ungracious and inarticulate. When next we see him, he’s in the “cathouse” timing Betty’s nonexistent orgasms. This is not a character working hard for our affection. There’s relief in that: we don’t have to mother him. And as a result of not having to mother, we might come to feel some unexpected affection after all.

I want to talk quickly about two scenes that illustrate the show’s lack of interest in providing climax even as it relentlessly studies it. The pilot ends with Masters’s pokerfaced invitation: “We should undertake the research with each other.” It seems like a cliffhanger and you’d be right to expect the next episode to pick up there. And while we will see characters thinking about it and mentally rehearsing this very awkward conversation, what we won’t see is the conversation itself! It turns out that cliffhanger scene at the end of the pilot wasn’t about the frisson of the sexual proposition at all — at least, that’s not where the narrative’s investments live. The real dramatic situation is the much quieter and more novelistic circumstance in which one imagines a million different ways an encounter might go and then gets no satisfaction. It’s at least in part about that frustration, about the deprivation of the fight for which one has been preparing. The fantasies in operation here aren’t the giant sexual stakes they seem to be, they’re petite and conversational and punctured by an unforeseen turn. There’s a miniaturist’s Woolfian sensibility underlying all the “smut.”

We get a similarly deflating outcome after (slight spoiler alert) one character accuses another of spilling a secret. We never find out whether they did or didn’t, not because it’s mysterious but because that’s just not the point. No one is much interested in hammering out the rightness or wrongness of their case; neither do characters in this show seem interested in indulging the kind of muteness that powers tragedy. No Betty Drapers refusing to recognize philandering. No Dick Whitmans. Just stubborn people with sexual impulses but greater intellectual passions dealing with each other in a fairly straightforward way. And as much as that might stymie us, paranoid readers that we are, it does to me, feel kind of new.

Not too close or you’ll get poked in the eye,

Lili

¤

S is for Scandal

MASTERS OF SEX, “PILOT”

Dear Television,

BEFORE WE GO any further in discussing the pilot of Showtime’s new drama, Masters of Sex, I want to take one more look at its title. I’m in full agreement with Phil: Michelle Ashford’s show about the famous team of sexperts — William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson — could not be more unfortunately named. (Lizzy Caplan, who portrays Johnson, is of the same opinion.) If we’re not embarrassed about its bold declaration, we should at least be embarrassed about the bad punning. Whether in 1956, when the show begins, or this past Sunday, right on the heels of TV’s morally dubious journey with Walter White — sex is a topic that apparently remains scandalous. Just to see the word in a title is enough to give us pause. What’s particular about the implication in Masters of Sex, though, is that while we might be liberated (and liberal) enough now to embrace the fact of sex, to know too much about sex still seems undesirable — even prudish.

When we debated covering Masters of Sex earlier this summer, someone made the joke that it seemed especially “on brand” for us. And if we follow the general critical reception on the show so far, we might take “on brand” to mean something like “best new show of the fall season.” I’m being facetious (quite like the show’s title!), but judgments such as “best new show” are of course culturally weighted. While we did anticipate that Masters of Sex might keep company with current prestige dramas (it does star Sheen and Caplan and it does, after all, air immediately after Homeland), we weren’t sure — having not, well, seen the show — exactly in which ways it would. And even now, while its first half-dozen episodes have been largely embraced and vouched for by critics, there’s still a general sense that no one is quite sure what Masters of Sex is doing — in terms of pacing, plotting, tone — and that this ambivalence itself is, if not a definite good thing, at least refreshing.

This brings us to the difficulties of judging pilots in isolation. Even comedies, more fixed in their repetitious episodic formulas and rhythms, are often spoken of as getting better or gaining momentum across time (cf. New Girl, Parks and Rec). The buzz that has already surrounded Masters of Sex as The Show To Watch makes me wonder if even Mad Men garnered this much talk leading up to its pilot. Then again, Mad Men seems born of another era of TV viewership and criticism.

Masters of Sex opens just four years prior to when the Mad Men pilot takes place — and most criticism about the show so far hasn’t been able to discuss the former without reference to the latter — a move that is beginning to feel more and more reflexive. The comparisons between the two period pieces, though, have been mostly made in order to stage the difference between the two. To repeat Phil:

Masters of Sex is not, in other words, a Mad Men rip-off, and the longer we talk about them in the same breath the more difficult it will be for an audience to build around the new series. But looking especially at this first episode in the context of Mad Men’s, I think we can figure out a little bit about what makes this pilot feel slightly off, and also what makes this pilot thrillingly unique.

For starters, I think it’s a little premature to be describing Sheen as a male anti-hero (and perhaps it’s time to reevaluate that term in general — anti-heros have been around since Don Juan, and it also doesn’t mean Male Character That Is Both Awful And Sympathetic, because oh my god is that list long). Sheen is neither as aggressively charming nor self-loathing as Don Draper (yet), and his reservation is seen as part of his charm. (I, for one, have always found Michael Sheen more compelling than Jon Hamm.) Though questions such as whether Caplan’s vivacious portrayal of the competent Johnson will accrue the complexity of a Peggy Olson seems a strange comparison, since what drew Peggy and Don into the possibility of becoming equals was that their relationship was never an explicitly sexual one. The wilting and repressed housewife figure is not to be missed, though. How much is Sheen’s wife — portrayed in an almost classic melodramatic tenor by an exquisite Caitlin Fitzgerald (who is dating Sheen in real life) — like a more sympathetic Betty Draper? Opinions about the actors, beyond noting how attractive and dapper everyone is, are generally laudatory. Sheen and Caplan are both seen as playing somewhat outside of their usual register of characters — both eschewing irony or comedic archetypes for more earnest performances.

Masters of Sex is a show that isn’t afraid of spoilers, especially given that most of its main events can be found on a Wikipedia page. In fact, it’s a show that seems almost flagrantly dismissive of the plot conventions that come with creating the suspense or surprise that builds during the will-they-won’t-they proceedings of most drama romances (even if we know that 95% of the time they will). Masters of Sex is almost pat with its use of cuts: after the opening scene where Masters excuses himself from his own honoring party, we go to a shot of a man (face, at first, obscured) going at a woman from behind. It’s only after this shot that we clearly see that Masters is not the one having sex, but is instead observing it. Later when Betty DiMello (played by Annaleigh Ashford), the prostitute who’s helping Masters conduct experiments, tells him that he needs to get a “female partner” if he truly wants to study it, the camera jumps to another scene where Ethan Haas (Nicholas D’Agosto) is describing the new attractive secretary (Caplan’s Johnson) to Masters. It doesn’t expect much work from the viewer to put two and two together, and these logical connections are displayed to us early on perhaps in order to do away with their importance.

This is where Phil’s discussion of the weird pilot might apply (and others, such as Andy Greenwald and Alyssa Rosenberg, have noted the rushed pacing of the show as well). Plot points are so hurried in the pilot that critics have expressed concern at how well the show might sustain itself in the long run (insert plateau joke here). Greenwald has suggested that, at this rate, Masters of Sex might fall into the unarresting narrative circuitry of another history-influenced show, Boardwalk Empire.

Unlike Boardwalk Empire though, or Mad Men for that matter, Masters of Sex has less vitriol for its characters — it doesn’t seem to want to torture them by sending them through the same plots or psychological traps. If anything, Ashford imbues her characters with almost achronological flashes of boldness and aggression. (Its soundtrack takes risks — some more successful than others — with almost jarringly contemporary and lyric-laden music.) We’re watching the 1950s from 2013, but there’s a great deal of the show that feels like it’s knowingly (and playfully) responding to a 2013 audience. The collapse of modern sensibilities with the quirks of 1950s pre-feminism gives a certain vantage — you might even call atmosphere — to Masters of Sex. And the sexually-liberated, modern, and frank Virginia Johnson is even more so when portrayed by Lizzy Caplan. It’s an odd mix, but the noted coyness of such directorial and casting decisions doesn’t seem to poke fun at its characters, actors, or viewers either. For one, play seems more consensual. The oppressed or stagnant atmosphere that can often plague period pieces (Downton Abbey, anyone?) is one that Masters of Sex has so far eluded. Perhaps it’s by virtue of, as Phil described, Ashford’s choice to tell more than show, that allows viewers greater space to choose how they see this particular story.

The subject of inquiry — the scandal at the heart of this new drama — might be sex, but even as evinced in the pilot, sex manifests itself (in life and on television) in a panoply of forms and scenarios, each effected by a complex array of motivations (even if part of the motivation is to not give this motivation much cognitive weight). Sex both is and isn’t easy to generalize. The show does not denaturalize or deglamorize sex — or it doesn’t do so consistently. It shows us various scenes of lovemaking with couples we have varied levels of investment and interest in. Some are played for laughs (“Good for you,” Betty says, after her first partner comes), while others, such as the scene between Masters’s first consenting experimental couple — contain very attractive individuals, but emphasize that this is for their pleasure as much as it is for the viewer’s. These scenes want to have it both ways — as the couple gets lost in their own ecstatic enjoyment, I’m not sure we always follow suit.

If anything, we grow closer to the couple at the heart of this show, which brings us back to the earnestness — the classic drama-ness of this show. Watching this experimental couple have sex (in the name of science!) is also to watch Masters and Johnson watch a couple have sex (the two leads are never outside our purview in this scene: Sheen and Caplan, or their reflections, are markedly present throughout) and as we might expect from the episode’s cutting patterns, this scene sonically and thematically overlaps with the next (and closing) one with Masters describing the dangers of transference in their experiments:

I have one concern about the possibility of sexual transference between us and our patients. We’re going to be watching them have sex and those couples know we’re watching them, and the likelihood of us transferring all this libidinous energy onto our patients is high.

Johnson asks if this is something he’s been having trouble with; Masters replies no, but that he already sees the beginnings of it in her interactions with male patients. Freud would have diagnosed this retort as projection. Masters and Johnson might have aimed to debunk Freud, but it’s unlikely any contemporary viewer of the show can watch it without Freud’s heavy and pervasive influence. Still, as viewers, our interaction with Masters of Sex might not need be quite so overdetermined. The pilot might have been uneven and oddly paced, but this has only helped sustain my curiosity (call it prurience even) in the show.

Taking the weekend to think about it,

Jane

¤

My English Teacher: In Memoriam Lorraine Schulmeister (1918-2012)

By Louise Steinman

An autumn afternoon on the sunny Great Lawn at Westlake School for Girls. Lorraine Schulmeister, my English teacher, and I read aloud from Emily Dickinson: I dared not meet the Daffodils — For fear their Yellow Gown Would pierce me with a fashion So foreign to my own –; we read aloud from Blake: If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the/ spread of my own body, or any part of it.. It’s 1967. I’m in the tenth grade, my first year as a scholarship student at this exclusive school tucked into Beverly Glen canyon north of Sunset Blvd. It sounds idyllic – it was.

I picture her pacing in front of the blackboard: high Nordic cheekbones flushed, excited hands mid-gesture. Like the poet Theodore Roethke, her own mentor, she had mastered the art of appearing to see the work for the first time. She introduced us to the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, Ted Berrigan, Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov – to the possibilities of writer-as-activist. It was a stance with immediate resonance as the Vietnam War raged abroad and protests raged at home.

After school, I’d trade pastel shirtwaist uniform for torn blue jeans and sandals and hike down to the Resistance office in Westwood Village to pick up leaflets to hand out at draft boards. My high school boyfriend, almost 18, refused to register. Instead, he chained himself to the altar of a church in Watts. U.S. Marshals obligingly hauled him away to court, from there to federal prison.

Lorraine taught at Marlborough School (our cross-town rival) before teaching at Westlake, but resigned when the administration there questioned her “Americanism.” There’d been complaints from parents: when she taught Whitman, she actually spoke about “sex” in the classroom.

In her eloquent resignation letter, dated February 29, 1964, she wrote: “I have presented American Literature as a great and living force, as a body of work that is loving and critical at one and the same time. Like Frost, most writers have had a ’lover’s quarrel with the world.’ Literature is most of all concerned with life; sex is an important part of life. I presented Walt Whitman as I have always presented him: as poet of the body as of the soul; as the great revolutionary and innovator that he was.”

She was born Lorraine Breckheimer in 1918, in Mankato, Minnesota. It was the year the Great War ended, as she noted in The Making of a Teacher or The Last of the School Ma’ams, her astute self-published chapbook. Mankato was a small town “far from the currents of the world.” No movie theaters. No television. A quiet, peaceful life—walks, berry-picking, window-shopping, band concerts, school plays, church. A trip to the library was an adventure. “No one we knew had had a divorce. Only teachers traveled to far off places.”

In the crash of 1929, her family fell “from the middle class to no class.” Her father’s farm implement business failed, he lost everything. The family moved to a dairy farm in northern Minnesota classified as “suitable only for subsistence living.” Living in this rural isolation, from age 11 to 17, Lorraine turned inward, books were her companions.

She received a full scholarship to Carleton College, but had no money for room and board. Disappointed, she opted for a state teachers college closer to home. An advisor discouraged her from seeking a PhD to teach at the college level. He told her she’d just be asked to teach remedial courses, not literature. “I recognize the truth of Karl Marx’s economic interpretation of history,” she wrote. “Economics has ruled my life.”

Her career included a stint teaching elementary school in a rural two-room school, where she was successful, for the most part, in awakening her students to the importance of reading and the pleasure of literary study. “Only one parent objected to my reading list. The offensive book was Steinbeck’s Cannery Row”. During World War II she served as a WAC at an air base in Ogden, Utah, and, courtesy of the GI Bill, studied American Literature at the University of Washington with Theodore Roethke.

Lorraine and I re-discovered each other in 2001 and remained fast friends until she died this past spring, at age 94. At least twice a year, I’d drive up to San Luis Obispo from L.A. We’d go out for dinner, a glass or two of good wine. She always brought a list of things to discuss; wanting to make good use of our precious time together.

Her home for the last decades was a small studio apartment in an assisted living facility. A painful and economically disastrous divorce (she kept his surname, Schulmeister, which described her chosen profession) in her early fifties severed her from her teaching career. She’d wanted but had no children, though a number of former students stayed in close touch. We were, she said, “the daughters she never had.” She worried about outliving her modest savings, and she almost did.

We stayed in touch by writing letters. Envelopes in Lorraine’s clear cursive arrived at least twice a month, and I wrote back almost as often. We sent each other books. Who else would gift me Henri Troyat’s massive biography of Tolstoy for my birthday? (As good as she said it was, all 800 pages.) She insisted I read President Obama’s memoir; she admired him, worried about him. She loved Hazel Rowley’s bio of Sartre and De Beauvoir and marveled at Yiyun Li’s short stories. Her responses to Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, Susan Jacoby’s An Age of Unreason, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (she read it twice) fill pages handwritten front and back. She re-read the classics — Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Her unequivocal vote for greatest American novel was Moby Dick (she loved it more after each of her eight readings).

Of all the books I sent, her favorite was Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars. She considered his skillful narrative of those advocating for peace amidst the carnage of World War I to be one of the most significant history books ever written.

I wrote to her about my own writing life, my own struggles and joys. She reminded me of my great good fortune to live in a creative community, to meet great writers, to travel, to observe. She adored my husband.

Among the many books I treasured receiving from Lorraine was Robert D. Richardson’s study of Emerson and the creative process (First We Read, Then We Write). Last year I made a pilgrimage to Concord, Mass to swam in Walden Pond, place pencils on Thoreau’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and visit Emerson’s home. I sent Lorraine a postcard– an image of Emerson’s study– featuring the round oak table where the master read and wrote every day. Emerson’s belief that creative reading was essential to creative writing was one that Lorraine instilled in all her students. She concurred with Emerson’s dictum, “While you are reading, you are the book’s book.”

Reading kept her mind young even as her body failed her. Historian Tony Judt’s final book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, thrilled her and she zeroed in on his chapter about American nationalism. “In a global world,” she wrote me, “we are so provincial. Witness our current politics. We are anti-intellectual as a people. More so than others.”

This she found as true in 2012 as when she had resigned from Marlborough nearly fifty years earlier. She ended her resignation letter with a ringing admonition:

“Everyone should read President Kennedy’s speech at Harvard, dedicated to Robert Frost, published in the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly called ‘Power and Poetry.’ He expresses better than I the challenge America faces: Can we have poetry and power? Athens did for a brief moment in history. It seems unfair that I should have been asked to remain at home so that a student could attend class without contamination from an accused teacher; why should the teacher be more expendable than the student? I do not at this point know the real charge against me, but I do recognize the forces that are greater than myself. I represent poetry; they represent power.”

On the day Lorraine died, one of her former students, Judy Munzig, was able to spend several hours sitting at her bedside stroking her hand, telling her how much we all loved her. Lorraine’s eyes were closed, but she could still hear.

Judy wrote afterwards: “Her reading glasses were on her nightstand on top of a paperback of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell with a bookmark from Chaucer’s Bookstore. A young man who works at the hospice said that Lorraine had been reading passages aloud to him and when he told her he didn’t understand it, she would explain it to him.    ‘Now I’ll have to read it myself,’ he said.”