All posts by Lili Loofbourow

GIRLS_car

Space Invaders

THE THIRD SEASON of Girls opens with Hannah and Ray discussing the aftermath of a breakup in the show’s version of New York. At stake in their chat, which is partly about pessimism, optimism, and what constitutes (to use Ray’s phrase), “real life,” is what kind of fictional NYC is. Hannah says it’s inevitable that Ray will run into Shoshanna again. Ray counters that it isn’t: New York is big, there’s no reason for their paths to cross. When Adam walks in, it’s clear this conversation about exes was a setup for Adam to run into his ex (and possible rape victim), Natalia, and her pal played by Amy Schumer. In an exchange laced with hypothetical babies (“she’s pregnant!” Schumer says of Natalia, who admits she isn’t but casts aspersions on Hannah’s ability to feed a baby), Natalia excoriates Adam while Schumer (who’d been egging her on) says “you’re better than this.” Adam may not like confrontation, but it turns out the show’s Big Apple is exactly as small as Hannah says it is.

It’s fitting, then, that almost every shot in the first two episodes of Girls feels slightly overcrowded… [READ MORE]

SNL-CEO-baby

Saturday Night Live’s Alumni Problem

Dear TV,

WE’RE TALKING SNL this week, and I’m … excited. Which isn’t a feeling I’ve gotten from SNL in quite awhile. I wasn’t even aware of how much my enthusiasm for the show had waned until I legitimately guffawed at Noël Wells’s Hannah Horvath and Kate McKinnon’s Jessa in the Girls sketch during Tina Fey’s week hosting, an experience recently topped by Beck Bennett’s incredible sketch of the financial wizard in the body of a baby. That was some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen since David Hyde Pierce’s “A Valentine for Niles” and Maria Bamford’s entire oeuvre. So… what gives? Is SNL good again?

A lot of ink has been spent bemoaning SNL’s awfulness over the years, and I’m not particularly interested in investigating the merits of that critique, which I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been aware of TV criticism. What does interest me is the persistence of that narrative. If Anne Helen Petersen walked us through how stars use SNL to “thicken” their celebrity persona, I want to think about how the show is dealing with its own image problem: namely, that it’s routinely perceived as being, at best, mediocre TV.

The fact is, the comedy we have available to us on tap these days outperforms SNL on the regular. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are consistently sharper and funnier than Saturday Night Live. Now, those shows use a different format, they’re scripted, they’re not live, and they don’t require that there be laughs every second, but the point is that if I want a topical laugh, Saturday Night Live isn’t where I go for clips. In its own sketch comedy genre, Mad TV was already making SNL look a little passé back in the late nineties, but — to return for a second to AHP’s post on how distribution changes everything — now that we can stream old favorites like A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Kids in the Hall and newer sketch shows like That Mitchell and Webb Look, get all of Louis CK’s standup for $5, and see Bamford’s entire show on Youtube for free, SNL suffers by comparison. This is strange to say of a live format, but it’s just too polished relative to the gritty low-production-value comedy that’s since come to define the experimental, spontaneous and new. Garfunkel and Oates, anyone?) It’s become the slightly square authority where it was once the rebel, and it’s low-octane comedy these days, comedy that’s a little too glitzed up to be much good, and it’s even competing against itself: you can stream the old (and always “better”) Saturday Night Live on Netflix!

SNL’s position as the Jay Leno of comedy isn’t helped by the fact that its alumni have done as well as they have and have aged publicly. It’s hard for people of our students’ generation, for instance, to believe that the Chevy Chase of Community was ever comedically innovative, or young, or game. When asked whether he learned anything from “established” comedians like Chevy Chase, Donald Glover:

Chevy’s like hilarious cuz he will do, um … none of it ever makes it, but he’ll be like, let me show you something really good, and it’s always like an old dude kinda joke, and I’m like oh, and it really helps me with my comedy science, like why doesn’t that work anymore? … It’s kinda like you learn more from a bad movie than you do from a good movie.

Now, Chevy Chase is the SNL alum extraordinaire: his infamous (second) Comedy Central Roast (which Comedy Central buried because it was so vicious, but you can see parts of it here) amounted to a revolt of younger comedians against everything they perceived Chase to represent — namely, the self-serious egomaniacal sellout who made a huge number of crappy movies for the dollars and not the laughs but still considered himself a comedy genius. But Chase is only the oldest and most embittered of a whole slough of aging SNLers who have in one form or another addressed their time on the show and — perhaps accidentally — degraded its image. Let’s face it: comedy fans these days are purists and they’re weirdly idealistic. We believe in the truth-telling power of comedy in ways we don’t believe in much else, and while that isn’t new — it’s a tradition that dates back to long before Shakespeare’s various Fools — it has intensified recently. Louis CK has disciples.

SNL hasn’t typically honored that priestly tradition, and former cast members have a habit of taking self-referential roles that further erode the sacred character of what we’d like comedy to be. Adam Sandler’s later-in-life turn toward serious acting culminated in the appalling Funny People, which explicitly framed his old comedy (much of which was based on SNL characters) as a hollow ploy for bucks without any regard for quality work. Jimmy Fallon’s turn to late-night hosting only confirmed what we always suspected when he broke in every sketch: he likes chatting up celebs and wearing suits. Rob Schneider. ‘Nuff said. Then of course there’s 30 Rock. I genuinely believe my estimation of SNL subconsciously suffered thanks to Liz Lemon’s world-weary cynicism regarding 30 Rock’s TGS, which is clearly an SNL knockoff and never represented as being anything other than pure crap. 30 Rock’s Achilles heel, in my opinion, is that Jack so often turned out to be right: there is no meaning to Liz’s work.

What I’m getting at is that there’s a certain artistic bankruptcy built into the brand of comedy SNL puts out. It’s always billed as a bit of a hack compromise, albeit with very talented hacks (this quality comes through in both Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch’s autobiographies). It’s live, it’s what we could write in a week, it’s what the host could stomach. In the end, of course, the Famous Person is the weak link. Structurally, the host is a built-in generator of comedic mediocrity: he or she is a contaminant virtually guaranteed to dilute the funnies unless she miraculously possesses or develops comedy chops.

And that was all fine until recently: in a way, it was a version of Celebrity Jeopardy! (one of SNL’s most successful ongoing skits). You get to watch the famous people do something different and burnish their celebrity profile, and you’ll laugh! But this side of the equation, the See the Famous Person side, has collapsed too: we have way more access to famous people than we ever had before thanks to Twitter, fashion sites, gossip sites, deleted scenes, interviews, reality TV and paparazzi. We aren’t starved for the phenomenon of a celebrity unfiltered — LIVE! — the way we once were.

But what — I hear you ask — about SNL statesman Bill Murray? He’s the exception that prove my theory that there are just too many SNL alumni running around degrading the brand. One reason we keep hearing how much better SNL used to be is because most of the old cast members have obligingly faded from view, and Murray has in the interim demonstrated a kind of lifelong comedic integrity: a dedication to comedy as an art form that has taken them into serious spaces without ever abandoning the funny or condescending to the audience. This has retroactively branded their time on SNL as purer and more brilliant (I’m talking about the PR narrative here) and so has death: Andy Kaufman, Chris Farley, and Jon Belushi are comedy saints.

But these guys only got quiet and intense with their funny as they got older, and that’s important. SNL comedy has a certain profile that fits it best, and however muted and prophetic its elder statesmen have since grown, that profile wasn’t subtle or understated or melancholy or wise, it was loud and brash. I’m talking Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell’s wonderful The Lovahs and Carvey’s Church Lady and Ferrell and Gasteyer’s singing duo and Molly Shannon’s armpit-sniffing and Maya Rudolph’s Donatella Versace and Cheri Oteri’s Get Off My Lawn bits. What these all have in common is that they’re buffoonish and, again, loud. But SNL was tapping into another comedic vein in the ironic 2000s. Let’s call its practitioners the Clever Clan. This is the Seth Meyers/Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Bill Hader/Jimmy Fallon style. It’s smirky. I like these comedians individually (except for Meyers, who I find likable but totally unfunny and Fallon, an incredible performer but an average comedian) but — to return to where I started, which was wondering when my enthusiasm for SNL had waned — they’re a winky, good-looking bunch, and the ensemble effect was more wry than hilarious. I think this hurt the show. Wry is not a mood Saturday Night Live does well. There are, as we’ve seen, simply too many other people doing it better.

Now, no one says SNL has to be great comedy. It isn’t and doesn’t; as I’ve said, the show’s constraints make greatness almost impossible. But it should be good comedy: you should be laughing a few times a night.

Here’s the sketch that made me realize how quietly bored I’d become by SNL — or at least, how far I’d drifted from an actual laugh into Mildly-Amused-But-Sort-Of-Waiting-For-It-To-End-Land:

This made me laugh my head off. The physicality is SO DISTURBINGLY RIGHT. It’s not a clever meta-joke, it’s an in-your-face belly-joke. For Beck Bennett, who’s new to the show, it’s an instant classic and total triumph. What seems to me really wonderful about a few recent SNL offerings is that the cast is willing to go broad with gusto (and without winking). The turkey sketch Annie mentions is one example; so is the possum sketch with Edward Norton. Aidy Bryant is a delight, Cecily Strong is great (though I wish they’d kill that Girlfriends Talk Show sketch), and Bobby Moynihan’s face is a national treasure. (I want Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam to do a sketch called The Killer Smiles where they play a couple, the Smiles, whose creepy grins have convinced everyone in the neighborhood — wrongly — that they’re serial killers.) It feels, this season, like there’s less eye-rolling and more energy in the room.

Embrace your inner hack,

Lili

Loofbourow_DTV_Masters_MG_Orig

Sex and the Slightly Unreliable Narrator

Dear TV,

I’D HOPED Masters of Sex would resist following Mad Men down the sepia brick road to the land of overburdened flashbacks, and so far so good; five episodes in, it seems to have a comparatively sane relationship to its past. So far we’ve met Mr. Johnson and the original Mrs. Masters. Mather Zickel’s George Johnson supplied some much-needed texture and edge to Caplan’s likable Virginia Johnson (while demonstrating the need for that edge — the episode ends with her boss and ex-husband discussing her sexual magic while she waits, bedraggled and exhausted, at a bus stop. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Draper’s conversation with Betty’s therapist). Masters’s mother has been flawed, likable, and an obvious source of pain to her son. And oh, a live mother! Can we take a moment to rejoice that she’s alive, and not another fictional mother sacrificed to the god Help-I-Need-A-Motivation-For-This-Character? I hope we see more of her.

Here’s what’s working about these two figures from the past: their explanatory power is limited. Last time we talked about this show I made the case that it was refreshingly immune to Freudian narratives, and I mostly stand by that. Masters’s sleepwalking is certainly a symptom of emotional disturbance, but the cause is crystal clear by the end of the episode: he sees his mother’s late-in-life agency as a betrayal of his young self. There’s a sharply literal bent to the show’s portrayal of his childhood. I’ve toyed with the idea that Masters has a low sperm count through sheer force of will (mastery, if you like), but some commenters over at the AV Club speculated, pretty convincingly, that the knickers story more than accounts for Masters’s current infertility. Wear your boyhood shorts well into adolescence and the damage to your testicles will be as great as the damage to your psyche. No psychoanalytic metaphors here; Masters was almost literally castrated by his father.

Except he wasn’t! Libby got pregnant.

There’s resilience in the Masters gene pool, in other words, and this bothers William, who wishes his mother would have bounced back earlier or not at all. Getting Libby pregnant means the damage incurred in childhood was less irreversible than he thought. Nothing could be less romantic than the Masters’s efforts at conception. The part of us that longs for some acknowledgment of romance or chemistry, for confirmation of the myth that context contributes more to conception than the sheer facts of biology, is a little crushed when Masters’s clinical techniques actually work. They simply weren’t supposed to. We’re waiting for Libby to exit the show but she keeps reappearing, perceptive, gentle, pregnant. Less of a victimized drip than we (narratively) want her to be.

This show takes a lot of pleasure in exploring how fertility intersects with control, and it loves punning on Masters’s struggle with mastery — mastery of the self, of circumstances, of a career path, of the study, of Johnson. At first glance, this is a story about an obstetrician whose academic interest is in recreational sex — a man for whom fertility has been a lifelong pretext, the concept closest to what he really wants to study professionally but orthogonal to it. This seemed, when the show began, like a case of cruel irony: the infertile fertility expert! But it seems, in retrospect, that Masters’s fictive sterility was a source of relief to him. Masters didn’t want children, and his efforts at misdirection (Libby is sterile, not he!) were meant to perpetuate their childless state. This is only just becoming clear, four episodes after we learned about their difficulties. The real irony is that he was too good a fertility expert: his technique worked.

What we’re starting to see on the show, in other words, are hints of unreliable narration that force you to look backward at what seemed like stable ground. Ethan Haas’s assessment in the pilot was that Masters didn’t want to admit to a low sperm count because, well, masculinity. At this juncture, knowing what we know, it seems likely that Masters only wanted children because they completed Scully’s portrait of the family man. If he couldn’t conceive due to infertility (and why not make it his wife’s!), his immaculate professional credentials couldn’t be damaged by their absence.

This is an efficient show: most scenes achieve multiple narrative ends. That little flashback scene turns out to be about Scully’s closeted psychology too, of course: his concerns about Masters being labeled a pervert seemed like sensible advice, but turn out to be pure projection. (There’s Freud, sneaking back in through the window!) Scully sees the younger man as a version of himself, and prescribes him exactly the same course. Be yourself underground, he says, and keep up the perfect façade that will forestall questions. We may think we’re seeing the attitudes of an era, but we later discover that our sources (Ethan, Scully) were flawed readers of the circumstances we trusted them to describe.

It’s a testament to Masters of Sex that even the flashback contains the seeds of both Scully and Masters’s stories. Now, it may easily be that Scully’s advice was good, and that Masters has the preoccupations about masculinity Haas attributes to him, and that his reasons for concealing his low sperm count from Libby are as archaic as Haas thinks they are, but I doubt it. Masters so obviously houses his ego elsewhere.

The miscarriage is a test of Masters’s affective investments. It drives home our lack of access to Masters’s real feelings about Libby (and hers). Up to this point he’s been so calculating, cruel, and thoughtless that it’s genuinely difficult to imagine him charming her, or either of them falling in love. It’s a bizarre marriage, and we find eventually that its peculiarity stems from Masters’s own sense of it as performance/checked box. If Donald Draper married Betty to fulfill the American Dream in all its hopeful Aryan poetry, Masters sees the American Dream as an invisibility cape he’ll need to fulfill his professional mission. Don starts crooked and wants above all to be seen as legitimate, as belonging; Masters starts with legitimacy in order to go accrue enough respectability to go to a “cathouse” and remain pure. Both men basically want to disappear, but their relation to social contagion is quite different. (If Draper joined the study, Masters’s and Johnson’s work would have been done much sooner.)

What’s enjoyable about the show, in other words, is that it seems to be doing one quite conventional thing while also doing another. Masters’s interactions with Libby expose the pitfalls of the “mother of my children” logic that saw women in the 50s as angelic creatures and helpmeets. It’s almost impossible to regard such a person sexually. No wonder he finds it unthinkable to watch Libby masturbate; the angelic wife is incompatible with arousal or desire.

This is a familiar story about the period, and it makes for compelling fiction, but it’s not right here. Masters’ problems only appear to be the problems of the 50s Everyman. He isn’t a man of his time, he’s three standard deviations out from the thing Don Draper badly wanted to be. In that sense, these are both stories of men in Dream drag. Even his marital dysfunction is only apparently conventional.

Still, his feelings about the pregnancy and the miscarriage are outside his conscious control, and the sleepwalking is meant, I think, to show the limits of Masters’s self-mastery. His emotional discipline in the name of science is getting some jagged edges.

So what about Johnson? The trouble is that there’s so little to say about Johnson. Her problems with her kids don’t quite land. Her expressions of wry regret and her conflicted take on motherhood are interesting, but we don’t know why she feels about it the way she does. Will we meet her mother, I wonder? I look forward to learning what she does care about, beyond wanting to be involved in the study. It’s been suggested that Johnson is becoming a manic pixie dream girl. I don’t think she is — yet. But things are drifting in that direction; her origins so far are obscure, her wisdom innate, her background only marginally relevant. George Johnson is a little too starry-eyed about his ex-wife, and it’s a missed opportunity. We could have learned about her childhood, her flaws, her first marriage. So far, Johnson has been our only source for explanations of her background, her decisions, and her past. The only outside information we’ve gotten about her has concerned her sexual prowess. That’s a problem. In a show where every narrator has turned out to be a little unreliable, I hope she does too, otherwise the balance is going lopsided. We’d better see Johnson make some serious mistakes.

Sincerely (OR NOT),

Lili

¤

mindy project 2

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

OITNB_image

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.

Masters_image3

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

¤