All posts by Phil Maciak

Natalia

Your Urine-Soaked Life

Dear Television,

DEAR TV superfans may remember that I really liked the Natalia arc from last season. I liked the actress — Shiri Appleby — who played Natalia. I liked the challenge this apparently “together” character posed to the group, and I liked that this challenge felt organic and real. (Given the show’s aspiration to some kind of realism, it never felt like Natalia was a contrivance.) I liked the way Natalia challenged Adam’s grody proclivities and potentially even represented a generative splintering of the tunnel vision that is this show’s subject. I liked how her plotline brought the show to a really genuinely engaged discussion of sexual assault, aesthetics, and television in the critical sphere. It was a good move, I thought. But she got left behind.

One of the possible trajectories of this show — and one still alive to some extent or another — is the slow or catastrophic dissolution of the hermetic core that has so frequently been criticized as too insular, too privileged, too much… [READ MORE]

Love

3 Ways of Looking at Arcade Fire

Dear Television,

EVERYBODY HATED “Bound 2.” I don’t mean the song. In fact, if you ask Yeezy purists, probably too many people liked the song (the lone example of Kanye West’s more mainstream chipmunk soul on an uncommonly aggressive album). No, everybody hated Kanye West’s video for “Bound 2.” (My favorite description of the background imagery is Andrew Goldstein’s suggestion that it’s the stock footage “playing under every Chinatown karaoke song I’ve ever sung.”) Critics and fans alike were upset by the video’s apparent lack of self-consciousness, its decadent embrace of cheese, its radiant narcissism. After months of bonkers interviews, groping publicity, and the greatest stunt-naming of an infant to occur in my lifetime, Kanye had finally lost it, and the result was his very first truly bad work of art.

Essentially, these criticisms were directed at West’s naivete. It’s terrible, but he thinks it’s good. Ha ha ha, what an idiot. From this perspective, Seth Rogen and James Franco released their wildly successful shot-for-shot parody, which parodied the video simply by reproducing it and adding in a tasty little bit of gay panic. The Rogen/Franco video assumes that, in order to turn a serious video into a joke, all that needs to be done is to call it a joke. In other words, what’s funny about this video is that Kanye West doesn’t know how funny it is. Rogen and Franco frenching and canoodling on that motorcycle mirrors the way they reach out their hairy hands to us. We exist, with them, on the side where people have self-knowledge. Kimye exist on the side of total, blissful, vulgar innocence.

What puzzled me so much about the reaction to this video was the public’s willingness to assume Kanye West is stupid. Kanye West whose albums basically have a time-share in Pitchfork Media’s top 5 albums of the year; whose production for Jay-Z and others defined the sound of the early 21st century; whose 2013 stage tour is literally bringing music critics to tears; and whose most recent album Yeezus dropped like the Second Coming on the popular music world this year. Despite this, Kanye West, apparently, has not earned our trust.

I don’t know what to do with “Bound 2.” Jody Rosen and Jerry Saltz have made convincing cases for what Kanye’s doing with visuality and the uncanny in the video. But, regardless of whether I agree with those readings, or whether I personally understand the video or not, it seems foolish to settle for a surface-reading of a video made by an artist with such weird, craggy depths. Upon closer inspection, “Bound 2” might not be anything, but a lot of critics went straight to assuming that it’s nothing.

Yesterday, Annie laid out, in grand fashion, a kind of aesthetics of music video emptiness. Today, I’d like to venture a read of music video ambition — or, put another way, music video fullness. To that end, I present three ways of looking at Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife”…

Afterlife #1: Black Orpheus


It’s not every year that “cultural appropriation” is on the public radar. This year, however, following the multi-stage debacle that was Miley Cyrus’s Twerkface Minstrelsy routine, critics have been enormously, unusually, alert to the dynamics of racialized cultural power onscreen. All of which is to say that I was shocked that this lyric video didn’t provoke more than even a small reaction in the online critical sphere. This video — the lyric video for “Afterlife,” released as a teaser for Arcade Fire’s new album Reflektor — is comprised of shots from Marcel Camus’s 1959 film Black Orpheus, which retells the Orpheus myth in the setting of Brazilian Carneval. The film was a huge hit upon its release — the music became a sensation of its own — and its infectious rhythms and brilliant color remain irresistible. In retrospect, though, it smacks of colonialism and somewhat uncomfortably portrays its Afro-Brazilian characters as naïve and superstitious. Arcade Fire here takes shots from the famous macumba ritual that occurs late in the film and cuts them together with shots of our protagonist Orfeu earlier in the film dancing and singing. The images are taken out of their context and recut to build the kind of vaguely sinister, vaguely danceable aesthetic Reflektor embodies. White people, black bodies, representation and control, authenticity and performance — why was this not a thing?

Rather than jump at the bait, this video made next to no impression on the critterati. Mashable, for its part, called the lyric video an “intensely romantic mini-movie.” The short piece does not mention that the footage is from Black Orpheus, but it does quote Arcade Fire’s Will Butler explaining that the song is structured around a Haitian percussion loop. This widely circulated pull-quote would explain a lot if the video featured any Haitians at all and was not, in fact, comprised solely of French and Brazilian actors portraying Brazilian characters. It’s not terribly ungenerous to say that this is a slightly wobbly rationale for what’s going on here. In any case, it strikes me as fishy that so few people were interested in asking a follow-up to this flimsy, potentially offensive, artist’s statement.

One notable voice for the minority of people who were at all interested in talking about this video was Hayden Higgins at The Atlantic. Higgins noticed this weird disconnect, in fact, and wrote a spectacular essay about Arcade Fire’s exploitation of Haiti and conflation, in the rhetoric surrounding this album, of a variety of African and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Arcade Fire, for Higgins, isn’t interested in these cultures so much as in the aesthetic they lend to whatever they touch. If we take Higgins’s reading seriously, it’s not hard to claim that Arcade Fire sought out a “black” sound just as much as Miley has been pilloried for doing. But Arcade Fire is smart, they know what they’re doing, and so we assume that they are the ethical, artistic, well-read folks here. (In fact, the Huffington Post headline claims that the lyric video, “acts as a Film Studies Course too.”) If it seems like nonsense, it must be because it’s over our heads.

Annie has pointed out that most music videos are all surface, and that seems to have led us to read only for surfaces. How are the dance moves? How little clothing is she wearing? What kind of shark is that? It took Miley bringing the minstrel tradition to the very top of the mix for anybody to notice it was happening at all. But just because we only practice surface reading of these texts doesn’t mean that some videos aren’t, intentionally or unintentionally, deeper. I suspect that the blatant artificiality, the fetishized surface-ness of “Bound 2” belies something more. Likewise, the surface of this lyric video — comprised almost entirely of dancing Brazilians, exotic-looking rituals, an ominous fellow in a skeleton suit, and, if you recognize the clip, a high-brow cultural reference — belies the work of appropriation and authentication Arcade Fire is trying to pull. Win Butler described the album’s sound as a “mashup of Studio 54 and Haitian Voodoo.” That statement only makes sense if you understand it as a description of a costume the band can wear, and that’s exactly, and all, that it is.

For their single “We Used to Wait” from The Suburbs, Arcade Fire commissioned a multi-media, Google Chrome spectacular — they also worked with Chrome to make a video for “Reflektor” — that essentially produced a personalized video experience based around the Google Satellite maps and Google Street View of each viewer’s childhood home. This was a video experience that dealt, literally, in surfaces. But the filmmaker behind it blended traditional music video footage with animation and the generic but intensely intimate images of Street View to create an experience of surfaces imbued with deep nostalgia. The video, even today, makes you feel, but not just through spectacle. It’s an admirable and beautiful experience, and it nods to the immersive possibilities of technology even as it bemoans the alienation of online communication. It’s a reminder that we ought to take Arcade Fire as seriously as they take themselves, if only because they don’t always get it right.

Afterlife #2: Greta Gerwig

What does Arcade Fire get from Black Orpheus? The veneer of intellectualism? The exotic groove of the African diaspora? Closeness to and superiority over ecstatic religious experience?

Ok. But what then does Arcade Fire get from Greta Gerwig? Indie chanteuse, post-mumblecore muse, gangly goddess Greta Gerwig has had, by some accounts, a pretty good year. In the spring, Noah Baumbach released his critically-acclaimed Frances Ha, a film starring and co-written with Gerwig. Regardless of whether you loved the film or hated it, it’s hard to deny that Gerwig’s aura is its reason for being. A satire of post-graduate malaise and Brooklyn hipsterism as well as a surprisingly conventional growing-up story, Frances Ha is inconceivable as a project without its star. It’s less a love letter from this filmmaker to his lover than an attempt to capture her spirit — capture like a picture and like a trap — to hold up as an amulet against the melancholy of aging. And so Frances Ha too is an act of appropriation.

Central to Frances Ha, in the same way that Diane Keaton’s singing is to Annie Hall, is Gerwig’s lurpy dancing. Both an object of ridicule and a thing taken weirdly seriously in the film, Gerwig’s technically bad, somewhat affecting (affected?) moves — she plays a struggling ballerina in the film — symbolize the protagonist’s awkward lunges toward connection, love, and adulthood. And the camera lingers on those moves, in practice, onstage, and even in the street. Gerwig’s dancing is the most honest thing in a film filled with dishonesties small and large (I would argue a fair number of those dishonesties belong to Baumbach). She can’t dance any better than she does, and that limitation is freeing. Each step is a statement of identity that can’t be either exaggerated or undersold or otherwise lied about.

Gerwig, despite the struggles of her character, has a blast in that film, and she brings that joyful energy to this, the best of the three videos. The video is — mostly — a long tracking shot of Gerwig dancing as Arcade Fire plays, and the video captures some of the same madcap intensity of director Spike Jonze’s great “Weapon of Choice” (is Greta Gerwig our generation’s Christopher Walken?). For a majority of the video, we are in a medium shot of Gerwig dancing to the camera, reaching out. It’s mesmerizing even as it’s maybe a little precious. The blazer Gerwig wears offers an additional physical constraint that, as those shoulders bunch up, becomes almost moving.

But this video isn’t good because Gerwig is Arcade Fire’s demographic or because it’s got a sense of humor, though the latter doesn’t hurt. Instead, this video is good because Gerwig is dancing to the song. Part of what makes the lyric video so uncanny and ultimately uncomfortable is that the dancers in the video cannot possibly be dancing to Arcade Fire. On a visceral level, the appropriation of their spontaneous, impassioned movements feels almost more invasive than the appropriation of their skin color or “exoticism.” The lyric video commits a low-grade historical fraud by forcing its subjects to dance to “Afterlife,” a song that is really only modestly, theoretically even, danceable.

And that’s what the lyric video is. It’s a theory, an aspirational collage made out of magazine clippings, a look book. This is what we want to be, this is how we want to sound, this is how we want people to respond to us. Jonze’s live video is exactly that: live. I don’t know whether it was Jonze’s direction that Gerwig should be suppressing an enormous smile the whole time, but whether it was intentional or not, it’s effective. It feels genuinely communicative with the music. And, oddly, that organic relationship — between the awkwardness of Greta Gerwig as a dancer and the awkwardness of “Afterlife” as a dance song — is made all the more tangible when Butler walks onstage behind Gerwig to croon the bridge. He’s all humorless sincerity — the shallow depth of the undergrad open mic poet — and Gerwig is all hysterical sincerity. They’re on a spectrum, but Butler sets Gerwig off. And a smile erupts because the beat is able to be separated from the band. Gerwig makes the song her own in a way that the dancers in Black Orpheus can’t — she’s given that control. And it really is a joy to watch.

Afterlife #3: ?

This last video, the official music video directed by Emily Kai Bock, is essentially a short film about a father and his two sons. The video begins with a dinnertable scene in which we’re introduced to a variety of tensions — between the father and his eldest son over what the father does for work, between the father and his youngest son over the son’s (presumed) Americanization, between all three over their seeming financial straits. The video then proceeds as three interwoven dream sequences (one for each character), all of which lead to the image of a presumably deceased wife and mother.

There’s no dancing, there’s no rapture, just beautifully shot longing, loss, and regret. On their last album, Arcade Fire aimed to represent the experience of the suburban teen. This album aspires to something maybe a little more universal, and so too do these videos. It’s clear the band thinks this song has legs, more precisely that there’s a profundity to it that can sustain multiple interpretations, multiple angles of entry: the primal energy of the macumba ritual, the awkward energy of Gerwig, now the experience of struggling immigrants.

There’s a lot to like about this third video as a piece of filmmaking, but it also feels a lot like overkill or overreach. Particularly, for a band that has thus far inhabited richly detailed worlds of intimate experience — the razor’s edge between childhood and adolescence, suburban ennui — this video reads as a kind of trick. Everybody experiences loss, right? Brazilian samba dancers, late-20s Brooklynites, the children of Mexican immigrants — it’s the Family of Man.

Except that it isn’t. More often than not, music videos revel in shallowness. What if the song is set in a high school? Hit me baby. What if she’s in love with a cartoon cat? Straight up! For two or three minutes, with the right song, a filmmaker can sustain any premise. Sometimes a nonsense premise yields a genuine emotion. Sometimes, however, a complex, dramatic, high-concept premise yields only the illusion of depth. At the end of the day, I get what’s going on in this video. I understand the narratives of regret and loneliness and class and pride because, however artfully made, they’re familiar. I’ll listen to the song, but I won’t watch this video again. I’ll watch Greta Gerwig dancing up a storm, or I’ll watch Kanye and Kim with my jaw on the ground, or I’ll cue up Black Orpheus and hear the sounds that made those people in the film really, actually move

Oh my God, what an awful word,

Phil.

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Trust Fumes: Staying With Homeland

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL SORTS OF STUFF…

Dear Television,

THIS WEEK, AHP and I will be talking about the virtues and drawbacks of sticking with series that go off the rails. Loosely, I’ll be advocating the position of The Stayer, while AHP will advocate that of The Ditcher tomorrow. But first, a memory:

I will always remember the night that I saw M. Night Shymalan’s The Village at the Hampshire Mall Cinemark. If you haven’t seen this film, it tells the tale of a small, self-governing, utopian community in Olden Times that exists in a kind of negotiated peace with some cloaked monsters who roam the woods at the edges of their town. There’s a virtuous young blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard), a nefarious mentally-disabled man (Adrien Brody, apparently unaware that he was playing a radically offensive caricature), a puritanical/warm-hearted leader (William Hurt), and Joaquin Phoenix. When a crisis occurs, they have to come to grips, not only with the beasties that stalk in their forests, but with the world outside of their commune.

It’s horrible. The dialogue is preposterously stilted — florid, unrealistic 19th-centuryisms abound, with nary a contraction to be heard. The rituals of the village are goofy. The whole movie is thinly characterized, untextured historical fiction. It all feels like the 19th century made up by a delusional egomaniac. But that’s the trick. The big Shymalan whammy at the end reveals that the reason everyone speaks in stilted, affected old-timey speak is that the film is not set in Olden Times. The village in The Village feels like the 19th century made up by a delusional egomaniac because that’s, within the narrative of the film, what it is. The town exists in a huge, walled-in nature preserve in the present day, and the town’s elders — for some nonsense reason about urban crime in Philadelphia — have raised their innocent children in a giant Live-Action Role-Play environment. And so the weird hiccups that give the film all the credibility of a half-baked Renaissance Faire are actually a part of the texture of the film’s reality. The movie, in other words, is terrible on purpose.

And I loved it. I had to wake my friend up to explain — she was less thrilled — but I walked out of that theater feeling the perverse, perhaps masochistic, thrill that I’d been taken for a ride. The intentionality of that film’s hackishness was exhilarating to me. This director had dared to sacrifice his film to its final, shocking plot contrivance. I’ll not be putting The Village in any top ten lists or stumping for its aesthetic, but, as a pure movie-going experience, it was a rare pleasure. M. Night Shyamalan had made a silly decision, but he was in control of it, and that confidence translated right into my seat.

For the past month, Alex Gansa — the showrunner of Showtime’s Homeland — has been making this argument about his own series. The first four episodes of the third season of Homeland — which premiered at the end of September — were monstrously frustrating. Last year’s second season saw the show focusing attention on bizarre subplots and gobbledygook incidents — Dana Brody’s brush with vehicular homicide, Brody’s stealth Skyping with Abu Nazir, Brody’s slapstick murder of a Gettysburg tailor — rather than playing to the strengths that had made it beloved appointment television. But with the promise of Brody’s departure at the end and a return to the business of the CIA, viewers like me came to season three imagining the new possibilities of a clean slate.

What we got instead was four episodes worth of laser-like focus on Carrie’s mental illness and Dana Brody’s infatuation with another reedy, murderous teen psychopath. (Does Dana not have any girlfriends to warn her about these skeevy dudes?) It was hard to bear, and, by the time that the third episode revealed Brody holed up in a Caracas slum being seduced into heroin addiction by a Disney villain, I was ready to turn in my gun and badge. How was it possible that this show could have so little sense of what it was good at? How could it have so little understanding of what made audiences watch it in the first place? Where were the tense interrogations of “Q & A,” the emotional manipulations of “The Weekend,” the fleet-footed fieldwork and high stakes of “The Smile” or “The Vest,” the shocking violence of “A Gettysburg Address”? What the hell is this?

At the end of the fourth episode, we got our answer. Carrie, in collusion with Saul, apparently, had been working deep cover in order to get close to the heavy who ordered the bombing that ended the previous season. All of it, the first four episodes, the breakdowns, the hospitalizations, all that horrible annoying detritus — it was all an act. We had to sit through it because Carrie had to sit through it. We had to endure it because it needed to be endured for a greater purpose. We had to grow to hate Homeland so that Homeland could earn our love.

Needless to say, I loved it. Like M. Night Shyamalan, Alex Gansa had put me, as a viewer, through an intolerably long stretch of stupid television in order to smack me over the head four episodes in. The willingness to intentionally tank four episodes doubled as an acknowledgment that somebody up there knows what really works on Homeland. And Gansa, bless his heart, minutes after the big twist, called out to anyone who would listen that yes this was all on purpose. He told Entertainment Weekly, for example,

I was an amateur magician when I was in my early teens and my favorite magic tricks were always the ones where the magician makes the audience think he’s made a mistake. Then at the end of the trick you realize the magician has been ahead of you all the time. I hope we came close to that.

Gansa repeated this rationale multiple times in reference to the episode — “Game On” — but not everybody was ready to celebrate with me. A lot of critics felt, rightly, bamboozled, or that the pieces just didn’t add up to the intentional prestidigitation Gansa was claiming. What might have played out as a paradigm shift reminiscent of Lost’s famous flash-forwards ended up landing as smug betrayal — the key difference being that Lost tricked its viewers but never stopped entertaining them. A lot of viewers, however, were just relieved. Totally aside from my cinematic masochism, my feelings about the turn of events were aptly summarized by the subtitle of Willa Paskin’s Slate recap: “I’m so happy, I don’t even care that it’s ludicrous.”

But this is what we do when we love a show: we trust it, even when it doesn’t deserve our trust. Oftentimes this trust is anthropomorphized as The Showrunner. This is, to some extent, I think, at the root of this contemporary mythos. We trust the shows we love because that’s what it takes to tune in week-to-week, and, especially with the visibility of auteurs like David Chase and active social media presences like Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it’s become easy to attribute that trust to a person. We don’t trust that The Sopranos will end well; we trust that David Chase will end it well, and we hold him personally responsible if it doesn’t. And we do this because to commit to a serial drama like this is to forge a real, if marginal, emotional connection to something. On vastly different scales, we trust our mail to be delivered, we trust our friends to come over and snark at Homeland with us, and, after investing hours of time and — for a premium cable show — a significant amount of money, we trust our television shows to know themselves.

From the original sin of letting Brody live past the first season, however, Homeland has been running on trust fumes. After its tremendous first season, the show has been occasionally brilliant — see, for example, the list of episodes above from the first and second seasons — but it has shown itself to be ruinously susceptible to bad ideas or, more accurately, outlandish maneuvers in service of ordinary goals. The Dana/Finn murder plot, for instance, ended up being an elaborate set-up to, um, humanize Finn, or show Dana the meaning of death and responsibility or something? Homeland loves making grand gestures — the car wreck, the VP’s heart attack — that seem, in the moment, to be major events. The show then revels in revealing that those events were only preludes or previews of coming atrocities. Homeland, in other words, loves running the long con, but they’re not always very good at it. And this insistence on setting-the-table with such bridge-burning flourish often comes at the expense of week-to-week interest or even coherence. And, more disappointingly, it forces us to try to care about characters, events, and situations that are ultimately insignificant or tertiary points en route to something else.

And poor Dana Brody is often the prime mover in these distractions. This wayward teen has long been a poster-child for everything that’s wrong with the series. I, however, have always held out hope for her storylines. This isn’t to say I’ve really enjoyed any of them so much as I’ve believed in the possibility of Dana as a character and thus understood why Gansa and company have been so fixated on making her a feature of the series. A credible version of this show might have dispatched Nicholas Brody at the end of season one or midway through season two in order to re-situate focus on Dana and Carrie as twin protagonists. The show might then seamlessly transform from a taut thriller into the emotionally resonant study of trauma, of inheritance, of longing that was always at its heart anyway. Making Homeland about the ordinary lives of Dana and Carrie in Brody’s wake — going to school, going to work — could have made for a great, humane narrative trick and could have made good on the promise of the show’s title. What’s been so disappointing about this season so far is that, to some extent, this is exactly what it’s doing and it sucks. Pairing Dana with yet another loose cannon boyfriend and sending her on a Bonnie and Clyde ’13 road trip made every note ring false, and sending Carrie down a fake rabbit hole didn’t do any better. Homeland can set the table, but it’s been about a season and a half since they served anything even remotely appetizing.

And this problem is extraordinarily clear when it comes to Carrie this season. “Game On” was an exciting turnaround only if it set us up to get back to business. We should want to see Dana fall in love and deal with her terroristic inheritance; we don’t want to see Dana fall in love with a Law and Order case-of-the-week defendant. Likewise we just want to see Carrie do her job. And the hard-earned reward of that magic trick at the beginning of the season was the suggestion that that’s what we’ve been watching all along. Over the past few weeks, a lot of critics have ventured suggestions as to how to “fix” Homeland, and, invariably, all of these suggestions circle around the desire to put Carrie and Saul and Quinn back in the field, doing what they do. As a viewer, I so want to see these characters pulling off clandestine operations that I’ll accept any trick so long as Carrie-Gets-to-Do-Her-Job is the rabbit Gansa pulls out of his hat.

So, to reiterate, in theory, I am pleased as punch that this show decided to snooker us. Being fooled by a series is not the same as being let down by it. And, in the days after it happened, I was filled with the hope that one day, at the end of a riveting season, we might look back and think, “Remember how much we hated the beginning of Homeland season three? Boy was that worth it!” But, alas, it seems like it was not to be. The episodes since “Game On,” have been, to my mind, fairly gripping, admirably old-school jaunts. Javadi’s murder of his wife and daughter-in-law had some of that bracing violence we remember from early season two, Carrie and Saul’s consecutive interrogations had a little bit of that old two-people-in-a-room tradecraft magic, and, despite still dealing with some rather clunky guilt after accidentally killing a kid in the first episode, the show let Quinn have at least one bad-ass move this week when he precision-capped Carrie to save a mission.

But then there’s the pregnancy. In the episode following “Game On,” it’s revealed that Carrie is not only pregnant, but apparently unhappily so — based on the entire drawer in her bathroom vanity filled with urine-soaked, presumably stinky, used pregnancy tests. Too much, too soon, Gansa. I’m all in favor of tricks, but they’re still a tricky business. Coming off of a fake-out like that, a show needs to either drop the mic or hit the ground running. Liberating that character from the confines of the mental institution only to stick her with this seems like, at best, overkill, and at worst, a misapprehension of what’s compelling about this show. Deepening Carrie by giving her this baby underestimates how much we can and have learned about her by watching her work, and creating this manifestation of her relationship with Brody ties him like a millstone around her neck at exactly the moment we should be letting him go. None of the questions it introduces are compelling, and all of the things it resurrects should stay dead.

Some critics have suggested this pregnancy plot is a symptom of aimless writing. Gansa again defends the show against this charge:

To hear that we’re wandering in the woods is just hysterical to us. This is the season we’ve been really conscious and diligent about plotting every little piece carefully. One of those pieces is Carrie’s pregnancy and it becomes very important in this last sweep of episodes.

I don’t doubt that this was planned. Gansa and his team have not lost my confidence that they’re telling the story they want to tell. And I’m sure Carrie’s pregnancy does have a role to play in the last movement of this series. But the same could have been — and was — said about Dana’s car crash, about any number of other silly diversions. With Lost, the question was always, “Will it add up?” When the answer turned out to be no, it felt like a betrayal. I’ve never doubted that Homeland will add up — I do love watching it try — but, at this point, I just don’t know if I’ll care.

Cryface,

Phil.

¤

GoodWife

The Fastest Show on TV: On The Good Wife

A COUPLE WEEKS AGO, in this very column, I made an off-hand claim that The Good Wife is “the best show on television.” I’m certainly not alone in this belief, and the veritable Chumhum Army that came out of the twittersphere to co-sign it is proof. If I wanted to voice a controversial belief, I would have said that I think Homeland should be paying more attention to Dana Brody, or that I don’t think the ex-porn-star champagne ads on SNL are even remotely funny. (We’ll get to those later, hopefully, so long as I’m not murdered by an angry mob of people who think acrylic nails and anal sex are hilarious in any context.) No, in saying that I think The Good Wife is the best show on television, I was simply stating a version of a now popular maxim: The Good Wife is the best show on NETWORK television.

My claim, in other words, was not an outlier for its assertion of Good Wife’s quality; it was an outlier because I didn’t qualify it. Allow me to state unequivocally: I think The Good Wife is the best show on television. And I’m including Netflix Original Series here as well. We can have some conversations about Mad Men, Justified, Breaking Bad before it ended, Girls when it’s good, Louie when it’s on, but I dare anybody to name a television show currently airing that is better than The Good Wife. (And don’t you dare say Homeland.) It’s taken a compelling premise — the resurrection of a disgraced political wife — and turned it into an endlessly re-generating engine of cultural commentary. It’s filled with more boffo supporting performances than I can count. It’s wryly funny and convincingly conversant with 21st century technology. It’s unembarrassed, curious, and smart about sex in, like, three different age ranges (though Kalinda sometimes reads less as a queer character than a kind of sexual superhero unbound by earthly Sexx Laws). It has thoughtful and ambivalent things to say about religion, RELIGION, I tell you! And, as the world of the show has expanded, it’s gotten surprisingly good at juggling multiple intersecting plotlines and spaces.

But it has fallen prey to the now-conventional wisdom that network television is incapable of producing work at the level of cable or premium cable. HBO’s slogan used to be, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” but, increasingly, HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX are not only TV, they’re the only TV that matters. The revolutionaries have become a sort of critical mainstream. And as to NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX, the consensus seems to be, “It’s not TV, it’s garbage.” Or, rather, “It’s not TV, it’s Network TV.” It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about cable’s nascent takeover of the circuits of prestige — the phenomenon of cable drama’s beatification began far earlier, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that cable drama essentially and uncontroversially took over the Emmys, for instance. But those cultural gains have calcified today into hardened tradition. To say that The Good Wife is the best show on network is to deliver, right now, a kind of back-handed compliment. It’s great, compared to NCIS. This is a decent restaurant, for Topeka. All the girls say I’m pretty fly, for a white guy.

There are, of course, amazing television series on cable and premium cable, and the shows that HBO and AMC and Showtime produce both make up a majority of the archive for our critical conversations and get a kind of head-start from critics and viewers alike. Many more critics, for instance, kept watch on the potential greatness of a crummy premium cable drama like Ray Donovan before it premiered than were even remotely interested in a great network series like Sleepy Hollow. Premium cable series, in other words, are classic until proven otherwise and networks series schlock until they prove themselves the exception. (And we’re certainly not immune to this: see, for example, our coverage of the perfectly fine Masters of Sex as opposed to, well, the spectacular Good Wife.)

Hopefully we can talk about this coverage bias and the hierarchies of taste involved a little more this season. A lot of it, I think, has to do with the fact that many of the best series on network right now — Good Wife and Scandal specifically — get smooched with the “soap opera” kiss of death whenever they fly too close to the sun. You may think you are getting something out of this viewing experience, but those shows are just empty, case-of-the-week, love triangle, political conspiracy calories. This past week, T-Bone Burnett publicly exited Nashville — his wife’s series — bitterly muttering about how the network was trying to turn a “drama about real musicians’ lives” into a “soap opera.” This comment is in keeping with the public perception of what a “soap opera” is — that is, fun but not worthy. But as much as Callie Khouri may be feeling pressure to amp up the car crashes and infidelities — we heard the same story about Smash — and thus dilute the gritty realism(?) at the show’s heart, series like Good Wife and Scandal don’t feel forced. Rather, they — like Mad Men and Homeland on cable — embrace and adapt that soapiness. The soap opera, like the police procedural or the medical drama or the will-they-won’t-they sitcom is just another piece of TV’s generic history with which this generation of showrunners can play.

I’m 1000% sure that Annie has some words on this subject, and I don’t want to spend too much time harping on categorization or taste and value distinctions because as incensed as I am by the implicit attitude some people cop toward The Good Wife, I’m far more purely and genuinely excited by what that show does week to week. After last week’s insanely entertaining and deceptively paradigm-shifting episode “Hitting the Fan,” Richard Lawson wrote at The Atlantic Wire that not only is The Good Wife the “best drama on network television” — grrr! — but that it’s better than it ever was before. I’m inclined to agree (with the latter). In the weeks leading up to the end of Breaking Bad, we witnessed a fairly common rhetoric based in the idea that that series was something like the Chris Traeger of television series: not an ounce of fat, engineered with the care and efficiency of a micro-chip. The concept of a mistake — a character that doesn’t work out, a weird diversion, really anything not suited to the series’ ultimate perfection and eventual Ascension Into Heaven to sit at the Right Hand of the Father — became anathema. But that’s not how that series or any other really works. And The Good Wife, bless its heart, has made its share of mistakes, the most grievous of which have honestly been fumbled attempts to create foils — a competing investigator with the personality of a robot, an ex-husband who moonlights as rhythm guitarist for Driveshaft — for Kalinda Sharma, the aforementioned leather-jacketed, dormant supervolcano of an investigator played by the Emmy-winning Archie Panjabi. That said, these are the mistakes of a series working at an already very high level — the Fat Betties, the specks of dust in the micro-chip.

But, again, at the risk of jinxing, this season has been impeccably crafted so far. Lawson, in his post, expresses concern that the series is moving at such a blistering pace and burning so many bridges behind it — thus creating a potentially unwieldy number of new places, characters, and dynamics from Springfield to the offices of Florrick Agos and Associates — that it will fail to hold together. I understand this anxiety and share it to some extent, but I think it also highlights one of the things that’s most appealing, most ambitious, and, ultimately, most un-cable-like about The Good Wife: its speed.

Over the past several years, there’s been a lot of writing in praise of slow television. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Enlightened to the deservedly-praised first season of The Walking Dead, one of the characteristics we’ve come to value in prestige television is the willingness to take time telling a story, to let “nothing” happen for the span of an episode, to take advantage of space and creative freedom to build a world where spectators live rather than one through which they are shuttled. (The merciless pacing of Breaking Bad’s final season was notable if only for how uncharacteristic it was for a show that spent the better part of its first season killing one guy.) They take the logic of the procedural to an obsessive, transcendent extreme. They are unafraid to step away from main characters or isolate them, a practice that has led to the current vogue for “bottle episodes.” (The second season of Girls, certainly influenced by the work of Louis C.K., felt like a collection of loosely inter-connected short films occasionally punctuated by crass, annoying “plot” episodes.)

The Good Wife is not slow. It’s busy, it’s lusty, it’s fast. Like its spiritual sister Scandal, it’s transfigured the Sorkinian walk-and-talk — and even parodied it by shooting part of a recent cold open from the POV of a confused iPad affixed to a Segway scooter trying to follow Alicia Florrick around the office. It’s built an elaborately detailed world that includes courtrooms, offices, two different domestic spaces, two different governor’s offices, jails, and sexy sexy elevators, and that’s peopled with the Florrick family, main lawyers, associates, rival lawyers, lawyers for lawyers, judges, military judges, political consultants, politicians, journalists, and con artists. It’s not that cable series haven’t built worlds as richly detailed as this — indeed, it’s a hallmark of the recent television revolution and a quality in The Good Wife that keeps it in the conversation — but those shows are willing to confine action sometimes. They’re willing to cordon off an area or zoom in on one character to the exclusion of all others. Part of the precarious excitement of The Good Wife is that it wants constantly, gluttonously to consume and occupy all of its spaces every week. At its best, The Good Wife can be everywhere at once.

BUT HOW? Since the beginning, one of The Good Wife’s stand-out traits has been its authentic, adult sexuality. A premise about the pitfalls of infidelity, it could have easily become prudish or sexless itself. But Alicia Florrick is not a celibate to the cause of political rehabilitation. The ambivalent and compromised center of the series, she’s always been a protagonist of appetites, ambitions, desires personal and professional. (The knock-you-on-your-ass line from last week was Alicia’s breathy, mid-coital, “You want me to lean in? How’s that?”) And these have been both the foundation of her feminist heroism and her occasional downfall.

But the unit of measure for that sexuality, and the heart of this show’s out-of-control time signature, is the quickie. There have been precious few languorous sexual encounters in this series that is full of dalliances of all kinds. Especially between Alicia and Peter — though, also between Alicia and Will, as the memory of their bathroom encounter two weeks ago reminds us — The Good Wife writes to the quickie. Short, passionate, explosive — The Good Wife refuses to take its time because sometimes it’s better not to. I think we can profitably read this series as one based on that kind of ping-pong sensuality, the logic that anything worth doing and any motivation worth expressing can be expressed in a rush.

Because it’s not just the sex. In “Hitting the Fan,” the courtroom disputes are so fast as to be almost surreal, decisions handed down, fates decided. The jokes fly quickly and by inference. Traumas and set-backs quickly compound like multi-car pile-ups. From Alicia and Peter’s ambitions to the broad arc of Lockhart Gardner, The Good Wife is a show about the tension between impulse and plan, spontaneous event and long history, chaos and order, the Dynamo and the Virgin. The show establishes its form through choreography, the perfectly precise rhythm of a dancer kicking her feet a hair’s breadth from another dancer’s face; it transcends that form by showing the occasional breakdown of that choreography. And the characters who are valorized, who are given our deepest love, are those who can move at that speed. Cary’s sentimentality and softness let Diane out-pace him, Peter’s improvisatory footwork lets him outstep Will, Alicia’s unerring desire to not be held down, back, or to the side gives her the ability to think past the men who try to hold her. We perceive the depth of these characters, not through long tearful moments or time spent looking into their eyes, but through the totally unique, totally dynamic, and fully personal way that they negotiate these dances. We gain intimacy by understanding precisely how and when Alicia Florrick does or does not fall.

Over the past few years, Homeland has received accolades for taking the breakneck plot of a show like 24 and slowing it down to a glacial pace. That was an innovation and one that — despite the current state of that series — was justly influential. It’s a show about the long con, about the slow burn of betrayal, guilt, love. The Good Wife’s innovation has been not just rejecting that kind of slowness and embracing the speed of this kind of show, but in making it quicker, bigger, more breathtakingly efficient. It’s a feat of virtuosity, of boundless, foolish interest in its characters and in their machinations. When the showrunners can control this outlandishly deep and wide swath of humanity, it’s exhilarating. When they can’t, it’s even better.

Elsbeth Tascioni out!

Phil.

¤

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Greetings from Hellmouth, U.S.A.

Dear Television,

THE THING ABOUT American Horror Story is not just its insanity or its abjection or its politics or its provocations — it’s how much of it there is!  As such, the list becomes a common feature of essays about the show, including our own. We don’t write about the monsters; we write about the diversity of monsters. We don’t write about a scenery chewing performance; we write about a veritable feeding frenzy of actresses. We don’t react to occasional preposterous twists; we have trouble keeping track of them. I’ve written about how the anthology format allows AHS to get away with this over-stuffed approach by providing an artificially constrained space in which Ryan Murphy can, sometimes literally, shoot his entire wad. Can this subplot about gay ghost baby adoption sustain itself? Is this dance sequence a little too much? Will audiences seriously watch Dylan McDermott try to act for this long? Who cares, we’re all gonna die!

Annie, you wrote beautifully about how the show sustains the possibility of being both misogynist and feminist, glorious and grotesque, and I think a lot of the reason this is possible is structural. But, even if the one-and-done seasons of AHS enable a kind of creative abandon on the part of Ryan Murphy, it doesn’t solve the problem of how to feasibly get every abject thing in Murph’s mind onto a show in a way that makes any coherent narrative sense at all. Sure these guys want to wedge alien abductions, Boston marriages, The Thorn Birds, ghost hunting, sadistic sexual torture, and sexy priests all into a season of television, but how? I don’t think, to this extent, we can overestimate the importance of place on this show. The way Ryan Murphy gets around it is by opening up a Hellmouth.

I’m speaking, of course, about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Professionally, Buffy is a Vampire Slayer. But, if that were your job, presumably you’d have to travel a lot — like an insurance salesman or a corporate downsizer or a stinking academic. But Buffy’s in high school. What’s unique and fun and resonant about the series as a horror series — that it’s both a supernatural adventure show and a humane, funny look at what it’s like to be an ordinary teenager—is forfeited if Buffy is a jet-setter. The action, in other words, has to commute to Sunnydale: the Hellmouth. Sunnydale, CA, it turns out, is an ancient zone that attracts supernatural phenomena like a magnet. A kind of portal or blurry in-between space, it just so happens that, by living in Sunnydale, Buffy has access, not just to vampires, but demons, lizard creatures, nefarious mid-90s computer programs, all manner of zany horror. What the hospital is for ER or the law firm is to The Good Wife, the Hellmouth is to Buffy. It curates and transports the drama, allowing a broad-ranging adventure series to settle down in a particular place.

This is obviously not a trope that’s specific to Buffy — from the Indian burial ground in Poltergeist, to Dana’s apartment building in Ghostbusters, and even the cabin in Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods — but it is a trope that Buffy owned and transformed on TV. As Jane will write tomorrow, Alfred Hitchcock Presents maintained a diversity of spooky experiences by anthologizing episodes and moving locales week to week. Mulder and Scully had some conveniently located cases, but they also had to travel all over the country to track down their X-Files.The cases on Fringe only seem to string together because of the common thread of Bishop’s research.

Ryan Murphy has, for three seasons now, utilized something like a Hellmouth device as a contrivance to let all the crazy he wants congregate in one location. The “Murder House” of the first season was a veritable American history lesson of horror, containing a legion of new and notorious villains. Not just a haunted house in the traditional sense, it turned out that the Murder House was a kind of garbage dump of evil, a machine for the manufacture of the Antichrist. The asylum functioned in a similar way in the second season, and now, despite perhaps a slightly more tightly plotted story, New Orleans is Murphy’s newest Hellmouth, complete with all the native murderous history and walking dead he could ever have stuffed into a California home. (It’s tempting to describe the gallery of pervy monsters on True Blood in this way, with Bon Temps as a kind of Hellmouth, but part of the brilliance of that show’s premise is precisely that Bon Temps is not exceptional. The whole world is a Hellmouth, it turns out, and everyone just has to deal with it locally.)

But there are other ways of describing what Murphy does. Indeed, to some extent, you could say that the series picks a bunch of threads and then figures out where they all converge or vice versa, thus producing a kind of organic Hellmouth. Type grunge suicide, antichrist, Tennessee Williams, Black Dahlia, and psychotic abortionist into the search parameters on your Zillow real estate app and, voila, Murder House, California! But the series on the air right now with the most totally sincere and straightforward debt to the Hellmouth School of Horror Series Design is Fox’s hot nonsense Sleepy Hollow.

I have to confess here that I love this show like I love the music of Ke$ha. I understand its mixture of insanity and self-awareness, I love that its eccentricities don’t seem entirely affected, I respect its willingness to do stupid things in the service of potential brilliance, I love the way it plays with the tropes of its medium, and I’m really into all the campy apocalyptic energy.  In fact, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that, after he’s mortally wounded in the Revolutionary War, ensorcelled, frozen for several centuries, and then reawakened in 2013 to fight the Headless Horseman, our hero Ichabod Crane, like Ke$ha after a night in the club, wakes up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy.

Sleepy Hollow’s got a classic buddy-cop center — stolen, note for note, from both Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and its American cousin Elementary — a dash of National Treasure/Da Vinci Code historical occultism, and it’s host, even in just these first few episodes, to a really inventive array of supernatural baddies from the hilariously Rambo’d Headless Horseman to an actually, genuinely scary eyeless Sandman. What makes the show so much a part of this Buffy lineage, though, is the nominal plot.  Without going too far into the faux-serious whirligig of this premise, Crane wakes up in Sleepy Hollow because the horseman whose head he removed in the Revolutionary War was actually, via a spunky mash-up between Christian eschatology and nineteenth-century American literature, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. So, of course, a sexy coven of witches — are there any unsexy covens anymore? — hid the severed head in Sleepy Hollow, thus forestalling the apocalypse. Crane wakes up because for some reason the Horseman has retraced his steps to figure out where he last saw his cranium, and he’s locked and loaded for a fight with a misappropriated literary character. Seriously, trust me, it’s great.

In any case, this sets up Sleepy Hollow, NY as a kind of apocalyptic Hellmouth. There are four horsemen constantly trying to manifest themselves, and, though they occasionally strap on machine guns and show up in person, they work largely by proxy. So Crane (played with irresistible dash by Tom Mison) and his partner (a much-better-than-she-needs-to-be Nicole Beharie) team up each week to neutralize threats that run the gamut from possessed psychiatrists, modern day Hessian soldiers, and sleep demons, to all sorts of other colonial-era junk. Everything that appears is the result, however flimsily sourced, of the fact that, somewhere in Sleepy Hollow, there lies the key to the apocalypse. Like all Hellmouths, there’s a logic to this place, but it’s by no means a logical place. All we need is a tentative reason for it to exist, and then we can sit back and let it randomly generate episodic devilry.

Because the Hellmouth concept allows a show to forego elaborate explanations about causality, it frees up these shows to work at different levels.  In other words, this strong mythological center let’s a series not have to worry too much about mythology. The grave mistake of Lost, in this regard, was setting up the explanation of its own Hellmouth as something that audiences might expect or look forward to. Some magic boxes should stay closed. American Horror Story takes advantage of this dynamic by building narratives about America’s political present. Race relations, the abortion debate, LGBTQ issues, and even, in an alternately too-tidy and too-leering way, rape culture. In the grand tradition of horror before it, AHS necessarily works as cultural commentary. What Murphy’s Hellmouths cough up are the ghosts of America’s stalemated culture wars, and, thanks to Annie, we all know what they look like.

Sleepy Hollow for its part seems content, for now, to revel in lightly toying with its generic forebears, but it certainly has the potential to engage in some wackadoodle critique of its own. It’s by no means as ambitious as American Horror Story in its cultural politics, but it both embodies and speaks back to the kind of revisionist-nostalgic obsession with American history that defines the current political moment. Indeed, a few episodes in, we see a flashback revealing that Ichabod Crane organized the Boston Tea Party as a diversion so that he could steal a supernatural MacGuffin that unleashes the forces of the underworld…or whatever. But the other thing we realize is that this is only the second most ridiculous, delusional, and fantastical appropriation of the Boston Tea Party American culture has produced recently. Sometimes the Hellmouth opens, and we fall right in.

There’s a place downtown where the freaks all come around,
It’s a hole in the wall, it’s a dirty free-for-all,

Phil.

¤

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The Good Bros of Fox

Dear Television,

HEY, REMEMBER WHEN Fox Tuesdays were the next best hope for a full-on televisual Ladies Night? An evening of television created by female showrunners and structured around Zooey Deschanel and Mindy Kaling? Fox had harvested the fruit of a decade of Tina Fey pioneering and invited us all to sip upon the delicious, feminist Liz Lemon-ade! In fact, that was part of the reason why this very blog chose to write a weekly column about New Girl and The Mindy Project last fall (a column you may or may not recall that we dropped like a hotcake midseason in order to spend time with Lena Dunham in Patrick Wilson’s brownstone).

As it turned out, New Girl was maddeningly inconsistent, and The Mindy Project’s unembarrassed embrace of the lurid wealth that enables but goes unmentioned in most sitcoms began to feel unseemly. But, more than that, neither show was really paying off on that whole Ladies Night thing. In fact, the reason to watch each week was more often determined by Nick, Schmidt, or Morgan than it was by Jess or Mindy. Ladies Night had been infiltrated by wacky dudes, and Fox noticed. So, this year, Fox plugged Tuesdays with Dads — a comedy that reminds us how much more racist and misogynist things sound when human people say them instead of cartoons — and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a promising new show about a man-child police detective. (And, for what it’s worth, it’s widely assumed that Dads will likely be replaced midseason by the recently resurrected John Mulaney Show, which is about a dude named John Mulaney.)

Jane, you’re very right to point out the man-childishness of this block, and Lili, your treatise on the new — questionable — sincerity of these shows is really right on. There is an evolution going on here, and I think an intermediary step that we ought to talk about is The Bro. Last year I wrote a post about Schmidt and Mindy that attempted, with all the requisite rigor of a PhD in English, a theory of the douche-bag. Schmidt was a d-bag, so was Danny Castellano, and so too, I suggested, was Mindy — trying too hard for the wrong things. There was pathos in the struggle, but the shows were essentially ballads of the unrepentant tool.

At the root of the d-bag discussion was likability. Why was Schmidt a relatable heel while Mindy pushed her audience away? It’s obviously a gendered distinction, but it wasn’t until this week that I think I realized the fine grain of it. For women on TV, the archetypal d-bag is the Mean Girl. Shallow, catty, Machiavellian — you’re either a glamorous jerk like Olivia Pope or a low-rent, dastardly one like the kind Allison Janney now plays (perfectly) on Mom. Once a female character becomes a d-bag, there’s nowhere to land but Regina George. Either the mean girl repents and becomes human again, or she remains a villain. (Hopefully, we’ll be able to write a little later this season about The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, the primary example of a female character who’s been able to exist betwixt and between these poles, and, not incidentally, the protagonist of the best show on television. Come at me!)

For men, of course, there’s the archetypal Sleaze — a role with which Schmidt has always flirted and that was portrayed last week on Mindy by the evil Glenn Howerton. But men also have a second option that I’m not sure yet exists archetypally for women on television. It’s softer, it’s kinder, it’s d-baggy and cocky but also still somehow redemptive. I’m speaking, of course, of the Bro. And, in the absence of an idea of what to do with Jess or Mindy, Fox Tuesday night has become the Frat House of the television landscape.

What I’ll call, for these purposes, “The Good Bro,” is an archetype that is related to, maybe even evolved from, the man-child. (It should be understood that Dads, a topic we’ve avoided like the plague, is Fox’s repository of “Bad Bros” — a kind of release valve that allows all the virtuous bro-ing down that occurs throughout the rest of the schedule.) Where the man-child is insecure in his masculinity, the good bro is secure; where the man-child is stunted in his development, the good bro is confidently developed; where the man-child is immature to the point of disability, the good bro is functional, even successful; and where the man-child is searching, the good bro operates based on a strict ethical code. What they both share, however, is the sincerity of which Lili speaks. The good bro, as opposed to the sleaze, holds nothing back. Masculine, friendly, sensitive to women, only rhetorically misogynist, possessed of a Str8 Bro-style obsession with homosexual desire, and, above all, committed to a kind of unfiltered truth-telling, the Good Bro is now the dominant feature of Fox’s Tuesday night.

Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg’s character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is the very model of a modern good bro. He’s almost psychotically confident, obsessed with asserting his masculinity by winning a date with a female detective, but even more obsessed with winning the best friendship of his tough-as-nails gay captain, played by Andre Braugher. Peralta is presented as a typical loose cannon, but, rather than be distracted by liquor and women like many sleazier loose cannons past, Peralta’s wildness is manifest in zany, fratty, ultimately inclusive antics. He tazes cantaloupes, he competes in fire extinguisher-propelled office chair races, and he wears a brightly colored Speedo to work as a prank on the captain. He is, in other words, confident enough in his competence to treat his job like a joke and secure enough in his sexuality to play around at its boundaries.

Schmidt is the primary bro on New Girl, but, especially in the light of his recent duplicity, he is emphatically a bad bro. Nick Miller, while disqualified from true good bro-ness, at the very least embraces the aesthetic of the good bro. And, to this extent, he provides a counter-weight to Schmidt’s sleaze. He’s a slob and a drinker, a Chicago Bears fan and a hacky-sacker. Until last week, he’s been emotionally unavailable in a particularly gendered way, and, earlier in the series, he fell in deep, platonic love with Jess’s boyfriend Fancyman. Again, even though Nick is atypical, he embodies the key good bro qualities of faithfulness, dudeliness, and a healthily flexible sexual imagination.

The Mindy Project is the third part of this Bro-ly Trinity, and it features one of the clearest conversations about the State of the American Bro yet going. In fact, in a recent episode, this conversation becomes explicit. Danny (Chris Messina) is threatened by the appearance of a new doctor, the charming, ex-frat boy Peter Prentiss (Adam Pally). Danny complains to Jeremy that Prentiss, “calls everyone boss or chief or little buddy,” to which Jeremy replies that he had assumed the two would get along, being both of them “American dudes.” Jeremy has rightly picked up the fact that Prentiss is the living ideal of fraternal intimacy. Danny then articulates what he believes to be a fundamental difference between the two men: “We’re nothing like each other, ok? He wears cargo shorts, I wear slacks. He surfs, I fear the ocean out of respect.” Danny identifies with a kind of stoic, conservative, working-class masculinity whereas Prentiss is a classic frat guy: scrubbily privileged and entitled. But, as their actions eventually reveal, the differences between Danny and Prentiss are really just internecine squabbles between Good Bros. As macho OB/GYNs, they are representatives of fraternity and maternity in equal measure, and, when Mindy needs them, they’ll be there to help.

Prentiss is the Good Bro par excellence. He speaks in the language of the frat (“I’ve been on the other side of this a lot — dumping chicks.”; “I would chop you down on sight.”) but he also demonstrates an almost preternatural sensitivity with the practice’s patients. He talks constantly about the “chicks” he’s dating, but he also keeps trying to touch Danny’s “junk.” His swaggering masculinity is not an act, but it occupies equal real estate with his ethical and professional goodness. Nowhere is this more clearly materialized than when he helps empower Mindy to get over her breakup, wiping her tears away with a g-string. Earlier in the episode, he tells a pregnant patient, “I’m kidding, but I’m also being really serious.” It’s the fundamental contradiction of the Good Bro. His lightness co-exists with, even enables, his substance.

But all of this is less about a particular assertion of masculinity than it is about a likability gap. New Girl and Mindy Project were initially faulted for having protagonists who were, respectively, too twee and too mean. In order to counteract this, the Good Bro emerged on these shows because if the Good Bro is anything, he’s likable. His contradictions exist because he’s a character pitched to what networks perceive to be the priorities of both male and female viewers simultaneously. The Good Bro is a good-time party guy, masculine/feminine subject, a figure viewers can have in common. He’s also the lynch-pin of the kind of hang-out style show to which all three series aspire (needless to say, Joey Tribiani is as Good a Bro as it is possible to be). He’s invited you into his fraternity. It only seems strange because it used to be a sorority.

On SIGHT,

Phil.

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Streaming Pam Beesly

Dear Television,

It is the strangest thing to have a long-term fictional love interest. It’s a type of relationship that is very intimate, and very powerful, but it’s fictional. I mean, there is a part of me that is Pam, and a part of him that is Jim, and that part of me is in love with that part of him.

— Jenna Fischer (Pam) on John Krasinski (Jim)

I’VE BEEN WAITING for this for a while. Of course, I love watching new episodes of Girls and cracking the spine on a fresh Word document to talk about last night’s bottle episode or money shot or video art installation. But, especially recently, what I really want to talk about is old TV. Annie, your argument about Netflix as the new canon is so right. And Netflix doesn’t just re-shift the Golden Age canon retroactively — in terms of de-throning HBO — it also influences what I watch on live TV. (The costliness and difficulty of catching up on FX’s Justified, for instance, means that I simply don’t watch Justified.) But Lili, it’s your point about re-watching that has my brain-strings all atwitter. I am no stranger to waking up at 6 AM realizing that Parks and Recreation has been auto-playing on my laptop for four hours as I lay dreaming. But as interested as I am in the dynamics of narrative comfort, in how Netflix puts us to sleep, as you put it, I’m even more interested in how Netflix keeps us awake.

Streaming may have artificially limited the canon, it may have provided an apparatus that fully realizes TV’s potential as background music, but it’s also made more astute, attentive viewers of a larger swath of the viewing audience. To dip back into the My-Students-These-Days data pool, I’ve found that while my students may not yet know what auteur theory is, while I may need to walk them through how editing works and what deep focus is, they have learned a kind of aesthetic intelligence about film and television that’s evolved out of their own viewing practices.  Despite their lack of technical vocabulary, many of them can immediately tell the difference between a Michelle MacLaren episode of Breaking Bad and a Rian Johnson one. They are aware of texture, in other words, the results of aesthetic decisions if not necessarily the mechanics of those decisions, and they are aware of it because their shows exist in infinitely watchable, infinitely re-watchable, infinitely controllable time. This, as much as the palliative or escapist quality, is one that is changing viewership. Viewers are becoming more attuned—because they are now in control of the archive—to the small ways through which shows are built.

This is, of course, not new either. Rerun culture has a long and storied history, cult films like The Big Lebowski and Rocky Horror Picture Show have generated intense fan bases, and the amazingly revelatory sociological/ethnographic work of Francesca Coppa on the history of “vidding” and video remix culture shows that, as long as VHS has been available, communities of fans have been watching their favorite series close enough to transform them into living, breathing, interactive things. But streaming now enables even casual viewers to behave like obsessed fans. It mainstreams, to some extent, the kind of compulsive, detail-oriented mode of spectatorship we have historically associated with the cult or, heaven forbid, the nerd. Streaming removes the material obstacles to this kind of fandom — the tape decks, the splicing, the dubbing — and lets us watch with the eye of a vidder. It makes Trekkies of us all.

For me, this is less remarkable for the way it allows us to engage with streamable series like Lost or Breaking Bad — series loaded with easter eggs and guns on mantles that were built anticipating and soliciting this kind of fannish attention to detail — than the way it allows us to engage with series that are not built like magic boxes. Combing through the Netflix archive, it quickly becomes apparent that there are shows that thrive in the streaming world, and those that don’t. Lili writes, “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.”  And as is often the case, series that may have had somewhat tortured lives on television have emerged as standard-bearers of this new mode of watching.

Friday Night Lights is perhaps the best example of this. Like QB1 Matt Saracen, FNL held on long enough to achieve some initial attention, get cut, get re-instated, switch positions (networks), and then go out with a glorious, if bittersweet, ending. FNL was never what NBC wanted it to be. It was too sad, too quiet, not footbally enough, not sexy enough, too good for this world. But it always had a small legion of fans, and now that the series is on Netflix, its audience builds by conversion like the early church. It feels like it’s always belonged online. FNL — like Freaks and Geeks or Parenthood — is an observational realist show about the practice of living, and that’s an aspect of the show that’s only easily accessible if it gets the kind of intimate, prolonged, attention streaming allows. We re-watch Friday Night Lights because of the texture it offers, the depth of field, the intense desire to see these deeply drawn, inarticulate people find a way to express themselves.

So the patience and ritual and intimacy of Netflix gives FNL a chance to succeed. But this close attention also rewards and transfigures a genre that’s been largely overlooked in all the recent press about the Golden Age: the single-camera sitcom. Freed from the stagey artifice of the multi-cam yukfest, the single-cams took off in the early century, popularizing a mockumentary, comic realist aesthetic, but, with a few exceptions, failing to achieve the kind of vulgar ratings success of their multi-cam, laugh-track cousins. The characteristics that define these shows — heavy serialization, familiar direct address to the viewer, lived-in spaces, mundane detail, painstakingly composed mise-en-scene, almost aggressive sincerity — made them popular but always somewhat awkwardly fitted to network TV. They demanded an intimacy from the audience that the audience was not always willing to give. But on Netflix, these shows — Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, even Louie and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to different extents — gain an almost sublime depth. Like FNL, these shows feel almost impossible now outside of the context of their streaming.

My personal addiction is The Office. I’ve watched the series beginning to end, in and out of chronological order, more times than I can count. It’s a series that survived on TV by anchoring itself to Steve Carrell’s star performance and John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer’s years-long will-they-won’t-they. These were the flashy heart and the broad arc of the series, but it’s only really in streaming that the textures of these performances become available.   Like any relationship, the viewer’s bond with the show is not necessarily based in broad arcs or large questions. Often, we find ourselves most tied to small, off-hand details, elements of mise-en-scene or observed quirks over and above grand gestures and A-plot points. The small flirtations and missed conversations between Jim and Pam through the second and third seasons far outweigh the emotional weight of even great event episodes like “Niagara” or “The Delivery.” And grace notes strewn throughout provide alternate ways to explore and imagine the series. (Try watching the first three seasons as a narrative about Pam and Dwight — trust me.) The thrill, for a show as invested in naturalism and the aesthetic of documentary realism, is not in riding along with a will-they-or-won’t-they arc, but in the feeling of knowing a character.

And knowing a character this way is a function of knowing that character over time. In her 2008 interview with Terry Gross, Jenna Fischer, who played Pam Halpert nee Beesley for nine seasons on The Office, revealed to whom the characters on the show are talking when they talk to the camera.  According to Fischer, when an actor enters into one of The Office’s “talking head” scenes — a convention adopted from the original British series and known in Reality TV documentary aesthetics as “The Confessional” — that actor is not simply reading lines. Instead, every talking head is a conversation, sometimes scripted, sometimes improvised, between the actor and the director of the particular episode. When an actor cries in a talking head, as Fischer has done on multiple occasions throughout the show’s run, it is often a reaction to similar emotion from one of the show’s corps of directors. When an actor seems caught off guard, it is because they often are. When the actor gives the impression of speaking to an old, trusted friend, it is because they, more often than not, are.

It’s not just that streaming and re-watching allows us to achieve a greater intimacy with series that we watch. It’s that streaming and re-watching help us realize that there’s an intimacy built into many of these contemporary series that only partially survives from week to week. The Office ended its run this year by focusing — in a meta-narrative twist — on the profound effect that seeing the full run of “The Office” (the PBS documentary that is the diegetic reason for the show itself) has on Jim and Pam and the whole cast. It’s a fitting end to the series, inasmuch as it recognizes the difference between checking in on the exploits of Dunder Mifflin week-to-week and seeing those exploits as part of a longer, larger fabric of time. It recognizes and validates how the series now exists to us.

It’s hokey to say that talking head scenes make You a Part of The Action, as if the whole series were Star Tours. But we are hailed, in a way, by this show and others like it. We can watch it as a more melancholy version of Friends or as collection of non sequiturs. But we are also asked by this show to revel in its detail, to catch moments we might not have seen before, to notice, for instance, that Dwight has a large, framed picture of a Predator drone above his desk in the later seasons. If, as Lili says, Netflix enables us to take comfort in architecture, it also allows us to enter these interior spaces and feel what it’s like to live inside them. It may seem like too much to make this kind of claim on behalf of this sitcom or any other, but, watching it over and over, it’s unavoidably true that this is how this series addresses us. There’s a goofy banality to re-watching that belies exactly how profound an experience it can be. But that’s what we like about TV, right?

I feel God in this Chili’s tonight,

Phil.

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caplanmasters

Exposing Yourself on Television

MASTERS OF SEX, “PILOT”

Dear Television,

FIRST OF ALL, it’s great to be back at the LARB. I’m also excited to be back covering an early sixties period drama about sex, ambition, and women in the workplace with all of you. (And no, I’m not talking about ABC’s Pan Am.) I’m talking, of course, about Showtime’s new original series Masters of Sex about the sex researchers Masters and Johnson, starring Lizzy “She’s So Fantastic, She Should Really Get Her Own TV Show” Caplan and Michael “Wesley Snipes” Sheen, and debuting in the enviable/unenviable slot after Homeland Sunday nights. If only because, at a very basic level, Masters of Sex is not a series about the investigation of the grisly murder of a beautiful young woman in a small town, I’m in. But, more than that, it’s a funny, really very well-acted, oddly ambitious piece of historical fiction. And, despite the fact that I honestly cannot think of a sillier title for it — Sex Masters, Johnson and Johnsons, Nudity Party U.S.A. 1959 — I’m very bullish about its prospects.

That said, it’s got a weird pilot. And, for this opening post, I want to stitch our lineage as a blog together with Masters of Sex’s as a series, and talk a little bit about how the nagging muscle memory of Mad Men makes this pilot even weirder to watch. It’s an obvious, not entirely generous, comparison to yoke these shows together. Unlike the previously mentioned Pan Am, there’s very little evidence to suggest that Masters is in any way an effort to jack Mad Men’s style and cache — though I’m sure an early sixties setting is not exactly a liability in a pitch meeting at Showtime — and while Masters is portrayed as something of an aspirationally lecherous heel in this episode, he’s by no means a Golden Age anti-hero. 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.

One of the most notable quirks of the pilot is its heavy — sometimes almost unseemly — reliance on exposition. Masters is literally introduced to the audience by his provost at a gala in his honor, Johnson gives Masters a fairly detailed outline of her marital history and previous education in a job interview, Johnson explains her philosophy of liberated adult sexuality to her lover on numerous occasions, the lover responds by articulating — as if from a history textbook about social attitudes of the 1950s — his own philosophy about the relationship between love and sex, and we’re told quite plainly that Masters doesn’t care about having the child he and his wife are attempting to conceive, that he has a low sperm count, and, a few more times than is necessary, that Masters’s career is in jeopardy.

It’s perhaps understandable that this show is so forthcoming so fast. Created by Michelle Ashford, a veteran of HBO’s Pacific and John Adams miniseries, Masters of Sex is not a program all that interested in mystery. Like those miniseries, this show is a talky, action-packed exploration of historical events that we already know to have been hugely important — though the action here tends more toward laboratory sex than open warfare. But, unlike that other contemporary historical fiction The Newsroom, Masters of Sex is already signaling its preference for depicting the small-bore, messily executed machinations of history rather than the grandiose, benighted movements of Great Men and the Women Who Inspire Them. This could easily have been a series with more opaque leads, more of a slow roll-out, but the quick and clean establishment of back-stories, motivations, sexual philosophies, and potential entanglements sets us up for a different kind of show, a show less concerned with foreplay than sexy, messy process. Why obscure the Google-able biographies of your two leads, when you can get down to the business of showing how the giant electric dildo camera gets made.

Mad Men, for its part, is a series that feeds on the unsaid, the winkingly-acknowledged, the invisible. Especially in its treatment of female sexuality and the stirrings of workplace feminism — but even in its establishment of Don’s secret past — the show prefers showing to telling, inarticulate impulses to articulated ethics, dramatic irony to intentionality and agency. Peggy accidentally begins her climb on the corporate ladder, Joan exercises sexual freedom only under the guise and through the performance of courtship rituals, the secretaries of Sterling Cooper are presented as innocently, regrettably on the hunt for husbands amongst the rascally junior employees in Pete’s office. Sex, on Mad Men, is either in appearance or reality, in control of the men. Joan may initiate a cha cha, but she won’t take the lead.

The pilot of Masters of Sex renders immediately visible and articulate everything that Mad Men has spent six seasons silently layering. In the form of Virginia Johnson, the emergence of a modern female subjectivity is not set up as an arc on Masters of Sex so much as it is taken as a given. A canny, sex-positive, openly ambitious single mother and divorcee, Johnson begins the pilot episode in the secretarial pool and ends it as a vocal, quasi-acknowledged partner in Dr. William Masters’s sex research project. There are a few throwaways about why a lowly secretary is lecturing the provost of Washington University in St. Louis, and I’m sure that the series will have things to say about the gender imbalances in both the university workplace and in the field of science. But we meet Virginia Johnson at the end of her early struggle, and her problems at the end of the pilot are the kind of next-level problems faced by Peggy and Joan in the sixth season of Mad Men.

More importantly, though, it gives us a female lead — played by Lizzy Caplan with a kind of constitutional brassiness — who begins the series with a sense of franchise and power. Even if it feels clunky at first, there’s something exciting about a series that isn’t going to make us wait around for the moment when an oppressed woman finds the courage/outlet to speak. Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men — the woman who slowly, and at great cost, finds her voice is practically a genre convention of serial television’s “Golden Age.” And while Peggy, for example, is presented as a triumph, let’s not forget the misogynist vitriol that an arc like this can encourage against a character like Skyler White. And let’s not also forget that David Chase himself characterized Carmella Soprano’s resistance as the hypocrisy of a “housewife whore.” In other words, narratives of female self-empowerment don’t always play as narratives of progress in television’s Golden Age. And Masters of Sex provides a different way around this convention. Virginia Johnson joins Homeland’s Carrie Mathison as a female protagonist who, though beset by structural inequality, has a voice to begin with.

This makes Masters of Sex a very different kind of social fiction and a very different kind of historical fiction as well. The episode ends with two particularly brutal moments. First, after her first big success as Masters’s partner, Johnson’s lover has a Pete Campbell-style tornadic meltdown about being used sexually. He claims he’s in love with her, she counters that they just have a friendly, consensual sexual relationship. As if in an outtake from the John Cassavetes remake of Friends With Benefits, her lover smacks her in the face, and she punches him back. The episode then closes a few scenes later with an equal emotional brutality when Masters suggests to Johnson that they should have sex as part of the research program. As explicit as Masters of Sex is about Johnson’s fully-formed sexual politics, it is as explicit, if not more so, about the cost of that position. The ending feels pat to me, and Masters’s proposition really feels more like a fifth or sixth episode revelation, but it’s an intriguing aesthetic choice to begin, often literally, with everything on the table. It’s been mentioned, rightly, that Caplan’s performance, while strikingly modern, is not quite anachronistic. But what if anachronism is this show’s game? What if characters don’t change with the times but before the times? How does a person live in that kind of precariousness?

This pilot required a lot of adjustment for me, especially I think because of the way I’ve been trained as a viewer. Despite its fairly mundane setting, this felt like a different mode of address, a generically unrecognizable hour. In part, I think, that’s because this show is concerned with the limits, risks, and possibilities of exposure. What we’re being set up to see is an open-ended series about the toll that telling can take on a person, on a relationship, on a society. From Cheever to Chase and Weiner and Gilligan, there’s been a lot of lying on television for the last 15 years. What does it feel like to stop?

We are doctors for Chrissakes,

Phil.

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