Category Archives: Dear Television

Dear Television is Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and Anne Helen Petersen. They write epistolary criticism about TV. Each week, the gang will select a different series, issue, or pet peeve, and their correspondence about it will appear here on the LARB blog, Monday through Wednesday.

If you’re looking for blog posts prior to September 2013, you can visit Dear Television’s page on LARB.

Follow us on Twitter (@Dear_Television) and Like us on Facebook for announcements and updates or to suggest possible topics. We like Television Series With Strong Female Leads.

Dear Television is edited by Michael Goetzman.

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Dear Television Weekly Roundup: June 15–21

By Jacob Surpin

It’s been a big week for television coverage here at LARB. Along with Dear TV, two other excellent pieces on television appeared as well. While not technically Dear TV, they are featured in this recap. Including those pieces, we saw essays on Game of ThronesOrange is the New Black, and Louie.

Dear Television, June 15–21

  • The Game of Thrones season finale was this past Sunday night, and Sarah Mesle has thoughts about it. Her piece, “Arya’s American Fantasy,” is concerned with the choices Thrones characters are confronted with, how they deal with them, and how this relates to American narratives of freedom (“the desire to go someplace else, where our choices will, maybe, be somehow different.”)
  • Maurice Chammah‘s extended piece on Orange is the New Black blends a real appreciation for the show’s aesthetic appeal with an examination of whether “we actually learn anything about criminal justice from staring at these women for 13 hours.”
  • Micah Hauser carefully considers the politics of laughter in Louie. From the essay: “As a show, Louie relishes the repeated trope — there are YouTube videos devoted to excavating the conceptual continuities throughout the series — and one of the most persistent is Louie’s own rigorous pursuit of women against their will.”
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Dear Television Weekly Roundup: June 8–14

By Jacob Surpin

It’s been an unusually quiet week for Dear Television. Mad Men is currently on a mid-season hiatus, and there is no essay on Louie this week. Still, a quick glance at the LARB Main Site leaves no doubt  the section is doing ok: Dear TV pieces currently hold the nos. 1, 4, and 7 spots on our “Most Viewed” list. Last week’s roundup is here; this week brought a singular essay on the new Game of Thrones.

Dear Television, June 8–14

  • Sarah Mesle on the latest Game of Thrones episode, “The Watchers on the Wall.” Mesle’s coverage this week is, loosely, about genre. Picking out the central tension in the episode, and connecting that tension to a topic of debate in the intellectual community, Mesle, as usual, is at her insightful best toying with the big ideas oft inspired by Thrones. As she notes in her discussion of genre: “Rules and formulas are not the rejection of subtle meaning but rather the condition of their possibility… Perhaps Game of Thrones can help us remember that the question is less ‘is there a formula?’ than ‘what is done with that formula?'”
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Dear Television Weekly Roundup: May 31 – June 7

By Jacob Surpin

It’s summer, and times are changing here at the LARB Blog. In addition to the LARB Channels features, today’s post is the first in our weekly roundups of the essays written by the lovely folks of Dear Television. The essays are originally posted on the LARB Main Site (and can usually be found in the “Most Viewed This Week” section), and we’ll be cataloging them here each week for convenience. This week brought essays on Game of ThronesLouie, and Mad Men.

Dear Television, May 31 – June 7

  • Sarah Mesle on the latest Game of Thrones episode, “The Mountain and the Viper.” Mesle manages both to recap the episode as only a true fan can, and also advance a painfully clever argument about names, and how “private names intersect with public categories — the categories a culture makes to create its sense of what’s real and normal.”
  • Lili Loufbourow on the last two episodes of Louie, “Elevator, Part 6″ and “Pamela, Part 1.” A careful exploration, via longform essay, of Louie’s agency, his redeeming qualities (or lack thereof), and his instances of misogyny – and how they intersect.
  • And because we didn’t do a roundup last week, but this essay is too good to miss: Phillip Maciak on the latest Mad Men episode, “Waterloo.” From the second paragraph: “So Ida Blankenship wasn’t an astronaut. But neither is Roger Sterling, neither is Don Draper, and, most pointedly, neither is Bert Cooper. Burgerchef isn’t a family table, a Carousel isn’t a time machine, and the little boy who watches TV in your living room isn’t your son.”
mcconnaissance

The McConnaissance: An Alternate Reading

Dear Television,

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

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

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]

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]

AHP_DearTV_11414 MG Original

Truthers and Darers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Television GIFS of 2013

Phil: Mad Men 

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

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

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LILI: BEST DANCES:

Enough said.

Mindy Project:

Brooklyn 99:

New Girl:

Orange is the New Black:

New Girl:

American Horror Story: Coven:

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:

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AHP: Best (and Worst) Romance:

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

New Girl:

Orange is the New Black:

Top of the Lake:

Scandal:

The Mindy Project:

30 Rock:

Nashville:

Veep:

Game of Thrones:

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WORST ROMANCE:

Girls:

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lauradern

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

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

Game of Thrones S3.E3

Spoilers, okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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AHP: Best Episode Ending (also Best Violence)

Rectify, Episode 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lili: Worst Episode Ending

Top of the Lake Finale

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

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

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

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

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

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Jane: Best Episode (also Best Melodrama)

Enlightened, S2.E6

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

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

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

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

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Poussey

The Year in Television: Favorite Performance

Phil: KRISTEN SCHAAL as LOUISE in BOB’S BURGERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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AHP: HAYDEN PANETTIERE as JULIETTE BARNES in NASHVILLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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