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.

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Dear Television is edited by Michael Goetzman.

FamilyStone

The Christmas Movie: A Hate/Need Relationship

Dear Television,

HERE’S THE THING no one wants to admit about televised Christmas movies: they’re all horrible. Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful moments in every Christmas movie: when Kevin rigs the entire house to look like a party dancing to “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” for example, in Christmas classic Home Alone, or every time White Christmas gives up the facade of being an actual movie instead of a Bing Crosby showcase.

But Christmas, at least in its modern, capitalist, de-Jesusified form, is an ideological construct that’s supposed to connote “family” and “love” and “celebration.” Many times, those feelings do arise — for me, it happens in the moment when my brother and I decorate Christmas cookies precisely in the style of our five and eight year old selves, which is to say like an expressionist hyper-sugared art project — but they’re almost accidental, or incidental, to the larger, awkward, passive aggressive interactions that attend family Christmas. It’s not our fault so much as the realities of modern society: most of us don’t live near our families, so when we all get together once (or twice) a year, it’s obviously going to be replete with frisson, which generates both positive and negative heat. The static, bland, overly positive rhetoric of Christmas thus helps paper over the dynamic, piquant experience of it.

And if Christmas is an ideological construct, then Christmas movies are its handmaidens. In each Christmas movie, “Christmas,” as a nourishing, essential event, is threatened in the first act, nearly lost in the second, and regained, in newly valuable, even more cherished form, in the third.

And once the Christmas movie migrates to television, repeating every year, often days on end, its purpose only amplifies. The Christmas movie, which itself underlines the importance of Christmas rituals, becomes part of the Christmas ritual! We can’t deal with our own complications of the Christmas ideology, so we retreat to watch others grapple with — and crucially, successfully address — those same problems. We feel better not because our Christmas woes have been solved, but the movie suggests that they are, ultimately, solvable.

In order for a film to become ritualized, however, it must hew to the ideological formula. It can be a little postmodern splintered, like Love Actually, or be filtered through the lens of comedy, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but it must also work to vivify the understanding of Christmas as about family and love, as opposed to its historic ideological engine (Christ) or its contemporary one (Capital).

And it’s not just about family and love, but successful family and love. There’s a reason why the French film A Christmas Tale, a critical darling, isn’t shown on continuous repeat on TNT: the subtitles, sure, but it also refuses to posit Christmas, and the family it “unites,” as utopian or successful. It’s by turns bitter and blackly hilarious, and no one wants to think those things describe Christmas.

Which leaves us with a genre of Christmas television events that are ideologically and narratively similar, with slight variations according to narrative mode (comedy, melodrama). I would say they differ according to desired audience, but the desired audience of the Christmas movie is everyone, which only further unites the films in their PG (maybe PG-13) palatability.

To be clear, I like Christmas movies. Who doesn’t like ideological closure! It is preposterously reassuring! But “liking” something, and reveling in the comfort and joy that washes over me for 120 minutes before I return to the beloved catastrophe of my own family Christmases, is a very different thing than claiming a Christmas movie as “good.” I love the haze of just too much cheap champagne; that doesn’t mean I recognize it, or would tell anyone else, that it’s good.

Which is precisely why Bobby Finger’s taxonomy of Love, Actually is so helpful. As he explains, the film is “a glossy, big-budget film with borderline-detestable examinations of love and romance containing perhaps three genuine moments that seem to be of our own universe, but Love Actually is one terrible Christmas movie that has strong-armed its way into the hearts of millions (including my own) despite being absolutely terrible.”

He then proceeds to break down each of Love, Actually’s nine subplots, dividing what he hates (almost entirely narrative and ideological problems) and what he loves (almost entirely affective traits). For example, in the Hugh Grant/Martine McCutcheon subplot, he hates that it’s “the first of three subplots in which a man falls in love with his female subordinate” and, furthermore, that that subordinate is “constantly referred to as ‘the chubby girl.’” Yet he loves that “Hugh Grant is SO cute when he dances to the Pointer Sisters” and the moment when “she jumps into his arms and he catches her!!!”

Quoted this way, Finger’s points might seem a bit flip, but his tone, exclamation marks, and use of capslock perfectly reflects the affective experience of watching a Christmas movie, which is basically a long series of squeals, sighs, and your mom saying “that’s just great” while everyone else thinks it.

We both love and hate Christmas movies — are repulsed by them in theory and compelled by them in action. Which is precisely how I feel about The Family Stone. Let’s give Bobby’s taxonomy a try:

THE PREMISE: A large, sprawling “modern family” returns to their family home in Snowy Somewhere, New England. The eldest son’s girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) is very uptight and the rest of the family is not very uptight. Hijinks ensue. 

I Hate:

  • The very idea of the large, sprawling “modern family,” in which every member represents a slightly different ideological strain, all of them progressive
  • Not living in Somewhere, New England
  • The construction of Sarah Jessica Parker, and her dedication to her career/getting shit done, as fundamentally at odds with being a loving family member.

Things I Love:

  • Progressive families are so feisty and ultimately lovable!
  • Nondescript New England towns are so quaint.
  • SJP’s transformation from a somewhat loathable character who merits, and wins, our sympathies.  When she dumps the egg thing all over everyone and then they all collapse in the kitchen laughing?  That is GREAT.

THE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS:

SJP is ostensibly the star here, but everyone gets approximately the same amount of screentime, effectively everyone into a supporting character.  Parents = Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson; Male Kids = Dermot Mulroney as upright but personality-less older brother, Luke Wilson as stoner slacker, Tyrone Giordano as deaf gay brother with black partner and adopted child; Female Kids = Rachel McAdams as crunchy acerbic teacher who takes no shit, Elizabeth Reaser as kind, agreeable, pregnant, and plot-less stay-at-home mom.  Plus Claire Danes as SJP’s charismatic, beautiful, socially graceful sister, Brian J. White as Giordano’s partner, and Paul Schneider as working class yet likable local cop.

I Hate:

  • The way obvious signifiers (e.g. Rachel McAdam’s NPR bag, SJP’s very tight bun) stand in for actual characterization
  • The way Tad (Tyrone Giordano) is laden not one, not two, but three types of Otherness (deaf, gay, and partnered with a man of another race)
  • The way that each relationship, ruined and potential, is predicated on finding love, which is part of why the two already happy couples get essentially no screentime
  • Any plot that posits that even people from very different walks of life can come together, reconcile their differences, and understand and love each other, given the proper motivation (Christmas, obviously)
  • The sheer number of people only reinforces the notion that a Christmas somehow gets better the bigger (and more present) your family is.

I Love:

  • The exquisite moment of (self)-recognition when I saw Rachel McAdam’s NPR bag and station wagon.
  • Luke Wilson c. 2005 and his slightly too small polos
  • Craig T. Nelson smoking weed with Luke Wilson c. 2005
  • Claire Danes’ glorious blonde hair
  • Bitchy Rachel McAdams
  • All of these supporting members together in one place, everything’s so crazy, no one knows what anyone else is doing, let’s all have big families!

THE PLOT: 

After SJP comes home to the liberal judgy family, hijinks do, indeed, ensue — eventually leading to some partner switching, some match-making, and lots of true love. But things have to get really bad first, and everyone has to cry when [huge spoiler for anyone who thought this was actually a romantic comedy, as one would based on the trailer] it’s revealed that Diane Keaton’s breast cancer has returned and she’s dying.

I Hate:

  • The feeling in my stomach at the big family dinner when SJP says a well-meaning but horrendously thing about how no one would hope that their child would end up gay because no one would wish that hardship on their child, and her obvious bungling is meant to stand in for a host of other well-meaning but egregious wrongs.
  • How stagey and obvious it is when Dermot figures out he’s in love with the girl (Claire Danes) who’s not uptight like her sister (SJP) and JUST HAPPENS to be gorgeous.
  • The weird interludes with the pregnant sister even though it’s clear that they edited out any plot complexity due to time constraints.
  • Feeling super emotionally manipulated by the surprise addition of a Cancer plot.

I Love:

  • Citing SJP’s drunk attempt to remedy her earlier wrong (“I LOVE the gays!”)
  • The moment when you see Diane Keaton’s mastectomy scar and break into tears
  • The moment when SJP gives everyone in the family a beautiful framed photo of Diane Keaton holding a child (suggested to be Rachel McAdams) and break into tears.
  • The moment when Paul Schneider shows up to ask Rachel McAdams out on a date and it gradually thaws her cold snarky heart.

THE RESOLUTION:

I Hate:

  • Persistent and naturalized conflation of Christmas narratives with heteronormative coupling narratives.
  • Cancer as narrative catalyst.
  • Paul Schneider ending up with anyone other than me.

I Love:

  • That Boring Dermot Mulroney ends up with equally boring Claire Danes, leaving the truly interesting characters (SJP and Luke Wilson) to hang out together.
  • SJP’s newfound chillness, as evidenced by the fact that she’s a.) dating a stoner; b.) wearing a v-neck sweater and c.) has her hair down.
  • Cathartically bawling as we realize that Diane Keaton is gone and everyone misses and loves her.
  • Rachel McAdams and Paul Schneider.
  • The mother of the family may have died and everyone misses her like crazy but EVERYONE IS HAPPY EVERYTHING IS AS GREAT AS IT COULD BE because FAMILY and CHRISTMAS.

Excuse the capslock: I’m too busy reveling as this particular Christmas ideology aims and hits its target of white, middle-class, educated people.

The Family Stone isn’t everybody’s Christmas movie. In fact, it’s not even that many people’s. It was a moderate hit and receives far less television play than Christmas stalwarts old (It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, White Christmas) and new (Love, Actually, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf). But Christmas movie fandom is not as simple as being attracted to the Christmas movie that’s directed at you. Christmas movies are directed at everyone, after all, or at least all white middle-class people, which is Hollywood shorthand for “all people.” It’s how we watch them, and with whom — how they, and their reductive yet charismatic messages incorporate themselves into an understanding of our own Christmases.

Growing up, my family never had a Christmas movie. We had cookie decorating and sledding and other rituals, but a movie was never part of it. As we grew older, and the rituals of childhood became less magnetic, movie-going — specifically, going to a matinee with my brother — became our ritual. But we’ve only seen one actual Christmas movie on Christmas, and that movie was, naturally, The Family Stone. It’s an intensely flawed film, but it marks an important — and one of the few remaining — rituals in my family, which is why I’ll watch it any time it comes on cable, anytime I remember the $4.99 copy I have stashed behind my more reputable DVDs.

In the end, it’s not the movie, or cute Luke Wilson, or even Christmas that I like. It’s the act of watching, and the even more important act of remembering.

“You have a freak flag. You just don’t fly it” —

AHP

¤

swift

I Don’t Know I’m Beautiful

Dear Television,

I FIND MUSIC VIDEOS to be a lot of work. When someone sends me a link to a new (and frequently contentious!) music video asking my “thoughts?” I hide. Close tab close tab close tab. Time-wise, they’re not actually that bad. Unlike articles, you know exactly how long it will take to finish one, and usually it’s less time than skimming an article! But theoretically, even logistically, they are difficult creatures. This is partly because music videos enter my life as interruptions or interludes into my usual business at the computer — that of writing or reading — and my brain has a hard time dealing with the change in not just media, but genre.

Remember MTV? Remember their top 40 countdowns? Remember YTV’s Hit List? I grew up receiving my music videos not from the computer, but the television, screen. It was ideal, because music videos almost fit into the category of movies-on-TV. They are clips that one could dip in and out of (which is almost necessary when one is often coming into the middle of them, by chance), and that needn’t hold or build to much narrative logic to generate interest.

On TV, music videos resemble casual short films, and are not always immediately distinguishable from film trailers. The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit”? Spike Jonze’s short film. Foo Fighters’s “Everlong”? Michel Gondry’s short film. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”? Both his and Bob Giraldi’s love letter to West Side Story. (Ahhhh music videos and musical theater do not get me started!! But if you want to get started, one word: Madonna.) Britney Spears’s “Lucky”? Short film about the making of a film. Very meta. Very clarifying. Music videos were literally made for television. Generically, they are something between the TV show, the movie, the commercial, the commercial-for-films, and the song — and they know it. But even if it’s hard to be a music video — to get it just right (as Phil’s stunning piece on Arcade Fire this week shows) — the aim is to make this difficulty look easy. As Annie suggested, something that can simultaneously convey surface and depth, as if anarrative nonsense were constitutive of and perhaps even necessary to the genre. Effortless meaning, or meaningless effort! Something like that.

It’s hard to be a music video, and honestly it’s hard to watch them. This is partly a problem of the medium’s time constraints paired its attempt to do too much. The music video is often at cross-purposes with itself: it must sell the song, sell the artist, and sell the album by way of communicating (or, a form of that, which is selling) a particular narrative. In calling the music video a casual short film, I’m getting dangerously close to labeling it as a commercial movie: digestible, easy, and made for some kind of magical lowest common denominator. This is not quite what I mean. As we know, not all anarrative music videos are successful.

Television is an organizing force, and even MTV must propose some kind of structure: countdowns, best ofs, or music video competitions. Often it is about what is winning or popular. But the internet has completely changed the value and exchange-value of the music video, and written commentary or criticism on the music video forces viewers to reconsider these images at a different speed and pitch. I honestly need to sketch graph to parse most of the music videos I watch. But the internet also allows us to rewatch videos in controlled and condensed spurts; this kind of viewing allows certain details and the internal structure of a video to emerge.

I find music videos to be a very complex, extremely loud, and incredibly close-up genre, especially when viewed in isolation on my computer screen. They’re uncomfortable and irritating and if their aim is to be immersive, then I’ve learned to respect this by approaching them on my own terms — in conditions conducive to paying attention. One must prepare for the internet music video! Television meant coming across them by chance, but the internet has perhaps paradoxically done the opposite: it has made the viewer work harder at curating their music video experience. Can you imagine if music videos just popped up while you scrolled websites? I would lose it.

My attempt to offer even the illusion of context back into music video-viewing is to continue thinking of them narratively. It is to consider them as still related to narrative film, or at least television, because I don’t think the music video has entirely forgotten its beginnings. The music video is aware — is, indeed, often hyper-aware, and this is partly what makes attempts at immersion seem so exhausting. The seams, at cross-purposes with one another, are constantly showing, and, as such, viewers often find themselves more at ease when the seams are simply made apparent as part of the music video form. The loudly self-aware music video is rewarding to watch.

Because if the music video is first and foremost televisual, then it must be conscious about its visual and musical oddness in the context of televisual narrative and structure even as it attempts to elide this discrepancy. Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together” is paradoxically not about irreversible disconnection, but about seamlessness. It is filmed in one continuous shot, and there is, not incidentally, a prominent transition by way of a television screen.

This 3 minute 36 second music video is an exceptionally self-conscious response to Taylor Swift’s exaggerated brand as a serial dater: her body literally effects the transitions in plot, music, and image.

Swift is especially good at literalizing generic scripts, which makes sense when you consider that her roots are the very narratable country song.

She is a lousy actress, so the blatant embrace of literalizing lyrics through gestures is pronounced in her videos aaaaaand it works!

She both is and isn’t the hot girl in “You Belong With Me.” She both knows and does not know that she’s a princess in videos such as “Teardrops On My Guitar” and “Love Story.” It’s an incredibly hard space for the female pop star to inhabit, especially since any straddling of the pole between self-knowledge and naivety all too quickly generates accusations of narcissism. But how much does she really know?, one asks. To acknowledge Swift’s intelligence is to maintain both a diegetic and extra-diegetic understanding of her music video narrative — to know that she is, in a way, blatantly acting out a stereotype as well as volleying it back at us. It’s, to return to Annie’s post, a way of reveling in spectacle while also allowing the viewer to participate. It’s fun! And perhaps this dual understanding of Swift is also what has been lacking in evaluations of “Bound 2.” At the same time, perhaps the intimacy of “Bound 2” is exactly what makes it difficult to watch. Take the uncanny one step too far, and viewers are irrevocably thrown out of any engaging loop.

If you think that I’m stretching, I would redirect us to what one might consider the simplest music videos — those of pop songs — to see how self-awareness is not just possible in the music video, but actually endemic to it. Even if the music video is largely made for the viewer’s pleasure, it is ultimately to benefit the artist. Interest always lies in the body on display, and the related economic interest is what makes it possible; music videos have, time and time again, capitalized on this fact by thematizing it in visual form. A multiplicity of perspectives is constitutive of the medium itself (it is partly what makes it so exhausting to watch). When the artist is directly addressing the camera, any potential emersion in their pop star aura does not preclude an awareness that we know they know they are being watched. Even when they are, unlike Swift, predominantly singing about you, the presumed viewer, there is never a moment wherein we forget that this music video is largely about them.

Take One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”:

Maybe I don’t know I’m beautiful, maybe I do, but who really cares? What matters is that YOU, ONE DIRECTION, LOOK GREAT. I love how you flip your hair, Harry Styles. Gahhhhhh. See? Immersion by way of a sense of distance — it totally works! The music video is especially conducive to it. It’s also totally why adult women can get close to sincerely and wholeheartedly adoring One Direction.

The gift of the music video is that it doesn’t take much to theorize it; the music video already theorizes itself, theorizes its subject, brings viewers close by suggesting just how far away the singer really is. It’s built into its very form.

¤

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.

MusicVid

How to Make a Music Video About Nothing: Ke$ha, Pitbull, & “Timber”

Dear Television,

WE WATCH MUSIC VIDEOS for three overarching and often related reasons: hotness, dancing, and story.

You might not like to admit to the first one, but the amount of hotness in videos can only suggest that we like it. Whether the video is for Drake or Tim McGraw, Miley Cyrus or Celine Dion, one of its goals is to reaffirm the singer’s overarching attractiveness. The camera fetishizes different body parts depending on the singer and the type of music he or she sings: Rihanna’s videos focus on her thighs and stomach, One Direction’s focus on their smiles, Adele’s focus on her highly emotive face. Even the video for, say, Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit,” with its slo-mo headbanging and anguished close-ups, is invested in fetishizing their particular brand of alternative hotness.

Not all videos have dancing, but those that do are addictive. Think of the best videos of the last 30 years: dance figures prominently in 72% of them, with noted exceptions for a “story” entries described below. All of Michael Jackson’s videos, Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?,” Britney’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover,” Janet Jackson’s “If,” Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,”  Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop,” Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” — we watch them again and again, because the dance, in singular or group form, is hypnotic.

But the hotness and the dancing are (very rarely) narrative: they’re the descendants of what film scholar Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions.” Gunning used the term to describe the style of very early film shorts (think “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “What Happened on 23rd Street”) that didn’t adhere to established forms of narrative established by the theater. These films were operated like a game of “now you see it, now you don’t,” manipulatively addressing and arousing the spectator’s curiosity. Whereas “normal” narrative pretends like it’s a world unto itself, the cinema of attractions always knows it’s being watched. It presents a scenario, builds the tension, and then lets it explode. The muscles of Sandow the Strongman were an attraction; same for Annabelle and her Butterfly Dance. They’re on the stage; they even sometimes stare into the camera. They’re performing for the camera gaze rather than maintaining the subterfuge that the camera doesn’t exist. It’s vaudeville instead of theater, the variety show instead of the soap opera.

As camera technology became more sophisticated, the cinema began to adopt the three-act structure we now associate with narrative film, but the cinema of attractions never completely disappeared. Instead, moments of self-conscious spectacle integrated themselves into several genres: you see it especially in the musical number, the five minute fight scene, the never-ending gross-out joke. Even the slo-mo male gaze on a female body is a cinema of attraction, willfully violating codes of realism.

The narrative tries to paper over just how weird and implausible it is for, say, an entire school to know the choreographed danced moves to a song (hey Step Up), sometimes more successfully than others. But those moments of spectacle become the moments that matter: they’re the meat of the film trailer and the stuff you’ll find clipped on YouTube. They make SO LITTLE NARRATIVE SENSE, but we love them.

If music videos are hyper-condensed cinema, then it makes sense that they’d embrace and amplify similar techniques. On one end, you have the pure music video of attractions, replete with hotness, dance, and beautiful locations. These videos never detract from the message of the song, but they don’t add much to it other than, well, oomph. Beyonce’s Bob Fosse-inspired choreography has nothing to do with “Putting a Ring on It” other than, well, the moment when she points to her finger. It doesn’t mean they’re bad — see Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” in which the “narrative” is that a.) The Boss is handsome and b.) You could dance on stage — it just means that their mode of attraction is straightforward.


On the other end of the spectrum, you have the purely narrative video: something like the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s video for “Sacrilege,” Mumford & Son’s “Lover of the Light,” or Sigur Rós’ viðrar vel til loftárása,” all of which could be short, silent films unto themselves.


And somewhere in-between, the narrative meets spectacle. In a full-length film, you have enough narrative and exposition to suture over the moments of spectacular rupture. But in a music video, there’s just so little time to do that narrative work, which is why so many videos that attempt to tell stories, especially stories that don’t precisely match the lyrics of the accompanying song, fail so dramatically. Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie,” featuring Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan, works because the conceit is relatively straightforward: two people love each other yet abuse each other.


It’s quite literally melodrama: melos (Greek for melody) plus drame (French for drama), in which song is allowed to speak and amplify the drama onstage. Same for all of Taylor Swift’s oeuvre, which is characterized by its generally facile acting out of her songs. (See “Begin Again,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Love Story”). Michael Jackson’s best videos — “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Thriller” — all functioned this way; same for Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy is Mine,” or Britney’s “Toxic.”

But these videos aren’t without their moments of spectacle:


In contemporary Hollywood, executives use the term “blammos” to describe moments of spectacle — a sex scene is a blammo, as is an explosion, a car chase, a fight, or a musical number. Rumor has it that some execs institute a “blammo quotient” on blockbusters: one every eight minutes, for example — a calculation that certainly rings true when you watch the current summer fare. Applied to the condensed form for the music video, you generally have about ten seconds of narrative before you cut away to a spectacle shot, usually of an objectified body, best exemplified by “Toxic’ but also visible in, say, the “strut breaks” in Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” or the periodic return to longshots of Jennifer Lopez in “Jenny from the Block”; in A$AP Rocky’s “Wild for the Night,” there are no naked women, so the spectacle becomes the slums of the Dominican Republic, while Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride,” switches between the very suggestive sucking of a popsicle and close-up shots of cars.

My favorite videos are either full on spectacle or manage, improbably, to balance the semblance of a narrative with requisite spectacle. They’re not bloated or overly ambitious like Lana del Ray’s “Ride” or Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” They tell a simple, legible story, but they tell it with flash, but that flash somehow seems appropriate and motivated instead of gauche or awkward.  Videos as diverse as Madonna’s “Vogue” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” can do this — it’s all a matter of vision and fit

Which brings us to “Timber,” the new single from Pitbull and Ke$ha. Pitbull is a fascinating 21st century pop creation: he’s a Cuban-American entrepreneur who has wholeheartedly embraced product placement in his songs and image at large. His songs are incredibly catchy, always topical (“Timber,” for example, references a naked Miley Cyrus), and super radio-friendly. With his perma-uniform of white suits and sunglasses, he has come to stand in for my entire understanding of Miami. He is completely inoffensive — a rapper whose lyrics say very little and evoke even less. (Sample: “Me not working hard? / Yeah, right! Picture that with a Kodak / Or better yet, go to Times Square / Take a picture of me with a Kodak / Took my life from negative to positive / Just wanted y’all to know that”) As a Latino who signifies, visually and aurally, as “white,” he’s competing with Macklemore for most palatable, non-threatening, and highly lucrative rapper in the industry.

And as for Ke$ha, she’s a postmodern nightmare. As I’ve written elsewhere, she’s all surface, no substance. She seems to signify beauty, and sex, and rebellion, and weirdness — but poke that image and it deflates. From “brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack” to getting “sick and sexified,” there’s just no there, there. I have no doubt that Kesha Rose Sebert is an intelligent and savvy woman, but that doesn’t change the vapidity of the Ke$ha image.

There’s something alluring about an image that bereft of substance: I love hearing Ke$ha in the car the same way I love eating those pink, orange, and brown wafer sandwiches at church coffee hours. I taste something sweet, and then I taste nothing at all, save my unsatiated hunger.  Ke$ha, or the people who handle her image, have played with this vapidity: her video for “Blow” opens with the promise that “No mythical creatures have been harmed in the filming of this video,” and features a bunch of unicorn-masked men drinking champagne and getting shot at with rainbow guns by Ke$ha and special guest James Van Der Beek. It’s all mildly amusing and failed high concept, not unlike the self-staged play of your six-year-old niece.

It’s no surprise, then, that the collaboration between Pitbull and Ke$ha is at once completely meaningless and wholly addictive. It’s pure musical pastiche: there’s a power-country harmonica sample, a hip-hop vocal hook (that’s Ke$ha), and solid Miami club 4/4 beat.


Pitbull’s pre-hook:

Swing your partner round and round
End of the night, it’s going down
One more shot, another round
End of the night, it’s going down
Swing your partner round and round
End of the night, it’s going down
One more shot, another round
End of the night, it’s going down

Ke$ha’s hook:

It’s going down, I’m yelling timber
You better move, you better dance
Let’s make a night, you won’t remember
I’ll be the one, you won’t forget

Like so much of contemporary top 40, this is a song built on beats, not lyrics. The New Yorker’s recent piece on massive hitmaker Dr. Luke affirms as much: Luke (and other super producers like him) set a beat, and then they have people come in and shape words over them. The lyrics themselves matter far, far less than the song’s ability to make people move: all they need to be, in truth, is inoffensive.

The problem with these narrative-less, cliche-ridden songs, however, is that they make it really difficult to make any sort of coherent music video around them, especially if you don’t have any good dancers to just Ciara it up and make everyone forget that any music video should ever have a narrative ever again.

The only solution for a song of hollow signifiers? A video of the same. Only this particular video is so nonsensical, so completely unjustifiable, even on the basest of levels, that is perfectly manifests the state of the contemporary music industry.

I take that back: one half of the video makes quasi-sense. The video is “down home” in the way that True Blood is “down home,” which is to say that there’s a crappy, poorly-lit bar filled with women dressed like they’re auditioning for the Jessica Simpson role in the remake of Dukes of Hazzard. Ke$ha, of course, is one of them, and the spends this narrative foundling and dancing around various visual signifiers of backwards Southern/Westernness: saloon doors, antlers, cowboy hats, chaps, big beards, line dancing, jukeboxes, old trucks, long nails, fake bullriding, chickens, long nails, and trucker hats. It’s poor copy of Coyote Ugly, which is in itself a poor copy of an imagined South and/or West in which the “ladies of the night” paired cowboy boots with cut-off jeans and danced on the table instead of succumbing to syphilis and opium-addiction.

But! That’s all par for the Ke$ha course: this video could follow that narrative and be highly passable, if not notable. But how do you fit that with Pitbull’s brand? How does a white suit hang out in places with grass, or wood, or dirt? Especially if that white suit is too busy making paid club appearances to coordinate schedules with Ke$ha, who almost certainly recorded her hook days and states away from the verses of this song?

You put him on a beach. Playing with sharks? Maybe in Miami? With a girl. There’s some very brief gesture to the idea that the video of beach-bound Pitbull is playing on the jukebox in Ke$ha’s Western-Southern bar, but it’s fairly illegible. In order to distract from the gaping narrative disjunction, the director simply employs a full minute of rapid crosscuts between moments of spectacle: Pitbull touching sharks, Ke$ha leaning over truck suggestively, Pitbull with dancing lady friend in the background, Ke$ha fondling her own breasts, a single inexplicable shot of some brand of Vodka on a counter to coincide with its namedrop in the song, Pitbull’s tropical location, an aerial shot of a single shark, Ke$ha shaking her ass at the camera while grasping a saloon door, and so forth. The more rapid crosscuts, the more we’re led to believe that these narratives do, in some distant if indescribable way, belong in the same music video together.

The best videos either eschew narrative altogether or mindfully manufacture a space in which it can blend, as seamlessly as possible, with the requisite spectacle necessary to sell a contemporary music act. “Timber” suggests that in the age of computer-assembled mega-hits, there’s not only any need for artistry or originality — there’s not even a need for coherency. Why even gesture towards meaning when you can assemble a rapid stream of images that connote sex and money? Why choreograph, or plan, or direct, when you can just pile the things that please the most people most of the time onto one song and, by extension, one video?

I’ll always love the music video and celebrate the narrative experimentation — and revisiting of old classics — that MTV and now, YouTube, has afforded. But “Timber” is half-hearted masturbation without an orgasm; it’s citing everything you know without ever making a sentence, let alone an argument. It’s not new or experimental or exciting or evocative: it cost at least a million dollars, and it’s nothing at all.

SNL-CEO-baby

Saturday Night Live’s Alumni Problem

Dear TV,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embrace your inner hack,

Lili

hutcherson

Good, Giving, and Game: Towards a Theory of SNL Hosting

Dear Television,

WHEN PHIL FIRST emailed to ask if we wanted to cover this week’s Saturday Night Live, he was not optimistic: “It’s a new one, but it’s with WhoGivesAShitJoshHutcherson.” (It was also with HAIM, whose employment of “bass face” merits a column unto itself.) But people do care about Josh Hutcherson — the Youngs care about Hutcherson, and SNL cares about the Youngs, or at least cares about their demo, which is why the hosts and musical guests seemingly oscillate between things 30-something bourgeois hipsters like (HAIM, Tina Fey, Ed Norton, The Alabama Shakes) and things 16-year-olds like (Hutcherson, Lady Gaga, Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber). Then there’s obvious ploy to get anyone over 40 to DVR the show, on display every time they invite a classic host (Steve Martin) or classic comedian (Martin Short, one last season’s best hosts).

So SNL picks hosts to attract demographics, that much is clear. But why do the celebrities pick SNL?

On the surface, the answer is clear: Publicity. Exposure. Promotion, especially for a new movie or album or season of television. But hosting Saturday Night Live also offers the opportunity to add necessary texture, humor, or substance to a star image — to turn “that guy who plays Peeta in Hunger Games” into a national name, something more than sum of his franchise parts.

Star images are the culmination of a star’s publicity, promotion, and textual appearances, but they’re also something more. They’re everything the star says in interviews, every outfit they’re photographed wearing, every appearance they make in films and commercials and award show podiums. But certain sound bites and outfits and appearances are accentuated over others and come to compose the core of the star’s meaning. Julia Roberts did all sorts of things before she was in Pretty Woman, but once she was in that film, it became the foundation of her image, inflecting every choice, every romance, every hairstyle. When she cut and dyed her hair to appear in Mary Reilly, for example, her fans balked. It wasn’t “right,” it was “all wrong” and unnatural — which is another way of saying it wasn’t her Pretty Woman hair, which was the way that audiences wanted to understand her.

We like to think of star images as natural — a reflection, just ever-so-slightly mediated, of the “real” person. But they’re the result of complex strategies of star production: a whole team of people who make decisions about what the star should say, who he should say it to, and how he should say it, and how that will make the star seem to mean a certain thing, like “cool girl” (Jennifer Lawrence) or “your ideal boyfriend” (Ryan Gosling). (I’m not suggesting that J-Law isn’t, in fact, dorky and self-effacing, but her PR team has absolutely told her to amp that performance to 11).

And if star images are products, then SNL functions as a prime, privileged means of image production. It can’t set the image core (at least not for its hosts), but it can inflect that core, give it something like heft and complexity and charisma.

As SNL has aged, it’s amassed an enormous pool of hosts, which means that there are relatively “open” spots in a season, especially for untested non-comedians. But every season, a few would-be stars get their chance. Most of these performers already have something big going for them: a teen franchise (Taylor Lautner), a huge album (Justin Timberlake), or a hit television show (Jon Hamm). But their images, at least at that point, are one-dimensional. Taylor Lautner was Jacob from Twilight and nothing more; Timberlake was a boy bander-turned-solo-pop-star; Jon Hamm was handsome Don Draper.

And then SNL proved that they — or at least two of those listed above — were something more, something bigger and star-worthy.

To excel at hosting, you must be what Dan Savage calls “GGG” — good, giving, and game. Savage uses it to talk about sex, but it applies to comedic performance as well: you’ve got to be a decent actor, you’ve got to give your time and energy to doing it right, and you’ve got to be up for the weirdest shit the writers throw your way.

Timberlake and Hamm are “good” because they are, bluntly, good actors. (Timberlake may falter on the big screen, but that’s usually an issue of casting: if he were playing his Social Network and Bad Teacher roles at all times, we wouldn’t have a problem). They can take direction, they hit their marks, they don’t “break” in reaction to a punchline.

They’re generous to their co-performers (Timberlake was always happy to let Fallon have the joke), but they’re also “giving” in a slightly different way: they learn their lines. It’s clear they’ve rehearsed — that they’re taking this comedy diversion seriously. (I enjoyed parts of Kerry Washington’s hosting turn from a few weeks ago, but she was visibly reading the cue cards 75% of the time).

And Timberlake and Hamm are both “game”: Timberlake was willing to do weird Color Me Badd riffs (before the ’80s were even that cool again) that involved a.) his penis and b.) having sex with his friend’s mother. But it’s more than just the viral hits — watch Timberlake in “The Barry Gibb Show,” from one of his earliest hosting appearances, and see a man willing to own the ‘70s androgynous pantsuit/temper tantrum.

(Right around 37:00 mark).

And Jon Hamm is likable and Jon Hamm-ish throughout his hosting gig, essentially reifying his Jon Hamm-ness, but he’s also so gamely bizarre in skits like “Jon Hamm’s Jon Ham,” about a bathroom stall ham dispenser.


After hosting SNL, the discourse about both Timberlake and Hamm changed. Suddenly, Timberlake was more than just a former Mickey Mouse Clubber who dated Britney Spears and might be the next MJ: he was funny, maybe even smart, with an indelible charisma that you have to battle to dislike. With that sort of layered image, it became impossible to write Timberlake off as just another boy band star turned solo. It thickened his image, made it stick — which is precisely why he’s still around today and not just an aging 30-something with an arguably disappointing third record.

As for Jon Hamm, he became something more than Don Draper. The famous Don Draper satire skit showed just how performative Draper is — how easy, in other words, it is to “play at” being Draper-ish, with the added bonus of highlighting Hamm’s distance from the Draper character. (You don’t make fun of who you are, just who people think you are). Television stars always have this problem: because you see them playing the same character week after week, their star images are overdetermined by their onscreen characters, making it very difficult for them to move on to marketedly different roles. (See: Jerry Seinfeld, the entire cast of Friends, etc.) Unlike movie stars, who only play a role for two hours, television stars are equated with a role for years.

Hamm could have been stuck to Don Draper forever, but he/his people made two calculated and, in hindsight, genius moves: he appeared as a very unsuave, unDraper womanizer in Bridesmaids, and he was very, very funny on SNL. And now he’s a bonafide star, with a Hollywood future that will extend far beyond season seven of Mad Men. He’s charismatic and handsome and talented, but lots of television actors have that. With the help of SNL (and the lack of underwear), however, Hamm built himself an actual star image.

As for Lautner, there’s many reasons why that kid isn’t a star, and lack of trying isn’t one of them. After the success of the first Twilight, his publicity team did a fairly masterful job of promoting his road from scrawny teenager to jacked werewolf, and he was signed to a slew of action roles that promised to make him into the next Tom Cruise. But unlike Cruise, Lautner can’t act. He also has no charisma, or agility as a performer, or even, it seems, a robust sense of humor — all of which were on prime display in his turn as SNL host.

The lesson: SNL can turn you into a legitimate star, but it can also prove that you maybe shouldn’t be one.

Which is why Josh Hutcherson’s turn as host was so quietly delightful. Here’s a guy who, on paper, should be a horrible host. He’s the (relatively) boring straight man from a franchise (albeit a better franchise than most) and his acting, at least in the first one, isn’t noteworthy. If there’s one thing people know about him, it’s that he’s not who they would’ve cast as the hot, strong-armed baker-turned-Katniss love interest.

From the beginning of the episode, Hutcherson was all about redeeming himself. In the first sketch, he roundly ridicules the passivity of his Hunger Games character, and in the digital short “Matchbox 3,” about a crew of subway performers who do their acts in very, very confined spaces, he not only makes fun of his height, but gives himself over fully to the role.

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(There’s something so winsome about the way he throws his hand in air in the intro).

And then there’s the most bonkers skit on the show, in which Hutcherson brings home his “new girlfriend” for Thanksgiving, only to surprise his family with the fact that she’s….a turkey.

It’s a classic example of weird, end-of-the-night SNL. It’s not funny, exactly, nor is it entirely satire, but Hutcherson’s ability to straight-facedly make out with a turkey should make us consider him as something more than sad-faced Peeta.

Because Hutcherson is, indeed, more than just a franchise star: he was convincing and embarrassed in The Kids Are Alright, and he’s been slogging through bit roles and kid parts since 2003. Like Hamm, Timberlake, and other recent SNL charmers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Miley Cyrus, Hutcherson is a workhorse — in classic Hollywood, they called actors like them “troupers” because they’d paid their dues, often since they were young children, in vaudeville troupes, where they’d laugh, cry, sing, dance, do stunts, and then do it all over again 24 hours later in the next town. They were GGG because their very livelihood depended on it.

Cary Grant was a trouper, so was Judy Garland — and both would’ve made superlative SNL hosts. Because when it comes down to it, SNL is the vaudeville show for the 21st century, with the ability to bring out the best and worst in its hosts. A hosting gig will always provide visibility. But if the performer is a GGG trouper, that gig can also make him or her a star. It didn’t quite happen with Hutcherson, but who knows: given another chance and more, weirder, material, it might yet.

Googling “Jon Ham,”

AHP

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In Praise of Quitting

Dear Television,

I’VE QUIT ONE JOB, I’ve quit two sports, I quit one (very ill-advised) diet. I finish all my books and once I start an article, I can’t stop reading it. But I quit television shows all the time — and more to this week’s point, I quit Homeland before Season Three even started. I quit The Bridge after four episodes; I quit Justified two weeks in to Season Four. I’m especially skilled at quitting teen dramas after two seasons, which is exactly what I did to The O.C., Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and even Veronica Mars. I quit Breaking Bad, and I will fight you if you try to shame me.

I don’t have any solid quitting policy: there’s no “three shitty episodes” limit or a checklist of unforgivable televisual offenses. It’s usually a matter of atrophy. A show is a priority until, gradually, it isn’t, and the unwatched episodes pile up in my DVR queue like moldering Moneysavers on the front porch.

The atrophy of fandom is nothing new. What I want to suggest with this post, however, is that in the contemporary attention economy, it’s a necessity — an ability to be cultivated and celebrated, not denigrated or shamed. Quitting television shows, especially shows that have betrayed us, is tremendously liberating, almost akin to removing oneself from a toxic relationship. I broke up with Homeland, in other words, and I feel great. 

We all know there’s too much good television. There’s too many good movies, too much good journalism online. But it’s only “too much” because we feel like we don’t have enough time to consume all of it — there’s a bountiful cornucopia of media out there, media that soothes and challenges and compels.

But in order to get to the good stuff, you have to be willing to embrace two contradictory impulses: You must be ruthless, but you must also be patient. You must be willing to allow a show’s voice to develop — to weather a first dysfunctional season, for example, or to reach a point of seriality that “boring” suddenly morphs into “gripping” — but you must also be ready to listen to the voice inside your head that says this makes me feel shitty.

At the beginning of the year, I’m always open to new stuff. A supernatural procedural that blends 18th century historical figures with contemporary crime solving? Okay, fine, sure. I receive some guidance from the people whose job it is to watch every new fall show (A thousand voices telling me to avoid Dads). But with everything else, I follow the mom-enforced dinner rule: take one bite. But I also follow the second part of that rule: namely, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it anymore.

If you’re going to practice this quasi knee-jerk strategy, however, you have to refuse to be stubborn. I hated tomatoes as a kid, and my stubbornness made it so that I didn’t even realize that the watery, mealy things on the top of burgers could be transformed into tangy, complex things when fresh and salted. You thus have to be willing submit (and often re-submit) yourself to a show and its charms. I didn’t like American Horror Story’s pilot; now it’s one of my favorite feminist shitshows on television. I refused to watch a show with Zooey Deschanel; now I’m in love with New Girl’s Nick Miller. I thought any show on ABC Family was regressive bullshit, but then Emily Nussbaum made the case for Switched at Birth and I saw the light. I’m always ready to be convinced of my wrongness, especially if that convincing only takes 42 minutes of my evening. A willingness to be wrong — to admit it, and celebrate seeing the light — might even be a hallmark of a good critic.

But then you also have to be willing to make unpopular choices. Quitting Homeland isn’t all that unpopular: every Sunday night, my social media feeds are filled with those dropping from it like once-manic flies, hoping to escape before the show reaches some lobotomizing stage. But quitting Breaking Bad was much more shameful. The first time I quit, it was because of “Grilled” — an episode that made me feel so anxiously nauseated that I couldn’t describe my relationship to the show as anything other than masochistic. Breaking Bad was filled with what I’ve termed “sticking points in serial television” — episodes that are so profoundly affecting that you can’t bring yourself to go beyond them.

The famous Friday Night Lights episode “The Son” was one of my most significant sticking points. Because of similarities to my own life and experience, that episode generated more than weepy sadness. I cried so hard the computer screen in front of me shook. It was a sticking point, but it wasn’t forever: quitting FNL after that episode, and not seeing what happens to my beloved Matt Saracen, would only make me feel more grief, not less.

But what would I gain from watching more Breaking Bad? People love to talk about the relatability of anti-heros, and I get it some of the time (Tony Soprano, Raylan Givens, Juliette Barnes), but Breaking Bad became one alienating adrenaline rush after another. The seriality pulled me along, but I finished each episode feeling a little more empty than before. Breaking Bad was, somewhat ironically, not all that different from drug addiction: it made me feel shitty, but I couldn’t resist its narrative gravity.

Don’t mistake me: Breaking Bad was doing a lot of complicated, fascinating, and daring stuff, and it’s certainly an excellent show that deserves (nearly all) of the accolades piled on it. I powered through my sticking point — all the way through Season Three — because it’s my job, both as an academic and a writer, to be conversant in these things. But professional obligation only needs to go so far: film critics should probably watch Saw, but do they need to watch all six? To be conversant in European Art Cinema, must I watch every Ingmar Bergman? Or can I just watch a few, figure out they’re not my thing, but appreciate them for what they are?

I needed to watch Breaking Bad, and I needed to be patient with it. But I didn’t need to finish it and feel horrible while doing it.

When you love a show, however, it’s difficult to feel generous towards others who don’t. In the summer of 2010, television scholar Jason Mittell wrote a lengthy piece “On Disliking Mad Men, effectively lighting an academic/quality television fire storm. Mittell works on “complex television” and has published broadly on The Wire and Lost; Mad Men should be a natural fit, taste-wise. But he watched a season, though about it broadly, and decided to stop. Many readers (myself included) begged him to go farther — in essence, we wanted him to understand our own devotion to the show. But our arguments (mostly about characterization, nuance, its treatment of history) didn’t address his fundamental, deep-rooted dislike  It was an unpopular decision, but he stuck by it. He quit, and he felt great.

When a sitcom is no longer funny to you — when you laugh once or twice a show, and mostly yearn for the days when you couldn’t conceive of anything funnier — it’s time to quit. When a show’s racism becomes egregious and or its moralizing becomes consistently ham-handed, it’s time to quit. When you force yourself to watch something just so you don’t feel left out, it’s time to quit. Find a new show! Start a new conversation!

When a teen melodrama has exhausted all possible couplings and resorts to car crashes, the underworld, or unmotivated changes in sexuality, it’s time to quit. Unless, of course, you start to think of it as a wholly different type of pleasure. I think this is what Phil is describing about his relationship with Homeland: it’s bad in the service of (hopeful) good, and he’s willing to suffer for the pay-off. Nashville has always been somewhat bad, but I’m endlessly willing to suffer that badness for the wonderment that is Hayden Panettiere’s storyline. When I watch The Notebook, I fast-forward through the nauseating old people parts; when I watch Nashville, I fast-forward every time I see Peggy or Lamar’s face. I make my own edit, and that edit makes me feel no pain.

Feeling chronically bad or bored or offended is always enough reason to quit a show. But there’s also something to be said for quitting before the show goes off the rails, thereby preserving its immaculate memory in your mind. This strategy involves a mix of clairvoyance and the ability to read entertainment trade journalism. Because sometimes you just know. Your favorite couple has broken up, or gotten together, or someone died, or someone didn’t die. The narrative has run its course, but the powers that be drag it on, hungry for the 100 episode-mark that will allow the series to be sold into syndication and create a huge financial windfall. For these shows, quitting while ahead just isn’t an option: so long as the show’s drawing the numbers the network wants, it’ll keep it alive until the showrunner’s contract runs out. It’s death by slow, overwrought, narratively exhausted torture, and it’s a fate shared by everything from Grey’s Anatomy to The Office.

Alternately, the industry itself gives you all the hints you need to know better. The show switched to a new network (Veronica Mars), it has a new showrunner (Community), it’s being revived nearly a decade later (Arrested Development), or one of the stars is outta there (Downton Abbey). Phil mentioned that his ability to stick with a show is predicated on trust — especially of a showrunner — and the above moves should signal that your trust in a show is no longer warranted. In these cases, a refusal to heed the signs of a show’s demise yields little more than a general distrust of the product you once loved. You didn’t quit, and now you’re bitter.

A combination of clairvoyance, industry news, and access kept me from watching the downhill seasons of so many of my cherished shows, which allows me to live in ignorant, willful bliss.  Veronica Mars and Logan Echolls are frozen in amber on their graduation day, and Carrie Mattheson is the strong, centered woman who said goodbye to Brody at the Canadian border. Unlike Phil, my investment in television is less with the process than the overarching product: he loves watching Homeland try its damndest to “add up”; I find it — especially when watching “real time,” with a week between each episode — infuriating. I don’t like the person I become when I hate a television show and continue to watch it. Instead of disliking myself, then, I just stick to disliking (and abandoning) the show.

Television viewing used to be characterized by its passive inertia: the ability of the network flow to glide you seamlessly from one show to the next. Why make a decision about what to watch when your favorite network has made it for you? A modicum of flow still remains (see, for example, the Netflix timed countdown from the end of one episode to the beginning of another) but most of us dictate our own media consumption diets. But we need to be economical: there’s too much out there to love, so why spend time watching what you don’t?

Don’t misinterpret this as a pass to avoid shows that are complicated or different or slow. We should all expose ourselves to things that challenge us and our tastes, and do so regularly. But we shouldn’t feel like our tastes should hew to everyone else’s: chances are we’re all lying about being caught up, or even liking, a show that we’re supposed to. I love watching television shows, after all, but I also love the liberation of quitting them. You might too.

AHP

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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.

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There Will Be Peplum: On the Television Uniform

Dear Television,

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, my favorite show was Star Trek: The Next GenerationThere are many reasons for this love, but chief among them was the uniforms. I loved how legible they were: how you saw a color, and a number of pips on the collar, and you immediately knew what that person did and how well they did it. How much, in other words, you could trust them. But it wasn’t a simple calculus: Admirals had six pips, but that actually meant that they were so powerful that they spent most of their time admonishing your favorite character, Captain Picard. Data had two pips and a third that was hollowed out — a symbol of his striving and liminality as, well, a robot, as well as his actual rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Sometimes the uniforms got switched up — I love the casual look from late-stage TNG, when suddenly everyone was chillin’ in mock turtlenecks and comfy zip-up cardigans from L.L. Bean.

When everyone’s in uniform, the smallest variation sticks out. Worf’s baldric (warrior sash, duh) Geordi’s visor, Crusher’s doctor’s coat, Troi’s jumpsuits. But those variations speak: they tell you more about the character, and the character’s purpose in that scene, than even hackneyed expository dialogue could. This is classic melodramatic costuming, in which outfits absorb excess of emotion — things that cannot or should not be said — and communicate them through wardrobe.

In the age of Tom and Lorenzo and detailed, episodic criticism, we’ve grown accustomed to analyzing costume choice. Joan’s roses on Mad Men, Olivia Pope’s literal employment of black and white on Scandal, even a complex color theory of How I Met Your Mother. Unpacking clothes is fun. Clothes porn is fun — I watched Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars as much for the clothes as I did for the characters. But therein lies the problem: the clothes bear more narrative weight than the actors themselves. I wasn’t watching the character, or the action, or the plot — I was watching the clothes; the body wearing them, and his/her acting, choices, and dialogue all seemed to drift away.

But Crusher’s lab jacket never distracted me. It told me something, and then it told me to pay attention because there was going to be some big disease that would spread throughout the ship and take away everyone’s ability to say vowels. Instead of breaking down specific outfits, then, I’d like to work towards a theory of the uniform — and its specific purpose on a show like The Good Wife.

The Good Wife doesn’t have Star Trek uniforms, although it would be awesome if it did, if only because Will Gardner would look GREAT in Riker’s jumpsuit. But the characters’ sartorial choices are circumscribed by their profession: high-end lawyers are some of the last remaining American workers required to wear suits on a daily basis. Professors don’t wear suits, doctor’s rarely wear more than a dress shirt and tie, those in tech apparently just wear hoodies. If you’re in local government, you only wear a suit if you’re Leslie Knope or Chris Traeger. If you’re on the police force, you only wear a suit if you’re a detective. So what do we have? Bankers, politicians, lawyers. Bankers are boring and corrupt, at least in the current public imagination, but it’s no coincidence that two of the best shows on broadcast deal with people from the last two groups: Scandal and The Good Wife.

In landscapes of power and prestige, everyone has to look just-so. You need to look respectable and put-together; you don’t want to blend into the background entirely, but your wardrobe should never become more important than your argument or your ideas. Even a bow-tie can speak louder than it should.

In these workplaces, gender display shouldn’t trump your message, but you also don’t want to distract with any sort of gender confusion. Hence: the woman’s power suit, which apes the standard male suit, with its boxy, square shoulders and well-tailored lines while subtly emphasizing the waist and breasts. The woman’s suit says I’m powerful but I’m a woman: be impressed, but don’t be scared.

The Good Wife may have a modicum of what Phil calls “blazer porn,” but it’s all about uniforms.  Ninety percent of our time with these characters is spent at the law firm or on case business — even when they’re drinking whiskey, they’re wearing their uniforms.

Let’s start at the center. According to The Good Wife’s costume designer Daniel Lawson, Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) has around 350 suits in her closet. These suits have a very specific color range: grey, darker grey, lighter grey, red, brighter red, navy, and darker navy. Sometimes there’s a bit of emerald green or even a bit of white tossed in, but that happens once a season, if that. When Florrick was shamed by her husband’s very public prostitution scandal and attempting to reintegrate into a workplace, her clothes were simple, with lots of grey pantsuits. As Lawson explains, she probably didn’t have a ton of actual suits, so her first season was mostly throwing shit together and trying to be as unassuming as possible. Still, the suit reigned.

Yet as Alicia rose through the ranks in the firm, had a steamy affair with her boss/old flame, and laid down the law with her husband, her suits got wild, and by wild, I mean they got peplumed.

More tailored — more willing to highlight her body — and more bold. A bow here, some colorblocking there. It’s still the uniform, but it’s a uniform she’s making her own, just as she reforges her identity from politician’s wife to that of a working, single, even sexual mother. It’s a subtle transformation, but I think it reflects the subtle work the writers are doing. You don’t need to thump the audience over the head by suddenly forcing Alicia into Samantha’s leftovers from Sex and the City to communicate a sexual and professional rebirth. All you need is some peplum and a pop of color.

When you look at promos for the show, however, Alicia’s rarely in uniform.

Promos, especially promos for a show with a title as horrible as The Good Wife, employ visual rhetoric that isn’t as subtle as the show’s. In a one-sheet, peplum can’t quite convey the same message as the hyper-sexual pose above — a pose, and a willing objectification, to which the “real,” non-ad Alicia would never submit. The clothing is off because the entire message is off: this isn’t a show about sexy lawyers banging each other all day; it’s a show about the intersections of sex and professionalism, about duty and desire — the sort of subtlety that a uniform can reflect so skillfully.

Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) gets more to play with, in part because she’s just so much more powerful. I was telling Phil that while I like Alicia, I love Diane, mostly because she’s an icy, ball-busting second-wave feminist, a description I intend as the highest of high compliments. Many of my female mentors fit this description — women who had to fight for their place in their field, who sacrificed tremendously, who didn’t worry about “having it all” because what they really wanted was a place at the table. These ladies take zero shit, but they’re also extremely mindful of the type of behavior and presentation necessarily to earn and sustain their places of power. Diane’s uniform — and the perfect way she arches her eyebrow — convey as much.

Diane isn’t middle-aged. She is, as the French would say, “d’une certaine age” — an age that affords a certain knowledge and luxury. She knows what looks good on her, and she has the capital to spend on it. Tailoring, jewelry, brooches, amazing, precise haircuts — she’s got it.  Sometimes her uniform tends towards the Alicia-esque suit, but she also rocks the sheath dress like a perfectly-fit glove, usually with some statement jewelry. These aren’t chunky faux-jewels strung on twine and purchased from Etsy — we’re talking straight up pearls and gold, a way of underlining I fucking made it. We don’t need clunky flashbacks or cheesy speeches about Diane’s past — that jewelry, paired with those elegantly tailored, square-shouldered dresses and that exquisite $200 haircut, which she may or may not pay someone to blow out every morning, says everything.

Costuming can provide instant character development, but it can also provide instant contrast.  Mamie Gummer’s sorority girl take on the lawyer uniform not only communicates what tactics she’ll adopt in the courtroom, but the intensity with which Alicia despises her. And as for Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), she still wears the high-powered uniform, it’s just a leather version of it.

There’s the blouse, the vest, the tailored skirt, the nylons, the expensive footwear — it’s a power suit for the street, and I don’t mean “street” as in “I grew up on the streets,” I mean the ACTUAL STREET, like walking around, performing surveillance, getting people to talk to you. Alicia and Christine’s clothes individualize them while still allowing them to hew to the expectations of gender and power performance, and Kalinda’s do the same. With her rotating wheel of knee-high boots, black skirts, and leather jackets, she looks like a powerful person, but instead of using that power to persuade a jury, she’s using it to persuade anyone to do anything she wants.

A lawyer needs a certain kind of authority and the uniform to convey it, and a street investigator needs quite another. One is rooted in class and intelligence. . . . .and the other is predicated on sex. As an Indian woman in an enduringly (if quietly) racist society, a woman like Kalinda knew that she’d never be an Alicia or a Diane, so she uses a uniform that will deflect attention from her race and make her the best at her job. Everyone’s too busy looking at her skirt to realize that she’s swindling them — and making a lot of money doing it.

And when The Good Wife characters take off their uniforms, it’s like Carnival: a time for true hungers and desires to run wild. Think of Alicia’s red dress at the gala, or Diane’s target shooting outfits. They’re not revisions of their uniforms so much as extensions, an opportunity to further underline character and whimsy and sex, much as the ventures into the Holodeck, and the creative costuming it afforded, did in Star Trek.

When she was cast as Diane Lockhart, Baranski told the costume designer that she didn’t want to be a “walking fashion Barbie.” Name partners in a Chicago law firm may spend a lot of money on high-end clothes, but they weren’t changing clothes twice a day or wearing hot pink pumps.

But her concern wasn’t just realism — turn Lockhart into a fashion Barbie, and suddenly the conversations about Diane are all rooted in clothing and consumption. Put her in the lawyer uniform, and she can still be fashionable, but conversations about her character become ones of action and speech: what does she do and say, and how does she do and say it?

In academia, female scholars, myself included, often fixate on what they wear, whether in the classroom at a conference. I’ve spent as much time figuring out what to wear as I present my paper as I’ve spent on the paper itself, and I’m by no means alone. Your clothes have to send all sorts of messages, layered with the same density as an academic argument. Footwear, tights, skirt length and style, jacket, satchel, earrings, make-up, hair — people say that academics have it lucky in the wardrobe department, because you can be as informal or formal as you’d like, but that sort of freedom actually makes things harder, not easier. Men have to deal with some of these overdetermined fashion choices, but it’s nothing compared to what women negotiate. Wardrobe matters because wardrobe communicates — which is precisely why so many schools demand uniforms.

If melodramatic costuming, particularly female costuming, was employed to express the inexpressible, then the contemporary uniform underlines these female characters’ ability to speak for themselves. Olivia Pope, Alicia Florrick, and Carrie Mattheson all wear uniforms. It’s no mistake that they’re the most self-actualized, complex, and compelling characters on television.

Don’t Underestimate the Peplum,

AHP

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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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