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.

Snake

You Won’t Read This Review of “Masters of Sex”: The Problem of Episodic Criticism

I WANT TO TALK with you about Masters of Sex. I want to talk about Michael Sheen’s acting, Lizzy Caplan’s costuming, and the friction between its serial and series elements. I want to tell you that the weepy, one-dimensional wife got, at least temporarily, less weepy, and that the show, for its initial resistance to Freudian conceptions of sex, has now seemingly gone full-Freud with its treatment of its protagonist’s neuroses. Most of all, I want to talk to you about the giant very obvious plot “twist” of this last episode.

But if I do, then most of you will stop reading — and it’s not so much because you’re spoiler-phobic as much as you don’t care, or at least not at this point. The reasons are legion: You don’t have cable. You have plans to watch it when it comes out on Netflix. You watched the pilot and have meant to catch up but haven’t. If you’re not at the precise point in the series as I am, who wants to read 1500 words about it?

Therein lies the tension in contemporary television criticism: the infinite space of digital publishing venues made incredibly detailed, lengthy, and immediate recaps/reviews possible, and while print magazines still publish traditional “reviews” of an entire season or DVD set and various outlets offer periodic think pieces on overarching trends, the day-after episodic critique is the new normal.

But writing about a specific show, especially a specific episode of a show, or a show that’s midway through its season, dramatically reduces your potential audience. People read reviews of books, movies, and albums all the time without having watched them, but no one reads a review of Chapter 17, or the second act of the play, or track eight, unless you actively love that piece of art.

When you’re writing episodic criticism, then, you’re writing for experts and fans. For some, this is a dream come true: your review can dispense with exposition and proceed with a sophisticated common vocabulary, really getting down into the nitty gritty of character dissection. The results can be compelling the way that any close reading can be compelling, but they also risk becoming hermetic or myopically obsessive. The more ornate the theory, the better: see, for example, Mad Men’s Bob Benson as Pete and Peggy’s child come back from the future to haunt them. Many of these theories are fun to think about, but they’re hollow — they don’t go anywhere.

The best criticism uses the art object as a launching pad towards topics bigger and broader; too often, episodic type of criticism mires readers in the narrative’s diegetic labyrinths.

Which isn’t to suggest that episodic criticism can’t be valuable. Serialized, “complex” television, whether in the form of Mad Men or soap operas, has long rewarded close dissection. What we talk about when we talk about the “One Man’s Trash” episode of Girls is (somewhat) different than what we talk about when we talk about Girls as a series. The rise of free blogging platforms, paired with the rise of “complex” television, didn’t necessarily make this criticism possible so much as it made it widely available. Some dude from Ohio may have been breaking down Star Trek: TNG episodes on a listserve for years, but after, oh, 2004, he could not only put it online (he could’ve done that for years; what’s up Geocities) or participate in a snark-fest on Television without Pity, but put it on his own domain that a.) loaded in faster than five minutes; b.) looked semi-professional; and c.) could be readily found via search engines and, more importantly, a search engine with the accuracy of Google. Blogger, WordPress, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and the reviewing apparatus expands unfettered.

That’s not intended as an official history so much as a reminder that where we are today is the result of a multiple industrial and technological shifts; together, they’ve created a universe in which nearly anyone, with nearly any fandom, can find others who want to think and write about it.

But those communities — of invested writers, readers, and commenters — are becoming increasingly niche and stratified. And the primary reason isn’t the internet so much as the sheer number of shows worth thinking and talking about. It’s what Alan Sepinwall calls the “too much good television” problem: in 2002, there were 28 original scripted dramas and 6 original comedies on paid and extended cable; by 2012, that number had risen to 77 original dramas and 48 comedies. And that’s not counting the networks! That is a CRAZY amount of television.

And a lot of it is good — if not very good, then good enough for people to want to read and talk about it. Just look at The A.V. Club: they’re currently offering episodic reviews of over fifty shows spanning genres, networks, and air times. You can find a review of the CW’s teen historical melodrama Reign as readily as you can find one of The X-Files or Homeland.

Popularity of these posts varies widely. A recent review of the fantastic Danish series Borgen had 22 comments, six Tweets, and one Facebook share; the most recent Homeland review had 551 comments, 23 Tweets, and 22 Facebook shares. Many more people are reading these reviews than these shares suggest, but they’re still not on par with broader, non-episodic criticism: Emily Nussbaum’s overview of Key & Peele received over 1200 shares, for example, and her Sex and the City corrective was shared more than 15,000 times.

But again, look at those numbers: people read that Sex and the City piece because most of them had watched it. Not a specific episode, but an episode. Whether they loved it or loathed it, they knew that they would be conversant with the review. As one of the early “golden age” shows that has come to stand in for an entire understanding of sex-positive, consumerism-driven postfeminism, Sex and the City was and remains a cultural touchstone — a show that you can use as an example in a public lecture, a means of rooting a concept, a way of being inclusive instead of exclusive.

SATC and other shows like it make television function as what Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, writing back in 1983, called “the cultural forum.” They pose ideological questions and implicitly encourage conversations about those questions: What does it mean to be a man providing for one’s family post-recession? (Breaking Bad) How can young people negotiate the contradictions inherent to postfeminism? (Girls). But the more that “television” proliferates, the less “must-watch” television remains a salient category and the harder it becomes to host forums for those discussions.

And so a new hierarchy of television criticism emerges: on the top, there’s a rapidly dwindling number of shows that function as broad cultural forums, sometimes, but not always, with ratings to match the sheer amount of discourse they inspire. Girls, Mad Men, Game of Thrones. Homeland until this season. Arguably The Walking Dead and Scandal, both of which are highly divisive — The Walking Dead because it’s been critically lampooned; Scandal because it wears its melodramatic credentials on its sleeve.

Then there’s the expanding raft of programs that inspire online recapping, reviewing, and rehashing. The most visible programs are the “quality” ones, and by “quality” I mean aesthetics/look (something like The Americans on FX), narrative complexity (Arrow on Fox) and/or critical acclaim (Parks & Rec on NBC). Shows with all three seem to inspire the most high-profile critical space (this is, remember, ostensibly a review of Masters of Sex), but you only really need one of those three to merit review-like discourse (just ask the Tumblr community around Vampire Diaries).

And then there are shows that seem not to matter — or at least not matter enough to talk about every week. Standard procedurals (Law & Order SVU, NCIS), first run syndication, broad swaths of reality television, children’s programming, the news, tosh.0, sports broadcasts, most cartoons, and other weird stuff and cobwebby television corners, some of it watched by far more people than a single episode of Mad Men. These programs are ideological gold mines, but we haven’t quite figured out how to talk about them with rigor or regularity.

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Television has long been framed as the “democratic medium,” and you could claim that the proliferation of content is one of the ways in which 21st century “television” will not only be unyoked from things like, say, televisions, but will also redefine what a “democratic medium” might look like. In the three-network era, television was democratic not only because it was free to anyone who could afford a set, but also because the limited amount of available programming ensured that most shows would, in some way, function as cultural forums. Even something as seemingly inane as Mister Ed was watched by enough people that when Mae West came on and did something suggestive, it sparked conversations. These conversations weren’t published and they almost certainly didn’t invoke aesthetics, probe implicit meanings, or use words like “showrunner,” but they happened.

Today, television is democratic in fiercely neoliberal way: if I like something, then I want it, and I want other people to like it the way I do. Freedom of choice becomes freedom to choose precisely what your media diet — and criticism thereof — includes.

The complexity and variety of the third golden age of television thus functioned as a catalyst for the first golden age of television criticism. Once that critical engine was set in motion, however, it had nothing to confine it: the current critical landscape is so diffuse, so niche-oriented, that I often feel less like I’m starting a conversation and more like I’m having one with myself, or others with very similar concerns and celebrations.

Don’t mistake me: I’m not asking for a troll posse to squat in the comments of our posts and tell us that everything we’re writing about Masters of Sex is wrong. Rather, I’d like for my writing on Masters of Sex — hell, anyone’s thoughtful, time-consuming, painfully crafted review — to reach more people, to engender something larger than a click. As an academic, I think about this constantly: how can we take our work, the product of months if not years of labor, and make it into more than a peer-reviewed, firewalled article accessed by eight confused students a year? It’s a question of depth versus accessibility — and it’s a tension by no means limited to academia or online television criticism.

But how do we take the public forum available to us and turn it into something better — something less niche and more inclusive, something less inside baseball and more cultural forum — without either a.) writing about NCIS every week or b.) offering unsubstantiated yet link-baity platitudes about television at large?

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This piece came about because I couldn’t think about something that interesting to say about S01E05 of Masters of Sex. It’s a quality show; it has quality elements. It has Lizzy Caplan; there are lots of shots of people watching other people have orgasms. It’s a show about white middle-class people during a vivid historical moment, and it’s very nicely done. But I don’t think it necessarily merits, or even needs, a weekly dissection. (Just ask Lili how hard it was to write her review).

With the growth of webseries and Netflix/Amazon original programming, the amount of television programming is only going to continue to proliferate. If we’re never going to regain the cultural forum of classic television, we can at least stop digging the cultural trenches even deeper. To do so, however, we have to think critically about how we’re reviewing — and viewing and reading — out of habit and history.

Again, I don’t think that episodic criticism is, by definition, at fault. Certain episodes demand more, and I’ve seen brilliant episodic criticism connect single episodes to broader trends, historical context, industrial imperatives, overarching politics of representation or, as Lili did yesterday, write not so much about the episode as the series at large and its rejection (and periodic engagement) with tired, facile characterization rooted in pop-Freudism.

But too often, episodic criticism turns into the snake eating its own tail, simply because there’s nothing else to do. That’s criticism that closes down meaning — that encourages people to believe what they believe about the show, the episode, and their meanings — rather than opening it up.  And it’s not as if the critics themselves love this form: it forces a style of writing that, judging from Twitter and podcast conversations, is much more exhausting and much less satisfying than other forms of criticism. There seems to be a reader-appetite for it, but who’s to say that readers aren’t bored as well?

We seem to agree that the third golden age is drawing to a close. We also seem to agree that there’s too much worthy television for any critic, paid or not, to watch it all, and few are enthralled with the current dynamics of episodic reviewing. It’s a perfect time, in other words, to switch shit up — to reconsider what the next golden age of television criticism might resemble — and reaffirm what makes this medium so infuriating, satisfying, and compelling in the first place. The internet changed our understanding of what television criticism could or should do. There’s no reason it can’t change it yet again.

AHP

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Loofbourow_DTV_Masters_MG_Orig

Sex and the Slightly Unreliable Narrator

Dear TV,

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

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

Except he wasn’t! Libby got pregnant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely (OR NOT),

Lili

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Hitch

Ambivalent about Horror

Dear Television,

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

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

I am ambivalent about horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good evening,

Jane

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Maicak_Sleepy

Greetings from Hellmouth, U.S.A.

Dear Television,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil.

¤

AHS

The Exquisite Repulsion of “American Horror Story”: An Essay on Abjection

Dear Television,

An African-American albino. A 200 year old woman who looks 45. A vagina that destroys all that enters it. A MINOTAUR. This is the stuff of abjection, and American Horror Story: Coven is overflowing with it.

You hear that word — abject — and think of something done horribly, wretchedly. In Coven’s premiere, the Supreme Witch, Fiona (Jessica Lange) tells her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) that her running of the witch academy has been an “abject failure”; ten minutes later, the tour guide of Madame Lalaurie’s home calls it a site of “abject horror.” It connotes a depth of something we don’t usually reach.

But I want to talk about a slightly different connotation to see if we can get to why American Horror Story treads the knife-edge between feminism and misogyny — and why so many of us can’t stop watching it.

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Abjection is more than just a depth of experience: it’s a theory of grossness, of confusion, of what we must reject in order to live. Stick with me here. The theory of abjection is most famously pronounced in the work of Julia Kristeva, who, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, theorized the role of the abject in the building of both society and the psyche. Abjection includes that which is dirty — feces, decay, etc. — but also that which crosses borders and confuses. The Judaic Tribes of the Hebrew Bible created laws concerning what was and wasn’t abject so that they wouldn’t die out: people naturally wanted to do things like have sex with their wives when the wives were on their periods, but when you’re living in the desert, as these Judaic Tribes were, you just can’t get yourself clean enough. Accessing the abject would be to risk disease and, ultimately, death.

So what do you do? You make a woman’s menstrual cycle into something dirty and shameful — and write laws (still on the biblical books) that send that woman to a hut while menstruating. Eating pork was made abject because pigs were likely to pass along diseases — and kill off the tribe. Incest was made abject because sleeping with your family members would result in genetically deformed children — and eventually kill off the tribe. Homosexuality was made abject, because if you didn’t have sex that could make babies, you’d kill off the tribe. By labeling certain things as gross, the tribe — and society — was able to survive.

For Kristeva, the abject applies to that which makes one retch, but it is also, on a deeper level, “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” These things disrupt the Symbolic, meaning they disrupt the way that language works: if you see something that looks like a tree, you expect it to be a tree. That’s how order works, how we get through everyday without going crazy. A thing is what its sign — and the way our culture understands that sign — says it should be.

But the abject messes with that: you see the muscular, shirtless chest of a man and you think “man.” But then you look up and see the head of an ox, and you think “animal.”  Even if we have a name for it in our symbolic (“minotaur”) it’s still compromising order. Men behave one way; animals behave another — what can you expect from this thing?

The minotaur is a pretty straightforward example, but society also rejects things that are much more subtly confusing: the androgynous, the confusingly mixed-race. Even if you, yourself, think that you’re okay with these sorts of ambiguities, you can recognize that society isn’t, as manifest in everything from the census form to the development of slurs used to denigrate and separate that sort of ambiguity as dangerous, unacceptable, not me.

Historically, the abject – refuse, corpses, blood – is what must be pushed aside, rejected, and labeled as Other in order to live. Literally: reject this stuff or you die. Modernity has made bacteria much less of a problem, but the deep fear and distrust of the abject remains. Rejecting the abject becomes a means of shoring up identity: by clearly labeling what I am not, I receive a clear understanding of what I am. By rejecting gender ambiguity, you solidify your own lack of gender ambiguity…. or so the psychological process goes.

But it’s never that simple. The abject is at once an object of fascination and of repugnance. It draws in as it repels, seduces as it disgusts. It “fascinates desire,” but must, ultimately, be rejected. We want to see a corpse, not because we’re weird, but because a body should mean life — and here it doesn’t. It confuses meaning, sure, but that’s gross and engrossing. So in order to make sure that no one will succumb to the temptation of hanging out with corpses, you’ve got to label corpses, and people who are fascinated by them, as disgusting and weird.

Thus the abject is thoroughly shadowed with shame. Trespass into the abject must not only be a societal violation, but a moral one as well. Desire for the chaotic, the border-breaking, the Other, is constructed as an offense to God or common morality. To be clear, there’s nothing about the abject that is a priori immoral: things, people, objects become abject through complex psychological processes. Some of this is bound up in the physical — I’m sure an evolutionary biologist could explain to you why feces smell “bad” to us — but a lot of it is ideological and, as such, erases its traces. Transgender people aren’t gross; they’re confusing to our conservative symbolic order and therefore constructed as abject, unnatural. We cloak confusion in the language of repulsion.

Visual art provides the perfect opportunity to feed the attraction to the abject while simultaneously satisfying the need to reject it. As film theorist Barbara Creed explains, you willingly go to a horror film to get “the shit scared out of you” — just think about that wording. The abject is explored right in front of you, but it’s distanced enough that you don’t have to fear being absorbed by it. It’s voyeurism, only you’re looking at the abject.

The main horror genres are all magnifications of the abject: the vampire movie is all about gender ambiguity and drinking blood; the zombie movie is about the animated corpse; the “meat” movie (Creed’s perfect word, not mine) is about humans who eat humans (Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes). Over the course of the film, you also get to watch as abjection is vanquished, usually by the protagonist, with whom we, as audience members, subconsciously align ourselves. In so doing, we vanquish abjection, leaving the theater secure in the knowledge that we are not them.

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Over the last two seasons, AHS has revelled in the abject. Sex with ghosts, stillborn babies, a housekeeper who looks one way for men and another for women, a nun possessed by the devil, sadist Nazi doctors, mutilated yet still living bodies, alien impregnations — and that’s just the first two seasons. The show has “an uncanny ability to provoke pure disgust,” according to Molly Lambert. “How many other shows can boast that they make viewers need to throw up?”

Some of these storylines, especially the focus on the Nazis and the Nuns, highlight recurring abject fascinations. We return to stories of Nazis and corrupt church officials, at least in part, because they’re so compellingly contradictory — the doctor who destroys; the steward of God who punishes. That contradiction — that confusion — is what makes us return to them again and again, but it’s also incredibly reassuring. By labeling even the relatively recent history as abject, we distance it from ourselves. They were this way; we are not.

Coven has two main focuses of abjection: slavery and the monstrous feminine. In the first ten minutes, we see abominations of human flesh, the work of the sadistic Madame Lalaurie (Kathy Bates). She turns one human body inside out; on another, she places the head of a beast. So far, so abject. But she’s able to do these things because of the primary abjection of racism: if you label an entire race as part animal, part man, part savage, part civilized, if you label that race as abject, then society will sanction the enslavement and othering of that race.

In this way, racism — and slavery — becomes moral. But Lalaurie took that compunction too far. In her desire to explore the abject, she herself became abject, which is why a mob stormed her house and, at least according to the narrative of Coven, hung her entire family. As for Lalaurie, she became an embodiment of abjection: the corpse that breathes and never ages. It’s no coincidence that all who cross her path once she emerges from the ground, nearly 200 years later, remark on the putrid smell.

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Women have long been a source of abjection: they’re the keepers of the menstrual blood; they’re selfish with their babies, trying to keep them from entering into subjectivity, always trying to get them to stay and hang out in the pre-symbolic, pre-language, forever bound to their doting mothers. In tales of abjection, the abject feminine manifests as the sprawling abyss — the mother who threatens to consume, to castrate, to make others into the gaping hole that is their lack. Creed points to examples of this all-consuming feminine in Alien, but I always think of the massive vagina dentata of Star Wars (the sarlacc — thanks, Google Image Search), so eager to consume Luke, Han, and Chewbacca, the very embodiments of righteous masculinity. In Coven, that’s Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who may look meek and non-threatening on the surface — just like a doting mother would! — but whose inner void (re: murderous vagina) threatens to consume not just your penis, but your entire life.

But the abject feminine doesn’t have to be represented as a lack or void. Per Freud, the fear of that lack is manifested in a substitute fetish object — usually some sort of substitute phallus — that distracts you from her lack. Medusa is the example par excellence, the powerful, potentially castrating female with her glorious penis-like hair. But witches also take this role: there’s a reason we draw them with pointy hats and protuberant noses.

The witches in Coven don’t wear black hats. They have normal, frankly beautiful noses. But they are castrating bitches, that’s for sure. Fiona destroys or incapacitates all men who stand in her way. Cordelia has a husband of some sort, but the narrative suggests that she’s also bad at her witchy job. The only man who lives at the school has his tongue cut out; Madison (Emma Roberts) avenges the men who gang-raped her by flipping their bus…with her finger. When a man questions Queenie’s (Gabourey Sidibe) authority and insults her, she effectively submerges his arm in hot oil. Two men kill crocodiles with big pistols; Misty (Lily Rabe) has the crocodiles eat them. Patriarchal authority figures who attempt to interfere — such as the policemen who visit in episode two — have their memories and, as such, the potential to wield any sort of power, wiped clean. And don’t get me started on the Frankenstein man Madison and Zoe make out of dismembered body parts.

The witches are dangerous — they’re abject — because they threaten order. But it’s a very specific sort of order, namely, patriarchal order. To be a bitch, to practice “bitchcraft,” is a particular demonstration of female power, at once magnetic and repulsive. Just think of how we wield that word: as a means of policing behavior (“God, stop being such a bitch”). But “bitch” can also be recuperated and celebrated; to declare oneself a “bad bitch,” for example, is to revel in and acknowledge the transgression of behavioral norms. A bitch like Fiona — single, independent, powerful — is so threatening (and/or attractive) because she’s seemingly dismissed the role patriarchy has set forth for her.

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In almost all forms of art, the monstrous feminine must be vanquished. She sticks around for awhile, letting us gaze upon and be fascinated by her, but her death is an absolute necessity if patriarchal order is to be restored. But things aren’t so simple in American Horror Story. It offers the basic abject pleasures of the horror genre, but it refuses to cooperate with the processes that call for the ultimate rejection of those pleasures. It screws with the processes that sustain the symbolic order — with the “Law of the Father,” as Jacques Lacan would put it, with patriarchy.

It’s easy to see why Ryan Murphy — an openly gay man whose work has been systematically denigrated by Hollywood — would be invested in this project, and would collaborate with middle-aged women who have been similarly thrust aside. In fact, Murphy’s oeuvre could be viewed as a sustained muddling of the lines that divide good and bad, high and low, queer and straight, campy and sincere, quality and pulp. As Willa Paskin points out, amidst the vaunted, masculine anti-heros of the so-called “third golden age,” AHS is an amalgamation of “undervalued genres, often dismissed as pulp” — horror flicks, women’s pictures, soaps, camp. But it looks great — the opening sequence alone is a study in aesthetic complexity — and boasts the same qualities that typify “quality” television (the auteurist showrunner; expensive production values; Hollywood actors; narrative complexity).

American Horror Story disregards hierarchies. It signifies as one thing and is another. It is, in other words, abject as hell. Which is precisely why it inspires the reactions it does: it’s addictive yet embarrassing; you love and hate it, can’t decide if it’s sympathetic or predatory, misogynistic or feminist. Fiona is a shameless ball-buster, but she’s also terrified by her own aging body, beholden to societal understandings of what “beauty” and “vitality” look like. Even as the “Supreme,” her power only extends so far: she can decimate men, but she can’t decimate patriarchal ideology. Those sorts of nuanced contradictions function as AHS’s narrative engine: it feeds on them, explores and explodes them.

In other texts and societal interactions, abjection is deployed as a tool of clarity — a way to delineate, to categorize, to shore up identity and classification, to de-abjectify the self. American Horror Story does the opposite: abjection begets abjection. You watch, and you might know that you’re not a witch, but you don’t know much else, either about the world or what you’re watching. It’s an exquisitely repulsive, wholly addictive place to be.

Yours in liminality,

ahp

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Maciak_sitcomimage

The Good Bros of Fox

Dear Television,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On SIGHT,

Phil.

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mindy project 2

Are Sitcoms Sincere Again?

Dear TV,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely yours,

Lili

Samberg

Can the Sitcom Grow Up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes firemen are women,

Jane

¤

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Streaming Pam Beesly

Dear Television,

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

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

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

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

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

For me, this is less remarkable for the way it allows us to engage with streamable series like Lost or Breaking Bad — series loaded with easter eggs and guns on mantles that were built anticipating and soliciting this kind of fannish attention to detail — than the way it allows us to engage with series that are not built like magic boxes. Combing through the Netflix archive, it quickly becomes apparent that there are shows that thrive in the streaming world, and those that don’t. Lili writes, “The pleasure lives partly in the repetition and partly in watching things we know are coming be skillfully worked out — in watching the universe the show creates survive the minute scrutiny a fan loves to give it.”  And as is often the case, series that may have had somewhat tortured lives on television have emerged as standard-bearers of this new mode of watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel God in this Chili’s tonight,

Phil.

¤

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Why We Watch Netflix In The Middle of the Night

Dear TV,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season one, episode six,

Lili

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

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