The Fastest Show on TV: On The Good Wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsbeth Tascioni out!

Phil.

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The Death of the Humanities?

sunupordownBy Monica F. Cohen

I spent much of the summer exchanging links with friends to articles documenting the death of the humanities in American institutions of higher education. The confluence of forces seemed apocalyptically confounding: public universities requiring higher tuition for humanities courses; careerism infiltrating curricula; parents worried about tuition that demand rationalization in terms of investment and returns; MOOC’s and short-term instructors substituting for the sustained attention of a traditional teaching faculty; the possible decline in the number of English majors and worries about employability; lap-tops in classrooms whereby today’s admirably multi-tasking student can seem to fully participate in class discussion while simultaneously shopping for shoes on Zappos and making social plans on Facebook; and, finally, wannabe exercises in digital humanities whereby scholarly inquiry into the things that matter achieves value only through a patina of social-science authority. Now that The New York Times has made it official with an article entitled “As Interest in the Humanities Fade, Universities Worry,” it feels on some days like just a matter of time before the academic world giving prominent place to humanities study would be a distant memory.

What greeted me on the first day of fall classes this year, however, was something entirely different. When I walked into my Nineteenth-century Novel class, I found nothing like what my greatest apprehensions led me to anticipate. Whereas I expected thirty students, more than seventy poured in. Whereas I expected laptops, only four brought them and only two later asked to use them (and since that day no one seems to bring them out). Whereas I expected twelve or so students to actively participate while the rest avoided eye contact, nearly everyone raised a hand at some point. Whereas I expected the rustle of notebooks closing and books returning to bags five minutes before the official end of class, everyone stayed riveted until I gave the signal that we were finished, seven minutes later than we were scheduled to end. (That might not seem like a long time, but my previous experience suggests that college students live a frenzied, back-to-back life of dashing with a bagel and cup of coffee from one place to the next. Rarely do students seem to have the time to linger after class.) They just want to talk about the books: about Balzac’s impossibly long sentences, about Kant and moral choice, about failure and maturity, about the possibilities of agency in an urban mob, about Breaking Bad and Dickens.

I’m not a star professor. I’m not even a tenure-track professor. There’s no buzz about my course and there’s not much likelihood that I can really help a student climb a professional ladder other than making sure their work is really compelling. And I teach at a competitive school where students think about such things. But my students seem to come to class as if discussing these books is the most important event of their day. They want to talk so much that they gather around the front of the classroom when our designated time is over and email me lengthy comments after the next class has dislodged us. For the first time, I had to set up an electronic discussion board because I can never call on the number of hands that are up. And sometimes I feel my role is just to orchestrate: they respond to each other with an alacrity and respect I cannot really remember being the norm when I was in college.

Maybe the numbers of English majors are really going down –or maybe just recovering from an irregular rise as Nate Silver demonstrated. But maybe that’s the wrong question to ask about the state of the humanities.  Instead of statistics, maybe we need anecdotes. I remain awed by the energy in my classroom. And most of my colleagues have said the same. (An example: 80 students signed up for a lecture course on The Canterbury Tales!) Students come to the study of books, even today, with a sense that the endeavor is crucially important. They are interested in a liberal education in the broadest sense of the term.

Some of my best students are English majors, but many of them are not. One is in the engineering program. One is majoring in environmental studies. One is pre-med. Their love for reading and writing and talking about books is undiminished by their very pragmatic career plans, or their very real worries about tuition. Or the very serious concerns of parents and administrators who see one thing, the irrelevance and decline of the humanities, while students and professors experience something else. These students are looking for something genuine, real and engaging—and they are finding it.

The long-term prospects for humanities research may lie in applying Big Data to the study of books (I’m dubious) or (perhaps more promisingly) in reaching out to other growing fields—there’s lots of fascinating crossover work with medical humanities going on, and many interesting engagements with Environmental studies.   The long-term prospects for humanities study at the college level, however, may lie in remembering that career preparation is only one of the many missions American colleges have organized themselves around. Literature classes continue to speak, and to speak powerfully, to students of all fields. Whether it’s despite or because of warnings from parents, hyperbole in the press, or a presumed sense of the impracticality of talking and thinking about ideas and books, I am reminded every day in my own experience  and by that of my colleagues that the appetite of students for reading, writing, and discussing novels, stories, philosophy and poems remains unabated, and it’s that which might well guarantee the well being of the humanities at large.  There seems to be a new vitality in today’s humanities classroom. I don’t entirely know how to explain it, but perhaps the new world it heralds might still be an exciting and rewarding place .

Monica F. Cohen teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Barnard College.

Hong Kong, Beyond the Neon Lights

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

I doubt anyone goes to Hong Kong specifically to explore the Ping Shan or Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trails. After all, this former British colony (now a Chinese Special Administrative Region, or SAR) offers visitors a plethora of other attractions: world-class dining, exciting nightlife, a spectacular skyline, and high-end shopping, just to name a few. The two heritage trails, both located in the outlying New Territories section of the SAR, lie far from the center of Hong Kong’s gravity.

I’m not really into shopping or eating fancy meals, and I’ve already done most of the standard Hong Kong tourist items (traveled up to the Peak, visited Chungking Mansions for Indian food, crossed the harbor on the Star Ferry), so when I arrived for a long weekend in the SAR earlier this month, my itinerary was pretty much blank. I wanted to relax, eat good street snacks, and explore Hong Kong beyond the neon lights. The two heritage trails (both listed in the Lonely Planet Hong Kong guidebook) fit the bill perfectly: easily accessible by public transportation, yet still far enough off the beaten path to provide peace and quiet while I soaked in some of the territory’s lesser-known history.

The Ping Shan Heritage Trail is undoubtedly the more popular of the two, and I saw several other foreigners and a couple of organized tour groups during my excursion there on Saturday afternoon. The trail, a little over a kilometer and a half, winds through several old villages that formerly all came under the oversight of the area’s Tang Clan, which settled in Ping Shan around the twelfth century. The trail links together a number of older structures (or rebuilt versions of the same), such as the Tang Ancestral Hall and several temples, that together provide insight into traditional life in a Hong Kong village.

I was even more interested, however, in present-day village life. As I walked along the trail, which leads visitors through small clusters of apartment buildings, little details captured my attention: the vaguely familiar music emanating from a storefront Christian church opposite a temple dedicated to a local god; colorful flowers planted in container gardens outside nearly every apartment; the incense burner attached to someone’s mailbox. The residents of these apartments appeared comfortable with the large number of visitors that the trail had brought to their community, and nearly everyone I encountered smiled or said hello to me (one man added, presumably at random, “Are you from California?”).

I encountered a very different situation the next day when I set off on the much longer, and much less polished, Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail. While the Ping Shan trail had a visitor’s center and numerous signs to guide me from one historic landmark to the next, Lung Yeuk Tau featured only spotty signage, and both the starting and endpoints of the trail were unmarked. (I found the former with the help of Lonely Planet and decided on the latter when I came to a bus stop and saw that the minibus waiting there would take me back to the metro station.) The trail passes by a number of old walled villages and takes the visitor on a pleasant, though not physically taxing, hike along tree-lined roads.

In contrast to the outgoing community of Ping Shan, the Lung Yeuk Tau area seemed reserved, even unfriendly. Few people paid me any heed, and no one made any attempt to speak with me. I was virtually the only person traveling by foot, though people regularly passed me in cars and minibuses on the single-lane roads of the trail. No one mingled on the tiny concrete town squares, while a gleaming new basketball court lay empty and silent. Everywhere I looked, homes were surrounded by fences: three-story apartment buildings were encircled by walls whose tiles matched the homes’ exteriors, while residents of ramshackle single-story dwellings favored chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire. The walled villages of old had given way to the walled houses of today.

But the quiet that hovered over the trail enabled me to hear what was going on behind those walls, and I realized that the area was far from deserted. Someone was cooking, I could tell, by the rhythmic sound of a knife hitting a chopping board; in another building, the plastic clack of mahjong tiles made me wish I could take a seat at the table and join in the game. Television sets offered forth snatches of Cantonese that my Mandarin-speaking brain couldn’t begin to decipher. I usually like to listen to music on my iPod while taking long walks, but I left the device in my bag while hiking the Lung Yeuk Tau trail, focusing instead on the small sounds of daily life around me. I finished the four-kilometer hike feeling grateful for the anonymity and peace that the trail had offered—a rare thing to find in China.

Readers may have noticed that I’ve said comparatively little about the historic sites that are the reason for these two trails’ existence. To be honest, I didn’t find many of the sites particularly interesting; perhaps I’ve been jaded by my time in China, but small temples and ancestral halls are a dime a dozen, and nothing about the ones I saw along the trails stood out in any special way. The real pleasure I found on both of the trails came from the opportunity to wander around the contemporary versions of traditional villages and get a glimpse of life in the New Territories.

Would I recommend that a traveler with a free day or two in Hong Kong consider filling that time with a visit to these trails? Absolutely. The gleaming skyscrapers and bustling streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are exciting; no first-time visitor to the SAR should skip them. It’s just as fascinating, however, to explore the territory’s quieter areas — only a short train ride away, but a world apart, from the neon lights of central Hong Kong.

Further reading: Since the 1960s, anthropologists James L. Watson and Rubie S. Watson have conducted research in the New Territories village of Yuen Long, which is similar to the towns I visited along the heritage trails. Many of their articles about the region have been compiled in Village Life in Hong Kong: Politics, Gender and Ritual in the New Territories.

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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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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One Season Wonders: “Outcasts” and “Terra Nova”

by Jonathan Alexander

ONE OF THE PLEASURES of TV these days is the Netflixable delight of watching entire seasons in a weekend. You might have to wait till the series is done to binge properly, but the bingeing is sometimes worth the wait. And the complexity of the long TV narrative is better appreciated, in many cases, by viewing seasons in large chunks, allowing you to trace more finely the development of story and character arcs. Battlestar Galactica makes more sense, for instance, if you see it in toto. Sort of. In some cases, with shows cancelled after only one or two seasons, you have the opportunity to catch some pretty decent television, complete albeit truncated, in only a couple of evenings — or evening, if you’re ambitious, as we tend to be in my household.

While Sherryl is away this week, she offered me the chance to share some thoughts on SF TV, and I couldn’t resist writing about two of my favorite “one season wonders,” shows cut off after just one season. Both are currently available on Netflix, and they can hold you over while you wait for next week’s episode of whatnot. Curiously, the shows — Fox’s Terra Nova and the BBC’s Outcasts, both from 2011 — are surprisingly similar. They are largely about attempts to establish human colonies that will survive post-apocalyptic earth. And both are also lessons in the pleasures of narrative cut off before resolution.

Outcasts is a BBC One show that aired in the US on BBC America and ran for eight episodes. A “president” (played by Liam Cunningham), his chief of security (Hermoine Norris), and his hired gun (Daniel Mays) lead a group of colonists on Carpathia, an earth-like planet previously scouted out for human habitation as folks flee an Earth devastated (in a hazy backstory) by nuclear fallout and ecological disaster. Outcasts is ambitious in its mixing of numerous SF tropes, pulling deliriously from the “mega-text” of science fiction. We have an adventure story of gun-toting settlers on an alien planet; characters’ pasts periodically erupt to complicate the plot; political subterfuge (often with none of the subtlety suggested by subterfuge) threatens internal security; the humans themselves are divided into two groups, the born humans and the genetically engineered “advanced cultivators” (ACs) designed to explore environments potentially hostile to people and somehow outcast from the normal humans’ settlement; and the threat of alien life lurks constantly in the background, finally coming to the fore in the final episodes. Indeed, one of the more interesting elements of Outcasts is the Stansilaw Lem-like alien race, hinted at and never really fully seen but sometimes manifesting as images from the settlers’ past lives. Very Solaris.

SF TV geeks will appreciate the appearance of Jamie Bamber in the first episode. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t survive that first episode.) And in a neat twist on the old US SF trope of making the bad guys sound British, the main villain is played by an American, a slick character with an American accent who rabble rouses the settlers with rhetorics of religious ideology and the need to protect Forthaven’s “soil.” Very American indeed.

Critics generally panned the series, and my husband frequently shouted at the television, mocking characters’ stupidity; there are some pretty obnoxious plot inconsistencies. But I must admit being pulled into the show’s moodiness. To be sure, Outcasts is a heady mix of lots of SF stuff, and it takes itself pretty seriously. But it’s well acted, if slow, and the mysterious aliens tease us all along, particularly when the settlers find a cache of hominid-like bones, buried in what looks like a family unit. Pretty cool, if heterosexist. And it’s fun as an American to watch a British TV show about the perils of colonization vilify the politics of colonization through an American actor and character. What a funhouse of crazy mirrors.

If you’re feeling really ambitious in one weekend, you might spend one day watching Outcasts (it’s only eight hours of viewing) and then compare it to the 13 episodes of Terra Nova, which, at 44 minutes each is a little more, but TN is faster paced. Producers Steven Spielberg and Brannon Braga, among others, had high hopes for this Fox series and poured a lot of money into it, nearly four million dollars per episode (at least according to Wikipedia). Critics were kinder to Terra Nova than to Outcasts, but TN proved perhaps a bit too expensive; InsideTV called it one of the “nine highest-rated cancelled shows“ of its season.

Like Outcasts, the story revolves around a colony fleeing environmental devastation, a future Earth choked by pollution spewing from corporate greed. Instead of looking for the exit strategy offered by terrestrial planets, our adventurers have been specially selected to travel back in time, starting over 75 million years in the past. The result is at times very Edgar Rice Burroughs as the colonists defend themselves against dinosaurs and super toxic plants, an earlier Earth become eerily alien.

We spend most of our viewing time with the Shannon family, a mixed-race (nice touch) unit consisting of a doctor wife (played by Shelley Conn), police husband (Jason O’Mara), and adolescent kids grappling with their assorted problems. The show, perhaps to catch the attention of adolescent audiences, makes time for a little teen romance with some super hot young folks. And as with Outcasts, there’s a splinter group that lives in the wilds, the “Sixers,” who seem to be in bed with corporate interests who hope to plunder the riches of prehistoric Earth for future profit.  Note for comparison: the British series is all about the dangers of colonization; the American one about corporatization. 

Again, SF fans will appreciate seeing some favorite actors reappear, this time Stephen Lang of Avatar fame, who (spoiler alert) survives the whole season as a main character, though not without some seriously close calls. This time, Lang plays a good if still military character, Nathaniel Taylor, the leader of the colony. We see a lot of him — which is good as Lang plays the role to the hilt, even with the annoying plotline of the estranged son.  

Special effects? For both shows, pretty decent. Especially the sets. Not a lot of space shots, but keep in mind that these are both, in a sense, domestic dramas, often focused on family dynamics as people try to survive the toxic environment and their toxic relationships. Indeed, what’s particularly intriguing to me about both series is their love of ordinary objects, in particular their romance of household items and interior décor. Urban loft living rooms and kitchens are transported in space and time, with place settings, cutlery, and knick-knacks by Pottery Barn. I kept wondering to myself, how did that couch get there? And where can I get that knife set?

Housewares aren’t the only carryovers from the here and now. Both series focus a lot of dramatic attention on the leaders of the colonies, Richard Tate and Nathaniel Taylor. Note the everyman-sounding names — or at least “everyman” as embodied by the white Western most likely straight but homosocially patriarchal masculinity that we are called upon to identify with, admire, or obey.  These are our heroes. To be fair, though, both characters are compromised, having to make “tough choices.” And you question their choices, just as they do. Was that killing necessary? Do those lies need to be told? Helping them with such questions, or at least carrying out their orders, the boss’s right-hand police agents take up a lot of airtime as well.  nd it’s ultimately hard not to read into these 2011 dramas a projection — both into the past and the future — of some concern with the police state, and with its seeming necessity in times of danger. After all, Tate and Taylor, despite their rhetorics of democracy, are really dictators, with whom we are asked to sympathize. After all, desperate times call for extraordinary measures, right?

I won’t give away what happens as the seasons come to a close, but I will say that both end in cliffhangers. And that’s it. If you take a chance on Outcasts and Terra Nova, you’ll have to commit yourself to the pleasure of watching an aborted series. You don’t know what will happen. You’ll never know. And you’ll have to be ok with that. There are a lot of series out there like that, as networks and media companies try their hands at different kinds of shows. The great archives of Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV allow us the chance to sample their experiments. Perhaps this is a new kind of televisual enjoyment we can cultivate: the inconclusive narration, the unfinished arc, the never-ending cliffhanger.

Such open narratives, forever truncated into precariousness, are satisfying in that they mirror our contemporary situation so well. Such is certainly the case with Outcasts and Terra Nova, shows whose characters are as caught in precarity as the shows were themselves, wondering if they’d survive for a second season. We know the fate of the shows: too expensive, too moody — cancelled. But their characters are caught incomplete, just as we are caught in the middle of our own unfinished stories: whither our own future at a time of economic implosion, ecological disaster, political impasse, and global insecurity? No one seems to know how our story will end, so we tune into the apocalypse and enjoy the ride. 

The writers, perhaps knowing the fate of the shows, have their characters offer some comforting platitudes, even if they’re meager or hackneyed. In the final episode of Outcasts, one character, who turns out to be genetically engineered, offers hope in the belief that we can still “design ourselves,” no matter how desperate things become. And in Terra Nova, facing that desperation, the main characters trade mantras: “This is our home.” “We will survive.” “But first let’s kick some ass.” 

And they do.

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Save The World Stage

By Scott Doyle

“Save The World Stage” Campaign Launched
Community Rally Set for October 26

Jazz musicians like Branford Marsalis, Max Roach, Roy Hargrove, Elvin Jones, Billy Childs, Ron Carter, Kenny Burrell, Pharaoh Sanders, Horace Tapscott. And of course, co-founder Billy Higgins, the most recorded jazz drummer in history. Writers like Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Kevin Powell, Ruth Forman, Ishmael Reed, Toi Derricote, Al Young, The Watts Prophets. And co-founder Kamau Daàood, one of many notable alums of the legendary Watts Writers Workshop.

These are just some of the artists that have graced The World Stage over the last 30 years, and their names were a strong presence at an October 16th press conference held as the non-profit performance and educational space seeks to chart its future in a changing Leimert Park. The neighborhood, called by some the “black mecca” of Los Angeles, is almost certainly on the verge of a significant transformation following the MTA’s approval of a Leimert Park Village subway station on the new Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. Neighborhood activists had long lobbied for the stop, which until late spring appeared to be far from a done deal. But within weeks of a May press conference finally announcing funding for the station, investors had bought up two buildings on the east side of lower Degnan Boulevard, home to a cluster of black-owned businesses, most of whom have been there for over 20 years.

Operating as two LLCs and communicating with tenants through a property manager, the new owners have chosen not to renew leases, posted numerous pay or quit notices, and failed to respond to requests for a meeting. A handful of businesses are already gone. After an unsuccessful attempt to get Councilman Herb Wesson to intervene on its behalf, The World Stage has gone public with its fight. The non-profit is seeking, among other things: short-term emergency funding to forestall the possibility of imminent eviction; a meeting with the new owner to discuss his plans for the building; “cultural landmark” designation that would solidify its status as a stakeholder in the neighborhood’s redevelopment; and political and economic assistance from city and county officials to ensure the organization’s long-term viability.

The emotional press conference (which later spilled out onto the street in a spirited conversation about the neighborhood’s future) featured a number of speakers paying homage to the rich legacy of The World Stage. It is a space that is, in the words of stage manager Matt Gibson, “humble but hallowed.” Its motto affirms the Stage to be “not a space but a spirit.” Writer and performer Jerry Quickly calls it an “art church.” Artistic director Conney Williams (a guest the previous day on a segment of Warren Olney’s Which Way, LA? on KCRW) spoke of how, in the difficult months after the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the unrest that followed, The World Stage provided a critical haven for “fellowship and healing.” Executive director Dwight Trible highlighted the thousands of young people who have passed through the drum, vocal and writing workshops offered at little or no cost; as well as the thrice-weekly jam sessions giving aspiring local musicians of all ages and abilities a chance to cut their teeth.

But the afternoon was not simply an exercise in nostalgia. Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition insisted that the huge investment in the Crenshaw line, which he characterized as the largest public works project South LA has ever seen, must translate into economic development that truly empowers the local community, and not the kind targeted mainly at tourists. The gathering attracted nearly 40 attendees, a number of whom stepped forward with ideas for putting the organization on more solid footing, and with offers of help. KPFK music director Maggie LePique presented a $1000 check from Doors drummer John Densmore, a long-time admirer of Billy Higgins. World Stage board president Adé Brown is hoping to raise $25,000 to stabilize operations in the coming months. Supporters are encouraged to donate via a PayPal button on the group’s website.

save the world stageA somewhat paradoxical challenge facing The World Stage is that, while it is well known within the black community and has a national and even international reputation amongst jazz aficionados, in many ways it flies below the radar in Los Angeles. Leimert Park itself, set just far enough off the main thoroughfares of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw Boulevards that you can easily miss it if you’re not looking for it, has its own visibility problem. Happily, this weekend offers a couple of excellent opportunities to discover (or rediscover) this vibrant and diverse neighborhood.

On Saturday, October 26th at 1pm, The World Stage invites the public to its performance space on 4344 Degnan Boulevard. Against the backdrop of its Saturday Jazz Workshop there will be a community rally with speakers and poets and the latest information about The World Stage’s campaign to remain in Leimert Park. Then hang around to check out the rest of lower Degnan, including Eso Won Books across the street.

And on Sunday, October 27th from 3pm – 8pm is the Leimert Part Art Walk, which will feature art exhibits, live music, and food vendors. As a special attraction, the historic Vision Theatre (currently being renovated under the purview of the Department of Cultural Affairs) will be opened up for an exhibit curated by Ben Caldwell of the multi-media art and training center Kaos Network.

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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Jogging the Memory

By James Carter

With Fall Break relieving me from teaching for a few days, I recently spent a week in Shanghai researching a new book that uses the events of a single day at the local horse-races to explore a variety of questions about China’s 20th-century history. I’m interested in that particular place at that particular time (late in 1941) in part because I like projects that draw attention to how porous seemingly basic boundaries separating cultural groups and periods can be. Shanghai spent a century (1843-1943) subdivided into Chinese-run districts and two foreign-run enclaves, a French Concession and an International Settlement, which were all interconnected even though each was governed differently. The racetrack, for example, was in the International Settlement, which was usually dominated by British interests, but people from all parts of the city and of all nationalities came to bet on the ponies.

Why is 1941 special? Because when writing about Chinese history, 1937 — when Japan invaded North China, occupied many coastal cities, and carried out the brutal Rape of Nanjing — is usually regarded as the start of “the war.” Yet, in Shanghai, while the Japanese took over the Chinese-run parts of the city that year, most Western nations remained neutral in the Pacific theater until December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other centers of Western power in Asia. In the foreign concessions, life went on more or less as usual after 1937, at least for a while. The race that interests me would be the last “championship” one run before Japan took over the International Settlement, but the 20,000 people who went to bet on the horses did not know that: for them, the drama of the day focused on the rivalry between top stables, not geopolitics.

Long-dead horses and jockeys, though, weren’t the only racers on my mind during this trip, as it came just five weeks before I was set to run my first marathon back home. That meant I wanted to log not just time in the archives but also some miles — ideally a lot of them, even if doing so would require breathing air much smoggier than what I am used to in Philadelphia.

Undaunted by PM 2.5 warnings (nothing Beijingers would fear, mind you), encouraged by jetlag, I set out early most mornings on the pedestrian walkway that runs 1.5 miles along the banks of the Huangpu River. The view was spectacular as the sun came up through the skyscrapers of Pudong, illuminating now-clichéd architectural contrasts: to the West, China’s past (the 19th- and 20th-century buildings of the Bund); across the river to the East, its future (the towering glass skyscrapers, including the world’s second-tallest, nearing completion).

So compelling is the view that it makes the clichés easy to accept at face value. Even the clock on the Customs House, hammering out “The East is Red” (Mao Zedong’s personal anthem) for the tourists seated at Starbucks or Subway, seems contrived to reinforce ironic observations that oversimplify just how it is that, Kipling notwithstanding, East and West meet in Shanghai.

Fortunately, a handful of virtual running companions complicated and illuminated the interactions between China and the West over the past several centuries. Podcasts have long been one of my favorite information sources, and listening to them makes commutes and runs both productive and entertaining. For those with an interest in China, the sources are many. Three reliable standards helped me pass the miles and at the same time situate my research, so I left Shanghai with both a productive research trip and about 30 miles under my belt. I’d recommend all three without reservation for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of China.

The most provocative of my choices was Carla Nappi’s interview with Oxford historian Henrietta Harrison, talking about her recent book, The Missionary’s Curse. Harrison is one of the leading voices in the field, and this book deftly undermines many of the clichés that make the Bund waterfront so appealing. She writes here about Shanxi, traditionally regarded as one of China’s poorest, most isolated provinces. Running past the European icons of Shanghai’s gilded age, like HSBC, AIA, and the Peace Hotel, it was easy to think that relations between China and Europe were best observed here. What could show this blending better than the Chinese-style roof atop the Art Deco Bank of China, for instance? Yet Harrison’s study — subtitled Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village — demonstrates that the mutual influence of Chinese and Western institutions and ideas has gone on for longer, at a much subtler and grassroots level, than is evident in the Art Deco monuments along the Bund.

Just as much as Harrison’s scholarship, this interview showcased the fine work being done in the New Books in East Asian Studies series. Nappi, an accomplished historian in her own right (author of The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China), posts interviews every week or two and shows a remarkable familiarity with her subjects, as well as an engaging interview style. Most interviews run more than an hour, allowing for in-depth and detailed discussions of recent books on China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The New Books Network also has counterparts of other sub-areas, including History, Critical Theory, Philosophy, and dozens more. If you want a book review mobile and thorough, this is a site for you.

Nappi’s interviews feel like joining two very smart people for a cup of tea (and at least one recent interview actually was done over tea, though more commonly they take place over Skype). No less smart, Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn’s Sinica Podcast is more like gathering for a pint (or two) with the most well-informed expats in China. Readers with more interest in news stories than academic debates might find this the best place to start. Sinica — now archived at the Asia Society’s ChinaFile site — bills itself as a weekly discussion of current events in China, yet that is only part of its portfolio. Kaiser and Jeremy (forgive the familiarity, but the podcast frowns on pretension in all its forms) gather together journalists, authors, academics, and businesspeople, either based in Beijing or passing through. Top China-based journalists, including The Economist’s Gady Epstein, The New York Times’ Ed Wong (and in back episodes, Mary Kay Magistad of PRI and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, both now relocated to the USA) are regular guests, making the podcast a source of insight and reportage, not just rehashing of yesterday’s headlines.

Keeping with the Sino-Western theme, the installment I listened to during one morning’s run featured author and diver Steven Schwankert, whose new book Poseidon details the story of HMS Poseidon, a British submarine that was lost in 1931, but secretly salvaged in 1972 by the Chinese navy. Schwankert’s insights on China and the West, like Harrison’s, complicate what we think we know. For me, the idea that a British submarine could be salvaged in the 1970s without any British knowledge whatsoever was surprising. Just as surprising was the fact that the submarine’s fate was revealed not through espionage or high-level diplomacy, but through the pages of a Chinese popular magazine that Schwankert came across while searching for information about the sub’s location for a possible dive: no such dive was possible, since the vessel was raised from the bottom 40 years ago!

Last up was the China History Podcast, which businessman Laszlo Montgomery has researched, produced, and presented for nearly four years. Its somewhat haphazard approach to several millennia of China’s history make for entertaining and unpredictable — but always responsible — glimpses into China’s past. My accompaniment on the Bund adhered to the theme of the week, detailing the life of Hong Kong shipping magnate Y.K. Pao, who counted Ronald Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, and other leaders — West and East — among his friends.

So, about five hours of running between the clichés of Shanghai’s waterfront provided not just fine views, but also fresh understanding of the current state of scholarship and writing about China’s relationship with the West. I also renewed my appreciation for the range of new sources, and new formats, available for today’s China watchers, and deeply grateful to the people who provide these (free!) services, strictly as volunteers. And of course there are lots more podcasts too: one recent addition is The China Hang-up, from the Economic Observer, that follows the Sinica model, taking on current issues in a group discussion format, with call-ins! Podcasts have now matured to the point that there is a “new generation” to challenge the establishment.”

Laszlo Montgomery, Carla Nappi, Jeremy Goldkorn, and Kaiser Kuo — as well as their guests — are crossing another boundary that has never been as solid as some would believe. The lines separating journalism, scholarship, punditry, and analysis are blurred on the Internet as never before. While some fret (with cause) about the degradation of standards that accompany the rise of citizen-journalism and open-source scholarship, the voices on these podcasts show that quality analysis and entertainment is now available on a scale never before seen.

Greetings from Hellmouth, U.S.A.

Dear Television,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil.

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