The Los Angeles Review of Books talks with David Kipen, Colleen Jaurretche, and Andrew Vasquez of Libros Schmibros. The Boyle Heights bookstore and lending library just celebrated its 3rd anniversary.
“To me the choice was easy…I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero.”
Ezra Vogel, author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of Modern China, statement made during a Chinese book tour.
“As an academic who doesn’t write for a large publication, I’m always happy to have a readership that extends beyond the three people in my family.”
Rebecca Karl, author of Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World.
“I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall.”
Here are some questions that students, friends, and people who introduce themselves to me after I’ve given a public talk on China often ask:
Are you sorry that none of the books you’ve written have come out in Chinese editions?
How much would you be willing to let Chinese publishers cut from your books, if told that allowing some things to get intentionally lost in translation was what it would take for these works to be sold on the mainland?
Would you balk at cutting a few sentences, be fine with deleting a whole chapter, or perhaps even be okay with trimming segments here and there throughout a book?
How strongly would you push back if asked for other sorts of changes, like allowing your book to have a dramatically different title in the Chinese edition?
I’ll likely get asked things like this more often now, thanks to Andrew Jacobs, whose recent article on the publication of Western works in mainland China has generated a lot of buzz. It’s no surprise that the article has caught the interest of China specialists. Many of us are fascinated by the challenge of sorting out what has and hasn’t changed about Chinese publishing and censorship in recent years. Jacobs draws attention to both novelties of the present (not long ago, books dealing even in part with sensitive issues simply would not be translated) as well as things that are holdovers from past times, such as the paranoia about protecting Party officials’ images that led to a reference to Deng dropping a dumpling being cut from Vogel’s book, and a text about a mayor and a mistress ending up one of the very few things excised from Meyer’s. And Jacobs focuses on three different sorts of members of our tribe: sociologist Vogel (whose Deng biography is selling briskly in China), historian Karl (whose book will likely be published soon by Hunan People’s Press), and journalist Meyer (whose book was retitled Zaihui, Lao Beijing, or “See You Again, Old Beijing,” in an effort, Jacobs writes, to make an often dismayed look at destruction seem a “nostalgic love letter”).
What is more notable is how much interest in the article there has been beyond specialist circles. On October 23, for example, the Guardian ran a follow-up article, “Author Bows to Chinese Censorship of his Deng Biography,” which zeroed in on Vogel’s relatively easy acceptance of modifying his work so that it could appear in China. The next day, “The Banal Reality of Censoring Books in China” appeared on the History News Network website. This article began with HNN editor David Walsh describing the battle Karl fought — and won — to keep Hunan People’s Press from going forward with their initial plan to present her book to Chinese readers as a straightforward biography of Mao, with an altered title to match.
Reading these three articles on censorship has made me appreciate anew a basic fact about the questions regarding translation, accommodation, censorship and so forth I sometimes get asked: at least for me, these queries usually cannot be answered as simply as people would like. And the same will be true now if I’m asked whether, like Vogel, I’ll be happy if “90 percent” of one my books can make its way into the Chinese market. It all depends, I’ll say, on which book we are talking about.
In the case of China’s Brave New World — and Other Tales for Global Times, which is comprised of separate though thematically connected essays, I was ready at one point to try to get a version published on the mainland that was only about 70% as long as the original, with several chapters that would clearly have created problems left out. (A friend found a publishing house that initially seemed ready to go forward with the book in that form, but then higher ups within it had second thoughts and the plans to bring out the translation were scrapped.)
With my first book, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai, which is mostly about pre-1949 events but has an “Epilogue” (perhaps making up 7% of the text) stressing parallels between those struggles and upheavals of the 1980s, on the other hand, I would view cutting out 10% as far too much. I would rather it not be published than come out sans that “Epilogue” and also stripped of passing comments in other chapters about the clear links and parallels between the “good,” in Chinese Communist Party eyes, protests that helped it rise to power and the “bad” ones that challenged its legitimacy in 1989.
Or, rather, I’d only consider going forward with a version like that if the press in question agreed to a condition I can’t imagine it would: marking each cut with an ellipsis to show that something in the original was no longer there, and putting a warning on the cover, like those you see when R rated movies are shown on an airplane, noting that the work has been modified for presentation in this particular setting. Without something like that done, I would worry that the book could too easily be read as supporting notions that I don’t agree with. For example, such cuts would eliminate the parallels I draw between protests of the 1940s, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Nationalist Party government of that era, and those that erupted four decades later, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Communist Party government of that time.
It might seem that at least one question mentioned at the start of this post would lend itself to a straightforward answer — the one about whether I’m frustrated that none of my books has come out in a Chinese edition yet. Of course, since I share Karl’s desire to be read broadly, I’d love to have all my books available in as many translations as possible, and since I write about China, reaching Chinese readers is particularly desirable. Still, this question needs clarification and contextualization, even though neither of the books just mentioned has been translated into simplified characters by a Chinese publisher, and the same goes for the other two books I’ve written, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.
The most important thing to note is that there is a Chinese-language version out of China in the 21st Century, just not a simplified-character one. A complex-character translation of the book’s second edition, which I updated in collaboration with fellow LARB “China Blog” regular Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published this summer. It’s now readily available for sale in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, and some copies could already be making their way into the hands of readers in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, even if this edition can’t be sold in mainland bookstores. So, it’s not quite true that there are no “Chinese editions” of my works. It’s not even accurate to say none of them can be sold openly in the People’s Republic of China, since Hong Kong is now a part of that country, albeit one where distinctive rules on publishing apply — something demonstrated by such things as there being a Hong Kong translation of Vogel’s biography of Deng that I’ve been told includes passages snipped out of the mainland edition.
Finally, what about sticking to your guns on titles? I admire Karl’s determination not to have her Mao book, which is very different in aims and scope than a standard biography, recast to seem like it was just that. I can also see, though, why Meyer might have felt differently about The Last Days of Old Beijing becoming Zaihui, Lao Beijing. If you are interested in making a living as an author in the present era, there’s a need to pick your battles, and he also might well have felt that going along with the title change provided him more leverage in working to keep parts of the book’s content he cared about from being cut. Added to this, there’s a basic difference between Karl and Meyer’s past experiences with publication, since the former’s articles have most often been published in scholarly venues, the latter’s in magazines and newspapers. If you write for general interest rather than academic venues, you simply get used to having titles other than the ones you came up with placed above your work. In my relatively amphibious career, I try to keep this in mind, so I can roll with the punches when my articles for non-scholarly periodicals are retitled (though ones that seem to me to veer too far from my original meaning certainly annoy me) yet ready to push back if anyone tries to get me to give up on a title I like for something I’ve written for an academic journal.
As for books, I was so happy to see one of my books finally come out in a Chinese-language edition of some kind, that it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t even consulted about what China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know would be renamed. And just in case any Chinese publisher is reading this post, I’d like to make it clear that I’m open to having Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 retitled. It’s hardly a “nostalgic love letter” to the city that is its focus, but it does have a sense of old patterns returning in novel forms in the metropolis; so, especially if Meyer’s work sells as well as it should (it’s a really good book), I’d even be willing to consider Zaihui, Lao Shanghai. Hell, with a title like “See You Again, Old Shanghai,” someone might even bid for the movie rights.
* For more on the Chinese translations of The Last Days of Old Beijing — in the plural, since Taiwan and mainland editions have both come out — and the author’s experiences touring to promote these books in Asia, check out Michael Meyer’s “See You Again, Old Beijing,” an engaging and thoughtful memoir cum commentary published in SLATE. Also of interest are two “Letters to the Editor” inspired by Jacobs’s article that have appeared in the New York Times. One of these, from China specialist John Israel, recounts an interesting experience the author had with a sensitive issue of translation. The other is from the President of Ohio Wesleyan University, noting that Vogel “passed on all rights to income from mainland China sales” of his Deng biography to that school, his “alma mater.” The proceeds are to be used to establish “a permanent endowment to support Ohio Wesleyan students engaged in international study, with a preference for research and travel involving East Asia.”
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, my favorite show was Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are many reasons for this love, but chief among them was the uniforms. I loved how legible they were: how you saw a color, and a number of pips on the collar, and you immediately knew what that person did and how well they did it. How much, in other words, you could trust them. But it wasn’t a simple calculus: Admirals had six pips, but that actually meant that they were so powerful that they spent most of their time admonishing your favorite character, Captain Picard. Data had two pips and a third that was hollowed out — a symbol of his striving and liminality as, well, a robot, as well as his actual rank of Lieutenant Commander.
Sometimes the uniforms got switched up — I love the casual look from late-stage TNG, when suddenly everyone was chillin’ in mock turtlenecks and comfy zip-up cardigans from L.L. Bean.
When everyone’s in uniform, the smallest variation sticks out. Worf’s baldric (warrior sash, duh) Geordi’s visor, Crusher’s doctor’s coat, Troi’s jumpsuits. But those variations speak: they tell you more about the character, and the character’s purpose in that scene, than even hackneyed expository dialogue could. This is classic melodramatic costuming, in which outfits absorb excess of emotion — things that cannot or should not be said — and communicate them through wardrobe.
In the age of Tom and Lorenzo and detailed, episodic criticism, we’ve grown accustomed to analyzing costume choice. Joan’s roses on Mad Men, Olivia Pope’s literal employment of black and white on Scandal, even a complex color theory of How I Met Your Mother. Unpacking clothes is fun. Clothes porn is fun — I watched Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars as much for the clothes as I did for the characters. But therein lies the problem: the clothes bear more narrative weight than the actors themselves. I wasn’t watching the character, or the action, or the plot — I was watching the clothes; the body wearing them, and his/her acting, choices, and dialogue all seemed to drift away.
But Crusher’s lab jacket never distracted me. It told me something, and then it told me to pay attention because there was going to be some big disease that would spread throughout the ship and take away everyone’s ability to say vowels. Instead of breaking down specific outfits, then, I’d like to work towards a theory of the uniform — and its specific purpose on a show like The Good Wife.
The Good Wife doesn’t have Star Trek uniforms, although it would be awesome if it did, if only because Will Gardner would look GREAT in Riker’s jumpsuit. But the characters’ sartorial choices are circumscribed by their profession: high-end lawyers are some of the last remaining American workers required to wear suits on a daily basis. Professors don’t wear suits, doctor’s rarely wear more than a dress shirt and tie, those in tech apparently just wear hoodies. If you’re in local government, you only wear a suit if you’re Leslie Knope or Chris Traeger. If you’re on the police force, you only wear a suit if you’re a detective. So what do we have? Bankers, politicians, lawyers. Bankers are boring and corrupt, at least in the current public imagination, but it’s no coincidence that two of the best shows on broadcast deal with people from the last two groups: Scandal and The Good Wife.
In landscapes of power and prestige, everyone has to look just-so. You need to look respectable and put-together; you don’t want to blend into the background entirely, but your wardrobe should never become more important than your argument or your ideas. Even a bow-tie can speak louder than it should.
In these workplaces, gender display shouldn’t trump your message, but you also don’t want to distract with any sort of gender confusion. Hence: the woman’s power suit, which apes the standard male suit, with its boxy, square shoulders and well-tailored lines while subtly emphasizing the waist and breasts. The woman’s suit says I’m powerful but I’m a woman: be impressed, but don’t be scared.
The Good Wife may have a modicum of what Phil calls “blazer porn,” but it’s all about uniforms. Ninety percent of our time with these characters is spent at the law firm or on case business — even when they’re drinking whiskey, they’re wearing their uniforms.
Let’s start at the center. According to The Good Wife’s costume designer Daniel Lawson, Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) has around 350 suits in her closet. These suits have a very specific color range: grey, darker grey, lighter grey, red, brighter red, navy, and darker navy. Sometimes there’s a bit of emerald green or even a bit of white tossed in, but that happens once a season, if that. When Florrick was shamed by her husband’s very public prostitution scandal and attempting to reintegrate into a workplace, her clothes were simple, with lots of grey pantsuits. As Lawson explains, she probably didn’t have a ton of actual suits, so her first season was mostly throwing shit together and trying to be as unassuming as possible. Still, the suit reigned.
Yet as Alicia rose through the ranks in the firm, had a steamy affair with her boss/old flame, and laid down the law with her husband, her suits got wild, and by wild, I mean they got peplumed.
More tailored — more willing to highlight her body — and more bold. A bow here, some colorblocking there. It’s still the uniform, but it’s a uniform she’s making her own, just as she reforges her identity from politician’s wife to that of a working, single, even sexual mother. It’s a subtle transformation, but I think it reflects the subtle work the writers are doing. You don’t need to thump the audience over the head by suddenly forcing Alicia into Samantha’s leftovers from Sex and the City to communicate a sexual and professional rebirth. All you need is some peplum and a pop of color.
When you look at promos for the show, however, Alicia’s rarely in uniform.
Promos, especially promos for a show with a title as horrible as The Good Wife, employ visual rhetoric that isn’t as subtle as the show’s. In a one-sheet, peplum can’t quite convey the same message as the hyper-sexual pose above — a pose, and a willing objectification, to which the “real,” non-ad Alicia would never submit. The clothing is off because the entire message is off: this isn’t a show about sexy lawyers banging each other all day; it’s a show about the intersections of sex and professionalism, about duty and desire — the sort of subtlety that a uniform can reflect so skillfully.
Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) gets more to play with, in part because she’s just so much more powerful. I was telling Phil that while I like Alicia, I love Diane, mostly because she’s an icy, ball-busting second-wave feminist, a description I intend as the highest of high compliments. Many of my female mentors fit this description — women who had to fight for their place in their field, who sacrificed tremendously, who didn’t worry about “having it all” because what they really wanted was a place at the table. These ladies take zero shit, but they’re also extremely mindful of the type of behavior and presentation necessarily to earn and sustain their places of power. Diane’s uniform — and the perfect way she arches her eyebrow — convey as much.
Diane isn’t middle-aged. She is, as the French would say, “d’une certaine age” — an age that affords a certain knowledge and luxury. She knows what looks good on her, and she has the capital to spend on it. Tailoring, jewelry, brooches, amazing, precise haircuts — she’s got it. Sometimes her uniform tends towards the Alicia-esque suit, but she also rocks the sheath dress like a perfectly-fit glove, usually with some statement jewelry. These aren’t chunky faux-jewels strung on twine and purchased from Etsy — we’re talking straight up pearls and gold, a way of underlining I fucking made it. We don’t need clunky flashbacks or cheesy speeches about Diane’s past — that jewelry, paired with those elegantly tailored, square-shouldered dresses and that exquisite $200 haircut, which she may or may not pay someone to blow out every morning, says everything.
Costuming can provide instant character development, but it can also provide instant contrast. Mamie Gummer’s sorority girl take on the lawyer uniform not only communicates what tactics she’ll adopt in the courtroom, but the intensity with which Alicia despises her. And as for Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), she still wears the high-powered uniform, it’s just a leather version of it.
There’s the blouse, the vest, the tailored skirt, the nylons, the expensive footwear — it’s a power suit for the street, and I don’t mean “street” as in “I grew up on the streets,” I mean the ACTUAL STREET, like walking around, performing surveillance, getting people to talk to you. Alicia and Christine’s clothes individualize them while still allowing them to hew to the expectations of gender and power performance, and Kalinda’s do the same. With her rotating wheel of knee-high boots, black skirts, and leather jackets, she looks like a powerful person, but instead of using that power to persuade a jury, she’s using it to persuade anyone to do anything she wants.
A lawyer needs a certain kind of authority and the uniform to convey it, and a street investigator needs quite another. One is rooted in class and intelligence. . . . .and the other is predicated on sex. As an Indian woman in an enduringly (if quietly) racist society, a woman like Kalinda knew that she’d never be an Alicia or a Diane, so she uses a uniform that will deflect attention from her race and make her the best at her job. Everyone’s too busy looking at her skirt to realize that she’s swindling them — and making a lot of money doing it.
And when The Good Wife characters take off their uniforms, it’s like Carnival: a time for true hungers and desires to run wild. Think of Alicia’s red dress at the gala, or Diane’s target shooting outfits. They’re not revisions of their uniforms so much as extensions, an opportunity to further underline character and whimsy and sex, much as the ventures into the Holodeck, and the creative costuming it afforded, did in Star Trek.
When she was cast as Diane Lockhart, Baranski told the costume designer that she didn’t want to be a “walking fashion Barbie.” Name partners in a Chicago law firm may spend a lot of money on high-end clothes, but they weren’t changing clothes twice a day or wearing hot pink pumps.
But her concern wasn’t just realism — turn Lockhart into a fashion Barbie, and suddenly the conversations about Diane are all rooted in clothing and consumption. Put her in the lawyer uniform, and she can still be fashionable, but conversations about her character become ones of action and speech: what does she do and say, and how does she do and say it?
In academia, female scholars, myself included, often fixate on what they wear, whether in the classroom at a conference. I’ve spent as much time figuring out what to wear as I present my paper as I’ve spent on the paper itself, and I’m by no means alone. Your clothes have to send all sorts of messages, layered with the same density as an academic argument. Footwear, tights, skirt length and style, jacket, satchel, earrings, make-up, hair — people say that academics have it lucky in the wardrobe department, because you can be as informal or formal as you’d like, but that sort of freedom actually makes things harder, not easier. Men have to deal with some of these overdetermined fashion choices, but it’s nothing compared to what women negotiate. Wardrobe matters because wardrobe communicates — which is precisely why so many schools demand uniforms.
If melodramatic costuming, particularly female costuming, was employed to express the inexpressible, then the contemporary uniform underlines these female characters’ ability to speak for themselves. Olivia Pope, Alicia Florrick, and Carrie Mattheson all wear uniforms. It’s no mistake that they’re the most self-actualized, complex, and compelling characters on television.
Don’t Underestimate the Peplum,
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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),
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.
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.
A 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.