Best Television GIFS of 2013

Phil: Mad Men 

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

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

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LILI: BEST DANCES:

Enough said.

Mindy Project:

Brooklyn 99:

New Girl:

Orange is the New Black:

New Girl:

American Horror Story: Coven:

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:

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AHP: Best (and Worst) Romance:

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

New Girl:

Orange is the New Black:

Top of the Lake:

Scandal:

The Mindy Project:

30 Rock:

Nashville:

Veep:

Game of Thrones:

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WORST ROMANCE:

Girls:

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Ambassador of Love

By Victoria Patterson

My brother and I grew up in a family prone to tragic holidays, but now with families of our own and growing kids, we’re trying our best to change the course.  “No drama,” my brother said, in our pre-Christmas Day strategy phone conversation.  “No more drama in our lives,” I agreed, quoting Mary J. Blige.

Traffic wasn’t as bad as usual on Christmas Day morning, though it still took us more than two hours to get from South Pasadena to my mom’s house in Pauma Valley: me, my husband Chris, our sons Cole, who was fourteen, and Ry, twelve, in the minivan, and also our beloved lemon-colored Bassett hound, Lucky Gus.

All during the drive, I prayed, gave myself pep talks, practiced breathing, and checked my pulse.

We loved our dog like crazy.  Arthritic at eleven-years-old, Lucky loved us more than we thought possible, and he’d grown up with Cole and Ry.

The boys had been one and three years old when we’d found a puppy wandering the streets.  When we’d returned Lucky to the address on his tags, the woman who owned him seemed to be ambivalent about having him back.

“If you don’t want your dog,” I said, emboldened, “we’ll take him.” She was in the midst of a divorce, had three children in diapers, and so she took our name and number.  A month later she called, saying, “Do you still want him?”

She’d always wanted a Bassett, she explained, since she’d grown up with one.  But Lucky was too much: he chewed everything, ran away every day, and her other dog hated him.

“I saw how you and your boys looked at him, and the way that he looked at you,” she said.  “He belongs with you.”

Lucky’s pedigree papers, which she’d also given me, showed that he’d been born to a breeder in North Carolina, and that his ancestors had names like Sir Napoleon Woodrow and Lady Natalie Tootee.

Lucky slept with my boys, rotating beds each night to be equal.  They called him their brother.  He was their brother.

Ry, Cole, Lucky Gus 2

When we arrived at my mom’s on Christmas Day, I watched Lucky jump out of our minivan and run—his happy trot—not to the tree or to the grass or to anywhere else, but straight to me, and I got my usual jolt of pure joy.

My mom’s husband Robert stood and hovered by a large trashcan while we opened our gifts, picking up the wrapping paper and throwing it away.  Lot of gag-gifts: Glow in the dark toilet paper, Superman socks.  My mom gave me a box of Chanel No. 5 perfume samples she got free with her purchases at Saks.

Robert made a big production of one final gift to Chris, my brother, and me. “Genuine leather Armani jackets,” he said, bringing them out from the garage on hangers. “So exclusive,” he claimed, “they aren’t on the market yet and won’t be for over a year.  These jackets are worth a lot of money.”

We thanked him, as I fought my suspicions, thinking, “Really?”

The dogs got presents.  My brother’s dog Sugar—an Australian shepherd found on the meridian of a busy freeway—ran around the house in a San Diego Chargers jersey, a little snug, her hair puffing out.  Lucky got a squeak bone toy reading “Fifty Shades of Fur.” He sat under the coffee table, mildly interested in the toy, holding it in his mouth, his tail thumping softly.

Everyone went outside for football before our Christmas dinner—our traditional game.  The boys love to play, especially Craig, my nephew, who was born with Spina bifida and is wheelchair bound.

I looked around.  There was Sugar but no Lucky.

“Where’s Lucky?” I asked.

I followed my mom to her small wading pool in the patio area, and she said, “Why’s the pool cover collapsed?”  It had folded up at the center, and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.”

I went to pull the cover straight and I saw him floating—slanted upward—his back legs like he was running.

I looked away and screamed and didn’t look again.  But I kept seeing and reliving that instant, especially at night when I tried to sleep, every day for weeks.

Someone pulled Lucky out of the water and attempts were made at reviving him.  I watched as my son Ry threw up his fists to curse the sky, asking, “Why?  Why, God, why?” I left him alone, sensing that he wasn’t ready to be comforted.

We wrapped Lucky in a Hefty garbage bag and loaded him into the minivan.  We hugged and said our goodbyes, ready to start for home, but a few blocks away, Ry remembered where he’d forgotten his cell phone by a tree, when he’d taken it out to play football, so we went back. Standing by the car as Ry collected his phone, Robert brought up the Armani jackets again.  “Don’t sell them on EBay,” he said.  “They’re worth over $1,300 each, very exclusive.  That’s why I bought them for you.”

Back in the minivan, Ry said, “What’s with Robert?  Why’d he talk about money and those jackets?” and I said that I had no idea.  “Actually,” I added, “it’s because he’s an asshole.”

It didn’t take long for us to notice an awful smell in the minivan.

“Is that from Lucky?” I whispered to Chris.

“No,” he said.  “I think it’s those jackets.”

A long drive, traffic, lots of weeping, and intermittent discussions about Lucky, and what we needed to do with his body, and more weeping.

The best dog ever, we all agreed.  No dog like him, ever, ever, ever.

“He loved everybody,” Ry said.

Chris called him the Ambassador of Love.

I phoned the emergency vet hospital near our home, and we brought Lucky.  A woman buzzed us inside.  Short dark hair, piercings all up one ear, she was somber and kind as she greeted us, and then she helped us put Lucky in an examination room.  She’d already called the cremation place, she explained.  He’d be picked up the following day.

Chris uncovered Lucky so that we could see his neck and part of his head.  He still looked so beautiful, except for his tongue, which hung from his mouth, a pink-gray color.

The woman let the boys make hot chocolate in the waiting area before we left, but they just poured it out when we got to our car.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  Though we’d stashed them in the laundry room, the whole house had begun to smell of the jackets, a rancid gasoline stink.  I got up and went to Google the tag name—Emporio Collezione—and saw proof of what I suspected: Fakes, selling on EBay for around forty bucks.  All over the Internet, warnings and tales of Italian men scamming people in Walmart and Costco parking lots, pretending to be on their way back to Italy with extra inventory, this one great opportunity!  This once in a lifetime chance to own Armani!

Infuriated, I called my brother the next morning to tell him.  “Don’t tell Mom,” he said.  “They’re not that bad, and the smell will fade.  It’s Christmas—isn’t it the thought that counts?”

“But why’d he have to bring it up in the garage in front of Ry?  We had our dead dog in the car!  What kind of a person says something like that in front of a kid who has just lost his dog?”

“He’s weird,” my brother affirmed, for about the thousandth time.

I didn’t tell my mom, and I gave my jacket away.  I began to troll the humane society and rescue sites, staring at the puppies and dogs.

We all missed Lucky.

Sometime late in January, I found a black Pug from the humane society and adopted her.  In order to function in the world, I realized, I needed a dog.  The first thing Rosita did when I brought her home was pee on the carpet.  She had ear infections, eye infections, and mange.

Now she’s healthy and happy and peeing outdoors, a very loving dog.

Happy Rosita

A good dog, my boys say. No Lucky Gus, that’s impossible, but a really good dog.

Then on toward spring, my mom came home from playing a tennis match to find Robert’s things packed and gone, a note on the dining room table.  He’d left her for another woman, the friend she’d been paying to help around the house.

A few months later, he begged my mom to take him back, which she did.

Not more than three months passed before Robert packed up and was gone again. So after fifteen years of marriage, my mom is divorcing him.

When I finally told her about Robert’s fake Armani jackets, she wasn’t surprised.

Someone in the Bank of America parking lot, she told me, bumped into Robert’s car. It was some Italian guy and rather than paying the claim through his insurance, the man talked Robert into taking those jackets, though none was big enough to fit him.  My mom refused to wear the one that he tried to pawn off on her and eventually gave to me, probably because of the smell.

There’s something fitting about Lucky leaving us on Christmas Day, we’ve decided, gone off to walk the Star Path.   He’d been born, after all, at the same time that my sons’ great-grandfather passed away, and we’d always joked that our dog was like a reincarnated undemonstrative, suffering, and difficult Grandpa brought back as Pure Love.

We can turn the narrative, I’ve learned, we can bend the tradition of the tragic holiday to hope. So this coming Christmas and each one after, no matter where they happen to be or who they’re with—and I like to imagine adventures and travels and truly intimate friends—my sons have vowed to toast Lucky Gus, Ambassador of Love.

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

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

Game of Thrones S3.E3

Spoilers, okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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AHP: Best Episode Ending (also Best Violence)

Rectify, Episode 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lili: Worst Episode Ending

Top of the Lake Finale

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

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

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

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

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

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Jane: Best Episode (also Best Melodrama)

Enlightened, S2.E6

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

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

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

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

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Casino Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

By Tong Lam

Macao has long been known as the “Las Vegas of the East” and the “Monte Carlo of the Orient,” but ironically its reputation as a center of capitalist excess only really took off after it was reintegrated into a still-nominally Communist China as a Special Administrative Region. This happened in 1999 and a key part of the process was the opening of its gambling sector to foreign investors. Throughout the twenty-first century, Macao’s gambling industry has been expanding at an exponential rate. In 2012, the gambling revenue in Macao was six times that of the Las Vegas Strip.

The city has certainly come a very long way from the sleepy colonial outpost it was in the mid-1800s when gambling was first legalized there. Thanks to China’s surging economic development, it’s even come a very long way from where it was at the end of the last century. By now, instead of calling Macao the “Las Vegas of the East,” it might be more appropriate to flip the comparison and refer to the Nevada gambling hub as the “Macao of the West.”

There are three indoor canals inside the shopping arcade of the Venetian Macao, the largest casino complex in the world. Its sister facility, the Venetian Las Vegas, has only two such canals.

There are three indoor canals inside the shopping arcade of the Venetian Macao, the largest casino complex in the world. Its sister facility, the Venetian Las Vegas, has only two such canals.

Not surprisingly, thanks to the bustling local gambling and hospitality industries, money generated by tourism is now the driving force of the Macao economy. In addition to having casinos, shopping arcades, and hotels that are larger and more luxurious than their Las Vegas counterparts, Macao’s per capita GDP (according to the World Bank) is fast approaching $90,000, meaning it is just slightly below the world’s frontrunner Luxembourg.

Likewise, the number of mainland tourists visiting Macao is approaching 20 million per year, more than a 20-fold increase from a decade and a half ago when the city was still under Portuguese rule. Yet, significantly, leisure tourism, especially by members of China’s burgeoning middle-class, is only part of the reason for the city’s rapid income growth. An equally if not more important part of the story is the use of Macao’s casinos to launder money for China’s filthy rich. In order to bypass China’s foreign currency exchange regulation, many wealthy Chinese deposit their money with junkets in mainland China and then withdraw and use those funds in the numerous VIP gambling rooms scattered across Macao’s casinos. In a way, Macao’s economic growth is at least partially a reflection of Beijing’s inability to enforce taxation and currency, as well as its inability to curb many forms of corruption.

Tourists taking pictures of a projected mermaid image in one of Macao’s luxury entertainment and consumption hubs.

Tourists taking pictures of a projected mermaid image in one of Macao’s luxury entertainment and consumption hubs.

In light of this economic picture, two final things about Macao, which should come as no surprise, are worth noting.  A rising overall per capita GDP notwithstanding, the gap between the city’s haves and have nots has been growing dramatically; and despite all the official talk by Beijing of reining in corrupt practices in government and business sectors, and occasional crackdowns linked to this rhetoric, the rise of corruption in Macao shows no sign of abating.

The Year in Television: Favorite Performance

Phil: KRISTEN SCHAAL as LOUISE in BOB’S BURGERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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AHP: HAYDEN PANETTIERE as JULIETTE BARNES in NASHVILLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who would win in a fight between Bad Robot and Mutant Enemy?

THERE IS NO QUESTION that two of the dominant forces in genre television right now are J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon. Abrams’s Bad Robot company logo lies behind many of the science fiction programs currently on the air, including Revolution, Person of Interest, and Almost Human. Abrams himself is associated with the celebrated series Lost (2004-2010), which seemed single-handedly to reinvent notions of genre on television, and is involved as writer, producer, and director across science fiction more broadly, especially his role in rebooting both Star Trek and Star Wars. Whedon’s Mutant Enemy logo is less widely distributed, currently airing only Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but his name is as widely known and more enthusiastically embraced by a loyal cadre of fans who follow his work since television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). None of Whedon’s other series achieved quite the same success as Buffy, but its spin-off Angel (1991-2004) made a respectable showing and is regarded by some as a better, more adult treatment their shared theme, the monstrosity of everyday life as literalized metaphor. Whedon was able to complete his vision in media such as comic books, and fan enthusiasm for Firefly (2002-2003) played a significant part in that narrative’s completion in the feature film Serenity (2005).

In addition to creating popular and influential series and films that have shaped the genre through their many imitators, both Abrams and Whedon have pioneered new ways of relating texts to audiences across distribution platforms. Both were among the first to engage with fan communities’ responses to their narratives, and they therefore played key roles in shifting the relationship between industry and fan production toward what Henry Jenkins has described as Convergence Culture (2008). Additionally, in their work across media (from television to film to comics to digital games), both have played significant roles in the creation of transmedia storytelling. Abrams and Whedon have changed the nature of fantastic genres in the twenty-first century and contributed to significant shifts in the overall political economy of popular culture. Yet, despite their similar innovations at this level of form, their influence and legacy is distinct.

Abrams has achieved greater reach in marketing new fantastic modes, but Whedon is more widely praised by critics and fans. Abrams’s work as a producer enables him to create a space for innovative work in the genre beyond titles to which he directly contributes. In contrast, Whedon’s primary identity as a scriptwriter makes his contributions closer to the model of auteur theory in film studies, where his own distinctive voice and vision are central to his influence on the field. So, who would win in a fight between Bad Robot and Mutant Enemy?

MutantEnemyAnswering this question really depends on what we mean by win. Certainly in terms of volume, Bad Robot comes out ahead, with three series on television compared to Mutant Enemy’s one. In terms of quality, judging by the current television season alone, things seem fairly evenly matched.

Revolution is proving to be a much more interesting series this year than last, and its ability to reinvent and reshape itself in this way is distinctive of Abrams’s innovations, epitomized by the cult hit Lost that changed from a scripted version of Survivor, to political conspiracy thriller, to fantasized mythology, to science fiction time travel across its six seasons, sometimes mid-episode. A mysterious force is also at work in Revolution, just as Lost’s Island had its godlike beings, but Revolution seems less inclined to alter its mythology on the fly, and has a better rationale for it in the first place in nanotech AI, and so the strengths of this series are perhaps a reflection of an alchemical balance between Abrams’s whimsy and co-creator Eric Kripke’s steady hand. Kripke’s previous success was with Supernatural (2005) a huge fan favorite poised to be renewed for a 10th season, although its narrative has become rather strained in recent seasons. How many times can Sam and Dean turn on one another, then reconcile, go to hell, then come back? As many as the market will bear, it seems, and Kripke had the good sense to distance himself after the resolution of a planned five-year narrative arc that gave a satisfying shape to their story.

Almost Human, created by Abrams’s protégé J.H. Wyman, seems the most banal of current Bad Robot offerings, despite good performances from series regulars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy. There is nothing particularly wrong with Almost Human but there is nothing particularly right either. As I’ve covered before, its premise is not particularly innovative, and while it has a sleek new look, with Minority Report-esque digital IT interfaces, its plots are banal: cop drama treatments of the future tech whose legal and social consequences are explored in James Woods’s non-fictional Futurescapes (2013-) airing on the Science Channel. Almost Human is all cool surface with very little substance: it remains to be seen if such a vision will nonetheless achieve market success, but the numbers suggest that this series will go to a deserved early grave.

Person of Interest is funded by Bad Robot, but created by Jonathan Nolan, and so it is perhaps unfair to include it in this exercise since Nolan’s own distinctive vision, evident in his screenplays for the Dark Knight films directed by his brother Chris, shapes this series. Person of Interest is one of the best science fiction programs on television today, and if nothing else speaks to Bad Robot’s important role in ensuring talented people have the opportunity to bring their visions to the screen. Person of Interest loses a lot of points in my tally, however, for its mid-season finale that killed off its only person of color in the regular cast, Detective Carter, played by Taraji P. Henson. Although Henson insists, “it’s not like that,” in fact, it is: too many science fiction television programs have already followed this pattern, and Bad Robot is one of the offenders (i.e., Lost).

The only Mutant Enemy contender in the current lineup, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has not had the strongest showing this season, but ensemble casts and long narrative arcs, Whedon’s distinctive traits, take some time. Predictions are that, despite an uneven start, this series will be renewed, and it is in second seasons that Mutant Enemy productions shine. Unlike earlier series, this one is not substantially written by Joss Whedon, whose role as creator is closer to Abrams’s in a number of his projects. This may be to the show’s detriment, but so far seems to have meant that people blame the series’ shortcoming on his distance. The mid-season finale displayed some of the distinctive Joss Whedon charm, rehabilitating J. August Richards’s character Mike Petersen from the pilot and promising further developments in the mystery of what lies behind Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) otherwise too-easy resurrection. The series loses some points for Coulson and Agent Ward’s (Brett Dalton) banter about the puzzle that is woman, although it gains some back when May (Ming-Na Wen) later yells at Ward for presuming to take a punch for her. And Agent Ward seems more like a network-note character than a Whedon character in any case.

So my vote for most interesting mid-season finale and most promising series goes to Mutant Enemy. But the political economy of television may have more reasons to give the nod to Bad Robot. Whedon’s fights with network executives to make his series according to his vision are notorious and his work has been plagued by early cancellations. Abrams, in contrast, seems to have the golden touch when it comes to renewals. Yet, for all its acclaim and massive audience while on the air, Lost is already drifting into television history. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in contrast, remains a fan and convention favorite, current airs on Spike TV, and continues to be embraced by new generations of young viewers even though its series finale aired over a decade ago.

Thus, while Bad Robot comes out ahead in quantity, Mutant Enemy has the edge in longevity.

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Our Favorite Things

Before becoming part of the LARB’s “China Blog” team (indeed, before that publication even began), several of the people who have been writing for it were deeply involved in “The China Beat,” a digital publication based at UC Irvine that ran from 2008 to 2012 and was edited first by Kate Merkel-Hess and then by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. One thing we did this time of year at that blog was to provide China-themed holiday gift ideas (some collected here), and we’ve decided to reboot that tradition for LARB readers. What follows is a list of some of our favorite things published in 2013. Each of the four regular contributors to the “China Blog” was asked to suggest three, a dozen in total (fits in with the Twelve Days of Christmas and all). We will all, of necessity, have to leave some favorite books off our lists, due to limits of space and, at least in my case, because one of the works I consider among the best of the year, The China Story’s Yearbook 2013: Civilising China, is available for free — so, for anyone other than a truly Scrooge-like cheapskate, zapping the PDF to a friend or family member could hardly count as giving that person a “present”. Our list, as you’ll see, is an eclectic one, with suggestions that will work for those who are fans of fiction and fact-based works and, in Tong Lam’s case, those who can’t get enough of trash talk.

– Jeff Wasserstrom

Hour of the Rat 5 and 6

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham’s Three Selections (N.B. well, four really, but she’s a humanist so math isn’t her strong suit):

1. There are more than enough big books about World War II published every year, but Oxford historian Rana Mitter has written one that’s a must-read for all history buffs: Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. Mitter has produced a work that is both an epic national saga and a deeply personal account of the war’s toll on China’s competing leaders, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Wang Jingwei (branded a Japanese collaborator after the war and today condemned as a traitor in China). Thanks to his beautiful writing style, Mitter manages the difficult feat of covering the country’s eight years at war in painstaking detail, yet never overwhelming or boring the reader.

2. Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury, is perhaps the most acclaimed China book of 2013. It’s indeed an excellent read, and perfect for the gift recipient on your list who is familiar with the broad history of China since the early 19th century but wants to learn more. Schell (full disclosure: my former boss) and Delury (a LARB contributor) structure each chapter as a capsule biography of a major figure in modern Chinese history, while setting that individual against the background of larger events happening during his (or in one case, her) lifetime. Like Mitter, they’re skilled writers whose way with words proves that history doesn’t need to be boring.

3. If you’re shopping for someone who enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books and is looking for something new to read, pick up the two Ellie McEnroe mysteries by Lisa Brackmann, Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat, which are set in China. Brackmann did a Q&A with Jeff Wasserstrom for the China Blog earlier this year, and I have a short review of both books up at my own blog, so I won’t say more about them here. But the combination of a strong female protagonist, a China setting, and engrossing mystery plots results in books that I think any grown-up fan of Nancy Drew would enjoy finding in her Christmas stocking.

boxers+saints

Jeff Wasserstrom’s Three Titles (N.B. my third choice is a two-in-one book, so perhaps arithmetic isn’t my forte either):

1)      If you are looking for literary stocking stuffers, it’s hard to beat the “Very Short Introductions” that Oxford University Press publishes, including several that deal in part or completely with China. My pick for this year’s gift buyers is James Millward’s The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction, which is under $10 and offers a deeply informed survey of this storied route, paying attention to the history and legends associated with it, and nicely combining attention to the standard topics, such as the flow of people and goods along it, with a good discussion of its role in the dissemination of artistic practices. It contains, for example, a memorable section on musical flows between Asia and other parts of the world. That’s no surprise, as along with being a leading historian of East and Central Asia, Millward is an accomplished musician who is part of the bluegrass band By & By – so if you want to be really creative with your stocking stuffing and have someone on your list interested in both China and music, toss in a copy of that group’s excellent debut album, too.

2)      For anyone on your shopping list particularly concerned about the fate of Tibetans in the PRC, Tsering Woeser and Wang Lixiong’s Voices from Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage, published by Hong Kong University Press and available for Kindle, is excellent. The authors, a husband and wife team of courageous commentators based in Beijing, weigh in powerfully on topics ranging from the destruction of Lhasa landmarks to acts of self-immolation. Violet S. Law is the skillful translator responsible for the book, and leading Tibetan history scholar Robert Barnett provides a gracefully written and very informative introduction to the Tibetan context and to the two authors.

3)      Finally, for anyone on your list who likes comics and graphic novels, there’s Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a two-in-one work that readers of this blog should be familiar with, thanks to Angilee Shah’s recent Q & A with its author. All I’ll add here is that it makes for enjoyable and engaging reading for young adults and the other kind alike, and academic China specialists will find particularly striking the way that some parts of the analysis are informed by scholarly works on the Boxers, several of which, including landmark studies by historians Joseph Esherick and Paul Cohen, are listed in a bibliography of books consulted.

Junkyard

Tong Lam’s Trashy Trio (N.B. one of these is actually five albums, so I guess this is another blogger who has a creative approach to numbers):

1. What will happen to the old and unwanted stuff cast into trashcans and recycle bins to make way for new gifts this holiday season? Adam Minter’s new book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollars Trash Trade, will fill you in, offering an insightful guided tour of a globally significant but little-known aspect of our economy and environment. While the book is not just about China per se, being the world’s largest recipient and generator of garbage, China is certainly central to the planetary circulation of trash and the enormous business associated with it. For readers who are interested in contemporary China and its inherent connection to global capitalism, Minter’s book is a fascinating and informative read. For more, see the LARB review by Susan Jakes.

2. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, as artist Thomas Sauvin’s photo book, Silvermine, makes clear, with its unique visual window onto China’s contemporary history. Silvermine is actually a set of five photo albums, each containing 20 photos published by the Archive of Modern Conflict. During the past five years, Sauvin salvaged, categorized, and edited over half a million photos taken from a recycling facility on the outskirts of Beijing, where old negatives are sent so their silver nitrate content can be extracted and recycled.

The Silvermine albums capture how ordinary Chinese people documented their everyday activities between 1985 and 2005, when silver film was in widespread use. These snapshots from numerous anonymous individuals, which depict activities like buying household appliances and visiting theme parks, offer a bottom-up view of China’s profound post-socialist transformation. This pricy book has been released in a limited edition (just 200 copies in all) and will surely make an impressive gift for any China junkie.

3. No list of trash-themed books would be complete without one that offers a broader understanding of our changing urban conditions, especially the accelerating pace of urbanization in the Global South. One notable 2013 book on this topic, with a China focus, is Xuefei Ren’s Urban China. Written for a general audience, this book surveys the unprecedented urban boom of a country that now has more than 125 cities with a population greater than a million. Ren’s book is not just about Chinese cities—It is also about citizenship rights, social hierarchies, inequalities, governance, political economy, and many other related issues.

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Alec Ash’s Selections (N.B. this is actually a trio of titles, pure and simple, so we finally have someone good at math.):

1. Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West by Peter Hessler

Hessler became a must-read for China hands (and a favorite of many of the simply China interested) with his 1997 memoir from Sichuan, River Town. Over the next decade, he came out with two more books and was the New Yorker’s man in Beijing, providing us with a steady IV drip of narrative writing over one of China’s most transformative periods. Then he left us, and now he’s doing the same in Cairo. But he left behind one last hurrah — a collection of his longform stories, beginning with his first piece for the New Yorker, about eating a rat in Guangdong, and ending with a dispatch from small town Colorado. It’s perfect for dipping into.

2. The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan by Zhu Wen, translated by Julia Lovell

Mo Yan was the Chinese novelist of choice last year, after he won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. But I’ve always found him and his generation (Yu Hua, Ha Jin, Ma Jian, etc.) tiresome in that they mainly write about the countryside. For something more urban, and reminiscent of today’s China, pick up Zhu Wen. His collection I Love Dollars was a breath of fresh air — gritty, real, and relevant. This new collection of stories, also translated by Julia Lovell, is more of the same. It’s short, readable, and one of the best open sesames for contemporary Chinese literature.

3. For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu, translated by Wenguang Huang

Liao Yiwu has had quite a life, and is quite a writer. Incarcerated in the wake of the Tiananmen protests, for writing a poem called “Massacre,” he went itinerant on his release, and the oral histories that resulted from his travels were collected in The Corpse Walker. Now he returns to his years in prison, and uses them as a springboard for a stark portrait of contemporary China. It’s grim holiday reading, but in the midst of the vibrancy and forward motion of China, a reminder not to forget those who are left behind for having the courage of their convictions.

The Christmas Movie: A Hate/Need Relationship

Dear Television,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Hate:

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

Things I Love:

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

THE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS:

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

I Hate:

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

I Love:

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

THE PLOT: 

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

I Hate:

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

I Love:

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

THE RESOLUTION:

I Hate:

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

I Love:

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

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

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

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

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

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

AHP

¤

Back to the Present of the Future: Continuum and the War on Terror

By Jonathan Alexander

I’LL BEGIN WITH A DISCLAIMER: as much as I love SF, time-travel stories are my least favorite.  Granted, notable exceptions abound: H. G. Well’s Time Machine, which arguably launches the genre of SF as a whole, and Greg Benford’s Timescape are both brilliantly executed fables that use time travel to meditate on social and ecological injustices.  In the hands of many SF TV writers, however, time travel seems largely an excuse to create impenetrable plot twists, a lazy narrative device leaving viewers scratching their heads and propelled to watch the next episode for some sense of resolution.  I love the Star Trek franchises, but their time travel episodes are amongst the worst offenders in this category of sloppy story-telling.

And then there’s Continuum.  The Canadian channel Showcase first broadcast this series in May 2012, and its third season is currently in production.  And despite my bias against time travel narratives, I think Continuum might be about the best SF TV I’ve seen in the last decade.  If you’ve missed it, you need to catch up before the next season airs.

Continuum’s plot primarily revolves around a future cop, Kiera (played by Rachel Nichols), who works in 2077 for the corporate state, federal governments having been taken over and run, in a rather fascist fashion, by profit-mongering corporations.  Kiera accidentally (maybe, maybe not) gets sucked into a time vortex that a group of condemned future terrorists open up shortly before their execution for having blown up corporate headquarters and killing thousands of people.  (Think 9/11 and the attacks on the WTC.)  The terrorists want to come back to the present to change things for the better (or at least their version of the better).  Kiera and the terrorists have to insinuate themselves into present day Vancouver–Kiera as a law enforcement agent, the terrorists as various activists, moguls, and present-day terrorists.  Along the way, Kiera and the terrorists run into a young Alec Sadler (played by Erik Knudsen), who, in the future, becomes one of the prime architects of the future corporate state, as well as the person who may be trying to sabotage the corporate state he’s created.  Kiera reveals who she is to Alec, who, a computer genius, is maybe not so stunned to learn that he will become the leading figure in creating the technologies that become the complete surveillance state of 2077.  Alec and Kiera help each other, for the time being, and are assisted and antagonized by a strong cast of characters, including Kiera’s police partner Carlos (played by Victor Webster) and former terrorist and now sketchy present-day entrepreneur Matthew Kellog (Stephen Lobo).

This sketch doesn’t even begin to do Continuum justice.  The plot increases in complexity with nearly every episode, leading you to a spectacular season two cliffhanger and leaving you wondering what the master plot really is: who really knows what’s going on, who’s pulling the strings, and what’s the end game?  Continuum offers us lots of loops, and at its best it’s reminiscent of Kage Baker’s delightful Company novels, which keep you guessing about what designs the future really has on the present. In less capable hands, such stories would be a mess.  But what salvages Continuum are the risks the show is willing to take with the viewers’ sympathies and identifications with different characters.

Let me explain.  When watching the first few episodes of Continuum, I have to admit I was kind of appalled.  Vancouver, where the story is set in both the present and the future, becomes a pretty but nasty place in 2077, a place where the trains run on time—or else.  Think corporate fascism–a timely trope given that, in the US at least, corporations are essentially given the same rights as people but also have access to incredible resources to enforce their will and manipulate the legal system.  The SF extrapolation is totally believable.  While we don’t get a complex sense of how corporations rule, we see many examples of their brutal and total control, complete surveillance, and limited protection of civil liberties; desirable commodities are only accessible to the bureaucratic class that keeps the companies running and profitable. The “smoking man” (William B. Davis) from X-Files plays the elder and future Alec Sadler, who seems to be in control of everything as head of the surveillance company running the state.  That casting choice alone signals that these are the bad guys.  Kiera is one of their hired guns, and we see her in multiple episodes, flashing back and forth between the present and the future, as a brutal enforcer, hurting those who defy the corporate police state.

But it’s her viewpoint we are asked to identify with primarily, and the story is largely given to us through her eyes.  And that’s our dilemma as viewers.  She represents an icky future, and you’re invited to sympathize with her desire to protect it.  Granted, she’s tracking down terrorists, who battle that state through 9/11-style attacks.  But wait: even that is complicated, because, well, you might not agree with their tactics, but you also don’t want to defend the fascist corporate state either.  And, as the series progresses, you are given no easy answers here about whom to like, or even whom you should be identifying with.  On one hand, we watch the corporate police state being born, particularly through the use of digitally collected information to keep tabs on the lives of citizens and arrest them even for sympathies that are anti-corporate; think of the Patriot Act as it might be administered by Wall Street.  One character from the future, Escher, represents a “corporation” that fully funds the Vancouver police force to stop the terrorists by any means necessary, especially after they blow up a building in 2012.  At one point, Kiera herself resorts to torturing Julian, Alec’s estranged step-brother who is helping the future terrorists in the present.  On the other hand, however, the show spares no love for the terrorists either.  Julian is made to look like a young Osama bin Laden, and his tactics seem especially sketchy; remember that blown up building I mentioned?  To complicate matters further, we also see how the present-day “terrorists” increasingly seem to want to fight with ideas, not force, and Kiera herself starts to doubt the justness of the future corporate state she’s trying to protect in the present.

You can probably tell that the show is steadily pitching itself as a complex reading of the war on terror at a time of economic crisis—a heady but smart conflation.    Early in the second season, we see Julian, in prison, reading The White Guard, an early book by Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov.  It’s a throwaway scene, but maybe a signal nonetheless if you’re paying close attention. Bulgakov, whose most famous work is The Master and Margarita, wrote The White Guard to depict the many factions (socialist, monarchist, etc.) fighting over Kiev during the 1917 October Revolution.  Bulgakov’s own sympathies were mixed, and he became a critic of Soviet policies, especially under Stalin.  So, Julian, the revolutionary, reading Bulgakov might be a clue that the show’s “take” on the war on terror, corporate malfeasance, and the economic downturn will not be simple.  At the very least, it’s hard to know who the good guys are, and your sympathies for one might have to change over the course of time as you weigh tactics, values, and endgames.

Such steady confusion of sympathies makes for heady, engaging viewing as your identifications with different characters form—and are then challenged.  The plots within plots call to mind Fringe, that rip-off of The X-Files.  But while Fringe and X-Files were willing to play with their main characters’ foibles, neither risked identifications as strongly as Continuum, which, at its best, makes you question your loyalties to characters as a way to make you question what you really think about terrorism, as well as how far we should–and should not–go in defending an unjust economic status quo.  Tricky stuff here.  You wonder, does the repression of terrorism in the 21st century actually result in the corporate take over?  And might the terrorists have a point in organizing against the nascent corporate state?

What begin as extreme poles–fascism and terrorism–steadily become more nuanced over 23 episodes.  Ultimately, Continuum might really be about the re-education of Kiera, who seems led to question who bad the bad guys really are, and if she herself might be a bad guy.  As such, in asking you to identify with her, the show might play to our re-education as viewers, or at least prompt us to question our sympathies in the war on terror and the desirability of having corporations call so many political shots.  Early in the second season, one of the more brutal future terrorists asks Carlos, the present-day police detective, if he’s ever bothered by the injustices he sees, the ways corporations seem to manipulate the law and citizens to turn a profit.  Carlos replies, “Guess I’m just used to it.”  Travis answers: “They need your complacency.”  The exchange seems pitched not just to Carlos but to us, sitting comfortably (for now) in front of our televisions.

In figuring a war on terror and the rise of corporate interests, Continuum pulls no punches.  Given its subject matter, it shouldn’t.  This is complex stuff, deserving of complex treatment.  You should catch up before the third season airs—or before the corporate state bans such provocative viewing.

¤

Late-Breaking Iran and China News: A 1979 Flashback

Strange+Rebels
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The weekend before Thanksgiving was a big one for international headlines. The biggest breaking story, coming out of Geneva, was of a multinational team of negotiators hammering out a nuclear-arms deal with Iran.  When John Kerry announced this agreement, American commentators reached quickly for historical analogies, focusing mostly on two years in the last century. Those happy about the agreement likened it to a 1972 diplomatic breakthrough: Nixon’s famous meetings with Mao. Those displeased by it cited a 1938 disaster: Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler. Thinking about the news out of Geneva, as well as these polarized reactions to it, I was reminded of a different year: 1979.

Admittedly, that year’s been on my mind a lot throughout 2013, partly because it was a key one for Deng Xiaoping, and new President Xi Jinping has been striving to identify himself in people’s minds with that most powerful of post-Mao Communist Party leaders. I thought of 1979 back in June, for example, when Xi came to the U.S. to meet with Barack Obama in what has become known as the “Shirtsleeves Summit,” since the main photo op that came from the meeting showed the two leaders walking and talking sans coats and ties. As I noted in a commentary for the History News Network at the time, Deng’s 1979 visit to the U.S., the first by a Chinese Communist Party leader, had also included a memorable bit of sartorial symbolism: his donning of a cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo. More generally, in 1979, as he was consolidating his position as China’s paramount leader, three things Deng did was call for a pragmatic approach to development, push for social and economic reforms, and crack down on domestic critics (in that case, those involved in the Democracy Wall Movement).  Xi has done these same three things.

There is, though, a quite specific reason that 1979 came to my mind when the news about the Iran deal broke and analogies to both Nixon meeting Mao and Chamberlain giving in to Hitler began to fly: that year began with a January 1 joint declaration by Beijing and Washington proclaiming a full “normalization” of relations between China and the United States.  Some Americans hailed this 1979 agreement as an important step toward fostering world peace, but others denounced it as a case of a liberal President doing a dangerous disservice to a valued ally.  Complaints from some quarters then that Jimmy Carter had sold out Taiwan parallel closely some that are being heard now from those convinced Obama has done wrong by Israel.

The analogy is not perfect, which is only to be expected—nothing that happens in one century is going to be exactly like something done in the previous one. The Iran deal involves several countries, for example, whereas the 1979 agreement was between just two nations. And Obama’s policy on Iran has broken from that of his Republican predecessor, while Carter’s engagement with China carried forward things that Nixon and Ford had done.

Still, the more I think about the 1979 parallel, the more I’m convinced it is a good one, and a better China-related one than 1972.  One reason it seems more useful to look back to the late 1970s than the early 1970s is that when Nixon went to China, he met with a Chinese leader who had been in power for a long time, so the main question about Mao was how much he had changed.  Seven years later, by contrast, when the normalization of relations was announced and then Deng came to America, a lot of foreign talk about China focused, as much on Iran does now, on how novel a course a new leader vowing to move in reformist directions would take his country.

1979 analogies seem stronger still if we look at a second international news story that broke right before Thanksgiving: China’s declaration of plans to start monitoring the airspace above and around the islands known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese. These specks of land, located near undersea oil reserves, are claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo but have been effectively under Japanese control in recent years.  Due to America’s long-term security alliance with Japan, as well as the White House’s commitment to maintaining the status quo where island disputes like this one are concerned, Kerry ended up having a very busy weekend indeed. He needed to follow up his upbeat statement on Iran with a downbeat one on Beijing’s proclamation of a new Air Defense Identification Zone that included the islands, criticizing it as a provocative and inappropriate move.  Kerry made these two statements so close together that separate articles on each appeared in the front sections of the same editions of some newspapers.

This simultaneous 2013 reporting of developments suggesting that relations between Washington and Tehran are moving in a positive direction, while tensions between Washington and Beijing rising represents an eerie inversion of the 1979 situation. This is because that year, which began with Beijing and Washington normalizing ties and Deng making a successful state visit to the United States, also witnessed the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power and denouncing America, and the start of the hostage crisis.

Again, the analogy is not perfect, especially since, thankfully, it is likely that we are seeing just a minor souring of relations between Beijing and Washington right now, not the start of any kind of full-blown crisis.  Still, it is relatively rare that stories concerning China and Iran jockey for the attention of the American public at the same moment, and one of the few times this has happened before was back in 1979.  A valuable visual reminder of the temporal overlap of China and Iran stories almost three-and-a-half decades ago is provided by the February 12, 1979, cover of TIME.  The main headline read “Iran: Now the Power Play,” and the image accompanying it and taking up most of the cover featured a stern looking Khomeini, shown in color, breaking through a giant black-and-white portrait of his own face, symbolizing that he was now a formidable man on the spot, as opposed to a figure in exile who provided a rallying point for opponents of the Shah.  Up in the right-hand corner of the cover, though, was a very different smaller headline and smaller image: it referred to Deng’s “triumphant tour” and showed two faces, that of the Chinese leader and that of Carter.

A final 1979 and 2013 note is in order, which has to do with the book whose cover is shown at the top of this post.  Early this year, my friend Christina Larson, who used to be an editor at Foreign Policy and is now China correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, told me that, given my interest in placing China in comparative perspective and connecting the past to the present, I should be sure to get hold of a forthcoming book by Foreign Policy contributing editor Christian Caryl.  Valuing Christina’s judgment, when Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the Twenty-First Century came out, I made a point of getting a copy.  Reading it, I was duly impressed.  And even though I’m unwilling to give up on the notion that 1989, with the Tiananmen protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as many other major events, was an even more consequential year than 1979, at moments like this it is well worth remembering just how dramatic that often overlooked earlier decade-closing twelve-month period was.

-- LW --