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almost human

Robot Revolutions: “Almost Human”

THE LAST OF THIS YEAR’S new science fiction programs, Fox’s Almost Human, debuted this week, a co-creation of J.H. Wyman and J.J. Abrams, who seems to have his hand in most things science fictional these days. Wyman and Abrams first teamed up for Fringe, a reinvention of The X-Files with less government conspiracy theory and more of Abrams’s distinctive Lost sensibility. Billed as the next stage of police television, Almost Human is much less innovative than it claims, reworking the well-known terrain of the cross-ethnic cop-buddy formula common in the 1980s. Graham Baker’s film Alien Nation (1988), written by Rockne S. O’Bannon and adapted to a short-lived television drama, extended this formula into science fiction by pairing its human detective Sykes with an alien “newcomer” partner in stories that directly confronted issues of racial prejudice long before Neill Blomkamp used the same conflation of aliens and racial “other” in his District 9 to similar ends. In the cross-cultural, cop-buddy drama, the “neutral” white partner’s stereotypical attitudes toward the racial other are gradually eroding so that friendship and new understanding can emerge. The police drama In the Heat of the Night, adapted to television in the 1980s along with the television Alien Nation, paired white and African American cops policing rural and overtly racist Sparta, Mississippi, and gives a sense of what is at stake in such dramas. And long before Alien Nation used the cop-buddy formula to explore issues of racial difference, ABC’s Future Cop (1976-78) explored the idea of contrast between theory and practice in its fraught relationship between veteran cop Joe Cleaver, played by Ernest Borgnine, and his letter of the law robot partner Haven, played by Michael Shannon, now well-known for his work on Boardwalk Empire, whose most recent SF appearance was a General Zod in Man of Steel.

While Alien Nation paired its crusty human cop with an alien, Almost Human pairs hard-boiled John Kennex, played by Karl Urban who plays McCoy in Abrams’s new Star Trek, with an android partner played by Michael Ealy. This, too, is hardly uncharted territory. In the 1950s Isaac Asimov’s detective Elijah Baley worked with robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw in Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, works that have been adapted to screen a number of times. The Asimov film adaptation I, Robot, (2004), directed by Alex Proyas, draws on this formula in its pairing of Will Smith’s detective Del Spooner with the robot Sonny, including the ubiquitous need for Spooner to overcome his irrational suspicious of all robot others. Mann & Machine (1992) tested the limits of this formula to interrogate gender difference when it paired its Detective Mann with a sexy robot partner Eve Edison, played by Yancy Butler, who went on to star as another sexy, supernatural detective in the live-action, comic book adaptation Witchblade (2001-2002). But it is the Canadian television series Total Recall 2070 (1999), taking its atmosphere from Blade Runner although its title from another Philip K. Dick work adapted to screen, that comes closet to the look and feel of Almost Human. Its detective David Hume (Michael Easton) is paired with android partner Ian Farve (Karl Pruner), in a cyberpunk-style future in which the corporate Consortium dominates. Like Almost Human, Total Recall 2070 investigates crimes linked to illegal research and abuses of technologies related to genomics and memory. RocoCop, returning to big screens in 2014, is another antecedent here, which its vision of the formally human Alex Murphy and its plot about a dystopian Detroit destroyed not by rising crime but by the privatization of the police service in the interests of the evil OCP, Omni Consumer Products. Once a character in a satirical film about an exaggerated dystopian future, RoboCop has now become a mascot of sorts for a contemporary Detroit economically abandoned by the rest of the country, a dark city of the science fictionalization of everyday life captured in the documentary Detropia (Ewing and Grady 2012).

Yet just because Almost Human is not original does not mean that it cannot do interesting things with its established formula. Unlike Future Cop, for example, which continually emphasized the necessity of Cleaver’s ability to respond to situations contextually and intuitively over Haven’s overly rigid use of abstract laws, Almost Human in many ways presents Dorian as more human than Kennex. Kennex is the quintessential isolated and cynical outsider cop, well known from police procedurals such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, and as such doesn’t know how to play well with others. Kennex is also haunted, as such characters always are, by a past in which his human partner was killed, an incident in which he lost a leg and then spent two years in a coma, further emphasizing his isolation from the rest of the world which went on without him. As the series begins, Kennex blames androids for his partner’s death in the familiar formula of rule-based values vs. human values: the android refused to help evacuate the mortally wounded man, explaining that he needed to focus on aiding those “with a better statistical chance of surviving.” Yet as the rather clichéd melodrama over the first two episodes reveals, Kennex is projecting into blame his own guilt for leading the men into what proved to be an ambush; worse, as he discovers using an illegal technology to accessed his memories of that day, they were betrayed by his girlfriend who disappeared after the event.

Almost Human might be a really good series. Our comfort with robots interacting with us as ubiquitous parts of our daily life has increased since the 1970s Future Cop, which articulate then-contemporary fears about humans being replaced with automation. In the neoliberal era of precarious labor we have perhaps become all-too-comfortable with the idea of humans being replaced by machines, evident in our interactions in automated call-center help-lines, our companionship with Siri, and all the other ways in which we perform for ourselves, with machines, tasked once performed by humans, from bagging our own groceries to refilling our prescriptions online. Wyman has said that Ray Kurzweil’s rapture of the nerds articulated in The Singularity is Near is an influence on the show, and so if nothing else Almost Human marks a significant shift from its predecessors in the greater sympathy we have for Dorian: unlike other cross-cultural buddy shows, our identification is immediately with Dorian rather than gradually won alongside the winning over the human partner. Kennex, too, is  won over pretty easily and, contra theories of the uncanny which suggest that we find most disturbing artificial beings that are almost but not quite human, preferring a clear distinction of the evidently artificial and evidently human, Dorian is all the more sympathetic when contrasted with the inhuman coldness of the more recent android models who do not have this “flaw” of programmed emotion and empathy.

The most promising innovation of this series is that it is really Kennex rather than Dorian who is almost human: he has a synthetic leg to replace one lost in the explosion that killed his human partner, and he struggles, as his fitness-for-duty evaluation states, with “psychological rejection” of this synthetic body part. He is also fusing with machines in his memory-recall experiments, and his obsession with vengeance for the attack that killed his partner makes him considerably more rule-bound and rigid than Dorian. Yet Almost Human fails to explore the metaphor of ethnic and other prejudice rooted in this formula, as did the earlier Alien Nation and even Mann & Machine. Dorian objects several times to the term ‘synthetic,’ which Kennex clearly uses as a slur, but thus far the plots of the episodes, particularly the second one about slaughter woman women to create better quality skin for synthetic sexbots, emphasize and reinforce the difference between humans (who count) and androids (who don’t). The episode narratives are thus in tension with the thrust of the series premise, positioning Dorian as the “exceptional minority” except from a prejudice that is otherwise warranted against others of his kind, making the politics of Almost Human potentially more regressive than those of the 1970s Future Cop.

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Trust Fumes: Staying With Homeland

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL SORTS OF STUFF…

Dear Television,

THIS WEEK, AHP and I will be talking about the virtues and drawbacks of sticking with series that go off the rails. Loosely, I’ll be advocating the position of The Stayer, while AHP will advocate that of The Ditcher tomorrow. But first, a memory:

I will always remember the night that I saw M. Night Shymalan’s The Village at the Hampshire Mall Cinemark. If you haven’t seen this film, it tells the tale of a small, self-governing, utopian community in Olden Times that exists in a kind of negotiated peace with some cloaked monsters who roam the woods at the edges of their town. There’s a virtuous young blind girl (Bryce Dallas Howard), a nefarious mentally-disabled man (Adrien Brody, apparently unaware that he was playing a radically offensive caricature), a puritanical/warm-hearted leader (William Hurt), and Joaquin Phoenix. When a crisis occurs, they have to come to grips, not only with the beasties that stalk in their forests, but with the world outside of their commune.

It’s horrible. The dialogue is preposterously stilted — florid, unrealistic 19th-centuryisms abound, with nary a contraction to be heard. The rituals of the village are goofy. The whole movie is thinly characterized, untextured historical fiction. It all feels like the 19th century made up by a delusional egomaniac. But that’s the trick. The big Shymalan whammy at the end reveals that the reason everyone speaks in stilted, affected old-timey speak is that the film is not set in Olden Times. The village in The Village feels like the 19th century made up by a delusional egomaniac because that’s, within the narrative of the film, what it is. The town exists in a huge, walled-in nature preserve in the present day, and the town’s elders — for some nonsense reason about urban crime in Philadelphia — have raised their innocent children in a giant Live-Action Role-Play environment. And so the weird hiccups that give the film all the credibility of a half-baked Renaissance Faire are actually a part of the texture of the film’s reality. The movie, in other words, is terrible on purpose.

And I loved it. I had to wake my friend up to explain — she was less thrilled — but I walked out of that theater feeling the perverse, perhaps masochistic, thrill that I’d been taken for a ride. The intentionality of that film’s hackishness was exhilarating to me. This director had dared to sacrifice his film to its final, shocking plot contrivance. I’ll not be putting The Village in any top ten lists or stumping for its aesthetic, but, as a pure movie-going experience, it was a rare pleasure. M. Night Shyamalan had made a silly decision, but he was in control of it, and that confidence translated right into my seat.

For the past month, Alex Gansa — the showrunner of Showtime’s Homeland — has been making this argument about his own series. The first four episodes of the third season of Homeland — which premiered at the end of September — were monstrously frustrating. Last year’s second season saw the show focusing attention on bizarre subplots and gobbledygook incidents — Dana Brody’s brush with vehicular homicide, Brody’s stealth Skyping with Abu Nazir, Brody’s slapstick murder of a Gettysburg tailor — rather than playing to the strengths that had made it beloved appointment television. But with the promise of Brody’s departure at the end and a return to the business of the CIA, viewers like me came to season three imagining the new possibilities of a clean slate.

What we got instead was four episodes worth of laser-like focus on Carrie’s mental illness and Dana Brody’s infatuation with another reedy, murderous teen psychopath. (Does Dana not have any girlfriends to warn her about these skeevy dudes?) It was hard to bear, and, by the time that the third episode revealed Brody holed up in a Caracas slum being seduced into heroin addiction by a Disney villain, I was ready to turn in my gun and badge. How was it possible that this show could have so little sense of what it was good at? How could it have so little understanding of what made audiences watch it in the first place? Where were the tense interrogations of “Q & A,” the emotional manipulations of “The Weekend,” the fleet-footed fieldwork and high stakes of “The Smile” or “The Vest,” the shocking violence of “A Gettysburg Address”? What the hell is this?

At the end of the fourth episode, we got our answer. Carrie, in collusion with Saul, apparently, had been working deep cover in order to get close to the heavy who ordered the bombing that ended the previous season. All of it, the first four episodes, the breakdowns, the hospitalizations, all that horrible annoying detritus — it was all an act. We had to sit through it because Carrie had to sit through it. We had to endure it because it needed to be endured for a greater purpose. We had to grow to hate Homeland so that Homeland could earn our love.

Needless to say, I loved it. Like M. Night Shyamalan, Alex Gansa had put me, as a viewer, through an intolerably long stretch of stupid television in order to smack me over the head four episodes in. The willingness to intentionally tank four episodes doubled as an acknowledgment that somebody up there knows what really works on Homeland. And Gansa, bless his heart, minutes after the big twist, called out to anyone who would listen that yes this was all on purpose. He told Entertainment Weekly, for example,

I was an amateur magician when I was in my early teens and my favorite magic tricks were always the ones where the magician makes the audience think he’s made a mistake. Then at the end of the trick you realize the magician has been ahead of you all the time. I hope we came close to that.

Gansa repeated this rationale multiple times in reference to the episode — “Game On” — but not everybody was ready to celebrate with me. A lot of critics felt, rightly, bamboozled, or that the pieces just didn’t add up to the intentional prestidigitation Gansa was claiming. What might have played out as a paradigm shift reminiscent of Lost’s famous flash-forwards ended up landing as smug betrayal — the key difference being that Lost tricked its viewers but never stopped entertaining them. A lot of viewers, however, were just relieved. Totally aside from my cinematic masochism, my feelings about the turn of events were aptly summarized by the subtitle of Willa Paskin’s Slate recap: “I’m so happy, I don’t even care that it’s ludicrous.”

But this is what we do when we love a show: we trust it, even when it doesn’t deserve our trust. Oftentimes this trust is anthropomorphized as The Showrunner. This is, to some extent, I think, at the root of this contemporary mythos. We trust the shows we love because that’s what it takes to tune in week-to-week, and, especially with the visibility of auteurs like David Chase and active social media presences like Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it’s become easy to attribute that trust to a person. We don’t trust that The Sopranos will end well; we trust that David Chase will end it well, and we hold him personally responsible if it doesn’t. And we do this because to commit to a serial drama like this is to forge a real, if marginal, emotional connection to something. On vastly different scales, we trust our mail to be delivered, we trust our friends to come over and snark at Homeland with us, and, after investing hours of time and — for a premium cable show — a significant amount of money, we trust our television shows to know themselves.

From the original sin of letting Brody live past the first season, however, Homeland has been running on trust fumes. After its tremendous first season, the show has been occasionally brilliant — see, for example, the list of episodes above from the first and second seasons — but it has shown itself to be ruinously susceptible to bad ideas or, more accurately, outlandish maneuvers in service of ordinary goals. The Dana/Finn murder plot, for instance, ended up being an elaborate set-up to, um, humanize Finn, or show Dana the meaning of death and responsibility or something? Homeland loves making grand gestures — the car wreck, the VP’s heart attack — that seem, in the moment, to be major events. The show then revels in revealing that those events were only preludes or previews of coming atrocities. Homeland, in other words, loves running the long con, but they’re not always very good at it. And this insistence on setting-the-table with such bridge-burning flourish often comes at the expense of week-to-week interest or even coherence. And, more disappointingly, it forces us to try to care about characters, events, and situations that are ultimately insignificant or tertiary points en route to something else.

And poor Dana Brody is often the prime mover in these distractions. This wayward teen has long been a poster-child for everything that’s wrong with the series. I, however, have always held out hope for her storylines. This isn’t to say I’ve really enjoyed any of them so much as I’ve believed in the possibility of Dana as a character and thus understood why Gansa and company have been so fixated on making her a feature of the series. A credible version of this show might have dispatched Nicholas Brody at the end of season one or midway through season two in order to re-situate focus on Dana and Carrie as twin protagonists. The show might then seamlessly transform from a taut thriller into the emotionally resonant study of trauma, of inheritance, of longing that was always at its heart anyway. Making Homeland about the ordinary lives of Dana and Carrie in Brody’s wake — going to school, going to work — could have made for a great, humane narrative trick and could have made good on the promise of the show’s title. What’s been so disappointing about this season so far is that, to some extent, this is exactly what it’s doing and it sucks. Pairing Dana with yet another loose cannon boyfriend and sending her on a Bonnie and Clyde ’13 road trip made every note ring false, and sending Carrie down a fake rabbit hole didn’t do any better. Homeland can set the table, but it’s been about a season and a half since they served anything even remotely appetizing.

And this problem is extraordinarily clear when it comes to Carrie this season. “Game On” was an exciting turnaround only if it set us up to get back to business. We should want to see Dana fall in love and deal with her terroristic inheritance; we don’t want to see Dana fall in love with a Law and Order case-of-the-week defendant. Likewise we just want to see Carrie do her job. And the hard-earned reward of that magic trick at the beginning of the season was the suggestion that that’s what we’ve been watching all along. Over the past few weeks, a lot of critics have ventured suggestions as to how to “fix” Homeland, and, invariably, all of these suggestions circle around the desire to put Carrie and Saul and Quinn back in the field, doing what they do. As a viewer, I so want to see these characters pulling off clandestine operations that I’ll accept any trick so long as Carrie-Gets-to-Do-Her-Job is the rabbit Gansa pulls out of his hat.

So, to reiterate, in theory, I am pleased as punch that this show decided to snooker us. Being fooled by a series is not the same as being let down by it. And, in the days after it happened, I was filled with the hope that one day, at the end of a riveting season, we might look back and think, “Remember how much we hated the beginning of Homeland season three? Boy was that worth it!” But, alas, it seems like it was not to be. The episodes since “Game On,” have been, to my mind, fairly gripping, admirably old-school jaunts. Javadi’s murder of his wife and daughter-in-law had some of that bracing violence we remember from early season two, Carrie and Saul’s consecutive interrogations had a little bit of that old two-people-in-a-room tradecraft magic, and, despite still dealing with some rather clunky guilt after accidentally killing a kid in the first episode, the show let Quinn have at least one bad-ass move this week when he precision-capped Carrie to save a mission.

But then there’s the pregnancy. In the episode following “Game On,” it’s revealed that Carrie is not only pregnant, but apparently unhappily so — based on the entire drawer in her bathroom vanity filled with urine-soaked, presumably stinky, used pregnancy tests. Too much, too soon, Gansa. I’m all in favor of tricks, but they’re still a tricky business. Coming off of a fake-out like that, a show needs to either drop the mic or hit the ground running. Liberating that character from the confines of the mental institution only to stick her with this seems like, at best, overkill, and at worst, a misapprehension of what’s compelling about this show. Deepening Carrie by giving her this baby underestimates how much we can and have learned about her by watching her work, and creating this manifestation of her relationship with Brody ties him like a millstone around her neck at exactly the moment we should be letting him go. None of the questions it introduces are compelling, and all of the things it resurrects should stay dead.

Some critics have suggested this pregnancy plot is a symptom of aimless writing. Gansa again defends the show against this charge:

To hear that we’re wandering in the woods is just hysterical to us. This is the season we’ve been really conscious and diligent about plotting every little piece carefully. One of those pieces is Carrie’s pregnancy and it becomes very important in this last sweep of episodes.

I don’t doubt that this was planned. Gansa and his team have not lost my confidence that they’re telling the story they want to tell. And I’m sure Carrie’s pregnancy does have a role to play in the last movement of this series. But the same could have been — and was — said about Dana’s car crash, about any number of other silly diversions. With Lost, the question was always, “Will it add up?” When the answer turned out to be no, it felt like a betrayal. I’ve never doubted that Homeland will add up — I do love watching it try — but, at this point, I just don’t know if I’ll care.

Cryface,

Phil.

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Dracula-poster-

Steampunk Dracula

SCIENCE FICTION television this season continues to work through the anxieties of our contemporary moment in coded ways, from Revolution’s staging of another civil war in the battle between the “patriots” and the United States (although, confusingly, these patriots are those opposed to the ethos enacted by the Patriot Act); to Arrow’s defense of the 99% against the 1% (that, sadly, as I anticipated, has villainized the Latino mayoral candidate and seems to be becoming an apologia for the rich who apparently really do have the best interests for all in mind); to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s internal battle as it tries to reconcile its countercultural sensibilities with its series premise as agents of a secret, military government agency (the most tiresome of these literalized metaphors, with yet another story of on-again, off-again Skye loyalty); and finally to Sleepy Hollow’s reinvention of the Revolutionary War as Armageddon. Yet the most interesting sf television recently was the debut of the new NBC Dracula series – that reinvents Dracula as a science-fictional, steampunk hero, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, famed for his portrayal of Henry VIII on The Tudors (2007-2010). Finally we have a television series that takes vampires out of high school and puts them back in the 19th century, where they belong.

Steampunk, for those not in the know, is a science fiction subgenre and emergent DIY culture based on a reinvented version of the Victorian era. Steampunk is so-named because its earliest iteration in the early 1990s grew out of then-dominant cyberpunk fiction. Cyberpunk was a dark, noirish subgenre exploring emergent IT culture set in a dystopian future of massive urbanization, corporate rule, and the disposal and fragile human bodies. Steampunk lightened this dismal view with some Victorian technological optimism, and in one of its earliest examples, The Difference Engine (1980), written by cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, imagined an alternative Victorian era in which Charles Babbage succeeded in developing a functional computer, the analytical engine in contemporary parlance. Thematically steampunk focuses on reimagining the past so that it results in a different future, and it steers a careful path between the dystopian nihilism of cyberpunk’s vision of technology displacing humans and an equally dire anti-technological determinism that sees such oppression as the inevitable outcome of technological change. Aesthetically, steampunk has developed as a DIY culture of costumes and object making, its fan conventions serving as a site to admire the innovations of computers whose functioning is made visible in ornate brass fixtures or the costumes that evoke a romanticized version of 19th century attention to detail and ostentatious display. Steampunk celebrates the lush beauty of Victorian-era design, and attendees appear in the dress of imperialists with all the attendant pomp and excess. While not overtly racist, steampunk culture for the most part ignores the destructive colonialist activity of the Britain it invokes, although it also can serve as an imaginative resource for colonized nations to equally imagine their histories otherwise via different technological development, and to assert a critical perspective on the Western narrative of “progress.”

Which brings us to the reinvented steampunk Dracula. Bram Stoker’s original novel, published in 1897, was deeply immersed in contemporary Victorian anxieties about the threat of the exotic others from the vast empire coming home to the imperial center of London. Dracula infiltrates the highest echelons of London society and embodies the threat of miscegenation in the contagion he can spread through his blood and in the sexual power he holds over supposedly chaste women who “belong” to his male antagonists. Imperial expansion is both power and vulnerability for Stoker’s Britain – recall that it is a real estate transaction that lures Jonathan Harker away from his fiancée Mina and into the dark Carpathian Mountains that are Dracula’s home. In Stoker’s novel, upper-class men banding together are able to expel the foreign threat, destroy the contaminated women, and purify Mina of her tainted sexual bond to Dracula, restoring her to proper wifely virtue and motherhood. NBC’s new series resituates this tale in an intriguing steampunk fashion: Dracula is now the good guy, teamed up (albeit secretly) with Van Helsing, and he plans to defeat the evil, imperialist Order of the Dragon (represented by the wealthy upper-class of London) by undermining their economic base in oil with his new electrical power source rooted in geomagnetic technology. In this series, far from banding together in class solidarity to repeal foreigners, the white men of the Order of the Dragon actually created Dracula by punishing Vlad Tepes for disobedience with a cure for immorality, potentially a metaphor for the “chickens” of colonialist exploitation coming home to roost. Thus NBC brings us a steampunk Dracula for the 21st century, a reorienting of steampunk’s technological fascination away from computers and toward technologies of energy – key to the looming end of industrial life-as-we-know-it.

The Order of the Dragon is some combination of corrupt, rich industrialists and religious fanatics along the lines of the Inquisition. Both Dracula, as Vlad the Impaler, and Van Helsing have lost wives who were burned at the stake by the Order: in Dracula’s case, his wife Illona is a doppelganger for Mina Murray (Jessica de Gouw), which also introduces a love triangle that might prove tedious as the season continues, but which is intriguingly complicated by the addition of Lucy Westenra’s (Katie McGrath) attraction to Mina as well. Renfield is no longer a hapless insane asylum inmate victimized by Dracula as in the novel, but now a trusted employee and confidant, played by Nonso Anozie who is thus far the only person of color in the main cast. Dracula infiltrates London society disguised as an American industrialist, Alexander Grayson, which enables the series to comment not only on shifts from IT to oil technologies, but also from British to American empires as the site of anxiety over the past 100 years. Whether this vision of a predatory British empire now long passed will be used to exonerate a contemporary American economic empire as the series continues remains to be seen. These dual identities also allow Rhys Meyers to switch between his British accent, perfected as Henry VIII, and the American one we saw on display in his feature film From Paris with Love (2010), demonstrating his charms in both registers to full effect. Denouncing the Order of the Dragon to Renfield, he castigates them as recognizable by their “overtly grotesque sense of entitlement” and announces that they have moved on from inquisitions and public burnings to “business via private clubs and boardrooms.” The Order’s obsession with oil and politics, he proclaims, emerges from a belief that “it will fuel the next century, and if they control it they will control the future.” By subverting the economy to another power source, he believes he can defeat them.

Dracula is thus positioned to use steampunk’s techniques of critically reinventing history to comment on the last century of industrialization via oil, on our looming ecological and energy crisis, and even perhaps on the class exclusions of both the Victorian era and our own, suggested by Dracula’s rant against entitlement. The series promises a rebooted 21st century built on something other than oil and imperialism, an intriguing thought experiment. And of course it also brings all the hypnotic and sexual appeal of the vampire genre, but without the sanitized blood-bag drinking teen vampires that have recently dominated the vampire tale. Rhys Meyer’s Dracula may be fighting the good fight against imperialists, but he also uses his considerable charisma both to manipulate as Grayson and to lure other female prey – whose blood he drinks directly from the neck, as all real vampires should. This Dracula embodies all the sinister yet sexy menace of the bad boy, captured perfectly in a long shot of his brooding face as he stares down someone who threatens Mina in an absinthe bar. Coming across the two of them later conversing on the terrace, Lucy aptly sums up their sexual chemistry in her snide quip, “Heathcliff and Cathy on the moors.” The show even has a feminist edge, with Mina reinvented as a med school student whose engagement to Jonathan is derailed when he expresses the view that she should give up career for “more natural pursuits” as his wife. Dracula, who has supported Mina’s ambitions from afar, confronts Jonathan about his hypocrisy in wanting to rise above his given social status himself while denying Mina the same opportunities to defy gender roles, and the two are reconciled, although the bad-boy Dracula remains better equipped to deal with a strong female partner than the good-boy Jonathan – a pattern repeated in a number of supernatural romances from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Vampire Diaries.

The series is beautifully Gothic in atmospheric scenes of fog-obscured London streets and mysterious caped figures, and features enough balls and other upper-crust events to satisfy all the costume fetishes expressed in steampunk culture. Between its politics and its polish, Dracula is the most intriguing new series thus far this year.

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GoodWife

The Fastest Show on TV: On The Good Wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsbeth Tascioni out!

Phil.

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Snake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AHP

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Loofbourow_DTV_Masters_MG_Orig

Sex and the Slightly Unreliable Narrator

Dear TV,

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

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

Except he wasn’t! Libby got pregnant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely (OR NOT),

Lili

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AHS

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

Dear Television,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in liminality,

ahp

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Identity

Men Behaving Badly: White Masculinity in Science Fiction Television

TELEVISION IS A PLACE where we work through our cultural anxieties and project idealized versions of our selves. Even if no one really believed that Father Knows Best, it was comforting to imagine a benevolent patriarchal authority. As male series leads became more complex, viewers nonetheless inevitably sympathized with protagonists, seeing the good heart beneath the gruff surface of characters like All in the Family’s Archie Bunker. The recent era of “quality tv” has tested the limits of our belief in righteous masculine authority, compelling us to identify with compromised figures such as Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White. Such male anti-heroes are championed despite acts of violence and morally compromised decisions, it seems, because they espouse a love of family that they claim as their only motivation. Recent (semi)-ironic performances of grief over the death of Walter White, for example, suggest how much we still want to believe that father really does know best, even though Vince Gilligan did all anyone could do to show us how Walt destroyed rather than protected his family, and did so solely to feed his own ego. So why do we continue to love male protagonists no matter what they do?

None of the heroes of current sf television could properly be described as anti-heroes in this mode, but male protagonists dominate even in ensemble shows. Agent Coulson is definitely “the dad” for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and this week he really did know best in trusting that one of his wayward children/agents didn’t go rogue as everyone else believed. It remains to be seen how much this series will continue to privilege traditional masculine agency, but I’m encouraged by the ongoing hints of an arc about a sinister side to Coulson’s return from the dead, and also by the fact that they avoided criminalizing their one African American character, guest star, Pascale Armand as a former agent Akela Amador. All the same, I’d like to see greater casting diversity on the show for characters who get to stick around – instead of be sent to institutions at the end of the episode, a fate Amador shares with J. August Richards’s Mike Peterson from the pilot episode. (As an aside, it was nice to see that the episode was directed by Roxann Dawson, known to sf fans as B’Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager).  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is ambivalent about membership in a military organization, a discomfort that seems to be expressed largely through humor at the expense of Agent Ward, the most conventional character. I hope we’ll see the return of more of Whedon’s anti-establishment sensibilities as the series progresses, perhaps even a rejection of the patriarchal and hierarchal values of S.H.I.E.L.D, along the lines of Buffy’s reversal of the hierarchy between herself and the Watcher’s Council in season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Arrow explores a similar discomfort with the premises of its character, inherited from the comic book, expressed in tension about the gap between Oliver’s identity as a rich CEO and his role defending the poor as the vigilante. The series is promising in its focus on economic crimes and this season’s emphasis on The Glades, the impoverished neighborhood destroyed at the end of last season. This week Oliver faces off against Sebastian Blood, played by Kevin Alejandro of Southland fame: Blood is an Alderman speaking, he says, for the 99% who are forgotten by the city’s powerful, for the former residents of The Glades now without homes or workplaces. He challenges Oliver, in the guise of billionaire CEO of Queen Industries, to do more than pay lip service to the problems of the poor, and Blood capitalizes on Oliver’s absence from a charity event. Yet viewers know that Oliver fails to attend not because he doesn’t really care about the poor, as Blood claims, but because he is stopping criminals China White and Bronze Tiger from hijacking a FEMA truck of narcotics on its way to the hospital serving The Glades population. Arrow thus worries me in its representation of heroic white masculinity: like the fan reading of anti-heroes such as Walter White, Oliver is merely “misunderstood.” In his role as CEO, which he tellingly refers to as his “secret identity” while his crime-fighting alter-ego is his “real” one, Queen appears indifferent to those hurt by his family, but viewers know he really fights on the side of the poor. Yet, although the poor of The Glades feature frequently in Arrow as symbol, the only character from this socio-economic group to get any screen time is white Roy Harper, who it seems will give up his own vigilante activities.

Oliver in his role as masked hero, then, remains the only voice of the disenfranchised, unjustly criticized by the Latino Blood (who, I suspect, will be revealed to have a selfish agenda in later episodes, if the character returns), and fighting against further exploitation of the poor by Asian China White, played by Kelly Hu, and African American Bronze Tiger, played by Michael Jai White. The series seems to acknowledge the problems of its focus on heroic white masculinity in an argument between Oliver and his crime-fighting companions, computer-expert Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Richards) and former bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey). Oliver insists that they all need new “secret identities” as part of Queen Industries to facilitate their real work as crime fighters. Felicity vociferously objects to her demotion from the IT department to Oliver’s personal secretary, but he demurs that he has many reasons as CEO to speak to his secretary but not enough pretexts to consult IT. John merely wryly observes that he, too, has a less-than-heroic “secret” identity as Oliver’s “black driver.” Arrow thus recognizes the pitfalls of a show organized around a white, male, affluent lead speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised, but doesn’t know how to solve this problem. The fact that the other “secret identities” are defined in response to Oliver’s dominant one as CEO embodies the hierarchies they see but do not transcend.

Revolution is more promising in its gender politics because both Rachel and Charlie remain as central to the plot as male leads Miles and Aaron, and it was particularly encouraging this week that Rachel saves herself rather than requires rescue by Miles (and even more, last week she saved him, albeit with help). I’m all-the-more impressed by these strong female characters given the notoriety of creator Eric Kripke’s previous series, Supernatural, famed for killing its female characters at an unprecedented rate. Indeed, Supernatural’s misogyny is so blatant that actor Misha Collins, who plays recurring character Castiel, has criticized it.  Revolution refrains from calling women bitches as frequently and so far the body count has been fairly gender balanced. One of this season’s ongoing story arcs, however, involves the redemption of last year’s main antagonist, Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons), who is poised to take on the beloved anti-hero mantle with his talk of family. Monroe rescues Charlie from that ever-potent patriarchal threat of rape in the most recent episode – she does get her own shots in, and needs help only because she is drugged, but still – and thus the show’s gender politics remain uncertain. And while its casting is not quite as concerning as Arrow’s, it still loses points for killing off the sheriff played by Native actor Adam Beach without even trying to develop the role.

Perhaps the most intriguing show to think about in this framework is Sleepy Hollow. It is a show I continue to enjoy but also the one whose conservative reinvention of American imperialism as innocent – more, as on the side of God – is deeply troubling. The conclusion I’ve reached is that the series’ appeal has everything to do with the charisma of Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane, whose charming British accent is especially charming in this week’s episode, about the lost Roanoke colony, which requires him to speak Middle English. Mison’s Crane is a skilled fighter, keen analyst, and powerful orator. In short, he is nothing at all like Washington Irving’s Crane, who was a timid schoolteacher, excessively concerned with superstition, who longed for but never got the girl. Crane was already reinvented as a more heroic figure in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), where he was played by Johnny Depp, although that Crane remains in the 18th century. Television’s reinvention of Crane from mild-mannered victim to dashing hero whose personal appeal makes Sleepy Hollow worth watching suggests that we still have a long way to go, baby, when it comes to our desire for charismatic patriarchal authority. Will our desire to sympathize with the male hero compel us to forgive the sins of American history as much as we forgive those of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, or Walter White?

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Return of the Living Series: Season Premieres

IN RECENT DISCUSSIONS among scholars of speculative fictions, the science fictionalization of contemporary life is a frequent point of reference. No longer confined to a small, recognizable, and generally low-rent neighborhood, images and ideas drawn from sf are central to today’s media landscape. At their best, speculative genres provide compelling metaphors for contemporary experiences of alienation and potent images of what our future might be that both dissuade and inspire. As television comes into its maturity as a medium, its contributions to these meditations merit our attention.

Last week I evaluated the new series that have premièred to date. This week, we discuss developments in returning series.

NBC’s Revolution, a series once ranked among the most highly watched on television, saw its numbers steadily drop over Season 1 and its Season 2 debut dropped even more. Last season concluded the struggle between rebel forces loyal to the US and two new political entities that emerged after electrical power was lost by turning the power back on just long enough to launch nuclear missiles, enabling an exiled US president to return from Guantanamo Bay. Revolution seem to be exploring our new distrust of government in the wake of ongoing wars prompted by 9/11 (as did Moore’s Battlestar Galactica). This season also tries to replicate the success of Lost (2004-2010) with emerging narrative arcs about nanotech fireflies and nature being changed. Creator Eric Kripke had success with the main-character-driven chemistry of Supernatural (2005–), and such emotional investment seems too diffuse in this ensemble series. Audiences have also lost faith in series with evolving mythology since the smug conclusion of Lost.

This season’s revamped environment’s most promising storylines involves the return of exiled US Patriot forces that reorient and continue to explore themes about what new America might be built on the ashes of the old. Although the first episode, “Born in the U.S.A.” short-circuited any tension from last season’s cliffhanger in its opening minutes – yes, the nukes do fall – it seems clear that the brief shot of the exiled president in last season’s conclusion was more sinister than the missile countdown. Flexible opportunist Tom Neville, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who also played the cagey Gustavo Fring on Breaking Bad, coldly sees through the Patriot’s inflationary rhetoric and acerbically punctures the tattered optimism of loyalists as he notes, in this week’s “There Will Be Blood,” that the new order shares nothing with the “Pollyanna, flowers-up-your-ass America” they idolize.

The illuminati seal on Patriot correspondence and the general Western ethos of a world without electricity or electronics allows Revolution to return visually as well as imaginatively to the founding of America. This arc has potential to mine sf’s considerable history examining the heritage and consequences of colonialism and to provide an unromanticized exploration of the American mythos that Richard Slotkin evocatively labeled “regeneration through violence.” There are propitious hints as well that Revolution will take a fresh look at the discourse of the past ten years now that 9/11 fever has begun to wane, perhaps marking a new turn in narrative drama distinct from series of the past decade explored in books such as Stacy Takacs’s Terrorism TV (2012). Neville’s claim that Patriots used the nuke not merely to eliminate their rivals but also to manufacture an image of themselves as “solution” augur well for this theme.

Revolution is trying to be too many things to too many audiences, however, combining this arc with Lost-inspired mysteries and another plot that basically reworked “The Walking Dead season three” at least thus far, with its beleaguered, gated and wholesome townspeople fighting off a predatory tribe lead by a charismatic sociopath, former boys’ school master and uncharged pedophile Titus Andover, played by Matt Ross with all the sinister creepiness he brought to his role as cult leader in Big Love (2006-2011). Revolution has a strong cast and the potential to equal the reinvented Battlestar Galactica in its exploration of political themes, but it remains to be seen how well it can weave together its many threads into a cogent picture.

Syfy’s Haven offers a satisfying example of how to combine unfolding mythology with weekly narrative satisfaction to intrigue rather than alienate viewers. Last year’s offered closures on some of the mysteries as it introduced others. Like many of the successful genre shows – a pattern modeled by many of this season’s new contenders – Haven mixes its otherworldly mysteries with the steady closure of the police procedural, solving each episode’s case as it deepens the mystery of the source of the troubles themselves and Audrey’s (Emily Rose) role in their end. The fact that some mysteries have been answered in a satisfying way, and without the theological dodges that so annoyed fans of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, buys Haven goodwill and thus the leeway to expand its mythology in each season, fans trusting that revelation will both emerge and be consistent with stories and characters in which we have invested time and emotional energy.

This season involves more radical shifts following a Season Three cliffhanger in which both Audrey and Duke (Eric Balflour) disappeared into an other-dimensional space related to the cycle of troubles and Audrey’s pattern of disappearance and return. Duke re-emerges almost instantaneously from his and our point of view, but six months have passed so Haven is a different town. Ongoing mythology seems to dominate over ordinary crime-solving this season, and this roboot neatly sidesteps an issue that has doomed other television, resolving a love triangle, since Audrey forgets her former existence. Like Whedon series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Haven refuses to pit its troubled characters against its “normal” ones, and thus has the potential for nuanced themes about discrimination and stereotypes symbolized via supernatural difference.

CBS’s Person of Interest similarly fell from last year’s ratings, although its similarity to popular procedural drama such as NCIS (2003–) suggests a wide audience base and a strong chance at longevity via established formula. Part secret-agent conspiracy thriller, part origin story of AI, and part meditation upon the realities – and paranoias – of ubiquitous surveillance, Person of Interest has thus far failed to move much beyond a formulaic, episode-of-the-week drama. A new intro voiceover used in the premiere episode, “Liberty,” that offers antagonist Root’s (Angel’s Amy Acker) version of the world, in addition to the established intro by protagonist Harold Finch (Lost’s Michael Emerson), hints that it may venture further now that it’s renewed for a third season. The addition of Sarah Shahi as another former government agent now in hiding – whose cynicism, quickness to resort to violence, and cold pragmatism make Jim Caviezel’s badass John Reese look positively domesticated – is a welcome change.

Person of Interest most clearly aligns with the science fictionalization of everyday life, on its surface indistinct from non-genre political thrillers and procedurals, particularly in an environment in which series such as Bones (2005–) or the various CSI series emphasize forensic detail and scientific paradigms. Premised on the idea that the government secretly operates an information-collating AI, the Machine, created by Finch, to predict and prevent terrorist activities, Person of Interest chronicles our fantasies and fears in an age of widespread social media, online activity, and surveillance. As the intro tells us, the Machine “hears everything” and thus can predict impending violence against individuals as well as against states, but these victims are considered “irrelevant” by government forces. Finch and his team investigate and rescue private individuals whose stories form the episodic backbone of the series.

Although the fantasy that ubiquitous surveillance equals infinite security animates the series’ heroics, from the beginning this vision has chaffed uncomfortably against knowledge of a concomitant loss of privacy, embodied in the fact that the main characters live off the grid. As each episode begins we don’t know if the person identified by the Machine is victim or perpetrator of the crime they set out to prevent, and the series sustains a pleasing complexity of moral vision by rescuing some “victims” who are not remotely admirable people and whom a more black-and-white moral vision would have condemned as deserving targets of poetic justice. This season promises to more fully explore competing ideological visions of our wired world. In “Nothing to Hide” the CEO of a data-gathering company is targeted by both a lawsuit filed on behalf of those whose lives were ruined by his snooping software and by a mysterious collective committed to wresting privacy back from the hands of surveillance entities (that range from “harmless” purchasing-information-bots to identity thieves). In a rare unhappy conclusion to an episode, Finch and crew fail to save this weekly Person of Interest. This season’s larger narrative arc, then, may provoke us to rethink our social media ways as Person of Interest enters more fully into science-fictional territory.

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Science Fiction Television: Still Lost in Space?

WE LIVE IN A GOLDEN AGE of television, as the recent Emmy Awards broadcast never failed to remind us. Although the Emmys have been mocked for taking this message a bit too earnestly, it’s hard to deny that many recent scripted shows are among the best in the television’s history, and that the combination of niche channels, on-demand programming, and (for some) lack of dependence upon advertisers have pushed television in compelling new directions in the past 10 years. Although HBO deserves – and takes – much of the credit for such “quality tv,” praise is also due to cable networks such as FX and AMC, as well as to broadcast television, particularly the WB and UPN (now merged as the CW) who early on took risks with expected formats in their struggle to establish brand identity. These youth-oriented channels were important particularly in demonstrating an interest in genre programming that has only more recently been taken up by the Big Four. The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002), long a darling of academics for its feminist themes, innovatively experienced with the medium, such as the silent episode “Hush.” On UPN, teenage detective Veronica Mars (2004-2007) similarly offered a pretty blonde who was also powerful and smart, and now has made television history by being the first series brought to the big screen (next year) via direct funding by its fans through Kickstarter.

These and other genre series have nurtured some of the biggest talents in Hollywood today, including Joss Whedon, followed as auteur by his many fans and recently propelled into greater renown with The Avengers (2004); Shawn Ryan, who began as a series writer on Buffy spin-off Angel (1991-2004) and went on to create The Shield (2002-2008), a critically acclaimed police drama; J.J. Abrams, whose sf-flavored Lost (2004-2010) sparked the most intensive discussion of a series as it aired until the phenomenon of Breaking Bad (2008-2013); and Vince Gilligan himself, who got his start on The X-Files (1993-2002). Genre series such as Buffy were among the first to experiment with the story arcs now central to premium cable series, and often offered central and powerful roles for women, in contrast to the masculine anti-hero dominant in the “quality tv” lineage from Tony Soprano through Don Draper to Walter White. Emmy Awards seldom recognize genre television except for technical achievements, however, and preconceptions prompt many never to tune in at all. Yet the widespread popularity of Lost and the massive success of genre franchises in film such as The Avengers and Twilight have encouraged networks – cable and broadcast alike – to add genre shows to their lineups.

So has science fiction (sf) television been unjustly maligned? Although I’d be the first to agree that many sf series fail to inspire the hope that “science fiction” and “quality” would together, I also strongly believe in the potentials of both genre and medium. Despite glib (if also campy and fun) series like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) or Mann & Machine (1992), Ron Moore’s gritty and 9/11-inflected reboot of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) demonstrated to genre and non-genre aficionados alike that the key criterion is execution, not concept. Long before Moore reminded us to take the genre seriously, Rod Serling, whose provocative writing for other series had met with resistance, effectively used sf’s estranged perspective on reality to offer pointed commentary on contemporary political and social issues in The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) without ruffling advertisers’ feathers, turning stigmatization into opportunity.

So, has sf television’s moment finally arrived? Mainstreaming of genre tropes in film and digital games has removed – or at least reconfigured – the geek stereotype. Salman Rushdie is rumored to be writing an sf pilot; Steven Spielberg has financed a live-action series based on the game Halo. A series adapted from a Stephen King story by comic writer Brian Vaughn, Under the Dome (2013), tilted the scales in CBS’s fight with Time Warner Cable, and Chris Carter is developing new series for both of AMC and Amazon Studio. Perhaps we are about to enter a period of quality sf television. At the very least, its conditions of possibility exist.

So, let’s review the season’s new contenders.

Fox makes a strong attempt to capture the American Horror Story audience with Sleepy Hollow, a mash-up of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip van Winkle,” in which our jilted schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane (Tom Misson), is transformed into a displaced Oxford History professor, sent by the British to fight American rebels but ideologically converted to Revolution’s side. As in Irving’s story, the Headless Horseman is a Hessian soldier fighting for the British but in this case also a horseman of the apocalypse, enlisted on the side of empire and fought by a George Washington whose Revolutionary War is thoroughly entwined with struggles between white and black magic.

The series joins other recent sf series Revolution (2012–) and Falling Skies (2011–) in placing a debate about “true” American identity at the centre of its narrative, working through the tensions of a nation founded in discourses of freedom now infamous for policies such as “torture memos.” In Sleepy Hollow, the Revolutionary War is fought not just for the freedom of “this” country but to prevent the apocalypse itself. It’s most impressive innovation, however, is casting African American actor Nicole Beharie as Abby Mills, the police officer who becomes Crane’s partner. Genre television has a poor track record for casting non-white actors, and an embarrassing history of killing off their non-white characters after only a season or two. I’m thus hopeful this series will last, but wish it were more refreshing in other choices as well. Sure to attract fans of paranormal investigative series such as The X-Files (1993-2002) and Fringe (2008-2013), Sleepy Hollow also seems poised to draw viewers of supernatural series, but its polarized vision of good and evil suggests that it could quickly become bland. The most recent episode’s vision of Crane’s astonishment that his former allies, Native Americans, are a repressed and impoverished minority in the new country implies a worrisome tendency toward self-congratulatory revisionism.

The most highly anticipated series was, of course, ABC’s new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., benefactor of build-in audiences drawn from Avengers franchise films and from devoted followers of all projects involving Joss Whedon. The heavy promotion of soon-to-be-released film Thor: The Dark World during commercial breaks capitalizes on these connections, and suggests that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is best poised to benefit from industry shifts toward transmedia storytelling. The pilot episode delivered on the hype, combining sufficient references to ongoing mythology to satisfy devoted fans without alienating other viewers. Joss Whedon is not the showrunner for this series – a role filled by his co-creators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen – but his distinctive humor and ability to play with genre tropes are evident: Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), mysteriously resurrected from his apparent death in The Avengers (2012) to serve as team leader and connective tissue between film and series, emerges on cue just as someone reminds viewers he is dead, but playfully acknowledges that the scene is conventional by quipping, “Sorry. That corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself.”

The pilot strives to have something for everyone – the super-trained but not super-powered Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) for those who like their action-adventure straight; the tech-geeks Agent Fitz (Iain de Catestecker) and Agent Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who combine a CSI-esque love of forensic detail with the pure Whedonverse charm of nerdy experts; a powerful and attractive female lead in Skype (Chloe Bennet), whose back story is sure to appeal to social media enthusiasts; and Agent May (Ming-na Wen), who has enough hint of a mysterious past to create interest in longer story arcs and (another Whedon trademark) reverses gender expectations by being female and really good with military tech. Of course we also get that famed Whedon dialogue of memorable insider one-liners such as “with great power comes ….. a whole ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with.”

This series seems poised to live up to Whedon’s track record for using both genre and medium to tell socially and politically engaged stories. In the pilot, working class Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) gains superpowers due to an illegal experiment with super-soldier “extremis” serum, providing a link to franchise stories. Although this is a typical “origin story” for super-hero or super-villain (see further Spider-Man (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), etc.), and the plot plays out along expected paths, more or less, there are a couple of key exceptions. First, in an emotionally satisfying if also somewhat trite twist, Peterson does not either loss his humanity (and thus authorize his death at superhero hands) or sacrifice himself drawing on the last dregs of vanishing humanity: instead, he is cured. More interesting, however, are the comments on the plight of the working classes that motivate his rage and outbursts of super-villain petulance. Before his breakdown we see him search the job listings in vain, and he snaps when his former supervisor refuses to give him his old job back, insinuating that taking sick leave when injured makes him an unreliable employee. Although the angry Peterson shouts that assigning blame is easy, “like the stories we used to read: you’re the bad guy and I’m the hero,” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D refuses to neatly tie up loose ends.

Peterson in his outrage, however justifiable, unfortunately falls into the stereotype of the angry-black-man, dangerously out of control. I have faith in the writers, however, to see beyond such reductionism, and the details about Peterson’s struggles to find work are key here. Like Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s revision of the Captain America origin story in Truth: Red, White & Black (2003), which details the experiences of many black men who suffered as subjects of early experiments before the military perfected their protocol in Captain America, Peterson reminds us “all over people are being pushed down, being robbed” by systemic discrimination and enslavement to debt, that heroes are needed to fight structural oppressions as much as charismatic big bads.

It remains to be seen if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D can balance its many competing fan bases and priorities and deliver even more innovative uses of genre motifs. The second episode stressed team building and characterization – key to making us want to spend time each week with these characters – and although it was less socially engaged that the pilot, Skype nonetheless managed to link her crowdsourcing ideal not only to the cooperative work that allows them to save the day in this episode but also to a social media as a method for political organization against corruption in Peru, the country where they found this week’s mysterious artifact. Yet the cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, as well as the firefights and fast-paced chase scenes, suggest that in the short term Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is more concerned with translating big screen aesthetics onto the small screen. In this the series runs the risk of becoming reduced to some new iteration of viral advertising for Thor: The Dark World and next spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so let’s hope future episodes shift the balance away from the films and toward the promising possibilities for reinventing the super hero team.

As we head into week two of premiere season, more new sf hopefuls are to come, including many offerings from youth-oriented CW. We’ll also check-in with returning series. Nothing yet achieves the promise of what I know sf television could be, but the 2013-2014 season has come a long way from your grandfather’s science fiction tv.

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