It’s Wednesday again and I miss Cookie. I know I’m not the only one, given how Fox’s runaway hit show “Empire” increased its tune-in audience by 43.75% over the course of the season, from 9.9 million for the January 7th pilot to 17.6 million for its regular 9pm time slot during last week’s double-episode finale. The numbers are higher if you factor in DVR and Internet views. The show, featuring the roller coaster life of former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul and CEO of Empire Enterprises Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his extended Philadelphia clan by business and by family, most notably his three sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), and his ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), is not without its critics and controversy, which only adds to the fun. Even Alessandra Stanley, of The New York Times and the Shonda Rhimes debacle, deemed the season “pretty perfect.” Continue reading
DESPITE SOME B-grade acting and melodramatic character back stories which do not inspire me to take their emotional depths seriously (i.e. Alan’s (Billy Campbell) childhood and his dull flirtation with Sarah (Jordan Hayes), whose secret cancer seems another tired cliché), SyFy’s Helix continues to fascinate me with its world building. This week we saw some significant changes in alliances and a deepening of the mystery about just exactly what Ilaria Corporation is up to in its arctic research station. New clues to this mystery include the abduction of children, the cryo-preserved head of a missing scientist, and information that suggests Julia (Kyra Zagorsky) was herself the object of Dr. Hatake’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) research when a child. Although Julia’s back-story sounds tediously like a reboot of Olivia’s (Anna Torv) story on Fringe (2008-2013), more promising are the introduction of Intuit police officer Anana (Luciana Carro) and her missing brother Miksa, whose twin just happens to be played by Meegwun Fairbrother, who also plays Daniel, Hatake’s adopted son/feudal vassal. While sinister corporations who treat people as expendable are a familiar theme from cyberpunk fiction and film, and form the basis of a number of cyberpunk digital games such as Deus Ex and Resident Evil, we’ve lacked a good SF television series working in this mode, although James Cameron’s briefly lived Dark Angel (2000-2002) gave it the college try.
Part of what makes Helix work for me are its ancillary texts on their Access Granted website, which provide additional clues and documents that committed fans can review as they try to unravel the show’s mystery. Such multi-media storytelling is nothing new in science fiction, or indeed in television broadly, as stations compete to generate the committed and engaged fan base that made shows such as Lost (2004-2010) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013) such phenomenal successes. It also seems natural for a show like Helix to have such an involved website, for it is designed to appeal equally to science fiction fans and those accustomed to the puzzle solving of digital games, two communities known for their committed engagement with the worlds of chosen texts. So, Helix is very much a text of our age.
Yet as I visited the Helix website, I was struck by a contradiction between its presence as a marketable commodity (television show), the use of the show’s narrative to market other commodities (a Verizon advertisement branding the company as about “powerful solutions” to contemporary challenges), and the show’s narrative, which casts Ilaria Corporation in a sinister light.
Here are some of the intriguing things you can find in the Access Granted documents. First is a calendar for an Ilaria executive named Philip Duchamp. Among his activities are: a “pharma competitive intelligence conference,” an event that raises questions for those thinking about science and social justice as well as the role of pharmaceutical corporations in what Vandana Shiva has called the continued colonial exploitation of biopiracy; second, Duchamp is scheduled to give a TED talk, a genre that promises to help us imagine and build better futures, but whose emphasis on entertainment often substitutes inspiring visions for viable research, as Benjamin Bratton brilliantly skewered last year in the best TED talk I’ve ever heard. One of the things Bratton calls for is “design as immunization,” using imaginative power to prevent certain dystopic futures from materializing. Science fiction has a long history of performing this kind of cultural critique, and the cyberpunk-inflected future Helix channels is widely regarded as a key expression of this more cynical attitude toward the future produced by technological innovation. In Neuromancer (1982), for example, William Gibson describes the dangerous urban Night City as “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button” (7). Technology displaces people in such futures, and Helix explores this terrain in its new story arcs about missing children, evidence of which is expanded considerably on the Access Granted site that includes a list of some 30 missing children, mainly from the global south, and most with Inuit-sounding names.
In his essay “SF Capital,” Mark Fisher critiques the conflation of narrative, advertising and commodity product in much science fiction, in which the power to imagine the future and to inspire readers to invest in such visions is channeled into the purchase of products that simulate this future and take the place of real social critique and political change. The advertising rhetoric of this sf is much like the futurist rhetoric of TED talks, and the relationship between such visions of the future and corporate market-share is much like the relationship between Star Wars as text and the sale of Hasbro action figures.
These systems collide on the Helix website. To enter the website at all, you first must click through a page noting that Arctic Biosystems is a division of Ilaria Corporation, whose slogan is “stop existing, start living.” One of the ancillary texts you can access on this website is the advertisement above for Ilaria Infinity lenses. The aesthetics of this poster conveys all the promise of the future as entertaining design embodied by TED talks, and Ilaria evokes the usual inflationary rhetoric of living better: “See clearly. See freely. See the world through different eyes.” Yet the larger type on this poster asks, “Do your contact lenses make you feel like you’re dying?” Presumably Ilaria lenses will solve this problem in the usual way of corporate futurism, yet the fine print of the poster suggests instead that this corporatized future is the problem – side effects of seeing the world through Ilaria’s eyes include “feelings of yearning” and, in rare cases, “general disinterest in living.”
Through these supplementary texts then, Helix continues its narrative vision of a critique of corporations that sacrifice people, the same vision we see in Gibson’s sardonic description of Night City, the same vision expressed through more hyperbolic sarcasm in Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), and the same future we presumably will see in its remake by José Padilha opening this week. Padilha’s Robocop, however, is already inevitably bound up in the economics of contemporary Hollywood that make it half narrative film and half vehicle for product placement and advertising for future action films.
What of Helix’s corporate critique? One of SyFy’s sponsors is Verizon, and as soon as one visits the Helix website a video advertisement launches. In the mode of contemporary infotainment, this short video at first seems to be yet another ancillary text (an Ilaria advert for an antidepressant is remarkably similar in tone). Only gradually does it become clear that this “discover innovation” campaign to solve “the world’s biggest challenges” through “even bigger solutions” is a slogan for Verizon, not Ilaria. Clicking through to Verizon’s website, one discovers a Powerful Answers web series with episodes about the various ways Verizon is working to make a better future of sustainability, public safety, improved healthcare, and access to education. The series shows the work of “innovators” who competed to partner with Verizon to bring their ideas to life, a contest that required these “empowering solutions” to emerge from “Verizon’s unique combination of technologies.” This website, merging science fiction with corporate advertising with the production of material futures that direct the flows of venture capital seems the apotheosis of the process of commodifying the future diagnosed by Fisher more than a decade ago.
Helix is thus a fascinating science fiction text, as much for its context as for its content. Inside and outside blur, as Ilaria and Verizon overlap as antagonist and sponsor. The website lets one preview the first five minutes of the next episode, “Survivor Zero,” which show the arrival of Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan), CEO of Ilaria Corporation at the research base. Within these five minutes she metamorphoses from a smooth and overtly helpful resource in public, to a violent attack on Hatake’s failures in private. Is her public face a version of Verizon, whose polished futurism hides its complicity in Ilaria-like conspiracy?
Or am I just “reading too much” into science fiction?
THE BIG NEWS in sf television this week is the premiere of SyFy’s Helix, from producer Ronald Moore whose reboot of Battlestar Galactica did more than any other series to convince mainstream audiences that science fiction can be relevant to contemporary experience. The premiere event was organized to gain a mass audience as quickly as possible for this new series: the first two episodes aired back-to-back with “limited commercial interruption” – which translates basically to most commercials being pushed into the second episode once audiences were already hooked – and a third episode could be viewed online immediately after the first two aired. Devoted fans could thus be three “days” into the planned thirteen day-per-episode narrative of season 1. These first three episodes cover a lot of ground in terms of understanding the pathogen outbreak on the remote arctic base and also plant a lot of seeds for mysteries to unfold throught the season at the level of both conspiracy plot and interpersonal back-story. The SyFy site also contains additional short clips and “documents” that hint at more conspiracy to come involving sinister pharmaceutical company Arctic Biosystems, including an advertisement for an antidepressant that is “hacked” to show images of missing children, several redacted purchase orders, a promotional brochure for contact lenses that takes on menacing tones in this context, and – most intriguing – shadowy Board of Director members sipping scotch and watching the horror unfold via remote satellite uplink.
Helix is reminiscent of a lot of sf that has come before, but if Battlestar Galactica proved anything it was that Ron Moore knows how to revitalize familiar material by connecting it to contemporary political and social issues. The careful attention to virology and the epidemiology of outbreak is reminiscent of now-classic The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise 1971), based on a novel by Michael Crichton, whose name has become almost synonymous with medical conspiracy thrillers. The isolated arctic setting, the test for infection that proves unreliable, and hints that the virus is not only killing but also transforming the infected into a new species reminds us of The Thing (John Carpenter 1982), a much-loved film based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 story “Who Goes There?” and adapted to screen two other times (in 1951 and 2011), although Carpenter’s remains the fan favorite. Scenes of searching for dangerous infected through narrow ventilation conduits evoke the claustrophobic tension of Alien (Ridley Scott 1979), although the series itself opts to reference John McClane’s travels through Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988). And finally the drama feels most like watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), at least for these first three episodes, marking Helix as another sf series about how much the present resembles science fiction.
Science is front and center in Helix, both the virology of the outbreak and the conspiracy plot regarding Arctic Biosystems’ real agenda. This is a welcome return to a near-future that feels convincing and real, and to science fiction rather than the supernatural as the engine of a series. Great care is taken with the details of the CDC personnel and the team’s background, and the characters feel like complete people with complex motivations, not merely cutout figures filling specific narrative roles. The head of research, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada,) is the only somewhat disappointing character, not because he lacks interest but because he is, at least thus far, the most unambiguous character, whose motivations are entirely sinister and whose Japanese ancestry makes him thus fall uncomfortably into the “inscrutable Asian” stereotype. Yet perhaps there is hope for how his character will be developed, because other characterizations are complex and avoid clichés, such as Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), previously married to the head CDC investigator Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), who avoids being either entirely committed to reunion with her estranged husband or entirely reconciled to their split. Dedicated sf fans may welcome the return of Billy Campbell, previously seen as cult leader Jordan on The 4400 (2004-2007), to sf television, and his Alan Farragut is a compelling lead, challenged by his ambiguous feelings about his ex-wife, his infatuated intern Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), and his brother Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), one of the first infected and estranged from Alan since his affair with Julia. All of this back-story allows for emotional investment in the interactions among characters, but never overwhelms the sf drama elements of the series with cloying melodrama. Like BSG, with which it will inevitably be compared, Helix gives us interesting human beings in a tense situation and has developed a sufficiently intricate set of interpersonal and corporate-conspiracy dynamics to sustain its pace for the full season.
Helix also has plenty of action that seems designed to draw in fans of The Walking Dead and similar series. Its infected are split into two kinds and those called “vectors” are compelled to try to infect others, vomiting black goo and rushing humans they encounter along the lines of the fast zombies of 28 Days Later (Boyle 2002). Yet set within a narrative that also has elements of corporate cover-up, mysterious army factions who believe the infection was intentional, and emerging posthuman characters, not all of whom are changed by the virus, the action is Helix is linked to an engrossing narrative. The Walking Dead was fun for a while, but its ongoing carnage has long since become tedious in the absence of much else going on in the series. Helix delivers a similar adrenaline rush, but promises a lot more, especially in its slowly unfolding exploration of the dark side of better living through pharmacotherapy. Perhaps this is a sign that the zombie craze is finally winding down. And perhaps this will offer some critical commentary on one of the key sites of the collapse of sf and reality into one another, the utopian fantasies of posthuman existence promoted by organizations such as humanity+ that often fail to take note of the role of corporate medicine in these brave new worlds.
If nothing else, Helix is one of the best science fiction television shows to emerge in a long time, one that offers complex narrative, absorbing characters, and reflective engagement with the science and technology of our everyday world. Really, my only complaint is that I hate its theme song, taken from “Do You Know the Way to San José” (1968), which worked well enough as ironic counterpoint to the action when used as diegetic music in the opening sequence, but is quickly growing tiresome. Helix embodies the promises of all that sf television can be, and I hope it can find the audience that will allow it to stay on the air and deliver on this promise over the multiple season arcs clearly planned for the story.
Phil: Mad Men
I WON’T BELABOR this, because DearTV covered it at length in the spring, but this was a weird year for Mad Men. And I mean “weird” in both the colloquial and literal senses. Andy Greenwald — and, I’m sure, plenty of other people — have noted that one of the unsung defining features of the so-called Golden Age of 21st Century TV is that the bloody, serious serial dramas at its center were inevitably also among the funniest shows on air at the time. This has been especially true of Mad Men, but rarely has the show been as madcap as it was this year. Perhaps as a counterweight to the season’s morose, death-hauntedness or as a nod to the Laugh-In vibe of the late sixties, this season was full of slapstick, camp, and sight gags. All of which made it the most perfectly GIFfable show on television by a wide margin. And that’s not a small feat. A period show that speaks in the language of the present, a show that, even subconsciously, is built to suit the micro-aesthetics of the contemporary viewing audience. It’s the kind of show I can and will continue to watch again, even at the local level, even on a loop. I’ve written many thousands of words on this stupid brilliant show. Please to enjoy the following wordless, indelible images in honor of a show I can’t look away from.
(Many thanks to HuffPo’s masterfully curated season six GIF archive!)
LILI: BEST DANCES:
Orange is the New Black:
American Horror Story: Coven:
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon:
AHP: Best (and Worst) Romance:
Both real and imagined, the best way to crystallize a romance = GIF form. And as for the “Worst” — I’m waiting for that show to remedy / destroy each of those romances come Season Three.
Orange is the New Black:
Top of the Lake:
The Mindy Project:
Game of Thrones:
PHIL: Best Episode Ending (Also, Best Musical Cue, Best Shocking Violence)
Game of Thrones S3.E3
I DON’T KNOW if it’s because it’s one of the only shows I watched weekly with a group of friends this year, but, while it’s by no means the best show I saw in 2013 or even necessarily my favorite, I had more fun watching Game of Thrones than anything else. This season, much ballyhooed for its grim results, was outlandish fun to watch every Sunday. The season started slow, but after a little throat-clearing and scene-setting, it was firing off stupidly, grimily entertaining hours of television like it was nothing. And that’s what was so fun about it. No one ever said adapting George R.R. Martin’s mighty book series is easy per se, but with the existence of a master outline and thus without the necessary creative pressure to conjure the compelling narrative that befalls Gilligan, Weiner and the like, Benioff and Weiss are free to put all their weight into execution. (Pun intended.)
And this season had a kind of balls-out (pun intended again), punk rock energy hurtling, as it was, toward the biggest set-piece of the whole series so far. As is surely well-known by now, this was the long-awaited season of “The Red Wedding,” the show and book series’ center-piece purge of central characters that took place in spectacular fashion at the end of this season’s penultimate episode. For all the rigamarole about how ingeniously the final season of Breaking Bad was conceived and plotted, imagine the challenge for Benioff and Weiss who had to plot out an ending half its fans already saw coming.
If I was making a list of the best episode endings of the year, “The Red Wedding” and its operatic bloodshed would certainly be on it. (Killing people on TV is a piece of cake, killing them with that much flair is quite difficult, I imagine.) As would the ending of the earlier episode “And Now His Watch Has Ended,” in which Daenerys Targaryen frees the slaves, unleashes the dragon, and drops the mic. (I admit that I’ve watched the ending of that episode a number of times since, and it somehow still feels surprising and exhilarating.) But those weren’t my favorites.
My favorite ending, the one that made me stand up in an ovation, the one that reminded me everything that’s good about this show and everything it will willingly, blithely do, was the ending of this season’s zippy, horrifying third episode, “Walk of Punishment.” It’s easy to forget that Jaime Lannister, the swashbuckling, sister-boinking, crown prince of jag-offs, has spent a majority of this series tied up and sitting on the ground. This episode, after striking up an unlikely friendship with Tilda Swinton’s XXL body-double Brienne of Tarth and conning his captors out of beating and raping her, it looks, briefly, as if Jaime might get to stretch his legs a bit. Not so! His jailer tempts him to the fire promising a tasty dinner only to pin him to the ground, hit him with some class politics, and CHOP HIS HAND OFF IN CLOSE-UP! (The clip below is obviously NSFW.)
Like the great comic set-piece that this actually kind-of is, the scene is all about timing. It’s dark enough that we don’t immediately know what’s happened, and because his hand is on a stump, it doesn’t move quite enough to make it immediately obvious. What this means is that, for a few silent seconds, we — Jaime included — are staring at an amputated hand without fully realizing it. Jaime screams, the frame stays still so we can really take in the site of Jaime’s stump — the bloodflow, like our attention, took a minute to catch up. The frame cuts to black, there’s a pause, and then, thank you, Game of Thrones, a Hold Steady song starts playing. Punky, talky, anachronistic Hold Steady, singing some silly, made-up, quasi-medieval ballad. The scene is a tragedy (one of the show’s most subtle achievements has been turning the villainous Jaime into something of a sympathetic hero) and it’s a joke. Not a lot of shows (Top of the Lake is one of the few others) can hit the tragedy and comedy notes simultaneously and with as much follow-through as Game of Thrones, nor do many shows stick so many difficult landings. We’ve got a lot of this show yet to come, and this moment made me excited for every goofy, gory, heart-wrenching moment of it.
AHP: Best Episode Ending (also Best Violence)
Rectify, Episode 5
While others, including our own Jane Hu, were lauding the meditative beauty of Enlightened, I couldn’t deal. My repulsion from passive aggressive characters (also, most notably, in Six Feet Under) probably says more about my personal failings in terms of sympathy and patience, but even if I couldn’t stomach Amy Jellicoe, I loved the way Enlightened slowed itself down and considered the physical world. It wasn’t like a hackneyed thriller, in which nature (a storm, the sea, the forest) becomes a character in and of itself; it was more subtle and ultimately more generous than that.
But you know what did that even better? Rectify. It debuted during a dry television spell and, as a result, received more attention than a small, six episode Sundance production normally would, but as the summer series picked up, it faded to the shadows. The premise itself is a tough one: Daniel Holden spends 19 years in maximum security after being convicted of the brutal murder and rape of his 16-year-old girlfriend.
He’s released on appeal, and the task of reintegration into his very small, very Southern town is about as awkward as you’d imagine. But we experience that awkwardness not so much through weird interactions, of which Daniel seems blessedly ignorant, but his experience of the physical world. After 19 years in a cell, everything around him sounds, smells, tastes, feels more intensely, masterly refracted through the show’s sound design and cinematography.
It’s not, however, a loud show. It’s defined by alteration between absence and presence, the long, weighted pauses as Daniel chooses and delivers his words, and a meditative embrace of the air and space and seemingly infinite choice that now surrounds him.
Indeed, Rectify is a quiet show, almost therapeutically so. What some might call “boring” I find hypnotic and, somewhat ironically, magnificently tense, in part because you’re also spending each episode pondering whether this seemingly gentle man was, and remains, capable of great violence.
Which is what makes the sudden and surprising violence at the end of the penultimate episode so stunning – and so weirdly, if temporarily, gratifying, especially since it seems to both enact pain on a malicious character and answer our questions about Daniel. The episode ends on a long shot, our characters in silhouette, which functions to imprint the outlines of the violence and its ramifications in a way that a close-up cannot. It’s removed, observatory, much in the way that Daniel attempts to confront the world at large. And it’s absolutely chilling.
The next episode revises much of what we thought we understand — about Daniel, about the violent act itself — but that moment stays with me still, a crystallization of how television narrative, and the spaces and pauses and ruptures within, can still surprise us.
Lili: Worst Episode Ending
Top of the Lake Finale
I often think of Top of the Lake as the underbelly of Northern Exposure, a show for which I have a major soft spot while lamenting its habit of turning an indulgent eye to the really weird things that happened to its female characters. (It’s narrated as merely idiosyncratic, for instance, that Maurice Minnifeld plucks a teenaged Shelly Tambo out of a beauty pageant that he’s judging because he is “in love”.) Both shows are in dialogue with a kind of frontier narrative: they depend on intense isolation and a de facto lawlessness deemed humane and productive in Northern Exposure — the way things ought to be — whereas in Top of the Lake it becomes a kind of rape-engine whirlpool under a still surface.
Regarded as a nature-based dystopia (as opposed to the sci-fi versions with which we’re routinely bombarded), Top of the Lake was gorgeously dark. That initial shot of Tui waiting for the lake to kill her captured how, in a universe constructed along these lines, women come to understand that danger resides not just in violence but also in inertia. (This is the crux of Robin’s distrust of Johnno, and for Tui, pregnancy and the lake amount to the same thing: destruction through passivity.) As it happens, the only person who actually dies in the lake is a man — and he’s murdered by the show’s main active principle, Matt Mitcham.
There’s something wildly mythic about ToTL, in other words. These are not ordinary people; there could be an Iliad about the events in Laketop. They are not immune to archetype. Nevertheless, the miniseries achieved a remarkably delicate balance: it staged a complex and fatally intimate psychological drama in a landscape whose sublime contours are most closely associated with the magical darkness of Lord of the Rings. There was clarity to the show’s progress; its successive revelations amplified our understanding without devolving into moral carnage and communal outrage. The power is public and its violations are private, and Elizabeth Moss’s pitch-perfect, down-to-earth performance as Robin grounds a script that might otherwise flail and drown in foggy despair. The thing about Robin’s case — and Tui’s — is that its very specificity, its isolation, protects the perpetrators. A single gang-rape fails to provoke horror. This is the essential loneliness of the rape victim. Robin’s incomplete picture of what happened, her mistrust of Johnno, her inability to function normally — all this is what the Mitchams of the world count on. Top of the Lake seemed like a brutal ode to erasure, to lethal and perpetual uncertainty.
The last episode undid a lot of what I’d considered — up to that point — the show’s exceptional portraiture of the ways in which the signs of violence are massaged away through ambiguity while the victim freezes from within. This is what the lake does; this was the power of the metaphor. By spiraling out into crime rings, the finale reduced Mitcham, a magnificent monster, attractive and sympathetic in the ways monsters need to be, to a confused drug lord. Even more tragically, it reduced Al’s calm white-knighting — the quiet, solicitous misogyny that was the show’s sharpest insight and greatest, most paralyzing triumph — to a neon sign of absolute evil. This show was so much better than its psychopathic solution. The psychopath is singular and exceptional and in every sense the opposite of the show’s interest in hushed, generalized disease.
With that revelation the show stopped being a mythic exploration of the psychology of the raped and the accidental collusions that make that psychology invisible, and became something much less interesting: the story of how a rape-ring got busted. The show’s commitment to ambiguity lives on, but in weird and uncompelling ways. The Robin-Johnno incest question got handled by a plot twist borrowed from Arrested Development: Yes they are! No, they’re not! BUT THEY MIGHT BE. (Was Al lying about this too? Whose DNA actually got tested?). The fact is, it doesn’t matter. This show’s heart was never in the forensics, the paternity tests, the meth-roofie factory. Those, we’d been trained to think, were never the real questions, but symptoms of a diseased world where everyone’s DNA is tainted by forces we don’t understand.
Jane: Best Episode (also Best Melodrama)
What’s Todd Haynes up to these days? Last I knew, he was giving a talk in Vancouver, and now, I think, he’s in the process of filming Carol? Haynes last big release was the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, which was in 2011. His last film release was I’m Not There, which was in 2007. Was I even alive in 2007? Todd, why must you make us suffer.
So it was both a relief and surprise to find that he was going to direct one of Mike White’s episodes of Enlightened. It was titled “All I Ever Wanted,” aired on February 17, 2013, and made all of us weep. People called it the best episode of the season, and I kept wondering if they would still say that even without the knowledge of Haynes’s hand in the work. UM YES THEY WOULD STILL CALL IT THE BEST EPISODE BECAUSE IT OBJECTIVELY IS DON’T BELIEVE ME PLEASE TO WATCH RIGHT NOW. It starts off with this distant overhead shot, and immediately I was like “Oooooooooh. Draw me in, mysterious lurking camera angle/perspective!” And then immediately you’re inside the car, on a purse! On a hand! Whose hand and where is it taking the purse? Oh my god, I can’t wait to see what Haynes does to Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian crime/road-novel Price of Salt (aka Carol).
Haynes knows how to narrate by way of exclusion, and while a lot of his films might seem excessive and lush upon first glance (Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven), the core of what he’s doing, I think, is mining interiority by pointing viewers to what is absent, or what has been cut off. He’s interested in what can’t be said or properly articulated, and it’s related to why he’s so good at making us cry. There are a lot of uncomfortable pauses and missed opportunities in Amy Jellicoe’s meetings with love interest Jeff, but really Amy’s life is governed by her attempt to talk, or make herself present, where she ought to be invisible. White shined a light on such an impossible heroine, and we are so lucky that Haynes was asked to contribute.
If I had my way, Haynes would frame my life because he is just one of the realest, ballsiest formalists I know. And while I could link any number of shots or scenes here that exemplify this, all you really have to do is take one Google image to get the impact of his rigorous attention to framing. Try: “Todd Haynes, Safe, Julianne Moore,” or “Todd Haynes, Poison.” To get how Haynes’s framing translates into story, though, is to watch these shots as they unfurl, widen, pan, or cut in a sequential manner. “All I Ever Wanted” is a beautiful and quick entrance into the power of Haynes’s formal language. The last five minutes especially pack a punch; there’s a moment where Amy’s mother approaches her, hesitantly, as Amy is just on the verge of crying. They’re in a bedroom, the camera is at a medium distant from the two women (almost as if protecting them from us getting too voyeuristically close), and while they try to negotiate their uneven relationship of sympathy and intimacy, not a word is exchanged.
Phil: KRISTEN SCHAAL as LOUISE in BOB’S BURGERS
SO, HERE BEGINS our round-robin discussion of the year in television. Today we do favorite performances. I shall begin with a grandiose statement undercut with a qualification: This year was a phenomenally good year, I think the think-piece generators of the world have agreed, for women on TV. That’s been said every year for the past little while, but it seems especially true this year if only because Orange is the New Black unceremoniously dumped about a dozen different chewy, complicated, gorgeous parts for a breathtakingly diverse group of women right on to our Netflix queues this year. The sexism of the TV biz has been well-remarked upon, and I certainly understand that the more times critterati declare a year to be the “YEAR OF THE WOMAN,” the more the general public is going to be convinced that these endemic problems are solved. But there has to be a way of acknowledging how fabulous it is that the criminally under-rewarded Elisabeth Moss was able to play TWO of the top five best roles on television this year on two different programs and Tatiana Maslany was able to play three times that many on the same show without it seeming like a false victory lap. Rather than declaring anything any more profound, let me just say that, in trying to figure out a favorite performance of the year, the only actors that come to mind for me are women. And that has not always been true.
All that said, the performance I want to single out is neither new nor likely to be included in any inspirational listing of how ladies got their grooves back in 2013. The performance that’s stuck with me most this year has been Kristen Schaal’s voice work as the criminally-insane youngest daughter Louise on Fox’s wonderful Bob’s Burgers. I came late to this cartoon, in part because I have a genuine distrust of Fox’s “Animation Domination” Sundays based primarily on the harrowing depression I feel whenever I encounter a new Simpsons episode and the gag-reflex that kicks in whenever Seth MacFarlane puts his slimy mitts on anything at all. But Jane pestered me into catching up on Bob’s Burgers this year, and I found what has been obvious to fans of the show for years: it’s very simply one of the best family comedies on TV.
I could go on with all of the convert’s zeal that I now possess about how it’s just as good as Parks and Rec or how remarkable it is for a television show as acerbic as this one to be as interested as it is in the concept and practice of love, but that’s for another time. Right now, Kristen Schaal. Schaal’s stand-up has always been uncomfortable to me. Partly because it’s supposed to be uncomfortable in a Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman sort of way, but partly also because sometimes the big conceptual jokes don’t stick. Schaal’s Louise, however, has none of the irony of Schaal’s stand-up act. She is high-pitched, unabashed, unkempt, contained only by the pink bunny ears she wears on her head. The easiest comparison is Charlie Day’s performance on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but where that performance is loud out of desperation and frustration, Louise is loud out of a psychotic lust for life. The way that Schaal is able to subtly modulate a mode of address that can mostly be described as “screaming-at-the-top-of-her-voice” is nothing less than stunning.
And this season, Schaal modulated that voice to a totally new place. Bob’s Burgers is amazing on the topic of adolescent sexuality. From eldest daughter Tina’s obsession with sexy dancing zombie butts to middle-child Gene’s confused interest in private parts, the show is terribly good and terribly innocent about staking out how weird sex seems to the minds of children. Louise, despite having perhaps the most fully-formed psyche of any of the kids, however, has largely maintained a critical distance from puberty until this season. In the third season episode “Boyz 4 Now,” Louise accompanies Tina to the concert of a One Direction-style boy band called Boyz 4 Now. Initially disdainful of this errand — ”Don’t waste your screaming on a stupid boy band. Screaming should be for rollercoasters, or axe murderers, or dad’s morning breath.” — Louise falls immediately, inexplicably in love with one of the members of the group.
Schaal’s handling of the anger and betrayal Louise feels as she finds herself attracting to a boy for the first time is actually quite moving. But, more than that, it opens up a new register of this top-register performance as Louise’s murderous rage turns to murderous romance. Schaal does Louise on a high-wire, and hearing her fall off this season was just as joyfully disturbed and disturbing as you might imagine.
Lili: SAMIRA WILEY as POUSSEY WASHINGTON in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
Phil, I’m thinking of the joyfully disturbed women too. There’s been a lot of ambitious stuff on TV this year, and for those of us longing for better parts for women, it’s been a treat to watch some of the top-shelf stuff on offer: Top of the Lake, House of Cards, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, The Good Wife, etc., and yet there’s something a little decadent, a little fudge-like, about the experience. The sheer luxury of the thing, the abundance of top people and quotable lines, brings out the contrarian in me. What I really want, when I’m in a position to choose a jewel from the lot, is something just a bit plain, a perfect loaf of bread.
Orange is the New Black brims with talented actors. I think it’s the best thing that’s happened this year. But juggling that giant, magnificent cast sometimes required (or at any rate resulted in) a kind of affective shorthand, which in turn produced some slightly embarrassing over-expository preachy moments. This is especially true of the show’s much-discussed practice of expanding outward to outfit each character with a past. The results are spectacularly uneven. If you’ll forgive a swirl (of metaphors): Kate Mulgrew’s Red gets the most compelling back story, I think — let’s call it high couture. Miss Claudette’s is a touch melodramatic but whew is it memorable (bravo, Michelle Hurst). It’s to Dascha Polanco’s credit that her Daya Diaz brings a deeply compelling idiosyncratic sensibility to what might otherwise feel like a rehearsal of minority underworld tropes. Madeline Brewer channels her character Tricia Miller’s fragility, dimness, and psychology of debt in a totally heartbreaking performance — she does her material justice. Other actors are given less history to work with: Alex Vause’s past feels like a knockoff, and Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky and Vicky Jeudy’s Janae Watson’s stories are definitely (and disappointingly) off the rack. As for Taryn Manning, we can admire her total triumph at selling it while noting that Pennsatucky deserved better than to be both a meth-addicted serial aborter and a messianic uber-Christian murder-angel.
In any event, when I tried to think of the performance that stuck with me this year, as much comedically as dramatically, it belongs to a secondary character with limited lines, a second-stringer whose back story we don’t yet know: I’m talking, of course, about Samira Wiley’s Poussey Washington.
She was given less to work with than most of the characters on OITNB, and yet every scene she’s in glows. She’s luminous. Bird-like. Her presence is consistently irreverent and hilarious and — in the Christmas episode finale — an unexpected and sublime foil to Piper and Pennsatucky. Her performance of white people politics is one of the comedy highlights of the season; Wiley and Danielle Brooks have wild chemistry of a sort we rarely see on the small screen. (Somebody please give them their own show.) And if many people have written (rightly) about how moving they found Taystee and Poussey’s reunion in the library after Taystee returns from prison, Taystee’s disquisition on minimum wage in that scene feels (in my opinion) a tad didactic. It jars oddly with Poussey’s reflection on her mother’s death. My favorite scene between the two is this one, right after Taystee gets dominion over the TV:
“My name is Poussey! Accent à droite, bitch. It’s French. Poussey’s a place in France where my daddy served and kings were born and shit. Fuck you named after?”
I love this scene because of its erupting layers: it shows the stakes of the TV and the passion it inspires, it shows what Poussey unironically loves (Ina Garten!), and the way the WAC can genuinely affect the inmates despite universal protestations to the contrary. We sort of learn where both Taystee and Poussey’s names came from, killing whatever vaginal jokes might haunt the friendship. Best of all, we learn how the closest friends on the show fight — which, though I’d be lying if I said I had fully formed expectations, isn’t at all how I’d have predicted they’d choose their weapons.
You could say I’m grading “best performance” on a curve, thinking about who did the most with the least material. I can’t say enough about Wiley’s range. Her expression when Poussey watches Taystee leaving, the wry energy with which she wishes Black Cindy a “joyous Kwanzaa!”, her wit and intelligence generally contrasted with her consternation when she tries to scare the kid in the wheelchair — every scene this woman is in sparkles.
AHP: HAYDEN PANETTIERE as JULIETTE BARNES in NASHVILLE
A classmate of mine once asked our professor how she would know how to approach and analyze her object of study. His advice: the broccoli will usually tell you how it wants to be cooked. In other words, the subject matter will suggest how to approach it.
That’s how I feel about Nashville: the subject matter (country music, Nashville politics, sprawling family drama, complicated teenage girls, figuring out how to cope after divorce) told showrunner Callie Khouri how to cook it, and with the encouragement of ABC, she’s allowed the pot to boil over. Repeatedly. But that’s far from a criticism. Even if Khouri’s own husband T. Bone Burnett resigned from his role as music director in protest over the direction of the show, I revel in its embrace of its soapy roots. Last season it was trying to straddle the line between primetime soap and quasi-quality drama; now it’s all melodrama, all the time, and it’s (almost always) delicious.
Plus I’ll forgive any number of boring scenes of over-acting Powers Booth so long as I get to see my girl Hayden Panettiere steal every scene as Juliette Barnes. When Panettiere was on Heroes, I found her flat, uninteresting, and unworthy of the hype — words that also describe my general feelings towards Heroes. When she and Connie Britton were cast as rivals on Nashville, my allegiance was all for Mrs. Coach.
The narrative restricts Britton to a slightly more sequined version of her Mrs. Coach, but Barnes is something I’ve never seen on television: a tremendously powerful woman in constant battle with her history, but a history defined by class and its ramifications, not men. Like Britton’s Rayna James, Barnes has a lost love that defines her life — but that lost love is her addict mother, not a boyfriend. That a female character could be almost wholly motivated by the enduring memory of her class position — rather than the men in her life — is revelatory.
Granted, Nashville’s narrative keeps trying to throw potential love interests Juliette’s way. But there’s something about Juliette (and Panettiere’s performance of her) that makes it impossible for any of those boys to stick. It’s not as if she’s some ball-busting ice queen — or, more precisely, it’s not as if she’s just some ball-busting ice queen. Juliette busts balls, but every decision she makes is working towards escaping the specter of a little, dirt poor girl, living in a trailer with a mom who couldn’t even be relied upon to feed her. That might sound hackneyed, but the way the show (and Panetierre) work to complicate the interplay between the exploitation of that past (to promote her image and albums) and the actual experience of it is anything but.
Once in self-preservation mode, always in self-preservation mode. Juliette’s eviscerated inside, but the only way to stay on the path that took her out of the trailer park is to be perfect on the outside.
With a less talented actress, that duality could seem schizophrenic. But Panettiere nails it: in part because she’s so good at showing the slight seams in celebrity production (her dazzlingly fake smile; the way she turns it on for men in power), but also because she’s an amazingly talented music performer. It’s not just her voice (which is great) or her songs (which are perfect) but the delivery: watch her on stage and you understand everything. Or, more precisely, you understand just how authentically complicated her life is: she’s tasked with embodying the American Dream (and postfeminism!) every day and that shit is EXHAUSTING and terrifying and never as gratifying as she wants or needs it to be. In classic melodrama, the melos (song) expressed the ineffable emotion the narrative itself could not — it’s where you see sexual desire, anguish, regret, and power. The lyrics to Barnes’s songs do that, but Panetierre’s performance does it even better.
Jane: ELISABETH MOSS as ROBIN GRIFFITH on TOP OF THE LAKE
I’m so glad we’re calling this “favorite” rather than “best,” especially since the latter adjective is having its moment now that we’ve reach the End Of Season. While I didn’t actually watch much new television past August, the consensus stays: women really brought it this year. And television gave them the space to bring it. Even off cable and network television, our beloved Netflix really gave their female leads room to shine in both House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black.
But when trying to parse through my favorite performances, I keep finding the female performances that stayed with me most one more remove from America’s already diversifying (relatively speaking!) television scene: import television. Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black (Canada), Sidse Knudsen of Borgen (Danish), Elisabeth Moss of Top of the Lake (Australia). All three shows are related to the crime drama, but explore the genre in compelling and surprising ways, making me wonder if perhaps these overworked women should all take a vay-cay in some shipping container with the homebound Carrie Mathison.
My pick of Elisabeth Moss’s performance as the verrrry complicated detective Robin Griffith is probably overdetermined. I mean, Jane Campion directed Top of the Lake. But unlike Maslany and Knudsen, Moss’s character contained this almost aggressive nervousness and anxiety that not only added to her role as uncertain detective in an increasingly odd case, but spoke, I’m guessing, to many viewers on a more personal level. Like Carrie in the first season of Homeland, we’re constantly on the verge of wondering what Griffith might not know about herself, and yet this awareness only draws us closer to her. While Robin is out trying to protect the women and children of Laketop, I grew increasingly protective of her. And, no spoilers, but rightly so.
Moss’s performance held what a lot of boundary-pushing dramas lose (as if by necessity) and that is nuance. But, like, a rigorous amount of nuance. Is Moss a method actress? At moments, her little breaths, gasps, pauses, and cringes made me wonder how much distance lay — in that moment — between Moss and Robin. I couldn’t believe this was the same woman who played Peggy Olson (who, if you return to season one of Mad Men, is almost unrecognizable from the ad woman we know now at the end of season six; listen to how her voice pitches up and how her phrasing melts at the end of her sentences, like she’s trying at once to disappear and integrate into the office environment). Moss gives performances that come across both intensely studied and breathlessly in the moment.
That Top of the Lake was a miniseries might be part of why Moss’s incredibly flawed and faltering character is so clearly crystallized. It’s hard to convey that level of ambiguity visually, and Robin Griffith’s wavering or paranoid “aura” comes across almost novelistically. It gets expressed through an accretion of (very telling!) gestures and shifts in voice and tone. Voice and tone are also, incidentally, huge words when it comes to the study of narratology.
I would almost describe Moss’s performance as descriptive. Watching Top of the Lake is like watching yourself watch Robin watch herself (or try not to watch herself) — the strange accumulation and crossing of perspectives is fascinating, and, again, incredibly novelistic. Moss is acting out a plot, Robin is caught in a plot she doesn’t entirely understand, but my favorite parts of Top of the Lake were incidental to plot. They were descriptive, occurring when Robin was, sometimes inadvertently, exposing something about her character. Of course, character is never extraneous to plot or the official task at hand — especially when you’re supposed to be an objective detective and Strong Woman — and Moss really got at something in her occupation of cohesive uncertainty.
The background noise and mood of Top of the Lake is astonishing, and, being a miniseries, we’re able to watch it over and over again and simply sink into Moss’s performance. It’s unnervingly good.
THERE IS NO QUESTION that two of the dominant forces in genre television right now are J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon. Abrams’s Bad Robot company logo lies behind many of the science fiction programs currently on the air, including Revolution, Person of Interest, and Almost Human. Abrams himself is associated with the celebrated series Lost (2004-2010), which seemed single-handedly to reinvent notions of genre on television, and is involved as writer, producer, and director across science fiction more broadly, especially his role in rebooting both Star Trek and Star Wars. Whedon’s Mutant Enemy logo is less widely distributed, currently airing only Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but his name is as widely known and more enthusiastically embraced by a loyal cadre of fans who follow his work since television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). None of Whedon’s other series achieved quite the same success as Buffy, but its spin-off Angel (1991-2004) made a respectable showing and is regarded by some as a better, more adult treatment their shared theme, the monstrosity of everyday life as literalized metaphor. Whedon was able to complete his vision in media such as comic books, and fan enthusiasm for Firefly (2002-2003) played a significant part in that narrative’s completion in the feature film Serenity (2005).
In addition to creating popular and influential series and films that have shaped the genre through their many imitators, both Abrams and Whedon have pioneered new ways of relating texts to audiences across distribution platforms. Both were among the first to engage with fan communities’ responses to their narratives, and they therefore played key roles in shifting the relationship between industry and fan production toward what Henry Jenkins has described as Convergence Culture (2008). Additionally, in their work across media (from television to film to comics to digital games), both have played significant roles in the creation of transmedia storytelling. Abrams and Whedon have changed the nature of fantastic genres in the twenty-first century and contributed to significant shifts in the overall political economy of popular culture. Yet, despite their similar innovations at this level of form, their influence and legacy is distinct.
Abrams has achieved greater reach in marketing new fantastic modes, but Whedon is more widely praised by critics and fans. Abrams’s work as a producer enables him to create a space for innovative work in the genre beyond titles to which he directly contributes. In contrast, Whedon’s primary identity as a scriptwriter makes his contributions closer to the model of auteur theory in film studies, where his own distinctive voice and vision are central to his influence on the field. So, who would win in a fight between Bad Robot and Mutant Enemy?
Answering this question really depends on what we mean by win. Certainly in terms of volume, Bad Robot comes out ahead, with three series on television compared to Mutant Enemy’s one. In terms of quality, judging by the current television season alone, things seem fairly evenly matched.
Revolution is proving to be a much more interesting series this year than last, and its ability to reinvent and reshape itself in this way is distinctive of Abrams’s innovations, epitomized by the cult hit Lost that changed from a scripted version of Survivor, to political conspiracy thriller, to fantasized mythology, to science fiction time travel across its six seasons, sometimes mid-episode. A mysterious force is also at work in Revolution, just as Lost’s Island had its godlike beings, but Revolution seems less inclined to alter its mythology on the fly, and has a better rationale for it in the first place in nanotech AI, and so the strengths of this series are perhaps a reflection of an alchemical balance between Abrams’s whimsy and co-creator Eric Kripke’s steady hand. Kripke’s previous success was with Supernatural (2005) a huge fan favorite poised to be renewed for a 10th season, although its narrative has become rather strained in recent seasons. How many times can Sam and Dean turn on one another, then reconcile, go to hell, then come back? As many as the market will bear, it seems, and Kripke had the good sense to distance himself after the resolution of a planned five-year narrative arc that gave a satisfying shape to their story.
Almost Human, created by Abrams’s protégé J.H. Wyman, seems the most banal of current Bad Robot offerings, despite good performances from series regulars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy. There is nothing particularly wrong with Almost Human but there is nothing particularly right either. As I’ve covered before, its premise is not particularly innovative, and while it has a sleek new look, with Minority Report-esque digital IT interfaces, its plots are banal: cop drama treatments of the future tech whose legal and social consequences are explored in James Woods’s non-fictional Futurescapes (2013-) airing on the Science Channel. Almost Human is all cool surface with very little substance: it remains to be seen if such a vision will nonetheless achieve market success, but the numbers suggest that this series will go to a deserved early grave.
Person of Interest is funded by Bad Robot, but created by Jonathan Nolan, and so it is perhaps unfair to include it in this exercise since Nolan’s own distinctive vision, evident in his screenplays for the Dark Knight films directed by his brother Chris, shapes this series. Person of Interest is one of the best science fiction programs on television today, and if nothing else speaks to Bad Robot’s important role in ensuring talented people have the opportunity to bring their visions to the screen. Person of Interest loses a lot of points in my tally, however, for its mid-season finale that killed off its only person of color in the regular cast, Detective Carter, played by Taraji P. Henson. Although Henson insists, “it’s not like that,” in fact, it is: too many science fiction television programs have already followed this pattern, and Bad Robot is one of the offenders (i.e., Lost).
The only Mutant Enemy contender in the current lineup, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has not had the strongest showing this season, but ensemble casts and long narrative arcs, Whedon’s distinctive traits, take some time. Predictions are that, despite an uneven start, this series will be renewed, and it is in second seasons that Mutant Enemy productions shine. Unlike earlier series, this one is not substantially written by Joss Whedon, whose role as creator is closer to Abrams’s in a number of his projects. This may be to the show’s detriment, but so far seems to have meant that people blame the series’ shortcoming on his distance. The mid-season finale displayed some of the distinctive Joss Whedon charm, rehabilitating J. August Richards’s character Mike Petersen from the pilot and promising further developments in the mystery of what lies behind Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) otherwise too-easy resurrection. The series loses some points for Coulson and Agent Ward’s (Brett Dalton) banter about the puzzle that is woman, although it gains some back when May (Ming-Na Wen) later yells at Ward for presuming to take a punch for her. And Agent Ward seems more like a network-note character than a Whedon character in any case.
So my vote for most interesting mid-season finale and most promising series goes to Mutant Enemy. But the political economy of television may have more reasons to give the nod to Bad Robot. Whedon’s fights with network executives to make his series according to his vision are notorious and his work has been plagued by early cancellations. Abrams, in contrast, seems to have the golden touch when it comes to renewals. Yet, for all its acclaim and massive audience while on the air, Lost is already drifting into television history. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in contrast, remains a fan and convention favorite, current airs on Spike TV, and continues to be embraced by new generations of young viewers even though its series finale aired over a decade ago.
Thus, while Bad Robot comes out ahead in quantity, Mutant Enemy has the edge in longevity.
By Jonathan Alexander
I’LL BEGIN WITH A DISCLAIMER: as much as I love SF, time-travel stories are my least favorite. Granted, notable exceptions abound: H. G. Well’s Time Machine, which arguably launches the genre of SF as a whole, and Greg Benford’s Timescape are both brilliantly executed fables that use time travel to meditate on social and ecological injustices. In the hands of many SF TV writers, however, time travel seems largely an excuse to create impenetrable plot twists, a lazy narrative device leaving viewers scratching their heads and propelled to watch the next episode for some sense of resolution. I love the Star Trek franchises, but their time travel episodes are amongst the worst offenders in this category of sloppy story-telling.
And then there’s Continuum. The Canadian channel Showcase first broadcast this series in May 2012, and its third season is currently in production. And despite my bias against time travel narratives, I think Continuum might be about the best SF TV I’ve seen in the last decade. If you’ve missed it, you need to catch up before the next season airs.
Continuum’s plot primarily revolves around a future cop, Kiera (played by Rachel Nichols), who works in 2077 for the corporate state, federal governments having been taken over and run, in a rather fascist fashion, by profit-mongering corporations. Kiera accidentally (maybe, maybe not) gets sucked into a time vortex that a group of condemned future terrorists open up shortly before their execution for having blown up corporate headquarters and killing thousands of people. (Think 9/11 and the attacks on the WTC.) The terrorists want to come back to the present to change things for the better (or at least their version of the better). Kiera and the terrorists have to insinuate themselves into present day Vancouver–Kiera as a law enforcement agent, the terrorists as various activists, moguls, and present-day terrorists. Along the way, Kiera and the terrorists run into a young Alec Sadler (played by Erik Knudsen), who, in the future, becomes one of the prime architects of the future corporate state, as well as the person who may be trying to sabotage the corporate state he’s created. Kiera reveals who she is to Alec, who, a computer genius, is maybe not so stunned to learn that he will become the leading figure in creating the technologies that become the complete surveillance state of 2077. Alec and Kiera help each other, for the time being, and are assisted and antagonized by a strong cast of characters, including Kiera’s police partner Carlos (played by Victor Webster) and former terrorist and now sketchy present-day entrepreneur Matthew Kellog (Stephen Lobo).
This sketch doesn’t even begin to do Continuum justice. The plot increases in complexity with nearly every episode, leading you to a spectacular season two cliffhanger and leaving you wondering what the master plot really is: who really knows what’s going on, who’s pulling the strings, and what’s the end game? Continuum offers us lots of loops, and at its best it’s reminiscent of Kage Baker’s delightful Company novels, which keep you guessing about what designs the future really has on the present. In less capable hands, such stories would be a mess. But what salvages Continuum are the risks the show is willing to take with the viewers’ sympathies and identifications with different characters.
Let me explain. When watching the first few episodes of Continuum, I have to admit I was kind of appalled. Vancouver, where the story is set in both the present and the future, becomes a pretty but nasty place in 2077, a place where the trains run on time—or else. Think corporate fascism–a timely trope given that, in the US at least, corporations are essentially given the same rights as people but also have access to incredible resources to enforce their will and manipulate the legal system. The SF extrapolation is totally believable. While we don’t get a complex sense of how corporations rule, we see many examples of their brutal and total control, complete surveillance, and limited protection of civil liberties; desirable commodities are only accessible to the bureaucratic class that keeps the companies running and profitable. The “smoking man” (William B. Davis) from X-Files plays the elder and future Alec Sadler, who seems to be in control of everything as head of the surveillance company running the state. That casting choice alone signals that these are the bad guys. Kiera is one of their hired guns, and we see her in multiple episodes, flashing back and forth between the present and the future, as a brutal enforcer, hurting those who defy the corporate police state.
But it’s her viewpoint we are asked to identify with primarily, and the story is largely given to us through her eyes. And that’s our dilemma as viewers. She represents an icky future, and you’re invited to sympathize with her desire to protect it. Granted, she’s tracking down terrorists, who battle that state through 9/11-style attacks. But wait: even that is complicated, because, well, you might not agree with their tactics, but you also don’t want to defend the fascist corporate state either. And, as the series progresses, you are given no easy answers here about whom to like, or even whom you should be identifying with. On one hand, we watch the corporate police state being born, particularly through the use of digitally collected information to keep tabs on the lives of citizens and arrest them even for sympathies that are anti-corporate; think of the Patriot Act as it might be administered by Wall Street. One character from the future, Escher, represents a “corporation” that fully funds the Vancouver police force to stop the terrorists by any means necessary, especially after they blow up a building in 2012. At one point, Kiera herself resorts to torturing Julian, Alec’s estranged step-brother who is helping the future terrorists in the present. On the other hand, however, the show spares no love for the terrorists either. Julian is made to look like a young Osama bin Laden, and his tactics seem especially sketchy; remember that blown up building I mentioned? To complicate matters further, we also see how the present-day “terrorists” increasingly seem to want to fight with ideas, not force, and Kiera herself starts to doubt the justness of the future corporate state she’s trying to protect in the present.
You can probably tell that the show is steadily pitching itself as a complex reading of the war on terror at a time of economic crisis—a heady but smart conflation. Early in the second season, we see Julian, in prison, reading The White Guard, an early book by Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s a throwaway scene, but maybe a signal nonetheless if you’re paying close attention. Bulgakov, whose most famous work is The Master and Margarita, wrote The White Guard to depict the many factions (socialist, monarchist, etc.) fighting over Kiev during the 1917 October Revolution. Bulgakov’s own sympathies were mixed, and he became a critic of Soviet policies, especially under Stalin. So, Julian, the revolutionary, reading Bulgakov might be a clue that the show’s “take” on the war on terror, corporate malfeasance, and the economic downturn will not be simple. At the very least, it’s hard to know who the good guys are, and your sympathies for one might have to change over the course of time as you weigh tactics, values, and endgames.
Such steady confusion of sympathies makes for heady, engaging viewing as your identifications with different characters form—and are then challenged. The plots within plots call to mind Fringe, that rip-off of The X-Files. But while Fringe and X-Files were willing to play with their main characters’ foibles, neither risked identifications as strongly as Continuum, which, at its best, makes you question your loyalties to characters as a way to make you question what you really think about terrorism, as well as how far we should–and should not–go in defending an unjust economic status quo. Tricky stuff here. You wonder, does the repression of terrorism in the 21st century actually result in the corporate take over? And might the terrorists have a point in organizing against the nascent corporate state?
What begin as extreme poles–fascism and terrorism–steadily become more nuanced over 23 episodes. Ultimately, Continuum might really be about the re-education of Kiera, who seems led to question who bad the bad guys really are, and if she herself might be a bad guy. As such, in asking you to identify with her, the show might play to our re-education as viewers, or at least prompt us to question our sympathies in the war on terror and the desirability of having corporations call so many political shots. Early in the second season, one of the more brutal future terrorists asks Carlos, the present-day police detective, if he’s ever bothered by the injustices he sees, the ways corporations seem to manipulate the law and citizens to turn a profit. Carlos replies, “Guess I’m just used to it.” Travis answers: “They need your complacency.” The exchange seems pitched not just to Carlos but to us, sitting comfortably (for now) in front of our televisions.
In figuring a war on terror and the rise of corporate interests, Continuum pulls no punches. Given its subject matter, it shouldn’t. This is complex stuff, deserving of complex treatment. You should catch up before the third season airs—or before the corporate state bans such provocative viewing.
WHEN PHIL FIRST emailed to ask if we wanted to cover this week’s Saturday Night Live, he was not optimistic: “It’s a new one, but it’s with WhoGivesAShitJoshHutcherson.” (It was also with HAIM, whose employment of “bass face” merits a column unto itself.) But people do care about Josh Hutcherson — the Youngs care about Hutcherson, and SNL cares about the Youngs, or at least cares about their demo, which is why the hosts and musical guests seemingly oscillate between things 30-something bourgeois hipsters like (HAIM, Tina Fey, Ed Norton, The Alabama Shakes) and things 16-year-olds like (Hutcherson, Lady Gaga, Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber). Then there’s obvious ploy to get anyone over 40 to DVR the show, on display every time they invite a classic host (Steve Martin) or classic comedian (Martin Short, one last season’s best hosts).
So SNL picks hosts to attract demographics, that much is clear. But why do the celebrities pick SNL?
On the surface, the answer is clear: Publicity. Exposure. Promotion, especially for a new movie or album or season of television. But hosting Saturday Night Live also offers the opportunity to add necessary texture, humor, or substance to a star image — to turn “that guy who plays Peeta in Hunger Games” into a national name, something more than sum of his franchise parts.
Star images are the culmination of a star’s publicity, promotion, and textual appearances, but they’re also something more. They’re everything the star says in interviews, every outfit they’re photographed wearing, every appearance they make in films and commercials and award show podiums. But certain sound bites and outfits and appearances are accentuated over others and come to compose the core of the star’s meaning. Julia Roberts did all sorts of things before she was in Pretty Woman, but once she was in that film, it became the foundation of her image, inflecting every choice, every romance, every hairstyle. When she cut and dyed her hair to appear in Mary Reilly, for example, her fans balked. It wasn’t “right,” it was “all wrong” and unnatural — which is another way of saying it wasn’t her Pretty Woman hair, which was the way that audiences wanted to understand her.
We like to think of star images as natural — a reflection, just ever-so-slightly mediated, of the “real” person. But they’re the result of complex strategies of star production: a whole team of people who make decisions about what the star should say, who he should say it to, and how he should say it, and how that will make the star seem to mean a certain thing, like “cool girl” (Jennifer Lawrence) or “your ideal boyfriend” (Ryan Gosling). (I’m not suggesting that J-Law isn’t, in fact, dorky and self-effacing, but her PR team has absolutely told her to amp that performance to 11).
And if star images are products, then SNL functions as a prime, privileged means of image production. It can’t set the image core (at least not for its hosts), but it can inflect that core, give it something like heft and complexity and charisma.
As SNL has aged, it’s amassed an enormous pool of hosts, which means that there are relatively “open” spots in a season, especially for untested non-comedians. But every season, a few would-be stars get their chance. Most of these performers already have something big going for them: a teen franchise (Taylor Lautner), a huge album (Justin Timberlake), or a hit television show (Jon Hamm). But their images, at least at that point, are one-dimensional. Taylor Lautner was Jacob from Twilight and nothing more; Timberlake was a boy bander-turned-solo-pop-star; Jon Hamm was handsome Don Draper.
And then SNL proved that they — or at least two of those listed above — were something more, something bigger and star-worthy.
To excel at hosting, you must be what Dan Savage calls “GGG” — good, giving, and game. Savage uses it to talk about sex, but it applies to comedic performance as well: you’ve got to be a decent actor, you’ve got to give your time and energy to doing it right, and you’ve got to be up for the weirdest shit the writers throw your way.
Timberlake and Hamm are “good” because they are, bluntly, good actors. (Timberlake may falter on the big screen, but that’s usually an issue of casting: if he were playing his Social Network and Bad Teacher roles at all times, we wouldn’t have a problem). They can take direction, they hit their marks, they don’t “break” in reaction to a punchline.
They’re generous to their co-performers (Timberlake was always happy to let Fallon have the joke), but they’re also “giving” in a slightly different way: they learn their lines. It’s clear they’ve rehearsed — that they’re taking this comedy diversion seriously. (I enjoyed parts of Kerry Washington’s hosting turn from a few weeks ago, but she was visibly reading the cue cards 75% of the time).
And Timberlake and Hamm are both “game”: Timberlake was willing to do weird Color Me Badd riffs (before the ’80s were even that cool again) that involved a.) his penis and b.) having sex with his friend’s mother. But it’s more than just the viral hits — watch Timberlake in “The Barry Gibb Show,” from one of his earliest hosting appearances, and see a man willing to own the ‘70s androgynous pantsuit/temper tantrum.
And Jon Hamm is likable and Jon Hamm-ish throughout his hosting gig, essentially reifying his Jon Hamm-ness, but he’s also so gamely bizarre in skits like “Jon Hamm’s Jon Ham,” about a bathroom stall ham dispenser.
After hosting SNL, the discourse about both Timberlake and Hamm changed. Suddenly, Timberlake was more than just a former Mickey Mouse Clubber who dated Britney Spears and might be the next MJ: he was funny, maybe even smart, with an indelible charisma that you have to battle to dislike. With that sort of layered image, it became impossible to write Timberlake off as just another boy band star turned solo. It thickened his image, made it stick — which is precisely why he’s still around today and not just an aging 30-something with an arguably disappointing third record.
As for Jon Hamm, he became something more than Don Draper. The famous Don Draper satire skit showed just how performative Draper is — how easy, in other words, it is to “play at” being Draper-ish, with the added bonus of highlighting Hamm’s distance from the Draper character. (You don’t make fun of who you are, just who people think you are). Television stars always have this problem: because you see them playing the same character week after week, their star images are overdetermined by their onscreen characters, making it very difficult for them to move on to marketedly different roles. (See: Jerry Seinfeld, the entire cast of Friends, etc.) Unlike movie stars, who only play a role for two hours, television stars are equated with a role for years.
Hamm could have been stuck to Don Draper forever, but he/his people made two calculated and, in hindsight, genius moves: he appeared as a very unsuave, unDraper womanizer in Bridesmaids, and he was very, very funny on SNL. And now he’s a bonafide star, with a Hollywood future that will extend far beyond season seven of Mad Men. He’s charismatic and handsome and talented, but lots of television actors have that. With the help of SNL (and the lack of underwear), however, Hamm built himself an actual star image.
As for Lautner, there’s many reasons why that kid isn’t a star, and lack of trying isn’t one of them. After the success of the first Twilight, his publicity team did a fairly masterful job of promoting his road from scrawny teenager to jacked werewolf, and he was signed to a slew of action roles that promised to make him into the next Tom Cruise. But unlike Cruise, Lautner can’t act. He also has no charisma, or agility as a performer, or even, it seems, a robust sense of humor — all of which were on prime display in his turn as SNL host.
The lesson: SNL can turn you into a legitimate star, but it can also prove that you maybe shouldn’t be one.
Which is why Josh Hutcherson’s turn as host was so quietly delightful. Here’s a guy who, on paper, should be a horrible host. He’s the (relatively) boring straight man from a franchise (albeit a better franchise than most) and his acting, at least in the first one, isn’t noteworthy. If there’s one thing people know about him, it’s that he’s not who they would’ve cast as the hot, strong-armed baker-turned-Katniss love interest.
From the beginning of the episode, Hutcherson was all about redeeming himself. In the first sketch, he roundly ridicules the passivity of his Hunger Games character, and in the digital short “Matchbox 3,” about a crew of subway performers who do their acts in very, very confined spaces, he not only makes fun of his height, but gives himself over fully to the role.
(There’s something so winsome about the way he throws his hand in air in the intro).
And then there’s the most bonkers skit on the show, in which Hutcherson brings home his “new girlfriend” for Thanksgiving, only to surprise his family with the fact that she’s….a turkey.
It’s a classic example of weird, end-of-the-night SNL. It’s not funny, exactly, nor is it entirely satire, but Hutcherson’s ability to straight-facedly make out with a turkey should make us consider him as something more than sad-faced Peeta.
Because Hutcherson is, indeed, more than just a franchise star: he was convincing and embarrassed in The Kids Are Alright, and he’s been slogging through bit roles and kid parts since 2003. Like Hamm, Timberlake, and other recent SNL charmers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Miley Cyrus, Hutcherson is a workhorse — in classic Hollywood, they called actors like them “troupers” because they’d paid their dues, often since they were young children, in vaudeville troupes, where they’d laugh, cry, sing, dance, do stunts, and then do it all over again 24 hours later in the next town. They were GGG because their very livelihood depended on it.
Cary Grant was a trouper, so was Judy Garland — and both would’ve made superlative SNL hosts. Because when it comes down to it, SNL is the vaudeville show for the 21st century, with the ability to bring out the best and worst in its hosts. A hosting gig will always provide visibility. But if the performer is a GGG trouper, that gig can also make him or her a star. It didn’t quite happen with Hutcherson, but who knows: given another chance and more, weirder, material, it might yet.
Googling “Jon Ham,”
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.