Tag Archives: Television

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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The Good Bros of Fox

Dear Television,

HEY, REMEMBER WHEN Fox Tuesdays were the next best hope for a full-on televisual Ladies Night? An evening of television created by female showrunners and structured around Zooey Deschanel and Mindy Kaling? Fox had harvested the fruit of a decade of Tina Fey pioneering and invited us all to sip upon the delicious, feminist Liz Lemon-ade! In fact, that was part of the reason why this very blog chose to write a weekly column about New Girl and The Mindy Project last fall (a column you may or may not recall that we dropped like a hotcake midseason in order to spend time with Lena Dunham in Patrick Wilson’s brownstone).

As it turned out, New Girl was maddeningly inconsistent, and The Mindy Project’s unembarrassed embrace of the lurid wealth that enables but goes unmentioned in most sitcoms began to feel unseemly. But, more than that, neither show was really paying off on that whole Ladies Night thing. In fact, the reason to watch each week was more often determined by Nick, Schmidt, or Morgan than it was by Jess or Mindy. Ladies Night had been infiltrated by wacky dudes, and Fox noticed. So, this year, Fox plugged Tuesdays with Dads — a comedy that reminds us how much more racist and misogynist things sound when human people say them instead of cartoons — and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a promising new show about a man-child police detective. (And, for what it’s worth, it’s widely assumed that Dads will likely be replaced midseason by the recently resurrected John Mulaney Show, which is about a dude named John Mulaney.)

Jane, you’re very right to point out the man-childishness of this block, and Lili, your treatise on the new — questionable — sincerity of these shows is really right on. There is an evolution going on here, and I think an intermediary step that we ought to talk about is The Bro. Last year I wrote a post about Schmidt and Mindy that attempted, with all the requisite rigor of a PhD in English, a theory of the douche-bag. Schmidt was a d-bag, so was Danny Castellano, and so too, I suggested, was Mindy — trying too hard for the wrong things. There was pathos in the struggle, but the shows were essentially ballads of the unrepentant tool.

At the root of the d-bag discussion was likability. Why was Schmidt a relatable heel while Mindy pushed her audience away? It’s obviously a gendered distinction, but it wasn’t until this week that I think I realized the fine grain of it. For women on TV, the archetypal d-bag is the Mean Girl. Shallow, catty, Machiavellian — you’re either a glamorous jerk like Olivia Pope or a low-rent, dastardly one like the kind Allison Janney now plays (perfectly) on Mom. Once a female character becomes a d-bag, there’s nowhere to land but Regina George. Either the mean girl repents and becomes human again, or she remains a villain. (Hopefully, we’ll be able to write a little later this season about The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, the primary example of a female character who’s been able to exist betwixt and between these poles, and, not incidentally, the protagonist of the best show on television. Come at me!)

For men, of course, there’s the archetypal Sleaze — a role with which Schmidt has always flirted and that was portrayed last week on Mindy by the evil Glenn Howerton. But men also have a second option that I’m not sure yet exists archetypally for women on television. It’s softer, it’s kinder, it’s d-baggy and cocky but also still somehow redemptive. I’m speaking, of course, of the Bro. And, in the absence of an idea of what to do with Jess or Mindy, Fox Tuesday night has become the Frat House of the television landscape.

What I’ll call, for these purposes, “The Good Bro,” is an archetype that is related to, maybe even evolved from, the man-child. (It should be understood that Dads, a topic we’ve avoided like the plague, is Fox’s repository of “Bad Bros” — a kind of release valve that allows all the virtuous bro-ing down that occurs throughout the rest of the schedule.) Where the man-child is insecure in his masculinity, the good bro is secure; where the man-child is stunted in his development, the good bro is confidently developed; where the man-child is immature to the point of disability, the good bro is functional, even successful; and where the man-child is searching, the good bro operates based on a strict ethical code. What they both share, however, is the sincerity of which Lili speaks. The good bro, as opposed to the sleaze, holds nothing back. Masculine, friendly, sensitive to women, only rhetorically misogynist, possessed of a Str8 Bro-style obsession with homosexual desire, and, above all, committed to a kind of unfiltered truth-telling, the Good Bro is now the dominant feature of Fox’s Tuesday night.

Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg’s character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is the very model of a modern good bro. He’s almost psychotically confident, obsessed with asserting his masculinity by winning a date with a female detective, but even more obsessed with winning the best friendship of his tough-as-nails gay captain, played by Andre Braugher. Peralta is presented as a typical loose cannon, but, rather than be distracted by liquor and women like many sleazier loose cannons past, Peralta’s wildness is manifest in zany, fratty, ultimately inclusive antics. He tazes cantaloupes, he competes in fire extinguisher-propelled office chair races, and he wears a brightly colored Speedo to work as a prank on the captain. He is, in other words, confident enough in his competence to treat his job like a joke and secure enough in his sexuality to play around at its boundaries.

Schmidt is the primary bro on New Girl, but, especially in the light of his recent duplicity, he is emphatically a bad bro. Nick Miller, while disqualified from true good bro-ness, at the very least embraces the aesthetic of the good bro. And, to this extent, he provides a counter-weight to Schmidt’s sleaze. He’s a slob and a drinker, a Chicago Bears fan and a hacky-sacker. Until last week, he’s been emotionally unavailable in a particularly gendered way, and, earlier in the series, he fell in deep, platonic love with Jess’s boyfriend Fancyman. Again, even though Nick is atypical, he embodies the key good bro qualities of faithfulness, dudeliness, and a healthily flexible sexual imagination.

The Mindy Project is the third part of this Bro-ly Trinity, and it features one of the clearest conversations about the State of the American Bro yet going. In fact, in a recent episode, this conversation becomes explicit. Danny (Chris Messina) is threatened by the appearance of a new doctor, the charming, ex-frat boy Peter Prentiss (Adam Pally). Danny complains to Jeremy that Prentiss, “calls everyone boss or chief or little buddy,” to which Jeremy replies that he had assumed the two would get along, being both of them “American dudes.” Jeremy has rightly picked up the fact that Prentiss is the living ideal of fraternal intimacy. Danny then articulates what he believes to be a fundamental difference between the two men: “We’re nothing like each other, ok? He wears cargo shorts, I wear slacks. He surfs, I fear the ocean out of respect.” Danny identifies with a kind of stoic, conservative, working-class masculinity whereas Prentiss is a classic frat guy: scrubbily privileged and entitled. But, as their actions eventually reveal, the differences between Danny and Prentiss are really just internecine squabbles between Good Bros. As macho OB/GYNs, they are representatives of fraternity and maternity in equal measure, and, when Mindy needs them, they’ll be there to help.

Prentiss is the Good Bro par excellence. He speaks in the language of the frat (“I’ve been on the other side of this a lot — dumping chicks.”; “I would chop you down on sight.”) but he also demonstrates an almost preternatural sensitivity with the practice’s patients. He talks constantly about the “chicks” he’s dating, but he also keeps trying to touch Danny’s “junk.” His swaggering masculinity is not an act, but it occupies equal real estate with his ethical and professional goodness. Nowhere is this more clearly materialized than when he helps empower Mindy to get over her breakup, wiping her tears away with a g-string. Earlier in the episode, he tells a pregnant patient, “I’m kidding, but I’m also being really serious.” It’s the fundamental contradiction of the Good Bro. His lightness co-exists with, even enables, his substance.

But all of this is less about a particular assertion of masculinity than it is about a likability gap. New Girl and Mindy Project were initially faulted for having protagonists who were, respectively, too twee and too mean. In order to counteract this, the Good Bro emerged on these shows because if the Good Bro is anything, he’s likable. His contradictions exist because he’s a character pitched to what networks perceive to be the priorities of both male and female viewers simultaneously. The Good Bro is a good-time party guy, masculine/feminine subject, a figure viewers can have in common. He’s also the lynch-pin of the kind of hang-out style show to which all three series aspire (needless to say, Joey Tribiani is as Good a Bro as it is possible to be). He’s invited you into his fraternity. It only seems strange because it used to be a sorority.

On SIGHT,

Phil.

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Are Sitcoms Sincere Again?

Dear TV,

I LOVE JANE’S take on the sitcom-as-Manchild and her point that the contemporary sitcom’s reliance on the manchild lets it get away with some pretty lazy comedic work. It’s all true: I love Schmidt but there’s a limit, and I’m glad he’s hitting some actual consequences this season. Still, I think there are some signs of growth in our Tuesday night lineup: Jess’s Nick is reveling in happiness and his untroubled (and distinctly un-Manchildish) liking of Jess. It’s weird and a little mawkish but it’s a kind of progress the show is really interested in highlighting, since there are several scenes whose sole function is to show them adorabling at each other. Nick may be impractical in a way that calls to mind the Manchild, but his crazy scheme to live in Mexico is the opposite of its Manchild-driven cousin — the kind Mindy’s Casey (and last season’s Nick) would come up with. It isn’t driven by that particular strain of ego, the kind that wants to be adventurous (or a DJ) or wallow in cereal damage and flit. Nick’s lunacy is driven not by the nomadic desire to Peter Pan but rather by fear that he and Jess will break up in the world he’s made a habit of Peter Panning in. That may be immature, but it’s a more adult form of immaturity.

Mindy’s boyfriend Casey, in contrast, has been walking the tightrope between Manic Pixie Dream Boy and Manchild in The Mindy Project until he fully morphed this season into sandwich-DJ-boy. I like what he’s done for Mindy — stretching the limits of her self-image till she realized she didn’t like them hyperextended — and I like that he was charming to the bitter end. It’s a better show for refusing to escort its exes offstage, a la Seinfeld, never to be seen again.

In fact, The Mindy Project is plagued with old exes. It’s a funny strength of the show: it rarely condescends to or cheapens the stories of ex-partners, and it dedicates some serious screentime to the largely unexplored problem of having exes who are not terrible people or (for the most part) sources of drama, but whose existence remains a problem. Both New Girl and The Mindy Project are kind; they take a generous view of the ex. They spend time on heartbreak and the painful duty afterwards to think about the other party’s third dimension and wish them well. I have to say, given how much energy the show has spent on this question — even Bill Hader’s Tom McDougall is back! — writing Mindy and Jeremy Reed as ex-lovers seems like a mistake. They’re not awkward enough.

Still, I think Kaling’s show is evolving past the Manchild too: Casey’s gone. Morgan, for all his flaws, is an adult with a remarkable emotional attention span. And Jeremy Reed, who threatened to become Mindy’s Daniel Cleaver, matured so suddenly and completely that he takes charge of the whole practice when everyone takes off in “Music Festival.” (He’s gained weight. This is an amazingly literal show — “Yeah, I’m okay. I mean, I’m shrunken into, like a miniature version of myself,” Casey says when he talks to Mindy from the photobooth picture, and maybe gaining weight means gaining substance.)”

This brings me to Brooklyn Nine-nine. I’m not charmed by Andy Samberg’s Peralta. I have to admit I don’t think the show has been very entertaining. (Yet, anyway.) A lot of it seems conventional and silly and expected. (There are exceptions — Fred Armisen’s cameo was gold, and there have been several jokes that really surprised me — so I’m holding out hope.)

I recognize, too, that part of my sense of having seen this before comes from its flavor. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has that overlit fake-workplace mood that characterizes some shows from the late 80s and early 90s. I’m thinking of Night Court and Wings, though not (for example) Cheers. I think its closest analogue might be Thin Blue Line, a Rowan Atkinson vehicle from the mid-nineties, about a police station, of which I’m stupid-fond. But the difference is interesting: Thin Blue Line is built around a main character only a few years older than Samberg/Peralta whose problem isn’t Manchildhood but premature middle age. And it’s kind of wonderful that his “antagonist” — a middle-aged detective who keeps trying to be a cowboy — is closer to the Samberg persona. The show dwells on the virtues and problems of policework as paperwork. Another way of putting it, I guess, is that Peralta’s problem (see “The Slump”) is often one of inspiration, which runs the risk of taking his work too seriously. (At these points, Jane, your McNulty comparison is totally apt.) The show operates on the fiction of a meritocracy: he’s brilliant! The captain hasn’t “earned” his place on the wall! Gina’s claim that the police are “the worst” doesn’t quite fit with the show’s worldview. What makes Thin Blue Line the better show, to my mind, is its portrayal of policework as pedantry and minutiae, repetition and reports, all powered by (in the detective’s case) the glorious myth of case-cracking and (in Atkinson’s) the fulfillment that comes from service to the Queen. That’s an interesting tension. If Thin Blue Line opens with Atkinson pompously instructing us on the work of the police and then undoing the lecture, Brooklyn Nine Nine operates like a sketch comedy that just happens to be set in a police station. But police stations aren’t blank spaces, especially now, and a precinct doesn’t work for me as the neutral ground for light comedy.

What these shows share, I think, is an impulse to grab, a little wildly, at innocence. They’re trying to restore the sitcom to its former place as straightforward, not winking. They resist going meta. They slip, of course, but the nannycam moment Jane mentions, the one that confirms Peralta as Manchild, is working so hard to be believable that its meta goes flat. We are in an electronics store and this is a television show! is the substance of its comment. (Not that we are constantly surveilled, not that a militarized police can abuse that surveillance, and not that the women are watching the man do the cool stuff onscreen, but rather that surveillance helps the police get their man. Look! They got him! He got him! And now we got them getting him!) They’re going for laughs and heart, not irony or a mock-doc frame that lets us pretend our way out of sentiment or sincerity.

I’m all for that nostalgic experiment. (Though, as I’ve said, I’m skeptical of its success across the board.) Here are my deeply subjective impressions: I think Mindy’s trying to bring the rom-com to television in an earnest way, and it’s working. I think New Girl is going for the warmth of Friends 2.0 and succeeding, especially now that it stopped fighting Jess and Nick together, though it feels like a plastic world to me in a way The Mindy Project doesn’t. I think Brooklyn Nine-Nine is trying to offer a workplace comedy unencumbered by the politics and ethics of Parks and Recreation, the cameras of The Office and the darkness of Cheers. I’m unconvinced by it, but what’s compelling about all three — and this is the reason I’ll keep watching — is that they’re going for the thing itself rather than commenting on the thing. I think we’re all a little bruised by meta-commentary, so I’m all for a night of TV that plays with returning to story as story, laugh as laugh.

Sincerely yours,

Lili

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Can the Sitcom Grow Up?

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE — one of Fox’s new sitcoms — begins with a classic expository trick: the viewer’s first introduction into this world coincides with that of new characters’. (As if they weren’t all new to us.) The pilot presents commanding chief Ray Holt (played by an almost virtuosically stoic Andrew Braugher) to his police precinct, which features a solid group of personalities from the unexpectedly-good-at-his-job detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) to charm-monster administrative assistant Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti). It might be an old move, getting viewers acclimatized to a sitcom’s cast and environment via one of its own characters, but it works. It might even contribute to why multiple critics have described Brooklyn Nine-Nine as having one of the only solid pilots of this current season. (Which, to be fair, is a feat in any season.).

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a show about the police that doesn’t fall into the habitual category of dramatic police procedural — yet it’s not without its moments of action or suspense either. The show is, however, predominantly a comedy (couched in Fox’s Thursday night sitcom block between Dads and New Girl) that capitalizes on the presumed discrepancy (at least in television’s ambitious imagination) between police work and humor. Brooklyn Nine-Nine continuously comes up against its own subject matter when, say, Peralta cracks jokes at an elderly woman during the scene of a hold-up. In another scene, Peretti’s character flat-out tells two detectives the obvious fact that “Police are the worst.”

This move of emphasizing what’s absurd or oxymoronic in the banal isn’t exactly a new move for comedians (and this particular cast is filled with them), but I do think Brooklyn Nine-Nine is doing something slightly different in directly pointing to the absurdity, while simultaneously embracing its implications. Police are the worst, but what about these police? There isn’t a single character in the show so far that viewers are against. The show’s attitude is winking and earnest, skeptical and optimistic. In this way, Brooklyn Nine-Nine mirrors its creators’ (Michael Schur and Dan Goor) prior project, Parks and Recreation. And character types are transported across the two shows as well (Holt and Swanson; Rosa and April; Peralta and Knope; Scully and Jerry). With only four episodes under its belt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has found its pace faster than the unsteady first season of Parks and Rec, but that just goes to show how much might potentially change. Though I do think the show’s gesture — of stating the obvious while also undermining it — gives it a kind of earnestness that, like Parks and Rec returns an infectious hope upon its viewers.

Such hope perhaps means more when you look at the shows that air directly after Brooklyn Nine-Nine (New Girl and Mindy Project), as well as the particular network in which they all currently reside. As Andy Greenwald recently wrote, Fox has, if one disregards Dads, “emerged as the smartest, funniest, and all-around best night of comedy on television.”

The glory days of NBC’s Thursday nights — and I’m including all three decades of greatness here, the Cheers-anchored ’80s, the Friends/Seinfeld ’90s, and the Office/30 Rock aughts — crackled with wit and infectious, rom-comedic possibility. Viewers could park themselves on a single channel, secure in the knowledge that they’d be smartly entertained for at least 90 minutes. It was network TV at its best: both dependable and transporting, an intimate, unmissable party to which the entire country was invited.

In 2013, Fox has firmly supplanted NBC as the host of this party. With Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and Mindy Project, we get a series of sitcoms that feel not just inviting or comfortable, but at times even surprising. It’s a tough calculus to achieve, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine seems aware that the contemporary television sitcom needs to be as much a comfortable throwback as it does a novel entity in order to thrive.

About halfway into the pilot, Jeffords briefs the new commanding officer on the precinct, describing Peralta as “my best detective. He likes putting away bad guys, and he loves solving puzzles. The only puzzle he hasn’t solved…is how to grow up.” This seems coincidentally to be the fundamental puzzle of most male characters on television sitcoms — but might the same be said for the television sitcom itself? Is the television sitcom growing up, and it is, of all places, doing so under Fox?

To present male leads as exceptional at their jobs, yet adolescent-to-the-point-of-dysfunctional in their social lives is a familiar trope, and you find it in comedies and dramas alike (I wonder how much Peralta might be a play on The Wire’s McNulty). It’s almost a fantasy of the predominantly male-driven world of sitcoms to allow men to have it both ways. While a commentary on male privilege in general (oh, let us not bring up Dads), it affects the sitcom structure from narrative content down to its very form. In order to keep the repetitious plot of the sitcom world in motion, one must never let its men grow up too quickly, if at all. Perhaps a less dire way of looking at it: if men acted like adults, where would we find the comedy? But even this view is exhausting and potentially exhausted by now, for jokes about “the boy can’t help it!” are practically as old as the epic story.

Perhaps Molly Lambert’s category of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy (who “builds up the heroine’s self-confidence, providing comfort, inspiration, and nurturing vibes without demanding anything in return”) would be better suited not to describe male characters that are unbelievable, but are all too much so? The Manic Pixie Dream Boy isn’t a female fantasy in the same way the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is for men. He is neither docile, comforting, nor inspiring for our heroines. But this doesn’t preclude him from acting, in a way, as a kind of female fantasy. Rather, he is, like his female counterpart, forever immature, coyly incompetent, and cutely fumbling in his efforts — and yet surprisingly capable in accomplishing his culturally prescribed roles (here, solving crimes or catching the “bad guys,” as Peralta puts it, rather than baking a pie). Unlike the Dream Girl, however, our Dream Boys are often presented with a knowing wink.

Indeed, to call attention to the meta-ness of its types, Brooklyn Nine-Nine begins with Andy Samberg’s Peralta talking into a recording device in a camera store that then rebroadcasts his grinning talking head in the many screens populating the store. TVs within our TVs! The emphatic media framing — and subsequent reframings — of this opening scene, though, forces viewers to question not just Peralta as a character, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine as a show. Where are we, what genre is this, and how much do we trust the talents of this obvious goofball? (Peralta solves the crime by finding a hidden camera in a teddy bear, and then proceeds to mime in a baby-voice as the teddy bear to what we later learn is his co-worker/crush. I mean.) It’s a clever establishing scene by the show, but it’s also vastly forgiving to its male lead.

The competent and endearing manchild, though, seems to be a trend across Fox’s Tuesday night comedy bracket, and I’m wondering how much we are expected (or should) forgive it. I mean, is it really all that cute? There were moments when Samberg’s Peralta could easily substitute for Max Greenfield’s Schmidt in New Girl (another character who is notably good at his job, interested in fonts, yet absurdly immature and maladroit in his social life). Both Peralta and New Girl’s Winston “loves solving puzzles,” and both sometimes do it with their pants off (though, to be fair, the latter only likes puzzles — he isn’t all that good at them). This season of the New Girl has Zooey Deschanel as the most grounded character of the entire cast — an almost complete reversal from how she was introduced to the show. Instead, we have her dating Nick Miller — failed lawyer but hacky-sack-cool-kid — who shows development this season because he’s able to express his feelings. This is, of course, played up for laughs, as Nick pours forth on his opinions about the weather and horses and magic, stream-of-consciousness-style. In Mindy Project, our eponymous protagonist moves between being engaged to Blake Anderson (of Workaholics fame), to going on a date with Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan Tookers, to flirting with Glenn Howerton (aka Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny). Manchildren all around! Are these really our only romantic options?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Mindy Project especially feel new because they are playing on our knowledge of narrative tropes (police procedural and rom-com respectively), but I’m not sure how far this can be sustained. Perhaps the sitcom needs to grow up? Or maybe what I’m imagining is exactly what the sitcom doesn’t need — for if Greenwald is right in that Fox offers us a place of reassurance and comfort, then the network sitcom must never truly develop.

Sometimes firemen are women,

Jane

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Civil Wars: Reinventing America in Science Fiction Television

NEW GENRE TELEVISION this week included the return of CW’s Arrow, an adaptation of DC’s character Green Arrow, the alter ego of Oliver Queen, a billionaire turned vigilante, like Bruce Wayne’s Batman. Green Arrow, visually associated with Robin Hood, tends toward a leftish defense of the working class and poor, whereas Batman, particularly in his Frank Miller incarnation popularized by Nolan’s films, is further to the right and focuses more on punishing the guilty. Last season saw the rebirth of irresponsible playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Arnell) as a vigilante called The Hood, returned to Starling City from mysterious and arduous exile to condemn various industrialists who have “failed this city,” predominately through acts of economic corruption. Oliver worked from a list given to him by his about-to-die father, and he is motivated as much by a desire to avenge his father’s betrayal by these former allies as by a sense of responsibility to other economic classes. A grim character, Oliver/Arrow is willing to kill in pursuit of his agenda, and the season concluded with his failure to prevent the destruction of the city’s poorest neighborhood, the Glades, by a device invented by another wealthy industrialist who blames his wife’s death in a street crime on the entire underclass from which her assailants came. Although the depredations of the single-minded pursuit of profit were the target of most weekly stories, in its first season Arrow tended to validate Oliver’s vigilantism and to ignore the contradictions of his own privileged position.

Season two opened with some intriguing changes that emphasize the entwined questions of economic and social justice, but also suggest that CW’s Arrow might covertly be as much a defender of class hierarchy as Nolan’s Batman in the controversial The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Following his failure to prevent the destruction of The Glades, Oliver returned to his island exile between seasons, and in his absence a group of the disenfranchised have taken up the Hood identity and begun to attack the elite, again blaming an entire class for the death of loved ones because they (rightfully) associated the destruction of The Glades with the wealthy (Oliver’s mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson) is on trial for her part in the conspiracy). In the first episode, this group attacks Oliver, as head of Queen Industries, using his own slogan, and kidnaps his sister, Thea (Willa Holland), reasoning that they can make Moira suffer loss just as they have by killing her daughter. Needless to say, Oliver arrives to save the day, capturing rather than killing the vigilantes, whom he leaves for police who are surprised by the new capture rather than kill method. Oliver no longer wants to be The Hood, he tells his allies. This reinvention is intriguing and bodes well for Arrow to remain fresh rather than just repeat with variation the same stories and themes each week. A new arc about control of Queen Industries, threatened by hostile takeover, and the addition of Summer Glau to the cast as Isabel Rochev, Oliver’s corporate adversary, is also promising. Yet it is concerning that the series quickly castigate vigilantism as soon as the underclasses take justice into their own hands, and I worry that too much of this season’s energy might be spent defending Oliver’s wealth rather than Glades’ denizens. The episode concludes, after all, with Thea reconciling with her mother, no longer the vocal defendant of The Glades she was when it began.

The polarization of Arrow’s world into wealthy vs. working classes is part of a prevalent theme in contemporary sf television, the reinvention of America via struggle between competing agendas. In Starling City it is corporate restructuring (Rochev) vs. corporate responsibility (Oliver); in the CW’s new show this week, The Tomorrow People, it is an X-Men-esque struggle between those with genetic mutations, “homo superior,” vs. regular homo sapiens, defended by geneticist Jedikiah Price (Mark Pelligrino), who plans to suppress and wipe out these mutants. A grittier reboot of an 1970s British show1(973-1979), The Tomorrow People got off to a rather banal start in its origin-story tale of Stephen Jameson (Robbie Arnell, cousin to Arrow’s Stephen Arnell) learning that his strange sleepwalking is not a sign of emergent psychosis but instead the “breaking out” of his powers of telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation. He chooses to go undercover as an agent of government organization Ultra, dedicated to containing the Tomorrow People, secretly working for the mutant underground resistance. Most of the concepts in the series are taken from the original, but they seem even more derivative because in the interim both The X-Men franchise and Jumper (2008) have thoroughly worked over the idea of a marginalized yet super-powered minority being persecuted by a fearful majority. As The X-Men have shown, this motif can be put to powerful effect to explore the discriminations of racism and homophobia, but thus far The Tomorrow People has failed to understand this metaphor’s potential. It is challenging to take seriously the idea of handsome and athletic Stephen as a victim of any schoolyard bullying, although the episode stages one such confrontation with all the cliché it deserves. The original Tomorrow People hid their abilities fearing the reaction of normal humans, and used their powers to fight evil, local and extra-terrestrial alike. Ultra is an invention of the reboot, another sign of the palpable contemporary sensibility that America has fragmented into irreconcilably different groups, whether the fault lines be economic, embodied ability, or ideological. It is always a delight to see Mark Pellegrino on the screen, and he is particularly compelling as a villain, and so I hope The Tomorrow People can raise its game next week.

Fractures based on ideological difference are evident in the other series as well, all of which in one way or another stage a civil war between competing visions of America. On Sleepy Hollow, renewed this week for a full season run, Judeo-Christian good vs. evil continues to reinterpret the American Revolution, and this week we learned that the Boston Tea Party was merely a “diversion.” I continue to enjoy the series’ moody atmosphere, charismatic leads, and da Vinci code gadgets, but its retreat from politics into mysticism is frustrating. Person of Interest advances its narrative arc about Root’s ideal of machine intelligence producing a utopia elusive to fallible humanity. Agents of S.H.I.E.D., also renews for a full run, marking the first Whedon series to get such network support since Angel, struggles with questions about whether government containment of technology is really less sinister than leaving it in the hands of individuals, and included a wonderful opening sequence featuring a working-class instead of dark-suited agent.

But the most interesting sf television this week was the latest episode of Revolution. I was delighted to discover, against my expectations, that the series did not play out some version of The Walking Dead siege but instead quickly dispatched with sinister cult figure Titus Andover and moved on to the much more disturbing image of US forces arriving to rescue our protagonists from Andover’s berserker hordes. This final sequence was effectively staged and filmed, ensuring that although we are grateful that the troops intervened just as Miles (Billy Burke) was about to be defeated by superior numbers, and undoubtedly in time to save Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) from dying of her wounds, we nonetheless feel more dread than relief as the episode ends. The newly introduced Patriot forces both manipulated Andover to attack the town and as swiftly executed him when he proved more liability than opportunity. The other story lines similarly paint Patriot forces in cynical yet credible hues, positioning Revolution to use science fiction as effective political allegory for contemporary distrust of government and social fragmentation, following in the footsteps of Ronald Moore’s reinvented Battlestar Galactica, which helped audiences navigate a post 9/11 landscape. I’m now excited to see how far the series will take its villainous US this season, and apologize to Kripke et al. for my doubts last week.

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Streaming Pam Beesly

Dear Television,

It is the strangest thing to have a long-term fictional love interest. It’s a type of relationship that is very intimate, and very powerful, but it’s fictional. I mean, there is a part of me that is Pam, and a part of him that is Jim, and that part of me is in love with that part of him.

— Jenna Fischer (Pam) on John Krasinski (Jim)

I’VE BEEN WAITING for this for a while. Of course, I love watching new episodes of Girls and cracking the spine on a fresh Word document to talk about last night’s bottle episode or money shot or video art installation. But, especially recently, what I really want to talk about is old TV. Annie, your argument about Netflix as the new canon is so right. And Netflix doesn’t just re-shift the Golden Age canon retroactively — in terms of de-throning HBO — it also influences what I watch on live TV. (The costliness and difficulty of catching up on FX’s Justified, for instance, means that I simply don’t watch Justified.) But Lili, it’s your point about re-watching that has my brain-strings all atwitter. I am no stranger to waking up at 6 AM realizing that Parks and Recreation has been auto-playing on my laptop for four hours as I lay dreaming. But as interested as I am in the dynamics of narrative comfort, in how Netflix puts us to sleep, as you put it, I’m even more interested in how Netflix keeps us awake.

Streaming may have artificially limited the canon, it may have provided an apparatus that fully realizes TV’s potential as background music, but it’s also made more astute, attentive viewers of a larger swath of the viewing audience. To dip back into the My-Students-These-Days data pool, I’ve found that while my students may not yet know what auteur theory is, while I may need to walk them through how editing works and what deep focus is, they have learned a kind of aesthetic intelligence about film and television that’s evolved out of their own viewing practices.  Despite their lack of technical vocabulary, many of them can immediately tell the difference between a Michelle MacLaren episode of Breaking Bad and a Rian Johnson one. They are aware of texture, in other words, the results of aesthetic decisions if not necessarily the mechanics of those decisions, and they are aware of it because their shows exist in infinitely watchable, infinitely re-watchable, infinitely controllable time. This, as much as the palliative or escapist quality, is one that is changing viewership. Viewers are becoming more attuned—because they are now in control of the archive—to the small ways through which shows are built.

This is, of course, not new either. Rerun culture has a long and storied history, cult films like The Big Lebowski and Rocky Horror Picture Show have generated intense fan bases, and the amazingly revelatory sociological/ethnographic work of Francesca Coppa on the history of “vidding” and video remix culture shows that, as long as VHS has been available, communities of fans have been watching their favorite series close enough to transform them into living, breathing, interactive things. But streaming now enables even casual viewers to behave like obsessed fans. It mainstreams, to some extent, the kind of compulsive, detail-oriented mode of spectatorship we have historically associated with the cult or, heaven forbid, the nerd. Streaming removes the material obstacles to this kind of fandom — the tape decks, the splicing, the dubbing — and lets us watch with the eye of a vidder. It makes Trekkies of us all.

For me, this is less remarkable for the way it allows us to engage with streamable series like Lost or Breaking Bad — series loaded with easter eggs and guns on mantles that were built anticipating and soliciting this kind of fannish attention to detail — than the way it allows us to engage with series that are not built like magic boxes. Combing through the Netflix archive, it quickly becomes apparent that there are shows that thrive in the streaming world, and those that don’t. Lili writes, “The pleasure lives partly in the repetition and partly in watching things we know are coming be skillfully worked out — in watching the universe the show creates survive the minute scrutiny a fan loves to give it.”  And as is often the case, series that may have had somewhat tortured lives on television have emerged as standard-bearers of this new mode of watching.

Friday Night Lights is perhaps the best example of this. Like QB1 Matt Saracen, FNL held on long enough to achieve some initial attention, get cut, get re-instated, switch positions (networks), and then go out with a glorious, if bittersweet, ending. FNL was never what NBC wanted it to be. It was too sad, too quiet, not footbally enough, not sexy enough, too good for this world. But it always had a small legion of fans, and now that the series is on Netflix, its audience builds by conversion like the early church. It feels like it’s always belonged online. FNL — like Freaks and Geeks or Parenthood — is an observational realist show about the practice of living, and that’s an aspect of the show that’s only easily accessible if it gets the kind of intimate, prolonged, attention streaming allows. We re-watch Friday Night Lights because of the texture it offers, the depth of field, the intense desire to see these deeply drawn, inarticulate people find a way to express themselves.

So the patience and ritual and intimacy of Netflix gives FNL a chance to succeed. But this close attention also rewards and transfigures a genre that’s been largely overlooked in all the recent press about the Golden Age: the single-camera sitcom. Freed from the stagey artifice of the multi-cam yukfest, the single-cams took off in the early century, popularizing a mockumentary, comic realist aesthetic, but, with a few exceptions, failing to achieve the kind of vulgar ratings success of their multi-cam, laugh-track cousins. The characteristics that define these shows — heavy serialization, familiar direct address to the viewer, lived-in spaces, mundane detail, painstakingly composed mise-en-scene, almost aggressive sincerity — made them popular but always somewhat awkwardly fitted to network TV. They demanded an intimacy from the audience that the audience was not always willing to give. But on Netflix, these shows — Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, even Louie and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to different extents — gain an almost sublime depth. Like FNL, these shows feel almost impossible now outside of the context of their streaming.

My personal addiction is The Office. I’ve watched the series beginning to end, in and out of chronological order, more times than I can count. It’s a series that survived on TV by anchoring itself to Steve Carrell’s star performance and John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer’s years-long will-they-won’t-they. These were the flashy heart and the broad arc of the series, but it’s only really in streaming that the textures of these performances become available.   Like any relationship, the viewer’s bond with the show is not necessarily based in broad arcs or large questions. Often, we find ourselves most tied to small, off-hand details, elements of mise-en-scene or observed quirks over and above grand gestures and A-plot points. The small flirtations and missed conversations between Jim and Pam through the second and third seasons far outweigh the emotional weight of even great event episodes like “Niagara” or “The Delivery.” And grace notes strewn throughout provide alternate ways to explore and imagine the series. (Try watching the first three seasons as a narrative about Pam and Dwight — trust me.) The thrill, for a show as invested in naturalism and the aesthetic of documentary realism, is not in riding along with a will-they-or-won’t-they arc, but in the feeling of knowing a character.

And knowing a character this way is a function of knowing that character over time. In her 2008 interview with Terry Gross, Jenna Fischer, who played Pam Halpert nee Beesley for nine seasons on The Office, revealed to whom the characters on the show are talking when they talk to the camera.  According to Fischer, when an actor enters into one of The Office’s “talking head” scenes — a convention adopted from the original British series and known in Reality TV documentary aesthetics as “The Confessional” — that actor is not simply reading lines. Instead, every talking head is a conversation, sometimes scripted, sometimes improvised, between the actor and the director of the particular episode. When an actor cries in a talking head, as Fischer has done on multiple occasions throughout the show’s run, it is often a reaction to similar emotion from one of the show’s corps of directors. When an actor seems caught off guard, it is because they often are. When the actor gives the impression of speaking to an old, trusted friend, it is because they, more often than not, are.

It’s not just that streaming and re-watching allows us to achieve a greater intimacy with series that we watch. It’s that streaming and re-watching help us realize that there’s an intimacy built into many of these contemporary series that only partially survives from week to week. The Office ended its run this year by focusing — in a meta-narrative twist — on the profound effect that seeing the full run of “The Office” (the PBS documentary that is the diegetic reason for the show itself) has on Jim and Pam and the whole cast. It’s a fitting end to the series, inasmuch as it recognizes the difference between checking in on the exploits of Dunder Mifflin week-to-week and seeing those exploits as part of a longer, larger fabric of time. It recognizes and validates how the series now exists to us.

It’s hokey to say that talking head scenes make You a Part of The Action, as if the whole series were Star Tours. But we are hailed, in a way, by this show and others like it. We can watch it as a more melancholy version of Friends or as collection of non sequiturs. But we are also asked by this show to revel in its detail, to catch moments we might not have seen before, to notice, for instance, that Dwight has a large, framed picture of a Predator drone above his desk in the later seasons. If, as Lili says, Netflix enables us to take comfort in architecture, it also allows us to enter these interior spaces and feel what it’s like to live inside them. It may seem like too much to make this kind of claim on behalf of this sitcom or any other, but, watching it over and over, it’s unavoidably true that this is how this series addresses us. There’s a goofy banality to re-watching that belies exactly how profound an experience it can be. But that’s what we like about TV, right?

I feel God in this Chili’s tonight,

Phil.

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Why We Watch Netflix In The Middle of the Night

Dear TV,

I WENT TO a puppet show last night. It was the story of the little mechanic who runs the human brain (pictured here as a moldy-looking engine room), zipping around adjusting dopamine and pressure levels trying to regulate his human’s behavior. There was one scene when the beleaguered homunculus was trying to get his insomniac to go back to sleep. How? He made him turn on the computer. “Season one, episode six,” he whispered, and the person’s rhythms relaxed back into REM.

I leaned forward to try to catch which show he was watching, but the title never came. It didn’t have to, I eventually realized, because the scene wasn’t developing a character by revealing his tastes in TV so much as it was appealing to a universal self-soothing mechanism; the experience of flipping around in the dark on a computer for something to watch has become that familiar. Netflix isn’t just The Way We Watch Now, the way Annie said, it’s The Way We Go Back To Sleep Now too. These days we can choose the perfect mood to chase away the nightmare, or the anxiety, or — less successfully — the sad. TV has gotten a lot more intimate, more entwined with our subconscious, closer. In this sense, shows have come to function as music, more symphonic poem than story, more repeating theme than plot.

(I, for instance, have recently medicated my anxious nights with Arrested Development, Peep Show, or Frasier. I turn to the first for its shadowless orange irresponsible cheer*, the second for the comforting bleakness of repeatedly hitting bottom again. As for Frasier, let’s just say its crises are underwritten by psychic safety.)

This isn’t that new, but as we think about how the Netflix and Hulu archives have changed our TV-watching habits, I think this tendency to watch television for reasons that have nothing to do with spoilers (or plot) has gotten stronger. TV has always been something we could have on in the background; it was a casual medium whose built-in inanity let us relax — this is the dubious charm of the late-night show. Over time, scripted stories got better and made more and bigger claims on our attention. Now, thanks to Netflix and other kinds of archival watching, there’s a funny middle ground. We might have Netflix on in the background not because we’re inattentive (or because it’s only mildly compelling) but because we watch TV now the way people watch movies: we rewatch. The shows that become classics are technically reruns, as AHP said, but even more so because they don’t flow from that place of happenstance that gives traditional TV its aleatory quality (“oh, it’s this one!”). Now we choose particular shows and we might — like the mechanic in the puppet show — even say “Season 1, Episode 6.” We rewatch, memorize entire sections, quote. The pleasure lives partly in the repetition and partly in watching things we know are coming be skillfully worked out — in watching the universe the show creates survive the minute scrutiny a fan loves to give it. In the really good shows those worlds are robust, and we can still find something new on a twelfth (or 48th) viewing.

Point being, as we talk about how Netflix technology affects the TV canon, one of the most interesting new contributing factors to a show’s long-term reputation is its resistance to repeat-watching. Spoilers, long the bane of the TV viewing public, are totally irrelevant in Netflix-world, and plotty shows that thrive on cliffhangers may not age as well. The real classics (in this sense, anyway) are the shows that reward rewatchers. Arrested Development is famously one of those shows. Across the pond, Peep Show and The Office are too. As Netflix has started to experiment with producing its own shows, it’s been interesting to see how different the results have been. I wish they’d release the numbers on how many people rewatch their shows. My guess: whatever the actual viewing numbers, Orange is the New Black has many more repeat-viewings than House of Cards.

I think it has to do with a show’s ability to keep its contract with its audience. House of Cards worked (for me) because it was gorgeously shot and seemed conscious of Spacey’s absurdity, his smallness relative to those epic sweeping shots of DC in the opening credits. He was a low-level Macbeth convinced he was Macbeth, and as he delivered his charming but pompous monologues, the bigger stories (to which he was oblivious) were swirling all around him. We weren’t supposed to take his sense of his own centrality at face value; his tragedy was that he thought he was a tragic hero. But a season’s aim is clarified by its ending, and the end of the first season was way too Francis-centric to sustain that reading. Francis is the center after all, and that makes the whole series, in retrospect, much less interesting. The universe is thinner than it seemed, and the show’s return to form (and Francis) betrayed our growing investment in a truly amazing ensemble cast and their stories, which revert to second-string. (This is my frustration with Mad Men too.)

Orange is the New Black does exactly the opposite: it begins, a little unpromisingly, as Piper’s fish-out-of-water story. To Piper’s credit, she keeps trying to call herself out on her own myopia, selfishness, and arrogance, and the show does too, by shuffling her to the side and expanding outward, investing more and more in the ensemble and less and less in Piper. More characters end up drawn as fish out of water than fish in it. It’s a magnificent, promiscuously sympathetic exercise. Yes, it falters sometimes: Pennsatucky is too monstrous by half (both shiftless meth-and-abortion-addict and murderous-fundamentalist-Christian), and Vicky Jeudy’s Janae Watson deserves a better story than the after-school special she got, but to these I say Sophia! Taystee! Red! Poussey — my favorite character in the show who steals every single scene she’s in even though we haven’t gotten her back story yet. The show is stunningly good at acknowledging the complexity and subjectivity of almost everyone involved. (Even the overdrawn Pornstache gets some dollops of sympathy.)

OITNB’s fishbowl ends up being a place from which you can see the world more clearly: the Maury Kind subplot was a brilliant sendup of the smaller fishbowl in which “This American Life” (the concept as well as the show) tends to take place. The show is a fugue of nested motivations, impulses, and stories that works hard not to sacrifice anyone, and — when that sacrifice is necessary — ruthlessly shows its effects. I will never get over Suzanne (“Crazy Eyes”) crying, and we will never get to feel better about that.

Do I need a Spoiler Alert to talk about the finale? Here’s one just in case.

It might be argued (and some have) that the show, like Piper, tries to call itself out on its own myopia and ultimately fails, but I’ll defend that finale as exactly the opposite. I think it’s a pretty incredible piece of television.

It’s always arresting when the ”good” woman goes dark, but to do so in a Christmas special is an unprecedented escalation in the Interesting TV Wars. I have never seen a Christmas special so lovingly executed, so gorgeously peppered with small moments of grace, in order to show both the effects of grace and what everyone outside it feels: isolated, misanthropic, partly dead. The Christmas pageant wasn’t mocked, its triumphs were fully earned, and yet Piper’s exclusion from them was just as fully warranted. The modulation in contrasts there was insane, it was filigree, it was totally amazing. If we worried that this show would devolve into Piper’s self-help story, that worry’s over. And if she isn’t a murderer, it’s on a technicality. That last shot of Piper smashing Pennsatucky’s face over and over, long after there was any sign of life, was an incredible piece of character assassination. I suppose one could argue that it’s still a Piper-centric ending in that it ends with her, but the heart of the finale is inside the auditorium, where Norma is singing. It’s Piper vs. the ensemble, and Piper loses. That’s a long way of saying that OITNB respects its own experiments and, in so doing, makes its world more real.

It’s been said that OITNB is a hard show to watch. Or rewatch. And yet, almost everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it has already watched it two or three times — unlike, for example, Season 4 of Arrested Development**. To quote one of the most rewatched shows on television: what’s the deal with rewatching?

There obviously isn’t a perfect correlation between the shows we rewatch for comfort and the shows we rewatch for quality; there’s too much bad TV, and too many bad reruns, for any right-thinking person to defend that thesis. But canon formation is a slow and sloppy thing. I do think that — for those of us built like the puppet in the play — when we reach for our computers in the middle of the night, it’s for a meditative kind of reassurance. It’s hard to square reassurance with footage of Chapman beating Pennsatucky, but maybe narrative safety isn’t the same as anodyne content. It’s more a matter of good building codes.

When we decide we want to walk down a well-worn televisual path again in the middle of the night, it’s for the mood or world that show creates. The impulse is almost more musical than narrative, but that world can only exist (that is, we can only trust it) if the show’s endings respect their arcs and its risky journeys are done well. When we’re riddled with anxieties in the middle of the night, maybe what we want is less a happy story than a good architect. Then, safe in the knowledge that there’s a god — or at least a decent mechanic — we can listen to the turning gears and go quietly to sleep.

Season one, episode six,

Lili

*Talking about the first three seasons only. Season 4 feels — psychically speaking — like a nightmare version of AD to me.

** It was fine, I don’t want to get into it, but it needed to trump all its prior victories and tie its million threads together into an amazing whole. It didn’t. That ending was a mess.

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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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The New Canon

This week, Dear Television — Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak, and new addition Anne Helen Petersen — will be addressing Netflix. We have little interest in rehashing the arguments that the trade papers have done before, and better — “Is Netflix a network? Is Netflix paying too much? Why does Netflix persist in torturing us with refusal to release ratings numbers? Is Netflix taking over the world? What are they keeping in that hatch?!” — and more about what we’re calling “the Netflix effect,” or how Netflix (and other streaming services) have not only changed the way we watch television, but what we watch. These are questions, in other words, of accessibility…and also of laziness. Keep posted as we confess just how Netflix has facilitated our best and worst habits.

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Dear Netflix,

WHEN I WAS AN UNDERGRAD, my professor would talk about stars and directors by showing us actual slides of them, all loaded up into the Don Draper “Carousel.” Clips were on actual film, with actual projectionists, or an assortment of badly edited VHS tapes. When a professor recommended a film, I’d go to the video store and rent it for 99 cents, the standard fee for classic movies. I never missed a screening, because it would be nearly impossible to find many of the films on my own, let alone someone with a VHS that wasn’t the common room at the end of my dorm floor. It was the good old analog days, when film and media studies was still nascent, the internet only barely past dial-up, and internet media culture as we know it limited to a healthy growth of BBS, listservs, and AOL chat rooms. It was also less than 15 years ago.

My four years in college coincided with dramatic changes in digital technology, specifically the rise of the (cheap) DVD and the personal computer DVD player. Before, cinephilia meant access to art house theaters or a VHS/television combination in addition to whatever computer you had. . . . by the time I graduated, most computers came standard with a DVD player and ethernet, if not wireless, connectivity. That Fall, I signed up for Netflix. I envied those with TiVo. Two years later, the growing size of hard drives and bandwidths facilitated the piracy culture that had theretofore mostly been limited to music. Then YouTube. Then streaming Netflix. Then Hulu. Then AppleTV. Then HBOGO. Or something like that.

Today, we live in a television culture characterized by cord-cutters and time-shifters. Sure, many, many people still appointment view or surf channels old school style. I know this. I also know people watch the local news. Yet as a 30-something member of the middle class, I catch myself thinking that my consumption habits — I subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Full Cable; I still appointment view several shows — are somewhat typical.

I’m so wrong, but not in the way I might have expected. My students taught me that. They watch Netflix, and they watch it hard. They watch it at the end of the night to wind down from studying, they watch it when they come home tipsy, they binge it on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Most use their family’s subscription; others filch passwords from friends. It’s so widely used that when I told my Mad Men class that their only text for the class was a streaming subscription, only one student had to acquire one. (I realize we’re talking about students at a liberal arts college, but I encountered the same levels of access at state universities. As for other populations, I really don’t know, because Netflix won’t tell me (or anyone) who’s using it.

Some students use Hulu, but never Hulu Plus — when it comes to network shows and keeping current, they just don’t care. For some super buzzy shows, like Game of Thrones and Girls, they pirate or find illegal streams. But as far as I can tell, the general sentiment goes something like this: if it’s not on Netflix, why bother?

It’s a sentiment dictated by economics (a season of a TV show on iTunes = at least 48 beers) and time. Let’s say you want to watch a season of Pretty Little Liars. You have three options:

1) BitTorrent it and risk receiving a very stern cease-and-desist letter from either the school or your cable provider. Unless you can find a torrent of the entire season, you’ll have to wait for each episode to download. What do you do when it’s 1:30 am and you want a new episode now?

2) Find sketchy, poor quality online streams that may or may not infect your computer with a porn virus (plus you have to find individual stable streams for 22 episodes)

or

3) Watch it on Netflix in beautiful, legal HD, with each episode leading seamlessly into the next. You can watch it on your phone, your tablet, your computer (or your television, if it’s equipped); even if you move from device to device, it picks up right where you stopped.

It’s everything an overstressed yet media-hungry millennial could desire. And it’s not just millennials: I know more and more adults and parents who’ve cut the cable cord and acquired similar practices, mostly because they have no idea how to pirate and they only really want to watch about a dozen hours of (non-sports) television a month (who are these people, and what do they do after 8 pm every day?)

Through this reliance on Netflix, I’ve seen a new television pantheon begin to take form: there’s what’s streaming on Netflix, and then there’s everything else.

When I ask a student what they’re watching, the answers are varied: Friday Night Lights, Scandal, It’s Always Sunny, The League, Breaking Bad, Luther, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Weeds, Freaks & Geeks, The L Word, Twin Peaks, Archer, Louie, Portlandia. What all these shows have in common, however, is that they’re all available, in full, on Netflix.

Things that they haven’t watched? The Wire. Deadwood. Veronica Mars, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Even Sex in the City.

It’s not that they don’t want to watch these shows — it’s that with so much out there, including so much so-called “quality” programs, such as Twin Peaks and Freaks & Geeks, to catch up on, why watch something that’s not on Netflix? Why work that hard when there’s something this easy — and arguably just as good or important — right in front of you?

The split between Netflix and non-Netflix shows also dictates which shows can/still function as points of collective meaning. Talk to a group of 30-somethings today, and you can reference Tony Soprano and his various life decisions all day — in no small part because the viewing of The Sopranos was facilitated by DVD culture. Today, my students know the name and little else. I can’t make “cocksucker” Deadwood jokes (maybe I shouldn’t anyway?); I can’t use Veronica Mars as an example of neo-noir; I can’t reference the effectiveness of montage at finishing a series (Six Feet Under). These shows, arguably some of the most influential of the last decade, can’t be teaching tools unless I screen seasons of them for my students myself.

The networks have long depended on a concept that scholar Raymond Williams dubbed “flow” — the seamless shift from show to commercial to show that creates a televisual flow so natural it’s painful to get out. Netflix does this as well, creating what one of my students has called “inertia problems.” One episode ends, and the countdown to the next begins in the corner. One season ends, and the next one pops before you. One series ends, and it’s ready with fairly accurate suggestions as to the type of programming you’d like to try next. The more you consume Netflix, the more you’ll consume Netflix.

And it’s not like they’re going to run out of content. As the Hollywood studios have tried to play hardball with what films they will and won’t lease, Netflix has turned its focus to television. And it’s not just quality and quasi-quality television: they’re flush with children’s, reality, and British television, with more seasons — and shows — added every month.

So maybe the HBO shows of the golden age fade into the distance, referenced but mostly unwatched, the 2000s equivalent of Hill Street Blues or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So what? As I wrote last week, I have little interest in fetishing “quality” television, especially as a means of reifying gendered, classist divides between “our” television and that television.

And HBO loves that division — they’re the ones, after all, who pioneered the slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” They’ve also stubbornly resisted any technology that makes its shows broadly available. You can’t get them on iTunes for months; you can’t use HBOGO unless you’re a service subscriber, and you generally can’t subscribe to HBO without also paying for extended cable — at least a hundred dollar cable bill. I get why they only want rich people watching their shows. I get how exclusivity, in and of itself, is one of the ways that HBO ascribes quality to its programming.

But you know what separates the “good” from the “significant”? Exposure. Not just initial exposure, like the hoopla surrounding the relatively unpopular Girls, but endured attention and familiarity. Viewers of broad ages and classes and tastes watching. Syndication used to do some of this work for us: that’s how I consumed M*A*S*H, My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, classic Saturday Night Live, original Star Trek, and even MacGyver. It was MTV reruns, for example, and not ABC, that made My So-Called Life a cultural touchstone: the two words “Jordan Catalano” stand in for a host of dude-related agonies and ecstasies. Granted, you could watch Sex and the City on TBS, and The Wire on BET. But those were Frankenstein edits of the originals — and what little extended cable this generation does watch, it’s generally new content.

Netflix, and other forms of cheap streaming, thus takes up the role formerly occupied by second-run syndication. Only unlike the reruns of M*A*S*H I’d watch every night at 7:00 pm, these reruns are there whenever I want them and without commercials. With the rise of streaming services, we’ve avoided the term “rerun” and its connotations of the hot, bored days of summer. But apart from its foray into original programming, that’s what Netflix is: a distribution service of reruns. And as with second-run syndication, what’s available is what gets watched; what gets watched becomes part of the conversation. It’s not a question of quality, in other words, it’s one of availability.

HBO has always prided itself on being the cool kid in high school. It’s fine having only a few friends, so long as those friends are rich and influential. But no one can stay in high school forever: eventually your world changes, whether you want it to or not. And you know what happens when the cool kid goes to college? He gets lost in the crowd. There’s no one to remind everyone that he’s so cool or exclusive, of what the last decade of his life meant, or why he should be respected and feared today. Even if he throws a really excellent party, he’s still one of many doing the same.

For coolness and distinction to endure, it needs an indelible sense of legacy. HBO’s not in danger of losing that any time in the near future — at least so long as most of the people writing about television are those of us reared on the DVDs of its golden age. But think of the next generation of critics, whose tastes are guided, and will continue to be guided, by streaming availability. For them, Louie and Scandal will always be more important than Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Newsroom.

This summer, HBO finally gave credence to rumblings that they’d offer HBGO as a stand-alone subscription service. It may happen next year; it may happen in five. But each year they wait, each year that hundreds of thousands of viewers choose what’s at their fingertips over what’s not, their legacy fades. Perhaps that’s for the best? I mean, let it be said: I’m super okay with more people watching Friday Night Lights than Hung. But some, if not all, of those shows deserve better.

Ignore Al Swearengen at your peril,

AHP

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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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