London, making sure that fro-yo trend fully clears the shark.

London, making sure that fro-yo trend fully clears the shark.

Much Ado and the silence of Hero

I’ve watched a lot of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s my favorite Shakespeare comedy, thanks entirely to the characters of Beatrice and Benedick and their passionate-enemies-turned-passionate-lovers story. Their witty, slightly melancholy banter laid the groundwork for Pride and Prejudice and a host of lesser romantic comedies, and it’s largely why the play gets produced and performed again and again — from Joss Whedon’s celebrity-cool Los Angeles and the BBC’s incestuous local TV station and Kenneth Branagh’s ye olde Italia to countless colleges and community theaters across the land, and most recently on the rain-soaked plains of Central Park.

For me and, I suspect, for a lot of women and feminists and fans of the best aspects of romantic comedies, Much Ado’s appeal also comes from the fact that Beatrice takes very little shit from anyone, ever. She ends the play married, yes, but defining her own terms for that marriage. She gets to end the play as equal as any of Shakespeare’s women ever get to be to their romantic partners, and more equal than most women in literature written by men get to be. She gets to end the play speaking, and perhaps even more importantly, being heard.

So Beatrice and her fate are solid.  But that leaves us with Hero, the cautionary anti-Beatrice. Whose silence gets harder and harder to ignore every time I see the play.

Hero, the ironically-named plot device masquerading as a main character, barely gets to say anything for the first half of the play. She has one line in the first act, and six more in the second, according to Open Source Shakespeare.

That only gets slightly better as the play goes on and things really start happening to Hero. Beatrice gets to speak on 106 separate occasions in Much Ado. Benedick has 134 such opportunities to speak, and Claudio 125. Hero gets 44.

This isn’t a matter of a late-arriving character. Hero is onstage from the very beginning of Much Ado, but mute until midway through the action – which, to be clear, mostly revolves around her body. In those first two acts and seven lines for Hero, the plot concerns: who gets to marry Hero, and how that man will woo her (by letting his boss pretend to be him – okaaaaay), and how that man will ask Hero’s father for permission to marry her. Oh, and how that man’s boss’s brother will try to spoil this (frankly incredibly stupid) plot and destroy Hero’s reputation, just to get back at his brother. All of this happens to Hero in just the first two acts of Much Ado’s five, and she gets to say very, very little about it.

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So, this was a pretty surreal start to my new job: my interview about racism with the fascinating, provocative Mark Cuban blew up the internet. (Never before have I had one of my stories picked up by ESPN, CNBC, The New Yorker, TMZ and The New York Times all at the same time.)

(Welp. That was really not what I meant when I asked Elementary to give Joan something to do.)

Elementary and the Case of the Disappearing Characters

I don’t care all that much about Mycroft Holmes on Elementary. That is, I don’t care about him as a main character. He’s a good supporting character, with the potential to be great – he’s interesting for the reactions he elicits from the protagonists, and for what those reactions tell us about them. I like Rhys Ifans and his believably prickly-fond sibling chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock. And if he’d been around a little more this season, I might even care about him more as a main character.

But he hasn’t been around all that much, and a decent portion of his appearances has been involved in this “slept with Watson off-screen” silliness. (Elementary, please give Joan Watson something to do. Please. I beg you. That’s a separate, but related, issue.) So, while I trust that there are more plotcakes to come this week as Elementary ramps up to its second season finale, the big reveal last week about Mycroft? Ok, whatever. I guess I admire the technical misdirection, but I found it hard to care. I wasn’t shocked – or, frankly, interested – nearly as much as the episode seemed to think I should be, only because I don’t think he’s been shown to be that important a character. He’s certainly no Irene/Moriarty.

It’s a weirdly common situation for Elementary, which has had some problems sustaining plotlines and recurring supporting characters this season. There was a promising middle stretch, when it seemed like the police department’s widespread resentment of our heroes, along with Holmes’ culpability in getting Detective Bell shot, were building to a larger, game-changing crisis situation. And then … that all sort of fizzled. And sure, I guess the writers could have been laying the groundwork for some sort of shocking dramatic showdowns in the next couple of episodes, but even if that happens at this point, I’m just not sure how much I’ll care.

The main problem is that the show seems to be getting wrong what it did mostly right last season. (West Wing comparison coming up ahead.)

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-“I think my character was just … raped.”

-“No. No no no, that’s never happened to me. You must have pressed the wrong button.”

Amy Schumer’s perfect parody of Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom and Good Women Existing to Support Great Men quite rightly got linked pretty much everywhere, but this is even better. Schumer takes on the military rape epidemic, victim-blaming and misogynist video game culture, all in three minutes or less!

Veronica Mars: Music, many Logans and fan service

This week I’ve been listening nonstop to Typhoon, an Oregon indie rock band I first heard in the Veronica Mars movie. I have mixed feelings about the movie, much like I do about the series, but there are two no-holds-barred recommendations I’ll make about all things VM:

1) The music is unfailingly fantastic. I’m really enjoying Typhoon’s “White Lighter” album, including the “Prosthetic Love” song featured in a pivotal movie scene. But I also spent a good half-hour last Saturday rebuilding an iTunes playlist of all the music featured during the series, above and beyond what’s on the official soundtrack. It’s everyone from Tegan and Sara to Mike Doughty to Neko Case, and in the past decade most of it has infiltrated my regular playlists. Like Life, another truncated TV show with fantastic musical selection and coordination, the pre-movie Veronica Mars sticks in my memory in part because I regularly listen to songs that it first introduced me to.

2) The first season remains an excellent television series, which holds up even ten years later on a rewatch. I unearthed my first-season DVDs in the weeks leading up to the movie’s release, and quickly went from “watching them in the background as I do household chores” to “must pay full attention to each episode.” I have an ambivalent-to-negative reaction to the rest of the series – I especially hated that the end of the second season reached back and retconned part of the first, and I stopped watching sometime in the third season. But the first season was and is engrossing.

Which isn’t to say that it’s flawless, especially when it comes to Logan Echolls, the “obligatory psychotic jackass/suspected rapist” turned “sympathetic abuse victim” turned “bad boy fixer-upper romantic lead.” I enjoy watching Logan as a character(s), the acting of Jason Dohring, and every separate incarnation of his relationship(s) with Veronica – I just don’t buy that the same character could transform so quickly, so many times.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with the movie, as embodied by yet another Logan Echolls: it tries to simultaneously please and critique its diehard fans, and it doesn’t entirely succeed at doing either. Back when the series was airing, Rob Thomas told me that fans sometimes influenced how he wrote the show, so the fact that he wrote the series sequel to the same audience wasn’t a surprise. Nor do I really object to that — even when you take out the fan funding that launched the movie, who else is really going to care about these characters ten years later, besides the people who had very strong opinions about Veronica, Logan, Piz et al? (Assuming that anyone can have strong opinions about Piz.) 

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With links to my feature, profile and investigative writing for American Banker, The New York Times, and the other places I’ve popped up around the Internet. Hyperanalyzing of pop culture will continue here. 

My Onetime Pass for The Good Wife’s Shocking! Twist!

Serious spoilers for Sunday’s episode ahead.

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Divergent, Dystopias and Murderous Children

Veronica Roth’s Divergent was a good plane read that started boring me, conveniently, right at the end of both the first book and the plane ride. I don’t care enough about what happens next to actually read the sequels; I might care enough to look up their plots on Wikipedia, though it’s been three days and I haven’t bothered yet. The book did make me slightly more interested in the movie, because Shailene Woodley is a better actor than the protagonist deserves, and the book certainly left her a gaping void of character to fill however she chooses. (Ditto Kate Winslet and the book’s villain, who was the victim of some weirdly specific authorial body-shaming. I look forward to seeing Winslet portray a woman whose characterization begins with “wears glasses to look smart” and ends with “pudge around the middle” and “stretch marks on her thighs.”)

Despite the somewhat obvious Hunger Games comparisons, Divergent reminded me much more strongly of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, particularly in its description of the colorless, repressed “Abnegation” society that the heroine rejects. I was sorry when she left it to go jump on and off of buildings and trains (that apparently never bother stopping, in this city that has a large caste of menial laborers but doesn’t bother employing any of them as commuter rail conductors … but moving on, pun not really intended.)

Divergent made me miss The Giver, and its emphasis on the quiet, seemingly rational horrors that the best dystopias perpetrate. I’m so much more interested in the world-building in these types of books, in the theory of dystopias than in their often over-the-top effects. (It’s why the second Hunger Games installment is my favorite; it opens up the world that created the child-gladiator rituals and shows us how it works.) The setup and evolution of these once-ideal societies, and the bureaucratic souring of those ideals, is generally so much more interesting than the killing that results.  At the very least, the killing has to be earned by the world-building — and that is definitely where Divergent fell down the most for me.

I’ve read way too many contemporary YA books that kill characters easily and en masse, which makes it pretty hard to like the protagonists who shrug at the deaths and move on with their hero-ing. Hunger Games gets a pass, because whatever other flaws there are in the books, the murder of children is sold from the very first pages and doesn’t happen lightly. Even early Harry Potter did a good job with not killing kids cheaply or as window dressing, before its eventual devolution into mass casualties and death-by-curtains. But Divergent throws a few kids off a train and then progresses to sociopathic bullying, suicides and casual maiming, all of which are really just a backdrop for our heroine to score a boyfriend. By the time Roth progresses to brainwashing, gun battles with distant parents and friends dying casually, it was hard to see any of the violence having an impact on the narrator — and so the only impact it had on this reader was to make me stop reading.