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.
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 obviousHunger 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.
I’m beyond sick of superheroes, and Batman generally bores me to tears, so I can’t quite explain how I came to start enjoying Arrow, the CW’s TV version of the Batman-esque Green Arrow character. (Broody billionaire with a playboy persona? Check. Parentally-inflected vigilante quest for Vengeance and/or Justice, circle all that apply? Check. Humorless-lawyer childhood sweetheart who sees the world in black and white, and who’s played by a willowy, brunette Katie? Yep, that too.) Then you add the CW’s Abercrombie-model definitions of attractiveness and required teen angst (the main character’s sister is in high school but somehow runs a bar, at which she employs her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend? Whatever you say, show!), and Arrow should be a forgettable mess.
And the first season kind of was. But I started watching the second season, after a whole bunch of TV critics and bloggers gave Arrow a Most Improved Series trophy, and I have to say – it’s a blast. Here’s why:
-Its pacing is insane. Arrow hurtles towards all kinds of reveals and showdowns that I’d expect other shows to spend a full season carefully, lovingly arranging. (Cf. this week’s episode - spoilers, obviously.) I think this is most of why Arrow overcomes my superhero fatigue - yeah, it has all those tiresomely quirky, poorly-motivated villains of the week, but it regularly spends as little time as necessary on them in favor of setting up its season-long arc and having its main characters interact.
-It’s surprisingly, if spottily, feminist. Arrow hasn’t been kind to all of its female characters; there’s a lady in the refrigerator of this season’s supervillain, and you have to pity poor childhood sweetheart Laurel, who’s gotten to bounce between self-righteousness, bitterness, depression and now (sigh) pill addiction and alcoholism. (The writers apparently attended a Pills: Instant!Characterization workshop with the Nashville writers.) But Arrow has also created some super-compelling women, from the wonderfully smart yet well-adjusted Felicity Smoak, who gets to be the show’s conscience as well as its main voice of sanity and humor, to Laurel’s sister Sara, who survived the island with main character Oliver and gets to be a vigilante in her own right.
-Declaration halfway through an overheard lunch conversation between two friends, who otherwise discussed: shopping splurges, budgeting, jobs picked up and amount of income received from said jobs (bonus points for a use of the word “revenue” to describe wages from said jobs), affordability of local museum tickets, “financial independence” and if they have achieved it, dating and who picks up the tab on said dates, how frequently the significant others in question buy groceries, how to split the check for the lunch in progress, and how the restaurant’s cash-only policy affects the check-splitting negotiations.
This winter, I watched the approach of another season of Girls with a totally mature internal whine of, “Do I have to?” And yes, there’s the obvious answer: “Of course not, you crazy person – television is something you watch for entertainment and fascination with pop culture, so if something isn’t entertaining you, then just stop watching.” That doesn’t completely obviate the guilt I’ve mentioned I’ve had about not liking Girls, partly because I do think that Lena Dunham is extraordinarily talented and the violence of some of the hatred directed her way over Girls has sickened me.
That said, not liking the criticisms of something doesn’t translate into liking the thing itself. And Girls, for whatever reasons, hasn’t worked for me. Part of it is the somewhat-sour general worldview and tone of the show, which has gotten Dunham regularly compared to Larry David and Louis C.K. – two caustic sad sacks who I also find talented but not particularly my jam. I haven’t ever made it through a full season of either of their shows, even though I’ve admired the underlying cleverness and humor that both of those men manage. I made it through a full season of Girls, but then I fell behind on the second, and haven’t mustered the interest to get caught up for the third. So this isn’t a post about how I don’t like Girls; I’m not qualified to write a current version of that. It’s a post about why I’m trying to let myself off the hook for not investing more time trying to like it.
A lot of my Girls guilt is feminist guilt, the idea of wanting to support or at least care about a show that, on paper, cares about so many of the same things I care about in the television I watch. But compared to even just a few years ago, the options aren’t restricted to Girls or nothing. It’s starting to be a lot easier to find good television by and about women, depicting a variety of women’s experiences. And it’s easier to find a variety of kinds of television shows by and about women – so that if the Louis C.K.-style humor of social awkwardness isn’t my thing, there’s actually several other Prestige Dramas (The Good Wife, Orange Is the New Black), or a Serious Spy Show (The Americans), or a Silly Spy Show (Covert Affairs), or a smart sitcom (Parks & Rec), or a couple of outstandingly ambitious, if very different, sci-fi shows with multiple women leads (Orphan Black and Sleepy Hollow). Not to mention the many interesting women protagonists of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Nashville, Elementary, Homeland, The Mindy Project, Downton Abbey…
Some of my Girls guilt is also pop-culture relevance guilt, the desire to stay current with the TV that sparks all of the interesting criticism going on online. And Girls probably has one of the highest critic-to-viewer ratios out there. It was one of the two shows I immediately thought of when I read Anne Helen Petersen’s terrific “Dear Television” essay in praise of quitting television shows (“We need to be economical: there’s too much out there to love, so why spend time watching what you don’t?”). The other one, somewhat incongruously, was The Wire.
Favorites (and parentheticals) of 2013: Books, TV, movies, travel
Most lingering book read:A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I admired more than I loved — but I admired it a lot, especially Jennifer Egan’s ability to write a September 11 in New York novel by deliberately not writing a September 11 in New York novel. That day wasn’t an obvious plot device for Egan; it wasn’t recreated directly on the page, it wasn’t something the characters overtly spent pages and pages responding to. It was an aside, a memory of a breakfast meeting a few days before the restaurant fell from the sky, or the reality of a regular commute home now distorted by the hole in lower Manhattan. Egan let the aftermath, rather than the cinematic trauma of an event all of her readers lived through themselves, shape the stories elegantly, subtly, ordinarily, in a way that reflected life after September 11 much more than any other work of fiction I’ve read or seen trying to depict that day or its fallout. (Ahem, Emperor’s Children. Let alone Extremely Loud and Incredibly Manipulative.)
Best TV discovery:Orphan Black. Runner-up props to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which got me binge-watching YouTube in a way few regular TV or Netflix series have done recently, and Sleepy Hollow, which I expected to take the Revolution/Flashforward/generic-Lost-clone route to boredom and banality, but which became something much stranger and sparkier than I expected. (I still don’t pay much attention during the monster scenes, but the Abbie-and-Ichabod Show is worth infinite fake-history flashbacks and rejected X-Files monster-of-the-week masks.)
Best TV stride-hitting:The Good Wife, ad infinitum. Conversely, I’m still waiting for Elementary to live up to its potential this season. Bringing Moriarty back (yay!) just to make her more vulnerable — and vulnerable due to her feminine roles as mother and Sherlock’s girlfriend (sigh) — emphatically doesn’t count. Nor does having Watson sleep with Sherlock’s semi-estranged brother, though Sherlock’s reaction to that development (and the general notes they’ve been repeatedly hitting about trust and emotional intimacy and need for soulmates and other relationshippy words between the characters) seems like a strange choice for a show whose creators keep on vowing that their leads will never hook up. I’m mostly indifferent as to whether that happens, though it seems hard to write a sustained drama about two intelligent, attractive people becoming professional, intellectual and emotional partners without turning it into a romance (or having your audience do that for you. Speaking of characters named Sherlock.)
Most memorable movie: Probably Frances Ha, which I saw late and after reading much of the hype, but which still surprised and delighted me in a way that Girls has never managed (and yes, do I feel guilty for preferring a movie that’s directed and co-written by a man to the series directed and written by a woman. Then again, I only had to tolerate Frances for 85 minutes. I gave Lena Dunham that time several times over before giving up on her characters.) I think The Pretty One also deserved more attention for doing a similar coming-of-age, girl-to-womanhood story with more whimsy and a wider view of its characters’ worlds.
Favorite travel experience: Out of a year that included trips to LA, DC, Miami, Chicago and western Illinois, South Carolina, Italy and San Francisco, I probably most enjoyed the pure vacation of my two weeks in Italy. But the immediate turnaround to San Francisco was my third and best experience in that city, which felt dream-like in the picture-perfect early October sunshine (and under the influence of nine hours of accumulated jet lag). I was a better explorer this time, spending more time outside of the tourist-trap hotel areas and the work meetings of the financial district (though I learned that not changing clothes between the work meetings and the exploring can lead to lots of questions about why exactly you’re thrifting in the Mission “so dressed up,” in what I thought was business casual). And I’m still not nearly as “elite” a traveler as I would like to be, but 2013 was also the year that I had fun scratching at the door of how to become one.
Catching Fire and Katniss the knowing revolutionary
The movie made me realize how much Catching Fire is my favorite of the Hunger Games trilogy - it opens up the world of Panem and the greater political struggle beyond what happens to Katniss and her loved ones. To be fair, the first movie opened up that world too, more than the book did — but in Catching Fire, Katniss becomes more aware of the greater political stakes around her, and as our main point-of-view character, that’s important. The movie also did a much better job than the book did of making Katniss explicitly a rebel, someone who recognizes the consequences of defying the totalitarian government and who eventually chooses to do so anyway. Actually, this is more than “did a better job” - the movie breaks somewhat from the book’s characterization of Katniss as someone who persists in being willingly myopic about the bigger picture and is (understandably) focused on her short-term survival instead of long-term rebellion, even when her actions foment that bigger political movement.
Two scenes really made a difference in the movie. (Spoilers ahead.)
"The matter will be forgotten by all of us … and history too, no doubt."
-The line in Reign that’s made me hoot with laughter the most, by handwaving away the entire existence of Mary, Queen of Scots’ purported brief engagement to a murderous, illegitimate Portuguese prince. Though it nearly tied with another line in the same episode, when one character spoke for all of us in the audience and our whiplash about said Portuguese prince’s one-episode switch from romantic hero to villain: “I don’t understand why he changed so quickly … [before] he seemed a whole other person.” Oh, show. I am watching out of some sort of residual childhood loyalty to Megan Follows and a Dorothy Dunnett-inspired interest in the time period, but if you’re going to have your own characters critique your plotlines, you need to get either much better or much more over-the-top campy very quickly.
Re-reading Ender’s Game: Racism, blogging and video games
I loved Ender’s Game the first time I read it, as a pre-Internet pre-teen without any knowledge of Orson Scott Card’s bizarre and homophobic vitriol. I even liked the first sequel, before the second one convinced me that maybe some stories were better off as one-shots. Then I found out about Card’s personal beliefs, and mentally classed the book with early Mel Gibson movies and other entertainment I feel vaguely guilty about liking. But as the new, rather-joyless-looking movie adaptation arrived, I decided to reread Ender’s Game, to see how much of what I liked about it remained and how much I could pick up on Card’s prejudices as an adult reader. The short answers: Not as much as I remembered, and more than I expected! First of all…
1) Surprise N-word: Orson Scott Card, would you like some racism to go along with your homophobia? I read an old copy of the book, an early printing that includes a part where, in some routine trash-talking, Ender calls his friend Alai by the n-word, and then jokes about how his great-great-grandfather would have sold Alai’s grandfather to another slaveowner for not liking that term. Kids these days!
“That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?”
Ender decided that Alai was joking. “Hey, we can’t all be niggers.”
Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”
“My great great grandpa would have sold him first.”
Card edited that exchange in later editions, but apparently not because he’d regretted using the word or even realized that maybe having your white, super-genius, messiah-like hero use racial epithets and joke about slavery isn’t a great way to develop a sympathetic protagonist. No, according to Orson Scott Card, “prudes” forced his hand.
“Even as the old obscenities dealing with sex and excrement were unleashed upon the public, new obscenities moved from the realm of the merely indecorous to the sinful. What f* and s* (and worse words) had once been, now n* has become. And, just as there were prudes who screamed in outrage and demanded that any work containing those old bad words must be banned, so we have a new group of prudes making identical demands about works containing the new bad word,” he wrote in 2000, in response to a question about why he had edited that passage. (Card begins that answer by comparing himself to Shakespeare, which gives you an idea of the rest. He also goes onto to assert that truly sophisticated readers would understand that Ender’s racism was really about teaching Alai tolerance and rebuking his friend for being racist about Asian people – an argument which requires a whole separate critical takedown.)
2) The invention of blogging: Forget the Big Twist. The parts I most remembered from the book over the years, and the parts I was most impressed by, were Card’s prescient depiction of political blogging and the influence that Internet writers would have on world events. Okay, maybe Matt Drudge or Nick Denton haven’t become world dictators, as Ender’s blogger/psychopath brother Peter eventually does. But I was very impressed at how Card, in my memory, predicted the rise and the influence of personality-driven online writers, who become famous based largely on their (carefully-calculated) inflammatory rhetoric. When I went back to reread Ender’s Game, I was most looking forward to spending time with Peter and sister Valentine, who make themselves famous by getting into anonymous online debates with each other.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the Peter/Valentine/blogging plotline takes up about half a chapter, plus a few lines towards the end for plot resolution and sequel setup. I don’t know what it says that throwaway subplots formed my most enduring memories of the book, but it’s not a great recommendation.
3) Video games are about as interesting to read about as they are to watch other people playing. Ender’s Game is a very readable book, which is a big accomplishment considering its reliance on poorly-described virtual combat. The “battle simulations,” first at Ender’s school and later when he’s tricked into destroying the enemy’s homeworld, were pretty opaque to me during this re-read – I finished those scenes with no real visual of what the children gladiators actually accomplished or physically did during the battles. It was much easier to visualize the arenas in the Hunger Games books, for example, or the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter books. I think Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling had a bit of an advantage over Card, in that both of them described battles that were more in the physical world than the video games that make up so much of Ender’s Game. But world-building or big-picture description of any sort isn’t a strength of Card’s – there’s a slapdash civil war shoved into the book’s resolution, between superpowers that have never been clearly delineated. And it’s a problem when you do choose to set a book in what is essentially a series of video game championships and then can’t describe them clearly enough for a reader to do much more than skim for dialogue and outcome.
4) The Big Twist makes no sense. When your main character is a tactical genius, the best strategic mind in generations and the savior of the human race, it rather strains credulity that he can’t figure out when he’s fighting actual battles against an actual enemy. Especially when he’s purportedly hoodwinked by a couple of bumbling mid-level military guys and the washed-up war veteran version of Rip Van Winkle.
I could easily describe my excellent Italian vacation in terms of the cathedrals visited, cliffs climbed, wine guzzled or carbs consumed, but wouldn’t you rather hear about the horsemeat and the bizarre sexual harassment? From strange foods and scary fruit vendors to Vatican pin-up photos, here are the souvenirs I did not buy in Italy.
Last night, The Good Wife put my heart in my throat with a file download. A file download! Somehow, watching one character watch her computer screen became anything but mundane, and set off one of the most tense half hours I’ve recently watched on television. And that was just the prologue to next week’s episode, which cast members have compared to Game of Thrones' bloody Red Wedding.
Watching that prologue unfurl has been ridiculously satisfying this season. You can hear The Good Wife's writers smacking their lips over their careful setup of several chained implosions, from Diane’s professional betrayal of Will and their once-solid partnership to Alicia’s poorly-concealed plan to follow suit. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the show's slow build to destruction after last season's game-changing final scene; I vaguely expected the first new episode to quickly raze everything and reset the groundwork for the new season's status quo. But there’s been nothing so quick or careless from Robert and Michelle King – they are taking loving, deliberate, unholy glee in how very screwed all of their characters are, and how very much conflict will spring from the choices those characters have made.
One reason I’m enjoying this setup so much, and why I’m looking forward to the next episode’s bloodbath, is that there likely won’t be any literal blood spilled. The Good Wife is one of the only current television dramas that relies on ordinary personal and professional conflicts to drive its story, without spies or zombies or meth dealers or fantasy warriors. Its characters’ stakes are ordinary — professional success and relationships of all types — and so is the fallout of their conflicts. I’m expecting that fallout to be devastating; I’m also expecting it to be one of The Good Wife's most quietly ambitious accomplishments.
In a way, most current Prestige Dramas have it easy. Shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad and Walking Dead and Homeland are dramas of the extreme; they place their characters in worlds where success or failure does mean life or death. I enjoy some of those shows, and it can be horrifically entertaining to watch their conflicts spill out into blood and death and bombings and torture. But that also seems like a cop-out compared to The Good Wife's elegant drama of the ordinary.
Yes, The Good Wife isn’t entirely realistic, with its high-profile law office and ripped-from-the-headlines cases and the spouse of a prominent politician at the center of the show. But it reflects an ordinary, present-day reality more than any other show I can think of — and it makes that reality compelling. I’m not worried about Alicia or Will or Cary or Diane being put in mortal danger next week. Nobody’s going to get beheaded or eaten by zombies or subjected to electroshock therapy; nobody’s likely to be in any kind of physical danger, not even the run-of-the-mill cop show variety. And yet I’m biting my fingernails over what happens to them all.
"To our female customers, if we surprise you touching our fruit we will reciprocate by doing the same to you."
Italy: lovely and charming and overstuffed with excellent food — but wow, the routine sexual harassment. It came in verbal and visual and even some memorable physical variations, but this sign in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori produce market was the strangest. (And appallingly, not the case of one demented vendor — apparently such threatening signs are common in Italian supermarkets.) Ladies, watch out while shopping in the country of Berlusconi.
This season finale of The Newsroom, like the episodes that preceded it, was not quite as howlingly bad as the first one: there were no Sex and the City buses, no additions to the unrequited Love Polygon of Doom, and even a few (amazingly abrupt and unearned, but whatever) romantic resolutions. I’ll take them, just so that I never have to hear Mac and Will have the same massively unpleasant and uninteresting argument again.
But wow, does this show still have rough edges. “Because of Africa.” Yep, Africa! All of it. The entire continent is almost as important as the actions of one Jim Harper, hapless truth-telling Don Juan of the cable news industry. (More on him in a minute.)
The Instagram-filter flashbacks to all of one season ago were premature and cheesy, an effort to manufacture nostalgia for something that hasn’t aged enough to earn it. (I’m with Alan Sepinwall, this entire episode felt like a valedictory wrapping up of loose ends, and I’ll be surprised if there’s another season.) The debate over Grace Gummer’s “new media” versus Jim’s “old media” was tediously literal and antiquated in the way I just have to ignore with Sorkin and his approach to my profession (for which I blog and Tweet and also write for an actual printed newspaper, so I’m not really sure on which side of that supposedly bright line I’m supposed to fall). And then there was Jim, handily winning his season-long campaign to be The Worst with his blessings for the three women who loved him. Solving the mystery of Maggie’s hair trauma, healing Lisa through on-the-job harassment, and goading his current girlfriend into reassuring him that no, no, he’s not at all patronizing. Sorry, Aaron, but having the loathsome character worry that he’s loathsome doesn’t make him a good guy, or even a very interesting one.
Catching up on The Newsroom: Two solutions to the Jerry Dantana problem
It took me practically all season, but I am now caught up on The Newsroom. And I’ll reserve judgment on the two-part season finale until part two airs (except to say that I am really quite tired of Sorkin’s humorless, righteous heroes protesting how “good” they are to the women who Done Them Wrong), but let’s talk a little bit about Genoa and the season-long clusterfuck of a framing device. Because it was doomed from the beginning, but it was only in the last two episodes that I pinpointed why, exactly, I had more problems with it than just the usual objections to flashforwards and how they undercut dramatic tension.
The season-long Genoa flashforward was a particularly unfortunate choice for The Newsroom, which already struggles to make us care about the stakes of its near-past setting. We already know the outcome of pretty much every story that Will McAvoy & Co. cover, because the real press already got there – but with Genoa Sorkin had the (good) idea to let us see how his fictitious journalists cover a fictitious story, freeing them (in theory) from the boundaries of a pre-determined outcome and giving them an opportunity to be real characters, instead of Real Doll versions of TV journalists. So of course he had to undercut them, and himself, right from the start, by telegraphing the outcome to the viewers and creating the same curious lack of dramatic tension that the show has when it handles Benghazi or the 2012 elections.
And then there’s Jerry Dantana, the newcomer who was created out of whole cloth to come into our cozy nest of bumbling heroes, to lead them astray out of righteousness before actively doing bad things to them, and then to disappear at the end of this season. I was willing to give him, and Sorkin, the benefit of the doubt – right up until the scene where Sorkin shows him manipulating the tape of the interview. That doesn’t work. There are two other ways it could have, though:
1) Remove that scene and the flashforward framing device, and it works. Dantana as the outside villain is still clumsy but more effective – he shows up, he’s smart, he’s intense, and he’s not less righteous than the characters we know and love to loathe. Maybe he even gets in on the office romantic polygon for kicks and authenticity! We the viewers don’t realize until Mac does that the tape was manipulated, and we the viewers share the heroes’ growing unease after the story airs, and then their eventual horror at having been played into airing a false report of military war crimes. Dantana otherwise isn’t a cackling, sneering villain – he’s an abrasive, savvy newcomer who fits in with the News Night clan. And when Mac wonders to Don whether or not she should trust his instincts, it’s a genuine dramatic moment and a genuine character moment, instead of an obvious case of the Writer Knowing All and dumping buckets of dramatic irony onto his characters’ heads.
OR – and I think this would have been even more interesting —
2) Jim did it. No Dantana necessary. Give the storyline to an existing and (supposedly) sympathetic character, someone we’re already invested in. Someone Sorkin has portrayed as a hero, as the goodest of good guys. Then the speeches about chemical weapons on civilians and military torture have the ring of conviction, coming from someone we know and are inclined to think of as being on the side of righteousness. Slowly build over the season to show his conviction overtaking his judgment, to the point where, when we see him falsify the interview, it’s inevitable and horrifying and earned, dramatic character development, instead of mechanical plot development. I think Jim would have been an especially good candidate for this storyline given his role as the scolding schoolmarm to Maggie – since their failed flirtation has apparently sent her down the rabbit hole to alcoholism and one-night stands and professional screw-ups and Africa-inspired haircuts (all of which Jim has noted and scolded her for), wouldn’t it have been an interesting parallel to watch him try to recover from the almost-affair by throwing himself into his work (without the Romney bus), and then screwing up to a much greater degree?
Anyway. I have liked some of the set pieces more this season. When Sorkin gets a good round robin of signature fast-paced workplace dialogue going, he’s hard to ignore. The women, though. Did we really need to see not one but two ladies, two episodes in a row, getting so emotional they had to punch the men who wronged them? You can just see Sorkin shaking his head: “Bitches be crazy, amirite? And bad drivers, Mac!” And poor Hope Davis, whose character has gone through about four different personalities in the span of just about that many episodes, got to go from Mary Jane Watson to a painfully on-the-nose “Lady Macbeth” in her last two incarnations. Did Will even break up with her? Because Jeff Daniels delivered that line with all the mild sarcasm of someone joking with his wife that he’d divorce her for finishing the milk and not picking any more up.
Don’t live on your own, and preferably do live with someone who will share the cooking responsibilities if your schedule implodes. Don’t live in a small, non-doorman, un-air-conditioned space. Don’t order the dinner kits during a summer heat wave, when you’ll reject all thoughts of boiling, baking and roasting in favor of ice cream dinners. Don’t hesitate to freeze any meat or fish you won’t cook within a few days, no matter what Pat LaFrieda tells you about how long his chicken will stay fresh unfrozen. And when all else fails and you’ve taken Pat LaFrieda at his word, do live within a short distance of a grocery store that can replace your spoiled organic chicken thighs at 10 o’clock at night.
-I basically failed at a week of cooking free food. My misadventures with dinner-kit services like Blue Apron and Plated, now up at The Billfold.
Getting caught up on The Newsroom and … ye gods, Will McAvoy is The Worst. So is the Occupy Wall Street straw-woman who needs to be schooled by him. As a financial journalist, I’ve seen a lot of arguments on the presentation and messaging and leadership of OWS, and how they did and didn’t sabotage themselves, and how they were and weren’t covered by the media. I’d like to see those issues covered deftly, subtly, smartly by a sophisticated show about the news media. And Sorkin tried - you could see him straining to be even-handed and to have every character who interacted with OWSSW raise another part of the debate for and against the legacy of Occupy, but he shot himself in the foot with his persistent need to have Will Know Best, even if Will admits to being an ass while Knowing Best. Is this really what people were talking about when they said that Sorkin was getting better at having other characters call Will & Co. on their bullshit this season?
Also the worst: Jim, always. In so many condescending ways. And Grace Gummer’s blogger and her ridiculous regular Vassar mentions and her falling for his condescending ways. And Maggie and her “Africa” trauma and her symbolic PTSD Cutting of Hair. And I generally like Constance Zimmer, but between this and Grey’s Anatomy last season she’s kind of specializing in playing the clear-eyed-yet-humorless bitch administrator character. (Though in the spot-casting department, it was great to see Julia Cho getting work - hi, Charlotte Lu!)
Credit where it’s due, though: Mac is 50% less incompetent this season, despite the awful recurrence of The Least Interesting Voicemail of All Time. And Olivia Munn continues to make Sloan delightfully watchable, despite some truly atrocious ongoing romantic pratfalls. Can’t wait for the sex tape episode.
I have a lot of problems with the arguments in this essay (to pick one, I don’t particularly likeJane Eyre, but claiming that its protagonist has “no story of solitary self-discovery” makes me think you skipped the whole second half of the book). But my main objections are: Anne Shirley. Emily Starr. Laura Ingalls. Scout Finch. Kit Tyler. Turtle Wexler. Dicey Tillerman. Lucy Pevensie and Jill Pole and Polly Plummer. Many others I’m forgetting right now. You can keep your Jack Kerouacs and whiny Holden Caulfields- I had plenty of literary female protagonists to admire growing up.
This is what I’ve learned so far from my adventures in elite-traveler waiting rooms: They can be just as crowded and awkwardly-arranged as regular airport waiting areas, but they have more comfortable chairs and free booze. They will try to shame you into not ordering the free booze, by advertising expensive “Fine Wines” on the bar menu and making you ask the harried bartender what the “house red” is. (The bartender will not understand what you mean when you ask for the “un-fine wine.”)
They will provide you with an unlimited supply of mixed nuts and other elegant snack food, but only snack food, as if everyone in the lounge is partaking in a school field trip and someone’s overachieving parents have thoughtfully packed individual bags of mini-carrots and Pepperidge Farm crackers and Lite Ranch dip packets for everyone.
I wrote for The Billfold about my recent adventures in frequent-flier airport lounges:
Realizing as I watch a rerun - and I can’t think of the last time I watched a rerun besides this show and sometimes The Good Wife - that I owe Elementaryan apology. Or at least, I’m very glad I kept watching after almost writing it off this fall. The final string of episodes, especially, were delightful and surprising and almost devoid of the dull procedural-itis that was such an initial problem for me. And in contrast to the first half of its season, when none of my friends really paid attention to it, Elementary's finale sparked several conversations and debates and “did you see that?” exchanges that I, obsessive television watcher that I am, didn't even have to initiate.
I especially loved what the show did with Irene. (Spoilers…)
Orphan Black: More than just the (amazing) lead actress
BBC America’s Orphan Black is deservedlyhaving a moment, mostlyfocused on its (equally deserving) star, Tatiana Maslany. She should indeed win all the awards. But while her performances as several genetically identical but very distinct women who realize that they’re clones make the show, Orphan Black has done a lot to be worthy of those performances. Its writing is sharp and funny, its supporting characters are great and diverse and include Max Headroom playing an evil scientist, and while its pacing is unusually patient and sometimes even languid for a tightly-plotted serial drama, it has a way with a wicked payoff.* But what I love most about Orphan Black is its quiet and under-the-radar reversal of the gender norms I expect from pretty much any Critic-Appointed Serious Television Drama, especially those without some reference to women in the title.
Consider how I could generally describe the series’ first few episodes:
A young con artist, stumbling upon a conspiracy involving a serial killer and a multinational corporation’s secret scientific experiments, looks for answers by impersonating a cop and tries to protect friends and loved ones.
If I read that about a buzzy new television show (or movie), I’d automatically assume the con artist is a man, a Jesse Eisenberg or a Joseph Gordon-Levitt, wouldn’t you? Maybe he’ll have a female partner or boss at the police station, almost definitely he’ll have a female love interest and family members to protect, but his role and that of his main antagonists will be assuredly male. Orphan Black gleefully upends all of those assumptions. Its main character is a woman, and then the clones that become the other main characters are women. Part of this is casting and obviously the story’s setup – if you make your main character both a woman and a clone, you’re going to have lots of women on screen – but it’s remarkable how surrounded by other women those clones are. Women are their friends, enemies, coworkers, lovers, mothers and children – and all of those relationships are important to the plot and to the show.
And yet men aren’t absent from or unimportant to Orphan Black. I adore Bunheads and its near-total focus on women navigating the world and their relationships with each other, but Orphan Black is a quietly more sophisticated show, because it also has an array of interesting and fully-fleshed-out male characters. They’re just the supporting characters that in many other ambitious television series would be the designated female roles: the concerned sibling (Felix), the suspicious partner (Art), the crazy ex (Vic), the kvetching spouse (Donnie) and the hot but dangerous femme fatale (homme fatal?), who possibly knows more than he’s letting on (Paul).
Orphan Black isn’t one of those designated lady-targeting ensemble soaps like Scandal or Nashville; or one of those prestigious Shows for Women, like Girls or The Good Wife; and it’s not trying to be Bunheads, with men reduced to the occasional walk-on part. I enjoy (or in the case of Girls, admire) all of those shows; I think The Good Wife is one of the smartest and most sophisticated shows, for Women or not, directly addressing gender politics and norms and realities. But its title and its approach mean that its central questions, like those of Girls and Sex and the City and Bunheads, are largely asked through the lens of What It Means To Be a Woman. It’s a totally valid and worthwhile question (and one that I, certainly, care about finding some answers to), but it’s also a limiting one.
Orphan Black asks that question, too – maternal instincts and the clones’ fertility, or lack thereof, are recurring themes – but it gets to do more. It gets to make “woman” the default norm. It gets to focus on What It Means To Be a Person. That’s traditionally a question we expect and allow only male-dominated shows to ask, because straight white man is the generally accepted standard for “everyone.” By asking that question, Orphan Black basically gets to be a gender-switched Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Newsroom (sigh), with clones.
This is more than just passing the Bechdel test with flying colors; this is inverting it so much that if too many series (ha) took Orphan Black’s lead, we’d need an equivalent test to determine if men get enough quality screen time. This is demonstrating that good stories are good stories, regardless of the gender of the main character.
And gender isn’t the only area where Orphan Black quietly wins at diversity. Also fantastic: the matter-of-fact, quiet yet deliberate depiction of not one but two! Two! Gay characters. Neither has to announce or overexplain their sexuality, and both get as much on-screen action as the straight characters. This show does so well with avoiding tokenism. It is a largely white show among the main characters, given that about 75% of the main characters are played by Maslany, but it’s notable that two of the main supporting characters, Art and Vic, are of color. And in what again feels like a deliberate choice, the series consistently casts racially diverse extras and guest characters, from soccer-mom Allison’s neighbors and adopted children to Sarah’s birth mother.
So I’m all for the Maslany Emmy talk. I just hope that the groundswell of attention she’s getting brings more focus to the show and the other, even more surprising, ways it excels.
*Spoilers: I love that in the first five episodes, main character Sarah saw her cop clone Beth kill herself, took over Beth’s life, fooled Beth’s coworkers and boyfriend, lulled me as a viewer into thinking that the police station and its procedural flavor would be part of the show’s structure — only to have Sarah quit the force and get caught by the boyfriend, halfway through the series. And the writers knew exactly where to go from there.
—My expression after enjoying 95% of the new Much Ado About Nothing, even if the parts I really liked were pretty reminiscent of the Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson version, and the parts that were jarring in a modern setting made me nostalgic for the BBC Damian Lewis-Sarah Parish version, which ditched some of the more dated plot points (because turning your modern Beatrice and Benedick into bitter former lovers totally makes sense! But you can’t really do that while retaining Shakespeare’s emphasis on Hero’s literal virginity, or lack thereof, as crucial to the plot and something that’s expected of a woman in the same world where it’s totally fine for Beatrice to have drunken one-night stands).
Still, all of that I was handwaving, and I was really enjoying the movie, though the occasional extra would wander past the camera and make me wonder if Whedon would give any lines to any people of color — an omission all the more jarring because Branagh, a couple of decades earlier and in a more Ye Olden Italia setting, still managed to give Denzel Washington a decent supporting character role, while Whedon decided to depict an unusually, almost ludicrously white version of modern Los Angeles. And then Whedon went for the post-racial visual gag, bringing an unnamed, silent black woman momentarily into his frame just to have her (silently) react to Claudio’s declaration that he’d marry another mystery woman even “were she an Ethiope.” Cue audience laughter — aren’t we so much more enlightened from the days when Shakespeare used “Ethiope” as synonym for “hideous”? — and my facepalming.
Sigh. Siiiiiigh. This is what gets me about Whedon, even as I enjoy his work and admit that the man has a way with a quip or a meta visual gag - he doesn’t always earn them. He especially doesn’t earn them when it comes to gender and racial commentary. There probably is a way to make that joke, but it would involve having non-white actors on screen for longer than five seconds, or even giving them lines, or maybe even casting them in a main role or two. (Modern Los Angeles!) You don’t get to make that post-modern, look-at-us-aren’t-we-clever-and-post-racial joke if you’re not actually, you know, post-racial. It’s Firefly and its Asian appropriation all over again.
Sigh. But yes, Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is delightful.
So this was irritating. Last night I saw The Pretty One, Jenée LaMarque’s California version of Amélie (sweet, funny, a feature-length Anthropologie commercial; not the irritating part). The screening, at the Tribeca Film Festival, was followed by a Q&A (also not the irritating part), with the (pregnant) writer-director, the star (Zoe Kazan), many of the other cast members, a handful of producers and other crew members, including the costume designer. Kazan, in heels and a Heidi coronet-braid, ran the microphone back and forth down the conga line of cast and crew to make sure everyone could answer audience questions.
Also not the irritating part: Of the impressive dozen-person lineup on stage, about half of them, including the main creative types and at least some of the money types, were women. The film was about a woman, trying to figure out this whole life/family/romance/career/friendship thing. (Note where “romance” came in that list - central but not exclusive or even primary.) The Tribeca employee moderating the event and asking the bulk of the questions was a woman.
This was the irritating part: When the Tribeca moderator eventually asked a question about the romance in the film, she felt the need to excuse it, or excuse her asking of it, or something: “It’s something for the ladies,” she added. Right. The romance. Something for us ladies, because the rest of the film about figuring out how to be a sister and a daughter and a friend and a twin who may or may not be “the pretty one” obviously wasn’t “for the ladies.” The lady writer-director, lady star playing a lady main character, lady producer and lady costume designer weren’t there for the ladies and hadn’t said anything up to that point that could be “for the ladies.”
I’m being harsh. I’m sure it was just filler talk, one of those things you say when you’re on stage with a number of semi-famous and/or accomplished people and nervous about sounding smart with them. But it was still pretty depressing. Romance is only the province of “the ladies,” really? And apparently you can make an entire movie about what it actually means to be a lady, with ladies in front of and behind the camera, but unless it has a romantic subplot, none of it is actually going to be for, about or by us.
Yes to all of these, especially the first two (well, three. This Darcy is wonderful, but also wonderfully not the main attraction). There’s so much I enjoy about this series: the in-jokes about Colin Firth and how everyone always forgets about Mary Bennet; Lydia’s sidekick-sister Kitty Bennet is an actual cat, while Anne de Bourgh is her mother’s literal lap-dog. The casting is quietly diverse and much of the acting is great; I was impressed to learn that Darcy was only cast half-way through the series, since Daniel Gordh managed to perfectly inhabit the character that everyone else had been impersonating for 50 episodes. Lydia is more than reckless and silly; she’s fun, and sweet, and just young. (The friend with whom I started watching LBD compared Mary Kate Wiles’s Lydia to Kenzi, the young exuberant sidekick who’s the best part of Lost Girl.)
This is a real modern update, one that really gets the time to worry about more than finding appropriate boys for all of the heroines. Lizzie’s relationship with her friends and her sisters, and her efforts to figure out a career and a future and who she wants to be, are all as or even more important than who she ends up with or even whether she ends up with anyone. And Lizzie’s relationships with the women in her life, whether her sisters or her mother or her friends, all get more screen time than her relationship with her destined soulmate.
Most of the characters get to be nicer, but still interesting, versions of their book originals, including Mr. Collins and Caroline Bingley. And I especially love that both Charlotte and Lydia are three-dimensional characters and get to be more than cautionary tales for Lizzie. Most versions of Pride and Prejudice, including the book itself, frame Lydia’s downfall as, “Isn’t it awful what Lydia’s mistakes and Wickham’s malevolence could do to the Bennet family and the fortunes of Lydia’s sisters?” The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is one of the first versions to really frame Lydia’s downfall as, “Isn’t it awful what Lydia’s mistakes and Wickham’s malevolence could do to Lydia?”
My main quibble is kind of inevitable for a modern updating of Pride and Prejudice, especially one that revolves around new media and tech companies. (And it’s one that’s particularly hard for a business journalist who’s covered tech companies to ignore.) For all the use of YouTube and Twitter and Tumblr, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries appears to exist in a world without tech gossip blogs or Gawker or publicists. This William Darcy is the CEO of a Silicon Valley media company, and a grad student starts making popular YouTube videos about how much she hates him - okay, I could suspend my disbelief thus far. And it’s sweet and noble and romantic when a spurned Darcy, finally finding out that Lizzie has been slandering him by name to hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers, tells her he’s not going to sue. But somehow I doubt the lawyers and public relations staff of his apparently well-established company would agree with that decision.
In junior high school, I competed in a fantastic, super-nerdy event called National History Day. It involved a months-long research project that culminated, my first year, in a sad diorama depicting the Silk Road.
But then I discovered the “performance” category. For the next two years, I researched, wrote and performed ten-minute one-woman plays about my chosen historical topics: people dying horribly in gunfire. In seventh grade, I played Anastasia Romanov; in eighth grade, not content with dying once on stage, I took on the Kent State Four. I listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on repeat for inspiration, which must have worked; I made it all the way to the national finals with my performance, which involved throwing myself onto the ground and sobbing like I’d both been shot and was watching my friends die around me. It was the most fun I had the entire year I was 13.
It’s not fair to the professionals, but my History Day performances have colored pretty much every one-person play I’ve seen since. I’m not generally a huge fan; they involve way too much breaking of the fourth wall, and stirring background music, and endless exposition. And even the good ones are usually way too long. That was my major complaint tonight when I saw Ann, Holland Taylor’s one-woman ode to former Texas Governor Ann Richards. Taylor is fantastic, and the scene that bridges the play’s two acts — Richards in her governor’s office on a whirlwind of an afternoon, wrangling staff and children and grandchildren and President Bill Clinton and protestors and the pope as she decides whether to grant a stay of execution — is worth the price of the (discounted nosebleed) Broadway ticket.
I suppose that for the price of those tickets, no Broadway play is going to confine itself to one act. But I wish Ann had. There’s a good twenty minutes of lead-in exposition at the play’s front end, and a bit of a whimpering return as Taylor recounts Richards’ funeral in 2006. Those were the parts that made me think of History Day, even if the rest of Ann doesn’t deserve to be compared to my teenage efforts to enact poor Anastasia’s basement execution.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Probably my favorite romantic comedy of the last few years, starring: Frances McDormand, being awesome and broke and hungry and snarky and wise. Ciaran Hinds, proving that an older and thicker Captain Wentworth is still hot (at least until he turns into Bill Clinton). Amy Adams, wearing great clothes as she does her adorably ditzy thing. Lee Pace, whose character I largely forget but who plays the younger romantic hothead hero with dash and aplomb.
I was reminded of it tonight, at an event where my every attempt to pick up a plate was foiled by something more interesting happening; there’s a running gag in the movie about Miss Pettigrew never managing to eat anything, like a reverse Brad Pitt from Ocean’s 11.
It’s a wonderful, fizzy period costume piece with just enough sadness to make the happy ending earned. I love the set piece near the end, where McDormand’s Miss Pettigrew and Hinds’ Joe reminisce about the people they lost during the last war and brace for the new one, or the way the movie cares as much about the relationship between Miss Pettigrew and Adams’ flighty, well-meaning chorus-girl as it does about any of the romantic exploits. It’s worth a rewatch on the next snowy Saturday afternoon.
“Those cases weren’t given to women [investigators]. … We were too sympathetic.”
The Invisible War is one of those documentaries that are hard to decide to sit down and watch. It’s about rape in the military, and systematic coverups of rape in the military. It has lots of women facing the camera and telling horrific stories, and sometimes crying, and quietly talking about their depression and their post-traumatic stress and their suicide attempts.
It’s full of infuriating details: more than one woman says that when she went to her commanding officer and reported an attack, she was charged with adultery – not because she was married, but because her rapist was.
One thing that I thought director Kirby Dick did especially well was defining the crimes in his film as violence, human-on-human brutality, disassociated from any relationship to consensual sex. The film is largely framed by the story of Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard veteran whose attacker dislocated her jaw before he raped her. Years later, Cioca waits in vain for the Veterans Affairs office to respond to her claim and fund surgery to treat her. Her story makes it more difficult to sweep the issues away as just a rape problem, just a woman problem, just a sex problem – it’s none of those. One U.S. military officer brutally attacked another, resulting in a lifetime of physical problems, and the U.S. military responded by punishing the victim.
For all of its justified outrage, The Invisible War is effectively low-key – it doesn’t try too hard to tug at your heartstrings, it doesn’t embellish its interviews with swelling music. There are moments of humor, if usually of the bleak variety. (The military’s victim-blaming “prevention” ads, which warned women not to walk around bases without a buddy, got disbelieving laughs at my screening.) It’s a sad and angry film, but not an unrelentingly grim one.
I also saw watched the Oscar-nominated documentary in one of the best possible environments: with an audience in New York, with a panel discussion afterwards, including the director and Jessica Hinves, one of the survivors interviewed in the film. She was funny and cheerful and poised, and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. when an audience member asked if she ever “thought about taking justice into [her] own hands.” The panel discussion was a reassuring end to the movie in some ways – we the audience could have a cathartic moment, applauding the survivors and expressing our outrage to people we knew shared that outrage. I’m glad I saw The Invisible War that way, and that I saw it at all – I’m not sure I would have picked it out to watch at home, on my own, as a break at the end of the workday or over the weekend. But it is very, very worth seeing.
Why haven’t any bankers been criminally prosecuted for the financial crisis? Every time that question is asked, it seems to become more and more unanswerable.
I reviewed Frontline’s “The Untouchables,” airing on PBS tonight. It tries very hard to answer the recurring question of why, four years after Wall Street helped the financial world explode, there are no Wall Street executives in jail today. It doesn’t entirely succeed, but then no one ever has.
It’s worth watching; it doesn’t break much new ground if you’re like me and have paid professional attention to the financial crisis fallout over the past four years, but it’s a devastating story well-told.
What a quietly fantastic, surprisingly dark and sad episode of television. (Not thrilled with the fridging of Irene, but you can’t win them all.) Let’s have much more of this and much less of the forgettable procedurals of the week, please?