Girls Guilt, Quitting Television and The Wire

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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.

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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.

Orphan Black: More than just the (amazing) lead actress

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BBC America’s Orphan Black is deservedly having a moment, mostly focused 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.

Pure joy at the Park Avenue Armory

There are a few days left to see (and play at) “the event of a thread,” Ann Hamilton’s art installation and indoor playground at the Park Avenue Armory. I spent one of the more carefree hours of the past month here, pumping my legs and trading pushes on an adult-sized swing with a friend.

Parts of the event seem ripe for parody on the next season of Girls (the actors reading Aristotle to caged pigeons, the brown-bag radios passed around the crowd). Ignore them; also ignore, if possible, the pushy Upper East Side parents who will try to shame any adults into relinquishing swings to their spoiled children. Go; swing; have fun. Through Sunday.

TV I like: Bunheads, Girls and the chronicles of failure

As an alternative to my griping about The Newsroom, here’s a summer TV series I’m enjoying: Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s ABC Family followup to Gilmore Girls. It works more like a prequel — Sutton Foster’s Michelle is what Lorelai Gilmore would have been like unfettered by a teenage pregnancy, or at least before it. (I still expect Michelle to wind up with a pregnancy from her dead stalker husband by the end of next week’s episode the season.)

Bunheads isn’t perfect by any means. Jacob Clifton at Television Without Pity is one of the few writers recapping it regularly, and I totally get and enjoy his mounting hysteria at how nonsensical the show can be. (Though I’ve kind of embraced it and all its crazy, inexplicable Istanbul (Not Constantinople) dance routines.) The pacing is totally off — major plot points often happen as the credits are literally rolling. And I’m disappointed that the show a) killed off Michelle’s stalker husband at the end of the first episode and b) has largely bungled the handling of his death’s aftermath. Michelle’s hysterical breakdown tonight in the bed of her random date was not convincing after several episodes in which the show’s bright colors and strummy Gilmore Girls guitar music and quirky small-town-shenanigans took far more precedence than actual mentions of the death of a longtime resident and son and last-minute husband.

But while I don’t love all of its execution, Bunheads is still one of the most fascinating shows on television right now, largely because it’s a show completely about failure and moving on from failure. Every significant character in the show has failed, and failed big. Fanny abandoned her professional dreams when she became pregnant, building a life around a son who died off-screen. Michelle frittered her ambitions away when she left ballet for the party life of a Vegas showgirl. Boo, the most sympathetic of the younger generation, knows and is regularly told that she doesn’t have the body to succeed in ballet, despite all of her efforts to prove otherwise. Sasha, the least sympathetic of the younger generation, has all the physicality and talent to succeed in ballet but is hell-bent on throwing it away and becoming a second-generation Michelle. 

I’m watching this while I’m trying to get caught up with Girls, which is fine and interesting in some parts and has me largely admiring Lena Dunham, but which still feels like a chore to watch rather than something I look forward to. Girls isn’t ultimately about real stakes to me, because its characters are too young or diffident or uncommitted to have real stakes in play, or at least stakes that I buy into. Girls flirts with the fear of failure rather than its actuality.

"You squandered a lot of potential."

"I know."

"Are you sorry?"

"Every day of my life."


Bunheads could be grim and devastating on a channel like AMC or HBO, in the hands of a different writer and a cable network devoted to Serious Drama That Says Something About Humanity. ABC Family is anything but — and to be fair to it, grim isn’t in Sherman-Palladino’s paintbox. I’m sorry that Michelle’s brief husband died, because I really wanted to see them navigate a marriage where both knew that she wasn’t in love and had accepted him as an escape rather than a life partner. But that would probably be a different show and a different writer. Somehow, with its cutesy name and awful title sequence and quirky-comedy veneer, Bunheads still manages to come at failure and its consequences sideways, sharply. It’s probably the best, most light-hearted show about tragedy I’ve ever seen.

Aaron Sorkin’s Woman-on-Woman Problem

It’s Jane Fonda’s network CEO dismissing Michele Bachmann as “a hairdo.”

It’s Emily Mortimer praising Alison Pill by offering to take her shopping.

It’s Emily Mortimer offering Olivia Munn a job, having Olivia Munn demure because there are more talented men out there, and having Emily press her case with, “The thing is, they won’t have your legs.”

Women don’t talk to each other this way at work. We don’t bring up each other’s cute shoes on deadline. We don’t decline job offers by calling ourselves unqualified. We don’t tell each other directly, “You’re only getting this job because you’re hot.”

We may think that, we may bitch about it to our friends, we certainly realize that being hot helps - and we certainly don’t have to spell it out for each other. We can be dismissive of Michele Bachmann or interested in each other’s cute work outfits or resentful and catty when the thinner, prettier, blonder woman gets the promotion. That happens. It doesn’t happen like this.

I admit, this is just a sliver of the Aaron-Sorkin-misogynist narrative that came roaring back with The Newsroom, and honestly, it’s not the most important part of it. It’s not the thing that bothered me or most reviewers the most in the first three episodes — it’s hard to get worked up about Sorkin flunking the spirit of the Bechdel test when he’s got his veteran war correspondent melting into a puddle of hysterical-adulterer goo when faced with the deeper mysteries of e-mail, or the passive receptionist being schooled in the Art of Journalism and surviving panic attacks by her all-knowing boss, who also wants to save her from her jerk boyfriend. Sorkin has deep woman problems, and now "Internet Girl" problems, which are all infuriating.

But as a longtime watcher of his work, and someone who still holds out a faint hope for The Newsroom to get better, one of the most jarring problems with the show is how its women speak to and about other women. (Should Jane Fonda really dismiss Michele Bachmann as a hairdo in an election cycle that also gave us the follicle wonders of Ricks Perry and Santorum?)

It’s an irritating tone-deafness from Sorkin, who otherwise can have a wonderful ear for banter and dialogue. His movies and television shows are all sound, words being thrown back and forth in friendly argument or righteous argument or romantic argument. The latter two are more on display so far in The Newsroom, which puts it at a disadvantage - Sports Night and The West Wing, at their best, reveled in the art of the friendly argument between smart people who respected each other. Most of the time those people were men, because it’s Sorkin and that’s who he’s comfortable writing. And when those people are women, like Dana and Natalie on Sports Night, 95% of the time they were talking about their romantic woes and not their work woes.

That’s ultimately what disappoints me the most. Sorkin’s never going to write a romantic relationship that I take seriously, and I’m not expecting him to take lessons from Lena Dunham or Shonda Rhimes or Amy Sherman-Palladino anytime soon. But he cares about workplace drama in a more intellectual, more idealized way than most television writers do, and he devotes most of his shows to the rhythms and relationships of working in an office, in the media business, surrounded by people who are passionate about their jobs. How women talk to each other and work with each other could be and should be a big part of that.

I’m still disappointed with him for The West Wing, for creating the character of C.J. Cregg and having her navigate the boys-club of the Bartlet administration without giving her a female professional equal to commiserate with - not just to have another powerful woman character in the show, but because I was a lot more interested than Sorkin was in how C.J. dealt with being regularly kept out of the White House’s most important discussions. He nodded at the problems for her as the most senior female aide, but wasn’t particularly interested in exploring them. Maureen Ryan pointed out a similar problem with the Mortimer-Munn “legs” discussion in last week’s Newsroom:

This is not news to anyone—the idea that, even more than men, women in broadcast news are judged on their looks. But what was really missing from that scene was a sense of camaraderie between women who recognize this unfortunate truth with a sense of rueful regret. That wasn’t the vibe at all.

Sorkin has written a television show about television news, where the professional stakes for women are amplified by an environment that prizes their physical appearance. I’d love to see him take his own set-up seriously.

Or, all of my reactions to The Thing that is Lena Dunham’s Girls, encapsulated in the 2.5-second kicker.

Via Vulture: Watch ‘Sh*t Girls Say About Girls’.