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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Elementary, Redux: The Irene Adler Success Story

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 Elementary an 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…)

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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.

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.