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

Serious spoilers for Sunday’s episode ahead.

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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.

The Good Wife’s ambitious drama of the ordinary

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.

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.

More musings on The Newsroom, Gabby Giffords and The Good Wife

I’m increasingly trying not to give The Newsroom my full attention while I watch, answering email or paying bills or cleaning or anything to distract from Will McEvoy’s infuriating “mission to civilize” all of us ditzy, celebrity-gossip-writing, reality-television-watching, hidden-handgun-toting ladies. At this point, I just figure that this is what it’s going to be with Sorkin as long as I’m watching the show, which may not be forever. (I was willing to subscribe to HBO in part for The Newsroom and in part to catch up with Girls on demand, so once that’s happened I’m not sure I’ll be willing to keep paying for this.)

I do wish Will’s Adventures in Dating Down hadn’t take up the first 75% of the episode, because the idea of centering an episode around the Giffords shooting, and how news organizations react to events like that, is so much more interesting to me. This might be professional bias - do non-journalists care that much about watching journalists handle a breaking news crisis? — but as a journalist, that’s what interests me and I think that’s what Sorkin can and has previously done well, when he’s not writing his characters big speeches about what “men” do.

But I continue to wish Sorkin had chosen to go the Good Wife route and have The Newsroom staff cover thinly-veiled fictional versions of real-life events, instead of setting it in the past and having them cover the events themselves. The Giffords shooting, as portrayed in this week’s episode of The Newsroom, was almost anticlimactic - we knew the outcome, we knew she didn’t die despite initial new reports. And as others have pointed out, it makes the show seem smug and a little callous to reduce this real-life tragedy, in which six other people did die, to a plot device to show how great the journalists of The Newsroom are, in that they didn’t fall into the trap of rushing to report her death and getting it wrong. Maybe setting the show in a slightly fictionalized universe and writing about a similar assassination attempt on a fictional public figure would still seem somewhat callous, but it would also be so much more dramatically interesting. If we in the audience don’t know what the outcome has to be, doesn’t it make us much more invested in what the characters decide to do?

'Credibility Issues'

"They’ll look into me. The reporters and everyone… and they’ll find stuff, because there is stuff. … People really don’t want to believe this about him. I don’t want to believe this about him, so … I just won’t."

-The Good Wife, in an eerily prescient episode last fall about a hotel worker who debates pressing sexual assault charges against an internationally-renowned politician, before realizing that doing so will destroy her life more than his.

The DSK parallels are inevitable and creepy in the wake of his accuser’s so-called “credibility issues” that surfaced last week. Or as Jezebel put it on Friday, DSK’s accuser’s “case may end up being decided not on what happened in the hotel room, but on things she’s done outside of it.”

I adore The Good Wife, though one of its more credulity-stretching quirks is that Our Heroes win their cases of the week 90 percent of the time. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the show’s writers chose this episode to be one of the rare exceptions.