In Defense of Boardwalk Empire

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People love to rag on Boardwalk Empire. The generalized complaints: it’s boring, it’s all the prestigious packaging without the gravitas, its lead (Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buschemi) isn’t interesting.  But mostly: it’s boring.

 Are these the same people who say that Mad Men is boring? Or, more specifically, the same people who really only like Mad Men because of Jon Hamm’s face?  Because I don’t get it: just because a show is 60 minutes long and doesn’t jump between six different fantasy worlds, all peopled with women in various stages of undress (read: Game of Thrones), does not a boring show make.  Is it boring because there’s intricate dialogue?  Because the suits are too pretty?  Because there’s more diversity, both in terms of class and race and ethnicity, than not only most shows on television, but most shows on HBO?  Is it boring because there’s a character who wears a mask over half his face but still manages to be a sex symbol?  IS THAT BORING?

 Point is, I have very little tolerance for the ‘boring’ argument, in part because I don’t think that all television has to have the pace of Breaking Bad.  I like Top of the Lake, I liked the exquisitely slow Rectify.  I feel the same way about the “it’s boring” complaint as I do about the “that movie was too long” complaint — there are bloated blockbusters that really are too long, and then there are movies that take longer to tell their story.  Have some patience.  Calm the eff down.  Be expansive and imaginative with your expectations of how a plot can unfurl.

 I also want to bolster my defense of this show, which I find pretty criminally underrated — in part because people think it’s one type of show, when in reality, I think it’s another.  So I’ve asked Angela Serratore of Lapham’s Quarterly to join me in unpacking this defense.  (I know she was the one to do it when her early morning Facebook post read ‘HAPPY BOARDWALK EMPIRE DAY!’)

AHP: Angela, when you talk about Boardwalk Empire, how do you talk about it?  Like when someone says “what’s that show about,” what do you say?

 AS: All the post-David Chase shows are about America and what it means to thrive here. I think BE is, more than Mad Men or Breaking Bad or pretty much any other show on television, about America and the banal ugliness of what it meant to make it here in a time before the middle class existed, in a time before Irish, Italians, and Jews were seen as fully white, and in a time when the idea that we’re all entitled to some piece of the pie hadn’t yet coalesced.

 I suspect part of the reason people find the show boring is because most of the characters fall somewhere on the sociopath spectrum, and what we’ve come to demand from ‘difficult’ characters (I’m talking to you, Don Draper) is some degree of moral anguish. People on Boardwalk Empire don’t have that luxury. Irish-Catholic Margaret, who LEAVES HER HUSBAND because she’s got qualms about his involvement in crime, gets what is probably the most matter-of-fact abortion on the history of television because, well, what else is she going to do? I think this sort of pragmatism can come across as boring, in part because most of us don’t want to believe we’re capable of it.

 AHP: I’m vigorously nodding my head here.  I love how tribal and prejudiced this show is (or, rather, the culture it mediates is), and not because it makes me feel like we’ve moved past it, the way that Mad Men can (oh remember the ‘60s, when kids didn’t even wear seatbelts! Look how far we’ve come!) but because it serves as an invitation to see those things in our current society.  Texts about history, of course, are always as much about the present moment as they are about the past, and I think Boardwalk Empire does a great job of showing the ways in which things like blatant racism and misogyny can be taken on and off, like a piece of Nucky’s very refined wardrobe, according to the demands of the market.

 AS: That is an excellent point. Racism and misogyny (or their absence) are, for these characters, essentially tools of business. Nucky doesn’t have the luxury of considering whether or not Chalky’s family deserves the same chances as anyone else’s because he needs Chalky to help him kill people. Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky (who are quickly becoming some of the show’s most interesting characters, in my opinion) don’t have the luxury of being loyal to their Italian and Jewish bosses because they want to move organized crime into the modern era (read: sell heroin).

 AS: What about the violence?  Is it any more or less jarring than the violence of its peers?

 AHP: Gangster violence, especially in the Coppola/Scorsese mode, has always fascinated me – and I’m not a person to tolerate much violence.  Gangster violence is always so religious and primal, or at least that’s the way it’s shot and edited, and there’s something about framing violence in those terms that seems more meaningful, more of an act of a repertoire, than most other violence.  It’s not that I think it’s beautiful, per se — it’s just that the violence, and the way it’s enacted, is always replete with meaning.  Like in S02 (spoiler) when they scalp that dude — that’s to send a very specific message, much in the same way that the horse head in the bed sent a very specific message in The Godfather.

I think that some might argue that that’s stylizing, but I don’t think so — Tarantino stylizes violence; Michael Bay stylizes violence; postmodernism in general stylizes violence….and thus evacuates it of its meaning.  When someone gets beat up in Boardwalk, it doesn’t look like a cartoon.  It looks like that person was pummeled, and the bruises last.  I’m not necessarily arguing for BE’s realism so much as its unflinching commitment to show violence as a tool that wounds both the aggressor and the victim.  The “winners” in BE are fucked; the losers are fucked.  In that — and its truly complicated take on its female characters — I think it’s most like Deadwood, which I miss like crazy.

 AS: To be female on Boardwalk Empire is fascinating because it isn’t a death (literal or metaphorical) sentence! It’s taken Matt Weiner (and I really do love MM, I should point out), what, six seasons to really beat everyone over the head with the fact that Peggy is Don, but I think it’s evident from Boardwalk’s first episodes that, say, Margaret is just as ruthlessly pragmatic as Nucky. Joan sleeping with the Jaguar executive is the more polite version of Gillian murdering Jimmy’s clone so she can claim ownership of the house. The women on this show know what the men capable of and THEY’RE capable of. The ‘man acts bad, woman acts bad to punish him’ scenario doesn’t have a place on this show, because everyone is a striver, and that’s incredibly refreshing.

 I will say that while I think the show’s treatment of females is fascinating, I’m unsure of its attitude towards femininity and qualities associated with the feminine. It was clear from the first season that Sensitive Jimmy was not someone who could make it in this world. His wife, the Lesbian Painter with Feelings, and her female lover are brutally executed because they have no leverage to offer their executioner. Paz de la Huerta’s showgirl can’t figure out how to be anything but a sex object; she’s summarily discarded by Nucky and, after becoming pregnant, falls into a state of physical and emotional collapse. Margaret, who moves in with the man who orders her husband’s murder, knows from the beginning of her relationship with Nucky that to fall pregnant would be inadvisable; it’s when she later lets her guard down and seems to feel genuine affection for the Hot Irishman that she gets into trouble. This is misogyny but it isn’t chauvinism–it’s the very simple fact that for most of history, to be feminine means to be in danger.

 AHP: You are totally correct about Femininity as Weakness, but I will say that Nucky is the least masculine yet still masculine leading man I’ve witnessed (see further discussion below).  And from a feminist perspective, I’m really grateful for the way the narrative has attended to the social and cultural realities of being a woman at this time — like the fact that the female-dominated teetotalers didn’t hate alcohol because they were prudes, but because their husbands kept using all their wages to get drunk and beat them.  (I realize I’m being semi-reductive here, but I feel like that history really gets passed over in favor of harpy women who wanted to take away all the booze)  And Season Three’s sex ed clinics, spearheaded by Margaret, that get off to a woozy start and then get her in trouble — if this were a different type of story, we’d have a montage of Margaret basically teaching every woman how to use appropriate birth control methods culminating in lots of happy tears.  Instead, we see how impossible it was for even a woman of substantial means to do something like this — and how stultifying social institutions remained, even amidst the rise of the so-called “New Woman.”

 And as for Margaret going soft with Soft Irishman and both of them being punished for it….I’m going to articulate an unsophisticated yet totally true opinion that every superb narrative needs a love story.  It doesn’t have to be a traditional love story — the love story of Breaking Bad, after all, is kinda between Walt and Jesse — but you need two people to root for.  Some people are rooting for Margaret and Nucky, but I’ve always had a soft spot for an Irish revolutionary, and I spent the bulk of the last season and a half rooting for Owen and Margaret.  Clearly they were doomed, but that was part of the pleasure, like watching Romeo and Juliet for the fifteenth time.

 AS: I agree with you. I love a love story, and I really love a revolutionary Irishman, and of course I can see how Margaret would have fallen for him, though their sex scenes are curious–if I’m remembering correctly, on virtually every occasion they’re intimate she demands it from him, sometimes rather coldly.

 But I think her anguish over his death is brilliantly ambiguous–is she upset because she fell in love and her lover was delivered to her husband’s house in a box? Or is she upset because she needed a way out of Nucky’s Atlantic City and now that way out is gone (and she’s pregnant, too)? On a lesser show it would clearly be the former, but on this one, where the women are allowed to be just as pragmatic as their male counterparts? I’m not so sure.

 AS: It’s always a dicey proposition to include real-world characters in your fictional story. I’d argue that BE does this better than pretty much any other show I watch, but is that off-putting?

 AHP: You know, the Girls in Hoodies podcast was talking about how historical accuracy limits what this show can do, both in terms of character development and general plotting, but I think that it’s like the Classic Hollywood Studio System: a healthy set of constraints actually allows you to focus on establishing depth, instead of breadth.  Like we know what happens with Al Capone, and the writers have to hew somewhat closely to that narrative — but they can also do a ton of exploration with how to get him there, and how the character playing him develops….like the stuff about him and his deaf son, I just love.

 AS: Also, as historians I think we’d both agree that implying that Real People of History can limit a story’s progress/development is to overlook that history is fiction is history, etc. etc.

 AHP: YOU COULD NOT BE MORE CORRECT, ANGELA.  Which segues nicely into BE’s depiction of race, which most texts focusing on this period just ignore entirely in favor of jazz age spectacle.  In fact, the casting of Michael K. Williams as Chalky White was one of my major attractions to the show, even before it began airing [COMPLETE ASIDE: Is Richard Harrow the Omar of Boardwalk Empire? Discuss].  I was fairly unimpressed with Chalky’s screentime, or lack thereof, throughout the first two seasons, but his storyline last year was just explosive.  I couldn’t look away.  Part of that is Williams’ insane acting ability, and part of it is the willingness to portray a black character with the same sort of nuance as the white characters.  Chalky is at once incredibly charismatic and incredibly flawed — not unlike Nucky.

 AS: I’ve seen some fans of the show give Nucky too much credit for being business associates with a black man (it’s not like he’s being invited to dinner parties, you know?). But I think of all the male relationships on the show the one that’s caused me to hold my breath the most is that of Nucky and Chalky. Last season, when Nucky had nowhere else to go and Chalky took him in and agreed to throw his manpower behind him? That was a careful bet on Chalky’s part, one based on desire for future favors from Nucky, concerns about what another white person in charge might demand from Chalky’s operation, knowledge that the shrewd Nucky should never be counted out, and, maybe, a little bit of friendship or mutual respect?

 In most media that deals with crime, races are allowed to unite exclusively for transactional reasons, with race itself being at the forefront of the alliance. That Chalky and Nucky are allowed to have this relationship at all is a testament to Winter’s understanding of how people climbing up the ladder deal with each other.

 AHP: I’m super excited about the casting of Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a Marcus Garvey-ite rooted in Harlem who’ll serve as counterpoint to Chalky.  Andy Greenwald recently interviewed Wright for the Hollywood Prospectus podcast, and his description of this character and what he gets to do with him over the course of the season, sounds incredible.  Wright comes off as wicked smart and super learned in the politics of 1920s Harlem, including the discourses of the “New Negro” and the “Talented 10th” (and how they butted up against those of Marcus Garvey), and it sounds like the writers of the show are positioning his character to reflect and engage in that cultural moment in a highly textured way.

 AS: Can we talk about where Nucky lies on the leading-man spectrum now? Anyone who knows me IRL knows about my powerful attraction to Steve Buscemi. I also think he (and Nucky, by extension), is sort of a litmus test: anyone whose initial response is to call him weird-looking or dull is immediately written off as a person with no imagination.

 But I think something that separates him from the rest of the pack (and makes him more than a little frightening, quite frankly), is that he’s got very little in the way of a backstory and yet it doesn’t matter. Don Draper is all id, doing whatever he wants because he was birthed and raised by whores, and that’s something that informs virtually every decision he makes. Nucky had distant parents and a dead wife, and yet we rarely wonder about them, which I think is a further testament to the idea of the show as about what it meant to be American at a time when people were still deciding what that even meant. Nucky doesn’t waffle over notions of who he is–why bother with that when you can get on with the much more interesting business of winning?

 AHP: It’s a fascinating example of attention to period psychology: in the 1950s, it makes sense that everyone around Don Draper is trying to figure out “who he is,” because the spread of pop-Freudism positioned childhood as a key to unlock identity.  But Nucky is defined by his Irishness heritage (and the Catholicism that accompanies it) and the fact that he doesn’t speak with an accent (read: second-generation, and thus more wholly American).  Which is part, I think, of why he has no qualms about dealing with gangsters, whether they be Jewish or Italian or Black, and also why he attends so mindfully to his clothing.  He may always be Irish (and remember, we’re still 40 years away from having an Irish president, and even he had to promise the American public he had no allegiance to the Pope in Rome), but living in American capitalism, at least during this specific time period, means that he can indeed transcend his class. But bottom line, at least for me: Nucky is hot because he’s very smart.

 AS: Yes, which is a nice segue into what we’re looking forward to this season, because I think the question almost always is: Nucky is smart, but do smarts last forever?

 Nucky has gotten by on his wits and his ability to convince other people that he’s a sound bet–is that going to hold? He’s got incredibly fragile relationships with Chalky, Rothstein, Capone, Luciano, and Lansky. Is he going to look ahead well enough to choose the right sides, or is the rapidly approaching end of Prohibition going to throw him off his game? We saw last season that Luciano and Lansky were looking beyond booze and into hard drugs, and this represents a huge shift in a system of organized crime in which bosses at least pretended to have boundaries. Will Nucky have boundaries? Will he pretend to have them?

 I’ve read in early reviews that Margaret is absent from the first few episodes, which makes sense–she and Nucky are estranged at the end of last season, and Kelly Macdonald was pregnant during the filming of much of this season. Still, I wonder about her possibe return to the fold. Will Nucky find another showgirl (and another one after that?) Or will the both of them realize what they are and what they can be together, a la Tony and Carmela?

 I am also interested to see how Ron Livingston fares. Part of why this show looks so good is because everyone in it looks like they belong in the 1920s–will the introduction of someone with a modern face change the landscape?

 AHP: You stole all my questions, save one: WHAT WILL BECOME OF RICHARD?  He is the heart of the show for me, and the way they handle him will say a lot about how I handle the show.

 With that, I hope that we’ve proven that Boardwalk Empire is anti-boring, or at least that only boring people are bored, etc., et. al.  We’ll clearly be watching tonight and commenting up a storm tomorrow, and hope you’ll join us freaking out over Nucky’s newest tie choices.

Nashville Roundtable to End All Roundtables: Round Two

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YOUR PERFECTLY LIT RAYNA/DEACON SHIPPING PHOTO:  

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YOUR ESTEEMED PARTICIPANTS:

Karen Petruska
Simone Eastman
Jane Hu
Allison Wright
Jorie Lagerway
Jia Tolentino
And me, AHP.

AHP: First off, I’d like to acknowledge that the show has finally hit a bit of a stride. There was a period there — oh, about seven episodes ago — when I was just like SEPARATE ALREADY.  And then Rayna went two-stepping with Liam and had to have that moment by herself in the bathroom [BEEN THERE, RAYNA] and things just started rolling. At last.

Jia: I am trying to think of a better way to phrase this, but… Gunnar and O.C. Luke are totally going to bang. In my mind at least. That scene when they cheat death and get all ecstatic and screamy as the train rolls by?

Jorie: They are for sure going to bang.

 Jane: Homosocial bonding! (And all those scenes from old films where a passing train so obviously signifies pent-up erotic desires.) (AHP: Good Hitchcock call, Jane.) (Jane: Yes! Hitchcock, Renoir, and my favorite BRIEF ENCOUNTER.)

 AHP: O.C. Luke! THAT’S WHERE HE’S FROM!

 Jia: He is 33 and does not look a day older than 33. Luke, actually, is a helpful reference for me (in terms of characters getting rewritten out of left field) as I process Dante’s INSANELY QUICK and HIGHLY HILARIOUS character transformation from Mild, Reasonable Sober Companion to High-Powered Major Label Pop Star Manager. Over the course of the last episode, Dante’s hair got 500% greasier as he fully inhabited his new Addicted 2 Biz life. I cannot wait for this very unrealistic storyline to just explode all over the place, although I am sad for Juliette, because she has regressed back to her Toddlers & Tiaras persona. (Allison: I like to think about character consistency from one role to the next, so the same Jay Hernandez who was Brian Chavez in Friday Night Lights has somehow become Dante. And the same Chris Carmack who was Luke Ward in The O.C. has made it to Nashville. And obviously I think of Juliette Barnes as an extension of Claire Bennet from Heroes.)

 I am also sad for Scarlet, even though Gunnar is being nice to her, because in the last few episodes she has reached new heights of drippy milkmaid passive “I’d be much happier if I could just make you dinner and clean the house” bad-accent Wig Madness. I hope she gets an assertive hair-wardrobe-and-attitude makeover on Rayna’s label (YAY THAT PLOT).

 SE: Scarlett kind of reminds me of a Lifetime movie lead, but I can’t decide if she’s the Lifetime movie lead who boldly remakes her life in a “becomes the man she wanted to marry”/Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves kind of way, or in a “Lifetime as the ‘Women Having A Hard Time Channel’” kind of way, like at any moment she could say/warble, “But he’s a GOOD MAN!”

 Jane: Oof, Scarlett’s character is almost painfully stock Sacrificial Maiden, and while I’m excited for the Gunnar/O.C. Luke (aka Nashville Will Lexington), I wish it wasn’t at the sake of Scarlett. (That knowing look on Gunnar’s face when Scarlett flounces away, happy that Will has been a “good influence” on him.) Like, very many levels of character sacrifice here! And I want to trust Khouri, but, yes Jia, Scarlett makeover a la Thelma — anytime now.

 KP: I’m concerned about Scarlett/Gunnar in that I actually prefer them singing together (they are sort of making me feel better about the break-up of The Civil Wars). The music is one of the best parts of the show, so if that is ever threatened by plot, I sort of get annoyed. (AW: Yes, Civil Wars! I heard a rumor they’re getting back together. Fingers crossed.)

 Also, does anyone else agree that Panettiere is becoming a much better singer? Seems less nasal now.

 AHP: I feel like she’s still nasaly and a bit too Carrie Underwood on the power ballads, but I love it when she’s doing the quiet Deacon-inspired stuff — “Consider Me” is gorgeous. They’re also doing an okay job with getting around the, er, frailty of Connie Britton’s voice (see: “Stronger than Me.”)

 Jorie: I think we mentioned this last time, but the frailty of Connie Britton’s voice is actually kind of destructive to what is ostensibly the central conflict of the show. Cuz Juliette is actually better than she is. Especially, as you said, when she sings with Deacon.

 KP: I’m gonna step in here to ask if country singers need good voices.  I know Carrie Underwood has us all thinking that, but isn’t frailty a great attribute in a country singer.  I know she’s Mrs. Coach, so I’m likely super biased, but I sort of love Connie’s voice.  It is much more vulnerable and poignant. Her singing (like her acting) requires risk.

 AHP: My subjective opinion based on nearly two decades of country music listening: yes.  In fact, I can’t think of a single female country star (or male star, for that matter) without a powerhouse voice.  Taylor Swift, maybe, but that’s another story.  The problem is that Britton’s supposed to be the Faith Hill in this equation battling it out with Carrie Underwood, and Hill has effing PIPES.

 KP: I liked that Juliette fired her manager. I think that could have been a good way to go — how does a child star grow up (important, useful topic for the actual world), but instead they’ve chosen to go down a less satisfying track.

 Jorie: Can we discuss why Scarlett wears a wig? She has hair. WAIT. The Civil Wars broke up?!

 KP: What does her actual hair look like? … Oh, sorry to break the news, Jorie. It is pretty tragic.

 Jorie: I have no idea what her real hair looks like, actually.

 Jia: (I am doing some Clare Bowen research right now and A. her Twitter is actually 50% cupcakes [that is a joke I would have made up about her but it’s true] and 50% adorable photos of her and her menagerie of animals, B. she was the lead in an Australian production of Spring Awakening, with Cate Blanchett as the artistic director! I hate musicals! But I would have LOVED to see that!)

 Jane: Compulsory Defense of Musicals Interlude: WOWWWW. I would love to see that, and if Bowen played Wendla (originated by Lea Michele of Glee fame) then we know she can handle nuance. Can someone please make Scarlett’s character just a wee bit more round, and not on the verge of tears all the time? (Also recently learned that Spring Awakening is a DUNCAN SHEIK production, but that makes soooo much sense. “The Mirror-Blue Night”? So Sheik.) (Jia: She was Wendla! [And my hate of musicals comes solely from having spent my entire childhood putting my hair in sausage-curl rollers for them.] And I actually love that Spring Awakening was Duncan Sheik — if there was a more naturalistic pop sensibility to contemporary musical theater, i.e. Nashville basically, everyone would get on board. I think the band Fun. is a flop sophomore album away from writing a decent musical. ALSO, ALSO, the actor who plays Gunnar is British – so Scarlett, the accent, PLEASE!) (Jane: FUN IS WRITING A MUSICAL? That makes so much sense; the lead singer’s voice screams musical theater (no pun intended), and I think his uncle has roots there? OK, Jia, the next time we meet, we will have a Musicals With Pop Sensibilities marathon. You will be converted; I can already tell. Aaaand Musical Interlude Scene.) (Jia: Sadly that is just my Fun. fantasy. Let me conclude my off-topic interlude here with THE MOST FUNNY clip of O.C. Luke dancing to Rooney and singing very terribly – hiding, clearly, the polished country twang that he unveils on Nashville.) 

KP: The thing with the hair is that it reinforces the whole unrealistic Disney Princess nonsense.  Disney Princesses are faux feminist, so the idea that Scarlett has to be fragile, beautiful, and soft (as represented by the hair) bums me out.

Jia: DO we think that Scarlett is going to hook up with Luke? Whose name is WILL, I keep forgetting, but he will always be Luke to me. I feel like such a complication is inevitable–they are inserting him into the Scarlett-Gunnar relationship in a very direct way. I would like to see Scarlett do something selfish and bad, is why I’m asking this.

 Jorie: Do you not think he and Gunnar are going to do… something?

 Jia: I WISH! I wish they would just all have a threesome, to be honest, and Luke and Gunnar have more intense chemistry than a lot of other couples on the show! But, you know… doubtful.

 Jorie: I live in a delusional world where, until it doesn’t happen, I believe network television will do things like put the two hot guys with great chemistry in bed together and have the milkmaid come in with breakfast and just join them. But yeah, probably not. And in that case, I would say she would hook up with Luke, but this show is SO BAD at making people who should be having sex (for story’s sake, for melodrama’s sake, for entertainment’s sake) have sex.

 Jia: Definitely. I also wonder if Luke is a sign that Avery is getting written off soon. That was a bit of a low point for me in terms of plausibility, when he burned those master tracks in a trash can like he was Taylor Momsen on Gossip Girl or something — I don’t think the writers really know what to do with him.  (AHP: JIA I AM DYING)

 Jane: I was wondering why they were still keeping Avery around — I mean, they show even had the out of firing but, but they’re keeping him so… I think there’s some dramatic criss-crossing left to happen there.

 SE: It’s because he wears a leather thong necklace.

 AHP: Well that’s it Simone, now that we’ve discussed the leather thong necklace, this Roundtable is Complete.

 SE: Kill your idols, etc etc.

 Jorie: But wait: Avery might turn back into a human now that he is forced, Tyler Perry style, to face good clean working class work. (Jia: TYLER PERRY STYLE *faints happily*)

 KP: Yeah, I think they know they have a good actor as Avery, and he has a lovely falsetto. So if they can find a way to redeem him, he can someday sleep with Juliette (cause this show ultimately has the personal goals of all characters subsumed by sex).

 Jorie: It claims to have all the personal goals of all the characters subsumed by sex. But then it doesn’t do it right. I couldn’t care less who Juliette sleeps with, since she clearly will sleep with every male cast member eventually. But either put Rayna and Deacon together, or move on. Make something actually shocking or interesting happen. Be more like Scandal. I’m frustrated with the show. I agree with AHP that it’s hit its stride more, but still could be so much better.

 Jia: I have a feeling, though, that the sustained and excruciating separation of Rayna and Deacon is going to carry this show from season to season, as much as I wish it wouldn’t.

 Jorie: But it’s not excruciating. That’s the problem. It’s gone on so long I don’t care. Although I am happy to see Deacon happy. Poor guy never catches a break.

 KP: (raises hand) I care about Rayna and Deacon.  Though a flashback episode (please, done better than #TVD and that one Gilmore Girls episode) would be sort of awesome to fill that out–why Rayna betrayed her lover of years to find security with the most boring man on the planet.

 Jia: True. They’ve lost a lot of momentum. And gained a Labrador puppy. I was quite pleased at the shamelessness of that. “Meh, let’s just give him a puppy or something,” said some writer in response to “How can we keep the audience interested in Deacon now that he has a girlfriend that people will like but not root for because she ain’t got that Tami Taylor steez.”

 Jane: I find this genre of character so interesting, Jia! The romantic obstacle between the two fated lovers that isn’t captivating or interesting enough for us to hate (or love).

 AW: I really hate that Deacon’s girlfriend is also the CIA agent’s wife on The Americans. Like, cannot handle it. She doesn’t have a big role in either, but it still freaks me out. If the shows were not on at the same time, I would apply my rule of linear progression referenced above and just say that the CIA agent’s wife became a veterinarian after divorcing him–or she entered witness protection and this is her new life — but the concurrent viewing precludes that.

 Jane: But she does have the sort of Semi-Clueless Significant Other vibe in both roles, at least!

 AW: True–she is consistent. Which makes it even easier to believe it’s all the same person.

 KP: I loved the scene with Deacon and Rayna in the hospital. Yes, the elevator kiss was super hot, but I prefer these two as friends nevertheless. For a woman as confused as Rayna, it is nice to have one person get her. Speaking of, the sister is getting redeemed a bit, too. I wish they could pull that off with the father — give him something more to do than laugh evil-y.

 Jorie: YES. I loved that scene. It was tortured and nice and appropriate. While the sister’s turn around is abrupt, I get that your dad having a heart attack could soften your edges temporarily. Plus, it seems like she’s going to take his place as schemer in chief. Which brings me to AHP’s topic list: Powers Boothe acting like he’s on Deadwood. Yes. What’s up, Powers Boothe?

 Jane: When Boothe sat down in his leather armchair — glass of whiskey in hand — before his blazing fireplace, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of Don Draper’s future.

 KP: I am not familiar with Powers Boothe, but everything I read tells me he is a great actor. Wish the show knew that.

 Jorie: I wish the show knew that about the whole cast. See above re: Scandal. There is SO MUCH POTENTIAL. It just doesn’t have the writing chops. There is a moment or two in each episode that I really like, and the rest, meh.

 AHP: Here’s what I like about what’s going on with Deacon and Rayna: it’s what actually happens when you’re friends with someone whom you’ve loved and lost. They’re best friends, and they know and understand each other in a way that no one else will. Rayna is seriously lonely — her sister is suddenly offering all sorts of insight and Rayna is suddenly heeding it — but, as is all too typical on network television, here’s a lady with NO FEMALE FRIENDS.

 KP: Postfeminist BS Bingo. No female friends.

 Jia: No kidding. Scarlett, too – that brief gesture towards female friendship when Hailey bought her a Cleavage Dress and took her out on the town was so quickly stifled by Gunnar’s Boner of Rage, which was my least favorite Gunnar moment in the show to date. Actually, it might be a more general failing that people on this show – aside from Rayna, who is good at warmly insinuating history in brief moments of interaction – just do not appear to have many friends, period. Fame and power are isolating, sure, etc, but that’s not enough of a justification – it’s like in literary fiction when characters ostensibly don’t hold jobs.

 KP: So here’s the show’s dilemma — some real potential, and from what I can tell, reasonable success with the music. So how do they get more viewers? Do they want the country folks, and if they do, what makes them happy? I hate when a show is in search of an audience, because they just throw pasta on the wall without realizing they forgot to put the pasta in the water in the first place.

 AW: Speaking of tension with Deacon and Rayna, how long are they going to draw out the paternity issue? Deacon rescues Maddie (the older daughter?) during the stampede at Juliette’s concert, he hangs out with her (and the new girlfriend) during Rayna’s concert, acting all fatherly. When is the big reveal? (Jane: Oh man, during that hug, I thought Rayna was going to look down and have a moment of “that’s the family I could have had” and stumble through the performance or something, but it was very much taken as a given! And Rayna’s tears by her father’s bedside at missing all those years they could have had? Is Rayna going to hint do the same with Maddie?)

 Also, I wonder how everyone consumes the show — do you have TV, watch it live, DVR it, wait until it’s available online, etc? And do the answers to this question get at KP’s question re: increasing viewership?

 SE: I watch it in Hulu binges when Grey’s Anatomy and SVU both have an off week. (Those are the weeks when I think, “I really miss my friends.” Which.)

 Jane: Same! Hulu binges, so it’s not at the top of my list, though I am haaaanging on. (I missed a few episodes during that deep lull and might even recommend that to future viewers?)

 Jia: I do not have a TV, but I solicit TV access from a friend for this show – Nashville and basketball are the only two things that I will get in front of a real TV for. I will say, though, I have a sense of this show as having a much broader audience than I would have expected – or maybe my college best-of-bro friends are just anomalously broadening their taste from Workaholics and the like – but I’ve been surprised at the demographic variety of the people I know who watch it.

 AHP: I watch it via Hulu on my iPad, but almost exclusively while exercising.  It is the PERFECT exercising show.  I’m also somewhat surprised by how many of my (female) students watch it — probably because a.) it’s on Hulu and b.) I got them all addicted to Friday Night Lights last semester. NOTE TO ABC: YOUR 20- AND 30-SOMETHING AUDIENCE IS WATCHING VIA THE HULUS; DON’T GIVE UP ON THAT PLAN.

 KP: Hulu but not so much a binge.  My partner watches with me, but he’s not really that into it.  If I didn’t make him, he wouldn’t watch.  And is that a possible issue, too?  Is there a reason for guys to watch this show? I mean, Deacon is sorta manly, but while we complain about Scarlet, at least the other females are relatively in charge of their lives.  Are there any 3D male characters on this show?

 AW: I have been wondering the same thing about Girls, though my question there expands to include what men who watch that show (if there are any) think of the representations of themselves vis-a-vis dating. I’m not sure there’s a similar question to be asked here, though maybe there is and I’m just not ferreting it out.  (AHP: I don’t know where it’s sourced, or if it’s just internet legend, but apparently 60% of Girl’s audience is male.  Fascinating).

 SE: I think this is an important question but I must first insist that we introduce Lean In analytic. WHICH LADIES ON THIS SHOW ARE/ARE NOT LEANING IN? Part of me thinks all of them are. Like, Juliette, for all her rebel bullshit, is leaning in, right?

 Jia: Juliette leans in so hard all the time. Every morning Juliette wakes up and tells herself to lean in at such a deeply acute angle that her powerless childhood (which here can be pictured as a congealed bowl of trailer pink mac-and-cheese) can never again haunt her in the present. Rayna’s hair is the ghostwriter for Lean In so there are no issues there. However, Scarlet only leaned in for this solo contract because her Authoritative Man gave her approval to do so. (SE: Connie Britton’s hair: never not leaning in. Also, congealed mac-and-cheese is kind of the best, so you CLEARLY MEANT Tuna Noodle Helper.)

 AW: Scarlett totally leaned in once she got the head nod from Gunnar!

 SE: Isn’t that the real problem with Lean In, that the Leaning Lady has to have always already had a dudely head nod before shit takes off?

 KP: Dude(tte), that is so troubling.  Could Sandberg only lean in when that little pipsqueak Facebook founder let her?  The parallels there are troubling (yet apt).  Scarlet needs help, STAT. Like, cutting off her hair, Felicity-style, help.  Like, being killed and having her twin sister take over, unbeknownst to everyone around her.  Like, is there any help for this character other than her voice (which hides a great chest voice most of the time)?  How about this–let Deacon and Rayna be starcrossed forever (that’s fine with me–the tension works).  How about letting Deacon mentor HIS ACTUAL NIECE? Now that could be interesting, and there would be no nonsense about his trying to sleep with her, like every other storyline on the show.

 SE: Can we talk about what this show does with/about addiction? I say this mostly because I am “watching” Elementary while I work and that show ALSO has a “sober companion.”

 KP: Really enjoying Elementary (though not sure why Angelina’s ex always seems to be shouting).  That is all.

 AW: I have not seen Elementary (I have also not seen Deadwood, which I realize is a travesty that must be remedied immediately) but I do watch Nurse Jackie and Californication, two shows that very clearly address addiction. This seems like the Disney hand-holding, didactic version. Of course, it’s network compared to Showtime. How many characters struggle with addiction? Deacon, Coleman, Juliette’s mom. Anyone else? Juliette’s mom seems to struggle more than Deacon and Coleman, at least in the present. Are we to make anything of that? (I’m trying really hard not to make it about gender and/or class, so mostly I want y’all to save me from myself here.) (SE: You are perfect and beautiful.)

KP: Ways to improve this show: 1) no more sex. For any characters.  Only longing, which is more dramatic anyway.  2) Scarlet is only allowed to sing with Gunnar, though in all other aspects of her life she must make her own choices. In fact, she should start telling him how to live, cause his choices are crap. 3) Avery needs to be redeemed.  That actor is too cute not to be on the show.  And I’m sorry, Annie, but “Kiss” is a damn hot song. 4) More about songwriting, performance anxiety/mechanics, and the business of music.  The damn thing is set in Nashville, so let’s get some insider dish (beyond dumb guest star spots that give the guest stars nothing to do).  5) More scenes with Rayna and Juliette, as long as they never cat fight or enact any other cliches. Genuine jealousy, competition, understanding, achievement, collaboration only. 6) More of Rayna’s sister being a real person, not a cartoon. She can be conflicted (but I’m a business woman, too, and therefore must make money!!), but she still needs to be, you know, a human. 7) Dad should have died. Sorry, but the character was never developed beyond the twirling mustache. He and Teddy should accidentally shoot other in a twisted sex game.

 AW: Booth should have died, YES. Great idea to have Deacon mentor Scarlett, though I want to see Scarlett and Rayna write and sing together. And I want to see Scarlett leave Gunnar and live alone. Figure your shit out, girl. I wonder if the writers are shying away from the music industry in an effort to appeal to a broader audience in the same way that FNL writers avoided too much football talk. “It’s not really about football” (except of course it was).

 KP (cont):I actually really, really, really like Nashville.  I think Mrs. Coach has a character with interesting conflicts and a great acting partner in Deacon. Juliette has redeemed Panettiere, which is pretty much all I need to say about that.  Gunnar and Scarlet have great (musical) chemistry. How albums are made. What are the challenges of the business.  How hard it is to balance work and home.  All of that is awesome.  So just go do that and cut the silly melodramatic.  I’m a girl, and I like romance, but I don’t need dumb. [Oh, and Ms. Khouri--you are working with your husband.  I imagine that is an interesting relationship. So put Rayna with Deacon, and let them act out your life for us. That would be a damn good show]

 AHP: [DROPS MIC; PICKS IT UP AND PASSES IT TO THE REST OF THE INTERNET]

 

 

815 Words on New Girl

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I am the worst kind. I am the person who didn’t even watch the pilot of this show because I had a preordained idea of what Zooey Deschanel had come to represent, in terms of star image, and assumed that the show would be an extension of that image — with a few well-chosen male friends to extend and extrapolate upon it.  I am especially the worst kind, given the ease with which I ascribed to arguments concerning Deschanel’s overarching suckiness, for lack of a more academic term.  She was too wide-eyed, she was singing in those insufferable Cotton commercials, she was twee.  She was a more modest Katy Perry.  She was what was wrong with feminism.  I hated her.

But I totally didn’t.  I’ve loved Deschanel since she played her records for her kid brother in Almost Famous.  I especially loved her in All the Real Girls, which offers a totally different side of the Deschanel image, Danny McBride before he was Danny McBride, Paul Schneider being so weirdly attractive, and enough stunning vistas to make you move to North Carolina this very minute.  It’s a quiet film, but it gets its hooks on you — the kind of film you still think about years later. 

But then there was Elf and 500 Days of Summer and the duets with M.Ward — I mean, I can’t lie, they appeal to me the way that Anthropologie appeals to me, the way that every dress she ever wears appeals to me.  But I also try and disavow the things that too obviously appeal to me.  I often fail.  I own many Anthropologie dresses, even if I do buy them on sale.  So when Zooey Deschanel told Glamour that…

“I’m just being myself. There is not an ounce of me that believes any of that crap that they say. We can’t be feminine and be feminists and be successful? I want to be a f–king feminist and wear a f–king Peter Pan collar. So f–king what?”

…I posted it to the blog’s Facebook page. I admitted that I had judged Deschanel. I admitted I was wrong.  And then everyone kept talking about how great New Girl was, etc. etc. so funny go watch it etc.

So fine. I did. I started with S02, as suggested.  And it is legitimately, consistently, hilarious.  I love it.  I love all of it.  Don’t get me wrong: I get why people dislike her.  And what made me love the show wasn’t necessarily a recuperation of the much-loathed Deschanel image.  She’s still wearing cute dresses.  Her eyes are still wide.  But the show is about her in the same way that Seinfeld is about Jerry: it’s mostly about friendship, situational humor, and the specifics of being a certain age in a certain time….as a certain demographic, which is to say middle-class, educated, urban people.

new-girl-season-2-premiere-katie

So here’s what I’ll stand by about New Girl: it’s not all about Zooey.  The guy who played Officer Leo D’Amato in Veronica Mars is really, really funny.  I kinda want to date the law school drop out turned bartender.  The way it deals with race and gender is compelling and generative; I want to show every episode to my class and have them start a conversation about it, and not in a “ack look at how gross this is” sorta way.  I laugh — really hard, like embarrass myself at the gym hard — all the time.  It surprises me.  You should probably start in S02, although I’ve heard great things about some of the episodes in S01.  And if you’re in your late-20s/early-30s, educated, lived in an urban setting — either with a group of friends or hung out with a close-knit group of friends — it will probably make you nostalgic, or speak to your experience, or both.   For me, it reminds me of the years when I lived with my girlfriends and had a close group of guy friends and we spent all of our time together — this was before engagements or babies — and were all way too wrapped up in each other’s business, and made fun of each other all the time, did weird projects, went silly places, accidentally got drunk on Tuesday nights, and were just generally, totally cheesily supportive of  one another.

I realize that we could all do that because we were gainfully employed and able to pay our rent and had health insurance and were not crushed by student loan payments.  I also realize that privileged people born between the years of 1975 and 1985 are not at a loss for programming that speaks to their desires and needs.  But this is one of the most consistently amusing, compelling, and surprising I’ve found.  If you feel like it will speak to you, give it a try.  Or don’t, and tell me what programs do speak to you, and I’ll try them too.  As clearly evidenced above, I love to be proven wrong.

Nashville: Roundtable to End All Roundtables

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So, I’ve been looking forward to Nashville ever since I first saw Connie Britton’s face attached to it.  When I found out that T. Bone Burnett was running the music, and that Callie Khouri (she of Thelma & Louise fame) was running the show, things just seemed to get brighter and brighter.  The production values are high; ABC seems to be wholly behind it; GOD THE MUSIC, I LOVE IT, IT IS CONSTANT ROTATION IN MY SPOTIFY.  


But it’s also super soapy, following in a long tradition of primetime, Southern-based soaps (think Dallas) and, as someone suggested in my Twitter feed today, regressive, at least in terms of feminist sensibilities.  Or at least a “step down” for Connie Britton.  Or is it?

I’ve asked a bunch of people who a.) love Nashville; b.) write on the internet in some way; and c.) come from some sort of background that is not identical to mine to chime in on the specific appeal of the show.  We’ll see where this goes.

First question:

I kinda can’t stand Hayden Panetierre, but this show has somehow endeared her to me in some weird way.  What do we do with that?

LET’S GO!  LIKE A TELESCOOOOOOOPE!  

Jia: I have the same reaction to Hayden Panetierre (or, more specifically, her acting). But I too have come around to her, in this part, on this show. First, I think there’s a sort of January Jones as Betty Draper thing going on: a bad actress playing a bad actress works well. In Ms. Panetierre’s case, an actress who comes off a little too cutely insincere/self-conscious at best (and wholly narcissistic and hate-able at worst) can play her country-music analogue pretty seamlessly.

Also, re: the idea of this show being “regressive,” of course it’s not Louie or Portlandia or something that struck people as formally or structurally new. But I like the straightforwardness of a good soapy drama, much prefer it to the fake “progressive” veneer of a show like Modern Family. (And some soapy shows–like my current kick, the O.C.–make room for some fourth-wall innovation, etc, anyway.)

AHP: Yes yes yes — I love it when people get on the “Betty Draper is a bad actress at life – that’s why January Jones is so perfect” train.  I mean, Hayden even kinda looks like January Jones, and they both seem to be straight off of the “casting couch,” if you’re putting up what I’m putting down.  I think what resonates with me about Panetierre = the fact that she’s constantly putting up an image to cover up for her tragic/classed background, and what we’ve seen in the last few episodes is the puncturing of that image — the vulnerability and fragility that resides beneath all star images.  In some ways, Nashville is, at least in part, a meditation on image: what Rayna and Juliette culturally/socially “mean” and how that fits (or doesn’t) with their “real life” actions, desires, pasts, etc.

Jia:
PS, the rumor that Hayden Panetierre is a Hollywood escort–have you read that/written about that? Her and Amanda Bynes both? I read it once and I thought, “Oh, sure,” because that is very much how she comes off, casting couch-esque, and it’s interesting to think about how there’s nothing specific to telegraph that except (I would like to think this is what shapes most of my judgment about her) a lack of nuanced talent. But honestly, she’s pretty good on this show! Or at least, this character is a pretty decent absorption for the things about her that normally irritate people. (AHP: And she’s a much better singer than Connie Britton, right?!?) (Jia: YES. Which is unfortunate, I wish they were equal musically for the show’s sake. Also, Hayden has some hilarious musical efforts in her past. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rsZasAQJ06I song she did for “Cinderella III: A Twist In Time” omg and also that awful “Stars Are Blind” esque song “Wake Up Call” ) (AHP: Although I will say that my favorite song of hers is the one with Deacon — “Under Mine.”  The other stuff is too Carrie Underwood.)  

I agree with you completely on the image thing. It’s interesting that Juliette and Rayna are both trying to reach for the middle in a way: both of them trying to shed their pasts at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum in order to achieve mainstream stardom and not be hassled by the accusation of either end (the “Lana del Rey, son of a Jersey millionaire” thing or the “Britney Spears, trailer trash forever” thing).

Alaina:
I am probably going to be watching this show after everyone else have given up on it (whether that is in one season or five) because that’s how much I love Tami Taylor. But a couple things are bothering me. One, I keep struggling with the Rayna/Teddy have no money plotline. I TOTALLY buy her mid-career/middle-aged slump, but if she really was a Faith Hill or Reba like she is supposed to be, wouldn’t she have more money? One bad deal and they don’t have any liquid assets?

The bigger thing that’s bothering me is Rayna’s inaction. Both she and Juliet are struggling, but I am actually finding Juliet more enjoyable to watch (Hayden, what have you done to me) because her impulsive decisions – bouncing from one thing/person to another to try to make herself feel better is at least active.

But, now that I write this, I wonder if it’s a reflection of what hinders you at different ages. In your 20’s, you can fall prey to bad decisions – in your 40’s, it’s much more likely to be in-decision that holds you back.  

AHP: Okay, yes: it’s one thing if you have some money and then your husband is a real estate dufus that you’d still be getting mad residuals every time country radio played your version of Faith Hill’s “Breathe” (btw, I hate late Faith Hill, which is part of the reason I’m having problems reconciling Rayna James as a character with my unadulterated love for Connie Britton).  Also, side note, but I love the suggestion that Powers Boothe (Rayna’s dad) is acting in a completely different (far more melodramatic) show than the rest of the cast.  It’s perfect. (Jane: I want to talk more about Boothe! That delivery! that growl. I have to admit here that I never made it past a few episodes of FNL, but I made it to the end of Deadwood, and while I have few associations between Tami and Rayna, I do have very sharp Cy-flashbacks whenever I wash Nashville.  He is a lot more melodramatic than the rest of the cast — which tips it into some weird hybrid of HBO’s best and schmalziest soaps. I don’t know what to do with it, but I feel like such acting cannot be put to Pure Evil. I’m waiting for Cy (who seems much smarter than most of the other characters) to surprise us, and, hopefully, surprise Rayna as well. But it’s true, he could also just be as awful as Rayna keeps emphasizing.)

 

Karen: This is gross, but if they had money, it would “solve” too many problems–like why she won’t just leave him, or why she’s rude enough not to love him.  If they have money, Rayna isn’t vulnerable, and they need her weak right now for various reasons.  And let me be clear–she’s not weak financially like most people.  Lady has plenty of money, she just doesn’t have rich person money.  Big difference.  Rayna is a pretty dang selfish character, and that’s a good thing.  All these characters are deeply, deeply flawed, and that’s something I like about it.  It is amusing that Juliet is the more active person (I’ve only seen through the episode where she steals the nail polish), and I am sort of rooting for Deacon to leave Rayna behind (you know, until he finds out she had his baby years ago–nah, if that were the story, we’d probably have to watch her kid with some dumb storyline).  I see a show where a creator likely had to postpone nuance to sell the show to executives–two women, who hate each other, who love the same man, and there’s an evil father, and an evil mother and a shady business deal, and a random ingenue, and on and on and on… I’m hoping she has the know-how to make more of this–and I’m willing to wait patiently (through season 1) to see if she can get there.  Oh, and I like the music.  Enough that I would buy the album.

Alaina: I LOVE the music. I’ve been listening to it, a lot. Hayden’s voice is in my head, in my head. How did she DO that? Karen, I too am hoping for more subtlety as time goes on. I also hope Teddy dies, or something, because that actor has no charisma. The scenes with him and Powers Boothe are like Powers talking to a green screen. (Jane: Love the music so much too, but my favourite pieces are actually more Gunnar/Scarlett than Panetierre’s character. “Fade Into You” is absolutely astonishing, but the part of me that loves Tay also appreciates what Juliette is doing with that persona–aka dirtying it up.)


Jia:
Teddy does need to die! Or something. The unfolding subplot about fraud appears to be leading him into an out-of-the-picture future (hopefully). My biggest character problem is Scarlett. I think it’s a really powerful representation of a young, abusive relationship, but her accent is just absolutely like an improv troupe’s version of a Southern milkmaid idiot (she is Australian though! that is why. very Claire on LOST-esque in general) and yeah. She is disgusting in terms of this one-note innocence and servitude; I get the picture that whoever conceived of her character might be like “This is a girl who really just wants to make her boyfriend dinner at the end of the day, really truly”–as if that made it better, more complex, rather than the absolute opposite. The way she is around the house with Avery is so saddening. (Jane: Does anyone else think that Eric Close just has the perfect face to portray Teddy? It is intensely dislikeable, and he always seems to be cringing. Like, oops, is it me again? It’s a prime Awful Character look, and, yes, I’m just waiting for his ruse to fall apart. What I find hard to believe is how Rayna still seems to trust him so wholeheartedly? I guess that’s the point though — to feel for Rayna’s innocence, as she dumps Deacon from her band and ignores his calls, etc.)

AHP: First thing: yes, Teddy, GAWD, so bad.  As Jia gestures above, I think they’re trying to give us a way to root for Rayna to leave him.  Because if there’s no ethical justification, then it just makes Rayna look like a bad mom.  But if Teddy’s bad — entirely different story; she’s leaving to keep her kids safe.  

Second thing: SCARLETT, EFF-ING-A, SHE IS THE MOST REGRESSIVE PIECE OF SHIT.  I’m sorry, I don’t mean that misogynistically, but her reticence and, as Jia notes, the ACCENT! just drive me nuts.  “Southern Milkmaid” is spot-on.  She moved to Nashville “just to support” her boyfriend?  

Karen: Um, ladies, don’t you see her boyfriend?  He’s Lucky from General Hospital.  She would crazy not to love Lucky Spencer, the kid who should have been Anakin Skywalker.  Accents don’t bug me cause I’m from St. Louis, the land of no accents.  All accents are therefore exotic and accurate as far as I can tell.  The bigger issue is the dude she is singing with–does he have any personality at all?  At least the abusive boyfriend has a dream, and a look (sort of skeevy, oily guy trying to hide how gosh darn cute he is).

Jia:
(I totally think the guy she sings with is cute–can’t help it! NO ALMOST-ANAKIN THOUGH) AHP: Um, I’m digging him, but that’s an opinion almost wholly built on his singing ability.  And his ability to wear plaid shirts with snaps.  But where is this weird assistant-to-producer relationship going?  Pure narrative device to make Scarlett jealous/realize she needs to be with someone who is not a jealous ass?  

Alaina:  I wish they hadn’t cast Lucky, because it makes me worry more that this will turn into a soap. That aside, I see Scarlett as totally insecure, yes, but there are actually a lot of women out there who are like that. Who, when asked what they like about their boyfriend, say, “He treats me well.” Like that’s a bonus. I am rooting for her to snap out of it, but then have singer boy (none of us know his name!) be busy with Hailey so she has to stand on her own two feet. Or for her to write with Rayna? I want the plotlines to intersect more. Also, Bunny from The Wire is distracting me with his past character lives. They need to give these people more character traits so they can fully reincarnate.

Jia: It also does not help that he is Mayor Coleman, formerly Major Colvin, right?  AHP: Wow. Wow.

Alaina:
On another note, Stephen and Elena are writing in their diaries on The Vampire Diaries. Why am I still watching this show? Oh, that’s right: Damon. (Karen: Damn straight, Damon.)

AHP: So what do we see as a progressive development in the Scarlett storyline?  Is it getting together with singer-partner-cuteness?  Is that just trading one sort of dependency for another?

Alaina: See my comment above about her being on her own.   AHP: Ah yes, write with Rayna — that would be amazing.  And actually enact what happens a lot in Nashville, when female writers write for more visible female performers. (Jane: AHP, I didn’t know that! But it’s also a nice reflection of the female writing that goes into Nashville as a show.)

Jia:Agree that that’s where Scarlett is going. I also think that, eventually, if we’re thinking multiple seasons, she could be a challenger. And write with Rayna is the best idea! They are just talking, in the fifth episode (which I’m watching right now) about how she needs someone; she (Rayna) was like, “Maybe I should try it, to write on my own” and her manager was like ha ha ha. Also Teddy more and more reminds me of like, Jason Bateman’s boring boring cousin

Karen: The trouble  with Scarlett is that she has NO point other than to be the more authentic young girl to Juliet’s false star.  She’s a plot device, but we don’t yet know in what way she will shape the plot.  Other than that, she just has a pretty voice.

AHP:  Interesting — especially since Scarlett doesn’t actually “do country” in a traditional sense.  But she is descended from royal country stock — which is why her boyfriend loves/hates her.  

Jia: There are so many “descended from” problems in this show!

Alaina: Or, Scarlett could stay in this relationship until it really gets ugly, and then turn to Rayna (her writing partner) and we could learn about just how bad it got with Rayna and Deacon before he went to rehab. It would be interesting to see them spin this relationship out in a meaningful way.

Does anyone like Mrs. Coach in this role?  And isn’t that the biggest problem of the show?


Alaina:
I like her in it. I buy her as selfish and spoiled. I don’t “like” her as-in I wouldn’t be friends with her – but I think that’s the point. She is isolated, just like Juliet. She doesn’t seem to have real girl friends, and has poured her energy into herself and her relationships with men. They aren’t that different, when you think about it that way. If they are brave enough to explore this (instead of just asking us to be sympathetic to her plight) I will gladly come along.

Jia: I would watch Mrs. Coach do literally anything. She is dead-ending all over the place plotwise, but I think once she does the one thing she’s obviously going to do (sleep with Deacon) or just otherwise loosens her restraints, does something unpredictable, I think she’ll be likeable. I also think that Connie Britton has a really powerful appeal when she is attached to a likeable man; she plays best as part of a partnership. Which is weird. And interesting.

AHP:  Also I’m jonesing for her to become a mentor to Juliet — of course, that’s the narrative tension driving the show; as soon as they have them become friends, then the tension is over.  Or is it?  I mean, think about FNL: the primary narrative tension was always ostensibly  will the football team succeed? but it wasn’t really, or at least that was never what I was concerned about.  I liked that FNL was willing to give us established, healthy relationships and let the narrative tension play out in how they would negotiate problems that arose.  

Alaina: I want them to go on tour together, but have her mentor Scarlett.

Jane: I love all the narrative predicting that’s happening in this thread! That’s the magic of television that is just starting out, and still really finding its groove. As much as the audience is adjusting to this world, so are, we should remember, the writers, directors, and actors. I have to disagree a (little) bit with what has been said prior about Scarlett’s cardboard passivity, because, as someone mentioned, we see her push back against Avery in “Move It On Over.” She acknowledges some real truths about the hierarchies in their relationship, and a break up is definitely on the horizon… But, this is all to say that this show is developing and making character reveals in every episode, and multiple ones at that. What we’ve been saying prior about Scarlett’s character needs to be continuously adjusted, especially when we’re at something like Season 1, Episode 5. This is all to say that I wonder if someone can even personally write off a show until they’ve given it at least a dedicated first season viewing.

Elizabeth: Anne, I agree with you about the role of image with not just the characters, but the image of country music. Much in the same way that NYC was the 5th main character of “SATC,” I am enjoying how Nashville the city is utilized a reflection of the current state of country music. I acknowledge that this reflection is absurd and forced at times (the lakehouse belonged to Patsy Cline?), but when the woman asks Rayna if her new CD is available at Starbucks I cracked up- because yes, the new Taylor Swift album is being sold there. On the other hand, do songwriters that sign deals with publishing houses REALLY get that kind of luxurious creative space, complete with fully stocked kitchens?

The timing of this show is very interesting to me as well; without the shift from traditional country to country-pop (to pure pop in some cases- looking at you again, Taylor), this show wouldn’t have been embraced. I’ve been pondering whether this show, with these narratives, would have worked in the 1980s. I think not because of how much class and conspicuous consumption is represented in the show as a natural influence in country music. From my limited knowledge of the scene in the 80s (Willie Nelson! Oak Ridge Boys! The Judds!), country music was still viewed as the most humble of genres. In the previous episode Rayna is nervous about performing at the country club in front of the wealthy socialites and utters “these are the people that made fun of me for liking country music!”

Lucia:
Okay, sorry, am deadline/work swamped today, but I did want to bring up one thing in re: Mrs. Coach that was triggered for me by the prompt and I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet, which is that this is the woman who did American Horror Story last year.  (Which is a huge draw for biggish name stars, it seems, even this year.)  This is the woman who had sex with a ghost (?) in a gimp suit.  So let’s not pretend that she isn’t up for anything and that, all things considered, Nashville represents a step up in character development from that particular moment in Connie Britton’s career. (Which isn’t to say she wasn’t brilliant and that show isn’t its own type of awesome, rather that she went from 4D Tami to 2D horrorshow heroine and has swung back up to a woman who behaves, IMO, in a plausible, human way.)

As far as Nashville goes, imma just say for the moment that it just occurred to me that I’d like it a lot more if it were purely populated by women of a certain age, rather than the youngs vs. olds we currently have.  Less All About Eve, more…well, I almost said Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which is totally not where I was going with it, but it’s as apt a representation of women of more or less the same age going at it, though the power balance leaves a lot to be desired in terms of conflict.  POINT BEING: I’d rather see a Faith Hill vs. Shania Twain struggle for the ages than Faith vs. like, I dunno…Taylor Swift.

Jane: Lucia! “Less All About Eve, more…well, I almost said Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” That is perfect. I agree that that would be wholly more interesting (though also more difficult to pull off and sell, I’m guessing), and perhaps difficult for the 18-20-something TV-watching crowd to relate to. It does feel like the show is feeding the mainstream public a version of “country music” that is based around loosely, but at least visibly popular, country stars. I don’t know what’s happening to pop country, but is the future Taylor Swift?

Side-Question: How much do you think Panettiere’s character is really molded after Swift? I definitely see some resonances, but Panettiere just does not seem like a sweet, fun person to hang out with. But that’s definitely the reference, right?

AHP:I’ve heard lots of references to the fact that she’s supposed to be a mix of Swift and Carrie Underwood, who is supposedly a class-A snob/piece-of-work.  Although the songwriting piece definitely seems to be influenced by Swift.

I’d also be interested in women-of-a-certain age, but I do think that the two generations do represent two strains of country that do seem to continue to battle it out.  There’s a great piece by Ann Powers (music critic for NPR) about the long legacy of country duets, and she points to all of the different “strains” in country that each of the characters represent — Scarlett and her singing partner are in the Civil Wars alt-country strain; Scarlett’s boyfriend is supposed to be punk-country a la Jack White, etc. etc.  

Lucia: HP doesn’t seem like a fun person to hang out with, but at least she can sing in tune.  And OMGOMG I did NOT know that about Carrie Underwood, that is amazing. My money would be on the “talentless but why does no one notice oh right she’s hot” part of the character being a representation of TSwift, and the rest going to another well-known behind-the-scenes pain-in-the-ass, Underwood or otherwise. (Jane: marriage of Swift & Underwood actually does sound like a mess/nightmare.) (Jia: I also see a little bit of Britney Spears, maybe a little more than a bit, in the whole family meltdown/rehab storyline with her mother. I like that storyline, because I think the actress who plays her mother is really compelling). (Jane: People have also compared Nashville to Smash, and there’s definitely some Marilyn Monroe in Juliette.)

Question: I’m loving the female networking primed to happen in this show (as Alaina said above, they need to intersect more, and I believe they will). But can we talk about male networks? What are these treacherous men HIDING from women, and from each other (this is why I want Lamar & Rayna to have some sort of memo against Teddy, eventually)? I think even if Scarlett is (as yet) a little disappointing to the show’s feminist message (I mean Callie Khouri!), then we should think about how all the men are portrayed. They are all sort of icky, no?

AHP: RIGHT, especially Powers Boothe and that weird relationship with both of his daughters, and the amount of hate he displaces onto Rayna because of the apparent actions of her mother.  I think Alaina said something to me earlier this week about how these are all WEAK men — lacking confidence, gumption, legitimate power, morals, etc.

Jane:So weak! And SO CREEPY? Whenever Avery hugs Scarlett and gives that side-eye, I shiver. When they started making out, I guess, “passionately,” in episode 5, it felt incredibly dark, and somehow violent. And even Deacon — the “good one” — is getting naked with someone maybe at least 20 years younger than him? The show seems to want to portray Deacon as weak, out of control, needing female support, but again — MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE need to be taken into consideration here too.



Ok, last question from me–and this bounces off some of what has been said earlier about Scarlett–but while I’m really enjoying this show so far, I’m afraid that it’s going to turn into this thing where all women are plot devices and sources of emotional clarity in order to save damaged men. Scarlett seems mostly a pristine mirror through which to reflect everyone else’s complex interiorities, and I want her to have her own. I don’t want all these women to end up saving the men in their lives, financially, emotionally, or otherwise. But as it stands, from a narrative perspective, the women are not intersecting right now and almost all relationships are being mediated via men. AKA the men are necessary.

Elizabeth: Lucia, great suggestion re: shifting the focus to Rayna’s contemporaries. After all, Rayna was compared to Martina McBride so surely she has another female singer who has also had similar success. All I ask is that they NOT make said female singer part of another damn love triange (trapezoid?). I also see Juliette as a hybrid of Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and some Kelly Pickler thrown in for good measure.

(And on a less serious side note, I can’t read “Scarlett” without thinking of the infamous Lindsay Lohan graffiti)

Allison:
Okay, I am uber-sorry for coming in late to this wholly awesome thread, but someone has to spend her Friday mornings talking about Friday Night Lights with UVa undergraduates, and that someone is me.

Now, a couple of things come to mind after reading the above:

1) While I have no doubt the creators want Panettiere to be an amalgam of Swift and Underwood, since we’re talking about past-character lives, I see her as an extension of her Heroes character, Claire Bennet. That scene where she throws her mother’s junkie partner out of her house and is standing on the doorstep of her (original) house? It would not have surprised me if she had taken flight a la Claire. Similarly, the woman makes one face.

2) Scarlett’s accent is killing me. Killing me. I don’t buy it for one second. Also, everything that’s been said about her regressive and potentially abusive relationship? Yes. I am giving Avery the side eye. I don’t trust that guy for a second. But I want her to write with Rayna and I think that’s where the show is headed. Or Juliet will write with Rayna. Or with Scarlett. There is a collaboration coming. (Jane: Triangulated female relationship? Are Rayna and Juliet going to stop fighting over Deacon, and start for Scarlett soon? It seems, though, that in the show’s diegesis, Juliet is the worst singer, Rayna the better [not true in reality]. But the show also seems to emphasize that Juliet has the better songwriting chops, and it seems, at least from Episode 5, to suggest that Rayna probably doesn’t have much experience writing songs. But who knows!) (AW: Ep 5 definitely suggests that Rayna hasn’t written before, and then makes this leap to her having completed a song worthy of recording almost immediately, right? Or did I misread that?)

3) I would watch Eric Close do *almost* anything, but that is a personal preference and neither here nor there. However, I want Kimberley Williams Paisley off the show. Ugh. (Jane: She reminds me of Bambi.) (AHP: Bambi with too much make-up). (Jia: All I can think of is that stupid Father of the Bride scene where she’s playing basketball with Steve Martin) (AW: I don’t want to hate her but I do. And I sort of resent the initial are-they-having-an-affair-or-aren’t-they way we’re introduced to her. Soapy, yes, but what would it have done for her character, for the storyline, for the larger representation of women if she had been portrayed less as someone’s wife (“I go by Margaret Kinter now” — “Robert’s wife?” or whatever) than as a businessperson who aided in a felony?)

The characterization of men is fascinating. How do you reconcile the different places we’ve seen the male characters v. the female characters–public/private, alone/surrounded by others, etc.?

AW:For instance, and this isn’t yet a fully formed thought, so forgive me, but it seems like Lamar is almost always buffeted by his daughter, or meeting with individuals alone in an office or well-appointed room. In the last episode we saw Teddy meeting with Peggy in the dark, or in a car. I would say it’s a function of the women-as-performers trope that allows the women on the show to be seen in well-lit, more crowded scenarios, but what about Deacon? Or Avery? Or even Gunnar? They’ve been alone, or solitary in some way as well.

Jia:
To me, the biggest difference I’ve noted in the men/women of Nashville is that everybody seems to be chasing the same fame/wealth/power/sexual dominance, but the women perform these ambitions out in the open (as you note, a function of the female roles in the show) while the male characters’ ambitions are more of the underhand, secretive, mediated, layered type. (AW: Yes, exactly. And of course the men need the women’s support, because there are ways in which this version of success wants to happen within an idealized mid-twentieth-century world. Hence, Scarlett/Avery. Rayna playing at Teddy’s benefit, pulling her support from Coleman)

AHP:  Alright, I’m calling it — I want to thank everyone for writing (people reading this have no idea how much fun it is to watch others write in Google Docs; it’s like a ghost using your computer) and hopefully we can do this again sometime soon….maybe we Scarlett bucks the eff up and Teddy’s out of the picture?  Fingers crossed?  

Outro to “No One Will Ever Love You……”  (Can we get some of that tension back, please?)

Amy Poehler Can’t Have It All

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You’ve heard the news: Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are separating after 9 years and 2 kids together.

Last week, when I posted a blind item from Lainey Gossip alluding to as much, I was somewhat taken aback by the response.  I love Amy Poehler and Will Arnett (I especially love Amy Poehler, but we’ll get to that), but I didn’t realize that so many other people did as well.  We’re talking profound investment in this relationship — far more than one would expect, especially given that the two are not, by any means, tremendous stars.  They’re television personalities, they’re tremendously talented, but movie stars they are not.

And it’s not just fans: The AV Club declared the very “concept of love” dead; over at Gawker, “Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are Separating So Go Home and Break Up with Your Boyfriend Because ‘Love’ Is a Lie.”

 

Reactions fall into three general categories:

1.) I’m never invested in celebrity relationships, but I’m invested in this one, and this sucks.

2.) They seemed genuinely happy; this is sad.

3.) If Poehler can’t do it, no one can.

 

Granted, I concede that most of the sadness is flowing through the conduits of my Twitter and Facebook feeds, along with the comments on The Hairpin, Gawker, The AV Club, and similar publications.  In other words, people who consume/love Poehler/Arnett products, which is a rather specific demographic.  To spell it out: educated, upper middle-class, media-hipsters (a different category than the normal hipster; we consume hip media but are not actually hip.  God knows I’m not hip.  I just watch Louie and love Ron Swanson.)

With that in mind, here’s what I think is happening: this quirky, intelligent, companionable couple can’t make a relationship work long-term, and it highlights the tremendous challenges to maintaining a similar relationship in our “real” lives.

Let me take a step back.

Amy Poehler’s image = Intelligent, feminist, tremendously hard-working.  Success on her own terms.  Beautiful in a non-traditional who-needs-to-be-a-supermodel-I-mean-seriously way.  Powerful friendship with another powerful woman.  When asked by Seventeen how she got boys to notice her when she was young, she responded “I had no idea how to get boys to notice me.  I still don’t.  Who cares?”

Like many television personalities, her image is very closely aligned with her television character.  In my mind, Poehler is Parks and Rec‘s Leslie Knope, minus a bit of the neuroses.  Like Knope, Poehler’s worked very hard to reach a position of power; she does something she loves.  She’s a feminist who is unafraid to be unpopular.  She thinks women are important and awesome.  I mean, Galentine’s Day!

Unlike Knope, Poehler also two (very adorable, very normal looking) children, and didn’t seem to have Knope’s struggle between desiring romance and following her life-long ambition.

….Until, seemingly, now.  Amy Poehler “had it all.”  I realize how problematic that phrase is, and it has been problematized thoroughly in recent months following the publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic.  Slaughter pointed to why “it all” is impossible; others pointed to why “it all” is ridiculous.  But star images embody concepts that don’t exist in real life, but which we nevertheless strive for: Marilyn Monroe was innocent sexuality; Angelina Jolie is domestic, exotic sexuality.  And Amy Poehler was “having it all” — intelligence, fame, respect, equitable partnership, children.

The fact that the two of them are both comedians also makes it seem possible to PLAYFULLY “have it all” — and even professionally collaborate! To great success!  I always forget about the their performances in Blades of Glory.  Perfection.

 

But Mallory Ortberg (handle: Melis) got it right in the comments on The Hairpin:

She’s being somewhat facetious, of course, but she’s right: a lot of us (me, you, others who read this blog) identify with Poehler or Arnett and their particular negotiation of “having it all.”  We know very, very little of their actual relationship.  What we do know is what it seemed to represent, and what its demise seems to represent.

I’m rewatching Season 4 of Parks and Rec right now, and it’s no spoiler to say how painful it is to watch Poehler’s character torn between her affection for Ben and the fact that her run for city council makes that relationship legally impossible.  It tortures Leslie, and it tortures me — in part because the show is literalizing the tension many women feel in their own careers, only toss in the desire for a baby or two as well. To see that tension spread to Poehler’s extra-textual life makes it all the more poignant.

I can’t speak to what upsets men about the end of this relationship.  I imagine it’s not altogether dissimilar: it might be historically easier for men to “have it all,” but most of the awesome men that I know want their partners to “have it all” as well.  For these feminist men, their own version of “having it all” means equitable having-it-all-ness: something, again, that Poehler and Arnett’s collective image representative.  (Please, Disappointed Men, elaborate/expand in the comments).

There might not be such a thing as taking news like this “too personal.”  Remember: what we talk about when we talk about celebrities is, as ever, ourselves.

Revenge as Postfeminist Dystopia

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NOTE:  Spoiler-free.  Some characteristics/life events are revealed in Episodes 1-3, but nothing earth-shattering.  

Revenge has been one of my greatest elliptical machine pleasures this Winter.  It’s well-acted, the clothes are fantastic, intricately plotted, and melodramatic as all get out — just how I like a good elliptical machine show.   Revenge is (very) loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo, which is to say that it rotates on the premise of someone who is betrayed by his intimates, sent to jail, realizes that his intimates put him there, and returns, disguised, to take revenge on them.

 

The twist of Revenge is clever: the betrayed figure dies in prison, but his daughter, a young girl at the time of his imprisonment, returns, now a grown woman with an assumed identity, to their beach house (in the Hamptons, OF COURSE), to take revenge on all the high-powered business men (and their spouses) who betrayed him.  What makes it escapist isn’t the revenge narrative, but the beautiful, monied background.  Everyone loves a story about The Hamptons — the people are gorgeous, the clothes are immaculate, the parties are so…..planned.  And while our main character once had money, she was sent to group homes, and then to juvey, and didn’t get released until she was 18….at which point she discovered that she was half-owner in the TV-world version of Google!  I won’t explain the mechanics, but what you need to understand is that she is ridiculously wealthy — the sort of wealthy that proves so handy for screenwriters, who can essentially grant her every privilege, convenience, and beautiful dress she desires.

In other words: this is some good soapy TV.  But over the course of the first half of the series, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the female characters in the show, and the harsh realities that face them, represent the ugly flipside of the “freedoms” promised by postfeminism.

Postfeminism is a loaded term.  Here’s my simplified and contentious definition:

Postfeminism is, most explicitly, the idea that feminism is no longer necessary.  Feminism accomplished its goals in the ’70s and ’80s, and we’re ready to move on and just “be” women, whatever that means.  (Suggestions that we live in a “post-race” society often hinge on the idea that a black president means that racism is no longer an issue in our society, let alone a defining issue).  We don’t need feminism, we just need “girl power” – a very different concept than the “grrl power” that undergirded the Riot Grrl movement of the early ’90s (which was, itself, a response to the rise of postfeminism).  Postfeminism is forgoing freedoms or equal rights in the name of prettier dresses, more expensive make-up, and other sartorial “freedoms” to consume.  Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is postfeminism manifest — a self-sustaining (sex worker) who meets her prince, who will allow her to consume (and become her “true” self).   Sex & the City is postfeminist.  Bridget Jones is postfeminist.  27 Dresses is postfeminist.

In short, the idea that consumption and self-objectification (which usually leads to romantic monogamy) = equal rights and equal treatment is postfeminist.

In text after text of the last twenty years, postfeminist philosophy, for lack of a better word, is portrayed as the path towards happiness and fulfillment.  Until, in a text like Revenge, it doesn’t.

To be clear: Revenge is not the first to highlight the negative aspects of postfeminism.  I mean, you could read the disasters that were the Sex and the City movies as the dystopic end to the fantasy narrative displayed in the television show.  You could also look at the hysteria in the vast majority of female-oriented reality programming and read it as the postfeminist dream of success and “having it all” gone tragically wrong.  Put differently, Revenge isn’t the first television show to present the opportunity for such a reading.

But let’s get down to the analysis and look at our two main characters, their postfeminist choices, and the dystopic realities in which they find themselves.

EXAMPLE ONE: VICTORIA GRAYSON 

Victoria is vintage Hampton’s.  Pilates body, Botox face, age-appropriate yet still sexy gowns, long hair that still connotes beauty (as opposed to middle-aged-ness).  A handsome son in his mid-20s, a beautiful daughter in her late teens.  A silver fox husband who spends most of his summer in the city and runs a well-regarded global capitol something-or-another.  Her name carries tremendous weight.  She can ruin someone’s reputation with a single word.  People  anticipate her parties.  She’s apparently the social doyenne of, oh, I dunno, all rich people on the East Coast.  Her anniversary is carried on the front page of some section of what appears to be The New York Times.  She came from nothing to become the second wife of a major-player capitalist and gets all of the benefits.

BUT WAIT JUST ONE SECOND.

Let’s talk about these benefits:

1.) Sacrifices former identity (seriously — it’s totally sublimated, save the mention of “coming from nothing” every once in awhile) to steal another woman’s husband.

2.) Alienates both of her children for reasons for various unforgivable reasons

3.) But she can ruin her best friend’s reputation! Which she does! When she discovers that said best friend is sleeping with her husband!

4.) She is incapable of showing emotion.  I mean that literally: she has a frozen face from plastic surgery and collagen injections, which evacuates her face from expression and suggests (this is a melodrama, after all, when emotion and character traits overflow into the mise-en-scene) a heart that wants, but no longer has the muscle memory, to feel.

5.) Her body is slim and toned (despite lack of toning activity — I’m guessing she has a Pilates Reformer in the basement) but girl never eats. Or even really gets to drink.

6.) Spends a lot of time thinking about how to destroy the younger, seemingly history-less girl who threatens to take her son away via marriage.

7.) Doesn’t read.

8.) Doesn’t know how to use the computer (seriously, one scene with her daughter’s computer confirms as much).

9.) Doesn’t have any hobbies other than party planning, which her party planner does for her, and wearing dresses at all times.

10.) Has no interests or sense of self-worth other than her childrens’ affection, which is now lost to her.

11.) Clearly loathes her husband, who loathes her in return.

12.) Periodically pines for a time when she had a sense of true love, but forsook that true love in the name of money and prestige.

13.) Has no friends.  No lady friends, no male friends, no child friends, no underling sidekick friends.  No friends, no confidantes, no community.  She’s never alone but the loneliest person on the Eastern seaboard.

 

The lesson of Victoria: if you don’t care about equality or a life of your own, then you can have all of the pretty dresses you want.  And be miserable, wholly miserable, in ten years’ time.  Victoria Grayson is the first wave of postfeminism, come to fruition and left to rot.

 

 

EXAMPLE #2: EMILY THORNE/AMANDA CLARKE

Educated, well-traveled, lovely accent, well-spoken, attractive.  Beautiful slightly wavy blonde hair and innovative if somewhat circumscribed fashion taste.  Gets the hottest man in her age bracket to fall in love with her in about three days.  Allied with the most wealthy man in America.  Kind, polite, thoughtful, and spends a lot of time donating her time and energy to philanthropy.  Orphaned but has developed a firm sense of self and purpose.  Enormously and independently wealthy.  Able to bestow favor and fame upon anyone.  Wields tremendous (albeit unseen) power.  Understands the puppetry of social interactions and how to pull the strings.  One savvy young lady.

BUT WAIT JUST ONE MORE SECOND.

Let’s talk about Emily/Amanda’s life:

1.) Due to admittedly tragic circumstances, she spent her youth in foster care (which wronged her) followed by the juvenile detention system (which also wronged her).  But instead of spending her newfound and abundant wealth working to right the systemic wrongs that led to a situation like hers, she goes after the individuals that caused her distress.  This strategy isn’t necessarily post-feminist, but it is certainly neo-liberal: like Crash or The Blind Side, which suggest that repairing relationships between individuals can correct systemic problems.  Her father died; her vendetta is not against society, or against those who might inflect the same sort of process (albeit within different parameters) on someone else, but against the specific individuals who led to the suffering of her and her father.

2.) Has one supposed friend.  Apart from the very first scene in the very first episode, when she suggests that they get drunk on champagne, they mostly spend time talking about they’ll spend some quality time together at some later point.  Her ostensible friendship with the Google-owner-guy is a mix of passive-aggression and aggression and utilitarianism.

3.) Has no hobbies or interests other than exacting revenge.  She can, however, use a computer, but only to exact said revenge.

4.) Has no media interests other than re-watching clips and re-reading newspaper clippings related to her revenge plot.

5.) Has forsaken her childhood bond with a very nice, very working class, very authentic (he has a beard!) man (who named a sailboat after her, jeez) in order to pursue her revenge.

6.) Never enjoys any of her richy-rich toys because she is so busy being revengeful.

7.) Somehow has several mentor figures who provide her with sporadic guidance…on being revengeful, never on self-actualizing or letting go of said revenge and doing something with her one precious life.

8.) Never gets to hang out in any public spaces — life seems to be limited to fleeting visits to the bar to fetch people and the private party circuit (but only private parties hosted by Victoria at that).

9.) Uses beauty and charisma to attract handsome man….who she plans to destroy! But oh no, turns out she has feelings for him??!!?? WHICH SHE MUST DESTROY!

10.) Can never find happiness because she’s living a lie in order to avenge the wrongs of the generation before her.

The lesson of Emily: as the second generation of postfeminism, you are reaping the “awards” of your parents’ decisions.  Which, as it turns out, means that you get all of the clothes and good hair and fortune….and nothing to guide you or add meaning to your life, save your elaborate revenge strategy and her beautiful wardrobe.

 

Revenge is clearly a tragedy: a young girl’s father is taken from her; her life is ruined; she dedicates her life to harming those who caused her (and her father) harm.  We’re obviously encouraged to pity Emily — not just because her father was taken from her, but because she’s so hopefully mired in the whirlpool of revenge….and we have no idea how she’ll function once that purpose and drive is taken from her.

But as I’ve demonstrated above, Revenge can also be read as the tragedy of postfeminism: what happens when you trade the politics of feminism for the bounty of consumerism, what happens when you grow up in a world where those are the realities for women set before you, both by the media and the other women in your life.

I’m not saying this works perfectly, but I am saying that our two main characters (and several others in the show) don’t suggest Being a Woman in 21st Century America is Awesome.  They suggest that it’s claustrophobic, prescribed, unhappy, and even if you have all the tools that you thought you needed to play the game, deeply, deeply unsatisfying.   The moral isn’t just that revenge is never satisfying, but that postfeminism, for all of its glossy, gorgeous surfaces, is rotten at its core.

 

 

 

 

The Modern Pleasures of Downton Abbey

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Note: Using mildly nefarious means, I am currently watching Season 2, which will air stateside in a few months.  But there are no real spoilers concerning Season 2, save its setting (we are now in World War I, that’s no secret) and the use of a curling iron.  

For the last four years, I have been surrounded by media studies academics.  In other words, people whose job it is to consume media.  Name a television show, a movie, a popular internet site, or a video game, and chances are that 2 out of the 3 people with whom you were speaking had not only viewed that piece of media, but developed a theory of varying levels of complexity to explain it/its popularity/its failure/its aesthetics/its influence on other forms of media, you get the picture.

But when you start work at a new school, one where you are the only media studies scholar in a sea of academics, things change.  I first experienced this when I taught at Whitman, and I’m experiencing it again at my new job here at Putney.  I don’t mean to imply that my colleagues are uncultured — far from it.  More that they aren’t hyper-media-cultured the way that my job (and passions) have required me to be.

Which is all a long way of saying that I’ve had a hard time having conversations about my favorite television shows in real life.  I KNOW, LIFE IS SO HARD.  You don’t watch The Good Wife, math teacher! You don’t watch Misfits, biology teacher! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?  (Unlike Whitman, where television still remains a bit of a dirty word, I will say that Putney’s faculty is well-versed in television that has made its way to DVD: when you live on a farm in the middle of Vermont, TV-on-DVD is the way to go.  Friday Night Lights, The Wire, and Freaks and Geeks are all very, very popular).  But you know what everyone has watched?  Science and math teachers, English teachers, history teachers and librarians and administrators?

DOWNTON ABBEY!   And this isn’t some weird New England thing — everyone loves it!  Moms and cousins and bosses and students and 13-year-olds, they all love some Downton!  (Okay, maybe boys don’t love the Downton as much, but I’d love to hear from those who do).  And you know who else loves Downton?  Actual British People!  As in the show averaged 10 million viewers per viewing….and then 6 million additional viewers when it was rebroadcast on PBS in America.  PBS!  You guys, when was the last time that 6 million people watched PBS and it wasn’t for a Ken Burns documentary?  This is a huge deal.  Plus Downton beat Mildred Pierce for the “Best Mini-Series” Emmy, and everyone knows how hard it is to defeat the combo of HBO, mini-series, Kate Winslet, and period piece.

In short: Downton is popular.  It has a broad appeal.  I was about to assert that it has done so without any of the repugnance that attends other broadly popular shows, such as that good ol’ populist punching bag Two and a Half Men.  But the appeal of Downton, like so much broadly popular television, from Two and a Half Men to CSI, stems from two sources.  The first is self-evident: Downton has high production values, its well-written, the dresses are obviously fabulous, and the performances are good.

The second should be obvious, but it gets hidden: Downton is genre television.  It’s a straight up costume/class drama in the way that Two and a Half Men is a straight up laugh-track sitcom, and CSI: Your Town is a straight up procedural.  Sure, Downton is about the slow disintegration of the landed gentry in England, and thus a story about the end of the class/costume drama, but it’s still an “upstairs/downstairs” costume drama of the first degree.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad.  Indeed, that’s part of why you probably started watching — because you know what to expect.  Costume drama! From Britain! Stuff about servants AND about fabulously wealthy people?!  COUNT ME IN!

Because that’s the magic of genre: you don’t need to know the specifics.  You know that you like the basics, and that whatever builds upon those basics will satisfy you in some way.  That’s why you go see a rom-com on Valentine’s Day, or watch something with the word ‘vampire’ in it, or go see films that open on weekends in July: they’re all genre films. Katherine Heigl is now a genre unto herself; so is The Rock.  ”Genre” doesn’t mean that the film is necessarily bad; it just means that it sells itself on the promise of a specific set of pleasures.

In other words: you know what you’re going to get when you see something advertised as a costume drama.  That’s why people were so pissed with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette: it had all the accotruements of a costume drama, but what’s with this punk music?! And whimsical meditations on the way that the grass sways?  Coppola betrayed genre expectations, and thus betrayed a solid chunk of her audience.

With that said, the best genre fare doesn’t stick strictly to the recipe. (Which is why I actually really love Marie Antoinette, but that’s another conversation).  The Sopranos was a gangster show, but it was a gangster show with its protagonist in therapy.  Downton is a costume and class drama, but one that deals with the disintegration of the very division of wealth and social mores that sustained the clearly delineated British class system.  It’s a genre show about the end of the genre, if that makes sense.

And that’s also what makes it interesting, because it means that Downton has an American head-of-house, anxiety over the future of the household, maids going to typing school, women having sex with Turkish ambassadors, and [SEASON TWO SPOILER ALERT!] sisters doing low-class work, like NURSING and FARMING.  The horror!  Or actually, the non-horror! The subtle anxiety and excitement!  Because that’s how actual change occurs — not with huge declarations of LIFE IS CHANGING! OUR WAY OF LIFE IS OVER! but through subtle actions and reactions that accumulate into change.  [At times Maggie Smith's character can veer dangerously into the "huge declarations of change" territory: I am the Dowager Countess of Grantham, I am aghast at all modern things!  WHAT IS A WEEK-END!  But the writers cloak her character as comic relief -- as almost a satire of herself -- which, along with Maggie Smith's performance style, is the reason she comes off a woman, once strong and powerful, whose grandchildren merely humor her....an almost tragi-comic reminder of an era now gone, an era revealed as slightly absurd.]

There are other obvious ways that Downton subverts genre expectations: the footman is gay (people were gay before 1960! In Britain!); the driver is an Irish rebel with a penchant for Marxist literature.  But what interests me most — what continually pushes Downton‘s plot to clash with the expectations of the costume/class drama — are the recurrent pressures and pleasures of modernity.  How does the telephone change the way that the household runs?  How does the car change where, and with whom, one can ride?  Even the steam engine changed the facility with which members of the household, both “up” and “down” stairs, could go to London.  How does shellshock — a phenomenon of modern war — affect returning soldiers and their places within the home?  How does the spread of the press, and the self-made men it made rich, affect who someone of Mary Crawley’s status could marry?  HOW DID A CURLING IRON CHANGE THE WAY MARY CRAWLEY COULD DO HER HAIR?  (I’m not kidding; this is a real question). Modernity, you change everything! But in such subtle, fascinating ways.

Like so many others, Math and Science teachers and cousins and Mothers and teenagers, I came to Downton Abbey for its genre.  But I stayed for the way the show — and its grappling with modernity — contorts it.  And, okay, fine, the dresses.

True Blood, Truly Bad?

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Readers, we have an issue.  And that issue is the badness of True Blood — and our persistence in watching it.  Now, don’t get me wrong — I do think that True Blood has flashes of genius, most of them directly linked to Russell Edgerton, Layfayette, and Pam.  But the show as a whole is somewhat of an abomination, and I’m wondering how so many of us got so deep, so fast….and now can’t work our way out of the serial viewership hole.

So first things first: is True Blood actually bad?  I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I think we might need to agree that while the show has interesting, compelling, campy, and extremely entertaining parts, as a whole, it’s a disaster.  There are too many plot lines, none of which seem to coalesce into any realistic whole.  The tone is too mixed, with some parts — I’m thinking of Sookie in the fairy land at the beginning of this season, or the winter wonderland love scene about half way through — that are so barefaced cheesy that I’m embarrassed to watch.  As in the BF walks in the room and I have to turn off the television.  There’s cheesy that’s funny, and then there’s cheesy that makes you wince and kinda hate yourself, and TB is coming down on the side of the latter far too often.

So there are some good plot lines around good characters.  Jason Stackhouse with the evangelicals, for example, or Eric’s backstory with his maker Godric.  But there are far more bad characters with prolonged and tortuous plot lines: everything involving Tara; everything involving Sam; everything involving Hoyt’s mom.  I could obviously go on (and on and on) about how the show fails on a semi-regular basis, but I think we can agree on the simple fact that it oscillates between the plainly ridiculous and the truly, painfully bad.

So why do we keep watching? Over the course of its four seasons, True Blood has transformed from Alan Ball’s newest project, limping along with a small following, to HBO’s primetime flagship.  Part of its popularity stems from our generalized cultural vampire moment — I, for one, wasn’t into vampires, but then I got sucked into stupid Twilight, which led me to True Blood, and I’m sure I’m not alone.  Part of the popularity stems from people watching it for camp, which it obviously supplies, and many, many people watch it simply for the eye candy (HELLLLLLO, ERIC; hello Sookie’s boobs) and explicit sex scenes that would be at home on late night Skinamax.

Why most people watch this show.

But that shouldn’t be enough to keep so many people watching.  If it were just a trainwreck, most people would lose interest after a season or two, but True Blood‘s viewership only continues to grow.  Same for the eye candy and the sex; same for the vampire-ness, which, as the show’s guiding narrative metaphor, has only become increasingly muddled and confused.

Which leaves us with two heavily-linked options for True Blood‘s enduring popularity: seriality and romance.

Seriality, in brief, is the way that the show makes you want to see what happens with the narrative and the characters that inhabit it.  ”Series” television is the type of show that you can enter at any moment and know what’s going on — most sitcoms, for example, or Law and Order – while “serial” television demands watching from the beginning to the end.  Most “quality” television on the air today is serial television, most network/”mainstream” television is series television.  (Many programs are hybrids, which chance viewers to enter in at any point, but also provide loyal viewers with serialized story lines that add nuance and context to individual episodes).

Soap operas are quintessentially serial television, and True Blood is, let’s be honest, a primetime soap opera with high production values.  Through its use of narrative arcs — whether arcs that have lasted all four seasons (what will happen between Sookie and Bill?), arcs that structure a single season (how will Jason escape the Christians?  Will Marianne take over all mystical creatures?) — we are pulled to watch the next episode even when we are disgusted with what we have just seen.  Viewer curiosity — seeing the narrative through to its end — trumps viewer frustration.

This happens with many series — I know that I followed Gossip Girl (another primetime soap opera) far past the point of actual interest simply because I wanted to see what happened with Chuck and Blair.  Lots of shows have similar pull, but few have been so successful in being bad and pulling people along. In fact, most shows start strong — see, for example, The O.C. — and then peter out, with fewer and fewer viewers feeling compelled enough to tune in despite badness.   With True Blood, however, the characters just keep getting hotter, and there’s just enough comic relief, just enough flashes of quasi-brilliance and turns of phrase to trump the narrative lulls and moments of absurdity when most people would throw up their hands and abandon the show.  While True Blood‘s good parts may not make a cohesive whole, those parts, on their own, provide enough pleasure and entertainment to foil viewer’s best attempts to abandon the show and its serial pull.

And then there’s the romance.  Romance is often a main (or only) serial hook — we continue reading or watching a piece of media simply because we want to know if the romance that has been put into motion at the beginning of the text will come to its obvious conclusion.  Serial romance usually takes one of two paths:

1.) Will the obvious male protagonist and female protagonist get together, despite situational and attitudinal struggles?  (See TB Season One).

2.) Now that the male protagonist and female protagonist have gotten together and satisfied audiences, what will happen now that one half of the couple has become an obvious drag and there’s another person, perhaps tall, Nordic, and f-ing BUILT, waiting in the wings?  (See every season of TB after Season One).

What’s somewhat weird True Blood is that Sookie obviously sucks.  Her character is annoying, her voice is annoying, she’s so inconsistent with her actions and choices, but the question of whether or not she will have very naked and very graphic sex with a.) Bill; b.) Eric; or c.) Alcide, complete with appropriately baroque soundtrack, again trumps the fact that her sole redeeming quality is her extensive sundress collection.  But the likability of the all three of her love interests keeps audiences interested in who she’ll pick, even if we don’t necessarily like her.  Or maybe we’re just willing her to pick who’d we pick?  Which was so obviously Eric until he lost his memories and became so lame I cover my ears when he speaks?  I feel the same way around memory-less Eric as I do around the letters from my college boyfriends, which is really saying something.  (Don’t worry; college boyfriends don’t read this blog, they’re all too busy fly-fishing and writing poetry and being earnest).

Even Layfayette can't believe you're still watching this show.

So there you have it.  You (and I) keep watching True Blood because Layfayette keeps saying “hooker please,” Alcide keeps taking off his shirt, and Sookie keeps hooking up with people and then changing her mind.  I’m still somewhat embarrassed by how little it takes to keep me glued to a show that is otherwise so truly bad.

Sticking Points in Serial Television

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I have a serious problem.  Like many readers of this blog, I love serial television.  I love bingeing; I love finding new serial narratives; I love revisiting old ones. But every so often, I reach a sticking point and, for various reasons, both rational and irrational, I just cannot. get. past. it.  This post thus thinks about why sticking points occur…and what can (or should?) do about them.

Recently, I’ve experienced two extremely befuddling sticking points.

The first has incited no small amount of heated “BUT YOU JUST GOTTA KEEP GOING!” responses.  Nearly two years ago, I binged on the first season on Breaking Bad and continued through the first few episodes of Season Two.  It was late May, done with finals, uncharacteristically rainy (for two days straight!) and I had all the time in the world to finish off the season.  While S01 had caused no small amount of anxiety and dread, the first few episodes of S02 — and a particular situation in a Mexican house — produced so much anxiety that I felt as if I was about to have a cardiac incident. No seriously.

I fully realize that Breaking Bad is, arguably, the best show on television.  I get it! I really loved the first season! I totally want to keep going! But YOU GUYS, I can’t.  The idea of starting again makes me feel authentically nauseous.

The second sticking point deals with Friday Night Lights, which is, without a doubt, in my top five pantheon of shows from the last decade.  Especially S03.  And S04….AT LEAST UNTIL I GOT MIRED MID-SEASON.   And here’s the ridiculous thing: the episode on which I’m stuck is, arguably, one of the best single episodes not only of the series as a whole but in serial drama from the past ten years.

 I’m talking about the episode entitled “The Son,” and if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  I watched this episode and bawled like a small child.  For an extended period of time.  Even writing about it now I get teary eyed.  Hell, even thinking about the fact that Zach Gilroy wasn’t nominated for an Emmy for that episode makes me teary eyed.  And now I just can’t press play again, even watching silly silly Pillars of the Earth with the rest of S04 patiently waiting in my queue.  Again, I totally realize that this is DEMENTED.  Vince and East Dillon and Coach are waiting for me! Tami Taylor and the abortion episode, THEY’RE WAITING!  TIM RIGGINS, I MISS YOU SO MUCH!

I’ve had other sticking points (the last episode of Rubicon, everything past S01 in Six Feet Under, past S03E03 of Veronica Mars), but these two seem the most egregious and irrational…..and fascinating.

In the case of Friday Night Lights, the sticking point is obviously psychological. The last time I watched FNL, I felt like a hurricane had decimated my feeling parts.  I felt like nothing that Matt Saracen ever did ever again would compare to what he did in this episode, and I felt like I wasn’t ready to see him again, lest I feel that way again.  In truth, I’m in an odd state of grief — it’s not like the show betrayed me or died, but I feel as if I’m just not ready to go back and feel that way again.  In other words, the show in general and the episode in particular were so good — and illicted such profound and complex emotions in me — that I can’t return to it, or at least not yet.  It’s as if my skin is overly sensitive, and any touch (or exposure to the show) might set me off.

For Breaking Bad, the reaction is visceral in a way I’ve never experienced — at least not from narrative/serial television.  Sure, someone eating bugs on Fear Factor creates a visceral reaction, as does horror film, and maybe something like The Killing, which produces an uncanny feeling of dread.  But the reticence to restart the show has everything to do with not wanting my body to feel the way it felt when I was watching before.  My attempt to avoid that feeling, coupled with my affection for the show, is akin to my love for gin and hate for the hangover.  I want it and I hate it; I know I’ll like it but I also know I’ll despise it.

In truth, both Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad are slight variations of what Linda Williams calls “body genres” — genres that make your body do something, usually involuntary.  She includes horror (you scream or jump), melodrama (you cry), and porn (you become aroused), but you might also argue for comedy (laughter, even when you don’t want to).  Viewers generally have complex relations with these body genres: the body-focused responses they elicit are pleasurably and painful, treading a knife-edge between fear and relief, sadness and catharsis, desire and release.  You simultaneously want and don’t want to watch, and in making the decision to engage, you’re also agreeing to a sort of masochism….but one that also proves rewarding.

Which is all to say that I’m currently at the very sticky point, at least when it comes to these two shows, when I’m not ready to submit to the pain necessary in order to continue, despite the fact that I know that the eventual derived pleasure will be tremendous.

So I’m wondering: how do I trick myself into getting past these points?  Or is it impossible to convince myself….and I just need to wait until the memory of the displeasure (emotionally, physically) diffuses?  What induces your own sticking point, and are they also related to the “body genres”?

New Antenna Post: Mad Men and Celebrity Gossip

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Just a heads-up to check out my new post over at Antenna — “Open or Closed? Mad Men, Celebrity Gossip, and the Public/Private Divide.”

Antenna has been covering every episode this season, featuring scholars with expertise in different areas….I highly recommend coming back in future weeks.