Archive for category Television
We are about a year behind on episodes of The Americans. Our being behind is not a reflection on the series; it’s just that there’s so much good stuff to watch. But as the series goes on, I find myself more and more impressed with the writers’ ability to project the opposed mind-sets of the Soviet spies versus the American FBI. I like the way the two sides sometimes try to communicate, and I like the way they get things wrong. I like the way both sides misunderstand both enemies and allies.
The Americans aims for a dispassionate view. FBI Agent Stan Beeman, his boss, Frank Gadd, and Gadd’s secretary, Martha Hinson, all want to do the right thing, even though they sometimes get things terribly wrong. The Russians are also trying to do the right thing–the right thing in their eyes anyway–even as they commit havoc, mayhem, and sometimes, murder.
Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings were born, raised, and indoctrinated in Mother Russia, but have been living in the U.S., speaking English, raising two children, and pretending to run a travel agency for the last couple decades. To a greater (Phillip) or lesser (Elizabeth) extent, they have gone a bit native. We meet other Russians–handlers, and embassy personnel, each with their own view of themselves, of home, and the U.S. Some are true believers in their system; others are ambitious, seeing the U.S. posting as a tremendous opportunity. Everyone is looking through a different pair of glasses.
Elizabeth and Phillip don’t see themselves as others do. They often don’t want other people to see them; they wear a multitude of disguises to fool the subjects of their missions. But out of disguise, they are unable to convince their daughter of their integrity. The power to play roles, take on identities, has distorted what can be seen of them.
Both as individuals and as a nation, we tend to see our own power as benign. Sure, we make mistakes, but our heart is in the right place, right? When someone sees threat in our actions, he seeks to thwart us. This happens between neighbors and between countries. Everyone feels misunderstood and put-upon. Everyone knows exactly what is wrong with everyone else.
Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are enmeshed in our own, flawed view of ourselves. We look in the mirror, and left is right, and right is left. Our emotions magnify some of our ugly, while blinding us to other sorts of ugly. We put on makeup to enhance and to hide ourselves.
The passage of time can further change what we see. Elizabeth and Phillip are decades removed from their training. They do what they do for their country, but we wonder if they even know what their country is at this point. We the viewers know they are only a few years away from the collapse of the Soviet system. In earlier seasons, I felt kind of sorry for them, for that. Since the 2016 election, I see the situation differently.
The show makes a point of not naming top government officials. When Frank Gadd goes to “see the director,” he doesn’t call him by name. The show open shows a series of American and Soviet leaders in quick succession, emphasizing neither the current Soviet Premier not the current American President. The show absolutely wants to be about individuals trying to function in the system (more than one system, actually) while trying to see through the wrong side of one-way glass.
Once upon a time, I looked at genre–the process of sorting storytelling into type–as a necessary evil of use primarily for marketing, and for organizing large bookstores, and for slapping rocket ship or detective logos on the spines of library books. I didn’t need genre labels. My taste was sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and omnivorous. I bragged I would read anything. I didn’t need genre labels. If it was good, then I wanted to read it
I’ve changed. I no longer view choosing-by-genre designations as narrow-minded and provincial. I remain open-minded in my tastes, but the older I get, the more I feel the need to match what I read or watch to my mood.
This turning point came a couple years ago during a vacation. By the time we’d made it from the airport to the hotel, had dinner and settled into our room, I was tired, physically and mentally. Didn’t feel like reading. Nothing on the hotel TV. My husband was looking at his iPad, so I looked at mine.
I stumbled upon a cozy mystery, Death in Paradise.
It hit the spot. Episodic TV mysteries like this one tickle the brain, but don’t tax it too much. We are given a beautiful locale and clever writing. Relationships between the regulars–the detectives and their allies–lean more toward humor than angst. We understand the murder victim to be a short-timer; we don’t get attached.
Unlike life, the people in mysteries live by the rules. Our detectives may be flawed characters, they may make mistakes, but they will do their job to the best of their ability. We can trust them.
I meander through genres, stopping to visit as I wish. Each offers something. When I’m hungry for new ideas, new ways about thinking about humanity and the future, science fiction is the go-to. It could be the fanciful solar system of Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, or the less fanciful but still stunning one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. I love certain kinds of fantasy, but sometimes Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is too active for me, and I want something more sedate. In a sense, every author is sui generis, and I like that too.
When I finish something, I am thrown into a bit of emotional crisis. What to read next? What to watch next? I scroll through my digital and paper libraries, sometimes spending as much time picking something as I would choosing a new sofa. Sometimes I pick the wrong thing, and have to abandon it. Sometimes I pick just right, and match my mood perfectly.
A great villain requires a great hero. Thing is, good can be tough to write. Good sometimes doesn’t seem quite as much fun as evil, but when done brilliantly, it is a delight.
The superhero is very, very good. He/she fulfills our longing for the perfect parent, someone we found out our real parents were not. The superhero knows right from wrong, and does something about it. The superhero has unusual talents to call upon, powers beyond those of the ordinary human. The only downside to superhero-dom, it seems, is having to wear really funny clothes.
The everyday hero is a different animal. They are not our parents; they are our peers. They, and their creators, deserve our respect.
1. Jerry Lundegard squirms so satisfyingly in Fargo, because Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Francis McDormand) is on to him, and there will be no escaping her. I sympathize a bit with poor old Jerry here.
Marge is an everywoman. She has a tough job, she is extremely pregnant, and she is the smartest one in the movie. She is patient with her subordinates, but she is five steps ahead of them. She is confident, but never arrogant. She makes traditional virtues that we take for granted–like loyalty, practicality, common sense, humility, patience, and tenacity–downright sexy. She feels let down sometimes. Her husband doesn’t get how difficult her job is. An encounter with a former classmate is more than disappointing. She never, ever wastes one second on feeling sorry for herself. We never see her complain. She just gets on with it.
I want to study her with a microscope, and I want to be her when I grow up. If I can’t be her, I want her to be my best friend. I love watching her succeed, armed with intelligence, goodness, and dry wit. (I will never look at a wood-chipper in the same way.) I love that her goodness aids her fight against evil. It’s as if her very lack of a personal agenda frees up her mind to think, and think clearly. In some stories, the villain is more interesting than the hero. Not so here.
2. In Parks & Recreation, City Councillor (possibly soon-to-be recalled) Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is someone who, despite her name, says yes to everything in life. She is a dedicated public servant toiling tirelessly in the world of local government. She is unflaggingly and progressively optimistic about her mission: to make her town, Pawnee, the greatest town on the planet. She has faith in people, and enormous faith in her ability to sway people to her point of view. She is mostly always in the right in her stances on public issues, but she is also often a teensy bit annoying.
She didn’t get where she is without becoming a control freak. Those around her-boss Ron, co-workers and friends, husband Ben-all generally support her aims, and all absolutely love her, as they must, given the way she drives them all.
It is this edge that gives Leslie her pop and sparkle. She shares many of the personality traits of Tammy Two, but with one huge difference. Unlike Tammy, Leslie is always willing to put aside her personal ambitions for the good of the people she serves. But she does it with a grimace. She is a hero, but she is no saint.
3. Breaking Bad is not about the innocent. We may sympathize with many of the characters, but is anyone here a hero?
Walter Jr. begins the series as an innocent, but as he progresses through his teens, I fear next season will see him become more and more like his dad. Or his mom, for that matter.
The hero is Hank Shrader (Dean Norris), brother-in-law to Walt. Hank is a DEA agent. He’s a funny kind of hero; he’s bombastic, profane, and bigoted, but he is the only one here who throws up at the sight of blood. And his job is everything to him. Solving the mystery of “Heisenberg” is his life quest. While everyone else is orbiting around Walt and the damage he does, Hank quietly perseveres. Hank had figured it out at the end of last season; this final season will be the showdown.
We know there can’t be many left standing at the end of the final season; I hope Hank is one of them. He deserves it; he is the only one capable of bringing law and order back to Albuquerque.
4. Good luck finding a pure heart in Game of Thrones. Ned Stark came close, but he was too enmeshed in the politics of the Seven Kingdoms to remain pure. Most of the characters here are busily trying to win a war and not be slaughtered. The moral code is bound up in medieval traditions of honor, which most of the characters subscribed to only when it furthers their purposes. I could talk for pages about the moral universe of each individual; I find that the most fascinating aspect of the tale.
The only adult character who is a pure heart is Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). When she makes a vow, she keeps it, and does not allow anything to get in her way. It doesn’t matter the cost. Brienne is not naive. She is a grown-up who has seen all there is to see in Westeros. Brienne and Marge Gunderson are cut from the same cloth; that is, they do their jobs. In fact, I’d love to see Brienne turn up one day in Brainerd, MN. I’d like to see Marge hire her for her police force there. Brienne could learn a lot from Marge, and then maybe the two of them could go back to Westeros and straighten the place out. I see them allied with Daenerys somehow….
And then, maybe, winter will be over.
Here are some of my favorite fictional evil people:
1. Good vs. Evil: Jerry Lundegard is a car salesman with money trouble. He embezzles from his employer, who happens to be his father-in-law, and attempts to make right this misstep by arranging a fake kidnapping of his wife. The plan is to use the ransom money to cover up the money problem.
Jerry never takes responsibility for his wrongdoings. He blames circumstances for whatever goes wrong in his life. He does not want to do evil. He only wants to cut a few corners so that he can fix this little problem he has. If he could just fix this little problem, everyone would be happy, and everyone would like him. Even his father-in-law. Jerry is insecure, deceptive, arrogant, and naive. This last quality, the naiveté, becomes the major driver of the gore and horror that ensues.
William H. Macy rocketed into my pantheon of acting gods with his portrayal of Jerry in Fargo (1996). We see the increasingly desperate turning of wheels in his mind as Jerry is confronted by the heroic Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). I loved watching Jerry writhe in this battle of good vs. evil. We have a touch of empathy for him…but only to a point. Then Good must out Evil, and Jerry must have his comeuppance.
2. Good vs. Good: In comedy, everything is just a misunderstanding and all will be well in the end. Nonetheless, even comedies have their occasional true villains. Tammy Swanson, a.k.a. Tammy Two (played by Megan Mullally), is an evil library director in territorial battle with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in Parks & Recreation. She is amoral, power-mad, and arrogant. She wields a frightening sexual power over ex-husband Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). To me, the single funniest thing about Tammy is that she is a library director, offering Leslie opportunity to make snarky and hilarious anti-library comments, and demonstrating there is a little bit of Tammy in Leslie. The most evil thing about Tammy, however, is not that she wants to steal Leslie’s beloved Lot 48 for a new library branch, but what she does to Ron…particularly what she does to his hair. Tammy has the ability to make Ron be not-himself, and exercises this power without remorse, thereby placing herself in direct opposition to the spirit of the show, which celebrates the potential of everyone to become their best selves.
In comedy, evil lacks potency, overcome as it is by all the good intentions that surrounds it. Its attempts to upset the order of the comedic universe backfire, and all is good.
3. Bad vs. Bad: It’s a tie between Walter White of Breaking Bad, and Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones.
Walter (Bryan Cranston), like car salesman Jerry, begins by needing just to cut a few corners…for the greater good, of course. His position is a sympathetic one, at least initially. He is dying of lung cancer. He is a high school chemistry teacher with not a lot of money, has a special needs son, and they are a one-income family–wife Skyler stays at home to see to Walter Jr.’s needs. The diagnosis is a death sentence; Walter only wants his family to be taken care of after he’s gone. He has expertise in chemistry, and so he’ll just cook a little meth, make some money, and die having accomplished his goal.
Walter is pulled into the monstrous evil of the Albuquerque-to-Mexico drug scene, but he is not overwhelmed by it. On the contrary, he finds himself growing into his new enterprise. He sees himself as smarter and quicker than those he deals with. He is a massive control-freak. He becomes addicted to his new-found power. As the seasons progress, one moral boundary after the other falls, and we see just how evil a “good” person can become. But Walter isn’t “good.” He didn’t “break bad.” He always was bad, infected with a frustrating, thwarted psyche, just waiting for an opportunity. Indeed, a professional career counselor couldn’t have picked a better field to display his aptitudes and interests.
I also love to watch Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) on Game of Thrones. The character is born into a culture of violence and sexism, where a highborn woman is someone to use for the forging of political ties, through marriage, where perhaps she may wield influence, but perhaps not. Every female character in this saga has to deal with slightly different circumstances, is afforded slightly different opportunities, and makes slightly different choices, based on her character and her talents.
Cersei is ruthless. She is smart, but as her horrible father tells her, not as smart as she thinks. She is expected to marry when told. She does marry one man, but has her children by another, her twin brother, Jamie. She thinks she knows everything there is to know, but she is willfully ignorant of quite a bit. She is unable to see beyond her own prejudices. Something of an atheist, she simply doesn’t believe in the monsters beyond the wall. She is likewise in thrall to her hideous son, Jeffrey. As with Jerry in Fargo, I love to watch the wheels turn in her head as she struggles to keep control, but is constantly blindsided by evil that is smarter and quicker than she.
Next post, I’ll throw out some of my favorite heroes.
Conflict is the heart of any story, and the driver of all plots within the story. Conflict–which many of us like to avoid in our daily lives–is what we eagerly seek out in fiction, both as writers and as consumers. Conflict can be anything from a tear in the fabric of space-time that threatens to swallow up all of reality (Dr. Who) to over-done women carrying a grudge over how someone dissed someone else (Real Housewives of Wherever, Shahs of Sunset*).
In the case of the latter, I become impatient. I want to tell the self-involved dummies to get over themselves and pay attention to what matters in life. In the case of the former, I also become impatient, because a conflict that’s too big can also become tedious. Dr. Who fell into this for a while. I mean, come on. You know reality isn’t going to go up in a puff of smoke. What would happen to the show, then? So why keep making that the arc of the season? Can’t we just have some fun adventure?
Conflict is a matter of scale. The Doctor is a Time Lord able to travel through space and time in the Tardis. He has his wits and a magic screwdriver. The most satisfying of the stories are neither to big nor too small for his persona. My favorite this season so far is “The Rings of Akhaten,” where a child is saved from sacrifice. That was lovely. On the other end of the spectrum, I became so very weary last season of the tedious and portentous story lines of the Doctor’s death, and the whole mess with Amy Pond, River Song, and Rory. I simply didn’t buy any of it.
Conflict is also a matter of perspective and depth. Generic makes my eyes glaze over. The oft-repeated advice to the writer, “Begin with a character with a problem…” makes my mind go numb. I need to begin with something specific, be it large or small. More accurately, two or three things come together, and then two or three things are added, and so forth. In the masterpiece that is Mad Men, we spend most of the first season collecting and arranging these specific pieces, i.e. characters in a quite specific time and place. I remember being unimpressed with the first episode I watched, in which Peggy starts work, Joan struts around like an office queen bee, and Don drinks and smokes and screws around. It seemed a bland period piece, until toward the end of the first season, when the real characters emerge from the carefully crafted images that era demanded. From that point on, the series has been driven seamlessly by character conflict. Twist and turn goes the plot, but it manages to both shock and be inevitable.
Conflict is a matter of quality. Does exploration of this fictional conflict somehow enlighten and inform me on the subject of the human condition? Does it seem real? If not, I see it as a waste of time. This is my general gripe against recent literary fiction, that it seems to be about nothing. (And not in the Seinfeld sense, the show the that pretended to be about nothing but in fact was about everything.) Quality conflict moves me. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me want to talk about it to others who have watched or read it. It is highly subjective. What matters to some, doesn’t to others.
While avoiding conflict in life whenever possible, I indulge my addiction with several doses daily of the fictional variety. I’m reading two books now, The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson, and Cyroburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. On the TV front, I am watching Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Parks & Recreation, Community, Mr. Selfridge, and EastEnders. I haven’t seen a movie in months, but I have seen three stage plays in recent weeks, two of which were excellent and which I will name here: The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter, and The Parisian Woman, by Beau Willimon. I’m finding Mr. Selfridge a bit conflict-lite, a bit contrived, but I’m soldiering on with it anyway. EastEnders is a British soap opera. Many of its conflicts are stupid, but it is fun to make fun of.
I love being addicted to conflict and to have so many opportunities to get all drugged up with it every day. I love the conflict with self and family in the Hopkinson novel and the Hunter play. I love the disparate social and political commentary of Bujold, Parks & Rec, and Community. I love the very different kinds of heroism shown in Dr. Who, in Bujold, and in Game of Thrones. I love the anthropological and psychological dissection of the Willimon play and of Mad Men.
It’s a lot going on. I’ve had a bit of a problem lately in that I cannot help visualizing Peter Dinklage as Miles Vorkosigan, even though I know darned well Miles is not a little person. The wit, swagger, and toughness of the two characters of Tyrion and Miles bear comparison, somehow.
One more interesting note about fictional conflict: Even when I have real conflict in my life (and no one can avoid it completely) I still need the approximate same daily dose of the fictional variety. The difference is, during rough times, I focus on the resolution. Fiction does such a better job of resolution than real life does.
*I am treating Reality TV as fiction. Please tell me it is.
Photo: Speculative Martha
About ninety percent of my reading is in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Back in the eighties and nineties, the split was more like fifty-fifty between Spec Fic and “other.” And it’s more than that. I can say that ninety percent of the literature I revere is in science fiction and fantasy, and only ten percent in other fields.
Revere is a strong word, but it is the word that comes to mind. I like a lot of things, and I admire talent in a lot of genres, but it is science fiction and fantasy that hits me in the gut and sets my brain on fire, that makes me wonder “…how the hell did he/she come up with this?”.
While moaning about the demise of The Hour, and re-watching season four of Mad Men, I realized something perhaps a bit odd: My percentages for genre in television would be exactly opposite. Ninety percent of what I revere in television is not science fiction or fantasy. The list goes on and stretches back for decades.
Revered in Comedy: Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, M*A*S*H, Keeping Up Appearances, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Revered in Drama: Breaking Bad, The Hour, Sopranos, Mad Men.
In the drama category, a case could be made that mainstream TV gives me a lot of what I love in SF literature, my number one draw to SF, which is that I am transported to a different time and/or place in which everything is different from what I know. Or, almost different.
I have been to Albuquerque, but met no one while there who was involved in cooking or selling crystal meth. The shots of the desert in that show take my breath away, so starkly beautiful in Breaking Bad.
I have also been to the nineteen-sixties, but I did it as a teenager, not as an adult at a Manhattan ad agency. The time travel aspect of Mad Men is a bit sf-nal.
Comedy, on the other hand, seems to be about home, whatever its genre, whatever its locale. Comedy transports me in a different way, and it is much more difficult for me to pin down what makes me laugh. Why did I laugh at the mother-in-law/hippo joke in Reginald Perrin every time? What was so funny about Mystery Science Theater? That concept should not have worked, but it did. And all, somehow, are about home. Remember, the characters in MST3000 return to live together in an apartment in Wisconsin at the end of the series.
I don’t notice genre as much in television. Sure, there’s the SyFy channel, but the genres do tend to bleed together more. Community gets a Hugo nomination. People not otherwise interested in fantasy watch Game of Thrones. No one seems to care quite as much about genre in TV as they do in literature. And perhaps literature is the key word here. Some books are supposed to be good for you. Books that are good for you are called literature. If you actually like books that are good for you, well, you must be an intellectual! And if you read that sci-fi stuff, you clearly are not.
On the other hand, television is not good for you, no matter what. I’ve been hearing that from the time I was old enough to operate the channel selector. (We did not have remotes in those days.) It is assumed that, if you are watching television, you are wasting time. Distinctions matter less. Oh sure, there can be the occasional PBS documentary, but when you’re knocking around a broadcast lineup that includes Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Real Housewives, My Secret Addiction, and dozens of others, watching Dr. Who, or Buffy, or Star Trek Next Generation doesn’t seem all that bad.
My point in all this is that television is more than not-always-that-bad. It is often good. It is is occasionally, in recent years in particular, as brilliant as any writing done in any genre and any form in all of time.
Photo: Library of Congress
Every character was fascinating. Every bit of dialogue needed to be heard. Not one moment of screen time was wasted. The Hour spun stunning interwoven tales of ambition, corruption, intrigue, romance, and grief–one big arc for each season. It was most beautiful to look at: rich, deep, and dark in color, but never muddy or dim. The visual composition was impeccable. Television doesn’t get any better.
Since its recent cancellation, I have been muttering about the criminality of taking something this good off the air before its planned run is over. The creators had planned three of these six-show seasons; now, it’s ending at two. The BBC stated, ” We love the show, but have to make hard choices to bring new shows through.”
What they bring through in its place might well be more popular, but it is unlikely to be anywhere near as good.
And it ended on something of a season cliffhanger, as we don’t know for sure if Freddie survives his injuries, although it is a pretty sure bet that he does. I can’t imagine the writers killing him off; he’s too central a character.
Sad, sad, sad.
On the other hand, I would rather have a show taken off too soon than to stay on too long. Those that stay on too long are like a favorite restaurant that changes ownership, like a Mexican place my husband and I went to years ago. We went one evening, and the name had changed. Same menu, and no change in decor. We even recognized most of the employees. The manager assured us everything was exactly the same. But when our meals arrived, I wanted to stand and shout, “NO! This is not the same food! You have used canned refried beans! Did you not think we could tell the difference!??”
House was canned refried beans at the end. So was the American version of The Office (although I did not watch it all the way till the end). I could name many others, and so could you. And that canned taste lingers. Sadly, a tinny taste will taint my memory of the entire series. The early best efforts are poisoned by mediocrity at the end.
Ending a series is an art. Some of my favorite final episodes were of Seinfeld, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under, although the latter certainly had its wobbly moments toward the end of its run. I’m looking forward to a good ending for Breaking Bad, for Mad Men, and for The Good Wife, when they’re done. Every great series deserves a great ending. I wish The Hour could have had theirs.