Best New Stuff – July 2018

 

 

GLOW Season 2

I always liked GLOW; I found it winning, and complicated in ways that most shows don’t let their women characters be. But its first season had some issues that I wouldn’t begrudge people for disliking — it had a diverse ensemble, but didn’t care to use much of it, for starters.

But season 2 — man, season 2 blew me away. What an exquisite way to expand on the concept of the first season, present two separate and totally fair conceptions of a coming out story, building and broadening the friendship at the core of it, expertly placing clues and pacing itself for the end of the season. This is a show to watch, more subversive in its portrayal of female life than something like The Handmaid’s Tale. Plus it’s got a truly kickin’ soundtrack.

Hereditary

I am not the sort of person who ascribes to the philosophy that a horror movie has to be scary, but if I was Hereditary would still hit the mark. The first 3/4 play out like an atmospheric stretching rack, until the final act really drives it home. It’s the sort of movie that’s impossible to market without audiences being familiar with it, even though it isn’t all that unfamiliar from horror movie touchstones. It’s just that the ambience is so enveloping, the execution so wholly authentic, it’s impossible to get the message across until the movie’s been seen.

But after you’ve seen it? Well, the dark of your bedroom will never be the same again.

God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty 

While last month (and a little of this month) is still dominated by Everything Is Love, I somehow missed the release of the latest FJM. Where before I had been kind of hot and cold on the folk star, I’m now enrapt by his crooning, which seems to covers everything from love songs to comedy pieces.

 

 

but the Youtube song of the month?  That’s Isakov all the way, baby. 

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The Affair – 310

If “310” had existed in another season, or after another run of episodes, this might be a different review. The episode — chronicling Juliette and Noah’s days in Paris, and commitment to their family members as well as each other —has plenty of sweet, emotional moments. It’s just that they only barely connected with what we just saw.

Take Noah’s arc this season. We’ve seen him come to terms with a burden he was carrying around with him for the entire show (except it had never been mentioned), spiral out of control multiple times, cope with his time in prison, dissolve his marriage to Alison, burn his bridge with Helen, and finally realize that he stabbed himself in a disassociative episode and…none of that, is here.

Whatever build up there was between Juliette and Noah this season, whatever complications she adds to his life, is largely absent here, save for an errant mention of when he was out of control a few months ago and she helped him right the boat. What was his recovery process like? Who knows. It’s not relevant here. Never mind the fact that the entire season built out a mystery and a few mental health episodes to keep its wheels turning. The Affair has always struggle to balance the different strands of the show, but here it feels like it bucks the hook its so steadfastly held onto in favor of a romance drama.

What’s left has some nice moments: Juliette’s quietly sad disbelief at Etienne’s lucidity, only to still be crushed when her fears are confirmed moments later; Noah’s talk with Whitney, though perhaps a bit on the nose (The Affair specialty), feels like a solid connection between these two.

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But it doesn’t feel at all like a resolution to their arcs. For Juliette, it feels like her introduction has gone from hot, sexually-open, stereotypical Frenchwoman to grieving wife seeking escape to ignored lover to…girlfriend? I guess? Again, we haven’t really seen anything from this relationship, pre-recovery or no. Juliette’s arc mostly makes sense when we look at what (apparently) the writers are trying to do with Noah, which is completely rehab his image.

It’s a bizarre step, seeing as how he didn’t need to be rehabbed until they decided to spin him out of control to spin out a season mystery. Noah has always been a bit of a scumbag as a real person, but as a character who opted to go to prison at the end of last season to protect the women he loves, he was not exactly in need of saving. “310” returns him to that place he always seems to get to in Affair finales: loved by a woman, against all odds, and stepping in to be her night in shining armor.

I’ve written before that season 3 of The Affair felt a bit like a show they had ventured off the roadmap with, and “310” only confirms that for me, unfortunately. But they’re renewed for season 4, so next fall The Affair will be back on the map, one way or another.

Stray thoughts

  • I can’t get over Juliette getting a finale half, which seems a bit weird to me. Although we left basically everyone else at a nice stopping point (Alison getting shared custody of Joanie and a potential job, Cole choosing Luisa, Helen coming clean and mending things with Vic) Juliette has been so close to a non-entity. Her plot line here, while narratively rewarding in some ways, seems to only exist to prop up Noah’s half.
  • Noah would pretend he’s Hemingway.
  • I really liked the way they played the two versions of Juliette’s colleagues. Too often the memory questions this show asks seems to be overly-convenient (the restaurant scene, or the season 1 finale) but this one was a simple illustration of how weird social situations are, with or without a language barrier. The no subtitles in Noah’s was a nice touch too.
  • I’m not saying Juliette’s boss was wrong or right, but damn that scene was brutal to just be a random, lingering thread.
  • As was the black humor of getting Etienne’s body into the elevator. Oof.
  • From the notes: It’s only a matter of time before Noah shows up inappropriately [after Etienne’s death].
  • Oh Furkat. What a douche.

Blurred Lines: ‘Prestige Comedy’ and The Drama it Entails

“I think we’re really close when we’re going to have to retire ‘sitcom’ or ‘drama’ as a descriptor for these shows,” said Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture TV critic, on a recent episode of the Vulture TV Podcast. “[Atlanta] is a half hour show, and it’s funny, but I don’t know if I’d describe it as a situational comedy.”

But it’s not all fun and games—I mean, obviously, as the lines between comedy and drama get blurred—some aren’t willing to let the shift happen without a comment, as Dan Nosowitz writes for Splitsider:

Not so long ago, my favorite comedies were light and fun and escapist. Today my favorite comedies tend to be dark and not always funny. With a few exceptions (Broad City, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), the best comedies on TV are not really suited to a casual, I-just-want-something-funny viewing. The remaining comedies that still aim for sheer jokes are either garbage (The Big Bang Theory) or highly experimental and thus also not really suited for casual watching (The Eric Andre Show, Lady Dynamite).

…The joke-focused comedy now seems somehow uncool, a little dusty. TV has drifted into a space where boundaries matter less: a show can be 11 minutes long or 90, can air on an app or on broadcast TV, can feature huge movie stars or complete unknowns, can come from any country and become a hit domestically, can take on any subject in any way. With that kind of freedom, a half-hour sitcom seems unnecessarily restrictive and old-timey, and not very exciting.

There is, I think, a diminishing pool of superb joke-focused TV comedies, a void left by 30 Rock and Arrested Development and New Girl (I know, it’s still airing, but be honest, have you watched it in the past few years?). This isn’t a grumpy-old-man screed for some form of the past like multi-camera shows, but a plea for something simpler: I want more shows that are, you know, fun. There seems to be some feeling that to be great, truly great, a comedy can’t just be a comedy, but must also tap into something dark and real and painful.

On the one hand I see Nosowitz’s point: I love comedy, and there has been a dearth of “easy to watch” comedies in my rotation over the past few years. Though the rising tide of prestige TV and sheer amount of original content promises more diversity; more room for experimental, boundary-pushing shows to breathe, the advent of “prestige comedy” is a fairly traditional mindset of undervaluing comedic acting. It’s why Robin Williams wins for Good Will Hunting but not any of assorted, brilliant comedic turns. It’s why Mad Men or Breaking Bad get to be considered “innovating prestige TV” while staying almost entirely humorless, but Jane the Virgin needs to be the first one to call itself out.

But it seems a bit narrow-focused to say that there are no more just “fun” shows. New Girl is still on Fox; over on NBC the laughs are fairly easy and free-flowing on The Good Place or Superstore; ABC offers a whole block of comedies like Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, The Carmichael Show, The Goldbergs, Modern Family, The Middle—you get the picture. Like someone who complains that they’re not hearing something about a real world development on their Twitter timeline, what you choose to follow is reflective of you and your tastes.

Nosowitz’s main point—that “prestige” comedy is being favored over the more carefree comedy of old—can still be valid; after all, most viewers aren’t likely to tell you that The Middle did something so fantastic it blew You’re The Worst out of the water. But I disagree with the idea that there’s inherent value in comedy just because it forcefully keeps it light. Where he argues that the “depressing lives of the cast of Cheers” is just some of the darkness that exists “in the background,” it seems disingenuous to say it should stay there. I won’t say that modern comedy is doing comedy better than older sitcoms, nor would I say that our generation “knows better.” But as part of building on what came before, comedy writers are drawing out that darkness and actually acknowledging it. mv5bmjm0ntk0odewml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzqwmjc3ote-_v1_Some shows make this look easy—It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the logical successor to the “apathetic psychosis” of the Seinfeld crown, staying light on its feet and letting the audience appreciate just how depraved this gang can get; You’re the Worst expertly guards its characters with emotional barbed wire until suddenly it forces the audience to realize how flimsy and cruel their defenses are. But ultimately that acknowledgement of humanity (or the disassociation with it) is just as real, and necessary, as it is on something like Modern Family or Black-ish, even if on those shows it can seem a bit more saccharine.

No one I know exists wholly in the drama or comedy realm. Even in their serious moments, most people I know only muster about 20 solid seconds of solemn communication before returning to banter. That doesn’t make life hard to watch, and I don’t think it makes comedy tinged with serious themes—BoJack Horseman, You’re the Worst, or Jane the Virgin—harder to watch either. Modern comedy writing, with all its warts and dips into drama, may not be inherently more realistic than something like I Love Lucy or Cheers, but it does feel a bit more honest.

Medium/Large: Episodic Moves in Television and Movies

Many television critics have been bemoaning the death of the episode in TV lately. As our culture shifts to online, streaming, and binge watching, the episode has become less of a chapter and more of a sentence in the seasonal books we watch. More and more the shows we watch resemble 10-hour movies rather than episodic television. The flip side of that is that our movies are starting to resemble the episodic television we’re more accustomed to.

On the surface level these are driven by two different goals. Television is increasingly embracing the streaming platform’s structure of releasing a whole season in one go, which encourages long periods of watching, which doesn’t have as much need to break up the story into chunks like network television does. Movies, meanwhile, are caught up in the desire to be like Marvel, and create a shared cinematic universe. It’s the reason Captain America: Civil War is able to build on the characters, relationships, and events that people have been watching play out for almost a decade on the silver screen, or why The Force Awakens was able to exist paradoxically as a reboot, a sequel, and a retelling without fully standing on its own. star-wars-the-force-awakens-15-1200x630

But underneath it all it’s the same principle: To get people obsessed with your content. Marvel has always understood that building out narratives across issues and decades creates generations of fans. Star Wars invented modern blockbuster culture because it turned out to be a smash hit. Shows like BloodlineSense 8, and beyond are able to take advantage of the interest in telling long-form stories and connecting (deeply) with characters week-after-week to use whole seasons as pilots instead of one episode. And so they borrow strategies that worked for the other in order to build their medium up. Similar to the way genres have started to bleed into each other, formatting now is as well; blockbuster movies are more often than ever before just episodes of a longer story being told across a franchise, and television is just an imagined story that functions more like building a puzzle rather than a daisy chain each week.

Tropes and lack there of in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

This week was the 18th anniversary of the premiere of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Can you believe it?

It definitely seems 18 years ago once you look at their outfits.
It definitely seems 18 years ago once you look at their outfits.

Like many millenials I happened upon “Buffy” not when it first aired, but in high school after much pressuring from friends who were hipper than me (or bigger nerds; your pick). And thank god I did, because who knows what I’d think of it now.

“Buffy” was always very smartly written, but there’s definitely an appeal to the show that makes more sense when it met your consciousness as a teen. Joss Whedon, a third generation screenwriter, tackled two things he’d always loved: turning tropes on their head, and using monsters as a stand-in for teen angst. I definitely noticed it at the time (Buffy’s monsters as analogies for major life events were in the back of my mind as I faced those same events myself), but until I was reading Alan Sepinwall’s chapter on “Buffy” in his book “The Revolution Was Televised”—purely by coincidence—that he was the first one to draw the connection so overtly.

Sure, there’d been enough papers to kill hours reading about all the different ways puberty and sexual awakenings presented themselves in horror films, but his was possibly the first to draw the line so distinctly for kids. A sort of blending of the “Full House” lessons with the longer, more adult dramas of the period.

And perhaps one of the things he did best was to veer away from the grit so common in today’s dramas. Hell, even the “notable” dramas of the late ’90s erred on the side of serious; more DC than Marvel. But teens, like Whedon’s infamous dialogue, tend to float above the darkness, even if they have a penchant for drama.

Despite whatever problems I have with “Buffy,” one thing I have always loved about it is that despite all the horror, evil, and sadness Buffy encounters it made her nice. It made her a better person, and she wasn’t afraid to show it. Compare that to Dr. House or Bruce Wayne, and I think it’s pretty clear who the strongest character is.

In many ways “Buffy” broke down barriers, for teen shows, fantasy shows, and (maybe especially) fantasy teen shows. But the only reason it could do that was because they cared enough to make Buffy someone who cared. Which looking back on it, was the coolest thing they could’ve taught me.

Jane the Virgin’s got half the story right

Jane the Virgin Episode 8 spoilers below. If you’re not at Episode 8 I advise you come back later. And if you’re not watching the show at all I advise you start. 

While I was catching up on CW’s excellent “Jane the Virgin” last night, I found myself disappointed for the first time by that show.

“Jane the Virgin” never goes full virgin; it never says that there’s anything wrong with sexuality–whether you’re having it or no. Jane herself wavers on her decision to wait from time to time, and has made it clear that she’s “a virgin, not a prude,” when it comes to her sexual exploits. In addition to all the other minority it tackles (illegal immigration, family, class, women of color, lesbians) I found myself wanting to stand up and cheer the show for its full on embracement of sex postivity/neutrality that ran so strong through it.

Last night’s episode featured the inevitable plot of Jane having to fess up to the (former) playboy she’s seeing about how he wasn’t going to be getting lucky anytime soon. It led to an awkward, uncomfortable dinner, and a problem the dashing Rafael couldn’t quite wrinkle out.

"But I had already cleared my schedge tomorrow to be all night to get lucky"
“But I had already cleared my schedge tomorrow to be all night to get lucky”

Ultimately they do talk it out, and Rafael says he’s fine with waiting (and fighting) for the relationship to reach that point. It’s a fabulous moment of acting on the parts of the leads, managing to find the balance between romantic fantasy and grounded emotion.

But what I feel was missing from the conversation–and from the show as a whole–is a discussion of the intimacy that can grow from sex.

The show, an adaptation of a telenovela, follows Jane, a hard-working young woman who’s pledged to save herself for marriage who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. The initial concept didn’t sound appealing to me, but when my person and I happened to find ourselves tuned in for the premiere I found myself engrossed because of the way it rooted its virginity politics in a choice Jane made for herself (even if it was ushered in a bit by her very religious Grandmother’s lectures on purity).

It seemed to me that the show would open a dialogue around sexuality in a way that hadn’t quite been explored before in the media: that sex or no, there’s a benefit to taking time to figure out what you want, and waiting until you’re ready, no matter what or when that decision is. Obviously that would involve an embrace of a young woman who was waiting for marriage (even if she knew it was an arbitrary day), which it did. But it seems more reluctant to dive into what sex can bring and foster, like an emotional intimacy that may be what the parties in the relationship feel ready and excited for.

Throughout their courtship, Jane has always expressed concern that Rafael’s history as a playboy was too much for them to overcome, and Rafael has always been adamant about his growth from his former, reckless persona. I was excited for “Jane the Virgin” to finally hold him up as the counterexample to Jane: perhaps sex crazy when he was young, but as someone who understood the closeness and warmth that could come from a sexual relationship. But I guess, like the titular character, I’ll just have to keep waiting.

Game of Naughty Zones

(Content warning: rape, sexual violence, comments on violence)
Anyone who’s been near pop culture in the last four years is no stranger to the provocative nature of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Between unsparing battle scenes and frank sexuality, it’s not your Grandmother’s fantasy realm. Or maybe it is, but it’s certainly not your six-year-old cousin’s.

And while I’ll fight anyone who argues that women’s nudity can only be a tool for “shock value” to pull in viewers and demean women, “Game of Thrones” gives me a peculiar sense of vexation when it comes to nakedness.

1. The Sexposition

A pioneer in “sexposition,” or the strategy of men speaking their inner monologues or plans out loud while women drape  themselves around them, flaunting their bare naughty bits, “Game of Thrones” frequently uses naked women to…well, pull in viewers. Or at least treat them as objects while men talk about their important plans.

Game of Thrones sexposition example
Because otherwise this scene would just be some dude talking. Who would be able to watch that?

All in all, I’m generally pretty neutral about sexposition as a plot device. Though it’s worth noting that for a show that’s just trying to knock down the puritanical hangups around sexual relations with a more natural and open portrayal, it’s strange that basically all women share the same beauty standards across the board. There must be one helluva profiting waxer in Westeros.

What I do have a problem with, is the fantasy trope that is a strong danger for these sort of expositions: you run the risk of your female characters being sex-centric. Again, not something I can say I’m wholeheartedly against, but it’s a common element of fantasy novels to have women few and far between. Those women who are featured are often stuck using sex as their only tool or weapon. “Game of Thrones,” does display a pretty hefty roster of strong, complex women, has featured a whopping number of sex scenes, wherein (according to a Buzzfeed breakdown of the first two seasons) had an imbalance between how the characters were portrayed. Leading me to the second point:

2. Where have all the nude men gone?

Buzzfeed infographic
Part of Buzzfeed’s infographic on the first two seasons of “Game of Thrones” and sex scenes

Now I could break down for you what the scale of each of those squares means (or you could click through to the Buzzfeed page itself), but realistically, there’s no way this breaks down well. So while I’ll rage against the machine or anyone else who says that these women are inherently cheapened because they feel comfortable showing their body, there is an imbalance here that can’t be ignored.

The fact of the matter is that though “Game of Thrones” has had its share of coitus, the display has been almost consistently women going bare. By no means would I argue that these women reduced to just a pair of boobs (at least, not by any intelligent viewer). Women on “Game of Thrones” are each powerful and nuanced in their own way (though their power is still, often, filtered through their role, which is intrinsically linked to their gender). But when there’s such a disproportionate difference between men’s nudity and women’s nudity, something’s off.

Though the quality in writing has changed, a long-time selling point for premium cable has been that it was uncensored. But when your show is more comfortable with showing a man busting out of his skull rather than busting out of his pants, you’ve got some messed up priorities. There’s a way to have women be in the buff and not have them be just straight photography, but one-sided nudity is a quick route to over-sexualizing your female characters.

3. A bit (too much) of the old ultraviolence

When the show first started, it seemed tapped into the (largely) feminist-friendly (ish) vibe of its source material. And yet, over the years the show’s sexual nature has featured a growing rate of violence in Westeros.

In most fantasy novels, TV shows, and movies, “medieval misogyny” is believed to be par for the course, making it common to parade of sexual violence–most often against women. Similar to casting choices in Thor, while Westeros is a land of magic and dragons, it’d just be too unbelievable and just plain illogical if the women of Westeros weren’t subjected to some sort of sexual threat. Four seasons in, many of the main female characters, and a number of background women, have been raped. And a man has, at one point or another, threatened any women who haven’t yet been sexually assaulted.

And to screw up the narrative even more, several sex scenes from the book—which were at worst questionably consensual—were added to the show with a uncomfortable dynamics. In fact the character Ros, a street-smart prostitute who was invented just for the show, existed pretty much entirely to be hurt at the hands of men. Although it could be argued that at one point she served as if not a player in Westeros than at least an intelligent pawn, very little came of her plotline beyond her own pain, and eventual gruesome death.

It seems the model for Westeros is that if you want to hurt a man (like Oberyn Martell) you hurt a woman. And if you want to hurt a woman (like Ros, Cersei, or basically any other female character) you hurt a woman again.

 


 

 

At the end of the day, those who engage with “Game of Thrones” will have to decide for themselves how they feel about the show’s sexual politics. The creators certainly don’t seem open to the discussion. But maybe it’s time we recognize that just because women in Westeros are afforded certain power, privileges, and freedom from FCC regulations, doesn’t mean they’re not also being used to satisfy and perpetuate the same tired problematic relationship to women’s bodies.