Last night’s Agent Carter was refreshing. I watched it immediately after scrolling through @femscriptintros, the twitter feed that’s cataloguing the depressing, though not surprising, ways that women are introduced in scripts, always in reference to their physical and sexual value, and I was feeling disheartened about the state of women in Hollywood. Afraid that things would never really change. And then I watched an hour of television dominated by four different interesting and complicated women and I felt a lot better. Let’s break it down by character:
- Peggy Carter’s physical strength is never in doubt. The fact that she’s a “Strong Female Character” in the Buffy Summers, can-kick-your-butt-in-heels, tough-upper lip sense is baked into the premise of the show, and while Peggy has never been written or portrayed as an emotionless automaton (after all, a broken heart and deep recesses of compassion are what have fueled her for 2 seasons now) she isn’t the type to show signs of weakness or to break down. This week’s episode, however, put her in physical peril, and thanks to the comfort of a Marvel Cinematic Universe that has already assured us that Peggy lives be very, very old, I was able to enjoy the opportunity to see her in a position where she had to rely entirely on her friends and not just on herself, without having to worry that the rebar through her side would have a lasting impact.
What’s more, “The Atomic Job” allows Peggy to shine as a leader. While Sousa may technically be her boss, he increasingly defers to her suggestions and follows her orders. She pushes him to bring Rose into the field, leaves him to help Jarvis defuse the bombs while she heads off to take out Whitney Frost. She may not be in charge of the SSR, but she has an unspoken authority thanks to her track record and the respect she has amassed from the people who surround her.
- Rose has been the public face of the SSR’s secret offices for two seasons now, and while her ebullience has always been a pleasure to watch, it’s nice to see the show add a little depth to it. It was fun to see another woman out in the field for the SSR, especially because the show did such an excellent job of demonstrating why Rose deserved to be there. As Peggy points out she’s trustworthy, and she’s passed through all of the same training as everyone else; just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she’s not just as capable. Like Peggy, she gets the chance to toss a few men around, but she also uses more specific skills to her advantage, whether that means baking favors out of Dr. Samberly (not something we’re ever likely to see Peggy do) or talking him down so he can complete a difficult task (precisely the sort of talent someone might pick up when they spend their day answering phones). Her strengths are not just a carbon copy of Peggy’s, but distinct, individual, and she earns her place in the field.
- After last season presented such a fun big bad in Dottie, the assassin hiding behind a country bumpkin routine, Whitney Frost’s nuclear physicist hiding within a movie star could have seemed like a repeat. Their motivations, though, are so different that Whitney doesn’t feel recycled. Where Dottie took pleasure in the game of trying to outsmart Peggy, Whitney is just hungry for power. We got a glimpse into her childhood in last week’s episode, where she learned the dangers that come with relying on other people to get by, as well as the power behind submission and accommodation, of smiling to make men happy; it gave context to the way she uses her newfound power. At first it was hard to understand why a woman who makes a living off of her face (playing roles that were surely defined with words about her beauty) would keep killing, allowing the splintering crack of zero matter to keep growing along her forehead, but it’s clear now that Whitney’s career was a means to an end. She doesn’t need to have a pretty face if she can find the power it brought her elsewhere, and she’s willing to take out anyone, be they enemy, minion or her own husband, if it means being the one in control.
- And then there’s Violet. Violet could have been a thankless role, an obstacle rising up between Peggy and Sousa to keep them apart a bit longer, but she’s written to be more than that. Like Peggy, she is very much career minded. She’s the one that comes home late from work to find dinner cold on the table and her partner asleep on the couch, and she’s the one with the expertise to patch Peggy up when she’s been impaled. She loves Sousa, but she’s not willing to turn a blind eye when she sees first hand how he feels about Peggy–the moment they’re alone she confronts him about his feelings, and about his decision to lie to her. But she also doesn’t hold her fiancé’s feelings against Peggy. They are, after all, new friends, and when Peggy’s bleeding on her couch she takes care of her, makes sure she’ll heal, even offers her a place to stay until she does. There’s no malice between them, or even awkwardness. The show isn’t gearing up for a love triangle or a cat fight–there’s mutual respect here, evident in the immediate friendship that blossomed between them, and in the genuine way Peggy congratulated Sousa on his engagement.
What is perhaps most interesting about the way “The Atomic Job” treats its women is the way that the male characters all orbit around them. Sousa, Dr. Wilkes and Mr. Jarvis defer to Peggy as always, and to Violet as she directs them in how to save Peggy. Rose handles Dr. Samberly like a producer on UnREAL, carefully and expertly. And on the other side, Whitney controls her husband with fear of what she can do, and the mob boss Joseph Manfredi with her good looks and negotiation skills. The women are running the show.
In moving across the country for its second season Agent Carter lost the setting of the women’s only boarding house that served as Peggy’s home last year (and Angie! I miss Angie!). The boarding house provided a backdrop of nothing but women that stood in contrast to the entirely male SSR offices, and it was home to some lovely scenes of women living amongst other women. But in its second season, as the show has stepped back from some of the overt sexism that defined much of the story last year, Agent Carter has fleshed out the women in the foreground (we even met Mr. Jarvis’ wife, Ana, a few weeks ago), and it’s made for a richer world, one in which Peggy no longer stands alone. Ever so slowly, as in the world we live in now, things are starting to change on Agent Carter.
There’s a special effect, regularly deployed on The CW’s Jane the Virgin. When the titular Jane, pregnant with her former crush and current boss’s child via telenovelesque contrivance and engaged to someone else, finds herself warming to said boss, when he is particularly kind or thoughtful or says just the right thing, an orangey glow emanates from her chest. It goes largely unremarked, even by the show’s omniscient narrator, sometimes it’s not even fully on screen, just a fuzzy brightness at the bottom of the frame, but it’s there to remind us that Jane’s heart is important, that it beats at the center of the series.
The quick-moving plots of Jane the Virgin are the hallmark of telenovelas like the one that inspired the series (Venezuela’s Juana la Virgen), and the stylized sets, decorated in pastel blues and greens, are meant to evoke both those telenovelas and the show’s Miami setting, to add an element of theater to the series, pulling it just a bit out of reality, but the story of an accidentally artificially inseminated virgin works because the characters that inhabit it behave like real people, even in an unreal situation.
From charming central-character Jane (Gina Rodriguez), to her love interests, reformed bad boy boss Rafael (Justin Baldoni) and extra-reformed bad boy fiancé Michael (Brett Dier), to her family, her wild mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), religious grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) and dopey telenovela star father Rogelio (Jaime Camil), and even to the closest thing the show has to a villain, Rafael’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Petra (Yael Grobglas), the characters on Jane the Virgin feel whole, not just like archetypes.
Petra cons and plots against Rafael because she’s under the thumb of her conniving mother, as well as a mystery villain the audience has yet to meet. Michael keeps secrets about Petra’s affair from Jane because he knows it will affect her decisions about what to do with the baby, and he’s not sure he wants to raise another man’s kid. Rafael is rude to Michael because he sees him as competition for his child’s, not to mention Jane’s, heart. Xiomara hides the identity of Jane’s father because she doesn’t want to pile onto the complications in Jane’s life, or to lose her place in it.
Even Rogelio, easily the show’s most cartoonish character, kind of dumb and absolutely self-absorbed, is motivated by genuine human emotions. Whether he’s putting on an elaborate show for his first dinner with newly discovered daughter Jane, or gifting her with a car without obvious reason, his actions are prompted by a desire to make up for missing the first 23 years of her life, and by the urge to provide something so big for Jane when he couldn’t even buy a car for himself until he was 35.
And Jane. Jane weighs the pros and cons of having an abortion in the series’ pilot because it’s 2014 and she has a young mother and she has worked her whole life to avoid becoming one. She decides to be a part of the baby’s life after Rafael and Petra split because she wants to offer it the stability that was lacking in her own childhood. She values honesty because she knows the pain that accompanies dishonesty. Jane is practical and selfless to a fault, but her heart doesn’t need to literally glow to be clear to the audience, it’s present in her every action.
As Jane the Virgin catapults itself through story (and boy does it, only six episodes in and several secrets have spilled, someone’s been murdered, two couples have split up, four different characters have committed to raising the baby Jane’s carrying, in three different configurations of family units, and there was a big kiss) it succeeds by tethering itself to recognizable human emotions. It gets away with a pretzel-twisted plot and swooning set pieces like the one that ended the most recent episode, “Chapter Six,” because the characters behave logically within their illogical lives.
And that’s where Jane’s glowing heart fits into this. When that special effect lights up the screen it’s a reminder that, while Jane the Virgin isn’t quite the real world, where the visual cues to someone’s emotions are a bit more nuanced, human logic is at work in the storytelling. If it can keep an eye on that heart, the audience has every reason to believe the show can sustain itself.
When you’re someone that cares about television a lot, enough to run a blog about it, or go on breathless, angry rants about it, or, hey, travel halfway across the country to spend a weekend at a television festival, and you’re also someone that works a day job, or has non-television-inclined friends and family, or just in general has to interact with so-called “normals” out there in the world, there are certain phrases you get sick of hearing. “It’s just TV,” is a popular one, or the even more condescending “I don’t even own a TV.” There’s also “Why do you care so much?” and the glassy-eyed smiling and nodding thing that much of my family does–out of love–these days when I start to get worked up.
Don’t get me wrong, it was nice of my parents to shift from “It’s just TV” to the smile and nod around the time that it became clear that my passion for the medium wasn’t going away, it’s nice that my mom is always up for discussing the latest Mad Men or The Good Wife (or at least listening quietly while I go on a tear about the industry), nice that my sister and my roommate have similar tastes to my own, but it’s nicer still to have someone who can talk back to you in depth, who can engage with you beyond just “wasn’t it cool when this happened?” and “what do you think is next?” Who wants to talk about why Fox’s comedies are such a mess these days or the pros and cons of a 13 episode season over a 22 episode season. It’s nice to discuss TV with people who take TV as seriously as I do. This is why fandoms and similar communities flourish on the internet, where it’s easier to assemble people with the same interests, no matter the physical distance between them.
I’ve been talking about TV on various websites, through various viewpoints, with various specific interests, since I was about 13 years old, but these days I mostly do so on Twitter and on this blog, through a critical if hyperbolic gaze. (I’m on Tumblr, too, but I mostly use that to reblog funny gif-sets and to get weird about Chris Evans in my tags.) That’s a change from when I used most of my energy yelling into message boards about my favorite ships on Gilmore Girls, or crying into my LiveJournal about Rose on Doctor Who, both in the people I’m talking to and the way in which I am talking. Not everyone that loves TV wants to talk about it critically–that’s not a bad thing, it just means that my online community has restructured as my interests have evolved, and that restructuring has lead me, for the most part, to Twitter.
Twitter has an innate ability to turn broad, 140-character statements into conversations, whether you’re participating in them or just watching them happen, and TV Twitter is one of the few places where criticism feels like a dialogue that just keeps going, branching off into new threads, petering out and picking up again over hours or days or sometimes even weeks. The website is often praised and derided for the access it grants to the people who are actually making television: showrunners, writers and actors are close at hand, and there’s always the smallest chance that your voice will be heard in the din that is directed at them 24 hours a day, that they might answer your question or even just acknowledge your existence.
If you were to pull TV Twitter out of the internet and into the real world, add humidity, tacos and barbecue, and lessen the din directed at the stars (in front of and behind the television camera) to just a few thousand voices, you would have something not unlike the annual ATX Television Festival, which just ended it’s third “season” in Austin, Texas.
The ATX TV Festival draws an intense, generous, overwhelmingly–though not exclusively–female audience to Austin, Texas, in the first (hot, humid, sweaty, sticky, sweltering) weekend of June each year. Many of the attendees have probably risen up through fandom, but just from listening to the questions asked in any panel that’s opened up to the audience it’s easy to hear that this crowd engages with the medium on a critical level. These questions aren’t soft-balls, these are the women and men that read Sepinwall and The A.V. Club and Vulture with religious fervor, the ones who groaned aloud when half of PaleyFest’s 2008 Buffy reunion panel was eaten by the “What’s on your iPod?” question, they take to Twitter in droves after each new episode of Fargo or Mad Men or Game of Thrones to dissect and discuss. These are my people.
I’ve wanted to attend ATX Fest since its first year, but last summer, after reading the tweets coming in from a handful of the people I follow on Twitter, my second-hand excitement and first-hand jealousy was so great that I impulsively bought a season 3 ticket in June, a full year before the 2014 festival was scheduled to take place. For 12 months I planned and anticipated and saved, and last Thursday I flew into Austin by myself, for my first ATX Festival and my first solo vacation. I was excited, but I was also nervous; I know myself well enough to know that I could easily end up sitting alone in corners, looking at my iPhone and not talking to anyone off of Twitter.
But that’s kind of the beauty of ATX Fest: it’s Twitter in the world, it’s TV camp, it’s maybe the safest real world space I’ve ever found to be a voracious, unapologetic fan of television.
By the time Thursday was over I had met up with people I knew from Twitter, made a handful of brand new friends and butchered a Mandy Moore song in front of much of the cast of The Night Shift. On Friday I hugged Grandma Saracen and commiserated over the cancellation of Bunheads with Stacey Oristano. Saturday I attended 5 different panels (Orphan Black, Enlisted, Everwood, Parenthood and Fargo) and had the opportunity to ask questions in 3 of them (I was also less than a foot away from life idol Lauren Graham). Sunday I got to preview a couple of new fall shows, and I was present for the fifteen year Roswell reunion, as well as the breaking of one of this weekend’s biggest entertainment news stories: Nasim Pedrad’s probable departure from Saturday Night Live.
But as fun as all that elbow-rubbing was (and it was such fun!), truly the highlight of ATX Fest is the opportunity to talk about TV with other people who care. Again and again I found myself talking to strangers in lines and panels, at Friday night’s Friday Night Lights tailgate and on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evening in Austin’s too-loud bars, about the oppressive Austin heat, yes, and the best tacos, burgers and food truck treats we’d experienced as we wandered through the city, badges flapping around our necks, but more than that about television.
Waiting to go inside for the Enlisted panel I talked to the blogger in front of me about the show we were waiting to see, but also the oeuvre of Joss Whedon, character archetypes on Friday Night Lights, and how serialized television, unlike other mediums, allows writers and actors to study, develop and grow a character over time. In a half-dark theater waiting for Fargo to start I discussed the pros and cons of fandom with the girl in the seat next to me. Driving back from seeing The Fault in Our Stars with a few new friends we debated the Battlestar Galactica and Lost finales. All weekend long television was on everyone’s mind, and when you brought up Veronica Mars or Buffy or Mad Men or The Mindy Project or just about any other show it was easy to dive into a new stretch of conversation. We didn’t all always agree, but we all cared. No one’s eyes glazed over. No one asked “why does it matter?”
Everyone needs to find a safe space to care about the things they love. Sports fans have games, music fans have concerts and film fans have dozens of festivals. There’s fashion week for the fashionable and Comic-Con for all things great and small in geekery. And now we TV nerds have the ATX Television Festival.
My new friends are scattered across the country, but they’re all close at hand on Twitter, where these conversations can develop over the next year–if the festival was liking pulling Twitter out into the real world then all we need do for the next 12 months is move the dialogue back to its old venue: the internet. And in June of 2015 we’ll all be back in Austin for another summer of TV camp. We already have our tickets.
The realization that your parents are human beings in their own right, with their own histories and secrets, that they are the central figures in their own lives, happens to everyone eventually. It’s a gate you go through on your way to adulthood, one that locks behind you. Once you see someone you love so purely as a three-dimensional person you’re better off, I think, you know them better and you know yourself better, but it’s not an easy thing. Nothing about growing up is easy.
Sally Draper’s image of her father has grown more detailed with every passing season of Mad Men, the lines sharper, the shades darker. She is a bright and observant girl, and in the early seasons Don was often his best self in her presence. He wasn’t a good man or a good husband, but he tried to be a good father, and in Sally’s eyes he has often seemed a better option than Betty (this week, full of hyperbolic teen bravado, Sally claimed she’d stay on at boarding school another 6 years in exchange for her mother’s death). Let’s not forget the time she ran away from the Francis home and turned up at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce because she wanted to live with her dad. Sally is Don’s, through and through.
But the pedestal on which Sally placed her father has been crumbling for awhile now, especially since she caught him in flagrante delicto with the downstairs neighbor last season. While season 6 ended with Don taking his kids to see where he grew up, and to presumably tell them the truth about Dick Whitman, it’s clear when he arrives back at his apartment in “A Day’s Work” to find Sally waiting on the couch that they have not been able to rebuild the bond they once shared. Sally is still angry and Don doesn’t know how to fix it.
Sally’s anger is renewed, though, over her discovery of yet another lie: Don’s not going to work these days and someone else has taken up residence in his office. When Sally gives Don a chance to come clean he lies again, and poorly. He’s still learning just how much his daughter takes in, how watchful she is, and if Dawn hadn’t called him he might not have learned about Sally’s revelatory visit to SC&P.
Don has always been overly concerned with the facade, the image of Don Draper that his double life necessitated, and he isn’t ready to let that go just yet, even as more and more of the people in his life have been let in on his Big Secret. He may be spending his days sleeping till noon, drinking, and stuffing his face with Ritz crackers in front of reruns of The Little Rascals, but he’s as slicked and shined and put-together as ever when Dawn comes by to fill him in on his calls and accounts. He doesn’t want her to see him slip, even though he knows she knows he’s slipping, even though he’s loosening his tie as soon as she’s out the door. For an audience, even an audience of one, he has to be Don Draper, and that’s more than just a name.
So he tries to put on the Don Show with Sally as well. He hand-waves the illness he claims has him home in the middle of the day and offers to drive her back to school, takes it as an opportunity to talk to her (to talk to anyone), not to mention a project to fill some of his time. He writes Sally a note of excuse (“Just tell the truth,” she tells him, in the dearest, most English-Major-y line of the night) and they hit the road for a little father/daughter one-on-one time. But Sally’s not having it. She knows her father too well now.
In fact, by this seventh season Sally knows more of Don’s secrets than anyone else–anyone but Don himself, at least. She knows about Dick Whitman, she knows about Don’s affair with Sylvia, and now she knows that he’s been forced out at SC&P, and why. The moment where he opens up to her about what happened in the Hershey meeting is like a sledge hammer hitting the brick wall between them: it’s not going to knock the whole thing down, but it’ll let a little light through. It’s at least enough to get Sally to eat something.
It would be ludicrous to claim that Mad Men has any single central story, but one of its strongest throughlines over its run has been Sally’s coming of age. She’s wise beyond her years, yes, but she’s not all grown up yet. She doesn’t know how to dress for a funeral, can still be a little intimidated and dazzled by her father’s suggestion that they skip out on their restaurant bill. Sally is a kid who has seen too much, perhaps television’s most solid example of Philip Larkin’s “This Must Be the Verse,” but she’s not as worldly as she sometimes seems. Much like her father, she knows how to put on an act.
Don thinks his image is all he has left, the facade of Don Draper: Ad Man, but all he really needs to get through to Sally is a little bit of honesty. She may think it’s more embarrassing to catch him in a lie than it is to let him lie to her, but that doesn’t mean she’ll play dumb and go back to being Daddy’s Little Girl, and while her methods to get her dad to open up aren’t particularly sophisticated, they are effective. When Sally calls to check in, her friend Carol says, “at least the trip was worth it.” She’s talking about shopping, but Sally’s got more on her mind.
But Sally’s not the only one that gets something out of Don’s decision to open up, Sally gives something back. She eats a tuna melt, tells Don about the funeral, and, most importantly, uses her last moments with him to tell him she loves him, throwing the words at him as she’s jumping out of the car, like she’s scared to let them go.
This week’s closing moments were essentially the opposite of last week’s. We left Don alone again, sure, but rather than the self-pitying, lonely Don, out in the cold, trapped by his own lies, this week Don had hope, he had the capacity for redemption. He told the truth and Sally loves him, maybe she even loves him more. Maybe Don is finally learning that the truth can set him free.
I had kind of a tough winter this year. The details aren’t important, let’s just say I was stressed and frustrated at work and starting at about 5 every Sunday afternoon my chest started to fill up with acidy dread that wouldn’t leak away until the next Friday at around 4:30.
It was awful. It made Mondays especially awful.
But then there was Bunheads.
A glass of red wine and an hour in Paradise every Monday night may not have cured all of my problems, but it was enough to push away the tightness in my chest for a little while each week, a warm, safe place to land when everywhere else seemed cold and thorny. It’s a tribute to the world that Amy Sherman-Palladino built, and that Sutton Foster, Kelly Bishop, Julia Goldani-Telles, Bailey Buntain, Emma Dumont and Kaitlyn Jenkins infused with life, that a little show that lasted only 18 episodes could feel so much like home.
Bunheads was a show about growing up. Vegas showgirl turned dance teacher Michelle was attempting adulthood and committment for the first time in her mid-thirties as the accidental mentor to teenagers Sasha, Boo, Ginny and Melanie, and her mentees were just starting to grapple with responsibility and crushed dreams and blooming love. While the teenagers often seemed to act like mini-adults, moving out on their own, practically raising their younger siblings, selling real estate, under the surface they were full of messy teen hormones and insecurities. Sasha could throw together a housewarming party that looked like it had been staged for a Martha Stewart Living photoshoot, but she was too scared to spend the night alone in her apartment. Melanie’s relaxed attitude about most things betrayed some serious anger management issues. Boo could bounce from strict parent to naïve child and back in a single scene. And Michelle, for all her inexperience with responsibility and lifetime as a fundamentally selfish person, learned how to take charge pretty quickly. She wasn’t always traditional in her methods, but she proved to be an excellent teacher to her students.
Take the scene where she agrees to help Ginny prepare for an audition for the school musical. By high school standards, Ginny isn’t bad, this is a performance that probably would have landed her the lead at my high school. But Michelle, who has shown up depressed about her own career and hung-over to boot, takes a tough love approach to coaching Ginny. Good enough for high school isn’t good enough for her, and she keeps pushing Ginny to be better until she pushes Ginny out of the spotlight and does it herself.
And she’s amazing. Sutton Foster’s a two-time Tony winner for a reason. (No really, if you’ve never seen her perform “Anything Goes” at the Tonys you are living a sad and incomplete life and you should remedy that immediately.) But it’s not just Sutton Foster that’s amazing, it’s Michelle, too, and you can see all of her wasted potential bubbling below the surface as she takes the stage, all of her desperation and frustration and disappointment. She’s already wallowing in jealousy because her best friend’s just been offered a real part without even an audition and she feels like she’s missed her shot and then she sings.
It’s maybe not the most traditional teaching technique, or an advisable one, but it works. “She was mean and called me names and then she showed me how good she is and how bad I was and then she threw her water on me,” Ginny says, but she’s smiling and she gets a call-back.
And then there’s Michelle’s relationship with Sasha, who is not an especially trusting person, but finds a kindred spirit in her dance teacher. Sasha is stand-offish and angry even around her closest friends, but she opens up to Michelle. Even when Michelle has just (accidentally) maced her, she leaps onto a chair for an impromptu “Oh Captain! My Captain!” She cries on Michelle’s shoulder and asks for her advice about sex and, when her parents leave her on her own in Paradise to live their own lives, it’s Michelle that she turns to for help.
Every time I sit down to write about this show I promise myself that I won’t also talk about Gilmore Girls. It’s a show that deserves to be praised for its own merits and not just as a successor to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s first series about quick-witted women. But the two series are undeniably similar in style and tone. They’re both set in small towns full of good-hearted oddballs, both star women who often act more like teenagers and teenagers who act more like adults, both are scored with the warm “lalalas” of Sam Phillips, and Bunheads drew heavily from the Gilmore Girls cast, to the extent that I’m not sure there was an episode without a familiar face, even when you don’t count Kelly Bishop, who had a lead role on both shows.
But while Bunheads often looked and sounded like Gilmore Girls, it took pains to differentiate itself from its big sister. The series was far more stylized, often employing thematic dance numbers that were removed from the show’s narrative context, or choreographed set-pieces like the sequence in the series finale in which the bunheads partake in a sex-ed independent study.
The increased stylization felt like a natural progression from Sherman-Palladino’s work on Gilmore Girls, which did similar things to a lesser degree. Scenes like the cold open to “Double Date,” in which Lorelai and Rory get ready for work and school, or the attempt to get Lane the new Belle & Sebastian CD in “It Should Have Been Lorelai” are early experiments with using music to tell the story, and they’re rare moments without dialogue in an otherwise verbose show. Bunheads feels like a true evolution in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s voice. Recognizable, but distinct.
I don’t know if there was a single episode of Bunheads that failed to bring me to tears. Not necessarily sad tears–generally speaking, the stakes on Bunheads aren’t high enough for, for example, Doctor Who level crying–just tears because I was so full up on feelings. The series wrote to something fundamental about growing up, so that even when it seemed to exist outside of the real world it nailed a genuine emotional complexity.
Whether it was Michelle and her brother closing out a massive fight with a duet of “Tonight You Belong To Me,” or dueling Tommy Lee Jones impressions, or Sasha’s angry and now infamous dance to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” Bunheads found some vessel inside of me that only the show could fill, and boy did it runneth over with the antidote to that acidic dread. There should be more shows about complex women on television, more shows telling anti-cynical stories that pass on the high-stakes, life-and-death craziness that makes up so many TV dramas these days, and as of today there’s one less. Bunheads was built out of warmth and light and it has been snuffed out too soon, and to say I am sorry to see it go doesn’t do the feeling justice.
There are spoilers within this post for the entirety of the first season of Orange is the New Black. Don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled.
There’s a scene around the mid-point of the first season of Orange is the New Black where a corrections officer tells the central character, Piper Chapman, that the only real difference between them is that Piper and the rest of the inmates at Litchfield Prison got caught making their bad decisions. In many ways that’s the mission statement of the show. The series is not concerned, as it so easily could be, with the specific crimes that landed each of its characters in the prison, or even with holding them accountable for those crimes. Orange is the New Black is concerned with who these women are and how that informed the decisions that ultimately put them in khaki.
I’m trying to think of a single other show that has managed to flesh out a cast of women so quickly and so meticulously. Casts of a primarily female make-up are few and far between, and casts that are so racially diverse, and with characters of varying orientations, faiths and experiences, are even harder to find. Orange is the New Black never shies away from the ways the women of Litchfield differ from each other, but neither does it concern itself with a moral scoreboard. The woman who killed a small child is presented as fully and sympathetically as the woman who stole money to pay for her sex reassignment surgery and the political protester nun and the human trafficker and the woman who shot up an abortion clinic and the woman who ran an international drug ring and the woman who worked for that international drug ring. The system that they exist in may not treat them as equals, they may not treat each other as equals, but the series does precisely that.
The entry-point to Litchfield is Orange is the New Black‘s central character, Piper. At first glance she seems like an outlier, arriving through the front door with her fiancé to self-surrender, telling herself it’ll be a story, but the more time you spend with Piper the more you see how she fits in this world. She may try to scare you straight with lines from Neruda, but that’s not so different from Crazy Eyes using Shakespeare to the same end. She may have prepared for prison by reading books, but she can hold her own in the cafeteria if you confront her. She’s an open-minded person and she adjusts fairly quickly to her new environment. It doesn’t take Piper long to stop seeing her fellow inmates as some sort of sociological study and to start seeing them as her equals, and to start seeing herself as their equal.
The series is interested in more than just Piper, though, and while Lost style flashbacks to her pre-prison life recur throughout the first season, each episode also takes time out to visit the past of another inmate. Whether you’re watching Red’s feelings of betrayal and anger get her in trouble, probably not for the first time and definitely not for the last, in the fantastic scene that gives the episode “Tit Punch” its title, or how vanity and circumstance helped Pennsatucky find Jesus or how a girl as fast as Watson could get caught by the cops or just what Sophia gave up, aside from her freedom, to have a body that matched the woman she always was inside, Orange is the New Black is equally generous with its portrayals of these women. They unfold as whole people in both the past and present.
Not everything about the series works. When the story leaves the prison in the present, either to visit Piper’s fiancé Larry as he parlays her incarceration into his first published column in The New York Times and a guest appearance on a This American Life stand-in radio show, or to follow the correctional officers home–or more likely to the bar–after hours, the story loses track of its driving force: the women of Litchfield Prison.
Orange is the New Black invites a lot of comparisons to Lost due to its flashback structure, and one of the things that always worked for Lost was how rarely that series left the island in the present. The setting was isolated, but the people within it were richly realized. Orange is the New Black doesn’t need to leave the boundary of Litchfield’s very tall fence to show that the world keeps spinning without its residents, proof of that comes through the doors every week for visitation.
But when the series focuses on the stories within its walls it absolutely glows. Piper’s best friend Polly is unimpressed by Piper’s obsession with the inmates’ hunt for a mythical chicken, but in the world of the prison an event like a stray chicken–especially a stray chicken that seems to possess magical powers, or at least a butt full of candy–feels vital.
There is a tremendous sense of family within the prison, particularly amongst the women Red has taken in as surrogate daughters. Red runs the prison kitchen with absolute power, even to the point where she can starve out other inmates over what most would deem minor offenses, but more than that she runs the prison. She brings in contraband, negotiates the bilingual marriage between one of the C.O.s and his Russian mail-order bride and gets into power plays with another C.O.
And the tribe system that Morello lays out for Piper early on addresses the complicated racial politics at play. There’s a scene in episode 6 where the camera moves through the cafeteria, stopping at a series of tables so the characters there can lay out their prejudices about the groups at other tables, but when one “tribe” suffers a tragedy late in the season, representatives from each of the others stop by to offer gifts and condolences.
More than anything, Orange is the New Black is shot through with a tremendous amount of hope. There’s the way Morello relentlessly plans her wedding to a man who seems to have forgotten her, the way Miss Claudette approaches Sophia for a hair-cut when she believes she might be released, the way Janae stands in the sun when she makes it out of SHU, or the smile that grows on her face when the prison track is re-opened and she has a chance to run again. And there’s Piper, who believes she can make Litchfield prison a better place while she’s there, who believes she can love indiscriminately without hurting anyone, who believes she can fix just about anything with the right words and a little bit of creativity. And she’s not right about everything–sometimes she’s not right about much of anything–but she doesn’t seem to let that drag her down.
The series has already been picked up for a second season by Netflix, which is great for those of us left bouncing with impatience after binging on this first season. I can only hope the wait won’t be too long–I can’t wait to see how these women expand, and what mistakes they have left to make.
Better late than never, here’s my run-down of my personal top 10 television shows of 2012. (This list was created on a weird, internal sliding scale between “best” and “favorite.”):
1. New Girl (FOX)
Around the middle of its first season, when New Girl finally figued out how to do what it had been trying to do, watching it became an almost transcendental weekly experience. What the writers (and Max Greenfield) had done for Schmidt since the beginning–reveling in his specificity–they figured out how to do with the rest of the cast. They gave Jess a platform to claim her own adorkability, to stand up and say, “I rock a lot of polka-dots.” They figured out how to work with Jake Johnson’s gift for grump, so that Nick’s prematurely old nature still fit with the rest of the ensemble. And they weirded Winston up a little more every week, showering him in bizarre anxieties and pairing him with characters that made him pop. By the time the show arrived at the Fancyman arc, the characters were well-defined enough that Jess wouldn’t get buried under the personality of an older boyfriend, and the roommates could spend most of an episode playing an incomprehensible drinking game without the show feeling shapeless.
I hope that, as New Girl goes forward, they’ll figure out how to tell more stories focused on Winston, and I’d like to see them expand the female cast a little–it was nice to see Jess’ friend Sadie return a couple of weeks ago, and my newfound non-hatred of Olivia Munn has made her a mostly welcome addition to the cast. But I am largely complaint-free when it comes to New Girl. (And honestly, any show offering the kind of chemistry that New Girl has with Nick and Jess–and it’s hitting Sam and Diane levels these days–would probably top my list. They’re electric.)
2. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Breaking Bad is the sort of tv that leaves me literally gasping for breath. It’s suspenseful, sometimes terrifying, often maddening, but it grounds itself in its most ordinary moments, letting the audience learn its characters as people, to make them that much more horrifying when they’re at their most monstrous. Breaking Bad works because it doesn’t just ask you to believe in its world, it shows you why you should. It takes a bumbling loser of a man out of a moment of desperation and, over the course of 5 seasons (though only one year in its internal time), turns him into an over-confident ruler of an already crumbling empire. It shouldn’t work, but it does, because Walter White has laid all the traps for himself, we’ve watched him do it, and he only trips them out of his own hubris.
3. Bunheads (ABC Family)
You’ve already heard me go on about my affection for Bunheads, for the warmth and charm and patter of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s latest creation, and I don’t have that much to add on the subject. Bunheads made this list (and made it so high) because it’s television that fills me up in the best possible way. It’s not an ooey-gooey sweetheart of a tv show (Sherman-Palladino’s creations are far too cynical for that), but it offers cultural sustenance. And surprising, delightful dance numbers.
4. Hart of Dixie (The CW)
Maybe the most appealing thing about Hart of Dixie is the way it takes the inner lives of its characters seriously, even when it doesn’t necessarily take itself all that seriously. I’ve described Hart of Dixie, again and again, as charmingly goofy, and that’s absolutely true, but it’s also got a bit of meat on its bones. The characters, particularly Zoe Hart, the confident, sex-positive, deeply flawed main character, and Wade Kinsella, who could so easily be written off as a clichéd bad boy, are richly imagined and well portrayed. The cast is talented, AND they all have CW good looks, and the town of Bluebell, though perhaps built from the wreckage of a handful of other little TV towns that came before it (it’s literally filmed on the old Stars Hollow sets), is fully realized.
Hart of Dixie, particularly in this second season, has become one of my favorite hours of the week, and while it may not be revolutionizing the television landscape, that’s worth something.
5. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Parks and Recreation has done something impressive–it’s hit its fifth season without breaking stride. Most shows, at about this point, start to broaden. While Parks and Rec does occasionally wobble on the tightrope between character and caricature (usually when Eagleton is involved), it’s mostly kept its footing by refusing to fear change.
Parks was smart–it solidified its relationships early on, built them to be unbreakable, so that the show could be a workplace comedy that did not have to remain in the workplace. Sure these people all met through the Pawnee Parks department, and many of them do still work there, in some capacity, but they aren’t tied to their office. Leslie can venture into the wider world of government, Tom can set off on his own business venture again, with a little more wisdom and guidance this time, the characters can learn and grow and stretch their wings and they’ll still have a reason to spend time with each other. These aren’t people who are trapped together, waiting out their time in some office purgatory, they’re friends.
And Parks and Rec proved that repeatedly last spring with the campaign arc. It brought its characters together in a new venue, only tangentially related to the titular workplace, and told a story that resonated emotionally, without sacrificing comedy (the scene where most of the cast tries to make their way across an ice rink to a looped Gloria Estefan clip is simultaneously one of the sweetest and funniest scenes they put out in the fourth season). Season 5, meanwhile, has taken on long-distance relationships, new jobs, several storylines about various characters’ attempts to find themselves, and perhaps the best proposal I’ve ever seen on television.
6. Girls (HBO)
In my worst moments, as my worst self, I am Hannah Horvath, and her continued existence as a television character is immensely comforting.
Girls also offered up one of the most honest and authentic fights between two characters that I have ever seen on television when Hannah and Marnie “broke up.” It would have made this list just for that.
7. Mad Men (AMC)
There were times this season when Mad Men got a little too English-major-y even for me, and I’m a former English major, but the way Matthew Weiner and company built the tension across the fifth season to the point where some act of violence was inevitable was beautiful to watch, as was Roger Sterling’s discovery of LSD, Peggy’s resignation from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Sally’s quest for independence in go-go boots, and Ginsberg’s overconfidence. There were some misfires along the way–I love that Joan’s a partner, I hate the contrivance that got her there–but overall, the fifth season was a tour-de-force of storytelling.
8. Parenthood (NBC)
I’m not sure that there’s a better ensemble on television than the one that makes up Parenthood. Even when the story hits snags, as it has at various points along the way, the cast is so strong that they’ve managed to overcome anything that’s been thrown at them. Lauren Graham, Peter Krause and Mae Whitman have always been the acting powerhouses, but this season Monica Potter has shone especially bright in a cancer storyline that has mostly avoided the trite clichés (though it has still made me cry on an almost weekly basis), and Ray Romano has joined the cast to do what Ray Romano does, and well. I can already see the angry blog posts six months from now when the cast is overlooked by the Academy once again.
9. Community (NBC)
Much of the second half of Community’s third season, the half we awaited so anxiously during the unexpected mid-season hiatus that kept it off the air for a mere six months last winter (it’s now entering its eighth month in the much longer wait for season four), is a kind of hazy blur. There was a Law and Order episode, the study group got expelled from Greendale, Abed and Troy went to war with each other in a Ken Burns documentary…the details have gone fuzzy around the edges. But it’s a good sort of hazy blur, the kind you think back on fondly. I miss Community so much because I love Community so much, and I’m eagerly awaiting its return.
10. The Vampire Diaries (The CW)
The Vampire Diaries did something really gutsy at the end of its third season: it killed off the main character. Of course, Elena’s death doesn’t mean the end of Elena as a character–this show is about vampires, after all–but that didn’t make her loss any less sad. In its first three seasons, Vampire Diaries did enough to establish its characters and its mythology that when Elena woke up on a coroner’s slab in the season premiere you knew she wasn’t going to be quite the same person, and you knew she was on a path that she never wanted.
The fourth season of Vampire Diaries hasn’t been as strong as the first three were. Elena lost a lot of her agency in the transition, and when the season arc was introduced as a possible cure for vampirism it was hard not to roll my eyes. But the way the show packs in plot has always been impressive, and that’s still true. Vampire Diaries turned a questionable arc on its head in the second season–the strongest season to date–and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be able to do that again. And while not every episode this season has been a winner, a couple have been outstanding. “Memorial,” early on, gave the characters a chance to breathe for the first time in awhile, and offered an incredibly moving tribute to the loved ones that have been lost over the years, and the final episode of 2012, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” had one of the show’s most elegant…slaughters. If they can maintain the quality of that episode, there’s no reason to believe they won’t have an outstanding 2013.
The thing with a lot of beloved shows–and I’m not talking about those critical darlings that get canceled after a season or two, I’m talking about the shows you live with, that settle into the warm wet caverns of your heart–is that they tend to outstay their welcome. Every show is going to come up empty someday, it’ll run out of story or its universe will expand past a manageable point or the comedy that once danced across the screen en pointe will broaden until it’s thudding about in combat boots. But because they’re beloved, they often keep going past the point where they should be let go.
Over my life of watching really quite a lot of television, I’ve seen this happen to a lot of shows. Gilmore Girls, The OC, Scrubs, Friends, and The West Wing, to name a few, and more recently The Office. It’s not always a drastic decline (the later seasons of Friends are still good, still funny, but they aren’t memorable the way those early seasons are. There’s no “The One With the Embryos,” no “The One Where Everybody Finds Out”), nor is it always permanent. The eighth season of Scrubs is actually kind of delightful (and I’ll come down in favor of season 9, too, though only when I think of it as a loopier spin-off), and The West Wing eventually figured out how to be a version of itself without Aaron Sorkin at the helm. The fourth season of The OC may actually be better than the first, though that might just be my feelings for Taylor Townsend talking.
One of the perks of being a completist such as myself (look, I’m the girl that watched all nine seasons of One Tree Hill. I still watch Glee.) is that, while you do see the descents into mediocrity, you’re also around for the final inning turn-around (is this a thing? Like a sports metaphor thing?). There’s something about a show with the finish line in sight that can bring about a creative resurgence. Maybe it has to do with the potential for rest once everything’s finished–I suspect that’s what’s brought about Tina Fey’s general aura of calm on 30 Rock this season–or maybe it’s having a goal to work toward, but time and again I’ve seen shows that are officially on their way out stick their landing, even after stumbling mid-routine. (Seriously, what’s with the sports metaphors?)
And though I’m hesitant to say it, for fear of a jinx or at least that I’ll be proved wrong, I think that may well be happening with The Office.
You know what I said above, about shows you live with? Well, The Office is a show I live with. I came in in the spring of 2006, during a spring break spent huddled beneath my comforter with my laptop and the painful love story of Jim and Pam. I’m the girl that gets defensive when you say The Office isn’t as good as it used to be. Even when I know you’re right. (And I’ve got nothing on my roommate, the die hard. When I say The Office is like a religion in our apartment, and that’s something I say a lot, I’m not kidding.)
But okay, The Office isn’t as good as it used to be. The cast has grown unwieldy, introducing new characters without saying goodbye to many old ones, and trying to service each of them in equal measure, with mixed results. Andy’s character seems to vary depending on what’s needed that week, and I hold by my opinion that Darryl should have taken over as Dunder Mifflin Scranton’s regional manager when Michael departed, though I do feel that he’s one of the few secondary characters that has been well-serviced in these later years, used sparingly enough to still have comedic impact, and maintaining the hopeful sadness that made The Office so good in the first place. The feeling that pervaded those first few seasons, that these were people stuck together trying to make it through each day on whatever joy they could find, that hasn’t really been a part of the show in awhile.
While there are specific things about these last few seasons that I flat-out love (Pam’s developing confidence manifesting as out-and-out dorkiness, the season-to-season evolution of Ryan Howard, the love story of Jim and Dwight, every single damn thing about Erin, also Gabe), I do miss the way The Office used to make me ache. The romanticized disappointment, the way everything from Jim’s pranks to the central conflict of any given episode seemed to exist on a smaller, more personal scale. There’s an episode in season 2 where everyone tries to cheer Kevin up while he waits for biopsy results, another episode where we get to see how each character responds to Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Back then everyone had bad hair, they talked about their weekend plans, they loved the receptionist from the other side of her desk. These were the people you might pass in the grocery store, and they happened to be followed around by a camera crew.
Especially so late in the show’s run, I think it’s easy to forget the importance of the documentary format to The Office. In the early seasons, the show took its format very seriously, and adhered to strict rules when it came to the way they filmed. These days those rules have relaxed a bit, and we’re also more used to the format, with shows like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family embracing mockumentary story-telling, and Community and Leverage mocking it fondly. The filmmakers on The Office are characters, too. We may not hear them speak, but they’re behind the story. When Jim flashes a look at the camera, or Pam asks for help with a spy mission, they are interacting with a person. Unless the camera is actively hidden from its subject(s), and there have been some notable occasions over the years when this was the case, any time a character is on screen, they have an awareness that the camera is there. Its presence helps to prescribe their actions. And any time any character sits down for a talking head interview, there’s another unseen character controlling the narrative–asking the questions and choosing how the answers are portrayed. I could probably count on one hand the number of times The Office has acknowledged those characters, though.
Which is maybe why it was so exciting to finally hear from one of the cameramen in this year’s premiere, to step back from a talking head to hear Pam and Jim interact with a man they see almost every day. And to get an answer as to why exactly the cameras are still there 9 years later. Of course Jim and Pam have always been the heart of the series, though they’ve been shifted off to the side since the whole wedding/baby thing (check out the deleted scenes from seasons 7 and 8. There are entire plot-lines of Jim/Pam stuff that got dropped along the way), but having someone behind the narrative announce that their story is what’s keeping the cameras around–that’s given The Office a center to cling to as it winds down this year.
We talk a lot about how reality tv is only loosely related to the actual real world, how it’s scripted and edited to heighten drama at the expense of actual events. I think you have to view The Office similarly. As someone who has spent probably too many hours pondering whether the whole Jim/Pam love story might have been crafted out of skilled editing–you know, before they became an actual couple, back when it was all longing looks and careful smiles (there’s a really charming web series called Dorm Life that did precisely that with it’s will-they-or-won’t-they romance)–I’m intrigued by this angle. Like any reality show, The Office‘s story is told in the editor’s booth.
So now that the filmmakers have essentially announced that they’re handing the narrative over to Jim and Pam, this season has a center that season 8, as it scrambled to make up for the loss of Michael Scott, never managed. With an end in sight, they can finally write Jim and Pam toward a long-overdue departure from Dunder Mifflin without having to worry about losing their actors, and they can give them a meaty story with actual stakes for the characters, both separately and together. And they can also use Jim and Pam as the foundation to tell stories about the rest of the office.
Over the last few seasons, The Office has tried really hard to make new couples work as the next Jim and Pam. They tried with Michael and Holly and they tried with Andy and Erin, and while both pairings had their charms, they never quite captured the combination of quiet angst and chemistry that made Jim and Pam so captivating, especially in those early seasons.
This season, though, as they bring the overall narrative full circle, they’ve introduced the idea that Andy may not be Erin’s Jim so much as her Roy. Erin’s become an increasingly nuanced character over the last few seasons, as they’ve fleshed out her backstory as a foster kid and pulled her past the dumb, earnest cliché to show how she’s growing up, how her emotional intelligence may be more developed than her book smarts, and how many of her decisions are motivated by a desire for love and family. Especially since the Florida arc last season, she’s grown into an actual person, rather than just another character around the office.
I said that The Office has suffered from its constantly expanding cast, but in introducing Pete and Clark this season, they’ve figured out how to reflect mirror images back at Jim and Dwight. Clark’s resemblance to Dwight is more physical than philosophical, but Pete–or Plop–doesn’t just look like Jim. From his work-related apathy to his sartorial style to his developing crush on the receptionist, Pete is a glimpse at the guy Jim used to be, back before he got the girl.
Thursday night’s episode, “The Boat,” was one of the best the show has turned out in awhile. The prank on Dwight was on the larger scale of these later seasons, but it was a nice show-case for Catherine Tate’s talents, used Darryl perfectly, and was ultimately not as mean-spirited as it could have been. The resolution of Dwight’s phone-call, with the entire office applauding him for saving the day, brought to mind the end of “Office Olympics,” in season 2, and Michael’s gold medal in condo-closing.
The Oscar-Kevin-Angela plot actively used the documentary format, played with the dynamics that have always existed in Dunder Mifflin’s accounting department, employed just the right amount of Toby’s sad-sack comedy, and ended in a fantastic talking head from Kevin. His sobbing laughter as he realized that Angela’s entire life was a sham was as dark as The Office has ever been.
But it was the episode’s tag that really got me. The conversation between Erin and Pete at the reception desk could have literally been a lost Jim/Pam scene from the early seasons, in fact it closely resembles a conversation that they had in the pilot where Jim invited Pam out to happy hour. And this idea that history is repeating itself kind of nails what The Office used to be about–the monotonous daily grind, the way life keeps pushing forward, and the way you find the small things that make you happy so you can make it through the day.
I don’t know what The Office will do with these final 16 episodes, but I do know that I’m excited by the show for the first time in awhile. I’m excited to see how the developing conflict between Jim and Pam plays out, to see what Oscar’s affair does to his relationship with Angela, to see if the writers can figure out what they’re doing with Andy, and to see what happens with Erin and Pete. I’ve been invested in this story since 2006, I want to see how it ends, and if it keeps going the way it’s been going, I have some pretty high hopes.