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.