Pajama Person

Last night on The Newsroom, our nation’s preeminent show in which supposedly brilliant women can’t get their shit together, Maggie and Sloane used FourSquare to stalk a Sex and the City fan fiction writer to a laundromat in Astoria.
 
The whys of this are largely inconsequential, the gist is that Maggie needed something from the woman in the laundromat, Erica, and in a fit of desperation–Maggie’s default state could probably be called “fit of desperation”–she cornered this poor woman who was just trying to wash her clothes in peace.
 
Aaron Sorkin has never had a great relationship with his own fandom. He once tried to engage with the Television Without Pity forum devoted to The West Wing, and when that didn’t go the way he wanted it to he got defensive and started writing attacks on what he referred to as “the Pajama People” into his shows.
 
Who are the Pajama People? I’m not really sure. Their identity seems to shift from week to week. Sometimes they’re fans on message boards, the cultish ones who, in Sorkin’s mind, spend their days sitting around the house in their pajamas and picking apart the work of greater men. Last week they were apparently internet pirates. Now they’re, what, fan fiction writers?
 
I have been in fandom for about twelve years now, since I was just starting high school and falling head-over-heels in love with Gilmore Girls, and I’m not going to say that it’s a place without mean people or crazy people, but overwhelmingly I have found it to be a welcoming, nurturing, inclusive environment.
 
I haven’t always found it easy to make friends in the so-called “real world,” but the number of friends I’ve made through email and instant messaging, LiveJournal and message boards, Tumblr and Twitter, over the last twelve years, is nothing to sneer at. Some of those relationships have faded in and out with time, but some have lasted since I was a teenager. I have dear friends that I’ve never seen face-to-face and a roommate/best friend I first “met” in a LiveJournal comment.
 
And while these online friendships were always founded on some fandom, whether it was Gilmore Girls or Buffy or The Office or Doctor Who, they were never exclusively about that one thing. Just like those college friendships you build out of a shared class or dorm or campus job, online friendships grow and evolve. My LiveJournal friends knew how I felt about Matt Smith replacing David Tennant as the Doctor, but they also heard about it when I got into college, when I got into a fight with my roommate or broke up with my boyfriend. They have comforted me when grandparents and pets died, given advice on school and work, and I’ve done the same for them. Fandom is often like having a constant supply of extra international siblings around to hold your hand or talk things out when needed.
 
The scene between Maggie and Erica is just the latest example of Sorkin looking down at fandom at large. His favorite target these days seems to be fans of Sex and the City, for whatever reason, and Erica fits right into the Sorkin mold of what a Sex and the City fan should be: vapid and uninformed. She’s too busy trying to get the details of Maggie’s love life to pay attention to Maggie’s request, and her response to learning that Sloane has 450,000 Twitter followers is to ask if she’s famous–this is not a woman that watches that pinnacle of news broadcasting, ACN. When Maggie says something about the fact that Erica writes Sex and the City fan fiction, Erica gets defensive: “I don’t write fan fiction. I take experiences from my life and I write them in the voice of the characters.” 
 
Never mind that that sounds potentially awesome.
 
Fan fiction was how I first developed my voice as a writer. Writing in other people’s worlds taught me more about characterization than any creative writing class I ever took, and playing around with style and theme and point of view honed a lot of skills I still use in my writing today. It was a safe space to develop as a writer, surrounded by supportive, encouraging voices. 
 
And the idea that Sorkin’s Pajama People aren’t paying attention to the world outside of their fandom is laughable. I’ve never met a more passionate, invested and informed group of people than fandom at large. Spend two minutes on Tumblr and you’ll encounter at least a half dozen eloquent posts about feminism, race, politics, current events, art, culture, etc… Sometimes those topics intersect with fandom, sometimes they don’t, but the people behind them are always willing to engage in a thoughtful debate. 
 
Fandom is not just about watching a TV show or movie or reading a book and then squeeing about it on the internet (although that’s part of it, don’t get me wrong), it’s also about engaging with the material, exploring it through other lenses. I spent half the money I made last summer seeing The Avengers in theaters over and over and over again, but that wasn’t just about the fact that I find Chris Evans very attractive–though I do–it was also about the beautiful character beats you get as Captain America reenters the world after 70 years, the way he and Iron Man play off each other until Cap has goaded Tony Stark into making a genuine sacrifice–and the way that sacrifice sets up so much of this summer’s Iron Man 3–the leap in the pit of my stomach as the music swells and the camera spins to catch each of our numerous heroes in a single shot at the height of battle. I would go online after the movie and talk about Chris Evans’ butt, sure, but I’d also talk about the complexities of Tony and Steve’s relationship, how Joss Whedon’s language turned Loki into a truly evil villain and just what a badass Natasha Romanoff is.
 
Fandom is not Sorkin’s vision of crazy people, sitting in their parents’ basements in their pajamas and sharing vapid observations on the internet–I’m sure there’s some of that, but there are outliers in every group. It’s a community made up of passionate, invested ethusiasts, people excited to engage with culture the same way Will McAvoy and crew engage with the news. Sorkin has always written stories about people imbued with passion to extremes, fans of sports or politics or comedy or current events.
 
I think he may have missed the point.

Bad Decisions.

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.

Family Ties.

While its titular premise is about as plotty as they come, at its best ABC Family’s Switched at Birth is a show that’s grounded in more relatable complexities. While the realization of the switch, very early in the series’ pilot, is the catalyst for the questions about identity, family, belonging, class, heritage and culture that pervade the show, it’s also the sort of plotiness that can feel dropped in from some other series. Switched at Birth is not without its arrests, affairs, teen engagements, lawsuits, teacherish-studentish relationships (from the network that brought you Pretty Little Liars!) and stolen babies, but it is also a show that can loop itself around the heart of a character’s deepest insecurity and tug it out into the open in a single scene.

Monday night’s episode, “Distorted House,” was the series’ forty-second episode, but it was the first episode to place Bay–raised by the well-meaning (if prone to foot-in-mouth disease), wealthy Kennishes–100% within her birth family, after she moves into her biological father Angelo’s apartment with Regina, her biological mother.

The series has often focused on the relationship between Daphne–raised by Regina in a working-class neighborhood, deaf since age two and without a father after Angelo abandoned the family–and the Kennishes; Daphne and Regina moved into the Kennish guest house at the end of the pilot and they were transported into the Kennish family orbit. As the show addressed everything from deaf v. hearing culture and John and Kathryn Kennish’s desire to provide for the daughter they see as their own, often against the will of the mother that raised her, stories about the bond between Regina and Bay, less obviously fertile ground for the power struggle between Regina and the Kennishes, have largely been pushed to the side.

By removing Bay and Regina from the Kennish property and moving Daphne into the Kennish house proper, Switched at Birth has realigned its families, isolating blood with blood for the first time. While Daphne is now largely used to the life she’d have had without the switch, spending her summer learning to play tennis at the club and cooking dinner with Kathryn in the airy family kitchen, Bay is just learning what life would have been like if she’d been raised Daphne Vasquez, at least as far as the pleasures of a cold pizza and black coffee breakfast menu.

Bay is the character that has most been plagued by questions of identity. It was her science project that first tugged on the stray thread of the switch, her quest for answers that unraveled it. She was the one who went exploring in Daphne’s neighborhood, looking for her almost life, and she was the one seeking out her biological father, even when no one wanted to give her any answers about who he was or where he’d gone. But what she’s learned about who she might have been and the shape her life might have taken has not come from Regina. She’s gotten some answers from Angelo, some by getting to know Daphne’s friends, but it wasn’t until the final scene in “Distorted House” that Bay, and the audience, got a good look at Regina, Angelo and Bay as a family.

The scene is a lovely morsel of wish-fulfillment, Bay watching her birth parents dance Bachata around the living room before getting pulled in to dance with them, protesting a lack of skill, but with a laugh. There are too many tensions between all parties involved for this moment of family bliss to erase all of their problems, but it’s a perfect moment for Bay, finding a place where she fits, swinging around the living room in her parents’ arms, and for Regina, who is pulling herself back from six weeks in rehab for alcoholism and the stumbles in her life that preceded that, and for Angelo, who is largely consumed by a soapy subplot about his quest to find the infant daughter that’s just been taken from him. These three characters have waited 17 years to bond as a family in their own right, and it’s a moment that does that wait justice.

The thing that pushes the scene over into a piece of television perfection, however, is the moment where Daphne and Kathryn enter. They have arrived at the apartment to bring Bay and Regina a spare lasagna, convinced that the two women must be starving without their familiar comforts, and they are coming off of an episode where Daphne’s confusion over Regina’s decision to move out of their home and Kathryn’s confusion over Bay’s decision to move out of their home has materialized as an impediment to their communication with each other. Kathryn and Daphne have a strong mother/daughter bond now, one that’s sturdy enough to support the fights and squabbles that manifest in every substantial relationship, but neither of them is used to seeing a similar bond between Bay and Regina, they don’t know what to do with it, and they exist in the scene as outsiders. These are Daphne’s parents, but they’re not, this is Kathryn’s daughter, but it’s not. Angelo and Regina and Bay are doing just fine without them.

It’s a beautiful scene, one informed by the entire history of the series. It would not work as well without the growing wall between Regina and Daphne, the one that’s built of more than just Regina’s insistence earlier in the episode that Daphne is a guest in Angelo’s apartment, but also Daphne’s resentment of Regina’s relapse and the communication struggles that have arisen from an injury that prevents Regina from signing. It would not work as well without Kathryn’s life-long inability to understand Bay, no matter how much love she feels for her daughter. It would not work as well without the anger Daphne feels toward the father who abandoned her after she went deaf, or Kathryn’s tendency to do the wrong thing when she’s trying to do what she thinks is right, or the frustration simmering between Bay and Daphne over where they each belong.

Switched at Birth has never offered its characters easy answers, only increasingly difficult questions. I am sure, as this season and series progresses, that these families will reshape themselves again and again as they try to figure out how they best fit in such an impossible situation. For now, though, they are aligned, for the first time, by biology–even visually the two families are isolated, only appearing in each other’s frames from behind–and the problems this will cause are already rising behind Daphne and Kathryn’s frowns. I look forward to seeing the mess that gets left behind after they crest.

Hannah and Joshua.

Someone calls me Liz at least once a week, probably more. It’s a fine name, but it’s not my name, my name is Elizabeth, and the list of people that are allowed to call me anything else is extremely limited (it’s really just my sister, who mostly calls me Lizzie).
 
I find it infuriating when, for example, I answer a phone call with “This is Elizabeth,” and the person I’m talking to turns around immediately with a “Hi, Liz.” It tells me they’re not listening to me, and that they don’t have much respect for me. There are always people who don’t, or won’t, hear it when I correct them.
 
I kept thinking about this watching last night’s Girls, in which Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) spends a couple of days in the company of an attractive older man named Joshua (Patrick Wilson), a man she keeps calling Josh. Her inability to not call him by a nickname he clearly dislikes–he corrects her every time, his patience dwindling with the repeated mistake–is only one example of the way’s Hannah doesn’t listen to him over their time together, but it’s the one that resonated for me. It’s perhaps excusable that a Michigander who went to college in Ohio and lives in New York would confuse San Francisco for San Diego, or that Hannah would struggle to understand the difference between a divorce and a separation. It’s less excusable to repeatedly, almost insistently, call someone by the wrong name.
 
Hannah is not a character with much of a filter, it’s part of the reason I so often refer to her as my worst self. Things I might think and not say gallop out of Hannah’s mouth like they’re being chased. And over and over again, since the series began, we have watched Hannah trip herself up just by saying too much and going too far. It’s how she screwed up a job interview in season 1, and how she drove a wedge into her relationship with Marnie. In the second episode this season, Sandy ended things when Hannah pushed him too far, and last night Joshua shut down when Hannah broke down.
 
Hannah’s break down comes after she passes out in Joshua’s fancy steam room/shower. She comes to in his arms, wrapped in his bathrobe, warm and dry and safe, and the way she loses control of her emotions in that moment is unsurprising. Through her tears, she gives Joshua a speech about how all she wants is to be happy, but how her own attempts to have as many experiences as possible–for her writing–keep getting in the way.
 
In some ways Hannah’s speech is a demonstration of Hannah at her most self-aware. We’ve seen her trying to force experiences for the sake of the story before, whether she was propositioning her boss last season or trying cocaine a couple of weeks ago. What Hannah doesn’t seem to realize is that she’s too busy projecting her own expectations onto the world to see what’s actually going on around her. She should be an experiential sponge, but she’s got a shell up, and everything rolls right off of it. She never quite manages to learn anything.
 
In Joshua, Hannah sees a real adult, someone who has his life together. After all, he has a house so nice she didn’t think it could exist in her neighborhood, he buys steak to make for himself, not just guests. He has spare towels and fresh fruit. He reads the newspaper and complains about the rowdy kids next door. Hannah notices the outward trappings of a person who has their life together. What she doesn’t notice is that Joshua is more than just those outward trappings–that he’s sad about his wife’s departure, lonely in a neighborhood where he feels old and out of place, angry enough that someone at Grumpy’s has been usurping his garbage cans that he lashes out at Ray in the episode’s opening. When Joshua does try to open up to Hannah, she blows him off, but she also complains that he hasn’t told her anything about himself.
 
Last night’s Girls took a step back from the overall narrative arc of the show to spend some time focusing on who Hannah is, what Hannah wants, and how Hannah sees both herself and the world. I don’t know that Hannah necessarily came out of the episode looking any better or worse than she did going into it–neither the charactor, nor Lena Dunham, is going to win over any of their detractors with an episode like this–or that she learned anything from the experience (she clearly didn’t learn Joshua’s name), but she did come out of it a sharper character, her edges more clearly defined.

Top 10 TV Shows of 2012

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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.

On Loving Things Beyond Their Prime.

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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.

Expectation v. Reality.

So of course I sat down and wrote about my expectations for this season of The Vampire Diaries the day before the season 4 promo was released. And of course the show appears to be zigging rather than zagging.

 

This is certainly not what I was expecting after the season three finale, but that’s not a bad thing. The show has loosely explored the mythology of its own “transition period,” the time between human death and choosing to become a vampire, in the past, both in Stefan and Damon’s origin story in season 1 and again twice more when Caroline’s father and then Bonnie’s mother were turned this past season, but they’ve never tried to loophole their way out of it. I’m curious to see if they’ll actually do it, or if they’ll follow through on the Elena-as-vampire arc. If they do try and find a way to back out, I am hopeful that they will manage it as elegantly as possible.

I’m also psyched that Sheriff Forbes looks like she’ll be getting more screentime this season.

And really I’m just excited. Only a few more weeks!