Who Run the World?
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.
How Ant-Man Fails its Female Characters
Take note, there are plot details from Ant-Man below. Maybe see the movie before you read this.
There’s plenty that I enjoyed about Ant-Man beyond Paul Rudd’s relentlessly likable performance as modern-day Robin Hood Scott Lang. It’s peppered with good jokes, has a supporting cast that is fun here and will almost certainly continue to be fun in future Marvel projects, and most importantly it scales back the story-telling that over-inflated Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier this summer. But it’s also a movie that highlights one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s biggest weaknesses: it fails its female characters.
Marvel’s been tying its ever-expanding universe together with weaker and weaker knots of late, but the cameos and references that place Ant-Man in the larger MCU are less heavy-handed than those that threatened to sink Age of Ultron (no Infinity Stones here, thank goodness, or shirtless Thor to shoehorn them in), and Scott is finally a hero with the good sense to suggest calling in the Avengers when things seem dire.
But one of Ant-Man’s greatest strengths is the fact that the movie is built on significantly smaller stakes than what we’ve seen the Avengers take on–together and apart–in the last few years. Scott and his gang of misfits don’t need the help of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. They’ve got this.
Ant-Man is a heist story. It’s about trying to cut the bad guy off at the pass, rather than waiting till the last minute to duke things out with an entire army. Cities don’t get destroyed in Ant-Man (just a couple of suburban houses and one fancy tech company), very few people–or ants–die. There’s really only one big fight sequence, compared to the four or five that left Age of Ultron feeling so crowded, and it’s between two middle-aged men in high-tech suits, mostly in a little kid’s bedroom. It’s not that an apocalyptic threat doesn’t hang over the movie, there’s the potential for Ant-Man’s one bad guy to turn into an army of bad guys, but the central conflict is the effort to prevent that from happening. These are essentially the same stakes as the first Iron Man, but also of the opening sequence of Age of Ultron. MCU movies have grown so large that this felt, appropriately enough for its hero, pleasingly small.
But the other side of any Marvel movie, the more important side, is the character work. To that end, Ant-Man is the story of two fathers and two daughters. Scott, back in the world after three years in prison, wants to be an active part of his young daughter’s life, but his ex-wife and her new fiance don’t want him around until he can pay child support. Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man and Scott’s new mentor, is trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his own daughter, Hope, after 27 years of detached parenting following her mother’s disappearance. And it was in these two stories that Ant-Man failed.
It’s no secret that Marvel’s got a “women problem,” from the persistent on-screen sidelining of female characters to the off-screen lack of merchandise featuring them. It’s not that they don’t create interesting, complicated women that could carry their own stories, it’s just that they’re not giving them the opportunity. So far the ABC series Agent Carter is the only on-air project where a female character is holding down the center of the story (though AKA Jessica Jones is scheduled to premiere on Netflix later this year). And Ant-Man’s greatest weakness is that it never convinced me that it should be telling Scott’s story and not Hope’s.
Hope is pretty vocal about the fact that she wants to be the one wearing the Ant-Man suit. She’s the trained fighter, it’s her family legacy (on both sides, it turns out, because of course her mother’s disappearance ties into things). To her, Scott is no one, a guy her dad brought in because he’s a good thief. And she’s not wrong. Scott tells her himself that he’s expendable, that the reason her dad wants him in the Ant-Man suit is that the heist they’re planning is too risky. Scott’s a criminal with something to prove, but Hope is Hank’s daughter.
But Scott is also a parent. He’s motivated by a desire to be a part of his daughter’s life before it’s too late, before they end up estranged like Hank and Hope. This is his movie, his world expands out past the Ant-Man stuff, to family, and to his own group of criminal side-kicks. The movie never presents anything similar for Hope. She has a job at Pym Technologies (apparently an important one, though she comes across as a glorified tour guide or a passive observer whenever the audience sees her at work), a dad she barely knows and doesn’t much like, and, as far as we can see, that’s it. That’s her world. Ultimately, she is the character that feels expendable. So why is saving Hope more important than saving Scott? Is it because she’s Hank’s child or is it because she’s Hank’s daughter?
At one point in the movie Hank refers to Darren Cross, his former protégé, current nemesis, and Ant-Man’s bad guy, as someone he once saw as the son he never had, someone who could follow in his footsteps, and Darren speaks to Hope about how Hank failed them both as a mentor. But Hank didn’t fail Darren, he stepped back when he saw too much of himself reflecting back, did it to protect the world from a real threat; he did fail Hope. Hank rejected his daughter out of fear, sent her away because he couldn’t protect her mother. And Ant-Man is just the story of how he repeated history.
Because when the audience is finally shown what happened to Hank’s wife, aka Janet van Dyne, aka the Wasp, it becomes clear that Hank did not fail to protect her. Rather, she made a decision to sacrifice herself to save the world, and to save her husband. When Hank puts her disappearance on himself he denies her her agency. And when he doesn’t let Hope put on the Ant-Man suit he does the same thing over again. He refuses Hope her legacy, and the opportunity to make her own decisions.
And let’s talk about Scott. Scott is not looking for redemption in his daughter’s eyes, because Cassie already worships him, believes in him, and sees him as her personal hero. It’s the person that’s keeping him away from Cassie, his ex-wife Maggie, that needs to see that Scott has changed. Or that’s what you’d think, right? But that’s not the way Ant-Man presents it.
Yes, Maggie is the one that tells Scott he needs to get an apartment and a job and that he needs to start paying child support in order to be a part of their daughter’s life, but it’s her fiancé Paxton that presents the real obstacle. He’s not just the new father figure in Cassie’s life, he’s also the cop that’s out to get Scott. Not a bad guy at all, but the guy who has the life Scott left behind when he went to jail. And it’s to Paxton that Scott must ultimately prove himself. Paxton arrives just in time to see Scott save the day and that’s enough to allow him back into Cassie’s orbit, to redraw the lines of their family.
So where does that leave Maggie? Like Hope, she’s an afterthought in her own family. Her feelings about Scott, both as her ex and as a presence in her daughter’s life, are never examined. The character could have been played by a cardboard cut-out behind a curtain, and is instead a complete waste of Judy Greer, an actress who deserves so much better.
Hope does, mid-way through the movie’s end credits, receive her own suit (my knowledge of the original comics is limited, but a Google search tells me she’ll be Red Queen), and maybe at some point Marvel will decide that it wants to put her at the center of a movie, or a TV show (or whatever Marvel is up to at that point…a web series? A SnapChat Story?), but it already feels like too little and too late. Her story could have, should have, already been told.
Ant-Man wants you to believe that it’s about fathers and daughters, but it’s actually about men and their relationships and conflicts with other men. Scott and Hank, Hank and Darren, Darren and Scott, Scott and Paxton–these are the bones of Ant-Man, but there could have been a much more interesting story, if the movie had bothered to examine it. As this universe keeps growing it needs to keep thinking small, at least part time, because the pressure to keep going bigger is already starting to trip them up. There are a wealth of stories, of all sizes, to be told about the women that have been sidelined for too long. It’s time to tell them.
A Show With a Heart
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.
TV Camp and Twitter: Finding a Safe Space to Love What You Love
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.
4 Seasons and a Gas Leak Year
I don’t have any interest in meeting Dan Harmon. That’s not to say that I don’t think he’s brilliant, that I haven’t both laughed at and been brought to tears by his work on Community, that I don’t have a profound respect for the worlds he can build with his mind, for the way he can put 7 people around a table and, with not much more than words, tell a very funny and very moving story in a medium that often relies as heavily on what you can see as it does what you can hear, but I don’t want to sit down and have a cup of coffee (or, probably more appropriately, a beer) with him.
It’s not that I think Harmon would be rude: whatever the well-documented problems he’s had with Sony, NBC and Chevy Chase, he has a decent track record for engaging, probably over-engaging, with his fans, and, much like the central character on Community, he’s never been shy about his desire to be liked by others. He toured the country with his podcast last year, creating opportunities for fans of his work to see him in person, to say hi and shake his hand, and even though he keeps putting his foot in his mouth, he hasn’t let that stop him from putting out episodes of Harmontown, or from Tweeting, or, when he’s made a particularly egregious error and needs to apologize, from Tumbling (even if it maybe should). Lots of people love him, love going to see him, love getting to meet him. And I genuinely believe that, more than anything, he wants to be a good person, a benevolent creator, and that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Unfortunately, he just can’t seem to stop.
Stories are not their storytellers, but some stories are more reliant of the particular minds of their storytellers than others.
No matter how hard they tried, Community was not Community last year without Harmon at the helm, and this year, now that NBC has hired him back, it unquestionably is. Last season the show felt like a shadow of itself. The episodes arrived in the approximate shape of Communitys past, stuffed with call-back gags and homages and big name guest stars, many of the names attached to episodes were familiar, the actors gave strong performances, there were good jokes and there were even a couple of good episodes–the puppet episode, in particular, felt almost like it could have come out of the show’s third season–but it never connected. It felt like an admirable effort from people who were never going to get it quite right.
But in the first four episodes of this post-post-Harmon era, the show has found its voice again. The events of last season were quickly dispatched with a single line about a “gas leak year.” Pierce (Chase), always the most difficult character to like, but also one of Community’s best sources of conflict, has left the show entirely. There’s little question that Chase’s leaving was the best thing for everyone involved, but rather than just letting him go quietly into the night, Harmon has chosen to make Pierce’s departure mean something, first by bringing him into the premiere, “Repilot,” for an unannounced (even to most of the cast) cameo, and then by killing him offscreen, so that the terms of his will could rule over the fourth episode and set up this year’s other big cast-member departure.
“Cooperative Polygraphy” was an excellent episode of television. It’s no easy feat to put seven people at a table for 22 minutes and be funny, let alone touching, but Community has done it before, in “Cooperative Calligraphy” and “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” most notably. More than that, though, the episode gave the show the opportunity to address the fact that, while Pierce had always been a problem, stirring up trouble amongst his friends and engineering conflict like an elaborate game of dominoes, he did have a place in the study group, and he did love his friends. The moment where, as the executor of Pierce’s will, Walton Goggins’ questions turned from secret-spilling, drama-baiting missives to heartfelt farewells brought tears to my eyes. He wasn’t saying anything we hadn’t heard from Pierce before: that he respected Shirley, that Annie was his favorite, that, in many ways, he loved Troy as a son, but it was coming all at once and, in true Pierce fashion, in the wake of his destruction.
It felt like a gracious way to mourn Pierce without betraying the character.
Pierce’s death also gave the show a way to write out Donald Glover’s Troy.
We’ve known since sometime last summer that Glover would be leaving Community after five episodes, but the way that he would be written out was unclear. Troy and Danny Pudi’s Abed have been a unit since very early in the series, and while Harmon was starting to explore what Troy might look like without Abed at the end of season three, it was hard to see how or why one would leave without the other.
But the terms of Pierce’s will require Troy to take a solo trip around the world (in a boat that’s winkingly named the Childish Tycoon, certainly a reference to the fact that Glover raps under the name Childish Gambino, despite his insistence that he’s not leaving the show for his music career). It’s a contractual demand for Troy and Abed to grow up, one of them off screen and one of them on, and “Cooperative Polygraphy” feels like a promise that the show knows what it’s doing, and that it can handle the consequences of Troy’s departure.
Growing up seems to be the big theme of this season in a lot of ways. Jeff (Joel McHale) has taken on some real resposibility by agreeing to teach at Greendale, and it turns out he doesn’t hate the job–he’s even pretty good at it. Jeff has been the study group’s defacto leader since the pilot, but he’s never championed their educations. Seeing him take on that role feels like a big step forward for the character.
Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) is, in some ways, back where she was when the series began, newly single and trying to start over at Greendale, but this time around she has to take responsibility for her own part in her separation, and to face the fact that her husband has taken custody of their children (as well as her DVR). Shirley has always been self-righteous about her morality, but this season seems committed to holding her responsible for her own choices.
And Britta (Gillian Jacobs) is taking her somewhat misguided dream to become a therapist a step further. When, in the past, Britta’s attempts at “therapizing” have worked out it has often been in spite of her efforts, but it will be nice to see her make some advancement in her field of choice…or switch to a nice, safe English major.
Perhaps the biggest sign of growth, though, is the fact that Annie (Alison Brie) gets to wear pants, now! She’s often, especially last season, felt like a character that got trapped in a small quadrant of her identity: the ingenue with a thing for Jeff. But season 5 has pulled her out of that almost immediately. Her first big plot of the season was with Jeff, yes, but it put them in conflict, let Annie take back her long-absent agency, and had her dressed, finally, like a stylish young professional, rather than a teenage girl.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Annie’s old wardrobe, but it often felt like a visual representation of her inability to grow as a character. It’s not that Annie’s not dressing like herself anymore, just that she’s dressing like herself at 23 or 24, not 19. She wears crisp button-downs and blazers instead of cardigans, and tailored pants instead of a-line skirts. She dresses like the pharmaceutical rep she became after graduating from Greendale.
The refrain of Community fans (as well as the cast and crew) since season three has been “Six Season and a Movie,” but there was a time last season when that didn’t seem like something worth wishing for. Without Dan Harmon, the show wasn’t living up to its potential, and then, when NBC and Sony made the unprecedented and kind of bonkers decision to bring him back for season 5, we didn’t know if the show could match our expectations.
But against the odds, Community is a great show once more, and it stands a good chance of coming back for that wished for and prayed for and hashtagged for sixth season (NBC renewed Parks and Recreation for another season yesterday. It’s pretty clear that they want to hang onto the beloved if poorly rated properties they already have, since they’ve really struggled to create new ones). In a great time for TV comedies (New Girl, Girls, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Trophy Wife all come to mind, as well as the funny if incredibly messy The Mindy Project), Community still stands out because it knows so well how to forge an emotional connection with its audience.
Dan Harmon may not be someone I want to meet, but I’ll happily keep letting his work into my life, week after week. Harmon doesn’t lack a heart, but I think he expresses it far better through the filter of his fiction than in his own voice. So I won’t be refollowing him on Twitter, or listening to Harmontown, or seeking him out at ATX Fest, if he makes that trip again this year, but I will keep watching Community, so long as he’s the one writing it.
Three day weekends are for binge-watching, right? I mean, that’s certainly the impression I got from the piles of “What to Binge-Watch This Labor Day Weekend” listicles that popped up last Friday. And since I like to be on-trend, I sat down and watched ten episodes of Scandal on Sunday night.
(“Sat down” isn’t exactly right though, because sitting is hardly conducive to the amount of flailing about required by ten straight episodes of Scandal, a show that devours plot like nothing since maybe the second season of The Vampire Diaries. I was positioned in more of a full-body sprawl, to allow for a full range of motion.)
I’m late to the party on this one. I’ve been hearing about how juicy and soapy and compulsively watchable the show is since about mid-way through this past season, Scandal‘s second, but I hadn’t taken the time to revel in Kerry Washington’s piercing performance as D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, or the twisty-turny plot, or the Shonda Rhimes-iest names ever penned by Shonda Rhimes (President Fitzgerald Grant? Huck and Quinn Perkins and Hollis Doyle? And the name Arizona Robbins has nothing on Cyrus Beene) until this summer, when I started parceling it out an episode or three at a time.
And what I watched, I enjoyed. Most of the non-Olivia Pope characters fell flat in the first season, and I’m not a huge fan of the fixer procedural format, but as the show started fleshing out its periphery, and as the serialized plots became more complex, Scandal grew into the fast-talking, well-dressed, semi-alcoholic daughter of The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy. It also went butt-crazy insane.
Season two has an assassination attempt, vote tampering, cold-blooded murder, bribery, a high-level government mole and then some. You cannot be a character on Scandal and also be a good person. On this show, powerful men order hits like they’re dinner and the charming guy from your morning meet-cute has a half-dozen cameras planted in your apartment, the better to monitor your every move. You’re not allowed on screen unless you’ve got a closely guarded secret (some of which are more interesting than others) and some sort of nefarious skill, like lock-picking, safe-cracking, lying or torture. Should you happen to find love amidst all the drama, lies and devastation, be prepared to break up and make up at least 5 times before the year is out. You should also count on spending time in either the hospital or jail, or both if you’re especially unlucky.
All of this could easily go completely off the rails, but there are a few things that hold the show together. The first is Olivia Pope. Shonda Rhimes has been filling ABC with complex and varied depictions of women since Grey’s Anatomy went on the air in 2005, and Scandal‘s central character is no exception. Olivia is smart and strong-willed and she commands respect from her employees–each of whom considers her to be, in some way, their savior–and her clients alike. She’s a strong woman and she’s a powerful woman, not to mention the first African-American woman at the center of a network drama since the 1970s, but she also loves fiercely and freely, takes lost causes under her wing, and has, undoubtedly, the largest collection of elbow-length gloves on the east coast.
Olivia Pope is an anti-hero, a woman who has done enough illegal and amoral things to get herself thrown into jail several times over, but her motivations are rarely selfish. She stands up for the little guy, she wears the white hat–sometimes literally–she is a champion for justice, but her methods have been known to involve torture. Kerry Washington portrays her with a warmth you don’t often expect from Strong Female Characters. More often than not she’s got her heart firmly stitched to her sleeve.
The other thing keeping Scandal together is the writing. Shonda Rhimes writes lovely, natural dialogue for her characters, as well as juicy, chewy monologues. This is hardly a new gift, even at the show’s worst, the characters on Grey’s Anatomy have always had distinctive voices, but Scandal has largely stepped back from the cutesy “McDreamy” and “va-jay-jay” quirks that show employs (though there is a running thing about “gladiators in suits” that I could do without).
And Rhimes backs her language up with actors that deliver it beautifully. Washington is phenomenal, yes, but so is Jeff Perry as the scheming, kind of evil and deceptively bumbling Chief of Staff, Cyrus Beene. Bellamy Young has turned the equally scheming and kind of evil First Lady, Mellie Grant, into a fascinating and even occasionally sympathetic character. Recurring characters like Debra Mooney’s Verna Thornton, Scott Foley’s Jake Ballard, Dan Bucatinsky’s James Novak and Gregg Henry’s Hollis Doyle help to round out the world of the show, and feel as solidly built as the series regulars–more solidly built in some cases
The show is not flawless. Most of the romantic relationships are dull and repetitive, and the one that gets the most screen time, the illicit, on-and-off-and-on-and-off-and-on-and-I’ve-lost-count affair between Olivia and the President (Tony Goldwyn), is probably my least favorite of the bunch. I’d happily watch a sitcom about Cyrus and his husband James, though, whose squabbley, loving and deeply messed up marriage was often the high point in the rougher early episodes.
And while the characters populating Rhimes’ White House feel like real people, the characters filling Olivia’s office are less substantial. Darby Stanchfield’s Abby Whelan falls flat unless she’s sharing the screen with Joshua Malina’s David Rosen–perhaps the only morally sound character on the show–and even though I only finished catching up a few days ago, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what Columbus Short’s Harrison Wright got up to this season, aside from standing around looking good in a suit. Huck (Guillermo Díaz) is perhaps Olivia’s best-developed employee, and he’s also the character with the most to hide. And while Katie Lowes’ Quinn Perkins was the character that first brought us into Olivia’s inner circle, she didn’t develop much of a personality until the back half of the second season. I’d like to see more from the staff of Olivia Pope and Associates and I hope that’s something that awaits us in season three.
Less than a month away from the season premiere, I’ve mostly got my fingers crossed that Scandal can maintain its pace. It’s not an easy thing to churn through that much story skillfully and many a show has stumbled at about this point. But the second season ended with a few juicy plotlines dangling off the metaphorical cliff, as well as the promise of more Scott Foley.
And I never object to Scott Foley.