The Flash, Arrow and the Problem with “For Your Own Good”
As The Flash closes out its first season and Arrow its third, each show is facing a problem with one of its female characters.
On The Flash, Iris is the only character left that hasn’t been told, or figured out, that her lanky best friend and sort of brother, the one she has seen pretty much every day for fifteen years, the one she knows has a crush on her, is also the skinny guy in the skin-tight suit that keeps flirting with her on roof-tops.
Meanwhile, on Arrow, Felicity, as a key member of the team, may be privy to most of Oliver’s secrets, including his identity, but after two years of growing respect and sexual tension, and a single date with a literally explosive ending, Oliver made the decision that they should just be friends, rather than begin a romantic relationship. Oliver was worried that she would be used against him.
Barry’s father figure, Joe, has known about his powers since The Flash’s pilot, as have the team at Star Labs. Even Barry’s actual father realized his son’s secret identity after a couple of brief encounters. But Iris has spoken to the Flash several times, seen him move, been in his arms. The Flash appeared almost as soon as Barry came out of a nine month coma. She is on a mission to find out the Flash’s identity, and she can’t figure out that it’s her best friend?
The problem with Iris is more serious than just her sort of silly inability to assemble a simple jigsaw puzzle. As annoying as it is that she hasn’t pieced together Barry’s secret identity on her own, the bigger issue is that nearly everyone in her life, not just her best friend, but also her father, and new friends Caitlin and Cisco, is actively conspiring to keep her in the dark, with the misguided idea that it will keep her safe.
Iris isn’t alone in this. Pretty much every superhero has a love interest they lie to, “for their own good.” And while that may seem noble in theory, it rarely works in practice. Iris may not know that Barry’s the Flash, but plenty of other people do, enough that Iris can still be used against him, that her safety can be threatened as a means to hurt Barry.
Arrow, too, has a single character that the team keeps in the dark, but when it comes to Detective Lance there’s still a certain amount of logic to the secret. No, it doesn’t make sense that Lance can’t tell from the Arrow’s posture, or his jawline, or his attachment to Felicity Smoak, that he’s actually Oliver Queen. And Lance is a detective. But lying to him has long been a way to keep Oliver’s mission safe. In early days he was a very real danger, because what Oliver is up to is illegal. Vigilantes aren’t actually a good thing, they operate outside of the law, and for awhile there Oliver was killing a lot of random bodyguards and lackeys. Lance had the power and the desire to put the Arrow behind bars.
But while Iris may have turned into an intrepid reporter, determined to get to the bottom of the Flash’s identity, it’s unlikely that she’d find out Barry’s secret and then put it on the record. Keeping Iris, not Barry, safe has been the root of the entire secret-keeping enterprise. And Iris is arguably less safe not knowing how easily she can be used to hurt her best friend. Because she’s kept in the dark she doesn’t know that she needs to protect herself, let alone why. And every time she is used this way she becomes, not a person, not someone he loves, but a device. She’s leverage.
This makes it difficult to care about her as a character, and to root for her and Barry as a romantic pairing.
And then there’s Felicity.
Oliver’s decision not to DTR, back in the season 3 premiere, doesn’t mean Felicity can’t or won’t be used against him. She’s often the most visible member of Team Arrow, and even if she’s not Oliver’s girlfriend, she’s still important to him as a friend and as support for his operation. They spend just as much time together as they likely would in a relationship, and not just in their underground lair. And he’s still blatantly in love with her. But Oliver decided he had to make the decision for both of them.
This sort of “for your own good” thinking didn’t seem noble and heroic when it was Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, and it doesn’t seem noble and heroic now. What it mostly comes across as is a way to stall a romantic pairing out of a fear of what happens after they get together. While Oliver pines for Felicity as though he wasn’t the one to put a stop things, she’s stuck off in a side-plot with a new romantic interest, Oliver’s equally wealthy, handsome and tragic replacement as head of Queen Consolidated, Ray Palmer, a man with his own vigilante mission. The storyline doesn’t reflect well on either character. Oliver comes across as manipulative, and Felicity as shallow.
Arrow doesn’t shy away from physically and mentally strong female characters. Plenty of women (Sara and now Laurel, Nyssa, Helena, Amanda Waller, Shado…) have fought alongside or against Oliver over the last few years, and held their own, but I appreciate that Arrow has not attempted to turn Felicity into another female ass-kicker. Instead, the series has kept her at her computer, and allowed her to show that there are other ways to be a hero and to fight the good fight. She does just as much to keep the team alive as Oliver or Diggle, and, like Caitlin on The Flash, she does it using her own expertise. She also, more often than not, serves as Oliver’s conscience. She’s the person he talks to before he makes big decisions, and she tries to nudge him in the best possible direction, whatever that may be. Felicity has long been one of Arrow’s best characters.
And Iris has the potential to be a great character, too. She’s curious and friendly and prone to jealousy, because no one would want her to be perfect. She’s played by a charismatic actress. It should be easy to love a character that’s loved by puppy dogs like Barry Allen and Joe West.
Every unilateral decision Oliver or Barry makes to “protect” Felicity and Iris, though, undermines their agency, takes that decision out of Felicity’s or Iris’ hands. Whenever this happens, Felicity gets angry and goes off to help her stand-in Oliver Queen, and Iris continues on, none-the-wiser, chasing mysteries the audience solved months ago.
As of the end of last week’s episode of The Flash, Iris knows Barry’s secret, only because she happened to be there at a moment when he wouldn’t be able to make an excuse. But the revelation was immediately followed by Barry discovering his own ability to travel in time.
Time travel is a slippery device, one that allows for narrative fiddling and re-writing, and the moments before Barry went backward were full of potential events he could undo. The question is whether Iris’ discovery will be one of them.
Because of my own frustration, I really hope that Iris still knows Barry’s secret when the dust settles. I hope we get to see her get angry. She’s earned it. Even if she isn’t mad, even if, like Thea did on Arrow, she reacts to the information with understanding, Iris can only become a more compelling character once she’s aware of her own surroundings, once she’s caught up to the audience. Whether she knows the truth next week, or has to relearn it at some point in the future, I look forward to a time when I can root for her the way I do the rest of the citizens of Central City.
And as Arrow closes out its own season, I hope Oliver gives Felicity the opportunity to make some of her own decisions. That both Oliver and the show will get over their fear of moving forward with the relationship, or at least figure out a way to hold off on it that respects both the characters and the audience.
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.
“Just tell the truth.”
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.
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.