I’m really liking The Adventures of Athena Wheatley, Or, Warp & Weft, a new graphic novel that’s publishing an installment every Wednesday. The story isn’t very far along yet, but I just appreciate the basic premise: a black woman, who from the autonomy she seems to have I assume is free, in Baltimore in 1841 becomes a time traveler. It’s a lot of fun to see that extremely familiar premise (time-travel) from a new perspective, whether Athena’s wondering in her journal if she’s becoming a prophetess because of her strange dreams, or skipping a rock through a force field to see if it’s safe to escape through, only to see it transformed to something else entirely. One of the easiest ways to refresh an old concept or scenario is to show how someone with a different set of background assumptions and experiences would react to it rather than trying to convince an audience that a tweak to the scenario itself is radically new and inventive.
A quick note: I’m not caught up on the first season of Boardwalk Empire yet, though I hope to be by next week. So please excuse any errors, omissions, generalized confusion, etc. I’ll be up and running soon, I swear! This post contains spoilers through the first episode of the second season of Boardwalk Empire.
As a first time Boardwalk Empire watcher, one of the things that struck me most strongly about the show is the extent to which it feels like reading a Little Orphan Annie comic strip. Everything’s a bit of a cartoon, whether it’s the Commodore dashing about his living room with a spear, Jimmy’s mother’s cartoonishly poisonous sweetness towards his new wife, or the show’s racial politics, even when they’re relatively good.
One thing I thought the show did very effectively in that early scene when the Klan attacks Chalky’s operation was to communicate the simultaneous menace and goofiness of the Klan. “Purity, sobriety, and the white Christians’ Jesus,” is a stupid-sounding phrase even within the context of the time. But uttered by a man who’s just shot your warehouse full of holes with primitive automatic weapons, the conviction of that ridiculous phrase actually makes the people uttering it more terrifying. They’re driven to all of this by a flimsy, incoherent cant.
It’s also interesting to see Michael K. Williams, who played the ultimate loner as Omar, have a constituency as Chalky. And even more interesting to see him carve out the best of multiple bad options in what’s essentially a no-win scenario.”I got four boys dead in that warehouse. Half a dozen wounded. Including a woman,” he tells Nucky, sick to death of Nucky’s promises to take care of yet another problem that for Nucky is a business impediment, and for Chalky is a matter of life or death. “How’m I supposed to know that?…I’m done with this shit. I got my family and I got my people…The ten thousand black folks who make this city home, busboys, porters…you go school these crackers less you all find out…You ready for what happens here? I turn up on the end of a rope?” He’s offering himself up as a firewall, a sort of flawed martyr. Chalky can hold back the black community in Atlantic City for a while, but what he’s promises Nucky is sort of an inverse of the crucifixion. White Atlantic City residents essentially have to take the bet that if they hang Chalky, their city won’t explode.
I’m going to need some time to figure out how I feel about a medical show starring a ghost, even if said ghost is All-Time Alyssa Rosenberg Favorite Jennifer Ehle. But I have to say, I was really impressed by the extent to which the pilot episode of A Gifted Man took on the impact of inadequate health care from multiple dimensions.
First, there’s the challenge of clinic staffing. “I need your help,” Anna’s ghost begs her ex-husband. “A lot of people depended on me. And I was stupid. I didn’t train anybody. I’m sure my staff are completely derailed. If they can get into my computer, they’ll figure it out. I need you to go there and open my files.” I do think it’s something of a problem that the clinic staff are portrayed as totally inexperienced and unknowledgeable; there need to be some potential heroes here for our doctor, Michael, to work with, but it’s a point well-made that it’s very hard to build a sustainable infrastructure that relies on charismatic leaders. Not everyone gets to come back and prod their new director into doing the right thing.
Then, there’s the way the show treats Michael’s first clinic patient. He can’t resist intervening when he hears a clinic staffer planning to send a seizure patient to the emergency room. “The ER’s going to make her wait like 10 hours and then they won’t take her because she doesn’t have insurance,” he says, feeling as if he’s done his good deed for the day. “The kid had a seizure. He needs an MRI. Send her to an imaging center.” And here’s where the show had what I think was its smartest point when the mother of the kid asks how to get to Michael’s hospital on the bus. It’s not enough to figure out what you need, and who will take your insurance to do it. You have to be able to get there without missing so much work that you get laid off, in a way that lets you take care of all of your other obligations. There are so many ways it’s hard to get the right medical care, so many things that can cause pain, including too-tight shoes.
And I really appreciate Michael’s assistant, the always wonderful Margo Martindale speaking this blunt truth. “Are these your children, Michael?” she asks him, as he cares for the family he rescued from the clinic. “I’m just trying to figure out why we’re suddenly running this place like a free clinic.” Health care is a tiered proposition in this country. It’s profoundly useful for a television show to state that clearly, to show us both sides of that proposition, and to insist that rescuing one patient or one family at a time isn’t enough. Even if it doesn’t beat the drum on health care reform, A Gifted Man is still doing something useful by laying out that framework.
Tom Junod’s profile of Jon Stewart in this month’s Esquire is an incredible piece of cultural criticism. First, there’s the indictment of Stewart’s comedy as vastly less revolutionary than it seems, a critique that essentially reaffirms that the country is an okay place and things that are not uniquely worse now than they were in the past and don’t require extraordinary remedies:
Kids who couldn’t sleep at night worrying that their president was a bad guy and that their country was doing bad things could now rest easy knowing that their president was just a dick, and that their country, while stupid, was still essentially innocent. It was like you could get upset about what was going on but still live your life, because there was Jon Stewart right before bedtime, showing you how to get upset entertainingly, how to give a shit without having to do anything about it. He denied having a message — admitting to a “point of view” but not an “agenda” — but of course he did, and it was this: that life goes on, and that politics may change but stupid always stays the same.
Then, there’s the way Stewart’s set himself up as someone who gets all the benefits of being powerful without any of the responsibility:
Invulnerable. Unassailable. Unimpeachable. The most sacred of liberalism’s sacred cows. The man whom a certain percentage of the country doesn’t just agree with but agrees on, more than they agree on anything, more than they agree on health care or President Obama. He protests, often, that he “doesn’t have a constituency”; what he does have, though, is a consensus, a presumption of unanimity anytime he walks into a room, unless that room is the greenroom at Fox News. Bill Maher is an atheist; Jon Stewart is a humanist, and by his humanism he’s become the strangest of things, the influential comedian, the admired comedian, the eminent comedian, the comedian who feels it necessary, always, to disavow his power. He’s been saying for ten years that he’s just a guy in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs; but he never gets spitballs thrown at him in return. [...]
Fox gives Stewart a reason to exist, and he’s been obsessed with Roger Ailes ever since he went to O’Reilly’s studio and was summoned into Ailes’s office. He stayed an hour and came out a freaked-out admirer, like the crazy newscaster in Network once Ned Beatty got through with him. It wasn’t just that Ailes asked him, right off the bat, “How are your kids?” and then berated him for hating conservatives; it wasn’t even that both men are intensely concerned about what people think of them and have no qualms about trying to influence how they’re portrayed. It’s that Ailes is all about power and so has accepted the obligation that Stewart has proudly refused. You want to know the difference between the Left and the Right in America? The Right has Roger Ailes, and the Left has Jon Stewart; the Right has an evil genius, while the Left contents itself with a genius of perceived non-evil.
I don’t tend to think that you should judge the success of a work of art by whether or not it inspires someone to action (though I always think it’s really interesting when such works do). But what about if the implicit premise of a work of political art is that we’re okay? That the best thing to do is not do anything? Or opt out? Or treat the system like it’s ridiculous and invest instead in a parody of it? I don’t think Jon Stewart is evil, or anything, and I think The Daily Show can be very, very funny. But Junod is right that there’s something odd about the limbo Stewart’s been able to maintain between art and public life, and something is distasteful about Stewart denying that he plays a larger role than simply as a comedian.
A note from your blogmistress: Since four of the six shows you most wanted recaps of happen on Sundays, I’ve asked my good friend and Good Wife maven Kate Linnea Welsh to help out with that show. If you’ve got questions or observations about the recaps, send ‘em to me, and I’ll pass your emails on to her. This post contains spoilers through the first episode of the third season of The Good Wife.
By Kate Linnea Welsh
Season two of The Good Wife ended with a newly separated Alicia disappearing into a hotel room with her college friend and now boss Will, but when season three picks up, such private concerns are put on the back burner as Lockhart/Gardner is thrust into a hot-button case: a prominent Muslim client asks them to defend a Palestinian student accused of starting a fight between Palestinian and Jewish students at a local college’s interfaith event. A Jewish student was murdered the same night, and Cary, now working for Peter, manages to manipulate Alicia and the defendant into exchanging the riot-related charge for a murder charge. The questions raised at trial revolve around the location of bias: Do we assume that the victims were attacked because they were Jewish, or that the defendant was arrested because he was Muslim? Or both? The controversial, high-profile nature of the case leads the lawyers to bring up a potpourri of other issues, as they discuss everything from cross racial identification to the relationship between violent video games and real-life predilections to whether a professor’s radical political views can be used against his student.
Of course, the case ends up not being about religion or politics at all. One of the defendant’s roommates was the real killer: he was in love with the victim, and this was actually a crime of passion made to look like a hate crime. While I suppose this ending was useful as a reminder that people generally act as individuals, not as representatives of a demographic group, I was frustrated that the resolution neatly allowed the show to get out of really dealing with the any of questions it had raised. It did, however, allow Eli Gold to give this funny-but-true summary of what a case like this wound up meaning for groups whose fundraising is dependent on public perception of these issues: “Is it good for the Jewish League Fund? I don’t know. A Muslim was the killer, but he was also gay and sleeping with our guy, so I would call that a classic mixed message.”
The bridge is yours.
-Is Prometheus apocalyptic fiction?
-Thing I would watch: the Stark channel, particularly if Ned predicts the weather with those multiple-kinds-of-rain graphics the Brits use.
-We get it, Adam Sandler. You have some deep-seated contempt for women.
-I really wish we could create trust funds for artists and athletes.
-The inevitable Zombie Bin Laden movie, because if we don’t demonstrate bad taste, the terrorists have won (may be NSFW, a little over the top violence-wise):
ZOMBINLADEN The Axis Of Evil Dead by Zmbldn
The first and most forceful thing that struck me about Pan Am is the extent to which the show looks like a product of the era it’s about. The colors are incredibly bright. If a scene isn’t set at night, even if it’s someone running away from her theoretically-perfect wedding, everything gleams. There isn’t a bit of dirt or grit anywhere. The characters barely even sweat when they’re flying exiles out of Cuba (without, of course, the recognition that these might be the same types who stormed the beach in the Bay of Pigs fiasco). Roses glow on night tables. Even rainy London looks fantastic. I harp on this not because it’s bad — the show is lovely to look at — but because if there’s a case to be made for period stories reflecting actual nostalgia for the period at hand, Pan Am‘s lushness would be it.
Is a better show than The Playboy Club? Almost certainly. Christina Ricci is always a delight to watch, whether she’s changing in the back of a cab or bossing her coworkers around, and I hope the show has a meaty and specific storyline in store for her other than lusting after a profoundly dull pilot who’s in love with one of her colleagues. And Kelli Garner’s really wonderful as a stewardess who springs her Barbie-like sister from a stifling marriage, only to find said sister eclipse her as the face of Pan Am, and in fact, an entire age. I really appreciate that the show refrains from just making her jealous, giving her a mission and purpose. The world may open up for a pretty girl who becomes a Pan Am stewardess and gets a chance to travel and see the world. But it really opens up for a woman who’s asked to spy for her country.
That said, I think Pan Am has the same problem that The Playboy Club does: an insecurity about the idea that their basic setup is interesting enough to engage an audience. Working at The Playboy Club is pretty interesting totally on its own. Introducing a new generation to transatlantic travel opens up all sorts of conversations about female independence, sexual norms, and cross-cultural exchange. And while The Playboy Club‘s a mess, Pan Am‘s gender politics actually feel much more conventional. That final scene of the little girl watching the Pan Am stewardesses, in all their regulated beauty, walk through the airport and seeing them as goddesses bothered me just as much as the voiceovers declaring Playboy Bunnies the luckiest women in the world. At least The Playboy Club‘s events give lie to that argument. Pan Am just makes embodying a corporation look grand.
I was part of a conversation about DC’s New 52 last week when someone suggested that, as feminists, maybe we were wasting our time hoping and agitating for mainstream comics to get better in their representations of women. Maybe, at the end of the day, we’re never going to get Marvel and DC in particular to see that things like the new portrayal of Catwoman ought to be regarded as a bug rather than a design feature:
I understand that this is an industry that’s based on a kind of media consumption that’s been fairly rapidly decimated. It takes a particular kind of consumer to commit to buying issue after issue of a continuing story, rather than buying that whole arc in a single volume, especially when prices for comics have risen more in relation to minimum wage than other forms of entertainment, like movies. And it’s not like you’re getting more comics for your money. And so the industry’s stuck between a choice of locking in those readers by pandering to all of their most defining impulses, no matter how much those impulses might turn off new audiences, and trying to make a painful transition to try to develop new audiences that carries the risk of shedding old readers while failing to bring in new ones. Those are big, hard incentives to fight against.
But I think it’s worth it to keep nudging even as I totally understand the reasons why it might make more sense, strategically and emotionally*, to walk away.. First, the industry clearly realizes that the latter path is inevitable. Why else do you have the massive push behind the New 52 in the first place? And it’s much better to have folks around explaining why it doesn’t work to simply tell us you’re doing something new without actually doing it, so there will be clear, articulated reasons why people saw the relaunch as a failure to produce something genuinely different. And second, even if the industry doesn’t change, there should be voices in the background when folks read these books pointing out their problems. The key is getting folks who really just want to see, say, Catwoman bang Batman and nothing else to hear those critiques and to find a way to engage with them constructively, which is really, profoundly difficult. But I’d rather live in a world where people who don’t want to hear the works they like criticized have to work to shut them out, rather than leaving them to relax into the blissful sounds of silence.
*This post is, by the way, a must-read on representation of women in the New 52.
This post contains spoilers through the Sept. 25 episode of Breaking Bad, “Crawl Space.”
It was almost impossible to imagine how Breaking Bad would up the ante after Gus decimated the cartel at the possible cost of his and Mike’s lives. But this episode was, if anything, operating at a higher key for a longer time. And in both its range of emotions and cinematography, “Crawl Space” is one of the most movie-like episodes of television I’ve ever seen, particularly in its exploration of two key themes: the darkness of Gus’ full emergence as supervillain, and the dark, terrible humor of Ted’s death.
We’ve always known that Gus was a mastermind. But there’s something interesting about the show’s decision to kick his deviousness up a notch, to show us that not only is he capable of taking out an entire cartel via poison, but that he has a full-on medical lab standing by, including enough blood to save Jesse, Mike, and himself under any circumstances. The man knows Jesse as Jesse doesn’t even know himself, down to Jesse’s blood type. It’s impressive, but it’s also fairly terrifying. As is the fact that he gets up from a poisoning to tell Jesse, “There are many good ways south. Unfortunately, only one good way North. It’s six miles to Texas. I have a man there,” and starts walking back to America. The coldness of that confidence, the conviction that he won’t get caught walking back into the country, is startling. He can’t be killed by drugs or constrained by borders, Chilean, American, or otherwise. There’s a real power in that, a non-white immigrant who is essentially unafraid of the law, who’s even tamed the very institutions that might shut him down for being not just a drug dealer but a drug dealer who hides behind the facade of American small business to peddle a wily and destructively addictive drug.