Sunday, December 14, 2014

Recent Reading Roundup 37

I went through an unplanned blogging hiatus this summer, which meant that a lot of books and movies that I would have liked to write about ended up unreported (though some of them will be showing up in my forthcoming year's best list).  Still, it seemed wrong to end the year without another look at what I've been reading (one of the things I'd like to get back to next year is full-length book reviews, which is something I've let slide, but this will do for now).  Those of you who haven't been following along on twitter (or who have been defeated by its ephemeral format) might also be interested in the conclusion of my read-through of the Sherlock Holmes canon--here are my thoughts on The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - Tartt's bestselling, Pulitzer-winning novel kicks off with a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker loses his beloved mother in the explosion but survives himself, and in his addled state, steals the titular masterpiece.  For the rest of The Goldfinch's 800 pages, the painting functions as both a talisman and a millstone for Theo--a reminder of his mother's love (it was her favorite work) and of the world of beauty and kindness he lost with her death, but also a source of anxiety, as he worries about being prosecuted and jailed if he tries to return it, and alienates potential friends in trying to keep its secret.  Tartt doesn't quite manage to argue that Theo's fears of the authorities throwing the book at a theft committed by a traumatized, concussed child are realistic (but then, late in the book, she seems to suggest that Theo himself doesn't really believe in this danger, and is keeping the painting for more selfish reasons), but The Goldfinch is extremely effective at conveying the toll that trauma, sudden loss, and uncertainty take on Theo's psyche.  Though not officially mistreated--he bounces from the home of a friend's affluent but chilly family, to the Nevada desert with his abandoning, neglectful father, who allows Theo to run wild, then back to New York where he's taken in by a kind but unworldly antiques restorer--Theo is left to more or less fend for himself, and his obvious bewilderment at being thrust into the world unprotected is heartbreaking.  Distrustful of his new guardians, and anxious about being torn from them and deposited somewhere worse, he expends all his energies on gaming the system and fobbing off those in authority, and none on processing his trauma and growing up--which eventually leads, in his twenties, to an involvement with the criminal underworld, as he sells fake antiques and hobnobs with art forgers.

    Despite its length, The Goldfinch is a compelling, engaging read, effortlessly evoking both the wood-paneled rooms of New York's upper classes and the dusty decay of a half-built Las Vegas suburb.  But by the time one approaches the end of the novel--in which Theo's criminal acts, his concealment of the painting, and his emotional instability all lead him to a self-imposed exile in Amsterdam and a violent crescendo to the story--it's hard not to wonder what the point of all this was.  Did the world really need another baggy coming-of-age novel about a middle class white guy who struggles with self-absorption and self-loathing?  Even more importantly, did it really need a novel that is as obvious a retelling of Great Expectations as The Goldfinch is?  On the latter point, it's particularly disappointing that Tartt passes up any and all chances to address the problems that Dickens poses to modern readers.  Like her 1992 breakout novel The Secret History, The Goldfinch is steeped in a snobbishness so profound that it goes out the other end into self-parody.  Goodness, in this novel, is associated with the sort of old-world, Anglophile gentility that wouldn't be out of place in an Edith Wharton novel, with people who love Old Masters, classical music, and early American furniture, and are politely bewildered by any pop culture artifact produced after 1960.  The actual realities of American life, meanwhile, are treated--even by a modern teenager like Theo--with horror and incomprehension, as in the case of his grotesque stepmother Xandra, a spray-tanned, pill-popping New Age freak.  People of color, in this construction, are almost entirely absent except as cheerful, devoted servants--the doormen at Theo's building, or the housekeeper who loved his mother so much that she offers to work without pay.  (In a particularly tone-deaf moment, Theo's horror of going into the foster system is illustrated through the example of a pair of black children who were abused and murdered by their foster parents.  It seems to have escaped Tartt's notice that this brief mention immediately throws into sharp relief how petty Theo's self-pitying concerns are, and how privileged he is in comparison to the children not deemed interesting enough to star in this story.)  The novel's Estella is Pippa, a girl who caught Theo's eye in the moments before the explosion, and whose fascination for him is rooted equally in love and in his need to dwell on their defining traumatic moment.  The Goldfinch occasionally hints that Pippa is just as troubled as Theo, just as haunted by what they experienced and just as lost (in her case, even more profoundly; being in the explosion throws Theo into the world of antiques and provides him with an avocation, but the injuries she sustains cost Pippa her future as a professional musician).  But it never allows her to become a real person, rather than the idealized object of Theo's obsessive--and, as even he is eventually forced to admit, unhealthy--love.

    Tartt is known for taking years--just over a decade, in this case--to produce her novels, and especially given that weight of investment it's hard to look at The Goldfinch and not wonder what it was all for.  In its closing chapter, The Goldfinch launches into several pages of Theo trying to explain his new life philosophy, but though this creed is unobjectionable--don't get hung up on labels like good or bad, or waste your life obsessing about which one describes you; just be kind and loving to other people--it's also thin enough to drive home that there's really nothing at the heart of this novel.  And its failures when it comes to race, class, and gender only reaffirm how shallow and unnecessary it is.  (It's both interesting and sad that Tartt's only attempt to buck the snobbishness that infects her writing, her second novel The Little Friend, which has a female protagonist and tries to treat its working class characters with respect and explore their humanity, is also her least successful work, and that its poor reception is almost certainly the reason she returned to the milieu and tone of The Secret History in her third effort.)  I'm coming off more negative on The Goldfinch than I actually felt while I was reading it, when I was carried along by Tartt's engaging prose and story, but by the time I turned the last page, the book's pleasures had faded, and I was left with its hollowness and its lingering problems.

  • Inversions by Iain M. Banks - This stealth-Culture novel (whose stealth is wasted since every list of Banks's SF identifies it as such) has some echoes of Banks's more ambitiously structured work, such as Use of Weapons or Feersum Endjinn, with two storylines proceeding concurrently but with enough ornate worldbuilding detail that it can take a while to work out how their settings and time periods relate to one another.  But in nearly every other way this is a major departure for Banks, his SF writing, and the Culture sequence--a novel rooted in character and emotion rather than elaborate SFnal invention, or in the grand scale of the Culture and its neighbors.  This is all, of course, in service of the same goal as all Culture novels, the question of the Culture's right to interfere in the business of other races, and of the methods it uses to achieve its goal of spreading peace and prosperity, but in Inversions that question is examined on a very personal scale.  In one plot strand, the narrator is the apprentice to Vosill, a foreign doctor in the court of the king, who has scandalized the court and the political system with her gender and her attempts to influence the king towards a kinder, more progressive mode of rule.  In the second storyline, DeWar, a bodyguard in the service of a Napoleon-like usurper, tries to protect his master from multiple assassination attempts even as the empire he's built begins to crumble.  Both stories are largely about interpersonal drama--Vosill's apprentice falls in love his mistress, who is herself in love with the king; DeWar develops a friendship with Perrund, the emperor's concubine, who slowly reveals her history of suffering and abuse during the emperor's wars--but interwoven through both are the central questions of the Culture sequence.  Vosill is trying to make a difference while doing no harm; DeWar is protecting a violent warlord who might be a better ruler than his predecessors.  Which is the right approach?

    It's a concept that is perhaps too slight to carry a whole novel--or perhaps the whole thing would be more compelling if knowing that Inversions was a Culture novel did not make it so obvious who the Special Circumstances agents are (though I suspect not; I think that reading the novel cold would have been a supremely annoying experience, as so much of it is opaque unless you know the secret, and there aren't enough plot twists or action scenes to distract from that obliqueness).  Banks has never been a particularly good writer of characters, and his tendency to plump for melodrama, particularly when it comes to the unrequited romances in Vosill's story, robs the book of much of its affect.  (Another problem is the way that Inversions uses rape in both storylines; Vosill's story ends with a gruesome scene of attempted rape whose graphic description is not made any less exploitative by the fact that the rape is prevented at the very last moment; in the other story, Perrund's revelation that she was gang-raped as a child has no effect on the burgeoning romance between her and DeWar, despite the fact that she has obviously not recovered from the experience.)  In the end, it doesn't feel as if Inversions adds much to the conversation that all Culture novels are involved in.  The personal stories through which Banks chooses to approach it obscure the central issues rather than clarify them, and the dual twists at the end of the novel--in which Vosill is forced to commit violence, and DeWar is forced to acknowledge the personal cost of his big picture approach--feel more than a little schematic.  The novel ends up working only as well as its characters do, and since the most compelling one of them, to me, was Perrund, whose story is glimpsed only in pieces through DeWar's eyes, this made for a patchy experience.

  • The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox - On a summer's night in 1808, a heartbroken eighteen-year-old French peasant, Sobran Jodeau, take a bottle of his father's wine into the hills to drown his sorrows, and meets an angel.  The two share the wine, and make a pact to meet on the same spot every year for the rest of Sobran's life.  This is the starting point of Knox's novel, a strange, lush historical fantasy, and from it she spins out a number of enticing, interwoven stories.  The Vintner's Luck is a portrait of early 19th century French peasant life, following Sobran's fortunes as he marries, has children and loses some of them, flourishes as a vintner, and becomes an influential figure in the village.  Knox's portrait of the community, with its subtle nuances of class, family connection, and unspoken secrets, is delicately drawn and full of vivid characters, chief among them Sobran himself, who grows into an irascible, strong-willed man whose gruff demeanor belies the befuddlement he experiences whenever he encounters the numinous in the form of his winged friend.  At the same time, The Vintner's Luck is a fantasy, with a meticulously constructed cosmology that gives not only the angel--whose name is Xas--but god and Lucifer and several other Biblical figures roles and stories to contrast against Sobran's human drama.  (The one problem with this aspect of the novel is its unquestioned assertion that Christian theology is the correct one; there's more than a frisson of discomfort when Xas reveals to Sobran that one of his other human friends is a Turkish woman who, as a result of her friendship with the angel, converted to Christianity.)  And finally, The Vintner's Luck is a love story, at points a deeply sensual one, between Sobran and Xas (as well as Sobran and several other human lovers).  It's a romance that takes decades to unfold and suffers multiple complications, but despite its otherworldly elements Knox succeeds at making the relationship feel weighty in just the right way.  When Sobran and Xas fight, their arguments are as petty and knowing as any other married couple's; when they make up, the resulting affection is often homely and mundane.  Taken all together, these different elements should amount to a mess (especially in a novel as relatively brief as this one) but Knox miraculously manages to weave them all together into something beautiful and moving, which ultimately becomes a meditation on love and loss as the inevitable end of Sobran and Xas's relationship approaches.  The Vintner's Luck is very much its own thing, and in some ways indescribable, but it's also truly worth a look.

  • Tenth of December by George Saunders - About ten pages into Saunders's collection, one of the most lauded books of the last few years, I sighed and decided that it and I were probably not going to get along.  Saunders seemed to be writing in the familiar vein of literary short story writers--minute, well-observed pieces with little in the way of plot or resolution--and I envisioned myself admiring Tenth of December but not really getting the fuss.  About twenty pages after that, I got the fuss and then some.  Saunders, of course, writes beautifully, his prose spare and incisive, and often quite funny.  But the true magic of his stories is how they often conjure whole worlds in just a few pages--the internal worlds of their characters, such as the fantasist, Walter Mitty-ish protagonist of "Al Roosten," but sometimes also strange alternate worlds.  Several of the stories in Tenth of December are unabashedly SF, and where you'd usually expect a literary writer dipping their toes in genre to write simplistic worlds with overwrought social messages, Saunders's light touch and sharp humor are as present in these stories as in the mimetic ones.  In "The Semplica Girl Diaries," a middle class parent desperate to keep up appearances buys a lawn decoration made from living job migrants, and though this feels like too outlandish a concept to work Saunders is deft enough at describing the social nuances of this future society and its timeless need to keep up with the Joneses that you buy both the fad for such ornaments and the narrator's ability to ignore their profound cruelty.  In "My Chivalric Fiasco," a theme park employee receives a promotion as a bribe for overlooking a superior's crime, but the new job involves being chemically altered to be truly chivalrous, and in that mode the employee can't keep his mouth shut about the injustice he witnessed.  The humor of the story only lightly conceals the horror at its core, both at a technology that can alter people's personalities, and at an economic system that forces employees to accept such a treatment, and then punishes them for its consequences.  And then there are stories where Saunders lets his humor fade, and the sad humanity of his characters come to the fore, as in the title piece, which intertwines the narratives of a terminally ill man bent on suicide and the lonely, precocious boy who decides to save him--a premise that might have been maudlin but is instead deeply moving (and also very tense, as both characters come close to death).  It feels a bit silly to say that a book that has been decorated with almost every award possible turns out to actually be very good, but if you've been put off Tenth of December by its aura of respectability, I strongly urge you to give it a chance.

  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - A new Sarah Waters novel should be an event, so I was a little surprised at how muted the response to The Paying Guests has been.  A hundred pages into the book, that reaction seemed a little less remarkable.  Not that The Paying Guests is bad--it's as sharply written and plotted as any of Waters's novels, and just as compulsively readable.  But readers looking for the delicious ambiguity and slippery characters of her last novel, the masterful The Little Stranger, will be disappointed.  The Paying Guests, by comparison, is something much more mundane, a love story whose strong depiction doesn't quite make up for the familiarity of its beats.  Set in 1922, the story centers on Frances, the only surviving child of an upper-class London family shattered by WWI and ensuing financial crises, who has let her sense of duty and propriety distance her from the rebelliousness of her youth.  Struggling to pay the bills, Frances and her mother decide to take in lodgers, the lower-class but vivacious Leonard and Lilian.  The early chapters, which chart Frances's unease at this incursion into her and her mother's life, and the subtle currents of class snobbery between the two families, are very well observed, but it comes as no surprise when Frances and Lilian become friends, and then more than that.  The problem is, Waters doesn't really have anywhere interesting to go from that point.  She's very good at describing the feverish, obsessive tenor of Frances and Lilian's affair, their growing desperation at being kept apart by the two other people in the house, but once that sense of claustrophobia is established, what can she do with it?  Her choice is a rather melodramatic one that shifts the focus fatally away from the novel's strongest aspect, Frances's psyche.  The book's final third, in which Frances and Lilian are torn apart by guilt and nearly caught in a legal noose, feels slack and boring compared to the tension of their early friendship and courtship.  It's hard to know why we should care about these two characters, who suddenly seem very mundane where before their love affair felt as grand to the reader as it did to them--which means that the central question of the book's final chapters, can Frances and Lilian overcome the darkness that has come between them, is a lot less urgent than Waters needs it to be.  In her afterword Waters says that The Paying Guests was inspired by several famous murder cases among the British middle class in the 1920s, but it lacks the nasty streak it would have needed to truly do those cases justice, or the emotional depth necessary to make their horror truly resonate.  Instead, the book feels a little bit like Frances herself--too wedded to its respectability to be any real fun.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Mad as Hell: Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin

I had no plans to comment on "Oh, Shenandoah," the now-infamous penultimate episode of Aaron Sorkin's final (?) TV series The Newsroom.  I've tried not to think about Sorkin since I gave up on The Newsroom two episodes into its beleaguered run, when it became clear that the flaws that had marred his previous series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip--preachy characters who exist only to speechify, regressive politics, an elitism as overweening as it was unfounded, and a genuine disdain for women--were back in force, and it was actually a bit of a shock to discover that he was still capable of arousing as much outrage and indignation as "Oh, Shenandoah" did.  It seemed like a lot more fun to just sit back and watch the wall-to-wall pans appear--from Libby Hill at The AV Club, Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker, James Poniewozik at Time, Tara Ariano at Previously.TV, Ariane Lange at BuzzFeed, Todd VanDerWerff at, Emily Yoshida at The Verge, Sonia Saraiya at Salon, and Julianne Escobedo Shepherd at Jezebel, to name but a partial sample.

The episode came under fire for multiple sins, from the hackneyed and cheesy shuffling off of a major character to the return of an unearned romance between two increasingly unpleasant characters, but the plot strand that has garnered the most attention and the most outrage involves a producer in the titular newsroom conducting a pre-interview with a rape victim who, having been confronted with the indifference of the justice system to her ordeal, has started a website on which victims like her can name and shame their rapists.  As multiple critics have noted, instead of dealing with the real and legitimate questions raised by such a tactic (while also acknowledging that it may be the only recourse left to victims such as this character), the scene centers on the male character's discomfort with it, and on his unwillingness to believe the victim despite the plausibility of her story.  As Lange writes:
Sitting in a Princeton dorm room, Don tries to convince Mary to take her website down, "to ensure an innocent person isn't destroyed." What about the men, he essentially pleads. One example he offers of the type of person who might post a false allegation on the site is "a woman who feels rejected." And we're meant to be on his side, really. In rape culture, being accused of rape is worse than rape. In rape culture, when we have to decide whose story to believe, it is our moral obligation to believe that the alleged attacker is telling the truth and the alleged victim is a liar.
You can read more about the problems in "Oh, Shenandoah" in any of the links above--if nothing else, the material has inspired many of these writers to greatness--but as I said, I had no intention of joining the fray.  Until, that is, I saw what at first seemed like a mere appendage to the brouhaha, a series of tweets from Alena Smith, a former Newsroom writer.  I'm going to quote Smith's statement in full--because it's short, but also because I want to make some things clear before we talk abut the response to it.
A few points worth making about this statement: it's brief and to the point.  It isn't angry or emotional (not that there's anything wrong with being angry or emotional, but it isn't).  It doesn't name anyone except Smith and Sorkin.  The only experiences, feelings, and ideas it reports are Smith's.  It doesn't violate anyone's privacy--except, possibly, Sorkin's, though only in the sense that it references a storyline that he had, by the time the tweets were published, already released into the world with his name signed to it, and which multiple sources had already condemned.  It's hard to imagine how Smith could have been any more civil or collegial in talking about her own experiences in the Newsroom writers' room--unless, of course, she chose simply not to talk about them at all.

Of course, if you've ever been a woman who has expressed criticism of a man--especially a more powerful man--in a public forum, you know that none of this matters.  How soft, polite, and matter-of-fact your statement is doesn't mean anything--the very fact of having made it puts you in the wrong.  And because the men who flock to the "defense" of the man you dared to criticize have some instinctive understanding that they can't actually say this, what you're in for (assuming it's not the more gruesome option of rape threats, death threats, and doxxing) is a death by a thousand cuts.  A million different ways in which you were wrong, not in what you said, but in how you chose to say it.  You've accused someone of the heinous crime of being sexist (which is of course far worse than actually experiencing sexism).  You've violated their privacy (by speaking about your own experiences).  You're calling for censorship and thought police (say the people who would just like you to shut up and go away).  You were rude (there's no actual response to this; the rudeness is inherent in your very existence).  You're just trying to get attention (what the hell is wrong with someone in the entertainment industry trying to get attention?).  You're endangering your career (somehow the concern-trolls who raise this prospect never actually do anything to make sure that it doesn't happen).

If all of this is starting to ring a bell, go back and read the excerpt from Lange's review of "Oh, Shenandoah" above.  Though the subjects at hand are very different, the same dynamic is at play.  A woman speaking out about her experiences makes a man uncomfortable, so he tries to argue that the choice to speak is inherently illegitimate--even though speaking out is demonstrably the only way to achieve any real change.

And here's where the whole thing becomes wonderfully surreal.  I've seen Sorkin defenders making these Don-esque arguments, towards Smith and towards the reviewers who criticized "Oh, Shenandoah" (though, for some completely unfathomable reason, only towards the female reviewers).  But yesterday their ranks were joined by Sorkin himself.  After largely ignoring the criticism of "Oh, Shenandoah," and confirming the details of Smith's account (though he also claims that she gave her "enthusiastic support" to a revised version of the rape storyline), Sorkin gets down to what he feels is the actual controversy of the day.  I don't usually go in for fisking, but this is simply too beautiful for any other approach:
I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story.
Obviously, the real issue here isn't the tone-deaf and offensive rape storyline I wrote, but the fact that a woman publicly expressed her disapproval of it!
But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality.
This is a thing that an actual human being has written, and which he clearly expects other actual human beings to take seriously.  Even taking into account Sorkin's reputation for self-importance, it's a little hard to take in.
It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched.
Please note: none of these private and intimate details were mentioned in Smith's tweets, and neither was anyone other than Sorkin himself.  The notion that she has violated anyone's privacy is utterly false and plainly a derailment tactic.
That’s what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in
Not-too-subtle dig at female writer's inexperience, as opposed to the male writer, who Knows How Things Work: check.
the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.
Left unspoken: what other recourse Smith had given that her valid, legitimate objections to a storyline that has garnered near-universal pans were shut down by the person running that oh-so-private writers' room.

What we're seeing here is Aaron Sorkin becoming an Aaron Sorkin character, making the same arguments as Don.  In his conception of reality, a woman who feels that she's been treated unjustly and has no hope of redress from the hierarchy above her, also has no right to speak out, because doing so is Rude.

As beautiful as this conflation of fiction and reality is, it actually gets better.  Way back in 2007, Sorkin wrote the Studio 60 episode "4 A.M. Miracle," in which lead character Matt Albie tries to avoid a network lawyer who wants to depose him about a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment in his predecessors' writers' room--a storyline itself based on a suit filed against the production of Friends in 1999.  Though he initially dismisses the suit (and the woman bringing it) as frivolous, Matt is eventually persuaded that the atmosphere in the writers' room was indeed toxic and hostile to women (though it is worth noting that he only accepts this once he learns that the lewd, sexual comments rife in the room were directed at his on-and-off girlfriend, Harriet Hayes).  Nevertheless, he tells the lawyer, he will help to quash the suit, because "No conversation like this has ever or would ever go on in a room I was running.  But there's a lot of good writing that comes out of rooms I don't run."

It's a testament to how generally vile Studio 60 was on all fronts, including gender, that this quote didn't get more play at the time.  Matt isn't simply saying, as defenders of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen will occasionally do, that great art can be an excuse for the abuse of women and girls.  He's saying that the abuse of women and girls might be necessary to the production of great art (this is leaving aside, obviously, the question of whether Studio 60's titular show-within-a-show was art at all, much less the great kind), and that, as an artist himself, he has to prioritize that over the safety of women (or people of color, or LGBTQ people).  The possibility that those people might have voices worth hearing, and that the hostile environment that Matt holds more valuable than their safety might be preventing from speaking up, is never even considered.

What we have here is a pattern.  On The Newsroom, on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and in real life, we have Sorkin repeatedly prioritizing the comfort of men--powerful, privileged men like himself--over the safety of women.  To be clear, I'm not saying that Smith's experience was comparable to rape or sexual harassment.  I'm not even saying that Aaron Sorkin wasn't fully within his rights to shut down a conversation with his employee, or order her out of the room (I don't even think that Smith is saying this; her tweets seem mainly to be about venting the frustration of that argument, and expressing some well-earned schadenfreude at having been proven right).  But in all three cases, there is an assumption that a woman speaking out is fundamentally wrong.  That no matter how unfair her experience was--and please take a moment to admire Don/Matt/Sorkin for recognizing that unfairness--and how limited her options are in response, speaking about it makes her the bad guy, because the system and its smooth running are more important than she is.  True, this approach means that nothing will ever change, but... well... let's pretend that isn't exactly what Sorkin wants.

What makes the Smith incident and Sorkin's reaction to it all the more delicious is that, judging by what I've read by her, Alena Smith's worldview may not be that different from her former boss's.  Coincidentally (or not?), she had an essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books this week.  "You Can't Make a Living: Digital Media, the End of TV's Golden Age, and the Death Scene of the American Playwright" is a long, interesting, perhaps tendentious piece that argues that writing for the theater has become effectively a hobby (and has been progressing towards that state since the 1920s) and that writing for television is going the same way.  Smith's analysis has many echoes of the bugbears that appear in Sorkin's writing: she discusses the advent of new media and the de-professionalization of many creative pursuits, the audience's shifting tastes which make it difficult for quality entertainment to get off the ground, and, of course, the internet.  The difference between Smith and Sorkin is that she doesn't come at the situation from a position of disdain.  She's identifying trends that she clearly views as problematic, but she doesn't depict them--as Sorkin often does--as the death knell of civilization.  Nor is she trapped by the delusion that these processes can somehow be reversed, returning us a golden age when everything was better.  This, not to put too fine a point on it, is what The Newsroom should have been.  There are obvious problems with new media, citizen journalism, and the effects that the internet has had on the creative industry that are worth talking about (just as there are obvious problems with a website where women can identify alleged rapists, that are equally worth talking about).  But the people we should be hearing from about these problems are people like Smith--thoughtful and cognizant of the inevitability of change--not frothing reactionaries like Sorkin, whose only real concern is with their own comfort and vanity.

I've been thinking for a while about Arthur Chu's essay "Of Gamers, Gates, and Disco Demolition: The Roots of Reactionary Rage."  It's a trenchant, thought-provoking piece that argues that flare-ups like the recent (and still ongoing, in some places) GamerGate are part of a reactionary stream within popular culture, which periodically explodes with the rage of white males' fear that their central role within it is being displaced--by women, by black people, by gays.  The whole thing is worth reading, and not just if you're interested in GamerGate, but it was this paragraph that suddenly lit a lightbulb over my head, and clarified for me why I've increasingly found Aaron Sorkin impossible to stand, and why even his earlier, better-written work has become nigh-unwatchable for me:
If you want to get a good idea of the "mood" of middle-class white people in the '70s, rewatch Network and pay attention to Peter Finch's Oscar-winning "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" monologue. Some of his grievances are legitimate. Some of them are incoherent, even bigoted. But all of them add up to a coiled-up rage, ready to lash out at the nearest target.
Network is, of course, Aaron Sorkin's touchstone text.  He references it, and its writer Paddy Chayefsky, repeatedly in both his writing and his public statements.  Both Studio 60 and The Newsroom are, in large parts, attempts to remake it for the modern era.  But as Chu notes, its influence on his writing is rarely revolutionary.  Sorkin has the reputation of being a liberal, but for more than a decade his commentary about our culture has consistently taken the form of that brave conservative self-conception, the man who stands astride history yelling "stop."  And it is, of course, always a man.  The Newsroom in particular nakedly yearns for the days when great men had a single platform from which to pronounce on the culture, determining right from wrong, highbrow from lowbrow, worthwhile from worthless.  Sorkin's depictions of the enemies of this manly authority are almost inevitably feminized.  His characters' enemies--bloggers, online journalists, gossip columnists, sorority girls, rape victims--are women.  The internet itself is perceived as the tool of women.  For years there's been an assumption floating around Sorkin that his misogyny is a trait distinct from his intellectualism, his idealism, his faith in humanity's potential.  What Chu's essay--and the events of the last 24 hours--have crystallized for me is that they all come from the same place, a world where white men like Sorkin have a platform and women who try to speak out against the system that benefits those men are, at best, misguided souls who must be condescended to by people who aren't really interested in grasping their experiences.  Sorkin thinks of himself as a liberal, but liberals seeks to dismantle unjust systems even at a cost to their own privilege.  As episodes like "Oh, Shenandoah" and his response to Alena Smith demonstrate, there is no injustice so profound as to convince Aaron Sorkin that such a dismantling is necessary.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


For several days now, I've been debating with myself whether Interstellar is a bad film that does several things quite well, or a good film that has had the misfortune of having to shoulder, and justify, its creator's reputation.  At some point in the last half-decade, popular culture decided--erroneously, if you ask me--that Christopher Nolan is a purveyor of Deep, Serious entertainments.  And so his latest film, a fairly meat-and-potatoes space exploration story, comes burdened not only with its audience's expectations, but with its creator's need to live up to them.  Every minute of Interstellar drips with a self-importance, a portentousness, that the film itself--which is pretty but overlong, heartfelt but silly, ambitious but scattershot--can't hope to earn.  Just look at the way the film's trailers and promotional materials worked so hard to create a sense of mystery about what is ultimately a very straightforward premise, not because the film needs it--is it really necessary to try and sell a Christopher Nolan film anymore?--but because that's what's become expected from his oeuvre.  All of which is a bit of a shame, because I actually ended up enjoying Interstellar a great deal more than I expected to--it's not as airless as Inception, nor as suffused with pseudo-religious significance as The Dark Knight Rises.  If its ambitions were less lofty, or its pretensions less grand, it might have been easier to ignore its many flaws and problems, which stand out quite starkly in a film trying to make a Grand Statement about human nature.

Set in an unspecified but not-too-distant future, Interstellar imagines a world that has contracted and regressed in the wake of climate catastrophes and food shortages.  Our hero, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is an engineer and astronaut turned farmer, frustrated by having been born into a "caretaking generation" that doesn't give proper scope to his ambition and wanderlust.  Through a series of coincidences that the film only partially earns, Cooper is recruited by NASA to pilot a last-ditch mission to find humanity a new home before Earth becomes completely uninhabitable, a decision that breaks the heart of his young daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy).  While Cooper makes his suspended-animation, time-dilated journey to a distant galaxy, the scientists left back on Earth--which eventually include the grown-up Murphy (Jessica Chastain)--have to solve the problem of how to launch ships big enough to carry Earth's remaining population to their new home.

To this relatively bare-bones story, however, Interstellar appends a family drama, a time travel story, and a woo-woo parable about the power of love, none of which are particularly successful.  The film's final act is a drawn-out, sentimental affair that can't earn out the ridiculous plot twists it expects us to buy.  McConaughey is excellent at conveying Cooper's love and devotion to his children, even from a distance of decades and light-years (it's interesting, in fact, to compare the success of his performance with Leonardo DiCaprio's utter failure to embody a very similar character in Inception; perhaps because DiCaprio lacks McConaughey's warmth and charm, and perhaps because Cobb's children are abstractions who can't justify his supposed devotion).  But the film ends up coasting on that charm.  It fails to interrogate Cooper's insistence that he is doing everything for his family; the suggestion that he may love exploration and space more than he loves them isn't given the serious consideration it deserves.  It's also frustrating that while Cooper's motivating emotion is treated as something ennobling, conferring upon him a natural leadership and moral authority, the emotions that drive his fellow astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), who is in love with one of the scientists sent ahead to scout likely planets and hopes to reunite with him, and Murphy, who holds on to resentment of her father for leaving on his mission even after she learns what's at stake, are used by the other characters to justify discounting their opinions.  The time travel plot, meanwhile, is both obvious and ridiculous.  When it becomes clear, five minutes into the film, that young Murphy's claims that there is a ghost in her bedroom are something we're meant to be paying attention to, any SF fan will be able to guess how that plot strand will resolve, and the fact that the film belabors the explanation of that obvious plot twist only adds insult to injury.

At its most basic level, however--which is also the one on which it is most successful--Interstellar is a space exploration movie, the type of story that fans of written SF have seen hundreds of times but which is relatively rare in film.  Cooper and the other crewmembers aboard the spaceship Endurance have to survive the incredible technical complexity of their mission, to deal with the limitations that the cold equations of fuel and other resources place upon them, and to make decisions where, at every turn, the survival of the human race hangs in the balance.  And, of course, they have to land on alien planets with only a bare minimum of information and preparation and hope for the best, and whereas other movies might have featured scary aliens or vicious plantlife on these planets, Interstellar understands that when you're so far away from everything familiar, the most mundane dangers can be catastrophic.  On the first planet they land on, the characters realize too late that the shallow lake where they've touched down is prone to massive, building-sized waves, which end up costing the life of one of their number.

Space-set films have a frustrating tendency to turn into horror stories in their second act, as their writers bump up against the problem of placing obstacles before characters who are literally floating in a void, and plump for monsters lurking in the shadows.  Interstellar seems to be referencing this tendency when it has Brand tell Cooper that though their mission is fantastically dangerous, it holds little danger of evil.  There's an obvious flaw in this thesis--humans bring evil with them wherever they go--but it's one that Interstellar resists delving into until it's established that even good, dedicated, well-intentioned people can produce conflict and drama when the stakes are high enough.  Everyone aboard the Endurance is dedicated to the mission, and recognizes that their own ego, desires, wishes, and even survival are immaterial in the face of it.  This does not, however, prevent them from clashing against each other, or from making terrible mistakes that cost them resources and time.  When evil does come into the equation, it's in the form of human frailty, as a character who had accepted, in theory, the necessity of sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity's survival comes up against the reality of it and finds himself wanting.

As much fun as it is to watch this sort of story--and the enjoyment is only increased by Interstellar's refreshing rejection of Hollywood's standard save the cat story template, with multiple complications and decision points that give the film an almost novelistic feeling--there's no denying how old-fashioned it is, and how hard Interstellar works to avoid that fact and its implications.  In some ways, Interstellar is as much a meta-statement about the kind of science fiction it is telling as it is an example of it.  Cooper laments the loss of humanity's spirit of exploration, the insistence he keeps hearing that trying to get into space is wasteful in the face of real problems on Earth.  But this is also a reflection of the shift in priorities within the genre.  Hardly anyone writes stories (or makes movies) about space exploration and colonization anymore, and more often than not when writers nowadays imagine the future it's to focus on climate catastrophe and other more immediate problems (this is certainly the case when outsiders to the genre--including filmmakers--try their hand at it).

Interstellar tries to offer a hopeful paean to this kind of SF, but in so doing it only exposes its problems and shortcomings.  There are some fairly obvious practical problems with the argument often offered in defense of both exploration-based SF and actual space exploration, and which is reflected in Interstellar's premise--that we have to explore space in order to find another planet to live on after this one has been used up.  At its most basic level, it suggests that we would be better off focusing on the almost certainly fantastical problem of finding a habitable planet and getting humanity there, over the astronomically difficult but still comprehensible problem of reducing carbon emissions.  Interstellar sidesteps that issue when it tells us that Earth is already doomed and that there's nothing to be done about that, but it can't avoid the deeper problem.  "This planet is a treasure, but it's been telling us to leave for a while now," Cooper sagely opines near the beginning of the movie, a bit of ludicrous tendentiousness that is never challenged or exploded.  Earth isn't telling us anything, of course, but if it could talk, it wouldn't be saying LEAVE; it would be saying STOP.  To say that the solution to climate change is merely to find another planet to live on is the same as saying that the reasons for climate change--our rampant, greedy expansion and heedless exploitation of the planet--are natural and inevitable, not the result of social choices, and of the model upon which we've built our society.  It absolves us of the responsibility to think about those choices and consider whether we should be living differently in order to avoid making the same mistakes all over again.

In recent works of prose SF, such as Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, or Stephen Baxter's Flood/Ark duology, there has been an attempt to acknowledge that humanity's expansion into space can only happen hand-in-hand with a reevaluation of our values and economic system--otherwise, these books recognize,  finding a new home will only mean delaying the inevitable by a few hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.  In Interstellar, on the other hand, that preservationist perspective is treated not as a necessary complement to Cooper's lust for exploration, but as its antithesis, placed in the mouth of a character who is marked out as a villain and a fool by her insistence that the moon landing never happened.  Cooper's claim that Earth is telling humanity to leave is an attempt to paint a tragedy as something ennobling, an opportunity for humanity to spread its wings, with no thought to the evil that we might bring with us if we thoughtlessly accept that spin.  Exploration is a very noble word, and Cooper is the very model of the starry-eyed dreamer we think of when the word "explorer" is used.  But the fact is that throughout most of human history, exploration has been a blind for colonization and exploitation.  Without facing up to that truth, there's no reason to believe that anything will change just because the territory being explored is an uninhabited planet (which is not to mention how often humanity has attached the label "uninhabited" to territories actually teeming with vast, complex civilizations).

These problems are only exacerbated by Interstellar's thoughtless racial politics.  The environmental disaster that kickstarts the search for a new home for humanity is clearly modeled on the 1930s dust bowl (the film even uses interview segments from Ken Burns's recent documentary about that period).  This is problematic on two levels.  First, because the dust bowl was a man-made ecological catastrophe, and the film's choice to ignore this--to treat the disaster as something almost Biblical--only entrenches its refusal to see the problem with its premise.  Second, the dust bowl was a quintessentially American catastrophe, and to reference it in a world in which the actual effects of climate change are felt disproportionately by people in poor, mostly non-white countries feels like yet another iteration of the common Hollywood tendency to treat a problem as serious only when it affects white Westerners.  Coupled with the film's near-uniform whiteness--even the black member of the Endurance crew, Romilly (David Gyasi), feels like an afterthought, someone who exists to enable Cooper and Brand rather than a person in his own right--this feels like yet another skewer to Interstellar's self-satisfaction about the spirit of exploration.  Who is it that's doing the exploration, we're forced to wonder, and when humanity is finally evacuated from Earth, who is it that gets to leave?  (Not as obviously problematic, but still telling, is the total absence of animals from the film, even as livestock or pets; there is no recognition that humanity shares the Earth with other species, and no indication that NASA will be trying to save at least some species from the extinction to which we've doomed them.)

There's a scene towards the beginning of Interstellar that seems to encapsulate the fundamental thoughtlessness of its SFnal tropes.  Brand explains to Cooper that if plan A--evacuating the people of Earth to a new planet--proves unworkable, the Endurance comes equipped with plan B, thousands of frozen human embryos.  The first few, she explains, will be "auto-raised" to maturity, then the remaining embryos will be implanted in them and so forth.  It should only take a moment's thought to realize that Brand is describing a horrible dystopian nightmare, a society whose members (whose women, that is) exist solely to act as incubators for children who aren't even their own.  Even if a psychologically healthy society could somehow result from this sort of generations-long reproductive slavery, it boggles the mind that anyone would consider the result the salvation of humanity.  Cut off from their planet of origin, from any tie to human history or culture, these people wouldn't be humanity, but a completely different species that just happened to share our DNA (and per the above, it's hard not to wonder just what the racial makeup of those embryos is, and whose DNA has truly been represented).  The failure to realize plan B's monstrousness feels like an encapsulation of Interstellar as a whole--a film that is enjoyable so long as you don't think about it too much, that thinks it's paying homage to a grand tradition even as it's exposing its most ugly and horrifying flaws.  A less self-serious film might have been able to carry at least some of the problematic implications of Interstellar's story more lightly--do we truly care, for example, about the profound social problems implied by the worldbuilding and plot of Guardians of the Galaxy?--but alas, Christopher Nolan's reputation for seriousness dooms this latest demonstration of how unearned it is.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2014 Edition, part 3

Well, here we are at the end of another fall TV season.  There are still a few stragglers who will be making their bows in November, but for the most part the networks have delivered their bounty and it is... not great.  Of all the shows I've written about, the only ones I'm still watching are The Flash and How to Get Away With Murder (though the latter is already beginning to wear me down, its twisty plot and soapy shenanigans not doing quite enough to make up for the emptiness of its characters).  As it turned out, however, some of the more interesting work of the new season debuted relatively late, so at least we're closing out these reviews on a high note.
  • Jane the Virgin - The premise of the CW's new hit dramedy should send any thinking person--especially women--running for the hills.  Having been raised her whole life by her strict grandmother to believe that the unplanned loss of her virginity will mar her irreparably (and having had the example of her irresponsible, unwed teenage mother before her to reinforce that lesson), heroine Jane (Gine Rodriguez) has arrived at her early 20s not only still a virgin but someone who obsessively plans her whole life.  She has a job she likes at a hotel, is working towards a teaching certificate, and plans, in a few sensible years, to marry her loving but slightly frustrated boyfriend.  Then a mistake at her gynecologist's office leads to Jane being inseminated with another couple's sperm, and upends not only her life but the lives of several families.  What makes Jane the Virgin work despite this cringe-inducing premise is first its comedic style.  This series is based on a telenovela, and it wears that influence proudly (not least in fielding a cast almost entirely made up of Latin@ actors), featuring, already in its first two episodes, star-crossed lovers, mistaken identities, hidden parentages, evil schemes, and many, many, many coincidences.  The arch tone--intensified by the dry voiceover that accompanies the series and the many intertitles that explain its events--makes Jane the Virgin simultaneously a melodrama and a show bemused by its own melodramatic tone.  But what makes the show come to life--and, so far, my hands-down favorite new series of the fall--is the fact that underneath its stylized parody, it has a beating heart.  Jane's dilemma, and the pain that her situation causes her and her family, are treated seriously and explored sensitively, and the relationships between the various characters--even the ones that are most steeped in telenovela tropes, such as the marriage between Jane's baby-daddy and his scheming wife, who tried to get pregnant on the sly in order to stave off a divorce long enough to get a big payout per her pre-nup--have a weight of humanity and real emotion.  The result feels a little like a cross between Pushing Daisies and Switched at Birth, and the fact that the show can balance the former's artifice with the latter's earnestness is very promising.  Though I suspect that Jane the Virgin only has a season or two of story in it--the telenovela format, after all, is designed to run just a few seasons before squaring everyone away in their deserved happy or sad endings--for the time being, it is a delightful and surprisingly affecting new show.

  • Survivor's Remorse - It's tempting to just stand up and applaud whenever a new series about the African-American experience shows up, but Survivor's Remorse has a chunky, instantly-engaging premise to boot: up-and-coming basketball player Cam Calloway (Jessie Usher) hits the big leagues when he signs a multi-million-dollar contract, and as his family relocates from a Boston slum to an Atlanta penthouse, they have to adjust not just to wealth but to sudden fame and constant visibility.  As a comedy, Survivor's Remorse can sometimes feel a little too earnest, with characters delivering what sound like canned speeches about the hot-button issues of the day--the second episode, in which Cam's mother Cassie (Tichina Arnold) endangers his wholesome, rags-to-riches image by revealing that she supports corporal punishment for children, is so timely that it's shocking to realize that it must have been written months ago.  What keeps the show lively are its actors--in particular, RonReaco Lee as Cam's cousin and manager Reggie, who is carefully grooming his cousin's image in an attempt to ensure that he becomes a household name rather than a flash in the pan, and Erica Ash as Cam's foul-mouthed gay sister Mary-Charles--who make the characters seem lived in, and their relationships instantly believable as those of a cantankerous but deeply loving family--a particular highlight is the cordial but slightly frosty relationship between the family and Reggie's wife Missy (Teyonah Parris), whose upper-class background imposes a distance that is no less obvious for going unacknowledged. 

    From the show's premise, you'd expect a lot of fish out of water humor, but Survivor's Remorse is a show about people who are smart and savvy, who have been consuming mass media for long enough to understand how it will spin every story that explodes around Cam, even if they don't yet realize what it means to be at the center of those stories.  That intelligence is so rare on TV that it makes the show worth watching in its own right--when Reggie tries to get Cassie to apologize for her comments about corporal punishment, we expect over the top shouting matches and a stubborn digging into opposing positions.  Instead, both aunt and nephew recognize that what's important is Cam's image, and what follows is a battle of wits between them to see how they can achieve that goal while still preserving her pride and his position of power.  Survivor's Remorse is therefore often more interesting than it is funny--especially since its humor frequently depends on raunch and on some rather broad gags, which along with the show's overfondness for displaying naked female bodies creates some serious tonal whiplash with its more intelligent aspects--but it's interesting in ways that are so rare on TV as to make it worth watching in their own right.

  • The Affair - Alongside all the new network shows, Showtime makes a stab at the prestige drama crown with this series, which chronicles the titular affair between Noah (Dominic West), an author summering by the beach with his family, and Alison (Ruth Wilson), a local waitress.  It's about as low-concept a premise as you could possibly imagine, and perhaps for that reason The Affair crams its storytelling with any number of gimmicks meant to dress up its familiar story.  Each episode relates its events twice, first from Noah's perspective and then from Alison's, and the differences between their narratives shed a light on how each sees the other more as what they needed them to be than who they actually are: Noah, who is bored and restless, sees Alison as a temptress; Alison, who is barely hanging on after the death of her son, sees Noah as a borderline-creep whose imposition on her life offers a distraction from her pain.  The problem with this approach is that, once the fairly obvious point that memory is fluid and self-serving has been made, we're unable to avoid the fact that neither of these stories are terribly interesting in their own right (and trying to work out where the "real" truth lies feels like a mug's game, since Noah and Alison's recollections are often so distinct as to leave no room for a happy medium). 

    Alison's story is much more engaging than Noah's--the middle aged, middle class white guy who is unhappy in his perfect marriage is an over-familiar cliché, and somehow being a writer doesn't encourage Noah to veer away from a simplistic, self-obsessed narrative.  Alison, meanwhile, has a broad, complex family history that is slowly being revealed, and despite being drawn to Noah she doesn't suffer from his tunnel-vision, noticing that the other members of her and his family are going through their own crises and major life events.  But the bifurcated format of the show means that we have to sit through Noah's boring, self-serving narrative before getting to Alison's more interesting one, a tediousness that is not alleviated by the fact that both Alison and Noah are telling their stories to a detective who is investigating some as-yet unspecified crime that occurred that summer.  The Affair is extremely well-made--West and Wilson are both very good, as are Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson as their respective spouses; and the look of the show, which stresses the sunny, windswept scenery and the contrast between the vacationers' opulent houses and the locals' ramshackle ones, helps to create a solid sense of place.  But without an engaging story at its core, the show's constant teasing of mysteries--who is telling the truth about Noah and Alison's affair?  What is the crime being investigated and who committed it?--feels like an attempt to distract from that absence rather than a worthwhile storytelling choice.

  • Constantine - There's an odd sort of protectiveness that comics fandom seems to feel towards John Constantine that far outstrips all other forms of adaptation-phobia.  Perhaps it's because I've only ever seen the results of those adaptations--this pilot, and the Keanu Reeves movie from 2005--but I've never really understood the attraction.  Constantine has always seemed to me like a fairly run-of-the-mill bad boy--hard-drinking, hard-smoking, a chain of bad relationships and even worse life choices in his wake--of the kind that television and movies throw out fairly regularly (though admittedly, and as in this case, not before carefully filing away anything that might not be entirely mainstream friendly, such as Constantine's chain-smoking and, apparently, his occasional bisexuality).  The pilot for the latest attempt to adapt this beloved property doesn't bring me any closer to an understanding.  One hour in, the show feels like grimdark, the TV series--set in a crapsack world whose normal surface conceals nothing but death and corruption, and revolving around characters defined by their cynicism, but not willing to actually own up to the full darkness of what that implies.  Constantine himself feels like an empty artfully-disheveled trenchcoat.  His sole defining feature is a tendency towards snarky but not particularly clever humor, and even allowing for the infelicities of the pilot requiring him to deliver a lot of infodumps, none of what the show tells us about him--that he is damned to hell and a bit anxious about that, that he's tortured by what he knows and can see--feels like anything more than empty posing, the desire to seem tortured without doing any of the hard work of writing an actually tortured character.  To work as a procedural, the pilot for Constantine needs to have some inkling of a sense of fun, even if it's a grim sort of fun that comes from spitting in the face of certain doom, but instead it is dutiful and plodding (and almost entirely lacking in women, certainly as movers and shakers in the show's world).  I don't know whether Constantine is the faithful adaptation that comics fans have been waiting for or yet another bowdlerization, but either way I'm not feeling motivated to keep watching.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2014 Edition, part 2

After a bunch of dramas, our second batch of new shows is made up almost entirely of comedies.  I don't tend to review comedies in these round-ups, because much more than dramas they need the time to build up their world and characters before you can really get a sense of what they're capable of (think back to almost any classic comedy of the last two decades and I think you'll find that the first half-season, at least, is mostly teething episodes--there are a handful of early Friends episodes, for example, that I've never bothered to watch, and I was a devoted fan of that show in my teens).  But somehow, most of the new comedies this falls have made for meaty discussion, so whether or not any of these shows pan out--and my hit rate for comedies has been pretty dismal in the past--I did end up having things to say about them.  (Progress report on previously-discussed shows: I've given up on Forever, and I think that Madam Secretary will be going the same way this week.  I'm still enjoying How to Get Away With Murder, but purely on a plot level--there doesn't seem to be much more to it.)
  • Bad Judge - According to what I've read, the pilot episode for Bad Judge was heavily reworked before its first airing, and watching it that seems both obvious and obviously a bad idea.  The premise--that title character Kate Walsh is a hard-drinking, hard-partying, sexually adventurous judge who still dresses like a teenager under her robes--is overwrought but not obviously misguided.  The last few years have proven that there's a market for female raunch, and the majority of what goes on in a courtroom surely offers enough examples of human folly  to drive ten sitcoms (and in fact already has, going back to Night Court).  But someone in the Bad Judge production seems to have gotten cold feet, because the pilot episode backs off very quickly on Judge Rebecca Wright's immature behavior and instead tries to argue that what makes her a bad judge is that she cares too much--specifically, for a ten-year-old whose parents she sent to prison and who is acting out at school, to whose rescue she repeatedly rushes, neglecting the more boring aspects of her job.  The result of this slapdash re-edit is a character whose behavior is too inappropriate to be admirable--this is still a judge who enters a courtroom examining the result on a home pregnancy test--but too mild to be truly outrageous.  The second episode feels more coherent, but veers away from the courtroom by focusing on Rebecca's romantic life--her dalliance with a hot but dim fireman, and reluctance to commit to a relationship with a psychiatrist who keeps appearing as an expert witness in her cases (Ryan Hansen, delightful as ever).  Bad Judge has a good cast--as well as Walsh and Hansen, another highlight is Tone Bell as the judge's sardonic bailiff and only real friend--but it seems to be backing away from what makes it unique in favor of a generic "wacky antics of funny lady" story, which is a shame.

  • Manhattan Love Story, A to Z, Scrotal Recall - As several TV reviewers have noted, 2014 seems to be the year of the rom-sitcom, the comedy whose stated purpose is to tell a romantic comedy story over multiple episodes (and, potentially, seasons).  It's not clear to me why this format has suddenly become so popular.  True, the ending of How I Met Your Mother has left a void, but why not try to imitate it at any point during the nine seasons it was on the air?  Perhaps the reminiscences brought on by the 20th anniversary of Friends have reminded TV executives of how that show's longevity was driven in part by the success of the Ross/Rachel romance.  Or maybe the trend towards sweetness and niceness in comedies (as exemplified in, say, Parks and Recreation, which has had not one but two major romances blossom over the course of six seasons) has been taken to its inevitable conclusion of trying to make a weekly series out of that sweetest of comedy genres.  If you're a fan of romantic comedies this can only be a good thing, since, as Hollywood has allowed the genre to degenerate into a shrill, misogynistic shadow of its glory days, TV shows like How I Met Your Mother and Parks and Rec have become the best place to find funny romance.  But judging by this new crop of shows, the pitfalls of dedicating an entire series to a central love story turn out to be the same ones that befall rom-com movies.

    Manhattan Love Story, for example, is riddled with sexist stereotypes--the male lead is introduced walking down the streets of New York, mentally assessing every woman he sees on whether he would have sex with her; the female lead, meanwhile, is introduced the same way, only she's assessing the women's purses for whether she'd like to steal them--and retrograde ideas of how romance and dating work.  Like a lot of latter-day rom-coms, it features characters behaving in shrill, demanding, and unpleasant ways, which are then justified because that's just how love works!  When Dana (Analeigh Tipton) breaks down crying during her first date with Peter (Jake McDorman) because she's had a terrible first day at work (by which I mean, her coworkers lock her out of the office in a mean-spirited prank, because that's how adults behave in this kind of romantic comedy), the fact that he reacts with dismay is treated as a profound moral failing on his part, as opposed to a reasonable human reaction.  For the rest of the show's first two episodes the two future lovers continue to snipe at and argue with each other in ways that make their romance alluring only on the grounds that it would prevent them from imposing their self-absorption and rudeness on anyone else.  That's not to say that you can't have a rom-sitcom about unpleasant people--this summer's You're the Worst, currently the title holder for the genre (seriously, if you haven't checked it out it's really worth a look) is about two self-absorbed, toxic people who rather miraculously discover that their flaws and damage complement each other.  But the key is to acknowledge that your characters are being awful, not to pretend that awful behavior is sweet because the people committing it are the leads in a romantic comedy.

    A to Z's protagonists are much more likeable than Manhattan Love Story's, but the show suffers from the equally crippling problem of wanting to be How I Met Your Mother so badly as to make itself seem redundant.  This starts with casting the Mother herself, Cristin Milioti, as heroine Zelda, continues with a Barney Stinson-esque best friend character played by Henry Zebrowski (for some reason, sitcom writers trying to recreate Barney seem to cling to the rude womanizing part of the character, and leave out the natty suits and dorky hobbies; Zebrowski's Stu, therefore, is just your run-of-the-mill oaf, nowhere near Neil Patrick Harris's magnificent creation) and a voiceover guiding us through the story (by Katey Sagal), and reaches its crescendo with a gimmicky premise that seems to spell doom for the show's adorable central couple--that Zelda and Andrew (Ben Feldman) will only date for eight months.  As How I Met Your Mother quickly realized, however, it takes more than a gimmick to keep a show going--especially if that gimmick is to destroy your central premise--and A to Z doesn't yet have the strong ensemble and deep bench of supporting characters that made that show a delight to watch even as it meandered towards its controversial conclusion.  The potential is there--Lenora Crichlow is delightful as Zelda's best friend, though her character description, a serial dater who adopts the personalities of the men she's with, is more than a little trite; and as Andrew's boss and coworkers, Christina Kirk, Parvesh Cheena, and Hong Chau steal the spotlight whenever they're on screen.  But the focus is still far too intensely on Andrew and Zelda, who, for all that Milioti and Feldman are good actors and very sweet, still feel rather generic--he's a hopeless romantic who also needs to grow up, she's a cynic whose hardness conceals a lifetime of disappointment--and too obviously cribbed from How I Met Your Mother's Ted and Robin.  Whether their allotted eight months end in breakup or marriage (or, for that matter, moving in together, which surely means you're not dating anymore but is less dramatic, so the show's promotional material has been downplaying that option), so far nothing about them justifies the in-depth chronicle of their relationship promised by the show's title.

    Meanwhile, over in the UK, we have Scrotal Recall, a show with, bar none, the very worst title ever imposed on an innocent TV series.  Whether this unfortunate title was a brain fart by series creator Tom Edge, or the contribution of a too-clever executive, its connotations are completely wrong for this rather witty and sweet comedy, which wears its How I Met Your Mother inspiration (not to mention, of course, Coupling, the show from which Mother inherits much of its DNA) far more lightly than A to Z.  When sad-sack, self-conscious Dylan (Johnny Flynn) receives a diagnosis of Chlamydia, he has to contact his former sexual partners, and rather than sending them an anonymous health department postcard he decides to take a trip down memory lane and determine why he hasn't yet met the love of his life.  The show thus skips back and forth through time, revealing the romantic travails of not just Dylan himself but his friends and roommates--the first episode flashes back to the wedding of his friend Angus, for example, but in the present day Angus has been crashing on Dylan's couch for three months following that marriage's not-so-surprising breakup--who are vividly and amusingly written, often with a touch of melancholy that also infects Dylan himself.  While the show's trajectory is fairly obvious--the love of Dylan's life is going to turn out to be his best friend Evie (Misfits's Antonia Thomas)--that obviousness has never been a flaw in a romantic comedy.  It's the journey that makes the story worth following, and Scrotal Recall, despite its awful title, is the only one of these three shows whose journey seems truly appealing.

  • Selfie - In a lot of ways, I'm not at all up to date on the current online fads, which may be why I've never been able to work out just why taking a picture of yourself on your cell phone has become such a derided act, or why it's meant to be so indicative of today's online culture rather than a fairly obvious thing to do with a camera (true story: the only selfie I've ever taken was on a film camera some time in 2001).  In that sense, then, Selfie is a useful cultural artifact, since it doubles as a primer on everything that is supposedly wrong with Kids Today and all they do online.  The third worst thing about Selfie--which may not be the worst new show of the fall, but is certainly the most infuriating, and the one whose on-screen talent is most out of proportion to the intelligence of its writing--is how thoughtlessly, curmudgeonly dismissive it is of online culture.  Its heroine, Eliza (Karen Gillan) is a phone-obsessed, hashtag-spouting millennial with hundreds of thousands of twitter followers.  In the real world, we might conclude from this level of success that Eliza is clever, or funny, or at the very least a very canny self-marketer.  In the Selfie universe, it means that she is boring, vapid, and completely unfamiliar with normal human interactions and real emotions.  When an accidentally-publicized bout of food-poisoning demonstrates to Eliza that people enjoy laughing at her as much as they enjoy following her, she turns to Henry (John Cho), a marketer at her pharmaceutical firm, to remake her image.

    The second worst thing about Selfie is how stunningly misogynistic it is, and how obviously unaware it is of that fact.  On top of being a twitter celebrity, Eliza is the best salesperson at her firm, and again, instead of indicating her skill or knowledge, we're told that this is simply down to her looks and slutty appearance.  The latter is used to justify any amount of disrespectful, nasty behavior towards Eliza--when she sleeps with a colleague who, unbeknownst to her, is married, none of her other coworkers feel obliged to clue her in, and instead snicker amongst themselves over how stupid she is not to have noticed (now might be the time to marvel at Gillan's bad luck in having somehow managed to land in a show whose treatment of her is even more misogynistic than Doctor Who's--and one created by a woman, no less).  Henry's remaking of Eliza is ground zero for much of the show's misogyny.  90% of his instructions involve policing her appearance, behavior towards other men, and sex life, and always towards what he perceives as more "ladylike" behavior.  Which brings us to the very worst thing about Selfie, the fact that it was envisioned as a retelling of My Fair Lady--or of the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, on which the film was based.  The genius of Shaw's play is in how it skewers Henry Higgins's arrogance and certainty in his own rightness.  He believes that he can remake a person from the ground up, and that the difference between a flower girl and lady is nothing but manners.  What he fails to consider is character, and as Shaw reveals, the play's Eliza has more character in her little finger than Higgins has in his whole body; all his training of her does is reveal this fact.  Selfie seems to have lost sight of this twist entirely.  "I need you to remake my image!" Eliza tells Henry.  "You mean help you become a better person?" he replies.  The idea that manners and character are two different things, which is at the heart of Shaw's play--and helps to make Higgins's obvious disdain for women more palatable--is completely missing here.  Instead, the show validates Henry's conviction that presentation and personality are exactly the same thing--which, when coupled with the misogyny of his slut-shaming, body-policing attitudes, adds up to some very toxic sludge.

    This is all a great shame, because Selfie has a fantastic cast (David Harewood shows up in the pilot as Henry and Eliza's boss and steals the show with a few lines) and, on a line-by-line basis, some clever writing.  Gillan and Cho have good chemistry and--when he isn't policing her clothing and sex life--are immediately convincing as unlikely best friends who challenge each other to be better and to live better lives.  There's a good show buried somewhere deep within Selfie, about the generation and attitude gap between these two characters and how they nevertheless manage to complement each other, but any chance of seeing it is destroyed by the show's disdain--for young people, for social media, for women, and most of all, for its brilliant and clever source material.

  • The Flash - two years ago I came down pretty hard on the pilot for Arrow, and while I stand by that review--Arrow didn't start getting good until well into its first season, and its first few episodes were particularly dire--the fact that it has has become one of my favorite shows has made me more willing to cut superhero shows some slack and look harder for attributes that might indicate future greatness (perhaps a little too willing, in some cases--two episodes after its intriguing pilot, Gotham has devolved into an atonal mess that happens to have some top-notch actors in it, making my positive take on its first episode seem hopelessly optimistic).  All of which is to say that I went into the pilot for the Arrow spin-off The Flash wanting to be won over and willing to forgive a lot of the flaws that turned me off that earlier show.  What I found, though, was such a profound deviation from Arrow's tone and approach that it's hard to know how or whether The Flash will replicate the traits that have made Arrow so much fun--the breakneck pacing, the intriguing handling of comic book tropes and exploration of the idea of heroism, and the solid characters and relationships.  In fact, the show that the Flash pilot most reminds me of is the one whose memory made me so wary of Arrow when it first aired--Smallville.  Like Smallville, The Flash has a lighthearted tone and a cast of youngsters (if not, thankfully, actual high schoolers), and like it, it starts from the premise that the same event that gave protagonist Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) his superpowers has also created dozens of other "metahumans" whose powers he is going to have to deal with in his guise as the titular superhero.

    If you remember Smallville, you're probably not feeling terribly reassured right now, though The Flash does have the advantage of not being hobbled by the prequel format, and of having a leading man who is far more charismatic and emotive than Tom Welling.  Aside from that, it's hard to know how this new superhero franchise will look--as many reviewers have noted, the only obvious similarity between The Flash and Arrow is the way they both treat their central love interest (in this case, Barry's best friend Iris, played by Candice Patton) as a delicate flower who must be protected from the truth about the hero's nighttime activities, which is hardly promising.  Nevertheless, the pilot has enough verve--and Gustin is sufficiently winning--that I'm willing to see if the Arrow formula can survive this sort of upheaval, and if the smartest superhero show on TV can spawn another one of its ilk, even if it's telling a very different sort of story.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Not Like Those Other Girls: Thoughts on Outlander

Even if we're not quite there, it feels as if we're on the verge of a golden age for televised novel adaptations.  For years, irate book fans responded to every bowdlerized, incoherent film adaptation of their favorite works by claiming that TV was the natural medium of book adaptations--the famous "miniseries on HBO" meme, which keeps cropping up despite the fact that there are so many other channels and content venues producing good material (and that HBO doesn't actually make that many miniseries).  But unlike British TV, which has never met a bestselling or classic novel it couldn't turn into a six-part mini, American TV has been slow to catch up, only reaching for novels as its source material if it could wring them of everything but their basic concept and turn them into a procedural.  Slowly but surely, however, this seems to be changing.  True Blood blazed the trail, and Game of Thrones's mega-success proved that there was gold in them thar books, and now all of a sudden we've got forthcoming series based on James S.A. Corey's Expanse series, on Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy, and four John Scalzi novels optioned for television.  What's interesting is how often these adaptations work as a means of bringing genre to a television market that's normally averse to it, whether it's urban fantasy, epic fantasy, science fiction, or YA (on shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars).  You could even claim True Detective as a not-so-distant outlier to this trend, since the show's first season was written by a novelist and shares many of the themes of his novels, and carried the overt influences of several horror writers.

And now, with Starz's Outlander, whose first season went on hiatus last week, we have what might be the first Romance television series on a general-interest channel.  Based on the series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander is the story of Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), an English battlefield nurse who, in 1945, takes a second honeymoon in Scotland with her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies), as a way of reconnecting after the long separation of the war.  While exploring some standing stones said to possess mystical properties, Claire is transported to 1743, to the middle of a pitched battle between the local Scottish landowners and the forces of the English king.  Brought to the castle of the local laird, Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis), Claire soon makes herself so useful with her advanced medical knowledge that he refuses to allow her to leave, and his brother Dougal (Graham McTavish) involves her in his plot to raise money for a rebellion on behalf of the Stuart dynasty.  Claire also catches the eye of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a dreamy fugitive from English justice, and of Black Jack Randall (Menzies again), her husband's sadistic ancestor, an officer in the King's forces.

It's important, when watching Outlander, to take it on its own terms.  As science fiction fans, for example, we might expect the series to explore the implications of its central conceit, the fact that Claire has traveled through time.  Can she, for example, change the future?  And if so, should she--we've already, for example, seen Frank, a historian, tell Claire that Dougal's rebellion is doomed to failure, and that in a few years the clans will lose a disastrous battle that will effectively spell the end for Scottish self-rule, so should Claire try to save her new friends from this fate?  Outlander seems to have no interest in these questions.  The time travel McGuffin is used to bring Claire to the past (and will presumably be used to return her to her own time when the story is over), but it isn't discussed when she's there.  We're apparently not meant to wonder why Claire, in particular, was chosen for this adventure, or how the magic of the stones works.  Time travel jumpstarts the story, but isn't part of it.

Similarly, if you're looking for a serious handling of the show's historical setting, Outlander is not for you.  The show is hopelessly caught up in a romanticized, Braveheart-esque conception of the Scottish-English dispute, seeing the former as brave freedom-fighters--not aristocrats trying to enthrone a sympathetic king--and depicting the latter as sadistic colonizers for whom no atrocity against the local population is too heinous (there has been a semi-serious suggestion that the reason the show hasn't yet been purchased by a UK TV channel was so as not to inflame Scottish nationalistic feeling before last month's independence referendum).

What Outlander is, undeniably and unabashedly, is a work of genre romance--the story of a woman's overwrought, melodramatic journey towards passion in the arms of a rugged, adoring man.  This is a series that dedicates an entire episode to Claire and Jamie's wedding (they have been forced to marry in order to protect Claire from Black Jack, a classic romance trope), and specifically their wedding night.  The tropes of the romance genre--the marriage of convenience that leads to real passion, the men who all fall in immediate lust with our heroine, the frequent threats to her wellbeing from which she's rescued by her handsome love interest--are what drives Outlander's plot, and the most important character arc for Claire is the realization that she is in love with two men, which will undoubtedly lead up to an agonizing choice between staying in the past with Jamie and returning to the present and Frank.

It should be said that, as a romance, Outlander has some, or rather two, crucial problems.  They are: Frank and Jamie.  Menzies has always been an excellent performer, and when Outlander gives him the opportunity he invariably steals the show.  He's a lot of fun as Black Jack Randall, and the only actor who manages to make a real, three-dimensional person out of the rather overheated, cliché-ridden dialogue given to the 18th century characters--a scene in the season's sixth episode, "The Garrison Commander," in which he reminisces about flogging a Scottish criminal (who is, of course, Jamie) with mingled disgust and excitement almost instantly makes him the series's most magnetic character.  But while the television medium allows Outlander to keep Menzies on our screens in a double role, his skills as an actor mean that we're never tempted to mistake Black Jack for Frank, nor does Claire's love for her husband infect her disgust at his ancestor.  This means that Frank remains more an idea than a person, and more importantly, that his relationship with Claire never leaps off the screen in a way that justifies Claire's devotion to him.  Though the show deviates from the book by showing us flashbacks of Frank and Claire's relationship, and returning to 1945 to explore his growing despair as he searches for her, in none of these scenes do the actors have enough chemistry to convince us that we're seeing a great love.

Heughan, meanwhile, has great chemistry with Balfe, and not much else.  Jamie is meant to be young (I think, perhaps, a bit younger than the actor playing him, and certainly younger than Claire, though Heughan and Balfe are only a year apart) and inexperienced--the show makes much of the fact that he's a virgin who needs Claire's guidance in the bedroom.  But even taking that into account, the character is surprisingly blank.  There doesn't seem to be much between him and Claire except attraction and his puppyish devotion to her--which is not nothing, of course, but also not a love story for the ages.

What makes Outlander work despite--or perhaps even because of--the thinness of its two love interests is Claire herself.  Genre romance, after all, is often less a love story between two equally complex people as it is the story of the gratification of its heroine's desires.  That Frank and Jamie's devotion to Claire isn't terribly convincing isn't a flaw in the show because they are not the point of the story, she is.  And Claire herself is an engaging, frequently complex and occasionally unlikable figure.  She's stubborn, a little overfond of drink, and frequently too pleased with her own cleverness.  She is also, however, intelligent, inquisitive, and game for pretty much everything (something that I wish the show made more of is the fact that Claire has just come back from war--where, incidentally, she saw death on a scale that would make any of the manly warriors around her quake in their boots--and would thus be a great deal more accustomed to hardship and sudden changes in her circumstances than just your average 20th century woman).  Outlander is the story is Claire plowing through the obstacles set before her--Colum's imprisonment of her, Dougal's conviction that she is a spy for the English, Black Jack's conviction that she is a spy for the Scots, her own growing attachment to Jamie--in her efforts to get back to the standing stones and (as she believes) her own time.  That she frequently falls flat on her face due to her limited power and even more limited understanding of the situation she's landed in is what makes her human.  That she immediately picks herself up and tries again is what makes her heroic, and her story worth watching.

It also may be why Outlander has been so quickly hailed, by so many TV critics, as a work of feminist storytelling.  To be sure, there aren't so many stories about women on our screens that a new one isn't worth celebrating, and especially one that is so proud of its genre, and of its preoccupation with female desire and the female gaze.  Much has been made of the fact that Claire enjoys sex and has an active sex-drive, and is unabashed about instructing her lovers in how best to please her (a scene in the premiere episode in which she requests and receives oral sex from Frank has been particularly celebrated, and though I think this is less unusual than some commentators seems to believe--The Good Wife did it several years ago--it's certainly not commonplace).  Claire's own desire is reflected in the show's shooting, and in the way it stages its love interests, Jamie especially, in a way that allows her, and the audience, to appreciate their physique.  That episode-long wedding night is quite clearly designed to be erotic to female viewers (or, perhaps, to viewers who are attracted to men), with many lingering shots of Jamie's nakedness, and of Claire's pleasure in looking at and having him.

This is all, obviously, both admirable and sadly rare, and I agree that Outlander should be lauded for its emphasis in this arena.  But still I balk at calling the show feminist and am surprised that it has been embraced as such.  Or, to be more precise, Outlander's feminism seems to me like what I thought feminism was when I was a young teen (which is, coincidentally or not, around the time that the books were first appearing)--the means for the self-actualization of a single, usually quite privileged, woman.  The stories I read at that age were usually about a single, remarkable girl who bucked the insistence that she couldn't do things because of her gender, and whose specialness was often signified by a disdain for girly things such as makeup or sighing over boys.  Her success was achieved not by toppling the system that discriminated against her, but by being the exception to that rule, gaining the admiration of men and the love of one particularly hunky and special one.  Outlander is not quite that egregious--Claire does form relationships with women (though these mostly disappear after the series's first few episodes), and as noted, the show's emphasis is on the girly subject of romance--but it is nevertheless the story of a woman who is unique, who wins love and respect by not being like those other girls.

Take, for example, the series's disinterest in exploring its premise.  For a long while, I couldn't understand why time travel was even necessary to the story.  When Claire arrives at Castle Leoch, she makes up a story about being an English widow who has lost her belongings and servants, but this could just as easily have been the truth.  There's nothing in Claire's story--not her knowledge of medicinal plants, nor the fact that she has a living husband--that couldn't have worked just as well if she were not a woman out of time.  As the season draws on, it becomes clear that Outlander is using Claire's temporal displacement as an explanation for her independence, and unwillingness to be governed be the men around her.  Claire, we're told, is a "modern" woman, and thus fundamentally different from her foremothers--"Welcome to the 20th century!" she brightly tells Frank when he marvels at the fact that she's going off to the front while he, an intelligence officer, is staying behind in the relative safety of London.  This is not an unusual approach for the kind of feminist fiction I read as a girl, and it's one that treats feminism as purely an individual process, not a reaction against social forces--as if, in the 18th century, there were no women who were strong-willed and determined to be treated with respect, and as if the only thing a woman who did possess those qualities needed to do in order to be given her equal rights in this period was to demand them.  (It's interesting to compare Outlander with Octavia Butler's novel Kindred, another story about a woman who is whisked to the past, and an uncomfortable romantic relationship, by a time travel McGuffin.  Like Claire, Kindred's Dana is strong and keenly aware of her own worth, but these traits do nothing to protect her when she finds herself a black woman in the slave-holding, antebellum South.  The system that perceives her as less than human doesn't care that Dana disagrees, and rather than bending that system to her will, Dana is so oppressed by its dehumanization of her that she begins to buy into it.)

One of the effects of being so caught up in second-wave ideas of what constitutes feminism is that Outlander has almost zero intersectional awareness.  So Claire is insistent on being treated with respect despite her gender, but has no problem with being waited on hand and foot by other, lower-class women.  Admittedly, this is a pitfall that a woman from 1945--even a feminist--would be likely to fall into, but the show seems equally unconcerned with these women, depicting them as happy servants, who genuinely have no greater concerns in life than to worry about Claire's drama.  Claire thoughtlessly expects to be treated like a lady, and the narrative so thoroughly shares that assumption that when she momentarily steps down from that role and joins a group of village women who are beating wool, it's treated as a lark, a bit of noblesse oblige, rather than the reality of life for most women around Claire, and something that could have easily been her lot too.

One of the interesting ways in which Outlander expresses its blindness towards class is Claire's clothing.  She arrives in Castle Leoch in a ragged (and period-inappropriate) dress, and is immediately given something to wear by the kindly, maternal housekeeper Mrs. Fitzgibbons (Annette Badland).  But as her stay in the castle draws on, Claire's dresses grow finer and finer, and are accessorized with jewelry.  Another story might have made something of this point--that Colum, eager to make Claire forget that she is a prisoner, was showering her with fine gowns and jewelry, thus precipitating a conflict between a thoroughly understandable love of nice things (especially for a nurse who has spent five years in blood-soaked uniforms), and Claire's desire not to become too comfortable in captivity.  But the kind of story that Outlander is can't allow its heroine to be vain, or to care about pretty dresses--that's the kind of girly affectation that she's supposed to be better than.  So the fact Claire walks around in fur-trimmed cloaks is treated as something that just happens, rather than a function of her newfound social class.  (Another interesting point of comparison here is The Hunger Games, which in many ways is a modernization of the kind of Special Girl stories I read as a girl.  Like Claire and the heroines of those stories, Katniss is beautiful but too sensible to care about her beauty, but unlike Gabaldon, Suzanne Collins doesn't pretend that that beauty is something that just occurs.  Attention is paid to the teams of stylists who work to make Katniss stunning, to the political implications of allowing them to make her over, and to the statements they and she make with their fashion choices.)

But perhaps the biggest problem I have with dubbing Outlander a feminist show is the simple fact that, in a mere eight episodes, it has unseated all other claimants--including Game of Thrones, the previous and seemingly unbeatable champion--for the title of the rapeyest show on TV.  There is scarcely a single episode in the show's already-screened half-season in which Claire is not subjected to some form of sexual violence, and more often than not these are brutal, graphic attempted rapes.  Very nearly the first thing that happens to her in the 18th century is that Black Jack tries to rapes her, and the fall season ended with him tearing her clothes off and bending her over a table, only for Jamie to charge to her rescue.  In the interim, Claire suffers sexual violence from people as disparate as Dougal (who veers from wanting to kill her, to trying to rape her, to becoming her ally, to developing romantic feelings for her), random men at Castle Leoch, and deserting English soldiers, not to mention lots of lewd comments and sexual harassment from the show's minor (and generally positive) characters.

On its own, this isn't necessarily a bad thing (unless you're sensitive to graphic depictions of sexual violence, in which case stay the hell away from this show).  I don't want to say that Outlander's depiction of 18th century Scotland as a rape free-for-all is realistic, because I have no way of knowing if that's true and anyway historical realism isn't this show's primary concern.  But the show does take the prevalence of sexual violence, and the culture that these imply, a lot more seriously than other rape-happy entertainments.  It allows Claire to be angry about what happened to her and to insist on its illegitimacy, and forces the men around her--who don't approve of rape but clearly don't think that preventing it should be their top priority--to take a side on the matter.  When Jamie tells Claire, in the second episode, that no harm will come to her so long as she's around him, she immediately asks "What about when you're not around?" reminding him and us that what's important here is her safety, not his machismo.

That attitude fades, however, as the season draws on and as rape starts being used not as a way of teaching us about Claire, but as a way of putting her and Jamie together, and making him look good.  In the fifth episode, "Rent," Claire finds Jamie sleeping outside her room in an inn where they're been collecting taxes for Colum.  He explains that the men downstairs have become rambunctious and he was worried that they'd come up to Claire's room.  Most women would consider "there was a non-zero probability that you'd be gang-raped tonight" a major turn-off, but Claire, and the episode's, focus is not on how horrible this situation is, but on how chivalrous Jamie is being in protecting Claire from it.  By the season's end, in which the horrifying brutality of Black Jack's final attack seems to exist solely to make Jamie look like more of a hero when he sweeps in and stops it, it's clear that rape, and being rescued from it, is practically a form of foreplay for these two.  Nor is Claire ever allowed to experience trauma or anxiety from her repeated assaults.  On the one occasion that she reacts like a normal person to almost being raped, wandering around in torn clothes and muttering to herself immediately after the attack, and then withdrawing emotionally from Jamie and treating him with abruptness, we're told that the real reason she's angry isn't that she's once again very nearly been violated, but having allowed herself to become comfortable in the past, forgetting her mission to get back to Frank.

Finally, there is something increasingly odd and disturbing about how often Claire is almost raped.  I don't mean to say this as a complaint, and I'm certainly not wishing for the deed to be done.  But every time that Claire ends up on her back with her clothes torn, only to be saved before penetration, only serves to reinforce the feeling that Outlander cares about rape only inasmuch as it increases the drama of Claire's story, but that actually raping her would make her ineligible to be its heroine.  That impression is reinforced by the fact that the only victim of completed rape in the series's--Jamie's sister, who lets Black Jack have his way with her to keep him from killing her brother--is never seen or heard about after her assault.  It's one thing to say--as Outlander does, repeatedly--that rape is horrible.  It's quite another to acknowledge that women can go on with their lives after being raped, and that rape can be only a part of their story, and this Outlander does not seem willing to do.

I feel a little embarrassed to come to the end of this litany of faults and admit that, despite all of them, I still find Outlander strangely watchable and appealing.  A lot of this is down to Claire herself, who for all that she is a romance heroine in a romance story, is still an appealing, human figure.  Much like Game of Thrones, there's a lot of force in simply wanting to know what happens next in her story, even if the characters and setting around her are less interesting.  And then there's the simple fact that Outlander is unique--a story about a woman that is both an adventure and a romance, and also a bit of pulpy fun that you don't have to take too seriously.  If TV executives take from the show's success the lesson that female-led stories, and romances, are worth making, then maybe the show's flaws are worth forgiving.  But I hope that the next Outlander--maybe the next book adaptation about a woman--has a broader sense of what it means to be feminist.  That isn't simply the story of a woman, but the story of women.