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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2014 Edition

Well, here we are again.  As has become traditional, the US networks scheduled a boatload of new shows for the week of Rosh HaShana (happy 5775 to those of you celebrating!), which is very convenient as it gave me some time to wade through the deluge.  As usual, there are some shows I just don't have much to say about--I don't need several hundred words to say that Scorpion is awful and dumb, and as compelling and propulsive as the pilot of How to Get Away With Murder was, there isn't much to say about that show yet, and probably won't be until it starts developing its characters and themes as well as its plot--and a few that have already got me thinking.  Here are my thoughts on the fall's first batch of new shows.
  • Forever - ABC's new procedural wants so desperately to be this year's Elementary that it's almost funny.  Like the surprisingly successful Holmes adaptation, it centers around an Englishman in New York, who has remarkable deductive abilities and a somewhat quirky and macabre worldview, and who teams up with the police, and a female partner, to solve crime.  The two shows even have virtually identical title cards and musical cues.  What sets Forever apart from its obvious inspiration (though not from a million vampire shows that preceded it) is that its hero, Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) is immortal, for reasons that he himself doesn't understand.  Whenever he dies, Henry reappears, naked, in the nearest body of water--a detail that is presumably linked to his original death, which occurred while trying to protect a sick slave from being murdered on the passage from Africa (I'm reserving judgment on this backstory, since the show is already quite flashback-heavy and, I suspect, will deliver more details about what brought Henry to the ship and what he thought he would find there; but obviously this is a premise that has the potential to be horribly racist in about twelve different ways).

    The show's first two episodes have already started hinting at a mythology--most intriguingly, Henry has begun receiving phone calls from another immortal, who claims to be thousands of years old to Henry's mere 200.  But so far Forever doesn't seem terribly interested in exploring the meaning and effects of immortality in any but the most superficial of ways.  It's interesting, for example, to hear Henry explain what the worst ways to die are, or to discover that his sole confidante, played by Judd Hirsch, is actually his adopted son, but so far there's been no exploration of Henry's attitude towards death, the state rather than the means of getting to it, and his eagerness to investigate and solve murders starts to seem a little odd when you consider that this is a man who has seen generations come and go and might be expected to be a little cavalier about people being prematurely shuffled off this mortal coil.  In the series's second episode, the police gun down a young man who is holding Henry at knifepoint, and there's no discussion of whether he should feel guilt or pity, given that he was never in any real danger.  Even more frustrating, given that Forever wants to be Elementary so badly, is its failure to introduce a Joan Watson character, someone who can puncture Henry's arrogance and get at his humanity.  Instead, all the cops on the show--including the female lead and obvious future love interest (Alana De La Garza)--are awed by Henry and constantly left in the dust by his intelligence and strange way of looking at the world.  What keeps Forever going despite these flaws (and despite featuring some awful dialogue and even more awful voiceovers) is Gruffudd himself, who brings so much energy and charm to the role of Henry.  Even if you don't quite buy that he's lived through two of the most turbulent centuries of human history, you want to keep watching him to see what will happen next.  If Forever can up its game to match his performance, it might become something worth watching.

  • Gotham - I had such low expectations from this pilot that I almost didn't watch it at all.  I'm sick and tired of the prequel craze (and especially a prequel for a comics universe in which I have only a glancing familiarity, so that a lot of the names dropped by a show like Gotham go over my head), but even more than that, I'm less and less interested in Batman, the character and the concept.  A show dedicated to demonstrating how crime-ridden and corrupt Gotham is, so as to make the audience long for the day when a caped crusader can clean up its streets, didn't strike me as a good use of my time.  But though the Gotham pilot has its moments of reveling in the depravity of Gotham's dirty streets (and in the brutality that the police exercise in response to it), it ended up suggesting a more interesting, more compelling story.  A lot of this is down to the cast--casting Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue as rookie detective Jim Gordon and his shady mentor Harvey Bullock is already overpowering the show's roster quite a bit, especially compared to other superhero series, but add Sean Pertwee and Jada Pinkett Smith in recurring roles and you've got a show that looks like it's aiming as much for the prestige market (or for the seriousness of films like Nolan's Batman trilogy) as comic book fans.  McKenzie is particularly good in the tricky role of the straight-shooting, slightly naive cop who is being urged to compromise his principles, managing to imbue a familiar character type with enough gravitas to make us believe him when he vows to clean up Gotham's streets.  But what makes the Gotham pilot truly compelling is how it weaves a web of connections between its secondary and minor characters that makes its titular city feel alive and interesting (particularly intriguing was the revelation of a romantic connection between Renee Montoya and the future Barbara Gordon, or teenage pickpocket Selina Kyle witnessing the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne).  It's these connections--and the strong acting the gives them life--that makes Gotham intriguing, for the chance to explore the city that gives the series its title, even if we know that the premise of the Batman universe means that Jim Gordon's promise to clean it up can never be fulfilled.

    All that said, I can't help but wonder if the prequel approach doesn't serve to expose the flaws in the Batman universe in a way that Gotham can't, by its very nature, address.  Prequels, by definition, are driven by inevitability--we know that future heroes and villains will one day take up those mantles, even if we might want them not to (it was arguably one of Smallville's core flaws that it had no idea how to resolve the problem of having created its most compelling character in the young Lex Luthor).  But telling a story about a crime-ridden city means discussing inevitability of a very different sort.  In the pilot, Gordon encounters a child named Ivy Pepper, whose father is an abusive small-time crook who is framed and murdered by the police, more or less in front of his daughter.  It feels fairly obvious that a child who starts from those sorry circumstances will not end up living a productive, law-abiding life, but in this particular case we know that this is a certainty, and that this child will grow up to become the villain Poison Ivy.  It's hard to know how to react to this knowledge.  If Gotham were a straight-up crime drama we would treat Ivy's story as a tragedy, an example of the vicious cycle of abuse, neglect, and criminality.  But because of the show's comics roots, what we're actually meant to feel is a frisson of excitement.  Instead of rooting for Ivy to get past her awful background, we're meant to feel glad that we've seen the first stepping stone on her path towards villainhood.  As the popular meme has it, Batman is a billionaire who goes out at night and beats up poor criminals, without any thought given to the social and economic causes that underpin crime.  If Gotham wants to be a Batman prequel, it has to ignore those same causes, to treat future criminals as a necessary component of its story rather than a tragedy waiting to happen.  With its strong cast, I can easily imagine Gotham working as a crime drama, but I suspect that it will be warped out of shape by its inevitable future.

  • Madam Secretary - American TV takes a second stab at the Hilary Clinton story (following the abortive series Political Animals, today probably best known as the second TV series, after Kings, in which Sebastian Stan plays a vulnerable, damaged gay man).  Though I can't help but wish that television did not still find the idea of a woman in a position of power so exotic (see also Commander in Chief from a few years back), it's nice that these stories are being told at all, and the pilot for Madam Secretary wisely downplays the gender angle--its title character, Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) is remarkable less for her gender than for her abilities and intelligence.  Unfortunately, the slant that the pilot decides to put on Beth's rise to the position of Secretary of State (following the mysterious death of the previous office-holder which is presumably going to be an important throughline in the coming season) is that she is unpolitical, not part of the Beltway mafia, and is thus able to Get Things Done--not least because she lacks aspirations for a higher office.  It's extremely frustrating to see, again and again, stories that claim to be about politics but which have such a reflexive and ultimately childish disdain for it (one of the things that makes The Good Wife a great TV series is that it allows its characters to be ambitious and politically savvy without claiming that this makes them monsters).  The main story of the pilot involves Beth using back channels to rescue two American college kids who entered Syria trying to join the anti-Assad rebels (it's interesting how real-world politics catches up with shows that claim to depict it: where as recently as a month ago such an attempt would have been seen as misguided but admirable, now ISIS-mania has the world's governments trying to criminalize it; of course, some things never change--the two boys are clean-cut, suburban white kids, not, heaven forbid, Arab-Americans).  But by "back channels," I mean getting in touch with contacts from Beth's previous life as a spy, and personally negotiating for the boys' release, which is incredibly small fry for someone with the power of the whole State Department behind her.  I'm interested enough in Madam Secretary to keep watching--and the show does have a strong cast and sharp dialogue that make the prospect of keeping up with it less than onerous--but I wish I believed that it was actually interested in a real conversation about politics (not to mention women in politics) rather than the simplistic, black-and-white stories it tells in its pilot.

  • Red Band Society - There's probably an interesting story to be told about the friendships and dramas that develop in a children's hospital ward.  Unfortunately, Red Band Society is less interested in being that show as it is in being a boarding school soap that just happens to take place in a hospital--an absurdly luxurious hospital where patients live full-time even though there's no reason for them to do so (maladies that, according to Red Band Society, require you to live in a hospital include: osteosarcoma, cystic fibrosis, and waiting for a heart transplant), and where parents never visit except for the one guy who has lost his visitation rights because he caused the accident that put his kid in a coma, and who therefore masquerades as a volunteer.  Having recently experienced the hospitalization of a family member--at a very nice private hospital, I should note--I recognize nothing about how Red Band Society conceives of hospital life.  Real hospital are cramped and uncomfortable.  Every available bit of space is crammed with equipment and supplies for which there's never enough room, and the staff are always running back and forth, doing a million things before they can get to you and your needs.  In comparison, the hospital in Red Band Society feels like, well, Hogwarts, with a firm but kind-hearted head nurse (Octavia Spencer) who seems to have nothing better to do with her time than police, discipline, and gently encourage her patients, as if she were their teacher and not a medical professional.  The young actors who play the sick leads are all strong, and the pilot gets an appropriate amount of drama out of, say, a 14-year-old boy taking a last run before his cancerous leg is cut off.  But the pilot seems less interested in the obvious stakes of a hospital drama set on a children's ward than it is in teenage melodrama that, no matter what the success of The Fault in Our Stars would seem to suggest, isn't made any more interesting just because the kids it's happening to might be dying. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Problem of Mike Peterson: Thoughts on Agents of SHIELD and Race

[Note: This post is the result of thoughts that I've been having since the end of Agents of SHIELD's first season in the spring, and which I haven't seen addressed elsewhere.  I held off on writing and publishing it because I wasn't certain that I had the proper grounding to do justice to the issues it discusses, and because I wasn't sure that it was my place to discuss them at all.  Nevertheless, as the second season draws closer it seems important to me that this subject is broached.  If readers with more grounding in anti-racism want to point out errors or bad arguments, I'd be happy for their input.  Similarly, if there are discussions of this subject that I've missed, I'd be grateful for links.]

We first meet Mike Peterson in the Agents of SHIELD pilot.  As I wrote in my essay about the show, the pilot positions both Skye and Ward as its point of view characters, establishing parallel but opposite trajectories for them--Ward, the obedient company man who needs to be taught to bend the rules; Skye, the anti-authoritarian spy in the belly of the beast who secretly craves stability and order--that are overturned in the post-Winter Soldier episodes.  But from watching the pilot's first act, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Mike is an equally important character to these two.  Skye's voiceover introduces the series, and Ward's mission in Paris establishes him as an identification figure who then carries us to SHIELD headquarters and Coulson.  But bridging those two scenes is our introduction to Mike, the first of the pilot's main characters to be shown on screen.  When he saves a woman from an explosion by jumping unaided from a tall building, it's only natural for us to assume that he's our hero.

Mike's true role in the story, however, is quickly established during Ward and Coulson's first meeting.  "That's a superhero, Agent Ward," Coulson announces.  But SHIELD isn't a show about superheroes.  It's a show about people who deal with superheroes (among other things).  And so with one fell stroke, Mike Peterson is repositioned.  From a potential protagonist, he becomes a subject, someone for our actual heroes to deal with.  Someone for SHIELD to manage, hide, and control.

The modern MCU comes to life in the closing moments of the first Iron Man film, when Tony Stark rejects the cover story offered to him by SHIELD and Coulson (who, sounding almost bored, drawls that "this is not my first rodeo") and instead redefines the terms by which superpowered individuals operate by announcing to the world that "I am Iron Man."  Winter Soldier completes that upheaval by razing SHIELD to the ground, but in the episodes of Agents of SHIELD that lead up to that story it's clear that no one--least of all Coulson--has gotten the memo.  He still views himself as someone who has the right and the authority to control (and occasionally deploy) people like Iron Man, Captain America and, of course, Mike.  That's not necessarily an unreasonable stance--high-handed as Coulson's demeanor to Tony is, his experience is a valuable asset, and surely no one in their right mind would have assumed that Tony Stark should be left unsupervised with superpowers.  But it establishes that Phil Coulson's definition of "superhero" is a fairly narrow one, and perhaps includes less freedom of choice than most of us would associate with the word.

Further complicating matters is the fact that despite Coulson's chosen terminology, Mike is not a superhero.  He's a supersoldier (or rather, a stepping stone on the way to creating one). It's the tension between those two terms that drives the overwhelming majority of the MCU, especially in Phase II.  A hero--as Coulson and SHIELD are reluctant to admit--is self-directed and unique.  A soldier is, in his essentials, interchangeable with all other soldiers, and more importantly, his job is to follow orders.  The stories told in the MCU are almost always about attempts to create supersoldiers that end up producing superheroes (or villains) instead, and the powers that try to force those superheroes back into a more limited role.  Captain America was created as part of a supersoldier program, and dismissed once it became clear that the program's goal--an army of people with his strength and abilities--couldn't be achieved.  The Winter Soldier is Hydra's attempt at the same result, minus Cap's pesky free will, and Black Widow was similarly created to be a fearsome soldier who couldn't question her orders.  The Hulk came into existence following an attempt to recreate Cap's serum, and when the military tries to weaponize that result what they achieve is literally an abomination.[1]

The Iron Man films, meanwhile, ponder the gap between superhero and supersoldier by positing a superpower that is wearable and transferrable.  Tony is a weapons manufacturer who develops a distrust of the people using his weapons, but his solution to this problem is to build something that can turn anyone into a living weapon.  He seems surprised that the immediate response--by both the government and villains--is to try to appropriate, steal, or replicate this technology.  But though Tony insists that the Iron Man armor is a part of him, its actual handling in the three Iron Man films often puts the lie to that claim.  Tony can operate the armor without being in it (which effectively makes it a drone, and thus no different from Ivan Vanko's imitation suits in Iron Man 2); the armor can be overridden despite containing a pilot; Iron Man 3 suggests that the suit has a mind of its own, and at the end of the film Tony triumphs by summoning an army of suits, each with its own name and personality.  In the end, the only way Tony can remain a superhero--rather than the general of a robot army--is to destroy the suits that gave him his power to begin with. 

In that same film, the MCU introduces yet another supersoldier serum, Extremis (which is yet again tested on vulnerable, in this case disabled, soldiers), and in Agents of SHIELD it is combined with the Iron Man-like Deathlok technology to create supersoldiers whose free will is done away with through the simple expedient of putting bombs in their heads and threatening their loved ones.  By the season's end, John Garrett and Ian Quinn are offering to sell the US government an army of slaves, and no one in uniform seems to find this objectionable.[2]

One of the earliest subjects of the Cybertek/Centipede program that eventually produces Garrett's slave soldiers, Mike Peterson undeniably starts off on the supersoldier side of the divide.  What's more, his vulnerable position--he's an out-of-work factory worker and single parent struggling to make ends meet--makes his exploitation all the more obvious.  But something funny happens when Mike begins experiencing the effects of the Centipede serum--he insists on seeing himself as a superhero.  What other people might, quite reasonably, view as a traumatic, abusive experience, he reconfigures as an origin story (and not without justification, since almost all superhero origin stories are rooted in a traumatic and/or abusive event).  While everyone around him insists that Mike is simply the subject of an experiment--and an experiment that has failed to boot, of which Mike is simply a leftover--he persists in believing that the powers he's been given confer upon him the responsibility to act as a hero, and that the world will bend itself to accommodate this belief.

If this is sounding very familiar, it's because I've just described the plot of the first Captain America movie.  There is, however, one crucial difference between how the MCU treats Steve Rogers and Mike Peterson.  Steve Rogers is a failed supersoldier who insists that he is a superhero, and the narrative ultimately rewards him for this insistence.  The people around him recognize his innate heroism and flock to him, and he eventually amasses the moral authority to call out and topple the institutions that tried to deploy and control him.  Mike Peterson, on the other hand, is a failed supersoldier who insists that he is a superhero, and the narrative punishes him for it.  Throughout the SHIELD pilot, his conviction that he can be a hero is pathologized and treated as a symptom of his exploitation.  By the end of the episode, the Centipede serum has so compromised Mike's judgment and grasp of reality that his attempts to be heroic have taken an inexorable slide towards villainy (not to mention that unlike Cap's serum, his is inherently flawed and threatens to turn him into an unwitting explosive).  His heartbreaking speech to Coulson  at the pilot's end seems to suggest that he wants to be a hero not because of some powerful inner drive, but because to do so would alleviate his feelings of inadequacy as an ordinary man.

Steve Rogers is white.  Mike Peterson is black.

To be clear, there's room in the MCU for stories about people who are granted superpowers and don't know how to deal with them, and, in theory at least, a show like Agents of SHIELD is the perfect venue in which to explore such stories.  The First Avenger goes to great lengths to establish that what makes Steve a hero is not the supersoldier serum but the innate traits that he possessed even as a 90-pound weakling, and not possessing those traits--having, in fact, the same flaws as every other person in the world--is hardly a character defect.  But the choice to cast a black actor as Mike, and array against him a team made up completely of white and Asian[3] actors, has implications that the SHIELD pilot doesn't know how to deal with. There is in the pilot an undercurrent of awareness that Mike's feelings of inadequacy aren't unique to him, but are the product of a social and economic system that is implacably arrayed against men of his race and class--as stressed, for example, by his final placement against the mural "City of Dreams/River of History" in Los Angeles's Union Station. But the show is too caught up in its ideas of heroism and villainy to fully acknowledge that Mike's problem is systemic, not individual. That lack of context leads to Mike embodying the stereotype of an Angry Black Man, whose rage, though perhaps justified, is undirected and a danger to everyone around him (Mike is literally a bomb) and must be dealt with.

The episode's climax, in which Mike is shot in the head mid-sentence, after which the inspirational music swells and Coulson's team congratulate each other on a job well done, is hard to watch even when you know that the shot was from a stun gun.  It completes Mike's dehumanization, his transformation from a superhero, to a problem that needs to be dealt with, to a thing, who doesn't even merit the dignity of getting to complete a thought before being gunned down by a white man.[4]



The second time we meet Mike is in the tenth episode of the first season, "The Bridge," in which Coulson brings him in as a consultant to help take down Centipede.  In the interim, two things have become clear.  First, that the show desperately needs to get back to its central mythology, because as lukewarm as the pilot was, the standalone episodes that followed have been even worse.  And second, that the show has a serious problem with black people, whom it invariably depicts as evil, crazy, or the victims of evil and crazy people.  Mike Peterson's future as Garrett's slave has already been presaged through the character of Akela Amador (Pascale Armand), the only black SHIELD agent of any importance that we've seen in ten episodes, who has been coerced into committing murder and mayhem and ends the episode in prison.  Ruth Negga's Raina has been established as the season's first recurring villain, and the closest the show has come to a positive, self-directed black character is Ron Glass's Dr. Streiten, who had a few brief lines in the pilot.

So to begin with, Mike's return as a SHIELD agent feels like a welcome step in the right direction.  The revelation that his powers have been stabilized and that he's been recruited into SHIELD seems like a counterbalance to the profound problems of his handling in the pilot, a way of giving him the heroism he craved while allowing for his thoroughly human flaws.  But from the beginning, "The Bridge" seems to be working hard to make us feel that there is something wrong and unnatural about Mike's position, and that his newfound heroism can't last.  "Did I beat Captain America's score?" he brightly asks his training instructor when we first see him, reminding us of the parallel between the two characters; but the response is a derisive snort and a shake of the head.  No matter how badly he wants to, Mike still can't measure up.

When Mike arrives on the Bus, Coulson is quick to announce that this assignment is his second chance, and that "there won't be a third."  This is one of the scenes that cemented to me just how much I dislike Coulson in his Agents of SHIELD incarnation.[5]  It's perfectly natural for Mike to want to assure Coulson and the team that the behavior they saw in the pilot won't recur--in much the same way that someone who suffers from mental illness might want to reassure someone who has seen them at their worst that they can manage their condition.  But Coulson has no right to judge Mike, or to behave as if the events of the pilot were somehow his fault instead of something that was done to him.  The idea that Mike has squandered his first chance already has no basis in reality.

And yet "The Bridge" not only validates Coulson's attitude, it has Mike accept it almost cheerfully.  In fact, Mike's behavior is the most uncomfortable and disturbing thing about this episode.  His attitude towards Coulson and his team is discomfitingly subservient.  He's constantly flattering and talking up the white members of the team, happily telling Coulson, FitzSimmons, and Ward how they saved him back in the pilot (his relationship with Skye is more equitable and friendly, and he has no meaningful interactions with May).  He doesn't even seem to mind that he's expected to sleep on a mattress in a prison cell.  To be sure, the fact that Mike is so unnervingly happy and eager to please is meant to be uncomfortable, a deliberate choice on the part of the writers and the actor, but the purpose of those choices is to bring us back to the same conclusion reached by the pilot: that Mike's heroism is false, and unsustainable.

And indeed, as soon as Centipede grabs his son, Mike "fails" to be a hero by choosing to trade Coulson for him.  This a fairly classic dilemma that comic books like to place before their heroes--save the person you love, or do the right thing--and as always it is an unfair and inhuman choice that can only be resolved through writerly fiat.  It's notable, for example, that Captain America has never been faced with such a choice, and other superheroes usually manage to cheat their way out of it.[6]  The fact that Mike--one of only a few black superheroes in the MCU--is placed in such a position with no way of worming his way out of it except doing as his son's captors demand, says more about SHIELD's writers, and the role they want Mike to play, than it does about Mike himself.  When Mike, having rescued his son, immediately turns around and does the heroic thing by trying to rescue Coulson, his reward is to be blown up.  That ending--and the coda to the next episode, "The Magical Place," in which Mike is revealed not to have died but to have been forced into the first step towards becoming Deathlok--cements our realization that rather than counteracting the message of the pilot, the show is trying to reaffirm it: whenever Mike Peterson tries to be a hero, he is punished for it.



For very nearly all of his appearances until the end of the season, Mike Peterson recedes, and J. August Richards plays the character of Deathlok.  It's important to note that name change.  Deathlok is the name of the cybernetics project that eventually replaces a good half of Mike's body, and as we learn late in the season, Mike isn't even the first Deathlok.  And yet in "The End of the Beginning," it's Coulson's team who have begun referring to Mike by this name.  The people who know Mike better than any other SHIELD agents, who know that he is being coerced and how, and who know--assuming that Skye told them so after recovering from her shooting in "T.R.A.C.K.S," and why wouldn't she--that even within the confines of that coercion Mike is trying to fight back and to minimize the evil he does, are the very people who take away his name and give him the name of the machine that's turned him into a monster.  And because these people are our heroes and identification figures, they teach the audience how to see Mike--teach us, in other words, that Deathlok is what he is.

While the audience might feel more sympathetic towards Mike than the characters apparently do--and while the show does allow us to see, in his private moments, that Mike is suffering, as when he's forced to replace his own arm with a robotic substitute--whenever Mike interacts with SHIELD characters after "The Magical Place" he gets what can only be described as a villain edit.  Dramatic, scary music swells whenever he comes on screen, the characters react in horror when they see him ("How did you get past Deathlok?" Skye asks Coulson when he rescues her in "Nothing Personal."  "Deathlok is here?" is his fearful response), and Richards himself plays the character as if he were the Terminator.  We can assume that Mike is shutting down his emotions because he doesn't want to deal with what he's become and been made to do, but the fact remains that when he shows up on screen, the show wants us to be anxious and afraid.

What's interesting--and not a little disturbing--about the stretch of episodes in which Mike is Deathlok is how liberating that role is for him.  Gone is the loser weeping over his inability to be a hero, or the wannabe company man desperately eager for the (white) heroes' approval.  It's not just that becoming Deathlok gives Mike power (which he anyway already had before Raina and Garrett captured him).  It's that it seems to free him to talk back, to say no.  Being Deathlok puts Mike in the Hydra hierarchy, where for once, and even taking into account that he is effectively a slave, he isn't on the bottom rung.  This means that he can frustrate people like Quinn or Ward when they treat him like a tool or a robot, refusing to shoot Skye on Quinn's behalf because those aren't his orders, or belittling Ward's dismay over his tactic of stopping Ward's heart in order to coerce Skye into decrypting data that Garrett wants.  It means that he can demand answers, and a serious consideration, from Raina, rejecting her claim of solidarity with him by reminding her that she is responsible for the nightmare that his life has become.[7]

Perhaps most importantly, being Deathlok allows Mike to become the only character in the first season to throw it in the face of a member of Coulson's team that they have been enabling evil, and that they have no right to claim the moral authority of heroes.  When Skye tries to persuade Mike not to do Garrett's bidding in "Nothing Personal," he, for the first time since he met her or Coulson, rejects her right to judge him or suggest courses of action for him, reminding her that the position he's in is largely of her making: that he left his son in her care, and she blithely handed him over to Hydra.  In a season that expects us not to notice or care about the profound professional failure that Hydra represents for most of the SHIELD characters[8], Mike is the only person who gets to point out that maybe the people who failed so completely the first time around shouldn't be trusted with cleaning up the mess and starting over.

It's hard to know how to take this change in Mike's personality, the fact that he becomes indisputably cooler the moment he takes on the Deathlok moniker and role.  On the one hand, speaking uncomfortable truths to heroes and villains alike gives Mike a unique authority.  But on the other hand, our knowledge that he is himself a slave, and a murderer, undermines those truths.  Either way, every instance in which Mike acts as Deathlok and proceeds with more purpose and confidence than he ever did as a would-be hero reiterates the message of these mid-season episodes: Mike Peterson is most himself when he is being a villain.



Mike's final appearance (so far) is in the season finale, "The Beginning of the End."  His arc in this episode is clearly meant to be triumphant.  He gets to turn the tables on Garrett, who has begun to think of him as a tool rather than a person, an extension of his own will who has no views different than his own (in fairness, this is how Garrett thinks of everyone, and what, given the opportunity to mold an operative from a young age, he made Ward into).  As soon as Skye frees his son, Mike attacks an outraged, uncomprehending Garrett, stomping his face into the ground with his robotic leg.  And yet the show can't resist turning this into Coulson's moment, not Mike's.  "Mr. Peterson is free to do whatever he wants," he piously intones, as if to further underline a difference between himself and Garrett that should have been obvious, and which is anyway nothing to crow about--not enslaving people is surely the bare minimum of human decency, not something worthy of celebration.  And so instead of being a moment of triumph for Mike, his liberation becomes the story of how he was given his freedom by Coulson's team[9] (and, in fairness, Nick Fury, though the two men don't interact), neatly paralleling the season premiere (though at least he doesn't get shot this time).

Even worse is Mike's final scene, in which he refuses to reunite with his son.  Again, the fact that Mike feels guilt for his actions and wants to make amends is only natural, but just as in "The Bridge," he accepts the authority of Skye and the rest of Coulson's team to judge him.  He tells Skye that she can look through the camera that has replaced his eye to see that he will only be trying to do good, implicitly accepting that she has the right to spy on him just as Garrett did (it remains unspoken that Skye and Coulson will also have the power to detonate the bomb in Mike's head at any time).  Passing judgement on Skye, and rejecting the moral authority of SHIELD by pointing out the very obvious truth that it has been corrupt for nearly as long as it has existed, is something that Mike only gets to do when he's a villain (which obviously undermines those arguments).  To be a good guy, Mike Peterson has to accept the right of Coulson and his team to judge him.



In the Marvel comics, Deathlok (a title given to several characters, none of whom are named Mike Peterson) is alternately a victim, a villain, and a hero.  When given the freedom to choose, he usually fights alongside the Avengers.  The end of Mike Peterson's arc in the first season of Agents of SHIELD leaves open the possibility that he, too, will transition into a heroic role.  This does not absolve SHIELD of the problematic terms with which it's told Mike's story, nor of the way that it continues to treat him as subservient to Coulson and his team.  But at the end of the first season last spring, I felt at least some hope that, going forward, Mike's story would be a heroic one.

One of the reasons that this post became urgent to write, however, was a transcript I read a few weeks ago of Comic-Con interviews with Brett Dalton and J. August Richards.  Dalton talked about his hopes for a redemptive arc for Ward (he also expressed the belief that Ward did not kill his dog, which I'm hoping the show will prove him wrong about).  Richards talked about Mike's progression as a villain.  Now, I'm on record as calling Ward the only interesting character in Agents of SHIELD's main cast, and I can think of several ways in which a redemption arc for him could be interesting and successful (which is not to say that I trust the show to do so, but the thing is possible).  But even so, I find it mind-boggling that anyone could look at these two characters side by side, and call Mike the villain.  That someone involved with the show could do so is chilling.

As much as Skye is intended as Ward's parallel, Mike is too (once again, the pilot introduces all three characters in quick succession).  Part of the reason that the show is so eager to cast Mike in the Deathlok role in the post-"Bridge" episodes is that doing so makes it more ironic when Ward--who spends these episodes reacting in outrage to Mike's crimes--is revealed as the season's true villain.  And of course Ward and Mike are both Garrett's lackeys, the one acting under duress and eager to turn on his master at the first opportunity, and the other loyal to a self-abnegating degree, and past the point of reason.  But after the revelation of Ward's villainy, we'd expect the show to reposition Mike as a heroic or at least sympathetic figure.  Instead, he continues to be treated as a villain up until the moment that Coulson and Skye free him.  As the Comic-Con interviews suggest, that perception is not about to change.

Ward and Mike are both victims or abuse, whose ability to freely choose between right and wrong is compromised (albeit in very different ways; Ward is obviously deeply psychologically damaged, but no one forces him to do any of the evil things he does over the course of the first season, and he passes up many opportunities to make better choices that Mike doesn't get).  And yet we seem to be headed towards an absurd situation in which Ward is given a second chance with which to atone and turn his life around, while Mike is held responsible for his own victimization, treated like a villain for a combination of limited options, bad luck, and the crimes of others.

Grant Ward is white.  Mike Peterson is black.



[1] The first of the Marvel One Shots, "The Consultant," extends that story when it reveals that the military still believes in The Abomination's potential, insisting that he join the Avengers Initiative.

[2] Guardians of the Galaxy touches on the supersoldier theme obliquely through the characters of Rocket, Gamora, and Nebula, all of whom were remade against their will, in the latter two cases explicitly into a fearsome killers.  The Thor films don't address it at all, but when that series incurs into the world of Agents of SHIELD it's in ways that reflect on it: we learn that the Asgardians gave their soldiers weapons that could turn mild-mannered Peter MacNicol into a bloodthirsty killer; the sorceress Lorelai's power is to compel men to fight and die for her, and she mocks the supposedly free-willed Sif for obeying orders she doesn't agree with because they come from Odin--who is actually Loki in disguise.

[3] For all its problems with black characters, it's worth noting that SHIELD is unique in fielding not one but two Asian women in its main cast, and that some fans have read the show as commenting specifically on the Asian-American experience.  It seems reasonable to ascribe this to writer and producer Maurissa "Nobody's Asian in the Movies" Tancharoen, which is a valuable reminder of how much diversity and nuanced representation on-screen depend on the presence of diverse writers and producers behind the scenes.

[4] I haven't read the comic, but from the plot description it occurs to me that Mike's arc in the pilot has echoes of the limited series comic Truth: Red, White & Black, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, in which it's revealed that Cap's serum was originally tested, Tuskegee-like, on black servicemen, who were denied the chance to become superheroes far more definitively than Steve Rogers. The comic, however, ends with Steve acknowledging Isiah Bradley's right to the title of Captain America, and Marvel continuity routinely refers to Bradley as the first to hold it.

[5] Not helping matters is the fact that "The Bridge" is also the episode in which Coulson explains to Ward that "every woman is a mystery."  Grrr.

[6] See, for example, Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, when he sends the remote-controlled armor to save the imperiled President while jetting off himself to rescue Pepper.

[7] It's interesting to note the differences in how Mike relates to people in his Deathlok guise.  With white men like Garrett, Quinn, and Ward, he is a blank-faced automaton, following orders but refusing to engage them emotionally or to be sucked into their personal drama.  He only engages with people (women) of color, like Skye and Raina, even if it's only to accuse them and call them out for their hypocrisy.

[8] See, for example, the opening scene of "Nothing Personal," in which Cobie Smulders's Maria Hill airily complains about being made to testify before Congress about SHIELD's activities and Hydra's infiltration of it.  It's a scene that's meant to make Hill look cool, as she compares Congress to children who can't cope with the realities of the situation.  But try mentally replacing Smulders with a  middle aged male bank executive circa 2009, and then tell me if her contempt for elected officials and inability to accept that she might be called to account for her mistakes are still charming and admirable.

[9] By this point, the team has been joined by B.J. Britt's Antoine Triplett, who feels like a deliberate (and desperately needed) response to the widely publicized criticisms of the show's depiction of black characters. While it's obviously significant that Ward (with his "Hitler youth" looks) is replaced by a black man, Trip also stands in stark contrast to Mike--he is SHIELD royalty, a legacy of Captain America's original integrated team, and seems to possess the effortless heroism that Mike lacks. I'm not quite certain where the show is going with that contrast, or with the character of Trip in general.