Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition, Part 2

This year's fall pilot season is shaping up to be rather muted.  Which, to be fair, is an improvement on the dreck of previous years, but also not much to talk about.  It probably tells you all need to know about the fall pilots of 2016 that there are two different time travel shows--Timeless and Frequency--and neither of them are worth saying anything about.  Nevertheless, here are a few series, good and bad, that I thought were interesting enough to write about, even if I'm not sure I'll be sticking with all of them.
  • No Tomorrow - Over the last few years, I've come to trust the CW and its programming instincts.  Not only does it air some of my favorite shows--iZombie, the smartest superhero show on TV; Jane the Virgin, still going strong and finding real drama at the heart of cheesy soap opera plot twists; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the funniest, most original, most heartbreaking shows in existence--but its DC superhero block is easily the most rock-solid, self-assured iteration on the genre on either the small or big screen (and I say that as someone who has given up on The Flash in disgust, and might let go of Arrow by the end of the year).  So I came to No Tomorrow with a lot of goodwill.  Yes, the premise is absurd--high-strung Evie (Tori Anderson) meets her dream guy, Xavier (Joshua Sasse), falling in love as much with his free spirit and determination to seize the day as with his rugged good looks, only to learn that he genuinely believes that the Earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid in eight months.  But the CW has made meaty, emotionally resonant fare out of even sillier (not to mention potentially offensive) premises, so I was willing to let No Tomorrow win me over.  In the end, what I've found is both less ridiculous, and less promising, than I'd hoped.

    Sasse and Anderson are both extremely charming, and do a great job of selling their nascent relationship as something that is based not only on attraction and zaniness, but genuine connection.  No Tomorrow has the good sense not to hang its every plot twist on Xavier's belief in the coming apocalypse, and the challenges that he and Evie face in their relationship are often as much about their differing lifestyles, or her fluctuating comfort levels with his carpe diem worldview, as they are about this fundamental disagreement.  At its best moments, No Tomorrow is about building a relationship with someone who is very different from you, whose differences are sometimes intriguing but just as often concerning (to its credit, the show faces head-on the very real possibility that Xavier might be dangerous or unhinged, and has Evie and her friends investigate this possibility with all due seriousness).  But it lacks the core of emotion that has made Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend--both shows that are ultimately about very serious things, such as family, or dealing with mental illness--so compelling.  There doesn't seem to be as much beneath the surface of No Tomorrow's quirkiness as there is in those shows, and it's hard to imagine the show finding more than a few notes in its premise, or in Evie and Xavier's relationship.  For the time being, those notes are still quite enjoyable--especially since the show is wisely developing Evie and Xavier's worlds, introducing friends, coworkers, and family members for them to interact with--but I doubt that No Tomorrow will join the pantheon of weird-yet-oddly-wonderful CW shows.

  • Pitch - In the first installment of this year's fall show reviews, I wrote about the dreadful This Is Us.  As several commenters on twitter pointed out, you can feel Aaron Sorkin's influence on that series, particularly its fondness for overheated speeches and general air of self-satisfaction.  Pitch feels like good quasi-Sorkin to This Is Us's bad quasi-Sorkin.  Like the earlier show (with whom it shares a creator, Dan Fogelman), it is fond of melodrama and speechifying.  But unlike This Is Us, Pitch has a premise that is semi-plausible and convincing, characters who are compelling rather than off-putting, and, most importantly, the ability to reach for something raw and real beneath its stylized, self-conscious surface.  The show begins with rookie Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury) taking her place as the first woman in major league baseball, and charts her journey in the clubhouse, and as a new national icon to women and girls.  Along for the ride are Ginny's agent Amelia Slater (Ali Larter), eager to push her charge to stardom, fading player Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), coach Al Luongo (Dan Lauria), and general manager Oscar Arguella (Mark Consuelos).

    My biggest issue with Pitch is that it veers unpromisingly between the most blatant sports-movie clichés--in the pilot episode, Ginny chokes during her first game, and is then inspired to make a comeback by an inspirational speech from Mike--and the most obsessive kind of inside baseball details that I have trouble parsing, much less caring about.  What keeps the show together despite these plotting issues are its characters, and even more than that, the relationships they forge--the growing friendship and mutual appreciation between Mike and Ginny, the surprisingly mature romance between Mike and Amelia, and the political machinations between Al, Oscar, and the team management.  But Pitch wants to be more than a workplace drama--it wants to comment about the intersection between entertainment, celebrity, gender, and race--and at this it is only intermittently successful.  An early episode in which Ginny must navigate an insensitive but ultimately innocuous comment from Al, a heavily-publicized case of locker-room sexual assault, and the needs of her own career, makes a powerful point about the constant pitfalls that lie before her as a trailblazer, a celebrity, and an athlete.  But there doesn't seem to be much life in these topics--four episodes into the series, it's already repeating points, about the weight of Ginny's celebrity, the difficulty of her relationship with her overbearing father, or Mike's ambivalence about his waning career.  There are a lot of great ingredients that go into Pitch, but the stew that they make up is already losing its flavor, struggling to justify itself as a story rather than an idea.

  • Westworld - Easily the most-anticipated new series of the fall, the consensus that has already formed around HBO's latest foray into genre is that it represents the channel's attempts to grapple with its own reputation for prurient violence, particularly violence against women (see Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, and Aaron Bady in The Los Angeles Review of Books).  You can see how that consensus has formed--Westworld builds on the 1973 movie to imagine a lush and impeccably-detailed theme park in which customers pay lavishly to indulge their every fantasy, which almost inevitably seem to involve murder, mayhem, and of course rape.  The metaphor for how HBO's pretensions to highbrow entertainment ultimately rest on the sumptuously-filmed and -costumed violence of Game of Thrones, True Detective, and The Night Of pretty much writes itself.  For myself, I'd like to believe that there's more to Westworld than this glib reading, first because I simply do not believe that anyone at HBO possesses this level of self-awareness--this is, after all, the channel whose executives were genuinely taken aback, in the year 2016, by the idea that their shows had become synonymous with violence against women--and second because it's by far the least interesting avenue of story the show could take.

    If you want to read Westworld as a meta-commentary about storytelling (and to be clear, I agree that there's a thread of this running through the show, though to my mind it's far from the central one), you also have to face up to how tedious and unimaginative the stories-within-the-story are.  Leaving aside the questionable notion of anyone spending money to play cowboys and Indians anymore, the stories that take place within Westworld, in which the theme park's guests are invited to track down fugitives, go on treasure hunts, or just fool around with prostitutes, simply don't seem worth the price of admission.  They also take it as a given that the guests' fantasy life is thoroughly conventional (not to mention defaulting to the straight male gaze).  Everyone, we're told, wants to rape the comely, innocent rancher's daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)--this is literally the purpose of her existence in the park.  No one seems interested in raping her paramour, the stalwart Teddy (James Marsden), or, indeed, in having a consensual threesome.

    If Westworld is of any interest to me, it is because of the parallel story about the robot characters' (known as "hosts") growing awakening into sentience, and into an awareness of the brutality to which they've been repeatedly subjected.  That the show comes from Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan is the main reason I'm hopeful that it will tell such a story well and in interesting ways, but so far Westworld is being frustratingly slow in building up towards it.  Each of the four aired episodes advances multiple plotlines only fractionally, trusting the audience to follow along in hopes of an interesting resolution to some of the more opaque questions that the show has been teasing: what is the elaborate new storyline promised by park creator Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and why has he suddenly given the hosts the ability to remember their past lives (and deaths)?  Which, if any, of the park's administrators and technicians are robots themselves?  Who is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), a guest who believes that he is about to unlock the game's "deepest level"?  The result is frustrating, carried along by the show's magnificent production values and some fine performances (Wood is a standout as a being coming into self-awareness who is also, simultaneously, a woman starting to realize her own power in a world ruled by men, but pretty much everyone in the cast is very good), but not yet coalescing into an actual story.  I'm still watching Westworld because I have hope that it will become the story I want it to be--and faith that Nolan is both interested in that story, and capable of pulling it off--but it's not hard to see why so many reviewers are assuming that it amounts to little more than self-reflection.  At this point in its first season, the show still hasn't staked out a claim to being about anything but itself.

  • Class - It's strange to find the BBC, in 2016, getting back in the Doctor Who spin-off business.  It's even stranger for that spin-off to be Class, whose Buffy-esque mixture of genre elements, teen drama, and snarky humor would have seemed derivative and predictable even in the heyday of the NuWho universes's expansion ten years ago.  It's particularly strange that Class comes from the pen of Patrick Ness, whose written novels--particularly the Chaos Walking trilogy--are so original and uncompromising.  In Class, he has instead plumped for the most familiar of tropes--a group of students discover that their school lies on a hellmouth, and must band together to defend the Earth from the alien menaces that emerge from it--and executed them with so little verve that the characters themselves sometimes seem bored with their own story.  There are some original plot points--one of the teenagers is an alien prince, and his slave-cum-bodyguard is masquerading as a teacher--and some nods towards inclusivity--the alien is also gay, and two of the other teenagers are the children of, respectively, Pakistani and Nigerian immigrants, who bond over their shared experience as people of color in a mostly-white environment.  But none of this feels sufficiently fresh to make up for Class's familiarity.  It could simply be that I've aged out of this kind of story, but even kids these days have so many other alternatives if they're looking for something Buffy-inspired--from Teen Wolf to The Vampire Diaries to Doctor Who itself--that it's hard to understand what sort of need Class thinks that it's fulfilling.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Bedlam Theater's Sense & Sensibility

One of the main points about writing a pop culture blog is that most of what you write about is available for your readers to consume.  In fact, much of what I write is from a perspective that assumes that my readers have already read the book, seen the movie, watched the TV show, and are now willing to talk about them with someone who is equally informed.  Which is part of the reason why I don't tend to write much about theater (the other being that most of the theater available to me year-round is in Hebrew), and that when I do, it's about something like Hamilton, whose original cast recording has become its own phenomenon, available to millions of fans who may never even see the play.

Today, however, I'm breaking my rule to talk about Bedlam Theater's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, which I was lucky enough to see this week on my vacation in New York.  If you're in the city, I strongly urge you to try to get to see this play before it closes in November.  If you're not, you're just going to have to suffer as you read about, what is to my mind, not only one of the most delightful theatrical experiences I've had in a long time, but a genuinely exciting take on the novel--which is all the more impressive when you consider that, like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility has had a definitive adaptation in the form of Emma Thompson and Ang Lee's 1995 movie, which inevitably overshadows any attempt to make something new of the original text.

Directed by Eric Tucker and adapted by Kate Hamill (who also plays Marianne), Sense & Sensibility gets around the inevitable comparisons to the movie by, first, staging a deliberately intimate, stripped-down version of the story.  The play is staged on a bare, small space in the center of the room, with the audience arranged in three rows of chairs on either side of it.  The actors move in and out by moving into the aisles and behind the audience's seats.  What little set dressing there is is more often used to suggest a setting than to evoke it, and the costumes, though period-appropriate, are similarly simplified.  (For this reason, and because Sense & Sensibility makes so much use of the intimacy of its setting, it's impossible to imagine this adaptation working if it was filmed, or even moved into a larger and more traditional theater space.)  The play begins with the actors dancing to modern music, and as it shifts into a more traditional melody, their dance moves also shift into a patterned dance--as if deliberately reminding us the artificiality of what we're about to see.  In other scenes, the actors themselves act as the set dressing, contorting themselves into a bed or a carriage for the characters to sit in or on.  The few bits of furniture on stage are all on wheels, allowing the actors to not only reconfigure the setting quickly, but to enact specific scenes.  In one case, two actresses on chairs play four characters, with Laura Baranik doubling Lucy Steele and Fanny Dashwood, and Samantha Steinmetz doubling Anne Steele and old Mrs. Ferrars.  When either of the women needs to switch roles, the actors behind her shoot her chair across the stage, indicating that she is now portraying a different character.

Hamill's take on the text is not as revolutionary as her staging--in fact, her version is remarkable for its fidelity, replicating almost every major scene and including even some characters that the Thompson version had elected to streamline away--but she nevertheless makes some very interesting choices, chiefly revolving around her own character.  Where other adaptations of Sense and Sensibility have tended to depict Marianne as ethereal and soulful (this is the approach taken by Kate Winslet in the 1995 movie, and rather unimaginatively imitated by Charity Wakefield in the 2008 BBC miniseries), Hamill's Marianne is bossy and shouty.  Her passion for poetry and the full expression of emotion, and her ironclad belief that she alone has a handle on how to live life correctly, result in a tendency to berate, browbeat, and even bully people into behaving as she believes they should.  This can result in comedy, as in scenes in which Elinor (Kelley Curran) has to physically restrain Marianne from making scenes when she believes the people around her are being unspeakably ridiculous.  But it also leads to tragedy, as in the final confrontation between the sisters, when the full extent of Marianne's selfishness, her willingness to impose on others, is driven home, and it suddenly seems possible--as it never quite does in Austen's novel--that the rupture between her and Elinor will be a permanent one.

Nevertheless, Hamill also leaves space for Marianne to be young and vulnerable, and never more so than when she depicts the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon (Carman Lacivita).  Marianne's reaction to catching Brandon's eye is revulsion and even fear, and while Hamill allows her actors to replicate the text's attitude, in which that distaste is viewed as a sign of immaturity and even a lack of generosity in Marianne, her staging and the play's direction teach us to take another approach.  While Sense & Sensibility stops short of depicting Brandon's pursuit of Marianne as sexual harassment, it makes no bones of the fact that it is unwanted and, to Marianne, deeply uncomfortable--most notably, in a scene in which Marianne, first realizing that she's caught Brandon's eye, is pressed up against the edge of set dressing by the entire cast, recalling so many familiar instances of women who try to make themselves small in order to escape an unwanted suitor, only to be literally cornered.

Perhaps as a result of this approach, Brandon feels almost incidental to this version of the story--he appears in the scenes in which he is necessary for the plot's progression, but is not the kind of presence in his absence that he is in the novel or the movie, and the flowering of his and Marianne's romance is not an important plot point (like so many takes on the story, Hamill elides the fact that Marianne marries Brandon out of convenience and a broken heart, rather than out of love).  Taking his place is Edward Ferrars (Jason O'Connell), who here emerges as a remarkably complex, sympathetic, but also flawed figure (leading me to wonder whether an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility can have a good Brandon, or a good Edward, but not both).  Where most readings of Sense and Sensibility tend to assume that the story contrasts Brandon with Willoughby, Hamill's adaptation suggests that the true contrast is between Willoughby and Edward, with one sacrificing his happiness so as not to break his word, and the other so wrapped up in his own selfish pleasures that he heedlessly destroys people's lives in the pursuit of it.  And yet at the same time, O'Connell injects Edward with a streak of bitterness--at his frustrated desires, and at his inability to start his life due to his mother's interference--that makes him seem so much more mature and believable than previous iterations of the character, and, paradoxically, makes it easier to pass criticism on him for leading Elinor on, however unintentionally.  (Another display of O'Connell's abilities comes when he doubles the role of Robert Ferrars, trading Edward's stiff decency for complete debauchery, and somehow persuasively arguing that Robert's nonsensical speech from the book about the wonders of cottages is somehow all about sex.)

The main reason to watch Sense & Sensibility, however, is less the adaptation's approach to the text, and more the way it uses its stripped-down staging to highlight the text's obsession with appearance, perception, and the face we present to the world.  Many scene changes are signposted by the actors suddenly starting to talk over each other, playing the role of the chattering Regency society that the Dashwood sisters move through, and reminding us that everything they do is subject to comment--and often ridicule.  When Elinor or Marianne are in distress, suddenly realizing that their behavior (or, more often, the behavior of the men in their lives) has subjected them to public comment, the rest of the cast swarm them, reminding us how predatory and merciless this kind of scrutiny can be, and how happy society is to see the sisters fall and be destroyed.

In other scenes, Tucker takes advantage of the barrenness of his stage, staging an intimate conversation with the two actors at opposite ends of the room.  Set in the middle of the story--when Edward and Elinor confront the unspoken truth that they can never be together, or when Elinor and Marianne try and fail to understand each other--the distance imposed on these scenes drives home just how much is being left unsaid, how much must be left unsaid according to the rules these characters operate by.  But it's also a staging that forces the audience to make a choice in how they consume the story.  Sitting so close to the stage, and with the actors at either end of it, we can either choose to look at the person speaking, or at the person reaction to them, but not both.  It's a requirement that drives home just much Sense and Sensibility is a story about how people react to outrageous, abusive, infuriating behavior, and how they are judged on their reactions.  (This is also a good opportunity to praise Curran's work as Elinor.  She's as much the heart of the play as Hamill, but has what is often the tougher job in that most of what she does is react to others, and try not to reveal how hurt, angry, or bewildered their behavior makes her.  That she nevertheless manages to bring across both Elinor's intelligent bemusement, and her deep unhappiness, is an achievement worth celebrating.)

If there's anything to be said against Sense & Sensibility--and, to be clear, this isn't actually a criticism of the play--it is that its emphasis on how the events of the story are driven by public perception and an often gleeful desire to see women fail crystalizes for me how much the original book is a problem novel.  This isn't simply a matter of changing mores--we are, after all, still happy to read Pride and Prejudice, a novel that takes it as a given that the teenage victim of a sexual predator is at fault for his actions, and that the best solution for her is to marry her abuser--but a fundamental unfairness in the novel's premise.  I struggled with this when I last wrote about the novel, but Hamill's take on the story really brings home the fact that I simply do not see how Marianne is in the wrong for being open about her feelings towards Willoughby.  Obviously, she's wrong because she lives in a society that judges her harshly, and will even declare her ruined, for exposing herself in such a way (while allowing the men who encouraged her--and even Edward Ferrars, who nearly has the same effect on Elinor--to walk away unscathed).  But that's a point against that society, not Marianne, and her conclusion at the end of the novel that she should have modeled her behavior on Elinor's restraint, which is presented as a moral awakening, has always felt to me more like a capitulation to unfair, misogynistic social norms.  It's very clear that Austen realizes this, and yet Sense and Sensibility is a work in which her understanding of human nature runs aground on her fundamental conservatism--she isn't able to come out and say that Marianne is a victim, and that it is the people around her who are in the wrong.

Sady Doyle, in a very fine early essay, has tried to argue that what Sense and Sensibility decries Marianne for is her selfishness, her willingness to cause pain to her family, and her belief that because she feels grief, she is entitled to impose on everyone around her (and that anyone who does not do so, such as Elinor, can't truly be feeling sorrow).  There's some truth to this, obviously, but just as obviously it is not the full intent of the novel.  No one in the society that surrounds Marianne is condemning her for being selfish and imposing on her mother and sister with her grief.  They're condemning her for making no bones about the fact that she wants a man--and, at the same time, gleefully hoping that she crosses the invisible line that will make it OK to strip her of her reputation.  Selfishness doesn't really enter into it.  (One wonders whether Doyle, who has recently published a book about women who are "trainwrecks", whose self-destruction society eagerly anticipates, would reevaluate her take on the novel today.)

What's more, one of the things that Hamill's take on Elinor drove home for me is that I'm really not sure whether it is desirable to act as Elinor does.  Self-control and selflessness are good qualities, but they can be taken too far.  Do we really want to say that women who are as put upon as Elinor should smile sweetly and hold it all in?  Curran's performance, with its obvious undercurrents of anger and despair, drives home the pressures that Elinor is under, and it's easy to imagine her buckling under them, giving into bitterness and rage.  Hamill's version of Sense and Sensibility quite clearly sees both Elinor and Marianne as sinned-against and imposed upon, but the original text doesn't quite have the flexibility to allow for that reading.

You don't necessarily think of Jane Austen's writing as something that would benefit from the conscious artificiality of theater, much less its potential for experimentation.  Our canonical form of an Austen adaptation is carefully naturalistic, with just the right settings, costumes, and modes of behavior.  Hamill's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility proves just how limited that approach is, and how much Austen benefits from a less awestruck, more critical approach--even if, in the end, that approach can end up exposing her limitations.  Once again, if you're able to, do try to get to see Sense & Sensibility before it closes.  For the rest of us, we can only hope that Hamill--and the fine performers in this production--go on to even greater things, on a stage that more of us have access to.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Essay: The Stealth Futurism of Person of Interest

As I've mentioned already, I spent much of the summer working on a large writing project, which is now online.  Over at PopMatters, you can read my essay "This is the Next World": The Stealth Futurism of Person of Interest, in which I discuss how an initially inauspicious high-concept procedural transformed, over the course of five seasons, into one of the most explicitly SFnal shows on TV, one that tackled core SF concepts like AI, and explored the ways in which an artificial life might see the world, and how its existence would challenge our ideas of personhood and free will.

I ended up rewatching Person of Interest in preparation for writing this essay, and though some aspects of the show remained unimpressive throughout--the standalone plots start out halting and overwrought and, almost impossibly, get worse as the show draws on--what struck me at the end of that rewatch was how much I had to say.  My essay is quite long, and yet it leaves so much out that I could have talked about.  I say almost nothing about Carter or Fusco, two of my favorite characters who mostly got left out of the show's SFnal storytelling.  I don't really discuss the problems with the show's War on Terror-focused premise, and the way that it implicitly validates simplistic ideas about geopolitics and terrorism; or, for that matter, the show's frustrating tendency to corral black characters into crime-focused storylines.  I don't mention the romance between Root and Shaw, which I found alternately problematic and inspiring.  Hell, I don't even bring up Bear, the crime-fighting dog, which I would have thought impossible before sitting down to write this piece.  My take on Person of Interest in this essay is very much the Finch, Root, and Machine show.

Nevertheless, that show is worth watching for, especially if you, like myself, initially dismissed Person of Interest as science fiction-lite.  Creator Jonathan Nolan is currently the producer of HBO's Westworld, and if I have any hope that that show will tie itself together into a genuinely interesting, SFnal story, it is mostly on the strength of Person of Interest.  If you enjoyed the show, I hope my essay sheds light on how it built its ideas about AI.  If you haven't watched it yet, I hope you'll be inspired to check it out.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Tales of the City: Thoughts on Luke Cage

"For black lives to matter, black history has to matter."  A character says this shortly into the first episode of Luke Cage, Netflix's third MCU series, and the fourth season of television it has produced in collaboration with Marvel as it ramps up for its Defenders mega- event.  It's easy to read this line as a thesis statement on the nature of the show we're about to watch, but it's not until some way into Luke Cage's first season that we realize the full import of what creator Cheo Hodari Coker is saying with it, and how challenging its implications will end up being.  As has been widely reported and discussed, Luke Cage is the first black MCU headliner--not just on TV or on Netflix, but at all.  And, unlike the forthcoming Black Panther, whose story is set in a fictional African superpower, Luke Cage is explicitly a story about African-Americans in the more-or-less real world, at a moment when the problems and indignities suffered by that community are at the forefront of public discussion.  It is, therefore, a show that comes loaded with tremendous expectations, not just of introducing a compelling character and telling a good superhero story, but of addressing increasingly fraught issues of race, in both the real world and the superhero genre.  It's perhaps unsurprising that Luke Cage falls short of these expectations, but what is surprising is how often it doesn't even seem to be trying to reach them.  Or, perhaps, not surprising at all--as the first episode spells out, Luke Cage is less interested in black lives than it is in black stories.

Introduced as a supporting character and love interest in last year's Jessica Jones, Luke Cage sees its title character (Mike Colter), whose skin is super-strong and impervious to harm, moving uptown to Harlem, hiding out in a neighborhood barbershop and working odd jobs under the table.  When some young employees at the barbershop end up embroiled in a plot to rob a local crimelord, Luke steps in to try and defuse the situation, only to watch his benefactor and friend, Pop (Frankie Faison), get caught in the crossfire.  The first half of the season revolves around the war that erupts between Luke, until that point a reluctant superhero, and the crime boss Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali).  In the second half of the season, Cottonmouth is sidelined by his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who had been using his money to fund her legitimate projects to revitalize Harlem, keeping it in black hands and staving off gentrification.  With Cottonmouth's illegal business ventures crippled by Luke's activities, Mariah turns to slippery operator Shades (Theo Rossi), and his mercurial boss Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) to solidify her position, not realizing that Diamondback has his own personal history with Luke, which leads him to set Harlem on fire in pursuit of our hero.

There's more to be said about the season's plot (and I have, in fact, elided certain points for the sake of brevity), but quite frankly, it's not worth spending much time on.  It is, perhaps, time to admit that Jessica Jones was unique in being able to dredge through its character's comics history to find a genuinely interesting story that was perfectly suited to the multi-episode format.  Both seasons of Daredevil, and now Luke Cage, have failed to achieve that same alchemy, and instead end up bogged down in predictable origin story beats--Luke protests that he is no hero; various characters, such as Pop and recurring Netflix MCU player Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), insist that he is; some tragedy occurs to make him understand that they are right.  These inevitably lead to a boss fight with a forgettable and over the top villain, in which there is much property damage.  The end.

There is, to be fair, a little more to it than that.  The first half of Luke Cage feels more like a crime story--albeit one whose beats are fairly obviously derivative, most plainly of The Wire--than a superhero story.  It's elevated by the presence of Cottonmouth, whom Ali imbues with a touching ambivalence.  There's nothing terribly original about the story of a mob boss who dreams of going legit, but whose soul is too tarnished by the life he's lived to ever truly leave it behind (and some of the beats of Cottonmouth's story, such as the revelation that as a boy he dreamed of being a musician but was pushed into a life of crime by his family, are downright hackneyed).  But the show gives the character, and the performance, enough space to breathe, in particular when it charts the thorny, deeply dysfunctional relationship between Cottonmouth and Mariah, which is powered by competing currents of love and resentment.

It's in these episodes, too, that Luke Cage introduces its secret weapon, and what I hope will be its breakout character, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), a police detective who ends up as the third point of the triangle between Luke and Cottonmouth, trying to unravel the former's secrets while stopping the latter from starting a gang war.  Stalwart, bold, and curious, deeply rooted in her neighborhood but also committed to a system that has failed it repeatedly, Misty commands the eye and the attention almost from her first appearance.  She's a force in her own right, moving diagonally to both men, and sparring, as well, with Mariah and with her own superiors in the NYPD in her pursuit of the truth.  If Netflix's executives truly believe that Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle--a bloodthirsty serial killer driven by entitlement and self-justification--can carry his own series, then there is simply no justification for not doing the same for a character as magnetic, as interesting, and as blatantly heroic as Misty Knight.

Even with Misty, Cottonmouth, and Mariah to enliven things, however, the first half of Luke Cage's season feels a little perfunctory, and especially when you remember that this is, after all, meant to be a superhero story.  It is, therefore, not much of a surprise when a major twist halfway through the season reveals that its true conflict will be between Luke and Diamondback.  But it is a profound disappointment, because Diamondback is a terrible villain, with antics that were clearly intended to come off as menacing and deranged mainly registering as annoying and over the top.  It's in these episodes, too, that Misty is frustratingly sidelined, from a main actor in her own story to a supporting character in Luke's, who must scramble to prove his innocence when Mariah and Shades scheme to frame him for Diamondback's (and their own) crimes.  (The one bright point in these episodes is that they give Claire Temple a great deal to do, though here, too, there are some odd choices, chiefly the one to make Claire Luke's love interest.  Considering that Claire was previously involved with Matt Murdock, and broke up with him because he refused to give up his vigilantism, the fact that she has no such issues with Luke feels strange--as if his main attraction for her is the fact that he has superpowers.)

You may have noticed that I've said almost nothing so far about the show's title character, and this is unfortunately true to the space he ends up taking in the story.  Colter has tremendous presence, both physically and emotionally.  He's great at conveying both Luke's charm and his determination, even at moments when he's at his most withdrawn and uncommunicative.  But unlike Daredevil or Jessica Jones, Luke Cage isn't interested in digging past its protagonist's facade and poking at their insecurities--on the contrary, even as it reveals his tragic and abusive backstory, it is mostly concerned with validating his belief that he has the right, and the authority, to act in order to protect his community without being questioned or hindered.  You can see why the show makes this choice--by virtue of his skin color, Luke (and men like him) have it repeatedly drummed into them that they are inherently lesser (and perhaps also inherently villainous).  So the fact that this character is possessed of an ironclad belief in his own value, and in his right to act, is quietly revolutionary.  But it also leaves Luke feeling rather flat.  When he learns, for example, that his dead wife had lied to him, and was complicit in the abuse he suffered in prison and the experiments he was subjected to against his will, his only response is to mouth a few platitudes and quietly move on.  Compare that to the moment in Jessica Jones in which Luke learns that Jessica is the person who killed his wife, and that she lied to him about it while becoming romantically involved with him.  There's more vulnerability and humanity in Luke's five-minute reaction to this betrayal than there is in the entire first season of Luke Cage, and the show is all the poorer for that.

Diamondback's introduction is clearly intended to address some of the flatness of Luke's characterization--he and Luke turn out to have a complicated history, and he challenges our hero's simplistic understanding of his past and his family when he reveals that they are half-brothers.  But this history is introduced so awkwardly that it never really registers, especially since, even in these moments, Luke still isn't allowed to drop his facade of emotional invulnerability.  The revelation that his admired father was flawed, and that Luke himself contributed to the victimization of his half-brother, has virtually no effect on Luke, so it can't be expected to register with the audience.  When the final episode in the season opens with a flashback to the young Luke and Diamondback sparring, it feels like too little, too late--Luke is too flat, and Diamondback is too aggravating, for us to become invested in this friendship, much less its dissolution.

What makes Luke Cage work, despite the vagueness of its story and some of its characters, is the specificity of its setting.  It's been a running joke that the Netflix MCU shows tend to treat New York neighborhoods as if they were their own cities, but Luke Cage is the only one of the three to actually earn that approach, first by leaning on Harlem's storied past as a center of black culture and community, and second by showing the neighborhood to us, lingering on distinctive bits of architecture or street art.  Some of the best moments in the season are the ones that let the story pause and allow its setting to simply be.  In that sense, the choice of Pop's barbershop--that prototypical setting for black male bonding and camaraderie--is both obvious and richly rewarding.  It allows Luke and his friends to simply talk, about their favorite books, or boxers, or musicians, or just about the events of their lives.  More than any entry in the MCU, Luke Cage feels specific to a particular setting, which it depicts lovingly and with careful attention to detail.  It's amazing how often those are the qualities that distinguish a flawed but interesting work from one that has no value.

One of the most interesting ways in which Luke Cage creates a sense of place--and one that feels particularly relevant given the recent accusations of blandness leveled at the MCU's musical texture--is the show's soundtrack.  Music is a vital component of the show, down to episode titles taken from the songs of the hip hop duo Gang Starr, or a guest appearance from Method Man, who freestyles an impromptu ode to the title character (a charmingly old school touch, reminiscent of the days when superhero stories didn't take themselves so seriously).  It's also all over the show.  Cottonmouth owns a nightclub, which gives the show an excuse to feature multiple live performances in various genres associated with black culture--everything from hip hop to funk to R&B.  The soundtrack, as well, features multiple interesting cuts, as well as a distinctive and often playful score.  Musically, Luke Cage is the most exciting thing to ever come out of the MCU, and it's that music that gives the show an identity that its storytelling often lacks.

At the same time, Luke Cage's emphasis on giving Harlem its own unique, self-contained identity can have a strange, not always positive effect on the show's politics.  As promised, Luke Cage delivers black stories, and there is something genuinely revolutionary about a superhero story in which not only the hero and the supporting characters, but virtually every minor character, every bit player, every face in the background is black or brown (and in which the perspective of white characters is almost completely ignored).  The fact that Luke is a superhero operating within a community that has suffered from difficult relations with the official authorities gives his actions a weight that most other superhero stories have struggled to achieve.  In a year that has seen multiple attempts to grapple with the morality of superheroes, all of which fell flat, Luke Cage makes a convincing argument that what was missing from these stories was any acknowledgment of race (as in, to take a particularly blatant example, Civil War, in which two powerful, privileged white men grapple over the morality of committing global-scale violence, while the murdered and mutilated bodies that drop as a result of their dispute just happen to all be black).  The fact that the police in Harlem are unwilling or unable to properly police the neighborhood, to protect its residents without criminalizing them, gives Luke a justification for existing that Matt Murdock, for example, doesn't really have.  The fact that the same authorities that wink at Matt, let Jessica Jones off the hook for cold-blooded murder, and bring Frank Castle into court alive, also mount a manhunt for Luke, carrying weapons especially designed to kill him, is a pointed and deliberate choice by the show's writers.

It's also, however, a comparison that is left to the viewers to make.  While the show is vocal in its discussions of the hostility between Harlem's community and the police--which culminates in ordinary citizens donning bullet-riddled hoodies, both as an homage to Luke and a way of shielding him from the police's attentions--it is surprisingly silent when it comes to the role that white institutions, white supremacy, and systemic racism played in bringing us to this situation.  Harlem's insularity appears to extend to the complete absence of influence from any of the city's mostly-white institutions.  Luke Cage seems to take the standard superhero approach, in which government begins and ends with policing.  It thus doesn't address education, infrastructure, health care, housing, or jobs, the neglect of all of which has been the main cause of poverty, crime, and drug addiction in the inner city.  The only character who brings up the role of government in deliberately neglecting black and brown inner city neighborhoods is treated as a joke (and immediately killed off).  Speaking about Luke, Method Man opines that "there's something powerful about seeing a black man that's bulletproof and unafraid." But the show never really seems to want to talk about what it is that Luke--and other black men who are not bulletproof--have to be afraid of.

Nowhere is the strangeness of this lacuna more evident, or more troubling, than in the show's handling of police brutality.  Given Luke Cage's emphasis on Harlem as its own self-contained world, whose problems are rooted in crime rather than systemic racism, it would perhaps have been understandable if the show had simply chosen not to depict instances of police brutality at all (after all, and as noted by several members of the show's cast and crew, the very choice of a hoodie as Luke's uniform is already a powerful and deliberate statement about this issue).  Instead, the show chooses to feature multiple instances of policemen abusing black and brown citizens, but always slants its depiction of these incidents in such a way as to avoid an obvious association with Black Lives Matter and its message.  In one case, Misty's partner, Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), murders a young black man--by strangulation, no less.  But the significance of the moment is very easy to miss, because Scarfe isn't motivated by racism, but by corruption--he's in the pay of Cottonmouth, who wants the young man killed.  Later in the season, Scarfe is mortally wounded, and an entire episode is expended on humanizing him and extending him sympathy--chiefly from the direction of Misty, who still cares about her partner despite his crimes.

Later instances of police brutality show more willingness to call a spade a spade--when Misty attacks Claire in an interrogation room, or when another detective brutally beats a young boy who refuses to tell him where Luke is.  But here, again, it's significant how much the show works to downplay associations with Black Lives Matter.  Both Misty and the detective who attacks the boy are black.  More importantly, both are suffering from extreme emotional distress--Misty recently had an encounter with Diamondback that nearly ended with her death, and the detective is upset because his friend and fellow officer was murdered by, as he believes, Luke--and are trying to lay their hands on a suspect whom they believe to be extremely dangerous.  As Noah Berlatsky wrote recently, one of the problems that emerges when mainstream TV tries to engage with police brutality, even from a standpoint that sees it as unacceptable, is the assumption that the murder or brutalization of innocent black people at the hands of the police tends to involve cops who are in distress, usually over a troubling and serious crime that they're investigating.  In reality, most heavily-publicized cases in which the police kill black people involve victims whose crimes were either minor and non-violent--as in the case of Sandra Bland or Eric Garner--or who had committed no crime at all--as in the case of Tamir Rice or Philando Castile.  So Luke Cage not only minimizes the prevalence and ubiquity of police brutality, it focuses its attention on just the wrong place--the emotional state of the officers who committed the violence, and the excuses that can be offered for it (after Misty's attack on Claire, for example, we spend a whole episode with her in a session with a psychologist)--rather than on the system that encourages these officers to see certain people as inherently dangerous, and thus killable.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Luke Cage's approach to police brutality is what happens after Misty's colleague beats up the boy who refuses to tell him about Luke.  Swooping in with the boy's mother, Mariah Dillard uses the incident to castigate the police for their indifference to violence against black people--and really, to get them to further intensify their pursuit of Luke and draw attention away from her own crimes.  She organizes a rally, ostensibly about police brutality, but with the real purpose of inflaming attitudes against superpowered people, and laying the groundwork for lobbying the city to equip the police with rounds that can penetrate Luke's skin, which are supplied by Diamondback.  So we have a black politician cynically leveraging Black Lives Matter rhetoric in order to achieve her own personal, criminal ends.  And we have that same black politician orchestrating the over-militarization of police, again in order to conceal her crimes and get rid of a personal enemy.  When a city official expresses reservations about equipping cops with these new bullets, it's only because "any weapon that the police or military has eventually ends up on the street", not because the police will inevitably use this hyper-lethal ordinance on regular people, as they have every time in the past.

At the end of the season, when Misty is informed that she doesn't have the evidence to prosecute Mariah Dillard, she rants that "the system is broken!"  That's a fairly standard expression of frustration for a police officer in a superhero story, the justification that such stories offer for the extra-legal violence of someone like Daredevil.  But in the context of a police officer who has, by that point, attacked two different suspects, and whose complaint is that she isn't allowed to go even further outside the law in her pursuit of them, it feels like the show prioritizing the conventions of its genre--in which extra-legal force is necessary to stop bad guys--over their associations in the real world--in which the perception that some people are "bad guys" is used to justify their immediate execution.

In the season's final episode, having defeated Diamondback and while taking a well-deserved moment to rest and reflect, Luke Cage reminds us that his show is about black stories:
People are scared.  But they can't be paralyzed by that fear.  You have to fight for what's right every single day, bulletproof skin or not.  You can't just not snitch, or turn away, or take money under the table because life has turned you sour.  When did people stop caring?  Harlem is supposed to represent our hopes and dreams.  It's the pinnacle of black art, politics, innovation.  It's supposed to be a shining light to the world.  It's our responsibility to push forward, so that the next generation be further along than us.
Just as in the first episode, it's a thesis statement for the show.  And just as in that episode, it's a frustrating one.  Luke is placing the burden of healing and repairing a community that has been neglected and abused for decades on the very people who have suffered the most from that neglect and abuse--perhaps even blaming them for it.  On one level, it's a very superhero kind of approach.  Superhero stories always come down to individual solutions.  The idea of a systemic problem that can't be solved by a single person with powers is anathema to their very existence.  But in the context of a story about a black superhero in a black inner city neighborhood, that statement takes on a very different tone.  It becomes the conservative bugbear about "personal responsibility," the insistence that the only people responsible for black people's problems are black people themselves, and that all those problems could be solved if they would only pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Luke Cage is obviously trying to paint its hero as an aspirational figure, someone who inspires black people (though mostly black men) to believe in themselves and in their ability to change the world.  That's an important message, but like so much else about the superhero genre, it's a double-edged sword.

As I've written in the past, superhero stories tend to have a complex, dysfunctional relationship with the concept of abuse.  Because so many superheroes have a background of abuse, the stories we tell about them tend to fetishize it and treat it as a means to an end.  Most of all, they tend to be harshly prescriptive about what the "right" reaction to abuse is, and to divide people into heroes and villains according to how they respond to their traumas.  But what happens when that abuse isn't personal, but communal and generational?  To reduce the complex problems faced by black communities to a need to "push forward", an imperative not to become "sour", is superficially true, but beneath that surface it raises a lot issues that Luke Cage isn't willing or able to address.  Ultimately, Luke Cage's problem may not be its politics, so much as its unwillingness--or inability--to break free of the conventions of its genre.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition

This week has seen the first inklings of the new TV season, as the US networks start trotting out shows in the hopes of success, legitimacy, or even the tiniest bit of attention.  And yet here I am, still talking about some of the shows of summer.  This is partly because, as we've all more or less accepted, network shows just aren't where it's at anymore, and there isn't that much to say about yet another raft of samey procedurals and underbaked high concepts.  So this post covers a British miniseries and a Netflix series, as well as a few network pilots.  Still, I do enjoy this time of year, and I keep hoping that one of these shows will surprise me, so stay tuned for further reports. 

(Not discussed in this post, because there wasn't much to say about them: Designated Survivor, which has an ironclad elevator pitch that I'm not sure it knows what to do with, and Notorious, which seems desperate to be a Shondaland show but actually feels more like a parody of one.  And coming from the other direction, I would have liked to write more about Donald Glover's new FX comedy Atlanta, but the truth is that I'm still not sure what I think about it--it's a really interesting and well made show, but not one I've fully grasped yet)
  • Victoria - ITV has been promoting the hell out of this sumptuous miniseries about the early years in the reign of the titular queen.  But while the subject matter--and the presence of former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman, wearing an extremely distracting pair of blue contact lenses, in the title role--have an obvious appeal, the more one sees of Victoria, the less persuasive its argument is that there is actually anything here worth watching for.  Victoria takes some liberties with its history, mostly so that it can more easily fit it into the forms of a romantic melodrama--suggesting, for example, that the teenage Victoria was in love with her first PM, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), when in reality she seems to have viewed him as more of a father figure; or injecting tension over the question of whether Victoria will warm to her future husband Albert (Tom Hughes), when in reality she had known him since their early teens, and was very fond of him from the start.  But as tedious as these choices are, they pale beside the miniseries's real problem--that the more it shows us of Victoria, the less interesting she seems.  It finally becomes clear that while Victoria had tremendous symbolic significance, the actual events of her life were rather boring, with her main accomplishments being that she outlived the rest of her family, and then successfully set up a dynasty.

    Victoria tries to get some mileage out of the difficulties that its heroine experiences as a reigning queen--hardly anyone around her believes in her abilities, and her choices and freedoms are constantly being curtailed by people who pay lip service to her title but are clearly more swayed by her gender and youth.  But it constantly bumps up against the problem that the things Victoria wants to do are rarely admirable, or even very difficult--the first episode ends with her pushing through personal sorrow to perform the utterly ceremonial function of reviewing her troops.  And more often, when Victoria tells us that she's being stymied because of her gender, what shows up on screen is a petulant, spoiled child who is determined to get her own way, as in a scene in which her resentment of one of her mother's attendants leads her to subject the woman to what is essentially medical rape.  When, in a later episode, Victoria crows about the fact that she precipitated a constitutional crisis in order to gratify her desire to keep Melbourne in her entourage, it's hard not to wonder whether the miniseries is making a stealth argument for abolishing the monarchy.

    Victoria wants us to be on its heroine's side, even when not doing so might have made for a more interesting story.  The most recent episode revolves around the financial negotiations that precede Victoria's marriage to Albert, with the taciturn prince insisting that he be granted a sufficient allowance to be independent of his sovereign wife, and Victoria unable to understand why Albert isn't content to depend on her generosity--as so many wives in his position have had to be.  For a moment, there's the potential to say something interesting about how Victoria, for all her outward demureness, actually relishes her power, and is perfectly happy to prop up unjust, oppressive systems so long as she gets to be the one doing the oppressing.  But the episode is too committed to the epic love story of Victoria and Albert, and ends with Victoria giving up her power for the sake of marital bliss.  That's probably true to life, but in a show that has already proven itself willing to twist history to its needs, it's disappointing how those needs keep taking the story in the most boring, predictable directions.

  • The Get Down - Most of the attention paid to Netflix shows this summer was lavished on the mega-success Stranger Things, leaving Baz Luhrmann's historical-musical-teen-drama to languish in its shadow.  That's a shame, because while Stranger Things was impeccably made and a lot of fun, it was also somewhat hollowThe Get Down, in contrast, is a mess--of the six episodes in the "half-season" released this summer, only one really works as a piece of storytelling, and the rest are frequently shapeless, self-indulgent, and silly.  But The Get Down also has heart, passion, and a deeply-felt desire to tell its story that I haven't seen in almost any other show this year (with the possible exception of this spring's Underground).  When the show's disparate (and often seemingly contradictory) elements click together, it's like nothing I've ever seen.

    Set in the Bronx in the late 70s, The Get Down focuses on three young people: Zeke (Justice Smith), a soft-spoken high school student and burgeoning poet who is being urged towards college and respectability by his family, but who is drawn to the emerging hip hop scene, finding in it a means of expressing his rage and political views; Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), the girl of Zeke's dreams, whose own dreams are of disco stardom; and Shaolin (Shameik Moore), a drug dealer and hustler who wants to turn over a new leaf by becoming a DJ.  These are, obviously, blatant stereotypes, but they're brought to vivid, unforgettable life by the young actors, who convey not only passion and determination, but a complex understanding of their situation.  Zeke, for example, is genuinely torn between respectability and the hip-hop life, seeing things to desire and strive for in both of the possibilities before him, and driven by genuine ambition in both directions.  Which is a much more nuanced handling of this type of story than you usually see.  Perhaps more importantly, it feels significant that these character types--familiar, for example, from Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom, whose earnest tone The Get Down frequently mirrors--are being played by black and brown people, that they are treated as people who get to dream, and to be exuberant in the pursuit of their dreams.

    It's that combination of exuberance and savvy that makes The Get Down fascinating, and that convinces me that it's worth keeping up with despite its flawed beginning.  Alongside its musical numbers and candy-colored tales of kids who just want to sing, the show paints a surprisingly detailed and complicated picture of the political situation in the Bronx during its era.  Jimmy Smits hams it up as a local politician who is trying to amass enough political power to transform the neighborhood, but some of his ideas, about the things that people of color deserve and have been taught to live without, would be revolutionary if they were stated on the news, much less in a show that is essentially a hip hop version of Glee.  And the insight the show offers into the workings of the white political establishment--for example a mayoral candidate who explains that he is hammering at non-violent crimes like graffiti tagging because it plays well to white, middle class voters--is sharp enough to cut.  Alongside shows like Jane the Virgin or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Get Down is a reminder that sometimes it takes a degraded, "trashy" genre--like the let's-put-on-a-show story--to give a voice to the kind of people that prestige TV tends to forget, and to talk about issues that it tends to ignore.  The Get Down isn't exactly better than something like Stranger Things, but in its choice to use its genre to actually say something, it is infinitely more vital and alive, and if the second half of its season lives up to the promise of its first, it'll truly be something to see.

  • The Good Place - It's often hard to judge a comedy based on only a few episodes, but this difficulty is compounded in the case of Mike Schur's new series.  Three episodes into The Good Place, I'm still not entirely sure what the show is about, and starting to suspect that the story it's trying to tell is actually more complicated and fantastical than it initially lets on.  Which is not to say that what The Good Place starts out as is not complicated and fantastical.  Waking up in a pleasant-looking waiting room, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is informed that she has died and gone to heaven (or rather, "the good place").  Eleanor's guide, Michael (Ted Danson), explains that he has constructed this particular corner of heaven to be perfectly suited to a few hundred souls who were all the best of the best, and carefully selected to mesh well with each other--including, in Eleanor's case, her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper).  There's just one problem: Eleanor was, in life, a terrible, selfish, manipulative person, and the life of philanthropy and good works that Michael ascribes to her never happened.  Terrified of being sent to "the bad place", Eleanor convinces Chidi to keep her secret, a task complicated by the fact that every time she does something bad, the good place reacts by destabilizing and attacking its inhabitants.  It's left to Eleanor--with the help of Chidi, an ethics professor--to learn how to be good, for the first time in her (after)life.

    This is, obviously, a massively convoluted premise and a lot to set up in a couple of 22-minute episodes, especially since revelations about how the good place works, and how it has been malfunctioning, are still coming--at the end of the third episode, for example, we learn that Eleanor is not the only person to arrive at the good place incorrectly.  As a result, it's hard to judge The Good Place as a comedy.  The cast is obviously fantastic, and Bell in particular is great at playing both lovable and nasty, but at the moment The Good Place is more interesting than funny.  Perhaps the show's biggest problem is that, as a story about a person who is learning to be good, The Good Place is often unconvincing.  Eleanor's past as a terrible person, seen through flashbacks, is more cartoonish than horrifying, full of too-blatant flaws like littering or refusing to boycott a coffee shop whose owner sexually harassed employees.  I keep drawing comparisons between how the show draws her, and how a show like Community conveyed the mundane-yet-horrifying depths of Jeff Winger's narcissism, which maintained its grip on him even after he made a genuine effort to change.  The Good Place's idea of goodness feels equally shallow, and perhaps tinged with Hollywood's neoliberal conception of goodness as an individual, rather than communal, trait.  Almost everyone we've met in the good place was a philanthropist or a charity fundraiser or an aid worker--the sort of goodness that is reserved mostly for affluent people, and which is often held up as a reason for why we don't need government or welfare to help people who are in need.

    But of course, it seems very possible--even likely--that this is the point.  As more and more flaws reveal themselves in the fabric of the good place, it feels as if the show is deliberately pointing out the limited and limiting nature of its concept of goodness-for example through the character of Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a condescending blowhard who also raised billions for charity.  Schur's previous show, Parks and Recreation, built an elaborate (and often borderline-fantastical) world in its setting of Pawnee, Indiana, and I'm starting to suspect that The Good Place is attempting something even more ambitious, a whole cosmology which the characters have to figure out.  It still remains to be seen whether he and his writers can make a comedy out of a premise like that, but for the moment, The Good Place is one of the most intriguing new shows of the season.

  • This Is Us - The pilot for this it's-all-connected, multi-strand character drama has had some of the most effusive reviews of the fall.  Which leads me to wonder: were all of these reviewers high?  This Is Us's opening episode is one of the most turgid and regrettable hours I've ever spent in front of a TV--to paraphrase a very useful construction, it's a bad writer's idea of what good writing looks like.  Rooted firmly in the genre of family melodrama, This Is Us lacks the one quality that is essential to such stories' success--specificity of character and setting.  And because its writers lack the ability to make their characters and situations feel real and lived-in, they instead opt for absurd, over-the-top plot contrivances, which actually end up being more boring and uninvolving than another show's low-key naturalism--this is a pilot that struggles mightily, and eventually fails, to elicit an emotional reaction from a story about a dead baby.

    The first of This Is Us's interlinked storylines involves a young couple, Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), who are in the hospital, about to welcome triplets.  It's a rather pointless story whose significance only registers when the pilot delivers its twist ending, but in the meantime it's notable how little personality the show gives Rebecca, even as it emphasizes Jack's concern over the fact that her delivery experiences complications.  In a second storyline, an obese woman named Kate (Chrissy Metz) joins a weight loss group.  Though it's not exactly surprising that the only story network TV can think to give to a fat character revolves around their weight, the sheer hysteria of Kate's storyline is dismaying.  By the end of the pilot, we have learned virtually nothing about her except that she is fat, and that this makes her completely miserable--she seems to have no interests, no hobbies, no friends, no job, nothing going on outside of her obsession with her size.  The one thing we do learn about Kate is that she has a twin brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), an actor who stars in a dumb sitcom that gets most of its laughs by having him take off his shirt.  Again, it's not surprising that a show this melodramatic would look down on comedy, but the terms in which This Is Us conveys the shallowness of Kevin's show defy belief--everyone working on it, except Kevin, seems to be a talentless hack who cares only about ratings and pleasing the network.  (This condescension is particularly aggravating when one compares This Is Us to something like Jane the Virgin, a comedy that achieves more genuine emotion in any random five minutes than this show manages in its entire pilot.)  When Kevin has an on-set meltdown after a (schlocky and overwrought) dramatic scene is cut, we're meant to think that he's rediscovering his artistic integrity, when really he's just being petty and unprofessional.

    Finally, the last plot strand concerns Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a successful and happy family man who tracks down his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), in order to furiously berate him for leaving the infant Randall in a fire station.  While it's understandable that Randall would have complicated feelings towards his father, the fact is that leaving a baby in a fire station isn't hugely different from giving them up for adoption (especially since we learn that Randall was adopted on the very same day that he was abandoned, by a loving and affluent family).  So the depth of Randall's rage, and William's calm acceptance that what he did was unforgivable, feel unearned.  (Nevertheless, this is probably the most successful plotline in the pilot, largely because Brown, late of a transcendent, Emmy-winning turn on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, is the only actor in the cast who manages to imbue his character with anything resembling humanity.)  All of these stories are leading up to a twist that reveals how these characters are connected--though if you know that a twist is coming, it is laughably easy to guess what that connection is--but as soon as that revelation comes, we're left with a question: what is there in this show that's worth watching for?  This Is Us's pilot was written to service its ending, but that ending still leaves us with a bunch of boring characters caught up in unconvincing situations, and absolutely no reason to keep watching.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Strange Horizons Fund Drive

Strange Horizons, the erstwhile speculative fiction magazine, is currently running its annual fund drive.  I've had a close relationship with Strange Horizons that has spanned most of my writing career.  They were the first magazine to publish my reviews, thus bringing my work to a wider audience.  I served as the magazine's reviews editor between 2011 and 2014 (which means that my name appeared on the Hugo ballot when it was nominated in the Best Semiprozine category).  And I continue to write for them today, most recently in my two-part review of this year's Clarke shortlist.

But beyond my relationship with it as a writer, what makes Strange Horizons special and important to me is the material it's put before me as a reader.  A lot of the testimonials you're going to see around the internet in the next few weeks are going to talk about Strange Horizons's fiction department, which has and continues to give platforms to new writers, many of whom have gone on to great things.  That's worth recognizing and celebrating, but to me Strange Horizons will always be special as one of the finest, most interesting, most fearless sources for criticism and reviews.  There is, quite simply, no other online source of genre reviews that covers the breadth of material that Strange Horizons does, with the depth of engagement and the multiplicity of perspectives that it offers.  The editorial team that took over from me in 2015, under the leadership of Maureen Kincaid Speller, has excelled at finding new voices, such as Samira Nadkarni, Vajra Chandrasekera, and Keguro Macharia, to offer their vital points of view, while maintaining the presence of reviewers like Nina Allan and Erin Horáková, whose writing is essential to anyone interested in the state of our field.

A focus on Strange Horizons's non-fiction content feels particularly important to me at the moment, because in the run-up to the fund drive month the magazine has featured some truly exceptional writing, showcasing a variety of styles, approaches, and subject matter that all demonstrate how valuable it is as a source of genre criticism.  Great recent reads from Strange Horizons's non-fiction departments include, but are by no means limited to:
  • Aishwarya Subramanian's review of The Explorer's Guild, Volume One, a YA adventure novel co-written by, of all people, Kevin Costner.  It's a supremely unpromising review subject that most of us would dismiss as a cynical cash-in, but Aishwarya demonstrates how, in the hands of a good reviewer, even the most inauspicious topic can be fruitful ground for discussion.  Her review discusses the adventure novel genre and its pitfalls, as well as the difficulties of resurrecting it today, but it also treats its subject seriously, and finds things to praise about it.

  • Tim Phipps's review of Star Trek Beyond, which is really more a meditation on Star Trek fannishness in the age of remakes and reboots, and which will warm the hearts of any old-school Star Trek fan (and particularly fans who, like myself, love Deep Space Nine the best).

  • Katy Armstrong's review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  There's been a lot of virtual ink spilled about this project, but Katy's review is the first I've seen that both approaches the play as a fan (and especially a fan who was active in fandom, and is familiar with the voluminous body of fanfic written about the series), and is written from the perspective of someone who has actually seen the play, rather than just reading the script-book.  Though still critical of the story's problems, Katy is able to convey how some of them are ameliorated, or even cancelled out, by the theatrical medium, which is a perspective that discussions of this new entry in the Harry Potter canon have desperately needed.

  • Iori Kusano's review of the virtual reality game Job Simulator, which addresses the implications of a game that simulates low-paying, service-sector labor, which is played on a platform that most actual employees of the jobs it simulates couldn't afford.  At a time when we're still having to debate whether game criticism should address anything more than graphics and gameplay mechanics, this review quietly offers a vital alternative.

  • Adam Roberts's review of Apocalypse: An Epic Poem, a novel in verse about climate change by Frederick Turner.  Strange Horizons's editors challenged Adam to review the novel in its own style, and it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his writing that he rose to the challenge.  But within the lines of his poem-review, Adam also takes his subject seriously, discussing the history of novels-in-verse and the challenges of the form, as well as the points in which Turner succeeds and fails.

  • From the articles department, Erin Horáková's masterful, fascinating essay "Boucher, Backbone, and Blake - The Legacy of Blakes 7".  Even if, like myself, you know Blakes 7 only as a buzzword for a certain kind of old-school SF fan, you'll find a great deal to chew over in Erin's article, which touches on politics, fandom, the way that television has been influenced by the show, and the ways in which it has changed that would make a show like it impossible today.  It's a brilliant piece of cultural commentary, and more importantly, one that it is almost impossible to imagine being published anywhere but Strange Horizons.  As much as venues for pop culture criticism have proliferated in recent years, most of them are focused on the blazingly current, and on discussions that can be consumed in bite sizes (hence the dominance of the TV episode recap/review).  I've spent the last few weeks trying to place a piece that is shorter than Erin's, and less historical in its subject, but still long and not topical.  It's been amazing to realize how many venues are excluded by those qualities.  As a demonstration of why Strange Horizons is necessary in our current genre landscape, Erin's essay is highly instructive.
When you've finished reading all these excellent pieces of non-fiction, I hope you'll consider donating to Strange Horizons, and helping it to continue being a source for such writing.  The main fund drive page is here, where you can donate via PayPal or Patreaon.  All donors are entered in a prize drawing, with many great prizes that are constantly being added to.  As funding goals are reached, the magazine is releasing special bonus content (Adam Roberts's review of Apocalypse was one such prize).  This year's fund drive target is $15,000, but stretch goals go as far as $22,500, and if the magazine reaches those goals, it has ambitious projects planned for the next year, including a special issue on Spanish SF, and new projects focusing on translated and interactive fiction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The long opening segment of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is carefully, almost studiously naturalistic.  In plain, but also irresistible and affecting language, he presents the life story of his heroine, Cora, starting first with the history of her grandmother, kidnapped from Africa and finally ending up, after much circumlocution (which is to say, being sold and re-sold), on a Georgia plantation, and moving on to detail the life of Cora's mother, who escaped when Cora was a child, and finally to Cora herself.  Whitehead's eye for the details of life on the plantation--and in particular, life in the insular, predatory community that arises among the slaves--is unflinching.  Many reviewers before me have noted the brutal quietness with which he reveals that "Not long after it became known that Cora's womanhood had come into flower, Edward, Pot, and two hands from the southern half dragged her behind the smokehouse.  If anyone heard or saw, they did not intervene.  The Hob women sewed her up."  But the entire segment is rife with moments like this, in which the sheer weight of what it means to live your entire life under the burden of being thought inhuman is presented without adornment, or even much signposting.  Taken on its own, this part of the book would still be a brilliant literary accomplishment.

But of course, if you've heard of The Underground Railroad, that's probably not what you've heard about it.  Leaving aside its selection for Oprah Winfrey's highly influential book club, what has made The Underground Railroad remarkable and notable is what happens at the end of this chapter.  Stunned out of a gloomy kind of complacency about her situation by a brutal beating, Cora accepts the invitation of another slave, Caesar, to escape with him.  Caesar has made contact with a local station agent for the Underground Railroad, and after a grueling, nail-biting escape--even the short distance between their plantation and the station is fraught with nearly impossible dangers for a pair of escaped slaves--what he and Cora find as their supposed path to freedom is a literalized metaphor.
The stairs led onto a small platform.  The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end.  It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern.  The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.  Cora and Caesar noticed the rails.  Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties.  The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting towards a miraculous terminus.
So dry and matter of fact is Whitehead's tone as he describes this impossible feat of, among other things, engineering that it actually takes some time for that impossibility to register.  This is hardly a new approach for Whitehead--his first novel, The Intuitionist, took place in a world in which elevator inspectors were a prestigious and tradition-bound group, closely guarding the secrets of their profession and suspicious when a new member, who is not only a black woman but who espouses the newfangled philosophy of "intuitive" elevator inspection, joins their ranks.  It sounds like a joke, but Whitehead not only presents it seriously but manages to make something soulful and even elegiac out of his premise--the racism and resistance that his heroine meets are no less hurtful because the profession she's trying to break into is ridiculous (in fact, one might argue that this is precisely the point).  Something similar is happening in The Underground Railroad.  Whitehead isn't trying to make slavery ridiculous, but by having Cora and Caesar's escape from it take the form of what is essentially a trip on the subway--they go underground in one spot and emerge in another--he unmoors slavery, and its latter-day permutations into prejudice and oppression, from a specific time and place.

As Cora is told by her first conductor, the Underground Railroad of the novel has no fixed route, no promised path to freedom.  Trains arrive on a schedule that is erratic, and their destinations are often unclear.  "The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another.  Stations are discovered, lines discontinued.  You won't know what waits above until you pull in."  Whitehead thus sets himself up for a sort of dark picaresque, with Cora and Caesar sampling life for escaped slaves in different states, trying to make their way to safety and happiness.  (The structure put me in mind of The Odyssey, and Whitehead namechecks Gulliver's Travels.  Though, and as one of this characters points out, both of these stories are tales about men who are ultimately trying to get home, whereas for Cora and Caesar home is a hell they must escape.)  The first of these chapters, titled "South Carolina", sets up its normalized strangeness right from the start, when Cora emerges from under ground: "She looked up at the skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had traveled."  Once again, Whitehead plays it completely straight, and it takes a long time for the reader to be certain that the South Carolina that Cora and Caesar have arrived in--where they are housed in dormitories, educated, and given jobs, as part of a government program to "advance" former slaves--is not just counterfactual, but a place out of time.  When that confirmation comes, however, it brings the entire novel into focus.
His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments.  The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.  In fact, the niggers were participants in a study of the latent and tertiary stages of syphilis.

"They think you're helping them?" Sam asked the doctor.  He kept his voice neutral, even as his face got hot.

"It's important research," Bertram informed him.  "Discover how a disease spreads, the trajectory of the infection, and we approach a cure."
What Cora is traveling through, as she gets on and off the Underground Railroad, is not space, exactly, but history.  She experiences the different guises of American racism, the different faces it has worn and continues to wear, in a continuous physical space.  In South Carolina, Cora encounters what originally seems like kindness and liberal-mindedness, but which eventually reveals itself as self-serving paternalism.  The terms in which the authorities, who claim to be trying to help black people, actually end up restricting their choices and freedoms are taken not from the 19th century, however, but from the early 20th--forced sterilization, and proposed eugenics programs: "What if we performed adjustments to the niggers' breeding patterns and removed those of melancholic tendency?  Managed other attitudes, such as sexual aggression and violent natures? We could protect our women and daughters from their jungle urges, which Dr. Bertram understood to be a particular fear of southern white men."

This is not to say that The Underground Railroad's scheme is as straightforward as having Cora jump from one period to another.  Even within the South Carolina chapter there are elements that clearly come from different settings and time periods.  Later in the chapter, Cora is hired to appear in a display room at a recently opened museum of American history.  She plays roles in romanticized, sanitized recreations of a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic, a slave auction, and a plantation.  Her predicament--glad for the easy work but aggravated by how it whitewashes the brutal, backbreaking labor she used to perform--echoes a modern complaint by reenactors in actual historical sites, as well as the broader discussion of how American history teaching tends to downplay the brutality of slavery and perpetuate the myth of happy, well-treated slaves.  A later chapter in which Cora, now in the hands of a slave catcher, makes a quasi-hallucinatory crossing of a desolate, burned-out Tennessee landscape lends itself less easily to historical reference, but is clearly designed to open a discussion of America's mistreatment and dispossession of Native Americans.

If there's a criticism to be made here--and to be clear, I'm not sure it rises to that level--it is that this device can have the effect of making The Underground Railroad feel programmatic.  At times it almost feels as if the novel is ticking talking points off a list--the introduction to the slave catcher Ridgeway, for example, includes a short history of the institution of slave patrols and their operation, whose language ("They stopped any niggers they saw and demanded their passes") seems designed to recall discussions I'd read recently about present-day police brutality, and how the history of policing in America has its roots in these slave patrols.  And though the fact that Whitehead has a character whom Cora meets muse that "Black hands built the White House, the seat of our nation's government" a mere month after Michelle Obama made the same observation in a speech to the Democratic convention is surely a coincidence, it also speaks to the book's need to be topical.  At points, The Underground Railroad feels like a fictionalization of the conversation that we've been having for several years, about the place of African Americans in American society, the legacy of slavery, and the way that racism continues to manifest itself, even in a society that claims to have overcome it.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, especially given Whitehead's prodigious gifts as a writer, and the assuredness with which he manages his fantastic device.  But one effect that this approach has is that Cora seems to get lost in the shuffle.  This shouldn't happen--Cora is a wonderful creation, plucky but also deeply damaged, remarkable but also susceptible to the same pressures and traumas as anyone else.  One of the points Whitehead makes with her is to observe how the same courage and determination that make it possible for her to run, can also curdle into cruelty when subjected to enough mistreatment.  One of Cora's defining traumas is having been left behind by her mother when she escaped, and she is never able to forgive this betrayal.  She fantasizes about one day meeting her mother, "Begging in the gutter, a broken old woman bent into the sum of her mistakes.  Mabel looked up but did not recognize her daughter.  Cora kicked her beggar's cup, the few coins flew into the hubbub, and she continued on her afternoon errand".

The Underground Railroad is, in general, unflinching and unsentimental in depicting the psychic toll of participating, even unwillingly, in the system of slavery, whether it's Cora's myriad lingering traumas, over the things that were done to her and the things she's done, or the breakdown of even those slaves who seem inured to the hardships of slavery ("They joked and they picked fast when the bosses' eyes were on them and they acted big, but at night in the cabin after midnight they wept, they screamed from nightmares and wretched memories"), or the reluctance and terror of many of the white people who manage stations, most of whom come to terrible ends when they are inevitably discovered.  But though these points are typically well made, they also never feel like the point of the story, and this is particularly true of Cora.  By its very nature, Cora's journey can't have a destination.  If the point of The Underground Railroad is to take her (and us) through a guided tour of American racism, then the very fact that that racism is still at work--that books like The Underground Railroad are still necessary--means that she can't arrive in any sort of promised land.  Whitehead manages, with an elegance that is, by that point, unsurprising, to give the novel an ending that is satisfying without betraying his scheme, but the result is that Cora's journey loses much of its urgency.  She becomes, despite her vivid and deeply-felt humanity, more a viewpoint than a person.

What I think Whitehead is struggling with in The Underground Railroad is a problem that I've become more aware of, in recent years, in the context of fiction about the Holocaust.  At some point, you have to ask: what is the value of art about atrocity?  Can art exist merely for its own sake when it's discussing a real evil that blighted and claimed the lives of millions, or does it have to serve a purpose, be it educational or political?  Is it even right to impose a narrative--especially one that tends towards a happy ending--on an evil that by its very nature defies narrative, and which swallowed up the lives of so many?  Whitehead's choice--using the fantastic to detach his story from the conventions of narrative, and with it making the point that while slavery is over, it is also still with us--is not just brilliant, but inspiring.  But it also leaves The Underground Railroad feeling a little chilly.  It's a remarkable work, one that I am still, despite this review, struggling to describe and sum up.  But it's also one that I can't entirely love.