Project for the TV criticism of the future

I know there’s probably not much audience for it, in part because it wouldn’t provide a lot of take-fodder, but I would love to see more TV and film criticism that didn’t hold the critiqued object up to an ultimately arbitrary standard and find it lacking. I feel like in every TV or film article I read, there’s a moment when the author “turns the corner” and expresses their disappointment that the work didn’t do something they wish it had done, either aesthetically or (especially annoying) politically. There seems to be a lack of clarity about what we actually expect a show or film to do. Do we want it to mirror our political views? But why do we need that? Do we expect it to educate other people in our political views? But why would the producers want to do that?

This really came to a head for me when Mad Men was on the air, and after a certain point, no one was talking about what the show was actually doing, only what they wished it would do. Why should anyone care what a random critic would do if they were in charge of the show? The one exception to this trend was a blog that did this amazing close reading of the wardrobe choices in Mad Men — what they would have signalled in that historical moment, what symbolism (e.g., color patterns) are emerging, etc. I felt like I actually learned something. Is Mad Men a perfect show with perfect politics? No. Did they always make the best possible decisions in terms of plot or emphasis? Obviously not. But it is extremely artfully planned and produced, and criticism that brought that to the fore was much more satisfying to me.

This style of criticism is somehow most exhausting to me when it comes from very smart people I respect. Take, for instance, Aaron Bady’s characteristically lengthy critique of HBO’s Watchmen, which presents the series as a series of missed opportunities. Angela and Lady Trieu should have teamed up to overthrow American white supremacist imperialism! The show somehow should have incorporated climate change even though it takes place in a world where that problem has been solved! And what’s most tragic is that the show was so close to fulfilling Aaron’s demands! (He is self-aware enough to be self-deprecating in the article itself about his tendency to read everything through the lens of climate change, so hopefully he won’t mind if I poke fun a little here.)

Continue reading “Project for the TV criticism of the future”

Superheroes, Science Fiction, and Social Transformation

Since we are in a science-fictional mood around here lately, I thought it might be an appropriate time to share an idea I have been pondering ever since I finished the most recent season of Mr. Robot. I have mixed feelings about Mr. Robot‘s entertainment value, but I am intrigued by the conceptual corner they wrote themselves into. The first season was basically an extended homage to Fight Club, complete with a big reveal that two apparently separate characters were split personalities and a massive terrorist attack that should change the world in unpredictable ways. When season 2 started, you began to realize why there isn’t a Fight Club 2: the burden of world-building required by the consequences of the hack were too much for the show to bear. By the end of season 3, they had more or less resolved the damage done by the hack and returned us to a halfway recognizable version of our own world, where our heroes can use their unique abilities to pursue personal vengeance against a small group of individuals who have personally wronged them.

While Mr. Robot is not literally either a superhero or a science fiction show, I think this narrative dilemma is an interesting way of thinking about the difference between the two. Continue reading “Superheroes, Science Fiction, and Social Transformation”

Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism

I am a Star Trek fan, and I’m here today to talk to you about canon. But I will warn all the hardcore fans who are relieved to be on safe territory: my fandom has taken a strange form. When I was a kid, I was a loyal Next Generation viewer, and I even read a couple of the novels. But I only seriously dug into Star Trek as an adult, when The Girlfriend suggested we try a Next Generation rewatch—which inevitably turned into an epic journey through all the Trek series and movies. By that time, of course, I had been thoroughly trained in cultural analysis and critical theory, and I tended to read Star Trek “as literature.”

So when I talk about canon, I am talking about the strange claim that all of these different stories, written across the last fifty years by dozens of different people, are somehow all “the same” story, that they all fit together as a portrait of a consistent “universe” with its own history. I have already compared the Star Trek canon to scriptural canons in a scholarly article (paywalled journal issue link), and here I would like to pick up on a point that I briefly address there: namely, the tendency for sprawling scriptural canons to develop a “canon within the canon” that guides the interpretation of the rest. In Judaism, for example, the “canon within the canon” is the Torah, while Christians privilege the New Testament as the standard by which their hybrid canon is to be unified. And in Star Trek, of course, the “canon within the canon” for the vast majority of fans is Next Generation. Continue reading Star Trek: Discovery as the End of Next Generation Triumphalism”

“Can you bury your heart”? Having feelings about Discovery

[Editor’s note: This contribution is by Sarah Jaffe]
 

I am not a Star Trek fan.

This is not supposed to be an insult to anyone who is, it’s just to say that if your response to what I write here has anything to do with canon, I will neither understand what you’re saying nor care.

Like most people my age, I have some treasured memories of watching “The Trouble with Tribbles” as a child with my dad, and since my partner is a big enough Trek fan to make it central to his work, I’ve watched more of TNG and all the rest in the last couple of years than I ever had before. (I’ve seen the J.J. Abrams movies; he refuses to.) That’s why, in fact, we ponied up the cash to watch Discovery when it began.

It’s also why I liked it better than he did, at first.

I’m not interested in whether it is appropriately Star Trekky or whether the aesthetic is too dark or what Roddenberry would say (no offense, Gene). I’m interested in good storytelling, good characters, good worldbuilding, good acting. I am, frankly, bored by a lot of “prestige TV,” which tends to be men telling stories about men and their manly manly man-things. And Discovery was a gift on that front.

Particularly, Michael Burnham was a gift.

(Here is where I should say: there will be spoilers)

Continue reading ““Can you bury your heart”? Having feelings about Discovery”

Star Trek: Discovery Is Optimism, But Not for Us

Early in the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, in a moment that establishes the basic setup for the rest of the series, a black woman is sent to prison for life. Standing in the center of a dark room, the only obvious source of light glares down onto her head. She is separated from a row of superior officers both by the staging of the scene and by its dialogue. Where she is bathed in cold, unflattering light, they are silhouetted, faces obscured. Where she stands, far from any physical support, her tribunal is seated, restful. The long desk they share forms a visual barrier separating her from their figures in the frame, which from the camera’s angle of view she almost appears to be displayed upon, like an object under examination.

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“To all these charges,” they ask, “how do you plead?”
“Guilty,” she whispers.
“The accused cannot be heard.”

Continue reading “Star Trek: Discovery Is Optimism, But Not for Us”

Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld

At the time that Westworld first aired, I wasn’t interested. I partly blame the marketing, which presented it as an anchor-style show on the scale of Game of Thrones — and the premise made it sound like it would be just as nihilistically exploitative as Game of Thrones as well. The whole thing sounded exhausting, all the moreso given that the show would surely attract a high level of attention from online critical culture.

Mark this day on your calendar, because it could very well be the first time someone on the internet has openly admited he was wrong. Westworld is absolutely excellent. I think it would have been fun to participate in speculation about where the plot was heading as it happened, and meanwhile I probably could have ignored most of the articles worrying about whether each individual character was given the exactly correct level of agency in every single scene, etc.

The marketing really is to blame, though, because Westworld is not like Game of Thrones. It is more of a niche-market piece, on the scale of Leftovers. And it is the opposite of exploitative or nihilistic. Many shows try to have their cake and eat it too, shaming the audience members who wish that women were not fully human, for example, while still satiating their lusts. Westworld refuses that gambit. There is plenty of nudity, but not of the sensual or tittilating kind — it is the nudity of the slave ship or the concentration camp, the nudity of the morgue. Its violence is at times impressively choreographed, but it is all the more horrifying in that its victims can never escape or effectively fight back.

Westworld already preempts the horrifically ill-conceived Confederate by showing us an unromanticized picture of slavery — and allowing us to understand how such a regime could be tempting and could even seem self-evident. Continue reading “Every God wants to die: Belated reflections on Westworld”

Why remake the Handmaid’s Tale now? Gilead as ISIS

I posted this briefly and then pulled it, with the idea of expanding it into a proper article somewhere. But weirdly, a piece about how a show that (1) is over turns out to be (2) not as topical as people think was a hard sell. So here you go!

The Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale is a curious cultural document. It is very well-produced and well-acted and makes the dystopian world feel eerily plausible — and yet the big question that was always lingering for me was, “What exactly is the point of all this?” People like to say that under Trump, we are now living in The Handmaid’s Tale. But even if that were true — which I don’t think it actually is yet, thankfully — that can’t be the motive behind making the series. After all, such decisions had to have been made long before Trump was even a serious candidate, and certainly before his shocking Electoral College technicality.

After watching the finale, I think I know what they were thinking: it’s actually about ISIS, and the political goal is to make American viewers feel sympathetic to refugees. The transposition into American conservative Christianity makes it clear that we’re dealing with a group that is very selective in reading Scripture in ways that feed their political agenda, with no real relation to tradition — making central to their practice obscure stories that even most Christians aren’t familiar with, for example, and taking clearly metaphorical or hyperbolic language (“if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out”) to justify brutal violence. The fact that they added the trial of the Commander, resulting in the amputation of his left hand, only reinforces this connection, given that the amputations mandated in the Qur’an (and almost always avoided in traditional Islamic law) are a signature move of ISIS, apparently due to the fact that they offend Western sensibilities. The only way they could have made it clearer would be to have the guy beheaded on camera.

This helps us understand why they included black characters, which don’t make sense in Atwood’s original universe. Isn’t it a weird coincidence that both of the main POV characters who make it to Canada are precisely black? They need the refugees to be racially different from their destination, so that they can implicitly shame the American viewer for racial prejudice against people who are victims of a horrible system. We, too, should be providing refugees with a cell phone, insurance, walking-around money, etc., without even mentioning their race or forcing them to go through a heavy screening process. If you show up and you’re from Gilead, you’re taken care of — and that’s what we should be doing for victims fleeing ISIS.

I am so confident that this is the real motivation that I don’t even care if no one involved in the show admits to it. Naturally, they are going to run with the narrative that their show has in fact prompted — no one wants to say that they made a political allegory that so badly misjudged the political terrain. The shame is that the reading of the show as anti-Trump leads Americans to focus on their own victimhood, completely ignoring the people that the show (somewhat heavy-handedly) wanted us to think about.

The work of literature in the age of Netflix

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The Girlfriend and I are at different points in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, having both finished vol. 4 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m sure we are hardly the only couple to both be making our way through these two Major International Literary Events, which are so often paired. In some ways, this phenomenon is puzzling, because what binds the two — memoiristic detail — is hardly unique to either of them, and in any case Ferrante’s focus on her friend Lila is radically different from Karl Ove’s obsessive fixation on Karl Ove.

Why are Knausgaard and Ferrante both such literary darlings, at this particular historical moment? I propose that the reason is precisely the fact that both have produced series, and the series-form is the signature form of our age. I’m not thinking only of the ways that young-adult fiction, most notably Harry Potter, has shaped the reading habits of those who are now adults (in addition to the adults who read them while already being adults) — though this is obviously hugely important, insofar as it took the series-form, once the redoubt of sci-fi and fantasy nerds, and mainstreamed it. No, even more than that, I’m thinking of the High Quality Cable Dramas that are virtually replacing the novel for many knowledge workers today (and here I must shamefully include myself to some extent).

We are used to investing time in exposition for TV shows, but only if they eventually “get good” and can therefore promise us an ever-expanding reward of ongoing entertainment immersion for our efforts. Literary fiction is a poor fit from this perspective, because no sooner have you become immersed than you are finished and have to start totally from scratch. Even in mainstream movies, the one-off format is becoming intolerable, as “franchises” dominate the scene — so how should we be expected to put up with such a poor ROI on a more labor-intensive format?

The giveaway is that people talk about the two canonical Literary Events in the same way as series. “You have to be patient with the first [book/season], it only really gets good 3/4 of the way through” — am I talking about Ferrante or Boardwalk Empire? Similarly with the loyalty: I’m not sure I’ve met any reader of Knausgaard who isn’t in it for the long haul, despite the widely acknowledged drop-off in quality in vols. 3 and 4.

In an era where TV feels like literature, we want our literature to feel like TV.

Why Binge-Watchable Serial Drama is Not a New Genre

In the Poetics, Aristotle devotes significant attention to two modes of storytelling: tragedy and epic. The former is a self-contained, naturally unfolding story, which Aristotle views as the best form of narrative art. He is so fascinated with tragedy, in fact, that he claims that epic is basically trying but failing to be what tragedy is — it wants to be telling such a taut, immersive story, but it gets distracted by a need to bulk out the text with inessential episodes.

In my view, Aristotle misconstrues what epic is trying to do. The episodes aren’t a distraction, they’re the whole point. The overarching story provides a narrative and thematic frame for the episodes, allowing multiple stories to come together into a larger, cohesive whole. The frame narrative is necessarily sparse and even boring, as Aristotle’s famous reductive summary of the Odyssey illustrates, but it’s necessary to keep the episodes from being purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments.

At its best, binge-watchable serial drama is trying to be an epic. Within each season, we have an overarching plot that makes room for several narratively and thematically related episodes. The story of Don Draper’s secret identity gives us a window into the worlds of Peggy and all the other beloved supporting cast, just as Tony Soprano’s quest to become the undisputed boss opens up a narrative world full of fascinating characters.

I’ve written before about Main Character Syndrome, the phenomenon of viewers becoming bored and even resentful of the main character of the framing narrative, and I believe that the fundamentally epic structure of binge-watchable serial drama explains why that is such a constant pitfall. It’s a difficult balance to keep the framing narrative thin enough to allow for rich episodic side-trips but compelling enough that you don’t get impatient with it. Arguably even Homer fails on this point — once it comes time to settle accounts with the primary story of Odysseus coming home to claim what’s his (the beginning of book 13), it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

The balance is easier to strike within a single season, as the Mad Men and Sopranos examples make clear. As the narrative is indefinitely extended, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain tension and interest in the framing device, and the whole enterprise threatens to devolve into a soap opera — a sequence of purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments. Even in the best case, each season must perform a “retcon” to reopen the completed stories of the previous seasons and make the new larger whole feel cohesive. In my opinion, Mad Men was more successful at this than The Sopranos, but the seams are always going to show to some extent. Again, we could see Homer as falling victim to this same problem with his attempt at a sequel to the Iliad — a problem that becomes all the more difficult when Virgil steps in as the show-runner for the third season.

In short, then, binge-watchable serial drama is not a new narrative genre. When it’s done well, it’s epic, and when it’s done poorly, it’s a soap opera. An epic show may devolve into a soap opera, and I suppose it’s conceivable that a formless soap opera could really get its act together and pull off an epic season. I can’t think of an example of the latter, though the former is well-attested.

What’s increasingly getting lost, however, is the art of the self-contained episode — all the moreso now that movies are trying to reinvent the wheel of serialized TV drama instead of sticking to their more natural competency of self-contained stories that at their best reach the coherence and dramatic tension of tragedy.

Music in The Leftovers

One of the most striking things to me about The Leftovers is the music. The signature gesture of the soundtrack is to deploy a “highbrow” version of a pop song — for instance, the piano arrangement of “Where is My Mind” or Lo-Fang’s slow, melodramatic cover of “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease. The latter only occurs once, at a time when the viewer is starting to wonder whether the love between two main characters is merely circumstantial — basically a more dramatic and fraught version of a teenager’s summer fling.

The former is a more constant refrain, which sometimes sounds like the beginning of the show’s own “dramatic piano music” and sometimes transitions into the Pixies’ original recording. Here I think we’re supposed to hear a Fight Club reference, given that Justin Theroux’s character is living a double life (though we almost never see the dissociated version at first hand, much less the two versions interacting as with Ed Norton and Brad Pitt). Given that so many of the characters’ problems center on a fraught relationship with the Guilty Remnant, we might also view that cult as an evocation of the more militant “fight club” of the second half of the film. As with the evocation of Grease, though, in both cases the stakes are much higher, as we are dealing with an apocalyptic event rather than a nameless ennui.

More than any specific intertextual reference, however, I believe that this gesture of “classing up” pop music or cult movies reflects what the show as a whole is doing. After all, what idea could be tackier or lower-class from the perspective of high-brow cable drama than the fundamentalist Christian trope of the Rapture? What could be more distant from the cultural aspirations of the HBO audience than the Left Behind novels and films?