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?

Reflections after yet another Sopranos rewatch

This summer, we have been rewatching The Sopranos (my third time, The Girlfriend’s second). We just finished season five last night, and some thoughts have been percolating.

  • It’s striking how much both of the “offspring” (Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire) of Sopranos are riffing off Tony’s general story arc. Don Draper is a rising star in a powerful industry with a blonde wife, a penchant for adultery, and some serious issues to process from his childhood. Nucky Thompson is a man in a high position that many view as unearned and — in an echo of Steve Buscemi’s “Tony B.” plot — that only resulted from a happenstance event that allowed him to take the reins from the “real” boss.
  • The mafia isn’t the only dying institution portrayed on The Sopranos — talk therapy is also living out its afterlife. In both cases, drugs are eroding the dying institution’s prestige by breaking down its traditional practices. And though this theme is more submerged, I think we can draw a parallel between the corporate world (which the mafia can’t touch, as in the episode where Paulie is so pissed that Italians didn’t create Starbucks) and the rise of cognitive-behavioral therapy, anger management, etc. Christopher’s experience with 12-step programs is a little harder to place in this perspective — perhaps it’s just meant as a parallel to Tony’s talk therapy, in that both methods ultimately prove to be incompatible with the mafia lifestyle.
  • Anyone longing for a return to the gift economy should put that idea on hold until they watch The Sopranos. They deploy gifts and generosity almost instinctively as a way of creating a feeling of obligation and complicity in the people they’re targetting. Often they transition seamlessly from generosity to threats, almost as if the gift is necessary to get their claws in initially.
  • They are much more devoted to the traditional episode structure than many later “prestige” dramas. Events that I remember extending over half a season often turn out to be compressed into a single episode, and the discipline of having A and B plots with parallel themes is pretty faithfully observed. I imagine this would make Sopranos a better fit for syndication (or just randomly “dipping in”) than other members of the “prestige” genre it helped spawn.
  • Finally, it seems to me that basically everything that 2000s-vintage “prestige” drama wanted to do is already being done in The Sopranos: charismatic anti-heroes, careful attention to a very specific milieu, subtle but persistent meta-commentary on American society as a whole, more “cinematic” ambition and experimentalism (I don’t think any show does dream sequences as convincingly), riskier performances (for a whole season, Carmella is apparently all but silent and completely passive, but her feelings consistently surface in the dialogue of those around her), etc., etc. Talking with a friend about what “counted” as canonical “Golden Age of Television,” I joked that if I kept getting more and more strict, the entire genre would eventually consist of the Sopranos pilot.
  • A funny meta-element: the first major TV show to aspire to the level of artistry of film focuses on people who quite literally model themselves after movie characters.

Anyway, I think it’s a pretty good show.

The Golden Age of “Good Enough” TV

Though there are some who would still embrace the rhetoric of the “Golden Age of Television” for marketing purposes, we all know that that storied era is over. If there was any question about it, the conclusion of Mad Men — part of the undisputedly canonical Big Three that also includes The Sopranos and The Wire — dispels any ambiguity. While we might dispute whether a particular show belonged to the classic “high-quality cable drama” genre as established by The Sopranos, no currently running show belongs in that category.

And you know what? That’s okay. The final season of Mad Men reminds us how exhausting the “high-quality cable drama” can be — how much pressure there is to watch, to have an opinion, to be up to date on the online dialogue. You probably felt many things when that Coke commercial came to an end, but the emotion you should have been feeling is captured in a timeless Don Draper line: “That’s relief.” Freed from the burden of High Art Television, we can finally get back to enjoying Good Enough Television — a genre that is truly entering into its own golden age.

It was High Art Television that made the blossoming of Good Enough Television possible. First, there were the aesthetic innovations — the greater artistic ambition on the level of the visual experience (more creative shots, lighting, experimental dream and hallucination sequences, etc.), the greater range of acceptable subject matter (including but not limited to supposedly “edgy” themes), the focus on very specific geographical regions (New Jersey, Baltimore) or milieux (the culture of advertising) as opposed to the generic “suburbs or New York City” format of most previous TV. All of those experiments have born their fruit in the Good Enough Television of today, and the result is more visually interesting television that has more room to explore. Second, there are the commercial innovations, above all the explosion in competition to produce original dramatic content among cable networks. Even AMC may never be able to recapture the cachet AMC once enjoyed, but it has given birth to a number of “middle-brow” cable networks (FX) as well as more mass-produced content (USA).

Against all odds, some of these benefits have even accrued to the traditional networks. For me, The Good Wife is the ultimate Good Enough show — attractive people in an attractive setting, with a plot that (with rare missteps, like Khalinda’s husband) keeps moving you along and sometimes even manages to trick you into thinking that you’re pondering an actual idea. There’s a reason we all marathoned the whole thing when it was first released on Hulu, and that’s because it gives us all the beautifully packaged #pureideology we crave from television at its best.

A thought experiment on “Great Television”

To what extent are the “great” TV shows great television and to what extent are they just great stories, with great characters, etc.? That is to say, which ones contribute the most to television as a specific artform?

One way to get at this might be to ask whether something similar could be achieved if a show was converted to a novel. I think that a novel of Mad Men would be horrible, for instance, but a novel of The Wire would be a natural fit. Though The Wire is a little more self-consciously aestheticizing in its shots, etc., than one may initially realize, I think ultimately it’s like a serialized novel without the novel. It’s a great television series, but it’s not great specifically as television. Just throwing it out there, I think that Breaking Bad and Sopranos are very TV-specific, while maybe Deadwood isn’t.

Then there’s a question of whether we take the “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” slogan seriously. To what extent have certain shows moved beyond the restrictions of television to become a new genre of long-form visual narrative? All of the “greats” seem to challenge the episode format to some extent, as witnessed by the fact that events blend together when you marathon watch. In a way, you have to be watching specifically for the episode structure to catch it — meaning that it may primarily be a discipline for the writers, helping them to organize the material in a manageable way.

Perhaps the two poles are the purely episodic (which none of the “greats” are and virtually no contemporary drama is anymore) and the soap opera, which degenerates into a newspaper from a fictional universe. It’s a rare Game of Thrones episode that feels like a well-structured episode, for instance, so that it leans more toward the soap opera pole. I think the innovation of Mad Men is to realize that you can just put characters on the shelf without following them, then bring them back when you need them. Not every plot needs to be “ongoing” — we don’t need to know how Stan hooked up with the nurse girlfriend, when and why they broke up, etc., etc. The Wire and Sopranos move in that direction, but I don’t think they take it as far. Meanwhile, the small cast and setting of Breaking Bad and Deadwood prevent much experimentation in that regard, simply because it would make no narrative sense much of the time.

In short, some pretty random thoughts. I assume I’m reinventing the wheel to some extent. But all of this is partly by way of explaining why I think it’s basically not arguable whether Mad Men is the most artistically ambitious and artistically successful television show as a television show of all time — whether or not we agree, as we surely don’t, on its enjoyability, relevance, etc. And to some extent, I think that many of the ideological problems with the show — its limited representation, its “first world problems” focus, its objectively low-stakes setting — are features rather than bugs because they let the aesthetic come to the fore. Similar to how Melancholia basically has to take place in a setting of unimaginable wealth to “bracket out” all other problems.