Thursday, July 24, 2014

Love Won't Pay the Rent - Sex and BBC's The Musketeers

Last week I talked (at length) about BBC's The Musketeers and their surprisingly progressive portrayal of race in this new adaptation. I like it. They've done a very good job at not just casting non-white actors in lead roles, but in actually trying to address the idea of what it means to be a person of color in early-Enlightenment France. 

This week, though, I'd like to tackle a related and also uncomfortable topic: how the BBC's The Musketeers handles sex and romance, and whether or not this is even remotely period-accurate.

To begin with, though, we have to admit that judging the historical accuracy of a portrayal of sex and romance is actually a lot harder than judging the historical accuracy of portrayals of race. This is simply because most historical records of "romance" are incredibly biased. Either they come from popular literature, which would be like ascribing historical legitimacy to the Meg Ryan rom-coms of the 1990s, or they come from personal diaries and therefore anecdotal experience. 

Furthermore, all attempts to study sex and romance in prior historical time periods tend to butt up against the simple reality that most of history is written by men. Because men were the ones who were educated enough to be able to write. So any idea we have of sex is going to be extremely male in point of view, simply by virtue of who wrote down what was going on. In the rare cases where we do have a female perspective on sex and romance, it's usually an educated, upper-class woman, the only kind of woman likely to get an education (except nuns) writing. And she definitely has a different experience than your average peasant lady.

Suffice it to say that any discussion of historical romance or sex is really complicated because when it comes down to it, we just plain don't know. But we can guess. And guess we will. (By guess, I mean that we will make logical inferences based on historical evidence, because that's how we roll.)

The Musketeers is based on Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, as you have hopefully already surmised, and as a result it's pretty bawdy. The characters in Dumas' classic were always sleeping their way into and out of trouble, and the characters of the BBC show are no different. Every male lead (excepting Captain Treville, which is interesting) has at least one female love interest, and most of them have a couple. 

There are love triangles, love quadrangles, and some configurations too complex to really suss out, which is all fun and games and really and truly enjoyable. Interestingly, though, the show has taken a rather different route with their portrayal of the women behind these romances. Instead of it all being bedroom eyes and come-hither glances from female characters who are, we are assured, as pure as the driven snow, The Musketeers wants you to know without a doubt that, yes, these women have had sex. Some of them have had a lot of sex.

And most of them, brace yourself, have had non-consensual or at the very least dubiously-consensual sex. 

In any other show, this fact would bother me. A lot. But I was already charmed by the show's handling of race, so I figured I'd see how this all played out. I'm still not entirely sure where I land on it, but I think I'm more favorable towards it than not. Here's why.

As I ranted so eloquently regarding Game of Thrones this season, I'm not okay with the use of rape as a filler or background noise or as a tool for the character development of men, and I definitely hate it when it's done gratuitously to shock viewers. I'm really not okay with the dumbing down of non-consensual sex and the idea that "she really wanted it in the end". The Musketeers doesn't do any of these things. Instead, the rape scenes are never shown, only referenced, and, interestingly, cover a range of situations and consequences.

The two main female characters of the show, Milady (Maimie McCoy) and Constance (Tamla Kari), both have storylines that deal with sexual assault/harassment. But they're dealt with very differently. In Milady's case, she accuses her brother-in-law of raping her, and then claims that she killed him in self-defense. If you don't know the larger story, Milady was once a poor thief who married a rich nobleman, Athos (Tom Burke). According Athos, when his brother discovered Milady's past, she killed him to keep it secret. According to Milady, his brother raped her, and she killed him by accident, trying to get away.

What's really compelling here is that, while Milady has proven herself very untrustworthy over the course of the show, and murdered a lot of people, we don't actually know if she's lying here. She could be, sure, but she very well might not be. And what I find most notable is that the show doesn't tell us one way or another, but it does give her story equal validity to Athos' version. Later on, Athos even cops to the idea that he might not know all the facts. He takes responsibility for the fact that his rash actions (sentencing her to death) might have been wrong.

This is notable because of the atmosphere we live in now. Women are frequently accused of inflating rape statistics and making false rape claims, and society considers the burden of proof to be on the woman to prove that she was raped, rather than on the man to prove that he did not rape her. That Milady's accusations are given story weight, a weight that does not redeem her character, mind, or excuse the awful things she's done, is kind of awesome.

On the other side of the spectrum, however, we have Constance Bonacieux. Constance deals with a more insidious, and probably more historical, form of sexual assault. We learn early on that she is married to a cloth merchant, only ever identified by his last name, Bonacieux (Bohdan Poraj). He is older than her, and the show makes it clear that this was an arranged marriage, not a love match. 

The show goes even further to tell us that Constance is deeply unhappy in her marriage. She has no physical interest in her husband but does make it clear that she has sex with him, because, well, she's married to him. She doesn't have a choice in the matter. As the show progresses, and Constance falls in love with their renter, D'Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino), she is torn between her duty as a wife and her romantic feelings. We get the impression that this is the first time Constance has been in love, and we know for a fact she's never been in love with husband.

No, Constance's marriage, as we learn in episode seven or so, was a pure transaction. Her family sold her to Bonacieux in exchange for a small sum of money. She was an extra mouth to feed, and they didn't want her to end up an old maid, so she was married off as a teenager to a man she'd never met. We discover this when Constance tries to stop all of this from happening to her young cousin, Fleur (Alice Sanders). She is insistent that Fleur get the chance to live a happy life full of love, and get to be educated, and not have to marry some man she doesn't know.

So while the story never explicitly tells us that Constance has been raped, we are implicitly told this from the moment she comes on screen. And that, to me, is the more interesting storytelling choice. Because while Constance's situation is dubbed by the show to be "normal", it's also shown to be wrong. 

In fact, at the very end of the first season (SPOILER), when Constance has finally decided to leave her husband and run away with D'Artagnan, she comes home to find that he's attempted suicide. He then guilts her into staying with him, saying that if she ever leaves, he will kill himself and it will be her fault. Far from being just a crappy thing to do, this is actually textbook abusive behavior, and gives an alarming view into what Constance's married life must be. Presumably this will come up more next season. It better.

In fact, if there were one hobby horse the show hit on just as often as it hit on race, it would be the horrible results of a culture based around transactional marriage. It's a storyline that comes up time and again, not just in Milady and Constance's storylines, but in the storylines of every single other female character on the show. Seriously.

We've got the story surrounding Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling), a lovely and kind woman married to an overgrown child of a king. Anne is deeply unhappy in her marriage, which we are shown was definitely for strategic purposes and not even a little bit for love. Her husband, King Louis (Ryan Gage) isn't super pleased with her either. She's so serious and boring and hasn't had a son yet. Her lack of a male heir (or any heir) leads to rumors that she isn't fit to be queen, and puts a strain on her already strained marriage.

To complicate matters, Anne falls a little bit in love with Aramis (Santiago Cabrera), the Musketeer who keeps saving her life. We get the impression that in another world, Aramis and Anne might have been very happy together. Maybe. Or maybe not. But certainly not in this one, where Anne had no say in her romantic or sexual future.

Aramis pops up again in another storyline alongside this where we meet the woman he nearly married, Isabelle (Alice Patten). Isabelle was his childhood sweetheart, and when they were teenagers, she fell pregnant and they planned to marry. Sadly, she lost the child, and shortly thereafter her father spirited her away. Aramis was never able to find her again until, out of the blue, he discovers her at a convent, a nun, now called Sister Helene.

He's a little surprised, but even more so when she reveals that she wasn't put there against her will. She chose to join the convent because when she lost the child, she realized that the two of them had no future. 

Aramis tries to protest, but Isabelle is insistent. They would have made each other miserable. Her without an education, stuck raising children in the countryside, and him deprived of excitement and adventure, stuck farming and feeding hungry mouths in some little cabin in the woods. While Aramis insists that he would have been happy, it's most telling when Isabelle rebuffs him, and makes it clear that she wouldn't have.

Heck, even the minor romantic interest characters touch on this topic. Athos has squishy-warm feelings for the lovely Ninon de Larroque (Annabelle Wallis), a noblewoman determined to change the state of female education in France. Her ambition nearly gets her burned at the stake as a witch, but the more interesting part of her storyline is her stance on marriage. While she completely believes in romance, Ninon makes it clear that any marriage she could enter would be transactional simply by virtue of her fortune. If she married, her husband would become the sole executor of her estate, and she would have no control.

Athos, I should point out, agrees with her that it's a stupid system, and the two of them have a heady moment of "Will we fall in love?" until circumstances force them apart. But it's not the circumstances entirely that are doing the forcing here. Neither Athos nor Ninon is comfortable with marriage and both of their reasons for discomfort are shown to be completely valid. Marriage in 1700s France is a pretty awful thing.

The one character who really falls outside this framework, I should point out, is Porthos' love interest (or one of them, dude gets around), Flea (Fiona Glascott). Flea isn't a noblewoman, or a middle-class shopkeeper's wife, or even a peasant. She's a thief and a lowlife, living in the Court of Miracles - Paris' underworld. Heck, Flea doesn't just live in the Court of Miracles, she runs it, and she makes it clear how much she loves it.

Flea is notable not just because she's a new perspective on this whole issue, but because out of all the female characters on the show, she's the one least hindered by ideas of propriety or marriage. As the character with the least connection to societal norms, Flea doesn't care if she gets married or not. Even when she is in a relationship, she doesn't let her boyfriend boss her around, and is totally comfortable kicking his butt. Even more notable? 

When given the offer to leave her life of squalor and become an upstanding Musketeer's wife (an offer made on screen and mentioned as having been made in the past), Flea declines. She likes being free, and she has no intention of being anybody's wife. Being respectable never did anyone any good that she can see.

The thing is, she's kind of right.

Don't get me wrong. I, personally, am a fan of marriage. At least in the hypothetical. I would very much like to be married one day, and I'm not suggesting that we all take a tip from Flea's handbook and toss all societal norms out the window. But I do think there's something to be said for examining what we mean when we talk about marriage. Because as the show points out, there are a lot of different types of marriages, and not all of them, in fact, few of them, are actually about love.

Historically this rings true, at least as true as it can, given the caveat stated above about lack of proof and unreliable historical narrators. It's telling that the only love marriage on the show (Athos and Milady) ends in utter tragedy and disaster. That's probably a gross exaggeration on the actual historical situation, but I think it would be dangerous to dismiss the whole topic as taken out of proportion or historically inaccurate. I don't think it's historically inaccurate at all.

I mean, think about it. In pre-Enlightenment France, what value do women have outside of their roles as wife and mother? This is a time in history when women are codified as sexually inferior, and their position is as vessels for the continuation of families, not as people. Women exist, as far as historical record shows, pretty much for sex and babies and maybe some housework. That's about it.

In the upper classes, it's well documented that most marriages were based around strategic or financial negotiations, rather than love. But even on a middle-class level, as we see with Constance, marriages were determined by the need for everyone to be fed and clothed, and basic needs for food and shelter took precedence over romance. This is factored alongside the social stigma towards unmarried women. In other words, if you weren't married, what was the point of you? You're just a drain on resources, and you're a shame on your family.

Real marriage is supposed to be about two people becoming one spiritual entity. It's meant, if we're talking about "Christian marriage", to provide a way for two people to become more like Christ in their ability to love another person and, by growing closer to each other, to learn more how to be in relationship with God. Trust me, I know this, I've been to a bunch of weddings this year.

But let's be real. Most marriages aren't about that. Most marriages are about financial transactions or legal responsibility or getting to have sex a lot with the same person. All of which are potentially valid things. It's just important to consider that love marriages as we think of them, well, they're kind of a luxury, aren't they? And while I don't think that everything about The Musketeers' portrayal of sex and marriage is totally accurate (for starters why are all of the love interests white?), I do think it's a step in the right direction.

While there is a clear connection drawn between transactional marriage and prostitution, since both consist of the exchange of goods and money for sex, the show steers away from blaming the female characters for "duping" their poor husbands. Really, in this situation, everyone knows the score. Bonacieux might be a manipulative jerkface, or even some sadsack who doesn't know any better, but he's fully aware that his wife doesn't love him. He knew that going in. So instead of blaming female characters, the show rightly takes aim at society, the real villain here. It posits that in a patriarchal system where women's only value comes from their reproductive function, no one, not men or women, can find uncomplicated love.

The show makes it clear that a society where marriage is primarily about a financial or social transaction is a broken society. It's not just that the show gives us examples of unhappy marriages or that it points out how most marriages in that society cannot be equal because of how the law is established. It's that the show tells us these things, and then makes us unhappy about it. It says, "This is wrong!" and then tells the story in such a way that you feel angry about how wrong society is. Constance shouldn't be married off to some random guy for financial reasons! She should get to be educated and marry for love.

Isabelle shouldn't have to choose between a shotgun wedding and holy orders, with those as her only two options. Anne should get a say in who she marries, and not just get passed around as a treaty with a woman attached. Milady should have the social freedom to be an equal in her marriage, and the right to be listened to when making a serious allegation of sexual assault. Ninon shouldn't be afraid her husband will rob her blind. Flea shouldn't have to think that the only way to stay free is to stay an outlaw.

None of that is okay. And we need to be reminded of that.

I really hope she's coming back. Love her.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On Self-Sacrifice, Courage, and My Favorite Movies

I always wonder how personal to get with this blog. Because while this is, you know, my personal blog, it's really more of an academic examination of popular culture thing. So I wonder. But today, I feel like it's important for me to be totally honest with you guys, and that means being really vulnerable and personal and feelings-y, so if that skeeves you out, you should probably leave now.

Okay? Good.

Two weeks ago I went on a "Jesus retreat." I had some time off of work, so I drove out through the Olympic Peninsula, and went hiking in La Push, in the rainforest and down to the Pacific Ocean. I saw sunlight glinting off of Crescent Lake in the National Forest, I ate diner food and slept in a super cheap motel, and I stared across the water at a looming Mt. Rainier, reminding myself again that I live in the shadow of a giant volcano and how cool is that? It was a good trip. But it was also a really hard one.

It was a hard trip because God asked me to do something I don't want to do, and he phrased it in such a way that I understood fully and exactly what he was asking. I understood, and I know I can't refuse. Because when God asked me, he was talking about my favorite stories.

My favorite stories, as some of you have no doubt discovered in your deep and obsessive reading of my blog (I like that, keep it up), tend to be very disparate in tone, but very similar in content. What I mean is that while my favorite films include a period piece sports film (Chariots of Fire), an experimental Bollywood film (Rang de Basanti), a big-budget blockbuster about robots punching aliens (Pacific Rim), and a superhero movie about governmental conspiracies and the philosophical point of fear (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Oh, and I happen to love an animated musical based on a Bible story (Prince of Egypt). So, yeah, it's a rather diverse group.

It's diverse, that is, until you get to the themes of the stories. Because while each of these movies is totally different from the others in basic story, they all share the same heart. In each of these films, the characters are forced to confront the truth about the world, and then make a choice. They can either live a simple, unextraordinary life, or they can step into their true identity, who they really are, and change the world.

Most of the time, though, that changing the world thing looks a lot like giving up. Which is as it should be.

The idea for this came to me when I was writing my paper for the upcoming Divergent and Philosophy (you might be able to pre-order it on Amazon already, but probably not). I wrote about the connection between courage and selflessness, and how I think those two ideas are essentially just different facets of the same one. You can't be truly brave without being selfless, and you can't be truly selfless without being brave.

But there is another facet to all of that courage and self-sacrifice. Namely, that self-sacrifice tends to look a lot like giving up. When you do put the greater good before yourself, or prioritize your ideals over your existence, the world tends to look at you like you're nuts. Which you kind of are. But that's okay.

Here's what I mean: in Chariots of Fire, the main plot revolves around two men, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) competing for the gold medal in the 100m at the 1924 Olympics. Literally the whole movie leads up to that, following Liddell and Abrahams through their various training programs, the setbacks and personal issues that threaten their ability to compete, and even their relationship with each other. The point of the movie is that one race. Or so it seems.

What actually happens (what actually did happen in history, because this is a true story*) is that before the Olympics even really start, Eric Liddell finds out that the qualifying heat for the 100m is on a Sunday. Eric, being a deeply religious man in a very real way, quietly informs the Olympic committee that he cannot run on the Sabbath, and therefore he is dropping out of the race.

This is, for the record, complete and total crazy talk from any normal perspective. Eric has been training for this race for years. He is the favorite to win. And not just the favorite to win, the favorite to set a new world record. He literally has not lost a race in years. He's a hometown hero, and the whole country is waiting for him to win. So this guy goes up to the committee and tells them very politely that he won't race.

They don't take it well.

They actually do everything up to and including siccing the Prince of Wales on him, but Eric doesn't budge. Instead, he drops the race, picks up another race in a different distance (one that he has never run before on this competitive level), and then proceeds to actually preach in a church on that Sunday morning during the qualifying heats.

Harold Abrahams wins the 100m (spoilers for a race that happened almost a century ago!), and Eric goes on to race in the 400m. He not only wins, he sets a new world record. In a race he's never actually trained for. At the Olympics.

The thing that gets me about this story, though, isn't that Eric is totally the best person ever (even though he was definitely my childhood crush, for reals), but that it's not a stand-alone incident. Eric Liddell stood up to the Olympic committee, and then showed them down. Yay, right? But in the larger scheme of things, it's not all that important. It's just sports, for crying out loud.

What is important is what happened later in his life. You see, the reason I love this story is because it's just one of many incidents like this in Eric Liddell's life. Moments when he chose to give up what seemed like the thing he should want, in favor of something that seemed crazy or scary or completely unknown. He did it because he knew it was the right thing to do, and he did it because God asked him to. He didn't always prosper in it, either, at least not by our standards. But he did it anyway.

Eric Liddell died in an internment camp in Japan-occupied China during World War II. He had enough advance warning of the invasion to send his wife and children to safety, but he chose to stay behind, because, as a missionary, he felt this was the place he could best minister. He used his Olympic running skills to run through battlefields gathering the wounded in a wheelbarrow and taking them to the hospital. When he was interned at the camp, he was offered the chance to go free, and refused, asking that they take some of the others instead. He is still remembered as a kind, generous man by all who were interned alongside him, and was known as "Uncle Eric." When he died, all of Scotland mourned.

Courage. Self-sacrifice. Giving up. It looks from our perspectives like Eric Liddell kind of died a failure. I mean, he chose to bail out on an incredibly successful athletic career to be a missionary in China. Then he died there. Blech, right? But that's a narrow perspective. Eric Liddell changed the world, and he did it because he was not afraid to look like a failure. He wasn't afraid to give of himself, because he knew he could not be diminished. He wasn't afraid to look like he was giving up.

Or how about Rang de Basanti? An amazing movie (that more people should see, seriously), the film follows six Indian college students as they make a documentary film about the revolutionary heroes of Indian independence and become, in turn, revolutionaries themselves. It's a brilliant movie. But it's also a hard one to love, because the ending involves, well, the characters all giving up. The movie follows them as they become aware of the real, intractable issues in their country, and examines the possible reactions to those issues. Do we run away to America? Complain about what our country is? Wait for something to come along and change it while we go about our lives?

Do we give up who we are and the future we might have in order to ensure that our brothers and sisters have a better life?

What moves me here is partially the sacrifice, yes, but more how as they become more aware of the suffering around them, they also become more themselves. They become more fully alive. These young people are able to make sacrifices like this only because they have learned who they really are. You have to look at yourself, and then step into your real identity. Who you are supposed to be. That is what changes the world.

Pacific Rim is about robots punching aliens, yes, but it's also about how necessary other people are in our fight. How we should be willing and ready to give ourselves to protect others, and how ultimately, none of us is in it alone. We are all in this together, and it matters whether or not you show up and bring the fullness of your identity and what you can offer. 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier? The only way to really save someone, the only way to show how much you love them, is sometimes to just give up. Yeah, there's all that other stuff going on about HYDRA and SHIELD and the philosophical meaning of fear, but let's be real. All the Captain America movies are just one big love story between Steve (Chris Evans) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan). And when Steve learns that Bucky has no idea who he is, that he is just a target to Bucky, and that Bucky wants him dead, Steve's best act of love is to give up. By giving up, by sacrificing himself, he saves Bucky.

And, incidentally, he saves himself.

Heck, even Prince of Egypt is about these same themes, and it puts them in very blatant terms. When Moses (Val Kilmer) discovers who he really is, namely a slave child adopted into the royal family of Egypt, he has a choice. He can either pretend he doesn't know, and go on living his cushy, nice life, ignoring the plight of his people, or he can give up everything he has, admit who he is, and live a life of slavery. It seems like a really obvious decision. So clearly he makes the "wrong" choice. 

Moses can't live with the idea that he is free and the rest of his people are not. He freaks out. He admits the truth. He even (semi-accidentally) kills a man who was threatening a Hebrew slave. He's banished from Egypt and loses everything. Except his purpose. That he gets and gets in full when a weird bush (in which God is appearing, to be fair) tells him to go back to Egypt (which is suicide) and tell Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go (which is a terrible strategy).

But if you remember the story even a little bit, then you'll remember the key factor here. Not only is it a terrible strategy and a genuinely stupid idea by human standards, it works. The Hebrews go free. And yet everything Moses did could totally qualify as giving up. Or at the very least, making the exact wrong choice at the exact wrong moment every single time.

Funny how that works.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying what I thought of when God told me, on that camping trip, to think of my favorite stories. Because every single one of my favorite stories is about self-sacrifice, courage, loss, and doing the stupid thing because it's the right thing in the end.

While I was praying on that trip, God told me something rather scary. He asked me to think about my favorite stories, and then He asked me if He tells good stories. Obviously He does, so it was easy to reply. And then God got kind of intense. Well, intense even for God.

"Are good stories nice?"

No, no they aren't. Especially not the ones that I love. The stories that I love are full of pain and death and misery and a full and meaningful awareness of human suffering. They're hard stories to love, but they're so vitally important. Good stories aren't nice, good stories are true.

"Do you want me to tell a good story in your life?"

In each of those stories I cited above, there comes a moment where the main character has to decide whether they want their life to be a nice story or a good one. Because these are films, and because they're my favorite films, all those people chose the good story over the nice one. Well, last week it was my turn to choose. It's a terrifying thing, to suddenly be faced with that choice. On the one hand, I, like most people, really and truly hate pain. I'm not going to lie about that. I haaaaate being hurt, physically and emotionally. I don't like doing things that are hard. It sucks.

But on the other hand, I really do believe in the importance of self-sacrifice. I believe it is our duty not just to notice suffering, but to act on that knowledge. After all, "Any man who knows the good he ought to do and does not do it commits a sin."** So the answer, after a lot of deliberation and freaking out was, yes. I want my life to be a good story. I want my life to matter.

It's hard. I'm scared. And I kind of wish I knew what I was in for. All I know is that at some point in the future, I will be asked to "give up my life", and I don't know what that means, or when it will happen. Which I think is the point. Not knowing. Because now I have to live with the understanding of what really does matter. Not success, not living until you're old and grey and surrounded by fat grandbabies, not even falling in love.

What matters is how you answer that question: Will you turn away from the suffering in the world? Or will you step into who you really are, into who you are supposed to be, and face it head on? Even if it makes you look like a failure?

Will you do the stupid thing?

*Plus or minus a few details.

**James 4:17

Friday, July 18, 2014

GUEST: You Shouldn't Always Get What You Want (Californication)

Today's guest post is written by Dan Ingram.

Dearest Californication,

Before I start, I’d like to congratulate you on seven seasons of television. That is no small feat, especially considering how much stuff is literally on TV, but you did it. To the entire cast, crew and anyone else involved with the process, know that I understand the challenges you likely faced and overcame and I have a heartfelt appreciation for your tribulations. Seriously.

Having said that….I have to admit that I am really unhappy with the way the show ended. You could have done more, said more, with your premise. But you didn't.

And as far as premises go, you had a good thing going. Hank Moody (David Duchovny) is a a man-child who sleeps his way around the greater LA area and perpetually yearns for the woman he considers “the one”. This woman is his ex-wife Karen (Natascha McElhone), who has left him because of his many personal flaws, and is the reason Hank cites for his behavior as well as the purported cure to all his problems. Maybe Hank wasn’t the most sympathetic or likable guy at times (he objectified women on a regular, tangible basis), but I always felt like Hank’s heart was in the right place, even if his brain wouldn’t let him convey that properly.

So you get that I loved this show. I loved it, and I also did not watch the last three seasons. I watched the finale as a standalone episode, just to see how it ended because for me, the show was over after season four. I watched the first four seasons, accepted the ending of the fourth season as “my true ending” as a fan, and decided to move on with life.

I have to reiterate, I appreciate that you, the writers and actors of Californication, kept the show going for three more seasons. But from everything I've heard, both on the Internet and from friends that were still watching the show, I wasn’t missing much.

I really adored Hank Moody in concept from the very beginning. I know Debbi will hate that I’m saying that, but it’s true. This show came around while I was still in college and really going through my first foray into “hook-up culture”. There was a lot of wish fulfillment for me in my younger, less politically inclined days, and I thought at the end of the day the message of Californication was one of hope against all odds that you can find happiness no matter how messed up you may be.

That may have been the message for the first few seasons, but from what I can tell, that wasn't the message of the last ones.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I finally got around to watching the final episode of the series. Granted I didn’t know who a few characters were (namely Hank’s son with Faith), and there were a few situations that I found totally bizarre, like the sex contract (or whatever it was) between Marcy and that other guy who was not important enough to the plot to be memorable. Anyway, the finale was fine, I guess.

But at the end of the episode I was expecting…something. Something that I didn’t get. I love Hank (and maybe more importantly David Duchovny’s portrayal of Hank) and the ways he processes his pain. I love that he is so flawed but he tries so hard. And, yes, getting Hank together with Karen at the end was a great way to reconcile the lingering emotional issue that set Hank off in the first place. So I was expecting Hank to try to get back with Karen. I'm not sure if I was expecting him to succeed. But maybe that’s what bothered me so much.

You gave the guy a happy ending. You gave him what he wanted.

Hank Moody shouldn't be anyone's ideal of a person, but here we are. After seven years of what should have been growth and change, Hank Moody got what he wanted in the first place, in spite of all the absolutely terrible things he’d done. That's not okay.

I blame the writers. I love Hank Moody because despite all his flaws, I truly believed that this was a man who had his heart in the right place. Even though he had placed Karen on a pedestal, he still had a chance to take her off that shrine and tear it down. He had chances to tear that pedestal down, but he didn't.

I love Hank Moody but I feel sorry for him. He became a victim of circumstance, except circumstance in this situation is code for "writers that ran out of anything interesting to say". They kept on rehashing the same story. Hank's journey toward healing and patching up his broken heart was turned into a story where he pissed into a Jack Daniels bottle then drank it, because why the hell not? That's funny right?

That's how I fell out of love with the show. The guy I identified with, who I could see myself in, was stripped of all the characteristics that made him feel real. He became a joke.

I have previously written (at length) about Hank Moody and the misguided concept of “the one”.  I feel like this series constantly tried to undermine its own ideas by providing multiple female characters that would have been far better matches with Hank than Karen (later seasons excluded, mainly the crazy ex that burned his apartment and tried to kill Hank). The show gave us viable alternatives, but it shut all of them down because it was bound and determined that Hank Moody end up exactly where he started.

This finale needed to be the show finally saying something. Making a statement that justifies seven seasons of sex and titillation.  Saying something very big about relationships and how men and women reconcile and come together time and time again but maybe, just maybe they shouldn’t.

I didn't want Hank to end up with Karen. Not because I hate her, but because that's not what the show needed to be. That's not what Hank needed to be. Californication seemed like a show destined to see the lead character alone and happy, finally resolute in the fact that the woman he placed upon a pedestal deserved to stand on her own without his pandering and begging. Hank needed to figure out that he could and should be happy on his own, and Karen needed the narrative right to stand on her own two feet.

That's not what happened. Why? I really want to know. Was this a situation where the end of season four was really the end everyone creatively wanted and then “Oops, we got three more seasons! Just go for gross out humor and the most outrageous situations possible. It'll be fine." It felt so stale and stagnant that, like I said, I didn’t even watch the last three seasons.

I bring that up again because when I watched the final episode of the series, nothing had changed for Hank. I didn't need to watch the last three seasons to know where Hank was at emotionally because he hadn't moved. He was the exact same person I saw in the pilot, he just managed to keep it in his pants for an entire episode. Whoo. Character development.

This show set up from the first scene that, “you don’t always get what you want”. Then, in the last scene, it gave Hank exactly what he wanted. What were you trying to say Californication? What should I take away from seven seasons of your show? Because I got nothing.

If I were the only one that felt this way, I’d just figure I'm yet another bitter, disillusioned writer who is boohooing over not getting the ending he wanted. But I’m not.

Hank didn’t get what he needed at the end of this show, he got what he wanted. He got what he didn’t deserve. He didn’t grow or become a fully functioning human being. And what’s probably saddest about all of this is that Hank had every chance to fulfill that role.

The end of season two is hands down my favorite scene in the entire show (Hank’s ghost conversation with Lew). He had a chance to grow there. Season three put multiple women in front of Hank that would have made him at least expand his horizons and become more competent in some regard. He could have changed and developed. And like I've already said, the end of season four was Hank leaving on his own accord, resigning himself to the fate he’d been presented and apparently moving on with his life.

Season seven ends with Hank stagnant. His daughter is getting married against his will, he’s on a plane with Karen to an uncertain future, and he’s pretty much abandoning (again) the child he didn’t even know he had. What was the take away from that? What was the point? What were the last seven years even about if nothing ever changed?

I want to take a moment and speak directly to Mr. Tom Kapinos, creator and primary writer of the show.

Mr. Kapinos, I am a fan, and even though you probably hate me and will never want to work with me given the things that I’ve written in this letter, I remain a fan of Hank Moody. I own a copy of God Hates Us All, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and if a ghost written version of Fucking and Punching is ever released, you can rest assured that I will buy that as well.

But I left the final episode of your show wondering what it all meant. I know you’ve got something to say, but I didn’t know what it was. I think that the heart of your show rests in the fact that while we all try and try and try to get the things that we want, sometimes, instead, you get what you need. And I think that you were trying to say that getting what you need might suck, but it's better in the end. I just...I'm not sure if that's what you actually said.

Was Hank’s final love letter to Karen moving? Of course it was. Hank’s words and works were (obviously) yours and you had some absolutely amazing words to share with the world. I just wish that you would have looked back on what made the show great in the beginning and made it more real, at least emotionally (because the whole Marcy fuck doll thing was seriously crazy stuff, funny, but creepy and crazy).

I’ll miss that beautiful bald son of a bitch, Runkle. I’ll miss his coked out wife, Marcy. I’ll miss all the times I got to see Becca push and direct her father to try and be a better person. I’ll even miss Faith, though I barely knew her. But most of all I’ll miss Hank. I really will. I’ll miss your Hank, Mr. Kapinos. And I’ll miss Mr. Duchovny’s Hank. But the Hank you two made together, well that was one fun man-child to watch, even in the darkest of times.

Hank had a chance (lots of them, actually) to be something better, but he never did, and that’s fine, I guess. What I can’t reconcile is a Hank who stays the same for seven seasons, and in the end, he gets exactly what he’d been searching for all along. No change, no growth, no payoff. It's cheap.

“It’s always been about her,” is all well and good in theory as long as you realize what makes it "all about her." To me, Hank never did, and Karen never realized what made it all about her either. They ended up in the same vicious cycle that they started with, without any indication that this was better or worse for them. If you were going for a “real life” ending then maybe you nailed it right on the head. Life isn’t neat, it’s messy, and it doesn’t come with those nice little bows. Life is not in the business of handing out moral lessons and clear directives. It doesn't give us any answers.

But I wanted one for Hank.

Dan Ingram is a contributor to Crossover Appeal and a semi-irregular contributor to Kiss My Wonder Woman. He has his Master's in Screenwriting from New York Film Academy, and works in television development. He owns more romantic comedies than I do.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Learning How to Talk Good...Is All About Social Class

from Kal Ho Naa Ho
Years and years ago (actually probably only four years ago), I was in grad school, writing my thesis script. The script was set in rural Maine, way up by the Canadian border, and I wanted to make sure that it was linguistically accurate. I got books. I listened to podcasts. 

I even played clips of Bert and I for my classmates to make sure they knew the difference between a Maine accent and a Southie slur. (It didn't help, as everyone insisted on reading my scripts like they were set in Dorchester and everyone was Mark Wahlberg.)

Finally, I did all of this research, I figured out how to portray the language as realistically as I could, and I even added in a glossary of non-standard vocabulary - although I felt comfortable that it was all clear in context. And you know what happened?

No one understood it. Or rather, no one bothered to understand it. The biggest note that I got was that the regionalization of the language, especially as written into the dialogue, was confusing and off-putting. Instead of writing accents in, I should just write in the notes that the characters were speaking with a Maine accent and leave it at that. Write it all as standard English, and let people use their imaginations.

I would have been fine with that advice, if only the previous four months hadn't taught me abundantly well that no one on the West coast knows what a Maine accent is, and that everyone would just figure that New England = Southie. And for some reason, the idea of having my script, an ode to the difficulties of life in rural Maine and to family and scraping by and what it's like to live in a fishing town without any fish, stripped of its linguistic authenticity drove me a little nuts. But I wanted someone to read my script, so I "fixed it."

I regret that now.

from Good Will Hunting
This isn't just a story about my issues in getting a script finished, though. This is about something bigger than that. It's about the invisibility of non-standard language in our cultural medium, and how that is really very deeply harmful to us. Allow me to explain.

Have you ever heard an American say that they just love "the British accent"? I can almost guarantee that you have, probably uttered at a high pitched squeal, or a soft purr, and generally with some reference to hot guys or girls or both. That's cool. Attractive people are attractive, after all. But the problem with that is that there really is no such thing as the "British" accent. There are, instead, hundreds of accents all throughout the British Isles, each one distinctive and culturally rooted. What we think of as the "British accent" is usually one specific kind of accent, and that is the BBC newscaster accent. Or, the OxBridge high educated upper class accent. Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson and dry humor.

That accent, for all that it is popular and well known, however, is no more the official British accent than United States newscaster blandness is the official American accent. It is simply more standardized, and therefore better known.

And that's fine. It makes sense that over time one accent would rise to prominence and become better known. It works as a sort of linguistic shorthand for communication, bridging the gaps between different regional dialects, and ensuring that everyone receives the same information. It only becomes problematic when we take this standardization out of context. When we think of this more standard form as the "right" accent or way to speak. When we assume that anyone who does not speak this way is ignorant or poor.

That is complete and utter crap. Just because I literally cannot say the words "room" and "broom" without a Boston accent does not make me uneducated, nor would I somehow magically lose my degrees if my Boston accent were as strong and thick in normal life as it is when I'm at a Red Sox game. I would, however, be judged differently, as a Boston - Southie - accent is considered lower class and poor, while my general standard tones are signifiers that I went to college and graduate school, and that I come from a middle-class family. There are value judgments associated with the way I talk.

from Do The Right Thing
There are value judgments associated with the way everyone talks. The African-American community deals with this a lot in the way that, having developed a somewhat distinctive grammar, intonation, and pronunciation system, their version of English is considered to be "lower class" and "less educated" than standardized English. It's not. Or you can just look at the way that most native English speakers react to people who speak English with a noticeable foreign accent. The assumption is that these people, who speak English, a notoriously hard language to learn, and have clearly emigrated from somewhere else and therefore are motivated and interesting people, are idiots.

Again, that's complete and total crap. If we went by the numbers, the proper accent for the English language would actually be based on a typical East-Chinese Mandarin accent, since that's where the most English speakers are. Seriously.

I bring all of this up because a few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a link with good intentions. He wanted to make me laugh. Unfortunately, I wasn't in a very happy mood, and I may have given him both barrels of my opinion. The link in question was to Weird Al's latest parody, "Word Crimes", which mocks Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". It's very funny, and very clever.

The video really is funny, right? You can say yes, I won't bite you. I laughed a little, and I definitely think it's better than the original song by far. The issue I have with this video is more based in the assumptions that surround it. Basically, this is a song about how lots of people make grammatical errors, and that they should be educated so they stop doing it, and we should all mock them for being dumb.

No. To all of that.

First off, the video is based on the faulty premise that there is such a thing as a correct grammar. There isn't. Everything we know of "correct" grammar is something that people just made up. In our case, American English, it was standardized in the late 1700s so that Revolutionary fighters could make and distribute propaganda and reach the widest audience possible. Up until that point, there really wasn't a standard form of English, because there didn't need to be. If most of your talking is done face to face, then who cares that you speak something a little idiosyncratic? No one, that's who.

So there really isn't a correct English, there's just an English that we consider to be more correct or "educated". Some people call this Academic English. That works fine. And Academic English does serve a purpose in our culture - it acts as a bridge between different cultural communities and fosters communication. Yay!

But I reject out of hand the idea that not knowing or caring about Academic English makes one stupid. I also reject the idea that choosing to ignore standardized grammatical forms is a sign that you're uneducated. And I realize that this is all a bit funky coming from someone who is clearly fluent at writing in Academic English, but hey. My point still stands. At the end of the day, who the crap cares what someone else writes grammatically in a text message or status post? Chances are, even if the English was "mangled", you understood it. So why do you care?

from Good Will Hunting
You can say it's about declining educational standards, and you can couch it in a worry for today's youth, but the fact of the matter is, it's about class. And specifically, class policing. When you nitpick someone else's grammar, what you're saying is really, "I find your grammar to be lower class than I want it to be, and I'm not comfortable associating with someone of a perceived lower social value than myself. I have to fix you in order to be comfortable in your presence."

I say this as someone whose literal job, for years now, has been to "correct" other people's grammar. I do freelance editing, and I used to work as an "Accent Reduction Specialist", training people to "lose" their native accents and "gain" the American accent. Except the part where there is no correct accent, and who really cares? I wasn't very good at that job. I may have been fired for ideological reasons. (Whoops.)

The point is, I reject out of hand the idea that because someone is speaking non-standard English, they are inherently worth less than someone else. And I feel like more people would agree with me, if only we had the chance to really see characters with non-standard accents in mainstream media. Sure, you've got your Darryl Dixons and your Marky Marks, your Sookie Stackhouses and your Woody Allens. But more often than not, those characters are tokens and linguistic talismans. There's maybe one of them in the movie, and they are best known for their accent. 

Rarely do we see whole movies done in the culture and accent of a subgroup. Especially one with a distinctive grammar. I mean, you've got Good Will Hunting and The Town and Gone Baby Gone and The Departed representing Boston. You've got American Hustle and The Sopranos for New Jersey. Probably lots of stuff for New York City. But what about a movie set in Cuban Miami? Or Puerto Rican New York City? Or Indian Seattle? 

I know why they don't get made right now. Media executives have little confidence that we, the audience, would watch them. After all, aren't movies with a distinctively African-American dialect "urban" and "low-brow" and "uncomfortable" for white audiences? Aren't movies where the main character is not a native English speaker kind of risky for the studio? Don't all movies and shows need to appeal to the most people in the most ways?

from Do The Right Thing
Again, I say no. The world would be a lesser place if we didn't have Do The Right Thing, in all its syntactic glory. That movie is kind of hard for me, a white New Englander, to understand, and I don't care. I love it anyway. Sure, it took me a few viewings to really get it, but that's okay. Because in taking the time to understand the words said in that movie, I got to know more about the movie itself.

The reason I'm not talking about any particular movie or show in this article should, by now, be apparent to you. What I'm really focused on here is not a movie or show, but a lack of mainstream media that represents the real linguistic reality of our world. Yes, it's important for media to be able to communicate. But it's also important for media to act as an ambassador from one culture to another, even within the same language. It's vital that we stop seeing people who speak differently from the standard as "bad" or "stupid". They're people. Their way of speaking is just as valid as ours.

I am distressed by the lack. I am upset over how many movies I haven't seen that might have changed my life, but instead were told to change their dialogue because "no one will understand it." When I "fixed" my script, something was lost. It wasn't true anymore, somehow. I gave in and I accepted the lie that there is such a thing as normal, and that different is bad. I regret that now, and I want to make sure no one else does the same thing I did.

And, for the record, I am still annoyed by how many people think Boston and Maine are exactly the same thing.

This still is from Kal Ho Naa Ho, a Bollywood made movie set in New York and performed partially in English.
Now tell me again how your English is the only real English?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Class, Race, Historical Accuracy, and BBC's The Musketeers

In my lifetime alone I think we've already glutted ourselves on interpretations of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers

When I was a kid, I absolutely adored Disney's Three Musketeers, which starred the incomprehensible trio of Charlie Sheen, Oliver Platt, and Kiefer Sutherland as the titular characters (and Tim Curry as the evil Cardinal Richelieu). Then there was The Man in the Iron Mask, which took place later and starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, and Gerard Depardieu. 

Who could forget The Musketeer? Everyone. But it did happen, an early 2000s retelling that added in a lot of wire-fu and took its inspiration from the wu-xia films coming out of Hong Kong. Oh, and lest we be remiss in our recounting, I should point out that Wishbone totally did an episode on this. It was one of my favorites.

When you look back on a record like that (I'm sure I forgot some), and consider that this is just from the past twenty years or so, you've got to wonder. What on earth can the new BBC show, The Musketeers, add to this conversation? What can it possibly say that hasn't already been said a million times and with a better budget.

A lot, as it turns out. It's kind of amazing.

For those of you unfamiliar with the basic plot, it sort of goes like this. D'Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino) is a brash young man, the son of a Musketeer (the famed guard that protects the king of France), comes to Paris to avenge his father's death. He teams up with a trio of famous Musketeers, the best in the squadron, and they take it upon themselves to teach him how to be the best Musketeer he can possibly be. They also take it upon themselves to teach him about life and love and how to run away from an angry husband or avoid a duel, and it's all fun jokes and silly stories and stopping lots of assassination attempts on the king.

That's the basic story in most versions of the tale. This show sticks to the basic formula, but it's the twists and turns added along the way that really give it color. You'll see what I mean in a minute. First, let's go over the other major characters.

You've got three main Musketeers: Athos (Tom Burke), Porthos (Howard Charles), and Aramis (Santiago Cabrera). They're characterized pretty clearly across the board. Athos is a straight-shooter with secret past man-pain. (He accidentally married an assassin and then had to have her executed when he found out about it because no one is above the law except she lived and now she hates him like a lot.) 

Porthos is the blowhard hedonist who loves food and drink and fighting and women. He's the best shot in the guard, and also a little bit nuts. Prone to starting fights and cheating at cards and making someone else clean it up. And Aramis is a former priest who likes to espouse lofty philosophical ideals while screwing lots and lots of women. 

Charming bunch of fellows, huh? Then you've got the eternally weak-willed King Louis (Ryan Gage), the devious and conniving Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Capaldi), the lovely Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling), and steady Captain Treville of the Musketeers (Hugo Speer). All of these characters form the basic outline of the story, and the story really never changes that much. Swashbuckling, romance, swordfights, intrigue, and all that. But the core never really shifts.

The interest, then, is in the little details that flesh out the story. And as I discovered with this show, much to my surprise, the little details can make the biggest difference.

To be totally honest, I didn't start watching this show because I'd heard it was good. I hadn't really heard anything about it. I decided to track it down and watch it because I discovered that Luke Pasqualino (who spends most of Snowpiercer with his shirt off doing parkour) is starring in it, and that one of the other leads is Santiago Cabrera, who I've had a crush on since Heroes. In other words, I didn't start watching this for the plot. I started watching for the hot dudes.

Even going into it, though, I was intrigued. As you may or may not know, Santiago Cabrera is Chilean*, making him an interesting choice to cast for a medieval French guy. Additionally, Luke Pasqualino is Sicilian, and really not in fitting with the usual "white as the driven snow" casting aesthetic that usually plagues these adaptations.

As I actually watched the show, though, I discovered that Howard Charles is of mixed-race, and that, more than all of this, the show actually acknowledges it. Like, it comes up. In the episode. That some of the characters are not super white. That is an honest-to-goodness plot point. I nearly cried with joy.

Not only does it just come up, though, it's dealt with in an honest and realistic way. We as the audience sort of know already that Porthos (Charles' character) is probably not white, but the topic is raised bluntly when another character (played brilliantly by James Callis) straight up points it out. And yes, Porthos admits that his mother was a freed slave who came to Paris to start a new life. Things didn't go so well for her, and he was orphaned at a young age. It's very sad, and as the audience you figure that's an end to it. It's more than I expected they'd talk about it at all.

But no. It's not the end, because as the episode goes on to tell us, Callis' character isn't just a harmless explorer out for a bit of fun. He's a slave trader setting up tobacco plantations in South America, and he's completely unrepentant of the fact. The rest of the episode deals not with the moral issue of whether or not slavery is wrong, but with what they are to do with Callis' character. On the one hand, the Musketeers are men of honor, and it would be wrong to kill him. On the other hand, by killing him, they could save thousands of lives lost in brutal slavery.

I was blown away. Seriously. It never occurred to me that a period show would deal with issues of race like this, with complexity and humanity and awareness of the brutality and pain caused. There is no glossing over. There is no easy way through. The show doesn't make you comfortable, and I love it for that.

I love even more, though, that this isn't the last episode to deal with Porthos' race and social class. Only a couple episodes later (it might actually be the next episode), Porthos is framed for murder, and because he is lower-class, not-white, and from a particularly seedy part of Paris, he's immediately sentenced to death. He's then rescued by some of his old friends from his days as a criminal living on the street, and the rest of the episode is a hunt to clear his name and figure out what the overarching plot is. 

It's fascinating because, yet again, the show doesn't shy away from issues of race or class. Porthos was born of a former slave, who then died. He grew up poor, in a place called "The Court of Miracles", where criminals roam freely. He was a criminal himself, and then he left to become a Musketeer. Because of that, because he chose to abandon them and sought to rise above his preordained station in life, Porthos is resented both by the upper and lower classes. 

The people in the Court of Miracles find him too good for his britches and think he abandoned them. The people in the King's Court think it's absolutely disgraceful that he was allowed to be a Musketeer in the first place.

Basically, it rocks. The episodes are well-written, cognizant of the historical issues going on as well as the social underpinnings, and the whole thing is just so freaking good you want to scream. Heck, they even acknowledged Santiago Cabrera's South American background by having his character speak Spanish. It's never even addressed (at least not yet), but it makes sense. They could even have his character originate in Chile, where Cabrera is from, and have come to France. It would make sense in the time period. I doubt they'll do that, but they could.

Of course, because this is a period drama that dares to talk about people of color in ye-olde Europe, some people have been absolutely up in arms about it. They claim that it's historically inaccurate to have Porthos and Aramis played by men of color, and they insist that their objections are not based in racism, but rather in fact. "Europe was white in those times because only white people lived there, okay?"

I sort of want to smush their faces into a map of Europe and point at the bottom. "See that bit there?" I'd say as I rubbed their noses in it. "That's Africa. See how close it is to Europe? Like, within spitting distance? Now tell me again how there were never any black people in Europe."

The great blog MedievalPOC has done a lot more to contribute to this conversation than I have, but suffice to say that not only is it illogical to assume that there were never people of color in Europe, it's downright factually inaccurate. So, yes, it makes a lot of sense to have at least one, possibly more, of the Musketeers represented as men of color. Perhaps the detractors are forgetting something rather important: Alexandre Dumas himself was famously mixed-race. His paternal grandmother was a Haitian slave, which is interesting in and of itself, but most interesting is that his father chose to take her name and not that of his French nobleman father. Alexandre Dumas, then, takes his surname from a slavewoman in the Caribbean. So, you know, racists should probably shut up.

And as far as the historical inaccuracy charges go, not only are they false, they're also aiming at the wrong target. If you want to find something inaccurate to complain about, then the more correct target (though still a silly complaint) would be the casting of Tom Burke as Athos. Not because he's a bad actor, or because I'm trying to suggest that white people weren't in Paris of the 1700s or anything, but because he has a visible scar from the surgery to correct his cleft lip as a child. That surgery wasn't invented until over a hundred years after the story takes place. So, technically it is an anachronism.

But no one cares. I mean, most people don't know things like that, but still, no one cares. Why should they? Tom Burke is an excellent actor, and his Athos is complex, deep, and moving. I really like him, and I think he's brilliantly cast. So is Howard Charles, and Santiago Cabrera, and Luke Pasqualino. They're all perfectly cast. Quibbling about the accuracy or inaccuracy of that casting is a bit like complaining that the baker used the wrong brand of sugar in your delicious cake. Is the cake still delicious? Then eat a piece and shut up.

I do think, though, that I understand where these racists, and there is no other word for them, are coming from. It's so easy to romanticize The Three Musketeers. After all, this is a story about men of honor fighting to protect the king. It's romantic. They swashbuckle and seduce the ladies and are always carefree and chivalrous and right. The story, at least as we remember it, is easy. It's fun. You don't have to think very hard, and it lets you imagine a time when ladies wore beautiful dresses and went to balls, and the men were all handsome and clever, and everyone was happy.

That time never existed, and thank goodness that the BBC show refuses to admit it did.

Let's be real: the world has always been a pretty crummy place. At least now we have indoor plumbing. While I love a good swashbuckle as much as the next girl (probably more), I love much more the idea of representing a world that actually existed. A world that is dirty and smelly and complicated. Where Cardinal Richelieu is always conniving, but not always wrong. Where race and class are issues that really are addressed, and regularly, because these are huge factors in people's lives.

I prefer stories like this, because when you show the pain and sorrow and frustration of the world as it really is or really was, then that makes the heroism shine all the brighter. The world in Disney's Three Musketeers is very nice and shiny and happy, and as a result, the actions in that movie feel trivial. There's no real sacrifice involved in choosing to fight for good. It's all fine. It's nice. It's clean.

This story has dirt and sweat and blood, and as a result, it matters that the Musketeers choose to stand up for honor and justice. It matters because it costs them something. I would far rather have that, and take a few lumps along the way about my moral complicity, as a white person, in the effects of the slave trade, than pretend that everything's fine and get a watered down story as a result.

As I was reminded recently, the best stories are never nice.

One more thing before I go. (I will later go into details on how much I love the representation of female characters on this show, but that's another article in and of itself). When talking about race and colorblind casting in period shows, it's nearly impossible not to mention BBC's Merlin, which shocked some people when it cast Angel Coulby, a woman of color, as Guinevere, and Santiago Cabrera as Lancelot. And then it doubled down by casting Elyan, one of the knights, as a man of color, and not apologizing for any of this.

I love Merlin, I really do, and I absolutely love their casting choices. I love that they completely breeze past questions of whether or not it's historically accurate. Eat the damn cake, they seem to be saying, and so we eat the cake and it's great cake and everything is cool. Plus, as it turns out, the casting probably is quite accurate, so yay!

The only problem I really have with it is that, unlike The Musketeers, Merlin never addresses the race of its characters. I don't think it ever comes up. And while that's nice, it also feels a little cheap. I'm not saying I want people to make racist remarks in the show, or for any of the characters to be completely defined only as a person of color. That would be terrible. But I feel like it's a bit lazy to not include that in their character at all. Yes, it's bad to make a minority character who is only defined by their minority status. But it is also problematic to make a minority character who is utterly unaffected by their minority status, and who doesn't even seem aware of it. It works in Merlin, but I am grateful to The Musketeers for not going that route, and for being brave enough to talk about race and class and the dirty stuff that makes us uncomfortable.

Because if we never talk about it, how is it going to change?

This is totally off-topic, but doesn't Luke Pasqualino totally look like Tyler Posey? They should play brothers.

*Edited on 7.20.14 to correct a mistake. I said Santiago Cabrera was from Argentina. He is actually from Chile. Whoops!