Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pilot Season: 2 Broke Girls (Or, NO. YOU'RE NOT. STOP LYING.)

Women who wait tables, cook and scheme. Viva la revolucion!
Oh right.  Pilots.  I wasn’t done reviewing those.  Back into the breach, then.  Though I am starting to suspect that we’ve reached the end of the road here.  While there are some more shows that I missed, and a few of them are even decent, none of them seem to have anything new to say.  They’re not revolutionizing television for women, except that women are the leads.  And in most of these cases, that's not shocking.  Women as the leads in fantasy soaps?  Shut the front door.  A dramedy about romance and life in the fictional South?  Edgy.  Women cops.  Moms with ungrateful daughters.  Girls who need money.*

Which brings us to today.

2 BROKE GIRLS (Mondays at 8:30 EST)

It’s a decent enough show, I guess.


Max (Kat Dennings), who plays to every single bad girl with daddy issues/trailer trash stereotype you like to pretend you don’t have, is one of the titular broke girls.  She’s sarcastic and funny, and not too hard to relate to as a character, even if she is a little one note in her hatred of everything.  The other broke girl is Carolyn (played by some blonde chick who isn’t Kat Dennings).  She’s not!Bernie Madoff’s daughter, forced to actually work for a living when not!Bernie Madoff is sent to jail for ripping off all of New York.  Gasp.

Nope. Not contrived at all.
So, yeah, the plot is super contrived.  In the first episode alone, Carolyn manages to get a job at the diner where Max works, weasel her way into staying at Max’s apartment, break up Max’s relationship with her boyfriend, and convince Max to invest so that they can start a cupcake business someday.  Oh, yeah, Max makes cupcakes that we are informed repeatedly are super good.  Wheeee.

But this is not my problem with the show.  It’s a sitcom, I will allow it its quirks and silliness.  No, what I freaking hate is that this show is based on a faulty premise.

These girls aren’t broke.

1. They both have a job.  Max has two jobs.  Both of them pretty freaking decent.  She’s a waitress, sure, but she seems to make really good tips, and during the day she works as a nanny for a rich upper-east side lady.  It may be demeaning, but nannying pays really well.  She even sells cupcakes on the side.  So, no, not broke.  Not rich, by any means, but she’s doing okay.

2. Max’s apartment is not a broke person’s apartment.  No, this isn’t Friends where the unreality was grating and obnoxious, but it’s still not the apartment of a person who must go on and on about how broke they are all the time.  It has a large living room, nice kitchen, bedroom, decent bath, and a yard.

3. MAX’S APARTMENT HAS A YARD.  I’m not sure where in New York the writers for this series smoked crack, but that’s not how the apartments of the broke work.  Let me explain.  In cities (most cities, LA is a bad example), the broker you are, the further you are from nature.  Reach a certain level of broke, and you do not see nature for months.  Of course, if you go past that, you get into redneck/hobo territory, and then it’s all nature all the time, but that’s another thing.  The point is, NO BROKE PERSON HAS A YARD.  A HOVEL YES, A YARD NO.

4. Broke people do not go out to bars, restaurants or for coffee all the time.  They just don’t.

5. Broke people do not save money.  Not because they won’t or they’re terrible at it, or that’s why they’re broke in the first place.  BROKE PEOPLE DON’T SAVE MONEY BECAUSE IF THEY DID, THEY WOULDN’T BE BROKE ANYMORE.  If you’re broke, you’re living paycheck to paycheck, if that, barely managing to scrape up enough for your bills.  Or you’re not, and you’re going into debt.  You are not saving hundreds of dollars every week towards your future dream of owning a cupcake business.  Because if you’re truly broke, you’re using that money to pay your rent.

And I think that’s where the show got me.  Fine.  Max is a waitress in the worst, most racially insensitive restaurant in the world.  Whatever, her apartment has a yard.  Okay, she is apparently a cupcake wizard.  But broke?  Oh honey.  No.

And then there’s Carolyn.  She of the “I went to Wharton Business School” can’t find a better job than bussing tables in the Racial Insensitivity Diner, or a better economic investment than Max’s wizard cupcakes?  Hell no.  Get a real job, honey.  You know you’re qualified.  If you still feel like you owe Max after you’ve gotten a position as business manager of some shoe retailer, or at a giant faceless corporation, invest in her then, but stop pretending that waitressing and cupcakes is all you’ve got, because it isn’t.  And it’s pretty insulting.

When it gets down to it, 2 Broke Girls did nothing for me.  There’s a little rage, but mostly, I’m just numb.  These aren’t new characters, it’s not a new premise, the setting’s older than dirt, and even a generous sprinkling of vagina jokes can’t save this show from feeling like what it is: a modern retread of the same old story, with a few punched up lines along the way. 

I should relate to these girls.  I know I’m their target audience.  I’m young, broke, subletting a room in a little apartment in the big city, scrimping and saving to do what I love.  I’m broke.  I should look at them and go, “Yes.  That’s me.”

But I really, really don’t.

Maybe if there were something to them besides their (misleading) financial situation.  Some glimmer of heart or depth or actual proof that someone involved in making this show cared about more than their paycheck (except for Kat Dennings, who hits every line like it owes her money, but can’t carry it all herself).  It’s doesn’t offend me so much as it just doesn’t do anything for me.  It’s numb, like Liz Lemon slipping into a Dennis-coma, I can’t feel anything below my neck.

And seriously, that is not something you want people to say about your tv show.


*The shows just mentioned are as follows: The Secret Circle and Once Upon a Time, Hart of Dixie, Unforgettable, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, and, of course, 2 Broke Girls.

[Note: Still to come out are two shows that I actually have some hope for.  Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 and Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea both have potential to be scathing, funny, and incisive looks at modern womanhood.  But, like I said, neither is out yet.  Booooo.]

Monday, October 17, 2011

Batwoman vs. Ms. Marvel (Or, The Great Debate Rages On)

In the past few weeks I've checked out some new* comics, and while a few were just moments of sheer fun and geekiness (Iron Man Noir was fun and geeky and I highly recommend it, if the idea of steampunk Iron Man meets Indiana Jones appeals to you at all.  which it had better.), some of them tipped me off about the bigger struggle going on in the major publishing houses.


 There is perhaps no better example of what DC does best than the Batwoman title.  Similarly, Ms. Marvel exemplifies everything that Marvel stands for (though not as well as the X-Men—they’re tough to beat).  And the two characters could not be more different. 

It comes down to one basic thing.  Cool vs. Relatable.

Batwoman is cool.  I mean she is ice cold sheer badass in a can that will punch you in the face.  Kate Cane in her day to day, she’s a Gotham socialite, out and proud lesbian, former special forces commando, and generally awesome person.  As Batwoman, she sasses the Bat, gets some really awesome villains, epic battles, and even when brutally injured, always comes back to get the bad guy.  Also, she has an evil twin.  How cool is that?

Ms. Marvel is relatable.  I get her.  Sometimes a little too well.  She’s “out” as a superhero, having sided with Tony Stark in the whole registration debacle that was the Civil War arc, and now has a publicist trying to define her character more.  All she wants is to fight some crime, pay her bills, and make sure her sidekick doesn’t get into more trouble than she can handle.  Oh, and she wants to know why the hell the cute guy she’s dating won’t call her back.  Is it because they got attacked that time?  It is, isn’t it.  As Ms. Marvel, she’s strong, she makes hard decisions and has to deal with them, her world is continuous, she falls for the wrong guys, makes bad life choices, and sometimes has to compromise with villains for the greater good.  Her life isn’t easy and it’s not pretty.  But I get it.

DC has a world of hyperbole.  Evil twins, grand storylines, epic journeys, righteous heroes fighting for noble causes, and evil villains who’re just evil.  It’s the world we wish we lived in.  There’s not much moral ambiguity here.  Superman is good.  Lex Luthor is bad.  Superman defeats Lex Luthor.  Batwoman fights Alice, and when she discovers that Alice is her long lost twin sister, she decides to save her.  But that doesn’t change what Alice has done.  There is good, and there is evil, and it is very easy to tell the difference.  Hot damn I wish I lived there.  It’s all so simple and so fucking cool.
Marvel is the world closer to reality.  Not too close, obviously, unless I’m seriously missing something here.  But in Marvel the heroes have problems.  They aren’t so righteous, and sometimes they manage to be worse to each other than the villains (see the Civil War arc).  The villains aren’t just crazy here—a lot of the time they have a valid point.  Magneto’s right: the humans are afraid of the mutants, and in that fear are willing to take overreaching dangerous action that is a threat to mutantkind.  The humans have a point too: mutants are freaking dangerous!  It’s a world of grey and moral compromise, not as pretty or clean as DC’s universe, but a hell of lot easier to recognize.

In Batwoman: Elegy, Batwoman discovers that Alice, the psychotic cult-leader intent on killing her to complete some evil ritual, is actually her twin.  Batwoman decides that Alice must be saved at all costs.  She’s still evil, but now she must be saved.  It's all black and white and grand drama.  In Ms. Marvel: Operation Lightning Storm, Ms. Marvel makes a deal with the head scientist of AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) that allows AIM to continue operating, and actually prevents it from splintering apart and dissolving.  Why?  Because the alternative was worse, even though AIM is her main adversary.  She makes the hard choice, and she has to live with it.

There’s room for both.  I’d even go so far as to say there’s a need for both.  Because as much as I grew up wanting to be Batman, the X-Men taught me how to belong.  For every Batwoman showing us a world of evil twins and unbridled badassery, there should be a Ms. Marvel who kisses the wrong guy and can’t get along with her sidekick’s parents.  We need the big stories, and we need heroes we can relate to as well.

I guess what I’m saying is, really, can’t we all just get along?

No.  Because that would be boring.

*Which in comics time, where continuity stretches in some cases back to the 1940s and beyond, is new.

**Haters gonna hate.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Games: El Shaddai Utterly Fails to Challenge Gender Norms

But it is very pretty.
A recent videogame release, El Shaddai:Ascension of the Metatron has a couple of handicaps going in.  First, it’s an import, so the dialogue is dubbed over from the original Japanese, and it’s dubbed pretty poorly, I’ll be honest.  Second, it’s a Japanese game.  I don’t think I’m stepping much outside of the bounds when I say that Japanese games have gained a reputation in the past few years of being a little…odd.  Just remember Katamari Damacy.  If you can.  And third, it’s based on obscure passages from all three of the major monotheistic religions, all bundled together, shaken, and then taken wholly out of context.  Like I said, just a couple of handicaps.

For all of it’s faults, however, El Shaddai is a very interesting, arrestingly pretty game.  You play as Enoch, the lone human in a heaven full of angels, called down to fight against the seven fallen angels and their nephilim.  The story takes a lot of liberties with the original texts, glossing over who exactly Enoch is, who the archangels are, and what precisely a nephilim is*, even including a cell-phone toting guide named “Lucifel” who dispenses handy advice every once in a while.

This is supposed to be a nephilim.  Riiiiiight.
All of this is fine.  It’s a Japanese game based on obscure Western theology.  I’ve seen worse.  What I wasn’t fond of, however, was the genders.

Angels don’t have gender, at least not in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.  As such, most people throughout the ages have chosen to depict them as male, men having served for most of human history as the gender neutral option.  This does not bother me overly much, insofar as we all bear in mind that these are still gender neutral beings, and they need a form of some kind for us to comprehend them.  Whatever. 

What rankles in El Shaddai though, is that they are not all male.  In fact, some angels are female.  Again, this does not bother me overly much.  In the absence of true gender neutrality, then gender parity will serve.  But they are not equal.  To the eleven named male angels, there are just two named female angels.  Two.  And both of these adhere precisely to overarching gender stereotypes.

What the hell, game?

Again, though, super-duper pretty.
The two female angels in El Shaddai are the archangel Gabriel and the fallen angel Ezekiel**.  Gabriel serves as a member of Enoch’s party, and is listed as the angel of "healing".  Given that the archangel Gabriel is perhaps the best known of the angels, this seems a little strange.  Gabriel is the messenger angel whose trumpet shall sound the coming of Judgment Day.  It seems that in the view of gender-normativity, the game made Gabriel into a nurse, all to preserve a gender ratio that was never actually out of whack.  Ezekiel gets a bit more screen-time, by virtue of being a villain, but even she is harshly bound to gender constraints.  Each of the fallen angels is condemned for having appreciated too much a pleasure of Earth.  Ezekiel’s was the natural world.  She’s condemned because she liked pretty things.

Videogames have never been a particularly strong voice for gender equality, to be frank, but this was a very poor showing.  While I appreciated not being forced to accept the designer’s idea of proper combat attire as something akin to a bikini top with leather pants, an issue commonly found in most female videogame characters, I still did not appreciate the way the characters were subjugated to their gender.  Despite being angels, and thus logically outside of the gender paradigm, they still managed to adhere a little too well.

It was a really pretty game, though.

I mean, come on, even the fights are pretty.

*All of which are things I could go into in more detail if prompted, but I figured we have bigger fish to fry.  Let me know if you’re interested.

**Point of note that Ezekiel was actually a prophet, but, again, whatever.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pilot Season: Playboy Club (Yeah. No.)

In honor of the fact that Playboy Club has already been cancelled, let’s review it!  I’d planned on watching this earlier, what with it being one of the more buzzed about shows of the season, but I got distracted by all of of the other shiny. 
Time, however, is not on my or the show’s side, so I guess it’s time to pick up and review this here show of ours and send it on it’s way.  Farewell, Playboy Club, we hardly knew you.  Shame.

PLAYBOY CLUB (Cancelled)

Gosh it must have been nice to be pretty in the early 1960s.  All of those opportunities just opening themselves up to you.  From being a Pan Am stewardess*, to being a Playboy Bunny, man life sure must have been grand.  Who wouldn’t want to strut around in a bathing suit sized corset and heels while being professionally ogled and told that you are all that a woman can ever hope to be?

Stop wiping the evidence on yourself.
Really networks, really, this is what you came up with?

A quick recap of the pilot episode: Bunny Maureen is new at her job, and when she goes back to get cigarettes, a man follows her.  He tries to rape her.  She kicks out at him, and accidentally murders him with her stiletto heel.**  In the process, she’s seen by Don Draper, sorry, Nick Dalton, an up and coming lawyer, who helps her dispose of the body and clean herself up.  He also tells her that the man she killed was a mob boss.  The mob boss.  Nick’s girlfriend, Carol Lynne, also a Bunny, shows up, finds Maureen and freaks out.  She gets fired for freaking out, then convinces Hugh Hefner to make her the “Bunny Mother” for all of the girls.  Blah blah blah, other stuff happens, whatever.

The plot is not the problem.  Well, it’s not the whole problem.  The real problem is what the plot tells us about the world of the show. 

Yup. Good life goal, right there.
Take Carol Lynne, for example.  She’s the oldest Bunny in the club, the first Bunny, to be exact.  Nearly thirty (gosh, so old!), she’s worried that she’s gotten too old to be a Bunny, and she doesn’t want to give up and go off to some office job.  At first it seems she’s put her eggs in Nick’s basket, dating him with the idea that he’ll be her ticket to respectability after.  But either that’s not her real agenda, or Maureen squashes that pretty quickly.  So what’s a smart, educated, beautiful woman with a hefty savings balance and the powerful men of Chicago under her thumb supposed to do in a situation like this?  Freak out, steal files from her boss’ office, get fired, and go running to Hugh Hefner to get her job back.

Um, I think you’re doing it wrong.

Carol Lynne is amazingly talented.  She’s the main entertainment at the club, and she’s a brilliant singer.  It’s clear that she’s the main attraction there most nights, and it’s not just because she fills out a Bunny suit well, it’s because the girl has got some pipes.  But she absolutely cannot see past the front doors of the club to imagine a world where she is not a Bunny.  And when she does get her own back, by begging a man (Hugh Hefner even) to give her what she deserves, she gets a position as the first “Bunny Mother”.  Like a sorority mother, for Bunnies.  Not managing the club or singing professionally, or even doing something else with all of her brains, money and influence.  No, she’s a den mother to a bunch of pretty girls.  And she’s thrilled, because it’s the best thing she could have asked for.  And because she had to ask for it.

The Hef giveth, but the Hef taketh away (your self respect).

Classy, girlfriend.  Classy.
Or what about Maureen?  She fights back against her would-be rapist, which is a point in her favor, but then she wilts under the pressure of what she’s done.  Granted, that’s understandable.  Murder is a pretty terrifying prospect.  But she allows herself to be coddled by the attractively bland Nick Dalton, while letting him handle all of the details of removal and cleanup.  Insisting that she can “take care of myself”, Maureen refuses to leave the city, which forces her to become even more reliant on Nick for help.  Because he knows the mob and he knows how they’ll come after her if they know what she’s done.  She is stuck looking over her shoulder and trusting that Nick, and later Carol Lynne, will look out for her, take care of her, and keep her safe.  All while she insists that she can take care of herself.  Riiiiight.

There were no shots of the interesting plot.  Sorry.
There was, in fact, only one interesting storyline on the show, and it was sadly the storyline that got the least screentime.  Way in the back of the show was a little plot about a married Bunny, Alice, whose husband wasn’t thrilled that she worked in the club.  Throughout the pilot you get bits and pieces of their story, how she wears her wedding ring, even though it cuts down on tips, until Carol Lynne makes her take it off at the end, how her husband is wonderful, but she’s never introduced him to anyone, how she calls him and giggles about how they’re going to get caught, and then we pan over to see…her husband with another man.  Hmm.  Okay.  And at the end of the episode, her husband, (played by the inestimable Sean Maher***) announces the first meeting of Chicago’s Mattachine Society while she looks on in pride.  A homosexual support society.  Now that’s interesting.

If only the rest of the show could be that interesting, without falling back on old hackneyed tropes and dull, weak characterizations.  Yes, it’s beautifully shot, and the costumes are well-executed, but the concept is as hollow as the credit sequence, where a parade of disembodied breasts and butts gyrate without a face or thought in sight.  Have we really reached a point in our history where we believe Hugh Hefner when he tells us that the Playboy Bunny is the woman of all of our dreams, not just men’s dreams, but women’s too?  That the Bunnies are actually symbols of liberation?  Because they’re not.  Really.  It’s a show full of Playboy propaganda, designed specially to show the best of the best of the Playboy brand, and gloss over anything shady that ever may have happened in one of those clubs.

Well, no.  I reject that.  And apparently so did everyone else.  So bye bye Playboy Club.  Don’t let the door hit you on the tail on your way out.

*See yesterday’s review, here.

**It’s impressive.  Improbable, but impressive.

***Sean Maher (Firefly, Warehouse 13, other stuff I care about less) recently came out as gay himself.  You can read his interview with Entertainment Weekly on the topic here.  Personally, it made me look at his character on this show a little more closely, though from what I could see, and what I’ve seen of his prior work, he’s just a damn good actor.  Nothing more too it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Pilot Season: Pan Am (Lighter Than Air, Just As Little To Say)

I was all set to actually review a videogame today, when I clicked on my hulu queue only to find Pan Am’s pilot waiting for me.  And because I operate by the laws of whimsy, that is now today’s post.  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for a rant on gender normativity in fantasy gaming.  I’m sure you’re all super upset.

PAN AM (ABC Sundays 10 EST)

Do you ever want to just pick up and fly away while looking perfect and gorgeous and knowing that you’ve got the best life possible given your circumstances?  Yes?  Good job, you’re a person.

The ladies in Pan Am are also people, and thus they also want these things.  But, unfortunately for me and the other viewers of this show, that’s about all they want.  Each girl has one trait that defines them and gives them a reason to fly. 

I Spy with my little eye...
Kate: (Smart, Not As Pretty As Her Sister) Recently recruited into the CIA to spy on foreign diplomats and passengers onboard.

Laura: (Pretty, Escaping) Recently ran away from her wedding to become a stewardess like her sister, Kate.  Now the face of Pan Am, after a candid shot of her ran on the cover of Life magazine.

Collette: (French) Recently slept with a man in Rome, only to discover now that he is married, with a family.  Angry at him, and herself.

Maggie: (Bohemian) Recently suspended for violating the dress code, but now reinstated and promoted due to the disappearance of the senior Stewardess, Bridget.  Seeing the world so she can help change it.

And that’s pretty much it when it comes to character development on these ladies, sad to say.  The plot is paper thin, just a woven strand of these four little pieces and another bit about the missing Bridget, and that’s it.  There’s a touch of gravitas when it comes to Kate’s spying mission, but even that is couched in early 1960s glamor and soft jazz tones.

It’s all just so…nice.

I mean, I understand.  This is ABC, home of the soapy Sunday night drama (Desperate Housewives, ahem), but I guess I expected more.  Pan Am is not feminist, and I never had any hopes that it would be.  It’s firmly pre-feminist, as you can tell from the way the camera’s gaze hovers on the blue uniform clad forms of the women.  They aren’t people in those uniforms, they’re stewardesses. 

And that’s fine, to a certain extent.  I enjoy a light frothy apertif sometimes, and Pan Am hit the bill rather nicely.  But I can’t help wishing for a little more.  I wish I saw a little more grittiness as Kate struggles to spy and is nearly caught, in such a way that I genuinely believe it.  Or Collette gets a personality more detailed than “French”.  Or Laura learns to act.*

I want some substance, even if I am aware that I probably won’t get it.

They're in the backgound of their own promo shot.
If you intend to base an entire show around women, then it stands to reason that you ought to make the women the agents of their own destinies in the show.  This is not the case here.  These women are no more the master’s of their own fate than the secretaries on Mad Men, and in the case of Peggy Olson, much much less so.  Kate is manipulated by her male CIA and MI-6 handlers.  Laura by the photographer from Life and by her reactionary choices: she has only decided to be a stewardess because it is what her former life wasn’t.  Not because she knows who she is.  Collette is bound by her sexual partners and judged by them, when they deserve the judgement more than she does.  And Maggie, bohemian though they try to paint her, is at the beck and call of men who insist on strapping her into a girdle before flinging her around the world.

I’ve always said that I would accept a lack of character agency when it was compliant with the needs of the show and explained by the character’s behavior and choices, and ideally, moved past as time went on.  This is not one of those cases.  Yet.

I enjoyed this show, but it left a sour taste in my mouth, because try as they might to convince me that these women are the pinnacle of freedom, they seem awfully chained.

I hope you're wearing a girdle.

*That last one may be egregious, but she was the biggest disappointment of the actresses.  She was incredibly flat, and seemed to be drifting through her lines.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Pilot Season: Ringer (Is This The Best You've Got, SMG? Really?)

Wait, is this show about mirrors?
Hey look, multiple posts in one day!  It’s just my little way of making up to the three of you who read this (hi Mom!) for missing Wednesday.  Also, I’m bored and this diner hasn’t kicked me out yet.

So, onward with the pilots.  I swear, we’re almost halfway there*.

RINGER (CW Tuesdays 9 EST)

Yeah, this show aired a while ago, and I watched it when it aired, so I really have no excuse to be posting this so late except…

I don’t get it.

And I want to.  I loved Buffy.  More than is probably emotionally sound.**  Sure, the character sometimes made me want to throttle her, and I am totally doing a piece later on about how much I question her choices in the later seasons, but she was first and foremost awesome.  Sarah Michelle Gellar rocked it out.

So why the hell is she coming back to television with this crap?

Totally a show about mirrors.
Ringer is (apparently) about two twins.  The crappy twin, Bridget, sees the rich twin, Siobhan, commit suicide, and decides to take over her life.  Because that’s what people do.  Not call for an ambulance, or her husband, or one of the fifty kajillion cops Bridget knows.  Nope.  This is the sane choice.

And so she tries to take over her twin’s life, except her twin had a complicated life, which Bridget knows nothing about, since they hadn’t spoken in six years, and Bridget is a terrible liar.  But somehow no one notices (HOW?!) and Bridget stays hidden.  Oh yeah, and Siobhan was pregnant.  And is apparently still alive.  WTF.

It’s not that I object to soapy, melodramatic CW shows in principle.  I watch Gossip Girl.  It’s horrible about that.  I love it.  It’s that Ringer doesn’t add anything new to the formula except some really awful CGI backgrounds and a premise that is about 10 episodes of plot from a soap opera.  And they know how to milk things.

Siobhan has giant pictures of her own face.  Yeah.
How the hell did Sarah Michelle Gellar, kicker and puncher of all that is evil, end up in such a washed out, dull as dishwater show?  And as such a lame character too?  Siobhan (probably) had some grit to her, as we see from her philandering, faked death, and plotting.  I would totally watch a show about her, even if she is a bit of a sociopath.  Gellar plays her like she’s been let out of her cage. 

But Bridget is boring.  Really, really boring.  She’s an addict, but she goes to meetings.  She’s a stripper, but reformed.  She used to be an interesting person, but aside from having some really weird ideas of what makes for a good decision in a crisis, she’s not anymore.  She’s just muddling through.  I do not like my soap characters to muddle.  I want them to scheme.

Feel something.  Please.
I don’t want to pigeon-hole Sarah Michelle Gellar as an actress, but I guess I came to expect more from her.  I don’t want her to play just another wilted woman, being shuffled around so much, she’s literally not even living her own life.  I want her to be awesome.  I want her character to be awesome.  She doesn’t have to be an action star, she just has to be active.  You know, as a person.  Inside.

But if all you’re looking for is some silly soapy fun, then watch Ringer.  You’ll at least enjoy the CGI backgrounds.

Definitely a show about mirrors.

*We still have Pan Am, Playboy Club, 2 Broke Girls, Unforgettable, Secret Circle, Once Upon A Time, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, and Apartment 23 to go.  At least.  Yay!

**Ask my high school boyfriend.  It was a strange aspect of our relationship.  Me making him watch Buffy, him wondering why he was dating me...

Man Stuff: Are TV Men Getting Shafted This Season? (Hint: Yes.)

Exactly none of this is attractive.
It has come to my attention, by which I mean that a friend posted a link to an article on my facebook wall and gently suggested* that I read it, that men might be getting the shaft this season on network television.

I’ll be honest, the thought, though it had occurred to me, didn’t really bother me all that much.  For starters, I’m a woman.  So the shoe’s on the other foot for once, so what?  Second, as far as I can tell, the shoes that are condemning men are all sitcoms and half-hour comedies, which have for years taken the same tack as wacky commercials.  Namely that men are useless lugs being fondly cleaned up after by their much smarter and more attractive wives**.  So I wasn’t that concerned.  A season or two of men being called idiots and women being on top would be good for the soul.  My soul, at least.  I never said I was nice.

And then I actually watched How To Be A Gentleman.

Holy crap.

These are not men. These are cartoons.
Casual misogyny in sitcoms is largely a thing of the past.  You seldom see a show these days outright have a woman tell another woman that she is being a woman wrong, a point made very well in the article here, but that happens very explicitly in Gentleman.  Multiple times.

Furthermore, the show seems to purport that there are two kinds of men: pussies and meatheads, and that, while they both could serve to learn from each other, one is clearly better than the other.  The meathead.

Um, no.  Just, no.

First of all, I know a lot of men.  Not in a Biblical sense, but in the sense that I have always had a lot of male friends.  And none of my friends (NONE) has ever been classifiable into one of those two categories.  Every man I have ever met existed somewhere in between.  I have met men I immediately judged as belonging to one group or the other, but upon closer inspection, they didn’t.  It’s always the presidents of fraternities who turn up in your Nietzsche seminar and debate the loudest, or harbor a strange love of Star Wars extended universe novels.  The guy you dated in high school who was obsessed with the Crow, but did amateur wrestling on the weekends.  No one is one thing or the other.  We’re all just shades of grey.

Even beyond the issues with creating only two categories for men, is the horrific idea that one is better than the other.  That how you are a man is not nearly as good as how he is a man.  You’re doing it wrong.

Again, no.

Just because I don't like it, doesn't mean you're doing it wrong.
You can’t be yourself wrong.  It’s just not a thing that can be done wrong.  And by no means should someone else be telling you that you’re doing it wrong.  By all means, when you find a friend wallowing over a breakup, pick them back up, lend a kind ear, tell them to snap out of it if that’s what they need, but don’t tell them they can’t be who they are if they want to get someone new.  That is the definition of not helpful.***

So, How To Be A Gentleman, and Man Up!, and Free Agents, and Last Man Standing, stop telling men to grow up.  I get it, the big bad feminism came and made you all scared, so the only way you can retort is by making shows about how men aren’t men anymore and they need to get better, be real men again, but grow up.  Learn from Up All Night.  You can be a man, a stay at home dad even, and still be manly, sexy, and awesome. 

Or should I say, women aren’t going anywhere, there’s more than two ways to be a man and none of them are wrong, so man up.

But not like this.

[Note: How To Be A Gentleman is actually just a pretty crappy show in generally regarding its characters.  The women are even worse.  They are all harping bitches who behave in sociopathic ways that make no sense to anyone who has even had the word empathy described to them.  The protagonist goes on a date, and his date takes him to her ex-boyfriend’s restaurant.  What?  That is some psycho-bitch territory there!  And while there he finds his sister having dinner with a co-worker, while her husband stalks them at the bar.  Um, yeah.  Good job show, this is crazyland.]

*Well, politely insisted.

**I believe I mentioned in my Whitney post how much I enjoyed seeing this trope reversed.

***Unless they are a serial killer.  Then go right ahead.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pilot Season: Suburgatory (Score One for the Teenage Cynics)

FYI, She's smiling sarcastically.
I might have a few things to update today, but first I’d like to extend the happy news that New Girl got the first full season pickup of the year, and will be gracing our screens until May.  This is after It won it’s timeslot for the first two episodes, and became a critical darling, so I guess I can see why FOX made the choice.  If you want to read the article, Entertainment Weekly has more details here.

Now back to the show (literally):

SUBURGATORY (ABC Wednesday 8:30 EST)

I have to get this out: I do not know what universe Suburgatory is supposed to take place in.  I have never been to a town or even housing development that was as white bread or terrifyingly clean as the one portrayed in this show*.  It’s just so…creepy.

You can tell how happy she is to be here.
And that is, of course, the point of the show.  Suburbia as hell, which, if this is suburbia, I can completely understand.  Tessa (Jane Levy, who I’d never seen before, but is surprisingly good) is moved from Manhattan out to the ‘burbs by her overprotective father George (Jeremy Sisto) when he finds an unopened box of condoms in her room.  She hates it.  He hates it.  But he’s determined to make sure that his daughter has as normal and wholesome an adolescence as is humanly possible, especially now that he’s seen the possibilities otherwise. 

Tessa’s grown up without a mother, and her biggest shock in suburbia is the moms.  How they’re all pink and plastic and drink sugar-free Red Bull.  Most notably, Cheryl Hines’ Dallas, mother to Tessa’s “buddy” Dinah, who insists on giving Tessa some unwanted motherly advice.  There's a pretty hilarious shopping trip for a “nice heterosexual dress shoe”**.  Alan Tudyk also turned up as a friend of George’s, encouraging George to take advantage of all of the bored, attractive housewives.  Suburbia was pretty thoroughly condemned, and I could see why (even if I still refuse to believe this place really exists).

Not gonna lie, it was awesome.
But there were moments of humanity.  George’s genuine pain at the realization that his daughter might be sexually active was compelling.  And his dawning understanding that the suburbs weren’t going to change that, was also a little sad.  There’s a hilarious, but also depressing, scene over dinner, where Tessa flaunts her mall-bought skank outfit in front of her father, who wants her to conform, and he realizes that perhaps his daughter shouldn’t change.  She’s fine the way she is.

There’s also the end, which, frankly, was my favorite part.  After demoralizing Tessa on the shopping trip, and pointing out that her sports bra is fugly (which it was, and I am in favor of comfortable undergarments), Dallas comes to Tessa with a present.  A really nice bra.  Because she knows that Tessa doesn’t have a mother around, that this is something they would have done together, and that sometimes even the unwilling need a little mothering.  I liked that.

Sweet.  In an invasive, mean way.
Analytically, I have to say the show works for me.  Tessa’s a real girl.  She’s funny and sarcastic, and not very interested in using her breasts to get what she wants, but she’s also not utterly convinced that she’s a hosebeast or anything.  She’s just…normal.  I miss that.  When did that leave our tv screens?  Because it’s nice to actually related to a character.  The suburban caricatures are funny (and at times hilarious, like the woman who is now stalking George), but the best humor comes from the fleshed out characters, like Tessa and George and Dallas.  The ones with hearts that can be broken, and minds for making quips.

Plot wise, I hope it improves a little, because “new girl comes to town, hates it, learns to like it just a little” is horrifically generic, but I approved of the lack of love interest.  Tessa’s a big girl.  She doesn’t need a boy to hold her hand, and this show doesn’t need romantic tension to get it through.  It’s doing just fine.

So, no, it didn’t blow my socks off.  But it was nice, and I liked it, and I think Tessa is genuinely cool.  I will totally watch this again.

Suburbia’s still not a real thing, though.

And I refuse to believe anyone ever bought that outfit.

*But I have often been told that my childhood experiences are not a good baseline, in the same way that a salad is not a good baseline comparison for cheeseburgers.  Oh well.

**I wore Birkenstocks and combat boots all through high school and college.  This resonated.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pilot Season: Prime Suspect (Perfection. Just Don't Screw It Up.)

You're awesome.
I could lie and say that I have some amazing, complicated metric that determines the order in which I review these pilots, but the honest truth is that I generally just review whatever pops up first on hulu.  And with that, here’s today’s foray into randomization algorithms!


Let me start out by saying that I am not unbiased about this show and I never was.  I went into it wanting to like it, and I do.  So sue me.

Prime Suspect is actually a remake of a British show by the same name (shocker), which starred Helen Mirren as a take-no-prisoners lady cop detective.  It kickstarted her career into the spectacular stratosphere in which it now reigns, and was a nifty show to boot.  I didn’t catch much of it myself, it having aired in the mid-90s, when I was well into my “ignore everything that’s not Lord of the Rings” phase*, but I saw a few episodes.  I like what I’ve seen.

This new version is about Maria Bello as lady cop detective Jane Timoney working in (where else) NYPD Homicide.  She gets no respect from the “Beef Trust” of her male colleagues.  They openly accuse her of sleeping with her boss for the transfer, and refuse to give her cases.  She does not appreciate this, and shows them her lack of appreciation in a reasonably professional manner.  But she also swears at them sometimes.  It’s nice. 

Just a friendly disagreement about procedure.
The actual plot of the episode revolves around a rape and murder on the Upper East Side.  Jane is convinced that it is part of a string of rapes in the area, while the detectives actually working the case dismiss her and insist it’s a family friend.  When the lead detective on the case has a heart attack and dies, Jane immediately asks for lead on the case, which comes off as insensitive, rude, and utterly realistic.  She reveals to her father that she wanted to catch them off guard before they closed ranks again, because she knows she can do this case.  I liked that a lot.  It was realistic, and sad at the same time.

Jane has a better view on the murder, and is able to actually interview the only eye-witness to the killing (the victim’s small son) and get a sketch of the murderer.  She uses this to clear the family friend, who she’d investigated and discovered to be gay.  After some police work and a spectacular stroke of luck and good forward thinking, she gets a tip and they close in.  On the wrong address.

It's like a stock photo for "uncomfortable workplace".
They have to chase the murderer down, and Jane ends up getting the shit beat out of her in an alleyway.  Again, I appreciated that she really did go down hard.  She isn’t superwoman, and she is understandably smaller than some of the men she chases.  That’s why she has guns.  Anyway, the perp is taken in, and Jane gets to close the case.  She talks it over with some of the Beef Trust who still dislike her, and her success rate has done nothing to ease their ire.  In fact, it’s probably just exacerbated it.  And that’s fine by me.

There’s also a subplot wherein Jane and her (boyfriend? spouse? fiance? significant other of some kind) Matt attempt to appease Matt’s ex-wife in order to get her to allow their six year old son over for sleepovers.  Jane is a source of conflict, with her long hours and multiple guns, but eventually she is able to shut down the ex-wife and ensure that the son will come stay with them.  One gets the sense that the child really is safer with Jane than anywhere else he could possibly be, anyways.  The show ends on her smirk, and the knowledge that she doesn't care about making friends, she's just going to protect what's hers if it kills her.

And I loved it.

I think Maria Bello is spectacular in this role, and while I am aware of the complaints that the show was “American-ized”, by making the lead younger and more attractive, I reject them.  Jane might not be Helen Mirren’s age, but she’s no spring chicken.  She’s pushing forty, at best.  And as for attractive, Mirren has her there by a mile.  Jane seems to put on an armor of brute force and rage when she goes into work, and that is not attractive (except when it totally is).

You rock that scarf. You've earned it.
But the reason I like it most, and why I have a sneaking suspicion it will be my favorite pilot this year, is that I get it.  Jane Timoney is a person.  She just quit smoking, and she has cravings, and she is hacking up grossness when she runs, so she can’t run fast enough to catch a murderer, and that’s awesome.  She loves her boyfriend** but they fight and she yells and sometimes cries.  She keeps crazy hours and says things she shouldn’t, but she’s an amazing cop and she loves kids even if she doesn’t get them sometimes.  She’s inappropriate and rude and crass, and sometimes she does say the wrong thing to her boss, or imply that the dead man whose case she took was a moron, but she just wants to do her job.

I'm not saying that every woman on television has to be a badass lady cop, with more guns than she knows what to do with and severe nicotine cravings, but I do believe that every woman on television could learn from this example.  I don't care if she's Suzy Homemaker or a prostitute or a teenager in a glee club, what matters is that the character is fleshed out.  That she's real.  And that she's her own person.  If she isn't her own person, there had better be a story reason for it.  Because I refuse to believe that it is better for a story to have characters whose entire personalities can be summed up as "hot brunette" and "dancer".  No, this is better, and now that we've seen what real character development and agency can do for a story, I expect more.

So thank you, television, for Jane Timoney.  For giving us a woman who will take the crap in a man’s world, and isn’t a bitch about it, but does her job and does it well.  She loves her boyfriend, she loves her guns, and she cries sometimes when no one’s looking.  Thank you, just this once, for getting it right.

Don’t screw it up.

Or Jane will find you.

*Lasted until age 15.  Ask my parents, I’m sure they have fond memories.

**We’re going with boyfriend, even if it sounds juvenile, because I don’t think they’re married, and significant other is longer to type.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pilot Season: Whitney (Points for Realism, Points Off for Boring Me)

Continuing in my series of writing about television pilots after they’ve aired but in no particular order or reasonable pattern, here’s the next one!

WHITNEY (NBC Thursdays 9:30 EST)

is NBC’s new multi-cam sitcom from standup comedian Whitney Cummings*, and as you can tell from the super creative title, it’s about her.  More exactly, it’s about her standup, told through skits.  I have watched her standup, being the proud owner of a Netflix account and too much free time, and I can tell you that almost every joke in the show is directly ripped from that standup routine.  But I get ahead of myself.

In the pilot, Whitney and her boyfriend of five years (whose name I have already forgotten—Tim? Dan? something generic) go to a wedding for some friends.  Whitney is funny, but altogether awful to nearly everyone there.  We learn that this is because she hates weddings, and not because she is a sociopath just released from solitary confinement, which seems the more likely answer.  Back at home, Whitney and TimDanPerson talk about how they probably don’t have enough sex anymore, even though their five-year anniversary is coming up.**  She decides they have to have more sex, and calls on her two best friends, Married and Divorced, for help.

That looks medically sound.
They come up with the brilliant idea of role-play.  And then is the fabulous scene where they do the roleplay.  It’s pretty funny, actually, as Whitney plays a naughty nurse, and SteveDaveWhoever is forced to fill in forms and get his insurance card.  But given that nearly every part of the scene has already been in a promo for the show, it’s wasn’t hilarious.  Anyway, BobbyJoeFace falls over and gets a concussion in the excitement and has to go to the hospital.  While there, Whitney discovers that because she’s not his wife, she can’t go in to see him, and this bothers her.  When she gets in, she proposes.  He says no, because she’s just scared, and he’ll wait for her to be ready for marriage.  And then it ends with them fooling around in the hospital bed and him getting another concussion.

As far as the plot and format go, Whitney is the standard of multi-cam sitcoms.  It’s back to classics format, simple plot about relationships and gender dynamics, and really obvious laugh track are all the hallmarks of a mid-90s sitcom.  Blah blah blah hand me a cosmo blah.

What I liked about this show, in difference from most of the others I’ve seen recently is the characters (of course).  Whitney might be loud, obnoxious, and slightly sociopathic, but she’s interesting.  I get her.  I’ve been her.  And I didn’t like her even when I was her, but she makes sense to me in a way that’s visceral and real.  That is very appealing. 

Sure, her boyfriend is bland and clearly just the straightman and I can’t even remember his name, but their relationship does seem to work.  And more important, he has a fantastic view on it.  Too often I see couples getting married because it seems like time to get married.  They’ve been together for a while, and it’s too much work not to.  At least this show is taking the stance that, no, you should really want to get married if you’re going to get married.  It needs to mean something.  If it doesn’t then it won’t stick.

While I find her decision to dress up in a slutty nurse outfit a little too “quirky” and “charming”, I think that the character of Whitney is interesting.  She is a woman who owns her agency in all aspects of her life.  She has a real partnership with her boyfriend, in all aspects of their relationship.  She can be loud, but she cares.  For once, at least it’s the woman screwing it up so that the understanding man can pick up the pieces.  It's a new dynamic (to television) and I approve.  Whatever the reason, these two work, and I like them.

So, no, the show isn’t spectacular, or original, or very new.  It’s funny, but in a light, easy way that won’t mess up your hair, and I don’t feel a need to tune in every week.  But if I happen to catch it when it’s on, I won’t mind.  And I’m happy that it’s on at all, because there should be more Whitneys on television.  Messy, realistic women, who are owning their own lives, even when they make bad choices.

If only it were a little funnier.

Ahh, dysfunction.

*Who also created and executive-produced 2 Broke Girls, which we will get to later.

**Or because of it, am I right ladies?! (This is what Whitney’s actual standup sounds like.  I propose a ban on all comics who use that phrase, “Am I right ladies”.  It’s one step above laughing at your own joke when sober.)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pilot Season: Charlie's Angels (Am I Laughing With You Or At You?)

Yes. You do look like a tampon ad.
Sorry I’ve missed a few days here.  I’ve been engaging in a screenwriting marathon for the past few days*, and have thus been unable to update.

So, with almost no ado, have the latest installment in my series on self-torture:


Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was not a good show.  Pretty much at all.  It was a show that more raised the question, “Do they know it’s bad?  Is this on purpose?  Are you really saying that or are you being sarcastic?”  If our generation can be defined as the one in which we forgot whether or not we were being sarcastic**, then this show is our poster child.  Is it supposed to be funny?  Because it was.

The Pilot’s plot (insofar as I can remember/understood it at the time): The three Angels (Angry Blonde, Smart Latina, and Sassy Black Girl) finish a job.  Charlie thanks them.  They decide to split up for the night.  Walking back to her car, Smart Latina is blown up by a car bomb.  Angry Blonde and Sassy Black Girl mourn her and start to investigate her death, only to find Minka Kelly (I could be witty, but she’s not remarkable in any way in this) was at the crime scene.  Minka Kelly was a friend of Smart Latina’s.  Smart Latina and Minka Kelly were going to take down a sex trafficker, but he killed Smart Latina, so it’s Minka Kelly’s job to see it through.  The Angels decide that they have to help her, and Charlie’s disembodied voice agrees, so they do.  A mission happens.  It works.  The sex trafficker is brought to justice and Minka Kelly becomes the next Angel.

I straight up have no idea what happened in this scene.
It’s a pilot, so I can’t be too hard on the plot, but I rather want to, because the plot was terrible.  Sex trafficking is a genuinely horrific thing, but to have it glossed over in the course of an hour long episode, where the real focus was on the legs and tans of the stars, was demeaning.  But that was far from my biggest peeve with Charlie’s Angels.  Oh no, it bothered me in many ways, not all of which were related to the fact that it was so horrifically hard to watch that I had to keep turning the sound back on, as I was absent-mindedly putting my television on mute.  I feel the need to emphasize this: I did not happen on this show by accident.  I planned to watch it.  I sat down with my dinner and watched it.  And I had to keep turning the volume back up because every five minutes my attention would slip and I would mute the show because anything else was more interesting than watching it.

Folks, we have hit rock bottom.

And as strange as it seems, I don’t have many problems with the show as a feminist.  Aside from the usual questions—“How is a woman that skinny punching a man that large?  Does she have superpowers in her perfectly coiffed hair?” and “Why must you always fight crime in a skin-tight mini-dress?  Isn’t it uncomfortable?  Can’t everyone see your ladybits when you kick?” or even “Are all pretty women this boring?”—aside from these important queries, the show’s vague fetishization of its leads didn’t really bother me.  It’s Charlie’s Angels.  I could be more surprised.  And while that doesn’t make it okay, it makes it bearable.

No, the main problems I had with this show had to do with the actual show.  Simply put, it sucked. 

Point the first: What on earth is an Angel?  Is it like an FBI Agent?  If so, who does Charlie work for?  What government organization is sponsoring this?  Several times, when asked who they are, the Angels say that they are not “Agents” they’re “Angels”.  What does this mean?  Are they private contractors, guns for hire?  I feel I would be much more inclined to watch that show, to be perfectly honest.  Yet they still claim some support from the government, which raises the question of which government and how?  Baffling.

Point the second: If your plot is dull and generic, the solution is not to add a party scene.  Really.  I feel this needs little explanation, but I can simply say that if I am having difficulty watching the show to begin with, adding a large party full of vaguely attractive people, chaos and some loud music, where our characters blend in entirely, is the best possible way to make me lose all shred of caring I had for the plot. 

I can actually feel myself getting stupider.
Point the third: When remaking a franchise, it is important to add something new to the original.  Unfortunately what seems to have happened here is a loss of something in translation.  The original television show had a, and I feel rather silly saying this but it remains true, depth that the recent films and this remake lack.  Without this emotional depth, the stories ring hollow and the characters are no more interesting than the pithy-ish monikers I gave them above.

Point the fourth and most important: I haven’t the foggiest idea if any of the prior points are important.  And this bothers me.  You see, I cannot tell if Charlie’s Angels was simply an intentionally campy remake that was a bit underdone, or took itself seriously and landed in the realm of camp and unrealistic wardrobe decisions on purpose.  It's like a textbook case of everything that is wrong with network American television, and yet I can't shake the feeling that there's a joke I'm missing.  It’s just that I have no idea if this is the joke or not.  I don’t even know if there is a joke.  I can’t tell if we’re being sarcastic or not.

I’m not sure which would be better.

Are we being ironic? Because I can do that.

*Semi-successfully.  I got some good pages written, more than I would have otherwise, but not nearly as many as I wanted to write, and my brain feels like it’s made of soup.

**A friend’s theory, and one in which I’m rather starting to believe.  We’ve come so far into the realm of intentional irony and sarcasm that we can no longer tell when we’re being earnest.  It’s unnerving.