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.