Anomalisa (2015)

13 January 2016

Let me be clear: I don’t enjoy walking out of a movie and thinking, “Men are so simplistic.”

This line of thinking leads to wariness, distrust, and reading a year’s worth of books written by women. That’s not good, none of it.

So when a movie like Anomalisa immediately triggers this ragged, feral response as soon as I exit, it seems only fair to interrogate my reaction.

Anomalisa is a dangerously mediocre movie with a spectacular gimmick, namely, a world like ours, but constructed from animated puppetry. Fine. That’s all well and good, and the artistry in the film is extremely lovely. But all this attention to craft and detail is meaningless when it’s merely in service to a narrative that is so unremarkable as to be threatening.

Here’s a question: how can mediocrity in film, in this film, be dangerous and threatening?

Anomalisa grinds through the motions of a very old trope, perhaps hoping to say something new solely through its unexpected medium. That trope is this: man is lost, very-special-woman comes into man’s life at opportune time, man finds joy of living again.

Anomalisa very clearly seeks to resolve the imbalances inherent in this narrative structure by including a resolution in which [SPOILER] its beleaguered middle-aged man protagonist has a prolonged, striking realization that the very-special-woman is, in fact, no more special or life-altering than the wife he’s got at home. This revelation is naturally presented as being something GREAT and NOVEL and EARTH-SHATTERING within the universe of this sad little man. Golly gee whiz, women are people too. To quote the titular Lisa herself, “Who’d a thunk it?”

The mechanism through which Anomalisa illustrates the sameness of all women, and in contrast, the idiosyncratic difference of Lisa, is pretty nifty, if not a lukewarm sip of misogy-tea (yeah, you like that one?). All the characters in the film are voiced by one guy, except for the male protagonist and Lisa. Then, as Mr. Moody-Middle-Aged-Dude starts having doubts about the specialness of our very-special-woman Lisa, her sweetly insecure female voice blends with the singular male voice that populates their whole world until eventually, Lisa speaks with the same male voice as all the other characters.

This is a very interesting, clever technique, but then it culminates in that hackneyed, always ever male epiphany that “Soylent Green is–whoops! Women is people!” We get a final scene [SPOILER] in which Mr. Man returns home to an unexpected party, has a tense encounter with his wife, then sits sad-sack on the stairs and listens to the lovely female singing voice of the Japanese sex toy torso he’s gifted to his son. It’s bad enough the film ends with this sad little puppet man finding the woman’s voice he’s so longed for in a mechanical toy; why’s she gotta be Asian and missing half her body too? I mean, JFC, didn’t Laura Mulvey teach us anything about fragmenting female characters back in the ’70s? Yup, tits, a torso, and a head really affecting a man with her melody. Gosh, that is a real revelation. Nice one, guys

It’s easy to posit that the very-special-woman (VSW, if you like a good acronym) is a variation on that really beloved, cherished archetype: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). It’s easy to posit this because it’s fucking true. Enough has been written about that bullshit already, so here, let me suggest a “feminist” reading of Anomalisa:

What if Anomalisa is a commentary on how men, men who self-identify as Very-Important-Men within the confines of their own skulls, need to acknowledge the discrete existence of others, particularly women? Maybe Anomalisa is saying, “Hey dudes, take your heads from out your asses and see that women are individuals, with their own interior lives, their own desires, their own memories, their own conflated senses of being? You know, they’re actually kind of just like you.”

If that’s the case, then why can’t we see Anomalisa as a cautionary tale about viewing oneself as the center of the universe, and occasionally deigning to invite a woman in?

This is an impossible reading. Absolutely, 100% impossible.

Why’s that? Because we never find out what Michael Stone–that’s the Everyman protagonist, and that’s a problem, which is why I’ve chosen not to use his name until now–we never find out what Michael Stone chooses to do with his revelation, his dark, secret knowledge that the very-special-woman is not a gateway into the greatest depths of himself. Michael never makes the connection between Lisa turning into everybody else (in evidence with her great voice shift), and Lisa being an individual like himself. For that matter, Michael never makes the leap that everyone, literally EVERYONE you meet, is an individual, much like yourself.

And for that reason, and because by film’s end Michael is a sad slump of a man listening to a mechanical toy crank out its woman’s voice, a man who has never managed to view other people as anything other than set-pieces in the crushing mundanity of his own universe, Anomalisa fails to say anything new. It reinforces shitty old tropes without ever challenging its protagonist to do something with the knowledge he’s acquired. He sits there, stewing in his own miserable existence, and we are meant to identify with how hard, how soul-killingly hard it is to be alive in the world.

Fuck that.

Look, it’s really fucking hard to be a person alive in the world. Anyone who’s made it past twenty-two, twenty-three knows that, and knows it well. But you know what makes it even harder? Pretending that you’re the only person alive who’s worth a goddamn cent. Yeah, I know this movie is based on that one time Charlie Kaufman read this Wikipedia article, and thought, “Hey, you know who would do a really great job turning my play into a movie? Notorious sad sack narcissist Dan Harmon. Ya bro, we should totally do it!”

Well you know what? Women don’t get to have the luxury of long-winded existential crises on film. We don’t get to make movies about our sad little lives and the revelation that all people are individual living, breathing entities. We don’t get to do that because we put our fucking pants on one leg at a time and get to work. And while you’re whining about the misery of life, we’re busy taking that shit, turning it into art that has something worthwhile to say, and then spending our whole lives trying to convince someone, anyone to take a look and see if they can’t maybe, just maybe, relate to what we’re saying.

So you guys have a lot of money and resources and you decided to make this. Great, just great. If this is your reality, that’s totally cool. Make a movie about it, say something about it, do something about it.

But please. Just please show us that you’ve learned something. Show us a little introspection, maybe even a little growth. Then we’ll go easy on you because, after all, we’re only human too.

 

 


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Subtext and Fragility

6 April 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

For the last two weeks, I’ve been trying to find time for a second viewing of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I blazed through the episodes when they were first released in March 2015, planning all along to re-watch the first season of the series for nuances and missed jokes. But I haven’t been able to make time for Unbreakable, and it’s not because my schedule is packed.

I did enjoy Unbreakable the first time I watched it, provided I didn’t think too hard about the premise. Often I love dark comedies that probe into the things that make us squirm, but when I think about the construction of narrative in Unbreakable, I’m starting to think the stakes are lower on the shows I usually watch.

I used to watch this amusing but not particularly insightful British comedy for awhile, Bad Education (Not to be confused with the awful American show with a similar title and ethos). In Bad Education, comedian Jack Whitehall plays a bad teacher — not “bad” out of any malicious intent, but more a badness borne out of inexperience and a sincere desire to connect with his students.

In this show, many of the classroom jokes depend on one of teacher Alfie’s more precocious female students, Chantelle, flirting with him in an aggressive, highly sexualized manner. Her comments and come-ons to Alfie are so exaggerated that their interactions become total farce.

These jokes work because they are taking a very common scenario and inverting the power dynamic. How many times per week or month will we read horrific news stories about predatory teachers (both male and female) engaging in sexual encounters with their students? It happens all the time, and each story is novel in its details, mundane in its overarching sameness.

The jokes between Alfie and Chantelle rarely provide incisive social commentary. They are, however, pretty funny. Generally in a teacher-student classroom relationship, the teacher wields more power than the student. That’s the reason, we hypothesize, that some teachers are able to take advantage of their students sexually and in other ways. In Alfie and Chantelle’s classroom relationship, Chantelle’s grasp of sexual power (accessible through her beauty, youth, and wit) becomes a means for her to disarm Alfie. He doesn’t become a helpless pool of male jelly in her presence, but he does spend a good deal of classroom time fending off her advances through a pointed look or one-liner. Thus his purported goal, to teach the students, becomes scrambled by Chantelle’s behavior.

I know that in dissecting the comedy of these scenes, I’ve made this whole show sound hopelessly unfunny. But this critical cruelty comes in service of another point: Unlike Bad Education  (which I did indeed enjoy), I suspect that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not content with being “pretty funny.”

Fey and Carlock want their comedy to do more — they want the incisive social commentary and the funny jokes. This is a Sisyphean task. There’s a reason Unbreakable was booted from network to Netflix. In network shows, much to the chagrin of many talented writers I know, social commentary occupies the thin margin of subtext beneath the broad jokes, goofy characters, or laugh track.

A few network shows I watch have slid in some social commentary on recent episodes, but it generally amounts to nothing. A Black-ish episode (last week’s?) featured a single woman in an advertising agency board room facing extremely clueless and intentionally sexist behavior from her male colleagues, but that went nowhere. Even when the woman’s advice to the protagonist proved to be correct by show’s end, we never met her character again.

I would even argue that a very funny, consistently entertaining cable show like Broad City has no internal subtext within the world of its characters. And this isn’t even remotely a criticism. Broad City is so successful and well-liked precisely because it has no subtext. The issues that are referenced opaquely and clandestinely on a show like New Girl are presented as worthy of ‘A-story’ status on Broad City: anal penetration (of a man, by a woman), the ways in which women get out of trouble with the police, unabashed love for something as trivial as home decor.

If a show like New Girl addressed that last topic (and I’m sorry for picking on you, New Girl! You’re just the example that’s come to mind today), it would probably be in the guise of Jess redecorating the loft somehow, and then the male roommates hassling her for her obsession with good taste and decorative objects. In Broad City, Abbi’s Bed Bath & Beyond obsession isn’t presented as a problem or something to be changed: it’s just the way things are. Other characters may note the strangeness of her love for BB&B, but it’s okay, because Abbi is a beautiful, phenomenal queen, the light of Ilana’s life, YAAAASS QUEEN YAAAASSS and then we move on. Literally everything of importance or note in Abbi and Ilana’s lives is presented openly and, quite literally, broadly.

But the problem with subtext comes when the disconnect between what is said openly and what is implied is too broad. If your show doesn’t have any subtext whatsoever, like Broad City, then this will never be a problem. However, when a show like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is entirely dependent on what is not said and what intelligent viewers should already know about the world of the characters, a stylized version of their own world, it becomes very easy for jokes to miss the mark.

At its core, what is Unbreakable about? This question is intentionally reductive. It’s meant to strip Unbreakable of its quirky characters, amusing storylines, catchy theme song, and hilarious viral song about the overlap between pinot noir and peeno noir.

Unbreakable is the story of what happens next: what happens after we have read the gruesome headlines about women (and yes, it’s almost always women) who have been trapped in basements and bunkers, women who have been forced to perform “weird sex stuff,” as Kimmy puts it. Unbreakable is about what happens after the media loses interest, the book deals are done, life goes on.

If we consider this confinement of women as the defining life experience that comprises the thematic core of Unbreakable, then the pilot is a fantastic piece of work. All of Kimmy’s new experiences are reflected through the horror of her past. The light-up sneakers, the automated water faucet, the thrill of exploring any space bigger than an underground prison cell. This content and this humor is great: everything comes together brilliantly in the first episode.

Issues arise in the subsequent episodes, when humor comes out of situations and idiosyncrasies of character, as it generally should in a television comedy. None of this is a problem. The problem, for me as a viewer, arises from episodes and scenarios that forget the enormity of Kimmy’s background.

Unbreakable is a dark comedy. There’s really no other comedic option given its source material and inspiration. Women have been held in dungeons and raped by their fathers and borne children in darkness. If you’re going to find a way to make this funny, it’s not a reboot of Three’s Company.

And I think in later episodes, Unbreakable has a tendency to lose sight of the real women whose absolutely miserable fates provide the emotional spine of the show. Wouldn’t Kimmy’s comedic encounters be more realistic and sincerely, gratefully funny if the specter of her imprisonment was always a part of some thin, dark subtext underlying the entire show?

Unbreakable fails when it becomes an average fish-out-of-water, country-mouse-in-the-big-city situational comedy. Unbreakable fails when it dehumanizes Kimmy and forgets where she’s been in its optimistic attempt to focus on where she’s going. Unbreakable fails when it disregards the people, in all capacities, that have been the impetus of its humor.

This morning I read this article (and all its attendant theories and remarks) on Gawker. It is a stark reminder that comedy cannot exist in a vacuum. Comedy comes from our stories, stories that are so horrific all you can do is laugh or real people who are so absurd you feel compelled to satirize them. And if the story is not yours — meaning, if you personally have not spent years of your life in an underground bunker or if you personally have not altered your face in an extraordinary way by testing new plastic surgery procedures on yourself, talk to the people who have. In my experience, people fucking love to talk about themselves. Even when the topics are difficult or dark.

Maybe Martin Short’s performance could have instead been a cameo from the actual Dr. Brandt. Perhaps he was a person who didn’t mind laughing at himself, provided he was the one inciting the laughter. But because mediocre comedy can be short-sighted and mean, now we’ll never know.

Come on, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. You’ve got it in you to be great. You know where you come from and you know where you’re going. Re-watch your own pilot a half-dozen times. Get the whole writers’ room to read a couple books on trauma. Reach out to people who have suffered and ask them about the parts of their experiences that were so absurd they became perversely hilarious. Leave the safety of your writers’ bunker, venture into the sunshine, and keep going from there, remembering the bright world of humor and comedy you came from as you probe into stories of darkness and horror. Stay tuned.


A Prison of Her Own Making: Orange is the New Black E01 S01

12 July 2013
Orange is the New Black S01 E01

Piper Chapman takes her first prison shower.

Orange is the New Black is a recent Netflix original dramedy series. I’m not sure how widely it’s being promoted around the country or internationally, but here in Los Angeles, we’ve been bombarded with billboards and bus advertisements for the past few weeks. I’m sure there are lots of good synopses already floating around the internet, and here’s a link to the Wikipedia page. I realize it’s the height of arrogance to refrain from providing a brief summary of the show and its origins, but there are already so many good writers out there who do that quite well, and I have other topics I want to discuss:

For much of the first episode, Piper Chapman is a blank slate. We don’t get a sense of her character before the unexpected detour to prison, rather we meet her in the throes of emotional preparation. I do not know Piper Chapman at rest. I know only a woman whose world has been rocked by a belated prison sentence.

Who is Piper Chapman before this news? This question is resolved through flashbacks, but these brief glimpses into Piper’s history are mostly expository scenes designed to inform her current experiences in prison. They don’t tell us why she was once in love with a woman, or how she met her male fiancé, or how her soap-making business with her best friend has progressed. All we see is a woman on the verge.

Piper’s distress rings false precisely because we have rarely seen her in moments where she is not distressed. We cannot gauge the extent of her emotional landscape when we have no neutral territory with which to compare it.

So instead we are given wide-ranging, excessive displays of female vulnerability. These instances are meant to overwhelm our sympathies in a vast show of universal feeling, perhaps to compensate for the fact that we have never met Piper Chapman in a moment of peace. The episode opens with the classic trope of ‘nude woman in the shower’, an image that might arouse my pathos for Piper if I actually knew anything about her character. As it stands, this scene comes way too early in the episode, and strikes me as a cheap attempt to conjure up feeling for a woman in a difficult situation.

Let me again state, with the emphasis afforded by obscenity, that I am really fucking sick of seeing female nudity constantly equated with vulnerability. A scene that follows the shower scene depicts Piper on the toilet, crying. This moment is book-ended by snatches of a love scene with her fiancé, but the camera lingers over Piper’s wrenching misery as she wipes herself with toilet paper. Brief flashes of Piper’s bare snatch complete this picture of desolation, a scene that would be altogether more affecting if we knew more about Piper than the fact that she is a pretty white woman of some means who is being cruelly shipped off to the big house.

If I had a better sense of Piper as a character, subsequent scenes of this nature would likely feel more dimensional and meaningful. There is something powerful in Piper’s recognition of her situation: she is so moved that she leaves her bed and fiancé, physically putting herself in a private, solitary place so that she can feel her emotions. But without the context of Piper’s life prior to the prison sentence, I just can’t see past the sad upper-middle-class white lady sitting on a toilet.

Maybe this is the point. Maybe Piper is meant to be a vaguely symbolic Everywoman. A vast cipher waiting to be filled from the repository of our collective memories. Piper is intellectually blank, but emotionally overwhelming exactly because we are supposed to imbue her with our own personalities. How you have lived and what you have seen informs your reaction to Piper’s emotional responses. We can’t easily see where emotions come from within Piper, but perhaps we can instead see where the same emotions come from within ourselves.

This is a generous understanding of the first episode of Orange is the New Black. I am trying to be more generous in my assessments of television these days because I recognize the sheer amount of labor that goes into creating a television show of this caliber–meaning, a television show that stands up to scrutiny and is worth talking about.

But mostly I don’t write in this blog anymore. For the time being, I have chosen to seek work in an industry akin to prison. An industry with its own hierarchical demands and arbitrary system of power. I worry that if I air my thought process as a viewer and critic too regularly, it will be difficult for me to find work as a writer. At times, this mentality can feel as dirty as a prison shower.

So I remind myself of something Satan said a very long time ago in Paradise Lost. I can only assume he was thinking of Hollywood.

…Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?

Sometimes you just have to listen to the devil. Stay tuned.


Let’s Give This Thing A Chance: New Girl S02 E21

5 April 2013

new girl S02 E21

This post is long overdue by quite a few months. It’s loosely about last night’s episode of New Girl, but more about the entire second season.

I didn’t like the first six or so episodes of New Girl. I thought the storylines were contrived and the characters felt flat. My biggest concern was the overwhelming quirkiness of Jess: each male roommate acted as a straight man to her goofy, adorkable (gag me) protagonist.

Last October, I was planning my schedule for the following semester, my last at USC. I decided to dangle my toes in the shark-infested waters of writing comedy for television and sign up for a comedy spec class. In anticipation of this class, I tried to acquaint myself with more of the current, non-Two and a Half Men-type comedies on the air (what can I say? 2.5 Assholes will always have a special place in my heart as my litmus test for true television mediocrity.). In this spirit of open-mindedness, and on the recommendation of several writer friends, I gave New Girl a second chance. I caught up with the remainder of the first season, and started paying attention to the second.

And you know what? I was really delighted to discover the ways in which this show has changed. As Season 1 progresses, all the male roommates develop their own idiosyncrasies, quickly becoming as quirky as Jess. Meanwhile, Jess’s particular brand of crazy is toned down significantly. The characters become fully-realized, and when they do engage in oddball pursuits, we can see how their behavior is motivated by who they are as people. I do think Winston continues to take on the role of straight man for most of the Season 1 episodes, but that’s been changing quite a bit in Season 2, and to great comedic effect.

So let’s talk about Season 2 and what New Girl is doing right. The humor on this show has become quite surreal. It’s not exactly 30 Rock, but New Girl has found a way to extract humor from bizarre scenarios, while maintaining genuine relationships between characters. On a recent episode, the roommates attend the funeral of Nick’s father. At the end, there is an emotionally-charged scene between Nick and Jess, but our route to that brief moment is circuitous: at one point, Jess replaces a local drunk as the Elvis impersonator at the funeral since naturally Nick’s dad was a huge fan of The King. This episode exemplifies how a comedy can depict authentic, meaningful connections between its characters. Nothing is more fulfilling than when the humorous parts of a sitcom episode culminate in an display of honest emotion. Sure, the characters say and do funny things, but only so that they, and we, can arrive at some deeper understanding of our relationships with other people, and sometimes with ourselves.

Speaking of relationships, how about Nick and Jess? Or as I’ve been informed in my spec class, the “Sam and Diane” of our time. (I have a funny Hollywood story about that–ask me in meatspace.) I can’t say that New Girl is my favorite sitcom while I’m writing a Parks & Recreation spec, but I LOVE how the writers are building romantic tension between Nick and Jess. So far, in a moment that has been widely GIF’ed by rabid teenage girls everywhere, Nick and Jess have shared a passionate kiss and makeout sesh. Then, in last night’s episode, Nick awkwardly groped Jess’s chest, claiming to be an “upper boob” man. In reality, he was pretty far from her tits, but viewers got the message. (Holy shit, confidential to the writers: way to get it past Standards. Seriously. Good job, guys.).

So why am I into dimly-lit hallway kisses and fumbling upper boob grasps? There’s something about Nick and Jess’s relationship that feels very much in line with my generation’s approach to relationships (and, in all fairness, probably every generation ever, but since we’re young and hot, we’re the ones you see on TV. I give us another ten years.). I hesitate to call it the couple of a generation since I think Hannah and Adam have that weird shit covered, but Nick and Jess feels right. Not in a destined-to-be-together sense, but in a wider zeitgeist-y sense.

We know Nick and Jess are gonna end up together. There are absolutely no surprises coming there. But the way in which we’re watching them deal with this early stage of their relationship feels very true to the young adult experience. The way they talk around their desires and try to avoid getting overly invested in each other is often hilariously real. Then when we do have moments of emotional pay-off, usually at the end of the episode, we can see how these flickers of honesty have emerged out of the awkwardness and natural humor of navigating a new romantic relationship. The longer New Girl holds off on the boyfriend-girlfriend labels that will surely arise in Season 3, the closer it captures the tenderness and confusion of an evolving relationship that has not yet been categorized.

I also have lots to say about New Girl‘s explicit use of Los Angeles as the world of its story, especially in relation to Modern Family‘s bland suburban denial of its clear Los Angeles location, but that’s another post. Stay tuned!


I Want You to Watch: Girls S02 E05

13 February 2013

S02 E05

Let’s talk about looking. Or to use an obnoxious critical theory term that is beloved in film studies classes, let’s talk about scopophilia. If you’re too lazy to decode the Wikipedia article, scopophilia is essentially pleasure, sometimes sexual, derived from looking. Here’s a good explanation from Laura Mulvey, author of that Screen article back in the 1970s that you had to read about six times before they’d let you graduate:

The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at.

Most of the film theory I’ve read on scopophilia involves Mulvey’s first distinction: looking as a source of pleasure. Mulvey and many other theorists have described the act of watching a film in a darkened theater as an act of voyeurism, of looking laced with desire. To be clear, there are other components to this relationship aside from the film-specific darkened theater.  Again, LM puts it best (and then I promise to stop quoting and get to the point):

But the mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy [sic–She’s British]…Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.

NB: I am using Mulvey’s “film” interchangeably with television because in terms of structure, Girls has exhibited a clear resemblance to film far more often than traditional episodic television.

In this section of the article, Mulvey is referring more to the inherent nature of the medium rather than its content. Here she contends that film itself is the source of our visual pleasure. LM later writes about the content of most classical Hollywood films at the time, and of course, the infamous male gaze, but this quotation is more immediately relevant to our current discussion.

Let’s talk briefly about the “conditions of screening” for television, lest you think I’m making a spurious argument. Entire books have been written on this subject, but for the purposes of brevity, I’ll hit the main point that people love to discuss:

Television is an intimate medium, perhaps more so than film. We invite television into our homes: into our living rooms, our dens, and our man caves, and most significantly, into our TV rooms. Does anyone, aside from the super-rich, have a film room? A movie room? This is a pretty ridiculous suggestion to most of us middle class schlubs. Even when people do have such a room, it’s a screening room or a medicenter or some other bogus term invented by people with too much money and a home architect on payroll.

Television lives with you. Unlike the movies, you don’t have to make any special effort to sit on the couch and see what’s on. Television is family. And just like family, sometimes you love it, and sometimes you hate it.

To use a favorite TV expression, let’s recap: if we buy into the whole idea of scopophilic pleasure, then we know what we, the viewers, get out of seeing Lena Dunham’s nude body on TV. We derive pleasure from looking; in this case, we delight specifically in seeing LD’s unclothed body.

I brought Mulvey into all this because what I’m really interested in is the second point she makes about scopophilia:

…in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at.

Which leads us to my roundabout way of saying this: Lena Dunham, I do not want to be part of your sex life.

The most recent episode of Girls was meandering, contained, and did very little to advance character development in anyone but Hannah. To Dunham’s credit, we did see some miniscule character development in Hannah at the very end of the episode, but by that point, I was so exhausted with trying to figure out who I should care about that I couldn’t get too excited about Hannah’s overwrought speech.

The majority of the episode involved Hannah engaging in sexualized behavior and actual sexual activities that said nothing. I don’t care about sex on TV. Don’t care who has it. Don’t care what they look like. Don’t care how much and how often. Don’t care if it’s meaningless…IN CONTEXT.

I could not give less of a fuck if Hannah Horvath has rampant, personally inconsequential sex with half of Brooklyn. It doesn’t have to mean a damn thing to her, but it has to say something to us. Viewers need to be invested in her journey; we need to care about what she does and why she does it. Sex on a ping pong table might be fun for Hannah, but what does it tell us about her?

A few of the sex scenes (and scenes of sexual tension) in this episode did tell us a great deal about Hannah, but I’d argue that they lose their efficacy when they’re displayed alongside other sex scenes that don’t reveal anything or cause us to question our perception of her character or any other character.

So if I don’t care about Hannah having sex, then who am I supposed to care about? For whom do I continue watching the episode?

We invest in character. When character development is absent, then we invest in persona. And the biggest persona on Girls is the onscreen second self of Lena Dunham. So if I’m not watching the development of Hannah Horvath through her sexual experiences, then I am watching Dunham’s. And that makes me uncomfortable.

It’s not about the sex; it’s about asking your viewers to take part in your sex life. The number of sex scenes in Girls which do little to increase our understanding of a character are vast, but they are mostly unobtrusive when stuck between scenes of character development. This episode stuck out because it’s entirely premised on sex, but by the end of it, Hannah has only grazed the tip, and just the tip, of self-awareness (apologies, couldn’t resist one bad joke).

Since I see very little change in Hannah throughout the episode, my mind wanders to change found in other sources. I think about the Lena Dunham persona (brand, if we’re being ungenerous) and all the discourse that surrounds it: the body talk, the oversharing, the tendency to both judge and be judged. Hannah is a passive character that never grows, but the LD persona is constantly in flux (I say “persona” because I am hesitant to ascribe these qualities to the actual woman who lives within this mediated image).

I think about the LD persona during these sex scenes that say so very little about Hannah, but that say a great deal about Dunham. And I am uncomfortable because I feel as if I am being asked to take part in Dunham’s sex life. The LD persona has already established that Dunham enjoys talking about her sex life and its various misadventures. We might say that for Dunham, there is pleasure in being looked at.

But we continue to look, and maybe the woman who inhabits the Lena Dunham persona goes home at night and thinks about us while she’s fucking her boyfriend. Maybe she finds it pleasurable to think about all those people thinking about her, and in a way, she’s engaged in the best character development on television: she’s turned herself into a character in the story of her own life. But the problem with character is that it often leads to caricature. Stay tuned.


Girls Will Be Girls: My Fraught Relationship with Girls S01 E07

28 May 2012

R-L: Marnie, Hannah, and Hannah’s “fucking boyfriend,” Adam

This is a tricky show to write about. I feel like I’m going to incur heated disagreement no matter what I say. To be honest, I’m not even sure what I want to say.

I feel like I have to write about Girls. It’s clearly a show intended for my demographic, its creator, Lena Dunham, is only a few years older than me, and it depicts many experiences I’ve had or friends of mine have had. So why hesitate to write about Girls?

As I watch Girls, the Cultural Studies part of my brain tends toward Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection and otherness. Kristeva uses the idea of a corpse to explain abjection. To perhaps over-simplify Kristeva’s example, the corpse is dead, but also human. Aside from all that disruption to the symbolic order stuff, etc., the important thing is this: in the corpse, we recognize ourselves (the human form), but also something abhorrent, something that is far removed from ourselves (death). The corpse causes us to reconcile our living selves with the notion that we, too, will one day be just like the corpse.  It’s other, but not other. It’s me, but not me.

This is how I feel about Girls to some extent, and it is why I have such difficulty forming thoughts about the show and then recording them. As I’ve said, the intellectual side of me explains my aversion to the show in critical terms. But the emotional responses I’ve had to Girls are difficult to examine.

I can rationalize my emotional experiences of the show through theory, i.e. I can’t watch Girls because the characters are too similar to me, and that makes me uncomfortable. But that doesn’t change the fact of the experience. Understanding why I feel the way I do doesn’t alter or remove those feelings. It simply gives me a certain amount of distance from which to analyze a thing.

And in this case, distance is the last thing one needs when writing about Girls. When I remove myself from the characters and the world that the show has created, I am making an implicit statement: This is not me. Though I recognize myself in certain actions, words, and thoughts of its characters, Girls is not me. Girls is other, outside of me.

And for most of the television shows about which I write, this approach is just fine. I am considering these shows intellectually and critically. Though my experiences naturally define how I perceive other shows, they do not limit what I have to say about them.

Limit may not be the right word. I am struggling to get at what I mean to say about Girls. I find it difficult to watch a show that simultaneously provokes such a varied response in me: I loathe its characters for their self-absorption, their mistakes, and their failed attempts at human interaction, but I can’t. Because often what I really loathe is my self-absorption, my mistakes, and my failed attempts at human interaction. And there it is, writ large on the television screen, for the world to see.

In this sense, I consider Girls a success. Not my success though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Girls speaks for me, or any other young women of my generation. No, what Girls does is write for me. It’s a collection of experiences that many of us have had, perhaps Dunham’s way of saying, we are here. These are the things that have happened to us. Let me tell you about them.

At the moment, Dunham is one of the few young female writers to do this on television. And as more young women join her, our canon will grow. As we continue to write for ourselves and each other, we are adding records of experiences that the world needs to know about. We are asserting the validity of our lives: what we have done, what we want, and what we will yet do.

Stay tuned.


Women in Furs, or, A Really Stupid Decision I’ll Never Make Again

17 May 2012

Why wait for a season finale before writing your spec?

This past semester, I took my first class on writing for television (why yes, this is a teachable skill!). I chose to take the hour-long drama spec course, as opposed to the half-hour comedy spec course. This class is intended to teach students how to write spec scripts (“spec” meaning “on speculation”) for existing television shows. The expectation is that these scripts will never serve as actual episodes, but they will demonstrate the abilities of a writer to capture the tone, characters, theme, and stories of a particular show.

At the beginning of class, we selected four current shows on which we’d like to write: Justified, The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, and Mad Men. I chose to write my spec script for Mad Men, which was the titular REALLY STUPID DECISION.

Let’s bypass the following true, but somewhat tedious, remarks so that I can get to the REALLY STUPID DECISION: the course was challenging, I learned a great deal, and I did indeed come away with a solid understanding of writing for a television drama. I had a wonderful experience in the class and I know my writing improved over the course of the semester.

The REALLY STUPID DECISION was choosing to write for a show that is currently on the air. I love Mad Men and I was looking forward to writing snappy dialogue for its characters. That part was great. But watching each new episode devastate my spec script was a singularly unpleasant experience.

(Not-so) Little Sally Draper waking up at the new apartment in the first episode? Damn! How’d Matt Weiner get a copy of the first ten pages of my spec? A shot at luxury car company Jaguar a few episodes later? Well, shit! Sally walking in on Uncle Roger having a very French moment with Megan’s mother? Now I know this can’t end well…for my spec.

There are good things and bad things about writing a spec for a show that’s airing new episodes. But when you’re the writer, and you’re trying to write a feature script at the same time, it’s mostly all bad. I’d write plot points and emotional beats into my spec, and the following week, they’d appear on the show itself. This was good, in the sense that I knew the show well enough to anticipate where it was going, but bad–really, really bad–when I’d have to re-write pages 2-20 of a 25 page outline.

All this writing and re-writing gave me a good sense of what it’s like to work in television. I guess the crucial difference would be that those supposedly villainous network execs wouldn’t give me as good notes as my professor. But the process is clear, and I know how to work creatively within it.

In the end, I wrote a pretty good spec for Mad Men (entitled “Women in Furs”), even if some of the stories are a bit too similar to what’s been happening in season 5.  I learned my lesson the hard way (i.e. the same way I learn most life lessons): don’t write a spec for a show that’s on the air. In fact, better to time-travel and write a Mad Men spec during the EIGHTEEN MONTHS when the show was on hiatus. Regrets, I’ve had a few. Stay tuned!