The creators of HBO's Big Love have just announced that the fifth season, which begins airing in January, will be the series' last. It's hard to greet this news with anything but relief; the last, abbreviated season of the show was something of a mess, with a subplots, I kid you not, about Mexican grindhouses and genetic engineering that exceeded any reasonable person's suspension of disbelief. But until that point the show was probably the all-time best case study I can think of for the phenomenon I've been trying to document in this space: the strange fact that the premise of any television show is almost irrelevant as the basis of any critique, because the key to doing a good job of depicting women is about execution, not playing to type.
Big Love after all, has pretty much the mother (ha!) of all potentially anti-feminist dramatic premises. The Henricksons' is not a world where patriarchy is implicit, or simply the product of social arrangements that have been handed down through the ages. It is one in which a very literal form of patriarchy has actually been chosen by the characters, even though other alternatives were available. The head of the family, Bill (Bill Paxton) has come actually kind of late to his firm belief in the righteousness of the Principle of plural marriage, after having been expelled from a polygamous compound as a young man. His wives, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) are not constrained by law or social custom to agree with Bill on that point. Throughout the show, it's made clear that all three remain in the marriage willingly, although their own personal relationships to the Principle range from ambivalent (Barb) to largely emotional (Margene) to almost entirely inherited (Nicki).
Along with the rest of the ladycentric internet this week (including Bitch), I've been following the kerfuffle over Maura Kelly's post at Marie Claire about how disgusted she is by fat people. The post, ostensibly, is about the television show Mike & Molly, which is a romantic sitcom about a couple that meets in an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. The creator of the show has already fired back, noting that Molly will perhaps cancel her subscription to the magazine in an upcoming episode, and making the point we've all been thinking: the show "is just about human beings."
As to the merits Mike & Molly particularly, I have only this to say: I watched a couple of episodes at the beginning of the season, thinking I might cover it for the blog, but ultimately the show itself is very bad, and very bad shows don't tend to provide me with much meat for critique. So I let it go.
Last night, observing that Joy Behar had said Sharron Angle was going to hell, Stephen Colbert joked, "I hadn't realized [Angle] would be on The View." Readers, I laughed. Indeed, I'm kind of surprised that I've gone this long writing about television from a feminist perspective without directly addressing the national embarrassment that is The View.
In many ways, on paper, The View appears to be the platonic ideal of feminism in media: it turns the microphone over to women exclusively, just like we've always wanted, right? Women talking to women about issues of importance to women: what could be more feminist than that? That claim to fame is bolstered by The View's excellent ratings for its time slot, and its cred even led it to land a coveted interview with President Obama this summer. (Question one: "Have you ever watched us?") And it's now, officially, spawned an imitator at CBS called The Talk.
I wonder if there truly is any fate more depressing than ending up as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. I've only watched the show intermittently over the years—usually under duress, because someone else had laid claim to the remote control—mostly because I get embarrassed for the participants. I hide my eyes when they misstep, and when their smiles falter while the judges offer them harsh criticism, or when I can see the feigned indifference of their shrugs when the scores come up. I'm not claiming to be nicer than anyone who enjoys this show, mind you, but there's a quality to watching it that bothers me, namely the gleeful schadenfreude of watching people cling to fame with expensively manicured hands. After all, I'm not much convinced anyone watches the show for the dancing; it is built on the conceit that the talent can be taught, and well, maybe it can, but I think it isn't likely, for most of us, as late in life as these people are. And in any event, were these "stars" more successful at it, the learning to dance I mean, I suspect the show would be less popular.
The "stars," after all, of the title, are has-beens, and that's no surprise to anyone, it's explicitly part of the show's allure. The show basically winks it at you. And although there's usually, from what I can tell, gender parity among the contestants, it's curious that the people on the show who seem to garner the most derisive commentary, the ones people resent the most as "talentless," are women.
This week on Grey's Anatomy, the training wheels are off and our residents get to put on their attending scrubs, Dr. Yang is asked to step up or step off, and the Grey's docs compete for a million dollar grant, bringing their A-game (and a few things beside) to the Chief. The theme this week is 'growing up' and the Grand Rounds bloggers talk about maturity, recovery from trauma, and a whole lot more...after the fold!
Dexter is a bit of a so far mess this season, isn't it? I'd watch Michael C. Hall do just about anything—I can never quite get over how different Dexter Morgan is from David Fisher. But one of the problems this show has always had is that each season it sets the bar for intense plotlines a little higher, and as with the fabulousness of last season's twist ending, the writers have usually proved themselves capable of exceeding expectations.
Mad Men's fourth season, which finished this past Sunday night, had a dualistic quality, it seemed to me. On the one hand, the season had some of the strongest episodes of the entire series—particularly "The Suitcase," which I wrote about in this space before. On the other, it had easily the worst, most blunt, least moving finale of all four seasons. It also signaled a sort of repetition in storytelling that I think may show that the writers are running out of juice. I'm not sure how many times, for example, I can worry about Sterling Cooper in crisis, or tolerate Don unloading all his familial responsibilities on another wife he'll undoubtedly tire of.
The one consistency, it seemed to me, was that the show had a lot more trouble than usual writing its women this season. Much of the best writing centered around Peggy, which I've covered in past posts here, and who barely appeared in last night's finale, so let's talk about the other female characters.
This week on Grey's Anatomy, we went from fire poles to therapeutic worms, and everywhere in between. Will the doctors of Seattle Grace successfully reassemble their lives after the shooting? Is Cristina seeing the light at the end of the tunnel? Is Lexie feeling the bite of a green-eyed monster? And is Dr. Avery a sleazebag or what?! Is Frances Conroy cool or what?!
All this and more after the jump with the Grand Rounds bloggers!
I'm probably alone on this one, but my secret obsession at the moment is NBC's completely milquetoast Parenthood, and I wish I could better explain why. The show is, of course, well-cast—I'd watch either Peter Krause or Lauren Graham pick their noses for an hour if it came to it—and has that patina of shiny Bay-Area bourgeois healthfulness, complete with artfully cluttered ranch houses and comfortable-looking, natural-fiber clothing and that "no-makeup" look. But dramatically there's very little about it I can recommend to you on a principled basis. It has basically no aspiration to any kind of social commentary whatsoever. (The show does make some gestures towards addressing disability—there is a child with Asperger's depicted on the show—but it is largely framed as how the parents coming to terms with the "tragedy" of having such a child.) But every Wednesday morning, it's the first thing I watch on my DVR lineup. It's soothing, somehow, like warm milk, bland and inoffensive, without challenge. In my overly cerebral, often quite stressful life, it doesn't demand much of me, and it's without the sort of shameful prurience one attaches to, say, certain guilty-pleasure reality shows.
I've been following the discussion about the representativeness of The Social Network, about whether it accurately depicts women and "toxic masculinity" in technology particularly—a conversation which, as I said last week, I've been sort of surprised we're even having. Such a jaded feminist have I become, I guess, since I'm now actively surprised when people actually care about how women are depicted in this culture, but I digress. Personally, I thought the movie was sufficiently infused with internal comment on the misogyny of its characters that I wasn't as upset as I might have been by it's flat depiction of femininity.
I'm hardly the first to observe this sort of thing, of course, but I am, lately, obsessed with this question of how you reconcile your politics to your art. Rather than wade into the discussion on The Social Network particularly, though, since I'm only supposed to be blogging about television here, let's just situate some of these issues in that context.