Boardwalk Empire, the new HBO series from a Sopranos alum that is probably best known to you for trumpeting its association with Martin Scorcese all around town, premiered Sunday night. I expect that the jury is going to be out in this show for some time. That's at least true for me. I've learned, through hard experience, not to judge these high-end cable shows based on their first hour. These things are slow burns, not forest fires; I actually can't think of too many of them that managed to get all their cards on the table in the premiere. When you have eleven or twelve hours to go, you usually lose much of the first episode to setup.
The show is set in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey, and centers around the life of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (Steve Buscemi), a casino-owner gangster type. (The character is allegedly based on a real-life figure.) Prohibition is newly begun, and Nucky's already playing politics with the local women's temperance union, where he meets Margaret (Kelly Macdonald), a pregnant Irishwoman trapped in a bad marriage from which it seems inevitable that Nucky will liberate her. Meanwhile, his second-in-command, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), changed by the front lines of the Great War, is growing impatient with his income level and social status, and is eager to get scamming and killing, much to the comparatively laid-back Nucky's dismay. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is beginning to watch the gangster activity in AC more closely, with Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) at the helm.
As even that preliminary list of actors should indicate, no expense has been spared as to casting the show, which is chock full of faces you'll recognize from other series, including Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire's quixotic Omar) and even Molly Parker (Deadwood's Alma Garret) in a framed photograph of Nucky's "dead" wife. The look of the show, though beautiful, is a little clean for the subject matter, all bright eyes and scrubbed faces and red lipstick, without a trace of grime or dirt. Even the eruptions of flesh and blood from the show's many gangster shootouts are clinical and clean in a way. That's probably just the Scorcese influence. And perhaps I've become too used to the sepia, nouveau-grime aesthetic of most of HBO's other period pieces like Carnivale and Deadwood.
I... don't really understand the fuss about True Blood.
I understand that the show employs very attractive people, and that those people have very attractive sex quite often. I also understand that it involves stories about vampires and werewolves, which increasingly seems to be the only growth industry left in the American economy. I also understand that we are going through a time in the culture where escapism is an increasingly attractive alternative to everyday life. I further have not read the books that form the basis for the show; I admit they may be better than the televised version.
But this is a show which features dialogue that is George-Lucas levels of terrible, horrible, no-good and very bad, delivered by actors whose amusement with the campy material they are being offered appears to have been exhausted by the time they've appeared in more than three episodes.
Anyone who caught last week's episode of Jersey Shore likely noticed a rather interesting conversation between Jenni "JWoww" Farley and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi on the topic of race. At one point in the show, the two women discuss the possibility of going to a nude beach, then move on to the topic of wacky things they have their respective bucket lists, like Snooki's desire to try bungee jumping. JWoww, philosopher and gentlelady, calls this a "white person thing," which prompts a seemingly annoyed Snooki to respond, "I'm not white... I'm tan."
For all the media flutter about Joan and Roger and Pete and Sal, I'm one of those people who feels she would be perfectly happy to watch a "Mad Men" composed exclusively of scenes between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss). Hamm and Moss have, for one thing, an acting alchemy that's fairly unique on television right now, the kind of skillful play off each other than leads even underwritten scenes to be fraught with meaning. They are experts at filling in the blanks, for each other and for the script, so to speak. Which explains why it's taken me an entire week to work up the will to write about last Sunday's episode, "The Suitcase," basically a two-hander written specially for Hamm and Moss. It's just taken that long to come down from the high. I had resolved not to flood this space with Mad Men analysis, but it's just my luck that the week I start blogging here Mad Men runs what I suspect will be remembered as one of its greatest episodes.
The party line of the chattering classes on Mad Men this season seems to be that it's been slow-going, with little plot development and a lot of Don facedown: in his drink, in the boardroom, in his secretary. For my part, I find the focus on Don's failings refreshing. Last season, as his marriage disintegrated and he felt stifled by the oversight of the distant British firm that had bought Sterling Cooper, I detected in the writing a certain amount of sympathy for him that I couldn't quite countenance.
MTV's been having a good summer. In part, that's because the second season of its reality series Teen Mom has been generating huge ratings for the network—it is this summer's third-most-watched original cable series in the coveted 12-34 demographic. The show, which documents the lives of four young women after they gave birth to children as teenagers, along with its sister show and predecessor 16 and Pregnant, has already generated a fair amount of cultural chatter on the question of whether the show is a valuable educational tool or just, as most seem to have concluded, regular old exploitation of the young women in question. There's something to this argument, of course. MTV's ratings success makes for a strange contrast with the fact that Teen Mom's stars have been occupying the front pages of celebrity weeklies like US complaining that they are dead broke, doesn't it?
I'm of two minds about the argument. On the one hand I certainly don't have much faith in MTV's dedication to social messaging, at least not enough to believe it extends much further than what advertisers are comfortable with. I'm not the first, for example, to point out that abortion, as an option, is not something that's seriously discussed in the context of the show. You can spin that fact as having something to do with showrunners needing to have a more extended narrative arc than, "Now I'm pregnant, now I'm not." But Teen Mom does follow one young couple, Catelynn and Tyler, after they've given their child up for adoption, so sponsor queasiness seems a more likely explanation.
I'm not one to guilt anyone for caring for lowbrow culture, not least because for so many years my bookish university friends made fun of me for watching television at all. (I've felt no small degree of satisfaction that The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men have had them eating their words more recently.) But every time I've tuned into any version of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise this year, I've had to fend off a sinking feeling that I've hit the rock bottom of my guilty pleasures.
I spend as much of my time as possible watching television, and as with most of the media I critique and consume, I watch it primarily because I like it. From science fiction to sitcom to soap opera, TV shows are a worthwhile occupation on their own. Television, in its many problematic variations, is awesome.
While I like a broad variety of shows, I dislike just as many. I don't like watching shows I don't like, so I don't watch them. And I don't write about shows I don't watch—with few exceptions (Bones, Police Women of Memphis), I don't formally review media I haven't watched or read at least twice. When I'm interested in watching or writing about a particular series or season, I don't just look for how it's "good" or "not good" in a feminist sense—I have to have some kind of positive emotional, literary, humorous, or aesthetic reaction to it. There are too many socially irresponsible shows in television, so I focus on the ones I like.
A love letter to television and Bitch after the cut.
Image: An illustration of a smiling television against a pink background, with hearts above it. From Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr
I grew up in a limited-television home, and didn't have a television to myself in college until senior year, when I was too busy to watch the free cable. Now that I'm paying my own bills, food and kitty litter have won out over those extra 40 channels, 35 of which I have little interest in. I've managed to acquire three different television sets for free, but for the first year or so they sat unwatched except on Thursday nights, when we would hooks up the antenna for The Office and its attendant Thursday night workplace comedies.
But even though I wasn't making my use of our television - televisions - I still had to watch my programs. But how could I? Where would I go? What method should I use? After ten years online, I knew that the Internet to be a many-splendored resource for media, but my tracking skills had gotten a little rusty.
If you're on a site about feminist response to pop culture (spoiler alert: you are), you have probably heard of the Bechdel Test for movies. Conceived in Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For, the test is simple: to pass, the movie in question must feature a conversation between two named female characters that is not about a man. It's a good indication of whether or not a film is at all concerned with women, or if its focus is entirely on men. It's deceptively simple; upon hearing this for the first time, I thought "well, surely almost every film must pass!" But no.
While I am not the movie writer in residence here (check out Snarky's archive for that!) I've found that it's easily applicable to other forms of media, including television! It's not a standard I apply to every single episode of every single television show I watch, but more of something that occurs to me while I'm watching. "Oh," I'll think while watching Tami and Tyra talk about college on Friday Night Lights. "This episode clearly passes the Bechdel test! Awesome!" The Bechdel test is not a way to tell whether or not a show is feminist—that depends on the viewer's interpretation of the show and their definition of feminism—but it's a good way to gauge the development and value of female characters on the show.
Mad Men is back on Sunday for its fourth season! I am a big fan (I've written about the show often at Deeply Problematic) but unfortunately I cannot write critically about a season that has not yet aired. Nonetheless, I do have a few specific subjects I want to see addressed in season four. The first two are issues that the show is already addressing quite well, and which I would like to see explored further. And the second two are matters the show has not yet addressed (to my satisfaction, at least).