As always, it's been a pleasure blogging here at Bitch, but my time entertaining you with excessively wordy opinions on feminism and television has come to an end. There are some ways in which the end of this gig will mean an increase in my quality of life. Being a TV nerd, even being paid to be a TV nerd, has its personal costs: the cable bill, abnormally high wear-and-tear on the couch and one's sweatpants, the wiggling out of social encounters because you "really have to keep up with" Teen Mom. The endless watching of all the crappy new shows in hopes one of them will provide fodder for a blog post.
(For example: I'm never getting back the time I spent on Running Wilde or Outlaw, or pondering how to spin the Demi Lovato rehab story into a commentary on television. Those posts will just have to remain unwritten.)
My life has been unusually stressful lately, for a variety of reasons, and my personal strategy to get through such times has always been to devour certain television shows as though they were comfort food. The advent of the show-on-DVD has been a great comfort to me in that respect, because when I'm down and needing to spend some quality time with my cat and my couch, I can get lost in these stories for days. I am one of those people who is sad that movies are only two hours long: I like my narratives long and intricate, nineteenth-century style, which that explains why I'm such a nerd for any show best viewed as a DVD box set. (And, umm, the completely sad amount of money I've spent on acquiring them.)
All of that by way of saying I've been watching a lot of Six Feet Under, lately. Sometimes television snobs laugh at me when I tell them that Six Feet Under is by far my favorite of the high-end cable shows of the last few years. Though the show was always critically acclaimed in its own way, of course, it somehow never got the kind of artistic street cred that either The Wire or The Sopranos did. I have my theories about this, many of which are related to ideas I also have about people's evaluations of worth in literature.
(In case any of you are too young to know the reference [OH GOD AM I THIS OLD], Ally McBeal was a mid-nineties David E. Kelley show, starring Calista Flockhart as the eponymous young lawyer. Like all David E. Kelley shows I am aware of, it started out playing its narrative straight, an excellent if ordinary show about a young lawyer and an imaginary dancing baby. But within about three seasons it degenerated into Kelley’s particular brand of "quirk," which made it frequently incomprehensible. I’m sure it’s Netflixable.)
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).
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.
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.
It's been an abnormally bad year for new shows—there are few I'm sticking with past one episode. But so far, I'm still watching No Ordinary Family, a little one-hour drama from ABC that will air its third episode tonight. The premise is fairly simple: distracted, over-committed modern nuclear family goes on family vacation. They get into a plane crash in the jungle, mingle with jet fuel, and voilà: superpowers. In other words, it's a sort of live-action version of The Incredibles. The show is pretty well cast—you'll recognize faces from Dexter, The Shield, and Weeds. (And, umm, Seventh Heaven, but I guess someone's trying to break away from typecasting so let's not rib him too much for that.) The dialogue is pedestrian, but not painfully so. In other words, it's not yet some kind of heir to Heroes or Lost—the pilot simply isn't as strong as either of those shows' was—but the rest could be.
ABC Family has cancelled one of my favorite shows of the last year—Huge. (On the chance you missed it, I highly recommend watching it online on ABC Family’s website. Hopefully they’ll leave it up awhile.)
It’s sad, though not surprising. Huge had the kind of pedigree that often spells network doom. It was created by Winnie Holzman, whose other most famous achievement is the also-one-season critical darling My So-Called Life. It was also a summer series—rarely ratings bonanzas—and it only aired on a niche network. Still, that considered, it averaged about 1.9 million viewers over its run, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that the third season of Mad Men, for all its critical adulation, only averaged about 1.8 million viewers during its third season. It’s true that the math is different on a network than at a cable channel, in terms of an acceptable amount of viewers, but still.
I spend a lot of time blogging complaints. Not enough women, too many but too insubstantial, why do they only talk to each other about men, etc., etc. This is a complaint commonly made about bloggers, and, hell, feminists, that they are too critical and don’t ever seem to see any good in anything.
But today I’ve something positive for you. The other night I was watching the Colbert Report and a small, good thing happened. Colbert was interviewing Aaron Sorkin, who, if you’ve been living in media blackout for the last six weeks, has out a new movie about Facebook called The Social Network. The movie being essentially about a tech startup, not a form of human organization known for its devotion to vagina-ocracy, there aren’t exactly strong female roles in it. This is not something I expect to be a common observation about the film, because at least as regards the gender of the main movers and shakers, the film is merely reporting the facts: they were men. So imagine my surprise when the one major issue Colbert stated about the movie was that its portrayal of women seemed flat. "The other ladies in the movie don’t have as much to say because they’re high or drunk or [beep]ing guys in the bathroom. Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?" And then when Sorkin admits this is a fair question and terms the women "prizes," Colbert asks, "Are women at Harvard like that? I’m trying to figure out if I missed out on the college experience."