Last night's episode of True Blood contained the usual outrageous plot twists and soap opera-levels of drama, which is great and which is why I (and probably you if you're reading this) look forward to summer Sunday nights. However, it also contained a totally fucked-up gang rape scene which the show's creators (and many media outlets) are calling anything but.
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).
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.
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.