Where my ladies at?

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It’s pilot week in TV land. The Antenna Blog is running a short series on the new network shows, so I decided to jot down a few initial impressions of some new shows.

I decided to watch Lone Star since the TVitterati and critics appear to be in general agreement about it’s lack of suckitude. Another entry into the “likeable sociopaths” genre that’s emerged in recent years, I was not initially interested in the series for some similar reasons Kelli Marshall explained in her blog. The television trailers and print/online ads indicated to me that I was probably not in its target audience despite my affinity for serial television. Having watched the pilot, I’m less perturbed by the generic use of female bodies as accessories (which is always troubling to me) but that we learn more about Bob’s fake wife’s brothers than we do about her. The two women are there purely to flesh out Bob’s character and provide plot motivation – he’s in love, you see. I’ve grown weary of seeing this convention over and over.

The other pilot I screened was Boardwalk Empire. Visually, it was very striking, with deeply saturated rich hues, mahogany interiors and red velvet lips and blood, working in contrast to the muted blue gray of the winter sky and ocean. But it’s another series about dudes doing dudely things. Like with Bob on Lone Star, I wasn’t drawn in by Nucky’s story. Jimmy’s story looks interesting, and I like how his “you can’t be half-gangster” declaration neatly encapsulated the narrative. Todd VanDerWerff is generous in his review to describe Margaret’s arc as central, and I hope it pans out that she takes on a more integral role outside of Nucky’s interest in her, but my fear is that her primary purpose will be love-interest with little interior life of her own. If the other women who appeared in the pilot are any indication, the role of women on the series might be limited to naked girlfriend, naked and dead, or wife. One might think, that in a series with such a large and sprawling set of characters there might be an opportunity to have more female roles. It’s possible to find more intertesting female characters on television than on film these days, and it’s part of television’s appeal for me, but there still aren’t that many to be found.

Both shows do however appear to have possible intersections with my interest in American identity and themes of exceptionalism, so I’ll probably watch them if only for research purposes.

True Blood finale thoughts

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I know I’m a little late to the party. Word on the interwebs is that the season 3 finale of True Blood sucked (best to get the obligatory vampire pun out of the way early).

The entire season has been underwhelming, so it makes sense that the ending would tend toward “meh.” The narrative  was too slow and sprawling, following all the characters in their own, mostly uninteresting directions. On one level, the finale disappointed because it offered no sense of plot convergence. Nothing came together, and in the end everyone was running away. Sookie’s off to fairyland. Jason’s in Hotshot. Sam’s visiting sociopath town. Tara’s gone who knows were. And Lala is halfway in the spirit realm. Hoyt and Jessica want to live happily ever after, but I suspect gun toting Mama and doll obsessed short girl will have something violent to say about that. None of these points are particularly interesting. I’m not interested in seeing Bill and Sophie Ann fight, Matrix style, at the beginning of next season. Side note: the Queen looked amazing in that outfit.

I think I enjoyed this episode more than others because it appears to maybe (hopefully) spell the end of the Sookie <3’s Bill forevah storyline. I’ve read the books, and I’m on Team Eric. Bill Compton is quite possibly the most boring vampire ever. That Sookie continued to stick with him, and was just about to, once again, return to him when Eric dropped the “you know the queen sent him to get you” bomb, has frustrated me all season long. Bill continually treated her like crap and wanted to control her every movement. His desire to kill everyone who knew or would ever know her secret was not endearing or romantic or thoughtful or chivalrous, it was fraking psycho-stalkerish.

Which brings me to the problem I’ve been having with the series in general. Sookie should be the central character. It should be through her perspective that we see and experience her supernaturally infused world. Instead, she the object over which other people argue and fight, a perpetual damsel in distress with no sense of agency or personality.

I’m a not book loyalist, by any means, not killing off Lala, adding baby vamp Jessica, and making Russell wonderfully  insane, have been positive changes, but I do think Ball’s stripped Sookie of what makes her a compelling character in Harris’ books. She’s steadfastly loyal and a quick thinker. Sure, she’s narcissistic but understandably so. Her power has forced her to live so much of her life alone with her thoughts, if only so that she could  filter the constant barrage of unwanted thoughts from everyone else around her. Ball’s Sookie is naive, and her power to read minds is often forgotten until it’s a useful plot device. Does anyone honestly believe she’d change into that silly sun dress and head band after the day and evening she’d just had? She’d shower, crawl into bed, and be very angry with Bill when he showed up on her doorstep at god knows what hour.

Ball kept the addition of the werewolves, but failed to keep what makes them interesting in the story for Sookie. She becomes a valuable asset to the pack and is respected by them (unless they dislike her for spoiling her plans). Alcide is a momentary temptation, but nothing ever really happens. They become friends, which proves to be a more interesting relationship then if they had gotten together. On the series, Alcide’s just one more dude who’s into Sookie. And the fairy plot line has just become a distraction instead of adding and interesting, if albeit silly explanation for a few things. Chalk this up to me being bitter with Claudine’s complete miscasting. Now all I can think is how awful the actress was on the terrible last season of Robin Hood.

The decision to go with a more ensemble feel rather than keeping with the first-person narrative framing of the novels felt like a good choice in the first season, but the addition of more characters and more plot lines has not done the series any favors since then. There’s too much going on now, without any sense that the stories are related beyond a very tenuous thematic link. For me, the successful ensemble series is one that can integrate divergent arcs together. I wonder how  True Blood would have fared if it had taken a note from Dexter, another series adapted from books with a strong first-person presence. The first-person perspective limits the narrative to some degree, but in the long run, our identification with one primary point of view brings all the divergent lines together. But, these are just some random observations that I’d need to give more thought.

Going “high fashion” – random thoughts on the ANTM premier

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Last night, Tyra,  Mr. and Ms. Jay, and 14 new top model wannabes returned in the premier of America’s Next Top Model cycle 14. Tyra repeatedly informed us that this season the stakes were higher, the prizes more fabulous, and the poses even more broken. She’s taking us high fashion.* So instead of getting the back cover of Seventeen, the winner will get the actual cover of Italian Vogue, plus a spread in another Vogue iteration. They highlighted the chi-chi designers and photographers who would be making appearances. In fact, the first segment was devoted entirely to selling the new and improved version of ANTM rather than on introducing the new cast. It was also only an hour unlike more recent seasons that had two hour premier – sometimes even smooshing in the make-overs.

What else is out?

The pretense of the “plus size” model was completely abandoned. Plus sized models who aren’t named Crystal Renn are not high fashion. All of the new recruits are very slim and very tall. They were grouped according to type – bravo for transparency on that one – blonds against blonds, quirky against quirky. The “sexy” category seemed to be the most awkward and amounted to being made up of those girls with larger lips and excellent bone structure unlike the “strong facial features” group who had excellent bones but smallish lip.

Also missing was some completely whacked out theme – space travel or whatever ditzy thing they could come up with. Tyra did not appear in some crazy costume. There was no time travel capsule. This made the usual freakout at Tyra’s appearance all that more awkward. The camp seems to be  missing and it’s the camp that I so loved about ANTM. Unlike Project Runway‘s obession with “taste levels,”  ANTM has always been marked by its tacky, over-the-top, kookiness. Once, when asked to come up with a name for herself, a contestant went with Hoolahay. For serious. Hoolahay. We have PR for our snooty fashion fix; we need random silliness and awkward Tyra costumes to keep our fashion realities balanced.

But, Tyra’s attempt to force fashion cred into the series could be interesting. Most of the former winners haven’t made names for themselves in the fashion industry, though some have continued on in reality tv. The most successful in the modeling industry are girls who didn’t win. Tyra apparently, very much wants to be on top. One might think then that she and the other producers might have gone for a different personality type. Though less time was devoted to the drama between the girls, there was still plenty of manufactured weirdness to be had. One girl wrote racist things in her diary. Another girl manipulated someone else into doing her gossipy work for her. Personalities clashed and heads waggled.

My early favorites are the curly top blond girl and the quirky one who dresses like Blossom. She’s the first person I’ve seen who can actually rock the 90s throwback. Let’s see what happens next week.

*Every mention of the word “fashion” in the post should be read in an deliberately horrible French accent while pulling a Tyra-inspired wonk face.

John Locke was a sucker

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I came to Lost after watching the first season on DVD a short time before the second season aired. I immediately fell in love. It began as an odd engaging story about an interesting group of characters. The writers threw monkey wrenches into the castaway narrative and tapped into cultural anxieties and preoccupations with subjects like torture and technophobia. The world was rich and the puzzles were interesting. As the series has worn on, it has lost that initial flare. Season three meandered around; then it found its footing again in season four (after it was given a future end point to aim for). Season five’s detour into the past and Faraday’s version of a “time wimey wibbly wobbly” universe was an interesting narrative twist that allowed the story to stay fresh while also pushing it forward to something big.

Though the story had remained intriguing enough on its own, the ball was dropped when it came to character development. Love interests shifted, new characters were introduced to keep things lively, but the original lostaways stagnated. Kate runs away. Jack has daddy issues and a fix it fetish. Hurley is meta. Sun loves Jin. Jin loves Sun and learns English. Sayid is tortured by his past as a torturer (so clever!). Sawyer is a savvy con man with a heart of gold, and so on. These are all things we learned about them in season one. Here we are now, in season six, and no one has changed. It’s telling to me that the most interesting and engaging characters, Desmond, Ben, and Richard (his episode this season was a noteworthy highpoint) are not part of the original group of castaways.

Season six continues to lack momentum with regard to the characters; even in the sideways universe everyone is essentially the same. But aside from my issues with the lack of character growth, last night’s episode crystallized for me what’s been lacking in throughout all of season six.

Last night on Lost, Jack and notLocke finally had a chat. After first exchanging meaningful gazes illuminated by eerie torchlight  (where do they come from – btw), the MIB revealed why he chose Locke for his grand plan, which essentially boiled down to Locke’s misplaced faith that he had a destiny, that he was special, and that the Island needed him. But really he was just a sucker, an easily manipulated sad sack of a little man, who was used and abused his entire life. Don’t tell him what to do but tell him he’s special and he’ll do anything you want. Now, this could all end up changing in the last few hours of the series and Locke might prove himself heroic in the end (maybe in the sideways world), but as it stands at the moment, John Locke is sad little man. “John Locke was not a believer. He was a sucker.”

When FauxLocke* declared this to Jack, I realized I also felt like a sucker. There’s been a conversation going on between the people who want answers and the people who are content with watching characters they know and love trying to finally find whatever it is they’re going to find. I’m firmly entrenched in the latter camp, and have always been more interested in how Lost told its stories and the central mystery: what is the island? For me, this is the key and was set up in the pilot when Charlie asks “Guys where are we?”) and how Lost told its stories (flashbacks, forwards, and across time).** We’ve learned some answers this season, the Island is a like a cork in a wine bottle keeping darkness (evil?) from the world. Okay, I can get behind that. But where’s the tension. What exactly are the stakes? What really will happen if the Smoke Monster is unleashed into the world? What’s Widmore’s stake in all of this, and why isn’t there more of Eloise because she is awesome? The danger doesn’t feel real. The end of world very well might be nigh, but Jacob and Widmore are  vague about what that might actually mean. Each episode, the game continues as pieces move around the board, and it’s all supposed to be leading to an explosive finale. Except all the moves have been boring and even predicable. Lost had always been exciting. Season six just hasn’t been exciting to watch. Even The Last Recruit’s big explosions were boring.

I also have trouble buying the argument that though it might seem slow and not adding up to much right now, it will all make sense in the end and be awesome when you watch it on DVD later. I want it to be awesome now. I’ve spent a lot of time with Lost. It was a major case study in my dissertation. But right now, I feel a little like John Locke. I believed it would all be worth it in the end, but really, I feel like a sucker. I never hoped that all the questions would be answered. It doesn’t bother me that we’ll never learn what was special about Walt, or about any of the other countless other mysteries and red herrings thrown into the mix. Just take me on an exciting adventure and I’ll be happy.

*All of the different names for the MIB/Locke are fun. Why not use as many as possible?

** Despite initially also being drawn in by certain characters.

Initial thoughts about HBO’s Treme

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As an admirer of David Simon’s The Wire, (I wouldn’t say I’m a fan) I decided to watch his new series, Treme co-created with Eric Overmyer. Though I didn’t have much initial interest in it, in my post-dissertation submission haze I thought, why not? So, Monday morning I settled in and watched the pilot.

Here are some observations about things that occur early in the pilot, which give the viewer a sense of the show’s narrative and aesthetic. Treme has a documentary quality and feel, as though we are expected to forget that it’s a fictional narrative and become immersed in the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans. The coverage here links the series to the geography of the city and its people. The Times Picayune coverage compliments Treme‘s opening sequence, which a montage of archival film footage and photographs, still images depicting moldy walls and waterlines, and snippets of Katrina news coverage. Strung together they indicate the blurring of boundaries between past and present, both the past and present of the life of New Orleans as a city, as well as the present 5 years post-Katrina world and the immediate past of “3 Months After.” There’s also an incongruity between the bouncy “Treme Song” and the images.

The scene just prior to the opening credits of the preparations for the first post-flood second line is dominated by a series of close-up shots and indicating that Treme will be about the small daily lives of the people of New Orleans.

Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), who is based on blogger Ashley Morris, is interviewed by an insufferable British documentarian who suggests that New Orleans is no longer a great city “worth saving.” It goes a bit meta when Creighton asserts, “the media … likes a simple narrative they and their listeners can get their tiny brains around.” Treme‘s complex, nuanced, and fictionalized narrative will fill in the gaps of simplistic media narratives. This is a conceit The Wire had, which raises questions about representation, realism, their relationship to television and news media.

My biggest hope for Treme was that it would feature more female characters than The Wire. Based on the pilot, it looks like  LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), Janette (Kim Dickens), and Toni (Melissa Leo) will have major roles, though they are all linked to other male characters as wife, ex, or “friends with benefits.” According to this wiki – Goodman was added to the cast last, interesting, since he’s given such a strong voice so early in the episode.

On the whole, the pilot presented us with a lose amalgamation of interrelated people working through their lives after Katrina. The mirco-narratives read like documentary vignettes and work more to establish its sense of  realism and documentary feel rather than establishing any, as yet, tangible story. There’s music and an attempt to paint a picture of the New Orleans as the main character, but it felt forced and a bit self-conscious. Granted, it’s a pilot, so perhaps my expectations are too high, but I think, to keep my interest, Treme is going to need more than atmosphere and music to keep me interested. I have the hope that it eventually will.

Dollhouse’s sense of an ending

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I haven’t blogged about Dollhouse since way back in February. There I wondered if the series would ever get to its meaty center of philosophical questions about identity, the mind, body and experience. It’s safe to say that season two has delivered on all counts. “Meet Jane Doe” does a decent job of making the engagement of the week episodes of season one relevant to the development of Echo’s composite personality. Still much of what happened in the early episodes wasn’t necessary to demonstrate the full implications of Echo’s new abilities. Dushku has come into her own through the Echo character and Enver Gjokaj continues to amaze us all with his power to become anyone and everyone.

But I started this post not so much to ruminate on the awesomeness of the series (which has, by-the-by, become one I heartily recommend – even if it is with the strong caveate that you must make it through the handfull of painfull first few episodes before getting to the good stuff), but instead I’m wondering how much the pacing this season, the tightness of the storyline, and its singular focus stem from the fact that the series was canceled. Part of me seriously doubts that season 2 would be as good without the constraint of having to end the story. In fact the story has already ended on the DVD episode “Epitaph One” which was partially created as a way to finish off the series if it had not been granted a second season and as a means to fulfill contractual obligation for the DVD’s release (at least so sayeth the wiki entry).

In The Sense of an Ending Frank Kermode wrote that “We project ourselves–a small, humble elect, perhaps–past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle.” Prime time serialized television benefits from a clear sense of an ending. In Dollhouse‘s “Epitaph One” we see the aftermath of a technological apocalypse and desire to know how the hell they got there.* Having been forced to project the series past its end allowed a structure and a more clearly defined purpose to emerge. A similar thing happened with Lost; it appeared to have a strong, if convoluted, sense of where it was going, but by season three was floundering around looking for itself. Once the decision to end it after 3 more shorter seasons it reasserted its narrative drive and became a much better series again because of it. It isn’t telescoped in the way Dollhouse was; we don’t actually know yet where Lost is going (this promo might give us some idea). Battlestar Galactica OTOH appeared to suffer from its overdetermined (find earth, have plan, shape of things to come, etc.) sense of an ending that its finale was less than satisfying. Knowing the end helps give structure to where we are now – to find meaning in the middle.My desire to consistently situate myself within whatever narrative world I’m currently living in encourages my preference for spoilers.** The surprise/reveal endings are much less interesting than how they got there and what they mean for the future. Knowing the end helps give structure to where we are now – to find more meaning in the middle. The release of “Epitaph One” as a kind of official spoiler has made this season (and through it the previous season) much more rich and interesting.

The changing nature of television, particularly network television is a perennial discussion, so much that it can get a little boring. But within this discussion, what strikes me as really odd is the sheer amount of resistance the industry has towards playing with the standard “a TV series must go on forever to be profitable and successful” line of thinking. Imagine if Dollhouse was originally only meant to be 10-13 episodes long. There’s no guarantee that it would be great – it could have been terrible- but the anxiety over cancellation, over whether or not the story would be fully told, or if we’d all be left hanging, would not have clouded our experience of it. Now, it is quite possibly the case that successful short-run series might be reliant on  writer-producer show runners with name and style recognition and fan bases, but the mere thought of mixing this type of structure into the prime time line up is unheard of.

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*The Whedonverse is littered with apocalypses; Buffy is constantly thwarting them, Angel and co. go out with a bang fighting against one, and the Firefly kids are finding their place after one.

** Case in point, all the twittering about the surprise, game-changing ending of last night’s Dexter finale lead me to search out what has happened. Once I found out I thought, wow, I cannot wait to see how it got there. I didn’t feel cheated at all, but I’m aware that this is my preference and not shared with everyone.

Take it in a different direction

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First, read the interesting post on Glee from Liz Ellcessor here.

When I wrote a few weeks ago that I had given up on Glee I should have been more clear that I was going to continue to watch it (at least through the mid season break), but that I had given up on the possibility that it could be the great show I thought and hoped it could be. Last night’s episode was encouraging. This was largely due to the fact that Terri and Emma were completely absent. The episode had that “after school” special feeling like the Single Ladies episode had, but it works because it keeps the focus on the club and the kids. That’s where the interesting stories are. Maybe they’ll continue on this track and surprise me by revealing the big pregnancy lie and moving on sooner rather than later.

It was nice to see Sue have some depth and for Will to have his smarmy self-righteousness put in a check a little.

Kurt’s relationship with his father was refreshing. Artie’s and Tina’s flirtation was sweet and the twist that Tina’s stutter is fake could make for some interesting interactions later.

I’m not getting my hopes up though. I can see from the preview that Terri and Emma are back next week and Rachel retakes centerstage.